Friday, February 28, 2014

February Reads

Whenever I emerge from a reading slump (which I did last month), I always enter into a reading frenzy.  Coupled with bonechillingly cold days and snow days, I got a lot of reading done this month! 

When it was time to choose a biography on Abraham Lincoln for my presidential biography project, I was faced with an unusual dilemma: what book to chose? Until now, I had a smattering of biographies to choose from even for the more "popular" presidents (Washington, Adams, etc) and only one title available for the lesser known presidents (anyone after Jackson and before Lincoln). But--Lincoln! Not only are there traditional birth-death biographies (such as A. Lincoln), but there are books that explore Lincoln's foreign policies (intriguing because most of the attention on his policies is naturally focused on the Civil War), Lincoln as a writer, and  his reelection bid, not to mention biographers and analysts who claim Lincoln for their own political persuasions.  I wanted an overview of Lincoln's life, however, so I chose this addictive biography of Ronald C. White, Jr.  This is an impressive and moving biography that doesn't shy away from the more controversial aspects of Lincoln's presidency, such as the suppression of habeas corpus and his initial views on African-Americans.  If you need a general biography on Lincoln, you can't go wrong with this one. 

I'm still loving the American Presidents series; they are solid and to the point biographies.  Annette Gordon-Reed's main focus is on Andrew Johnson's disastrous relationship with the recently freed slaves; quite eye-opening. 

I am a HUGE fan of the Bad Kitty series.  They are perfect for young readers not quite ready to get into long chapter books.  They are hilarious, have fun illustrations, and include neat facts about the story's topic, delivered by Uncle Murray.  In Bad Kitty Drawn to Trouble, Bad Kitty meets a formidable nemesis--his creator, author/illustrator Nick Bruel.  As the author and illustrator, Nick Bruel can make Bad Kitty face all sorts of outrageous situations, including having a fondness for turnips! Through it all, readers learn how an author creates characters, conflict (what every story needs), and resolution.  Uncle Murray offers helpful hints for aspiring authors during the story.  Learning about the writing process has never been funnier.  

I'm a graphic novels fan, but my taste tend toward memoirs such as Smile (cannot wait for Raina Telgemeier's followup!) or quirky tales such as The Plain Janes.  Superhero stories, not so much.  Battling Boy appeared on several "Best of 2013" lists, so I decided to give it a go.  I'm glad I did, for this is an exciting story about a 12 year old who must take the place of a town's regular vigilante....even though he actually has no superpowers.  He does have a magic credit card and some really cool Battling Boy T-shirts, so that must count for something....right?  I'm hoping for more adventures with Battling Boy very soon! 

I was not really looking forward to reading The Black Cauldron.  It was next on my Newbery list (1966 Newbery Honor); it's second in a trilogy, though, and I haven't read The Book of Three.  And fantasy quests  with Celtic overtones are not really my #1 choice in reading material (I think it's keeping those names straight that annoy me), but part of being a youth services librarian--or any librarian, for that matter--is reading things outside of your interests.  While The Black Cauldron will not go on my list of favorite Newbery reads, I did enjoy this fast-paced fantasy adventure featuring an unlikely hero in the form of an assistant-pig keeper. 

I ADORE this book.  If you need a heartwarming feel-good read (that's well written!), you need to read this book.  Violet Diamond is used to the quizzical looks she gets when she's with her mom and (half) sister; she is biracial (her father died shortly after she was born), and they are white.  Yearning to know more about her father's family, she searches for information about her maternal grandmother, who cut off ties with her mother when she married her father.  Meeting her grandmother opens up a new world of family, travel, and art lessons, as well as reopening and repairing old wounds.  Themes of family, acceptance, faith, and forgiveness are brought home in a meaningful and emotional way.  It's a beautiful story that's earned two starred reviews; definitely already one of my 2014 favorites. 

I am doing backflips (not literally) over the fact that I am now in the 1960s era of the Newbery book.  I am really zipping through these books, as opposed to reluctantly dragging myself through the Newbery reads. I hadn't read The Cricket in Times Square since I was in elementary school; I had read some criticism over the characterization of a Chinese-American character (but had forgotten specifics), so I was eager to rediscover this charming and funny read about a country cricket who befriends a cat, a mouse, and a young boy overseeing his parents' newspaper stand.  Charming, that is, until we meet Sai Fong.  Unfortunately, Sai Fong's dialogue is written in a dreadful Chinese "accent" which makes it quite difficult to get through; "r" is replaced with "l," and there's lots of "ah so" junk in there as well. I've read some hateful and cringeworthy characterizations in older Newbery books; this isn't dreadful as it is just plain stupid. Too bad. It's an adorable read that's marred by this choice.   

