The importance of words

Wonders lie in words.  Whole entire worlds are revealed in metaphor and simile that are both true and untrue.  Lives, with exultant joy and limitless sadness, a given as a gift for the seekers of understanding.  To show children (and all people, for that matter) the power and importance of words is significant and essential.


The life of Pablo Neruda is fictionalized in Pam Munoz Ryan's The Dreamer and it is a read to be savored.  The rhythm of Neruda’s poetry (with which I am ashamed to admit I was not familiar before this book) lives in every sentence, every phrase, every question.  Ryan has absorbed his work and his world into her skin and it comes out through her fingertips in a style that is brilliantly hers.  There is not one false step here and our sympathies for Nephtali are never clouded with something as mundane as pity.  We applaud his victories and cheer him on in the losses.  Nothing can destroy the heart of the poet.


As teachers and librarians we sometimes forget that writing is not just learning about punctuation and metaphor and simile.  Certainly those are important but most of the time it is more important to simply write your own truth, your own vision of the world and when you are an adolescent that truth is very close and very personal.  If we try to put it into the box of proper form we kill tiny pieces of the writer’s heart.  Patricia MacLachlan's Word After Word After Word is the story of five fourth grade friends who explore and discover their own lives in a month long visit from a famous author.  Henry, one of the characters, says, “I write to save everything I have.” Yes.


Find these at a library near you.  And it’s summer reading time so sign up for the adult/teen/children’s program while you’re there.


And so it goes.

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Claudette Colvin and Marching for Freedom

Whatever I read, whenever I read, I learn.  If I don’t feel as though I am learning – either in my heart or my head – I throw the book on the floor and pick up another from the tumble down stack in my living room or the one beside my bed or the one in the bathroom, or the one I just moved to set the dinner table.  Most of the time I read fiction.  Often I read poetry.  Every once in a while I pick up a work or two of non-fiction.  This past week was one of those whiles and I am so glad it was.


I came of age in the sixties.  I remember vividly the assassinations of a President, a candidate and a civil rights leader.  I remember the deaths of children and students and soldiers.  I remember lives celebrated and sacrifices made in the causes of justice and peace and equality.  It’s remarkable how much I have forgotten. 


In 1965 I was fifteen years old.  I lived in a time where people couldn’t vote because they were the wrong color.  I remember one beautiful sunlit afternoon on the farm where I was raised, lying in a field of clover with my cousin.  She was younger than I and there we were, lying in the sun, warm, toasting ourselves like marshmallows.  I said to her, “Does it seem silly to you that we are toasting ourselves brown when a group of people can’t vote because they are brown?”  I don’t remember her answer but we talked of things like that, trying to sort out the illogical world of adults and deciding which parts we would embrace and which we would throw away like so much detritus.  That day was brought back to me quite vividly this weekend when I read Marching for Freedom by Elizabeth Partridge.  The subtitle is important here:  “Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary.”  I don’t know that I knew there were many, many children on that march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, many younger than I at the time.  Partridge writes, “The first time Joanne Blackmon was arrested, she was just ten years old.”  Aside from being a helluva first sentence and pulling the reader into the center of the story, I was suddenly reminded of how very young we were and how unafraid.  Populated with photographs of that historic time and in language that is clear and moving this beautiful book takes me back to a time when “Just Do It!” married “Yes, we can!” and the world changed.  As Katherine Patterson said when she announced that Marching for Freedom was the winner in School Library Journal’s Battle of the Books:  “…Marching for Freedom stirred my soul in a way few books have.”


