Monday, February 28, 2011

And the winner is...

It was a battle of the picture books last night at the Oscars, and author Shaun Tan came out the winner.  At last night’s ceremony, he, along with co-director Andrew Ruhemann, collected the prized statuette for Best Animated Short Film for their work The Lost Thing, based on Tan’s book of the same name.  Tan and Ruhemann beat out fellow nominee, The Gruffalo, based on the beloved storybook by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.  Personally, I would have given the award to The Gruffalo, which did its source proud with a loving adaptation and some very nice voice work, especially from James Corden as the mouse and Robbie Coltrane as the Gruffalo.  But The Lost Thing is a worthy winner, taking Tan’s rich imagination and bringing it to life with delicate animation.  It was a good year to be a children’s author at the Oscars. J

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Public

The problem of working with the public is quite often the public themselves.  I’ve been very lucky thus far in that I haven’t had too many angry patron episodes, and those few that I have had were computer related, i.e. the patron didn’t understand, agree with, or wish to follow my library’s internet usage rules (some of which are federal rules, which I really have no control over).  I’m sure part of my luck has to do with my general wimpiness when it comes to confrontation.  I really need to work on my courage when asking patrons not to use their cell phones in the library, or to manage their unattended children.  I’m better with the children problem than the cell phones.  I just can’t bear to interrupt someone talking on their phone to tell them they can’t be talking on their phone.  There’s got to be a good balance between good manners and doing my job.

Another problem I have with patrons is lateness.  I know people have busy lives, and I appreciate it every time when they take the time to come to my events.  But it kills me when I have parents bringing their kids in five, ten minutes late for a storytime or a music class.  For one thing, it’s distracting to me the reader and to all the listeners when someone new crams into the circle or drags a chair across the floor to have a seat.  It’s also rude, and rudeness is one of my pet peeves (which you might have guessed from my inability to interrupt rude cell phone people).  I have one particular pair that is almost ten minutes late every week to a half-hour class.  I’m not sure how to confront this problem, however.  I don’t want to further interrupt myself or the program by calling attention to the latecomers, and I wouldn’t know what to say to them afterwards to improve the situation.   If there’s anyone out there reading who has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Quickie Reviews - "The Kneebone Boy" and "Hereville"

The Kneebone Boy:  To a point, it’s a fairly good adventure story (and as one character points out, you should definitely have at least one adventure before you’re too old).  It has danger, mystery and enough quirk to be funny without being captial Q quirky.  I enjoyed the characters quite a bit as well, especially Lucia, but the eleventh hour plot twist was really too much for me to swallow. Both too neat and too messy, it strained credulity and was quite frankly too heartbreaking for the book that contained it.  Cracking good cover, though.

The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter
2010, Feiwel & Friends
Library copy

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword: “Yet Antoher Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl”.  What graphic novcel could possibly live up to a byline like that?  Well, this one does.  Mirka is a joy of a character, stubborn and adventurous, living in a religious family in an almost exclusively Jewish town.  She fantasizes about fighting dragons, acutally fights bullies and occasionally members of her own family, has a drawn out rivalry with a magical pig and faces the final challenge of defeating a troll to win her treasured sword.  If any of this sounds just a little weird, it should.  This is surely one of the oddest books I’ve read recently, but I loved every page.  The dynamics of Mirka’s family and Mirka’s own individualism come across beautifully.  The art is detailed and captivating (the aforementional fight with the pig is extraordinarily drawn) and is essential to the success of the story.  I can’t imagine this book flying as a novel.   But as a graphic novel it is brilliant, and I certainly hope there will be more where this came from.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch
2010, Amulet Books
Library copy

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Backlist files - "Waiting for Normal"

