I know I’m getting in a bit of a rut with the age titles. It’s so much easier, but not as helpful when you’re looking for subject recommendations. My goal over the next couple of weeks is to go back and add subject references to the blog titles. For today, however, Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes is good for a kid who enjoys sports and is on the cusp of adolescence (Bloomsbury, $15.99). Joylin plays basketball. Her younger brother Caden is an artist. I’m always a fan of books that push gender boundaries and show young readers that what it means to be a girl or boy isn’t as clear cut as some would have you believe. The kids’ dad has a difficult time with his non-athletic son, although he is rather supportive of his daughter’s talent, and both kids struggle to align themselves what the perceived norms of their respective gender. Caden tries to learn basketball to impress his father and Joylin tries wearing skirts, heels, and lipstick to impress a boy. She’s just as surprised at her newfound interest as anyone: “There are suddenly // cute boys everywhere. // I swear.// They keep popping up // all the time”. She’s never cared about clothes or giggling before and she’s not exactly sure what kind of girl she wants to be now. Caden basically embarrasses himself on the court and Joylin usually ends up literally falling all over herself in front of Santiago — not quite the impression she’s going for. Written in free verse, Joylin’s flowing narrative voice is pitch perfect. She navigates the highs and lows of early adolescence with her two best friends KeeLee and Jake and when she questions “Where is a parallel universe // when you need one?”, I had to smile. Ah, middle school. How many times did I have that thought, although never quite so poetic!
I’m slowly working my way through the recent ALA Youth Media Award winners. I’m moderately embarrassed at how many winners had completely escaped my notice. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Simon & Schuster, $17.99) received both a Prinz honor and the Stonewall prize so it immediately went to the top of my list of must reads. Of course, as any bookseller knows, it becomes difficult to get your hands on winning books (unless you already have them in stock) after the award show since all the *other* booksellers are all scrambling to get the books in their store. Insider info: booksellers totally watch the awards with the order window open so that they can put in requests as the winners are announced. Seriously. One minute late and you don’t get any of the books : ) Anyway, I put in a request for Aristotle and Dante with our store owner and waited for the book to arrive. This past weekend I was pulling books for our annual sale, and the book was on our sale list! What!?!?! Not only had the book arrived and I hadn’t noticed, but it accidentally made it on the sale list! My special order! I was shocked. SHOCKED. And thrilled because now I could finally read the book. All’s well, so they say.
As for the book. YES! yes, yes, yes. So good. Narrated by Aristotle, the story chronicles the friendship of two boys who meet at the pool in El Paso during the summer of 1987. Aristotle, who can’t swim, is floating around thinking about how most high-school guys are tools. My word, not his; it is 1987. Dante offers to teach him how to swim. Naturally, if your name is Aristotle and you meet a kid whose name is Dante, you are going to have to be friends with him. Fortunately, Dante isn’t a tool. He’s smart, well-read, funny, thoughtful, artistic. I want to be friends with him myself. Aristotle and Dante debate what it means to be a real Mexican. Dante teaches Aristotle about literature. Aristotle saves Dante’s life. Dante’s family moves away for a year.
Aristotle struggles with the silence surrounding his brother’s absence, that his parents refuse to discuss. He struggles with understanding his father, back from Vietnam, who can’t seem to talk about anything. He struggles with his own nightmares. He has a great relationship with his mother, which is one of the things I really loved about this book. Parents in YA novels are often absent or horrible, and that sort of makes sense from a teen’s perspective. But in this book, both Dante’s and Aristotle’s parents are lovely. Not perfect. Not idealized. But lovely, supportive, and smart. Smart enough to know their sons even better than their sons do. I respected both sets of parents in this story and appreciated that Sáenz gave all four of their characters so much depth without distracting from the two boys.
Although Dante is more confident and outgoing than Aristotle, he has his own struggles, namely his feelings for Aristotle. I’m a fan of narratives that rotate between different characters and in some ways I would have loved this story to move between Dante and Aristotle so I could have heard more of Dante’s thoughts. But of the two, it’s Aristotle who struggles with expressing himself. We need him to narrate because otherwise he’d be as much of a mystery to us as he is to Dante. Besides, he has a biting outlook on life that I really liked: “Reading my own words embarrassed the hell out of me. I mean, what a pendejo. I had to be the world’s biggest loser, writing about hair, and stuff about my body. No wonder I stopped keeping a journal. It was like keeping a record of my own stupidity. Why would I want to do that? Why would I want to remind myself what an asshole I was?” He has a soft side though: “My mother and father held hands. I wondered what that was like, to hold someone’s hand. I bet you could sometimes find all of the mysteries of the universe in someone’s hand”. I bet you could, too, especially when your best friend is Dante.
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.
There are two. Or at least two that I know of. One for young children and one for older children and adults. Chanukah Bugs by David Carter (Little Simon, $10.95) is part of Carter’s bug series, that includes School Bugs, Beach Bugs, Birthday Bugs, etc.
It’s a whimsical book filled with animated, holiday-themed creations, such as the Shammash Bug, the Dizzy Dreidel Bug, and the Menorah Bug. The vibrant pictures will appeal to young children (2-4), and older kids (4-7) will appreciate the complexity of the art.
Michael Rosin’s Chanukah Lights (Candlewick, $34.99) is a gorgeous collection of scenes from each of the eight nights. The text poetically conveys the migratory history of the Diaspora:
Tonight, the third night of Chanukah,
our four flames flicker like moonlight
on the ocean’s waves, where, in the holds of ships,
refugees long for peace like the sight of land.
The illustrations, from the ship of the third night to the city in the eighth night, are truly remarkable. Deceptively simple — using only white paper — the shadows and intricate shapes of the art are inordinately complex and can be looked at and studied for hours. This book is a treasure that should be shared with children old enough to value its delicacy.
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.