Those of us who grew up in the sixties are fairly certain that we invented history and are even more certain that we were the only kids who changed the world.  I’m fairly certain we’re wrong about that but leave us out illusions now that we are approaching the age of front porches, rocking chairs, memories, and inflated stories of a time gone by.  Still, books have a way of reminding us that we weren’t the only folks who stood for justice.  Some people sat for justice, which was even more important.  Everybody knows about Rosa Parks.  She sat for justice. That delicate looking, hard-as-nails, tender seamstress refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus and changed the lives for black citizens in the segregated South forever.  However, what many of us don’t know, is that nine months earlier, on March 2, 1955, another young girl took the same position Ms. Parks took and refused to be moved from her seat on the bus, declaring over and over again, “It’s my constitutional right!”  In his book Claudette Colvin: Twice toward Justice, Phillip Hoose introduces us to the intelligent, sixteen year old Claudette Colvin who simply refused to accept the way she was treated, didn’t understand why the adults were willing to “go along to get along,” and refused to accept that the United State Constitution didn’t mean her when it said, “All men are created equal.”  Pairing archival photographs with stirring language, Hoose does a brilliant job of setting the tone of the times and demonstrating what the Jim Crow laws looked and felt like.  Telling a story that is forgotten if not unknown, Hoose deservedly won the National Book Award for bringing the life of Claudette Colvin into the hands of readers of all ages.


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Picture Book Reviews

I am not fond of alphabet books although there are several that I admire and even enjoy reading out loud. I am not fond enough of cats to go out of my way to own one, although I have owned them in my time and certainly see the advantage. However….dum, dada, dum…(that’s supposed to be a drum roll) there is a series of picture books that combines these elements into an absolutely delightful 32 pages of giggles for all involved. Meet Bad Kitty, the crankiest, hungriest, lovingest, badest cat to ever be wedged between the pages of a picture book. The study hall kids and I have taken to reading these books aloud just to be able to make Bad Kitty sounds. Bruel has transitioned Bad Kitty into the world of emergent readers with Bad Kitty Gets a Bath. With or without reading the picture books, the first chapter book is a wonderful transition into the world of independent reading but the adults involved might want to buy their own copy because the kids aren’t giving this one up.

 Speaking of independent readers….Gerald and Piggie are at it again in Mo Willems I Am Going! Piggie is going and Gerald, in typical fashion, jumps to the conclusion that disaster is imminent. Even though this is not my favorite Gerald and Piggie book, it’s still funny and fun to read – especially out loud. And for the Nervous Nellies (or Nelsons) in your house, this one is perfect.

And as long as we’re talking about books in a series, guess what? The Magic School Bus is back and taking on the Climate Challenge! I love these books. There was time when I was younger and sillier – the latter is difficult to imagine, but there it is – that I dressed up as Miss Frizzle and did the outer space book on a bus with a bunch of school-aged children. I was looking at the photographs of that event the other day and those little devils were enthralled! The books work as an adventure in their own right and as an introduction to various scientific concepts and ideas. P.S. The bus gets a make-over. Don’t miss this one! 

 And so it goes.

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Breathless by Jessica Warman

“It’s something I have come to call privately the kaleidoscope of crazy - shimmering and beautiful in certain lights, paisley and horrifying in others. …  I know him as well as myself and not at all.  All I can figure to do is hold on.  He is my only brother.”  After her brother Will attempts suicide in a very public way and not for the first time, Katie Kittrell is sent to boarding school to start a new life and do the only thing she feels she CAN do – swim.  Katie makes friends, keeps secrets, gets a boyfriend, loves her roommate, and generally behaves in a manner expected and acceptable to parents, peers and teachers.  But under the surface of her life is Will, always present, always there.  Katie loves him and hates him, holds on to him even as she tries to let go of him.  What moves this novel out of the realm of “typical teen angst/coming of age novel” is that love/hate relationship, the constant presence of Will in Katie’s life.  Warman does a brilliant job of drawing real characters and real situations.  Without sentimentality or saccharine she pulls the reader into Katie’s world and life.  It is only in the water that Katie can truly breathe.


Every once in a while one of the kids gets their hands on a book before I do and insists, with an insistence that is both annoying and demanding that I read this book right now and follows it up with days of “Have you finished it yet?”  Sometimes they are right on the money and Courtney was with this one.  Breathless is Jessica Warman's debut novel and a beautiful one it is. 

