Book Review: Sweet, Satisfying, and Quick to Read: The World That Forgot How to Dance

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I am biased toward this book. This is the first published book written by a Hollins classmate to make it to my bookshelves. Many of us left with at least partial manuscripts, a little bit wiser in our craft for our four years of study, and it’s been a bit of a race to paint our words over impressionable minds and hearts. Olivia Berrier and I took English 142 together and together with our classmates demanded that we be allowed to write fantasy, promised to show that fantasy could have literary value—a fight that, for that semester, our class won, and because of that, I got to enjoy some of Olivia’s earlier fantasy works (calling her Berrier is just weird, so I think we’ll have to stick with informal address, even in this more formal review). We’ve kept in touch since, and got together once during the brief time that we were back in the same city, but most of our relationship has since been online, and most of it has been book discussion.

This novelette began as a weekly serial for her blog, Often Clueless, Always Shoeless, but it has been rather seamlessly sewn together here. I shamefully admit to not reading more than an episode or two of the serial while it was being published, so I don’t honestly know whether this is a direct rendering or if the text was edited between the blog and the printed form.

It’s a quick read, only 73 pages long, but with page breaks to allow for a breather or a bit of sleep as needed—and in this form you don’t have to wait a week for the next installment. I took a week to linger over the words and the world, and even so I was sad when the story ended, and I realized that there would be no more. I wrote a message on Olivia’s Facebook wall immediately after I’d finished, telling her essentially that: “I just finished your book, and I’m sad it’s over, and I’m not sure I can offer a better compliment than that.”

Olivia writes lovingly about dance, and the way that she writes about it, it’s easy to believe that dance could be the catalyst for magic.

Her protagonist and point-of-view character Ellsie (Ellsie’s is a fairly close third) is compassionate, passionate, and real in the best ways—longing to be what she is not and struggling to accept herself as she is and realize that she is enough while never seeming weak for having a weakness and never seeming absurdly powerful for having the ability to work magic (an ability that is this world seems fairly universal, though the spells are forgotten now).

Lester, once arrogant and jealous, now scared and hopeless inspires new vigor in Ellsie when she reignites hope in him, and he sets her an unlawful and emotionally heavy task that will save her, one hundred thirty-seven others, and the world that has forgotten magic and forgotten how to dance.

The world is strangely modern and strangely familiar, and I scraped myself once or twice against cars and guns and cell phones and familiar styles of dance, including freestyle. I don’t know why these modern elements seemed so rough against my skin, but perhaps only because I spend so much of my time in technologically early civilizations and perhaps because these objects are sparse, scattered reminders of the modernity of a world that 300 years ago could be so reliant on magic—but then 300 years is a long time, and I frequently forget that (300 years ago, Blackbeard was given his first command of a ship, the Jacobites were fighting against the Hanovers in England, and there were still a few executions of witches to come). Perhaps it’s that these objects are so familiar, that they are staples of our world while magic is not. I could not decide whether I was in an alternate version of our world or another world entirely. I think it was this last, that this confusion of setting was what threw me once or twice briefly from the text.

There were some excellent gems of wordsmithing here, particularly apt and original comparisons and poignant verbs.

Ultimately, the story is a sweet and brief reminder of the magic available to all and the freedom and power of dance.

****

Berrier, Olivia.  The World That Forgot How to Dance.  48HrBooks, 2015.

This review is not endorsed by Olivia Berrier or 48HrBooks.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: Why Is There So Little Racial Diversity Among Protagonists?

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I’m no expert, and I’m not sure I’m even remotely eloquent when discussing race and racial disparity, but I couldn’t help noticing how few books that I’d read in 2015 had any characters of anything other than “white” skin—or maybe I noticed more how many were unnecessarily white—and how many of those that had some mention or appearance of a person of color still had a white person in a position of power or (and) importance, how many illustrators and writers had defaulted to white for their protagonists. Even being fairly generous, allowing even books that mentioned vaguely and offhandedly the existence of people of color within their worlds or having people of color appear as background characters in the illustrations, I come up with a mere 26 out of 111. Admittedly, 38 of those 111 dodged the question of race by excluding humans altogether, favoring instead only anthropomorphized animals or objects so that the count is really more like 26 out of 85 (just over 30%) with 3 more books of those 85 dodging the question another way: Todd Parr in It’s Okay to Make Mistakes by illustrating his characters in colors so outlandish (purple?) that I’m hesitant to assign them any race, Virginia Burton in Katy and the Big Snow by making figures so small that it’s impossible to tell whether her characters are bundled against the cold or darker skinned, Jack McDevitt in Eternity Road simply escaping on a technicality (I don’t remember the mention of anyone of color, and I didn’t make note of any in my review… but I feel certain there must be someone—this is post-apocalyptic America!).

Literature provides an opportunity to walk the world as someone else and with someone else without ever having to leave the couch.  Literature seeps into minds and hearts.  It can teach us when face-to-face conversation is difficult or impossible.  In a time of too-present, too-rampant racism, the disproportionate examples of white protagonists narrows the world’s (fictional worlds’) vision and silences the very voices that literature can and should promote, that could alter our minds and hearts.

This all said, I did not in 2015 seek out diverse literature.  I read what I wanted, what intrigued me, what I had at the house without giving any thought to the races of the protagonists–other than to be excited when I did stumble across a a person of color as a protagonist (especially in picture books).

But that’s just it:  I shouldn’t have to seek out diverse characters.  Our fictional worlds as diverse as our own, and it seems to me that publishing still has a ways to go to make that so.

I hope you find this survey and these statistics as eye-opening as I did.

 

So WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE OF COLOR?

Well….

Samurai Santa by Rubin Pingk. Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Christmas comes to the ninja dojo. All the characters then are Japanese, but all this really does is reinforce stereotypes. Do children realize that ninjas and dojos are historical aspects of Japan? Is there anything historically accurate about this dojo? Little here could build cultural awareness.

 

Here they are, in the background where a white person—or a non-human character—is the protagonist.

Iggy Peck, Architect and Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Abrams, 2007 and 2013.

There are children of several races in the class, but Iggy and Rosie are both Caucasian.

The Dark Is Rising Sequence, Book 2: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper. Aladdin-Simon & Schuster, 1973.

Every main character—every speaking or named character is white, but there’s mention of an “old man” from Kingston, Jamaica, “his skin very black and his hair very white,” who gets one line of dialogue recorded in a letter that the protagonist receives from his brother (129) and when the Old Ones are magically joined together across/outside of time, Will sees “an endless variety of faces—gay, somber, old, young, paper-white, jet-black, and every shade and gradation of pink and brown between” (232). So, yes, Cooper acknowledges a variety of races and skin pigmentations and does not exclude them from power, but they are not her characters or actors or focus.

