Tag Archives: Children’s books

When I’m Not Reading, There’s This

I’ve been very excited to see readers from Russia, Ireland, and Canada in the past few weeks. Please keep sharing!

Vintage Clothing

ImageSpring has finally triumphed over this long, chilly winter. I know this because my formerly gray car is now yellow. Although I love the change of seasons, I dread trying to find clothes to wear in my meager wardrobe. At the end of every season, I put my worn-out warm or cool clothes away and take comfort in the belief that by the time I need them again, I will be so much thinner and richer that I will go out and buy a whole new wardrobe. I don’t know why I keep on believing this, but I always do. And here I am, still broke, but 25 pounds lighter, not really ready to invest in a bunch of new clothes and not able to afford it if I were. I have found a few things that I couldn’t fit into last year, so that’s good. Someone at work told me that Oprah has an entire room devoted to each size that she flits through. I wonder how many rooms she uses for closets?

My Baby Is Burdened with Guilt

ImageI get about a thousand reviews a month sent to me at work to consider for the tender little ones of our county. For those of you who are interested in the youngest generation, here are some of the latest titles in board books for your toddlers: Les Misérables and War and Peace. Oh, yes. After announcing the titles to anyone within earshot of my computer at the library, I promptly deleted them from the vendor’s order cart. There is also an entire board book series based on classic titles. I cannot begin to express my disdain for parents who are so breathlessly terrified that little Abercrombie may not get into Yale that they begin World Literature classes while he is still in diapers. Cultural literacy is inculcated at this age by Mother Goose and Little Red Riding Hood. There’s enough there to keep all of you sleep-deprived for months. You can teach Abercrombie grace and redemption à la Jean Valjean by administering proper punishment and forgiveness the next time he thwacks his sister Honoria over the head with his toy train.

The Netflixian Report

ImageLately, David and I have jumped into White Collar, a series that had been recommended to me by two friends, but since I’m pretty stubborn, I’m just getting around to it. We love it. I think it’s currently in its fourth season, so lots more to look forward to. If you’ve seen Leo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, you get the gist. Super-smart criminal ends up working for the FBI because they can’t figure out how to stop him otherwise. Interesting cases, great ensemble casting, and big, blue eyes.

The Treadmill Went Flat

So, I fought my way down 25 pounds and got stuck. I think the reason is that our treadmill has lost its “incline” feature. I used to have a good time setting goals for myself and really working up those hills. Walking on the flat surface is just not as fun nor as effective. David took the cover off the motor part of the treadmill, so now I can see everything moving when I walk, which is kind of scary. No, we are not accepting amusing theories as to why our treadmill may not be able to lift up anymore.

The Greatest of These Is Love

ImageDavid had taken on a second job for a while so that we could have a regular paycheck on his side and get some debts paid off. He would get up at 6:00 with me, as usual, and leave just after I did to get to his office. If he came straight home, he would get home just after I did in the evening, but he usually went out to show houses and got home between 7:00 and 8:00. In either case, he went right to his laptop and cell phone and worked until 10:00 or 11:00 at night, then got up to do it again the next day. Weekends, too. I missed him so much. Even when he was here, we couldn’t even talk or watch a TV show together. Eventually, it didn’t work out on either side, and now I have my husband back. You know what I learned? Money may always be a struggle for us, but not everyone is blessed to have someone they want to be with all the time. Life is short, and days are finite. Spend all the time you can with the people you love.

Hand the Crown to Bill

ImageI am coming right along with my smart phone. I recently went to the Verizon store, where the woman fixed my phone by turning it off and turning it back on. Oh. Although she was my age, she kept calling me “dear” and “honey,” but I was nice to her anyway. Then she told me that I could call Google customer service for help on the app. that wasn’t working. I couldn’t believe it. I said, “But it’s a free app. Is the tech support free, too?” She assured me that it was, so when I got home, I pulled up GooglePlay, put in my contact info, and hit send. My phone rang while it was still in my hand. Eerie. This very nice guy named Jim asked for my first name and a bit about my problem. Jim then introduced me to Bill, who deals with music issues, and it was all very chummy. Bill got it all fixed up, very patiently and kindly. He didn’t even act like he wanted to call me “honey” or “dear,” and they never put me on hold.  You know how some people fret that Google is taking over the world? Even though I will miss having a surname, I say: How soon can we make this happen and how can I help expedite the process?

There Was a Truck?

