Saturday, February 15, 2020

February Recommendations


A HEART SO FIERCE AND BROKEN, by Brigid Kemmerer, is the long-awaited sequel to her fabulous Beauty and the Beast retelling, A CURSE SO DARK AND LONELY. In this new installment, even though the curse has been broken, troubles still abound for Prince Rhen and Princess Harper. There are rumors that Rhen is not, in fact, the rightful heir to Emberfall. Queen Karis Luran may attack at any time. And Rhen's longest-tenured and most trusted Royal Guardsman, Grey, has been gone for months without word. Rhen swears he will kill any rival heir who appears bearing magical powers, so the only thing that could make all this worse is if Grey is the heir! Seamless storytelling--from three points of view—make this second volume a pleasure from cover to cover. (YA)

Graphic Novels:

In PUMPKINHEADS, Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks take readers to the pumpkin patch where best friends Deja and Josiah have worked every autumn for the last three years. Now that they’re seniors and college is on the horizon, this is the last Halloween they’ll be spending here for a while. Deja has decided that Josie should leave with no regrets: tonight he has to actually talk to The Fudge Shoppe Girl, aka Marcy, who he’s he’s been crushing on for as long as they’ve all worked together. Hijinks ensue, and the two friends enjoy a night full of misadventures and revelations—and not nearly enough snacks. (YA)

BECOMING RBG: RUTH BADER GINSBURG’S JOURNEY TO JUSTiCE, written by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Whitney Gardner, is a solid introduction to this Supreme Court Justice and “modern feminist icon.” Beginning with her childhood as a feisty girl growing up in Brooklyn, where reading introduced her “to capable and clever girls doing satisfying, useful work out in the world,” thorough her education at Cornell, where she fell in love with the law and “effective writing,” on through her time as one of only nine women out of five hundred in Harvard Law School, to her placement as professor, judge and beyond, Ruth excelled, even as she fought bigotry and championed equal rights for all. The graphic novel format makes this inspirational biography both appealing and accessible. (YA)

Picture Books:

BEAR IS AWAKE! AN ALPHABET STORY, by Hannah E. Harrison, tells a complete story, from Aa to Zz. Awakening on the first spread is a big bear who makes his way to a cozy cabin, where he rings the doorbell and enters excitedly and on and on, in this funny adventure of a hungry bear and his newly-found human friend. Gouache illustrations cleverly illustrate the spare text.

ONE FOX: A COUNTING BOOK THRILLER, by Kate Read, is a counting book that also has a narrative arc. One famished fox, with his two sly eyes, spots three plump hens, and away we go! Mixed media illustrations—done with collage and painting—are strong, colorful, and expressive.

LITTLE DOCTOR AND THE FEARLESS BEAST, by Sophie Gilmore, is a real charmer. All the crocodiles come to see the child they call Little Doctor, who treats each one of them with care. She fixes broken tails, and tweezes out splinters, and, in return, the crocs tell her tales of fearless legendary beasts. Until, one day, one of those very beasts, Big Mean, arrives at her cottage with her jaws clamped shut. The illustrations, which look to be watercolors, are delightful.


Monday, February 3, 2020

February's Book of the Month--The Fountains of Silence

January’s Book of the Month is THE FOUNTAINS OF SILENCE, by the always amazing Ruta Sepetys.

Ana works at the Castellana Hilton Madrid, formerly a palace, and now an opulent hotel for Americans in Generalísimo Franco’s Spain. The fascist dictator is encouraging “American diplomats, actors, and musicians” to visit the country again, to “socialize and mingle into the pale hours of morning.” Ana meets Daniel Matheson, the earnest son of an oil tycoon who prefers photography and journalism to the family business. Ana and Daniel feel an undeniable attraction. But, for most Spaniards, the present under Franco is a desperate struggle. As the connection between Ana and Daniel grows, so does Daniel’s awareness of the atrocities teeming below the surface of the Madrid which he as a tourist is allowed to see, atrocities which include the fate of Ana’s parents and the plight of her desperately poor family.

