Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review - "The Death-Defying Pepper Roux"

Sometimes you should absolutely judge a book by its cover.  One of my favorite books of all time, Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund, is a book I must have picked up at the bookstore about twenty times, drawn to its cover image of a lone figure on a beach, before I ever bought the darn thing and began to read it.  Covers can make or break you, and when faced with an overwhelming amount of material and a finite amount of time, sometimes snap judgments must be made, and yes, you must judge a book by its cover.  And then there are times when you really, really shouldn’t.  Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Death-Defying Pepper Roux is most certainly one of those times.
I didn’t pick up Pepper Roux when it was initially released.  I was working at the bookstore then, and passed by the book many times.  The cover offered me an idea of swashbuckling adventures on the high seas, and that just wasn’t something in which I was willing to invest my time.  Fast forward to the end of 2010, when I start to see this title on people’s lists of favorites for the year.  I start to think, perhaps there is more than meets the eye, and so when it became available, I snatched up the library’s copy and took it home to enjoy.

I won’t keep anyone in suspense.  I loved it, loved every bit of it.  I loved it like I love Dickens, and that’s saying something.  And in fact, The Death-Defying Pepper Roux is quite Dickensian in its own way, telling a sprawling tale full of colorful characters, centered around a young man called Pepper (and often many other names) who has been told by his meddlesome Aunty that he will be and should be dead at the age of fourteen.  This information came to Aunt Mireille in a dream before his birth, the death pronouncement made by Saint Constance (who has excellent diction, by the way).  This is why, on his fourteenth birthday, Pepper commits the terrible sin of surviving another day and runs off with his seafaring father’s jacket, commandeers his ship and makes for the high seas.

Here, it would seem, was the swashbuckling I was dreading, but I found none of it on the page.  Instead, Pepper is a quiet captain, living under his father’s drunken reputation, and keeps mostly to his cabin, interacting only with the ship’s steward, a cross-dressing man called Duchesse.  In fact, Pepper’s high seas adventure does not last long at all, and almost before I knew it, Pepper was busy disappearing into someone else’s life, escaping the wrath of saints and angels alike by continuing to live.  Pepper becomes a meat slicer at a delicatessen, a newspaper writer, a telegraph delivery boy, even the deceased husband of a penniless widow.  He makes friends and enemies with his peculiar ways and continues to evade the heavenly hoards he just knows are hot on his trail, ready to take him in.

I found so much to love in Pepper Roux; it’s hard to know where to start.  I loved Pepper, for one thing.  He grows from a single-minded child to a complex human with an incredible heart, an increasing penchant for lying and a natural tendency towards goodness.  Not to mention a hell of a survival instinct.  I loved Duchesse, especially when the character returns for the novel’s final act.  I loved his “dear hearts” and his brute kindness.  I pictured him a giant of a man perfect for squeezing like a teddy bear.  And I loved the humor of it all.  Pepper’s naiveté made for some easy laughs, for sure, but some expertly made sentences were just as enjoyable.  Sentences like, “It voided a pellet of undigested mouse parts: its own little explanation of what it had been up to lately” made me laugh out loud, often without really knowing why.  That’s the Dickens in it again.  Little moments of humane hilarity that tickle the funny bone without so much as lifting a finger to do so.

I’m dreadfully sorry I judged Pepper Roux by its cover in the beginning.  I’d like to say I’ve learned my lesson, but if I didn’t learn it with The True Meaning of Smekday, I’m unlikely to have learned it now, either.  But I am truly grateful to have been turned on to Pepper Roux and I look forward to being able to press this book into just the right child’s hands and say, “You have to read this.”

One last note on the cover: it has grown on me, but I’ve since discovered the originally UK cover, and much prefer it.

The Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean
2010, Harper Collins
Library Copy

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Backlist files - "The London Eye Mystery"

Last year, there was a bit of kerfuffle surrounding Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird, particularly following a post on A Fuse 8 Production.  Among the topics of discussion that grew from that post was the question of authenticity when portraying a character with a disease or disability.  Personally, I didn’t care much for Mockingbird, but my objections to it had nothing to do with authenticity.  I had no problem with the main character’s voice, other than finding it annoying at times, and I don’t have enough firsthand knowledge of Asperger’s Syndrome to make a claim for its realism one way or another.  I was interested, however, in all the opinions shared on the topic, and my interest was further piqued by the repeated mentions of Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery as an additional or alternative reading option to Mockingbird when dealing with Asperger’s.

