Previous month:
May 2009
Next month:
July 2009

Posts from June 2009

Reviews that Made Me Want the Book: June 17

Welcome to the latest edition of my recurring Reviews that Made Me Want the Book feature. The name, while not catchy, should be self-explanatory. And clearly I should do these posts more often, because I have a mammoth 16 titles to talk about today.

Going Bovine CandorFirst up, two teaser posts from Liz Burns at A Chair, A Fireplace, and Tea Cozy caught my eye. Liz, after all, is my Oprah (see this post at My Friend Amy for an explanation), so I take her recommendations seriously, even when she doesn't give a lot of detail. About Libba Bray's Going Bovine (due out in September), Liz said: "Dig your ARC out from BEA. Put it on your "must get" list for ALA. Add it to your orders for when it gets published in September. Yes, it is that good." She also talked about an upcoming dystopian title by Pam Bachorz called Candor. And really, dystopian fiction with Liz's seal of approval - that's all I need to know. I've already requested that one.

The Maze RunnerAnother dystopian sort of title, apparently, is James Dashner's The Maze Runner, reviewed by Kiera Parrott at Library Voice. Kiera says: "I heard this book described as “Lord of the Flies meets The Hunger Games.”  Sweet Jimminy! That pretty much bumped the ARC right on up to the top of my to-be-read pile.  After plowing through the 374 page sci-fi/adventure/thriller in less than two days, I was not disappointed." I only skimmed the rest, because it sounded like a book that shouldn't be spoiled. This one is due out in October, and I'll be waiting.

Reality CheckI also like mysteries, and I'm frequently influenced by seeing new titles from authors that I've enjoyed before. So when Patti from Oops... Wrong Cookie reviewed Peter Abrahams' newest YA mystery, Reality Check, she didn't have to work very hard to convince me. (See my reviews of Down the Rabbit Hole and Behind the Curtain.) She concluded: "It makes for really thrilling page-turning reading. I love it when I come across a well written book for older teen boys." She also specifically mentioned the non-stock characters in the book. So I'll keep an eye out.

Umbrella SummerI'll accept gushing as a reason to read a book, if it's gushing by someone I rely upon. So when Franki Sibberson said: "UMBRELLA SUMMER was a wonderful read. I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED it! Lisa Graff has created another great middle grade novel", well, that was good enough for me. 

Summer I Turned PrettyThe truth is that Jenny Han's book The Summer I Turned Pretty was already on my radar because I flat out adored her previous book, Shug. But then Pam Coughlan reviewed it at MotherReader, comparing it to other perfect summer books like The Penderwicks and Cicada Summer, and saying "I felt a particular connection to the story, having spent my childhood years at the New Jersey shore for weeks at a time." And Tasha Saecker reviewed it at Kids Lit, saying "I grew up in a resort area where I was one of the few kids who lived there year round.  As someone who has deeply experienced the seasonal community, this book captures it down to its very core." So OK, OK.

Dinotrux100 Scope Notes gets my attention on a regular basis by coming up with the most creative reviews around. For Dinotrux, by Chris Gall, Travis did a courthouse scene (like reading a play), in which Mr. Scope Notes represents the young readers who are going to find the book "criminally appealing". His opening argument: "Dinotrux by Chris Gall (Dear Fish, There’s Nothing to Do on Mars) is so appealing to children, especially boys, that it constitutes an infringement on free will. Children will want to read this book. The premise that hybrid dinosaur/trucks used to rule the earth ignites curiosity, while the brief, expressive text all but demands repeat reading." Sounds hard to resist, doesn't it?

DunderheadsTravis also did a Toon Review of The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman. Those are a bit harder to quote, but always fun. The gist seems to be that Travis calls in his crack team of reviewers to talk about the book, but they are interrupted by a dunderhead who is only interested in the location of the bar code on the book. But what caught my eye, really, was the remark: "it's one of the best looking picture books I've seen in '09", following a Mysterious Benedict Society comparison. I'm still not sure exactly what's going on, but I'm intrigued.  

When You Reach MeI'm putting Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me on my list because of the double endorsement of Betsy Bird (who reviewed it at Fuse #8 and put it on her Newbery predictions list already) and Travis from Scope Notes (hmm... three recommendations from one source. Perhaps Travis is my Oprah). Travis said: "A combination of science fiction and realistic fiction, this unique, well-crafted, and mysterious book will likely grace as many Best of ‘09 lists as you can get your hands on, including mine." And it has time travel!

Let's Do NothingMelissa Wiley caught my attention with her recent review of the picture book Let's Do Nothing, by Tony Fucile. She said "I love it when a book actually makes me giggle out loud. Frankie’s expressions are priceless, especially when he’s being a giant redwood or the Empire State Building. Writer/illustrator Tony Fucile has a gift for visual punchline". But really, the "actually makes me giggle out loud" from Melissa was enough for me.

Sloppy JoeAnother recommendation labeled giggle-worthy comes from Amanda at A Patchwork of Books. Amanda reviewed Sloppy Joe by Dave Keane, saying "How cute is this book?! I really adored the character of Joe and all his messiness, wanting only to hug and squeeze him when he gave being neat a go. The illustrations are great and the plot funny and definitely giggle-worthy!"

