Category Archives: books

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

west of the moonWest of the Moon is historical fiction that weaves in so much folklore it sometimes feels like a folk tale itself.

Astri and her little sister live with their aunt, uncle, and cousins on a small farm in Norway. Astri’s mother is dead, and her father has gone to America. At the very beginning of the book, Astri’s aunt and uncle sell her to a hunchback goat herder as a servant girl, which sets in motion a sweeping almost-fantasy story as Astri plots her escape and tries to reunite with the rest of her family in America.

What follows is a complicated weaving of retellings of Scandinavian folk tales as reimagined and relived by Astri. Nothing that actually happens in the book is unrealistic, but because every step of Astri’s journey mirrors an event from a folk tale, it feels fantastic. Continue reading


Newbery Project #12: 2002’s A Single Shard


Oh, cool, another book that takes place over 800 years ago.

I kid, mostly, but have you realized that virtually NONE of these books take place in the present day? I counted FOUR in the project so far that could conceivably take place in the present day. Two of those are a stretch, and one of them is this year’s Flora & Ulysses, which I read but have not written about yet. The One and Only Ivan basically takes place in the present day, but is based on a real story from 1962. The Graveyard Book is not set in a specific time, but is so far into fantasy as to barely count as present-day. So we’re left with just The Higher Power of Lucky, which kind of feels like it takes place in the past because it takes place in a town so small, time basically doesn’t matter to it. MY KINGDOM FOR SOME CONTEMPORARY REALISTIC (or semi-realistic) FICTION.

BUT! To the task at hand: A Single Shard is the story of an orphan named Tree-Ear who lives under a bridge with his differently-abled friend Crane-Man, where they try to scrape by an existence. He lives in Ch’ulp’o, a village in Korea famous for its beautiful celadon pottery. You know, that pottery all the kids are into these days!

Tree-Ear deeply admires the potters, especially one named Min, who is clearly superior to all other potters. He manages to talk Min into allowing him to be his helper, and over the course of the book learns a lot about craft and discipline and all that good stuff.

All-in-all, it’s an interesting, well-paced, thoughtful little book! Continue reading

The Art of Secrets by James Klise

Those Newberys are getting a little dry! I’m trying to pepper in at least one non-Newbery read a week, and I’m trying to keep it to things published in 2014, just to keep things extra fresh. This week: James Klise’s new YA novel The Art of Secrets.

art of secrets

The Chicago scene is pretty buzzy about this book. Klise is a librarian at a charter school in Chicago. The geographical and career proximity tickles me. When I bought my copy of this book from City Lit the bookseller was very enthusiastic. All reasons to get very excited!

The book takes place at a fictional private school in Chicago located downtown. This allows Klise to pull his characters from neighborhoods all over Chicago, which is a fun detail for locals, and allows for a reasonably diverse cast of characters. The story centers on Saba Khan, a Pakistani girl from Rogers Park, whose apartment is set on fire while her family is at Saba’s tennis match. The rest of the novel revolves around trying to figure out how this fire started, and the school’s effort to help Saba and her family recover from the fire. This ALSO leads us to another plot involving legendary Chicago outsider-artist Henry Darger. Some students who are collecting items for an auction to raise money for Saba’s family come across a set of paintings possibly painted by Darger. We spend the novel bouncing between the perspectives of Saba; Saba’s dad; Steve, Saba’s new boyfriend; Javier, an exchange student from Spain; the school principal; Kendra, the new girl who is organizing the fund raiser to help Saba; Kevin, Kendra’s brother; the gym teacher; an English teacher; and the art teacher. Its… a lot of perspectives. Somehow this all works, though! Continue reading

Newbery Project #11: 2003’s Crispin: The Cross of Lead


There was a giant gap in this blog between February and June and this book is the main culprit.

My goal was to read a Newbery a week. For a while I was ahead of schedule. Then it took me over a week to finish Moon Over Manifest, but that was okay, I was still on track. Because I was ahead of my reading schedule, I was writing posts for books I’d read a few weeks ago. I let myself get a little lazier, but I chugged along. And then we got to Crispin: The Cross of Lead.

I was actually plenty excited to read this. Before the project I never would have dreamed of picking it up, but Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! had convinced me to be interested in the Middle Ages. I was looking forward to reading another story from the time period.

Crispin is the story of a poor (in every sense of the word), nameless boy whose mother dies in the first page or so of the book, Bambi style. He understandably does not know what to do. There’s a priest that can sort of help, but not really. Dude is pretty useless. And for some reason a bunch of guys seem to want him dead, too. So, naturally, the only thing he can do is run. The boy takes off for anywhere carrying nothing but a couple of scraps of food and a lead cross from the priest, supposedly made my his mother. So here we are, in for a traveling story.

A story I found, sadly, really not-interesting. Continue reading

Newbery Project #10: 2004’s The Tale of Despereaux


We’ve reached what I consider to be the first (in reverse chronological order, of course) of the modern classics of Newbery. There are a couple Newbery’s after this one that I dearly, dearly love (namely, When You Reach Me), but I don’t think any of them are as widely-read and referenced as Despereaux. It’s also the first of the project to be made into a movie. We all know Despereaux.

