Saturday, December 27, 2014

Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age -- From Picture Books to eBooks and Everything in Between by Jason Boog (Goodreads Author), Betsy Bird (Goodreads Author) (Foreword)

Jason Boog cites numerous studies that show interactive reading techniques as best practices for raising your child's intellect and curiosity. Interactive reading isn't just sitting down and reading with your child - even though that is important. Instead, parents need to ask the 5 W's (who, what, when, where, and why), dramatize reading, add music, and read to them every day. Words can give children a way to express emotions and feel control. His book will get children school-ready and he gives great tips or tricks for dealing with tantrums and handling electronic devices. Boog isn't an expert but he quotes enough of them and tosses in practicalness that leaves a little of everything for everyone. I even got a few lesson ideas. For me, the app suggestions were the most helpful. I am a librarian for an elementary school but we have a pre-kindergarten class. I'll try some apps for their age, as well as, buy some of his book suggestions for our school.

The book does tie in with curriculum standards which some parents might like. He lists them for first grade and kindergarten. It was a nice way to conclude his book and show how all his techniques can lead to more success in reading at school. He's not an educator but he gets it. His stories of what he did with his daughter shows how he created a multimedia experience and turned her  on to reading. I got a kick out of how they taught their daughter some sign language and she'd use it to communicate before she could speak. Although he doesn't use the educator lingo, what he identifies as techniques are using multiple learning styles such kinesthetic, audio, and visual, to create an interactive reading experience. He also has a section on nonfiction books which has become more important in school curriculums as a result of the implementation of Common Core standards. He did his research well and the text is easy to read.

Most experts say that digital devices should be avoided until age 2 and that parents should sit down with the device and child; to not use it as a babysitter. Boog stresses not only cooperative play, but independent unstructured play that is "unplugged." Unstructured play allows kids to develop reasoning skills, problem-solve, and be creative. He also suggests keeping digital devices out of the bedroom so children are not using them in the middle of the night. Much of his practical or creative suggestions help keep this text from being dry. I like how he pretended his coffee mug needed help reading and he named it, "Coffee Man," getting his daughter to read a book to it. He talks about the importance of simple storytelling making it easy to do and not some complex deal. More importantly, he makes reading fun.

Books help readers, young and old, process the world around them by articulating feelings, emotions, and issues they are dealing with in life. Many lists are available to readers in his book for apps, books, audiobooks, and more. His website is fantastic and if you don't have time to read it you can just blow through the short introduction that gives 15 guidelines and conversation starters to have with your kid. He even says to rip out the pages (gulp) and cut up the 15 sentences using them conveniently. Actually, I don't have a problem writing in books or cutting them up. My books that are most beat up, are the most loved. They are my "Velveteen Rabbit" books.

4 Smileys

Friday, December 19, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

In journalism school I'd get writer's block from deadlines. I would plop open Patricia Hampl's poetry to any page and no matter what, her words conjured up images and emotions that always unlocked my brain-freeze. This book is more poetry than plot as it jumps around at times following a less sequential structure for a novel-in-verse. That is not to say it is kittywampus. The order is there. I just got confused once in awhile. Plus, reading it in one sitting didn't work for me as well as savoring it in bits and pieces, like nibbling on slices of Tollhouse bars from a cake pan all day. You decide for yourself.

The emotions, history, imagery, and themes are loosely tied together as they chronicle the story of the author, an African American, growing up in the South and North. The history is going to be hard to figure out for some readers because of the sparse text that touches on major civil rights events, but doesn't go into depth. Some background knowledge helps fill in gaps on incidents such as sit-ins and marches, Jim Crow laws, and the Black Panthers, to name a few. This beautifully told story is about a girl trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life as she deals with her parents divorce, the civil rights movement, and three family relocations. I found many of her vignettes causing my own forgotten childhood memories to resurface. Amazing writing. Amazing craft. But some are going to find this book slow.

Jacqueline Woodson was born in Ohio. Her dad is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and his black slave, Sally Hemings. Jacqueline's mother was from South Carolina where her grandma still lives. Jacqueline's parents fight and she goes with her two siblings and mother to live with their grandparents where she develops close ties with her grandpa in particular. He's a smoker that develops emphysema and believes in God but not the Jehovah's Witnesses which is Jacqueline's family's religion. Life is dangerous in the South. It is safer to stay in the back of the bus. White women are hired at department stores to shadow African Americans shopping to make sure they don't steal any merchandise. Segregation is prevalent in public places and schools. Jacqueline notices that revolutions in all cultures are like a merry-go-round and wishes for peace. The end challenges readers to choose which world, which story, and which ending they desire. Readers can step into the many worlds whether it is imaginative storytelling or a revolution, but to remember if "the world explodes/around you - that you are loved..."

When Jacqueline's mom goes to New York she leaves behind her three young children. The text suggests that she has a child with a white man, but nothing is explained. I wasn't sure how long the mom was away from her three children that she left with her mother in South Carolina. Sometimes I got confused by the timing of events. Obviously, Jacqueline's mom was gone nine months, but perhaps longer. Jacqueline's new brother is named Roman and his skin is pale. Later, the boy ends up in the hospital from eating lead paint from the apartment walls. He's one of the character's I wanted to get to know better. There were others in the family as well that are not elaborated on. Maybe there will be a sequel. I hope so.

The theme of storytelling versus lying is subtly weaved throughout some chapters. Jacqueline gets in trouble from her mom for lying when Jacqueline says she is just making up stories. There's been several children's books published in 2014 on this topic but I think Jonathan Auxier's book, "The Night Gardener," articulates it well when his character says that lies hurt people and storytelling helps them. Jacqueline learns the same lesson. At first, she doesn't know the difference between when someone, such as Cora, is telling a superstitious lie to scare her versus a story. At the end Jacqueline is making up stories to her classmates suggesting that she has figured out that telling stories versus lying depends on intent. Storytelling is an expression of the imagination; whereas, lying is a way to avoid consequences of harmful actions. While storytelling is a great way to nurture creativity and imagination, sometimes it can be hard for kids to figure out when it is or is not appropriate.

Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for this book and in an unfortunate incident, Lemony Snicket who presented the award, made a racist joke when giving it to her. She countered the comment in a respectful response to move beyond stereotypes and learn about painful pasts so people can live with diversity in healthy communities. Her book is about white people showing disrespect to black people, as well as, her discovering her love for storytelling. Diverse books are necessary to teaching tolerance. Books are one vehicle for teachers and parents to open discussions about issues with children about how to respect other people regardless of race, gender, religion, disabilities, or more. Dialogue is necessary so that people can look at their own biases and change. While Lemony Snicket, in an attempt to be funny was demeaning, he did spark public outrage and debate at how the community needs to change hurtful language into words that show respect for one another. I live in Taiwan and my assistants said that until recently it was taboo to discuss Chiang Kai-Shek's massacre of almost 30,000 Taiwanese when he came to power in the 1940s. They said it is so painful, echoing Jacqueline's comments in the New York Times article. The only way to prevent future wrongdoing's is to discuss how to make the world better. As the character in this book says, "I know my work is to make the world a better place for those coming after." How true for all of us.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

El Deafo by Cece Bell

I'm buried in books. About 30 to be exact. Err... about and exact contradict each other. Oh well. Just wind me up for the holidays and watch me SPIN. El Deafo was on my return-pile-so-other-children-can-read-it-over-the-holiday stack. Then I made the mistake of peeking at the first page. Suddenly I'm at page 20 thinking... uh-oh, I won't be able to put this down. I'm a reading junkie. What can I say? A snatch of reading here and there before finishing off this terrific graphic novel on the treadmill in the evening made for a satisfying dayFour-year-old Cece gets meningitis and goes deaf. Hearing aids make her feel like Spock at school and while she adjusts to them she is worried she won't ever have a friend that sees past them to her true self. This author's biography gives a unique look at a deaf person's perspective of how others treat people that are deaf and challenges faced in everyday life. The mix of humor, drama, and an uncommon topic in children's books make this a must for your library.

When Cece discovers she is deaf, she is frightened and stays close to her mother. When she gets hearing aids she is excited to hear people but still has trouble. She explains that it sounds like people are talking to her underwater. Her friend asks if she wants a coke and Cece hears, "Doo yoo wan sumding to dring? ...a goat?" She explains lip-reading with the illustration showing her as Sherlock Holmes, discovering three clues to figure out what people are saying. Television is the hardest for her to understand. The clever illustrations have rabbits with big ears, perhaps a symbol for hearing loss and the importance hearing plays in one's life.

Cece goes to a school with other deaf children for kindergarten but then the family moves away and she is mainstreamed into the classroom. She gets a "Phonic Ear," a big clunky machine that she straps to her chest and wears ear plugs while the teacher wears a microphone. Cece feels that her deafness makes her different or special in a bad way and she spends much of her time trying to hide it. She is lonely in a world where the kids around her can hear. When she's at a sleepover and they turn off the lights she's so upset that she's lost her visual cues and can't understand the girls that she asks to leave the party.

Cece deals with the challenges of making friends with her hearing issues by creating an alter ego, a superhero named "El Deafo." This funny character speaks her mind to friends and is empowered by her hearing loss. Cece is learning to embrace her uniqueness as something good when she starts fantasizing about "El Deafo." The subplot of her having a crush on a boy adds humor and her private thoughts are a kick where she gets back at people who make dumb comments by thinking of using feedback to make her hearing aid squeal loudly.

