Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

Review of Sticks and Stones, by Patricia Polacco

Friday, June 4th, 2021

Sticks and Stones

by Patricia Polacco

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2020. 48 pages.
Review written January 27, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Patricia Polacco’s books are long for picture books. Lots of pages, and lots of words on each page. These are not for the preschool storytime crowd, but they are for young elementary school proficient readers or for elementary school classrooms, people who appreciate pictures to go with the thoughtful text.

It’s a story of bullying. But also a story of friendship. As in many of her books, Patricia tells a story from her childhood in first person. One year, she spent the school year with her father in Michigan instead of with her mother in California. But her summer friends abandoned her, and the boy who was nice to the new girl was called Sissy Boy by the bully. The bully called Patricia, Cootie, and their other friend, Her Ugliness.

But the book shows the beauty of their friendship. Continued bullying, but fast friends. It turns out that Sissy Boy secretly takes ballet classes and loves ballet, and Her Ugliness makes beautiful kites and costumes from hand-painted silk.

The book tells the story of their friendship and culminates in a stunning ballet performance by Patricia’s friend Thom. But what really packed a punch for me was the author’s note at the back saying that now, more than fifty years later, Thom has retired as the artistic director of the American School of Ballet, and Ravanne (“Her Ugliness”) lives in Paris and has retired after an incredible career as a fashion designer.

I love the message this gives to kids that so often, bullies are just plain wrong.

PatriciaPolacco.com
simonandschuster.com/kids

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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 Clues to the Universe, by Christina Li

Tuesday, June 1st, 2021

Clues to the Universe

by Christina Li

Quill Tree Books (HarperCollins), 2021. 292 pages.
Review written April 28, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Set in the 1980s, after they watched the space shuttle launch together, Ro and her dad were going to build a rocket of their own. But then her dad died in a car accident, but she’s determined to launch a rocket anyway. But she also has to start at a new school, because she knows the private school she used to attend is an expense they can no longer afford.

Meanwhile, Benji, whose father walked out on their family years ago, is missing his own best friend, who moved away in the summer. Benji gets assigned to be Ro’s science partner, and they need to do a science fair project together. He has to do well in Science, or his mother will make him drop Art in favor of Study Hall.

But because of a folder mix-up, Ro learns that Benji is a fan of the comic Spacebound, and Benji wants to find his dad, who is the author of Spacebound. They make a pact. Benji will help Ro build and launch her rocket for the science fair, and Ro will help Benji find his father.

What follows is a book about life and family and friends and failure and fathers. It’s a heart-warming story, with some surprises along the way. This book has the usual challenges of middle school with a little extra heart.

christinaliwrites.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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 The Kingdom of Back, by Marie Lu

Thursday, May 27th, 2021

The Kingdom of Back

by Marie Lu

Putnam, 2020. 313 pages.
Review written December 26, 2020, from a library book

The Kingdom of Back is a story of Nannerl Mozart, the big sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, based on things we know about her life.

We know that she was a child prodigy before her little brother came along, and she performed with him before the royalty of Europe. We also know that she composed music – but we don’t know about any of that music existing. We don’t know if some of her music got published in the name of her brother.

We’re also told that she and her brother invented a country, the Kingdom of Back, and had their family’s servant draw a map for them of this country. In this novel, it’s an actual magical kingdom they got to visit, and it’s tied to young Nannerl getting her heart’s desire – to be remembered in her own right.

Nannerl meets a princeling of the magical kingdom who tells her he can grant her desire, but first she needs to complete three tasks for him. Those tasks get more and more sinister, and Nannerl isn’t sure she’s doing the right thing. But she loves her music and wants to be able to compose.

Here’s a magical look at the young Mozarts that will leave you thinking about what it was like to be a creative young woman in a time when making art was the province of men. This isn’t a typical fantasy novel, but it is a beautifully woven tale.

marielubooks.com
PenguinTeen.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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 The Farmer and the Monkey, by Marla Frazee

Tuesday, May 11th, 2021

The Farmer and the Monkey

by Marla Frazee

Beach Lane Books (Simon & Schuster), 2020. 32 pages.
Review written February 6, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

The Farmer and the Monkey is the sequel to The Farmer and the Clown, both wordless books picturing an old and plainly dressed farmer with an unusual visitor who has fallen off the circus train.

When it’s a monkey, the farmer initially wants nothing to do with him. But even the farmer doesn’t want to leave the monkey out in deep snow.

And then we get to see the farmer loosen up and gain affection for the monkey, despite some chaos that follows after him.

The ending is similar, when they see the circus train coming back.

But the flap copy tells us this is going to be a trilogy! I’ll be watching for The Farmer and the Circus.

