Tuesday, August 30, 2011

YA Review - Close to Famous by Joan Bauer

Every avid reader has a stable of sure-thing authors. You know what I mean -- the writers who consistently deliver the right balance of absorbing plot, engaging characters and intriguing themes. For me Joan Bauer is right at the top of that sure-thing list, and has been ever since I first cracked Rules of the Road. That novel, about Jenna, a teenage shoe salesperson who ends up driving her cantankerous elderly boss across country, has pretty much everything you'd look for in a great story, including seemingly insurmountable conflict and crackling good dialogue.

Bauer's latest novel doesn't disappoint, and it has cupcakes. What's not to love? In Close to Famous, Foster McGee has a plate full of troubles, starting with her mama's nasty Elvis-impersonator ex-boyfriend. When Foster and her mom run away from Huck, there's nowhere for them to go, and soon they wash up in the tiny town of Culpepper. Before long Foster's met all the local characters, including Macon, an amateur filmmaker, and the faded Hollywood star Miss Charleena. But all Foster wants is to hit it big with her own show on Food Network -- and even though her muffins are the kind people would line up for, how's she ever going to be discovered in this backwater burg?

Joan Bauer creates characters that are believable, the kind of strong, determined girls who may have the deck stacked against them but don't ever give up on the ones they love. In Foster's case, she's also dealing with learning disabilities and missing her daddy, whose Army helicopter was shot down. (She's multiracial too, but Bauer doesn't use this as a conflict, just as a fact of Foster's life. It's always great to find solid novels featuring people of color that don't turn exclusively around the race of their protagonist.) Foster knows that her baking is the best hope for a future, but also that it's a very long shot. And yet she presses on, one chocolate chip muffin at a time, determined she'll have a better life. Foster is the kind of girl that readers can root for, one who faces trouble at every turn but doesn't quit trying.

But this is far from a one-note novel. In Culpepper, Bauer has created a location that mirrors Foster's own life, the kind of place that everyone counts out but that has plenty to offer. True, the plot turns around Foster, but the secondary characters are pretty unforgettable too. Slowly Foster wins over even the most oppositional individuals with her fantastic cooking, the scent of which fairly wafts off the pages -- butterscotch muffins, pineapple upside-down cupcakes, brown sugar brownies. Don't read this one on an empty stomach or you will absolutely be sorry.

The recent furor raised by an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal paints all YA fiction as impossibly dark and grim. Foster's story is anything but. Personally I don't know how the author could overlook authors like Joan Bauer (and Ally Carter, and Sarah Dessen, and Maureen Johnson, and and and). In Close to Famous, Bauer gives us a protagonist who struggles against insurmountable odds but manages to keep her sense of humor and determination intact. This is one a diverse audience can relate to, the kinds of issues that Foster grapples with being those that many kids might see in themselves. It's a quick read and some may find it wraps up a little too neatly. Still, there's a lot to like in this solidly written novel, and it's sure to bring Bauer even more devoted followers.

Close to Famous by Joan Bauer, published by Viking
Ages 11-14
Source: Library
Sample quote: "I walk to the bathroom, hearing the slap slap of my flowered flip-flops on the floor. Sonny Kroll, my favorite Food Network cook, who can make a meal out of anything that's lying around, always says 'Go with what you've got.' Well, I have Mama and she has me. I hope Huck has four flat tires and is left in a ditch."

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Link Love -- Boys and Books, Neil Gaiman, and Tigger, No Less!

Took the week off from links last week, not because I planned to but because life just got away from me. Back on schedule this week though, and lots of linky goodness to share!

~ First up, a link from the New York times on boys and reading. Much is made of the need for books that appeal to boys, and whether that is the issue or if there are other factors at work. I tend to think there are lots of factors at work, not least is the need for kids to see adults modeling the behavior. BTW, if you're looking for great reads for boys, there are many options out there -- check out blogs like Guys Lit WireBoys Rock Boys Read, and Guys Read, for a start. (Thanks to Aubri K. for the NYT link.)

