Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Grand things are on the way!

Finished the Wake series. Fell in love with Hope Larson's graphic novel Mercury (and Hope Larson the artist). Can't wait to blog about them (and more)! But first I have to go to work like an adult, attend grad classes like an A+ grad student, and rock out to the Arcade Fire concert with my indie-rock-lovin' bff schwester. Check back soon!


Friday, April 1, 2011

Gateway Nominee #1: Wake (and the Dream Catcher Series) by Lisa McMann

This post is a bit premature because I have yet to read the third (and final) book of Lisa McMann's Dream Catcher series, but I NEED to talk about how addictive this series is. I've literally blazed through the first and second installments of the series, Wake and Fade, in a total of 3 or so hours. What I'm finding is that the suspense makes me not want to put the book down if I don't have to (except for sleeping purposes, ironically enough) and they read so concisely that I'm not caught up in flowery language, sidebars, or anything too distracting. Please do not take this to mean these novels are one-dimensional or too simple; the stories are layered and so are the characters (without being too bogged down to follow properly).

So here's my plan for blogging this series:

1. Finish the 3rd installment, Gone
2. Rate each book separately using the Quality and Popularity rating system, but keep the details at a minimum
3. Tell you all what I like about the series as a whole and summarize the plot progression (without giving too much away, of course)
4. Ultimately, I want to make you want to read it. Then we can discuss further :)

Have a lovely (Spring) weekend, all. I'll be back in action again soon!

Printz Honorable Book: Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

"To say my friend died is one thing. 
To say my friend screwed me over and then died five months later is another thing."

YA fiction is a passion of mine, and I consider most everything honored by the Printz award committee to be golden adolescent lit. It was a series of YA novels that inspired me to write and to teach literature, and ultimately I would not be pursuing a career as a high school librarian if it didn't exist--would my future job even exist if certain authors had never decided to pick up the pen and write something that middle and high schoolers could relate to? I am afraid my future job would just involve a lot of shushing and research help in the reference section and that's about the extent of it.

Needless to say, I enjoy a YA novel that I know high schoolers can relate to. In King's novel Please Ignore Vera Dietz, I found a protagonist that I can root for and plenty of cringe-worthy mistakes I can relate to having made regarding love, responsibility, and relationships with those around me. Vera Dietz classifies herself as a person to not be seen or heard, and she intends to keep up that persona. A high school senior and self-proclaimed bona fide "pizza delivery technician," Vera settles for passing through life without making waves, keeping a solitary, (unpredictable) best friend named Charlie from the time she's in elementary school until her high school years. Charlie is the only person Vera opens herself up to, and what she shares is still only the bare minimum. She keeps herself out of trouble, keeps her lips sealed about her parents' broken relationship and the goings-on in Charlies home life, and keeps her feelings to herself.

But when Charlie abandons Vera for a shady group of new friends, including the vindictive Jenny Flick, Vera's quiet, mundane life is shaken. And when Charlie dies under mysterious circumstances and sends his ethereal, life-sized paper doll look-alikes to haunt Vera until she clears his name, Vera loses control of every part of her life she previously had in line.

Vera's story is a familiar struggle without the stereotypes of teenage drama and hormones flooding out of every chapter (as many not-so-well-written YA novels can't seem to thrive without). Sure, she has to cope with the loss of her best friend, but she does not let herself fall gently into melancholy and floods of tears. Vera knows she was completely abandoned by Charlie without reason and his absence is both confusing and infuriating. She chooses to cope with his ghosts (as well as her own) in both reckless and hilarious ways, and I found that refreshing and heartbreaking. I admit that I see a glimmer of my own fumbling, stubborn adolescent self in Vera's character, as I'm sure many readers inevitably will.

A.S. King presents the novel through the perspectives of several characters (Vera, Charlie, Vera's Dad, and the Pagoda, the town's most popular landmark) with a clever variety of chapters (ranging from titles such as "History--Age Twelve" to "Three and a Half Months Later: A Thursday in December"), making the flow of the story unpredictable, yet still linear as far as the plot's progression. I found myself laughing aloud amidst many chapters and feeling quite sad for Vera's hard-to-swallow life experiences. I enjoyed watching her learn how to continue living her life, not passively as it seems more easily done, but with purpose.

I found myself connecting the song "High School Lover" by Air to this novel, and although the song is a bit too melancholy for some, I didn't really mind. I find it fitting, but that's just me. Take a listen here if you'd like.

4Q: The writing was brilliant (especially the change in perspectives, time and momentum), but was at times a little too angst-y. Luckily those parts are not memorable enough to mask the literary value of the novel.
4P: This novel could easily be swept into a nondescript, generalized group of YA lit, but I think if teachers/librarians took the time to book-talk it, it would be a hit among high schoolers, especially because of the familiar struggles and the smart language.

picture taken from readingrants.com via creativecommons.org

Zen Shorts and Zen Ties by Jon J. Muth

"'I'm sorry for arriving unannounced,' said the bear. 'The wind carried my umbrella
 all the way from my backyard to your backyard. I thought I would retrieve it
 before it became a nuisance.' He spoke with a slight panda accent.'"

