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Posts from September 2011

Between: Jessica Warman

Book: Between
Author: Jessica Warman
Pages: 464
Age Range: 13 and up

211103_136013466413862_1223380_n Between is a paranormal mystery by Jessica Warman. When popular it girl Elizabeth Valchar wakes up in the middle of the night on her father's yacht, she hears something thumping against the side of the boat. She's horrified to see the dead body of a girl facedown in the water. She's even more horrified to realize that the body belongs to her.

Liz finds herself trapped in limbo, able to see and hear her friends and family members, but unable to communicate with them. The only person she can communicate with is Alex Berg, a boy from her class who was killed in a hit and run accident a year earlier. She has only limited memories of her life and who she is. Liz travels back into her own memories, between watching her family and friends in the present, trying to figure out what kind of person she was in life and what caused her death.

Between is compelling - I read it in just a couple of days, sneaking in a few pages whenever I could. The resolution of the various mysteries wasn't a big surprise, but it was interesting to see how the various plot threads tied together.

Liz, particularly the living Liz, isn't particularly likeable. Neither are her friends (with the possible exception of her boyfriend, Richie). Neither is Alex, unpopular in life, and wearing an enormous chip on his shoulder in death. Early in the book, there's a fair bit of Liz ranting about how popular she was, and Alex being sarcastic and nasty about it. The two do reach an understanding, eventually, but their roles still feel a bit stereotyped. Like this:

"This cannot really be happening," I say, even though I know it is happening. "It's my birthday. People aren't supposed to die on their birthday! Especially not me. I'm Liz Valchar." I'm almost shouting. "I'm very popular, you know! Nobody will be happy about this."

His voice is bone dry. "Yes, Liz. I'm aware of your social status." (Page 26)

And this:

"He looks around my room, observing the mess and disarray. "It's funny," he says. "I always thought you guys -- everyone in the upper social echelon -- I assumed you had such simple, perfect lives. Everything seemed so easy for you." (Page 147)

We learn that a number of things in Liz's life weren't easy, as she examines how these things made her who she was. I found her self-analysis a bit overly explained, but I suspect that teen readers will be more able than I am to relate to that figuring out of self. And that is the point of the story, after all, for her to be caught in limbo until she figures things out.

There's a fair bit of discussion about eating disorders in Between. Not the mechanics of eating disorders, but the motivation, the need to exert control, that can lead to anorexia. I thought that this aspect of the book was well done.

I also thought that Warman did a nice job with mood and setting. There's a vaguely otherworldly tone to the book (helped out by the creepy cover), in contrast to the real-world settings. Liz's street, the boat, and the graveyard where she ends up buried all feel three-dimensional, despite not being described in great detail. Warman uses flashes of images, like Richie sitting on his windowsill smoking out the window, and they work well together.

All in all, I found Between enjoyable and memorable (if occasionally irritating). I think if the premise of a popular girl caught in limbo after her death, trying to figure out what happened to her, grabs you, then you should take a look at Between. And it is nice to see a paranormal mystery, to counter the current glut of paranormal romance novels.

Publisher: Walker (@BWKids)
Publication Date: August 2, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

iBooks vs. Kindle App on iPad

I recently did a little experiment while on my trip to KidLitCon and the East Coast. I read Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick as my first eBook, downloaded to the Kindle app on my iPad 2. I also read Harlan Coben's Shelter on my iPad, using the native iBooks app.I found pros and cons to each. (Please note that here I'm talking about the Kindle app on the iPad, and not the Kindle itself.)

I found the Kindle app more readable right out of the box (fonts, fontsize, relative contrast of text and background), though these things are somewhat configurable in the iBooks app. The iBooks app does let you change the font, which is nice, but the old-school part of me thinks that I shouldn't be monkeying with the font of books I'm reading anyway.

I initially liked that the iBooks app shows page numbers, but was less pleased when I realized that the page numbering does not correspond with the page numbers of the hardcover. Of course this makes sense, given that you can change font size, etc. It's more a nod to old-school ways of knowing where you are in a book. The Kindle app just shows you what percentage of the way through the book you are. I respect what the iBooks app is trying to do in giving the feel of a printed book (the right-hand side of the screen also shows ruffled page edges). But the net result is that the iBooks screen feels more cluttered, while the screen when using the Kindle app is cleaner. The Kindle automatically hides all of the options (book location, home button, etc.), while the iBooks requires an extra step to hide them, every time you reopen.

So, on a pure reading experience basis, the Kindle app wins for me. But of course there are other factors.

