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Posts from November 2011

Ashfall: Mike Mullin

Book: Ashfall
Author: Mike Mullin
Pages: 476
Age Range: 13 and up

AshfallCoverThe disturbing thing about Mike Mullin's new post-apocalyptic young adult novel, Ashfall, is how real (and possible) it feels. Ashfall features a near-term apocalypse based on a natural disaster, the eruption of the enormous volcano beneath Yellowstone National Park. Ashfall is told from the first-person perspective of 15-year-old Alex, who strikes out from his destroyed home in Cedar Falls, Iowa to find his family in Warren, Illinois, 140 brutal miles away. Ashfall begins:

"I was home alone on that Friday evening. Those who survived know exactly which Friday I mean. Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing, in the same way my parents remembered 9/11, but more so. Together we lost the old world, slipping from that cocoon of mechanized comfort into the hellish land we inhabit now. The pre-Friday world of school, cell phones, and refrigerators dissolved into this post-Friday world of ash, darkness, and hunger." (Page 1)

What fan of post-apocalyptic fiction could resist continuing? The post-eruption world traversed by Alex is bleak and ash-filled, with a shortage of food, and an abundance of dangerous people. I found Ashfall reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's The Road (though not quite so hopeless as that). I also found echoes of Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It. Like LAWKI, Ashfall made me wonder whether I shouldn't go ahead and stockpile a few supplies in my garage, just in case.

The world in Ashfall is vividly, chillingly rendered, albeit from the ever-so-slightly melodramatic viewpoint of a previously sheltered teen. Here's a snippet:

"I might have been skiing on the surface of the moon for all the activity there was. I passed four or five farmhouses but saw nothing moving. Everything I normally saw in Iowa countryside was missing: There were no people, no cars, no cows--not even a solitary turkey vulture circling in the sky.

The weird, rainless thunder and lightning continued. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness, so every time a series of lightning bolts lit up the landscape, it hurt. The thunder seemed strangely muted. Maybe the falling ash muffled it somehow, or maybe my ears hadn't fully recovered from the first enormous explosions." (Chapter 12)

Also like LAWKI, in addition to being a survival story, Ashfall is a coming of age story. Alex grows through the course of the book from a sullen teenager with a "bratty little sister" and a World of Warcraft addiction into a man who takes responsibility for himself and others. The transformation is incremental and realistic, given the series of epic trials that Alex passes through in a short time.

On thing that I found particularly interesting about Ashfall is that it's a localized apocalypse. All of civilization doesn't come to an end (as in most books). It's just that the characters in the book are unable to reach the presumed civilization that still exists on the East Coast. Many people still revert immediately to their worst selves, ranging from the shotgun peeping out of the window to scare off passers-by to the men who commit atrocities, just because they can. Ashfall is not for the faint of heart.

Ashfall is compelling and suspenseful. Mullin makes excellent use of cliffhangers at the end of paragraphs, to keep pulling the reader forward. Moments of calm are brief, and liable to be punctuated at any moment by peril. Like this:

"Darren rested his hand on my shoulder. "It'll be all right, Alex. The phones will probably be back up tomorrow, and we'll get your folks and the insurance company on the line. A year from now, the house will be good as new, and you'll be cracking jokes about this."

I nodded wearily and straightened up, Darren's hand still a comfortable weight on my shoulder.

Then the explosions started." (end of Chapter 2)

I did feel towards the later part of the book like a bit more editing could have been employed, to make the book leaner. But this didn't keep me from moving forward, and it certainly won't keep me from reading the sequel, Ashen Winter, when available.

Ashfall is a straight-up post-apocalyptic story that feels like it could happen tomorrow. There are no zombies or invading aliens, and no heavy-handed environmental messages. There's a gigantic volcano that explodes and wreaks havoc across the Western half of the United States (at least), followed by a classic survival story of a teen on his own in harsh and unforgiving landscape. Ashfall is a must-read for fans of this type of realistic post-apocalypse novel and anyone who enjoys survival stories. Recommended!

