Wild Librarian Bookspot

Welcome, book-lover types and interested others! After years of running a bookclub, it's clear that folks need to spread the word about good books ... and bad ones. I'll be uploading as many titles as I can. Read on.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

"Shh! We Have a Plan" by Chris Haughton

Reading like a Marx Brothers comedy, some will find the ineptitude of these characters hysterical, while others may raise an eyebrow.  Told primarily in blue tones, the book chronicles the efforts of four (seeming?) hunters as they try to catch a bright pink bird in the forest.  Each plan results in slapstick failure.  With limited text, readers are primarily left to determine plotlines for themselves, including a great moment when the page fills with birds.  It's a subtle message younger readers might not get, but librarians and teachers can use the book as a prompt for questions and digging deeper.

"Found" by Salina Yoon

This adorable board book which is part of this year's Virginia Readers' Choice selections will make a fun read for the very youngest.  With large, simple drawings and a theme which all children will recognize, it pulls at the heartstrings.  Told with the kind of repetition used in many books for primary children, there is a rhythm to the book, if not rhyme.  The lesson is gentle and sweet, and one that kids will identify with.  Adults need not fear boredom, either.  A close reading of the end pages will result in a giggle or two which only those over a certain age will get.  Nice, solid little book, one which children will likely request over and over.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

"The Seventh Wish" by Kate Messner

Typically, I pick up books without knowing much about them.  I saw Ms. Messner speak, earlier this year, about this novel, so I knew what I was in for.  There have been concerns voiced about the cover, which seems to indicate something light and juvenile.  There are dark threads in this tale, but the cover isn't that off.  The story, of young Charlie, a girl who wants more than anything to be a really awesome Irish dancer, is both simple and complex.  What works in this book is the sense of everyday life.  Charlie has a life filled with dance, school, friends, family and fears.  She is learning to ice fish, in the hope of earning enough money for a new Irish dance dress, and she has an older sister at college who is suddenly not the academic superstar she was previously. 

***Spoiler Alert***  What isn't obvious about this book is that Charlie's sister has become hooked on heroin, and that begins to color everything around Charlie's life.  There is confusion, anger and more.  Priorities shift, and Charlie has some of those "moments" when she grows up a lot and understands the world better.  Not to be overlooked, the fish on the cover is a magic fish who grants wishes (drawing from the fable about "The Fisherman and His Wife").  Ms. Messner could have easily left it at that, and made this whole thing a magical realism parable, but instead she lets our protagonist reflect and learn from the outcomes of her wishes.  My one and only complaint is that for all the research Ms. Messner did (ice fishing, addiction and recovery, Irish dance), she missed one important thing -- Science Fair Projects are experiments, not "report style presentations" as shown in the book.  It is a minor quibble.  Some may see the book as pat -- it is not particularly lyric and doesn't have an abundance of flow -- but I like the normality of the day-to-day intermixed with a struggle which has become a national epidemic.  It puts in perspective, in a very age-appropriate way, the issues which arise in families when addiction takes hold.  Charlie and her life are multi-dimensional, and, in the end, things come to a resolution with a clear understanding that the path ahead is unknown.  I think, if you were to write a book for kids of this age about this topic, this is the perfect book to do it.

"The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem's Greatest Bookstore" by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie and "Freedom in Congo Square" by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

I had the honor of reading these two books for an African American Read-In Day.  Both are illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, and both taught me things I did not know. 

In "The Book Itch" a young boy enjoys the active social center which is his father's bookstore in Harlem in the 1960s.  The historical significance of this store was new to me.  Beyond this, the picture book is strong on a number of fronts.  It doesn't shy away from the police presence at rallies, and there is real heart in the boy's love and admiration for his father.  The book talks in detail about Malcolm X, which I also think is important.  We focus so heavily on Martin Luther King, Jr., but forget that there were other leaders in the Black Rights movement.  I have become concerned about a PC philosophy which sometimes ignores the more vocal parts of our civil rights struggles.  Yes, MLK preached the lessons of Gandhi, but much of the struggle had violence and darkness.  We should, when looking at our history, see it all.

"Freedom in Congo Square" is an extremely short picture book, told in rhymed couplets, about slave life in New Orleans.  Again, I did not know that slaves of the area were given time to congregate on their own one day of the week -- on Sundays, in a place called Congo Square.  This spot became the beginning of the New Orleans music culture and helped build up Jazz from the myriad of musical styles that blended there.  One student, while I was reading the book, was surprised the slaves didn't use this opportunity to run away.  While some did (the book acknowledges) I said that many may have been too afraid.  Capture would mean death in many cases, so slavery, while horrific, may have felt like their only option.  Again, the book doesn't shy away from the more difficult parts of our history, with a couplet talking about "using the lash" (also depicted).

