Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Summer Reading

That is my summer reading pile. Ambitious, I know. I totaled up the pages in that stack of books and we're just over 4,000. If I started today and read until the second week of August, I would need to read around 50 pages a day. That's roughly an hour a day reading. With three young, active kids, and activities, and yard work, and school work, and Twins games, and vacations, etc, etc, etc. Furthermore, there are no former Newbery Medal winners in that pile and I want to get to a few of those read, and I know there a few newer releases I'd like to get my hands on that are not pictured in the stacks above (YORK, CLAYTON BIRD, ORPHAN ISLAND, BEYOND THE BRIGHT SEA).

Shoot for the moon, right? It's good to have goals.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Princess Cora and the Crocodile

What is it about?

PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE, written by Laura Amy Schlitz and illustrated by Brian Floca, is about a princess who wants to explore and have fun instead of prepare for her future responsibilities as a princess. 

How is it structured?

PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE is kind of a hybrid of a picture book and an early chapter book. It fits in your hand a bit larger than your typical novel or early chapter book but is much smaller than your typical picture book. The hardcover edition I purchased as 74 pages and the story is told across 7 chapters. Readability is fairly easy and charming, color illustrations are found on every page, sometimes filling the page, sometimes juxtaposed on white pages of text. 

What did I like?

There is a lot to appreciate about PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE. Let me start with the illustrations. Brian Floca's illustrations are really the star of this vehicle. They appear to be outlined in thin black and filled in with light pastel water colors. The characters are drawn simply, yet their facial expressions are packed with the perfect emotion for each situation. The book's entire packaging is really charming.

I also appreciate that Laura Amy Schlitz has set out to create something completely original. There's a lot of rehashing of Grimm stories these days, but writing in a medieval setting is right in Schlitz's wheelhouse and this has such a classic feel while being wholly original. And while some of Grimm's stories have broad, and somewhat dated today messages, Schlitz's message is timely.

A sidebar: A parent of a student once told me that forcing their oldest children into organized sports at a young age was one of their biggest regrets as a parent. Because in hindsight, they realized they could never get back the time their child spent traveling with friends and practicing sports. It was more of a social experience for the parents. They told me they adopted a different philosophy with their youngest child. They were going to enjoy her for who she was, savor their time spent together as a family, and not pressure her into any sports, but encourage her if she was interested of course.

I feel like this parent would really enjoy PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE because the message is very similar. The King and the Queen will never get back the time they spent teaching their little girl science or drilling her as she ran laps. I like this modern fairy tale with a clear message that children today (and parents) can take away loud and clear.

What did I dislike?

There wasn't much I disliked about PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE per se, but I couldn't help but think, "That was it?" when I finished reading it. The plot was straightforward, clean, and well-structured, but nothing about the book really wowed me. Other than Floca's illustrations. In fact, I actually wondered if a no-name author could pass this manuscript off and attract a talent like Floca to sign on. It's a cute story, but without Schlitz's name attached, I wonder if this would have ever seen the light of day.

I was a bit bothered by the ending. In typical Grimm fashion, the adults come off as bumbling, dim-witted villains. I didn't read them as parents who had made mistakes and learned from them, if that was the intention. They are adults who are making a child do work. The problem I see, is that many kids today don't know how to work hard. When they read this, they will see adults making a child do work. This will speak to them. They will also see that child leave that work behind and teach the adults a lesson and by the end of the book, call all the shots. Princess Cora, the child, is in charge. That is a dangerous notion and I'm not sure how much it helps children today. The message is loud and clear for adults. But for kids?

Final verdict?

In the end, PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE is a cute story from a highly celebrated children's author and a highly celebrated children's illustrator. It will be read and enjoyed by many. Personally, I was expecting a little more.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Me and Marvin Gardens

ME AND MARVIN GARDENS by Amy Sarig King is about an environmentally conscious boy named Obe Devlin. Obe's obsession with taking care of the environment, especially his family's land, leads to social problems as some of the land begins to be developed for a new housing community. Obe also discovers a new species of animal on his family's land and wrestles with keeping the discovery a secret.

ME AND MARVIN GARDENS is a middle grade fantasy novel disguised as a realistic fiction novel. It classifies as fantasy because Obe discovers a new species of animal in a creek on his family's land. The animal eats plastic and leaves toxic scat throughout the housing development.

The novel is written in first-person, narrated by Obe. Breaking up the narrative, scattered throughout the book, are short chapters on gray pages, detailing what life was like 100 years ago. These sections begin vague but become more and more specific to the plot and the Devlin family as the novel nears its end. There is some mystery that strings readers along in subplots, like why Obe tends to get bloody noses easily, what happened to his friendship with Tommy, and what led to the Devlin land being taken away.

ME AND MARVIN GARDENS reminds me of children's novels like HOOT by Carl Hiaasen and OPERATION REDWOODS by S. Terrell French. Children in general, love the environment and are sensitive to taking care of it when educated at a young age. My 7-year-old daughter is a testament to that. Stories like this appeal to children. I can just imagine my students trying to draw Marvin, and take a genuine interest in protecting him. Likewise, Obe was a thoughtful, endearing narrator who was easy to root for.

I also thought Obe's relationships with his family and peers were very realistic and children will be able to relate to this as well. His friendship with Annie is sweet and awkward and his trouble with Tommy is all to common among kids. Choice Tommy made as a friend have damaged his relationship with Obe (maybe even for good) and this is important for children to read. Furthermore, I liked how each member of Obe's family was portrayed as their own person with their own interests and personalities and how tuned into this Obe was. At one point, Obe wonders if his father would have been his friend when he was younger or if he would have gravitated to boys like the boys in the new development. How painfully insightful! Obe knows the members of his family all have different interests but also discovers in the end, that they are there for each other. I liked the nuanced, non-cliched way this was portrayed.

Finally, I really liked the fantasy take on a story that really wasn't a fantasy. I also appreciated King's ability to be didactic about the environment without this book feeling overly didactic.

The discovery of Marvin is the only aspect of this story that classifies it as fantasy, and to me, it might be the weakest part of the story. Marvin felt a little too silly and goofy. I like that King tried to make Marvin as realistic as possible (dog shape and size, rhino-like skin) but the multi-colored scat and the role his scat played in the story was just a little too much for me. Marvin eating plastic was a strange subplot that was a little more farfetched than the idea of Marvin in the first place. Marvin is used more as a plot device to get Obe to move from point A to point B as a character, so I understand the lack of explanation into his being and his future, but it would have been fun to explore him a little more. The fact that King didn't, seems like a bit of a copout.

ME AND MARVIN GARDENS is a unique coming of age story. While the fantasy elements of this story were a little weak, Obe's relationship drama, with both family and peers, was well done and middle grade kids should be able to relate to him easily.