105 Ways to Give a Book

Thrifty Reading

With all of the budget talks taking over the news, it felt like the right time to address the issue on a smaller scale with this article, previously written and posted at PBS Booklights.

Nobody is going to argue that we’re in tough times, and even if your finances haven’t changed, you’ve probably become a bit more cautious and thrifty in response to the economic situation. Here I have another advantage, because I’ve always had a frugal streak and a nose for bargains. When I hear about kids in our country without books at home, I’m upset that these kids are missing this important literacy exposure, and I’m also frustrated knowing that it doesn’t need to be expensive to have books. Maybe feeling the pinch lately, you’ve cut restaurant outings or Starbucks grandes or — sigh — new, cute shoes. But you don’t need to cut books, though you can change the way you get them.
  1. The Library — Duh. You may roll your eyes at my noting the library as a place to get books, and that’s okay. I can take it. Of course you know it exists, that it’s there as a source of free books, but that doesn’t mean you’re taking full advantage of this generous resource. Yes, you can check out books. You can also take your kids to programs, including some for older children that might not require your actual presence in the room, allowing you to skim the magazine section. When my kids were young, we sat and read some of the books there and then took a few of those home. It made reading time special to be doing it in the library, and offered a chance to try some new titles. Utilize the librarians to get suggestions on good books for the kids, instead of wasting money on something disappointing. And don’t forget all of the resources in the library that can save you money by giving you information in the form of home repairs, craft projects, exercise programs, and financial planning.

  2. Book Sales — There are many kinds of book sales, and which works best depends your own needs and free time. Libraries often run book sales, either as an event or as an ongoing sale. You can do extremely well here, picking up some great hardbacks for a buck or two while supporting the library. Win-win. Thrift stores also sell books, though the selection and quality varies from place to place. I find the special kid consignment stores rather pricey on books, but I do have to admit that they are generally better organized. When I feel like heading to the bookstore, I do so mostly to browse the bargain books and overstocks. I’ll also use some mindless Internet time — maybe while supervising homework — to browse the bargain books section on Amazon. I’ve bought some amazing books this way, including standards that must be temporary overstocks or something. Otherwise I can’t explain the continual appearance of titles by Mo Willems, Rick Riordan, and Neil Gaiman.

  3. Book Exchanges — Some schools or community centers have a Leave-a-Book/Take-a-Book plan, but if not you can start your own. Set up a book exchange for your own school, preschool, playgroup, neighborhood, or workplace. Having a dedicated shelf for the book exchanges is a small way to start. You can set up systems of one-to-one exchanges or credits, or be more loose about it, hoping that books simply find a good home. You could arrange a larger-scale trade at your child’s school and donate the books that aren’t chosen to a charity that can get them into the right hands.
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Before There Was Mozart

I didn’t have time over the weekend to update the Books for Black History lists. I was busy making a short film with the Tohubohu team for the 48 Hour Film Project: Go Green. It was fun to do, but exhausting, so I’ll start off small with one new book for Nonfiction Monday, hosted today at Three Turtles and Their Pet Librarian.

Before There Was Mozart: The Story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier Saint-George
by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome

Before There Was Mozart: The Story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier Saint-GeorgeLet me get this out of the way. I do not like the title. Yes, I understand the need to quickly explain that Joseph Boulogne was a classical period musician of note, and that the shorthand to do that is invoke a Mozart comparison. But as someone who minored in music in college, the allusion annoys me the way children’s authors can’t stand that every fantasy book is lined up with Harry Potter. All right — got that out of my system.

The book itself is fascinating. Joseph Boulogne was born in the West Indies to a slave and her master. While many of these stories end in heartbreak, in this case Joseph was treated as a son by Guillaume-Pierre, and when the French nobleman returned home, be brought Joseph and his mother along. Joseph grew up there experiencing discrimination for his skin color, but also growing in musical talent as a violinist and composer. Given a title by his father, he was somewhat accepted in society, met the King and Queen of France, and had a tenuous connection to Mozart. Good stuff. The illustrations are bright, engaging, and altogether perfect for the story. I enjoyed the book, but do wonder about the audience. It certainly widens the range of topics available for Black History Month, but it will be hard to find a readership for a picture book on an obscure classical musician. Those who do venture a read will be rewarded with an interesting story.

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Poetry Friday: Black History Month

Still feeling fine, but struggling to catch up from the family’s sick days. And thus, still doing some cutting and pasting from earlier posts to round out the Black History Month list of picture books. Today’s focus is on picture books of poetry.

