Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Big Book Pile Announcement

On the eve of the two month anniversary of Auntie Karen's Book Pile, I am pleased to announce a change to your regularly scheduled programming.

Beginning tomorrow, July 1, a new book review will be posted three days a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I have three goals in mind:  keep up with this blog (which I love), satisfy you, the reader, with good content,  and maintain my sanity. I believe scaling back to three days will meet these goals!

Thank you for reading and commenting. I'm happy to report just over 2600 hits in the first two months. That's a pile of hits for Auntie's pile of books. Keep sharing the blog with your friends - it's one of the best ways for me to get new readership.

Do you have a book you want me to review so others will know about it? Email me at karenboss[at]gmail[dot]com. It doesn't matter how new or old it is - if you love it, chances are others will too. You might've noticed some holes in my pile: I don't read a lot of fantasy and while I love nonfiction, it seems lacking. Got those? Let me know.

Are you an author or illustrator who would be interested in doing a "Meet the Author/Illustrator" post? It's easy - I send you the questions, you send me your answers and some other things and up it goes. Let me know.

So, from under the piles (there's one on my bed and four on my trunk and three on the bottom shelf of my book case right now, not to mention the two random books next to my pillow that never seem to get moved), I'll see you Monday with a new post!

Auntie Karen

Friday, June 29, 2012

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

written and illustrated by Grace Lin
Little, Brown | July 1, 2009

Even if this Newbery Honor Book wasn't a good story (which it is) or was horribly written (which it isn't), the design alone would still make it worth picking up. Full color illustrations, gorgeous chapter headings, whimsical font, and intricate spot art all carry it along. (I've only seen the paperback, so imagine what the hardcover must be like!)

Grace Lin's Asian-inspired story about the Jade Dragon and her four children and young Minli's attempt to reunite them to allow Fruitless Mountain to prosper again, thus ending the poverty of her family and village is awesome, to use that word properly for once.

Part adventure story, part fable part folktale, and part coming-of-age tale, Lin creates in Minli a believable young girl who faces down her parents' expectations, danger, and her own fear to make her fortune and to change the fates of those around her. She is both a traditional heroine and a modern-day feminist-leaning protagonist. She has a doubting mother and a dreaming father, allowing her to see the limitations and benefits of both ways of being. If someone wanted a recipe for the perfect way to write a story of this kind, Grace Lin could provide it, using this book as template.

The book includes back matter from Lin, explaining the background of the story and of her life as a young Asian girl in the United States. She provides photographs to show her inspiration for some of the illustrations, too, a nice addendum to the book.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Gardener & The Library

written by Sarah Stewart
illustrated by David Small
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux | Library 1995; Gardener 1997

If you don't know these books, go get them right now. If you don't know wife and husband team Sarah Stewart and David Small - seek out all their other collaborations while you're at it. They are all pretty wonderful.

The Gardener, a Cadecott Honor book, is about young Lydia Grace Finch, who is sent to live with her Uncle Jim in the city from her family's home in the country during the Great Depression ("Papa has been out of work for a long time, and no one asks Mama to make dresses anymore"). She's used to a lot of space and tending garden with her Grandma, so the move is a shock. She helps out in the bakery her Uncle runs. Soon, she is cultivating seeds and growing flowers in window boxes and in the storefront and has earned the nickname "The Gardener." Finally, she notices a secret spot on the roof, and prepares a surprise for her Uncle Jim.

The Library is about Elizabeth Brown, a young girl who loves books. As she grows older and her personal library also grows, soon she can't even get into her house! So she opens a lending library so others can enjoy her books, too. Written in short, sweet verse, the book is incredibly endearing.

David Small's art is a joy. Visit his site here if you aren't familiar with him or check out my post on his newest illustrated book, One Cool Friend. An example of the brilliance of Small's art: when Lydia gets off the train in the city, the double page spread is of the station, huge and ghostly, looming in gray tones with light streaking from high windows. Lydia stands, small and alone in the bottom left hand corner with a spot of white space around her. She is the only color on the page in her blue dress, green ha,t and bright orange hair. She stares up towards the top right corner. She is vulnerable, wide-eyed with adventure and trepidation. Small provides for us, on a wordless page, and important transitional moment from the country to the city - from innocence to maturation, from being cared for to being more independent. Beauty.

Elizabeth Brown always with
a book!
The two books are similar in style and they make a fantastic pair, much like Stewart and Small themselves.

Lydia earns her nickname after prettying
up her uncle's bakery.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Blink & Caution

by Tim Wynne-Jones
Candlewick Press | March 8, 2011

Blink is roaming the streets, homeless, lurking in the hallways of hotels to find food when he overhears a bunch of thugs, steals a wallet, and sets out on the run.

Caution is a runaway, convinced she can't live with her family anymore after what happened.

They collide, entwine, join forces, split, and come together again.

This 2011 Boston Globe Horn Book Fiction Award Winner is an emotional trip through the city streets and back woods of Canada with two young people in pain. It's a story of looking for truth and meaning and purpose while trying to make sure every day ends with somewhere to sleep and some semblance of safety.

The one thing I will say is that it's a tiny bit hard to get into. The seemingly strange use of the second person creates a distance between the reader and Blink at first. As Blink works through his self-doubt, the text itself stops doubting so much, allowing the reader closer to him. Don't stop - keep with it in the beginning and very soon, because it is so well written, it grabs the reader and insists one stays.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Wideness and Wonder: The Life and Art of Georgia O'Keeffe

by Susan Goldman Rubin
Chronicle Books | April 6, 2011

Many of us are familiar with Georgia O'Keeffe's art. But what of her life? This succinct portrayal of her life from childhood through death is fascinating. In what we've come to expect from Rubin, it's put together beautifully with the younger reader in mind and it works perfectly. In what we've come to expect from Chronicle, it's well-designed and beautiful to look at, which is apropos - a beautiful book about art.

