Monday, December 11, 2017

Christmas Book Giving Guide 2017

Over the past year, I've seen thousands of children's books, and now we're entering the season of best-of lists and holiday gift guides.  I've done a really poor job of blogging here for the past year and a half (sorry!), so I thought I'd take the opportunity to add to the general end-of-year chaos with some book suggestions of my own. All of the books I'm recommending here were published in 2017.

For babies:

Baby's Big Busy Book by Karen Katz -- When it comes to babies, you can't go wrong with Karen Katz. This large-format board book offers plenty of diversion for the littlest readers/chewers/droolers.

For toddlers:

Pizza: An Interactive Recipe Book by Lotta Nieminen -- For readers ready for a slightly more sophisticated board book, this one offers even more interaction and imaginative play. Young foodies, there are more books in the series if you can't get enough of this one!

For preschoolers:

The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen --  Right at the start of this book, somebody gets eaten -- but that's only the beginning of the story. This fun and funny tale is sure to delight. (Plus, if I do an award predictions post next month, you might see this title appear again...)

For picture book fans:

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Adam Rex -- It's an ancient, epic battle, rendered hilarious by the author of The Day the Crayons Quit.  This one was an immediate favorite with staff at my library from the day it arrived.  You'll notice that I left the age range for this category vague, because this book has broad appeal.

For beginning readers:

A Pig, A Fox, and Stinky Socks by Jonathan Fenske -- It can be hard to find enjoyable beginning readers books, but Fenske manages it stylishly with his zippy Pig and Fox books.

For early elementary grades:

Charlie and Mouse by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Emily Hughes -- This book lives right in that nebulous zone between readers and chapter books, for students who are growing more confident in their skills, but are not quite ready for heftier tomes.  It's an absolutely charming set of family stories broken into four short chapters.  There's already a sequel, and we can only hope for more on the way!

For upper elementary grades:

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Katrina Yan Glaser -- The Vanderbeeker siblings love their Harlem brownstone, so when their crotchety landlord (and upstairs neighbor) declines to renew their lease, they set out on a campaign to charm him into changing his mind.  Unfortunately, some of their best ideas backfire disastrously.  It's just days before Christmas -- but will they still be in their beloved home come New Year's? This is one of my favorite books of the year -- not just for this age group, but of all the books I've read.  It's sweet but not saccharine, and truly delightful.

For middle schoolers:

All's Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson -- Imogene's family has worked at the Florida Renaissance Faire her whole life, and she's finally old enough to become a squire. She's also old enough to start middle school, which is sort of exciting but also sort of scary, since she's been homeschooled up to this point. Middle school is tricky, with its social rules that seem to keep changing, grumpy teachers, and girls that are nice until one day they're not. When Imogene does something mean in an attempt to fit in, it snowballs into a disaster that touches every part of her life. Maybe she's not the knight who slays the dragon -- maybe she is the dragon. Great for fans of graphic novels, ren faires, and school stories with complicated friendships and realistically flawed characters

For teens:

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor -- Lazlo Strange, penniless librarian, dreams of adventure. Specifically, he longs for what he calls the Unseen City, which lies across the desert from his home. He's heard stories of it all his life, and has even made researching its legends his life's work, but he knows that travel to the city is impossible, and even if he were to get there, foreigners are executed on site. But when envoys from the city arrive, looking for help with an unnamed problem, Lazlo knows that his only chance has come, if he can only find a way to reach out and grasp it. A beautiful and detailed fantasy with an intricately woven plot. I'm recommending this for teens, but adults who enjoy fantasy would also love this book.
Bonus pick:

I'm Just No Good at Rhyming and Other Nonsense for Mischievous Kids and Immature Grown-Ups by Chris Harris, illustrated by Lane Smith -- Talk about broad appeal!  I'm including this one because it works for the demographics described in the title, especially those who grew up loving Shel Silverstein.  Here's my favorite poem from the collection:

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by . . .
Since then I've been completely lost.
Thanks for nothing, Robert Frost."

There you go -- some great books for reading and giving this holiday season!  Of course, if you're looking for more for a particular reader, you can always ask and I'll be glad to overwhelm you with ideas help you out.  Merry Christmas and happy reading!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, John Tiffany, and J.K. Rowling

Warning: This review contains SPOILERS for all of the original Harry Potter books, as well as for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Albus Severus Potter is headed off to Hogwarts, and he fears the possibility that he might be sorted into Slytherin.  Will he be able to live down his father's legacy?  Meanwhile, dark deeds are happening in the wizarding world, and Harry, Ron, and Hermione must face them again, this time as adults.