Mr. Christie's artwork adds substantially to both books.  In "Freedom in Congo Square" the work is primitive, with the slaves symbolically depersonalized into stick figures.  One of the most powerful images is the page showing cabins with figures stacked on figures, representing the packed slave quarters.  Also striking are the final pages, with dancers leaping and twisting to music, their bodies filling the space, legs and arms stretching up towards the sky with a powerful sense of celebration and release.  In "The Book Itch" Mr. Christie's work becomes more impressionistic, watercolors bringing subtle variety to the people and events.  A kind of block typeface is used for the father's quotes, and pamphlets/quotes are interspersed throughout which help to set tone, place and message.

Both books were great reads for upper elementary, and there is enough complexity in them to feed into a good class discussion or two.  Most of the information in "Freedom in Congo Square" was in the foreword and afterword.  I chose to show videos of African Music and Jazz to help set context, but in a full lesson, more scaffolding would be helpful.  Great to move from the expected to the thoughtful for this annual celebration of Black History.

Monday, January 30, 2017

"The Turtle of Oman" by Naomi Shihab Nye

A colleague said of this book that it was "an impossible sell" to kids, because "nothing happens."  She's not wrong.  Ms. Nye, a poet, has written a soft, quiet, gentle little book which doesn't do much.  This is one of those rare children's books where the action is significantly more internal than external (think "The Wanderer" by Sharon Creech).  Aref is a young boy in Oman (8 or 9) who is about to move to the United States with his family for three years.  He is bereft and in denial about having to pull up stakes from his beloved home, his cat, and his grandfather.  The story chronicles the last five days, as he reluctantly packs his bags.  A bit underfoot, his mother sends him out of the house to have adventures with Grandfather.  Everything is described in detail -- sights, smells, sensations.  It is as if Aref is trying to make a film of every moment, sharing with the reader these memories of everyday life.  The novel is metaphor.  Aref loves turtles, and, like a turtle, he must feel comfortable and move in his own pace to accept the change coming into his life.  Readers can "see" Oman in Aref's beloved words.  I searched online after reading the tale and it looked exactly as I expected it to, now with a familiarity, having had Aref invite me into his world.  Children who have moved a good deal with recognize Aref's pain and sympathize with it, but a page-turning action story it isn't.  A nice way to become familiar with another culture in a non-preachy way, it is.  Don't know that the book will have a huge audience, but for the more mature readers, there will be an appreciation of the subtleties.  Ms. Nye just won the Arbuthnot Lecture award from ALA, a coveted speech opportunity for a select few, so clearly, her words have value.

Monday, January 23, 2017

"All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook" by Leslie Connor

This was one of those books where the cover really doesn't give you a clue.  The smiling cartoon kid is looking up through a window.  Yes, there is something slightly menacing about the angle, the size of the child and the darkness around the window's light, but I pretty much guessed this was about a kid who wanted to grow up to be a judge or something.  Not even close.  This book is about Perry T. Cook, a child of an inmate at a fictional prison, who is allowed to live "inside" until his situation is discovered.  The book isn't dark, but it isn't exactly the light-hearted humor novel I was expecting.  Very readable and with strong characterizations, most of the story is told by Perry, in a first person narrative.  His mother fills in some of the blanks in alternating chapters, but hers are written in third person narrative, which was ... odd?  In any case, huge kudos to Leslie Connor, who doesn't preach and allows the tale to speak for itself.  She has a point to make, about prisons and families, but she isn't heavy handed, and provides viewpoints on all sides, making the questions and answers more grey than black and white.  The big bad guy isn't totally a bad guy, and even Perry's situation is fluid -- one could argue the merits of his staying close to mom, but also note what he misses out on as a result of that.  It is a novel which is both simple and complex in this way, and should have broad appeal, as, in the end, it reads "human."  Good work, thoughtful premise (but get a new cover).

