Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Review - "Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets"

When I was a kid, there was a Rodney Dangerfield movie called Ladybugs, in which a teen boy (played by the late Jonathan Brandis) pretends to be a girl to play on an all girls' soccer team. There were cross-dressing jokes a plenty and some gender confusion when Matthew (posing as Martha) gets a crush on one of his/her teammates. For some reason, I loved this movie as a kid. I only mention this, because all the warm feelings I had for it came rushing back when I read Eric Luper's fantastically funny book, Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets. I laughed at the same kind of jokes and enjoyed a similar gender bending adventure.
Jeremy Bender is your average guy. A little bit geeked out boating, a little bit picked on in school, and a little bit picked on by his older sister, Ruthie. Then one day, disaster strikes when, while working on his father's prize boat, he accidentally does some damage to the engine. Rather than admit his mistake, Jeremy formulates a plan to enter the Windjammer Whirl, win the $500 prize and repair the boat before anyone's the wiser. The catch? The Windjammer Whirl is for Cupcake Cadets only, and if there's one rule in the Cupcake Cadets handbook, it's No Boys Allowed. This isn't about to stop Jeremy, however, and he convinces his best friend Slater to go along with his scheme to pose as Cupcake Cadets to win the money. A couple of skirted uniforms later, "Jenna" and "Samantha" have entered a local troupe and start causing trouble wherever they go. They can't earn badges, can't pitch a tent, and can't seem to unload the eponymous cupcakes on the local populace. What are two guys-dressed-as-girls supposed to do, especially when one Cupcake Cadet gets too close to discovering their secret?
I chuckled a lot while reading Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets, and not all the humor is derived from having boys in wigs and skirts parading around town. Jeremy is a naturally humorous character, and his humor is drawn from a very believable boy place. There's a lot here about the difference between boys and girls (the scenes between Jeremy and sister Ruthie are a perfect example of these, and all very, very funny), and Luper knows how to play the line, making the book relatable to both boys and girls, which is a tricky thing to do. This book is an easy recommendation for fans of Wimpy Kid (something of which I'm always in need) and funny gals like Judy Moody and Ramona. I know Luper typically writes for a young adult audience, but I'm very interested in seeing what else he's got for the middle grade crowd, because he sure knows how to play to it.
Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets by Eric Luper
2011, Balzer + Bray
Library copy

Monday, December 19, 2011

Favorite Holiday Books

It's that time of year again.  Time to start thinking of tinsel and trees, of carols and Christmas.  And for me, it's time to start thinking about my favorite holiday stories, to read for myself and to share with others.  Because in some ways, Christmas has always been about stories for me, from the reading of the tradition Christmas Story while lighting Advent candles to countless Christmas movies watched over the years.  These are just some of my favorites.
Picture Books/Early Readers
 Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree by Robert Barry – Who doesn’t love this sweet, continuous tale of the tree that keeps on giving.  Barry’s gentle rhymes are wonderful for read-alouds and the story is sure to leave a smile on your face.

 Merry Christmas, Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish, ill. by Lynn Sweat – This is a childhood favorite of mine.  I remember vividly Amelia Bedelia’s overflowing pots of popcorn and the “date” cake.  Amelia’s misunderstandings always seemed funnier at Christmastime. 
 Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo, ill by Bagram Ibatoulline – One of my favorite new Christmas books to come in the last five years or so.  The story is sweet but not maudlin, and Ibatoulline’s illustrations full of light are simply gorgeous.  I always get a little teary and puffed up when I get to the end and the repeating “great joy”.

 How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss – Well, of course.  I practically know it by heart, and can sing the dear little Who’s song from the animated special on demand.  Like many things Dr. Seuss gave us, the Grinch is an institution unto himself and a never ending symbol of the power of the Christmas spirit.
 Chapter Books
 Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – Not entirely a Christmas novel, but it begins famously with “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents” and the March’s wonderful gift of Christmas breakfast to the poor Hummels.  I don’t always make it through the whole novel every year, though I’d like to, but I try to make it a point to read the first few chapters to remind me of all the things I should be thankful for come the holidays.
 When Santa Fell to Earth by Cornelia Funke – Another modern favorite, this tells the tale of the last real Santa Claus, Niklas Goodfellow, and his crusade to save Christmas from the greedy hands of Gerald Geronimus Goblynch who wants Christmas to be all about how much money your parents are willing to spend on you.  Niklas is aided in his quest by two angels, potty mouthed elves, two human children and one disappearing reindeer.  It’s a story full of wit and whimsy from one of my favorite modern storytellers, and slim as it is, it’s an easy book to commit to reading or listening to (as I did this year) every year.

 The Bird’s Christmas Carol by Kate Douglas Wiggin – This one I didn’t discover until recently, but it made a quick dent on my impressionable heart.  A quaint Victorian tale of an angelic, but sickly child, born on Christmas day, and her gift of a lavish Christmas dinner on her poor neighbors’ children, whose rambunctious play had always been a source of joy to the weak girl.  Carol Bird is a “Beth” variation (and anyone who has ever read Little Women knows exactly what I mean), but the neighbor Ruggle children are beautifully varied characters, full of vim and vigor.  The ending produces a tear or two, but they are tears well earned by the joy of the Christmas spirit.
 A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – There is nothing that I know that more says “Christmas” than Dickens' immortal classic.  I can quote it at length, love to read it aloud (even if no one is listening but the cat) and will never tire of its lesson or its humor.  To paraphrase Scrooge’s nephew Fred, I believe A Christmas Carol has done me good, and will do me good for many years to come and I say, God bless it.

