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September 2007
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November 2007

Weekend Reviews, Oct. 20-21

Select reviews and articles from the weekend papers:

"Showing children that books aren't pants," at The Times, of London. Not a review, but about the "Richard & Judy" TV program's promotion of children's literature. Books aren't pants? Whatever.

The Declaration, by Gemma Malley, at The Guardian. Diane Samuels says, "She conjures a world in the mid 22nd century where people have discovered the secret of longevity and children are outlawed. The question is whether the execution of the book lives up to the promise."

At The Washington Post, Elizabeth Ward considers books for Halloween season, including What-the-Dickens, by Gregory Maguire; The Witch's Child, by Arthur Yorinks; and The Crow, by Alison Paul.  A new Mercy Watson reader and other titles are mentioned, too.

Supermodel Sophie Dahl, granddaughter of Roald, talks about her favorite books, including a number of works for children, at The Telegraph.

London's Sunday Times reviews My Dad's a Birdman, by David Almond

Over at the Chicago Tribune, you'll find blurbs on Nothing, by Jon Agee; Little Grrl Lost, by Charles de Lint; Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles: The Nixie's Song, by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black; Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party, by Ying Chang Compestine; Jazz on a Saturday Night, by Leo and Diane Dillon; and The Jewel Box Ballerinas, by Monique de Varennes.

At the LA Times, Sonja Bolle writes about some fictional books that take "unusually imaginative approach[es] to factual information," including Lucy and Stephen Hawking's George's Secret Key to the Universe (yes, it's the Stephen Hawking, and his daughter), Satoshi Kimura's Stone Age Boy, and Alan Madison's Velma Gratch and the Way Cool Butterfly. Also in Bolle's "Word Play" column are short reviews of new graphic novels and of Peter Sís's autobiographical picture book, The Wall.

Equal Time for Turkeys

Img_0350This flock of lovelies strolled through the yard recently, utterly ignored by our four chickens. What the heck? Not even a cousinly cluck in their direction came from our group.

If you've ever seen wild turkeys, you know that they're comical. One spring I watched three chase each other around and around a tree, jumping straight up into the air on about every third pass.  It was romance-related, but exactly how I could not figure out.

Why aren't there more children's books featuring turkeys in a non-Thanksgiving setting? Chickens star in many a picture book, but off the top of my head, I can't come up with any turkey tomes. The local library's online catalogue counts 15 books in "Turkeys--fiction," and all but three are related to Thanksgiving. (Turkeys escaping their fates as dinner seems to be a theme.) Meanwhile, readers in my town can check out 59 books in the "Chickens--fiction" category.

Editors, authors, illustrators: is it time we re-thought turkeys and freed them from their Thanksgiving prison? C'mon. They exude humorous possibility.

As for non-holiday turkey reading as it stands now, one idea is Nate the Great Talks Turkey. I'm going by the School Library Journal description, "As Nate hears a radio report about a giant turkey that wreaks havoc in a supermarket parking lot and then disappears, his friend Claude comes in to tell him that he has just seen the large bird. A mystery is afoot, and Nate's dog, Sludge, is the first to take on the case." I see no mention of T'giving. 

Comments are open for other suggestions, too. Gobble, gobble.

Poetry Friday: Helen Frost's Teen Poetry Workshop, NYC

Poets House in New York sponsors many programs throughout the year, and here is a good one for teenagers. If you're in the metro area, the young poet in your house might like to attend; the workshop takes place at a nearby library branch. Helen Frost is the author of The Braid, a verse novel that  landed on several Best lists last year. Note: Always call ahead and double-check the time and place of any cultural event; last-minute changes do happen.

From the Poets House web site:

Spinning Verses: Writing Workshop for Teens, with Helen Frost—Helen Frost, the award-winning author of novels-in-verse for children and young adults, treats us to selections from her books and offers inspirational advice to young writers just starting out. Helen Frost is the author of Keesha's House, Spinning through the Universe, and The Braid. Co-sponsored by the New York Public Library. (New York Public Library,  Mulberry Street Branch, 10 Jersey St., between Lafayette & Mulberry. Saturday, Nov. 10, at 2.  Admission is free.  For additional information, call Poets House at 212/431-7920.)


Diamond Willow, a new verse novel by Frost, is due out next March. On her site, Frost says, "Set in interior Alaska, Diamond Willow tells the story of 12-year-old Willow, a dogmusher, and her lead dog, Roxy. The story is told in diamond-shaped poems in Willow's voice, with a few prose sections in other voices." You can read an excerpt, about how the protagonist got her name, right here.