~ While we're on the topic of authors guys want to read, the Guardian has this interview with Neil Gaiman from the Edinburgh Book Festival. Enough said.

~ A little late, but still, here's a link to Publisher's Weekly's Fall 2011 Children's Books Preview. Make your wish lists now, folks! So much good stuff in one really long link. I might just have to buy this issue, for ease of having the whole list in one place. Oh, and I love that the cover art for that issue is by the illustrator of one of Sprout's current most requested bedtime reads. (Which I am, I fear, slowly in the process of memorizing. But whatever.)

~ Classes start up for me again in two weeks (though papers have already been assigned -- how unfair is that?). If your summer went waaaaay too fast too, how about a rundown of chapter books and picture books from MotherReader? Add a few of these to your library queue and extend the summer love well into the fall. We will be.

~  One of the bad things about balancing work, school and family is that it all cuts into my precious reading time. But I still work hard to fit in some pleasure reading, and Apothecary by Maile Meloy, due out in October, is one I'll make time for. Check out the Publisher's Weekly interview with Meloy. If that's not enough to peak your interest, the book trailer is sure to do the trick.

~ Now that I've whetted your appetite for interviews, how about this conversation with illustrator Jon Klassen from the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. If Klassen's work looks familiar, you might have seen it in the Incorrigibles books by MaryRose Wood (which, if you haven't read, just get them. Now. You'll thank me later). Sprout and I recently brought home Cats Night Out by Caroline Stutson, which Klassen illustrated. The story itself went completely over Sprout's head, but we both loved the pictures. So there.

~ That last is just another case of a phenomenon that is simply unavoidable: kids and adults view the same material in different ways. Unfortunately it's not always possible for us, as literary professionals and as parents, to understand how and why that difference occurs. Sometimes when I read and rave about something, I wonder: is this a book that kids would actually read and love, or is this the kind of kidlit that is more appreciated by adults than the target audience? Along those lines, Fuse #8 was in a speculative mood this week. What's your opinion?

~ Literary dirty secrets: everyone has one. It's the book (or series) that everyone else in the known universe has read but you. For me, until recently, it was The Hunger Games, but I can now hold my head up high and say that I've read at least the first book, and loved it. At this link, one author comes clean on her hold-out. Fair warning, it's a doozy!

~ And finally, Flavorwire has a recurring feature in which they speculate on various literary characters' playlists. This time around is Tigger, and -- no surprise here -- it's all about fun!

More next week -- and as always, if you have a link to share, pass it on to me at sproutsbookshelf *at*gmail*dot*com.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Picture Book Review - A New Barker in the House by Tomie dePaola

Beloved author and illustrator Tomie dePaola weaves adoption into the storyline of A New Barker in the House, part of his series about the Barker family. Mama, Papa, Morgan and Moffat are excited to be adding a new member to their family: three-year-old Marcos. The twins cannot wait to show their new brother all their favorite toys, and especially want to take him to show-and-tell at their school. They begin to think about all the fun they will have together.

But when Marcos comes home with Papa, he speaks Spanish, which Morgie and Moffie can't understand. And the only English word Marcos knows is "potty", but he uses that one a lot! Marcos doesn't like the things the twins like, and he doesn't want to play ball or dolls either. Mama gently explains that Marcos may not want to eat the same food, or play the same games, and encourages the twins to ask Marcos what he wants to do. Before long Marcos and the twins are playing together on the playground, and everyone is learning how to speak one another's language.

As always, dePaola's illustrations are bright and expressive, homey depictions of the contented Barker family at home together. The layout makes use of panels to represent the various characters' points of view, especially effective when demonstrating how the twins each want to share their own favorite things with Marcos. The discussion of adoption is brief and straightforward; dePaola assumes that the audience understands what adoption's about, and doesn't get bogged down in lengthy explanations. Rather, this title focuses on the transition of a new child into a family, and the way siblings must learn to accommodate and appreciate their brother or sister's preferences. If the storyline resolves quickly, that is to be expected for the intended age group. The big benefit is that dePaola opens up plenty of opportunities for further discussion and examination.

