Review of Almost Astronauts, by Tanya Lee Stone

Almost Astronauts

13 Women Who Dared to Dream

by Tanya Lee Stone

Candlewick Press, 2009. 134 pages.
2010 Siebert Medal Winner
2010 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Honor Book
2009 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book
NCTE Orbis Pictis Award
Bank Street Flora Stieglitz Straus Award

Almost Astronauts tells the story of the “Mercury 13,” thirteen women who hoped to become astronauts back in 1961. Despite performing with outstanding test results, the women were not allowed to become astronauts because they were not jet test pilots — and they were not jet test pilots because women were not allowed to be jet test pilots.

Author Tanya Lee Stone lays out the story of these women in an organized but dramatic way, with plenty of photographs illustrating the steps of the process. She also includes newspaper and magazine articles, editorial cartoons, and even a letter to Lyndon B. Johnson about the program with “Let’s stop this now!” scrawled across the bottom.

The story is intriguing, and certainly not one I’d ever heard before. These women underwent rigorous testing and had outstanding results. They hoped to become astronauts, but lost out to the “social order” of the time.

However, I do love it that Tanya Stone ends the book with stories of women who did become astronauts. The Mercury 13 laid the foundation, and today girls can freely dream of some day traveling to outer space as the commander of a mission. Here’s how the author introduces that chapter:

“Some may read the story of these thirteen women and think that their adventure did not have a happy ending. But that depends on where you draw the finish line. The women were stopped in 1962. But they confronted NASA, exposed the trap of the jet-pilot rule, and destroyed the idea that women could not handle stress as well as men. And then Sally Ride did fly, and Eileen Collins did command the shuttle. Today, women are flying into space. But women who want their wings still continue to battle prejudice. So women continue to find inspiration in the story of these thirteen pioneers. Here are some examples of challenges women still face and of the new beginnings that are taking place.”

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

Review of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

by Alan Bradley

Delacorte Press, 2009. 373 pages.
2007 Debut Dagger Award
2009 Agatha Award for Best First Novel
Starred Review

This wonderfully clever and intriguing mystery published for adults stars an 11-year-old sleuth, Flavia DeLuce. It makes me wonder why the book was not published for children or teens. Though I am sure of this: Parents would not want their children emulating Flavia! Although this qualifies as a “cozy” mystery, which made it eligible for the Agatha Award it won, it is not watered-down or tame, and there’s nothing to keep adults from liking it.

Flavia is one of those brilliant children with a special passion for one subject. Her interest is in chemistry, with a particular focus on poisons. Flavia and her two older sisters have a turbulent relationship — the book begins with Flavia escaping from being tied up in a closet, and we learn that it was her sisters who put her there. Her reprisal is quite brilliant, but not very nice.

The mystery begins when a dead bird appears on their doorstep at Buckshaw with a postage stamp impaled on its beak. Then later, she hears her father arguing with someone, talking about a death, and what sounds like blackmail from the other person. She’s pulled away from listening at the keyhole, but that night she gets up in the early hours of the morning, notices a piece of Mrs. Mullet’s awful custard pie missing, and goes out into the garden.

There she finds a stranger lying in the cucumber patch. He says something mysterious and promptly dies. Flavia reflects:

“I wish I could say my heart was stricken, but it wasn’t. I wish I could say my instinct was to run away, but that would not be true. Instead, I watched in awe, savoring every detail: the fluttering fingers, the almost imperceptible bronze metallic cloudiness that appeared on the skin, as if, before my very eyes, it were being breathed upon by death.

“And then the utter stillness.

“I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”

That all happens in the first two chapters. When, before long, Flavia’s father is taken into custody for the murder, Flavia decides to confess herself. For some reason, the authorities don’t take her seriously. So she feels compelled to find out more about the man who died in their garden, his history with her father, and the death of a teacher so many years ago.