My PeopleMy People
by Langston Hughes, photography Charles R. Smith Jr.
Langston Hughes’ 1923 classic poem provides the muse for a photographic tribute of African Americans through different stages of life, shades of color, and state of being. The short poem is portioned out a bit at a time, allowing each word and picture space to resonate. Quiet, joyful, and ultimately moving, this book forces the reader to slow down to appreciate the beauty of heritage.

Stitchin’ and Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend QuiltStitchin’ and Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend Quilt,
by Patricia McKissack

A child grows up watching the quilting of her community, and then under the tutelage of the women, she begins her own quilt. With each stitch, the women are keeping tradition and history alive. The illustrations drench the reader with the vibrant colors of the quilts and the stories they represent, while the poems themselves are about quilts and relationships, tradition and community, heritage and history.

Speak To Me (And I Will LIsten Between The Lines)Speak To Me (And I Will Listen Between The Lines)
by Karen English, illustrated by Amy Bates

Set in an urban school, this book nicely reflects the lives of third graders. Feeling pride in an eighth birthday. Worrying about losing a best friend to another girl in the class. Daydreaming. Saving a seat at lunch. Each poem is told from the point of the view of one of the kids in the class, most of whom are African American. The illustrations capture the feel of the kids and the poems in every nuance of expression.

To continue on my topic areas today, visit Poetry Friday, hosted today by Great Kid Books, and check out the profiles of African American authors and illustrators continuing throughout the month at The Brown Bookshelf. And (unrelated) wish me luck in this weekend’s 48 Hour Film Project, where our team will be working on a Go Green theme. We are ever confident having Robin Brande writing our screenplay, but less secure in our own tenuous health and energy. As in the past, it should be an interesting weekend.

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Books for Black History Month II

Finally sent the tween off to school and am trying to get my bearings again. So far, I am not sick myself, but my pessimistic outlook will not let me relax. Again, I haven’t worked to update this listing, but did have one newer title ready to add at the end.

[This article was originally posted February 2008 at Foreword’s Shelf Space.]

Previously, on Books for Black History Month, we covered the earlier part of African American history with fiction and nonfiction books that were educational while telling a good story. Now it’s time to march forward in time with historical fiction, biographies, and poetry.

Langston’s Train RideLangston’s Train Ride
by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins (2004)

Fantastic illustrations by Leonard Jenkins make this book a pleasure to peruse, no doubt about that. But the reader will also enjoy being taken along on a journey with Langston Hughes as a young man. As he rides on a train across the country, he is moved by the crossing over the Mississippi River. Words and phrases rush into his head, especially the phrase, “I’ve known rivers.” This book is about personal history, about heritage, and about writing. The full poem, “A Negro Speaks of Rivers,” is included at the end of the book, along with a short biography of Langston Hughes.

by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Sean Qualls (2006)

With rhythmic — dare I say poetic — text, this book brings the world of Dizzy Gillespie to life for those who never experienced the musical revolution of the 1920s. The book starts with his rough childhood and the idea that he was able to channel his anger and hurt through his instrument. Jazz is given a rest look to kids as a rule breaking form, and the story of Dizzy, the person, helps bring this time period in focus for young readers. This particular chapter in American history shouldn’t be passed by — and no one can afford to miss it with lively, fresh artwork and passages like, “It was like he had taken a wrecking ball / and SMASHED IN / The House of Jazz, / ’til the walls came tumbling down.”

Jackie’s BatJackie’s Bat
by Marybeth Lorbiecki, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (2006)

It’s 1947 and Joey is going to be a batboy for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He’s excited about it, but conflicted about the new player, Jackie Robinson. Joey’s father doesn’t think it’s right for a white boy to serve a black man, so Joey steers clear of Mr. Robinson. But as he continues his time with the Dodgers, he begins to see Jackie Robinson as both a baseball player and a man, which brings forth his own feelings of acceptance. The small story of one boy echoes the larger feelings of the world’s response to this revolutionary baseball player. The book includes some biographical information. The soft, watercolor illustrations complement the text perfectly.

Goin’ Someplace SpecialGoin’ Someplace Special
by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (2001)

It’s the 1950s and ’Tricia Ann is heading downtown in Nashville to go “Someplace Special.” Her grandmother is reluctant to let her go on her own, but when she relents, ’Trica Ann faces a journey of pride, humiliation, encouragement, and ultimately joy as she reaches her destination — the public library, open to whites and blacks alike. The injustices of the segregated south are made all too real with this likeable character facing off against the obstacles. Pinkney’s lovely watercolors bring just the right feeling of the era to the book.

by Nikki Giovanni, illustrated by Bryan Collier (2005)

The basic story of Rosa Parks is well known, but you’ll think you’re in for something different after seeing the cover of this book with the ominous man looking down at — the whole thing is so in-your-face and bold. The art in this book is evocative, gripping, and Caldecott Honor-winning. Rosa Parks’s personal story moves into her turning point in the civil rights movement and then continues beyond, covering many of the events surrounding her place in history. The text doesn’t complete her biography by any means, but does provide a starting place for discussion of her role and the larger context of the boycott.

Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-InsFreedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins
by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jerome LaGarrique (2004)

Connie would love to sit down at the counter at Woolworth’s and have a banana split, but she knows that African Americans aren’t allowed to do that. Living in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, she knows her color dictates where she can drink and eat and much more. But things are changing in town with Dr. King’s speech at a local college chapel and Connie’s older siblings joining the NAACP. The paintings in the book capture the sense of emotion, as well as the more tangible evidence of segregation.

II’ve Seen the Promised Land: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.I’ve Seen the Promised Land: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins (2003)

A straightforward and brief biography of a hero becomes much more than that in the hands of noted author Walter Dean Myers. The content is just enough to introduce young readers to Dr. King and to his accomplishments and struggles, but not get bogged down in many details. The basics of his personal journey are presented along with essentials of the civil rights movement itself. The text is well done, but it’s the illustrations — the powerful, dramatic art — that make this title extraordinary.

Ron’s Big MissionRon’s Big Mission
by Rose Blue, Corinne Naden, illustrated by Don Tate (2009)

Ron loves books and is well-known at the Lake City Public Library for his frequent visits. He spends hours reading there, but this day is different. The nine year old boy is going to take on the system by demanding to be allowed to check out books. Knowing that the privilege is reserved for whites, he literally takes a stand to get his own library card. Based on a real incident in the life of Astronaut Ron McNair, the story gives a different feel to discrimination than most books on the subject, focusing on the institutional ruling than belief system. All of the individuals who encounter Ron — from the friendly elderly lady to the helpful librarian to the befuddled police — all want to help him, mostly by getting around the law. While it may not offer a more valid a perspective than other books that tackle discrimination, it puts the emphasis on an unfair law rather than racist people. The illustrations also lighten the tone, with the bright colors and expressive faces. A particularly good book for read-aloud in the classroom or library.

Of course, these books are the tip of the iceberg in exploring African American history, but hopefully will motivate young readers to learn more. And just as important, these titles could prove inspiring for teachers, librarians, and parents to seek out books that are not only good for the mind, but good for the soul.

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Books for Black History Month

I am a bit preoccupied with a bout of illness making its way through my family, which gives me a perfect excuse to repost this list without updating it. With any luck, I can give some additional, newer titles by Monday. If not, then know that I went down fighting.

[This article was originally posted February 2008 at Foreword’s Shelf Space.]

This time of year I find myself feeling a vague discomfort. And, no, it has nothing to do with polishing off a box of Thin Mints in two nights. (Don’t judge me!) During the month of February my librarian version of “Spidey sense” is tingling with the vague knowledge that all over America, teachers, librarians, and parents are picking out boring books for Black History Month. I don’t blame them, because I’m sure they are not aware of some of the newer, spectacular titles that are perfect for exploring the history of African Americans. These books cover a broad range of ages in elementary school, but as picture books they keep the storyline tight and the art engaging. For teachers or librarians who want to take the opportunity to educate their students, or for parents who want to open up conversation about their heritage, these are books that don’t put forth pages of facts and dull pictures. No, these are the books that say, “Let me tell you a story.”

Henry’s Freedom BoxHenry’s Freedom Box (Caldecott Honor Book)
by Ellen Levin, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (2007)

At a young age, Henry is given to his master’s son and begins work in a tobacco factory. Allowed to marry a slave of another owner, he is torn apart when his wife and children are sold. With the help of a white abolitionist doctor he arranges to have himself mailed to Philadelphia and to freedom. It’s a brave and dangerous escape, and is based on a true story. This book was a Caldecott Honor Book for Kadir Nelson’s stunning and evocative illustrations.

The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington’s Slave Finds FreedomThe Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington’s Slave Finds Freedom
written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully (2007)

Oney Judge grew up as a house slave and seamstress for Martha Washington, living with the family in Mount Vernon and moving with the family to the new capital of the country, Philadelphia. As Oney grows into a young woman, she finds out that instead of being set free when her mistress dies, that she will be given to one of Martha Washington’s relatives. She decides to escape and free herself from the grasp of one of the greatest icons of American history. The watercolor and ink artwork complement the story perfectly, and additional information is provided about Oney Judge’s later life.

Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner TruthOnly Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth
by Anne Rockwell, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (2002)

Isabella lived a particularly difficult life as a young slave, having been sold three times before she was thirteen. At sixteen, she could do the work of a man, but was forced to marry so she could bear children. Living in New York, she was to become free in 1827 according to the law, though her owner tried to cheat her of her freedom. As she grew older, Isabella grew stronger in her desire to fight slavery however she could and she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and spoke out against the evils of slavery. The illustrations are abstract and interesting, as different and unique as the woman herself.

