Saturday, March 30, 2013

Overlooking Children's Books

I recently read this review of of Fever, a novel by Mary Beth Keane about Typhoid Mary.  As I read, a memory nagged at me. Hadn't I just read a book about Typhoid Mary?  Of course, I couldn't think of the name.  But why wasn't any other book being mentioned in the review?  Finally, it came to me: Deadly by Julie Chibbaro.  Deadly is told from the point of view of a young woman who works in the health department, tracking the typhoid epidemic.  So why wasn't it mentioned in the review?  I would suggest because Deadly is a young adult novel rather than just a novel.  What a shame, as it is an excellent book, and anyone interested in Fever would be interested in Deadly too. While labeling books as children's or young adult is supposed to provide a helpful guideline, it can too often do the opposite - prevent people from reading wonderful books. Have you noticed any instances where reviewers of adult books overlooked children's or young adult books?

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Shadow Game

Sometimes, when I'm walking with my younger daughter, especially in the early morning or evening when the sun is low in the sky and our shadows are long, we play what we call the Shadow Game.  As she steps on my shadow, I squeal in mock pain.  My shadow bonks her shadow on the head.  Our shadows seem to have minds of their own.

Young children are fascinated by shadows.  In Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats, the child jumps to separate himself from his shadow, but when he lands they are reunited.

In The Black Rabbit by Philippa Leathers, a rabbit is frightened by a big Black Rabbit which turns out to be, of course, his shadow.  No matter how he tries, he can't escape this scary giant. But, in a plot twist reminiscent of The Gruffalo, in the end the rabbit uses the creature he was once scared of to scare others.

This book will delight shadow-lovers everywhere.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Library Loot #20

Some of our recent picks.

Picture books:

Close up:

Chapter books:

For me:

Have you read any of them or are they on your to-read list?  What did you think?  What are you reading now?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Library Round-up #10

Mini-reviews of some of the books we recently checked out of the library.

Picture books:

Lissy's Friends.  One of Grace Lin's early works, it employs her trademark folk-art style.  The main character, an Asian girl, is at a new school and is having trouble making friends.  She makes her own friends - origami animals - which, in the end, bring real friends to her.  Charming and sweet but not a must-read.

The Quarreling Book.  Charlotte Zolotow's understanding of childhood and family dynamics is pitch-perfect as always in this story of how one person's bad mood is contagious... until a change of heart has the opposite ripple effect.

My First Day: What Animals Do on Day One.  Steve Jenkins has done it again! This lovely non-fiction book about newborn animals is utterly fascinating as well as beautiful.  From the ways mothers recognize their new babies (zebra mommies memorize the pattern of their babies' stripes, while others know them by their voices or scents) to the way they are born (the Darwin frog is held in a pouch in its father's throat) to what they can and can't do on their first day (some can't even see while others walk within hours of birth), this book is perfect for the young animal lover and for a big-brother-or-sister-to-be.  The language is simple but the text is supplemented at the end with additional information about each animal which is especially helpful as some are rather obscure - and interesting.

Middle-Grade Fiction

Rickshaw Girl.  This illustrated chapter book for those on the younger end of the middle-grade spectrum is tells the story of Naima, who lives in Bangladesh, seeks to help her poor family earn money, but feels constrained by the fact that she's a girl.  In the end, another woman acts as a role model and Naima uses her artistic skills to help her family financially.  Each chapter heading is decorated with an alpana, the traditional Bengali designs painted on homes for special occasions.  A wonderful portrait of how things are changing in many Southeast Asian and other traditional societies, as well as an introduction to the ideas of micro-loans and women's investment banks.  This book is great for second and third graders, an audience for which I can't think of any other chapter books set in this part of the world (can you?).  The glossary at the end is a helpful addition.

The Center of Everything.  Linda Urban's most recent novel has won rave reviews and talk of a Newbery already, but I was not as enamored.  While it was certainly enjoyable, and its references to A Wrinkle in Time and When You Reach Me and its incorporation of a donut motif were clever, it does not live up to either of those predecessors and the main plot of a girl regretting something she did or didn't do before the death of a grandparent was not treated in a particularly fresh way.  However, the ending was satisfying by virtue of the very fact that it was unsatisfying, just like life.

Young Adult Fiction

Eleanor and Park.  Rainbow Rowell's story of love between two misfits is appealing and realistic.  Eleanor, the oldest of 5 children with an emotionally abusive stepfather (who is also physically abusive to their mother), reminded me of Cynthia Voigt's Dicey Tillerman, a reference to which Eleanor herself makes toward the end of the book.   I particularly liked that both Eleanor and Park wanted to take the physical part of their romance rather slowly and that the descriptions of "mere" handholding conveyed that such simple physical acts can have a romance and eroticism all their own.

Young Adult Poetry

Think Again.  The perfect gift for the angst-filled teenager in your life.  Poems like: "Sit still said her father - / Quiet said her mom:/ So she sat still and quiet/ As an unexploded bomb." capture the essence of adolescence.  The illustrations by Julie Morstad, the reason I picked up this book in the first place, complement the poems perfectly.

Have you read any of these?  What did you think?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Only in New York

I love New York.  Despite the brutal real estate market and the byzantine public school bureaucracy, I love it.  Where else in the world could you find a supermarket that sells live lobsters and yet also posts Shabbat candlelighting times?!?

