Thursday, April 17, 2014

Children's Book-A-Day Almanac by Anita Silvey

The other day I bought something I have wanted for a while now - I purchased my very own copy of Anita Silvey's Children's Book-A-Day Almanac.  Oh sure, I know I could go to her website and read the book of the day there, but I kind of wanted to have the print version for those times that I want to look up something quickly, or for a little relaxing bedtime reading.

Silvey spotlights the best in children's literature one day at a time.  So, for instance, today, April 17th, the spotlight is shining on Because of Wiinn-Dixie, Kate DiCamillo's 2001 Newbery Honor book.  After a brief synopsis of the story, Silvey gives some background information about the author and the book.

This is the kind of book you will thumb through again and again, stopping to read the book of the day as they catch your fancy.  But, Silvey provides not just information about one book.  Since it is the job of a good almanac to provide information in conjunction with each calendar day, Silvey does just that.  She includes birthdays of authors living and deceased, book events of the past, and even book suggestions if the date has special significance.  For example, today is Bat Appreciation Day and the book she suggests we read is Bats at the Ballgame by Brian Lies.

There is two advantages the website has that the book doesn't - excerpts and links.  For today, April 17th, there is a link to DiCamillo's manuscript process for Because of Winn-Dixie, followed by an excerpt, and instructional material for teaching it.

So, if you can get all that and more, why buy the book?  Imagine it in your classroom, whether that is in a school or a home school, and your young readers using it as a reference book; or in your home, and your reader is looking for something to read but doesn't seem to be able to find a book that appeals to them, so the two of you sit down at the kitchen table (because it seems all important things happen at the kitchen table) and go through the Children's Book-A-Day looking for just the right book.  These are some of the real life scenarios that have happened in my house since I bought the book and they could happen at your home.

I have a shelf where I keep my go-to books on children's literature.  One that I use again and again is Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book by Leonard Marcus, another is Storied City: A Children's Book Walking-Tour Guide of New York City also by Leonard Marcus, and also 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before Your Grow Up by Judy Eccleshare and Quentin Blake, now I can add the Children's Book-A-Day Almanac.

If you are not familiar with Anita Silvey's work, be sure to visit her online version of the Children's Book A Day Almanac.  There are wonders to discover there.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Hi, Koo! A Year of Seasons by Jon J. Muth

Whenever a new book about bears is published, especially those that are about pandas or polar bears, my friends all send me messages about it.  They all know I tend to gush over bears and if I had a bucket list, playing with a panda would definitely be one it.

So, naturally, when Hi, Koo! came out, I had a flutter of email and Facebook activity.  But I was one step ahead of everyone on this one and already had a copy.  Hi, Koo! is a wonderful, gentle poetic journey through the four seasons in the company Koo.  Well versed in haiku, Koo is the enchantingly delightful nephew of Stillwater, a giant but gentle, Zen wise Panda first introduced to young readers in Zen Shorts (Scholastic, 2005).  We met Koo in 2008 when he visited he uncle in Zen Ties.

In Hi, Koo!, Jon Muth first explains the Japanese haiku and why the line pattern of five, seven, five sound parts won't work in English.  He then tells us that for him, a haiku is an "instant captured in words...using sensory images" that capture an emotion.

And so, with Koo's help, Muth takes us through the four season in twenty six different haiku's, and thrown in for good measure is the alphabet, each letter disguised within the haiku in its capital form.

There are 6 haiku dedicated to Fall, seven to Winter, six to Spring and seven to Summer.  Each one with its own beautiful watercolor and ink illustration featuring Koo, and sometimes a little black kitten friend.

I love the idea of introducing young readers to the beauty and expressiveness of poetry and this book goes far in achieving that goal.  Muth has captured some emotional instants we have all felt at one time or another.

But, wait, see for yourself.  Allow me to share one of my favorites from each season (but the are all good):

If your young readers are already familiar with Koo, they will certainly enjoy Hi, Koo! and if they haven't met this roly-poly panda yet, they are in for a real treat.  This is a book they will want to return to again and again, especially as the seasons change.  And what a wonderful read aloud book for quiet moments like bedtime.

