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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: Lowriders to the Center of the Earth by Cathy Camper

On 24, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

LowridersLowriders to the Center of the Earth written by Cathy Camper, illustrated by Raul the Third

From Goodreads: The lovable trio from the acclaimed Lowriders in Space are back! Lupe Impala, Elirio Malaria, and El Chavo Octopus are living their dream at last. They’re the proud owners of their very own garage. But when their beloved cat Genie goes missing, they need to do everything they can to find him. Little do they know the trail will lead them to the realm of Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the Underworld, who is keeping Genie prisoner! With cool Spanish phrases on every page, a glossary of terms, and an action-packed plot that sneaks in science as well as Aztec lore, Lowriders to the Center of the Earth is a linguistic and visual delight. ¡Que suave!

I love, love, love these books. They are so much fun. The first book featured themes of friendship, culture, adventure, and perseverance and the second also has these. They make for a really enjoyable story. It’s not necessary to have read the first book, but kids should read it anyways because it’s is also such a great story.

In this one there is a lot of Aztec mythology worked into the story. The culture is so fluidly written in (not surprisingly, but it’s refreshing to read that). This would make Lowriders a great suggestion for kids who want to read mythology, but are not ready for the task of Percy Jackson (plus I’m really bored with Greek mythology, it’s everywhere). Camper has even thrown in a bit about rock science by using some pretty silly, pun-ny jokes.

The art. Oh my gosh, the art! Raul the Third is incredible. I believe, as with the first book, the pictures are done with ball point pens! I can’t even. How does he turn out such amazing illustrations with just three or four colors? And ball point pens? Not exactly fine artistic tools, but his art is incredible. Each picture and panel is full of interesting details, little jokes, and humor.

An added bonus, this is a bit science fiction-y and we need more of that in our collection. The graphic novel format is a great way to hook in reluctant readers, as are the subjects of adventure and cars. I’ve already bought a copy for the library and highly recommend it for anyone with students third grade and up.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: The Only Child by Guojing

On 04, Jan 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Only ChildThe Only Child written and illustrated by Guojing

From Goodreads: A little girl—lost and alone—follows a mysterious stag deep into the woods, and, like Alice down the rabbit hole, she finds herself in a strange and wondrous world. But… home and family are very far away. How will she get back there?

I have The Only Child listed as a picture book (and before it came in at the library for me I thought it was), but it’s more graphic novel than picture book. It’s rather long (by picture book standards) and the themes are fairly complex, but the book itself is large and it’s completely wordless. So just a heads up there. I think it will still sell well with graphic novel readers and I think younger readers (first and second grade) will be willing to pick it up and read through it too. There’s a lot for everyone here.

As with many books I was of two minds. Professionally speaking it’s a book that should be in collections. The illustrations are gorgeous. It’s written by and about an author of color so we need to support that.

The story is both beautiful and haunting. I think it really gets at some deep-seated fears of children of getting lost. But it then takes this whimsical turn and ends happily (actually it has a bittersweet ending). This idea and theme will be very relatable for children (and possibly contemplative adults). It’s such a magical story too that fantasy lovers will eat it up, but with just enough realism that your realistic fiction lovers will be willing to pick it up. And if you have animal lovers (who doesn’t?), give it to them too. They will particularly appreciate the artist’s ability to portray the bittersweetness of the ending on the face of the child and in how the panels cut back and forth and zoom in.

My other, personal, mind about the book?  I hated it. The author’s note talks about how the story is based on something that happened to the author when she was a child. She also goes on to talk about how lonely she was as an only child (she was product of China’s one-child policy) and I am so tired of this narrative about the poor, lonely, pathetic only child. It makes me so mad for several reasons. First, it fuels the fire with people who have vocal opinions about my choice to only have one child. Second, both my husband, myself, and many of our friends are only children AND WE WEREN’T LONELY OR WEIRD BECAUSE OF IT. In fact all of us enjoyed being only children and made sibling-like bonds with our friends. Third, and this is something I remember from being a kid and reading books with this underlying narrative, it makes only children feel inadequate. Particularly if you like being an Only.

I know, I know. This is not a criticism of the book. It’s me bringing my own baggage, which I why I say this book needs to be in library collections across the board. I just can’t read it without those undertones. Be aware that your only child patrons may not appreciate it either if they read the author’s note or pick up on the stance toward only children in it.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Graphic Novel Review: The Shark King by R. Kikuo Johnson

On 16, Sep 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Shark KingI am desperately trying to beef up our graphic novel selection in the library. There are a lot of readers who would really click with them if we just had them. I hadn’t heard of Toon books until I went to ALA and saw a few of their publications. I particularly like that they have lower reading levels in a many of their books so that even our emerging readers who want something more grown up can read them.

