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Old Favorites: Jennie Lindquist March 6, 2016

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I was an avid reader of so-called ‘old-fashioned books’ when I was a kid—Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden and A Little Princess were all familiar friends. My top favorites however, were a trilogy about a group of children in rural New Hampshire. These three books—The Golden Name Day, The Little Silver House and The Crystal Tree—are all out of print now, which is a shame, because they are delightful and would probably appeal to many young readers today.

goldenWritten by Jennie D. Lindquist, who edited The Horn Book Magazine from 1951 to 1958, these are old-fashioned family stories, warm and cheerful, with almost no mention of world events or historical figures. I believe I read somewhere that Lindquist based the stories on her own grandparents, who were from Sweden, though I’m unable to find the source for that information. The first title (which won a Newbery Honor in 1956) begins with the protagonist Nancy arriving in a small village to stay with family friends who she calls Grandma and Grandpa. At first lonely and upset to be so far away from her parents, she slowly grows to love the country and the many Swedish customs practiced by her foster family. The second book follows Nancy and her friends as they discover an abandoned house in the village and their attempts to find out about the family who once owned it. The third title deals with the changes and preparations to be made as Nancy and her parents rent the house and begin a new life there, surrounded by friends and family.

silverLike the All-of-a-Kind-Family series, which takes place at roughly the same time (the early 20th century), but in a very different setting, these books feature a close-knit family who celebrate the year’s holidays together, as well as smaller events such as having visitors or taking a weekend trip to the farm. The quiet activities of baking cookies, papering a room and planting flowers suited the cautious child reader that I was, reluctant to try new things. As a city kid, I loved to imagine riding in a wagon out to the farm, picking mayflowers in a wood, and decorating a schoolroom with hundreds of daisies.

crystalThe story elements that stuck with me the most though, were the many Swedish traditions scattered throughout each book, from the keeping of name days, with a special cake and flower crowns, to making karamuller treats during the holidays and dancing the Long Dance of Christmas Eve around the Christmas tree. I’ve thought quite a bit about why these stories, as opposed to the many better known classics that I read in elementary school, are the books I have returned to again and again. I think it must be that the characters identify so strongly as immigrants and a proud immigrant narrative was lacking in most of the literature I was exposed to as a kid. I come from a family who told and retold our stories of coming to the United States, from Mexico (on my mom’s side) and France (on my dad’s). But we didn’t have any family close by and with the exception of piñatas on birthdays and tamales on special occasions, we celebrated few culture-specific traditions. Although I have no personal connection to Sweden, this series of books taught me to be proud of the places my ancestors came from, to hold onto the stories I was told and to pass them on.

July Favorite: The Tightrope Walkers July 25, 2015

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tightropeOver halfway through the year and I’ve read more than 250 books (including picture books). This month in particular, I’ve had a great run of new YA titles to read, with diverse protagonists, great prose and fascinating insights into friendship, relationships and growing up. Not for the first time, I’ve been a little sad these weren’t around when I was a teen; I wonder how they would have affected my sense of self and the way I interacted with others.

I’ve read three different titles by British heavyweight author David Almond lately and while I’ve really enjoyed all of them, The Tightrope Walkers stood out for its characters, setting and prose. Set in the north of England, it follows Dominic as he grows up in estate housing with a shipyard worker father and a best friend who is an artist. Like Mal Peet’s Life: an Exploded Diagram it explores the tensions between the generations, class divisions in Britain in the 50’s and 60’s; the growth of counterculture and the ways we use art both to escape our lives and to explore them.

Almond has been lauded for awhile now in both Britain and the US, winning a Printz award for his book Kit’s Wilderness and a Hans Christian Andersen award for his body of work. His books range from fantastical middle grade fiction (Skellig) to myth like picture books (Mouse Bird Snake Wolf) to the experimental YA (The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean as telt by hisself) I highly recommend his work to everyone interested in quality YA and children’s literature.

