Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Trick or Treat

written and illustrated by Leo Landry
Houghton Mifflin | 2012

As Oliver Ghost makes his way around inviting his friends to his Halloween party, one invitation floats away and ends up in the hands of two children. They come to the party and have a great time, completely unaware they are partying amongst real ghosts, goblins, and witches!

Landry's simple illustrations are absolutely adorable. The Halloween story is unique and different than all the other Halloween stories out there. Get this one for your little ghosts and tricksters this year!

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Obstinate Pen

by Frank Dormer
Henry Holt | 2012

Uncle Flood's new pen arrives while Horace is visiting. He flees as Uncle Flood demands silence to write. He begins, "The following story is all true." But that's not what the pen writes. The pen, who is obviously obstinate, writes, "You have a BIG nose." Uncle Flood tries again. The pen insults him again. So Uncle Flood throws it out the window.

What follows is a stream of adults discovering and attempting to use the pen to no avail and with different reactions. In the end, it is Horace who winds up with the pen, and a surprise. For, it appears, in the right hands, the pen has no need to be obstinate.

This unique and original idea has turned into a fantastically illustrated picture book. It's funny and clever and droll. The characters are entertaining and readers learn quite a bit about each one, which is quite a feat considering the small number of words in a picture book.

Imagine if your pen suddenly started writing whatever it wanted rather than what you wanted. Ask your young readers to imagine it. What might it say? What a fun classroom activity!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Why We Broke Up

by Daniel Handler (Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) will be at the Boston Book Festival tomorrow, October 27, as the Kid Keynote speaker)
illustrated by Maira Kalman
Little, Brown | 2011

Min is a girl scorned. She is breaking up with Ed and writing him an epic letter explaining why she's dumping him. Her reasons are linked to items she is placing in a box which she will put on his front steps. She's doing all this while riding in her best friend Al's truck--well, actually it's his dad's truck. Al and Min haven't been so close lately because she's been preoccupied with being Ed's girlfriend. Ed, after all, is a pretty popular guy.

The reader learns all about this dramatic teenage love affair through Min's manifesto accompanied by artwork of each item. Min's voice is clear and unique. The story is heart breaking and funny at the same time. Anyone who has ever been in a teenage relationship or wishes for one will likely love this book.

This is my favorite physical book of the last couple of years. It's heavy in your hands because the paper is coated to properly present Kalman's artwork, which are all glorious, colorful pieces. The leading (the space between lines of type) is nice and big, allowing the eye to breathe on the page as you read. The jacket is awesome, with a falling cup, linked to the back end papers. The story begins on the front end papers. Even the spine gets into the action, sporting an umbrella--the one item that Min wants back from Ed. The casewrap (the actual printed cover of the book under the jacket) is covered with Kalman-drawn rose pedals, an important item in the box Min is preparing for Ed.

YA romances abound these days. This is an old-fashioned love story that everyone will recognize (even those of us who have never met a vampire nor ever hoped to fall in love with one).

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Crossing Stones

by Helen Frost
Farrar, Straus & Giroux | 2009

This narrative brings together the voices of two families in rural Michigan in 1917 as their sons go off to war and their daughters struggle to define themselves. There is an easy symmetry in the families and an assumption that the boys and girls will match up and be partnered, but Muriel finds herself questioning this arranged destiny. "Mother: I have no intention of becoming the Mrs. Norman of your imaginary future. Who I am remains to be seen - and I alone intend to be the one to see it." Muriel tells us this on page 15! So early we learn this young woman in 1917 will not be molded easily. And luckily for her, she has a paternal aunt who is fighting for suffrage.

At 16, Muriel is already questioning the status quo at school and at home, and her parents, although supportive, are cautionary. They tell her she must learn to mind her tongue, to think before she speaks, to not be too forthright with her thoughts or questions. They are raising a daughter, after all, in 1917. When Muriel attempts to write to her friend (not boyfriend) Frank, away at war, her mother is quick - "I'm not aware I know this rule, until I'm embarrassed to be caught breaking it: The gentleman should always be the first to write, Mama informs me. A lady never writes before she has received a letter." Yet two pages later, Muriel's mother says to her daughter after a bout of questioning: "Maybe you won't rock the cradle, Muriel. Some women prefer to rock the boat.

Told deftly by Helen Frost in verse, the poems are shaped round like river stones and waving like river water. The shape depends on from whose point of view they are told. This book is for anyone really, but it might be especially good for middle and high school girls. It reminded me why it's important to believe in myself and I think it would do the same for younger readers.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Lester's Dreadful Sweaters

by K.G. Campbell
Kids Can Press | 2012

Lester is an anxious little kid, and when Cousin Clara's house is consumed by a crocodile, she comes to stay with Lester's family. She makes Lester a sweater, and it's just dreadful. His parents make him wear it to school anyway. So Lester finds a way to "accidentally" destroy it.

But Cousin Clara keeps making new sweaters and each is more ghastly or repulsive or alarming or terrible. Finally, at Enid Measles's party, he meets a group of people who just love Cousin Clara's sweaters. And they and Clara live happily ever after.