Little Elliot, Big Family by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2015.

The protagonists are a small, white, rainbow-spotted elephant and a mouse, but the city scenes show a racially diverse population, all depicted as loving family units.

Library Mouse: Home Sweet Home by Daniel Kirk. Abrams, 2013.

There is some racial diversity among the children seen entering the library, but the story focuses on two mice.

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2014.

Again, there are a few POC within the crowds of the city but the protagonist is a non-human… thing, and his soul mate is a light-skinned brunette.

Little Blue Truck Leads the Way by Alice Schertle and illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. First published in 2009.

There are POC in the city scenes of this book, but an anthropomorphic truck is actually the protagonist. The mayor of the city is lighter skinned too.

Stella Brings the Family by Miriam B. Schiffer and illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown. Chronicle, 2015.

This is the story of a Caucasian family, but Stella’s class is ethnically diverse and the family of at least one classmate is multiracial.

How to Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky-Scholastic, 2012.

Dinosaurs are the protagonists (main characters anyway) in this story, but there is some variation of skin tones among the humans in whose homes the dinosaurs seem to reside. Honestly, this one may be a stretch, but I think Teague made a conscious effort at least.

 

Now they are characters! But still only side characters, not protagonists.

A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 5: A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin. Bantam-Random-Penguin Random, 2013. First published in 2011.

Martin’s world is fairly wide, and there are different races and skin tones within the world. Some of those characters like Missandei become important to—or maybe friends with white protagonists. Most darker skinned people are side characters in the extreme, mentioned mostly as slaves. … Really, Martin? In that respect at least the television show has been better. Surprise! Most of the characters you thought were dark-skinned—Grey Worm, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, Salladhor Saan—are probably not. The Dothraki are “copper skinned” though, and several Dothraki have been characters.  Khal Drogo may have been a protagonist–but not in this book.

The Kingkiller Chronicles, Book 2: The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. DAW-Penguin, 2013.  First published 2011.

Kvothe’s friends and teachers come from several regions of the world and have various racial identities and accompanying pigmentations. Kvothe himself is lighter-skinned, I think, because of the true red hair, but Rothfuss steers far clear of the trap that Martin falls into. There really aren’t slaves at this point in history, and the characters of darker skin that are here—Wilem and Master Kilvin in particular—have strengths and flaws and personalities and are not generally second class because of their skin color.  In fact, they are pretty awesome if I can for a moment be less objective, and Kvothe learns from and leans on both.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling. Scholastic, 2000.

There are a few ethnicities represented within the classes at Hogwarts, not as many as one could hope for, but the dark-skinned Dean Thomas is a friend of Harry’s; Lee Jordan, a friend of the twins’, is another character of African descent; the Patel twins go to the Yule ball with Harry and Ron; and Harry is crushing on Cho Chang, a girl of Asian descent. None of these are particularly main characters, though Cho gets a little more time here than in earlier books, this being the first book where Harry gets to tell her of his interest.

 

Here they are, slipping quietly into larger roles without any comment.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr and illustrated by Eric Carle. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 1996. First published 1967.

Carle’s classroom includes students of several races, but there’s no real protagonist here, though the Brown Bear is the title character. The teacher is Caucasian.

If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don’t! by Elise Parsley. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2015.

Magnolia might be of Asian descent, I think, based on the illustrations, and there are a few POC in her class.

Intersellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Meg Hunt. Chronicle, 2015.

The handsome prince is dark-skinned.

The Little Kids’ Table by Mary Ann McCabe Riehle and illustrated by Mary Reaves Uhles. Sleeping Bear-Cherry Lake, 2015.

The family here is multiracial, and no one is upset or comments on it.

The Crown on Your Head by Nancy Tillman. Feiwel & Friends-Macmillan, 2014. First published 2011.

There are several races depicted in these wonderful illustrations, though in this book, the faces are obscured a little by glowing crowns.

Princesses and Puppies by Jennifer Weinberg and illustrated by Francesco Legramandi and Gabriella Matta. Disney-Random, 2013.

All right, Disney, you win this round. Tiana and Jasmine are both included in this book, though Jasmine’s brief appearance especially (to be fair every character here gets only a very brief appearance) seems more to propagate stereotypes than defy them.

 

Now we’re letting race inform our characters, but not focusing on race, cultural history, or current social issues.

Young Wizards, Book 9: A Wizard of Mars by Diane Duane. Harcourt-Houghton Mifflin, 2010.

I almost forgot about this one, and I’m terribly ashamed! Kit Rodriguez is Hispanic. His family occasionally slips into Spanish and keeps a few specialties—a soda that Nita particularly enjoys—in the refrigerator. He is a truly powerful, empathetic wizard—and a protagonist besides, with most of the weight on him in this book. His sister Carmela is especially good with languages, and though not a wizard herself has learnt the wizards’ Speech.

The Kane Chronicles, Books 2 and 3: The Throne of Fire and The Serpent’s Shadow by Rick Riordan. Disney-Hyperion, 2011 and 2012.

Sadie and Carter are biracial (though both sides of the family have roots in Egypt), and Carter in particular is mentioned as having darker skin. Walt, Sadie’s love interest and the Kanes’ partner in the fight against Apophis, is dark-skinned too. Carter’s love interest, Zia, is Egyptian.

The Heroes of Olympus, Book 5: The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan. Disney-Hyperion, 2014.

Our seven heroes are of several ethnicities: Native American (Cherokee), Chinese Canadian, African American, Latino, and Caucasian—and yeah, there are three Caucasians in the group, but there are some excellent representations of different and rarely depicted ethnicities here, and Riordan lets their various heritages inform their characters and their backstories, their strengths and their troubles without I feel defining the characters by their ethnicities. Side characters are of different ethnic backgrounds too, including the Puerto Rican Reyna and her sister Hylla.

 

Here teaching understanding of racial experience or cultural diversity is the drive behind the story.

Pirate Queens: Notorious Women of the Sea by John Green. Dover, 2014.

There are female pirates here from all over the world.

Walking Home to Rosie Lee by A. LaFaye and illustrated by Keith D. Shepherd. Cinco Puntos, 2011.

This is a story about the African American experience in Reconstruction America.

Sold by Patricia McCormick. Hyperion-Disney, 2008.  First published 2006.

