Sunday, October 24, 2010

It's blogtastic

Thank you to those of you who have continued to check my blog in hopes that I would finally begin posting again.  Unfortunately, I was not in a position to post blogs for a while, but now I am back and it is time to get some blogging done.  Please stay tuned for the next few weeks as I blog my heart out about the books that I have been reading/hearing these past six months.  Thanks for your patience.  It feels good to be back. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You? by Jane Yolen

Pages: 29
Ages: 2+
Publication: Already Available
Illustrations by : Mark Teague

In this rhyming story, different dinosaurs behave badly for their human parents, but the humans love them despite their misbehavior.  The dinosaurs experience the same things a human child might, such as waking up grumpy and throwing sand at the playground.  The human parents are disappointed, but know that the rewards of a smile or a hug are just around the corner and misbehavior is not enough of a reason to leave/stop loving someone.

This story has a simpler and less diverse vocabulary than some of Yolen's other rhyming stories, but remains fitting for her intended younger audience.  The concept of this story is also a little simpler than Yolen's other works, again because of intended audience.

Yolen presents the concept of misbehavior and unconditional love with simple honesty.  I like that dinosaurs, not children, are the subjects of the book because Yolen takes the "blame" and guilt away from the child as a reader and projects it onto the dinosaurs--an important technique.  Instead of feeling accused, the child will feel empathy for both the dinosaur and the parent.  Also, in seeing the parents still love the dinosaurs after they are bad, young readers can relate the book-parent's unconditional love to their own parents. 

Teague helps the story with big, bright dinosaur pictures and wonderful background details. Since the book is aimed at younger audiences, Teague adds enough details to make the scene look real, but not overwhelm the eye of the younger reader.  Those readers interested in the illustrations will find the dinosaurs' bedrooms interesting and the playground details fun to decipher.  Teague focuses on the dinosaurs in each scene by placing them in the foreground, drawing the readers eye away from open spaces, and coloring the dinosaurs brightly.  The dinosaurs don't look scary, but aren't too "cartoony" either.  It is a perfect balance for the younger readers.
How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You? is a good lesson presented in a gently way--a must have for every loving household.

Rating: 4 and 1/2 Pages

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Seeing Stick by Jane Yolen

Pages: 30
Ages: 4+
Publication: Already Available
Illustrated by: Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini

A blind princess lives her life oblivious to some of the beautiful things that surround her. Because of her handicap, the princesses father decides to seek help for her, but no one seems to be able to. When an old man from far away comes to town and says he can help the princess, the guards are skeptical, until he shows them the seeing stick. Thus, the princess begins to learn the fine art of seeing by other means than her eyes.

The Seeing Stick is a charming folk tale set in ancient China.  Readers will feel sympathy for the princess and her distraught father as she lives in darkness and he tries to find a cure.  Readers will also feel awe and inspiration as the old man carves his stick with scenes for the princess to "see."  

Terrazzini beautifully illustrates the story with imagination and vivid imagery.  The first image of the book is dark and dreary with only a few smoky reds and greens added sparingly, then as the princess and her world begin to brighten, color is added more liberally.  The first full-color illustration is 10 pages in.  The choice to slowly add color to the illustrations reflects the story's plot and creates a way for readers to identify with the princess as she begins to see things herself. 

An added bonus to this book is that readers can "see" some of the portraits the way that the princess does.  Raised, glossy pages, add texture (literally) to the story, and make this book a tactile reading experience.  The seeing stick comes to life in and on the pages of the book!

Rating: 4 Pages  

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Saved by the Music by Selene Castrovilla

Ages: 14+
Publication: Already Available

When Willow spends the summer helping her Aunt Agatha remodel an old barge into a floating chamber music concert hall, she runs into all kinds of trouble. First, there is sleazy and good-looking Craig, who looks at Willow like he could plunder and pillage right in front of her Aunt.  Then, there's the fact that the barge is still largely a metal box that doesn't have a shower, or a real place to sleep. Willow is away from her friends and her mother, dealing with the strangeness of her aunt (in a good weird aunt kind of way), a new place, new people, and her own distorted self and body image.  And there's Axel.

