Archives for the month of: January, 2013

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Happy is a simple book that packs a big punch. The book, by Mies Van Hout (Lemniscaat, $17.99) is about emotions: happy, sad, surprised, angry, shy. That’s it. These are the only words in the book. Each page just lists one word. And the back ground is black. On every double-page spread. Seriously, that’s it. Black background and one word. Plus a fish. A fish drawn in what looks like pastels, but I’m the first to admit that I don’t know my art mediums. Each fish aptly expresses the emotion listed. Happy, as you can see from the cover, is bright and vibrant. Smiling wide. That fish just looks so . . . happy. I mean, it’s perfect. There is no other way to describe that fish. Excited? No, not exactly. Pleased? Cheerful? Merry? Blithe?  Nope, those aren’t right either. That fish is happy. No doubt about it. All the other fish in this book also perfectly reflect their respective emotion. So much so, that you will find yourself laughing out loud, because YES! that’s exactly what it’s like to feel surprised, or shy, or happy. Happy is fun book for introducing emotions to children ages 2-3, or enjoying with slightly older kids, ages 4-6, who will appreciate the humor in the illustrations.

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Here again, I feel a certain divisiveness in my reactions to a book that I’ve recently read. I’m desperate to talk about it, but I’m a bit wary of actually recommending it. I think the former impulse is winning out, however. I picked up A. S. King’s Ask the Passengers (Little, Brown, $17.99) super excited to read a new YA title, especially one that deals with gay and lesbian themes. I’ve really enjoyed seeing the various ways that authors have approached this topic, especially since we finally seem to have gotten over the ‘traumatic coming out’ narrative rut.

Ask the Passengers contains a very interesting protagonist. Astrid had a strong narrative voice, but was also somewhat detached from her life and environment. I liked that, because I often feel that way, like I’m watching, but not really participating. One of the recurring scenes in the book is of Astrid laying on the picnic table in the back yard, sending love and questions to the passengers of the planes flying above. Again, this concept felt incredibly relatable. I love traveling, because I like experiencing new places and cultures, but I like traveling, because I like moving. There was something intriguing about a high-school girl, stagnant in her home town, thinking about the people on the move above her. Her own struggles with the confinement of living in a small town, where she does not identify with the dominant way of thinking, were palpable in these scenes. Again, I connected with her there. I also connected with her resistance to the pressure pushing her in a direction that was not her direction. I felt the exhaustion of fighting back, and appreciated that she stayed the course.

What I did not like was the melodramatic trauma of dealing with her sexuality. Her confusion was normal, but overdone. Her girlfriend was pushy and super annoying. Her ‘gay best friends’ struck me as rather ignorant and irritating. Finally, the response, even from this small town, was so negative, it just didn’t feel very realistic to me. Maybe it would have if the book was set in the early 1990s, but the cultural references indicate that it is set in the 2010s. I’m not delusional and I realize that homophobia still exists, but the book seemed really imbalanced. It was as if she, and her friends, were the first kids to come out in this town ever. Highly unlikely.

What I did appreciate, however, was Astrid’s distinction between “lying” and “not telling everyone everything, just because they asked”. As she works through her own sexual orientation, she does so internally. Thinking. Critiquing. Speculating. Her friends, her parents, and even her girlfriend, all demand that she ‘come out’, ‘tell the world’, ‘tell the truth’. When accused of lying about herself, she tells her best friend, “I see what you’re trying to say. But you’re wrong. . . . Who is anyone to tell me when to talk about something so personal?” This conversation really struck a chord with me, because I firmly believe that it is one of these crucial aspects of teenagers that adults often ignore. Teenagers are accused of secrecy, sullenness, being cagey, or rude, but I’ve always felt that there is a larger developmental process occurring. I think that teens are starting to understand that they are separate human beings, with their own thoughts, and that they start to develop a sense of privacy. A sense of their right to privacy and that they can have thoughts that they don’t share with anyone. Or that they themselves can chose who they share their personal thoughts with.

Insofar as Ask the Passengers deals with teen identity, philosophy, and relationships, it is a good book, and one I would recommend. The lesbian plot line, however, was forced, unnecessary, and not remotely believable. While I commend the author for attempting to augment YA LBGT lit, unfortunately I think this book took a huge step backwards in that area.

