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Posts from February 2009

Zenith: Julie Bertagna

Book: Zenith
Author: Julie Bertagna (blog, not a blog)
Pages: 352
Age Range: Young adult


Background: Regular readers of this blog know that I have an insatiable appetite for dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, especially when the protagonists are children or young adults. There's something about the quest for human survival against difficult odds, and the clean slate of having a large portion of the population gone, that endlessly fascinates me. I re-read Stephen King's The Stand every couple of years, even though it's quite long, and I know the miniseries (with Gary Sinese, Rob Lowe, and Molly Ringwald) pretty much by heart.

My special favorites within the post-apocalypse genre are books that offer peeks at artifacts from our own society. I still remember a scene from John Christopher's Tripods trilogy in which young hero Will Parker, raised in a rural, backwards community, explores a crumbling city. I like the rediscovery of innovations that have fallen by the wayside during the apocalypse, like eyeglasses and watches. I enjoy figuring out what that mysterious silver box that the character finds might be, in today's vocabulary.

While I'll read pretty much anything in this genre, I of course favor books with strong characters, eloquent writing, suspenseful plotting, and a strong sense of place. Julie Bertagna's Exodus (reviewed here) was such a book for me. It takes place in a future world in which global warming has led to rising oceans and the collapse of most civilizations. I've been eagerly awaiting the second book in Bertagna's trilogy, Zenith. And I'm pleased to report that, if anything, it's better than the first book.

Review: Julie Bertagna's Zenith picks up right where Exodus (the first book of this planned trilogy) left off. (It will be impossible to review Zenith without including spoilers for Exodus, so please stop here if you haven't read Exodus, and just go get it. Amazon has a bargain edition of the hardcover right now for $4.99.) Zenith begins with teenage leader Mara and her band of refugees headed north on a stolen ship. Their hope is to find that Greenland, after being freed of ice by global warming, offers land that they can live on. Meanwhile, Mara's lover, Fox, has remained in the shadow of the elevated city of New Mungo. He hopes to find a way to rescue the city of his birth from corruption, using his hacker skills to teach New Mungo's sheltered citizens about the suffering going on in the outside world. A third character, Tuck, is introduced in Zenith. Tuck lives as a scavenging thief on a floating city of interconnected boats, an outcast in an unforgiving society of Gypseas. Zenith follows the intersecting stories of Mara, Fox, and Tuck, (especially Mara) as they each struggle for survival, and to live with the consequences of their own choices.

I thought that Zenith had the perfect combination of page-turning suspense and beautiful, descriptive prose. I read quickly, because I had to find out what happened to the characters, but I also stopped often to flag particular passages. Tuck's voice is particularly strong. He's a boy who has never lived on or even seen land, and all of his mental imagery centers around the sea. For example:

"Great at fooling herself, is Ma. Her mind shuts snap-hard as an oyster shell if there's something she doesn't want to know. It's not the deaths that make her like that; it's just the way she is. But she never used to guzzle a glugget of sea-grape bitterbeer every night." (Page 26)

Tuck does have hints about what life was like before, memories of stories related by his grandfather, who lived in pre-flood civilization. These hints lend pathos to Tuck's already sad story. I also found it striking how quickly people like Tuck were able to shed generations of societal knowledge. Tuck, living in a water-filled world, can't read, and doesn't know what a camera is when he runs across one. He's far from perfect, an irrepentant and ungrateful thief, but I found his character and perspective compelling. Here's one more example of Tuck's thinking:

"Tuck never could get his head around the idea of Earth. A world steady underfoot? That didn't shift to the dance of the ocean? Even the word "Earth" is odd. It always made him snigger when Grumpa said it, all proud and defiant, because Tuck couldn't think of it as anything other than a curse." (Page 34)

In showing Mara's perspective, Bertagna walks a finer line. Mara was educated on her island home, before becoming a refugee. She has her cyberwizz, a virtual reality tool that lets her browse the remains of a crumbling computer web. She understands the value of knowledge, and she learns bits and pieces about what happened to cause the old society to devolve into the ruins in which she lives now. I think it was a tricky thing to convey Mara's understanding of these things, without making the book feel message-y. But I think that Julie Bertagna pulled it off. Mara is horrified when she learns that people knew about global warming, and didn't stop it. But her horror is tied in to her immediate physical state, and the result feels like a personal response, not a Moral (though the dangers of global warming certainly come across throughout the series). 

Scenes related through Mara's perspective are the most poetic of the book. For example:

"It's as if the world is a wrecked ship and all that is left is the flotsam of the past." (Page 210)

"... they gather together and Gorbals reads from A Tale of Two Cities ... or he unwraps a poem or story from his own head and warms it by the fire. The ache of their empty stomachs fades a little as they fly on the wings of the words, escaping their entombment... They fall asleep with the story infused in their dreams." (Page 230, ellipses to avoid spoilers)

All in all, I thought that Zenith more than lived up to the promise of Exodus. This is the best kind of dystopian fiction, a novel in which prose, plot, and characters aren't neglected for the sake of the premise. It's not a particularly happy book. Difficult things happen, and people suffer. But it's a beautiful story nevertheless (and with an appropriately beautiful cover). Highly recommended. I can't wait for the conclusion to this trilogy.