Castrovilla creates a compelling story in her debut teen novel.  I've praised her before for telling it like it is, and this story is no exception.  It is gritty, real, and unabashedly open.  At times, the emotions and events are so realistically portrayed that I felt a bit like a peeping tom. As Willow muddles her way through the hurdles of anorexia, rape, love that can't be requited, and trying to save the life of her friend, the story can seem to spiral downward quickly--just like Willow.   

However, even with all the dark and heavy issues this novel tackles, there are several lighter spots to break it up.  The more humorous moments come from Aunt Agatha, who sees the world as her playground, and seemingly is unfazed by the problems that come her way.  Agatha is so carefree that when her car looses a tire in traffic (TWICE!), she laughs it off and accepts s ride with a colleague until her car can be repaired.  There are other laughs too, but none so plenty as Agatha.

The characters of this novel are pretty stock: the hurting young girl/woman; the heroic crush with a sordid past; the overly sexual twenty-something male; the absent, but beautiful mother; the cooky aunt (or semi-supportive matriarch).  These characters only get short breaths of life as the story progresses.  Many of the conversations between characters seem to happen over and over on one subject or another, which stalls the plot of the book. 

I really bothers me that Willow truly believes that she is ugly and unlovable, even to someone as loathable as Craig (who takes advantage of her in the worst way).  After all the trauma and trouble Willow has been through she should have more growth and self realization, but she seems to believe that she is nothing without Axel.  She says that without Axel she is "pissed and lonely," but she eats because she "owed it him" to take care of herself.  I wonder why Willow can't see that she owes it to HERSELF to take care of herself.  It is only upon Axel's return, a year later, that she feels happy and worthy again.  Perhaps readers will see Willow's constant self deprecation and take something positive from it.  If readers can see that Willow is not worthless, maybe they can recognize their own self worth.

The novel is interesting and Willow's voice will rings true in many parts.  Castrovilla constructs a neatly laid story with the obligatory year later and looking up ending.  Her constant play of darkness and light pays off in the end.  This is an important read for anyone in the shadows.

Rating: 3 1/2 Pages 


Monday, March 15, 2010

Come to the Fairies' Ball by Jane Yolen

Pages: 29
Ages: 3-7
Publication: Already Available
Illustrated by: Gary Lippincott

In this rhyming story about a fairy whose dress isn't good enough to wear to the open-invitation ball, Yolen weaves a tale that echos many fairy tales.  The fairy, with a dress tattered from hanging too long on a thorny plant, is comforted by ants who encourage her to work diligently until her dress is repaired.  Meanwhile, a grouchy prince won't celebrate at the ball because nothing is good enough for him.  The prince most surely is looking for a beautiful fairy with whom to dance, but can the fairy repair the dress in time for the ball?  And is the late fairy the one who will make everything perfect for the prince?  

Come to the Fairies' Ball uses amazing onomatopoetic vocabulary and still manages to rhyme! This is one of the most interesting rhyming stories I have ever read because of the alliterative and creative words that Yolen uses to describe the action.  The author also sets the fairy kingdom in reality, but does not forget the magic.  Fairies ride to the ball on rabbits, turtles, and butterflies, but readers still sense a bit of magic (and maybe even a little love) in the air.  In keeping in the tradition of fairy tales the book is gently laced with lessons about punctuality, friendship, hard work, helping others, and true love.

As for the illustration, I like that Lippincott eschews the Disney version of fairies and uses earthy tones of browns, greens, pale yellows, and oranges.  Even inside the glowing hall where the ball takes place, the colors remain earthy.  The fairies themselves are not the usual fairies either.  Lippincott portrays the inhabitants of the kingdom as angular and as varied in looks as any group of humans might be.  Many fairies have pointed elf ears, large angular noses, and long thin bodies.  These fairies are far from the rounded, flushing, wand carrying, sparkling versions of fairies children often see in modern media.  There isn't a sparkle or a wand to be found.            

My absolute favorite illustration is that of the actual ball.  The hall is warmly glowing and the fairies are all cutting loose.  There is so much detail in this one picture that readers could quite possibly find a new something every time they open the book.  

In all this story is a fast, fun, rhyming love story that leaves readers believing (in fairies, love, fun, and friendship).  