And finally, the best Christmas movie ever made…The Muppet Christmas Carol!  Surprised?  You shouldn’t be.  Despite being the first Muppet movie made after the untimely death of Muppet creator Jim Henson, it is imbued with his generous and jolly spirit in every frame.  The Muppet performers are in top form, especially Dave Goelz as Gonzo the Great, aka Charles Dickens, and Steve Whitmire, stepping into the role of Kermit the Frog, aka Bob Cratchit, and continuing his role of Rizzo the Rat.  For the humans, Michael Caine makes an excellent Scrooge, scowling, cowering and smiling in turn.  This plays in my house every year without fail, and with the Muppets making a return trip to pop culture relevance, I hope to share it with as many children as I can for as long as I can.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Weekend Movie Mini-Review

Hugo – Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a personal favorite of mine.  Selznick’s story of wonder and movies really gets to me, an ardant fan of early cinema.  Lucky for me, another film fan took the reigns of the film version and turned the “unfilmable” Hugo Cabret (Selzanick once said so himself) into a masterpiece of a film.  Martin Scorsese has done himself well as a movie lover, historian and preservationalist with Hugo, the story of a orphan boy living in a Paris train station in 1931.  The acting is across the board wonderful, with the best coming from Ben Kingsley and Helen McCrory.  The film is gorgeous from all angles and moves like a dream.  Best of all, it remains true to the spirit of Selznick’s vision.  This film couldn’t have possibly turned out any better.  It’s a great way to spend an afternoon this holiday season.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New Cover Alert

It's come to my attention that the glorious One Crazy Summer has a shiny new paperback cover!  Take a look:

Just look at all those medals.  Makes you feel all warm inside, doesn't it?  The art is by Frank Morrison, and though the hardcover art was one of my favorite covers of last year, this is dandy.  I love all three sisters, in step, with their heads held high.

To compare, here's the hardcover, art by Sally Wern Comport:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review - "Heart and Soul"

It's a rare conundrum when I find myself wondering, which award should this book win?  Newbery or Caldecott?  The question came up with Brian Selznick's visionary The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which eventually went on to win a Caldecott medal.  I asked it again with Selznick's latest, Wonderstruck (though I don't think Caldecott lightning will strike twice.  Hugo's medal was a departure for the award, a statement, and I don't see it happening again).  And then I come to Kadir Nelson's Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans.  It's a beautiful work, in words and pictures, and I simply can't decide where it belongs more.  It's possible we might have our first double winner or honor since 1982 (when A Visit to William Blake's Inn won the Newbery medal and a Caldecott honor).  It would be only the second book to be awarded by both committees.
Nelson's second time up to bat as an author (the first being the Coretta Scott King illustrator honor book, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball), Heart and Soul recounts the history of the African Americans in America, told by a nameless grandmother figure.  She tells the history as it relates to her family, mostly straightforwardly, but every once a while, in a voice that lets you know she's speaking just to you.  The story begins around the Revolution and continues on through the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.  Through the pages, the narrator speaks of Slavery and Reconstruction, of Women's Rights and African American inventors and finally of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the movement of peaceful demonstration.
I said before that Heart and Soul is a beautiful work, and it is.  Stunning, really.  Nelson's paintings are full of light and darkness, of texture and depth.  They cover famous faces and made up faces, but each face is full of truth and beauty.  Every page is worthy of being framed and mounted, and I can't imagine the Caldecott committee looking at this book and not wanting to reward it.  As for Newbery, non-fiction is rarely given the medal, but often on the radar.  Nelson's text is spare and to the point.  By giving us a human narrator, he is acknowledging that this is not a complete history.  All people have gaps and blind spots.  It allows Nelson to be more subjective with his history.  Not that he gets anything wrong, not to my knowledge, but it is a somewhat one-sided history.  But such was Nelson's way with words, that I wanted more of them.  I was disappointed that the history ended in 1964, though an Epilogue does give us a summing up of the succeeding years, up to the election of Barack Obama in 2008.
That Heart and Soul deserves some shiny medal stickers is a no-brainer.  It's definitely in the running not only for the Newbery Award and the Caldecott Medal, but the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and the Sibert Medal, which goes to the best "informational" book of the year, an award won by We Are the Ship in 2009.  Frankly, I don't care how and what it wins, only that it is rewarded.  It's easily one of my favorite books of the year.
 Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson
2011, Balzer + Bray
Library copy

Monday, November 21, 2011

Review - "Horton Halfpott"

