Friday, October 31, 2008

Reviewing Children's Books - part 1

The subject of reviewing children’s books (how, why, which, etc) has been popping up all over the blogs I read – little wonder, as those blogs tend to feature reviews of children’s books.

Betsy Bird of Fuse #8 ponders the questions posed by a reader who wondered how she chose to review the books she did. Did publisher clout have anything to do with it? Is Betsy reviewing more “buzzy” books than she used to, rather than little-known gems? See her post for some musings on how she selects books to review.

Liz B. of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy presents a wonderfully sensible discussion of blog reviews vs. journal reviews (SLJ, Kirkus et al) in this post. There’s room for them both, she says, and I heartily agree.

Roger Sutton of Read Roger brings up the sometimes awkward way reviewers mention (or fail to mention) the skin color/ethnicity of characters in their reviews. Read his post for a fictional but hilarious example.

And my beloved Kidlitosphere colleagues have been discussing every detail of blog reviewing, from the mundane to the sublime. Blog reviewing is alive, well, and in great hands if these folks are any indication.

I’ve reviewed for School Library Journal for lo these many years (more than 10, less than 20 – more specific I simply can’t get), and now I also blog-review as well. There are only two important differences between these two types of reviews:

1. I read and review every book SLJ sends me, whether I like it or not, and therefore I sometimes write bad reviews on books for SLJ. Because I only read and review what I want for my own blog, I tend to write mostly positive reviews on my blog – after all, I don’t want to waste my time reading a bad book if I don’t have to!

2. My SLJ reviews have to follow a certain format – they can’t be too long and they must be rather professional. They are meant to provide librarians with some crucial information that they can use when making selection decisions. My blog reviews, however, are for whomever reads my blog – all five of you! I can be as long-winded and personal as I want.

But my reviews are all the same in these two respects:

1. If I plan to review a book, I read it all the way through at least once. No exceptions. No stopping half-way through and writing a bad review! No skimming!

2. I take my review-writing very seriously. I think hard about not just my own personal and immediate reaction to the book but also about the writing style, plot, illustrations, mood, and so on. Also, I have been known to feel lukewarm about a book that went on to become quite popular with kids (Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer being a perfect example), which has taught me that while my own reaction is valid as far as it goes, there are other possible viewpoints to consider, most notable those of potential kid readers. Thank God I gave a starred review to Harry Potter in SLJ!!!

I’m a compulsive reader of School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, Hornbook, the book review sections of several major daily newspapers, and even the book review sections of Vogue and People. I also subscribe to dozens of review blogs. They all feed my addiction to books in essential and satisfying ways.

Now if only I could get paid for reviewing children’s books…!!!!!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Excellent and Eccentric Croatian Librarian

From Ginny's Writer's Block comes another missive about her journeys in Croatia; this one features the village of Sali on the Long Island (pictured above). In my next life, I want to be an eccentric librarian in charge of an off-the-radar branch who lives in a stone house with a red roof and green shutters in a gorgeous village on an island.


Creepy Cakes

I don't subscribe to Cake Wrecks (trying to limit myself to Kid Lit blogs, of which there are already WAY too many great ones), so I forget about its sheer genius for weeks at a time. But when I remember to check on it, this blog always makes my day.

In honor of Halloween, here are a bunch of Creepy Cake posts. Be sure to scroll down past the Halloween-themed cakes to the even creepier cakes featuring prone babies, disembodied heads, and so on.
Good times...

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Two more favorite not-too-scary picture books for Halloween

Halloween storytimes at the library always seem to attract families with younger children, so it's necessary to read and tell stories that are thrilling but not too chilling. Here is an excellent new picture book that fits the bill:

The orange/black/white illustrations are stylish, yet have plenty of kid-appeal, and are dramatic enough to carry all the way to the back of the room. There is only a sentence or two on every page, telling a story that will appeal to every preschooler - a witch-girl rids a haunted house of unhappy-looking ghosts by catching them and allowing them to serve double-duty as blankets, curtains, a table-cloth, and the like. This reminds me of the satisfying ending to The Little Old Lady Who Wasn't Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams, in which the pumpkin creature is overjoyed to find his true calling as a scarecrow.