William Low also loves New York and it shows in his books.  Old Penn Station is an elegy to the magnificent train station that was demolished in 1963 and is still mourned by New Yorkers, myself included, even though I was born after its demise!  (I believe there is some type of New York collective memory, as I am also outraged by the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn.)  Although I am not sure I completely agree with the book's final line, that "buildings are not just concrete and steel.  They are the heart and soul of all great cities," this book is nevertheless a wonderful springboard for talking about history, historic preservation, landmarks, zoning laws and the like.  Last year my daughter's first grade class was lucky enough to have someone from the Landmarks Preservation Committee visit her class and teach them about architectural features and then take them on neighborhood walks several times to identify such features on actual buildings.  This book would be a great companion to such a classroom unit.  In addition, Low's paintings are stunning and give a real feel for the era and for the magnitude of both the building and the jobs of constructing and demolishing it.

In Chinatown the eponymous neighborhood is both setting and character.  Low's bright, bold paintings convey the essence of this neighborhood. The narrator, a young boy,tells us about all the things he does in Chinatown with his grandmother, from buying live crabs to buying Chinese herbal medicine to practicing tai chi outdoors in the park (just go by Columbus Park one morning to see for yourself!) to, of course, celebrating Chinese New Year.  Since this book was written, other Chinatowns in New York have grown, notably in Flushing, Queens, Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and recently, to a lesser degree, in East Harlem.

What do you love about New York?  What books about or set in New York do you love?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

What Mothers in Books Do

The other day I fulfilled my children's fantasies by saying to them when they came home from school ("alone" - they waited in the hallway while I entered the apartment and then they came in without me), "Welcome home.  Would you like some milk and cookies?  I just baked some."  I even donned an apron for some June-Cleaver-esque authenticity. They had recently asked me why I didn't do this, saying it is "what mothers in books do."

That got me thinking.  What books had they seen this in?  Granted, we read a lot of classics, many of which are old-fashioned, even dated in certain ways.  In the Betsy-Tacy series, the mothers are constantly offering the children homemade baked goods (although sometimes they've been baked by the "hired girl").  In the Ramona books, I think Ramona mentions that she'll miss the afterschool cookies when her mother starts working (and becomes "liberated" as Beezus says)... but I don't remember any scene before that where her mother actually gave her homemade cookies as an afterschool snack.  I don't remember the B is for Betsy books well enough but certainly one could imagine Betsy's mother baking cookies.  When asked, my 5-year-old cited the families in the Riverside Kids books.  Of course, none of those mothers (except for Ramona's, at times), worked. But when I asked the girls what was different, why those mothers baked cookies, they said, "Because they didn't know then that they weren't healthy."  So there I was, making a feminist mountain out of a nutritional molehill.

I also found it interesting that they said this is "what mothers in books do," not "what mothers do."  So they instinctively differentiated... between what exactly?  Fact and fiction?  The past and the present?

What's funny too is that I bake.  A lot.  But they were fixated on three things: the baked item had to be cookies (preferably chocolate chip), they had to be offered with milk, and they had to be offered after school.  I even let them each have an unprecedented-in-our-house two on the grounds that the saying is "milk and cookies" not "milk and cookie."

In any event, those mothers in books, whoever they are, knew what they were doing.  Our milk and cookies were delicious.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why Reading Aloud is Good for Me, the Reader

Confession: I'm a skimmer.  When I read books, I am plot-driven.  All I want to know is what happens next.  As a consequence, I don't savor the language of the book itself. Upon rereading, I'm able to read more slowly.  But the slowest of all is when I read aloud. Reading aloud forces me to slow down.  I notice details and language I never noticed before.  I don't do different voices for the characters or anything dramatic.  But still, reading out loud has given me a deeper appreciation for what I'm reading.

I'm also a bad listener.  I'm so used to seeing books that I think I'd be lost without the visual aspect.  I'm impressed with how closely and carefully my daughters listen, how they pick up on details, moods, and intricate plot twists that I sometimes have to go back and double-check in the text.  I guess the solution for me is to have them read to me!

Are you a slow, savor-the-words kind of reader, or a plot-driven skimmer?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Library Round-up #9

Mini reviews of some of the books we have checked out of the library.

Infinity and Me.  A young girl wonders about the nature of infinity and asks the adults in her life what it means to them.  The ending, with the idea that love can be infinite, manages to avoid sappiness.  My daughter's been interested in infinity for a while, so she liked this one.  She doesn't totally grasp the concept though, since she tells me she loves me "infinity plus 152 blocks" (presumably city blocks).

Open This Little Book.  My five-year-old put it succinctly: this book is sort of boring but sort of cool.  The design aspect is amazing but design alone does not make a book.  The plot here is definitely lacking and the idea of stories within stories is not fully fleshed out, but it's worth picking up just for a look at the design and the illustrations.

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt.  One of the best writers of children's non-fiction (particularly biographies), Deborah Hopkinson here tells a tale of historical fiction.  Based on the true stories of slaves who hid maps in the patterns of quilts that they made, she tells how one girl finds her way to freedom and leads others to it as well.  A wonderful book about a lesser known aspect of how slaves escaped.

What do you have checked out from the library now?

Friday, March 1, 2013