Archive for April, 2011

Review of All the Way to America, by Dan Yaccarino

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

All the Way to America

The Story of a Big Italian Family
and a Little Shovel

by Dan Yaccarino

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011. 36 pages.
Starred Review

This is a picture book biography, but it’s not a book kids will use for school reports, so I feel a little sad that it will be shelved with the biographies rather than the picture books. First and foremost, this book tells an engaging story. It’s a story simple enough for preschoolers or young elementary school students to have read to them or to read themselves. That the story is true is an exciting bonus, which I’m sure will fascinate young readers.

In this book, Dan Yaccarino tells about how his great-grandfather Michele Iaccarino came to America all the way from Sorrento, Italy. His bright and distinctive illustrations add to this tale of family, food, and adventure.

“And so when he was a young man, Michele left Italy and went all the way to America in search of new opportunities.

“‘Work hard,’ his father told him, handing him the little shovel.

“‘But remember to enjoy life.’

“‘And never forget your family,’ his mother said. She hugged him and gave him their few family photographs and her recipe for tomato sauce.”

Each generation has a new use for the little shovel. And each generation, the family got larger. Each generation, they found uses for the traditional tomato sauce.

To emphasize that this is a true story, the author poses on the back cover flap with the actual little shovel his great-grandfather brought to America.

This would make a great addition to a storytime about family. It gives you a nice warm feeling of family traditions and good food.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Little Princes, by Conor Grennan

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

Little Princes

One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal

by Conor Grennan

read by the author

Books on Tape, 2010. 8 CDs.
Starred Review

I was happy when I learned that Little Princes is the 2011 choice for All Fairfax Reads. I was captivated by the audiobook version and found myself listening as eagerly as to a novel.

I do like that the author doesn’t try to glamorize what he set out to do. He freely admits that he was planning to spend a year traveling around the world, and he decided to volunteer to help at an orphanage in Nepal to make himself sound less selfish. He didn’t know anything about taking care of children. When he meets them, they literally pile on top of him, and from there, you can hear in his voice how the children win him over.

I especially enjoyed hearing the author tell the story himself. That way, you know the names are being pronounced correctly, for one thing! He tells how he didn’t have the heart to tell the children he would never come back, and so a promise to them got him to return. Then he found out that these “orphans” were not actually orphans. That child traffickers told families in remote villages that for a steep fee they would protect their children from being conscripted as soldiers and give them an education and opportunities. Instead, the children are sold or abandoned in Kathmandu.

It began with seven children that Conor and his co-worker almost rescued. When they learned that those children had been lost, he had to come back to Nepal to try to find them. And along the way, he began a mission to find the children’s families.

The story is beautiful and compelling. Above all, it’s about bringing hope and joy to children, children who are like any other children in the world, playful and loving and deserving of a wonderful future.

I enjoyed the audiobook very much, but I did check out a copy of the print version in order to see pictures of the children, whom I felt I had come to know. A map in the front is also helpful.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Monsters Eat Whiny Children

Monday, April 25th, 2011

Monsters Eat Whiny Children

by Bruce Eric Kaplan

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2010. 36 pages.
Starred Review

This book makes me laugh. I admit, I would not want to use it in a library storytime, for fear of scaring a child too young to understand that it’s a joke. However, parents will know at what age this will make a fun cautionary tale.

“Once there were two perfectly delightful children who were going through a TERRIBLE phase, which is to say they whined ALL day and night….

“Their kindly father warned them that monsters eat whiny children. They didn’t believe him. So they whined and whined until finally one day…

“a monster came and stole them away.”

The monster begins by making a whiny-child salad and pours dressing on the children. But his wife hates cilantro, so they have to start over. A neighbor comes over and suggests whiny-child burgers. Something goes wrong with each suggestion. Sharp-eared children will notice that the monsters are awfully whiny themselves.

Meanwhile, while the monsters are whining as each of their plans doesn’t work, the children get distracted and stop whining. Finally, the monsters hit upon the perfect treat: whiny-child cucumber sandwiches. But when they look for the children, they have escaped. They have to eat plain cucumber sandwiches (recipe included).

