Sunday, November 30, 2008

Review of Chicken Feathers by Joy Cowley

We had a hen named Samantha who used to come sit in my lap and whose fondness for standing under the sprinklers was her eventual downfall (hens and water do not mix well; she caught a fatal cold). There was Henrietta, a plucky red hen with lethal-looking spurs and a bossy personality. Kaya and Griffin used to try to roost on my shoulders when they were gawky tweeners. There have been plenty of other hens, all rather sweet and dim-witted – as chicks they pecked at their own toes, mistaking them for worms, and many of them don’t have the sense to get out of the rain. Granted, it doesn’t rain much here, but still.

Not one hen has ever spoken to me, and so I can only assume that not one had the brains, wit, and sheer chutzpah of Semolina, the aged and crotchety heroine of Chicken Feathers by Joy Cowley (Philomel, 2008). She only talks to Josh, her adopted chick of a human boy, and it’s a good thing she does, because he needs a confidante – his mom is in the hospital due to a risky pregnancy, his cranky, hen-scorning grandma has moved in to cook and clean, and his old friend and new crush Annalee has acquired a figure and a boyfriend.

No one believes that Semolina actually talks to Josh, which makes for a lonely and confusing summer. But Josh and Semolina manage to save the inhabitants of coop #3 from a fox – who is then hell-bent on revenge.

This is a weirdly realistic novel; in fact, I hesitate to call it a fantasy, despite the talking chicken. It’s clear to me that she does talk, because there is no ambiguity about the things she tells him and because at the very end she talks to everyone, even the “biggies.” Now, we never do learn their reaction to this talking hen, so maybe she didn’t really talk – but I refuse to buy that. She’s a talking hen, darn it, and that’s all there is to it. And she is stubborn, cantankerous, and a worrywart with a passion for home-brew (just like Josh’s grandma, he realizes at one point). The language is simple, with just a bit of down-home folksiness. The characters are drawn with a spare but affectionate brush, which matches their own uncomplicated natures.

This is a charmer of a story, with humorous drawings to go with it (Semolina is one bedraggled but dignified hen). Recommended for everyone – a great read-aloud for ages 4 and up, and for readers grades 2 – 4.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Review of The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

It’s hard enough to be a regular teenager, trying to figure out who you are and what you’ll become. When you add deep dark secrets and philosophical questions to the mix, what you get is a really intriguing story about identity and morality.

Jenna Fox wakes up suddenly from what her parents tell her was a year-long coma. Apparently there was a terrible car accident and she only just barely survived. Jenna’s memory of her life before waking up is gone, so she doesn’t question this. However, even a newly awakened teenaged girl is not so clueless and na├»ve as to not notice there is something very weird about her situation. Why did they apparently move to this secluded house in California mere days or hours before Jenna woke up – was that coincidence? Why has no one from her old life sent any cards or emails? Why does her grandmother treat her so coldly? As Jenna watches old home movies, her memory comes back in fits and starts – and then a bad cut on her hand (and her parents’ extreme reaction to this) leads her to the discovery that she is not the same Jenna who existed before the accident. In fact, she is only 10% original Jenna, and the rest is software and high-tech bio-stuff.

There are two issues at the heart of this story. The lesser issue is that of ethics, medical and personal – in re-constituting Jenna (so to speak), her parents have broken laws created in order to prevent abuses of power and contamination of natural species by manmade materials. Do parents have a right to break laws to keep their daughter alive? Are the laws wrong? Can people use science and technology wisely? Can you get the genie back in the bottle once it’s unleashed? There is also the matter of two other teens who have been “uploaded” into computers – a “copy” of their personalities and memories exists, but their bodies have been destroyed. Is it ethical to delete them? Is it ethical to let them continue to exist with no input of any kind going in or coming out – isn’t that a kind of hell?

Which leads to the most interesting question – what makes a person a person? Is personhood dependent on one’s physical body or it just a matter of a ghost in a machine that could be moved from one body to another without the person’s essence changing? If a person is just a collection of continuous memories and thoughts, what happens when someone loses her memory and has to start fresh? Is she an entirely new person now, even after the memories are artificially injected back into her?

