Tag Archives: literature

People of Color in Books That I Read in 2018: Part 1: Novels

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February is Black History Month and a good time to review how people of color have been represented in fiction that I read in the previous year.  And February is quickly slipping away from me.  I haven’t yet finished reviewing all of the picture books that I read in 2018, but I have reviewed the novels.

Looking at this year’s numbers, 28% percent of the books that I read this year (picture books included) included a person of color in any capacity—which is 1% more than 2017’s numbers. However, only 12 books that I read in 2018 included a person of color as the protagonist, a dismal 7% of my total books read, less than half as many as in 2017. That’s terrible. That’s on me. I did not this year seek out as many picture books to read independently as I have done in other years. Only 1 of the 12 books with a POC as the protagonist was a book mandated for story time in 2018.

I want to help others find these novels with characters of color, help others to know where to look for representation.  This will be the fourth year that I am doing this.  You can find the previous years’ posts collected here as well as links to more complete Goodreads lists.

Middle-Grade Fiction or Nonfiction (Ages 8-12)

Books with a POC as a protagonist

Yes, No, Maybe So, Book 1: Tara Takes the Stage by Tasmin Lane.  2018.

In this choose your own adventure novel, Tara Singh, an Indian American struggles between choosing trying out and practicing for tryouts for the school theater production and helping her family prepare to impress a Bollywood star who might put their sweet shop on the map. Tara’s crush, Hiro, a theater boy himself, is Japanese American. But is she also developing a crush on Rohan, an Indian American who works with her parents at the shop? Her best friend Yael is Jewish. I have yet only read this through the once, with the one ending, with the one set of choices.

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

A Latino American, a Chinese Canadian, an African American, and a Cherokee (all half-Greek or -Roman deity, I suppose) travel from Rome to Athens and back to Long Island to help three white kids save the world by sending the primordial deity, Gaia, back to sleep. An Italian American immigrant and a Puerto Rican (one half-Greek deity, one half-Roman deity) go on a separate quest to restore an ancient Greek artifact to the Greek demigods in America and end the feud between the Greek demigods and the Roman demigods.

A diverse cast with no protagonist

Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods (2014) & Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes (2015) by Rick Riordan and illustrated by John Rocco.

These are harder books to put into any of these categories. They are each collections of mythology, so all the protagonists in the stories—or most of them—are Greek.  There are adventures and visits to places farther afield, primarily in northern Africa or modern-day Turkey and Georgia.  In Greek Heroes, Cyrene is given a queendom in modern day Libya by Apollo in exchange for becoming his lover.  Orpheus travels to Egypt.  Hercules meets Antaeus in modern-day Tunisia on his way to the Strait of Gibraltar between modern-day Morocco and modern-day Spain before wandering Spain and Portugal in search of Geryon’s cattle.  In Greek Gods, Dionysus unsuccessfully tries to invade India with his followers. He is successful in spreading his worship into the Middle East, but the Indians repel him. Because in these Riordan is recounting existing myths from ancient texts and cultures, he is bound to an extant to remain true to the tellings as they are recorded by others, though he can choose what to include and what to exclude from the myriad and sometimes contradictory stories about these characters and narratives.

A white protagonist with a secondary character who is POC with a speaking role

Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. 2005.

Charon is described as having darker skin. He’s a god, the ferryman of souls to Hades’ realm, and an employee of Hades’. Percy guesses at first that Medusa is a Middle Eastern woman because of her dress. I assume she wears a burka as that would best hide her eyes.

The Trials of Apollo, Book 3: The Burning Maze by Rick Riordan. 2018.

Piper McLean, a Cherokee, returns as a secondary character, bordering on a protagonist, but Apollo—here appearing in the mortal, pimply, gangly form of Lester Papadopoulos—and Meg McCaffrey are protagonists.

Teen Fiction (Ages 13-19)

A white protagonist with a secondary character who is POC with a speaking role

Timekeeper, Book 1 by Tara Sim. 2016.

Brandon, Danny’s assistant and friend, is dark-skinned and Daphne, a fellow clock-mechanic and Danny’s rival but later an ally of his, is half-Indian, half-British.

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

Henry Cheng, a Korean American, borders on being a protagonist for this last of The Raven Cycle. His mother, his friends in the Vancouver crowd, all are Asian American as is their landlady.  Blue’s extended family remain background characters.

White protagonists with diverse background characters

The Raven Cycle, Book 3: Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater. 2014.

Some of Blue’s extended family seems to be African American, though Stiefvater is never very clear about it, in fact convincing many of us before she quashed the rumor that Blue herself was written as African American. Henry Cheng is less of a prominent character here.

Adult Fiction (Ages 20+)

White protagonists with diverse background characters

Temeraire, Book 2: Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik. 2006.