Publisher: Tanglewood Press
Publication Date: September 27, 2011
Source of Book: Purchased as Kindle eBook

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

A Few Blocks: Cybele Young

Book: A Few Blocks
Pages: 48
Age Range: 4-8

41pN4pAmLML._SL500_AA300_Cybele Young's A Few Blocks is a relatively small picture book with unique illustrations. It's about the imaginary games that a brother and sister, Ferdie and Viola, play as they walk a few blocks to school. The text is pretty minimal, mostly featuring Ferdie refusing to go to school, and Viola cajoling him, like this (over several pages):

"Ferdie found a perfect rock and sat down.

"That's it. I'm not going. Not now," he said. "Maybe never."

He watched as some ants on the ground ate a gumdrop.

Viola pointed to a leaf in the gutter and said, "The ship's leaving! We'd better hop on and go find the buried treasure!""

And then the two hop into an adventure!

The illustrations of Ferdie and Viola's real life are tiny, delicate, black and white pen and ink sketches against a white background. A window, a chair, a fire hydrant. Viola putting on her coat. Mundane, realistic things. But each time the children are about to launch into an imaginary adventure, a hint of color leads the way. Like this:

"Ferdie, look! I found your superfast cape! Quick -- put on your rocket-blaster books and we'll take off!"

The cape and boots are blue. And on the next page, Ferdie and Viola launch into the air, above a colorful, futuristic cityscape. The fantasy sequences are based on 3-D paper sculptures, created from paintings. They have visible shadows behind them, making it clear that they are 3D. These sequences are rendered in soft colors, using a different color scheme for each image.

These images remind me of childhood times that I spent playing with a mix of paper dolls and figurines. There are looping paper walkways and bridges. Some of the pages feature layers of cutouts from different paintings, interlaced, with colors used to tell them apart. They are unusual and intriguing. I think that they'll inspire kids to want to draw and paint and cut out their own cityscapes and fantasy worlds.

There's not much of a story to A Few Blocks. The kids segue from future city to pirate ship to medieval castle, and back again. And at the end, it's Ferdie who uses his imagination to coax his older sister to take those last few steps towards school. But what makes A Few Blocks stand out are the intricate, glowing, imagination-stretching illustrations. If you know a child who likes visiting imaginary worlds, and/or a child who enjoys creating artwork, A Few Blocks would make a lovely gift. Recommended for 4-8 year olds (more for individual reading than for group read-aloud, I think, given the detail of the illustrations).

Publisher: Groundwood Books (@GroundwoodBooks)
Publication Date: August 2, 2011
Source of Book: Library copy
Nominated for 2011 Cybils in Fiction Picture Books by: Mia Wenjen

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Diary of a Wimpy Kid 6: Cabin Fever: Jeff Kinney

Book: Diary of a Wimpy Kid 6: Cabin Fever
Author: Jeff Kinney
Pages: 224
Age Range: 8 and up

ImagesCabin Fever is the 6th book in Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. It feels almost superfluous to review it, considering that virtually everyone in the English-speaking world has heard of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. But here are a few thoughts.

The main plotline in Cabin Fever involves Greg Heffley and his family being snowed in and without power right before Christmas. This is a bit of a reprieve for Greg, because the police are apparently after him, following an incident of inadvertent school vandalism. As with the other books in this series, however, Cabin Fever is more incident-driven than plot-driven, so lots of other things are touched on, too, such as:

  • Greg's fear that "Santa's Scout" is watching him, poised to keep him from getting presents from Santa (though how a middler schooler would still believe in Santa is left unexplored);
  • Anti-bullying campaigns in schools;
  • The degree to which Greg's youngest brother, Manny, is spoiled by his mother;
  • The absurd lengths to which schools have gone to improve playground safety, due to fear of liability ("So recess is basically like a prison yard")
  • Separate (empty) "nut allergies" sections in the cafeteria;
  • What happens when the school takes away energy drinks (a black market springs up, of course);
  • The computerized pets craze;
  • and so on.

To me as an adult reader, it felt like Kinney was skewering too many different things, without anything much really happening. The afore-mentioned main plotline didn't even start until the second half of the book. But I still laughed aloud here and there, and I still think that fans of the series will devour this one as soon as they can get their hands on it.