2010 Awards or I'm so excited I could spit

You know you’re a junkie/youth services librarian when….

  • You start crying when you see a video of Virginia Hamilton talking about the importance of sharing books with children.
  • You get up ridiculously early on your day off to watch/listen to/read tweets about award announcements
  • Time slows down like it does for a child at Christmas and she is absolutely certain Santa will never arrive
  • Watching last year’s announcements is almost as much fun as it was when you watched them the last time
  • One of your favorite times is sitting with grandchildren and making a book list of what they should read next
  • When you are convinced that it just isn’t long enough and go back and watch past years because you need more


And this year’s winners are (to name just a few)….

Michael L. Printz award for excellence in Young Adult literature goes to Going Bovine by Libba Bray.  This one is funny and poignant and a wonderful read.  I was equally excited by the honor books, especially Tales from the Madman Underground.  The language in that one is not for the faint of heart but it is a hero’s story in every sense of the word. Don’t miss Adam Rapp’s Punkzilla – not an easy read, his work never is, but once again Rapp finds hope in the bleakest of situations. I was rather surprised that Laurie Halse Anderson’s newest Wintergirls got nothing and disappointed that Nick Burd’s Vast Fields of the Ordinary was overlooked.  Still, for what it’s worth, I think the Printz committee got it right.

In my humble opinion (well, maybe not humble) Newbery Medal should have gone to one of the books chosen for an honor, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, which has some of the most beautiful writing I have read in a very long time.  Still, I am not disappointed that the medal will be worn proudly on the cover of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.  This is a wonderful piece full of wonderful characters and a mystery that needs science to solve it.  At its heart, though, is the growing and changing relationship between two best friends.  For those of us that work with middle school kids, this is something we see daily and it is stunningly drawn here.

And last, but certainly not least, is The Caldecott Medal.  I am so excited I could spit because, yes indeed, the winner is……

THE LION AND THE MOUSE by Jerry Pinkney.  It isn’t a surprise but it’s the same sort of excitement as unwrapping the box that holds the thing you want the most for Christmas.  There’s always that suspense that maybe this time it just won’t be there, that it won’t live up to your hopes, that maybe it isn’t flawless after all.  But there it is, nestled in the tissue, perfect in every way.

Sophie Peterman and Night Lights

Sophie Peterman Tells the Truth made me laugh out loud.  Older siblings are expected to love and adore their younger siblings but Sophie cuts right to the chase and explains EXACTLY why they shouldn’t.  And she’s not kidding.  Even when those younger monsters get a little older and might actually be kind of winsome there’s a perfectly good reason not to tell anyone you might LIKE the little thing.  Robert Neubecker’s India ink illustrations are digitally colored and wonderfully expressive.  The relationship between text and illustrations will make this one a keeper!

I’ve already raved about Jerry Pinkney’s almost wordless The Lion and the Mouse.  It’s still my pick for the Caldecott Medal.  There are many other fine, fine almost wordless and wordless books that were published in 2009 and Susan Gal's Night Lights is one of them.  Few words are needed as one little girl and her dog explore the light that only exists when the sun goes down: the porch light, lantern light and firelight to name just a few. The charcoal and digital collage illustrations focus the light in the same magical way that night does.  Light and shadow are so expertly depicted, that on this foggy winter’s day I got a little taste of summer and it feels wonderful.  This is Ms. Gal’s first foray into picture books and I certainly hope it isn’t her last.

National Book Awards - a little late

I admit to being a little behind.  Most folks talked about the National Book Awards months ago, but tardiness has never stopped me from adding my two cents.


What a list!  I can’t find fault with any of them and admire the work the committee did.  In my never very humble opinion when it comes to literature, they really did find the best of the best.  While I might have chosen a different winner, I absolutely respect the choice they made.


