Friday, December 3, 2021

How Do You Live? by Genzaburō Yoshino, translated from the Japanese by Bruno Navasky


How Do You Live? by Genzaburō Yoshino,
translated by Bruno Navasky
Algonquin Young Readers, 1937, 2021, 288 pages

How Do You Live? may be the most unusual coming-of-age story I've ever read. It was originally written in Japan in 1937, which, you may remember, was the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War. This war is never mentioned, and yet, the book very philosophically explores the question: how do you live your life in order to make it your best life?

Readers are introduced to 15-year-old Honda Jun'ichi, nicknamed Copper. His father has passed away and he lives with his mother in Tokyo, not far from an uncle who has taken Copper under his wing. Copper often visits his uncle in the evenings to play chess and indulge in some very philosophical discussions, which are then followed up with some thoughts written by his uncle about what they had talked about on a particular evening. The story, then, unfolds in alternating voices - on the one hand, the events and experiences in Copper's home and school life are told in the third person, on the other, there are the thoughts his uncles writes down for Copper on the first person.

Copper got his nickname after a long discussion with his uncle about Copernicus and this theory that the earth revolves around the sun which is at the center of the universe rather than the previously long help belief that the sun moves around the earth and that earth was the center of the universe. It doesn't take a philosophy degree to see that Uncle is telling Copper that he is one human among many. 

At school, Copper has two friends in his class, Mizutani, whom he has known since elementary school, and Kitami whom he has met in junior high school. There is also another boy in their class, Uragawa, a poorer student who, because his grades are low and he always smells like the fried tofu his parents sell, is nicknamed Fried Tofu and subject to many cruel pranks. 

When Uragawa is absent from school for a number of days, Copper takes it upon himself to visit him and see what's wrong and when he will return to school. Seeing what his family life is like, and Uragawa cleverness at making the fried tofu causes Copper to see him in a different light. He begins to help him with his homework and Uragawa's grades really improve. Pretty soon, Mizutani and Kitami come around and begin to include Uragawa in their group.

When some seniors at school set their sights on Katami, Copper, Mizutani, and Uragawa promise to stand with him if they threaten to beat him up. But when the time comes for this courageous act to happen, Copper finds that he can't move and join his friends in defending Katami. Crestfallen by his lack of action and loyalty, Copper becomes ill. Can he ever face his friends again? Or will he be shunned by them for his cowardice? 

In the end of Copper's ordeal, he has learned much about himself and about human nature, including how he wishes to live his life, while at the same time, realizing there is still much more to learn.

How Do You Live? in a very interesting school story and I would love to know what motivated the author to write it. I have to admit that, even though I was a philosophy major, I found myself more interested in Copper's story than in his uncle's treatises on life. And yet, the two parts make a very complex whole, supporting each other to make it all understandable for their teenage audience. Copper's story, written in 1937, is still relevant in 2021 because he goes through the same growing pains most younger teenagers experience. 

I believe the translation is faithful to the original Japanese and I felt author and translator had captured the themes of friendship, loyalty, betrayal, and shame in such a way that readers will ask themselves the same questions the Copper was forced to ask himself. There is a forward by Neil Gaiman, who was interested in it because he knew it was a favorite book of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) and whose next film will be based on this book. 

How Do You Live? may not be a book for everyone, but for those who do read it, it is a very satisfying coming-of-age story from another era. 

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was gratefully received from Amanda Dissinger at Algonquin Books

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Violets Are Blue by Barbara Dee

 
One morning in February, 11-year-old Ren wakes up and discovers her dad has left the house and she doesn't hear from him until he lands in NYC, assuming Ren's mom has explained that they were getting divorced. Ren's mom Kelly, an ER nurse, doesn't really want to talk about the divorce, and escapes accepting it by sleeping a lot. Ren copes with these changes in her life watching online extreme makeup videos, especially those of Cat FX, an expert in special effects makeup. 