This curiously weird book is a treat. The pencil crayon artwork is pleasing and the story begins in the illustrations on the half title page and title page. The sweaters are ridiculous and Lester wearing them is even more ridiculous--young readers will likely chuckle at the images.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Double Helix

by Nancy Werlin
Dial | 2004

Eli lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is graduating as salutatorian of his class. His girlfriend, Viv, is the valedictorian. He's not going to college next year--his mother is dying of Huntington's Disease and he and his dad have a pretty tense relationship. He's going to take a year off and work at Wyatt Transgenics, just down the street, where the famous Dr. Quincy Wyatt is doing amazing things with genetics.

But Dr. Wyatt takes an odd interest in Eli, Eli's dad is angry about it, Viv is wondering what's going on, and then beautiful Kayla comes on the scene, staying at Dr. Wyatt's for the summer. Soon, Eli is caught up in trying to find out his history, why his father hates Dr. Wyatt so much, and what went on more than a decade ago that he thinks he can remember.

This fantastic science fiction novel now published with the tagline: "a mystery" is more rooted in the real world than a mysterious one, in my opinion. Eli's search and desire to know more about who he is makes a lot of sense. And the end leaves room for you to think, and to wonder. What's right? What isn't? Who is Eli? What makes us who we are? 

Just about anyone might love this story, but for anyone who has recently asked for an appropriate book for middle school aged boys: this is it!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Unforgotten Coat

 by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Candlewick | 2011

Chingas and his brother Nergui are Mongolian and new at Julie O'Connor's school. Nobody is sure what to make of them, even the teacher. Chingas chooses Julie as a friend, and she is honored. She sets out to learn as much about Mongolia as humanly possible and tries to learn where in her English town the boys live. They come to her house, she ends up at their apartment one night, and then they go on an unplanned adventure on the train. One day, Julie comes to school and finds that the boys are gone--deported. And Chingas has left his coat behind, which bothers Julie.

The story is told by an adult Julie who is looking back on Year Six, the year she was the "Good Guide" for Chingas and Nergui. It ends with a pretty cool twist that's pleasing. Boyce's in-depth afterword provides context for the story that, no matter how you might feel about his motivations for writing the book, is interesting.
The author with Year Six kids.

 Read this one with your book club or with your child's book club. Talk about what it means to be different--or the same. Talk about safety and what that might mean. Or just enjoy a good story!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Eight Days Gone

by Linda McReynolds
illustrated by Ryan O'Rourke
Charlesbridge | 2012

The simple, sparse rhyming text in this picture book about the first American landing on the moon in 1969 is utterly perfect for the littlest readers. It tells the entire story of the Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin's successful trip. The clean, clear illustrations are a brilliant complement to the story. McReynolds and O'Rourke are a fantastic team on this one.

An excerpt:

Swiftly speeding.
Earth ahead.
Ship arriving.
News is spread.

Ocean splashdown.
Heroes seen.

This is another great holiday season buy. Everyone loves the moon!

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Boston Book Festival Preview

October 27, 2012 will mark the fourth annual Boston Book Festival (since its re-emergence). Visit here for all the info you need to plan your day. Just click on the session and you'll get info about each speaker/program/presentation. Everything happens in and around Copley Square, it's entirely free, and there's something for everyone in the family.

As a volunteer, I'm producing one of the YA panels entitled: Overcoming Adversity. It is moderated by Amy Pattee, a professor of library science at Simmons College and the three authors who will speak are Barry Lyga (Boy Toy, Fan Boy and Goth Girl, I Hunt Killers), Jo Knowles (Jumping Off Swings, Pearl, See You at Harry's), and Kate Burak (Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things).

All three of these authors take on controversial and compelling issues in their stories. Lyga's most recent book, I Hunt Killers (Little, Brown 2012), is about the son of a serial killer attempting to carve out an identity for himself in his small town where everyone thinks they already know him. I reviewed it here.

Knowles's latest, See You at Harry's (Candlewick 2012), offers a family with four kids that owns a restaurant. When a tragedy befalls them, they each fall apart in different ways and have to figure out how to stitch their family back together.

In Burak's debut novel (Roaring Brook 2012), she writes about Claire, who is spending her second senior year of high school in a new town far away from all the mess she left behind, but trouble seems to follow her.

All three are excellent and I'm interested in what these three talented authors will have to say on October 27. Join us!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

No Crystal Stair

subtitle: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller
by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Carolrhoda Lab/Lerner Publishing Group | 2012

This 2012 Boston Globe Horn Book fiction winner presents fantastic information about Lewis Michaux, the founder and proprietor of the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem from 1930 until it was shut because the building was taken via eminent domain in 1974. People like Nikki Giovanni, Malcolm X, and more visited the store and spent time with "The Professor" as Michaux was called. Life for many "ain't been no crystal stair" as Langston Hughes wrote and Michaux was one.