Poor, hand working, scrappy young men can make for very boring heroes. Too good, too bland, etc. But in the right hands, they can make marvelous heroes, because the right hands can draw the thin lines between too good and just good enough. And thankfully, Tom Angleberger has an excellent pair of hands. He's already proven that with his origami skills, but he proves it again with Horton Halfpott; Or, the Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor; or, the Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset. Which has, by the way, the longest and most fabulous title of the year (of which I am aware, that is).
Poor, hardworking, scrappy young Horton Halfpott works in the kitchens of Smugwick Manor, cleaning the dishes, working tirelessly for his one chance a week to go home and give his mother his solitary penny and ask her if they finally have enough money to send for a doctor for his ailing father. Except for these Sunday mornings, he is at the mercy of Miss Neversly and her trusty spoon, which is often used the flog the ears of poor, hardworking kitchen boys. The entire household is at the mercy of M'Lady Luggertuck, and her no good son Luther, who is plain evil, so to speak. One day, the family's precious Lump, possibly the world's largest and certainly the ugliest diamond it the world, goes missing and a mystery is soon afoot. In comes a famous detective to apprehend the criminal and find the lump, and with him comes three story seeking reporters, eager to catch the scoop. It's a wonder that through all this hubbub, Horton is able to meet the lovely and kind Miss Celia Sylvan-Smythe, whose smile disarms are dear hero. Needless the say, there are more thefts, more beatings with spoons, some thrilling bravery and cunning thinking, some pirates and a plank and a happy ending for those that deserve one.
In the Acknowledgements, Angleberger writes that he was inspired by Charles Dickens, and it shows. The whole matter is very Dickensian, from characters names and situations to the occasionally slight but very sly humor. It reads like a 19th century novel, with it's omniscient narrator prone to addressing the "Reader" quite often (in my mind, every time I thought, "Reader, I married him"). There are some big laughs and little laughs, and even some social commentary thrown in for good measure, though it never beats you over the head with anything harsher than a feather. And Horton really is a strong character to build a narrative around, for he is good and kind and hardworking, but also clever and longs for knowledge and adventure. Miss Celia Sylvan-Smythe is a wonderful companion for Horton, because she is also clever and kind, and will accept no nonsense from her legion of suitors.
Horton Halfpott is a quick read, easily done in one sitting, but its virtues outlast its length. I know we have more origami to come from Mr. Angleberger, but I wouldn't mind more of Mr. Halfpott or even a spin-off detailing the mystery-solving adventures of the three stable boys. Basically, I just want more Tom Angleberger. And soon, if you please. :)
Horton Halfpott; Or, the Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor; or, the Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset by Tom Angleberger
2011, Amulet Books
Library copy

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sequels and Series

Sequels and series are tricky things. Sometimes they can be the best things ever (see: Harry Potter) or sometimes they can turn into the story that just won't die (see: House of Night). Series are the biggest thing going on in young adult and juvenile publishing right now, and sometimes it's nice to have a book that's just fine by itself. But here are a few books I would love to see a continuation of, in some form or another.
Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze - I try and put this charming, poignant little book in the hands of every ravenous Wimpy Kid fan looking for something to tide them over. And they love it. The only problem is, they come back asking for more, and I have no series to give them. Though Milo's story was nicely wrapped up in one volume, I would love for author Alan Silberberg to continue his adventures with some more funny tales. Pretty please?

The Grimm Legacy - If ever there was a book that was tailor made for a series, it's this one, by Polly Shulman. With the whole realm of fairy tales at her disposal, there could be numerous stories to be plucked from the tree. With Elizabeth's job at the New York Circulating Material Repository, there are dozens of artifacts around which to bend a tale, and the original certainly leaves room for continuation. In fact, I had thought there was going to be a series built around this title, but I've yet to see anything backing this up.

Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream - I love seeing anything new from Jenny Han, and a sequel to this delightful early reader would certainly hit the spot. Clara Lee is a wonderful character, and is supported by a strong cast around her, and like Ramona, there are many stories to be told of such a precocious youngster. I certainly hope Ms. Han continues writing about Clara Lee, because writing for any age level, she's a wonder, but she's especially strong with the young set.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Review - "The Little Little Girl with the Big Big Voice"

Little children like it when I'm loud. They find it particularly funny for some reason. I consider myself to be a relatively quiet person by nature, reserved (except where kids are concerned), so there must be something funny about me stepping out and letting my voice be heard. Now I'm not talking about my normal, voice-carries-through-a-crowd voice for storytimes, but extra special, super loud explosions. I tend to gravitate towards books that allow me to stretch my vocal chords and give the kids what they want (Mo Willems' pigeon books are especially good for this, as are some of his Elephant and Piggie books). The latest book to let me let loose is Kristen Balouch's The Little Little Girl with the Big Big Voice. Naturally.
The Little Little Girl with the Big Big Voice is loud in every way. The little girl, with her comically large, bubblegum pink mouth is quite loud, so loud that she scares away large and fierce animals left and right. Until, that is, she came upon a lion, which opened his own rather large mouth, and let loose a terrible ROAR (this bit got roars of laughter from my audience). Luckily for us, the little girl is not only really, really loud, she is fearless to boot. She laughs at the lion's roar, and together they go off and play the day away.
Loud, vibrant illustrations mark this simple story. The little girl, with her crazy black hair in pigtails, smiling brown face and striped dress, stands in contrast to bold backgrounds of green, orange and pink. Especially beautiful is the two page spread where our heroine first comes across the lion, with its colorful plants and flowers, the large, slumbering lion and the tiny ladybug hovering nearby. The text is spare and repetitive but gets the job done. Each time "something scared the elephant/snake/crocodile away" I'd raise my voice and get giggles from the crowd. This is a great storytime title, and one I'll have a lot of fun putting into the hands of my young readers and listeners.
The Little Little Girl with the Big Big Voice by Kristen Balouch
2011, Little Simon
Library copy

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review - "Between Shades of Gray"

