Jenny's Library

So you all remember the gag from Mo Willems award winning We Are In a Book, yes?

The part where Piggie and Gerald realize that they can make the person reading the book aloud say really funny words, like BANANA, yes?

inside pages for We Are In a Book

(And if you don’t, why haven’t you read these books yet, hmmmm?????)

Well, BJ Novak has written a book that takes that same gag and runs with it – with hilarious results, as you’d expect.

I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it looks to be a very funny and well done book.  Full of nothing but text that is sure to make primary graders giggle, the book has no pictures (that’s actually it’s name, too, The Book With No Pictures) but it does have colored and very graphic text to give the audience something to look at when it’s read aloud, and to help newer and pre-readers make that connection between the funny words and the text on the page.

inside pages for The Book With No Pictures

All well and good.  Looks like an awesome book to have around, and somewhat useful in helping newer readers conceptualize text and therefore transition from easy readers to chapter books and novels.

The problem is the way I keep seeing it framed in social media.

Rather than placing the book in the proper juvenile literature context – in terms of other books that do similar things, or in terms of how kids actually learn to read, it’s presented as making the argument that pictures are a distraction rather than one of many useful tools employed in children’s literature.  The implication is that pictures in books are too juvenile even for little kids, once they learn to read.  Which is as wrong as saying that reading aloud to kids isn’t needed once kids learn to read.  The truth is, both pictures and reading aloud are helpful in developing reading skills, especially in newer readers.  As are books with no or fewer pictures, and kids practicing reading themselves.

There’s also, of course, the undercurrent of the idea that this man has come along to show all us women (as women make up the majority of primary teachers, early learning experts, and children’s librarians) how to do it right for once.

The Book With No Pictures sounds like a wonderful book, and one I can’t wait to read aloud to my kids at the library.

It is not, however, without precedent.  And it is not the radical break from traditional children’s literature that the people commenting about the awful state of education today seem to think it is.  And it’s not going to stop me from reading books with pictures as well as words, reading books with picture but no words, telling felt stories, or trying to get my hands on some early learning kamishibai stories from Japan.

cover imafe for Ellington Was Not A StreetEllington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

it hasn’t always been this way
ellington was not a street

Once upon a time, the greats of the Harlam Renaissance were more than just a memory.  They talked and laughed and sang and played and discussed the issues and events of the day.  Presented from the point of view of a young girl whose house was a gathering place for these great men, Ellington Was Not a Street shows readers how solid and real and human these legends were.  Told in poetry and pictures, Nelson’s rich and detailed illustrations are a perfect compliment to Shange’s elegant language.

The short biographies at the end was a wonderful addition, but the book did leave me wondering where all the women were.

cover image for Thunder RoseThunder Rose by Jerdine Nolen, illustrations by Kadir Nelson

Rose was born on an auspicious night, against a backdrop of thunder and lightning. Her parents knew as early as that first night that Rose was something special, full of power and talents beyond that of ordinary children.  As she grew, so too did the tales about the amazing things Rose could do.  But when drought threatens her family’s cattle, and the survival of her frontier town, can Rose fight weather itself to bring rain and thunder back to her home?

Told in the tall tale tradition, Thunder Rose is an engaging and delightful story of a confident young heroine.  The rhythm and imagery of Nolen’s words evokes the folklore that inspired her book, and Nelson’s illustrations are as wonderful as ever, with action and expression on each page.

cover image for Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson

Rolihlahla became Nelson when he began school and his teacher refused to call him by his Xhosa name.  Although life was not fair or easy for blacks in South Africa, Nelson Mandela worked hard and eventually became a lawyer.  As the South African government enacted more and more discriminatory and unfair policies, Nelson used his talents and education to defend his people.  Despite the danger of speaking out against apartheid, Mandela became a leader, organizing rallies in support of the rights of blacks and enduring years in jail in his fight for a better South Africa.

Kadir Nelson’s illustrations never fail disappoint, but this is a particularly gorgeous book.  His style is the perfect compliment to the history being told, presenting moments of quiet reflection or vibrant energy as needed.

cover image for We Are The ShipWe Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson

The rule that barred blacks from joining the National and American leagues was never posted on a sign or written into law, but that didn’t make it any less real.  So greats like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson played instead for the Homestead Grays and other teams in the Negro League.  Adored by fans and treated like stars when they would tour in Latin America, the players in the Negro League still had to often take care to leave town before sundown when they were on tour in the US.

