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.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

"Roller Girl" by Victoria Jamieson

Another obvious "autobiography as novel" this one, too, has been extremely popular with young readers.  Told in graphic novel form, the art isn't particularly dynamic (although it is very colorful) nor the tale particularly lyric, but I can see the appeal.  In many ways, it was more simplistic than I expected, but since it rings true, the attraction will be there for any kid who ever struggled with the changes which accompany growing up, including losing a friend as they move from Elementary to the overly-social, cliquey world of Middle School (in this case, Junior High).  Astrid, a girl who likes black and tends to be a different drummer, finds herself alone one summer when best friend Nicole goes the way of ballet camp and other bottle blondes.  Astrid finds herself struggling at Roller Derby camp and oblivious to the skills required to make and keep friends.  What follows is a good lesson or two which isn't preachy in the slightest.  One of the most important lessons is about resilience.  Astrid is way behind the other skaters in ability level and doesn't think she can make it past day one.  But she is somehow determined.  She gets knocked down (actually, physically, a lot, like, a whole lot) but gets up every time.  And that is the point.  Getting up.  It's a celebration of inner strength which any pre-teen will identify with.  Throw in the kind of diversity which is part of the real world (Astrid's mom is Puerto Rican and her idol is African American) as well as a journey for identity and you have a story which feels like "us."  For fans of Raina Telgemeier's work, this makes a solid follow-up.

"Counting By 7s" by Holly Goldberg Sloan

A huge favorite among student readers, it has taken me a while to get to this one as it has been checked out every time I have looked for it in the past year or so.  So very glad I finally got hold of it.  "Heartwarming", "Bittersweet", "Charming" and "Smart" don't even begin to describe this absolutely delightful book which is not only good but one I could see kids re-reading over and over.  It's a tough opening when Willow Chance, a "different" kind of kid, has her life literally upended in a single moment.  The path of the tale after that winds in lots of directions (hint:  seven is a major theme), some of them being what you might expect, others being nothing like what you would expect.  Ms. Sloan gets major props here for writing a really layered story, building in metaphor and symbolism not so much with a heavy hand but the delicate strokes of an artist.  She doesn't let anything go and she doesn't shy away from the many sides to, well, everything and everyone.  She creates a rich, real tapestry of complex, human characters, including Willow herself.  Much like Fleischman's "Seedfolks" this is a tale of how our interconnectedness as people is both spiritual and undefinable.  I laughed, I cried, I couldn't put it down.  Absolutely one of the best I have read this year.  Brava.  Grab the hankies and get ready for a book which will not leave you even after you finish the last page.

"Wolf Hollow" by Lauren Wolk

This award winner seems to have more detractors than fans, so I was curious.  After reading a book which starts off as "Calpurnia Tate meets Nancy Drew" I get it.  Set in western Pennsylvania in the early 1940s, the novel starts off like a simple historical fiction tale.  But then it kind of takes an odd turn.  And then another.  ***SPOILER ALERT***  First, we are introduced to a homeless vet who wanders in the area.  Our heroine, Annabelle, describes him, well, not as 12 year-old might, including one section where she speaks of his nice "smell".  Ummm.  Okay, and then we get a bully.  Except it isn't exactly a bully, but a 14 year-old sociopath in the making.  Things go dark from there.  Very dark.  All of this tried me in reading this book but the over-arching issue was that the clear goal of the author to MAKE A POINT actually didn't happen.  The novel begins with the protagonist stating that this was the year she learned to lie.  But she doesn't.  The actual story is of her trying to keep lies and not keeping them at all.  The author's afterword talks about how she admires her hero's bravery, but I'm not sure there was any significant character growth.  Annabelle seems fairly unchanged from the beginning of this journey to the end.  In the end, if there was meaning in her sitting next to a grave talking to the air, I missed it.  This, and general sloppiness (am I to believe this community in the foothills of the Appalachia mountains has moderate temperatures and gets no snow in November/December?) made this one a "fail" for me.  The only possible plus was the cover, which cleverly used the actual opening words to create a powerful image.  I can only imagine well-meaning adults selected this title for a Newbery Honor and other awards because the theme of bullying is so prevalent right now.  Unfortunately, I have never been one who felt like books with a heavy moral lesson worked for me.  For this same reason, I disliked "Fish in a Tree".  Books of this type seem to appeal to grown-ups seeking to solve problems more than readers looking for something engaging and realistic.  Sorry, folks, I'll pass.

