Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Review: Surviving the Hindenburg, by Larry Verstraete (Sleeping Bear Press, 2012)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

With the seemingly infinite number of books about the Titanic being released this year, it was refreshing to read an account of another famous disaster of technology, the crash of the mighty luxury airship the Hindenburg in 1937. Told from the point of view of Werner Franz, a 14-year old cabin boy serving on the vessel, this handsomely illustrated picture book shows Werner's life on board the luxurious vessel as the ship prepares to land in the United States on its three day journey. But while Werner puts dishes away in the kitchen and the Hindenburg crew prepared for the landing, something goes terribly wrong, and suddenly Werner finds himself alone in the bow of the ship, with a giant fireball behind him. Can Werner escape the inferno? 

This exciting tale is well captured in this picture book for older readers. The author includes both a preface and an afterword, which gives information on other survivors, more on what happened to young Werner, and Hindenburg memorials. 

This book is written by Larry Verstraete, a former teacher whose enthusiasm for his subject is evident.  The larger-than life painted illustrations are by historical illustrator David Geister.  The oversized format of the book effectively captures the immense scale of the airship and the horror of the disaster.

This book would be particularly appealing to fans of steampunk, who might enjoy learning more about an actual airship.  

Recommended for upper elementary school students.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Review: Looking for Me, by Betsy Rosenthal

Recommended for ages 8-12.

This novel in verse is a moving and sometimes humorous coming of age story that takes place over one year; it's based on the author's own mother's childhood growing up in a very large Jewish family in 1930's Baltimore. 

Eleven-year old Edith is #4 of twelve kids in her family, and feels like one of those wooden nesting dolls she's seen at the store. No one takes much notice of her, as she helps with the younger kids, goes to school, and works at her family's diner. Times are tough, and her wishes are simple.  For example, she'd love to have new back-to-school clothes "But in my family/we wear/hand-me-down/down/down/down/downs." 

Although she complains she doesn't know who she is in her big family, over the course of the year, in which tragedy as well as joyous events occur, she's working on figuring out where she belongs. An author's note tells more about Edith, the "little mother" of the family who became the only girl in her family to go to college. Family photographs are also provided, so readers can see the "real Edith."  A glossary provides explanations of unfamiliar words, particularly Jewish and Yiddish phrases that are sprinkled throughout the text. 

This is a beautifully written novel in verse, in which Edith's voice comes through loud and clear; she might not know who she is, but the reader does, and cares about her deeply.  This novel will appeal to those who enjoy a story about real people and their joys and tribulations--no angels, vampires, or werewolves in this one.  This should definitely be on the Sydney Taylor Award consideration list; I would recommend it to anyone, but the story will especially resonate with Jewish readers as Jewish holidays and culture are integral to the story.  This is author Betsy Rosenthal's first novel, and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.  

Monday, May 14, 2012

Book Review: The Queen's Lover: A Novel, by Francine Du Plessix Gray (Penguin, 2012)

For ages 14 and up

I have long been fascinated by Marie Antoinette and her family, an interest dating back to when I was around 12 years old.  I was therefore really looking forward to reading this new novel about Count Fersen, who was perhaps the secret love of Marie Antoinette's life and the architect of the failed escape plan to Varennes, after which the royal family was captured and imprisoned in Paris. However, I found this entire novel a huge disappointment.  The story is told in the first person by Fersen himself, as a sort of memoir, with other parts narrated by his sister when it was inconvenient to have Fersen himself narrate.  

The novel added little to my knowledge or understanding of these important historical figures.  Moreover, I didn't feel the author captured any real chemistry between Fersen and Marie Antoinette.  There are some very racy sex scenes with the two of them which frankly I found very distasteful--it gave me a feeling of being a voyeur at the scene which rather than being titillating seemed simply tacky. In addition, Fersen comes across as a very unpleasant person--it was hard to even empathize when he himself is beaten to death by an anti-royalist crowd in Sweden some years later. The book was clearly carefully researched, with the author using primary sources, but the way the author incorporated actual parts of letters written by Fersen and others made the book very awkward--was she trying to write a novel, a biography, or a history book? It seems like she couldn't decide, and it's a messy melange that doesn't work well. If you want to read about Marie Antoinette, check out instead Abundance, by Sena Jeter Naslund, a much better novel, or Queen of Fashion, an excellent nonfiction biography by historian Caroline Weber.

Marie Antoinette, by court painter Vigee-LeBrun

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Blog Tour: Minette's Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and her Cat (Abrams, 2012)

Susanna Reich
I am delighted to welcome to The Fourth Musketeer author Susanna Reich, currently on a blog tour for her delightful new picture book, Minette's Feast:  The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat.  Susanna kindly agreed to answer a few questions for me and my blog readers.

