Friday, October 31, 2014

Nest by Esther Ehrlich

When I saw the reviews mentioning things like "heartfelt" and "sings with heart and emotion" my first thought was "I bet her mom dies." However, I decided to read it anyways, because I loved the cover art.


Naomi "Chirp" loves her family and their life on Cape Cod. She doesn't always get along with her older sister Rachel and her psychiatrist father doesn't understand her need for quiet and privacy with his insistence on everyone talking things out and sharing, but she is close to her mother, who loves to dance and she has her birds and the natural world that she loves to observe.

Then her mother gets sick. Everything changes and gets worse and worse. The small things that didn't matter before; being the only Jewish family in her school, her mom's more avant garde life compared to the more conservative, suburban moms, the boys next door she's supposed to stay away from, all become magnified. Her parents struggle to handle her mother's degenerative disease but her mother spirals into depression and is hospitalized. When she comes back, she doesn't seem like Mom anymore and everyone walks on eggshells, trying to preserve their fragile family. It's not enough and tragedy ultimately strikes. Chirp feels abandoned and separated from her remaining family and the friendship she thought she had with Joey next door. It takes some painful experiences before she is able to reconnect and begin the grieving process.

The historical setting of the book is referenced in mentions of the Vietnam war, occasional protests, and some pop culture, but I don't think most kids will really grasp any of those references except possibly the war. For me, the father's treatment of his wife, as he "analyzes" her issues in an extremely paternalistic fashion and eventually commits her to a mental hospital, where she undergoes electroshock therapy that radically changes her personality, was the most glaring historical note. How many kids will know about mental treatments of the 60s and 70s? Not many.

There's a secondary story line with Joey, the boy next door, who forms a friendship with Chirp and then attacks her when he feels betrayed. This story line wasn't really followed up; at the end, there's some indications that his brothers will protect him from his father's physical abuse, but nothing definite. This is not a book for kids who want a strong plot with all the ends neatly tied up; Chirp's story ends as she comes to a point where she's ready to begin grieving for her mother and coming to terms with her death and there are no easy answers to the family issues of anyone in the story.

Generally, I'm not much a fan of this type of historical fiction (or any historical fiction really) but I do try to buy a couple of these books a year for the girls who love, love, love this kind of book. This is definitely a two-kleenex box story and I have to admit that by the halfway mark I was wanting her mother to just DIE ALREADY so we could have one burst of cathartic grief. But that's just me - I feel uncomfortable with books (or any media) that I feel is trying to emotionally manipulate me.

This is a real tearjerker but also has some sharp insights into life and dealing with grief as Chirp struggles to come to terms with her mother's illness and sudden, shocking death. Her feeling of separation will definitely strike a chord with kids who are just starting to find their own identities and feel different (and what kid at that age doesn't?) from those around them.

Verdict: If, like me, you only buy a couple of this type of book every year (beautifully written historical fiction featuring girls whose mothers die and who are obsessed with the natural beauty of the world around them) this should definitely be one of them. I wouldn't be surprised to see it showing up on some award lists. 

ISBN: 9780383386074; Published 2014 by Wendy Lamb Books/Random House; Review copy provided by publisher; Donated to the library

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Small Readers: Meet Monster by Ellen Blance and Ann Cook, illustrated by Quentin Blake

As you can see, I am beginning a new feature! Small Readers will be reviews of easy readers and they will alternate with Read, Read, Read, said the Baby (board books) on Wednesday. So, I will be back to three reviews a week. As I get started, I'm going to bring back some of my older easy reader reviews for another look. Enjoy!

[Originally published in 2011. No edits have been made.]

Sometimes when we meet an old book friend, we're disappointed. The book we remembered was so much more magical, so much better-written. We look back at it with an adult's eyes just doesn't measure up.

Happily, that is not the case with the reprinting of Ellen Blance and Ann Cook's beloved Monster stories. Monster is every bit as purple and his adventures are every bit as delightfully logical, with the logic of a child's mind, just as I remember.

All six easy readers are collecting in one tidy volume with each book as a chapter. In the first book, we meet Monster. He's tall and purple and has a skinny head and he looks at everything in the city. Finally, he packs his things and comes to stay. So, naturally, in the second story he must find a house that is just right for him - not too small, not too messy, not too big. Now that he has moved in, it's time for him him to clean house! Everything looks fine and he's ready for book five; finding a friend. After lots of looking, he finds a small boy who is happy to be his friend and comes to live with him. In the final chapter, he and his new friend find a lady monster and a magic umbrella.