ImageMy husband is such a sport that he will read young adult books that I push at him, although we don’t always come away with the same experience. Recently, he read the complex and painful Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (see review, below), and became most animated at the part where Ari gets a ’57 Chevy pickup truck for his birthday. A red one. David was most pleased for Ari and would be happy to see one of these land in our driveway some birthday. He also read Twilight and went to the movie with me (told you he was a sport), but he got very upset during the movie. We all did, I suppose, but while the rest of us were appalled by the cartoonish makeup and campy acting, David was outraged that they gave Bella the wrong truck. It was the wrong make, the wrong model, and the wrong year. I’m sure that the producers were betting—correctly—that not a single teenage girl in the audience would notice, but I had to ask Mr. ADHD to stop talking about it in the theater. He tried, he really did, but every time a new scene showed the pickup, David had to blurt out, as quietly as possible, “That. Is. The. Wrong. Truck!”

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Wonder, by R.J. Palacio

Let’s start out by admitting that I did not want to read this book. I had it on my nighttable when it first came out and returned it without reading it. It was guaranteed to be a tearjerker, and I hate being manipulated emotionally. Later, when it started getting all sorts of buzz, I put it back on hold and had to wait for a month to get a copy! And just to let you know beforehand how I liked it, it was well worth the wait.

August is a young man who was born with facial deformities that are so severe that, after dozens of surgeries in his short life, children still scream when they see him. Because of the amount of time that he’s spent in the hospital or recovering from surgery, his mother has homeschooled him his whole life—until now. Auggie’s parents have decided that he will start middle school this year, along with his age-mates. Now for some reason, the author has placed fifth grade in middle school, and so this is a story about Auggie’s fifth grade year.

The principal, Mr. Tushman, is a good man who thought it would be a compassionate idea to ask several of his kindest students to show Auggie around and perhaps befriend him. You can imagine how that went all the way around. One of the students, Julian, is the type who is exemplary in front of adults, but is a bit of a bully with other kids, and of course his parents think the sun rises and sets on him. Julian is a popular boy, so other kids watch his reactions and copy him, and before long everyone avoids Auggie rather than risk becoming a social pariah. Some other students are nice to him out of pity, and that gets back to August, too. All the while, Auggie is an excellent student, has many interests, and is wise beyond his years because of all that he’s had to endure in his eleven years.

The story is divided into sections, and each section is told in a different voice, so that you can look at the same situation from different perspectives. The first section is by August, and although I immediately liked him, it was a relief to get another viewpoint, since looking through Auggie’s eyes can begin to pile on the guilt. Palacio was very wise to give us an opportunity to say to the other characters, “Well, yes. That’s only natural. I can’t blame you.”

Palacio gets bonus points for coming through on one of my big criteria for good children’s books: Auggie has terrific parents. They don’t always agree, but they love him very much. Furthermore, they love each other and their daughter. Via is the world’s coolest older sister, although she goes through some understandable troubles as she begins high school. It doesn’t take her long to realize that no one in her new school knows her as That Girl with the Deformed Brother, a fact of her life that has defined her in the past. We get to hear from her in one section, and the reader can’t help but think that she is a very honorable young woman. Palacio could have written a book in which everyone but August was evil, but she didn’t. The book honestly shows the struggle that normal people have when confronting someone so very different from themselves, but most people try to be as compassionate as they can be—even in middle school. Of course, there are always a few people who choose to live with hatred instead.

In the end, Wonder was not a sob-fest, as I expected, mainly because Auggie was not filled with self-pity. He was a genuinely nice, fun, and intelligent kid, and rather than running away, the reader wants to know more and more about him. This book was all about character development, both in the people in the book, and, I’m sure, in the reader. The problems in the beginning of the book seem excruciating at the time, but in the final crisis, we find that people who have disappointed us in the past can react in ways that we’ve never imagined, and sometimes that can fill us with hope.

I highly recommend Wonder to anyone ten or older, and I’d be very surprised if the Newbery Committee didn’t stick a gold or silver medal on this one.

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The Mighty Miss Malone

I usually run from Depression stories, but since this is a new book from Newbery-winning author Christopher Paul Curtis, and a companion novel to his wonderful Bud, Not Buddy, I had to give it a whirl. After all, we’re getting close to the end of the year, and I have to read everything that’s a “contenda” for the Newbery Medal this year.

