Monday, January 28, 2013

Newbery and Caldecott Rock Our January

This is it! The big day! Forget the Superbowl, or rather, picture a Superbowl with authors and illustrators, only they probably wouldn’t be wearing those odd uniforms… Anyway, this morning the American Library Association announced their annual children’s book awards. Here are some of the highlights. To see the entire list, read this ALA press release. (And join me in wondering why the knowledgeable librarians put the book titles in quote marks rather than in italics. Perhaps they don’t trust reporters?)

Newbery Medal

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

The talking gorilla takes the prize! This was not an easy premise to pull off, but the accolades started pouring in early on and haven’t stopped. Plus, I will just mention that at this moment, the book is #13 on Amazon’s sales ranking list. I am embarrassed to say that The One and Only Ivan is still on my TBR list, but I will read it soon, I promise.

Newbery Honor

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

I actually just read this last week and was wowed. Intense, wonderful storytelling with depth of character and strange surprises. Kind of dark, though, so I’d say 10 and up.

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

My mom is a huge nonfiction fan and I gave her this one for Christmas. It’s on my TBR pile, but I will tell you she’s picking it for her book club next go-round. She also loved Sheinkin’s books The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, and Treachery and King George: What Was His Problem? (The Whole Hilarious Story of the American Revolution). I’ve read the latter, and it’s fantastic—and truly funny. Steve Sheinkin makes a whole new thing out of nonfiction. You should know that Bomb won the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award and the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults as well, for a triple whammy. Arguably the best book of 2012.

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

Here’s my review (scroll down). I thought this was a fun book, but I wasn’t as enchanted by it as the committee clearly was. Great voice and characters, definitely! A rollicking Southern tale.

Caldecott Medal

This Is Not My Hat, illustrated and written by Jon Klassen

What we might call a companion book to last year’s I Want My Hat Back, this one is set under the ocean and has the same conciseness, brash style, and grimly humorous conclusion. The artwork is hard to describe—I guess I would say that it’s spare, deliberately flat, and very distinct. Take a look! Oh, and note that Klassen accomplished something that has got to be a first: He won the Caldecott Medal and a Caldecott Honor in the same year! (Here's a link to the book trailer.) Oh, just found out that Leonard Weisgard won both the Caldecott and an Honor in 1947. Not a common occurrence, obviously!

Caldecott Honor (Yes, there are 5 of them)

Creepy Carrots! illustrated by Peter Brown, written by Aaron Reynolds

One of the things I like best about this one is that it has the look of an old black-and-white horror film—relieved only by bright, not pumpkin, but carrot orange. The story is cute, but the illustrations are stunning. Such a fresh take on the Halloween book.

Extra Yarn, illustrated by Jon Klassen, written by Mac Barnett

I reviewed this as a picture book to look forward to, and I’ve been rooting for it to get the Caldecott Medal or an Honor ever since. Klassen’s deadpan illustrative style meshes perfectly with Barnett’s deadpan approach to storytelling—and to make that mix into a modern fairy tale involving knitting? Bliss!

Green, illustrated and written by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

I loved this one so much that I wrote my review last July as a set of brief poems. Non-artists tend not to see the world the same way artists do, but in this book, Laura lends us her vision of just one color. It should change the way we see all colors. This would have been my other pick for the Caldecott Medal (along with Extra Yarn).

One Cool Friend, illustrated by David Small, written by Toni Buzzeo

The artwork in this book reminds me a tiny bit of Hilary Knight’s Eloise, but then, David Small’s art has its own unique look. The story of a boy who winds up hanging out with a penguin, and why not? As Booklist puts it, the artwork is “black-and-white line illustrations with pops of soft color.” Lovely stuff, and a gently funny book.

Sleep Like a Tiger, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, written by Mary Logue

I haven’t read this, but a quick look on Amazon made me want it. It’s illustrated by a woman whose artwork won a previous Caldecott Honor in 2010, for Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors by Joyce Sidman. Another artist with an unusual, memorable, and appealing style.

I mostly read Young Adult fantasy, so I’ve only read one of the Printz Award and Honors books. Here’s the list—and my note about the book I did read.