It’s so easy to imagine a “kindly father” reading this book to his children and maybe, just maybe, getting them to think about what whining sounds like and stop. The author never comes out and says that the monsters are whining, but it’s quite clear that nothing pleases them, and their constant objections are what allow the children to escape.

Children will enjoy the thrill of danger in this story but delight in the escape. And maybe, just maybe, they will be a little quicker to stop the next time their kindly parents point out that they are whining.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, by Barry Deutsch

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011


How Mirka Got Her Sword

by Barry Deutsch

Amulet Books, New York, 2010.
2011 Eisner Award Nominee
Starred Review

Here’s one more review of a book from School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books. I hope I’ve convinced my readers to follow the Battle next year!

I don’t read a lot of graphic novels, but when I saw the caption on the cover of Hereville, I knew I had to try it: “Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl.” I’m sorry, but that’s one caption I can’t possibly resist.

Hereville gained high praise from Judge Susan Patron in Round One of the Battle:

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, a graphic novel by Barry Deutsch, must be the only book ever whose outside front cover made me laugh. “Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl,” it proclaims. Thick, shiny, paper painted in shades of coral, brown, black and white—changing to deep purples and grays in the scary night scenes—feel silky to the touch. Every page is vibrant with energetic pictures, dialogue, sound effects—and extremely minimal exposition.

“The story plays with genres, tilting them on their sides; using incongruity, it skewers conventions. Seemingly we are in the middle of a Hansel and Gretel pastiche, a fairy tale, in which the characters sprinkle their dialogue with Yiddish words, “A klog iz mir: Woe is me!” as well as expressions like “Yaaaah!” ”Mumph!” and “Aaak!” Mirka, one daughter in a large family of sibs and step-sibs, rebels against the traditional role expected of her in the Orthodox Jewish community of Hereville. Rather than learning such “womanly arts” as knitting, she wants to fight dragons. There is lots of very clever stuff here: visual jokes such as an illustration contained within an exclamation point, table legs morphing into trees, and a deliciously horrid troll.

“Wit and irony also abound in the text: a monster pig eats Mirka’s homework, Mirka and her clever, loving stepmother engage in wonderfully funny debates, and some Orthodox traditions are gently poked fun at (“preparing for all that non-working [on Shabbos] takes a lot of work!” and “In Hereville, kids aren’t allowed to have non-Jewish books. So Mirka keeps hers hidden”). I was hugely entertained, even as one tender scene brought tears to my eyes.”

I don’t read a lot of graphic novels, but I know that I will want to read absolutely anything Barry Deutsch writes about Mirka. The setting is utterly unlike any other book I’ve read (a small orthodox Jewish community in the country), but I can relate to Mirka’s fairytale dreams. I love the prosaic nature of her first nemesis — the giant talking pig. You can see she has the heart to fight a troll as well.

This book is funny, magical, insightful, and a joy to read. I can’t wait to find out what Mirka will do with her sword.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Sugar Changed the World, by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

Sugar Changed the World

A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science

by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos

Clarion Books, Boston, 2010. 166 pages.
Starred Review

I have two more books to review from School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books. At least two that I’ve read. I also have two holds that have just come in for books that I decided to read because of the coverage in the Battle.

Sugar Changed the World was knocked out in the first round, but it was up against the eventual winner, so that loss was no disgrace. Judge Adam Rex had some glowing things to say about it:

SCtW is my kind of history book. Relatively uninterested in kings and politicians, this is more of a Howard Zinn-style people’s history, albeit one which far more gently grinds its axe. Christopher Columbus gets mentioned, for example, on three separate pages. The longest passage by far is only fifty-seven words. Readers will learn far more about Olaudah Equiano, an enslaved African taken to Barbados to work in sugar, or even Thomas Thistlewood, a white overseer who wrote with a kind of nauseating jocularity about the cruelties he inflicted on his charges. They’ll also learn about the university of Jundi Shapur, which flourished fifteen hundred years ago in what is now Iran and which sounds so wondrous I can’t believe I’d never heard of it before. They’ll learn that the “whitest and purest” sugar of the ancient world came from Egypt of all places. Suddenly those sugar cube pyramids we all built in grade school are elevated above the level of busywork to some kind of totemic historical metaphor.

