Category Archives: books

Newbery Project Addition!

ImageThis morning it was announced that at some point I will have to add Flora & Ulysses to my Newbery Project reading list. (That’s exactly how they did it, the ALA called me up to tell me to rearrange my reading schedule. Then I assume they called Kate DiCamillo. Then the rest of you learned about it. It was all very official.)

I love Kate DiCamillo (except for Magician’s Elephant, I thought that was a snooze-fest) so I’m looking forward to tackling this one. It also looks like it’s definitely not one of your quiet, cry-inducing, serious-fests I always worry is going to be the front-runner. If I can fit it in soon, I will, rather than waiting until the very end.

I have to admit I’m a little bummed they didn’t pick something a little more obscure this time around, though! Kate DiCamillo is already the Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. She’s pretty much royalty of Middle Grade. She hardly needs the Newbery push. I was kind of hoping for a reason to read something I wouldn’t otherwise pick up. I definitely would have gotten around to reading Flora & Ulysses eventually no matter what. I might have to dig into the Honor books this year. I was especially surprised to see Doll Bones on so many Newbery prediction lists this year (and then on the Honor’s list) because it looks so very un-Newbery. I might have to start an off-shoot of the project where I insert Newbery Honor books here and there, because I am dying to read that one.

Newbery Project #4: 2010’s When You Reach Me

whenyoureachmeThis whole venture was in danger of becoming one big “meh” fest. I have not been super wild about any of the winners the past 4 years. 2010, though, oh man, 2010 brought it.

This is not the first time I’ve read Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. It’s not even the second time. I’ve actually lost count of the number of times I’ve read this book in just the last four years.

The plot is sparse. Miranda lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the late ’70s. She’s just trying to have a nice life with her friends and her single mom (who is about to be a contestant on $20,000 Pyramid) and read A Wrinkle in Time as many times as is humanly possible. The only things getting in her way are that her friends might not be her friends anymore and also she is getting some seriously creepy notes that either make no sense at all or appear to predict the future.

But that little story packs so much punch and oh my I love it so.

Continue reading

Newbery Project #3: 2011’s Moon Over Manifest

a moon-over-manifestMoon Over Manifest is I think maybe the picture many people get in their heads when they hear “Newbery Winner.” It’s an historical fiction story inside an historical fiction story that follows a plucky almost-orphan through her quest to find herself.

Do I sound jaded about it?

I think I might not actually get this book. I probably should have read it twice to be able to weigh in on it fairly, but this book is super long! Super long for a middle grade novel, anyway. If I’m going to keep up with my one-a-week pace, there’s no way I had time to read this twice.

This was not the first time I picked up this book. I checked it out of the library very soon after it won the Newbery 3 years ago. I trudged through the first half and then it was due back to the library and I returned it. The first bit is just soooooooo sloooooooowwwwwwww. There is an audience for these leisurely-paced narratives that take place in a simpler place in a simpler time. I am not the audience for these stories.  Continue reading

Newbery Project #2: 2012’s Dead End in Norvelt

dead endI was excited for this one! I really like Jack Gantos. I think Joey Pigza has actually made me a better person. That character taught me how to empathize with the student who is doing something so insane it makes me want to throw them out a window. I loved that his memoir, Hole in My Life, gleefully demolishes the stereotype of the sweet-little-old-lady children’s book writer. He is funny and insightful and honest about how just about anyone is capable of making some pretty gigantic mistakes. I bought Dead End in Norvelt long before this project started, I would have eventually read it, self-imposed challenge or no.

Also, it’s a welcome counter-argument to my theory that the Newbery tends towards the sad and serious, and only on my second book!

BUT I ended with some mixed feelings!

Dead End in Norvelt is a semi-autobiographical novel that takes place over one summer in 1962. Jack gets himself grounded for the entire summer, and is allowed to leave the house only to help his elderly neighbor, Miss Volker, the town obituary-writer, historian, and medical examiner. Luckily, Miss Volker needs a lot of help and the help she needs, given her many occupations, is pretty interesting.

The book is autobiographical in that the character’s name is Jack Gantos, he’s Gantos’s age as he was in 1962, and he lives near where Jack Gantos spent a good deal of his early childhood. It’s difficult to determine how much more of this is autobiographical. If wikipedia is to be believed, the superficial details of his family are not the same in real life as in the book. Book Jack is an only child, Real Jack is not. His parents seem to have different jobs. As far as I can tell Real Jack never even lived in real Norvelt, just nearby. And as for the events in the book, well, ack!

