10.29.2012

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, 326 pp, RL TEEN


Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi is the winner of the Michael A Printz Award (the teen Newbwery) and a National Book Award finalist, published in 2010. Like Suzanne Collins' Hunger GamesShip Breaker is as fast paced, action (and violence) filled book that makes a strong social statement. And, while I love the Hunger Games trilogy and was thrilled to get to read it before it was even published, I think I might actually go so far as to say that Bacigalupi's book is even more potent when it comes to the topic of the vast disparity between the lives of the rich and the poor or, as we have come to say in the years since this book was published, the 99% and the 1%, becuase it is more reality based and less fantastical than Collins work.

Main character Nailer Lopez is a ship breaker on Bright Sands Beach. The world he lives in is one that has been changed dramatically, mostly by the depletion of natural resources that has left oil a scarce and valued commodity and the land constantly threatened by "City Killers," storms that make Katrina look meek and drown cities. In fact, New Orleans is one of the locations in Ship Breaker, a city that has been rebuilt a number of times, only to be destroyed again and again by the violent storms. It is one of these City Killers and a young girl trying to escape the underhanded dealings of her family, the Patels, part of the 1% that now owns the world, that starts this story moving. But first, we are treated to an intimate look into the brutal, tenuous, exhausting life of a ship breaker. When we first meet Nailer, a wiry teen, he is working with his crew, crawling through the air ducts of a beached freighter ship, looking for copper and maybe a cache of undetected oil that will be his lucky break and pull him out of poverty. Nailer is almost too big for this job on the light crew, but he is desperate to keep since Sloth, a smaller, wiry girl, is just waiting for him to make a slip, and he is still to small to work heavy crew. After pulling out more copper wire than he had expected, Nailer is sent back in for more because a storm is headed their way and there will be no work for days until it passes. What follows is a harrowing scene in which Nailer falls through a duct and into a pool of oil and begins to drown. When Sloth finally comes along, instead of rescuing him, she leaves him, tossing a packet of food and a water bottle just out of his reach, and breaking the blood oath of the light crew never to leave a man behind. Through determination, conviction and a spectacular explosion, Nailer rescues himself and Sloth is kicked off the crew and down the beach, an outcast. Nailer earns himself the nickname Lucky Boy.

He also earns offerings, gifts to the Fates, rice, roasted pigeon meat and liquor, rarities and extravagances he rarely experiences. One fantastic thing that Bacigalupi does in Ship Breaker is toy with the idea of fate and luck and how extreme poverty can make a person feel like there is no other way out of desolation besides luck. There are other religions and beliefs that emerge throughout the novel, but the idea of fate and luck is one that keeps coming up again and again. No matter how lucky Nailer is, he still has to live with his unpredictable, viciously violent, drug addicted father, the infamous Richard Lopez who, when he is "sliding" on meth is capable of killing three men bigger than him in a fight, despite his wiry build. Despite this, when the storm destroys their home and threatens death, Nailer gets help to move his wasted, unresponsive father to higher ground even though he knows his death would bring relief to him and others. While surviving a near drowning in oil earns him the luck of the fates and a new name, Nailer finds a different kind of luck when, after the storm, he and his best friend and crew boss Pima discover a wrecked clipper, out of view of the rest of the inhabitants of Bright Sands Beach - for the time being. Nailer has dreamed of sailing on a clipper - a ship that uses solar power, the wind and a special sail that allows it to lift above the waves to propel it across the seas at a furious speed. As he and Pima climb aboard and begin to scavenge, they are stunned by the luxuries they find. Refrigerators hold pounds and pounds of meat, now rotting with the loss of power, fine china and silver services are stored in cupboards and bags and bags of rice line the storerooms. Nailer and Pima also come upon a girl, pinned under piles of furniture, but clearly alive. Pima wants to cut off her fingers and steal her rings, then slit her throat, but Nailer can't bring himself to do this.

Letting Nita, who earns the nickname Lucky Girl, live plunges Nailer and Pima into an increasingly dangerous and violent situation. Nita assures them that they should let her live because her people will find her and reward them, and Nailer begins to hope for a better life. Until his father finds the wreck and the kids and, after battle with his captors, Nailer and Nita go on the run. Tool, a genetically engineered man who is part human, part hyena and part dog, bred to be loyal to his master and kill himself if his master dies, goes with them at the insistence of Sadna, Pima's mother, who is the moral compass of the story. Tool is an interesting character, especially because he has managed to survive without a master and it is never entirely clear where his loyalties lie. The three head to the drowned city of New Orleans with the hopes of finding a ship belonging to Nita's family. The plot deepens as Nailer learns that Nita's uncle by marriage has discovered an illegal way to acquire oil and transport it to the black market, but her father and owner of the company, will go along with his plans. The uncle, Pyce, decides to kidnap Nita and use her as leverage against her father, which is why she was fleeing and sailed into the storm. The introduction of the Dauntless and its crew, all loyal to Nita's father and determined to find her, allow Nailer on board the clipper he has always dreamed of but also bring up issues of class, wealth and treatment of the poor. In fact, Nailer, Nita and Tool find themselves in many arguments about this as well. Bacigalupi does not miss a chance to illustrate this in a world where the gulf between the rich and the poor is as vast as the oceans that now cover more of the earth than ever before. Nor does he shy away from putting Nailer in situations where he has to make very difficult, starkly life-or-death decisions over and over. But, he also balances this with his fantastic storytelling skills. Ship Breaker is filled with more twists and turns and breathtaking moments than anything I have read since I cracked the spine of Hunger Games in the fall of 2008.

The sequel, The Drowned Cities, follows two new characters, Mouse and Mahlia, as they flee the war-torn city for the jungle outskirts where they come across a wounded half-man... Yes! It's Tool! My favorite character from Ship Breaker!


10.27.2012

Some Exciting News... I Have a New Job!