Publisher: Walker Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: March 17, 2009
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Bookwitch

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

Friday Night Visits: February 27

There's been lot of activity out and about the Kidlitosphere this week. Here are a few highlights:

First up, breaking news from MotherReader -- it looks like we have a definite date for the third annual Kidlitosphere conference, "officially, set for the weekend of October 16th–18th at the Sheraton Crystal City Hotel! ... As we’ve done in the past, Friday will feature a dinnertime outing to some local place for whomever can come. Saturday will be the conference and dinner. Sunday will be some Washington, DC adventure". I'll let you know when the room block is set up, and you can make plans.

Kid-Lit72 Lynn Hazen is hosting the February Carnival of Children's Literature at Imaginary Blog this week. She asked for posts on the theme of "We Love Kid-Lit!", and the result is a fabulous tribute to the joy of children's literature. Like Lynn, I especially "enjoyed Book Aunt Kate Coombs' view on the Anarchy of the Imagination: Why I Love Children’s Books." But there is lots of other great stuff, too. Don't miss it!

CybilsLogoSmallDeputy Editor Sarah Stevenson has a final round-up of reviews, and a bit of author feedback from Nic Bishop, at the Cybils blog. Our co-founder Anne Levy also had a fun post earlier in the week of Cybils by the numbers (number of books read, traffic, etc.)

Lots of other award news out this week, too. Gwenda Bond has the nomination lists for the Nebula and Norton awardsLori Calabrese has the scoop on the 2009 Red House Children's Book AwardsTasha Saecker has the finalists for the 2009 Children's Choice Book Awards and the 2009 Agatha Awards.   

Sassaf And of course, there's been lots of buzz this week about the upcoming Share a Story - Shape a Future Literacy Blog Tour. Terry Doherty shares some additional background about the event here. The very thoughtful Brimful Curiosities made a nice button that people can display on their blogs to show support for the event, and I'm seeing it all over the place. You can also join the Share a Story - Shape a Future Facebook group.

Speaking of sharing stories, the Children's Book Review has coined a new term. "Bookarazzi: A freelance blogger who pursues celebrities who read books, to create posts that promote children's literature." I like it!

Interesting Nonfiction for Kids (I.N.K.) shares children's nonfiction magazines. Gretchen Woelfle says "Children’s science magazines have evolved into well-designed, beautifully illustrated journals meant to entertain as well as inform. Animal-loving kids, especially, can revel in the options available." 

Laurel Snyder's had a great reaction to an article that she wrote about children's books for Jews ("Lamenting the predictability of Jewish kids’ lit, a writer takes matters into her own hands"). Liz Burns supports Laurel's post, but asks "what about the Catholics?" Both articles have generated lots of great discussion about how often authors completely gloss over any religious background of characters in children's literature.

Gail Gauthier notes "an indication of YA's significance now", reporting that "Condoleeza Rice has signed a contract with Crown Publishers to write three books. Two of them will be memoirs about her family--one written for adults and the other "a young adult edition."" I agree with Gail that a young adult version of the memoir of someone like Rice is good news all around.

Blogbutterflyaward And last, but definitely not least, the wonderful team at PaperTigers was kind enough to award me a Butterfly Award, for having a "cool" blog. This is one of my favorite awards, and it's an honor to receive it from a blog that I link to so often. Thanks, Marjorie!

Wishing you all a joyful and book-filled weekend!

15 Weeks of Bees Blog Tour: Mary Russell and Laurie King

The Beekeeper's ApprenticeI've been a fan of Laurie R. King's Mary Russell novels since the first book, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, was published in 1994 (well, technically I've been a fan since the paperback came out in 1995). In The Beekeeper's Apprentice, set in 1915, independent 15-year-old orphan Mary Russell becomes, after a chance encounter, apprentice to a nominally retired Sherlock Holmes (aka the beekeeper). In their first meeting, Mary is walking along on the moor reading a book, and literally stumbles across Holmes. He takes her for a boy. She takes him for a tramp. And so a life-altering partnership is born. Mary is young, bright and adventurous. She's the perfect foil for the sarcastic and sometimes supercilious Holmes.

The Language of BeesSince that first book, Russell and Holmes have had a variety of adventures on different continents, solving mysteries wherever they go. I've found all of the books to be clever, engrossing, and well-researched. The ninth book in the series, The Language of Bees, is due out on April 28th.

During the 15 weeks leading up to the new book's publication, Laurie is taking a blog tour: 15 Weeks of Bees. I was honored when Laurie's publicist for the tour, Zoe, approached me about participating. As Zoe pointed out, this is a series that's always had a lot of crossover appeal for young adults. Mary Russell is a teenager at the start of the series, for one thing. For another, mysteries are often bridge books by which teens first dip into adult fiction (I know this was true for me). Plus, these books are both smart and exciting, two attributes sure to appeal to teens. So, although I'm not normally a big blog tour person, this was one that I couldn't pass up. Without further ado, I bring you a guest post from Laurie R. King:


"Readers often wonder how much of the author is in her story. How much of Mary Russell is actually Laurie King, anyway?

I wrote The Beekeeper's Apprentice in 1987 during a time when I couldn't seem to find much of interest in the library, and I decided that telling myself a story would at least keep me for longer than reading one. And I wrote that book the way I have written all 17 books since then, by launching myself into it and seeing where it took me.

Not knowing where the story I'm writing is going until it gets there means that when I finish, I then turn and look back at it, trying to figure out what I was aiming for. And when I've done that, I begin the rewrite with that aim in mind, seeking to make those key elements stronger and clearer. But sometimes, I've finished the rewrite and the book has gone off to be printed and I'm long past the point at which I can fiddle with the story, but I'm still not altogether certain what story the book is meant to be telling. Sometimes, it takes the first reviews before I begin to figure it out.

