Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Library Round-Up #15: Part 1: Chapter Books

Mini-reviews of middle-grade and young adults books we're reading now.

Chapter Books

I Kill the Mockingbird.  Three friends harness the power of social media and supply and demand to get people to read To Kill a Mockingbird to honor the memory of a beloved English teacher.  The plot, however, intrigued me less than the role of Catholicism in the main character's life, something I have never seen in fiction, for adults or children.  Rather than emphasize the rites and rituals of Catholicism (which do appear in fiction), the author portrays Catholicism as a guiding philosophy, and a very beautiful one at that.  "We're taught [in Catholic school] that sometimes the world is a puzzle waiting for us to solve it.  Other times it's a mystery to appreciate and accept."  The protagonist's father says, "I don't believe that God has motives that we are supposed to understand or enjoy."  Lucy responds "But you still say thank you."  Her father rejoins, "Good manners never hurt anybody."  And at the end, Lucy explains the concept of Ordinary Time.  "In our church calendar, Ordinary Time is when we're supposed to be living our lives without feasting or penance or other drama.  It's not a quiet time exactly.  It's more like the days are supposed to be filled with expectation."  This novel's real gift is in bringing these concepts to young readers, whatever their religion.  And it has a great cover!

We Were Liars.  Compulsively readable, this novel's much ballyhooed "twist ending" felt more like a gimmick to me.  Perhaps if I read it again, I will find some foreshadowing that would make it more plausible?  This is a young adult novel, with themes of romance, death, and guilt.

Like No Other.  This modern Romeo and Juliet story of a Hasidic girl falling in love with a black boy in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has a happier ending than the Shakespeare play, but is not what you expect.  Devorah is a strong character who knows her own heart and mind.  It sounds cheesy, right?  It's not, I promise.  I loved it.  And it has another great cover.

Another Day as Emily.  Written in free verse about a girl who decides to become a hermit like Emily Dickinson when her younger brother commands attention for saving an ill neighbor by calling 911, this middle-grade novel was enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable.

Ava and Pip.  I had high hopes for this middle-grade novel about two sisters, the younger outgoing and social, the older one shy to the point of having emotional problems.  A good read, but nothing more, although my 9-year-old enjoyed it.  Word lovers will love the family's obsession with palindromes - hence the names Ava and Pip.

Have you or your kids read any of these?  What did you think?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

I AM The Audiobook

When I read over at What Do We Do All Day? Facebook page about the Ramona-Henry Huggins audiobooks, about whose existence I hadn't known, although I should have, I realized something: in our house, I AM the audiobook. 

I normally love reading to my kids.  It's one of the most special activities we share.  I have a lot of patience for rereading, too, although there are certain books I do refuse to read aloud (e.g. those Rainbow Magic atrocities).  But when my kids are sick and my reading aloud is the only entertainment they desire, I sometimes start to feel like an audiobook on which they are pressing play.  Over 4 days of my 6-year-old's being sick recently, I read well over 300 pages of the Ramona books Ramona books and we finished the series for the second time.  I've also read it aloud - all 8 books - to my older daughter twice.  If only I had thought to record myself reading it the first time!  (I've known grandparents and other relatives who live far from the children in their lives who have actually done this; it's a great substitute when being together in person isn't possible.)

Of course, reading together provides all kinds of benefits that listening to a recording (whether of me or a professional actor) does not.  First of all, there's the snuggling.  You can't snuggle with a CD player or an ipod.  Second, every time we read together, one or both of us notices something new, or asks a question, or discusses something different.  Sometimes I read, without explaining, difficult words, and sometimes I pause to define them.  Sometimes my daughters have questions, or a topic comes up that wouldn't have when we last read the book a year ago, when they were a year younger.  It would be fascinating to hear a recording of how I read some of these books in the past, and what has changed.

Nonetheless, we all need a break sometime.  I don't need to be a martyr!  And of course, audiobooks are great for the car.  We are city people and are not in the car that frequently, but when we are, good audiobooks also provide some great entertainment without me risking a headache. 

Right now our audiobook collection includes only the Frances books, Soupy Saturdays with the Pain and the Great One (the first chapter book in The Pain and the Great One series) and CDs that came with some of the books we own: the Barefoot Books of tales (like this, this, and this) and Poetry Speaks to Children (with some of the poems read by the poets themselves!).  We've taken The Mouse and the Motorcycle audiobook, one of the Humphrey audiobooks, and one of the Patricia Reilly Giff Zig Zag Kids audiobooks (which I do NOT recommend) out from the library.  We quickly discovered that not all narrators are created equal.  We just checked out the Henry and Beezus audiobook from the library, but it's an older version read by William Roberts.  Anyone know how it compares to the newer ones by Neil Patrick Harris?