A BookAnd one more title that evoked laughter out loud: A Book by Mordicai Gerstein, as reviewed by Tasha Saecker at Kids Lit. "Deeee-lightful!  I found this book to be fresh, clever, surprising, and great fun... I guffawed out loud. Yes, guffawed. Truly. Children who know how books are supposed to work (which means almost everyone) will get the joke right away and love laughing along." (Incidentally, mentions of laughter in a book don't always make it catch my eye - the review has to be from someone I trust, and give me information about why the book is funny).

Confetti Girl I'm not as tuned in to book covers as a lot of people are, but even my attention was caught by the cover of Confetti Girl by Diana Lopez. So when Abby (the) Librarian reviewed it during the 48 Hour Book Challenge, I checked in. Abby said: "I'd consider this an essential purchase that'll appeal to middle-grade girls, Latina or otherwise. I wouldn't hesitate to hand it to any fan of Just as Long as We're Together, Are You There, God, It's Me Margaret, Shug, and others of that girly-coming-of-age ilk. Um, and the cover has really cute socks!" Can't argue with that!

Radiant GirlAnd, for a book with a similar title to the previous book, but a very different tone, Camille Powell from BookMoot piqued my interest when she reviewed Radiant Girl, a historical novel by Andrea White about the Chernobyl Disaster. It sounds like a bit of a difficult read, emotionally, but Camille said: "I liked this book so much. I admit I found myself mentally shouting, "Look out! Get out of there!" to the characters. This is a very moving story."

Anything but TypicalAbby (the) Librarian also reviewed Anything but Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin. I tend to keep an eye out for books that have protagonists on the autism spectrum. Abby compared this one to several others, and said: "While I enjoyed all the above mentioned books*, none of them put me into the heart of someone with autism quite like Anything But Typical. Jason knows he's different - he processes things differently, he thinks differently, he sees the world differently." She also said that people who liked The London Eye Mystery (which I loved) should pick this one up. And so I will.  

The Last ChildI only highlighted one adult title this time around. I first saw a review by Charles L. P. Silet for John Hart's new book, The Last Child, in Mystery Scene Magazine. The very next day, Augusta Scattergood talked about the book, which she ordered immediately upon release. This dual recommendation caused me to formally add the book to my list. It's about a 13-year-old boy searching for his kidnapped sister, because his mother is a slave to her addictions, and his father isn't around. Sounds like a title for Kelly Herold's Crossover blog, doesn't it?

I had better get reading! Hope some of you find books that catch your eye from the above titles.

Twitter: Like joining a party late, and already having friends there

Twitter_logo_header People have been encouraging me to get onto Twitter for quite a while. It seems like every week more of Terry Doherty's leads for our shared children's literacy round-ups come from her sources on Twitter. I've seen several interesting posts about Twitter on Greg Pincus's new blog, The Happy Accident, and various updates originally from Twitter on people's Facebook pages. Even my library foundation board is thinking of getting in on the act. 

So today I finally decided to pop my head in, and sign up for @JensBookPage. It's been fun so far, if a bit overwhelming. It's like I'm joining a party, a bit late, but with a bunch of my friends already there, and already knowing their way around. Honestly, I don't know that I've ever had such a warm welcome anywhere. Thanks, Twitter friends!! I'm still finding my way around, faintly surprised that there seem to be people here already who want to meet me, and thrilled to see so many familiar faces. But I think it's going to be a good thing. Once I figure out how to re-tweet, anyway...

My current plan is to use Twitter mostly to collect and disseminate children's literacy and reading news. Obviously, I do a lot of that on my blog already, but I think that there will be value in the immediacy of Twitter. In being able to see a link that's interesting, and share it with people right then, in addition to saving it up for inclusion in a larger round-up. But we'll see how it evolves, or if having one more thing to follow sends me right over the edge, sanity-wise. Meanwhile, you can find me on Twitter (and still on Facebook, where I'm now at

Continuing the Discussion on Reading Levels...

... I have a post up about that this morning at Booklights about this whole issue of pushing kids to read ever more challenging books, with a few links to posts that came out after my previous post. That post went live at 6:00 EST, and since then I've already run across three other thoughtful posts on the topic.

At Bookmuse, Robin Gibson talks about the importance of guiding readers as individuals, and the problems with using the term "above grade level" at all. I like Robin's post, but especially her last point: "And while I do regret children being denied pictures, as some have expressed, what is worse to me is not being read to anymore. Many times the proud parent of a new reader still in one of the early grades will say something like, “now I don’t have to read aloud anymore.” For me, this is the real tragedy. That time spent together, those memories created, the inside jokes that become part of the family — that is indeed a loss."

Author Rick Riordan takes on the topic of kids reading advanced books, saying, among other things: "Growing up is not a race. For one thing, it's sad when kindergartners skip over kindergarten books, because they're missing an awful lot of good, age appropriate literature. For another thing, they won't appreciate the older books as much as they would when they're . . . well, older." He also recommends (which I LOVE), "Rather than the 'five finger' method, I usually suggest something much more time-consuming, but much more accurate. When in doubt, the parent should read the book. If it still seems good for your child, then go for it. Have a family discussion about the content."

[Side note: In case there's any doubt as to why I'm such a fan, Rick is clearly a kindred spirit. On Booklights this morning, completely independently, I said: "The short-term problem is that children can miss books that they would enjoy reading. Books about kids their own age, having relatable experiences. Fun books. Books with pictures! Instead, they can end up reading books before they are ready for them, which often leads to not appreciating the books, and never going back."  And of course I have entire posts about parents reading the books that their kids are reading.]

