Archive for March, 2020

Review of The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett

Tuesday, March 31st, 2020

The Dutch House

by Ann Patchett

HarperCollins, 2019. 337 pages.
Review written March 29, 2020, from an advance reader copy signed by the author
Starred Review

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book at the Public Library Association Member Welcome Breakfast at which I received the 2019 Allie Beth Martin Award. Ann Patchett spoke at the breakfast, and she did talk about the book. She said it was the book about one of her deepest fears – becoming a horrible stepmother. After her talk, she signed the advance reader copy to me, including “Congratulations!”

It took me almost a year to actually get around to reading the book. Not because I didn’t want to! Ann Patchett’s writing is amazing! Mainly it was because I owned a copy, so it wasn’t a library book and didn’t have a due date. I was trying to read all of L. M. Montgomery’s books last year, too.

But when I did read it – as always I was amazed by Ann Patchett’s writing ability. Yes, there is a terrible stepmother in this book. A lot of the book focuses on the Dutch House – a mansion on the outskirts of Philadelphia where the narrator and his sister grew up. Their father had bought it, with all its contents, after the VanHoebeeks had all died and it was sold off.

The VanHoebeeks weren’t the story, but in a sense the house was the story, and it was their house. They had made their fortune in the wholesale distribution of cigarettes, a lucky business Mr. VanHoebeek had entered into just before the start of the First World War. Cigarettes were given to soldiers in the field for purposes of morale, and the habit followed them home to celebrate a decade of prosperity. The VanHoebeeks, richer by the hour, commissioned a house to be built on what was then farmland outside of Philadelphia.

The stunning success of the house could be attributed to the architect, though by the time I thought to go looking I could find no other extant examples of his work. It could be that one or both of those dour VanHoebeeks had been some sort of aesthetic visionary, or that the property inspired a marvel beyond what any of them had imagined, or that America after the First World War was teeming with craftsmen who worked to standards long since abandoned. Whatever the explanation, the house they wound up with – the house we later wound up with – was a singular confluence of talent and luck. I can’t explain how a house that was three stories high could seem like just the right amount of space, but it did. Or maybe it would be better to say that it was too much of a house for anyone, an immense and ridiculous waste, but that we never wanted it to be different. The Dutch House, as it came to be known in Elkins Park and Jenkintown and Glenside and all the way to Philadelphia, referred not to the house’s architecture but to its inhabitants. The Dutch House was the place where those Dutch people with the unpronounceable name lived. Seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on. The panes of glass that surrounded the glass front doors were as big as storefront windows and held in place by wrought-iron vines. The windows both took in the sun and reflected it back across the wide lawn. Maybe it was neoclassical, though with a simplicity in the lines that came closer to Mediterranean or French, and while it was not Dutch, the blue delft mantels in the drawing room, library, and master bedroom were said to have been pried out of a castle in Utrecht and sold to the VanHoebeeks to pay a prince’s gambling debts. The house, complete with mantels, had been finished in 1922.

This book is the story of the life of Danny Conroy – but perhaps more ends up being the story of the life of his older sister Maeve. And even though they get thrown out of the Dutch House by their stepmother after the death of their father, the Dutch House pervades their lives.

This is a story about a family, and a story about complicated relationships. This is no typical family at all, but somehow the emotions and relationships ring true. The people seem all the more real because, not in spite of, the fact that people with this particular life story surely never existed.

This is a book for people who like character-driven novels. There’s not a lot of dramatic action, and the story covers decades – but we get to know who these people are. There’s a mother who left her family to serve the poor, a father absorbed with work, a stepmother obsessed with getting the house, a little brother who does what he’s told, a big sister who misses her mother and hates her stepmother, and a dutiful wife who doesn’t realize what she’s getting into. Through all of it, the Dutch House represents all that Danny and Maeve lost.

In her talk, Ann Patchett said that when she told Kate DiCamillo what the book was about, Kate gave her the ending. I highly approve, for I especially loved the ending.

