Archives for the month of: October, 2012

Hurricane Sandy delayed this post a bit. I’m still waiting for power, but the electricity company trucks worked for a while outside then drove away so I’m not optimistic.

Neil Gaiman’s Newbery Award winning The Graveyard Book (HarperCollins, $8.99) does in fact take place in a graveyard. Bod (you get the joke, right?) is indeed raised by ghosts. This book is also laugh-out-loud hilarious and, like all of Gaiman’s stories, just weird enough to make you wonder if you really got the whole idea. Is the bizarre ending really profound? Am I just not quite twisted enough to understand the subtleties? Either way The Graveyard Book is worth reading — on Halloween or any time of year really. I’ve never met a community of ghosts I more want to be friends with. You’ll never look at cemeteries the same way again. And my dark house is suddenly starting to feel very much alive.

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I loved studying the Salem witch trials when I was in high school. I was so fascinated by the sheer lack of critical thinking that surrounded the trials and hangings. I don’t mean to suggest that people weren’t as intelligent in 1693; they most certainly were. Individuals in the community had to have recognized the horror for what it was and known that their neighbors were being killed for no reason. So why didn’t anyone say anything? Studying the trials always forces me to ask myself whether I would have spoken up — or stayed silent. In terms of scholarly research, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England, by Carol Karlson, is extremely informative and approaches the topic from a really interesting perspective. But this is a children’s book blog. So here are two recommendations for books about witches that don’t resort to stereotypes and manage to treat the historical actuality of neighborly fear and the ramifications of that fear with a certain amount of respect.

Chris Van Allsburg’s The Widow’s Broom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18.95) contains Van Allsburg’s signature illustrations. They are sparse drawings that capture unexpected moments of the narrative. The story is about a broom that loses its magic mid-flight. A widow tends to the fallen witch, who has fallen into her garden. When the witch departs, she leaves the broom behind. The broom hasn’t completely lost its magic and it learns from the widow how to perform household chores, with an obvious preference for sweeping. Afraid of the broom’s powers, the widow’s neighbors want to destroy something that they think is so obviously evil. In this story, the unjustified fears are used against the neighbors and they, not the widow or the broom, are ultimately undone by their own intolerance.

For teen readers, Celia Reese’s Witch Child (Candlewick, $8.99) also explores themes of religious tension and power dynamics. In 1659, Mary Newbery’s grandmother is accused of witchcraft. Because of their association, Mary’s own life is now in danger and she flees to the New World — only to discover that intolerance and fear exist there as well. Crossing between historical fiction and the supernatural, this novel is a testament to the hundreds of women who lost their lives across colonial New England. Women who were different, unique, defiant; women who for whatever reason did not fulfill the roles their neighbors prescribed for them, and who were persecuted because of it.

Again, this isn’t really a Halloween book, but I think you get the point by now. Split Screen: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies by Brent Hartinger (HarperCollines, $6.99 ebook) is the third volume of books that, while not a trilogy exactly, focus on a core group of characters. In The Geography Club, Russell and friends start a gay-straight alliance under the guise of a ‘boring’ geography club. The adventures and misadventures continue in The Order of the Poison Oak, when Russell (with his friends, of course) becomes a camp counselor for the summer. In Split Screen, the narrative is divided into two books, Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies and Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies. One book narrated by Russell, the other by one of his best friends, Min. The two of them — plus assorted friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, and potentials — sign up to be extras in a zombie movie that is being filmed in their high school. Unlike other popular YA novels, this book doesn’t alternate between the two narrators, but instead presents two distinct perspectives of the same events to be read separately. First, read Russell’s story from the front, then flip the book over and read Min’s story starting from the back. voilà! Double feature! (does anyone else now have the Rocky Horror Picture Show opening song playing in your head? ) The similarities between zombies and high-school students are not lost on either Russell or Min. Both struggle to find ways of staying themselves even when everyone around them seems just a little bit mindless. This isn’t a horror story at all, but fans of the genre will recognize and appreciate the tropes that infuse this unique and engaging narrative.

Here’s another non-Halloween book that’s still appropriate for this time of year. Bob Barner’s Dem Bones depicts dancing skeletons teaching the familiar African-American song (Chronicle Books, $16.99). The illustrations are comprised of colorful torn collages and bring the song to life, if you will. Interesting bone facts accompany the text, making this picture book a one-of-a-kind crossover Halloween/science book (impressive, huh?) And who better to teach lessons about bones, than a band of skeletons?

