Paper Towns by John Green, 305 pp RL: TEEN

Paper Towns is John Green's third book and the first I have read.  I am an instant admirer. As of this writing, Green has only three titles to his name - Looking for Alaska, his debut novel and winner of the Michael L Printz Award - the teen literature version of the Newbery Award, An Abundance of Katherines and Paper Towns.  His most recent book, Will Grayson, Will Grayson was cowritten with the amazing editor and author David Leavithan, who is also the coauthor with Rachel Cohn of one of my all-time favorite teen books, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.  And, Green is part of the super-teen-triad, along with Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle, that created Let it Snow, a collection of three intertwined stories.  Despite the fact that he has only a handful of published works under his belt, Green has made a huge impression on the world of teen literature that will last for years to come.  His reputation is big enough that I found myself a bit skeptical when I opened Paper Towns but deeply satisfied and rewarded by the time I closed it.  Green delivers exactly what I think makes a novel a work of true literature.  His characters and plot are interesting and well-rounded and their crises compelling, but he takes his story to a higher level by weaving symbolic themes and literary references throughout his multilayered story.

I included both the paperback and hardcover images for Paper Towns because they are both brilliantly conceived and wonderfully representative of the story within.  Where to begin? Margo Roth Spiegelman.  Whitman's  Leaves of Grass.  Paper Towns.  The Prom.  If I had to sum up the thrust of this book in a gerneal, one sentence thesis for an English class essay, I think I would say that Paper Towns is about how you can think you know a person and even love a person, but ultimately you only know what s/he wants you to know.  Of course identity, sense of self and personhood are key issues to a contemporary, first world teenage experience, but, rather than explore these issues from the inside out as most authors do, Green explores them from the outside in with the main character and narrator, Quentin Jacobsen, also known as Q, and his realization that he doesn't know all their is to know about a person he thinks he loves.

Being the (almost) lifelong neighbor to Margo Roth Spiegelman, the "most fantastically gorgeous creature that God ever created," is, in Q's mind, his one alloted lifetime miracle.  Even without Quentin's glowing descriptions, Margo is clearly a unique and special person, as we see when she climbs through Q's window at midnight (after falling out of friendship with him several years back) and asks him to be her driver as she tackles her "eleven problems."  With reservations, Q rolls his mom's minivan out of the garage and embarks on a night of helping Margo exact revenge on people he thought were her close friends and even boyfriend.  Their first stop is the Publix store where Margo hands Q a hundred dollar bill and a list that includes, "3 whole Catfish, Wrapped separately/  Veet (It's for Shaving your legs Only you don't Need A razor It's with all the Girly cosmetic stuff)/ Vaseline/ six-pack, Mountain dew/ One dozen Tulips/ one Bottle Of water/  Tissues/ one Can of blue Spray paint."  When Q comments on the "interesting capitalization" used in her list, Margo replies, "Yeah, I'm a big believer in random capitalization.  The rules of capitalization are so unfair to the words in the middle." What follows is a truly inspired, calculated adventure that apparently exemplifies the outward persona that Margo projects to her peers.  

Margo disappears after that night and Q finds himself following a sparse trail of clues that will lead him to another Margo, one that she has never shared with even her closest friends.  This isn't the first time Margo has taken off or left clues as to her whereabouts, which have included letters in the bottom of a bowl of alphabet soup. When he notices a poster of a guy playing a guitar that has the words THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS taped to the backside of the window shade in Margo's room (which is directly across from Q's) Q realizes that this is a clue for him and he enlists the help of his two closest friends, Ben, a Prom obsessed big talking fan of the "honeybunnies" and Radar, a compulsive editor of entries at Omnictionary, Green's inspired fictional version of Wikipedia. Radar is constantly checking entries for accuracy and righting the juvenile wrongs committed by others as well as adding his own entries.  Because of this, he is very savvy when it comes to the internet and quickly links the web of clues and leads left behind for Q to follow.

