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Posts from November 2006

Poetry Friday: Days of Innocence 2

This week I am continuing a theme: e. e. cummings' poems of childhood.

Days of Innocence (2)

in Just-
spring       when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles       far       and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far       and       wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and



balloonMan       whistles


I love "puddle-wondeful" and "mud-luscious", don't you? I know, I should have saved it until spring, but it went so well with last week's poem that I couldn't resist. Happy Friday!

People Just Love Talking About Books

I'm off on a short trip, but I leave you with these links of potential interest, and some picture book reviews that will post over the next few days.

  • J. L. Bell has a post about The Bounds of Fantasy over at Oz and Ends. He proposes a broader definition of fantasy, with four sub-groupings, and examples for each. I found this interesting because I have a strong preference for two of the categories that he lists relative to the other two. I prefer either "Protagonist travels from our familiar world to a separate fantastic world " or "Protagonist learns that the familiar world holds hidden dimensions and depths", but the other two don't interest me as much. What about you? How do you like your fantasy?
  • Congratulations to Annette Simon for Mocking Birdies being named an ABC 2006 Best Book for Children by the Association of Booksellers for Children. According to Anne at Book Buds, Annette credited the kidlitosphere for their support in obtaining this nomination. I completely agree with Anne that "Annette earned that honor all by her clever self, and I'm happy I got a peek at her work before the rest of the world caught on." But I am very happy for her!
  • Colleen Mondor has a new column up over at Bookslut. This month she discusses books about war aimed at teens. She starts with some comments about why teens in particular, today, need books about war, and proceeds with several insightful reviews. Don't miss it! Thanks to Kelly at Big A little a for the link.
  • The Ninth Carnival of Children's Literature will be held at A Readable Feast. Anne-Marie has chosen for her theme a question: "What are you thankful for in children's literature?" Submissions are due November 20th, and the Carnival will be held Thanksgiving Day. Isn't that a great idea? Personally, I'm thankful for the mere existence of children's literature. But I'm sure I can think of something more to say about it.
  • Along similar lines, MsMac over at Check It Out asks "Which books would make your thankful list?" (books that you are thankful for). I told her that I thought it would be easier to make a list of books I'm not thankful for. But I named three.
  • LitLove offers a love in over at Tales from the Reading Room. Specifically, for book bloggers who are feeling out of sorts for one reason or another, she offers "a reminder of some of the fine life strategies that excessive pleasure gained from reading can provide you with."
  • Nancy lists her comfort books over at Journey Woman (inspired by The Magic of Books post that I mentioned on Sunday).
  • On a more contrary note, Betsy at A Fuse #8 Production has started a new discussion topic. She asks: "Were there books you knew of as a kid that just didn't do anything for you, in spite of your fellow preschool brethern's adoration?" There is much feedback in the comments. bookshelves of doom and Big A little a have also taken up the topic, and expanded it from preschool books to include other classics.

Boy, we kidlitosphere types can talk about books all day, can't we? Books we love, books we don't love, why we love them, and how reading the books affects us. Isn't it great? Have an excellent weekend!

Hattie Big Sky: Kirby Larson

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson is a historical novel set on an a Montana homestead during World War I. It's about struggle and survival and finding your place in the world. It's a bit like Little House on the Prairie, but for young adults. 16-year old Hattie Brooks has been kicked around between relatives since she was orphaned at age five. She is hopeful when she learns that her reclusive Uncle Chester has left her his homestead claim, though the prospect of homesteading is daunting. She has 10 months to set 480 rods of fence (a lot!), and plant 40 acres with crops. If she can do this, and pay the $37.75 fee, the 320 acre homestead will be hers to keep. Unphased by the challenges that face her (or mostly unphased), Hattie hops on a train, and begins her new life.

Homesteading in eastern Montana is hard, thankless work. Life-threatening cold characterizes the winter; energy-sapping heat the summer. Various pests, as well as natural disasters, can destroy crops. Money is very tight. Chester has left Hattie with a ramshackle cabin, a truck full of memories, plenty of books, and, alas, a not-inconsiderable debt. Fortunately, he has also left her with several helpful neighbors.