Armed with her bike, which she’s named Gladys, Flavia is a resourceful and persistent sleuth. Definitely not an obedient and retiring young lady. Definitely not someone I’d want as my younger sister.

The “About the Author” section at the end of the book says that this is the first of a planned series about Flavia DeLuce. Hooray! If he can keep later books half as inventive and keep Flavia’s spark of mischief a fraction as fiery, that series will be one I’ll snap up just as soon as each volume is published. I can’t wait for more!

Hooray! As soon as I wrote that, I checked Amazon, and the next book is already out! — The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag. I think I’ll be making a purchase….

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Battle of the Books Is About to Begin!

It’s that time of year! School Library Journal is hosting the second annual Battle of the Kids’ Books!

Here’s how it works. The moderators have chosen sixteen highly acclaimed children’s books published in 2009. They match them up in tournament-style brackets (in alphabetical order). At each “match,” a distinguished children’s author will judge between the two books.

Last year, I followed this, but hadn’t read many of the books. It was the Battle of the Kids’ Books that got me to finally read The Hunger Games. But enjoying the Battle of the Books got me interested in other School Library Journal blogs, so I followed the Heavy Medal blog, a Mock Newbery blog, and have read a good proportion of these top 2009 titles.

I’ll list the first round and give my favorites. Here’s where I’d like comments. Which books would you choose in these match-ups?

Oh, I forgot a fun twist they’re adding to this year’s tournament: The Undead Poll. Before the battle begins, they are taking a poll of your favorite contender. In the final round, the book with the most votes that has been previously knocked out of the running will be brought back from the dead. So the final round, judged by our new Ambassador for Children’s Literature, Katharine Paterson, will be between three books instead of just two. The vote closes on Sunday, March 14, so choose your favorite and vote now!

Okay, here are the first round matches, with my own comments:

Match One:
Charles and Emma, by Deborah Heiligman
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Philip Hoose
Judge: Jim Murphy, a distinguished author of nonfiction

This one, I am neutral about the winner. I have read Claudette Colvin and not Charles and Emma, but I did check out Charles and Emma and look it over, but simply didn’t get around to reading it. I liked the look of it, though — biography told as the story of a relationship. As for Claudette Colvin, you can read my review of that book, and it ended up, like many of these on my 2010 Sonderbooks Stand-outs. I will be interested to see which book Jim Murphy chooses. For the sake of making a prediction, I’ll guess Claudette Colvin.

Match Two:
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly
Fire, by Kristin Cashore
Judge: Nancy Farmer

There’s no question in my mind which book I want to win this round. I read about half of Calpurnia Tate before I got tired of it and decided to read some of the other books clamoring for my attention. There are those who adore that book, but it’s not really my style. On the other hand, I was crazy about Fire, and named it my Teen Fantasy #2 on the 2010 Sonderbooks Stand-outs, which actually puts it higher in my favor than the #1 pick in most other categories.

Since Nancy Farmer writes fantasy, I’m hoping she will also favor Fire. But just in case she or a future judge doesn’t, that book was my pick for the Undead Poll, my favorite of all the contenders.

Match Three:
The Frog Scientist, by Pamela S. Turner
The Last Olympian, by Rick Riordan
Judge: Candace Fleming

This one’s a tough call, because the books are so different. I just tonight read and reviewed The Frog Scientist, because I’d had it sitting in my house ready to read for some time. The Battle of the Books motivated me to finally do it! I haven’t read The Last Olympian, but I read and enjoyed the first Percy Jackson book, so I think I have the idea.

The Frog Scientist is nicely presented nonfiction, with beautiful photographs and clear explanations of the science involved. The Last Olympian is wildly popular fiction. If I were judging between The Frog Scientist and the first Percy Jackson book, The Lightning Thief, I would probably pick The Frog Scientist, though that might be because it’s fresh in my mind. The Frog Scientist is an outstanding example of what it’s trying to do — present information. The Lightning Thief, while very good, didn’t stand out in my mind among other fantasy fiction titles.

