Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Book Review: Ben Franklin: His Wit and Wisdom from A to Z, by Alan Schroeder (Holiday House, 2011)

Recommended for ages 7-12. 

While there is no shortage of books available on Ben Franklin and his amazing life, Alan Schroeder’s new picture book biography, written in an unusual almanac format uniquely suited to Franklin’s encyclopedic interests, is an attractive addition to books available for elementary school aged children. Written by Schroeder, author of other notable picture book biographies such as Minty:  A Story of Young Harriet Tubman,  and illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist and children’s book illustrator John O’Brien, this slim volume manages to pack a tremendous amount of information into the traditional 32-page picture book format.  

Each letter of the alphabet is represented by fitting entries related to Franklin and his life and work. For example, A is for Almanac (a brief three paragraph entry explains the popularity of almanacs in Colonial America and how Franklin was responsible for the most popular almanac of all, Poor Richard’s Almanac), Abiah (the name of Franklin’s mother), Apprentice (Franklin apprenticed in his brother’s printing shop), and Armonica (a musical instrument invented by Franklin).  Franklin’s witty sayings, many of which remain popular today, appear on small banners in the detailed ink and watercolor illustrations.  

While the format of this book does not present Franklin’s life and achievements in a traditional chronological order, the author and illustrator make abundant use of the almanac format to present a variety of fascinating details about the great man.  Under “H”, we discover that Franklin was a “hero” (he saved a man from drowning once) and that his mother subscribed to “hardening off” for all her offspring, meaning that the baby Ben was dunked in cold water three times a day (thought to keep infants robust and healthy!)  

I don’t envision this book so much as a classroom read-aloud; rather it’s a book I can imagine a child poring over, with or without an adult, engrossed in the many fine details of the illustrations, the pithy quotations, and the wide variety of experiences of Dr. Franklin.  

Monday, June 27, 2011

Blog Tour and Book Review: Haunting Violet, by Alyxandra Harvey (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

I'm delighted to participate in the blog tour for Alyxandra Harvey’s new novel, Haunting Violet, set in Victorian England. It's a deliciously frightening paranormal historical fantasy just right for summer reading.  Alyxandra is also the author of The Drake Chronicles, a popular vampire series whose fourth volume is due out in November.

In Haunting Violet, our young heroine, Violet Willoughby, has been forced for years to help out in the “family business”--her stunningly beautiful mother puts on fake seances for bereaved parents, husbands and wives to contact loved ones in the beyond.  Their fortunes are picking up, and they’ve been invited to Rosefield, the luxurious country estate of Lord Jasper, a wealthy and influential earl with a strong interest in spiritualism.  Violet is looking forward to visiting with her friend Elizabeth, Lord Jasper’s goddaughter, while Violet’s mother hopes to finalize a possible match between her daughter and Xavier, a kind, handsome, and wealthy young man who’s also attending the country gathering.  But Violet is much more attracted to the unsuitable Colin, an Irish lad who is her mother’s assistant, and whose kisses make her feel “devoured, delicious, decadent..”  

Violet doesn’t believe in ghosts--how could she after her exposure to all the tricks of her mother’s medium trade?  So no one is more astonished than Violet when, at the first of her mother’s seances at Lord Jasper’s estate, she sees a girl in the shadows, dripping water.  Here’s Harvey’s creepy description of Violet’s first ghost sighting:

“She met my eyes and it was as if winter blew through the parlor.  When she opened her mouth, the sound was muffled and high-pitched, like nothing I had ever heard before.  She walked toward me, suddenly close enough that the hem of my skirt drew damp and cold.  I cringed back in my chair, looking around wildly...sweat pooled under my arm.”  

What is the ghost doing there?  It turns out she’s Rowena, who drowned the previous year--or was she murdered?  She’s desperately trying to warn her twin sister Tabitha of the danger of meeting the same fate, even using a “spirit board” to spell out messages to avert impending doom.  And there’s more ghosts who appear to Violet as well; at Lord Jasper’s ball they’re all over the ballroom, but only Violet can see them, and feel them rushing at her with their spirit hands.  Harvey’s descriptions of ghostly activity are sure to send a chill down the spine of her teen readers.  Will Violet be able to help Tabitha escape her fate, and solve the mystery of her sister’s drowning?  And what will her own future hold?

Harvey imbues this romantic tale with a mystery, romance, and above all, a wry sense of humor; Violet is particularly aware of the irony of her ridiculous situation:  “The real problem was that I didn’t actually believe in ghosts.  But they clearly believed in me.”  They should have the decency to stay dead, she quips at one point.  The reader has the distinct impression that Harvey, and her heroine, are winking at us through the pages!

Readers who enjoy this novel might also want to read Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, another gothic tale which also revolves around a young girl caught up in the schemes of fake mediums, this time in early 20th century New England.  

