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 actual geography. But this will ring no bells with the intended readers who don’t know where Libya is, and won’t be hearing about it at school.

“Megan Whalen Turner’s book is about the making of kings. Embedded in its many layers is a boy, Sophos/Sounis, coming of age parentless, abducted, enslaved, and that all-time favorite, misunderstood. Throughout, the ages of the characters are muffled. But there is the clash and passion of adolescent friendship, between Sophos and that major figure from earlier volumes: “He would have given Eugenides his heart on a toothpick if asked.””

Neither judge had read the earlier books, and neither judge felt that this one really stands alone.

But that brings me to a little pet peeve. So what if it doesn’t stand alone?

Many don’t realize that there is NOTHING in the criteria for the Newbery Award that says the book has to stand alone. Yes, it should only receive the award based on strengths in that particular book, but there’s nothing that says it can’t be part of a series or that all loose ends have to be tied up or that it can’t reference earlier books.

And of course, in this tournament, there was no criteria at all except the preference of the judges.

So, I’m concluding that it was simply unfortunate that the judges this book faced were ones who hadn’t happened to have read the earlier books.

No, the book doesn’t have to stand alone to win an award, but you can’t really expect a judge to read three additional books in order to give the one book they are judging the consideration it deserves. So by getting judges who hadn’t already read the earlier books, I didn’t really expect them to appreciate the true genius behind this book.

And, please, readers of my reviews, DO NOT read this book without reading the other three books first! All four books are exquisitely plotted. Why, oh why, would you want to risk ruining the surprises in the earlier books by reading them out of order? Start with The Thief and meet Eugenides and Sophos. Then move on to The Queen of Attolia, my favorite of all of them, with incredible plot twists and beautiful romance. Then read The King of Attolia, and finally you’ll be eager to read A Conspiracy of Kings.

Though A Conspiracy of Kings did not win a judged round, it was the clear, far-and-away winner of the Undead Poll. I found that interesting. So far, the Undead Poll seems to be about web presence. And Megan Whalen Turner’s books have a thriving fan site on livejournal. Now, I wasn’t absolutely sure that John Green’s book Will Grayson, Will Grayson, wouldn’t pull off the victory, since he has a huge online presence. However, John Green’s fan base is about his and his brother’s clever and amazing web videos. Whereas Megan Whalen Turner’s fan site is about her books. And since the books were what the poll was about, I wasn’t at all surprised that A Conspiracy of Kings won.

I’ve noticed that there are plenty of people for whom the books in this series are not “their type” of book. They don’t really like it, and aren’t interested in reading the series. But those for whom this is their type of book, well, we LOVE them all. The Sounis fan site shows that I am definitely not the only rabid fan.

And what type of book is it? Well, it’s generally classified as fantasy, but the only real touch of “magic” is a varying amount of involvement from the gods that the author has invented. It’s pseudo-historical, with a setting mirroring Greece just after the invention of gunpowder. I’ve filed the books under “Historical,” even knowing that’s not technically correct, just because they feel a bit more historical to me than fantasy books. Since the biggest issues are more about leading kingdoms than about using magic.

All I have to say is, try out The Thief. Read all the way to the surprising ending. If you like it at all, you are in for a treat, because you have three more books to read!

I should say that these books are my very favorite type of series book. I like each book in a series to have its own plot arc, and to have a definite ending of this episode. But I also like the books to build to a powerful whole. I just finished The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s a lyrically written, magnificent work of fantasy. But it’s the first book of a trilogy, and I don’t think the author ties up one single solitary plot thread. Yes, it’s a good book, a truly great book. And yes, I will DEFINITELY be buying and reading the next two books. But I wish it weren’t just Part One of a continuing story. The same is true of Pegasus, by Robin McKinley. It’s only Part One. (This is probably a big part of why I haven’t heard it’s won any awards.)

And yes, there’s a place for long sagas like that. But I do have a fond and appreciative spot for series like The Queen’s Thief and The Bartimaeus Trilogy, where each book is a complete story that contributes to an even greater whole. You still should read them in order, and you’ll still want to hear more, but at least each book leaves you satisfied and happy, and with some plot threads resolved nicely.

And now I should say something about the audio version. Jeff Woodman has again done an outstanding job of reading this book. I like that he used the same voices for returning characters, so I could recognize the Magus, for example, by his voice.

