Tuesday, December 10, 2013

LiterariTea in the Slow Lane





Greetings, Faithful Few...


Megan and I wanted to announce that LiterariTea will be living life in the slow lane, cyber-speaking, for the foreseeable future.

I still have picture books to review, we both still read avidly, and we're still critiquing novels as well. But various life events in our personal lives* plus a very exciting site re-vamp at our more professional site (RedeemedReader) mean that we will be putting LiterariTea on the back burner for a while. We may post here and there, but it might be quite a while.

As we mentioned back when we joined RedeemedReader in March, we view LiterariTea as a hobby blog and RedeemedReader as our professional outlet. And that professional outlet is booming! So, if you've not stopped by RedeemedReader to check it out, we encourage you to do so. We're both reviewing Christmas-themed picture books as well as looking at some audio book options for those traveling days ahead over on RedeemedReader this week and next.

And, in the meantime, we will both continue drinking copious quantities of tea (and chai!). We encourage you to do the same--to get offline for a bit, pour a cup of tea, and sit just quietly, sipping your tea.

*we won't bore you with the details of our lives, but there are two exciting big things coming for us: one of us is having a baby in January (her 4th) and the other of us is scheduled to graduate with her MSIS in May. Good things, but both will be bringing their fare share of added responsibilities and time management strain :-).

Image credit


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Battle Bunny

A Picture Book of the Week (PBOW) Feature



Battle Bunny
John Scieszka and Mac Barnett, authors
Matthew Myers, illustrator
Simon & Schuster, 2013

  1. If you haven't gotten your hands on this hilarious book, put that on your to do list ASAP. (If you're reading this and don't have the book in hand, take a look at the spread on the publisher's website.)
  2. Did you know there's an e-book version of this book? WHAT?? How does THIS book translate to e-book land? The whole point of the book is that a book has been defaced, not a screen. But I digress.
 I'll confess that this book intrigued me when I first saw the cover this summer, but at the same time I didn't see how it could be so funny. And thankfully, I was wrong. Because funny it is. I guffawed the first time I read it (good thing I waited until I was home from the library!). And then I started showing it to other adults--who also chortled. My kids, though? They don't quite get it. Which makes me wonder who the real target audience is. Maybe my kids aren't quite old enough to really get why it's so funny? (They're first and second graders; maybe third and fourth would be perfect.) Or maybe my kids are too aghast that someone "wrote" in a book to find it funny :-). Any thoughts here? Regardless of the audience question, the book is sheer genius.

Concept: I don't usually do this, but Battle Bunny merits a little 'splainin'. Let's pretend that we're, oh, an 8- or 9-year old boy whose loving grandmother has just given another cherubic, dippy picture book about a saccharine little bunny and his forest friends--who all forget that it's his special day. The heartache, the grief, as little Birthday Bunny hops along and watches Crow save "shiny pebbles for [his] Sparkly Nest." Well, what would you do if you, as a frustrated kid, received such schmarm? You might, um, edit said story to make it more appealing. The creators of Battle Bunny first wrote a vintage looking "sweet" story complete with cuddly forest creatures and talk of Bunny's "special day." Then, they went back over the story of Birthday Bunny and created Battle Bunny. The whole thing is so clever and well done--you just have to see this one, folks. But let's walk through and look at some of those clever tricks.

Cover: You must examine both front and back covers of this one. Trust me. Even down to adding in ridiculous years of "birth" for the authors'/illustrator's "special days," the edited titles of other books about Bunny, and the slightly grainy feel to the images--not to mention the "erased" marks in the title and the new penciled in title. Complete package. Look at all the details.

Endpapers: Oh, that second set of endpapers made me laugh. I may have snorted.

Title Page: You guys are so funny! There's even a loving inscription to "Alexander" (when he clearly wants to be called "Alex") from his Gran Gran. (cackling ensues)

Palette: Suitably vintage looking: colors are a bit muted compared to today's.

Layout: Those circular illustrations with the text placed firmly on the white space and very boring font: it takes me back to picture books I remember (*coughs* Little Golden Books).

Details: Here we could spend some serious time. But explaining a joke takes all the fun away, doesn't it? It's important to read/look at the "original" story to get just how convincing a job these guys did. And then read the new-and-improved words/images on each page and enjoy. Oh, I can just see a kid gleefully making the shiny pebbles into "megatron bombs." And let's face it: "Shaolin Bear" and "Ninja Turtle" are way cooler sounding than "Bear" and "Turtle." And, if you do want to try your hand at re-writing Birthday Bunny, you can: check out MyBirthdayBunny.com where you can download the "unedited" version of Birthday Bunny.

What did I miss? What was your favorite part of this book? (Anyone out there?) 
In case you're wondering why I discuss this book during the Christmas season, 
let me remind all you fellow book-gifters out there: 
pick out good books, not dippy ones, for your little sweethearts.

Next week's Picture Book of the Week is a Christmas title: The Night Before Christmas illustrated by Holly Hobbie (quite a change from Battle Bunny!)

Book from local library; cover image from Simon and Schuster

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Journey

Journey
Aaron Becker
Candlewick, 2013

A Picture Book of the Week Feature (PBOW)

I first saw this book weeks ago, but with the other books I had lined up (and waiting for this one to come through the library channels and Thanksgiving and real life), I'm just now getting to focus on it. It's amazing. I like it more each time I read it. Since I first saw this, I've read several reviews of the book. It also made the New York Times Best Illustrated Books of 2013 List. The most interesting work was Julie Danielson's interview with Becker over at Seven Imp--check it out! But let's dive into the book itself, starting with... the cover, of course!  

[I did this walk through with my children and they were fascinated--even to the frame/bleed discussion; they also started noticing way more details. Do this with your kids! Teach them visual literacy and just plain ol' observation and art appreciation. Soap box over.]

Cover: Wow--I totally want to visit that castle, don't you? I mean, it's super cool. On a more professional note, let's talk about the palette: cool blues and greens and that eye-popping red. While our eyes are drawn to the castle since it's placed to the right, is large, and the lines lead to it, we can't help but notice the red immediately out of the corner of our eye. Did you notice that the title is also in red? Hmm... might be an important color. One more note: the image I pulled from Candlewick is a bit blurry; if you don't have the book in front of you, let me point out the purple bird up in the sky--it almost looks like one of the pennants flying from the castle. We'll meet this bird again.

Endpapers: Red! Look closely: there are all kinds of modes of transportation drawn. Hmm... The book is about a journey; perhaps the journey will involve several types of transportation?

Title Page: If you've not read this gem, you won't know that this is the last page with words...but it is. The title is prominent, but our eye notes that bright red scooter and the strange turquoise lantern. The girl on the scooter is traveling to the right and is almost at the end of the page. We want to turn that page. But before you do, note the drab colors, the sepia tones of everything else on this page. Quite a change from that brilliant cover image.

Opening Pages: What a contrast to the castle scene!! A muted, sepia world is pictured; the girl's red scooter is parked this time and she's sitting glumly on the stoop of her house (we assume). It's easy to pass over this picture. But note that the cutaway of her house shows her family members all busily engaged in solo activities. There are also other kids opposite the girl who are engaged in some sort of game. And there's a boy holding a purple crayon (this is a subtle detail I didn't pick up on until I'd read this book several times!). He's kind of alone, too....