Hattie soon becomes friends with Karl and Perilee Mueller and their children (well, technically Perilee's children from her first marriage). Eight-year-old Chase is bright beyond his years, loves books, and is a born inventor. He teaches Hattie about homesteading. Six-year-old Mattie never stops talking, and cheers up everyone around her. Perilee is the very epitome of neighborliness and kindness (and quite a cook to boot). Karl, though quieter, reveals himself to be rock-solid, the kind of man who will spend the entire night outdoors in a blizzard looking for a pair of lost children.

All is not easy for the Mueller family (or for anyone in Vida, Montana, if the truth be known), however. Karl is a German immigrant, not a safe thing to be in the US during World War I. The members of the local "Council for Defense", headed up by the charming and greedy Traft Martin, persecute those of German background. They also persecute anyone who stands up to them, and anyone who expresses support of "non-Patriotic" views. For instance, a local minister is fired for preaching to his immigrant congregation in their own language, instead of in English. There is a climate of fear and suspicion, in which people are afraid to speak their own minds. Hattie has to balance loyalty for the neighbors who have become her family against her own self-preservation.

I found this window into xenophobic wartime suspicions quite relevant to today's war in Iraq (as Kirby Larson notes herself in an afterword). It's amazing how far we have, and yet have not, come in 90 years. Much of the historical detail in Hattie Big Sky is based on actual events (Hattie is modeled after the story of the author's great-grandmother, who did homestead by herself in eastern Montana). The details of homestead life are believable and interesting, without being overwhelming. The background of the war, and associated privations and pressures, adds tension and interest.

Oh, the wonderful things in this book. The more I think about it, the more there is to think about. Hattie's grit and determination. The difficulties of homesteading life. Hattie's lessons about loyalty, friendship and, alas, tragedy. The book, although written in the first person, uses a couple of devices to allow us to see even more into Hattie's evolving thoughts and personality. First, she writes regular letters to her Uncle Holt, and her friend Charlie, a soldier stationed in France. Also, Hattie writes monthly pieces for a newspaper about homestead life. They are funny and poetic and heart-breaking.

Hattie Big Sky kept me up late reading two nights in a row, wanting to know what would happen next. It's a historical novel, not a mystery, but there is plenty of suspense. Will Charlie survive the war? Will Perilee's new baby be born safely? Will Karl suffer at the hands of the defense council? Will Hattie prove up her claim? Will anyone we care about die in the Spanish flu epidemic? But there are moments of joy and friendship and small town entertainment, too.

The characterization is subtle but confident. The only person I couldn't quite pin down was Traft Martin, who helps Hattie from time to time, but causes trouble for her, too. This isn't a criticism. It's a well-drawn and complex character who I puzzle over, uncertain of his motives. As for Hattie, she's simply a triumph. Through the story, we witness her evolution from the child who calls herself "Hattie Here-and-There" to the woman who does what needs to be done, and learns the true meaning of home.

Here's my favorite scene. Hattie and her neighbor, a tough by kind older woman named Leafie, are visiting a woman named Mabel, who has six children. Mabel's husband has refused to register for the draft, because he doesn't want to leave his large family, and he's just been dragged off by the authorities. Leafie offers up Hattie's services to accompany Mabel to visit the reverend, and ask for help.

"I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I hardly knew Mabel. And I sure didn't want to get mixed up in this. If Elmer was supposed to register —

Mabel wiped her hands on her apron. "There's no need to trouble, Miss Brooks."

Leafie looked at me. Hard.

I took in Mabel, how thin she was. Skin the color of wet muslin. "It's be no trouble.""

Hattie does the right thing, even when it's inconvenient. She has to be prodded, in this case, by a woman with more life experience, but she comes through. There are hardly even any words in this passage. But it's going to stick on my mind for a long time.

If you're interested in what it was like back home during World War I, or what it was like for homesteaders in the west, or you just generally like survival stories, you should absolutely pick up Hattie Big Sky. And if none of those things are true for you, you should pick it up anyway. You won't be disappointed.

