Thursday, January 13, 2011

Aw Yiss

I will no longer be posting on this blog. From now on, I'll be providing the content for the Books Inc website!  I'm super excited to blog for Books Inc's Kids, and so now I'm obligated to post more than once-in-a-while-I-recall-that-I-have-a-blog. And also, I'll get paid! Win, win.

So, if you still would like to see my reviews, please check them out at! click on the link to Kids Stuff and you will be bombarded with my opinions once more.

Thanks for reading!


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

I loved the first two Hunger Games books-- they were fun, smart and undeniably propulsive. Katniss provided a fabulous heroine that served as a pleasantly proactive alternative to many of the more passive female leads in YA lit. The world was fascinating. The action was crisp, and kept coming fast enough to keep even the most reluctant readers tuned in. The series has been a fabulous tool as a bookseller, as I have yet to find a kid who hasn't liked it-- from precocious 9 year olds who read like it's their job to tear through series, to the 15 year olds who treat English class like death camp. And since I'd read both of the previous installments as ARCs, I awaited the conclusion just as breathlessly as everyone else. So my response to this final installment probably isn't fair, due to my overwhelming anticipation.
Before I launch into the many things that gave me pause, I should clarify that I still read Mockingjay in about 4 hours. Collins' style and clear prose remain, and her sensibility as a landscape builder is as strong as ever. When the novel opens, Katniss is meandering around the smoldering remains of her decimated home in District 12. Peeta has been captured by the capitol, and Gale, Katniss's mother and sister and the remaining survivors of District 12 have taken refuge in the underground prison camp that is District 13. As the story progresses, Katniss steps into the role of revolutionary symbol (not leader, a distinction that troubles her), called the Mockingjay. As she struggles with her restrictive new role, she also wavers between Peeta (who has been brainwashed by the capitol) and Gale (whose new outlook on war is disturbingly bloodthirsty). The scenes in which Katniss visits District 8 are emotionally explosive (and literally explosive, those poor people) and the character work around Finnick was sound. In fact, he ended up being my favorite character in the book. Which leads me neatly into the things I liked less.
One of the things I loved about Katniss in the previous books was that, despite her strange and horrible circumstance, she was incredibly relatable. She struggled to understand her own motives in a way that felt truly teenaged; she loved her family fiercely and she yearned, very realistically, for a different life. But the Katniss in this book was so emotionally shut down it was nearly impossible to empathize with her. This was particularly troublesome in the scenes that follow Prim's death. The whole reason Katniss became involved in the Hunger Games in the first place was to protect Prim. When she is ultimately killed, rendering Katniss's efforts in vain, I expected a much bigger emotional hit than there was. Similarly, given the amount of time she spends going back and forth between the two, when Katniss ultimately decides upon Peeta (which seemed as much out of convenience as anything else) we get a rather truncated epilogue with little passion left in it. And of course, they have babies. Why do they always have to have babies?
In both the previous installments, I ignored the fact the structure was incredibly back-loaded, assuming that was done on purpose in order to set up the next book. Huge, climactic scenes that opened up lots of loose ends tended to pop in the last 50 pages or so-- and I didn't read this as a flaw. But in the final installment, the same structure holds, to a much less satisfying effect. There was also the issue of Katniss frequently being knocked unconscious during the climax of scenes, which is really irksome given the first person constraint of the novel. It's a ploy that I've also been noticing as I read JRR Tolkein's trilogy (for the first time... I know, worst nerd ever) so maybe it's something that really only irritates me.
So maybe this was my least favorite of the series. It's still a great series, and I still love recommending it almost ubiquitously to kids and adults alike. I also had the pleasure of meeting Suzanne at a lunch for booksellers, and listening to her talk about her intentions with the novel only solidified my confidence in handing it to new readers. Did you know, for instance, that Katniss is meant to be an allegory to Spartacus? Once she pointed it out, it seemed obvious, but I certainly didn't catch it.

Things 2nd Grade Boys like

Since I abandoned this blog to the cold winds of internet neglect, I've started officiating some book clubs for kids. One of them is a group of 2nd grade boys who vary wildly in reading level, so aside from the fact that planning a discussion for a handful of 8 year old boys is kind of like trying to choreograph cat herding, we also struggle to find books that every one can relate to. Below, are the books we've read so far.