Quentin Blake's classic illustrations are the perfect background to the stories of Monster. They have a child's logic; if you find a friend, of course he comes to live with you. If you are a monster, you need a big tall house. You don't just clean things, you clean them for a reason - so the bedroom gets cleaned so you don't have to clean it while people are sleeping. The bathtub gets cleaned so when you pour the water in it's not dirty.

The abrupt changes in plot - one minute Monster is delightedly meeting a lady monster, the next minute they are playing soccer, and then suddenly it's raining and they have a giant magic umbrella - are all a perfect blend of a child's narrational train and the gentle hand of the authors creating a readable and simply expressed story.

Verdict: I am so happy they brought these stories back into print - they are classic easy readers and would make a great choice for a beginning reader book club or springboards for writing your own Monster stories!

ISBN: 978-07614-5648-3; Published April 2011 by Marshall Cavendish; Purchased for the library

Monday, October 27, 2014

Read Scary: Nonfiction Monday: When Lunch fights back: Wickedly Clever Animal Defenses by Rebecca L. Johnson

This is awesome. It's definitely going to be on my list of "freaky weird animal books" that I take to schools in the spring.

The introduction talks briefly about the life-or-death struggle to survive and references the basic common defenses, but there's so much more out there...

Each chapter begins with a tense narrative of attack and defense, with basic information on the animal and cool photographs. The next section explains the science behind the defense with plenty of quotes from scientists and even some discussion of how the creature's defenses may be used in science.

The animals discussed include a hagfish, African hairy frog, Spanish ribbed newt, termites, hoopoe chicks, fulmar chicks, mantis shrimp, horned lizard, two-spot fish and even black mustard plants. Defenses range from slime and spurting blood to spraying poop and clever chemical ruses.

Back matter includes an author's note, bibliography, print and web sources (including videos of animal defenses in action) an index and source notes.

What sets this book apart from the usual "gross and weird animals!" books that are so popular is the emphasis on the science behind the defenses and the larger context of how the animals and their defenses fit into their habitats and affect the creatures around them. Of course, there's plenty of creepy and gross pictures, which doesn't hurt either!

Verdict: This will certainly appeal to the kids who like the "weird animals" genre, but it's got even more information that will grab science-minded kids and even adults! Highly recommended.

ISBN: 9781467721097; Published 2014 by Milbrook/Lerner; Purchased for the library

Saturday, October 25, 2014

This week at the library; or, Outreach it's ON

What's going on at the library and in my head
  • Sometimes all you can do on Monday is resign yourself to your fate and hope you don't throw up on any small children. I passed the BLAs in the picture books to neighborhood projects. Now I'm on to the BUTs. I'm beginning to have a sneaking suspicion that this project will not be done by the end of the year...
  • This week was crazy with outreach, staffing issues, and trying to think about big picture goals when all I really want to do is survive until November.
  • Bright spots - someone found me a toilet seat so I didn't have to make one for the Wimpy Kid party and a parent told me how much they loved the Neighborhoods. Also, one of the parent chaperones on the second grade tour came back to donate stuff!
  • Several new families came to the Welty center program and everyone had a great time, although it was a smaller group (although a good size for a no school day - 35)
What the kids are reading:
  • Kid wanting nonfiction that he could read and chapter books. He was carrying some magic tree house and I threw out some subjects - history? adventure? sports? SPORTS. I have him Jake Maddox and showed him the Bearport sports bios that I have - very excited with Jake Maddox.
  • Adult looking for books for an 8 year old who's gone through all the Wimpy Kid and is finishing Big Nate and wants him to "move on". She seemed receptive so I cautiously gave my tactful speech about how books are more than levels and he wouldn't want to miss out on the books kids his age are reading just because they're a little easier. She agreed and took Shredderman,
  • Books about moving to a "big boy bed" - I have Eve Bunting's Your own big bed and also Ed Braun's Back to bed, Ed!
  • Holiday books - Halloween and Thanksgiving.
  • Kids on tour were VERY excited about the minecraft books I showed them. I told our cataloger to make sure the records were in so they could place holds.
  • Wimpy Kid
  • Cupcake Crusader - this turned out to be Horace Splattley, which I don't own
  • I Spy books
  • More suggestions for 900+ lexile reader I talked to a few weeks ago - he loved Nurk and the Komodo Dragons book and didn't really get into Ranger's Apprentice, so I gave him the Face to Face series for nonfiction, Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom, and How to train your dragon

Friday, October 24, 2014

Stranded by Jeff Probst and Chris Tebbetts

I had no idea who Jeff Probst was, I just saw this and thought "survival adventure!" and "it's short!" and grabbed it at an ALA conference. Um....several years ago. Yes, I am just now digging into my backlog of middle grade fiction.

