Friday, December 31, 2010

Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on Kittens: My Favorites from 2010

(With apologies to Rogers and Hammerstein--when I think of my favorite things, I can't help but hear Julie Andrews and the Sound of Music in my Mind!)

With the end of the year in sight, I couldn't resist joining the other bloggers who've been posting their favorites from the past year.  I'm sticking to those books that I've reviewed on my blog this year, and I've selected my ten favorites, including everything from picture books to middle readers to young adult books.  In no particular order, here's my list of favorites for 2010, with links to my reviews:

Young Adult:
Three Rivers Rising, by Jame Richards:  Written in free verse, this mesmerizing novel by debut novelist Jame Richards is a romantic story of forbidden love set against the shocking backdrop of the Johnstown Flood of 1889, a disaster comparable to Hurricane Katrina in our time.

Revolution, by Jennifer Donnelly:  A riveting genre-busting blend of realistic contemporary young adult fiction, historical fiction, and even some paranormal fiction set both in the present day and in the dangerous days of the French Revolution.

Crossing the Tracks, by Barbara Stuber:  Another debut novelist whose book I literally couldn't put down.  Set in the 1920's, it's a tender, funny, and heartbreaking novel that touches on many themes that will resonate with teens, particularly the meaning of home and family.

Middle Grade/Tween:
One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia:  Set in Oakland in the turbulent summer of 1968, this likely Newbery contender revolves around three sisters who are sent from New York to visit their mother, a member of the Black Panthers, for the summer.  You can't help but love the narrator, 11-year old plain spoken Delphine, who tells it like it is.  This is essentially a family drama but is filled with humor as well.  

The Wonder of Charlie Anne, by Kimberly Newton Fusco:  I fell in love with this novel's spirited heroine as well; her story is set in a small town during the Depression, and also manages to combine humor with more serious themes such as grief, family, and racism, as Charlie Anne struggles to deal with her mother's death and her responsibilities in the family.  

The Year of Goodbyes, by Debbie Levy:  While there are many books for young people about the Holocaust, this one is unique, focusing on the experiences of the author's mother, as Jutta and her family frantically try to get visas to leave Nazi Germany for the United States in 1938.  One of the few things Jutta can bring with her is her posiealbum, a kind of scrapbook in which young people collected poems and drawings from friends and family.  Levy intersperses reproductions of actual pages from the album, along with the English translation, with free verse poetry in her mother's voice that link the entries together.  

Picture Books:  
Stand Straight, Ella Kate, by Kate Klise and Sarah Klise:  This large format picture book tells the story of a real-life giant who lived from 1872 to 1913.  Narrated by Ella herself, the book features delightful illustrations in a folk art style that evokes the 19th century setting.  The book delivers a touching message about how we should respect people's differences while incorporating many fascinating anecdotes about the real-life Ella.

She Loved Baseball:  The Effa Manley Story, by Audrey Vernick and Don Tate:  A terrific girl power story, this title profiles Effa Manley, the first--and only--woman inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Manley's story incorporates both women's rights issues and civil rights, as she becomes the co-owner and manager of a Negro League baseball team.  

The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) by Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham:  With Twain back on the best-seller list, this book is particularly timely, and readers can't help but be charmed by the real story of how Twain's young daughter researched and wrote her father's biography, so people would know the "real" Mark Twain.  The book includes mini-journal inserts, which include excerpts from Susy's actual text, complete with misspellings, and fabulous cartoon-style illustrations, which can practically tell the story single-handed.  

Narrative Non-Fiction
The War to End All Wars:  World War I, by Russell Freedman:  A riveting read for anyone interested in history, this must be the definitive World War I book for young people.  

More Bloggers' Best of Lists
On Persnickety Snark's blog, you can check out top 5 picks (or some of us who did top 10) for 2010 from lots of different bloggers.

And Happy New Year to all those in the blogosphere!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Book Review: Threads and Flames, by Esther Friesner (Viking Juvenile, 2010) ISBN 978-0670012459

Recommended for ages 12 and up

Release date:  November 24, 2010

2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, one of the most important events in American labor history.  This anniversary makes the release of Threads and Flames by Esther Friesner particularly timely.