I think that it is hard to write a relevant book for teens these days without making specific cultural references because consumerism and media are such tremendous parts of everyday life in the 21st century, yet they are also rapidly replaced by new trends. Thus, to mark a novel with these references is to date the text and possible detract from the more profound aspects of the story.  I think that Green finds a brilliant way around this paradox by having Margo be the kind of person who is interested in anything but contemporary teen culture.  Maybe I just think that this is brilliant because that's the kind of teenager I tried to be in the 80s - music was only interesting if it was made before I was born, and the same went for the literature that I read, which ranged from Fitzgerald and Maughm up to Salinger,  Kerouac and Herman Hesse.  Anyway, Margo's interests, as the boys learn when they inspect her bedroom while her parents are out, are encompassed in an extensive record collection that includes John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Guided by Voices, the Buzzcocks, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Billy Bragg, who's Woody Guthrie tribute album has the same picture on it as the poster and another clue - the song "Walt Whitman's Niece" had been circled.  As Q pores over the heavily underlined copy of Leaves of Grass he finds in Margo's bookshelf, he tries to understand what she wants him to know, reading the text in as many different ways as he can.  Green quotes extensively from the text in his book and I love, absolutely love, the idea that hundreds and thousands of teenagers who would otherwise never read a line of Whitman's poetry are being exposed to "Song of Myself."  

I am so tempted to go on describing Margo's clues and Green's exemplary plotting of this novel, but I definitely don't want to deprive anyone of the joy of discovery with this amazing book. What I do want to mention is Green's wonderful metaphorical and physical use of the concept of "paper towns." In the first section of the book, Margo and Q stand on the roof of one of the tallest buildings in Orlando in the middle of the night.  Q thinks the city below them is beautiful, but Margo tells him "Everything's uglier close up."  She goes on to tell Q that he lives in a paper town, "all those cul-de-sacs, those streets that turn in on themselves, all those houses that were built to fall apart. All those people living in their paper houses that were built to fall apart.  All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm . . . Everyone demented with the mania of owning things.  All the things paper-thin and paper-frail.  And all the people, too.  I've lived here for eighteen years and I have never once in my life come across anyone who cares about anything that matters."  The use of this great metaphor exemplifies Margo's feelings of emptiness and outsider status, feelings Q remains oblivious to even as he listens to her.  Much later in the book and in his search Q is discussing a once troubled classmate who is going on to college with his parents, both of whom are child psychologists.  Q's dad says, "The longer I do my job the more I realize that humans lack good mirrors.  It's so hard for anyone to show us how we look, so hard for us to show anyone how we feel."  His mother adds, "But isn't it also that on some fundamental level we find it difficult to understand that other people are human beings the same way we are?  We idealize them as gods or dismiss them as animals." He father finishes the thought with, "Consciousness makes for poor windows, too."  Q listens and thinks to himself, "Margo Roth Spiegelman was a person, too.  And I have never quite thought of her that way, not really;  it was a failure of all my previous imaginings.  All along - not only since she left, but for a decade before - I had been imagining her without listening, without knowing that she made as poor a window as I did. And so I could not imagine her as a person who could feel fear, who could feel isolated in a room full of people, who could be shy about her record collection because it was too personal to share. Someone who might read travel books to escape having to live in the town so many people escape to.  Someone who - because no one thought she was a person - had no one to really talk to."  Personhood and recognizing the existence of a self in others seems to be a strong theme in the teen literature I have been reading of late.  In these books, psychological analysis by secondary characters and introspection on the part of the main characters are integral parts of the plot, whether the story is based in reality or fantasy.  I am very excited to see this line of questioning, especially in teen literature where the answers to this questioning can be concrete and clear cut, whereas an adult work of literature might require more ambiguity and work on the part of the reader to make sense of the personal and moral dilemmas faced by the characters in the novel.  I am so happy to see that these authors, in their own creative ways, are asking readers to think about others and to think about the importance of connections (or lack of connections) we make with others in our lives.  After years of adulthood and parenthood (and therapy) this, to me, seems like one of the greatest accomplishments we can make in our lives - being aware of and empathetic to the existence of those around us and connecting in a meaningful way that eases the pain and deepens the enjoyment of life.