In looking for books to book talk with the kids about on that first day of library I had picked up a copy of the The Shark GodThe Shark God by Rafe Martin and was kind of underwhelmed. The illustrations by David Shannon were pretty engaging, but the story fell really flat. It’s a retelling and some of the alterations and the length just really didn’t work for me. I was, however, interested in seeing if I could find the same story done better. That led me to The Shark King.

The story itself in The Shark King is really engaging. Young Nanuae is the son of a mortal woman and the shark god Kamohoali’i. His father disappeared around the time Nanuae was born and has not been there to help him with his identity. All he left was a cape to help hide the shark’s mouth that appeared on his back. As Nanuae grows he wonders about his father and feels lonely living with only his mother in a small cove on the shore. After a man and his son visit their cove to fish the boy follows them back to their village where he gets into some trouble over stealing fish from the fishermen’s nets. The villagers tear off his cloak in an attempt to grab him and see him as a monster. They chase him off with the intent to kill him and he must dive into the sea for protection.

My biggest concern is that the story is simplified for children. I think having fairy tales and folk tales in their original form (or as close to it as possible) is important for maintaining the important messages and lessons they were meant to convey (I’m looking at you Disney).  I did some really cursory poking around and found other similar versions to this retelling. Is that good or bad? I’m not sure yet. I also came across this post on the author’s blog. In it he shares some of his research and why he made the changes he did. He did apparently tone the story down, which originally had Nanuae eating passing fishermen. Maybe not the best topic for our emerging readers, but it might have been a good sell for some of our boys. On the other hand, does that detract from the authenticity of the story? Again I’m not sure yet. I wonder if this would pique a child’s interest in reading more stories about Kamohoali’i. The author is from Hawaii so that’s a point in the book’s favor for sure, although he doesn’t identify as native Hawaiian on his website, in his bio on Goodreads or in the author bio in the book.

I should note that this is NOT the same story that is told in The Shark God, so unfortunately this one can’t replace the other. I need more Hawaiian myths and legends in our collection too. If they involve Kamohoali’i, the shark god, they are incredibly appealing and exciting. The verdict on this particular book is still not clear.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: March Book 1 by John Robert Lewis

On 17, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

MarchMarch: Book 1 written by John Robert Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell

From GoodReads: March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.

Book One spans John Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., the birth of the Nashville Student Movement, and their battle to tear down segregation through nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins, building to a stunning climax on the steps of City Hall.

This is such an amazing history book. I was not familiar with who John Robert Lewis is or his role in the Civil Rights Movement, but I was aware of the lunch counter sit-ins. I know I rant about this all the time, but our history classes, if they even get as far as the 60s (because I never had a history class make it past 1945), tend to gloss over a lot and Martin Luther King, Jr. is the primary focus of these cursory Civil Rights studies. He was certainly important, but there was A LOT going on at the time.

March does an incredible job of weaving Lewis’s personal history in with the history of the movement. In doing this the book becomes incredibly accessible. You don’t have to know much if anything about the era or Civil Rights. It’s all so seamlessly woven in and told through Lewis’s life story. He lived the discrimination. He lived the frustration. And he lived the decision to take a stand and break down barriers for people of color.

I would love to see this book taught in a history class. It would be awesome to use it in conjunction with other texts about the Civil Rights Movement. Not to mention the graphic novel format makes it a lot more accessible and interesting than any text book. The art is wonderful as is the storytelling and it completely brings the story and history alive right before your eyes.

There have been a lot of books recently published that tackle the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and while many of them are excellent, this is a shining example as well as one of the few intended for older audiences.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

MG Review: Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

On 16, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Roller GirlRoller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

From GoodReads: Twelve-year-old Astrid has always done everything with her best friend Nicole. So when Astrid signs up for roller derby camp, she assumes Nicole will too. But Nicole signs up for dance camp with a new friends instead, and so begins the toughest summer of Astrid’s life. There are bumps and bruises as Astrid learns who she is without Nicole…and what it takes to be a strong, tough roller girl.

I am the least athletic person alive, but after reading this even I want to do roller derby! Roller Girl features a lot about roller derby that will appeal to the novice. There’s an explanation of the game (woven perfectly into the story) and the camp Astrid goes to slips in more exposure to the game and a good picture of how much work it all is.