I started us off with The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes. It was originally titled The Iron Man: A Story in 5 Nights, but the title was changed when the superhero superceded Hughes' novel in popularity. Now there's a movie, which is AMAZING and every one should watch it, but is totally different than the book. And even if you've seen the movie (which I agree, is awesome) you should still read the book and hopefully you'll like it even a fraction as much as this group of boys did. I started off the discussion simply, by asking what their favorite parts were. The boys then clamored with their answers, revisions to their answers and dramatic readings of their scenes of choosing. It was the perfect book to get us started. Fun, simple, full of startling and direct symbolic imagery, The Iron Giant is a great book for reluctant readers obsessed with Star Wars and the kids who can already read Harry Potter (with a parent). I decided NOT to bring up the fact that Hughes wrote it to comfort his children after his wife, Sylvia Plath, had a run in with her oven.
the current edition since changing publishers
 Second, we read Whales on Stilts by MT Anderson, the first in the Pals in Peril series (previously called MT Anderson's Thrilling Tales). Anyone who's listened to me blather about books knows that MT Anderson's basically my favorite, and I was really excited to have a chance to force his book on a bunch of kids subjected to my literary whims. Unfortunately, the sense of humor was a little beyond a few of our readers, and while we still managed to have a lively discussion rich with dramatic readings we also spent a lot of time clarifying vocabulary and plot points for some. Jasper Dash's character, particularly, who speaks in a hilariously outdated vernacular, left some of group behind. But I was really pleased to find that the kids who could keep up with Jasper and his chums loved the book, and took to the absurdity nicely. One of the readers has even continued on with the series on his own, and had already completed the second book by the time we met. And, being the group's only Jew, I was pleased to explain what gefilte fish is to the general disgust of all our members.
the new cover, which no longer features Peter Sis's illustrations
Despite the horror most of the mothers expressed to me over the title, I still assigned Sid Fleishman's Newbery Winner, The Whipping Boy. Though it was a struggle to get the boys to focus on this particular meeting date, we still managed to get some of the most insightful discussion we've ever had from this book. Toward the end of our discussion I asked if the boys could think of any examples in which, like in the book, someone or something is punished for misdeeds committed by another. Initially many examples of wrongful accusations among siblings and household pets were offered, but eventually one boy gave the following example, which I thought was not only apt, but very thoughtful: "It's like," he said "when someone lets go of a balloon, and they think it's really funny to watch it float away, but then eventually it pops and it lands in the ocean, and then a turtle eats it, because it thinks it's a jellyfish, but it's not. And then the turtle suffocates and dies."

Up Next:
For January

For February

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Worst Blogger EVER? A picture book and Early Reader update

So it's only been two months since my last post, but thankfully I read far more often than I log into this blog, so there's plenty to catch up on...

For instance, since my last post in August, SOCKSQUATCH by Frank Dormer has hit the shelves. Blessedly short and silly, and therefor perfect for toddler heavy storytimes, Socksquatch is my new go-to book when I recognize all the attendees as kids who have already heard Bear in Underwear more than a million and twelve times. Socksquatch lumbers around, looking for a sock for his cold foot. Along the way he meets a mummy, a werewolf and a damsel who's not in distressed so much as she is perturbed and good at problem solving. The way that Socksquatch holds himself reminds me a little of the Bad Mood from Big Rabbit's Bad Mood, and I like him all the more for that.

Also out now is BINK AND GOLLIE, an early reader featuring three, perfect short stories by Kate DiCamillo, Allison McGhee and illustrated by Tony Fucile. Bink and Gollie are odd couple friends whose distinct personalities and voices drive the stories effortlessly. Hilariously told, playfully illustrated and surprisingly touching, Bink and Gollie is the perfect book to read to younger kids starting to make the transition into longer stories, but who are not quite ready for full chapters yet, and kids who are reading independently, but are too young for books like Clementine (by Sarah Pennypacker and Marla Frazee) or Ivy and Bean (by Annie Barrows). If for no other reason, pick up Bink and Gollie for excellently executed dialog. 

Also for early readers, but more advanced than Bink and Gollie is LULU AND THE BRONTOSAURUS by Judith Viorst and (expertly) illustrated by Lane Smith. I love this book from the green polka-dotted chapter breaks, to Lulu's tiger-smashing suitcase. It's perfect as a read aloud book to the kids in the My Father's Dragon age group/attention span, since not only is it about the same length and density of illustrations, but it's clearly a modern, snarky update of that wholesome classic. Where Elmer was kind and curious, Lulu is stubborn and rude, though she learns far more from her quest than Elmer does. Smith's illustrations echo Gannet's without copying, while updating them in a way that's undeniably cool. Come Christmas and Channukah, I will literally be throwing this book at parents.

