Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck

I should preface this review with the fact that I’ve never read any Richard Peck before. None. Not a single book. This is the first time I’ve encountered the formidable Mrs. Dowdel who has, apparently, completely won the adoration of every other librarian on the face of the planet. It must be said that after finishing this book, she won me over too. Even if I didn’t feel as though I got a complete picture of her (and that I was missing some sort of inside joke).

It was a road trip down memory lane for Bob, whose name, I continually forgot until someone/somehow/someway it was brought it up again in the text. I didn’t find any of the characters to be very well developed, but Bob was downright forgettable. He was like a shadow – I’d catch a glimpse of him every now and then and then *poof* off into the ether he’d go and I’d get wrapped up in the goings on of everyone else.

This makes it sound as though I didn’t enjoy the book, which isn’t true. I did enjoy this book, Peck’s language is wonderful, his phrases are delightful, and the story was cute. I just thought there was a whole lot of back story I was missing. Mrs. Dowdel was very humorous, very engaging, but not terribly well developed. We know she doesn’t neighbor, until of course she does, she’s got a shotgun at the ready, and is basically a loveable curmudgeon with a hottie for a grandson. But what about Bob? What about him people? I don’t even know what he looks like and yet he’s just finished telling me a 164 page story. I know he’s 12, not particularly brave, and that he fades into the background .

It read exactly like a humorous story your grandpappy would tell you about his years growing up in small town America. Which is great, it makes you laugh, you reminisce, but there isn’t any real meat to the story. He’s edited it out into comical anecdotes that are child friendly. And I do think children will appreciate this story. There is plenty of physical humor here to keep the story going.

Book Source: Library Copy

Monday, October 26, 2009

I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President by Josh Lieb.

Oliver hides behind a fa├žade of stupidity. Outwardly, he seems like a dullard, but in reality he’s an evil genius, the third richest person in the world, who happens to be running an international evil empire – from the secret cavern he built beneath his home (where he dons a purple silk cape – the color of royalty people!). As Oliver would say, cover is everything.

You’ve probably heard about this one – the title alone made it something people took notice of at least a year before its publication. And the author isn’t so shabby either – an Emmy winning member of the Daily Show crew who has also worked on the Simpsons. Humor, it seems, is in his blood.

There were several highlights for me. I loved Tatiana, a fellow student that is almost as evil as Oliver himself, she’s certainly a worthy nemesis (even though she wasn’t a fellow evil genius as I was hoping – perhaps in a sequel we'll find out she's the richest person in the world and also eeevvviillll?). I absolutely loved how Oliver commandeered the development of an inter-teacher romance by printing secret messages on a teacher’s cigarettes (and all for the belief that assisting such a romance would actually ruin his teacher’s life – which is perverse and funny all in one). And the scene between Liz Twombley and the Motivator was laugh-out-loud funny.

Fuse #8 called it the “ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy of any child more intelligent than their cruel classmates.” And it certainly is that. But at the same time, the ugliness of Oliver’s viewpoint wore me down, what was sarcastic and amusing in the beginning started to just sound sort of bitter by the end. His “evilness” began to seem like a shell he had constructed to protect himself, to build up a legend around himself - to the point where I really wasn’t sure if he was an evil genius or just a sad, lonely kid who had made up this entire crazy story. Honestly, at times it felt like a bit like it was an Onion article that went on too long.

I also had some problems with Oliver’s characterization, mainly because he often would speak as though he was severely developmentally challenged – not as though he were merely stupid. And to me that changed how people would have perceived him.

Probably though, my biggest problem is that I just didn’t like Oliver much. I didn’t particularly want him to win the election. Not because I was horrified by his methods, but just because I didn’t care enough one way or the other. I didn’t find him sympathetic enough to be a true underdog or truly wicked enough to be an anti-hero – either of which I could have rooted for. I loved Catherine Jink’s Evil Genius, I loved Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series, Stephen Cole’s Thieves Like Us, and I would die for E. Lockhart’s Disreputable History, so I think I’m predisposed to love these mastermind types of books, but this one… this one I just liked.

