Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Wayback Wednesday - Frog and Toad Together (1972)

Kidlit has given us a lot of duos over the years: Betsy and Tacy, Peter and FudgeTom and Huck, Beezus and Ramona, George and Martha, Henry and Mudge, Katniss and Peeta, Elephant and Piggie. But if you grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, chances are one particular pairing comes to mind when you consider children's literature. I'm speaking, of course, of the inimitable Frog and Toad.

Quick story: a few months back, Sprout and I were visiting a large chain bookstore and he came across a larger-than-life cutout of Frog. He was thrilled, naturally -- who wouldn't be? But then he immediately started looking for Toad, who was conspicuously absent. "Where Toad?" he asked the bookseller, completely puzzled. "Frog and Toad is friends!".

In Sprout's mind, Frog and Toad are inseparable, a duo whose presence in one another's life makes the story. And I would tend to agree with him. This is a classic pair, the staple of many an early reader's first experiences with chapter books. Arnold Lobel introduced the two friends in 1970's Frog and Toad are Friends, which won a Caldecott Honor. (Lobel went on to win a Caldecott for Fables in 1981.) The other entries in the series include Frog and Toad All Year and Days with Frog and Toad; each title contains several stories that reveal the depth of the two friends' affection for one another. Some sources quote Lobel as stating that Frog and Toad were two parts of himself. Whether or not that is true, it's obvious that the stories are personal and rendered with love by their creator.

Sprout's favorite entry in the series at the moment is 1972's Newbery Honor title Frog and Toad Together. In this volume, the two experience a number of highs and lows, from the thrill of a garden growing at last to the uncertainty of what to do when Toad's list of daily activities is lost. In each episode, the friends' individual qualities shine through, such as Toad's affinity for the spotlight and Frog's creative problem-solving. We particularly love "Cookies", in which Toad bakes an especially delicious batch of cookies and then the two friends try to figure out how to stop themselves from eating every single one (with hilarious results).

Lobel hits the mark perfectly with every one of Frog and Toad's adventures, wrapping up life lessons in funny and touching tales. The situations may be unusual, but the emotions are familiar to young children. When a bit of peril is introduced (such as the bravery-testing "Dragons and Giants"), the solution is realistic, as the two friends discover that courage may be hard on your own, but is much easier with a buddy. Through it all, Frog and Toad remain devoted companions, always matching one another's strides in order to end up right in sync.

You can't go wrong with any of the Frog and Toad tales - the only challenge comes in reading only one chapter!

Wayback Wednesday Verdict: Timeless!

Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel, published by HarperCollins
Ages 3-6
Source: Library
Sample: "Toad looked at the sunshine coming through the window. 'Frog,' he said, 'I am so glad that you came over.' / 'I always do,' said Frog."
Highly recommended

Monday, June 25, 2012

Chapter Book Review - Wonder by RJ Palacio

"I know I'm not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an XBox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don't get stared at wherever they go."

Thus begins RJ Palacio's Wonder, an aptly named middle-grade novel that just may be my favorite book of 2012.

And that's saying something, because I've read some fantastic stuff this past year. But Wonder is like nothing else -- funny, heartbreaking, emotional, and absolutely an all-around incredible piece of work. I've seen a lot of hype about this one in the blogosphere, and having just turned the last page, I can tell you that all that high praise is richly deserved.

Wonder is Palacio's debut, and it's hard to know where she'll go from here, because she's definitely set a high mark for herself. The novel tells the story of August "Auggie" Pullman, who is in every way a pretty normal fifth grader, with the usual interests of a boy his age. But there's one thing very, very different about Auggie - he was born with a rare genetic disorder that manifests itself in a "craniofacial abnormality", as his older sister Via describes it. Auggie and his family have spent their lives dealing with Auggie's condition, through multiple surgeries and treatments to the looks and whispered comments from others when they first see Auggie. And the Pullmans have gotten pretty good at handling all of it.

But when Auggie starts fifth grade, his parents decide it's time for real school. No more homeschooling with his mom. Auggie's not sure he's ready, and he's more than a little nervous about how things will go with the other kids. Will he make any friends? Will the other kids ever get past Auggie's face and look at who he really, really is?

Palacio completely nails the experience of being the one who doesn't blend into the crowd. And still, she never makes Auggie a pathetic character or someone to be pitied - far from it. Writing from the point of view of Auggie, as well as several other pivotal characters, she tells Auggie's story as it impacts everyone. His presence at Beecher Prep not only changes Auggie's life, but many other people's as well, in ways that no one could have foreseen when the school year started. The reader begins to understand how Auggie's face serves as a mirror to all those around him; looking at Auggie, you see yourself in unexpected ways. How each character deals with that unexpected reaction provides the narrative drive for the story, and is what makes this an outstanding novel for everyone, not just middle schoolers. I'm hard pressed to think of a book that exemplifies the experience of empathy in such a way, by showing what it looks in real life, not after-school specials.

The center point around which Auggie's story turns is a quote by Wayne Dyer: "When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind." It's one thing to talk to our kids about bullying, about the importance of standing up for others and not joining in with the crowd. It's another to show them what bullying looks like. This is a book that can do that, without preaching or shutting kids down. I know it's one that I'll be reading with Sprout when he's older.

