You are currently browsing the monthly archive for April 2009.

I think I’m finally getting my shelf of library books under control (although I suspect it won’t stay that way for long).  Now, if I could just get my pile of “currently reading” books down to a manageable size, I’d be in business.  There are a few that I’ve been “reading” for quite a while, like The Forsyte Saga, which is too big to lug around and sits next to my bed.  Or The Long Winter, which I started reading back during Artic Blast ’08 and never finished.  Then there are the ones that I started but had to return to the library, since they were on hold, and which I’m still waiting to get back – The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey and the newish edition of Pippi Longstocking illustrated by Lauren Child.

I’m actively reading just a few books – I have the third Maisie Dobbs, Pardonable Lies, on audio in the car, and I just picked up Sandra Gulland’s Mistress of the Sun.  There might be something else lying around.  I just finished Marcelo in the Real World last night – one of those YA books that could be marketed just as easily to adults as teens.  I definitely recommend it, and I’m trying to digest it a bit more before I review it.  It’s early in the year for predictions, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it popping up on awards lists later.

In food news, I’m roasting a chicken – my first.  I’ve done a few whole chickens in the crock-pot, which is pretty failproof, so this is a fun adventure.  Just thinking about it is making me hungry – it hasn’t even started smelling good yet.  I’m really enjoying this whole post-Lent, eat whatever you please phase – a few weeks of rice and beans makes a fried egg or a roast chicken or a slice of cheese just heavenly.  Sometimes, it’s actually hard to remember what I like to eat – it’s easier to just incorporate a few foods at a time.  Last week was homemade pizza (with spicy Italian sausage, red pepper, mushrooms, and sauted onions) and this week is the chicken.  I’d like to try baking some new things – I’ve made lemon bars (for Easter dinner), brownies (for a fundraiser) and banana bread, but none are all old favorites.

Ooh, the chicken is starting to sizzle and smell good.  Time to go drool over it.

Forever Changes Forever Changes by Brendan Halpin

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
This sat on my shelf for ages because I suspected it would be a tough read. A teen with cystic fibrosis? But I was pleasantly surprised, because rather than taking advantage of every opportunity to wring a tear from his readers’ eyes, Halpin treats the majority of the book as a smart, thoughtful YA story. Sure, Brianna spends time thinking about her own mortality and her illness, her role as a mentor to a younger girl with CF, and her own mentor who recently died – but it’s also got all those classic high school moments, which serve to emphasize how Brianna’s life is different without turning the whole thing into a pity party. Then there’s her love of math, and the fascinating conversations she gets into with her math teacher – they don’t require remembering anything you learned in high school, and my eyes didn’t glaze over from the geekdom, but the story doesn’t shy away from the fact that Bri is looking forward to going to MIT and being surrounded by math nerds. And this is really an important part of the story, not just a fact about Bri to make her seem unique. AND it didn’t make me cry until right at the end, which I appreciated.

It’s a quick, easy read without sacrificing any thoughtfulness – recommended to teens who like realistic stories.

One mild spoiler – I couldn’t help but wonder what the story would’ve been like if it cut off before her death, leaving the reader knowing that she’ll die before too long, but without actually writing the death scene. I don’t think it would’ve made the story any less sad, and I’m not saying that a death scene is easy to write, but it would be refreshing to read an illness story that doesn’t actually end with the death (or maybe I’ve just read too many books like this). Regardless, I think it’s a great example of the genre.

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Savvy Savvy by Ingrid Law

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
It sounded cute, and I put off reading it. And then, of course, I liked it. Despite Mibs turning 13 at the beginning of the story, I think this is a story for slightly younger readers. It’s got its sadness, of course, with the father in the hospital, and it’s not afraid to mention realities like a homeless man on the street, and there’s just the tiniest little smidge of romance. But it’s a sweet story about finding your place in the world, combined with a little bit of fantasy and an (unintentional) road-trip. I had a strong sense of all the characters, but it was the chatty, folksy tone that really sucked me in.

