Jenny's Library

Archive for November 2013

cover image for BelowBelow by Meg McKinlay

“On the day Cassie was born, they drowned her town.”

(Sorry, the opening for this book is just so perfect, I had to steal it.)

Twelve year old Cassie has lived her entire life in New Lower Grange.  But before she was born, before the damn was built, her family’s house was in Old Lower Grange.  Then, with the flip of a switch, an entire town was buried in water, leaving Cassie wondering what secrets may lie hidden beneath the waves.

Intriguing and full of wonderfully written lines (see above, also: “When I got home, Dad had a finger in someone’s eye and another in their ear.” and “Liam was clever yesterday. While I was worried about being prosecuted, he was counting his strokes.”) Below is one of those novels that I wish had gotten more attention.  While not without flaws (McKinlay’s opening lines aren’t quite matched by the rest of her writing) it’s both different and yet not, in all the ways a middle grade book should be: unique in concept, but familiar when it comes to themes and relationships.

cover image for Zebrea ForestZebra Forest by Adina Rishe-Gewitz

Annie and her brother live with their grandmother, the father dead and their mother having abandoned them.  With Gran’s brooding spells getting worse, Annie has her hands full keeping up at school and keeping the social workers of their backs.  She and Rew find their own solace in stories they make up about the father they never knew.  Until a stranger arrives and holds them hostage, and Annie and Rew learn the truth of their father’s death.

I ranted about this book earlier this year.  The short version being that my problem wasn’t so much that Annie was quick to forgive her father, but that the book did an inadequate job of exploring why, and why this might not be the safest choice for her to make.  Also, the backstory about their parents is disturbing in ways that the narrative seems dangerously oblivious to.

cover image for DreamlandDreamland by Sarah Dessen

When Cassie ran away, Caitlin lost more than a sister.  Her parents shock and grief absorbs all their energy, leaving Caitlin without anyone to turn to.  Then Rogerson Biscoe walks into Caitlin’s life and suddenly she once again has someone who listens.  But who will Caitlin turn to when Rogerson turns out to be more dangerous than she suspected?

While abuse in romantic relationships is a topic that deserves a lot more attention than it gets (in YA literature and out of it) this is, unfortunately, not the most engaging problem novel ever.  Possibly because it is so clearly a problem novel rather than a typical Dessen story about interesting characters dealing with various interpersonal issues.  Although Dreamland is far from an after school special, neither is it quite what it could have been.

cover image for The Madness UnderneathThe Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

After the events of The Name of the Star [redacted for spoilers], Rory’s parents have been understandably overprotective.  Neither they, nor her new therapist, believe her when she tells them that she’s more than ready to go back to school. It doesn’t help, of course, that she can’t tell any of them what really happened, or why she so desperately wants to return to Wexford.

I definitely did not expect this book to end up going in the direction it did.  So while it suffered from the typical middle book lulls at certain points, it still managed to push the story along in interesting ways. And yes, it made me cry.  And no, I wasn’t expecting that either.

cover image for The Garden of My ImaanThe Garden of My Imaan by Farhana Zia

Aliya worries about getting her homework done. Avoiding bullies at school. When she’ll finally wear a bra like her friends.  If the holidays will be still be any fun now that her disapproving great aunt is coming to visit.  Now, on top of everything else, her Sunday school friends are asking if she’ll fast for Ramadan this year; Aliya doesn’t feel ready – but she doesn’t want to be a baby either.  And when a new muslim girl arrives at her elementary school, suddenly Aliya’s Glen Meadow classmates are full of questions about why Marwa wears a hijab and only eats halal, and why Aliya doesn’t.