January Favorite: Stella by Starlight January 18, 2015

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Halfway through January, I’ve read nearly 25 books. More than half have been picture books and slightly less than half have been by or about people of color. I’ve only read one ‘adult’ book (the entertaining Scandals of Classic Hollywood by Anne Helen Petersen) but I’ve read equal amounts of middle grade and YA.

stellaEverything I’ve read has been worthwhile, but the book that grabbed my heart was Stella by Starlight, a new historical fiction book by Sharon Draper. Based partly on family history and the town where her father and grandmother grew up, it’s about a community in the 1930’s struggling to assert their rights against the horrific racism of whites in the town. At the same time, it’s about a girl and her coming of age, as she gains new skills, and learns more about her world. Draper doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life for blacks in that place and time, but she also includes episodes of school days, and community gatherings that add humor and warmth to the narrative.

I think one of the biggest strengths of this book is how easy it is to identify with Stella. She draws the reader in with her struggles over writing essays, annoyance with her little brother and anxieties about the KKK being active in the neighborhood. There is no way for me–a white/Latina middle class girl born in the 80’s–to really understand the challenges and racism faced by Stella and her family. But reading her story helps me to try and imagine what if my father were insulted and threatened for trying to vote. What if  it were a real possibility my house would be burned down if I angered a neighbor? Stories like Stella by Starlight help us better understand both our history and its effect on us today. That is one reason we need more diverse books and this one truly delivers.

A New Year, a New Goal January 6, 2015

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Cecilia here, (Ana is tied up with finishing her senior year and applying for jobs or internships) finally back after a spell away overseas and lots and lots of work.

This past year was a great one for me and reading, with several events creating big changes for how and why I read.

-I started using Twitter much more regularly, getting and giving recommendations, commenting on kid lit happenings and telling lots of writers and artists how much I love what they create.

-Completing a challenge from the blog Latin@s in Kid Lit made me much more aware of what is out there in both Spanish and English for young readers and also what is lacking.

-Following on that, the We Need Diverse Books campaign gave me a way to find diverse reads in all genres and many, many reasons to champion these books to others.

I haven’t been writing as many in-depth reviews here, and there just hasn’t been as much time to research and write posts about other related topics. I’ve been putting energy into my other blog (which you should check out if you have any interest in puppetry or theater) and I don’t foresee that changing any time soon. So this blog is going to shift focus. This year, I’m tracking my reading. I have a fancy spreadsheet and a not-so-fancy composition notebook, and a whole bunch of categories I’m tracking, including of course, whether the books I read feature characters of color or are written by authors of color. I will do my best each month (maybe twice a month if I’m really on a roll) to write a short post about what I’ve been reading and see how I’m doing with regard to diversity. I’m excited to begin!

Top 5 Things I Love About David Levithan October 7, 2014

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This is a Top 5 Things post that I’ll write on my own, as Ana doesn’t share my love of David Levithan’s books. Part of this is certainly literary taste: Ana is enamored of plot and many of Levithan’s books, especially the early ones, focus more on characterization and atmosphere than action. It may also be differing experiences of adolescence. In any case, here is my list:

5. Friendships that don’t become romantic

This is not to imply that Levithan isn’t a great writer of romance. He’s written some of my favorite couples in all of YA literature (Nick and Norah, Noah and Paul). But he’s also brilliant at writing about friendship and one of my favorite chapters is the one in The Realm of Possibility about Lily and Jed who love each other, but are not ‘in love.’

4. Variations on high school cliches

Levithan’s first book Boy meets Boy, intentionally turned the usual high school tropes on their heads. Published in 2003, a year before Massachusetts, it was a bit of an outlier for it’s time. The football quarterback is also the homecoming queen for example. But even in books set closer to our own experience, such as The Realm of Possibility or Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares, Levithan and his co-writer Rachel Cohn manage to make the stock characters of rich girl, jock, or stoner into individuals.

3. Nuanced family relationships

My favorite Levithan book just might be Are We There Yet?, the story of two brothers on a trip to Italy. Part of this is because there are so many references to my own childhood favorites (such as E.L. Konigsburg) but mostly it’s the fantastic depiction of how you can share so much with a sibling and yet still have so much to learn about them. My one quibble with this book is that Julia is a bit of a MPDG but I have met people like her while staying in hostels so I will mostly let it slide. And (SPOILER) neither brother ends up with her at the end, which is exactly as it should be.

