Junonia, written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes, 176 pp, RL 3

I have no doubt that you all know the picture books of Kevin Henkes (pronounced Hen-kis), including his Caldecott winning Kitten's First Full Moon and the Caldecott Honor winning Owen, as well as the modern classics Chrysanthemum and Lily's Purple Plastic Purse, which came out in 1996 when my daughter was three. This book was a huge part of our lives (we have Lily and little brother Julius dolls as well as plastic purple purse that plays music) as was one of the best "new baby brother/sister"  books out there, Julius, Baby of the World, which was very helpful when her little brother arrived a year later. We also had a fabulous interactive CD-Rom based on Henke's picture book, Sheila Rae the Brave, which got a lot of play in our house. Henkes' picture books have been such a huge part of my children's lives it amazes me that I have not mentioned his work once in the three years since I started this blog. A versatile illustrator and author, Henkes has also written a handful of chapter books, including the Newbery Honor winner Olive's Ocean and one of my favorites, Protecting Marie, about twelve year old Fanny, only child of older parents, and her yearning for a dog, something her artist father is opposed to. His newest book Junonia exhibits Henkes' characteristic ability to capture the pure emotional experiences of childhood (that are so easy to forget when you have grown up and are a parent) and translate them onto the page in words and pictures. Henkes is at his best when he is writing from the perspective of an only child, as he often does, and that is what we have with Alice Rice, the main character of Junonia.

Alice Rice and her mother and father have been visiting Sanibel Island in Florida for as long as she can remember. Every February when the weather is cold and dreary back home in Wisconsin, the Rices head to Florida for sun, sand and sea shells. And every year Alice's birthday falls during their vacation. As annual visitors, the Rices have become close friends with the other regulars. The Wishmeiers, a retired couple, and their grandchildren, the ancient Mr Barden, Helen Blair, an artist from New York City and special friend of Alice's and Mrs Rice's college friend Kate, sometimes known as Aunt Kate, make up a family of friends. Alice is especially looking forward to this vacation because she will be turning ten and everyone knows that double-digits are important. She hopes that, among the many special things that might happen on her tenth birthday, she finally finds a rare junonia shell while beach combing. However, as the marvelous  Ann M Martin observes in her review of the book in New York Times, the very first paragraph of the book indicates coming changes. As the rental car crosses the bridge from the mainland to the island, Martin picks up on the symbolism, noting that "Alice, who normally enjoys being suspended between two worlds, suddenly feels strange. . . Henkes perfectly captures Alice's angst as she spins between the little-girlhood she's leaving behind and the adolescence that looms in front of her, and he expertly reveals introspective Alice's musings."

Instead of happy things, small disappointments abound. Helen Blair is snowed in, the Wishmeier's grandchildren can't take time off of school to visit and Aunt Kate is bringing a new boyfriend, Ted, and his six year old daughter, Mallory. Alice is sad not to have her special friend Helen in Florida and frustrated that she has to share Aunt Kate's attentions with Ted and Mallory. Minor difficulties arise as do frustrations and, to many it may seem like the plot of Junonia is a bit uneventful. However, Henkes' gift is in paying attention to the small things that, over time, can shape how we view the world and behave in it. As an only child, Alice is more comfortable with quiet contemplation and less  used to adapting to noisy distractions the way children from larger families often do. She is contemplative and watchful, noticing and making sense of the world around her as she goes. The drama in the story come from the ways in which Alice makes sense of and adjusts to the new people and situations that come in to her usually tranquil life. When Alice learns that she will have to share Kate, the doughnut she was eating "turned to dirt in Alice's mouth. The playful pattern of sunlight on the wall, which had elevated her mood just minutes earlier, now seemed frenzied, as if it were laughing at her misfortune." Even so, Alice is waiting in the driveway for Kate, Ted and Mallory to arrive.