Both products have integrated Google and Wikipedia search, and the ability to bookmark pages and add notes to the text. You can also link to Twitter and Facebook with the Kindle app, to share excerpts of books (kind of cool, though I'm not sure I would do it). The iBooks app lets you add notes (like sticky notes that you can write on), and then email them to yourself (it doesn't email text from the book, just your note and what page it was attached to). The Kindle app by default automatically backs up all your annotations at, and includes them in "popular highlights". This bothers me a bit, even though I frequently share things that I like in reviews. Perhaps it's because when I flag something in a book that I'm reading for review, I might flag because I like it OR because I don't like it. But I can turn that off.

Both products include dictionaries. The Kindle dictionary was a bit less intuitive to use, you have to press down on the word for a surprisingly long time to make the definition come up. The Kindle app puts a short definition at the bottom of the page, below the text, with an option to click for more detail. The iBooks app has a longer popup definition to start with. So again, the Kindle version is a bit less cluttered.

But the bottom line is that these apps have largely the same functionality, with each having a slight edge in one area or another. Although I preferred the less cluttered look of the Kindle, I could easily get used to either reader. I think that the decision of which to use is going to boil down more to who I trust to store my book content than which of these two apps provides a better reading experience. I think the jury's still out on that ...

What I think I'm going to do for now, though, is continue to purchase a few titles that I'm particularly interested in reading, and read them on my iPad. I prefer this to starting to accept review titles for my iPad, because I still have some kinks to work out in terms of using the notes features and writing reviews. I still find paper books easier on my eyes, and a more enjoyable tactile experience. I like being able to see, from the thickness of the book, how much I have left. I like seeing my "porcupine" of post-it flags sticking out a book. But I will say that being able to load a few books up onto the iPad for trips is very nice, as is being able to read in an otherwise dark room (on the plane, in bed, etc.).

Kaleidoscope Eyes: Jen Bryant

Book: Kaleidoscope Eyes
Author: Jen Bryant
Pages: 272
Age Range: 10-14

Bk_kaleid_120Jen Bryant's Kaleidoscope Eyes is a verse novel about a broken family and a hunt for buried treasure, set against a backdrop of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. That's a lot to pack into a middle grade novel (which I personally think is a better fit for middle school). But Bryant does an excellent job.

In 1968, Lyza lives with her father and her Janis Joplin-obsessed 19-year-old sister in a small town near the Jersey Shore. Lyza's mother left the family several earlier, leaving no forwarding address, and her father, a professor, works all the time. Lyza plans on spending a quiet summer before starting high school with her two best friends, Malcolm and Carolann. Their plans change, however, when Lyza's grandfather dies, leaving behind three maps, a mysterious key, and a letter asking Lyza to complete a project for him. Before they know it, the three friends find themselves on the trail of pirate treasure.

The thing that first struck me about Kaleidoscope Eyes was how strongly everything about the book feels like the late 60's. I mean, I was only a toddler then, so I can't really say. But as far as I can tell Bryant and her publisher spared no detail in channeling the summer of 1968. There are quotes from sixties music at the start of each section of the book. There are numerous music references within the text (the title is itself a musical reference, of course). The very fonts of the chapter titles have a psychedelic sixties look. And the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, as experienced by ordinary young teens in the US, permeate the book, which is written like a diary in verse.

Lyza's friend Malcolm is black. She explains matter-of-factly why they are friends out of school, but can't spend time together in school. Like this:

"We sure didn't make the rules
about who can be friends with whom,
and we don't like the rules the way they are...
but we are also not fools.

There are three hundred other kids in our school
and as far as I can tell, not one of them has
a best friend
who's a different color." (Page 12, paperback edition)

Malcolm also can't eat at the local diner, because the owner is bigoted. When Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated, Malcolm's mom "cried for two days straight". There are rumors that black soldiers are sent to the most dangerous places in Vietnam. And so on.

Lyza notes various Vietnam War protests, and attends the funerals of three local boys killed in the war. There's a scene in which she and another character clear weeds around the boys' graves. When someone she knows is drafted, she is speechless with grief. Letters from Vietnam are included after the boy goes overseas, and fear for his fate shadows the rest of the book.

But I think that what really makes Kaleidoscope Eyes feel like it was written in the sixties is that all of these things are facts of life. Lyza isn't casting the kind of moral judgments that you sometimes see in historical fiction, where today's retrospective sensibilities color her views. She likes people who are nice to Malcolm better than people aren't, and she's sad and baffled about the war and what it's doing to kids she knows. But there's an immediacy to her reactions that feels real, and is, I think, hard to pull off. 