Friesner's novel opens in 1910, with thirteen-year old Raisa, recently recuperated from typhus, leaving her Polish shtetl to meet up with her sister Henda in America.  After a long and difficult journey by cart, train, and ship, Raisa finally arrives in New York, only to learn that her sister has disappeared.  With no job, no family, nowhere to live and unable to speak English, she seeks refuge in a synagogue, where she meets a kind young rabbinical student, Gavrel, whose mother just happens to have room for boarders.  Soon Gavrel helps Raisa get a job where he works, at the very modern Triangle Shirtwaist factory in the Asch building.  In addition to working long hours at the factory, Raisa goes to evening English classes where she dreams of becoming a teacher.  She still hopes to find her sister, but how to do so in such a huge city?  In telling Raisa's story, Friesner paints a rich picture of Jewish immigrant life at the turn of the century; we can almost smell the food at the markets and see the celebrations for the different Jewish holidays.

But Raisa's life changes forever on a March afternoon, when fire breaks out on the 8th floor of the Triangle factory.  Hundreds of desperate workers tried to get out, but the doors on the stairway that could have provided a safe exit were locked--locked because the owners were afraid the young girls who worked at the factory would steal.  Some, like Raisa, escape on the elevator, running outside only to see the horrific sight of bodies plunging through the air, with their clothes and hair on fire.  The fire department was quickly on the scene, but the ladders wouldn't reach the top floors, and the nets and blankets that firemen spread to catch the young women couldn't withstand the force of their falls.  The horror of the fire's aftermath is vividly captured by Friesner, as survivors try to discover who has lived and who has died in the fire, going to huge make-shift morgues to try to identify the bodies, some of which were burned beyond recognition and never identified.  In all 146 workers died, mostly Jewish and Italian young women who were recent immigrants like Raisa, some as young as fourteen years old.

I could perhaps quibble about the ending of this engrossing novel, in which all the loose threads of the story are neatly tied together, but despite the perhaps unlikely ending, I felt this was a well-realized novel with characters that will greatly appeal to the intended teenage audience.  Because the reader grows to care deeply about Raisa and her friends, the tragic events of the story come vividly to life.

While the Triangle fire led to many changes in safety requirements for workers in the U.S., disasters of this sort are sadly not a thing of the past.  Safety standards are woefully inadequate in many other countries, where sweatshops continue, many with locked doors during working hours just like at the Triangle factory.  For ninety years, the Triangle fire was considered the worst in labor history; unfortunately, in 1993, the death toll from a terrible fire at the Kader toy factory in Thailand in which 188 workers were killed, nearly all of them very young women, surpassed Triangle in the record books.  And such disasters continue, particularly in the garment industry, where piles of fabric and clothes are easily flammable and safeguards are often ignored in order to manufacture cheap clothes for the Western market.  In December 2010, in Bangladesh, workers jumped to their deaths from a garment factory fire at a facility which makes clothing for the Gap and other U.S. companies.  At least 27 workers died and over 100 were injured in this latest disaster, which followed a February fire at a sweater factory that killed 21 people and injured many more.

Novelist Esther Friesner is perhaps best known as a fantasy writer, but has previously published several works of historical fiction for young people about ancient Egypt, including the 2010 release Sphinx's Queen.   In her afterword she explains her motivation for writing Threads and Flames, noting that although the Triangle Factory no longer exists, sweatshops still flourish all over the world; "While such things exist," she writes, "the core of the Triangle fire--human life demeaned, exploited, and lost--is still with us."

A variety of events around the country are being held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire.  For details, see Remember the Triangle Coalition's website.  In addition, a conference, Out of the Smoke and the Flame:  The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and its Legacy, which will look not only at the historical events of 1911 but also at global sweatshop issues today, will be held at City University of New York on March 24, 2011.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Book Review: A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story, by Linda Sue Park (Clarion Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 10 to adult.  

Release date:  November 15, 2010

The end of the calendar year is a busy time for most people, but don't allow yourself to miss this incredibly moving novel by Newbery-award winning novelist Linda Sue Park.

A Long Walk to Water is based on the true story of Salva, one of a group of Sudanese "Lost Boys" who eventually emigrated to the United States in the mid-1990's.  Park's account of Salva's life begins in 1985, when Salva is eleven years old.  Things were good for Salva's family before the civil war; his family was affluent, with many heads of cattle, and could afford to send each of their sons to school.   But because Salva's at school when the war comes to his village, he is separated from the rest of his family, and begins a long and brutal journey by foot to safety.  Meeting up with members of his Dinka tribe, he joins their group, walking east toward Ethiopia.

During the journey, he must confront hungry lions, scarce water, crossing the Nile in hand-made canoes, swarms of mosquitos, and the most difficult part of their journey:  crossing the unforgiving Akobo desert.  He spends six years in the Ethiopian refugee camp, before their government decides to close the camp, driving the residents with guns out of the camp and across the Gilo River, well known for its crocodiles.  Miraculously surviving the crossing, Salva makes up his mind to walk to Kenya--and becomes the de facto leader of a group of about 1,500 boys, some as young as five.  More than 1,200 arrived safely in Kenya, including Salva.

