Tag Archives: children’s

Book Reviews: August 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Science, Eating People–Or Not, and a Kitten Like Me

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Science!

Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and author's bio.

Two Problems for Sophia by Jim Averbeck and illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail. Margaret K. McElderry-Simon & Schuster, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

There was a lot to love in this story about Sophia, her pet giraffe Noodle, and the problems that Noodle causes for Sophia’s multi-generational, interracial family, in which each character has a pretty stunningly unique voice for characters in a picture book. It opens with Sophia being “happysad” which I love because it acknowledges an oft-felt but not oft-acknowledged emotion. Noodle snores, and Noodle’s kisses with his long, blue tongue are sloppy and wet and particularly irk Grand-mamá, whom Noodle seems particularly fond of—in the way that cats will always find the one person who doesn’t want to pet them. Sophia’s Mother, whom I suspect from the language that she uses and that the authors use to describe her actions works in the courtroom either as a lawyer or judge—probably a judge—“render[s] her verdict. Noodle is guilty” and she “order[s Sophia] to find a perdurable solution.” Several times in this book the adults drop some heavy words. ‘Perdurable’ is not a word that I knew when I read this book, and I’ve near 30 years of life experience, an English degree, and a penchant for books with lofty language. Sophia tries several ways to silence Noodle’s snores or to make them more palatable, consulting the Internet for ideas, building contraptions herself, and consulting experts in the field, including an acoustic-engineer who tells Sophia that Noodle’s “neck-to-lung-capacity ratio creates a giant echo chamber.”

Noodle’s sloppy kisses are always preceded by the same phrase, which was fun to repeat but also let the anticipation build before the blech! of usually poor Grand-mamá appearing covered in giraffe spittle. “His eyelashes danced a little fuzzle, then his nose swooped in for a nuzzle.”

This is apparently a sequel to a book called One Word for Sophia that I’d not heard of previously but now want to find.

****

Click to visit the series' page for links to order, summary, audio sample, and all kinds of extras.

Cece Loves Science by Kimberly Derting and Shelli R. Johannes and illustrated by Vashti Harrison. Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I was pleased to see a surprisingly honest comment from Derting on Goodreads admitting that her four-year-old grandchild struggled to make it through this book. My story time audience was a bit squirmy through this long story too—but they made it, and they made it through Two Problems for Sophia on the same sitting. Assigned to complete a research project, Cece with her friend and assigned research partner Isaac set out to experiment on Cece’s dog Einstein to see if dogs eat vegetables. They try offering Einstein vegetables in various forms, which he won’t eat, causing Cece to question her credentials as a scientist, but she persists, and eventually they do find a way to get Einstein to eat veggies. I’m not sure about the ethical implications of trying to get your family dog to eat foods outside of his normal diet without consulting a veterinarian first—I don’t recommend doing it at home—but I have known dogs who like carrots, so I’m fairly sure that this experiment won’t harm Einstein. The book ends with a glossary of science terms and scientists.

***

 

ABCs of Physics by Chris Ferrie. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017. First published 2014.

General Relativity for Babies by Chris Ferrie. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017. First published 2016.

Quantum Physics for Babies by Chris Ferrie. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017. First published 2013.

My dad is a high school math and physics teacher, and I sent these along to him not long ago. The one on quantum physics, he says, peddles an already discredited model—which I sort of knew; I think Niels Bohr’s model was being phased out of classrooms when I was in high school around 2006/2007—but before it starts discussing where in rings an electron can be around a nucleus, I think it’s solid—though he would know far better than I. I particularly liked the ABCs of Physics. There was more to this book than there was to the for Babies titles. Not only is it an alphabet primer, but the words used to illustrate the letters are all related to physics, with three levels of information for growing toddlers: first the word, then a simple one sentence explanation, then a longer, more in-depth sentence or two at the bottom. I like the simplicity of these primers.  I like that Ferrie takes on such hard concepts and thinks he can impart some understanding of these topics to infants and toddlers.  They say if you can’t explain your subject in terms that a complete outsider to the field would understand, you don’t know your subject. Imagine explaining it in terms that a toddler could understand! I think general relativity was more clearly explained here than I’ve seen it elsewhere. I may not be a toddler, but I get it. Or I get the small part of it that Ferrie is discussing in these books.