Q:   I was fascinated about your personal connections with Julia Child; you recount in an author's note that you designed floral decorations for her 80th birthday party and were able to meet her at that time.  Please tell us a little bit about what you admire about Julia and what inspired you to write a picture book about her through the eyes of her cat.

A:  Julia was serious about cooking and held herself to the highest standards. Her devotion to her art—the art of French cooking—was inspiring. She also took great pleasure in sharing her enthusiasm and had a wonderful sense of humor. I admired her confidence, her knowledge, her spontaneity, and her commitment to teaching. When she demonstrated a dish, she made you believe that you could cook it, too.

But the key thing about Julia goes beyond cooking. She knew that putting people at ease and fostering convivial conversation around the table was more important that the success of any particular dish. In her memoir she wrote, "Remember, 'No one's more important than people'! In other words, friendship is the most important thing—not career or housework, or one's fatigue—and it needs to be tended and nurtured."

By focusing my picture book on Julia's years in Paris and her relationship with Minette, I was able to share with kids the things I admire most about Julia—her warmth, her humor, her work ethic, and the joy she found in cooking.

Q:   The illustrations in this book are particularly charming and greatly enhance the story.  I was especially struck by how the illustrator, Amy Bates, incorporated a small girl who does not appear in the text but appears in many of the illustrations; were you able to have any input into the style of illustration that was chosen?

A:  As you know, the publisher of a picture book usually chooses the illustrator, and that's what happened with Minette's Feast. As soon as I saw Amy's sketches, I was captivated. Her images perfectly capture Paris in the 1940's and also the humor in the text. I love her color palette and compositions, the rhythm and balance of closeups and large spreads, and especially the way her figures convey emotion without ever being overly sentimental or so abstract that little kids won't get it.

Because this is a nonfiction picture book, it was important for me to have some input into the illustration process, especially when it came to historical accuracy. I gave our editor photographs, historical information, website links, and detailed feedback on the sketches, which were then passed along to Amy.

Q:   I enjoyed the fact that you used lots of French phrases throughout the story, giving the story local color.  Could you tell us a little about your research process for this book?  Did you go to Paris or cook from Julia's cookbooks to immerse yourself in her story? 

A:  Like everyone in my family, I love to cook, and I've used Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking for many years. I did find myself using her recipes more than usual while working on Minette's Feast. I'm buying more butter these days!

As for the French phrases, I studied French in high school and have been to France several times. Incorporating French was one of the ways I played with language in the text. For me, writing picture books is a form of play.

I approached the research as I would for any nonfiction project, by reading everything I could find on the subject—in this case, several biographies of Julia; her cookbooks and memoir, My Life In France; interviews and articles by and about her; and many of her letters, which are in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard. I also studied photos and videos of her.

Q:   This book includes an informative afterword that places Julia Child in the context of 20th century women's history.  Julia Child is your second work about a remarkable woman; your earlier work Clara Schumann:  Piano Virtuoso (Sandpiper, 2005) is an outstanding biography for young people.  Do you have plans for any future works dealing with women's history? 

A:  No specific plans at the moment, but I'm always looking for a good subject. I don't really think of it as women's history, but as human history. Both boys and girls should learn about the important, powerful, creative women who've come before us.

Q: Can you tell us what books are currently on your nightstand (i.e. that you are in the middle of reading)? 

In the first half of the year I especially enjoy reading some of the National Book Award-winners in the young people's literature category, as well as ALA award-winners in different categories. I especially enjoy the Batchelder Award books, because translated books appeal to the anthropologist in me. On my nightstand right now is Debby Dahl Edwardson's My Name is Not Easy.

Other books I recently enjoyed are G. Neri's Ghetto Cowboy, Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and Padma Venkatraman's Island's End. On the adult side, my nightstand holds Gabrielle Hamilton's food memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter, a book of essays and short stories set in Paris, and a back issue of the magazine Gastronomica devoted to Julia Child. She's definitely influencing my reading choices at the moment.

Giveaway:  If you'd like to win a copy of this wonderful picture book--perfect for budding cooks, cat lovers, and Francophiles!--the publisher is celebrating the book's launch with a giveaway. Readers can enter to win a free, signed book by sending an email with the subject line "Minette's Feast giveaway" Winners will be selected on May 31.

To visit other stops on the blog tour for Minette's Feast, check out the following blogs:

Monday, April 30 - Booktalking interview with Susanna

Tuesday, May 1 - Books Together interview with Amy

Wednesday, May 2 - Tales from the Rushmore Kid interview with Susanna’s cat

Thursday, May 3 - The Fourth Musketeer interview with Susanna

Friday, May 4 - Original Content review and discussion of creative nonfiction

Sunday, May 6 - Great Kid Books guest post by Susanna about reading as a child

Monday, May 7 - Shelf-Employed interview with Abrams art director Chad Beckerman

Tuesday, May 8 - Readerkidz “Dear Reader” guest post by Susanna