Her first friend is bossy and possessive, but Cece likes that she doesn't care that she has a hearing aid. Her next friend talks loud and slow to her making an issue out of her deafness. Her third friend is "just right" and never even mentions her hearing aid, treating her like a true friend. When an accident happens her true friend freaks out and it takes over a year for the two to reconcile. Later when she does figure out a way to make her hearing aid "cool" with the kids in class, it is a freeing moment for her where the reader is cheering along with her classmates. Make sure you read the author's note at the end where Cece explains how deaf people embrace their deafness and that there is no right or wrong way. Last year, Vince Vawter of "Paperboy" said that his "was a story that needed to be told." Cece Bell could say the same thing. It is not only worth telling, it is worth hearing.

5 Smileys

Monday, December 15, 2014

Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve, Sarah McIntyre (Illustrator)

It's a bird... It's a plane... It's a seawig! A newfangled superhero you don't want to miss. Ten-year-old Oliver Crisp's parents ironically go missing the day they stop exploring and move into the old family home. Oliver is unpacking the car when his parents spy a bunch of islands in the bay. Jumping into a dinghy, they disappear along with the islands by the time Oliver sets out to rescue them. He sails out to a lone island and meets an albatross named, "Culpeper," who explains that the islands move. Oliver snags a ride and meets a far-sighted mermaid, Iris, who is different from the average mer-person. She's smart, can't see a lick, can't sing, could care less about looks, and is kind. She explains that the only time she "caterwauled" like other mermaids she lured a walrus instead of a handsome fisherman because she thought it a man. She bumps into everything and the reader never knows what silly mishap she's going to have. She meets Oliver because she was on her way to the optician but got lost. Har, har. The gags are nonstop with adult and kid humor. When the island turns into a talking rock-giant... I was hooked... line and sinker. Plenty of action, humor, and odd characters for all.

The rock-giant character reminds me of trolls. We used to look for troll heads on the rocky bluffs by the Mississippi River as kids. My grandma said trolls slept as rocks. We told troll stories to scare each other. Trolls lived under bridges and could be ferocious or dumb. I even had a creepy troll doll with pink hair. A seawig is like a troll and can be kind or mean. A seawig is a floating island with the grassy top being its hair and its nose and eyes on the rocks underwater. Seawigs talk, but not often. When Oliver hears his parents are headed for the Hallowed Shallows where a wig competition called, "The Night of the Seawigs," is held every seven years, he's determined to get there. He must talk the seawig that they are on into entering the competition. Oliver gives the seawig a name, Cliff, and concocts a plan with Iris to get Cliff the best wig for the contest.

The characters are distinct and memorable. Mr. Culpeper is an overbearing curmudgeonly albatross that can be a pain in the neck, but also a friend to count on. He blames Oliver when things go wrong, verbally opposes risk-taking adventures, is a know-it-all, but he supports their rescue and helps navigate through threatening fog. The sea monkeys are mischievous, not-so-bright creatures that are fast, "Sea monkeys spilled down Thurlstone's face like a river of snot." Nothing like a splattering of snot humor to draw in the young readers. Seawig Thurlstone is a villain that turned wicked when human sacrifices were made on the temple at its top and the blood trickled down inside him.

Stacey de Lacey is Thurlstone's partner and the two will cheat, lie, and steal to win the contest. The two villains have captured Oliver's parents and are going to sacrifice them for the contest. All you readers traumatized by having a tease-me-till-I-scream name will nod in understanding or shake your head at Stacey de Lacey's inferiority complex as he explains turning to evil after kids teased him about his girlie name. When he frees the sea monkeys from their pods therefore getting their zealous loyalty, the narrator says, "If Stacey de Lacey had been a different sort of boy, he might have thought, 'I've found a friend!' But Stacey had never really wanted friends. He thought, 'I've found a servant!'"Swirl into the current some Sarcastic Seaweed and you'll be snort-laughing snot down your own face. Dive right in. 

The winner of the contest gets to be Chief Island and tell the other Rambling Isles, as they are nicknamed, where to travel. They can take the best flotsam to add to their wig too. When a seawig stops meandering, he or she settles in a certain place. This is more like dying. Oliver describes settled islands as "lifeless." When Cliff decides to "settle" because Thurlstone stole his wig, Oliver and Iris are desperate to get him to change his mind and not give up. Sometimes I feel like my life overseas is like being a seawig or Rambling Isle. I'm like Oliver's parents who are addicted to exploring. Some day, we too, will have to settle and stop traveling. Ummm... that doesn't mean I want to "settle" and die. Just so we are clear.

The author cleverly adds child-appealing touches such as having a resolution that involves tickling or a villain turned bad from name-calling. Add in shipwrecks, seawigs that look like grass-covered Easter Island statues, hyperactive monkeys, crotchety seaweed, and a mermaid that can shatter glass with her singing and you have a great rumpus. Sarah McIntyre's black, white, and blue illustrations add so much humor to the story. The big eyes on the children make them look curious, while on the parents overexcited or scared. The seawigs are my favorite. Cliff looks like a baby Pacman and Thurlstone looks like a petrified globmonster.

Add in themes of friendship and perseverance and you've got some depth to the plot. When Cliff decides to rescue Oliver, he does so out of friendship and doing the right thing. He chooses to not be a victim, but try and make a change whether it works or not. When Cliff's being threatened, Oliver in turn saves him. That's what friends are for. Friends are also good to go swimming with in the ocean. Grab your flippers and goggles and flip into the pages of this book with its unusual superhero. Glub, glub, glub.

4 Smileys

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Vanishing Coin (The Magic Shop #1) by Kate Egan, Eric Wight (Goodreads Author) (Illustrations), Magician Mike Lane

Mike needs drugs. I'm serious. Poor guy. He shows symptoms of Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Okay... maybe drugs aren't the answer. In this case he needs magic. Magic tricks. Magic books. Magical moments. Ah yes, Mike is struggling in school. He can't control himself and is bullied by Jackson a kid twice his size and in his class. Mike can't understand why he just jumps up and has to move in class, but he does. He can no longer be on the soccer team because of his poor grades and he has low self-esteem. He ends up meeting Nora when their mom's decide to carpool and share watching each others kids after work. Mike discovers that Nora is quite smart, but she is also confident and kind. When the two go to a magic shop, Mike finds that he is not only good at magical tricks, he's better than Nora. He teaches himself how to perform and entertains other students at school making new friends and learning to believe in himself.

Students will love the inserts that explain how to do magic tricks. I thought this read would take me longer than 45 minutes, but the big font and illustrations make it a quickie. A magical twist at the end shows that this is the first book in a series. While Mike is a fourth grader, the book is also a good read for younger students.

I've seen ADHD handled in many ways and Mike doesn't really get good support or the adults don't seem to be giving him behavior strategies for dealing with it. Many times teachers will warn me if a kid with it is having a bad day and they torpedo around out-of-control. They get sent to the counselor's office where they can blow off some steam if it is really bad. Mike gets scolded and sent to the principal's office. At this point it has been identified that Mike had problems last year so it seems that the adults are not treating it as ADHD. But then no one ever says Mike has ADHD, that's just my interpretation of his symptoms. Mike is more of a borderline kid and says he can't control himself. Usually by 4th grade, kids have grown out of hyper, impulsive behavior which is why it seems that he has a disorder. The adults are not implementing any behavior interventions such as helping him stay organized and helping with a book report. It appears they think he can control himself and be more responsible. I'm not so sure. Mike's the kind of kid that falls through the cracks at school not getting the help he needs because he isn't severe enough, but he obviously needs help.

Nora helps Mike the most showing him one-on-one how to take notes on index cards and how to write a report for class on the magician Houdini. She takes his interest in magic and turns the homework into something doable for him. She even plays soccer with him to pick up his spirits one day. She's the voice of reason and becoming a friend he can count on. So much so that when his friends ask him to return to the soccer team, he isn't sure he wants to because it means not spending time after school with Nora. A good story for readers that are not ready for a challenging text but need some depth.

4 Smileys

The Cat at the Wall by Deborah Ellis

A thirteen-year-old American girl dies in a car accident and is reincarnated as a cat living in West Bank in the midst of the Israeli-Pakistan conflict. I know. Bizarre premise. But the author pulls it off and the plot is not about religion - it's about redemption. It's about getting a second chance to do the right thing and doing it even though you are a cat. It's a sad story about a girl that blames herself for her grandma's death and bullies those around her to feel secure and powerful. It's about the choices made in life and knowing when to act for hate or peace. You'll have to try this quirky book yourself. While sometimes the teacher got a tad preachy, it has a good mix of action and deep-thinking. Surprising, because it is only 150 pages.

