Archive for October, 2009

Review of Any Which Wall, by Laurel Snyder

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

any_which_wallAny Which Wall

by Laurel Snyder
drawings by LeUyen Pham

Random House, New York, 2009. 242 pages.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #3 Children’s Fantasy and Science Fiction

The caption at the front of this book is a quotation from Seven Day Magic, by Edward Eager. As it happens, Seven Day Magic is one of my favorite books from childhood, and one of my favorite quotations is the first line of that book:

“The best kind of book,” said Barnaby, “is a magic book.”

A little further along comes the part Laurel Snyder quoted:

“The best kind of magic book,” Barnaby was saying, “is the kind where the magic has rules. And you have to deal with it and thwart it before it thwarts you. Only sometimes you forget and get thwarted.”

When I read that, I instantly hoped that here I would find a magic book in the style of the Edward Eager books I loved so much. I was not disappointed.

Further warming me up to be delighted, I was captivated by the note at the front of the book — “A Brief Note on the Existence and True Nature of Magic.” Here’s an excerpt:

Some magic (the kind you hear about most often) is loud and full of dragons. But that magic is rare, generally reserved for scrappy orphans and misplaced princes. Some magic is mysterious, beginning with the somber tolling of a clock at midnight in the darkest corner of a graveyard. However, that magic is unlikely to include you if you don’t visit cemeteries late at night (which I don’t think you’re supposed to do). There is also magic especially for very tiny children, full of kindly rabbits and friendly old ladies with comfortable laps. It smells like sugar cookies and takes place mostly in gardens or bedrooms the pale colors of spring. But you outgrow it about the time you learn to read.

So perhaps the very best magic is the kind of magic that happens to kids just like you (and maybe even the occasional grown-up) when they’re paying careful attention. It’s the most common magic there is, which is why (sensibly) it’s called Common Magic. Common Magic exists in the very unmagical world you yourself inhabit. It’s full of regular-looking people, stop signs, and seemingly boring buildings. Common Magic happens to kids who have curious friends, busy parents, and vivid imaginations, and it frequently takes place during summer vacations or on rainy weekends when you aren’t allowed to leave the house. Most important, it always starts with something that seems ordinary.

The story that follows concerns four children (like Edward Eager’s books!) who encounter Common Magic, must learn its rules, enjoy it, thwart it, but also get a bit thwarted themselves. When the children in the story had read Edward Eager’s books, just like the children in Edward Eager’s books had read the books of E. Nesbit, I knew that indeed Laurel Snyder must be setting out to write a book in the style of Edward Eager. Hooray! Much to my delight, she pulls it off.

The magic these children encounter is a wall. And a magical key. When they turn the key, the wall transports them to any other wall where they wish to be — from Merlin’s castle to a pirate’s home to the wild West.

The complete package is a delightful, fun, wholesome, and magical adventure for kids. The kids interact with each other and do some growing and thinking as they interact with the magic.

Reading this book will put you on the alert, hoping to run across Common Magic in your own life. And you will feel you’ve already had a taste of it.

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Review of Pigs Make Me Sneeze, by Mo Willems

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

pigs_make_me_sneezePigs Make Me Sneeze!

An Elephant & Piggie Book

by Mo Willems

Hyperion Books for Children, New York, 2009. 57 pages.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #3 Picture Books

I love Mo Willems’ books, and I try to refrain from reviewing every single one. However, this is the Elephant and Piggie book I got to hear Mo Willems himself read at the National Book Festival. Naturally, I bought a copy, and I certainly have to review it.

The more I read Mo Willems’ books to kids, the more impressed I get. I can be completely losing the kids at a storytime, but if I open an Elephant and Piggie book, I soon have them hanging on my every word. They’re funny; they’re easy to read; they convey all kinds of exuberant emotion with simple lines; and they often teach a lesson, too!

In Pigs Make Me Sneeze! Gerald (the elephant) finds himself sneezing as soon as Piggie comes around. He is heartbroken to realize that pigs make him sneeze, so he should never be around his best friend any more. Then Doctor Cat comes along with an alternate explanation.

My teenage son pointed out that this beautifully illustrates a basic truth: Correlation does not imply causation. It actually makes me wish I still taught college courses in Intro Statistics, so I could bring in this book to teach that concept in a memorable way. (I still say Mo Willems’ books are more effective than lectures.)