This is a collection of poems documenting the experiences of a fictional Nepali girl taken to India as a sex slave. Many of the characters are Nepali or Indian, though the man who helps Lakshmi escape her slavery is American—though I don’t believe that his race is explicitly stated.

Book Reviews: Best of the Best of 2015

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It’s awards season.  The literary world is still talking about the Caldecott and particularly this year’s surprising Newbery winner.  I don’t have the clout of ALA, but I still want to highlight the books I’ve read this year that I think are the best.  This list includes a few rereads and not all of these were published this year. I decided that any book that I’d read this year that had earned five stars from me, ought to be highlighted, because I love to spread the word about books that merit five stars. Of the 111 books that I’ve read and rated this year, though, only 27 of these were meant for an audience older than 8, so this list is a bit picture book heavy, and a bit light in the other categories (though well done, middle-grade authors).

This list refers only to the 103 books that I read and rated this year.  There are another 8 that I read but never reviewed, and many of those probably ought to be rated five-stars, but they’ll have to wait to make this list till I write a proper review and sort out my feelings about them.

TODDLERS-KIDS (AGES 0-8)

Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups by Tadgh Bentley.

Little Elliot, Big Family by Mike Curato.

Waddle! Waddle! by James Proimos.

Stella Brings the Family by Miriam B. Schiffer and illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown.

Part-Time Princess by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Cambria Evans.

Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Meg Hunt.

An Elephant and Piggie Book: Waiting Is Not Easy! by Mo Willems.

 An Elephant and Piggie Book: We Are in a Book! by Mo Willems.

 

MIDDLE GRADE-YOUNG READERS (AGES 8-12)

Pirate Queens: Notorious Women of the Sea by John Green (no, not that John Green). A coloring book, but with historical and biographical text intended for this age.

The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson and illustrated by Sue Porter.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 2: The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 3: The Titan’s Curse by Rick Riordan.

Fairyland, Book 1: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente and illustrated by Ana Juan.

 

TEENS (AGES 13-19)

Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith.

 

ADULTS (AGE 20+)

*

*Five adult books from three authors came near five stars: Sharon Shinn’s The Twelve Houses, Book 1: Mystic and Rider and Book 3: Dark Moon Defender; Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 2: The Wise Man’s Fear and the novella set in the same world, The Slow Regard for Silent Things, and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 5: A Dance with Dragons. I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite among the five to name the best of the best of 2015. I think it would come down to a combat between The Wise Man’s Fear and Dark Moon Defender, both rereads (only Martin’s and Rothfuss’ novella were new books to me in 2015). Dark Moon Defender has on its side nostalgia. Both cover vast swaths of genre. Both display excellent world building. Rothfuss’ novel’s scope is larger, but Dark Moon Defender is tighter. Neither is my favorite of their respective series. I think if I had to choose only one to read again I’d read Rothfuss’ (for a third time), so I’ll give the title to Rothfuss this year.

Book Reviews: Special Edition Picture Book Roundup: Ahoy, Mateys! Activity Books and a Graphic Novel

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pirates_of_the_silver_coastThree Thieves, Book 5: Pirates of the Silver Coast by Scott Chantler. Kids Can, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 9-12, Grades 4-7.

I read this fifth book in the graphic novel series, Three Thieves, without having read any of the others and without knowing anything about the series, even so it was pretty easy to guess at the plot thus far. Dessa is searching for her missing brother. She and her companions have broken some laws (including laws about theft) doing so, and Captain Drake is trying to track them down. At this point, Dessa has stolen Drake’s horse and has a map to an island surrounded by dark legend. She needs a ship to take her there. Drake is tarrying at a fortuneteller’s stall while he awaits a new horse to go forward. You get the feeling that Dessa and her band are not only protagonists but probably good people too, people you could expect to do some thrilling heroics while committing crime. While the plot might be filled with clichés, clichés are often cliché for a reason. These plots work. They’re exciting, the things of legends. What’s more Chandler plays here with the traditional tale, placing a girl in charge of a band of notorious, misfit thieves, all cast out presumably from their various cultures, and by having the pirate king reveal herself as a woman too. All of these twists and the thieves’ time with the pirates come too easily and too quickly for my taste. I think I’d have preferred to see this all done in a novel, where we could take time to linger in fear before the resolution appears. Having read only this piece of a longer story, I’m not sure that I can judge much of the arc. Drake’s piece of this particular volume was maybe the space of half an hour, tops. Still it was an enjoyable way to spend a few minutes, getting this piece of the story, making guesses about what had come before and what will come after.

***

yhst-137970348157658_2399_460501500Pirate Queens: Notorious Women of the Sea by John Green (no, not that John Green). Dover, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 8+, Grades 3+

This is a Dover coloring book, and if you’re looking for a coloring book that is a little less busy, with blocks a little larger than the average adult coloring book, but not a child’s coloring book with big, goofy cartoons or characters marketed to toddlers or even to elementary school students (as with Disney’s coloring books to accompany their movies), Dover is where you should look. Their coloring pages are realistic drawings, left free of color, and free of the zentangle that busies most adult coloring books. This particular book is historically educational and feminist besides, offering quick snapshots of women in a man’s field, who have been painted out of most histories and legends, from all over the world and from all across the timeline—from 480 BCE all the way up to the 1800s CE, all chronologically listed in the book so as to create a easily tracked history of women and the sea. I know that piracy is not a glamorous and romantic position that, say, Disney’s recent movie franchise has made it out to be and that oftentimes it is neither legal nor kindly, but these are still bold, brash women who made a difference in history and to whom I can respect in some part anyway for that. Some are self-made, some inherited their position upon the deaths of their husbands, some were trying to escape, some were trying to defend their people, but these are women of the sea (not all of them are pirates so much as captains and admirals), and these are leaders.

*****

2771160Maze Craze: Pirate Mazes by Don-Oliver Matthies. Sterling, 2003.

This book is really intended I think for younger audiences. It attempts to create a loose story of the pirate Captain Silver seeking treasure—because that’s what pirates do, right?—and involve the audience in his quest. I can’t say that it’s a particularly well written story, but of course, the story here is not the point—the mazes are. There are different challenges on the maze theme, but I don’t spend a lot of time with mazes, and I didn’t sit down to complete any of the puzzles (all three of these books were gifts I sent off to other people.  Hello, other people!) so I can’t judge the book on those.

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Her Price (1429 words)

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She couldn’t leave the river, and she was malevolent. Every legend agreed in those two things. She kept us from crossing the river. Ours was the last village before her river impeded northern travel.