Another great book for preschool Halloween storytimes is:

A skeleton with hiccups tries all sorts of methods to cure himself - until finally his own reflection scares them away. Laugh-out-loud illustrations and a simple text (with plenty of "Hic! Hic!" sound effects for children to join in with) make this a perfect preschool story - and not just for Halloween.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Review of Greetings from Nowhere by Barbara O'Connor

Sometimes a book comes along that hits you in just the right way. It doesn’t klonk you over the head with its fabulousness, but rather it quietly sinks into your mind and heart as you read it, creating a mood that lingers.

Greeting from Nowhere by Barbara O’Connor (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008) is such a book. O’Connor’s previous book Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia was a highly pleasant read, but I must confess that I didn’t finish How to Steal a Dog – the conjunction of my mood and the style of the first 20 pages was not auspicious. Perhaps I’ll give it another try.

It isn’t often that a children’s book opens with the thoughts and actions of an adult character. Aggie and her husband Harold have run the Sleepytime Motel in North Carolina for decades, but now Harold is dead and Aggie is old and the Sleepytime Motel is run-down. Aggie decides to sell the place and move in with her sister.

Willow’s father, at loose ends after Willow’s mother leaves them, decides to buy the motel sight unseen, and he drags an unwilling and despondent Willow to the Great Smoky Mountains to make the transaction.

Meanwhile, Kirby’s fed-up and high-strung mom is driving him to what amounts to a reform school in a last-ditch effort to get him to behave. Her hair-trigger temper and apparent lack of affection for Kirby make it clear why Kirby is not exactly a delight of a boy. They are not far from the motel when their junker dies along the side of the road, and so they get a room until money arrives to fix the car.

Finally, Loretta receives a mysterious package that contains small keepsakes from her long-lost birth mother, who has just died. One of the treasures is a charm bracelet with charms from various parts of the U.S., including the Great Smoky Mountains. Her parents suggest that they visit these places, one at a time, and so they head off. When night falls, they find themselves at the Sleepytime Motel.

As the families arrive, one by one, Aggie’s second thoughts about selling her motel become stronger. This place has been her whole life! But she knows she can’t keep it going any longer. She fills out the paperwork reluctantly to sell the motel to Willow’s dad, and tries to keep her mind off leaving by getting to know the three kids who are staying at the motel.

The interactions between Aggie and the children, between the children and their parents, and among the children themselves are the heart of this tale. Kirby is antisocial and feels deeply trapped by the negative way the people around him (in particular his mom) feel about him, Willow has been uprooted from everything she knows and is desperate for any word from her mother, and Loretta – well, Loretta is such a ray of sunshine, with such amazingly sweet and supportive parents, that nothing much is ever going to keep her down.

These three kids behave toward each other as children do toward kids they don’t know – with varying degrees of wariness, friendliness, or shyness, depending on the child and the situation. Aggie likes kids, all kids, and doesn’t hesitate to bring pull them into her orbit, by gentle force when necessary. Without Aggie, they all might have stayed apart, but Aggie is a wonderfully cozy and nonjudgmental hub. They talk, play, and eventually all pitch in together to make the motel ready for a tour group. Not much goes on, but all the conversations and thoughts we overhear are right on target.

The three families are only at the motel a few days before two of them move on, but quite a bit goes on underneath the uneventful surface of their visit. Aggie’s agitation about her own impending move strikes a chord with Willow, who knows what it’s like to leave what you love; doing something to help Aggie brings a lot of healing to Willow herself. Kirby gets to experience the restful and satisfying feeling of being around people who like and value him rather than fear and resent him, something that may make his stay at the boarding school a bit more successful than it would have been otherwise. And Loretta - well, Loretta and her parents already knew how lucky they are.