Here are  my two favorite passages:

"See, this is the kind of nonsense I'm dealing with right now. I've seen a lot of movies where a kid my age finds out he's got magical powers and then gets invited to go away to some special school. Well, if I've got an invitation coming, now be the PERFECT time to get it." (Page 175)

"When you're used to having electricity and then all of a sudden it's taken away, you're basically just one step away from being a wild animal. And with no phone or TV, we were totally cut off from the outside world." (Page 198)

The Diary of a Wimpy Kid books have launched a whole sub-genre of journal-like, sketch-illustrated books about elementary and middle school-aged boys (and a few for girls). See, for example, James Patterson's Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life. More importantly, these books have engaged a generation of formerly reluctant readers, showing them that books can be accessible and fun.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid 6: Cabin Fever is perfectly timed for the holiday season, with Santa, holiday bazaars, and a full-scale blizzard. I suspect that it's not the strongest of the series overall. But as long as it keeps kids reading, I am a fan. Recommended for fans of the series, or anyone for whom a cartoon-illustrated, funny, boy-friendly book sounds like just the ticket (age 8 and up).

Publisher: Amulet Books (@AbramsBooks)
Publication Date: November 15, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Caller Number Nine: Debbie Duncan

Book: Caller Number Nine
Author: Debbie Duncan
Pages: N/A (eBook only)
Age Range: 12 and up

Caller9-medDebbie Duncan is a friend of mine from Twitter. We are fellow baseball fans and Bay Area residents. Debbie sent me an ebook of her new YA novel, Caller Number Nine, so that I could read it on my recent trip. Caller Number Nine is a semi-autobiographical story about a thirteen-year-old girl named Laura Hill who, in 1967, wins a radio contest, the prize for which is a weekend in Hawaii with her favorite DJ. The Hawaii trip (which her parents may or may not let her go on) is set against a backdrop encompassing the Vietnam War and the struggle for Civil Rights for both blacks and women.

The author clearly was a teenager (or at least old enough to remember things clearly) in 1967. The details in Caller Number Nine are too authentic for it to be otherwise. I think that young readers will find many of the tidbits in Caller Number Nine surprising. For example, Laura visits McDonalds for the first time. Imagine being thirteen years old and never having been to McDonalds? Imagine a world where the Beatles are still together, and you hear The Doors play Light My Fire for the first time? Imagine seeing Martin Luther King speak in person (and not knowing what's going to happen to him). Remember when people could smoke on airplanes, and you could arrive at the airport just a few minutes before your flight? And so on. There are too many examples to even skim the surface.

Even when writing about serious topics, like the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, Duncan keeps Caller Number Nine's tone fairly light-hearted, which I think is a real plus to the book. Here are a couple of quotes, to give you a feel Duncan's writing:

"I decided to pretend nothing had changed. I didn't tell Karen, and I also didn't argue with Mom. But I did ask her to drive me to Topanga Plaza after school. We listened to news on the car radio. Julie Andrews had a movie opening tonight, and Palm Springs was getting ready for college kids on spring break. And half a dozen boys from L.A. were killed in Vietnam. (Chapter 4)

"I didn't know how "green" smelled until I stepped off that airplane. And the warm, moist air felt amazingly comfortable because of the breeze. When I made it to the bottom of the stairs without falling, I told Carol. "I don't have any jeans." (Chapter 15)

"People who are worth caring about... don't care what you look like" (Chapter 23)

Laura is a plausible and engaging character. She has a pathological fear of making telephone calls to people she doesn't know (she must be an introvert). She gets excited about things, and cries as though the world is coming to an end when life don't go her way. She wants to change the world. She feels real. I cared about what was happening to her.

I didn't find Laura's love interest, Todd, to be equally plausible, I must admit. There's an abruptness to the way that he approaches dating Laura that didn't feel real to me. I also thought that Laura's problems were sometimes a bit too easily resolved. While I liked her and wanted her problems to be resolved, I was a bit let down when things resolved too quickly. Caller Number Nine is clearly a labor of love on the part of the author. I think that a third-party editor (despite the presence of a most impressive critique group) might have pushed the author to be more ruthless in this area.

But for anyone looking for a window into 1967, when radio rules, girls are just starting to wear jeans, and early protests for the Vietnam War are blooming, Caller Number Nine is well worth a look. The cover, designed by Christy Hale, is eye-catching and perfect for the book. Caller Number Nine is available as an eBook from Amazon and other locations.