No one quite knew what to call her: a naiad, a goddess, an ondine, a rusalka, a demoness…. Most in our area called her simply She.

She took the form of a woman with long hair the color of the sand on the riverbed. Most of us had seen her. She often wore a dress of river water, the fabric—if fabric it was—catching the light in just the way that the river did. Sometimes she wore nothing. It was said that she was at her most dangerous then.

She was not confined to one point in the river. She could follow an adventurer along the waterway to its source, it was said, though no one who had tried to circumnavigate the river had ever returned.

She subsisted on fish mostly, but she was not above insects and waterfowl or an animal that crept to her river to drink. There were tales of children, men, and women whom she had lured to the river, drowned, and eaten, leaving maybe a bone or two on the riverbed as the only evidence to their disappearance.

We drew our water from wells—for ourselves and for our animals. We built fences to keep the animals from wandering too near the river. We taught our children to keep away.

And then came the heat of a long summer, when little rain fell, and our buckets scraped mud and muck instead of fresh water.

The river was low, sluggish, but still ran after the wells were dry.

Some hoped that she would be weakened by the drought. Silas let go a sow of his, and we watched as the squealing pig was dragged off of the bank.

We didn’t see the pig again.

But we still needed water.

“Maybe she can be reasoned with,” Gabe volunteered.

“Maybe she can be caught,” Ron said.

“Catch the river?” Frances scoffed.

“Well, if we build a dam—”

“She can be anywhere in the river.”

“But can she jump a dam?”

And round and round our conversations went, while our throats went drier and our voices grew hoarse and no one could wet his lips.

Marcus slipped outside.

I followed him when I noticed that he was gone.

It had grown near dark while we’d argued. Marcus looked up at the star-seeded sky. Cloudless.

“No rain coming,” he said. He didn’t look at me. I didn’t know how he knew that I was there.

“When did you leave?”

“When they started talking about moving south. We can’t do it, Pryor. We can’t leave the village.”

“We need water.”

“We need water,” Marcus agreed. He started walking. And I hurried after him.

It didn’t take me long to realize where he was going, and when I did, I grabbed his arm. “Marcus, no!”

“We need water,” he repeated.

“The sow—”

“We need water.” He twisted his arm out of my grasp, and stalked on. “And I’m not leaving. Not without a fight.”

“You’re going to fight her? Marcus, she’s made of water.”

“And if I kill her there’ll be plenty of it.”

“You can’t kill water.” I emphasized every word as if my sharper tone could penetrate his thick skull.

But he shook off my words like midges around his ears.

He kept walking.

I drew my knife—because if we were going to face her, it was better to be armed, however little it could do—and I followed.

Marcus stopped mere feet from the water’s edge, and we watched her materialize, rising from the water like a burbling spring, slowly taking on form, till she stood, naked in the moonlight. Her long hair rippled, a dark waterfall down her bare back.

She looked up slowly at Marcus.

“I’m so tired,” she mumbled.

“Witch,” Marcus spat, “it’s time to give up.”

“Give up?” she repeated.

“Yes. We need water.”

“And I need water. I am water. You want me to give you myself? Freely?”

“Yes, witch.”

“I cannot do that. There’s a price for everything. As you would not give freely of yourself, so I won’t give up myself.”

“So what’s your price?”

She smiled. “You know my price. It’s why you teach your children not to come near me. It’s why you pen your animals to keep them from coming to me.”

“So how many animals?”

“You cannot pay me off.” Her voice sliced through the air like a knife against skin, soaked with enough threat to make me shiver. “The river is always hungry.”

“So what?” Marcus growled. “We die? We flee? What is it you want?”

“No matter what you do, I will continue.”

“Marcus,” I said, putting a hand on his arm. “Let’s go. Nothing will come of this.”

“I’m not leaving the village,” Marcus roared.

“And nor am I,” she said, quiet as rain on the thatched roofs.

“We’re not giving up. We’re not leaving,” Marcus told her.

“No one outlives the river. Nor can you cage water. No net, no trap can hold me. Even a rock prison I would break in time.”

“It only has to hold you till the wells come back.”

Her scimitar smile showed pointed teeth.

We were too near. I grabbed Marcus’ arm again. I tried to pull him back. We shouldn’t be able to see her teeth.

He tore his arm from my hands and took a fatal step away from me.

He was in the water in moments. I still don’t know how. She had him in her arms, wrestling him, his head twisted back, her teeth bared over his neck.

And then I was in the water.

I jumped in before I’d thought it through.

Marcus was thrashing still, churning the water with wheeling arms, and kicking with his feet as if he might be able to launch himself back out onto the dry land, out of her arms.

I heard the shouts, and I heard the hiss ,and I heard the splashing.

I kept pushing forward.

I felt the sting. I felt the fire rake across my arm as she lashed out at me.

I heard the gasp. I saw Marcus pushing away from her. It had been enough. I saw him staring.

She was on me now, and it felt every bit like drowning, like those first disorienting moments when you dive into the pool, and you’re too deep, deeper than you’d thought, and you open your eyes, but you’re not yet above the water, and you can’t figure out at first why you can’t breathe, and you don’t know if you’ll make it back to the surface because you don’t know how far away it really is, and you push, and you pray.

I didn’t push. I didn’t pray. I knew I couldn’t win. You can’t kill water.

She was on me. She had her hand twisted in my hair. She had her arm wrapped around me, pinning my arms to my side as she held a wrist behind my back. And she was pulling me under. Fluidly. As smoothly as if I weighed nothing. And then it was dark, and it was quiet, and I couldn’t hear Marcus screaming anymore. I couldn’t hear the splashing, only the pulse of riverwater.

And it was getting darker. Quieter. And my neck—my neck hurt. My neck seemed to be on fire. Below the water. How was that possible?

I blinked. And blinking hurt.

Breathing hurt. Breathing burnt. And when I did breathe out, a stream of silent bubbles, barely visible in the dark night and the moonlight, left me, like the leaves blowing off of the trees in autumn.

I was drowning.
I was dying.

But Marcus was safe.

She growled. Somehow she could still growl below the water.

“Why don’t you fight?” she asked. She shook me.

“Because you’ll win.” I didn’t know how I’d heard the words. They should have been more silent bubbles. Maybe I was hallucinating now. Maybe I was dead.

She hissed as if my answer somehow displeased her.

Her hands seemed to loosen as we sank deeper into the dark. They were dissolving into murky cloud and grit. She shrieked. Shouldn’t I have been the one shrieking? She feared instead of me.

And my eyes were still open under the water.

