Monday, December 12, 2016

Moo

Disclaimer: I liked this book before I even read a word of it.

Why? Because I love Sharon Creech. She's like Jerry Spinelli for me. I will never dislike a Spinelli novel or a Sharon Creech novel. I can't explain it so I might as well lead with it. For Spinelli, it's a thing of nostalgia. I loved his novels as a kid. For Creech, it's something different. I didn't discover Creech until I was a school teacher and I got so much joy out of studying her novels WALK TWO MOONS and LOVE THAT DOG in my 5th grade classroom that both are still permanent staples of my curriculum. Former students often return to visit and many reminisce about WALK TWO MOONS. Creech is an author with a distinct voice, like Spinelli, like DiCamillo. You know when you are reading a Creech book by the feel of it.

In MOO, 12-year-old Reena and her seven-year old brother Luke have moved with their parents to Maine. Leaving their busy life in New York City behind for a quieter setting requires some adjusting but it doesn't take long for Reena and Luke's interest to be piqued in Beat and Zep, two odd but friendly, teenage farmhands. Beat and Zep soon come in handy, because Reena and Luke's parents volunteer them to help their elderly neighbor Mrs. Falala with her farm chores, which includes looking after a stubborn cow, Zora.

MOO is written in the same freeform, verse-style of poetry as LOVE THAT DOG and HATE THAT CAT. Fans of those two novels will surely love this book too. Instead of Sky, the yellow dog, or a stray black cat, we have Zora, an Oreo-cookie Belted Galloway cow. The text isn't as much straight forward verse like those two books. There is more of a mix of prose and verse. Creech plays around with the arrangement of her words and their font styles and sizes, making the most out of the space available on each page.

Reena's relationship with her younger brother Luke is sweet. These are two easy going, good-natured kids who embrace the change their family is experiencing and they dig in with both hands (literally) to help the transition go smoothly. They appreciate each other and they look out for one another as they soak in their new surroundings together. It was refreshing to read a relationship like this, instead of one of sibling rivalry like you can find in so many other children's novels today. Reena and Luke are siblings, but friends above all else, and you get the sense that they would be able to adjust to, and make the most out of any change their parents thrust upon them.

I connected with the humor in Reena and Luke learning how the farm functions. I grew up in a rural community, but not on a farm. Farm life was more foreign to me than it should have been given that most of my friends and classmates lived on farms. The humor in the novel eventually subsides and routine is established. Reena's own determination to break through to Zora, the stubborn cow, eventually gives way to genuine love for the animal and this is mirrored in Luke and Mrs. Falala's relationship as he teachers her how to sketch the animals on her farm.

A little more depth could have been added to this story by exploring Mrs. Falala's background. There are a number of unanswered questions at the close of the story. The reader is able to infer much about her past but concrete answers are not given. Despite this, MOO was a comfortable, enjoyable read. I'd really say the same about any Creech novel though.

On a side note...



Here is another example of my bias reading this book. No, that is not Reena. That is in fact, Mrs. H, my wife! Interestingly enough, she is 11-years old in this photo, close to Reena's age in the novel. That trophy in her hand was her prize after showing her cow at our County Fair. I remember sitting in the stands with my younger sister (not in this particular year but in later years), watching her, knowing nothing about what she was doing but being in awe regardless. I don't remember her ever having to struggle through a showing like Reena does with Zora, but it was hard work nonetheless, and lots of hours were devoted to preparation.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Wolf Hollow

There is no shortage of books about bullying out there today. Publishers know this is a relevant topic across the country and it seems that multiple strong works of fiction are released each and every year on the issue. Often times, an author will approach the subject by creating empathy for a character who is being bullied. Usually, the bully learns some acceptance along the way. Sometimes even, an author will attempt to create empathy for the bully, by showing where their behavior stems from.  

WOLF HOLLOW is definitely a book about bullying, but it is different than your typical bullying book in a number of ways. For one, the bully in this book is evil to her core. There is no sympathy to be had for Betty. Zero. She is pure evil. Also, the victim in this book doesn’t ever put up with the bullying. She doesn’t learn how to stand up for herself.  Annabelle is fighting back from the first moment we’re introduced to her. The lessons Annabelle learns in this story are not just about bullying. And finally, another way this book is different from other bullying books out there, is that it is set in rural Pennsylvania, in 1943. Many bully books are set in modern day, so they can speak to today’s students.

A synopsis: 11-year-old Annabelle’s life is pretty normal in rural Pennsylvania. She works hard to help out on her family farm and watches over her two younger brothers on their trek to school each day. Her life is simple. Until Betty moves to town. Betty is immediately cruel to Annabelle, bullying her out of sight of adults on their way to and from school. Betty’s threats (and later, her actions) prove her to be dangerous and Annabelle begins fearing for her safety. Until she discovers that she has a bodyguard. Toby, a misunderstood, reclusive World War I vet and family friend, is watching from the shadows, protecting Annabelle. However, Annabelle's world is rocked when Betty suddenly goes missing and Toby is suspected of foul play.

You would be hard pressed to find a better written book this year than WOLF HOLLOW. From the structure of the story, to the foreshadowing throughout, down to the individual sentence, Wolk's writing is beautifully descriptive. My first reaction upon finishing it however, was that it was a book written for adults that featured a child narrator. I wasn't shocked when I read up on author Lauren Wolk and learned that she began the story as a novel for adults but changed her mind about its audience later on. I loved the book. I was enthralled by the story. But I couldn't help but wonder if kids would get it. Since then, a 5th grade boy in my class read it as part of a book club at our local public library. He loved it. I saw a 6th grade girl walking down our hallway the other day holding a copy of WOLF HOLLOW in her hands. I called to her, "Isn't that book awesome?!? Isn't Betty just pure evil?!?" The girl's face lit up and she talked a blue streak about the book for 10 minutes! This first hand experience tells me that I needn't be concerned about WOLF HOLLOW's kid appeal!