Continue reading

Newbery Project #1: 2013’s The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate


The One and Only Ivan is about Ivan (duh), a gorilla, and his motley crew of animal friends who are all stuck in a remarkably sad, ethically questionable mall-based mini-circus/sideshow. Told in the first person by Ivan, over the course of this relatively short story we learn about how he and all his friends happened to arrive in these pretty miserable circumstances, and about their day-to-day lives. We also get to know the few humans who interact with the animals: the owner of the side show, Mack, and the custodian and his young daughter, George and Julia. Julia is an artist who also sneaks art supplies to Ivan so he can join her in her drawing and painting, and who sympathizes with the animals and forms a bond with each of them. An afterword lets the reader know that the whole story is actually based on true events and Ivan is a real gorilla. Namely, this gorilla who lived at the Atlanta Zoo until just over a year ago.

After the break, my review, and how I think The One and Only Ivan fits into this whole Newbery thing… Continue reading

"Where’d You Get That Can of Peas?" Questions I Have about Divergent

This is Chicago today. I imagine it with no cars, a lot of broken down buildings, and a whole bunch of bloody kids making out to picture Divergent Chicago.

Basic spoiler warning: I’m about to reference stuff from all over the first two Divergent books. Honestly, if you haven’t read the books at all, not a whole lot will be ruined for you by reading this. The specific things that I mention probably won’t make sense to you, and the broad things I discuss aren’t really “spoilers” per se in that they don’t give away anything really secret or surprising. That said, if you don’t want to know much about what happens before you read, you should probably avoid this.

So, I’m rereading Insurgent, and about halfway through there’s the scene when the Candor guy is meeting with Jeanine’s “representative” and the representative tells the Candor leader “your faction is disposable” and I thought, “Wait, yeah! What the hell is the point of Candor anyway?!”

Which led me to wonder, “What, what is the deal with any of this?” And it took me until now to realize how badly I wanted more world building in the Divergent books.

Questions I asked the book, to no avail, while reading or rereading, after the jump:

-What do the Candor people do all day? Amity grow things, Abnegation run the government and take care of factionless people, Erudite study and develop new technology, Dauntless defend the city and the Candor… tell it like it is? Like, for a living? I seems like they should run the justice system or something, but every faction has their own justice system, apparently.

-Where does everyone get their canned food? They reference cans and nonperishables a few times. Where did these come from? Amity seems to just grow crops, not process and package them.

-Why are Abnegation the only ones who appear to have families that live in their own house and make their own food? Every glimpse we get into the other factions involves cafeterias.

-How big are these factions anyway? Most factions all fit in one building (even if one of those buildings is the massive Merchandise Mart, it’s still one building). But Tris doesn’t recognize Four at all, even though he’s only two years older than her and they lived in the same faction for 14 years.

-Why does everyone seem to know so little about what goes in in the other factions? How does Tris not realize that Dauntless shoves out their older people? Why doesn’t anyone know where the factions ARE? They all go to school together for something like 10 years, right? It never comes up in the school cafeteria?

-Who is running the trains? Why do they go fast in between where the Dauntless jump on or off but slow down for jumping? Why don’t they stop? Where’s the end of the line? Who establishes the schedule? What’s the point of keeping them running if only 1/5th of the population can use them at all?

-What the economy in this world? Tris once says that she gets points to spend in the Dauntless compound to buy things like dresses and tattoos. (Actually, they never say the tattoos cost money–do they?!) Where did these dresses come from? Where did the Dauntless store get them? Where does anyone else get their clothes? or guns? or books? Clearly there is not an inter-faction currency, so how do people navigate inter-faction transactions? Is that a thing?

Half the fun of any dystopian/fantasy/sci-fi novel is the world building and figuring out how everything in this new world works. Tell me mooooooore Veronica Roth. Please.

Or maybe this all gets answered in Allegiant when we find out what’s outside the fence! Here’s to holding out hope.

Allegiant Is Out! I’m Not Reading it Yet

Veronica Roth’s Allegiant came out two weeks ago and I still haven’t started it.

I bought it, and I started reading it, but the first thought as I read the first paragraph was “Who’s that?” That was also my second thought, and my third thought. I could not for the life of me remember who Edith or Christina or Will or even EVELYN was. I couldn’t remember the character that shares my (until-recently-very-uncommon) name. So I went back to the beginning. I reread Divergent (which I had to do before I read Insurgent for the same reason) and now you can see I am about half way through Insurgent for a second time. I remember who most of those people are now.
I am trying to reread with a supportive mindset. I’ve come to appreciate the idea that there’s really no reason to read a book looking for things you don’t like about it, and it’s a lot more interesting and enriching and helpful for everyone to read a book looking for the things to like about it. BUT! I keep having issues with these books! I really want Tris’s shoulder to stop hurting, or at least for her to stop reminding us that it hurts. I also want her to stop making out with Four so much. Sorry, everybody. I’m cranky. And I really want everyone to stop shaking so much. By everyone I mostly mean Tris and Four, since those are the only people whose bodies get described in any detail. But geez, guys! Are you getting enough potassium? Do you have Parkinson’s? What’s with the CONSTANT SHAKING?!
I’m going to go pretend to be Tris and run a few miles and try not to shake or think about how much my shoulder hurts and then come back and finish this so I can finally start the book all of you finished weeks ago.

