Monthly Archives: June 2017

Stumbling on History, by Fern Schumer Chapman

Stumbling on HistoryIt is human, perhaps, to try to forget the past when the memories dredge up feelings of guilt and shame. The danger is that in sweeping our ugliness under the rug, we will never learn from our mistakes, and the suffering of the victims will never heal. Fern Schumer Chapman’s mother, Edith Westerfeld Schumer, was born in the tiny German town of Stockstadt am Rhein, into one of only two Jewish families at the time of the Holocaust. She and her sister were sent to America to live with an aunt and uncle they had never met when Edith was only twelve years old. She never saw her parents again. Only later did she learn that they died in two different concentration camps.

In 1996, German artist Gunther Demnig began an activist art project in Berlin called the Stumbling Stones (Stolpersteinen) Project. Demnig places a square, brass marker—about the size of a hand—in the street in front of a victim’s home or place of business. The marker is deeply inscribed with the person’s name, date of birth, and their fate. Since he conceived of it, the Stumbling Stones Project has spread to many cities in Germany, as well as France, Poland, Italy, Denmark, and Austria. Although he has met with opposition, “Demnig’s team embosses 450 Stumbling Stones each month,” and they have placed markers in over 1,000 cities.

Stumbling Stones

Stumbling on History, besides giving a factual account of the project, tells Chapman’s personal story of traveling with her mother to Stockstadt am Rhein to participate in a historical ceremony. The book is laid out in picture book format, but the amount of text is best suited to older children and adults who, like me, have never heard of this beautiful and significant art project. This inspiring story is accompanied by many large photographs on every page, both historical and contemporary. Chapman has produced a volume that will help children to recognize both the enduring tragedy of Nazi violence and the profound impact that a small work of art can have on an individual’s life.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book, which I had specially bound for our library. It can be hard to get, even though it was published in 2016, but the paperback is on Amazon. Well worth it. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

All the Birds in the SkyLaurence—not Larry, never Larry—invented a two-second time machine that he wore on his wrist in school. When he ran away from his parents and boarded a bus to watch a rocket launch, the scientists recognized his genius and never forgot him.

Patricia got lost in the woods while running away from her scary older sister who threatened to kill the injured bird that Patricia was holding. She ended up in the center of the forest, talking to the gigantic, old tree and all the birds in it, who were busy with a parliament meeting at the time.

So, the witch and the tech genius met at school and formed a friendship that was at least partially founded on mutual protection from the school bullies. They parted ways as they grew to adulthood and perfected their skills, and then met again at a critical moment for the future of the planet. Who can say whether the whole plot was concocted by Laurence’s AI invention, CH@NG3M3– or, as it preferred when it attained sentience, Peregrine?

This adult science fiction title just won the 2016 Nebula Award for best novel. It is my favorite type of sci-fi: not the kind with rockets and space (The Martian is a notable exception), but rather a twisty tale of technology gone awry, exploring how our own progress might yield unforeseen consequences. Blend in the fantasy line, further complicating the plot with humanity’s efforts to either conquer or cooperate with nature, add a splash of romance, and you have a winning combination. Anders’ characters are sharply drawn, Laurence and Patricia are both sympathetic, and one wild character in particular was literally fabulous. The pacing was luxuriant in the beginning, and then blockbuster-fast at the conclusion. With strong language and sexual content, this one is not for kids.


Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Quiet New Picture Books

LifeLife, by Cynthia Rylant and Brendan Wenzel

“Life begins small…

Then it grows.”

So begins Cynthia Rylant’s new picture book, Life, a celebration of creation from hawk to elephant, tortoise to rabbit. With very spare text and large paintings of wide-eyed animals on every page, Ms. Rylant has authored a volume that is only seemingly for children. The wisdom of this book would also be meaningful for graduates or for thoughtful adults. One passage reads, “Life is not always easy… but wilderness eventually ends,” as a bird flies out of a dark forest, looking warily back over his shoulder.