Between Shades of Gray tells a story of a portion of history about which I am largely ignorant.  My history text books did not take the time to tell of Stalin's reign of terror during World War II and beyond, so occupied were they with what the rest of the world was doing.  Stories like that of Lithuanian fifteen-year-old Lina were rarely told, and when they were, it was mostly as an afterthought.  This is part of the reason Ruta Sepetys' new young adult novel is so valuable.  It offers a testament to the horror of this time, and gives a voice to the millions of victims who have gone voiceless for so long.
 Lina is a typical fifteen year old girl.  She has her friends, her interests (painting and drawing, at which she excels) and her family.  But all that was normal and safe in her life is shattered one night when the NKVD, Soviet police, come barging in her home to arrest the family.  For what, Lina doesn't know.  From this point on, Lina's tale becomes one of survival, first the over-crowded, filthy train car, then work camps in Siberia and the dreaded winters.  All the while, Lina chronicles the horror around her in words and pictures that keep a spark of hope alive.
 I don’t want to write too much about what Lina goes through, partly because much of it is too horrible to repeat and partly because it has to be lived, as the reader lives it, in order to maintain the full value and impact of the text.  For impactful it is, hitting hard notes that certainly resonated with me.  The book is not a long one; it can be completed in one marathon session if you can stand absorbing the entire trauma at once.  But what it lacks in length, it more than makes up for in quality and texture.
 Lina is a wonderful character, one with faults and quirks, but one who discovers an iron backbone through her ordeal.  Sepetys’ secondary characters are just as wonderfully drawn, from Lina’s strong and nurturing mother, to Andrius, her complicated love interest, and even the bald-headed man who accompanies Lina and her family on their terrifying journey.  Everyone is given their humanity, with all its bumps and bruises, and their struggle for survival becomes a beautiful thing to behold.
I said before that Between Shades of Gray is a valuable book, and I stand by that.  Stories like these need to be told, and told often, and retold, until they permeate the general consciousness.  I can imagine Sepetys’ text becoming a standard with which this period of history is taught (and it should be taught), much in the same way that Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars tells a story of the Holocaust for younger readers.  It’s the perfect book for such an endeavor.  It’s horrifying, for sure, but just like the cover image, with its shoot of green through the ice, it is infused with hope, and that is something we can never do without.
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
2011, Puffin Books
Library copy

Monday, October 24, 2011

Review - "Marty McGuire"

Marty McGuire does not do princesses. She doesn't do frilly dresses or tiaras or waltzes. She'd much prefer to be playing outdoors, rescuing imaginary chimpanzees like Jane Goodall and pretending to win the Nobel Peace Prize. But when it comes time for the third grade play, "The Frog Prince", Marty is called upon to be the princess, and she's not happy about it. Eventually she gets into the whole acting thing, with the help of a wonderful teacher, and even finds herself having fun, learning to improvise and looking forward to the performance. But there's just one thing wrong: the stuffed frog taking the place of the enchanted prince is limp and silly looking, and after one particularly enthusiastic throw from Marty, missing a leg. So Marty and her friend Rupert come up with an ingenious plan to spice up the play, just in time for performance night.
It's hard to be different sometimes, but the refreshing thing about the title character of Kate Messner's Marty McGuire is that she finds being different not much of an issue at all. So what if she doesn't like princesses and dancing and other girly things? Marty is just fine with herself the way she is, and though she does learn to compromise, she doesn't change to be like the other girls. There is a subplot to the story that involves Marty's best friend Annie going over to the side of filly things and making new friends at dance class, and this obviously causes some jealousy on Marty's part, but again, doesn't have her running to "fit in" in order to get Annie back. She takes her mother's advice, and lets Annie come back on her own. It's nice to have a heroine like Marty, who is practical, in a third grade kind of way, and has the humor and sensibility to go with the bumps of life, even if it takes some talking to bring her around.
A note on the illustrations: Brian Floca does a wonderful job (surprise, surprise) of capturing little quiet moments, such as Marty listening through the door, with her favorite stuffed animal Bob the lion at her side, along with the bigger louder moments. The black and white illustrations are very lively. I love how the cover image catches Marty with her sleeves rolled up, in the process of doing a very un-girly thing. It's a perfect moment of stillness right before the action starts.

Marty McGuire by Kate Messner (ill. by Brian Floca)
2011, Scholastic Press
Library copy

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Southern Festival of Books

This weekend, I took a day off work and attended the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville.  I and my party arrived first thing in the morning, around 8:30 am, primed to see the first major speaker of the day, Pseudonymous Bosch, author of the hit “Secret” series (The Name of this Book is Secret, etc).  To my dismay, Mr. Bosch was a no show, his name not even on the program any more.  Conspiracy?  I think so.
 We looked around for a bit after that, checking out the booths, and chatting with representatives from Usborne, and authors Mary Casanova and Mark Wayne Adams (who gives a great presentation).  We when from there to our first panel of the day, featuring Sarah Sullivan, author of the lovely Passing the Music Down and Laura Murray, author of Gingerbread Man Loose in the School.  Both women were very informative about their process, and the panel was a success.  Immediately following this panel was another one in the same room, a YA discussion on teens coping with real world issues featuring authors Susan Vaught, with her new book Going Underground, and Judy Christie, author of Wreath, her first novel for YAs.  The authors spoke well about their books, but the discussion afterwards declined into a ‘what you can and can’t say in a YA book’.
 This was followed by lunch, from a food bus parked on the side of the road, the name of which I’ve now forgotten.  Tasty chicken on a stick, though.
 Following lunch, we canvassed the booths again, I got my picture taken with Llama Llama (in his red pajamas), and we made our way to the House Chambers to see Ruta Sepetys speak about Between Shades of Gray.  First of all, if you haven’t read Between Shades of Gray, get thee to a library immediately.  Secondly, if you ever have a chance to hear Ruta talk, jump.  She gave a wonderful presentation.
 As soon as Ruta’s talk was done, we hurried back to the signing colonnade so I could have my ARC of Bird in a Box signed by Andrea Davis Pinkney (squee!) and then we caught the tail end of Matt Phelan’s presentation on the youth stage about his artwork.  I’ll tell you what, that guy can draw, and he makes it look so easy.  I’m so looking forward to getting my hands on Around the World now.
  All in all it was a lovely afternoon.  And until I see him (or her) in person, I’m not entirely convinced this Pseudonymous Bosch person really exists. *shifty eyes*