I finished the book happy for the time I’d spent with these people.

annpatchett.com
harpercollins.com

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Review of Knights vs. Dinosaurs, by Matt Phelan

Saturday, March 28th, 2020

Knights vs. Dinosaurs

by Matt Phelan

Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), 2018. 150 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 27, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#4 Children’s Fiction – Fantasy

This one is silly fun with speculation: What would happen if knights had to fight dinosaurs?

Erec is a knight in King Arthur’s court, and he’s been bragging. The truth is, he’s never seen even one dragon. But all the knights start bragging when they get together, and he got carried away and claimed he’d defeated 40 dragons.

That gave Merlin an idea. He suggested that Erec go defeat a “Terrible Lizard” in a cave the next morning – Merlin would give him a map.

It’s probably just as well that some other knights didn’t want Erec to get all the glory. Because it turned out that Merlin put a time-traveling spell on the cave – and sent them all back to the time of the dinosaurs.

(Okay, the truth is that not all the dinosaurs that appear in this book lived at the same time. But that’s admitted at the back of the book and kind of beside the point. We’ve got knights fighting dinosaurs and living to tell the tale.)

There’s a nice twist that it turns out the strongest knight of them all is female. It’s a lot of good-hearted fun, including battles with dinosaurs.

This is an early chapter book and includes plenty of Matt Phelan’s illustrations. Some of the battles are told with panels, in fact.

Knights fighting dinosaurs and realizing they’re going to have to work together. What could be more fun?

mattphelan.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora

Thursday, March 26th, 2020

Thank You, Omu!

by Oge Mora

Little, Brown and Company, 2018. 36 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 3, 2018, from a library book
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Picture Books – Silly Fun
2019 Caldecott Honor Book

Here’s a contemporary story with a folk tale feel about a friendly elderly lady who makes a delicious big fat pot of thick red stew and shares with everyone who asks. A note at the front tells us that “Omu” is the Igbo term for “queen.”

As the thick red stew simmered on the stove, its scrumptious scent wafted out the window and out the door, down the hall, toward the street, and around the block, until –

KNOCK!

Someone was at the door.

Here’s the first encounter, with a little boy:

“Little boy!” Omu exclaimed. “What brings you to my home?”

“I was playing with my race car down the hall when I smelled the most delicious smell,” the little boy replied. “What is it?”

“Thick red stew.”

“MMMMM, STEW!” He sighed. “That sure sounds yummy.”

Omu thought for a moment. She was saving her stew for dinner, but she had made quite a bit. It would not hurt to share. “Would you like some?”

The little boy nodded.

And so Omu spooned out some thick red stew from the big fat pot for her nice evening meal.

“THANK YOU, OMU!” the little boy said, and went on his way.

A progression of people show up at Omu’s door, smelling the delicious stew. She gives to all – and then when she’s ready for her delicious dinner, there is nothing left!

But that is not the end of the story. Everyone who received from Omu that day comes back in the evening with something in return – and there’s a happy celebration.

I’m going to try to use this one in storytime and get the kids to call out “Thank you, Omu!” every time a character says that. This is a happy story about the joy of sharing.

ogemora.com
lbyr.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of My Father’s Words, by Patricia MacLachlan

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020

My Father’s Words

by Patricia MacLachlan

Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2018. 135 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 29, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#3 Contemporary Children’s Fiction

My Father’s Words is a stunningly beautiful book.

It’s a beginning chapter book about the death of a father. But it’s beautiful.

Fiona and Finn’s father Declan was a psychologist, gentle and wise. The book begins with him making omelets for his kids, and on page 7 he’s killed in a car accident.

The book is about dealing with his death.

Their mother and their friends gather round. Even one of their father’s patients helps Fiona. But the biggest help, especially for Finn, is when they go to an animal shelter and spend time with the rescue dogs.

Their father’s will said not to have a funeral, but to have a party.

The party for my father was somehow both joyful and sad, with laughter and tears all mixed up. Finn and I were confused at that. My grandparents were ill and far away and couldn’t come. My mother spoke to them every day on the phone. But cousins and aunts and uncles came. And friends.

The book is full of memories. Those are set apart in a different font. And from their father’s patients, we learn many wise things that their father said. And those wise things help them heal as well as show love and receive love from the rescue dogs.