Book: Hattie Big Sky
Author: Kirby Larson
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Original Publication Date: September 2006
Pages: 304
Age Range: 13 and up
Source of Book: Review copy from the author
Other Blog Reviews: A Fuse #8 Production

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

Children's Literacy Round-Up: November 8

Here are a couple of children's literacy-related stories that caught my eye recently:

  • Mike Cassidy's column in Tuesday's San Jose Mercury News was about a local high school graduate named Lesley Copeland and her efforts, through the Peace Corps, to stock a library in Mandinaba, Gambia, with books. On his blog, Mike wrote about another local graduate, Alexandra Candia, who is trying to build a library in Ghana. As Alexandra's parents note, it's "good to see that there is a new generation coming of age who truly are working to make this world better."
  • WebMD published a brief report that said that, according to psychologists, "Reading picture books to 18- to 30-month-old toddlers helps them learn things about the real world". Psychologists from the University of Queensland, Australia and the University of Virginia tested 108 toddlers by breaking them into groups, and having some read books with photographs, others read books with pictures, and others not read to at all. The kids who were read to, especially those shown photographs, were more able to construct a rattle, as had been depicted in the books, than the other kids. This study will probably not be a surprise to parents who have been reading with their own preschoolers, but I thought that it was cool.
  • According to the Elmira, NY Gazette, "Six Southside High School students will embark upon a literary marathon of sorts next week when they attempt to break a Guinness record by reading aloud for more than 117 hours...The students' endeavor also ties into National Children's Book Week, which will be celebrated from Nov. 13 to 19. The children will read a variety of works, including children's books, classics and selections from recommended reading lists of various colleges." The teens will also be raising money for a literacy organization, to be specified later.

Happy reading!

Don't Forget to Make Your Cybils Nominations

Just a quick reminder for you. We are still accepting nominations for the 2006 Cybils awards. The Cybils are a new set of children's book awards, organized and voted upon by kid lit bloggers. Anyone (blogger or not) can nominate books (one per category). Nominations close November 20th. So, if you haven't made your picks yet, head on over to the Cybils site. You can find the rules here. Nominations can be made in the following categories:

So far, we have many excellent nominations. The children's and young adult book publishing industry has also been wonderful about offering review copies of nominated titles. Make sure your voice is heard, too!

"Better" vs. More Enjoyable Reading

Last week I posted a few thoughts about how book reviewing has affected my reading. I said that "since I've been writing book reviews over the past year, I've become a better reader", and enumerated what I meant by better. This is apparently a phenomenon that other bloggers have noticed, because it sparked a flurry of discussion:

  • In the comments of the original post.
  • At Snapshot, where Jennifer asked her visitors about what they like to read in a review, and sparked some discussion of her own.
  • At Scholar's Blog, where Michele really took the topic and ran with it. Michele in particular addressed the issue of whether or not reading more critically is incompatible with enjoying the reading. She also discussed potential elitism issues in talking about being a "better" reader.
  • Plus referrals from Chicken Spaghetti and Journey Woman (Thanks!)

I don't want to beat the topic to death, but I did want to come back and talk a bit more about a couple of particular issues. Nancy asked me "Do you enjoy the books as much as you used to? More? And I mean enjoy, rather than appreciate."

Without spending a lot of time to think about it, I responded that "book reviewing has taken something away from my enjoyment of the books. I don't get as lost in them as I used to. Or at least it doesn't happen (the getting lost) quite so often. It still does happen with the best of the books that I'm reading, but I have to come up for air more often to write something down."

Gregory K. then challenged me on two points. He questioned whether I could call myself a "better" reader rather than a "different" reader, because it seemed like I was putting a value judgment on reading, and potentially putting down people who read purely for pleasure. He also asked how I could call myself a "better" reader if I enjoy it less. He requested an answer in 50 words or less, but I actually spent some time thinking about this over the weekend, and would like to elaborate beyond my designated 50 words.

First of all, of course I didn't mean to imply anything negative about anyone who reads for pleasure, and doesn't write book reviews. Outside of school books, I chose my reading material solely for my own satisfaction for more than 30 years, before starting my blog. I still choose what I want to read. I think that everyone has the right to read whatever and however they like, with no judgments from anyone else. And I apologize if my remarks seemed judgmental to anyone.

My comments applied to changes that I had noticed in my own reading. They are not necessarily applicable to anyone else (though some of the commenters did agree with various points). That said, I do defend my choice of the word "better", but with the caveat that "better" applies only to my own comparison with my previous self.