Friday, October 7, 2011

Review - "Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie"

Everyone in the world knows the pain of having to say goodbye to someone they love. It's one of those universal levelers that make all peoples equal. Whether it's a parting of friends or a death of a loved one, no matter the age, the pain is real and tender. Books about saying goodbye are plentiful. There are books like Neil Armstrong is My Uncle and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me that deal with a friend that has moved away and the hole that can leave in someone's life, and there are books too numerous to mention (but take Mockingbird for example) that look at the death of someone close to you. Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie by Julie Sternberg is one of the former kinds of books. The separation at the heart of the book goes right to the soul of its eight-year-old heroine.
Eleanor's parents have bad news. Not the worst (Grandma's doing fine), but still pretty bad. Bibi, Eleanor's one and only beloved babysitter, is moving away. This makes for a very bad summer vacation, "As bad as pickle juice on a cookie." At first, everything reminds Eleanor of Bibi, from her bike to Roma Pizza. Eleanor is blessed with two very understanding and helpful parents, who go out of their way to make things better for their only child. Eventually, Eleanor gets a new babysitter, who has all the right moves, but isn't Bibi. But slowly, this becomes okay. Eleanor and Natalie play games together, go on walks, and wait for the mailwoman every day for a letter from Bibi. Of course, the letter finally comes, and it allows Eleanor some closure.
Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie is written in a semi-poetic language, but one that feels very germane to inner workings of an eight-year-old. Eleanor's feelings are very raw, and very easy to relate to. As I said, who hasn't lost someone? Sternberg does a wonderful job of getting inside Eleanor's head and letting us feel her sadness, her apprehension about joining the third grade, and her growing okay-ness with Natalie and moving on. Illustrations by Matthew Cordell also add to the inviting atmosphere. Because Eleanor has everyone on her side, her parents, her new babysitter, even her friend who is away for the summer, there is very little conflict in this little book, but it seems to get by just fine without it. We wait, just as Eleanor does, for those sure to be comforting words for Bibi, and sure enough, when they come, it's enough to bring a tear to your eye. The final letter is clear and compact, but full of love. Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie is also light and small, but also full of lovely thoughts.
Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie by Julie Sternberg, ill. by Matthew Cordell
2011, Amulet Books
Library copy

Friday, September 30, 2011

Review - "The Midnight Tunnel"

I've said before that mysteries were not really my thing growing up, but I'm really starting to come around. There's something about an intrepid young detective that sparks my interest now. I don't know if it's the danger, the smarts or the twists and turns these young ladies (for it always seems to be a young ladies) face that are reaching out to me or if it's something else entirely, but I've just about turn around into a mystery convert. The latest young lady to take the stage is eleven-year-old Suzanna Snow, star of Angie Frazier's The Midnight Tunnel.
It's 1904, and another summer has come for Suzanna, of Zanna, at the Rosemount Hotel, which her parents manage. This summer, Zanna is apprenticed in the kitchen, but she'd much rather be out and about, taking notations in her notebook, honing her skills as a detective, just like her famous Uncle Bruce, who lives and works in Boston. Even though she takes notice of every small little thing (and you always know those small details will come back), Zanna hardly dreams that she'll soon be in the middle of an honest to goodness mystery when a young girl, a guest at the hotel, goes missing one stormy night. Zanna thinks she saw Maddie being taken away on the night in question, but she can't get any of the adults to take her seriously. So of course, this calls for some on the side investigation. Aided by Will, her Uncle Bruce's nephew, Zanna follows clue to clue through to the logical conclusion and, of course, saves the day.
What I like most about Zanna is her willingness to bend the rules to get what she wants or needs. She's not reckless or hurtful, just independent, like sleuths Flavia de Luce and Enola Holmes before her (ok, Flavia is occasionally hurtful, I'll give you that). She respects her parents, and tries to obey her mother's rules of "social taboos", but sometimes a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do. I liked her indignation when the search for Maddie slows down and people start to lose interest in the little girl's safety. Zanna's got spirit, yes she does. The setting for this mystery is another high point. With open beaches, long, dark tunnels and junk rooms filled with debris, the locations provided an excellent atmospheric backdrop to the action. What Frazier's really done is given us a solid mystery that's easy to follow, even when it has many balls up in the air, and a delightful new character to add to the pantheon of great girl detectives. I look forward to more Suzanna Snow mysteries, as I certainly hope there will be more to come.
The Midnight Tunnel: A Suzanna Snow Mystery, by Angie Frazier
2011, Scholastic
Library copy

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Quickie Review - "The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic"

Heroic adventures can start in so many different ways. They can start with prophesies and magical destinies, or they can start with something as simple as the wind blowing away your hat while you trek through the forest. This is how the adventures of Persimmony Smudge begin in The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton. They begin with such a simple act of losing her hat, but they continue on, leading her into a face-off with a poison-tongued jumping tortoise, into the throne room of a rotten boy king and into the super secret domain of the Leaf Eaters. The story in Trafton's debut novel is light, fluffy and full of life. It rarely gets more than skin deep, but that's okay. Persimmony and her colorful supporting cast of characters skim the surface of the fantasy on nimble feet. The wonderful mood of the book is helped tremendously by the illustrations of Brett Helquist, who always makes things better, I find. All in all, The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic is a splendidly enjoyable first novel, and Trafton is certainly someone I will be looking out for in the future.

