Monday, December 31, 2012

A Quick Recap of 2012 Favorites

It’s time to make lists of favorite things, so here’s a recap of my favorite new books for young readers published in 2012. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to story fans, ages two to one hundred and two.

If you’re looking for more detailed reviews, just click on the titles or scan my earlier posts for this year.

Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole. My favorite picture book that can't be read aloud. (It's wordless.)
It’s A Tiger! written by David LaRochelle; illustrated by Jeremy Tankard. My favorite picture book that demands to be read aloud.
Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz. One of three favorites for  middle-grade readers.
Wonder by R. J. Palacio. Another favorite for middle-grade readers.
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. A final middle-grade fave.  
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. My favorite read for young adults.

The Fairy Ring: Elsie and Frances Fool the World (a true story) by Mary Losure was a great nonfiction read for kids. And, um, is it fair to mention that I had great fun writing another nonfiction kids' book: Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Song & Fiction

Several years ago, my mother and I put together a list of great picture books to share during the Christmas holidays. Today, I’m sharing a snippet of a lovely book for middle grade readers from award-winning Canadian author Brian Doyle.

The wonderful thing about Doyle’s writing in Angel Square is his use of specific details. His description of the Woolworth’s department store on Rideau Street, Ottawa, Canada, in December 1945 captures the place and time as seen by Tommy, the young narrator, a boy growing into a man:

Woolworth’s. A Christmas madhouse. Perfume and candy and squeaky wooden floors. Records playing. The smell of perfume and chocolates mixed. Salesgirls with lipstick and earrings and long, curly hair. And pictures of Santa Claus everywhere. Long red and silver fuzzy streamers swinging and arching over the aisles. Wind-up trucks crackling away and the smell of hot dogs and fried eggs at the lunch counter. And toast. And the smell of damp fur and wet cloth and wet leather, the snow on people’s clothes melting in Woolworth’s. And people at the doors stamping their feet. The salesgirls and saleswomen laughing and talking to the people and to each other and the salesgirls’ earrings sparkling and their long, curly hair bouncing and swinging over the perfume and around the chocolates and the toys and the toast and the pictures of Santa Claus.

My favorite part? “And toast.” Actually, the whole book reads like buttered toast. Your holidays will be richer for reading Angel Square.

Happy Holidays from the Story Slinger!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Splendors and Glooms

I came to this book reluctantly. When I was working in a middle school library a few years ago, Schlitz’s book Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! was awarded the Newbery Medal, and trying to bring young readers to that book was a particularly hard struggle. (It didn’t hurt that students at my middle school weren’t studying Medieval history, so there was no natural curriculum tie-in.)

I would have no problem getting kids to pick up Splendors and Glooms, Schlitz’s most recent book—a novel about childhood, puppets, magic, powerlessness, friendship, and more. Schlitz’s background research on Victorian era London is evident from the beginning. She paints a backdrop of a fog-choked city filled with workhouses for the poor and fanciful puppet theaters to entertain the rich.

Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, two penniless orphans, work for the puppet master Grisini. Schlitz focuses first on Grisini’s wonderful ability to bring puppets to life on stage, so that readers only gradually become aware of the magic he practices—and the darkness of his heart. In a startlingly awful moment, Grisini enchants Clara, a wealthy young girl, turning her into a puppet on strings.

Parsefall is not immediately aware of the soul trapped inside, so he naturally plays with the puppet Clara. Somehow the strings act as a magical conduit of thought and emotion, bringing the two characters together. “When he played upon her strings,” writes Schlitz, “Clara glimpsed the splendors and glooms that haunted his mind.”

This kind of writing is haunting...and a wonderful treat. So many times novelists become carried away with description, slowing action down to a crawl. But Schlitz peppers even her descriptive passages with active verbs, so the story flies along like the wind: “It was a boisterous wind that drove the clouds across the blue sky and scattered confetti on the cobblestones.”

While many books are celebrated for having powerful first lines, I loved the last line in Splendors and Glooms best  of all. Lizzie Rose, Clara, and Parsefall are attending a funeral which has gone on much too long. They can’t wait to leave and get back to the business of living:

“They were waiting, all three of them, for the moment when the could be alone again and free to laugh together.”

The only small complaint is that the story did, after all, have to end. I wanted it to go on and on.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Liar & Spy: The Sum of Its Parts

 Rebecca Stead has followed up on her excellent Newbery winning book When You Reach Me with a new novel called Liar & Spy. This well-written middle-grade novel deserves all the hype it’s been getting—and deserves great sales.