One of my favorite film performances of all time is Giulietta Masina in the Fellini film Nights at Cabiria.  In it, Masina plays a woman of the night with terrible luck but a persistent good temper that keeps her afloat even after the worst of situations.  I thought about that film a lot reading Leslie Connor’s Waiting for Normal.  I couldn’t believe how much, well, crap our heroine Addie had to endure, most of which she does with a buoyant spirit.  She has her breaking point, of course, but it comes so late, after so much woe that any normal person would have cracked.  But that is the beauty of Addie and Waiting for Normal.  Addie isn’t a normal young girl.  She wants normal things, a home, a family, etc, but her attitude towards life is wholly extraordinary, but at the same time, believable.  I had no problem accepting that a girl who has had to fend for herself so much who excuse or ignore the inadequacies of her mother, because at heart Addie loves her mother, criminal neglect and all.  And the love of a twelve year old girl is a powerful thing.  I admire how Connor chose to end her novel.  It’s a happy ending with a “but” hanging overhead.  Not low enough to be overwhelming, but enough to be there, a real presence in Addie’s life forever.  I thoroughly enjoyed spending my time with Addie, and I can’t wait to read more of Connor’s work.  I have Crunch at the library now, and I’ll have to check it out soon.

Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor
2008, Katherine Tegan Books
Library copy

Monday, February 21, 2011

Review - "They Called Themselves the K.K.K."

I am a Southern girl, born and bred.  With the exception of four years of college spent in New York City, I have lived my entire life in middle Tennessee.  As such, there is a certain shared history that I have experienced with regards to the Civil War, what preceded it and what followed.  I have known from an early age that the "Lost Cause" is alive and well, and the longing for "the way things were" still survives.  Most of what I have experienced of this has been relatively harmless, but the specter of harmful things looms large as well.  Off of interstate I-65, on a route I traveled often in high school, is a large, grandiose statue honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, and never once did I pass this (aesthetically hideous) display without a shiver going down my spine.  I have never knowingly encountered a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but odds are I strong I have walked in their midst (of a sympathizer at least) at one point in my life without being aware.  This is why I was particularly drawn to Susan Campbell Bartoletti's They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group.  This was part of my cultural history, and I wanted to know more about it.

To start with, Bartoletti's text is meticulously researched.  Whenever possible she has cited firsthand accounts and made no effort to censor them.  This makes for some very uncomfortable reading at times (though I often thought it could have been much worse), but the book is all the better for it.  Bartoletti starts with the ending of the war and quickly moves into the group of six Confederate officers in Pulaski, Tennessee who took to meeting together and one day decided, "Boys, let us get up a club or society".  From these words, the K.K.K. was born.  The book then follows the evolution of the Klan from the one den in Tennessee to the out of control renegade force that swept across the South.  Tales of intimidation, violence and murder against freed men and women as well as teachers, preachers, and Republicans take up much of the text.  There was the story of William Luke, a white man who taught black railroad workers and their families.  Luke, recognizing the terror that was spreading, bought pistols and sold them to freedmen.  He was later abducted by Klansmen and hanged.  There is also the story of Elias Hill, a black preacher who suffered years of abuse and intimidation before boarding a ship bound for Liberia in 1871.  Bartoletti also uses accounts from the Slave Narratives, collected in the 1930s to punctuate her stories, offering more firsthand accounts of the lives of former slaves.

I've studied enough of American history to know a few details of the Klan's 20th century dealings.  I know all about Thomas Dixon's novel, The Clansmen, and how it was praised by President Truman and made into the groundbreaking and staggeringly racist film Birth of a Nation, directed by D.W. Griffith.  I know about Jim Crow laws, "separate but equal" and the violence that grew throughout the nation.  But my historical education was lacking when it came to the birth of the organization that inspired so much terror.  My history books often had only a few passing sentences to spare in their treatment of Reconstruction, but I do believe it is important to know where and how such things begin.  Bartoletti includes a picture of the statue dedicated to Nathan Bedford Forrest (which stands on private land) in her source notes, a reminder that the past is present with us always.  Even now there is debate over a proposed license plate honoring the man who was an early Klan leader in Mississippi.  Bartoletti has done us all a great service in giving us this well researched, gripping book.  It is not an easy read, but a worthwhile one.

