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Posts from July 2008

The Underneath: Kathi Appelt

Book: The Underneath
Author: Kathi Appelt
Illustrator: David Small
Pages: 320
Age Range: 9-12

The UnderneathThe Underneath by Kathi Appelt is the story of an abandoned cat and her kittens. They form a family with a lonely, chained up hound dog. This family's story is intertwined with the thousand-year-old story of a a magical creature, half-woman, half-snake, and her family tragedy. Linking the stories together are a thousand-year-old tree, and an even more ancient alligator. Appelt blends these two stories together seamlessly, filling both with the sights and smells and sounds on an ancient wood.

The Underneath is beautifully written and moving. Kathi Appelt is a gifted writer. My copy is littered with post-it flags marking eloquent turns of phrase. I think The Underneath would make an excellent read-aloud title for later elementary school kids (despite some sad parts). It is sure to come up in award discussions later in the year. David Small's detailed illustrations are delightful, too.

I'm going to spare you a full review, since this book has already been reviewed all over the place, and everyone seems to love it. But here are a couple of passages, to give you an idea of the quality of Appelt's writing:

"Whenever there is a breeze in the old forest, you might, for a moment, realize that the trees are singing. There, on the wind, are the voices of sugarberry and juniper and maple, all telling you about this hound, this true-blue hound, tied to a post. They have been watching him all these years, listening to his song, and if he knew what the trees were singing, it might be about how he found a friend." (Page 25)

"Cats are famous for purring. And this is what the calico cat did as she curled up next to Ranger's massive chest, safe and soft. Until he heard it, Ranger had not realized how much he needed this sweet, friendly sound. How much he needed someone to settle in next to him. He didn't know that he needed to not be so solitary until at last he wasn't. So many needs in one old dog." (Page 30)

"Bones, fur, milk, curiosity. That is what cats are made of." (Page 71)

"A cat with hiccups cannot sneak up on anything. A cat with hiccups is a sorry sight." (Page 110)

The entire book is like that. You could pretty much pick any page to quote from, and it would be lyrical and distinctive. I must confess that I'm a bit concerned about the level of kid-appeal with this title. Yes, there are animals as the protagonists, and the kittens are very cute. But I'm not sure that middle grade readers really look for that these days. The cover shows the characters quite nicely, but is it really going to make someone who isn't into animal stories pick up the book? I'm just not sure... I would be interested to hear some feedback from actual kids on this one. But if you're an adult looking for a lovely, thoughtful, suspenseful read, this is one to try.

Publisher: Atheneum
Publication Date: May 2008
Source of Book: Bought it
Other Blog Reviews: 100 Scope Notes, A Year of Reading, Becky's Book Reviews, TheHappyNappyBookseller, The Reading Zone

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

One More ALA Link

While at the Newbery/Caldecott banquet at ALA last month (well, during the cocktail hour beforehand), Jim Averbeck and Maria van Lieshout, together with guest interviewer Betsy Bird, "rolled out the red carpet to interview the gLiterati of the kidlit world" (Jim's words). They've now posted most of their videos at a special site called On the Red Carpet. Can you believe that I'm gLiterati?? I'm actually included (with Betsy and Susan Kusel) in the Project ALA video, in which attendees are interviewed about their clothing, and then given the thumbs up or thumbs down by a panel of judges (spliced in - you have to see it). It's pretty funny. Though, alas, my Macy's dress didn't make the cut. But just being in the same video with people like Jon Scieszka and Roger Sutton, among many others, is quite a trip. Jim and Maria also have more in-depth interviews posted of a variety of people - the site is well worth checking out!

What Happens when a Hobby Turns Into Something More?

I've been doing some thinking today, inspired in part by the connection that I see between Jules and Eisha's recent identify crisis (and comments therein) and the discussion that's been taking place on various blogs (and a discussion list), especially at Becky's Book Reviews, about summer reading lists. In both cases, the concern is that it's possible to take something enjoyable (like blogging or reading) and suck the fun out of it by turning it into work (as happens with book reviews sometimes, and with required reading lists). Mary Lee from A Year of Reading called these things (in the comments here) "idea cousins." (This post is a bit introspective - feel free to skip if you're just looking for children's book news and reviews.)

What I'm wondering is, is my blog a job or is it a hobby? Reading children's books used to be a hobby for me. I would lose myself in the books. I would recommend them to people, and buy them for kids I knew. The books were an escape and a joy. They were what I loved. I would occasionally get on my soapbox with people I knew well, urging them to read to their kids, but this was an infrequent thing.

Then I started my blog, and I developed an audience, and people started sending me books. And that was all great (I love the books and the discussion). But now I have deadlines. I have posts that I try to publish on a weekly schedule. I have my weekly newsletter. I have authors and publishers asking me to review their books, and people who visit my blog asking me to recommend books to them. I have other blogs that I read, and I try to keep up with the constant trickle (sometimes a deluge) of new blog posts into my Google Reader. I highlight reviews that inspire me. I've had a project management role with the Cybils, and a research role with Readergirlz. I'm even occasionally been called upon to be an interviewer.