Two Israeli soldiers, Simcha and Aaron, break into a Palestinian house to spy on the neighborhood. Clare, the cat, sneaks in with them and finds a boy, Omar, hidden under the floor. When the two soldiers find him they try to sneak out with him, but their plan is foiled when they get discovered by villagers. The tension escalates when they start firing bullets at each other. Because the point of view is from a cat, the violence is buffered by the creature's nonchalant attitude, "If people insist on shooting other people, they should do it quietly so that a cat can have a decent nap." Simcha is somewhat stereotyped as the California surfer dude. I would have liked him and Aaron fleshed out a little more. Omar recites the Desiderata poem to control his fear. It is a poem about being happy and treating others fairly and says that fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Alternating with this tense situation is the cat, Clare, having flashbacks to when she was a girl and having problems at school. We find out that Clare lacked character and motivation. She wasn't responsible or honest or kind. A new teacher tried to get her to see the value in character but most of the year was just a power struggle. The teacher made students copy Max Erhmann's Desiderata poem as punishment. While this is not generally how character education is taught today, I see why the author used it to tie it in with the alternating plot. It shows Omar using the poem as comfort in contrast to the self-centered, bully Clare. When Clare thinks about why she took the girls wallet instead of returning it to her it is the first time she questions why she does things "without thinking." At the end when she looks at how the universe is unfolding she thinks it is wrong that she should be alive and her good-hearted grandma dead.

Omar has built an elaborate "City of Dreams" out of cardboard, his refuge and desire for a safe world from his war torn one. Simcha, the American, comes in and kicks down Omar's city not realizing what it was. The author seems to suggest that the United States oftentimes flexes its muscles without thinking of consequences. More importantly, it ties in with the theme of understanding context before taking action. Tragedy results from fears and misunderstandings throughout this story. The teacher doesn't understand the context of Clare's misbehavior. The Israeli soldiers don't understand the context of the boys parents at check point. Simcha and Aaron don't understand why Omar is alone. Clare realizes that hostility and fear create paranoia that will lead to certain death for others and she decides to change the context. It is the first time she chooses to do something because she cares. A terrific novel for studying character development and discuss current events.
4 Smileys

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Twelve Minutes to Midnight (Twelve Minutes to Midnight #1) by Christopher Edge

At twelve minutes to midnight, the mental ward patients at Bedlam Hospital get up and scratch future writings on any surface they can find using a writing utensil or wearing the skin off fingers leaving blood scribblings. Penelope Tredwell, thirteen-year-old literary genius, owns The Penny Dreadful magazine where she writes macabre stories under the pen name of Montgomery Fitch. It would seem that women during the 1800's did not write this type of cheap fiction. Penelope is looking for her next sensational story when she gets embroiled in the Bedlam mystery that threatens her life. While I appreciate the author's attempt to mimic the penny dreadfuls of the past, it doesn't quite work. I was vested in the first half of the story but didn't enjoy the plot of the second part nearly as much.

The Victorian era had a publishing revolution as masses became more literate. The Pickwick Papers was an extremely successful serial that was published in monthly installments during the early 1800s.  It launched the start of many published serials or "penny dreadfuls" with sensational plots and fanciful illustrations printed on cheap pulp paper. Costing only a penny, they were popular with the working classes and contained violent adventure and crime. Lots of blood in the pictures was good for business too. Penny "bloods" was their original name. Out of this history, author Christopher Edge tries to recreate the penny dreadful. He succeeds with the invention of a gothic, creepy setting in London, but he doesn't quite do enough with character development and plot. That said, it is still an entertaining read.

Penelope is very fixated on solving her mystery. To the point that we don't really get to know her. She "fumes" quite a bit over being overlooked as a teenager and writer. Young readers will probably identify with her on that point, but I never saw her in a sympathetic light. I didn't quite understand her backdrop and relationship with Alfie and Wigram, who obviously care for her. She's lost her parents and as she pursues the villain, she makes connections with her own situation but never digs deep enough into her past to satisfy my curiosity. The villain and journalist are one-dimensional remaining flat characters versus complex ones. Penelope is somewhat flat too and a reclusive hero.

The plot at first is interesting and I wondered how the heck the author was going to pull it all together. The idea is out there but then the penny dreadfuls were out there too so I could see the connection. Some was predictable but the second part was when I lost interest. Some of the plot turns happen with something conveniently happening that was fantastical. It seemed like the easy way out. Still the story is fun and students will like the action and being scared.

3 Smileys

Fly Away by Patricia MacLachlan

Every spring the Red River would crest stretching its murky water over the school's football field where I worked in North Dakota. Many of the students lived on farms and dealt with yearly floods. I just read the picture book, "Blizzard," by John Rocco to 4th graders and told stories about surviving seven blizzards one winter followed by the North Dakota flood of 1997. This story is about a family that travels to North Dakota to help their Aunt Frankie fight the Red River from flooding her farmstead. Patricia MacLachlan brought back many memories of the prairie and rising river. Her word choices create a rhythm and beauty that lulled me into the quiet start only to end with some big drama. Likewise, the protagonist Lucy, creates melodies with words; poetry to be exact, but she can't carry a tune in a musical family. Even though this intermediate reader has 100 pages, it would be a good read aloud as it carries much emotion and depth in a solid setting.

Lucy is traveling in an old Volkswagon van to her aunt's farm with her parents, two-year-old brother, and six-year-old sister to North Dakota. Her dad loves cows and opera while her mother loves musician Langhorne Slim. Her sister can sing in a "high perfect voice" and her selective mute brother can sing perfectly in tune. It's their secret. No one knows that he can hum in tune. They think he's mute. "Teddy has music but no words." She explains. "I have words but no music. We are a strange pair." When Teddy sees a cow for the first time he speaks to the amazement of his family. As the trip continues, he starts to say more aloud.

Some factors in selective mutism are anxiety by being overwhelmed in an unfamiliar situation or trouble processing sensory information. We see this at our school quite a bit and it is usually temporary. Teddy suffers from the same issues but will "talk," so-to-speak with Lucy. He says her name, "See" and sings to her a song every night using "la" or "ba." When Lucy tells the adults he can speak, he refuses to show them. At first annoyed, Lucy later likes their secret. It is like their secret language and makes her feel special. She obviously adores Teddy and looks out for him, perhaps more than the average sibling. When Teddy does start to talk he turns the tables on Lucy and forces her to sing. The message of facing your fears and having the courage to be bad at something makes for good discussions.

The subplot about writing and the fear of rejection is subtle, but apparent in Lucy's character arc. She might hate singing but Lucy loves to write poetry; however, she is afraid her family will criticize it and she's reluctant to share it with them. She keeps a journal and uses poetry to sort through her feelings about her Aunt's farm. Writing is hard, "I stare at the blank lined page. I feel the same way about a blank page that my Mama feels about her old home in North Dakota. I love it because it is fresh and clean. I hate it because I have to fill it." Lucy's mom doesn't like to go back to her family farm and Lucy tries to figure out why as the story progresses.

The beautiful descriptions McLachlan uses for emotions or places or things lifts the words off these pages making memorable images. She takes small moments and stretches them into tender, emotional ones; whether Teddy is slipping a hand into his big sister Lucy's or Aunt Frankie is talking about the beautiful singing she heard through the vent at night in her room below. Lucy describes the water slowly turning the farm into an island. When she looks at the cow it is her eyes that capture Lucy's attention, "Her eyes are so big I can see my own reflection there, looking tiny next to this huge cow." The author reminds me to slow down and look at the details in each day. A good addition to your library.

4 Smileys

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny by John Himmelman

Isabel is the best bunjitsu bunny in her school.  She may appear like a cute little thing, but don't be fooled. She'll high kick and outsmart anyone. Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny is an early reader with a unique mix of 12 fable-like tales and martial arts. I have never come across anything quite like it. The bunny's skills come from an ancient Japanese martial art called, jujitsu, that teaches self-defense while building individual awareness and self-confidence. It does not rely on strength or weapons, but hand-to-hand combat and technique. Each chapter has a moral that the reader has to figure out along with Isabel who is is either practicing jujitsu techniques or in a contest or combatant setting. The humorous illustrations show a bunch of pirates sinking in a boat as Isabel outwits them to her brother accidentally pole-vaulting himself several miles away. The cartoonish characters and situations make for great fun.

The first chapter has Isabel thinking creatively when faced with a problem. The reader gets dumped into the middle of the story with not much setup. Short like a fable and designed to impart wisdom, it looks at issues children deal with or is funny. At the start, the pack of martial art student-bunnies are trying to use their strength and varied jujitsu moves to break down a door. The last move is a good laugh as they try the "running bunjitsu head butt!" at which point Isabel opens the door and lets them in. She ditched the group in the middle of their efforts and climbed through a window into the locked room. Not only does this show the lesson to not rely on strength, which is a teaching of jujitsu, but it shows creative problem-solving.

The next chapter has pirates underestimating Isabel's bunny power as they try to bully her into giving them her boat. She overthrows them all using several different jujitsu moves and watches them sink in her boat. The twist on the Tortoise and the Hare fable has the moral that winning comes from envisioning yourself victorious and having positive self-talk. Other lessons are on how to avoid a fight, practice hard to improve skills, and face your worries. In an ironic twist, Isabel plays hide-and-seek with her friends but is so good at "disappearing," they can't find her. Bored she lets herself be easily found the next time they play. When her friend confronts her, she replies, "Its more fun to be found by friends than lost by friends." Young readers love books on friendship and will be able to relate to this message. I oftentimes find fables somewhat terse and too short, but that isn't the case here. While I did think the first two chapters were abrupt (as I usually feel with fables), John Himmelman does a terrific job with craft and I slipped into the action-packed storyline and illustrations quickly.

