Jenny's Library

cover image for The Freedom MAzeThe Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

Thirteen year old Sophie longs for an adventure like the ones she reads about in books. But instead, she’s stuck spending the summer of 1960 with her aunt and bedridden grandmother, in a smallish house at the edge of what was once a grand sugar plantation.  So she passes time reading books and exploring the bayou, waiting for fall to come.  Until the day she attempts to find her way through the once magnificent hedge maze, and finds something unexpected at the other end.

This is not a book that I can be objective about, in any way.

My maternal grandfather’s family comes from Georgia.  My mother grew up in the south – the deep south – in the 1950s and 1960s.  Until she turned 13 and her family moved to California, finally to stay.

In the Freedom Maze, Delia Sherman has written a story that doesn’t often get told. A story about family ties denied and forgotten – and others that are unbreakable even against the greatest of odds.  About what the antebellum south was really like – and about what it means to be nostalgic for a time when owning other people was legal.

I feel like she’s telling me the story of my family that no one ever admits to.

My uncles will joke about being taught about “the War of Northern Aggression.”  And my mother has rarely ever looked as sad as she did when I asked her, incredulously, if her hometown had separate water fountains when she was growing up.  But it always feels like there’s so much missing.  So much left unsaid.

My family would not find it flattering that I see us in these pages, but oh how I do.

It’s true that in making this story about Sophie, Sherman has centered Sophie’s point of view and growing awareness of her privilege over the the experiences and courage of her newly discovered family.  Which is frustrating for obvious reasons.

And yet…

And yet I know that this is a story that needs to be told as well.  My niece needs to grow up understanding what it means that her family is from the south.  It’s not enough that she maybe sort of learn it once she’s an adult.

And I don’t know how to explain it to her, in large part because I don’t really have that understanding myself.

But I can give her this book.

cover image for Waiting is Not EasyWaiting is Not Easy by Mo Willems

Piggie has a surprise for Gerald.  The only problem is that it’s not ready yet, and waiting isn’t easy.  But some surprises are worth waiting for.

Another wonderful Piggie and Elephant book from Mo Willems.  I especially liked the way the word balloons grew so big that they became part of the action, rather than just text.  And, of course, Willems’ ability to surprise us all with the unexpected, even when we know it’s coming.

cover image for AlwaysAlways by Emma Dodd

Whether sad or happy, naughty or nice, a small elephant is always loved.

This is hardly a unique premise, but it’s not like there’s never a demand for new books for parents to give their little ones, telling them they love them. Dodd’s illustrations are adorable and the sparkle throughout the book – ranging from a few glittering stars to a large shiny lake – help make it memorable. Which is exactly what one looks for in this kind of book.

cover image for MirrorMirror by Suzy Lee

A sad little girl finds something surprising in her reflection.

The blurb on the back of the copy I read claims that the ending to this story “provides a gentle reminder that every action has consequences.”

My friends, the twist at the end of this story is no “gentle reminder.”  It’s a bit of a mind bender actually, seeing as how [spoiler alert! - it’s unclear if it’s the original little girl or her reflection that pushes the mirror over and makes the other disappear].  All of which makes Mirror a great example of why I love Suzy Lee’s books AND why I think they are a fantastic example of speculative fiction in picture books.  (Yes, these two opinions are very related).

cover image for Is There a Dog in This Book?Is There a Dog in This Book? by Viviane Schwarz

Having established that There Are Cats in This Book (or wait, are there????), Schwarz and her feline creations must now determine if this new book also contains…a dog!

These books are so clever and funny, and do such a great job of breaking the fourth wall, that it makes me incredibly sad that they are not all still available to order for the library.

It’s been a while, yes?

In the past 6 months, I’ve managed to graduate with my Masters (in Library Science), get a new job, and move 600+ miles.

Which means I’ve been rather busy.

My desktop computer also decided to fail on me during this time, and so I still don’t have access to a great many of the mini-reviews that I’ve already written for books that I read in 2014.  Which in turn means that I’m not sure when I’ll get the rest of the reading round-ups from 2014 posted. But I do hope to do so eventually.

In the meantime, I’m moving forward, getting a new start for the new year, and switching things up a bit.

To make things easier for me, and more logical for the few of you still following me, I’m going to post monthly – rather than weekly – reading round-ups, divided up by book type.  I’ll still post every week or so, the posts will just look a little bit different. The first one (board books I read in January) is down below.

cover image for In My ForestIn My Forest by Sara Gillingham

designed by Sara Gillingham

illustrated by Lorena Siminovich

The deer finger puppet in the center, and the over widening cut-outs around the deer, are what first catch little ones’ attention. (And mine, I must admit.) But Gillingham and Siminovich have managed to create a book that is much more than just that.  The text is simple and straightforward, but never awkward, and the illustrations are full of texture and interest, yet soft and sweet.  Most notable is the sense of place that Gillingham has managed to create simply by emphasizing the location of the deer as being in the forest, in winter, and combining that with the puppets and cut-outs.

Highly recommended.

cover image for Bringing in the New YearBringing in the New Year by Grace Lin

A young girl and her family prepare to celebrate the New Year.

What makes this book remarkable is all the ways in which it isn’t – all the ways that it treats celebrating the Lunar New Year as important and special, but also just as normal or typical as any Western holiday.  There’s no introductory explanation of who this family is or where they live or when the Lunar New year is in relation to the Western calendar.  It’s simply a listing of all the things that make this holiday special.  Just as one might find in a typical (US) book about Christmas or Thanksgiving.  By centering the experience of the family in the book, rather than the experiences of others, Lin fosters connection and recognition rather than distance and detachment.

Lin’s brightly colored illustrations fit the celebratory tone of the story.  They also help to explain and define terms and actions that might be unfamiliar to some readers – without requiring awkward pauses that would interrupt the flow of the story, or a scholarly tone that might depersonalize the festivities.

Highly recommended.

cover image for Baby Loves Winter!Baby Loves Winter! by Karen Katz

“It’s winter! What will Baby see?”

All kinds of wintry things, underneath large flaps.  Good book, and large sized flaps are the best, but there’s nothing super memorable here, and I’m getting a little annoyed with the fact that, in this particular series by Katz, “Baby” is always white.

Recommended, with reservations.

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.


  • The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein | By Singing Light: […] although the series is still ongoing. I hadn’t heard of it before last year, though, when Jenny mentioned it on her blog. And really y
  • jennygadget: Liz B said some smart things in the comments of the Book Smugglers review...but I dunno that she is right about the issue people are having is the com
  • Maureen Eichner: I kind of wonder if there's a correlation between people who really, really love Code Name Verity and people for whom We Were Liars really didn't work
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