Printz Award

In Darkness by Nick Lake

Printz Honor

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

This book is by one of my favorite authors, and I reviewed it when it came out. Pratchett takes one of Charles Dickens’ most intriguing characters and gives him his own story, imbuing it with that Victorian Horatio Alger feel that characterizes many of Dickens’ books. A terrific adventure in the sewers and grand houses of London.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

The White Bicycle by Beverley Brenna

Remember to read the entire awards list! As Jules of Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast pointed out a few days ago, it was a year of wild cards. But, as always, the ALA committee has come up with a carefully fine-tuned list of read-worthy books. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Review of Infinity and Me by Kate Hosford, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska

Up until now, David M. Schwartz and Steven Kellogg had cornered the market on really big numbers with their classic How Much Is a Million? Their examples make the concept as clear as it’s going to get for human brains. (Did you know that four is the highest number of objects humans can count at a glance?) Now Kate Hosford tackles an even bigger number, or rather concept: infinity. She uses examples, too, but they tend to be more philosophical than Schwartz’s, along the lines of Albert Einstein’s thought experiments or plain old metaphors.

Concept books tend to get slapped with the "quiet" label almost automatically, and this book certainly isn't loud. I can't picture a rowdy first grader of either gender sitting still for it. But a more thoughtful child in the 7 to 9 age range, yes.

Picture this: A girl named Uma is wearing her new red shoes and looking up at the stars. “How many stars were in the sky? A million? A billion? Maybe the number was as big as infinity.” Feeling very small in the face of infinity, Uma starts asking her friends and relations how they picture that endless idea. Her friend Charlie says, “It’s a giant number that keeps growing bigger and bigger forever.” Her friend Samantha thinks of the infinity symbol as a racetrack she could drive around and around forever. Her grandma thinks about a family with an endless procession of descendants.

Uma asks more people what they think, but she also begins to play with the idea for herself. It's starting to make her head hurt, yet it fascinates her, as well. Infinity and Me goes on with its barely-there narrative. Although, come to think of it, this is a quest tale—a quest for knowledge. The red shoes provide a minor secondary motif. The book ends on a note of love and a return to looking at the stars. Kate Hosford's approaches to infinity are poetic and thought-provoking. Her small narrative makes a humanizing frame for a concept as cold and vast as outer space, whose stars are what get Uma thinking in the first place.

Illustrator Gabi Swiatkowska has an unusual style. The textures, floral patterns, and clothing make me think of Europe in the 1940s—and I just looked at the back jacket flap to confirm that the illustrator is from France. That doesn’t mean anything necessarily, but perhaps you’ll see my point when you look at the book. In addition, while Uma and her friends and grandmother are fairly dimensional, other parts of the book have a flat, decorative look. So we get a combination of three-dimensional and two-dimensional effects, an essentially black-and-white palette touched with splashes of color, and odd decorative elements such as a few flowers, a bee, two lollipop-top looking designs, and several hanging loops like jungle vines on the infinity racetrack spread. The infinity symbol “track” itself is checkered black-and-white like a finish flag for racecars. Uma rides her green bike around the track, while her friend Samantha drives a green car. There’s also a white chicken running along behind Samantha’s car. (The chicken pops up often in the pages of the book.) Plus there are a few splashes of greenish turquoise and a little yellow. When you stop to think about it, the effect is surreal. Then again, so is the idea of infinity.

A couple of my favorite spreads show portraits of Uma’s ancestors: the people in the many frames have such different personalities! Thanks to the text, some of them seem to be interacting with Uma on the second spread. It’s on that spread that Uma expresses her disappointment that “not one person had noticed my new red shoes.” The fact that she says it there hints that none of the people in the portraits have noticed, even though Uma is actually talking about her current friends and family. This kind of subtle humor is apparent in both the text and the illustrations. One more example is the spread that shows a giant ice cream cone on its side, supported by a small, almost steampunk mechanism. The ice cream has melted enough to create a puddle at the bottom of the page, which rests in a “lawn” made of a black-and-white floral design. The chicken and what appears to be a rat are swimming in the puddle of ice cream in a possible homage to Alice as Uma exclaims, “Maybe I could lick an ice-cream cone forever, but what if my tongue started to hurt?”

I should mention the endpapers. They are covered with multi-digit hand-inked numbers that do not count up in order. We get an author’s note with some great information, as well. Did you know that the infinity symbol is called a lemniscate?

So. This is a strange book. It’s also a beautiful one, and an apt one, dealing with something so difficult as to be thoroughly unimaginable. Which means Infinity and Me is an ambitious book, too. Considering what infinity is (or is not) and that this is a picture book, not a math tome, I would argue that it achieves its goals—with style.

See the really great guest post by Kate Hosford about writing the book at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations. 

