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.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The White House Is Burning!

Breaking News! Great new nonfiction.

In the introduction to her latest work for ages 10-14, author Jane Sutcliffe sets the tone and the sense of urgency:

Had it happened in modern times, it would have been called breaking news. Camera crews in helicopters would have covered it all, live and on the scene.

But the event she’s writing about happened in August 1812, when the young United States was at war with Britain.

The burning of the White House happened before the 24-hour news cycle, Twitter, and YouTube. Yet Sutcliffe makes it seem as though the events are taking place as we read them. 

She combines first-hand accounts from participants in history (from First Lady Dolley Madison to a teenage soldier to a young slave) with maps and prints from the time.

This handsome, thoroughly researched book about a fairly little-known event carries one forward, wanting to read more, even though the outcome is clear. (The British didn’t win. The White House was rebuilt.)

The White House Is Burning (Charlesbridge, 2014) brings to mind James Cross Giblin’s story of Lindbergh’s Trans-Atlantic flight and Jim Murphy’s account of the Chicago Fire. 

I’m placing this title on my shortlist of contenders for the Sibert Medal (the American Library Association’s annual award for excellence in children’s nonfiction) for 2015.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Newbery Criteria—Theirs, Mine & Yours

This time of year I’m busy reading books that have turned up on lists of potential winners of the Newbery Award.

A few good places to look include:

The American Library Association will hand out this year’s Newbery Award (for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year”) on Monday, February 2, 2015, at the annual midwinter meeting in Chicago.

Newbery Committee members have already been reading and meeting for months, using the following criteria:

In identifying “distinguished contribution to American literature,” defined as text, in a book for children, Committee members need to consider the following:
       Interpretation of the theme or concept
       Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
       Development of a plot
       Delineation of characters
       Delineation of a setting
       Appropriateness of style.
Note: Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.
Committee members must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience.

These are great criteria for judging a book, but they miss a few points, go on too long (and I’ve given you the SHORT version!), and get just a bit too serious.

My Newbery Criteria are short and simple.

For each book, just ask:

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?

What would you add, or subtract if you were formulating your own Newbery Criteria?

In upcoming posts, I’ll be putting my sweet but simple criteria to work, looking at some Newbery contenders published in 2014.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

One Last Summer Read PLUS A Give-Away


Put together one very cute dog who’s searching for home with a seemingly enchanted island setting and you’ll have a good start for a summer read. But novels are about more than just the ingredients. It’s all in how things come together.

In Tango: The Tale of an Island Dog (Bloomsbury, 2009), author Eileen Beha combines these elements in a solidly entertaining novel for ages 8 to 12.

Tango, a pampered Yorkie, is separated from his owner, Marcellina, in a storm off Prince Edward Island. He’s swept ashore to the village of Victoria-by-the-Sea. The townspeople save him, but no matter how many new friendships he makes, he can’t forget Marcellina.

Tango is a wonderfully appealing character, but the story succeeds largely because of the world the author creates for him to inhabit. 

Beha introduces readers to a whole village of characters—both animal and human—each with unique quirks and longings. From Gustie, the retired schoolteacher, down to the village’s spooky white rat, all add dimension and depth to the story.

They give Tango a place in which to thrive and grow.

 Secrets of Eastcliff by the Sea

Now for the Give-Away part of this post. Put your email address in the Follow by Email slot at the top of this page (below my own cute dog, Riley), and you may receive a pre-publication copy of The Secrets of Eastcliff-by-the-Sea (Simon & Schuster, Beach Lane Books, 2014), Beha’s brand-new book, recently reviewed here at Story-Slinger.

Good luck! And happy late-summer reading!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Secrets of Eastcliff-by-the-Sea

Eileen Beha's newest book feels old-fashioned, in all the best ways.

The Secrets of Eastcliff-by-the-Sea is a brand-new novel for ages 8 to 12 that’s wonderfully old-fashioned. It’s got all the elements of a good family read-aloud: absolutely adorable sock monkeys (especially the one named Throckmorton), a coastal Maine setting, and a determined young girl.

Annaliese is desperate to get to the bottom of a mystery: why did her mother leave when she was a toddler and why has she never come back to the hulking old mansion at Eastcliff-by-the-Sea?

Throckmorton is a handmade sock monkey. Like all of his kind, he is:

A very good listener.
And he’[s] never—not even once!—stopped smiling.

Lately, however, he’s been neglected by his human, Annaliese. To make sure he’s not consigned to the bottom of a toy box, Throckmorton must do something extraordinary.

Author Eileen Beha (Tango:The Tale of an Island Dog) brings these parallel storylines together, spinning a compelling tale of smiling sock monkeys and secrets revealed. With plenty of suspense, plot twists, and a houseful of relatives, this novel is bursting with appeal.

