Hermelin: The Detective Mouse by Mini Grey

Hermelin: The Detective Mouse by Mini Grey
Publisher: Johnathan Cape, Knopf Books for Young Readers
Release Date: August 5, 2014

Hermelin is a noticer. He is also a finder. He is also a mouse. The occupants of Offley Street are delighted when their missing items are found, but not so happy to learn that their brilliant detective is a mouse. 

Perhaps it was The Great Mouse Detective that has given me a small soft place for detective mouses, but I absolutely loved this story. It was cute, memorable, well-drawn, that can be read over and over again. There was so much going on each page, but not in a way that felt overwhelming, but rather in a way that made you want to study each page carefully to be sure you didn't miss anything. I have to say, this is my favorite Mini Grey book so far. 

I really loved this book and I think it will find quite a few young readers who may also fall in love with detective mouses.

The Industrial Revolution For Kids by Cheryl Mullenbach

The Industrial Revolution For Kids: The People and Technology That Change the World with 21 Activities by Cheryl Mullenbach
Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Release Date: August 1, 2014

We should make one thing clear here before I even begin. This book should be titled The Industrial Revolution in America for Kids. There is nothing wrong with this, but when I first began the book, I was a little disappointed that only the American Industrial Revolution was included, but it wasn't a major sticking point in the readability of the book. This educational activity book was a great introduction to a period of great change that stays solidly kid-focused. Carefully organized with an Introduction and then chapters on New Ways of Working, New Ways of Living, Kids at Work, Catastrophes, Unions & Strikes, Help and Hope for Better Lives, and the Emerging New Culture. Everything was covered from the Rockefellers to factories, detachable collars and cuffs to one-cent coffee stands.

I felt like the material was presented very well. Even when talking about subjects that were a bit grown-up centric, the author is careful to mention the children that would be involved in the situation. Also, it gave me a lot to ruminate over. A lot. It was a gentle reminder of how different things were and how time, accidents, disaster, protests, and cultural change really are necessary for forming and changing our world. Child labor laws didn't happen overnight, in fact some would probably say that it took far too long for laws to be on the books about child labor. The same could be said for any number of things that were happening in that era. This, of course, made me think of the present and how people continue to fight for change. I am sure that there were people who were fighting for children's rights as workers back in 1850 (the book does mention these) who never lived to see the first laws passed. We look back on it now as a piece of history. How too might people look back on our history? What moment will they say that a certain moment in time was the true catalyst for change?

Included in the book are 21 activities that, although not bad, were disappointing in the fact that the activities would be hard to replicate in a classroom. Most of the activities were things that a child could do from home, which made me think that the real target audience for this book would be homeschoolers or parents who are seeking supplemental instruction for their kids. I can't imagine there is a large subset of kids who pick up books like this just for fun, but my evidence is purely anecdotal so I will leave it be.

The book is a bit text heavy, which is why I think it would be good for homeschoolers, but none of it is written beyond an elementary reading level so I think it could fit easily into a history curriculum.

Templar by Jordan Mechner Book Review

Templar by Jordan Mechner
Illustrations by LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland
Publisher: FirstSecond
Release Date: July 9, 2014

When the Templar Knights of France are taken prisoner, part of a political conspiracy to destroy the knights and obtain their wealth, Martin is one of the few who manage to escape. The pope and king aim to frame the Templars for heresy, execute them all, and take the legendary treasury. However, Martin and few other surviving knights learn the real location of the treasure and although they cannot save their brothers, they can and will save the thing that they are dying for.

In a story worthy of the Three Musketeers, Templar is a rolling adventure with all the necessary elements. Heroes, rogues, wicked bad guys, virtuous Templars, a secret treasure, and lots of stealth, I was gripped from beginning to end. Like the Complete Don Quixote graphic novel, this one is not small, but I definitely felt like I was reading a fully realized novel rather than a short story. In fact, I kind of didn't want it to end. I want a Templars 2.

What I really loved about this book was the historical accuracy. The lengths that the author and illustrations went through to ground this story within a historical context, while still creating such a great action adventure was great. Some parts, due to the true nature of the story, were hard to read. I know there is evil in this world, we see it every day when we watch the news, but being reminded of the cruel inhuman things that people have done to one another is heart-breaking. Set against this backdrop were all these wonderful characters with a fascinating array of personality quirks. The ending is bittersweet, but felt right. I hope that others who read this story will also be intrigued enough by the events to perhaps learn more about the truth (and not the conspiracies) behind the Templars.

Apple Days by Allison Soffer Book Review

Apple Days: A Rosh Hashanah Story by Allison Soffer
Illustrations by Bob McMahon
Publisher: Kar-Pen Publishing
Release Date: August 1, 2014

Katys favorite holiday is Rosh Hashanah, when she gets to pick apples and make applesauce with her mother. But what happens when the tradition is interrupted by the early arrival of her new baby cousin? 

L'shanah Tovah. May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year. For those people who are gentiles like me, Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and that was (according to the internet) a typical New Year greeting. Also, as a non-Jew, I also had to look up the significance of Apples and Honey during Rosh Hashanah. In addition to symbolizing the hopes for a sweet new year, the apple represents the Shekhinah (the feminine aspect of God). Eating honey with apples represents the hope that the Shekhinah will judge kindly and look down with sweetness. There is a lot of information on this subject, but I don't want to tarry too long as it as this is a book review.

A story that really encompasses family, tradition, and fun that is often associated with holidays. Katy, must learn not only to be patient and understanding, but she also learns how to be a part of the community as well. She may not be able to go apple picking as has been family tradition, but her neighbors embrace her and her family, pitching in like a version of Stone Soup. The illustrations were vibrant and fun, but perhaps the best part is the Applesauce recipe in the back of the book. Apparently, someone wanted this book from the library so I had to return it before I got to try out the recipe. However, I plan on getting it again just to try making my own applesauce. Sounds like the perfect thing to do for fall.  

Gut Yontiff!

Nancy Knows by Cybèle Young Book Review

Nancy Knows by 

This is one of those books that you really read for the illustrations. On each page is a simple pencil outline of Nancy, and within her body are beautiful paper sculptures of all the things she is trying to remember. They are the kind of images that make you want to stop and study them. The story itself was rather simple, which was a shame, but these book definitely deserves recognition for a very talented illustrator. 