While in Kenya, Salva learns to read and speak English from an Irish aid worker, and eventually is chosen to be part of a special initiative to airlift over 3,000 boys and young men to America.  Resettled in Rochester, New York, Salva goes on to found Water for Sudan, a non-profit which brings clean water to the parched regions of the south of his country.

Alternating with Salva's story, Park weaves in the story of a contemporary girl in Sudan, Nya, who must walk for eight hours each day to fetch water for her family, water which sometimes is contaminated and bears diseases.  At the end, their two stories intersect, bringing hope, clean water, and education to Nya's village.

This slim but unforgettable book (120 pages) tells Salva and Nya's stories in a spare style, with no wasted words or descriptions.  Like many stories about Holocaust victims, this book celebrates the tenacity of the human spirit, capable of maintaining hope and finally triumphing over incredible adversity.  It's a story you won't quickly be able to forget, and I would highly recommend it for adults, teens, and children over ten.  Park includes an afterword by Salva Dut himself which provides some information on his project, Water for Sudan, and an author's note with additional historical background on the civil war in Sudan.

An aside--it's a bit odd to be reading this book about the saving grace of water in the midst of the worst Los Angeles rainstorm I can ever remember--apparently some isolated areas have received up to 20 inches of rain.  Luckily no leaks in our roof--as far as we know, anyway.

Here's a link to the book trailer, featuring an interview with Linda Sue Park.

To learn more about Salva's life and his current work in Sudan, see Water for Sudan's website.  

The "lost boys of Sudan" are also the subject of many books and films, including this critically acclaimed documentary.  

Monday, December 20, 2010

Book Review: Most Wanted, by Kate Thompson (Greenwillow Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 7-10.

Award-winning British author Kate Thompson, perhaps best known for The New Policeman, transports us to ancient Rome in her newest book, a slim volume perfect for those just starting out with chapter books.

When the book opens, our hero, Marcus, a humble baker's son, suddenly finds himself holding a magnificent horse--one with a blanket of royal purple, a collar studded with precious jewels, and a lead rope of solid gold.  This is no ordinary steed--this is Incitatus, named as Consul by the crazy Emperor Gaius Caligula, referred to in the novel as Little Boots because he often wore miniature soldiers' boots as a child.

Something big is happening, but all Marcus can do is head for home on the back of the noble horse, who outruns soldiers and jumps over carts to make it back to Marcus' family compound.  With the horse temporarily hidden away in the family bakery, the family learns that there's a rumor the emperor is dead.  And what to do with the horse?  Marcus' grandmother insists he's signed a death sentence for the whole family by bringing Incitatus to their property.  But in the meantime, he's a consul, and must be treated as an honored guest!

Marcus, as Incitatus' new companion, soon is witness to the coronation of the next emperor, Gaius' stuttering uncle Claudius, and saves Incitatus from sacrifice to the gods.  A happy ending is in store as the horse, stripped of his consular ranking, takes on a new role--delivering bread to the people of Rome.

An author's note at the end of the book explains that while Caligula and Incitatus actually existed, Caligula never really made Incitatus a consul, although he threatened to do so.

This book's fast-paced story, with its mix of adventure, humor, and some history as well, should appeal to those children who are just stepping up from beginning readers to chapter books.  The book is abundantly illustrated with whimsical, cartoon-like black and white drawings by Jonny Duddle which add both humor and immediacy to the narrative.  It's also a good choice for horse lovers who are looking for something different than the usual girl-focused horse stories.

For other reviews, see There's a Book and Kirkus.  For a recent interview with Kate Thompson, see Publisher's Weekly.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Book Review: Rose Sees Red, by Cecil Castellucci (Scholastic, 2010)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

When I saw the cover of this novel by YA author/diva Cecil Castellucci, I thought it was a contemporary fairy-tale retelling, a la Beastly.  Instead, it's a novel set in the early 1980's about the last years of the Cold War,  dance, friendship, and freedom.  The main characters are two teenage girls:  Rose, a talented dancer who attends the New York High School for the Performing Arts, and her neighbor Yrena, a 16-year old ballet dancer who lives right next door in a Soviet compound.

Rose has given up on friendship after being dumped by her so-called best friend Daisy when Rose keeps taking ballet even though Daisy decides "ballet is stupid."  The other kids from school are not her friends either; she closes herself off to the different "galaxies of friends" that orbit around her, since she is so afraid of being hurt again.

