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Posts from February 2007

I'm Famous!

I've written before about Kim & Jason, and their Escape Adulthood mission. Jason Kotecki is a cartoonist, with a cartoon series focused around retaining one's childlike spirit and joy. He and his wife Kim started a whole company around their philosophy. From their website: "At it's core, Kim & Jason is all about helping grown-ups of all ages to Escape Adulthood, whether it's through a stress-reducing chuckle or a nostalgic reflection at a treasured childhood memory. But just as importantly, we are extremely passionate about making a difference in the lives of children as well."

As someone who goes around advocating that adults read more children's book, the Kim and Jason story naturally appealed to me. (We were actually introduced by Ian Ybarra of Ferrazzi Greenlight and the Never Eat Alone blog, who saw commonalities in what we were trying to do). Jason and Kim's strong passion for their mission is truly inspirational. And they are a lot of fun, too.

Therefore, I was pleased to be interviewed by Kim and Jason for their most recent podcast: Balancing Adulthood Responsibility and Childlike Fun. I'm a bit afraid to actually listen to it, because it will make me self-conscious (I'm not at all accustomed to listening to my own voice). But I did want to bring it to your attention. The three of us had a great chat about balancing a childlike passion with having a real day to day job. We could have talked for hour, I think. They also put me on the spot for some favorite books, a selection which I would probably change on any given other day, but I did mention some new and long-time favorites. Anyway, if you're into the podcast thing, or you want to know what I sound like in voice, not just in text, I hope that you'll check it out.

Oh, and I almost forgot the best part. They're having a contest, by which some lucky winner will receive a $20 gift certificate to the ever so fun Kim and Jason Lemonade Stand by telling them about your favorite children's book. Surely that's worth a try!   

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Children's Literacy Round-Up: February 26

Here are some children's literacy-related stories that caught my eye this week.

  • Wal-Mart recently donated $100,000 to Tennessee's Imagination Library program and the Governor's Books from Birth program. The Imagination Library and Books from Birth programs provide free books to all children in the state, regardless of income level, up to the age of five. You can read more details about the Wal-Mart donation, and both programs, here.
  • Students at the University of Toronto Scarborough planned to hold a Literacy Awareness Day on February 26th. "The students are volunteer members of Frontier College at U of T Scarborough, a campus chapter of Frontier College, a Canada-wide, volunteer-based literacy organization." Read more about it here.
  • There's an interesting article in the Westchester, NY Journal News about how literacy skills learned in one language can be applied to another. The message is that immigrant parents should keep speaking to their children, and teaching them about words, as much as possible, regardless of the language used.
  • I also found interesting, if disturbing, this press release entitled "LITERACY BREAKTHROUGH: Children as Young as Nine Months Are Reading With "Your Baby Can Read!(R)," the Revolutionary Early Language Development Program From Smart Kids(R)". I'm all for kids enjoying reading, but I find the idea of teaching a nine-month-old to read a bit scary. My fear would be that these kids would be burned out by the time they're in elementary school. But maybe some of you have more experience with this than I do. 

That's all for now. I'm off on another trip, but I'll be back with you on Friday.

Sunday Afternoon Visits: February 25

I was traveling for work this week, and am still trying to catch up. I didn't have any time to visit the Kidlitosphere between last Monday night and tonight, though I managed to post a couple of times. Clearly, I missed a lot. Here are a just a few highlights, gleaned in my very limited blogging time today:

  • I completely missed the 11th Carnival of Children's Literature, posted with Mother Reader's classic wit. What's particularly nice to see is that the roll call of people participating in the Carnivals (as with Poetry Friday and Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books) is ever-growing. I'm on deck to host the April carnival, and I'm looking forward to it.
  • Cloudscome, aka Andi, from a wrung sponge took the time to dig into a report that I linked to in my last Children's Literacy Round-Up. The report is about the effects of television watching on young children. Andi summarizes the main findings from the report, and asks visitors how they manage TV and media at home. Important stuff, I think.
  • People are still talking about the whole Higher Power of Lucky scrotum reference debate. While opinions on the book vary, there does seem to be consensus that Pixie Stix Kids Pix has the most comprehensive and informed wrap-up around. And, not surprisingly, Leila from bookshelves of doom has the t-shirts, recently mentioned at Gawker. Thanks to Liz B. at Tea Cozy for both links.
  • Reinforcing my impression of them as three classy women who deserved to win Newbery Honor awards, Cynthia Lord, Kirby Larson, and Jennifer Holm published a solidarity statement in support of Newbery winner Susan Patron in this time of conflict. They in turn have received much positive feedback from their fans, and from Susan Patron (in the comments here).
  • I've been waiting until I have more time to talk in detail about a new site, Readergirlz. But since I'm not doing so well with the "more time" thing, I'll just send you over there now. Readergirlz is an online community focused around helping teen girls, started by four divas of young adult literature: Justina Chen Headley, Dia Calhoun, Lorie Ann Grover, and Janet Lee Carey. Their mission is "celebrating gutsy girls in life and lit". The idea is to inspire girls, and keep them reading and discussing books. They're working on a list strong girls in books (and of course I'm on board with that), among other projects. In keeping with audience, they also have a MySpace page, and have lured me into creating a MySpace page so that I can participate. I think that what they're doing is amazing and important, and I recommend that you check it out.

I'm traveling again this week, but I expect to be back with some book reviews next weekend. Happy reading!

Cures for Heartbreak: Margo Rabb

I heard about Margo Rabb's book, Cures for Heartbreak, from Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray, and also saw a positive review by Kelly Herold at Big A little a. So, in need of another book to read on my trip to Portland last week, I picked up a copy. Now I'm trying to review it, but I keep getting stuck on "wow!".

Cures for Heartbreak is about how 15-year-old Mia Pearlman copes with her mother's sudden death from melanoma, and her father's subsequent hospitalization for heart problems. Which might make you think that it's a sad or depressing book. But it isn't. Cures for Heartbreak is funny and compelling, with a heady mix of the philosophical and the absurd. Sure, it's about Mia's grief, and guilt, and the hole that her mother's absence leaves in her life. But it's also about her quest to fall in love, her father's unexpected means of coping, and her sister's escape into academia. It's about finding a best friend, wearing too much makeup, and eating vast quantities of junk food. The lighter aspects of the story provide leavening for the darker subjects.

Margo Rabb's writing is both eloquent and moving. She drops clever observations and brilliant turns of phrase like little gifts for the reader. But at the same time, she's not afraid to write about what really matters. You can tell, even without the explanatory afterword, that she actually experienced the emotions that she describes. There's a level of emotional honesty here that can't be faked. Here is an example that shows Mia's grief:

I couldn't stop crying. I knew it was the wrong time to cry publicly now, so late for my mother's death, so prematurely for my father's. What no one ever tells you is that people don't die all at once, but again and again in waves, before their deaths and after. ... I kept crying until my sister put her arms around me, my fallen eyelashes folded inside a crumpled tissue, and said "Come on," and took me to the cafeteria to eat.

And here is a small example of Margo Rabb's poetic eloquence:

Businessmen marched up Fifth like a gray tweed parade; we strode to the bakery and gazed at the pastries rising like a hundred half-moons in the window.

And here is an example that captures both the poetic language and the honest portrayal of Mia's grief, as she opens up to a new friend:

The scrapbook, the one of my mother, lay on the shelf beside my bed; she picked it up. My heart flinched to watch her open the quilted cover: there were my insides, spilling out on the page. I was embarrassed for her to see this raw, doting, unharnessed outpouring. My mother, in every period of her life, in every year of mine.

