Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Graphic Novel Review - El Deafo by Cece Bell

First off, let me say that I am not a big graphic novel fan. Nothing against them - in fact, comics and graphic novels are what brought my husband and I together - and there are a number that I've enjoyed. It's just that I am far more likely to choose something else when I have leisure reading time.

But whenever a graphic novel pops up on my radar as many times as tonight's pick has, I feel pretty sure it's something I better make time to read. And when I enjoy a book as much as I did Cece Bell's El Deafo, I start thinking that graphic novels should be added into my rotation a little more frequently. (It's been a banner month for the format for me - first Sisters by Raina Telgemeier, now El Deafo!)



So, to the review: Cece Bell is an accomplished illustrator but El Deafo is her graphic novel debut. You'd never guess it, though, as it's a fully realized work with no false moments or plot threads left dangling. Likely that's because El Deafo is largely autobiographical. I say largely because the main character in El Deafo is a bunny named Cece Bell - presumably the author is not in fact a rabbit, but I don't totally know that because I haven't met her (maybe someday).

El Deafo tells Bell's story of growing up with severe deafness as a result of contracting meningitis when she was four years old. Don't think that she's going to gloss over any parts of her illness just because the book is for young readers; Bell talks about being in pain, about not knowing why, and the scariness of first realizing that she could no longer hear. We follow her through getting hearing aids, then a more powerful hearing aid for school - thus becoming, in time, "El Deafo", a girl with supersonic hearing thanks to her Phonic Ear and the microphone her teachers have to wear. (One superpower? Being able to hear when the teacher is coming back to the room so everyone can scramble back to their seats. Niiiiice.)

Bell is candid here about the ups and downs of her childhood, which I think all readers can relate to, hearing or not. There's a good dose of humor, and she's not afraid to laugh at herself or others - I really love that she brings out how one friend goes WAAY overboard with accentuating in-di-vi-du-al sy-ll-a-bl-es. El Deafo is Cece's alter ego, a person who does all the things Cece herself isn't always brave enough to do, like calling out that same friend for her pronunciation exaggeration. And I like that the struggles Cece faces don't always have to do with her deafness, but are rather those that kids and former kids everywhere will get - like feeling awkward, being frustrated with your mom, having trouble finding and keeping friends. That's childhood, people, and we all know what those issues are about.

Readers who enjoyed Smile and Sisters are a natural fit for this one. But go a bit further too - to readers who like novels like Wonder or A View from Saturday. El Deafo is one of my favorite books of this year, or any year really. Share this one with your kids, for the bright wit and serious insights, and the sheer joy of a story brilliantly crafted.

El Deafo by Cece Bell, published by Amulet Books
Ages 9-12
Source: Library
Highly recommended

Monday, October 13, 2014

One Old, One New - Picture Books About Construction

**Trying out a new feature here on the Bookshelf - a review that combines my thoughts about a classic along with those about a newer title, with a particular eye towards diversity. Like this type of thing? Let me know in the comments!**



It's kind of amazing how much kids change over the span of just a few years. I've been thinking about this the last few days, because Sprout's the V.I.P. in his kindergarten class this week and we've just made an "All About Me" poster for him to share. So, of course, that meant going through a whole lot of old photos to sort out the ones he wanted. And remembering all the different phases he's gone through thus far, noticing how the obsessions come and go, and which ones have remained (dinosaurs - all about the dinosaurs!).

Besides those prehistoric critters, an affinity for machinery has definitely hung in with Sprout. He's not as manic about trains as he once was, but we still go out of our way to pass by the tracks when we can, and every trip through a construction zone is cause for celebration. (Recently they excavated some gas tanks at a station near our home - you should have heard the excitement when we rode our bike past a huge hole with an excavator *inside* the hole!)



So, picture books on construction have been a staple since Sprout joined our family. One of the first we read him was Virginia Lee Burton's Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Now let me just say, I love that book, and so does Sprout. Hubs read this to him just about every single night for the first year or two he was in our family - waaay before he understood the words or story, when he was still learning English even, and he was riveted by it. A lot of that was the pictures, I think, and really that's hard not to be moved by. Hello, there's even a picture of Mary Ann digging the basement for the town hall and she's way down in the hole - not unlike that excavator we saw last week!