The Garden of My Imaan is a typical middle grade story about friends and family and navigating one’s place in the world.  Except for all the ways in which it’s very much not your typical middle grade school story.  That is to say, except for the fact that it’s about a muslim girl whose household contains four generations of Indian Americans, rather than yet another Ramona Quimbly, Junie B. Jones, or Judy Moody.  What makes this story truly unique (although it shouldn’t be as unique as it is, alas) isn’t just the parts that make Aliya different from her literary peers, but the way that Zia keeps the story focused on Aliya and her dilemmas, rather than letting it become a Very Special Lesson for everyone else.

By the by – can we please stop saying things like “Aliya…may be a young Muslim girl of Indian descent, but her story is one that will resonate with readers of many backgrounds” when reviewing books that feature characters we rarely see in (Western) fiction?  That’s just insulting all around.  Why wouldn’t her story “resonate” with all kinds of readers?

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cover image for Miles Mystery and MayhemCeteganda by Lois McMaster Bujold

When Barrayar’s spymaster, Simon Illyan, sends Miles and his cousin, Ivan, to Eta Ceta IV for the funeral of the former Cetagandan Empire, he expects Miles to keep his eyes open for useful information.  He didn’t expect Miles to get wrapped up in a murder investigation.  Neither did he expect Miles to fall in love.  Although, this is Miles, after all, so he really should have.

I’m not sure that I disliked this novel, but I’m not really sure I liked it either.  The mystery wasn’t that bad, but Miles was very tedious in this book, especially when he was dwelling on his current crush.  Mostly, I kept wanting Cordelia back and spent most of my time reading it hoping the rest of the Miles books would be more like The Warrior’s Apprentice and less like this one.

cover image for Ethan of AthosEthan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold

Dr. Ethan Urquhart is from Athos, a planet made entirely of men.  As Chief of Biology at the Severin District Reproduction Center, it’s Ethan who is sent off planet to find and bring back ovarian cultures when their latest – and much needed – shipment turns out to be not what they ordered at all.  Much to his dismay, he’s quickly noticed by Eli Quinn, who takes him under her wing when Ethan finds himself in unexpected trouble.

Absolutely brilliant.  As much as I love Cordelia and all the novels she’s in, this is story by Bujold that I most often want to tell people to read.  It’s funny and intriguing and has wonderful, wonderful lines about gender and family and reproduction and child care.

cover image for LabyrinthLabyrinth by Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles mission is to smuggle one of the top geneticists out of Jackson’s Whole.  The only problem is, Dr. Hugh Canaba has conditions, of course, and one of them is to collect a sample of one of his creations, and then kill it.  No problem right?

My eyebrows went up more than once while reading this, and I mean that in a good way; this story has just the right amount of ridiculousness for a Miles book.  Also, I definitely liked Miles love interest in this story much better than I liked his crush in Ceteganda.

cover image for The Vor GameThe Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold

Having just graduated from the Barrayan Military Academy, Miles Vorkosigan awaits his first assignment, hoping for a post aboard ship – any ship will do, as long as he’s in space.   Instead, Miles is assigned to the always frozen Kyril Island.  And he’s given an ultimatum: he must manage to follow the chain of command for six months.  If he does, he’ll get the ship duty assignment he wants so badly.  Fail, and his future as a soldier is uncertain.

The second half of the book is good fun and full of characters that I love to see, but it’s the first half, the time Miles spends on Kyril Island – and his choices there – that really stuck with me.  This is a Miles that’s willing to sacrifice his own dreams in order to do what’s right (although, of course, he does it in typical Miles fashion).  I rather like this side of Miles, and there are times when he gets a bit absorbed in the chase that I rather wish I could reach into the book and make him sit down and talk to this Miles for a while.

cover image for The Warrior's ApprenticeThe Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles Vorkosigan is determined to serve in the Barrayan military, just as his father and grandfather did before him.  No one expects him to be able to make it, what with his short stature, easily breakable bones, and other physical impairments – the result of an attempt to assassinate his mother with poisoned gas when she was pregnant with him.  But then, no one expected him to even survive long enough to be born, either.