Friday, June 24, 2011

Book Review: Karma: A Verse Novel, by Cathy Ostlere (Razorbill, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

I was immediately drawn into Cathy Ostlere's stunning debut novel, Karma, written in free verse and set in India during the turbulent period immediately after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984.  Her 15-year old heroine, Maya, a Canadian teenager who’s half-Hindu, and half-Sikh, is traveling with her grief-stricken father to India with the ashes of her mother and a new diary to record her thoughts.  On the night they arrive, the prime minister is killed in her own garden by her Sikh guards, and In the turmoil and harrowing violence that erupt immediately after the assassination, Maya and her father are separated.  With no time to think, Maya cuts off her hair and disguises herself as a boy, running to the train station to try to find her father.  When he doesn’t arrive, she gets on a train anyway, not knowing exactly where she is headed in the chaos.  On the train journey, she witnesses unimaginable horrors, and is so traumatized she is unable to speak.  

Taken in by a kind doctor’s family, where no one knows who she is or where she comes from, Maya struggles to come back to life, with the help of Sandeep, an orphan boy who she’s just met.  She has lost everything--but she will find love, open her heart, and recover her voice with Sandeep, who eventually takes her back to Dehli to try to find her father.  While Maya is mute, Sandeep takes over the narration in the second half of the novel, giving the book two distinct voices.  Toward the end of the novel, Maya resumes the narration.  

This is a deeply romantic story of young love, passion, family, and trauma, where the evocative poetry serves to heighten the drama and suspense of the story.  Because of the suspense of the story line, you will want to hurry along to find out what happens, but don’t forget to take the time to admire Ostlere’s elegant poetry, sometimes written in two columns.  Asked often why the novel is written in free verse, she eloquently replies:  “The best answer I have to this question is that Karma’s poetic form suits the emotional lives of Maya and Sandeep. Their feelings are intense, their insights into the world are sharp and critical, and their understanding of what it means to be human is fresh, ragged, not yet smoothed by maturity, not yet smoothed by conventional narrative. Poetry is the perfect medium for their age. The short sentence. The precise image. The outbursts of feeling. Maya and Sandeep invite the reader to look inside their diaries where they reveal an intimate world of secrets, confessions and longings, and where poetry is a fire.”

Although this book looks imposing at over 500 pages, it is actually a relatively quick read because of the free verse format, and like the books of YA authors Ellen Hopkins and Sonya Sones, would be a good recommendation for reluctant readers.  With its exotic setting, it’s also a great fit with this year’s One World, Many Stories summer reading theme.  

Ostlere’s website gives additional background on the genesis of this novel, which took root during her own travels in India in 1984, and the origin of the character of Maya, who is inspired by a young Indian girl she knew growing up in Canada, as well as some stunning photographs evoking the brilliant colors of India.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Book Review: For the Love of Music: The Remarkable Story of Maria Anna Mozart, by Elizabeth Rusch (2011, Tricycle Press)

Recommended for ages 8 to 12.

I started studying classical piano when I was six years old, and some of my fondest reading memories are checking out children’s biographies of great composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach from our local public library.  I was especially fascinated by Mozart, with his seemingly glamorous childhood travelling to all the courts of Europe.  My young self would have been delighted with Elizabeth Rusch’s new picture book biography about Mozart’s gifted older sister, Maria Anna Mozart, which is a perfect book to share with budding young musicians.

Like her more famous brother, Maria Anna (usually known by her nickname, Nannerl), showed an early gift for music.  Her father was a court musician, and the house was filled with music.  Her brother, Wolfgang, was born when she was five, and by the time she was ten, the two of them were giving concerts all over Europe.  She, too, was considered one of the great pianists of Europe, and the family toured for three years.  She was the first to write down her brother’s compositions, and his first duets were for the two of them to play together. But by the time of their next tour, Maria was left at home with her mother, although she continued performing in private concerts and even composed her own music (sadly, none of her own music survives).  Without saying so directly, the book makes it clear that Maria did not have the opportunities of her brother; she eventually married and moved to a tiny town far from Salzburg, taking her piano with her.  At the end of her life, she moved back to Salzburg, where she taught piano to many children.  The book concludes with a moving scene of Maria as an elderly lady, making music with her nephew, Wolfgang’s son.  

Author Elizabeth Rusch, together with illustrator/designers Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson, have constructed a design for this picture book biography that pays tribute to the elegant perfection we associate with Mozart’s piano music.  The illustrations are collages of remnants of 18th century style fabric, reproductions of Mozart’s letters and musical scores, along with oil and acrylic paintings on canvas.  The elaborate fabrics in the 18th century clothing worn by the figures in the paintings is echoed in the patchwork remnants which surround the printed text.  Moreover, the narrative is written in sonata-allegro form, the musical structure which underlies classical sonatas.  In other words, the narrative is divided into movements in lieu of short chapters:  first movement, development, recapitulation, coda, etc.  This sophistication will go completely over the heads of young children who are not immersed in classical music lessons, but is not entirely necessary to enjoy the story.  This book can therefore be enjoyed on several levels, one requiring some musical knowledge and sophistication, but also just on the level of a compelling story of an unsung musical genius of the 18th century.

The book includes an afterword with additional biographical information on Maria, as well as a brief bibliography.  

Tweens and other young readers interested in learning more about Mozart’s gifted sister should seek out Carolyn Meyer’s excellent novel, In Mozart’s Shadow:  His Sister’s Story (Harcourt, 2008).  

Monday, June 20, 2011

Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Miss Dorothy and her Bookmobile, by Gloria Houston (Harper Collins, 2011)

Recommended for ages 6-9.