Bottom line: Overall, a good title to introduce the topic of adoption to a family, and get siblings thinking and talking about what the new family member may want or need. Sensitive, gentle and thoughtful, A New Barker in the House is another well-rounded title from a favorite author!

A New Barker in the House by Tomie dePaola, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
Ages 2-6
Source: Library
Sample quote: "The next morning at breakfast, Morgie gave Marcos a big spoonful of Morgie's favorite cereal - Dino Pops. Marcos didn't like it! Moffie gave Marcos a big spoonful of her favorite cereal - Alphabet Bits. Marcos didn't like it. Marcos SPIT it all out! 'Mama!' the twins yelled."

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Audio Review - Museum of Thieves by Lian Tanner

One of the reasons audiobooks are popular, it seems to me, is that we all really enjoy having someone read to us. I don't know what it is, exactly. Maybe the heritage of storytelling in days gone by simply sunk into our collective DNA, so that we respond to a tale read aloud in a different way. Or maybe it's just the luxury of sinking completely into a story as it unfolds around us.

Such was the case for me with the new book Museum of Thieves by Lian Tanner. This is a fantasy in the truest sense of the word, as Tanner gives us an alternate-reality tale taking place in a world somewhat like our own and yet vastly different. In the city of Jewel, children are kept under adult protection at all times, linked either to their parents or to the Blessed Guardians by a silver guardchain until the age of Separation. For Goldie Roth, this is altogether normal, though restrictive, and she lives for her own Separation. But then Separation Day is canceled, and Goldie impulsively runs away from her Guardian. She washes up at the Museum of Dunt, a bizarre building that seems to have a personality -- and secret life -- of its own. Here Goldie meets a most  unusual cast of characters. Gradually Goldie realizes that her own fate is drawing her to the Museum, for she is one of only a few who can interpret the mysteries that lie within its walls, and stand in the way of forces that might destroy her world.

This story worked for me on many levels -- the unique slant on the child-destined-to-save-the-world formula, the truly original voices of the characters, the wry humor that pervades Tanner's vision of a world devoid of any potential dangers (at least on the surface). But as an audiobook, what made it truly spectacular was the narrator, Claudia Black. Black does a full complement of voices and she is compelling at each of them, from the imperiousness of Guardian Hope to the reasoned wisdom of Herro Dan to the fearfulness of Goldie's parents. She sustains the drama of Tanner's plotline while never giving away a hint of the secrets yet to be unveiled. Black has plenty to work with here -- a tightly plotted story peopled with memorable characters and delicious mysteries -- and she puts her considerable vocal talents to good use. It was a true pleasure to listen to Museum of Thieves, and I'm eagerly awaiting City of Lies, the next book in the series, due out in September.

Bottom line: great audiobooks are a marriage of excellent writing paired with enthusiastic narration. Museum of Thieves has both, in spades. And how can you not love a writer who names a character Toadspit?!

Museum of Thieves by Lian Tanner, published by Delacorte Press (audio by Listening Library)
Ages 8-12
Source: Library
Sample quote: "She knew that she mustn't linger in this strange place. She took one last look around the office, and her eyes fell on the coins. There were so many of them, and they were in such untidy heaps that she was sure the owner wouldn't miss a few. And they would make her trip to Spoke so much easier. I'm already a thief. I might as well steal something else."

Friday, August 19, 2011

Library Find - With You Always, Little Monday by Geneviève Côté

Sometimes a mama gets her fill of trains and trucks, and just wants a quiet, sweet bedtime choice. That's probably what led me to pick up With You Always, Little Monday by Geneviève Côté, during a recent trip to the library. I'm a sucker for artists like Côté, whose sketchy, smudgy bunny named Monday is adorable in a way that won't make your teeth ache. I wasn't familiar with Côté’s work before this, but low and behold, there lurking in my Google Reader queue was this interview from the outstanding blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. How’s that for serendipity?