If this were a middle grade novel, Miles would accomplish his goals with plucky determination.  Everyone would learn their lesson and go home happy. Thank god this isn’t a middle grade novel.

What makes Bujold’s Miles novels so very excellent is that even when Miles comes out on top, it’s not necessarily in the manner he’d hoped to.  Persistence can’t change everything, it especially can’t allow him to pretend that he lives in a world that expects him to be different from what he is.  So Miles path to where he wants to be isn’t typical; it’s not even a typical underdog story.  Instead, Miles life is uniquely Miles.  Which is why Bujold’s books are so enjoyable, memorable, and popular.

cover image for Olivia and the Fairy PrincessesOlivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer

Olivia doesn’t have anything against princesses, she just doesn’t understand why all of the other girls (and even some of the boys) all want to be the same pink, fairy princesses, with sparkles and ruffles.  Why not reporter or a nurse or…at the very least a princess in a blue sari instead?

It’s so very common, when it comes to books for young children about gender stereotypes, for them to drift into dissing feminine roles and characteristics instead of inspiring girls (and boys) to be more than what gender norms expect.  The latest Olivia book does nothing of the sort.  Instead, her worry is more about not standing out, and her desire to do so will encourage boys and girls to try new roles.

(There is a portion of the book where Olivia dresses up as princesses from other cultures.  It didn’t strike me as appropriative as the costumes looked well researched for a picture book, and the emphasis seemed to be on showing variety, possibility, and drawing inspiration from real princesses. That said, I’m not the best person to judge this sort of thing, which is why I’m mentioning it anyway.)

cover image for The Artist Who Painted A Blue HorseThe Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle

Why paint horses only brown or black or white or gray? This artist paints blue horses, purple foxes, and even green lions!

In this homage to artist Franz Marc, Carle’s unique style is once again put to excellent use, this time inspiring children to create books and art of their own.  The sparse text and repetition keeps readers focused on the bright pictures, while also helping develop language and vocabulary.

cover image for Sticks and StonesSticks and Stones by Emily Bazelon

Normally “fair and balanced” is code for believing in false equivalency – and is the opposite approach from what one might want in a factual book about bullying.  But Bazelon has clearly done her homework here, and her purpose in showing both sides of the bullying story is to reflect statistical reality (bullies are as unique as any group of individuals), point out that children’s actions are often being used to excuse misguided adult priorities (bullying is sometimes a contributing factor in many suicides, but untreated mental illness is a bigger contributor to the same suicides), and to explore what kinds of remedies are actually most effective (zero tolerance policies tend to make it harder to help kids).

There are a few times when her language veers a bit too closely to the often victim blaming advice traditionally given to kids being bullied, but on the whole it’s a very humanizing and illuminating investigation.  The chapters on social media and effective anti-bullying programs are especially fascinating.  Most importantly, the emphasis throughout on the importance of considering entire communities (not just the most obvious problem children) and the whole child (not just their interaction with peers)  is an excellent example of what “fair and balanced” journalism should mean.  Highly recommended for everyone, especially anyone who is at all responsible for the care of children and teens.

cover image for Let's Go For a DriveLet’s Go for a Drive by Mo Willems

Piggie and Gerald are going to go for a drive.  Gerald has the plan, and Piggie has everything else they could possibly need – except for one, small, thing…

Have I mentioned lately how much I love this series?  They’re clever and funny, of course – this book in particular – but I also absolutely adore how Willems uses repetition to help new readers gain confidence with unfamiliar words and font and character’s body language to help children become more expressive readers.

cover image for Fat AngieFat Angie by e. E. Charlton-Trujillo

Fat Angie, according to her mother, needs to lose 29 pounds. At least.  Fat Angie’s therapist says that she needs to stop projecting her feelings of animosity onto others.  Her classmates think she should have followed through on killing herself.  As for Fat Angie herself, she just wants her sister to make it home from the war alive.  But maybe what Fat Angie really needs is someone who looks at her and sees someone witty and clever and beautiful.

