By Elizabeth Wroten
On 17, Dec 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Amid the hustle and bustle of the big city, the big crowds and bigger buildings, Little Elliot leads a quiet life. In spite of the challenges he faces, Elliot finds many wonderful things to enjoy—like cupcakes! And when his problems seem insurmountable, Elliot discovers something even sweeter—a friend.
We just got this book out of the library yesterday and I loved it so much I felt I had to write a review of it. As the description says it’s a sweet little friendship story. A story about how there is always someone who needs more help than you and how friends can help each other. Two heads are better than one, or, in this case, two friends are tall enough to order a cupcake at the bakery counter.
However, I think there is a huge subtext here that will really resonate with kids. Elliot is a little elephant who struggles to fit in in an adult, human-sized world. He has to stack books up to sit at the table. He’s so much shorter than the people who rush around the city and gets a bit lost in the crowds. But he’s happy for the most part. Until one day he struggles to be seen at the bakery counter where he really wants a cupcake. When the woman at the counter doesn’t notice him he leaves feeling frustrated and discouraged. On his way home he notices a small mouse who is even more disadvantaged than Elliot and the two pair up to get the cupcake and share it.
Does this sound like the life of a child to anyone? Too small for an adult-sized world. They are expected to fit in with giant, towering cabinets, mile-high chairs, and mile-high people. I know my own daughter often becomes anxious in large crowds and asks to be picked up. In my arms, or her father’s, she is at the right height to see out and not feel smothered. We do a lot to help her feel capable around the house (mini fridge with snacks and drinks, step stools everywhere, toys on low shelves). But as soon as we step outside she is so small compared to everything. More often than not people will ask me questions about her that they could (and should) direct to her. Elliot is a child in a grown-up world and his frustration is that of a child who is tired of being ignored, pushed aside, and made to feel incapable.
I think the art in the book, which is absolutely beautiful, does an incredible job emphasizing this theme. Elliot looks oddly like he was inserted into some other piece of art. While the city he lives in, New York in the 1940s or 50s I presume, and the people around him look like something out of an Edward Hopper painting, Elliot looks a little cartoonish and his polka-dots are reminiscent of outfits I have seen kids pick out for themselves. His out-of-place quality makes it more obvious that he doesn’t exactly fit in with this world. But like most kids it doesn’t seem to bother him most of the time. He’s resilient and with a new friend the two can work together to find their way.
I don’t know if there will be more books with the charming Little Elliot and his rodent friend, but the little badge on the top right of the cover makes me think there will be. I certainly hope there will be.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Nov 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: A rambling old inn, a strange map, an attic packed with treasures, squabbling guests, theft, friendship, and an unusual haunting mark this smart middle grade mystery in the tradition of the Mysterious Benedict Society books and Blue Balliet’s Chasing Vermeer series.
It’s wintertime at Greenglass House. The creaky smuggler’s inn is always quiet during this season, and twelve-year-old Milo, the innkeepers’ adopted son, plans to spend his holidays relaxing. But on the first icy night of vacation, out of nowhere, the guest bell rings. Then rings again. And again. Soon Milo’s home is bursting with odd, secretive guests, each one bearing a strange story that is somehow connected to the rambling old house. As objects go missing and tempers flare, Milo and Meddy, the cook’s daughter, must decipher clues and untangle the web of deepening mysteries to discover the truth about Greenglass House-and themselves.
This book totally knocked my socks off. I love a good solid mystery, but this had so much more.
One of the great things about the mystery was kids got sh*t done. Milo takes on this role in a role playing game that he and his new friend Meddy connect to real life and it turns out he’s pretty good at getting to the bottom of mysteries. But he isn’t a super genius and he doesn’t have super powers. He just thinks through things logically and notices little details. Since they’re in his house and he doesn’t like change, he notices when things have moved or been tampered with. Nothing magical here. Even better, the grown ups aren’t treated as imbeciles who need some genius kid to come in and set them straight. Most of them have secrets and Milo’s parents have their hands full of caring for 5 (and eventually 8) unexpected guests during a severe snowstorm. They’re busy or are too involved with their own agendas and don’t have time to sneak around the house solving mysteries.
