Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review - The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Much as I hate the term "reluctant reader", there's no denying that it does refer to a certain category of kids, for whom books are generally more chore than charm. In some circles "reluctant reader" is automatically equated with boys, which I feel is a shame because there are lots of boys who devour books every bit as avidly as their female counterparts. But tonight's pick is one that will appeal to both boys who love to read and those who don't, and to pretty much anyone who enjoys a well-told, fast-paced story.

The book in question is the winner of the Newbery medal this year, Kwame Alexander's The Crossover. This book was kind of revolutionary as a win for lots of reasons - sports! boys! African Americans! novel in verse! Take any one of those items on its own, no biggie. But put all of that together in one book and you have a dark horse that still swept the big prize, and very deservedly so.

The Crossover tells the story of Josh Bell, who with his twin brother Jordan forms the heart and soul of their school's basketball team. The boys are tough and they've got basketball in their blood, as their dad is a former bball star. And at the start of the story, things are going pretty great for the pair. But then little things start to come between them, and aggressions flare up on the court and off. Pretty soon the two are adrift, apart, and not even Dad's famous basketball rules provide the guidance they need to keep on playing.

I won't say more because the impact of this story really needs to come firsthand. Suffice to say that the ending was a surprise, and yet totally authentic with the way Alexander set up the story. I struggled a bit at first with the sports terms but that's not something that's likely to bug the target audience (let's face it, I'm a middle-aged white librarian with nary a basketball reference to fall back on). And yet, even though this isn't the sort of thing I myself would be drawn to, I was absolutely bowled over by the voice here. It's incredible, as are the characters - realistic, conflicted, flawed and so human you can't believe it.

The Crossover is a quick read that will keep even those -- yes, I'll say it -- reluctant readers turning pages. But don't think that just because the book moves quickly that it's a throw-away. Far from it - in fact, Alexander's created a set of characters that will remain with the reader even once the last page has been turned.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Ages 9-12
Source: Library
Highly recommended

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Picture Book of the Day - Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman

I'm always on the lookout for picture books about adoption and transracial families. Sometimes that means digging below the obvious choices -- many of which are overly sentimental, to be totally honest -- and seeking out titles that might not be instantly recognizable as fitting the bill for us. Fortunately that search paid off with our most recent read, and Sprout's current favorite, Wolfie the Bunny.

To tell the truth, we've been looking forward to Wolfie the Bunny for quite some time, as we were huge fans of author Ame Dyckman's first book Boy + Bot, a can't-miss choice if your kiddos love robots. Also we already knew illustrator Zachariah Ohora from No Fits, Nilson, about a gorilla with a real penchant for temper tantrums (super fun). So any project with the combined talents of these two wunderkinds was automatically on our TBR list. And luckily, Wolfie the Bunny not only lived up to our expectations, it far exceeded them - I had no idea that Wolfie was going to be such a great choice for its themes about sibling relationships, adoption, and families that don't exactly match.

The real star of Wolfie the Bunny isn't the title character, but his big sister Dot. Dot and her family, a respectable rabbit clan, are stunned when a baby wolf ends up on their doorstep. Dot's parents are totally enchanted from the get-go, but Dot's not convinced. Hello, he's a WOLF! Yet try as she might, Dot can't get anyone to listen to her concerns. Then one day, there's a showdown - will Dot's worst fears be realized??!?

I won't spoil the ending for you, but let's just say that this buck-toothed wolf baby is not the big villain of the story. Though they are rabbit and wolf, the relationship between these two kiddos mirrors any sibling relationship that humans have ever had. (Of course, being that he's an only, that dynamic mostly went over Sprout's head, but Hubs and I found it all-too-familiar.) As with Boy + Bot, Dyckman was clearly in her element writing Wolfie, because the humor throughout is totally spot-on. And bless the editorial hand that matched up this author and illustrator - Ohora's style matches Dyckman's lively narrative like the two were born to create picture books. So many great touches here, particularly the character development of the lovably-bescowled Dot. (Confession: she's my super-fave.)

If you're looking for a sibling story with just a bit of bite, look no further than Wolfie the Bunny. This family may not match on the outside, but when it all comes down to it, they're perfectly paired!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Picture Book Review - Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña

Hey friends! A lot has happened in the kidlit world since last I posted - namely, the Youth Media Awards (Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, etc.) given by the American Library Association. I've been crowing about it a lot on Twitter, but this year's awards were absolutely fantastic for the amount of diversity and kid appeal they included. So many great winners from so many diverse authors/illustrators! Check out the full list and make sure to buy or check out these and other diverse titles...as always, you can keep diverse books viable by purchasing them for your home, school or library.

It's shaping up to be an exciting spring for me personally and professionally. One of the highlights is that I get to attend the Children's Literature Conference at WWU, where guest speakers this year include Joyce Sidman, Kate diCamillo, Yuyi Morales and Matt de la Peña. Is that a lineup or what?? I'm super excited. I've been reading a lot of each author's backlist in preparation, and their new stuff as well of course, because WHY NOT? :)

Matt de la Peña is probably best known for his teen books, in particular The Living and Mexican WhiteBoy. Sometimes authors who write for older readers have trouble finding the right voice for the littles, but I'm happy to say that's not the case for de la Peña's new picture book, Last Stop on Market Street. This title is brimming with spirit and distinctiveness, in its depiction of a young boy, his nana, and the world of their city.

The story opens as CJ and his nana are leaving church. CJ is a curious guy, and he notices things - like why he and Nana take the bus when others drive cars, why he doesn't have an iPod when others do. Nana's got a simple response for everything, pointing out that what they have -- a bus with a cheerful driver, a fellow passenger with a guitar -- is plenty perfect. CJ visits with his fellow passengers, talking to a blind man about people "watching the world with their ears" and feeling the rhythm of the guitar player's song. Soon enough the pair is at their destination: the soup kitchen, in a rough part of town. CJ comments that the area is dirty; Nana responds "Sometimes when you're surrounded by dirt, CJ, you're a better witness for what's beautiful."

Last Stop on Market Street is a terrific book for sharing with kids of all colors and backgrounds, because of how deeply it makes you think. de la Peña makes his point without being preachy or didactic - that beauty is everywhere, that we can find it particularly in helping our fellow man. It's the calm certainty of CJ's nana that bowls me over. She looks around at what quite clearly could be depressing sights, and finds grace and warmth and color where others see ruin. That's a message I want Sprout to know with certainty, and it's delivered with inclusiveness through the text and the colorful, appealing illustrations done by Christian Robinson (an illustrator to watch, in my estimation!).

Pair Last Stop on Market Street with other city-centered tales of gracious acts, like City Green or A Bus Called Heaven. What de la Peña and Robinson have created is a fresh classic, a book that keeps giving with each subsequent read - and believe me, it's one you'll read time and time again.

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons
Ages 4-6
Source: Library
Highly recommended