It’s hard to explain how beautiful this little book is. But I was thoroughly blessed and uplifted by reading it.

It’s hard to recommend to young readers a book about a father dying. But this lovely book is about healing, and I think kids will respond to it. After all, they know more about sadness than we realize – so why not read about dealing with sadness?

Note: I ended up posting this review exactly six months after my own father died. When I read it, I had no idea it would so soon be so applicable. Yes, it’s good to read about dealing with deep sadness and appreciating those you’ve loved who are no longer here.

harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of Strange Planet, by Nathan W. Pyle

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

Strange Planet

by Nathan W. Pyle

William Morrow Gift Books, 2019. 144 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 26, 2019, from my own copy, signed by the author and purchased via premierecollectibles.com

I’m a big fan of Nathan Pyle’s comics posted on Facebook with smooth-bodied aliens living the lives of humans but describing what they are doing in very basic terms that highlight the absurdity or simplicity.

I’ve decided that the alien way of speaking reminds me of nice logical German word construction when the aliens called an umbrella a “sky shield,” because the actual German word for umbrella is Regenschirm, which broken down translates as “rain shield.”

Many of the words make you look at the things in a different way, such as the aliens calling a vacuum cleaner a “rollsuck” which has “the filth window.” Or honey, which is called “plant liquid partially digested by insects and then stolen.” Or balloons, which are “elastic breath traps.” Coffee is “jitter liquid,” and a vase is a “death cylinder” for holding “dying plants.”

Names for things are fun, but the interaction between people and between people and animals can be wonderfully touching. I think my favorite is the one that begins with one of the aliens crying. Their friend says, “Why does your face malfunction? Request mutual limb enclosure.”
“Permission granted.”
As they hug, the crying friend says, “You are absorbing my face fluids.”
“Let me absorb.
Let me absorb.”

I also love the one where one alien is on the phone, saying:

“Hello we do not want to make sustenance.
We will literally pay a being to come here with sustenance.
Please pile edible items onto a vast dough circle.
OK Gratitude. We will stay here and do nothing.”

There are certainly days I would pay a being to come to my home with sustenance.

I find myself Sharing Nathan Pyle’s comics often, so when he was promoting a special on autographed copies of his new book, I thought it would be a great way to support an author and pick up some Christmas gifts. I’m happy to say that the unsigned one I’d previously preordered for myself (had to hit the dollar limit) was a maximum-traded item at the staff Christmas party this year!

If you haven’t seen Nathan Pyle’s work, try this out. If you have: There’s a book out!

hc.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Prairie Lotus, by Linda Sue Park

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

Prairie Lotus

by Linda Sue Park

Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2020. 261 pages.
Review written March 23, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Prairie Lotus is a beautiful story of a half-Chinese girl, Hanna Edmunds, settling with her Papa in a town in Dakota Territory in 1880. They plan to open a dress goods shop. Hanna had learned to sew from her Mama, who died back in California, and dreams of also sewing dresses for the ladies of the town.

But Hanna encounters lots of prejudice for being a “Chinaman.” The people of the town don’t want to send their children to school with her, and even people who seem nice ask terribly ignorant questions. So besides trying to make friends in a new town, missing her Mama, and trying to make the shop a success, Hanna hopes that people will even allow her to live there.

Hanna has some encounters with some Indian women and children. She sees the settlers’ attitudes toward Indians with the perspective that these are people who look like she does, with black hair and dark eyes.

I couldn’t help but love Hanna, with her passion for making beautiful dresses, her willingness to think the best of people, and her determined spirit. Here’s a book that all children can picture themselves as being part of, experiencing a town on the frontier.

Prairie Lotus is written as both a tribute and an answer to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. The author notes in the back that she grew up loving those books.

Even at the height of my passion for those books, there were parts that I found puzzling and distressing. The character of Ma was most problematic. Her values of propriety and obedience over everything else seemed to me both misplaced and stifling.

And Ma hated Native Americans. In several episodes throughout the series, she expresses that hatred. While I could not have articulated it at the time, I harbored a deeply personal sense of dismay over Ma’s attitude. Ultimately it meant that she would never have allowed Laura to become friends with someone like me. Someone with black hair and dark eyes and tan skin. Someone who wasn’t white.