Review: Junonia by Kevin Henkes

Kevin Henkes clearly gets kids. His picture books nail various aspects of kid-dom straight on the head. Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse is a perfect portrait of the first time you get in trouble. When parents came into the bookstore asking for my-kid-is-getting-a-sibling books (and in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, they came in looking for that a lot) I always recommended Julius, the Baby of the World first. Which was why I was so surprised that much of Junonia didn’t seem to understand kids at all.

Junonia is the story of Alice, a trip to Florida, and her tenth birthday. It is a big one. It’s the last time you will be able to count your age on your fingers. It’s the first time you’re in double digits. But the birthday/vacation starts to quickly fall apart as more and more things that Alice loves about their yearly Florida trips are changed or taken away. At its core I love this kind of story: a simple coming-of-age story where kids deal with very everyday problems. They usually make for the sweet, quiet, touching story that adults who love kids’ books gravitate towards. And therein lies this problem: I think this is a book for adults who like kids books.

The first half of the book is just buried in things that are glaringly un-kid-like. “At that moment, Alice loved her mother so completely she thought they might fuse together and melt away.” Parents hope that their children feel like this sometimes, and on some level most kids do feel this at some point, but they do not articulate it, and I would go so far as to say that they do not want this sentiment articulated for them. This kind of love for parents is not something kids want to be self-aware about. Same goes for “How could she ever be as old as Mrs. Wishmeier? she wondered. It seemed impossible. What would she look like when she was her mother’s age?”

The summer before I started high school I had a lengthy summer reading project to do for school. One of the books I had to read was Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. I hated it. It became clear when it was time to discuss the novel in class that I was not the only one. The book is a nostalgic portrayal of childhood summers. Our teachers could not believe we did not see the beauty in its descriptions and sentiment. We were children who had to read this book over the summer instead of doing the things described in the book. We were not nostalgic for childhood summers yet. The whole point of the book was lost on us.

There are worse things in the world than being compared to Ray Bradbury. But the first half of this book was that experience all over again. Kids are not nostalgic for their summers in Florida searching for seashells.

But then it starts to turn it around. Alice is deeply stung by a comment one of the older characters makes. When talking about Mallory, the younger, vaguely-obnoxious new vacation neighbor, he says “That little blond one sure is a screamer, but she is the prettiest girl I ever saw.” All of us realize we are not the prettiest or smartest or funniest or nicest girl ever. Such a thing does not really exist. But it still hurts in a very special way when someone else is singled out for being especially pretty, smart, funny, or nice over you. And Alice’s lingering reaction to this comment was genuine and touching. There are a couple more moments that stood out for me in the same way. Following the “prettiest girl” incident, Alice’s father asks if she would like a little “bed supper.” This is the greatest idea in the history of sullen child parenting. It’s the most comforting thing I can imagine and I want someone to make me bed supper. There was also the walk through the cemetery, which some authors might have painted as creepy or depressing, but here Kevin Henkes just says she was bored. Which is exactly what most kids feel when they’re made to walk through a cemetery. It’s so boring.

The letter from the publisher at the beginning of this galley positions this book squarely in the early chapter book market, hoping to bridge the gap between the Wemberly Worried and Olive’s Ocean sets. Other than the fact that this book is so startlingly short, though, it has no business being there. The language is flowery with difficult vocabulary. The sentiments, I mentioned already, are distinctly un-7-year-old.

In the beginning I thought this would be a two-star book, but some of the later genuine kid moments bumped it up to three. It’s released tomorrow, May 24th. Give it to an especially precocious 7-year-old or your grandmother who used to be a children’s librarian who is now retired and lives in Florida. They’ll both love it.

Excuses, 13 Little Blue Envelopes, and Divergent.

The item “blog post” has been showing up on my teuxdeux list every day for something like three weeks. I keep ignoring it.

I refuse to blame “being busy” because I firmly believe that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person. Busy people know how to fit all kinds of stuff into a day. I know how to fit one thing into a day. I am not a busy person.

I did manage to busy myself reading 13 Little Blue Envelopes, which I had ignored until Maureen Johnson decided to give it away for free on Kindle, which is a testament to internet marketing. Although I’m not sure it was 100% successful as it did not quite motive me to buy the sequel yet. I also read Divergent. Everyone I talked to who read it was pretty much ambivalent about it, but for some reason that did not stop me.