Bryant's writing itself is lovely. I expected Kaleidoscope Eyes to be a quick read, because there's a lot of white space. But I found myself reading slowly, listening inside my head to how the words would sound if said aloud. Bryant uses a number of different styles of verse, conveying pace and mood by the length of the lines and visual density of the text. She uses white space to add additional levels of meaning. Like this:

"I turn the cylinders
   around and
      around and
         around until I find a brand-new pattern,

in hopes that my brain
might catch on and do the same.
I put the kaleidoscope
aside,                     look at the maps again. (Page 54, paperback)

The text is a visual kaleidoscope, with words coming together in different patterns on every page.

So, the writing in Kaleidoscope Eyes is beautiful, the plot is entertaining, and the backdrop is fully textured and authentic. I quite enjoyed Kaleidoscope Eyes, and can imagine re-reading it in the future. My only question with this book is that I'm not sure exactly who the audience is. Amazon says that it's middle grade, and there's nothing objectionable about it, but the characters are about to start high school, and the war theme is fairly adult, so I would put it more as a middle school book. It's also a verse novel about a hunt for pirate loot, which is not your typical combination. So, librarians, if you know any kids who like mysteries and quests, and won't be scared off by the idea a novel in verse, hand them this book. Tell them it's about pirates in New Jersey. And for anyone else looking for a window into 19668 America, Kaleidoscope Eyes is the book for you.

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: May 12, 2009
Source of Book: Copy from the author

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Growing Bookworms Newsletter: September 27

JRBPlogo-smallToday 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 and young adult books and raising readers. There are 1494 subscribers. Currently I am sending the newsletter out once every two weeks.

Newsletter Update: In this issue I have seven book reviews (two picture books, four middle grade and one YA). I also a wrap-up post about the 2011 Kidlitosphere Conference, and a post announcing my participation in the 2011 Cybils Fiction Picture Books Panels. All of my posts for the past 2 weeks are included in the newsletter.

Reading Update: Since the last newsletter, I finished only three books, all young adult novels (as well as various picture books and board books read aloud to Baby Bookworm, see those here, here, and here):

I'm still listening to A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny. I'm currently reading The Inquisitor's Apprentice by Chris Moriarty, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, and (on my iPad) Divergent by Veronica Roth. I read both Ashes and Shelter on the iPad, and will have some comments about my eBook experience later this week (shared in the next newsletter).

How about you? What have you been reading and enjoying? Thanks for reading the newsletter, and for growing bookworms.

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Cybils 2011 Fiction Picture Books Panels

Cybils2011 I'm excited to report that this year I'm not only getting back into judging for the Cybils, I'm jumping in with both feet by being a Round 1 judge for Fiction Picture Books. Here's the full list of panelists (organized by that tireless advocate for picture books, Pam Coughlan, aka MotherReader):

Round One

Jen Robinson
Jen Robinson's Book Page (@JensBookPage)

Travis Jonkers
100 Scope Notes (@100ScopeNotes)

Dawn Mooney
5 Minutes for Books (@mteblogmama)

Rebecca Reid
Rebecca Reads (@rebeccarreid)

Natalia Ortega-Brown
Picture Book Review of the Day (@NataliaOrtega)

Debbie Nance
ReaderBuzz (@debnance)

Pam Coughlan
MotherReader (@MotherReader)

Round Two

Eliza Brown
Shop Talk of Carle Museum (@elizajbrown)

Camille Parker
A Curious Thing

Jonathan Kemmerer
Picture Books Review (@PictureBooksRev)

Susan Kusel
Wizards Wireless (@SusanKusel)

Kristen Remenar
Kristen Remenar

I added Twitter IDs where I could find them. If you're on this list and I missed your Twitter handle, just let me know.

I look forward to working with the excellent Round 1 panel, and to reading lots and lots and lots of picture books this fall!

Breadcrumbs: Anne Ursu

Book: Breadcrumbs (WorldCat)
Author: Anne Ursu
Pages: 304
Age Range: 8-12

510Inp5JYJL._SL500_AA300_ Anne Ursu's Breadcrumbs is a love letter to those who enjoy immersing themselves in fantasy novels. It's about a girl named Hazel who doesn't fit in at school, and can't make herself pay attention (like, say, Meg Murray), and a boy named Jack who is lured away by a snow-witch with a sleigh. There are references to classic fantasy novels (new and old) sprinkled throughout the book, many only alluded to rather than being spelled out in detail, like breadcrumbs for the reader.

Hazel and Jack are best friends. Jack is Hazel's only friend. But that's ok - he's more than enough. Until something happens to change Jack, literally overnight, and makes him reject Hazel. But when Jack disappears, Hazel never hesitates in her quest to bring him home.