Temeraire and his crew of Englishmen and at least one girl travel with a delegation of Chinese ambassadors and officials along the west African coast and then across the Indian Ocean to China where they see how dragons are treated in that country, Temeraire meets his family, and Laurence struggles with the politics of the English-Chinese relationship. I love that this book series discusses what was happening in China (albeit a China where dragons are real) during the Napoleonic Wars, China often being left out of any discussion about that conflict.  However over the course of the whole book I never really got to the point where I felt like I knew any of the many Chinese characters, so I feel like they must be background characters, characters that helped to drive plot and created tension. Perhaps I should give them more credit. Perhaps other readers felt the presence of one or more of the Chinese characters more strongly.  The Chinese culture as a whole is viewed fairly favorably by Laurence and Temeraire in this novel, though there is clearly quite a bit of palace politics and intrigue at work within the higher echelons of the Chinese government in the novel.  While traveling along the coast, Temeraire and Laurence fly over land for a while, but see mostly undeveloped wilds.  In Cape Coast, modern-day Ghana, the crew witnesses an unsuccessful slave revolt, which greatly upsets both Temeraire and Laurence, who even before visiting Cape Coast are both vociferously against slavery as an institution, though as yet neither has been particularly active in quashing the institution either.  The ship stops in Cape Town, South Africa too, but Temeraire is feeling poorly, and to the best of my recollection, neither Laurence or Temeraire much observe the city.

Do you think or know that I misrepresented or misinterpreted any of these?  Please comment below.  Let me know.

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Book Reviews: Best of the Best of 2018

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It’s January 2019, so that means that it is time to reflect back on 2018’s best books. I have been doing so since 2014. I have collected all this lists here so you can easily view all of my 5-star rated books. There are doubles. Some of this year’s have shown up on lists from other years. Last year I started using these lists as a chance to discuss award predictions, and this year I have one that I thought would be a very strong contender.

TODDLERS-KIDS (0-8) 

Possible candidates for this year’s awards:

Special mention needs to be made of Drawn Together by Minh Lê and illustrated by Dan Santat. I read this book in June, but never did get around yet to reviewing it (so we’re going to take care of that right now.)

Click to visit the author's page for links to order, sample pages, awards list, reviews, trailer, and articles.

Drawn Together by Minh Lê and illustrated by Dan Santat.  Hyperion-Disney, 2018.  Intended audience: Age 3-5.

I’ve been recommending and championing it since June. I’ve loved it since then. It left a really strong impression on me, stronger than most books for sure. A very personal story for both creators, it tells the story of a grandson who struggles to communicate to his Thai grandfather, who doesn’t speak English and whose culture the boy really doesn’t seem to share either. The book begins basically wordless, told through the illustrations of their disconnect, sitting in silence, awkward questions that can’t be answered, different food, television that one or the other can’t fully understand. But when the boy gives up on connecting and pulls out his drawing pad, the grandfather is intrigued, and he comes back with a sketchbook of his own. As the two draw their avatars, the text begins, reflecting the communication that has begun to happen between the two family members. The two bond over illustration in whimsical, clever, magical illustrations by Santat that mix a more classical, detailed, refined style inspired by Thai art, and a more childish, brighter style. Their two avatars adventure together and eventually need the skills and tools of the other to defeat the Big Bad—the distance between them, represented by a dragon that is only partially finished before it decides to fight them. The defeated dragon becomes a bridge over which the two race towards one another, finally “happily speechless.” The text is beautiful, elegant, just right. This book moved me to tears reading it in the store. It nearly did so again refreshing my memory with a video of it being read aloud. I think it a likely contender for the Caldecott—if not other awards besides.

Love has the chance of sparking a Caldecott nomination too. When it was first published, one illustration in particular sparked a flurry of online articles either declaiming or praising the inclusion of a soured marriage that leads to a toxic environment for the child in the illustration, who hides as his parents scream. I think I prefer Drawn Together over Love for the medal though. As much as I love Loren Long’s illustrations in this book, I think the mixed styles of Santat’s drawings in Drawn Together will be hard to top; it’s a mastery of two styles—almost three since the two eventually blend together, and the book shares a lesser-known (in the US) culture besides. 

None of the books that I read won the Caldecott—nor honors; awards were announced today.  The Caldecott medal went to Hello, Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall.  I remember admiring Blackall’s illustrations for this book, but I never did sit down to read it; I judged it too long for my toddler story time and too long to sneakily read while walking it to its shelf.  I will enjoy it when it returns to the store.

MIDDLE GRADE (8-12) 

Possible candidates for this year’s awards:

Honestly, the pool of important, relevant, well-written books that came out this year I think will keep this book from winning any awards—other than the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Middle Grade and Children’s 2018, which it already has won.

TEEN (13-19)

I didn’t read any teen books that earned 5 stars from me this year.