I'd like to expand our collection, particularly with chapter books.  In my limited experience, Any recommendations, besides the Ramona-Henry Huggins audiobooks?  Specific editions/narrator preferences appreciated! 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Anne Gets a Makeover

As I was walking past the "popular/recently returned children's books" shelf at my local library the other day, my eye was immediately grabbed by two new versions of the Anne of Green Gables books.  Take a look at the new one on the left versus the edition I owned as a child on the right.


In addition to the new cover illustrations (which I love, and for me are reminiscent of the Betsy-Tacy books, which are set slightly after these; it must be the pompadours!), these books are bigger - trade paperbacks, rather than mass market paperbacks.  The best thing about the bigger size for some of us is the bigger print!  As you can see from the link above, there have been many different covers over the years, but the one pictured above is the one I had as a child.  It is very "well-loved," isn't it?  I don't know what size the other versions are; do you?

I haven't had a chance to check, but hopefully these new editions also correct the typos present in the old versions, especially the appalling, and appallingly frequent, example which appears twice in the single page to the right.  Can you find it?

I do wish that the publisher had added interior illustrations and possibly introductions by contemporary writers who themselves read and love the books, as in the new editions of the Betsy-Tacy books.  Alas.  They are certainly still worth purchasing for those of us whose copies will likely not survive being passed on to the next generation (see photo above!).

These new editions are published by Sourcebooks, a publisher I've never heard of.  Have you?  It appears that Sourcebooks has republished only the first five books of the series; I hope the rest follow soon.

Interestingly, my daughter prefers the older books - whether purely on aesthetic grounds or because she had already developed a sentimental attachment to them I am not sure!


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Why A Cat? Or A Badger? Or a ...?

I was reading Yoko's Show and Tell to my daughter who was home sick from camp when we started talking about the fact that Yoko and her family are cats.  My daughter pointed out that "they are so much like people that when you get really into the book, you forget they are cats."  Which begs the question, why make them animals in the first place?  And if an animal, why cats?

The same question could apply to many other books but the Frances books  by Russell Hoban immediately spring to mind.

Well, to find out, we went to the source.  My daughter wrote a letter to Rosemary Wells, asking her that very question.  I'll let you know if we hear back!


In the meantime, I'm asking all of YOU that question. Why do you think Rosemary Wells chose to make Yoko a cat?  Why did Russell Hoban choose to make Frances a badger?  Would the books work as well if Yoko were a bird?  If Frances were a kangaroo?

What other books come to mind with animal protagonists so successfully anthropomorphized that you (nearly) forget they are not human?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A is for Anastasia

My daughter is reading the Anastasia books, which I loved as a kid.  I even reread the first one a few years ago in an attempt to figure out when my daughter might be ready for them.  Despite that, I got one fact about Anastasia very wrong.



In the first book in the series Anastasia lives in an apartment (her family later moves, to her initial horror, to the suburbs) with her hippie, artsy, uber-liberal parents (when a friend says his family donates to the March of Dimes, she responds that hers donates to the ACLU).  Her mom is a painter; her dad, a bearded English professor and poet.  They are straightforward with her about sex, bad words, feelings, and life in general.  They don't care about being like everyone else - in fact, they prefer not to be.  They celebrate Christmas but, to me, have a very Jewish sensibility.  The first book in the series was written in 1979.

Given that description, where do you think they would live?

New York, right?  The Upper West Side, back it when it was home to artist-intellectuals who had rent-controlled apartments.  Back when it was a bad neighborhood.  Back before the artists moved to (had to move to) Brooklyn (or even Queens!). 

Wrong!  Cambridge, Massachussetts.  Now, I guess this faulty recollection says more about me, the New York-centric reader than the characters, but still... I just cannot believe they are not Upper West Siders!!

Wherever she "lives," Anastasia is a treasure.  What other series could have both me and my 9-year-old daughter laughing out loud as we read separate books in the series silently to ourselves?  I can't think of any!

It is clear that Anastasia's parents have talked to her frankly about sex and growing up, but those issues do not dominate the books and, when they are included, often have a comic twist to them.  Having been written in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, these issues are also given a much-welcome lighter touch than I would think they would be given today.  When Anastasia develops what is pretty clearly a platonic crush on her female gym teacher, her mother reassures her that she is normal, but stops there.  No long discussion about homosexuality.  Not that books that do treat those issues differently aren't needed as well.