So – a quiet tale, a humble setting. Nothing earthshaking happens. The characters are regular folks. Somehow, though, thanks to some wonderfully understated writing and a keen knowledge of how people think and talk, it all comes together in a satisfying package.

For grades 4 - 6

Friday, October 24, 2008

One Week Until Halloween

Ever since I grew too old to trick-or-treat, I've had a love/hate relationship with Halloween; the costumes are fab and so are the spooky stories, but the sheer sugar-fueled frenzy of it makes me want to go curl up with a book until it's all over - and those darn kids keep ringing the doorbell!

Still, as a children's librarian in a busy branch, it was easy to get caught up in the excitement. Decorations, crafts, costumes, and most of all, the deliciously spooky/funny stories - the holiday is really a children's librarian's dream.

When I became a Branch Manager, things didn't change much. Not only did I continue to wear a costume on Halloween, but I gently (no, honestly! it was completely voluntary!!) encouraged my staff to wear costumes as well, or at least a Dr. Seuss hat. They patiently obliged me.

Now I'm a Senior Children's Librarian - but I no longer work directly with the public. Last year I got to fill in for a children's librarian who got sick on Halloween, but this year my one opportunity to do a Halloween storytime for a brand-new children's librarian fell through when it turned out to be a parent workshop instead. Phooey! And what is the point of wearing my oh-so-coveted Tooth Fairy costume if only my fellow administrative colleagues will see it? Although possibly they could use the guffaw it would surely generate...

If you are looking for an easy children's literature-related costume idea, Wizards Wireless has a few suggestions (plus a fun Mo Willems survey).

There are dozens of sure-fire stories and books out there to tell at a Halloween program. My own all-time favorite is The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams, as it works well both in picture book format and as a participation story for younger kids.

For a scary story for older kids, nothing beats "The Peculiar Such Thing" as told by Virginia Hamilton in The People Could Fly. There are also several picture book versions - my favorite is Jan Wahl's Tailypo.
Oh well - my library Halloween activities may be curtailed, and my teenaged daughters may be too old to go trick-or-treating, but at least I can count on a few kids knocking on my door next week. Better find those teeth-bracelets and iron out my ribbons and wings!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A public library in Croatia

For a glimpse into the children's area of a public library in Croatia, check out this post on Writer's Block, written by a Well-known Personage in Children's Librarianship (but who apparently wants to remain somewhat anonymous, as she is known in her blog as "Ginny").

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Review of The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson

Here is the link to my review for School Library Journal of Eva Ibbotson's The Dragonfly Pool (Dutton, 2008). If you loved The Star of Kazan, you've simply got to read this one as well.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Review of The Runaway Dolls by Ann M. Martin

When I was a child, I was quite certain that all my dolls and stuffed animals possessed a Rich Inner Life, and even now when I go up to the attic to haul down holiday trappings, I could swear that my daughters’ old Barbies, baby dolls, and stuffed animals are sending me reproachful vibes from their plastic storage bins.

Perhaps this is why I’ve always been drawn to books about dolls, and not just any doll books, oh no. In my favorite books, the dolls walk, talk, and in general lead much more interesting lives than you or me (well, than me, anyway).

The Runaway Dolls by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin and illustrated by Brian Selznick (Hyperion 2008) is the third in the Doll People series. Before they even read a word, savvy fans of the first two books will be able to guess from a short series of illustrations that a long-lost character may be about to make an appearance – and sure enough, that package we see being addressed, then lost behind some furniture, then finally mailed 100 years later contains Annabelle Doll’s baby sister (well, actually she’s “free” as she says with her lisp, and fully able to walk and talk). The package has arrived just as the human inhabitants have left on vacation and has not been opened; because it isn’t addressed to them but rather to the person who lived in the house 100 years ago, Annabelle is terrified that the package might be sent back unopened. She and her best friend Tiffany Funcraft carefully open the package, let out Matilda May (“Tilly”) and then, in a panic, run away.