Share Wonder with the kids in your life, but read it yourself first. Auggie Pullman is someone you'll want to know.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Ages 9-13
Source: Library
Sample: "The thing is, when I was little, I never minded meeting new kids because all the kids I met were really little, too. What's cool about really little kids is that they don't say stuff to try to hurt your feelings, even though sometimes they do say stuff that hurts your feelings. But they don't actually know what they're saying. Big kids, though: they know what they're saying."
Highly recommended

Bonus: Hear what inspired the novel, as NPR interviews author R.J. Palacio

More reviews:
Jen Robinson's Book Page
Fuse #8
100 Scope Notes
More Than True
Abby the Librarian

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Circus Circus

This one I blame on Olivia. That sassy pig is just so darn enticing, we couldn't help checking out Olivia Saves the Circus during a recent library visit. And while we loved that book, it raised a lot of questions from Sprout about just what a circus is anyway. As with so many other things in life, it's a lot easier to show about circuses than it is to tell, so suddenly we've found ourselves reading an elephant-sized pile of circus tales.

First up was Olivia Saves the Circus by Ian Falconer. In this entry, our porcine heroine takes her turn at telling her class about her vacation. Naturally her story is vastly entertaining, as she relates the tale of stepping in to save the circus when all the performers were sick (with ear infections). Think Olivia the clown, Olivia the trapeze artist, and of course Olivia the Tattooed Lady. In typical Falconer fashion, it's the story behind the story that the pictures truly reveal. A fun entry in the preschooler-friendly series!

To the Big Top by Jill Esbaum was a great way to really explain to Sprout what a circus is. Set in the early 1900s, the story follows Benny and Sam as they experience the circus that rolls into their small town. From helping to set up the tent and watching the circus parade, to walking through the midway and encountering one cheeky monkey, this book is a real romp. The whiff of nostalgia is carried throughout David Gordon's illustrations, which really bring an old-style show to vivid life. Though a bit long (better for older ones than toddlers), this one hearkens back to yesteryear and is a great snapshot of history.

A better circus-themed read for the younger set is author/illustrator Johanna Wright's The Secret Circus. This is a gentle tale, set in Paris, of a circus so secret that only the mice know about it. Only the mice know when to go, how to find it, or what they'll see there. Each spread features charming depictions of mice families getting ready to go, flying to the circus in a hot air balloon, and taking their place among the spectators. The soft color palette and whimsical illustrations make this a good choice for slowing this down just before bedtime.

For a tongue-in-cheek selection, try Little Rabbit and the Meanest Mother on Earth by sisters Kate and M. Sarah Klise. Little Rabbit's mother insists he must tidy up his playroom before he can go to the circus. Well, that's just impossible, and Little Rabbit has a bit of a meltdown. And then he gets an ingenious notion - he'll join the circus, that's what, and he'll sell tickets so everyone can see the Meanest Mother on Earth. That'll show Mother! Soon Little Rabbit's Mother seems not only mean, but downright ferocious. But what will happen when the crowds meet the real Mother? The moral of the story is pretty clear, but revealed with the lightest of touches. And the pictures are as cute as can be (Sprout likes the Dalmatian ringmaster best of all).

If storytime feels in a rut, maybe it's time everyone ran off to the circus. . . we've certainly enjoyed the show!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Wayback Wednesday - Freight Train (1978)

Not quite sure how, but I entirely missed Donald Crews' books growing up. I remember seeing the cover of a few (most notably Ten Black Dots and Truck) but can't ever recall cracking them open. It's odd, because Crews received the Caldecott Honor twice in the late 70's and early 80's, so you'd think he would have been on every elementary teacher or librarian's must-read list. But then again, maybe he was, and his books were just being pored over by all the other kids in my class, as I was curling up with Bread and Jam for Frances. It's hard to say.

In any event, it wasn't until I had Sprout in my life that I came to encounter Donald Crews in a meaningful way. And that, of course, was due to this week's Wayback Wednesday read, Freight Train.

Longtime readers of this blog may remember that Sprout is a bit of a train nut. Okay, he's obsessed, really. Anything and everything trains delights him, and hardly a visit to the library goes by without us bringing home a book or two about engines of some sort. Freight Train was one of the first we read together, and he found it himself, so it has a special place in our heart.

The text is deceptively simple - just 55 words -- but each one is carefully chosen and set into its place like a jewel into a setting. And the illustrations are just as impactful. At first they appear simple, and they are, but the stylized images capture the spirit of a freight train through every single spread. Sprout loves it when the train speeds up, and I have to admit that the "Moving" images are pretty spectacular (check them out for yourself - you'll be amazed at the way Crews perfectly articulates the image of a speeding train). And there's so much more here too: colors and opposites (light/shadow), different types of cars and their placement in the train itself. The more you look at this phenomenal piece of art, the more you'll see.

In creating Freight Train, Crews has said he was inspired by his own childhood experiences riding the train from New Jersey to Cottondale, Florida. His memories no doubt helped evoke the graphic style that characterizes this work, and which makes it so visually appealing to even the youngest children. Crews went on to write other similarly themed picture books, and to collaborate with his wife, the author/illustrator Ann Jonas. His work remains vivid, bold, and relevant to children everywhere. Their daughter Nina Crews has carried on the family tradition, producing some amazing works of her own, which we love for their multiracial families and themes.