Another short chapter has a metaphor of an angry wave that can be applied to something upsetting in life. Bunjitsu bunny discovers that anger is best dealt with by not fighting it but letting it run its course. At first she fights the wave, but later rides it and learns to have fun. She is learning to control her emotions and build confidence in herself. Again, young readers are trying to control their emotions, as well as, make friends and gain confidence as they grow older. These messages are cleverly hidden as the reader enjoys the surface story. This book could also be used with older students that struggle to find depth in novels. One could simplify the concept with the short chapters.

Perhaps bunjitsu bunny is really more like judo which was invented by a man that learned jujitsu and then created his own moves. Here, the bunny creates her own fables mixing in martial arts. At the end when a boulder crushes her flower garden, she responds by turning it into a rock garden. Flexibility and adapting to changes is another jujitsu skill that any person can apply to different situations in life. Kids should love the simple black, white, and red illustrations, fun storyline, messages with some depth. Because it is for younger it might require an adult explanation. A good read aloud with your child or class.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Mikis and the Donkey by Bibi Dumon Tak

This is a quiet book that paints a picture of a young boy living in a Greek village who falls in love with his grandfather's newly purchased donkey. While the grandparents mean to use the donkey for working the farm, the boy treats it like a pet and takes great responsibility in its welfare. The grandfather laughs at Mikis sentimentality at first and treats him like a child. Later he gives him more and more responsibility in caring for the donkey because he cares so much for the animal. When the grandfather overworks the donkey the boy gets upset and brings it to the doctor for healing. He teaches the grandfather how to care for it and even convinces him to build a brand-new deluxe stable for it. When the boy dreams of owning a donkey farm, the grandfather is no longer laughing but helping him pursue his career.

Mikis age is never determined but he and his grandfather have differences that can occur between generations. At first the grandfather laughs at the boy who claims the donkey chose its name, but later grows to respect how he treats and cares for the donkey. He no longer looks at it as an animal that he can do whatever he wants to, but one that he needs to not abuse. Working animals that are used to perform human tasks can oftentimes be cruelly treated and the author actually wrote this book while staying on a donkey refuge on the Corfu Greek island. In the author's note he says that the name of the donkey is after the first one retired or rescued after becoming lame from overworked conditions.

There is not much character development and the illustrations are in black and white aiding the reader in visualizing the looks of a Greek village. The steep climbs, tiled roofs, and narrow streets with the Mediterranean Sea as the backdrop add to the flavor of Mikis life. A subplot hints at Mikis' teacher's romance with another man and Mikis romantic feelings for Elena, a girl in his class.  I finished this transitional reader in about 30 minutes. While it was sweet, I think it will absorb into the quicksand part of my books-I-can't-remember brain.

3 Smileys

Dory Fantasmagory (Dory #1) by Abby Hanlon

Remember building forts out of the couch cushions? Or having your siblings holler, "Mom! Barbie (insert your name) is bothering us!" Or being told you were a baby? Or wanting to play with your siblings so badly you let them trap you under the covers even though you were claustrophobic? I used to scale the sides of the doorway to the top and hold on to the ledge because my siblings thought it was cool. It was rare I was cool. I was number four out of five kids. I followed my siblings around asking if I could play with them and getting a resounding "No!" over and over again. Similarly, Dory Fantasmagory is a cranked up Tasmanian devil that is annoying and sympathetic but who desperately wants her siblings to play with her. They finally do when she shoves her hand down a toilet to retrieve a errant bouncy ball. Dory reminds me of a younger version of Roscoe Riley or Junie B. Jones. Her imaginary life is blurred with reality to the point where she doesn't know when to turn it off.

Dory has pretend friends that are monsters or witches or gnomes. She plays with them all day long and there are even extra chairs at the kitchen table for them. Her best friend is a monster named, "Mary," that reminds me of the creatures in Maurice Sendak's, "Where the Wild Things Are." The witch, Mrs. Gobble Gracker, looks like Viola Swamp in Harry Allard's, "Miss Nelson is Missing." The gnome is called Mr. Nuggy and reminded me of all the nuggies I got on the head from three older siblings. If you don't know what a nuggy is it is when an annoyed sibling puts you in a headlock and painfully rubs his or her knuckles hard on your scalp.

Dory desperately wants to play with her siblings and is so excited when her brother likes it when she pretends that she's a dog that she goes overboard pretending she is one. When her mom wants to take her to the doctor she refuses and barks at her. A terrific illustration captures Dory's mom carrying Dory down the street forcing a dress on her. Shoes and purse are scattered on that front steps as Dory's flailing arms fight her mom with her dress over her head. At the doctor's office Dory stays in her hyperactive mode explaining that "I was stuck as a dog and there was nothing I could do about it. These things just happen to me." She woofs at all of the doctor's questions, pants like a dog, and thinks about licking the doctor. She even pretend-stabs the doctor with a lollipop stick but you'll have to read the story to find out why.

The pacing, humor, and illustrations make this a hoot. Grade 2 students couldn't stop laughing at it as a read aloud. Three students asked to check out the book in grade 1 when I finished half the book. The small pictures make me wonder if I should put it on the document projector so they can see the illustrations better. Everyone crowded around me to see the worm in Dory's brother's underwear. The book is 150 illustrated pages and I went through 55 of them in 20 minutes. You could easily finish it in 2-3 readings. Earlier in the fall I read the picture book, "No Fits, Nilsen," by Zachariah OHora that is about imaginary friends. This was a good follow-up. This is good for children dealing with siblings, hyperactivity, self-control, and pretend play. A must for your library.

5 Smileys

I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora

Eighth graders Lucy, Elena, and Michael want to get people excited about reading their late teacher's favorite book and one on the summer reading list, "To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee. It is the beginning of summer vacation and they hatch a conspiracy named, "I Kill the Mockingbird," where they make it hard to get the book by hiding them in bookstores and libraries; hence, limiting the supplies to the public.Then they setup a website and social media campaign inspiring others to do the same. When a famous man tweets about it the campaign goes viral and escalates out of control. The three decide to end it with a big bang having a book burning party. I've acted out books before, but never imitated a book burning bonfire. Thank goodness the characters change their minds on that thought. Book burning is not a good idea and would have landed 'em in a heap o' trouble. Their initial idea is to burn a thousand pages of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and create a big finish to their scheme of getting people excited over reading it. They take old weeded library books from a dumpster and are going to burn them saying it is Harper Lee's book. Their intentions are to honor their dead English teacher through the creation of a funeral pyre in memory of his favorite book, but most are going to misconstrue it as rebellious behavior against reading or think of it as a metaphor of demagoguery, censorship, and suppression.

While the plot is somewhat silly, the character development and dialogue are powerful. I laughed time-after-time with the author's unique phrases and hilarious banter between the threesome. Elena is a hoot and culprit of most, while Michael offers opposing viewpoints and is his own person, and Lucy narrates while dealing with her mother's cancer. While discussing their book burning Elena jumps on the tricycle that African American Michael is peddling and he turns and says, "This isn't Driving Miss Daisy." Earlier Elena is described as looking like a doll that Santa leaves under the Christmas tree. She is also described as a black-haired bulldozer in a pink dress. She's a bit out-of-control which makes her a gas. Michael is figuring out his Little League options and what is best for himself as he and Lucy deal with feelings they are having for each other. All three are anxious about starting high school next year. The trio call themselves "literary terrorists" and the nonstop references to literature are great fun. Oddly, the dead teacher is stereotyped as fat. The author does a great job not making the characters sound too adult. My favorite line is Mark Twain being referenced as an "equal opportunity buffoon maker."

Lucy's mom is recovering from cancer and doesn't take care of herself. Lucy nags her about her unhealthy eating habits and at the end shows how scared she is of her dying. Her mom has a pretty healthy attitude on death even if she doesn't on eating right. The irony adds depth to the storyline. The conversations on religion do not moralize but tend to be funny. When Elena and Lucy are doing a photo-shoot for Lucy's mom as Joseph and the Virgin Mary, she asks Elena to have more "wonder" on her face. Elena quips, "'If I am the Mother of God, then I wonder why I just gave birth in a barn.'" She turns to me [Lucy]. "'Joe, you couldn't do a little better with accommodations?'" Joe [Lucy that is] responds that is what you get for falling for the first angel that came along. "Elena gazes up at the sky and sighs. "'He looked like Johnny Depp, and he promised he'd show me heaven." Later Lucy describes praying to St. Lucy, "My namesake is the patron saint of eye disorders, and her statue is supposed to remind us not to sit too close to the TV screen." She goes on to describe the statue, St. Lucy, holding a tray with two gouged eyeballs on it. St. Lucy poked out her eyes to avoid marrying a pagan. "Now I know that the Catholic thing can be seriously weird sometimes." Another time when Lucy discusses faith she says she doesn't know if it is better to believe in miracles or the randomness of life. Nothing is forced down the readers throat.

