Friday, November 08, 2013

October Reads

I read so many amazing books in October. Some very recent releases, while others were "new to me." Let's dive right in. I have a LOT to discuss (get comfy): 

I started American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House in September, but didn't actually finish it until October.  Jackson is a complicated and fascinating enigma: orphaned at a young age, he treated his nephews, nieces, and their children as if they were his own (Jon Meacham tells a charming anecdote of Jackson walking up and down the halls of the White House in the middle of the night with a fussing infant), was a national hero in the wake of the Battle of New Orleans, and set into motion the tragic Trail of Tears and the forced removal of American Indians to the west.  His marriage to Rachel Donelson (completed when she was actually still married to her first husband) was intense and tragically ended with her death shortly before his inauguration.  Jon Meacham captures our seventh president in a meaningful and honest biography certain to satisfy fans of American history.  

I'm finally getting back on track with my Newbery reading project.  And Now Miguel, which won the Medal in 1954, is a coming-of-age story about a 12 year old Latino shepherd in New Mexico.  Miguel wants to join his older male relatives on the journey to the Sangre de Cristo mountains; he gets his wish, but not without some worrying circumstances.  Although it's not my favorite Newbery read by any stretch, it's an interesting look at rural New Mexico life in the 1950s.

Baby Bear Sees Blue was my favorite picture book of 2012, so I was ecstatic to find that Ashley Wolff had written a sequel.  Baby Bear Counts One is not only a gorgeous counting story, but it also has a terrific hibernation theme.  Baby Bear and Mama are preparing to settle in for the winter; along the way, Baby Bear counts the animals also getting ready for the cold weather.  Love, love, love this, and can't wait to use it for a hibernation story time.

Boxers and Saints

Boxers and Saints (2 companion graphic novels) are two of the most extraordinary titles published this year. Graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang, who won acclaim for American Born Chinese, presents the Boxer Rebellion from two sides of the conflict--the Chinese Catholics and the Boxers who fight the Christian converts and the Westerners in China.  Saints is told from a young Chinese Catholic convert's point of view, while Boxers is told from the perspective of a young man fighting for the Boxers.  As he does in American Born Chinese, Yang incorporates Chinese mythology into Boxers, while the legend of Joan of Arc is woven into Saints.  The storytelling is vibrant, shocking, and compelling, and the artwork is vivid and stunning. These two graphic novels (considered as one entry for this year's National Book Award finalist list) brilliantly illustrate both sides of the Boxer Rebellion.

Looking for creepy but not something that will keep you awake at night? Check out Doll Bones for your next read.  Three middle school friends (two girls, one boy) have a tradition of playing with figurines and creating elaborate storylines with their creative play.  That is, until Zach's father throws away the figurines in the hopes that his basketball-playing son will focus more on his game and forget about "playing with dolls."  When Poppy tells them about her dream concerning the Great Queen (an antique doll reportedly made with the dust of bones) and her need to be properly buried, the three decide to go on an adventure to fulfill the Great Queen's wish.  If you're familiar with Holly Black's novels (she is the co-creator of The Spiderwick Chronicles and has also written YA novels), you know that her stories tend to be offbeat, quirky, and rather bizarre.  If you're into that, you'll really enjoy Doll Bones.  If you're looking for something that will scare-your-pants-off, you won't find it here.  But there is a weird librarian character, so that's saying something.

I haven't read a Hurricane Katrina book in years.  When they first started coming out, I read many of them. Many are excellent and worthy reads: Breach of Faith, The Great Deluge, and The Storm. But after a while, I had to stop reading them.  I'm too close to that event, and I had to stop.  However, once Five Days at Memorial started to get a lot of attention, I knew that I should at least take a look at it.  The charge of homicide brought against a Memorial Hospital doctor and two nurses was one of the most polarizing and gripping stories to come out of the storm.   Sheri Fink's investigation into the conditions and decisions that created the controversy is extensive, breathtaking, and eye-opening.  Truly one of the most remarkable and emotionally gripping reads I have read this year.