You can compare Liar favorably to such middle-grade classics as Harriet the Spy (also about spying) and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (also set in a city apartment building and neighborhood). I’ll spare you the brief outline, because you’ll find it done better than I can in other reviews.

But I’ll also spare you the brief outline because it’s really hard to come up with one that truly describes the book.

That, for this former middle school library lady, is a cause of concern. Liar & Spy is the kind of book I’d love to hand to a sixth grader and say, “It’s about X, and you’ll love it.” Ideally the conversation would take about 30 seconds.

But Liar & Spy, frequently described in reviews as “rich” and “complex,” defies the 30-second rule.

Once you outline each of its parts (mystery, bullying story, urban family drama, spy tale), the sum of the parts is simply too long. Beyond 30 seconds, and you’re losing half of your potential readers.

So, all you librarians out there, all you booksellers out there, all you teachers out there…if you can come up with a way to book-talk or hand-sell Liar & Spy to a kid reader in 30 seconds or less, please let me know. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Wonderful Read-Alouds

Nationally, November is Picture Book Month, while here in Massachusetts, the Governor has declared that it’s Family Literacy Month.

Picture books are meant to be shared, either one-on-one with a child sitting in your lap or with a group of wriggling, rowdy kids in a classroom, library, or living room.

Here are three recent picture books that fit the bill for sharing with preschoolers:

It’s a Tiger!
Author David LaRochelle really knows how to set the stage for a great picture book adventure. The narration begins this way:

Are you ready for a story?
Me too.
We’ll start in the jungle…

You know things are going to get interesting, especially when there’s a tiger in the title. LaRochelle uses the repeated tagline “It’s a tiger!” to great effect, giving kids something to shout about. Jeremy Tankard’s lively artwork has kids searching for tell-tale tiger stripes on every spread.

Good News, Bad News

Can very different individuals really get along? Using just four words (good, news, bad, and very), author-illustrator Jeff Mack introduces polar opposites: sunny, overly optimistic Bunny and dark, brooding Mouse. Mouse lets the manic Bunny lead them into adventures—none of which turn out exactly as planned. A very funny story that’s both simple and complex, with cartoonish illustrations that bring my new favorite odd couple to life.

Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site

Out since 2011, this picture book collaboration between first-time author Sherri Duskey Rinker and illustrator Tom Lichtenheld has already garnered much praise, including a silver E. B. White Read-Aloud honor award. Playing on kids’ fascination with heavy machinery, Rinker invites us to say goodnight to each machine on a big construction site.

This read-aloud is perfect to introduce to a small group or one special child just before naptime or bedtime. It honors the work of big machines—and subtly suggests that the hard work of being a kid is just as important:

Construction site, all tucked in tight,
The day is done, turn off the light.
Great work today! Now…shh…goodnight.

Friday, November 9, 2012


R. J. Palacio is a former book cover designer turned author who did not, by the way, design the cover of her first novel, Wonder.  

She has nonetheless written a very moving story of a boy with severe facial abnormalities.

August, previously educated at home by his mom, enrolls in middle school. What follows is a story that can be enjoyed and discussed by a wide range of kids, since it touches on a wide range of topics, including…

-what makes people different or ordinary? August feels ordinary, but knows he’s different.

-how do we react to difference? The students (and parents of students) have varying reactions to August’s face.

-what happens in a family when one member needs more care or attention than the others? August’s sister who has no special needs is nearly as important to the book, and to its emotional impact, as August is.

-what is empathy and how do we show it? At the story’s closing, the school principal quotes J. M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, who once wrote:

“Shall we make a new rule of life…always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?”

That quotation and the principal’s reflections upon it should be a huge and uplifting springboard to classroom discussions.

Quibbles? The story ends with the main character receiving a standing ovation. Rather than shedding a tear, I was thinking about the overuse of standing ovations. As someone recently said: “standing for every show is like putting an exclamation point at the end of every sentence.” In a book, it’s a bit like shouting: “This is a big deal! This is the emotional high point! Stand up!”

With writing this good, no one needs to tell readers to stand up. We’re already on our feet.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Picture Book Round-Up

November is picture book month. To celebrate, here’s a round-up of some lovely picture books to share with all ages…

Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole

Illustration, allegedly, is different from fine art because it accompanies and amplifies a story. It’s not “art for art’s sake,” but art that serves a story. Still, when illustration stands on its own—with no words to tell us what or how to see—it can be as fine as any canvas in a gallery.