“It would be easy to call this a bitter book about a sweet spice, and there are unquestionably some difficult truths in Sugar Changed the World. There were also, for me, odd moments of pride–it was interesting to discover that the slave trade was focused so heavily in the Caribbean and South America, for example, and when I learned that only four percent of the slaves taken from Africa ended up in North America, and that these slaves had a comparatively low death rate, I chanted the feeblest U-S-A of my life. So why did I come away from this book inspired? A section on Gandhi didn’t hurt. Likewise sections on new (to me) heroes like the Haitian leader Toussaint, and English abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, a contemporary of William Wilberforce. This is an ultimately hopeful book, and I hope it finds a place in the classroom.

“Excellent period illustrations and photos abound, including sample pages from a grim old children’s picture book that painstakingly details how sugar got from the West Indies to your sweet shop, and unintentionally details everything that was wrong about the Victorians. The back matter of SCtW contains a great set of appendices that include, among other things, a timeline, a web guide to additional images, and an essay aimed at parents and teachers that explains how the book was researched.”

I had already purchased a copy of this book for myself. The reason was another blog from School Library Journal, Heavy Medal. They had a Mock Newbery committee vote among their online followers — but they wanted people to vote only if they’d read the books on the shortlist. My library didn’t have a copy of Sugar Changed the World, so I ordered myself a copy, and was not sorry. If I had read it in 2010 (I didn’t; I read it after the New Year.), I would have included a category in my 2010 Sonderbooks Stand-outs for Children’s Nonfiction, because this book is outstanding.

This is children’s nonfiction at its finest. And highly recommended reading for adults as well. You’ve got a huge topic — how sugar changed the world — and the authors cover it with great depth and good documentation, and they bring in the personal element, making it memorable. Any reader, child or adult, will come away from this book having learned a lot. But these aren’t dry, dull facts. You will be fascinated by what you learn.

I like the way the authors talk about looking at their own family histories and discovering how each of them was hugely affected by, of all things, sugar. They are not exaggerating when they say this is a story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science.

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Review of A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

A Tale Dark and Grimm

by Adam Gidwitz

Dutton Children’s Books, 2010. 256 pages.

Here’s another book that appeared in School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books. To celebrate the excellent battle action this year, I’m posting reviews of books from the Battle, and including commentary from the distinguished judges. This will give you an idea of the stellar critiques that make sljBoB so entertaining.

In the first round, this book drew a judge whose readers I think are just perfect for A Tale Dark and Grimm: R. L. Stine. He talked at length about why he chose it to win:

“When I was in elementary school, I was already fascinated by the worlds of fantasy and magic and horror. I read every book of fairy tales in our school library. I then proceeded to our town library where I moved up and down the shelves of fairy tales, Norse legends, and Greek myths, devouring book after book.

“As a long-time devotee of these stories, I opened Adam Gidwitz’ A Tale Dark and Grimm with great anticipation. I’m happy to say the book provided a wonderful return to the Grimm world—the world of dark woods, unspeakable evil, not-so-innocent children, witches, dragons, and more—that had enthralled me as a child.

“Gidwitz has not only presented us with a masterful retelling and re-imagining of the original Grimm works. His book provides a wonderful lesson in story-telling—how stories are made, how they can be twisted and turned, and how they change over time.

“The book is inviting right from the start. The author warns that the old Hansel and Gretel story isn’t what you expect, that fairy tales aren’t for the faint-of-heart. His warning that “the one true tale is as violent and bloody as you can imagine” makes the book irresistible. Who could stop reading after a warning like that?

“He then presents a retelling of several Grimm tales, beginning with Hansel and Gretel and using them as protagonists for the ensuing stories. We follow the brother and sister from adventure to adventure, into the woods and out, into king’s castles and witch’s hovels, into deep darkness, and finally to redemption– and even a happy ending. Thus he has cleverly tied the stories together and turned them into a novel.

“Gidwitz’ writing is simple, clean, easy-to-read. In a word: delightful. He manages to capture all the dark feelings and atmosphere of the original tales in language appealing to kids today. He doesn’t modernize. He doesn’t camp it up. The writing is crisp and clear, and he takes the story-telling seriously.”

