Book of the Week - The Strange Case of Origami Yoda

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

Origami Yoda is yet another book trying to fill the graphic novel/literature genre that Diary of a Wimpy Kid made oh so popular. This story is not so heavily graphics driven as Wimpy Kid, but the obvious attempt is still good, and its not a bad attempt.

Tommy only wants to know one thing. Is Origami Yoda real? Sure, it's a real puppet on Dwight's finger, but is Dwight/Yoda really tuned into the force or is it just some stupid Dwight trick? Tommy sets about chronicling the advice and after affects all in an effort to see if he should be taking Orgami Yoda's advice. And that advice is should he ask Sarah to dance at the next school dance?

It's a classic story. Should the boy ask the girl out? But the fun twist with Origami Yoda makes it a little more interesting. Middle grade readers, especially the misfits (weren't we all), will find themselves in the various characters. However, the story fell a little flat. After a few chapters, the reader may find themselves tempted to skip, as there is only one plot and only one aim of the story. No depth, no sub-plot, and certainly not much substance. Despite my love for all things Star Wars, I'm afraid the cute little finger puppet was the only character I found interesting.

On a structure level, each chapter is told by a different kid, their side of the story followed by Tommy's thoughts and then Henry's (another character who thinks Origami Yoda is a fraud). Each chapter is done in different "handwriting" adding to the personal diary-like feeling of the book. This allows Angelberger to play with something that is rare in middle grade fiction, multiple narratives, which only added to the authenticity of the book. The illustrations were fun, and added some flair, but they often felt needless. Pictures just to have pictures.

For those looking for a light quick read, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda will fill that notch, but if you are looking for something of substance with pictures I suggest The Graveyard Book.

One nifty thing. the back of the book does have instructions on how to make your very own Origami Yoda. Now that's cool!

Author of the Week - Carolyn Cohagan

Being in the middle of this book, I thought I would feature a new debut author whose first book was just published this past February. It can give hope to those of us writers who are still struggling.

Carolyn Cohagan has an usual story about her path to print. Carolyn was born in 1973 in Lake Travis, Texas. She began her career as a stand-up comedian, performing around the world from New York to Auckland to Amsterdam. After studying for a year in Paris, Carolun wrote a couple of one-woman shows with a theatrical company she co-founded. With all this expertise Carolyn also began trying her hand and writing and directing in Los Angeles. This led her to her job as an editor and red carpet interviewer for Film Independent.

Carolyn then tried her hand at writing a screenplay, but was dissatisfied with the stories visual weaknesses and heavy dialogue. She then tried to turn the story into a film treatment. Six years later, Carolyn had a novel. Like The Graveyard Book, The Lost Children is dark, but so far it is a good read. She is currently working on a sequel. Here's to hoping it won't take another six years.

Carolyn's advice for those who want to become authors, are to persevere and be willing to rewrite.

Author of the Week - Regan Dunnick

It is my policy to never review any of my professors books on this blog. A professional courtesy. However, I can and do feature their illustrators. Phyllis Root recently wrote a book called Creak, Said the Bed, a fun little book that I read at story time two weeks ago. No review, but at the end of the story one of the little boys shouted, "Wow, those people are fat." Not sure what I am talking about? Go read the book.

Moving on to Regan Dunnick. Regan is an internationally known illustrator whose works are in the permanent collection at the Library of Congress. He has won numerous awards and toured the world. Currently, he teaches at The Ringling School of Art in Florida.

Book of the Week - The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Somewhere in London, a man with a razor-sharp knife creeps up the stairs of a small house where he has already murdered a family. However, the youngest child, a toddler, slips away to a graveyard. The ghosts of the graveyard adopt the child naming him Nobody Owens or Bod for short. Bod is curious and quiet, learning all the ways of the dead, making friends with 200 year old forgotten poets and opinionated witches. As he gets older, Bod goes through a series of adventures both in and out of the graveyard, and he learns that death may be natural but it is life that is more interesting.

When I first started reading this book, I was rather shocked by the darkness of the beginning. Most middle grade books do not begin with a murder followed by ghosts. But it was done so well. At no point was the story overly graphic. Don't get me wrong though, this story is scary and creepy and violent, but it isn't a horror story. This is a dance with the macabre, one to which the reader will feel the goosebumps traveling down their arm as they read about the Sleer and read in horror as the murderer who killed Bods family seeks him out with relentless vengeance.

Another reviewer pointed out that this story is a dark version of The Jungle Book, and I can see that likeness. The important thing about The Graveyard Book is that despite the darkness, it is a book about light and life. Despite the violence, it is a book about peace. Bod is a character with a deep emotional resonance. There is so much depth to the book. Aren't all adults like ghosts to children? These people who share and impart wisdom which is often impractical to the child who wants to play with their friends and simply be.

My one and only complaint would be that the timeline and age of Bod were not always clear, and I didn't find it clear by the way her spoke. No age indicators. He always sounded about twelve to me. A small complaint in the scheme of a great novel.

Question of the Day: Which of these covers is your favorite?

Illustrator of the Week - Marc Simont

Whether you realize it or not, you do know Marc least you should be familiar with his artwork. Marc Simony was born in Paris in 1915. Marc was a sickly child who taught himself how to write by tracing words out of his favorite picture book. Starting out as a political cartoonist and artist, he soon found a calling among children's books in 1939. He won a Caldecott Honor for his illustrations in Ruth Krauss' The Happy Day and the Caldecott Medal for A Tree is Nice by Janice May Udry and again in 2002 for The Stray Dog. But his most famous illustrations are in the Nate the Great series by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat.