Also, unbeknownst to me, "paper towns "has a literal meaning as well. Apparently, a paper town was a creation of mapmakers to protect against copyright infringement.  A fictitious town was added to a map by the cartographers and, if the map was copied without permission, the mapmakers would know when the fake town showed up on another company's version of the map.  Apparently, Mountweazel (Margo's dog is named Myrna Mountweazel) is also a fictitious name created to be used as a fake entry in an encyclopedia. Thanks Omnictionary, uh, I mean Wikipedia!  Green masterfully weaves the metaphorical and concrete ideas of paper towns throughout the novel as clues to Margo's whereabouts and clues to her internal struggle. Finally, I was so engrossed with the layering of plot lines, metaphors, clues and cultural references that I forgot to mention that Paper Towns is laugh out loud funny on almost every page.  John Green really does deserve all the praise and attention he has garnered and I look forward to more from him in the future.

For those of you interested in more of the world of Green, he has a YouTube channel that he started with his brother, Hank, vlogbrothers, which began as a way for the brothers to communicate in 2007.  This spawned, as Green's bio notes,  "a community of people called nerdfighters who fight for intellectualism and to decrease the overall worldwide level of suck. (Decreasing suck takes many forms: Nerdfighters have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight poverty in the developing world; they also planted thousands of trees around the world in May of 2010 to celebrate Hank’s 30th birthday.) "  The Nerdfighters are a force to be reckoned with.  Also, something I absolutely love about the relatively "small" community of teen writers is that they are very much a community.  Even before I decided to review teen literature on my blog I was an avid reader of this genre, hoping to keep pace with my daughter.  

As a reader and bookseller, I noticed that a lot of the same authors contributed to group works and, when I began reading the Author's Notes and various blogs by the authors, I realized that they really are a community.  They read each other's works, support each other with link on their blogs and shout outs for new books and tour together.  John Green happens to be in a writing group that includes Emily Jenkins (aka E Lockhart) Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier and Maureen Johnson.  I think that is is amazingly wonderful and, if I may make a leap, perhaps it is this community and connection among the authors themselves that comes through in the literature that they write.  Whatever it is, this is a really cool group of people doing some pretty cool stuff in the world and I wouldn't think twice about encouraging my daughter to read their books and more!  Maybe even join up with the Nerdfighters!


The Cool Crazy Crickets Club written by David Elliott, illustrated by Paul Meisel, 47pp RL 1.5

The Cool Crazy Crickets Club and The Cool Crazy Crickets to the Rescue are (hopefully) a new series of beginning reader chapter books from author David Elliott and illustrator Paul Meisel. Besides his many other chapter and picture books, you may recognize David Elliott from last year's superb picture book, Finn Throws a Fit, illustrated by the magnificent Timothy Basil Ering, illustrator of the Newbery winning Tale of Desperaux by Kate diCamillo. Finn Throws a Fit perfectly chronicles the the impossible to anticipate moods of a toddler that, in the best cases, are weathered with patience and love by mystified parents.

The Cool Crazy Crickets series, along with Jennifer Richard Jacobson's Andy Shane series, both of which are published by the always excellent Candlewick Press, really deserve a Reading Level label of their own, which I have now bestowed upon them! Reading Level 1.5! These books are shorter and a bit easier to read than the average second grade reading level book (think Magic Tree House, Junie B Jones, Daisy Dawson and The Time Warp Trio) but more difficult than a traditional first grade level book like Mercy Watson, Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa and Poppleton.  While there are increasingly more and more beginning to read books that also make great read out loud books (Elephant and PiggiePoppletonMercy Watson and Frog and Toad) books written at this level are best for reading alone because the plots are more basic, the vocabulary a bit more simplistic and they are meant to appeal specifically to their intended six or seven year old audience.