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
2010, Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
Library copy

Friday, February 18, 2011

Review - "Won Ton" and "When Martha's Away"

Further confession time.  I'm a cat person. A deep down to the bone cat person.  I have one of my own named Molly, a particularly clingy little thing with a Pavlovian relationship to "Jeopardy!" (The Final Jeopardy ding signals to her that it's dinner time).  I wonder all the time what cat thoughts are running around her pretty little cat head, but know that such is the mystery of catdom.  I will never know for sure.  Two new books on shelves now try to delve into this mystery of mysteries, Won Ton:  A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw (ill. Eugene Yelchin) and When Martha's Away by Bruce Ingman.

Won Ton is actually a tale told in senryu, a variation of haiku of deals with human nature, or as the Wardlaw points out, cat nature.  Here is the story of a cautious shelter cat who is chosen by a boy who can "rub my chin just right".  The cat may act cool, but really wants to be taken home.  He is named Won Ton, though he teases "Some day, I'll tell you my real name.  Maybe."  Won Ton learns about his new home, new food, new playtime and new naptime.  Wardlow and Yelchin have cats down pat with this charming book.  Clever phrases like "Letmeinletmeinletmeinletmein.  Wait - let me back out!" and "I explained it loud and clear.  What part of "meow" don't you understand?" are not only funny, but pure cat as well.  And Yelchin's beautiful, angular illustrations perfectly express the attitude of Won Ton, captured in all his modes of cat-ness: yawning, stretching, sleeping, hissing, cleaning and the inevitable 'dressed-in-doll-clothes' look that every cat in a home with children must one day endure.  This is a book I'm already planning on sharing for storytime, and one I can envision reading over and over again.  The haiku structure has a timeless feel to it, and a quaintness, which I mean in the best possible way.  It is not a book full of substance, but is light and uncomplicated, and downright lovely.

Bruce Ingman's When Martha's Away is another title that peaks behind the curtain of cat life.  Originally published in 1995, this is the story of Lionel who has some secrets to tell to his owner.  When she goes off to school, his schedule is packed full, and not just with catnaps.  Lionel reads the newspaper, works out, watches television, chats to his cousin Albert on the phone and even gives bravura piano performances.  When he hears the gate outside, however, he "dashes" back to the couch and pretends to be sleeping.  Ingman's book is presented as a confessional.  Lionel is addressing Martha directly ("Sometimes I play with your toys"), and this familiarity makes it a very cozy book, despite the crazy things Lionel does.  The illustrations here are not going for realism, but instead a humorous fantasy.  Imagine, if you will, a striped ginger cat wearing a blue helmet driving a car around a little girl's bedroom.  I think you get the idea.  The very grown-up secret life Lionel leads gave me a good chuckle or two, and though some of the jokes might go over a child's head, I can see many children having fun with Lionel's antics as well.

Now I'm really starting to wonder what my Molly gets up to when I'm away.  She's a clever one.  I may need to start looking more closely at my cable bill.

Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw (ill. Eugene Yelchin)
2011, Henry Holt and Co.
Library copy

When Martha’s Away by Bruce Ingman
2011, Candlewick Press
Library copy

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review - "Heart of a Samurai"

Historical fiction was always a favorite genre of mine growing up.  I loved reading about bygone days and the people who lived them.  This has grown over the years into a love of historical film as well.  After reading Margi Preus’ Heart of a Samurai, I can’t believe someone hasn’t made a film about this story yet.  It seems right up Ed Zwick’s alley.  A young Japanese man named Manjiro is stranded with his fellow fisherman after a storm is rescued by an American whaling ship, and after several years at sea, Manjiro returns with the ship to New Bedford, Massachusetts and becomes quite possibly the first Japanese person to set foot in America.  Now granted, there are some things I can see holding back a film adaptation; finding an actor to portray Manjiro from the age of fourteen into his twenties would be tricky, and sea-faring films aren’t exactly ripping up the screen these days.  But the story is too good to pass up, and I can hope that the success of Preus’ book might help bring this exciting story to theatres.