Frame v. Full Bleed: Let's get a touch more technical here. Before we leave the big, sepia double-spread, note that it's a full bleed picture: the image covers the entire two pages. When you turn the page, you will see the girl on her bed in a frame: a stark contrast. There is lots of white space on this page, and it reinforces the alone-ness of the girl. In fact, in that framed picture, we don't see any red. On the lefthand page, you see the girl presumably asking her family members to do something. The red objects are the activity of choice. The little vignettes echo that lonely little feeling. There is nothing to do....

Layout: This book has all kinds of teaching moments, doesn't it?! The next two pages are a mirror layout of the two previous. This time, the lefthand page holds the framed picture of the girl and the righthand side shows some sequential action happening. Note that she spies a red crayon on her floor. In a move reminiscent of Harold, she begins to draw an escape route. And what do we see through that red door (red = action!)? Some green space...this is a different world than her sepia one.

Palette: I won't continue examining every page. (sigh) Wouldn't that be fun? But do note the palette throughout the book: that red is always eye-catching, even when it's not prominently positioned. It points to what's happening--or about to happen. [There's a particularly striking image where the red crayon is in midair--if your children are paying attention, this will give them pause...] And when you spy the purple bird, take note! There will also be a purple door. Note that it's different than her red door.

Details: This is a book to look at again and again and again. There are so many intricate scenes and details. When you share this with children, give them time to look closely at each page. Ask questions: what's going to happen next? What's red in this picture? What is she making? Where is she going (particularly effective when she's on the flying carpet on the far, high left, and there's a small, open door in the bottom right)? Ask them how they know the answers to these questions.

Last Pages: When you reach the spread where the girl and boy meet for the first time, take some time to go back and look at that first double spread in the beginning. And don't miss the final page. What adventure awaits!

I've heard some compare this book to Harold and the Purple Crayon and there's a similarity in theme, no doubt. But this book feels very different to me. It's much more elaborate in illustration and scope. Perhaps it could be construed as an homage to Harold, but I think it's a well done book fully in its own right.

How about you? What did I miss? 
What do you like/not like about this book?

Next PBOW: Battle Bunny by John Scieszka and Mac Barnett (should be in libraries now)


Book from local library; cover image from Candlewick

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Real Boy

The Real Boy
Anne Ursu
Walden Pond Press, 2013

I haven't had the privilege of reading Ursu's highly regarded Breadcrumbs, but I'm going to make sure I track that one down soon! The Real Boy was a delight to read, pure and simple. I went into it one idea and one only: a particular legendary children's story, the title of which shouldn't be hard to figure out if you ponder the title of this book long. I also knew folks liked this book; in addition to appearing on mock Newberys (like that on Heavy Medal), it also made the National Book Award long list.

Ursu's writing itself is sheer pleasure to read. I'm a words girl, and I love to read well crafted sentences and the like. Nerdy, huh? I enjoy a well plotted novel, good characters endear themselves to me like real life friends, and musing over a deep theme with a good (real life) friend--lovely. But the words themselves are first and foremost what I notice. I'd wager that it's folks like me who enjoy the likes of Hokey Pokey and other titles that play with language. One of my favorite lines in The Real Boy reads, "And the people were the same way: gilded with plenty, unsullied by suffering." Ursu packs a punch with a succinct prose that will be just as easily read and relished by her target audience (middle grades) as it is by the likes of me. It's not perfect throughout, but there are moments of brilliance.

Thankfully, though, Ursu's prose isn't the only great thing about this novel. I hesitate to write too much about the characters and the plot because so much of the pleasure of reading this book is in the discovery of all that lies beneath the surface. Ursu gives us a wonderful character in Oscar, the real boy, and his friend Callie. I love their growing relationship, the ways they learn to read each other like any two people who are growing closer. Ursu does a great job of showing us this process, not telling. And she does a great job of showing us, not telling us, some of the quirks that any person has--but which Oscar seems to possess in greater abundance. There's no need to label him (finally!) because so many of us have strange little quirks. I'd bet there are lots of (unlabeled) kids who find elements of Oscar's character resonate within their own selves, even if they aren't as extreme in any given area. Callie is a born nurturer, but she's never saccharine about it. I love that. One important note: because the book is told from Oscar's perspective (although in 3rd person), there is lots that the reader must infer. I think this worked well although not everyone agrees with me.

The plot: it's well paced for the most part. Solid world building in the background informs lots of key decisions and moments, and it all hangs together. But the best part: the open ending! Enough is resolved for readers to close the book happily, but there are enough what ifs that we will spend the rest of the day (week) thinking on and musing over them.

Go get a copy and read it for yourself! Do NOT read my questions below unless you have read the book or don't care if you find out "stuff" before reading....

[SPOILER ALERT]
This book brings up great thematic material which would be worth discussing. The biggest issue is greed--and not just greed for more money or material goods. The parents in the Shining City want perfect children because they don't want to see their children suffer. Interesting, isn't it? Sort of a twisted desire to make everything in life perfect--so perfect for your children that, though they look and feel and sound real, they're actually artificial in an attempt to protect them. And don't we want that, too? Don't we go to great lengths to avoid suffering? Aren't we greedy for an easy life, an untroubled one, one that's "unsullied by suffering"?

My biggest question from this book, though: I totally thought the trees being cut down were the reason the children made from them were suddenly failing. I guess I get the idea of a "hole" in the world where Magic used to bind it together, but to me it made more sense to directly connect each particular tree with the children who were made from its wood. Anyone else?


Book from local library; cover image from publisher's site

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Take Me Out to the Yakyu (PBOW)

A Picture Book of the Week (PBOW) feature


Take Me Out to the Yakyu
Aaron Meshon
Atheneum, 2013

This was one of my favorite new reads this summer. Such a fun little book and one that works equally well as a baseball story as it does an informational text on cultural differences between the U.S. and Japan--not to mention a sweet reflection of a terrific grandpa/kid relationship! So let's unpack this gem a bit.

Cover/Endpapers: The astute viewer will notice right away that the cover image is symmetrical with the boy smack in the center. He's the star of our show, to be sure, but the background shows us the world he straddles--literally. Everything on the left is U.S.A. Everything on the right is Japan. The jaunty colors and simple, bold images tell us this book is for younger folks--ages 4-6 or so (and that's pretty accurate, although I think the book can go up or down a bit). What is a "Yakyu"? Glad you asked--the cover tells us that, too, with lots of baseball imagery. This is definitely going to have some baseball game action in it, even if we still don't know exactly what a Yakyu is. Endpapers: baseball again!

Title Page: More of the same left/right juxtaposition of U.S.A. and Japan--and this will continue on most pages that have both countries/cultures represented simultaneously. American scenes are first, followed by Japanese.

Design: This book is wonderfully designed. Without spelling out, "this is a book about American baseball and culture compared to Japanese baseball and culture," it shows us this comparison quite clearly. Even young children will pick up on it as the boy goes to a baseball game with his American grandfather and with his Japanese grandfather. Most double spreads are mirror images of each other, reflecting both cultures. The similarities in layout and composition of each spread help the reader see right away what is different between the two countries. Since this book is being published in America, to an American audience, it makes sense that American scenes are the touchpoint--we know these images. The Japanese reflections stand out in stark contrast sometimes (such as sleeping on the floor in Japan) while others images show us just how similar we really are (celebrating the seventh inning, even if we do it differently).