Anyway, if the cover art made me pick it up, the quote on the back clinched it for me. “Sometimes, in a quiet moment, Little Monday wonders who his mommy might be.” The storyline is basically that – Little Monday doesn’t know who his mommy is, so he asks everyone in the forest. Each friend has something uniquely wonderful about them, but no one fits the description. Finally Little Monday goes to sleep, exhausted and wondering if he’ll ever find his mommy. But then he wakes up to discover his mommy has found him – she is the rabbit in the moon. And though Little Monday’s mommy can’t be with him physically, she is watching over him from above, and she is always there in spirit.


As adoptive parents, we know all too well the pain of loss in our children's lives. We all face the moment when we will tell our children about their birth families. For little ones, the details may be overshadowed by the loss, the sense of longing that their birth mothers or fathers or siblings are not within reach. Open adoptions allow for contact, but in the case of international adoption, it’s not always possible to have any relationship with the birth families. This is not an easy thing for anyone to accept, and children will naturally grieve for the loved ones that they may have never known.

Enter books like Little Monday. What Côté does here is introduce a book that not only addresses the grief and loss, but also gives children the hope that their birth families are with them, that the family they have lost is watching over them and that they will never be truly alone. What an amazing reassurance this is! Little Monday embodies all the fears and longings that I know Sprout will one day grapple with, and this simple picture book will be one more way that we underscore for him that his birth family is never really lost to him.

Even if your child is not adopted, Little Monday is a sweetly powerful way for you to talk to him or her about loss. What better way to begin the healing process, and to draw closer as a family.

With You Always, Little Monday by Geneviève Côté, published by Harcourt
All ages
Source: Library
Sample quote: “And there, in the big bright moon, a rabbit was smiling at him. Little Monday rubbed his eyes. ‘Could you be my mommy?’ he called. ‘But you’re so far away, up there in the sky!’”

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Chapter Book Review - Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading by Tommy Greenwald

Spend a little time in the world of kid lit and you'll come across the phrase "reluctant reader" almost everywhere. I use it myself, and what I notice is that often when we say "reluctant reader", what we really mean is boys. Boys often are the ones we have to encourage, cajole, plead with to read something, anything. There's a lot of speculation about why it is -- social stigmas (reading is "girly", maybe?), lack of material that appeals to them, competition from other activities such as video games. I tend to think there are a lot of factors involved. Whatever the reason, many boys seem to hit a wall in their enjoyment of reading, where suddenly it is no longer a desirable activity.

Enter Tommy Greenwald's Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading, a book written ostensibly for kids who don't like to read and will do anything to avoid it. Charlie Joe has had a pretty sweet deal going, wherein he buys snacks for his friend Timmy McGibney and in return Timmy does all Charlie Joe's reading. But then Timmy calls the whole deal off and Charlie Joe is scrambling to figure out another option, one that won't result in him having to actually (gasp!) read his own books. Charlie Joe hatches a plan but there are some unintended consequences that even this crafty middle schooler didn't see coming, and pretty soon, as you might expect, it's all Charlie Joe can do to keep avoiding books.

This is a fast and funny read, narrated by Charlie Joe himself who is attempting to write a book that nonreaders will relate to. Charlie Joe is someone most boys will relate to -- he's pretty average, has plenty of friends and potential romances to boot. It's refreshing that Charlie Joe gets along well with his family, and even though some of his exploits land him in trouble at home, he still likes his parents and even his older sister. The sidebars that Charlie Joe includes (25 exclusive non-reading tips!) add plenty of humor to the plot, such as tip #16, "sports are just as educational as reading", and tip #3, "there are always ways to get out of reading". Illustrations by J.P. Coovert add to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid feel, and this is one that will appeal to Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries fans, for the artwork, the quick pace and the honestly funny narrative style.