After Jenna realizes that her own grandmother treats her coldly because she hasn’t accepted that this new girl, who looks like the old Jenna, really IS the old Jenna, Jenna herself begins to question who she is. Her body is not human and her responses are all programmed – so is she a human or a machine? And if she is human and has a soul, is this the old Jenna’s soul or a brand-new one? And does that really matter in the long run?

The conclusion that Jenna comes to a happy one – she is who she is and what she does, as we all are in the end. Her clumsy stumblings toward this conclusion, as she relearns how to connect with other people, are funny and painful and make for an engrossing read. Highly recommended.
Gr. 8 - 12

Review of Shooting the Moon by Frances O'Roark Dowell

If Jamie had the good luck to be an 18-year-old boy instead of a 12-year-old girl, she’d enlist in the army so fast, it’d make your head spin. But she isn’t, and so she volunteers at the rec center, keeping things tidy and playing endless games of gin rummy with her friend Private Hollister.

It’s her older brother TJ who chooses to enlist rather than go to college, and he is sent to Vietnam as a combat medic, much to TJ’s excitement and envy. Strangely, their father the Colonel, who is chief of staff at Fort Hood and apparently a gung-ho hooah Army man through and through, doesn’t seem nearly so thrilled about TJ’s decision.

When TJ, always an enthusiastic amateur photographer, begins sending rolls of film to Jamie from Vietnam, she learns to develop them so that she can send TJ the contact sheets. This brings her in contact with Sgt. Byrd, who has a way with words and a point of view about Vietnam that startles Jamie and makes her think. Even more startling are TJ’s photos, which start out as innocuous shots of barracks and smiling soldiers but soon become grimmer as they depict the horrors of war. It’s not long after TJ sends back an entire roll of photos of the moon that he disappears.

Jamie is a straightforward person – she knows who she is, what she wants, and what she likes. It’s when the folks around her confound her expectations of them that she begins to question things. Even so, it comes as a shock to her when she learns that her own father is equally capable of thinking for himself and coming to his own conclusions about the war.

With the exception of Jamie’s mom, who remains somewhat of a cardboard figure, every character is carefully drawn, from gawky Private Hollister to Jamie’s needy neighbor Cindy. TJ is enigmatic. Was it a desire to please his dad that led him to enlist, or maybe a childish desire to see new and exotic places? Why did he always love taking pictures of the moon, and why did he revert to his old hobby? I imagined him becoming so shell-shocked that he preferred to point his camera up at the sky at night rather than down at the misery and heartache all around him under the harsh light of day. We learn that he comes home safely after two years as a POW, and the moon photos allow us to guess that his sensitivity probably made these years a hell for him even as his creativity gave him the resilience to survive.

This is a heavy topic, but Jamie’s matter-of-fact voice and the plentiful touches of humor keep things from getting too grim or sentimental. In fact, the true hell of that war is kept at a distance from both Jamie and the reader, although we can guess at the anguish that her family will feel at knowing nothing about TJ’s fate or whereabouts for a long, long time when, after mentioning that her brother does come home from the prison camp eventually, Jamie says as the book’s last sentence, “But we didn’t know that yet.” What a powerful and subtle way of summing up what this family will go through – it gave me a jolt that I’m sure many perceptive young readers will feel as well.

Grades 5 - 8

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cookie Monster at the Library

I've had many, many patrons like Cookie Monster - but I would never yell at a patron like this aggravated muppet librarian does!

Thank you, American Libraries Direct, for this break from my busy Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving.

SLJ's Best of 2008 list

School Library Journal has released its "Best Books 2008" list.

It is notable for the large number of nonfiction titles (science! history! the arts!), which is a wonderful spur for fiction addicts like me who tend to avoid nonfiction titles all year - until they appear on "Best of..." lists and/or win awards. We'll see how many of them I can wedge into my reading schedule.

All the usual suspects are present on the picture book list, plus a few surprises (at least to me) - I'll have to check out Fern's Buffalo Music, McGill's Way Up and Over Everything and Rosoff's Jumpy Jack and Googily.