Being trapped in an inn this isn’t exactly a fast-paced, high suspense mystery. In fact the mystery is really a device that leads to soul searching for a lot of the people involved. Milo is adopted and, being Chinese, looks nothing like his white parents. Milo isn’t angst-y about being adopted, but he is curious, a little confused, and feels guilty for feeling those emotions since he does love his adoptive parents. There are a lot of layers here for Milo to work through and the role playing game Meddy introduces him to gives Milo an outlet for exploring having a parent that looks like him. It also gives him permission to imagine what his biological father could have been like. It’s interesting to see how Milo takes the folklore he reads, the role playing game, the stories the guests tell, and the information about the inn that comes to light and interprets it all through the lens of a confused, adopted kid.
The adults are all also fairly fleshed out and some of them are quite the characters. All of them are not at the inn by coincidence, but arrived looking for information about its history. None of them are forthcoming with this information and it forms the basis for the mystery. As it turns out, while the information all of them are seeking is interconnected, it is still separate.
There is also a thread of friendship as the guests come together to tell stories and are brought together by the information they are seeking. Most of them do not leave friends, but do leave with a greater sense of tolerance and understanding. Milo, who was looking forward to a Christmas vacation alone with his parents, comes to accept the guests and feel for them. He also builds a friendship with Meddy and learns to work with her as a team through the role playing game.
So I have to say there is a huge twist very near to the end. I’m not going to spoil it, but I wanted to talk around it a bit. I totally did not see it coming until the last possible second. It’s a device I’ve seen employed in other mysteries so maybe people who read mysteries more than I do will see it sooner. Maybe not. However, the times I have seen it used it often feels like a really cheap trick. That was not at all the case here. It was very masterfully done. Well played, Milford, well played.
Greenglass House would be a good one for kids who enjoyed The Westing Game or even Blue Balliet’s mysteries. While its length and slower pacing make it feel more like a middle grade novel (6th-8th grade) I could certainly see a strong 4th or 5th grader loving this too.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 25, Nov 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: A collection of thirty-six eerie, mysterious, intriguing, and very short short stories presented by the cabinet’s esteemed curators, otherwise known as acclaimed authors Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire LeGrand, and Emma Trevayne. Perfect for fans of Alvin Schwartz and anyone who relishes a good creepy read-alone or read-aloud story. Features an introduction and commentary by the curators, and illustrations and decorations throughout.
Ignore the discrepancy between the number of stories on the picture of the cover and the title and description here. The copy I have says 36 (although it felt like a lot more, in a good way), not sure what the deal with that is.
I had really mixed feelings about this book. At its heart, it’s a collection of deliciously creepy, wonderfully macabre stories. I love short stories, especially creepy ghost stories, and I think they are excellent choices for kids with little time or little inclination to read. These stories are really engaging and they are short (the longest I recall was 25 pages). The language isn’t dense so the pages fly by. But the book is almost 500 hundred pages. You’re going to need to do a lot of convincing to get those kind of kids to pick this up or you’ll need to hand it to a serious reader. Actually, I think most kids will need a lot of convincing to pick up a 500 page book.
I loved how they were grouped into stories around themes: luck, travel, flowers, tricks, etc. That makes the book feel cohesive even though it’s really a collection of unconnected short stories. But, the concept of it being a cabinet of curiosities that then included letters from the “curators”, really the authors, to each other was kind of odd and oddly executed. The stories themselves sounded very modern and often included references to cell phones, the Internet and pop culture (although nothing that will make this sound so dated in five years). Sometimes they had vaguely historical settings and fantastical kingdoms, but they never sounded old-fashioned.
The letters between the curators, though, I think are supposed to be modern but employed this stilted, vaguely Victorian sounding dialect and writing style. They call each other “my dear curators” and the like, and sprinkle in words like “alas” and phrases like “particularly fond” and employ an oddly formal syntax. Not only did that feel silly to me (and this could be me as an adult reader who reads and likes Victorian literature reading a kid’s book) it felt very jarring when paired with the stories. It was hard to understand exactly what they meant by the “cabinet of curiosities”. At times there are references to rooms, then drawers (not necessarily in rooms), a building, and a museum. I know what cabinets of curiosities were in the Victorian era, but this didn’t feel like that. I found myself skipping the letters and just reading the stories. Would a kid have trouble with this, I don’t know? Should they read this? Yes, especially if they love creepy stories.