Lots of archival photos are included as well as O'Keeffe's art, as well. The brightly colored pages are reminiscent of the bright colors in her works. A full bibliography, photo credits, and index make for an extensive back matter.

If an adult reader wants to know more about O'Keeffe, go here first. And if your 6th or 7th grader is doing a report on someone next year, encourage them to choose this subject just so you can put this book on your coffee table afterwards!

Monday, June 25, 2012

You Are Here

This is the paperback cover.
It is much better than the
original cover.

by Jennifer E. Smith
Simon & Schuster | May 19, 2009
paperback April 24, 2012

Emma is an almost-17 year old living with her academic parents in a college town. She has siblings who are are far older than she, all of whom are also very smart and academic-focused. She has always felt out of place and like something is missing. When she finds the birth certificate of the twin she never knew she had, she heads out on a road trip to find his grave in the town where they lived when she (and the twin) were born.

After the car she "borrows" dies, she calls her neighborhood friend, Peter, to come with her, since she's stranded at a rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike. He arrives in yet another "borrowed" car, from the tow lot at the police station where his father works, and he and Emma set off on a road trip. Peter is a Civil War buff, a lover of maps, and can't wait to get to the academic life of college. He and Emma are an unlikely pair.

The story is well-written and the pacing is good. The character development is fine, but could be stronger - I don't really get a good feel for who Emma is, so it's harder to root for her (and cheer later). Peter is better developed, I think.

In any case, it's a story about loss and love and figuring out where one belongs even when "you are here."

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Toot and Pop!

written and illustrated by Sebastien Braun
Harper Collins Children's Books | June 1, 2012

The opening spread in this new picture book is a wordless view of the harbor, with Pop, the small little tugboat is speeding across towards the lighthouse. All the boats, the crane, the helicopter, the lighthouse - everything - has a little face upon it. The brightly colored row houses along the shore seem reminiscent of Copenhagen or Portland, Maine. (Braun is French and lives in London, according to his website.)

Pop works in the harbor. One day, an enormous boat, Toot, comes to the harbor. Pop explains, "It is my job to help you around the harbor." But Toot laughs him off, "You!...I'm big and strong. I don't help from anyone, especially you!"

Famous last words, those. After Toot crashes into the seawall, causing all kinds of problems for himself and others, Pop still comes to his rescue. Toot learns his lesson and a friendship is forged.

The illustrations are awesome. I read this one night with an adult friend and we were both oohing and ahhing over the simplicity of the art. I don't know what media the images in Toot and Pop! were made in, but Braun's website shows he works in diverse formats. Everything from the cover to the title page to the bright orange endpapers is awesome here. Enjoy with your littlest ones!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Rebel McKenzie & Dear George Clooney Please Marry My Mom

Rebel McKenzie by Candice Ransom
Disney Hyperion | June 26, 2012

Dear George Clooney Please Marry My Mom by Susin Nielsen
Tundra Books | August 10, 2010

This past Tuesday, I reviewed a couple of books about 10-year-old boys and here are a pair about 12-year-old girls.

Rebel McKenzie is all set to spend her summer at the Summer Ice Age Kids' Dig and Safari in Saltsville, VA when her mother tells her they don't have the money after all. So instead, she gets sent to live with her much older sister and her 7-year-old nephew Rudy and their enormous cat, Doublewide, in their trailer for the summer. She is meant to watch Rudy while her sister attends beauty school, but she ends up cooking, cleaning, helping her sister study. She explains in the text, "Always the strong one, she [Rebel's sister] was unraveling like the scarf I'd knitted the five minutes I'd been a girl scout. Instead of substituting one mother for another this summer, it seemed I'd become the mother."

Fed up, Rebel enters the Miss Frog Level Volunteer Fire Department beauty pageant, sponsored by Better-Off-Dead Pest Control and Bridal Consignment. Rebel is as tomboyish as they come, so she needs a good bit of help to prepare for the festivities. The adventures she and Rudy have, along with new friend Lacey Jane and enemy Bambi Lovering are silly, fun, and believable. The book has a clear southern twang, which is a delight (and might delight your southern children). Interspersed throughout are Rudy's cartoon drawings, excerpts from Rebel's diary, and Bambi's Expert Beauty Tips newsletters, all of which enhance the text of the story. Save for the horrible cover (with a beheaded young woman sucking on the straw of a blue slushie), this one's a win as a summer read.

Violet has a sister, Rosie, a mother in Vancouver and a father, his new wife Jennica, and twin half-sisters in Los Angeles. Her father cheated on her mother with Jennica and then left and now Violet's mom is struggling to make ends meet and is dating up a storm looking for a new husband. Violet does everything she can to make everyone else as miserable as she is. She heckles her mother's dates, refuses to speak to her father on the phone, and wait for it.....feeds cat poop to her baby sisters. Her best friend, Phoebe is the only voice of reason in her life, and Rosie is the only person Violet cares for without question.

When Violet and Phoebe decide George Clooney would be the perfect man for Violet's mom to marry, they write him a letter and then hatch a plan to bump into him in LA to ask him first hand. Meanwhile, Violet is dealing with the girl-bullies at school and the attraction she feels to Jean-Paul even though she's sworn off boys herself. As her mother gets ready to become serious with her new hilariously named boyfriend, Dudley Weiner, the pressure heats up for Violet.