Mallory turns out to be a mercurial child coping with the absence of her mother, who has moved to France. The adults try to make things easier for Alice and Mallory to get along, organizing a shell hunt, but sustaining the peace proves impossible. Anything seems likely to set Mallory off, and Alice's birthday dinner is almost ruined by her. Alice struggles to accept Mallory, trying no to think the worst of her but finding it hard, especially after old Mr Barden calls her "the prettiest girl I ever saw," sending Alice, who thinks she is a plain girl with a strange birthmark on her face, into silence until she can cry in the privacy of her own cabin. The final straw comes when part of Alice's birthday gift from Helen Blair goes missing. Knowing that Alice is turning ten, Helen sends three boxes that contain items Helen collected for her on a recent trip to Italy - ten glass beads from Venice, ten gelato spoons in various colors and ten Euro coins. Alice is thrilled with the gifts and protective of them when she notices that Mallory is especially taken with the blue gelato spoon. After an outburst in which  Mallory spills milk on Mr Barden, breaking up the party and leaving a mess in her wake, Alice is convinced that she has taken the blue spoon home with her. Initially unable to forgive Mallory, a calm day without her gradually changes Alice's mind and makes her wish she hadn't thrown Mallory's gift to her (a necklace made from a Kitten's Paw shell) into the waves. She has almost forgiven Mallory when she finds the missing spoon under a cupboard. When she recognizes what she has found, a "wonderful-horrible feeling crept up her neck. She was glad to have the spoon back, but regretful of all the terrible thoughts she'd had about Mallory. She turned red in the face and had the peculiar sensation that the whole world was watching." It is rare to read a children's book that explores their feelings, thoughts and responses to life so closely, identifying them and sorting them out. Whether adult or child, it is so easy to focus on intense emotions like happiness, sorrow and anger and move on without exploring the underlying feelings that they spring from. Junonia is not filled with big life lessons but rather the smaller, everyday occurrences that illicit emotions, shaping who we are depending on wether we pay attention to them or not.

Although Alice turns ten in this book, I think it would be a perfect read for an eight year old, especially one who eschews fantasy. While it is easy to find real life girl stories that are bursting with vibrant characters (Beverly Cleary's Ramona Quimby, Sarah Pennypacker's Clemintine, Julie Bowe's Ida May) and exciting dramas (Secrets of the Cicada Summer,  Strawberry Hill, Saffy's Angel, One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street) there are few that are as focused on the thoughts and feelings of the main character and what goes on in her head as profoundly and purposefully as Henkes' Junonia. I almost put the book down about thirty pages into it because it felt like nothing was happening in the story. But, a day away from Alice made me realize that she was an interesting character who I wanted to know better, even if the worst thing that happened to her was having a six year old crash her annual vacation. The care and attention that Henkes' pays to creating this character, the fullness of her, is beautiful and a joy to experience.

The charming illustrations above are from the chapter headings in  Junonia. I will leave you with an example of Henkes' wonderful writing and the lovely character he has created in Alice Rice,

The sun-bleached bedspread was printed with a pattern of a seaside Chinese village. Alice rand her finger over the rooftops and archways, over billowy swarms of butterflies and blossom-covered trees. Like a sailing ship, her finger traced over waves that reached up toward the clouds and swirls of mist. Here and there, the bedspread was threadbare, but Alice hoped it would never be replaced. She often fell asleep imagining that she was part of the village, wandering the twisting streets among the butterflies, collecting armfuls of blossoms.

Readers who liked this book might also enjoy:

The Book of Coupons and Secret Letters from 0 to 10 by Susie Morgenstern


Dear America Series, Various Authors, published by Scholastic, RL 4

When I first started working as a bookseller in 1995 the American Girls historical books were hugely popular. In 1996 Scholastic began publishing their Dear America series of books written at a slightly higher reading level. Thirty-six titles and nine years later they ended the series. Presented as diaries written by girls during important historical periods or events in America, there was and continues to be nothing like these books on the shelf. While I have not read one yet, as a bookseller I found them to be very popular with girls, a great series to move up to after finishing the American Girls books and also an excellent resource for kids who had to read historical fiction for class.

Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce, Portland, Maine, 1918 (Dear America Series)The Fences Between Us: The Diary of Piper Davis, Seattle, Washington, 1941 (Dear America Series)With the Might of Angels (Dear America Series)

I Walk in Dread (Dear America Series)I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly - Library EditionWhen Will This Cruel War Be Over?: The Diary of Emma Simpson, Gordonsville, Virginia, 1864 (Dear America Series)
The Winter of Red Snow: The Revolutionary War Story of Abigail Jane Stewart, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1777 (Dear America Series)A Light in the Storm: The Civil War Diary of Amelia Martin, Fenwick Island, Delaware, 1861 (Dear America Series)Standing in the Light: The Captive Diary of Catherine Carey Logan, Delaware Valley, Pennsylvania, 1763 (Dear America Series)
Cannons at Dawn: The Second Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1779 (Dear America Series)A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl , Belmont Plantation, Virginia, 1859 (Dear America Series)A Journey to the New World: The Story of Remember Patience Whipple, Plymouth, Massachusetts, 1620 (Dear America Series)
Voyage on the Great Titanic: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady, HMS Titanic, 1912 (Dear America Series)