One of the early reviews for The Beekeeper's Apprentice was in the San Jose newspaper. The woman who wrote the article, a combination of review and interview, noted that the book was for all those girls who had read the Sherlock Holmes stories and then realized, They don't mean me.

Yes, I thought. Mary Russell may not be meshe's far more clever, infinitely braver and more resourceful, than the woman writing her on the page. However, Russell is me in the sense that she is who I would love to be, and without a doubt she is who I would love to have been at the age of fifteen. Independent (and independently wealthy) and sure and clever and physically competent to boot; quick-tongued instead of having laboriously to construct clever comebacks; possessing a trace of romantic tragedy in her past, instead of being boring and middle class. Heavens, she can even throw a knife with deadly accuracy!

Mary Russell is a person able to argue with a man three times her age-and win. Who wouldn't want to be her?"

So true! I would have loved to be Mary Russell when I was 15, too. And probably when I was 25. Thanks so much for sharing this, Laurie!! I can't wait to read the new book. And I recommend the series to all of you reading this, young adults and up, especially for those looking for strong female characters.

Laurie R. King's ninth Mary Russell novel, The Language of Bees, will be published in April 2009, shortly after the first in the series, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, turns fifteen. Her website is celebrating with contests, activities, and Russell and Holmes events during this spring's Fifteen Weeks of Bees.

Here is the schedule for the entire the blog tour:

February 2 Bookish Ruth
February 13 Reading Group Guides
February 18 & 19  A Striped Armchair (review & guest post)
February 26 Jen Robinson’s Book Page
March 4 Age 30+… A Lifetime of Books (Guest post)
March 11 A Work in Progress
March 18 Age 30+… A Lifetime of Books (Interview)
March 26 Presenting Lenore
April 2 Reading Group Guides

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

Don't you love it when the President talks about the importance of reading aloud?

Matt Ferraguto, Director of Communications for Reach Out and Read, sent me this:


In President Obama's Address last night to the Congress and the Nation, he specifically cited the importance of encouraging parents to read aloud to their children.  Here is the relevant passage:

OBAMA: These education policies will open the doors of opportunity for our children, but it is up to us to ensure they walk through them.

In the end, there is no program or policy that can substitute for a parent, for a mother or father who will attend those parent-teacher conferences, or help with homework, or turn off the TV, put away the video games, read to their child.


I speak to you not just as a president, but as a father when I say that responsibility for our children's education must begin at home. That is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. That's an American issue.

Link to transcript

How great is that? And right on the eve of the announcement of the Share A Story - Shape a Future Literacy Blog Tour, too. Maybe we should have asked President Obama to guest post on this topic. Though I wouldn't want to cut into his time spent reading with his kids...

Many thanks for sharing this, Matt!


Announcing the Share a Story - Shape a Future Literacy Blog Tour

ShareAStoryLogo-color I'm thrilled to announce an upcoming blog tour that I think is really going to make a difference: the Share a Story - Shape a Future Literacy Blog Tour. This literacy blog tour is the brainchild of Terry Doherty from The Reading Tub (my partner in the weekly Children's Literacy Roundups). It was assembled with remarkable speed and enthusiasm through the efforts of Terry, Sarah Mulhern, Susan Stephenson, Eva Mitnick, and Elizabeth O. Dulemba (links to their blogs below). The tremendous response to my blog post about encouraging read-aloud was a partial catalyst for the timing of the event, and we will be sharing some take-home suggestions gleaned from those responses.

Here is the detailed announcement and schedule that Terry posted on the Share a Story - Shape a Future blog (a blog that we hope you'll add to your reading list):

Within the kidlitosphere, the children's literature bloggers comprise and reach a very broad audience. One of the group's greatest assets is its collective, community-minded approach to sharing information and ideas. Through events like blog tours, authors and illustrators have had wonderful opportunities to share their story and their craft. Given the success of tours for "producers," what about an event for and by the people who create and engage their readers: teachers, librarians, parents, and people passionate about literacy?

Voila! Share a Story - Shape a Future is just that event. This is an ensemble effort not only to celebrate reading among those of us who already love books, but to encourage each other to reach beyond ourselves and do it in a way that we are neither judging nor instructing others. This is a venue for communicating practical, useable, everyday ideas.

The event begins March 9, 2009 and lasts one week. Each day we will have a group of bloggers sharing ideas around a specific theme. There are a number of book giveaways and free downloads that will be announced by the various hosts as we get closer to the kickoff. Here is the tour schedule.