As luck would have it, this title was on my most recent order list, so I would be able to give it a shot.  I remember The London Eye Mystery when it was released, but I don’t recall it selling very well (something I blame partially on the cover art – it’s a wonderful concept with the wheel and Big Ben, but a little busy and something unfamiliar to most Americans – and the fact that it was located alphabetically on the bottom shelf).  I was finally able to take the book home this weekend and I blew threw it fairly quickly.  As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, I’m not typically a mystery person, but this one got my attention from the first.  I imagine because it plays into a very common and frankly terrifying fear: a missing child.  The missing child, or teenager really, in question is Salim, cousin to our narrator, Ted, whose brain “works on a different operating system”.  Salim disappeared one afternoon when he got in a pod for the famous London Eye, a bicycle wheel mixed with a Ferris wheel mixed with a hot dog spinner, and never came out again.  His cousins Ted and Kat, who had watched the progression of his pod for the entire half hour it was in motion, can’t believe he’s gone missing, and can’t get anyone to believe them when they say he went up and simply never came down.           
With Salim’s mother, Gloria, in agony over her missing son, Ted and Kat try to put their best bits together to solve the mystery.  Ted has a number of theories, something his mother, who is usually the one supporting him, tells him not to share with the family.  Among Ted’s theories are spontaneous combustion, disguises and human error on Kat and his part, although he accounts for a 2% probability of this actually being the case.  One of Ted’s preoccupations is weather, and throughout the book, he compares his family to various states of meteorological distress: hurricanes, smog, etc.  This is especially true of his sister, Kat, who has been referred to in the past as Hurricane Katrina and with whom Ted says he has a “love hate relationship”.  Like many other words and phrases, this is something that Ted doesn’t instinctively understand, but must study, like body language, to become more familiar with them.

As I said, as a mystery, this takes the cake.  As an adult, I have at my disposal any number of horrible endings in store for a thirteen, nearly fourteen, year old boy gone missing in a city like London.  A few of them are even mentioned in the text.  In one frightening turn of events, Ted’s father must go down to the morgue and identify a body.  Thankfully, it is not Salim, but the fact still stands it was a young boy, lost in London, now dead.  That’s scary enough for a book for middle grade readers.  As to The London Eye Mystery being a book about a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, I don’t have much to say.  I don’t think it is a book about Asperger’s.  It’s a book about a missing boy where the main character has Asperber’s.  The difference is all in the distinction.  I didn’t have the same problems with Ted’s voice that I did with Caitlin’s from Mockingbird.  I had trouble following his thinking from time to time and had to reread certain paragraphs, but never once did I find him annoying.  I simply felt, exactly as he described it, that our two brains were operating on different systems.  Communication was definitely possible; you just have to work a little harder to make everything connect.

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd
2007, Random House
Library copy

Monday, January 24, 2011

Review - "Up and Down"

Books about unlikely or unusual friends are commonplace in the picture book world.  Between the pages of a book, friendships between dogs and frogs, boys and ducks and girls and stuffed rabbits can flourish without being impeded by silly obstacles like language and life.  After all, when you're a child, some of your best friends are either inanimate objects, or of another species, but that doesn't mean you love them any less. 

Thankfully, there's nothing commonplace about Oliver Jeffers' friends in Up and Down, the sequel to his successful Lost and Found.  Here, the friendship at stake is between a boy and a penguin, "who always did everything together", everything including playing music and backgammon, their favorite game.  Everything is going swimmingly, until the penguin thinks of something he wants to do by himself.  Fly.  The penguin tries many different ways of making his little wings work (with the boy always on hand for assistance), but has no luck.  When they visit the zoo looking for advice, the penguin finds the answer he's looking for, but loses the boy.  Boy and penguin are of course reunited in the end, when the boy proves once again how important friendship is when flying out there on your own.  The penguin is content with his adventure, and the two go home together, riding (and stilt-walking) off into the sunset.
Jeffers' books have always appealed to me.  There's something about his style, the shapes his bodies make that are very comforting.  The penguin is little more than a black and white round-edged rectangle with tiny orange feet poking out.  He looks like you could pick him up and sqeeze him, and he'd only squeak a little bit.  Jeffers has everything cast a shadow, which gives the spreads both depth and whimsy.  And whimsy is something Jeffers is never short on, though it never overwhelms you either.  I think those shadows do more than give the illustrations weight.  They give anchor to the more fanciful elements, my favorite of which being the night scene where the penguin is missing his friend while sitting on a park bench knitting him a hat with red yarn.  Jeffers' work is allowed to be sweet, but never over-the-top or saccharine.  He has made a career, with stories of his boy, of finding just the right balance.

Up and Down, like Lost and Found, is ultimately a sensitive story of friendship from a master of the unique.  I've never seen books quite like Jeffers', and I hope he continues producing them for a long, long time.