The series covered a wide ranges of periods and places from the Mayflower reaching America in 1620 through the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the Salem Witch Trials, the Oregon Trail, the Dust Bowl, WWI, the Depression, Pearl Harbor and WWII. Experiences like the Suffragette Movement, the Immigrant experience, life as a Sioux, a Navajo, a slave, a freed slave, a blind girl attending The Perkins School for the Blind, a prairie teacher and, as in the last book in the series, Hear My Sorrow by Deborah Hopkinson, the experience of a young Italian immigrant girl working in a Shirtwaist factory in New York city who witnesses the birth of the labor movement as well as the terrible tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Well known children's authors such as Newbery winners Lois Lowry and Karen Hesse as well as Mary Pope Osborne, Patricia C. McKissack, Kathryn Lasky, Ann Rinaldi, Marion Dane Bauer and Megan McDonald authored many of the books in the series as well. For a complete list of the original thirty-six titles, their authors and subject matter, click here. At the end of 2010, Scholastic began reissuing this series, beginning with a completely new title, The Fences Between Us by Newbery Honor winner Kirby Larson, which begins in at the start of WWII in Seattle and moves to a Japanese internment camp in Idaho. This year, Lois Lowry adds a new book to the series with Like a Willow Tree, The Diary of Lydia Amelie Pierce, Portland Maine, 1918 and covers the effect of the Spanish flu epidemic, which I plan to get my hands on as soon as possible. Many of the old titles are being reissued as well and there are now fourteen available with more to come.

For those of you with great libraries, used book stores or a great website to buy used books from, don't miss these other books related to the Dear America series that are now out of print. The popularity of the series spawned the My Name is America series, which featured journals written by boys. Contributing authors include well known children's book authors Walter Dean Myers, Lawrence Yep, Rodman Philbrick, Joseph Bruhac, Susan Bartoletti and Ann Rinaldi and events covered included the Donner Party Expedition, building the Transcontinental Railroad, playing in the Negro leagues, and fighting as a Marine in the Vietnam war. This series would fill a gaping void that exists in the historical fiction genre for boys and I hope it returns to print with new titles.

One other series spawned from the popularity of Dear America and still out of print is the Royal Diaries which featured the intimate thoughts of historical figures in their youth such as Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette, Nzingha, Warrior Queen of Matamba, Angola, Jahanara, of India, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Kristina of Sweeden, Weetamoo of the Pocassets of Massachusetts, Lady Palenque of Mesoamerica, AD 749, and Anacona, Golden Flower of Haiti, 1490, which was written by award winning adult author Edwidge Danticat.

Finally, there was a series Scholastic published titled My America, which was like the Dear America and My Name is America books but written at a second grade reading level. The books were written in trilogies and there are seven trilogies in all covering Jamestown, the Revolutionary War, the Oregon Trail, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War and the Immigrant experience all told from the perspective of the young main character.


These are Our Friends - Paintings by Christopher Stott

During National Poetry Month this year when I was posting a poem-a-day and searching for images to go with the poems I came across the works of contemporary realist painter Christopher Stott, who generously allowed me to use his painting Books, Paper, Pencil, Typewriter with Eve Merriam's poem Ways of Composing.  I fell in love with his work and immediately subscribed to his mailing list (I am saving my pennies to buy a print of one of his paintings) and just received an these paintings of books I wanted to share with you. Of books, Stott writes, "What I love about books is their versatility. They offer and endless bounty of compositions for me to work with, and they have themes and symbolism in a wide variety of manners." I hope you enjoy them even half as much as I do.

These Are Our Friends

Stacks of Books & Espresso Cups

Red Book

Origins & Apple

Vintage Research


Don't Stop Now by Julie Halpern, 219 pp RL: TEEN

"I did it," is all that Penny's whispery voice says in the message she leaves on Lil's phone at 4:27 am on the "first Saturday of the rest of our lives," also known as the day after high school graduation. Eight hours later, Penny is gone and Lil is keeping what she knows about her possible kidnapping from Penny's parents, the police and the FBI. While Penny's disappearance is the spark that sets the events of Julie Halpern's  third novel Don't Stop Now in motion, finding her is just the destination. The real story is that of the friendship between Lil and her best friend and unrequited love since freshman year, Josh. While Lil wants to make sure Penny is ok, she also thinks a road trip to find her may be her last chance she has to spark something more than friendship with Josh before she heads off to become the "new, improved college version of me."  The easy affection Lil and Josh have for each other and Halpern's skill at writing a road trip novel make Don't Stop Now very gratifying despite the distressing circumstances that are the catalyst for the trip. In fact, the title of the book could double as instructions on how to read it. Lil's narrative voice and outlook on life are so engaging that, once I started, I couldn't stop. 