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick

Zane Dupree, a 12 year old biracial boy (father is black, mom is white), is happy living in New Hampshire with his mom and his little dog Bandy.  Zane's dad was killed in a car accident before he was born, so Zane really didn't him and it seems that all this dad's relatives were gone as well.  But then, his mom discovers that Zane has a great grandmother living in New Orleans, who didn't know he existed either.  Not only that, but she had raised his dad, James, like he was her own child...that is, until he ran away.

Now, it's the end of summer 2005, and Zane and Bandy are spending the last week of vacation before school begins visiting his great grandmother Beatrice Jackson, called Miss Trissy by everyone who knows her.  Bothered by the heat and humidity, Zane is, nevertheless, anxious to hear what Miss Trissy has to tell him about his dad.  But when he asks, she always puts off answering.  Before he has a chance to learn anything, warnings about a big hurricane named Katrina are issued for New Orleans and Zane's mom books him and his great grandmother on a flight to New Hampshire.

But when the flight is cancelled, and a mandatory evacuation is ordered for all of New Orleans, Zane, Miss Trissy and Bandy get a ride out in the church.  Traffic is at a stand still, and then, Bandy suddenly jumps out the open van window, running down the highway.  Zane jumps out to get him, but before he knows it, Bandy has brought him back to Miss Trissy's house.  And now, it is too late to go back to the van.

Stranded, alone and scared, the two weather out the hurricane in the house, but the next day, despite the sun shining, the levees break, putting most of New Orleans under water, including Miss Trissy's house, the water coming almost as high as the attic.  Luckily, Bandy's barking attracts a young girl and an older man in a canoe, and soon, Zane and Bandy are paddling away with new friends, Trudell Manning, called Mr. Tru, a New Orleans musician and his ward Malvina, a girl around Zane's age.

Thinking they will soon be safe and sound in a shelter somewhere, the three discover that the horror that is Hurricane Katrina isn't quite over for them.  Thinking they have found a quiet resprite at a school where people have gathered, they come face to face with the drug dealer who had supplied Malvina's mom with drugs before she entered rehab.  Now he wants to take Malvina with him, insurance that her mother won't tell the authorities the names of everyone involved in his drug dealing.

In their escape, Mr. Tru hurts his foot and they decide to head to the safety of the Superdome, where so many others who couldn't get out of New Orleans have gathered.  But when they finally get there, they find there is no one to help them or tend to Mr. Tru's now infected foot.

Caught up in all the chaos the followed Hurricane Katrina, will Zane ever get out of the hurricane nightmare he has found himself in and will he ever find out why his dad ran away?

My heart broke when Hurricane Katrina put New Orleans under water in 2005.  It was always a favorite city of mine, and I wondered if it would ever come back.  Happily, it has, but it hasn't been easy.  But Hurricane Katrina brought to light a lot of things that people may not have wanted to be aware of before.  And many of those things are present in this very carefully researched novel, narrated by Zane, an outsider who can make observations about what he sees and experiences.  As he and his new friends paddle through New Orleans seeking safety, class and race distinctions, especially who gets out in time and who ends up having to stay in the Superdome or on top of their roofs, are very clear to him as is whose house is on higher ground and whose ends up underwater.

 Philbrick does do a top notch job depicting the chaos, the sense of abandonment the black population in New Orleans felt by authorities who should have been able to help (remember those heartbreaking images on TV at the time), the oppressive heat and humidity, the smells, the snakes and dead bodies in the water as the trio paddle through, and the danger everyone faced, even after losing everything they owned.  However, these depictions are done in such a way that they won't turn off young readers.