Meh, it was all right. There were some great moments, but also a lot of head-scratching. Here's what I liked:
-Scorpius -- what a great character!
-The Snape cameo, because Snape. *sigh*
-Delphi Diggory -- she had the right feel for a Harry Potter character, if that makes sense, and so the big reveal of her parentage had the right impact. (However, more on that in the dislikes.)
-The action at the climax -- I can see that being really fantastic on stage, lots of emotion.

Here's what I didn't like:
-It's been said elsewhere, but it's true: the writing felt like fanfic.  The characters did not always ring true, details from the original series were fudged (some of those issues are big enough that they will get their own bullet point), and the whole story was preoccupied with the events of the past, so it felt like a rehashing of Goblet of Fire.
-Polyjuice: I don't think Thorne knows how it works.  At one point, Albus suggests that they throw some together for immediate use from ingredients in Bathilda's basement.  Hasn't anybody read Hogwarts, A History Chamber of Secrets?  The concoction of Polyjuice Potion -- particularly, the fact that you cannot make it and use it in a matter of minutes or hours -- was a major plot point in that book.
-Time Turners: This was a mixed bag; I liked that the law they introduced was named after a character mentioned in the original series, but I also thought a lot of the stuff they introduced regarding Time Turners was wayyy too convenient in terms of plot.  I found myself wishing that Rowling had explained more in the original series (for instance, it would have been easy for Hermione, in exposition mode, to have explained that you can't go back more than a few hours without causing irreparable harm). But my big problem with the time turners was that they contributed in a big way to to fanfiction-y feel.  (Possibly because I think I wrote some of that fic  shortly after the release of book 7.)
-Changes to the original series: these were mostly minor.  For instance, the way Bagman announced the events in the first task, it sounded like the champions were paraded past the crowd, which didn't happen in the books.  Maybe I'm misreading, but there were a lot of little things like that.  But a lot of little things adds up into not respecting the source material, and with fans who know the source material inside and out, you have to expect that any little changes will be noticed, so they had better be intentional.  These didn't feel intentional, they felt lazy.
-Baby Bellatrix: Wait, Bellatrix had a baby?  I'm trying to fit this into the original series, and the timing is baffling me.  Wouldn't somebody have noticed that this was happening?  I can absolutely buy that she was sleeping with the Dark Lord (though, ewww) because she totally wanted him in the books, but on the other hand, why would her pregnancy have been kept secret?  How would it have been kept secret?

-Zipping through the years: No, not with the Time Turner (I've already covered that above), but in the first few minutes of the play we skim through Albus and Scorpius' first three years at Hogwarts.  This seems unnecessary (why not just set the events in, say, their second year -- or just focus the play on the events of their fourth year, not attempting to stage those brief scenes from earlier years?) and in terms of stagecraft, needlessly difficult.  I'll be interested to see it on stage (I'm hoping it comes to Broadway some day) to see how that, and many of the other tricks described in the script, are accomplished.

Bottom line: I don't regret reading it, I didn't hate it, but I don't place it on the same level as the rest of the series.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

It's Like This, Cat by Emily Neville

It's Like This, Cat by Emily Neville -- Dave, a young teen in New York City in the early 1960's, navigates friend troubles, conflict with his father, his first girlfriend, and, of course, pet ownership when he adopts a stray tomcat.

This book evokes era in New York City in a way similar to West Side Story (which is, coincidentally, name-checked in the book). There's some nice character development in this one, as Dave learns to understand his father's point of view -- at least in some cases. It's maybe more of a '50s story than a 60's one (a ducktail haircut and Harry Belafonte records are about the extent of Dave's teenage rebellion), and seems a bit innocent and clean-cut compared to what the same story might have been if it were set 5-10 years later. Still, it's a solid story and a fairly quick read. I think I read this one as a child, though my only recollection is of the cover, so maybe I just picked it up and put it down again! I'm not really sure who I'd recommend this book to, honestly.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen

Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen -- Marly's mother used to visit her grandmother on Maple Hill, where there was all the outdoors to play in, and where you might say that miracles happen. Now, Marly's mother has inherited the little house on Maple Hill, and Marly and her family are going to spend some time there -- weekends, and then the summer -- and Marly is hoping for a miracle. Her father came home from the war with deep psychological wounds, and life in their city apartment is not helping him recover. Maybe at Maple Hill, where there is work to be done in the fresh country air, their family can come together and be as they once were. Arriving in the early spring, Marly's family is introduced to the almost magical (but labor-intensive) process of collecting maple sap and converting it into syrup. They learn this, and many other useful things about country life, from their neighbor, Mr. Chris. Are there still miracles on Maple Hill? Marly is about to find out.

