Saturday, December 3, 2016

December's Book of the Month--Raymie Nightingale

December’s Book of the Month is RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE, by the astonishing Kate DiCamillo. How does she do it: write book after strong book, all different, and all worthwhile?

Raymie Clarke is determined to learn how to twirl a baton. She’s got to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, so her father will read about her in the newspaper, leave the dental hygienist he ran off with, and come back home. But even though baton twirling lessons do not go as planned, Raymie meets Louisiana Elefante (daughter of the famous Flying Elefantes) and Beverly Tapinski (lock picker extraordinaire). Louisiana dubs them the Three Rancheros, “bound to each other through thick and thin.” Despite Beverly’s rather persistent grumbling, good-deed-doing ensues (sort of), as well as lots of adventures and insights into the human condition. Ramie’s soul expands and contracts as she considers such existential questions as the meaning of life, and the role of story.

There is not one misplaced or casual word in this book. Each statement is elegantly crafted and contributes to the whole. It’s been said that each chapter of Because of Winn-Dixie could stand alone as a short story—while reading RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE, I felt like the entire novel was a short story. Everything single thing is important, and circles back around. It’s funny, and it’s wry, and it’s chock full of wisdom that will likely go over the heads of many readers who are enjoying the darkly zany plot line. But maybe they will find it again, maybe even years later and, looking through, be amazed at all that’s packed in here.

Have you read RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE? What do you think?


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

November Recommendations

Have you read anything fun lately? Here are some of my recent favorites:


WOLF HOLLOW, by Lauren Wolk, is one of my very favorite books of 2016. Twelve-year-old Annabelle lives a quiet life in rural Pennsylvania, until Betty Glengarry shows up with all of her cruel, bullying ways. Annabelle must protect her two small brothers, and also the shell-shocked WWl veteran, Toby, even when town sentiment tries to dictate otherwise. Annabelle’s courage and compassion will touch readers, as she learns to stand up for what she knows is right, in this pitch-perfect coming of age story. (MG)

Delia Sherman (Changeling) has written another amusing, offbeat magical fantasy in THE EVIL WIZARD SMALLBONE. When Nick runs away from his horrible uncle in the middle of a blizzard, he takes refuge at a magical shop called Evil Wizard Books. The resident wizard makes Nick his apprentice, but refuses to teach him any magic. Luckily the bookstore does so instead. Nearby residents include a town of eerily similar people (supposedly under the protection of Nick’s master, the Evil Wizard Smallbone) as well as the Evil Wizard Fidelou with his pack of evil shape-shifting bikers. A fun story examining whether an evil wizard can also be good, the qualities necessary for success, and the importance of writing one’s own story. (MG)

With intriguing, flawed characters and a gripping storyline, WRECKED, by Maria Padian, explores a college rape case in which alcohol is involved, evidence is scarce, and social-media insults are flying. Alternating chapters reflect the perspectives of Haley, roommate of the accuser, and Richard, housemate of the accused, who are also—very inconveniently—developing a sweet, stormy, and wholly believable romance. Powerful, suspenseful, and timely—don't miss this one! (YA)

Picture Books

ONE DAY, THE END: Short, Very Short, Shorter-than-Ever Stories, written by Rebecca Kai Dotlich, illustrated by Fred Koehler, takes a fascinating look at what happens when a picture book text is pared down to its barest essentials, allowing the illustrations to provide all of the—fun-- details. It’s worth studying just for that, but it’s also a completely entertaining homage to the art of storytelling itself.

THEY ALL SAW A CAT, by Brendan Wenzel, is a beautifully illustrated musing on perspective, specifically the many different ways a roaming kitty appears to the many different animals—and one human—who encounter it.

In A CHILD OF BOOKS, artists Oliver Jeffers (The Day the Crayons  Quit) and Sam Winston use typography, watercolor, pencil, and digital collage to create a magical story celebrating the power of imagination. It's a stunning collaboration by for the older picture book crowd to enjoy.


Thursday, November 3, 2016

November's Book of the Month--Unbecoming

November’s Book of the Month is UNBECOMING, by Jenny Downham, a story about three generations of red-headed women dealing with life, love, and dementia.

Katie’s grandmother, Mary, suddenly turns up, and she's having trouble with her memory. She doesn’t recognize Katie, Katie's brother Chris, or even her own daughter, Katie’s mother Caroline. To make matters worse, Caroline and Mary have had an extremely difficult relationship, and Caroline bitterly resents having to take Mary in. It’s a mess, but Katie feels drawn to the mysterious grandmother she never knew she had.

