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Posts from January 2009

Thursday Afternoon Visits: January 22nd, Part 1

Lots going on around the Kidlitosphere this week. Here are a few highlights:

This just in! Publisher's Weekly has a first look at the cover of the second Hunger Games book, by Suzanne Collins. Oh, how I'm dying for that book! The article says that: "Fans in the book industry can have their first chance to find out those surprises at the end of May—Scholastic will be giving out ARCs of Catching Fire at BEA in New York City." Alas, I don't plan to be at BEA. But I'm hoping that I'll wrangle a copy at some point... P.S. Lenore posted the cover, too. I'm a bit leery of posting it before Amazon does, so I'll send you to Lenore or PW.  

ReadKiddoLogo PW also has an article by Judith Rosen about James Patterson's new ReadKiddoRead initiative. I haven't had a chance to check this out myself, but I've been hearing good feedback so far. And you have to love the site's tagline: "Dedicated to making you kids readers for life." The PW article says: "By December, with almost no fanfare except for a mention in an interview with Al Roker and an ad in People magazine, the site attracted 20,000 visitors. It brings together reviews for books for newborns to teens, interviews with bestselling children’s authors like Jeff Kinney and Rick Riordan, and a book blog with reading lists by children’s literature consultant Judy Freeman, author of Books Kids Will Sit Still For." I signed up for the mailing list, and will keep an eye on the whole thing.

And, as reported by Betsy Bird at Fuse #8, the 2008 Cuffies have been announced. These are a series of children's book awards, some in unusual categories, derived from input by retailers. I always find them entertaining, and this year is no exception. You get things like "book with best plot twist" and "book you wish everyone would shut up about".

Ranger's Apprentice In honor of next summer's publication of the sixth book in the Ranger's Apprentice series, Penguin is making the first book in the series, The Ruins of Gorlan, available as a free eBook. The site went live last week, and will be available until February 15th. Click here to view the book. As with the recent promotion for Readicide, I spend far too much time online already to be personally excited about a reading a whole book that way. But, I still think that promotions like this are a great way to generate excitement about books. 

Assimilating input from various children's literature fans, Jenny Schwartzberg from Jenny's Wonderland of Books has put together a tremendous list of Middle Grade Historical Fiction set in Asia. She also includes extensive notes on the compilation of the list, and the input that she received. This is an amazing new resource for fans of historical fiction and people looking for books set in Asia.

Kirby Larson has an interesting post today about writers and their "fingerprints". Not literal fingerprints, but writing fingerprints, some signature attribute of an author's writing that "marks your work as uniquely yours." Although I'm not an author, of course, Kirby actually made me think about a strength that I display in my regular job, and how that might translate to children's books and literacy.

I have a bunch of other things flagged, but I don't have time to write them up write now. So I'll leave you with these, and be back later with the rest. Stay tuned...

Chains Wins Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction

ChainsCongratulations to Laurie Halse Anderson! The announcement just came out today that her fabulous novel Chains is the winner of the 2009 Scott O'Dell Award for historical fiction. You can read Laurie's joyful reaction here. You can read my review of Chains here. I said:

"Wow! Once I started Chains, I could not put it down. Even when it was painful, and I wanted to put it down, I still couldn't put it down...  Chains has my very highest recommendation, for kids and adults. It is a triumph. I am very much looking forward to the next volume of the story, Forge."

I think that the selection committee made an excellent, excellent choice. Chains is the best kind of historical fiction - a "can't-put-it-down story" that deepens every reader's understanding, and a nuanced portrait of a complex and important time period. Congratulations, Laurie!

Growing Bookworms Newsletter: Inauguration Day Edition

Jpg_book007It's a historic day here in the US. I've had the television on for most of the day (very unusual for me), though I only stopped working completely for the inauguration itself. There's been a lot of talk about hope today. While there are other things that I hope for, too, of course, I especially hope that having a President who reads with his children sets an example for the whole country. Wouldn't THAT be amazing?

Tonight 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 549 subscribers. This week I have three book reviews (one middle grade and two young adult titles). I also have a post with Kidlitosphere news, two posts about books released this past week, and this week's children's literacy and reading news round-up.

The only posts not included in the newsletter this week are an announcement about an inauguration celebration kit for kids and an announcement about a PBS Engage Live Chat about the new Electric Company show.

This week I finished reading The Unnameables by Ellen Booraem, the third Diary of a Wimpy Kid book by Jeff Kinney, Beneath the Mask by David Ward (review included), 3 Willows by Ann Brashares (review included), Fact of Life #31 by Denise Vega. I hope to get reviews of a couple of those out later this week. What have you been reading and enjoying? Or have you been too caught up with inauguration coverage to focus on anything else?

