Review of A Ball for Daisy, by Chris Raschka

A Ball for Daisy

by Chris Raschka

Schwartz and Wade Books, New York, 2011. 32 pages.
Starred Review
2012 Caldecott Medal Winner
2011 Sonderbooks Stand-out: Picture Books #7

Here’s a truly wonderful wordless picture book. Chris Raschka portrays the heights and depths of emotion with simple painted lines and colors.

A Ball for Daisy features a little dog named Daisy. You can clearly see that Daisy loves her red ball. She plays with it, wags her tail when she catches it, and cuddles up next to it for a nap.

But when Daisy and her owner take it to the park, another dog begins to play, and he pops Daisy’s ball. Daisy’s sadness when this happens is unmistakeable.

Fortunately, there’s a happy ending as the other dog and its owner make things right the next day.

The pictures in this book are exuberant and varied, making the simple story great fun to read. The pages where Daisy’s trying to figure out what happened to her ball include shaking the limp casing, howling, and just being sad. The pages where Daisy is playing or sleeping reflect Daisy’s joyful and unworried existence. There’s a nice circular feeling as the end echoes the beginning, with Daisy cozying up to her new ball. All’s right in the world.

What child doesn’t know what it feels like to lose something? The story is universal, and can be “read” by the very young, yet will still fascinate older people with the beauty of the artwork.

I’m pleased with the Caldecott committee’s decision this year, as I have a feeling children will be enjoying this book for years to come.

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

Review of Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker

by Paolo Bacigalupi

Little, Brown, and Company, New York, 2010. 326 pages.
Starred Review
2011 Printz Award Winner
2010 National Book Award Finalist
2011 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #2 Other Teen Fiction

Ship Breaker tells the story of a boy caught on the wrong side of progress in a future world after the Age of Acceleration has ended. The story is gripping, with Nailer in life-or-death danger on every page. Yet Paolo Bacigalupi builds a world that shows the consequences of society’s actions now, without ever letting the story slow down to tell us what’s going on. We learn through the eyes of the characters.

The book begins with Nailer crawling through the ducts of an old oil tanker, lit only by LED glowpaint on his forehead. He’s after the light stuff – copper wiring, steel clips, things that can be dragged out to his crew waiting outside.

The author doesn’t have to tell us they’re poor. He describes the wire being pulled out of the duct, “She sucked the wire out like a rice noodle from a bowl of Chen’s soup ration.” We begin to understand that he’s scavenging parts when we read about the new clipper ships: “Replacements for the massive coal- and oil-burning wrecks that he and his crew worked to destroy all day long: gull-white sails, carbon-fiber hulls, and faster than anything except a maglev train.”

Nailer was too slow in there, and he needs to go back in to get more scavenge before a big storm hits. He forgets to renew his LED paint, and gets caught in the dark. That’s okay, he’s finding plenty of copper wire that leads him out – until a duct collapses under him and he falls into a tank of oil.

“How could he die in such a stupid way? This wasn’t even a storage tank. Just some room full of pooled waste oil. It was a joke, really. Lucky Strike had found an oil pocket on a ship and bought his way free. Nailer had found one and it was going to kill him.

I’m going to drown in goddamn money.

“Nailer almost laughed at the thought. No one knew exactly how much oil Lucky Strike had found and smuggled out. The man had done it slow, over time. Sneaking it out bucket by bucket until he had enough to buy out his indenture and burn off his work tattoos. But he’d had enough left over to set himself up as a labor broker selling slots into the very heavy crews that he’d escaped. Just a little oil had done so much for Lucky Strike, and Nailer was up to his neck in the damn stuff.”

Then one of his crewmates, Sloth, finds him. He begs her to bring help, to get him out, but she can’t resist the thought of pulling her own Lucky Strike. But when Nailer does find a way out, even though the oil goes out with him, Sloth is exposed as a traitor, and Nailer’s new nickname is Lucky Boy, because everyone knows he should have died.

That dramatic incident is important, because after the storm Nailer and his crewmate Pima find a wrecked clipper ship with one lone survivor. The rings on the girl’s fingers alone would be enough to set them up for life. But Nailer doesn’t have the heart to kill the girl, because he now knows what it was like to be left for dead. That incident gets him thinking throughout the book about what it means to be family, what it means to be Crew.