Two boys and two girls make up the main cast of characters in this series. In book one, The Cool Crazy Crickets Club, Leo is sitting on his front porch with his friend Marcus and his dog, Noodles when they decide to start a club. Phoebe and Miranda show up, join the club and start suggesting names. There is a back and forth between the boys and girls about what a good name would be and a great team effort in choosing the name. Next, the club needs to find a club house and a mascot. An empty refrigerator box and Leo's dog Noodles prove perfect for these goals. In book 2, The Cool Crazy Crickets to the Rescue, the action picks up a bit when the club decides to earn money for snacks instead of charging dues. There is a funny scene where the kids share some wordplay with "do's," "dues," and "don'ts." The Crickets babysit, pet sit and sell lemonade and are trying to figure out how to spend their earnings when they discover the neighborhood stray cat sleeping in the clubhouse. When Phoebe notices that the cat is sick, they know how to spend their money - taking their new mascot to the vet.

The Crickets and Andy Shane series take experiences and concerns from the lives of kids and present them in a format that these very kids can read and appreciate on their own.  I hope that there are more books of this variety to begin filling the shelves soon!


Something New... I'm reading and reviewing TEEN books now!

This August, my book review blog will be two years old, but I think I've been feeling that 7 year itch about 5 years early. My eyes have been wandering and my attentions straying - to teen books.

Before I committed my attentions to reading kid's books for the purpose of reviewing them, I would read the occasional teen book, especially as my daughter approached that age and content level. Because I shelve in that section, as well as kid's, I have been a "blurb reader" for many many years and noticed the quality and selection of books improving immensely. JK Rowling's Harry Potter raised the bar and bumped adults' interest level for kid's books, and there are so many excellent fantasy novels that have come out for kids in the last ten years, perhaps because of this. Something similar, but not equal, has been happening in the teen section. I think that teen books, on their own, were gradually, steadily improving their content and quality of writing over the last ten years, perhaps riding the tide of Harry Potter. The publication of (and subsequent popularity of) Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga in 2005 definitely created a tsunami of books with similar themes in the world of teen literature.  This wave of titles still fills up a large display table in the teen section more than 5 years later. Meyer's book also seemed to coincide with an increase of adult titles in the genre termed "urban fantasy," titles of this nature being found in both the science fiction and romance sections of the bookstore. For adults, this basically means a bunch of sexy vampire hunters who wear leather pants and have tramp stamps (Laurel K Hamilton) or every day folks living amongst vampires, weres and shapeshifters (Charlaine Harris.) These are just the two most popular authors in this genre at the moment. There are many, many more.  In fact, it seems to be spreading like a disease every day.  I share this with you both for your own edification and also to let you know that I do not intend to review books of this genre, however I will be reviewing fantasy novels that may even contain the occasional, albeit ironic, vampire.  I hope to focus my attentions on books that are more along the lines of literature with a capital "L," for teens, if that doesn't sound too pretentious.  Don't get me wrong, though, I love less serious books and will probably end up reading and reviewing them from time to time as well.  


In spite of the overwhelming presence of supernatural, urban fantasy genre on the shelves, some really amazing authors have been writing some fantastic novels for teens.  One interesting thing I have noticed is that there seems to be a very strong community among these authors. They often contribute to anthologies, co-write books together and all seem to know each other and maybe even hang out, kind of like the cool but odd and geeky group of kids in high school. A perfect example of this is GEEKTASTIC.  Holly Black , co-auhtor with Tony DiTerlizzi of the Spiderwick Chronicles and among many other things, her Modern Faerie Tale  series and teen author Cecil Castelucci came up with the idea for the first story in the book while appearing at the 2007 Comic-Con in San Diego. They decided that no one would publish their story alone and recruited their friends to contribute stories and make it a collection, giving it the subtitle of  Stories from the Nerd Herd.  Zombies vs.Unicorns is another amazing collection/concept due out in September of this year and is also headed, in part, by Holly Black, who leads Team Unicorn.  Justine Larbalestier, author of the Magic or Madness Trilogy and, most recently, Liar, which was the subject of some interesting cover art controversy, leads Team Zombie. Big name competitors, I mean contributors, include Garth Nix, Meg Cabot, Libba Bray, Maureen Johnson and Scott Westerfeld. Another thing that I noticed while reading Author's Notes and perusing author's websites is that these people do actually (mostly) all know each other and support each other enthusiastically. John Green happens to be in a writing group with E Lockhart, Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier and Maureen Johnson. The amazing editor and writer David Levithan co-writes with Rachel Cohn and John Green. John Green co-authors with Lauren Myracle and Maureen Johnson.  Wendy Mass has a sort of fan page on her website showing pictures of herself with other authors she admires.