And, this is still a coming of age story.  Zane has has much to learn about his personal family history, his cultural heritage and just who he is, even if it takes a hurricane to give him the impetus he needs to do that.   Some of the action may seem a little over the top and the ending might seem a little pat after some of the things the Zane experiences, but I think both are forgivable in this imminently readable, historically accurate novel.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from a friend

Monday, April 7, 2014

It's Monday! What are you reading?

It's Monday! What are you reading? is a weekly meme hosted by Sheila of Book Journey.  Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleasing Readers have adapted it to focus on Picture Books to Young Adult Books.

Last week, I read and reviewed several really good books.

First up is Moon at Nine by Deborah Ellis.  This is historical fiction based on a true story about two 15 year old girls who are attracted to each other.  The problem is that they are living in Iran in 1988, and homosexuality is a crime punishable by death.

Next, I read  The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton.  This is a novel about a girl born with a pair of wings.  She goes on a journey through her family history to try to figure out who she is and where she came from.  While I think this is a beautifully, lyrical book, I think it is for mature teens.

I also read Saving Kabul Corner by N.H. Senzai.  This is a nice middle grade novel about two cousins, on an Afghani American, the other newly arrived from Afghanistan who are at first rivals, but then come together with friends to solve the mystery of who is vandalizing Afghani grocery stores in the same strip mall.

And lastly,  I reread Harriet the Spy.  This is her 50th Anniversary and a new edition was issued that includes the thoughts and memories of some of Harriet's more famous readers, like Judy Blume, Lenore Look, Rebecca Stead and Meg Cabot.  Harriet wasn't the nicest of protagonists, but she still has something for kids today to learn.

And right now, I am in the middle of The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson.

These are the books on this week's TBR shelf:

Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick
Threatened by Eliot Schrefer
The Finisher by David Baldacci
Dear Blue Sky by Mary Sullivan

 What are you reading this week?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Saving Kabul Corner by N.H.Senzai

Twelve-year old-Ariana Shinwari can't wait to have her own room in the new house that her parents have just put a deposit on.  But for now, she must share her small bedroom with her grandmother Hava Bibi and her cousin Laila, who has just recently arrived from Afghanistan with her mother.  Laila's father is still in Afghanistan, working as a translator for the Americans army, a dangerous job that makes him a traitor as far as the Taliban is concerned.

Everyone makes such a fuss over Laila and everything she does, much to the annoyance of Ariana.  Not only that, Laila was the perfect Afghani girl - she can cook, sew, recite classical Afghani poetry and speak three languages _ Pukhto, Farsi and English.  The only thing Ariana felt she could do in comparison is speak English.  Ariana's jealousy of her cousin reaches the boiling point when it looks like Laila is trying to take away her best friend, Mariam.

But soon there are even bigger problems than Laila's presence in Ariana's world.  In the same strip mall, Wong Plaza, that the Shinwari's have their Afghani grocery store, providing the income that will pay for the house with Ariana's new private bedroom, another Afgani grocery store is about to open at the other end of the mall - Pamir Market, owned by the Ghilzai family.  And to make things worse still, the Shinwaris and the Ghilzais were part of a feud that began back in Afghanistan, according to Hava Bibi.

Supposedly, that feud had been resolved and left behind in Afghanistan when the families migrated to America, or so everyone thought.  But when a flyer shows up all over the mall claiming that Pamir Market doesn't sell Halal meat, and when Kabul Corner is broken into and all their stock destroyed, everyone thinks the feud has been resurrected and retaliations seem to be getting more and more dangerous.

Yet, even as the rivalry between the two stores heats up and escalates, Ariana and Laila discover that maybe they can be friends after all.  And it a good thing, because they are going to have to work together, along with Mariam and fellow classmate Wali Ghilzai to solve the mystery behind who is now trying to destroy both grocery stores after Ariana makes an interesting discovery.

There is so much going on in Saving Kabul Corner and yet it isn't overwhelming or confusing.  I actually liked how the feud between the Shinwari and Ghilzai families paralleled that of Ariana and Laila, as did that fact that these feuds were resolved amicably.  Young readers will easily see the connection and understand the resolution.  And bringing in Laila and Wali to help them figure out who is trying to reignite the old Afghani feud shows some real growth on Ariana's part in learning to get along.  