Today's Poetry Friday roundup takes place at Kelly Fineman's Writing and Ruminating.

Arnold Spirit's Favorite Books (from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian)

Arnold Spirit, called Junior by his fellow Spokane Indians, is the smart, hilarious narrator of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a young-adult novel by Sherman Alexie. Tired of getting beat up at his school on the rez, the fourteen-year-old Junior transfers to a more academic—and lily-white—high school in a nearby town. That's what his diary is about, and much, much more. It's a message book with a heart of gold.

Alexie's Junior is a cartoonist, and the book incorporates his way-funny cartoons (drawn by Ellen Forney), emails, and lists. Here is Junior's list of favorite books, and in an impossibly nerdy move, I added the links to Powell's.

1. The Grapes of Wrath
2. Catcher in the Rye
3. Fat Kid Rules the World
4. Tangerine
5. Feed
6. Catalyst
7. Invisible Man
8. Fools Crow
9. Jar of Fools

Booker, Canadian Lit Awards

The Man Booker Prize went to Irish author Anne Enright for her " 'exhilaratingly bleak' family epic," The Gathering. BBC News reports that the book has sold only 3,000 copies so far. That's likely to change, eh?

In other book news, the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award was given to Sarah Ellis, for her novel Odd Man Out. Ellis is a longtime columnist for The Horn Book; see Read Roger, the blog of the HB's editor-in-chief.

A Chicken's Journey: "Bob," by Tracey Campbell Pearson

Tracey Campbell Pearson's Bob is the best picture book about animal sounds that I've read in eons. In her picaresque cumulative tale, the author-illustrator balances vivid art, memorable characters, and comedy. Bob the rooster is in search of a voice—a crow, in fact. But how to? The path to cock-a-doodle-do-dom takes some twists before he finds the ideal instruction. A cat named Henrietta tells him how to meow, some cows tell him how to moo, and so on.

At one point Bob stands  alone in some deep-dark woods, far from home, feeling sure someone is following him.

Then a stranger called out, "Whooo? Whooo? Whooo?"
Not wanting to be rude, Bob whispered, "Bob, Bob, Bob."
Again the stranger asked, "Whooo? Whooo? Whooo?"
And again Bob whispered, "Bob, Bob, Bob."
And so it went all night long, over and over again...

Imagedbcgi_2 Bob eventually meets the right teacher—on the road, no less—and what Bob makes of his entire education leads to a final, goofy scene of triumph.

Pearson's detailed pencil-and-watercolor illustrations work hand in hand with the text, adding humor and enhancing character development. The greens of a country summer, the herringbone pattern of Bob's black-and-white feathers, and the pale blues and purples of sunrise, among other hues, highlight the warmhearted nature of this story.

by Tracey Campbell Pearson
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2002
ISBN-13: 9780374399573   

Robert's Snow

Robertssnowlogo2007 In August, Grace Lin, a children's book author and illustrator, lost her husband, Robert Mercer, to cancer. When he was diagnosed some years back, Robert and Grace were told that the best hope for his rare type of cancer lay in research. They went to work. Portions of the proceeds from Grace's picture book Robert's Snow went to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and now each year many leading children's illustrators create snowflake ornaments for the Institute, which the public can bid on.

This year children's literature bloggers got involved, too. For the next month or so, many blogs are featuring snowflakes that you can buy. We'll link directly to Dana-Farber, which is managing the online auction  sales. (Bidding for the first group starts in November.) You can see this year's snowflakes and find out how to bid at

I am so excited to bid on some of the beautiful pieces of art! Won't you buy one, too?


Continue reading "Robert's Snow" »

Poetry Friday: First Grade Food Talk

Sometimes a picture book is just a starting point for a conversation, especially if the art work is bright and loud. Share a book like that with three opinionated six-year-old girls, and you'll learn lots. Such as, mashed potatoes are nasty, but French fries are not, especially if they come from McDonald's or Burger King.

Let me backtrack a little. I volunteer at a public-school first-grade class as a "reading buddy." Several children and I sit around a little desk in the hallway while they practice reading aloud. We review sight words and make up silly sentences, too. It's fun. Their teachers (with 30 kids in a class, you need 2 teachers) supply us with guided-reading books, and sometimes when we finish those, I read aloud a picture book while the rest of the group relaxes and pats themselves on the back for working hard.