Author Gloria Houston and illustrator Susan Condie Lamb, who last teamed up for the beloved award-winning picture book My Great Aunt Arizona, have created another heartwarming and inspiring story about the special people who love books and sharing them with others.

Miss Dorothy decided to be a librarian as a young girl, because she loved books and loved people, so what could be better?  But when she fell in love and moved with her husband to the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, there was no library there.  But that didn't stop Miss Dorothy, and soon the community raised money for a bookmobile, with Miss Dorothy as the librarian.  We see her delivering books all over town, and Miss Dorothy "smiling the broad smile of a happy librarian, who enjoys nothing so much as sharing her books with her friends."  Eventually a little house is donated as a library, and Miss Dorothy finally has a real library building.  At the end, we see an elderly Miss Dorothy receiving letters from her readers, near and far.  An author's note tells us a little more about the real Dorothy Thomas, who was one of the author's heroes as a child growing up.

This is a charming book for anyone who loves books, libraries, and the power of words to change lives.  Highly recommended!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book Review: Between shades of gray, by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Debut novelist Ruta Sepetys has written a heart-wrenching and riveting account of a little-known episode of recent history--the Soviet reign of terror in Lithuania from 1940-1953, when the Soviets arrested and deported more than 300,000 Lithuanians, sending them in cattle cars across Europe and Asia to forced labor camps and finally to nearly certain death in the forests of Siberia.

Our heroine is the 15-year old Lina, whose great excitement is her acceptance into a prestigious art school for the summer.  However, her upper-middle class life along with her hopes and dreams are shattered when the Soviet Secret Police storm into her house one night in 1941, arresting her along with her mother and younger brother.  Her university professor father had already been arrested and sent to a prison camp.  "They took me in my nightgown," her saga begins, told in spare prose that heightens the intrinsic drama of the narrative.  Their harrowing six-week journey in cattle cars, with little food and water, to an unknown destination recalls numerous Holocaust narratives.  Dead bodies, of which there are more daily, are thrown from the trains.  They finally arrive at their destination--a collective farm in Siberia where they all became beet farmers.  "I hated beets," remarks Lina.

Living in a small shack with very little food and plenty of work, Lina and her family fight despair and sickness, yet manage to celebrate Christmas with their countrymen, with everyone providing bits of food they had pilfered from the Russians.  Lina even begins to have a bit of a romance with another young prisoner.  But things are to get much worse for Lina and her family when they are transferred to a camp in the Arctic Circle, where they are forced to build dwellings for the Soviets out of bricks, furnished with good stoves and American canned food, while they must survive in huts built from driftwood and mud and tiny rations of bread.  Can Lina and her family survive the freezing storms and starvation?  Will they ever see their home in Lithuania again?

Like Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken (reviewed last month on this blog) and so many Holocaust memoirs and novels, this book is ultimately about the best and the worst humanity has to offer, a testament to the tremendous power of the human spirit to survive in the face of unimaginable horrors and hardship.  Despite the nightmares she endures, Lina wants desperately to survive, and makes herself and her brother repeat the mantra, "we're going home."

Sepetys' book, which debuted in March, landed on the New York Times bestseller list and has received glowing reviews in major newspapers around the country as well as starred reviews in Booklist, School Library Journal, Publisher's Weekly, and Kirkus.  While the book is being marketed in the U.S. as a young adult book, it is equally compelling for adult readers, and in fact,  in 16 of the 23 countries in which the book was sold, it is being released as an adult title, according to the Wall Street Journal.

A website for the book features a discussion guide for book club or classroom use.  This would be an excellent book to compare with The Diary of Anne Frank, and I hope it will find its way into high school curricula.  While it is certainly not a typical "light" summer read, its international setting makes it well suited for promotion during summer reading this year, for those libraries who are participating in the World Culture/Travel theme.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book Review: The Revenant, by Sonia Gensler (Alfred A. Knopf Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

With The Revenant, which hits bookstores this week, debut author Sonia Gensler has crafted a historical fiction/paranormal romance page turner perfect for summer reading. Our heroine is seventeen year old Willie--a self-described liar and a cheat. Desperate to avoid having to return home to help her mother take care of her half-brothers, she fakes educational credentials to get hired as an English teacher at the Cherokee Female Seminary in Indian Territory.

It’s 1896, and Willie doesn’t know what to expect from her new position, but she certainly doesn’t expect to find a her pupils are mostly mixed-race, upper-class young Cherokee ladies who are much more sophisticated and privileged than she is. Nor does she expect the school to be shrouded in mystery--one of their students had supposedly drowned and now her classmates believe that the young girl’s spirit haunts Willie’s room. Willie doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she can’t explain the peculiar noises and the strange events happening at school. Could it be a revenant--one who returns from the dead?

She also doesn’t know what to make of her attraction to a handsome, charming young man, Eli Sevenstar, who’s a student at the nearby Cherokee academy for boys. Romance between an instructor and a student is surely prohibited, not to mention a romance with a native. But in the meantime Willie has to figure out how to grade all the English assignments she has given out, organize the students in a Shakespeare play, and solve a murder mystery--a hefty load for any proper young lady. Can she survive long enough to figure out her own destiny?