It's been a memorable day. Thanks for reading the newsletter, and for growing bookworms!

Beneath the Mask: David Ward

Book: Beneath the Mask: The Grassland Trilogy: Book 2
Author: David Ward
Pages: 272
Age Range: 9-12 

Beneath the MaskBeneath the Mask is the sequel to Escape the Mask, which I reviewed here. The third book in the Grassland Trilogy, Beyond the Mask, will be out later this spring. This review contains spoilers for the first book, so stop here if you haven't read it. The Grassland Trilogy is set in dystopian world in which people called Spears kidnap children from distant settlements, to use them as slaves. The Spears treat the children cruelly, and don't even seem human to the kids. In the first book, the slave children, called Diggers, take advantage of a war to escape their prison. As Beneath the Mask begins, they are living on their own, with a community of like-minded children battling for survival against a mass of other feral escapees. It turns out, however, that the children haven't escaped the tyranny of the Spears after all. In Beneath the Mask, they learn just what it is that would make someone willing to become a Spear, and how far they are willing to go to ensure one another's survival.

The thing that's striking to me about this series is how brilliant the Spears are. They treat the children brutally, pit them against one another, and give each child only one person in the world to depend on (the child's cellmate). Inevitably, each child loves his or her cellmate with absolute dependence. The cellmates are boy-girl pairs, and this is no coincidence, either. When the children are old enough, when they start to hit puberty, the Spears use their love for their cellmates to control them. Horrible, but brilliant.

Like Escape the Mask, Beneath the Mask is fast-paced and suspenseful, with a brooding atmosphere. I really felt for the characters, too, especially for the narrator, Coriko. Beneath the Mask doesn't take the easy way out on the ethical dilemmas faced by Coriko and his friends. There are several points where they must make choices, and the right choice isn't always clear. And what's right isn't even necessarily the same for all of them.

Each character is visibly shaped by his or her upbringing. Pippa, who does remember a happy childhood, is the moral compass of the group. Tia, the oldest, extends her feeling of responsibility to her younger brother to the other children, too. Coriko, who doesn't remember his childhood outside of the Grassland, is hugely influenced in his choices by what Pippa would think. Here are two examples that show the impact of Coriko's restricted viewpoint on his reaction to new experiences:

"My breath clouded in front of my face and I poked at it constantly. We did not see the cold very often in Grassland." (Page 113)

"A table and chairs took up most of the space, although children's playthings lay strewn about the hearth as they had been dropped. Family. And what had Pippa called the playthings? toys. Shapes of animals made of wood, a ball, and one object that looks something like a girl, with wool for hair..." (Page 118)

Imagine never having seen a toy, or not knowing what a ball is? Even when he does bad things (and he does), the reader aches for Coriko. This series reminds me a bit of the Gregor the Overlander books - while they are relatively easy reads, set in intriguing settings, and suitable for middle grade readers, the books tackle real moral choices and complex behaviors. This is a series that I'll be keeping, because I think that I'll want to read it again. The second book definitely lives up to the promise of the first. Highly recommended for fans of dystopian literature or adventure/quest stories, boys and girls.

Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication Date: August 1, 2008
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Confessions of a Literary Persuasion

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

3 Willows: Ann Brashares

Book: 3 Willows: The Sisterhood Grows
Author: Ann Brashares
Pages: 336
Age Range: 12 and up

3 WillowsThe latest novel by Ann Brashares, 3 Willows, follows the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books, but stands alone and features three new characters. 3 Willows is set in the same town as the other books, during the summer after eighth grade, as three friends face the transition to high school. Ama, the daughter of African immigrants, strives to live up to the academic reputation of her genius older sister. Polly, daughter of a free-spirited sculptor, craves any kind of connection to her unknown father. Jo, from a more privileged background, seeks popularity as a means of escaping the reality of her splintering family. The three friends once aspired to be like the well-known Traveling Pants sisters, whom they idealize, but instead find themselves drifting apart. The four friends from the Traveling Pants books, and their relatives, make occasional cameo appearances, which adds to the fun of this book. In 3 Willows, however, there are no magical devices like the pants.

I haven't read the Traveling Pants books (though I have seen the movies), but I must say that I quite enjoyed 3 Willows. It took me a little while to separate out the three characters in my head. The viewpoint shifts between them, and includes, especially near the beginning of the book, little, journal-like sections in which each girl recalls events of the past. For a while I was looking for clues as to what made each girl distinct. But once they got away from one another, each on her own path for the summer, I started appreciating them as individual characters. And by the end of the book, I was really pulling for all three of them, and their friendship.