Up and Down by Oliver Jeffers
2010, Philomel Books
Library copy

Friday, January 21, 2011

Quickie Review - "Lunch Lady and the Bake Sale Bandit"

Jarrett J. Krosoczka has done it again with Lunch Lady and the Bake Sale Bandit.  This latest installment in the Lunch Lady series finds our culinary hero getting to the bottom of the school bake sale's mysterious disappearance.  Expect your usual batch of laughs and bamfs (an appropriate word for comic book explosions involving a monster school bus called Buszilla and a mac & cheese cannon) as Lunch Lady, her assistant Betty, and the Breakfast Bunch avoid red herrings and detention to save the bake sale goodies and the school's field trip.  This series is a great pick for reluctant readers, and for fans of Wimpy Kid or Babymouse.

Lunch Lady and the Bake Sale Bandit by Jarret J. Krosoczka
2010, Knopf Books for Young Readers
Library copy

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Review - "Moon Over Manifest"

When Clare Vanderpool’s debut novel, Moon Over Manifest, won this year’s Newbery medal, I don’t think anyone was expecting it, least of all me.  It was the little book that came out of left field and quietly took the big prize.  Thankfully I had purchased a copy for my library last fall, so I was able to come in the very next day, pull it off the shelf and give it a read and find out just what the Newbery committee had seen in this Depression-era tale.

There are two stories being told in Moon Over Manifest.  The main story is of Abilene Tucker, a young girl being sent to live in Manifest, Kansas by her roving father, Gideon.  The old and faded sign outside Manifest reads, “a town with a past”, and Abilene arrives in May 1936, a time when it was hard for anyone to imagine a brighter future.  Abilene is watched over in Manifest by a Paster Howard, called Shady by everyone who knows him.  Shady knows Abilene’s father, but is reticent to give many details of Gideon’s life.  The other story comes into play when Abilene accidentally breaks a pot belonging to Miss Sadie, a local diviner and medium.  Abilene must work for Miss Sadie to make up for her destruction, and while she works, Miss Sadie talks and tells the story of a boy called Jinx, his friend Ned and their exploits in Manifest in 1917.  Jinx is another child used to being on the move in life who finds himself in the charge of Shady, at this time a bootlegger who makes homemade whiskey.  The two stories run side by side throughout the summer.  Abilene finds letters from Ned in her bedroom as well as a clue about a potential spy in the area which leads her and her new friends on a townwide spyhunt.  For Ned and Jinx, their times are spent getting into trouble, getting out again, and helping a town of mostly immigrants find common ground.

I wasn’t immediately taken with Vanderpool’s storytelling.  To be honest, the first one hundred pages read more like three hundred.  The story wasn’t speaking to me and I was struggling to stay engaged.  The landscape of the book felt far too crowded, with too much going on.  I was far more interested in Ned and Jinx’s story, and found Abilene to be something of a stock character; I was often disappointed when I had to return to her.  There were definite high points (mostly Jinx’s)  and moments of dry and unexpected humor.  And then there was the ending, which was both predictable and neat, bordering on trite.  I much preferred the ending of another tale of the Great Depression, Jennifer Holm’s Turtle in Paradise.  Turtle’s ending wasn’t perfect, because her life wasn’t perfect at that moment.  No one’s was.

Awards are funny things sometimes.  It can be an easy thing to be your own personal favorites, but awards are generally the consesus vote of a group, and through votes like these, often the safe choices are made.  Look at this year’s Oscar race.  The Social Network is a solid, relevant film that speaks to modern life coming from a well-respected and unrewarded director (at least as far as Oscars are concerned).  Because it’s something most can agree upon, it’s an easy choice.  Moon Over Manifest feels like a easy choice to me, a decent book that might not be the top of anyone’s list, but is safe enough to be liked by everyone and offending no one.  I could be completely wrong, of course,  Every single member of the Newbery committee could have walked into the room with this book as their far and away favorite.  I just don’t see it happening that way.

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
2010, Delecorte Books
Library copy

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Weekend Movie Mini-Review


I'm a big fan of Wendelin Van Draanen's novel of the same name about Juli Baker and Bryce Loski and the mixed up ties that bind.  I was excited about the film coming from Rob Reiner, who, though he hasn't been on much of a roll lately, certainly has the history and the ability to pull out of a good piece of work.  Unfortunately, this little movie came and went with very little, if any, fanfare, and made less than two million in the theatres.  It never even opened in my area.  Fortunately, it has a second life on DVD, and hopefully families and fans of Van Draanen will give it a chance.  I was generally impressed by the film, expecting to find some elements softened to make it more "family friendly".  I was pleasantly surprised to find I was wrong.  Reiner doesn't pull punches, doesn't try to make it a G movie with rainbows and sunshine (I was surprised, because of the language, that it got away with a PG).  Bryce's dad is just as unsympathetic as he appears in the book, though it's frustrating to wait for Bryce to come to the same conclusion.  There are nice performances as well, especially from the leading pair of Madeline Carroll and Callan McAuliffe, who capture adolescence in all its uncertain glory.  It can be a bit sweet, and at times borders dangerously close to twee, but in all, I'd call it a successful adaptation and a generally enjoyable film.