The tension in this book doesn’t let up for a second, and it’s life-or-death danger on almost every page. Nailer and Pima aren’t the only ones to find the girl, and the group with Nailer’s father is not at all interested in keeping her alive, only in getting money from her.

They go from one danger to another, with Nailer trying to figure out not only what’s the right thing to do, but also how to stay alive.

This book is a thriller all the way along, with a never-flagging plot. And it presents hard-hitting commentary and questions about our way of life now.

I finally read this book when taking a class on the Printz Award. It definitely seems worthy of the award it won: Besides telling a rip-roaring story, it warns us that in our policies even now, we should look out for the little guys. We should think about the consequences of the things we do.

Here are my notes on his brilliant acceptance speech at the Printz Awards.

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2011 Cybils Finalists

Now that I’ve posted my own favorites read in 2011, I can stand to read the lists of Cybils Finalists! I’m very proud to be a book blogger, part of the Kidlitosphere, the people who do the Cybils Awards. With the Cybils Awards, the judges (book bloggers) try to balance literary quality with Kid Appeal. They want these to be award winners that kids and teens will actually want to read. I think they achieve this goal.

Another cool thing about the Cybils is the philosophy behind the Finalists. There are two rounds of judging, Finalists, and then one winner in each category. I’ve talked with some Cybils panelists, and they try to come up with a representative group of books for that category. You won’t find all historical fiction with girl protagonists, as sometimes happens with the Newbery. They are looking for a well-rounded list of the top books, and I think they also achieve this goal.

This year, I tried to nominate early, because last year all my favorite books had already been nominated. To my delight, three of my nominees are Finalists!

Those are:
Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George, in the category of Middle Grade Fantasy and Science Fiction;

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, by Wendy Wan-Long Shang, in the category of Middle Grade Fiction;

Dodsworth in Rome, by Tim Egan, in the category of Easy Readers.

These are all great books, and I honestly hope each one wins, though at this point, I’m simply excited that they are Finalists!

My Crazy 2012 Reading Plans

I’m going to interrupt my posts about Sonderbooks Standouts to talk about my new plans for reading books in 2012.

To understand this, and how much fun I’m having making plans, you probably should know that I am a rule-follower and love rules. I decided to channel this love in harmless, fun areas. I also check out way, way too many library books and get far too many Advance Reader Copies and other free books at ALA conferences. And I also buy more books than I can get read.

Up until the middle of last year, I had a problem that if I owned a book, I never got it read, because it didn’t have a due date. After ALA in June, with so many fabulous ARCs I really wanted to read, I decided to assign myself a rule: I will alternate reading Library books with books I own.

Later, I got to thinking that since I love rules and I love spreadsheets, why not make myself some rules about what books I’m allowed to keep checked out and which to turn in? I call it The Rule of Three, and basically I try to only have three books checked out in each category — and I have lots and lots of categories. When I check in books from having too many in a category, I put them on a list for a mythical future day when I will have less than three books checked out in that category. Theoretically, every day I get a pile down to three by checking in books from that category.

I’m having mixed results with The Rule of Three, but mostly it’s gotten me to turn in more books than I otherwise would have, and be slightly realistic about what I can get read, so I think it’s a good thing.

The alternating between library books and books I own, however, is working out super well. I’ve gotten lots of wonderful books I own read, and haven’t been too horribly much slower on the library books.

This brings me to 2012. When the year started, I received a package in the mail with four Advance Reader Copies that look really good. I looked at my piles of ARCs from ALA — and most of them have already been published. The point is kind of to read the books before they’re published, you know?

So, I thought I’d add a new rule. Every other time, with the books I own, I’ll read an ARC that hasn’t been published yet.

That led to another. With library books, I will also alternate between recently published books and others. Because I do like keeping up with what’s recently been published.

But then Mr. Schu from Mr. Schu Reads posted about The Newbery Medal Challenge. He’s going to read all the Newbery Medal winners in 2012.

That got me thinking. A year and a half ago, I took a class on the Newbery Medal and read many of the winners. Last year, I took a class on the Caldecott Medal and read all the winners. And finally, a few months ago, I took a class on the Printz Medal. When I took the Printz class, I decided that since it’s a much newer award, it would be much more manageable to try to read all the winners and honor books. So I made myself a list of all the ones I hadn’t read, starting with the present. There are 43 books on the list. But I hadn’t actually started reading any of the books on the list.