What makes these books so much fun is how much is told through pictures alone. I look forward to the day I can use this in a storytime, because it would be so much fun to hear what kids see in these wonderful pictures.

marlafrazee.com
simonandschuster.com/kids

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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 The Jane Austen Project, by Kathleen A. Flynn

Saturday, May 8th, 2021

The Jane Austen Project

by Kathleen A. Flynn
performed by Saskia Maarleveld

HarperAudio, 2017. 11 hours on 9 CDs.
Review written May 3, 2021, from a library audiobook.
Starred Review

Here’s another book featuring time travel to Jane Austen’s time. My time listening to this audiobook in the car happened to overlap with listening to the eaudiobook Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. But this one meticulously explained how the purposeful and planned time travel happened – much more satisfying to the science fiction reader in me.

You see, in the future, after the “die-off,” time travel has been developed. Rachel Katzman, a doctor who has done work with disaster relief and happens to love Jane Austen novels, applied and was accepted to the Jane Austen Project, an undertaking of the Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics.

Her mission, together with Liam Finuca, an Austen scholar, is to go back in time to 1815, not long before Jane Austen’s death. They are posing as a brother and sister, Dr. William Ravenswood and his sister Mary. They arrive in 1815 with counterfeit money strapped to their bodies. They plan to ingratiate their way into the society of Jane’s brother Henry, and from there make the acquaintance of Jane. And they want to be good enough acquaintances to somehow get a copy of the complete version of The Watsons as well as find the missing letters, before those letters get burned by Jane’s sister Cassandra, and maybe diagnose the disease that killed Jane.

Can they do all this? They’ve got a letter of introduction from an Austen relative in Jamaica, so it would be difficult to check. But can they win Henry over, and then Jane? It helps when Henry gets sick and Liam becomes an attentive doctor friend checking on him. Henry doesn’t know that it’s “Mary” who’s the real doctor, telling her “brother” what questions to ask.

There begin to be signs that they’ve disturbed the “probability field,” so they have worries about what they’re changing by all their actions in their own past.

This book was delightful. I loved the way they had to know all about Jane Austen’s life and about customs of the time, so that gets conveyed to the reader (unlike the poor clueless heroine in Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict). The book pulls you in and helps the reader see all the difficulties one would face if you tried to be accepted into the society of 1815 without detection.

This book is like Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict in that part of the difficulty – and some of the humor – is a woman with more modern attitudes regarding sex trying to fit in during that time, when attitudes are very different. Fair warning to Jane Austen fans: This book has more sex scenes and sexual situations than Jane Austen’s books do.

I’m not completely satisfied with the ending, when it’s revealed, that yes, their time travel changed some things. (I think it’s not a spoiler if I don’t say what was changed, parts of which made me happy.) But then, I always have trouble with time travel paradoxes. I did appreciate that they attempted to explain the repercussions.

And the book is so much fun! You forget it’s fiction and feel like you’ve been immersed in Jane Austen’s time and Jane Austen’s society. A real treat for Jane Austen fans.

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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 The Fountains of Silence, by Ruta Sepetys, read by Maite Járegui

Tuesday, May 4th, 2021

The Fountains of Silence

by Ruta Sepetys
read by Maite Járegui

Listening Library, 2019. 12.5 hours on 10 CDs.
Review written April 23, 2020, from a library audiobook
Starred Review

This is a richly detailed historical novel set in Franco’s Spain after World War II. The Spanish people have learned to be silent about injustices.

The book features a cross-cultural attraction. Daniel’s family is visiting Madrid. His father is a rich oil executive from Texas who wants Daniel to take over the family business, but Daniel wants to be a photojournalist. He’s hoping to get photographs in Spain to win a contest and get a scholarship to journalism school.

Anna is a maid at the hotel, assigned to facilitate things for their family. Her family was on the wrong side of Franco, but her sister has always looked after her. Anna is tempted to tell Daniel what things are really like in Spain, and he wants to get photos that look deeper.

Anna’s brother is helping a friend who plans to be a matador, though he has to train in secret. And several family members are on the edge of something going on with dead babies and the orphanage and adoptions.

There’s a slow pace to this book that gives you portraits of many people. I like the slow build of the feelings between Anna and Daniel. I have some quibbles with some big coincidences that happened, but I still enjoyed the story and learned much about life in Spain under Franco.