But things begin to change for Rose when her Russian neighbor, Yrena, unexpectedly climbs through her window one night.  What starts out as a simple trip in the neighborhood to get an ice cream cone while evading the KGB agents that follow Yrena everywhere turns out to be an all-night adventure that neither girl planned but neither one will ever forget--an innocent adventure that becomes "an unspecified international incident."

When I first picked up this book, I asked myself if a book set in the 1980's can be classified as historical fiction.  But then I realized that for today's teens, the Soviet Union, the arms race, and the anti-nuclear rallies of the early '80's are a whole generation ago--times they never experienced.  A world without texting, I-pods, the Internet, and even DVD's--practically as foreign as the Middle Ages or ancient Rome.  Told in the first person by Rose, Rose Sees Red manages to keep a delicate balance of being entertaining while still putting forward a message about the universality of friendship, even in the face of nations' hating each other.  It's a slim book (197 pages) that should appeal to many teens--no need to have a particular interest in U.S. Soviet relations to appreciate this book.

Some other blog reviews (not a comprehensive list) can be found at Librarian by Day, Reading Nook, Youth Services Corner, Pure Imagination, Emily's Reading Room, and Teenreads

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Book Review: Vixen (Vol.1, The Flappers), by Jillian Larkin (Delacorte, 2010) ISBN 978-0385740340

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Release date:  December 14, 2010

The Roaring 20's are definitely in vogue this fall in YA fiction, with major releases of the first volume in two different series:  Vixen (The Flappers series) by debut novelist Jillian Larkin, and Bright Young Things, by Luxe series author Anna Godbersen.  The books are remarkably similar in some ways:  both series feature the interlocking stories of three different girls as main characters, not to mention that they both feature glamourous young girls on their covers.

Vixen tells the story of Gloria Carmody, a 17-year old socialite in 1923 Chicago who attends an elite finishing school for girls and is about to get married to the very eligible bachelor Bastian Grey.  But before she resigns herself to the dull world of marriage, she's determined to have some fun, because she's sick and tired of being her parents' "perfect little girl."  Soon she's hanging out in "the rebel side of heaven," the Green Mill, an illegal speakeasy filled with glittering, glamorous flappers, gangsters, and jazz musicians.  On her first trip to the Green Mill, she is struck by the sexy black pianist in the jazz band, Jerome Johnson, and soon Gloria secretly becomes the vocalist with the club's all-black band.

Living at Gloria's house, ostensibly to help plan her wedding, is her cousin Clara, who had run away to New York City from her home in Pennsylvania and conducted herself scandalously; she's now has been exiled by her family to Chicago.  Clara decides to reinvent herself as the "sweet-as-pie and innocent-as-a-lamb farm girl, with aspirations to be a humble schoolteacher" coming to the city for the first time.  The reader knows it's all a lie, but what exactly happened to Clara in New York remains a mystery...until the end of the book.

Our third main character is Lorraine, best friend of Gloria since forever, who resents Gloria's place in the spotlight since her engagement and is worried she'll be left without a best friend once Gloria gets married.  She's also lusting after their mutual friend Marcus, who doesn't return her affections, but soon is interested in Country Cousin Clara.

But things are messy for these three flappers--we soon discover that Gloria's upcoming marriage is one of economics and convenience only, a business arrangement between Bastian and her father.  In the meantime, Gloria's falling hard for someone as unsuitable as can possibly be--Jerome Johnson the black pianist, at a time when it was unheard of for "respectable" white women to date black men.  Clara's receiving anonymous threatening notes, and what is Lorraine doing kissing the fiance of her best friend?!

The novel's author does a good job of peppering her yarn with plenty of period details, including illicit drinking from dainty little flasks, debutante parties, Buster Keaton movies, betrayed confidences, mysterious threatening letters, dangerous mobsters out for revenge, and more, until a climax that will leave readers breathless for the sequel (Ingenue, to be published in August 2011).

This novel's mix of romance, danger, star-crossed lovers, and the colorful Roaring 20's setting is sure to please fans of series like the Luxe.  I give this novel high marks for sheer entertainment value, and think it is likely to find plenty of teenage fans.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Charles Dickens--The Dullest Among Writers???

The great American wit Mark Twain once famously quipped that a classic is a book which people praise and don't read.  Oprah Winfrey, great goddess of popular culture, is trying to change all that with her last two book club selections:  Dickens' Great Expectations and Tale of Two Cities.  Entertainment Weekly posed the following question (paraphrasing our friend Dickens)  "Was this the best of picks, or was this the worst of picks?" In his own time, Dickens was the most popular novelist in the world--and I mean popular like Stephen King or John Grisham.  And Dickens is still required reading in many high school English classes; in our own school district, Great Expectations is read in 9th grade Honors English and Tale of Two Cities in 10th grade.  Goodreads lists Great Expectations and Tale of Two Cities as #21 and 23 respectively on its list of most popular high school books.