Here's the trailer, though it doesn't do the film justice:

Friday, January 14, 2011

Quickie Review - "The Lightning Thief: The Graphic Novel

It was bound to happen. With a series as popular as Percy Jackson, a graphic adaptation was inevitable. I was looking forward to reading this, partially to help erase the memory of the disastrous film adaptation (!). Granted, I had to wait my turn, as this little book has circulated quite a few times since landing on my shelves in November, but I was able to secure it yesterday and gave it a quick read. I was delighted with the vibrancy of the art by Attila Futaki (and color by Jose Villarrubia), but a little disappointed by the character design. The main trio of Percy, Grover and Annabeth looked too old for their supposed twelve years of age, Percy especially. Then there was the adaptation itself, which I'm sad to say felt like a smash and grab job. That some elements of the story had to be cut is a given, but this is cut down so severely and often in awkward turns it ruins the natural buoyancy of Riordan's work. As is, this is a very slim volume, and I don't understand why a little more space could not have been given to the piece. When it comes to Percy Jackson, if you write it, kids will read. Maybe the volumes to come (if indeed they intend to continue with the series), they will allow for a little more breathing room that will make the stories more readable and enjoyable.

Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief: The Graphic Novel by Rick Riordan, adapted by Robert Venditti
2010, Disney Hyperion Books
Library copy

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Review - "Ghostopolis"

I have long been a supporter of graphic novels for young readers. I'm a comic book girl from way back, and when I first took up my position as Children's Librarian, one of the first things I promised to do was increase my graphic novel collection, including books for all my ages. Some books were a bit tricky (I wavered on where to place G. Neri's Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty for days) and some were an instant success (with less than five minutes on the shelf, Ranpunzel's Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale was snapped up by eager hands). Ghostopolis, the latest from Doug TenNapel, was another that gave me cateloguing pause, but it eventually found it it's way onto my middle grade shelf.

TenNapel's title city is a roaring metropolis of the dead ruled over by a tyrannical despot named Vaugner, and young Garth, a living boy, has just been plopped down in the outskirts of it by a washed-up ghost hunter named Frank Gallows. While Garth's nervous mother waits, Frank promises to return from the afterlife with her son, and enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend Claire, a ghost among the living. While making his way to the center of the city, Garth is helped by a Nightmare, a skeletal horse, and the ghost of his grandfather, Cecil, who saves him from Vaugner's menacing bugs and knows he must get Garth back to the land of the living. Meanwhile, Vaugner hunts him, fearing that the boy has come to the afterlife to overthrow his rule.

There's a lot floating around Ghostopolis; an active mythology involving a Tuskegee Airman named Joe, the looming danger of Garth's real-life health issues, Vaugner's backstory and his grip over the many realms of the dead (including mummies, skeletons, spectors and goblins), Frank's relationship with Claire and his apathy regarding life in general. It's a lot to expect from only 266 pages, but the skill in TenNapel's work is that you never feel rushed, overwhelmed or cheated. I would have liked to know more about Joe and the work he does in the afterlife, but even his small space of story is enough to be clear and understood. The art goes a long way towards making this world relatable. Bold drawings and colors, alternating between light and darkness, give Ghostopolis depth, and TenNapel uses black and white panels to great effect in creating an emotional resonance.

I love recommending graphic novels, and not just to reluctant readers, though they are great for that purpose. I will put Raina Telgemeier's Smile in the hands on anyone who will let me. A graphic novel has just as much capacity for literary fullfillment as a traditional novel, and sometimes can offer even more. Ghostopolis is rich in both story and character and will make a great recommendation for fans of Goosebumps, ghost stories and more.

Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel
2010, Scholastic Graphix
Library copy

Monday, January 10, 2011

ALA Award Winners

Well, I knew something was stirring this year.  Something interesting was going to happen.  This morning’s announcement of the ALA Youth Media Awards was full of surprises, some welcome and some just a bit strange.

The Coretta Scott King Awards

I haven’t encountered either the Honor or the Medal winner for the Illustrator Award, but I have heard only good things about Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave (Laban Carrick Hill, ill. Bryan Collier), so I have no complaints here.  As for the Author awards, I’m obviously thrilled for One Crazy Summer (Rita Williams-Garcia) pulling out the win, and I’m happy that G. Neri’s Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty is getting some recognition with an Honor.

