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Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard BookAuthor: Neil Gaiman
Reading Level: 4th grade and up

Pages: 320
Publisher: HarperCollins
Edition: Hardcover, 2008

This one definitely reached deeply into my heart. Love the world building. The Graveyard became a "residence" for my soul for the duration of reading/listening to the book -- a real place where my mind can wander. I could picture the sights, the light, the details, both described in the book and not described, undefined. My mind filled in all the corners and expanses and turned that world into a tangible space. Even after the storytelling is over, The Graveyard remains in my heart. Now it's as real and as cozy (if a cold graveyard can be cozy) a place as my Library' Reading Room.

I think the short story format works really well. Each "story" has a satisfying conclusion. Each advances the larger tale forward, too. Bod's maturation is expertly handled. And then, the conclusion of the entire tale is bittersweet, and yet not disappointing. (Oh, I guess I was sad that Bod might lose all the ghostly skills he possessed as a child and slightly mad of Gaiman for that -- why can't he still straddle the two worlds, even when he chooses to venture out into the world? My mind does not wish to accept that conclusion so I am making up other adventures for Bod that requires him to go into the other realms, to fade, and to haunt!)

I was shocked but really appreciated how Gaiman handles Bod and Scarlet's necessary parting. Keeping us readers on our toes, always. (And that little scene where Scarlet hugs Bod... so achingly revealing: since the age of two, he has not really been hugged, by real flesh and bone.)

And there is the rich imagination, the host of distinctive and adoring characters, a most chilling villain, and all that witty humor. How could I not love the book to pieces?

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Thoreau at Walden

Thoreau at WaldenAuthor: John Porcellino (illus.)
Reading Level: 4th and up

Pages: 112
Publisher: Hyperion
Edition: Paperback, 2008

To say the least, this book is "interesting" -- presenting some of Thoreau's writing and ideas in cartoon format -- there is not much innovative panel design but the color scheme, the panel progression, the choices of images all work harmoniously together -- which fit very nicely with Thoreau's sentiments. I especially appreciate those wordless panels -- the one that he and the owl looked at each other and then went back to do their "own businesses" without further disturbance. So peaceful and effectively illustrating the essence of his existence at the time.

The extensive back matter will make this deceptively simple book "useful" for an older audience (middle school? early high school?)

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn BridgeAuthor: Karen Hesse
Reading Level: 6th and up

Pages: 240
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Edition: Hardcover, 2008

I did not know that this would have been so good. I did not expect that I would have loved it so much and that I could not stop reading it and pretty much finishing it in one "fell swoop." It seems Dickensian, but that might not be a fair comparison because it is actually quite sparing and except for the intentional repetitive phrasing in those dream-like segments about the children "under the bridge" (and so effective, those poetic passages.. *sigh*), there is not that much repeated sentiment. I was drawn in, felt like I lived side by side with Joseph, and often was surprised at the richness and the vividness of the world I "saw" through the text. It doesn't hurt that I (and my family) adore the sense of place and history and the bustling life of Coney Island.

I wasn't sure at first about the vignettes of the children under the bridge but found them so mesmerizing and expanding of the experience of the turn-of-century Brooklyn - not only those who "made it" but of those who struggled and failed... I imagine that I'll remember Joseph's story for a long time, but I will never forget the Radiant Boy's, or Mattie's, or Otto's, or the story of May who almost died from eating the poisonous meal, twice.

It's an intricate tapestry and an "important tale" that is beautifully woven in the hand of artisan.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams

A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos WilliamsAuthor: Jen Bryant; illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Reading Level: pre-k to 5th grade (depending on how the book is to be used)

Publisher: Eerdmans
Edition: Hardcover, 2008

Oh, how I absolutely
love this book
adore it
for its simple
informative text
admire it
for the collage and
water color illustrations

showing the time
the world and
the spirit of the poet
who was a doctor,
healed wounds,
delivered babies,
and soothed
our souls

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

How to Heal a Broken Wing

Author: Bob Graham (illus.)
Reading Level: toddler to 3rd grade

Publisher: Candlewick
Edition:Hardcover, 2008

How to Heal a Broken Wing Since I am not one who usually loves books with strong and obvious messages, I surprised myself for really liking this one. Why? First and foremost, I think it is because that there is a real plot and emotional arc in the telling of this gentle and simple story of hope. Hope in healing the wounds of the world (a page with the TV screen showing the current War in contrast with the family's loving care of the bird); hope in having our next generations to have compassion for the world around them; and hope for the inter-generational "collaboration" in finding ways to heal.

