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.