This was the audiobook I’d been listening to in the car before the library closed for Covid-19. So I brought it into the house, and now I think I’m hooked on listening to an audiobook while making dinner. New times, new habits. This was a good way to begin that new habit.

listeninglibrary.com

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

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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 Kent State, by Deborah Wiles

Friday, April 30th, 2021

Kent State

by Deborah Wiles

Scholastic Press, 2020. 132 pages.
Review written October 22, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This short novel in verse could almost be listed as nonfiction, because the author strives to accurately present a picture of what happened fifty years ago, on May 4, 1970, when the National Guard opened fire on college students, and four were killed and nine wounded.

The story isn’t told in one neat, tidy package. Instead, we get multiple voices. It’s not defined who’s speaking, but the voices are delineated by font and size and position on the page. We can eventually figure out who’s speaking. Some, in fact, have to work to be heard.

The effect is a well-rounded picture. I liked the way it reminded me of the conversation today around the protests in Portland. Some say they’re peaceful protestors. Others that they’re terrorists. Some say they were exercising their first amendment rights, and others that they were thugs destroying property. Some say there were outside agitators. That’s the kind of thing we find here, as Deborah Wiles lets many voices speak – fellow students, townspeople, National Guard members, faculty, members of Black United Students, students who did not agree with the protests, and more.

But the big point of the book is about the four children who died. We do get to hear a lot about them. One wasn’t even involved in the protests, but was simply walking to class. The National Guard troops who fired were barely older than the ones who were killed.

Some of the voices say that the white students didn’t really believe the National Guard would use real bullets. The black students did, so most of them heeded a warning to stay away. We get all the circumstances leading up to the deaths and then the tragic order to fire.

The opening chapter addresses the reader as a new friend who needs to hear the story. The different voices are going to tell this new friend what happened. Here’s how that chapter ends:

Let me make room for our new friend.
We don’t want to scare you away, friend.
Take the most comfortable chair.
Sit. Listen.
Make up your own mind.
Open your heart.
Here is what is most important:

They did not have to die.

Pull up a chair, take an hour, and read this book. It will open your eyes. With the author, I hope that this knowledge will help avoid future tragedies.

***

After the audiobook version won the 2021 Odyssey Award for the audio production, I decided to listen as well and add a review of that.

I can easily see why it won. The production features a full cast, and they included sound effects, especially the sound of bullets, plus original music in the transitions, music that sounded appropriate for the time of the story.

The book was narrated by a full cast, which is sometimes hard to follow, but in this case it was easier to instantly tell who was speaking and remember things they’d said before. For example, a voice representing students repeats the same line several times, and when I was hearing her voice speaking the line, I easily remembered that I’d heard that person say the same thing before. The producers did a good job of using voices that sounded different from each other — voices for students, for townspeople, for the National Guard, for the black students — and it was easier to have an idea of who was speaking from the voice than it had been from simply a change in font.

The audio production is short — only two hours — and even though I’d already read the book, I was riveted by the audio version, making the words come to life. Since the book was written in the form of unrhymed poetry spoken by different people affected, and since they did a great job with the sound effects, the audio version is the perfect way to experience this book.

deborahwiles.com
scholastic.com

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Review of Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, by Laurie Viera Rigler

Thursday, April 29th, 2021

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict

by Laurie Viera Rigler
read by Orlagh Cassidy

Penguin Audio, 2007. 7 hours.
Review written April 25, 2021, from a library eaudiobook

I’m on a roll of reading Jane Austen take-offs, and this is one of the silliest, or I should probably say most light-hearted.

Courtney, a modern young woman who lives in Los Angeles, recently caught her fiancé cheating on her. As part of her healing process, she did her usual Jane Austen binge. But one morning she wakes up to find herself in the home of a young lady who lives in the English countryside during Jane Austen’s time, in the body of that young lady.

The young lady is named Jane Mansfield, and she has recently had a terrible fall from a horse. When Courtney tries to tell people that she is not, actually, Jane, they try to help by bleeding her (with dirty equipment!) and threaten to put her in an asylum. She has to go along with it. Surely it’s temporary, and she can just humor them, but it seems awfully realistic and she doesn’t want to live it out in an asylum.

The book never does adequately explain why this body-switching happened. There’s talk about the fluidity of time and a wish and trauma and… well, whatever it was, it’s fun that it happened. (I also wasn’t completely satisfied about what her “destiny” was that would take her back, but I won’t give that away.) For a fantasy fan like me, that aspect was awfully murky.

This book is also a lot more raunchy than most Jane Austen take-offs. Courtney had been sexually active with her fiancé and other people before him, and she appraises the men she meets with that in mind – which does not really fit with Jane Austen’s England. But now Jane’s mother very much wants her to marry Mr. Edgeworth – and Courtney can’t remember why Jane was opposed to that plan. But she gets flashes of Jane’s memories, and she’s afraid that even in a different body, she’s attracted to an unsuitable man.