Night Boat to FreedomNight Boat to Freedom
by Margot Theis Raven, illustrated by E. B. Lewis (2006)

At his grandmother’s urging, a young black boy rows other slaves across the river and to freedom. While John is strong, it’s thought that he is young enough that his absence at night will go unnoticed. Eventually though, he needs to make the journey to freedom himself and he’s not going without the older woman who has given him strength. Punctuated with passages where the grandmother sews a quilt based on the color the freed slaves are wearing, it lends a poetic sense to the phrase, “What color is freedom tonight?” The illustrations are stunning, bringing into focus the subtle shades of night and the sharpness of color. There’s a two-page spread of slave traders leading the younger Grandmother aboard a slave ship with promises of bright red flannel that is absolutely mesmerizing.

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to FreedomMoses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (Caldecott Honor Book)
by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (2006)

Steeped in the religion that formed a deep influence in her life, this book shows Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery, led by the voice of the Lord. She subsequently is compelled to go back and rescue her family and numerous other slaves. The story is heavy in its religious tone, though appropriate in terms of her beliefs and experiences. The illustrations by Kadir Nelson are breathtaking, making the Caldecott Honor award for this book well-earned.

Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen VictoriaMartha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria
by Kyra E. Hicks, illustrated by Le Edward Fodi (2006)

In 1830, Martha Ann and her family bought their freedom, and with the assistance of the American Colonization Society, moved to Liberia to live. The children could attend school in Liberia, and they were finally free from slavery in America. Even after a deadly fever took away her mother and father, the children decided to stay in the country far from their home. When the queen of England sent ships to patrol the coast of Liberia to keep slave catchers away, Martha Ann made herself a promise to meet Queen Victoria someday. Through years of waiting and some hard times, Martha Ann never forgot her goal, and worked to make it come true. This book shows a different perspective on this time in history, and offers a lesson in reaching for our dreams.

Show WayShow Way (Newbery Honor Book)
by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Hudson Talbott (2005)

This Caldecott Honor Award-winning book is a true stunner in both the illustrations for which it was judged and the text that shapes the stories of generations of African American women. Starting with Soonie’s great-grandmother, who was sold away when she was seven, and left her with muslin, two needles, and red thread from her mama, the story follows the trials and paths of the next seven generations up to the author’s baby. The story covers the “show way” quilts, which were sewn to give other slaves messages to help them on their journeys. The story goes along the path on the Civil War and to a time of reconstruction and then of civil rights. Throughout there are echoes of the quilts from that first piece of muslin and red thread. An amazing and moving book that may have readers tearing up at each repeat of, “Loved that baby up so. Yes, they loved that baby up.”

The ListenersThe Listeners (Cybils Finalist)
by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Mike Benny (2009)
The lives of the slaves are hard work, little food, and old clothes. But there are also times of pride, worship, and family. Under the cover of darkness, the slave children sneak under the windows of the Big House to hear the news and then take it back to their community. Inside the conversations are elements of harshness, indifference, compassion, and with any luck — hope. Beautifully rendered, this story for older readers will touch your heart and open your eyes.

As it turned out, I had one newer book ready to add, The Listeners. Tomorrow I’ll continue with picture books that cover the 1900s and the Civil Rights Movement.

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Cybils Awards

For many of us in the kidlitosphere, Valentine’s Day is becoming less about love and more about books. Great books! Cybils Award Winning Books! The list is out at the website, but I’ll offer a teaser for the category that I led, Fiction Picture Books. I was exceedingly happy with our finalist list, but one winner must be chosen, and that book is...

Interrupting ChickenInterrupting Chicken
by David Ezra Stein
As Little Red Chicken interrupts her Papa’s bedtime stories to create her own endings for classic fairy tales, children are immersed in the possibilities of their imaginations. Through an enthusiastic character, relatable situation and strikingly bold illustrations, children are transported to an evening bedtime ritual that becomes more than your average reading. Interrupting Chicken is a picture book that will have children and parents alike laughing all the way to the last page, making it a perfect bedtime and group reading story.

Congratulations to our winning author! And much thanks to the dedicated team of panelists and judges!

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Picture Books for Valentine’s Day When the Holiday Books Are Gone

Today and even tomorrow, frantic parents will run into the library looking for a Valentine book to read at their child’s school, only to find that all the holiday books are gone. But no worries, because here are some sweet love stories that will nicely fill the gap.