Michael presents a fresh opposing viewpoint to Harper Lee's book that is thought-provoking. He calls the protagonist a white tomboy that "worships her father in a town filled with whacky racist Christians and lynch-mob farmers. It's a comedy about old-timey southern people who treat each other badly." He goes on to point out that Atticus Finch isn't a very good lawyer ending up with three executed clients and letting a murderer go free. Later Elena's father, Mort, points out that mockingbirds are aggressive, liars, unconscionable,and territorial as opposed to being a symbol of innocence. When Michael asks if he is joking Mort replies, "contradiction and paradox are the building blocks of great humor." The author practices what Mort preaches as this is found throughout the text.While the short text makes for a good read aloud and discussion, I did wish the plot was longer than 166 pages as I wanted to spend more time with the characters. I know I'll be looking for more books by this author.

4 Smileys

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

As a kid I would pretend I was a great athlete or genius. My dad is a genius. Really. He's been tested and his IQ is in the 140s. Of course I can't remember the exact number. I am not a genius. I am average. I didn't go to Harvard like dad. I wasn't a straight A student like dad. I didn't get high scores on college entrance exams. I was plain ole boring ...average. It took me a long time to be okay with that. As a kid, I would deal with it by reading books and vicariously become a superhero through the eyes of the characters. Add in some red-hot action and I was having a yippee-ki-yay time. I remember at times thinking I needed to try harder. Focus more. Be more competitive. I'd chew my nails to nubs trying to sit still and go overboard trying to be the best (which I never was). Albie is a unique character in this book because he isn't just average in school, he's below average. He hopes that it is a disability, but it isn't. He's just not good at subjects in school. He's not too bright at figuring out other people or situations, but he is good-hearted and kind which is where his true powers lie. He doesn't know it but he's the kind of hero that is hard to come by. Lisa Graff pulls off something unique here, a hero of great character but lacking smarts. Check out this book that is bursting with discussions and would make a great read aloud with its short chapters and beautiful writing.

Fifth grader Albie has been kicked out of private school for failing in subjects and is going to a public school. His parents have hired a college-aged nanny, Calista, to take him to school and help with his homework. Albie doesn't really get it that he was kicked out of school for poor performance in the beginning. He realizes it later when he feels like his world is falling apart. He struggles to fit in at school and make friends and his parents give him a tough time for not being good in school. The nanny helps him deal with all these issues, but she's a kid herself. She does a kind thing for Albie, but it is also irresponsible and the fallout leaves many unhappy.

Albie is biracial. His mom is Korean and his dad's ethnicity isn't given. While Albie doesn't explore what this means, the author draws on some Korean customs that add to the flavor of the setting. When Albie brings kimchi to lunch and doesn't take it out, I laughed. This spicy Korean dish is a staple in their diet and its distinct odor would definitely draw unwanted attention to Albie from the bully, Darren. While most of the Asian backdrop is spot on, I did wonder about Albie's Korean grandfather giving up on Albie. It didn't jive with the Asian parents I've interacted with at our school. They'd hire more tutors and tell Albie to work harder. They wouldn't give up. Of course Albie's mom explained that Gramps was a grump. He's obviously an exception and the reader isn't privy to why he acts this way.

Albie's parents desperately want him to do better in school. Dad tries to shame Albie into improving his spelling scores, while mom does it with his reading log. Shaming never motivates kids but so many adults resort to it because they don't know differently. Constructive criticism that focuses on progress is something that is not easy to do if you've never been exposed to it. The dad says that only an A is acceptable and the mom wants him to read "Johnny Tremain" over "Captain Underpants." As a librarian I see adults taking away children's reading choices all the time. Usually they are trying to make them better readers and push them. Unfortunately, it has the opposite effect on most children by turning them off to reading completely. It is not easy nurturing positive reading habits and sometimes adults have to interfere. But if the goal is to make reading a part of a child's life, then adults need to nurture the joy of reading and that starts with helping them find books that interest them. It works best for me if I have a stack of eight or more books that I quickly summarize for the kid then let them choose the one that grabs their interest.

At times the parents are too concerned with how Albie makes them look versus looking at what is best for Albie. Oftentimes parents project too much of themselves onto their children and do not let them be themselves. Albie's mom wants him to run for a school office because she was treasurer in school. When Albie says he isn't interested she doesn't want to hear it. Being a parent isn't easy. Sometimes kids need to be encouraged. Other times parents go overboard. Albie has loving parents that not only misstep, but give good advice as well. Albie's mother is crushed when she finds out he doesn't have a disability. After this climax, she seems to except Albie's academic shortcomings and not push him so much. When Albie's dad buys him the same birthday present (I've done that to my dad before), Albie is so disgusted he tosses the plane out his 8 story bedroom window. When Albie's dad teaches him how to make the family recipe of delicious grilled cheese sandwiches, he tells Albie that he won't have problems getting what he wants in life, but figuring out what he wants. Albie appreciates the support. When Albie comforts his mom and Calista he shows how deep his kindness runs. He is forgiving and gentle. Parents, nannies, teachers are trying to do the best they can for Albie and sometimes they shine and sometimes they fall short. This message that adults make mistakes just like kids adds depth and authenticity to the character development.

Friendships can be tricky like parenting. Albie's best friend is Erlan who goes to Albie's previous school. The two remain friends and Erlan likes that Albie always treats him "normal." Albie gets bullied at his new school by Darren. He makes friends with Betsy, a girl who stutters, and Albie is kind to her when others pick on her. When Darren thinks Albie is going to be on television because of Erlan's family being in a reality show, he makes friends with him. The nanny, Calista, tries to warn Albie to be careful of Darren's motivations. She doubts Darren's sincerity at being a friend, but Albie is too kind to understand that Darren might want something in return. Darren convinces Albie not to be friends with Betsy because it isn't "cool." Albie finds out the hard way that friendships are not based on a set of rules, but on acceptance. He deals with Darren's meanness by deciding what words hurt and how to smooth out their edges. Albie stays true to Erlan as a friend, but he blows it with Betsy. He makes amends and learns from it, just like the adults.

Calista is caring and kind, but misguided in her good intentions. Like everyone else in this story, she makes mistakes too. When she acts irresponsibly by lying to Albie's parents even though her intentions were good, any adult with a kid is going to understand Albie's mother's actions. But kids are going to think his mother was horribly unfair. What they don't know is how the situation could have been easily handled with a phone call. A nanny's top priority is to ensure the safety and trust of the parents. If that is violated, then they have shown they are not up to handling the responsibility of taking care of a younger child. Albie's mom didn't really have a choice.

The theme of accepting yourself is a powerful one. Albie is a great kid that learns his worth. He's "absolutely almost" certain of it. He's okay with who he is. Are you?

5 Smileys

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen (Goodreads Author), Faith Erin Hicks (Goodreads Author) (Illustrations)

I bought this because it won the YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens (Top Ten, 2014) thinking it might be okay for elementary but the swearing, attitudes, and topics make it best for middle or upper school. While it was funny at times, the main character's arc doesn't go as far as I would have liked to achieve depth of understanding that breaks stereotypes even though that is the author's goal.

Charlie Nolen, captain of Hollow Ridge High School basketball team, and his friend Nate Harding, president of the robotics club, end up being pitted against each other when the cheerleaders fight with the robotics club. The cheerleaders want new uniforms for state competition and the robotics club wants to enter the National robotics competition. Nate runs for student council and Charlie, who was dating the head cheerleader, is manipulated into running against Nate. The cheerleaders put Charlie's name on the ballot and believe he will fund them over the robotics. The nerdy Nate, is so aggressive in reaching his goal of being class president that he is mean to Charlie during the campaign, putting up demeaning photos or messages. Charlie doesn't appreciate Nate's actions. The politics get nasty and the principal refuses to fund either of them. Meanwhile, Charlie feels alone as he deals with his parents divorce and mom's recent engagement. Charlie lives with his father who travels for work leaving his son home alone and no adult in charge to help Charlie in case of an emergency.

The rival groups team up and the cheerleaders fund Nate's robotics club in a separate contest where robots fight each other for a large prize money that will fund both clubs. The cheerleaders are mean and manipulative. The black and white photos show them in uniforms that make them look militant. They came across flat to me and didn't break out of their stereotype. Charlie's ex-girlfriend is always frowning except on the one page where she gets what she wants. Then there is the confusing ending. Are the two boys, Jake and Gary, homosexuals? Or are they just putting down homosexuals in their "pervert" comment. Then there is the coaches comment, "D'you know how many scrawny white boys in this school would chew off your legs to get in the team's starting lineup?" Why single out one race? The illustration shows black kids on the team. The author's comments or humor made me uncomfortable because they stereotype homosexuals and suggest only white boys play basketball. Humor can go astray when it is insensitive to historical context of oppressed minorities.

Nate and Charlie's relationship fluctuate between mean and nice. At times Charlie is sympathetic such as when Nate is bummed by his parents and other times he's attacking him in an inappropriate way all because he wants funding so bad that he'll risk losing a friend. The basketball players don't even know that Charlie and Nate are friends implying Charlie doesn't want them to know about it. When Charlie is mad at Nate for his nasty public political announcement, he deals with it immaturely by giving Nate the finger. Later, he calms down and helps him with a robot design problem. But then Nate puts him down for his idea. It felt like their friendship wasn't moving forward but at times stuck in a loop. At the end the two discuss running for school president in the next election. Eventually their arc shows them becoming friends and willing to ignore social hierarchies that separate jocks and nerds.