2. Girls I can identify with

I can remember reading The Realm of Possibility as a teen and thinking “Hey, she sounds like me” multiple times. This rarely happened in depictions of teen culture for me and is one reason why I was never particularly into John Hughes movies or 10 Things I Hate About You.  Levithan’s characters may have different tastes in music (Norah) or live in different places (Lily) but they were almost always kindred spirits.

1. Unfailing optimism

The pervasive sense throughout all of Levithan’s books is hope. Whether they are dealing with struggles over sexuality, the aftermath of terrorism, personal journeys or political action, the characters look to the future with hope and optimism.

**Editing!!

One last bonus–in addition to being a writer, Levithan is also an EDITOR for Scholastic! Some of the writers he works with are my very favorites in YA, including Libba Bray and Maggie Stiefvater.

My Theory of Maggie Stiefvater July 5, 2014

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Maggie Stiefvater, author of The Scorpio Races, Shiver trilogy and Raven Boys series, is one of my favorite authors. I love her use of mythology and fairy lore, the way she engages with her fans and how enthusiastic she is about everything from art to cars. I read her book The Scorpio Races first and only recently have I gone back to the Shiver trilogy, which was her breakout series back in 2009. Many people have commented on the shift in style that happened in her writing between the Shiver trilogy and The Scorpio Races. Now that I’ve read all of her work (with the exception of the next Raven Boys installment), I have a theory (okay, more like an observation) about this shift.

In Lament, the first of the Books of Faerie series (Ballad is the other and maybe eventually there will be a third, Requiem?)  the story begins when harpist Deirdre Monaghan meets a mysterious boy at a music competition. In Shiver, main character Grace has had encounters with the wolves before the story begins, but essentially the fun starts when she finds ‘her’ wolf transformed into a human boy and bleeding on her porch.

All of Stiefvater’s books have these central relationships–partly because they are romances, to one degree or another and partly because she explores how people change. Both Lament and Shiver start with a surprise–a magical encounter completely out of the ordinary that pulls the main character away from everyday life. Deirdre and Grace then have to decide how to react.

In The Scorpio Races, the story begins when Puck Connolly makes a choice–she will compete in the races as a way of getting her brother Gabe to stay on their island just a little while longer. The Raven Boys  is more complicated and takes longer to get going, but Blue Sargent also has a choice to make–whether or not to join the Raven boys on their search for Glendower.

This is what I see as the central difference between Stiefvater’s early work and later work–the way the main characters are launched into their stories. In her early work it is a big event–someone transforming, a mysterious figure showing up–that then pushes the main character into the crisis or conflict of the novel. In her later work, which builds more slowly, the main character makes a choice that gives them their purpose and leads them to the relationships that precipitate change. I think Stiefvater has been getting better and better as a writer; each book she writes impresses me more than the one before. I’m looking forward to Blue Lily, Lily Blue, which is out in the fall.

Top 5 Things I love about The Great Greene Heist June 7, 2014

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greeneThe Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson is one of my favorite middle grade books of the year. Jackson Greene has pulled many pranks, but now he swears he has gone straight. That is, until he hears a rumor that someone might be planning to steal the student council election from his former best friend Gaby. In pursuit of justice, Jackson just might be convinced to return to what he does best. I love this book for many reasons, but here are my top five.

5. So. Much. Geek. A shed full of Star Trek action figures and memorabilia. One character uses ‘IAmBorgHearMeRoar as his screen name. Another insults people in Klingon. At one point the hero tells his friend “There’s nothing wrong with being the tech guy. You’re good at it. You’re a key part of the team.” That love of nerds and technology and geekiness is a huge part of this story and it’s great to see.