While Mary’s dementia is a challenge, Katie also struggles with her own issues. Like being seventeen and getting tormented for kissing her best friend Esme, dealing with intense pressure from her mom to be perfect, and figuring out how to take charge of her own, soon-to-be-adult life. Mary’s presence brings plenty of unanswered questions, and the family begins to peel back the layers to expose a whole slew of secrets and misunderstandings. UNBECOMING describes the importance of being true to one’s own self vs. the stifling power of conforming to expectations, while also creating a multi-faceted take on family, past, present, and future.

The author creates compelling strands for all three women. But, first and foremost, it's Katie’s story, as she grows and begins to come into her own, allowing the stories of the others to feed into who she is and who she is struggling to become. Heartfelt and wise, UNBECOMING is also accomplished on a much more intimate level, with Downham (also the author of Before I Die) crafting beautiful words into beautiful sentences, into paragraphs and chapters that are a joy to read.


Friday, October 28, 2016

Wrecked--Shelf Awareness

YA Review: Wrecked

Wrecked by Maria Padian (Algonquin, $17.95 hardcover, 368p., ages 14-up, 9781616206246)

With intriguing, flawed characters and a gripping storyline, Wrecked by Maria Padian (Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress) offers readers a view of a college sexual assault case that is as engrossing as it is important.

MacCallum freshman Haley Dougherty is a devoted soccer player dealing with her third concussion, facing the bitter truth that "the defining activity of her life" is too risky for her now. It's not the ideal time for her quiet, "├╝berstudious" pre-med roommate, Jenny James, to fall apart, too. Haley, with "her bruised, barely-able-to-concentrate brain," soon learns what's behind Jenny's tears: she "drank some stuff" and was raped after leaving Conundrum, a notorious party house. When Jenny files a formal complaint, Haley becomes Jenny's adviser for the sexual assault case. Good-hearted "Math Dude" Richard Brandt lives with Jordan Bockus in a house next door to Conundrum. Over a few beers, Richard learns that Jordan got "a little action" with a freshman from the recent party there. That freshman was Jenny. Though Jordan is no real friend of his, Richard reluctantly agrees to be his housemate's adviser after Jenny files her complaint.

Wrecked soberly explores a college rape case in which alcohol is involved, memories are muddled, evidence is scarce, and social-media insults are flying. Alternating chapters reflect the perspectives of Haley and Richard who, inconveniently, given the confidential nature of their adviser roles, develop a tentative, sweet, stormy and wholly believable romance during the tangled investigation. In between chapters are short passages that chronicle a more complete, and ultimately devastating, version of events from the night of the rape. Powerful, suspenseful and illuminating. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: Maria Padian's valuable, riveting novel (for male and female high school and college students alike) examines the anguish and complexity of a college rape case.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

October Recommendations

Have you read anything great lately? Here are my recent favorites:


THE SECRET KEEPERS is by Trenton Lee Stewart, who also wrote The Mysterious Benedict Society. It’s a wonderful, suspense-filled story, wherein eleven-year-old Reuben Pedley squeezes into the narrowest alley he’s ever seen, climbs to a dangerously high ledge, and discovers a wonderful treasure—a round, antique pocket watch with an incredible secret power. Reuben has to escape danger after danger to outwit The Smoke, the dangerous mob boss-like ruler of New Umbra, who wants that watch at all costs! Smart fiction for readers who aren’t afraid of a long book. (MG)

THE FORBIDDEN WISH, by Jessica Khoury, is a superb original take on the story of Aladdin. Zahra is the genie of the lamp, where she’s been imprisoned for hundreds of years. Apparently she got too emotionally involved with her last master and caused the destruction of an empire. When Aladdin finds her and takes her to his city, the King of the Jinn forces Zahra into a bargain. But which will she chose—love or freedom? Really great adaptation! (YA)

Two amazing early readers are from Holiday House’s I Like to Read series.:
In PUG, Ethan Long tells a complete, funny story, with just 30 words (plus some doggie yapping). Pug wants to go out, but everyone is warm and cozy inside. Who wins? and why?
Likewise, in UP, Joe Cepeda pulls off a wholly imaginative tale using only 27 words. In both cases, excellent full-color art does a lot of heavy lifting. These two books are standout examples of the genre.

Picture Books:

In MOTOR MILES, by picture book master John Burningham, we meet Miles, a difficult dog who doesn’t seem to like doing any of the normal doggy things. What Miles does like is going for rides in the car. So Mr. Huddy, the man who lives next door, makes Miles his own car. Of course he does! Miles practices a lot, and pretty soon he’s driving himself and his owner Norman to school, to the seaside, to the countryside, and all over the place. When Norman grows too big to join Miles in his car, Mr. Huddy comes to the rescue once again. Just amazing!

GIANT SQUID, written by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Eric Rohmann, is stunning non-fiction from the Neal Porter imprint at Roaring Brook. Fleming's beautiful poetic text is perfectly paired with Caldecott-medalist Rohmann’s lush oil paintings, and the result is a surprisingly comprehensive portrait of the elusive creature.