Nothing struck me as particularly gory or inappropriate for upper elementary, but this could be enjoyed well into middle school maybe even lower high school depending on the tastes of the reader. Wish I had had this book as a kid and despite my complaints will be buying a copy to keep on my shelf.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, Nov 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: If you were a boy named Henri Matisse who lived in a dreary town in northern France, what would your life be like? Would it be full of color and art? Full of lines and dancing figures? Find out in this beautiful, unusual picture book about one of the world’s most famous and influential artists by acclaimed author and Newbery Medal-winning Patricia MacLachlan and innovative illustrator Hadley Hooper.
What a lovely picture book. Our whole family enjoyed this one. For all of us it was the illustrations. Matisse is such a sweet, dreamy looking boy. The illustrations have this 1950s/60s feel to them which I think is part the color schemes used and part the technique. The pictures are so simple yet their bold lines and colors really make the ideas contained in the words pop off the page. The story is quiet and a bit meandering, but captures the feel of a dreamy childhood. It’s such an enticing book.
I love the idea of introducing young children to famous and important people and I think the picture book makes a wonderful way to do this, especially with artists. I think it is done especially well in The Iridescence of Birds because you see Matisse as a boy in his rather ordinary home and city. I think kids could easily see his inspirations in their own lives after reading this.
Some of Matisse’s works are woven into the illustrations which I think helps connect the reader to his adult, working life and shows children where his creative influences led. But I don’t think the point of the book is to tell kids exactly who he was, simply to give them exposure, pique their interest, and inspire them.
I was especially taken with how Hooper introduces the adult Matisse when the book turns to his painting. Boy Matisse is always in the picture with adult Matisse keeping that connection to what is essentially a story about an artistic child. Even the cover has adult Matisse seen through a set of doors similar to those you see young Matisse through. Their paring is a visual reminder of where the grown-up artist came from. I love that the first introduction of Matisse as a man is this one to the left with the two of them on the ladder, boy Matisse looking sweetly at his older self. Even his pose on the ladder is such a kid pose- leaned back a bit and up on tiptoes.
There is a lovely note at the end that talks about Matisse’s mother who was quite influential on him as an artist, inspiring and encouraging him.
Although very different in illustration style, you could pair this with Yuyi Morales’ Viva Frida which also explores artistic inspiration.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 19, Nov 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: The Donner Party expedition is one of the most notorious stories in all of American history. It’s also a fascinating snapshot of the westward expansion of the United States, and the families and individuals who sacrificed so much to build new lives in a largely unknown landscape. From the preparation for the journey to each disastrous leg of the trip, this book shows the specific bad decisions that led to the party’s predicament in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The graphic novel focuses on the struggles of the Reed family to tell the true story of the catastrophic journey.
Being a native Californian I remember studying the Donner Party. Being from Sacramento I have been to Sutter’s Fort (the destination of the Donner Party) on many occasions. At the fort they have Patty Reed’s doll, a tiny doll Patty brought with her and kept with her through the whole ordeal. The Donner Party story is incredibly grizzly and, even as an adult reading this book I learned a ton of information about it. I think being a kid I heard a much shortened and sanitized version of the story, plus it’s been years since I studied it.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, the party, consisting of several families, took a “short cut” on their way out west. It was difficult, nearly killed them and put them way behind schedule. When they reached the pass over the Sierra Nevada mountains, a pass that now bears the name Donner Pass, they became snowed in. Weather that winter was particularly harsh, but it’s also at a very high altitude which receives a lot of snow. It shuts down several times a winter even now with roads and snow machines. Stuck up in the Sierras with little food, the party loses a lot of people and has to resort to cannibalism. Only 48 of the original 87 eventually make it to Sacramento, but not after an incredibly harrowing journey.
