R. J. Palacio’s Wonder (Knopf, $15.99) has been receiving excellent press since it was released in February of this year. It made the New York Times Notable Children’s Books list for 2012 as well as the Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Books of the year. It’s also been flying off our shelves since summer and is on our store’s Picks of the Year so I figured it was finally time to read it.
August Pullman is starting 5th grade and for the first time in his life, he is going to school. Due to a statistically improbable genetic condition, he doesn’t look like anyone else: “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse”. Auggie’s perceptions and ability to read people have become so acute over the years that — regardless of the severity of someone’s response — he always registers the exact moment that a person first sees him. Some people scream, some express quiet shock, and some only pause for one millionth of a second, but Auggie always knows. Fifth grade, as the principal of Beecher Middle School indicates, is the beginning of the transition from childhood to adulthood. His classmates reactions to him range from innocent curiosity to maliciousness.
While the narrative is primarily focalized through August’s perspective, Palacio gives the story more depth by incorporating other character’s interpretations. As perceptive as Auggie might be, he is young. He is so aware of people’s initial impressions that he often misses the changing over time as people get to know him. Hearing his friends’, his older sister’s, and some of her friends’ voices allows for more complex understanding of the full story. Shock doesn’t always mean fear. Sometimes people say things they don’t really believe. And first impressions fade into deeper understanding.
“my head swirls on this, but then softer thoughts soothe, like a flatted third on a major chord. no, no, it’s not all random, if it really was all random, the universe would abandon us completely. and the universe doesn’t. it takes care of its most fragile creations in ways we can’t see. . . . maybe it is a lottery, but the universe makes it all even out in the end. the universe takes care of all its birds.” ~ Justin, Wonder
One of the things I appreciate about our bookstore is that most of the picture books are organized by subject. Sometimes it can be tricky to find a book, but it encourages the staff members to become acquainted with content. In addition, when customers come in looking for books about “trains” or “dogs”, we can easily point them to a section for them to browse. “Dinosaurs” are a popular request and as you might suspect there is no end of fiction and non-fiction in this subject. My personal favorite story about dinosaurs is Harry and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs, written by Ian Whybrow and illustrated by Adrian Reynolds (Dragonfly, $6.99). This is a UK title, but it is readily available in the US. Harry finds an old box of dinosaur toys in the attic. With his grandmother’s help, and much to his teenage sister’s disgust, he cleans the dinosaurs off and carries them around in a plastic bucket. Harry is a careful researcher and anoints all the dinosaurs with their proper scientific names. The text is cute, but it’s the illustrations that really make this book. The dinosaurs all have individual personalities and they are perpetually delighted with the adventures that Harry takes them on. They mimic his own emotional response to the world — scowling at Harry’s older sister and (spoiler!) expressing fear and anxiety when they get lost. Reynolds has perfectly captured the imaginative world that children create with their toys and has sprinkled in plenty of humor to amuse adult readers. Don’t forget to spend some time studying the endpapers, too!
I suspect I’ll be piggy-backing quite a bit on our store’s picks of the year over the next few weeks, but it is the season for gift giving and we’ve selected a great group of recommendations. (I can say that because I wasn’t responsible for this process!) So when a customer came in today and asked about books for a 3 year old, I was able to take her right to to our picks window display. My first book of choice is Pantone Colors (Pantone, $9.95). This board book has a more sophisticated approach to colors than most color books. This book does not simply include blue or green, instead in compares shades of blue and green. The left page of blue, for example, showcases various swatches, such as ocean blue or midnight blue. The image on the right — a train — is comprised these different hues. Rather than a narrative, Pantone Colors is a conversation generator and offer excellent opportunities for adults to discuss the color spectrum with kids. 3 year olds, who generally know their colors by this age, will be able to talk about the different types of greens they see throughout the day and will probably enjoy making up names for the new colors they discover.
Pantone has also produced a gift “box of color” ($12.95). It contains 6 mini board books: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. These little books use many of the same devices but are chewable and stackable, exactly what we expect from our board books. They are a perfect new baby gift for artsy parents.
