Archives for the month of: December, 2012

$T2eC16RHJI!E9qSO8mt9BQPnG,Mtfw~~60_35I had thought to recommend more Christmas books this year, but there were just so many other great reviews and lists out there that I decided to refocus this month. It doesn’t feel right, however, not to talk about Christmas books on Christmas Eve. I’m sure a lot of you have traditions of reading certain books before heading to bed. When I was growing up, we had the obligatory Twas the Night Before Christmas book and The Littlest Angel, which took on additional significance after my baby brother died. Kind of sad, now that I think about it, but reading it was a tradition.

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As for The Night Before Christmas, first published anonymously in 1822, you have plenty of options. Charles Santore has illustrated Clement Moore’s poem with a more traditional feel (Applesause, $18.95). Tasha Tudor’s illustrated edition reached its tenth anniversary last year (Little, Brown, $6.99).Tomie DePaola’s version is available in board book format (Holiday House, $8.95). Scholastic even produced a version for their Can you See What I See? series ($13.99), perfect for the detectives in your group. Robert Sabuda has created an enchanting pop-up version (Little, Brown, $27.99), and  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt recently reissued Jessie Wilcox Smith’s 1912 illustrations ($6.99). My favorite edition, however, is the one illustrated by Jan Brett (Putnam, $20.00). All of her winter books, because of the Scandinavian motifs she incorporates, have that Christmas feel to them. Her use of borders is always provocative, creating a sense of watching the events unfold through a frosted window pane.

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9780375871511My family also had a tradition of reading the nativity story from the family bible. My father is not the performer type, so it was unusual for him read aloud to all of us together. Jan Pieńkowski’s illustrated edition of The First Christmas (Knopf, $9.99) is an exquisite version of this traditional story. Pieńkowski is best-known for his silhouette illustrations and they are always striking. In this book, the foreground figures — people, animals, and the landscape — are silhouettes. The background, however, is vibrant and full of color and energy. The text is derived from the King James Version of the bible and so the language is both familiar and distancing, stark and majestic. The illustrations perfectly capture this dichotomy: the simple black figures of the earth set against the grand illuminations of the sky and heavens. Rather small in size, this is a complex little book. Architectural allusions range from classical to modern. The animated figures recall nineteenth-century puppet shows and Christmas pantomimes. The first letter of every page is illuminated, like a medieval manuscript, but in a style that is significantly more contemporary. The animals portrayed — elephants, porcupines, bats, camels, monkeys, roosters, reindeer, mountain goats, and of course the obligatory donkey — represent a range of geographical regions. I wonder if Pieńkowski is intentionally trying to convey the vast influence and impact this story has had. His version is not located in one place or time, but illustrates the variety of peoples who have embraced this particular story and made it their own.

Whatever Christmas means to you, I hope you have a happy one.

9780316084246During Teen Read Week, back in October, we had a display of our teen customers’ favorite books. One of our high school-aged staff members recommended Kody Keplinger’s The D.U.F.F. (Poppy Books, $8.99). Around the same time, independent booksellers started carrying Kobo e-readers in store and I downloaded The D.U.F.F.  as my test book. Since I have a stack of books and ARCs sitting on my desk waiting to be read, I kind of forgot about that ebook, until last night. Bianca is the ‘Duff’: the Designated Ugly Fat Friend to her two gorgeous best friends. I haven’t been a teenager in a long time, but wow, I could relate. My two best friends were (are) beautiful and that’s one of the many things that this book really gets right — the recognition that we all kind of feel like the Duff.