I thought that Ama was particularly well-done. After winning a scholarship, which she thinks will send her on some sort of academic summer program, she ends up instead in an Outward Bound kind of thing. She completely rebels against this, doesn't want to have anything to do with hiking, hates nature, dreads rappelling, doesn't make friends with the other campers, and is generally a square peg in a round hole. I thought that Brashares did a good job of making Ama mildly annoying in this context, but still believable and likeable. And while the eventual resolution to her situation is somewhat predictable, Brashares maintains a light touch, keeping Ama's character development well within the bounds of plausibility. Here are a couple of examples to give you a picture for Ama:

"And when her hair was being evil, Ama thought every part of her was ugly. Her eyes didn't get smaller and her neck didn't get skinnier and her ears didn't stick out more just because her hair was behaving badly, but that was how it felt to her." (Page 48)

"It seemed to her she'd felt differently in her body back then (during childhood). She'd lived in it more. She was closer to the ground then. She also remembered the particular kind of tiredness you got from being outside all day. It was a nice kind of tiredness, languid rather than grumpy." (Page 196)

"Everyone else had made it look so effortless she hadn't even noticed how they'd done it... She felt like her one talent in life was for making things effortful." (Page 252)

On looking back over the other passages that I flagged, I find that Jo, the girl striving to be popular, is surprisingly insightful:

"When he put it (her hand, after holding it) back on her lap, she wished he would take it again. To the rest of her body, her hand was suddenly like a stranger, a prodigal, gone off to have adventures in the big world. But maybe it was like a baby bird that had been held by a human, so it couldn't come home again." (Page 85)

"Sometimes being friends with Polly felt like being friends with her younger self, like she knew what was going to happen and that it wasn't going to be good. Jo wanted to keep going forward, and Polly always pulled her back." (Page 121)

The supporting characters don't reveal as many layers, but I think that's ok in this book - the idea is for the reader to bond with the three friends, and identify with their struggles. The supporting characters are a bit like foils from which the main characters gain insight. Like:

"Maureen was one of those people whose prettiness crept up on you over time, in step with their niceness." (Page 125)

Throughout the book, parallels are drawn between the three friends and three willow trees that they once planted. Each section of the book is marked by a fact about willow trees, like "The roots of the willow tree are remarkable for their strength and tenacious hold on life". I think that the willow analogy adds a level of poetry to the book, and also makes it more friendly for reluctant readers (a continuing theme to look for). There are also occasional letters and emails sprinkled throughout the book - not enough to be distracting, but enough to make each girl's voice more clear, while breaking up the text. It's the kind of book that entices you to read one more chapter, and then one more, until the book is suddenly finished.

I recommend 3 Willows to fans of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books, or movies. It stands alone as a starting place for new readers, too. 3 Willows is great book for middle school readers, mainly girls, especially those struggling with changing friendships. 3 Willows made me think about the friends that I grew apart from at the start of high school, and the reasons why, and it made me want to get on Facebook right now and tell those friends that I still think about them. I hope that Ama, Jo, and Polly will stay friends, and that we'll get to read about them in other books to come.

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: January 13, 2009
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Love2Read Children's Books (more a book talk than a review), Omnivoracious, Kid Lit Kit,, the Reading ZoneTheHappyNappyBookseller, Review X 
Author Interviews: TheBookBind (an author video and trailer, rather than an interview), Publishers Weekly (link via Omnivoracious)

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

Children's Literacy Round-Up: MLK Weekend Edition

Welcome to 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. Terry Doherty and I have been each collecting links, and then dividing up the preparation of this post. Terry's off in "the frigid climes of Wild, Wonderful, West Virginia" this weekend, so I have the round-up for you.

Literacy and Reading Programs and Research

FLDlogo_eng January 27th is Family Literacy Day in Canada. Andrea and Mark from Just One More Book! report: "We hope to celebrate Family Literacy Day on JustOneMoreBook by publishing FLD Celebration Plans of various members of our online kidlit community, and beyond. We’d love to include your voice in our celebration." Click through for details.

As you might expect, there have been many responses to last week's report by the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP).