But who knows what Candace Fleming will pick? For my prediction, I’m going to say The Frog Scientist, swayed by the fact that Candace Fleming writes excellent nonfiction herself, and this is similar with excellent accompanying photographs and excellent details.

Match Four:
Lips Touch: Three Times, by Laini Taylor
The Lost Conspiracy, by Frances Hardinge
Judge: Helen Frost

I’ve read both of these two, and though both were good, I definitely liked Lips Touch much better, so I’m rooting for it in this round.

Match Five (Second Half of the Brackets):
Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Storck
Marching for Freedom, by Elizabeth Partridge
Judge: Gary Schmidt

It’s probably not fair for me to have an opinion on this one, since I haven’t read Marching for Freedom (though I did look through it), but I loved Marcelo too much to want any book to beat it — except for Fire in the very final round! And even then, I won’t feel too bad if it is Marcelo that beats Fire.

Have I mentioned that half the fun of the Battle of the Books is hearing what the judges have to say about the contenders? Gary Schmidt has written the wonderful Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and The Wednesday Wars, and I’m very interested in what he has to say about Marcelo in the Real World.

Match Six:
Peace, Locomotion, by Jacqueline Woodson
A Season of Gifts, by Richard Peck
Judge: Cynthia Kadohata

I haven’t read either of these books, though I have heard about them. I have read some other Jacqueline Woodson books and enjoyed them, so I’m going to go with a prediction of Peace, Locomotion, winning this round.

Match Seven:
The Storm in the Barn, by Matt Phelan
Sweethearts of Rhythm, by Marilyn Nelson
Judge: Anita Silvey

I’m afraid this is another case where I liked The Storm in the Barn too much to want a book I haven’t read to beat it. The Storm in the Barn presents history, but with a touch of fantasy and a lot of emotion — all in graphic novel format. No matter how good nonfiction Sweethearts of Rhythm may be, Storm in the Barn will be hard to beat.

Match Eight:
Tales from Outer Suburbia, by Shaun Tan
When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead
Judge: Julius Lester

This one’s a tough choice. I’ve read both books and thought both were outstanding. Both deserve to go to the final round, and both have a bit of the bizarre in the plot. In the end, though, I would have to pick When You Reach Me, because it did win my heart more than Tales from Outer Suburbia, which definitely won my mind.

The commentary from the judge on this match will be extremely interesting. I’ll go ahead and predict that Julius Lester will pick When You Reach Me, but I may not be as surprised as some if he picks Tales from Outer Suburbia instead.

So — there you have it! On March 15, the Battle of the Kids’ Books will begin. Now I’d like to hear from you. Which of these books is your favorite? (Hurry and vote for it in the Undead Poll before the 14th!)

Do you disagree with me on some of these match-ups? Have you read some of the books I haven’t read and have more insight? Have I slighted one of your favorites?

If you haven’t read any or many (like me last year), I can assure you you’ll add some books to your to-be-read list if you follow the battle.

Let me know what you think! And enjoy the arena seats!

Review of Mare’s War, by Tanita S. Davis

Mare’s War

by Tanita S. Davis

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009. 341 pages.
A 2010 Coretta Scott King Honor Book

I’ve always enjoyed books about teens driving with an elderly relative or acquaintance and being changed by the experience. Some notable examples are Rules of the Road, by Joan Bauer, Hit the Road, by Caroline B. Cooney, and Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech.

Mare’s War is along those lines. Octavia and her older sister Tali have been ordered to spend their summer vacation driving across the country with their grandmother, Mare, to go to a reunion in Alabama. Along the way, Mare tells them about her days as a member of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II.

I didn’t think Mare’s War was as powerful as the other books I’ve mentioned in the driving-with-the-elderly genre. In the first place, Mare’s story was told in separate chapters, as she experienced it at the time, not in the actual words she would have used to tell her granddaughters. And although the girls were interested in her story, they weren’t significantly changed by it. The book felt on the long side, because they were taking a leisurely road trip juxtaposed with Mare just getting through the war, so the plot had no sense of urgency.