The fiction list doesn't include Appelt's The Underneath, Law's Savvy or Anderson's Chains - perhaps these titles have received so much attention that the SLJ book review editors decided they didn't need to be on yet another list. And no one has put O'Connor's Greetings from Nowhere on a "Best of" list, a book that apparently only I really loved. Otherwise I was happy to see many of my favorites. In fact, two of the books I reviewed for SLJ made the list - Hardinge's Well Witched and Ibbotson's The Dragonfly Pool.

Yum - these Best of 2008 lists are truly feasts, giving us plenty to savor over the long Thanksgiving weekend and the rest of 2008.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Two Teens Talk About Twilight

Both my girls went to see Twilight this past weekend. Here's what they had to say:

Nadia (age 14):

Nadia has read all the Twilight books and enjoyed them moderately except for the fourth one, which she disliked (I noticed that she finished it, though).

She thought that the movie did a fairly good job adapting the book, especially considering that the book deals so much with Bella's thoughts and feelings. Perhaps that was why there were so many reaction shots of Bella's face "blinking and twitching" as Nadia put it.

She liked the actor who played Charlie quite a bit, but thought the rest were chosen more for their looks than their acting ability. Laurent was "hot" with his bare feet and his dreads. James was the most "inhuman." Edward wasn't at all how she pictured him - he seemed too depressed. The nomads were all great-looking and were the best actors, according to Nadia.

Favorite scene - the baseball game.

Vivian (age 17):

She only read the first book (fantasy not being her thing) but is now reading the second.

She liked the movie much more than her sister did. Although she didn't particularly care for Bella, she thought Edward was cute (like Nadia, he wasn't at all what she had imagined). In general, she thought the entire cast was easy on the eyes; this was the main appeal of the movie.

She thought the visual effects were "cool" but also fairly corny (that sounds contradictory, but go figure).

Favorite scene - when all the vampires walk into the cafeteria.

Millions of Rats

My older daughter Vivian recently added two female rats to our household of one dad, one mom, two teenaged daughters, one female dwarf hamster, and four hens.

It quickly became clear that one of the rats was pregnant. She gave birth to four or five squirming pink objects with tightly closed eyes, which remain protectively barricaded behind masses of shredded tissues and old socks - we only catch glimpses of them when Cider emerges to grab a snack, a ratling or two still attached to her at the teat. She always whisks them back inside quickly. "They're probably all female as well," my husband sighed. He feels a bit outnumbered these days.

Rats make wonderful pets, as I learned in college when I let my sweet Miss Liberty range free around my room. She came when I called her, loved to climb all over me, and ate small holes in all my cotton clothing. Unlike hamsters, rats are almost never crabby, they love to hang out with people, and they never bite in anger or surprise. They are loyal, curious, and very intelligent.

It's too bad that rats in literature get such a bad rap. Templeton from White's Charlotte's Web is a selfish and greedy hoarder of all sorts of nasty food; although he does help Charlotte and Wilbur, it is only with extreme reluctance. Manny Rat from Hoban's A Mouse and His Child is a true villain, a nasty character who employs slave labor and relentlessly pursues our heroes (who are mice - a supposedly kinder and gentler sort of rodent). In many other books, rats are rapacious bullies and tyrants.

Luckily, there are plenty of books in which rats play more positive roles, Jonell's Emily and the Incredible Shrinking Rat being the supreme example. Rat is exuberant and irrepressible, a wonderfully accurate representative of the species. There are several other examples, such as Winthrop's The Red-Hot Rattoons and Werbsa's Walter: the Story of a Rat. I was also going to mention Ratty of Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, but then I remembered just in time that Ratty is actually... a water vole!

By the way, the rat pictured above is not one of ours - I haven't been able to take a photo of them that truly showcases their gorgeousness, and of course the ratlings haven't yet emerged from their nest.