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The Winds of Marble Arch The Winds of Marble Arch by Connie Willis

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’m giving this one five stars, not because all the stories were perfect, but because taken as a whole, the collection presents a fabulous variety. Some of the stories are science fiction (like “Cash Crop”), some are contemporary with odd little twists (like “Just Like the Ones We Used to Know”), some have time travel (like “Fire Watch,” which has the added bonus of a Doomsday Book reference), and one is so downright creepy I’d like to forget it. Some short story collections feel awkward, not because the stories themselves aren’t good, but because they weren’t really written to be read all at once. With Willis’ stories, the book is organized by loose themes, rather than chronology, and while the style is all distinctly Willis, they never feel repetitive. The only thing missing was a note about when all the stories were originally published. This book is massive and a bit of a chore to lug around, but it’s just so well-rounded. I don’t always take easily to short stories (which is odd because I spent a whole class writing them in college) but this one more than won me over, and I’ll definitely reread it.

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

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Considering I don’t give a fig about sports, this book had me hooked. You can flip through it and just look at the illustrations – but take a good look. Notice the way you’re mostly looking up at the players from ground-level – like you’re a kid at one of the games, and the sun is shining and the sky is beyond blue, and these guys start looking like giants. There are some fantastic action shots, with a great sense of movement and muscle, and then there are all these portrait illustrations that are almost more impressive. The format of the book does justice to these pictures – it’s big and square, and most of the illustrations are full page, no white space, maximizing the size and color.

The narrative is almost equally impressive, although not so breath-taking. The style is colloquial, told in the second person, and full of anecdotes. Let me repeat – I don’t care about baseball, but these stories were entertaining. And since it focuses in one this one piece of history – Negro League baseball – as a sort of microcosm for American history and racism, it would be a fantastic book for younger readers who are learning about segregation. Probably for upper elementary on up – even through high school, and definitely for anyone interested in baseball history, no matter what age.

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In the Battle of the Books, We Are the Ship beat out The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks in round one, but lost to The Hunger Games in round two.  I’m finding the rationale behind each decision more interesting than which book actually wins each match, because this is an excellent group of books, and with this style of judging, it really does seem to come down to taste, whether the judges admit it or not.

In that first round, both Frankie and Ship were thought-provoking in such different ways.  I don’t think the scope really matters – one girl’s struggle to find her place or an entire race of baseball players trying to do what they love.  What’s compelling is that glimpse we’re given of the struggle, and to my mind, those two books were pretty fairly matched, but I’m not going to argue with the decision.  Or with The Hunger Game‘s win – that was a book that sucked me in and let me forget it was a book in a way that the other two didn’t quite (maybe because I was too busy thinking about Lockhart and Nelson’s use of point of view – fascinating, but distracting).  The Hunger Games is much more of a plot book.

Now, when Octavian Nothing comes up against Chains in round three – now THERE I have a real opinion.  If Octavian doesn’t come out on top – well, I’ll have to go weep over my copy and reread it.  Octavian himself wouldn’t be shocked to lose – and Isabelle is a much more spunky character to my mind – but give me melancholy Prince O any day.  When I read Chains, I couldn’t help but compare it to Octavian, and it  suffered in the comparison.  Chains is an interesting piece of historical fiction that deserves a sharp reprimand for not warning us it’s Volume 1.  Octavian doesn’t mess around with you like that.  And Tim Wynne-Jones is right – Bono gets all the best lines.  Sweet mercy in a firkin, Bono – help us out here.

The Porcupine Year The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Okay, I’ll confess – I put off reading this series because it sounded boring. It sounded earnest and dull. I picked up a copy of the first book, The Birchbark House and it’s been sitting on my shelf, unread, for ages. Something else always sounded more enticing. But when The Porcupine Year showed up in School Library Journal’s Battle of the Books, I picked it up. And I’m glad I did.