Believe me when I tell you that Sprout goes nuts for this book every single time he sees it. In fact tonight, he came in from playing outside to find me writing this blog post and insisted we had to read it right away. If that isn't high praise, I don't know what would be.

Wayback Wednesday verdict? A true classic.

Freight Train by Donald Crews, published by Greenwillow Press
All ages
Source: Library
Sample: "Moving in darkness. / Moving in daylight. Going, going...gone."
Highly recommended

Monday, June 18, 2012

Poetry Review - A Stick is an Excellent Thing by Marilyn Singer

It's nearly summer! By the calendar at least, if not fully by the weather forecast here in Northwest Washington. We've had a couple of warm days already, though. During one of them, Sprout and Daddy happened to be out at the park just at the perfect moment when they were testing the splash pad, and Sprout got to have an impromptu run-through-the-sprinklers moment. Other than that we haven't had the chance to do a lot of summery things yet, but we're definitely looking forward to them: more bike rides, popsicles, picking strawberries, playing in the wading pool, watching the fireworks. Blissful.

In keeping with the spirit of the season is Marilyn Singer's new book A Stick is an Excellent Thing: Poems Celebrating Outdoor Play. Singer's the author of a number of well-loved books for children, including I'm Your Bus, which Sprout loves for its transportation theme, and A Full Moon is Rising, last year's gorgeous book that takes a look at how different cultures incorporate the phases of the moon. What I loved about the latter title is that we can dip into it at any point, reading the page or pages that catch Sprout's fancy. And isn't that the best thing about poetry - the way each individual piece shines like its own unique gem?

In this latest title, Singer is celebrating life after the last day of school. And who wouldn't be anxious to hear that final bell ring, if they were enjoying all the wonderful fun that bursts forth from Singer's terrific poems? The poems vary in length and subject, everything from a boy who's playing catch with his dog, to a game of double dutch, to a romp through the backyard sprinkler ("Get wet! Jump out! / And always SHOUT!"). Each one perfectly encapsulates a summer experience that brings me back to those seemingly endless summer days, riding my bike with the neighbors or waiting and watching for the temperature to get warm enough to go swimming.

And the very best part of Stick, in our estimation, is that the book is entirely peopled with multicultural characters. There are kids here in every shade of skin tone and hair color, all frolicking together through Singer's delightful poems and enjoying the bounty of summer. LeUyen Pham did the illustrations here and as usual they are a true joy to look at. Not only does she capture the wicked fun these kids are having, she also evokes a retro vibe that will remind parents of their own summer days.

A Stick is an Excellent Thing is a winner for lots of reasons, and one that you'll love including as part of your summer reading routine. Oh, and for reluctant readers it's just the thing to keep those skills up over the break. Once they read one or two of these snappy pieces, they'll want to read the whole book (and so will you!).

A Stick is an Excellent Thing by Marilyn Singer, published by Clarion Books
All Ages
Source: Library
Sample: "This bubble I'm blowing, / this bubble is growing -- / this bubble of ginormous size. / It's as big as a plate. / You can watch it inflate. / This bubble will win me a prize!"

Bonus: take a peek inside the book at the Seven Impossible Things blog

Sunday, June 17, 2012

One Year Later

Happy blogoversary to me! Today marks one year since I began this blog, and what a year it's been. Here's a look at where we are, one year later.

First, I'm another year closer to my MLIS, though not much closer to figuring out just what type of career I might find most fulfilling. Librarianship offers a lot of options, from public to academic to special libraries, not to mention specific areas of focus. I know one thing, that I want a career that will help me continue to emphasize the importance of diversity in children's literature. I've seen firsthand the way a child lights up when he/she finds a book with characters that "look just like me", and that's an experience I want to see replicated for every child, everywhere. With one more year of coursework ahead, I'll have more opportunities to consider how to make that a reality.

Second, this blog has really grown and changed in the past 12 months. What started out as a sort of virtual bookshelf for Sprout has expanded into a way for me to share titles that support the identity of all children, and of adults as well. I've read books about many nations and cultures, and considered how literature reflects the unique experience of people from all walks of life. Of course I've barely scratched the surface there, and I have a lot more to go (as evidenced by my daunting TBR list!). Most recently, I've indexed all the titles discussed here on the blog, to make it easier to locate a specific review or discussion. In the months to come I look forward to adding a lot more items to that title list.

And perhaps most importantly, Sprout is another year older. Wow oh wow, what a difference 12 months make! He's gone from a spunky two-year-old to a precocious and aware three-year-old. He's recognizing letters in his name (and working really hard to learn to spell it), "writing" with his crayon, and connecting the dots between letters and sounds. In a year we've read aloud every single day, without fail - sometimes only one book, sometimes three or five or twenty. He's come to be recognized by the Friday morning library staffers, who always smile to see him running toward the checkout counter, clutching a new book in one hand and our precious library card in the other. And he is very proud that this year we are taking part in Summer Reading, hoping to earn a way-cool yard sign for our front lawn!

All in all, a year of achievements and milestones. I've read some amazing books this past year, many of which I'll be recommending to Sprout in the years to come. I've participated in some challenges that connected me with some of the many talented kidlit bloggers out there. I've learned a lot too, and my perspective on race, identity, adoption, culture and family continues to transform. Above all, I've had a fantastic time sharing my thoughts with all of you, whoever and wherever you are.