For a good portion of this book I wasn’t sure what to make of it, especially as the third person narrative makes it unclear if Fat Angie is being referred to as such because of her own thoughts or because the author is presenting Angie only as other people see her.  What makes it work in the end, and part of what makes the book so good, is that how Angie thinks of herself and how other people see her is often the same thing.  That’s how lost and detached Angie is from her own life, and it’s also a measure of how much she has internalized the hatred directed at her.  That she can still function and move forward in the midst of all this is a testament to her strength.

cover image for Nothing Can Possibly Go WrongNothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks

Charlie’s ex-girlfriend has convinced their school to buy new cheerleader uniforms – with the money that was supposed to go to the science team. Nate has a plan though.  All they have to do is win the 6th annual Robot Rumble and collect their prize money.  But first, they have to build a battle bot that will crush the competition. And convince their parents to let them spend Thanksgiving weekend at the Robot Rumble in Atlanta instead of eating dinner with their families. Nothing could possibly go wrong…right?

I love love love this book. It’s hilarious. It’s about nerds. And evil cheerleaders – that turn out to be not so evil. And friends. And family.  And teamwork.

Also, ROBOTS. Robots THAT FIGHT OTHER ROBOTS.

cover image for The Big Bad Wolf Goes on VacationThe Big Bad Wolf Goes on Vacation by Delphine Perret

Some kids are afraid of monsters hiding in their closet. Not Louis.  He doesn’t worry that something might be in his closet, he already knows that the Big Bad Wolf lives there.  This causes all sorts of problems, of course. Including the Big Bad Wolf insisting that he be taken along when he overhears that Louis is going on a trip with his grandfather.

Silly, unique, and sarcastic, this is one of the rare picture books that works better for older children rather than little ones. New readers may need help with the words, but can easily follow the pictures and will feel accomplishment in the use of chapters.  Older readers will find the comic like structure challenging but fun. Perret’s minimal sketches allow for personality and variation, but are uncluttered enough to keep their repetition from becoming chaotic or confusing.

cover image for I Need My Own CountryI Need My Own Country by Rick Walton, illustrated by Wes Hargis

Little brothers can be such a pain sometimes.  That’s when you need to take charge, and make a country of your own.  One he can’t join.

Hargis’s illustrations are well done, but the actual story is one of those that seems more for adults than for kids, who likely won’t be quite as entertained by this book as their parents will be.

cover image for A Good Night WalkA Good Night Walk by by Elisha Cooper

Evening slowly turns to night, as readers take a walk trough a friendly neighborhood.

Part of what makes Cooper’s books work so well is the way the illustrations giver personality to the text as the words explain the mechanics of farming, a day at the beach, or how ice cream is made.  While the illustrations here are wonderful, and the text is soothing, the two don’t work together in quite the way they often do in Cooper’s other books – they repeat rather than adding different information.

cover image for Quick as a CricketQuick as a Cricket by by Audrey Wood, illustrated by Don Wood

Are you as quick as a cricket? As happy as a lark? Or perhaps you are as strong as an ox.  Or maybe, like our narrator, you’re all of these things, depending on your mood.

With simple similes and rich illustrations, Don and Audrey Wood introduce young readers to a world rich in nature and imagination, as well as the idea that they can be more than just one thing.  This book is a classic for a reason; the sentences are lyrical and the pictures creative, while the message is both simple and profound.

cover image for Tumble BumbleTumble Bumble by Felicia Bond

A tiny bug takes a walk, but he’s not alone for long. Soon a while parade of critters joins him as they tumble bumble through the neighborhood – and into someone’s house!

Felica Bond is a whiz with subtle shades of color and engaging characters, as anyone who as seen her artwork for the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie series knows.  It turns out that she’s really great at rhymes and humor as well, making this book a classic story for little ones.

cover image for Sam's SandwichSam’s Sandwich by David Pelham

When Samantha asks her brother to make her a sandwich, Sam agrees – and decides to make her one with all the fixings.