Fantastic voice, cute story, and the trials of being in a split then blended family are all captured wonderfully here. Another win. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Marco Moves In (A Rather Remarkable Grizzly Bear)

written by Gerry Boland
illustrated by Anne McGuinness
O'Brien Press, Dublin | February 10, 2012

This first in a series (there are two more - Marco Master of Disguise (May 2012) and Marco Moonwalker (August 2012)) is a delightful tale of a talking, zoo-escapee grizzly bear who knocks on Patrick's door one night. In his walk from the zoo to Patrick's "not a single person noticed him. [Patrick] suppose[d] it helped that it was night, and that he was wearing a big black duffle coat with an enormous hood that covered his hairy head."

Patrick's mum, who is obsessed with her trombone playing and often forgets to feed him dinner is so distracted, she isn't even aware a bear is visiting. Each visitor to the house is fooled by Marco pretending to be something else - a stuffed-bear hat stand, a coffee table, a bear-skin rug - even the police looking specifically for an escaped grizzly bear from the zoo don't catch on.

Patrick offers Marco the shed out back behind the house, and this volume ends with Marco deciding to stay a while, saying, "I'll stay so. I could do with a nice long rest. And a bit of company." And Patrick concurs, saying "Me, too."

I can't wait to see the other two books. Marco is endearing, Patrick is matter-of-fact, the illustrations are simple and pleasing, the design is great, and the text is perfect for early readers or read aloud to younger kids. It is shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards Children's Award and there's a silly interview with Marco on the publishing house's website. You can see it here.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Meet the Author: Peter Arenstam

Meet Peter Arenstam and pre-order his new book, The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower, due out July 11. Order here.

Why do you write for children?
Of the many reasons I write for children, two come to mind right away. First, when I started to work seriously at writing, my own children were young. I had my daughters, aged 11 and 8 years old, in the back of my mind as I was writing. I tried to imagine the kinds of stories they might like or stories I might like to read to them. I found it helpful to have a reader in mind when I was writing; someone “looking over my shoulder,” as I wrote; someone I was trying to entertain with the story. During this time, I was home evenings with my kids while my wife was at school pursuing a degree in nursing. After my kids were finally in bed I had a chance to work on writing - stories for children were a natural outgrowth of that time in my life.

The second reason hadn’t become clear to me until more recently. After doing classroom visits in support of my Nicholas, A Massachusetts Tale series, I realized a book written for children can have a profound, positive effect on their lives.  Often, when I talk with children in classrooms or at book signings, they know all the details of the stories, they care about what happens to the characters, and they want to know what is going to happen to them in the future. Even better, they sometimes offer their own ideas of what should happen in the next book. Through these reactions, I see the positive impact books can have in a child’s life. Writing well and with meaning is a responsibility of someone who writes for children. It was this notion that has lead me to pursue an MFA degree at Simmons. It is my attempt to elevate my writing so that it is worthy of the position children’s literature holds in a child’s life.

What's the most difficult part of writing historic fiction for middle-grade readers?
There are aspects of writing historic fiction that are challenging; some elements apply to an audience of any age and some to a middle grade audience in particular. Like all writing, historic fiction has to be engaging with characters the reader cares about and whose problems the reader wants to see the them overcome.

When I am writing for a middle grade reader I have to keep in mind the balance between trying to be true to the history and making that history accessible to a young audience. I work for Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts where we recognize the messiness of history. When viewed from a modern perspective the world was a muddier place. Kids revel in the ideas of no baths for months at a time, the muckheap behind the house for disposing of all sorts of waste, and living in close proximity with cows and chickens and goats. But there is also the moral muddiness as viewed from our place in history. The way natives were treated, women’s place in society, the tight bond of religion and politics and how that impacted people’s daily lives are a few examples of what, in that time period, were considered acceptable views which are now outdated. The challenge for a writer for children is to portray the historic views in authentic context and yet gives the young reader the space to compare those views with how they are perceived today.

So, a clear example from my new book, The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower, is the scene where the pilgrims are exploring Cape Cod looking for a place to settle after a tempestuous voyage. At one point they come upon a cache of seed corn and some native graves. From an historic point of view, as written by a contemporary, the find of corn was a gift, one more sign the pilgrims were being watched over and sustained by their God. From their perspective they had a “right” to the corn. A modern interpretation of this event may say the pilgrims were actually stealing corn, clearly not theirs, and left by natives for their own use in spring planting. The balance a writer of historic fiction for children has to strike is presenting the history in an honest way and yet respect the reader enough to allow them to draw conclusions of the actions in the story based on a balanced world view.
What does The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower offer to children's literature ?
Admittedly, the story of the Mayflower crossing is one of the better-known stories in early American history. The challenge for me was to make the story fresh, engaging for children, and still impart historic information a new generation of readers may not know. I have tried to take the story beyond a mere retelling of the basics: Pilgrims left England, had a stormy crossing, arrived in the wilderness unprepared for what they encountered, and lots of people died. Because it is historic fiction I wanted to stay as close to the primary sources as possible. However there is scant information for how anyone felt, what they thought or how they reacted to events. I decided the mastiff, one of two dogs known to be onboard in 1620, would make an ideal main character. A child main character would not have been present for many of the important scenes of the story and therefore it would not make scene historically accurate to place them there. I tried to make Grace a sympathetic main character, one which children can identify with and root for.

Can you tell us about Grace? What will kids love about this seafaring dog headed for a new world?
The first thing to know about Grace is that I made up her name. We know from the historic record that there was a mastiff on the ship. William Bradford, the chronicler of the early years of the colony referred to the dog as “the great mastiff bitch.” By that of course, he meant the dog was big and a female. The dog’s name is never mentioned. We do know other ships brought mastiffs to New England; one ship in 1602 had two mastiffs named Fool and Gallant. I chose the name Grace to reflect a part of the Pilgrims' religious beliefs. There is also no record as to who owned the dog. Bradford records several stories that include the mastiff and from them I infer who may have owned, or at least who was watching out for the dog.