It’s always an interesting experiment to jump into a series in midstream – this is the third book, and I believe Erdrich is planning at least one more. Although it took a bit to sort out all of the characters and their relationships, I was never confused because each character has such a distinct and well-rounded personality. In fact, I became intensely curious about some of the background characters, like the father, and now I plan to go back and read the earlier books to see what I missed.

Although Omakayas, the main character, is twelve, the book could read a bit younger. This is not to say that Erdrich spares us any of the heartbreak the characters experience, but the style is lovely and simple and direct. I felt myself to be in the world of the characters, and I wanted to spend more time with them. While bigger historical events exist in the background – or as the motivation for the journey to a new home – the real focus is on character. The illustrations are a hoot (I assume they were done by the author since I couldn’t find a credit) and help bring things to life. It also seems to fill a real gap in historical fiction, without feeling didactic in the slightest.

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I keep meaning to link to Betsy Bird’s blog series on the Top 100 Picture Books.  She’s been doing a countdown for a while now, starting with #100 and working her way to the top of the list.  First of all, it’s impressive that she conducted a poll, to which I confess I did not contribute because #1 I’m lazy, #2 I’m indecisive, and #3 I didn’t realize how much fun it would be to read the results.  Second, she doesn’t just list the books.  She gives plot summaries, amusing bits of critical reviews, anecdotes, illustrations, videos – the whole nine yards.  When a favorite book pops up on the list, reading her comments makes you fall in love all over again.  When an unfamiliar title shows up, you feel like rushing to the library and sitting down with a giant stack of picture books.  Fun times for picture book dorks, librarians, teachers, parents, or anyone looking for a refresher or introduction to what’s out there.  Excuse me while I go reread one of my all-time favorites, The Maggie B.  Something tells me it’s not on the list, which only makes me wish I’d submitted my own Top 10.

The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West by Sid Fleischman

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’m not a big Twain fan, so I was a little unsure going into this one. But let me tell you – this is a great story on its own merits. Sure, i think it would help going in to know what a famous literary figure Twain turned into, but I don’t buy the argument that kids won’t read it because it’s about a dead writer they don’t care about. Fleischman does a fantastic job of showing the tragedy, humor and adventure in Twain’s life, using a chatty, over-the-top style that’s perfectly suited to his subject matter. I wasn’t quite sold on Fleischman’s biography of Houdini, but here he’s found his subject, and he does it justice. He also discusses how tricky it is to figure out what was real and what was a tall tale in Twain’s life. We get the flaws and the glory, the debt and the successful river boat captain, the Wild West and the cramped stagecoach, the duels and the tree-climbing buffalo.

I would definitely recommend this both for fun and for those pesky biography assignments. It fits the bill at over 100 pages, with plenty of content and no dry passages, and splendid references at the end. There’s a timeline, index, bibiography, a note on distinguishing fact from fiction, and commendably thorough references on quotations and pictures. But don’t let this sit on the shelf until someone needs a biography for a class project – this is an entertaining story in its own right, and should appeal to kids with an interest in adventure, history, travel, the Wild West, and so forth.

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And a comment from the Peanut Gallery on this here title winning out over The Graveyard Book in The Battle of the Books – with the caveat that I finished reading Trouble after it had already been victorious.   They are both fantastic titles that each deserve an audience.  Some commenters have decried Judge Scieszka for choosing a book that’s not kid friendly.  And while I suspect that Mr. “Let the Trouble Begin Now” Scieszka knew he’d catch some flak for dumping a popular, Newbery-winning favorite in round one, I wouldn’t have anticipated the “an adult picking a book for adults” comments.

According to the intro post over at SLJ, “with each judge determining his or her own criteria, we will be as surprised and delighted as everyone else with their decisions.”  So there is no obligation to be kid-friendly, although I don’t any of the judges would ignore that aspect completely – come on, this is Jon Scieszka, not some stuffy fuddy-duddy who’s never interacted with children.