They hitch a ride on a red wagon pulled by some human boys and end up in the woods with their doll brothers Bobby and Bailey. Together, they make their way to a department store’s toy section, and then (after some travails) back home again, where all ends up just fine (except for “consequences” for Annabelle and Tiffany on account of running away).

Tilly is the ultimate little sister, half adorable and half annoying, with plenty of questions about the world. Although her knowledge of the world is limited, she, like the other four doll kids, contributes to the efforts to get back home again against fairly huge odds. The story is eventful, with a pleasant balance of fast-paced action and character-driven interaction. Most kids will probably find the scenes in the toy section of the department store very intriguing, if rather reminiscent of Toy Story 2. All sorts of dolls play all night long (including dozens of identical Tiffanys and Baileys, which Annabelle finds downright creepy) – Selznick’s illustrations of these characters are spot-on.

As in the first two books, Selznick’s life-like drawings are integral to the book – they not only illustrate but enhance the story and help to move the plot forward. Much of the humor derives from the illustrations, as well, with the text expressing more twinkle than guffaw. I only had one problem with the illustrations – they make clear the main flaw of this book, which is that there is no way five little dolls could either successfully manage the physical things they attempt (such as climbing all the way up a red wagon, even if they did use the wheels – Tiffany maybe, but not Annabelle) or remain unseen (such as when they all dash across crowded sidewalks to the department store). I had to suspend loads of disbelief – which is luckily something I do both frequently and with great facility (I believed Bill Clinton when he said he didn’t have an affair with “that woman” – yes, I am that na├»ve).

Quibbles aside, this is a worthy successor to the first two Doll People books and will be enjoyed by grades 2 to 5.

And here is my list of all-time favorite novels about dolls and toys!

Miss Hickory by Carolyn and Sherwin Bailey
The Little Wooden Doll by Margery Williams Bianco
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
Hitty: Her First One Hundred Years by Rachel Field
The Doll’s House by Rumer Godden
A Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban
Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins
(and the sequel Toy Dance Party)
The Doll People by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin (and the sequel The Meanest Doll in the World)
Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Review of Savvy by Ingrid Law

Mississippi (but call her Mibs) Beaumont is about to turn 13, a momentous occasion in her family; on their 13th birthdays, family members come into their “savvy,” a special and unique gift. Mib’s brother Fish creates heavy weather, her brother Rocket has an affinity for electricity, and her mother does everything perfectly – which is luckily not as annoying as it sounds.

Days before her birthday, Mibs father is in a terrible accident, and her mother and older brother Rocket drive out to Salina, the town where he lies in a coma in the hospital. On the dawn of her birthday, a couple of small events convince Mibs that her savvy is the ability to wake people up – the perfect way to help her father. Before her birthday is many hours old, she has abandoned her own awful birthday party and has stowed away, along with Fish, her younger brother Samson, and two other kids, on a pink bus driven by a bible salesman. She is determined to get to Salina as quickly as possible to wake her father up.

Needless to say, things don’t go very smoothly. Mibs realizes to her horror that her savvy is to read the thoughts of people who have inked pictures on their skin – tattoos, of course, but even a happy face drawn on with a ballpoint pen. What a useless savvy, she feels – the voices in her head drive her bonkers and worse, she can’t help her father. As it turns out, Mibs is wrong; her savvy comes in very handy in the end.

Throughout the book, Mibs discovers again and again that folks are endlessly mysterious. Everyone has secrets, not just the members of her secretly talented family, and even when those secrets come to light, there are usually plenty of hidden depths left to ponder. Appearances can be deceiving, Mibs learns, and there is a lot to appreciate in most people, once you get to know them.