But why not do it as a challenge? And add it to my rules? So far, I had four categories I’m cycling through: A library book, a prepub ARC, a new library book, and a book I own. Well, why not add a fifth category. After those four categories, I’ll read an Award Winner!

But then, oh no, I got jealous of Mr. Schu reading the Newbery books. I thought, why not alternate my award winners between Printz Medal and Honor books with Newbery Medal and Honor books? I will start with the present — I always want to read the new award winners — and just list the ones I haven’t already read. There are 288, so I am not at all thinking I’ll finish this list any time soon. But what a fun use of rules to get myself actually reading them.

But, uh-oh, then I got to thinking: There are other award books I’ve really been wanting to read. How about the Morris Award? That’s a very new award, so there aren’t all that many books I haven’t read (17, it turns out). I can add that list as a third award-winning list. But I have a real soft spot for first-time authors, since I’m trying to get published myself, so I’d really like to read those winners and finalists.

And wait! What about the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award? (210 winners and honor books I haven’t yet read.) Or the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature? (154 winners and finalists I haven’t yet read.) And how can I forget the Cybils? They are chosen by Bloggers, my people. I’d been wanting to read those books, and it’s a newer award, so I don’t have to go back too far. In fact, it turns out there are 135 winners and finalists in the categories of Middle Grade and YA fiction and nonfiction and fantasy/SF fiction that I haven’t read yet.

Remember I told you you needed to understand that I’m a person who loves rules? Believe it or not, I had all kinds of fun making spreadsheets for each of these awards. And I’m so excited about my new plan, I just had to write about it. I decided, to make the whole thing even, I’d add one more category to my reading cycle: Rereads. When Sonderbooks was an e-mail newsletter, I always included one Old Favorite, but since I switched to a blog, I haven’t done nearly as much rereading, and I miss that. So why not include one every sixth book? Besides, I just got the sequel to Coronets and Steel, and I very much want to enjoy rereading it before starting the sequel.

Now, I should add that there will be exceptions. If I would ever get on an award committee (which I would love to do), I’d happily set aside these rules for awhile. And right now, I’m finishing up reading the Shortlist from the Heavy Medal blog so I can vote in the mock Newbery they’re hosting next week. Another exception is that when I go on plane trips, I only bring paperbacks, and usually ones I own.

Clearly, obviously, reading all these Award Winners is not something I’m going to finish this year, or maybe even in my lifetime. I will be very happy if I get all of this year’s award winners read before next year’s are announced! But I am very excited about having this objective method for choosing excellent books for one-sixth of my reading.

I do think it will be fun to blog and tweet about this process of reading Award Winners. All I can think to call it is #awardchallenge. We’ll see how I do.

Did you notice that I didn’t include Nonfiction or Picture Books? Those each have their own completely different systems. I won’t even start to try to explain them.

So, in summary, here’s my plan for reading this year (as soon as I finish The Trouble With May Amelia):
1. Reread a book. (First one will be Coronets and Steel)
2. Read a book I own. (First one will be the sequel to Coronets and Steel)
3. Read a newly published Library book. (First one will be Death Comes to Pemberley, by P. D. James)
4. Read an Award Winner or Honor Book, cycling in this order: Printz, Newbery, Morris, Boston Globe/Horn Book, National Book Awards, and Cybils; and beginning with the most recently announced books. (For example, I can already start on the Finalists for this year’s Morris and Cybils awards.) (First one will be Please Ignore Vera Dietz, by A. S. King)
5. Read a pre-publication ARC. (First one will be The Last Princess, by Galaxy Craze.)
6. Read any Library book. (I’ll probably take this one from my Rule of Three piles.)

Call me crazy, but I’m really looking forward to carrying out this plan!

It’s going to be a great year for reading!

Review of Me, Frida, by Amy Novesky and David Diaz

Me, Frida

by Amy Novesky
illustrated by David Diaz

Abrams Books for Young Readers, New York, 2010. 32 pages.
2011 Pura Belpre Illustrator Honor Book

As appropriate for the story of an artist, this picture book biography is a work of art. David Diaz’s beautiful paintings are done in the style of Frida Kahlo and are simply beautiful to look at.

The story of the book tells about how Frida Kahlo got her start as an artist. She married her mentor, Diego Rivera, and very much felt herself in his shadow when they moved to San Francisco. But then she gained inspiration from the beautiful parts of the city and her memories of her home, and came into her own as an artist, with her own unique style.