14050182Winter wouldn’t be complete without reading Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day (Penguin, $6.99). Winner of the Caldecott medal (did you see yesterday’s show?), The Snowy Day is a classic for a number of reasons. The book chronicles the adventures of one young Peter during a snowy day. Peter wakes up to see a blanket of snow across his town. He puts on his red snow suit, that by now has become almost iconic, and runs outside; “Crunch, crunch, crunch, his feet sank in the snow”. Peter makes tracks. He finds a stick. He makes a snow man and a snow angel.  He climbs. He slides. And then he goes home, with a souvenir from his day out. The souvenir snowball doesn’t survive, but the next day is snowy, too, and this time Peter goes out together with a friend.

Peter is a kid playing in the snow, and yet his snowy day has had enormous effect on children’s literature. Keats is know for breaking color barriers with this book. It was one of the first picture books to include an African-American child that 1) wasn’t an egregious caricature, and 2) didn’t focus on race or even mention race at all. Nevertheless, sometimes these barrier breaking books become equated only with that one achievement. A monumentous one to be sure, but the great thing about The Snowy Day is that you can go back and read it, with the past 50 years of American history in mind, and realize that this book is a classic not simply because it broke barriers, but because it’s a damn good book. I get really frustrated with books that get so wrapped up in the ‘issues’ that the art of literature, and, as is often the case, the art of illustration, gets lost or ignored. What is the point of a book that tries to teach a lesson, but no one wants to read because it’s poorly written and badly illustrated? The Snowy Day didn’t break barriers because Keats set out to teach people about racism. It broke barriers because he wrote lovely prose — “He walked with his toes pointing out, like this: // He walked with his toes pointing in, like that: // Then he dragged his feet s-l-o-w-l-y to make tracks” — and created gorgeous images. The snow is white, blue, pink, green, and purple all mixed together, but there is no doubt that it is snow, and this snow has that magical quality of making you wish you could get bundled up and make tracks along with Peter. I could go on and on, but this is one of those books that you read because it’s a classic, because it broke barriers, but then you just get lost in the story and all that matters is Peter and his snowy day.

9780811867849Over and Under the Snow, by Kate Messner (Chronicle Books, $16.99) explains that, “Under the snow is a whole secret kingdom where the smallest forest animals stay safe and warm”. As Messner states in an Author’s Note, this “secret kingdom” does actually exist and she provides information about the seasonal ecosystem. She provides some scientific information about the different animals that appear in the story: red squirrels, shrews, white-tailed deer, snowshoe hares “famous for their seasonal color change”, beavers, bull-frogs, and bumblebees. Messner also offers a list of further reading, so, although the story is a fictional account of a child cross-country skiing with (her? his? well, it’s winter) father, the information included is accurate. The illustrations display a cross-section of the forest, snow, the “secret kingdom” or the animals’ habitats, and the frozen ground. Despite its picture book format, it is likely to appeal to slightly older children, ages 6-9, who enjoy non-fiction and learning about the environment.

I’m delighted with all the great winter-themed books available. I also really like blue and white, which might explain why I find so many of the covers from winter books appealing. Today, I want to discuss two board books that are set during winter. Let’s Play in the Snow, by Sam McBratney and illustrated by Anita Jeram (Candlewick, $6.99), and Old Bear and His Cub, by Olivier Dunrea (Philomel Books, $6.99), provide two more excuses to cuddle up with your own little hare or cub.

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In Let’s Play in the Snow, you’ll recognize Big Nutbrown hare and Little Nutbrown hare, from McBratney and Jeram’s well-known book, Guess How Much I Love You. One of the most notable features of this book is the cover , which is dusted with silver glitter, giving it a tactile component for little hands. In this story, the duo is back, playing “I spy” in the winter forest. The game starts with pairings: “I spy something that belongs to” a tree, a spider, bird, and a river. Little Nutbrown hare ups the ante when he spies “something that belongs to me”. A bit too abstract, he offers this hint: “but only when the sun comes out”. Big Nutbrown hare, mildly competitive if you remember from the first book, also spies something “that belongs to me” and, “It’s little . . . It’s nutbrown . . . It’s my favorite thing . . . And it can hop”. Little Nutbrown hare knows, “It’s me!”