Four kids are sailing in the middle of nowhere with their uncle and his friend. Vanessa is the oldest, her younger brother Buzz would rather be anywhere else (preferably somewhere with a tv and no seasickness) and they can't imagine ever being a family with their new siblings, arrogant, athletic Carter and his super-smart little sister Jane.

Then their boat wrecks, the adults are swept away on their only lifeboat, and the four kids are stranded on a tiny island. Will they learn to work together to survive, or will risky decisions, arguments, and the natural dangers that surround them take them down one by one?

This isn't great literature. The characters are one-dimensional, identified mostly by a single characteristic (Vanessa - bossy; Buzz - tv/games obsessed; Carter - athletic; Jane - child prodigy) and there are several info dumps and passages about mechanics of things (fixing a solar panel) that I found boring. The writing is rather bland.

It will check out like crazy. Is the writing as good as, say, Gordon Korman's adventure stories? No. But it's exciting, kids like the informational spots, and it's got enough family drama to keep those not interested in survival stories reading.

Verdict: Great literature? Nope. A fun, fast-paced story that will appeal to a wide range of readers? Yes. Bonus, it's less than 200 pages (you can purchase the first three volumes in one book, but I think that kind of defeats the purpose). If you have all Gordon Korman's adventure series and need more - and who doesn't? I recommend this series.

ISBN: 9780142424247; Published 2013 by Penguin; ARC provided by publisher at ALA; Added to the library's order list

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee

The accompanying publicist's letter says "and you thought you hated clowns" so just to test it I showed this to our staff member with a morbid fear of clowns. She did consent to flip through it and said it was cute...but she still hates clowns.

So, it's a wordless book with Frazee's trademark cheerfully round faces. A grim farmer in the blank gray prairie (I'm guessing this is Kansas) is completely taken aback when a small clown tumbles off a circus train. When the little clown loses his painted smile, the farmer tries to cheer him up and eventually both of them relax together in friendly smiles - just in time for the circus train to return and the little clown to give one last hug and leave behind something special.

This is a story with lots of hints of underlying thoughts about family, friendship, and laughter. It's also just plain fun! Frazee's art captures how out of place the little clown is in the gray, serious prairie and how things gradually brighten up with his presence.

It will work best for one-on-one sharing, as some of the panels are small and it will take close attention to pick up all the details of the book.

Verdict: There aren't a lot of circus books out there, and this one is both sweet and funny. However, I limit the number of wordless picture books I buy since they tend to have a more limited audience. I wouldn't say this is a must-have purchase, but if you have the budget and space it's certainly a recommended addition.

ISBN: 9781442497443; Published 2014 by Beach Lane Books/Simon and Schuster; Review copy provided by the publisher; Donated to the library

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Read Scary: Read, Read, Read, said the Baby: Duck and Goose Find a Pumpkin by Tad Hills

This review was previously published. I have edited it.

This title was originally released as a small format board book in July 2009, but to my delight Random House has re-released it in a large, picture-book size board book, perfect for storytime! It's about 10 by 10 inches.

It's hard to believe there is anyone out there who hasn't met Duck and Goose yet, but if you haven't...

Duck and Goose are best friends, sometimes joined by another duckling, Thistle. While they most often explore concepts in their board books, in this particular title they're on a hunt - a hunt for a pumpkin! Duck and Goose are so enamoured of Thistle's pumpkin that they go searching for one of their own, but in all the wrong places. With a little help from Thistle, they finally find their own pumpkin.

The text is short, sweet and simple, perfect for toddlers. It's framed as a series of questions, "Is our pumpkin in the log, Goose? No." and makes not only a good straight read-aloud, but a nice structure for creating your own questions and story, especially if you're reading this with older kids.

Hills' oil paint illustrations are so rich I just want to keep stroking this book. Duck and Goose's brilliant white and yellow plumage stands out sharply against a glowing orange and green background of leaves, grass, and pumpkins. The illustrations are simple and easy for little ones to follow, without overdoing the detail, but they're not abstract and don't make you guess what the painting is supposed to be.

Verdict: I'm delighted that Random has published this board book in a large enough format that I can use this title in storytime. Great for toddlers and young preschoolers and perfect for fall storytimes. Even if you have the original, I strongly recommend purchasing this new edition as well!