Friday, November 21, 2008

"Reading" Wordless Books

Here's a fabulous blog post I wish I had written - Tanya has some wonderful things to say on The Well-Read Child about wordless books. Her list of "read"-alouds is short but exquisite. Here are some additional thoughts:

While I haven't used many wordless books in storytimes, I "read" them extensively to my two kids when they were little. The sadly out-of-print Tabby by Aliki was a huge favorite of my younger daughter. This story of the first year in the life of a kitten adopted from a shelter by a little girl entertained 2-year-old Nadia through an entire plane trip to Minneapolis and back (I wracked my brains on ways to tell the story differently until I realized that Nadia was perfectly content just to hear the story the same way over and over). Occasionally she piped in with a comment or two, but mostly she listened. It was so odd for me, as her older sister had been (and still is) much more the on-to-the-next-book type.

The Peggy Rathmann books that Tanya mentions were also big favorites. 10 Minutes Till Bedtime, although not strictly a wordless book, had particular appeal due to the numerous busy hamsters that appear over and over on each page. We could stretch that book out to half an hour, I swear.

Wordless books are not only excellent ways to bond with one's book-addicted child, but they also provide juicy possibilities for dialogic reading. Googling that term will pull up plenty of information, including this short and clear explanation from Multnomah County Library, but in a nutshell this is a method of sharing books with kids that invites participation and discussion. When a child tells the story in his own words or predicts what will happen next or even changes the story, he is practicing narrative skills and strengthening his language skills.

Parents or caregivers who are partly or entirely illiterate can share wordless books with their children, as can parents who speak a language other than English. The pictures tell the story, and both grown-ups and kids can gain confidence and have fun by relaying the plot to each other out loud.

A final plug for a huge favorite of mine - anyone who thinks wordless books are just for little kids should read Shaun Tan's The Arrival. A more complex and thought-provoking book is hard to imagine; like many readers, I spent hours pouring over the illustrations. So hugely satisfying!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Coraline Movie Trailer

"Coraline," based on the book by Neil Gaimon, is coming out in February 2009. Here is the trailer.

It looks intriguing, although I'm finding it hard to get used to the American accents; the book feels so very British to me. Hopefully the movie will be imbued with at least some of the menace that seeped through the original book.

The graphic novel version is also quite worthy and is illustrated in a very different style than the animation of the movie. It would be intriguing to get a group of kids together after the movie comes out to compare all three versions.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Managing One's Addiction


I have 25 library books checked out, 4 of which are overdue and can't be renewed.

I have 21 books on reserve.

32 books are sitting on my desk begging to be read.

School Library Journal is expecting a review of yet another book.

AND I have an entire notebook full of Must Read books that I may actually get to before 2010.

How do folks manage this? At work, I use my two 15-minute breaks and my half-hour lunch for reading. At home, I start reading as soon after 8 pm as I can and continue until 9:30 pm (but those pesky family members do insist on some mom/wife interaction from me once in a while). I spend as much of the weekend as possible curled around a book.

But it's not enough time!!

Shannon Hale, in her blog Squeetus, has a post about "good" books and "bad" books. What exactly, she asks, makes one book respectable literary fiction and another book trash?

To me, the only worthwhile categories of books are: the books I want to read and the books I don't want to read. However, the books I want to read seem to encompass so many categories (all great children's and YA fiction; adult fantasies; adult mysteries; adult fiction by my favorite authors; adult fiction that gets great reviews) that things are seriously getting out of control. Should I rein in my reading addiction? Should I try to be a tad more selective??

While I would never call my beloved fantasy novels "trash," they certainly are not widely respected. The cover art alone (castles; strange creatures; gorgeous flowing-locked men and women standing in heroic poses) puts many folks off their feed. The length of these books, plus that fact that some of them have such similar plots and appearance that I occasionally can't remember if I've read a particular book before until I'm a good 30 pages into it, make them real time-eaters - and I feel so guilty reading them when my shelves are so heavy with "worthier" books. But I looooooove them!

My 17-year-old daughter, who has a sharp eye these days for the many imperfections and injustices in the world and most particularly in her family members, asked me rather pointedly if I ever read any classics; she had just discovered that I never read Uncle Tom's Cabin. Well, sure, I've read lots - but let's face it, the ones I haven't yet read will keep. Meanwhile, it's almost 2009 and I haven't even finished the books on my 2007 to-read list. Yeep!