But do the kids today who've grown up on J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer enjoy Dickens' more ponderous style, with long descriptions and many sentimental characters?  My teenage daughter is definitely in the No More Dickens camp, although she tells me that posting about Dickens on Facebook will provoke a stream of comments from students who hate him and students who love him.  My daughter used Dickens as the subject of an epic poem in the style of Homer (another author assigned in class)...I thought with Oprah's choices it was timely to share her viewpoint with all my friends in the blogosphere.

Dickens, the Dullest Among Writers

Oh muse, heed my call and help me tell the story of Julia, the procrastinator
Who overcame Dickens, the dullest among writers.
Julia scoffed at the newest novel, thinking it would not be a strong adversary,
For she had conquered Shelly, 
Shakespeare, Bronte, Austen, and more.
Those had been long and arduous battles, yet she had persevered.
The tedium was unbearable, for Dickens, the dullest among writers
Made his pages seem endless, like the labyrinths of the 
Julia, the procrastinator, tired quickly, and ignored the homework.
And let it sit, for hours and hours, and eventually days.
Julia the procrastinator realized the day before the first quiz,
that she had neglected to read anything.
Oh, there is still the entire day, and it stretches as lengthy as Poseidon's oceans, she thought.
And thus, she waited until the late night, and had an epiphany.
In order to keep her grade up she must complete the chapters.
She sought out the novel with great determination, but her eyes began to close and
As she lifted the pages, they were as heavy as the burden on Atlas' shoulders.
She called upon Athena, to give her the wisdom to persevere.
Dickens, the dullest of all writers, seemed more malevolent than all of Hades.
As Julia the procrastinator attempted to fight a long battle, through the night.
Even though the light beckoned to be turned off, and her body told her she must sleep
Julia the procrastinator read on and on
Fighting her closing eyes.
When day broke she was still tired
But she had conquered the novel,
And got to sleep during biology.
And how about you?  Dickens fan or not?  Let me know in a comment!
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Friday, December 10, 2010

Book Review: City of Cannibals, by Ricki Thompson (Front Street, 2010)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

This novel, by debut novelist Ricki Thompson, had been sitting on my nightstand for some time, patiently waiting its turn to be read, until one day when I was perusing the Cybils nominations and noticed that this novel had been nominated by none other than Karen Cushman, one of my favorite writers of historical fiction for young people.  That was enough of a recommendation to move City of Cannibals to the top of my pile.

I have to admit I was not particularly drawn to this book by the cover, and based on the blurb on the back and the title, I thought it was a fantasy story--which it is definitely not. So what is this book about? 

It's the engrossing story of a teenage girl, Dell, who lives with her drunk, abusive, and cruel father, her brother and auntie in Tudor England.  Her mother, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine, wife of Henry VIII, is dead and buried on the hill near the cave where they live.  Finally Dell has had enough of the abuse and escapes with her only friend, Bartholomew, a puppet imbued by Dell with a lively and witty personality, to the city far below them.  Dell, and the reader, know the city as the City of Cannibals.  Her father has warned her ever since she can remember that people there eat each other's flesh, and drink human blood. We soon realize that the city is none other than London, a frightening place where Dell knows no one.  When she first enters the city gates, she decides her father was right..."this city was Hell, and now she was a part of it."  She knows only that she must seek out The Brown Boy, a mysterious young man clothed in brown garments who leaves packages for them in the hills every week.  In the city, she can invent a new identity for herself, as a puppet master, although she has only the one puppet to her name.

It's a time of turmoil in London; King Henry VIII has taken Anne Boleyn to be his wife, traitors who question the king are executed  in the public square, and the king's soldiers are plundering the churches.  But somehow in the London crowds, Dell spots the Brown Boy, who we learn is a novice monk named Ronaldo. When Dell falls ill in the city, she is taken in by the kindly John the Joiner, who through an unlikely coincidence turns out to know young Ronaldo as well.  They are involved in a dangerous game against the king, refusing to sign the Oath of Allegiance to him.  Dell becomes involved in their clandestine activities as well, delivering secret letters to monasteries. Thomas Cromwell, too, appears in the novel, with his book in which he writes the names of all those suspected of treason toward the king.

