Wednesday, January 30, 2013

One way that fairy tales can apply to life

I love this blog post. Here's one way to apply literature, especially fairy tales, to life (I'll have to think about how to adapt the specific idea for little boys!).

And while you're there, do browse her delightful ongoing recommendations, the Children's Book Monday series...I can't wait to look for these!

Monday, January 28, 2013

ALA Youth Media Awards 2013: GREAT Line-up!

The American Library Association (ALA) announced their 2013 Youth Media Awards this morning, and I must say, I'm pleased as punch. Before I jump into a wee bit of nerdy children's-book-loving praise, let me remind my readers who may be in the dark that these awards encompass the well known Newbery and Caldecott winners, among many others.

Why are these important awards to keep up with? What if you're not a children's literature critic/lover/scholar? Because these are the books that will stay on library shelves year after year after year. These are the books that booksellers will stock alongside the series fiction and super trendy "stuff." These are often the books that will be taught in schools down the road. How many times have you pulled a book off a shelf only to think, "Oh, it won an award. Must be good."? These are the books that the professionals are deeming worthy and notable. It's wise to pay attention because you might disagree with those awards committees....

Okay, spiel over. I'll not comment on most of the winners/honors, so if you'd like the whole list, see the official 2013 list at the ALA website. There are some titles that I need to check out further--some possible red flags for my readers--but overall, I'm thrilled with this year's lineup. THRILLED.

This year, what I so much appreciated about the Newbery Committee's selections was well-rounded-ness. We've seen a slew of historical fiction winners targeting middle grades over the years, and this year, a historical fiction title did NOT win the award--the winner's more of a realistic fiction/talking animal/fantasy-type. I know I should label it more precisely, but it really resists labeling. In addition to that, the book that won--The One and Only Ivan (see my review)--is so accessible to so many. Rather than landing at the upper end of the age spectrum (14), it falls squarely in the middle: 3rd grade and up, I'd bet (and could be read aloud to younger readers as well). Sophisticated themes, but written in an approachable fashion. Both boys and girls will enjoy this book. 

I just reviewed Bomb (my review) and thoroughly enjoyed it; apparently, so did the Newbery committee. A book that is again sophisticated and complex, but which a wide variety of readers will enjoy. To boot, it's NONFICTION!! Guys and gals will enjoy this one, too, although I'd bet more boys will be picking this one up unprompted than girls. It hits the middle school and up age bracket. The Newbery folks weren't the only ones showering love on Bomb: it also won the Sibert medal for Informational Books and the YALSA Best Nonfiction title. With good reason! It's a great book.

I've not read Three Times Lucky, so I'll not comment on that Newbery honor, but I have read Splendors and Glooms (my review), the remaining Newbery honor. It is most definitely a fantasy novel and is truly splendid and gloomy. Some of my more sensitive readers may be troubled by parts of this book, but I'm delighted to see such an intricate fantasy title win in an awards category so often dominated by historical fiction.

The Caldecott Award goes to the best picture book each year; I've not read this year's winner, but I was absolutely delighted to see one of my favorites from earlier in the year--One Cool Friend--get an honor. I'm a big fan of David Small's (the illustrator), and this book is wonderful. I listed it as one of my 2012 Picture book favorites (which also included Extra Yarn, another Caldecott Honor this year). I guess I'll have to do an official review of it now!

An award that many folks aren't aware of is the Theodore Geisel Award. I've mentioned it before because I'm an easy reader junkie (that's what happens when you were raised with Little Bear, Frog and Toad, and George and Martha). The Geisel Award, in honor of Dr. Seuss, is given to the best easy reader book of the year. Elephant and Piggie, who are practically idols in my house--Mo Willems, are you listening? Idols, I tell you--anyway, they won an honor again this year with our latest fave, Let's Go For a Drive. (which is hilarious, as usual). One of my favorite picture books of 2012, Up, Tall, and High, won the Geisel this year--and it is indeed a terrific early reader, perfect for those kids just beginning to read. Last year, one of my complaints was that the winner was really too old for this bracket. This year, all the books fall nicely into that easy reader level while still providing a great picture of the range within this seemingly narrow band. Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons isn't my style, but it "works." We LOVE Rabbit + Robot around here. LOVE. IT. Super excited to see it get the recognition it deserves. I think I need some pizza with hardware on it now....

But I digress. I've realized that I've been remiss this fall in actually reviewing some of the books for these younger age ranges, so I'll have to make up for that.

And finally, one of my all-time favorites of the year, hands down, was Code Name Verity (my review). So, so, so, so glad the Printz Award Committee (sort of the Newbery for teens) gave it some love and an honor (I would have preferred it to win, but, well, you can't have it all, can you?).

Cover images thanks to goodreads

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Three Recent Informational Book Faves

(Updated 1/29/13 to reflect recent awards!)