Breadcrumbs is my favorite type of fantasy, one in which the fantasy world lies just out of sight of the real world, accessible if only one could crawl through the right wardrobe, or fall down the right hole. The first half of the book takes place primarily in Jack and Hazel's small Minnesota town. The second half takes place in a magical forest, filled with pitfalls for the unwary.

Though I liked the entire book, I actually enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second. I Maybe because the second half is a bit surrealistic, which isn't really my thing. Or maybe because I wasn't as immersed in the plot, and could take my time, and just appreciate Ursu's writing. Her prose is simply lovely. It's hard for me to pick passages to quote, because I flagged so many. And really, it's the kind of book in which one could find a quote-worthy passage on any random page. But here are a few examples:

"Hazel used to want a house like this—something beat-up and possibly haunted, with a dumbwaiter for passing messages, with hidden compartments that contained mysterious old books—but then she would not live next to Jack anymore, and that was not worth all the secret passages in the world." (Page 6, ARC)

"This was not the sort of nonsense Mrs. Jacobs would brook." (Page 13, ARC)

"... she stretched her face into a smile that held nothing. She looked like someone had severed her daemon." (Page 39, ARC)

Hazel is a great character. She's prickly and uncertain of where she fits in, in part because she's adopted from India, and is aware of how different she looks from her mother. She wants things that her single mother can't manage to give her, and she looks for the magic, for the story, in everything. I think that any reader who has ever hidden away inside of books, who has ever imagined being a changeling or saving the world, will be able to identify with Hazel. Jack, too, is wonderful (though we learn more of his wonderfulness through flashbacks, since he's missing, figuratively or literally, for much of the book). But here he is:

"Jack was the only person she knew with an imagination, at least a real one. The only tea parties he'd have were ones in Wonderland, or the Arctic, or in the darkest reaches of space. He was the only person who saw things for what they could be instead of just what they were. He saw what lived beyond the edges of the things your eyes took in. And though they eventually grew out of Wonderland Arctic space-people tea parties, that essential thing remained the same. Hazel fit with Jack." (Page 21, ARC)

"There were some days, ever since the summer, when the whole feel of Jack seemed to change. Like suddenly, instead of being made up of baseball and castles and superheroes and Jack-ness, he was made of something scratchy and thick." (Page 44, ARC)

I absolutely love the bit about "... made of up of baseball and castles and superheroes and Jack-ness." It's perfect! And the bit about him being the only other person who saw things for what they could be, well, that reminded me of a friend I was fortunate to have in fifth grade. I think that it's the mark of a great book when particular passages resonate as true, despite surface differences in circumstance.

I also like Hazel's relationship with her harried mother. You can tell that her mother tries, but doesn't completely understand her. But she still tries. And she's realistic in what Hazel can and can't have, and has to do whether she wants to or not. I would say that she's more of a presence than the parents in many a quest novel, and that Breadcrumbs is stronger for it.

Breadcrumbs is a book for anyone who loves stories, or who likes to see things "for what they could be instead of what they" are. It's a book for every reader who has looked at a wardrobe and thought "what if", or who has seen a path going off into the woods, and wondered if it might lead to a magical place. I think that Breadcrumbs could be read and understood by someone who hadn't read C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle, Lewis Carroll, and Philip Pullman (among others), but will be enjoyed much more by those who have. It's the perfect book to give to any reader, age 8 and up. Highly, highly recommended. We'll definitely be hearing more about this book come publication time, and I would think come award time, too. Breadcrumbs is a book that should be on every book-lover's reading list.

Publisher: Walden Pond Press (@WaldenPondPress)
Publication Date: September 27, 2011
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Quotes should be checked against the final printed book.

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Moon Over Manifest: Clare Vanderpool

Book: Moon Over Manifest
Author: Clare Vanderpool
Pages: 368
Age Range: 9-12

154_MoonOverManifest_Newbery_Medal Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool was last year's Newbery winner. Reading a bit about it in the current issue of Horn Book Magazine inspired me to take it down off of my bookshelf and read it. I'm glad that I did. It's quite lovely.

Moon Over Manifest is a historical novel set in the small town of Manifest, Kansas in both 1918 and 1936. In 1936, 12-year-old Abilene Tucker arrives in Manifest, sent there by her father for the summer while he works at a railway job. Unsure of why her father sent her away, or whether he intends to come back for her, Abilene spends her summer digging into the past. She becomes consumed by the story, related to her in small chunks by a neighbor, of two boys who lived in Manifest during World War I.