This book offers plenty of suspense and entertainment for fans of ghost stories, mysteries and the paranormal, with a good dose of history in the mix as well. My favorite element of the book was definitely the detailed historical setting. While I was familiar with the outlines of the Cherokee Trail of Tears, when the tribe was forced to move from Georgia to what is now Oklahoma, I was unfamiliar with the existence of a small group of wealthy Cherokees who signed a treaty with the Jackson administration and moved voluntarily to what was then Indian territory. An author’s note describes Gensler’s extensive research with primary sources at the Oklahoma Historical Society and Northeastern State University’s archives. This research provided accurate historical background, including depicting the tension on campus between Cherokee students of different economic classes. The main characters are highly appealing, and teens will enjoy the bit of forbidden romance as well.

Gensler’s website provides links to further information on the real Cherokee Female Seminary, which was staffed by graduates of Mount Holyoke and other Eastern colleges.

Disclosure: ARC provided by publisher.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Book Review: Cleopatra Confesses, by Carolyn Meyer (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Carolyn Meyer is one of our most prolific contemporary authors of historical fiction for young people, and has tackled novelizations of the lives of many famous women from history including Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth I, Mary Tudor, and Anne Boleyn.  In her newest young adult novel, she turns her pen (or computer?) to one of the most celebrated women in history, Cleopatra.

As in the other books in her Young Royals series, Meyer concentrates on Cleopatra's teen years, as the queen reminisces about her life in a diary-like format with very brief chapters.  As the book opens, Cleopatra is 10 years old, and clearly the favorite daughter of King Ptolemy XII.  Young Cleopatra is surrounded by intrigue at court, particularly from her two ambitious and jealous older sisters, yet secretly dreams of one day becoming a great ruler of Egypt.

Meyer portrays Cleopatra as a highly intelligent young woman, with a gift and passion for learning, especially for languages, and compassion for her future subjects. Despite her wealth and privilege, she enjoys going out in disguise among the common people, "not only to escape the dull routine of my life in the palace but also to savor the exciting sights and sounds of the city."   Cleopatra is eager to learn everything she can about politics; her beloved father has just come back from Rome, and speaks candidly to Cleopatra about his meetings with the powerful Roman triumverate, including the ambitious Julius Caesar.  Soon the royal entourage embarks on a journey down the fabled Nile river, traveling in great luxury, as Cleopatra observes, amidst the great poverty of their subjects.  The river is filled with treacherous crocodiles, and the boats with equally treacherous courtiers.  As she visits temples and the famed pyramids of Giza with her father, Cleopatra is careful to hide her lofty ambitions from her sisters, who she realizes would stop at nothing to get rid of her if they felt she was a threat. 

The voyage down the Nile serves as a clever way to incorporate the many sights and sounds of Egypt into the narrative, as we experience along with Cleopatra the glories of her realm.  Meyer weaves in many details about Egyptian society at the time, including the royals' love of beautiful clothes and jewelry, their games, pets (monkeys and baboons) meals and customs (such as wearing a fake beard at ceremonial appearances).  On the voyage, Cleopatra befriends a young dancer in the royal harem, Charmion, who teaches Cleopatra how to dance.  Perhaps this dancing skill is incorporated to establish part of Cleopatra's seductive charm later in her life.

When political turmoil forces Cleopatra's father to go into exile, he promises her that they will one day rule Egypt together.  With his departure, who can Cleopatra trust?  Now eleven years old, she is not old enough to rule.  Her duty, she realizes, is just to survive, with treachery all around her.

When her father returns several years later, he names Cleopatra as queen, but at her father's death, she must marry her brother, according to Egyptian custom.  Since her brother was only 10 years old, Meyer takes pains to point out that Ptolemy XIII "will be my husband in name only."  Now 18 years old, Cleopatra and her brother travel down the Nile to Memphis and then to Thebes for elaborate coronation ceremonies.  Although young, Cleopatra is confident in her abilities but dreams of having a man by her side who could be a real companion to her. 

In this book Cleopatra is introduced to both her famous Roman lovers:  Marcus Antonius, a handsome Roman cavalry commander whom she is attracted to immediately, and also Julius Caesar, whom she meets after being smuggled into the palace wrapped in a rug.  Caesar becomes her lover, although the book does not include any explicit sex scenes.  Meyer's narrative basically concludes when Caesar leaves his lover Cleopatra, now pregnant with his child, and Egypt to return to Rome; a brief epilogue, set 17 years later, allows Cleopatra to tell about the end of her life, including the famous suicide by poisonous snake.

The novel's extensive back matter includes an essay on Cleopatra in history, a note from the author, bibliography, a selection of websites, a timeline, a glossary of Egyptian gods and goddesses mentioned in the text, and an explanation of the Egyptian calendar.

I found this to be a very enjoyable introduction to Cleopatra for tween and teen readers; the ending, however, felt a little abrupt because of skipping over quite a few years of her life to get to the infamous suicide at the end.  However, this format is also perhaps dictated by Meyer's desire to concentrate the narrative on Cleopatra's teenage years.  Also, I would have liked to learn more about her romantic life with Caesar.  What attracted her to this powerful man who was so much older than she was?  What was their relationship like?  Nonetheless, Meyer has created in this novel a compelling portrait of the young years of a great figure in history, effectively evoking the sights and sounds of ancient Egypt.