Image from Bookshelf Porn


After seventeen years and three months as a bookseller, I have hung up my name tag. Since the beginning of September, I have happily been working as an assistant to a literary agent! Even the most mundane part of my job is interesting to me and there are other parts that are just plain exhilarating and very intellectually stimulating. The agent I am assisting has an incredible list of clients, most of whom I have been enthusiastically reviewing here for the last four years, and I have to keep myself from squealing when I answer the phone and one of them is on the other line. I am getting to see the manuscripts and illustration for books one to two years before they hit the shelves and I am also getting to read manuscripts and make notes on them, from clients and authors hoping to become clients.

What will this mean for books4yourkids.com? Probably less time to blog. So far, I have been keeping up pretty well, but I have also been spending almost all of my weekends (I have weekends now!! For the first time in 17 years I have Saturday AND Sunday off!!) reading and reviewing. It also means that I will no longer be reviewing books by clients of the agent I work for in the interest of remaining as impartial as possible. Of course I love every book published by clients, but reviewing them on my blog feels a bit too promotional. The upside of my new job is that I can feel my critical abilities getting stronger every day and hopefully my reviews will become more streamlined, specific and shorter. I don't have time to ramble and reminisce like I have in the past. And, while I often feel overwhelmed by the stacks of review copies I receive and compelled to read and write about all of them, I have already noticed that my new job skills are helping me to sort through the piles and glean the best of the best to share with you. 

And finally, in a bout of survivor's guilt, I want to use this space to ask all of you to please be as kind as possible to those who work retail and food service. In fact there was an eyeopening article on the front page of the NY Times Sunday, October 28 titled, A Part-Time Life, as Hours Shrink and Shift by Steve Greenhouse, who did a great job detailing the stressful and tenuous work experience for retail workers, most of whom are part-time because that's all the company will offer. Retail and food service workers rarely get two days off in a row, rarely know their work schedule more than two weeks in advance, often work shifts that make many aspects of life difficult and are compensated very poorly and rarely rewarded for knowledge and experience. And, if the worker is not full time, s/he is subject to shift cuts when sales are low, leaving a skeleton crew of full time managers to keep the business running. I received a 25 cent an hour annual raise which I eventually lost when I hit the "pay ceiling," meaning I was earning the highest amount possible compared to other retail workers in my region. While a 25 cent an hour raise was insulting, losing that was demoralizing. I feel utterly grateful and fortunate to have this new job and know that my experience as a bookseller and blogger helped me to obtain it. But, honestly, I was so done being a bookseller. I did my 10,000 hours and I mastered my job. The most rewarding part of book selling was always helping customers find books, talking to customers about books and learning about books from customers. However, as people started shopping online and reading eBooks, the customers stopped coming in and the face of the bookstore changed to accommodate this. Step into any Barnes & Noble today and you'll find just as many toys (for kids and adults) as books. While I think they actually do a really good job offering a selection of quality toys, I grew increasingly weary (and frustrated) by having to clean those toys up over the course of any eight hour shift. In part, Barnes & Noble cultivated a community environment and positioned themselves as a cool place to hang out, so it's hard now to get too upset with the people who schedule play-dates with friends at the store and sit and drink coffee while their kids dismantle the displays and smash snacks into the train table or people who pull a pile of magazines off the rack and spend hours reading them, leaving them on the floor for a bookseller to clean up. I seriously doubt that anyone reading my blog is guilty of any of these acts, but hopefully next time you enter any store you might look at your surroundings differently and remember that someone is getting paid very little money to stock the shelves you are shopping, maintain a knowledge of the products so they can help you and, ultimately, clean up after you.

And finally, I want to ask all of my readers to please, please, please seriously consider your choice to purchase books, or anything, from amazon.com. Of course, as an employee of Barnes & Noble, they were our competition and for that reason alone I did not have good feelings about them. However, as a book lover and lover of bookstores, I think that amazon.com is singlehandedly responsible for undermining the publishing industry and bullying anyone who doesn't want to do business their way. Rather than listen to me ramble on, read this article from The Nation written by Colin Robinson in 2010. Since then, Amazon has begun their own publishing house, which can only mean more bad news. I know, I know, they sell books at an amazing, unreasonable discount and you can get free shipping most of the time. But did you know that most online booksellers are very competitive with Amazon's pricing and shipping. Support an independent bookstore! Visit IndieBound to find one near you OR one that can ship you books at a price that is competitive. Or, try Powell's City of Books! Based in Portland, OR, Powell's has a place in my heart as I spent a lot of my college years there. And they are very competitive online! And SO SO knowledgeable!

But, best of all, a reader of books4yourkids.com created this super cool new BUTTON that I will be adding to all reviews from now on! When you click the button a window will pop up where you can click through to GoodReads, Indie Bound and the Seattle Public Library for more information about the book OR to purchase it... This button was created by Ian Gilman and I just want to give him a HUGE THANKS for sharing this with me! I had been meaning to do something like this for so long but was ambivalent about my options - until Ian presented me with this fantastic button that gives YOU options (and he kindly removed amazon.com from the pop up window at my request...) Hope you all appreciate this and please be sure to leave feedback in case there is room for improvement - on my blog or the button!




10.26.2012

The High Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate, written and illustrated by Scott Nash, 355 pp, RL 4






The High Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate by Scott Nash is every bit as good a read as it looks. It is one part The Wind in the Willows, two parts Treasure Island and every other part entirely excellent! Once again, I have to give a nod to Candlewick Press for producing yet another wonderfully creative, well written, gorgeously illustrated and beautifully packaged children's book. However, the real kudos go to Scott Nash for conceiving this fantastic adventure and being a writer and bird watcher with the skills and talents to pull of what could have easily been a silly, lighthearted, overlooked story but instead is a book worth buying, reading, carrying into adulthood and also giving as a gift to every bright kid you know. In part, the success of this book is because Scott Nash is an avid bird watcher who brings his knowledge of the avian world to his storytelling endeavors. He creates an entire world with a history, an avian political hierarchy that includes a ban on migration and a mythology that includes a fascinating creation myth for crows and a view that geese are the Gods of Migration. The pirates even have a dialect that, instead of employing  "ahoy matey" and "shiver me timbers" includes exclamations that sound striking like bird calls ("Cryeee!" being one of them.) On top of this, Nash is a skilled artist who illustrates his book with an attention to detail, a flair for the dramatic and a nod to the past. The High Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate even begins the same as Treasure Island, with a poem. Where Stevenson addresses his poem to the "Hesitating Purchaser," Nash titles his, "A Riff on Robert Louis Stevenson," and both invite the reader to "fall in" with adventure, hoping that the pirates created in their books will "share the grave" where these other classic adventure stories lie.