I think that if I'm reading more carefully, and getting more out of the books, and even forcing myself to slow down a bit, then I'm doing a better job at reading. If I was a quilter, I would want to improve my craft, and my ability to match colors, and the evenness of my stitches. If I was passionate about cooking then I would expect to expand my repertoire of dishes, and learn about new ingredients. If I was training for a marathon, I would expect my speed and endurance to increase, and I would consider those changes to be improvements. I think that it's natural to get better at something when one puts a lot of time and energy into it.

I also think that I can simultaneously become better at something, while not necessarily enjoying it more. I remember some people mentioning during Mother Reader's 48 Hour Book Challenge that trying to read as much as possible during a short time period sort of turned it into a job. This took some of the joy out of the reading for them. I think that book reviewing has done this for me on a larger scale, turning my reading into a job of sorts. It's still a job that I love. It's one that I choose to do with essentially no compensation because I am passionate about it. But there's a bit more responsibility attached to it than there was when I was 12 years old and reading up in a tree in my backyard. Or than there was a year ago when only a couple of friends had even the slightest interest in what I was reading.

I get a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction out of writing book reviews, and out of engaging in discussion with other kid lit bloggers. I am thrilled when someone tells me that my review, of a book that I loved, inspired them to want to read it. I am honored when an author tells me that I picked up on something that he or she was trying to do in a book. I think that by writing reviews, I get more out of what I'm reading, and I do enjoy writing them. But I will admit that a tiny little piece of that unfettered childhood joy in reading has been lost along the way. So far, I consider the trade-off well worth it, and I think that in my life as a reader, I am better off. But that's just how it's working for me.

Thanks, Greg, Nancy, Michele, Susan, and Jennifer, and everyone else who commented on the original post. Bonny Becker mentioned that her life as a writer has made it more difficult to get lost in books the way she used to, while Michele proclaimed her increased enjoyment of books since acquiring an English degree. Colleen Mondor offered her solution to the "reading for fun" issue, which she says is to "always have one book going off my TBR pile that is only for me. I might blog about it, but not at all in a formal review." Clearly, everyone has a slightly different experience with book reviewing vs. reading for enjoyment. But I think that it's been a great discussion, and it's given me a lot to think about going forward. Thanks!

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

Shug: Jenny Han

I've seen several rave reviews of Shug by Jenny Han. When I first started it I wasn't sure what the fuss was about. A middle school girl who grew up with a boy from the neighborhood as her best friend now realizes that she is in love with him. He, naturally, is interested in someone else, someone more popular. Throw in some family dysfunction, and you get a John Hughes film. And yet, as I read on I found that Shug transcends the traditional coming of age story, and makes it shine.

Annemarie (called Shug by her family) is just starting middle school. She struggles with new teachers, popularity and cliques, and her changing relationship with her old friend Mark. She has scored a coup in become best friends with new girl Elaine (exotic by virtue of being the only Korean-American in the school), but she worries that Elaine will "break up with her" in favor of the two alpha females in their class. She drifts away from her old friend Sherilyn, who is relegated to a less popular crowd, but she feels guilty about it. She wears a one-piece bathing suit when all of the other girls are wearing two-piece suits, and she's the only one not excited to go to the fall dance.

Shug feels uncertain and resentful as the other kids start to pair off, and lost when Mark wants to pair off with someone else. In short, she feels like most girls feel when they start middle school. Uncertain of what's expected of them, and how to adjust to the new school, and new social rules. I was reminded several times of my own junior high school feelings and experiences. It's amazing how timeless these feeling are. Here's an example:

"This is because Elaine is special; she is clearly one of them. But she chooses to stay by me. Some days it feels too good to be true. It's like my days are numbered, like one day soon she'll realize that I'm a nobody just like Sherilyn. One day Elaine will realize that she made a colossal mistake picking me, that she should have chosen Mairi and Hadley after all. But today is not that day." (Chapter 8)

What's particularly impressive about Jenny Han's achievement in showing us Annemarie's ordinary insecurities and fears is that Shug is actually both smart and popular. She's in honors classes, and, though with some misgivings, she hangs out with the most socially elite members of her class. It's not some stereotypical, artificial thing like "Oh, it's hard to be popular. People don't understand." Annemarie's feelings are genuine, and she never comes close to gloating over any successes. She feels real.