Brendan Wenzel processMy son grew up on the heartwarming “Henry and Mudge” series by Cynthia Rylant, which is still just as popular as ever. She has also written the “Mr. Putter and Tabby” series and many stand-alone titles, such as the Caldecott Honor book, When the Relatives Came. When I had the opportunity to hear Brendan Wenzel describe his process (above) for the illustrations in Life, he owned that he was very aware of the honor of working with an icon in children’s literature.

Brendan Wenzel autographAfter the Simon & Schuster breakfast at Book Expo, Mr. Wenzel kindly took the time to sign my copy of his book. Artists are the best for autographs. Here is Brendan Wenzel’s “signature” in my copy of Life.









Town Is by the Sea, by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith

Town Is by the Sea

A young boy lives in a seaside town based on Joanne Schwartz’s home town of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Although his view of the sea is sparkling and white-capped, the boy is ever aware of the fact that his father is in a tunnel underneath the sea, digging for coal. The main character narrates his day for the reader by telling us “how it goes,” as in the morning, when he says, “When I wake up, it goes like this….” Whether he plays with his friend or goes to the market for his mother, his mind is on his father, working in the darkness. Muted scenes of ivory and green with thick, black outlines are periodically punctuated with a mostly-black double-page spread of the miners underground. The text ends with “One day, it will be my turn. In my town, that’s the way it goes.”

We lived in eastern Kentucky for a number of years, and the scenes that we saw in October Sky, the movie based on Homer Hickam’s book, Rocket Boys, came to life for us. Coal mining is the destiny of most of the men this part of Appalachia, and although many ministries and government agencies are working to create alternative means of income for the families there, most boys will go underground at a young age, dwell in darkness for years, and die too soon of accidents or lung disease. Ms. Schwartz saw the same inevitable ending for the boys in her town, and the cadence of her prose expresses the relentless despair of life in a mining family. When the library copies of this book came in, I read one at my desk and wept.

Sydney Smith autographFor the first time this year, the Boston Globe- Horn Book Award winners were announced at the end of SLJ’s Day of Dialog, and Sydney Smith won an honor for his illustrations in Town Is by the Sea.  Immediately following the announcement, we attendees boarded the elevator to go upstairs to the book signings. Just as the door was about to close on our full elevator, Sydney Smith rushed up and said, “Is there room for me?” We all said yes, and when the door closed, we yelled, “Congratulations!” and “Yay!” It was probably the best elevator ride ever. Once we arrived on the tenth floor, I was the first one in line for an autograph, so I will share with you the lovely drawing Sydney Smith whipped up in an amazing few seconds for the very first Town Is by the Sea to be autographed after it won a Boston Globe-Horn Book award.

Disclaimer: I read copies of these two books that I received at Book Expo (Life) and SLJ’s Day of Dialog (Town Is by the Sea). Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Solo, by Kwame Alexander, with Mary Rand Hess

SoloBlade Morrison is the son of an aging rocker, living a privileged, unhappy life with his father and sister after his mother died. His dad continues his destructive habits well past the age of coolness, showing up now and then with young bimbos on his arm, and Blade’s sister seems obliviously happy to follow in his footsteps. Even though Blade pours his heart into song lyrics and finds comfort in his guitar, he struggles to lead a normal life, excelling in academics and crushing on the flirty but distant Chapel.

When a stunning revelation spins Blade into crisis mode, he boards a plane to Ghana in search of the missing pieces in his puzzle. In Africa, he finds staggering poverty, beautiful friends, and a distrust of Westerners who swoop in to save them, leaving them worse off than before. However, music is a universal language that stays with Blade in more ways than he expected, and although loving people sometimes makes life painful, it’s the only thing that makes it worthwhile.