Publisher: Debbie Duncan (@debbieduncan)
Publication Date: August 10, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the author

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Me...Jane: Patrick McDonnell

Book: Me...Jane
Author: Patrick McDonnell
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8

MejanePatrick McDonnell's picture book Me...Jane is something special. It's a fictionalized account of the childhood of Jane Goodall, but it's more than that. Me...Jane starts with ink and watercolor illustrations of little Jane running around outside with her stuffed chimpanzee, and ends with a photo of the grown up Jane in the jungle with a real chimpanzee. Only in the afterword are the details of Jane Goodall's work (or even her last name) mentioned.

For young readers, Me...Jane stands on its own as a story about a little girl who loves her toy chimpanzee (Jubilee), always wants to be outdoors, and is determined to learn as much as she can about the world around her. Those who know a bit about Goodall, though, will smile at text like this:

"WIth the wind in her hair, she read and reread
the books about Tarzan of the Apes,
in which another girl, also named Jane,
lived in the jungles of Africa."

The text is inspirational, if perhaps a little over the top in places, like this:

"It was a magical world
full of joy and wonder,
and Jane felt very much
a part of it."

McDonnell's illustrations demonstrate a clear affection for young Jane, and for nature. Jane is usually shown small in scale against larger backdrops. She looks curious, intrepid, and happy. My favorite illustration is one in which Jane dreams of "a life living with, and helping, all animals." The picture shows her swinging on a vine through the jungle, wearing her little skirt and jacket, followed by a living Jubilee.

But there are other illustrations in the book besides McDonnell's paintings, too. Two facing pages in the middle of the book show drawings and puzzles that Jane herself created as a young girl. Also, "throughout the book, ornamental engravings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are included, collectively evoking Jane's lifelong passion for detailed, scientific observations of nature." These engravings are included in a lighter color than McDonnell's own artwork, and include delicate tracings of leaves and animals and stopwatches, always relevant to the page at hand. The engravings really make Me...Jane stand out, and are sure to interest older readers.

Me...Jane is a lovely, gorgeously illustrated story about an unconventional little girl who has a dream, and who achieves that dream. This is a book that I'd like my daughter to read (when she's older) on multiple levels. I'd like her to enjoy the story of the girl and the toy chimpanzee hiding in the chicken house to watch an egg being laid. I'd like her to appreciate the detail of the illustrations. And I'd like her to see this matter-of-fact depiction of a girl with a scientific bent, and absorb that it's ok for girls to pursue science if they want to. My daughter isn't old enough for this book yet. But I hope that lots of families find this book in the meantime. Recommended for early elementary school readers, and a must for library purchase. 

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@lbkids)
Publication Date: April 5, 2011
Source of Book: Library copy
Nominated for 2011 Cybils in Fiction Picture Books by: Kerry Aradhya

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Reality Check: Peter Abrahams

Book: Reality Check
Author: Peter Abrahams
Pages: 352
Age Range: 13 and up

RealityCheck 1.23Peter Abrahams is the author of Down the Rabbit Hole and Behind the Curtain, both of which I liked because they are middle grade/middle school mystery novels that deal with real mysteries (dead bodies, etc.). I also commented when I reviewed those that Abrahams, an author of adult mysteries, has a good feel for the voice of teens (he has four children, and I'm sure that helps).

Reality Check is, I believe, Abrahams' first YA novel. Cody Larado comes from a difficult background (dead mother, alcoholic father). His only hope for getting out of his small town is football. Cody, a high school junior, is the school quarterback, at least until he blows out his knee. The contrast between Cody's life and that of his wealthy, perfect girlfriend, Clea, eventually becomes too much. The two break up right before Clea goes east to attend boarding school. But when Clea disappears while riding her horse in the snowy Vermont woods, Cody drops everything and leaves his home in Colorado to try to find her.

Reality Check is a somewhat bleak novel. Cody's future looks pretty grim, and the atmosphere in Clea's snowy Vermont town is downright ominous. You don't know whether or not Clea is dead. This is definitely YA, not middle grade. There is also some mature language, and not-very-graphic references to sex.

Reality Check is also suspenseful and (for a mystery novel), quite realistic. I did see the ending coming before Cody did, but not by much (there's one line that positively gives the game away -- I think that Abrahams wants the reader to see what trouble Cody is getting into before he does).