ADULTS (20+)

My 2018 in Books

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2018 was a strange reading and reviewing year for me.  I still owe you all three months of picture book reviews (March, June, and July).  I didn’t review all of the novels that I read either.  I still owe you a total of 49 reviews.  Yikes!  Sorry, friends.  9 of those are novels.  I may swing back and catch some of those reviews over 2019, but I doubt that I will catch them all, and it might be better for my mental health to begin 2019 with a clean, guiltless slate as far as reviewing goes.  If I haven’t got it in me to do complete reviews, would you be interested in really short ones for at least those 9 novels and maybe some of the best of the 40 picture books?

goodreads1

I read fewer books and fewer pages in 2018 than I have done in previous years—even accounting for the additional 1204+ pages of novels not in the above total that I began reading but haven’t yet or probably never will finish.  For the first time in a long while, I got most way through a book, but gave it up without finishing it; I had just gotten what I needed from it without finishing it.  That was a rare nonfiction, an autobiography in the form of an encyclopedia of thoughts on various topics from Amy Krouse Rosenthal (An Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, which I was very much enjoying and would recommend but also warn you is sort of like an alphabetized Tumblr feed).  Right now I am in the middle of 8 novels.  I am actually enjoying most all of them (some more than others admittedly), so I am not rightly sure why I keep setting these aside except that other books keep presenting themselves and that there is comfort in the familiar.  I would like 2019 to be a year of finishing what I start—but I am making no promises and so far not making much headway in 7 of those 8.

goodreads2My average rating remained the same, actually matching my average rating of 2017 and 2016.

I am amused that the highest rated book of 2018 was a picture book written for adults by a late night comedy news show in response to a picture book written by the family of our vice president about their pet bunny rabbit, the White House, and the office of the vice president.

M. H. Bradford is a local, self-published author.  How his book came to be in our ARC pile at Barnes & Noble, I don’t know, but I took it home to review.  I am ashamed to admit that I have not yet.  So let’s do that here really quick, yeah?

This book takes the form of a set of questions posed to moon, wondering where it goes during the night. The book posits several theories from the moon descending into the ocean to seek treasure to it lighting the way for monsters in the darkest caves of the earth to it being protected by fireflies on the forest floor.

The illustrations use mostly a dark palette, contrasting sharply with the pale yellow orb of the moon, except for the furry monsters who are jewel-toned. The rhymes seemed a bit forced to me, sometimes repeating an idea to land on a rhyming syllable, sometimes using language above the reading level. I think that made the ending jar just a little. That and maybe the use of ellipses.

It’s a fun question to ask though.

***

Because I like to read more than one picture book for story time when possible, I often read multiple books by the same author.  I read 2 books from many writers—too many to list.  I read 3 picture books of Kobi Yamada‘s, 3 of Anna Dewdney‘s Llama Llama books, and 3 of Chris Ferrie‘s.  I read 4 books from when Dr. Seuss was going by Theo LeSieg and 4 of Aaron Blabey‘s Pig the Pug picture books.  I read 4 of the Pete the Cat books, all of them rereads for me.  I read 5 of Jane O’Connor‘s Fancy Nancy picture books.  I read 6 picture books of Mo Willems‘, all of them rereads, and 6 of Ryan T. Higgins‘.

I reread 2 novels of Maggie Stiefvater‘s The Raven Cycle and 2 of Sharon Shinn‘s The Twelve Houses.  I read 2 novels by Susan Cooper, 1 a reread and 1 new to me (and not yet reviewed).  I read 2 of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, both for the first time.  I read 5 novels of Rick Riordan‘s books; 3 of those were new to me.

To view the full infographic from Goodreads, follow the link.

Anything surprising in looking at your reads last year?

Book Reviews: December 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Insects, Romance, and a Snowman Gone Rogue

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

Never Touch a Spider by Rosie Greening. Make Believe Ideas, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 0-3.

This came out as part of a series of similar books by Make Believe Ideas: Never Touch a Dragon, Never Touch a Monster, Never Touch a Dinosaur. These books are bright. The textures, made of rubber or some rubbery substance, are unique. I actually like that these are just fun; there’s not really any kind of educational element to these. They are silly. It makes a rare change in a touch-and-feel book—in touch-and-feel books. I admit that there’s not a lot of maybe value to this, but I enjoyed the laugh, and I enjoy the textures.

****

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

Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack and illustrated by Stevie Lewis. Little Bee-Bonnier, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Stevie Lewis has done an amazing job with these illustrations! They are so vibrant. My favorite by far is the page with the prince and his knight lounging together by the town fountain, watched by the joyful townspeople. Their pose says so much about the casual, comfortable love and trust that they have for one another. The kingdoms that the royal family travel to too are colorful. It’s difficult to tell but there seems to be some chance that the prince’s chosen knight is of a different racial background than the prince as well. The story is told in easy rhyme. The prince’s parents are supportive not only of his eventual choice but in his quest for the perfect partner, taking him abroad to meet princesses with whom he does not ultimately end up sharing a connection. The prince is often in stereotypical princess poses, for example leaning on a balcony railing, propping his head on one hand—or caught in the knight’s arms as he falls from the dragon. The story is good. The message is good. The characters are good—like, lawful good (chaotic good?). All around, I love this one.

*****

Click to visit BN.com for links to order, summary, and reviews.

How to Catch a Snowman by Adam Wallace & Andy Elkerton. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-10.