Day 1: Raising Readers
hosted by Terry Doherty at Scrub-a-Dub-Tub, the Reading Tub blog

  • Finding Time at Home - Tricia Stohr-Hunt @ The Miss Rumphius Effect
  • Making Time in the Classroom - Sarah Mulhern @ The Reading Zone
  • Helping a Reader in Need (remedial readers) - Sandra Stiles guest post on Scrub-a-Dub-Tub
  • It's Bigger than the Book: Building Strong Readers at any Age with a Daily Dose of Read Aloud - Cathy Miller interview on the Share a Story - Shape a Future blog
  • Keeping Gifted Readers Engaged - Donalyn Miller @ The Book Whisperer

    Day 2: Selecting Reading Material
    hosted by Sarah Mulhern at The Reading Zone

  • The ABCs of Reading: Infants, Toddlers & Preschoolers - Valerie Baartz on The Almost Librarian
  • How to Help Emerging Readers - Anastasia Suen
  • Helping Middle Grade Readers - Sarah Mulhern @ The Reading Zone
  • Booklists and Read Alikes - Sarah Mulhern @ The Reading Zone
  • Using Non-fiction - Mary Lee Hahn of A Year of Reading, hosted by the Stenhouse blog

    Sue_steph1 Day 3: Reading Aloud - It's Fun, It's Easy
    hosted by Susan Stephenson at the Book Chook blog

  • Ten Terrific Tips from Read-aloud Queen, Mem Fox - on the Book Chook blog
  • Conquering Stage Fright - Interview with Sarah Mulhern/The Reading Zone @ the Book Chook
  • Reading Aloud With Kids: A Dad's Perspective - hosted by Steven and Brian at Book Dads: Fathers that Read
  • Using Technology for Read Alouds - Sarah Mulhern @ The Reading Zone
  • What to Do When the Reading is Done - Aimee Buckner, hosted by the Stenhouse blog
  • Reading Aloud with Independent Readers - Donalyn Miller @ The Book Whisperer

    Day 4: A Visit to the Library
    hosted by Eva Mitnick at Eva's Book Addiction blog

  • From Cozy to Cool - Library Spaces for Everyone - Eva @ Eva's Book Addiction
  • Lions and Marble and Books, Oh My - Betsy Bird at A Fuse #8 Production
  • How to Make the Library Work for YOU - an interview with Adrienne of What Adrienne Thinks About That conducted by Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
  • The World Beyond the Library's Walls - Melissa @ Librarian by Day

    Day 5: Technology and Reading - What the Future Holds
    is hosted by Elizabeth O. Dulemba at

  • Audiobooks with Bruce Coville of Full Cast Audio and Mary Burkey of Audiobooker
  • E-books with Harold Underdown of The Purple Crayon and Sheila Ruth of Hornbook
  • Podcasts with Andrea Ross of Just One More Book! and Cheryl Rainfield of
  • A resource of links to audiobooks, e-books, podcasts and webcasts @

    Through Share a Story - Shape a Future we hope to build a community of readers, by sharing ideas and encouraging each other. When the event opens on Monday, March 9, 2009, there will be plenty of opportunities for you to join us and share your ideas.

    In the meantime, we'd love for you to start spreading the word.

    Huge thank yous to Elizabeth O. Dulemba (the image at the top) and Susan Stephenson (the image in the middle) for creating images we can use to promote Share a Story - Shape a Future!

  • As you can see, I'm not actually on the schedule for this event. But I'll be taking on a similar role to my Literacy Evangelist role for the Cybils - promoting the event and helping behind the scenes. You may be sure that this literacy blog tour has my complete support. I'm in awe of Terry, Elizabeth, Eva, Susan, and Sarah, and all of the other contributors that they have lined up. I find it so heartening to see all of these people out there championing children's literacy.

    Stay tuned for further updates about the Share a Story - Shape a Future Literacy blog tour. It's going to be amazing!

    Growing Bookworms Newsletter: February 24

    Jpg_book007Tonight I will be sending out the new issue of the Growing Bookworms weekly email newsletter. (If you would like to subscribe, you can find a sign-up form here.) The Growing Bookworms newsletter contains content from my blog focused on children's books and raising readers. There are currently 651 subscribers. 

    This week I am finally back up to speed with book reviews. I have five reviews, one middle grade, one middle school, and three young adult titles. I also have a post with Kidlitosphere news, as well as this week's Children's Literacy and Reading News round-up. I have a brief essay about why I love getting good books into the hands of children (an essay that I wrote for the upcoming Carnival of Children's Literature), and another post about six books that always make me happy.

    I didn't get much reading done this week, for some reason (too much time spent writing reviews, I guess), but I did finish Zenith, by Julie Bertagna. It is fabulous, and I'll be sure to review it later this week. I'm currently reading Among the Mad, the latest title in Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series (adult historical mysteries, set in London between the World Wars). This weekend I hope to spend some time reading books targeted at younger age ranges. What have you been reading and enjoying? 

    Thanks for reading the newsletter, and for growing bookworms!

    Monday Night Visits: February 23

    I have a few quick Kidlitosphere news items to share with you tonight.

    CybilsLogoSmall First up, the talented Sarah Stevenson has updated the Cybils flyer to highlight the winners in each category. She explains: "In convenient, compact form, this document lists all of our 2008 shortlisted titles (without blurbs), and includes the winners in boldface type at the top of each category list. As before, the front page of the flyer includes a description of what the Cybils are all about, nomination instructions, important dates, and contact information." You can find the updated version here.

    Terry Doherty shares a lovely story about sportsmanship at Scrub-a-Dub-Tub. Really. Click through. It will bring a little tear to your eye. I agree with her that it would make a nice children's book.

    At the Spectacle (a new blog "about writing speculative fiction for teens and pre-teens"), Parker Peevyhouse asks about portals in children's literature. "Do portals show up so often in manuscripts because writers are inspired by classic fantasy stories, or is it because it’s an easy device to fall back on? And can a portal story still do well in the marketplace, or are portals dead?" There's a discussion going on in the comments.

    Cheryl Rainfield has a new installment in her Gifts for Book Lovers and Writers series. I covet the book coasters (click through to see. They are gorgeous). And I'm pleased to report that I actually own the Aquala Bath Caddy (a tray/book stand for reading in the tub). Mheir got that for me for Christmas.

