Archive for May, 2011

Review of The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred, by Samantha R. Vamos

Monday, May 30th, 2011

The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred

by Samantha R. Vamos
illustrated by Rafael Lopez

Charlesbridge, 2011. 32 pages.
Starred Review

What an exuberant book! And a beautiful and joyous way to easily learn some Spanish words. Fun to read out loud, too.

The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred riffs off the idea of “The House That Jack Built” with a cumulative story of making rice pudding, arroz con leche. This one, however, adds the innovative idea of introducing the items and animals in English, but then once you know what they are, using the Spanish words in later recitations.

For example, a couple steps in:

“This is the goat
that churned the cream
to make the MANTEQUILLA
that went into the CAZUELA that the farm maiden stirred.

“This is the cow
that made the fresh milk
while teaching the CABRA
that churned the CREMA
to make the MANTEQUILLA
that went into the CAZUELA that the farm maiden stirred.”

As you can hear, the Spanish words inserted are fun to say, and the chant takes on a musical feel. This book makes you want to read it aloud, and I found myself doing that even as I just read the book to myself to review it. How much more fun it would be to read to a roomful of children or a child on my lap.

But the plot does get more interesting than just the simple cumulative story. After all the ingredients are in the CAZUELA,

“the CABRA gave out spoons,
the GALLINA sang a tune,
the PATO beat a TAMBOR,
the BURRO plucked a banjo,
the VACA shook a MARACA,
and the CAMPESINO and the farm maiden danced . . .

“. . . and no one watched the CAZUELA that the farm maiden stirred.”

Don’t worry! They do get their delicious dish, and the recipe is provided at the back of the book (as well as a glossary and pronunciation guide).

What makes this book absolutely perfect and completely irresistible is the pictures. The best words I can use to describe them are exuberant and joyous. The colors are bright. And the people and animals are happy and completely given over to celebration.

So this book has it all: Something educational, something traditional, a little bit of plot, great fun for the ear, and delightful to the eye. A winner in every way!

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

Review of The End of the Line, by Angela Cerrito

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

The End of the Line

by Angela Cerrito

Holiday House, New York, 2011. 213 pages.
Starred Review

Full disclosure: Angela Cerrito is my friend, and was a member of the Writer’s Critique Group I was in at Sembach Base Library in Germany. In fact, I was very happy on the last page of the book to discover acknowledgements that included my name and our other friends from the writer’s group, and even my dear co-worker at the library, Elfriede Moehlenbrock. (And then I remembered that Angela had asked me how to spell her name — but it takes a long time after writing the acknowledgements for the book to actually appear in print.) I don’t think I actually helped with this particular book, but like Angela, I am sure that when I get published some day, I will need to thank the many writers who critiqued and encouraged me along the way.

Before the main text of the book opens, we see these words:

“If you kill someone, you are a piece of murdering scum. When I saw his body all twisted and still, I knew . . . I knew my life was worthless. It didn’t matter what Dad said or how hard Mom cried. There was nothing they could do.

“It didn’t matter that my teachers tried to pretend nothing had changed when I went back to school. ‘Nice to see you,’ they cooed. But I could tell by the way their voices got squeaky that they didn’t believe a word from their own lips. I could tell by the way their eyes swept over me quick. They looked at my feet or over the top of my head, because they didn’t want to look into the eyes of a murderer.”

Then, as the book begins, Robbie says, “They call this place Great Oaks School, but it must be a prison.” Normally, I’d think a kid was exaggerating if they said that, but Robbie definitely has a point.

“I guess my parents have finally given up on me. They’ve locked me up. I’ve been trapped in this room for hours, just me and a school desk with a stack of paper. That’s all, except a yellow pencil making a blister on my finger.”

A school official, Mr. Lester, comes in and tells Robbie to make a list telling who he is. When Robbie’s list doesn’t come up to Mr. Lester’s standards, Robbie doesn’t get any food.

Then the next short chapter takes us back in time to River Falls, the day Ryan, the new kid, showed up. He spent the first day actually under the desk next to Robbie. And then he followed Robbie home and ate dinner with his family.

The chapters alternate between Robbie’s time in Great Oaks School or Prison with chapters about Robbie’s normal life in River Falls. Great Oaks is the end of the line — the school that will take kids no one else wants to deal with.