What had me worried was Wolk's voice. Annabelle is a mature 11-year-old girl. She is responsible and wise beyond her years. There is an edge of maturity in not just her dialogue with other characters but in the way she narrates scenes and shares her thinking. Wolk really trusts her child readers to connect to Annabelle and in the end, I suppose this is easy because like most kids, Annabelle is not perfect. She makes decisions that she probably shouldn't. She reacts from her gut and from her heart and gets herself into trouble. She lies. She hides truths. But she also has compassion. Despite all of Betty's viciousness toward her, Annabelle is compelled to help her in the end. I found myself looking out for Annabelle in a fatherly way as the book reached its climax and resolution. I wanted nothing more than for her life to return to some normalcy.

Another thing that worried me about a child audience was the violence. WOLF HOLLOW isn't necessarily a violent book, but there are times it reminded me of a Martin Scorsese movie. A chapter would be going along, I would get the feeling that Betty would do something bad, and then BAM! Out of the blue, something very, very violent would occur and make me cringe. The violence comes and goes but it is the result of these violent moments that is sad and stays with you. Even for a character as mature as Annabelle, there is a loss of innocence in a few of these violent moments that is heartbreaking. Lives are changed forever because of this evil, evil girl. I wasn't sure if kids could handle this, but in talking with a few, I think they can. I think they need to.

Betty ranks right up there with Hannibal Lecter, Hans Gruber, the Joker, and Lord Voldemort. She is that sadistically bad to the bone. But to say that she gets what is coming to her would still be insensitive of me. The ending of this story is dark and sad. Sorry for the spoiler. There is no happy ending here. Not really. Life will go on for these characters, but not without some deep, deep scars.

I can't say enough about WOLF HOLLOW. The plot is nerve-wracking, the setting is vividly described, and the characters are all richly drawn, even the supporting characters like Annabelle's aunt Lily and Betty's boyfriend Andy. The layered story pulls you in and the beauty of Wolk's writing leaves you in awe.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Booked

Sports books for kids are a tough sell. Typically, the ideal audience for a sports book is a boy who likes sports and in my experience, boys who like sports are often reluctant readers. In other words, the ideal audience for children’s sports books, are boys who would rather be out playing sports than reading about kids playing sports! The sports genre bookshelf in my classroom is widely untouched as boys who enjoy reading tend to choose fantasy books and nonfiction books. Dan Gutman’s Baseball Card Adventure books are read, while Mike Lupica is not. When Kwame Alexander’s THE CROSSOVER won the Newbery Medal a few years ago, I tried selling kids on it and found that it had some appeal. The verse style of narrative makes for a quick read and boys who read it felt they were reading something sporty and distinguished at the same time. It lifted them up as readers. Can the same be said for Kwame Alexander’s follow-up, BOOKED?

Nick is 12 years old and loves soccer. Nick’s father is a wordsmith, college professor and Nick’s mother does not work but was once a promising race horse trainer. Nick and his best friend Coby are friendly soccer rivals and are excited about playing for the prestigious Dallas Cup, albeit against each other. Nick has a serious crush on April, who he attends ballroom dancing lessons with (on the behest of his mother), but the bullish twins Dean and Don keep getting in between the couple. Amidst all of this, Nick’s attempt to keep his sanity when his parents announce they are separating, is challenged greatly.

The problem with marketing BOOKED as a sports book or a soccer book, is that it is not really about sports or soccer. I would describe BOOKED as a middle grade coming-of-age story about a boy who happens to like soccer. The book has a lot going on, arguably too much. It’s deeper than most sports books tend to be and it includes very little actual soccer playing. The soccer scenes are few, fast, and fleeting. I think Nick would love to devote more time to playing soccer or thinking about soccer, but he has so much else going on in his life with his parents impending separation, his anxiety around April, his competitiveness with Coby, and putting up with the bullying behavior of the twins Dean and Don. Soccer is tossed in for good measure but it’s one of many things going on in this book.

So BOOKED is not really a sports book. That’s fine. I don’t want to complain about what the book isn’t. It has a lot to say about friendship and family. I like Nick’s relationship with Coby. Their friendship feels genuine to me as does their competitive rivalry. They seem like realistic kids. I also appreciated Nick’s shy nature toward April. In fact, this brought back middle school memories!

Verse novels are hard to read when the voice does not feel authentic, but this is not the case with BOOKED. Nick seems like the kind of kid that I could imagine thinking thoughts in verse. Because of his father’s linguistic background, Nick is a wordsmith himself, as his teachers discover. There’s depth to him. Depth that pours out in the slam poetry style narrative. It seems that Kwame Alexander has found his niche with this style of writing.

My praise ends there though. My main problem with BOOKED is that the story underneath the brilliant verse poetry, is rather boring. Nick is not all that compelling of a character and his supporting cast is rather thinly drawn. Kids with separated parents may be able to relate to some of the inner thinking Nick works through but all of the other problems Nick faces are very normal, boring middle school problems. He likes April but doesn’t know how to act confident around her. The twins pick on him but they are obviously just jerks. Nick isn’t mistreated by anyone else. Everything about Nick and his story is pretty ho-hum. Kwame Alexander attempts to raise the stakes at different times throughout the story but these attempts seem unnatural.