Jinx and Ned's story is a bit more action-packed than Abilene's, ranging from running cons to run-ins with the local KKK to running off to war. However, both Jinx in his day and Abilene in hers make friends, and take actions that help save the town of Manifest.

Moon Over Manifest has it all. A strong sense of place, three-dimensional characters, suspense, humor, and multi-layered prose. Manifest (based on a real town in Kansas) is a mining town composed mostly of new immigrants. This backdrop leaves plenty of room for colorful characters and tense interactions. Abilene and Jinx are both strong characters (though the reader gets to know Abilene a bit more thoroughly). Shady, a bootlegger who takes in these two children, 18 years apart, is complex and compelling, as is Miss Sadie, a local fortuneteller. The bad guys are perhaps a tad one-dimensional, but the good guys are all endearingly flawed, and charmingly quirky.

The extensive historical detail that Vanderpool weaves in is organic to the story. Nothing feels tacked on. The vision of life in the trenches of World War I (conveyed via letters from Ned) is bleak, but not too intense for middle grade readers. The Spanish Flu, the plight of miners owned by the company store, the attitude of the KKK towards immigrants, and the Great Depression are all part of the story, woven in as far more than a backdrop.

But really, I think what I like best about Moon Over Manifest is Abilene's voice. Here are a few examples:

"His words drew pictures of brightly painted storefronts and bustling townsfolk. Hearing Gideon tell about it was like sucking on butterscotch. Smooth and sweet." (Page 1)

"My confidence was seeping out of me like water through a bucket full of holes. I wished Lettie and Ruthanne could go with me, but they had eggs to sell. Besides, it was my debt to work off." (Page 84)

"We tiptoed down the hall to the second classroom on the right. The heavy wooden door opened easily and we stepped in. There is an eerie, expectant feeling to a schoolroom in the summer. The normal classroom items were there: desks, chalkboards, a set of encyclopedias. The American flag with accompanying pictures of Presidents Washington and Lincoln. But without students occupying those desks and their homework tacked on the wall, that empty summer classroom seemed laden with the memory of past students and past learning that took place within those walls. I strained to listen, as if I might hear the whisperings and stirrings of the past." (Page 232)

The other voices in Moon Over Manifest are strong, too. Ned's letters, Jinx's flashbacks (as related by Miss Sadie, but told from Jinx's viewpoint), and a number of interspersed newspaper columns all add variety and interest.

Moon Over Manifest is beautifully written, and is full of humor, heart, and history. I can see why the Newbery committee chose it, and I'm glad that I took the time to read it. Highly recommended for middle grade readers (boys or girls), or anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: October 2010
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

KidLitCon 2011: Wrap-Up Post

Kidlitcon_logo2 I'm still digging my way out after my trip to Seattle for KidLitCon 2011 (which was followed by a quick cross-country trip for a family event). I've been reading the wrap-up posts that other people have shared on the Kidlitosphere Central website, and continuing to following the #KidLitCon hashtag on Twitter. Much as I would love to, I don't have the bandwidth to do a detailed wrap-up, talking about all of the sessions, and all of the people I met, and friends I reconnected with. Only so many hours of babysitting time are available to me, and most of those need to be spent on work. But here are a few comments:

  • Colleen Mondor and Jackie Parker-Robinson are marvels. KidLItCon 2011 was highly successful, thanks to their tireless efforts. The hotel was beautiful, the service was excellent, and the meals were delicious. The number one food hit was definitely pudding cups. The only miss, logistics-wise, was on the hotel's part, in not providing a cash bar downstairs during the reception (one could go upstairs and into the hotel restaurant, but this was time-consuming). But that was a tiny issue - overall everything was great.
  • The conference booklet, prepared by Colleen and Jackie with the help of Sarah Stevenson, was both beautiful and useful. (My one tiny suggestion for next year would be to include the presenters' Twitter handles right there with the session titles - that would have saved a step in the live-tweeting).
  • The sessions were all excellent. I didn't find any that I attended to be a waste of time. I spent much of the conference live-tweeting, and could barely keep up with the witty sound-bytes and useful suggestions. If you have time, do check out the #KidLitCon hashtag on Twitter, from Friday afternoon until Saturday night. There is a ton of great stuff there. (Perhaps someone could archive that portion of the chat stream?)
  • Scott Westerfeld, the keynote speaker, was brilliant. Smart and funny and completely accessible. He was able to attend a big chunk of conference events, and I think that he now finds himself with a host of new and newly invigorated fans.
  • We together raised more than $1700 for RIF, between donations prior to the event and 10% of book purchases during the conference. Isn't it great when you can do good while enjoying yourself? Many thanks to everyone who donated and/or bought books.
  • As usual, the best part of KidLitCon was spending time with old and new friends. Hanging out with Colleen, Jackie, Pam Coughlan, Liz Burns, Anne Levy, and Kelly Jensen on Thursday night, doing a bit of last-minute setup. Planning our conference session over lunch on Friday with Maureen Kearney and Melissa Fox (and missing Terry Doherty, who wanted to be there). Being able to present on Moving Beyond Google Reader with Carol Rasco (and missing Melissa Wiley and Greg Pincus, who wanted to be part of the panel). Meeting Els Kushner and Chris Singer for the first time. Talking over lunch Saturday about the impact of school librarian layoffs on state booklists with Roseanne Parry and Sarah Stevenson. Talking Cybils with Anne, Jackie, Sarah, Mary Ann Scheuer and Sheila Ruth. And seeing so many other friends, and meeting new ones - I could keep going on and on, but you get the idea.