Teens seeking more information on Cleopatra may be interested in reading two other books just published last year.  Cleopatra Rules!, by Vicky Alvear Schecter (Boyds Mills, 2010), is a new biography aimed squarely at teens.  Those teens looking for a more in-depth treatment of the subject may enjoy reading the adult best-seller, Cleopatra:  A Life, by Stacey Schiff, (Little Brown, 2010).

Also, young adult fans may be interested in reading another new novel set at this time, Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Schecter, which will be released in August, and centers on Cleopatra's daughter.

Disclosure:  ARC provided by publisher.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Civil War Sesquicentennial Book Review: Escape by Night--A Civil War Adventure, by Laurie Myers (Henry Holt and Co., 2011)

Recommended for ages 7-10.

Release date:  June 7, 2011

This beginning chapter book provides an exciting Civil War story suitable for readers in second to fourth grade.  When a wagon full of wounded Confederate soldiers rolls into their Georgia town, Tommy notices a small notebook belonging to one of the soldiers falling out of the wagon, and sends his faithful greyhound dog Samson into the street to fetch it.  Tommy's father's the minister of the local Presbyterian church, which has been turned into a makeshift hospital, filled with "a heavy, over-towering smell of death."

Tommy's desire to return the notebook to its owner leads him to make a new friend among the wounded soldiers, Red.  Tommy realizes there's something different about Red, and it's not just that he treats Henry, a slave working in the hospital, with respect.  Tommy's determined to find out the truth about this soldier. Although he talks to Tommy and Henry, he won't talk to any of the white adults.  Could his strange accent mean that he's really a Yankee?

Although this book is written for early elementary school readers, the author weaves in many serious issues. Because of his discussions with Red, Tommy begins to question the morality of slavery, and the meaning of friendship, loyalty, and mercy.  Should he turn Red in, in which case he'll be sent to a horrible prison camp, or help him escape?  There's plenty of suspense, too, for young readers, and a happy ending appropriate for the age group.

The book includes a brief author's note, explaining that the book is based on the story of the young Woodrow Wilson, who as a boy was known as Tommy.  Although the story is fictional, the young Woodrow Wilson lived across the street from the First Presbyterian Church, where his father was pastor, and which became a hospital during the war.   Wilson's early life surrounded by the casualties of the Civil War made a profound impact on him, and this book helps us imagine those times.

Author Laurie Myers has published a variety of books for children, including Lewis and Clark and Me, which tells the story of Lewis and Clark's travels from the point of view of Lewis' dog, Seaman.  This is her second historical title.

Disclosure: ARC provided by publisher.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Giveaway and Book Review: Patrick in a Teddy Bear's Picnic and other stories, by Geoffrey Hayes (Toon Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 4-8.

I am a huge fan of Candlewick's Toon Books, an innovative series of graphic novels aimed especially at beginning readers ages four and up. Toon Books capitalize on children's natural love for comics.  I grew up with stacks of Archie, Richie Rich, Casper the ghost and Peanuts comics, but there was nothing available for the earliest readers.  These TOON books can be read out loud to very young children but are really designed to allow emerging readers to read comics all by themselves.  Each book in the series has been vetted by educators to ensure appropriate vocabulary and narratives.   

 Like traditional beginning readers, the books are tagged with "levels,"; i.e. Level I is suggested for grades K-1, with 200-300 easy sight words; Level 2 expands to 300-600 words, and more panels on a page; and Level 3, with 800-1000 words used in a longer story divided into chapters.  The series endpapers even provides tips for parents on how to read comics with kids.

Cartoonist Geoffrey Hayes returns to Toon Books with this newest release about a young teddy bear named Patrick.  His earlier Toon books were the Geisel-award-winning Benny and Penny in the Big No No! as well as two other Benny and Penny books.  Like many traditional beginning readers, this book consists of three small stories; in the first, Patrick goes on a picnic with his mother, in the second, Patrick has a nap, and finally Patrick goes to buy cookies at the store, where he confronts a bully.  Hayes' illustrations are simply adorable, and the panels and drawings make the action easy to follow for the earliest readers.  There's plenty of humor, and even some gentle lessons (even bullies can be scared!)

Toon Books has a wonderful website, with tons of resources for using Toon books in the classroom, including a free cartoon maker, reader's theatre, a compilation of graphic novels suitable for summer reading, a special Benny & Penny blog, and more.

As a library worker, I often introduce parents to this series and observe their skeptical faces, looking like "comics can't be serious books for my child to read."  Here's a great quote I should use for these parents, from a mom who wrote into the Benny & Penny blog:

"There is something about a graphic novel or comic-type book that makes reading seem more enjoyable. I was always a little hesitant to bring home graphic novels from the library for my son, Isaac, because I didn’t want him to get used to reading that way and prefer it. But I found a set of graphic novels perfect for the preschool reader by Toon Books….My son took to Benny and Penny in Just Pretend so much that he had it memorized and basically was able to read it on his own after several read-throughs with me. It was really the first book he conquered on his own. We ended up buying it for him to celebrate."