****     ****     ***

That is Frowned Upon in Most Civilized Societies

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We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins. Hyperion-Disney, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This book came out in June, and I’ve already read it three times—twice in story times. It keeps getting better. I really enjoyed reading it aloud this most recent time. I feel like I got the inflection right on the narration and the dialogue. This competes with Be Quiet! for me as a favorite Higgins book, but this is so much more accessible to my story time audience than is Be Quiet!. This is a back-to-school book with a female dinosaur protagonist and a multiracial classroom full of children, including a hijabi sitting beside a boy who appears to wear a yarmulke. Penelope Rex is your typical T-Rex. She’s excited and nervous to go to school, but she has a big lunch packed by her dad, and a new backpack with ponies on it (ponies are her favorite because ponies are delicious). She was not expecting to be part of a classroom full of children, and upon discovering this, she eats them all whole then spits them out at the behest of her teacher. That does not endear her to her classmates, and every time she tries to be nice, her appetite betrays her. She saves a seat for her classmate, Griffin Emery—but that seat is on her now empty plate. She tries to play with them on the slide—but waits at the bottom with an open mouth. Her parents spot the problem quickly when she complains that she hasn’t made any friends, and remind her not to eat her classmates. “Children are the same as us on the inside. Just tastier.” Penelope can’t control her appetite and keeps eating kids. Because all the children are afraid and won’t be her friend, she tries to befriend the class goldfish, Walter—who bites her finger. Knowing now how terrible it feels when someone tries to eat you, Penelope learns to control her own appetite. She stops eating her classmates, and she does make friends.

*****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and author's bio.

Eat Pete by Michael Rex. Nancy Paulsen-Penguin Random, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

When a monster comes in through Pete’s window, Pete isn’t scared; he invites the monster to play with him. And though the monster came to eat Pete and wants to do so, the games that Pete suggests look fun, so he puts off his appetite for little boy and joins Pete in his games. Though he lasts through several games, the monster’s desire to eat Pete does win, and he gobbles up Pete whole. Without Pete, though, the games just aren’t much fun, and the monster relents and spits Pete back out. Pete tells him that wasn’t very nice, the monster apologizes, and Pete suggests that they play another game—a wonderfully forgiving child is Pete. The monster though doesn’t want to play. The book gives the impression that the monster is again struggling with his desire to eat Pete, but the anticipation dissipates not with a repetition of the phrase and the monster’s slathering look of hunger, but with a hug between the two protagonists; he wants to… hug Pete.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and author's bio.

People Don’t Bite People by Lisa Wheeler and illustrated by Molly Schaar Idle. Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3

In singsong fashion, this book spells out the things that it is good to eat, but admonishes against biting people. “It’s good to bite a carrot. It’s good to bite a steak. It’s BAD to bite your sister! She’s not a piece of cake.” “People don’t bite people. It’s nasty and it’s rude! A friend will never bite a friend. BITING IS FOR FOOD!” It’s a kind of judgmental book. I mean, I know you shouldn’t bite your hair or your nails, and the book acknowledges that these are lesser sins than biting another human, but… all in all, I think this book was perhaps just too didactic a story for a general story time. It would be a fun addition to Martine Agassi and Elizabeth Verdick and Marieka Heinlen’s Best Behavior books (Teeth are Not for Biting, Hands are Not for Hitting, Feet are Not for Kicking, etc.)—and it is a fun text—but just… not fun, not silly enough—not for general reading without the express purpose of imparting a needed lesson.

***

And Look! I Found Me!

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Katie the Kitten by Kathryn and Byron Jackson and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. Little Golden-Penguin Random, 1976. First published 1949.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

I had to read this book—and I actually bought it—because I am a catlike Kathryn who once went by the nickname Katie. The illustrations and adventures of this little kitten are fairly realistic. She sleeps, wakes up, chases a fly, hisses at a scared dog, but is scared of a mouse, chases a toad, chases a bird, hops on a table, but falls off into a pail of water, drinks milk, eats a fish, and curls up to sleep again. She’s just cute. She’s a kitten. And she’s a playful, clumsy kitten. The text uses simple words, and some rhyming but overall the text does not rhyme; it reads less like a forced singsong and more like just the account of an hour or two of a kitten’s day.  I recommend this for people who like watching cat videos.  Which I think is not-so-secretly everyone.

***

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.

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Book Review: Be Prepared Reminisces on the Trials of Sleepaway Camp and Adolescence

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and author's bio.

Some spoilers.

I think it speaks very well of Vera Brosgol’s autobiographical graphic novel Be Prepared that I stayed up late to finish this ARC the same night that I brought it home from the store. I think it speaks even more highly of it that more than three months later (how did I leave it for so long?) in reminding myself of the plot for this review, I ended up pretty much rereading the whole of the text without it feeling tired, even though I knew its twists and turns.

The novel plunged me into a perspective to which I really hadn’t given much thought, that of the immigrant Russian American—though the plight of the immigrant is something I think about often—especially just now. I know only a very little about any of Russian history—and what I have learnt has been more from British and Australian period dramas and Disney’s Anastasia than from classes where truth outweighed drama. Most of what I’ve learnt has been from the point too of view of the exiled aristocracy than the average Russian citizen.

But some things are universal: the desire to fit in with peers, the desire to have the best birthday party, the drama of adolescence and the struggle of adolescent friendships, particularly as teens begin to experience romantic attraction, the fear of and longing for stay-away summer camp….

Vera is the odd one out among her more affluent peers in Albany, an immigrant to America, having been born in Russia but immigrated before she turned five. Her mother’s peers are primarily Russian immigrants, fellow parishioners of their Russian Orthodox Church. Vera tries to throw a birthday party to match her classmates’, but her mother relies on gifts and help from the Church, leaving Vera with a party that is more Russian than she’d like. Her classmates leave in the night before the sleepover ends. All of her classmates head to camp during the summer, but Vera has never been allowed to go, the cost being too great. Upon discovering a Russian camp in Connecticut, a place where she won’t be the odd one out, she convinces her mother to accept the Church’s help to get Vera and her younger brother there.