Of course there's a lesson hidden within the plot, and most kids will know what it is before they crack the cover. But fortunately Greenwald never veers into schmaltz and avoids the obvious "now Charlie Joe is a reading fool" type of resolution. For that reason and many others, Charlie Joe is a narrator that will resonate with those reluctant readers, and even those who love books of all kinds. Plenty of promise here for more Charlie Joe outings, and I think he's a character readers can easily return to again.

Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading by Tommy Greenwald, published by Roaring Brook Press
Ages 8-12
Source: Library
Sample quote: "The librarian, Ms. Reedy, was an old friend of mine, even though she represented everything evil. Back in the old days, she was the librarian at my elementary school, and she used to try anything to get me to read. One time in first grade, she sat me down and had me listen to a song called 'Grab a Book and Go,', all about the joys of reading. One of the verses went 'Snuggle in your bed, the day is near its end. All alone, but you're not alone, a book can be a friend.' I've never quite forgiven her."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Link Love - Brit Lit, Africa, and Screening Out the Baddies

Another week gone by (where, exactly, I don't know). But here's a look at links that popped up on my radar this week:

~  First, The Guardian commemorates the 100th anniversary of one of my favorite novels: Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. Do kids still read this one? I remember being so enchanted by the idea of stumbling on a whole secret place where you could hide away from the rest of the world. Still am, truth be told.
~ Another childhood favorite was Peter Pan, and it was recently announced that there are plans to turn the house that was JM Barrie's inspiration into center for children's literature. I can hardly stand it. How old do you think Sprout has to be before we can visit?? Maybe we'll make a world tour out of it -- Flavorwire has other locations that inspired literary classics.

~  Also from The Guardian, test out your knowledge of kidlit villains. Bonus points if you know the one about Cruella de Vil, one of my all-time favorite baddies (even if they spelled Dalmatians wrong).

~ And while we're talking about villains, do you dial down the badness factor when you read to your kids? Lots of parents do, but Kate Tuttle wonders who we're really trying to protect when we edit out the scary stuff. Screwy Decimal poses a similar question, albeit a whole lot funnier.

~ Things that scare me: newly discovered works by beloved authors. Because really, lots of times the lost should just stay lost. Since they were previously published, this new Random House collection of "lost" Dr. Seuss stories might be different -- but I'll be looking with one eye closed, just in case.

~ Many of you know that my heart belongs to Africa, mostly because of my darling Sprout. And so I get more than a little overly enthusiastic about things like Africa Access Review, a group that aims to help librarians and teachers curate and develop their collection of materials about Africa. Reviews, book clubs, awards -- if you want quality in your library, this is the place to find it. Thanks for Fuse #8 for the link.

~ Alphabet books are tricky -- the ultra-creative ones can sometimes stray too far from the point, the straightforward ones can be DULL. Sprout loved the recent Apple Pie ABC by Alison Murray, for its clever plotline and graphic, retro illustrations. And I think this one looks right up our alley too (plus, how can you not love that title??). Thanks to Rasco from RIF for the review.

~  I'm a little late to the party, but I finished The Hunger Games this week and of course LOVED it and can't wait for the movie. According to this I have my deadline for finishing Catching Fire before the movie release. Might just take me that long to move up the library queue!

~ And finally, here's one for the hubs. Jake's ongoing project is seeking out African American characters in comic books, with the goal of hooking Sprout at a very young age. I suspect he's secretly yearning for a ComicCon buddy, but anything that keeps Sprout reading is fine by me. Check out this glimpse at African American superheroes from The Network Journal.

If you come across a kidlit link that you'd like to see featured here, please shoot it my way! Contact me at sproutsbookshelf *at* gmail *dot* com. Thanks!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Nonfiction Review - Cool African Cooking by Lisa Wagner

One of the huge pluses to my job is that many of the new items that come into the library's collection pass through my hands. OK, this is a blessing and a curse. (I spend a lot of break time putting holds on new titles, and my request queue is -- let's just say it's out of hand, and leave it at that.) But when it really comes in handy is when something comes across my desk that otherwise would have flown right under the radar.