Over the past year I've done some things to focus my blog efforts a bit. I've stopped participating in big, cross-blog events like the SBBT (although I think that it's great that they exist), because having externally imposed deadlines and coordinating with other people adds a layer of stress to an already finely balanced juggling act. I've pretty much stopped doing interviews, because I find them taxing, and I'd rather keep my focus on the books themselves. I've pushed back on anyone who tries to get me to commit to reviewing a particular book in a particular timeframe (that deadlines thing again). I stepped down as a Readergirlz Postergirl, because I was having trouble focusing enough on pure YA to be useful. I don't do challenges, and I rarely do memes.

On the surface, my focusing efforts are about keeping the time requirement for the blog manageable, since it's a part-time effort for me, and keeping myself focused on the things that I think really make a difference. But as I think about it now, in light of Jules and Eisha's recent post, and all of the recent discussion about summer reading lists (especially the contributions from A Year of Reading), I also realize something. My focusing efforts have for the most part centered around pushing back on the things that feel like work (to me), so that I can focus on the parts that I most enjoy. And I think that's a good thing. (I also owe a debt of gratitude to Kim and Jason from Escape Adulthood for the philosophy that's helping me with this).

Blogging for me still lives in an odd space that's not a job (I don't do it full time, I don't get paid for it, I don't have a boss), but not quite a hobby either (I have deadlines, I make commitments to produce certain things, I work with other people). It's more like an unstructured volunteer position. Talking about children's books and reading, helping people to grow bookworms, is much more than a passing fancy for me. It's a cause, a soapbox, something I think is really really important. Ultimately, the reason that I spend so much time on my blog is because of that - because I truly feel like if I can help even a few parents and teachers and librarians to find the right books for even a few kids, I'll have made a positive difference in the world. When someone tells me that their child spent hours lost in a book that I recommended, I know that I'm doing something worthwhile.

And yet, even with that feeling to guide me, even with that reasoning to justify the effort that I expend as important, I still struggle with the TIME. If you have a full time job, you expect to spend 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week on it, and you set up your life to do that. And if you have a normal hobby, then you enjoy it in your spare time, but you can usually put it aside when you're busy. But what if you have something that's not your full time job, but that takes 20 or 30 or 40 hours a week to keep up with, and that you really want to do? And where you're producing something that other people look at? Obviously, I can and do put the blog on the back burner sometimes, like when I moved last spring, when I travel, when we have guests visiting, etc. But even when I'm not traveling - even when I'm just home, having a normal work week, and a normal amount of social things going on, the time that the blog takes up is more time than I really have available. Other things have been falling through the cracks. I've been stressed out. I've been having tension headaches (because of the other things that I'm not doing, not because of the blog itself).

I know what the answer is. I know, like Jules and Eisha just discussed, that I need to scale the blog back further. I've committed myself to doing more than I have time for, on a week by week basis. And even though I wish that I had more time to give to to these efforts, that's not really an option at this point. I have a full time job and other personal commitments. I need to spend less time on the blog, even if I don't want to. If I don't, I'm going to turn the whole thing into work, and/or get burned out.

But even though I KNOW that's the answer, it's still not easy. I have so many things that I want to do with my blog - I love doing my Sunday visits posts, I love the literacy round-ups, I love reading and reviewing books (well, the reviews are work, but I love having reviewed books). I'm really enjoying these little "reviews that made me want the book" posts. And I love putting out my little weekly newsletter (which isn't really any extra work, once the above content is produced). How could I give any of these things up? It's not that I think that other people sit around waiting with bated breath for me to produce these things every week - it's that I WANT to produce them. And I have a couple of new things on the horizon, too, which I'm absolutely committed to, because they're going to help me take my blog's mission to another level. (More on those later.)

So here I am, knowing that I need to cut back a bit, but not willing to do it. I'm like a dieter who can't give up any of her favorite foods. I'm addicted to my blog, addicted to the books, addicated to the idea of helping to grow bookworms. But I'm going to have to figure something out, because these headaches have to go.

I have some small ideas that I'm going try, like not requesting any new review books for a while (I'm sure I have a whole year's worth of reading material already), and scaling back my blogroll a bit, but I suspect that I'm going to need to make some bigger sacrifices. I'm working on it ... At least I know that I'm not alone (see Jules and Eisha's post at 7-Imp, and Jenny's post at Read. Imagine. Talk., for example). Meanwhile, if anyone has gotten this far, thanks for listening. It always helps me to write things out.

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

Growing Bookworms Newsletter: July 15

Jpg_book007This afternoon 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 more than 315 subscribers. Many thanks to those of you who have passed the newsletter on to your friends and colleagues! It's wonderful to see the list growing.