Like the humans in the story I wanted Grace to experience the excitement, danger, boredom and uncertainty that characterized the voyage and the whole Mayflower story. Grace has to make choices, give up her former life, make new friends, and deal with situations and events she has never experienced before. In other words, life events kids deal with all the time.  Whether it is starting a new school, moving to a new neighborhood or welcoming a new member into their families, children need to see they have what they need to successfully navigate changes.

What else should we know about your books and your writing life?
While a quick glance at the titles of my books to date are heavy on the side of historical fiction, and the preponderance of them deal with Mayflower-related themes, I have several works set in contemporary times. I am working on a YA novel, which although also set on the South Shore of Massachusetts, has nothing to do with historic ships. I also have a picture book manuscriptwhich deals with the contemporary issue of how a child deals with a parent who is away for an extended period of time.

Peter received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. He went on to apprentice in boat building at the Maine Maritime Museum where he became an instructor and freelance boat builder. He is currently a candidate for a Master of Fine Arts degree at Simmons College in creative writing for children. Peter works at Plimoth Plantation, in Plymouth, Massachusetts overseeing the restoration and sailing program of the reproduction ship, Mayflower II.  He is a frequent lecturer and public speaker on Mayflower and maritime history. He is co-author of, Mayflower 1620: a New look at a Pilgrim Voyage published by National Geographic in 2003. He is the author of the children’s book Felix, and his Mayflower II Adventures, published by Plimoth Plantation. His four book series, published by Mitten Press starting 2007, Nicholas, a Massachusetts Tale, remains popular with school-aged children throughout New England. The History Press will publish his current middle grade novel, The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower in July 2012. Peter and his wife Susan have two daughters, Hannah, 23, and Abby, 20.  They live in Plymouth in an old Cape style house near the ocean.

Visit:; Like The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower facebook page. Check out Peter's Plimoth Plantation blog - Mayflower II’s Captain’s Blog:

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On My Way to the Bath

written by Sarah Maizes
illustrated by Michael Paraskevas
Walker Children's | May 22, 2012

Livi is being called to the bath by her mother, but she's too busy building a tinker toy statue on the couch to pay much attention. She declares, "Baths are boring. Everything is more fun than baths." As her mother gets increasingly  more annoyed, Livi finds distraction after distraction to avoid heeding her mother's call. Each of her hilarious (and adorable) ways to avoid the bath are accompanied by excellent drawings of this scraggly little girl who is always up to something. Eventually, as her mother begins counting to ten, Livi turns into jungle cat and pounces on her mother. And, as one could guess, once she's in the bath, she of course doesn't want to get out.

The simple story which any kid can relate to (those who avoid heading to the bath tub and those who jump right in) uses imagination to liven up the nightly battle parents and kids have around bath and bed time. Livi's little face lights up with expression to match each pretend situation she's in. Every page turn reveals a double page spread with Mom only appearing on two pages and the rest of the time represented with speech bubbles calling Livi.

A fantastic pre- or post-bath read aloud kids will love!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Nerd Camp & Justin Case: Shells, Smells, and the Horrible Flip-Flops of Doom

Nerd Camp by Elissa Brent Weissman
Atheneum Books for Young Readers | April 26, 2011

Justin Case by Rachel Vail, illustrated by Matthew Cordell
Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan | May 8, 2012

This set of summer camp stories, both with 10-year-old boy protagonists are, in a word, awesome. Get them both and put them in the hands of your young male reluctant readers this summer!

Gabe is a whip-smart kid with divorced parents. He desperately wants to get into the Summer Center for Gifted Enrichment - a special sleep-away camp for smart kids. That is, until he meets his almost-stepbrother Zack, who proceeds to tag as nerdy the very things Gabe loves. Zack has no idea Gabe is actually a nerd, since he does a good job hiding it on their first meeting, but it makes Gabe wonder if he is actually going to Nerd Camp and whether he really is a nerd. He begins a summer-long logic proof (one of the classes he's taking at camp is Logical Thinking):

"Problem: Am I nerd who only has nerdy adventures?
Hypothesis: No.
Proof: Things I can tell Zack (I am not a nerd.) - My bunkmates are really cool and we became friends right away. Things I can't tell Zack (I am a nerd.) - They like learning digits of Pi."

Throughout the summer, every moment of which Gabe loves, he learns about himself, other people, his almost-stepbrother Zack, and comes to a lot of conclusions. Gabe's voice is fresh and funny and completely age-appropriate. I laughed out loud and loved the story.

Justin Kreszewski, known as Justin Case by his classmates because of his worried-kid ways, first came on the scene in 2010 in Justin Case: School, Drool, and Other Disasters. This is the follow-up and takes Justin to Camp Goldenbrook instead of Science Camp. A day-camp with cliques separating the popular kids from the outcasts, Justin lands in the shallow swimming group, can't finish the obstacle course, has a mean counselor named Jay or James (Justin can't remember) and is never able to retrieve even one penny from the bottom of the pool.

Justin tells his story in dated entries throughout his summer adventures. And he is a hilarious narrator. Check this out: "Mom asked him, 'What's wrong Qwerty? What's wrong?' He looked up at her with his big sad dog eyes, like 'I have no idea, lady. Something crazy.' And then, boom. He exploded. Well, kind of. It was a barf explosion. Dog puke everywhere. It looked like he puked a rainbow." And this: "In my opinion, the word pacifier sounds a lot like the word pacifist. In my other opinion, it is not nice for parents to laugh at their own son who is asking a question about vocabulary, which they should encourage him to expand. Even if they say they are laughing with him. You can't laugh with a person who is not laughing. I was not being overly sensitive. If my knights came to life, they could seriously injure anyone who laughed at me or with me..."