The other thing that sets this book apart from your standard middle school popularity and dating story is Annemarie's relationship with her family. She admires her older sister, Celia. Han conveys a realistic blend of sibling rivalry and sibling loyalty, never going too far in either direction. Shug accepts her sixteen-year-old sister to choose friends and boyfriend over family, but she still misses Celia.

Annemarie's father travels most of the time for work, coming in from time to time and disrupting that routines that have been established in his absence. He and Annemarie's mother have a tempestuous relationship, loving when he first comes home, eroding to fights and recriminations after a day or two. This dynamic is not enhanced by the fact that Annemarie's mother drinks too much. Here are some examples:

"When Daddy is home, we make more of an effort to be "a real family." It's like, Daddy's home, let's pretend like we are the family we should be... When we're all together nobody mentions how Daddy's away more than he is home, or how the gaps in between are getting bigger and bigger. A lot of the time, the Wilcox family feels like make-believe." (Chapter 15)

"It's not like she drinks all the time. There'll be times when she won't drink anything for days... And then Daddy will call and ruin everything. He'll say he's not coming home this weekend, or he will come home and they'll fight the way they always do. Then she'll drink. Sometimes it's like there's this well of sadness inside her, and she has to drink to fill it up. And then sometimes it's like there's a monster inside of her, and drinking's the only thing that will calm it down. And sometimes she drinks just because." (Chapter 27)

What's interesting about Shug's Mama is that she's not your stereotypical bad mother who drinks too much. Usually in books these are women who haven't had opportunities, are beaten down by life, and turn to alcohol or dangerous men for consolation. (A Room on Lorelei Street and Out of Focus, to name two recent examples). Shug's Mama is educated. She attended a fancy college in the Northeast, and named her daughters after characters from The Color Purple. Money doesn't appear to be a problem. But she's clearly a Mom hanging on by her fingernails. She doesn't cook for her daughters when their father is out of town. She can't be counted on for help with clothes, or for sincere advice. Shug goes to her at one point to talk, fully anticipating mockery. She's manipulative, defeated, and charming, all in turn. But she still loves her daughters. The depth of the family dynamics, and their influence on Shug, stand out.

Upon finishing this book, my first thought was that I wanted to buy it for the three sixth grade girls who I know. I think that it's a near-perfect window into starting middle school, and the struggle to balance being oneself against fitting in. I highly recommend it.

Book: Shug
Author: Jenny Han (blog)
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing
Original Publication Date: April 2006
Pages: 256
Age Range: 10-14
Source of Book: Santa Clara City Library
Other Blog Reviews: Frances Dowell, Not Acting My Age, A Fuse #8 Production, Welcome to my Tweendom, Little Willow

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

The Thirteenth Tale: Diane Setterfield

I don't review adult books very often. But I simply had to bring Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel to your attention. If you enjoy books, especially old-fashioned Gothic books like Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, then you must read The Thirteenth Tale.

The Thirteenth Tale begins as the reclusive novelist Vida Winter summons Margaret Lea to her home in remote Yorkshire, and asks Margaret to write her biography. Margaret is somewhat skeptical of this author because a) she lacks the credentials of a real biographer, having merely written some obscure accounts by way of a hobby; and b) Vida Winter is notorious for lying to reporters about her past. However, Miss Winter eventually convinces Margaret that she plans to tell the truth. Miss Winter is dying, you see, and her story has been eating away at her for a long time.

The remainder of the book alternates between Miss Winter's tale, as told to Margaret, and Margaret's own independent investigation of the story. I listened to the book on MP3, and the production used two narrators, one for Margaret and one for Miss Winter. This worked quite well.

Miss Winter's story is a complex, Gothic tale encompassing twins, ghosts, mental illness, incest, loyal family retainers, a meddling governess, a foundling, and murder. The exact time-frame of the two stories is vague, but we know that Miss Winter's story takes place more than 50 years in the past, while Margaret's present seems not quite modern. Margaret, it turns out, has her own secret, one which helps her to understand Miss Winter better, but which tortures her, too.