Informational books (aka “nonfiction”) are getting lots of buzz these days. Why? The new Common Core State Standards for public schools stipulate that children read more informational text across the curriculum (50% in kindergarten, up to 55% in middle school, and up to 70% by graduation). That doesn’t mean literature classes are tossing poetry, novels, and short stories; it does mean, however, that more reading in more informational sources than a basic textbook are now highly encouraged throughout the school day--in all subjects.

Charlotte Mason would be delighted. Not a fan of textbooks, she urged her followers to use living books to teach concepts and history. Now, that’s more within reach than ever! Publishers and authors have been producing some remarkable information works in recent years; with the new CCSS, this trend is likely to continue. 

Here are three titles published this past year (2012) that are fascinating reads, quite educational, well written, and which encourage the reader to think critically about the material at hand. That’s a winning formula in my book! And, since the ALA Youth Media Awards (think: Newbery, Caldecott, etc.) get announced tomorrow, I'm hoping to see at least one of these win something!!

Bomb: the Race to Build—and Steal--the World’s Most Powerful Weapon
Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Book Press, 2012.
2013 Newbery Honor, Sibert Medal Winner, and YALSA Best Nonfiction title

Bomb chronicles the race to build (and steal) the first atomic bomb. Giving us insight into the US’s fears of Germany’s progression in their own atomic weapons program, the drive for scientists like Robert Oppenheimer to get that bomb up and running FAST, the KGB’s ruthless insistence that their spies unearth the US’s bomb secrets, and the entire WWII stage—Bomb is a gripping read. For those who enjoy political thrillers, scientific history and information, and a terrific peak inside a time fraught with uncertainty and tough decisions, Bomb is the book for you. Readers will come away with a better understanding of the time period in question, the behind-the-scenes events and decisions at play, and a recognition that all decisions, especially in wartime, carry significant weight; even when someone thinks he or she is making the “right” decision, that doesn’t mean the decision is easy or will have good consequences.  I also found myself thinking repeatedly: I am so NOT brave compared to these guys. Man. Recommended for 5th grade and up.

The Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure
Jim Murphy, Alison Bank
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012

Who would have thought a book about tuberculosis would be good--even riveting? Not me. But I could not put this book down, and when I closed the book… I was looking around for a face mask. TB is still out there…lurking…and defying our latest scientific cures. Thank goodness, our latest scientific cures are in the realm of antibiotics instead of collapsed lungs and enforced trips to sanatoriums located far away from family and friends. Filled with photographs, startling statistics and historic “cures,” and bringing us right up into the present day, The Invincible Microbe is a great read, especially for those who enjoy medical history, science, or just plain weird stuff. Recommended for 5th grade and up.

A Black Hole is Not a Hole
Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano, author
Michael Carroll, illustrator
Charlesbridge Publishing, 2012
2013 Orbis Pictus NCTE Recommended Book

Most of us have some vague idea of what a black hole is, right? No matter what you think you know, this book will fascinate you. Space is just, so, well, ... huge. There's so much we don't know, and the author is quick to point out that many of what she is telling us is the latest scientific conjecture. Photographs, artistic renderings, great charts/graphs showing comparisons to readily knowable facts (so many space-related measurements are too mind boggling for us to grasp), A Black Hole is Not a Hole is readily accessible to anyone with a modicum of basic earth science background. Explanations are student-friendly, and, while there are references to billions of years, there is remarkably little overt reference to things “evolving.” My conservative readers will still enjoy this read. Recommended for 4th grade and up.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Home Front Girl

Home Front Girl
Joan Whelan Morrison
Chicago Review Press, 2012

Remember Anne of Green Gables' delightul, dramatic, so-very-intense-and-everything-is-so-of-the-moment-and... voice? That's what this collection of real diary entries reminds me of. Joan Whelan was a teenager in Chicago in the years leading up to WWII. Her daughter collected the entries, edited them down, and produced this book which is a fun peek into the world of teenaged girls in the late 30's. And you know what? Some things never change. Sure the culture has evolved. We have different national issues (actually, they're remarkably the same but the particular details are different). We have different pop culture icons. We have TV (!) and even post-TV entertainment (!!). But, as Joan shows us in the pages of her long ago diary, teenagers are much the same at heart.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Hokey Pokey

Hokey Pokey
Jerry Spinelli
Knopf (Random House)

You put your right foot in
You put your right out out
You put your right foot in
And you shake it all about
You do the hokey pokey
And you turn yourself about
That's what it's all about...

And that sums up Hokey Pokey, Newbery Medalist (Maniac Magee) Spinelli's latest middle grades offering. It sums it up brilliantly, in fact.

For the second time this week, I'm reviewing a work by an author whose former work I wasn't so keen on. Although people really seemed to love Maniac Magee, I wasn't wowed. Maybe I need to give it another chance and read some of Spinelli's other works as well because I really enjoyed Hokey Pokey. And for the second time this week, I'm reviewing a book about a boy named Jack that involves a bit of magical realism. Funny how those things seem to be cyclical.

