Archives for the month of: April, 2013


Although I think it’s unlikely that anyone is actually looking for a book on gender wars, Andrew Clements’s middle-grade novel, No Talking, puts a hilarious spin on the boys versus girls thing that often permeates the fifth grade (Aladdin, $5.99). When Dave Packer and Lynsey Burgess get into a heated debate about who talks more — boys or girls — their argument overruns the whole grade. Both sides agree on a pact to not speak more than three words at a time, but only when asked a direct question by an adult. They monitor each other at school and everyone agrees to an honor code of reporting communication transgressions that occur at home.

You’d think that the teachers would be delighted at this sudden silence, but they can’t quite handle a situation that they don’t understand and none of the kids wants to waste their words trying to explain it. One enthusiastic Language Arts teacher figures out the contest and decides to conduct his MA research on the ways in which the kids choose to use their three words as well as the other forms of non-verbal forms of communication that develop. Once again, Clements writes a great school story that kids will relate to, while also addressing big-picture concepts like communication, language, and authority. With talking limited, both Dave and Lynsey find themselves observing and thinking a lot more. They both learn a lot from this experiment, about words and about each other. While Frindle is probably Clements’s best-known book, No Talking is definitely my favorite. 

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Since I’m on a Marla Frazee kick, I have to recommend All the World, written by Liz Garton Scanlon and a Caldecott Honor book a few years back (Beach Lane, $17.99). The text is sparse and crisp — “Rock, stone, pebble, sand // Body, shoulder, arm, hand. A moat to dig // a shell to keep // All the world is wide and deep” — and verily dances across each page. It’s Frazee’s illustrations that really make this book, though. As usual, she captures the movement of play, from families at the beach to gardening, tree climbing, cooking, and running through the rain. The movement through the different times of the day, and even the different weather patterns of summer (yes it most certainly can be sunny enough to go to the beach in the morning and then start raining in the afternoon — at least where I live!) are a delightful homage to environmental cadences and rhythms. All the World is a nice snuggling, going to bed book for younger children, who will find comfort in the words and pictures.

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Woo hoo! Sara Pennypacker’s latest book in the Clementine series is now available (Hyperion, $14.99)! These books, illustrated by the incomparable Marla Frazee, are my top recommendation for any early reader, who is ready for chapter books. Clementine and the Spring Trip is the 6th book in the series and there is due to be one final installment. Clementine, the first volume, is still my favorite, but this new one had me giggling all the way through. Clementine has the most delightful perspective on the world around her and I love love love that the adults in her life (parents, teachers, even the principal) recognize her uniqueness and support her, even when she’s challenging them. As many times as she has been sent to the principal’s office for not paying attention, the principal pays close attention to Clementine. Her parents encourage her to expend her energy in constructive venues (art, building projects, growing a garden) and never try to stifle her creativity. Her mother, the artist, and father, the building superintendent, have found happiness in their own lives and therefore are comfortable helping Clementine find her happiness. I admire the lack of DRAMA in these books, even as they are delightful to read and filled with clever stories and narratives. Pennypacker is excellent at recognizing the priorities of a third-grader (spring trip? great! but, not on bus 7, it smells!) and Frazee adds a tremendous amount of insight as well as humor into her illustrations: the image of the class gagging at the mere thought of riding bus 7 is perfect! Can’t wait for the final book. No! Stop! I don’t want this series to end!