Kwame Alexander's voice is so different than anything else that is out there for kids right now. The man has talent. While I wasn't personally compelled by BOOKED, I admire and appreciate the style. I'm intrigued to read THE CROSSOVER now and see if the hype for BOOKED was well-deserved!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Heavy Medal Shortlist

This morning, Heavy Medal released their Mock Newbery shortlist. The list is:

  1. FULL OF BEANS by Jenni Holm
  2. GHOST by Jason Reynolds
  3. JUANA & LUCAS by Juana Medina
  4. PAX by Sara Pennypacker
  5. SAMURAI RISING by Pamela Turner
  6. SOME WRITER: THE STORY OF E.B. WHITE by Melissa Sweet
  7. WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES by Julie Fogliano
  8. WHEN THE SEA TURNED TO SILVER by Grace Lin
  9. WOLF HOLLOW by Lauren Wolk
I have read four of these titles (FULL OF BEANS, PAX, WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES, and WOLF HOLLOW). PAX remains my personal favorite but WOLF HOLLOW contains the best writing. I am still blown away by the poetry in WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES and find myself cheering that title on.

These Mock Newbery groups are great because you can really get a sense for how difficult it is to build consensus around a title. For that reason, I am betting that PAX falls. Its early hype has simmered and the discussion around it on Heavy Medal was surprisingly divisive. The initial conversation around SAMURAI RISING proved to illicit divisive feelings as well. Age appropriateness seemed to be an issue with WOLF HOLLOW

GHOST seems to be gaining hype among kidlit types online and everyone seems to love WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES. As a Jenni Holm fan, I'm excited for the conversation to begin on FULL OF BEANS because my initial instinct was that it was okay. Grace Lin always seems to have a fan base and I've read some positive thoughts about Melissa Sweet's E.B. White book. I haven't heard much about JUANA & LUCAS.

I would have loved to see Adam Gidwitz's THE INQUISITOR'S TALE or Kelly Barnhill's THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON make the list, but Jonathan noted that their long length makes it a challenge to include them on a list of this nature. 

For now, my money is on GHOST or WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES. 

Thursday, November 17, 2016

When Green Becomes Tomatoes

Poetry and the Newbery Medal. Hmm… The two typically do not go hand in hand. Get a load of these stats:

The first Newbery Medal was awarded in 1922. That means there have been 95 Newbery Medal winning books. Most, but not all, years award Honors to runner-up books and these vary in amount. In total, 309 books have received a Newbery Honor since 1922. In total, that is 404 children’s books that sport either a gold or silver Medal.

How many of those were poetry books, would you assume?

Five.

That’s right. Five. Twice, a book of poetry has won the Newbery Medal, A VISIT TO WILLIAM BLAKE’S INN in 1982 and JOYFUL NOISE in 1989. Three times, a book of poetry has been awarded an Honor, ANAPO in 1978, THE SURRENDER TREE in 2009, and DARK EMPEROR in 2011. Five times in 404 opportunities. That is a rate of 1% of the time! Disclaimer: I did not include books like INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN, which is a novel written in verse. I was simply looking for books of poetry.

The Newbery Medal is awarded to the “most distinguished contribution to children’s literature.” Maybe it’s the term “literature” that steers the committee away from poetry. Nonetheless, based on the history (if my research is accurate), it would appear that poetry has to be truly exceptional to stand out in a field of strong fiction work each year to rise to the top and win a Newbery Medal.

Well, WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES by Julie Fogliano is truly exceptional.

The book starts in the spring:

March 20
From a snow-covered tree
One bird singing
Each tweet poking
A tiny hole
Through the edge of winter
And landing carefully
Balancing gently
On the tip of spring

Each poem advances the reader further through each season, from Spring, to Summer, to Fall, to Winter, and ending with the same March 20 poem in Spring bringing closure to the year. The poems vary in length and style. Each poem is perfectly paired with a beautiful illustration by Julie Morstad.

June 10 (“I don’t know much about flowers”), July 10 (“When green becomes tomatoes”), and October 31 (“Pumpkin sprout”) are personal favorites but too long to reprint here. Go check the book out and read them! But to give more of a taste of the quality, rhythm and style, here are a few shorter favorites from the book:

August 3
If you want to be sure
That you are nothing more than small
Stand at the edge of the ocean
Looking out

January 30
It is the best kind of day
When it is snowing
And the house
Sounds like slippers
And sipping
And there is nowhere to go
But the kitchen
For a cookie

I've never really understood poetry, the same way I've never really understood fine wine. I've never had the palate for it, no matter how hard I try to get into it. But occasionally, I'll taste a wine that I don't need a sophisticated palate to understand how good it is. It's just good. The same can be said for WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES. It's not hard to see how brilliant these poems are, and how perfect the collection is as a whole. You don't have to be familiar with, or understand poetry, to appreciate this collection. I read it once through and sat back and marveled at it. Then I shared it with my wife and kids and bragged it up to my mom and my coworkers. It's that good.

I am a reader of fiction. Poetry is outside of my comfort zone. WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES is so good though, that any reader will be able to recognize its distinguished qualities. I'm certain that the Newbery Medal committee members will as well.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

GHOSTS

I love comic books. I have a massive collection of Superman comic books. So you would think that graphic novels would be a natural fit. Yet, I really haven’t read many graphic novels for kids. My incorrect theory is that graphic novels came about in children’s literature to appeal to the reluctant reader and I’m not a reluctant reader. Maybe I just get my fill from reading the Man of Steel. Who knows! Either way, it’s hard to ignore the uptick in quality among graphic novels for children in recent years (EL DEAFO, ROLLER GIRL). Is GHOSTS by Raina Telgemeier a valuable contribution to the genre?

Catrina isn’t happy about moving to a new town and starting a new school but she takes one for the team like she always does when her sister’s well-being is at stake. Cat’s sister Maya has cystic fibrosis and the girls’ family is moving to a Northern California coastal town because they believe the sea air will be good for Maya’s breathing. While exploring their new community, the sisters meet Carlos who lets them in on a not-so-secret secret about Bahia de la Luna… It’s visited by ghosts! As Cat prepares for the town’s annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival, she wrestles with anxiety over new friendships and her sister’s health.