Joanna actually interested me the most and came across as more authentic than the other characters. She's goofy in that she loves the robot like a being, but then drives it like a wild woman at the competition. She's a risk-taker and truly does break out of the stereotyped nerd. The illustrations add more to her character than the text. At the end, Charlie is still a jock who seems interested in her romantically although nothing happens so I'm not sure. Charlie seems to be willing to go public about his friendships with Nate since they agreed to run together. Nate is still socially inept. Both boys have big egos.  I wasn't sure why Charlie steals a car and none of the teenagers tell their parents about the competition. It seemed that the author just thought the phones ringing in the SUV would be funny. Which it was. But it wasn't logical. Another question I had was that how they lost in the final. The previous battle took up pages but the final wasn't shown except in one little square. I actually wondered if there was a mistake on the eBook. By the way, don't buy it as an eBook because the format is such that you can't enlarge it. I found it hard to see the details on the pictures.

Charlie yells quite a bit at his parents, who are pretty dysfunctional when it comes to parenting. When Charlie gets a concussion (which I couldn't figure out how he got it from the illustrations), the parents don't even come home to help or get another adult to step in. Instead Nate picks Charlie up at the hospital and brings him home. Later, the basketball team goes to Charlie's house when he invites them for pizza. Instead of having pizza they invite the school and turn it into a party with alcohol. Charlie is mad at them for taking advantage of him but doesn't stand up to the peer pressure like he didn't with the cheerleaders. During the party he hides under the bed. Nate joins him. He isn't very confrontational with peers or his parents and gets pushed around as a result. Also, Charlie's parents don't act responsible so it is easy to see why Charlie doesn't either. The author shows that anyone can be a bully; however, when jock Charlie decks some gargantuan nerds for insulting Joanna, I felt myself slipping back into stereotype zone. Joanna just showed she's a ruthless driver. I thought she'd get out of her own predicament. Instead boy rescues girl. While some action scenes seem to break out of the stereotypes, others don't.

Perhaps I'm being too picky. Perhaps my humor is off (okay... I know it is). Perhaps I shouldn't review young adult books. Perhaps I don't get graphic novels. Perhaps I need a teen perspective. Either way,  most of the character arcs and themes seemed to me to scratch only the surface of complex friendships and I found some details offensive. However, there are themes that can be used for worthwhile discussions. I just know that I'd choose other fare out there over this one. You'll have to decide for yourself. When I got to the last page, I really wondered if Charlie and Nate would stay friends. They seemed to have some trust and kindness issues even though Charlie had the courage to go public with his friendship. Like I said, read it and decide for yourself. I'm conflicted on this one. It was the little things that turned me off in the end. It is not often that I disagree with award winners, but this is one time I do.

3 Smileys

Journey to the Center of the Earth (Extraordinary Voyages #3) by Jules Verne, William Butcher (Editor)

One problem with reading the classics is I am not sure how the translation fares against other translations. This one seems well done and reminds me of the Victorian writers with its long romantic descriptions of nature wrapped up in scientific discussions that dip a bit too much into theory for my liking. But that's just personal taste. I nodded off on Professor Lidenbrock's paleontology spiel. I'm also the woman that dropped her geology class in college because she didn't like studying rocks. When the main character, geologist Axel, went off on the stratum layers of rocks I had no idea what I read after the passage. Ever do that? Completely zone out while reading technical details? You know... mouth hanging open, glazed-eyed look.  If you like science and adventure then you might like this and it's reflection on what people believed in the 1800s. I did like the book. The action, that is. Take into account that I read an hour a day on a treadmill because I like my sedentary reading experience to be active.

Overall, I liked this tale; however, my interest waned when the characters were in the interior and Axel's whiny, uncourageous voice seemed to repeat itself like a needle skipping on a record. He is such an unadventurous spirit I wanted to shake him. The introduction does a great job explaining the scientific inconsistencies and ideas during the 1800s. Make sure you don't pass it up because it enriches the text. You need to take into account the historical context of this work because there are annoying incidents. Take Axel's spunky girlfriend who was more ready-to-jump-into-the-earth than him. But of course a Victorian woman would not be able to do that.  Another irritating Victorian feature is when the Professor finds a skull and makes a politically incorrect statement about it representing the white race. It's offensive, but represents the times.

This adventure erupts when Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel decipher a document found in an Icelandic book, the discovery of Arne Saknussemm's account of traveling down the Snaefell crater to the center of the Earth. Lidenbrock wants to make the same journey himself and drags the reluctant Axel to Reykjavik, Iceland. They hire a local guide, Hans, who adds some humor by insisting to be paid on a certain day even after they've almost been killed. He's so calm and matter-of-fact in his actions that he is the hero in their journey. Axel is scared to death on the journey and thinks it's only a matter of time before he'll die. He spends most of his time trying to get Lidenbrock to turn around, even after seeing amazing sights. When he sees a 12 foot tall man underground he responds by shrugging his shoulders. What an amazing dud! I'd had it with him at that point. Thank goodness, Lidenbrock's impulsiveness and enthusiasm worked as a foil to Axel's duddiness. I might have abandoned the boy if Hans and Lidenbrock had not been invented by Verne.

Once the characters get into the volcanic crater they find a huge cavern containing a sea with ancient mammals and sea creatures both dead and alive. After crossing the sea they find a path with Saknussemm's runic initials and follow it. When they hit a blocked entrance they blow up the rock causing an earthquake that sends them on a journey to the surface of the Earth. I would have vomited Axel out of too if I was Mother Earth. He'd give anyone or thing indigestion. What we know about science today makes much of this story unbelievable. No one can survive the gases of a volcano and no one can ride a raft on top of lava to name a few. Still, it is a fun read. Just know that it is not a science fiction novel. The threesome don't solve any scientific need and their journey is more adventure than anything. Science is talked about and it gets tedious at times, but it's more a look into what the future might be like. The style of voice has the Professor and Axel sounding scholarly and formal.

I just finished reading about Snorri Sturluson and his descendant, scholar and librarian Arni Magnusson, who saved Sturluson's Icelandic sagas one of the few ancient written texts on Norse mythology in the early 1700s. There was a resurgence of public interest during the Victorian times in Sturluson's works and it is reflected in Jules Verne's piece. He uses the fictitious Arne Saknussemm and Iceland as the setting for his novel. I got a kick out of finding some Viking lore influenced Verne's novel. While, I enjoyed this book and like Victorian writers, I'm not sure who I'd recommend it to. Perhaps the high reader who loves adventure and science. At least now I'll have an idea of the plot when reading abridged versions for elementary students.

4 Smileys

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Whispering Skull (Lockwood & Co. #2) by Jonathan Stroud

I have two big papers due for a class I'm taking for certification credits and made the foolish mistake of picking up this book to read on the high-speed train to Tainan, Taiwan. What a ride! I couldn't put it down. If I could only read at a 150 miles per hour. Stroud's descriptions and character development are fantastic as always, but I really liked the twists and turns of the plot in book two of the Lockwood & Co. series. This mystery was cranked up a notch from book one with a snarky, harbinger skull that added ghoulish humor and three-dimensional villainy. Be warned, I guarantee you'll be shirking responsibilities once you start this creepy ghost mystery.

Lockwood & Company, made up of agents Lockwood, Lucy, and George, is trying to survive in a competitive ghost agency market. Even though six months earlier the trio rid London's most haunted house of powerful ghosts, they still have to work hard to keep the business going and more often than not come up against the Fittes Agency, the biggest ghost-busting outfit in town. When the two groups come head-to-head, they challenge each other to a competition where the loser must put an advertisement in the London Times announcing their loss.

The teams get hired by the government to solve a case involving the ghost of a Victorian doctor, Edmund Bickerstaff, and a powerful relic he created out of bones thats kills when a person looks at it.   The case was the result of George letting his curiosity for relics get the better of himself and endangering his life. Lucy is there to save the day. Her talents are becoming more focused and powerful. She is a strong female character that is smart and clever.

Lucy narrates the story in first person which adds to the claustrophobic tense situations. Her narrow viewpoint supports the mysteriousness of Lockwood as she is always trying to figure him out. She admires and likes him but resents that he is so reserved at times. He doesn't talk about his past or family and doesn't have hobbies. All three characters have nice arcs that tie in with the themes. Lucy learns more about trust, Lockwood learns to open up about his past, and George learns that being too obsessive can be unhealthy.  Lockwood also does the right thing in a competition when he recognizes that his win wouldn't have happened without the other teams help. Meanwhile the Fittes leader, Quill Kipps, gives a reason for his motivations and meanness toward Lockwood & Company when his life is saved. Great ghosts. Great gore. Great fun. Sure beats writing a college paper.

5 Smileys

Monday, November 17, 2014

Percy Jackson's Greek Gods (Percy Jackson and the Olympians companion book) by Rick Riordan (Goodreads Author), John Rocco (Illustrator)

This weighty book was cutting off the blood circulation in my legs after reading for two hours. I plopped it on my bathroom scale, the red digits glowing 4 pounds in the dark room. Okay, guess I have gramma-legs. Honestly, it felt like 10 pounds. Perhaps Rick Riordan can write about Hercules next and toss in a weight-lifting program for wimps like me. In this nonfiction gianto book, Riordan covers fifteen gods and goddesses in all their misery... I mean glory. Technically, I hear about the twelve Olympians, but Hestia, Dionysus, Hades, and Persephone are sometimes included; hence, 15. The narrator rightfully calls the Titans the first dysfunctional family and doesn't hold back moving on to the Olympians and exposing the raping, murdering, thieving, and psychopathic ways of them all.