The summary of the book naturally doesn’t do justice to the humor of the illustrations, and the comic timing of the characters’ interactions. My son was also quite taken with Doctor Cat — He would like to see a new book about Doctor Cat; he said he’s as cool as Dr. McNinja, only he’s a cat. Can you tell that even a fifteen-year-old could not resist the charms of reading this book when I brought it home? This book is in a class far above your ordinary run-of-the-mill easy readers that make up a plot to use simple words. Truly a book for all ages, and great for beginning readers, too.

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Mo Willems reading Pigs Make Me Sneeze!

Mo Willems reading Pigs Make Me Sneeze!

Back to School

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

I did something a little crazy. I signed up for a six-week online class. The class is The Newbery Medal: Past, Present, and Future. I wasn’t going to sign up, because I can’t afford a class and don’t have time for a class.

However, two things persuaded me. At the National Book Festival, a co-worker I ran into reminded me that the Library’s Employee Association offers grants for things like that, to help with the cost. Then, I was following School Library Journal’s Heavy Medal blog, and actually found myself looking through all 79 pages of the Newbery Committee Guidelines that were posted. Yes, I am fascinated with the Newbery Medal. One of the reasons I am thrilled to be a librarian is that now I’m one of the people who sponsors the Newbery Medal! What’s more, the instructor was the chair of the Newbery Committee the year that I got to go to the Award Banquet, and she also wrote the textbook we used in my Library Services to Children class.

So — My reading habits are going to have to change. Mind you, I still have a persistent backlog of about 20 books I’ve read and plan to review, so the change in my habits may take awhile to hit the blog. Though I may get far further behind because of not having time to write reviews.

I’m going to be reading at least one Newbery winner from each decade the award’s been giving. One nice part of that assignment is that I’ve already discovered that almost every decade has a book that I’d long been meaning to read (and own) but haven’t got around to reading yet. Now I will!

Mind you, Kidlitcon 09 is only two weeks away! I’ve already begun reading a book by one of the authors I’m going to meet there, and I’m planning to read another. But once that is done, maybe I can settle in to some classics.

Of course, the clincher in deciding to take the course is that it is not graded. — If I don’t get the books read, it’s not like I’ll fail the course. But even as I say that I know that I will want to read even more than what’s required, not less. However, I just thought of an even better point in the classes favor: No papers! Yes, we have to post on the forums three times a week, but that part is fun. A class where I get to read lots of children’s books, but don’t have to write any research papers. What’s not to like? I’m excited!

But you may not hear as much from me for about six weeks….

Review of The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

lost_symbolThe Lost Symbol

by Dan Brown

Doubleday, New York, 2009. 509 pages.

It took me a long time to get through The Lost Symbol, because I felt like I read it before. The formula is the same as for The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. Once again, we’ve got a supposedly earth-shaking secret with layers upon layers of clues that Robert Langdon is trying to solve before a crazy killer does something catastrophic.

Dan Brown has a habit of short chapters, where people discover something that shocks them, and then it cuts away to something else. The reader doesn’t learn the shocking secret until later. That worked to keep me reading in The Da Vinci Code, but two books later, I find it a little bit annoying.

I also had to laugh right at the beginning when secret government experiments in Noetic Science were discussed. It reminded me far too much of a nonfiction book my son recently had me check out for him titled Men Who Stare at Goats about secret government military experiments on the power of the mind, which have not borne much fruit at all. Having heard of that book ruined my ability to take the experiments in this book as seriously as they were intended.

However, even with all that said, even though my emotions weren’t fully engaged in this book, I do like puzzles. And Dan Brown is exceptionally good at making puzzles, and puzzles that have layers and layers. So for the puzzles alone, this book was worth reading.

I also thoroughly enjoyed that this book was set in Washington, DC. I have been to the Louvre, which was important in The Da Vinci Code, and I was in Rome right after the Pope died, which was the setting of Angels and Demons. And now I live near Washington, DC. Last February, I was in the new Capitol Visitor’s Center, which is where the story starts. And I have been at some of the other sites mentioned — and they are always real places, described in detail, including details you probably didn’t notice when you were there. So I will be looking at Washington, DC, with new eyes.

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