Here's to another year of great books - old favorites, new discoveries and hours of reading aloud!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Guest Post: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda

Guest blogger today - my husband Jacob (resident Star Wars geek) on a middle grade chapter book that boys especially will love!

After watching my wife take part in the 48 Hour Book Challenge I have decided to do a guest blog and give you a review of The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger. This was a fun book that is appropriate for kids ages 7-8 up. We are introduced to Dwight, a sixth grader who marches to his own drum. The kids at his school tease him until one day Dwight shows up with an origami finger puppet named Yoda who has an uncanny knack for granting advice. Nearly all the kids in the school come to ask Origami Yoda questions. This leads one of his friends to collect the stories from his classmates and figure out if Yoda is real, a scam, or something more. It also helps the group realize it is OK to be different -- as long as the force is with you.

As a die hard Star Wars fan, it was great to see the original trilogy used creatively. Dwight could be analagous to a Luke Skywalker character looking "always toward the future". Those movies taught a whole generation to embrace their inner geek no matter what anyone else said. After all when the original trilogy came out, people were listening to Disco and wearing silk shirts. Everyone was different.

What I really loved about this book is that it took me back to being a sixth grader. Feeling angst at going to dances, and hanging out with my buddies, even if we were fighting. I believe that this should be read in schools to illustrate that differences are good. Afer all it was Steve Jobs who co-created Apple, not the kid who sat next to me in social studies. The chapters here can be read quickly and can stand alone, and their are doodles in the margins that will make even a cynic smile.

May the force be with you.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger, published by Amulet Books
Ages 9-13
Source: Library
Sample: "It's just a fact. Dwight never seems to do anything right. Always in trouble. Always getting harrassed by other kids. Always picking his nose. Always finding a way to "ruin it for everyone," as teachers say. / If he would just listen to Origami Yoda's wisdom, like the rest of us, he would have it made."
Highly recommended

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Wayback Wednesday - Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969)

William Steig may be more well-known for a certain big green ogre, but my personal pick from his oeuvre has always been the tale of a donkey whose wish turns out to have unexpected consequences. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble was published in 1969, when Steig was in his 60s; though he came to children's books late in life, he displayed an incredible sense of how to write and illustrate books that speak to children. Sylvester won the Caldecott in 1970, and it's easy to see why - the emotional depth and range that Steig brings to his characters in the text is multiplied exponentially through his deceptively simple illustrations.

Sylvester was actually challenged in 12 states due to Steig's depiction of the police as pigs, something that surprised me a bit since it's not an aspect that jumped out at me at any point in the reading of this picture book. But books have been challenged for a lot less, after all. In Steig's Caldecott acceptance speech, he said that "(a)rt, including juvenile literature, has the power to make any spot on earth the living center of the universe; and unlike science, which often gives us the illusion of understanding things we really do not understand, it helps us to know life in a way that still keeps before us the mystery of things. It enhances the sense of wonder. And wonder is respect for life." Really, I think that's the larger point of all Steig's work, porcine law enforcement officers notwithstanding.

The plot of Sylvester is a perfect marriage of the mundane and the magical. Sylvester is a young donkey in search of pebbles for his collection. He finds an unusual one on a particularly rainy afternoon; still holding the pebble in his hoof, Sylvester thinks, "I wish it would stop raining". To his great surprise, it does, instantly. That the pebble is magic can be of no doubt. Sylvester accepts it as easily as any reader will. And he rejoices in his find, until he stumbles upon a nasty lion with a hungry look in his eyes. Panicking, Sylvester wishes he was a rock, and, being that he's holding the pebble, he of course immediately transforms. And such is Sylvester's dilemma: as a rock, he cannot possibly reach out and pick up the pebble, in order to wish himself back to donkey-dom.

I brought Sylvester home thinking it would be new for Sprout but to my great delight he said, "Oh, Sylvester! I like this one, Mama." Turns out his daycare teacher reads it often, and he knew the entire thing practically (at least the action). At the part where Sylvester turns into a rock, Sprout very gently tapped the page and said, "He's in there, Mama. It's okay," as if to reassure me. We've read it just about every night for the past week, and I can honestly say that I think Sylvester himself magic - Sprout's fallen asleep during almost every reading, preempting the nightly pleas for "one more story" and "need a drink". Gold, Mr. Steig. Pure gold.

Sylvester's on the long side, so best shared with preschoolers on up. Littler ones will enjoy the pictures but might miss out on the subtleties of the story, of which there are many. There's more than a bit of pathos here as we watch Sylvester's distraught parents come to terms with their son's disappearance. That in itself could be hard for younger children to grasp, but they will pick up on the jubilation with which his parents greet Sylvester, once he is at last transformed back into his natural state. And that's one of the best scenes in the book, in my estimation - the sun shining forth with a brilliant burst of light, as Sylvester's father dances with glee and his mother embraces her beautiful boy. It's absolutely heartwarming.

Sylvester may have been written more than 40 years ago but its lessons are just as relevant today - that when those we love are lost, we mourn them deeply. And if we are fortunate enough for them to come back to us, we should throw ourselves into celebration that is joyful and complete. That's a powerful thing for all readers to consider. Well, that and if you're ever holding a magic pebble, for God's sake don't wish you're a rock.