I didn't identify very well with Cody, a struggling student whose only real interest (besides Clea) is football. But I still liked him, and wanted him to succeed. There was one passage that made me feel old, when Cody, in a hotel room, sees his first black and white televsion set. But this is probably realistic. And, of course, I'm not the target audience. Reality Check is definitely boy-friendly, with plenty of references to sports, and a boys-eye view of being in love. We get a lot of Cory's inner monologue, like this:

"Mr. Weston's eyes--similar in color to Clea's but in no other way--rose slowly up to Cody's face. DId he notice that COdy was wearing his shirt. No way to tell.

"That your car in the drive?" he said, not furious, not even loud, but Cody's spine felt icy just the same. "I asked you a question," Mr. Weston said after a moment or two of silence.

Was it a serious question. Mr. Weston had seen Cody's car before, and besides, who else's could it be, an old banger like that in the Weston's circular driveway." (Chapter 2)

I would recommend Reality Check for fans of John Feinstein's sports mysteries, or anyone looking for a mystery/thriller for teenage boys. It's a quick read, with a distinctive voice, and an intriguing, twisty plot. 

Publisher: HarperTeen (@HarperTeen)
Publication Date: April 27, 2010
Source of Book: Library eBook

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Growing Bookworms Newsletter: November 22

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 1450 subscribers. Currently I am sending the newsletter out once every two weeks.

Newsletter Update: In this issue I have seven book reviews (five picture books, one middle grade, and one YA). I also have one children's literacy roundup (with additional detail available at Rasco from RIF). All of my posts for the past two weeks are included in the newsletter.

Reading Update: Since the last newsletter, I finished six books, one middle grade, four YA, and one adult title (as well as various picture books read for the Cybils, and picture books and board books read aloud to Baby Bookworm, here, here, here, and here). I had a big trip over the past couple of weeks, which gave me some extra time for reading. However, I've been ill and pretty much without childcare since I returned, so the reviews will be a while. But here are the books:

  • Sarah Prineas: Winterling. HarperCollins. Completed November 17, 2011.
  • Gabrielle Zevin: All These Things I've Done. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR). Completed November 8, 2011, on CD.
  • Debbie Duncan: Caller Number Nine. Completed November 14, 2011 (iBooks eBook).
  • Peter Abrahams: Reality Check. HarperTeen. Completed November 14, 2011 (Kindle eBook from the library).
  • Mike Mullin: Ashfall. Tanglewood Press. Completed November 20, 2011. (Kindle eBook, purchased).
  • Alan Bradley: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Bantam. Completed November 17, 2011 (Kindle eBook from the library).

I'm still listening to Lee Child's latest Reacher novel, The Affair, on my MP3 player, and I've also started listening to Return to Gone-Away by Elizabeth Enright (one of my all-time favorites) when Baby Bookworm is with me. I'm currently reading N. D. Wilson's The Dragon's Tooth: Ashtown Burials #1 and Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid #6: Cabin Fever.

Cybils2011I've had some trouble keeping up with my Cybils reading of late, because of my travels, although I have crossed the half-way point of the 264 nominated titles in Fiction Picture Books. At least my store of reviews has helped me to keep content going on my blog. Review copies have started coming in from publishers, though, (for books not available at my local libraries) so once I can scrape up some time, I'll have plenty of picture books to read.

How about you? What have you been reading and enjoying? Thanks for reading the newsletter, and for growing bookworms. Wishing all of you in the United States (or from the United States) a safe and Happy Thanksgiving!

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

Tiny Little Fly: Michael Rosen & Kevin Waldron

Book: Tiny Little Fly
Author: Michael Rosen
Illustrator: Kevin Waldron
Pages: 32
Age Range: 3-8

FlyBe warned! Tiny Little Fly, written by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Kevin Waldron, is a picture book with a snappy refrain that you just might find yourself chanting as you go about your day. But personally, I'm ok with that. It's a fun book about a tiny little fly who buzzes around pestering a string of large animals. The animals use their own particular strengths to try to get rid of the fly (the elephant trying to stomp on him, the hippo trying to roll over on him, etc.). But the tiny little fly bests them all, and flies off into the flowers.

Rosen's text is quite bouncy. Like this (across 2 page spreads):

"Great Big Tiger winks one eye, says to herself, "I'm going to catch that fly!"
Great Big Tiger
winks the other eye.
But off flies the fly."