Kwame Alexander and fans

Kwame Alexander and fans at SLJ’s Day of Dialog 2017

Kwame Alexander is a poet and author who completely smashes the moody, depressed stereotype. He’s one of the friendliest and kindest writers I’ve met, always ready to chat and joke while signing books. This verse novel is his first work to be published by Zondervan’s Blink imprint, and the proceeds help support LEAP for Ghana, a literacy project he co-founded six years ago. I was privileged to hear him read from this latest book at SLJ’s Day of Dialog in New York a couple of weeks ago. I’ve reviewed many of Alexander’s books on this site, including the Newbery-winning Crossover, and I’d say that he is an absolute “must-read” author for all kids. Solo is another triumph for teens twelve and up. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, signed (Yay!) by the author. The release date is August 1, so pre-order or put your library requests in now! Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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A Library for Juana: The World of Sor Juana Inés, by Pat Mora

Library for JuanaWhen she was just a little girl in Mexico City in the 1600s, Juana Inés wanted to read all of the books in her abuelo’s library, but her mother said that she was too young. She asked endless questions, and skipped along making rhymes all day long. When her older sister went to school at her neighbor’s house, Juana begged to go, too. Her parents relented, and soon Juana was studying everything she could find and writing poems for her mother’s birthday. Later, living with her aunt and uncle in the big city, she kept her tutor busy teaching her Latin and many other languages. At fifteen, she became a lady-in-waiting at the palace, writing poems and riddles for the amusement of the court, amazing scholars with her learning, and reading as much of the royal library as she could. Eventually, the young woman decided to become a nun, changing her name to the now well-known Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

When someone mentioned her in a library meeting recently, I had never heard of Juana Inés, so after looking her up on Wikipedia, I checked out this children’s biography. I have often found children’s biographies to be quick, introductory sources of information that avoid getting bogged down with all the tiny details of a person’s life. They convey the central importance of the subject and are often very beautiful, as is the case with this volume, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal. Of course, Pat Mora could not delve deeply into the struggles that Juana had with the men over her in the church hierarchy who did not accept a woman speaking and writing about theological issues. Eventually Sor Juana was severely punished and lost everything. Today, she is known as one of North America’s greatest poets, earning the nickname “Mexico’s Tenth Muse.” Probably the most famous book for adults exploring Juana Inés’ philosophy and theology is Sor Juana: Or the Traps of Faith, by Nobel laureate Octavio Paz. Juana Inés is widely revered for her lifelong support of female education. Imagine the riches we have forfeited through the centuries because women were kept from learning.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Song from Somewhere Else, by A.F. Harrold

Song from Somewhere ElseFrank’s mum is away, her cat is missing, and her father is embarrassing in the way that only preteens’ parents can be. While she is riding her bike around to put up posters of her cat, the school bullies begin harassing her, a situation made even more painful through familiarity. Surprisingly, Frank is rescued from her tormentors by Nick Underbridge, but rather than being grateful, Frank is now afraid that other kids will think that she is friends with huge, flat-faced Nick, the class misfit.

While reluctantly having a snack at Nick’s house, Frank begins to hear beautiful, unearthly music that fills her soul with such joy that she feels compelled to find its source. When Nick leaves the room, Frank finds a hidden door, and since she is convinced that the music is coming from the other side, she opens it and descends the stairs to the basement. At the bottom, she can see the usual stacks of boxes and unused furniture, but she can also see, in the same place and at the same time, something— and perhaps someone– else.

As one transgression will lead to another, Frank is now in the position of having to keep a secret she should never have known, and for a girl who is continuously bullied, there is plenty of pressure to betray someone she never wanted as a friend, anyway. Frank has to face the darkness of her own heart in the midst of unbelievable and terrifying new discoveries.

This British import is a brilliantly told middle-grade story with just the right level of creepiness for kids who like a frisson of fear, but are not ready for the likes of Stephen King. Throughout the book, Levi Pinfold’s black and gray illustrations create a dark and foreboding atmosphere that carries the mood forward perfectly. Behind the mind-bending thrills, however, is a story about kids trying to navigate the end of childhood. Parents can be wonderful, distracted, or absent. Other kids can be mean, but sometimes we grieve when the cruelty in our own hearts is revealed. Maturing into the human beings we should be is a tough process, but Frank and Nick give us hope.

I could not put this book down, and I highly recommend it to anyone ten and up.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which will be published on July 4, 2017. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer. Cover shown may be the British edition.

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