Twelve-year-old Deza Malone has everything it takes to become a great writer, including an overused thesaurus that her older brother, Jimmie, gave her for her birthday. She loves school, and her favorite teacher has offered to tutor her next year so that she can go on to be famous some day. She is sure that Jimmie will be famous because of his beautiful singing voice, a gift that assures his acceptance wherever he goes, even though he stopped growing when he was twelve years old. But the Depression is biting ever more deeply into her family’s finances, and after her father is in a boating accident, everything about their lives changes forever. After a long time of recovery, her father leaves their home in Gary, Indiana, to find work, but when they don’t hear from him after a while, Deza, Jimmie, and their mother have to leave home to try to find him in Flint, Michigan. They ride the rails and have to spend some time in a homeless camp, and then one day, Jimmie runs away. There is so much confusion and struggle, but Deza and her mother continue to push through their circumstances, working toward a better life. Eventually, they begin to receive letters from her father saying that he has finally found work, but something is wrong. The letters don’t sound like her father at all. That’s when Deza runs away, too. She has to find the truth.

Curtis has written a moving and powerful story about the strength of the human spirit in a young girl who has no real reason for hope. Deza has a warm and supportive family, and her parents have taught her well the value of hard work, family love, and honesty. Curtis shows us a beautiful model of a strong African-American family, very different from many of the children’s and teens’ books of black families today. If I had a quibble with the book at all, it would be that Deza is a bit too good to be true. I looked at the picture of Christopher Paul Curtis on the end flap and thought that he must have some very sweet granddaughters, and he can’t imagine that little girls could be anything but sugar with no spice. Of course, I was just like that, but I hear that it’s unusual.

This story would be a great way to introduce children to the Depression era and to spark discussion about greed, poverty, hard work, and the many other issues that our children don’t consider very often. With strong characters and an exciting plot, I would highly recommend this book to kids from nine to fourteen.

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Will Sparrow’s Road

Will is on the run in this new novel of the Renaissance by Karen Cushman, who won the Newbery Medal for A Midwife’s Apprentice. Will’s mother left when he was little, and his father has now sold him to an innkeeper in exchange for some ale. If the innkeeper asks him to do something and Will disobeys, he will sell him to the chimney sweeps. Will knows that would be a short, sickly life, so he runs away, only planning as far as staying alive and finding food. Along the way, he meets a pickpocket, a young lord, a dwarf, a blind juggler, and a “purveyor of oddities and prodigies,” who offers him a job and then neglects to pay him.

Will Sparrow is Cushman’s first male protagonist, and he is not immediately likeable. Although he becomes a part of what we now call a Renaissance Faire, it is not at all romantic or beautiful. Master Tidball, Will’s employer, charges admission to a tent full of what he calls oddities, deformed creatures in glass bottles, some of which are fakes, but some are real. He wants the dwarf, Fitz, to do tricks and the cat-faced girl, Grace, to act like a wild animal. He calls them creatures and does not afford them the respect given to human beings. Cushman does not give Will supernatural virtues. As an uneducated boy of his time, he is just as fascinated by Fitz and Grace as the people paying their pennies to gawk at them, but he stays with the traveling show because he gets dinner every night.

I do have a soft spot for road-trip stories, and this one is filled with adventure and humor, which cushions the ugly truths that Cushman is showing us. There is no sweet, motherly figure who swoops in, takes Will home, and feeds him. He never becomes someone’s beloved little boy who goes to work on the family farm. However, Cushman shines a light on the twisted things of this world to help us to see true beauty within. Grace has a condition called hypertrichosis, a very rare genetic disorder that makes people exceptionally hairy. Instead of going to a doctor, as we would today, her family sold her to a travelling circus. It takes a long time for Will to see beyond outward appearances, but several difficult and revealing events help to mold him into a compassionate and mature young man.

Karen Cushman is a very engaging writer who specializes in the medieval and Renaissance time periods. I would recommend this absorbing novel to anyone, especially boys, between nine and fourteen years old.

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Liar & Spy

Chances were very good that I would enjoy Rebecca Stead’s new middle-grade novel, Liar & Spy, since her earlier novel, When You Reach Me, won the Newbery Medal in 2010— and furthermore, was outstanding. The two qualities do not always go together, and we children’s librarians are extremely opinionated about these things. You will always find us logging onto the webcast early one January Monday morning, eager to be the first to hear the new winners of the ALA children’s media awards. If we agree, as we did with When You Reach Me, you will hear us squealing with delight, but if we don’t, we will immediately shred the entire Newbery Committee. As a matter of fact, my colleague Danielle, who recently left to have a baby, has promised to come to work next January, baby on hip, to watch the webcast with me. Yes, we are that nerdy.

However, the Newbery Committee has my complete permission to choose Liar & Spy this year. Ms. Stead has managed to deal with many serious issues in a voice that remains true to a twelve-year-old boy. Georges (“the s is silent”) and his parents have had to move away from their house to an apartment nearby when his architect father loses his job. He overhears his mom saying that she can pick up double shifts as a nurse at the hospital, and now he leaves messages for her on his night table using Scrabble tiles. His strange new neighbors are a homeschooled brother and sister, Safer and Candy, who live upstairs. Safer pulls Georges into a spy club immediately, which is both fascinating and scary, and in the meantime, Georges is dealing with some serious bullying in his middle school class.

