Monday, November 23, 2015

Children's Book Awards Guessing Game

It's that time of year again. You're probably thinking back to all the great children's books of 2015 and trying to decide:

Which are your special favorites? Which ones might win awards at the American Library Association's conference on Monday, January 11, 2016?

Here's a quick list of possible winners and books that can't win, but sure caught my attention:

Great read-aloud that scared my kids and will probably win the Newbery Award: The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. The great writing and well-drawn historical setting (World War II in England) sold me. My kids, however, thought I read the role of the (REALLY not nice) mother with too much gusto.

Wonderful first novel that deserves a silver Newbery Honor on its cover: The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin. The quiet intense kid at the center of Jellyfish writes stuff in a notebook and is on the outside of her school's social world. Sounds a little like Harriet the Spy to me. I loved this book for being fearless, for allowing its character to stumble badly, and for reminding me of Harriet Welsch.

Inside Spread, Sidewalk Flowers

Best illustrated picture book that can't win the Caldecott Award: Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson, illustrated by Sydney Smith. Why can't this lovely, wordless meditation on life in the city win? It's Canadian.

Best picture book text, although the artwork is darned good too: Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Jill McElmurry. This rhyming picture book will have you tapping your toes. Miller won a Charlotte Zolotow honor award (for the best writing in a picture book) for Sophie's Squash in 2014. This new Thanksgiving book is just as good, with great illustrations by (Little Blue Truck) Jill McElmurry.

Are children's book awards important? I'd answer a resounding YES.

Great YA Novel I Would Never Have Read Without That Medal on the Cover: Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley. It won a silver Printz Honor Medal in 2015. Every time I think about it, I want to thank the Printz committee. Foley's Carnival is a poignant, bracing look at what happens when sixteen-year-old Maggie Lynch moves from Chicago to Ireland. It's a book that will stay with you long after you've turned the last page--the sure sign of a winner.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Big Top Burning

Check out this great nonfiction children's title!

Children's nonfiction can be tricky. As a writer, you want to tell a story accurately, while also engaging the reader. But much of nonfiction for children comes in series, where each story has to fit the same number of pages, the same reading level, the same number of illustrations.

For a critical look at the Who Was...? series,
here's a blogpost from the Children's Atheneum.
Sometimes a series covers many topics well. Take the Who Was...? series of biographies, each with a bobble-headed figure on the cover.

Sometimes, however, a story needs to stand alone and not be pushed into a series format. 

Laura A. Woollett's Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and The Greatest Show On Earth (Chicago Review Press, 2015) is a stand-out standalone.

At just under 170 pages, this title for readers in grades 4 and up conveys a horrifying story: the devastating 1944 fire at the Barnum & Bailey Circus while in mid-performance in Hartford, CT. Nine  short chapters cover all of the ground of the title and subtitle. Photos add to the story and help break up the text. Notes from extensive sources come at the end.

What's great about this book: The author includes tons of primary source information (some from interviews she did with survivors). The chapters are so clearly written and engaging that Big Top Burning would be a great read-aloud.

For more on the author, shown here at the circus,
check out this great blogpost on Cynsations.

Finally, the book doesn't have easy answers. Many people died on that hot, hot day in Hartford and the hows and whys are still not entirely clear. But Woollett gives readers all they need to imagine what it might have been like to be there, to see the flames rising, and to hear the shouts and screams.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Blizzard-y Picture Books

Blizzard by John Rocco
(Disney-Hyperion, 2014)
After the record-setting-bad winter in the greater Boston area, summer's almost here. It's a good time for a look back at great picture books about snow.

Drawing on his own experiences, John Rocco (Caldecott Honoree for Blackout) recounts the story of the great & horrible Blizzard of 1978, which stranded motorists, shut down schools, and pretty much paralyzed the Northeast. Rocco was a kid in Rhode Island, and his book follows a kid’s travels through and over the massive drifts. It's like Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats, only much more active.