The first chapter of The High Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate introduces us to Blue Jay, the pirate captain of the Grosbeak, who had "some strange and terrifying lore connected with his name." Considered a "bloodthirsty and fearsome" pirate who is known for his penchant for eggs, Blue Jay is feared by all and ship's captains rarely resist when they see the Jolly Robin flying from the approaching Grosbeak. (Does it go without saying that these ships fly through the skies rather than sail over the waves? Nash even creates this fantastic form of kedging for birds where, when caught in a doldrum, they don harnesses and try to fly the ship into an air current.) Many assume that Blue Jay, in a cannibalistic moment, eats the eggs, but in fact he collects them, taken with their varying shapes, sizes and colors. And, from time to time, his collection hatches and he has a new crew member! On the day that the story begins, Blue Jay takes a fancy to a huge egg that comes rolling out of the woods, just ahead of a raccoon. Jay instructs his men to drop the tarsi (a name for a bird's leg and also refers to the twelve tarsi on the Grosbeak that allow the crew to pluck things off the ground (or from the air) to take on board the ship) and nab the egg. Little do they know, but this egg will bring changes not just for the pirates but for all the birds of Pax Wood.

While the crew of the Grosbeak learns to deal with the gosling that hatches from the egg and quickly grows to be bigger and heavier than anyone else on board, the birds of the forest are struggling with their own difficulties. A long, hard winter has left food sources everywhere dangerously scarce, turning even decent, honest birds into thieves who think nothing of plundering a village's store of grain. On top of this, every village is required to ship half of its stores to the capital every autumn to support the Thrushian army that is supposed to be guarding them but are never seen. Without the government's help, the sparrows are left to guard their own stores with the traditional form of self-defense, switching, which involves a great deal of acrobatics and a staff or spear. A midnight crow attack on the stores of the village of Briarloch leaves one young sparrow dead and another determined to do something about it. Add to this the hammocking (docking in a tree, dangerous at night because of owls) of the Grosbeak and bumpy landing that sends Gabriel, the gosling overboard, followed by Junco, the pirate who hatched him and has motherly feelings for him, a stone's throw from Briarloch and you have a recipe for adventure.
With the help of Hilary, a star-nosed mole who lives in Briarloch, the pirates and sparrows hatch a plan to overtake the crows and shut down the illegal forge they have built in a secret location. Turns out the crows are forging weapons for the Thrushain government and that is where all the extra grain has been going. On top of all this, Gabriel, who has not yet fledged, is feeling the urge to migrate. But first, the pirates and villagers need him to help carry out their plan. A great battle between the crows, pirates and sparrows ensues and wings are clipped and lives are lost. But, in a triumphant moment, Gabriel comes into his own. My favorite aspect of The High Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate is the bird speak, especially that of Gabriel the Gosling. With his communicative honk, Nash has imagined him saying, "NOW!" and he weaves Gabriel's words into the book at the most opportune times, especially when, after all the fighting is over and wounds and ships are mended, Gabriel leads the Grosbeak south with the hopeful message of "NOW! NOW! NOW!"

10.22.2012

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, 304 pp, RL 4 and SIlver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion, illustrations by Joe McLaren, 432 pp, RL MIDDLE GRADE



Liesl Schillinger's recent review of Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion that appeared in the New York Times Book Review prompted me to read/listen to Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. I have no doubt that everyone reading this review right now is very familiar with this classic, first published as a book in 1883 (it originally ran as a serialized story in the children's magazine Young Folks from 1881 - 1882) even if you have never actually read the book. I haven't. I listened, intermittently, as my husband read it out loud to our son some ten years ago and, before that, I saw the movie Muppet Treasure Island over and over as we owned the video cassette. But, Schillinger's review and, more pertinently, my desire to read Silver: Return to Treasure Island prompted me to dive in. When I did, Silver: Return to Treasure Island, was still only available in the UK in hardcover so I opted for the audio book narrated by the Scottish actor David Tennant, also known as "the 10th Doctor" to those of you who are not Dr Who fans, and he does a spectacular job. Because I knew I was going to be listening to the audio of Silver: Return to Treasure Island, I decided to listen to  Treasure Island as well, narrated by Michael Page, while reverting to the book from time to time to look at the wonderful illustrations and see the words in print.

As I said, I am sure that all of you know the basic plot points of  Treasure Island. As I read, knowing how much my husband loved this book, I kept asking him, why? What's so great about it? Things about Treasure Island that surprised me: The language, between being antiquated and also frequently spoken in the dialect of sailors, is often hard to grasp. Not impossible, mind you, and the gist of the story always comes through, but it was a bit of work on my part. Also, there is a lot of violence in this book! Pirates and sailors get killed left and right! Old Blind Pew gets trampled by horses! That never happened in the Muppet version! Captain Flint killed one of his men and used him as a directional marker, his bones pointed toward the spot of the buried treasure. However, both my husband and my younger son, who I was telling this story to over the course of the week as we walked to school, helped me to realize what is so compelling and timeless about Robert Louis Stevenson's book and that is Long John Silver. It was my son who helped me to see this. As I neared the end of the story he stopped me and said, "Which side is Long John Silver on?" That, my friends, is what makes Treasure Island a book that is read over and over almost 130 years later. The compelling, mercurial character of Long John Silver. And, of course, who doesn't love a good story about buried treasure? Read Treasure Island out loud to your kids, be sure to buy the edition with the illustrations by NC Wyeth, and enjoy!


Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion



Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion is a magnificent, adventure, beautifully written (Motion was Britain's poet laureate from 1999 to 2009) and rich with adventure. It is also not a book to read out loud to you kids at bedtime the way you should Treasure Island. To use Schillinger's words, the marooners, members of Silver's crew left behind in Treasure Island, have spent their captivity on the island creating a busy settlement where "vile goings-on, events to rival Conrad's Congo for sadistic depravity" are routine. In Treasure Island the fighting and murdering was in the name of treasure, in Silver: Return to Treasure Island, the violence is a result of bigotry, boredom and drunkenness on power and moonshine, elevating the tale in tone and meaning to a more adult level. But, I am getting ahead of the story.

Silver: Return to Treasure Island begins in July of 1802, some 35 years after the crew of the Hispaniola have returned to England, Long John Silver having escaped somewhere in South America to meet up with his shrewd and trustworthy wife, referred to only as a "woman of color" in Stevenson's book. Both Hawkins and Silver have set up inns, the Hispaniola and the Spyglass, respectively. Both are fathers, Hawkins' wife having died in childbirth, Silver's consumed her own intense brand of religion and prayer. Young Jim, who says of himself, "I was never a wicked child, but a disappointment to my father all the same," the spends his days wandering the marshy estuaries of the eastern reaches of the Thames, running errands for his father and listening to stories in the taproom. Natalie Silver, or Natty as she prefers, is roughly the same age as Jim and has had a similar upbringing in Wapping. However, her father is some twenty years older than Jim's and at death's door and needs his daughter to carry out his dying wish. Natty, along with her a pet mynah bird named Spot, arrives, shrouded and mysterious, having rowed her way to the Hispaniola to summon the disbelieving Jim. When he finally realizes the dark figure wants to speak to him, he steps into her boat and his life changes forever. Natty has come to ask Jim to steal his father's map and return to Treasure Island for the silver that was left behind.

Silver: Return to Treasure Island is narrated by Jim, who tells his story with the benefit of hindsight which helps foreshadow and build tension in the story. It is clear from the start that Jim is captivated by Natty and, as the story progresses and their time together on the Silver Nightingale stretches out before them, Jim falls in love with Silver's daughter who, for her own safety, is passing as a boy on this voyage. Her true identity - both as a girl and the daughter of Long John Silver - and Jim's is known only to Captain Beamish. I strongly suggest reading Silver: Return to Treasure Island with Treasure Island fresh in your mind, as the references to Stevenson's book will be all the more enjoyable. Israel Hands, the pirate Jim Hawkins the elder fought to the death in Treasure Island, is represented in Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Jordan Hands, nephew to Israel. Jordan Hands cuts an intriguing, if dangerous figure in the book. And, of course, crew member of the Silver Nightingale named Stevenson who spends his time in the crow's-nest. When the Silver Nightingale makes it to Treasure Island in the dark of night, the fires on shore let them know immediately that the marooners are alive and they dock on the other side of the island where the encounter a man in a pit, whimpering. The man is Scotland is part of the cargo of a slaving ship that wrecked on Treasure Island some five years earlier and he is fleeing from his captors, the marooners and surviving crew who have established their own plantation of sorts on the Island. As with Treasure Island, the reversals of fortune and turn of events are breathtaking. What elevates Silver: Return to Treasure Island beyond a children's book is the moral aspects of the story and the brutality of the marooners. Nevertheless, Motion manages to keep the excitement and danger high and the reader guessing until the end of the book who, if anyone, will return home with the silver.

Here is a glimpse or two into some of Motion's beautiful writing.

Chapter 8 : Reading the Map

My father advised me never to pick over the reasons for a decision once it has been taken. As a young boy I thought this meant he always knew his own mind. By the time I left for Treasure Island, I had come to believe he preferred not to look at past mistakes.

Perhaps this change of opinion proved nothing except the doubt I felt about my own behaviour. Certainly, when I woke head-to-to with Natty in the Spyglass, and lifted my head to inspect the marshes warming in the early sun, I imagined that each mist-wraith I saw wandering across them had come to accuse me. The whole shimmering panorama spoke directly to my moral sense - and I clutched nervously at the satchel inside my shirt, where I found the map safe enough.

When a fuller consciousness returned, I realised not even a whole army of accusers could now force me to return my prize to the sea-chest from which I had stolen it. Accepting this, I also understood that henceforth I would do better to keep looking forward, contemplating my future, rather than sneaking guilty glances over my shoulder. 


Source: 
Book: Gift from my wonderful friend in London!
Audio Book: Purchased


10.19.2012

Liar & Spy, by Rebecca Stead, 180 pp, RL 4




Rebecca Stead is the author of the 2009 Newbery winner, the stunning When You Reach Me. Liar & Spy is her third book. It's impossible to talk about this new book without mentioning When You Reach Me, but it's also unfair to compare the two - even though they do both have expertly concealed secrets that are revealed at the end of the book. As much as I wanted to read When You Reach Me, Part 2, I am glad that that is not the book that Rebecca Stead wrote next. With Liar & Spy  Stead continues to share her gift for creating characters and settings that are vivid and real while having them play out their dramas in realistic, engaging settings. And, because of some plot twists (one reviewer called Stead the M Night Shyamalan of children's literature, which is funny because the father of one characters owns the Sixth Sense Driving School) I am going to focus my review on these fascinating characters over the plot.