Friday, August 20, 2010

ATTACK of the Fluffy Bunnies by Andrea Beaty

When twins Kevin and Joules Rockman are sent to summer camp, they find their summer filled with something even more awful than sing alongs: large, fuzzy white bunny aliens who eat people and then hijack their bodies for their own malevolent purposes. Playfully illustrated by Dan Santat, Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies delivers everything that the title promises. Short chapters and a diabolically goofy conceit make this story the perfect read for that snarky kid who doesn't care less about the Hardy Boys. So if you know a 7-10 year old who loved Whales on Stilts, Zombiekins or the oldie-but-hopefully-still-goodie, My Teacher is an Alien, then this is the book for them.
I was really surprised when I found this silly, rollicking tale of fuzzy alien invasion, since author Andrea Beaty's previous book, Cicada Summer, is a serious story about trauma, healing and forgiveness. But, like M.T. Anderson, Beaty has proven herself adept in at least two different voices. And though Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies is unlikely to make any curriculum, it's a great book for reluctant readers with an eye for the extremely silly.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Scott Pilgrim, the books, the movie, the epic of epic epicness

Scott Pilgrim Versus the World hits the theaters today, but I'm happy to say that I've already seen it twice. Yes, I'm that super-dork who talked her way into two screenings (thanks Roommate!) one of which was at Pixar (yessss, nerdgasm) and who, despite having seen this movie twice in the last two weeks, still wants to go see it in theaters to support it in the box office. And I hope you do, too.
Based on the series of 6 graphic novels by Brian Lee O'Malley (yay for creative hapas!), Scott Pilgrim the movie (named for the second book of the series) is fabulously adapted by super slick director Edgar Wright, who also directed a few of my other favorite movies, Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (starring the awesome and hilarious Simon Pegg). While I had a little bit of a hard time getting into the graphic novel series because of the aesthetic (giant manga eyes, particularly, and characters who look very much the same other than their hair-dos) I did like it even though I stopped at the 4th book. But the movie was better for its brevity-- crazy kinetic and stuffed full of great one-liners, sight gags and hilarious/awesome fight sequences and the coolest arcade game visual style ever made the movie go so fast that I worried I might have missed things since I was laughing so hard. I was particularly keen on Thomas Jane's cameo as the vegan police. Leading boy/man Micheal Cera does an awesome job bringing humor and vulnerability to Scott's character, and Kieran Culkin kills it as Scott's gay roommate, Wallace. I'd list everyone who was awesome, but there's no weak link in the chain-- the acting is great, the humor is campy and the arc is deceptively sentimental.
Read the books to get into the world. Watch the movie to revel in it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

New Story Time Picks

For the Toddlers: A Sick Day for Amos McGee (by Philip and Erin Stead) is a very sweet and very simply story about a zookeeper's life on a normal day, and then his life when he has to stay home sick. The repetitive structure and adorable animals help keep the younger set seated and listening, and the woodblock/pencil illustrations and limited palatte create a low impact, soft setting that suits younger readers nicely. I've read this story a couple times at story time, and while it does not quite engage the 4+ set, those who are younger give all the telltale signs of enjoyment, which really just means that they listen the whole way through.

For the 3-6yr olds: A Pirate's Guide to First Grade (by James Preller and Greg Ruth) went over swimmingly at this weekends' totally boy dominated storytime. We had three incoming first graders in the crowd who were especially pleased. Those who were not quite ready for first grade were equally amused, or at least were amused by my awful pirate voice (yarrr). What cracked me up as I read this story was that the kids were laughing the whole time, even when they had no idea what the pirate jargin meant. While I like to think that they may remember that "choppers" means teeth now, I have the sneaky suspicion that the idea of talking like a pirate at school was enough to keep the giggles coming for all 39 pages. I'm just glad I don't have to keep reading How I Became a Pirate (Melinda Long and David Shannon) over and over again in order to sate the still staggering need for pirate-voice stories. Yar.For Mixed Ages: Dog Loves Books (by Louise Yates) is a book guaranteed to have bookseller support since Dog, as the title promises, loves books so much that he opens his own bookstore. And while it's a store with little to no foot traffic, Dog passes the time reading books, and going places he'd never imagined with things like dinosaurs and martians and monsters. The kids at storytime were perhaps a little less amused by the bookseller jokes as I was, but they did love the pink pterodactyl, the kangaroos, the planes, the swords and all the adventures Dog finds in his books. As my coworker Bob put it on his shelf-talker: "Dog Loves Books: A gritty and unflinchingly realistic portrayal of the challenging and hurly-burly world of bookselling." Just what Yates was going for, I'm sure.