  • EdNews has an article by Tom Sticht comparing the NELP report to a report from 100 years ago by Edmund Burke Huey: "The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading (1908) (reprinted by the MIT Press in 1968). In his book Huey passed on professional wisdom about reading and the teaching of reading of his day." Sticht calls the NELP report "remarkably reminiscent of Huey's ideas of 1908", and gives examples.
  • Brian Scott has a summary of the NELP report findings at Literacy and Reading News. He leads with: "Learning to read and write opens doors to progress and prosperity across a lifetime. The years before kindergarten are a particularly fertile and profitable time to prepare young children to read and learn by teaching them essential literacy skills."
  • At Literacy Learning, Tim Shanahan, NELP Chairman, discusses criticisms of the NELP report by what he deems "the anti-research crowd". After linking to several examples (particularly to Kathleen Kennedy Manzo's Education Week article), Shanahan says: "Reading all of this made me wonder if the real complaints aren't that this report might undercut the critics' credibility with the public. After all, the critics have often claimed that their prescriptions follow the research (albeit based on pretty flimsy evidence)."

Tim Shanahan also addresses the recent NEA report: "Reading on the rise: A new chapter in American literacy." He has some issues with the report, with passages like: "The NEA has chosen to use its past reports to expound on the idea that young people are lost because they aren't partaking in literary pursuits and that this means they can't read and can't think as well as their predecessors. Not to put too fine a point on it, that is bunk!". The whole post is definitely worth a read. In case you missed it, here's the Washington Post article about the NEA Report, which most people are pleased with, because it does report that reading of "novels, short stories, poems or plays" is on the rise.

An Education Week article by Sean Cavanagh discusses a national study that found that "Informal science activities, such as trips to museums and zoos, viewing of television shows, and even discussions between parents and children, have the power to improve students’ learning in that subject and their appreciation for it... There is “mounting evidence,” the study says, that nonschool science programs can nurture students’ and adults’ interest in pursuing scientific careers. That finding could be valuable to policymakers, who worry that too few students, particularly girls and members of underrepresented minorities, are being encouraged to consider careers in math- and science-related fields."

An article by Shannon Proudfoot on reports that "Far from providing the brain-boosting advantages promised by specialized programs aimed at the youngest viewers, TV time for children under two does more harm than good, according to a newly published review of international research." We found this link at the IRA blog.

Reading is Fundamental has launched a new ambassador program, to expand the nonprofit's reach into all 50 states. The press release reports: "The RIF Ambassadors initiative, sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company, bestows a working honor on a RIF volunteer coordinator in each state, recognizing the valuable role of committed local volunteers in advancing RIF’s mission of a literate America in which all children have access to books and discover the joy and value of reading. The initiative will also provide a structure of support for selected ambassadors to promote children’s literacy and RIF in their communities.

Enjoyment of Reading

The Book Chook has a nice post for parents about "revving up reluctant readers". It's worth a click through, if only to see the truly lovely photo by artist Jennifer Zwick. I also especially liked the Book Chook's suggestions about when it's better to back off a bit, and focus more on sharing the fun of reading.

Thanks to Fran Cannon Slayton's email newsletter, we found this Royal Gazette article by Darnell Wynn about boys and reading. Wynn recaps some research results about boys and literacy, and then discusses several "successful literacy strategies for boys." The article is quite detailed, and well worth a look.

In The Times Online, Amanda Craig "shares some tips on how to choose the right book for your child". She says (in context of teachers sending kids how with tear-inducing required reading): "Librarians are another matter, but these heroic figures are far too often overlooked and sidelined by professionals who tend to remain stuck in the kind of books that are considered “good for you” rather than fun. Fun, really, is the first and best test."

New Web Resources

It's a Small World is a portal for cultural diversity in learning. We learned about it from Anna at Literacy Is Priceless. As quoted by Anna from the It's a Small World website, "Here you will find preschool rhymes from around the world for something a little different to the usual mother goose kids rhymes! Imagine life without world music or ethnic food - that’s what a child’s reading life would be like without international kid’s books and poems - so spice up their literary diet and enjoy some armchair travelling for babies, toddlers and the young at heart!"

Grants, Sponsorships, and Donations

I received an email announcement last week that the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation invites public libraries and public school librarians and teachers to apply for a 2009 minigrant. Some details: "The EJK Foundation has awarded over half a million dollars in grants to public schools and libraries in all 50 states and the US Commonwealth, since the Minigrant Program was started in 1987. The deadline for submission of proposals for the $500 Minigrant award is September 15, 2009. Proposals are read directly after the September deadline and announcements will be mailed out in early November.  Applications are only available online at the Foundation’s website.