This story plays with modern, living snowman “lore,” specifically referencing without naming Frosty of Rankin and Bass’ movie and Olaf of Disney’s Frozen. That was almost my favorite and least favorite part of the book—the references to other snowmen. The midnight snow star is new. The flying is new too. Why the kids want to catch a snowman is never really addressed; though it says in Goodreads’ description that the kids have built him for entry into a contest, I did not pick up on that in reading through the text; maybe if I examined the illustrations more carefully I would have done, but I often read these upside down for the first or second time. The kids’ traps all fail. The snowman is never caught but he creates a larger than life, snow trophy for them—which makes more sense if the kids’ first ambition had been to win a trophy. Some of the rhyming seemed forced, and I’m not overly fond of the direct address to the audience format.

***

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: The Joy of Christmas Book Tag

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I found this book tag on Adventures of a Bibliophile, who found it on The Terror of Knowing, who found it on Thrice Read, who found it on Macsbooks, who found it on the Booktubers Wikia, which I also didn’t know existed and am excited to find.  This tag originated with Samantha at Sam’s Nonsense.

Anticipation: The Christmas excitement is real, what book release(s) are you most anticipating?

I know what I want! I want that first book in the new sequel series to Maggie Steifvater’s The Raven Cycle, a series all about Ronan Lynch! I hear a draft has been edited—and did I hear that it has been turned into the publisher? Did I dream that?

Christmas Songs & Carols: What book or author can you not help but sing its praises?

Rick Riordan is amazing. He is so excellently including blacker, browner, queerer characters in his mainstream middle grade fiction, and he is too popular and too well respected for most people to complain. He was so smart, writing a whiter, more heteronormative series first, and then learning from his fans. He learns from his fans—and that is the best. He is turning out books quickly and keeping himself relevant.

Gingerbread Houses: What book or series has wonderful world building?

One of the most expansive, deepest worlds that I’ve entered is Patrick Rothfuss’ Temerant—specifically the Four Corners of Civilization where the story he is now telling in The Kingkiller Chronicles take place. There are multiple, distinct cultures with their own traditions, beliefs, histories and folklore, governments, dress, and language. There are several sentient races. No one else that I know has a board game that can be bought in stores with its own history and multiple variations based on who is playing and when and where in the world they are playing. No one else I know knows the history and exchange rates of several currencies within his world.

A Christmas Carol: Favorite classic or one that you want to read?

I am currently reading Stanley Lombardo’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. I’ve read parts of it for a class before, but I have never read it in full—but more than Aeneid, I want to read Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey. I’ve read several other translations, but hers is the first published by a woman, and I’ve heard that she’s erased some patriarchal mistranslations.

Odyssey is my favorite of the classics that I’ve read—specifically I’ve liked Robert Fitzgerald’s translation the best yet.

That is what you meant by “classic,” right?

Christmas Sweets: What book would you love to receive for Christmas?

This is not a short list—and I am sure there are more on there that I don’t yet know about. But I have had my eye on the illustrated Harry Potter books, which I can’t justify buying for myself—or just anything that I’ve been wanting. I’m missing a book of Riordan’s. I’m missing all of the Rick Riordan Presents. There are other books I am waiting to buy. I need a copy of Chainbreaker by Tara Sim. I want to read Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger. I like picture books, but I can’t justify spending money on them myself. There are graphic novels I would love to own: the whole Avatar: The Last Airbender set, Craig Thompson’s—but don’t own for the same reason that I so rarely buy myself picture books; it’s a lot of money for a few hours’ enjoyment.

What I got was a signed copy of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, and I am not at all displeased.

Candles in the Window: What book gives you that warm fuzzy feeling?

I have a hard time finding books that give me warm fuzzies—because generally that’s not what I’m looking for in a novel. Most recently though? I was given very warm fuzzies from the budding romance between Colton and Danny in Tara Sim’s Timekeeper. Those were warmer, fuzzier feelings even than I am getting from the sword and sorcery romance series that I am rereading.

Christmas Trees & Decorations: What are some of your favorite book covers?

I work in a bookstore. I see good covers all the time. ALL THE TIME. And very few of the books behind those covers have I ever—will I ever—read. As I look around my room I see more books that I’ve brought home because the cover and the jacket blurb convinced me. Books like Adam Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog (Hatem Aly), like Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Secret Keepers (Diana Sudyka), like Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone (Rich Deas), which I am actually very slowly reading now because I am not ready for that level of emotion.

 

Of the books that I’ve read, I think that John Rocco did a wonderful job with Riordan’s books, particularly for The Heroes of Olympus, particularly The Son of Neptune and The House of Hades, but also on The Kane Chronicles, particularly The Serpent’s Shadow. I think Mary GrandPré did a great job with the Harry Potter covers, particularly for The Order of the Phoenix and The Deathly Hallows but recognize that I like those perhaps more for their nostalgia than for their merit alone (a poster of The Deathly Hallows hung in my bedroom for several years), but I like Jonny Duddle’s covers for The Philosopher’s Stone and for The Deathly Hallows best of all of the English-language versions yet.

 

 

Some special mention needs to be made for Morgan Rhodes’ Rebel Spring (Shane Rebenschied) and Shannon Messenger’s Flashback (Jason Chan) for having amazing covers which almost alone are the reasons I want to read these series—though I’ve not started either. I guess the way to draw me in is to threaten or attack me with a shiny, pointed weapon.

 

Looking at these all side by side, I think that I like jewel tones too, emotional faces of realistically painted heroes and heroines, lots of detail.