Raina Telgemeier’s books (SMILE, SISTERS, DRAMA) have always been popular with my students (girls, mostly) but I’ve never been interested enough to read one myself. One year I noticed that my classroom copy of SMILE just kept getting passed from girl to girl to girl and when I asked a few why they liked the book so much they were all in agreement that the characters spoke and behaved like real kids. Telgemeier seems to have the ability to tap into today’s children and speak their language through her characters. In GHOSTS, Maya’s energy is infectious (despite her weakening health) while any protective sibling will be able to relate to Cat’s anxiety and concern (Cat is more concerned about Maya’s health that Maya is). I think the inclusion of ghosts brings in a whole new set of readers for Telgemeier (not just girls) and with the backgrounds and ethnicities of my own students becoming more and more diverse every year, I appreciate the Mexican background of these characters.

However, I would be remiss not to mention, or share my thoughts on the controversy brewing about some of the cultural story elements of GHOSTS. There are two criticisms, really. The first is in regards to the ghosts that inhabit Bahia de la Luna. The ghosts come to Bahia de la Luna through a Spanish mission. Carlos explains to the girls that the Mission serves as a gateway to the undead. The ghosts are happy and interact peacefully with Bahia de la Luna’s citizens (as long as orange soda is supplied). However, the history of Spanish missions are not pleasant. Catholics used the missions to forcefully spread Christianity, wiping out large numbers of natives and their culture. Some readers have taken offense to the idea of Telgemeier’s ghosts having no recollection of this history. Is this cultural appropriation?

The other criticism is in regards to the Day of the Dead celebration at the end of the book. The Day of the Dead celebration in Bahia de la Luna takes on a whole new meaning when the dead literally visit and participate in the celebration. Critics of the book believe that Telgemeier has been disrespectful of the real event, whitewashing it in a way, and even confusing it with Halloween.

In my opinion, Telgemeier’s heart is in the right place. Carlos explains to the girls that the mission in Bahia de la Luna serves as a gateway for many ghosts, implying that the ghosts that visit did not live at the mission. They are merely using it to cross over. The mission is a set piece, nothing more, and I don’t feel that Telgemeier purposely misleads or misinforms readers. If anything, curious readers may choose to investigate the missions further and learn about their brutal history on their own. Telgemeier’s work of fiction here, doesn’t need to be their guide. As for the Day of the Dead celebration, I feel the same way. Telgemeier includes enough accurate details about the celebration (ofrendas, Catrina figure, November 1 celebration) to not mislead readers. She even draws upon her own actual experiences and includes an accurate description of the celebration in the back of her book. In this work of fiction, it would be perfectly understandable if the Day of the Dead celebration took on a different look than its traditional one since actual ghosts are participating. And as with the missions, readers are invited to investigate on their own. I think the perspectives offered by those criticizing the book are valuable and thought-provoking, but I also find them a little unfair toward Telgemeier because I don’t think they actually apply to her book.

Criticisms aside, GHOSTS doesn't spend much time on the bookshelf in my classroom. It is always in some student's hands, like most of Telgemeier's books. Even boys are giving this one a go and enjoying it. The Scholastic book fair rolled into town this week for parent conferences and Maya and Cat are plastered on most of the marketing around my school too! In my opinion, GHOSTS does not compare to recent graphic novel tour de forces like EL DEAFO or ROLLER GIRL. Telgemeier's attempt at magical realism falls a little flat because the details of this world are not fully explored (Where do the ghosts come from? Why do they love orange soda?). Like EL DEAFO and ROLLER GIRL however, GHOSTS is a touching story that will broaden readers' perspectives.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Diverse Picture Books

Last year when LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET won the Newbery Medal, I was a bit skeptical. Out of all the incredible novels and works of nonfiction that are released within a given year, how was it that the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" was a book of no more than 32 pages with pictures supporting most of its text? Then I read it, and found some respect for the committee that chose it. It's text is sparse, but fantastic. While I still would personally rather see a longer novel or work of nonfiction win the Newbery Medal, LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET opened my eyes up to the text within picture books. I picked up the following books at my public library for a change of pace...

FREEDOM IN CONGO SQUARE tells the story of slaves in New Orleans and the unique French law that allowed them a free day from work, on Sunday. Slaves would gather together in many locations until 1817 when a city law designated one location for slaves to gather: Congo Square. It was here, where slaves sang and danced, socialized, and bought and sold goods and produce. Congo Square, at the time, truly was "freedom's heart."

"Mondays, there were hogs to slop, mules to train, and logs to chop. Slavery was no ways fair. Six more days to Congo Square." The story is told as a poem, just a few lines to a page, each day as strenuous as the one before but one day closer to freedom in Congo Square. The poetry is beautifully descriptive and its cadence is perfect. Each word, each line is carefully crafted. The illustrations are colorful and pair perfectly with each couplet. The glossary at the back of the book highlights 11 words from the text, a nice attempt to build vocabulary. The book is surprisingly celebratory and hopeful, considering its subject matter.

FREEDOM OVER ME is a difficult book to digest. The book centers around an appraisal completed for a Mrs. Fairchilds. Mrs. Fairchilds' husband passed away and concerned with stories of runaway and revolting slaves, she decided to have her slaves appraised with her estate so she could move back to England. Author Ashley Bryan tells the story of Mrs. Fairchilds eleven slaves, detailing what their lives in the Fairchilds' estate are like and what their dreams are from Africa.

"In recognizing our skills and labor, how can owners say we are property, priced and valued like cotton, cattle, hogs?" Each slave gets two pages of verse poetry and beautiful accompanying illustrations. One page details their responsibilities in the Big House, the other page shares their hopes and dreams. The verse poetry is more straightforward here, not as rhythmic as the poetry in CONGO SQUARE. The format however, is emotionally effective. Your heart aches for these people, who had their freedom, families, and cultures ripped away from them. An actual appraisal scan makes up the last page, further confounding how we ever as a race felt it was okay to buy and sell humans like crops and cattle.