You kind of want to sing it, instead of just reading it. Not that it's annoyingly sing-songy. More like it would make a decent song for singing with toddlers (something I am generally on the lookout for these days).

Kevin Waldron's illustrations (done in pencil, painted in gouache, and digitally enhanced) are large in scale, and jungle-themed in palette. The animals are sized so large that they don't even fit on the pages, with just a portion of each animal visible at one time. Each animal's encounter with the fly carries across several pages, however, so the reader gets multiple chances to piece together what the animal looks like. The animals aren't quite realistic, but they are imposing. The tiger is quite beautiful, too, I think.

Waldron often shows the fly's trajectory, making it easier for young readers to find him (the fly is a little bit oversized relative to the animals, otherwise he'd be lost completely).

Tiny Little Fly is a nice, substantial book, too, in terms of construction. A little oversized, with thick, smooth pages. Near the end there's a page spread in which each folded page opens out from the middle, resulting in one illustration four pages wide. In my library copy, the fold-out pages are pretty crinkled (nearly a year after the book's publication date), but it's still a fun device for engaging visual interest.

Tiny Little Fly would be a good choice for preschoolers. It's fun to read aloud, and has bold, active illustrations of several jungle animals. And the small creature wins the day, which is probably an encouraging thought. I think we just might pick up a copy of this one to keep. Recommended!

Publisher: Candlewick (@Candlewick)
Publication Date: November 9, 2010
Source of Book: Library copy
Nominated for 2011 Cybils in Fiction Picture Books by: Debbie

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Bob Staake's Look! A Book!

Book: Look! A Book!
Author: Bob Staake
Pages: 48
Age Range: 3-8

51z40SIpiIL._SL500_AA300_Bob Staake's illustrations for adults have been featured in the Washington Post and on the cover of the New Yorker. But I love his picture books. (See my review of The Donut Chef, and of Jack Lechner's Mary Had a Little Lamp. Both are on my "keep" shelf.) Staake's newest, Look! A Book!, bears his distinctive illustration style, including people of all sorts of geometric shapes and unusual colors. It's more a seek-and-find, Where's Waldo type of book than a standard picture book. Here's the explanation on the first page, which sets up the rest of the book:

With images of every kind!

So many objects,
big and small.
Let's see if you
can find them

Grinning ghosts and pizza planes,
underwater subway trains.
Not a lot of words to read--
the pictures here are all you need!"

The rest of the book alternates between extremely busy pages, filled with tiny, quirky illustrations, and pages that just have 3-6 round cutouts spotlighting individual items from the detailed pages. Each of the busy pages is based on a theme, and Staake gives the reader the task of finding some particular small item. Like this:

"MUSEUM CREATURES all escape! Lion! Tiger! Rhino! Ape!
Look and find the vampire's cape."

As you can see, as acknowledged by the author up-front, the text is not the point here. But, oh, the details of the illustrations! This book is an absolute dream for kids who like to pore over pictures to find things, especially if those kids have a good (not too convention-bound) sense of humor.

There are seemingly random items everywhere, like a fish blowing out a candle on a piece of underwater birthday cake, and an angel walking along eating an ice cream cone. Some things are (generally) realistic, and others (like various robots) are far fetched. But all of it is pure, unadulterated fun, for kids and adults.

When you get to the end of the book, Staake sends the reader back to the previous pages, to look for even more items in the pictures. This is a book to purchase, and to read over, and over, and over again. I think that Baby Bookworm will love it when she's older, and I've already added it (since this review was from a library copy) to my wish list.

Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers (@lbkids)
Publication Date: February 1, 2011
Source of Book: Library copy
Nominated for 2011 Cybils in Fiction Picture Books by: Paula Willey

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Children's Literacy and Reading News Roundup: Mid-November Edition

JkrROUNDUPWelcome to the mid-November Children’s Literacy and Reading News Roundup brought to you by Jen Robinson’s Book Page and Rasco from RIF. Over the month of November so far Carol Rasco and I have collected content for you about literacy & reading-related events; literacy and reading programs and research; and suggestions for growing bookworms. Carol has the full roundup at Rasco from RIF, but I've shared a few highlights and added a few extra tidbits below.