The book isn’t an instruction manual or even a promotion of roller derby, though. The book is really a story about how friendships change especially at that tender time of the beginning of adolescence. Astrid is about to start junior high (sixth or seventh grade) and her best friend seems to have ditched her for the bitchy, shallow, popular girl. After some fighting and hurt feelings the girls talk about what’s happened and Astrid realizes that while she often feels like she’s living in Nicole’s shadow, Nicole feels the same way. The story was so pitch perfect for kids in that fourth through seventh grade range. (FYI, there is no sex, drugs, or drinking so the book is totally appropriate for younger readers so long as they can handle the reading level). These kind of friendship break ups happen all the time and friends’ interests change. As kids begin to mature the kind of confusion and hurt feelings that Nicole and Astrid experience is also incredibly common.

Roller Girl I think gives kids in this position something to think about and can help them understand what’s going on. Plus Astrid and Nicole talk through things giving a good example of how to handle the situation (after handling it poorly).  The book never feels like a problem novel though, nor does it feel like it’s beating the reader over the head with A Message. The friendship story is couched so perfectly in the roller derby camp and is handled so naturally. The story also perfectly captures that tension of growing apart from a childhood friend. Astrid has such nostalgia for the relationship she and Nicole used to have and she hasn’t fully accepted that they’re both changing and that might mean they won’t be as close.

The obvious audience for this book is girls who are into roller derby. But I think kids who like friendship stories and realistic fiction will also find a lot to love as will kids who don’t mind living vicariously through their book characters. I don’t see why boys couldn’t pick this up either because I think they too go through these friendship woes and, while it could be a harder sell to them, the roller derby aspect will surely help. This is also a graphic novel so reluctant readers will be drawn in too.

One final note, Astrid’s mother is pretty great. She’s works so she isn’t around in the story a whole lot, but when she is she is supportive of Astrid. Even when it turns out Astrid has been lying to her about getting rides home from roller derby camp. And she takes Astrid’s hair dying in stride. Not every parent is like this, but I think it’s good to show a supportive adult in a story like this. My one complaint is when she drags Astrid clothes shopping and makes her try on clothes Astrid clearly doesn’t care for. It’s just a personal pet peeve of mine- parents who want their kids to dress a certain way to fit an image of what they should be. Ugh. Astrid holds her ground though and sticks with her t-shirt and shorts ensembles.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Graphic Novel Review: Sita’s Ramayana

On 21, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Sita's RamayanaSita’s Ramayana written by Samhita Arni, illustrated by Moyna Chitrakar

From GoodReads: This version of The Ramayana is told from the perspective of Sita, the queen. After she, her husband Rama and his brother are exiled from their kingdom, Sita is captured by the proud and arrogant king Ravana and imprisoned in a garden across the ocean. Ravana never stops trying to convince Sita to be his wife, but she steadfastly refuses his advances. Eventually Rama comes to her rescue with the help of the monkey Hanuman and his army. But Rama feels he can’t trust Sita again. He forces Sita to undergo an ordeal by fire to prove herself to be true and pure. She is shocked and in grief and anger does so. She emerges unscathed and they return home to their kingdom as king and queen. However, suspicion haunts their relationship, and Sita once more finds herself in the forest, but this time she is pregnant. She has twins and continues to live in the forest with them.

I stumbled upon this one in the library about a week ago. I’m not a big browser at the public library (long enough to read list already!), but there was a screw up with the library my book request was sent to and it went to the library my daughter knows. She insisted on showing me around the children’s section and there it was calling to me on the shelf.

I am only familiar in passing with the Ramayana. I knew it was part of Indian folklore and I know a few of the characters, Hanuman mostly, but look at that cover! It’s lovely. And then I opened it up.

Sitas Ramayana 1The art is stunning and, it turns out, done by a traditional artist as a Patua scroll. The Patua scrolls would be used much as we use picture books for storytelling. The storyteller holds the it and uses it to jog their memory of the story and to show the listeners parts of the story that are illustrated. The publisher broke up the scroll and put it into the left-right format Westerners use for books.

I actually read aloud the first 30 pages or so to my three-and-a-half year old and she was into it. The art pops beautifully and the story is incredibly exciting. Kidnapping a princess, an honorable prince (well, until later), a trickster monkey, battles, an excellent villain. My only complaint would be that Sita does a lot of telling. It’s primarily narrated with little dialog, but ultimately I think it works. The pictures support the story where it might drag and it allows there to be a lot more reflection and commentary made by Sita than we would get otherwise. And she often has wise things to say.