ISBN: 9780307981554; This edition published July 2012 by Random House/Schwartz & Wade; Review copy provided by the publisher; Donated to the library

Monday, October 20, 2014

Nonfiction Monday: Tracks Count: A guide to Counting Animal Prints by Steve Engel, illustrated by Alexander Petersen

Small press Craigmore Creations focuses on geology and other nature-themed titles. This is part of their "Little Naturalists" series.

An introduction "for the grown-ups" by David R. Shapiro opens the book with an explanation of how to read tracks and how they are arranged for the book.

Each spread introduces a number and corresponding tracks with a little interactive counting. For example, on the page for three, there is a large numeral 3, then "Rhinoceros" then a rhinoceros footprint. Under that, the text reads "On the hot savannah, three rhinoceros rest under a tree. Count the toes on the track - one, two, three! The page of text and the illustration of the track is paired with a picture on the right in brown hues featuring the animals in their habitat.

A final spread shows the numbers from 1-10 with tracks for each (three rhino tracks under the three, etc.). Another spread lists the animals' scientific names and a short paragraph of information about each.

The art is not the usual colorful, bright pictures of a children's book, but there is something attractive about the simple, natural sketches and soft charcoal shading. The tracks are clearly drawn and make it easy to count the toes, which make up the counting exercises.

The big problem I usually have with this type of unique concept book is that it's developmentally way above the age of children who need concept books. This one works pretty well though. Very young children can count the toes on the tracks and identify the animals, and older kids who are beyond the counting part can enjoy identifying the tracks.

Verdict: There are a lot of animal track books out there, but this is a fun combination of animals tracks and counting. If you have fans of either, this would make a good addition to your library.

ISBN: 9781940052076; Published 2014 by Craigmore Creations; Review copy provided by the publisher; Donated to the library

Saturday, October 18, 2014

This week at the library; or, clinging to calm with the tips of my fingers

What's Happening: At the library and in my head
  • Crazy week! Luckily a bunch of outreach got pushed forward to next week, so I had a week to try and catch up on things. I am trying to maintain my zen and not get stressed out. Sort of working.
  • Outside projects - my class with Marge, Cybils, getting the garden ready for the fall, catching up on reviewing
  • Library projects - Neighborhoods, putting together a tentative departmental mission/goals/objectives. I figure it doesn't have to be perfect, just enough to get us started and I'll refine it as we test it out. Also found out that RFID is definitely happening - I had mixed feelings about this until I realized it would mean security gates (coming in December) which would mean....I can have an anime collection in the teen area!!!
  • Monday - Meetings! First with some other consortium youth librarians, then an insurance meeting with the city, then a staff meeting, then it was time to go on the information desk for the evening.
  • Tuesday - dealing with incidents from last Friday evening, tackling program planning and catching up to everything that didn't get done, like filling displays and putting out a new Take Home Storytime: We are the dinosaurs!
  • And then I was just busy.
What the kids are reading
  • Yes, the Minecraft books are coming.
  • More Lexiles woe - we made up the points needed at a very high lexile for a 4th grader with Nurk, Mysteries of the Komodo Dragon, and also took Ruins of Gorlan for later.
  • Read-alikes for Cupcake Diaries for a ten year old. What she really, really wants is more surfing books but neither her mom nor I can find anything. I suggested Sew Zoey, My life in pink and green, and Cupcake Cousins (should have suggested Cupcake Club, but I don't have it here and didn't think of it until after they had gone)
  • Fred 3. This is why we have a consortium, so we can get movies from other libraries.
  • Family who absolutely loves Lindgren's Skinnyjack - I am the only library who has it! I helped her find a used version online.
  • Easy readers for the very beginner - Biscuit and Elephant and Piggie
  • Goosebumps - should put some on display with the Halloween books
  • Bubble Guppies - couldn't find anywhere
  • Press Here - one copy should have been in but couldn't find it. I put Press Here and Mix it up on hold for them and then remembered I had just gotten Tap to Play so gave her that and she was very excited to be the first to check it out. Press Here seems to be one of those picture books that grabs a wide range of ages - this girl was probably 7.
  • Small child very sad that the tub of Lego books was empty. I pulled some easy readers for him.
  • Lengthy discussion starting with read-alikes for My Louisiana Sky and Penny from Heaven and ending with Adventure Time and Doodlebug.
  • Teacher wanting books on "kindness" for kindergarten to 1st grade - gave her Trudy Ludwig's oevre.
  • Parent wanting books to read with a reluctant 10 year old reader (this is the "reluctant reader b/c he only reads Big Nate" variety). I tactfully suggested that Where the Red Fern Grows was maybe not going to really interest him and gave her Hatchet, Gregor the Overlander, and Nerds instead.