Monday, December 31, 2012

Brooklyn, Burning

by Steve Brezenoff
Carolrhoda LAB | 2011
Get it now!

Kid is only 15 but has been kicked out of home and is making do on the streets. Friends like Felix, a junkie; Fish, a friendly bar-owner; Konny, a friend since childhood with problems of her own; and Scout make life a bit more bearable. When NYPD starts sniffing around trying to pin a warehouse fire on Kid, things get turned a little upside down.

At the core of this poignant YA book is gender. How its performed, by whom, and when. The reader never learns what gender or sexual orientation Kid or Scout are--and it's unclear whether they know themselves. The fluidity of sexuality and of gender assignment is in question here. How people deal with it and interact with it are also important. Even while these themes are central, they are dealt with subtly (and handily) by Brezenoff. This book makes me want to read it in a book club or class, to talk about how each and every person reads it differently--it's one of those books.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Snowflake Bentley

by Jacqueline Briggs Martin
illustrated by Mary Azarian
Houghton Mifflin | 1998
Buy it here!

This Caldecott Medal book is about William Bentley, who discovered much of what was known about snow crystals during his lifetime. Born in 1865, as a boy in Jericho, Vermont, he spent the long winters there determined to make photographs of snowflakes. After a lot of trial and error, he learned how.

Azarian's gorgeous woodcut prints, which according to the copyright page are hand-tinted with watercolor, couldn't be more perfect for the story and it's no wonder they won the Caldecott. It's clear through her artwork that Azarian is not only a Vermonter, but a snow-lover. And indeed, her dedication in the book reads: "For all the snow lovers of the world, who--like me--think that snow is like chocolate; there is never enough."

As a snow and winter lover myself, I find this is the perfect book with which to curl up next to the fire. Snuggle in with someone and read about Snowflake Bentley. This book is as unique as the snowflakes Bentley found so fascinating.

One of W.A. Bentley's photographs.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

I Funny

by James Patterson with Chris Grabenstein
illustrated by Laura Park
Little, Brown | 2012
Reviewed from ARC
Order here!

Patterson, well-known for his prolific career as an adult mystery novelist, began working toward getting more kids to read in 2011 with his Read Kiddo Read site. He's also begun writing for young people (apparently in his spare time <grin>).

Jamie Grimm is focused on being a kid-comic. And he's good. He's funny. He lives with his aunt and uncle and their kids and spends time at his Uncle Frankie's diner, has two best friends, and a new friend he dubs "Cool Girl." Jamie is in a wheelchair, and when he wins the Long Island Local Funniest Kid Comic competition, there's some rumors that the judges just felt bad for him. How he deals with those rumors, the situation of his life, and his dream to be funny rounds out a great story that any third through sixth grader will likely love.

Patterson is doing for child reluctant readers what Oprah did for mostly non-reading grown-ups all those years ago--inviting them in. He's gone one step further and is penning just the books he and his publisher think will draw kids in. This is one.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas!

This is the Christmas tree my housemate and I built for ourselves this year. Note all the children's and YA titles that contributed to its success!

And, yes, that is a Rosemary Wells Voyage to the Bunny Planet box set, first edition (1992) atop the tree!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ender's Shadow: Parallel Novel to Ender's Game


by Orson Scott Card
Tor | 1999
Buy now!

If you haven't read Ender's Game, go. Go read it and then come back. I'll wait.

Okay, good. Now you know what you need to know to read Ender's Shadow, which in my opinion is actually better than Ender's Game. That last statement may perhaps be blasphemous, but I've decided I don't care. As much as I like Ender Wiggin and appreciate his struggles and his story, I find I like Bean that much better. And that Card, fourteen years after Ender's Game was published, decided to go back and write Bean's story, tells me that I'm not the only one with affection for Bean.

This is a parallel novel. This concept is so awesome to me, I don't even know where to start. Basically, Card went back and wrote Ender's Game again, only from the perspective of Bean. Through him, the reader gets that much more information about Battle School, the plans of Graff and the other teachers, and how the war against the buggers plays out. We get to see how Ender's rag-tag army was created and we get to understand more about how the political situation on Earth is playing out. We get to see a strong-willed, strong-minded character we root for even through his sometimes misguided behavior. We get to know Bean, an important character in Ender's Game, in his entirety.

Looking for the perfect holiday gift for a sci-fi-loving kid on your list? Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow, bundled together. And let me also suggest, that no matter whether a reader professes to like sci-fi or not, these books cross-over and transcend genre. Give them a try. You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters

by Andrea Davis Pinkney
illustrated by Stephen Alcorn
Sandpiper/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | January 8, 2013 (paperback reprint edition)
Order now!