The characterization in this book is excellent, both detailed and largely free of stereotypes. The alternation between the old story and the modern one keeps up the level of suspense. There are several clever parallels between the books that the characters read (most notably Jane Eyre) and the events that they experience. The writing is excellent, suspenseful yet lyrical, sometimes startlingly vivid. The evolving relationship between Margaret and Miss Winter is particularly well-done. I also enjoyed Dr. Clifton, who, in all seriousness, prescribes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle as a remedy for Margaret's temporary illness.

What makes the book especially appealing to the passionate reader is that both Margaret and Miss Winter love books, far more than they love most people. Margaret was raised in, and works in, an antiquarian bookstore. Miss Winter used books as a lifeline during a traumatic childhood. Many passages pay homage to the joy of books and reading. (In fact, this is a book that I wished I had been reading in print instead of listening to in audio format, because I would have liked to flag some of these passages.)

I highly recommend The Thirteenth Tale to any book lover. Please note that, unlike most of my reviews, this is an adult novel, not a children's or young adult book. There are some mature themes, and the plotting is quite complex. Young adults branching out into the adult fiction section could certainly handle it. However, although much of the story centers around a pair of young twins, this is not a children's book. What it is is a modern-day melodrama, filled with mystery, suffering, and the love of books.

Book: The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria (Simon & Schuster)
Original Publication Date: September 2006
Pages: 416
Age Range: Adult
Source of Book: Download from

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

Sunday Afternoon Visits: November 5

I'm a bit late with my Sunday visits, because Mheir and I went to visit the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum & Planetarium in San Jose this afternoon. It was very cool. It's freaky to look at mummies and think, "This person was alive and walking around 3000 years ago." Anyway, there are many interesting discussions going on around the kidlitosphere this week. Here are a few highlights:

  • The ESSL Children's Literature Blog (Education & Social Science Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) takes on the question of what really constitutes a classic of children's literature.
  • You can download a fun poster called "The Rights of the Reader" from the Walker Books website. I learned about this from Read Roger. My favorite is "The right to read anywhere."
  • The h20boro lib blog (from the Waterboro, ME Public Library) asks "Have Personal Libraries Obviated the Need for Public Libraries?", linking to a Times online opinion piece that suggests that, in Britain, "books have killed libraries." The idea is that because so many people can afford to buy books now, libraries aren't as necessary, just as public baths fell out of favor once people could afford to install baths at home. A scary thought, isn't it? (Though, happily, libraries certainly don't seem to be falling out of favor where I live).
  • Over at The Magic of Books, PJ Librarian asks people to share "comfort books." These would be "a book or books that you keep coming back to and re-reading and re-reading that just provides a sense of balance or comfort". My comfort books include Gone Away Lake, The Forgotten Door, The Velvet Room, and Anne of Green Gables, among many others. Head on over to share your favorites.
  • OK, this is not exactly book-related, but Paradise Found reports that "Lego is short on bricks this holiday season. According to this article, they’ve actually turned down store orders, which could mean a shortage of stock for retailers." Scary stuff!
  • I loved this article over at Book Moot. Before handing out any Halloween treats, Camille asked her neighborhood trick-or-treaters: "What's a great book you've read this year?" She has an excellent list of frequently named titles, and concludes "It was really so heartening thing to hear all these great titles being shouted out. There has been a definite leap in the reading levels of the neighborhood over the past year according to this informal Halloween poll." How cool is that?
  • Franki Sibberson from A Year of Reading (home of the 100 cool teachers of children's literature) has an article on the Choice Literacy website about her newly discovered addiction to blogging. She discusses several failed attempts at hobbies ("I took up scrapbooking, bought over $500 of supplies, and ended up spending about $264 per finished page before I abandoned that hobby") and concludes "No matter what I tried (prior to blogging), my only sustained hobbies have been reading, shopping, and baking." She writes warmly of the kidlitosphere, and includes brief descriptions of several of her favorite blogs. I was so pleased to be included in her list! You can read the full article here. There are also lots of other great resources on the Choice Literacy website.
  • For another article about the kidlitosphere, check out Ilene S. Goldman's article in The Prairie Wind (newsletter of the SCBWI - Illinois chapter). This is the first of what will apparently be a new column about the kidlitosphere. Ilene says: "In this column, we’ll explore new territory and discover established outposts. We’ll talk to bloggers, so if you have specific questions you’d like me to ask, let me know. And we will investigate the interface between blogs and publication, promotion and sales." Definitely worth bookmarking! Ilene is also a contributor to Book Buds, and has an inspiring blog about her daughter called Charlotte's Journey Home. (the adorable 18-month old Charlotte has a serious heart condition).
  • And speaking of Book Buds, the kidlitosphere's own Anne Boles Levy (editor and co-creator of the Cybils) has an in-depth review of Voices, by Ursula Le Guin, in yesterday's L. A. Times. Way to go, Anne!
  • Janice from 5 Minutes for Mom posts about her son's joy in receiving a personalized book. She includes a great picture of this kid just utterly engrossed in the book. The book that's about him, and his family, and his friends. Neat!
  • Don't forget to celebrate the upcoming Children's Book Week, November 13th-19th. "A celebration of the written word, Children's Book Week introduces young people to new authors and ideas in schools, libraries, homes and bookstores. Through Children's Book Week, the Children's Book Council encourages young people and their caregivers to discover the complexity of the world beyond their own experience through books." Thanks to Leila at bookshelves of doom for the link.
  • Author Kirby Larson writes about stepping outside of her comfort zone, and her progress at NaNoWriMo (where people try to write a complete novel during the month of November). What I especially liked about her post was her observation that somehow, by making writing a priority, she's able to crank out 1600 words a day while still keeping up with the other demands on her time. I think that this has implications for everyone, not just NaNoWriMo participants. If you make the things that you care about a priority, you will somehow find time to do them. I don't think that I'm always good about this - I get discouraged when I don't have enough time to read, or work on my blog. But Kirby's post made me think that I should be finding a way to prioritize these things anyway, no matter how busy my life is. And I appreciate that.
  • On a related note, cloudscome over at A Wrung Sponge lists 25 things that make her happy. She challenges others to make their own list. Maybe sometime soon... Books, blogs, red wine and chocolate all come to mind, though.
  • And Adrienne at What Adrienne Thinks About That offers an inspiring fall health and fitness regimen (let's just say that it involves chocolate).