However, Mare’s story was fascinating, so I still enjoyed the book very much. I had no idea that a company of black women served in the US Army overseas during World War II. I thought Tanita Davis did a great job expressing what that must have been like for those women.

The girls do gain a new appreciation for their grandmother, and the reader does, too. We definitely root for her as she experiences things completely new, learns how capable she truly is, and forms friendships she can count on forever.

This book shines a light on a piece of history I never thought about before, and tells a good story at the same time.

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And the Rest…

At the start of 2010, I had 43 books I’d read in 2009 that I wanted to review. I’ve been madly writing reviews, without posting them to my main site, waiting until I’ve caught up. I have eight books left from 2009. They were all very good, and worth mentioning, but in the interests of time, I’m only going to mention them with a short blurb in this post, and not give them a full page on my main site.

Once I finish them, I have another stack of seven books that I finished reading already in 2010. After I have caught up on writing those reviews, I hope to post all of the new reviews to So here goes!

Children’s Fiction

These first three books I read as part of my class on the Newbery Medal. They are all historical novels, set in medieval times, and all well-written though just a tad old-fashioned. As Newbery Medal winners, you will be able to find more information about them than these reviews.

The Trumpeter of Krakow
by Eric P. Kelly

Scholastic, 1990. First published in 1928. 242 pages.
1929 Newbery Medal Winner.

Here’s a tale of intrigue and danger set in old Krakow. There are some strange sections about alchemy, and you can tell if someone is bad or good based on how they look, but despite its old-fashioned feel, this book still is very interesting. It’s almost more for teens, because the language is at a high reading level, and the main character is almost grown up, but he is still treated like a child, so the book has the feel of a children’s book.

Fifteen-year-old Joseph Charnetski and his family are fleeing to Krakow. As they almost reach the city gates, someone shows interest in an especially large pumpkin, which his father is not willing to sell.

They use an assumed name and find a hiding place in the city, near an old scholar and his daughter. Joseph’s father takes a job as the city trumpeter. The trumpeter is also the watchman, tasked to raise the alarm if there is a fire in the city. They never play the last three notes of the trumpet call in honor of an old trumpeter who gave his life keeping the call going during an invasion.

Joseph learns the call as well as his father, and as danger approaches, he finds a clever way to raise the alarm.

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Adam of the Road
by Elizabeth Janet Gray

Scholastic. First published in 1942. 320 pages.
1943 Newbery Medal Winner.

Adam of the Road is the story of a minstrel’s son in medieval England. The book starts out at school, with Adam waiting for his father to pick him up after some time apart, to go to London and back on the road. Adam has gained a beloved dog, Nick, who can do tricks and help with their act.

Along the way, a sinister rival minstrel steals Nick. As Adam’s chasing after him, he loses track of his father. He ends up wandering across England on his own, trying to find his father and his dog, and having various adventures along the way.

This is a good story that has stood the test of time. Adam is awfully young to be on his own, but people are kind to him, and he cleverly makes his way, never in real danger. A light-hearted and enjoyable adventure tale for kids interested in medieval times.

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The Door in the Wall
by Marguerite de Angeli

Yearling Newbery (Bantam Doubleday Dell), 1990. First published in 1949. 121 pages.
1950 Newbery Medal Winner.

The Door in the Wall is another story of a boy on his own in medieval times. Robin’s father went off to the wars, expecting his son to go train to be a knight. His mother went to be the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, expecting John-the-Fletcher to come soon to take him to Sir Peter de Lindsay, to train as a knight.

But Robin gets sick, and when John-the-Fletcher comes, he is not able to go along. For a month he is bedridden, unable to move his legs. He is lame and will never be a knight now.

Some monks take Robin under their wing. They help him learn to swim, to strengthen his arms, and eventually to walk with a crutch. They take him on a journey to meet his father, and they have adventures along the way. By the end of the book, only Robin is able to get a message out and save an entire castle.