But Vera still feels like the odd one out among the other campers. She is divided from her brother, put with the older of the camp groups in a cabin with two girls, five years her seniors, who have not only been going to the camp for twelve years but have shared a cabin for the whole of that time. The camp requires them to speak Russian as much as is possible, which isn’t a problem for Vera, but she does not read the language well, and she doesn’t know the camp customs.

After two weeks, the only friends that Vera feels that she has made are the chipmunks that she’s fed despite the rules—and even one of them has betrayed her by biting her.

But a chance encounter with a runaway guinea pig wins her a friend at last in Kira, a younger girl from another group. They admire one another, help one another to grow, and encourage one another. Together the two of them set out to conquer camp, to best the boys at last in the weekly capture-the-flag game.

This is a novel about being comfortable in your own skin and in the connections that you make, and about not judging on first impressions. From Vera’s belief in the true friendship of her classmates who abandon her, to her initial exile of Kira because she is younger and always crying over her missing guinea pig, to her belief that her brother is enjoying camp, initial impressions prove wrong again and again.

I enjoyed the pacing of this novel. I think Brosgol used some great tricks to keep the story going through periods of stagnation. At one point, a couple weeks of camp activities are expressed in a letter to her mother below the text of which the panels more honestly express Vera’s experiences at the camp. Moments of quiet contemplation are overlaid once by the action of swinging on a play set to give the panel some action. At others her thoughts are related to moments in Russian history, which were informative as well as informing the character.

The graphic novel is such a popular genre right now for middle grade readers, and I think readers will find this at once a relatable and unique perspective on feelings we’ve all had and experiences many of us might have shared.

****

Brosgol, Vera. Be Prepared. Color by Alec Longstreth. New York: First Second-Roaring Brook-MacMillan-Holtzbrinck, 2018.

This review is not endorsed by Vera Brosgol, Alec Longstreth, First Second, Roaring Brook Press, MacMillan Publishers, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holding Limited Partnership.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: February 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Loving Others

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and author's and illustrator's bios.

The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko and illustrated by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls.  Arthur A. Levine-Scholastic, 2015.  Intended audience: Grades 3-8.

I remembered Selina Alko from Why Am I Me? and was excited to see her explore this fairly local, historical story. She handles it with poetry and mostly with grace—though she does call Mildred’s skin “a creamy caramel” and later speaks of “people every shade from the color of chamomile tea to midnight;” I think we’re trying to move away from comparing anyone’s skin tone to food, the likening of POC to consumables.  For those who don’t know of the Lovings, this is the family that brought to the Supreme Court Virginia’s ruling that they could not be legally married because they were neither both pale- nor both dark-skinned.  The Lovings wanted to live in their home state of Virginia, but refused to give up each other, their love, their family for the sake of their state.  The Virginia law banning interracial marriage was deemed unconstitutional.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, activity pages, and author's bio.

Click, Clack, Moo: I Love You by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin.  Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy-Simon & Schuster, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This is a Valentine’s book from the Click, Clack, Moo series. Farmer Brown shows his love in his care of the animals and the farm. Little Duck decorates for the Valentine’s Day party and makes Valentines for everyone. The chickens and the pigs bring potluck dishes, but the sheep bring nothing. A fox hears their party and invites herself. The farm animals are terrified. All except Little Duck. Little Duck hands the fox her last Valentine, the fox hands her one back, and they dance together “yip, quack, yip, quack, yip, quack, quack!” Their dance inspires the other farm animals to interspecies dance as well. This is a great Valentine’s story with a message that isn’t all hearts and roses and candies. It’s about finding friendship and fun among those who look different from oneself, about being welcoming to others, even when you don’t know them. Yipping like a fox is a lot of fun aloud too.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.

The Peace Book by Todd Parr.  LB Kids-Little, Brown-Hachette 2017.  First published 2004.

Parr’s The Peace Book is all about good stewardship of the earth and care for all humanity. Peace is keeping the water blue. It’s saying sorry when you hurt someone. It’s helping a neighbor. It’s exploring other cultures. It’s fixing societal problems like homelessness and hunger. Illustrated in Parr’s very bright, simple style, this is a book for everyone! Seriously, there’s as much if not more in here for adults than the kids. It’s a good reminder of the simple ways that we can bring peace to others and to ourselves and to the world, and also of the big things that we need to work towards fixing. “The world is a better place because of you.” Was that a hijabi too, Mr. Parr?  Not a lot of story to this one, but a lot of good, needed sentiments.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and author's bio.

We Belong Together by Joyce Wan.  Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2011.  Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

Mostly this is a fun exploration of pairs and wordplay. Like peanut butter & jelly, like pen & paper, like a pair of mittens, with smiling, rosy-cheeked characters illustrating each pair. There’s really not anything in the way of plot, but the wordplay is a nice addition to a sappy sentiment of perfect togetherness.