Terrible Storm (Greenwillow, 2006)
Terrible Storm by Carol Otis Hurst with illustrations by S. D. Schindler goes way back in time to the history-making blizzard of 1888, which walloped New York City and New England. 

A pair of old-timers reminisce and recount their adventures in hilly Massachusetts during that amazing storm. This story mixes subtle amounts of gentle humor with masses of snow.

Big Snow by Jonathan Bean
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013)
Finally, Jonathan Bean's Big Snow gets at the best part of a snowstorm: the delicious feeling of anticipation. A boy awaits the first flakes, helps his mom clean house, and then drifts into sleep.

The dream sequence Bean creates--with mom struggling to vacuum up drifts of snow--is great. 

When the boy wakes to find real mountains of white stuff, at last, it's hard not to share in his delight.

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Snicker of Magic

Natalie Lloyd’s A Snicker of Magic made me breathe a sigh of relief.

Finally, a really great middle grade novel that’s also got read-aloud potential.

Several recent (and really good) middle grade novels are written in multiple perspectives, which makes them tough to read aloud—unless you’re Jim Dale. Not to diminish the wonderfulness of books like Wonder by R.J. Palaccio or Schooled by Dan Gutman, but they are tough read-alouds, at least when read aloud by me.

A Snicker of Magic is different. Here’s a read-aloud to sink your teeth into, particularly if you have a trace of a southern accent. 

Factofabulous: this book is meant to be read out loud by ordinary people. PLUS it’s full of sparkling writing, made-up words that should be real, a whole town I want to visit if I could just find it on the map, delicious ice cream, and characters you’ll want to get to know.

Not only that, it’s a great story that meets my Newbery-Worthy Criteria all around.

Look for Snicker and try reading its first pages aloud. You'll be hooked. One suggestion: have a quart of your favorite ice cream on hand as a reward when your voice gets tired.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

One Terrific Thanksgiving Picture Book

Take it from Irving Morris Bear: Read One Terrific Thanksgiving!!

One great thing about libraries is the opportunity they present for chance encounters with great stories. Here’s a wonderful Thanksgiving Picture Book Treat from the way-way-backlist that I discovered at Sherborn Library:

One Terrific Thanksgiving, written by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat (of Nate the Great fame), charmingly illustrated by Lilian Obligado and published back in 1985 by Holiday House.

Irving Morris Bear lives in an apartment in the city. As illustrated by Obligado, the apartment isn’t a home decorator’s dream but it IS a food-lover’s paradise. Irving has seventeen cupboards and eight fridges crammed into his place—all to hold his most precious possessions.

Irving Morris Bear and a few of his fridges

“There might be somebody else who loves food as much as I do,” he thought, “but I don’t know who.”

Irving’s buddies Sabra, Thurp, and Renata Jean live in the same building. 

Ahh! City living...Renata Jean lives next door. Tharp is downstairs, and Sabra is up one flight, dangling an apple for Irving. It's sort of like that TV show Friends, but with bears.

All is well until Irving shops for Thanksgiving and must find a way to prevent himself from pre-eating the feast. His solution: asking his buddies to hide his favorite Thanksgiving foods in their apartments.

“Don’t tell me where they are. Even if I get down on my paws and knees and beg.”

“You can depend on us,” said Renata Jean. “You can beg until you’re blue in the face, but we won’t buckle under.”

Irving has some issues. He doesn’t just beg—he tears his friends’ apartments apart. Luckily, he has a strong support group. “Even when you have food on your brain, you have goodness in your heart,” says Renata Jean.

Irving’s neighbors perform an “intervention” to make sure he has his priorities straight. In the end, he’s forced to conclude that:

“I have many things to be thankful for, but marshmallows, honey cakes, and cranberry sauce are not at the top of my list.”