The skeleton playing the trombone on the front cover cracks me up. Is s/he closing her/his eye sockets?!? That’s one passionate skeleton. No cuddling for this book; break out whatever instruments you have laying around, or make your own, and rock around the house/classroom singing and learning about bones. Your skeletons will appreciate the party.

While I stand by my lack of good Halloween books comment, there are some great related picture books and certainly numerous fall themed books about monsters, bats, owls, leaves, hibernation, and migration. Patrick McDonnell’s The Monster’s Monster (Little, Brown, $16.99) contains the requisite destructive imps: Grouch, Grump, and little Gloom ‘n’ Doom, but they set out to build a monster that is the ‘biggest and the baddest’ of them all. Their new monster — reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, but far cuter, sweeter, and prone to saying ‘thank you’ — surprises them with his own agenda. The message in this book is subtle enough that it doesn’t overshadow the humor of the illustrations. Even though The Monster’s Monster not technically a Halloween story, it’s still a great book find your own little imp to cuddle up and read with at this time of year. 

A lot of customers come in asking for new releases in picture books, especially if they are buying presents and are trying to avoid getting something the child already has. Although I’ve been in the industry for years, keeping up with ‘what’s new in picture books’ is a Sisyphean task. Most people are familiar with the classics; new books don’t stay on the radar for very long; the competition is fierce; and only very few picture books gain a lasting status.

We do have a new book in our Fall window that surprised me, though. Initially I didn’t pay much attention to Those Darn Squirrels Fly South, written by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri, but when I finally got around to reading it, I laughed several times (Clarion, $16.99). Ostensibly about migration, as evident from the title, this books is also about friendship and aerodynamics. The illustrations excellently undercut the text in clever and snort-worthy ways. Salmieri has given each of the squirrels a delightful, independent personality, but they also function as a cohesive collective and can perform actions (giving a hug) as a singular unit. The old man’s fist shaking (those darn squirrels!) is tempered with their obvious affection for him (cf. the hug) and I look forward to seeing more of their (mis)adventures.

I know this one of those generic things that people say, but really, how did it become the end of October already? We’ve had our Halloween table up in the store for a while, but I’m still sort of in shock that it’s next week. As for Halloween books, I find many of them to be rather disappointing. Reading them makes me feel like *someone* is trying just a bit too hard to be — I don’t know — scary? funny? clever? relevant? So when a good one comes along it seems that much better because it clarifies what a good book should look like.

The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything, written by Linda Williams and illustrated by Megan Lloyd (Harper, $6.99), is one such book. It’s got character, action, suspense, great illustrations, and a plot twist at the end. As she is walking home through the dark forest, the little old lady — the heroine of our story — meets various pieces of animated clothing: shoes that “clomp clomp”, a shirt that “shake shake[s]”, a pair of pants that go “wiggle wiggle”, and so on. Of course she is not afraid even as the clothing clomps, shakes, and wiggles home after her. I’ve read this book with kids just under two and they usually figure out the narrative pattern before the end of the first reading. It’s a cumulative tale, with each new addition building on the previous pieces (think “The House that Jack Built”) and young kids (2-3) will quickly pick up on the repetitive sounds and begin participating in the story. (I can still hear my god-daughter’s two-year-old voice saying “wiggle wiggle”, which sounded more like “wee-go wee-go”. too cute.) Even slightly older children (4-6) will appreciate the gradual suspense, as our intrepid little old lady starts to walk faster and faster through the forest, as well as her eventual triumph. Most kids I’ve read it to ask to hear it again immediately.

A close second in the Halloween book category goes to Julia Donaldson’s Room on the Broom (Puffin, $6.99 board and paperback). Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, of Gruffalo fame, have partnered again for this delightful, rhythmic story about a benevolent witch, who can always make a little extra room on the broom for the animals that help locate some of her lost items. These new friends turn out to be extremely useful when a hungry dragon appears, and the resolution to this story is charming. Finally, I’m the Scariest Thing in the Castle, by Kevin Sherry, is a relative newcomer to Halloween books. Available in board book (Dial, $6.99), this story follows a similar pattern as I’m the Biggest Thing in the Oceanbut is about a bat, who declares himself to be waaaay scarier than any of the other staple Halloween characters living in the creepy castle: a declaration the spider, mummy, and witch find adorable. uh oh.