This week I have three book reviews (one for early elementary school, one for later elementary school into middle school, and one for middle school into high school), two Kidlitosphere round-ups with links to useful posts from the past week, and a round-up of recent children's literacy and reading news. I also have a short installment of my reviews that made me want to read the book feature, and an announcement about the upcoming Kidlitosphere Conference in Portland, OR. All of my posts from this week are included in the newsletter.

Thanks for reading, and for growing bookworms! Hope that you're all getting in plenty of summer reading time.

Reviews that Made Me Want the Book: Bastille Day Edition

Welcome to the latest installment in my Reviews that Made Me Want to Read the Book feature. I have a short post this week - just three entries (which is great, because I have hundreds of other books clamoring for my attention).

Jack Bolt and the Highwaymen's HideoutGail Gauthier said in my recent interview with her (about early chapter books) "I recently read Jack Bolt and the Highwaymen's Hideout by Richard Hamilton. It's a time travel adventure with a well developed storyline, humor, and a number of illustrations." And based on that, I put it on my list.

The Alchemyst (Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel)The other day I received a copy of The Magician (the second book in the Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series by Michael Scott). I thought that it looked interesting, but put it aside because I don't like to read series books out of order. But then I read Tricia's post about the series at The Miss Rumphius Effect, and moved both books up on my list. She said (of the first book): "I love books rooted in myth, legend, and the events of history. This book has it all, and then some. I finished The Alchemyst on Friday and then ran out and bought the sequel".

Daylight RunnerDoret, TheHappyNappyBookseller, intrigued me with her recent review of Oisin McGann's Daylight Runner. She said: "Thanks to an extreme Ice Age the old world has ended. Ash Harbor is born. It's formed inside a hollowed out mountain and located in what was South Pacific. The element is too harsh to survive outside of Ash Harbor. 16 yr old Solomon (Sol) father Gregor is missing." She also warns that the dialog is "cheesey", but I think it would work for certain action-flick moods.

Happy reading!

Monday Night Visits: Blog Identity Crisis Edition

So I did my usual Sunday visits post yesterday, and that was all well and good. Except that today, interesting posts simply exploded across the Kidlitosphere. So I'm back with a few additions. (Perhaps feeling extra keen to report on the news, after Daphne Grab kindly included me in a Class of 2k8 round-up of recommended resources for kidlit industry news).

  • First up, my sympathies go out to Jules and Eisha, the proprietors of Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. They are experiencing a bout of what I like to call "blog focus angst" (though they call it an identify crisis), and they write about it eloquently. Feeling worn down under the pressure of review books and the time required to write the long, thoughtful, link-filled reviews that are their trademark, they've decided to pull things back a bit. And who can blame them? I often feel the same way (especially when I actually look at the number of review books that I've accumulated recently), and it's clear from the comments that many other people do, too. I'm just glad that they'll still be keeping 7-Imp, and modifying it to fit their own busy lives a bit better. Colleen Mondor offers support at Chasing Ray, too.
  • And, in an ironic counterpoint, given the pressure that bloggers are putting on themselves to write thoughtful book reviews, another article (from the Guardian) takes on the print vs. online reviews debate. Liz B. offers up her customary insightful analysis of the piece at Tea Cozy. I think that a particularly important point Liz makes is that "there isn't a lot of print coverage of children's/YA books, so the blogosphere fills that vacuum."
  • Meanwhile, Kim and Jason from the Escape Adulthood site are suggesting, as their tip of the week, that readers "Spend 15 – 30 minutes doing something you love that you don’t often have the chance to do." As Kim points out, " If you cannot find 15-30 minutes on a regular basis to do something you love, then what’s the point?" Words to live by, I'd say. If our blogs, which started out as a way to talk about our love of reading, become work, then it's up to us to make them enjoyable again.
  • Kiera Parrott at Library Voice is starting a new reluctant reader pick of the week feature. First up is Jellaby. I think it's a great idea, and I'll be watching for her other recommendations. (Though, I hope that Kiera doesn't put pressure on herself with this weekly schedule - see identify crisis above).
  • Sheila at Greenridge Chronicles has a lovely post about what her family has learned from readalouds (including books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, J. K. Rowling, and Diana Wynne Jones).
  • And if you're looking to read to escape, Newsweek has an article about the rise of post-apocalyptic fiction aimed at kids. Lots of people are quoted, including Susan Beth Pfeffer (hat-tip to Sue for the link). The article, by Karen Springen, discusses the suitability of such books for kids, and also touches on "potent political messages" embedded in some of the books.
  • And, if you really want to escape, check out Franki Sibberson's list of books for kids who like Captain Underpants, at Choice Literacy (linked from A Year of Reading). Franki adds "if we are thinking of summer reading lists like this--connecting kids to books based on books they love, kids would have lots of ownership over what they read."
  • Walter Minkel shares a couple of summer literacy links from Reading Rockets at The Monkey Speaks.
  • And finally, Becky from Becky's Book Reviews weighs in on the Summer Reading List question. Becky points out (among other insights) that (on the topic of required reading) "You cannot force someone to enjoy something. Requiring something means it's work. And it doesn't take a genius to figure out that once something becomes work, it loses its ability to be fun. Work is tedious. It's mundane. It's something to be endured." And so we've come full circle with the 7-Imps post, in which Jules said: "I’ve also felt obligated to write about these books after I read them (even if I find fault with the writing), and I just really, REALLY want to read something and not have to report on it. To be thrilled about reading a book and then putting it down, instead of spending one or two hours to write about it….well, that tells me something. I feel like I’m doing to myself what we do to children when we give them programs like Accelerated Reader: Don’t just read and enjoy it. You must take a quiz now. I know I’M DOING THAT TO MYSELF." Definitely a common theme going on today - don't take something you enjoy and turn it into work. And especially don't do that to kids.