I think that, among other things, this book is about is how the major wounds that people sustain are passed from generation to generation. Mia's Jewish mother was a baby when she left Europe just before the Holocaust. But she (the mother) was still scarred by it, by the empty branches in her family tree, and by the impact of the genocide on her parents, who never hugged her. She in turn caused grief for Mia, and Mia's father, through her own insecurities (though she unquestionably loved her daughter). Traumatic events leave long shadows. I know that my own life, and the person I am today, has been strongly influenced by the death of my mother's mother, long before I was born, when my mother was very young. The afterword of Cures for Heartbreak resonated very strongly with me.

I think that Margo Rabb is incredibly brave, to be able to share her feelings about the loss of her parents through this novel. Anyone who has ever suffered a loss will be able to relate to Mia's inappropriate laughter, bouts of tears, and attachment to everything that her mother ever touched. The magic is that the book ends with a sense of hope.

So what are the cures for heartbreak? For Mia, they include shopping, eating junk food, finding a best friend, and looking for love (because "A crush removed the world, at least for a little while"). But I think that what Margo Rabb is showing here is that the real cure for heartbreak is to live your life to the fullest, even though the grief from the loss of a parent will never entirely go away. Highly recommended.

Book: Cures for Heartbreak
Author: Margo Rabb (see also this site, about her Missing Persons series)
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Original Publication Date: February 13, 2007
Pages: 256
Age Range: 13 and up
Source of Book: Purchased it
Other Blog Reviews: Big A little a

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Notes from the Midnight Driver: Jordan Sonnenblick

I wanted to read Notes from the Midnight Driver even before it was nominated for the Cybils award, because I loved Jordan Sonnenblick's previous book, Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie. Notes from the Midnight Driver is aimed at slightly older kids, though truth to tell, the voice feels similar in age. It's necessary for this book to be classified for young adults, because the opening scene involves the main character, 16-year-old Alex, being arrested for drunk driving (and the attendant decapitation of a helpless lawn gnome). Please don't let that put you off. That is not what the book is about. The drunk driving incident (a one-time mis-step from an otherwise not-very-rebellious kid) is a catalyst for a story of personal growth and cross-generational friendship.

As a first time offender, Alex is sentenced to 100 hours of community service at a nursing home, assigned to visit a cranky old man named Sol Lewis. Because he's accustomed to being a "good kid", Alex has trouble taking responsibility for his actions. He starts out feeling sorry for himself, and whining about how difficult Sol is to deal with. The "notes" of the title refer, in part, to Alex's regular letters of complaint to the judge assigned to his case. But as the book evolves, the "notes" take on another connotation, too, as Sol and Alex form a bond through their shared love of music.

There is so much to like about this book. The number one thing, for me, is Alex's voice: wryly humorous and self-deprecating, and completely believable. I could cite dozens of examples. But here are two:

She still looks like a pixie -- but she looks like a terrifying Goth pixie... She's like the daughter my Mom never had, but would have liked very much if God hadn't given her a dorky, uncoordinated nerdball of a son instead. (page 27)

I stopped and waited for that to sink in. While Brad was still struggling with my daunting use of a three-syllable word, Laurie asked "The hospital? Why? What's going on?" (page 195)

Sol's voice is wonderfully entertaining, also, despite his gruffness. His words, especially the frequent Yiddish expressions, practically leap off the page. Here's an example:

First of all, I told you to call me Sol. Second of all, don't apologize for showing some backbone. Especially for a slow kid like you -- no offense -- you're going to need some of that chutzpah to get you through life. Everybody needs a meal ticket, and if you aren't blessed with looks or brains, a big mouth isn't such a bad substitute. (page 58)

Notes from the Midnight Driver also features the re-appearance of Steven and Annette from Sonnenblick's first book, Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie. They're side characters in this story, but we get to see how they're doing, three years after the time of the first book. I found this a pleasant surprise, mid-way through the book, and I was happy to see them again. (You should read Drums, Girls first, because the second book does give away the ending of the first).