As I’ve indicated before, there are many amazing YA books being published these days, but my favorite ones to recommend are anything by David Levithan and John Green, especially Will Grayson/Will Grayson, which is co-written by David Levithan AND John Green (Speak, $9.99). woot!

Two Will Graysons, living in two different suburbs of Chicago meet unexpectedly one night. Like all of Levithan’s books, the spectrum of sexuality is represented through a range of characters. Gay, lesbian, bi, straight, questioning, unknown: they’re all there and they’ll all supported and encouraged. This book alternates between the two Will Grayson’s, one written by each author. Levithan’s stories are refreshing because they don’t include the ‘traumatic coming out’ experience that is often a staple in lbgtq YA books. The characters in his books, regardless of their sexual orientation, are always interesting kids. Levithan’s Will Grayson is more melancholic than many of his other characters (Paul in Boy Meets Boy immediately comes to mind), but mostly because he’s a teenager, not because he’s gay. Green’s Will Grayson has his own issues with relationships and friendships. His spot on commentary about high school dynamics made me laugh out loud several times.

But don’t stop there, read all of their other books, too, because Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List (co-written with Rachel Cohn), The Realm of Possibilities, An Abundance of Katherines, and, of course, the amazing The Fault in Our Stars are each phenomenal. And let’s all hope that they collaborate again soon.

Minus the teenager part, that’s me. home sick today. ugh. What’s even worse is that I wasn’t scheduled to work anyway. So I spent my day off, which is currently experiencing lovely weather, alternating between chills and a fever. I’m better now and hoping it was a 12-hour bug and not the nasty 48-hour thing that everyone else seems to have. So what to read when you don’t have the energy to do anything else? Well I just finished My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger (Speak, $8.99) and I really enjoyed it. Chapters alternate between three main narrators: T. C. Keller, Augie Hwong, and Alejandra Perez. Each section includes a variety of communication forms, email, text, IM, office memos, about some of which the narrators aren’t always aware. This range of communication offers a more comprehensive picture of these three freshmen’s ‘most excellent year’.

Set in Boston, T. C. and Augie have been brothers since T. C.’s mom died and the two families melded to the point where Mom, Dad, Pop, as well as extended relatives don’t bother to differentiate biological relations. During their ‘most excellent year’ T. C. and Augie maintain their close bond, but they both begin to develop new relationships. T. C. meets Alejandra, who has just moved to town, and Hucky, a six-year old, who alternates between foster care and a home for children with hearing impairments. Augie, more to his surprise than anyone else’s, meets Andy Wexler, who is just as surprised to be falling for Augie. Alejandra, who has spent her life as a diplomat’s daughter somewhat cut off from her peers, starts to make real friends and discover her own talents in theatre. Along the way, each of them fully begins to appreciate that families are made by surrounding yourself with the people who love and support you and that there’s always room for one more.

I wanted to title this post ‘for a teenager who wants a book that is better than its title/cover’, but no one’s ever asked me for that. Sarah Dessen is a perfect example, though. I picked up one her books years ago, thinking it would be an easy read for the train, and was really surprised at how well written it was and how complex the characters were. She continues to write and although I haven’t read all of her works, I can confidently recommend them (especially This Lullaby). So what about for someone who has read all of Sarah Dessen? I usually recommend Stephanie Perkin’s two books: Anna and the French Kiss (Speak, $9.99) and Lola and the Boy Next Door (Dutton Books, $16.99).

When I hand Anna and the French Kiss to a young/mid teen, I often see the parent’s eyes open a little wider and I feel compelled to indicate that the book isn’t nearly as salacious as it sounds. There are approximately two significant kisses. I’m sorry to say they are both relatively innocent. The book is actually about a girl who is sent to boarding school in Paris for her senior year of high school. It deals with living abroad, making friends, discovering a new culture and then reexamining your own. There is actually more sexuality in Lola and the Boy Next Door (although mostly off the page)Lola is dating an older man (22 to her 17), whom both of her fathers hate. She loves fashion and never leaves the house twice in the same outfit, wig, or accessories. Although Lola often tries to convince herself that she’s old for her years, she still struggles with identity, especially when her her appearance is forever changing. Cricket Bell — the boy next door — wears great pants, invents cool devices, and is determined to help Lola see herself for who she actually is. Set in San Francisco, with a delightful and colorful cast of characters, including Anna from the first book, Lola is a fun read that will surprise you with its depth and quality. 

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