For starters, Manjiro’s tale is packed with everything a good story needs, and Preus has really done a beautiful job at rendering it on the page.  There’s action in life aboard the whaling ship, drama in the prejudices Manjiro faces, both in American and when he returns to Japan, comedic elements in a classic fish out of water story and a prevailing sense of hope, wonder and adventure.  There’s even a little bit of a first love story going on, capping with a May Day festivity that the Author’s note reveals is a true event from Manjiro’s life.  The detail of everything is fantastic.  Clearly Preus has done her homework, and the research shows.  The book is illustrated by Manjiro’s own pencil drawings, of everything from whales to the floor plans of Captain Whitfield’s farm house where he makes his home for much of his time in America.  Even the details and characters that were fabricated for dramatic effect fit seamlessly into the framework of history.  Characters like Jolly and Tom, created as foils to showcase the discrimination Manjiro finds on the whaling ship and at school, are not one-dimensional villains, but have their layers and complexities.

I maintain my assertion that Manjiro’s life, or Heart of a Samurai specifically, would make an excellent film.  His life after the events of the book are just as interesting, though I understand why the author chose to end the novel where she did, at a turning point, a point where all things might be possible.  One of the greatest things I can say about a book of historical fiction is that it made me want to learn more, read more.  Almost immediately after finishing Heart of a Samurai, I pulled out my e-reader and started searching for some of the titles listed in Preus’ bibliography.  But mostly, I’m excited to read more from first timer Preus.  With a Newbery Honor on her first time out, she clearly has a bright future ahead of her.

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus
2010, Amulet Books
Library copy

Monday, February 14, 2011

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

What more can be said about Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series?  It has enjoyed enormous popularity, and nearly every day I have children, girls and boys, asking me for the Wimpy Kid books, happy to get their hands on whatever I have on the shelf.  I have encountered parents that despise the books and parents that are thrilled their child is reading anything at all.  It’s a similar reaction I get to the Captain Underpants series, books which I personally think are kind of clever, in a very immature kind of way.  For both series, I’m staunchly on the side of “whatever gets them excited about reading”, and Wimpy Kid has certainly accomplished that task.

The newest, and possibly penultimate, volume in the series, The Ugly Truth has a few problems, but a few really good, laugh-out-loud laughs as well.  One of the main problems is there’s too much Greg Heffley, which seems weird because it’s his diary, but there you go.  Greg is currently out one best friend, as he hasn’t patched things up with former BFF Rowley (he’s waiting for Rowley to “come crawling back”) just yet, and can’t decide upon a suitable replacement.  It also seems like there’s less of Greg’s family, especially his brother Rodrick.  So it’s a lot of Greg.  Luckily, Greg has a lot to face this year in school, what with boy/girl parties, health class that required a permission slip, Uncle Gary’s wedding (again) and the threat of having “the talk” with his 95-year-old Gammie.  There was plenty of confusion, pranks, pratfalls and downright silliness to keep me entertained for the hour.  If there is to be another volume, or three, or four, I say, let them come.  Every child who comes into the library asking for Wimpy Kid is another child I can try and talk into Alvin Ho as well, and that is a good thing. J

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Social Self

I have debated back and forth with myself how personal to be with this blog.  I am not by nature a social networking kind of gal.  I don’t use Twitter, I use Facebook rarely, and my few online friends know they’ll only hear from me every once and a while.  This does not stem from my desire for privacy, or (I hope) a lack of social skills, but instead from a lack of enthusiasm about sharing or recording my daily life.  I have never steadily kept a diary, nor do I feel the need to do so.  I have a journal that I keep near my bed to record absolutely necessary thoughts, recollections or dreams, but it is rarely used.

Why then, did I start a blog?  The desire to blog came mostly from a need to practice writing.  I intend to go back to school this fall, and having been out of school for six years, I am out of the habit of writing and need to sharpen up.  I figured that writing a book review blog would give me the practice I need, both in writing skills and in simple dedication to a semi-daily task.  But I also know that to be a successful blogger, I need to be forthcoming and inviting, so I have decided to try.  I can’t promise much, but I will try.