Before posting my first review, I wanted to read up a bit so I could get an idea of the lay of the land. I read four books and feel enthusiastically excited about all of them. Interestingly, two are fantasy and two are reality based fiction. And, although I said that I do not anticipate reading and reviewing any of the books from the teen urban fantasy genre, the one book that inspired me to read teen books again is Adam Rex's debut teen novel, Fat Vampire.  Don't worry, though. If you know anything about Adam Rex's work you will know that his book is more social commentary than urban fantasy by leaps and bounds.  Another thing that reading these books opened up for me was the realization that teen novels, besides being able to have swears, sex and drugs as part of the plot (if so desired, and it is not always desired by authors, I promise) can visit gray areas that young adult literature can't always.  I have discovered a level of introspection, thoughtfulness and philosophical probing that (rightfully) doesn't exist in YA books.  Duh, I know, but honestly, I thought that teen books on the whole were all kind of like Gossip Girl - vapid, superficial and obsessed with clothes and romance.  But, teen books are kinda like high school - there are the cheerleaders, the popular kids, the goths, the stoners, the jocks, the band-aids, gang bangers, the D & D crowd, the quiet kids.  They are all here and some of them are zombies, fairies, Greek demigods, werewolves and vampires. Some become your boss.  Some end up in jail or dead, but they are all here.

My goal is to read and review books that I would want my daughter to read, or at least wouldn't mind if she read them.  My other goal is also to review books that you, the adults, might enjoy reading as well.  I know that a lot of you already read YA books and I hope you will join me on my journey into the world of teen literature. I don't have any plans at this point to provide a rating for the books in terms of content, however, if there is enough interest I will consider it. To be honest, I read for character and plot and don't want to have to keep a tally of the use of swears, illegal substances or intimate moments.  Hopefully my reviews will give you a good idea of what to expect in terms of possibly inappropriate content based on your personal values system, and as I always (naïvely) hope, maybe even encourage you to read the book before you give it to your child.

Speaking of that, I am very grateful to have both my teenage daughter and my husband (who has been a high school teacher only slightly longer than I have been a bookseller) for reading and discussing these books with me as I venture into the world of teen literature...

So, this time Friday my first review of a teen title will post here.  I have added as many labels as possible to alert readers to the fact that this is a TEEN book with TEEN content and I hope there will not be any confusion.  


Daisy Dawson and the Secret Pond, written by Steve Voake, illustrated by Jessica Messerve, 87 pp RL 2

Daisy Dawson and the Secret Pond is book two in a series written by Steve Voake and illustrated by Jessica Messerve.  If you remember my review of  lat year Daisy Dawson is on Her Way, the first book in the series, you know how enchanted I am by this fabulous series of books for emerging readers.  

Animal lover and dawdler, Daisy is always late for school.  This is especially so after she encounters a magical yellow butterfly that gives her the gift of talking with the animals.  When Daisy is given a camera for her birthday (and some smelly Strawberry Surprise perfume) and a school assignment to study animals in their habitats, she sets of into the wilds behind her home.  Trixie McDixie, the barn car, tells Daisy that she thinks two otters have moved into the pond upstream and maybe they should go investigate.  The squirrels, Uncle Cyril and his water loving niece and nephew Hazel and Conker, join in the expedition.

The group makes it across the dangerous Darkwater Sump to the pond where they meet the cautious otters, Dampsy and Spray, who are fascinated by her camera and end up posing for Daisy.  After the photo shoot, the otters invite Daisy to swim with them and Conker and Hazel gleefully join in.

A storm breaks as Daisy, Boom and the squirrels are heading home and crossing Darkwater Sump proves even more dangerous than the first time. When Hazel falls out of the crossing tree and into the river, both Daisy and Boom have to be brave in ways they never have before. Don't worry, though, all ends well for Daisy and her friends and she has some wonderful pictures to add to her habitat project when she gets home.