I’m going to admit right now that this book made me feel kind of old. There is a shocking amount of sex. And the fact that I was shocked is what made me feel old. At the risk of dating myself, a contraband copy of Judy Blume’s Forever was passed covertly around (the girls) in my 6th grade classroom. I certainly read books containing sex when I was in high school, but they were adult novels, not YA books. When reading The D.U.F.F, I almost felt a bit uncomfortable. Bianca doesn’t just have sex, she uses sex . . . as a way to punish herself . . . as a weapon . . . as an escape. Her immaturity and inability to maintain a healthy relationship, not to mention her own self-loathing, was discomforting and seemed to embody all of the reasons adults typically use to discourage teens from engaging in sexual activity. What impressed me with the book, however, is that Keplinger didn’t just dismiss teen sex as an ‘everyone is doing it, it’s not a big deal’ thing. Bianca matures, slowly but drastically, during the narrative. She steps outside of herself and starts to see the insecurities of the people around her. Her two best friends love her fiercely. They don’t think of her as the duff; they value her, see her beauty, and consider themselves the duff in comparison. Bianca starts to understand that duff isn’t actually a ‘designation’ it is a state of mind. In a rather poignant moment, she is in the girls’ bathroom with the school ‘whore’ who has just had a pregnancy scare. She realizes:

I didn’t know Vikki that well. I didn’t know what her home life was like or anything that personal aside from her boy issues. And standing there in the bathroom, listening as she told me her story, I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d been running away from something, too. If I’d been judging her, thinking of her as a slut all this time, when, in reality, we were living scarily similar lives.

Calling Vikki a slut or a whore was just like calling someone the Duff. It was insulting and hurtful, and it was one of those titles that just fed off an inner fear every girl must have from time to time. Slut, bitch, prude, tease, ditz. They were all the same. Every girl felt like one of these sexist labels described her at some point.

It’s Bianca’s gradual self-awareness that made this book so powerful. Even more impressive is that Keplinger was seventeen when she wrote it. It turns out I was wrong. This isn’t a book about teen sexuality; it’s a book about growing up female and discovering your own value in a world that is trying to keep you down, telling you you’re a whore, a bitch, or even a duff. Maybe YA novels haven’t changed that much.

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I recently claimed that Harry and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs was my favorite dinosaur book and that remains true. Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct by Mo Willems (Hyperion, $16.99) is a close second; although, arguably, this book is more about Reginald von Hoobie-Doobie than it is about dinosaurs. Reginald von Hoobie-Doobie. I defy you to say his name without at least cracking a smile, or snorting just a little bit. I read this book to a group of kids ranging from about 8 to 15, which is a tough crowd to find a book for, and they could not stop laughing. I could barely stop laughing. Reginald von Hoobie-Doobie. Classic. Anyway, Edwina is a lovely dinosaur, who wears a nice hat and always has a kind word for everybody. Everyone loves her. Except Reginald von Hoobie-Doobie. He KNOWS that dinosaurs are extinct and he sets out on an elaborate campaign to convince the town that Edwina SHOULD NOT be living there, or Living anywhere for that matter. Poor Reginald von Hoobie-Doobie. Everyone is so fond of Edwina that they don’t bother to pay attention. He needs a sympathetic ear. Fortunately for him, Edwina the dinosaur, who really is quite lovely, lives in his town. She’s the only one who takes the time to listen to his rather Persuasive and Loud explanation for why dinosaurs are, in fact, extinct. This book is by far my favorite of Willems’s books, which is saying quite a lot. The pauses in this story are perfect, especially the terrible moment when Edwina discovers the truth about dinosaurs. What will she do? What will she say? What has Reginald von Hoobie-Doobie done?

Surely you don’t think I’m going to ruin this for you.

9780689829536I love Olivia. You know, the pig from Ian Falconer’s books? I love her. I want her to be my best friend. Except she’s probably around 6 or 7. So I want to adopt her, even though she has a delightful family. Whatever. I just want her to be a part of my life. When Olivia first came out in 2000, I was working at an industry magazine that published reviews. I had an F&G. I used to carry it with me on trips so that I could read it to friends. True story. It has an amazing cadence. Perfunctory. Understated. It is so much fun to read aloud. The illustrations perfectly complement the text. They are sparse and understated: black, white, and red. The combination, the juxtaposition, the conversation between the two, however, speaks volumes.