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Old Bear and His Cub also contains an intrepid duo and is relatively new in board book format. Old Bear and Little Cub venture out to explore the snow. Little Cub is daring, as little cubs often are, but all it takes is a long, silent look from Old Bear to keep Little Cub out of harm’s way. The book takes a cute turn, when Old Bear starts exhibiting signs of a winter cold and Little Cub doles out some of his own long, silent looks. Little Cub and Old Bear will do what it takes to keep the other one safe, happy, and healthy. When I first read this story a few years ago, I assumed that Old Bear was Little Cub’s grandfather. In a new prequel, entitled Little Cub (Philomel, $16.99), we learn that they are not related and discover how Old Bear and Little Cub first find each other. This new information puts another spin on these stories; they are excellent adoption books.

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A Perfect Day is Carin Berger’s latest contribution to picture books (Greenwillow, $16.99). Berger employs an interesting collage style, by using common pieces of paper as the background to her illustrations. You can see the way that used notebook paper, composition paper, graph paper, and even receipts have been recommissioned in her art. The vestiges of the papers’ past lives are clearly visible, which provides an interesting depth to the images. She has utilized this technique in her previous books, such as The Little Yellow Leafbut for some reason I think it works better in this one. Maybe because of the color scheme. The various shades of white paper are suited to convey snowy landscapes. I also think this book is better because there is a clearer narrative. You can follow the various townspeople’s activities throughout the day and see how some of their stories overlap. The best image is the double page spread of everyone making snow angles (also the jacket illustration). The story opens with a soothing, “It snowed and snowed and snowed and snowed” (another one of my favorite illustrations from the book), and ends with, “The perfect end to a perfect day”. yep.

9780440228004I think books have an infinite range of functions. I hate to be general to the point of uselessness, but they can entertain, teach, challenge firmly-rooted ideals, encourage self-reflection, open up new cultures and experiences. The list goes on.  I think the best stories are ones that do several of these at once rather than just one. Stories that are pure entertainment are usually mindless to the point of embarrassment. Stories that are purely about instruction are boring and terrible to wade through. Even when I agree with the subject matter being taught, I hate books that are so focused on forcing the message that they don’t actually contain an interesting and engaging story. Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 (Random House, $6.99) is the perfect combination.

Kenny, aged 10, narrates the story of growing up in Flint, Michigan.  He’s struggling to grow up, but is honest about his weaknesses. He can be naive, he isn’t always a good friend or a good brother, and, although he hates to admit it, he cries a lot. He’s also smart, observant, and rather witty: “It’s times like this when someone is talking to you like you are a grown-up that you have to be careful not to pick your nose or dig your drawers out of your butt”. Basically, he’s a 10 year old kid.

Kenny is an objective narrator. He provides just enough information about his family, his schoolmates, and his town to paint a vivid picture, but doesn’t over explain and ruin the chance for readers to figure things out for themselves. Class is an issue in this book, but Kenny never overtly labels any other character. Instead he notices what his classmates do or do not have, mentions kids forgetting their lunch, or lists the number of shirts and pants someone wears. It’s up to the reader to understand, for example, that Rufus’s family doesn’t have enough food to send school lunches, or the real reason Larry, the bully, steals Kenny’s gloves.

I like that. Writers such as Curtis clearly respect child readers, because they provide all the pieces, but let the readers put them together for themselves.