That should keep you busy for a while! Happy Reading!

Poetry Friday: Days of Innocence 1

I'm finally back for Poetry Friday, after a several week absence. Maybe this is a sign that my life is slowly getting back under control, after much travel followed by much Cybils excitement. Today I bring you a November-themed poem by e. e. cummings. It is short and sweet.

Days of Innocence (1)

who are you, little i

(five or six years old)
peering from some high

window;at the gold

of november sunset

(and feeling:that if day
has to become night

this is a beautiful way)


I'll bring you more from this set of poems next week. Happy November!

How Book Reviewing Has Affected My Reading

I've always been a prolific reader, the kind of person who can lose herself in a good story, or while away entire afternoons reading on the couch. I've noticed, however, that since I've been writing book reviews over the past year, I've become a better reader. What do I mean by "better", you ask? Well...

  • I read everything with an eye out for clever turns of phrase, or passages that illuminate or encapsulate a setting or story. I mark these passages with sticky notes, or stop to write them down. I like to include them in my reviews when I can, because I think that this is the best way for a reader to get a sense of what the book is really like.
  • As a corollary to the above, I'm a bit frustrated by audio books now (though I still think that they are a wonderful invention), because I'm always reading when I'm out walking, and I can't easily write down or mark a particular passage.
  • I pay more attention to what I'm reading, and am less likely to skim through a book racing only to see what happens next.
  • I lie in bed before I go to sleep thinking about the implications of what I've just read, trying to understand what's special about this book, so that I can convey that in my reviews. I frequently have to get up to jot things down (though my words are always less profound by the light of day than I thought they were at midnight).
  • I'm more selective in my reading now, striving to read "better" books. This is partly because I want to read books about which there will be something noteworthy to say, and partly out of vanity. I'm fine with the people who visit my blog thinking that I'm a slightly quirky adult who reads children's books, but I don't want people thinking that I read garbage.
  • Conversely, I'm also more likely to try something that's outside of my regular comfort zone, if I think it will give me a new and interesting perspective. For example, I've never been much of a picture book reader (well, since I was five), but after a year of reading other people's picture book reviews, I'm giving them more of a chance. And learning a lot.
  • I am constantly on the lookout for ideas for my reviews, or for my blog, and I've learned that material can be found almost anywhere. I think that this perspective makes me look at the world, at the newspaper, at magazines, more closely.