***

Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, and author's bio.

Ten Apples Up on Top by Dr. Seuss and illustrated by Roy McKie.  Penguin Random, 1961.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This is a fun counting book with three characters each bragging that they can carry more apples on their head, the challenges getting more and more outlandish as the number of apples and the number of participants in the game increase. Being Seuss, of course the text rhymes. The three do get their comeuppance for breaking and entering and raiding the fridge of a mother bear. The bear chases them outside, where gulls try to take the apples from the boasting friends.  The friends’ fun, their sticky fingers, and their boasting anger the other peripheral characters, who chase them trying to knock down the apples.  An accident creates more opportunity–a wealth of apples–and provided with more apples, the game expands, the ones who were trying to stop it, finding themselves happy participants instead. What a strange economics lesson. Mostly this book is just silly, but it’s one of those that I think you can read more deeply into if you want to do so.  Hoarding toys is going to make others angry with you. Supplying enough toys for everyone is the way to peace.  A surplus of resources makes everyone boastful, wasteful, playful rather than responsible.  Am I reading too much into this?

****

Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, and author's bio.

I Wish That I Had Duck Feet by Dr. Seuss and illustrated by B. Tobey.  Penguin Random, 1965.  Intended audience: Ages 6-9.

A little blond boy wishes for various animal body parts. He has creative uses for each, but each of them gets him in trouble in some way or another. What he has against Big Bill Brown I don’t know, though it seems he might bully the protagonist–certainly the protagonist imagines that Bill would do so if the protagonist were to possess a long tail.  Still the vindictiveness of the protagonist’s references to Bill were somewhat unsettling to me, even if I can understand a bullied individual’s fixation, born of fear and constant threat, with his bully. The protagonist learns a lesson about being disliked and dehumanized for looking different. As a Which-What-Who with all the different animal parts on his body, he thinks that the townspeople would turn against him, be so scared that they’d call the policemen, who would catch him in a net and bring him to the zoo, where he’d be forced to eat hay in a cage. It’s a lesson too in self-love. The boy ultimately decides that since each new feature, each change that he could make to his body brings him grief in some fashion or another, the best thing to be is himself, just the way that he is already.

I was excited to read this one at this year’s celebration of Dr. Seuss’ birthday, because I remembered really enjoying it as a child, but I have to admit that it fell a bit flat as an adult, maybe because I failed to pick up as a child on the darkness of humanity that these characters display.

***

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.

LGBTQIA+ Representation in the Books That I Read in 2017

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It’s Pride Month, and I’m feeling prideful. I wrote this post ages ago and stuck it in a drawer because, frankly, I am still embarrassed for myself and for the industry by how few books including LGBTQIA+ characters I had read in 2017, but those books still deserve recognition. So:

This year I want to start something new: Already I’ve started the list on Goodreads, but I want to highlight here too the books that either include characters from the LGBTQIA+ community or which offer support to the LGBTQIA+ community (because some are more explicit than others).

I read 237 books in 2017. Of those I’m counting only 10 that include characters who are explicitly or implicitly part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Those are pretty abysmal numbers (.04%), but I’m aware of the lack now, and I’m openly seeking and celebrating books that I find that include more diverse gender identities or sexual orientations because representation matters.

Picture Books, Picture Storybooks, and Board Books (Ages 0-8)

Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima. Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Sima’s book is not explicitly about gender identity or sexual orientation. It’s about a unicorn born under the sea with a diving helmet who thinks that he is a narwhal, though he never entirely fit in. He meets unicorns later in life and realizes that he is actually a unicorn. When he returns to his narwhal friends, he takes “a deep breath” and tells his friends “the news: It turns out… I’m not a narwhal.” “Of course you aren’t.” “I’m a unicorn.” “We all knew that.” His friends take “it quite well.” This conversation is coded like a coming-out. The book later makes possibly an argument for not having to choose to be one or another, neither land-narwhal with the unicorns or sea-unicorn with the narwhals. This might be about gender-fluidity or transgender identity or nonbinary identity. Possibly it’s an argument against the segregation of groups by identity, for diversity among friends. Whatever message the takeaway, whomever finds meaning it in, it’s an absolutely adorable story about finding yourself inside of community—and making your own community.

Quackers by Liz Wong. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2016.

Wong’s book has a pretty similar message to Sima’s. Quackers thinks that he is a duck because he’s grown up among ducks by the pond—until he meets cats, and they show him the ways of cats. Quackers decides that he is both duck and cat, sometimes doing duck things, and sometimes doing cat things.

Middle Grade-Young Readers (Ages 8-12)

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 2: The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 3: The Ship of the Dead by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. 

Alex Fierro is gender-fluid. He/She becomes Magnus’ love interest, and the two share a kiss in the final book. Loki is also gender-fluid and bisexual, having children with men and women. In the third book, Alex brings to life a gender-fluid clay figure, Pottery Barn, who uses they/them/their pronouns. The einherjar in Valhalla are not entirely comfortable with Alex’s gender-fluidity, but that there is a Norse word for gender-fluidity undercuts the argument that gender-fluidity is a new phenomenon, and by book 3, floor 19 has pretty much accepted Alex.