And I watched her dissolve, and stayed below long after I’d ceased to feel her holding me down.

The line this week is mine, and I’m rather pleased with this piece, though I’m still not entirely sold on the ending.  All in all, though, a good way to start the new legal theft year.

We had a big old gang for this one:

 Trebez at Machete Diplomacy wrote “It Lurks.”

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad wrote “Caging Waves.”

Creatures, Critters, and Crawlers wrote “Bored Spirit.”

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Guardian” (648 words).

Bek at Yeah. But So What? Everybody’s Weird wrote “Freedom” (170 words).

Book Reviews: December 2015 Picture Book Roundup: THREE Five-Stars and Some Christmas Leftovers

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Christmas Leftovers

9780399243202Spot’s Christmas by Eric Hill. Warne-Penguin Random, 2004. Ages: 0-3.

This was a fairly lackluster book, which really I probably ought to have expected as this is a holiday spin-off book. Spot, a popular character of his own book series and television series, performs some of the acts of celebration surrounding Christmas: decorating the tree, singing carols, baking cookies and cake, hanging stockings. He knows Santa came because the stockings are full in the morning. Other than being an adorable roly-poly puppy and fairly expressive, there was little story, no moral, and not much really to say.

***

9780553498394How to Catch a Santa by Jean Reagan and illustrated by Lee Wildish. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I didn’t realize that this was of the same series as How to Babysit a Grandpa, Grandma, and Surprise a Dad. As well as those first two especially have been selling, I have not read any of them, and I was not particularly thrilled by this one. There’s not a lot of story, but a lot of text. “Don’t you have a zillion questions?” A list of questions follows. “Maybe you have things you want to tell him?” A list of things that you might want to tell Santa follows. “And maybe you have things you want to give him?” A list of things to give him follows. “Okay, now you know what you want to do once you catch Santa. Now it’s time to figure out how to do it.” A list of some tips and suggestions follows. While there are some creative and sweet ideas here, I just don’t like the format—and it seems like it’s becoming more prevalent within picture books.

**1/2

The Critically Acclaimed

9780451469908Llama Llama Red Pajamas by Anna Dewdney. Viking-Penguin Random, 2005. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

This is a new classic and has sparked a whole series of books. Llama Llama in this first adventure is sent to bed, but he misses his mama, he’s nervous in the dark, he wants a glass of water, but mama’s downstairs on the phone and isn’t coming to answer Llama Llama’s pleas for her to come back to the bedroom. The story ends with the moral that mama always loves you even if she isn’t immediately available. The text is full of end rhymes and internal rhyme. It’s a good reminder of a parent’s love.

****

9780803736801Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Dial-Penguin Random, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

I could have been more impressed with this book. I thought what had thrown me off was the somewhat clunky progression of ideas that repeats itself, I feel, unnecessarily so that we have at least two very ardent warnings about spicy salsa—do we need two? The more I reflect on it, though, the more I think that what was even more off-putting was the questions asked of the dragons to which the dragons were never allowed to respond. The dragons are silent throughout this book, and that made the text feel clunky because why ask questions if you don’t want an answer? Why even have the dragons in the text until you need them there to offer proof of your previous declaratory statements about them loving tacos but hating spicy salsa? All of the hard t’s and d’s and p’s sounds were fun.

***

FIVE WHOLE STARS

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Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups by Tadgh Bentley. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This little book came sweeping up and stole my heart. The narrator is an adorably illustrated little penguin with the—hic!—hiccups. He pleads with the audience directly for their help. He’s tried everything to get rid of the hiccups that he developed after eating too much spicy chili last week, but nothing’s worked, so his friend Frederick has told the penguin that he would try to frighten the hiccups out of him. I was surprised that my audience was not as excited as I was for the opportunity to shout, “BOO!” The penguin forgets the audience to scold Frederick for frightening him so badly, but then realizes that his hiccups are gone and agrees to join Frederick for celebratory tacos, and—surprise, surprise—those spicy tacos give him another bout of—hic!—hiccups.

*****

stacks_image_17Part-Time Princess by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Cambria Evans. Disney-Hyperion, 2013.

In her sleep, this regular girl becomes a princess in beautiful dresses and crown, who fights dragonfire to save her kingdom, who lassos the dragon but invites him to tea instead of listening to the demands for the dragon’s death by her fearful subjects and realizes that he is a good dragon who is just upset that his crayons were melted. She meets a queen, and they play in the mud, and she takes a bath with bubbles, a high dive, and a dolphin. She isn’t scared of trolls either but dances with the head troll and shows her subjects that trolls are neither frightening or mean. There is a handsome prince, but she’s too busy saving the kingdom to marry now. She is tired in the morning, and there is glitter in her hair. There is glitter in her mother’s hair too; she is the queen. This is a good alternate princess narrative particularly for those girls who do want to marry princes and wear frilly dresses and eat three slice of pink cake for tea.

*****

9781452125329_350_4Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Meg Hunt. Chronicle, 2015.

It’s the story of Cinderella—set in space! This Cinderella fixes the household robots and machines but dreams of fixing fancy space ships. The family is invited to the royal parade, and Cinderella’s stepmother says that she can come if she can fix their broken space ship, but the stepsisters take Cinderella’s toolbox with them to the parade, leaving her stranded. Cinderella’s friend, the robot mouse Murgatroyd, sends an S.O.S. and summons Cinderella’s fairy godrobot, who magics Cinderella up some new tools: a sonic socket wrench (yeah, I saw that, Underwood), a blue space suit with jewels and pockets, and a power gem that will run out at midnight. Then it’s off to the parade, but the prince’s ship is smoking, and he doesn’t have a mechanic. Cinderella, masked behind the dome of her space suit, flies over and saves the prince’s ship. He invites her to the Gravity-Free Ball in thanks, and they talk for hours of space ships, but she has to run away before the clock strikes midnight. The sonic wrench falls out of her pocket. The prince goes searching for her, and brings a broken ship with him across the galaxy. The stepfamily tries to fix the ship, but can’t. The mouse helps Cinderella escape the attic into which her stepmother has locked her and left her tied up. Cinderella grabs her wrench back from the prince and fixes the ship. The prince asks her to marry him, and she thinks about it, but decides that she is too young. She offers to be his mechanic instead, and she goes to live at the palace, and fixes fancy space ships, just as she always dreamed she might do. Her fulfilled wish is a job that she loves in a field that here on earth is dominated by men.