Full of stunning paintings and amazing stories, Kadir Nelson’s award winning book shares a part of history that is often overlooked.  While Nelson’s artwork is always the star of his books, the research and skill that went into the text is noteworthy as well.  Told in vernacular and from the point of view of an unnamed narrator who was alive to see the Negro Leagues in action, We Are the Ship‘s memorable voice appropriately centers the black experience rather than assuming a white audience.  The dynamic artwork captures a variety of experiences and moments, and suitably brings to mind both Norman Rockwell paintings and sports photography.

cover image for Coretta ScottCoretta Scott by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

When Coretta Scott was a young girl, she would walk five miles in the early morning dew just to attend school, while the white children rode the bus to theirs.  When she grew to be an adult she fought for equality, tirelessly and despite personal tragedy.

Shange’s poetry is once again elegant and evocative, while the repetition in Nelson’s always remarkable paintings this time also echo the rhythm of the text.  A part of me wanted more particulars in the poem about her work after her marriage, but the  short biography at the end of the book helped with that.

cover image for The Fly on the WallFly on the Wall by E. Lockhart

Gretchen Yee knows that the way to fit in at her alternative arts focused high school is to stand out, but she can’t quite manage to stop getting noticed for the wrong things.  In fact, her problems just keep piling up: Boys baffle her.  All of them, really – but especially Titus.  Her drawing teacher is less than appreciative of the comic book style art she favors.  Then there’s the news that her parents are getting a divorce, and her dad is moving out.

In a moment of frustration, Gretchen wishes that she could be a fly on the wall in the boys locker room, to see what they are like when they aren’t around girls. Maybe then she could at least figure boys out.  Then she gets her wish. Literally.

I can’t overemphasis how weird this book is.  Because yes, it’s a remake of metamorphosis, set in an alternative high school in New York City.  It’s also fun and quite brilliant, tackles bullying, friendship, and of course dealing with crushes, lust, and hormones.

Needless to say, Gretchen spying on the boys is hardly an appropriate thing to do, but she’s a fly o the wall and therefore has remarkable peripheral vision and she’s trapped in the room – not peeking through holes in the wall.  Most importantly, Lockhart handles the situation really well, both in terms of Gretchen’s decisions and how the boys are treated by the narrative.

cover image for Our Only May AmeiliaOur Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm

May Amelia is the only girl in her family, and she just so happens to also be the only girl among the pioneers who have settled along the Nasel River in the new state of Washington.  Being the only girl isn’t always easy, especially when her mother keeps trying to turn her into a Proper Young Lady, and her grandmother finds fault in everything she does.  But no matter how many scrapes she gets into, she’s still the only May Ameilia they’ve got.

May Ameilia’s voice is really what makes this book work as well as it does. Her syntax, phrasing, and perspective transports readers to a different time and place.  Inspired by a journal Holm found that was kept by one of her own ancestors, the novel is told in first person and covers a year or so in May Amelia’s life.  Solid and entertaining, Our Only May Amelia isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it manages to be unique and memorable.

I also want to note that there’s not any significant discussion of the impact that pioneer settlement had on the people who were already living in the area when the settlers came, as it’s told from May Amelia’s point of view.  The narrative is respectful of the rare Native American characters in the book, but of course not everyone in the story is.  I didn’t see anything that makes the book inappropriate for youngsters (although I’m also hardly the best judge) but a follow-up discussion with readers would be appropriate if possible, especially considering how rare Native American voices are in most library collections.

cover image for Where Things Come BackWhere Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Nothing newsworthy happens in Lily, Arkansas. Families scrape by – or don’t, and leave their loved ones to grieve.  But reporters begin to descend upon the small town when someone claims to have spotted the Lazarus Woodpecker, previously thought extinct.  For seventeen year old Cullen the return of the Lazarus Woodecker is merely a source of irritation and occasional amusement.  Until his younger brother, Gabriel, disappears and Cullen is left wondering if Gabriel will ever manage to find his way back home as well.

Like a lot of coming of age stories of this type, Where Things Come Back felt like it was trying too hard to be clever and introspective.  Also, the split in narrators was confusing (I suspect it was partly meant to be) and the missionary’s point of view felt forced rather than authentic. I know a lot of people loved it (it did win the Printz award after all) but I was more than happy to send my copy back to the library.

cover image for Nikki and DejaNikki and Deja by Karen English, illustrated by Laura Freeman

“Nikki and Deja are best friends.”  Neighbors and classmates, they spend as much time as they can together.  But when a new girl, Antonia, arrives and starts a club – one that only some people can join – Nikki and Deja’s friendship begins to look like it might not last, after all.