Such is the case of a new series we recently added to the collection, Cool World Cooking by Abdo Publishing. So far there are 6 titles in the series, which is aimed at middle graders, ages 8-12 or so. The books are very visually interesting, with lots of colorful photos and an introduction that includes a world map with the focus region highlighted. The intro also includes some relevant facts about the country or continent featured -- not enough to be boring, just to spark a curious reader's interest. I also love that each volume contains an explanation of the equipment used, along with pictures of everything. For struggling readers, this is a godsend.

The title I brought home is Cool African Cooking by Lisa Wagner. It's hard enough to find African cookbooks for adults, let alone for kids, so this is a real find. The book includes kid-friendly recipes from several different areas in Africa. What's great is that not only are the recipes food that kids would actually eat (Moroccan Carrot Salad, for instance) but they are simple enough for kids to follow. And, once again we have lots of pictures of delicious-looking food, both as it is being prepared and the completed dish. My only complaint is that there aren't enough recipes! But that's to be expected in a book aimed at this age group, and what's here looks delicious. I can't imagine any kid not having a great time making -- and eating -- Tropical Fruit Salad or Sizzling Groundnut Stew.

Check out this and the other titles in the series for easy options to prepare for Cultural Fairs, Show and Tell, or Adoption Day/Family Day. Food is a great way to strengthen the ties to your child's birth country, and books like these provide the perfect place to start.

Cool African Cooking by Lisa Wagner, Abdo Publishing
Ages 8-12
Source: Library

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Library Find - Uh-Oh by Rachel Isadora

It's especially wonderful to me when Sprout pulls a book off the library shelves that truly delights him. As a toddler, most of his choices are completely random and don't even make it home with us -- not that there aren't some fine books in there, but they are usually selections that are too long or complex for a two year old to have patience with.

That's not the case with Uh-Oh by Rachel Isadora. Sprout originally ran across this a couple of months ago, and since then we've had it checked it pretty much constantly. This is actually the second of Isadora's titles we've tried out, having checked out her version of The Twelve Days of Christmas this past holiday season (and if you haven't seen that one yet, I'd highly recommend it -- I suspect it's one that will become part of our family Christmas traditions due to its vibrant color palette and spirited African interpretation of the familiar song). I can't wait to read more of her books with Sprout, in particular her interpretations of familiar fairy tales, which feature her stunning artwork, a feast for the eyes of parent and child.

Uh-Oh is the perfect toddler read-aloud, in part because of its near wordlessness. The little boy at the center of the story is a typical two- to three-year-old, whose best intentions often result in messy outcomes. "Clean clothes" reads one spread, and on the next page, a blizzard of clothing items is captioned "Uh-Oh". "Ice cream" shows our hero sharing a friend's cone, then "Uh-oh", the cone is spilled on the ground. You get the drift. The conceit is just about as simple as it gets, yet never fails to delight Sprout, who gleefully points out the mistake, accident or mess in question and shouts "Uh-oh!". We also like to talk about what might have happened in the picture -- maybe the messy toybox came about because the little boy was looking for his train, for example. Talking through the pictures like this helps Sprout make connections between story and images, one of the building blocks of literacy.

Uh-Oh couldn't be a simpler title, and yet has so much to offer: humor, expressive characters, charmingly comic set-ups and a multicultural emphasis to boot. Snap this one up!

Uh-Oh by Rachel Isadora, published by Harcourt
Source: Library
Ages 0-4

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Link Love -- Children's Classics, Summer Camp, and a Bevy of New Releases!

A quick rundown of some kidlit links of interest from the past week:

~  First up: a peek inside the home of the fantastic Tomie dePaola, author/illustrator of the classic Strega Nona series and my personal fave, 26 Fairmont Avenue. For wit and whimsy and all the things that make kidlit wonderful, Tomie dePaola's books are the best of the best. Check out this amazing behind-the-scenes tour from Shelftalker blogger Elizabeth Bluemle.