Being a librarian hasn’t been my dream for very long, but once it came about, it took hold and became a very powerful dream.  Now that I am a librarian (even though I lack the masters degree), I still find myself settling in to the role.  Parts of it are as natural as can be.  Those would mainly be the children parts.  Storytime is the most fun I can have at work.  I love picking out books, planning crafts, and I love reading to children, even when they’re not all paying attention.  It’s a performance thing.  I used to be terrible at speaking in public.  My college presentations were disastrous at times.  But once I started reading to children, all that fear and uncertainty starting washing away.  I still get nervous from time to time, but I love it more and more each time.  I love helping a child find a book.  Yesterday, I helped a young patron track down a Star Wars book, and when I handed it to him, the look on his face would have made the Grinch’s too-small heart melt.  He literally hugged the book.  I wanted to hug him too, but his mother was standing behind him, and I thought better of it.  I’ve been helping another young man with a homework assignment this week (he got lucky with a few snow days, or I don’t think he would have finished in time), and it’s been great interacting with him, teaching him how to use the computer to search for what he needs, and getting him to tell me all about his story for school.  These things I honestly love doing.

What I don’t love doing so much generally involves the parents, or other adult patrons.  I’m still timid when I have to tell someone they can’t do something, which generally involves a computer, and I can rarely pluck up the courage to interrupt patrons on their cell phone and tell them to take it outside, that cell phones aren’t allowed in the library.  One day, perhaps, but I think I’ll always be a little bit meek in that department.  It’s partly the way I was raised, respect your elders, don’t interrupt, etc.  Already angry patrons I can deal with better, thanks to years of retail experience dealing with angry customers.  The key is to keep smiling and apologize, even when nothing is remotely your fault, which is a little disheartening if you think about it too much, but I try not to.

One of these days I’ll get my spine in better shape to stick up for myself and library rules, but for now, I’ll content myself that if the kids like me, I’m doing my job.  And I can honestly say I love my job.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Review - "Scumble"

Being thirteen is fraught with danger.  Boys, girls, teachers, homework, bullies, parents, vengeful body chemistry.  It’s a minefield.  And middle grade literature is overflowing with books that take all the awkwardness and uncertainty of adolescence and funnel them into fiction to help you through the years.  There’s realistic fiction like Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? and then there are books that take the fantastic road, using magic, mystery and the supernatural as a background to all the teenage/tweenage angst.  These are books like Wendy Mass’ Finally, a novel in which a newly minted twelve-year-old Rory finally gets all the things she’s been waiting for, to disastrous results, and Louis Sachar’s Holes, which takes hapless Stanley Yelnats on a journey to discover the magic of his past and the possibility of his future.  Even the “X-Men” comic book series has been exploring the road bumps of youth through uncanny powers for over forty years.  In a similar vein comes Ingrid Law and Scumble, a companion to her Newbery honor book, Savvy.

It’s hard enough being thirteen without also having a savvy to deal with, a supernatural talent that manifests itself on that first teenage birthday, but that’s just what Ledger Kale faces after when his savvy makes itself known by breaking apart machinery into all its smallest parts.  And things only get worse.  Ledge goes from dismantling stopwatches and windshield wipers to totaling a vintage Harley Knucklehead motorcycle outside a gas station, all by accident.  But worse still is not the destruction, but Sarah Jane Cabot, an investigative girl who witnesses Ledge’s destruction and stows away in the family van as the Kales travel to a wedding, hoping to find more unusual occurrences to put in her self-made newspaper, “The Sundance Scuttlebutt”.  After a disastrous end to the wedding celebration, Ledge and his little sister Fedora are left at the Flying Cattleheart, a family ranch, until he learns to scumble, or control, his savvy.  With the weight of a savvy he doesn’t want or understand, the burden of protecting a family secret from nosy neighbor Sarah Jane and the task of retrieving a treasured family heirloom, it’s no wonder that Ledge gets overwhelmed.