I feel guilty calling this merely a good chapter book, rather than using glowing superlatives to describe it.  The truth is that most chapter books are so awful that this novel is absolutely wonderful and amazingly written by comparison.  The characters have personality, with out feeling cartoonish, and their dilemmas are both realistic and age appropriate.  English does a wonderful job of including the right kind of details, ones that give the story life without being overwhelming to new readers.  The prose fails to be as memorable as the story, and I’d like better for new readers, but this is a chapter book after all – vocabulary limits make that incredibly difficult. It’s hardly a masterpiece, but it’s solid and I highly recommend it.

I am, however, slightly disappointed in the quality of the book design. With apologies to Freeman (whose interior illustrations are perfect) the cover just doesn’t work for me and I can’t see that it would be terribly appealing to kids either.  All of which I wanted to point out not because I dislike it that much but because covers sell books.  So I see passable but not brilliant covers as another weak link in the chain when it comes to promoting “diverse” authors and books, and I wanted to note that here for future conversations.

cover image for Eleanor and ParkEleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Moving back home means that Eleanor gets to see her siblings, that she can be there to take care of them.  It also means watching what she does and says around her stepfather, and starting a new high school.  Park doesn’t mean to take pity on the new – and very weird – girl on the bus, the last thing he needs is to commit social suicide.  Yet he does so anyway.  But he isn’t going to talk to her.  Until he notices her glancing over at his comics as he reads them on the bus, and Park starts to make sure that she’s done with the page before he turns it.  Soon, Park is making her mixed tapes and Eleanor is thinking that maybe some people can be trusted after all.

I devoured this book in one night, it was that good.  Rowell has crafted a lovely story, full of stolen moments and the kinds of secrets that need to be told.  It’s refreshing to see miscommunication in a romantic relationship that actually makes sense, and to see it being worked out rather than resolved by the plot.  It should be noted that there have been complaints about Park, whose mother is from Vietnam, and how he and his family are described and portrayed.  Rowell does an excellent job handling the Eleanor’s home life, however, and how she is affected by both poverty and abuse.

cover image for We Were LiarsWe Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Candence spends every summer with her family on a private island off the coast of Masachusetts. And every summer she and her cousins run wild, unhampered by schoolwork or schedules or even neighbors.  Every summer except the last one, which Cady spent in Europe with her father, hating ever minute of it, desperate for emails and texts from her cousins, which never came. When Cady arrives at the island this summer, she and her cousins pick up where they left off, as if nothing had ever happened. Only Cady knows that something did happen, something their last summer together that caused the headaches she’s had ever since.  The problem is that Cady has no idea what it was; she’s been having trouble remembering things since that night as well.

I absolutely hated reading this book.

It’s not a terrible book, but my frustrations with it only increased with each page, making it not at all enjoyable to read.  Much of the suspense rests on the reveal of the twist at the end, which I’d figured out early on.  I think the book is supposed to work even if you know truth (much like Code Name Verity actually does) – that knowing the truth changes the experience rather than detracting from it .  But for me, it didn’t succeed in doing this.  Add to that the fact that it’s a book about privilege* which makes a really big mistake in terms of privilege, and I’m afraid to admit that the warmest response I can muster to this book is “meh.”

Which makes me sad because I usually love Lockhart’s books.

cover image for The Fox InheritanceThe Fox Inheritance by Mary E. Pearson

[The basic plot for this book is a spoiler for the entire first novel, so I'm putting it behind the cut.]

Read the rest of this entry »

cover image for The Tropic of SerpentsThe Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

Despite the tragic events of her first expedition, Isabella remains determined to continue her study of dragons.  In their natural habitat, if possible.  Now there is an added urgency to her research, as Isabella – and her colleagues and sponsor –  fear that new information about dragon skeletons may threaten their survival. When the crew set off to a spot in Eriga known as the Green Hell in search of the swamp-wryms who dwell there, they are forced to face not only inhospitable habitats, but dangerous politics as well.

As I said in my review of the first book in this series, Brennan is attempting to do a thing here that I appreciate but I’m not quite certain about: Lady Trent’s world is clearly a colonial one, with all the problems and attitudes that creates, and Isabella has not been immune to such conditioning.  Her years of travel and research have taught her to view the world slightly differently, however, and so the Lady Trent that is narrating the expeditions has a less colonialist view than the Isabella whose actions we see.  It often becomes a clever way to acknowledge the problems of colonialism while being realistic about the kind of views a woman of Isabella’s position would have. I’m just not sure that it always works.

That said, I still absolutely adore these books as they are full of wonderful things that I love to pieces. Dragons! of course. Interesting ones that are as varied as any other real genus. Clever women who do Science! You get the idea. And running through it all, Lady Trent’s engaging personality and the pleasure of reading about an accomplished woman with a full life.