Kate DiCamillo is one of my favorites. Because of Winn Dixie is one of my best-beloved books of all time, and a modern classic in children's literature.  However, I am not a huge fan of quirk, and DiCamillo's latest novels have been more The Tale of Despereaux's Kate DiCamillo (which I like very much) rather than Because of Winn Dixie's Kate DiCamillo.  So, when I heard that her latest novel (her first since 2009's The Magician's Elephant; she's been mostly  writing the lovely short chapter series Bink and Gollie and Mercy Watson) featured a precocious girl and her poetry-loving squirrel (which she saved from a vacuum cleaner)...I was eager to read it, but a little wary. Because that sounds WAY quirky.  And it is! But DiCamillo manages to reign in the quirk to make a heartbreaking and fulfulling story about a girl caught in the middle of her parents' divorce and who has fantastic adventures with a very awesome squirrel. Some parts are quietly sad and the characterization of the mother is problematic, but it has a very beautiful and affirming ending.

I love it when I'm completely surprised by a book.  I picked up Gone Fishing from the new books shelf because I needed a new read, but wasn't in the mood for a long novel.  Sam is pumped to spend a day fishing with dad, but his mood quickly changes when little sister Lucy tags along.  His irritation over her annoying little sisterness gradually changes when he realizes that she's not so bad after all.  Awww.  True, it's a sweet and realistic story about sibling issues, but it's also a great celebration of quality time spent in the great outdoors.  BUT....the neat thing about this is that the story is yes, told in verse....but each poem illustrates a specific type of poem!  Haiku, sonnet, quatrain, tercet....many kinds of poems are included.  A glossary of terms is included, which greatly aids in the reader's enjoyment.  This would be an awesome addition to any literature curriculum, especially during National Poetry Month.

Sixteen year old Malala Yousafzai's memoir of her childhood and her life after nearly being killed by the Taliban is an eye-opening and unforgettable  read.  At times charming, depressing, and inspirational, this is deservedly receiving a ton of attention.  I particularly enjoyed learning more about her parents, who are quite remarkable.

Finally! Historical fiction featuring American Indian characters that's not set in the pioneer/frontier days.  If I Ever Get Out of Here is set in 1975; the Beatles have long broken up, much to Lewis's dismay, but luckily, Paul McCartney is in Wings, and there's a group called Queen that's putting out some interesting music.  Lewis lives on a reservation and is one of a handful of American Indian kids at his school, where most people don't think much of the res kids, and don't expect much from them, either.  Although Lewis is a loner of sorts, he strikes up a friendship with George, a newcomer to the school. George's father is a captain in the Air Force, and so the family lives quite comfortably; Lewis, on the other hand, lives in abject poverty.  Lewis constantly makes excuses for not inviting George over, until an unexpected monster of a blizzard forces George and his father to seek shelter at Lewis's home.  This is an unforgettable read about a complicated friendship; the ending is heartbreaking, I will warn you, but utterly realistic and full of great humanity.  1970s music plays a big part in the story; luckily, Eric Gansworth provides a playlist!

When you have high hopes and expectations for a book, you run the risk of being quite disappointed.  Thankfully, this was not the case with Jim Henson: The Biography.  I've been waiting for this book since last year, and it is even more wonderful than I had hoped it would be.  This is a must read for all Muppets fans, as Jones goes in-depth into the creation of key Muppet characters, as well as the accolades and setbacks that Henson faced throughout his career.  Learning about Fraggle Rock was illuminating.  I love looking at clips on Youtube, but for some reason, the Fraggles freaked me out when I was a kid.  I was not the only one, as a lengthy discussion on Muppet Central shows.   I was enthralled by the Labyrinth discussion as well (yes, I LOVE that movie, and I'm not ashamed to admit it, even though Jennifer Connelly's character is a boring brat, which is a major problem). And as fantastic as Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street is, the Sesame Street section contains insightful nuggets of information that were new to me. Henson's personal life is also explored; his children clearly adored him, but he had a rather...unusual understanding with his wife, shall we say.  But this is not a character assassination or a gossipy tell-all; it's an honest portrayal of a uniquely talented artist. The concluding chapter is painfully bittersweet.

While reading this, I did the same thing I did when I was reading I Want My MTV and Slimed: An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age; I repeatedly interrupted my reading to look up clips on Youtube.  Brian Jay Jones opens his biography with a loving description of the behind-the-scenes action of this clip (you may need to make the clips full size) :

And ends with a powerful depiction of Henson's memorial service:

It's a long clip, but worth it.  The ending is stunning. Muppet puppeteers/performers--never Muppeteers!--from left to right:

Dave Goelz, best known for performing Gonzo and has performed Waldorf (one of the old hecklers in the balcony) since Henson's death.