And Dell, for whom John the Joiner builds a puppet theatre, begins to perform at the London fairs, but her heart belongs to Ronaldo.  Can she save Ronaldo--and herself from Cromwell's powerful grip?

This is a rich and complex story that fans of books about Tudor England will really enjoy.  The book is set in 1536, a pivotal point in Henry's reign as he attempts to consolidate the power of the church in his own person.  An author's note provides some brief historical context, but some of the story might be confusing if the reader did not have a basic idea of the history at the time. Considering I recently read the massive adult novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (or more accurately, listened to the audiobook), the period was very fresh in my mind.  Teens will also enjoy the element of the forbidden romance between Dell and Ronaldo.  While some readers may be surprised at the sexuality between the characters, in fact priests breaking their chastity vows was a common enough ocurrance at the time, with plenty of priests and even popes having children of their own.  I particularly admired how the author does an outstanding job creating a sense of place in this novel; there is an earthy quality about the writing, with vivid descriptions of chamber pots, the river's fishiness, the clatter of the city.  Moreover, Dell was a character that the reader grows to care about, and I really loved her relationship with her sarcastic and witty puppet, Bartholomew (I have a feeling that Bartholomew was very unhappy not to be on the cover of this book, by the way!)

Check out the author's interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith on Cynsations, and other blog reviews in Bookish Blather, Whispers of Dawn, Parents Choice Awards,  and The 3 R's.

The author's website includes a discussion guide perfect for teen book groups or classroom use.

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Busting the Newbie Blues Event for New Book Bloggers

Small Review is hosting an event specially designed for newer YA book bloggers from December 3 through December 31.  My blog is a combination of YA and children's books but I am happy to participate and get to know other new bloggers!  From Small Review, here's the nuts and bolts of what this event is about:

"This event is designed to:

  •  Put new YA book bloggers on the map
  • Increase blogger interaction
  • Start a discussion by sharing our experiences as a new bloggers
  • Learn about what it was like for all those impressive established bloggers when they were newbies"
Small Review has asked all new bloggers to fill out a questionnaire and post it on our blog.  

1.  When did you start your blog?  May 17, 2010 (about 7 months ago)

2.  Why did you start your blog?  I decided to start a blog after taking a library school YA class where we were asked to recommend five YA blogs to follow for professional librarians.  I had never really been a regular blog reader, but when I started to look at them, I said to myself, that's something I could do!  I had been reviewing books for several years for Amazon Vine and also for an on-line toy journal, as well as for library school classes, so I was already in the habit of writing reviews of books I read.  I decided to specialize in historical fiction for young people but after a while added in non-fiction books for young people that have to do with history as well.  I did this to make my blog a bit different from everything else out there.  

3.  What has been the biggest challenge you've faced so far?  For me the greatest challenge is definitely trying to get noticed in a very crowded blogosphere with lots of great bloggers already publishing regularly.  Oh, and trying to come up with a good name for my blog!

4.  What do you dislike about blogs you've read?  Do you try to avoid this?  One thing I don't really like is when bloggers don't provide much "value added", i.e. they put the synopsis of the book provided by Goodreads or the publisher's copy and just add a sentence or two about whether they like the book.  I try to also add additional information about the author, other similar books, videos, or ways in which the book could be used in class or for home schooling.

5.  Any advice for other new bloggers?  Make it easy to sign up to follow your blog!  Sometimes I can't figure out where to sign up.  Also, make it easy to read--personally I don't like dark backgrounds, they are hard for my older eyes to read text on.  Participating in blogging events is a fun way to pick up new readers and also learn about new blogs yourself.

6.  Anything else you'd like to share about your experience?  Blogger groups like Kidlitosphere and Book Blogs  can be really helpful for getting advice on various blogging topics.  

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Book Review: The Way It Is, by Donalda Reid (Second Story Press, 2010) ISBN 978-1-897187-80-7

Recommended for ages 12 and up.  

Ellen Manery is a brilliant, science nerd who's most comfortable with her books and in the lab, not socializing with other kids her age.  "Socially isolated," her teachers call her on her permanent school records.  It's 1967, and when her parents decide to give up the rat race and move from Vancouver to Salmon Arm, where they have bought a resort on a lake in the middle of nowhere, she's convinced they've ruined her life.  Sure enough, when she starts her senior  year at the local high school, nothing about her fits in, from her height (she towers over everyone) to her dowdy clothes (the other girls are dressed in colorful mini-skirts) to her haircut and lack of make-up.  And especially her academic interests--the counselor tries to dissuade her from taking advanced science and math courses, saying that they are too hard for girls and she should enroll in home economics and art instead.  