The Trials of Apollo, Book 1: The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

The Trials of Apollo, Book 2: The Dark Prophecy by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. 

Apollo, the protagonist and POV character in this first person narrative is openly bisexual. In the second story, the heroes stay with two older, strong, well-rounded women who left the Hunters of Artemis and immortality to pursue their love for one another. They are raising an adopted daughter together. In the first, we also get to see Nico and Will together, and the camp seems quite accepting of their romance, though that Nico will pull out some creepy Underworld magic if separated from Will probably does help to keep people from complaining. 

Teen (Ages 13-19) 

The Raven Cycle, Book 2: Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2014. First published 2013.

The Raven Cycle, Book 3: Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2015. First published 2014.

The Raven Cycle, Book 4: The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2016. 

Ronan Lynch and Adam Parrish are in love, and by the final book, the two are comfortable enough to come together openly, sharing a kiss at a party. I think they may already be in love with another when we meet them, though their growth as individuals certainly deepens their attraction to one another. Joseph Kavinsky, who lusts after Ronan Lynch (I wouldn’t call it love), helps Ronan come to terms with his own sexuality.

Adult (Ages 20+)

A Place at the Table by Susan Rebecca White. Touchstone-Simon & Schuster, 2013.

This historical fiction is in part the story of Bobby Banks, a pastor’s son from Georgia, whose father turns him out when he discovers Bobby in bed with another boy. Bobby grows up in exile from his family, living with his gentler grandmother. He later escapes Georgia and moves to New York City. His time in New York coincides with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, and Bobby loses his partner to the disease. His friends lose partners and friends to the disease.

Do you know or think that I misrepresented or misinterpreted any of these?  Please comment below.  Let me know. I’m hoping the list of books that I read in 2018 that include LGBTQIA+ characters grows far longer than this.

Book Review: The Raven King Refuses Expectation and Surprises Despite Prophecy

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and author's bio.

Pretty much spoiler-free.

This is an odd review, because I’ve now read the book twice. I generally try to write my reviews while the story is still fresh in my mind but missed that pass when I first borrowed the hardback from the library not long after its release in April 2017. The paperback I read in late April 2018.

The Raven King wasn’t what I was expecting—and I don’t know why I thought it would be; no book in the series has been what I expected. But I guess I thought that by the fourth book, the only one that I couldn’t read immediately when I wanted to because I had to wait for its publication, I would have come to a point where at the very least the tropes of the genre would steer the book in a direction that I could anticipate. The tropes did not. Stiefvater ruthlessly undercuts expectations and genre clichés. And ordinarily I’m 100% down with that, but this time… it was a little bit of a let down, to read 4 books about a quest that ultimately falls a little flat.

But hold that phone.

I love how writing reviews can solidify my views of a book. Now that I’m thinking about the book less as a reading experience and more as an undercutting of every built-up expectation, I’m becoming more and more on board. And I guess I’ll just have to read it a third time and revel in its unmaking of the tropes (yeah, I said it).

What a fine, fine line to toe though, between failing to fulfill a reader’s expectations and desire and surprising them. There are lessons to be learnt here.

That ability to surprise me despite how many books I’ve read in the genre, despite both the first in the series and this last beginning with the characters musing about their foretold destinies, is astounding.

And I know I’m an easy mark, but still.

The second time, knowing the conclusion, I was more on board. I was more on board with an unconventional conclusion, with an unexpected resolution, with an improvised solution.

And of course I was here for the prose, the beautiful, beautiful prose that had me rereading passages and reading passages out loud to anyone who would listen to hope that they would revel with me in the language, in the thing so beautifully captured and expressed, in the pointed description that is at once perfectly succinct and poetic.

One of my favorite lines from the prologue is this:

“A Gansey reached bravely into the night-blind water, fate uncertain until the hilt of a sword was pressed into a hopeful palm.”

And of course I was here for the characters. Tumblr user h-abibti once described this series like “long road trips and the sound of laughter in a car full of people you love and its singing on the top of your lungs to lame music” (the quote continues beautifully; follow the link and read the full quote), and that’s so accurate. I think the intimacy with which the characters treat one another invites the reader into that intimacy and refuses to let the reader not care. I care deeply. These are friends. A stew of psychoses, yes, but friends. There are new friends here too. I want to give a shout-out to Henry Cheng, the unexpected, late addition to the court, Chinese/Korean American who though he has an extensive vocabulary and sharp wit struggles to communicate how he’d like to do out loud in English or any other language.

I have to give this book 4 stars because I was still not on board totally this second read, but I suspect that a third reading might raise my rating of the book.

****

Stiefvater, Maggie. The Raven Cycle, Book 4: The Raven King. New York: Scholastic, 2018. First published 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Maggie Stiefvater or Scholastic, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: SPOILERS: The Burning Maze Wrecked Me, and I Loved It

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Click to visit the author's page for links to order and summary.