Rick's post was inspired by a post at ShelfTalker by Josie Leavitt about how to handle requests from nine-year-old girls for Twilight. She says: "My fear is twofold -- the first is they are coming to a good book too early and they won't get out of the book what they would if they read it at the right age. The second issue is now that these girls are reading about characters so much older, they won't have patience or the desire to read about children their own age." Josie concludes with a plea for help: "So, how do I, as a bookseller, gently sway parents from buying a book their child is so obviously happy to read, but I feel is far too old? It's a question I've been grappling with, unsuccessfully, for weeks. Any tips would be greatly appreciated." Yeah, she's a kindred spirit, too.

Clearly, this is a topic that a lot of people are struggling with. Perhaps by spreading the word, by talking and asking questions, we can all make a difference.

Books Now Available: Closed for the Season

Closed for the SeasonBack in April, I reviewed Mary Downing Hahn's 30th novel, Closed for the Season, a middle grade mystery set in an abandoned amusement park. I said:

"Closed for the Season is a straight-up mystery, without the supernatural trappings found in many of Hahn's other books. Hahn has a real knack, however, for depicting kid-friendly settings and plots, and for quick, insightful descriptions of people and places... (The) combination of realistic interpersonal dynamics with atmospheric, suspenseful mystery is sure to please kids. Especially those kids who aren't athletes, and have been known to spend an afternoon or two in the local library."

Closed for the Season is scheduled for publication today. Middle grade mystery fans won't be able to resist this one.

Children's Literacy Round-Up: June 15

Jpg_book008 This week’s children’s literacy and reading news round-up, brought to you by Jen Robinson’s Book Page and Scrub-a-Dub-Tub, a Reading Tub blog, is now available here. This week Terry Doherty and I have collected plenty of content for you about literacy & reading-related events; raising readers; literacy and reading programs and research; 21st century literacies; grants, sponsorships & donations; and other new resources.


48hbc Terry mentioned MotherReader's 48 Hour Book Challenge in her round-up last week (I was a participant, along with more than 100 others). You can find links to the blogs of the four winners here (they all, impressively, read for the entire 48 hours). And here, MotherReader has prepared lists of everyone who participated for more than 20 hours, and everyone who blogged for a cause. I have to say, the whole thing was an enormous success. And Pam Coughlan (MotherReader) is one of the most successful leaders by example, in the area of community building, that I have ever seen. [Terry seconds that!]

This post is a bit late for anyone to actually participate, but Corinne from PaperTigers wrote about an International Conference on Children's Literature that was held in Beirut, Lebanon this past weekend. Organizer Elsa Marston explains: " late husband, Iliya Harik, was from Lebanon; family connections and his work as a political scientist (Indiana University) took us to that part of the world many times. I want to share with young readers my own interest in those lands and peoples, and equally important, help contribute to better understanding of the Arab/Muslim world." I hope that it was a success!

Sesame Street is coming to San Jose. According to Yoshi Kato at the Mercury News, "It's the 40th anniversary of "Sesame Street" — the iconic PBS series that forever altered the landscape of children's television. So it's entirely fitting that the live musical version of the show — "Sesame Street Live," which comes to the San Jose Civic Auditorium on Friday for a weekend run — spans the history of the series with many of the long-running characters but also a few of the newer ones." Very cool!

Reach Out and Read has announced (on Facebook) a Summer campaign to get books to kids who have none. If you have gently-used books, you can take them to an ROR Center and the staff there will sort them and get them to readers in need. Visit the Reach Out and Read website to find a center near you.

Raising Readers

Speech Pathologist Marnee Brick published a list of the 20 Most Useful Websites for Children and Families that goes beyond the norm. She selected these websites for their literacy value. Marnee says "From a Speech-Language Pathologist point of view, there are so many opportunities in these websites to enhance early literacy, listening, talking, social, and speech-sound skills." She also offers ideas (with descriptions) on ways adults can enhance their child's online experience. (via Marnee's Speech Therapy Telepractice blog)

And speaking of talking, Maria Salvadore at the Reading Rockets Page by Page blog writes about how "simply talking to young readers provides a look into a book's appeal". She adds: "It seems to me that the more we talk to children about substantive things, the better we get to know them and their tastes. In fact, sometimes the power of the story just takes over itself." We found this one on our own, but Carol Rasco from RIF also pointed it out to us. And for another post that talks about the joys of "social reading" for kids, see Sarah Mulhern's recent post at The Reading Zone about a tiny student-led book club.

Rah-cov06 At Just One More Book!!, children's book advocates Andrea and Mark talk about "how reading aloud to our children benefits us as adults, our family and our relationships with each other." Andrea talks about what a gift it is to her as a parent when she sees her daughters completely responsive to a book that she's reading to them (whether responsive means laughing or crying). They do discuss the significant amount of time that's required to read-aloud as much as their daughters want, but it's clear to me that for their family, as I would hope is true for most families, the benefits far outweigh the cost. Do give a listen! And for another post about the joys of reading aloud, check out Dawn's recent post at Five Minutes for Books. She includes a major plug for Jim Trelease's book, The Read-Aloud Handbook.

Via Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray, I discovered a nice article by Dan Wickett at Emerging Writers Network about how the Twilight books helped transform his daughter from reluctant to avid reader. There's a great discussion going on in the comments, too, complete with a similar shared story by another young reader, and a request for suggestions for follow-on reading. As you might expect, lots of people, myself included, have chimed in with suggestions.