I like fantasy, but I don’t tend to read dragon books. Probably for the same reason I don’t often read animal books. I guess I just prefer stories about people. That’s not to say that there aren’t some amazing anthropomorphic stories out there. I like Charlotte’s Web as much as the next person, but I did always want to know more about Fern. Anyway I digress. Books about Dragons. Well I usually recommend Patricia Wrede’s series, The Chronicles of the Enchanted Forest, but I’ll admit right now that I haven’t read it. And there there is another dragon series, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it’s called; I just know where it is in our store. I also recommend that series a lot, but I haven’t read it either. So when Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina (Random House, $17.99) received a lot press over the summer and it became a contender for our store’s picks of the year, I was a bit reluctant (heh). Ahhhh! So Good! I was really impressed with the world that Hartman has created. Goredd is an alternative, fantasy medieval kingdom. It contains the castle, cathedral, market, and university that one would expect in a bustling medieval town. Religion is interwoven into the fabric of daily life, as you might expect in a medieval society. But the host of saints is indigenous to Goredd. Hartman has created an entirely new hagiographic network and I can’t wait to learn more about it (yes, there will be sequels, but I’m not sure how many). As for the dragons, she seems to have found the perfect balance. The dragons are distinct from humans, possessing strong analytical capabilities but minimal understanding of emotion and yet they can morph and blend in with humans, allowing them to function with ease in human society. Humans, however, cannot become dragons — at least not in the first book. Due to unresolved tension in Goredd, despite the long-standing peace-treaty, humans do not trust dragons and, therefore, dragons — other than some scholars who are exempt — must wear bells. This symbol recalls other identifying markers that cultural groups have been forced to don throughout history, like the yellow Stars of David and pink triangles of World War II. I suspect some sort of resistance to emerge as the story progresses. The plot is interesting, and Seraphina is an excellent character, who lives a closeted life and fears her own identity, but you can get information about that in reviews. It is Hartman’s fantasy world, very much in parallel with our own, that I found most compelling. So much so, that I might be persuaded to read some more dragon books in order to better understand the larger context of this particular genre and keep me occupied while I wait for the next installment.
The temperature has dropped significantly in the past couple of days. It might still be November, but there can be no doubt that winter is rushing towards us. Of course the Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza books have been on display for a few weeks now, but there are plenty of great winter books that do not have any holiday affiliation. Sebastian Meschenmoser has written and illustrated a lovely picture book that is perfect for this time of year, when the air is that crisp clear cold and the snow has yet to make an appearance. In Waiting for Winter (KaneMiller, $15.99) squirrel and hedgehog are too young to remember the winters that Deer and Bear discuss. As much as the ‘old folk’ try to describe what winter looks and feels like, what the ‘young uns’ envision is significantly off the mark. Children 4-7 will be amused by the illustrations of falling, white toothbrushes and socks that convey squirrel’s misinterpretations. The silent moment when the first snowflake finally does fall is priceless, as is the beautiful blanketed forest at the end.
Like many families, every year at the Thanksgiving meal we are supposed to list the things we are thankful for. I hate this tradition. If you don’t say “family” and “health” you sound like a tool. But hearing everyone at the table list off “family” and “health” is super boring and seems kind of fake to me. Also, we list the things we are thankful for, but often forget to actually give thanks for them. Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning
Message by Chief Jake Swamp and illustrated by Erwin Printup (Lee&Low Books, $8.95) is an excellent alternative and I would like to suggest that reading it around the table become our family’s new tradition. The text is based on the Thanksgiving Message, which is a message of peace and appreciation of Mother Earth and her inhabitants. According to the introduction, the words are traditionally spoken at ceremonial gatherings of the Iroquois or Six Nations — Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onodaga, Senecca, and Tuscarora. The invocation begins, “To be a human being is an honor, and we offer thanksgiving for all the gifts of life” and unifies both recognition and appreciation. The illustrations beautifully capture the majesty of the text and convey the joy of the physical and spiritual world.