This whole review is a spoiler. The spoilers are what I want to talk about.

 

I think I had a few days’ time at least of understanding certain friends’ reactions to Sirius Black’s death—and I’m sorry I didn’t understand then. We had Sirius for 1625 pages. We had Jason for 3029 pages. And I’m being maybe generous to Sirius and stingy to Jason, starting from the verbal revelation that Peter Pettigrew is alive and including all of The Goblet of Fire, for most of which Sirius is off-screen, and starting with The Lost Hero, including all of The Heroes of Olympus, but excluding the first two books of The Trials of Apollo and any of the books taking place simultaneously to or between the end of The Blood of Olympus and The Burning Maze (so none of the Magnus Chase books or Percy’s explanations of mythology). I’m guessing this is why this death was so much worse for me. And social media and fan culture has only got stronger and more pervasive since Sirius’ death (though I was on discussion boards before Order of the Phoenix, and I’m on none for Riordan). For a few days Pinterest was painful to visit because there was all of this fan art and discussions of future conversations between the seven, and I just kept thinking, “The poor dears. They don’t know.”

I was messed up for a few days (that reading that scene and finding out about a real-world personal tragedy coincided admittedly did not help, but the fact remains that I was messed up about Jason for a few hours before I found out about the personal tragedy). I frantically searched for anyone who had already read the story or who wouldn’t read the story so that I could spew my feelings, even going so far as to query a professional Facebook group of which I am a part (and finding my solace there in mutual feels).

Now eleven days on (six days since I finished the novel), I am ready to fully admit that I am so proud­­ of—but also angry with upset with—Rick Riordan, ready to forgive and accept. I am horribly, terribly scared that this is his Eddard Stark, that this is his declaration that no one is safe, that all rules of rewards or punishments for desert are out the window. I am as proud now as I was of George Martin—albeit really belated because I only read The Game of Thrones in 2016, and it was first published in 1996—before he started bringing his protags back as zombies.

I was so excited and proud that Riordan had decided to break up Piper and Jason. I thought that was a bold step. I didn’t realize then that it was a precursor to a bigger step away from the fandom wish-fulfillment. I really should recognize this pattern now, of distancing the character beneath the ax blade’s shadow from the others so that their death hurts just that infinitesimal bit less (to write about as much as to read about, I think). Martin remains the only author in this genre that I’ve found that does not to do this when killing off a main protagonist. Rowling certainly does. But Martin don’t care. He’ll crush us. I’m potentially comparing apples and oranges though. Martin has no pretense about writing for adults alone; Rowling and Riordan both began these series as for children.

I’m going to need to read this book again. I’m going to need to read this book knowing what’s coming. I’m going to need to reread the scenes following Jason’s death, which were raw and real, especially for Piper. I’m going to need to appreciate those more later.

There’s little else I want to talk about except for the impact of that one character and that one scene. I do want to point out that the scenes of war council at the bottom of the cistern, fueled by take-out enchiladas, were wonderfully raw too, I particularly enjoyed the first. I want to point out how much I enjoyed the idea of Incitatus playing Caligula for his own agenda, to create a world dominated by horses, how much I enjoyed him as a villain (and I’m a little upset that he won’t be our main antagonist going forward).

Everyone was less annoying, more grounded, more heroic here. Everyone.  Everyone came into their own: Grover as a Lord of the Wild and protector but also as a staple of the Percy Jackson world since page 1 as if Riordan too was remembering how much Grover has seen with us, Apollo as a hero, Meg as a daughter of Demeter and friend of the Nature.  The pacing seemed better here too than in the previous two of this series, the whole of the story more solid, more weighty. I feel like this book is where this series, these characters finally hit their stride for me, and now I’m looking forward eagerly and apprehensively to the next—especially if Reyna and/or Hylla will be there (Piper says Reyna, but I’m kind of hoping the twist will be that we really need Hylla and the Amazons); Reyna seems too obvious.

*****

Riordan, Rick.  The Trials of Apollo, Book 3: The Burning Maze.  New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2018.

This review is not endorsed by Rick Riordan, Hyperion Books, or Disney Book Group. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Shelfie 22: November 28, 2016: You Know You’re Old When…

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…you sympathize more with the adults in YA novels than the teens….

I tried to find something textual to give you tonight, gentle reader.  I really did.  I even went off in search of intriguing new book tags.  Alas, tonight, it’s not to be.  My mind is not in it.

So how fitting is it that the next shelfie in my queue is a photo of a page in The Order of the Phoenix, my favorite book of one of my favorite series–and certainly the series that I go to when I want something familiar, comforting, and nostalgic–that made me laugh?  I laughed because of how much I empathized with Madam Pince after 3 years working a bookstore–how I believed she was right for chasing Harry and Ginny out of her library for defiling her books with their chocolate-stained fingers.  Read the books that you’ve bought with chocolate-stained fingers by all means, but buy them first.