Palette: Bright, bold, saturated colors fill this book. But there is more to it than just "fun" colors. The American side is consistently blue--background, player jerseys, shades of blue. The Japanese side is consistently red in the same way. This starts on the cover with the foam hand and plastic horn the boy is holding up, and even his clothes reflect both main colors. I used this book to introduce the concept of palette to my children (twin boys, aged 6, and a daughter, age 8). THEY pointed out to me that on the cover, the American (English) words are in blue and the Japanese word is in red!

Text: Picture books aren't just about the pictures! The text in this book nicely mirrors the symmetry of the illustrations which helps the reader know what Ji Ji means or that kilometers-per-hour is similar to miles-per-hour as a measurement tool. Just enough information given to us in the text so that we know what is going on but aren't overwhelmed with commentary on the two cultures.

End Matter: But wait! There's more! The final pages of the book have all sorts of information about baseball in the two countries. Incidentally, the informational pages continue the same blue/red palette. There's a glossary complete with the Japanese characters for words (one page of baseball-related words and one of "other fun words"). The next two pages give a short history of baseball in both countries and some other information related to baseball in both countries. And don't miss the final yin-yang illustration!

Have you seen this book? What did you think? 
What did I miss?

Next week's PBOW: Journey (I'd said I wouldn't do one the week of T'giving, but I couldn't resist!)
Cover image from publisher's website; book from local library

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11

A Picture Book of the Week (PBOW) feature


Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11
Brian Floca
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2009
Sibert Honor Book, ALA Notable Book

This book is great on so, so many levels. I keep finding ways to include it on various lists, such as our recent RedeemedReader Science Book Favorites and my RedeemedReader post on notable science picture book creators. It's applied science, after all. So, what makes this book so great? Let's take a closer look.

Cartoon style is not one we usually think of for outstanding information/nonfiction picture books, is it? Sure, cartoon illustrations can be helpful (i.e. Gail Gibbons or Joanna Cole's Magic Schoolbus books), but I think most folks think photography (such as Nic Bishop's usual offerings) are more "accurate" or "scientific." Well, Floca's Moonshot is just the book to prove that assumption wrong.

Cover: I love this cover. It's simple and bold and yet still has an amazing amount of detail when seen up close. It's more effective without those award stickers, but that does happen frequently to great books....

Endpapers: Now, these are endpapers to study. The front endpapers contain detailed drawings of various parts and stages of space shuttles. Drawings are clear, text is concise, and a whopping amount of information is presented. The back endpapers provide a detailed note on the history and events covered in brief in the book. This is also an excellent example of smart book design. This summer, Julie (of Seven Imp., and my professor this summer) had Robin Smith (of Calling Caldecott) come share about her experience on the Caldecott Committee and Robin's husband Dean share about his experience on the Sibert Committee. And you know what they told us?! The endpapers can make or break a close race in these award committees: if the endpapers feature valuable information that ends up being covered up by a library dustjacket, then the book is deemed poorly designed. Wow. Who knew? Well, these Moonshot endpapers are clearly well designed, clearly planned with a library dustjacket in mind! Good job, book designers!

Opening/Closing Pages: We start on the ground looking up at the moon...far, far away in the sky. And we end playing firmly on planet earth, the moon a faint shape in the sky. And in the middle, Floca wows the reader with all the intricacies of planning a trip to that far away moon.

Perspective: One of the things that stands out to me in this book is Floca's use of perspective. Whether the moon (or earth!) is far away and distant, whether the astronauts are floating around right in front of us, whether we have a front seat to the lift off or are looking at the shuttle flying through space, he nails it every time. The double spread when the shuttle lifts off right after the last sequential art scene with the astronauts' faces close up: perfect.

Details: Floca knows how to capture details, both in illustration and in text. And not just any ol' details, but details that are truly worth knowing and which are interesting. We learn about the food astronauts eat, how they use the bathroom in space, what their training is like. We see all the cars at the blastoff! site, the control center with all the computers, the inside of the shuttle up close. We see an earth-bound family cheering on the mission as the footage comes back from their journey. It's all here.

As usual, a short blog post will only scratch the surface of a book like this. I highly recommend getting your hands on this one and looking through it with your children. It's a great example of a picture book that works for older kids, too--those 2nd-5th graders who might think they've put picture books behind now that they can "read." Well, this one will still have lots of appeal (in fact, it's going to be above most preschoolers' heads). Floca's Racecar Alphabet is another great "applied science" book for this age group as is his latest Locomotive. (which I hope to review here soon...)

If you've read it, what did you think? What do you like about this one? What did I miss?

Next up: Take Me Out to the Yakyu (a 2013 publication that should be in libraries by now)

Book from local library; cover image from publisher

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Tortois and the Hare (PBOW)

A Picture Book of the Week (PBOW) Feature



The Tortoise and the Hare
Jerry Pinkney
Little, Brown, and Co., 2013

I adored Pinkney's 2010 Caldecott winning The Lion and the Mouse. I'm also a big fan of his Noah's Ark, The Ugly Duckling, and others. So I could hardly wait to get my hands on this latest Pinkney treasure. And I wasn't disappointed!

Cover: WOW. Pinkney fills his covers and spreads with images--we are there with the characters, in this case, the tortoise and the hare (fitting!). To get the full effect, though, you should open the book and look at the cover along with the back of the book all at the same time. It's one big double spread.

Endpapers: Pinkney wastes no space, and his endpapers are some of the best there are. One of the reasons I was hooked on his Noah's Ark were the gorgeous endpapers; the back set show rainbows all around the globe. So. cool. In similar fashion here, we have two totally different scenes. The first is a pre-story image; the back is a post-story image. The bookends, if you will.

Palette: I love noticing what colors an illustrator uses and trying to ascertain why, or what their signature style is, or what their favorite color combinations might be. In Pinkney's books, (The Lion and the Mouse being a possible exception), there are little bursts of red and blue against a predominantly earth-toned palette. But his earth tones still manage to be bright and colorful even as they blend together. Our hero--the tortoise--carries the spots of red and blue in this story.

Text: There is very little text in this story; I think of it as a wordless book. However, notice the letters themselves: on the title page, in particular, the words "The Tortoise" and "The Hare" are colored like the animals they mention. Throughout the book, the words "Slow and steady" that appear over time are colored with the same blues and reds that the Tortoise is wearing. Coincidence? I think not!

Movement: Pinkney is one of those artists who captures such movement in his watercolors. These animals are frozen in time, but we get the sense that it's merely a snapshot--they've long since hopped or crawled out of the frame. Somehow, he manages to capture the Tortoise's laborious climb in and out of the water while simultaneously showing the Hare frolicking onward.

All in all, this is one of my favorite picture books of the year--lots of details to look at in these pages!

If you've read this book, what did you think? 
What have I missed? 

Next Picture Book of the Week is:

Cover image from publisher's website; book from local library

Monday, November 11, 2013

Salt by Helen Frost

Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War
Helen Frost
Frances Foster Books (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)
2013

Salt is a historical fiction verse novel--it's written in poetic form, but it is remarkably easy to read. Set at the beginning of the War of 1812, Salt chronicles the friendship of two boys: James, a white settler's son, and Anikwa, a Miami Native American's son. The two families have been friends for generations, but the white family lives just outside the American fort. When tensions rise between the French and the Americans, and the Indians are forced to choose sides, the two boys are caught in the middle.