For younger children, Tomie dePaola’s My First Thanksgiving (Grosset & Dunlap, $5.99) introduces the Thanksgiving story and ends with a
contemporary image of the family gathering. The book is simple; it presents the core concepts without imparting the oppressive instructional quality that is (far too often) a staple in any holiday book. dePaolo’s illustrations, as always, are a perfect complement.
Finally, for slightly older children, there are two excellent non-fiction books about pilgrim children that balance information and entertainment. Sarah Morton’s Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Girl and Samuel Eaton’s Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Boy, both by Kate Waters (Scholastic, $6.99), contain photographs by Russ Kendall of children in the Plimouth Plantation village. Volunteers recreate 1620, and sometimes children volunteer with their parents (but not always and once I did kind of piss off a pilgrim by asking where the children were). The village is carefully researched and the inhabitants meticulously maintain their character. Besides visiting the Plantation itself, these two books are the next best thing for learning about daily Pilgrim life.
November is such a lost month. Poor thing. It’s the introspective child with three very loud siblings. September! Back to School! October! Halloween! December! Hanukkah! and Christmas! November. Thanks.
Cynthia Rylant has a lovely book — an ode to a quiet month — called In November (Voyager, $6.99). Illustrated by Jill Kastner, the book pays homage to the tranquil and transitional elements of this month: the air grows cold, people and animals prepare for winter, we gather to celebrate our blessings. In November we pause.
December is almost here, and our holiday books are slowly taking over the front of store, but there are still a few fall leaves clinging to the trees — at least where I live. I figured it was time to recommend a few good fall books before they are completely eclipsed by winter. I don’t feel like I’m too behind, though, because a recurring theme in fall picture books is concluding the story with the arrival of winter.
Fletcher and the Falling Leaves, by Julia Rawlinson and illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke (Harper, $6.99), is a rather endearing story about Fletcher, a red fox, who desperately tries to keep his favorite tree from losing its leaves. Fletcher loves sitting under the splendor of the tree’s green canopy. He loves the new vibrant red, oranges, and yellows, too, but he becomes increasingly agitated when the leaves turn brown and begin to fall. His resistance against the inevitable is valiant, but futile. His attempts to tie the leaves back on to the branches and his instructions to stay there evoke bittersweet sympathy. Rawlinson and Beeke both capture the beauty and melancholy of autumn. Fletcher’s despair at the loss of his final leaf is heartbreaking appropriate as we head into the dark months. Fletcher, however, discovers a new kind of beauty, when he wakes up under a glistening canopy of white. A necessary step towards the return of the green.
Stories about fall, and the changing leaves, lend themselves to gorgeous illustrations. Other great leaf books include Look What I Did with a Leaf! by Moretza Sohi (Walker, $7.99), which has inventive suggestions for using leaves in crafts and illustrations, The Little Yellow Leaf by Carin Berger (Greenwillow, $16.99), and Awesome Autumn by Bruce Goldstone (Henry Holt, $16.99).
Yesterday I alluded that publishers had gotten quite smart about the dual reader phenomenon. The best example is Treasure Bay’s “We Both Read” series ($4.99). The books, divided into reading levels (K, K-1, 1, 1-2, 2, and 3), are written for two readers. Unlike yesterday’s recommendations — You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You — these books contain a clear hierarchy. The left page is meant for an advanced reader and often contains one or two sentences in small type-face. The right page is for emerging readers and contains one word or the final few words in large print of the adult reader’s story, giving the emerging reader a chance to ‘finish’ the sentence. The higher levels contain one or two complete sentences for the new reader.
Overall, I think this is a great idea and I recommend this series a lot. It allows for physical closeness as the adult and child are reading from one book, and it gives children an opportunity to participate in the reading experience, while still having the luxury of listening. The series also contains a range of fiction and non-fiction. My problem with the series is that the illustrations aren’t that great and the stories themselves seem a bit boring. Why even bother recommending them? Well, see the first part of this paragraph. The reading experiences that these books produce, for me, trump their quality. And it’s not to say that they are *that* bad, but let’s face it, there are far better books out there for young readers.