And children's and YA books - aside from the fact that I'm a children's librarian, it would be impossible for me to keep away from my very favorite literature. This is the stuff that got me through a outwardly wonderful but inwardly fraught childhood. This is the stuff I thrive on. Gotta read them! But I want to read so many adult books as well, which take so darn long, and then I feel guilty for neglecting the juvy stuff (not to mention that I then lack reviews to post on this blog) - sigh.

Reading itself - bliss and joy, as necessary as breathing.

Contemplating my to-read shelf - guilt and stress (two emotions I can't seem to exist without).

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Children's Books in the White House

In today's Los Angeles Times, this article discusses how Malia and Sasha Obama will make the transition to the White House. Here is a wonderful paragraph from the article:

'"Books are a huge bonding between him and his daughters," said Ann Walker Marchant, a friend of the Obamas... Marchant predicted children's literature will find a shelf in the Oval Office. She recalled vacationing with the Obamas on Martha's Vineyard when Sasha asked her father, hoarse from the campaign trail, to read to her. "He could hardly speak but as long as she wanted him to read, he read."'

We already know that President-Elect Obama has read the entire Harry Potter series to his girls; it looks like we children's literature folk have a strong family of advocates in a very high place!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Review of Ink Exchange by Melissa Marr

In this sequel/companion to last year’s enticing Wicked Lovely, Summer Queen Aislinn’s mortal friend Leslie is in big trouble. Not only has her father pretty much abandoned the family, but her brother is a truly nasty creature who uses Leslie as a toy for his drug dealer buddies. Wait, it gets worse – Irial, King of the Dark Court of fairies, has his eye on Leslie. When she gets a long-desired tattoo, the ink is a potent mixture of fairy blood and other magical fluids that links her to Irial inextricably, allowing him to feed on her emotions and thus to feed his entire hungry Court. Meanwhile, the mysterious and haunted Niall (formerly of the Dark Court but recently allied to the Summer Court) is also attracted to Leslie.

That is essentially the whole plot, and it’s certainly intriguing – but it was not enough to hold my attention for 325 pages. What this felt like more than anything was a bunch of really good-looking, popular teens from different cliques vying for power and influence. These are supposed to be ancient faerie folk, and yet they all talk and behave as if they were eternally 17 years old, which is probably appealing to many teen readers but which left me yearning for a bit of that fey mystique. Magic is all very well, but when it’s wielded by adolescents out for a cheap thrill, it palls rapidly. I slogged to the end, but even the regime-change twist at the finale only perked me up slightly.

The most interesting tidbit of the story for me involved Irial’s 2nd-in-command Gabriel and his half-human offspring. What must it be like growing up in both worlds? Now that would make a fine tale. More about the complex interactions between faeries would also have been welcome. I read fantasy for the fantastical elements, not teen angst. (my 14-year-old daughter begs to differ, by the way)
Perhaps the third tale, if there is one, will focus more on the Otherworld and less on our own sordid world. Grit is fine, but give me that old-fashioned fairy dust!

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Work of a Children's Librarian...