So it’s really hard to write about a book like this! I’ll keep it to my favorite thing about this book: it was clearly written to be read aloud. Continue reading

Newbery Project #9: 2005’s Kira Kira

This was not the first time I read Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira-Kira. I first read it back in 2008. I hadn’t89731 read a Newbery winner in a while. I honestly could not tell you what made me pick up a random Newbery winner from 3 years before that. I think I was trying to be a little more up-to-date on middle grade books, as I was just starting work at the bookstore. And while I certainly wasn’t that excited about Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! (but boy was I wrong about that) I don’t know what made me skip over The Higher Power of Lucky  and Criss-Cross, and, frankly, all the other middle grade novels published around that time and pick this up. It looks like a quiet little book about Japanese-American girls, which is exactly what it is. That is not usually my bag.

When I read it 5+ years ago, though, I remember really liking it. The characters and setting are unique. Katie, the narrator, is the child of Japanese immigrants who live in the midwest in the 1960s. It’s a perspective you don’t get much in children’s literature. The pacing is leisurely, but not too slow. Katie is a thoughtful and interesting narrator. She has a distinctly young voice for middle grade, and she is flawed by the usual small child flaws, such ignorant carelessness and lack of perspective, but she grows and changes a lot with respect to these flaws. The way she talks about her family is uniquely gentle and reverent and thoughtful. Her voice about these relationships is really what makes this book so special. I think I was the most affected by it when I read it the first time, though, because I (somehow) didn’t expect the ending. And so after the jump, if you’ve read the book before, or if you’re not so dense as I am and are perfectly able to anticipate, frankly, quite-predictable endings, read on. If you haven’t read it, though, stop now, because knowing the ending definitely took some of the joy out of it for me. Continue reading

Newbery Project #8: 2006’s Criss Cross

I think the project is starting to cloud my judgement. When you read almost nothing but Newbery winners, it makes it hard to keep things in perspective. Things that are great in the grand scheme of things are problem-ridden when you are reading them only from the viewpoint of “here are a bunch of things that won awards! Look how good they are!”

So, with that skewed perspective in mind, I am sort of ready to discuss Lynn Rae Perkins’s Criss Cross. A book that doesn’t even have an actual description on Goodreads except for the first few lines of the novel. That is how little a plot there is to this book. And when you’ve read a string of character-driven, light-on-plot children’s books, you start to wish for something to happen. Ironically, the first line of an early chapter in the book is “She wished something would happen.” And I am sure I am not the first person who make this exact comment about this book: “DON’T WE ALL, DEBBIE! DON’T WE ALL!!!!” Continue reading

Newbery Project #7: 2007’s The Higher Power of Lucky

luckyThe most a lot of people had to say about this book when it won in 2007 was “But it has the word ‘scrotum’ on the first page!”

And honestly, there might not be much more to say about this book.

Lucky lives in a very small town with her father’s ex-wife (not her mother). Lucky’s mother was killed by a fallen power line after a rainstorm. Lucky’s father is just not the fathering type. But apparently Lucky’s father’s first wife is the mothering type, despite never being a mother herself and being from France and never having lived in the United States before coming to take care of Lucky and live in a trailer. She is apparently totally fine with all of this.

Lucky spends the book coming to terms with her mother’s death and herself and her separation anxiety, and that’s pretty much the story.

Continue reading

Newbery Project #6: 2008’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!

goodmastersWell that was a surprise!

Good Masters, Sweet Ladies!, but Laura Amy Schiltz, is a collection of 15 monologues and two 2-person plays, all set in one imaginary town in England in the Middle Ages. The author is a librarian in a lovely school that lets classes go gang-busters with interdisciplinary units, who wrote these monologues specifically for one class of kids who was studying the time period, because she is the world’s most ambitious librarian.

I never ever would have picked up this book were it not for this project. I have never given the slightest crap about the Middle Ages. And a bunch of plays about the Middle Ages? A bunch of soliloquies meant to be delivered by middle school students? Are you kidding?

But I LOVED this! Continue reading

Newbery Project #5: 2009’s The Graveyard Book

graveyardpicI wonder if the selection committee was trying to pick something more public-friendly for the award in 2009, after 2008 when they picked one of the weirder books to ever grace the list. (More on Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! next week, obviously.) Neil Gaiman is one of the most famous and beloved authors working today, and in 2009 the Newbery committee decided he should get to add their medal to his long list of accolades.

I wish I’d read The Jungle Book. Gaiman is forthcoming in explaining that this book is directly inspired by Kipling’s classic. BUT, my only knowledge of The Jungle Book is a vague memory of the Disney movie and that Ashlee Simpson and Pete Wentz gave their kid the middle name Mowgli. I would probably be better able to evaluate this book if I knew more about it’s source material. But here we are.

So, a purely stand-along run-down of the book: A boy (Nobody Owens, or Bod for short) is raised by ghosts after his family is brutally murdered and he escapes to a graveyard. The book collects a serious of episodes from Bod’s life growing up in the graveyard and periodically checks in with a more over-arching plot that follows the man who killed Bod’s family and who is still hunting him down.

It’s good!  Continue reading