Toon Books is very excited about its new Free I-Phone Apps as well!  Wouldn't these be great for keeping your kids entertained on a long car trip, while waiting at the doctor's office, grocery store, or so many other places?  Here's the scoop below:

Free TOON iPhone apps!

Click on a title below to download the following TOON books from the iTunes store:
Silly Lilly and the Four Seasons, by Agn├Ęs Rosenstiehl
Jack and the Box, by art spiegelman
Little Mouse Gets Ready, by Jeff Smith

Designed by TOON Books, and developed by the highly praised iStorytime team, each app comes preloaded with the complete and unabridged book. The app's navigation is designed for a toddler -- your child can flip through the bright pages with the flick of a finger, all by themselves! From within the app, purchase audio narration by the books' authors or voice actors in English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and/or Russian, for hours of read-to-me fun wherever you go -- on the train, in the car, or even at the supermarket. Speech balloons pop up as they're read and favorite panels can be read over and over again. A groundbreaking tool in developing literacy, the TOON Books are perfect for the beginning reader and the pre-reader alike. These FREE iphone apps are also a great way to introduce your friends to the prize-winning TOON books series. So what are you waiting for? Educational entertainment is only a click away!

GIVEAWAY:  Candlewick has generously donated a TOON book for my readers.  If you'd like to enter to win a free copy of Patrick in a Teddy Bear's Picnic and other stories by Geoffrey Hayes, please leave your e-mail in a comment below and let me know your favorite comic book character from your childhood.  Mine was definitely Schroeder from Peanuts!  I loved how he'd pound out Beethoven on that toy piano!  Winner will be selected on June 25 by random number generator.

Disclosure:  Review copy received from publisher.  

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tween Tuesday Book Review: Small Acts of Amazing Courage, by Gloria Whelan (Paula Wiseman Book, 2011)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

In her newest novel, National Book Award winner Gloria Whelan returns to India, also the setting for her award-winning novel, Homeless Bird.   She tells the story of kind-hearted but independent-minded Rosalind, an English girl living in 1919 colonial India.

She is constantly doing things not fit for a proper young English girl.  For example, she finds the club, populated with proper young girls her age, boring, and prefers going to the colorful local bazaar and spending time with Isha, her Indian friend.

Her father returns from military service in the war horrified to discover that Rosalind is picking up a Hindi accent from spending too much time with servants and not enough time at the club.  But when Rosalind takes an interest in Gandhi and his attempt to free India from British rule, and gets involved with rescuing an orphan Indian baby, her father insists that she be sent to her maiden aunts in England, far from trouble.

Aunt Ethyl and Aunt Louise, Rosalind's mother tells her, are "like chalk and cheese," Ethyl "stiff-necked" and cold and Louise and the other warm but frightened to death of her older sister.  England seems a cold, foreign land to the unhappy Rosalind until she meets up with the handsome Lieutenant Max Nelson, a friend from India.  Rosalind will soon shake up their household in unexpected ways, and the surprising ending leaves room for a possible sequel.

This story is told in the first person by Rosalind, who is a likable and sympathetic protagonist.  I found this to be an enjoyable coming-of-age story with a colorful setting, suitable for tween or even teen readers.  There's a smidgen of potential romance developing between Rosalind and the dapper and progressive Max.  I was disappointed with the characters of the two maiden aunts, who with their opposite personalities I found to be lacking in the depth seen in Rosalind and some of the other characters.

An author's note provides some background on the situation in India in 1919, particularly on Gandhi and the Indian National Congress.  Whelan writes that she was inspired to write this novel by her own experience participating in the U.S. civil rights movement, which was heavily influenced by Gandhi's ideas, as well as by a book, Children of the Raj, which tells the story of the children of British civil servants stationed in Indian.   The book also includes a glossary of Indian expressions used throughout the text.

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Monday, June 6, 2011

48 hour book challenge--finish line!

While I didn't get nearly as much accomplished in this year's 48-hour book challenge as last year, I managed to read four books, Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys, which had been on my to-read list for quite some time (blog review to come soon); Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks (blog review posted yesterday); Louise Rennison's new book Withering Tights (isn't that a great title!), and my first book on my new Nook, from NetGalley, The Midnight Zoo, by Sonya Hartnett.  The last book doesn't come out until September so I won't be reviewing it on my blog until a bit closer to its release date.

Totals:  10 hours reading; 2 hours blogging/reading blogs; 1 hour audiobooks.

13 hours--grand total!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Book Review: Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks (Viking, 2011) (48 HR Book Challenge)

Recommended for ages 14 - Adult.

Geraldine Brooks, author of the acclaimed historical fiction best-sellers March, People of the Book, and Year of Wonder transports her readers to 17th century New England in her just released new novel, Caleb's Crossing.  Brooks was inspired by the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a member of the Wompanoag tribe in Martha's Vineyard, who became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665.  Almost nothing is known of this young man, but Brooks uses these bare facts to construct a spellbinding story of the early days of Puritan America. 