I’ve tried to understand how I was so quickly drawn into a novel whose subject I know nothing about, and I’ve decided it’s mainly two things which sound—deceptively--simple: the author immediately grounds readers in a specific place and she gives us characters we care about. Right away she sets a powerful scene, vividly describing the line outside the butcher shop, and the boy who works there doling out blood. On the next pages, we learn how he witnessed the death of his father, and, by the time we get to one of the main characters, Ana, we are hooked. Ana and the glowing splendor of the hotel are described in stark relief to the previous pages, and they, too, draw readers in. There’s also plenty of tension provided by the menacing soldiers and stifling restrictions citizens endure—and Daniel stumbles onto—which have been set in place by the dictator Franco.

Sepetys intersperses her saga with historical documents and photographs, tying the very human face of her narrative to the actual struggles of Spain and its people after the Spanish Civil War. It’s masterfully done!

Or so I think. Have you read THE FOUNTAINS OF SILENCE? What do you think?


Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Shelf Awareness--Jinxed

MG Review: Jinxed

Jinxed by Amy McCulloch (Sourcebooks Young Readers, 336p., ages 8-12, 9781492683742)

Set in a world where smartphones have evolved into "cute and interactive" cyber companions called bakus, Jinxed is a thrilling, techno-savvy series opener starring an appealing, self-motivated "total nerd" who finds her life's focus called into question.

Twelve-year-old Lacey Chu badly wants to be accepted into her dream school, Profectus Academy of Science and Technology. Once there, she knows she'll get a "level three spaniel" baku and be fast-tracked to work for Moncha Corp., "the largest tech firm in North America." Lacey wants to be a companioneer so she can "design new animals" and work on old ones, just like her idol, Moncha founder Monica Chan. But Lacey's dreams are dashed when Profectus rejects her. While searching in a ravine for her friend's lost baku, Lacey comes across "a crumpled pile of black metal"--a very expensive, but nearly destroyed cat baku. Soon after Lacey "leashes" Jinx, a message arrives welcoming her to Profectus. Lacey secretly restores the baku in time for school, where she wins a coveted spot on the competitive baku battle team. But Jinx isn't like the other bakus, and Lacey's attempts to keep a low profile while she figures out what's happening keep going awry.

Amy McCulloch (The Potion Diaries) ratchets up the tension, with bitter rivalries forming among the baku-battling students, along with ever-growing questions surrounding Jinx's creator and Lacey's acceptance into Profectus. Twists, turns and a touch of espionage, along with shades of Philip Pullman's daemons and Hogwarts' quidditch matches, make Jinxed a real winner. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: Twelve-year-old Lacey Chu dreams of working for the high-tech Moncha Corp., but complications abound as she begins attending its training school, Profectus Academy.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Shelf Awareness--What's Up, Maloo?

PB Review: What's Up, Maloo?

What's Up, Maloo? by Genevieve Godbout (Tundra Books, 40p., ages 3-7, 9780735266643)

On a good day, "no other kangaroo can hop like Maloo!" But in this endearing, approachable look at dealing with sadness, readers will understand that bad times happen, too. When all looks bleak, with the right kind of help, it's entirely possible to turn things around.

When the story begins, Maloo, a cheerful-looking kangaroo in bright yellow overalls, hops through a field of pink flowers: "One hop. Two hops. Three hops." But then the hopping stops: "Hop?" Maloo, no longer cheerful, takes "One step. Two steps. Three steps" to a gopher friend's house. When cake doesn't lift Maloo's spirits, the pair goes in search of another friend. But neither crocodile's water toys nor koala's many fans can chase away Maloo's gloom. "Let us help you, Maloo," gopher, crocodile and koala all say. The caring friends walk and talk and, most importantly, stick together, until they find a way to help (literally) bring back Maloo's hop.