Christmas Joy: What are some of your favorite things about Christmas And/Or some of your favorite Christmas memories?

I want to change this one, because this question does not seem appropriately bookish. So let me pose this question instead: What is your favorite Christmastime scene from a book? You don’t come here to learn about my memories—or you shouldn’t do, because that isn’t what I’m here to share—you are here to learn about books!

I think the Christmas scene that gives me the warmest fuzzies is Will Stanton and Merriman singing parts of “Good King Wenceslas” in The Dark Is Rising on Christmas Eve to open the magical portal to the room that holds the book that teaches Will EVERYTHING. But young Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint in the film version of The Sorcerer’s Stone exchanging “Happy Christmas, Harry” and “Happy Christmas, Ron” and Daniel’s astonished “I have presents?” warm my heart more than most anything could do.

Merry Christmas, my readers, whatever you may be doing today, whether you are celebrating or not.  And hey! if you complete this book tag, let me know; I’d love to read about some of your favorites.  Cheers!

Book Reviews: October 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Celebrity Writers and Fall Fun

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

Elbow Grease by John Cena and illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Penguin Random, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

I was pleasantly surprised by this picture book. I know John Cena more for his philanthropic work than as a wrestler, but I still did not really expect a quality picture book from this celebrity (nor do I from most celebrities). This is the story of a family of monster trucks who each have a particular skill or trait that helps him dominate one aspect of the monster truck arena—all expect Elbow Grease, who is the smallest of his brothers and electric besides. His brothers make fun of him. He decides that he will prove them wrong and drives all night to enter a demolition derby. When he gets there, he’s already exhausted, but he goes to the starting line anyway. Despite the other trucks being bigger, having more experience, and better technique, he does not give up. In the middle of the race, his battery gives out. But when a lightning strike reenergizes his battery, Elbow Grease is able to make it across the finish line. The winner of the race declares that Elbow Grease has gumption, and the brothers’ (female) mechanic, Mel, tells them that if they only stick to what they are good at, they’ll never learn anything. The book closes with all the brothers being coached through new challenges by Elbow Grease. There are a lot of lessons and broken stereotypes crammed into this one brightly colored picture book. It was a little long, a little spasmodic, but neither excessively so.

****

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

Little Elliot, Fall Friends by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I adore earlier Little Elliot books. This one, frankly, didn’t live up to my expectations. The illustrations were still beautiful and the story was clever and fun, but it lacked the message that I am used to seeing in this series. Perhaps if the reader was infrequently in the country, the message would be the delights of the country, but here, where everywhere we look is not too dissimilar from the landscapes depicted in the vibrant illustrations (though rarely do we get that much fall color), it’s not much of a lesson; we know the joys of pumpkin patches and watching clouds and picking apples and eating pies. In this, the two friends on their vacation decide to play hide-and-seek, but Elliot hides too well, and Mouse can’t find him—until Mouse bakes a pie and fishes Elliot out of the cornfield, Elliot following his nose to the source of the delicious aroma (which honestly feels a bit like cheating at hide-and-seek though it is clever and the reward is reunion and pie). This of the Elliot books seems to be the one aimed at the youngest audience.  There are many farm animals in the final pages, and though few if any are explicitly named in this story, those pages could easily be turned into a testing of animal names and sounds when reading to a young child.

***

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

How to Scare a Ghost by Jean Reagan and illustrated by Lee Wildish. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This isn’t a format that I particularly enjoy. This story was basically a series of lists, and it seemed long. It seems like the sort of book that you ought to read page-by-page, stopping to decorate for Halloween, stopping to do some Halloween activities at school. Why one wants to scare a ghost is never addressed. The only thing that scares the ghost is a vacuum. That one scene is a page long. Scaring a ghost becomes comforting a ghost and playing with a ghost and taking a ghost trick-or-treating. The book’s ideas are quite clever, but the format just doesn’t help those ideas, I don’t think. I’d rather read a story about less-generic, better characterized kids making a ghost friend and taking it trick-or-treating than listicles with a vague “you” addressee. My little story time guests wanted to know why the ghost was incorporeal when the kids were playing with it on the playground, but it was able to be corporeal enough to wear a costume, and why wearing a Halloween costume made a ghost visible to adults.  I couldn’t answer them.

**

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, video, activity kit, and authors' and illustrator's bios..

Builder Brothers: Big Plans by Drew Scott and Jonathan Scott of Property Brothers, and illustrated by Kim Smith. Harper Collins, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was another celebrity picture book that surprised me with its quality. During a summer day the brothers, children in this story, are dreaming up plans for a tree house, which makes the grown-ups laugh, thinking their wild ideas impossible.  (“There’s a hundred and four days of summer vacation.” )  The brothers set out to prove the adults wrong. They decide to build a luxury, two-story doghouse (a bit of a step down from their castle tree house with a catapult, but perhaps more manageable on a small budget). They draw up blueprints, go to the store to purchase all that they need, and build their house—only to find that they measured incorrectly, and the scale is not right for their dogs. They are at first upset, but realize that the scale is right for a birdhouse. It’s a cute tale of trying to prove adults wrong, trying to prove that young people can succeed, that they can brings their dreams to life. It’ll be a fun one to read before setting out to build a birdhouse of your own with your little—instructions are in the back of the book.