But of course, being published so many years ago, Mike Mulligan is a whitewash. And while I don't think there's anything wrong with reading a construction book like that to kids, it's nice to know that now there are much more inclusive choices being published, like the new title by Sally SuttonConstruction. This is the latest in a series of heavy-equipment themed titles by Sutton (read our review of Roadwork). While the story is a lot simpler than Mike Mulligan, there is a definite plot kids will follow, as the project is gradually revealed (spoiler alert: they're building a library! Woot woot!).

Construction showcases Brian Lovelock's trademark realistic style, which will feed young fans' cravings for up-close shots of big rigs and building equipment. (Nice glossary at the back too, when your kiddos want to know more.) Best of all, though, this title features not only racial diversity among the workers, but also gender diversity, with a female site director and a number of men stocking the library shelves. Way to go Sutton and Lovelock - I adore seeing roles reversed in such a way.

So while I'd definitely recommend Mike Mulligan -- there's a reason that it's hung around for so long, after all -- I also suggest adding in an updated perspective on building with Construction. Both great fun!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Picture Book Review - Otis and the Scarecrow by Loren Long

It's happening, my friends. Slowly but surely, Sprout is turning into a book nut. Squeeeee!

This was particularly evident a few weeks back, when we spent the weekend in Portland for a brief not-quite-ready-for-kindergarten-to-begin getaway. Of course a major stop on our trip was Powell's (really, is it possible to go to Portland and NOT go?), where Sprout proclaimed that "I could just live in this bookstore, Mom!"


By far the best souvenir of the weekend, in his estimation, was the newly published Otis and the Scarecrow, a title I had intended to purchase on the sly and save for the holidays. It was all over, though, once Sprout saw the bookstore display -- and truth be told, neither Hubs nor I could wait either, as we are both huge fans of Loren Long's precocious little red tractor as well. I'm thrilled to say that we've read all of the Otis titles so far, and this one absolutely lives up to the legacy, even throwing in a bit of an ambiguous aspect just to pique young reader's curiosity.

The story is very straightforward, as you might expect from Otis. This time there's a new addition to farm life in the form of a scarecrow, and of course the farm friends are excited to meet this mysterious fellow. But the scarecrow remains aloof and doesn't respond to any of the animals' overtures, so everyone decides to leave him be. As the summer turns into fall, a rainy day sets in, so Otis and the crew gather under the apple tree to play the quiet game. Then Otis notices the scarecrow, all alone in the field, and Otis being Otis, he just can't leave the scarecrow to his loneliness. The result is a lesson in kindness for readers young and old.

It's pretty hard to quantify just how much I love these books. Long has created a character in Otis that resonates with all readers, a set of characters that are timeless and enduring. Sprout is crazy for these books, and for good reason - the stories are thoughtfully told, with perfect pacing and illustrations that a reader can get lost in. (Seriously, they would make great artwork for a nursery - if you could bring yourself to take apart a copy of the book to frame the spreads!) In Otis and the Scarecrow, the outcome is a little more uncertain, but this just adds to the charm, and was a great touch for readers like Sprout who have literally grown up with Otis as a friend.

With Otis and the Scarecrow, we now have a title for all seasons - but I sincerely hope Long isn't done with the little red tractor. Sprout (and Mom and Daddy) can hardly wait for more!

Otis and the Scarecrow by Loren Long, published by Philomel Books
Ages 2-5
Source: Our collection
First line: "It was summer when the scarecrow first came to the farm where the friendly little tractor named Otis lived, back when the corn was tall and ripe."
Highly recommended

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Picture Book Review - Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns by Hena Khan

I bring books home from the library pretty much every day, and it's become part of our nightly ritual for Sprout to dig into my work bag looking for new stuff to read. A few weeks back he was doing just that and came across tonight's pick, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors by Hena Khan. Well, it's not at all an exaggeration to say that he was completely mesmerized. He immediately wanted to stop and read the book -- like, right away, even though I was in the middle of dinner and all the weeknight craziness. And, with a cover like this, who could blame him? I did the same thing when it showed up on my hold shelf!


Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns follows one small girl as she identifies color in the world around her. It's a lovely way to honor Islamic culture and introduce it to readers who may not already be familiar with some of the various aspects and symbols. The colors become focal points for the girl to talk about the things she sees and how they relate to traditions and people she loves. So blue is her mother's hijab; brown are the dates she eats for Ramadan; red is her father's prayer rug. A final spread pulls all the colors together, and provides a glossary for all the terms used in the text - a thoughtful addition.

I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the illustrations here, because as terrific as Hena Khan's text is, the illustrations are even more spectacular. I've seen plenty of informative books ruined by flat, lifeless images. Such is not the case here - Mehrdokht Amini pulls out all the stops for pictures that are not only vibrant and enticing, but also full of texture and shade. Some of the images seem to come right off the page at the reader, so you can practically feel the embossing on the Quran or the engraving on the dome of the mosque. It is so lovely, really -- I can't in any way do it justice, you just need to get your hands on a copy pronto. Trust me.

If you're looking to add a little depth to your story time, check out Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns. You'll not only get a glorious visual experience, you'll also get a concept book that goes far beyond the norm - one no reader is likely to forget!

Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns by Hena Khan, published by Chronicle Books
Ages 2-5
Source: Library
First line: "Red is the rug Dad kneels on to pray, facing toward Mecca, five times a day."
Highly recommended

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Chapter Book Review - Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

Ever felt that you just aren't quite -- right at something? That you are somehow falling short, and you may not know how, or why? I've certainly had that feeling many times in my life.( If you haven't had that feeling yet - and I can't imagine how you haven't -- let me assure you that parenting is one experience that will give you this impression time and time again. Woo boy!)



Those of us who have felt this way will absolutely relate to Albie, the protagonist in Lisa Graff's top-notch middle grade novel Absolutely Almost. Albie seems destined to go through life being not quite good enough at everything he does, to his great frustration. He can't seem to sort out why things he tries don't turn out the way he wants them to, and he seems to fall short in the estimation of the people he loves the most. But then Albie starts a new school, and gets a cool new babysitter - and suddenly Albie begins to realize that while he may not be great at math or reading, he's still perfectly great at being Albie.

I completely adored this novel, and it's all because of Albie. He's a fantastic character with a one-of-a-kind voice to match. Graff has drawn him splendidly, making him come alive on the page from the very first chapter. I love that Albie's passionate about things like donuts and excels at building models, even though he's often made to feel like his interests are somehow less appealing than others. (It's pretty clear that Albie has some delays, but Graff never defines or diagnoses - an aspect I really appreciated.) Your heart will go out to Albie, but don't pity him - though there are some really tough aspects of this book (bullies, his oblivious father), Albie's 100% the hero of this story. He transforms over the course of the book from bystander in his own life to a boy who knows where he's going, even if he's not quite there yet. 

Graff draws the reader into Albie's story through the ample use of humor and very realistic situations. She captures that sense of feeling powerless, when decisions that affect Albie's life are made without his input and he has to just go along with the ride. You'll cringe at some of the outcomes, but ultimately you'll end up cheering for a hero who's less Superman and more Captain Underpants -- and despite what Albie's mom thinks, that's pretty darn terrific. 

This is a terrific book to hand to kids who enjoyed Wonder or Counting by 7s, for a protagonist who is quirky and completely unique. Don't expect a neat resolution or a glossy happy ending from Absolutely Almost. It just wouldn't be true to the characters. But do expect a book with heart and soul, that will make readers think and feel, and most importantly help them put themselves in another's place. And expect to want donuts. . . lots and lots of donuts!

Ages 9-12
Source: Library
First lines: "'Not everybody can be the rock at the top of the rock pile.' That's what my Grandpa Park said to my mom once when they thought I was asleep, or just not listening, I don't know. But my ears work fine. 'There have to be some rocks at the bottom, to support those at the top.'"
Highly recommended