This has all the elements of the classic fairy tale story, but the fairy tale ending is not one that includes marriage. My young audience was curious why she didn’t want to marry the prince. I’m not sure if I should be glad that I got to explain that not everyone’s dream is to get married and put that thought in their young minds or I’m sad that I had to explain. The handsome prince is a dark-skinned besides, though it’s never mentioned in the text, and we may have Hunt more than Underwood to thank for that.

There are a lot of larger words here, some of which I think went over the heads of my audience, but they didn’t seem phased by not knowing how to define a sprocket.

The text relied surprisingly heavily on the illustrations here. It almost seemed as if there were holes in the text itself, perhaps the text being limited by the rhyme, but the illustrations filled in those holes well, showing us why, for example, Cinderella would cry out for her toolbox. We had fun looking at the details of the illustrations: the robots, the aliens.

Now I have a question for fellow readers: The endpapers show Cinderella’s tools, all nicely labeled. One of the spaces is empty. Has anyone found that tool? Maybe in one of the book’s illustrations? Why is it missing?

*****

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

 

Album Review: Hamilton: Not Your Granddad’s Broadway Musical

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Surprise!  It’s a review of a soundtrack, not a book.

Lin-Manuel Miranda became an inspiration and favorite celebrity of mine when In the Heights, his first musical, the concept of which he began working on in his college sophomore year, went on to win the Tony for Best Musical in 2008. My sister and I somehow managed to get tickets for the show afterwards. I’ve been excited about Miranda’s newest release, now titled Hamilton, since finding a video of his preview of it at the White House Evening of Poetry in 2009.

“I’m actually working on a hip-hop album. It’s a concept album about the life of someone I think embodies hip-hop: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. You laugh, but it’s true!”

(Miranda has collaborated with others between In the Heights and Hamilton—notably on Bring It On—but this is the first for which he has written the book and the first musical since In the Heights on which he alone is given credit for the music and lyrics.)

I have not been able to see this musical, but I have listened to the soundtrack… a lot. The story seems to be told exclusively or almost exclusively in song without spoken dialogue, so I feel that I can discuss the story without having seen the play, though I want to make it clear that I have not experienced this play fully.

Hamilton is a biopic about Alexander Hamilton, free of the whitewashing that he’s been subjected to in my textbooks at least, starting with his childhood in the Caribbean, though the Revolutionary War, the founding and structuring of the American government, and ending with his death and immediate legacy—and by creating this musical, which has garnered quite a lot of attention, helping to build his more remote legacy.

Hamilton’s fame particularly within the social media sphere I think comes at a very… interesting and potentially important time. I think more people—particularly more people of the age that consist of the primary consumers and target audience of most social media sites and perhaps the primary consumers of hip-hop music too—are paying more attention to politics this year than previously. The twenty-somethings are about to vote in their first or second presidential election and are being inundated by news about the presidential candidates.

Moreover, with America and the world deciding how to treat refugees and many of the ugly things that are being said and cheered, a reminder that our country was built with the help of at least two very important immigrants (Hamilton and Lafayette, both commanders at the Battle of Yorktown, last of the Revolutionary War) is timely.

The (mal)treatment of immigrants is hardly the only current social issue to surface in this historical narrative. The feminist (“ ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m gonna compel him to include women in the sequel” 1.5*) and African American struggles (“Laurens is in South Carolina, redefining bravery: We’ll never be free till we end slavery” 1.18) for equality are both present in the narrative as is the debate between isolationism versus interventionism, which has arisen again with new vigor as America and the world look at the situation in Syria and the unrest caused by ISIS: “If we try to fight in every revolution in the world, we never stop. Where do we draw the line?” (2.7) That so many of the debates and issues in this history are still current tells me much about what we as a nation have learned and more sadly have not learned. We are a nation of people who probably know of Hamilton only that he was shot and killed in a duel (maybe we know that it was Burr who shot him), and we are proving that those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it—over and over and over again.

It is not only the relevancy of the issues that make this such a contemporary piece, of course. The music itself—drawing particularly from hip-hop and rap—help to broaden the scope of Hamilton’s reach and to make the story available to a younger audience, in particular. (I’ve actually had difficulty selling this CD because a lot of the people who come to the store looking for history books are not interested in rap or hip-hop, but I have seen younger adults and teens picking up the autobiography from which this musical is adapted—Ron Chernow’s Hamilton.)

I cannot pretend to speak about this on a musical level. I am just not versed enough in the subject to speak eloquently, but I can speak on the poetry and complexity and play of Miranda’s language and of the story and characters, which is astounding and wonderful—easily on par with Mumford & Sons or Ed Sheeran, better-known, more mainstream musicians.

In that same preview in 2009, Miranda said of Hamilton, “I think he embodies the word’s ability to make a difference.” The character of Hamilton’s wife Eliza describes his first letters: “Your sentences left me defenseless. You built me palaces out of paragraphs, you built cathedrals” (2.15).

Miranda said in a 60 Minutes interview: “I believe [rap] is uniquely suited to tell Hamilton’s story because it has more words per measure than any other musical genre, it has rhythm, and it has density, and if Hamilton has anything in his writing, it was this density.”

In a broader storytelling sense, the relatability and reality as well as the modern syntax of these characters’ dialogue make so much more real the history from which they emerge. Even those characters who have fewer words over the 2 hours and 22 minutes—like Philip and Eliza Hamilton—show surprising depth and development.  The social and human struggles that these characters experience–love, loss, legacy, pride and disrespect–are universal and timeless.

For the purposes of plot, Miranda has taken some liberties with the history—as far as I have been able to research, but he is mostly guilty of condensing time between off-screen events and those that happen on the stage. The bones of the story are all fairly accurate.

Even if I can’t speak eloquently or professionally about the music, I want to say how well Miranda uses themes throughout this soundtrack both in identifying characters and identifying moods.  The more I listen to the soundtrack the more I notice the echoes between songs, perhaps most movingly in the 48-second-long “Best of Wives and Best of Women” (2.21), which is a brief exchange between Hamilton and his wife Eliza as he’s leaving bed to prepare for the duel that will end his life.  That song echoes most notably the earlier “It’s Quiet Uptown” (2.18) just after their son’s death but also “Stay Alive” (1.14, 2.17) and “Non-Stop” (1.23), evoking through the similar sequences of notes and repeated phrases the emotions and themes already expressed and established in those songs.

*Citations are first or second CD and then the number of the track. Quotations may not be completely accurate, particularly in their punctuation as I do not have a copy of the book or lyrics, but am transcribing the quotes as I hear them. This caution applies too to the quotes from interviews and videos for which I have no official transcripts, only the video recording.