The story, as the title implies, is told by Sita and this gives is a very feminist bent. You see how she is expected both to remain pure and is doubted by her husband later. She shows how wrong it is that she can be used as a pawn in the war, but she is also incredibly sensitive to other’s pain and suffering, even the enemy. Many times she remarks that all this war takes loved ones from everyone. Apparently the Ramayana usually focuses on Rama being the hero and the man protecting his honor by rescuing his wife, but that isn’t the focus in this story. This isn’t a new approach, according to the notes at the back, and dates back at least as far as the 16th century.

As far as audience I don’t see why anyone should be excluded. It would fabulous for reluctant readers who like the graphic novel format. There are a couple breasts in one or two of the illustrations, but they’re not super prominent and I think if you approach them frankly and as if they are no big deal (they aren’t) kids will too. (But I know some parents may object.) The reading level is a little high and some of the narration does a story within a story which might make it a little difficult, but I would say fourth grade and up can handle it. The book would be awesome for a folklore study or for kids looking beyond the traditional German fairy tales. I would even hand sell it to kids who are into fairy tales and don’t know they can branch out from the western tradition.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: El Deafo by Cece Bell

On 06, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

El DeafoEl Deafo written and drawn by Cece Bell

From GoodReads: Starting at a new school is scary, even more so with a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest! At her old school, everyone in Cece’s class was deaf. Here she is different. She is sure the kids are staring at the Phonic Ear, the powerful aid that will help her hear her teacher. Too bad it also seems certain to repel potential friends.

Then Cece makes a startling discovery. With the Phonic Ear she can hear her teacher not just in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in school–in the hallway…in the teacher’s lounge…in the bathroom! This is power. Maybe even superpower! Cece is on her way to becoming El Deafo, Listener for All. But the funny thing about being a superhero is that it’s just another way of feeling different… and lonely. Can Cece channel her powers into finding the thing she wants most, a true friend?

I really enjoyed El Deafo. It was a great friendship and growing up story. But the real endorsement comes from my three and a half year old who picked it up, drawn in by the rabbits, and flipped through it page by page for a good 15 minutes. And she’s asked to look at it again a few times. She was especially amused by the fact that Cece wears her bathing suit all the time as a little girl. Now obviously my daughter wasn’t reading the book, but she was captivated by the illustrations and not surprisingly. They are very good. Bell captures different people really well (telling people apart is something I have trouble with some other graphic novels). The colors are bright and inviting and the choice to use rabbits instead of people is awesome. It makes it a realistic fiction novel with animals!

The story itself is pitch perfect for the upper elementary/lower middle school years. Cece starts out young and hits fifth grade by the end, but her struggles with finding a true friend and trying to fit in are so relevant to that age. Sure, she’s dealing with having this giant, and to her, embarrassing hearing aid strapped to her chest and that’s what Bell wanted to write about. But we’ve all been through those other struggles. Which isn’t to say kids will like it despite the differences but will love it because all kids have something they are insecure about and the hearing aid is just what makes Cece so uncomfortable.

The friendship struggles are particularly well done (can I say that since they really happened?). Cece befriends several girls over the course of the story, but they each have their flaws. One is too bossy. One talks slowly in a misguided attempt to help Cece understand her. When she finally finds the perfect friend they have a falling out of sorts. This makes the book particularly well suited to kids who like friendship stories and realistic fiction.

Finally, I loved how long the book was. It’s still manageable for reluctant readers (who are the perfect customers for graphic novels), but it felt like a real story and a real book, not something that could have been longer or was half finished. Besides unimpressive art my biggest complaint about graphic novels is they can often feel like they should have been longer. Not so here. While any reader could pick this up and enjoy it, reluctant readers might feel a real sense of accomplishment finishing a book that feels like a book and not something overly simple and short.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: To Dance by Siena Siegel

On 14, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

To DanceTo Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel written by Siena Siegel, illustrated by Mark Siegel

From GoodReads: Dancers are young when they first dream of dance. Siena was six — and her dreams kept skipping and leaping, circling and spinning, from airy runs along a beach near her home in Puerto Rico, to dance class in Boston, to her debut performance on stage with the New York City Ballet.