Here's wishing you all 15-30 minutes (at least) to do something that you enjoy.

Sign Up Now for the Portland Kidlitosphere Conference

Do you blog about children's and/or young adult books? Do you write children's or YA books? Do you publish children's or YA books, and want to talk with the people blogging about the books? Are you thinking about starting a blog, and interested to learn more about how to do it? Would you like to meet other people who share your passion for creating and talking about these books?

If you answered yes to any or all of the above questions, the Portland KidLit conference is just the thing for you. The theme is: "Bridging the Worlds of Books and Blogs". This is the second of what promises to be an annual conference about children's books, blogging, and community. The first conference, held in Chicago last year, and organized by Robin Brande, was excellent.

This year's conference is being organized by Jone MacCulloch and Laini Taylor. It will be held on Saturday, September 27th, at the Sheraton Portland (Oregon) Airport Hotel (with, probably, informal events Friday evening and Sunday morning). The conference fee, which includes dinner on Saturday night, is a very reasonable $60 (plus $30 each for any guest you might want to bring just to the dinner). The registration form is available now (at the bottom of the post). You can also see a list of people who plan to attend at the bottom of this post

I know that it's difficult for some of you to make it out to Oregon. And I would imagine that next year's conference will be held somewhere on the East Coast, to balance things out a bit. But if you can at all swing it for this year, do try. I promise, you won't be disappointed. The chance to talk, face-to-face, with a roomful of kindred spirits is truly priceless. I hope to see you there! I'll be sending in my check this week.

Children's Literacy Round-Up: July 13

It's time for this week's round-up of children's literacy and reading-related news. Happy reading!

  • Terry had another excellent round-up of reading news at the Reading Tub's blog, What Happens Next, on July 7th. My favorite link from it was to the LOST Book Club website, where you can see all of the books mentioned in the television show LOST, by season, and discuss them with other fans. The book references are one of my favorite things about LOST, and I love that someone at ABC took the time to set up this website.
  • In the UK Telegraph, Tom Peterkin writes about Children's Laureate Michael Rosen's concerns about reading for pleasure. Rosen "said ministers were making a "big mistake" by not putting enough emphasis on reading for pleasure in schools. He attacked the "tests and targets" culture of the classroom saying: "It's not sufficient simply to have children learning how to bark at print. You must have enjoyment going on at the same time. If you read for pleasure children will achieve. "The Government is making a big mistake by not saying reading for pleasure is as important as learning to read."" I think that this is a problem in the US, too, and it's good to see Rosen standing up and discussing it. Do go and read the article!
  • The Jackson Sun has a nice article about the importance of summer reading by Ashley Anthony. Link via the International Reading Association blog. For example, "Elizabeth Parnell, children's librarian at Jackson-Madison County Library, wants to help families instill a love of reading in their children. Books can take them on an adventure to anywhere they can dream, quench a curious mind, or even open up a whole new world of thought," she said. "Research has shown that kids who read during the summer perform better when school resumes in the fall."" The article also includes a few kid-recommended titles.
  • Also via the IRA blog, Larry Carson at the Baltimore Sun writes about the importance of an expanded summer Head Start program in getting kids ready for kindergarten.
  • The St. Petersburg Times recently published a guest column by George Bastable, a language arts teacher, about instilling a love of reading in kids. (Funny, I can't see the name Bastable without thinking of E. Nesbit's The Treasure Seekers - seems fitting). George Bastable says: "My love of reading spawned from my family. My parents loved to read, which spread to my siblings, which spread to me. My mother and sister read to me. I devoured my older brother's 23-volume Chip Hilton sports series many times over. But it shouldn't just come from home. Mrs. Osborne, my fourth-grade teacher, catapulted my love of literature by reading aloud to me. And, I suppose, to the rest of the class. It was her choice of titles that helped. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Born Free, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Island of the Blue Dolphin. It's been more than 40 years and I still remember." I just hope that if he's reading these classics to his students, he's also reading them some new titles.
  • The Worcester News (UK) writes about the success, and recent granting of awards, from "a ‘Dads and Lads’ reading project organised by the Worcester Warriors Education Programme. Warrior’s players Ben Jones and Matthew Jones presented the proud young boys with their awards at Worcester Library. The scheme was set up after national statistics indicated that boys are reluctant readers. Its aim was to encourage reading through the use of male role models, particularly fathers."
  • According to a recent Australian Broadcasting Corporation news report, "The Queensland Government is considering asking parents to go back to school as part of a radical new plan to improve children's reading skills. The classes would be aimed at parents with low literacy skills, who themselves struggle to read and write. Queensland Education Minister Rod Welford says parents could be offered a variety of reading classes and tutoring sessions before school and at night."
  • (MI) recently ran an article by Myron Kukla from the Grand Rapids Press about summer bookmobiles. It reminded me of the difference that the bookmobile made to young Livy Two in Kerry Madden's Maggie Valley books. "The West Ottawa Public Schools vehicle and two neighboring counterparts, Holland Public Schools' The Big Read (Red) Bus and Zeeland Public Schools' the Zee Bus, are all about bringing reading to children. The bottom line: Keep minds active."
  • The Carolina Peacemaker (NC) has an article  by Jeanna Covington that says that "A modest-sized delegation of North Carolina A&T State University students are traveling throughout the West African city of Accra, Ghana this week, helping to increase the literacy of vulnerable youth in the capital referred to as “street children.” Five rising sophomores, accompanied by two faculty members, are presenting more than 1,200 books to organizations in Accra dedicated to empowering young people through education."
  • In a recent news release, "Sharon Darling, president & founder of the National Center for Family Literacy encourages parents to take a minute – literally – to engage their children in learning activities while they go about their daily routine." She shares several concrete suggestions, like "While you’re waiting for the bagel to toast, have your child look for the letter B on any items on your kitchen counter or table. Count as many as possible before the toaster pops."