Percy Jackson narrates with his wise-cracking, sarcastic, dumb humor that had me snort-laughing. He calls Zeus, "Thunderbritches," has play on words, uses SMS language or text messaging lexicons, and continually reminds readers that the Olympians' behavior isn't normal. Ya think? Jackson tries to be the voice of reason in the gods violent, unreasonable world. Believe me, you wouldn't want to be a Greek god. The power struggles and bad behaviors of the gods, goddesses, and kingpin Zeus, should turn off most readers from wanting to be dictators or scare them into making sacrifices or make them run in the opposite direction if they see one. Run, run, as fast as you can. That would be me.

The colloquial language makes this easy to read and Riordan uses his familiar technique of mnemonics to help with remembering difficult names. I kept a journal of who's who and still got blurry-eyed by the end. Of course the blood might not have been getting to my brain from this whale-of-a-book pushing on my legs.  Riordan has oodles of pop culture and technology references. I wonder if the book will seem outdated 20 years from now alluding to Tumblr, Facebook, Smartphones, One Direction, Baywatch, KFC, and Twinkies to name a few. Okay, maybe he doesn't mention the last but he does mention food. The pacing is fast-paced and the text reveals tidbits such as how the gods influenced Greek geography, word origins, the importance of the laurel leaf, and cities that honored particular gods. He also shows how arid cities and eruptions were tied in with the Greek creation myths. The additional facts enriches the action.

The unexpected twist on Riordan's presentation of the Olympians is showing the goddesses not as complete victims. Don't get me wrong, it's still a patriarchal social system, but the women do stand up for themselves or try to fight back. Riordan sneaks it in when he can without compromising historical accuracy. At least from my limited Greek myth knowledge, I didn't see any exaggerations. He uses dialogue to be creative and add a fun narrative to the facts and by having Percy narrate he is able to bring in a modern-day perspective. When the four sons of Ouranos decide to kill him, Percy says, "The girls were too wise to get involved in murder. They made their excuses and quickly left." He'll point out other times how today a boy and girl wouldn't treat each other with the disrespect shown by the gods and goddesses. He muses how dumb it is when the gods ask Zeus if they can marry a woman versus the god asking her directly. He also talks about how the gods act differently than humans stating the obvious such as a brother and sister wouldn't marry each other. The different versions of Greek myths can be confusing as well and Percy explains the historical inconsistencies as to which story he is going to go with in his narrative. While it isn't necessary to know the Percy Jackson series in order to read this book, you'd get more of the jokes and tone being familiar with the fiction series.

Even with Percy trying to balance things out, I got a bit depressed about the whole female being-taken-advantage-of-deal. Hades was the culprit. The man can be a downer. Just kidding. I got lost in the tales again once I got done with the women. Ugh. The gods were yucky to them. No wonder two swore off marriage. If D'aulaire's book of Greek myths is for elementary then Percy's Greek Gods is for upper elementary or middle school. The brilliant illustrations by John Rocco remind me of Renaissance art. The baby leading the cows reminded me of the Rubens artwork, except for the dark outline of the cow. Rocco uses a soft, dreamy palette that shows an innocent-looking baby Hermes stealing cows, with snow shoes on his feet. Perhaps the dark pencil around the cows signifies the two that Hermes eats or is meant to add a 3-dimensional look. Rocco captures the weird and humorous myth in his painting. Rocco's monster, Kampe, illustration is pretty spectacular and reminds me of Caravaggio's Medusa at the Uffizi museum in Italy. The humungous boar fighting the puny human will be a favorite with students too.

Greek mythology has violent stories. That's just the way it is. Percy does warn when a story is going to get more gory than usual. The gods and goddesses are nasty to each other, but the mortals seem to be the ones on the receiving end of the lightning bolt. They get vaporized, zapped, and quartered. Percy even comments how mortals would get punished for behavior that the gods and goddesses did all the time. But the gods held themselves to a different moral standard. This tome doesn't get into the Greek heroes. I can see why. It would be too much. I would have had a 10 pound book if Riordan had done that. All the same, I found myself wanting to hear their stories. Maybe Riordan will come out with another book and mention the heroes. He could publish it after Christmas and market it as a dumbbell/book combination. Or maybe not.

4 Smileys

Monday, November 10, 2014

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown

This biography about the 13th century Icelandic Chieftain, Snorri Sturluson, who was murdered in his cellar when he angered King Haakon IV of Norway, is engrossing and slow at times. Full of great literary facts, sometimes the pacing got bogged down with all the different relatives vying for power. Perhaps if I had written the names down as I was reading, I wouldn't have gotten tripped up at times. I read 40 minutes everyday and perhaps one sitting would have helped me keep everyone straight. Nancy Marie Brown has a straight-forward narrative that is easy to read and engaging. She does a terrific job bringing to life the customs and lifestyle of the Icelandic people.

Snorri's famous books, "Heimskringla" and "Edda," were written on the history of Norwegian kings and Norse mythology and they had an enormous impact on literature, influencing the rise of the gothic novel in the 1700s, inspiring J.R.R. Tolkien, and leaving a footprint that can be seen in the immensely popular modern day Marvel comic movies and Game of Thrones television series. Snorri married a rich heiress and became a chieftain later acquiring more chiefdoms. An accomplished lawyer, he was chosen three times as lawspeaker for the Althing which is like being president of parliament. He got into trouble with King Haakon in his late 50s when he disobeyed the King's order to stay in Norway and returned to Iceland. The King sought consequences for Snorri's disobedience and Snorri's main rival that wanted to usurp him was quite willing to carry out the death sentence.

Snorri was a brilliant storyteller and brought to life the Norse gods of old making them "peculiarly human." The gods had limitations and were not particularly smart. They liked to play games on each other, joke, and be cruel. They also knew that the end of the world was coming but they didn't know how to stop it or save the world. Snorri adds humor and entertainment and while the poems are difficult to understand because of their complex style, they had a resurgence in the 1700s. Brown ties mythology with national history and shows how it evolves to some extent. She doesn't delve deeply into it but I found the few links she does make tantalizing. I'd like to explore this topic more. 

Brown's writing didn't feel as cohesive as her other book I read, "The Far-Traveler." The narrative felt scattered at times and while I know some of that is due to the long genealogies, I also felt the main focus got lost at times as she points out Snorri's skills as lawyer, historian, and poet. The section on kennings and how complex the poems are was really fascinating and I wished it had been closer to the beginning. I kept wondering why she wasn't quoting his poems. As she gives an example then I realized that it would read like nonsense to the modern day reader. What a difficult topic to write about and I admire her effort even if it falls short at times. In "The Far-Traveler," Brown frames the story with archeology and for me it was the glue that held it all together. I needed something more to hold all the pieces together.

The information in this book is valuable and heavily researched. I read about Snorri on Wikipedia after reading Brown's book and there are some conflicts between it and what she has written. They are small things but it would be a way to show students how the Internet is not always a reliable source. Snorri loved power and in the end it was his downfall. This is loaded with great facts and extensive footnotes. If you are interested in the Icelandic sagas and history of Norse mythology then I highly recommend it.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People by Helen Zia

I was talking to a colleague who said she loved this book because it captured her conflicted identity growing up in America as an Asian who had no voice in government. She's an activist like Helen Zia. She tells a great story of her high school principal asking her at lunch one day how he could get the Chinese, Koreans, and white students to not eat separately. My colleague suggested to the principal to organize field trips. "Friendships are formed out of the classroom and the principal took me up on my idea." She used it as a small example of one person making a difference in her world of cultural divisions. I would have liked Zia to pepper her story with more hope-filled examples like my colleague's; particularly in the beginning. I felt bad that Zia had so many negative experiences and was a bit exhausted plowing through it all. Unfortunately, that was her reality.  Her book is meant to shock people into action by the injustices suffered by minority groups such as Koreans, Japanese, Filipinos, Chinese, and Asian-Indians. It is a history of the politicization of Asians in America.

I just read Native American Tim Tingle's book called, How I became a Ghost, and he explains the first time he told the story of the Trail of Tears to a mostly white audience. He said that the first row stood up and left right away because he told about all the horrors and injustices that happened at the get-go. He changed the story to the viewpoint of a ten-year-old boy and presented a loving Native American family and rich culture, drawing the listener into the story. Later, he punched the audience between the eyes with the injustices and oppression white men inflicted on his Nation. Once he changed the tone and lured the audience into the story, he explained, they stopped walking out on him. Zia's book jumps immediately into the horrors and injustices that made me think of the white people that got up and left Tingle's talk. I wondered if white people abandoned Zia's book after the first few chapters. If you feel that way, I encourage you to not set it down.

Zia uses personal narratives at the beginning of the chapters but she can be heavy-handed at times. But I'm a white person and outsider who did not grow up poor, so my perspective is different. Or maybe her accusations toward white oppressors made me feel defensive and I need to take a harder look at my own biases. That is why I mentioned my Asian colleague at the start. She respectfully disagreed with me when I said the start of the book turned me off. She told me I couldn't understand the Asian plight because I was white. She's right. I don't. But I'm trying. Even living overseas as a minority, I get an idea but it isn't the same experience because I know I am a foreigner who will leave Taiwan and go back to America. As an expat, I don't vote. I don't speak the language. I don't pay taxes. I'm American, not Taiwanese. Asian Americans feel the same way. America is their country. They need a voice. They do vote. They do pay taxes. We had a good dialogue. Perhaps that is the strength of this book. It opens communication between different cultures, which is a cornerstone to building respect and understanding.