The bookstore
Nelson, the author, began researching her family history, including the store many years ago. She remembered visiting it as a child, but as more and more people mentioned the impact her great uncle had had on them, the more curious she got. Soon, what she thought was going to be a biography took on a life of its own, and she found herself wanting to include more and needing to use conjecture about some things. And so this "documentary novel" was created.

There are millions of pockets of history in the U.S. that so many have no idea about. I, for one, did not even know this bookstore existed, let alone the very important role it played in Harlem. I am thankful to authors like Vaunda Nelson who bring me these forgotten moments through books.

Get this one for your history class or social studies class. Invite your students to learn something they won't otherwise encounter. Do the same for your children. This book is a fantastic place to start.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Sick Day for Amos McGee

by Philip C. Stead
illustrated by Erin E. Stead
Roaring Brook Press/A Neal Porter Book | 2010

Amos goes to work each morning at the City Zoo, where all his friends wait for him. He plays chess with the elephant, runs races with the turtle, reads with the owl, and more. Then one day, Amos McGee has a cold and takes a sick day. Soon, all his friends have hatched a plan and spend the day with Amos after all.

This absolutely beautiful book, written and illustrated by the Steads, who are husband and wife, won the 2011 Caldecott. It's a quiet story. It's a perfect story. It's one of those classics that will be around when my 2-year-old niece is old and gray and people will still read it to their kids.

Erin's artwork is exquisite. She cuts woodblocks and prints the colored layers of each illustration. Then she draws with pencil on top. I was recently at a conference and got to see her wood blocks--they are so cool!

Pick this one up for all the kids on your holiday shopping list. They'll love it (and you will too)!

Friday, October 5, 2012

This is Not My Hat

 written and illustrated by Jon Klassen
Candlewick Press | 2012

Get your pre-order in now for this awesome follow-up to I Want My Hat Back, Klassen's 2011 Geisel Honor winning, hilariously subversive picture book. The book comes out October 9 and everyone's already excited.

This time around, rather than someone (or something) losing a hat, someone (or something) steals one. And he's pretty darn sure he's going to get away with it handily. As you can imagine, he--well--he doesn't. (It doesn't help that the one guy he sees along the way doesn't hold up his end of the criminal accomplice bargain.)

I won't say anymore, lest I ruin it completely, but suffice it to say this book is as fun and irreverent as Klassen's first. The art is fantastic as usual, in Klassen's signature style, which breaks some rules of picture books (backwards flowing action for instance). And the greens and blacks are as dramatic as the browns and reds were in Hat Back. Klassen's second book is bound to be a winner in many other people's books. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Keesha's House

by Helen Frost
Farrar, Straus & Giroux | 2004

This middle grade/YA novel written in verse brings to light the struggles of teenagers displaced from their parents and living together in the home of a neighbor who is willing to provide a safe space. The house is technically Joe's, who was taken in by his aunt when he was a teen, but it's become known as "Keesha's House" because she is so good with sussing out who needs what and when.

Stephie is pregnant; Jason, her boyfriend is the star basketball player whose plans are going to be derailed; Carmen has been caught drinking yet again; Harris is gay and his father is less than thrilled; Katie's mother married a man who has less-than-innocent interest in Katie; Dontay has been in a number of foster homes; and Keesha's mother died and her father is an alcoholic and failing at raising her and her brother. Some heavy stuff to all be in the same book, but Frost handles it deftly, softens it appropriately, and the form--poetry--makes it less intense than it sounds.

Awarded a Printz Honor in 2004, this book is lovely. And its author is lovely (I've met her). It is not easy to write a novel in verse that doesn't feel forced, yet Helen Frost does it time and time again (see also Diamond Willow, Crossing Stones and more).

Monday, October 1, 2012

Little (Grrl) Lost

by Charles de Lint
Viking | 2007

Sixteen-year-old Elizabeth is a Little. You know, those tiny 6-inch-tall people that you know from The Borrowers or The Littles books. She lives in the walls of fifteen-year-old T.J.'s house with her family until the day she runs away, right into T.J.'s room. All she has is a tiny dufflebag full of clothes and her attitude. She intends to make her way in the world.

Two weeks later, T.J. discovers Elizabeth in the garden shed, as far as she's made it in the wild world of the Bigs, rife with dangers such as cats and birds and other animals. Elizabeth reluctantly moves into T.J.'s room and they become fast friends.

In order to learn more about the Littles's heritage and to help Elizabeth trace her relatives (for her own family has fled the walls of T.J.'s house after Elizabeth exposed them), the girls decide to go to a reading of an author of children's books featuring Little-like people. But on the way to the bookstore, they are interrupted, separated, and both injured.

What follows is a fantastic story of two girls' journeys, told in both their first-person voices in alternating chapters. The others they meet will stay with you as reader for a long time and the choices each girl makes and how she makes them will leaving you wondering about and respecting each as a open-minded thinker.

This is one of the best books I've read this year (and considering I've read over 150 books so far in 2012, that's saying a lot). Fantasy and realism fans alike will love Elizabeth and T.J. and Charles de Lint's writing. I promise (and that's a big deal--it's important not to make promises in fairyland).