Over the course of the story, Georges struggles with loss and goes through an excruciatingly rapid period of growth as he is disappointed by some people and questions whether he can trust anyone, including himself. I appreciate Stead’s depiction of Georges’ parents, who may not be perfect (which would not be realistic), but are dependably loving. Stead’s writing style is extremely engaging, written in first person in Georges’ voice. He is matter-of-fact and often vulnerable, working hard to be a tough guy while hiding his weaknesses. When his friend, Bob, who had explained to him the difference between hard G and soft G, wonders why he does nothing about the bullies, he thinks:

“It’s like the hard G and the soft G, is what I want to tell Bob. The hard G goes to school, and nothing can hurt him. And the soft G    is the one who’s talking to you right now. Except he’s only talking in my head. I used to know which one was the real me, but now I’m not so sure. Now it’s like maybe there is no real me.”

Rebecca Stead has produced that special jewel in children’s publishing: a story with genuine literary value that will also be a great favorite with middle-grade children. Highly recommended.

Disclosure: I read a publisher’s hardcover gift copy that was given to the library system. The extended quote was taken from page 111 of this copy. The gift will be added to the collection, joining many other copies that were purchased. Opinions expressed are solely my own.

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Sara Pennypacker Pulled It Off

I didn’t think she could bring this book to a satisfying conclusion, but she did. The blogs were buzzing about Summer of the Gypsy Moths and Newbery medals, so I thought I should give it a try. I love Clementine, after all, so why not something for a bit older audience?

Little did I realize that Ms. Pennypacker would put two 12-year-old girls in the position of spritzing a corpse with Febreeze each day until they realize that they just have to bury it in the backyard.

After Stella’s grandmother dies and her mother abandons her, she is sent to live with her only remaining relative, Great-Aunt Louise. Since they live in a fairly remote location where Louise takes care of a group of summer cottages on Cape Cod, Louise thinks it would be nice for Stella to have company, so she takes in a 12-year-old foster child named Angel. Neither of the girls thinks this is a great idea, and they barely speak until the afternoon they come home to find Great-Aunt Louise dead in her chair in front of her favorite soap opera. As she picks up the phone to call 911, Stella realizes that the minute the police find out about Louise, she and Angel will both be sent to foster homes.

How in the world can these two girls make it through the summer without anyone finding out that they are alone? All I could imagine was that both of them would end up in a juvenile detention facility before all was said and done. As Gonzo says in Muppet Treasure Island, “This is supposed to be a kid’s movie!” Somehow, Sara Pennypacker writes this desperate, difficult story with the same light, sweet hand that she uses in her Clementine series. Your heart will ache for Stella as she clings to her Hints from Heloise clippings that help her to keep her world organized, and I won’t reveal to you how Angel copes with her pain, as it leads to a very moving scene late in the book.

The only flaw I found is that I am not sure how realistic the last few scenes are, since I am not familiar with juvenile law. Anyone want to weigh in? There is also one line that would probably not come out of the mouth of a child Stella’s age, but we’ll just remember that she’s precocious.

This is a very thought-provoking read for your 10-14 crowd, particularly girls, as well as grown-ups like me who love kids’ books. Also, if you haven’t made Clementine’s acquaintance, she will quickly become a favorite of your new readers up to 10 years old.

Happy reading!

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The Girl Who Has Books with Really Long Names

I just finished Catherynne Valente’s exquisite second YA  novel, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, which is the sequel to the also breathtaking (in more than one way) The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. As far as I can tell, Valente is not British, just plain ol’ American, but she puts me in mind of all sorts of quintessentially British authors, such as E. Nesbit, Lewis Carroll, Douglass Adams, and Jasper Fforde. Her use of language is what makes her work so distinctive, and when combined with her brilliant wit, reading is a joy.

In both of the novels, our heroine, September, is swept into Fairyland, where she uses her pluck and good sense to save entire civilizations of creatures she’s never met before and still gets home in time for dinner. As usual. However, it is not as usual at all. Valente’s creatures are original and her world-building is convincing. We love September and are proud of her courage. Although September is twelve in the first novel and thirteen in the second, Valente’s humor will please adults at age, well, fifty-four, as well.

I can highly recommend these two books to fantasy-lovers from a precocious ten to a young-at-heart one hundred.

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