Book of the Week - When You Reach Me

Set in the late 1970s, twelve-year-old Miranda was named for a horrible kidnapper. Sort of. Her single mother, once a law student had to drop out and become a paralegal when she discovered she was pregnant, but that didn't stop her from naming her baby after the famous Miranda rights.

Told in the first person, with some jumps through time over several months, Miranda struggles with being a latch key kid, rereading A Wrinkle in Time to escape, preparing her mom to appear on her favorite game show, being friends with girls, no longer being best friends with a boy, passing a potentially crazy homeless man each school day, race issues, and the fact that her mom hates her job.

When You Reach Me is a quiet book, unassuming with its cute cover and questioning characters.

Being this years' Newbery Award Winner, and having loved the past two year's winners (Savvy and The Graveyard Book), I fully expected to love this one too. I fear my expectations were perhaps a little high and in the end I felt the story was rather limp. Although the characters were true to their time period, in a time where children were allowed to walk to and from school by themselves and work in deli's during lunch breaks, I didn't feel that those characters interactions with each other were realistic. Miranda has whole conversations with strange kids about time travel and makes friends with a girl who doesn't really seem to want to be her friend. I truly expected the two's friendship to last a week and then be over since the two girls didn't have too much in common. Perhaps that was the point, a bunch of random people thrown together under--umm--usual circumstances. Her relationship with her mother and soon-to-be step-father seemed the most accurate, but as we all know, parents cannot play large parts in a children's book, for children cannot have adventures under the constraint of their parents.

Then, when the main character did carry on real conversations with others, I found that I didn't particularly like her. For example: when someone has read A Wrinkle in Time a hundred times, I would think that a philosophical conversation about the puzzles of time travel in that book would be of interest to the reader. However, Miranda is not remotely interested, dismissing the topic as "too weird". This may be my own bias as a reader, for even as a child, I over-analyzed everything I read, especially my favorite books. However, I felt like this was a symptom of this character for she was generally uninterested in a lot of things and dismissed many situations out of hand.

When time travel did make an appearance in the story, it was anti-climatic as Stead had introduced the reader to the concept so many times in the book that the reader should have seen it coming. I had the big mystery solved after the first time travel discussion, and was rather upset to discover I was right. Unlike my favorite twist-ending book The Thief, there was no reason to go back and read, no ah-ha moments. I was especially disappointed in the end, when I thought I would get an explanation of this whole time travel thing. The hows and whys, were never revealed. It was like a tantalizing tidbit that I never got. Perhaps there will be a sequel? A sequel from the viewpoint of Marcus? Perhaps it doesn't matter, but the only reason I keep thinking about the book is because I want to know how.

I'm frankly surprised that Stead's book won The Newbery. However, that it did so tends to confirm a phenomenon that Anita Silvey discussed (and there is a link below) in which she wonders about the accessibility that these Award winners have to the age groups they are geared towards. I know that at my bookstore, there are no children clambering over their mothers, begging for When You Reach Me. Instead they want the newest Wimpy Kid book, the Candy Apple series, and for the astute reader...The Lightning Thief.

Author of the Week - Anita Silvey

Anita Silvey is a well-known editor and literary critic of children's literature who I have had the pleasure of listening to a few times now. Anita has devoted 35 years to promoting books that will turn the young -- and families -- into readers. In 1975 Anita was a co-founder of the Boston Review. She served as Editor-in-Chief of The Horn Book MAgazine from 1985-1995. Between 1995 and 2001, Silvey worked as vice-president at Houghton mifflin where she oversaw children's and young adult publishing for the Houghton and Clarion divisions. Some of the authors and illustrators that she promoted were David Wiesner, Chris Van allsburg, Virginia Lee Burton, and Lois Lowry. She has also authored a number of critical books about children's literature, including 500 Great Books for Teens, The Essential Guide to Children's Books and Their Creators, and Everything I Need to know I Learned From A Children's Book.

In 2008, Anita wrote an influential School Library Journal article in which she criticizes the Newbery selections as too difficult for the intended target audience. Anita is currently a member of the Editorial board of Cricket Magazines and the Board of Directors for the Vermont Center for the Book. She teaches courses at Simmons College in Boston and speaks at many schools and events, in front of children and adults alike.

Her newest book Everything I Need To Know I Learned From A Children's Book interviews many influential people, asking them what their favorite children's book was and how it influenced them. Is it surprising that Ronald Mallet, a well-respected physicist enjoyed The Time Machine as a child? Or that Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge to Terabithia, was in love with The Secret Garden as a young girl?

So here is a question--What was your favorite books as a child and what does it say about you?

Illustrator of the Week - John Strickland Goodall

Thanks to Chris Campell for this illustrator suggestion.

John Strickland Goodall was born in Norfolk in 1908, coming from a long line of doctors. However, at an early age he showed a great talent for art and his father reluctantly agreed that he could study drawing. In the 1930's, Goodall worked mainly as an illustrator for such magazines as the Radio Times and the Bystander. He also painted landscaped, interiors and conversation pieces, mostly in watercolor, which he preferred to painting in oil.

During World War II he was posted to India, where he worked in camouflage. After the war, he and his wife moved near Tisbury. They had a small cottage with a large garden and studio shed which was to feature in many of Goodall's pictures. When his wife grew ill, Goodall nursed her devotedly. This seclusion is what led him to work on children's books, and funny enough his greatest success as an artist. He is best known for his wordless picture books including the award winning The Adventures of Paddy Pork, The Creepy Castle, Naughty Nancy, and Kelly, Dot, and Esmeralda. Although his art has included photography, his illustrations have been used in many publications. Goodall was said to be gentle, humorous, and modest. As an artist, many people said he was a joy to deal with.