Friday, April 25, 2014

April Reads

It's the last Friday of the month, so time to present my April reads! I did some speed reading this month in order to cross off my remaining reads from the ALA Youth Media Awards lists, so this post is rather long this month. Hope you read some excellent titles as well! 

Baseball Is is a superb picture book read for baseball fans. It's a delightful salute to the excitement of the game, the history of the sport (including nods to the Negro League and the short-lived women's league) and the legends (including Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente), culminating with a celebration of the World Series (with the inspiration that perhaps YOUR team could be the star of the parade!)

The Black Pearl was one of four novels to earn a 1968 Newbery Honor; while not one of my favorite Scott O'Dell novels, it's a tightly woven tale of a boy who enrages a ferocious sea creature after he captures a mysterious black pearl.

Leon Leyson was ten years old when the Germans invaded Poland; after the removal of Polish Jews to the Krakow ghetto, he and his family were taken to the Plaszow concentration camp.  Were it not for Oskar Schindler, Leon would have likely not survived the concentration camp, as was the fate of most young children at the camps.  I've read quite a few Holocaust memoirs written for both children/young adults and adults, and The Boy on the Wooden Box is one of the most striking ones I've read.

Charm and Strange received the 2014 William C. Morris Debut Award, which honors a first novel by an author of young adult literature.  It's definitely well-written and deeply affecting, but do know that it's an unsettling and powerful novel about sexual abuse.

The slim (I haven't read one that is close to 200 pages) yet satisfying reads in the American Presidents series make my president biographies project so enjoyable. I recently fan-girled about it with a patron who wanted a printout of all our available titles so that he can work his way through the series, and I know that other patrons are checking them out, so I am stoked that our patrons are enjoying the series.  While every year seems to bring a new Lincoln or Kennedy biography, quite a few presidents have only inspired one or two biographies. Thankfully, the American Presidents series fills in gaps with up-to-date scholarship and remarkable insight on our presidents. Chester Alan Arthur is long forgotten by most; as one of the "accidental presidents" due to the assassination of James Garfield, he never aspired to the presidency and only served one term. His term, however, lead to an overhaul of the civil service system. Karabell's biography ranks as one of my favorites in this series so far, as it's not merely a cradle to grave biography.  Modern presidents may bemoan the fact that in this age of 24/7 news cycles, every glance, gesture, awkward phrasing, and stumble is remarked upon and analyzed, but consider being president under these circumstances:
There wasn't much to do in Washington, and speculation and gossip about a new president's primary form of public locomotion could fill a number of otherwise dreary evenings. 

(I did not skip over James Garfield; I read and reviewed the magnificent Destiny of the Republic last May, so I decided to move forward in this project. It's the last book reviewed in that post. I also finished the Grover Cleveland biography in this series; just as fine as the others in the series.)

For the past months, I have been working my way through the 2014 ALA Youth Media Awards winners. Now that I can put that aside and really concentrate on newly published titles, I am picking out potential choices for the awards. I definitely hope The Crossover is recognized for something next January. Literary sports fiction for youth is not uncommon, yet it tends to go unnoticed come awards time. Basketball is at the forefront of this novel in verse, but there's also powerful stuff here about growing up, children and parents, regret, and grief.  Josh Bell and his twin brother, Jordan, are basketball superstars at their school. Their father was also once a rising basketball player, yet injury cut short his career. Josh and Jordan are pretty tight until Jordan finds a girlfriend (this is a common theme in coming-of-age stories about young female friendships, so it's great to have this explored with young male characters). Everyday issues that come with maturity are complicated when their father suddenly becomes gravely ill. Kwame Alexander's writing is pitch perfect; his teen characters are authentic, and the basketball action is exciting. It's earned four starred reviews, so major kudos are in order for this Virginia author!

The Egypt Game and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, And Me, Elizabeth  received Newbery Honors in 1968. Both are fast-paced reads that offer multicultural characters as a matter of fact and without cringe-worthy stereotypes; they also feature children deeply involved in creative fantasy play, which is very fun to read.

As a 2013 National Book Award finalist, Far, Far Away has been on my radar for some time. I avoided reading it, though, because I heard it was a bit gruesome.  Which it is, but it is also a book that is hard to put down.  The plot is too involved to discuss without getting bogged down in the details, but know that it involves the ghost of Jacob Grimm (of the Brothers Grimm) and teens kidnapped by an evil baker, who then hides them in his dungeon. Creepy!