These small discoveries and surprises move the story forward in an unpredictable and thoroughly charming way, matched by the quirky language used by Mibs, the narrator of the tale. It courses and curlicues its way like a particularly rambunctious stream, throwing up fascinating words and turns of phrase – one nasty character has breath “a loud mix of bluster and buffalo wings;” when you have learned to control your savvy, you’ve “scumbled” it. But the writing has a purpose and goal, so the story keeps flowing, never getting bogged down in sentimentality or folksiness.

This is an all-around satisfying book that kept me intrigued all the way to the end. My only quibble – surely the bible salesman’s big pink bus would have been pulled over within hours of those kids running away!! Magically, none of the folks looking for the missing kids managed to figure out that the pink bus and the kids left at exactly the same time. Oh well, I happily suspended my disbelief and kids most likely will, too.

Ages 9 - 12

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"Work Like a Patron" Day

Public librarian Brian Herzog, in his blog Swiss Army Librarian, suggests that October 15 be proclaimed "Work Like a Patron" Day in order to experience the library as the patrons do - and then improve it.

Here's my children's librarian-centric take on this great concept, from a post I wrote for the ALSC blog.

National Book Award finalists - great stuff!

I haven't posted in more than a week - the shame, the shame! Finally, though, there is something exciting to blog about.

The National Book Foundation has announced its finalists today. The "Young People's Literature" finalists are:

Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains (Simon & Schuster) - read my review
Kathi Appelt, The Underneath (Atheneum) - read my review
Judy Blundell, What I Saw and How I Lied (Scholastic)
E. Lockhart, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (Hyperion) - read my review
Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now (Alfred A. Knopf)

I relished the three I've read, and I'll get to the others as soon as possible. Winners will be announced November 19th.

(Humiliatingly, I haven't read a single one of the adult fiction finalists - and I do devour adult fiction!! Must be because I'm such a Genre Girl - they don't seem to choose many mysteries, SF, or fantasy novels.)

Monday, October 6, 2008

Review of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

This unnerving tale takes place in the very near future but could conceivably happen now - all the technology is in place and so this quite a plausible premise. Even before the terrorist attack that blows up San Francisco's Bay Bridge, Marcus's high school is practically a police state, with RFIDs tracking library books, gait recognition technology tracking every student's whereabouts, and school laptops logging students' every keystroke. Marcus is rather an anomaly - not only a hacker/gamer/geek of major proportions but also apparently Mr. Cool as well. Anyway, when he and his friends are rounded up by the Department of Homeland Security, his hacking abilities arouse plenty of suspicion, and they are all detained secretly for quite a few days. When he is finally released, his world has changed - paranoia in the name of "security" reigns supreme and the DHS is soon tracking everyone's movements through RFIDs on passes, credit/debit cards, and much more. Marcus uses his quite extensive knowledge of cryptology to create an underground movement, made up mainly of young geeks, who electronically subvert the system. Getting caught could mean disappearing forever.

This is a truly unsettling book - although over-the-top, the premise feels very possible in these troubled times, and this sense of constant paranoia is the main strength of the book. My main problem with the book is the character of teenaged Marcus, who is simply way too crazy-smart and crazy-knowledgeable to possess even a modicum of the social finesse and street smarts that he exhibits. Sure, the dude has teen hormones and occasionally makes decisions that backfire wildly - but he's too mature and often comes across as the mouthpiece of the author. The stuff about cryptology, gaming, and rest is interesting (talk about "revenge of the nerds!") but often the reader is being taught and lectured to at great length; this feels like a tract rather than a fast-paced action adventure much of the time. My other objection has to do with the writing, which is workmanlike. Faces stream with tears all too often; Marcus has to "piss like a racehorse" at least twice.
Still, any book in which crazed teen gamers and hackers fight the good fight against The Man is okay with me. Plus, this will be a fun and easy hand-sell, which is always a fine thing.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Review of Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Freedom is snatched away from 13-year-old Isabel and her 5-year-old sister Ruth before they have a chance to experience it – after their gentle owner Miss Finch dies, having filled out paperwork with a lawyer to set the girls free, her nephew simply sells them off to the Locktons, a Loyalist couple who live in New York City. As it is 1776, this puts Isabel right in the middle of the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

Madam Lockton, a nasty piece of work, mistreats Isobel and gives her endless work, while she makes the sweet and pliable Ruth a sort of pet. Unfortunately, Ruth suffers from occasional “spells,” and they so unnerve Madam that she sells her, devastating Isabel.