Frostborn by Lou Anders Book Review

Frostborn (Thrones and Bones #1) by Lou Anders
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: August 5, 2014

Karn is the son of a great family, meant to take over his father's prosperous. However, Karn doesn't want a farmer's life, opting instead to hone his skills playing the board game Thrones and Bones.

Thianna is a half human, half frost giantess. When a group of humans riding wyvern dragons arrive at her home searching for the only thing her mother left her, Thianna is forced to flee the only home she has ever known.

The twos lives become intertwined when Karn is forced to flee as well after confronting a long dead warrior. Survival is harder than it looks though when you are being chased by a 1,500 year-old dragon, undead warriors and his minions, an evil uncle, wyverns, trolls, and backstabbing giants.

This story felt like an amalgamation of The Hobbit, Dungeons & Dragons, and Game of Thrones. For kids, of course. There is a lot going on in this story and a very big world that felt a little too big at times. Not that it wasn't interesting, but sometimes it felt like too much was being squeezed into such a small book. I enjoyed the board game aspect, where, like chess used to be, everyone who is anyone knows how to play. The careful description of the game became important, for Karn may not be the best at understanding how many cows should be exchanged for corn, he does understand strategy. Thianna is more of a hit first ask questions later, but she too begins to appreciate the beauty and strategy of Thrones and Bones.

The beginning of the book was a bit slow as the author was doing a whole lot of world building in a novel geared towards middle grade readers. It was necessary world building, but it also meant the story didn't get started until around the fifty page mark. I am used to this in adult books, seeing some stories not begin until page hundred or more. Personally, I prefer stories that get going right away and Frostborn tries to do this with a short action-packed prequel, but it didn't feel like enough. That one point aside, once the story really gets going, it was quite the adventure. Thianna was a bit prickly in the beginning, but I really fell in love with her and Karn, despite being a bit dense does eventually "get it". 

A great fantasy for those kids who love the genre, dragons, or just a good adventure.

Flashlight by Lizi Boyd Book Review

Flashlight by Lizi Boyd
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Release Date: August 12, 2014

Sometimes the dark can seem scary, but with a flashlight in hand, darkness can be illuminated to reveal the beauty of night.

Using a form of negative art, each page features a black background, but wherever the boy's flashlight shines, we see vivid colors, animals, and insects of the night. Each page really invites the reader to explore and guess. Added within each page are small cutouts that, although adding another dimensional element, weren't used to reveal anything new on the next page, which was a bit dissapointing. Other books like Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger used the cutouts so cleverly, but the ones in this book were used repetitively and sometimes I didn't realize they were even there. There is a small twist with the animals getting hold of the flashlight, which added a fun element to this otherwise wordless picture book. A great bedtime story, this is an especially good one for the kids who like to make up their own stories.

The Complete Don Quixote Book Review

The Complete Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Adapted and Illustrated by Rob David
Publisher: SelfMadeHero
Release Date: May 7, 2013

It has been nearly four hundred years since the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes wrote the tale of Don Quixote with its windmill giants, lunatic knight errant, love stories, and one rather short but philosophical squire. A daunting book for any reader, especially those in high school, this wonderful graphic novel adaptation brings this story new life.

I have always been a lover of the Don Quixote story. When I worked at a bookstore and the 11th grade AP Literature students would come to me with books they could choose from, I could easily talk this one up. Sure, it isn't a small book, but there is so much here, not to mention that it is funny. Or at least, funnier than The Count of Monte Cristo or The Grapes of Wrath. Of course, since the art takes the place of Cervantes' lurid descriptions, the book comes in a good deal shorter than the original, but this only makes it more readable. All the major parts of the tale are told, in places the language has been updated or simplified, and the illustrations were so well done.

From the moment I picked up this book, I was impressed. As in the original, there are some great laugh out loud moments as well as others where you feel genuinely bad for our insane hero. I have always found it terribly sad that in the end our hero dies not lost in fantasy and denouncing his role as Don Quixote. So what if he is made? At least it was entertaining.

This Old Band by Tamera Will Wissinger Book Review

This Old Band by Tamera Will Wissinger
Illustrations by Matt Loveridge
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Release Date: June 3, 2014

Sung to the tune of 'This Old Man', This Old Band is a fun song/story where cowboys play jugs, combs, boots, and sticks out on the open range. I absolutely loved this toe-tapping story with a great cast of characters. If I was ever going to make a video of myself "reading" a book, this would definitely be one of my first choices. At first, I was a bit turned off by the clearly computer generated illustrations, but found that the characters were so lively that a few pages in I had changed my mind. Perhaps my favorite moment in the story is when one of the characters begins to sing the wrong song (Home Home On the Range) and I think kids would really think this is fun.

A fantastic read-aloud that is sure to have kids tapping their toes and singing along.

My Pet Book by Bob Staake Book Review

My Pet Book by Bob Staake
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Release Date: July 8, 2014

Most pets are cats and dogs, but what happens when a boy wants a different kind of pet, one that doesn’t meow or bark? And so one boy decides to adopt a book, a bright red one. However, even pet books can go missing it seems.

This book was absolutely adorable, with fabulous illustrations and you know what I thought about the entire time? How ratty and tattered that poor book would be after a day of dragging it around the city. I know, silly, especially as this book appears to magically float, but that was my thought as I read it. The concept is supposed to be goofy and ridiculous and although I didn't get sucked in by the magic, I do think kids will.  This is a book for true book lovers. There is a lot going on in the pages, which makes it better as bedtime story than a storytime book. Perhaps kids will begin adopting their own pet books? 

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff Book Review

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
Publisher: Philomel
Release Date: June 12, 2014

Albie has never been the smartest kind in his class. He almost passes, but as his father says, almost isn't enough. And it seems that everything Albie does is 'almost'. When Albie is kicked out of his old school, his best friend becomes part of a reality show, and he gets a new nanny/babysitter, Albie finds himself looking for something that he can be good at. Can he be the cool kid in school? Run for class vice-president?