And yet Hokey Pokey is nothing like Navigating Early, despite their main character's names. Hokey Pokey takes us back to the world of childhood and shows us what the seemingly overnight transition to adulthood is like. And it does indeed happen overnight.

Spinelli's world of Hokey Pokey was terrific. I loved his new compound words ("bestfriendship," "dropflopping," "shadowblur"). I loved his place names ("Tantrums," "Thousand Puddles"). I loved the feel of Hokey Pokey: an iconic place of childhood activity where children drink Hokey Pokeys when the Hokey Pokey man comes (like the ice cream truck), play on the playground, and bike everywhere on their two-wheeled steeds. The only electronic device in the picture was the giant cartoons screen where the youngest children liked to gather. Even when we hit our present, real world at the end of the book, we still only read about one TV.

Jack's coming-of-age in this book is not because of some great event he lives through or some momentous decision he must make. Instead, it is simply time to grow up and involves much  more prosaic decisions like changing out his childish wallpaper to something more grown-up...or does it? Spinelli gives us a work in which the monumental shift from childhood to adulthood is seen for its significance, even if it's evidenced by a small decision to not leave dirty socks on the floor.

This is one of those books that is hard for me to peg in terms of its young audience. I wonder, in fact, if it's a book that grownups will enjoy more. Will a middle school student recognize the transformation as quickly? Will it resonate with him or her like it does for those of us who navigated the shift years ago? Will younger readers feel as nostalgic about such cartoons as Bugs Bunny and such games as jacks or simply riding bikes? I don't know. It's certainly worth finding out because Spinelli's Hokey Pokey is fantastic.

Things to Note/Discuss
  • What does growing up mean? How do we help our children navigate that transition? 
  • What does "faith like a child" mean? 
  • Is there a true sense in which we need to grow up? How does our world encourage children to grow up in ways that aren't as positive?
Cover image from goodreads; ARC from netgalley

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brockett

The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brockett
John Boyne, author
Oliver Jeffers, illustrator
Random House (Alfred A. Knopf BFYR)

I was drawn to this book because I like quirky stories, and I'm a huge fan of Oliver Jeffers (the illustrator). And, this book comes out on my birthday! (at least in the U.S.)

This book started out great! Poor Barnaby Brockett, born to terrible parents, sibling to two very ordinary kids, and master to one devoted dog. The book reads much as a classic Roald Dahl book might (complete with TERRIBLE parents!), and Jeffers's illustrations add a similar touch as Quentin Blake's might.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Navigating Early

Navigating Early
Clare Vanderpool
Random House

My birthday (Jan 8) this year is a popular release date for the first batch of middle grade novels--if the three I've read are any indication! And not just any ol' bunch of middle grade novels... these are by big time folks. Vanderpool's name might not mean much to our Literaritea readers, but her first middle grade novel won that little Newbery award a couple of years back (Moon Over Manifest). Yes, indeed. And any time a former Newbery winner releases another book, you better believe we jump on it. So I did. And Random House kindly let me read it in ARC form (thanks RH!).

When I read an Advanced Reader Copy, I frequently jump into the book "cold." That is, I know little to nothing of the plot, see no other praise/comments such as might appear on the book cover, and frequently don't see a cover (or a poor image of one). Thus, I enter the reading experience with no preconceptions except those based on my previous reading of the same author's works. Definitely true in the case of Navigating Early. I didn't even know how long it was because I was too lazy to scan the small font on the first ARC page that would have told me that info.

I wasn't wowed by Moon Over Manifest, I'll be honest. Navigating Early is a much stronger work in my opinion. Another historical fiction work, this time set just at the end of WWII in a boys' boarding school in Maine, Navigating Early follows one boy's journey to come to grips with his mother's death and his father's seeming unconcern for him. In the process, he meets the unique Early Auden, goes on a fantastical voyage that weaves in and out of the mythic story of Pi (including the discovery of further numbers), and helps bring closure to more than one person in Early's famous family.

If Early Auden were living today, we would diagnose him somewhere on the autism spectrum--probably Asberger's. I really like that he is NOT diagnosed in this book (he wouldn't have been labeled in the WWII time period either). I think this adds to his character significantly. We want to label people in so many ways; isn't it better to befriend them and learn from them regardless of what label they might carry? Jack learns that Early is a true friend. And Jack learns how to be a friend back.

Early teaches Jack many things on their voyage to find the giant bear, to follow Pi's journey, and to complete their quest. What Jack doesn't know is that Early's absolute conviction of his brother's survival from war (against ALL official evidence), his knowledge of the mathematical intricacies involved in the number Pi, and his childlike faith in the details he notices are all true--even though the casual observer would never believe it. Early notices myriad details that others miss, perhaps because he's not so caught up in the social issues that bog most folks down. Part magical realism, part quest, and all friendship, this story works for me better than Moon Over Manifest. It's a touch too long and struggles a bit with the voice--sounds more like an adult narrating than Jack many times. Still, it's worth reading, and I think many sensitive young readers will enjoy this one.