That being said, I think this one is going to be super popular. I know I’m going to make sure there are plenty of copies on hand for the kids who will be drawn to the title and cover, as well as the adults who will be drawn in by the author’s credentials.

Book Source: Tayshas Preview Copy

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

A preposterous fortune creates a sequence of unlikely events which culminate in a happy ever after. A fairy tale like story of the transformative power of love and hope and forgiveness.

I must admit, I was not as impressed as others (and by others I mean every blog review I’ve read sans one) were on the first read-through. I liked it overall, but felt a little dissatisfied, a little let down (hype is hard to live up to after all), but upon picking it up and reading it straight through a second time I began to see things that I hadn’t before. The deceptively simple narrative structure, the rhythm of the story, and possible allusions to historical events began to pop out at me. No longer was this simply a story of hope and love and magic, but a story where deeper truths are hidden just below the surface.

And this is where I have a confession. I need this story to be more than a fairy tale taken at face value. If I'm to take it as a story of a boy caught up in a magical story - this story doesn't quite work for me. Yes the language is beautiful, yes the atmosphere is so real I felt cold reading it, yes I agree that this is a spectacularly written book. And yet. And yet, I need for there to be a deeper meaning. For me to be swept away in the adoration of this book I need it to be a fable a la Animal Farm.

On my second reading I started seeing these deeper meanings. I wrote up a whole bunch of notes with quotes that I thought backed up my point. What first got me thinking was how this really felt like a piece of Jewish literature, the way in which the characters speak, the darkness, the dark humor, the terrible beauty of it all. The setting – doesn’t this feel like Poland or the Ukraine? Why did the author choose an elephant - did she choose it deliberately as a reference to the "elephant in the room?" What if this was really a commentary on the holocaust? And then I shared my thoughts with a couple of colleagues and realized I had lost my ever loving mind.

I can see why people love this book. I am even half in love with it. Ultimately though, It won't get my vote in our Mock Newbery because I think it's a story about a boy and magic and an elephant that needs to go home and that's just not enough for me.

Book Source: Library Copy

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan

Illustrator Matt Phelan breaks into the graphic novel world with this very nice historical fiction for middle-grade readers. While The Storm in the Barn also contains the supernatural element of the King of Storms, the portrayal of Dust Bowl life makes this an excellent addition to that era's nonfiction literature. An author's note at the end of the book provides information on the his inspiration of WPA photography* and an American Experience documentary called "Surviving the Dust Bowl".

The book appears to be long (102 pages) but it reads quickly. My 6 year old read through it this morning and offered this bare-bones summary: "This bad guy is the rain and this boy wants it to rain. So he battles the rain and he makes the thunder and it rains."

So there's that, but there's much more. There's the story of neighbor's abandoning their land and the itchy feeling of uselessness and restlessness among those staying behind. The story of a sister with dust pneumonia and a boy they think has dust dementia. There's superstition and the vicious extermination of an overpopulation of jack rabbits. There is a great use of story within the story - sister Dorothy's parallel reading of the Wizard of Oz books and the Jack tall tales.

The illustrations, done in pencil, ink, and watercolor are appropriately muted. When color is necessary it pops off the page to good effect. I am a fan of Phelan's style and think his illustrations of people, especially children, are some of the best out there. He achieves great movement and expression with minimal lines.

*I recommend Elizabeth Partridge's Restless spirit : the life and work of Dorothea Lange for more info on WPA photography. One of my favorites and the author personally knew Dorthea Lang. (and while you're at it, read the Woodie Guthrie one, too.) Next on my reading list is her new book. Stay tuned for that review.

Candlewick 2009
library copy

Sunday, October 18, 2009

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

First Impressions.

Second Impressions follow and discussion will include ***spoilers***.

I think that I enjoyed this book even more the second time I read it. The foreshadowing was clearer to me (insert big gasps of surprise, you know, because I, like, knew what to look for having already read the book *pats self on the back*).