After finishing this book, I really debated with myself about whether I should review it. I am aware that sometimes authors, editors, marketing departments, and agents read reviews and I wasn't sure if I should review something in which I have so many issues. However, because my readers have stated in the past that they appreciate my candor, I am going to plunge forward. If you are one of the aforementioned parties, may I suggest not reading this review. After all, there are many people who loved this book, it has a decent score on Goodreads, and I am sure you are already receiving letters from kids who tell you how much they can relate. Nothing to see here. Move along.

I think the best way to dissect this book is to break it into manageable pieces:

The Kid
Albie really is not very bright. I am not sure if this is what the author was trying to convey, but the non-committal to any kind of learning disability made Albie seem less disabled and more mediocre. Perhaps the author was going for something on the spectrum, but again, without a diagnosis (which seemed so unbelievable with a kid who has this many problems) it just came across as a kid who wasn't too bright. This did make me feel bad for Albie. He's a good kid, but he is completely and utterly clueless. While most kids have figured out bullies by the time they are ten, Albie is blissfully unaware of them. He can't figure out why the last school kicked him out although by the end he does figure out that it is because he wasn't smart enough. And he really isn't. Albie struggles to just make C's. There isn't one particular subject he is good at, he is bad at them all. He isn't even aware that the "math club" he is in is really a remedial math class for kids like him. His social awareness is equally terrible as Albie, whether by design or accident, is clearly developmentally delayed. He doesn't think, act, or talk like a child of ten. I would put him in the age seven or eight category. His notes to a classmate on how to be cool made it very clear that Albie is just not at the same level as his peers. It made me sad that no one in his life had noticed and beyond a remedial math course, weren't doing too much to help him.

The Parents
Do you remember the parents in Harriet the Spy? Rich New Yorkers who hired a Nanny to raise their child and didn't really know what Harriet was up to until the very end? These are Albie's parents, but worse. I don't really care if Albie has a nanny. That isn't a big deal. The problem is that his parents are so completely detached from their child that I think it is safe to say that some of his problems could be a direct result of their bad parenting. Albie clearly has some learning difficulties and yet at no point do either of his parents read to or with him, help him with his homework, or even go to the school with him to talk about a plan with his teachers. I was shocked at the scene where Albie takes a dyslexia exam and his mother is disappointed that he isn't dyslexic, as if that would have fixed everything. As if that would have justified why his grades were so terrible.

Other appalling scenes:

  • Albie's mother forgets that egg products are banned from the classroom because of food allergies. No teacher or parent corrects her on this and Albie is forced to bear the brunt of it. This scene almost made me cry because of the cruelty of the situation and the absolute disregard paid by his mother.
  • Albie's father buys him a birthday present and it turns out to be the exact same model airplane kit that he bought Albie a year and a half before, promising he would help him build it.
  • His parents never talk to him about why he was kicked out of his former prep school. Albie has secretly kept the expulsion note from the school, but doesn't read well enough to know why he was kicked out.
  • Appalled by the fact that Albie is reading Captain Underpants (a book that is on his reading level), she forces him to read Johnny Tremain. At no point does she offer to read it with him, follow up on whether he is reading it, ask him questions about it, or show any thought past how it looks that he is reading a "little kid book". 
  • Neither parent has any meaningful communication with him. They are quick to blame him and their clear disapproval of his grades, reading material, and even the school he is at, make Albie feel like a failure.
  • Calista (the Nanny) is fired without Albie being allowed to say goodbye, with the assumption that Calista had lied (she had not). Even when Albie tells his mother the truth, she refuses to allow Calista back or for Albie to have any contact with her. 
  • When Albie's mother says she loves him, his first response is, "You do?" Who says that? A kid who doesn't think his parents love him, that's who. That is sad.

The Nanny
Calista was perhaps the most interesting character in the book. Young, new to the city, and not a stickler for rules, she helps Albie in ways that his parents really should be. She seems almost saintlike compared to the parents as she lets Albie go the places he likes, asks him questions, helps him create a fake cover for Captain Underpants so his mom still thinks he is reading Johnny Tremain, and even gives him a "sad" day. Which makes her firing even worse, because Albie forgives his mother after she gives him some line about how "she is trying her best". Sure he misses her, but he just shrugs his shoulders and lets it go. Harriet the Spy took a train across town to find her nanny. Calista showed more care, compassion, and comfort in a few short weeks than either of his parents have shown him. The fact that he got over it so quickly either speaks to Albie's clear problems or some resolution issues in the writing itself.

The Plot
There isn't one. This story is nothing more than s series of vignettes in Albie's life. The common thread of what is Albie good at, the lesson if you will, is a form of resolution but it isn't a plot. Learning disabilities is not a plot either. This is a character-driven piece in which there is very little character growth beyond being able to spell 7 out of 10 words correctly on the spelling test rather than 4. I know this is growth, but it isn't a plot.

The Voice
Albie is whiny. Seriously, my husband walked into the kitchen while I was listening to the audio book and after standing there for a few minutes prepping a snack he said, "God, that kid is really whiny." I have to agree. Albie's world revolves around Albie and so when things happen outside of Albie's understanding (which is often) he moans and complains in a way that made the whole book come across as one giant whine.

Although this book is being compared to Wonder and Rules, with its lack of committal to any kind of disability or learning disability, coupled with some extremely bad parenting, and a lack of a plot, I have to say that it is just not on that level. There are people who love it, I have read their reviews and although I don't agree, I understand.

The Tree House That Jack Built by Bonnie Verburg Book Review

The Tree House That Jack Built by Bonnie Verburg
Illustrations by Mark Teague
Publisher: Orchard Books
Release Date: May 27, 2014

Here is the boy
up in the tree
where he built a house overlooking the sea.
Yes! This is the tree house that Jack built!
With ladders, swings, turrets,
and elaborate pulley systems everywhere--
animals chase one another
over, under, around, and through.
And then--the bell rings.
Where are all the animals going?

I read this book twice, once to myself and once out loud and I just couldn't get the hang of the rhyming scheme, especially in the beginning. As this is basically a rehash of The House That Jack Built, it should  already have a built in rhythm. In this version Jack builds a rather cool tree house that attracts a fly, a lizard, a parrot, and even a cat and dog that cause a lot of problems, but eventually settle down. Jack's tree house really reminded me of The Swiss Family Robinson and despite the clunky rhymes, I did love the illustrations and would have loved to live in Jack's treehouse. 