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9780061728235Walter Dean Myers’s Darius & Twig (HarperCollins, $17.99, out today) packs a lot of big thoughts into a compact book. Darius wants to be a writer, but he’s struggling to understand his story. Twig is a natural runner. The two boys are best friends and fiercely support each other, even when no one else does. This story touches on community, loyalty, family, violence, respect, dreaming big, but it manages to address all of this things with a subtlety that is remarkable. Myers paints a very clear and lucid picture and then steps back quietly, while letting others make observations. He doesn’t set out to teach lessons, or impose anything on his readers. Instead, he tells a deceptively straightforward story about two friends that can be enjoyed on its own. For readers who want to push further into the story, however, the setting is incredibly rich, the secondary characters are interesting and complex, and the representations of class, race, socioeconomics, education, athletics are thought provoking. More than that, however, this story describes how writing forces us to look deeply inside of ourselves. I hope that high schools adopt this book and start using it in their writing classes. The evolution of Darious’s story is phenomenal. There are no easy answers, but what I love are the subtle changes as Darius looks critically at himself and his world. Myers’s reputation proceeds him. There’s a reason.
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If you haven’t read Paul Fleischman’s Weslandia, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Candlewick Press, $6.99), I can tell you that this book is like no book you’ve read before. It’s a picture book, but is definitely not for the pre-school crowd. It’s more appropriate for 7-9 year olds, which makes it difficult to place in the bookstore! Wesley is not like other kids. Even his parents acknowledge that, “He sticks out”. He doesn’t want to do what all the other kids do, something the adults around him just don’t understand. So Wesley does the only logical thing he can think of: he starts his own civilization. All civilizations need one thing. Yep, you guessed it, a staple food crop. Wesley’s crop grows and grows, until eventually he’s able to move in to his own garden. Wesley’s garden yields not just food, but enough raw materials to make clothing, hats, and shelter. Wesley’s garden habitat attracts the other kids in the neighborhood and his civilization starts to thrive, blossom, and even expand. Kids interested in nature, community, and innovation will love this unique book.

When my grandfather passed away last November, I wrote several posts on books that deal with death. It was surprisingly cathartic. Two picture books have been published recently that incorporate themes of loss and death, but in rather abstract ways and I’ve found both to be comforting. I think about my grandfather a lot. The sequence is always the same: something will spark a memory and I’ll smile, which is closely followed by the sadness of once again having to remember that he is gone.

9781846434921Both of today’s recommendations are excellent books, because they leave quite a bit unsaid and children will understand them in different ways at different stages of their development. The first is Rabbityness by Jo Empson (Child’s Play, $16.99). Rabbit liked doing lots of rabbity things. But Rabbit also liked doing unrabbity things, like painting and making music. The middle pages of the book are filled with colors and evocations of music, until “one day, Rabbit disappeared” and as much as the other rabbits looked for him, he could not be found. Rabbit, however, had left them gifts and they “filled the woods with color and music once again”. The book is told in the past tense, although what exactly happens to Rabbit is never overtly stated. It is a lovely book filled with color that remind us of the gifts that the people we love leave for us.

9780375870378The other book, which comes out today, is Bluebird by Bob Staake (Scwartz and Wade, $17.99). Bluebird is wordless and the illustrations are rather muted in white, light blue, and grey. These colors work really well for this story and the bluebird, rendered in bright blue, stands out. The story narrates a few huge and weighty topics: feeling alone, bullying, protecting your friends, and death. But because the book is wordless, the story manages to create a space for the seriousness of each topics without being heavy-handed. The reader is left to tell themselves a story that they are able to handle. Nothing more. Color is only introduced in the final few pages and the visual impact of these new colors adds brightness precisely when the story is the most dark.  It is further comforting that although the boy loses the bluebird, he is not left alone. This is a stunning story about saying goodbye.

I’ve been meaning to add an affiliate link for a while, and it is meant to be convenient. Usually Amazon is the way to go, and although I don’t think of Amazon as evil (I tend not to think that businesses possess emotion or anthropomorphic characteristics), right now I do work at an independent bookstore. And I value what independent bookstores offer to their local communities as well as the book-loving population. As such I am adding an Indie Bound affiliate link to this site. Indie Bound is a national organization that promotes local bookstores. According to their website:

IndieBound is a community-oriented movement begun by the independent bookseller members of the American Booksellers Association. It brings together booksellers, readers, indie retailers, local business alliances, and anyone else with a passionate belief that healthy local economies help communities thrive. Supporting local, indie businesses means that dollars, jobs, diversity, choice, and taxes stay local, creating strong, unique communities and happy citizens.

As you know, affiliate links mean that any books purchased by clicking that link on this blog will eventually generate some kind of kick-back for me. I have no idea how much. I certainly do appreciate any purchase you might make from this site. It will be even more exciting to see if anyone buys the books I’ve recommended! So look for the Shop Indie logo on future posts.