What I Saw and How I Lied is a deceptive piece.  This carefully crafted novel is more than a mystery, far more than a romance, and frankly to call it “noirish” is almost demeaning.  There’s a journey here, one that is unexpected, surprising, but absolutely right.  Evie starts off on a journey to Florida with her mother and step-father and like any fifteen year old girl hopes for something magical, the romance of film and legend. If Evie had found that love, had her heart-broken and returned to New York a wiser teen the novel would have been good but nothing special.  What makes this novel great and worthy of highest praise is that Evie takes not only the romantic journey but also one through the most difficult terrain: truth and bigotry and loyalty.  She does not return home undamaged.  She has paid a high price.  Quietly, slowly, and not without stumbling, Evie changes the world and we are all richer because she does.


Read all the nominees.  They are well worth your time and will transport you to places you only thought you knew. 


Sometimes I Read It Wrong

Gail Giles taught me that phrase a long time ago and when there is a book floating about that the rest of the world loves and I throw at the wall I remember that it’s possible that I read it wrong and give it a second chance.  Often, I am glad I did.


Such is the case with The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks.  On first reading it was just another book about a teenage girl at a boarding school and how on earth was that anything new under the sun?  On second reading….this novel is a perfect blend of character and plot that keeps the pages turning.  I am a character driven reader, I admit it.  If I don’t like the people, I generally don’t like the book.  But as with flesh and blood folks, sometimes you have to get to know them.  Frankie is bright, witty, and not at all above breaking the rules.  She crawls through the steam tunnels and across the roofs of her school in an effort to impress her boyfriend and winds up finding that it’s more fun and more important to be yourself and let the chips (and boys) fall where they may.  I loved this kid once I took the time to get to know her.  I am really glad I gave her and her history a second chance.


Sometimes I don’t just read it wrong, I simply don’t get it.  Long ago and far away when I was first interested in YA literature, I encountered the work of Francesca Lia Block and boy did I not get it!  Her work felt convoluted and full of itself and too much.  I was wrong, of course, dead wrong.  I have since become a fan….a huge fan.  The book that did it for me was The Rose and the Beast.  This is a masterful retelling of fairy tales giving motivation and power to the women in those tales.  The prose is elegant and rhythmic.  This collection is a joy to read aloud because the language is full and rich and rolls around and over and through your palate like the best of any fine beverage.  Since then I have read everything she’s written and if I haven’t loved it, I have at least been able to appreciate it.  How to (Un)cage a Girl is her most recent offering and once again she writes for women, young and old, of all shapes and sizes.  This is a beautiful volume of empowerment and understanding and love.  I don’t buy many books anymore but I am buying this one.  I will need to read it again and again.  And when I need it not when the library has it in. I need this book like I need coffee.  Don’t pass up the chance to taste it.

New Picture Books

There is a level of excitement when the newest picture book order arrives. It’s rather like Christmas once a month. When it happens around the holidays it’s even better, somehow. Presents that I didn’t pay for and that I get to share. Cool!

Jan Thomas' The Doghouse is sure to delight children from birth to 8 at the very least and even older if it becomes a real favorite! It begins on the endpapers (Psst. Don’t flip to the back unless you want to spoil the ending.) Our friends Cow and Mouse and Duck and Pig are playing kickball and “Oh no! The ball went into THE DOGHOUSE.” Mouse volunteers his friends, one by one, to retrieve the lost ball and they never come out. Whatever could be happening to them? Yikes!
The text is clear and bold, with plenty of space on the brightly colored pages and delightfully expressive illustrations to entertain the lapsit gang. The language is repetitive enough for the just beginning reader to master and crow proudly, “I can read this all by myself!” Grab this one up at your local library and enjoy!

I have been a fan of Cynthia Rylant’s work for many, many years. From When I Was Young in the Mountains to Missing May to Mr. Putter and Tabby, I have loved most of them and enjoyed them all. Her newest picture book is a love affair just beginning. The language in Snow sparkles like the flakes themselves. “And then there is the snow /that begins to fall/ in fat cheerful flakes /while you are somewhere/ you’d rather not be./ Maybe school./ Maybe work.” Lauren Stringer’s acrylic illustrations bring further depth and dimension to Rylant’s story and the addition of the grandmother as one of the main characters makes this a perfect gift for an evening of falling snow, hot chocolate and curling up in Grandma’s lap.