For another perspective on what teens are, or are not, reading, there's an interesting (if slightly depressing) post at PJ Hoover's blog, Roots in Myth. PJ (author of The Emerald Tablet) was at a high school graduation party. She asked the kids what the best book they'd read that year was. And these fabulous YA titles getting buzz all over the Kidlitosphere: The Hunger Games, Graceling, The Forest of Hands and Teeth? Not mentioned. Sad. There's quite a discussion going on in the comments.

A recent article from Daphne Lee's blog, The Places You Will Go (also in Daphne's Tots to Teens column in StarMag), really resonated with me. Inspired by a recent Horn Book Magazine article, Daphne writes about some of the benefits that she has received from her years of childhood reading. For example: "I do believe that I am able to empathise quite easily with those around me because I have experienced all kinds of situations and emotions with and through characters I love and care about, or, if I dislike them, whose motives I at very least understand." And then she moves on to other, similar benefits. When you teach your kids to love books, the rewards that the books give back to them are countless, and this article is a nice reminder of that.

Articles about summer reading are still trickling in:

... Carol Rasco highlights a variety of summer reading resources available from RIF (along with a great photo of a girl reading in a hammock, perfect for encouraging that summer reading spirit).
... Over at Booklights, Pam Coughlan shares her tips (based on experience with her own family) for making summer reading fun. I especially liked her point (which I think applies to adults and to kids) that "You don't find time to read, you make time to read. Reading needs to be part of your schedule like eating or bathing, because in its own way it's as important. Sure, you can go a day without reading, but why would you want to?" And that, my friends, is why Pam is MotherReader. [Note: I also have a follow-up post at Booklights today about keeping summer reading fun by not pushing kids to read about their grade level.]
... Mary Ann Scheuer also has some suggestions for encouraging summer reading at Great Kid Books. And, like Pam, Mary Ann starts with "Make time to read. With all the activities in the summer, it's important to set aside time for our children to take it down a notch and read." She also talks about audiobooks.
... The San Diego News Network has an article by Ruth McKinnie Braun with "The Book Whisperer's tips reading". Donalyn Miller's number one tip (for this article): "Let them read what they love." Number two is "Make reading fun". But do check out the whole article, especially if you haven't had a chance to read Donalyn's book.
... The Intelligencer has an article specifically calling upon dads to get more involved in summer reading. Donna Kaye writes: "The longer and much warmer days of summer can be a great time for fathers and their children to share favourite stories together. Books can be read while out fishing in a row boat or snuggling up in a sleeping bag in the backyard tent. Sitting on the bleachers at an older sibling's soccer game is a great time for pulling out some books to share."

Literacy & Reading Programs & Research

Over at Get in the Game--Read!, Lori Calabrese has the scoop about the Cleveland Browns Read with the Browns program. I know, I've said this many times before, but I really do think that programs in which popular sports figures talk to kids about books can have a big impact. Lori thinks so, too, obviously, and she's become my go-to source for such news.

Via the Colorado Springs Business Journal: The Children’s Literacy Center is offering free one-to-one tutoring for children reading below grade level. Children are matched with trained volunteer tutors and meet twice a week for an hour each session. To learn more about the program, visit

From an unusual source ... Terry writes: "Smart Home Improve is a blog that started in March and features articles about (mostly) home improvement. This week, though, the feature post is about Earobics, a Houghton Mifflin learning technology. Earobics is an award-winning program that is used in more than 8,000 schools worldwide. What I didn't know is that there is a "home edition" for the program, as well. The post does an excellent job explaining how the program works and how readers chart their progress."

There's a new article by Graeme Paton in The Telegraph (UK) that quotes author Frank Cottrell Boyce on how children are "no longer reading for pleasure". Here's a quote from Mr. Cottrell Boyce: "The Government has done fantastic work on literacy, but that's not the same thing as reading. It is like comparing health to sport. One is something functional, the other is something you do because you enjoy it.... Children who read for pleasure will do better at school than those who don't. You won't promote that love of reading by subjecting children to a few work cards. It is just stupid." He's outspoken in his approach, but he certainly has a point.

And, for another outspoken article, check out Jennie Smith's recent article: How No Child Left Behind makes sure no child gets ahead. She discusses various problems with the test-taking focus that's come out of NCLB, including the demotivation, and sometimes outright neglect, of the kids at the upper end of the testing scale (after all, the focus is on closing the achievement gap, right?). Here's a quote: "Even high-performing children--to make no mention of average, grade-level children--are still children. They are still subject to boredom and frustration and lack of motivation, and if they are not consistently being challenged to strive harder and achieve more, many are liable if not to get behind where students their age should be, at least not to rise to where they personally could be. When a child is on grade level, that should not mean that he is stopped and kept right there until the rest of his peers catch up with him."

21st Century Literacies

21stCenturyLiteracies Franki Sibberson from A Year of Reading has a mission this summer. She calls it her "iPhone App-a-Day mission". In a recent post, she discussed several new apps, with particular emphasis on how they might be used with kids. For instance, she says that the "Wheels on the Bus" app is "A great way for kids to read and listen to text on the iPod touch." She concludes: "I think I am going to focus on some apps that might support booktalks and conversation next week." We'll certainly check back (though I, for one, don't have an iPhone yet - I'm holding out for the day I can get one through Verizon).

Iphone Speaking of iPhones, Literacy and Reading News reported last week: "The iPhone, today introduced iStoryTime, a series of illustrated and narrated children's book applications. The first three stories are now available for download on the iPhone App Store. Parents with an iPhone 3G, iPhone or iPod® touch can now turn their favorite portable device into educational entertainment for the kids (ages 2-7) when they're on the go." We'll bet Franki checks that out.