Best,

Sara

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9780375825446I picked up Wendelin van Draanen’s Flipped (Knopf, $8.95) years ago on a business trip because the cover is so great. It is streamlined, uncluttered, and just intriguing enough to spark my curiosity. The back matter is also very well done, the two stories are intertwined and upside down. You read Bryce’s story from top to bottom and then flip the book over to read Julianna’s. I bought the book and read it over dinner. (I once read this Dilbert comic where he says to the server, “I’m not a loser who can’t get a date; I’m a business traveler.” I’d always think about that line when I was traveling for business and eating alone.) Anyway, Flipped is really amazing. I’ve re-read it several times over the years and I love it every time. Julianna and Bryce are in 7th grade, but they met the summer before 2nd. They live across the street from each other and even this tiny distance completely affects their perspective on what’s happening between them. Each chapter flips the story; we hear Bryce’s perspective and then Julianna’s. Or the other way around. Not only are their stories flipped, from the beginning Julianna has flipped over Bryce. Julianna is a phenomenal character. She’s not like all the other kids and her unique perspective on the world, along with her ability to rise above and see the bigger picture, makes her one of my all-time favorite literary characters. Bryce tries really hard to keep his feet on the ground, and stay safe, but he grows on you. It might be his bright blue eyes. Or maybe it’s because he starts to step outside his comfort zone and flip his own perspective, slowly becoming even more awesome than the one-dimensional image of him that Julianna has created. Although, by this time Julianna’s own views about Bryce have started to flip . . .

Lest I’ve given the impression that this book is a cute romance à la Little Manhattan, I do want to say that there is a lot more going on in this book besides Julianna and Bryce’s tumultuous relationship. Both characters have extremely interesting and complex family structures. I cry every time Julianna and her dad visit her uncle and then again when Bryce learns about his own birth from his grandfather. There are no easy answers in either family, but the connections and family dynamics create depth and complexity for both Julianna and Bryce. Secondary characters, including their teacher and friends, are fleshed out enough to give the story more depth. As for the movie that came out in 2010, it is surprisingly true to the story and I admit I love it. But the book is better : )

9781250002358The Lover’s Dictionary, by David Levithan (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $20) falls in to that ‘New Adult’ category that you may or may not have heard of. The designation is an awkward, to be sure, and is meant to denote books that are more mature than YA. New adults, presumably, are the 18-30 crowd. You can see the issues. Are ‘New Adults’ not actual adults? How does one go from being a ‘young’ adult to a ‘new’ adult? That evolution seems arbitrarily backwards. Anyway. Categories are always random and problematic, which is hardly the point of this post. The point is that all David Levithan books are worth reading. The characters in The Lover’s Dictionary are certainly older than the teenage protagonists in his other novels, hence the clarification that this book perhaps isn’t ‘YA’ in the strictest sense. In terms of content, there is nothing in this book that you can’t find in a YA novel and actually less because the most intimate moments are unwritten. The narrative format is unique and very intriguing. Starting with A “aberrant” through to Z “zenith”, the story emerges from the entries of the dictionary. I was almost skeptical. How could such a dry format yield and interesting story? But it does. Well. The narrator dictionary composer writes in the first person and refers to himself as ‘boyfriend’ repeatedly. We know his gender. His partner, however, remains in the ambiguous second person. I wanted to write a story like this when I was in college. I never did. It wouldn’t have been nearly as good. There is something remarkably satisfying in the snippets of story and a more patient reader would probably spend more time pouring over the word and the entry. The ones I did pay attention to were always clever on a variety of levels. The story and history of the relationship plays out non-sequentially throughout the entries. The entries are short, occasionally only one line, rarely more than a page. And yet, somehow this story is so full. Perhaps because the story is such a familiar one: falling in love, self-doubt, relationship fissures, the threat of break up. I love reading Levithan’s books because they always contain lines that break my heart. Not necessarily because they are sad, but because they are true.

9781596436244Spring might have started last week, but I think a lot of us are still waiting for the world to turn green. Julie Fogliano’s And Then It’s Spring, illustrated by Erin E. Stead (Roaring Brook Press, $16.99) is a quietly humorous book about patiently waiting for spring. The book begins with a boy, a dog, a turtle, and a rabbit dressed up for winter: “First you have brown, all around you have brown, then there are seeds . . . “. The boy, the dog, the turtle, and the rabbit plant the seeds, wait for rain, watch the ground, wait for sun, and wait, and wait.  Diligent in their endeavors, their somber expressions as they wait (and wait) will spark a few smiles. When the green finally arrives, as it always does, you start to think that the wait might make spring even that much better.

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