Here is a sneak peek of book three, Daisy Dawson and the Big Snow, an excerpt of which appears at the end of Daisy Dawson and the Secret Pond.  Daisy has the pleasure of meeting Shirelle the sheep and her lambkin, Lillian on a snowy afternnoon.  Unfortunately, Woolverton, a lamb, has gone missing and Daisy and Boom, along with the herder dog Ricky Round-up, must find him.


Mercy Watson Series by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen, RL

The Mercy Watson Series by Newbery Award Winner Kate Di Camillo with brilliantly crisp and colorful illustrations by Chris Van Dusen is a gem, a real treasure.  I'll be honest, up to this point, I had only read one book by Kate DiCamillo, beloved to many adults and children, and had not enjoyed the experience.  Because of this, and the fact that they were only published in hardcover, I avoided Mercy Watson for the last five years.  Now that the first three books in this six book series are in paperback, I am willing to admit the error of my ways!

The six books in the series are as follows:

Mercy Watson to the Rescue 
Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride
Mercy Watson Fights Crime
Mercy Watson:  Princess in Disguise
Mercy Watson Thinks Like a Pig 
Mercy Watson:  Something Wonky This Way Comes

Although these books test out at a mid-second grade reading level, I think that they can happily be read by motivated first graders.   Technically, other books at this reading level include Junie B Jones and Magic Tree House, which have quite a bit more text than the Mercy Watson Series and look like chapter books.  The Mercy Watson Series has half the amount of text, is heavy on illustrations and looks more like a picture book.  These qualities make the series the ideal bridge between beginning readers and chapter books, which can sometimes be a difficult and boring bridge to cross.  

Of course the gorgeous, detail rich illustrations by Chris Van Dusen, illustrator and author of Circus Ship, one of my favorite picture books last year and one that topped my list of Best Picture Books of 2009, draw you in to the Mercy Watson Series right away.  But, it is DiCamillo's quirky characters, the least of whom is Mercy, will keep you reading.  The Southern charm in these books is thick as molasses, spread out amongst the characters and their odd, but somehow sensible habits.  Mr and Mrs Watson dote on their pig and treat her like a cross between a child and a dog.  Their neighbors, the elderly sisters Lincoln sisters, Eugenia and Baby, love and loathe Mercy.  Then, there are the firemen, Ned and Lorenzo and Officer Tomilello, who are called upon to make a rescue, catch a thief or some other daring act in each book.  And then there is Mercy.  Mercy is a bit like a huge, buttered toast loving dog. She can be cajoled into a pink princess dress with the promise of buttered toast, expertly buttered by Mrs Watson.  But, the best thing about Mercy is that she is a pig.  Just a pig.  She doesn't talk.  We don't get to hear her thoughts.  She is just an animal and she acts like one.  Often, she is the most predictable, sane character in any given story.  And I love that.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention another favorite beginning reader pig of mine, Poppleton, by the prolifically amazing award winning Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by an all-time favorite of mine, Mark Teague.  These are more along the low end of the first grade reading level and a delight to read as a story book or for an emerging reader.


The Secrets of Cicada Summer by Andrea Beaty, 176 pp, RL 4

You don't always have to read a fantasy novel to visit another world.  Sometimes other worlds exist right here on Earth, next to us, in front of us, behind us.  And sometimes I think it is harder to create a real world like the one Andrea Beaty conjurs up in The Secrets of the Cicada Summer than it is to bring to life a realm filled with wizards and wands.  While in high school I developed a penchant for  Southern writers and books set in the South and I have had a soft spot for them ever since.  Born and raised in Southern California, the geography, culture and people of the South are almost as alien to me as Saturn or Hogwarts.  I realize that Illinois is not exactly the Deep South, but the setting for the novel,  Olena, IL,  population 117 sure does seem that way.