Over at What Adrienne Thinks About That, librarian Adrienne chronicles (with photos) her progress in changing the status quo for magazine distribution in the children's room. She's taken her cue in part from the Eric Carle museum (easy-access bins, strategically located) and in part from booksellers (lots of magazine covers visible). My favorite parts of the post are: "it occurred to me to ask myself WHY we were storing a high-interest, ephemeral, browsing collection in such a staid and stately manner, and the only answer I could come up with is the one that's never really adequate: Because That's What We've Always Done" and "It's still all very new, and the room's still in transition with our tween area coming together." I think it's going to be a success.

Speaking of magazines, the Book Chook reviews the new winter edition (in Australia) of Alphabet Soup, a magazine for "kids who love reading."

Grants and Donations

Clif_logo We love grass-roots efforts to raise money for literacy programs. Writer Todd Wheeler recently announced that in honor of his Summer Reading Program, he'll be donating money to the Children's Literacy Foundation based on people's participation in the program. He shares details about why he selected the CLiF program here, explaining: "CLiF started in 1998 with a focus on rural libraries. Based in Waterbury Center, VT, it provides new library books for children in towns in Vermont and New Hampshire that have a population of less than 5,000."

And speaking of grass-roots efforts, I'd like to highlight a project that was inspired by a children's book (though the resulting donation consisted of a heifer, "a pig, a trio of rabbits, two flocks of chickens, and two flocks of ducks." Becky Laney, one of the most dedicated and prolific reviewers in the Kidlitosphere (at Becky's Book Reviews), was inspired by the blog tour for the picture book Give a Goat to initiate a fundraising project with the children from her church. The kids collected coins, and did their own art auction, and despite the church being rather small, they raised $764.40 for the project. Their money will go to buy animals for families in need. Read more here.

New Resources

Valerie at The Almost Librarian spotlights Reading is Fundamental's new Leading to Reading website. She says: "This website is intended for caregivers and parents of babies, toddlers and preschoolers and is developed to promote and enhance early literacy skills. The interface is easy to navigate, bright and simple." Terry and I love RIF, so we were extra happy to see this new resource.

Getting ready for a road trip? Sign up for the Random House Audio newsletter and get THREE free audiobook downloads. (via a Tweet by Mary Ann Scheuer)

The most recent English Language Learner's (ELL) Newsletter, published by Delta Publishing Company, had lots of great information on places to explore.

  • The Cooperative Children’s Book Center has two comprehensive booklists. In the “Complete List” there are lists on dozens of topics, including books about “Family,” “Peace and Social Justice” and “Multiculturalism.” There’s also a list of Spanish/English bilingual books. The website is sponsored by the University of Wisconsin’s School of Education Library.
  • At World Book Encyclopedia’s Cyber Camp, students can take a nature walk through a forest or a wetland, learn cool things about plants and animals, visit the craft cabin and make things with their own hands, go to the dining hall and make easy recipes for summertime treats—and much more!

The Book Seer may be a good site to visit when the kids say "I want a new book that is just like this one." Type in the author and title of the book you just finished, and you'll get back read-alike recommendations from Amazon and Library Thing. Terry tested this out a bit, and observed that it is great for wildly popular books, but is less successful otherwise. Still, we think that you might find it worth checking out. Thanks to the Book Chook for the lead.

And that should be enough literacy links for anyone for one week. Next week's round-up will be at Terry's. Happy summer reading!

Reading Ahead of Grade Level, or NOT

I found the link to this article in Rose's Reading Round-Up at First Book, and didn't want to wait until Monday's Children's Literacy Round-Up to share it. Dashka Slater has an article at Babble about why reading ahead of your grade level isn't necessarily a good thing for kids. She says: "in the fuss about literacy and reading levels and school achievement, something fundamental gets lost: the pleasure of the book for its own sake. Books that are delightful for ten-year-olds are not necessarily delightful for six-year-olds, and too often both parents and teachers encourage children to read books that are too old for them, or discourage them from reading books we have deemed "too young," thus guaranteeing that reading will always feel like a chore." And she goes on, with detailed examples, including her nine-year-old Eragon-reading son's response to a new picture book.

Something I get quite often (and I know I'm not alone in this) is a request to recommend titles that will challenge advanced readers, reading far above their grade level, without shocking them. And while I laud the effort to find the right books for each kid, and I completely respect the mom looking for books for her eight-year-old that don't have romance in them, I've also felt that something can get lost in the quest to "challenge" readers. Just because your seven-year-old can read at a sixth grade level, that doesn't mean that she won't enjoy, and shouldn't have the chance to enjoy, Clementine. Same thing for picture books. So many adults LOVE picture books. Or, as the Babble article quotes Valerie Lewis from Hicklebee's, "When they have picture books on their coffee table, they think it's very interesting and arty. But when Billy finally learns to read, his parents reward him by taking away his pictures." (Emphasis mine) 

But enough. Go and read the full article at Babble. There are quite a few comments, mainly in support of the article (because really, who is going to admit "but I like bragging about my six-year-old reading Harry Potter. Who cares what he enjoy?").