I also love the fact that Anastasia's parents, Myron and Katherine, are well-developed characters with their own interests (her poet father also loves classical music) and foibles.  While they mostly deal with Anastasia's, and her little brother Sam's, trials and tribulations (Sam has, in the years since I was the target audience for these books, gotten his own series), with patience and good humor, they too have their limits.  It is so refreshing to read a book where the parents are not killed off, are not caricatures, and are not absent whether physically or emotionally.  The Krupniks take their place in the pantheon of wonderful fictional parents, along with the Quimbys, as I discussed here.

Don't let the covers put you off (some have been updated - and not necessarily for the better!).  The books are not dated at all.  Go check them out of the library, then sneak them for yourself.  Now.

P.S. One day as I was checking the school library's catalog to see which of the Anastasia books we had, a third-grade girl, waiting for her turn to speak to me, spied the titles I was looking at and said, "Oh, Anastasia!  It's so sad what happened to her."  I paused, wracking my brain.  Nothing very bad happens to Anastasia.  But then I got it!  "Do you mean the Russian princess?," I asked.  She did.

P.P.S. I can think of few other authors with the range of Lois Lowry.  It's hard to imagine the same person writing the Anastasia books, The Giver (which I have not read), a Dear America book about a Shaker community in Maine during World War I, Number the Stars, about the Danish Resistance in World War II, and many others.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"My Light Bulb Went On!"

When spring break started, my 6-year-old had all the skills to read chapter books.  She could decode.  She knew dozens (maybe more) sight words.  She had the interest - she loved nothing better than to have me read to her.  But somehow, all that didn't add up to being a reader.

By the end of spring break, 10 days later, through no effort on my part - or hers, really - it did.  In the last two days she breezed through four Princess Posey books (my older daughter was also a fan).  This morning she got ready for school quickly and then asked if she could read Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie (the first in a series that is now up to 3 books), which was also one of my older daughter's first chapter books.

When I asked her what had happened between the beginning of spring break and the end, she replied, "My light bulb went on!"

She also told me, "Reading is the best thing, next to chocolate."

Music to my ears.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Which Fictional Character Am I?

I'm a lively, talkative - no, loquacious - young girl with a great imagination.  I have a tendency to get into "scrapes," but I feel tremendous remorse about it.  I love words and poetry.  I'm a wonderful, loyal, friend.  I'm not conventionally attractive but people find my looks compelling, particularly my unusual eyes.  I was taken in by two adult siblings, one of whom is (seemingly) firm and nearly heartless, one of whom is softer but lacks the spine to stand up to the former very often.

Which famous fictional character am I?  If you said Anne Shirley, otherwise known as Anne of Green Gables, you'd be right.  If you said Rebecca Rowena Randall, aka Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, you'd also be right.

Why hasn't Rebecca had the same staying power as Anne?  Anne is beloved, even something of a cult figure.  Rebecca is known, but not read nearly as much these days.  Even the 100th anniversary edition of Rebecca, published in 2003, is already out of print.

I think the reason is the language.  Rebecca is written in much more complex language.  Kate Douglas Wiggins not only uses harder vocabulary, but treats mature themes, such as the child's attitude toward God, and addresses them with complexity.  Take this sentence: "To become sensible of oneness with the Divine heart before any sense of separation has been felt, this is surely the most beautiful way for the child to find God."

I can't imagine too many children today between the ages this book was geared for - say, 8-12 or perhaps even up to age 14 who could read this to themselves and fully comprehend it.  But it does make a perfect read-aloud.  I have stopped to explain words, paragraphs, and entire pages more often while reading Rebecca aloud than any other book I have read to my children.  But my 8-year-old has usually grasped the gist of what is going on, and often more.  And exposure to writing like this can only be a good thing.

Moreover, we shouldn't underestimate our children.  One night when my 6-year-old could not sleep, she came out of bed and listened while I read Rebecca to my older daughter.  As I floundered a little while trying to explain the sentence "Miranda Sawyer had a heart, of course, but she had never used it for any other purpose than the pumping and circulating of blood," my 6-year-old piped up, "She never loved anybody!"

Rebecca is a wonderful main character, full of life, and easily related to by children.  It is worth looking up a few words and stopping for explanations while reading in order to get to know her.

Have you read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm?  Have your children?  Do you see similarities between her and Anne?  Do you have a preference?