With The Secrets of the Cicada Summer, Beaty has written a book that reminds me of the kind I read when I was a kid, before kid's books also doubled as doorstops.  Books were short, characters were straightforward and there wasn't a lot of emotional hand wringing or introspection or explanation, for that matter, despite the fact that the early 1980s was a pretty hardscrabble, gritty time in kid's lit. Remember Katherine Paterson's Newbery Honor winner from 1978, The Great Gilly Hopkins?  I'd never even heard of the foster care system when I read that book, or the idea that a parent would/could choose to give up a child after bearing and raising him/her for a time.  Despite the potentially dark material, Paterson created a character who, while she may have acted out, was also pretty reasonable and very smart when it came right down to it.  I guess I have to fess up here and admit that I am thinking about Susan Patron's Newbery winner The Higher Power Of Lucky, which I reviewed over a year ago, and comparing it to The Secrets of the Cicada Summer.   I liked that book, but I just didn't love it the way I wanted to, the way I love The Secrets of the Cicada Summer.  Even though Lucky and Lily, both the narrators of their stories, have experienced loss and are trying to make sense of their lives, I feel like Lucky was just too quirky to be really likable.  Patron imbued her with so many little details, habits and unique thoughts that she seemed as weighted down by these personality triats as she was by the backpack that she carried everywhere with her.  Lily, although four years older and living in a different time than Lucky, feels more authentic and easier to relate to because she doesn't have so much baggage, despite her losses. For me, Beaty's book is more reminiscent of Polly Horvath's magnificent books, My 100 Adeventures and the sequel, Northward to the Moon, in which Jane tries to make her own world, while at the same time making sense of it.

Twelve year old Lily, who lives on a farm with her father, lost her mother several years back and her older brother Pete, two years earlier.  Since the death of her brother, she has stopped speaking.  When we first see her, she is at school and in the midst of a spelling test.  The cicadas are making a racket right outside the classroom window.  Lily observes her classmates and the cicadas then wanders out of class.  Because she has stopped speaking and, because this is a time (possibly the 1940s or early 1950s) when there are not so many psychological diagnoses for this kind of behavior, Lily is allowed to do whatever she pleases.  And so she heads to the school library where she hides in the stacks and hoards Nancy Drew novels. Everyone thinks she is both kinds of dumb so she keeps her reading to herself, stealing the books when she has to. Summer is coming and she needs a good supply, even though she has read every Nancy Drew book many times over.  As Lily is hiding in her favorite tree, she is caught out by Tinny, who has just moved to town to live with her Great Aunt Fern, proprietor of the one store in town. Fern is also the owner of the barn and the two cars inside it that sits on the Mathis' farm. Tinny, who has come from Chicago, is street smart and savvy and starts in on Lily right away, threatening to find out and then divulge her secret.

Lily's secret is that she is neither kind of dumb, but she is so desperate to be left alone that she runs away from Tinny and avoids her as much as she can in a small town.  However, the mystery lover in Lily just can be quieted and soon she is spying on Tinny and listening in with new interest to the conversations that go on around her as she silently sweeps the floors of Fern's store, a meeting place for townsfolk, or surveying the scene at the gossip spot in town, the post office.  Lily quickly discovers that Tinny is up to no good and hiding something.  But so is Lily.  As she sleuths out Tinny's secrets, Lily's secret slowly unfolds in flashback chapters that reveal her relationship with her beloved older brother and the event that brought tragedy to their lives for a second time.  Beaty does a masterful job drawing these two stories together, and when they collide the result is climactic and cathartic, for Lily and the reader.  

Olena is, of course, populated with interesting, vivid characters with quasi-oddball traits. There is Lily's father, who is always patting the keys in the pocket of his overalls.  There is Fern who is always hugging silent Lily and referring to her as a "poor, motherless child."  There are the sisters Miss Opal and Miss Ruby, who cook for Lily and her father every Friday night so that they eat at least one good meal a week.  And, of course, there is the town of Olena itself.  It is amazing the way Beaty creates this world, seemingly in one breath, that is as shimmering as a hot summer day that is buzzing with the drone of the cicadas. 