Liar & Spy is kind of a quiet book. While there is an emotional impact, it might not knock you over the way When You Reach Me or RJ Palacio's Liar & Spy
. Narrator Georges (silent S) is named after Georges Seurat and his pointillist style of of painting is a theme in in this book - things look one way from a distance, but as you move close you realize that you're looking at something different all together. Georges is adjusting to a move from a house (that had some pretty cool features added by his architect dad) to an apartment after his father loses his job. While the family downsizes and Georges dad tries to launch his own business fitting houses with antique fixtures and appliances, Georges mom, a nurse, picks up more shifts at the hospital and is never home. Georges faces a teasing at school that escalates to bullying, in part by a former friend, and he also finds himself drawn into the orbit of Bob English Who Draws, and oddball who always has a fistful of Sharpies and doodles incessantly. Bob English Who Draws is also an ardent follower of Benjamin Franklin's phonetic alphabet, and he begins to write notes to Georges during class using it. In fact, note writing is a big part of Liar & Spy. From Bob English Who Draws and his classroom notes, to the spilled Scrabble tiles that Georges and his mother use to exchange notes in passing, while he is asleep or she is at work, to the note on the door in the basement that begins a new friendship for Georges, language and communication are vital to this story.

Safer, the leaver of the note, "Spy Club Meeting - TODAY!" on the door to a room in the basement, strikes up a friendship with Georges and recruits him to help spy on the mysterious Mr X, a man dressed all in black who can be seen (on the video intercom) going in and out of the apartment building carrying a huge suitcase at strange intervals. Safer teaches Georges the key points of spying, having him stand guard at the intercom while Safer breaks into Mr X's apartment to look for clues. Safer and his family are an interesting wrinkle in the book. Pigeon, Safer and Candy have all been allowed to choose their own names once they were verbal and their names reflect pertinent aspects of their personality. The three are home schooled, or, more specifically "unschooled" if you are familiar with that curriculum, although Pigeon has decided to attend public high school for his freshman year. With the characters of Georges and Safer, Stead gives us the liars and spies of the title, but I won't tell you which one is which, or maybe they are both? Stead does a fine job of developing inner lives for these characters as well as emotional depth and delivers two apogees, one for Georges at school and one at home, which is fitting. Mid-story when Georges is suffering his tormentors as they enter their science classroom, Bob English Who Draws asks him why he puts up with it. Georges thinks, "It's like the hard G and the soft G, is what I want to tell Bob. The hard G goes to school, and nothing can hurt him. And the soft G is the one who's talking to you right now. Except he's only talking in my head. I used to know which one was the real me, but now I'm not so sure. Now it's like maybe there is no real me." Quiet, yes, but Liar & Spy is a book you won't forget.

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Gran Jatte by Georges Seutat, a painting that has hung over the sofa in Georges' home. For years he thought the painter's name was "Sir Ott."

Source: Review Copy

10.17.2012

A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse by Frank Viva


Frank Viva is the author/illustrator of Along a Long Road, one of the New York Times 10 Best Illustrated Books of 2011. An illustrator and designer, he runs a branding and design agency in Toronto and is passionate about his bike ride to the office. Viva also had an adventure aboard a Russian research vessel during a trip to the Antarctic Peninsula, which inspired his new book for TOON BOOKS, A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse, which is such a treat to read.

Viva's illustrations are vibrant and playful, the monochromatic tones evoking the the geography wonderfully. Viva tells the facts of the journey through the human companion to Mouse, who provides the childlike anticipation, impatience, and humor that makes this book a story.


The penguins and whales and antics of Mouse will delight young readers, but honestly, I just can't get over what a stunningly beautiful book A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse is! Look at how Viva creates the reflection on the water! Admire the color palette! Delight in the crisp lines! Buy this book even if you don't have a beginning reader because it's just so cool!!



Source: Review Copy



10.15.2012

Wonder by RJ Palacio, 320 pp, RL 4



Auggie Pullman is the star of Wonder by RJ Palacio, although not the only narrator of this layered, deeply moving, incredible book. Auggie is a ten-year-old boy who lost in the genetic lottery and was born with a number of facial deformities and related complexities, but no other handicaps beyond the way that peoples' reactions and responses to his physical appearance make his life difficult. Several year's worth of operations have improved Auggie's quality of life, if not his appearance, and he is a healthy boy with a sharp mind, a great sense of humor, a passion for all things Star Wars and a loving, thoughtful, protective family. After years of homeschooling, Auggie's parents decide it's time to think about sending him to school and go through the application process to enter him in the prestigious Beecher Prep school just down the street from their New York City home. When Principal Tushman handpicks three students to act as ambassadors (and hopefully friends once the school year starts) and give Auggie a tour of the campus a few weeks before the start of classes, he sets in motion a story of prejudice, lies, bullying, bravery, apologies and forgiveness that initially circles around Auggie but, as the story unfolds, comes to encompass everyone in his orbit. On the surface, Wonder is an uncommon story about a unique boy, on the whole, Wonder is a universal story about how it's not always easy to love another person, for any number of reasons, but when you do, the rewards are so much greater than sadness, pain, loneliness, and hard work that it sometimes takes to connect with someone else in this world.

Palacio makes her story of an outsider trying to fit in a universal story by examining the lives of Auggie's classmates, his sister and her friends and former friends. Palacio divides the book into eight parts, three of which are narrated by Auggie. Every few chapters a different character takes turns narrating the story, sometimes overlapping with Auggie's narrative, often providing insight that deepens and expands the story. Via, short for Olivia, is Auggie's older sister, and she takes up the narrative after Auggie. At fourteen, Via barely remembers life before Auggie but she also has a profound understanding of how his existence has shaped hers. In a way, her narrative is almost shocking after the sweet, knowing narrative of Auggie. While she loves her brother completely and would do anything for him, Via also, heartbreakingly, understands the he needs and even deserves the lion's share of attention, effort and exertion on the part of her parents and she has learned to live accordingly. She never asks for help with her homework but teaches herself. She understands when her parents can't attend her sporting events or school recitals. She is reading War and Peace and enjoying it. She is excited to be starting ninth grade at a new high school across town where no one knows she is the sister of the deformed boy. But, as the first day of school approaches and she finds herself abandoned by her two oldest, closest friends, the pressure of her life begins to get to her. As Via struggles with social situations, old friends, and new friends at her new school, Auggie goes through parallel, although sometimes more harrowing, situations. Palacio inhabits the narrative voices of her characters, teen and tween, boy and girl, wonderfully and they ring true, a major accomplishment in a middle grade novel.