Wayback Wednesday Verdict? Holds up nicely
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig, published by Simon and Schuster
Ages 3-7
Source: Library
Sample: "He imagined all the possibilities, and eventually he realized that his only chance of becoming himself again was for someone to find the red pebble and to wish that the rock next to it would be a donkey. Someone would surely find the red pebble -- it was so bright and shiny -- but what on earth would make them wish that a rock were a donkey? The chance was one in a billion at best."
Highly recommended

Bonus: William Steig's Caldecott acceptance speech (and a letter expressing his trepidation at making such a speech) from Letters of Note

Sunday, June 10, 2012

48 Hour Book Challenge - Finish Line!

Well folks, I can't quite believe it but just like that 48 hours have elapsed - or almost, anyway, but close enough for me. My totals aren't exactly what I thought they'd be but all in all, for someone who only rarely gets pleasure reading time, this weekend did help me put a dent in the TBR pile, albeit a small one.

Here's the rundown:

13.50 hours spent reading, blogging or networking in the Kidlitosphere
4 books completed (When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, Everything on a Waffle, Sparrow Road, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda)
1 book read halfway (Grave Mercy)
1 audiobook read halfway (The Year of Living Biblically)
3 completed review posts - Origami Yoda is one that my husband read also, and as our resident Star Wars geek, he'll do a much better review than I ever could

None too shabby! I'll be making my donation to Reading is Fundamental after I finish this post - technically I think I'm supposed to post the dollar amount, but I'm more comfortable donating anonymously.

Overall this was a fantastic experience. I definitely learned that for me, shorter books are better with this kind of project - though I tried mightily to finish Grave Mercy, it just wasn't in the cards (it's awesome, though!). I'm really looking forward to participating again next year. Thanks to MotherReader for a truly wonderful weekend of books and blogging!

48 Hour Book Challenge - Sparrow Road by Sheila O'Connor

Just under 6 hours left in my allotted timeframe for the 48 Hour Book Challenge. So far I have read/blogged for 10 hours and finished 4 books, plus am halfway through an audiobook. Husband is headed out of the house soon with the toddler to give me a little extra peace and quiet for the last leg of the challenge. I have to say, this has not been easy - even though I'd planned to read for most of the day today, a rare-for-us sunny morning could not be ignored, so we headed off for a bike ride instead. And of course any time I would sit down on the couch in Sprout's eye-view it meant he had to come over and ask "Whatcha reading?" and then bring me his own selection of books to read ("This is better book," he says solemnly).

But I have to say, what I've read has been truly outstanding. Of the four books it's hard to pick a favorite, but Sheila O'Connor's Sparrow Road is definitely a contender. I hadn't heard much about this title before I picked it up but knowing that it was set in a falling-down mansion that once held an orphanage peaked my interest. But lest you think that this is a gothic tale, it's not -- Sparrow Road is very much contemporary and deals with modern-day situations and sensibilities.

Raine O'Rourke is blindsided by her mother's sudden announcement that they are leaving their Milwaukee home and spending the summer at Sparrow Road, an artists colony held in the aforementioned creepy old home. Sparrow Road is located precisely in the middle of nowhere, and Raine's less than excited to be stuck out in the country for several months. Stranger still, her mother keeps entirely mum on just why they are there. And the rules - silence until supper, no interacting with the artists and no leaving the grounds without Mama. Raine can hardly stand it and plans to leave at the first opportunity.

But then she meets Lillian, the sweet poet whose elderly mind seems locked permanently in the past. And Josie, the energetic bohemian and Diego, the charming artist who seems enchanted with both Raine and her mama. These incredible people are more than enough to make Raine suddenly start seeing Sparrow Road in a new way. All that and a mystery too - Raine soon discovers that Sparrow Road once housed dozens of orphans, some of whom seem to still be connected to this haunting place. And then there's Mama, and her mysterious trips to town with Viktor, Sparrow Road's creepy caretaker. . . Raine hardly knows which rocks to start uncovering first.

O'Connor does a masterful job of integrating Raine's own history and struggle for identity with that of the other residents of Sparrow Road, both past and present. She deals head-on with issues related to loss and longing for parents, in the orphans that once lived in the home and in Raine's own missing father. Children who have themselves experienced a tragic loss, or who have grown up without knowing one or both of their parents will find their stories reflected in this novel, and may have some of their own feelings resolved by following Raine's journey. At the very least, they will have a touchstone to know they are not alone.

This is O'Connor's first foray into kidlit but I hope not her last - not only does she exhibit a deft hand with plot and character development, she also sets a scene that makes the reader feel compelled to turn pages. I thoroughly enjoyed Sparrow Road, and I'm incredibly glad I included it as part of my 48 Hour Book Challenge.

Sparrow Road by Sheila O'Connor, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
Ages 9-13
Source: Library
Sample: "It was a boy's voice I imagined, a boy's voice speaking in my daydream. A story, just like Diego promised. A boy I'd never seen, but there he was. In old wool pants that hung below his knees, scuffed ankle boots, a flannel shirt rolled up at the sleeves. A boy who lived up in that attic. His skinny lower legs were nicked and scarred. His face was round, his eyes the same grassy green as Mama's. / Life just has a way, he said. I think you must know what I mean. Even parents can get lost."
Highly recommended

Saturday, June 9, 2012

48 Hour Book Challenge - Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath

Second book completed for my 48 Hour Book Challenge! I managed to log 2.5 hours reading last night before collapsing and sleeping like the dead (until 5:30! The child slept in!). After finishing Zachary Beaver I dived right into Polly Horvath's delightful Everything on a Waffle. I finished it today at lunch - in between I've been listening to the audiobook version of A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically, which I may not be finished with before the challenge ends.