Marble Season Book Review

Marble Season by Gilbert Hernández
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Release Date: April 16, 2013

In this semi-autobiographical graphic novel, Gilbert Hernandez, takes his readers back to the 1960s/ Full of pop-culture references, comic books, and marbles, readers are given a glimpse into what is clearly being touted as the golden age of comic books and growing up. 

I am not entirely sure why this book shows up as a children's graphic novel. (or at least it did on the list that I found) Although the characters are children, there is not enough historical context for this to really appeal to kids or teens. Even I, the adult reader, found myself confused at times. Throughout the entire book, there were moments where I thought that a page was missing or at the very least a few panels, which often left me bewildered. This is a story, although I loosely call it that, which follows the rather mundane life of kids living in the suburbs. I struggled throughout the book to determine what it was that the author was trying to convey. Nostalgia? Childishness? Growing up? Whatever it was, I never think I got it. Also, I really wish someone would explain to me why one of the little girls kept eating marbles. Inquiring minds want to know.

Peanut Butter & Cupcake by Terry Border Book Review

Peanut Butter & Cupcake by Terry Border
Publisher: Philomel
Release Date: July 29, 2014

What’s a little piece of bread to do when he’s feeling lonely? Find a friend, of course! And that’s exactly what Peanut Butter tries to do. But sometimes friends are hard to come by.

Let's start with the obvious. Terry Borders' food art. A slice of bread walking around on little wire legs looking for a friend. How fun is that? Add in some cupcakes, hot dogs, hamburgers, eggs, and more and this story just screams to life. 

The story itself is simple, but perfect, full of food puns. This makes it, by nature, for the older picture book crowd, but so much fun to read. The rhyming poem schema demands completion and I found myself desperately wanting peanut butter to find his jelly. 

I have included a few of the more of the kid friendly Terry Border art, but you should definitely check out his website for more. 

Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino Book Review

Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino
Illustrations by Isabelle Malenfant
Publisher: Groundwood Books
Release Date: May 1, 2014

Morris dreams about space adventures and loves to paint beautiful pictures. He also loves his classroom's dress-up center where he can wear the tangerine dress. Although Morris is just being himself, the other children in his class do not understand. He isn't welcome to play with them anymore, they tease him, and the bullying reaches a point where Morris wants to just stay home from school. However, Morris will not be kept down for long and soon he is back at school, painting his pictures and going on space adventures--in his tangerine dress.

As reviewed a few month's ago, Jacob's New Dress dealt with this very topic. As I stated there, this is one of those "issue" books that caters to a very specialized need. As with Jacob's New Dress, this book does not delve into the morality of the situation. Unlike that book, Morris' parents are sorely lacking from the story, which is why this book didn't work as well for me. The mother is there, but how they are dealing with this is rather important for a story as the psychologically support of parents is integral for children dealing with this issue. I also disliked the language that the children used. Although, I understand that this is supposed to be a book that encourages inclusiveness, what I saw instead was a way to introduce new bullying language into children's vernacular. In other words, this book is great for kids dealing with these issues, but perhaps not the book you want to read to a classroom full of children to show diversity. It's an important book to have available and I am glad that there are a few of these books out there now, but I don't necessarily think they will all have the same desired effect.

Mr. Wayne's Masterpiece by Patricia Polacco Book Review

Mr. Wayne's Masterpiece by Patricia Polacco
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Release Date: August 12, 2014

Trisha is terrified to speak in front of an audience. She can't even read her essay aloud to her class. Which is why it is surprising when Trisha ends up in Mr. Wayne's drama class. Given a job painting scenery, Tricia secretly memorizes all the lines of the play as she listens to the cast rehearse. Then, when the lead actress suddenly moves away, Mr. Wayne calls upon Tricia to take the part not only because she knows the lines, but because he believes that she will make his play come to life. With careful coaching and coaxing, Mr. Wayne helps Trisha overcome her stagefright and find the masterpiece within herself.

My mother was always obsessed with Patricia Polacco's books. As a kid, I remember going to the library and her checking them out all the time. I always thought this strange, because I found these books to be terribly boring and overly long, but my mother loved them. She still does. I think I may understand now.

These books are rather text heavy as far as picture books go. The stories are sometimes sad or melancholy, dealing with topics that older children will be able to relate to better. Here's the conundrum, I would say that most of her books are really for children around seven to nine. However, that is the age in which kids begin to read to themselves rather than having someone else read to them. Of course, parents can still read to their children at that age, but at that age I wanted my mother to read me The Hobbit and The Mouse and the Motorcycle rather than picture books.

This is all anecdotal of course, but the point is, I think this story is really one that adults will like more than the kids. That feeling of nostalgia. It's not that the story is bad, in fact, it is quite beautiful in both language and illustrations. It's why I think these books do so well though. Adults love to read them and since they are the ones who buy them, the books continue to be popular.

I would love to hear something to the contrary though. Did you have a favorite Patricia Polacco book as a kid or were you, like me, subjected to them because one of your parent loved them?

Alvin Ho:Allergic to the Great Wall by Lenore Look

Alvin Ho: Allergic to the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace, and Other Tourist Attractions by Lenore Look
Illustrations by LeUyen Pham
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Release Date: August 5, 2014

Alvin Ho is traveling with his family to China. However, when you are the kind of kid who fears everything, China can seem like a very scary place. First there is the 16-hour plane ride, then there's things like eating lunch food for breakfast, kung-fu lessons, acupuncture, the Great Wall of China, and a lost passport.

Apparently, this is the sixth book in the Alvin Ho series and I simply cannot believe I have not read them before. Alvin is a little boy with a lot of fears. He is terrified of almost everything, and although sometimes I wished the parents would be a little more understanding of their son who clearly has some OCD tendencies and needs a lot of reassuring, I found he and his family to be rather cute and endearing. Alvin is not afraid to voice his fears and his family is very patient with him.