And here are a few take-home messages from the panels that stuck with me:

  • Although publishers prefer for bloggers to write full reviews, they also appreciate the mentions on Twitter and Facebook about books, anything that gets conversation started (from Bloggers and Writers and Pubs! Oh My!, by Pam Coughlan, Liz Burns, Zoe Luderitz, and Kirby Larson)
  • In some cases, publishers are interested in reviews for backlist titles, outside of the standard six-month time window in which press is emphasized for new books. (From comments during my session with Maureen Kearney and Melissa Fox on blogging both newer and older titles).
  • Thoughtful critical reviews (not mean reviews) are valuable for teachers and librarians, lend credibility to your blog, and (if professionally done) will not hurt your relationship with publishers. (From Going Deep: The Hows and Whys of Blogging Critically by Kelly Jensen, Abby Johnson, Julia Riley, and Janssen Brandshaw, though this topic was also discussed elsewhere)
  • We have the power to use our blogs to help causes that we care about. (From Chris Singer's wonderful talk on Building a Better World With Your Book Blog)
  • There was a LOT more, but you'll have to dip into the Twitter stream, or go and read other people's wrap-up posts to find it, I'm afraid. Because I have to get back to work.

Bottom line: as with the other KidLitCons, KidLitCon 2011 for me was well worth the time and money. It was rejuvenating to spend time with so many people who feel the same way that I do about children's books and literacy. The sessions made me eager to get back to my blogging, and make it better, more diverse, and more thoughtful. And best of all, I was able to spend time with people who have become, over these six years of blogging, close friends. KidLitCon 2012 will be in New York City (details to be announced as soon as possible). You may be sure that I will do everything in my power to be there.

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life: James Patterson

Book: Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (book website)
Authors: James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts
Illustrator: Laura Park
Pages: 228
Age Range: 10-14

Middle-schoolI must admit that I chose to read Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life because the main character, Rafe Khatchadorian, has an Armenian name. And I, wife to and mother of people with Armenian names,was intrigued. I was a bit disappointed to find not a single reference to Rafe being Armenian in the text (beyond people having trouble pronouncing his last name). I think it was a missed opportunity. Why give a character a name that clearly identifies with a particular ethnic background, and then include absolutely nothing in the text about that background? Anyway, moving on...

It feels a bit redundant to review a book by James Patterson, since he's such a publishing juggernaut. But I have to say that I enjoyed Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life. I laughed out loud on multiple occasions, and was surprised by a couple of plot twists. I think that kids, particularly boys in or approaching middle school, will like the book, and will be able to identify with Rafe.

When Rafe Khatchadorian starts sixth grade (his first year of middle school), he is overwhelmed by the enormous list of rules in the Hills Village Middle School Code of Conduct. A list which the Vice Principal, Mrs. Stricker, reads aloud, slowly and painfully, during the first school assembly. That's when Rafe, egged on by his best friend Leo the Silent, gets his Big Idea. He's going to break every single rule in the book (with extra points for the really difficult ones, or for escapades performed with particular flair). He's going to try to make sure that no one else gets hurt, but he, Rafe, is going to have fun with his project/game. And he does have fun with it. At least for a while...

Rafe isn't a bad kid. He's never been a troublemaker before. But he does have some challenges at home. His mother has just gotten engaged to Carl "the Bear", an unemployed oaf who spends all of his time hogging the television set and yelling at Rafe and his little sister. Money is tight, and Rafe's mother works long hours at a diner. Mom and Bear both disapprove of Leo, who prefers drawing to talking and who pushes Rafe to continually take his rule-breaking to new levels.