~ Also from Shelftalker, blogger Josie Leavitt on parents who claim "she's not a strong reader". What we say affects our kids, no doubt, and when we expect that they won't be interested in something, especially reading, that often proves to be true. Positive talk and attitudes go a long way!

~  TBR list alert! From the Diversity In YA blog, a roundup of August releases that feature diversity in a main character or plotline.

~ Speaking of new releases, one I'm pretty excited to read is Vanished by debut author Sheela Chari, a middle-grade mystery with a protagonist who happens to be Indian-American. Cynthia Leitich Smith profiled Sheela Chari over at her blog Cynsations. Check back later for my review!

~ And here's another must-read: the new release by Brian Selznick, Wonderstruck. Check out this interview from Publisher's Weekly. So many cool threads in this one novel, and the illustrations are sure to be amazing, of course. References to From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler? Swoon!

~ All of us have a few children's titles we consider classics, the kind of timeless works that we return to again and again, and can't wait to share with the young readers in our lives. For me the list is pretty long, and I'm pleased to note that a few (The Snowy Day, Harry the Dirty Dog, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel) are hits with Sprout already. The Lemuria Bookstore Blog asks "what do children's classics mean to you?", and gets some intriguing answers.

~ If you're passionate about sharing books with others, this is the link for you. The Little Free Library is a movement that started small but is spreading to communities all across the country. I'd love to do this where we live -- what a fun way to spread some literary love!

~ Summer is just not the same for grown-ups -- no long vacations, lazy days reading library books, and definitely no summer camp. Which is a complete bummer, because this camp for bookish kids is one I would love to attend, even now. Can you even believe that author list! Seriously, adulthood is soooo not fair.

~ I'm a recent convert to audiobooks but I LOVE them, mainly because the format allows me to sneak in a whole lot more reading than I'd otherwise be able to do. If you love audios too, you'll want to take a peek at the AudioSynced July Roundup over at Abby the Librarian's blog. (Why yes, there are a couple of reviews from yours truly on the list. What do you know!)

~ And finally, librarians as superheroes? Oh yeah. Check out this list of 10 Action Librarians from The Mary Sue.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Chapter Book Review - Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord

Tess Brooks is superstitious. She comes by it naturally, as the daughter of a lobsterman who lives on a small island off the coast of Maine. Good luck and bad are all intertwined with Tess's life in and around boats. When the state threatens to shut down her island school, the residents of the island decide to meet the minimum attendance numbers by taking in foster children. And since the Brooks family would have to move to the mainland if this experiment doesn't work, Tess is wishing harder than ever that things will go in their favor. But Aaron Spinney isn't anything like the foster kids Tess has read about in books, and it's pretty obvious that they are going to need more than good luck to make things turn out the way everyone hopes.

Cynthia Lord struck gold with her Newbery-honor winning debut Rules, and Touch Blue is a sophomore effort that delivers. The people she writes about are representative of those you might find on an island like Bethsaida; characters that are quirky and yet lovable at the same time. Everyone knows everyone else's business here, and as Tess puts it, that's both good (if you need help) and bad (if you want to keep something to yourself). Tess and her sister Libby are typical island kids, skilled at working the grapevine to get what they want and used to living in a community that's just like one big extended family. Everyone takes part in island-wide picnics and celebrations that sound like something out of time gone by. Readers might long for the beautiful surroundings that the Brooks girls enjoy, and even the most land-locked will relish Lord's vivid descriptions of the ocean. 