This is one of those books that I was a little curious about the intended target audience. Alvin is seven-years-old. The obvious reading level is definitely above second grade, which means that the children reading this story are already older than the main character. When I worked at a bookstore, we called these kind of books "bridger books". Books that were right in-between chapter books and middle grade. Easier than Harry Potter and harder than Junie B. Jones. There are a couple of series like this: Clementine, Ramona Quimby, Judy Moody. The key to defining these books really is narrative voice and Alvin nestles itself firmly into the middle-grade categorization despite the youth of the main protagonist. Seeing as there are plenty of illustrations, I would say that this one would be good to read aloud to that second grader who might not be ready to read the series on their own.

And of course we must talk about the fact that this is a story about an Asian American boy and his family. Not to mention his multi-ethnic cousins who are part white and part Asian. This is a rarity among rarities in the middle-grade world, not to mention literature in general. I don't want to make it sound like they don't exist, but they are so few and far between. For parents, teachers, and librarians who are looking for more books featuring Asian-Americans kids then this it it. Ethnicity aside, I think many kids will enjoy this book, although I do recommend starting with book one. I am pretty sure it makes more sense that way.

The National Book Festival 2014 in Review

 The National Book Festival was awesome. As usual. Held indoors this year and limited to only one (very long) day, I felt like I was surrounded by my people.

If you were following me on Twitter, you would have seen my little adventure, but I thought I would give a quick recap with a few thoughts.

This was my first visit to the Library of Congress. Although I regularly have to deal with them for my job, I have never actually been inside the building. I imagine that when some of these buildings in DC were built, they determined that the best way to build a building was to impress the pants off anyone who walked in the door. They succeeded.

Can I tell you that I was a bit disappointed that I was not able to actually be in the same room with the books. Obviously, I will just have to plan some sort of research visit next time because staring at them from behind glass from the mezzanine is not going to cut it.

We hoofed it over the Smithsonian Museum of Art, but due to my feet absolutely killing me, I don't think I really got to enjoy it. Plantar fascitis is a beast.

According to my sources, the reason the National Book Festival had to move indoors is because some rules regarding the National Mall changed and the cost of having the convention outside was just going to be too much. After spending one year outside in the rain, soaked despite my umbrella, I am very glad to see the Festival indoors. At the main desk on the first floor, volunteers handed out posters, schedules, and big green bags. Signage was fairly good, although I did get a little confused as to where certain rooms were at one point. It was easy to get turned around, especially if you are unfamiliar with the layout.

We started our day with Jeffrey Brown, author of Star Wars: Darth Vader & Son, Star Wars: Jedi Academy, and Sulk. The kids were fully engaged and when it came to the Q&A halfway through, there was quite a cue at the microphones as kids requested that Mr. Brown draw their favorite Star Wars character. One little girl in particular walked up and shouted, "R2D2!" That's it. Just R2D2. She had to shout it again before Mr. Brown realized she was asking him to draw the beloved droid. As a fellow Star Wars fan, this was perhaps my favorite talk of the day.

In line for Jeffrey Brown. The best part about standing in lines is that you are surrounded by other people, and specifically kids, who love that author too. Since some of the kids didn't get to go to the talk, I was able to share some of Jeffrey Brown's pearls of wisdom with his little fans.

I also met up with a friend and former classmate and her daughter. I think the National Book Festival is one of the few places where you can just plop down on the ground and start reading and absolutely no one will be bothered by it.

Anne Ursu is one of my former advisers at Hamline University and I would like to consider her a friend. There was an awkward moment during the taking of this photo because apparently me coming around the table, even though we know each other well, was against the rules. As was her writing my name in my book. I get it. I really do. If everyone did this, the poor author's would feel accosted. But dammit, I haven't seen Anne in almost 4 years and I sure as hell wanted to at least give her a quick hug.

One of the best things about the National Book Festival being inside was that there was a ton of great comfortable seating. Admittedly, I usually chose to sit in the back. Gene Luen Yang's talk was great, but as you can see, I wasn't keen to be on the front row. Another introvert tendency perhaps?

Lines. They are synonymous with the National Book Festival. At one point I had to hold this A and direct people into my line for Gene Luen Yang's book signing. It was a bit awkward because people did try to skip in line (often out of confusion). However, the volunteers were very good at noticing when people were in the wrong place or bypassing the line, and they quickly showed them where to go.

The final bit of the evening, we went to a Book Into Film panel. We left after listening to two authors talk about how much they hated the movies that were made from their books. Although I don't think an author has to love an adaptation, the sheer arrogance and rudeness on display made me viscerally angry. One author admitted to walking out of his film's premier after only 10 minutes. All I could think about was the poor film director along with the rest of the cast and crew, and how they felt as they watched that author leave. Comparing a book to a movie is like comparing a watercolor to an acrylic and expecting them to look the same. Sure, there are some book adaptations that are done badly, however it seems that other authors have found gracious ways not to crap all over someone else's art form. I once asked Jane Yolen about how she liked the adaptation of Devil's Arithmetic. Although she was not shy about how she thought the filmmakers had missed the meaning and depth that was in her book, she at no point complained about the filmmakers nor did she announce that obviously film is inferior to books. Neither of which were things that I heard from that panel. Note to the Library of Congress, perhaps next time you should find some authors who actually like the movies that were made from their books. Or at least show some appreciation for them. I nominate John Green, Johnathan Safron Foer, Susan Orlean, and Anne Rice. Lois Lowry and Dennis Lehane could come too.

If... by David J Smith Book Review

If: A Mind-bending New Way of Looking at Big Ideas and Numbers by David J. Smith
Illustrations by Steve Adams
Publisher: Kids Can Press
Release Date: August 1, 2014

Numbers are big. Huge. Some are so astronomically big that it is almost impossible to imagine them. And so David Smith tries to narrow it down. Imagine if all the world's wealth were 100 gold coins. How would those 100 coins be distributed throughout the world? Imagine that the planets were the sizes of balls. Taking things like population, the size of the universe, history, Smith scales them down to a number that is easier to comprehend.

Although written for children, I think this book has a very universal appeal, because the truth is, even adults have a hard time imagining how big our universe really is. Numbers are big and this book does a terrific job of making those numbers manageable.