Notes from the Midnight Driver also delves into Alex's relationship with his longtime best friend, Laurie. I've written before about the overuse of the "boy-girl best friends who develop romantic feelings for one another" plotline. But I have to say that this one held my interest. Maybe because this story is told from the boy's perspective. Maybe because Laurie is such a strong character in her own right. Maybe because of Sol's bossy old man intervention. But I liked it.

Still, the main event here is Alex's relationship with Sol, and the ways that they are both changed by it. On the surface, it doesn't seem like a book about a friendship between a high school boy and an ailing old Jewish guy would be compelling. But in Sonnenblick's capable hands, it is. Especially the change in Alex, as he learns to take responsibility for himself and others.

This book ought to feel message-y, but doesn't. I think it's the humor. Sonnenblick strikes a remarkable balance between keeping things light-hearted, and writing about serious issues. I laughed along the way, and cried a bit at the end. I left the book wanting to strengthen my own connections with people, and wondering if maybe I should be volunteering in a nursing home somewhere. But mostly, I left the book hoping that Jordan Sonnenblick will write another book soon.

Book: Notes from the Midnight Driver
Author: Jordan Sonnenblick
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Original Publication Date: October 2006. This book was nominated for the Cybils award for Young Adult Fiction.
Pages: 272
Age Range: 13 and up
Source of Book: Santa Clara City Library
Other Blog Reviews:, Kids Lit,, Hypothetically Speaking, Reading YA: Readers' Rants, OMS Book Blog

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Impact of the Cybils on Amazon Rankings

The day that the Cybils awards were announced, I issued a small plea for people to consider supporting the award by buying copies of the winning titles. The idea was for us, collectively, to show that an award given by bloggers could have an impact on sales rankings. And I am pleased to report back that we did have a tangible impact on sales, at least for some of the winning titles. It's very cool!

You can read all of the details here, at the Cybils site. The results are conveyed in beautiful and dramatic graphs prepared by Sheila Ruth, head of the Fantasy and Science Fiction committee and Amazon ranking guru.

Many many thanks to all of you who repeated my plea on your own blogs, and to all of you who showed your support by purchasing copies of our wonderful winning titles. I hope that the impact of the Cybils continues to be felt, through increased library circulation, and sales at independent bookstores throughout the English-speaking world. Thank you all so much! This response is heartwarming, and strong evidence of the power of the Kidlitosophere. I hope that you enjoy your Cybils award-winning titles.

Children's Literacy Round-Up: February 21

Here is the children's literacy news that caught my eye this week:

  • According to an article on the Literacy News website, "The Literacy for Life(TM) program launche(d) with a $40,000 library makeover contest and a new web site,, a reading and wellness resource that provides tools for parents and educators to help inspire children to become lifelong readers and to teach them how to stay healthy at home and at school." It seems like a great program, sponsored by the makers of Children's Benadryl and PediaCare, Reading is Fundamental, and Scholastic.
  • A recent article on says that "Young children should be banned from watching television as it can damage their mental and physical health to an even greater level than previously thought, according to a shocking new report." Detailed results from the report, by Psychologist Dr Aric Sigman, are included.
  • The "child literacy campaign Get Glasgow Reading has been hailed a blockbuster", at least according program sponsor the Glasgow Evening Times. Book borrowing and library membership are up in Glasgow, with a significant increase in borrowing of certain program-recommended read-aloud titles. "The titles were recommended in Great Books To Read Aloud, a book by Jacqueline Wilson given away free in our special Get Glasgow Reading packs. To date, more than 14,095 of these packs have been distributed through libraries and participating branches of Black and Lizars and Waterstone's, sponsors of the campaign."
  • There is a nice article about the Raising a Reader program in the Stockton (CA) Record. This article is written by reporter Dana M. Nichols, and includes enthusiastic quotations from teachers, Raising a Reader organizers, and parents. This non-profit organization has a mission "to foster healthy brain development, parent-child bonding and early literacy skills critical for school success by engaging parents in a routine of daily “book cuddling” with their children from birth to age five."

Here's hoping that you'll find this literacy news as inspiring and intriguing as I do. Happy reading!