And you wouldn't think an adjective like "delightful" could sum up a book about a young girl whose parents are lost at sea, whose guardian is preoccupied by development deals and who loses not one but two digits in the course of the novel. Oh, and who sets a guinea pig on fire. But somehow this book is not only smart but moving, funny and charming even as it is insightful.

Primrose Squarp knows her parents aren't dead, she just knows it, and no amount of intervention on the part of nosy adults in her town of Coal Harbour will convince her otherwise. Though the snoopy Miss Honeycut and the crisp and proper Miss Perfidy try to make Primrose realize that she is an orphan, she won't believe them. Rather, Primrose continues to have various misadventures that are not at all related to her being depressed, as the two women believe. And all the while she enjoys the company of the somewhat unusual adults who do support her, including her devilishly charming Uncle Jack, her foster parents Evie and Bert (whom she compares to "kindly old hard-boiled eggs) and of course the culinarily inventive Miss Bowzer (she of the restaurant The Girl on the Red Swing, where everything is, as you've probably guessed, served on a waffle).

Primrose is an engaging character in the vein of such sparky lasses as Pippi Longstocking or Matilda Wormwood (though without a nemesis half as threatening as the Trunchbull - shudder). Primrose makes the kind of keen observations of the world around her that bely a depth far beyond her years. Nothing gets past Primrose; though the adults in her life think they are outmaneuvering her, she always ends up right where she wants to be. This is definitely an unusual novel and one that's on the surface packed with oddball sensibilities. However, dig a bit deeper and you'll find commentaries on love, loss, loneliness and the value of always being just who you are.

Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath, published by Farrar Straus Giroux
Ages 9-13
Source: personal collection
Sample: "Uncle Jack thought it was strange that I didn't move my sweaters into his house. I said it was because the mothballs were protecting them but really it was because I wanted to see Miss Perfidy now and then. We had a peculiar relationship. We didn't like each other much but had lived through my parents' disappearance together. It gave us a kind of melancholy bond."

Friday, June 8, 2012

48 Hour Book Challenge - When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt

One of my goals for the 48 Hour Book Challenge was to catch up on some older kidlit that I'd previously overlooked. I also want to get some more award-winners under my belt. Kimberly Willis Holt's When Zachary Beaver Came to Town fit both categories nicely, as an older title (1999) that won the National Book Award plus ALA Notable status. And I'd read Holt's novel The Water Seeker last year and really enjoyed that, so I've been looking forward to this one.

Zachary Beaver did not disappoint. Despite being a quick read, it was a surprisingly emotional and impactful one, with lots of heavy themes that are carried out with the lightest of touches. Holt's depiction of small-town Texas life is realistic, and her characters are personalities but never charicatures. Zachary Beaver breezes into town as a sideshow attraction, "the fattest boy in the world," and like everyone else in town, Toby and his best buddy Cal can't miss out on the show. But when Zachary's guardian leaves him behind, Toby discovers a sudden kinship with this boy, unexpected since Toby himself never realized how much his own life parallels Zachary's. Left behind by his mother who's gone seeking fame and fortune, Toby struggles to reconcile his feelings about his mom with his newfound friendship with Zachary, worry about Cal's older brother Wayne in Vietnam, and his attempts to woo the beautiful Scarlett Stallings. In the end, Toby sees that though external appearances may differ, people are all the same deep within, and loss touches us all in ways we could never imagine.

Holt's not shy about facing difficult situations, and about putting her characters in places that other authors might think twice about. But the result is a well-developed plot that is peopled with the kind of folks we all know, and that we're sure to recognize in our own friends, family and selves. This is a well-rounded and highly readable award winner that belongs in every classroom and library - lots to discuss here, in a story that will keep young readers turning pages.

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt, published by Henry Holt
Ages 9-13
Source: Library
Sample: "Cars and pickups pull into the Dairy Maid parking lot. Some people make no bones about it. They just get in line to see him. Ohters try to act like they don't know anything about the buzz. They enter the Dairy Maid, place their orders, and exit with Coke floats, chocolate-dipped cones, or curlicue fries, then wander to the back of the line. They don't fool me."

48 Hour Book Challenge - Here We Go!

OK peeps, I have a towering TBR stack and a cozy place to read, so I'm all set to start off MotherReader's 7th Annual 48 Hour Book Challenge. I'm so excited to be a part of the challenge this year - last year I hadn't started up my blog yet, so I missed out, but this year I'm ready to roll.

There are a couple of potential stumbling blocks for me, though:

1. Sleep. As in, haven't had much for several days. Ah, the perils of having a three-year-old who wakes up at 3 a.m. ready to roll. I'll tell you what folks, this is not going to be an all-night proposition for me, that's for sure. Even if I wanted it to be, I'm just too dog-tired.

2. Work. I have a shift tomorrow morning, albeit a short one. If I'd been thinking, I'd have downloaded an audiobook for that timeframe. . . hmmm, maybe that's not too late. . . .