JAZZ DAY is one cool book, honoring one cool group of musicians! It tells the story behind creating a famous 1958 Esquire magazine photo, titled Harlem 1958. Art Kane is the photographer who attempted to gather as many jazz musicians as possible in front of a New York brownstone to photograph as a group. Each page is its own separate poem (with a title) honoring a jazz artist or memory from that day. I particularly liked the poems about the neighborhood boys (Scuffle) getting into trouble throughout the 4-5 hour shoot. Together, the separate poems tell the crazy, joyous story of gathering together for that photograph.

Incorporating the real photograph was clever and I appreciated the profiles in the back of the book that provide information on each of the musicians highlighted throughout the story. The poetry threw me a bit. It was a bit disjointed, sometimes verse, sometimes free form, and I'm not sure kids (who aren't jazz fans) will be able to take away much meaning. I admire the project though and the illustrations are awesome.

FREEDOM IN CONGO SQUARE is probably my favorite of this group, but I liked all of them. CONGO SQUARE reminds me of LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET the most, in the powerful simplicity of its poetry and its celebratory tone. FREEDOM OVER ME and JAZZ DAY both exceed in creativity however and would both surely broaden the minds of young readers who happen to pick them up.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Raymie Nightingale

Raymie Clarke’s father left town with a dental hygienist. Raymie is sure that if she wins Little Miss Central Florida Tire, her father will come home to her and her mother. In order to win Little Miss Central Florida Tire though, Raymie needs to learn how to twirl a baton and its at her baton twirling lessons where Raymie meets two other girls hoping to win Little Miss Central Florida Tire: whimsical Louisiana Elefante and saboteur Beverly Tapinski. Over the course of the summer, the three girls bond over the sadness in each of their lives.

In my opinion, the best way to talk about RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE is to pretend that Kate DiCamillo didn’t write it. That way, bias can be set aside. DiCamillo has a well-earned following. THE TIGER RISING and BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE are widely studied in elementary classrooms across the country. She has multiple Newbery Medals and Honors to her name. She’s a talented wordsmith and storyteller. But does that mean RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE is any good?

When you discover that you are not the ideal reader for a book, it seems a little unfair to continue reading it with a critical eye. DiCamillo’s fans will undoubtedly adore this book. I can’t say that I did. Maybe it’s because I keep trying to imagine Raymie, Louisiana, and Beverly in my 5th grade classroom. I can’t imagine them fitting in socially with many other kids. This is why they are drawn to each other. They are equally quirky and desperate. Sure, the friendship they form is sweet, but it’s also clunky and convenient. Their lives are filled with sadness and the resolution of the story brings no real closure to their glum situations. They call themselves the “Three Rancheros,” but I’m not sure if they actually like each other, or if they are just forced to because they have no one else.

This was probably DiCamillo’s point, and if the plot of this story would not have been so thin I could have forgiven the similarly drawn characters, but events transpire for the sake of the story and not in a genuine fashion. I found myself caring for the characters only because they were drawn so sad and not because of their development or depth.

There is no question that DiCamillo is one of the best, but this sad little story of convenient friendship doesn't compare to her other accomplished work.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Wild Robot

I grew up in a small rural town in Iowa. Most of my friends and classmates were farm kids. Outdoor kids. I was not. I was content inside my house, building Legos, playing with action figures, and reading comics and watching movies. As I grew up, my love of the outdoors grew and instilling a love for the outdoors in my children through riding bikes, camping, snowshoeing, you name it, has become important to me. This is why I was drawn to THE WILD ROBOT. It felt as if it was written for me specifically. A blending of my childhood self with my adulthood self. My expectations were high.

When Rozzum Unit 7134 first boots up, she is packed tightly in a crate, washed ashore on a remote island. It doesn’t take her survival instincts, or programming, long to kick in as she notices broken crates and busted robot parts strewn about the beach. She is the lone robot survivor of a cargo ship accident and is stranded on an exotic island with no recollection of who or what she is or how she came to be. In order to survive so that she can function properly, Roz must learn how to be “wild” from the animal inhabitants of the island.  

I enjoyed THE WILD ROBOT, despite it not quite living up to my expectations. With 288 pages divided into 80 chapters (that’s roughly 3 pages per chapter), I was expecting a quick read. It was not a quick read however. I don’t know if it was the plot, or if the short chapters worked against the pacing, but the story dragged quite a bit. I enjoyed the descriptive opening chapters, as Roz was problem-solving her way around surviving the island, and I enjoyed the exciting closing chapters, as the Reco bots were closing in on capturing Roz. The middle of the story, where Roz mothers a small gosling, gave the story some heart, but this is where the pacing of the plot became drawn out and repetitive.

I have read reviews of THE WILD ROBOT that laud the deep questions Brown asks of his young readers. I had a difficult time pinpointing a coherent message though. The opening chapters stand out as Roz attempts and fails multiple times to understand her surroundings and I began to see this nature vs. machine theme take shape. But it doesn’t go anywhere. Instead, Roz discovers that her key to surviving the island is in befriending the animals that live there. The animals however, don’t behave like animals. They are very civilized and talk like goofy Disney characters. In order to survive, Roz wants to become “wild” like the animals but the animals she encounters are far from “wild.”

There are some tender moments where Roz learns to take care of a gosling and I could see a message coming through about acceptance and family, but then the final act of the book kicks into gear and violence ensues. The ending is rather unsettling and I’m not sure what Brown was going for. Is he saying it is ok to destroy someone (or something) in order to protect those we love? Pretty heavy for a children’s novel! The lack of a coherent message may result in a somewhat choppy story, but that may only bother adult readers. Kids may ask deep questions around each of these themes Brown touches on and maybe that was his point.