Send your kids to sleep away camp with both these books and they'll be passed around the cabin in no time. Or give 'em to your kid who refuses to go to camp at all. Give them to any kid this summer and I guarantee you'll hear chuckling from the corner. They'll love these!

Monday, June 18, 2012


by Hillary Jordan
paperback Algonquin Books | March 2009

Laura and Henry MacAllan marry and have two young daughters. One day, Henry announces he's bought a farm and while there's no proper house on the property, they'll rent a house in town and he'll work the land. Laura is horrified - she has no interest in such a life - but she can only go along since Henry is her husband. Soon, Laura is saddled with Henry's curmudgeonly, racist father Pappy. Then Henry's younger brother Jamie arrives, back from the war. With everyone living in the very old farmhouse not fit for humans after the house in town falls through, their patience and family ties are tested.

This 2009 Alex Award winner (given annually by the American Library Association to 10 books published for adults but of special interest to young adult readers) takes place in post-WWII Mississippi. When Ronsel Jackson comes home from the war to his family, living on the MacAllan farm as sharecroppers, the real trouble begins. Ronsel, who's black, and Jamie, who's white, bond over the war and forge a kind of friendship, much to the chagrin of Pappy. Jamie and Laura meanwhile, are bonding over a shared view of Henry's stoic ways. Finally, one fateful night, everyone's future hangs in the balance when Pappy and his comrades plan something unthinkable and are interrupted.

Told in first person chapters by Laura, Henry, and Jamie as well as Ronsel, and both his parents, Florence and Hap, the book looks at love, home, family, race, and power. Jordan silences Pappy - no chapter is told through his perspective - a powerful narrative decision which denies him any scrap of sympathy he otherwise might garner from a reader. I applaud the decision since hating Pappy is one thing at the crux of my reading experience with this novel. Any shred of possibility that he could explain himself is negated with Jordan's narratological decision. (Much like Brother Leon is silenced in The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier,  Although that novel has 13 different focalizers, the evil Leon is not one.)

This is one of the most beautifully written and poignant novels I've read. The topic is a tough one, yet Jordan handles it deftly. Also the winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, it is the kind of book that stays with a reader for years and lures you back to read it again. The tiny details intertwine to make up the brilliant story - which also stands as political and historical commentary.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Big Mean Mike

by Michelle Knudsen
illustrated by Scott Magoon
Candlewick | August 2012

"Big Mean Mike was the biggest, toughest dog in the whole neighborhood" begins this heartwarming tale of an unlikely friendship. Mike drove a "big, mean car" and "scared all the other dogs in the neighborhood." It seems "that was just the way Mike liked it."

One day, after Mike buys some new big, mean boots and goes to put them in the car, he finds a tiny, fuzzy bunny in the trunk. He sends it on its way before anyone sees him with such a cute little creature. Soon, though, the bunny infestation gets worse as Mike continues to find tiny, fuzzy bunnies in his glove box, on the hood of his car, and under the driver's seat.

Exasperated, Mike takes the now four bunnies into a monster truck show in his gym bag because leaving them in the parking lot "wouldn't be safe" and "he had no choice." <grin> As the bunnies and Mike cozy up, the other dogs make fun of Mike because of his new friends, so different from him. Funnily enough, "one of the bunnies leaned forward and made a tiny growly sound." Ha! Perhaps these new friends are more alike than one would think at first glance.

From then on, Mike and the four tiny, fuzzy bunnies are the best of friends. And it turns out, "that was just the way Mike liked it."

The story is adorable - give those different from you a chance! - and the artwork is great. Mike is big and mean without being the least bit scary and the first fuzzy bunny appears on page 7, pretty early on. There are lots of full page bleeds and some excellent double spreads. Dogs and bunnies as stand-ins for humans works perfectly here. The illustrations are big and simple and clear and entirely pleasing. Overall, a win!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Inside Out and Back Again

by Thanhha Lai
Harper | February 22, 2011

This book in verse won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature and a Newbery Honor Award. It's about Ha, who moves from Siagon to Alabama with her family in 1975 and follows her transitional year, from Tet (February one year) to Tet (January the next year).

The sparseness of the text coupled with the well-written verse makes for an astoundingly fast read, but to read too quickly is to do a disservice to the story, the emotion, and the importance of an immigrant narrative that rings as true today as it did in the time the story is set.

Ha's family is hosted to come to the U.S. through a Southern church, which puts certain expectations on their behaviors and customs. She struggles at school and within the family. Foods are unfamiliar, friends are hard to make, a new language is challenging, and growing up must still continue, even in the strangeness of a new place.

An author's note places the text as mostly autobiographical. I'm grateful to her for sharing her experiences in a book accessible by very young people (the book is meant for 8-12 year olds). As a Gen-Xer, I didn't get very much information in school about the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War) because it was, I think, too recent and painful for my teachers to take on. Books like these help me fill in those blanks, and I hope they help the next generation understand a bit more the history of that amazing country, its people, and the war. (I've travelled there - for a month in 2000 - and it is truly a beautiful place, largely rebuilt since the 70s, and filled with a young population.)