This book tells a story of a woman working alongside someone she loves, rather than being content to stay in his shadow. It’s a lovely and inspiring book.

We have some fabulous picture book biographies in the library. I always think it’s a shame how hard they are for customers to find. A picture book biography is not necessarily a good source for a school report. It’s an inspiring story about someone amazing, told in simple terms and with accompanying pictures. I’d like to put picture book biographies in a place all their own, but will probably have to settle for doing a display now and then.

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

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


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

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

Review of Bink & Gollie, by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee

Bink & Gollie

by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee

illustrated by Tony Fucile

Candlewick Press, 2010. 82 pages.
2011 Geisel Award Winner
Starred Review

In the tradition of Frog and Toad, George and Martha, and Elephant and Piggie, here’s another easy-to-read book about two friends who are very different, but who have a great time together.

This one’s a beginning chapter book, with 82 pages, rather than a traditional easy reader format. But much of the story is told in the exuberant pictures and there are not a lot of words on each page. Readers will feel they have accomplished something when they finish this book with three chapters.

Bink is short and a little wild, with yellow hair going in every direction. Gollie is tall and calm, and likes things just so. You can see all that from the picture of them rollerskating on the front cover.

The first chapter brings a conflict in their personality types:

“‘Bink,’ said Gollie, ‘the brightness of those socks pains me. I beg you not to purchase them.’

‘I can’t wait to put them on,’ said Bink.”

After some conflict over the socks, the two friends come up with a compromise bonanza.

The book goes on in the classic tradition of friendship tales — with simple situations that test the friendship, but allow the friendship to come out strong and shining. The illustrations in this book tell much of the story and convey much of the emotion behind the words. And it’s fun to read one of these tales where we see cordless phones and a laptop computer in the illustrations. The book is classic — but modern.

This week I had a couple different people ask about chapter books that are not too difficult, but for a child who wants something beyond the traditional easy reader. Bink and Gollie will fill the bill. There are lots of big words: “outrageous socks,” “marvelous companion,” “remarkable fish,” and “extraordinary accomplishment.” But there is not a lot of text on each page, and many of the big words are repeated throughout the book. Children who read it themselves will realize that they have achieved an extraordinary accomplishment.

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

ALA Youth Media Awards

Here’s a link to all the ALA Youth Media Award titles.

If you look at my earlier posts, you can see that I did not do a good job of predicting the winners. I hadn’t even read the Newbery winner (yet), so of course I wasn’t rooting for it. I am looking forward to reading it, though.

I do trust the committee to do a good job, but I also realize that a different committee might well make different choices. And I’m glad that there are other awards out there. My personal favorite, A Conspiracy of Kings, by Megan Whalen Turner, was a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor book, and of course a Sonderbooks Stand-out! And the same is true for The Dreamer, by Pam Munoz Ryan, which picked up the Pura Belpre Award as well.

I had expected One Crazy Summer to win the Newbery Medal, but it “only” got an Honor. However, since it won the Coretta Scott King Author Award and the Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award, Rita Williams-Garcia definitely got much-deserved recognition.

And don’t forget to pay attention to the Cybils, the Blogger Kidlit Awards. I learned on Sunday that the goal of the Cybils Panelists (first round judges) is not just to pick the best books, but to have a good LIST of recommended books — with variety and something for many different tastes. I think they have succeeded in that goal. The winners in each category will be announced on Valentine’s Day.

And sorry for my slowing down on posting. I know I said I’d try to post to weekly. Well, the first post of the year needs to have a new page for the Stand-outs, with lots of links changed, the Sonderbooks Stand-outs seal put on the pages of those books, as well as making pages for the new reviews I posted last week. What with working full-time, and doing things like watching the Newbery announcements, it’s going slowly. This week, I’m working 6 days in a row, but I hope that on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I will finally get the posting done, and then go to a routine of every week.

In other news, did I ever announce on this blog that I am a Librarian again? Back in November, they transferred me back to the Library after 6 months in another county agency (due to library budget cuts), and I am LOVING being back! On top of that, I just finished revising the middle grade novel I’ve been steadily working on for a very long time, so I’m ready to start sending out queries to agents. Life is good, and so far I’m loving 2011!

Thanks to my experience with library budget cuts, the part of the Awards where I cheered loudest was the public service announcements at the beginning, where authors spoke up for libraries. Library budget cuts are BAD for the public! Thank you, authors, for supporting libraries! You can view the videos at