Zia came to our school and her speaking was more of what I wanted in her book that was written in 2000. She explained historically how cultures clash and their differences lead to conflict. Her book shows how groups overcome those conflicts. Major events in history show discrimination and hate crimes against different Asian groups. Many of these events correlate with global financial crises such as the recession in 1882 that resulted in high levels of unemployment and layoffs. The Chinese were blamed at the time for the bad economy. Thousands were driven out of America and many murdered. The government passed The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that was the beginning of a ban on Chinese immigrants that lasted sixty years. The United States enacted a discriminatory law against a particular ethnic group for the first time ever.

One hundred years later a similar incident occurred with the murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit, Michigan. Chin, a Chinese man, was murdered on the night of his bachelor party because some white auto workers blamed the Japanese for the loss of auto jobs. With unemployment at 16%, people were looking for scapegoats. On the night of his death, the auto workers thought Chin was Japanese and got in a fight with him at a bar. Chin left with a friend and the men tracked him down, bludgeoning him to death in a parking lot. The recession of 1982 resulted from a global oil and energy crisis. American cars got about 5-10 miles to the gallon. Oil had gone from 20 cents a gallon to 4 dollars a gallon and American cars were gas guzzlers. The American auto industry collapsed as people bought more fuel efficient Japanese cars. Many people unjustly blamed Japan for the problem and the young engineer, Vincent Chin, became a victim of a hate crime.

The white men arrested for Chin's murder were given such light sentences that it caused the Asian community to band together as an organization, initiating the pan-Asian American movement. The killers served no jail time and the Asians knew that if Chin was white the killers would have gone to jail. Journalist Helen Zia and lawyer Liza Chan knew that they couldn't do anything after the sentence was handed down locally, so they brought federal charges against the white men saying that they violated Chin's civil rights. The man who swung the baseball bat at Chin's head killing him was sentenced to jail by a federal judge.

The book is full of major events that has resulted in the politicization of Asians: The Japanese Internment of 1942, The Immigration Act of 1965, Wards Cove vs. Atonio in 1989, Miss Saigon in 1991, the Los Angeles Riots in 1992, Hawaiian lawsuits for marriage equality in 1993, and Wen Ho Lee's wrongful imprisonment in 1999. Zia's book isn't limited to race, she dips into gender and sexuality as well. I actually liked the book more when the topic was broadened. The American Dream is the ethos for the United States. It is rooted in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. The ideal means that the opportunity to work hard and succeed is available to all. It can only happen if inequalities are exposed for what they are and Zia does just that in her book. While this book should make Asians feel proud and visible, it might make Caucasians feel bad or uncomfortable. This is necessary to break down discriminatory barriers and create a culture that truly strives for the American dream.

4 Smileys

Friday, October 31, 2014

Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War by Helen Frost

This novel-in-verse looks into the past when Native Americans were forced from their lands in the 1800s in the United States. I just happened to have finished the book, How I Became a Ghost, by Tim Tingle about the same topic except specifically, the Trail of Tears. These two books could be compared regarding the Removal Acts of 1830 and how they impacted the Native Americans. They are quick reads. Helen Frost captures the lifestyle of the Miami tribe at Kekionga and the trading post outside Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Two alternating viewpoints between twelve-year-old friends, Anikwa, a Miami boy, and James, a white boy, show two cultures at odds with each other. I got lost in the scenes where the two are trying to communicate and do not know each others language. I can relate with living overseas for the past ten years and having a concrete ear when it comes to learning languages. Some incidents are funny. Some frustrating. The subcharacter, Isaac, captured my attention least. He is one dimensional and used as a foil to show the common prejudicial view toward Native Americans. The two families of Anikwa and James, particularly the males, fluctuate between helping or hurting each other. I do think this plot was an ambitious endeavor and is going to be hard to pull off because it is a complex topic and poetry uses so few words to convey information. I admire Frost's efforts and at times she succeeds and other times falls short.

The verse in Anikwa's voice is in the shape of weaving, while James is in couplets. The author explains this in the notes and says that originally, James was supposed to look like the American flag. Side-by-side they look like a blanket in the process of being woven. This image of two cultures intertwined made me think of the modern day mix of ethnic cultures in the United States. Blanket weaving has such a rich history in Native American culture and the long hours put into creating a brightly colored blankets suggests that friendship and peace is possible one thread at a time but will take a time and patience.

This is set during a time of war where tensions run high and people are taking sides. Anikwa and James are friends. They fish together and hunt. While they can't speak together, they try to learn words and have an easy camaraderie. The author shows how the Native Americans tried to use appeasement and force against the white people taking their lands. Neither way works and in the end the Miami tribes lose their lands. It suggests that individuals can be friends even in the midst of war and while they can't make a change on a big scale they can on a small one.

This week I was particularly frustrated by the Taiwan government. They have had food scandal after food scandal. My husband and I have been drinking contaminated milk for 7 years. At our school, the incidence of cancer is high. To the point that people have wondered what is going on. I suspect tainted food and pollution. When I talk to the Taiwanese they shrug their shoulders and say they can't do anything. But I can do something. I will not buy food from the companies with shady practices. I can get imported foods. By making a personal action I feel like I have a choice. I can't control the government but I can protest as one small voice. If enough of us get together, it will have an impact on these companies. This is the message I get from this book. Even though only two families will not change the outcome of the war, they made a choice. And that choice is for tolerance and peace.

4 Smileys

Thursday, October 30, 2014

How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle

This action-packed mixture of a ghost story with historical fiction is a must for libraries that want diversity and are looking for themes regarding tolerance. Tim Tingle, descendant of the Choctaw Indians, writes with authenticity that counters stereotypes of Native Americans in this tale of a boy that knows he will die but has the courage to do what is right in the face of it. Don't worry I'm not spoiling anything... he tells the reader in the first line of the story that he'll become a ghost. The story is about the Trail of Tears where thousands of Native Americans die when forced to relocate from their lands. The unique rhythm and repetition of words reflects the author's background as a storyteller and person invested in his topic. Tingle's great-great grandfather survived the Trail of Tears and he is able to convey the Choctaw culture to readers with a unique insider's understanding of customs and lifestyles. While the plot has some holes, the writing is full of suspense and hope with many in-depth messages ripe for discussions.

Ten-year-old Isaac is a Choctaw Indian acting like any normal kid when he starts to see ghosts and wonders if he is going crazy. The tension mounts when he hears about a Treaty with white men. His people know that nothing good comes from treaties. When his village is set on fire by white men, his fears come true. He flees with other survivors of the village but they are eventually caught along with his family and forced to march with other Native Americans along the Trail of Tears. When people he loves start to die he finds hope in forgiveness and making his ancestors proud by rising above the oppressors and letting go of his anger.

Tingle presents this plot in a unique way. There are few historical explanations and much has to be inferred by the reader. I can see some readers being confused by the soldiers and what they did to the villagers. I think this is Tingle's way of sweeping the reader into the story and slowly giving out information on a dark historical episode in American history. If he jumped out with the injustices then it might turn readers off; however, the lack of information might require clarification for readers unfamiliar with Native American history. I know that I would have to explain parts to my Asian audience. That said, it would make as a great read aloud.

Isaac is a kind-hearted, nice kid and his innocence contrasts with the horrors of a forced relocation. He is not judgmental nor is he stereotyped as a primitive Native American. His village has a lifestyle that includes religion, a government or council, an economy with livestock and farming, and generations of families caring for each other. The magical elements of shape-shifting and seeing ghosts is a part of the rich customs and practices found in Native American culture. At 160 pages, Tingle doesn't explain this much and it keeps the pacing galloping through the storyline.

The cruel soldiers are not introduced until later and Tingle balances them with kind soldiers. By looking at the past in a fair way, his message seems such that he hopes that people today will not make the same mistakes and oppress other cultures.The female teenager that is rescued is brave and courageous. She risks her life; yet, is not so afraid that she doesn't insist on hugging her parents. The three heroes value forgiveness and when the ghosts of the Nation honor them it shows how this trait is healthy for the soul to have peace and move on. Death is also treated with hope and while many characters die their ghosts are able to interact with the humans and grief is eased in survivors. This seems to be a part of the Choctaw belief system. I would have liked some notes at the end explaining facts from fiction.

History of cultures displaced and oppressed by others is like a Black Hole when you start thinking about it. America oppressed the Native Americans and African Americans. The Japanese oppressed the Taiwanese, Koreans, and others. The Spanish leader, Franco, oppressed the Catalans. The German leader, Hitler, oppressed the Jews, dissidents, and more. I was talking about this book with my colleague, the Chinese librarian born and raised in Taiwan. She said with a rue smile, "You should look at China's history... it runs deep [with Conquerors]." Tingle's story is so important because it teaches tolerance and respect for other cultures. There is always hope that new generations will not make the recurrent mistakes found in the histories of the world.

4 Smileys