Primates by Jim Ottaviani Book Review

Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani
Illustrations by Maris Wicks
Publisher: First Second
Release Date: June 11, 2013

A non-fiction graphic novel that depicts the life of three primatologists: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas. Together they changed the way we think of primates and perhaps ourselves as well.

I have always found the stories of female scientists fascinating, especially Jane Goodall as this was a woman who, without knowing anything about primates, made it her life's work. These other women, although I am aware of who they are and what they did, were a little less on my radar. With graphic novels covering a wide range of topics, I love the idea of a non-fiction scientific subject. It is a complete shame that the implementation of this idea was not up to par.

Throughout the book I grew increasingly confused by the constant shifts in narration and the changing of characters with little explanation. Who is talking now? Why? Who are they talking about? More concerning and something that wasn't addressed by any of the women in the book was the rampant sexism that gave them their careers. Louis Leakey was apparently well-known for choosing women to work with primates because he felt that they could do things that men can't. This wasn't because he really thought that women were necessarily better at their jobs, but more because working with primates apparently requires a "woman's touch". At no point do any of the "characters" seem at all concerned, frustrated, or perturbed by this. Perhaps he was right? Or perhaps the women that coming into his path were just right for the job? That may require a bit more research than what was in the pages of this book.

I desperately want to know if these women actually agree that women are better in the field or if they simply were doing their job and simply ignored Leakey's comments.

There were a number of unanswered questions, my biggest one being, what did Galdikas sit on that caused a health problem and what was the exact nature of the health scare? Husbands and children appeared out of nowhere. Jane Goodall is running around nude for some reason. The emphasis seems to be on the beginning of their careers and the struggle to get into the field and not so much the discoveries that were made, the significance of their work, and why they were doing it. For all three, it felt like the author was implying that these women thought monkeys (or other primates) were cool and just wanted to work with them, even if they didn't have any formal training. Their life's work are reduced to one discovery and that's it. 

Then I reached the part at the end where the author says, "Some of what you just read is fiction." No. Stop right there! It is not okay to write a non-fiction book about real people, some of which are still alive, and then just make stuff up for the sake of a good story. This is what bad biographers used to do in the 60's, making fiction and non-fiction often indistinguishable. It is not okay now. Not in the information age where facts, interviews, videos, and research are at the click of a mouse. It is shameful. It also makes the entire story a fiction. Because it is impossible, without our own extensive research, to find out what is fact, this story serves little purpose. As a fictional story, it lacks the heart and character changes needed for a good story arc. For non-fiction is lacks facts. 

If you are looking for some great books about these ladies for kids may I recommend: Me...Jane, The Watcher, Who is Jane Goodall?, Seeds of Hope (by Jane Goodall), Gorillas in the Mist, Letters From the Mist, Among the Orangutans, Reflections of Eden (Biruté Galdikas), Orangutan Odyssey

Gigantosaurus by Jonny Duddle Book Review

Gigantosaurus by Jonny Duddle
Publisher: Templar Publishing
Release Date: February 1, 2014

All young dinosaurs are warned about the scary Gigantosaurus. So Bonehead volunteers to be the dino-kids lookout. Unfortunately, he is the original boy-dinosaur who cried wolf, or in this case, Gigantosaurus! Finally, Bonehead's friends refuse to believe his warnings and the Gigantosaurus really turns up.

This story was a combination of 'Land Before Time' meets 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf'. I actually felt kind of bad for young Bonehead because unlike the wolf story where the child is being willfully untruthful, Bonehead simply mistakes other large animals for the Gigantosaurus. When the actual Gigantosaurus does show up, Bonehead is nearly killed and the other dinos don't seem all too concerned about him based on his supposed lies. Yet, I found Bonehead to be the cutest of the dinosaurs, easily exciteable and obviously a little fearful. It is a shame the author didn't play on those elements. I thought the illustrations were very well done, but I just couldn't see Bonehead as being a liar as the other characters saw him. In the end, they still don't trust him (he does survive) and I thought that was a shame for the poor little dinosaur who was just trying to be a good lookout. 

Ninja Red Riding Hood by Corey Rosen Schwartz Book Review

Ninja Red Riding Hood by Corey Rosen Schwartz
Illustrations by Dan Santat
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Release Date: July 10, 2014

We all know the story of Little Red Riding Hood. In this newest fairy tale rehash Corey Schwartz and Dan Santat create a Red Riding Hood who is anything but naive or defenseless. Every page was an absolute delight as there was some new twist whether there be the wolf in a blond wig at the Dojo or Red Riding Hood throwing off her cape to reveal full martial arts attire. There is a wink to the readers too in regards to The Three Ninja Pigs. This is a must read and a must buy for anyone. If you have no young children in your life, consider it the next time you donate some books.

Eleanora E. Tate Author Interview

Don't Split the Pole: Tales of Down-Home Folk Wisdom by Eleanora E. Tate
An Authors Guild Back-in-Print Edition  ©May 2014
Published by iUniverse, Inc.    

Eleanora E. Tate
      Eleanora E. Tate, author of eleven children’s and young adult books, has been an author in schools, libraries, on university campuses and at conferences around the country (and in Canada and Bermuda) for over 40 years.  She’s on the faculty of  Hamline University’s Masters degree seeking low-residency program “Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults” in St. Paul, MN. She previously taught children’s literature at North Carolina Central University, Durham, NC and has been an instructor with the Institute of Children’s Literature at West Redding, CT.
     Her book Celeste’s Harlem Renaissance (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2007), is a recipient of the 2007 AAUW  North Carolina Book Award for Juvenile Literature,  and an IRA Teacher’s Choice winner.  In addition to Don’t Split the Pole, her other books are The Secret of Gumbo Grove; Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.!; Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School;  Just an Overnight Guest (made into an award-winning television film); African American Musicians; To Be Free; A Blessing in Disguise; The Minstrel’s Melody; and Retold African Myths.  Two books are audio books. Another  was both a Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies and a Bankstreet Child Study Book Committee “Children’s Book of the Year.” 
     She was a Bread Loaf Writers Conference Fellow;  a National Association of Black Storytellers  (NABS) Zora Neale Hurston Award recipient, and a former NABS national president. Her short stories have appeared in American Girl Magazine, Scholastic Storyworks Magazine, Gold Finch Magazine, African American Review, and in numerous short story book collections. Her latest essay “Harking Back to Hargett Street” is in the 2013 anthology Twenty-Seven Views of Raleigh