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

"The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano" by Sonia Marzano

This award-winner was, in my opinion, not bad, but not great.  It is a disagreement with SLJ and other sources, which have given the book stars and high recommendations.  Personally, I found the writing flat, and the sequencing more like slices of life than a narrative.  In a typical novel, events build to a specific conclusion.  This book has a disjointed quality, as if you were looking at a photo album and each chapter was a grouping of sequential stories about those pictures.  In the first half, Evelyn, nee "Rosa", is working to Americanize herself, choosing to work at a store some distance from her family's Puerto Rican Bodega, during a hot New York summer in 1969.  The signs of discontent and change are all around her, but Evelyn's biggest issues are with her mother, who she sees as a doormat.  Younger readers will identify with the culture clash, friendship dramas and need to define oneself.  In the second half, the "revolution" begins, with Evelyn's church being taken over by a group of activists determined to bring social justice to the barrio.  Once she can't ignore what is going on around her, she becomes involved with the efforts, but it is at this point the book becomes even more disconnected, reading like some sort of "If You Were There" history textbook.  There are history lessons, speeches, a poet.  For me, it came off as didactic and preachy.  The timeline gets shot, and it is nearing New Years, then back before Christmas, then back at New Years.  Evelyn magically knows that the protest will last 11 days, then she talks about it going for "weeks" then they are on "day four".  An event happens to Evelyn near the end which has no context, and no reasoning, as if it is just dropped in.  In a similar vein, Ms. Marzano, a well-known Sesame Street actor, makes an unabashed plug for her show in the story, which I found jarring.

As blog readers know, I really dislike books with a "POINT" and this one is about nothing other than "THE POINT."  In any case, it's a nice introduction of Puerto Rican culture for those who know nothing more than "West Side Story", but if you want some slightly different takes, I think Meg Medina did it better in "Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass" and Kekla Magoon had more lyricism in "The Rock and the River".  They aren't the same, of course.  This is about Puerto Ricans, and Ms. Medina's story is about Cubans.  Kekla Magoon writes about revolution, but her stories are about blacks, and often focuses on Chicago, not New York.  Nonetheless, there are similar themes in the books, and of the three, this wasn't my favorite.  Overall, I give it a "meh."

PS -- I am always dissing poor covers, so I should say something about how excellent this cover is.  Not only does it capture every aspect of the book, physically and symbolically, but the red highlights in "Revolution" (evolution) perfectly emphasize the overall theme.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

"Raymie Nightingale" by Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo hits it out of the park again, in my humble opinion, with this very odd little book, which is about everything and nothing all at once.  Raymie Clarke's father has just taken off, leaving her mother depressed and Raymie with a plan.  She will win a local beauty contest, get her picture in the paper, and her father will see the picture and call her.  First, however, she needs to learn how to twirl a baton.  The funny thing is, at the baton class, which goes bizarrely astray, she meets two other girls and they end up having a journey or two -- physically and psychologically.  As part of her application for the contest, Raymie needs to do a good deed, and that is where the story really lies.  "Why were good deeds such murky things?" she cries at one point.  Leave it to Kate DiCamillo to write a book which is innocent, simple and accessible but also layered, complex, symbolic and spiritual.  I sped through the short chapters, listening to Raymie's plaintive voice throughout, reaching for something she cannot name and feeling her soul rise and fall with each triumph and loss.  At ten, the character is at a magical age where she is still a child, but a growing awareness of the world is beginning to intrude.  It all actually ties together, but it isn't what you might expect.  A gentle, refreshing, quiet book which will make you think.  Brava.

"It Ain't So Awful, Falafel" by Firoozeh Dumas

Sigh.  Here we go.  Again.  Another "fictionalized memoir".  As readers know, I don't like these.  An author who writes a fictionalized version of themselves in a teen book does everything a good writer should not.  The events are idealized, the plot pat, the characters two-dimensional.  And so it is with this book.  Zomorod, a sixth grade Iranian transplant to Newport Beach in 1978, wants to be American so badly that she tells everyone her name is Cindy -- like Cindy Brady.  She is embarrassed by her parents, her culture, the family's poverty, and this is the overriding theme for 300 of the 377 pages.  She whines.  And whines.  She doesn't get the puka shell necklace she wants, and she whines.  Not much happens, with each chapter being a little vignette of Cindy/Zomorod's life as time passes.  The Iranian revolution, under Khomeni, is just irritating at first, as it draws attention to Cindy/Zomorod's differences.  Eventually, we get a teensy bit of character growth.  People start being mean to the family because they are Iranian, and Cindy/Zomorod tunes into the fact that she is lucky to have her family, and grateful that things (of course) work out okay.  Young girls will love the book.  It's a fun, shallow read and reflects all the desires of your average middle school student to fit in and make friends, but "real" didn't even cross my mind while reading it.  If you want a "real" book about a young girl dealing with the struggles of Iran in the late 1970s, read Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis."