Never Too Little To LoveNever Too Little To Love
by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Jan Fearnley
A mouse wants to give a kiss to his friend, but she’s way above him — literally. He stacks things precariously to get a little bit higher, but it’s pretty clear that this homemade ladder is not going to hold. Fortunately, the giraffe he loves bends down and offers a kiss. Simple and sweet, the book has sturdy pages for the littlest readers.
Porcupining: A Prickly Love StoryPorcupining: A Prickly Love Story
by Lisa Wheeler, illustrated by Janie Bynum
Alone and ignored in the petting zoo, the poor porcupine can’t find somebody to love. Oh but he tries, courting other animals with unintentionally insulting songs. Because no female, pigs included, wants to be called “pink and fat.” Just as he is about to give up hope, he meets a darling hedgehog. The cheery illustrations feature clever details, and the funny story will charm all audiences.
Pierre in LovePierre in Love
by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Petra Mathers
A fisherman rat is too shy to talk to the ballerina bunny he loves. He leaves her gifts and flowers in secret, and eventually she catches him. Unfortunately, she loves another. So sad. Pierre stills feels better after having shared his secret and encourages her to do the same with wonderful results for all. The watercolor artwork of the fishing village captures the feelings of this gentle tale.

Some other titles to find in your library: Henry in Love, by Peter McCarty; My Penguin Osbert in Love, by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel, illustrated by H.B. “Buck” Lewis; Mousie Love, by Dori Chanconos, illustrated by Josée Masse; Mole’s in Love, by David Bedford, illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw; and Bloom! A Little Book about Finding Love, by Maria Van Lieshout. Any other suggestions?

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Newbery Discussion Week: Dark Emperor

For the last day of Newbery Discussion Week, it seemed appropriate to use Poetry Friday to talk about the one book of poetry — or rather, the one non-historical fiction title — honored with an award. Oh, and today’s Poetry Friday round-up is hosted by Rasco from RIF.
The night’s a sea of dappled dark
the night’s a feast of sound and spark
the night’s a wild enchanted park.
Welcome to the night!
Dark Emperor and other Poems of the NightDark Emperor and other Poems of the Night is a picture book of poetry featuring the natural elements of the nighttime. Prior to the awards, I had looked at this title in terms of the Caldecott, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the book had a description of the illustration process. (Publishers, can we start doing this more with picture books? Thanks!) The artwork is made by relief printing, printed from different blocks in several colors, and then hand-colored. As noted by the illustrator, “There are definitely faster methods of making a picture, but few more enjoyable in a backwards sort of way.” The illustrations are amazing and detailed — especially in an early print, which shows many of the creatures the reader will discover in the coming poems. Personally, I found myself more drawn to the simpler, smaller pictures that accented each poem, but all of the prints were quite special.

I wish I could say the same for the poetry, but I did not find the poems in this book to be anything out of the ordinary for a children’s book. It wasn’t bad poetry, but nothing gripped me in this book. I was disappointed, because I love two of Sidman’s other books. In last year’s Caldecott honors winner Red Sings from Treetops, I melted over the perfect phrasing and rhythms, and This Is Just to Say moved me with the expressions of apology and forgiveness. But the poems in Dark Emperor seemed flat. They were descriptive and even educational, but I didn’t connect to them. I also felt a little cheated by a book of poetry with only twelve poems. The rest of the required thirty-two pages were taken up with a full spread print to start and end the book, and informational description of each natural element in the poem, a table of contents, and glossary.

But look, I’ll admit that I’m no poetry buff or even particularly a poetry lover, so I’d welcome other opinions of this title. What did you think of it?

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Newbery Discussion Week: Turtle in Paradise & One Crazy Summer

Sent far from home to a family member, an independent, self-assured eleven-year-old girl spends the summer exploring the area, all the while learning more about her mother and bonding with her family. In discovering a world that was completely foreign to her, the girl also learns a little more about herself and her own intrinsic strength. Written at an accessible level and length for elementary kids, the book packs a punch with realistic characters, clever dialogue, colloquial expressions, historically accurate details, and evocative settings.
So my only issue with today’s Newbery books is that the above description could be used for either one. Yeah, I’ll give you a moment to process that. Like I talked about at the beginning, it still seems problematic to me to use the only children’s literature award that everyone knows to showcase two books with the same basic themes. However, the other problem becomes which one wouldn’t be honored, because they are both perfect books for young readers. I intended to skim both books so that I could discuss them today, but I was unable to do that... because I ended up actually reading both of them again. I was so sucked in by the writing that they were too good to skim.