The deceptively simple storyline in What's Up, Maloo? belies an important message about the healing power of friendship. Maloo's companions show their respect for the kangaroo's feelings and, when Maloo is ready, their caring attention pays off. Genevieve Godbout's (When Santa Was a Baby) earthy color palette and soft textures give the work a soothing air, and her expressive pastel and colored-pencil illustrations clearly describe the emotions of her characters; Maloo's posture sags and a dark fog hovers around the kangaroo's head until the final pages, when ("hop-hop-hurray!") the friends' gentle encouragement pays off and Maloo's spirits lift. A tribute to the benefits of showing up and simply being there, What's Up, Maloo? demonstrates how the very best of friends can make a sad day hoppier, one step at a time. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: Hopping is the perfect metaphor to illustrate a state of mind as gloomy Maloo's friends repeatedly try to lift the kangaroo's spirits in Genevieve Godbout's picture book.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

January Recommendations


In THE LAST TRUE POETS OF THE SEA, by Julia Drake, many years ago, Violet Larkin’s great-great-great grandmother Fidelia survived a shipwreck and founded the town of Lyric, Maine. Now, after her brother Sam's attempted suicide and a difficult year of her own, Violet has sworn off partying and sex. She’s sent from NYC to live with her uncle in Lyric for the summer. At her job with the local aquarium, Violet meets budding oceanographer Orion, with his "truly gorgeous” eyebrows and “full chest that stretched the cotton of his teal aquarium T-shirt,” who introduces her to up-and-coming historian Liv Stone, who is not a “pixie princess,” but “certainly a babe.” So much for shaving her head and "turning off the romance channel.” In the course of her stay, Violet decides to make amends to Sam by locating the wreck of their great-great-great grandmother's sunken ship. Strong characters and great prose drive this rewarding novel. (YA)

In REVERIE, by Ryan La Sala, when Kane wakes in the hospital, he can't remember the accident—apparently, he rammed his dad's car into an old mill, exploding the car and scorching everything within fifty feet of it. The police think the act was deliberate, maybe even suicidal, so they have him undergo a psych evaluation, where the dazzling and dangerous Dr. Poesy warns Kane that they’re both part of "a much larger story.” Back at school, Kane learns that he has a small, close-knit group of friends who call themselves "The Others,” and somehow finds himself in a "crazy fantasy" involving "a subterranean civilization that worships a god called the Cymo.” Ryan La Sala's debut fantasy delves into the unlimited potential of getting lost in one's dreams. (YA)

THE DARK LORD CLEMENTINE, by Sarah Jean Horowitz, is the story of Clementine Morcerous, devoted daughter—and heir—to the reigning Dark Lord of the Seven Sisters, Elithor Morcerous. Dark Lord Elithor rules his domain by "inflicting misery" on the local townsfolk, keeping the "pesky amateur hedgewitches" in check, and stands in readiness to perform "occasional maniacal cackling." But when Elithor falls under a spell cast by the dangerous Whittle Witch, and slowly turns into a wooden puppet, Clementine must prepare to take over as Dark Lord in his stead. As Clementine begins to interact with the people who she’s supposed to be ruling, she’s not sure she’s ready to inflict all that required misery. Especially since she’s actually making friends. This one’s cozy and fun. (MG)

Picture Books:

In MY PAPI HAS A MOTORCYCLE, written by Isabel Quintero, illustrated by Zeke Peña, Daisy waits for her Papi to come home from work, so they can ride together through their city. As ”the sun, the bright orange sun” begins to set, they “become a spectacular celestial thing soaring on asphalt.” They zigzag through the streets, past churches and markets and murals that showcase the city’s history. Daisy knows that even if her beautiful city changes, the love within her family will not. The strong, colorful art reflects Peña's cartooning background.

FRY BREAD, written by Kevin Noble Maillard and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, is so many things. It’s a poem; it’s a recipe; it’s a story of food and family, of culture and community; it’s a complicated history. The volume is enriched by a detailed author's endnote, and the inviting acrylic, colored pencil, and graphite pencil illustrations are completely charming. Fry bread may be food, but this book shows us it is also so much more.

TRUMAN, written by Jean Reidy and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins, stars a tortoise who is “small, the size of a donut—a small donut—and every bit as sweet.” Truman lives in the city with Sarah, who one day eats a big breakfast, straps on a big backpack, and gives Truman an even bigger snack than usual. Before she leaves, she tells Truman to be brave, then she boards a bus and goes roaring away. When Truman has waited as long as he can, he decides to go after “his Sarah," no matter how impossible this seems. By the time the pair is reunited, Truman does indeed feel brave. Truman is adorable. He is rendered in gouache, brush marker, charcoal, colored pencil, and finished digitally.