This book is shorter than the others. It’s a fairly simple story, but interesting with the medieval setting and inspiring as Robin overcomes his handicap, and learns that his life still has significance.

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Growing Wings
by Laurel Winter

Firebird (Penguin Putnam), 2000. 195 pages.

All her life, Linnet’s mother has touched Linnet’s shoulder blades before she tucks Linnet into bed. One day, when she’s eleven, Linnet learns why. She’s itching horribly, and she has strange bumps on her shoulders.

Linnet’s mother assures her she doesn’t have cancer. She is growing wings. Linnet’s mother also grew wings when she was Linnet’s age, but her mother cut them off. Linnet’s mother is determined not to do that to Linnet, but she doesn’t know what to do to hide them.

Linnet finds a community of others with wings, living in a house in the wilderness. Some adults who are “cutwings” are in charge. So far, none of the teens with wings have been able to fly. They are trying to learn, but also to stay hidden.

This is an intriguing story, with plenty of conflict in the community of winged children. Linnet explores her heritage and wonders what she can make of her life. Will she have to spend her whole life in hiding?

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Miss Zukas and the Island Murders
by Jo Dereske

Avon Books (HarperCollins), 1995. 258 pages.

This is the second mystery about Miss Zukas, librarian extraordinaire. In this book, Miss Zukas and her exotic friend Ruth arrange a twenty-year reunion on an island in Puget Sound for their high school class from Michigan.

While they’re preparing, she gets threatening letters that refer to the long-ago death of one of their classmates. Once they’re on the island, naturally a storm strikes, isolating them, and a murder occurs. Can they solve the murder and keep from getting killed themselves?

This is a fun mystery. Miss Zukas’s librarian nature didn’t come up as much in this book as in the first one, and I felt that she leapt to conclusions without a lot of reasons. But she’s an entertaining character to read about. Gotta love a librarian detective!

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A Way of Life

by Louise L. Hay and Friends
compiled and edited by Jill Kramer

Hay House, 1996. 312 pages.

This book is full of essays about gratitude, written by many notable people. How can you possibly go wrong? I went for quite awhile, reading one essay per day. It’s a nice way to put your day on track.

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The Bait of Satan
Living Free from the Deadly Trap of Offense

by John Bevere

Charisma House, 2004. First published in 1994. 255 pages.

In this book, John Bevere teaches that Satan’s biggest trap is taking offense. What’s more, you feel justified and in the right!

“Pride causes you to view yourself as a victim. Your attitude becomes, ‘I was mistreated and misjudged; therefore, I am justified in my behavior.’ Because you believe you are innocent and falsely accused, you hold back forgiveness. Though your true heart condition is hidden from you, it is not hidden from God. Just because you were mistreated, you do not have permission to hold on to an offense. Two wrongs do not make a right!”

This book looks at many different ways the devil deceives us into taking offense, and encourages you in many different ways to overcome and find forgiveness. A valuable, helpful book.

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Write Is a Verb
Sit Down. Start Writing. No Excuses.

by Bill O’Hanlon

Writer’s Digest Books, 2007. 212 pages. DVD included.

This is a book about getting it together and actually writing. I read it after I had already made and was keeping a resolution to write at least fifteen minutes per day, every day, so this book only reinforced what I had already determined to do.

If you want to write, and are having trouble motivating yourself, this book has some great ways to think through your motivation and ideas for marketing yourself. Think of this as a great pep talk, complete with a DVD so you can see and hear an additional pep talk.

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2010 ALA Award Winners

I got up early on my day off to watch the webcast of the ALA Award winners in Boston. You can find out all the winners at I’ll mention books I’ve reviewed that were honored:

Stitches, by David Small, won an Alex Award for an adult book that appeals to Teens.

Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork, won the Schneider Family Book Award for the Best Teen Book dealing with disabilities. (My biggest disappointment of the morning was that this book didn’t get any Printz attention.)