Hamilton can be listened to in its entirety on Spotify and is also available via iTunes and the CD is available where CDs are sold.

Book Review: Subtle Feminism, Subterfuge, and Romance in Crown Duel

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Spoilers. I’ve tried to avoid names as much as possible, but there are spoilers.

This is going to be a difficult book to review in that I’m not sure if I’ve just finished one book or two or three. This edition includes two novels that were originally published separately (as Crown Duel and Court Duel) and a short story that was published first in this edition. That short story I can set aside as wonderful, fluffy fluff but with perhaps the best use of page formatting and white space that I have seen in a long while. The very bottom of the last page reads (and I’m truncating the sentence to avoid spoilers):

“[…] and kicked the door shut behind us.”

Because the line goes to the very bottom of the page, there’s no indication that this is the end of the story till one turns the page and sees two blank, white, facing pages staring out at the reader like the shut doors, saying “what happens now is not your business.”

Just excellent. Though I’m not sure if that was providence or plan. It would be a difficult thing to plan so well.

Now to the meat of this book:

The first book, the original Crown Duel, begins with a rebellion led by a brother and sister, a count and countess of a small, rural, and isolated province in the greater kingdom of Remalna, ruled by a tyrannical king, self-important and uneasy it seems to me on the throne, leading by threat and fear, imposing brutal taxes on lower classes, and occasionally arranging “accidents” for detractors, family of detractors, and potential detractors. The sister is captured by the general of the opposing army after her brother gives into fear and breaks the war code of conduct. She is humiliated, escapes and is hunted, is captured again, and is rescued, sets out to get vengeance, and has her worldview turned on its head when she discovers that she and her brother have not been alone in plotting the overthrow of the king. Mel wins allies through her righteous intentions, refusal to surrender or to be cowed, and her willingness to learn.

Mel is a sword-wielding heroine deprived for the majority of the book of sword, privilege, or the usual trappings of a hero. Most of the book she spends injured, ill, and on the run. Her true power is in her ability to invoke empathy and sympathy through her personality and through the just nature of her cause.

The second novel sees the rebellion ended, the tyrant dead, her brother a member of the royal court, and Mel being invited into that court as well, where battles are fought for social popularity and against faux pas, games of which she is ignorant, though she is a fairly quick study. There she negotiates social patterns, cliques, and party planning.

Both books pulled some pretty stunning twists.  Smith uses a close first person, and Mel is a poorly informed narrator if not an unreliable one.  She tells her story I think as truly as she can, but she is ignorant of many of the characters feelings and intentions, and some of those characters drive the larger plot of the novel more than does Mel.

In the first novel, Mel claims to be entirely uninterested in the opposite sex—and truth be told, she has little time for such diversions, even when she finds a knight to rescue her. But she doesn’t trust the knight, who has ostensibly opposed and hunted her throughout the novel, and later she believes that he kills her brother. This story does not much read as a romance to me, though Smith makes clear that there is frisson when Mel exchanges glances with one particular character—though the nature of that thrill and recognition remains unclear.

In the second book, Mel still purports to be uninterested, but she arouses the interest of several men at court, including a notorious and popular flirt. She has to evaluate her feelings and her beliefs about love and relationships, and does so while corresponding with a mysterious suitor whose gift-giving she demands become a real relationship—if their only conversations are carried out through written letters.

This whole series reminded me of a fantasy Pride and Prejudice with a backdrop of political uncertainty (not a conscious parallel, Smith says, but she admits that there might have been some influence from Austen). The second novel in particular harkens to the social drama of Austen’s book. Mel’s stubborn dislike based on previous, false conclusions in particular harkens to Elizabeth’s as does her eventual reversal of her conclusions because of a letter and her opposite’s upright actions. Ultimately, this story is a romance, albeit a slow one and one which, as the romance builds, washes the reader in action and subterfuge.

The world was interesting, well-crafted, and beautifully described. The first book in particular has elements of a journey novel as Mel is chased and dragged across the country. I spent some time wishing for a map, which I ultimately found after finishing the novel, but I was able through the text alone to place most of the important places within a larger setting and when I did misunderstand, those misplacements didn’t affect the plot.

Smith carefully crafts a feminist heroine and a feminist story. Mel never pretends to be anything other than female, and she feels no need to adopt traditionally masculine performance to be powerful—even when she’s been most stripped of power and needs a disguise. Moreover, Smith carefully, wonderfully maintains gender balance among her background characters. I particularly noticed the female guardswomen, stable hands, and servants, marked by the feminine pronoun more than anything else. It was a very subtle feminism, and very much appreciated because for being a nonissue it was all the more powerful.

I have long known of this book as having produced a favorite character of two my friends’. His name is Vidanric. I read almost the entirety of the first book looking for this character that I expected to love as well. I need to take a moment to compliment and thank my friends for using Vidanric’s first name exclusively when discussing him. “Only polite,” and I was allowed to make my own assumptions (184).

*****

Smith, Sherwood. Crown Duel. New York: Firebird-Penguin Putnam, 2002.

This review is not endorsed by Sherwood Smith, Firebird Books, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: November 2015 Picture Book Roundup: Part 2: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like…

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Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. First published 1971.

Katie was one of my nicknames as a child, so I have some vague sense that this is one of the stories that was read to me with some regularity—enough regularity that when I was told that I had to read a story about a snowplow, I recalled that this story existed, even though it must have been years since I’d had any reason to consider it. Or maybe I remembered seeing it in the shelves when I was re-alphabetizing the picture books a month or two ago. Either way, Burton’s books are classics; this one is 44 years old and still being read, still in the bookstore. Katy is an unstoppable plow who likes hard work. She saves up her efforts for a big snow, something only she can handle. She drives around the town, clearing roads for policemen, firefighters, mailmen, ambulance drivers, electric and water company employees…. I have sort of mixed feelings about this story, honestly. Katy helps everyone. Helping everyone is good. But does Katy take care of herself? She gets a little tired, but she keeps working. There are no reinforcements, no offers by anyone to help Katy. The villain here is the snow, and Katy and her tirelessness and persistence are the solution, but Katy really doesn’t reap any benefits except… a job well done? a chance to rest when—and only when—the work is done? What sort of message is that? Help everyone and don’t expect to be thanked, don’t expect any sort of reward? I suppose that, yes, that is a laudable and important moral, but maybe not one I’m willing to instill in my children, not at this age. I’d rather that they know that they can speak up for themselves, that they have the right to say no. I do like that this is a boy book—a book about trucks, which get thrown more often at boys than at girls—but with a strong, female protagonist.