Monday, January 13, 2020

Shelf Awareness--Interview with Marie Lu

YA Tie-In: Interview with Marie Lu, author of The Kingdom of Back

Marie Lu is the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling The Young Elites series, as well as the bestselling Legend series and the Warcross novels. She graduated from the University of Southern California and jumped into the video game industry as an artist. Now a full-time writer, she spends her spare time reading, drawing, playing games and getting stuck in traffic. She lives in Los Angeles with her illustrator/author husband, Primo Gallanosa, and their dogs.

What inspired you to write this story of a little-known sister to the great composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?

Since I was little, I'd always been fascinated by the story of Mozart and his prodigious childhood--but it took until 10 years ago for me to learn that he had a sister at all, let alone one arguably as talented as him at composition and performance. I learned about Nannerl Mozart from a biography about her brother and remember thinking, How, out of all the things out there about Wolfgang, had no one ever bothered to mention this genius young girl? So I did a deep dive into her life and learned that the two of them, as children, had actually toured Europe together to play for kings and queens. During their long carriage rides, they created for themselves a fantasy kingdom they called Back, which they used to pass the hours together. This fact seemed so magical to me that I knew immediately I wanted to write a story about it--and about Nannerl.

Can you talk about some of your influences in developing the fantastical Kingdom of Back?

I've always loved the magical and the strange, places that feel like a fever dream. The Dark Crystal, old faerie tales (the unfiltered kind), stories by Guillermo del Toro, Alice in Wonderland and elements from Peter Pan all influenced my world for this novel. I wanted the Kingdom of Back to be both beautiful and dark, a place that felt (in contrast to rigid 18th-century Europe) colorfully surreal, somewhere you'd want to visit but perhaps not to stay.

Front and center is the way Nannerl’s options are severely limited by the expectations of her father and the times. How did you reconcile the treatment of women in the 1700s with concerns your present-day readers might have? Do you think women are still constrained by society’s expectations?

This was a heavy question for me. The real Nannerl, obviously, never gets to break out from those limitations placed on her and, even though the Kingdom of Back is a fantastical version of history, I didn't think I could change her fate. How, then, could I end the story with any note of triumph for Nannerl? I tried to write it in a way that both showed how things used to be for women and how things can be different today. Of course women are still constrained by society--we see it in so many ways, every single day. The difference now, though, is that many of the barriers society erected to enforce gender roles are coming down. There is more access to information now, more women holding up other women, and as that dam falters, more women who get to make the important decisions that empower future generations of women. As much as I hope Nannerl's story can inspire young girls to pursue their dreams, the book is written more for everyone else in a girl's life, people with the power to clear away the roadblocks that hold girls back. We can't just leave girls to pound at glass ceilings alone. It is everyone's responsibility to shatter those ceilings for them.

The desire to make something wonderful that will live on beyond its creator--to leave one's "voice in the world"--is so important to Nannerl. What do you think motivates Woferl?

I think Woferl was motivated by the same call, and I truly think he learned it from Nannerl, whom he adored and idolized. Leaving one's voice in the world is, I think, important to most creators. Woferl, of course, was given the chance to fulfill that desire.

The relationship between Nannerl and Woferl is wonderfully defined. I can believe she loves him dearly, even as she is increasingly jealous of his opportunities. How did find your inspiration for their dynamic?

I've always been interested in playing with sibling dynamics in my stories--probably because I'm an only child! I don't feel like I missed out on anything, but I do find the relationship fascinating, in all its different iterations, and especially so with two siblings experiencing such an unusual childhood. A lot of the inspiration for Woferl and Nannerl's relationship came from their real history together, where letters and documents seem to show that they genuinely loved and were inspired by one another. I also always like listening to all sorts of stories from friends with siblings, everything from blaming each other for using Sharpies on the wall to creating make-believe worlds together. Those snuck in occasionally to my chapters, too!

What's coming next from Marie Lu?

I have a science fiction series opener called Skyhunter coming out in fall 2020! I can't say much about it yet, except that it's my longest book so far and has been a huge challenge to write, but I'm pretty excited to introduce readers to my new crew.

Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?