Walter Dean Myers won the first Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Philip Hoose, won an Honor for the new YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award. (The Award winner was Charles and Emma, by Deborah Heiligman.), as well as Sibert Honor. (The Sibert Medal winner was Almost Astronauts, by Tanya Lee Stone.)

The Michael L. Printz Award winner was Going Bovine, by Libba Bray. I’m afraid I haven’t read the winner or any of the Honor books.

For maybe the first time since its inception, Mo Willems was not included in the Geisel winners (Too bad!). The Award winner was Benny and Penny in the Big No-No! by Geoffrey Hayes.

However, I’m in complete agreement about the winners of the Caldecott and Newbery Medals.

The Caldecott Honor Books were All the World, illustrated by Marla Frazee, written by Liz Garton Scanlon, and Red Sings from Treetops, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, written by Joyce Sidman.

The Caldecott Medal, no surprise and well-deserved, went to Jerry Pinkney for The Lion and the Mouse.

The Newbery Honor Books were Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Philip Hoose; The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly; Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin; and The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg, by Rodman Philbrick.

The Newbery Medal, also no surprise and well-deserved, went to When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead.

Congratulations to all the winners!

Review of Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice

Claudette Colvin

Twice Toward Justice

by Philip Hoose

Melanie Kroupa Books (Farrar Straus Giroux), New York, 2009. 133 pages.
2009 National Book Award Winner
2010 Newbery Honor Book
2010 Sibert Honor Book
2010 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Honor Book
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #1 Children’s Nonfiction

I always thought that Rosa Parks was the first black woman to refuse to give up her seat on segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama. However, nine months earlier, a high school junior named Claudette Colvin “had been arrested, dragged backwards off the bus by police, handcuffed, and jailed for refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger.”

Philip Hoose did extensive research, and had many interviews with Claudette Colvin herself. Here she describes what it was like:

“One of them said to the driver in a very angry tone, ‘Who is it?’ The motorman pointed at me. I heard him say, ‘That’s nothing new . . . I’ve had trouble with that “thing” before.’ He called me a ‘thing.’ They came to me and stood over me and one said, ‘Aren’t you going to get up?’ I said, ‘No, sir.’ He shouted ‘Get up’ again. I started crying, but I felt even more defiant. I kept saying over and over, in my high-pitched voice, ‘It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right!’ I knew I was talking back to a white policeman, but I had had enough.

“One cop grabbed one of my hands and his partner grabbed the other and they pulled me straight up out of my seat. My books went flying everywhere. I went limp as a baby — I was too smart to fight back. They started dragging me backwards off the bus. One of them kicked me. I might have scratched one of them because I had long nails, but I sure didn’t fight back. I kept screaming over and over, ‘It’s my constitutional right!’ I wasn’t shouting anything profance — I never swore, not then, not ever. I was shouting out my rights.

“It just killed me to leave the bus. I hated to give that white woman my seat when so many black people were standing. I was crying hard. The cops put me in the back of a police car and shut the door. They stood outside and talked to each other for a minute, and then one came back and told me to stick my hands out the open window. He handcuffed me and then pulled the door open and jumped in the backseat with me. I put my knees together and crossed my hands over my lap and started praying.”

After the incident, reactions were mixed:
“Opinion at Booker T. Washington was sharply divided between those who admired Claudette’s courage and those who thought she got what she deserved for making things harder for everyone. Some said it was about time someone stood up. Others told her that if she didn’t like the way things were in the South, she should go up North. Still others couldn’t make up their minds: no one they knew had ever done anything like this before.

“‘A few of the teachers like Miss Nesbitt embraced me,’ Claudette recalls. ‘They kept saying, “You were so brave.” But other teachers seemed uncomfortable. Some parents seemed uncomfortable, too. I think they knew they should have done what I did long before. They were embarrassed that it took a teenager to do it.'”