The only person at school who seems willing to talk to her is a dark haired young man, Tony, who like Ellen, is an outsider--he's the only Indian student in an all-white school.  Slowly and carefully, Tony and Ellen develop a friendship, even though Ellen finds herself putting her foot into her mouth from time to time because of her ignorance of Indian culture.  She helps Tony with his math, and he in turn teaches her to dance.  They share their dreams--Ellen wants to be a medical doctor, and Tony wants to go to college and pursue a technical degree.  Ellen soon realizes that she's attracted to Tony as more than a friend, and dreams of what his kisses would be like.  But they are from different worlds--can they really be more than friends?

I found this book by debut Canadian novelist Donalda Reid highly engrossing--in fact I read the entire book in one evening.  The main characters of Ellen and Tony were well-drawn and convincing, and I was drawn into their story.  In the U.S. we don't read or learn enough about our neighbors to the north, and I was happy to learn about the differences and parallels between how native populations were treated in Canada vs. the U.S.  Ellen realizes that the Indians in Canada are not the teepee-living stereotypes portrayed in her history textbooks, and Tony realizes that not all white people believe all Indians are drunkards and lazy bums.  The author also uses events happening in the civil rights movement in the U.S. at the time to highlight the similar injustices faced by the Canadian Indians.  Sexism and the Vietnam War also play roles in the narrative.   

I also enjoyed how Reid uses Frances Hodgson Burnett's Secret Garden as a kind of framework for the novel.  As the year passes, Ellen grows to love the beauty of Salmon Arm:  

"This place is my Secret Garden, she thought.  When I came here, I was as bitter and reclusive as Mary Lennox.  I found my Dickon in Tony and I've changed."

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, with the exception of the very graphic scene in which Ellen helps to skin a moose calf (OK, I'm a squeamish urban girl!)  The character of Ellen grows and changes during the course of the book, but in a believable way, and as the reader we can appreciate how she comes out of her shell, much like Mary Lennox. 

Review copy provided by Star Book Tours.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Book Review for Hanukkah: Jackie's Gift: A True Story of Christmas, Hanukkah and Jackie Robinson, by Sharon Robinson and E. B. Lewis (Viking, 2010)

Recommended for ages 5-10

Release date:  October 14, 2010

This engaging new picture book for the holiday season offers a touching and funny true story about baseball legend Jackie Robinson, written by his own daughter Sharon Robinson, and illustrated by award-winning artist E. B. Lewis.

Young Steve Satlow is a huge baseball fan, and it's a dream come true when star Dodger player Jackie Robinson and his family move onto their block in their Brooklyn neighborhood.  We learn that some of their neighbors had tried to stop the Robinson family from being able to move into the neighborhood, but Steve's Jewish parents had refused to sign the petition.  Steve and his family befriend the Robinsons, and Steve even gets to go to a Dodger game, sit in the family seats right behind home plate, and walk home with Jackie himself!

When the holidays come around, Steve is invited over to help trim the Robinsons' tree.  When Jackie asks Steve if they've decorated their tree yet, Steve replies that they don't have one, and the subject seemed to be forgotten.  That is, until Jackie Robinson arrives at Steve's house with a Christmas true under his arm.  Of course Jackie doesn't realize the Satlows are Jewish and don't celebrate the holiday.  Although Steve is excited with the gift, his parents don't know what to do, since to them the tree is a religious symbol.  But when Mrs. Robinson comes over with ornaments for them to share, Mrs. Satlow tells them gently that they don't celebrate Christmas.  What could be an awkward moment for all concerned becomes instead a teaching moment about religious tolerance and friendship.

I thought this was a delightful holiday story, enriched by E.B. Lewis' trademark watercolor illustrations, which lend a nostalgic mood to the 1940's setting.  I would recommend this book for Jewish and Christian families alike, since it offers a subtle message of accepting all religious faiths which is well-suited to the holiday season.

The Los Angeles Times and the Seattle Times have picked this picture book as one of their recommended purchases for the holiday season for children and young adults.  You can also hear Sharon Robinson and Steve Satlow interviewed by Neil Simon of NPR at the following link.

For other perspectives on this story, see Lisa Silverman's article in The Jewish Journal, "It's Christmas Time for Chanukah Books."

Some read-alikes that celebrate similar messages include:

Elijah's Angel:  A Story for Chanukah and Christmas, by Michael Rosen, which celebrates the friendship between a young Jewish boy and an elderly African-American barber;
The Trees of the Dancing Goats, by Patricia Polacco, where a Jewish family pitches in to deliver Christmas trees when their Michigan town is hit with a scarlet fever epidemic;
A Chanukah Noel by Sharon Jennings, in which a Jewish girl in a small French village has her family help out a poor Christian neighbor by supplying their tree and all the trimmings.