The chaos and fervor swirling through New York City eventually pull Isabel from her dark despair. Although she had served as a spy for the Patriots after they promised her freedom, she becomes disenchanted with them when it becomes clear they only want freedom for white people; Isabel even briefly helps the Royalist cause when she hears that they offer freedom to slaves who escape and join the army. However, it seems that if a slave escapes from a Loyalist household, that’s a whole different matter.

When the only person in New York whom she might call a friend, a slave and Patriot named Curzon, is captured and held under terrible conditions by the British, Isabel shakes off her torpor and fear and smuggles in food. Once again, she is drawn reluctantly into the Patriot cause, carrying messages from prison to captured officers and back.
When Madam Lockton finds out, she promises to sell her immediately, and so Isabel escapes the household, ending part 1 of this saga. Will Isabel escape to freedom? How will she find Ruth? We’ll have to wait for part 2 to find out.

Anderson captures the milieu of 18th century New York City with a completeness, immediacy, and (I am guessing, though I am no expert) accuracy that set the reader right down at street level. It isn’t so much the sensory descriptions that set the tone as the certainty that this is how it must have been for a slave like Isabel. Anderson achieves this through Isabel’s voice, which has a truly authentic ring to it without sounding either stilted or too modern. A masterful use of period turns of phrase and a touch of dialect (not much, though – Isabel is a reader who was brought up by a loving mother and an educated mistress) give Isabel a narrative voice that conveys a convincing picture of her times.

Being a slave, Isabel’s world is quite circumscribed. She can’t describe what she hasn’t seen, and so the reader gets to know the few places and routes that she – the Lockton’s house, the market, the route to the water pump, the prison. Her knowledge of and opinions on the political situation are gained by the conversations she hears around her and by the ways she and Ruth are affected, which gives all events, whether small or historic, a very personal immediacy. For the reader, learning about life in New York City during the Revolution could not be any more enthralling or effortless than this. Well-written, impeccably researched, exciting, and heart-clenching, this is a fabulous read and a definite contender for the Newbery.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Book Illustrators for Obama!

This poster officially rocks! It's at this site - thanks to Elizabeth Bird at Fuse #8 for the link.

Nerdy or just shy?

In college, my geeky friends and I would endlessly parse the meanings of the words nerd, geek, dweeb, dork, twit, and so on. We felt that we had the fine distinctions between these categories down to a science.

Now that I've read both American Nerd: The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent and Introvert Power by Laurie A. Helgoe, I have come to the realization that I am a shy, dorky, SF-loving Nerd Groupie and Children's Literature Geek - but alas, I am not a nerd.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Newbery Fever - It's going around!

I've haven't even read all the great books from winter and spring, and here those pesky publishers are bombarding us with whole shelf-loads of tantalizing offerings. If I want to have any chance of predicting the Newbery winners, I'd better take a speed-reading course.

To see some thoughts on keeping up with and contributing to Newbery buzz, please see my post in the ALSC Blog - I'm a blogger there now!

I'm very curious to know what folks think of Anita Silvey's article in School Library Journal about the relevance of recent Newbery winners. It seems to me that a bunch of rather crabby, disgruntled librarians were interviewed. Call me a Fan-Girl, but the announcement of the Newbery is the highlight of the year for me, and I am always giddy about the winner - either because one of my faves gets the award or because I haven't read the book and can't wait to get my hands on it. I was happy with all those choices mentioned so dismissively in the article.

This should engender some very lively discussion, however, and that's always a good thing.