This picture book, illustrated in detailed pencil drawings, calls to mind the wordless sections of The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. In each book, black-and-white illustrations serve to pull us into another time. Unspoken takes us back to the time of slavery and to a girl’s reaction to finding a runaway slave in an outbuilding on her farm.

Simple as the story is, the book itself bears reading and rereading, even though it contains no words. The real artistry here lies in how Cole uses small, telling details throughout.

When I Was Small by Sara O’Leary, illustrated by Julie Morstad

This beautiful small-scale Canadian picture book caused me to A) nearly burst into tears B) smile, and C) want to send a copy to my mother. It’s a sweet and tender book that will have you wishing you had a kid or happy you’ve got a kid to pull up on your lap and share it with.

Morstad, in a style similar to Erik Blegvad’s, combines pen and ink illustrations with small, but well used bits of color to tell the intimate and funny story of a boy and his mother. He wants to hear a story of when his mommy was small. And in a twist that brings to mind Lynne Jonell’s Mommy Go Away!, the mommy recalls the days when she was really small…tiny enough to bathe in a birdbath and use yarn for a jump rope.

Pair this with Marjorie Winslow’s classic Mud Pies and Other Recipes (with Erik Blegvad’s wonderful illustrations) and you’ve got the perfect small holiday gift package for a very lucky small person.

Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett, with pictures by Adam Rex

Inventive and fun, Chloe and the Lion is for somewhat older children. They’ve got to be familiar enough with picture books as a genre and with the art of illustration to understand and laugh at the jokes.

When the author isn’t satisfied with the art in his newest book, he gets rid of the illustrator and hires a new one. When that illustrator doesn’t work out, he even tries to do the drawings himself. (Bad idea.) Chloe, the main character in his picture book, just wants to get on with things, and not be a badly drawn girl.

There are hints of Maurice Sendak’s Pierre in there, along with reminders of David Macauley’s post-modern picture book Black and White. For teachers, this is a great book to share when exploring the different jobs of author and illustrator, the parts of the book, and just plain silly stories.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Mighty Miss Malone

Love the cover. Wished I loved
(not just liked) the book...
First off, I love Christopher Paul Curtis. His stories make me laugh and very nearly cry. He can write the pants off just about anyone.

And if you ask any fifth or sixth grade boy if he knows Curtis’s books and the boy shrugs in that “I dunno” kind of way, just remind him of the Ticonderoga pencil scene in Bud, Not Buddy.

You will be rewarded with huge smiles, laughs, and flaring nostrils. I guarantee it.

That said, I liked The Mighty Miss Malone and wished I could truly love it. Malone is Curtis’s newest novel, focusing on Deza Malone, a character first seen in Bud, Not Buddy. Deza is full of energy, intelligence, and pluck. As her family navigates the horrors of the Great Depression, Deza simply demands that you root for her and follow her story to its end.

When I turned the last page, I was glad to have spent time with Deza, but I still had a question in mind. It’s the question my former writing teacher, Jane Resh Thomas, is famous for asking writers: “What is that character dying for want of?” What’s the main character’s “heart’s desire”?

I wasn’t sure I could put a finger on Deza’s heart’s desire. 

When I read the afterword, however, I was immediately sure of the author’s heart’s desire.

Curtis has felt deeply the parallels between stories of the Great Depression and news reports and personal stories he’s heard about today’s economic struggles. He is—as my writing teacher might say—dying for want of public acknowledgment that children are suffering in today’s Great Recession.

As Curtis says, “I hope that Deza can serve as a voice for the estimated fifteen million American children who are poor, who go to bed hungry and whose parents struggle to make a dignified living to feed and care for them.”

 It’s a point that needs to be made, that must be heard today. But I can’t help wishing Deza’s heart’s desire was as plain to me as that of her creator. Perhaps the best I can hope for, as an avid reader of Christopher Paul Curtis’s fiction, is that Deza will be back soon—and that Curtis will give us all a closer, deeper look into her heart.

Friday, October 19, 2012

On the Fence between Fiction and Nonfiction

…and liking the view!

A book discussion group I follow (CCBC-net) recently had some back-and-forth on books that straddle the line between fiction and nonfiction. 

Teacher and writer Monica Edinger linked to a great list from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of titles that mix the twoAs the list's authors (Megan Schliesman and Merri V. Lindgren) make clear, sometimes it’s good for kids to see books that creatively combine approaches:

“We believe books like these present teachers and librarians with a tremendous opportunity. In today’s web-connected, social media world, children are exposed to information—and misinformation—at a younger and younger age. Teaching them to becoming [sic] critical readers and consumers of information has become more important than ever.”

