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