For more great non-fiction books for kids, check out the Nonfiction Monday links at The Reading Tub.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Book Review: Daughter of Winter, by Pat Lowery Collins (Candlewick, 2010) ISBN 978-0-7636-4500-7

Release date: October 12, 2010

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Pat Lowery Collins' new release tells the story of 12-year old Addie, a resilient young girl in Massachusetts in 1849.  When the novel opens, things couldn't be much worse for our heroine--her father took off to make his fortune in the California Gold Rush, leaving Addie with Mama and her little brother Jack.  But now Mama and Jack have died of the flux, and Addie is trying to manage on her own with only her cat Matilda and the farm animals for company.  When the townspeople ask, she pretends that everything's OK and that she's still taking care of her sick family.  The only adult who seems to know what's really going on is a mysterious ancient Wampanoag Indian woman, Nokummus, who appears to be watching over Addie.

Addie's great fear of being discovered and sent away to live with strangers as a servant girl leads her to run away from her cozy home into the dead of the Massachusetts winter.  As foolish as this might seem, we learn that Addie has camped with her father in all seasons, and knows what to do to survive in the wilderness.  Along with Addie, we feel the biting cold as she struggles to build a fire and feed herself, finding shelter in an abandoned shipyard.  And always, she's waiting for Nokummus to come and rescue her.  Sure enough, the old Indian woman shows up, taking Addie to her home or wetu on a nearby island, where she cares for her and shares the stories of the Wampanoag people.  Addie's always felt a little different from the people in town, but she was never sure exactly why. Soon, under Nokummus' guidance, Addie discovers her real heritage--and truths about her family that she had never imagined.

This novel encompasses a number of themes; it is a coming-of-age novel, about a young girl attempting to figure out where she fits into the universe in which she lives, as well as an adventure/survival story.  In addition, it's a multicultural novel, in which the author includes many details of Wampanoag life in the 19th century, from their diet to their dwellings, legends, and rites.  These are the same Indians familiar to us from the story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving.  The only member of the tribe we meet is the elderly Nokummus.  Yet the author keeps Nokummus at arm's length from Addie, who desperately longs for an affectionate word or touch.

While this is a well-written novel, particularly deft in its evocative descriptions of the Massachusetts winter, I never really warmed up to the story, partly because I had difficulty believing in a 12-year old girl being so reluctant to ask for help from adults when tragedy strikes her family, and also because I found the character of Nokummus too remote for me to feel emotionally involved in her story.  Nonetheless, I can imagine this book appealing to some tween and teen readers, particularly those with an interest in Native American cultures, and would consider it a worthy purchase for school and public libraries.

For another blogger's review of this title, check out The Bibliographic Book Blog.
For more on the Wampanoag Tribe online, see their official website.  
For a variety of helpful links on Native Americans in literature for young people, see Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations Native North American resource list.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

YA Historical Fiction Challenge

I am delighted to join YA Bliss' recently announced YA Historical Fiction Challenge.  She will be sponsoring giveaways for participants throughout the year as part of the Challenge.

Of course, as a historical fiction junkie, I'm going to go for the top level of the challenge:  15 YA/MG historical fiction for 2011.  For this challenge, the titles don't have to have been released in 2011, but I will be reading 15 new YA historical fiction titles.  I also am challenging myself to do at least six interviews with historical fiction authors whose books I have reviewed on my blog.

Some of the titles I'm really looking forward to reading and reviewing on my blog include:

Anya's War, by Andrea Alban (Feiwel and Friends)
Death Cloud:  Young Sherlock Holmes, by Andrew Lane (Farrar Strauss & Giroux)
Daughter of Xanadu, by Dori Jones Yang (Delacorte)
Fallen Grace, by Mary Hooper (Bloomsbury)
In the Shadow of the Lamp by Susanne Dunlap (Bloomsbury)
Second Fiddle, by Rosanne Parry (Random House)
Johnny Swanson, by Eleanor Updale (David Fickling Books)
Timeless, by Alexandra Monir (Delacorte)
The Year We Were Famous, by Carole Estby Dagg (Clarion)
The Revenant, by Sonia Gensler (Knopf Books)
The Friendship Doll, by Kirby Larson (Delacorte)
Sylvia & Aki, by Winifred Conkling (Tricycle Press)

I'm sure I'll discover many more to add to my list as the year goes on!