A Review of Building a House, written and illustrated by Jonathan Bean

I’ll admit to having a special fondness for Jonathan Bean because he did the cover art for my two Runaway books. But I don’t need that as a reason to tell you about his new book—you’ll like this one for its own sake, as I do.

Years ago, Jonathan Bean’s parents bought an empty field and made plans to build a house. They lived in a little trailer while they worked on the project for five years. They also had three kids. As an author’s note puts it, “[They] thought of themselves as homesteaders and brought to house-building a pioneering spirit of ingenuity and independence. They decided to build a timber-frame house after reading a book on the subject….” Jonathan gives more details about the project and provides some wonderful photos. But that’s just the author’s note!

In the story itself, a family moves to a field and builds a house, but it takes them one year instead of five. They do have a daughter and a son, and another child is born while they are building the house. The book begins, “Today is moving day. We left our old house in the city and are moving to the country.” We watch them move in a blue pickup truck stuffed to the gills, driving through the countryside past a curious horse. We learn, “My family is building our new house away from the road, back down a dirt lane. Our house will sit in the middle of a weedy field Dad and Mom bought from a farmer.”

The voice in the book is that of the oldest child, a daughter. She continues to describe the project in a simple, day-in-day-out way—though there are moments of humor. One theme of the book is hard work, or more specifically setting a goal and working hard to achieve it. The narrator’s dad works in town during the week, then works on the house on weekends. We see him working at night sometimes, too. Another theme is family and community. Not only does this little family work hard for months, but different relatives and friends pitch in for certain parts of the task. For example, Grandpa brings his backhoe to dig the hole that will be the new basement, and many friends come to raise the house’s frame.

Oh, and the pickup truck has a name: Wyllis.

The illustrations are simple and slightly cartoon-like. What I find most impressive about this book is that the artwork is clear and beautiful in its simplicity. Browns and blues seem to dominate, but they’re supported by reds and other flashes of color. If you’ve seen Bean’s wonderful, understated book At Night, you’ll be happy to recognize his work here.

I like the spread showing the blueprints. Even more, I like the spread that shows the house at four different stages, accompanied by the following sentences:

"But this year the first frost arrives early.
The cold rains fall early.
The icy winds that carry the heavy snow blow early.
The bad weather slows our work but doesn't stop it."

And we see the parents working frantically to do enough work so that the house will be safe from winter just in time. The children are young; they alternately play and help. Mostly they play. In one scene, the mom is on a ladder holding an umbrella for her husband, who is putting the roof on. The two children and their cat play beneath an inverted, tilted wheelbarrow that has been turned into a small fort. Each scene in the book, small or large, is a moment in the life of the family and in the growing shape of the house.

Building Our House will teach young readers how a house is constructed, including what materials and tools are used. More important, it will show them a family making a home.

A Review of Seed by Seed by Esmé Raji Codell, illustrated by Lynne Rae Perkins

This picture book biography based on what is known about John Chapman’s life is unabashedly instructive. I’m not fond of picture books that pretend not to be preachy when they actually are preachy, but Seed by Seed is different. Codell basically says, “What messages did John Chapman and his life teach? What can we learn from him?” Then she proceeds to tell us—in a way that focuses on the “legacy” part of her subtitle, “The Legend and Legacy of John ‘Appleseed’ Chapman.”

One reason the book is successful is because of Codell’s calm poetic voice. She begins:

“When we look out of our windows,
what do we see?
Tall buildings, stores, and parking lots.
Buses and cars speeding by.
Red lights and green lights and yellow lights and white lights.
Our country is hard and electrical and moving.
But it was not always this way.
Once it was a tangle,
a tangle,
a tangle,
of roots and branches and wide tree trunks.
Once, you could not hear the engines of airplanes in the sky,
or the sounds of phones ringing.
Maybe you could catch the creaking of a wagon wheel,
straining against the ruts in the road,
or the fall of an axe against wood.”

Let’s give credit to Lynne Rae Perkins as well. As these lines progress, each page shows us a brother and sister in front of a window. On the first page we look in at them. On the next we are behind them, seeing their view out the window. Both of these pages are presented in a modern cityscape. But over the next three pages, the view through the window changes, and then the children’s clothing changes, until they—and we—are inside a cabin with the cold of winter swirling in through the door. The children go outside. On the next page, the children are no longer visible but the scene is set, and we hear of the man named John Chapman, “better known as Johnny Appleseed.” Such a journey through time could have felt contrived, but thanks to the artistry of Codell’s words and Perkins’ illustrations, it is utterly satisfying.