A brief story on reports that the Coos Bay (Oregon) Library received a $2,200 grant to improve children's library services. "The money comes from the Ready to Read program, which assists libraries across the state with early literacy programs. Children's Librarian Pat Flitcroft says the money will be put right to use, for their monthly bi-lingual reading program and their summer reading program."

Anne-Marie Nichols at My Readable Feast brought to our attention an opportunity for kids from National Geographic. Anne-Marie says: "Fifteen young explorers and two teachers will be selected as members of the 2009 National Geographic Kids Hands-On Explorer Challenge Expedition Team and will win the field trip of a lifetime — a 12-day expedition to Peru with National Geographic and local experts as their guides. Highlights include exploring the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu, voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and visiting Tambopata Reserve deep in the Peruvian rain forest, where team members will have the opportunity to help in a research laboratory. All winners will also receive a digital camera courtesy of Nikon."

The Colorado Libraries website reports that: "Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy, an advisory group to the State Library, will expand the Every Child Ready to Read program to 10 more public libraries in Colorado. Every Child Ready to Read is a national initiative from the Public Library Association to promote pre-literacy skills in children from birth through age five in public libraries. Parents and caregivers can learn techniques for engaging their babies and young children in language and literacy games that promote learning and school-readiness."

My Own Book is a winner in the Best Buy @15 Challenge, winning a $10,000 grant that will be used to buy 8000 books. My Own Book "is an organization where teens visit disadvantaged K through 3rd graders, read a story aloud, tell about the public library, and then each child gets to choose their very own book from a selection of brand new books." It was founded by teenage brothers Kyle and Brady Baldwin. You can listen to a recent interview with Kyle and Brady at Just One More Book!

Other Literacy and Reading-Related News

We've seen mention in several places about the new Consumer Product Safety Commission rule that says that all products for children, including books, have to be tested for lead. We found this post by Elaine Magliaro at Wild Rose Reader (which quotes Karen Raugust's recent Publishers Weekly story) helpful in understanding the issue. Please just tell me that people aren't going to have to actually throw away perfectly good children's books, because they can't be cost-effectively tested for lead poisoning...

Over at Carma's Window, a blog about children's writing, Carma addresses the question of whether or not parents should correct their children's spelling. She recommends paying attention first to the other aspects of writing (plotting, characterization, etc.), for children and adults, and dealing with spelling errors more as part of a final polish.

At A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy, Liz Burns addresses the negative reactions that people often have to award selections. She says, in defense of people questioning the outcome of awards, "Questioning the winners shows that people are invested in literature and the meaning of books in people's lives. It shows people care. It shows people are thinking and considering and are involved.

The New York Times reports, in an article by Dexter Filkins, about acid attacks in Afghanistan meant to terrorize girls, and their teachers, attempting to go to school. The good news is that it hasn't deterred very many of the young women from returning to school. But it's still a dreadful story. We first saw this story in the San Jose Mercury News.

According to The Times Online, "A Labour MP (in the UK) has provoked anger among literacy campaigners by calling dyslexia a “cruel fiction” that can often lead to criminal behaviour." We found this link at the IRA blog. See also this article by Fiona Gray in Scotland on Sunday, which touches on the MP's remarks, and also reviews a Literacy Commission report on dyslexia.

And that's all for this week. We hope that you enjoy MLK and Inauguration Days. Happy reading!

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

Saturday Afternoon Visits: January 17th

Here is some recent news from around the children's and young adult book blogs, for your long weekend reading. I'll be back sometime Monday night with more focused children's literacy and reading news.  

Secret KeeperThere's nothing like a good book party. On Thursday I attended a book launch party for Mitali Perkins' Secret Keeper at Not Your Mother's Book Club. I didn't get any pictures, but I did get a signed copy of the book, and a couple of excellent samosas. It was great to see Mitali again. I also met some new people (both friends of Mitali's and friends of YA books), and got to chat with Sharon Levin, Susan Taylor Brown (see Susan's write-up about the party), Lynn Hazen, Jim Averbeck, Emily Jiang, and Becky Levine. Fun stuff. Unfortunately, I won't be able to make Justina Chen Headley's upcoming book party for North of Beautiful, because it's up in Bellevue, Washington (and I have guests coming that weekend). But if you're in the neighborhood, it's on February 1st, and sure to be a fun time.

Via Read Roger, the new Notes from the Horn Book is now available. Notes is a lovely little email newsletter about "good books for children and teens". I recommend it. The Horn Book also has a new monthly book list from Claire, this one, fittingly, about American Presidents.