Originally published in 2000, this gorgeous new paperback reprint edition would be a fantastic addition to any middle-school classroom. Chronicling the stories of 10 important black women freedom fighters (a term I love), the book offers succinct yet information-rich vignettes of each person.

Included are Sojourner Truth, Biddy Mason, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ella Josephine Baker, Dorothy Irene Height, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Shirley Chisholm. How many of these women have you heard about before? Are you sure you know their whole story?

The text is lyrically written, just as we've come to expect from Pinkney. Lines like these, from the section on Sojourner Truth lead the reader in and makes you want more: "Belle's mother, Mau-Mau Bett, had a special kind of strength. She was quiet strong, like a wind that keeps a boat on course."

The art is the perfect blend of realistic and whimsical, with gorgeous color and rich details. An entire discussion could happen just about what the art depicts and why. The trim size is a perfect 9 x 12, which is big enough for two students to read together, huddled over a desk as they prepare a report or a presentation to their classmates. This is the perfect non-fiction text: it draws the reader in and makes learning both interesting and fun.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Monster Calls

by Patrick Ness
inspired by an idea by Siobhan Dowd
illustrated by Jim Kay
Candlewick | 2011
Buy now!

Thirteen-year-old Conor has been recently plagued with a recurring nightmare, has a mom who is sick and isn't doing so well, a grandmother he doesn't really understand, and a father who is off in the U.S. living with his new wife. School is a problem as the bullies bother Conor each day; pretty much nothing is going well.

Conor also has a yew tree outside his window. One night, it turns into a giant monster and visits him. Slowly, over time, as the monster tells Conor three stories, he finds out what the monster wants -- why it has called on him.

My description here is purposely vague. To say much else would ruin the book, I think. Suffice it to say, this is a book for everyone and especially for any person (perhaps 12 years old and up) dealing with something difficult. Social workers and school counselors -- read and figure out if you have clients and students who might benefit from reading and discussing this special book.

Author Siobhan Dowd had the characters, premise, and a beginning for this story, which would've been her fifth book, but she died before she could write it. Ness was asked to write it in her stead, which he has done in her memory and with aplomb. Kay's illustrations are nothing short of phenomenal and the design of the book is something quite special from the silver foil on the cover to the yew-leaf covered end papers to the heavy gloss paper.

Clearly, I like this one a lot. I think you will too.

I know this looks terribly scary, but in context, the illustrations are perfect and in some odd way, not scary at all.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree

The cover I have
written and illustrated by Robert Barry
McGraw Hill | 1963 (most recent re-issue, 2000)
Order it! 

"Mr. Willowby's Christmas tree came by special delivery."

And so begins my absolute, hands-down, favorite Christmas story ever. For close to forty years, my family's copy has been pulled out, displayed, and read over and over again at Christmas.

The 2000 cover
The cyclical story traces one Christmas tree, which is a bit too tall for Mr. Willowby's ginormous house. When the top is lobbed off and discarded, someone else takes it home, only to find that it is just a bit too tall for her house, so she also lobs off the top and discards it . . . you get the picture. In the end, the very tippy-top of the tree ends up back in Mr. Willowby's house -- get this fantastic story and you'll find out how.

Your kids will beg you to read it again and again and you just might find, after they've gone to bed and the house is quiet, that you pull it out one more time for a re-read all on your own. It's that lovely.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Guest Reviewer Sian Gaetano: Me and My Dragon

Written and illustrated by David Biedrzycki
Charlesbridge Publishing | 2011
Buy now!

“Some kids want a dog. Others would like a cat.” But Hameer wants… “a dragon!” And Hameer is smart enough to know that getting a dragon is just like getting any other pet: you have to choose which kind you want carefully, bring him to the doctor for his shots, name him (Sparky!), give him a home, feed him, and bring him for walks. And, just like any other pet, if he’s a naughty dragon, he might have to go to obedience school. Unlike other pets, though, Sparky can act as the campfire on camping trips, melt all the snow in the neighbor’s driveways, and may accidentally terrorize the kite-flying community. He’s also a great friend to have around in case of bullies or Brussels sprouts.