***

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: Read Timekeeper Quickly

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

I did not give Timekeeper the reading that it deserved, and I’m going to probably always regret that a little. I bought this book when it first came out, and—let’s get this out of the way—I wanted to love this book, and how much that bias colored my reading, I don’t know, but when I did read this book, I did love this book. Timekeeper is the first novel by Tara Sim. Tara Sim is the first person of my graduating class at my alma mater to get a book deal from a big name publisher (one that easily supplies Barnes & Noble). She is the first author that I’ve known personally to get such a book deal. She’s the one who made it first. (She won’t be the last.)

I don’t know what happened when I was reading this book—I honestly don’t. I bought it in November 2016. I’d actually opened it and read a few pages in November 2016; I have pictures. I started reading it in earnest in January 2018 or earlier—earlier I think, but I didn’t finish it until September 2018. Between January 2018 and September 2018 I reread three favorites, I read The Burning Maze, I started a mess of books, including several set in Wales in preparation for a trip to that country, without finishing them. I think portability made a big impact on my reading of Timekeeper this first time. Because I did read a new book called Tara Takes the Stage, a little 151-page paperback, and two of those rereads were portable paperbacks too.

I also have a niggling memory of a sense of being overwhelmed by book reviews that I hadn’t had the energy or time to get to you—and a feeling that I didn’t want to add to my pile of overdue reviews by finishing anything new; I think that might have been part of why I allowed myself so many rereads this year….

All this to say that I did not read Timekeeper in one great, thirst-quenching, squealing gulp like I ought to have done—like you ought to do; learn from my mistakes.  (And I’m sorry it took me so long, Tara.)

I was squealing enough about this book in January that I had to tell Goodreads about the dopey grin that I kept developing whenever I read about Danny and Colton and their will-they-won’t-they, forbidden romance.

Every time I opened it, I was infected by the characters’ emotions, but I somehow never sat down and put nose to page until I vowed to finish the books that I’d started instead of starting more. Once I was in maybe the last quarter of the book, I was tearing through it.

I was surprised by the ending.

I love that I was surprised.

The characters are all well-crafted, the world is vividly imagined and deeply considered. (There’s a note in the back where Sim talks about the ways her mythology and the changes that she made to humanity’s timeline in Timekeeper affect the characters and society in her world as compared to the world on our unaltered timeline, absent of her mythos.)

Here are so many things to cheer: well-portrayed PTSD; several, strong, well-rounded female mechanics, including one who is half Indian; a beautiful, gay romance; respected, well-rounded black characters in a Victorian setting because (to reference Psych) black people weren’t invented after 1888.

There are moments when Sim plays with textual layout and presentation to create story in a way that is nearly unique among books that I’ve read.

I intend to do better by Book 2, Chainbreaker, when I get my hands on a copy. The series deserves my attention.  Book 3, Firestarter, is due to come out in January.

This book deserves at least four stars, probably five if I’d read it as it ought to be read.

****

Sim, Tara. Timekeeper, Book One. New York: Sky Pony-Skyhorse, 2016.

This review is not endorsed by Tara Sim, Sky Pony Press, or Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: September 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Astronauts, Bees, and Sillier Animals

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Astronauts

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

I Am Neil Armstrong by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Chris Eliopoulos. Dial-Penguin Random, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 5-8.

My toddlers at story time are not the target audience for this book. For them is it too long—just too long. I suppose it could be best considered a graphic novel, but it’s really too short for a novel. A graphic novelette? But it’s not a picture book, despite the bright illustrations and round-faced depictions of the protagonists. I personally feel that it talks down to the middle school students that are generally the target audience for graphic novels.  So elementary students?

This biography of Neil Armstrong begins with Armstrong as a child climbing trees and ends with his space mission completed and a plug for the National Air and Space Museum in DC. There are many details about his life and his philosophy. It is intimate in a way that I did not expect. There are though too perhaps extraneous details, which I suppose sometimes add weight to Meltzer’s assertions (not a long checklist but “a 417-step checklist”), but more often added to the length of the story without really deepening my understanding of Armstrong or his mission.

Perhaps because I read so few biographies and don’t know what to expect or to want from them, I was less interested in the intimate details of Armstrong’s life. I don’t find it necessary to know that he was scared of Santa or fell out of a tree or read many books in a year. Any biographies I’ve read, I’ve read (and long ago) to be able to give a report or write a paper—a flaw in me not in the genre or in this book in particular—so I’ve never needed or particularly wanted more than the facts—just the straight up facts. What I read for pleasure—primarily fantasies but even realistic fiction that I read—are more often the span of an event—a significant event—and nonessential personal histories are left off or obliquely referenced if and only if they are effecting the character in the now.

I can tell that Meltzer wanted to include these details to illustrate the natural traits that allowed Armstrong  to succeed in his space mission, but the presentation felt extremely forced; it lacked finesse when compared to the arc of the fictions that I enjoy reading.