In the end, I did enjoy THE WILD ROBOT. I love Brown's sense of humor and I liked the black and white illustrations of Roz, looking out of place on the island. The sci-fi/adventure/survival blend is right up my alley and I can really see kids digging this book. Readers should check out Brown's blog where he details the process of creating this book and getting it published. Quite the inspiring labor of love.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Pax

PAX is the type of book I would have stayed away from as a young reader. My 4th grade teacher read WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS to my class and it almost turned me away from reading. It ruined animal books for me. My family did not have any pets and looking back, I wonder if part of the reason was because we were a sensitive bunch, and hated the thought of losing them someday. Sensitive readers, like me, will have a difficult time with PAX.

Peter rescued Pax as a kit and the two have been inseparable ever since. That is, until Peter’s father heads off to war and makes Peter release Pax back into the wild before going to live with his grandfather. Shortly after arriving at his grandfather’s house, Peter finds a photograph of his father as a boy. In the photo, his father is with a pet dog Peter never knew he had. His grandfather tells him they were “inseparable.” Filled with anger and guilt for abandoning Pax when he knew it was wrong, Peter leaves his grandfather’s house in the middle of the night and starts out on a journey to get Pax back.

PAX is a difficult book to digest because it is filled with such visceral, raw, emotion-packed scenes. Pennypacker leaves nothing to the imagination. A pair of foxes are brutally and graphically slain, right in front of the reader’s eyes. Another animal loses an appendage in a terrible way and that same appendage reappears as the story nears its conclusion. Blood scatters the landscape and a creepy fear permeates many of Peter’s scenes with Vola, an isolationist that rescues Peter after he suffers a major (and also graphic) setback on his journey. If you struggled through Kathi Appelt’s THE UNDERNEATH, which is the most recent comparable I can think of, you will struggle with many of the images in PAX.

The chapters alternate from Pax’s point of view to Peter’s point of view. Pax’s chapters are filled with wonder and confusion, as he discovers things about the wild and as he learns more about the behavior of humans. Not all humans are like his boy Peter. As the bond between he and Bristle and Runt grows stronger, the happy reunion readers may hope for becomes less likely. Pennypacker’s writing is best in these scenes with Pax. Peter’s chapters are filled with anxiety and dread as he suffers setback after setback in his journey to find Pax. Vola is a fascinating character. If Pennypacker had any interest in centering a prequel around her, I believe it would find some interested readers.

If I had one small gripe with PAX it is that Pennypacker’s themes often seem a bit heavy handed and spelled out for the reader. War is bad. Humans ruin everything. What were the humans even fighting for? What was the war about? By keeping these issues vague, Pennypacker turns them into statements instead of plot points. The political statements Pennypacker seems to be making are very overt and sometimes they held me back from enjoying the story unfolding or investing in the characters.

Perhaps a more subtle theme in the story is the loss of the family unit:

"It hadn't happened for several years, but sometimes at the end of the day, his humans would sit together on his boy's nest. The father would lay a hard box, flat and thin and made of many layers of paper, across his lap. Paper, like Pax's own bedding, but not shredded, and with many marks. His humans would peel these layers, one by one, and study them. Pax remembered that his humans were most linked together on those evenings, and with their harmony he could let down his guard."

When Peter chooses to make right his mistake of leaving Pax in the woods, he's doing more than going against his father. He is going against what his father stands for. He is realizing that sometimes, the apple does fall far from the tree. He recognizes the mistake his father made when he was a boy and vows to not make the same mistake. Which makes PAX above all, despite the heart-breaking, gut-wrenching narrative, a story of hope. Hope for a more harmonious future.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Goodbye Stranger

I have been told that girls are easy to raise while they are young. Being the father of two little girls, that is comforting to hear. I have also heard that while girls are easy to raise in their elementary years, they are nothing but headaches in their junior high and high school years. A fellow, more experienced father once told me that as his daughter grew older, he found himself worrying about her safety and well being far more than he worried about his son's. That makes me feel stressed and anxious, and let's just say up front, that reading Rebecca Stead's GOODBYE STRANGER did nothing to quell my fears!

Bridge, Tab, and Em have been best friends for a long time, and they don't fight with each other, by rule. Bridge survived a horrific accident when she was eight years old and often questions why she was left on this world. Tab is stubborn and opinionated and is beginning to see through the stereotypes present in society and the mean games kids play with each other. Em is growing into her teenage frame rather nicely and is even beginning to receive attention for it, from boys and girls. And she kind of likes the attention! As their interests and situations change, these three girls struggle to maintain their friendship.

One of the biggest strengths of GOODBYE STRANGER is its supporting cast of characters. Characters that seem to be secondary at first, begin to play larger roles as the story progresses. No one is exactly who they seem to be either. Sherm is a boy that befriends Bridge. Their friendship and chemistry is strong but neither can tell if they want to be more than friends. Patrick is an older boy who begins flirting with Em through texts. One of his requests causes things to spiral out of control for everyone about halfway through the book. Jamie, Bridge's older brother, competes tirelessly with his frenemy Alex at ridiculous bets. Adrienne is the new barista at Bridge and Jamie's father's coffee shop. She takes an interest in Bridge. Celeste is Tab's older, wiser sister, who imparts wisdom on the girls. All of these characters play integral roles in the girls' developing and changing friendship.

And then there's the Valentine's Day girl... an unnamed character narrating chapters in the near future in second person ("You wake up. You head down the stairs. You put your headphones on.") From the moment this unnamed character is introduced, we are drawn in, wondering who this person is and how they are connected to the story. This character is skipping school in the near future because something bad has happened. As the novel steamrolls toward it's closing, bits and pieces of details are referenced in these chapters that have been mentioned in the novel elsewhere. How do they fit? How did things come to this? How do we know this person?