The Theodore Seuss Geisel Award

Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same! (Grace Lin) and We Are in a Book (Mo Willems) took away the Honors and Bink and Gollie (Kate DiCamillo and Allison McGhee, ill. Tony Fucile) the top award.  I made no predictions in this category, but I’m pleased as punch with the winners, each an exceptional book.  I’m also pleased to know that I already have all three books in my early reader collection already, having been some of the first books I ordered when I took my post as Children’s Librarian.

The Randolph Caldecott Award

This is the category where I go, “What?”  But I knew this was coming.  I couldn’t have predicted these three titles if my life depended on it, but I knew something wacky was afoot.  Coretta Scott King winner Dave the Potter earned itself an Honor, along with David Ezra Stein’s Interrupting Chicken.  That’s right, Interrupting Chicken, a book I don’t recall seeing on any Mock Caldecott lists or predictions.  It’s a book I didn’t particularly care for myself, so I find its inclusion here puzzling at best.  The Medal winner is A Sick Day for Amos McGee, written by Phillip Stead and illustrated by first timer Erin E. Stead, and it’s a worthy winner indeed, a sweet, gentle wisp of a tale that cannot but leave you smiling.  I’m happy with this win, but I am disappointed not to see City Dog, Country Frog mentioned anywhere.  It was my favorite picture book of the year.  What does Jon J. Muth have to do to win one of these suckers?

The John Newbery Award

And here I thought all the surprises were going to come from the Caldecott committee.  Silly Sharon.  One of my Caldecott Honor predictions, Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night (Joyce Sidman, ill. Rick Allen) shows up here as an Honor book, and my prediction for the Medal, One Crazy Summer picks up another shiny sticker with an Honor here.  An Honor for Heart of a Samurai (Margi Preus) is a surprise to me also, but nothing is more surprising to me than the Medal winner, Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest.  Like Interrupting Chicken, this is a title I haven’t seen in anyone’s predictions and I don’t think was on many people’s radar at all.  I haven’t read it yet myself (but you better believe it’s getting checked out first thing tomorrow morning), but I have a sneaking suspicion this may be more of a The Higher Power of Lucky type win than a When You Reach Me.

So that’s all she wrote.  My predictions were predictably off, but some wonderful books were named to some wonderful honors this morning, and for once, I actually got to watch the presentation live.  Yay for two inches of the snow on the ground and nowhere else I had to be.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Quickie Review - "The Sixty-Eight Rooms"

There’s magic in the extraordinary Thorne Rooms of the Art Institute of Chicago and in The Sixty-Eight Rooms by first time author Marianne Malone, best friends Jack and Ruthie find themselves exploring the miniature worlds inside each of the meticulously created rooms.  It’s an old fashioned kind of fantasy, with a little bit of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler added in for good measure.  There’s little to challenge the reader; everything is just a teeny bit too neat and squeaky clean, but Malone’s handling of the fantastic elements placed in her real world story is certainly entertaining.

The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone
2010, Random House
Library copy

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Newbery and Caldecott time

It's prediction time!  One of my most favorite times of the year.  Usually, my preditions are of the Oscar variety (I've won my local theatre's Oscar pool two years running), but the ALA awards deserve some attention too.

First of all, in full disclosure I have to admit I have only a slight understanding of what really makes the Newbery and Caldecott selection committees tick.  The Newbery medal is awarded to the "author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children".  Now, many people much smarter than me have grappled over this word, "distinguished".  What exactly, makes a book "distinguished"?  The last two year's winners, When You Reach Me, a genre-bending tale of twisted storylines mixed with a historical coming of age novel, and The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman's gothic not-a-ghost story are books that both children and adults responded to with passionate support.  Other recent winners, like The Higher Power of Lucky, strike me as the kind of literature adults think children should be reading, rather than anything they actually are.  The Caldecott medal is a little easier for me to understand.  Again, the official statement offers that tricky word, "distinguished", but spotting a masterfully made picture book is slightly less problematic.  (I tried writing that sentence in the least reductive way possible.  I don't think I succeeded.  Apologies.)  Last year's recipient, Jerry Pinkney's The Lion and the Mouse, was a win so "in the bag" that the bag was monogrammed.  This year's races for both awards have proved interesting to follow.