I frankly don’t feel qualified to rate this book, but I wanted to discuss it nonetheless because it wasn’t what I was expecting, and it might not be what you’re expecting either.

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

Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed and illustrated by Stasia Burrington. HarperCollins, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I chose this book because Brad Meltzer’s I Am Neil Armstrong was too long for my usual story time audience, but I wanted to keep to something in theme with the story I had been assigned to read. Plus, it’s the true story of an African American woman achieving her dream, written by Somali woman living in Norway! Mae Jemison’s parents support her dream to see Earth from space. They tell her she’ll have to become an astronaut. But her teacher (a white woman), says that an astronaut is no job for a woman—wouldn’t she rather be a nurse? That’s a good job “for someone like” her. Jemison is heartbroken by her teacher’s pronouncement. But her parents continue to be wonderful and tell her that this time her teacher is wrong; she shouldn’t believe her. So Jemison continues “dreaming, believing, and working hard,” and she becomes an astronaut and waves to her parents from space. There is less about Jemison’s life here and more about following your dream and achieving your dream through hard work and a firm belief. Meltzer focuses on facts; Ahmed on story. Ahmed’s was much better for my young audience.

***

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

Are You Scared, Darth Vader? by Adam Rex. Lucasfilm-Disney, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

All right. I found this one funny as did the friend who pulled it off the shelves to show it to me. But it’s only funny if you’re already familiar with Darth Vader and the Star Wars films; the text is littered with allusions to quotes and to plot points from the films. I tried it out on some kids who didn’t know Darth Vader. They didn’t find it funny. It’s also funnier if you can imitate Darth Vader’s deep voice, which I can only do poorly. Really, this may even be a story more for adults than for children.

The authorial voice and Darth Vader dialogue throughout this story. The book tries to scare Darth Vader with a werewolf, a ghost, a witch, but he is unimpressed by any of these despite the authorial voice’s assertion that they can bite and hex him. So the authorial voice invites a posse of children in Halloween costumes and without to swarm all over Vader, to pester him with questions, as the authorial voices continues to tease, “Are you scared now, Darth Vader?”

But Vader is not scared so much as annoyed by the posse.

The children decide that he’s no fun, and they leave.

Well, it seems Darth Vader can’t be scared, so it’s time for the book to end.

But Darth Vader will not allow the book to end. He implores the child holding the book not to turn the page, not to close the book.

He admits to his fear, but the book must end, and so he is trapped inside the book, “almost like [he’s] frozen in carbonite—or whatever.”

*** 

Bees

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

Princesses Save the World by Savannah Guthrie and Allison Oppenheim and illustrated by Eva Byrne. Abrams, 2018.

This is not the story I expected. This is a story about the importance of bees to an agrarian economy and society. Princess Penelope Pineapple receives a distress call from her neighbor across the sea whose bees have all disappeared and whose fruit harvest has suffered because of it. Princess Penelope calls an assembly of princesses from a wealth of fruit-centric nations. Princess Sabrina Strawberry is not alone in her plight. Audrey Apple is having the same problem. She’s a pretty minor character, mentioned once by name then shown as trying to help the other princesses solve the problem, but that the two princesses whose kingdoms are in trouble are both dark-skinned and dark-haired women of color gives the story an unpleasant tinge of white savior complex that this world does not need.

The princesses decide it is their duty to help, and among Princess Penelope’s many other talents, she is a beekeeper; she knows that scents lure bees. She hops into her lab and with whatever perfumes and sweet-smelling treats the princesses happen to have in their luggage creates a perfume. The princesses engineer new hives to give to Princess Sabrina, and with her perfume in hand, Princess Penelope leads the bees across the sea to the Strawberry Kingdom, where the bees settle, and their industry the next year leads to a healthy harvest for the kingdom—celebrated with a tea party by the princesses.

If only solving the problem of the disappearing bees were so easy!

But I continue to like Princess Penelope and her more modern take on being a princess with a wealth of duties and talents not generally assigned feminine or princess-like. I like that she seeks outside help and opinions from other nations when she sees a nation in trouble. That kind of collaborative foreign diplomacy and policy is forward-thinking and positive too.

I appreciate that the authors saw a current environmental problem and wanted to raise awareness among a younger audience about the problem, and that they seek to show young activists taking steps to alleviate a problem.

***

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

Bee: A Peek-Through Picture Book by Britta Teckentrup. Doubleday-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-7. 

This is not the first of Teckentrup’s books that I’ve read. Her strength I feel is in lyrically romanticizing the ordinary—thus far her subjects have always been also natural. This like Tree is more nonfiction than fiction, depicting the day and job of a worker bee and bees as pollinators. Many animals, including a bee in a peek-hole through each page, hide among the illustrations, making a fun spot-the-critter game as you read through the book. Teckentrup uses lyrical language and specific detail to paint her text. This made for a good side book to Guthrie and co.’s Princesses Save the World. A bit more on level for my youngest listeners and certainly much shorter, there’s less—really no—problem here, certainly no talk of a global crisis, but it seemed a good way to introduce the concept of why bees are so important to an ecosystem.