This has been a busy, busy month. You may wonder what the heck a Senior Children's Librarian does if she doesn't work with the public. No reference desk, no regular storytimes, no visits to schools, no class visits to the library, no daily hand-selling of books to eager or reluctant readers...
Don't worry, I'm NOT bored! Here are some of the projects and tasks keeping my desk and brain in a constant state of happy chaos:
Training! We have 10 brand-new Children's Librarians since September, and these are the training workshops they have received or will soon receive from my colleague and me - Introduction to Children's Librarianship; Programming; Service to Schools; Collection Development/Selection; Collection Development/Display and Weeding; Orientation to Grandparents and Books. These new librarians are so enthusiastic and inspiring that the workshops serve as rejuvenation for jaded old me.
Collection Development! My office is responsible for putting together the monthly order sheets from which our Central and branch Children's Librarians make selections. Our deadline for finalizing the December order is Monday - and what with all the Best of 2008 lists that have come out, there have been lots of last minute additions.
Outreach! Our latest project has been coordinating presentations in 8 branch libraries to 400 Los Angeles Unified School District elementary school library aides - telling them all the services we can provide to them, to the teachers, and to the students and their families.
Grants! There are always various grant projects in various phases. Currently, my fellow Senior Children's Librarian and I are administering Year 2 of a California State Library grant called Early Learning with Families - once it's up and rolling, 10 of our 71 branches will offer enhanced service to families and caregivers with very young children in the form of baby/toddler storytimes, parent workshops, renovated children's rooms, and community partnerships. LOTS of work - meetings, orientations, board reports, record-keeping. LOTS of fun!
New Libraries! Well, just one - our 72nd branch is due to open up next year and I'm behind in reviewing and revising the Opening Day Collection selections made by the vendor. Way behind. And their website was closed down all day today.
Fundraisers! Our big year-end fundraiser to raise money to send our wonderful Children's Librarians to workshops, conferences, and other events is scheduled for early December, and our office is filling up with homemade pillows, gift baskets, and other great stuff.
Audits! Our city is auditing all the city departments to make sure we're fulfilling our goals efficiently and effectively. The Library Department isn't worried - we rock, quite frankly - but it's a lot of work pulling all the required documents together.
Kids Path! Our children's website - - is always in need of tweaking and improving (just like any library collection) and it usually falls to the bottom of my list of priorities. But it's on the top of my list today - right after this break is over.
Reading! As much and as often as possible. See photos above for just a few of the dozens of books on my list. I have just as many checked out at home, and literally hundreds more in my to-read notebook. Always way behind. Never worried about it - because at least I'll never run out of books!
And now - back to work.

It's Best of 2008 Season

PW and Amazon came out with their lists first, and now Kirkus has issued "The Best Children's Books of 2008."

I was so happy to see:

Stinky by Eleanor Davis
Forever Rose by Hilary McKay
The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd
Traction Man Meets TurboDog by Mini Grey
Toy Dance Party by Emily Jenkins
Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look
The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson

and plenty of other great titles.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Unpublished and Newly Published Writers Take Courage!

It's so hard for a first-time writer to get published, let alone receive attention and recognition. This has been an excellent year for newbies, however, as demonstrated by Ilene Cooper's compilation in Booklist of the Top 10 First Novels for Youth 2008. There are both children's and YA novels here and they are wonderful indeed.

It's heartening!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Reviewing Children's Books, part 2

At a local library event a few years ago, I was chatting with a children's librarian from another library system. She thanked me for the annual round-up of winter holiday reviews that my colleagues and I write for the October issue of School Library Journal, pointing out that the reviews are essential for deciding which holiday books to purchase with very limited funds.

Then she said something that I had always suspected was the case (being occasionally guilty of the same thing myself). "I know I can only buy a few holiday books every year, so I just read the first sentence and the last sentence of each review. If either sentence is negative, I move on. If it seems like a positive review, I read just enough to determine if this is the kind of book I need."

We School Library Journal reviewers have always excelled at succinct reviews, but since then we holiday reviewers have tightened up our reviews even further. Plot summaries are kept to a sentence or two, the type and use of the book is made very clear, and clearest of all is our opinion of each book. Is this a book librarians should spend money on or not? Is it just like every other warm-and-fuzzy baby-in-the-stable book or does it have something special? Is this a book for a preschool storytime? For a rollicking 2nd-grade classroom read-aloud? For a parent and child to snuggle up and read together?

I tend to skim reviews myself. I'm interested in starred reviews, reviews with glowing last sentences, reviews on books by my favorite authors, reviews on books handling certain topics, reviews on particular books, reviews written by certain reviewers - but this doesn't mean I always read the entire review. Sometimes I just want to know if the book is recommended or not, and why.

Although my own reviews vary in length depending on where they will be published/posted, I have some basic guidelines that I almost always follow. These are my guidelines for fiction books:

Read the book all the way through. This first reading should be fluid and as uninterrupted as possible to allow me to fall (if possible) deeply into the world of the book. Sticking post-it notes or torn-up pieces of napkin or (if an ARC) dog-earing the pages to mark key passages is great, but I often forget to do this.