Frank Oz, who was Henson's main sidekick in many sketches, such as Fozzie Bear to Henson's Kermit, Miss Piggy to Henson's Kermit, Bert to Henson's Ernie, in addition to Sam the Eagle, Animal, Cookie Monster, Yoda in the Star Wars movies, and a director of many movies, including Little Shop of Horrors and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Kevin Clash, best known for performing Elmo until 2012.

Steve Whitmire, best known for performing Rizzo the Rat, Fraggle Rock's Wembly, and who took over Kermit and Ernie after Henson's death.

Jerry Nelson, known for performing The Count on Sesame Street and Kermit's nephew Robin on The Muppet Show

Richard Hunt, best known for performing Scooter and occasionally Miss Piggy, along with several Fraggles and background Muppet characters.

Many of these performers met Henson when they (and he) were quite young; Frank Oz was only nineteen when he started his career with Henson.

Did you spot the white haired bearded gentleman performing Oscar the Grouch in the final ensemble number? That's Carol Spinney, who has not only performed Oscar on Sesame Street since the show debuted in 1969, but has also performed Big Bird in those same 40 years. He's going to be 80 years old this December!

This clip is one of my favorites.  Frank Oz (Fozzie and Miss Piggy) and Jim Henson (Kermit) ad-libbing. While performing puppets. It's extraordinary and hilarious. (Fun fact #1: Muppets are slightly cross-eyed. This gives them an intense stare instead of a blank stare, which works well for camera work. Fun fact #2: Miss Piggy is the only Muppet with irises in her eyes.)

(Part One is here, but Part Two is my favorite.)

Long time locals may remember his commercials for Wilkins Coffee:

Sam & Friends, which aired on a Washington DC NBC affiliate, was created when Henson was still an undergraduate at the University of Maryland (which has a fabulous Jim Henson digital library):

Oops! I actually read this in September, but forgot to review it.  As you may have guessed, I'm reading a biography of every American president.  John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life is a fantastic read that would be enjoyed by American history and/or biography fans. John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, has been portrayed as rather cold and aloof, but Paul C. Nagel demonstrates that he was actually a very devoted husband and father, and not one to hold back his emotions with his family. Everything about John Quincy Adams's education and upbringing was to fulfill his parents' wish that he follow his father in American politics.  This caused a great deal of resentment and created a difficult relationship with his parents, especially his mother, Abigail Adams (he didn't even attend her funeral).  John Quincy Adams was one of our nation's first prolific diarists; in his diaries, his frustrations and his deep depressions were expressed, along with his quite passionate love for his wife, Louisa Adams, his grief over her multiple miscarriages, and his joy in his children (and his heartbreak over his children's troubles).  Although John Quincy Adams was a one-term president, he later successfully served in the House of Representatives, where he was an outspoken opponent of slavery.  This is an engaging look at a unique statesman in American history.

I'll remember Lara's Gift the next time someone asks for a historical fiction read.  If he/she is a dog fanatic, I'll include it among my picks.  Lara's future in the Count's borzoi kennel is threatened when her mother gives birth to a son; Lara's father is insistent that she learn a trade more suitable for a marriageable daughter, such as needlework.  Lara bonds with the runt of the litter, Zar, and attempts to get him among the prized wolf hunting pack.  Annemarie O'Brien evokes the desolation of a early 20th century rural Russian estate, the limited choices available to Russian girls at the time, and the noble bravery of the borzoi.  Scenes involving wolf hunting may affect very sensitive readers.

Mr. Justice Holmes is one of five Newbery Honor books from 1957.  Like Amos Fortune, Free Man, it's an example of an outdated style of children's biography; there's a great deal of invented dialogue and novelization. It's a pleasant read, but nothing extraordinary.