The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton
2010, Dial Books
Library copy

Monday, September 12, 2011

Review - "Kat, Incorrigible"

I don't believe I've yet done any "meets" in this blog.  As in, 'this book is A meets B'.  It can sometimes be a lazy way to describe books, and sometimes a very creative way to do so.  Describing The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place as "Lemony Snicket meets Jane Eyre meets Call of the Wild" certainly sticks in one's mind.  For Stephanie Burgis' debut novel, I can't resist the urge to throw out a "meets".  It's "Jane Austen meets Harry Potter meets Our Only May Amelia".  Gotcha, didn't I?
 In Kat, Incorrigible, the titular heroine lights up her narration with a tremendous opening: "I was twelve years of age when I chopped off my hair, dressed as a boy, and set off to save my family from impending ruin.  I made it almost to the end of my front garden".  What a cracker of a beginning, eh?  The first sentence has you raring in your seat, ready for adventure, and the second plops you unceremoniously back down to earth with a bit of a laugh as a consolation prize.  It also gives you a good idea of time and place without being specific.  The impending ruin in question is the proposed marriage between her eldest sister Elissa and the possibly homicidal Sir Neville.  The marriage is being arranged to help lift the family out of debt and save reckless brother Charles from debtor’s prison.  You see, Kat’s family has its troubles, and has its secrets too.  Kat’s mother was practiced magic, and sister Angeline may be attempting to follow in her footsteps when she hides away her mother’s spell books.
 When Kat, Elissa and Angeline, along with their imposing Stepmama arrive at a stately manor for a house party, things really start to get interesting.  Kat must deal with the magic she’s unleashed from her mother’s cabinet, while juggling her sisters’ love lives and trying to escape the clutches of the sinister Sir Neville, who knows more about Kat and her magic than he lets on.  There’s a daring dinner party, a dastardly highwayman and lots of popping in and out of magic rooms.  And like many a tale from Miss Austen and her contemporaries, there’s a last minute discovery that changes the landscape and resolves our sisters troubles.
 What I found most charming about Kat, Incorrigible was Kat herself.  She’s clever and full of spirit, and will have nothing to do with “simpering females”.  She has a bit of my beloved May Amelia in her, in her youngest sibling spunk and her desire for adventure.  She’s positively abuzz with the possibility of being hijacked by a highwayman.  Equally entertaining and clearly drawn are Kat’s sisters, especially Angeline, who has some secrets of her own to keep.  I loved the way Burgis created her sisterly dynamic.  It’s very realistic and relatable, while at the same time keeping with the novel’s place and time.  I know this is going to be a series, and I look forward to what lies ahead for Kat and her sisters.
 There’s an audience for this book, though I’m a little lost on who exactly that might be.  I would definitely recommend it for fans of aforementioned Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place (must be something about that word: incorrigible) and of the similarly spunky Enola Holmes.  I don’t get a lot of Jane Austen fans in my department, but I can grab some fans of historical fiction.  I would say fans of Harry Potter (which covers such a huge span), but I’m not sure most boys would go for Kat, and not every Potter fan will go for her particular brand of magic.  In any case, I’m going to look for Kat’s audience, because this is just the kind of book I relish putting in the hands of just the right reader.
 Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis
2011, Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Library copy

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Backlist files - "The Teashop Girls"

The Teashop Girls
This is a book that had me at hello. That is, it had me from its very pleasing book cover in complimentary pastel colors and promise of tea and cake. It has been a space of two and a half years, however, between that first glance and my chance to actually, you know, read the book. What I got was not exactly what I wanted, but it was a pleasant distraction for a day of lousy weather and a generally good read. Thirteen year old Annie has just taken a job as a barista at her Grandmother Louisa's tea shop, Steeping Leaf, when she finds out her beloved family hangout may be going out of business for good. Rallying her best friends, Genna and Zoe, Annie tries to find ways to fight back against the coffee conglomerate across the street. Speckled with tea advertisements, recipes and stories, The Teashop Girls is a light, quick read, with little to challenge you, but conversely, little to vex you. I enjoyed the characters, though they were thinly drawn, and I was pleased with the ending, which I have to admit I wasn't expecting. This is definitely a good read for a day at the beach or the pool, or wrapped up in a blanket when the weather is foul, with a scone and your favorite cup of tea.