Like Maria Russo, who reviewed Wonder for the New York Times in April of this year, I sobbed often as I read this book, and not just during Auggie's narrative. But, like her nine-year-old daughter who loved the book and pressed it on her friends, I think most kids will remain dry eyed. What adults may respond to is the wonder of the love and ability of the Pullman family to endure the struggles that Auggie's facial disfigurations have put all of them through with warmth, humor, graciousness and gratitude. This is one (rare) book where the main characters (although not all of the other characters) do not endure hardships because of neglectful or absent parents but instead have parents who create an environment in which they believe and trust that they can surmount their problems because they are supported and loved.


While I think the cover for the US edition of Wonder is FANTASTIC I also really like the UK cover, which references some really nice aspects of the book. Each of the eight parts of the book begin with pertinent, thought-provoking, often lovely quotes from sources as varied as Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry and Shakespeare to song lyrics from Eurythmics, Christina Aguilera and David Bowie, who's song "Space Oddity" and the character from the song, Major Tom, are a major thread in Wonder. Another interesting fact, RJ Palacio worked most of her life as an art director and graphic designer, designing book jackets for other people! While she did not design the jacket for her debut novel, she does love it. 

One final thread of Wonder that I really, really loved is Mr Browne, Auggie's fifth grade English teacher, and his use of precepts in his classroom. He tells his kids that, "learning who you are is what you're here to do." Through a series of class discussions and writings, they are going to figure out who they are by the end of the school year and, over the summer, they are even going to make up their own precepts and send them to Mr Browne on a postcard. On her website, RJ Palacio is kind enough to share Mr Browne's (and Auggie's) precepts. Click here to read them! Auggie's precept, especially the way that he comes to it, is my favorite part of this amazing book.

Source: Purchased Audio Book

10.12.2012

The Spindlers by Lauren Oliver, 246 pp, RL 4


Lauren Oliver is the author of the brilliant YA dystopian trilogy that beings with Delirium and a society where romantic love is considered a disease that should and can be eradicated from the human experience on a child's eighteenth birthday (after all, love can make you feel like you are on the top of the world or in the depths of despair.) She is also the author of another captivating YA novel that makes you think, Before I Fall. And then Oliver decided to write middle grade fantasy! How often does that happen, a teen author shifting gears like that? With Liesl & Po, Oliver crafted a vaguely Dickensian tale of two orphans, each with ghoulish guardians, a ghost with a ghost-pet named Bundle and a missing box of magic. Now, Oliver treats lovers of fantasy, especially unseen worlds, to a very special experience with her newest book, The Spindlers.

With fantastic cover art and too-small chapter heading illustrations by Iacopo Bruno (take a look at his website! Bruno is a wonderful cover artist and has illustrated the jackets for many books you'll regocnize. Even more fun, being Italian, he has illustrated covers for the Italian translations of several American kid's books you know!) The Spindlers is without a doubt the kind of book a child will read and remember and reminisce about well into adulthood. I know that, in the weeks since I read/listened to the book moments, scenes and an overall appreciation for the character of Liza and her love for her little brother are still swirling in my mind. Oliver brings two crucial talents to a book of this nature - a gift for poetic language that will make you stop and savor her writing, especially if you are reading this book out loud, which I HIGHLY recommend, and a stellar imagination that can take people, places and things we have seen before and rearrange and refashion them in a way that feels both new and comfortably familiar and, when all is said and done, works out to make perfect sense, leaving no loose ends. If you have ever tried to tell a story or write a story of this nature, or if you have read many stories of this nature than I have no doubt you can appreciate how impressive that is.

The Spindlers begins with Liza waking up one morning to find that her "chubby, stubby, candy-grubbing, pancake loving younger brother, who irritated and amused her" is not himself. In fact, after a morning of tests and observations, Liza is sure that this fake-Patrick has had his soul taken by the Spindlers. Spindlers, as explained to Liza and Patrick cautiously by Anna, their beloved teenage babysitter who has left them to go to college, are like spiders, but the have human hands at the end of their eight legs and only two eyes, which are huge and crescent shaped. Most often, they are no bigger than the head of a pin, but they can grow to the size of a car and, while they are scared of brooms, they are impossible to kill, even with a broom. And they live underground. Resolving to rescue Patrick, Liza tries to sneak past her parents late at night while her mother sits, as she often does, in front of a pile of bills that has left an indelible crease between her eyes like an angry exclamation point, and her father tries to read a book without his missing reading glasses. When Liza is caught taking the broom she tries to explain about Patrick and the Spindlers and, after a brief pause, her mother's face collapses "like a balloon deflating," and she says to Liza in a tired voice, "We've talked about your stories before, haven't we?" For Liza, telling stories is like "weaving and knotting an endless rope. . . no matter how dark or terrible the pit she found herself in, she could pull herself out, inch by inch and hand over hand, on the long rope of stories." Her mother's tired response seems to say, "I have nearly had enough of you," which is almost more than Liza can bear, making her wish ever more fervently that Anna would return and that she was, in fact, her true sister just like she had imagined. Anna, after all, was the only person Liza had ever met who believed the 'real world was not just grocery stores and park playgrounds, textbooks and toilet paper," but "gnomes and spindlers and different worlds, too." 