The Favorite Daughter
Allen Say draws upon his Japanese heritage for his memorable picture books; although I would be hard pressed to name my favorite Say title (I love them all), The Favorite Daughter would definitely be at the top of the list.  As you can see on the cover, the young girl on the cover obviously has Japanese-American facial features, but her hair is blond.  This causes her some confusion, as her classmates tell her that Japanese people only have black hair. Combine that with her wish to change her name to Michelle from Yuriko, which causes some teasing and mispronunciations, and you have a young girl struggling with her identity.  Her patient father works with her on her discomfort with her biracial heritage, with the result that she eventually learns to accept and celebrate both heritages. Say obviously based this on his own daughter's experiences, as her photographs (as a child and as a young adult visiting Japan for the first time ) appear at the beginning and the end of the story.  It's a beautiful and authentic look at a child learning to accept her special heritage.

Feathers Not Just For Flying
For some reason, we are being flooded with extraordinary books about birds! Birds are fascinating creatures ("bird brain" should be a compliment, not an insult!), so I am loving these new books.  You may think that birds only use their feathers for flying, but feathers are also necessary for attracting mates, protection from harmful sunlight, camouflage, and much more.  Gorgeous illustrations round out this immensely delightful look at birds and their feathers.

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing is the touching and hilarious sequel to the 2013 Newbery Honor book, Three Times Lucky . Mo and Dale are ready to find their second mystery case and receive the challenge of a lifetime when they investigate a local ghost.  You will need to read Three Times Lucky before reading this one (trust me, you want to read both books).  This has earned an eye-popping amount of five starred reviews.

I vaguely knew who Josephine Baker was before reading Josephine, but I had no idea that she was a spy for France during World War II, among other unique accomplishments.  This pulls no punches when it comes to Josephine Baker's difficult childhood or the racial climate in America that led her to pursue her career in Paris, but it's handled in an appropriate understanding for young readers.  I wasn't planning to read the recently published  Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation very soon, but it's jumped to the top of my list (I also want to read Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time, a 1989 biography).  Patricia Hruby Powell's biography has received three starred reviews; Christian Robinson's dazzling illustrations absolutely contributed to the book's very positive reception!

The Kingdom of Little Wounds received a 2014 Printz Honor award; it's a huge YA  fantasy/fairy tale that involves scandal, mystery, and class struggle between the servants and royals whom they serve.  It's engrossing, but quite bawdy, so definitely for mature readers. Susann Cokal is a Virginia author.

I am really, really glad we have The Lion Who Stole My Arm; its provocative title and cover immediately draw attention, as evidenced by the fact that our copies have circulated very well in the short amount of time that we've owned them. Pedru longs to be an expert hunter like his father, but those dreams are dashed when he barely survives a lion attack.  The loss of his arm is a grave concern, as hunting is a means of survival in his African community.  Pedru and his community are intent on finding and killing the lion that attacked him, but coming face to face with his attacker after meeting the conservationists who are researching lions creates a moral dilemma.  This could have easily turned into a dreary moralistic tale, but Nicola Davies masterfully evokes empathy for all sides: the community that wants to protect their citizens and livestock from lions, the researchers who are trying to save lions from extinction, and the lions who find their natural habitats encroached upon.  Davies includes facts about lions and the conservationist movement in Africa that instead of preaching and condemning African citizens, empowers them with tips on avoiding lion attacks and enlists their help in monitoring and researching lions. Yes! I LOVE environmental/conservation stories like that (see also the Scientists in the Field series, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,  The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees to Feed Families, Parrots Over Puerto Rico and Energy Island: How One Community Harnessed the Wind and Changed Their World).

Warning! Do NOT start The Living just before bedtime. Not only is it tense and rather scary at times, but Matt de la Pena is such a genius at creating a well-written survival/post-apocalyptic (and I am not a super fan of those stories) tale that you will not be able to put it down.  I had to finish this in one sitting, which I rarely ever, EVER do (and at 311 pages, this took some time). Shy (he explains his nickname early in the story) thought his job making first-class passengers on an elite cruise ship comfortable at all times would be a hard but fun summer job (even if it means slightly flirting with matrons and enduring condescending remarks in order to get hefty tips). Palling around with new friends after work and catching the eye of a cute coworker makes it all worthwhile....until an earthquake--the BIG ONE that everyone has been warning that would eventually hit California--causes massive devastation on the West Coast, resulting in the cruise ship being capsized in a tsunami.  Promises of "just one more chapter" were naught as I raced through this book, all the while thinking, "He's going to live, right? He better live! What happened to his little girlfriend?!" Does he? Will she? I'm not telling, but there's plenty of chaos and destruction to satisfy even the most jaded dystopia fan.  Matt de la Pena writes about Latino characters, so it's great to have a top of the line dystopia YA novel that features multicultural characters.  A sequel should be out...eventually.  (No word on his website, but mention of a sequel is at the end of the book.) Yay! And...yikes! What more can happen? Looking forward to it!