Nathan Hale doesn’t hold back and while that might make this book not such a great fit for the faint of heart, it does make it a fantastic book. Plus, it’s a graphic novel (no, there aren’t any pictures of them actually butchering or eating people). The narrative structure has a man about to be hanged telling the story to a soldier and the hangman which adds some humor and much needed breaks from the action of the story. The story itself appears to be very well researched. There were a lot of details I didn’t know and a few I had forgotten. I was very surprised to learn how many of the party were actually eaten (the number now escapes me, but more than 10). I also didn’t realize how many rescue parties left from the camp and tried to reach the camp. And how many were really unsuccessful.
Such a tragic tale, but told in such an engaging way. Like Steve Sheinkin’s books these are historical books kids will want to read. If you have a fourth grader (the grade when you traditionally study state history) who is really interested and has a strong constitution then I would certainly say they could read it. For those chicken-hearted kids (that was me!!) save it for middle school…or adulthood. I’m kinda creeped out by it even now.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 18, Nov 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: When explorers first chipped a hole through a wall and shined a light into Tutankhamun’s tomb, everything it touched glinted with gold and gleamed with silver. The boy-king so surrounded by this treasure would become one of the most famous names in history. But it was a less-famous princess who had accumulated a lot of the wealth that was buried in that tomb. Her name was Hatshepsut. How did she make Egypt so rich? And how did she come to be buried, like Tutankhamun, in the Valley of the Kings? This book brings to life the story of a real and remarkable princess who had the nerve to declare herself Pharaoh.
First off I hate that the description from the publisher has to compare Hatshepsut to King Tut. This is supposed to be about princesses. Also Hatshepsut is pretty famous being the only female pharaoh and all. Egypt is filled with really, really amazing artifacts and history of which Tut is a tiny (albeit famous) sliver. Let’s stop making such a BFD out of him and look at some people who actually ruled and did stuff.
In terms of content the book was fine. It didn’t get into a lot of detail so I think it would be better for kids with a passing interest in Egypt (and who may simply be interested in history), kids who want to read the whole Real Princess series and aren’t looking for something in-depth about Hatshepsut, or kids who are just getting interested in Ancient Egyptian history. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Just don’t make this the focus of your Ancient Egyptian history collection or the sole book in it.
I wish there had been more about daily life and life of Egyptian royalty, maybe even religion, but it was light on much beyond a semi-fictionalized story of Hatshepsut’s life. I think there was opportunity for a little information about Egyptology and the archaeology in the region, especially as pertains to how we know all this stuff about Hatshepsut. For example, the discovery of her mummy (kind of a big deal!) was dealt with in a sentence or two with no explanation why it took so long, what the tomb she was found in was all about and why she wasn’t found in her own tomb.
What I wasn’t so happy with was the overall look of the book. To me, it screams educational publication. I don’t see any kid, besides the die-hard Egypt fan, picking this up on their own and since the content is fairly light I would say they’ll be disappointed. On the cover, why is she standing with the Sphinx and the pyramids? Those predate Hatshepsut by a thousand years and her temple is incredibly impressive, why not show pictures of that?
Inside the graphics are not especially appealing. They look like a cross between educational fare and a picture book. Many of the photographs are not labeled or are poorly labeled, which is too bad. For the wealth of Egyptian temples and artifacts there could have been both more and better pictures of those things. There was one especially confusing family tree that needed better indications of relationships, better flow, and better explanation of who every one was since there were second and third wives listed and people with the same name. Finally, going back to the cover, did they really use papyrus font for the title? Ugh. Such a cliche and such an ugly font.
I do, however, applaud the author and publisher for putting together a series of real princesses who are not those vapid Disney ones that need men to save them.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 11, Nov 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: At the heart of the story is Wanda Petronski, a Polish girl in a Connecticut school who is ridiculed by her classmates for wearing the same faded blue dress every day. Wanda claims she has one hundred dresses at home, but everyone knows she doesn’t and bullies her mercilessly. The class feels terrible when Wanda is pulled out of the school, but by that time it’s too late for apologies. Maddie, one of Wanda’s classmates, ultimately decides that she is “never going to stand by and say nothing again.”