    My Friend Amy has a fun post about her theory on why James Patterson's books are such bestsellers. For example: "If reading is difficult for you, nothing is more inviting than short chapters. Instead of feeling like you have a lot to accomplish through the read, the sense of accomplishment is achieved much quicker when the chapters are just a few pages long. It's rewarding right away."

    OperationsTBDThe Readergirlz Divas are sponsoring the second edition of their Operation Teen Book Drop. Shelf Elf has the details, explaining: "Operation Teen Book Drop is an awesome initiative that brings donations of thousands of fantastic YA titles to hospitalized teens all over the States (and Canada too… I think…)."

    And speaking of awesome YA authors like the Readergirlz, Laini Taylor shares the cover of her upcoming book, Silksinger, at Grow Wings. Silksinger is the sequel to Blackbringer, which I loved. I'm not including the cover here, since it's not on Amazon yet, and wasn't sent to me directly, but it is beautiful.

    Secret Life of BeesAnd last, but definitely not least, I'll be hosting a stop later this week in Laurie R. King's 15 Weeks of Bees blog tour. The tour is in celebration of upcoming launch of the latest book in Laurie's Russell/Holmes series: The Language of Bees. I've been a big fan of this series (historical fiction / mystery - the premise is that Sherlock Holmes in his retirement partners up with a bright teenage girl, and they solve cases together) since the first book. You can find the complete schedule for the tour here, and some other details at Angieville. More information to follow later this week!

    Children's Literacy Round-Up: February 23

    This week’s children’s literacy and reading news round-up, brought to you by Jen Robinson’s Book Page and Scrub-a-Dub-Tub, a Reading Tub blog, is now available here. This week Terry Doherty and I have collected content for you about literacy & reading-related events; raising readers; literacy and reading programs and research; 21st century literacies; and other news. We hope that you'll find something of interest.


    We learned from the Longstockings blog that author Lisa Greenwald is sponsoring a contest, "My Life in Pink and Green" for teachers and librarians. Deadline: 31 March 2009. Prize: AN EARTH DAY PARTY FOR YOUR CLASS on Wednesday 4/22 - EARTH DAY!!!! Lisa will send you: A gift card so you can buy snacks and goodies; a signed copy of MY LIFE IN PINK & GREEN for your classroom or library; and signed bookmarks for everyone in your class. More details here.

    RORLogo Reach Out and Read announced (I saw it on Facebook) their 4th annual Read Romp + Rock event. "Read Romp + Rock is a hip, fun “non-gala” gala that benefits Reach Out and Read. The event includes drinks, dinner, music, dancing, and features our signature Celebrity Reader Raffle. Make this party your big night out, and help make literacy promotion a standard part of pediatric primary care, so that children grow up with books and a love of reading." More details are here. If I still lived in Boston, perhaps...

    Kidsheartauthorlogo Publisher's Weekly has a nice recap by Judith Rosen of the recent Kids Heart Authors Day events in New England. Kids Heart Authors day was the brainchild of Mitali Perkins, and resulted in celebrations at 43 independent bookstores in New England on Valentine's Day. You can find other quotes about the event at the Kids Heart Authors Day blog.

    Gail Gauthier issued a reminder last week that March 2nd is Read Across America Day. Gail says: " I'll be reading a selection from A Girl, a Boy, and Three Robbers to a couple of kindergarten classes here in Connecticut. This appearance came about because of my involvement with my local Kids Heart Authors Day event." Isn't it nice how things in the children's book industry tend to be connected? The NEA website explains: "The National Education Association annually sponsors Read Across America. Now in its twelfth year, the program focuses on motivating children to read, in addition to helping them master basic skills. The nationwide reading celebration takes place each year on or near March 2, the birthday of Dr. Seuss." Also in honor of Read Across America Day, Defiance Public Library (Ohio) is sponsoring a book drive. See the DPL Bookends blog for details.

    2009-Conference-Banner-small Also in March, the National Center for Family Literacy will be having their 18th annual conference on family literacy. Carol Rasco has a post about RIF's plans for the conference, adding "RIF’ers are excited about hearing the keynote presentations by actor Henry Winkler, best-selling author Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea), and famed illustrator Peter Reynolds (The North Star)." Speaking of the NCFL, they were discussed in an article in Sunday's Parade Magazine by Sheila Weller.

    In a recent news release, the New York Red Bulls announced "that a celebrity game will be among the pre-match festivities as the team opens its 2009 Major League Soccer (MLS) home schedule against the New England Revolution ... The Red Bulls will donate a portion of each game ticket sold to the Books for Kids Foundation. For 23 years, Books for Kids has been responsible for distributing over five million books to needy children, in the New York area and across the nation."

    Raising Readers

    The National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance is concerned about the impact of budget cuts on school librarians, saying "The NCBLA urges you to contact your local school board and school department, your state legislators and education department, and your representatives to the United State Congress to ask for level funding for school and public libraries, and to keep state certified librarians employed in school and public libraries!"

    Interesting Nonfiction for Kids (I.N.K.) has a nice post by Anna Lewis about nonfiction book baskets for toddlers, complete with a listing of reasons to gift book baskets in the first place, and a suggestion of titles.