And that's it for this week. I'm sure that Terry will have some more news for you in a couple of days, though.

Sunday Afternoon Visits: July 13

There have been tons of interesting things going on around the Kidlitosphere this week. Here are a few links:

  • Congratulations to Andrea and Mark, who just celebrated the second anniversary, and 400th post, at Just One More Book! Wishing them hundreds more posts. See also Shelf Elf's one-year birthday party, with a very creative list of book reviews as gifts.
  • Over at Open Wide, Look Inside, Tricia shares her must-have subscriptions for teachers. She calls them "a series of e-mail subscriptions that I can’t live without". Selections include the PBS Teachers weekly newsletter and the Math Solutions online newsletter.
  • Inspired by a post by Jenny Han at The Longstockings, Liz Burns writes about direct delivery of services at A Chair, A Fireplace, and A Tea Cozy. The discussion started with a new paid service that will deliver books to you via mail (like NetFlix), and questions about what this offers as compared to libraries. It evolves, at Tea Cozy, into a discussion about the future of libraries.
  • In case you didn't get enough of Gail Gauthier's Three Robbers blog tour last week, you can read one more interview with Gail at Cheryl Rainfield's blog. I particularly enjoyed the discussion about  how to get kids interested in reading (for example "You can’t treat reading like work, like something you escape from when you’re on vacation.").
  • On a related note, Abby (the) Librarian writes about adult summer reading clubs. She notes: "In terms of developing literacy, one of the best things parents can do is read themselves. Seriously. It seems like such a simple thing, but I think it's a really potent thing". 
  • And speaking of reading and vacation, Franki takes on the question of summer reading lists at A Year of Reading. She warns that "kids are not going to become readers if they see reading as an assignment and don't have the opportunity to read the books they choose", and cautions against adults, even with the best of intentions, creating lists at all. She says "Creating our own summer reading lists because we don't like the ones out there, only says that we like the idea of summer reading lists if they are lists that WE create. Where is the child as reader in these conversations?" A valid point, I must say. See also Betsy's thoughts on this issue at A Fuse #8 Production, Maureen's at Confessions of a Bibliovore, and Gail's at Original Content. On a related note, ShelfTalker Alison Morris writes about the shortage of YA titles on many summer reading lists. (Last link via Original Content.)
  • Speaking of Fuse #8, one thing I didn't have in my ALA roundup post was a picture from the dinner that Sondra LaBrie from Kane/Miller hosted for Betsy and me. Fortunately, this has been remedied by both Betsy and Sondra, who each posted a photo taken with Betsy's camera. Betsy also has some free ARCs to share, if you happen to live in New York, and a warning about stolen book reviews.
  • Trevor Cairney has a detailed, two-part post at Literacy, Families, and Learning about stimulating literacy and learning during the holidays (though in Australia, where Trevor is based, the holidays going on now are relatively short). Here is part 1 and here is part 2. There's much more in these posts than I can possibly capture here, but if you're facing school vacation time with kids, do check out these articles.
  • Monica Edinger shares some thoughts about Laura Amy Schlitz's Newbery Award acceptance speech at Educating Alice. She urges "those who read Marc Aronson’s thoughts about the speech to read it for yourselves especially if you are planning on weighing in on the issue next week as Colleen Mondor suggests you do."
  • The Newbery acceptance speech was actually only of several potential topics that Colleen raised for discussion next week. After recapping recent controversies (from Frank Cottrell Boyce to celebrity picture books, Colleen said: "I'm proposing that the week of July 20th we all take some time and talk about the controversies that have found there way to our corner of the lit blogosphere... What I'd love to see is many other blogs pick up on this thread and write about the aspects of children's and teen publishing that frustrate them. We write about this stuff way more than pretty much any other print reviewers anywhere (not all but most) and we have our ear to the ground in ways that most publishers do not. In other words, we hear about stuff lightening quick and we form immediate opinions. Well, now is a great time for everyone to share those opinions and actually create a few ripples in the literary pond ourselves, rather than just riding someone else's waves." Personally, I'm thinking of writing about "message books" (which of course as a topic does tend to overlap with the topic of celebrity picture books).
  • Speaking on controversies in the KidLit blogosphere, Laurie Halse Anderson responds to a repeat cartoon by aquafortis at Finding Wonderland about how book bloggers think of themselves. Laurie has quite a discussion going in the comments about how blog reviewers think about what they're doing. Personally, I used to call my reviews "recommendations", because I didn't publish very many negative reviews. But somewhere along the way I decided to give myself more credit, and call them reviews. I do try to separate out personal background information about how I responded to a book from the review itself, where applicable.
  • And, for another book reading and reviewing question, Jill asks at The Well-Read Child how readers feel about abandoning books unfinished. Several people weigh in on this topic in the comments - most have evolved to some sort of book abandonment policy (e.g. after 50 pages).
  • The brand-new blog Book Addiction has a partial round-up by Eva M. on graphic novels for kids. I found this blog through a recommendation from Susan Patron on the CCBC-Net mailing list.
  • And finally, just off the presses, Sarah Miller, a Disney fan, has issued a Disney Literature Challenge. She says: "Let's dig up the uncorrupted originals, and see how these stories looked before Uncle Walt had his way with them, shall we? For my part, I'm making this a long term, laid back endeavor. No time limits, no minimums, no obligations. Pick the ones you like and quit when you get sick of the whole idea." Personally, I tend to pass on challenges, because I have enough trouble just keeping up with my regular blogging. But I have to admit that this one does appeal...