PS -- Odd note here.  Ms. Dumas spells out her parent's speech phonetically throughout the book, highlighting their accents.  If anyone else did this, they would get called on for stereotyping or worse.  Why is it that people from a given culture are allowed to diss that culture?  Sorry, this one doesn't go into my file of "diverse books".

"My Life With the Liars" by Caela Carter

In your average YA novel, the parents are either absent or evil, and the teen protagonist has to learn to rise above and find a way out.  This book turns that narrative on its head, with Zylynn, an "almost 13 year old" starting out with a great family -- one she rejects at every turn, since they took her away from her home, a limited existence in an Arizona cult.  Told in first person narrative, Zylynn's voice is strong and compelling.  Her natural confusion at a world turned upside down is aching for the reader, and gave the book a page-turning quotient.  I read the whole thing in one day, hoping that Zylynn would learn to accept the love and healing directed at her.  Think the story is improbable?  Think again.  Look at recent news stories of failed attempts by the US Government to remove children in a very similar compound.  The lines between religious freedom and child protection are fragile, and sadly, they allow many children like the fictional Zylynn to be abused.  This isn't a dark tale, however, it is one of promise, and of family.  Enjoy.

"A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, A Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home" by Steve Pemberton

Another one of those memoirs about a horrific childhood, this one is both well-written and engaging.  A video of Mr. Pemberton speaking (http://frontrow.bc.edu/program/pemberton/) illustrates an interesting point ... the abuse he suffered as a child in the foster care system isn't actually his main story.  For him, as a biracial child with no knowledge of his past, the more compelling part of his personal narrative was to find out where he belonged.  The answers, which take up the second half of the book, are more complex than he ever imagined.  In an era where we talk a lot about "resilience" this is a story of a young man who had his focus on the right things.  He was determined and a survivor.  The tale unfolds with a certain amount of humbleness.  Mr. Pemberton realizes, along his path, that he was "graced" in some ways that those around him were not.  In the end, one might say he finds home within himself. 

While satisfying and a good read, I have some minor bones to pick.  The publisher is the Christian publishing arm of HarperCollins, and, while it is not an evangelical novel, in the final chapters there is a significant emphasis on God, and that may make some readers somewhat uncomfortable.  Also, even though it is a major publisher, the quality of the book is poor -- the pages thin, the typeface old-school.  Editing, also, could be improved, as there are occasional jumps from chapter to chapter, a break in flow that seems clunky. 

All that being said, this was another one of those books which was a difficult read on a personal level, as I recognized much of what he said, having experiences similar, at times, to his.  Unhappy homes are far more frequent than many think.  A book like this does what I always wanted to do as an adult -- it lets people who live through this know they are not alone. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

"The Red Pencil" by Andrea Davis Pinkney, Illustrated by Shane W. Evans

This powerful verse novel is evocative of both "Caminar" and "Sold", with a young child in a different culture growing up in a simple, gentle world, then that is ripped away by various circumstances.  In this case, author Pinkney chronicles the genocide of Darfur in southern Sudan in 2003 and 2004.  The poems are delicious and flow beautifully from one to another.  Ms. Pinkney's ability to capture everyday life is obvious from the get-go in a couplet from one of the first pieces: "Words flap from her/like giddy chickens escaping their pen."  Later in the book, the images and words mingle to create a strong feeling of grief as Amira's world collapses.  The images, too, are smart, in that they are not overdrawn.  The idea is that these pictures are ones created by Amira, not a professional artist, and they help to convey her tale without overwhelming the story.  Like in "Caminar" the words begin to fall apart, drifting away from each other, as war enters the village of the young girl.  Amira is hugely dimensional, and it is in this that she jumps off the page as a real person, even though she is a fiction.  It was a lovely book, and one that would have had me reaching for tissues if I hadn't been reading it in public (the "Sudan Flowers" are, in actuality, plastic garbage bags -- which is heart-wrenching in the telling of it), but there was one thing that bugged, a bit.  The ending was abrupt, and circumspect.  It came in a matter of pages and I can't tell you exactly what it meant, or what happened.  Aside from this, the book is a treasure which should touch students who read it, and Ms. Pinkney is successful, I think, in her stated goal of helping kids understand this tragedy without overwhelming them.  The afterword and notes are very helpful to those who wish to learn more about the story, and this culture.  A "human", touching tale, overall.