P.S. Be Eleven, the sequel to the 2011 Newbery Honor One Crazy Summer, follows sisters Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern as they leave their mother in Oakland and return to their father in Brooklyn.  Their mother's Black Panthers activities and their own involvement with children's activities sponsored by the Black Panthers clashes with their grandmother's desire to always avoid causing a "grand Negro spectacle."  Uncle Darnell has returned from the Vietnam War, which has greatly affected his mental state.  Their father has a girlfriend, and the Jackson 5 have them all swooning.  It's a moving and remarkable look at the clashes between young and old, and parents and children during a volatile era.  Although I don't think it's as powerful and definitely not as dark as One Crazy Summer, it's definitely a worthy sequel.

Badi Hessamizadeh has one more chance to rehabilitate his life.  After leaving his public high school due to his retaliation against bullies (which included a list of students he'd like to see disappear), his parents have changed his name to "Bud Hess" and enrolled him in a Catholic co-ed school.  Badi/Bud is still the odd guy out, although he manages to make friends with other students not in the popular groups.  Harangued by his father to participate in extracurricular activities, he reluctantly joins the school newspaper, which serves to regurgitate "administration approved" puff pieces on school activities.  Soon after he joins, anonymous letters to the editor begin to appear, complaining about the preferential treatment of football players and the coercion of students to participate in the school's candy bar drive.  Bud is assumed to be the instigator, which he insists that he's not.  Permanent Record is an engrossing read, and with bullying and discrimination always being a hot topic, highlights important issues.  (Although the ending is a bit over the top.)

Shadrach, a 1954 Newbery Honor recipient, is a quietly moving story about a young boy and his pet rabbit.  It also includes some of Maurice Sendak's early work, which is a bonus.

1990s era Nickelodeon fans will eat up Slimed: An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age.   Matthew Klickstein interviewed the crew and young stars of the network's hit shows: You Can't Do That on Television, Clarissa Explains It All, Hey Dude, and the greatest kids' game show ever, Double Dare, among other shows. It's a funny and occasionally sad look at a small network's gigantic leap into the big time, and how it affected its young actors.  As someone who pretty much left Nickelodeon in the early 90s, I was not familiar with every actor; in other pop culture oral histories, the interviewees are often identified by their show (at least at the beginning of the book), and that would have helped greatly with Slimed.  But that's one minor complaint; this is one fun read.  I enjoyed Matthew Klickstein's sorry/not sorry apology to those who angrily wish that he had included a show that no one remembers anymore.....I can think of a couple that I would have liked to have heard from, starting with Nick's awful and extremely unsuccessful attempt at a teen soap opera, Fifteen.  But perhaps some things are better left unsaid. (I'm sure you can find clips on Youtube. You can find tons of Double Dare clips on Youtube, which just prove how awesome that show was. Can you tell I'm a fan? That show rocked.  And those questions were sometimes hard--and other times, you wonder about the educational value of some of the contestants' schools. But to be fair-- why answer a question when you can do a PHYSICAL CHALLENGE and throw eggs at your partner's head for 30 seconds...especially if you're on Family Double Dare and it's your sibling. You can also catch clips of Finders Keepers, which Marc Summers said was a loser knock-off. Although I watched it when I was a kid, I have to agree with him based on the Youtube clips. Don't even try to compete with Double Dare.)

Elisha Cooper's picture books are often very detailed,and quite sophisticated.  Train is a glorious and beautiful tribute to trains, featuring trains as they travel across the country.  Commuter trains, freight trains, high speed trains--all sorts of trains are celebrated in this perfect book for train-obsessed youngsters.

The Wheel on the School, 1955 Newbery Medal winner, is a quietly charming novel about schoolchildren attempting to attract storks to their village.  I wasn't gung-ho excited about reading this as I had attempted to read it before, but failed; I found it an odd yet inviting read.

I picked up The Worm Whisperer thinking that it would be a goofy little story about a boy and his pet worm.  What I discovered was an emotional and full-hearted story about a young boy trying to help his family, which has fallen on hard times due to mom's unemployment and dad's health issues.  Ellis lives in a very rural area, which affects his ability to form friendships; he finds escape through reading books about animals and through training his wooly worm to compete in the annual wooly worm race.  There is sorrow at some points, but there is also a strong family bond and the formation of good friendships.

I hope November brings just as many good reads!

Did you know that November is Native American Heritage Month/American Indian Heritage Month? I blogged about children's biographies of American Indians on the ALSC blog. (I blogged about Children's Magazines Month in October.)

Jennifer Schultz, Youth Services Librarian, Fauquier County Public Library

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