And that's all for today. I hope that you're all having a restful Sunday. Me, I'm happy because the Red Sox are back in first place of the AL East, just in time for the All-Star Break.

Alec Flint: Super Sleuth: Jill Santopolo

Book: Alex Flint: Super Sleuth: The Nina, the Pinta, and the Vanishing Treasure
Author: Jill Santopolo
Illustrator: C. B. Canga
Pages: 192
Age Range: 7-10

Alec FlintAlex Flint: Super Sleuth: The Nina, the Pinta, and the Vanishing Treasure is the first book in a new mystery series aimed at younger elementary school kids. The book is written by HarperCollins editor Jill Santopolo, and published by Scholastic's Orchard Books imprint. I ran a contest on my blog a couple of weeks ago in honor of the book's release, but am only just now getting around to the review.

Alec Flint is the son of a police officer. Alec is also an aspiring detective. He's the kind of kid who practices eating his cereal as quietly as he can, in case he needs to eat while on a stakeout. When the Christopher Columbus exhibit that his father has recently guarded is stolen, Alec sets out to solve the mystery. He enlists the help of a new classmate, Gina Rossi, after noticing that Gina is smart, knows how to write messages in code, and looks a bit like Princess Jasmine from the Aladdin movie. Alec and Gina collect clues and do research, and eventually solve not one but two mysteries that have left the adults stumped.

The fact that the adults are as stumped as they are is a tiny bit implausible, but of course this is hard to avoid in a mystery aimed at this age group. And I think that Santopolo does a nice job of making what the kids are and aren't able to do on their own realistic. For instance, they go to do research at the library, but they need Gina's mother to take them there. Alec is not allowed to be at home on his own after school (his mother is out of town on business). But he still manages to find and collect clues.

I think that kids will find this book a lot of fun. Alec and Gina regularly exchange notes written in code. Although the translated versions are included at the end of the book, I like to think that kids will enjoy decoding the messages themselves. I know that I would have when I was in elementary school.

Santopolo's writing is punchy and humorous, filled with sensory details. For example:

"Perp is what Officer Flint called a bad guy. Alec liked the word. Perp. He said it a few times in his head for fun." (Chapter 1)

"As Alec squeaked down the hallway, trying to make his sneakers sound sleuthier, he heard a third pair of shoes. These shoes swish-swished on the ground. They sounded sneaky. And not like sneakers sneaky, like plain-old-sneaky sneaky. Alec couldn't even tell how close they were. Swish-swish. Swish-swish. Pop!" (Chapter 1)

"But detective watches weren't really jewelry as far as Alec was concerned, and they certainly weren't made of gold. They were only sort of jewelry. The kind that was okay for a boy to wear without feeling girlie." (Chapter 1)

Certain historical facts about Christopher Columbus are essential in the solution to the mystery. These facts are conveyed to the reader relatively painlessly - it feels like Alec is learning interesting stuff, rather than like the author is forcing facts onto the reader. Alec makes a report for school about "the way Christopher Columbus's life would have been different if plastic had been invented in 1492."