Spend time with this book. It's very worth the time, as evidenced by the awards, but even without them, the text stands on its own as beautifully well-written and thoughtful.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Jasper Jones

by Craig Silvey
Knopf | April 5, 2011 (originally published in Australia 2009)

This 2012 Printz Honor Award winner takes place in the small town of Corrigan, where Jasper Jones is the town pariah. One night, he shows up at Charlie's house, asking for help. Together, they do something unthinkable to save Jasper, with Charlie wondering all the while why he's gotten involved at all. The secret they keep wends its way into Charlie's very being as Laura Wishart's disappearance tortures the town and her family. As the details unfold, Charlie learns, along with the reader, what's true and what's speculation and how to make sense of both.

Silvey's prose is fantastically written - this is one of the best books I've read this year. His use of intertextual references (Charlie's quite a reader) and his nods to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird are lovely. Reading Lee and then Silvey as a pair would make for a really excellent assignment (self imposed or imposed on young people). There's a lot to understand and consider from the characters in this story: Charlie and Jasper and Laura and Eliza, too. Corrigan is also a character in the novel with all its inhabitants and mores and unwritten rules.

Don't miss this one.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

My Snake Blake

by Randy Siegel
illustrated by Serge Bloch
Roaring Brook Press | June 19, 2012

This quirky tale of a boy who gets a snake named Blake as an early birthday present from his dad is fun and silly. Blake can twist his long snake body into letters and spell words. He can write, help with homework, cook, walk the dog, find the remote, and more. The boy sings the praises of having a snake for a pet, especially "Blake, who is the best snake, by far, in the whole wide world."

The unusual trim size (the book is 11.25 inches by 6.25 inches) and bright red cover make the book stand out on the shelf. The simple line drawings with spot color are excellent and match the quirkiness of the story perfectly. The boy and his father wear matching knitted sweaters and the snake-as-pet doubting mother is green in the face with fear and worry at the start. Lots of white space allows the story to unfold at a relaxed pace, as well.

Image from Serge Bloch's blog.
Many might look at this book and say, "Weird." And they'd be right. But it's a joyful type of weird. This is one to read to the kiddos and then leave on the coffee table for guests to peruse.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

From What I Remember...

by Stacy Kramer & Valerie Thomas
Disney Hyperion | May 15, 2012

Told from the perspective of five different characters, this YA book is a fantastic summer read - satisfying story, interesting characters, and relatively well written. It is the kind of book that isn't going to change the world or even change the reader much, but each and every page turn kept me wanting to turn the next.

Kylie is the class nerd and outcast at Freiburg Academy in La Jolla, CA. She keeps her nose down and has one friend, Will, a flamboyant cross-dressing-just-to-annoy-people gay-boy. She's meant to give her valedictory speech in only a few days when her English teacher gives them one last assignment, due the last day of school. While everyone else plans to blow off the paper, Kylie insists she and her partner, class hottie Max Langston meet up to do it. When her backpack with her laptop in it is stolen from the cafe where they meet, Kylie runs after the thieves and she and Max end up trapped in a box truck full of stolen electronics. The truck crosses the border into Mexico and when they finally escape, they figure out they can't bus back home because they don't have their passports with them.

After a call to Will to get their passports and come get them, a fair bit of beer, some soul-bearing conversations, a small-world meet up with Kylie's father's childhood friend in Ensenada, a number of parties, a pink dress, two wedding bands, some serious emotions, and a mad dash to get to graduation on time, Kylie and Max's entire lives have been irrevocably changed.

The title of the book is terrible. The cover is a hot mess. Where are the days of fantastic covers with a map of Baja Mexico with a pink Mexican wedding dress overlay? Why these photographs of teenagers? And this cover doesn't even show a scene from the book. The movie quotes at the start of each chapter are trying too hard and aren't necessary to prop up this story - already standing well on its own. All these criticisms are picky, I know, but the packaging is important I think. In this case, don't let it dissuade you - from what this reviewer remembers, this book is a fun read!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Horsefly and Honeybee

written and illustrated by Randy Cecil
Henry Holt | March 27, 2012

Horsefly and Honeybee both try to take a nap in the same flower one day and have a fight about it: "It wasn't pretty." Each of them loses a wing and they storm off on foot in opposite directions. Soon, they find themselves in danger of being a bullfrog's lunch and have to work together to save themselves. They of course learn a valuable lesson in the process.

The oil paint illustrations are pleasing. When Honeybee is captured by Bullfrog, he has a completely surprised and frightened look, achieved only by his antennae and eye placement. The design is very good, with varied types of spreads, but not too many. The text is placed well, easy to read, and in a fun font. The honeybee is called simply Honeybee rather than some clever name (same with Horsefly), which is refreshing. They are put in a perilous situation that echoes one that could befall a bee and horsefly in the real world rather than some contrived human-based situation.

Overall, a sweet read! 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Lone Bean

by Chudney Ross
Amistad/HarperCollins | June 26, 2012

Bean is just starting 3rd grade after a summer spent with her cousin Tanya at her grandmother's house. When she returns to school, her best friend Carla has replaced her with Sam and everyone is mean to her. Without a best friend, Bean feels lost. Meanwhile, her delivery nurse mother is working a lot and missing important moments and her music teacher father is forcing her to choose which instrument she will play. She's unhappy all around and s-a-d SAD!

Told in the first person, which is less common in middle-grade books, Bean's voice is clear and concise and fairly authentic. A kid in the intended demographic (8-12 year olds) will likely have no problem believing the story is told by a 9-year-old. The story has a fantastic focus on navigating friendship, a territory important to many a 3rd grader.