Book Reviews: April 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Nature’s Gifts, a Selfish Pig, and Geeky Vocab

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Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, sample illustration, and reviews. Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, and sample illustration.Pig the Winner by Aaron Blabey.  Scholastic, 2017.  First published 2016.  Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

Pig the Star by Aaron Blabey.  Scholastic, 2018.  Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

I didn’t much enjoy the first of the Pig books. Though in it, the pug, Pig, is admittedly a greedy dog and his literal downfall is the consequence of his own actions, he perhaps does not deserve to fall out a window. These next two books in the series follow much the same pattern of bad behavior on Pig’s part leading to a dire consequence and injury of Pig’s own making. These rhyming stories are formulaic in text as well as content: Each injury of Pig’s is followed by “These days it’s different / I’m happy to say.” In Pig the Winner, Pig is a sore winner, bragging and rubbing his opponent’s defeat in his face (poor Trevor) no matter the contest—or whether the act is a contest at all. He is always the best. In a one-side eating contest, Pig swallows his bowl, but is saved from choking by Trevor, only to have the bowl ricochet and knock Pig into the (garbage) bin. This story makes it clear that this injury is not enough to completely rid Pig of his need to win. In Pig the Star, Pig hogs the attention when he and Trevor go to a fancy photo shoot. The costumes that Blabey illustrates are by far the best part of this book. In this, shoving Trevor, leads Trevor to bump a precarious rocket ship that falls on top of Pig. The kids at my story time didn’t seem to much mind either the horrific accidents or the formulaic composition of these stories. 

***     ***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, awards list, reviews, and author's bio.

Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell.  Feiwel & Friends-Macmillan, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 2-6.

I am late to this Caldecott party. I had not read Wolf in the Snow before now to even have it in the running for the medal. The story is mostly pictures. A little girl who in her red coat against the white snow reminds me in style a bit of the protagonist of Ezra Jack Keats’ Snowy Day is lost outside in a snowstorm and finds a wolf pup, also lost. Together they find the wolf pup’s family and then the wolves help the girl find her family. Stylistically, this isn’t really my thing (too sketchy) but it conveys a lot with just a little, and is deeply emotional despite lacking much text, so I can concede that the Caldecott is a well-deserved award.

****

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100 First Words of Little Geeks.  Familius Corporate, 2018

There’s very little organization of these 100 words (maybe a nod to an attempt to group some words together but nothing more). There is no plot. But these are fun words to teach your little ones, and its inclusion of some words dear to me for fandom reasons made me smile. Is your fandom here? Several of mine are. I am reminded of the small children (it’s been more than one) who identify any and all owls at the store as “Hedgwig.” Too adorable.

***

 Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, and sample pages.

Moon by Alison Oliver.  Clarion-Houghton Mifflin, 2018.

Over-scheduled, Moon wonders what freedom, what wildness would be like. She tries to find the answers in the only way that she has been taught—books, but books fail her. A shooting star lures her outdoors to the garden where a white wolf waits. Moon asks the wolf to teach her its “wolfy ways.” It brings her back to the pack. Moon having learnt the wolf’s wildness, its love of nature, brings play and wildness and freedom back to the classroom with her. The colors are dark with careful, gentle details. I’ve enjoyed Oliver’s illustrations in the BabyLit series for a long time. The juxtaposition of the domesticated, tortoiseshell house cat and the wild white wolf (a canine) is an interesting one. I expected this story to leave more of an impression than it has done. I like the art very much. I like the moral very much. But I have a difficult time recalling it emotionally several weeks on.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, teaching guide, activity kit, and author's bio.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.  HarperCollins, 2014.  First published 1964.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I’m not sure that I had ever actually read this story, though I knew enough about it, that nothing about it was a surprise. The illustration style is familiar to me from Silverstein’s books of poetry, which I did read several times in childhood. The content was neither funny nor ridiculous however. There’s a lot to unpack in this small story. A boy grows into a man, being given everything he needs by an accommodating, female tree, who allows herself to be maimed to provide for the boy’s needs, but is happy to do so. In the end, the tree has nothing left to give and regrets this, but the old man needs very little, just a place to sit, and this her stump provides. It’s a very melancholy story. What exactly Silverstein was trying to say with this story, I’m not sure. Is it a metaphor for motherhood? Is it a warning against greedy, unsustainable deforestation and “progress”?  Both?  One has to be reminded of the Lorax who warns against cutting down all the Truffula trees, speaking for the trees when the trees cannot. The tree’s love for the boy seems unhealthy. I come at this story not as a virgin to it, not with innocent ears but having already heard whisper of the analysis that has been done on it. I know that skews my opinion of it some.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, and author's bio.

The Forever Tree by Tereasa Surratt and Donna Lukas and illustrated by Nicola Slater. Penguin Random, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This I feel like this is a much more healthy relationship with a tree than is that between the tree and the boy in The Giving Tree. A girl’s grandfather hangs a swing for her in the tree’s branches, and the tree becomes a site for community gathering—both for humans and for animals.  When the tree is deemed “unsafe,” the community comes together to save what they can of the tree, giving it new life as the platform for a treehouse.  This story was a little long, but my kids made it through.  This tree is not anthropomorphized in the same way as the tree in The Giving Tree, but becomes special through the love that the community has for it.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, reviews, and author's bio.