One thing I love about listening to the book is that it slows me down. There’s no way I can spread out reading the book over more than a few nights, but listening, I am forced to take more time — and thus I can savor the book, and be delighted with what I am “reading” for quite a long time. Now, I did bring in the last CD to listen at home, when I couldn’t stand to wait any longer. But still, I spent much more time listening to the book than I spent either one of the two times I read it to myself.

And, like all of Megan Whalen Turner’s books, there’s so much to see and appreciate on later readings. You can more appreciate and delight in her plot-crafting. This time through, I especially noticed Sophos’ growth. He starts out the self-doubting kid we saw in The Thief, and we see him grow, realistically, through facing incredible challenges. We see and feel his real temptation to just settle down and enjoy life as a slave, without having to face the difficulties of trying to become a king. And then we see the consequences of his choice.

I love the way she plants clues to later surprises in full view of the reader. I think I can even mention one of them, without giving it away. She says that he doesn’t do a full bow, so the barons won’t notice a lump in his robe. Just beautiful to catch what that means on the rereading! And there are many of those little mentions, in each one of the books. Delightful to notice when reading it again! And it’s not just a gimmick or a trick — it actually reflects what Sophos was thinking about, how he was focusing on every detail…. I will say no more except to reiterate that I never get tired of rereading Megan Whalen Turner’s books.

So, I was sad that A Conspiracy of Kings didn’t win the 2011 Battle of the Kids’ Books, but I was proud that it won the popularity contest, the Undead Poll. And very glad that maybe these books will gain some more readers. But I hope they will listen to the judges saying that it doesn’t stand alone, and start with the very first book.

When I was following the links to the Sounis Livejournal site, I learned that Megan Whalen Turner is speaking, along with Jonathan Stroud, Rick Yancey, and Cindy Dobrez, at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival on the USC Campus. Although I can’t go myself, my youngest sister, Melanie Hatch, is a student at USC (in fact, she’ll be graduating soon and winning the Biegler Award for the graduating Electrical Engineering student with the highest GPA — Go, Melanie!), so I made sure she knew about it. Melanie was quick to point out that the event is actually happening on her birthday! So she’s looking forward to the best birthday ever! I’m so pleased for her! And I’m considering her my representative, so I can enjoy the event vicariously through her!

What’s more, it turns out that A Conspiracy of Kings is a finalist for the Los Angeles Book Prize for Young Adult Literature. It’s up against two other books that were in School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, including the winner of SLJBoB, The Ring of Solomon, by Jonathan Stroud, and the also excellent How Sugar Changed the World, by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos. Two other finalists are Wicked Girls, by Stephanie Hemphill, and The Curse of the Wendigo, by Rick Yancey.

Will Ring of Solomon pull off the victory again? Will the judges appreciate Megan Whalen Turner’s true genius? We shall see, but however it turns out, these are some excellent finalists, and I’m really looking forward to my sister getting to hear these people speak — and telling me all about it!

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

Review of Keeper, by Kathi Appelt

Thursday, April 7th, 2011


by Kathi Appelt

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2010. 399 pages.
Starred Review
2011 School Library Journal Battle of the Kids’ Book Finalist

In honor of the finishing of School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, I’m plannning to review the remaining books that competed, but which I hadn’t yet reviewed. It seems fitting to next tackle Keeper, which made it all the way to the Big Kahuna Round, defeating three excellent books along the way.

I read Keeper at the start of the year, after hearing great things about it on the Heavy Medal blog, where people discuss possible Newbery winners. I would have liked to have seen it win an Honor, because this is a truly beautiful book.

This time, I’ll start by giving some highlights from the Battle of the Books judges:

In the first round, Susan Patron eloquently told us why Keeper is so powerful:

“Keeper is heir to the oral tradition; the narrator’s voice is powerful and always present, creating an exquisite tension between what we know is fiction and our urge to hand over our hearts to it anyway. And this narrative switches easily from the points of view of a girl, a couple of dogs, a cat, a seagull, an elderly gay French grandfatherish neighbor, a young stuttering war-veteran surf-shop owner, and more; it shifts from past to present tense, from lyrical to earthy. As ten-year-old Keeper gets deeper and deeper into a dangerous situation, all the characters’ back stories and the setting itself enrich the drama and give it texture. Keeper’s wish, her desperate need, is to find her mother and, under a blue moon, she does—though it’s not the mother she expected. All three of us, my inner librarian, my inner writer, and my inner tween savored every word, and the many surprises that were gradually revealed.”