This first book by Ross, who owns a bookstore in Santa Monica, would also work as a read-aloud for kids as young as 6.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks

by E. Lockhart
Disney Hyperion | March 25, 2008

Fifteen-year-old Frankie blossomed over the summer and when she returns to Alabaster Prep in the fall of her sophomore year, Matthew notices her for the first time, which thrills her. As she figures out how to navigate the system of her exclusive boarding school for the first time without her older sister (who graduated and is off at Berkeley), she finds she has some problems with the system. The boys have an exclusive club, the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, and Frankie is annoyed she can't be a part of it. So she infiltrates it. What ensues results in Frankie ending up outcast by many and wondering about her place in the world, in gender roles, and in her own family.

Lockhart is known for her books about strong, interesting young women - the Ruby Oliver Boyfriend List series, Dramarama, and Fly on the Wall. Frankie is likely her most feminist character. There's a bit of debate, though, about whether Frankie is indeed a feminist role model or if she is the exact opposite. No matter how one reads this text, it's a fantastic story with a great plot line and an interesting voice. It is told in the third person (interestingly, Frankie does not tell her own story) by a semi-intrusive narrator, who makes an occasional comment and leads the reader to support Frankie in moments where the reader may otherwise judge her. A clever methodology by Lockhart.

I want to hang out with Frankie. But then, I also have always wanted to hang out with Holden Caulfield, so take that how you will. This book offers endless things to talk about - in a book club, in a classroom, amongst a group of friends. Why does Frankie do what she does? Would you? How do you feel about the pantopticon? The list goes on and on. This makes a fantastic parent/child read, too - read it together and have a chat about it. No didacticism needed - just a really good heart to heart about "not be[ing] what people tell [you] [you] should be."

Saturday, June 9, 2012


Auntie Karen's Book Pile is having a day off today! I hope you have an excellent Saturday! Back tomorrow!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Extra Yarn

by Mac Barnett
illustrated by Jon Klassen
Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins
January 17, 2012

Annabelle finds a box of yarn and knits herself a sweater. "And when Annabelle was done, she had some extra yarn." She knits something for everyone and yet the box still magically has extra yarn. She even knits the animals sweaters in her "cold little town." She begins knitting "sweaters for things that didn't even wear sweaters," and while busy making one for a truck one day, a mysterious archduke shows up wanting to buy the box. Annabelle, of course, refuses and the archduke turns sinister. You'll have to get the book to find out what happens next!

Today's post is in honor of the fact that Extra Yarn has been selected as the Picture Book winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for 2012 (just announced at Book Expo America (BEA) yesterday). The awards will be given officially in September at a ceremony held at Simmons College. (For a full list of winners this year, click here.)

I am a big fan of Klassen's art, and this book is no exception - in fact, the art is exceptional! The story - quirky and weird - is right up my alley and is perfect for little readers who will likely get a kick out of the concept of knitting a sweater for a house and a hat for a guy "who never wore sweaters or even long pants."

I live in a pretty hip neighborhood of Boston and on my bike ride home, I finally stopped to take a photo of this tree that was recently given a sweater as part of a festival. Annabelle would likely approve.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Summer of May

by Cecilia Galante
Aladdin/Simon & Schuster | April 24, 2012

May, who has just completed the 8th grade, opens the story of her summer by saying "I thought it was funny. So did a lot of other kids. Miss Movado, however, did not." The reader finds out quickly that May has painted a giant avocado on the wall of her English teacher's room to poke fun at her penchant for wearing green and her round shape. As punishment, and to avoid expulsion, May will spend the entire summer re-taking the English class she barely passed and re-painting Ms. Movado's entire classroom.

May has had a tough time of it. She lives with her Gram and her father; her mother has gone. May blames herself, fights with her father, and can't get her grandmother to eat or come out of her room. She is pretty much alone except for her only friend, Olive. She keeps messing up, says she doesn't care about anything, and doesn't trust anyone. Soon, some walls start to come down and May starts to accept some help from those around her.

Told in the first person, the voice seems pretty authentic. The plot line good, but the conflict wraps up a little too easily. No matter, though - for those readers in the publisher's market for this (8-13 year olds), the twist at the end will make up for all that.

As kids finish up the school year and get ready for summer, this summer read is worth checking out! 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Day Louis Got Eaten

written and illustrated by John Fardell
Andersen Press | September 12, 2011

Louis and Sarah set off from home one day, Louis on his scooter and Sarah on her bike. "[U]nfortunately, Louis was eaten up by a Gulper." A Gulper, apparently, is a giant, long tongued, fuzzy orange monster. "Sarah didn't panic. She knew that Gulpers usually swallow their food whole and that if she was quick, there might be a way to get Louis back out."

May I pause for a moment here and say I find this hilarious? I LOVE the tone of this story. It's so matter-of-fact. Sarah's little brother gets eaten by a giant woods-dwelling monster and she just goes about figuring out how to save him without even pausing for a quick "AAAAAAAUGH!" Fantastic!

Because Sarah hesitates to pick something up, the Gulper takes off and she pursues him on her bike. But, "[U]nfortuntaly, the Gulper was eaten up by a Grabular," a giant black flying monster thing. As each fanciful creature eats up each preceding fanciful creature, Sarah must get more and more clever in her chase. She must add water gear to her bike, then underwater gear, and then mountain climbing gear as she pedals along, determined to save Louis.

So much of this story is told in the illustrations. The sparse text only provides some of the information and young readers can search out the fantastic landscape drawings for other tidbits. The names of the animals provide fun, as well - Saber-toothed Yumper is my favorite.

Eventually, the intrepid Sarah manages to extract Louis from deep inside a now many-layered demise and he, comfortably curled up reading a book, says, "There you are. I knew you'd come. how are we going to get out of here?" Sarah, of course, who stopped way back at the beginning to pick something up, has just the remedy for their conundrum and saves the day. Hilariously. A quick twist at the end is a lovely tribute to the power of siblings, and Sarah and Louis head home as if nothing unusual has happened.