Maggot Moon
If you like your dark dystopias, you'll want to read Sally Gardner's baffling, yet intriguing, Maggot Moon.  One of the 2014 Printz Honor books, Maggot Moon is set in an alternate universe in which a curious teenager discovers that the oppressive Motherland (which has strong Third Reich overtones) is hiding the "truth" about the first moon landing.  It's a quick read (chapters are quite short), but with a powerful and occasionally violent (but not sensational) story line.

Oh, wow.  Midwinterblood. I'm not really sure how to describe it, because it's so super weird and strange.  If you think a  mature and sophisticated fantasy novel about dragons and reincarnation is up your alley, try this one.  The stories are all interconnected, so it takes a careful read to figure it all out.  This earned the 2014 Printz Award for "excellence in young adult literature."

Mister Orange won the 2014 Batchelder Award for "the most outstanding children's book originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States, and subsequently translated into English for publication in the United States." Got all that? Originally published in Dutch, this novel, based in Manhattan during World War II, concerns a young boy dealing with his brother's abrupt wartime absence and encountering an unusual artist during his rounds as a delivery boy. It's a quietly moving novel based upon the last days of artist Piet Mondrian.

The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World's Most Notorious Nazi is a must read for history and spy story fans; it's a fast-moving read of one of the ultimate stake-outs in modern history. As the Third Reich collapsed, Adolf Eichmann escaped to Argentina, as did other Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. As other high-ranking Nazis were being brought to trial, the search was on for Eichmann, who was at the forefront of the execution of Hitler's Final Solution.  Israeli undercover agents were determined to capture Eichmann and bring him to justice in Israel, but operating on foreign soil in a country that housed and looked the other way in regard to pro-Nazi demonstrations was incredibly risky.  Neal Bascomb earned the 2014 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction; a well-deserved honor for this important book.

Pluto's Secret: An Icy World's Tale of Discovery is an irreverent but informative look at the discovery and redefinition of Pluto, everyone's favorite former planet. In addition, Margaret A. Weitekamp demonstrates how science is constantly adapting and changing due to research. A fun read about a confusing topic.

I know it's super early, but this has zoomed to the top of my 2015 Caldecott picks. Can you believe that Lois Ehlert doesn't have a Medal? (She has one honor). Could 2015 be her year?  The Scraps Book: Notes From a Colorful Life is a stunning memoir of Ehlert's childhood and long career; Ehlert is known for her painstaking collage work, which she demonstrates throughout the book. Keep this in mind for autobiography/biography assignments for readers who are intimidated by lengthy biographies.

Tito Puente: Mambo King chronicles the life of Tito Puente, the "Godfather of Salsa."  Enchanting  illustrations and text bring this New York musician to life in a vibrant bilingual picture book biography. Illustrator Rafael Lopez received a 2014 Pura Belpre Honor for his illustrations.

The Tyrant's Daughter is already one of my favorite YA reads this year. After her father, a Middle Eastern dictator-king, is killed, Laila and her family escape to a Virginia suburb of Washington D.C.  The cultural shock is overwhelming for Laila, as is the fact that she is slowly discovering the true history behind her family's governance of her home country (which is never named).  To be sure, there is political intrigue, mystery, and suspenseful spy action, but J.C. Carleson's multi-layered characterization of Laila is the true heart of the story. Her depictions of Laila overwhelmed by the cereal choices at the grocery store and the chaos of a high school dance are vivid and authentic; as a former CIA agent, Carleson has great knowledge of customs and current events in the Middle East (major kudos for including a list of suggested reads, an author's note in which she explains her inspirations for the story, and a commentary by Dr. Cheryl Benard on Benazir Bhutto and choices that Laila could conceivably make in the future; this amount of further insight and information is rather rare for fiction).  The ending is rather surprising (to me, at least); perhaps J.C. Carleson has a sequel planned?

The War Within These Walls
This 2014 Mildred Batchelder Honor Book is a stark and stirring illustrated novel (not a graphic novel) about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  Told in first person narrative through the perspective of a young Jewish boy, this is a sorrowful and important story about a historical event that needs to be remembered.  Not for sensitive readers, obviously.  This was originally published in Dutch.

On a much lighter note, I blogged about funny picture books on the ALSC blog.

In January, I made a goal to read the 2014 ALA Youth Media Award winning titles (and honors, if available). I finally finished it this month! Here's the list for a refresher. While I didn't enjoy every title, it was a good exercise. Will definitely do it every year.

Jennifer Schultz, Youth Services Librarian, Fauquier County Public Library 

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