Although most of the first three-quarters of the book are humorous anecdotes about the “Weird Watsons”, the “go to Birmingham” part of the title hovered like a shadow and provoked not a small amount of anxiety.  Also, the book is dedicated “In memory of  Addie Mae Collins (born 4/18/49, died 9/15/63), Denise McNair (born 11/17/51, died 9/15/63), Carol Robertson (born 4/24/49, died 9/15/63), and Cynthia Wesley (born 4/30/49, died 9/15/63) the toll for one day in one city”. That anxiety proved not to be misplaced and there is a church bombing at the end of the book. I thought Curtis handled these final chapters extremely well. There is enough description to convey the horror of the bombings that occurred in Birmingham, but nothing in this book felt too much for a 9-12 to handle. Also, *spoiler alert* the scenes of Kenny’s post-trauma reactions were far more poignant and effective than having Joetta die would have been. Curtis follows up with an epilogue and in his discussion of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15, 1963, he rightly notes that, “Although these may be nothing more that names in a book to you now, you must remember that these children were just as precious to their families as Joetta was to the Watsons or as your brothers and sisters are to you”. The ache of worrying about Joetta, followed by the thrill of learning that she survived, makes the historical reality of Addie, Denise, Carol, and Cynthia’s deaths even more heartbreaking.

Both the novel and the epilogue end positively, but with a call to action. Overall the book is a reminder of all the best qualities of children’s literature. A great read for any day of the year.

9780440228004A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that in honor of the MLK holiday weekend she was planning to read Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 (Laurel Leaf, $6.99). I thought this was such an excellent idea, that I decided to jump on board and read it as well. I’ve enjoyed Curtis’s other books, but haven’t gotten around to reading this one, and her post was the inspiration I needed. So I bought my copy over the weekend, but regret to admit that  I haven’t had a chance to finish it yet. I’m going to do so after my work meeting tonight and will write about it tomorrow. I can already tell that it’s going to become one of my go-to recommendations. Apologies for the cop-out, but I didn’t want this holiday to pass without mentioning it. And if it’s not too late, read, or re-read, The Watsons Go to Birmingham —1963; we can compare notes tomorrow! 

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Author Michelle Sinclair Colman and illustrator Nathalie Dion have devised an adorable series of board books published by Tricycle Press ($6.95). Anyone shopping for a new baby gift is sure to find one that will appeal to the parents of the new addition, because the books highlight all sorts of personalities, trends, and interests of today’s parents: Beach Babies Wear Sunglasses, Urban Babies Wear Black, Jet Set Babies Wear Wings, Sporty Babies Wear Sweats, Artsy Babies Wear Paint, Rocker Babies Wear Jeans, Eco Babies Wear Green, Foodie Babies Wear Bibs, Country Babies Wear Plaid, and of course, Winter Babies Wear Layers. Dion’s illustrations put a baby spin on Colman’s words that any parent will recognize. Winter babies may make angels, but the baby shown on that particular page is anything but. It’s a cute series; the babies represent a range of ethnicities although culturally these books are definitely American. But you see what I mean, right? We all have foodies, artists, frequent flyers, environmentalists, musicians, outdoorsy types, and sports enthusiasts in our lives. Your New York friends will smile knowingly at Urban Babies, your California friends will appreciate Beach Babies, and Winter Babies is perfect for anyone who lives somewhere up North, or wishes they did.

9780763660604I’ve been debating with myself whether it’s worth writing about a book that I didn’t like, given that the point of this blog is to make book recommendations. Well in this particular case, I read a book last night that I have actually recommended on several occasions. We do that sometimes, recommend books we haven’t read. I usually try to be honest about it. “Have you read it?” “Well I’ve read the back.”

The book in question is Liz Kessler’s A Year Without Autumn (Candlewick, $6.99). I wanted to like this book, not least because it has a great cover. It also has an interesting description. I like books with a little time travel, especially when it’s handled well (see Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me). I also thought this book looked like it would be a good step forward for fans of Emily Windsnap. It is a little more serious, has complex themes, and in general just looks really good. But it was boring. There is a lot of unnecessary description of things that had little to do with the story. And I don’t think the girls sound very realistic. There is something about their conversation that feels stilted to me. Many of the word choices seemed particularly British, so I assumed the whole time I was reading that the book takes place in Britain. At the end, however, it becomes clear that the girls are supposed to be American. By that time I was just confused because they really didn’t sound like American pre-teens. Anyway, the book has an interesting premise and would probably even generate some thought-provoking questions about fate, friendship, and what you can and cannot control in your life. I just wish that there was more to help me connect with the Jenni and Autumn or at least care what happens to them. I don’t think I’ll start steering people away from it (I do that sometimes, too), but I’m taking it off my list of books to recommend.

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