With Savvy, Law had the perfect mixture of other-worldly and ordinary, and with Scumble she has come very close to that level.  Ledger is a likeable hero, with self doubts that everyone can relate to, and even the clumsy among us can understand his destructive-at-first savvy.  Law handles all of Ledge’s frustration and exasperation with a steady hand; though he “cusses” often, he’s not a bad boy.  There’s a good heart beating at his core, one that keeps him on the straight and narrow, even when he’s walking the line of breaking the rules.  The supporting cast offers its own treasures in Ledge’s cousins and his uncle Autry, the bug charmer.  But Ledge is the star of the show, and it is his journey and his successes that we ultimately celebrate.  I enjoyed the ride, and was with Ledge every step of the way.  Here’s hoping Law has more stories of savvy to share with the world.

Scumble by Ingrid Law
2010, Dial Books
Library copy

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Review - "Jane'

Remakes, these days, are all the rage.  Whether it's Hollywood plumbing its back catalogue for the next big thing, or authors going to the classics to create new and weird combinations of vampires and werewolves and demons, the past is always coming back.  Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austen in general have enjoyed a wealth of adaptations and re-imaginings, aimed at both adult and young adult audiences.  It was only a matter of time for the Bronte sisters got into the act.  It is into this atmosphere that April Lindner brings Jane, a modern retelling of Jane Eyre.

Jane Moore is by all accounts, a plain, hardworking, straightforward young woman of nineteen.  She is a student at Sarah Lawrence when her parents are killed in an accident, leaving Jane with little to no money, no way to pay her tuition, and very few options.  The practical Jane decides to get a job, and is placed by Discriminating Nannies, Inc. in the home of Nico Rathburn, a rock star poised on the edge of a comeback, with a colorful past and a young daughter.  Jane immediately takes to her new life at Thornfield Park.  She spends most of her time with her young charge, Maddy, and her free time with her watercolors.  That is, until the mysterious Mr. Rathburn returns home and turns Jane's life upside down.  From here the books follows a very basic outline of Charlotte Bronte's classic, with Jane becoming more and more involved in the life of her employer, and more and more drawn in to the mysteries of Thornfield Park.

I have to confess that I've never been the biggest Bronte family fan.  This is mainly due to my complete disregard for Wuthering Heights (two of the worst people ever do not inspire a great love story for me), and unfortunately Jane Eyre gets pulled down with the wreckage.  I need to go back and revisit the original work, and one of the best things I can say about Jane, is that it has inspired me to do so.  Lindner has done a very good job in recreating a character for a modern reader.  I rather admired Jane's sensibility, her "plainness" and her level head.  These admirable qualities could have made her a dull portrait, but I didn’t find her so.  She was layered enough and steady enough to be both exciting and reliable.  And quite frankly, when you’re opposite a character has unsteady and Rathburn, our Mr. Rochester.  Rathburn is occasionally gloomy and prone to anger, but Lindner has also given him a softer side, the side that loves his daughter and recognizes a welcome spirit in Jane from their first meeting.

My one real issue with Jane is the age difference between our romantic pairing.  In a modern context, young Jane with an older Rathburn comes off as a little creepy.  Jane is no innocent doe, but her youth gives Rathburn’s attention just the slightest air of impropriety.  “Forbidden romance” is the way the book promotion has put it, but to me it’s just a little off.  But this one little quibble aside, I quite enjoyed Jane.  It’s got romance and mystery and the blessing of one of the best novel structures ever.  Now if only ever Jane Eyre take off could be this good, I’d be a happy girl.