Our main character and narrator is actually not Caleb, but rather Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of the minister in the tiny Puritan settlement of Great Harbor on the island we now call Martha's Vineyard.  Bertha is a fictional character, but her family is based on the real-life Mayhew family who originally settled the island.  Bethia's father ministers to the Native population, and his first convert helps him learn the Wampanoag language, which the very bright Bethia also picks up by listening in on their lessons.  As a twelve year old girl, Bethia seems to have an unusual amount of freedom to roam the local area, where she meets a young Wampanoag boy, the son of a local chieftain, whom she names Caleb. The two forge a secret and powerful friendship.  

Caleb later comes to live with her family, along with Joel, another young Wampanoag boy, to study Latin and Greek with Bethia's brother Makepeace in preparation for enrolling at Harvard.  Fate dictates that Bethia, too, go to Cambridge, to work for her keep while her brother studies for the Harvard exam along with Joel and Caleb and other sons of the colonial elite.  Two different suitors are after her hand in marriage; one a farmer from her village and the other a scholar at Harvard, the two offering her very different lives.  Will Bethia make her own destiny?  And how will Joel and Caleb cope with life at Harvard, far from everything they are familiar with from their native civilization?

Bethia's life is dictated to her by the constraints of her time and culture; although she is very bright and craves knowledge so much that she listens in on her brother's lessons so that she may learn Latin, she writes "that I might be literate but not learned was the choice of my father; the lot of a girlchild."  Her life is plagued by many tragedies that were all too common in those days; death of small children, death in childbirth, poverty, and perhaps most of all, by her feeling that she cannot control her own destiny.

Told in the first person by Bethia, this beautifully written and moving story is engrossing from the start; her narrative has an abundance of old-fashioned terms and language that create a distinct sense of time and place yet somehow don't distract from the main story.  Bethia's struggle to define herself in Puritan America and discover her path would make this an appealing story for teenagers as well as adults, although the pacing of the story is somewhat slower than what one would find in a young adult novel.

I have read all of Brooks' other novels and would rate this one as equally outstanding.  Highly recommended for adults and teens looking for some literate historical fiction for the summer!

Reading Brooks' descriptions of 17th century American life, I was struck how Puritan America would definitely be down at the bottom of the list of times I would NOT want to time travel to!  Her descriptions of life in the town of Cambridge were especially vivid and certainly did not make 17th century college life sound very appealing.  It made me remember Colonial House, a PBS reality show in which participants recreated life in 1628 Plimouth.  Leave a comment with a period you would NOT want to visit...

Saturday, June 4, 2011

48 Hour book challenge!

Well, I'm a bit late starting my 48 hour book challenge, from 7 a.m. Saturday to 7 a.m. Monday, and since I'm working most of today, I won't be able to devote quite as much time to it as I had hoped, but here goes!  I'm planning to download my Netgalley books to my new Color Nook and start reading when I get home from work!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Book Review: Forgiven by Janet Fox (Speak, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

In her second novel, Janet Fox returns to one of the secondary characters from her debut novel, Faithful, to craft an equally absorbing saga about a strong young girl at the turn of the 20th century.  Kula Baker has been raised by her outlaw father in the rough American West around Yellowstone, but now that she's seventeen and "of age," he sends her off to live in more civilized Bozeman.  Kula takes a position as a servant to Mrs. Gale, a photographer and a woman of independent means.  Just as she's getting used to her new life, her pa shows up, frantically telling Kula she must travel to San Francisco to retrieve a mysterious box from the unknown Ty Wong.  Before she knows it, her pa's been arrested, and will surely hang unless she can clear his name. 

Soon she's in San Francisco, where the streets were a "bedlam of willy-nilly confusion," filled with horseless carriages, fashionable women, boys running wild, lots of horses, and most amazing of all, trolleys!  Through the good graces of Mrs. Gale's sister-in-law, Kula finds herself in a world of luxury, glamour, and artists.  In her quest to recover her pa's box, she also finds herself  not knowing who she should trust--the kind David Wong, who seems to always be in the right place to rescue Kula from trouble, or the handsome and dapper Will Henderson, whose family is part of the San Francisco elite and who seems like the perfect catch. Will either one of them be the man of Kula's dreams?

But things are not as they seem in glamorous San Francisco--Kula discovers an area of Chinatown where men traffic in little girls, who are cruelly kept as sex slaves. Kula is determined to save any of these girls she can from their miserable life.  Little does she know that San Francisco is about to collapse--in a huge earthquake, followed by fires throughout the city.  Will all of San Francisco burn, and can Kula still save her father, her friends--and herself?

In Kula, Fox has created another strong and memorable character who will draw teenage girls into her story, a page-turner of a tale filled with mystery, romance, and danger.  The character evolves throughout the novel, beginning as a girl with a chip on her shoulder, and ending by opening her heart to love, rebirth and hope.  Fox also recreates the San Francisco of before and after the earthquake in a compelling way, encompassing both the glamorous and the sordid sides of the West Coast's biggest city.  Girls who are looking for romantic historical fiction will surely enjoy this new release. 

Please note:  Sadly, trafficking and exploitation of children is still an international scandal.  
In conjunction with her book's release, Janet Fox will donate a portion of the proceeds from FORGIVEN to The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. To learn more about what you can do to help agencies that actively fight the exploitation and trafficking of children, visit the following websites:

Guest Post by Janet Fox, author of Forgiven (Speak, 2011)

I am delighted to participate in the blog tour for Janet Fox's new novel, Forgiven, a companion novel to Fox's 2010 release, Faithful, although the two novels can be read independently. Janet has kindly taken the time to write the following guest post for my blog on her use of setting in her novels.