However, in the second round, A Tale Dark and Grimm lost to Trash, by Andy Mulligan. Judge Pete Hautman still had good things to say about A Tale Dark and Grimm. I love the way he explains why kids might enjoy it more than adults:

“I felt a little uncomfortable stepping into these books. Okay, I’ll admit it—I like happy books that make me glad I am who I am. Murderous parents, child-eating witches, orphaned trash pickers, and monstrously corrupt politicians do not make me feel good about being human. But that’s because I’m a grownup, all tender and vulnerable and fiercely protective of my comfort level. Younger readers are more adventurous. As was I, once upon a time. Clearly, to give these books a fair shake I would have to channel my younger self.

“In A Tale Dark and Grimm, Adam Gidwitz makes it easy. These fairly straightforward retellings are interrupted, frequently, by the author, who offers warnings (“This next bit is a bit gross,”) commentary (“No, I didn’t think the moon ate people either. But is says so, right in the original Grimm,”) and alternate endings to several of the tales. There is a forbidden fruit deliciousness here—like being a kid and having your most favorite and funniest uncle telling you stories that might make your overly-protective helicopter parents blanch.”

For me, I enjoyed the book. I like the way it reminded me of reading the Grimm fairy tales as a kid. The book is clever and well-written and nicely plotted — but it didn’t win my heart. The fact is, I like the original tales better. And I admit my favorites were the happier, princess-filled tales. I wasn’t ever really a fan of the ones with heads chopped off. This book ended up with a very different tone than what I remember from being a little girl reading fairy tales.

However, I think my boys would have loved it! When they were around upper elementary or middle school age. This would have made an excellent family read-aloud. And I’m looking forward to recommending this book to boys in the library, especially ones who like a little blood and gore. This is a perfect book to hand to a boy who’s been reading A Series of Unfortunate Events, or, yes, R. L. Stine’s books.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go enjoy a fairy tale or two.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of A Conspiracy of Kings audiobook, by Megan Whalen Turner

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

A Conspiracy of Kings

by Megan Whalen Turner
narrated by Jeff Woodman

Recorded Books, 2010. 7 CDs. 8.5 hours.
Starred Review
School Library Journal’s 2011 Battle of the Kids’ Books Undead Poll Winner
2010 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor Book

Yes, I’ve already reviewed A Conspiracy of Kings, and named it my #1 2010 Sonderbooks Stand-out for Teen Fantasy Fiction.

But our library just got the audiobook version, so of course I had to “read” it again, on audio. In honor of School Library Journal’s 2011 Battle of the Kids’ Books, this is the perfect time to present a review of the audio version of A Conspiracy of Kings, another finalist.

The interesting thing in the Battle of the Kids’ Books, was that, despite being the best new book I read in 2010, A Conspiracy of Kings didn’t win a single round. Still, the judges admitted that this is a well-crafted book:

In the first round, judge Dana Reinhardt freely admitted that this isn’t her usual type of reading. She said:

“As I mentioned, A Conspiracy of Kings isn’t generally the kind of book I reach for, but Turner abruptly whisked me out of my comfort zone, (not an easy feat, as I’m quite comfortable in my comfort zone), and for this I’m truly grateful, because I did so enjoy spending time with Sophos. I found him companionable and clever. Decent and thoughtful. If times were different, and I lived in a fantastical monarchy, I’d surely want him as my king.

“A Conspiracy of Kings asks the big questions. The questions I want to grapple with as a reader. Questions about honor and duty and responsibility and friendship and loyalty.”

In the Big Kahuna Round, Richard Peck gave each book plenty of space. He said about A Conspiracy of Kings:

“Of the three A Conspiracy of Kings addresses the most adult concerns and makes the greatest demand upon the reader. It is about the altering alliances and dark diplomacy of power politics: palace pacts forged and broken. Betrayal. Betrothal.

“This chronicle of spilt blood, flying arrows and barons, and a stabbed horse makes resonant reading in the same season as “across the Middle Sea” the forces of Cyrenaica and Tripliana clash across