If GOODBYE STRANGER seems like a lot to keep track of, it is. Because it is Stead though, it is worth it! It can be a confusing read. The three main girls are different, yet so similar that it was hard to tell them apart in the early pages. There are so many other characters in the story and it can be difficult at times to remember what was said by which character, because they all do so much talking! Dialogue is another one of Stead's strengths though, and she understands kids.

GOODBYE STRANGER is a book that needs to be read by teenagers. There is a scene early in the novel where the students gather in a gymnasium and sign up for a theme club. The existential crossroads these students are at in their lives parallels this scene nicely. It is the primary theme of this novel. Friendships change. People change. We change. How do we navigate it all? How do we not lose sight of ourselves while everyone and everything around us is changing? Stead is one of the best working today and her style and approach to these themes should prove to be poignant with young readers.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Graphic Novels: Sunny Side Up and Roller Girl

Some year soon, a graphic novel is going to win the Newbery Medal. The day is coming. A graphic novel has received an Honor in each of the last two years (EL DEAFO and ROLLER GIRL) and this year a picture book took home the Medal (LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET). As children readers change and interests widen, and as more authors begin exploring this medium, I envision the quality of stories being told to only get better and better.

Two popular graphic novels from 2015 were SUNNY SIDE UP and ROLLER GIRL. Both are designed in bright, friendly packages and both include a selling quote from Raina Telgemeier. Despite these physical similarities the stories inside these covers are very different from each other.

SUNNY SIDE UP was written by Jennifer Holm who is no stranger to the graphic novel format (BABYMOUSE series) or the Newbery Medal (she has Honored three times with OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA, PENNY FROM HEAVEN, and TURTLE IN PARADISE). SUNNY SIDE UP is her first graphic novel that is not a part of her BABYMOUSE series.

In SUNNY SIDE UP, Sunshine Lewin heads to Florida for the summer to stay with her single grandfather in his over-55 retirement community. She has dreams of Disney World and playing in the pool but instead, gets trips to the grocery store and early-bird buffet dinners at Morrison's Cafeteria. She meets a boy named Buzz who introduces her to comic books and his company begins to help her take her mind off of the real reason she is in Florida with her grandfather.

SUNNY SIDE UP is a quiet story. It has the feel of an Alexander Payne film. It is a quick read. I read the entire graphic novel in about an hour. Not a lot happens and Sunshine doesn't say much, but often times her expressions do the talking, as do the flashbacks to time spent with her troubled older brother Dale. There is humor in the book, in a fish-out-of-water kind of way, but most of this humor resides in the shadow of the much heavier plotline of Sunshine's older brother's issues. Sunshine loves him but feels partly responsible for what is currently happening to him (which is a mystery to readers at first, but unfolds through the flashbacks). Kudos to Holm for addressing this subject matter and not watering it down. This will probably find a niche among younger sibling readers.

ROLLER GIRL by first time author and former roller girl Victoria Jamieson, is an entirely different story. It's similarly serious but a much bigger story. In ROLLER GIRL, Astrid and Nicole have been best friends forever but during the summer before middle school, their interests change. Astrid impulsively attends a roller derby camp and falls in love with the sport while Nicole heads to dance camp. Astrid struggles with losing Nicole as a friend, making new friends, and riding out the (literal) ups and downs of learning the sport of roller derby.

ROLLER GIRL is as much about friendship and growing up as it is about the sport of roller derby itself. Jamieson does an awesome job of using the book to introduce the sport to readers without devoting pages and pages to rules and terminology. We learn the ropes as Astrid learns the ropes. Her struggle with the sport is a great parallel to her struggle with losing Nicole and making a new friend. Astrid is an imperfect, yet endearing character and you can't help but root for her as she discovers herself. ROLLER GIRL is the type of book that could be loved by grade 5-8 girls for a very long time.

While I would never want to separate the text from the illustrations, hypothetically ROLLER GIRL is the type of story that could survive and be just as endearing without the graphic novel format. I'm not sure the same can be said for SUNNY SIDE UP. Holm doesn't provide us with an inner monologue the way Jamieson does with Astrid. SUNNY SIDE UP is told primarily through parse character dialogue and pictures. This isn't a bad thing at all, just a different thing. Astrid's thinking is present on every page of ROLLER GIRL which gives the text an extra depth. While the illustrations are great, they just add to an already distinguished coming-of-age story. I enjoyed SUNNY SIDE UP thoroughly because I enjoy everything Holm does! ROLLER GIRL however, caught me by surprise and completely lived up to its Newbery Honor hype.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

1926: Shen of the Sea

In 1926 for a second year in a row, the Newbery Committee recognized a collection of folktales as the most distinguished work in children's literature. Just as Charles Finger brought TALES FROM SILVER LANDS out of Latin America in 1925, Arthur Bowie Chrisman brought SHEN OF THE SEA out of China in 1926.

Arthur Bowie Chrisman developed a love of Chinese lore and culture while living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1920’s. He befriended a few older Chinese men who told him stories. SHEN OF THE SEA is his collection of some of these stories, as well as a few of his own original tales snuck in for good measure. Many Chinese historians have not found any of Chrisman’s humorous tales to be grounded in any real Chinese folklore, so it’s difficult to tell which of the tales were told to Chrisman and which of the tales are from his own imagination.