What a beautiful story for young children. The Hundred Dresses is a book about bullying, such a timely topic, and felt very before it’s time in addressing this. I think the fact that Wanda was a poor immigrant, picked on by her peers could easily be relatable to many kids, even if they aren’t white immigrants. It also has a good call to action in the form of Maddie who regrets not sticking up for Wanda. She feels terrible knowing that she felt the teasing was wrong and yet never said anything.
Maddie was cowed by her friend and knowing she could be the next target, for even though she wasn’t as poor as Wanda, who only had one dress, she still wore hand-me-downs. This felt so realistic, the desire not to draw attention to yourself or stick your neck out for fear of being hurt and ostracized. I think all kids experience this to some degree.
For those cynical readers out there, this isn’t for you. It has a relatively happy ending with a satisfying resolution. The mean girl is, if not transformed, humbled and Maddie, who tells the story, decides never to be a bystander again. Wanda writes to her former class and essentially forgives them.
The edition I read had a foreword by Eleanor Estes daughter which, as an adult at least, I found very interesting and enlightening. I would suggest, as a parent, reading the foreword (and story) and using this as a discussion starter with your child. Maddie is actually Eleanor who had a girl like Wanda in her elementary school class. The girl left after a lot of teasing and Eleanor regretted not saying anything. She never found the girl again and, as her daughter points out, it seems she uses this story to make things right in a way. I think knowing the Wanda was a real girl who never got an apology from her class and knowing this story is at least in part true could be a very powerful message for kids.
Give this to kids in second and third grade, even up into fourth. It isn’t a chapter book, but it’s a much longer book with fewer pictures. It’s such an important issue to discuss and think about because it can be so easy to not say anything when bullying happens. I’ve said it before, but kids are very attuned to justice and injustice and I think we as educators and parents can tap into that in a positive way.
Not exactly a read-alike considering it’s a much shorter picture book, but Crow Boy by Yashima Taro is another fabulous book about bullying and kids who are different.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 05, Nov 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Lupe Impala, El Chavo Flapjack, and Elirio Malaria love working with cars. You name it, they can fix it. But the team’s favorite cars of all are lowriders—cars that hip and hop, dip and drop, go low and slow, bajito y suavecito. The stars align when a contest for the best car around offers a prize of a trunkful of cash—just what the team needs to open their own shop! ¡Ay chihuahua! What will it take to transform a junker into the best car in the universe? Striking, unparalleled art from debut illustrator Raul the Third recalls ballpoint-pen-and-Sharpie desk-drawn doodles, while the story is sketched with Spanish, inked with science facts, and colored with true friendship.
This was such a fun book! The story was clever, the characters are charming and funny. There was even a fart joke. This is the book for kids who loved cars when they were little and haven’t quite lost that interest. It is so the marriage of what would traditionally be a hobby for older teens and adults to the creativity and fantasy of elementary school kids. In terms of reading level and overall length I would say this is best of upper elementary, but definitely has appeal into middle school.
When Lupe, Elirio and Chavo blast off into space on accident after souping up their old jalopy, they finish the job of detailing the car. They collect stars and rings from Saturn. They use moon rocks to enhance the hydraulics. It’s all just really clever. They make it back from space just in time to enter the car in a galactic car contest where they can win enough money to open their own garage.
The art is also amazing. It’s done with Bic pens and Sharpies and looks like the doodles you would see in notebooks and binders of kids. How Raul Gonzalez managed to do this without smudging the heck out of it all I don’t know, but it’s very impressive. I also like that this feels like art a kid could do. Obviously they won’t have the skill of a professional, but I could see some sixth grader looking at this book and looking at their notebooks and thinking, I could do that!
I read the ARC so I wasn’t able to see it in it’s full glory (the pictures were in black and white) and there were a couple quirky things that I’m hoping they’ll fix between now and the actual publication. Well worth the read, though.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 03, Nov 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
I came across a Kickstarter campaign through one of my non-library blogs. I’ll just quote you their about page, because they do a better job explaining their mission than I will:
“In one Lagos bookshop in 2008, there were no children’s books with African children on them.