Aaron Spinney is the character that brings tension into the Brooks' happy lives, both by virtue of the need for his presence (the island families must keep enrollment up or the school will close) and because of his troubled past. Aaron's been through a lot, going into foster care after his grandmother's death and his mother's loss of her parental rights. He does not want to be on Bethsaida, and he makes that plain right away. No matter how much Tess tries to engage Aaron in island life, he isn't convinced. Since he entered the system, Aaron's lived in several homes; it pains Tess that he talks about his placements by number, and she worries that their home will be just another stop in the progression for Aaron. Tess is determined to make a difference for Aaron, and that determination leads her into areas that will ultimately make things even tougher for everyone. There's a great lesson in this, about good intentions that lead to unwise actions, and this adds to the realism not only of the plot but also of the characters.

Lord does an extraordinary job of making her characters multi-dimensional. Tess is conflicted over her desire to help Aaron and her selfish wish to be able to stay on Bethsaida. Aaron is driven by his need to reconnect with his past, even as he wants to build a future. Tess's parents, like most of the adults, aren't perfect either, which is enormously reassuring (I can't stand it when fictional parents always know what to do and are completely clued in to what their kids are feeling -- so not the way life actually is!). Eben Calder, Tess's nemesis, is less finely drawn. He's antagonistic towards Aaron and generally tries to make Tess's life miserable, but his motivations for doing so aren't immediately apparent (though we do get some hint of it as the novel unfolds). Still, this is a small detail in an otherwise finely rendered novel, one that the majority of readers will be willing to overlook.

Overall Touch Blue is an honest and realistic novel about the complexities of forming a family, and deciding what's really important in the quest to be true to yourself. For me this is on par with Pictures of Hollis Woods or The Great Gilly Hopkins as an authentic look at the experience of foster families from all angles.

Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord, published by Scholastic Press
Ages 9-12
Source: Library
Sample quote "Standing on the road beside Aaron, I don't tell him he hurt my feelings. I don't ask why he doesn't try even a little. I don't point out that he has to live somewhere, and at least we want him. And I don't admit the thing I'm most scared of."

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Picture Book Review - Shades of People by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly

"Have you noticed that people come in many different shades? Not colors, exactly, but shades."

The opening sentence of Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly's Shades of People accompanies a spread of children that illustrates their point nicely. Although there are kiddos pictured who share certain racial/ethnic characteristics, no two pictured have exactly the same shade of skin. The book goes on to further emphasize the point, with beautiful photos of children of all races. Rotner and Kelly also talk about the fact that there are not only variations in shade but in intensity ("some have skin that is very dark; others are pale, fair or light"). Even within families, the authors point out, the shade of people's skin can vary. A photo of a gorgeous bronze-skinned girl being kissed on either cheek by her Caucasian mother and African American father drives the message home.

We checked this title out from the library recently in order to start talking about skin color with Sprout. It's vital to us that we acknowledge that there is a racial difference between us (we are Caucasian, he is Ethiopian) because it's inevitable that he will notice it. Pretending that differences don't exist isn't an option. What is critical is that we present a message that skin color doesn't represent who we are inside, and that's a theme that Shades of People makes quite evident, both through the text and through the photos. I see this title as a great tool for introducing talk about racial/ethnic differences at a young age, so that Sprout never feels that this is an issue we weren't willing to discuss.

At the playground with friends a while back, one of the little girls mentioned to my husband that Sprout "is really tan". Jake explained to her that Sprout is African, that he was adopted from Ethiopia. She took that in, nodded sagely and said, "Okay", before she ran off to rejoin the playtime. The thought used to be that children didn't notice race; now we understand that they do notice it, but that the negative connotations they attach to racial differences are communicated through socialization, primarily by the adults in their lives. Kids will follow our lead in this way, as in so many others.

As a transracial family, we're acutely aware that the race discussion is going to come up, so we talk about it. But I think it's important for all families to recognize that building positive connotations around skin color is something that should happen sooner rather than later. This sensitively written and visually interesting title is a great way to introduce those discussions, and makes a good addition to all home libraries.

Shades of People by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly, published by Holiday House
All ages
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Our skin is just our covering, like wrapping paper. And, you can't tell what someone is like from the color of their skin."
Highly recommended