One of Burton’s books, The Little House, won the Caldecott medal in 1943. Burton’s illustrations in this book are detailed. Take a look at the margins. Take a look at the maps. Look at the use of white space. The illustrations I like better than I like the story. I think the illustrations bump the story past three or three and a half stars to

****

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The Little Snowplow by Lora Koehler and illustrated by Jake Parker. Candlewick, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-7, Grades PreK-2.

I actually think that this is a better book about snowplows—if you’re ever asked to pick just one. The story here is better. The little snowplow is picked on by the larger trucks. He works hard to make himself strong. He exercises daily and pushes himself to lift and pull and push more and heavier weights. When the snows come, the little snowplow is sent out and the snow is too much for him, despite all that he’s done to strengthen himself. Help—a dump truck—has to be called in, and the dump truck complains about having to do work that it feels is the snowplow’s responsibility. But when an avalanche stops the dump truck, only the snowplow is small enough to get in to help the dump truck, so he stops clearing the roads to help this larger truck that has been mean to him, that has grumbled about having to help the snowplow. The snowplow proves himself not only useful but also compassionate, kind, and forgiving. The dump truck and snowplow finish clearing the streets and everyone cheers. They cheer not because the snowplow proved the big trucks wrong by clearing the streets himself—in fact the trucks are proved right and the snowplow does have to accept help—which he does with good grace—but the trucks cheer because he was kind.

This is a great boys’ book for that reason. The snowplow is not a macho, by-your-own-bootstraps plow; it cannot be, and that’s okay because not all men are macho.  It proves that not all men must be macho to have worth.

The kids in my audience picked up too on the moral of don’t be mean to little people and mentioned it themselves afterwards without being prompted.

There is mention of a big, female snowplow that retired to Florida, and I like to think that this is a reference to Burton’s Katy, but that was set in Geoppolis, and this is in Mighty Mountain.

This book more fully earns its

****

Gobble! Gobble!

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Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This book, written in what I would dare to call verse goes through the motions of everyone’s tasks to prepare a Thanksgiving meal: Mama, fetch the pot; Daddy, stoke the fire; Sister, knead the dough for bread; Brother, baste the turkey; Grandpa, make the cranberries…. The meal and the celebration bring all the family together. Even the little baby gets a mention, told to hush and be quiet as a mouse, a refrain that I had to read quietly, giving the book an even more musical feel. The book is set in the 19th century according to Miller (this interview with Publisher’s Weekly includes a few pages not to be found elsewhere outside of the covers). There are too few historical fiction books in any genre, so this is one of which to make note—perhaps even outside of the Thanksgiving season. The family is clearly religious but the text is not particularly so, so it should avoid offense, I’d hope. This story really gets back to the root of Thanksgiving: thankful for food, family, warmth, and a place to be safe and together.

****

The Goose Is Getting Fat

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Snowmen at Christmas by Caralyn Buehner and illustrated by Mark Buehner. Dial-Penguin Random, 2005. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

I read and enjoyed the Buehners’ Snowmen at Night, so I thought that I’d enjoy this one too. The illustrations are just as stunning as were Mark Buehner’s in Snowmen at Night, and the text had a good lilt to it with its rhyming lines. I was at a Santa’s Breakfast when I read this—a clearly secular event—and I stumbled a bit at the unexpected reference to the religious celebration of Christmas (that’s really on me as I didn’t read but only skimmed the story before bringing it with me to the event)—with the snowmen singing carols about a King—but I think that reference is subtle enough as to not be too off-putting to all but the most radical—as whether or not one does oneself celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, one can’t really deny that some will sing about a King during the season—which is all that these snowmen do. Otherwise, the snowmen’s Christmas is about window displays, holiday noms, and playing with friends.

***

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The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore and illustrated by Charles Santore. Applesauce-Simon & Schuster, 2011. Text first published 1823. Intended audience: Grades PreK and up.

I won’t critique this text, but I’ll go ahead and make note of the illustrations, which reflect the period nature of the text, though not with its art style (which is more modern: realistic, bold, deep-hued, detailed) as much as with its depiction of the period itself (men in nightgowns and long nightcaps, nineteenth century decoration, architecture, toys, and tech). The Santa figure is very classically Santa. One of my audience commented on Santa having shrunk to fit down the chimney; he was small, then larger on the next page; I explained this as magic. I enjoy the gray tabby on most pages too. This is all beautifully done. A book like this, with text so classic, so often memorized, can really only be a chance for an illustrator to shine—and I think Santore does, but as I’m looking at illustrations and thinking back on all the versions of this book that I’ve seen, I’m wondering, is it time for someone to modernize the illustrations, to have Santa maybe putting away gadgets and gift cards instead of trumpets and china dolls?

The illustrations are beautiful but just not very original, so maybe overall, I’d give this version just sort of a meh

***

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Samurai Santa: A Very Ninja Christmas by Rubin Pingk. Simon & Schuster, 2015. First published 2014. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This is a wonderfully fun and unique Christmas book. A young ninja wants to have a snowball fight, but none of his friends will join him because they have to practice to be good ninjas to impress Santa. The first ninja, Yukio, blames Santa, and when he hears Santa arrive, he rings the alarm bell and calls “intruder!” The ninjas pour out of the dojo and drive-off the red-clad intruder, who at one point appears as a samurai with a snowman army. It is only after Samurai Santa has been driven away that Yukio realizes that because of his actions, his friends will have no presents from Santa, but presents are under the tree and there’s a note for Yukio from Santa, saying that he hopes that Yukio enjoyed the snowball fight that Santa arranged for him. The illustrations in this book are all brick red, black, white, and gray, but the colors somehow feel festive (like a red Starbucks cup). There are times to shout “Epic!” and “Banzai!” as you read this story aloud, which make for a bit of extra fun.

****

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How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky-Scholastic, 2012. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

My audience for this book really got into it. The beginning of the book, the text is all questions: “Does he rip open presents under the tree?” and all of my kids said, “No!” They also enjoyed telling me what kind of dinosaur was on each page and stomping like dinosaurs. As I walked away to the next group, I felt a little like the babysitter who’s given the kids too many cookies and left them to their parents. In the end the text is all things that a good dinosaur would do, like eating all his dinner and clearing the dishes—one grandmother piped up her support for this idea. Mark Teague’s vibrant illustrations with realistic dinosaurs that nevertheless manage very human expressions and actions done with opposable thumbs are pretty fun, and there’s enough detail there that one could spend some time with each drawing.

****

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.