Along the way, there’s lots of humor as Courtney’s modern sensibilities clash with life in Jane Austen’s England. And though some things appall her – such as having to use a chamber pot – she begins to make the best of the situation – and the reader (or listener) gets to enjoy it with her.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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 Amber and Clay, by Laura Amy Schlitz

Sunday, April 25th, 2021

Amber & Clay

by Laura Amy Schlitz
with illustrations by Julia Iredale

Candlewick Press, 2021. 532 pages.
Review written April 17, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

How to explain a Laura Amy Schlitz book? Except to say it isn’t like anything else you’ve read.

Amber and Clay is “the tale of a girl as precious as amber, the tale of a boy as common as clay.” That’s what the god Hermes tells us right at the front of the book. He also tells us that though the boy was a slave boy, the girl started out life lucky. That is, she was lucky, “except for one thing: she died young.”

I let that comment pass, thinking it would happen tragically soon after the book ends, but, reader, that’s not what happens. It’s also not a love story between the two, so her death doesn’t feel as tragic as it might have in that case. The link between the two of them is that the mother of the boy, Rhaskos, is the slave woman who was sold to tend the girl, Melisto.

This is a tale of ancient Greece. Throughout the book eighteen “Exhibits” are shown – archaeological findings from ancient Greece. It’s not clear, but these are probably invented findings, based on actual findings, with the texts changed for our characters. (They could be actual findings, but in that case, I don’t think the illustrator would get credit.) They give the impression that our story actually happened.

Don’t be daunted by the size of the book, because much of it is done in verse, so it reads more quickly than you’d think. The author’s note at the back reveals that she used poetic forms from the poetry of Greece. Gods and goddesses provide some perspective, and we hear about the two children, Rhaskos and Melisto. Their stories start out separate, but begin to come together after Melisto’s death.

My favorite thing about the book was Rhaskos’ friendship with Sokrates. (Which I learned is pronounced So-KRA-teez.) In their conversations, Sokrates asks questions, and we learn much about his philosophy. It also takes us through the trial and death of Sokrates. We end up with a children’s book that helps you understand Sokrates’ philosophy and makes you sad about his death – which is really quite a notable feat.

The story itself captured my mind more than it did my heart. The details about ancient Greece were so fascinating! I didn’t find the characters terribly likable at first, but they grew on me. By the end, I at least hoped for a happy ending for those who were still alive!

And the craft and research that went into creating this book were amazing. I tell people that I can’t possibly predict what any Newbery committee will select – but I have a good idea what makes a contender. I believe this book will be scrutinized by the committee as an amazing accomplishment. And if there are still kids out there obsessed with Greek mythology, this book pulls the reader fully into the daily life of ancient Greece.

Let me conclude with a section from Sokrates’ trial:

So now perhaps someone will say, Aren’t you ashamed, Sokrates, to have devoted your life to asking questions that may get you killed? And here’s my answer: When someone takes a stand, he has to hold his ground and face the danger. When I fought in the battles of Potidaea and Amphipolis and Delion, I held my ground and obeyed my commanders. And when the god tells me to live a life in pursuit of wisdom, questioning myself and others, I cannot desert my post.

candlewick.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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 Watercress, by Andrea Wang, pictures by Jason Chin

Wednesday, April 21st, 2021

Watercress

by Andrea Wang
pictures by Jason Chin

Neal Porter Books, 2021. 36 pages.
Review written April 17, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

I knew that any picture book illustrated by Jason Chin would be stunningly beautiful, but I didn’t know how much this story would haunt me.

We see that we’ve gone back in time to a girl sitting in the back seat of an old red Pontiac. Her parents excitedly stop the car when they see watercress by the side of the road, in a muddy ditch next to a corn field.

In her stance, in her expression, you can see the girl is not happy about this stop. The whole family gets out and gathers watercress in paper bags. She gets wet and muddy, and her brother makes it worse. When a car passes, she ducks and hopes it’s not anyone she knows.

When they get home, the watercress is prepared for dinner, with garlic and sesame seeds. The girl doesn’t want anything to do with it.

Mom and Dad press me to try some.
“It is fresh,” Dad says.
“It is free,” Mom says.
I shake my head.

Free is bad.
Free is
hand-me-down clothes and
roadside trash-heap furniture and
now,
dinner from a ditch.

It takes a memory, and a photo, from the girl’s mother to change her attitude, with new appreciation for memories and family and watercress.

This is indeed a beautiful book, with emotions clearly shown in the pictures, with more subdued tones for memories. The text, too, is beautiful. Simple and spare, but saying so much.

An exquisite story about feeling like an outsider, and about family and memory.

HolidayHouse.com

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