Penny, who is neglected by her parents, hated by her little sister and physically and verbally abused by her boyfriend, complicates life for Lil by staging her kidnapping when what she really wants (and feels she doesn't deserve or is too scared to ask for) is the chance to visit a new friend she made over spring break who lives in Portland, Oregon. While Penny's situation is disturbing, her storyline, much like the behavior of her character in Don't Stop Now, it is peripheral to the real story. From the start Lil is in touch with Penny through phone messages and knows that she is safe, making it easier for her and the reader to focus on the road trip that she and Josh embark on. Halpern takes situations that could be emotionally fraught and agonizing and brings a level of tolerance, acceptance, and patience to the action and her characters that is refreshing and, in many ways, emblematic of the ideal attitude to have on a road trip. As Josh tells a distraught Lil near the end of the book when she is trying to find meaning in the fact that they keep losing the coin they are flipping in the hopes that it will tell them a direction to go in, "Life doesn't have to be so complicated." In fact, that could be the motto for the whole novel. There's a destination and a goal, so sit back and enjoy the scenery as you make your way there, which is a great attitude to have on a road trip and one that carries Josh and (mostly) Lil through their quest.

The banter between Lil and Josh swings between absurdly silly and witty, always laced with inside jokes and references to decades old movies like Buckaroo Banzai, Hiding Out and Pee Wee's Big Adventure - THE road trip movie of my college experience. The two decide to stay in the Don Q Inn and partake of the Tranquility Base "Fantasuite" featuring a recreation of the Gemini Space Capsule and a moon-crater whirlpool and they can't stop joking about it. When Lil notes that Tranquility Base was part of the Apollo 11 mission while the Gemini Capsule was not, this exchange follows:

"Wouldn't that make this suite historically inaccurate?"
       "Right. They're very concerned with historical accuracy at the Don Q Inn. That's why they plopped a heart-shaped bed in the middle of a cave."
        "You never know. That could be historically accurate. I have heard of cave paintings with heart shaped beds in them. Right next to the wooly mammoth wearing a Snuggie."

The delight that the two find in the odd roadside attractions they visit between Chicago and Portland is a kick, and Halpern manages to fit in an amazing number of oddities. From the House on the Rock and its bizarre interiors in Wisconsin to Wall Drug and its strange foreign exchange program in South Dakota to the 24 Hour Church of Elvis in Portland, these two know how to enjoy the weird displays of personal expression that sum up most of these landmarks. And, since they decide to head west to Portland on the spur of the moment in their quest to find Penny, they also know how to use Josh's dad's credit card to purchase souvenirs from these places, clothing themselves as they travel. I have to add here that went to Reed College in Portland and was SO tickled to come across my old hangouts in Don't Stop Now. From Powell's City of Books, which for me is the eighth wonder of the world, to the Rimsky-Korsakoffee House to OMSI to the bridges and the river, Halpern captured the city brilliantly. I only wish that Voodoo Donuts had been there when I was! Linked to my memories of living in Portland are the road trips that I used to make down the coast to San Diego once or twice a year to visit my family. I met my husband in college and the two of us would have the best times meandering up and down the coast, staying at the Curly Redwood Lodge in Crescent City, CA, driving along the cliff's edge in Big Sur, checking out the windmills in Solvang. My one regret is that we never stayed at the Madonna Inn, the California version of the Don Q. Based on these memories, I have to say that Halpern also captured the taste and feel of a summer road trip brilliantly as well, which is no surprise when you read this quote from her, 

When I’m not writing, I love to travel.  Most of the money I save (that's not for my daughter's college tuition) goes toward vacations, and it never feels squandered.  I have been to forty-six states, Australia, Denmark, Italy, England and Canada.  My dream life would be spent on a never-ending road trip (with a home to stop at whenever I want).  I never feel happier than when I am on the road, awaiting the next crazy museum or welcoming town.  I get dreamy just writing this.

When Lil finally works up the nerve to make a move with Josh, bolstered by the advice spray painted in red on a boulder at the Badlands National Park (DON'T STOP NOW) Josh returns her kiss but ends it with the expected, "you know I love you. I have too much respect for you to change us," leaving Lil to wonder, "if you love me, then how can you not want to love me more?" While this is the moment that she has been waiting for, it's not the dramatic climax that you might expect from a teen novel. Julie Halpern's Don't Stop Now has definitely made it into my Top 5 Teen Romances, which is comprised of pretty non-traditional romances as the genre goes. Along with  Dash & Lily's Book of DaresPaper Towns and Anna and the French Kiss, I think that Don't Stop Now represents a group of novels that, while they may have romantic pursuits as part of the plot are as much about self-exploration and understanding one's self as they are "getting the guy/girl," and I like that a lot. I can't wait to get my hands on Julie Halpern's first two books, Get Well Soon and Into the Wild Nerd Yonder.

Among other fascinating things, (she introduced a cartoon on The Bozo Show when she was nine, was an extra in the film version of one my favorite books, High Fidelity, has appeared on Antiques Roadshow, and lived in Australia. Oh yeah, and she is a middle school librarian!) Julie Halpern is married to one of my new favorite illustrators, Matthew Cordell, lately of Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie, by Julie Sternberg and the picture book he wrote and illustrated, Trouble Gum. Together, the two have created Toby and the Snowflakes.