So what happened to get Robbie to this point? Angela Cerrito does a masterful job of weaving the two stories together. Mr. Lester wants Robbie to talk with the other kids at Great Oaks about what happened, and Robbie doesn’t want to. Meanwhile, Robbie has what seems like a pretty normal life. Sure, Ryan does some strange things, but the more Robbie gets to know him, the more understandable it seems. And Ryan is great with Robbie’s mom’s daycare kids. And he even gets some of their classmates to come to Robbie’s races.

In some ways, I was sorry I read this one so close to Okay for Now, by Gary B. Schmidt, because the two books felt very much alike. But instead of being historical, instead of having a close relative injured in the Vietnam War, Robbie has a close relative injured in the Iraq War, which feels much more immediate. Both books have a horribly unfair teacher, (So unfair, it makes me wonder if Angela drew him from life — because that particular unfair bias just seems too bizarre to be anything but real!) but in The End of the Line, that teacher never does come around.

Another difference is that in Okay for Now, we know what Doug Swieteck’s up against right from the start. We — along with the whole town — expect him to be a delinquent. In The End of the Line, Robbie seems like a great kid. What in the world happened to get him in this mess? Did he really murder someone? And why? As the book goes on, we feel like we understand more and more the anger and despair that are eating at Robbie.

I do love Angela’s website, which dovetails nicely with the book. Since writing lists becomes important for Robbie, Angela offers readers a chance to submit their own lists. Who are you? Answer with a list.

Here’s Robbie’s list:

I am…
I am a person
I am hungry
I am a boy
I am 13 years old
I am a son, a grandson, a nephew
I am sick of this place
I am angry
I am thirsty
I am skinny
I am a runner
I am a killer murderer

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

Review of Won Ton, by Lee Wardlaw

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

Won Ton

A Cat Tale Told in Haiku

by Lee Wardlaw
illustrated by Eugene Yelchin

Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2011. 34 pages.
Starred Review

This book works both as a collection of short, accessible poems and as an entertaining picture book. The author’s note at the beginning informs us that technically the poems inside are senryu, not haiku. But the syllable format is the same, and I think it was a good choice to use “Haiku” in the title, since that is a term most school children are familiar with.

This book takes us from a cat in a pet store waiting to be bought to a cat in a home with his very own beloved boy. The illustrations show a true cat nature, and so do the poems.

Here are a few I particularly like:

Yawn. String-on-a-stick.
Fine. I’ll come out and chase it
to make you happy.

Scrat-ching-post? Haven’t
heard of it. Besides, the couch
is so much closer.

Wait — let me back in!

Your tummy, soft as
warm dough. I knead and knead, then
bake it with a nap.

Definitely charming. Reading this to a small child will prompt them to look at a cat with new eyes. Reading it to an older child may get them writing haiku of their own.

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

Review of Okay For Now, by Gary D. Schmidt

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Okay For Now

by Gary D. Schmidt

Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Boston, 2011. 360 pages.
Starred Review

Okay, I’ve found my early pick for the book I want to win the Newbery Medal next year. The story is told from the perspective of just the sort of kid I never liked, as a child or as an adult: A troublemaker, not interested in books or learning, with a smart mouth toward authority. I got halfway through the book and realized I was nuts about that kid and just wanted everything to go right for him.

The main character is Doug Swieteck, who was in The Wednesday Wars, but you don’t have to have read The Wednesday Wars or remember what it was about. Right at the beginning, Doug’s father gets himself fired, and the family has to move to Marysville, where Doug’s father’s drinking buddy found him a job at a paper mill.

Doug has a lot against him. He’s an outsider at this new school, and the only new eighth grader. His father has quick hands. The whole town is convinced that he and his brother are hoodlums. It gradually dawns on the reader that Doug can’t read. And it turns out to be a horrible thing that the gym teacher won’t let him switch from the Skins team to the Shirts team. As for the principal, Gary Schmidt has created a completely odious, but frightfully believable villain:

“Principal Peattie, who had been waiting for this moment and who decided to stretch things out and make me sweat, told me to sit in this chair by the secretary, which I did in my stupid gym uniform for almost half an hour before he opened his door and told me to come in and sit down and said that Principal Peattie had been expecting something like this all along and Principal Peattie was surprised that it hadn’t happened sooner and Principal Peattie was going to throw the book at me so I learned my lesson and learned it good, and dang it, I should take this like a man and look Principal Peattie in the eye.”