4. The girl gets as much screen time as the boy. Yes, this is Jackson’s story. But Gaby–his onetime best friend and possible crush–has her own struggles with friends, her student council campaign and multiple boys who just might like her. The author doesn’t downplay any of this, treating Gaby’s interpersonal crises with just as much respect as Jackson’s crazy schemes. It is a mark of just how much Gaby has changed her mind about Jackson that she pitches in when things go awry at the last minute.

3. This is a book with a diverse cast of characters, but that’s not actually my favorite thing. My favorite thing is that it doesn’t ignore the different experiences of those characters. And the differences in people’s attitudes and assumptions are something that Jackson notices.   One of the most realistic things about this book for me is how it doesn’t shy away from showing the pinpricks that some of the characters deal with on a daily basis. Speedy Gonzalez is used as a shorthand for a Latino character by the school bully, even though, as Jackson points out, Gonzalez is a Mexican character and his friend Charlie is Puerto Rican. Secretaries in the office continually mix up kids who are the same ethnicity and Jackson himself is told “Boys like you are always up to one thing or another.” These references are subtle but definitely add realism and depth to the story.

2. Gaby. Everything about her. Can I gush again about how much I like Gaby as a character? She’s sensible but not boring, athletic but not obsessive, bossy but not mean. She genuinely doesn’t want to hurt people’s feelings, but learns over the course of the story to be more honest with her friends. And she takes matters into her own hands. Gaby is one of my favorite new middle grade characters and I hope Varian Johnson writes a whole book starring her sometime.

1. COMPLICATED PLANS! I admit it–I’m a sucker for con stories and mysteries where the detectives set up huge intricate traps to catch the bad guy. So I absolutely loved the great lengths that Jackson and the rest of Gang Greene go to in order to achieve their goals. From disguises to gadgets, they use every trick in the book and give them all funny names to boot. Half the fun is going back and re-reading the entire story immediately in order to spot every trick and figure out who was responsible for each step along the way.

Picture Books & Paper Theaters January 17, 2014

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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.

Friends, Food and SciFi December 7, 2013

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One of the genres in YA lit that has exploded recently is comics and graphic novels. A form traditionally dominated by male artists and male voices, it has been great to see more women writers and artists getting recognition for their fantastic work. Here are three female comic artists and writers to check out:

relishLucy Knisley is based in Brooklyn, NY and has two autobiographical graphic novels centered mostly around food. French Milk details a trip she took to Paris with her mother at age 22. Knisley includes photos from the trip, along with countless doodles of meals and food that are no less tantalizing for being black and white sketches. This is a great read for anyone who has fallen in love with Paris, as well as those teens who long to get away and travel. Anyone who enjoyed To Timbuktu by Casey Scieszka and Steven Weinberg will also like this combination of words and images.

Knisley’s latest book is Relish: My Life in the Kitchen which is a more comprehensive food-centered memoir. Structured around a set of recipes, each one caps a story or episode from Knisley’s life. Many are about family, her mother’s work at restaurants and farmers markets, trips abroad, and the experience of working at a gourmet store in Chicago during college. Each episode is well-paced and as in her other work, Knisley is excellent at using her artwork to make you hungry.

I think one of the big appeals about Knisley’s work for teen readers is her focus on everyday things like food. There are plenty of comics and graphic novel series about superheroes, magic and grand epic battles, and fewer about common experiences such as being with family and preparing food. Knisley has talked in interviews about her goal to use comics to create a bond between herself and her readers, and that warmth and dedication to connection definitely comes across in both these titles.

mercuryHope Larson writes for a slightly younger audience but is just as good a storyteller, with her titles Salamander Dream, Chiggers and Mercury (to say nothing of her adaptation of the classic A Wrinkle in Time). Similar to Knisley, much of her work is in black and white, with the addition of blue to A Wrinkle in Time. All of her work features believable female protagonists and often a touch of mystery or the supernatural. Change and growing are themes in many of her books, with an emphasis on friendship. Hailey in Salamander Dream encounters an ambiguous being named Salamander, Tara in Mercury must find the connection between a quicksilver necklace and her family’s past, while Meg in A Wrinkle in Time of course discovers her true abilities while fighting IT on the planet Camazotz. Larson’s compelling characters and unusual settings make her a great choice for any middle school reader interested in comics.