Darius and Twig
While reading Darius and Twig, I was struck by how fresh and relevant Walter Dean Myers remains, decades after he launched his writing career in the late 1960s.  Darius and Twig are two best friends growing up in Harlem; Darius is a gifted writer, while Twig is a rising track star.  As they deal with bullies, family issues, and the hardships that face their community, Darius and Twig struggle to maintain their dreams of success. Myers is a genius at writing gritty and authentic urban youth fiction while creating an aura of hope for the characters that rings true.  This was one of four 2014 Coretta Scott King medal or honor recipients (for author), and well deserved.

The Gammage Cup 
Reading the Newbery books in chronological order is a neat task, because I see certain trends in the books from time to time.  "Exotic" settings in Asia and South America were popular for some time, as were adventure stories (often set in these exotic settings).  There's a big increase in fantasy literature for children in the 1960s era, including many that are now considered fantasy classics (A Wrinkle in Time, The Black Cauldron).  The 1970s will bring us our first major science fiction titles as well (Enchantress From the Stars) and classic multicultural titles (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Sounder).  It's a momentous era in the Newbery canon, and I'm really eager to explore it.

The Gammage Cup was a Fauquier County Battle of the Books selection several years ago, but I just recently read it for the first time. Now, I'm not a huge fantasy fan, so I was not super excited about reading it.  Happily, I enjoyed it very much; it's an odd story about a group of outcasts on a quest to find their community's treasured Gammage Cup. It's also quite funny, which is unusual for fantasy fiction.

The Golden Goblet
The Golden Goblet (1962 Newbery Honor) features a an ancient Egyptian boy (1400 BC) who aspires to be a goldsmith.  His dream is cruelly dashed by his stepbrother, who apprentices him to a stonecutter. Before he leaves for his new position, Ranofer discovers that his brother is involved with a gold smuggling and tomb robbing operation.  There's lots of intrigue, mystery, and suspense in this little-known story; well worth a read for ancient Egypt fans.

Hoop Genius: How a Desperate Teacher and a Rowdy Class Invented Basketball 
Not only is Hoop Genius a remarkable account of the creation of basketball, but it's also a reminder to not give up on young people thought to be unreachable.  Plenty had given up on a certain Springfield, MA gym class.  Teacher after teacher had quit in desperation after trying to contain this out of control group of young men, until James Naismith entered their lives. Naismith wanted to create an activity that would keep these young men active but not aggressive, involve limited physical contact with each other, and  teach the importance of  teamwork and fairness. As Springfield was experiencing an exceptionally harsh New England winter (which added to the boys' restlessness), it needed to be an indoor game.  And thus, basketball was created at the Springfield YMCA (although it differed slightly from modern day basketball).  Not only did it channel the young men's aggression into positive play, but it also quickly drew the attention of their young female friends, who wanted a fast-paced indoor game as well (the illustration of the girls in their long dresses and hats playing basketball is fantastic). A perfect read as the basketball season swings into high gear!

An Illustrated History of 151 Video Games
It's unfortunate that this has such a bland title, because it's a really cool book for video game enthusiasts.  This is definitely aimed at hard core gamers, for it's an expansive and detailed overview of video game history (including history of video game consoles).  More casual fans will undoubtedly browse this book looking for their favorites; I imagine only the most fanatic video game history buff will want to read every entry.  The Pac-Man (which was created in order to attract girls to video games), Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers, Tetris (one of the few older games that has transferred well to tablets) and the history of my favorite consoles, the awesome Atari and the  even more awesome Commodore 64 (I paid for a Commodore 64 games app for my iPad and I LOVE it. OK, it is a little awkward to play on the iPad, but I don't care.) entries immediately caught my attention.  You'll also read about the rise of Nintendo (and the demise of the Commodore 64), SEGA, handheld consoles, and game apps that are now modern classics, such as Angry Birds. With any type of list-oriented book, readers will bemoan the omission of their favorites (Simon Parkin apparently has no love for Frogger or any of the Summer/Winter/World Olympic games for the Commodore 64).  Still, this is a must-have for the gamer who has a respect for this industry's history.

The Impossible Knife of Memory
Laurie Halse's Anderson's latest YA novel is a timely and gut-wrenching look at the effects of PTSD on returning war veterans and their families.  Hayley's dad has never been the same since he returned from fighting in the Iraq War.  They've traveled from town to town, never staying in one for long, until they return to his hometown.  Hayley enters high school for the first time (she had been homeschooled until then). Hayley and her father are hoping that living in his hometown will provide some stability and security, but it's quickly apparent that her father's problems are getting even worse. Hayley has a sophisticated, quirky, and authentic teen voice; readers will be immediately drawn into her story.  Although a happy and neat ending involving PTSD is usually not likely, Anderson offers a realistic amount of hope at the end.  This has earned four starred reviews (six is the limit from the six major review publications), and it's one of my early favorites for the 2015 Printz.