Recently I took along Yum! ­¡Mmmm! ¡Qué Rico!: Americas' Sproutings, a brand-new book of haiku poetry by Pat Mora. Released in time for Thanksgiving, the fourteen poems concern foods that originated somewhere in the Americas; a descriptive paragraph about each is included, too. My six-year-old companions were not very interested in the poetry; the language—indigo, scarlet, "a bowl heaped with summer"—is on the sophisticated side for this age, and you'd have to teach the haiku form beforehand for it to mean much. Some map work wouldn't hurt, either. (Hindsight is 20/20.) As I read, I could feel the words floating away; I had that same feeling when I tried to read Charlotte's Web to my son before he was ready to hear it.

As I said, though, Rafael López's art, influenced by the Mexican muralist painters, is wildly colorful, and the girls found plenty to comment on. They especially enjoyed chatting about each food and whether they liked it or not. Chocolate (native to Central or South America) was a favorite. Papayas were not. Two out of three liked pineapples. A scarecrow in the tomato illustration was scary, and while vanilla ice cream is good, chocolate is much better. I explained what cranberries are, and the girls were not sure if they were worth trying. Maybe sweetened up with sugar. Oh, and chiles are sooooo hot. They do not want to eat chiles at all, but did pretend to pick blueberries off a page and pop them into their mouths.

One of the children read the required phonetics books in a shy voice, but when we were talking, she was a real chatterbox. As her reading skills increase, her confidence will grow there, too. First grade is so exciting that way. For me, listening to a three-person debate about potato formats (baked, mashed, French-fried) is, well, gravy.

Many other bloggers participate in Poetry Friday; for the roundup today, see Two Writing Teachers. For an explanation of the whole endeavor, read this article at the Poetry Foundation.

Doris Lessing Nobel Prize Winner

The Swedish Academy calls her an "epicist of the female experience."

From The Guardian:

The British author Doris Lessing has won the 2007 Nobel prize for literature. Lessing, who is only the 11th woman to win literature's most prestigious prize in its 106-year history, is best known for her 1962 postmodern feminist masterpiece, The Golden Notebook.

Announcing the award, the Swedish Academy described Lessing as an "epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny". It singled out The Golden Notebook for praise, calling it "a pioneering work" that "belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th-century view of the male-female relationship." Lessing, who was shopping at the time of the Nobel announcement, was typically irreverent in her response to the news. "I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one. I'm delighted to win them all, the whole lot," she said to the reporters gathered outside her home in north London. "It's a royal flush."

American critic Harold Bloom begs to differ, telling the Associated Press that in recent years, Lessing has written "fourth-rate science fiction." Which is different from epicism, I presume.

Thanks to Laila Lalami and the Literary Saloon for the links.

A Salute to James Marshall

James Marshall was a beloved children's book author and illustrator who died in 1992. He would have been 65 today. Earlier this year he was given the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for his contributions to children's literature; I wrote about that in a recent post on his picture book Wings. "His books are classics that have endured," Anita Silvey says in The Essential Guide to Children's Books and Their Creators. Silvey cites only one book of Marshall's as "uninspired," and indeed it's his exuberance and gently subversive humor in book after book that have made me a such a big admirer.

I've always enjoyed the unexpected dilemmas that pop up in Marshall's work. Snake: His Story is part of a series called Four Little Troubles, which "provide[s] cozy comfort to young readers facing the universal troubles of childhood." Snake's problem is that he can hear; snakes, as a six year old can tell you, are usually deaf. His unique ability makes him different from the others at Reptile Elementary, who leave him out of schoolyard games and write notes behind his back. (Snake, by the way, is adorable: a green fellow who wears a red bow around his neck and carries a book satchel.) Moreover, Snake feels different, until his hearing comes in so handy that he stops a crime—and others recognize him for what he does well.

Most of us have felt like Snake at some point, and one joy of this book is that it reads as a little adventure story. If I hadn't seen the note at the back about the Four Little Troubles, I would not have guessed its didactic origins. There's brilliance in that.

Marshall was a prolific writer, thank goodness, so I have many more books to read before I can say that I've read them all. So, happy birthday, James Marshall, and thank you for all the marvelous hours of reading you've given my family so far.

Also celebrating James Marshall's birthday today is Kathy at Library Stew, who writes about several cool links to information on the author, including a site maintained by his sister and a Horn Book-NPR interview. Adrienne at What Adrienne Thinks About That says that the George and Martha books are perfect for first and second graders; they're "light, funny, and tell... the complete and total truth about how relationships really operate."

If anyone else has written about Marshall today, leave a note in the comments, and I'll link your post.