Gregor and the Marks of Secret: Suzanne Collins

I love Suzanne Collins' Gregor the Overlander books. You can read my review of the first two books here. I didn't review the third book (though I enjoyed it), but I've just finished the fourth, and would like to share it with you.

This is such a great series. It's about a boy named Gregor who, with various members of his family in tow, visits a hidden world located deep beneath New York. In that world, called the Underland, there live oversized, intelligent races of rats, mice, cockroaches, spiders, bats, and other creatures, all co-existing, and sometimes fighting one another. There is also a race of humans, who live in a city called Regalia. On his first visit, Gregor learns that his arrival has been prophesied, and that the people in the Underland consider him a warrior and hero. A series of daring adventures, lightened by humor, follows.

In this somewhat bleak installment, Gregor is relieved to visit the Underland and not be confronted with a prophecy. However, his friend, the 12-year-old Queen Luxa, pulls him into a mission anyway. Luxa has learned that the mice, who once saved her life, are in trouble. She sets out, with various others, on a dangerous quest to help the mice, a quest that may lead Regalia into war.

My favorite characters in this series, and in this book specifically, are Boots, Gregor's three-year-old sister, and Ripred, an older, battle-scarred rat who trains Gregor to fight. Boots is a natural ambassador, curious about everything and everyone she meets. Here's a brief example:

A few minutes later, after some negotiation and assurances that they were too little to sting, Boots was sitting on the mother scorpion's back cooing to the babies as she patted their shells. Gregor guessed he shouldn't be surprised when he remembered how readily she'd taken to the cockroaches. And they were full-grown" (pg. 230).

It's quite clear that the author has personal experience with three-year-old girls.  Gregor's love for and protectiveness of his sister also feel real. 

Ripred is a more complex character, a mix of mentor and antagonist. But I enjoy his wry tone. Here's an example, speaking to Luxa:

"Did you indeed?" said Ripred. "It seems like only yesterday you were a baby bouncing on your grandpa's knee. And now you're starting wars. They grow up so fast." (pg. 249).

The other thing, besides Boots and Ripred, that lightens this relatively dark episode in Gregor's history is the growing relationship between Luxa and Gregor. They can't really be together. They are from different worlds, and she's a Queen. Not to mention their head-butting and arguments. But still... There's something there, subtle but intriguing.

And we really need that lighter side in this book. I'll not put in any details, but you should know that the plight of the mice ends up being a pretty much a genocide. There is surprisingly grim detail for a children's book. There are strong Holocaust parallels, though their treatment isn't heavy-handed - you have to recognize the parallels for yourself, pretty much, and not all kids will understand. The most direct statement is when one of the bats says that there's no precedent for such a thing to occur, and Ripred says "This has too much precedent." As of course, it does.

I should also warn you that this book ends with a major cliffhanger. I believe that Book 5 is scheduled to end the series, and that everything will be resolved. But you might want to wait until Book 5 (Gregor and the Code of the Claw) comes out May 1st, and read them episodes 4 and 5 back to back. Just a thought.

In conclusion, this is an absolutely wonderful series for kids who are interested in epic quest fantasy but are not quite ready for The Lord of the Rings books. It's a story that will pull in reluctant readers, and keep them reading. In Gregor and the Marks of Secret, Suzanne Collins ups the ante in terms of both societal and personal issues, while retaining the quirky charm of the the previous books. Highly recommended.

Book: Gregor and the Marks of Secret (Underland Chronicles, Volume 4)
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Original Publication Date: May 1, 2006
Pages: 352
Age Range: 9-12
Source of Book: Santa Clara City Library
Other Blog Reviews: Rave Reviews Log, Fairrosa's Reading Journal, Kids Lit (Tasha named it a best book of 2006, and called it a "must read")

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Readio Seeks Families for Free Trial of Interactive Reading Product

I received the following announcement from Suzanne at Soliloquy Learning, and thought that some of you might be interested:

Seeking families with kids ages 5-9 to test interactive reading product

Do you love books and want to share that love of reading with your kids? Are you interested in being one of the first users of a cutting edge technology that helps kids learn to read and gets them excited about reading? Would you like to contribute to the development of a breakthrough product by providing feedback about your experiences? 