    First Book has a guest post by Lydia Breiseth about building literacy skills with word games, in both English and Spanish. She says: "Riddles and word games are not only fun for kids and for students learning a new language—they are great ways to build literacy skills, to practice spelling and vocabulary words, and to get kids thinking about patterns.  Even the simplest ideas may prove to be successful."

    Jay Matthews had a nice column in the Washington Post recently about boosting schools' value without spending a dime. He shares seven concrete ideas (developed with some teachers), several of them focused on increased reading. For example: "Replace elementary school homework with free reading" and "Furlough everybody -- including teachers, students and parents -- for an unpaid national reading holiday". I first saw this article mentioned in the Rasco from RIF blog, but also saw responses at The Miss Rumphius Effect and TeacherNinja. TeacherNinja adds another thought on this: "One idea I think would not only not cost much, but would actually save us thousands of hours of instructional time, not to mention many millions of dollars would be to cut back on the amount of testing we're doing."

    The Granite Falls Advocate Tribune has an article by Kathy Velde about the local Fathers Reading Every Day (FRED) program. "FRED is a program designed to encourage fathers, grandfathers, and other positive male role models to read to their children on a daily basis. The program aims to increase father involvement in children's literacy development and to improve the quality of father-child relationships."

    And, three posts from the blogs about sharing the gift of reading:

    • The Book Chook has a lovely post about how "When you encourage a child to read, you are actually conferring two special magical powers on him - the power to solve problems, and the power to enter other worlds." She also recounts the virtues of books as gifts ("A book won't grow too big, bark incessantly, and have to be returned to the Shelter", etc.).
    • The Tiger's Bookshelf has a post by Janet Brown suggesting that in addition to parents reading to kids, older siblings can also do so. She says: "If parents don’t have time to read aloud, children do. All that’s needed is that they be infected with the joy of reading–then watch out! They will indeed pass that virus on, by reading aloud to everyone who will listen."
    • Terry Doherty has a post at Scrub-a-Dub-Tub about the importance of kids having their own books. She says: "If children don’t have easy access to books, how will they know whether they like reading or not? ... When a child owns a book … just one book … the possibilities are endless." 

    Literacy & Reading Programs & Research

    The Illinois State University Daily Vidette has an article by Hannah Tomlin about how "The national community service program, Jumpstart, has motivated college students throughout the nation to improve society and establish special relationships through educational intervention for low-income and poverty-stricken preschoolers."

    At Literacy Is Priceless, Anna Batchelder shares some conclusions from reading the 2007 McKinsey report, How the World’s Best Performing School Systems Come out on Top. According to the report, "the best school systems: Get the right people to become teachers; Develop them into effective instructors; Ensure the system is able to deliver the best possible instruction for each child".

    21st Century Literacies

    There's been a bit of a conflict over the Kindle 2's ability to automatically convert digital books into computerized audio books. The Authors Guild's stance is that this is a violation of the authors' rights (conversion to an audio format without permission). We learned from GalleyCat (via a twitter from Liz B. from Tea Cozy) that the Federation of the Blind is now taking exception to the Authors Guild's response.

    Liz B. also has a related post up at ForeWord magazine (where she is guest blogging this month) about eBooks, PDFs, and audiobooks. I tend to agree with Liz that "Because I'm an audiobook listener, I personally think the Author's Guild fears of a computer voice are unfounded. Honestly, audiobooks are superior; when readers have a choice, they will go for the book that is recorded, narrated, directed, and edited by professionals." But I think that the whole situation deserves a careful look, because once we start diminishing content creators' rights, we're potentially on a path towards there not being any creators at all. (Updated to add: see dissenting opinions, and a clarification of my point on this, in the comments. I'm really wishing I'd never brought the whole thing up at all...)

    Time Magazine has an article about how the digital age is reshaping literature. Terry read this in detail, and found that although much of the article is about the publishing industry, it also talks about how the author/publisher (and ultimately the author/reader) relationships are changing because of technology. Thanks to Jocelyn of Teen Book Review for the link.

    Trevor Cairney has an in-depth discussion on the Your Baby Can Read program at Literacy, families and learning. He says that the YBCR program "is primarily a word recognition program designed for children as young as 12 months. It aims to teach children to recognise words by ‘sight’ (instant word recognition), with the words being taught using a variety of stimulus materials including DVDs and word and picture cards." Trevor discusses, in particular, the benefits and risks of accelerating children's learning in this manner.

    Other News

    The American Library Association website I Love Libraries offers an action list, “Two Minutes Can Make a Difference,” that explains how you can advocate for public library funding. The action list includes not only ways to contact your congressman, but also means for staying informed and spreading the word about this critical issue. (via an NCBLA blog post)

    We also have an exciting announcement about grassroots efforts to encourage reading coming later this week. Stay tuned!

    Fact of Life #31: Denise Vega

    Book: Fact of Life #31
    Author: Denise Vega
    Pages: 384
    Age Range: Young adult 

    Fact of LifeFact of Life #31 is a book that languished on my shelf for several months, because I just couldn't take the cover seriously. But I saw several positive reviews (see below), and finally decided to give the book a chance. And the important fact about this book is that it's much more substantial than it first appears.

    Kat is the daughter of, and assistant to, a new-agey midwife named Abra. She's also best friend to quirky, hat-wearing Christy, invisible neighbor to gorgeous, perfect Libby, and borderline stalker of the popular, attractive Manny. Kat is a vegetarian, a runner, and girl self-confident enough to take yoga breaks in front of her locker. She's a little bit weird, and definitely prickly, but surprisingly fun to be around.