1. Your writing career spans decades.  At what point did writing and promoting writing in others go from being a hobby to a career?  Were you ever worried about taking on writing as a career?
     My writing birth arrived in third grade when   I wrote my first story. By sixth grade I envisioned myself as a published writer, striding along the streets of Paris, France, Isadora Duncan style scarf  wrapped around my neck and also trailing behind me,  flaunting a big Afro and in a swirling gown ( or mini skirt and boots!),  notebook and No. 2 pencil in hand. It was either that or being a revolutionary in a bandana wrapped around my head, in boots, denim jacket and jeans, bandoleer strapped across my bosoms, telescopic rifle in my hands, face frowned up with determination. Maybe I am both in my writing.
     In on-the-ground life I became news editor of The Iowa Bystander Newspaper, a Des Moines Black weekly. A few years later I joined The Des Moines Register and Tribune Newspapers, writing articles for news side, poems for its Picture Page (that award-winning full  back page of pictures and text), and fiction for its Picture Magazine. I never considered my writing to be a hobby. It was and continues to be my life quest. I did think I’d make lots more money, though.

2. Your stories in Don’t Split the Pole: Tales of Down-Home Folk Wisdom are based on proverbs and sayings.  Why?
     I was born by the Mississippi River  in northeastern Missouri where  Missouri, Illinois and Iowa meet. Everybody I knew as a child used proverbs, sayings, similes and hyperbolic anecdotes in their every day conversations in the language common to our area. This regional vernacular was  so rich that I tried to emulate it in my Missouri based books Just an Overnight Guest (1980, 1997), Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School (1992, 2007), and The Minstrel’s Melody (2001, 2009).
     After I moved to South Carolina in 1978 I was introduced to and fell in love with that state’s unique, vivid language, history, and traditions.  The result was my South Carolina books The Secret of Gumbo Grove (1987), Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! (1990), and A Blessing in Disguise (1995, 1999).
     In  Don’t Split the Pole I wrap a story around  a saying I’d heard that had an impact on me. Although the sayings are as old as dirt, I place them in the contemporary time period to show readers that they have meaning in today’s world. 
     Although my story “Slow and Steady Wins the Race” differs from Aesop the Ethiope’s “Slow and Steady Wins the Race” fable, my theme is the same, and still features turtles.  
     My other stories and sayings in the book are: You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks; A Hard Head Makes a Soft Behind; Never Leave Your Pocketbook on the Floor; Don’t Split the Pole; Big Things Come in Small Packages; and What Goes Around Comes Around. All but one story are set in North Carolina.
     Sayings explain the reasons why things are, or ought to be, and pass along wisdom not only to children but also to adults. That’s probably partly why scholars call  them “traditional literature” and lump them with fables, folk tales, myths, and legends (and yes, fairytales, too, around which there is still much discussion). In my original manuscript back in 1997  I included footnotes about the origins of the ones I wrote about, but they were removed due to space limitations and politics.
     Well, I plan to write a full essay about those origins now!

3. How were you introduced to folktales?
    I loved to listen to my grandmother (who raised me) tell stories about her own youthful, green salad days.  She talked with such authenticity and her language was so picturesque that her adventures were as thrilling as many books I read, like The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. She also shared stories handed down from the African and African American oral storytelling tradition, her versions of Grimms’ fairytales, neighborhood gossip, and unusual newspaper stories. 
     Once she told me about a Missouri woman who was ten feet tall! I thought this was just another yarn until  as an adult researcher I found out about a very real woman named Ella Ewing, nicknamed “the Gentle Giantess.” She was  born in 1872, grew to be eight feet, four inches tall, and had hands ‘as big as frying pans’. Because of my grandmother’s love for story I was compelled to have my fictional narrator Margie Carson tell about Ella Ewing’s life in my book Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School. Thank you, Momma!
     I still collect stories. A fellow in Tennessee in 1976 gave me his account of “Old John and the Bear”  that I included in Just an Overnight Guest. Many years later I finally uncovered a similar version.
     My plat-eyed ghost tale in The Secret of Gumbo Grove was based on an encounter a woman told me she’d had with one in South Carolina. I also read Ambrose Gonzales’  book The Black Border: Gullah Stories of the Carolina Coast (1922)  and DuBose Heyward’s short story “The Half-Pint Flask”  to get a better feel for Ole Plat-Eye.   Years later the late Dr. James Haskins, a master writer, researcher and good friend, included my plat-eye account in his book The Headless Haunt and Other African-American Ghost Stories (1994). His research revealed  to my delight that a “plat-eye” legend existed in the West Indies, probably having migrated earlier from west Africa centuries ago!
     My book Retold African Myths (1993) consists of age-old,  often religious stories that existed primarily in oral form for centuries on the African continent that I “retell” in my own style and voice, based on the European published “variants” that my Perfection  Learning Corporation editor and his consultants (including famed writer Pat McKissack) selected. What I love in this collection are the word lists and extended activities that lead students to each of the eighteen selected kingdoms, cultures, and past and present histories.
    I can’t stress enough that no single culture or country can claim that the “first” folk tale was exclusively its own. Wherever those ancient people gathered with a common verbal or sign-making vocabulary, they told tales, and eventually created popular shorter versions that grew into their lexicon.
     Because of modern media technology, Walt Disney, and writers eager to create something new and sellable from the old, tracing folk tales, myths, legends, fables, fairytales, and, of course proverbs and sayings back to their origins can be difficult. Still, I advise writers to search for primary materials as best they can, and credit their sources.