As Carol said, she and I wish "to honor the memory of our colleague Terry Doherty’s father who was “called Home” over the weekend. Clearly he was among many things a man of literacy who instilled in his daughter and those he taught within a classroom a love of words, books, and story. Terry has paid tribute to him in a beautiful, personal posting. Our thoughts are with the family as they mourn his loss and celebrate all that he brought to their lives. Indeed, we are thinking about you and all your family, Terry."

We missed Terry's wisdom as we compiled this roundup, and look forward to the time when she is able to rejoin us.

In other news, Carol passes along some insightful thoughts from child psychiatrist Dr. Harold Koplewicz on the reason for the popularity of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books (Book 6 was released this week), and a heartwarming piece about 76-year-old Betty the Reading Buddy, who has been reading to second graders at an elementary school for 15 years. And worth clicking through for alone, a great little cartoon featuring Santa handing out a library card to a child.

Now, for my additional links, which I wasn't able to share with Carol in time for the roundup (I've been traveling since last Wednesday, and am very much looking forward to getting home tonight):

  • Read Aloud Dad shares his hyper-enthusiastic thoughts on "the explosive power of reading aloud." This is a post to brighten the day of any children's literacy advocate, and, hopefully, one that will convince other parents to set out on the read-aloud journey. 
  • I just learned via The Greedy Sparrow (a Cybils nominee!) author Lucine Kasbarian that Yerevan, Armenia was named World Book Capital for 2012 by UNESCO. I am Armenian-by-marriage, and am happy to see this honor accorded to Armenia (particularly when it intersects so well with my own interests).
  • A special treat for children's literature fans. Colleen Mondor and her Blog Blast Tour Team this week bring us a One Shot World Tour of books celebrating City Living. It's worth clicking through for the gorgeous logo alone. See also the related Guys Lit Wire announcement about a holiday book fair for Ballou Sr High School.
  • GoneReading_welcome_graphicAs the holiday season approaches, I'd like to point out a company that features gifts for book-lovers. Gone Reading International (via Cafe Press) sells beautiful mugs, t-shirts, bags, etc., all with logos that celebrate reading. I bought myself a coffee mug that shows a person reading in a hammock, and a shirt for Baby Bookworm showing a turtle that says "Slow Down and Read to Me." They donate 100% of their profits to other nonprofits that fund libraries and literacy projects in developing countries.

That's all I have for you today. Please do click through to read more literacy and reading news at Rasco from RIF. Thanks for reading, and for caring about children's literacy. We'll be back with more news at the end of the month. Happy Thanksgiving to all in the meantime!

PIE: Sarah Weeks

Book: PIE
Author: Sarah Weeks
Pages: 192
Age Range: 8-12

Pie-206x300PIE is a new middle grade novel by Sarah Weeks (see also my review of Jumping the Scratch). In 1955, the small town of Ipswitch, Pennsylvania is kept afloat by Polly Portman's world-famous pie shop, PIE, Mecca for pie-lovers everywhere. When Polly dies suddenly, she leaves her secret pie crust recipe to her ill-tempered cat, Lardo, and she leaves Lardo to her beloved niece, Alice. The recipe itself is nowhere in sight.

Although everyone in town mourns Polly's pies, Alice misses her aunt, her refuge from her critical mother and abstracted father, even more. When Aunt Polly's shop is ransacked, and Lardo is kidnapped, Alice and her new friend Charlie set out together to unravel the mystery (and, perhaps, find the recipe for Aunt Polly's amazing pie crust).

PIE has a bit of a Roald Dahl feel to it, with larger than life characters, and a faintly surreal quality. In the world of PIE, people don't just enjoy pie, they are obsessed with it. Like this:

"The Blueberry Award was established in 1922 to celebrate the most distinguished contribution to American pie making. Each year during the month of August, people from all over the country would box up their pies and deliver them to the Blueberry committee for consideration. The committee members would carefully evaluate the pies, "Blueberry Buzz" would spread as the top contenders emerged, "Mock Blueberry" clubs would choose their own favorites, and finally on the first Monday in September, amid a great deal of fanfare, the Blueberry committee would announce the winner." (Page 28)

(Several nods towards the 1922-established Newbery awards are included in the above, as a little gift to children's literature fans).