If you answered yes to these questions, we’d like to invite you to try out an early version of this product by participating in the Readio Network Pioneer Program. The product, called Readio, is a new software program and web site that takes parent and child read-aloud to a whole new level. Readio is not yet commercially available, but we are inviting qualified families to participate in a free trial. The program has been up and running for a few weeks and will continue to run until April 2007. 

In addition to influencing the development of this product, as in-home Pioneer Program participants, your family will receive a complementary six-month subscription to the Readio service once it is commercially released. 

All you need to qualify is at least one child between the ages of 5 and 9, a Microsoft® Windows XP-based PC with broadband Internet access in your home and a willingness to provide feedback. 

If you would like to apply, please visit this site and complete our brief survey. You will then be contacted directly with details on getting started.

I don't have any personal experience with this company, or with this specific program. But I do like their mission statement:

Our Mission is to get kids excited about reading and learning by providing them with a tool that makes reading a fun, real-time interactive experience.

I don't think that anything is a substitute for parents spending quality time reading with their kids. But this could be an interesting way to augment that. If it sounds promising to you, the next step is to participate in their survey.

Sunday Afternoon Visits: February 18

My Sunday visits post will be relatively short today, because it seems that for many bloggers, the only things going on this week were the Cybils and Valentine's Day. You can find out more about Cybils coverage on the Cybils site. I'll be concentrating on other topics here.