13 Little Blue Envelopes is actually delightful, and I should really find new words to describe children’s and YA books that I like besides “delightful.” I loved the premise, that Ginny’s aunt wrote her 13 letters before she died that would lead her on a trip across Europe. It managed to deftly walk the line between trite and touching, and between too-high-concept and plausible. Ginny was believably flawed and relatable. The descriptions of Europe were nice and atmospheric. In the end, though, I flipped through (clicked through?) the excerpt from The Last Little Blue Envelope and couldn’t get myself excited to read it. I couldn’t spend THAT much time with Ginny. [SPOILER ALERT highlight to read] I am curious to find out how the hell some kid in England wound up with Ginny’s letter that was stolen in Greece, but not quite curious enough to read a whole book just yet. A wonderful train read at least. And made me want to take a trip around Europe.

Divergent was everything everyone said it would be: pretty exciting with an interesting premise but ultimately not that remarkable. The idea of seeing a futuristic dystopia of a city you actually know is pretty cool, so anyone who has spent a decent amount of time in Chicago will like hearing about what has happened to the city. I actually wish there was more detail on that front. Maybe because Veronica Roth went to Northwestern and she now lives “near Chicago,” as her author bio describes, so she’s not that into the geography of the actual city? Just kidding. That’s my U of C vs. Northwestern bizarre rivalry rearing its head. Maybe she wrote it and her editor cut it, I don’t know. I would have read it and liked it if there was more local detail is what I’m saying.

The premise is fascinating but clearly unrealistic. The people of Chicago have divided themselves into five factions: Abnegation for the self-less citizens, Dauntless for the brave ones, Erudite for the academics, Amity for the friendly, and Candor for the honest. It’s fun to imagine a society divided so drastically by personality traits, but I found it very hard to believe that anyone would have believed that this kind of arrangement would actually work without conflict. Also, that such a large percentage of the population would so clearly fall into one group. (Although I’m pretty sure I’d be Erudite, which made me sad when they were painted in such a negative light. Maybe that’s how all the kids who identified with Slytherin felt?) ALSO, that any teenager would choose Abnegation at the choosing ceremony. I can see why adults could join Abnegation. They seem a very noble and peaceful people. I do not know a single 16-year-old who is selfless, though. It seems like it would be a hard sell.

The book also features a very prominent and detailed romance plot-line, which I cannot handle reading in YA as an adult reader. I do not care about teenagers in love or like. In my goodreads review I called it “barf-inducing.” There’s not actually anything wrong with this part of the story, I just personally had no desire to read about it. At all.

And I could not quite get behind the ending. Also: does ANYONE write stand-alone dystopian/post-apocalypic books these days? They’re all trilogies. Just let me finish the story in one book for once.

Other people’s complaints about this book did not stop me from reading it, and in the end, I don’t think any of these complaints should keep anyone else from reading it. It’s a fun, exciting read and I happily finished it.

Coming up tomorrow: a post I wrote a long time ago when I was still in writing mode about Kevin Henkes’s new novel, Junonia. Let’s all cheer for post-dated posts!

lazy sunday

Today was my favorite day of the year in Chicago: the first day of the year when it is truly warm and sunny outside. Everyone is in a good mood and spreads themselves out outside. I live on a wide boulevard with stretches of lawn running the length of the road and it was crawling with sunbathers and bacci ballers and dogs. This day did not exist when I lived in New York. People did get excited when the weather started to turn, but the city didn’t explode the way Chicago does when we finally feel like we’re free of winter. It’s the best.

I spent much of the day on my porch in our new chairs reading the NYTimes articles about Ramona and Hunger Games and trying to keep the rest of the Sunday paper from blowing into the alley. (It was beautiful and sunny and warm but egads was it windy.)

I also reread Sarah, Plain and Tall for a project I’m working on right now. I hadn’t read this since I was in elementary school, and all I remembered about it was that I didn’t like it. I thought it was boring. Upon rereading, I decided elementary-school-me was totally right. Sarah comes to their house (WHY?! Why does she come to their house?) and then she stays. The end. I know the Newbery voters in 1985 must have been charmed by this elegant simplicity in the story and prose, but I was thankful that the book was only 58 pages long. (Also: 58 pages?! You can get away with that? I guess I feel like the old ladies in the joke at the beginning of Annie Hall who complain about the restaurant’s terrible food that comes in such small portions, but it’s my party and I’ll complain about what I want to.) I am curious about the children who love this book. There must be many, and I do not write that in a tone that means “who the heck likes this book?!” I mean I really would love to learn more about the child reader who embraces this story.

I see the appeal it might have to adults. The writing is beautifully crafted and certain turns of phrase are remarkably elegant. The story is neat and tidy and gives us a window into a time where family relationships were very different. Maybe I’m not giving 8-year-olds enough credit. Maybe this is quite enough for most of them. It was not enough for me, though. Not even now.

Luckily I also read a galley of the new Clementine book this weekend and it was absolutely delightful. I will write all about it when the publication date gets closer but suffice it to say that I have never been so consistently charmed by a series of books as I continue to be by Clementine. Squee!