I couldn’t believe it. At the time I was working for Tamarind Books, a bastion of multicultural children’s book publishing in the UK. Unfortunately their books weren’t reaching a global audience. Neither were many other great, high-quality multicultural and multilingual children’s books published by the best trade publishers. So I decided to join the dots.
Kio exists to serve schools, governments, charities and families with educational resources that reflect cultures and languages globally. At Kio, we believe education should reflect and celebrate the global village we live in.
Many organisations working in Africa, Asia, South America and beyond don’t know that there are resources which reflect the children they serve. As a consequence, those children grow up seeing images of success, opportunity and education that exclude them. By shopping with Kio, you are enabling us to change this.”
Here is the blog post I found them through: What If We Publish Children’s Books African Kids Could Relate To. This just hit home the point for me that we all need diverse books and that, sadly, the story of the whitewashing of US publishing is a story you can find all around the world.
Their Kickstarter campaign can be found here: The Wedding Week. It looks to publish a book called The Wedding Week which, led by gecko, takes you through a week of weddings all over the world. They chose weddings because they are a great entree into food, clothes, and culture. The collage/cut paper illustrations look beautiful. I gave 30 pounds, which is about $50. Please give if you can. They have about a week left and need about 2,000 pounds more. The money goes to paying the author and illustrator and to printing and distributing the book to African kids.
Update: 11/3/2014, 10:15 They just passed their initial funding goal!! Any additional money they raise now will go toward making the book into an interactive ebook with audio (read in the languages it is published in), extra content, and animation.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 29, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: In 1960s Toronto, two girls retreat to their attics to escape the loneliness and isolation of their lives. Polly lives in a house bursting at the seams with people, while Rose is often left alone by her busy parents. Polly is a down-to-earth dreamer with a wild imagination and an obsession with ghosts; Rose is a quiet, ethereal waif with a sharp tongue. Despite their differences, both girls spend their days feeling invisible and seek solace in books and the cozy confines of their respective attics. But soon they discover they aren’t alone–they’re actually neighbors, sharing a wall. They develop an unlikely friendship, and Polly is ecstatic to learn that Rose can actually see and talk to ghosts. Maybe she will finally see one too! But is there more to Rose than it seems? Why does no one ever talk to her? And why does she look so… ghostly? When the girls find a tombstone with Rose’s name on it in the cemetery and encounter an angry spirit in her house who seems intent on hurting Polly, they have to unravel the mystery of Rose and her strange family… before it’s too late.
I read this one just in time for Halloween. It was, ultimately, a rather sad ghost story. There is a lot going on here, although I never felt the plot lines got tangled or hard to follow. But several of the plots were quite sad for various reasons.
The narrative switches back and forth between Polly and Rose with each girl getting a section in each chapter. Rose always follows Polly and sometimes recounts what Polly has told or picks up where Polly left off. The two girls and their families could not be more different and I enjoyed seeing their perspectives on these things when it was their turn to narrate. So while this is a ghost story with all the requisite twists and turns, it also became a wonderful story about friendship and family.
The synopsis above doesn’t mention that there is a historical thread to the story that connects up with the family theme and story. Rose, because she can see ghosts, sees a ghost that she quickly discovers is an aunt no one ever talks about. The aunt could also see ghosts, but because of the time she was born into the family wanted to institutionalize her. There is some mystery surrounding her death and why she is still lurking the house and Rose, with the encouragement of Polly, ultimately decides to investigate and possibly help her aunt, which requires delving into the family history and raiding the closets.
I’m one of those people who skips ahead and reads the last few pages of a book, but I don’t usually do that with these mystery/ghost stories because it can totally ruin it. I accidentally did that with this one and it spoiled the big twist at the end. The book was still well worth the read, though and I still managed to get sucked in to making mistakes and assumptions. Adults reading the story may find they can figure it all out before the big reveal simply because it’s an age-old ghost story trick, but kids who may not be familiar with the genre will be totally amazed.
I would say this is a good middle grade ghost story, but upper elementary would enjoy it as well. It’s a little on the longer side and I’m guessing the reading level is fairly high.