After Claudette was convicted of violating the segregation law, disturbing the peace, and ‘assaulting’ the policemen, things got even worse. She says,

“Now I was a criminal. Now I would have a police record whenever I went to get a job, or when I tried to go to college. Yes, I was free on probation, but I would have to watch my step everywhere I went for at least a year. Anyone who didn’t like me could get me in trouble. On top of that I hadn’t done anything wrong. Not everyone knew the bus rule that said they couldn’t make you get up and stand if there was no seat available for you to go to — but I did. When the driver told me to go back, there was no other seat. I hadn’t broken the law. And assaulting a police officer? I probably wouldn’t have lived for very long if I had assaulted those officers.

“When I got back to school, more and more students seemed to turn against me. Everywhere I went people pointed at me and whispered. Some kids would snicker when they saw me coming down the hall. ‘It’s my constitutional right! It’s my constitutional right!’ I had taken a stand for my people. I had stood up for our rights. I hadn’t expected to become a hero, but I sure didn’t expect this.

“I cried a lot, and people saw me cry. They kept saying I was ’emotional.’ Well, who wouldn’t be emotional after something like that? Tell me, who wouldn’t cry?”

Not long after, Claudette met an older man who seemed to be a friend, but took advantage of her vulnerability. She got pregnant out of wedlock. So she wasn’t seen as a suitable role model for the movement to stop segregation. Seven months later, another teenager, Mary Louise Smith was also arrested for refusing to give up her seat, but she, too, was not seen as someone who could serve as the public face of a mass bus protest.

Eventually, they did find a suitable person in Rosa Parks. The bus boycott started. The boycott did not end until the case Browder vs. Gale, where four black women sued the city of Montgomery and the state of Alabama, saying that bus segregation was unconstitutional. One of those plaintiffs in the suit was Claudette Colvin, and her testimony was key in getting a positive verdict. Not until the verdict was upheld in the Supreme Court did the segregation on the buses end.

This book was especially good to read after reading The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, since it also dealt with race relations in the South at that time. Philip Hoose researched the events so well, and presents clearly all the drama of the situation, along with the emotions of the people involved. How wonderful that people can finally hear the story of a teenage girl who stood up — no, sat down — for what’s right.

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Review of The Lion and the Mouse, by Jerry Pinkney

The Lion and the Mouse

by Jerry Pinkney

Little, Brown and Company Books for Young Readers, New York, 2009. 36 pages.
Starred Review
2010 Caldecott Medal Winner
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #6 Picture Books

This stunning picture book is my pick for the 2010 Caldecott Medal. The amazingly detailed paintings tell the story of the well-known fable without words, the only text being animal sounds as part of the pictures.

Without words, I was surprised at what a success this book was at Storytime. The big, beautiful pictures captured the children’s attention, and there was lots for them to talk about on each page. The expressions on the faces of the characters show emotion beautifully. There’s lots of variety in the format, from close-ups to wide angle shots. It would take many readings before you had noticed all the detail in the backgrounds.

I got to hear Jerry Pinkney talk about writing this book at the National Book Festival. He clearly loves animals, and that comes across in this magnificent book.

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Review of When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

when_you_reach_meWhen You Reach Me

by Rebecca Stead

Wendy Lamb Books (Random House), 2009. 199 pages.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #1 Children’s Fantasy and Science Fiction

When You Reach Me is hard to categorize. Technically, you might call it Historical, since it is set in 1978 and 1979. But the focus is not the time period or issues of the time period, so I don’t think it really fits that category. There’s a touch of science fiction, a touch of mystery, and a touch of adventure. Mostly, I feel like this is a school story, a story of a sixth-grade girl who loses her best friend and must learn how to cope — while strange events are going on around her.

Also interesting, the day before I picked up this book, I read a chapter from Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose, on point of view. She talks about the rarity of good fiction written in the second person.