The Teashop Girls by Laura Schaefer
2008, Simon & Schuster
Library copy

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Review - "The Trouble with May Amelia"

Oh May Amelia.  What shall be done with May Amelia Jackson?  She won't wear dresses, won't be a proper lady, and drives her family to distraction with all the trouble she manages to get into.  I was thrilled to learn that May Amelia, the irrepressible heroine of Jennifer L. Holm's Newbery Honor book Our Only May Amelia would be back for another adventure with The Trouble with May Amelia.  Children's lit needs girls like May Amelia, girls who are smart but not too smart, tough but not too tough and full of that particular kind of energy you get when a young girl is on her way to becoming a young woman.  Whether she likes it or not.
The Trouble with May Amelia is very much like its predecessor, in that it is mostly a collection of stories in chapter form.  We get the story of Friendly, the mad bull out to terrorize the children at the schoolhouse, the story of Jaakko and Helmi, May Amelia’s cousins, who come from Finland after a tragedy hits their family, and the story of a business venture that could change the face of the Nasal community and the lives of the whole Jackson family.  And through it all, May Amelia keeps her spirit, even when the worst happens and she finds herself on the outside looking in.
I love May Amelia.  I love her sense of humor, which is in full force here.  I love her dedication to and exasperation with her brothers and most of all her indefatigable spirit in the face of some terrible events.  Holm has once again given us a stellar character presented with unique (and entertaining) challenges and a touching, perfectly May Amelia ending.  I have to say I enjoyed this sequel just as much as the original, which I recently reread.  So what's to be done with May Amelia, who insists on being the grain of sand in an oyster, instead of the pearl?  Nothing, I suppose, because we wouldn't have her any other way.

The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm
2011, Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Library copy

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Review - "Angel in My Pocket"

What do you do with a book that wears its heart proudly on its sleeve? Cynic that I am, I tend to judge a bit harshly I'm sure. Even when I am taken in by an emotional plot, I'm conscious of my taken in, and part of me is suspicious of that. So what do I do with a book like Ilene Cooper's Angel in My Pocket? It's heartfelt and tries to pack much meaning into its nearly 300 pages. Did I feel myself being manipulated? A little bit. Did I mind? Surprisingly, not that much.
Seventh grader Bette finds an angel coin amongst donations for a local charity and immediately takes a shine to it, though she wouldn't really be able to tell you why. Suddenly her life begins to change, in little ways. A new neighbor moves in downstairs. An opportunity to sing again (which she hasn't felt like doing since her mother's death) presents itself in the form of a big musical production at her school. Bette begins to feel like her coin might be bringing her luck after all, but just as soon as she begins to rely on it, it disappears. And so begins the travels of this little angel coin, which visits three more students (really two, as one is more of a delivery person than a carrier) and is present during difficult and transformative times in their lives.
Does the coin really affect these children directly, or is it a result of a higher confidence and conscience that they are reminded of because of the coin? Cooper is careful not to say directly, though personally I think it is the latter. There's a light dusting of religion here (very light, given that only one main character, Andy Minkus, is particularly observant), though it is of a very non-denominational sort. Twins Andy and Vivi are Jewish, troubled Joe is Catholic, but the book is very non-specific.
What Cooper really has with Angel in My Pocket is a string of really good characters and good situations awkwardly placed together on line where they don't really scan. The transition from Bette's story to Joe's is especially disjointed, and it was several chapters before I felt on solid ground with the book again. But the characters, Bette, Joe, Andy and Vivi, are beautiful creations, fully fleshed out and believable, each with their own drama, their own quirks and their own minds which make their little spheres of the story unique. I particularly enjoyed Vivi's story, which I felt was handled with the right amount of delicacy and determination.
Was Angel in My Pocket a little cheesy? I won't lie; yes it was. But I enjoyed the time I spent with Cooper's characters and the world they inhabited. And I know just the type of child to hand this book to, as well: the one's with that little gleam of a lucky charm in their eye, or perhaps those that could use a helping of luck for themselves. Angel in My Pocket would work as a charm against the big bad world when all you want is something warm to eat, a blanket, and a good book.

Angel in My Pocket by Ilene Cooper
2011, Feiwel and Friends
Library copy

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Review - "Bee & Bird"

I'll admit to sometimes being on the fence when it comes to wordless picture books. Some are fantastic stories unto themselves, like Jerry Pinkey's The Lion and the Mouse and Jeff Newman's The Boys. Others can require so much reader input they're almost not worth the trouble, unless ridiculously beautiful. Still others are of a brand that is not quite fully storytelling, not quite fully concept book. Laura Vaccaro Seeger's books, like First the Egg, would fall into this category. There's a thin story, bolstered by a come-along-and-play type attitude to the narration. A new book, Bee & Bird, from Craig Frazier is another title that would fall into this third category (and in fact, Seeger blurbs the book on the inside jacket cover).
Bee & Bird begins with a close-up of the stripes of a bee, which then backs out into a shot of the bee on a red background, which then backs out into a shot our bee resting on our red bird's head (and so forth). The story unfolds in such pull back reveals and shifts of perspective as we follow our titular pair over fields and water and finally back to the beehive. The art is bright and crisp, and has a note of humor to it. A shot of our heroes looking straight forward made me smile, though I couldn't say exactly why. The progression of images is both logical and surprising in some ways and the cumulative effect is very pleasing. I wouldn't say that author/illustrator Frazier has reached the delightful heights of one of Ms. Seeger's volumes, but Bee & Bird is a definite step in the right direction.
Bee & Bird by Craig Frazier
2011, Roaring Book Press
Final copy provided by publisher

Monday, July 18, 2011

Review - "Inside Out and Back Again"