Oh. Motherland. Friends, I remain conflicted about this novel.  Be warned that this is an emotionally draining read.  This novel of a German family living through the last gasps of the Third Reich is just gut wrenching. There's been some controversy about Motherland (due to the fact that the characters are portrayed as being largely ignorant of the concentration camps), which Maria Hummel addresses in an afterword.  It's an unforgettable read, but be warned that the devastation ramps up at the end of the novel.

My Side of the Mountain
I've decided to not reread  and review the Newbery books that I've read several times; admittedly, this is only a handful of selections (Laura Ingalls Wilder, Beverly Cleary, The Bronze Bow and Charlotte's Web mostly).  My Side of the Mountain is a Newbery classic (1960 Honor book), but I probably only read it once during my childhood.  Rereading this adventure story about a young boy, fed up with city life, who runs away to live in the mountains was a great experience.  The wonders--and dangers--of nature are brilliantly conveyed.  The nonchalance of the parents really amused me (after they discover that Sam is living in the mountains, they're cool with him remaining there).

Onion John
Onion John (1960 Newbery Medal) was a rather puzzling read.  While I was taken with the gentle way in which the community (mostly) treats Onion John, who obviously has mental challenges, it can't really rise above it being such a dated book.  On the other hand, it does have some interesting things to say about charity that really only benefits the giver's personal warm fuzzy feelings, and not the recipient.  This is one of those Medal decisions that I really question; this over My Side of the Mountain and The Gammage Cup (both 1960 Honor books)? Really?

Parrots Over Puerto Rico
Yay! A environmental story with a positive approach! The Puerto Rican parrots were once quite common in Puerto Rico; due to centuries of occupation and habitat destruction,  their numbers eventually dwindled to near extinction (in 1975, there were only 13 Puerto Rican parrots known to be in existence).  Thanks to the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program, these gorgeous birds have a fighting chance at survival. Scientists taught survival skills to the parrots in captivity until they were able to be released into the wild, which has greatly improved their numbers.  The history of Puerto Rico is woven throughout the narrative.  The collage illustrations are outstanding; the feathers look amazingly lifelike!  This won the 2014 Sibert Medal for the most distinguished informational book for children.

Rascal is a moving and reflective nonfiction memoir (1964 Newbery Honor)  about a young boy (the author) and his pet raccoon.  Although the capture of the baby raccoon troubled me, I remembered that this occurred and was written in a completely different era.

Relish was not published specifically for the YA market, but it appeared in many "Best of 2013" lists for YA books, so I decided to order it.  Teen foodies, as well as foodies of all ages, will find this an irresistible read! Lucy Knisley chronicles her childhood and young adulthood years centered around cooking, gastronomical adventures in Italy and New York, her junk food confessions, and her art school education.  Do not read this while you are hungry!  I must read her earlier memoir, French Milk, and will keep an eye out for her future graphic novels.

Shadow of a Bull
Sorry, no picture available.  This 1965 Newbery Medal winner, unlike the 1965 Newbery Honor book, Across Five Aprils, is long forgotten. It's not a boring read in the least, but this tale of a young bull fighter is definitely a book from a different era. The violence involved in the descriptions of bull-fighting is not for sensitive readers.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond
I remember reading this in elementary school, but since it wasn't one that I've reread recently, I needed to read this 1959 Newbery Medal.  Elizabeth George Speare's story about a young girl accused of witchcraft in 1687 Massachusetts is adventurous, exciting, and romantic, as well as being an important reminder of the witchcraft accusations in the Puritan era (and the persecution of Quakers during that time).  This is a modern historical fiction classic, and rightly so.

Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof
Musical theater history! I can't get enough of it.  Starting with an introduction to author Sholem Aleichem's creation of the Tevye stories, Alisa Solomon traces the stories' road to Broadway, which included appearances in Yiddish theater and even television before becoming a monster hit on Broadway and international theater, and eventually becoming one of the greatest movie musicals of all time. If you're not a musical theater fan (or Fiddler fan), you probably will not have enough interest to get through this nearly 400 page treatment; musical theater fanatics will eat this up.

The Spring 2014 books are coming in fast and furious! I have tons on my to-be-read list.  Lots of great reads to explore!

Jennifer Schultz, Youth Services Librarian, Fauquier County Public Library

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Ms. Yingling said...

Whew! What a lot of reading. If you have any energy left, I hope you head over to Deb Marshall's Middle Grade March celebration! We are expecting winter storms, so I'm glad she's starting off with a read-a-thon!

Jennifer Schultz said...

Hi, Mrs. Yingling! I will check it out--thanks!