Francine Prose says,
“The truth is that marvelous fiction has been written in the second person, though in these cases, the ‘you’ is less likely to be the reader in general than someone in particular, an individual to whom the story (often metaphorically or imaginatively) is being addressed.”

In When You Reach Me, part of the puzzle is to whom exactly Miranda is telling her story. Who is the “you”?

She’s telling the story to someone, someone who has sent her mysterious letters that seem to be able to foretell the future. How did the letter writer know, for example, that Miranda’s Mom would appear on The 20,000 Pyramid on April 27?

They live in an apartment in New York City, and Miranda must walk past some alarming characters on her way home, but she has her friend Sal to walk with. Until the day that Sal got punched. That’s the day that Miranda thinks it all started.

I admit I can’t help but fall for a character who carries around Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time everywhere she goes. Miranda faces a lot in this book. Trouble with friends. Scary situations. A stressed-out mother. Things going missing.

Miranda comes through. She figures out how to be a better friend, navigates some tricky situations, and ultimately solves the mystery of the letters.

I like Miranda’s way of dealing with someone she’s afraid of:

“I have my own trick. If I’m afraid of someone on the street, I’ll turn to him (it’s always a boy) and say, ‘Excuse me, do you happen to know what time it is?’ This is my way of saying to the person, ‘I see you as a friend, and there is no need to hurt me or take my stuff. Also, I don’t even have a watch and I am probably not worth mugging.’

“So far, it’s worked like gangbusters, as Richard would say. And I’ve discovered that most people I’m afraid of are actually very friendly.”

This story is surprisingly simple for something with a complicated idea behind it. It will leave your mind spinning in a small, pleasant way, and your heart warmed.

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Review of The Graveyard Book audiobook, by Neil Gaiman


The Graveyard Book

by Neil Gaiman

Narrated by the author.

Recorded Books, New York, 2008.  7 compact discs.  7.75 hours.

Starred review.

2009 Newbery Award winner.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #2 Children’s Fantasy and Science Fiction

When The Graveyard Book came out, I checked it out for my 14-year-old son to read, knowing he’d want to read anything by Neil Gaiman.  He told me I should read it, but after listening to Coraline, which was very good but exceedingly creepy, I decided that a book by Neil Gaiman with “graveyard” in the title was bound to be too creepy for me.

However, when The Graveyard Book won the Newbery Award, I decided that as a responsible children’s librarian, I really should read it, and I was completely delighted with it.  There’s a little bit of creepiness, but not nearly so much as Coraline.  In fact, I think The Graveyard Book would make fantastic listening for an entire family on a car trip, because it appeals to a wide range of ages.  (If your kids are old enough to handle the fact that the family is murdered at the beginning, they will be able to handle anything else in the book.)

The premise, and the reason for the name, is the same idea as The Jungle Book, except instead of a baby being adopted by the dwellers of the jungle, a baby is adopted by the dwellers of a graveyard.

The book does begin as a family has just been murdered.  The killer is looking to finish the job, but the baby has toddled off.  In the graveyard, a loving woman who always wanted to be a mother convinces her husband to take pity on the baby and take him in.  As Mowgli’s parents needed the approval of the pack, so this baby needs the approval of the inhabitants of the graveyard.  He’s named Nobody Owens, Bod for short.

There are some fun parallels between Bod’s story and The Jungle Book.  For example, instead of getting kidnapped by apes, Bod gets kidnapped by ghouls.  At first the book seems very episodic (with extremely interesting episodes), but by the end, all the adventures tie together into Bod’s need to avenge his family, escape their fate, and live a life outside the graveyard.

Neil Gaiman’s narration is simply awesome.  He now lives in America, but he has a wonderful voice and just enough British accent to sound incredibly cultured.  He gives the different characters different voices, with accents as appropriate.  I found his reading of the chapter with the ghouls especially delightful.

Although I’m sure this book makes great reading on your own, hearing Neil Gaiman read it makes for an incredible listening experience.  I found myself lingering in the car more than once because I got to work too quickly.

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