Newbery-winning author Susan Patron has an opinion piece defending the Newbery Award  in last Sunday's LA Times. I first saw the link at Educating Alice, Monica Edinger's blog. Franki Sibberson also has a nice reaction to the Newbery-related discussions at A Year of Reading, complete with a defense of prior winner Kira-Kira. See also Denise Johnson's Newbery News round-up at The Joy of Children's Literature, and Betsy Bird's Newbery & Caldecott Predict-o-rama at A Fuse #8 Production.

In other book award news, Tasha Saecker has the shortlists for the 2009 Edgar Awards in juvenile and young adult fiction at Kids Lit. She is always up on the book award news. I was glad to see Eleven, by Patricia Reilly Giff, on the list. It was one of my favorites last year.

Speaking of awards, another blog award has been making the rounds. The Prémio Dardos ("Best Blog Dart Thinker") Award "acknowledges the values that every blogger shows in their effort to transmit cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values every day." Aerin from In Search of Giants and Pam Coughlan from MotherReader were both kind enough to grant me this award. I'm grateful to have them as my friends. But I'm also going to take Lee Wind's example and "instead of passing on any more Prize Darts, remind everyone to check out the blogrolls on the blogs you read - That, in my opinion, is the real Prize Cache!" 

ReadicideSarah from The Reading Zone is encouraging people to take advantage of the opportunity to download a free copy of Kelly Gallagher's new book, Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It. Sarah, along with several other fabulous, reading-focused blogs, will be participating in Kelly's blog tour this coming week. It sounds like an amazing book, though (not being much of a 21st Century Reader), I'm likely to wait to read it until I can read more comfortably in print. See also Donalyn Miller's response to the book at The Book Whisperer, Mary Lee and Franki's response to the book at A Year of Reading. And don't miss Franki's new blog visits feature, in which she'll be giving us a window into her 21st Century Literacy Thinking: "posting about my current thinking and linking to some great posts that helped my thinking each week-- or whenever I seem to be finding lots of good stuff around the topic."

Finally, four fun quick hits: First, Donalyn Miler emailed me that "January 27th is the 5th annual Rabbit Hole Day in honor of Lewis Carroll's birthday". The original link is from Boing Boing. Second, Longstocking Daphne Grab had a heart-warming experience at a recent middle school visits, when the students rose up in defense of writing for kids. Great stuff! Third, congratulations to our own Little Willow, who has just opened in a world premiere musical: Pope Joan. Fourth, Farida Dowler has a nice post about the five laws of storytelling, with extensive comments.

Happy MLK/inuguration weekend!

Books Now Available: The Dust of 100 Dogs

Dust of 100 DogsWay back in October, I reviewed The Dust of 100 Dogs, by A. S. King. I concluded:

"The Dust of 100 Dogs is complex and dark (though with flashes of humor). But it's also unique and rewarding, written with a distinct voice, and featuring two very strong-willed female characters. Try this one out on fans of pirate stories, historical fiction, and even YA problem novels. It is not to be missed."

The Dust of 100 Dogs is finally available for purchase (it was scheduled for 2/1/09, but it appears to be available for order now).

PBS Engage: Live Chat about the Electric Company

PBSEngage I received this announcement today from Lauren Saks of PBS Engage. Since it's directly related to literacy, and it's about The Electric Company, too, I thought I'd share (emphasis mine).

Please join PBS Engage in a Live Chat with Sesame Workshop’s Karen Fowler, Executive Producer of the new PBS series “The Electric Company.” Ask Karen your questions about teaching literacy and how “The Electric Company” will help parents and educators encourage young readers.  

Join us on Wednesday, January 21st at 4pm (EST). 

PBS Engage is a digital media initiative connecting the PBS audience with each other and with PBS. The Live Chat series is a monthly session that puts viewers in touch with filmmakers, experts and producers to facilitate a dialogue. I have contacted you because you are an active member of the child and parenting online community. Please visit our chat page and leave your questions for Karen, then join us at 4pm for her responses. Can’t make it? The archived chat will be available immediately following the session. Leave your comments and continue the conversation.

Sounds fun, doesn't it?

Announcement: Our White House Kids' Inauguration Celebration Kit

Our White HouseI thought that some of you would be interested in this press release, which I received from Mary Brigid Barrett, President and Executive Director of the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance.

The Our White House Kids Inauguration Celebration Kit! is available now online 

Plan your own "Our White House Kids Inauguration Celebration" and combine great learning with great fun! The National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance has created a free online presidential inauguration activity guide for parents, teachers, librarians, and community leaders so that young people all across the country can participate in this exciting historic event. Use the upcoming inauguration of our new President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joseph Biden as a springboard to celebrate all of our presidents, as well as our nation's rich history!