It turns out Ren's father has met someone who lives in Brooklyn and they are planning to get married in the summer. He invites Ren out for a visit and as much as she doesn't want to like Vanessa, she does. Vanessa is also pregnant, and somewhat into makeup because of her upcoming wedding. and the two have fun shopping for different kinds of cosmetics.

That summer, attending her father's summer wedding (and doing Vanessa's makeup for it), Ren's mom decides they need to move and start over, and since she is going to be attending a new school, Ren decides she want's to be called Wren from now on. At school, she immediately makes a friend named Poppy, who is so impressed with Wren's makeup skill, she talks her into trying out to do the makeup for the school play Wicked. Poppy was hoping for the part of Elphaba, but it goes to Avery, a not very friendly mean girl. Avery has a crush on a boy named Kai, but it seems that Kai is more attracted to Wren. 

Meanwhile, Kelly is sleeping more and more, and blaming it on her long days in the ER and the aching back and knees that come with job. Perhaps that's why she is so short tempered with Wren. Then there are all the pain pills in the medicine cabinet, and the lock Kelly has put on her bedroom door, keeping it locked at all time so Wren can't go in. Wren thinks there might be something wrong with her mom, but doesn't know what. Luckily, Kelly has made a friend in the ER named Krystal, and it starts to become clear that something is indeed wrong when Krystal begins checking up on her and Wren. It all comes to a head when Kelly doesn't show up for opening night of Wicked. All of this leads up to a crisis which Wren is way too young to handle by herself, but thankfully has Krystal and her dad's help.

This is another tough topic book by Barbara Dee who tackled sexual harassment in Maybe He Just Likes You and mental illness in My Life in the Fish Tank. Parents who divorce is also tough enough topic, as is moving to another town and school and starting over, but here Dee takes things one step further and explores the reasons for the broken trust between Wren and her mother, a trust that may never be healed completely. 

I have to confess that at first Wren's extreme makeup interest didn't appeal much to me, but when I thought why, I realized that the extreme makeup was a great metaphor for the secrets Wren and her mother hide from each other throughout the book. Makeup, after all, is used to hide flaws and make us look better than we might without it, in a sense presenting a false face to the world. Wren's having to hide her feelings about her dad and his new life forces her into being secretive about what happens on her visits to Brooklyn (and there are many) and the cosmetics Vanessa sends her, hiding them from Kelly. Meanwhile, Kelly hiding a host of her own problems behind a locked door which is just so telling. 

On a positive note, it was very nice to see a stepmom getting along so well with her husband's daughter from a previous marriage, and Wren acceptance of her and the twin babies she gives birth to is equally good to see. You don't often see that in middle grade novels. Vanessa is so open and accepting of Wren and Wren really needs that.  

Violets are Blue is an emotionally charged novel, and one that I highly recommend. You can also find a useful Reading Group Guide courtesy of the publisher Aladdin/Simon & Schuster HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an ARC gratefully received from Casey Blackwell at Media Masters Publicity
Be sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, 
now being carried on by Greg at Always in the Middle

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Robin Robin by Dan Ojari and Mikey Please, illustrated by Briony May Smith

 
Robin Robin by Dan Ojari and Mikey Please,
illustrated by Briony May Smith
Red Comet Press, 2021, 32 pages     

When a robin egg falls out of its nest, landing in a garbage dump, the newly hatched bird is found by a family of mice who decide to adopt it, naming her Robin Robin and taking her back to their burrow. The burrow is warm and cozy and Robin quickly settles in, listening to the mice talk about crumbs - all kinds of crumbs, the crumbier the better. Crumbs are always a delicious treat, but in order to enjoy them, they have to sneak into the house where the Who-mans live, which would be easy except for one thing - a great big mean cat also lives there. Nevertheless, they all decide to sneak into the house and gets some crumbs to feast on. 

There is just one problem - it's not easy for a bird to be as quiet as a mouse. Naturally, she always attracts the cat's attention and has to quickly make a run for the back door to escape. One night, around Christmas time, Robin runs right into the wings of a Magpie while escaping the cat. Robin may think she is a mouse, but Magpie recognizes her as a fellow bird and takes her home to his tree house.