I appreciated that she did a lot of research to make sure she gets the encounters with Native Americans right.

I also chose to include a few lines of Dakota dialogue. I felt strongly about including those words in an effort to counteract previous generations of innumerable children’s books that have never depicted or even acknowledged Native languages, and the stereotypes of Hollywood that reduced Native communication to grunts and pidgin.

She concludes the Author’s Note like this:

Prairie Lotus is a story I have been writing nearly all my life. It is an attempt to reconcile my childhood love of the Little House books with my adult knowledge of their painful shortcomings. My wish is that this book will provide food for thought for all who read it, especially the young readers in whose hands the future lies.

She has not only succeeded in this goal, but she’s also written a main character her readers will love. They will imagine themselves back in LaForge, wanting to be Hanna’s best friend. But children won’t feel cut off from that imagination by the way they look.

lspark.com
hmhbooks.com

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Sonderling Sunday – Confined in a Tower

Sunday, March 22nd, 2020

I’ve got it! The perfect book for Coronavirus Quarantines! In Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale, the heroine and her lady are walled up in a tower for a thousand days. This will make you feel like your quarantine or self-isolating is nothing at all! So tonight’s choice for Sonderling Sunday is Das Buch der Tausend Tage.

It’s time for Sonderling Sunday, when I look at the German translations of children’s books. You can think of it as a very silly phrasebook, with all the things you never thought you’d need to say in another language, laid out for you here.

Last time, we left off ready to begin Day 795 in the tower, Tag 795. It’s on page 93 in the English edition, Seite 106 auf Deutsch. You can think about ways you might use this first sentence:

“There is an odor about my lady, like a dung heap on a hot day.”
= Meine Herrin hat einen Geruch an sich wie ein Misthaufen an einem heißen Tag.

I like the next sentence, too:

“If my script looks ill, it’s because I closed my eyes as I wrote that.”
= Wenn meine Schrift krakelig aussieht, liegt es daran, dass ich beim Schreiben die Augen geschlossen hatte.

“jailed” = eingesperrt

“tricks” = Streiche

“nibbled” = gepickt

“any quantity of flat bread”
= eine Unmenge Fladenbrot

“grumbles” = grummelt

“like a beast feeding on short grass”
= wie ein Tier, das niedriges Gras abweidet

“Strangely” = Komischerweise

“vomited” = sich erbrach

“stored grain” = gelagertem Mehl

“dump” = kippen

“squeaking madly” = quieken wie verrückt

“just to laugh at me” = nur um mich auszulachen

“limbs” = Glieder

“It’s such a relief!”
= Was für eine Erleichterung!

“We’ll find a way.”
= Wir werden einem Weg finden.

“mortar” = Mörtel

“scraping” = weggekratzt

“Rat meat is not tasty.”
= Rattenfleisch schmeckt nicht himmlisch.

“stringy meat” = sehnige Fleisch

“chewed and swallowed” = kaute und schluckte

Gotta do this one!
“odd” = sonderbar

And I’ll finish up with a sentence at the end of Day 928:
“It makes me smile to think of how brilliant they are at surviving.”
= Ich muss lächeln, weil sie so fantastische Überlebenskünstler sind.

That’s enough for tonight! No matter how long you end up staying home in the coming weeks, I hope you never have occasion to use very many of these phrases! Bis bald!

Review of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

Saturday, March 21st, 2020

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me

by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

First Second, 2019. 300 pages.
Review written February 11, 2020, from a library book
2020 Michael L. Printz Honor

This graphic novel won a Printz Honor, which doesn’t happen often for graphic novels, so I had to take a look. Unlike the Newbery, the Printz considers the art as well as the text, and a quick glance through the pages already told me this graphic novel is creative and innovative, using panel layouts and angles of view in interesting ways.

The story is about Freddy, writing to an online advice columnist after Laura Dean has broken up with her for the third time. The third time is extra bad when she finds Laura Dean making out with someone else at a Valentine’s Day party. But before long Laura Dean is back, and Freddy takes her back.

Meanwhile, things are going on in the lives of her other friends, but Freddy keeps thinking about Laura Dean.