  • This post at Read Roger caught my eye earlier in the week. A Horn Book reader requested a "children's lit. guide to Boston." Being originally from Boston (well, Lexington, MA), and a fan of children's lit, I was interested to see Roger's response. He has several good suggestions (though the comments for some reason veer off into discussion about Emily Dickinson and Maurice Sendak). If you have thoughts on children's literature landmarks in the Boston area, head on over to offer your two cents. And yes, he already mentioned the Ducklings.
  • Following up to my post last weekend, about meeting Mitali Perkins, you can read all about her Northern California visit, with photos, here. The pictures of her Mom painting alpanas are eye-opening. It's also nice to see book readings that are such a family affair. And so wonderful for me to have been included in one of the events.
  • Tricia has a list of "terrific" books for kids about baseball, with short descriptions of each book, over at The Miss Rumphius Effect. If you know a young baseball fan, you'll want to check it out.
  • Barbara Johansen Newman asks "Is Work Your Life?" over at Cats and Jammers Studio. She concludes in her case: "I think it is my life. I cannot keep my need for art out of my life." How about you? Is your work your life? Barbara also expresses her love for her UPS man, who brings her wondrous packages. And who among us can't relate to that?
  • Liz B. asks "How long until the posts start about the poor kids who went to see Bridge To Terabithia expecting Narnia and getting Love Story?" over at Tea Cozy. She makes a good point. I had been bothered by the trailer because it makes it look like the movie won't be like the book, and people who love the book won't want to see it based on the trailer. But Liz starts a discussion from the other side: the people who will think they want to see it, based on the trailer, and then be disappointed because that's not what it's about at all. Way to make everyone unhappy, advertisers!
  • A debate that I've been staying away from, because I haven't read the book, concerns possible censorship of the recent Newbery winner, The Higher Power of Lucky. Never one to shy away from controversy, Betsy has an excellent re-cap over at A Fuse #8 Production. Personally, I agree that libraries have the right not to purchase the book if they truly think that kids won't like it. But to not purchase it because of a single word, the technically correct term for a body part ("scrotum"), well, that seems a bit ridiculous. But then, I live with a Urologist, so I'm a bit de-sensitized to such words.
  • You may also be interested in Mary Lee's impassioned response from an elementary school teacher's perspective at A Year of Reading. She says it all in the labels alone. My favorite quote: "Teaching is not for sissies! We're an integral part of the team (team, not village, and yes, I would include the librarians) who raise the children of our world. We're important because we're NOT the parents. Kids can talk to us in ways they can't talk to their parents, and we can answer them with an honesty parents sometimes can't manage."
  • See also Nancy's review of The Higher Power of Lucky at Journey Woman, which she concludes with "There are people who want to ban the book from school libraries because of this word. But I hope you don't let those people stop you from reading it -- it's simply a wonderful story, wonderfully told." (There are lots of other reviews and comments on the book and the controversy out there, but I've just reached my limit for covering it, and will move on.)
  • Kelly reports at Big A little a that Philip Pullman is working on a sequel to His Dark Materials. Wow! I'll bet Michele is pretty psyched, too (ok, she voices her opinion in the comments at Kelly's post, but I wrote the previous sentence before noticing that). I'm excited too! 
  • If you haven't spent all of your spare cash buying copies of Cybils winners, you might want to check out the t-shirts that Leila has for sale over at bookshelves of doom (right-hand sidebar). My favorite is "Trust Snape." The newest is "Cult of Castellucci".
  • Jennifer continues her advocacy for parents reading more books with their kids over at Snapshot. Today she has some suggestions from her 8-year-old daughter. I especially enjoyed Amanda's thoughts on why it's important for her Mom to continue to read aloud to her. "Because then the daughter knows that you're still her Mommy, and she's still your little girl." What parent could argue with that?
  • My fellow Cybils MG fiction judge Brooke reviews Elizabeth Enright's The Saturdays over at The Brookeshelf. Oh, I love Elizabeth Enright's books so much! I reviewed The Saturdays and The Four Story Mistake last year. It makes me so happy to see someone else write about the Melendy family.
  • This just in from the ever passionate about reading Shannon Hale: don't feel guilty about reading for pleasure. Among other things she says "Personally, the books that bring me greatest pleasure are those that are well written, have real merit, and tell a ripping good tale to boot. Everyone's tastes will vary. The important thing is to allow ourselves to read what we love--otherwise (as is happening everywhere) we'll stop reading altogether." Words to live by.
  • Saving the best for last, I especially enjoyed Colleen Mondor's recent post about why she blogs (and not just because she was kind enough to mention me in the context of discussion with other book reviewers). She says: "I have already written why I chose to review books, but starting Chasing Ray was more of an attempt to connect with a portion of the literary world. Simply put, I blog so I can meet people and learn things that make me a better writer." She gives lots of specific examples, and concludes with "I blog because at long last I have found my people and really, what better reason do you need than that?" I know exactly what she means. It's not about having a blog, it's about being a part of this community of people who love books and writing, and want to discuss them, together. I've had a hard time expressing to people from my "real life" just why it is that this blog is so important to me, and I think that Colleen really hits the nail on the head. You simply must read her post.

And that is an excellent place to leave off. My posting will be a bit more sparse than usual coming up, because I have a LOT of business travel over the next few weeks. But I'll do my best to keep up, and you know that I'll be reading. Happy Presidents Day! 

Printable Version of the Cybils Shortlists Now Available

For those of you who are interested in taking the list of Cybils finalists and winners with you to your local library or bookstore, I have good news! You can now download a formatted PDF version of the list and print it out. Just go to the Cybils site and follow the link in the upper right-hand corner, immediately under the word "Welcome". It says "Download a printer-friendly version of the short lists".

I think you'll find this more convenient than printing from the Cybils webpage, with it's black background, or copying and formatting the text on your own. We hope that you find it useful. Happy Reading!

And many thanks to those of you who have already purchased copies of the books. I can tell you that our efforts have made a difference in the Amazon sales rankings. We expect a post about that on the Cybils site soon. Thanks so much!!