All in all, this first Alec Flint, Super Sleuth title is an excellent pick for eight or nine year olds, especially if they enjoy solving mysteries and/or codes. The book is quite boy-friendly (see the above paragraph about the noises that Alec's sneakers make), but I think that girls will enjoy it, too. Gina is actually brighter than Alec (he admits this), and her younger sister Allegra is smart and a bookworm (she tries to eat pizza with one hand, so that she can hold her book with the other - a kid after my own heart). Because of the relatively long chapters and coded notes, I would put this book more at the second or third grade level, rather than giving it to brand new readers, though C. B. Canga's occasional illustrations do provide a break for younger readers. This is a book that I'll definitely be giving as a gift to kids in this age range. I look forward to the other books in the series.

Publisher: Scholastic / Orchard Books
Publication Date: July 1, 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
Other Reviews: Big A little a
Author Interviews: Through the Tollbooth and The Longstockings

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

Anna Smudge: Professional Shrink: MAC

Book: Anna Smudge: Professional Shrink (The Professionals)
Author: MAC
Illustrator: Glenn Fabry
Cover Art: Greg Horn
Pages: 256
Age Range: 10 - 14

Anna SmudgeAnna Smudge: Professional Shrink is the first book in The Professionals series by author MAC. It's a book for slightly older kids (10 and up), but features gorgeous, textured black and white illustrations at intervals throughout the book. The story begins with eleven-year-old Anna Smudge being treated with respect by the Chief of Police and asked to tell her story. The action then flashes back nine days, to a daring prison escape by a large hit man. Most of the story that follows is from Anna's perspective (third person point of view), but occasional sections follow the path of the hit man. Naturally, his path intersects with Anna's.

Anna is the only child of wealthy, distant parents. She lives in a nice apartment in New York, but her primary caregiver is her building's doorman, Percy. She attends an upscale school, where she has two best friends (Quenton Cohen, "a thin black boy" who likes to cook, and Rachel Riley, who talks incessantly). As for Anna, she's highly self-critical because she always does things slowly (her nickname is "sludge"), and she runs into problems with a couple of wealthy bullies at school. Her life takes a turn for the better, however, when an insightful guidance counselor suggests that Anna has a special gift for listening, and would make a good therapist. Anna immediately sets out to help people by listening.

Anna soon finds, however, that some of her clients' problems stem from the mysterious Mr. Who, a boss of mob bosses, who many think doesn't exist at all. Anna and her friends find themselves caught in the middle of a dangerous power struggle, and have to identify and stop Mr. Who before he kills someone Anna cares about. 

This book is an over the top romp, with characters ranging from a hit man who is obsessed with chocolate cannolis to "a naked man covered in seaweed, talking in rhymes". There's a dangerous bioweapon, an underwater room made of glass, and a blackmail scheme involving homework. And, of course, a kid who is a "professional shrink", with clients from all over New York. The hit man, Donny, is surprisingly likable, but all of the characters have comic elements (further enhanced by the dramatic, full-page illustrations). There are also real-life concerns of middle school kids, such as neglectful parents, and fitting in at school.

Many of the book's descriptive passages are entertaining. For example:

"Simon Spektor had straight dark hair that lay flat around his head like a bowl, extra-thick glasses, and a clip-on bowtie that his parents no doubt thought was cute but had no clue that something like that would ruin their son's social life. Not that Simon had a social life that Anna knew of." (Chapter 3)

"This cannot be happening to me! Like being eleven and having to take gym isn't hard enough?" (Chapter 6)

"Just as the angry words had left her mouth, Anna wished she could gather them all back and swallow them up... Was she now a juvenile delinquent? She glanced back up at the principal. He looked as if he had swallowed a pigeon." (Chapter 3)

I love the "swallowed a pigeon".

But really, it's the general tone of the book that makes it so readable. Matter-of-fact treatment of dramatic and sometimes ludicrous events. Anna and her friends are just quirky enough to be memorable, without being off-putting in any way. Glenn Fabry's illustrations also help to draw the reader into the book - they positively leap from the page.

I think that  Anna Smudge: Professional Shrink would be an excellent summer reading choice for reluctant readers in later elementary or middle school, especially for fans of mysteries and thrillers. There's a surprising twist at the end of the book that paves the way for future installments in the series (which will presumably feature Anna's friends using their special talents, much as she uses her "professional shrink" abilities in this book). I think that girls and boys alike will enjoy this title, and I look forward to The Professionals' future adventures.