Frost enjoys writing poetry in distinctive forms. Diamond Willow was written in diamond-shaped poems with one word in each line typed in bold to form a different message. In Salt, Frost uses a two-pronged approach to reinforce the differences in the two boys and in their cultures. James speaks in unrhymed couplets that look like stripes across the page. They are, in fact, supposed to look like stripes: the stripes in the American flag. Anikwa speaks in poetry shaped liked the weaving patterns from his culture's blankets.

The two boys struggle to understand each other in the midst of the turmoil surrounding their families. Misunderstandings are inevitable, and the two families must figure out how to continue to be friends--or if it's worth continuing to trust one another. The characters are nuanced, the many issues surrounding war time are present without taking over the boy's friendship, and the ending is perfect. If you've never read a novel-in-verse, this is a good one to try!

Frost includes good end notes on the history of the time period in question as well as cultural notes for Anikwa's people and how she came up with her characters' names. 

Recommended for middle grades and up.

Book from my local library; cover image from publisher's website

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Dark

A Picture Book of the Week (PBOW) Feature

The Dark
Lemony Snickett, author
Jon Klassen, illustrator
Little, Brown, and Co., 2013

Klassen, eh? Remember him? Not only is he a previous Caldecott honoree, but he won twice this past year (one medal and one honor). Note to self: keep an eye on this guy. And Lemony Snickett: remember him? Of the Series of Unfortunate Events? This is not his first foray into picture book land; in fact, I really enjoyed The Composer is Dead immensely.

The Dark is one of those books folks are talking about. It's also on the Calling Caldecott list this year. And it's worth discussing for sure.

Cover: I like to start at the beginning: it's what we notice first, after all. So, what does that cover tell us about this book? Two things jump out at me immediately: the title and the sheer amount of black (or, "dark") on the cover. This book is going to be about...the dark. There's a little boy, too, but clearly the dark itself is a character or presence in its own right.

Endpapers: Solid color? Yep. What is that color? You guessed it: black. More dark.

Opening pages: show Laszlo off to the right shining his flashlight. Except for Laszlo and his flashlight, the page is black. The title page continues that beam of the flashlight and shines it on the title. This is great book design, folks!

Palette: Definitely the most notable part of this book, hands down. Instead of merely making the dark look darker than the rest, Klassen makes it completely black. We can see nothing. The dark is indeed its own entity. The contrast between the dark and the lighter parts is impossible to miss. And every time the dark talks, its words show up against that black backdrop.

Text: Here is where people start to, um, discuss. There's one page of mostly text that is very Lemony Snicket in tone, and which some folks feel breaks up the flow of the book. I'm on the fence personally. I like the Lemony Snicket tone. I haven't read this book to a group of very young children, so I can't speak about its effect on them. Aside from that one page, I think the text and illustrations are seamless. It will be interesting to see how this pans out: will the Caldecott committee like it? I'm sure, if the book is discussed by the committee this year, that this long text page will factor into their discussion.

As with any of the PBOW features, it's impossible to do justice to a really well done picture book in a relatively short blog post. Nor am I expert enough to give them their proper due. There's so much more we could talk about. But I hope you're encouraged to go read this book and decide what you think for yourself after reading this! Book should be in local libraries.

Read the book? What do you think? Like it? No? Why?

Next PBOW feature is Moonshot by Brian Floca! This book should be in your local library.


Book from my local library; cover image from publisher

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Creepy Carrots

A PBOW feature


Creepy Carrots
Aaron Reynolds, author
Peter Brown, illustrator
Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2012
2013 Caldecott Honor Book

A great title for October and all the Halloween-inspired "creepy" books. Thankfully for this gal, this particular book is not your typical Halloween/creepy fair. (Don't judge a book by its cover!) Children enjoy being slightly creeped out, and this book does just that. Winner of a Caldecott honor this past year, Creepy Carrots is indeed distinguished. If you haven't checked it out yet, hopefully this post will convince you to do so!

Palette: With such a notable palette, we really must start here. It just jumps off the cover (and every page). Black and orange. Well, black, varying shades of gray, and varying shades of orange. We're programmed (at least in America) to automatically associate that palette with creepy Halloween images. Even young children do this--after all, every store in America is sporting these colors in some fashion this month. But is this palette effective? Oh my, yes. Carrots are, after all, orange. So, that's a given. The varying shades of orange add great extra dimension. And the grayscale elements simply make the orange elements pop all the more. This is essential for the success of these illustrations. We must notice those creepy carrots immediately. And, when we take a second look, we must immediately see what we thought were the creepy carrots (or, did the creepy carrots merely perform a quick switch?). The grayscale background feeds the film noire look nicely, don't you think?

Cover, Endpapers/ Title Page: AAGGHH... Just look at that cover! We are suitably creeped out, reminded of film noire, and ready for a spooky adventure. Even the title letters are not stable (cue spooky background music). And just look at those perfect endpapers. The perceptive reader will note the differences between front and back... (now you have to go look!). Clever. And that title page jumps out at us. Somehow the arrangement of the letters with their accompanying shadows looks a teensy bit like a graveyard.... (cue more spooky music).

Composition/Layout: Note the sequential art on some spreads, the use of shadows, the close-ups of teeth chomping as well as the parallel scenes with creepy carrots and their non-creepy counterparts. These illustrations are well thought out. The details are consistent and work well to enhance the text. We call this seamlessness: note that the text and illustrations are incomplete without the other. The scene when Jasper's brushing his teeth (oh, you have to see that page!), the text merely says, "That night, as he was brushing his teeth, there they were!" I love the scene when he gets home: the text says, "But when he arrived home that evening..." and the illustration shows him fleeing the shed with the carrots (seen through the window) dancing gleefully.

Plot: I love a plot with wiggle room, don't you? We end the book and immediately want to go back and reread to see if our first assumptions were actually correct. Huh. How do those carrots do it?

Audience: I'm not sure what word to use for this category, but the "feel" or "mood" of this book is perfect for a preschool and kindergarten audience. Perfect. It's just creepy enough without being over the top (after all, if the monsters are carrots, well, how much harm can they really cause?). And the end is just over the top enough to make it very silly and enable the audience to relax again into giggles.

All in all, a winner for sure. See more of the artistic process at the publisher's website. If you need a good creepy story for this month--one that's not too creepy--then check this one out. And it also works for a great story any other time of the year, too!

If you've read this book, what did you think? Like it? No? Why?

Next up: Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca. Moonshot is a slightly older title (2009) and should be in your local library.

Book from my local library; cover image from publisher's website

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Spider and the Fly by Mary Howitt

The Spider and the Fly
Mary Howitt (based on her cautionary tale)
Tony DiTerlizzi, illustrator
Simon and Shuster, 2002
Caldecott Honor (and multiple others!)

"Will you come into my parlor," said the spider to the fly.... This famous poem was first published in 1829. Tony DiTerlizzi takes it and makes it into a deliciously creepy cautionary tale. One of my favorite reads this summer (and I read 300 picture books!), it's a perfect picture book to explore a little during October.