Mare's War: Tanita S. Davis

Book: Mare's War
Author: Tanita S. Davis (blog)
Pages: 352
Age Range: 12 and up 

Mare's WarBackground: In the interest of full disclosure, I should start by telling you that Tanita Davis is my friend. We haven't met face to face (yet), but we have long been emailing and commenting back and forth on one another's blogs. Finding Wonderland (where Tanita blogs with Sarah Stevenson) was one of the very first blogs in my blog roll, some 3 1/2 years ago). And Tanita was one of my panelists when I was the organizer for young adult fiction, during the first year of the Cybils (she read an astounding number of books).

I read and loved Tanita's first book, A La Carte. I didn't review it at the time, because I was kind of struggling with the whole question of impartiality, and how to treat books written by my friends. I've regretted not writing that review ever since (though I'm so not someone who can sit down a write a review unless the book is fresh in my mind). But the point here is that my feelings about not having written that review have influenced my more recent decision to just go ahead and say what I will about a book, whether a friend wrote it or not (see my reviews of Silksinger or Any Which Wall, for example). But I'll tell you all my background with the author, so you can take that into a account as you see fit. Sorry for the long preamble.

Review: Mare's War, by Tanita S. Davis, is the story of two teenage girls who, in the course of a forced family roadtrip, learn that their grandmother was part of the 6888th African American battalion of the Women's Army Corps (WAC) during World War II. Sixteen-year-old Octavia and her older sister Tali are less than thrilled when their grandmother, Mare, insists on taking them for a cross-country drive, to attend some sort of family reunion. Octavia (the narrator) explains:

"My grandmother isn't at all normal. She doesn't read mystery novels, or sing in a church choir, or knit, or sew. She doesn't do Jumbles in the newspaper, and she hates crosswords. She isn't at all soft or plump, doesn't smell like cinnamon, pumpkin bread, or oatmeal cookies. My grandmother, Ms. Marey Lee Boylen, is not the cookie type ... She wears flippy auburn wigs, stiletto shoes, and padded push-up bras." (Page 1)

"Our journalism teacher, Ms. Crase, would say that my grandmother is colorful, like somebody from a book. I say my grandmother is scary, mostly because I never know what she's going to do next." (Page 2)

As the car time starts to feel dull, the girls are at first mildly diverted, and eventually fascinated, by their grandmother's stories of her youth. These stories are related to the reader from Marey's first person perspective, not as if she was telling them now, but as she experienced them back in the 40's. Each chapter is labeled "Now" or "Then" (in a beautiful font). But this clarification isn't strictly necessary, because Octavia's 2009 California teen voice (above) is quite different from Marey's 1940's rural Alabama teen voice. Here are a couple of examples of Marey's voice:

"Mama don't understand why I got to go out and take up another job when I work enough at Miss Ida's, but I ain't trying to be nobody's house girl for the rest of my life. I aim to have something of my own someday, even if it takes all my blood, sweat, and tears." (Page 22)

"Dovey sings real sweet, and we all get quiet to hear her singing that hymn. Then Gloria sing, too, only louder, so we can all hear her, and even though Miss Gloria Madden works my nerves, I sure wish I could sing like that. How can a girl with such a sweet voice have such an evil way about her? Mama always say the good Lord don't make no mistakes, but sometimes I am just not sure." (Page 79)

Can't you just hear Marey's voice in your head? I mean, I wasn't there (in Alabama, in the 40's, talking to a not-so-educated African American girl), but it sure sounds dead on to me. I've rarely read a young adult novel that so strongly cried out to be read aloud (with the possible exception of Thirteen Reasons Why, but that is a very different book).

The modern-day sections of the book add dimension to Marey's story. It's interesting to see how she turned out. And seeing Tali and Octavia's reactions to Marey's story will, I think, make the book more accessible to today's teen readers. There are fun parts to the 2009 roadtrip storyline -- roadside diversions, a bit of mischief by Tali, and an ongoing battle over Mare's cigarette-smoking. There are occasional postcards included between chapters, as Tali and Octavia write home, and these are entertaining (though, a minor nit, you have to turn the book sideways to read the postcards, which I found annoying). These sections demonstrate some character development, too, especially for Octavia.

But personally, I read the modern-day sections relatively quickly, because I was eager to get back to Marey's story. Marey is strong and loyal, even when she's afraid. She proves to be an excellent example (once they understand her better) for her somewhat shallow (Tali) and timid (Octavia) granddaughters. From the very start of the story, her determination to make a better life for herself and her younger sister shines through. And she has some harrowing roadblocks along the way. Here's one more quote, to give you a picture of Marey:

"Didn't nobody ever tell me I was this tough. Didn't nobody ever tell me no girl could work this hard, and nobody never said that work this hard could give you pride. My nails might not be nice enough for polite folk, and my face might not be clean, but I earned my place in this man's army. I earned it.

And ain't nobody gonna make Marey Lee Boylen go home." (Page 103)

I learned a tremendous amount from this book, without it ever feeling like a history lesson. Mare's War is filled with details about the role of the Women's Army Corps in World War II, and day-to-day life during the war. It's also a window into then less-than-stellar treatment of African Americans, particularly in the south, in the time period before the Civil Rights movement takes hold. Even as they are training to be part of the US Army, to help fight a war, Marey and her friends are kept segregated. Humiliations, such as separate water fountains and insults from white soldiers, are routine. It's just accepted that on the train "White girls ride in a car further back, away from the soot and the noise" while the "colored girls" are right behind the engine. I knew about this kind of treatment before, but I felt it when reading Marey's words. As the best fiction does, Mare's War gives readers insight into the lives of people different from themselves.