I’ve never been much of a wanderer. I like making a nest and staying in it. I don’t have any overwhelming desire to climb Mt. Everest, go the Amazon or journey to the moon. I’m not that kind of a dreamer. But I understand, and maybe even envy a little bit, people who are. The Moon Over Star written by Dianna Hutts Aston and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney takes place in July of 1969. It was a month for dreamers and Mae was no exception. She and her family follow the flight of the Apollo 11 crew on their journey to and landing on the moon. Even Gramps, who has worked hard all his life and believes that all that money spent to go to the moon should be spent to help the people on Earth, gets caught up in the beauty and mystery of space flight. Aston’s story is rich and layered and as always Pinkney’s ink and watercolor illustrations take readers to a different time and place, which he captures in the faces of his characters and the details of their surroundings. This is a perfect book for dreamers of all shapes and sizes.

I cannot remember a time when I was not passionate about books. I cannot remember a time when there were not books everywhere. But I do remember not having easy access to a public library where the books could be borrowed and returned and I could spend my allowance on something frivolous like….another book. In the world high up in the Appalachian Mountains, remote and hardscrabble, books and libraries are the furthest thing from Cal’s mind until That Book Woman and a very patient little sister introduce him to reading. The text by Heather Henson and the ink, watercolor and pastel illustrations by David Small are a genuine tribute to the Pack Horse Librarians, women who dedicated their lives to bringing literature and books to the poorest of the poor. “That’s gift enough.”

All of these are prizes and treasures but two books in the recent shipment stand out above the rest.
Allan Ahlberg’s whimsy is perfectly complemented by Bruce Ingrams’ pencil and acrylic illustrations in The Pencil, a rollicking adventure in which a Pencil draws a world and the Eraser tries to erase it all. Every character has a name, including each of the ants. This book is laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish. The humorous and simple exploration of the creative process will appeal to authors and illustrators of all ages and sizes…..and names.

The flyleaf of The Black Book of Colors reads, in part, “It is very hard for a sighted person to imagine what it is like to be blind.” However, with completely black pages, author Memna Cottin and illustrator Rosana Faria, make quite a successful attempt. Each spread has a simple explanation of what a color “looks” like to a person who cannot see it on the left-hand page and raised/embossed black on black illustration on the right page. The print text is supported by Braille text at the top of the left pages. This book begs to be touched and explored with eyes open and closed. Held in the right light, the delicate raised illustrations are visible but readers’ finger will itch to touch each and every corner. Both the author and illustrator are Venezuelan which eliminates this gem from the Caldecott race and that really is unfortunate because this is one of the most perfect books I’ve see this year. Don’t miss it.

Holy Cow!

Honestly, I forgot I had this thing. It might be rather fun to get back into it, at least for book reviews and musings and meanderings about library life. are the latest:

Bob Graham
How to Heal a Broken Wing
From the soft illustration to the gentleness of the story, Bob Graham takes us into Will's world and we learn that food, rest, time and hope can work wonders. If you live with an animal rescuer, this book belongs on your bookshelf.

Mem Fox, author
Helen Oxenbury, illustrator
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes
OK. I admit it. I am a complete sucker for Helen Oxenbury's illustrations and when those are partnered with Mem Fox's rhymes I just about swoon. Babies of all ethnicities and cultures smile and laugh and explore together. The babies get it. Adults should pay attention.

Jon Scieszka, et al
Trucktown series
Melvin Might?
Put this on the holiday giving list for any fan of things that go. Scieszka and company have created wonderful characters, cleverly illustrated! The bright colors and large type make this an ideal picture book to share with littles of all ages.
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