In this kit you will find information concerning:

  • an interview with professional speech writer Thomas LaFauci 
  • the oath of office 
  • the inaugural ceremony 
  • inaugural parades  
  • the White House transition of presidents 

Activity projects and discussion question topics include:

  • creating your own kids inaugural ball
  • writing inaugural poetry
  • creating parade floats
  • designing a new oval office, and more!

Some of the ideas and activities we suggest spring directly from the content and illustrations in the NCBLA's new book, Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out, which you can find at your local library or bookstore-but many of the suggested ideas and activities can be used independently of the book.

Take a look at the kit and share what you learn with the young people in your life! The Our White House Kids Inauguration Celebration Kit is available online

The National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance
The NCBLA is a 501(c) (3) not-for-profit organization founded by award-winning young people's authors and illustrators. Acting as an independent creative agent or in partnership with interested parties, the NCBLA develops original projects, programs, and educational outreach that advocate for and educate about literacy, literature, libraries, and the arts.

We believe that literacy is essential to the development of responsible citizens in a democracy. And we believe that citizens, both young and old, must have equal access to stimulating books and information sources that invite them to dream and give them the tools to achieve their dreams. As writers and illustrators, teachers and mentors, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles-as citizens and neighbors-our ultimate question is always how can we best serve all of our nation's children? For more information about the NCBLA go to:

For more about Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out, see this excellent feature at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

The Knife of Never Letting Go: Patrick Ness

Book: The Knife of Never Letting Go
Author: Patrick Ness
Pages: 496
Age Range: 14 and up 

The Knife of Never Letting GoBackground: I picked up The Knife of Never Letting Go at ALA last summer, because it was a young adult novel about a dystopian world, and I can rarely resist those. I tried to start it a couple of times, but found the first few pages offputting. And I was a bit scared off by Laini Taylor, who called the ending a punch in the stomach. But I kept seeing positive reviews, too, and I finally decided this week to force myself through the first few pages, and see what happened. Sheila Ruth promised that I wouldn't be able to put it down once I got into it. Sheila was right. Once I got past the first chapter, I read this book compulsively, staying up late one night to finish. Now I'm struggling a bit with what to say. But I'll try.

Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first book in the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness. Todd is a month away from officially being recognized as a man in his small town. He is in some ways an ordinary adolescent male, railing against the adoptive parents (two men) who expect him to do too many chores, and annoyed because last year's birthday present, a dog named Manchee, wasn't what he really wanted.

But Todd's life is far from ordinary. His town, Prentisstown, is populated only by males. All of the women died shortly after Todd was born, and the town, completely isolated, is slowly dying off. Todd is, apparently, the last boy in the world. In Prentisstown, all of the men and animals can hear one another's thoughts. All of their thoughts. All the time. The constant barrage of thoughts is known as Noise. It turns out that the Noise, because there's so much of it, can hide secrets.

Todd's life changes forever when he meets a lost girl in the swamp near his house. Viola is living proof that not all of the women in the world are dead after all. And, even more disquieting, Todd can't hear her thoughts. Before he quite knows what's happening, Todd finds himself on the road with his dog and Viola, desperately fleeing the only people he's ever known.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is not an easy read and it's not a pleasant read. Todd suffers immensely throughout the book. Many of the people around him around him are downright evil, and Todd is hated, apparently without cause. Many of the scenes are bleak and depressing. A few are a bit gruesome. Todd's narration, filled with the contractions and spelling errors and lack of punctuation that stem from having little education, is difficult to get used to. Still, there are many things that I admired about this book.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is utterly compelling. The plot is suspenseful, as Todd strives to learn Prentisstown's secrets, and action-filled, as Todd, Viola, and Manchee fight for survival. Todd is a complex character. You can see how he's evolved from his largely toxic upbringing, kept humane only by the kindness of the two men who raised him. The interplay between Todd and Viola, the boy who broadcasts his every thought and the girl who doesn't, is fascinating. There is a scene, late in the book, as Todd comes to term with their difference, that I loved. I also found the whole concept of what Noise would do to someone's perceptions fascinating. And there's occasional humor in the noise of the animals (e.g., "birds all thinking their worrisome little birdie thoughts. Where's my food? Where's home? Where's my safety?").