For instance, Turtle in ParadiseTurtle in Paradise has such a perfect opening: “Everyone thinks children are sweet as Necco Wafers, but I’ve lived long enough to know the truth: kids are rotten. The only difference between grown-ups and kids is that grown-ups go to jail for murder. Kids get away with it.” BAM! Right from the start we get a sense that this is a past time (Necco wafers), the that speaker is young (using the word “grown-ups” instead of “adults”), and is hardened by life (kids are rotten). Good writing. I love this book. The setting is described very naturally within the context of the story. I could picture every moment very clearly. (You know, this would be a good movie. Just sayin’.) Turtle is a great character. Strong and self-reliant, she says what she thinks. She’s tough, but she’s also caring and curious. The book didn’t rely on the standard of small-town books — quirky characters — instead giving us a realistic and interesting picture of life in Key West during the depression era. My only complaint about the book is that it ended rather abruptly, not allowing enough time to play through the emotions of the conclusion. But that’s a small shortcoming for an otherwise splendid book.

One Crazy SummerOne Crazy Summer also started strong, but I was really sold a page later with this part: “That’s mainly what I do. Keep Vonetta and Fern in line. The last thing Pa and Big Ma wanted to hear was how we made a grand Negro spectacle of ourselves thirty thousand feet up in the air around all these white people.” Again, good writing lets the reader know we’re dealing with an older sister who keeps her siblings in line, but she’s still young enough to call her father “Pa.” “Negro spectacle” sets not only the basic time period, but a sense of the family relationship. Reading that, I sense that grandma uses that phrase a lot. At the same time, it makes me a little uncomfortable, unsettled. I feel like I’m hearing something that I wasn’t supposed to know, but yet by knowing it I understand so much more. The book packed in many of these uncomfortable moments regarding race and family relations. The mom says that she should have gotten rid of these kids when she had the chance. Damn! When an older lady gives the girls nickels basically for being tidy, well-mannered colored girls, the reader squirms with and for Delphine. All through the book we feel for these girls, but Delphine’s strength and independence don’t allow us to pity them. If pressed to list a flaw, I’d say that at times it was obvious that the education center scenes were meant to educate us, the reader. But I think that they were necessary for both the story and the reader, so I wouldn’t want to change them either.

Now, at the beginning of this post I said that I couldn’t imagine cutting one of these titles, even if they were so similar because I really like them both. And it’s also worth mentioning that, with minor changes, that same description fits Moon Over Manifest. Considering that, what should have been awarded? What do you think about today’s titles?

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Newbery Discussion Week: Heart of a Samurai

Yesterday, in discussing the Newbery winner Moon over Manifest, I talked about how hard it was to get into the book, but that the ending really pulled together. I had the complete opposite problem with today’s book.

Heart of a SamuraiHeart of a Samurai starts strong. Seriously, by the second page, the fishermen are adrift in the Pacific Ocean with little hope of survival. By page twenty, rescue from their rocky island is imminent and comes in the form of an American whaling ship. From there, they are on a sea journey as viewed through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old Japanese boy. His isolation and views of the foreigners as “barbarians” add to the feeling of discovery for him and for the reader. It’s all going swimmingly, one might say, until the story takes some time off in America.

At this point the novel slows down to a crawl. What was a sea adventure becomes a tale of acclimation. We’ve gone from The Perfect Storm to Little House on the Prairie. There’s some good stuff in this section that shows the difference between the acceptance that John Mung found on the ship with the prejudice of the farming community. As the real Mung’s history, it’s important to understand his intelligence, his loyalty, and his isolation. But as a novel, this section dashes the growing momentum of the story. By the time he gets back on a whaling boat, we have a better sense of both his reasoning and his sacrifice in making the decision, but we’ve lost the excitement.

Unfortunately, this turn on the whaling ship is short and goes into a series of various real-life activities that eventually get Mung back to Japan and set him on his adult course as an ambassador between countries and an actual samurai. Interesting stuff from a historical perspective, but a complete switch in style. Also, by this point in the book Mung is an adult, not a child or teen, so the story loses much of its appeal as children’s literature. There are great nonfiction resources — historical notes, a glossary, a bibliography, and actual drawings of John Mung throughout the book — but again, weren’t we signing on for a sea adventure?

Overall, I liked the book but think it would have benefited as a novel from less exacting reliance on the historical events. Get that kid back on the boat much faster and end with his last whaling journey. Perhaps he could be staring out over the ocean towards him homeland knowing in his heart that he’ll make it home someday, leaving the rest of the story for the epilogue.

So what do you think about it?

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Category: 8 comments

Newbery Discussion Week: Moon Over Manifest

Let me start by making it clear that the week’s post are intended to be discussions, not reviews, and as such may include spoilers from the books. You’ve been warned.