The author planted the answers to the laughing man’s identity, how time travel worked, how the characters were so intimately related without the reader being aware of it. It was masterful. Particularly the laughing man calling Miranda “smart kid.” Or how the laughing man turns and runs every time he encounters Marcus. The significance of these things went completely unnoticed by me on the first read. I think because I was so completely under the influence of the growing suspense. On the second read they really came together and I was able to simultaneously get caught up in the story while appreciating the complexity of the writing.

And boy was it was complex. The author weaves several plot lines together, mixes in memories, current events, a mystery, and so on to the point where I think that this could have ended up a confusing mish-mash of what’s the point? or where’s this going? The fact that it does not - the fact that it doesn’t even remotely reach that point - is a sign of superb writing. Stead clearly knew where her story was going and was in control of how to get there. Truthfully, I am somewhat in awe that the author was able to tell such an intricate interwoven tale and keep it so accessible. This one is going to work well for a variety of readers.

I loved Miranda’s voice – I found her compelling, funny, her observations were insightful and seemed believable coming from a 12 year old. I alternately ached for her and was amazed by her and was at all times thinking she was a wonderful, bright, engaging character. There really wasn’t a character I didn’t fall in love with, with the sole exception of Jimmy whose yellow sweat stained shirts and racist attitude did not endear him to me. Regardless, I found the characters well-rounded, interesting, varied, and I connected to them.

I thought the author connected all the dots at the end of the story in a way that respected the reader by not delving into condescending over-explanations.

I would be remiss in not mentioning that I’m indebted to Nina from SLJ'’s Heavy Medal blog. In her discussion she highlighted things that really stuck in my mind as I read the book again. The discussion of the veil popped out at me more, I was better able to understand the time is a “diamond ring” analogy, and I found the overall explanation of time travel satisfactory.

Book Source: Library Copy

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

From the moment I opened the book, I knew this was going to be an unusual experience. The end papers are filled with a strange and interesting mish-mash of doodles, we next get a painting of a woman rowing a boat down a street with a cloud raining on her flower-pots, and then we get to the table of contents, which plainly put, is spectacular. Tan has designed it to look like an envelope, with the publisher in the ‘from’ area and his dedication in the ‘to’ area and the chapters each represented as a separate stamp – the page number is shown as the stamp cost. It is lovely and I love the symbolism that this book (and each individual chapter) will take you somewhere new.

The stories range in length from a page to several, from feeling like an anecdote to feeling like a fairytale, from having the art being an integral part of the storytelling to having a text that could stand independently from the art.

After having read this book twice I am still not sure what to make of all of it – other than I know I loved it and I know it was something extremely special. What exactly do these stories mean (I loved the Horn Book review where the reviewer said, “Tan follows his wordless epic The Arrival with a collection of -- stories? fables? dreams?”) because that is exactly what the reader is asking during the experience – what exactly is this???

I can only say that after two reads I sort of felt like Tan took the sterile and conformist setting of suburbia (little boxes made of ticky tacky anyone?) and infused it with a mythology, a history, a fairytale feeling of magic that one has in childhood regardless of where they are raised.

I have several favorite stories. I loved the one of Eric a foreign exchange student that is foreign in more ways that one…as in he’s an alien being. I enjoyed how the pictures were integral to the story – Eric, being a visitor, naturally has many questions about the function of things – but Tan chooses to draw these questions instead of verbalize them. It is very effective. I enjoyed Distant Rain, a story in which the format used (collage) captures the essence of the story. It is a story that describes how random scraps of words from discarded poems growing into a giant ball until it bursts forth upon the town spewing poetry on everything. I was seriously freaked out by Stick Figures, which I found eerie, weird, and downright disturbing.

If you would like to know more background on each story, I strongly suggest you visit Shaun Tan’s own website. There he goes over each story and explains his art techniques and also give a bit of an explanation of each story, how it originated, what may have influenced him, and sometimes when we’re lucky a bit of what the story is actually about.

I really want to see this title on the real Printz list.