One bright spot is Doug’s weekly visits to the Marysville Public Library, where the elderly lady librarian gives him dirty looks, but the other librarian, Mr. Powell, gives Doug art lessons over the pages of a book by John James Audubon. Each bird in each painting sticks in Doug’s mind. Unfortunately, the library is selling off some of the pages because it needs money.

Doug’s voice is believable and consistent throughout. He’s got a pessimistic outlook, but he sneaks in some optimistic thinking when things feel good, and you find yourself so rooting for him. Here’s a part early on, when he’s figuring out how to draw the feathers of the Arctic Tern:

“I looked at the feathers, and rolled the paper up to hide it beneath my bed, and unrolled it to look at the feathers again, and finally rolled it up and hid it beneath the bed. Then I turned out the light and lay down with my hands — and the pencil smudge on my thumb — back behind my head and I looked out the window. There was still a little bit of light left in the summer sky, and the birds were having a riot before turning in. A few stars starting up.

“I couldn’t keep myself from smiling. I couldn’t. Maybe this happens to you every day, but I think it was the first time I could hardly wait to show something that I’d done to someone who would care besides my mother. You know how that feels?

“So that’s why I went to the Marysville Free Public Library every Saturday for the rest of August and on into September.

“Not to read a book or anything.”

It’s hard to explain how incredibly good this book is. When I heard it described, it didn’t sound like anything memorable. I knew, however, that Gary Schmidt’s other books were outstanding, so I knew I had to give it a try. All I can say is: WOW!

There are lots more absolutely brilliant elements. Doug’s class is reading an abridgement of Jane Eyre, and the author gives Doug an positively magnificent use of “Dear Reader” in the story. Later, Doug gets involved in a Broadway adaptation of the book, and his job is the voice of Bertha Mason. After that he freely uses many, many references to a shriek “like an insane woman who has been locked in an attic for a great many years.” It’s amazing how very often that exact sort of shriek is appropriate.

I found it slightly unbelievable how many things turned around and went right for Doug by the end, and how many awful adults gained understanding — but I definitely liked it. (Especially after how horribly sad Lizzie Bright was.) The author does leave one major problem unresolved, but I refuse to believe anything but that one, also, will turn out okay. Doug will go far. And what do you know? I love that kid!

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

Review of Chalk, by Bill Thomson

Monday, May 9th, 2011


by Bill Thomson

Marshall Cavendish Children, 2010, 42 pages.
2010 Cybils Picture Books Shortlist
Starred Review

Chalk is absolutely brilliant. Many of us were hoping it would win the 2011 Caldecott Medal. It came to my attention when it was listed on the Cybils Picture Books Shortlist, so I read it at the start of January. I will be very surprised if it is not my Number One Sonderbooks Stand-out for Picture Books for 2011. Though you never know what the year will bring, Chalk raises the bar very high.

Chalk is a wordless picture book. The pictures are photorealistic, and at first glance you think they’re done by a computer, but a note at the back says Bill Thomson hand-painted all the pictures, which makes the book all the more amazing.

The story is simple, but a knock-out winner. Three children (of three different ethnicities) come to a playground on a rainy day. They find a bag hanging on a bouncy dinosaur ride. The bag contains some sidewalk chalk. The first girl draws a sun shining — and immediately the rain stops and the sun comes out. The second girl draws butterflies, which pop off the pavement and fly away.

Then the boy takes a piece of green chalk and gets a gleam in his eye. He draws a tyrannosaurus rex.

Eventually, his quick-thinking saves them. He does still have a piece of chalk.

The children leave the bag of chalk where they found it, but we see the boy looking back.

You really need to check out or buy this book for yourself and see the pictures yourself. The story is compelling by itself, but the pictures make it brilliant. I don’t think any two pictures are painted from the same perspective. The unique angles on the action, the looks on the children’s faces — so many things make this a book you can read over and over and discover new details each time.