I enjoyed this book for a lot of reasons. It's what some people think of as a "typical" Newbery (though there are plenty that break the mold): female protagonist, rich writing and character development, not a lot of plot. I like that sort of story if the writing is truly good enough to draw you in, and it certainly is in this case. However, readers who enjoy a more action-packed narrative might get impatient with this book, which reads like a long, leisurely hike through the woods. I also appreciated the wealth of detail about maple sugaring (a process I have been involved in at my own grandparents' Pennsylvania farm, so I can attest to the accuracy of the description) and all of the nature description. The writing reminded me of Madeleine L'Engle -- perhaps not surprising, since this is a story from a similar era; only five years separate this book and A Wrinkle in Time. (L'Engle usually has a bit more in they way of plot, though, I would say.) I'm not sure how well or poorly this book handles the depiction of Marly's father's PTSD, since I don't have a great deal of knowledge on the subject. I will say, though, that any improvement he saw was not immediate, but was a slow process, aided, perhaps, by peace and work. Judging by the year of the book's publication, I'm guessing that the war her father served in was the Korean War, though I suppose it might have been WWII. My grandfather served in Korea, so that was another personal connection I made with this book. It was just the right book for me, so I would recommend it to readers who like the same sorts of contemplative, character-driven narratives that I enjoy.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Monday, August 8, 2016

Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski

Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski -- In some ways, the piney woods of Florida is just as wild as the Wild West. Birdie Boyer's family is determined to make a go of strawberry farming, but they will have trouble not only with the hazards presented by the natural world, but also resistance from a cantankerous neighbor.

This book reminded me strongly of the Little House books, both in content and in writing style. Characters speak in the vernacular, which may present a challenge for some readers. The ending seemed rather deus ex machina to me. Still, I would probably recommend this to readers of all ages who can't get enough frontier fiction.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field -- In the early 1800's, a peddler carves a doll for a little girl of his acquaintance out of a sturdy piece of mountain ash wood. The doll is painted and dressed and given the name Mehitabel -- Hitty, for short. Over the course of her life, Hitty travels around the world by boat, by train, and eventually by automobile in the hands of various little girls (and sometimes, briefly, boys, men, and women). A hundred years later, she ends up in an antique shop, from whence she tells her story -- but are her adventures through? Hitty doesn't think so!

I was surprised at how readable I found this book. Though Hitty's adventures are episodic, I found that the plot carried me right along, always wondering where Hitty would end up next and how she would get out of whatever scrape she found herself in. I think that, if I had read this as a child, I would have enjoyed it immensely. After all, who doesn't imagine that their toys and dolls secretly come to life when nobody is watching? However, due to several problematic depictions in the book ("red injuns," "heathen savages," and African-American families speaking in an unflattering dialect, among other things), I probably wouldn't recommend this to children today, at least, not unless they were reading it with a good deal of adult guidance.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric Kelly

The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly -- In medieval Poland, a mysterious jewel is stolen, a family is displaced, and an alchemist seeks the secret of transmuting base metals to gold. This book won the Newbery back in 1929, and I do see some distinguished elements -- the writing is good, though a little more flowery than is common these days, and there's an interesting plot if you can get through all of the descriptive bits. The characters aren't particularly fleshed out (the alchemist, a secondary character, was probably the most interesting to me). I had a hard time staying engaged with the narrative, so it took me several days to get through this book. Would I recommend it to kids today? Probably only if I had one who was really fascinated with medieval stories.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Zoe in Wonderland by Brenda Woods

When Zoe is having problems with school or siblings, her go-to spot is the Wonderland, her father's exotic plant nursery. But when faced with a snippy older sister, a sneaky younger brother, a best friend leaving on an extended visit to another town, and mean girls at school, will even the Wonderland be enough? Plus, she hears her dad and mom talking about money problems. Will they have to sell Zoe's refuge?

Despite the title, this is realistic fiction. I found the writing strong, the characters interesting, and the plot and pacing steady. I'll definitely recommend this to young readers who enjoy this sort of story.

(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Audacity Jones to the rescue by Kirby Larson

Audacity Jones to the Rescue by Kirby Larson -- When feisty Audacity is chosen from among her fellow orphans for a special mission, she has dreams of making a difference in the world, but ends up entangled in a shady scheme. Can she foil the bad guys? Lucky for her, she won't have to do it alone.

A fun little historical adventure, one that will appeal to kids, but not necessarily to adult readers.

(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Friday, June 24, 2016

Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen

Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen -- When Sarah's mother leaves, her father takes Sarah to the grandparents she never knew she had, where she learns that magic is real, and that her entire family is under a curse. Can Sarah break the curse before she, too, falls victim to it?

I liked the dark, atmospheric feel of this book, but I never really connected with the characters. Also, I'm not sure what I think of the ending -- it's a bit ambiguous, and some of the characters make decisions that don't make sense to me.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)