This is a pretty straight forward graphic novel of Siena’s early life as a dancer. While not nearly as in-depth a look at life as a ballerina, especially a young one, as Michaela DePrince’s Taking Flight, it’s perfect for young dancers interested in what it takes to dance.

Dance for Siena filled a space in her life. She talks about how she felt compelled to dance and I think this draw and this longing will really appeal to kids interested in ballet, or really any kind of dance. Siena is also Puerto Rican and she worries about her body developing into a curvy woman’s body (the picture of her staring at her relatives large breasts is hilarious). I thought this was an interesting flip of the normal tween girl mentality. Usually they stare longingly at relatives breasts wishing they could have their own pair. She doesn’t get much into how being Puerto Rican might have hindered her or made her feel like an outsider, but that was fine. Just the simple fact that she is not a blonde-haired, blue-eyed ballerina made her story more inspiring.

Siena’s story is also important and inspiring because ,while she did preprofessional ballet for years, she quit at 18 due to an injury. Instead of dancing into the sunset she made a major change and went to college. However, she took up dance again a few years later simply as a hobby because she still felt she needed it. I think this was refreshing because many girls will not make it as professional ballet dancers and this doesn’t preclude keeping up with dance and having a life beyond it. That isn’t to say young dancers shouldn’t dream, but I think it’s good for them to see that professional dance doesn’t have to be the endgame.

As an adult reading this To Dance really hits home how expensive ballet is as a hobby. Siena’s family had to come to New York many times for camps and classes and ultimately she and her mother moved there so she could be close to the ballet school. That isn’t to mention the cost of tuition, costumes, and the special school she had to attend to get an education and be able to dance pre-professionally.

Just one last thought, especially arresting are the endpapers first with her dancing as a child on the beach then as mother dancing on the beach with a baby in her arms with husband in tow. A great book for aspiring dancers in elementary school.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgrodoff

On 08, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

UndertakingThe Undertaking of Lily Chen written and illustrated by Danica Novgrodoff

From GoodReads: In the mountains of Northern China ancient custom demands that every man have a wife to keep him company in the afterlife. Deshi Li’s brother is dead–and unmarried. Which means that Deshi must find him an eligible body before the week is up.

Lily Chen, sweet as a snakebite, needs money and a fast ride out of town.

Haunted by the gods of their ancestors and the expectations of the new world, Deshi and Lily embark on a journey with two very different destinations in mind. They travel through a land where the ground is hard and the graves, where marriage can be murder and where Lily Chen is wanted–dead and live.

I would have eaten this book up as a teen. It’s dark, it’s darkly funny, Lily is both spoiled and silly but also just young and naive and vulnerable, and it’s ultimately a love story. A love story that revolves around murder. Also, it’s a graphic novel, perfect for the reluctant reader I was.

Lily is too big for her small town not to mention her parents are in some financial trouble and may marry her off to a creep of a government official. When Deshi shows up, surreptitiously looking for a woman’s body to bury with his brother, Lily sees a way out. As they travel through the remote regions of China, Lily and Deshi begin to fall for each other. Certainly Lily is pretty, but she’s got big ideas and this can make her abrasive. Deshi is kind of a wimp and pairs well with the spunk of Lily.

The illustration style is by turns gorgeous and silly. There will be these amazing spreads like this: Lily Chen carp

and this:Lily Chen village

and then there will be pages of action with Lily and Deshi and their arms will look like noodles and Lily’s curves are often over emphasized. Even the man Deshi has hired to find a corpse bride has this egg-shaped head.

Lily Chen Deshi and Lily

The book is great for high school, but I could see an upper middle school kid getting into it. For that age, it would be one I would hand sell. Lily and Deshi are somewhere between the ages of 18 and 20, I would guess, which makes them good for high school students to read about, but I think the book also falls into that new adult category (although not because it has sexytimes, I hate that definition of new adult). Lily and Deshi are trying to figure out what to do in their adult lives. Deshi has some hard choices to make and Lily is lured to Bejing by the bright lights and promise of a better life.

My one concern about the book is a quote at the very beginning from an article from “The Economist” about a problem with ghost marriages. While the story centers around this phenomenon the quote makes ghost marriages sound exotic, problematic, and like an epidemic. I don’t know the truth behind this, but it sounds awfully sensational and it also sounds a bit like applying western ideas of marriage and the afterlife to a non-western culture. I think the story stands on its own without the quote and all it does is cast a pall (no pun intended) over the story that makes it feel more salacious than it is.

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