9781442450271Other Olivia books have arrived and they are good. Olivia Saves the Circus addresses the concept of childhood imagination by simply using the color pink. Although I do own all the Olivia books, none of them has been quite as good as that first one. Until now. Falconer’s Olivia and the Fairy Princesses (Atheneum, $17.99) is new this year. The cover is a lovely, dare I say, girly, color with Olivia dressed in pink. The subtitle appears on the cover in a cursive script. “Fairy Princess” is ornate and flouncy. It’s rather ingenious marketing. People are going to pick it up thinking it will be a perfect gift for their pink-obsessed child. They will be surprised. I actually did have a customer reject the book because she was trying to discourage her daughter’s princess obsession. She seemed to have missed Olivia’s expression on the front cover and I insisted that she actually read the book. You see, “Olivia was depressed. . . . ‘I think I’m having an identity crisis’, she told her parents. . . . ‘All the girls want to be princesses'”.  This isn’t a book about being a fairy princess, this is a book about a character that is fed up with the culture of boxing little girls into one dream. Olivia knows there are alternatives and she’s not afraid to choose her own style. In fact, she’s ambitious in her drive to be singularly unique.

I laughed on every page. I appreciated the subtle nods to gender (even boys can be fairy princess ballerinas). I value Olivia’s cultural and social awareness. Will four year olds? Probably not. But they still love Olivia, too. They’ll appreciate her style; even her lounging-getting-ready-for-bed attire is fabulous. They’ll appreciate her references to literature — “Red Riding Hood”, “The Little Match Girl” — even if they don’t recognize all of the other cultural allusions. They’ll also laugh at Olivia’s snarky resolution. And maybe along the way, they’ll be inspired to pursue their own individual style.

9780142412145Compared to the number of excellent picture books for the holidays available — for examples see this list over at the Youth Literature Reviews — books for older readers and adults are a bit more rare. I also have a difficult finding one that doesn’t inspire an epic eye roll à la Liz Lemon. I picked up Let it Snow by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle (Speak, $9.99) at a bookstore that was not my bookstore back in September. I battled internally about the uselessness of buying a book at a bookstore that is not my bookstore and finally refrained, waited, and ordered it last week (thank you, employee discount). By now, most of you know how I feel about John Green, if not, see this post. I couldn’t not read a book with his name listed among the authors. I had also read one of Lauren Myracle’s books a while back; didn’t love it, but I did admire her for writing a book about teenage lesbian characters in the early 2000s. Maureen Johnson’s books I know, but have not read. Let it Snow is a collection of one story from each author, “The Jubilee Express” by Johnson, “A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle” by Green, and “The Patron Saint of Pigs” by Myracle. Stating without hesitation that Green’s story is the strongest of the three either betrays my bias or his talent. Nevertheless, all three stories, essentially Christmas romances, are enjoyable and they weave together nicely. The overarching connections are a snow store, a stranded train, a small town, minimal parents, and various teenagers who, for living in a small town, lead remarkably interesting lives.

One of my favorite conversations comes from Johnson’s story:

“Stuart’s a wizard with those kinds of things,” she said. 

“What kinds of things?”

“Oh, he can find anything online.”

Debbie was one of those parents who still  hadn’t quite grasped that using the Internet was not exactly wizardry, and that we could all find anything online.”

My one complaint is that although both Green and Myracle — I’m not sure about Johnson having not read her stuff — have included gay and lesbian characters in their other books, there was not even a gay best friend — or at least an out gay best friend — to be found among these holiday love stories. And interestingly, the most relatable female character, meaning relatively gender neutral and not wearing a short skirt in the dead of winter, is in Green’s story. Nevertheless, all three authors write believable characters, who are flawed but intelligent. By the time I read the third story, I wanted to go back and read the first one as small details from each plot infiltrate the other two. All three stories are enjoyable reads and I imagine this was a fun project. I am a fan of co-written books.