Rating: 4 Pages 

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Don't Know Where, Don't Know When by Annette Laing

Pages: 209
Ages: 9+Publication:
Already Available (2007)

When Hannah, Alex, and Brandon skip out on their summer extracurriculars to wander the campus of Snipesville State College, they wander into the college library. In the library, the children meet a mysterious professor and then find themselves magically transported to WWII England.

The children are asked to take on new names, participate in London evacuations, and solve the mystery of a missing child. Can three American children survive in WWII England? And more importantly, can the children solve the mystery in time?

In her debut novel, Annette Laing delivers. This novel is slow to start, but once the story gets going it is hard to put down the book. Part historical fiction, part mystery, part modern teen lit, and part sci-fi, Laing creates a unique storyline that has something for everyone.

With a wide geographical and temporal range, Laing gently compares and contrasts the lives of modern children in the U.S. with those of children from two different time periods in England. All three settings are during times of war, however the modern U.S. children seem blissfully unaware as to the goings on in the Eastern hemisphere whereas the children in England have bombs being dropped on their doorsteps. Astute readers will be able to draw meaning from Laing’s parallels and juxtapositions.

While the plot and action of the storyline were well developed, I feel like the characters were a little underdeveloped in places. The professor seemed more of a literary device than a person, especially after the forward takes the time to introduce her work to the audience. The professor appears and disappears at various times, but never seems to really give the children any help, or illuminate the story for readers.

Perhaps the main thing that bothers me is that I really don’t like Hannah. The character doesn’t seem to learn much from her hardships. I was actually happy when she was given an old fashioned spanking. On the other hand, Laing may be getting at something very real with Hannah. At her age, Hannah is beginning to form her own opinions and question authority. Regardless of her “issues,” Hannah is coming into her own—a transition that is hard to make no matter what time period one might be in.

What I liked about the book was all the things that the children do get to experience. It is a realistic look at the way things were in WWI and WWII England. I also appreciated the different takes on racism throughout the book. It startled me to hear that blacks were treated so badly in England, and I laughed out loud then the dentist put English superiority into stark perspective. I also like that the foods aren’t so delicious and that children were looked at in a different light during the wars.

In all, I really enjoyed reading this book and I look forward to more adventures with Hannah, Alex, and Brandon.

Rating: 4 Pages

Monday, January 11, 2010

By the Sword by Selene Castrovilla

Ages: 9-12
Publication: Already Available
Illustrated by: Bill Farnsworth


When America went to war for independence from the British, so did Benjamin Tallmadge.  A school teacher by trade, Tallmadge gave up his profession and joined many other young men in the pursuit of freedom; freedom by the sword, the cannon, and the rifle.  But what is it really like to give up the safety of your old life and enter the chaos of the Revolutionary war?  Benjamin would soon find out.


Castrovilla paints a vivid picture of what life was like as a member of George Washington’s troops.  Based on a memoir and other historical documents, the author creates a work of historical fiction that not only encompasses the brutality of wartime, but shows the human side as well. 


Castrovilla eschews the usual “glory” of war stories in children’s history books and tells it like it was.  The story’s main character endures days in a muddy trench, eats tiny rations of raw meat, and fears for his life every time the thunder rolls.  This realism is refreshing in that Castrovilla gives history with the ugly and the good; she recognizes, in specifics, just what sacrifices soldiers of that time were asked to make.


The main character, Benjamin Tallmadge, brings to life the human aspects of wartime.  His thoughts, actions, worries, and fears clue readers into just how much the American side struggled during the Revolutionary war.  When Benjamin forgets his horse, Highlander, during an undercover flight for safety, he risks his life to retrieve his beloved animal.  Even during a war, Benjamin protected his pet as he protected himself. 


Bill Farnsworth adds more to the story with haunting and slightly out of focus illustrations.  Oil paintings that lack sharp focus and minute details serve as both metaphor of the haze of war and a reminder that history remembers big events, not the small details—sometimes the small details are lost all together!  The soft focus and muted colors also help to show the violence, but leave the graphic stuff to readers’ imaginations.


Interesting, intimate, and involved; this book is a good introduction to the Revolutionary war as it truly was.  The happy ending will keep young readers from getting overwhelmed and serves as confirmation that troublesome times can lead to better times.  This should be a classroom staple.


Rating: 4 Pages