    Fact of Life #31 is about Kat's struggles with her mother, her dreams, and her own self-identify. It's about Kat's developing (but covert) relationship with Manny, and her surprising, grudging, friendship with Libby. It's even about Kat's unexpected friendship with Manny's best friend, and Libby's one-time boyfriend, Mitch. All of this is set against a backdrop of midwifery, with mothers being soothed and babies being born, and life and death decisions being made.

    I like Denise Vega's writing. She uses all of the senses, and has a nice flow to the text. Here are a couple of examples:

    "I ran for nearly four miles before my legs rubberized and my lungs ached, forcing me to slow down. I turned around, jogging back toward the rec center's parking lot. I felt each breath, each muscle stretching and contracting; heard the soft pat as my shoes hit the dirt; smelled the cool September air filled with most grass and leaves and the slightly sour scent of the canal, recently drained in anticipation of winter." (Page 14)

    "I'm not particularly fond of high school parties because I rarely drink, due to my strict workout regimen. If you've ever experienced a party as a completely sober person, it can make you wish you were part of a different subclass of mammal. The flirting, the tossing off of clothes, the swearing and slurring of words, the bad breath, the confessions, the upchucking. It was like being in a horror movie without a director there to yell "Cut!" (Page 78) 

    "We continued jogging, the silence between us like an old friend." (Page 112)

    As the second example shows, this is more a high school book than a middle school book. I think that it would make a good teen romantic comedy, to tell you the truth. It has just the right mix of beautiful and quirky people, along with the requisite misunderstandings and heartbreak, and with the midwife clinic scenes to lend depth to the story. I really liked this book. I recommend it for romance fans, high school age and older. I think it would pair especially well with How NOT to be Popular.

    Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
    Publication Date: May 13, 2008
    Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
    Other Blog Reviews: Flamingnet Young Adult Book Blog, Teen Book Review, Becky's Book Reviews, A Patchwork of Books, Bookluver-Carol's Reviews, Bookshelves of Doom
    Author Interviews: Bildungsroman

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

    Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw: Jeff Kinney

    Book: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw
    Author: Jeff Kinney
    Pages: 224
    Age Range: 9-12 

    Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last StrawI've been recommending Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid books ever since the first one was THE book that turned a young friend of mine onto reading (story here). But until recently, I somehow never got around to reading one. Now that I read Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw, I see what all the fuss has been about with this series. 

    For those unfamiliar with the books, the Wimpy Kid books are written as the diaries of a slightly geeky middle schooler named Greg Heffley, complete with a font that looks like it was written by hand, and lots of sketches and cartoons. This format, and the episodic nature of the stories, makes the books particularly accessible for reluctant readers. The illustrations break the flow of the text, and there are no long chapters or dense pages. It's always easy to read a few more pages. But even more so than the format, I think it's Greg's voice that makes the books work for kids. I mean, this kid is a riot (examples to follow). The Last Straw had me giggling out loud on page after page.

    Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw is loosely about Greg's father's attempts to toughen him up, and the imminent threat of military school (hmm... I wonder if Jeff Kinney ever watched Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure). It follow's Greg's winter semester, from New Year's Day to the first day of summer vacation (and possible departure date for military school), touching on everything from sibling rivalry to detention to Greg's increasingly dramatic attempts not to have to do laundry. Here are a couple of excerpts to give you a feel for the humor in the book:

    "You know how you're supposed to come up with a list of "resolutions" at the beginning of the year to try to make yourself a better person? Well, the problem is, it's not easy for me to think of ways to improve myself, because I'm already pretty much one of the best people I know. So this year my resolution is to help other people improve. But the thing I'm finding out is that some people don't really appreciate it when you're trying to be helpful" (Illustration of unappreciative mother) (Page 1)

    "You know, if the school is going to take away our bus ride home, the least they can do is install a ski lift on our hill. (Illustration of ski lift) I've emailed the principal about five times with my suggestion, but I haven't heard anything back yet." (Page 46)

    My favorite parts, though, were :

    1) A segment in which Greg decides to write his own picture book ("All you have to do is make up a character with a snappy name, and then make sure the character learns a lesson at the end of the book."); and

    2) A graphic segment in which Greg hides out in a laundry basket, to track down a snack thief. The illustrations are priceless!

    But there are lots of other funny bits, too. I'm not generally a big fan of episodic stories (preferring strong, "what happens next" plots), but even I was charmed by Greg's combination of ego and haplessness. I can see why kids of all ages love these books. A fourth book in the series is planned, and I hope that there will be others. Highly recommended for kids of all ages.

    Publisher: Amulet Books
    Publication Date: January 13, 2009
    Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
    Other Blog Reviews: 100 Scope Notes, Welcome to my Tweendom, BookHound, BlogCritics, The Reading Zone, Book Mama, Read, Read, Read!, What Adrienne Thinks About That
    Author Interviews: BookMoot recaps Today Show Interview

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

    Winnie's War: Jenny Moss

    Book: Winnie's War
    Author: Jenny Moss
    Pages: 192
    Age Range: 10 and up

    Winnie's WarWinnie's War is a coming of age novel set during the Spanish influenza epidemic of World War I. It also carries strong echoes of the hurricane that devastated Galveston in 1900, and left Winnie Grace's mother an emotionally damaged shell of a woman. Winnie lives in Coward Creek, Texas, with her parents, her two younger sisters, and her grandmother, Clara. Winnie rails against her remote mother's inattention and schemes to stay out from under her grandmother's autocratic thumb. She laments the growing distance in her relationship with her best friend, Tillie, and enjoys spending time with friend (and planned beau), Nolan. She plays chess with Tillie's Jewish grandfather, even though Mr. Levy is sometimes a target of bigotry. And Winnie fights to protect her family, any way she can, from the dreaded flu.