This book is a quick read, but there are a lot of insights to be gained from watching other people mess up – and realize they’re messing up.

I like the point the advice columnist makes that breaking up and being in love have a lot in common, so questions about breaking up are also questions about the nature of the love between you.

And I like this line from her advice: “It’s true that giving can be a part of love. But, contrary to popular belief, love should never take from you, Freddy.”

Thinking about these questions in someone else’s love story can certainly help you think about them in your own.

hirosemary.com
firstsecondbooks.com

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

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Front Desk, by Kelly Yang

Friday, March 20th, 2020

Front Desk

by Kelly Yang

Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2018. 296 pages.
Starred Review
Review written May 31, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2019 Winner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#3 Historical Children’s Fiction

My parents told me that America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog, do whatever we want, and eat hamburgers till we were red in the face. So far, the only part of that we’ve achieved is the hamburger part, but I was still holding out hope. And the hamburgers here are pretty good.

Mia’s parents were well-respected in China, but in America they’re having trouble keeping jobs. So when they get a job as motel managers – which comes with a place to stay, rent-free – they are excited. But the owner of the motel promises them one rate of pay – then changes the deal after they’re signed up. He makes them pay for any repairs needed out of their own pay, so what they take home becomes less and less. Since it takes all her parents’ time to clean the rooms, Mia ends up running the front desk.

Mia learns a lot at the front desk about how America works, especially from the regulars – the people who live in the motel long-term. But she also learns from her new best friend at school – Lupe, who is also a recent immigrant to America. Unfortunately, the son of the motel owner is also in her class. And he isn’t much nicer than his father.

When friends from China come by needing a place to stay, Mia’s parents are happy to put them up in an extra room – only Mr. Yao mustn’t find out.

When Mia sees injustices around her, she learns how to help – by writing. Her mother says she’ll never catch up with the native English speakers. Her mother was an engineer, so she wants Mia to focus on math, where she can help. But Mia dreams of helping her whole family with her writing.

Mia’s only ten, but she’s feisty and she’s friendly, and when she sees a problem, she doesn’t rest until she’s done something about it. Reading about Mia and her family was a delight.

kellyyang.com
arthuralevinebooks.com
scholastic.com

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Review of This Promise of Change, by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy

Thursday, March 19th, 2020

This Promise of Change

One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality

by Jo Ann Allen Boyce
and Debbie Levy

Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019. 310 pages.
Review written January 20, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Honor

Jo Ann Allen was one of the “Clinton 12” – black children who went to the white high school in Clinton, Tennessee, in 1956 when the Supreme Court so ordered. It started out calmly enough, but things got worse and worse.

The main story is told in Jo Ann’s voice, in verse. Many are free verse, but many are also in rhyme, using poetic forms. There’s an immediacy about the poems, and we get the story of how it felt to be Jo Ann in the middle of such big events. I wouldn’t have necessarily liked an author making this up, but I like that Jo Ann herself was an author of this book, so we can trust that she got the feelings right.

Between the poems are headlines from all over the country talking about the events that Jo Ann was part of. There are photos at the back of Jo Ann and her classmates.

Because this book is in verse, it’s all the more readable, and helps the reader understand how it felt to be there.

I think my favorite poem in the book is this one toward the end:

A REAL VICTORY
(THURSDAY, DECEMBER 6)

The day before yesterday,
the same day
we went down the Hill with Reverend Turner
and all that happened
happened,
there was also an election.
Not an election for president
(that was in November; Ike won again)
but for local officials
like the mayor and the city aldermen.

The results are in and

I don’t know if people voted
after hearing what happened at school.
I don’t know if people felt
things have gone too far.

I don’t know if A led to B but –
every single
white supremacist
segregationist
candidate
lost.

Before all this,
before all that happened
happened,
I thought there was nothing I could do
about segregation.
I’m just a girl, I thought,
one girl who tries
to look at the good side of things,
because there’s nothing I can do
about the bad.
I’m still that good-side-looking girl,
but now when I see the bad, I’ll think –
I’ll know
there’s something I can do about it.

debbielevybooks.com
Bloomsbury.com

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

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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