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life is heavily sprinkled with comic book style illustrations by Laura Park. The text/illustration mix is reminiscent of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, though Middle School is aimed at a slightly higher age level. The illustrations are sometimes there for comic relief, but often they tell part of the story (the rest being told by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts, in Rafe's words).

I found the illustrations hilarious. For example, when rule-breaking Rafe sneaks into the teacher's common room, there's a box shown containing four donuts, each with a bit taken out (and the appropriate point total for Rafe's rule-breaking game displayed beside them). There's a cafeteria scene in which, among other chaos, a girl says: "Umm, my meat loaf melted my tray" (picture of tray with large hole in the center). Doodles around each chapter number indicate the mood of that chapter (stormclouds, etc.). The sketches look like they were done by a kid (which I believe is hard to do well - Park pulls this off flawlessly).

Parts of the text are funny, too. I laughed out loud on more than one occasion. Here are a couple of examples:

"By the time we got to Section 6 ("Grounds for Explusion") my brain was turning into guacamole, and I'm pretty sure my ears were bleeding, too." (Page 26)

"After attendance, Donatello told us that we were going to read parts of Romeo and Juliet aloud in class. It was written by Mr. William Shakespeare, who I believe is famous for writing the most boring plays in the history of the universe." (Page 58)

"I wasn't naked!" I yelled.
Just in case you're wondering, that's not a thing you want to yell in the middle of a crowded diner. I felt like every single eyeball in the place turned to look at me. Probably because they did." (Page 122)

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life has its flaws. Bear's unremitting awfulness makes one wonder why on earth the mother would get engaged to him in the first place. The school bully is similarly one-dimensional. Rafe's very narrow pool of friends (consisting of Leo) seems unrealistic, given that he seems like a friendly kid.

But those are quibbles. I think that this book is going to please its target audience (reluctant pre- and early-teen readers, mostly boys), and that's the important thing. The illustrations are top-notch and entertaining. The plot is fast-paced and sprinkled with surprises. Rafe is easy to relate to, despite his quirks. The setting, while not nuanced, is one that kids will identify with, too. I think that libraries will definitely want to stock this one, and will find it hard to keep on the shelf. A fun back-to-school read for tweens!

Publisher: Little, Brown (@lbschool)
Publication Date: June 27, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

I Want My Hat Back: Jon Klassen

Book: I Want My Hat Back
Author: Jon Klassen
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8

414tdge-8ML._SL500_AA300_ Jon Klassen's I Want My Hat Back is an understated but hilarious picture book. A bear has lost his hat. He goes around asking other animals if they've seen it, until he figures out where it is and reclaims it.The central joke is that the culprit never admits wrongdoing. However, kids will be able to tell, from the culprit's overly defensive reaction (not to mention the hat on his head) what's going on. Later, the bear himself has occasion to exhibit a defensive reaction, and that's very funny (though in a black humor sort of way).

The entire book is told as dialog, with colored fonts used to indicate different speakers. One side of the page shows the bear with another animal, and the other side has the text. So, on a picture with the bear, a turtle, and a rock, the text (with paragraphs in alternating colors) is:

"Have you seen my hat?

I haven't seen anything all day. I have been trying to climb this rock.

Would you like me to lift you on top of it?

Yes, please."

It's hard to put a finger on why this is so funny, but trust me, the words and pictures together totally work. Like the text, Klassen's illustrations are minimalist, created digitally and in Chinese ink. The bear's face is mostly expressionless, except that his eyes widen when he realizes where his hat is. That page is shown with a red background (compared to neutrals on the other pages), thus highlighting the drama of the revelation.

I Want My Hat Back is a picture book that will bring joy to adults, while making older kids giggle, too. It might not work with very young kids, who won't get the dry humor (and may be horrified at the ending). But I think that early elementary school kids will appreciate it. And who doesn't like hats? Highly recommended, and going on our "keep" shelf!

Publisher: Candlewick (@Candlewick)
Publication Date: September 27, 2011
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Quotes should be checked against the final printed book.

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Uh-Oh!: Mary Newell DePalma

Book: Uh-Oh!
Author: Mary Newell DePalma
Pages: 32
Age Range: 3-6

9780802853721_l Uh-Oh! is a picture book about a young dinosaur in which just about the only words are "uh-oh!". Our dinosaur friend seems unable to avoid getting into scrapes. He'll be cleaning up a mess that he just made, and knock something else over with the back of the broom. He'll jump out of the way of one problem, and up-end a shelf of china. And so on. Sometimes his messes are inadvertent results of good intentions. Other times, it must be confessed, they result from pure mischief.

I think that kids will enjoy the fact that there's no moral message here. The little dinosaur gets in trouble, and gets a timeout at the end, but his spirit is unquenched. It's clear that more mischief will be on tap tomorrow, if not sooner.