After Robin explains why she was in the house, Magpie tells her about the Chrim-Cross Star that the Who-mens put on top of a spikey old tree up once a year, and how, after making a wish, the Who-mens get anything they want the next morning. Maybe if Robin and her mouse family could get the Chrim-Cross Star, they could all get their wishes in the morning, too. Robin would be a real mouse, Magpie would get all kinds of treasures for his tree house, and the mice would have all the crumbs they could want. There's just one hitch - and it isn't the cat. 

This is such a heartwarming story about identity, inclusion, and family with plenty of humor but also a serious side to it. Robin is a jolly little bird, full of determination and pluck. She never gives up trying to be "as quiet as a mouse" despite being a bird. I loved how Robin discovers her true self, which is way better than the noisy, clumsy mouse she thought she was, and ultimately more useful for her mouse family and their crumb appetite. And I think she found a real mentor in Magpie. I'm sure young readers will love the illustrations, too. They are bright, bold, and colorful, with lots of detail to explore. 

Robin Robin is a wonderful holiday story, but one kids will want to read all year round. Don't be surprised if it becomes a family classic. 
Meet the Authors

Dan Ojari and Mikey Please
 are co-founders of the BAFTA® Award-winning Parabella animation studio which is based in East London. They co-directed Robin Robin, the first production in association with Aardman and produced exclusively for Netflix. Together they authored an adaptation of the script of the Robin Robin holiday special to create the book. They both live in London. Learn more about Mikey Please at mikeyplease.co.uk and Dan Ojari at www.danojari.com.

Meet the Illustrator

Briony May Smith is a British illustrator who has published titles in the US and the UK, including Stardust, written by Jeanne Willis (Nosy Crow, 2019). She also wrote and illustrated Imelda and the Goblin King (Flying Eye Books, 2015) and Margaret’s Unicorn (Schwartz and Wade, 2020), a Fall 2020 Indie Kids’ Next List selection. She lives in Devon, England. Learn more at brionymaysmith.com

   

Red Comet Press

Facebook: Red Comet Press

Twitter: @redcometpress

Instagram: @redcometpressbooks


Thank you, Barbara Fisch at Blue Slip Media for providing me with a review copy of Robin Robin.


And now for some really exciting news: 
Chirpy little Robin and her adopted family of mice can be seen in a new animation holiday musical special from Netflix and Aardman Animation beginning November 24, 2021. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

🎄A Christmas Too Big by Colleen Madden

 
A Christmas Too Big 
written and illustrated by Colleen Madden
Two Lions, 2021, 40 pages

The day after Thanksgiving has arrived and that means the Christmas season has begun, and Kerry's family is filled with the holiday spirit - maybe a little too much spirit as far as Kerry is concerned. 

Now, there are lights to be strung everywhere, music plays throughout the house all the time, lots and lots holiday cookies are being made, and of course, the family watches all the Christmas specials on television that were ever made, and little brother hides elves all over the house. But when her family buys the biggest Christmas tree they can find, Kerry has had enough of over zealous Christmasing. So she puts on her coat and heads outside.

While everyone outside is also doing Christmas too big, Kerry helps her neighbor Mrs. Flores get her  stuck shopping cart out of the deep snow and is invited in for un poco de cocao (a little cocoa). First thing Kerry notices is that Mrs. Flores does not do Christmas too big. Instead, she has a little table top Christmas tree, with a family picture by it. Mrs. Flores tells Kerry her family is in Mexico, so they light a candle for them.. Then, Mrs. Flores shows Kerry how to make beautiful tissue paper flowers with which to decorate the house.

Before going home, Kerry shows Mrs. Flores how to open the present she received from her family in Mexico - tablet so that they can see and talk to each other. It is, indeed, becoming a wonderful Christmas for Mrs. Flores and a different kind of Christmas for Kerry, who finally is feeling some holiday spirit. 

"Maybe I could find a way to have my own kind of Christmas in my own crazy Christmas house." Kerry thinks when she gets home and begins to make her own tissue paper flowers. But when she's finished, will her family embrace this new tradition?  