Palette: This book is completely done in black and white. This adds, of course, to its ghostly, haunted-house feel. There are ghost bugs that glow ominously in their transparent bodies. And DiTerlizzi fills many pages with details that would be overkill in color, but which add tremendously to the subtle background. For instance, in one early spread, we almost don't notice that the wallpaper is patterned with flies, the lamp on the wall is a fly, the footstool is a lady bug (with "dead x" eyes), and the cookbook on the side table is titled The Joy of Cooking Bugs. These are the sorts of details that reward a close reading of the book, but because the palette is black and white, they don't jump out and overwhelm the picture.

Details: Since I mentioned the details, let me elaborate a touch. There is so much to see in this book! A fun accompaniment to a bug unit, there are buggy details everywhere. Each room has different bugs on the wallpaper. The table is laid with a variety of buggy delights. A large horned beetle is mounted over the fireplace. If the poor fly would just look around! The audience wants to warn her to stay away from this spiderly gentleman. He's not what he seems!

Silent Film: The presence of several pages that are completely black save for the text in the center and a spider web in the background add to the silent black-and-white film feel nicely. The whole book thus feels like an old horror film whose melodrama is almost funny to our modern eyes.

Characterization: I don't usually discuss this much in a picture book, but this book presents such clear characters. DiTerlizzi even includes a letter from the spiderly gentleman at the end that essentially asks readers, "what did you expect? I'm a spider after all." Since the bugs along the way are silently warning the fly, and since she's presented as quite the gullible female, and since she seems totally immune to any and all signs of danger, the reader feels like the end is unavoidable. In fact, the spider himself is more the character we focus on. He's so charismatic and charming, we all fall under his spell.


Book from local library (although it's available in many local bookstores for this season!); cover image from publisher's website

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Moonday by Adam Rex

A Picture Book of the Week feature

Moonday
Adam Rex
Disney-Hyperion, 2013

This is the picture book that inspired this little PBOW feature. I was blown away by this book, and I knew nothing about it before picking it up off the store shelves a couple of weeks ago. WOW. I mean, look at that cover!

The storyline is, on the face of it, rather simple: the moon follows a family home one night and "lands" in their backyard...where it stays. The next "morning," there is no morning because the moon is still there. Everyone goes throughout their day wearily and sleepily. Finally, the little girl in whose backyard the moon is hanging out figures out how to get the moon back into the sky. Charming, right?

The illustrations are what take this book over the moon (ha ha ha). The moon, when it's in the backyard and the viewer is near the backyard, is prominent and takes up the page. But even when it's far away, our eyes are still drawn to it. On Seven Imp., Julie Danielson features this book along with some process art and commentary by Adam Rex himself: you must check it out because he shows in one spread how he drew lines to make sure he got the perspective right (the classroom scene with the moon seen through the window). I'd read the book before I saw her post, and seeing how he drew some of these scenes made me want to go right back and read the book again! A great picture book does that to you.

The palette is surprisingly rich for a book about night-time. There is a lot of dark used, obviously, as well as the lighter colors of the moon itself. But there is plenty of color in general throughout the book--very saturated colors (just my style). And I love the glow he gives to the moon. I'm not an artist by a long shot, and it always mystifies me when an artist captures that "glow" so well.

The movement in these illustrations is top notch: movement of people, movement of time, even the movement of a yawn! I'm not sure what term to put here. Sometimes, there is clear sequential art (such as in a comic book or graphic novel when separate images are all lined up together). Other times, the illustration shows the little girl (usually) in multiple places on the same page so that we see her activity. I love this technique when it works, and it most definitely works in Moonday.

The juxtaposition between text and illustrations and, simultaneously, between gravity and humor is expertly done. This is hard to explain without showing you spreads and their accompanying text, so you'll just have to trust me here. The style of these illustrations is not comic-book style, casual sketch, or anything "silly," and yet--the story is silly in a way. There are downright hilarious moments (such as when the tide rolls into the backyard or the dogs start howling). But Rex doesn't tell us the dogs are howling. He shows us the dogs howling. The text is almost deadpan in its tone--while the illustrations are quietly making us chuckle.

I always note the endpapers (one of my things for a couple of years now), and these are jet black. Perfect. The whole book appears dark from a distance with the glowing exception of the moon.

So, have you seen this book yet? What did you think? Like it? No? Why?

Next PBOW is: The Spider and the Fly. This book is a slightly older title; it's in libraries, but it's also in bookstores right now because it's sort of "seasonal" with Halloween coming up (although it's not about Halloween).

Book from Barnes and Noble. Cover image from ... can't remember! EEP! I frequently get them from goodreads .

Monday, October 14, 2013

Sky Jumpers

Sky Jumpers
Peggy Eddleman
Random House, 2013

Hot off the press, this debut novel plunges us into a technology-challenged post-WWIII landscape which includes the deadly "Bomb's Breath," a ring of pressurized air that will kill anything that breathes it in.

Hope, her friends Brock and Aaren, and Aaren's little sister Brenna are part of a fairly isolated community known as White Rock. White Rock is located in a crater that was formed by one of the deadly bombs of WWIII. Hope, Aaren, and Brock have figured out how to "sky jump" off a cliff through the Bomb's Breath (holding their breath) and land on the ground below the toxic air. While this would truly horrify their parents (all of whom have known people who died in the Bomb's Breath), it becomes the way these children will save their community with danger strikes.


Every year, White Rock sends a troop of volunteer guards down the road to the next settlement (Browning) because it's fairly protected by the snow and Bomb's Breath during winter. Bandits roam freely and often attack these small communities, and sometimes the volunteer guards don't return. This year, however, bandits figure out how to enter White Rock in the winter. They attack, hold the entire town hostage, and are demanding the town's full supply of their only antibiotic. Hope, Aaren, Brock, and little Brenna manage to escape the large community center and flee to Browning. They must jump through the Bomb's Breath and struggle against deadly cold, but they do make it. Are they in time to rouse the guards at Browning? The guards can't go back through the Bomb's Breath, so how will they rescue White Rock's citizens? Will Hope's father, whom the bandits shot, die before she returns?

This is a fun debut and is satisfyingly one novel rather than a giant series. Perhaps there will be more, but it doesn't need a sequel. Lots of action and bravery will hook young readers. Hope, Brock, Aaren, and Brenna are fairly stock character types for middle grade fiction, but they are unique in their sky jumping. The plot wraps up pretty neatly in the end, but the escaped bandit makes for a nice unresolved element. Tiny sparks of romance will please some middle grade readers, but there is not enough to turn away those who don't want romance. All in all, Sky Jumpers is a fun read and one I recommend!

Book in ARC form via netgalley and thanks to publisher; cover image from publisher's website

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Flora's Very Windy Day

A Picture Book of the Week (PBOW) Feature


Flora's Very Windy Day
Jeanne Birdsall, author
Matt Phelan, illustrator
Clarion, 2010

I'm a fan of Jeanne Birdsall's Penderwick books, and I've also enjoyed what I've seen of Matt Phelan's work (in fact, I recommended his Around the World graphic novel for one of our Redeemed Reader 2013 Summer Reading Read-Along titles). When I noticed this book in Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago, I immediately pulled it down to read it. My first thought was, "Why haven't I heard about this book? It's lovely!" (And I've since checked it out from the library for more rereads.)

Sometimes you just need a "charming" picture book--not one that's breaking the mold, shaking things up, being a touch obscure in the name of "art." You want a good read that's enhanced by great illustrations. That's what this book delivers. Let's unpack it a bit.