2011 Newbery Award
It seems this year I'm in agreement with Elizabeth Bird over at Fuse #8 (and many others, I'm sure), when I say I think Rita Williams-Garcia's One Crazy Summer will take home the prize.  The story of three sisters during the summer 1968 has already been shortlisted for the National Book Award (where it lost to Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird) and just won the Scott O'Dell award for Historical Fiction.  It's one of the only books I allowed myself time to re-read this past year, and one that I simply got lost in both times.  It's an effortless book, which can only mean some fierce effort must have gone into its making.  It also happens to boast one of my favorite book covers of the year; lush, but restrained, and one that just makes you smile, without really knowing why.  There is competition, including the aforementioned Mockingbird, but I just have a feeling about One Crazy Summer.  And that's how predictions usually work out for me.  With a feeling.

While there are, I think, a few books in the running for the medal, there's a whole slew of them in competition for the Honors.  Among the contenders are Sharon Draper's Out of My Mind (another personal pick of mine), Pam Munoz Ryan and Peter Sis' The Dreamer, Maryrose Wood's The Incorrible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling, Laurie Halse Anderson's Forge, Kathi Appelt's Keeper and Susan Campbell Bartoletti's They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group (though this might skew YA).

2011 Caldecott Award

This one I’ll admit is a complete shot in the dark.  This year’s field feels wide open to me, with new Mock Caldecott results yeilding new and surprising winners every day.  I don’t think what’s safe is safe this year.  Which is why I’m clamboring out on a limb and predicting Bink and Gollie, written by Allison McGhee and Kate DiCamillo and brilliantly illustrated by Tony Fucile.  Though it leans on the side of an early reader than a traditional picture book, it still uses illustration heavily in its storytelling.  This story of best friends finds much of its charm in Fucile’s nimble use of body language and scope (I keep thinking of the final image of the goldfish under the pond).

If I’m wrong about Bink and Gollie, and I probably am, any of these honor contenders could very well grab the big golden prize: My personal favorite of the year, City Dog, Country Frog, written by Mo Willems and illustrated by Jon J Muth; A Sick Day for Amos McGee, written by Phillip Stead and illustrated by Erin E. Stead; Art and Max by David Weisner; Knuffle Bunny Free by Mo Willems; Farm by Elisha Cooper; Children Make Terrible Pets by Peter Brown; Dark Emperor by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Rick Allen; and Big Red Lollipop by Rukshanna Kahn and illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Review - "The Candymakers"

Four children.  Four contestants.  Four chances to change the candy world.  This is what is offered to Miles, Daisy, Phillip and Logan when they are chosen to take part in the Confectionary Association's annual new candy contest.  A little bit of Willy Wonka and a little bit of The Mysterious Benedict Society, Wendy Mass' The Candymakers brings lightness and heart to the story of four very different kids and the chance of a lifetime.
            A lot of this lightness comes in the form of Mass' characters, starting with Logan Sweet, the Candymaker's son.  He's lived for his twelve short years at the Life is Sweet candy factory, where his father, like his grandfather before him, makes such delicious confections as the Gummysaurus Rex, Icy Mint Blobs and Neon Yellow Lightning Chews.  Logan is full of sweetness and humor, and a natural charm that makes him a friend to all those around him.  He also has a way with candy.  He can charm the bees in the beehive, knows individual ingredients by taste and can even determine the color and type of chocolate by touch.  His dream is to win the new candy contest with a revolutionary product called the Bubbletastic ChocoRocket, the "first candy in history to turn from chocolate to gum...and back again."  Joining Logan at Life is Sweet are Miles O'Leary, who talks knowledgably of the afterlife and is allergic to pancakes and the color pink, Daisy Carpenter, who wears mismatched socks and rides a horse to the factory and Phillip Ransford III, who comes dressed for business and never eats candy.  It rots your teeth.
            In The Candymakers each of the four is given a segment, and the first two days are seen through each of their eyes.  This allows for a distinctive experience, and a delayed release of information that proves very effective in proving the old adage true.  Things really are rarely what they seem.  I found a one revelation about Logan when seen through the eyes of another to be particularly moving, and felt just the faintest touch of the author's presence that made me think back on Logan's segment with an altered mindset.  There is also a bit of a genre blending that threw me for a loop at first.  I wasn’t sure if I liked the change, the intrusion into my sweet story of something fantastic and a little hard.  But the change grew on me, just as the character’s truth and innate worthiness grew on me.
            I don’t quite know what to make of Wendy Mass.  Of her books that I have read, not one is like the other.  She’s a bit of a wild card to me, and I never know what to expect, except for beautifully drawn characters thrown into some kind of unexpected venture.  The Candymakers is no different.  Four complicated, unique children running wild in a candy store is a great start to an adventure, and Mass expertly navigates everyone through mysteries, mistaken identities, corporate conspiracies and lots and lots of candy.