Told in the third person from Kerry's point of view,  A Christmas Too Big is a sweet, heartwarming story that reminds us that Christmas isn't really just about decorations, songs, cookies, and movies, it's also about peace and goodwill. Sometimes those two things can get lost or buried in the all the excitement of the Christmas season. But, peace and goodwill are exactly what Kerry brings home after her visit with Mrs. Flores. When Kerry lights her own candle for Mrs. Flores and her family, her mom suggests they invite her over for Christmas dinner.   

Madden uses plenty of humor mixed into this story, so it doesn't sound at all preachy, and most importantly, it isn't at all judgmental with regards to the way Kerry's family celebrates Christmas, instead it organically includes Kerry's contributions into their celebrations. Madden also includes lots of Spanish words into the story, all of which are easy to understand because she has seamlessly incorporated their meaning into the text and her colorful illustrations. 

The digitally produced illustrations are boldly colored and full of details just as they should be and that young readers will love to explore. When you only live a few miles and one river away from Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, known far and wide for their elaborate holiday decorations, you can really appreciate the wonderful, true to life illustrations in A Christmas Too Big. 
Dyker Heights, Brooklyn (click to enlarge)

Be sure to check out the end papers where you will find a variety of traditional Christmas objects. The front end papers has the names of each item in English, and the back end papers has the name of the same objects in Spanish. And there are simple instructions for making Mrs. Flores' tissue paper flores de Navidad that you can use to decorate your own home. It would also be a great class project after reading the book together. 

A Christmas Too Big is a wonderful, bilingual, intergeneration story to share with your young readers as a family read aloud and is sure to become a family favorite, read again and again. I can't wait to share it with my young readers next time we meet. 

This book is recommended for readers age 4+
This book was gratefully received from Barbara Fisch at Blue Slip Media

Meet the Author:
Colleen Madden grew up in a crazy Christmas house and, like Kerry, she found a break by spending time with her neighbor who was from another country. She has illustrated many children's books, including the bestselling What If Everybody? series, written by Ellen Javernick, and the picture book adaptation of All I Want for Christmas, by Mariah Carey. She recently published Monkey Walk, her debut as both author and illustrator, and is currently working on her first graphic novel. She lived in Philadelphia with her husband and two sons. 

Reviews:

“An intergenerational friendship and a busy holiday made meaningful set this title apart.” Kirkus Reviews

“Madden’s bilingual tale strikes both humorous and poignant notes; the visual blend of comic-style panels, playful fonts, speech bubbles in both English and Spanish, and traditional spreads offers readers plenty to celebrate.” Publishers Weekly

Friday, November 12, 2021

📚The Best Children's Books of 2021 Holiday Gift Edition is HERE


The holiday season has already begun, so you might want to begin thinking about what gifts to give your favorite Kiddos this year. Might I suggest a few good books. 

For the second year now, the Bank Street Children's Book Committee is pleased to offer a free, fully vetted selection of some of some excellent books published in 2021 for your holiday gift giving. Each book has been read by at least two committee members, all professionals in the field of children's literature. As with all of our Best Books lists, this year's edition is annotated and listed according to age and category. I think you will find there is something for all the Kiddos on your holiday list.
 

Don't forget to check out last year's edition of The Best Children's Book of 2020 Holiday Gift Edition. You just might find exactly what your young reader would like there. 


Many of the books listed in both these editions have also been read and reviewed by a young reviewer and have been chosen for our Bank Street Pick of the Month. You can read their comments HERE

Speaking of young reviewers, they are so much a part of what the committee does and we are often amazed at their insights. If you have a young reader who might be interested in participating in our young reviewer program, you can find information about it HERE. Our young reviewers range in age from toddler through high school. Participants read and review books that are currently being considered by the Children's Book Committee for our Best Books of the Year list and our Children's Book Awards
For more information about our program, please email us at youngreviewers@bankstreet.edu

Speaking of our Best Books of the Year list, you can find the 2021 edition of the best books for 2020 HERE. Meanwhile, we are hard at work on our 2022 edition.
 
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