Book Trailer:

Jane by April Lindner
2010, Poppy
Library copy

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

American Girls

I have a confession to make.  I was an American Girl.  In my youth, I devoured the American Girl series books, and I owned many of the dolls, gifts from my grandmother on birthdays and Christmases.  Samantha was my favorite doll, because she was the first.  I even have a vague memory of taking her to church with my one morning.  Of the books, I loved Addy’s story the most, because hers had the greatest drama, the struggle from slavery to freedom.  Even then, I loved a little meat on the bones.  When I was a bookseller, I ran an American Girl book club for young girls, and I loved researching the time periods and coming up with fun activities for us to do together.  When we talked about Kaya, the Nez Perce Native American Girl, we talked together for nearly an hour about Nez Perce culture and history and we learned some Indian sign language.  For our session about Rebecca, the newest historical girl in the series, I pulled out the television set and showed the girls some silent films from 1914, which satisfied the film geek in me and entertained the girls.

Kanani Akina is the 2011 American Girl of the Year, and along with the trademark doll comes two books, Aloha, Kanani and Good Job, Kanani.  Her story takes place on the island of Kaua’i in Hawai’i, in the small town of Waipuna.  For one month in the summer, she’s going to be host to her cousin Rachel from New York, and she’s determined to make her feel welcome.  Unfortunately, when Rachel arrives, she doesn’t seem to fit in to Hawaiian life.  She tells Kanani all about the fancy places she visits in New York, she doesn’t want to go in the ocean, and she spends a lot of time alone.  In Good Job, Kanani, Kanani tries to help the endangered monk seal by working her parents’ shave ice stand to raise money to print up posters, but ends up fighting with her best friend Celina, who wants to spend more time surfing.  In typical American Girl fashion, both problems are solved by story’s end, in a way that is sensitive to all the girls’ feelings, supports environmental responsibility and the spirit of good, clean fun.

American Girl as a brand is a little tricky for me.  On the one hand, there is the money-making side of the company, the overpriced dolls and clothes and furniture and little add-ons to buy online or through their catalogue.  There’s even the line of American Girl stores, which feature doll hair salons and cafes and special party packages, all designed to bring in the dough.  On the other hand, you have a company that has been dedicated to teaching good qualities to young girls for twenty-five years.  Each American Girl story nowadays, including Kanani’s, can be guaranteed to encourage friendship, understanding, community outreach and physical activity.  American Girl also prints non-fiction books geared towards helping girls deal with bullies, divorce, money and a myriad of other topics.  They also publish one of the best “you and your body” books for young girls on the market today: The Care and Keeping of You.  So despite big-corporation misgivings, I’ve always given American Girl the benefit of the doubt, and will continue to do so.  I think the good that is spread through the books and activities outweigh the bad you might find.

Aloha, Kanani and Good Job, Kanai by Lisa Yee
2011, American Girl
Library copies

Monday, February 7, 2011

Review - "Cat Secrets"

Every cat owner, all over the world, will tell you cats have secrets. This is true. They taunt us with their secrets with their tales in the air and their knowing eyes (when they're open). Every morning when I open my eyes, and my cat's eager, hungry face is the first thing I see (usually only inches away), I know what she's thinking. Food, please. But other times her furry little face is full of mystery and I can't fathom what goes through her mind. Moods like this generally involve running pell-mell around the house, attacking great big patches of carpet for no reason and staring out the window, looking for some unseen intruder.
Jef Czekaj has tapped into this great fount of the unknown with Cat Secrets. In it, three adorable felines, including one with glasses, literally hold the book full of trade secrets. But wait! We are warned to stay away if we are not a cat. This means no boys, girls, snakes, dogs or fish, and especially no mice. This book is for cats only, understand? After some conferring amongst themselves, the cats decide that "someone other than a cat may be reading this book". Clearly, this is unacceptable. The cats then test the audience on their cat-ness. Do you meow like a cat? Purr? Can you stretch like a cat? As the cats are busy testing our worthiness, a little mouse sneaks in and makes a few plays for the book of cat secrets. And when the cats set their final test, taking cat naps, they succumb to kitty slumber themselves and the mouse makes away with the book. It remains to be seen how the mouse will open the book, as it is locked, but that's the story for another book.
Books like this are some of my favorite to perform for storytimes. It's a wonderful opportunity for interaction as you ask the kids to meow, to purr, to stretch. Another book with similar commands is the glorious Jan Thomas' Can You Make a Scary Face?. I can't wait to test these cats out on my audience. They will like the motions, but they'll also find the humor in the cats' predicament. I do wish the cats themselves, their faces, were a little more expressive, but the art is bold and colorful, and sure to catch the eye. And if the book levels out a bit towards the end, as our cats are falling asleep, it is understandable. The appearance of the mouse offers a gentle joke at the end, rather than a big guffaw.