To get more of the flavor of the book, hop onto these links:

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Blog Tour 2014

Friend and fellow writer Loretta Ellsworth asked me to join a blog tour, where I say a little about the people before me in the tour, answer 4 questions, and then introduce you all to the next blogger in the chain. 

So, here's a little about Loretta:

My favorite book of Loretta's is her YA novel In Search of Mockingbird. It's got all the right elements: a girl on her own, a cross-country bus ride, and many references to To Kill a Mockingbird.

Before Loretta's entry in the blog tour, Mary Losure added hers. My favorite book of Mary's (so far):

The Fairy Ring is the very best in narrative nonfiction for kids. It reads like a mini-novel and it includes two real girls who outsmarted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You go, girls!

Before Loretta and Mary, Eileen Beha joined the tour. If you don't already know Eileen's great novel Tango: The Tale of an Island Dog, then pick up a copy or listen to it on audio. It's got a Prince Edward Island setting and a dog and engaging writing. Enuf said...almost. You see, Eileen has a book coming out in August:

The Secrets of Eastcliff-by-the-Sea is an old-fashioned tale and has already garnered a starred review in Kirkus. (Doubtless the first of many...)

Now to the blog tour questions:

Q: What am I currently working on? 
A: Along with the story-slinger blog, I'm working on a middle-grade novel that takes Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca and re-casts it as a contemporary adoption story set in Louisville, KY. No, I'm not kidding. 

Also, I'm researching a nonfiction book about great dogs who were rescued from the streets or from shelters. 

Q: How does my work differ from others in its genre?
A: Tough one to answer since I write in several genres: nonfiction (like Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices), picture storybooks (like Riding to Washington), and middle-grade novels (like Chig and the Second Spread). So I ask you, blog tour: What is my genre??

Q: Why do I write what I write?
A: Because I'm drawn to the subject and the subject just won't leave me alone. No, I'm not a writer who says, "The characters talk to me." But characters and topics do get lodged in my brain, leaving only to go inside the covers of a book.

Q: How does my writing process work?
A: Very slowly, amid the detritus of everyday life, in between getting the car worked on, watching track meets, walking the dog, and picking up an endless supply of discarded dirty socks from the floor.

Who's next on the blog tour? Shelley Sommer, school librarian, teacher, blogger extraordinaire, and last but not least writer for children. A little about her:

Shelley Sommer, author of the award-winning Hammerin' Hank Greenberg, not only writes great children's nonfiction, but also has a wide-ranging and cool blog (called Sommer Reading) about books and the joys of reading.

The 2014 Blog Tour continues at Sommer Reading.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Book Review: Under the Egg

I'm judging this book by the company it keeps--on the bookshelf.

Sometimes we love books just for themselves. Sometimes we love them because they remind us of other great stories. It’s like meeting someone and finding out you’ve got good friends in common.

Under the Egg, the debut novel by Laura Marx Fitzgerald (published by Dial BFYR), is a good novel on its own. It’s about art, sweltering-hot summertime in Manhattan, crazy family dynamics, and library research.

But if you want to know this book by its “friends,” here are a few other books it reminds me of:

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konisburg: This, for me, is the gold standard by which art mysteries for kids should be measured. The similarities between Files and Egg are everywhere, from the main characters’ preoccupation with money to the love of museums.
    Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh: The main character in Egg, Theo Tenpenny, shares Harriet’s setting, some of her attitude, and her Manhattan home.


 The Mystery of the Third Lucretia by Susan Runholt: As in Egg, two girls try to solve an art mystery together and encounter adventures along the way, traveling from Minnesota to Amsterdam.

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey: Okay, maybe it’s a stretch to drag in an adult mystery, but the idea of looking, really looking, at a portrait is key to both. Truth, in both books, is the daughter of time.


There are also similarities between Egg and Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce, another great story about the power of art and specifically about works of art spirited off deep down mine shafts for their own protection.
    Based on the company it keeps, Under the Egg, has a lot going for it. It all adds up to a great art history mystery.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Porcelain Rage

For me, listening to Nick Podehl's reading of Doll Bones was like visiting an extremely creepy graveyard--while driving along in the safety of my car.
Doll Bones by Holly Black has already won a Newbery Honor Award, but I can’t resist adding a short review to the pile.

First off: This is a book I listened to while driving, and it’s as good an audio book since Jason Isaac’s reading of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

Doll Bones reminded me of another chilling audio book, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, read by Jason Isaac.
Nick Podehl does a fantastic job of reading Doll Bones, bringing the three main characters (Zach, Polly, and Alice) to life. I found myself wanting to drive more than usual, which is just plain crazy when you live in the Boston area.

At the heart of Black’s novel is a portrait of rage so convincing it makes your heart race. Early in the book, Zach’s dad throws out some toys he feels are “to young” for his son.