But even though the judges aren’t choosing based on child appeal alone, I think The Trouble Begins at 8 could hold its own on those merits.  There are kids out there who don’t go ga-ga over fantasy.  There are kids who like a good, funny, mostly-true story.  Maybe there are fewer of them than the fantasy types, but don’t they deserve good books, too?  And what’s wrong with shining a little light on this kind of story?

As Twain’s publicity announced, “A SPLENDID ORCHESTRA is in town, but has not been engaged.  Also, A DEN OF FEROCIOUS WILD BEASTS will be on Exhibition in the next Block.  MAGNIFICENT FIREWORKS were in contemplation for this occasion, but the idea has been abandoned.  A GRAND TORCHLIGHT PROCESSION may be expected; in fact, the public are privileged to expect whatever they please.”  The Graveyard Book is like the splendid orchestra or the magnificent fireworks – perfectly appealing, but sometimes you’re in the mood for a “Lecture on the Sandwich Islands” and a little Trouble.

Show and Tell: The Fine Art of Picture Book Illustration Show and Tell: The Fine Art of Picture Book Illustration by Dilys Evans


My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Reading this was pleasantly reminiscent of art history classes – I particularly enjoyed Evans’ comments about the uses of form, composition, color, technique, perspective, etc. in the work of the picture book illustrators she highlights. It made me want to sit down with a giant stack of picture books and look at them for how the illustrations tell the story, how each page turn is important, and all of that. Some of the illustrators she highlights were already favorites of mine, like Trina Schart Hyman, Brian Selznick, and David Wiesner; others were illustrators whose work I’ve enjoyed, but never been particularly struck by, and others I’d tried to like but hadn’t quite. With each illustrator, Evans gives us a good overview of their work and style, a brief biography, and discusses the influences on the artist and why they are a good example of the art of picture book illustration. A few illustrations per person are discussed in depth, which only whets the appetite for MORE.

It’s a very accessible book, and I’d recommend it to anyone who loves picture books or is interested in the process of book and illustration creation. The only thing I would’ve liked to see were works in progress, although including them might have made the book an unmanageable size.

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Ways to Live Forever Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Although I was personally caught up in Sam’s story (and yes, crying through the second half), I was distracted by the question of whether or not this book would really appeal to an eleven year old boy. I know there’s an appetite for sob-stories in young girls, but would boys pick this up? I can’t say I know the answer, but one thing consoled me – Sam is really thinking things through. We see his distraught parents trying to cope, and occasionally they come on the scene as realistic, fully-fleshed characters, but Sam isn’t thinking about his approaching death the way they are (although for the first time in a story like this, I found myself identifying with the parents – maybe because Sam is only 11). He’s thinking about whether he could accomplish his goals (I loved the going up the down escalator scene) and what death is really like and how his book will end.

Sam has a fantastic teacher who visits him at home – a personality mainly revealed to us through the experiments and projects she gives Sam – and up until the end she encourages Sam’s scientific thinking and intellectual exploration. Since we know Sam is dying, this is a depiction of learning for its own sake (and not because it will be useful when you grow up) that could really inspire kids. Not in a maudlin “be grateful you have your health” way, or an “if a dying kid is this interested in science, you can be, too” way, but just showing the rewards of using your brain for whatever pursuits interest you. Which is all a long way of saying that the character development makes this more than just a sad, dying child story. Kids who like to ask those big questions will find it compelling. The rest of us might need some Kleenex handy.

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Ways to Live Forever was matched up today against Octavian Nothing in the Battle of the Books – while Judge Roger Sutton didn’t quite share my screaming enthusiasm for all things Octavian, he did name Prince O as the winner.  The comment I most appreciated was that “If, however, someone asked me for another Kingdom on the Waves, I’d be stuck. It’s a book we didn’t have before and thus offers new possibilities for the books that will come after.”

Speaking of M.T. Anderson, but on a lighter note, I recently stumbled across a link to a truly glorious elegy to a chicken which begs to be read aloud.  I found myself quoting it yesterday.

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