Weedflower: Cynthia Kadohata

Weedflower, by Cynthia Kadohata, is a Cybils shortlist title for Middle Grade Fiction. It's told from the perspective of Sumiko, a young girl born to a Japanese immigrant family in the U.S. during World War II. Weedflower chronicles the treatment of Sumiko's family, as the older men not born in the U.S. are shipped off to a virtual prison, and the rest of the family is sent to a detention camp in the desert. Their property, not to mention their dignity, are stripped away because of fear caused by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Sumiko, however, maintains hope through her passion for growing flowers.

This book is written in a simple, easily accessible style, but tells an important story. Although set in the 1940's, Weedflower carries implications for today, in how we treat people of Muslim descent. The story is a window into what it's like for people to be mis-treated, at the hands of their own country, simply because of their ethnicity. It shows how unfair and greedy people, including the government, can be (as when the Japanese were forced to sell their possessions for pennies on the dollar). It also illustrated what can happen to people when their rights, and their ability to strive for success, are taken away. Some of the children run wild, and steal things. Some of the young men give up hope, and lie around all day. Here is an example of the boredom and hopelessness of the camp overtaking Sumiko:

Sumiko felt the ultimate boredom closing in on her. The ultimate boredom wasn't dread of the next year or of what the government might do next; it was dread of your own mind, dread of the next day, the next hour, the next minute. You could lose your mind at any time. Like one morning, for no good reason, Sumiko actually stomped on a butterfly that landed in the dust. After she moved her foot, she saw the squished bitterly and wondered what had come over her. She hadn't thought about it beforehand, but had just suddenly stomped on the poor butterfly. She figured maybe she'd had a sudden attack of the ultimate boredom, and then when she'd seen the dead butterfly she snapped out of it.

There are examples of non-Japanese Americans who do the right thing, too. A young woman volunteers to teach the Japanese kids at the internment camp, despite difficult surroundings. A woman takes time to write to the Japanese woman whose house she is now living, to let the Japanese woman know that the other woman is taking good care of her dog. The Japanese woman sobs with happiness. Christmas presents are donated to the detention camp for the kids. The examples stand out, like the flowers that the Japanese grow from the dusty ground of their camp.

The characterization in Weedflower is quite strong. Many of the characters, especially Sumiko, her friend Frank, and her cousin Bull, feel real. Their characters are mostly revealed through action, rather than being described. This is especially true of Bull, Sumiko's quiet, strong cousin, who intervenes when he see the opportunity, to keep things running smoothly.

A scene that I think will resonate with kids occurs early in the book, before the family is sent to a detention camp. Sumiko, the only Japanese girl in her class at school, is excited to be invited to her first birthday party. She dresses up, and her uncle spends precious money for her to buy a present. However, when the parents at the party learn that she's Japanese, they quietly and politely ask her to leave. Here is what Sumiko thought afterward

Like anyone, Sumiko had known momentarily embarrassing moments, but right now she felt so overwhelmingly humiliated that it was as if nothing in her life would ever be the same again, as if everything she did -- disbudding flowers, heating the water, cooking rice -- would be different from now on. In the future, she wouldn't be Sumiko who was disbudding flowers, she would be Humiliated Sumiko disbudding flowers. She wouldn't be Sumiko heating water and cooking rice, she would be Humiliated Sumiko heating water and cooking rice. And right at this moment she wasn't just Sumiko sitting along on the bench, she was Humiliated Sumiko.

Overall, I think that Weedflower is strong on theme and character, and a detailed portrayal of life among Japanese immigrants during World War II. It's an enjoyable read, but it doesn't have a strong "what happens next?" sort of plot. I think that it's a book that adults will like, and that some kids will enjoy, but that others may find a bit slow-paced.

Book: Weedflower
Author: Cynthia Kadohata
Publisher: Atheneum
Original Publication Date: March 2006
Pages: 272
Age Range: 10-14
Source of Book: Purchased it. A Cybils shortlist title for Middle Grade Fiction.
Other Blog Reviews: Fairrosa's Reading Journal, Semicolon, Nina's Newbery, A New Adventure

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.