Overall, though, I have to say that even I, someone who is addicted to dark, dystopian stories, found this one a bit too dark for my taste. I've tried to put my finger on why that is, and I think that it's a combination of the immediacy of Todd's voice and the terrible things that happen. Throughout the book, I experienced Todd's inner monologue close up. When bad things happened, I felt like I was the one who got stabbed or punched. There was one scene in particular that I found almost unbearable. (If you've read the book, it's the scene getting onto the boat.) A book that could make me feel that way is clearly brilliant. But that doesn't mean that I enjoyed it, exactly.

Here are a couple of examples of Todd's voice. He is, despite his lack of education, a little bit of a poet:

"He smiles down at me, thru that beard of his, smiles down at me in the grass.

A smiling fist." (Chapter 1, ARC)

and a little bit of a philosopher:

"So the thing to remember, that thing that's most important of all that I might say in this here telling of things is that Noise ain't truth, Noise is what men want to be true, and there's a difference twixt those two things so big that it could ruddy well kill you if you don't watch out." (Chapter 2, ARC)

Some of the things that Todd ponders made me stop and wonder, too:

"We stand arm's length apart cuz her silence still bothers me. I chew down on a piece of dried fruit and I wonder what it must be like to have no Noise, to come from a place with no Noise. What does it mean? What kind of place is it? Is it wonderful? Is it terrible?" (Chapter 10, ARC)

If those examples intrigue you, or if you're a fan of dystopian or what-if sorts of stories, and you have a high tolerance for bleak, you should certainly check out The Knife of Never Letting Go. As I said, it's brilliant. Just make sure you pick it up when you have some free time, because once you get past the first couple of chapters, you won't want to let it go until you've finished. I would even suggest waiting to read it until book 2 comes out, since The Knife of Letting Go ends on a serious cliff-hanger, one that I know some other readers have found frustrating. As for me, I'm curious about what will happen next, but not sure if I'll be able to bring myself to read the second book. I welcome your feedback.

Publisher: Candlewick
Publication Date: September 9, 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Quotes are from the ARC, and should be checked against the final book
Other Blog Reviews: Librarilly Blonde, Wands and Worlds, Reading Rants!, Becky's Book Reviews, Kids Lit, Presenting Lenore, Ready Set Read Reviews, Bookends, and others. See also Lisa Chellman's specific comments on Todd's parents, Ben and Cillian.
Author Interviews: Post-Weird Thoughts, Readspace, Fantasy Book Critic

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

Books Now Available: Secret Keeper and Babymouse - The Musical

Usually I use the "Books Now Available" category to highlight books that I reviewed as ARCs that are now available in print. Today, however, I'd like to highlight two newly released titles that I haven't read. In both cases, I've read the authors' previous work, and feel quite confident in notifying you about the books. They are:

Secret KeeperSecret Keeper, by Mitali Perkins. Here's the product description from Amazon:

"When her father loses his job and leaves India to look for work in America, Asha Gupta, her older sister, Reet, and their mother must wait with Baba’s brother and his family, as well as their grandmother, in Calcutta. Uncle is welcoming, but in a country steeped in tradition, the three women must abide by his decisions. Asha knows this is temporary—just until Baba sends for them. But with scant savings and time passing, the tension builds: Ma, prone to spells of sadness, finds it hard to submit to her mother- and sister-in-law; Reet’s beauty attracts unwanted marriage proposals; and Asha's promise to take care of Ma and Reet leads to impulsive behavior. What follows is a firestorm of rebuke—and secrets revealed! Asha’s only solace is her rooftop hideaway, where she pours her heart out in her diary, and where she begins a clandestine friendship with Jay Sen, the boy next door. Asha can hardly believe that she, and not Reet, is the object of Jay’s attention. Then news arrives about Baba . . . and Asha must make a choice that will change their lives forever."

Here are my reviews of other Mitali Perkins titles: Monsoon Summer, First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover, and Rickshaw Girl.

Babymouse: The MusicalBabymouse: The Musical by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. Here's the product description from Amazon:

"Dust off your dancing shoes. Babymouse and the gang are taking center stage in the feel-good book of the season! Will Babymouse get the lead in the school musical or will Felicia Furrypaws steal the show? Find out in Babymouse: The Musical ! Filled with highsteps and high jinks and starring the critically acclaimed, award-winning Babymouse as herself, this showstopper will have you tapping your toes and singing along!"

Here are my reviews of other titles by the Holm siblings: Babymouse: Beach Babe, Babymouse: Heartbreaker, Babymouse: Puppy Love, and (by Jenni only) Penny From Heaven.

These are definitely books to pick up. Happy reading!