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

Review of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

by Amy Chua

The Penguin Press, New York, 2011. 235 pages.

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle reading this book. Here in Northern Virginia, there are so many Tiger parents pushing their kids, and I had a feeling I’d feel sorry for the kids. Either that, or I’d be filled with guilt that I hadn’t been more of a Tiger Mom and ended up with prodigy children.

But Amy Chua handles the delicate topic with grace and humor. Although she acknowledges that there are stereotypes involved here and every single Chinese mother is not one way and every single American mother the other way, she does point out that the culture in which she was raised was completely different than typical American parenting culture.

“There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids’ true interests. For their part, many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children and are willing to sacrifice much more for them than Westerners, who seem perfectly content to let their children turn out badly. I think it’s a misunderstanding on both sides. All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.”

However, she also uses the book to show that, no matter how strong your convictions about parenting, every child is different, and what works for one may not work for another. We all make mistakes, and the important thing is to do your best.

And nothing shows you your own weaknesses and misconceptions like being a mother.

Amy Chua tells a good story, too. She tells of her noble quest to sacrifice to raise perfect children, and the obstacles and drama along the way. I found myself a fascinated by how well it was working out with her prodigy children, though she definitely shows her own defeats. And, what do you know, the girls did not turn out to need years of expensive therapy.

“All the same, even when Western parents think they’re being strict, they usually don’t come close to being Chinese mothers. For example, my Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practice their instruments thirty minutes every day. An hour at most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It’s hours two and three that get tough.”

And this Tiger Mother believed her way was definitely best:

“As I watched American parents slathering praise on their kids for the lowest of tasks — drawing a squiggle or waving a stick — I came to see that Chinese parents have two things over their Western counterparts: (1) higher dreams for their children, and (2) higher regard for their children in the sense of knowing how much they can take.”

All in all, this book made me feel much less judgmental of the overachieving parents I see come into the library. And other people who don’t parent the way I do. The fact is, everybody can think they have the one right way to parent, but there are strengths and weaknesses with every approach, and every child is different. In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, you can read along as Amy Chua learns that lesson.

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

Review of A Red Herring Without Mustard, by Alan Bradley

Saturday, May 7th, 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard

by Alan Bradley

Delacorte Press, New York, 2011. 399 pages.
Starred Review

Hooray! Flavia de Luce is back in this, her third mystery and adventure. She bikes around the family’s estate and nearby village in England on a bicycle named Gladys, and manages to find all sorts of trouble. The book begins with Flavia accidentally burning the tent of a Gypsy who tells her fortune. The next morning, Flavia discovers the Gypsy has been bludgeoned, and Flavia summons help — but not before she gets a good look at the evidence.

Flavia’s old friend, Inspector Hewitt, comes to the scene, and this will give you the flavor of why you shouldn’t trifle with eleven-year-old Flavia:

“‘You’ve got goose bumps,’ he said, looking at me attentively. ‘Best go sit in the car.’

“He had already reached the far side of the bridge before he turned back. ‘There’s a blanket in the boot,’ he said, and then vanished in the shadows.

“I felt my temper rising. Here was this man — a man in an ordinary business suit, without so much as a badge on his shoulder — dismissing me from the scene of a crime that I had come to think of as my own. After all, hadn’t I been the first to discover it?

“Had Marie Curie been dismissed after discovering polonium? Or radium? Had someone told her to run along?

“It simply wasn’t fair.

“A crime scene, of course, wasn’t exactly an atom-shattering discovery, but the Inspector might at least have said ‘Thank you.’ After all, hadn’t the attack upon the Gypsy taken place within the grounds of Buckshaw, my ancestral home? Hadn’t her life likely been saved by my horseback expedition into the night to summon help?

“Surely I was entitled to at least a nod. But no —

“‘Go and sit in the car,’ Inspector Hewitt had said, and now — as I realized with a sinking feeling that the law doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘gratitude’ — I felt my fingers curling slowly into involuntary fists.

“Even though he had been on the scene for no more than a few moments, I knew that a wall had already gone up between the Inspector and myself. If the man was expecting cooperation from Flavia de Luce, he would bloody well have to work for it.”