3. Date Night. OK, I know what you're thinking - why not just reschedule? Well, reference the aforementioned three-year-old plus the fact that with our school and work schedules, we just NEVER get out anywhere together. Like, haven't in months. So there's no way I'm turning down an offer of babysitting for tomorrow night - guess I'll just have to make up for it on Sunday!

All of these factors taken into consideration, I'm still ready, willing, and happy to be plunging in for the challenge. I'm committing at the 12-23 hour level and looking forward to whittling down my TBR pile by even a few titles. I'm thrilled to be able to participate in this event with so many fantastic book bloggers of all stripes. Are you joining in??

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wayback Wednesday - Bread and Jam for Frances (1964)

It seems fitting to me that I start off my ongoing series of Wayback Wednesday posts with one of my all-time favorite picture book characters, Russell Hoban's Frances. Though in his later years Hoban became the author of a number of highly praised adult novels, he struck out into the publishing world in kidlit, and in a big way: Frances appeared almost at the outset of his literary career, with her first appearance in 1960's Bedtime for Frances, the only one of the Frances novels not illustrated by Hoban's wife Lillian. And it is saying something when you consider that while many of his other kidlit titles have almost vanished from memory, Frances lives on and is as beloved today as she was 50 years ago.

While at this point in my life I can relate most to Frances's parents (particularly in Bedtime, where her exhausted folks deal with their not-ever-sleepy-enough tot), Frances herself strikes a chord with me. She's Everykid, really. You can hardly ever fail to see the wheels turning in her mind, as she considers the world before her and how to turn circumstances to her advantage. She's got the dogged determination of a young child and the energy to match, and though her parents generally can maneuver her into their desired outcome, you just know Frances has got more tricks up her sleeves. I especially love her somewhat thinly-veiled disdain for her little sister Gloria, with whom Frances has quite the sibling rivalry (evidence the scene from A Birthday for Frances when Frances buys her sister a gift - and then somehow nearly manages to make off with all of it herself).

So: Bread and Jam for Frances. This book had been around for a good long while before I was even born, shockingly enough. I can't remember who introduced me to this specific Frances escapade, but I do know that this was the first title I ever read -- or heard, as I think I was pretty darn young. This is probably why it has stuck with me ever since, that and the sheer relatability of the plot. Frances is enamored of one food combination to the point of exclusivity. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, all Frances wants to eat is bread and jam. Hmmm, sound familiar, you parents of young kiddos? Her parents try to convince her of the worthiness of other foods (though I have to say their examples don't thrill me particularly - soft-boiled eggs, anyone?) but to no avail. Her mother even reasons, "You try new things in your school lunches. . . . Today I gave you a chicken-salad sandwich." to which Frances coyly responds, "I traded it to Albert. . . . (for) Bread and jam." Ah Frances, you sly devil.

Undaunted, Mother and Father decide to mix it up. If Frances wants only bread and jam, then bread and jam it shall be. At breakfast it's a treat. At lunch it's still delicious. By snacktime it's wearing a bit thin, and by dinner -- by dinner our darling girl is reduced to tears. In her exasperation she utters one of the best lines in kidlit, by my reckoning: "What I am / Is tired of jam." And finally Frances breaks down and decides that variety just might be the spice of life after all. Especially when it entails devouring one very complicated lunch menu.

It's safe to say that I was pretty excited to share this with Sprout, being that he's in somewhat of a picky eater phase himself at the moment. (While he takes great delight in helping me prepare different types of food, actually passing these foreign morsels through his lips is another story.) And he listened intently to Bread and Jam, though it's a bit long for a three-year-old's attention span, with the detailed descriptions of lunches and all that. He thinks Frances is "silly", and finds her jump-rope rhymes on the various merits of jam to be particularly amusing. All in all, his take on Frances is favorable, so much so that he was excited to find A Birthday for Frances on the shelf at the library last time. "Her eats bread and jam, Mama," he told me seriously. Yes, my dear, she does.

Russell Hoban passed away not long ago, leaving a legacy of fantastic storytelling for future generations. Though she was created more than a half-century ago, I think Frances has a long and happy life ahead, as she charms even more young children with her straightforward approach to life, one jammy bread-slice at a time.

Wayback Wednesday Verdict? Holds up nicely

Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban, published by HarperCollins (formerly Harper & Row)
Source: Library
Ages 3-7
Sample: " 'Well,' said Frances, 'there are many different things to eat, and they taste many different ways. But when I have bread and jam I always know what I am getting, and I am always pleased.' "

Bonus: Fuse #8 interview with Russell Hoban, from the Pageturn

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

News of the World - and the 48 Hour Book Challenge!

Time, ladies and gentlemen, does not stand still. This has never been more apparent to me than in the past 2 years, when we've gone from couplehood to parenthood, and suddenly we have a three-year-old on our hands. Crazy! And crazier still, my little ol' blog here is just about to celebrate its one-year blogoversary. Yes indeed, that's a full year of sharing news and insights and lots and lots of scrumptious kidlit. Oh boy, and there's so many more books I want to share with you!