Verse novels can sometimes be difficult for me to get my head around. Poetry as a form seems so much more subjective to me than prose, so I tend to find myself struggling to parse and analyze what I see in front of me. The truth is, if I find myself spending time analyzing the form of the novel, it's already lost me. I should be able to drift off into the story, reading as easily as I would any other book. Thankfully, this is exactly what happened while I was reading Inside Out and Back Again, the new novel from Thanhha Lai.
Largely autobiographical, Inside Out and Back Again tells a year in the life of ten-year-old Kim , as she moves with her family from her home in Vietnam when Saigon falls to Alabama, and the basement of her American sponsor. She moves from a life that, though troubled by war, is familiar and full of the things she loves, like her beloved Papaya tree, to a life of alienation and uncertainty. The novel is divided into four parts, labeled "Saigon", "At Sea", "Alabama" and "From Now On" and each entry is dated, though some have only approximate times, and some are even labeled "Every day".
I was drawn into ’s world very easily and was able to sympathize with her status as the youngest and only girl. Lai uses language beautifully to describe ’s confusion, determination and longing for a missing father she does not even remember. What is most enjoyable about this book, as I said before, was how easily it reads, smoothly and with nary a hiccup on the horizon. Lai hasn't taken too difficult things, a verse novel and an historical fiction novel, and blended them together beautifully, in a book that is both memorable and meaningful.
A note on the cover: While the art gives away nothing of time or place, I find the colors and the movement simply beautiful. It's probably my favorite cover of the year so far.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
2011, HarperCollins
Library copy

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Quickie Review - "Miss Lina's Ballerinas"

Miss Lina's Ballerinas is a charming little mathematical tale told in the spirit of Madeline. There are eight ballerinas in Miss Lina's school, you see, and they dance all night and day in four lines of two. And then one day, a new ballerina joins the class, and throws the girls off their game, no longer able to maintain their neat and orderly lines. Enter calm Miss Lina to save the day. She easily divides the girls into three lines of three, and the problem is solved. Now the girls can go back to dancing "[a]t the park, at the zoo, at the beach, and while shopping". Grace Maccarone's easy rhymes simply drip off the tongue, even incorporating ballet vocabulary like plié and jeté.  And the art by Christine Davenier, also slightly reminiscent of the beloved Madeline, adds splendidly to the mood, with simple but expressive faces and energetic lines.  This is an excellent storytime title (if you can rattle off the names of Miss Lina's students without a pause, I applaud you), being just bouncy and clever enough to entertain a room full of little ballerinas.
Miss Lina's Ballerinas by Grace Maccarone (ill. by Christine Davenier)
2010, Feiwel & Friends
Library Copy

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Mid Year - The Best of the Rest

The year is halfway over, unbelievably, and there have been several books I've come across that I've been a fan of, but haven't reviewed for one reason or another.  So here's a quick look at the best of the rest, so to speak.

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt - A surefire Newbery contender, though it does lean a little towards YA (both it and Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars are included in my library's YA collection), this coming-of-age novel hits all the right notes and has created one of the most memorable characters of the year. Personally, I think Okay For Now bests The Wednesday Wars, if only by a smidge, and it's probably my favorite novel of the year so far.

The Boy Who Cried Ninja by Alex Latimer - A fantastic story paired with great illustrations make this a highly enjoyable modern fable storybook. Tim always tells the truth, about the ninjas, astronauts and giant squids that cause trouble all around him, but no one believes him. So one day, Tim starts lying, and confessing to the broken TV antenna and the pencils thrown at Grampa while he is sleeping. It's a great flip of conventions and Latimer's illustrations are wonderfully playful and colorful.
Chamelia by Ethan Long - The text is simple and straightforward, about a chameleon that longs to stand out and fit in, but the illustrations in this little story are top notch. Chamelia is as darling as she can be, and the subtly mixed media drawings with gentle pastels and outrageous colors and textures for Chamelia's clothes create both a relaxing background and an energetic pop. And the book jacket, book cover and endpapers are to die for!

 Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy - This was a tricky book to get right, but Reedy manages very well in this story of thirteen-year-old Zulaikha, an Afghani girl on the cusp of womanhood with many changes to undergo. First she starts to learn to read from an old friend on her mother, then an American doctor with the troops wants to help fix her cleft lip. This coming-of-age drama is bittersweet and offers very few answers for the many questions in Zulaikha's life, but presents a character who is strong enough to seek them out for herself.
Emma Dilemma: Big Sister Poems by Kristine O'Connell George, ill. Nancy Carpenter - Little sisters are a blessing and a curse, and Jessica's poems about her little sister Emma run the gamut. This is a very sweet (but not too sweet) look at sisterhood, and all the rewards and pitfalls of having and being a sister. Nancy Carpenter's illustrations perfectly capture Jessica's frustration and love for her Emma Dilemma as well as Emma's exuberant and occasionally troublesome behavior
Chuckling Ducklings and Baby Animal Friends by Aaron Zenz - Cute. So so cute. Nigh unbearably cute. Baby animals are everywhere in Zenz's rhyming exploration of the animal world. We get everything from puppies and kittens to poults and squabs (those are baby turkeys and pigeons). Did I mention this book is cute? And it has a baby giraffe in it, which is full of win right there.

Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke - Full of weird and wonderful characters, a shaggy anti-hero and a spunky, relatable heroine on a classic homeward bound journey Zita the Spacegirl makes for a good graphic novel, one-sitting read. There's action, evil creepy crawlies, great art, and did I mention the shaggy anti-hero? I've always been fond of a shaggy anti-hero.