Graham's cartoon illustrations do not reduce the emotional impact of the story -- the varied composition, perspectives, page layouts, all contribute beautifully to accentuate the events and the interior motions of the characters. That one spread where you only see Will and the bird with broken wing (as an extreme close-up from the spot on the cover) is superb! The more and more closely I examine this work, the more I appreciate it. (So, just changed from 4 to 5 stars!)

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Wanda Gag: The Girl Who Lived to Draw

Author: Deboarh Kogan Ray (illus.)
Reading Level: K to 3rd Grade

Publisher: Viking
Edition: Hardcover, 2008

Wanda Gag: The Girl Who Lived to Draw I am profoundly moved by this picture book biography of an amazing artist. It's partially because of my own belief in the power and importance of art in our world, but mostly, it's because Deborah Kogan Ray's candid text, capturing Wanda Gag's spirit, and her oil paintings capturing Gag's world and time. My eyes and heart were drawn to those little lighter/brighter outlines around some of the objects and figures in each painting. I don't really know why, but they seem to be metaphorically significant: flashes of light (hope? human spirit?) peeking through even the darkest times. This is an outstanding biography, even for slightly older readers.

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Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Recent Newbery Debate

In the world of Children's Literature, a recent (and seemingly perennial) debate has the field experts and practitioners jumping in and all over each other on the Nets (an Ender's Game term!) Anyway. Here are some links and a couple of my own responses to those articles and comments.

The original article is called Has the Newbery Lost Its Way by Anita Silvey and SLJ published the article and many comments in its Talkback section. One of the very active talkback follows Nina Lindsay's thread in SLJ's own blog "Heavy Medal" entitled The Newbery Remembers its Way, or "Gee, thanks, Mr. Sachar". Over here on Roger Sutton's blog Read Roger, his post Going for the Gold also generated further discussions. Another thoughtful blog post is The best book no kid wants to read at Librarily Blonde.

I posted two rather long-winded responses on the SLJ and the Librariry Blonde sites but want reposts them here as well:

Response on Librariry Blonde:

I agree with almost everything here and I already posted a long response to Silvey's article in two places. However, I still think it is important that we/the committee members take into consideration of the author's ability to "speak to children" successfully through his/her work. And I DO think that the criterium of potentially appealing to many children should be considered as an important component when we define the "work of art" aspect in a "book for children."

This is a separate genre and it should have its own distinct set of criteria. If we are looking at a work of fiction, we must of course examine its plot, its character development, its theme presentation, its pacing, its use of language, etc. But, then, where in this list of criteria do we consider the "children's literature" part? What makes a book "stand apart" and become a great "book for children" and not just a "book for general readers or adults" IS its ability to reach out and grab child readers. Some of them will appeal to adults (Golden Compass, Charlotte's Web, Tuck Everlasting, Out of the Dust, The Giver, and yes, Holes) as well -- but, if they are only appealing to a very small group of children and a large group of adults, then they, in my mind, fail to BE "children's books."

I think there has to be a balance and a serious appreciation of those writers who really know how to tuck the heart strings of many children without giving up the high demand of literary qualities. That, my friends, should be the real charge of the Newbery Committee (and actually it IS the current charge if the committee chooses to interpret the criteria to its fullest extend and give EVERY clause equal weight.)

Response on SLJ:

I don't quite feel outraged by Anita's article as some of my Newbery Committee colleagues (not necessarily serving simultaneously as I did but those who went through the "same" process as I did.) Maybe because in some way, I feel similarly to many of those quoted by her -- that the recent few years did not QUITE yield the most long-lasting and child-appealing titles.

But even in the 90s, not all of them are being sought after by today's children -- even HOLES has lost some of its luster with my 4th and 5th graders because they have moved on to the newest things! Out of the Dust is not picked up by children themselves. It is being "used" by teachers. The View from Saturday is read but only by a small group of children. The Midwife's Apprentice does not get takers no matter how much I try to push it. Walk Two Moons is just one of the many Sharon Creech titles now. The Giver remains strong going both within the classroom setting and words of mouth. Missing May has become almost obscure. Shiloh definitely does not elicit the same excitement as many new titles. Maniac Magee is still being taught and regarded highly in classrooms. It, however, is also not a book that children recommend to each other any more. Number the Stars remains strong. So... out of the 10 titles, only 3 really has its OWN lasting power without the help from teachers or librarians.