Another page, and we learn a little about Chapman’s early life. Codell tells us that many of the things we hear about him are “three parts legend, one part fact… But the man, John Chapman, was real… born on September 26, 1774, in Massachusetts.” The author explains that Chapman was a hero because he lived by example. She says that these are five footsteps he left for us to fill:

1. Use what you have.
2. Share what you have.
3. Respect nature.
4. Try to make peace when there is war.
5. You can reach your destination by taking small steps.

As the book continues, Codell shows us how John Chapman taught these principles by the life that he led. I learned some things I didn’t know about Johnny Appleseed. For example, he got the apple seeds to start his planting project from cider press owners who would have thrown the seeds away otherwise. Johnny had eleven brothers and sisters. It’s said he broke books up and loaned the chapters to settlers. He was friends with both settlers and Indians and would warn either group if the other were going to attack. He was a vegetarian in an era when most people weren’t.

Lynne Rae Perkins illustrates many facets of Chapman’s life using watercolor and gouache. However, one page is done on burlap, two include woodcarving, one incorporates old book pages, and a spread near the end of the book is a piece of embroidery a little like the samplers from colonial America. The paintings show a lively Johnny interacting with settlers, Indians, animals, and of course trees. Perkins gives us nature in a world that was not yet covered over by cities, so one would expect dull browns and greens. Yet her colors are relatively bright. Although the illustrator does not actually paint in an American primitive style, I think she hints at it with those colors, the layout of some scenes, and the mixed media pieces she includes.

A note at the end of the book challenges us to do something small to make the world better. We are presented with a few craft ideas for writing and posting our plans. Codell also gives us an apple pie recipe and the Johnny Appleseed song.

The biographies I read of John Chapman when I was young were even more boring than I thought compared to a book like this. Here’s a good line to end on: “He grew so many apple trees that chances are any apple you eat today is from a descendant of a tree planted by Johnny Appleseed.” Bite into an apple—and read Seed by Seed.

Hey, and take a look at Esmé’s website, especially her blog.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Shadowy YA

Thrillers, chillers, and sci-fi, oh my! I am happy to announce that you can buy something other than a paranormal romance about vampires, werewolves, or angels at the bookstore these days. Here is a sampler of some of the latest YA.

Cold Fury by T.M. Goeglein

This book builds in such great ways. Interesting, because the first eight chapters are merely leading up to what screenwriters fondly refer to as “the inciting incident.” Essentially, we get eight chapters of backstory. But those chapters dole out so many clues and character interactions and odd moments that it all comes together to begin to explain what Sara Jane has already told us will happen: her parents and her little brother disappear.

What do we need to know? Sara Jane is a boxer. Sara Jane adored her Uncle Buddy, but he wound up betraying her. Sara Jane’s grandfather and father are more than just bakers. Um, mafia? But that’s not actually the weirdest part. The weirdest part is that when Sara Jane gets a certain kind of angry, there’s a blue light and she has extra strength. Superpower? Kind of. It’s one of the family secrets. More secrets are hidden in a notebook that both Sara Jane and Uncle Buddy are after once her family disappears.

Unfortunately, Uncle Buddy and some dirty cops aren’t even the worst of her enemies. Fortunately, Sara Jane has friends, including a boy named Max that she wishes were more of a boyfriend, her boxing trainer Willy, and a thuggish dog named Harry.

Eventually we get a Sara Jane who is on the run with “a steel briefcase, and inside that briefcase is ninety-six thousand dollars in cash, an AmEx Black Card in [her] name, a SigSauer .45 conceal-and-carry, and an old leather notebook….” That’s about where the story starts, but only because the rest of the book turns out to be one long flashback.

The blue light thing almost seems extraneous because Sara Jane and her story are already so tough and surprising. But I’ll take it. And I’ll take the sequel about five minutes after it comes out.

First Line: “My name is Sara Jane Rispoli. Several short weeks ago, I turned sixteen. So far there has been nothing sweet about it.”

Don’t Turn Around by Michelle Gagnon

This book got four starred reviews, as well it should have. Don’t Turn Around is a wild and breathless ride. I’ve heard that YA editors are looking for thrillers these days, and this book unquestionably qualifies. For example, it begins with a street kid waking up to find herself on an operating table in an abandoned warehouse. What has been done to her, and how will she get away? The stuff of nightmares. Nice.

