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 #13: 2001’s A Year Down Yonder

Year-Down-YonderRichard Peck’s A Year Down Yonder is the follow-up to his Newbery Honor-winning A Long Way from Chicago. Mary Alice is a Chicago girl, but she’s been spending summers with her “character” of an grandma, and now that the Depression is in full swing and her family is struggling to make ends meet, Mary Alice is going to spend the whole year with her. The book is a series of encounters with the other big characters of southern Illinois through the eyes of observant Mary Alice.

I still have not gotten my wish for something that takes place remotely in the present day. At least we’re about 700 years closer than A Single Shard? Sigh.

I’m going to keep this one short. There is nothing wrong with this book. Peck definitely has a talent for creating unique characters (this is the third time in this post I’ve used the word character, it’s unavoidable). Mary Alice is smart and has a dry humor. There isn’t a driving plot, more of a series of events, but that’s fine. You’re not reading to find out what happens, you’re reading to find out what people will do. It’s a perfectly legitimate way to approach a book.

And it has a sense of humor! It’s been a while since we got to a Newbery-er with a sense of humor!

But this did not light a fire inside of me or anything. I enjoyed the picture in my head of the postmistresses running naked through Grandma Dowdel’s house after getting spooked by the snake she keeps in the attic. I smiled at Grandma’s bullying charity when she works with the Lady’s Auxiliary to sell the stew. It’s all very charming. But for me, that was about it. It was charming.

Would kids like it? There’s some good kid-friendly stuff in here! But the kids that I know about (including myself as a child) are city kids. And I’m realizing as I get farther into this project that there has been very little for them to personally connect to. Not only do the recent Newbery committees have a problem with contemporary settings, they apparently have a problem with urban settings. It’s starting to concern me. So I have a hard time seeing my kids* get excited for all these charming country stories.

Does it have “funny bits”? Finally! Yes! This book is, arguably, actually a comedy!

Do I understand why it won? Sure. Who hates charm? And, as I said before, Peck’s characters really are next-level.

*When I say my kids, I mean the kids I teach. Sorry, I will never stop calling them my kids.


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

Week in Review

This was my first full week of summer break. I spent it mostly doing nothing, because my brain has still not processed this whole not-working thing. I also read a bunch of teaching texts (see: not being able to handle not-working) like Tribes and Comprehension and Collaboration because I am obsessed with making my kids work in ALL THE GROUPS!


I also read Lorrie Moore’s Bark for my grown-up book club, which was beautifully written and funny and smart and very Lorrie Moore. Every other line felt like it should be pulled for a Slaughterhouse 90210 post.

I used part of my CSA share and the nasturtiums we’re growing on our balcony to make the world’s fanciest egg salad. (Based on this recipe.)

egg salad


Other things around the web:

This Shelf Awareness story made me want to pick up The Bunker Diary to see what all the fuss was about. The chair of the awards committee points out that’s probably exactly what the publisher wants. It hasn’t even been published in the States yet. It’s so rare for people to get up-in-arms about a children’s book award! Usually no one cares AT ALL!

Sarah Polly is (probably) directing Looking for AlaskaLFA is my favorite John Green book and Sarah Polly is the coolest, so I am psyched about this. (Despite still not actually having seen TFIOS.)

I tweeted stuff about Brooklyn being the worst and the kittens in my neighbor’s backyard.

Good week, guys!

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

I should be getting good at these “Sorry” posts…

The number of times I’ve had to write one of these “Sorry I’ve been bad about blogging!” posts is definitely about 10 too many. But here I am again.

I haven’t published a post since February, but I have still been reading! The winter doldrums got me down on writing and it was hard to get back in the saddle. Luckily, though, getting back in the reading children’s lit saddle was pretty easy, even though Crispin: The Cross of Lead made a really valiant effort at keeping me out. Man.

As summer (and summer break) approaches I plan on posting twice a week for a while to help get me back on track. As of today, I’ve read all the way back to 1998’s winner, Out of the Dust, which gives me enough fodder for posts for the next month at that pace. I’m also hoping to read one book a week that was published this year and write about that. I’m hoping to put the Newbery Project in perspective (I write about this Newbery fatigue in my Criss Cross post), get some idea about what might win the Newbery for 2015, and perhaps actually review something you haven’t heard of for once. Maybe. I’m going to try to keep it mostly middle grade, but I read two interesting YA novels last weekend (one you have almost definitely heard about, one you maybe haven’t) that gave me plenty to talk about.

On to summer! Later today: my long-postponed review of Lynn Rae Perkin’s Criss Cross.