Mare's War is a book that will stay with you. Highly recommended for anyone who likes to read about strong female characters. Although most of the characters in the book are women, the World War II setting might be enough to pique boys' interest, too. I hope so, because this is a book that deserves to be widely read.

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: June 9, 2009
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Book Divas, Reading Rants!, TheHappyNappyBookseller, Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup, Colleen Mondor. See also some brief discussion of the book at Omnivoracious
Author Interviews: Chicken Spaghetti, The Brown Bookshelf, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Jama Rattigan

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

Books Now Available: When the Whistle Blows

When the Whistle BlowsBack in April I reviewed When the Whistle Blows, a historical novel set in a small railroad town in the 1940s, by Fran Cannon Slayton. I called it: "a beautifully written, quiet sort of book, but one that includes enough mad-cap fun to appeal to reluctant / dormant readers." I concluded:

"When the Whistle Blows is sure to receive acclaim for Slayton's writing. But I think that it also has abundant kid appeal. Librarians, just ask your middle grade boys if they'd like to read a book in which a boy: hides in a graveyard and throw things at cars on Halloween; sneaks out at night to spy on an adult secret society; and faces off a train on a railroad bridge. If these incidents aren't boy-friendly, I don't know what is. When the Whistle Blows has my highest recommendation."

When the Whistle Blows is scheduled for publication today. This is one that people are going to be talking about. You won't want to miss it. 

PS. The Class of 2k9 Blog has an interview with Fran Slayton today, in honor of her launch day. There's another at Becky's Book Reviews, and a third at Shelf Elf.

Wednesday Afternoon Visits: June 10

Here are some items worth mentioning from around the Kidlitosphere:

Colleen Mondor has started a new feature at Chasing Ray called What a Girl Wants. She'll be showcasing writers whose young adult novels have strong female characters. In the first installment of the series, Colleen asks her participants to share memories of books that they read as teens, books that made a lasting impact. Colleen's own thoughts on A Wrinkle in Time particularly caught my attention, but all of the mini-essays are worth reading.

Newlogorg200 And speaking of authors who write about strong female characters, Readergirlz is featuring Sara Zarr's Sweethearts this month. You can find details here.

The UK has a new children's laureate. Anthony Browne will be replacing Michael Rosen in this position. Do you think he'll have tea with Jon Scieszka? I first saw the news at Children's Books for Grown-Ups, where Natasha Worswick reports: "Anthony’s agenda as next Childrens Laureate is to  stimulate and encourage a lifelong love of reading."

Betsy Bird has made her mid-year predictions for the Newbery and Caldecott awards at A Fuse #8 Production. She mentions one of the books that I read last weekend, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate 

Booklights Susan Kusel has a brilliant analysis of the design of Where the Wild Things Are at Booklights. She looks at how the ratio of white space to text and illustration change throughout the book, and how it affects the reader's experience. Jules from 7-Imp also pointed out that today is Maurice Sendak's birthday, so this is an extra-fitting post.

Mitali Perkins is running a poll on her site about whether or not it's ok for publishers to "edit beloved children's books like LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE or THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA to eliminate racial or ethnic stereotyping?" I'm kind of on the fence about this. I don't like the idea of making changes like this. I think it's better to leave the classics as-is, and use the racial or ethnic stereotyping as a jumping off place for discussion. However, if an author wants to make such changes herself, I hesitate to say that we shouldn't let her. If you all have thoughts on this, please share them at Mitali's.

J. L. Bell has a post at Oz and Ends about "representation of racial and ethnic minorities in American children's books" and the realities of today's publishing industry. He thinks that: "The challenge isn't convincing individual gatekeepers. The challenge is convincing those editors' corporate employers--and the corporations they work closely with, such as the chain booksellers--that there's enough money to be made from those families to justify publishing more books than they already are." Which sounds realistic to me.

I've mentioned Greg Pincus' new blog, The Happy Accident, before. I especially liked this recent post, in which Greg introduces a social media "rule of three" for producing good content. The idea is that you should think about why you're using the tool in the first place, whether you're serving that purpose with individual updates, and whether you're getting the results that you want. Which seems like good advice to me.

These are both a bit off topic, but Lois Lowry had two posts at her blog that I particularly enjoyed. Last week she had a post documenting an encounter (while on a trip to Africa) with elephants. Big ones protecting a little one. Gorgeous! (My grandfather used to collect elephant figurines, and elephants still catch my eye). Then, returning home, she shared a lovely post highlighting the upside of living in a rural place. Since she had missed her tulips blooming while she was away, her letter carrier took a picture of them for her. Kind of made me want to live in a small town, you know?

LiteraryBlogger And last, but not least, thank you to Melissa from Book Nut for giving me a Literary Blogger Award. She said that "promote and inspire people of all ages to read", which is a lovely compliment. I'm great company, too!

That's all for today.

Growing Bookworms Newsetter: Extra-Review Edition

Jpg_book007Today I will be sending out the new issue of the Growing Bookworms 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 781 subscribers. 

Newsletter Update: Because I participated in MotherReader's 48 Hour Book Challenge last weekend, I find myself with quite a few reviews this week. I tried to pick and choose which ones to include, but that proved too difficult. So what I've done instead is include all 8 children's and young adult reviews from the 48 Hour Book Challenge in the newsletter. This doesn't leave a lot of extra space, so the only other posts that I've included in the newsletter are the children's literacy round-up posts from this week and last week. And I threw in a sneak peek mini-review of the Hunger Games sequel, Catching Fire. Here are links to my other posts from the past two week, the ones NOT included in this newsletter:

OK, clearly I should have gone back to weekly newsletter issues during this time period. Sorry you'll have to click through to read the above articles - I didn't want to make the newsletter email ridiculously long. My blogging schedule should be back to normal now (though I am recharged, in terms of my interest in writing reviews).  