Cover/Endpapers: Everything about this cover says "Fall" and "Windy." Kids are flying through the air, trees are sporting their autumn colors, the kids are wearing coats, the author's and illustrator's names are curved. Even the title font choice is "windy" in feel. If you're perceptive, you'll notice that these two children are probably brother and sister since the girl is bigger than the boy--and also that this story is about the girl since she's front and center. And you'd be right. Endpapers are purple and plain. Why purple? Did you notice those boots on the boy? Purple does play subtly into the story. Nice choice, book designers!

Opening Pages: The action starts immediately: windy tree on title page, two children starting to have an argument on the next pages--we're prepped for the angry emotion we see right away on that first page of the text. Flora is MAD. And we already know why!

Illustrations/Composition: These are just marvelous. Some pages have lots of white space with sequential action nicely shown (Flora struggling into her boots, her brother being blown away). Some pages feature full page illustrations with enough white space left for text (such as when the mother is present). Other pages are double spreads that take up the entire page (Flora sailing up to her brother, the various conversations Flora has with the different elements). You might note that the double spreads are all during the windy "sky" times, while the other types are firmly grounded on earth. The bookends to the sky journey are the spreads featuring those red boots up close (and empty!). These are the types of decisions that set the better picture books apart. There's a lot of intentionality in them. I could go on about palette, facial expressions, perspective--but I won't. Just don't miss that final text-free page!

Text: Birdsall writes beautifully here. No talking down, no overuse of clever phrases or words in general, no analyzing. Just a great story in a childlike voice. Flora is mad at her brother and doesn't want to have him tagging along; she wishes she were somewhere else. The wind scoops up her brother (she follows), and then various elements (rainbows, eagle, moon, and more) ask if her brother can stay with them. Flora realizes in the end that she loves her brother after all. Aww... see? But it's not saccharine in the least.

This book should be in your local library as well as in your local bookstore. Enjoy!

If you've read this book, what did you think? Do you like it? No? Why?

Next PBOW Feature: Moonday by Adam Rex (finally!)

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Song of the Quarkbeast (Dragonslayer #2)

The Song of the Quarkbeast (Dragonslayer #2)
Jasper Fforde
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2013
(originally published in the UK in 2011)*


*I'm one of the privileged few who got to read this second book before it came out in the U.S. I have a connection who is also a big Jasper Fforde fan, and she buys his books from the U.K. and then loans them to me! But for those of you not so fortunate, know that this book just came out here in the ol' U.S. of A.

First, let me assert once again that the U.S. covers of these books are a bit subpar in "oomph" when compared with their Anglo cousins. (Although the paperback version of The Last Dragonslayer is far superior to the hardback.)

Second, let me say that you must, you absolutely must, read The Last Dragonslayer before reading this book--or even this review. If you haven't read that book, then at least read my review of it. Otherwise, what I'm about to tell you will make no sense whatsoever.

We meet up with Jennifer Strange and the other oddballs at Kazam right away, and we are also immediately plunged into the action. King Snodd IV is up to no good (as usual), and he has hatched a nefarious plan to control Magic (thus controlling the world). iMagic (big business) and Kazam (small business), as the two primary workers of Magic, are pitted against each other in a contest. The fate of the planet seemingly hangs in the balance, and King Snodd is not playing fair. He has rigged the contest...or so it would seem.

Thankfully, those strange Quarkbeasts come into play again along with ancient Magical forces. Thanks to Jennifer's quick thinking, her sidekick Tiger Prawns, a Transient Moose whose special talent is finally realized, a pair of Quarkbeasts, and various and sundry other strange characters, big business doesn't carry the day.

This is a quick read, a very quirky one (what did you expect? It's Fforde!), and a satisfying one. I liked the ending very much (more than the ending to the first book, that's for sure). It's not quite as good overall as the first book, but only slightly less so. If you're a Jasper Fforde fan and/or relish quirky fantasy, then this series is a winner. If you read and enjoyed The Last Dragonslayer, then you must read this book! Fforde's snarky wit and clever storytelling is so much to fun to read.

Recommended for 12 and up. Book from my friend; cover image from publisher's website.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Nino Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales

A Picture Book of the Week (PBOW) Feature




Nino Wrestles the World
Yuyi Morales
(A Neal Porter Book) Roaring Brook Press, 2013

Sometimes, when I write these reviews, I'm tempted to go ahead and label it "award winner" in my categories. When I've really been convinced in the past, I've been right! (Let me refer you to Chime, Inside Out and Back Again, Code Name Verity, and Bomb to name a few...). In addition to my "gut" on this one, I should point out that Neal Porter Books/Roaring Book Press has a pretty good track record in recent years for Caldecott winners/honors: A Sick Day for Amos McGee, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, My Friend Rabbit, Green, Grandpa Green, First the Egg.

So, am I going on record to say that Nino Wrestles the World will win at least a Caldecott honor? No. But I'm betting that between the Caldecott and awards like the Pura Belpre, this book has a fighting chance at award status come January. So, consider yourself forewarned. I'm not the only who thinks so; it's appearing on mock Caldecott lists such as the one at Calling Caldecott over at Horn Book.

I'll confess right up front that this cover, while it made me chuckle, also made me inwardly groan: there's a boy in his underwear on that cover and all I could think of was the likes of Captain Underpants. C'mon people, is this what we're descending to? But so many people were raving about this book. I took the plunge and checked it out from the library. Lo and behold, I liked it enough to feature it in a PBOW and go on record to say that it's got big time award potential. What won me over?

Book Design: no question, here. This book has some stellar design. Endpapers show very cool extra information that is not hidden by those library book jacket flaps. In fact, if you read this book in order and don't immediately check out the back endpapers like I did, you won't recognize what's coming at the end. I like the heavy quality of the paper, the bold typeface, the superhero "Spak" and "Taka" moments, the whole package.

Palette: I'm a sucker for a good palette. I admit it. Soft, bold, monochromatic, whatever--no real preference except that I like to notice it. It needs to look intentional and really contribute to the book. And the palette here is perfect: bold colors with heavy black lines add to the retro superhero feel and also echo the Mexican feel (you'll recognize the same colors from your favorite Mexican restaurants: orange, red, yellow, splashes of bright blue, etc.).

Details: Notice those "toys" there in the opening pages? You'll see them again--in the Lucha Libre (Mexican wrestling) matches with Nino.

Composition: Notice that each time Nino is meeting his latest opponent, the opponent looks larger than life? He or she dominates the spread. As soon as Nino starts wrestling, though, the opponent shrinks to manageable size. This holds true until Nino meets his final two opponents. (I won't spoil it for you.)

Text: The words have to work for me. I've seen picture books with great illustrations but lackluster words, and I move on. Here, the text is sparse and works well with the bold illustrations. I love the overall plot and the total lack of feel good text at the end (again, I won't soil it for you...). In addition to this, the Spanish is worked in expertly. There are so many bilingual books out there where the book feels like a book-to-teach-awareness-of-Hispanic-culture. (sigh) But Nino Wrestles the World is simply a great book that also happens to raise awareness of Mexican wrestling and the Spanish language.

What do YOU think of this book? Like it? Not? Why?

Next week's PBOW, in case you want to track it down, is Flora's Very Windy Day. This was published a year or so ago, so you should find it easily in libraries. But it's a fantastic fall book for this season!