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Board books are such a good idea. I’m suddenly interested in knowing when they first started being produced. If I ever get around to doing research on the history of board books I’ll be sure to include it in a future post. Perfect for birth – 2 1/2, they are durable, portable, and nice to chew on (an assumption based purely on observation). I like it when authors, illustrators, and publishers produced board books that have specifically be designed for that format, but it is also common for popular hardcovers to be later released as a board book. Sometimes, in the case of Hug by Jez Alborough (Candlewick, $6.99), the board book format makes so much more sense than the hardcover. The book contains 3 words: hug, mommy, and Bobo. Given that “mommy” and “Bobo” appear only once, the entire story is basically comprised of one word and the story that Alborough has created with that single word is impressive. A small primate (not my area of expertise) walks through the jungle and sees other animals in endearing familial embraces. The chimp (?) responds to the snakes, elephants, giraffes with the astute observation “hug”. Bobo, as we later learn is his name, experiences a range of emotions, from delighted to despondent, as he feels increasingly alone. His petulant wail “HUG” and pitiful whimper “hug” draw the concern of all the other animals. Fortunately mommy runs with arms wide open. My grandmother always used to hug us and say, “I’m going to squeeeeze you, till you burst” and this sentiment is perfectly demonstrated in the warm embrace Bobo finally finds. A satisfied interspecies collective “Hug” concludes the story. The board book is perfect, though, because you can hold the book in one hand and hug with the other. It’s a great book to get a busy 1 1/2 year old to sit still for a few minutes as you practice your dramatic voice while trying to read all the different emotions that hugs can evoke.

images-1Since I don’t usually write over the weekends (because most of my waking hours are spent at the book store), this is my last chance to recommend Hanukkah books for this year. It’s a Miracle! A Hanukkah Storybook by Stephanie Spinner and illustrated by Jill McElmurry (Aladdin, $6.99)  has a dual function: it tells a story of a boy who is becoming an adult and also demonstrates the importance of passing down the family stories. Owen has finally achieved the designation “Official Candle Lighter” of his family’s Menorah. In his honor, every night, his cowboy-boot wearing grandmother tells Owen the story of a miracle: a girl who wanted to be a rabbi, a man who asked for prayers from his Jewish community when his wife was sick, a boy who had the power to make everyone laugh, a girl who desperately wanted a horse. Each story demonstrates how people can overcome obstacles. The stories seem vaguely familiar to Owen and as he sits around the table with his extended family on the final night he sees each of them in a whole new light. The stories are meaningful, but brief. There are two, however, that seem a little out of sync with the rest: a boy who wanted to act like a baby, and an alien who comes to town. Surely meant to inject a bit of humor, these two stories fail to add anything substantial to an otherwise engaging book. A book that will hopefully inspire other parents to tell stories about their own family’s miracles.

Now the “Twelves Days of Christmas” has to be one of the most annoying songs ever invented (other than this version, of course). I’m sure if I did some research on its history I would come to appreciate the references and symbolism behind the words, but basically I’ve never been a fan of cumulative narratives. However, it makes an excellent canvas for illustrators and there are some really beautiful artistic versions available. I’ll limit this discussion to my top three recommendations.

9780763657352First, I love all things Jane Ray. I love the details in her work, I love her illustrated borders, I love that she’s done a lot of work on fairy tales. I love that she’s quiet and kind of shy. I get quiet, too, especially when I meet people I admire, so our conversation was awkward at best, but I did have the chance to ask her to sign my copy of The Twelve Dancing Princesses at a bookstore Christmas party a few years back. Her rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas (Candlewick, $16.99)  is amazing, starting with the cover, which displays a tree branch decorated with ornaments representing each of the twelve nights. The details are incredible; look at each individual leaf and you’ll notice they are all different. My favorite page from the book has to be the “ten lords a-leaping”. Going for a Mary Poppins affect, nineteenth-century British businessmen are dancing on the rooftops of London. Those are some nice moves and I love the alternative interpretations she includes in this book.