friendsFaith Erin Hicks takes on the twin themes of family and friends in her book Friends with Boys, as well as Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, authored by Prudence Shen. Both titles have families with absent mothers and friendship struggles. In Friends with Boys, Maggie is starting public school for the first time and worries about making friends. Add to that a gang of older brothers with their own struggles and a ghost hanging around and you have a great coming of age story with a slightly creepy touch. Charlie Nolan in Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong ends up as a candidate for student body president as his neighbor and his cheerleader ex-girlfriend fight over whether student council money gets spent on cheerleading uniforms or a robotics competition. Campaign tactics reminiscent of the movie Election get the teenagers in trouble both at school and at home and it seems as though Charlie will never be able to find a peaceful moment. Hicks’ drawing style is a little busier than either Larson or Knisely, her characters’ faces defined with sharp lines and shadows around the eyes.  Readers will root for her teenagers and agree that their happy endings are entirely deserved.

Smart Teen Romances May 29, 2013

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As I think back on YA romances that got lots of buzz in the past few years, three titles stand out as sharing some of the same book DNA. While each of these stories are definitely unique and distinct, I think their characters and relationships share some particular qualities that make them standouts in the crowded YA romance field. Each of these books could have been a cliche, but strong characters (especially the girls) and respectful relationships bring their stories to life beyond tired stereotypes.

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Anna and the French KissAnna and the French Kiss is the closest to a conventional romance of these three titles. Set in a boarding school in Paris, the story is narrated by Anna, a new senior who falls in love with the handsome and charming Etienne St. Clair and endures a year of missed signals and awkward conversations along with moments of amazing connection. Always honest with herself about her feelings, Anna struggles to do the right thing, declaring that “I want to be his friend, not another stupid girl holding out for something that will never happen.” Unfortunately when you’re getting used to a new country, new school and new friends, there is plenty of room for things to get lost in translation. St. Clair, while charming, smart and good-looking, also makes bad choices and struggles to take risks, making him (slightly) more believable to the reader. More than anything, I think it is the pairing of Anna’s need to take risks and let St. Clair know of her feelings with her need to take risks and experience a new city and culture that truly bring this book to life.

tfiosThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green

As plenty of other reviewers have pointed out, this is a cancer book, but not, in the words of its narrator Hazel Grace “…a cancer book, because cancer books suck.” Still, the presence of terminal illness gives the story weight, even if the snark and sarcasm of the protagonists leaven it with humor. Throughout last year’s awards season, several people made the objection that the cancer parts of the book felt manipulative. Perhaps this is true. But without the illness, it is unlikely we would hear so many  fierce, philosophical observations from Hazel Grace and Augustus, which would be a pity.  It would just be a sappy story with a too-perfect guy who happens to have cancer. From Hazel’s initial advice to Augustus to avoid thinking about oblivion, to the Dutch author Van Houten’s rants about infinity, to the title’s reference to the shortcomings of Shakespeare it is their insights into life and love that set this YA couple apart.

Eleanor and ParkEleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

If Anna and the French Kiss is the ‘could have been just a sappy love story’ and The Fault in Our Stars is the ‘could have been just a tear-jerker’ then Eleanor and Park is the ‘could have been just a problem book’. Plenty of its elements–abusive stepparent, school bullies, outsider protagonist–are staples of teen realism. Without ignoring the reality that all these problems contribute to, Rowell manages to focus our attention on the evolution of the relationship between Eleanor and Park. It’s not an easy evolution, with the usual awkwardness of physical boundaries, emotional anxieties and secrets too painful to share. Like Anna and Etienne, they both struggle to do the right thing. Like Hazel Grace and Augustus, both protagonists are confirmed nerds of their era, with the comic series’ X-men and Watchmen, as well as the bands Joy Division and the The Smiths all discussed and appreciated. “You’re not the Han Solo in this relationship you know” Park tells Eleanor at one point. Maybe not, but like all great anti-heroes, these two teenagers battle their unlucky circumstances and come out the stronger for it.