"Egg & Spoon" by Gregory Maguire

Once upon a time, I thought the trippiest YA novel I had ever read was Libba Bray's "Going Bovine".  That book has just lost the crown to this one.  Drawing on Russian history, Russian myth, and a fair number of archetypes, this wild adventure/allegory roars through a moment at the end of the Tsars' reign to tell a story which seems appropriate to children and yet is inexplicably dense.  Maguire weaves in so many threads I often had to pause and backtrack.  His prose is so dense I had to look up quite a number of words (me! that's rare) An omniscient narrative voice reminiscent of the ones in Zusak's "Book Thief" and DiCamillo's "The Tale of Despereaux" paints a vibrant picture of a dying nation, even as three children come together to put magic back into the world.  There are other literary parallels.  Peasant girl Elena and noblewoman Ekaterina have a Mark Twain moment while a prince hides -- not to find his princess but to escape from her.  There are themes about monarchies, communism, belief, hope and global warming.  There is a firebird, a dragon, and, of course, Baba Yaga!  One could not have a tale of Russia without Baba Yaga.  Here is where I had my one and only complaint.  The crotchety old witch is a personal favorite but this particular rendition of the character makes her into a time-traveler of sorts.  She rambles on constantly, using phrases and references of the modern era (at one point, she serves a child some Cheerios).  I think it was meant as humor but became a distraction which pulled me out of the narrative.  Nonetheless, this is a rich, remarkable story which satisfied and transported me.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

"Amplify: Digital Teaching and Learning in the K-6 Classroom" by Katie Muhtaris and Kristin Ziemke

For one of "these kinds" of books, this is quite good.  Succinct, to-the-point, and free of eduspeak jargon, the book is written by two teachers who use their classroom examples to get right to the heart of things.  Rather than theory, this is practical.  They talk about a lesson they did, how it worked with their students, and then provide sample worksheets and questions.  Each chapter ends with a terrific "Things to try tomorrow" section.  The six chapters run about 20 pages each, making the book easy to read in short bursts.  Highly applicable, the messages are common-sense.  Message #1 -- You can dip your toe in.  You don't need to go whole hog and up-end your classroom.  Just take one thing that looks interesting and give it a try.  Message #2 resonates throughout every page of the book -- Technology is useless if not grounded in solid classroom instruction.  In many ways, this is a book about good classroom practices more than it is a book about technology use, as many of the lessons "use" tech, but aren't "about" tech.  An added bonus to this brief little tome are QR codes throughout, which link to videos of the actual lessons and practices taking place.  This is the kind of professional reading I like, something you can "apply" rather than "discuss".

Friday, February 24, 2017

"I'll Give You the Sun" by Jandy Nelson

Oh my -- my, my, my.  We often talk about books with food adjectives.  One book might be "popcorn", another, an "appetizer".  This one is a veritable feast.  My first adult book in a while, it is right up there with "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" as an all-time favorite.  A flowing, lyrical novel which pushes prose to the very edge of poetry, it is the tale of family, loss, love, art, madness, mysticism, death, creation, and more.  A set of twins tell the story in alternating chapters.  There is the boy, Noah, who begins his narrative at 13, while his sister, Jude, speaks from age 16.  The sometimes dizzying threads interwoven between the them create a rich, deep kaleidoscope of pain and redemption in many shades of grey.  This is not a novel that has clear black and white delineations.  It was a long story, and one I really had to focus on, but it was a book I could barely put down.  I laughed, I cried, and I was drawn in.  A good background in artists and their respective styles will help, as the references are plentiful.  The lessons are frequent, and each carries a bit of poignancy (there is a good deal of fan art online highlighting the great number of memorable quotes).  Already in my "top 20 of all time", it is easy to see the appeal for teens, not to mention the New York Times Bestseller ranking and numerous awards.  Make time for this one.  It transports and transforms the reader.  Brava, Ms. Nelson.

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).