But to Zach those toys are a solid connection to the ephemeral world of imagination. Zach savors the stories he and Alice and Poppy spin, using old action figures, modified Barbies, and a spooky antique porcelain doll locked in a cabinet.

Zach’s rage over losing his action figures exposes unsettling currents of change—of friends growing older and growing apart, of old games giving way to new pursuits, with some players left behind.

There are real chills in Doll Bones, which explains why libraries in my area are divided in where to shelve it: juvenile, young adult, or both.

Spot illustrations by Eliza Wheeler make the book seem younger and feel a bit like false advertising. They’re also completely unneeded. The cinematic quality of the writing brings forth images you won’t soon forget.

Whether in print or on audio, this is a story you’ll want to experience for yourself, before deciding whom to share it with.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Top Take-Aways from NESCBWI 2014

If you're wondering what this has to do with anything, then go ahead and read #1 first.

5. Sometimes your first keynote is so good it’s gonna be hard to top: Laurel Snyder (author of  Seven Stories Up and many other books) gave a rousing and inspiring speech at the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators annual conference in Springfield, MA. Turned out, it was her first such "big" speech, and she was allegedly nervous. Trust me, it didn't show.

Can't wait to read Seven Stories Up! Great review on Rosanne Parry's blog.

I especially loved how Snyder approaches audience. She asks writers to reflect on this question: Whose ear are you whispering into?

4. Book promotion can be a tough job. It can seem endless. So, I especially liked hearing Lynda Mullaly Hunt (author of One for the Murphys) say, simply: “Do fewer things and do them well.”

3. The best workshops or sessions distill what's obvious, although you somehow didn’t notice before. Historian, author, and blogger J.L. Bell spoke about building narrative momentum, but what caught my attention (obvious though it may be) is when he said, “Start your story when things change for the protagonist in a very big way.” Oh…right.

2. Following close on J.L. Bell’s insights, agent Kathleen Rushall took one look at my middle grade novel in progress and said: “Be wary of starting with a dream.” Again, advice that distills the obvious—and obviously should be followed. 

1. Last, but not least, here’s the only take-away with kid appeal: When you gather many, many children’s book writers together for a NESCBWI conference, the hotel will have to turn all the bathrooms on the third floor into women’s bathrooms for the duration. And even that might not be enough.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

One-Room Nation: Part 6

Crime & Punishments

Is your teacher soft or strict? In one-room schoolhouse days, you could look around the classroom for clues. The first thing you’d likely find is a long, thin wooden pointer or ruler used to hit unruly students. If no ruler or pointer was available, then a switch cut from a bush would do.

The teacher in this photo from the early 1900s has a full range of punishments available: switch in hand, rope whip on the floor, and dunce cap on head. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress: LC-USZ62-37935)

Wanda Gág (who later wrote and illustrated ground-breaking picture books including the classic Millions of Cats) started her teaching career with “a brilliant system of ‘no whipping and no scolding.’” But most teachers didn’t. 

Your teacher might hit or whip you if you disobeyed. In the days of one-room schools, your parents would likely support the teacher’s decision.

As Charlene Fletcher Cobb recalls, “The teacher was always right. God forbid if the family ever found out about your kicking your heels up at school. You knew you’d get it worse at home than you did at school…”

Nobody liked wearing the dunce cap.
Teachers could force a student who was slow to learn to wear long, cone-shaped white paper hat, with the word “DUNCE” written on it. This form of punishment relied on humiliation. The idea was that by making a student feel really, really bad, he or she would try harder, just to get rid of the dunce cap. 

By 1908 when this photo was taken, the dunce cap was so much a part of life that kids played at administering this particular punishment. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress: LC-USZ62-701013)
Compared to at least one other punishment, the dunce cap and pointer seem quite civilized. 

Finger stocks were designed to stop "fidgets" from fidgeting by locking up the fingers. Photo Courtesy of Islington Education Library Service.   
Finger stocks for “fidgets” worked this way: After you put your hands behind your back, you passed your fingers through the holes of the wooden stocks. This could be painful but it would force your hands to be quiet, so learning could presumably take place.

NOTES: Wanda Gág quoted in Growing Pains: Diaries and Drawings for the Years 1908-1917 (MHS Press, 1984), p142.  Charlene Cobb quoted in “Once, They Were Everywhere,” by John Clayton, March 9, 2000, New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, NH): a1.

Could you survive in a one-room schoolhouse eighty or one hundred years ago? One-Room Nation, an ongoing segment of the Story-Slinger blog, will try to answer that question in a few dozen posts. Unless otherwise noted, the text and photos in One-Room Nation are the property of the blogger, so please contact the Story-Slinger if you wish to use them.