I cannot begin to express how very much I love this book—the joys are too many to count. The story is endearing, quirky, fast-paced and just so incredibly funny. And the play of text and illustration! Biedryzycki masterfully builds text that needs illustration and illustration that adds so many layers to the book. Each page has tons of things to look at and enjoy from the intraiconic text, to a mouse living in Hameer’s room, to the reactions of pets and people near Sparky. Both Hameer and Sparky, through text and illustration, are exciting, active, and completely round characters. And, for the love of all things children’s book related, check out the endpapers! In general, a joy. And a book I’ve been reading three times a day.

Si├ón Gaetano is, before all else, a reader. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Children’s Literature at Simmons College (to be finished in  Summer 2013) and working evenings serving the good people of Boston food and beverage. She was an editorial intern at Charlesbridge for the Fall 2012 semester.

Monday, December 10, 2012

How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah?

by Jane Yolen
illustrated by Mark Teague
Blue Sky Press | 2012
Order it now!

Starting with How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? in 2000 and continuing through this latest installment, kids and parents will enjoy these silly stories that educate. Yolen and Teague do a fantastic job of addressing all the important aspects of Chanukah while still making the story laugh-out-loud funny.

Written in crisp, concise verse, this story should become a mainstay for holiday time, regardless of which holiday you celebrate!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Martin & Mahalia: His Words and Her Song

by Andrea Davis Pinkney
illustrated by Brian Pinkney
Little, Brown | August 2013
pre-order now!
(reviewed from galleys) 

Children's book living-legends and husband-and-wife team Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney come together again--this time for a glorious portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Mahalia Jackson. This gorgeous and spiritually-worded book begins with separate portrayals of the two subjects and then brings them together, mirroring their relationship in real life. The water color in the illustrations lend a softness and the India ink pen highlights a strength in the images.

Some words and phrases on each page are rendered in a bigger, sans-serif font, allowing for the reader's eye to focus in on what's most important on that page. The water-color-like color of those words keeps them clearly linked to the images. The story uses a metaphor of a road map to invite the reader in before the title page and carries the story along the path towards the Civil Rights era and the path toward a greater freedom for all in the United States. Ending with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the book is appended with an author's note, an illustrator's note, a list of further reading, a discography of Jackson's work, acknowledgements, and a time line.

This is a picture book, yes. But it is a fine example of why picture books are not always for the smallest readers. While a younger child might appreciate the images and could perhaps sit through an entire reading, this is the kind of book that is meant for older readers. This book invites kids as old as high-school to sit down and dive in. The illustrations add context and a fluidity to an understanding of the impact both King and Jackson had on United States history. This book shows with words and with pictures why the struggle was difficult, yet also vibrant and joyful. And while everyone has heard of King, is everyone familiar with the role Jackson played? I would guess: probably not.

The book opens: YOU ARE HERE. . . . Take the road. Come along. With Martin and Mahalia." I echo this first page. Get this book. Take the road the Pinkneys offer.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


by Katie Williams
Chronicle Books | April 2013
Reviewed from an Advance Reader Copy
Pre-order now!

Paige is seventeen and she's dead. She died during a class when she fell off the roof of her school, and she's trapped there, in the school, with two other dead students -- their spirits are trapped (if you'll allow that religion/spirituality-based concept). Every time she tries to leave the school grounds, she is snapped back to the location where she died. It's a never-ending cycle.

Her best friend, Usha is upset and there are a flurry of rumors that she didn't actually fall, she stepped off the roof on purpose. When Paige discovers she can "enter" the bodies of her classmates if they think of her, she begins a quest to end the rumors and prove she didn't kill herself. A fantastic twist and a pretty happy ending make this a very well done package of a book.

Aimed at a 14+ audience, this YA novel asks lots of interesting questions about death and high school and allows for readers to think about their own reactions to what's asserted by the text. There's nothing heavy-handed about the story and no one religion's beliefs about death are privileged, making this a story that will likely have wide appeal.

Monday, December 3, 2012

All the Awake Animals Are Almost Asleep

by Crescent Dragonwagon
illustrated by David MacPhail
Little, Brown | 2012
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A young child is reluctant to go to sleep, so his Mom tells him about all the awake animals that are going to sleep, too. This alphabet book includes a number of familiar animals (frog, fox) and some new ones (dromedary, ibex). By the end, everyone is asleep, including the reluctant human child.

The rich, warm colors are beautiful and the sunsets, moonscapes, and darkness settings of each of the animals' habitats are rendered realistically. The large, sweeping letters in different colors might be hard for little readers to recognize, but they are more a part of the artwork than anything else, so it still works. MacPhail's animals are lovely as always, and some illustrations include baby animals along with the adults, likely appealing to little readers.

Do you have a small child who never wants to go to sleep? This might be the perfect bed-time book for them (and you!).