Saving Kabul Corner is a well-written novel that gives the reader some nice insight into what life is like for Afghan Americans struggling to make better lives for themselves.  And, through Laila's story, the reader also sees what life is often like now in war torn Afghanistan.  When her father goes missing, just thinking that he might be in the hands of the Taliban makes it clear that for families like the Shinwarls the violence in Afghanistan still impacts their lives.

Author N.H. Senzai includes a nice glossary at the back of the book for terms that may not be familiar to non-Afghani readers, and an Author's Note that should definitely be read. Though some readers may find the ending a little predictable, or a little too pat, but Saving Kabul Corner is still a book not to be missed and a nice chance to learn something about a different culture.  And even though Saving Kabul Corner is a companion book to Shooting Kabul (which is the story of how Ariana's best friend Mariam left Afghanistan), both books also stand alone very nicely.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

In her Prologue, Ava Lavender says that she has always known what others don't - that she is just a girl, a girl born with a pair of speckled wings.  Nevertheless, Ava embarks on a journey to discover just who she is and where she came from.

She begins with in-depth explorations of the women on her maternal side of the family - her great, great grandmother Maman, mother of Emilienne, René, Margaux and Pierette, all born in France on the first of March in 1904, 1905, 1906 and 1907 respectively and all strangely extraordinary in their own way.  Moving from France to Manhattan, all except Emilienne died deaths that are just as strangely extraordinary as they are.  Their specters, however, will accompany Emilienne throughout her life.  Feeling betrayed after she discovers that her fiancé, Satin Lush, has been cheating on her all around town, Emilienne ends up marrying Connor Lavender.  The two leave New York and travel to a small neighborhood in Seattle, Washington, where Connor opens a bakery.  Their child, Viviane, is born.

The very beautiful Viviane is born with an strong sense of smell that goes beyond the usual.  Vivianne can smell things like happiness, sadness, bitterness, broken hearts.  At age 7, she meets Jack and the two are inseparable until he goes off to college.  She waits for him to come back and he does, but only momentarily, just long enough for Viviane to get pregnant.

And so on March 1, 1944, Ava and her twin brother are born.  The two children are sequestered away in the old house on Pinnacle Lane, which just happens to also be haunted.  Home schooled by Viviane, Ava watches the world go by from her bedroom window, longing to be part of it.  Even Henry, who appears to be autistic, is allowed to wander around with his constant canine companion, Trouver.  But when Cardigan and Rowe Cooper move into the house next door, Ava gets a taste of the world beyond the home, sneaking out by climbing the cherry tree outside her window.  But, when unusually heavy rains come during the summer solstice when she is 15, Ava accepts the invitation of Nathaniel Sorrow to come in out of the rain, a decision that will change her life forever.

This is such a good book, but there is quite a bit of magical realism throughout it, making this a story that might not appeal to everyone.  But if you are someone who does like that particular genre, you will find that The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is a beautifully written multigenerational novel about love, loss, betrayal, and redemption by debut author Leslye Walton.  The story is told from the perspective a now 70 year old Ava, whose first person prose is often so lyrical, so poetic that you won't want to put it down, even when the story gets emotionally difficult.

This family saga, however, doesn't remain entirely focused on the Ava's family.  Indeed, there are side narratives about the young girl, Fatima Inês de Dores, who lived in the house on Pinnacle Lane prior to the Lavenders, and whose ghost remains there.  There is also the story of Marigold Pie, Nathaniel Sorrow.  But in the end, it all comes together so well and so unpredictably.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is one of the most unique books I have read this year and ironically, I found it to be one of the most difficult to review.  It is, however, the kind of story that will stick with you long after you have finished it.