Tree: A Peek-Through Picture Book by Britta Teckentrup.  Penguin Random, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Teckentrup’s peek-through books are more nonfiction than fiction. This one takes us lyrically through the seasons of a tree, with animals brushing in and out of its pages, the leaves and the forest around it changing color. The poetry gives a little life to the text, but there’s not much in the way of a story. The recurrence of creatures from previous pages on the next adds another layer of play to a book that is already creatively laid out to give it a unique, eye-catching gimmick in a row of picture book covers.

****

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.

Book Review: A Good Cast Triumphs in Taggerung

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I can't find a link to audiobook but click to visit the Penguin Random for links to order the paperback and ebook, summary, and author's bio.

I was introduced to the world of Redwall long ago and grew up with my mouth watering for candied chestnuts and deeper ‘n ever pie and strawberry cordial. Brian Jacques (RIP) has a flare for description that I have always admired and continue to admire. No one writes a feast like Jacques, and he paints such beautiful pictures of the country in which his novels take place, pausing with his creatures beside a river to describe the flora and fauna, the flight of a dragonfly and the drape of wild strawberries down the sharp embankment into which the river cuts to create a sheltered ledge (I’m inventing my own landscape now rather than quoting or describing any of his, but you get the idea).

I’ve read and remember reading fewer of the Redwall novels than I would have thought. There are apparently 22, and I am now certain that I’ve read 5 of them, though I think I’ve read more that I’ve forgotten.

Jacques’ view of the creatures of Redwall and the surrounding country is starkly divided into good and evil. Badgers, hares, mice, otters, moles, squirrels, hedgehogs are good—just inherently, irrevocably good, as this tale proves. Rats, stoats, ferrets, weasels, foxes are irrevocably, inherently bad—cruel and viscous, the Orcs of Mossflower Country, though they are given far more personality and character than Tolkien ever gave the Orcs. I tend not to enjoy such stark divisions of good and evil (“the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters”), but I admit that rarely it is nice to escape into a world where a creature’s nature and alignment is possible to determine from a glance, to be given the excuse to think less, emphasize less, and still be able to be on the side of right.

In this novel, the otterbabe Deyna is kidnapped by the leader of a vermin clan and his father killed because Deyna is prophesied to be the Taggerung, an unmatched and unmatchable warrior, the most feared throughout all of the vermin clans known collectively as the Juska. Deyna is rechristened Taggerung and is raised as the clan chief’s son, but though he grows into an impressively strong and skilled fighter, Tagg refuses to kill. (Because of this I think too little is made of his first kill of an anthropomorphized creature later in the novel, admittedly a weasel who attacked Redwall, was hunting him with intent to kill, and hurt his own clansmen, including his chief, but early in the novel, Tagg refuses to kill one of the vermin members of the clan that raised him, beginning his banishment and his adventures, so one would think that this weasel’s death would still weigh on his conscience. Before even that he does kill an eel that is terrorizing a shrew clan, but the eel is more animalistic than humanized.)

This novel rambles more than some of the others in this series, perhaps because it has multiple protagonists in different parts of Mossflower Country as well as the regular competing plot that follows the villain. The book follows the life of Deyna, though it focues on the time after his banishment from the Juska, his long and roving return to Redwall Abbey. Having been banished from the Juska clans as a fifteen-seasons-old otter, he is hunted by his clansmen, meets a plethora of amusing families of voles and shrews and hedgehogs and one ebullient mouse named Nimbalo the Slayer, who becomes his travel companion and best friend. Meanwhile at Redwall, Deyna’s sister Mhera is trying to unravel a riddle that will determine the next abbot or abbess of Redwall. Honestly, there are several times I thought that the story ought to have come to an end (though if I’d thought about the series’ formula, I ought to have known that I would have to wait for an epilogue by the Abbey Recorder). Deyna’s story wrapped up quite well by the time that he was healed and back at the Abbey, Gruven’s story had not, and Jacques decided to end both plots and end the Juskarath before closing the novel.

The cast of this audiobook, though, sells the story, singing whenever necessary, with unique voices and accents appropriate to the character and species of each beast—and I was willing to follow them through whatever escapades Jacques had concocted. The “full cast” is not given nearly enough credit for their work—in fact, I can’t find their names anywhere on the case for this CD set—and I want to know their names. Jacques himself does the narration, which I always appreciate because you know then that you’re hearing this story as the author intended, each line precisely nuanced and inflected as he would have wanted and each word pronounced correctly.

The audio recording itself is probably a full 5 stars, but the story itself is merely a three.

****

Jacques, Brian. Taggerung. Recorded Books Productions, LLC-Haights Cross Communications Company, 2003. Audiobook, 11 CDs.  First published by Redwall Abbey Company Ltd 2001.

This review is not endorsed by Brian Jacques or any of the full cast of this audio recording, Recorded Book Productions, LLC, Haights Cross Communications Company, Redwall Abbey Company Ltd, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.