To find out what he IS thankful for, you’ll just have to search for and read the book, or look below:

 A great read-aloud for kindergarten through second grade--and possibly for all of us, if only to prevent us from obsessing about food...and forgetting that friendship comes first.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Absolutely Almost & Just Fine

Lisa Graff, author of A Tangle of Knots, is back with Absolutely Almost (Philomel, 2014), a story about not quite making the grade.

Albie is starting fifth grade in New York City. He’s at a new school where he knows no one. He’s got a new nanny. Even things that should stay the same, like his long friendship with his neighbor Erlan, start changing. 

The universal theme of change would be enough on its own to propel a middle-grade novel. But Graff layers on something more: Albie isn’t the gifted, mini-adult you’ll often find in middle-grade novels with NYC settings. 

(Think Claudia from The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Harriet from Harriet the Spy, or even Theo Tenpenny from this year’s Under the Egg.)

Instead, Albie is never quite good enough. His math skills, or lack thereof, land him in a special small group class. His spelling tests are always rock-bottom. His social prowess gains him one friend (a sweet girl who barely speaks and eats mainly gummy bears). At his new school, Albie is the object of jokes, pranks, and endless taunts.

Midway through Absolutely Almost, I worried that it was turning into a teaching book--teaching us about a learning disability (like Travis’s dyslexia in Bluefish) or a medical condition (like Auggie’s facial difference in Wonder).

Don’t get me wrong. I love Bluefish and Wonder and many other books that explore difference. They put a personal face on what would otherwise be an impersonal label.

I just wanted Albie to be a kid without a label. A kid who isn’t a superstar, who never earns a standing ovation, who just works hard. I wanted him to be what he is—a kid who starts slowly “putting it together,” whether “it” is the many pieces of an A-10 Thunderbolt airplane model or a way to remember spelling words and master math.

Graff doesn’t disappoint, crafting a fine novel that fits my Newbery-worthy Criteria.

Absolutely Almost

# 1 Kept me reading & wanting to turn pages.
# 2 Made me glad that the author was brave enough to show us a character who doesn’t wear labels.
# 3 Contains some moving passages and scenes—primarily with Mr. Clifton, the small-group math teacher, and Calista, the not-totally-trustworthy nanny.

 Absolutely Almost sticks with you, and I’m putting it on my absolutely possible Newbery-winning pile.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Night Gardener: A Mixed Bag

I haven’t read Jonathan Auxier’s Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, but I’ve heard good things about it. So I was eager to read The Night Gardener (Amulet Books, 2014).

Two children, Molly and Kip, find themselves alone and on the road, escaping famine and death in Ireland to work for the owners of an English manor in the woods. 

All of that sounds fairly realistic and plausible. But Auxier gradually and deftly introduces fantastic elements sure to entice young readers—including a mysterious tree growing next to, and even into the manor and a frightening and shadowy night-time visitor, a top-hat-wearing man who leaves behind chill air and clumps of mud.

Auxier fully meets the first of my criteria for a Newbery-level book

Here's a quick recap of the criteria. Just ask of the book:

1. Does it keep you turning the pages, wanting to read on?
2. Does the writing make you think or consider things anew?
3. What’s beautiful and moving about it? 
4. Are there characters you love?
5. Can you vividly remember it (the overall feeling of it) days, weeks, months, and years later?

Auxier definitely made me want to put aside other things and read to the end of Molly and Kip’s compelling story. The plot is well constructed and the magical elements are very effective.

I’m not putting this work into my Possible Newbery Pile mainly because I didn’t find it truly memorable and the characters didn’t have great depth. A short time after reading the book, I no longer felt any real concern for Molly and Kip. For a story to be truly memorable, those kinds of feelings should remain after the book is done.

One further quibble: Although Auxier very kindly lets readers know right off the bat that the story will be full of spine-tingling moments (the subtitle is “A Scary Story”), he might also have warned us that Night Gardener has more than its fair share of violence, some of which is unnecessarily overwrought and graphic.

Overall, Night Gardener is a mixed bag: a great read for fans of scary stories, but a less-than-truly-memorable tale.