Wearing her pajamas, tennis shoes with no socks and armed with a broom, Liza heads underground and The Spindlers takes a bit of an Alice in Wonderland turn, with a grand ball, a court trial and a sumptuous feast. But, The Spindlers is so much more. Liza heads to the basement of her house, pushes aside a bookshelf and heads into the dark crawlspace that seems, somehow, wider than she remembers. And, as she feared, she trips in the dark and finds herself hurtling downward where she lands on what she thinks is a large furry rug but is, in fact, Mirabella, the largest and strangest rat Liza has ever seen. Standing on her hind legs and wearing a wig, loads of make-up and a skirt made out of newspaper, Mirabella is very proud, often haughty and prone to babbling, singing, easily hurt feelings and lectures. Mirabella agrees to act as Liza's guide, taking her to the dreaded spindlers so she can retrieve Patrick's soul. Along the way they pass through the Troglod Market, the Court of Stones, the Live Forest and the River of Knowlegde. Liza encounters the Lumer-Lumpen, glowworms that are revered for the supposed wisdom, dancing nids, the frightening scawgs - hag like creatures that can appear as beautiful young women who trap their victims with a sleep-inducing feast, and moribats, minions of the Queen of the Spindlers. But, my favorite creation of Oliver's are the Nocturni, shadowy flying creatures who are dream-bringers and carriers of the seeds of hope, poppyseed-sized and, at their center, filled with as much light as the sun. The seeds of hope grow on the bushes of hope in the Live Forest and, after being instructed as to what they are by Mirabella, Liza pockets a handful and uses them to great effect below and above ground. There is one nocturni for every human being and they stay with them forever, carrying their souls to the Shadow World when they die, watching over them and keeping them safe forever. It is very rare for a human to meet her nocturni and Liza is deeply impressed and moved by the opportunity to meet hers.

The Spindlers ends with a battle of the wits that Liza barely overcomes, only to be met with the sheer power and anger of the Queen of the Spindlers that ends in a spectacular climax with the amazing spindler webs falling to Liza, the nocturni and a pack of rats. As I said above, Oliver weaves the threads of her story together into a very satisfying ending that returns to Liza's somber home life, her weary parents and her beloved brother who listens to her stories and not only believes them but embellishes them. Beyond the entrancing, enchanting, sometimes dangerous and grimy magical world Oliver has brought to life, with The Spindlers she has written a story about the sometimes hard to quantify bond between a sister and brother, a bond that is as strong as the long rope of stories Liza has knotted for herself and Patrick.

Source: Review Copy Book AND Purchased audio book


10.10.2012

Hello! Hello! by Matthew Cordell

I LOVE the work of illustrator and author Matthew Cordell and I think I've reviewed almost everything he's done here. And, while I think I love all his books equally, like I love my three children equally, I think his new book, hello! hello!, just might be his best yet. Although this brilliant, beautiful book doesn't come out until October 23 of this year, it received a rave review from multiple award winning picture book author and illustrator David Small in the New York Times Book Reivew last weekend, so I am jumping the gun, too. But really, what do I have to say that David Small didn't? Seriously, just read his review. However, if you are too lazy to click through or have some issue with the New York Times, I will do my best to tell you why you need to own this book. First and foremost, not only is hello! hello! a reminder to our kids, more importantly, it is a reminder to US, the adults, the parents, the caregivers. A reminder that we NEED, a reminder we especially need in the nondigital, non-electronic, format of the picture book.


I love a picture book where the story starts before the title page, and hello! hello! does just that. In the prologue, we see a little girl working her way through a series of devices, from a handheld gaming device to a laptop to a cell phone to a flat screen television. For one reason or another, each one fails to hold her attention. (That still happens, right? I know it does because I watch my eight year old make his way through the various devices in our house on a Saturday, eventually heading off to play Legos or something outside.) After the title page, we watch the little redhead make her way through the house, greeting her mother, father and brother Bob, getting only a halfhearted "hello" in return (if at all, as Bob has headphones on) as everyone else is plugged into their devices. "Sigh." is her response. However, a slightly opened door and a gust of wind blows in a colorful leaf that catches her attention. She follows the call of the leaves and, at this point, the text that looks like what you see in a digital readout shifts to a flowing, hand lettered font that is and organic and cheerful. At this moment, the world begins to say "hello" to the little girl. In fact, the world says, "Hello Lydia." I think it is so interesting, significant and meaningful that, while in her own home where everyone is plugged into electronic worlds, she is nameless. Revealing her name once she is in nature is the kind of subtle storytelling that is the mark of a true master of the craft.

 Lydia explores her world and, happily, we find that her imagination has not been dimmed by the uses of gadgets (thank you, Mr Cordell, for cutting us parents a little break here.) Cordell's illustrations of these pages are GLORIOUS (see tiny image below...) but short lived. Lydia's phone rings. Her frantic parents have discovered her missing and are calling her home.

 I love how David Small characterizes this passage in the book and I am going to quote him mightily here: 

Across an empty page she runs home, back to the gray interior, where Mom and Dad — torn away from their machines — greet her with an irritated “hello?” in computerized font. Enthusiastically she greets them back in hand-drawn “Hello’s!” while, at the same time, and in handy fashion, she trades each of them a thing she has found outside — a leaf, a flower, a ladybug — for the machines to which they have been glued.

The final spread has the whole family outdoors, holding hands. A tree sheds its bright fall leaves. A breeze blows the leaves toward the humans in a beckoning fashion. The parents are still looking a little conformist-robotic and slightly reluctant to break away from their virtual reality, but the two children - barefoot - are delightedly wiggling their bare toes in the dirt.

Children's books that begin their lives with the intent to convey an important message generally fall flat and fail to capture anyone's fancy. This one succeeds because it has appealing characters in situations that intrigue us. While the message was perhaps the main reason for baking, it comes along not as the cake itself, but as the icing.


I could not have said it better. And, in one final quote, I must share with you what this award winning picture book illustrator said of his fellow illustrator. Small writes that Cordell's "art is gloriously old-style, hand-drawn in ink with a bamboo pen. The color is applied with old-fashioned watercolor (harder to learn than Photoshop!) while the type is quite obviously computer made, in that rigid fractured font you see on digital clocks everywhere. The contrast of hand-drawn and machine-issued is cleverly sustained through the first half of the book, where the little girl lives in a dull, indoor world." And, almost finally, as with many of Cordell's books, remove the dust jacket for an extra treat!