The “Other” Character: Setting

True confession: I love setting. I love writing scene descriptions. Left to my own devices I would happily pen an entire novel in the third person, with the narrator describing a setting, one tiny leaf, branch or brick at a time…which would result in a story no one would read, but, heck. I’d have a great time at work.

I’m a visual person, which perhaps accounts for my “setting-love.” When I write I see things in my head as if I’m watching a movie. Because I know I have to people my novels and add action sequences and tension and all that other stuff that makes a story enjoyable, I like to think of setting as another character. I try to bring setting to life using the same techniques I use to bring characters to life: research, backstory, conflict. I think of my settings as living, breathing organisms.

In the case of my new novel FORGIVEN, the setting was 1906 San Francisco. There are good and bad things about writing about historical settings. On the plus side, I can make some stuff up because there’s no one around who lived at the time. On the negative side, I have to pore over pictures, videos, written descriptions, weather charts, moon phases, maps of the period, etc., because the one little detail I do get wrong that is known today will be roundly criticized. The main event in San Francisco in 1906 was a devastating earthquake in April of that year that leveled much of the city; fires that resulted from broken gas mains took care of much of the rest. Thus all my descriptions of the city before the earthquake/fires had to be gleaned from photographic or written records. My descriptions post-devastation were based on extensive accounts that my geologist husband happened to have on hand.

But I found writing the story of the earthquake and fires itself most interesting. I combined my research with personal experience – not of an event so catastrophic, but of the feelings that such events generate. This is what I mean by “conflict” in setting. I imagined what I would feel like during and after the earthquake and what I would feel like witnessing the fires as they roared through the city with destructive force. I played a kind of video in my head, with the heat and smoke and falling ash and horror and desperation around me. I stared for hours at “before” pictures and then closed my eyes and imagined those scenes in the throes of intense quaking followed by raging fires. I walked the streets with the shocked populace, tripping over the loosened cobbles. I tried to be there.

Each novel brings its own setting challenges. Imaginary settings (Middle Earth) must be fully imagined; settings in far off places (Mars, perhaps?) must be fully researched, with blanks believably filled. For that’s the true beauty of a great setting – that the reader is right there, believing every word, seeing every leaf, branch, or brick without those details getting in the way of the story.

Don't forget to check out the rest of Janet Fox's blog tour for Forgiven. Here is the schedule:

6/1/2011 Rebecca's Book Blog
6/2/2011 YA Bliss
6/4/2011 Mundie Moms
6/6/2011 The Book Butterfly
6/7/2011 Poisoned Rationality
6/8/2011 A Good Addiction
6/9/2011 Confessions of a Bookaholic
6/10/2011 My Friend Amy
6/13/2011 Lauren's Crammed Bookshelf
6/14/2011 Books Complete Me
6/15/2011 Lost for Words
6/16/2011 The Compulsive Reader
6/17/2011 YA Addict

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Waiting on Wednesday: Breaking Stalin's Nose

One of the fall releases I am eagerly waiting for is Breaking Stalin's Nose, by Eugene Yelchin
Eugene Yelchin is a Russian Jewish Los Angeles-based artist and award-winning illustrator, who is publishing his first novel September 27, 2011, Breaking Stalin's Nose.  Here's the description from the publisher, Henry Holt:

Sasha Zaichik has known the laws of the Soviet Young Pioneers since the age of six:
The Young Pioneer is devoted to Comrade Stalin, the Communist Party, and Communism.
A Young Pioneer is a reliable comrade and always acts according to conscience.
A Young Pioneer has a right to criticize shortcomings.
But now that it is finally time to join the Young Pioneers, the day Sasha has awaited for so long, everything seems to go awry. He breaks a classmate's glasses with a snowball. He accidentally damages a bust of Stalin in the school hallway.  And worst of all, his father, the best Communist he knows, was arrested just last night.
This moving story of a ten-year-old boy's world shattering is masterful in its simplicity, powerful in its message, and heartbreaking in its plausibility.

Yelchin is a creative and versatile illustrator whose most recent picture book, The Rooster Prince of Breslov (written by Ann Stampler), won the National Jewish Book Award; I am eager to read his first novel.  Here's what Yelchin says about the book in a recent interview

"I always felt that Hitler’s terror is well documented, but Stalin’s terror– millions and millions of innocent lives lost – is not widely known. The book is dedicated to my father, who was lucky to survive what is called the Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s. This is when the story unfolds, in the 1930s Moscow during the worst period of Stalin’s rule. The main character is a ten-year old boy, brainwashed by the system and in love with Stalin, dreams about becoming a Young Soviet Pioneer. Soviet Pioneers were similar to the American boy scouts, but highly politicized. I used to be a Pioneer. But the night before the boy is finally to become a Pioneer, his father, who is a high-standing member of Stalin’s Secret Police, is arrested. The next day at school, he has to make a choice - to fulfill his dream, or walk away. The book is really about making a personal choice when the only choice available is the one dictated by the government."
Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Breaking the Spine.