Only that I hope readers end the book not just interested in learning more about Nannerl, but all the other people that history left behind--women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ people. So many stories! We all seriously existed and did extraordinary things.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Shelf Awareness--The Kingdom of Back

YA Review: The Kingdom of Back

The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu (Putnam Books for Young Readers, 336p., ages 12-up, 9781524739010, March 3, 2020)

In The Kingdom of Back, Marie Lu entwines well-researched fiction with fantasy, conjuring a captivating tale of young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and "the other Mozart." Historical details come alive in this fantasy-infused account of the extremely close relationship between the musical genius and his lesser-known sister, Maria Anna.

The story begins in 1759, when Maria Anna, called Nannerl by the family, is eight years old and Wolfgang only three. Their papa says Nannerl is a "miracle," and he brings Herr Schachtner, "the esteemed court trumpeter of Salzburg," home to hear her play the clavier. If she impresses, she will surely be invited to play for Herr Haydn of Austria, then on to the royal courts of Europe, thereby raising up the prospects of a family "forever on the edge of respectable." But when Wolferl innocently distracts the good Herr, Nannerl's opportunity is lost. That night, annoyed by her brother's interruption and desperate for the approval of her demanding father, Nannerl falls asleep yearning to be "worthy of praise, of being loved and remembered." For the first time, she dreams of the Kingdom of Back: a wild-looking boy walks in the surf of an ocean "lit by twin moons," and the air ripples with a "melody so perfect" Nannerl "aches to grasp it."

Time passes, and Nannerl overhears her parents speaking of a future for her defined by marriage and childbearing. She is haunted, knowing that soon, when she leaves her childhood behind, her father will stop teaching her. For now, though, Nannerl happily retreats to the haven of her clavier practice, and the menuetts she loves to play. Wolferl begs to learn the clavier, too, and Nannerl quickly understands that he has a "remarkable ear," perhaps even better than her own. After trying a few chords, her brother asks her to tell him a story, and the Kingdom of Back resurfaces. As Nannerl describes the landscape--a forest with trees that "stand upsidedown" and a shore with "sand as white as snow"--she transcribes a strange song that seems to spring note by note from this other world. Woferl plays the tune and does it so well that wonder and "a small twinge of something" (Envy? Fear?) begins to take root within Nannerl. Her old wish comes back to her: "Make them remember me."And she hears the "sweet and beautiful" voice of the wild boy: "I can help you, Nannerl, if you help me."

As Nannerl carries on with the fairy story, the siblings slowly fill in details of the fantastical kingdom. At times, it seems as if the magical place actually unfolds around them, replacing their neighborhood with the forest, and they even catch fleeting glimpses in the streets of Salzburg of the wild boy, a faery princeling named Hyacinth. Later that winter, when Woferl's musical gift becomes apparent and the family travels to Vienna for the children to play at the royal court, Hyacinth is also nearby. In return for promising to give Nannerl the recognition she craves, Hyacinth declares he needs her to help him reclaim his throne in Back. Though he warns her that "wishes have a habit of surprising their makers," Nannerl's ambition leads her to push away her unease. Fully aware that composing is "a man's realm," Nannerl cannot help writing down the "irresistibly coaxing song" Hyacinth conjures for her, thus agreeing to the bargain. Encouraged by Woferl, who promises to keep her secret, she continues to produce music originating in her visions and dreams of this other world. But her affection for Woferl is tried again and again as it becomes increasingly apparent that her younger brother will live the life she desires, even to the point of getting credit for work she herself has composed.

Nannerl Mozart was supremely talented in her own right, a young woman whose musical accomplishments were many and varied but whose dreams could only ever end in marriage. Readers are repeatedly teased by the possibilities of what might have been had Nannerl been born into another time, with far different expectations placed upon her. Lu's author's note at the conclusion points out how the fantastical Kingdom of Back was actually invented by the two siblings during their long carriage rides across Europe; their saga of music and magic is set "in a real land, full of real kings and castles and courts," but manifests also in "a dream of fog and stars, faery princelings and queens of the night." The author adds classic fairy tale elements and weaves the imaginary kingdom in and around the life of the Mozarts, increasing the tension of the story as the Kingdom of Back becomes more powerful and menacing. Torn between her deepest longing for immortality and her need to protect her beloved brother, Nannerl must decide for herself what her true legacy will be. --Lynn Becker.