Andrea Beaty is the author of many picture books, including the masterfully rhymed Iggy Peck Architect as well as the very funny Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies with brilliant illustrations by Dan Santat.  Beaty is also one of the reviewers, along with Carolyn Crimini and Julia Durango over at Three Silly Chicks, where the three authors "Read, Write and Review Funny Books for Kids."

I included the covers of both editions of the book, as they are both wonderfully evocative and magnificent in their own ways.  The hardcover edition, which was called Cicada Summer, was done by John Hendrix and the paperback, renamed The Secrets of the Cicada Summer, was illustrated by one of my new favorites, Amy June Bates.


PIcture Books That Entertain, Picture Books That Educate

I know that there are hundreds of fabulous picture books out there that educate and entertain and I have no idea why I have not grouped them in this context before now, but these two marvelous titles just happened into my life at he same time and that spark was struck!  Then, I stumbled upon this wonderful blog, Open Wide, Look Inside, which is dedicated to sharing ways to integrate children's across the curriculum, with an emphasis in math, science and social studies.  The mind behind the blog is Tricia Sthor-Hunt, a professor at the University of Richmond where, as she says, she has "the distinct honor and pleasure of preparing future teachers."  She also runs the blog with the BEST NAME EVER, The Miss Rumphius Effect where she writes about "children's literature, poetry, and issues related to teaching children and their future teachers."  Both of these blogs are great resources for ways to use literature to teach. if the ideas don't pop into your head instantly when you read a good kid's book.

After reading  The Once Upon a Time Map Book  by BG Hennessy, illustrations by Peter Joyce and  Dear Teacher  by Amy Husband I knew I had found two great books to get imaginations revved up, especially over a long, hot summer!  I hope you enjoy these reviews, are inspired to get your kids out in the world making maps and writing letters and, best of all, share it with others and with me!  I'd love to post any maps or letters that you email me!

The Once Upon a TIme Map Book by BG Hennessy with illustrations by Peter Joyce

The Once Upon a Time Map Book by BG Hennessy with illustrations by Peter Joyce caught my attention right away.  It has two of my favorite things - maps and fairy tales - all wrapped up in one!  As the opening page of the books says, "Come on a tour of six magical Once Upon a Time Lands.  You will have a map and directions for each land. Around each map are letters and numbers to help you find your way.  A compass shows the directions of  north, south, east and west.  A key identifies local routes and distances.  There are treasures hidden in each land. See if you can find all six."

Besides being a gorgeous, fun picture book, The Once Upon a Time Map Book actually teaches children how to read a map by giving coordinates for key sites on the maps.  In Neverland you can moor your boat in Mermaid Cove (E1) the take the path from Crocodile wap to Pirate River (E3)  If you head two Pirate miles west, you will find a waterfall (D3).  There is a key that shows you what length two Pirate miles is, as well as delineates the various paths on the island.   There are also seven hidden Lost Boys and a treasure chest to find!

In addition to Neverland, readers get to visit Oz, Wonderland, the kingdom of the Giant from Jack & the Beanstalk, Aladdin's Kingdom and finally the enchanted forest of Snow White.  Each map features a tour of the land and points of interest on the left with the directions to places of interest, a key and, always, hidden goodies to find, on the right.

The superb website Open Wide, Look Inside, which is dedicated to sharing ways to integrate children's across the curriculum with an emphasis in math, science and social studies, has a great post on how to use the book in an educational way.  And, in the comment field, BG Hennessy herself posted a thank you and sneak peek - she has begun the sequel, The Very Scary Places Map Book!

How would I use this book with my kids?  I would pick a favorite picture book of ours, maybe The Jolly Postman by Janet and Alan Ahlberg or Merle the Flying Squirrel by Bill Peet, something with a fair amount of geographical range and interesting character.  Then we would go over the story, figure out the places and distances and map it out on a grid and color it in. Next, I think we might make a map of our house or even a map of my son's room.  After that, I would hide something in his room (chocolate coins, of course) and give him some coordinates and set him loose with his map.  Actually, I really like this idea a lot.  Seeing as how I am working full time this summer while my husband is having his first summer vacation (he's a teacher) without a job EVER, I think I will suggest this activity to him!