And in the 9 years of winners from 2000 to 2008, we have Bud, Not Buddy, a book my students constantly read and exclaim to their peers how good it is! We have The Tale of Despereaux, a new "classic" amongst grade school kids. And this year's Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, a book that teachers will keep promoting and will bring fresh air into the classrooms. Plus the title cited by Anita A Single Shard which teachers definitely enjoy teaching. And the reports from the students remain positive, although it is not an easy "sale" all the time. That's 4 titles worthy of mentioning. Not that much different from that of the 90s and actually if one examines carefully each decade, the scenarios are quite similar (3 or 4 that really speak to a larger number of children and 3 or 4 that are somewhat obscure and than about 2 in the middle ground.)

So, I do question the whole "surveying" method that is the basis of this article and wonder about those other who were "interviewed" but not quoted. Did some of them speak positively about the choices and their faith in the process but were not quoted because their opinions did not fit cozily with the intent of the report? However, even as I somewhat question the method of the article, I do agree, quite strongly, that CHILD-APPEAL is essential in selecting the "most distinguished" literary work for children in the United States.

I have made this same argument for years now -- that we as participants in a legitimate field of intellectual inquiries (the children's literature study,) must acknowledge and award those who have the uncanny abilities to speak directly to children everywhere -- those who know HOW to write "for children," and those who are beloved by their targeted audience. Writing for children will always be regarded as "simpler and easier" than writing for adults if we cannot figure out ourselves how to critique, evaluate, and award the true talents and keep the Newbery Medal truly meaningful to the readers.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

More on Gaiman's Graveyard Book Reading

(I was asked to report on the event at Child_lit so I wrote a bit more about it and decided to post the report here!)

It was a lovely free event (I got there at 4:30 for the 7:00
event so I did get very good seating!) at the Teacher's College Horace
Mann Auditorium. It seats about 500 and the room (orchestra and
balcony) was filled to capacity. Most of the people in the audience
are Neil's adult fans -- many college/late 20s who obviously are great
fans of Sandman since when he made references to Sandman characters,
the entire room responded. There were, however, a dozen or so
children and when he read (he read the entire first chapter -- 33
pages,) those children responded very favorably -- laughing at the
right moments (also thanks to Neil's skillful and dramatic reading).
I sensed that the audience got slightly restless toward the end of the
chapter since there were a couple of places that we felt would have
made a natural break. but the story kept going, after shifting gears.
However, I imagine that if it is broken down to two readings, no one
would have felt the reading was just a tad "long."

Oh, and we were treated to a very cool, not-before-seen, Coraline
trailer. It IS going to be 3D Stop Motion Animation for the whole
entire deal. Let's hope for the BEST!

His Q&A section was great, talking about his China trip (one month,
researching myths and legends, and breaking a finger,) his haircut,
his characters in books, whether he'll write sequels to Neverwhere,
American Gods, etc. (yes, he WOULD if he had the time -- and yes,
there are stories set in all these worlds.) He was asked if there is
any difference in writing a "more intricate and complex" book for
adults than a "less so" (grumble) book for young adults/children. He
said No. It's all putting one word after another. And then he said
that the only difference was the length it took him to write the books
-- one (American Gods) took longer than the other (Graveyard Book.)

He talked about how he sometimes worries about his characters coming
out of his books to knock on his door and demand to know WHY he
created him and made them live such miserable and dark lives. He
talked about how he indeed is "their maker." He imagines of his own
"meeting the maker" moment after his unavoidable demise: "When I ask
WHY ME, Why NOW? I'm afraid of hearing a booming voice from the Sky
that says, 'Because that makes a BETTER STORY.'" The audience
laughed, of course. (He did the God-Booming voice very well... and my
paraphrasing is nowhere near funny as he was in person.)

I posted a link to the audio file from HarperCollins on my blog. No
pictures or video from me, unfortunately. I believe that the reading
will be (is planned to be) put online soonish -- since he is doing ONE
CHAPTER per city on this tour until the whole book is read through.
(And he also talked about audio book recording and how much he LOVES
doing it even though it is really hard work.)

- AND INDEED the VIDEO of his reading can be found HERE.