In this adventure, another murder follows, and past secrets surface. Flavia still is obsessed with chemicals and poisons, and in this book she actually finds a friend near her own age.

The best thing about Flavia de Luce is that I am confident that the Inspector’s worst fears will come true: She will not be able to stay out of further trouble. I hear that the next book is coming out this Fall!

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

Review of Red Glove, by Holly Black

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Red Glove

The Curse Workers, Book Two

by Holly Black

Margaret K. McElderry Books, New York, 2011. 325 pages.
Starred Review

Red Glove is the second book in Holly Black’s Curse Workers trilogy. And, yes, you definitely need to read White Cat first.

This is an alternate world where certain people are born with the ability to do magic with a touch. There are luck workers, emotion workers, dream workers, memory workers, physical workers, death workers, and the most rare of all, transformation workers. However, doing magic has been declared illegal, so the curse workers have gone into organized crime. Magic tends to run in families, and some powerful crime families rule the underworld.

Red Glove continues the absolute brilliance begun in White Cat. Right at the beginning, Cassel’s oldest brother Philip turns up dead. Who killed him? Did the head of the crime family, who promised not to kill him, go back on his word when he learned Philip had gone to the Feds?

I’m afraid I didn’t find Red Glove terribly satisfying. Cassel has no good choices. He’s in love with Lila, who plans to be head of the Zacharov crime family. Her family wants him to work for them. His remaining brother wants him to work for a rival family. And the Feds want him to work for them. But they also want him to investigate several disappearances — disappearances that Cassel learns he was responsible for himself.

Meanwhile, the government is pushing for mandatory testing, so everyone will know who’s a curse worker and who isn’t. And Cassel just wants to graduate from Wallingford and make a life for himself.

Cassel pulls some clever plans in this book, but I wasn’t completely happy about how things turn out. Yet I can’t imagine a better option — he’s set up in a world where he can’t win. I’m hoping that’s simply because this is the second book of a trilogy — when things are supposed to look black. I can’t imagine how Holly Black will come up with a triumphant end to this trilogy, but I am confident she’s going to pull it off, and I hope she does it SOON!

This is another exceptionally written book. The world of the Curseworkers is completely believable, and you will find yourself completely pulled in.

I should add that this is the kind of trilogy I prefer — where each book does come to a good stopping place, though all build together. Cassel’s solution is definitely clever, and weaves together several different problem threads that come up during the book. But he’s definitely got some new problems he’ll need to deal with in the third book. I can’t wait!

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

Review of audiobook White Cat, by Holly Black

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

White Cat

by Holly Black

read by Jesse Eisenberg

Listening Library, 2010. 6 CDs. 6 hours, 41 minutes.
Starred Review

I already reviewed the print form of White Cat, but listening to the audiobook was the perfect way to refresh my memory of what happened in the first book before I got a chance to read the sequel, Red Glove.

My review still stands — this is an impressively plotted, suspenseful, and fascinating book — but I want to add a couple comments about the audiobook.

First, like so many books with a first-person narrator, this book is perfect for the audio form. Jesse Eisenberg gives Cassel a voice that sounds completely authentic. He’s a teenage guy trying to fit in, but he’s also the only non-curseworker in a family of curseworkers, a kid who’s been trained in the con since he was small, and someone who thinks he killed the girl he loves.

Second, I’d almost forgotten how good this book is! Even though I’d read it before, I was completely absorbed with the story, not wanting to shut off the audio when I arrived at work. I also found that, like Megan Whalen Turner’s writings, this book is even better the second time around. Because hints are dropped that you don’t appreciate or notice the first time.

You do know that Cassel is working on a con at the end, but when you reread it, you realize all the little things he is doing in preparation. One of the lines I appreciated more the second time was something like: “I’m the best kind of thief, who leaves something of equal value.” I don’t think it’s a spoiler to point out that line, but you do enjoy it more after you know what Cassel’s talking about.

Another good thing about an audiobook is that it slows me down. This particular book is too hard to stop reading once you start, so it was one of the many that kept me from a good night’s sleep. When I listen to the audiobook, I have to spread it out over many more days, which means I can live in that world longer and notice more details of Holly Black’s genius.

If you haven’t started this trilogy yet, there are now two books out, ready to devour. May the third book come soon!

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