Mary Newell DePalma does a good job of capturing a child's mad scramble to fix things, and the wide-eyed moment of "uh-oh!" when things don't go well. The illustrations feature a series of small insets, each capturing a tiny part of the larger story. Uh-Oh! reads a bit like a graphic novel, actually. My favorite part is when the dinosaur decides to put a dirty run into the dishwasher. An inset blown up with a magnifying glass highlights the words "Do not overfill soapdish" on the detergent. Astute readers can guess what happens next. 

DePalma's dinosaur is spotted and cute, with a range of expressions. The color palette is bright and cheerful (and appropriately green-tinged). My only complaint about the illustrations is that all of the dinosaurs look rather similar, even in size, and it's hard to tell sometimes which is the protagonist vs. his older siblings vs. the parents. I'm not sure how this could have been remedied (perhaps more done with scale), but it makes the book a bit hard to follow, especially on the first couple of reads.

Still, Uh-Oh! is a fun read that celebrates, with affection, the accidental and deliberate trouble-making that comes with toddler-hood. Recommended especially for preschoolers, and their weary parents.

Publisher: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers (@eerdmansbooks)
Publication Date: May 27, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Blood Wounds: Susan Beth Pfeffer

Book: Blood Wounds
Author: Susan Beth Pfeffer
Pages: 248
Age Range: 13 and up

51wiO3fdm7L._SL500_AA300_ I'm a huge fan of Susan Beth Pfeffer's "moon" books, particularly the first one, Life As We Knew It. Pfeffer's upcoming young adult novel, Blood Wounds, is a very different book, but a compelling one. Blood Wounds is realistic fiction about family dysfunction, domestic violence, and cutting.

High school junior Willa lives with her mother, stepfather, and two stepsisters on the east coast. The relative wealth of her stepsisters' mother, compared to her own humble means, causes a fair bit of stress for Willa. While her stepsisters go on trips to Europe, and receive gifts of cars and horses, Willa can't even afford voice lessons. She fears that if she complains about anything, she'll lose her stepfather's love (and maybe even her mother's). The only way she can find to release the hidden tension is to, as infrequently as she can manage, cut herself.

However, the stress of being part of a blended family pales when the police show up at Willa's door. Her birth father in Pryor, Texas has apparently snapped and killed his new family. And now, he's on his way toward Willa. In the process of hiding out from her father, and later visiting his hometown, Willa learns that her mother has been keeping secrets from her. Through the events of a week or so, Willa's life is changed forever.

Blood Wounds has a bit of the feel of Caroline Cooney's suspense novels (see reviews of If the Witness Lied and They Never Came Back). Although some of the events are quite dark (there's a scene in which Willa literally sees the blood spatter from her father's crime), the book isn't as bleak as it sounds. I think this is because even though Willa's story is told in the first person, there's an emotional reserve to her. She describes how and why she cuts herself, for example, but her suffering still feels a bit remote from the reader (or this reader, anyway). I was caught up in the suspense, wanting to know what would happen, but I didn't ache for Willa on a personal level. That's not necessarily a shortcoming of the book - I think that Pfeffer wrote Willa that way deliberately. It's more like having a bit of emotional distance makes reading the book bearable.

Most readers will see, before Willa does, the imperfections in her so-called happy blended family. We feel a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop when Willa's stepfather says, on page 5:

"We're a happy family. But we're not identical to other happy families. Happy families come in their own shapes and varieties, same as the unhappy ones."

But relating to Willa's feelings about the horrific actions of her birth father is harder. How many readers can even begin to comprehend what it would feel like to have a parent commit a horrific crime? There is a quite vivid and memorable scene in which Willa imagines what might have been going through her father's head - I can sort of picture the movie version, but my brain shies away from the images.

Willa does show occasional flashes of humor. Like this:

"Mom called me that night, after Faye and I had eaten what passed for pizza in Pryor. If I'd given any serious thought to staying in Pryor and working in the tannery, the pizza convinced me otherwise." (Page 119)

And I like the way she evolves and matures over the course of the book, from "Quiet-Never-Make-A-Fuss Willa" to someone willing to make decisions for herself, and find her place in the world and in her family. Her growth is notable, but not so over the top as to be implausible.

Blood Wounds is an intriguing mix of suspense and problem novel, of ripped-from-the-headlines newscamera drama and the quiet desperation of a lonely teen. If you can get past what I think is a pretty disturbing cover, it's well worth a look. Recommended.

Publisher: Harcourt (@hmhbooks)
Publication Date: September 13, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.