The sad part of all of this is that as I read more carefully, as I take time to work on my blog and write reviews, I'm actually spending less time reading than I used to. Quality over quantity, sure. But it's still sad...

How about you, fellow bloggers? Has writing book reviews changed the way that you read?

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

Jumping the Scratch: Sarah Weeks

I'd seen some reviews of Jumping the Scratch floating around, and when I saw it in the library, I decided to check it out. I can't compare it with Sarah Weeks' previous book, the acclaimed So B. It, because I haven't read that one yet. But I found it to be a quick, engrossing read, tackling dark issues with a relatively light touch.

Jamie is a fifth grader at Pine Tree Elementary in Traverse City, Michigan. Jamie had a nice, "regular as corn flakes" life in Battle Creek until a recent patch of bad luck. His beloved cat, Mister, died. His father "took off with a cashier from MicroMart." Then Jamie and his mother had to move to Traverse City to live in a trailer with his Aunt Sapphy, who was seriously injured in a freak accident at the cherry factory.

Due to her injury, Sapphy's memory has developed a "scratch". She recalls old memories from before the accident, but can't make any new ones. Every day she has to be told about the accident again, and about why Jamie and his Mom are living with her now. She drives her irritable visiting caretaker crazy by never remembering the woman. Here is Jamie's description of post-accident Sapphy:

"After the accident she still said funny things, but it wasn't the same. She wasn't the same. Her eyes didn't sparkle; they were flat and dull, like the eyes of the bluegills my father and I brought home from the pond on the stringer. And when I talked, even though she still listened, she didn't tilt her head to the side like a crow anymore. She couldn't really hear me, at least not the way she used to." (page 41)

As for Jamie, rather than trying to remember, he has an incident that he's trying to forget. This undisclosed incident haunts him, and keeps him from adjusting to his new life in Traverse City. He gets picked on, doesn't participate in class, is looked down upon by his teacher, and has no friends. He doesn't trust anyone outside of his family. His prickly, odd behavior makes him an outcast. Even when two different people (a visiting author, and a girl who lives in the same trailer park) reach out to Jamie, he pushes them away.

It becomes clear very early in the book that something bad happened to Jamie, something about which he feels guilty and ashamed. The broad strokes of what happened will be clear to the adult reader very early in the book, though the details emerge more gradually. Hopefully younger readers will remain in suspense for longer. When the trauma does come, it's handled delicately, in a non-scary fashion. I think that this book could provide an excellent opportunity for parents to discuss what is and isn't appropriate adult/child behavior with their kids.

I thought that Jumping the Scratch was well-written, though there are a few flaws. A couple of the characters are a touch stereotypical (especially the class suck-up Mary Lynne, and Jamie's unsympathetic teacher). The ending is a bit too neat, though kids will likely find it satisfying.

On the plus side, I did enjoy the character of the visiting author. I think that just reading about his interactions with Jamie's class could encourage fledgling writers, and even inspire kids who don't yet realize that they are fledgling writers. Aunt Sapphy's disability is shown with some humor, but mostly with compassion. As for Jamie and his eventual friend Audrey, they are prickly and quirky, and definitely have their faults, but this makes them feel real. Jumping the Scratch addresses some difficult topics (divorce, abuse, brain damage, bullying), yet remains accessible and lightened by flashes of humor. I recommend it.

Book: Jumping the Scratch
Author: Sarah Weeks
Publisher: Laura Geringer Books (Harper Collins)
Original Publication Date: April 2006
Pages: 167
Age Range: 9-12
Source of Book: Santa Clara City Library
Other Blog Reviews: Gemini Moon, A Fuse #8 Production, Book Bits, Booktopia, emilyreads, MotherReader

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