Reading Update: The only books that I've read recently that I haven't reviewed are: Murder on Bank Street by Victoria Thompson (adult mystery set in New York City around 1900, part of the Sarah Brandt series -- an excellent installment from a series that keeps improving); Pastworld by Ian Beck (holding the review until closer to publication); and Envy by Anna Godbersen (third book in the Luxe series -- enjoyable, but not reviewed because I rarely review from audiobooks). I'm currently reading Mare's War by Tanita Davis and listening to the first Sookie Stackhouse book by Charlaine Harris.

How about you? What have you been reading and enjoying? Thanks for reading, and for growing bookworms!

The Mortal Instruments Series: Cassandra Clare

Books: The Mortal Instruments Trilogy: #1 City of Bones#2 City of Ashes#3 City of Glass 
Author: Cassandra Clare
Pages: ~= 500 each
Age Range: 12 and up

City of GlassCassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments books are an urban fantasy trilogy. The basic premise is that vampires, werewolves, faeries, and warlocks all exist, though their actions are generally hidden from human eyes. A special race called Shadowhunters (people with a hint of angel blood, and a lot of special training) dedicate their lives to maintain order among the other races. They kill demons and protect humans (who they call Mundanes). One day an apparently ordinary Mundane girl named Clary witnesses several Shadowhunters killing someone. Along with her best friend, Simon, Clary soon finds herself drawn into the world of the Shadowhunters. She learns surprising things about her own background, and has to fight to save those whom she comes to love.

I liked this series enough to read through all three thick books in quick succession. I thought that the author demonstrated excellent world-building skills, particularly with the third book. I quite liked the main characters, and the way that their relationships developed, and had conflict. Banter between the characters frequently made me laugh aloud. The hero, Jace, is more vulnerable than Edward Cullen, but perhaps equally appealing to teenage girls. Clary, while occasionally in need of rescue, is brave and loyal, and not afraid to take responsibility upon herself. I can completely see why I was #57 on the hold list at the library for City of Glass.

And yet ... I found these books frustrating, too. A twist in the first book nearly made me throw the book across the room. The only reason that I read the second book was to quiet that voice in my head that kept saying: "Really? Seriously?". And for the entire third book I was waiting for the characters to figure out something that was blindingly obvious.

It's a demonstration of how much I liked the characters, I suppose, that I was so annoyed by these things. I mean, can I really hold it against a book when I don't like the direction of the plot? That's a very different thing from complaining about cardboard characters, or clunky writing (attributes which these books do NOT have). So, I think I can let my issue with the plot twist in the first book go. But my enjoyment of book 3 (and even book 2, to some extent) was diminished by the fact that there were just too many clues pointing to the twist at the end. While I found the ending satisfying, I saw it coming from too far away to be wowed by it. Which is a shame, because it was dramatic stuff.

I'd still recommend the series. Well-drawn characters in a three-dimensional setting, with magic and danger and battles. These are books that will continue to fly off the shelves, and that I would recommend to teen fans of fantasy. I think that they'll stick in my memory, more so than a lot of other books. But, in part, they'll stay with me as those books that I found frustrating. Oh well. I'd be interested to hear what you all think.  

Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry
Publication Date: March 24, 2009
Source of Book: Library copies (all three)

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

Children's Literacy Round-Up: June 8

Terry_readingtubfinal_1 Getting back to normal, after the 48 Hour Book Challenge, I have the regular Monday morning literacy news (it's still just barely morning here in CA). This week’s children’s literacy and reading news round-up, brought to you by Jen Robinson’s Book Page and Scrub-a-Dub-Tub, a Reading Tub blog, is now available at the Reading Tub. This week Terry Doherty and I have collected plenty of content for you about literacy & reading-related events; raising readers; literacy and reading programs and research; 21st century literacies; grants, sponsorships & donations; and other new resources.

Terry found tons of things that I somehow missed this week (reading 9 books in a weekend will do that). Like this parallel to the Guys Lit Wire books for boys project: Alternatives for Girls, an organization which helps homeless and high-risk girls avoid violence, teen pregnancy and exploitation in favor of positive choices, and is looking for books. I also have a couple of additional tidbits, along with some selections from my 48 hour book challenge reading, at Booklights today.

And, in breaking new, Susan Stephenson's new digital magazine, Literacy Lava, is now available. Here's the short description from The Book Chook: "The combined work of a brilliance of bloggers, Literacy Lava is erupting with great tips for parents, and suggestions for literacy activities to share with kids." It's a PDF that you can download, print, share, etc. As explained in the letter from the editor, Literacy Lava's focus is on low-cost activities parents can do with kids to promote literacy. In addition to Susan from the Book Chook (editor), contributors to Literacy Lava include:

I took a quick peek through this inaugural issue, and it is chock-full of articles about reading aloud, tips for encouraging kids of different age ranges, and gorgeous photos. There's even an activity page. And it's all FREE! Brought to you by people who care enough about children's literacy to spend their time and effort putting something like this together. I'm going to print mine out, and savor it over the next few days.

Wishing you all a reading-filled week!