Moon Over ManifestIt’s no secret that the winner of the Newbery Award, Moon Over Manifest, came as a surprise to much of the children’s literature community. But why? First, the book was released in October of 2010, meaning that it missed the opportunity for buzz to build over the year. It also wouldn’t have had time to make it to many libraries, who would then be unable to include it in their mock Newbery discussions. Second, the book was an author debut and as such, wasn’t big on the radar or probably on purchase orders. But the third reason interests me the most, and that is that some people who were actively looking to guess the Newbery winners had this book, read a few chapters, and put it down. I’m thinking specifically of the Heavy Medal blog, but I doubt they were the only ones. I had the book myself, skimmed the beginning, and didn’t pursue it.

It’s not that the book is bad, but it is a real slow starter. I’m not even talking the fifty-page rule that dedicated readers give a book. For me, it wasn’t until I was halfway through the three-hundred-fifty-page book before I was invested in it. The little pieces planted in along the way started to come together with explanation and meaning. The story started to build momentum and tension until a point at which a twist, and then another twist really brought it home.

When I put it down at that moment, after the roller-coaster ride of the ending, I totally understood why this book won the Newbery Medal. Because I left it feeling like I’d watched an exciting movie, for which the lengthy setup had left me completely unprepared. It was like going in watching The Remains of the Day and coming out watching Ocean’s Eleven. That was unexpected — and as such, kind of cool — and I closed the book thinking that this was indeed the best of the year. For about a day.

But the more it sat with me, the more I resented the long buildup in a children’s book. I persevered because I knew it had won the award. Also because adult books often have a more meandering style, so it was still within my comfort zone for reading. But I see it as a notable flaw that it was so hard to get into the book, especially considering the target age — which is not actually adults.

Also, the more I thought about it, the less satisfied I was with some of the resolutions. A big part of the buildup is the allusion to something the town is trying to forget or even to hide. At the same time there’s a recurring suggestion that Abilene’s dad left the town because of his own hurt or shame. I wondered if we were coming up on some wild version of “The Lottery.” Now that would be some dark writing. But it turns out that while the secret is fun to discover, it’s not something that a town would consider its dark past. And the catalyst event for the mourning that hangs over the town and Abilene’s dad is that a young man died in a war and her dad helped him sign up. That’s it? I waded through all of that setup and that’s all you’ve got for me? It felt cautious. Like the author couldn’t bear to put a more realistic amount of accountability on the father or the town.

Overall, Moon Over Manifest is a good book. It’s slow, for sure. It’s more observation then action. There are some problems with the resolutions, though others are brilliantly done. There are passages that lean too heavily on the meaningful metaphor, especially in the first few pages. But there is definite skill in linking the two stories of past and present. There is a tremendous amount of attention given to characters with depth and purpose. The book sets a scene, a time, a place with great flavor and detail.

As I said as I started this discussion, I don’t think it’s a bad book. But I do think that there are flaws that don’t make it the ideal gold medal winner. I especially have concern with the highest-award-winning book for children being a book that has the pacing of an adult book, leading me to wonder how accessible it is to kids.

So what do you think about it?

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Category: 22 comments

Newbery Discussion Week

Yes, I know it is late, like two thousand and eight, but I do have a few reasons for bringing up the Newbery Awards now. First, I just got all the books. Second, it’s the topic of the DC KidLit Book Club meeting this Sunday. And third, it’s been burning within me to discuss since I read the winner.

I was disappointed with the Newbery Awards this year. Less because of the specific winning titles — though I have issues with each — than for the lameness of the list in general. Four out of five titles were historical fiction. Two of those were the same time period. Three of the books have a stunning similarity. Don’t see it? Three books about girls sent on their own in the summer to a new place where they will learn more about their parents, but at the same time discover a little something about themselves, all the while observing more than participating.

Now people will say that the Newbery is about finding the best books, not a comprehensive list. I agree to an extent, but would also in that case like to request my copy of the Children’s Literature Excellence Checklist (CLEC), because there appears to be a sort of consensus as to quality in children’s literature of which I am unaware. Also, the fact that the winners are bought in libraries everywhere does to me to imply a certain thoughtfulness needed in presenting a better variety of books.

While all of the winning titles are good, solid books, the fact that they are mostly of one genre and three are kind of the same book says more to me about the particular taste of this committee than the excellence of literature this year. Seriously, no contemporary fiction or fantasy or nonfiction reached the same level? Is it possible that we are subscribing to a view of literary quality that doesn’t reflect children’s literature today?

I’ll be talking about the specific titles this week, and encourage your participation in the discussion. Tomorrow, the gold medal winner.
Category: 6 comments

Thursday Three: Snow

Snow, snow, snow! Everywhere but here, where we have the sad remains of the last snowfall topped off by a charming slush, courtesy of a day of steady rain. But for everyone else sitting in piles of the white stuff, here are some snowy picture books for your enjoyment.