In the second round, Naomi Shihab Nye also waxed eloquent about Keeper:

“Keeper is resident of a motley, miniature community down on the Texas Gulf coast. She loves her dog BD and her pet seagull Captain who adores watermelon. Her alleged “mermaid mother” Meggie Marie abandoned her 7 years prior to a mid-western escapee called Signe who is only 25 herself. I kept doing the math…Their neighbors, the stuttering Dogie who rents surfboards and the elderly Mr. Beauchamp, still longing for his young love Jack from France, as he waits for his night-blooming cyrus flowers to pop open, create a sleepy, somewhat surreal swoon of neighborhood texture for a little girl to wander dreamily through. Keeper waxes surfboards for Dogie, saves her money, watches the waves and tides closely, lives in a rich drift of fantastic thinking. She wants to see her mother again. And she’s ready to make it happen on the rare night of the “blue moon.” This is a gumbo-rich brew of magical farfetched wishing – spells – plans and lists – melodrama launched in a small rowboat…chapter 55, about all the oceans of the world being connected, is a gem-like poem shining at the heart.”

Have you noticed all these judges are lyrical in describing Kathi Appelt’s lyrical language? In Round Three, Grace Lin was no different:

“When I read the book, suddenly the magic became apparent. I loved the slow unveiling of each story, the way the back and forth narratives seemed to echo the motion of the ocean waves that rocked Keeper’s boat. I found the fantasy elements of Yemaya and Jacque der Mer enchanting and I could feel the heartbreak of each character. Even the animals—the dog BD and the crow Captain had fully-realized personalities.

“The blurring of myth and reality was seamless and the writing was poetic, yet always accessible. But most of all, the theme of the story—that love of all kinds, even the untraditional, are worth keeping— and how it was conveyed was just beautiful.”

Even Richard Peck, the judge of the Final Round, who didn’t choose Keeper, was impressive in its praise:

“To cope with this maternal absence and abandonment, Keeper has recast her mother as a mermaid who has swum away. By this childhood logic, Keeper herself has merblood and the borrowed lineage of “Signa and Lorelie, the siren, the ningyo, and the rusalka and the Meerfrau,” all the mystic mother figures of the deep.

“Kathi Appelt’s story captures that time at the outer edge of childhood when the fantasies that have always kept you safe no longer work. Keeper’s fantasy folds all in a single action-packed twenty-four-hour period (though it feels longer), the night of the blue moon. Keeper’s belief in her aquatic DNA leads her into a series of descending missteps. She frees clamoring crabs meant for the gumbo, and before she knows it she’s literally out of her depth, in pursuit of a mermaid mother.

“This book is a keeper for its gentle tone in chronicling that jarring moment when you can no longer afford to be as young as you’ve been. Every book for the young is the story of a step, and in these pages a girl takes a big one. Where it will lead her, we’re less sure. But that’s what sequels are for.”

My own reaction to Keeper was that it was very slow-moving. In the middle, I almost stopped. Another thing that Grace Lin said pertains:

“Keeper is a book that needs you to be present to appreciate it. It’s not a story that can be half listened to or quickly skimmed, because then you miss the wonder. Appelt reveals the story like ocean waves lapping away bits of sand on a beach until a treasure is uncovered. And it’s the serene watching of the waves, not the sparkling pearl, that creates the book’s charm.”

I did stick with it, and by the time I finished, I was completely enchanted and caught into that world with lots of love and a touch of magic.

Truly a beautiful book. I’m glad it’s gotten the attention of being a Finalist in the Battle of the Books.

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

Review of The Ring of Solomon, by Jonathan Stroud

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

The Ring of Solomon

A Bartimaeus Novel

by Jonathan Stroud

Disney Hyperion Books, New York, 2010. 398 pages.
Starred Review
Winner of the 2011 School Library Journal Battle of the Kids’ Books

In honor of the completion of the 2011 School Library Journal Battle of the Kids’ Books, I thought it would be fun to post my reviews of the books in the competition which I hadn’t yet reviewed, and to feature excerpts from the judges’ brilliant commentary. It’s only fitting to begin with this year’s winner, The Ring of Solomon.