**** 

New Twists on Old Tales

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

Pig the Fibber by Aaron Blabey. Scholastic, 2018. First published 2015.

I’ve reviewed others (almost all of the others) in the Pig the Pug series. It’s just not a model I love. In this addition to the series, Pig is blaming Trevor to avoid getting into trouble for things that he’s done. Having gotten Trevor out of his way, Pig concocts a scheme to get to the treats on the top shelf of the closet, but along with the treats, a bowling ball falls from the shelf, and Pig is again bandaged and laid up, again he gets his comeuppance for treating Trevor poorly, for behaving poorly. And he’s learnt another lesson—but again not well and not without serious bodily harm all portrayed in a singsong rhythm. Learning not to blame a sibling or bystander, not to scapegoat is a valuable lesson, but I’m still just not sure about this method of teaching; it’s so drastic, and the tone is at such odds with the harm caused to Pig.

***

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

Corduroy Takes a Bow by Viola Davis, based on characters by Don Freeman. Viking-Penguin Random, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

What a special opportunity I expect this is for Viola Davis! Don Freeman was one of the first picture book illustrators to create a book with African American protagonists, and now fifty years later, Davis, the first African American to win a Tony, and Emmy, and an Oscar, has returned to his characters with a new story. She takes Corduroy and Lisa to the theater—a live stage performance. Both are excited and in Lisa’s attempts to see above a tall man who sits in front of her, she loses track of Corduroy, who too seeks a better seat, ending up in the pit, backstage, and then on stage. The picture book is unfortunately heavy with lessons about the language of the theater, the people behind a production, and those pieces weighed down the story somewhat.

***

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

Goodnight Goon: A Petrifying Parody by Michael Rex.  G. P. Putnam-Penguin Random, 2008.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is yet another Goodnight Moon parody, this time with a spooky, B-horror, monster theme. The little goon spends the second half of the book avoiding bed and partying and playing with the creatures that infest his bedroom, perhaps trying to tire everyone out so that his bedroom will be quiet enough to sleep; everyone is sleeping or out of the bedroom when the happy goon is at last in his bed by the last page (“Goodnight monsters everywhere.”)—that’s a fun twist on the story.

***

And Silly Animals

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

The Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith and illustrated by Katz Cowley. Scholastic, 2010. First published 2009.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Sometimes British picture books in particular, I’ve found, are just wonderfully weird. This one is wonderfully weird. It resurfaced in America because of a YouTube video of a Scottish grandmother reading the book aloud. The story reads like a camp song, a wonderful camp song where each verse adds another adjective to a long list of to remember, all rhyming, all silly. I remember the days (20 years ago) when Scholastic didn’t believe we would understand “Mum” in a middle grade novel. Now look at them! throwing our picture books readers words like “wonky” and making no changes to the British English “spunky” though it doesn’t seem to mean the same thing as it does in American English; from this picture book in British English it seems to be a synonym for “good looking.” I really enjoyed this. I enjoyed the silliness of the plethora of adjectives attached to this donkey, and I enjoy saying it as fast as I can: “a spunky, hanky-panky, cranky, stinky dinky, lanky, honky-tonky, winky, wonky donkey.” I like the victory of being able to say it all really fast. I guess I’m still a camper at heart. If any Scottish grandmothers out there want to read Evil Weasel and make that something I can find in my country, I’d much appreciate it; I remember really enjoying that one when I read it while staying with a family in Edinburgh.

****

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

Chomp Goes the Alligator by Matthew Van Fleet. Paula Wiseman-Simon & Schuster, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 2-99.

With lots of interactive elements—touch and feel, a pull-tab to make the alligator chomp up and down, and even a pop-up—this is a counting book and animal and color primer—all set in a swamp, which is not the most oft used of settings for a picture book. On the final pop-up page the animals not featured in the text are labeled in smaller print and the bugs in a bubble of dialogue ask to be counted in a later reading. The page spreads are labeled 1-10 in big text. Every animal miraculously lives though the text’s pretext is the alligator eating them and seems on the last page even to have enjoyed its experience on the alligator thrill ride. The illustrations are of cute, happy critters in pastel colors. There’s a burp to make the kids laugh, and a polite “excuse me” to appease the parents. This book has everything! Educational and fun and unusual.

*****

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.

Shelfie: January 15, 2017: ReReading Blue Lily, Lily Blue

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Oops.  In planning for another adventure and just the day-to-day I never did get around to finishing a blog post (though I’m close on at least one).  I didn’t want to leave you without anything for the next two weeks, so enjoy some of these favorite lines of mine from Maggie Stiefvater’s Blue Lily, Lily Blue, the third book in The Raven Cycle.

Needless to say, if you read the full pages, you might find some spoilers, but the quotes I’ve highlighted are all I think pretty safe.

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“She drifted toward the bedroom, on her way to have a bath or take a nap or start a war.”

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“Violence was a disease Gansey didn’t think he could catch.”

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“Blue was perfectly aware that is was possible to have a friendship that wasn’t all-encompassing, that wasn’t blinding, deafening, maddening, quickening.  It was just that now that she’d had this kind, she didn’t want the other.”