To that end, I'm starting a couple of new features on the blog. First up is "Wayback Wednesday". Every Wednesday I will share a classic favorite kidlit title. Some will be picture books, some novels, and there may even be a classic collection or two thrown in. I expect that it won't be tough for me to come up with titles for this feature, as there are so many fantastic oldies-but-goodies that I want to experience all over again with Sprout. But I'd love input from you, dear reader - if you have a classic kid's book that you'd like us to share our thoughts on, please email me (sproutsbookshelf *at* gmail *dot* com) or leave the title in the comments. I'm going to keep the definition of classic pretty loose here, but I'd say it has to be published at least 15 years ago or longer to qualify. And if you have a book blog of your own, we'd love it if you'd join in with a Wayback Wednesday choice of your own. If you do, and you send me the link, I'll share it here as well. This should be a fun one!

The next is a reboot - I'm aiming to bring back my periodic "Link Love" posts, in which I share a plethora of kidlit news from around the globe. This was one of the most popular features when I started it several months ago, but alas, it fell by the wayside with the advent of a hectic couple of semesters there. But I'm chin up and determined to give it another go. So if you come across a juicy tidbit of kidlit loveliness, please send that on to me post-haste. I promise to share with the class.

And the last bit of news is my idea of total self-indulgence - my intention to join in the fun of the 48 Hour Book Challenge. Sponsored by MotherReader, this event is in its seventh year, but this will be my first time to join in. I'm SO excited to be a part of this annual readathon, particularly since this year participants will be donating to Book People Unite, a project of Reading is Fundamental. I'm starting at the shallow end of this challenge, committing right here and now to 12-23 hours of reading and blogging in a 48 hour period this coming weekend, June 8-10. Wow, and even that is going to be a challenge of its own, with a three-year-old Sprout demanding more than a little attention. But I'm determined to get some major reading done, and am building up the TBR Pile even as we speak!

Stay tuned for more blogoversary news, and don't forget to check back tomorrow for the big reveal of our first-ever Wayback Wednesday title!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Summer Reading

Woohoo! School's out for me for the summer, and I'm taking the next few months off from academic pursuits. Quite honestly, I couldn't be happier about it. Though I enjoy my coursework, it's not easy to juggle so many things (as in school, work, toddler) that need my full attention. I'm ready for a break, some time to hang out with my husband and kiddo, and of course time to read, read, read.

Summer and reading have always gone hand-in-hand for me, as I suspect they do for many bookish children. Of course back in the olden days when I was young (cough, cough -- the 80s -- cough, cough) there weren't as many demands from other types of media. Sure, there were video games, but not to the extent there are now, and there certainly weren't smart phones, texting, and streaming video. So the low-tech form of entertainment often won out, and naturally that was a book. It's still my favorite way to escape a bit, especially on a nice afternoon. I mean, really, what's more appealing when you're sitting under a tree -- checking Facebook or diving into a great novel? Yeah, I thought so.

Because I fell behind a bit on my reading selections when school was in session, I'm catching up in a big way now. Here's a peek at some of the novels (YA and Middle Grade) on my summer TBR pile:

Grave Mercy, Robin LaFevers. From the author's website: "Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others." LOVE her middle grade novels, cannot WAIT for this one!

The Summer I Learned to Fly, Dana Reinhardt. From the author's website: "It's the summer before eighth grade and Drew's days seem like business as usual, until one night after closing time, when she meets a strange boy in the alley named Emmett Crane. Who he is, why he's there, where the cut on his cheek came from, and his bottomless knowledge of rats are all mysteries Drew will untangle as they are drawn closer together, and Drew enters into the first true friendship, and adventure, of her life." Somehow I've never read a Dana Reinhardt novel, even though the blogosphere is alight with praise for her books. An oversight that must be rectified post-haste.

Wonder, R.J. Palacio. From the author's website: "August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He's about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you've ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie's just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, despite appearances?" So many starred reviews for this novel, it's unbelievable. And that cover. . .

Liar & Spy, Rebecca Stead. From the author's website: "When seventh grader Georges (the S is silent) moves into a Brooklyn apartment building, he meets Safer, a twelve-year-old coffee-drinking loner and self-appointed spy. Georges becomes Safer's first spy recruit. His assignment? Tracking the mysterious Mr. X, who lives in the apartment upstairs. But as Safer becomes more demanding, Georges starts to wonder: how far is too far to go for your only friend?" Although I'm not a fan of Wrinkle in Time (I know, I know), I absolutely loved Stead's Newbery winner When You Reach Me. Hoping this one is even half as great.

Summer of the Gypsy Moths, Sara Pennypacker. From the author's website: "Two twelve-year-old girls living at a cottage colony on Cape Cod must hide the fact that their foster mother has died. Find out if they can keep the secret and survive on their own." This looks to be a good deal different from Pennypacker's fantastic Clementine series - but the with the way this author can weave a story, you know you're in good hands.

Black Heart, Holly Black. From the author's website: "Cassel Sharpe knows he's been used as an assassin, but he's trying to put all that behind him. . . . But with a mother on the lam, the girl he loves about to take her place in the Mob, and new secrets coming to light, the line between what's right and what's wrong becomes increasingly blurred. When the Feds ask Cassel to do the one thing he said he would never do again, he needs to sort out what's a con and what's truth. In a dangerous game and with his life on the line, Cassel may have to make his biggest gamble yet-this time on love." Last book in the series, which I have so far completely loved. (Still getting used to the new covers, though - and not entirely sold, I have to say.)

And of course this is just the tip of the iceberg of all the literary goodness I hope to get to before the summer's out. . . oh, and did I mention all the books I'll be reading in advance of my YA Lit class in the fall?? Better get out the lounge chair right now!