The Ring of Solomon is a stand-alone novel, but it uses the incredible, snarky, powerful, irreverent, infuriating, and footnote-writing djinni, Bartimaeus, from the Bartimaeus Trilogy. The book is truly independent, so you could read it before or after the trilogy. Really, it’s quite brilliant of the author to do this. When you have an unforgettable character who’s a djinni who’s thousands of years old and boasts about his time with Solomon, why not give us a picture of what happened at that time? The only thing the two sets of books have in common is the character of Bartimaeus (and I think another demon or two), and the alternate reality where magicians do works of power by binding demons to their will.

Solomon has a ring with a spirit attached to it that is so powerful, no one can stand against him. Of course, it is with the power of the ring that he gained his amazing wealth and carried out his magnificent building projects.

Bartimaeus starts out in the employ of one of Solomon’s under-magicians, but then comes under the power of Asmira, a dedicated girl assassin sent by the Queen of Sheba to assassinate Solomon and steal his ring — a suicide mission, as far as Bartimaeus is concerned.

When I read this book, I was as delighted as I expected to be. Brilliant writing, hilarious footnotes, and knuckle-clenching dangerous adventure. I liked it that the happy ending was not for the young girl to become another of Solomon’s wives. (I don’t think that’s a spoiler.) Now, there wasn’t as much emotional depth as in The Bartimaeus Trilogy. But that was a much longer work, a trilogy, and a work of towering genius that builds over the course of the three books. This book definitely kept me reading late into the night, had me laughing, and also very tense. It didn’t make me cry, as I’m quite sure The Bartimaeus Trilogy did, but it’s still a brilliantly plotted, wonderfully entertaining book.

But you don’t have to take my word for it! In School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, all four judges who were offered a choice between The Ring of Solomon and another excellent children’s book chose The Ring of Solomon. Below are excerpts from their explanations of their choice:

The first round judge, Adam Rex, called The Ring of Solomon “a rollicking fantasy about a waggish djinni who becomes unwittingly embroiled in plots to steal a ring of unfathomable power.” He says, with footnotes, “Stroud has crafted what you might claim on one hand to be an old-fashioned save-the-world adventure, complete with the requisite all-powerful MacGuffin and a real mustache twirler of a villain or two. He’s also made something that’s fresh and modern–modern in its sense of humor, modern in its irreverence. Okay, maybe irreverence isn’t all that modern, but it always feels like it is. Doesn’t every generation think they invented it?” He also says, ” Every chapter left me wanting more–if Stroud and I were in a Scheherazade/King Shahry?r situation I totally would not have killed him at any point.”

In the second round, judge Patricia Reilly Giff was confronted with a choice between a graphic novel retelling of The Odyssey vs. The Ring of Solomon. She describes the book as ” inventive, action packed and hysterically funny.” One of the factors that led her to choose The Ring of Solomon as the winner was that she “had to stay up at night to keep reading, just to see what Stroud had in store, those twists and turns that kept me guessing until the end.”

In the third round, Karen Cushman freely admitted, “I am not a big reader or a big fan of fantasy novels. When I saw early on that A Tale Dark and Grimm and The Ring were both in my bracket, I anticipated I would have an easy time eliminating them. This just goes to show you how much I know. And now I publicly shed my credentials as a thoughtful, caring, mature person and reveal my snarky, ironic underbelly.

“Woo hoo! The Ring of Solomon! I was gobsmacked. What a book!”

Karen Cushman goes on to eloquently point out the powerful themes that show up in this book, underneath the snarky humor and gripping adventure:

” I found it exuberantly plotted, with evocative descriptions, terrific language, and intriguing
characters, both human and otherwise.

“I loved the distinctive voice of the rude, irreverent, sarcastic, resourceful, and surprisingly lovable Bartimaeus. Sure, djinni eat people but still I felt great pity and compassion for his deep longing for home and hatred of his enslavement.

“The book is wonderfully funny but had wise things to say about slavery and freedom, mindless obedience, and dying for empty concepts. Asmira, the teenaged Sheban sent on a suicide mission, is a true believer to a fault. Wise Solomon tells her, “I’m not your master…try not to need one.” And Bartimaeus says, “I know I’m enslaved…That gives me just a shadowy slice of freedom.” As Jonathan Stroud tells it, the issues of 950 BCE are the same we face today–the dangers of terrorism, fanaticism, and zealotry, and the price of power.”