4. What are some of the most important lessons you learned that serve you in your life?
     You know what? While conducting a teacher in-service years ago, I asked teachers that same question. We were discussing proverbs and sayings, of course. But I’ll come back in a bit to what one  teacher revealed.
     For me the most important lesson still is A hard head makes a soft behind that my grandmother often said to me. You should think about what you’re about to do and be prepared to suffer the consequences if you make the wrong choice.
     The “hard head” back story: When I was four or five years old my grandmother and I walked to the local ice cream parlor. I loved chocolate chip ice cream and lime sherbet, even in the winter. She warned me not to climb upon the bar stool because in my snowsuit I’d lose my balance and fall. Of course I tried anyway, and BAM!  Landed on the floor HARD on my butt. In that special grandmother who-still-loves-you-anyway tone, she said, “See? A hard head makes a soft behind.” Of course she didn’t say “behind.”
     Worse, no ice cream for me! Since that time I’ve learned to think and look first before placing my behind anywhere.
     Anyway, back to those teachers in my in-service. After some thought, one teacher responded, “Never make a major decision in the dark. I know. I have five kids now.”

5. Although the children’s book landscape has changed over the years, there is still a lack of diversity within their pages. Beyond simply inserting more diverse characters for the sake of diversity, what do you think is needed to create a more diverse landscape within children’s literature?
     Creating “a more diverse landscape” can’t happen if the effort is directed only to children’s literature. It’s just symptomatic of the “diversity” problems in the larger world. Children’s literature has been around for less than a thousand years, but racism and sexism and the other negative “isms” have been present in their many insidious forms in the world since Day One, and evolve to fit racist and sexist  et al. purposes.
     For the moment, let’s assume that all is right with the world otherwise, and that the only problem left is “lack of diversity in children’s books.”

     If this was the case, the best way to have more children’s books with more characters reflective of the human race (i.e. diverse) is to have more writers and editors who reflect that humanity to do the writing and editing.
     But the problem is much deeper than that. The problem goes to the core of human relationships. Some   writers question why they need to  include characters different from those that  they want to write about in their manuscripts. After all, they’re writing about “their” world. I’d hate to have an editor insist that I add accessory characters to those I already have “just because.” I’m writing about “my” world, too, but my characters  represent different ethnicities and ages  and  have purpose in my books.  I’ve had wonderful editors who understood this, and I’ve had editors who haven’t. They were good people, but they just couldn’t comprehend.
     White writers and editors write and edit  the majority of every other culture’s books for children, but they can’t know everything about everybody all the time!  Yet, being in charge, having privilege, and not used to so much ingrained compromise, too often they produce books  that may be  racially and/or culturally problematic, certainly insensitive.  Though readers may see the weaknesses, these writers and editors might not. What they will recognize is that they are in charge.
      Even words evolve. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s the word used to describe people of color  was “minority.” It was personally sad to me to hear about a school being “85 per cent minority.”  Excuse me? Wouldn’t that make the school a “majority” of whoever most of the student population was? 
     In the 1980s and 1990s  the “trendy” words were  “multicultural” and “multiculturalism”. Now it’s  “diverse” and “diversity”.
       Writer, educator and scholar Dr. Violet Harris produced a succinct definition of  “multicultural” that  I agree with: “Multicultural can include race, ethnicity, gender, class, and other elements that denote difference.” And “culture,” she writes, could refer to “beliefs, attitudes, values, world-views, institutions, artifacts, processes, interaction, and ways of behaving.”
     Dr. James Banks, another scholar and educator who I met some years ago and also admire, is a leading advocate for “multi-ethnic” education and curriculum, which would (and as it should)  include children’s books that offer clear voices and  characters.
     I obviously don’t care for the words “diversity,” “diverse” and “minority,” because people are quick to say what these words should do but have yet to offer  precise definitions of what they mean
      Though they may not realize or acknowledge it, all writers send their characters through their own social, cultural, emotional, racial lenses. There are also those writers who write about cultures other than their own, yet  don’t have enough knowledge about that culture to do it well. Yet they’ll have fits when their published terribly written work is justifiably criticized.
     Add to that lens  a society’s stereotypes about culture and ethnicity,  and you end up with  turmoil in the world  and in books. It’s an insidious circle.
     In the meantime  … read my books.

6. How do you hope your books will impact the next generation of readers? Is there something you wish your readers would learn or understand through you?
    I offer a glimpse into African American life in the United States  through my lens. Those lives, whether biographical or fictional, encompass a variety of lifestyles. I stand by what I write. I see it, I envision it, I live it, I hear it told to me by people who’d lived it,  I research it through narratives of those who’d gone before me, all of which is part of my personal history. This is real to me. I study history because I want to know what happened  with my people before I came on the scene.
     When I speak about “my people” and “my ancestors” I mean folks who were kin to me as well as those who weren’t.  People of African descent -- enslaved, free, from the African continent before enslavement, now  --   experienced triumphs and tribulations  that were and continue to be very real and important  to me.  
     Did you know that there are younger generations of  “Black” writers and illustrators who laugh at children living in “the ghetto” and ridicule them? Yet they want these children to read their books and look up to them.
     I am different in my thought and philosophy from such people, who are just as negative as the writers and illustrators who don’t want to include people of color, disability, gender and the rest of humanity in their works.

7. Does writing and getting published still hold the same excitement as it used to? How do you celebrate when a new manuscript is complete, published, or back in print?
     Several of my other books have been reprinted. Seeing   Don’t Split the Pole: Tales of Down-Home Folk Wisdom reach re-publication in May 2014  gave me a quiet sense of satisfaction. Now all of my books, I think, are back in print.

 8. How can readers discover more about you and your work? (blog, twitter, web page, etc.)
     My web site is:
     My latest essay, “Harking Back to Hargett Street,” appears with twenty-six other writers in the anthology 27 Views of Raleigh (2013, Eno Publishers).
      Here are some online  interviews:
Interview with author Tamera Will Wissinger:

Interview with author Kelly Starling Lyons:

Interview with Author Jennifer Bertman:

     A few of my favorite magazine and book  essays:
     Bond, Dr. Ernie, editor; “Author Spotlight;” Literature and the Young Adult Reader;  Pearson Education, Boston, 2011.
     “Novels with Long Roots,” essay, Book Links Magazine, American Library Association, January 2000.
       Harris, Dr. Violet, editor; “From the Oral to the Written,” essay, The New Advocate Journal, spring  2003.
        “From Book to Movie,” essay, North Carolina Literary Review, online edition, spring 2012. 
     My posts are also at Hamline University’s Creative Writing Program’s with my most recent post published April  23, 2014, “A Few Essential Ingredients for My Writing Stew.”