The Goblin EmperorThe Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Maia has lived his life in exile, cast out with his mother from his father’s court.  Since her death he has been raised by a courtier who was more than happy to take his frustrations out on the friendless boy.  With three older brothers, no one ever expected the half-Goblin Maia to ascend to the throne.  But when a suspicious accident leaves the king and the elder princes dead, Maia is thrust into a dangerous and unfamiliar court.  Ostensibly the most powerful person in the land, Maia nevertheless is as isolated as ever.  Only now he’s trapped by custom and responsibility, and is almost certainly a target by those who covet his crown. Determined to do right by his people, Maia must somehow find a way to make allies and root out his enemies.

An absolute pleasure to read, The Goblin Emperor is a story of intrigue and suspense told on an intimate rather than epic scale.  Maia’s desire to be just and competent, to be the kind of ruler his people deserve, despite his lack of training, has us rooting for him from the start.  Don’t be fooled by this novel’s idealistic point of view and steady unfolding of events, there is plenty of nuance  here, and the narrative’s affirmation of the value of humanity (and goblinkind) is one based on a spectrum of experiences, not a black and white view of Good versus Evil.

I sincerely hope there is a sequel coming (or, at the very least, that we get more books by Addison) and I suspect this will become one of my comfort reads in years to come.

cover image for Life With LilyLife With Lily by Mary Ann Kinsinger and Suzanne Woods Fisher

Five year old Lily Lapp lives with her parents and younger brother on a farm in upstate New York. She loves helping her mother with chores around the house and looks forward to starting school. But even more changes are in store for Lily than just kindergarten, and Lily has lots to learn at home as well!

Just like the third book, A Big Year for Lily (which I read first), this is a rather sweet story about a little girl from an Amish family; it offers an interesting and different perspective from more typical contemporary children’s fiction, while also clearly drawing on the tradition of stories like Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie.

The reading level and Lily’s age are more mismatched in this book than the are in the third book, but it should still work well as a read aloud or for children that don’t mind reading about kids a bit younger than them.  As with A Big Year for Lily, there are a few parts that made me go “wait, what?” and had me raising an eyebrow or two.*  The gender segregation was thankfully much less noticeable in this book however, likely owing to Lily’s age, and none of the parts that caused raised eyebrows involve being disrespectful to other people. Overall, it was pleasant and intriguing read and I’d recommend it for library collections.

* I should clarify: my eyebrows were raised not at Amish customs, but more how the authors chose to present them. For example, recently on twitter someone noted that the Amish were usually nicer to her than most white people are, and that her parents had pointed out that this was because they don’t have televisions (and therefore don’t get daily installments of racism via mainstream shows).  Kinsinger and Fisher instead frame it as because the Amish (or, at least, Lily’s family) are simply kinder than some people. Which may or may not be true, but that’s not really how racism works.  And it’s harmful to teach children that it is.  (That said, this is hardly an unusual way of talking about racism, so it’s also not a fault unique to these authors.)

cover image for Up Against ItUp Against It by M. J. Locke

When disaster strikes the asteroid colony of Phoecea, it’s up to Jane Novio, manager of the Resource Commission, to figure out the logistics of how the colony is going to survive. With Jane soon dealing with a rogue AI, probable sabotage, and the Martian mob – all on top of a colony threatening water crisis and the aftermath of a tragic accident – the question quickly becomes if Phoecea will remain intact and functioning, not how.

This wasn’t a book that I fell into quickly, but when I did fall, I fell hard.  It’s not just that Jane is both competent and interesting, and old enough to have experience and history.  I also desperately loved how much the story was aware of how vital many of the mundane things we take for granted are.  Living in California, especially now, the importance of access to potable water is something that is increasingly hard to ignore, and so I found the underlying crisis both relevant and believable.  The supporting cast is great as well, and I’m realizing that I’m a sucker for good AI stories.

cover image for Let's Play HouseLet’s Play House by Emma Quay, illustrated by Anna Walker

In very few – but well chosen – words and with soft but expressive pictures, Quay and Walker show the ups and downs of playing with friends, and the joys of playing pretend.

I don’t know if I’m just looking in the wrong places, but I have a hard time finding books for children that focus on the dramatic play they engage in every day.  With the exception of Antoinette Portis’ excellent picture books, the act of imaginative play almost feels like the preschool set’s version of Fight Club: first rule of playing pretend, don’t talk about playing pretend.  Which is very odd, not only because I have memories of picture books and easy readers that talked about it when I was young (perhaps it’s just books for toddlers in which the topic is lacking?), but also because it’s extremely common for young children to preface their play with “but just for pretend.”

Which is a very long winded way of saying: when I saw this book, I had to grab it.   Short and cute, it’s perfect for older toddlers and exactly the kind of book that I’ve been looking for to add to my “imagination” story time.

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