    I found this book a nice combination of "young teen coming to terms with growing up" and well-researched historical novel. I especially appreciated the details, like the way that rumors spread through Coward Creek (the idea that putting vaseline under your nose would help prevent the flu, and the idea that "the Germans were going to team up with the Mexicans and invade Texas"). Coward Creek is almost a character in the book - I felt like I was walking down the dusty streets myself. And I could feel the fear of the flu in the air.

    Winnie is an easy heroine to love, outspoken and loyal, but occasionally prone to mistakes. She shows some tendencies towards being obsessive compulsive, and I thought that this was a nice touch, in light of her mother's emotional issues. Clara is also a strong character, hard to like, but impossible not to respect. And Winnie's taciturn beau, Nolan, is a perfect foil for her. Moss draws even minor characters deftly, contributing to the small-town feel of the novel - in a small town, everyone matters. Here are two brief examples of her character sketches:

    "That sounded like Mr. Levy. He might be a little grouchy, but you could tell his true nature by his hands, as gentle turning the fine pages of a book as they were putting a squiggly worm on a fishing line. My papa had gentle hands, too." (Page 3)

    "Miss Livingston lived with her father in a house close to the park. It was just the two of them. He worked at the bank and played the horn in the town band. Everyone liked him. He was the kind of person who just came on in and made himself at home, no matter where he was." (Page 51)

    And here are a couple of other examples, to give you a feel for Winnie's voice:

    "Nolan Field and I were destined to be married, though I wasn't sure he knew it yet. We were like two young lovers haunting the moors of England, except we haunted the creek by my house." (Page 18)

    "There are worse things than losing a best friend, but just right then, it didn't feel like there was." (Page 29)

    Winnie's War is an excellent example of historical fiction. Though filled with interesting detail, the details never overwhelm the characters or the story. Amazon classifies this title as young adult fiction, but I think it would also be a good fit for middle schoolers (echoing the growing pains seen in tween books from other time periods, like Violet Raines and Shug, albeit with a more bleak backdrop). Although there's a picture of a girl on the cover, and the book is told from that girl's first-person perspective, I think that the references to war and flu and hurricanes, and the stalwart character of Nolan, could make Winnie's War work for boys, too. Librarians should absolutely give this one to fans of Hattie Big Sky. Highly recommended.

    Publisher: Walker Books for Young Readers
    Publication Date: February 3, 2009
    Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
    Other Blog Reviews: Becky's Book ReviewsSarah Miller
    Author Interviews: A little sweet, a little sour, Neesha Meminger, Welcome to the Oakenwyld, 2010: A Book Odyssey

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

    6 Books that Make Me Happy

    I rarely do memes. It's hard enough to keep up with my reviews and literacy news. I've seen this one about "six things that make me happy" going around, and kind of thought, well, who besides Mheir really needs to know six things that make me happy?  But then Charlotte from Charlotte's Library changed this meme into 6 books that make me happy. And one of her six books was by the same author of what she KNEW was one of my six books. And so she rendered me incapable of resistance. Without further ado, here are six books that without fail make me happy:

    Listening Valley by D. E. Stevenson. I reviewed it here, and declared it my favorite book of all time. I don't think any new book will be able to dethrone it, because I pretty much know Listening Valley by heart. I've probably read it 20 times. It's possible that Antonia has shaped who I've become, too. I will add, though, that, like Charlotte, I have other D.E. Stevenson books that also make me happy (Charlotte Fairlie, The House on the Cliff, Still Glides the Stream, and Celia's House come first to mind).

    Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Yes, having this one as a favorite is a bit of a cliche. But I still read it almost every year. Mrs. Bennett still annoys me every time. But I always have to keep reading, to make SURE that it turns out ok at the end. Also, if it wasn't for the book, we wouldn't have the Colin Firth miniseries, would we? Enough said.

    Lady of Quality by Georgette Heyer. Really, with this series, I don't so much have one favorite. Most of Heyer's regency romance novels make me happy. The combination of witty banter, fancy clothes, and happy endings works for me every time. Heyer has two types of heroine - the older, smarter woman who is considered on the shelf by her peers, and the young, innocent girl who gets into scrapes. I tend to favor the older heroines, because I enjoy their interactions with the heroes (who are generally jaded rakes about to be reformed). In Lady of Quality, Heyer has mastered this dynamic (and there's a young, innocent heroine, too, to balance things out). But I also love Venetia and Frederica and Arabella and the rest.

    The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Reviewed here and here. This book is home to one of my five favorite fiction rooms from children's literature, a post also inspired by Charlotte.

    Maida's Little Shop by Inez Haynes Irwin. I think I have every one of the many different editions produced of this book over the past 100 years. It's one of the first books that I remember having as a favorite. I used to read it at my Grandmother's house (before eventually co-opting that copy).

    The Forgotten Door by Alexander Key. Reviewed here.

    There are lots of other books that I love, of course (and it particularly pained me to leave Elizabeth Enright's books off of this list). But there are the ones that make me happiest, time and time again. I'm not tagging anyone, but if any of you feel inspired to write about six books that make you happy, I'd love to hear about them.

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