Noa barely manages to escape, and now she is being hunted. Meanwhile, a boy named Peter Gregory uncovers secrets on the computer that get his front door kicked in. The bad guys also shut down his underground website, ALLIANCE. Peter makes a deal with one of the vigilante hackers from his site—who turns out to be Noa, AKA Rain. With some help from his almost-ex-girlfriend, Amanda, and his other hacker buddies, Peter begins following the clues. They lead him back to Noa. Meanwhile, the people chasing Noa are getting closer and closer. A secret friend on the Internet gives Noa some support, but she’s afraid to trust him. Then things get really bad.

As the initial scenario implies, this suspense story has a medical issue at its core. You will find that the book is set in the future, though probably only 20 or 30 years from now.

Gagnon keeps the pace going relentlessly, which is just right for this book. And Noa, who has been in and out of foster homes and juvie, makes the perfect streetwise heroine. Peter is a little more white bread, but then, he’s supposed to be. His growing realization that, in the middle of all this drama, his girlfriend has moved on adds humor and pathos. It’s a relatively minor subplot, but it’s a good example of the complexity of the human interactions in a book that could have simply been one long chase scene. Well, it is that, but there’s a lot more going on here than cookie-cutter villains on black motorcycles.

I really liked Don't Turn Around. I think you will, too.

First Line: “When Noa Torson woke up, the first thing she noticed was that her feet were cold.”

The Dead and the Buried by Kim Harrington

This book begins with an excerpt from the diary of one Kayla Sloane. But Kayla is more the antagonist than the protagonist here. Our main character is a girl named Jade. Unbeknownst to her, the girl who used to live in her new home was murdered. Jade starts to get a clue when the kids at school act really weird, whispering about her as soon as she gets there. Then Kayla, who isn’t nearly as gone as one might hope, begins to haunt Jade and especially her little brother, Colby. Kayla makes it clear that if Jade doesn’t find out who murdered her, she will do something terrible to Colby.

Jade uses her growing friendship with one of Kayla’s exes, Kane, to find out more about what happened to Kayla. But she’s already made enemies, and things don’t go quite how she had planned. Jade finds herself attracted to another of Kayla’s exes, troubled emo/geek Donovan. Half the kids in the high school think Donovan murdered Kayla, though apparently the cops don’t. Since Kayla fell down the stairs, it’s not entirely certain whether it was an accident or murder. Except that ghost Kayla says she was pushed. (I found myself wondering whether Kayla was making that up just to be cruel, since she was obviously a Mean Girl with a capital M-G. But no, it appears someone really did push her.) One problem for Jade is that a lot of people had reason to hate Kayla. And ghost Kayla is getting more and more scary.

Yep, this is a ghost story, though it’s also a murder mystery. Plus it's a romance and a bit of a stepdaughter-and-stepmother-work-out-their-differences tale. Harrington has a lot going on here, but she pulls it off. I did figure out who the murderer was about a third of the way through the book, but it was just a good guess: the author keeps the mystery mysterious till nearly the climactic moment. This is a satisfying story both because of the buildup of suspense and because Donovan and Jade make a sweet almost-couple who have a lot to deal with before they can settle in and enjoy their new relationship.

First Line: “I’m not stupid. I know half of them only worship me because they fear me.”

The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski

Darcy Jones is a high school student with three good friends: Lily, Jims, and Raphael. Abandoned when she was five, Darcy lives with a foster mother who cares about her and treats her well. Darcy loves art, and she’s talented at it. Life isn’t so bad until Conn McCrea shows up. Darcy is unwillingly attracted to Conn, who most of the time looks at her like she’s a poisonous snake. But why?

The answer is far more complex than Darcy—or readers—could have imagined. It involves an alternate world peopled by two very different groups. It involves betrayal, secret societies, random acts of kindness, and a Romeo-and-Juliet romance. I really enjoyed this fresh new sci-fi/thriller/romance, which didn’t surprise me because Marie Rutkowski is also the author of a very cool, dark, steampunk-in-Hungary trilogy, the Kronos Chronicles.

Besides, you gotta love a book that uses T.S. Elliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as a thematic element. I’ve always liked that poem.

Of course, some of the plot points are a little more predictable than others. For instance, there’s a vertex on a romantic triangle that breaks apart before it even gets started. What really holds true throughout the book is the troubled relationship between Darcy and Conn. How do you trust someone whose entire purpose is to distrust you? Rutkoski takes this idea through some nice twists and turns. And no, her Romeo and Juliet do not wind up dead. This is the kind of story where the title is a play on words even though it doesn't seem like it at first. A shadowy and engaging read.

First Line: “Knowing what I know now, I’d say my foster mother had her reasons for throwing a kitchen knife at me.”