9780803733572Now I expected to insist that Ray’s version is the best to come out recently, but then I took a look at Loren Long’s edition (Dial, $16.99) and now I’m torn. Long’s cover is more subdued, but the illustrations inside are breathtaking. The “two turtle doves’ page is filled with the crisp blue of icy winter. You can’t look at the illustration for too long without getting chills, in both senses. Long has opted for majestic fantasy; her lords are medieval knights on a noble quest. Both illustrators are to be commended and both of their books would make lovely Christmas books (ahem!)

9781449403614Finally, Jade Fang has illustrated an edition utilizing the AniMotion technology that has been popular lately (Accord Publishing, $17.99). Every page contains a screen vignette that slides back and forth to create movable images. The artistic style is aimed at a younger audience, but the illustrations are solid, if somewhat seasonally cliché. Of the three, this edition isn’t my first choice personally, but I can understand why children ages 2-5 might really enjoy it.

While traditionally the twelve days of Christmas begin on December 25 and end on January 5, starting today there are only twelve days until Christmas. I hope you all are having a lovely season and enjoying the holiday books. What are some of your favorites?

9780316058438Many of the requests I include on this blog are ones I’ve heard over the years, but it’s always fun to talk about requests that happen in real time (kind of). Last night a customer started our conversation with, “I’m looking for a book for a seven year old who is a very good reader. He can read on his own, but his parents also read to him” and then she listed some of the books they had recently read together: Swiss Family Robinson, The Phantom Tollbooth, Frog and Toad. I brought her to the appropriate sections and showed her Geronimo Stilton, The Enormous Egg, and My Father’s Dragon (a store favorite).  She asked about Lemony Snicket. We discussed the pros and cons. I showed her the Puffin Classics spinner. I then left her to browse and she was there for quite some time. When I went to check on her later, she had Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard Atwater  in her hand (Little, Brown, $6.99). Ahhh! How could I forget that one?!?!? I loved loved loved that book when I was seven. I must have read and reread it 5 or 6 times. I remember laughing till I cried at Captain Cook and Greta’s antics and there can be no doubt that the book is responsible for my life-long fascination with penguins and Antarctica. It was the perfect gift and I’m delighted that she chose it.

I can tell you exactly why I didn’t think of it, though. First, the last time I recommended it to one of our young customers, the girl (not more than 8) informed me that she had already seen the movie. *Not* having seen the movie, I can’t comment on how they compare, but it’s usually not about which one is better. Mostly kids want something new, not a story they are already familiar with (although I, admittedly, was and am a re-reader). Which brings me to the second reason I rarely recommend this book. It’s been around for so long, I forget that people might not be familiar with it. I should have known better, the books the customer first listed are also classics, although they haven’t recently been made into blockbuster movies. Nevertheless, the number of new books that are published each year is staggering and the backlist, comparably, is tiny, which means books like Mr. Popper’s Penguins (along with The Phantom Tollbooth and My Father’s Dragon) are still in print for a reason. They are good. Really good. And continue to be relevant, even though Mr. Popper’s form of entertainment is a weekly radio show. I need to remember that more often. And to remember that each generation of children is encountering these books for the first time. Lucky them.

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Our owner recently had a visitor from the UK, which seemed like a perfect excuse to request a few copies of Slow Loris by Alexis Deacon (Red Fox £5.99). In case you’re wondering, Slow Loris is not a name. Slow Loris is a slow loris. He really is very slow. And all the visitors at the zoo think he is very boring. But Slow Loris has a secret. This phenomenal book, complete with lift-the-flap gems, and fold-out pages, will keep kids laughing. It is my all-time favorite picture book from the UK and one that I love to quote from when the occasion arises (which is more often than you’d expect). I’m delighted to have some copies in our store again and I can’t wait to start sharing it with people. Unfortunately it’s hard to come by in the US, but it’s well worth tracking down. Even if you need to implore a friend visiting the UK to bring you a copy. Or better yet, plan a trip over yourself.

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