Book Source: Library Copy

Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Jarrett J. Krosoczka's picture book Punk Farm is a staple in my library storytimes. I'm game for belting out "Old Mac Donald Had a Farm" in my best rock star voice as well as demonstrating a little air guitar. Fun book.

Being a fan, I was thrilled when I learned that Krosoczka was working on graphic novels for younger readers. There is such a need for younger reader graphic novels-ones with larger type and simple text. Think beginner reader books. My 6 year old loves comics & I'm always looking for ones he can read to himself. Parents and teachers visiting the library have also asked me for ideas. I can't wait to recommend this one - and it's a series! Hooray!

I had lunch with my 6 year old at his school last week. He brings his lunch, but I had the day's special: grilled cheese and vegetable soup. My favorite part: chocolate milk, natch. Mmm. Anyway, next time I go back I won't be able to stop from thinking about Lunch Lady.

Our nameless Lunch Lady is a crime-stopper extraordinaire. When she's not serving up breakfast French toast sticks or lunchtime pizza (with gravy!), she's serving up... justice! ("Lunch Lady: Serving Justice & Serving Lunch") Batman has Alfred, Lunch Lady has Betty. Betty cooks up spatula copters, hairnet nets, and other gadgets that will make your elementary schooler giggle. Krosoczka also plops in as many food references as he can, inventing new ones as well. When faced with an army of cyborgs, Lunch Lady exclaims, "Cauliflower!" Love it. In addition to Lunch Lady's escapades, we also have a side story involving the Breakfast Bunch (Hector, Dee, Terrance) dealing with a school bully. That storyline was a nice surprise and very, very well handled.

Krosoczka uses thick black lines, shaded in greys with highlights of yellow. Kind of like a yellow Babymouse. (Psst. It would make a fun display to have these 2 next to each other.) It works.

Already out! Vol 2: Lunch Lady and the League of Librarians

More fun plus Evil Librarians. Bring it.

Coming December 2009 - Vol 3: Lunch Lady and the Author Visit Vendetta [an homage to Pinkwater's Flippy Bunny in his book Author's Day?]

Coming this spring! - Lunch Lady and the Summer Camp Shake Down

Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, 2009
source: library copy

Monday, October 12, 2009

Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker

First Impressions of Written in Bone.

This second review comes after a much needed dentist visit which was a direct result of reading this book. Call it inspiration, if you will, to avoid a colonial style death.

Basically, everything from the first review stands. I still enjoyed this book immensely even on the second read. I was still extremely impressed with the overall quality of this book and very happy with the variety of stories and the depth of investigation into the lives of Colonial people.

What struck me more on the second reading (and truly I probably picked up on this issue because I’ve been reading SLJ’s Heavy Medal blog entries on A Season of Gifts) was that in the Walker did not include Native Americans in her exploration of Colonial bodies. The forward contains an explanation that they were not included because of respect for Native American customs and that it wasn’t an attempt to erase them from history. I found it to be a reasonable and respectful explanation.

I can’t help but compare the writing style to Almost Astronauts, simply because the tone was so different in both books. One senses that Walker is intrigued and obviously enthused for her subject, but there is none of the editorializing that was so prevalent in Almost Astronauts. It was much more of an expositional nature, the reader understands that Walker isn’t invested in a particular outcome or judgment, but is simply wanting to explore a subject to its furthest conclusion. Forensic Anthropology offers many insights, but Walker is quick to point out that it is not unfailing. There are many variables at play and the only conclusions Walker makes seem to be ones where she feels the evidence is conclusive enough to stand behind.

I loved the layout of this book – it was fabulous. From the font, to the colors, to the pictures/graphics to the captions, it was top notch. The writing was exciting and easy to understand. This is definitely one of my favorites of the year.

Book Source: Tayshas Review Copy

A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck

Finished this Mock Newbery title in two hours. I love Richard Peck books!
Twenty years after the events in A Year Down Yonder we return to Piatt County and Grandma Dowdel. This time Bobby Barnhart tells the tale of his family's move next door to Mrs. Dowdel and the season they spend as her neighbors. It may be 1958 but not much has changed in this small "hick" town.

