Thursday, June 24, 2010

Zora & Me

Zora and Me by Victoria Bond & T.R. Simon
to be published in October 2010 by Candlewick

Adventure, mystery, coming of age story, and historical fiction, not to mention wonderful writing and strong characters, make Zora and Me one of the best middle grade books I've read in a while. This is not a book I merely liked, Zora and Me deserves much more than that. It has a future in classrooms, being used to help children understand race in America in the early 20th century, while still being an enjoyable and compelling read. Zora and Me is endorsed by the Zora Neale Hurston Trust and a lot of indie booksellers are getting behind it - for good reason. I really wouldn't be surprised if Zora and Me received a number of award nominations.

Carrie, our narrator, is sweet and sure. Though she believes Zora's stories, she doesn't embroider what she observes to quite the extent that Zora does. The narrative begins with Zora's story of a man with a gator head. With the addition of events, from an old woman getting hurt by the swimming hole to a man found dead by the railroad tracks, all the events orbit around Zora's story of a gator man. But real world explanations are more complex than a gator man, and Zora, Carrie, and Teddy must find a way to understand the differences between white lies, truth, and fiction.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Sometimes you need something funny. If you're me, you'd rather read something funny than anything else, at least most days of the week. Spaceheadz is funny, ridiculous, features out of this world characters (literally), some fun websites, and is exactly what you need for the beach this summer. Oh yeah, and once you read it you can help save the world.

It's the first day in a new school for Michael K. and he desperately wants it to go well. But the two kids sitting next to him (and their hamster) are weird. Out of this world weird. In fact, they're Spaceheadz and have selected Michael to help them save the world from something I'm sure glad didn't happen. Meanwhile, Agent Umber, from the Anti Alien Agency (AAA), is on the job, trying to protect the earth from aliens. Will Spaceheadz be able to evade this pickle-phone toting agent? Or will Mrs. Halley's homework get in the way?

A ridiculous middle grade book from the incomparable Jon Scieszka, with help from Francesco Sedita and illustrations by Shane Prigmore.

Not Your Usual Fairy Tale

Dust City by Robert Paul Weston
published November 2010 from Razorbill (Penguin)

By now you may have learned that I enjoy retold fairy tales. So when I saw that Dust City was narrated by the Big Bad Wolf's son, I had to pick it up. Think the Outsiders with a Fables twist.

With his dad in prison for the Little Red Riding Hood murder, Henry Whelp knew he was going to end up in trouble some time. But juvie isn't so bad until his shrink is murdered and he finds a file containing letters from his father. It turns out the "dust" (as in fairy) that everyone takes, from over-the-counter for headaches to the serious stuff dealt in back alleys, isn't what it seems. With the assistance of a klepto named Jack (and his magic beans) and the brave wolf Fiona, Henry escapes his prison, setting out to figure out where fairy godmothers have gone, as well as their so-called happily-ever-afters.

Weston's book is dark, gritty, and violent, but stands out from many on the YA shelf with it's fairy-tale inspired twist. Fairy tales were always scary, but Weston updates the issues and ideas, creating a gritty novel that will resonate with today's teens.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Watercolor & Gouache

This week's selection of hardcover picture books all have watercolor or gouache illustrations. Gouache, for those who don't know, is a kind of paint similar to watercolor. It comes in little tubes and when you mix the paint with water to a pudding consistency, it can be applied to paper in areas that dry matte and flat. If you mix additional water in, the gouache will look exactly the same as watercolor. Gouache is often used for concept art for animations. Mary Blair, who did development artwork for Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, used gouache in her paintings for the Disney movies. Some of these paintings have been collected into books: Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland by Scieszka and Walt Disney's Peter Pan by Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson. Now that we've had a media lesson, on to some picture books.

Beaver is Lost
by Elisha Cooper
This story is told entirely in watercolor illustrations, a bit like David Wiesner's Tuesday, though Cooper's illustrations are much looser and more fluid than the intricacies of Wiesner's.
A little beaver floats away from his family on a log. He ends up at the dock of a lumber company where he is chased by a dog, he goes through a swimming pool, around a zoo, through a pond, through the streets, and finally swims home after his adventure. The looseness of the paintings give the book an almost dream-like quality. A few of my coworkers looked through the book, commenting on beaver's adventure as they went; I am sure children will do the same, reading the illustrations as they go. Those familiar with the skyline of Chicago will be able to pick out the specific location of each scene.

Biblioburro: A True Story from Columbia by Jeanette Winter
This picture book is based on a true story and features vibrant gouache illustrations.
Luis' house is so full of books there is barely room for him! So he loads the books on two burros and sets out to bring the books to people in other villages. On the way he meets a bandit. Having no silver, Luis gives the bandit a book and continues on. In the village he reads a book and passes around books to all the children before continuing home. This simple book celebrates the act of sharing books and reading. Winter's illustrations are bright and colorful and the texture of the watercolor paper she used comes through to make them almost appear as fabric collages. This book is great for even the youngest book lover.

Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle illustrated by Jill McElmurry
This story is told entirely in rhyme with watercolor and gouache illustrations. A little blue truck drives down the road, beeping at the different animals it passes. When a yellow dump truck barrels by and gets stuck in the mud, everyone goes to help out, from the blue truck to a frog. Children will help out by chiming in on the sound effects, a job made easier as each onomatopoeic word is written in large type and color-coded. Additionally, this book delivers a message of helping people, even if they might not do the same for you at first (do unto others).

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

John Grisham's middle reader

Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer. It's a strange title. I mean, if I were a kid, I'd rather pick up a book titled "Theodore Boone" or even "Theodore Boone [insert title of case here]."

It is obvious from the writing that this is Grisham's first novel for children. He states things it might be better to just hint at. For example, that Theo's best friend April is a girl but just a friend. Instead, Grisham could have established this through the dialogue and interactions Theo and April have. Not to mention that April appears only briefly, as if Grisham is trying to introduce her now so her appearance in another novel is less strange. There's also a reliance on going through the motions of each day, outlining where Theo had dinner, etc. when these snippets have no seeming relevance to the narrative and only seek to slow it down.

I haven't read any of Grisham's adult novels, so I'm not sure if he's writing down to children, or if this is simply how he writes. The novel is not all bad. Grisham clearly outlines court procedures and explains the judicial system as he goes along, giving the reader applicable knowledge as he goes along. Because of this, I could see the book being used in middle school classrooms as a supplement for social studies classes. However, unless I come across a serious, government and civics focused twelve year old, I can't see this book leaving the shelf.