This book is recommended for readers age 16+
This book was received from the by the publisher

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Moon at Nine by Deborah Ellis

It's 1988 in Tehran, Iran, nine years after the 1979 Revolution that sent the Shah of Iran into exile and the country's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, became the Supreme Leader of Iran.  For 15 year old Farrin Kazemi this meant living a lie.  On the first Monday of each month, her mother hosts a Bring Back the Shah Tea for Ladues of Culture, whose goal is to bring back the son of the Shah, since the Shah is already dead, and remove Ayatollah Khomeini.  Later, when the men join their wives there is dancing and alcohol, both illegal in the new Iran.  Farrin's family can afford many black market luxuries  like alchohol; her father is a successful businessman, building luxury homes, hiring illegal Afghans to do the building for little money and having them deported if they give him any trouble.

Farrin attends a private school for gifted girls.  The secret activites of her parents and her mother's attitude that those who support the Revolution are low-class rabble have left Farrin not just without any friends, but really disliked by Pargol, the power-weilding class monitor, who would like nothing better than to get Farrin in really serious trouble.

But then one day, Farrin hears beautiful music at school and discovers a new girl playing a santour, a forbidden instrument.  Her name is Sadira and by the end of the day, she and Farrin are friends.  And as time goes by, they discover they are attracted to each other beyond friendship.  But the girls must be extra careful.  Such things are illegal and the Revolutionary Guard is always on the look out for infractions of the country's strict laws.

The more Farrin and Sadira hang out together, the deeper their feelings for each other grow.  Farrin even feels she can trust Sadira enough to tell her about her mother's tea parties.  And finally, on a day the school is honoring an Iranian poet, Farrin chooses a is love poem to recite in assembly, hoping Sadira will understand it is her way of expressing her feelings.   When the assembly is abruptly ended, she recites the poem to Sadira when the two girls are alone in the gym.  Moved, the two girls embarce and kiss, just as Pargol enters the gym.

Needless to say, they are forbidden to see each other anymore.  And the principal strongly suggests to the parents that they should consider arranging a marriage for each girl - soon.  Still, Farrin and Sidera manage to find a way to write letters to each other.  But that just isn't enough.  An escape is planned and with the help of Farrin's family chauffeur, Sadira manages to sneak into her house during a tea party.  Planning to leave at daybreak, the girls fall asleep next to each other and that is how the Revolutionary Guard find them when they raid the house.

What's next for Farrin and Sadira in a country where their love is forbidden by law?  

Farrin's story is based by the true story of an Iranian women that Deborah Ellis met, as she explains in her Author's Notes at the end of the book, a story that Ellis felt was important enough to tell.  Iran is a country where homosexuality is still punishable by death, as it is in seven other countries in the world.  In still other countries, it is punishable by imprisonment, as we have recently witnessed in Russia recently.  I think these events make Moon at Nine a story totally revelant in today's world, and not just an interesting piece of historical fiction.

That being said, I was a little disappointed in Moon at Nine.  Generally, I like Ellis's writing very much, but I found this book to be somewhat uninspired.  She presents us with a very concrete world, where everything is divided into good or bad.  The story is told from Farrin's point of view, and, for most of the story, I felt that she was a just spoiled brat who only wanted what she wanted and disregarded the possible consequences, rather than the strong-willed person I had expected.  I found when things got dangerous, I really didn't have much sympathy for her, and she didn't have much for anyone else other than herself and Sadira.  Sadira, on the other hand, seemed to be a strong girl who knew her own mind, until Farrin came into her life and suddenly she felt weak and disposable.  I started out liking her very much and, at the end, I did still feel some compassion for her.

Despite not liking this novel as much as I have liked Ellis's other works, for example, The Breadwinner books, I do think it is a very thought provoking and important books for teens to read, if only because it gives such a disturbing perspective of life in a very conservative country.  And it is definitely a welcome addition to the ever evolving body of LGBTQ literature.

NB: Following the Author's Notes is a very useful Book Club Reading Guide.  And, although Moon at Nine is a YA novel, there are some very graphic descriptions towards the end of the book.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was received as an eARC from NetGalley