Check out the book trailer:

Cat Secrets by Jef Czekaj
2011, Balzer + Bray
Library copy

Friday, February 4, 2011

Review - "Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess"

Thanks to the overwhelming popularity of the Percy Jackson series, Greek mythology has really come back into style (and I suspect we might see a little of the same thing happen with Egyptian mythology on the heels of Riordan's newest series, The Kane Chronicles). This is both a good thing and a bad thing; I haven't fully decided where I land on the Goddess Girls series, among others. Part of the good that has cropped up lately is George O'Connor's Olympians graphic novel set, the newest title of which is Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess.

The story begins with plain black text on a stark white page: "All of us are born naked, helpless, and defenseless. Not so Pallas Athena." Not only is this a cracking good first sentence, but it brings to mind classic tales of heroism and adventure. "All children, except one, grow up" anyone? Athena's story comes to us courtesy of the Moirae, or the Fates, who spin her tale like a tapestry, small pices at a time to create one large and imposing picture. We are told the story of Athena's birth, which quite frankly, is one of the harder pieces of mythology to pull off. Girl pops out of Pop's head fully armed and raring to go? That takes quite of bit of suspension of disbelief. Thankfully, O'Connor has such a strong grasp of his details, and a wonderfully classic illustration style that the concept of Zeus swallowing Metis, his queen, and eventually giving birth to his own daughter from a violent cleft in his skull is easily digestible. In fact, it makes perfect sense.

The remaining tales in Athena's tapestry include the death of Pallas, her revenge on Medusa and Arachne and her aid to the hero Perseus weave together a story of a goddess known for her wisdom, cunning and bravery. The author's note contains a bit of girl power ra-ra-ing, but Athena's tale is short of sentimentality. She is portrayed equally in her grief for her friend Pallas and her rage and vengeful spirit to Medusa who broke vows in Athena's own temple and Arachne, who mocked the gods with her talent. As he did in his tale of Zeus, O'Connor makes no attempt here to paint a flawless goddess, but a fearsome one, a godess that would inspire devotion and service in the hearts of mortals everywhere. And by doing so, he helps us understand why these myths were so powerful in the first place.

Athena :The Grey-Eyed Goddess by George O'Connor
2010, First Second
Library copy

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Quickie Review - "All the Things I Love About You"

Are you a fan of LeUyen Pham yet? If not, what's the matter with you? This chick rocks. As an illustrator, whether she's helping Alvin Ho hide from girls, or putting Mommy to bed, she's a guaranteed good time. With All the Things I Love About You, she's both writer and illustrator, and she's bringing us what reads like a personal love letter to her own sons, but works for all mothers everywhere. And though the dedication calls for "mamas who love their little boys" and the book is definitely about the relationship between mother and son, it is a book that would work for all children. Pham is very universal in her adoration, in all the little things that a mother loves; things like "the way your hair looks in the morning" and "the way you eat". This is a very sweet book, but it avoids the treacley muddle of some parent/child books. Pham's signature illustration style of bold outlines, movement and body language go a long way towards cutting the sugar. I dare anyone not to laugh at the expression of pure excitement on the face of the boy as the mother loves "how you skip the letter 'Y' in the alphabet because 'Z' is so much fun to say". This book is a great gift for expectant mothers, and an even better bedtime story.

All the Things I Love About You
LeUyen Pham, Balzer + Bray
Library copy