After reading, let the book "sit" for a day or two. Think about basic reactions to the book. Was it enjoyable? Why? Did I have to force myself to read it? Why? Was it utterly compelling? Why? Pondering my gut feelings about the book and really looking hard at the reasons behind them helps me to figure out not just if it is a "good" book, but how my own preferences might be hindering my perception of the book.

Go back and look at passages marked during the first reading (or page madly back and forth because I forgot to mark passages) to find examples of good or bad writing, problems or jewels. Think about the type of reader this book would appeal to. Would most kids zoom right through it? Would only fans of this author or genre read it? Would it bore most kids within twenty pages? Is this only for the so-called good or "special" reader?

Once I feel I've got a good handle on what I want to convey in my review, I begin to write. The first sentence usually signals the genre and if it is a sequel. The next few sentences relay the plot in very concise and sometimes general terms (mostly folks don't need to know the plot, but only the general setting and feel - is this set in outer space? Is it a modern urban mystery? Are there elves?). Next, I try my hardest to explain the strengths and weaknesses of the book, using examples if possible. There should also be a mention of how this book could be used and/or who its potential readers are. The last sentence is a summing-up for those readers who skip right to the end of the review.

This sounds simple, but it can take up to 10 rewrites!! Over the years, I've gotten more skilled at this artform, but it is NOT always easy. My blog reviews are more free-form because I don't have any space constraints, but my SLJ reviews sometimes feel like writing haiku as they have to be quite short. But it forces me to be succinct; I don't envy those reviewers for newspapers who have to write a whole page or more on a book. Sometimes, after reading one of those reviews (particularly for non-fiction titles), I feel as if there is no need to read the book itself!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mrs. P Reads a Story or Two

The Los Angeles Times has a story this morning about a new website debuting today just in time for National Young Readers Week. Kathy Kinney plays Mrs. P, who sits rocking in a cozy and slightly magical room, reading stories for children in an Irish brogue and occasionally breaking into an old folksong.

It's a fine idea, if not new, and the website has an intriguing look - but when I tried it out this morning, I could not get Mrs. P to read me more than the first page of a story. There were other features (activities and a writing contest) that were also not yet up as of this morning. Once this gets going, it has the potential to be a fun and useful site to which ALA and libraries could link.

Dr Seuss and Friend at the Geisel Library, UC San Diego

During a tour of the UC San Diego campus, my 17-year-old daughter and I were pleased to run across two old friends, cheerfully wearing the Triton colors on their neckties, outside the Geisel Library.

Friday, November 7, 2008

PW's Best Books of the Year - Children's Fiction

Below are Publishers Weekly's choices for best children's and YA fiction (annotations are theirs). For once I'm feeling on top of things - I may not have read them all, but the titles I haven't read are either physically or virtually on my to-read shelf. The full list of adult and children's titles is here.

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (Simon & Schuster) - my review
A young slave in New York City offers readers a provocative view of the Revolutionary War, within the context of a fast-moving, emotionally involving story; an NBA finalist.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 2: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick)
With an eye trained to the hypocrisies and conflicted loyalties of the American Revolution, Anderson resoundingly concludes the finely nuanced bildungsroman begun in his National Book Award–winning novel.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall (Knopf)
Even better than the National Book Award–winning original, this vivid sequel finds the four Penderwick sisters plotting to foil their aunt's matchmaking schemes for their widowed father.

Masterpiece by Elise Broach (Holt) - my review
With overtones of The Borrowers and Chasing Vermeer, this inventive mystery about a boy, a beetle and an art heist is packed with seductive themes: hidden lives and secret friendships, miniature worlds lost to disbelievers.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore (Harcourt)
An exquisitely drawn romance, political intrigue, a take-charge heroine and a magnificently imagined fantasy realm—this riveting debut offers something for almost everyone, adults as well as teens.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
In a dystopian fantasy that blends elements of classical mythology, a kill-or-be-killed competition and reality television, the author explodes a series of surprises, all the while challenging readers to consider how far her heroine can go while retaining her humanity.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (Tor) - my review
Filled with sharp dialogue and detailed descriptions of how to counteract real-life surveillance, this techno-thriller imagines a teen arrested and held in a Guantanamo-like setting by an out-of-control Department of Homeland Security after a terrorist attack.

Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd (David Fickling)
The discovery of a child's ancient corpse launches this multilayered novel about moral choices, set in Northern Ireland amid the Troubles in 1981.

Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos (Atheneum)
The smooth, jazzy flow of the narration—along with very funny writing—sweeps readers through a '60s-era story about a Cuban-American teenager in search of his identity.

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (Knopf) - my review
Dense, atmospheric prose holds readers to a cautious pace in an often dark fantasy that explores the savage and gentlest sides of human nature and how they coexist.

Savvy by Ingrid Law (Dial) - my review
A cinematic and vibrant debut novel introduces a family whose members are each endowed with a different supernatural gift, or “savvy,” on their 13th birthdays.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (Hyperion) - my review
Big ideas—about class and privilege, feminism and romance, wordplay and thought—are an essential part of the fun in this sparkling, mischievous novel, an NBA finalist, about a sophomore girl who decides to infiltrate an all-male secret society at an elite boarding school.

Sunrise over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic)
Written from the point of view of the rank-and-file, this pointed novel allows American teens to grapple intelligently and thoughtfully with the war in Iraq.

Nation by Terry Pratchett (HarperCollins)
In a superb mix of alternate history and fantasy, Pratchett balances the somber and the wildly humorous as his protagonists, lone survivors of disasters, suffer profound crises of faith.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Happy days are here again!

Happy happy joy joy!!!!! Welcome, President Obama and Vice-president Biden!

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Solace of "Goodnight Moon"

Waah, Opus of "Bloom County" is no more! But wait - it appears he has managed to insert himself, a la Gumby or the pigs of Wiesner's The Three Pigs, into a supremely comforting book. Here is the very last panel starring Opus...

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Review of We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson

Baseball leaves me lukewarm and I tend to view nonfiction as a means to a very definite end (finding the best way to cook turnips or the cheapest bed and breakfast in London - you get the picture) and not as something actually fun and engrossing. My loss, I know. Luckily, some nonfiction books do snag me and keep my attention until the end, and We Are the Ship is one such example.
That Kadir Nelson not only created the astonishing paintings but also wrote the words was intriguing. So too was the satisfying look and feel of the book - large and square, with a solid heft and a handsome design featuring a red border and chocolate brown endpapers. The numerous full-page paintings (and a few double-spreads) are so entrancing that it took me a while to settle down and actually read the book; I kept paging back and forth, looking at the pictures.
The text does not disappoint. In a welcome contrast to the grand splendor of the paintings, Nelson uses a first person plural narration throughout the book to create an intimate connection between the reader and the story, which feels as if it is being told to us by the very folks we are reading about - all the black baseball players who were a part of the Negro Leagues. Comfortable but not colloquial, the style worked well for me - it drew me in and welcomed me to a world with which I was barely familiar. Many, many players are mentioned, and most names I forgot only a few pages later, but their portraits linger in my mind.
Nelson makes it very clear that these ballplayers were truly giants - we look up at them from waist level, like awestruck kids, or even from almost ground level, so that the men loom over us, smiling benevolently or gazing solemnly. Nelson spent 7 years researching this book, and one suspects that much of this research was for his paintings. Every detail is impeccable, from the uniforms of the players to the colors of the stadiums to the ads decorating the walls. The paintings are so visceral that one can almost hear the roar of the crowd and the crack of the bat against a ball. They are powerful paintings and add a fascinating gravitas to the book, a counterbalance to the informal feel of the text.
A foreword written by Hank Aaron, an author's note, a list of Negro Leaguers who made it to the major leagues and to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a bibliography, a filmography, and endnotes add to the wealth of information.
This is a compelling story in a handsome package - remember it for sports fans young and old this holiday season (and don't forget to display and book talk it at the library!).
Gr. 4 and up