Mrs. Dowdel is up to her old tricks, getting people to do what she wants and helping others, while maintaining her grumpy, rough facade. And she has a shadow in Bobby's little sister, Ruth Ann, who spends all her time next door helping out. It is interesting to read about Mrs. Dowdel and the town from the point of view of a complete outsider, since Bobby is not even related to Mrs. Dowdel or any other member of town, but is the son of the new Methodist preacher.

I loved the hijinks and the warm moments, but I think I still like A Year Down Yonder best. I did like how the story tied back to its predecessors and Mrs. Dowdel's family at the end, though. I especially liked how things turned out with the Burdicks, the town's good-for-nothing family. It was nice to revisit this place and these people. Also, I feel that this is probably the conclusion and a nice one it is, too, with lessons about giving that shine through.

In a lot of ways, the Dowdel stories remind me of my childhood and my home. These characters, while they seem somewhat caricatured, are pretty close to people I know. And there values and beliefs ring very true. I am so glad that Peck wrote these stories and look forward to whatever else he decides to write in the future.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone

Almost Astronauts is about 13 women who in the 1960s underwent the same tests that the Mercury astronauts did, but because they were women they were denied entry into NASA’s space program. It is about the women who were pioneers in the movement to get women into space.

What I appreciated most about Stone’s book is that she has a wealth of evidence to back up her argument – that sexism and sexist societal norms prevented qualified women from entering space. I valued the obvious depth of research because Stone isn’t writing in the usual detached non-fiction one usually picks up. Instead, this is an impassioned book where the author’s voice often intrudes into the narrative. When discussing an article which portrayed the ‘ideal’ female astronaut as married with a masculine body type, Stone asks “would anyone ever suggest that a male astronaut ought to be a married man with little sex appeal?” Stone also often answers her questions, in this case with a “No. He would not.”

I can see how this obvious belief in her viewpoint might grate, I can see others questioning her impartiality in building her case (did she only gather information that supported her viewpoint, many may ask). To this I can only say - have you taken a look at her sources listed in the back of the book? Impressive to say the least, the evidence in this case certainly seems to back up her position.

Her passion for her subject made this an extremely compelling read. It was truly fascinating and the pictures that were included were excellent and always complemented the text. Not to mention that there was a nice variety ranging from vintage military posters to photos of the women undergoing testing, to magazine articles, to other primary documents such as Lyndon B. Johnson’s opinion on a female space program (oy!).

I thought Stone clearly took this particular story and placed it into a greater societal context. She showed how these women’s experiences did not occur in a vacuum, how they fit into the women’s movement as a whole, and what came after.

I enjoyed this book very much and found it to be a well-written and persuasive piece of non-fiction.


Book Source: Tayshas Review Copy - ARC

Monday, October 5, 2009

All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg

First Impressions.

I found this to be just as moving on my second read-through. My heart was in my throat the entire time. For such a slim book it packs a strong emotional punch and I think the decision to write this book in verse was a good one. One often wonders (or should I say I often wonder) why an author chooses to write their book in verse instead of prose. In this case, I think it is to whittle the story down to its emotional core, to make the writing as spare as possible, so that Matt’s voice – his quiet inner voice – is heard. I’ve seen it referred to as haunting in other reviews. I have to say, I couldn’t agree more. It is haunting, lyrical, simply put it is beautiful.

He never saw my face.
But she was already swelled
with love for him when he left,
taking with him
his blue-eyed promise
that it would not end there,
with the smell of burnt flesh
and the sound of crying children.

I will come back,
you said,
and she believed you.

Whether he is speaking of the father he’s never met, or of the family he left behind, or of the baseball game he is playing – Matt’s voice is strong despite the pain he feels. It is his voice that makes such a connection with the reader.