SHEN OF THE SEA contains 16 short stories, told as Chinese folk tales. Six of the stories could be categorized as tales of invention, where characters haphazardly stumble upon the invention of random items. For example, in the story “Chop-Sticks,” Ching Chung and Cheng Chang were good friends. Ching Chung was charismatic while Cheng Chang was a fantastic cook. Ching Chung loved Cheng Chang’s roasted duck and promised him one day, if he was ever fortunate enough to be king, that he would make Cheng Chang a wealthy man. As luck would have it, Ching Chung was in fact named king but decided that Cheng Chang’s roasted duck was so good that he deserved to be king instead. Cheng Chang’s nasty wife begins abusing her power as First Lady by promoting her brothers to undeserved positions. When Cheng Chang denies her requests at dinner, her and her brothers toss silverware at him. Fearing for his life, Cheng Chang outlaws knives and forks and replaces them with two thin sticks, thus chopsticks are born.

Other stories detail the invention of the printing press, gunpowder, a kite, tea, and fine China, all in similar fashion. Most of the other stories in the book are humorous tales of irony where characters use their clever wit to escape from situations or simply learn lessons. For example, in the story “Many Wives,” an Emperor was tired of his kingdom always being threatened by attacks so he asked a wise old soothsayer what he should do. The soothsayer replied, “marriage.” So the Emperor set out to find a wife. He called for any potential wife to come live in the palace and he would choose the most suitable bride. Many women came to the palace, including Radiant Blossom, the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. Since the Emperor could not tell the women apart, he hired an artist to paint portraits of them. Ying Ning, the ugliest woman in the palace, bribed the artist to portray her as beautiful and Radiant Blossom as ugly, so the Emperor chose Ying Ning as his wife and assigned Radiant Blossom to be married to his enemy. As Radiant Blossom was being transported, she disappeared never to be heard from again. The Emperor learned the truth of what had happened and assigned men to search the kingdom for her, but she was never found.

I seem to be in the minority among Newbery Completionists, because I didn’t mind SHEN OF THE SEA, whereas others continually rank it near the bottom of Medal winners. The stories were humorous and entertaining and were for the most part, easy to read. Unlike TALES FROM SILVER LANDS, these stories actually resemble folk tales, and each story progresses with a moral discovery or lesson learned. I even think children today would find humor in these tales, if read aloud by a proper storyteller.

In researching a bit about Chrisman, I feel that history has been unnecessarily harsh on him and his work. He was open about where he heard some of these stories from and he was honest about adding some of his own original stories to the collection. He never claimed to have traveled to China. He just loved Chinese stories and this collection was an homage to the stories he had been told while living in San Francisco. In regards to what it set out to do, I think SHEN OF THE SEA accomplishes its goal rather well. And while some of the character names and themes in the book could poke fun at the Chinese culture, it’s obvious that it is a culture that Chrisman was genuinely passionate about.  

Thursday, January 7, 2016

1925: Tales From Silver Lands

TALES FROM SILVER LANDS is a collection of folktales from author Charles J. Finger. This 1925 Newbery Medal winner, the fourth ever book to win the gold, is comprised of nineteen short stories that the author picked up while traveling throughout Central and South America. After a few long snoozers and an old-fashioned pirate epic, nineteen short stories was a welcomed sight for my attention span. Besides, who doesn’t love folktales?

The first tale, titled “A Tale of Three Tails,” tells the story of how the tails of the rat, the deer, and the rabbit came to be. Typical folktale kind of fare. Instead, the story has something to do with an evil spirit and its pet owl who tricks a father into beheading his two sons for failing to complete work that the evil spirit had assigned to him. By the end of the tale, I figured out how the rat, the deer, and the rabbit got their tails, but wasn’t sure what the moral or lesson was. Isn't that the point of a folktale?

The rest of the tales featured in the book, were similarly bizarre. Most featured strange, fantastical creatures, magic spirits, talking animals, wise old men smoking tobacco, etc, etc. There seemed to be a theme of good versus evil present in most of the stories (“But evil, though it may touch the good, cannot for ever bind it.”), but often times the evil that transpired was so unusual and dark, that it was difficult to find any good left in the end. 

Take the third tale, “The Calabash Man,” for example: A young married couple travels to the bride’s land to rid it of an evil spirit that is possessing her father. The father forces the son-in-law to complete a lot of impossible tasks and upon completing the final task, the father screams and runs off into the forest never to be seen or heard from again, taking the evil with him. The couple meanwhile, lives happily ever after. Huh?

In “The Tale of the Lazy People,” Christians are warned that monkeys in tree tops will toss nuts and branches at their heads while walking through the forest. This is in revenge of being mistreated earlier in the tale. Or tricked. Or something. I don't remember. So are Christians the lazy people or the monkeys? Who is good and who is evil? The good versus evil theme doesn’t seem to carry evenly throughout the tales.

Another fault I found with many of the folktales was the lazy ways in which some of the stories were resolved. Instead of the characters learning from their mistakes and figuring out their own problems, something unexpected often happened, resolving the story for the characters. Too much deus ex machina. This was present in the seventh story, “El Enano.” “El Enano” is a story about an old woman whose home is taken over by a mischievous impish creature, hell bent on eating her out of house and home and wreaking havoc upon all her neighbors. The creature gives the people its reasoning and just when you think the people of the old woman’s village are going to find a way out of their predicament, a silver fox strides into town and saves the day in some ridiculous fashion. What is the takeaway here?

I keep trying to picture school librarians in the 1920's, sitting around and discussing this book. It's not Charles Finger's fault that none of the tales make a lick of sense. He's just passing along stories he heard while traveling through Latin America. But what are the school librarians excuses? The only way I can imagine them selecting this was due to an extremely weak crop of children's literature available. The publishers of the Scholastic Apple Paperback version I got my hands on didn't even want to be associated with it. Look at the image chosen for their cover:


Click on that image and view it a little larger. Check out the look on the kids' faces! The camp counselor with the preppy polo on the cover doesn't even look like he's enjoying telling these stories to these four unlucky souls!

It took me longer to finish this book than any of the other three. Here's to hoping SHEN OF THE SEA has more to offer.