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A Novel of Snow and Courage

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: 
A Novel of Snow and Courage
Chris Kurtz, author
Jennifer Black Reinhardt, illustrator
HMH Books for Young Readers
2013
288 pages

This book came out on my birthday this year (January 8) along with titles such as Hokey Pokey, Navigating Early, and The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brockett. Despite the "potential Newbery buzz" for books like Hokey Pokey and Navigating Early (both were on the early "to read" list at Heavy Medal, for instance), my favorite of this group is The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A Novel of Snow and Courage.

So, why do I like this little chapter book so much? A longheld love affair with Charlotte's Web making me predisposed to like any pig chapter book? A general fondness for talking animal stories? A son who loves all things "pig"? Those are all reasons that helped me pick up this title off the "new" shelf at the library earlier this year. But those are not the reasons that make me like this book better than others I've read this year.

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A Novel of Snow and Courage is well written. Pure and simple. Characterization is top notch. We first meet Flora as a piglet who dreams of life beyond the pigpen, befriending the barnyard cat (Luna) in hopes of finding out "stuff." One day: escape! And Flora meets Oscar, a lead sled dog. Henceforward, after being returned to the pigpen, Flora dreams not just of exploration but of joining the sled dog team. After all, she has courage, pluck, strength, a stout heart. What more could you ask for in a sled dog team member?

One day, Flora is taken, along with Oscar and a number of other dogs, on board a ship bound for an Antarctic expedition. The reader will pick up on clues that go over Flora's head: her destiny is clearly for the crew's plates. She and her newest cat friend, Sophia, team up in the ship's hold to conquer the myriad rats, and Flora works hard to build up her strength in preparation for her anticipated sled dog/pig role.

Catastrophe strikes the ship, Flora's stout heart and strong legs help save the day, and she becomes essential to the team's survival. Flora forms an unlikely team with old Oscar, prickly Sophia, and the boy Aleric to help save the day in a heartwarming ending that is not at all saccharine.

The best chapter books for the third-fifth grade crowd feature great friendships, often between unlikely characters. You will find that in spades in this delightful book. Flora seeks adventure and finds it beyond her wildest dreams. Her courage is tremendous. Sophia's begrudging acceptance of the role of team player is well done. The scary and tense situations are just the right level for the target age group. As bizarre as the plot line is, it somehow works: we're rooting for a pig and a cat in the Antarctic and we know they will make it.

This book works on so many levels: plot, characterization, "issues" (survival, friendship, teamwork, etc.), setting (from the farm to the boat to the Antarctic). Illustrations are quirky and effective. But it also works on a sentence level: the text is excellent. A well constructed text can be read aloud easily and to great effect; Kurtz gives us that here. In fact, while this book will delight strong third and fourth grade readers (and younger), I think it's real gift will be as a read aloud so that a group can cheer on Flora together. She would like that; she's a friendly type and a real team player.

Recommended as a read aloud to first grade and up; independent read as third-fifth grade.

Book from my local library; cover image from HMH Books.
 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

One Cool Friend (PBOW)

A Picture Book Of the Week (PBOW) feature


One Cool Friend
Tony Buzzeo, author
David Small, illustrator
Dial, 2012
Caldecott Honor

I wrote a 5 page paper on this lovely gem during my 2013 spring semester. I'll try to keep this post a bit shorter...but you never know! That's what happens when you start talking about a great picture book. The more you study it and read it, the more you see.

Let's start with the cover of this book: Notice the frosty aqua blue spine with hand drawn wavy grid lines? Does it remind you of ice cubes and cold places? Oh--look at that penguin on the front! Yes, we're in for a cold one. But not a dreary cold place: this is a fun cold place. After all the boy and penguin look like they are best friends and also share a secret. The font choice is breezy and playful as well with the word "cool" printed in the same cool aqua shade; is the friend "cool," as in "cold," or "cool," as in "popular, fun, awesome"? Both, as it turns out.

Endpapers are next. The endpapers of this book continue the cool aqua association as well as those hand drawn white grid lines that remind one of ice cubes. Brrrr....

Opening pages: We see Magellan (the penguin) up close and personal, and doesn't he look a charmer? On the next page, we see Elliott (the boy), and he looks dapper as well. The perceptive reader notices that both the penguin and the boy look alike (in palette, at least). The penguin is the "friend" in the title--after all, he's pointing at the word on the title page. And Elliott looks like he's got a little secret. His presence at the far right of that first page invites us to turn the page and find out.

Palette: this book is a terrific example of a well chosen--and well used--palette. Note the frosty blue, the black and white, the spots of red (where the action is!), and the suspicious turtle-green color associated with Elliott's dad. Hmm.... as we look more closely at these colors, we might notice a suspicious-looking turtle shape in a few pictures. Or that the dad is always linked to this color much like Elliott and Magellan are linked to the spots of aqua and red on a black and white backdrop. Huh. Who or what is the father dressed like? Aaaahh... Cook it is.

Perspective: Another element Small uses effectively in this book is perspective. Palette goes hand in hand with perspective since it's usually a particular color that is drawing our eye to part of a page. But Small cleverly shields us from noticing the obvious by providing only part of an image. A reread shows us some striking partial turtle-shapes as well as other details (maps and the like) that we missed the first time around because our eyes were drawn to something completely different.

All in all, this is a delightful book to read once, twice, three times--looking closely at the elements mentioned above as you read. When you look for particular elements, like palette, then it's easier to start appreciating why certain books win awards even if at first glance you don't find the book remarkable. (For the record, *I* found this book remarkable before the Caldecotts were announced :-). )

What do YOU think of this book? Like it? No? Why not?

Next PBOW: I want it to be Moonday by Adam Rex (September, 2013--you may need to look at this in a bookstore because libraries won't have it yet), but I'm not sure I'll make it back to the bookstore for another read before then. So, it will be Nino Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales (2013 publication, but should be in local libraries by now.)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library
Chris Granbenstein
Random House, 2013

Even before Willy Wonka is mentioned, readers will note the similarities between Mr. Lemoncello and Wonka: both are as quirky and eccentric as they come, and both enjoy creating a mysterious "playground" of sorts for children to explore. The nice ones survive and move ahead; the mean kids are out of luck.

In Mr. Lemoncello's case, it's a new library for a town that's been without for twelve years. Mr. Lemoncello is a famous game maker--both board and video--who's now a billionaire and decides to create the ultimate library + game for this small town that gave him his own beginnings in puzzle making and solving. In true eccentric fashion, his library will open with twelve twelve year olds playing an elaborate game of "escape from the library" in one 24-hour period. Kyle Keeley, game player extraordinaire but NOT a reader, is one of the twelve lucky participants, and he can hardly wait. His other eleven companions are the types of characters that enable the reader to immediately guess who's going to win and who's going to lose. After all, jerks and wimps are pretty easy to recognize, but team players nearly always get ahead--at least in books!

The game makes this book: it's elaborate, full of tricks like holographic former librarians, and is all being supervised by the actively involved Mr. Lemoncello (albeit from a distance through video cams).

What doesn't make this book are the very things that are probably supposed to make the book: the myriad references to libraries and books. Oh, the books which are referenced! Favorites of this reader, to be sure--grown-up books, kids' books, old books, new books. I had a great time noting the references, some of which are quite obscure. And there's the problem: what twelve year old who really has read enough to get all those references is going to pick this book to read next? And, if you're a gamer like Kyle who doesn't like to read, will you get any of the references? Will you really want to go read all those books?