Publisher: Toasted Coconut Media
Publication Date: May 2, 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
Other Reviews: Books & other thoughts, Family Reads
Author Interviews: Kid Reviewer
See also MAC's summer reading tips

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

Jack: Secret Histories: F. Paul Wilson

Book: Jack: Secret Histories
Author: F. Paul Wilson
Pages: 304
Age Range: 10 and up

Jack: Secret HistoriesBackground: This book made my wish list back in March, after Jen Hubert wrote about it at Reading Rants! Out of the Ordinary Teen Booklists. I've been reading F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack series of adult novels for a while. It's hard to know exactly how to classify the series - the books are a somewhat unusual combination of mystery, thriller, and paranormal fantasy. I read them primarily because Repairman Jack is such an interesting character. Jack works as a fixer in New York City. He lives completely below society's radar - he doesn't even have a social security number. His income is in cash, and he doesn't pay any income taxes. People don't know his last name - they just call him Jack. His goal is to remain unnoticed. Jack makes his living by solving problems for people - complex problems, like figuring out who killed a relative, or retrieving stolen property. He exists outside of the law, but is nonetheless highly moral in his dealings with people. He is a bit like Lee Child's Jack Reacher character, who I also enjoy. However, Repairman Jack's projects often take him into paranormal/horror territory. The paranormal aspects of the books are complex and interconnected - and some day I intend to go back and read the entire series at once.

Review: Jack: Secret Histories takes F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack character back to his teenage years in rural New Jersey. Jack is fourteen, and enjoying the summer before he starts high school as a freshman. He spends some of his time exploring the New Jersey Pine Barrens with his friends Eddie and Weezy. And there, they find a body. The very first line of the book is "They discovered the body on a rainy afternoon." Along with the body, the teens also find a mysterious black box, which it turns out that only Jack can open. Weezy believes that the box is part of the world's secret history. She says:

"We think we know what's happened in the past but we don't. Most history books don't even get the events. right, and they haven't a clue as to what's going on behind those events... But I know something's been going on. Secret societies and and mysterious forces are out there pulling strings and manipulating people and events and everyone wants to believe they're in charge of their lives but they're not because we're all being pushed this way and that for secret reasons and we don't even know it." (Page 52)

Several other deaths follow the discovery of the box and the body in the woods. As Jack and Weezy try to learn more about both, they run into various other mysteries, some with supernatural overtones. A shady local "Lodge" plays a major factor. The immediate murder mysteries are solved, mostly through Jack's ingenuity, while other mysteries, large and small, are left to be explored in future books.

I must admit to having a hard time assessing whether or not this book will stand on its own for teen readers who haven't read the Repairman Jack series. But as someone who has read that series, this book is a lot of fun. There are lots of fun tidbits about Jack's history, and early hints as to how he became Repairman Jack. For instance, his first boss, at a junk shop, asks to pay Jack under the table. This keeps Jack from needing to get a social security number, an important aspect of his later life. Jack also learned to pick locks. It's fun to see Jack, who is strong and well-armed in the adult books, getting pushed around as a 100 pound, unarmed teenager. Other aspects of his personality, such as his loner and fixer tendencies, are already firmly in place by the time he's fourteen. In this aspect, the book reminded me a bit of the Young James Bond series by Charlie Higson, though with a very different setting.

Jack: Secret Histories is set in 1983, and Wilson sprinkles reminders of the timing of the story through virtually every chapter, including references to books, musical groups, television shows, and movies, and examples of technology (Jack and a friend are wowed by the friend's father's purchase of an early CD player). Having been in high school myself in 1983, I did enjoy these references, though I thought that some of them were a little contrived. At one point Weezy says to Jack:

"Don't you wish the TV had a channel where you could, say, ask a question, and it would search every library in the world and pop the answer onto the screen? Wouldn't that be great?"

This seemed to me to something someone looking back from the Google age would plant in the book, rather than something that kids would have really discussed in 1983. In general, I'm not sure whether kids will enjoy the 80's references or not.

But I do think that today's kids will like the story itself. You have three kids, in the summertime in a small town, riding their bikes around and solving mysteries. There's a young local cop who helps them out occasionally, and a Japanese professor, but the adults are primarily sources of information. The action is left to the teens. The story is fast-paced, with something interesting happening every day. In addition to the murder mystery and supernatural elements, there are ordinary sibling rivalries and concerns about another friend who seems to have a drinking problem. It's the kind of book that you just want to keep on reading. And when you get to the end, you search online to see when the next book about teenage Jack will be available (Jack: Secret Vengeance, due out sometime in 2009). Recommended for teen mystery fans, and for adult fans of the Repairman Jack books, too.

Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication Date: May 2008
Source of Book: A review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Oops...Wrong Cookie, ALAN's Picks, July 2008, Tempting Persephone, Genre Go Round Reviews, Reading Rants!
Author Interviews: Josephmallozzi's Weblog

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