I’ve written straight nonfiction like my how-to craft book Bookworks: Making Books by Hand (Carolrhoda Lerner) and made-up stories (fiction) like my historical picture book Riding to Washington (Sleeping Bear Press).

But I’ve had the most fun mixing the two. Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices (Calkins Creek Boyds Mills Press) straddles the fence. 

It mixes straight nonfiction, in the form of factual captions and chapter introductions that outline Ellis Island’s history, with creative fictional monologues, dialogues, letters, and emails all from the point of view of people at Ellis Island.

Q: Why mix fact and fiction?

A: Because sometimes the best way to reach the truth about a time or place or experience is to dive deeply into the facts we know—and then use that knowledge of history to extrapolate.

For example, in Hope and Tears, one monologue takes the point of view of a patient detained at Ellis Island’s contagious disease hospital in 1922. At the monologue’s end the girl, named Pearl, gazes onto the Statue of Liberty and reflects:

Outside the window, the Liberty Lady stands tall.
I can’t see her face yet, not from here.
But I promise you this:
I won’t stay in bed.
Soon enough, 
I’ll leave this island 
and take my place in this new land.
I won’t let Lady Liberty turn her back on me.

The monologue is a work of fiction. It’s based, however, on my study of Pearl Libow’s oral history interview, readings about the two hospital islands, and research that Ellis Island’s librarians Barry Moreno and Jeff Dosik helped me to conduct.

Background research anchors the fictional monologue in something close to the truth: Pearl’s truth, the sad truth of being a very sick girl in a strange new place and seeing the promise of freedom just out of reach, beyond your window.

Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices certainly straddles the fiction/nonfiction fence—and from my point of view, that’s one of the best vantage points to write from when your goal is to make history come alive for readers.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Blue is the new...

In children’s and young adult fiction, blue is the new cover color of the day.

Fashions are constantly changing in cover art. Just take a look at elementary school librarian Travis Jonker’s blog 100 Scope Notes to see how dated some Newbery Award-winning books look today—and how those same covers could get a fashion update.

What’s fascinating to me is a recent trend away from photo illustrated covers and toward simple drawings on a blue background. We saw it last year with the Printz Award winning title Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. (Note the ample empty blue space left for round award stickers.)

This year, it’s true with John Green’s young adult love story The Fault in Our Stars (reviewed here by the story slinger)and for R. J. Palacio’s middle grade novel Wonder. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb if I predict that Fault has plenty of room on the cover for a Printz Award sticker, and Wonder has the perfect spot (lower right corner) for a glowing round Newbery in silver or gold.

See a pattern here? Blue is the new…

- book designer’s choice when covering great middle grade and young adult fiction

- practically perfect background on which to slap a gold or silver award medal

-splashy, sunny accent to hold in one’s hands while wearing fall fashions

-easy-to-spot color for books facing out on shelves or standing tall on top of display cases.

If they’re that easy to pick out and look that good with what you’re wearing, then you have no excuse. Get your hands on The Fault in Our Stars or Wonder today.

Watch the story slinger for a review of Wonder coming soon.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Three Musketeers

While this isn't the Alexandre Dumas
classic, it's still captures the feel
of the original. 

When I was about twelve, I was captivated by Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. I can still recall swaggering down the hallway at Brown County High in Nashville, Indiana, letting my oboe case swing—as if it were a sword ready to be pulled from the scabbard. En garde!

Now, I have reason the celebrate The Fourth Musketeer—a book blog by youth librarian Margo Tanenbaum showcasing “reviews and more about historical fiction and history-related non-fiction for children and teens.”

Here’s a snippet from a post to give you a sense of this blog:  “Laurie Halse Anderson once wrote in her blog that she preferred to call her historical books ‘historical thrillers’ rather than ‘historical fiction,’ given that many kids and teens associate historical fiction with BORING.  However, it's not every historical fiction title that can be justly called a ‘thriller.’” Tanenbaum then goes on to review a recent thrilling-not-boring title by Marissa Moss.

Click here for the Fourth Musketeer's review!
Along with reviews of books by great middle school authors such as Shelley Pearsall and Mary Downing Hahn, Tanenbaum also posted one of Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices.

It’s a lovely, thoughtful review, and here’s the link. Hurray for bloggers! Hurray for musketeers!