No, I'm afraid Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, although it's getting lots of praise from professional reviews, is not going to be the crowd pleaser people seem to think it will be. It's a fun read, but it's hard to figure out who the audience will be who really gets into this: grown-up librarians or the type of kids it's about?

I rarely say this, but I think this book--ironically enough--would make a better movie than book. It's high adventure and would beg for terrific special effects. But a good read? Hmm...

Age recommendation: 9-12/middle grades
Book cover from publisher

Friday, September 20, 2013

Spunky Tells All

Spunky Tells All
Ann Cameron, author
Lauren Castillo, illustrator
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011

I'm a dog lover, to be sure. We had two mixed breed dogs (aka "mutts") for the first decade (roughly) of our marriage. Then, after an eight month gap, we recently rescued another mixed breed. So, a book like Spunky Tells All, in which a beloved family dog of indeterminate breed is narrating the story... well, it's a given I'll willingly give it a whirl.

It's easy to be cutesy when adopting an animal's "voice" in a book, but Cameron nails it. That is largely what makes this short chapter book stand out. Spunky is concerned that after the years he's lived with his Human family (2 years in "human," and 10 in "dog"), they still don't understand Dog. After all, he's learned a lot of Human. So, when he tries to argue against their decision to get a cat, the family only hears "Yerf." (sigh) What's a dog to do?

When the family comes home with the new cat (Fiona--who smells Foolish to Spunky), Spunky is determined not to like her. After all, she's a cat and foolish to boot. The second half of the book follows Fiona's and Spunky's begrudging acceptance of--and even friendship with--each other without ever being cheesy or trite. Illustrations are done in heavy black line and are a good complement to the text. It's another great animal friendship story in a long history of solid animal fiction. Animal lovers and especially pet owners will enjoy this one.

This is a terrific early chapter book for those in the transitional reading stage between easy readers like Henry and Mudge but who aren't quite ready for a regular chapter book (along the lines of Charlotte's Web). Recommended for ages 7-11; a good read aloud for younger.

Book from my local library; cover image thanks to goodreads.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Picture Book of the Week





I'm going to attempt a new feature here at LiterariTea: the Picture Book of the Week (PBOW). Megan and I've had many discussions over the years about the intricacies of our favorite picture books as well as how best to teach folks how to read a picture book. Then, I took my second graduate level picture book class this past summer with none other than Seven Imp's Julie Danielson for my professor. Needless to say, I got inspired all over again to spread the picture book dream. 


In the PBOW posts, I'll try to walk you through the elements that make a particular picture book stand out to me or that possibly helped it rise to award status. Now, I'm no expert. I've never served on an official picture book committee (such as the Caldecott), I'm not an illustrator, and I sometimes just love a book because, well, it's so darn cute. But I do pay attention to things like endpapers, gutters, palette, composition, and the like. Do you? If those words are foreign to you, then hopefully you'll learn something.

If you can get your hands on a given book, the post will make that much more sense. For brand new releases, your local bookstore is the best bet. For older books, libraries are a good option. If you have children in your life (your own, your students, your patrons, etc.), then I encourage you to walk through a picture book in depth with them the way I will be doing in these posts. I do this with my own children, and they are becoming astute readers and observers!

Finally, I recommend this excellent "How to Read a Picture Book" post by Robin Smith over at Calling Caldecott.  

In case you want to be ready, the first book I'm discussing is One Cool Friend by Tony Buzzeo and illustrated by David Small.




Monday, September 16, 2013

Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things

Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things (Mister Max, Book 1)
Cynthia Voigt
Iacopo Bruno, illustrator
Knopf, 2013

Voigt is a well known author, to be sure (especially for her Tillerman books--Dicey's Song was a Newbery winner from back in the day). She also won the Margaret A. Edwards award in 1995 (for lifetime achievement). And yet, we haven't heard much from her in recent years.

There's no question that Voigt can write, and write well at that. On the surface, her latest book seemed tailor made for me: I love a good mystery. I enjoy historic time periods and settings. I relish a good, open ending. Quirky characters, a dog, some art, the life of the theater--what's not to like?

When the book opens, Max's parents--both actors and owners of the Starling Theater Company--are planning a monumental trip to India. Max gets to go along. Until the day his parents board the boat and the boat leaves...without him. But, because Max is a quick thinker, he soon finds out that the boat they were supposed to board didn't exist. Therefore, did the whole trip exist? Are his parents in trouble? Did they know about this ahead of time? Is this an elaborate game or some nefarious plot? The reader doesn't know either, and we spend the next several hundred pages working on this mystery along with Max.

Thankfully, Max's grandmother lives close by, so he's not completely alone at the tender age of 12. He also has his painting instructor, a new tutor, and a new spunky girl to help him make sense of life and survive. And survive he does through his newly created "Mister Max" business: he solves minor mysteries for hire. Each time Max shows up for a new job, he's crafted a new disguise using his parents' many costumes. Thus, no one knows it's really a twelve year old boy underneath.

By the end of the book, we've learned a lot about Max and his parents (including where they are, although not how/why they got there), and Max has helped long lost lovers reunite, his painting instructor discover a new technique, and made some good friends. We're nicely set up, too, for the next book in the series.

And yet... Frankly, this book was too long. I finished it several weeks ago and am still mulling over just what didn't work. I enjoyed the characterization both of Max and the supporting cast. I enjoyed the overall dramatic framework of the book ("Act I"). But the length of the book draws out the mystery surrounding the parents' disappearance a little too long. We're bored with where his parents might be by the end and are much more invested in the here and now with Max and his new friends.

Age recommendation: 9-12/middle grades
Cover image from publisher
Thanks to publisher via netgalley for ARC!

Monday, September 2, 2013

For Good Measure: The Ways We Say How Much, How Far, How Heavy, How Big, and How Old

For Good Measure: 
The Ways We Say How Much, How Far, How Heavy, How Big, and How Old
Ken Robbins
Flash Point, 2010
48 pp.

With the Common Core requirements sending teachers and librarians scuttling for the information books on the shelves, even picture books about math are become sought after. It's unfortunate that it takes something like the CCSS to bring books like For Good Measure to our attention. This is a really cool concept book all about measurement terms that children will enjoy even if it's not in the context of a math-class-related-informational-text.

Take a look at that gorgeous cover: the photography there is indicative of the quality in the rest of the book as well as the cleverness of the compositions. After all, the familiar refrain about comparing apples to oranges stares us in the face on this cover--and it proves you can compare them. Robbins examines many different units of measurement in this well-designed book and provides very concrete examples for each of them. Students in any elementary school grade will benefit from these comparisons since measurement terms sometimes seem hopelessly abstract. Robbins even gives some historical measurements (i.e. a "span") and tells the origin of many of our terms. The book is clearly laid out and well organized, too.

Look for For Good Measure next time you need to explain measurement terms to a child. And look for it when you need a beautiful and interesting picture book just because! For more math-related picture books, check out the recent math picture book coverage on RedeemedReader. Robbins has created more beautiful photo-essays in picture book form I can't wait to check out.

Recommended for 1st grade and up.

Book from my local library; cover image from Indieboung.org