Finally, I’ve been a fan of the Little Elliot books right from the beginning, and this third one doesn’t disappoint. In LITTLE ELLIOT, BIG FUN, by Mike Curato, we join Little Elliot and Mouse as they visit the amusement park. The rides are all too scary for Little Elliot, until Mouse shows his friend something special. A sweet story is accompanied by the distinctive, detailed art that makes it so special.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Romantics--Shelf Awareness Pro

YA Review: The Romantics

The Romantics by Leah Konen (Amulet/Abrams, $18.95 hardcover, 336p., ages 13-up, 9781419721939, November 1, 2016)

This charming novel, narrated by Love herself ("[f]requently referenced, usually misunderstood"), is both a love story and a romantic comedy. Ironically, that's the genre most hated by movie buff and high school senior Gael Brennan, who is a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock and Wes Anderson films. So it figures that romantic comedy is a favorite of Sammy Sutton, the incredibly annoying babysitter of Gael's little sister, Piper.

According to Love, Gael is a Romantic, someone "who ruthlessly believes in Love in its finest form." Unfortunately, Gael's beautiful new girlfriend, Anika, does not. She's an Adventurer, defined as someone who "primarily seeks out a partner for life's adventures (and misadventures...)." Shortly after Gael professes his love to her, a very quick "one month to the day since they'd first kissed," Gael arrives at school early to discover Anika liplocked with his best friend, Mason.

Heartbroken, Gael punches Mason, quits band and generally mopes around, watching movies and eating snack-sized Snickers bars until his birthday. That's when his mom, oblivious to "The Ultimate Betrayal," invites Anika and Mason to Gael's birthday dinner. Overcome, Gael flees the restaurant, only to be run down by cute, first-year college student Cara, on her bicycle. As Love informs her readers, this accident leads to that "dreaded enemy of True Love since the dawn of freaking time," the Rebound.

As Gael, a Romeo, tries to find his Juliet, his problems are magnified by the reality that his own parents have separated. According to Love, Gael is "rocking a triple-whammy of heartbreak," caused by his parents' split, Anika's rejection and Mason's betrayal. Until she cheated on him, dating Anika distracted Gael from the pain of his broken family, and now maybe Cara (despite the obvious flaw that she's into James Cameron movies) can do the same. Meanwhile, Gael begins to realize that babysitter Sammy is good company, and quickly becoming a friend he doesn't want to lose. (At least she likes Serpico.)

Gael is a warm and sympathetic character, and the narrator Love thinks his passion for movies works beautifully with his love of love. Peeking into Gael's future, Love sees Gael drawing on his own experiences to make a "gorgeous, heartbreaking movie," and enjoying a long career inspiring people all over the world to fall in love--as long as he meets the right girl. Throughout The Romantics, Love carries on a droll commentary about the nature of the human heart and Gael's relationships with friends, his little sister, his parents and possible girlfriends, all the while enlightening readers as to how she works her magic. This playful, entertaining take on love by Leah Konen (The Last Time We Were Us; The After Girls) should find plenty of ardent fans. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI. 

Shelf Talker: This teen love story, wittily narrated by Love herself, follows a high school senior and bona fide Romantic through a series of amorous entanglements.

Monday, October 3, 2016

October's Book of the Month--The Nest

Welcome! October’s Book of the Month is the wonderfully creepy mid-grade book, THE NEST, written by Kenneth Oppel, with occasional (and also wonderfully creepy) illustrations by Jon Klassen.

There’s something wrong with Steve’s baby brother. No one really knows what, although it’s pretty certain he won't develop normally. When Steve first has the dream, he thinks he’s seeing an angel who tells him she has come to help with the baby, and this makes him feel better.

The dream seems so benign at first. Angels want to help fix the baby. Such a hopeful dream. But dread slowly builds, as a swarm of strange grey wasps make their nest outside the baby’s room. The Queen begins to manipulate Steve, begins to change her story. Slowly, Steve comes to realize that her kind of help may not be the kind his family needs.

This book has some important things to say on dealing with illness in families, on how hard it is for a kid with OCD to feel normal, and on how so many “normal” people may actually be broken, too, in their own ways. “No one’s perfect,” the babysitter, Vanessa, says. At times Steve feels “shattered and all in pieces,” but slowly he takes responsibility for doing what he can, and learns a lot about love and family along the way.

I love the way dread slowly builds. Each chapter begins with the corresponding number of wasps—each has one additional wasp, and this oh-so subtly, yet effectively, adds to the growing horror. By the climax, there is one especially striking page with no words. And the ear—look for the illustration of the baby’s ear!

Yes, this book is creepy, yes it’s a bit frightening, but I remember being fascinated as a kid with ghost stories and movies about all things ghoulish. I liked to be scared, and I liked feeling the horror. I think kids will like THE NEST.