In fact, Cordell has a fascinating blog post about how he came to hand letter this book, his inspirations and his sources. Cordell also shares the moment that led him to write this book in the post Hello! Hello! Origins. Which brings me back to what I said at the start of this review: hello! hello! is a reminder to us parents and kids - not a reprimand. The picture Cordell shares on his blog of his then-two-year-old daughter playing with a laptop she spilled coffee on, with Dad in the background on another laptop, is his honest admission that he needs this reminder as much as any of us do. His story about how his daughter delivered this reminder (and the idea for the book) is really worth reading!

And finally, does this actually defeat the message of the book? Maybe, but here goes anyway....




Source : Review Copy



10.08.2012

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz, 384 pp, RL 5


Laura Amy Schlitz is the author of the Newbery winner Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village. She is the author of one of my favorite books, A Drowned Maiden's Hair: A Melodrama, that reads a bit like a Gothic Anne of Green Gables if an had been adopted by a trio of elderly sisters who pretend to be clairvoyants, preying on wealthy patrons who have lost loved ones. Her new book, Splendors and Glooms, the title taken from a line of Shelley's poem Adonais, is magnificent. Set in London in the fog of autumn, 1860, the story is as gloomy and grim as the sooty Industrial era city it is set in, but it is also bright with characters who are complexly developed, flawed and, while not always likable, completely compelling. I read Splendors and Glooms slowly, savoring the story.

Loss is at the heart of every character in this Dickensian novel. When the story begins, it is November 6th, the day of Clara Wintermute's twelfth birthday.  Yet, it is clear from the start that this is a child who lives a life of repression and quietude. As the story unfolds, we learn that Clara was once one of five children. Her siblings, including her twin brother Charles Augustus, died five years ago from cholera after eating tainted watercress. Clara escaped the same fate because she refused to eat her watercress, but she is also keeping a dark secret that she carries with her, making her obedient to her mother's grim insistence that they keep mourning continually. Their house is crowded with portraits, death masks and funeral photos of the dead Wintermute children and every holiday Mrs Wintermute insists they visit the family mausoleum and Kensal Green. A chance encounter in the park with puppeteer Gaspare Grissini and his Venetian fantoccini and the crying of extremely rare tears on her part bring the shabby man and his young assistants into the Wimtermute home to perform for the guests at Clara's birthday party. Enchanted by Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, Grissini's helpers, Clara arranges to have tea with them before they set up for their show. A bond is formed between the three, although none of them realize it, a connection that will play itself out in various ways as the novel unfolds. 

Unbeknownst to Lizzie Rose and Parsefall (true to his name, Parsefall is an innocent who is meant to steal a valuable relic) Grissini is a wicked magician who kidnaps children from wealthy families, enchants them into puppet form then, after retrieving the ransom, returns them home, broken shells of their former selves. This is to be the fate of Clara Wintermute until, on the very night that he is to meet Dr Wintermute (in disguise) in the family mausoleum, he is called forth to the home of a more powerful witch whom he once pretended to love in order to steal her power from her. Cassandra Sargedo, the elderly witch we first meet in the prologue, is in possession of a fire opal that is threatening to end her life in the midst of fever and flames like those women who possessed it before her. But, some forty years ago before they parted for a final time and she put a powerful curse on him, Grissini was on the verge of telling her how to break the spell of the fire opal. Grissini disappears to the north of England in the middle of the night after falling down a flight of stairs and appearing to be dead. Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are delighted to be free of him, but quickly fall into almost as bad straits as when they were under Grissini's "care." Their landlady, the slovenly, gin loving Mrs Pinchbeck (a widow who once acted on the stage and never lets a dramatic moment pass without overacting it) allows them to continue on in their rooms but turns Lizzie Rose into an indentured servant of sorts, at the mercy of Mrs Pinchbeck's odious stepson who makes unseemly advances toward Lizzie Rose whenever he visits. Parsefall, almost as good at the puppets as Grissini, takes their trunk out and performs when he can, but this leads to trouble as well. A letter from a mysterious benefactor addressed to Grissini and a trove of pick-pocketed valuables that the children discover hidden in his mattress lead to a fantastic evening out - a sumptuous meal and a visit to Egyptian Hall to see the Royal Marionettes - and a train ride north to an unknown woman who promises to lift them out of the mire and tangle their lives have become.

Woven into this already suspenseful story are threads of a powerful magic. Parsefall discovers the puppet Clara and finds her the perfect marionette to practice the ballet dance with - a dance Grissini refused to teach him. Somehow, it seems that Clara can enter his thoughts and comes to have a deep understanding of him and his past suffering. As the children and the puppet that is Clara arrive at Strachan's Ghyll, the home of their benefactor, Cassandra Sargedo, they communicate more and more in this way as they are manipulated by the witch and Grissini, who is hiding there as well. Weak and dying but longing to be free of the stone and it's destructive power - a power that has brought wealth and admirers to her since she stole the stone as a girl - Cassandra casts some gruesome spells and suffers horribly, as does Grissini. In turn, they cause Clara and Parsefall to suffer. Some of these moments were almost more than I could bear, but the characters themselves are so strong and true that I continued reading. Schlitz has layered her story with so many amazing lives and backstories and the world that she creates in this Victorian setting is so complete and rich that I was happy to wander it with the main characters for almost 400 pages. The perspective shifts between characters, allowing the reader to get to know them well and individually. I'm not exactly sure what kind of reader will pick up this book and enjoy it. Readers of Cornelia Funke's Inkworld books will find similarities in the suffering of the characters, young and old, and the evil nature of the magic at work in these worlds. Readers of Frances Hodgson Burnett will recognize the era and the vast differences between the classes. Readers who like a good ghost story like The Aviary by Kathleen O'Dell or The Whispering House by Rebecca Wade will appreciate the spooky setting. And, hopefully, many adults will read this extraordinarily well written book and speak of it passionately to all the young readers they know, inspiring them to read it even if it isn't their normal cup of tea...

If you like this book, don't miss:


And definitely don't miss Joan Aiken's fantastic WOLVES CHRONICLES, beginning with













Source: Review Copy