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.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Quickie Review - "Dragonbreath - Lair of the Bat Monster"

Danny the dragon is back in another adventure from funny gal Ursula Vernon. Lair of the Bat Monster finds our hero, along with his best friend Wendell and his cousin Steve, in Mexico. After saving a small brown bat (actually of the species "big brown bat"), Danny and Wendell want to learn more about bats, so they accompany bat expert Steve to the caves where he does his research and while there, they discover the stuff of legend. The Camazotz, the enormous lord of the bats once worshipped by the Zapotec people. Unfortunately, the Camazotz takes a liking to Danny, and Wendell and Steve are soon on a quest to rescue the little dragon from its fuzzy clutches. Like the other adventures of Danny Dragonbreath, Lair of the Bat Monster is full of jumps and laughs and jokes both elegant and ordinary. Wendell is a wonderful source of amusement, as he worries about mosquitoes, losing limbs and being eaten alive by bugs. Vernon's expressive illustrations go a long way towards creating the mood, and she has the design of her main characters down to an exact science. Every placement of the pupil in an eyeball is designed for full effect. This is a great series for fans of Wimpy Kid, comic books and funny bones in general.
Dragonbreath: Lair of the Bat Monster, by Ursula Vernon
2011, Dial
Library copy