The Candymakers by Wendy Mass
2010, Little, Brown and Company
Library copy

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Review - "Girl's Best Friend - a Maggie Brooklyn Mystery"

Mysteries, in general, have never been my thing.  I read a little Agatha Christie, a little Encyclopedia Brown, and of course Nancy Drew, but the search for hidden clues was never as interesting to me as hidden Easter eggs (the real kind, not the DVD variety).  I have had kids come to me asking for a good mystery, and for a long time, I had a very short reference list.  The aforementioned Mr. Brown, “The Westing Game”, and for fun, Geronimo Stilton.  But things have changed lately, and a group of smart, intrepid and funny young ladies have come to my attention.   First came Flavia du Luce, the irrepressible star of a series of novels by Alan Bradley.  Then I discovered a group of middle grade sleuths in The Red Blazer Girls by Michael Beil and Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes mysteries (Enola being the much younger sister of the famed Sherlock).  Now Leslie Margolis has brought forward Maggie Brooklyn, a young lady on the move in her namesake borough.  In Girl’s Best Friend, Maggie must help rescue a missing pet, uncover the truth behind her landlady’s odd behavior and solve the biggest riddle of them all, boys.
                Maggie is a twin, and she and her brother share a room in their brownstone apartment in Brooklyn.  Maggie also loves dogs, but because of her brother’s allergy, cannot have one of her own.  So she starts, almost by accident, a small dog walking business in her neighborhood.  Yes, she’s keeping it a secret from her parents and hiding her earnings in a secret box behind the fireplace, but at least she’s keeping her grades up.  At her 12th birthday party, she catches former best friend Ivy trying to steal some of her hard earned cash, and discovers that Ivy’s beloved Lab/Dalmatian mix, Kermit, has been dognapped and is being held for ransom.  Maggie promises to help get the dog back, for Kermit’s sake, if not for Ivy’s, and along the way finds a network of missing dogs and a dodgy dog-walker named Jane.               
It’s a tricky thing, reading a middle grade mystery as an adult.  I’m always wondering if clues that may seem obvious to a grown up might be more puzzling to a book intended audience (this is partially why I enjoy both the Red Blazer tales and Enola Holmes, as both of these series involve puzzles and ciphers that, while solvable, present at least a little work to be done for any reader).  Thankfully, Margolis has layered her mysteries with plenty of hints and red herrings, so that even the sharpest detective of any age will have a few surprises.
The best thing Margolis has always brought to the table is her characters, and her truthful capturing of a pre-teen spirit.  With Maggie, Margolis has a young lady who is clever, funny and a tad unsure of herself, as any 12-year-old would be.  She worries about talking to boys, the dress code at her own party, and calling her former 3rd grade teacher by her first name, which just feels weird.  She’s a real girl, and a real girl really worth the effort of getting to know.

Girl’s Best Friend: a Maggie Brooklyn Mystery by Leslie Margolis
2010, Bloomsbury
Library copy

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Best of 2010

I’m a list person.  I love my lists, I love ranking things and then re-ranking them months later after time and rethinking.  Lists are beautiful things.  On to my favorites of the year!

Picture Books

10. Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse - by Marilyn Singer, ill. Josee Masse
09. A Pig Parade is a Terrible Idea - by Michael Ian Black, ill. Kevin Hawkes
08. Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes - by Eric Litwin, ill. James Dean
07. Big Red Lollipop - by Rukshana Khan, ill. Sophie Blackall
06. Cooking with Henry and Elliebelly - Carolyn Parkhurst, ill. Dan Yaccarino
05. Knuffle Bunny Free - by Mo Willems
04. Children Make Terrible Pets - by Peter Brown
03. Wanted: The Perfect Pet - by Fiona Roberton
02. A Sick Day for Amos McGee - by Philip Christian Stead, ill. Erin E. Stead
01. City Dog, Country Frog - by Mo Willems, ill. Jon J. Muth

I have long been a Mo Willems fan, and this year the man provided his readers with an embarassment of riches.  Knuffle Bunny Free, the final installment in the trilogy inspired by his daughter Trixie, continues Willems' love letter to children and their toys, with a special coda for parents who are watching their own children grow before their eyes.  It is City Dog, Country Frog, however, where Willems really makes a departure.  Working for the first time with another illustrator, Jon J. Muth (he of the gorgeous watercolors), Willems crafts a simple, seasonal fable of friendship.  Willems' spare text marries beautifully with Muth's vibrant illustrations to bring to life the unlikely friends of dog and frog in a way that could bring a tear to even the most cynical eye.