Waiting for Winter
by Sebastian Meschenmoser
Waiting for WinterHearing about this wondrous thing called snow, a squirrel is determined to wait it out to see the first sign of the cold, white, soft stuff. As he involves Hedgehog and Bear in his wait, they each suspect things that are most definitely not snow, but that will make readers giggle. Of course, in the end the real snow falls in all its cold, white, soft beauty. Lovely pencil illustrations give interest and humor to the story.

Terrible Storm
by Carol Otis Hurst, illustrated by S.D. Schindler
Terrible StormTwo grandfathers have been friends since they were kids. They grew up in the same town and survived the same big storm. As they sit on the porch now in their old age, they talk about how terrible the big storm was. As it turned out, the shy man was trapped in with lots of people, while the social man was trapped alone in a barn. It was torture for both of them. Great story with lovely detailed illustrations.

Snow Day!
by Lester L. Laminack, illustrated by Adam Gustavson

Snow Day!“Did you hear that? Did the weatherman just say what I thought he did? Did he say... SNOW? Oh please, let it snow. Lots and lots of snow.” This person is ready for a snow day and all the things that go along with it. No alarm clock. Staying in PJs. Playing outside. A day to watch TV and read a new book. To sled and throw snowballs. The special fun in this book is the surprise that I won’t spoil, and the fun illustrations that bring the reader into the imagining of the perfect snow day. (Even if you’ve had enough of them this year.)

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KidLitosphere Public Service Announcements

With SCBWI’s New York conference info filling Twitter and the massive snowstorm engulfing the United States and the news from Egypt blasting our brain cells, I’m thinking that most of us in the kidlit world are playing a little catch-up. Here are a few things that should be noted:

The January Carnival of Children’s Literature is up and ready for reading at Challenging the Bookworm. Don’t miss the linkity goodness.

Yesterday marked the beginning of 28 Days Later, a Black History Month celebration of children’s literature, with daily profiles of 28 artists/authors at The Brown Bookshelf.

Long, looooong-time kidlit blogger Tasha Saecker of Kids Lit now has her blog at Waking Brain Cells. Please change your feeds, blogrolls and whatever else the kids are using these days.

This year's contenders for SLJ's Battle of the Kids' Books were announced last week, so let the games begin!

If you’re up for a kerfuffle, Liz at Tea Cozy and Colleen at Chasing Ray get you up to speed on the... interesting changes made in the Bitch Magazine list of 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader.

Oh, great. Weird Al has a children’s book. It is clearly time to revive BACA — Bloggers Against Celebrity Authors. Will you help me?

Three Things You’re Doing Wrong in (Not) Commenting

The just-past Comment Challenge — and particularly this perfect, funny post at Jumping the Candlestick — helped me define some commenting barriers. Take a moment to see, if indeed, these are three things you’re doing wrong in (not) commenting.
  1. You’re setting the bar too high. If you need a reality check, read the comments on any YouTube video or Yahoo article. These people don’t spend time concerned with whether their comment is “witty” or “insightful” or “makes sense.” Seriously, you are in the top ten percent of commenters merely by paying minimal attention to basic spelling and verb/noun agreement.

  2. You’re over-thinking your comments. We know this social media stuff, but can make the wrong leaps to how comments help in the process. It’s not like someone will read your witty, insightful comment and give you a book deal. It’s more like being at a book event and you’re talking to this woman about how much you like zombies, and she asks what you do, and you say you write picture books, and she says that she was at this session earlier where the editor was talking about the sad lack of zombie picture books. Score! And all this from your witty, insightful comment “Great necklace! I love zombie jewelry too!”

  3. You’re reading blog posts like articles. This is understandable, because they are articles, but they are also conversations. A comment isn’t crafting a letter to the editor. It’s closer to your response after listening to someone excitedly tell you about this great novel they just read. After they finish talking, would you simply walk away? No, you’d say something like, “I’ll have to find that book, especially because I love zombie romance stories,” and you wouldn’t worry that you weren’t adding enough value to the conversation. Other times you’d have more to say. Who knows? You might even be witty and insightful about it. But it’s not a requirement.
Of course this begs the question: Why comment? Because with few extra minutes given to commenting you can boost your blog readership, foster a feeling of connection, and make someone’s day. Because while your readers are the energy that fuels your blog, you are in turn the energy that feeds another blog. Because we’re searching for ever more ways to connect — with blogs, Facebook, and Twitter — and yet it often feels like we’re missing each other. We are working so hard to connect, that we fail to take the opportunities to connect that are right in front of us. Simply by saying, sometimes, to someone, “I hear you. I’m here.”
Category: 22 comments