The design of this book is rather clever and cute, and if it was just a story about a sandwich with creepy crawly things in it, I would love it.  The characters are both incredibly annoying though, as are the gender stereotypes they perpetuate for no reason.

10 of my favorite picture books for Thanksgiving, in no particular order.

cover image for Pilgrims of Plymouthcover image for 1621: A New Look at Thanksgivingcover image for Shrinking Days, Frosty Nights

Pilgrims of Plymouth by Susan E. Goodman

1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine O’Neill Grace and Marge Bruchac

Shrinking Days, Frosty Nights: Poems About Fall by Laura Purdie Salas

thanksgiving+2cover image for 'Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving

Thank You, Sarah by Laurie Halse Anderson, illustrated by Matt Faulkner

Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving by Dav Pilkey

cover image for This First Thanksgiving Daycover image for Over the Rivercover image for Thanks for Thanksgiving

This First Thanksgiving Day by Laura Krauss Melmed, illustrated by Mark Buehner

Over the River: A Turkey’s Tale by Derek Anderson

Thanks for Thanksgiving by Julie Markes, illustrated by Doris Barrette

cover image for Balloons Over Broadwaycover image for The Apple Pie That Papa Baked

Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

The Apple Pie That Papa Baked by Lauren Thompson, illustrated by Jonathon Bean

cover image for Jump, Frog, Jump!Jump Frog Jump by Robert Kalan

Fish, snakes, and mischievous children all want to catch the frog.  Jump, frog, jump!

The text for this book is just brilliant; it manages to use both pattern sentences and be a cumulative story.  However, the illustrations, while readable, leave much to be desired.

cover image for Good Night, GorillaGood Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathman

A zookeeper makes one last round through the zoo, saying saying good night to all the animals as he goes.  But watch out! The gorilla has a surprise for him.

This is such a fantastic story for preschoolers.  It’s not just that the jokes are obvious  enough even for four year olds – although that helps – it’s also because the repetition and engaging humor invites young children to try to predict what happens next.  Foreshadowing for pre-k!

Also, it’s just a tiny bit hilarious, particularly everyone’s expressions.

cover image for Ref-Eyed Tree FrogRed Eyed Tree Frog written by Joy Cowley, photographs by Nic Bishop

When the sun sets and other animals animals go to sleep, the red-eyed tree frog is just waking up and ready for breakfast.  But watch out, frog, or you might become someone else’s meal!

The detailed and close-up photographs are clearly what make this book, but the text is rather nice for a non-fiction picture book.  It’s not quite as clever as National Geographic’s Picture the Season’s series, but there is an actual story here and the sentences flow well enough to be read aloud to younger children.

cover image for Creature CountCreature Count by Brenda Huante, illustrations by Vincent Nguyen

Huante reworks the classic counting song, Over in the Meadow, to tell the story of a different kind of forest – one filled with dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures.

Ngyuyen’s animals are nicely done, but the backgrounds are flat, making the creatures feel pasted onto the page instead of part of their environment.  Still, Huante’s rhymes will keep you turning the page and humming along.

How Do You Feel? by Anthony Brownecover image for How Do You Feel?

Do you feel bored? Lonely? Happy? Silly? Or maybe you’re feeling sleepy.

I’m not a huge fan of Anthony Browne’s books to begin with, and quite frankly this little monkey is creepy.  It’s not an awful book, but I don’t recommend it, there are so many other better books about feelings to choose from.

cover image for A Kiss Like ThisA Kiss Like This by Mary Murphy

How does a mouse kiss? A fish? A giraffe? Like this!

Simple, but sweet. The illustrations are full of bold strokes, bright colors, and an overall childlike quality.  A good choice for valentine’s day – or just to let your little ones know how much you love them.