Fardell's artwork is pleasing, and lots of panels are used to show Sarah's progression as she chases. My favorite spread is of Sarah making her way, with the help of a flashlight, into the Saber-toothed Yumper's mouth and then into each animal to find Louis - awesome!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


by Hilary Weisman Graham
Simon & Schuster | June 12, 2012

Alice, Summer, and Tiernan were best friends right up until the big winter dance freshman year at Walford High School. Then something happened and it all fell apart. They've spent four years of high school on separate trajectories, with very different personalities and friends, and have been only partially cordial to each other.

But now, just after graduation, Alice learns that Level3, their favorite band when they were in middle school, is getting back together for one show in Austin, Texas. She buys three tickets on a whim, manages to convince Summer and Tiernan to join her, and all three girls pile into the Pea Pod (the 1976 green VW bus that used to be their clubhouse which Alice's parents restored as her graduation present) and hit the road from Massachusetts to Texas.

What ensues is a completely believable, very fun and sometimes frustrating journey through the trials and joys of friendship, growing up, and learning about being oneself while also trying on new ways of being. The plot twists and turns are engaging and the story progresses nicely, right up to the fantastic grand finale.

Full disclosure - I went to high school with Hilary Weisman Graham, and was friends (mostly in junior high school, funnily enough) with her sister. This fact actually worried me. Oh, no! Someone I know has written a YA novel and if it isn't good, how do I deal with that? Turns out there was no need to worry. It's great!

The jacket design follows the most recent trend with actors on the cover, and the trailer does the same. While this normally bothers me a little, Simon & Schuster cleverly use the map to block the girls' faces on the book cover, allowing the reader to imagine them for themselves. The book is aimed at readers 12 and up, and it's completely appropriate for the younger end of that spectrum while still able to maintain the interest of older YA readers - a difficult feat. Congrats, Hilary!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Meet the Author: Briana Woods-Conklin

Visit Briana's blog.
Meet Briana Woods-Conklin and read an excerpt from her unpublished middle-grade manuscript Breaking All the Rules. 

Why do you write for children?
 I write for children because those are the books that I loved most. My middle school reading years transformed me into a lover of books, and while at a young age I quickly moved onto adult literature, no other literature has impacted me in quite the same ways as the books I read during my elementary and middle school years. Children’s books allowed me to become a reader and lover of the written word. My heart remains with these books, and I really hope to make another child feel that very same excitement, identification, and desire for more literature through my own writing. 

       What’s the most challenging part of crafting a story?
       The most challenging part of crafting a story is developing a sustainable conflict that keeps readers interested and moves the plot forward. The overarching conflict propels almost all of the character’s actions while simultaneously drawing the reader into the story.  Basic ideas – ideas for characters, situations, moments – come easily, but developing the idea, complicating it and drawing it out to create and carry the larger conflict is what I find to be the hardest. Sustainable conflicts are so essential to a good story, and while you don’t want a conflict to be too boring or too easily solved, you likewise have to make sure that it does not fall outside the protagonist’s real capability.  
       How does your writing offer something new to the children’s literature world?
      As adults, I think the deep emotional lives of children can at times be easy to dismiss or discount. But children do have deep emotions that are often complex, insightful, and sincere. The everyday occurrences and problems that are sometimes not thought of as material for a good story are most often the things I write about.  In a world that focuses so much on the projection of images and always being ‘entertained’, as an author, I think I try to look at the internal life of a child and give words to emotions that might be hard to state, but easy to identify with. I think my writing offers a look at the human condition through the eyes of a child while still providing the reader with an interesting, and sometimes humorous, story.

Briana Woods-Conklin will receive her MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College in May 2013. She attended Fairfield University where she graduated as valedictorian with a BA in English/Creative Writing in 2010. Briana works at a publishing company in Boston, MA. She currently lives in Brookline, MA and is working on a new novel.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Thrillers Galore!

Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough | July 10, 2012 | Candlewick Press
The Shadow Collector’s Apprentice by Amy Gordon | February 1, 2012 | Holiday House
The Night She Disappeared by April Henry | April 10, 2012 | Henry Holt and Company
Ghosts of the Titanic by Julie Lawson | February 1, 2012 | Holiday House

Thrillers galore! A boy unwittingly caught up in a shadow-stealing plot, a group of teens trying to make sense of a classmate’s disappearance, a good old-fashioned ghost story set in present day and on the Titanic, and kids, a cemetery, and a truly terrifying monster make up this group of Spring 2012 releases. 

The books can easily split into two groups, grouped by the quality of the writing and the stories –Ghosts of the Titanic and Long Lankin undeniably outshine The Shadow Collector’s Apprentice and The Night She Disappeared. Using believability as one barometer – after all, a good thriller thrills because, whether fantasy or realism, it seems so real, the reader could be the next victim – and literary merit as the other allows a full consideration of these texts.  

Shadow attempts to tell a good story, but there are so many holes, unanswered questions, and randomly placed diary-excerpt interruptions to the third-person narrative, it doesn’t work. And while Night has a promising start, it relies on a same-old, same-old kidnapping plot with over-dramatic teenage heroism to save the day. 

In contrast, Lankin and Ghosts provide tight plot lines, clear descriptions, and puzzle-piece mysteries that come together with appropriate pacing that cause the reader to gasp and exclaim with fear or delight as each discovery unfolds. 

Don’t let the cheesy cover of Ghosts discourage potential middle-grade readers. Recommend Lankin to older readers, who may cower in their beds after meeting Long Lankin in the graveyard. Take a pass on Shadow and Night

See my full reviews of Long Lankin and Ghosts of the Titanic.