There is also a suspicious elementary school principal who reminds me a great deal of Miss Wormwood from Dahl's Matilda, as well as a fantasy-fulfillment quality to the ending. These aspects are set against the more ordinary framework of a 1950's small town, a toxic case of sibling jealousy that extends into adulthood, and a warm sentimentality that surrounds the relationships between Alice and Polly, and, later, Alice and Charlie. And, of course, the wonderful smell of homemade pie. Here's a passage that pretty well sums up the feel of the book:

"Working side by side at the long wooden counter, time flew by and Alice and Polly never seemed to run out of things to talk about. The air was filled not only with the delicious smell of baking pies, but with the sweet sound of laughter. Pie after pie after pie went into the oven, and no sooner would Polly pull them out than the little silver bell over the door would jingle, merrily announcing the arrival of another hungry customer. Polly greeted each and every one with a sunny smile and a warm welcome. People loved coming to PIE, but to Alice it was much more than just a pie shop. It was a home away from home, a safe place where she could truly be herself." (Page 7)

There are recipes for different kinds of pie at the start of each chapter. An endnote attributes each recipe to a real-world friend or family member of the author, while footnotes within each recipe cite which character held this type of pie as a favorite.

The mystery itself is a bit contrived, and the story's resolution is rather quick and tidy. There isn't the same depth to the historical details that one finds in, say, Kirby Larson's books. But that's ok, because PIE isn't a book that one is supposed to take literally. Pie within the book is  a proxy for love, family, and community. And PIE the book is a celebration of those things. An epilogue set 40 years later reinforces PIE's heart, and leaves the reader wholly satisfied.

PIE is a quick read, perfect for younger readers newly graduated into middle grade fiction. Despite the underlying sentimentality, the quirkiness of the book keeps it boy- and girl-friendly. While this book isn't going to be for everyone, I would try it out on fans of Roald Dahl, as well as young bakers-in-the-making (and perhaps their grandmas), and anyone who likes stories with an old-fashioned tone.

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic)
Publication Date: October 1, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the publilsher

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Tia Isa Wants A Car: Meg Medina

Book: Tia Isa Wants A Car
Author: Meg Medina
Illustrator: Claudio Munoz
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-8

Tia_isa1Tia Isa Wants A Car by Meg Medina is about separated immigrant families and working hard to achieve goals. The unnamed narrator lives in an apartment with her aunt and uncle (a brother and sister), while her Mami, Papi, and Abuelo remain on some far off island. Most of the money that Tia Isa and Tio Andres earn is sent "back home--along with notes and pictures so Mami can see how I've grown."

Despite money being tight, Tia Isa decides that she wants to save up to buy a car, so that she can drive to the beach. Tio Andres thinks that this is "Rrrridiculo". But Isa and her niece work hard to raise money, and in support of the dream of buying a car.

Although this book certainly conveys messages about working hard, and believing that you can achieve what you set out to do, Tia Isa Wants A Car doesn't feel message-y. It feels more like a true story about an immigrant family. Part of Isa's determination involves showing up her doubting brother. And the first thing that Isa and her niece do once they get their car is tape up a picture of the whole family. It's a family story (and a note at the end suggests that this book is loosely based on the author's own childhood experience).

One thing I like about this book is the casual sprinkling of Spanish words throughout the text, not enough to need a glossary, or to be confusing, but enough to lend a Latina flavor to the book. I also quite like Claudio Munoz's pencil, watercolor, and ink illustrations. They are warm and colorful, particularly the ones that show the beach. There's a slight blurring of the images of the family back home, just enough to make it clear that they are separate from the book's day-to-day reality.

And the pictures absolutely help with the characterization in the story. Isa's pride and determination are clear in the set of her shoulders and the lift of her head, while Andres' questioning hand gestures look authentic. The apartment that Isa and Andres live in with their niece is lovingly detailed. And the pictures that accompany the niece's projects around her neighborhood show a nice cross-section of people and backgrounds.

Tia Isa Wants A Car celebrates family and hard work, and the bridging of old and new cultures. It would make a nice read-aloud for school or library storytime, particularly in schools with a significant Latino immigrant population. I like it!

Publisher: Candlewick (@Candlewick)
Publication Date: June 4, 2011
Source of Book: Library copy
Nominated for 2011 Cybils in Fiction Picture Books by: Danielle Smith

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).