Honorable Mentions: Dog Loves Books by Louise Yates, Farm by Elisha Cooper, Art & Max by David Wiesner, It's Christmas, David by David Shannon, The Boss Baby by Marla Frazee, Miss Brooks Loves Books! (and I don't) by Barbara Bottner (ill. Michael Emberley) and Mr. Putney's Quacking Dog by Jon Agee

Middle Grade Fiction

10. The Grimm Legacy - by Polly Shulman
09. The Strange Case of Origami Yoda - by Tom Angleberger
08. Turtle in Paradise - by Jennifer Holm
07. Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty - by Greg Neri, ill. Randy DeBurke
06. The Popularity Papers: Reaserch for the Social Improvement and General Betterment of Lydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang - by Amy Ignatow
05. The Incorrible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling - by Maryrose Wood
04. Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze - by Alan Silberberg
03. One Crazy Summer - by Rita Williams-Garcia
02. Out of My Mind - by Sharon Draper
01. Smile - by Raina Telgemeier

Smile, by Raina Telgemeier, was the first and only book of 2010 that I reread the instant I finished it.  At the same time both a very personal memoir and the fictionalized, humorous story of a girl named Raina and her dental and middle school misadventures.  There is heart and soul at work here, an exploration of braces, fremenies, dreams, dorkiness and boys.  Amidst it’s brightly colored pages, this graphic novel delivers an honest realism that most middle grade novels would give their endpapers to have.  This is a book I have seen given as a gift, spoken of in gleeful voices, and devoured in one sitting by girls tucked away in the corner of the bookstore.  It is a book that will become a standard, a shared memory of adolescence to be passed around and enjoyed for years to come.  It can be this generation’s Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret.  There, I said it.  And I stand by it.

Honorable Mentions: Dragonbreath: Attack of the Ninja Frogs by Ursula Vernon, Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord, The Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh, A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan (ill. Peter Sis)

For these categories, I didn’t read enough to make a decent ranked list, so here's a simple listing of some of my favorites.

Notable Non-Fiction

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring - by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, ill. Brian Floca
How the Sphinx Got to the Museum - by Jessie Hartland
Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya - by Donna Jo Napoli, ill. Kadir Nelson
My Uncle Martin's Big Heart - Angela Farris Watkins, ill. Eric Velasquez
She Sang Promise: The Story of Betty Mae Jumper, Seminole Tribal Leader - by J.G. Annino
Sir Charlie - by Sid Fleischman

Notable Early Readers

Bink and Gollie - by Allison McGee and Kate DiCamillo, ill. Tony Fucile
Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same - by Grace Lin
Lulu and the Brontosaurus – by Judith Viorst
Time to Sleep, Sheep the Sheep - by Mo Willems
We Are in a Book - by Mo Willems

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Here goes nothing...

Why do I love books?  I suppose that is the primary question, and one to which I don’t know if I have a satisfactory answer.  I love them because they’re books, and in being so, are everything.  I have lived my entire life around books.  My parents are both book people.  Their parents were all book people.  When I was a baby, I was put to bed with cloth books so that I would always wake up with a book.  I was read to incessantly, everything from Goodnight Moon to the daily paper.  Before I even knew how to write, I was filling up blank journals with drawn out stories inspired by my favorite tales (and a few video games, I’ll admit).  The older I got, the more drawn to books I became.  I developed love affairs with the wonderful worlds of Oz, the March sisters, hobbits, a club of babysitters and some sleepover friends.  I would read anything.
                In school I studied film, always loving to poke at the relationship between books and film; the science of adaptation, I called it.  But always, there were books, more books than I could ever actually read.  Used bookstores were my best friends.  New York City’s famous Strand bookstore was nearly my economic downfall.  When I left school, I went to work in a bookstore, and slowly my career passion began to evolve.  At first, all I knew was this: there must be books.  Then came the children.  There must be children.  And so I spent several years as a children’s bookseller at a large retailer.  It wasn’t the ideal job, but it kept me in the company of children whom I could inspire to read, and it kept me in books.  And it kept me thinking, always thinking, about that relentless question: what do you want to be when you grow up?  Last year, I finally found myself an answer.
                I wanted to be a children’s librarian.  So simple, I can’t believe it took me so long to think of it.  Plans were began, schools were scouted, then life stomped its angry feet, and health issues put everything on hold.  2010 was looking like the biggest disappointment, the wrecker of hopes and dreams, when the perfect opportunity all but fell in my lap.  A position for Children’s Services Librarian opened up at my local public library, and I jumped for it before I’d even known my feet were moving.  For once, luck was on my side, and 2010 turned out to have some happiness for me yet.  I got the job, and moved into a new working life.  Returning to school is back on the menu, and suddenly my options are open again.
                So why do I love books?  Too many reasons to name really.  I love books because there are at the root of all things.  They contain all things, explain all things, escape all things.  There are worlds inside, ancient, fantastic and eternal, and the future, too.  My future.  Books have shaped my life, and in 2010, they gave me back my life.  What’s not to love about that?