Matt is two years into his new life as an American and he is struggling. Struggling to come to terms with an entire life lived in a warzone, to come to terms with what happened in his old life, while at the same time figuring out where he fits in his new family.

He suffers from nightmares, from feeling unloved and abandoned by his birthmother, from feeling scared that his new family doesn’t want him anymore. His story neatly parallels those of the Vietnam Veterans who came back to a world where things were not as they expected. Burg does a fantastic job making this not only Matt’s story of healing, but also the healing of the wider U.S. population. After all, there were few families that were not affected by the Vietnam War.

The war changed
all of us, Matt.
Whether we went,
or whether we stayed,
the war changed us all.

If I have one hesitation about this book, it would be that Matt’s adoptive parents are so wonderful. They are amazingly understanding, they work tirelessly for him, helping him to come to terms with his life, finding outlets for his expression – baseball, piano – and finally a veterans group that a family friend (also his piano teacher) invites him to attend. Personally, I have no problem with how they were portrayed, but I feel as though some might feel that they were too empathetic, too perfect. I was just grateful that they were there to accompany Matt on his journey of healing and his discovery of a life worth living.

I think this one has a good chance of being an Honor book on either/both the Newbery or Printz lists.

Book Source: Library Copy

Anything but Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Jason loves to write, in fact, he loves to write so much that he is a member of a website where both original and fan-fiction stories are posted. In real life, Jason doesn’t have many friends – kids tend to either stay away or belittle him for his differences, but on Storyboard his stories are attracting positive attention. And attention from one person in particular, a girl. When Jason gets the opportunity to attend a Storyboard Conference, he’s excited, that is until he finds out that Rebecca – his online friend – will be attending the conference as well.

I should preface this review by mentioning that I have a hard time reading books with autistic characters as the main protagonist - mainly because I find their voices are so similar. Happily, I found that while there were similarities (and let’s face it there has to be some – Autism has some pretty standard symptoms), Baskin manages to bring a fresh eye to the story. In fact, there was little to no reliance on the autistic disconnect for humor – which surprised me (and made this story stand out). Instead, Jason our autistic narrator is portrayed very seriously with a touch of sadness.

Truthfully, this book is really sad and it would be a hard-hearted person who doesn’t finish this book with sympathy for Jason. He knows and understands exactly what people think of him, he just can’t fight his disorder to act in ways that he knows they want him to. It was rather heartbreaking. Who wouldn't feel sad for a boy who longs for a girlfriend, but understands that his differences might make this hard to achieve?

I thought the author did a very good job showing how an autistic person fits within their community and especially their family. Realistically, people have a variety of reactions – it is not all unconditional love and acceptance all the time. Jason’s mom, especially, has a hard time understanding that this isn’t something you can fix. You can’t just force Jason to begin to react to situations in a ‘normal’ way. And it is a difficult journey for her, she feels unloved, she feels anger, frustration, sadness, probably guilt. It is accompanying him to the storyboard conference that begins the process of acceptance – something Jason’s father and brother have already achieved.

What I didn’t get was an exact idea of how well Jason functions. It would seem that he is somewhat high functioning since he is in a ‘regular’ classroom, but then in other respects he seems as though he can’t interact well at all (I’m thinking of the scene in the library where he can’t respond to the librarian to let her know what he wants). Online he is fluent and writes beautiful well-constructed stories, but in person he can’t seem to communicate (he often echoes the last few words of what the other person says to let them know he is listening).

I did appreciate the way in which what Jason tells us about the writing process mirrors what is going on with his own story and how the stories he writes give the reader greater understanding of Jason’s experiences. I even enjoyed Bennu’s story despite the obvious messages of acceptance.

I think, this book, more than other books with autistic protagonists, goes farther in terms of showing what it is actually like to be autistic (as in those with autism are not just the kooky oddball who can solve mysteries because of their unique worldview). Instead this book shows you the rich interior life of someone you may have thought doesn’t have one because you can’t get past their hand-flaps. Baskin takes a kid and makes him a sympathetic and relatable character. A valuable thing indeed.

Book Source: Library Copy