Finally, in the Big Kahuna Round, Richard Peck was faced with three outstanding fantasy titles, Keeper, A Conspiracy of Kings, and The Ring of Solomon. His explanation of the charms of The Ring of Solomon is truly eloquent:

“Even the viewpoint flits. At moments when Bartimaeus is stuck in a bottle or some other tight corner, the spotlight falls on Asmira, a mortal maiden capable of mayhem (and acrobatics), sent by the sour Queen of Sheba to murder the King and steal his empowering Ring.

“‘Steal the Ring? Kill Solomon?’” says Bartimaeus. “‘…I might as well eat myself feetfirst, or put my head under the bottom of a squatting elephant. At least those options would be entertaining to watch.’”

“But of course this odd couple won’t become thieving assassins. They will in fact find the sudden self-knowledge we expect in books for the young. But their epiphanies are gussied up beyond reason by wordplay and action/adventure, and more special effects than Avatar and Rango put together, all in full color.”

He sums up his decision:

“You could have fooled me. I didn’t expect I’d pick as winner four-hundred pages of magic fantasy with Biblical allusions and a footnote on the Songs of Solomon. But I do.

“Because its very length and the wit of its diction are stinging retorts to both the grade-level textbook and Facebook.

“And because the fun is in how the tale is told, the yarn spun. Jonathan Stroud doesn’t control language; he unleashes it. The real magic here is in the turning phrase, and how much our texting young need that, and the liberation of laughter.”

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

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.

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

Gearing Up for the Big Kahuna Round

Friday, April 1st, 2011

Huzzah, huzzah! A Conspiracy of Kings has won the Undead Poll! So even though it lost in the first round of School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, it gets to compete in the Final Round.

I’m not at all surprised. Those who “get” the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner, those who like that sort of book at all, are enthusiastic, not to say rabid, fans. Each book is a masterpiece of plotting, and the characters are realistically flawed but incredibly awesome, and show real growth. If you like that sort of book at all, Megan Whalen Turner’s books are among the very best.

Just yesterday, I finished my third reading of A Conspiracy of Kings, this time on audio, and I noticed yet more ways she builds the plotting. Megan Whalen Turner has said that she feels she’s failed if her readers don’t reread the book, and that she writes it to be a different experience on each rereading. I have said more than once that her books get better on each rereading, and it’s so true. On this rereading, I saw all the more clearly how strongly and believably Sophos’ character growth is built. By the end of the book, he is a true king.

Go, Zombie Gen! And scary, scarred Zombie Sophos!

Like they said on Sounis, any time it looks like Gen has lost, he is secretly plotting his victory! Though, yes, this book is more about Sophos, he has definitely learned from Eugenides, and he DOES have Gen behind him, helping plot his victory.

From the start, I was worried that Richard Peck wouldn’t be enough of a fantasy fan to pick A Conspiracy of Kings. However, now it turns out that all three books in the Big Kahuna Round are fantasy books, so that will be less of an issue.

I was 50-50 in my picks for the third round. Keeper did defeat The Cardturner, but I loved Keeper, too, so I’m just as happy to have it competing in the Final Round. And this means that all three books are from Team Fantasy! This is the first year that I’ve been a big fan of ALL the books in the Final Round, though it’s also the first year that my very favorite of all the books has wound up in the Final Round, in fact, the book I named a #1 Sonderbooks Stand-out of the books I read in 2010.

If Richard Peck has read the other books in the Queen’s Thief series, I think A Conspiracy of Kings is a shoo-in. If not, I still think it has a great chance. Both A Conspiracy of Kings and The Ring of Solomon are incredibly well-plotted fantasy. But A Conspiracy of Kings has richer characterization and character growth. Both make points about the use of power — almost opposite points, but both thought-provoking. Where A Conspiracy of Kings might lose is if it loses the reader because he hasn’t read the earlier books.

Keeper is a much more gentle, slower-moving fantasy, rooted in real life, about love and belonging and good things like that. It could win if that is what the judge prefers or strikes him most in the reading.

Whichever way it goes, I’m really looking forward to reading Richard Peck’s commentary. Coming this Monday!