Jon J. Muth has done a fantastic job of bringing wisdom and creativity to a story of a very Zen panda bear and the friends he makes. Although these two Zen books are indeed picture books (again, beautiful large-scale watercolor pictures that spill over from page to page), I would place the reading level at upper-level elementary (think 3rd through 5th grade). The books are simple but their messages are anything but shallow.

Each story follows the main character, Stillwater, a panda bear who, in Zen Shorts, floats into the backyard belonging to 3 siblings when his red umbrella carries him off from his home. Stillwater spends time with each sibling, telling them stories of friendship, forgiveness, and kindness through little vignettes (or shorts--so clever). By the time Stillwater has gotten to know his new friends, each child has learned how to treat his/her siblings with love and respect, as friends should. In Zen Ties, we meet Stillwater's nephew Koo, who cleverly speaks in Muth's interpretation of Haiku. While Koo is visiting, he meets Stillwater's friends (the siblings from the previous story) and they forge friendships as well. Stillwater teaches Koo about the importance of not being wasteful, accepting yourself and doing your best in every situation (no matter how difficult), and being a generous person. Stillwater leads the children and Koo in assisting a disgruntled elderly woman, warming her heart to them as well as their hearts to her.

What I enjoy most about these two stories are the lessons taught--they are simple concepts that we strive to teach our children in order to teach them the value of people and relationships in every situation. Although the basis of the lessons is essentially based on the practice of Zen (a Buddhist school of thought), don't let that deter you from reading this to your children, whether you classify yourself to a particular religion or not. The ideas Muth presents reach the reader on an intrinsically human level and encourages children to think about the way they treat and view others. I did not feel in any way that the author was driving the reader to believe in Buddhism, and in fact he doesn't speak of Zen or Buddhism until the author's note at the end of each book.

5Q: As a teacher/librarian I appreciate the literary value of each of these books; the content is original and the author's use of language and different literary devices is impressive.
4P: I think the stories and pictures will interest children, but the lack of "excitement" or adventure throughout may lose their attention, especially if the concepts and lessons are not connected to real-life applications for the kiddos. I could see both books serving as a great tool is character education at the upper-elementary level.

Picture taken from zendirtzendust.com via creativecommons.org

The Sea Serpent and Me by Dashka Slater, Illustrated by Catia Chien

"He was a very beautiful sea serpent, so small I could hold him in my hands..."

So, I am a sucker for stories of unlikely friendships and I am completely mesmerized by large-scale, colorful illustrations. You may have noticed this. I take it to mean I am still very much of a child at heart, aching to let my imagination run wild and to be pulled into stories that only the most creative (brilliant) minds could dream up and bring to life.

The Sea Serpent and Me is narrated by a small girl who climbs into the bathtub to find a tiny sea serpent plunged into the bath from a drop of water from the faucet. Where did this tiny sea serpent come from? How in the world did he end up in a droplet of water, miles from the ocean? The little girl asks the serpent these questions and he tells her of his long journey from the sea, where he was lifted up by a powerful tornado, carried off in a cloud, dropped from a rainstorm into a lake, and finally sucked into a pipe that led him to the girl's bathtub. The narrator cares for the serpent, playing "vikings" in the tub, moving him to a large fish tank as he grows larger and larger, and eventually finding a way that she can return him to his home in the ocean. The serpent sings to the narrator at night about the sights in the sea, from dancing manta rays to crabs with antlers to fish shaped like guitars, and the narrator realizes how much the serpent longs to be home again. 

The water color-drawings that accompany the serpent's songs are energetic and romantic, and they fill each page with aqua-marine shades and antique yellows and oranges. As the narrator returns her serpent friend to the sea and he wonders if he'll be lonely in the big ocean without her, I couldn't help but feel a pang in my heart for this unlikely pair of new friends. It is truly a touching story with vivid language and imagery that is sure to hook the reader instantly. I often imagine reading such bright, lovely stories to children to a background of soft but playful music, just as I hear it in my head as I turn the final pages of the book. (If you're curious which song I'd pick to read this one to, it would be "The Winner Is" by Danna/Devotchka, which you can listen to here)

5Q: Great use of imagery and creative language that makes the story come to life; unique but timeless story of friendship; characters that anyone could fall in love with.
5P: I cannot think of a single reason children (or adults, for that matter) would not jump all over this book! Even the cover is bright, original, and inviting.

Picture taken from si-la.org via creativecommons.org

Caldecott Pick #2: A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead, Illustrated by Erin E. Stead

"Amos McGee was an early riser..."

This 2011 Caldecott Medal winner has become an instant favorite for me, sure to be added to my personal collection for my future children and grandchildren. Not only are the drawings absolutely stunning and original, there's something about the story and the pictures that makes me feel at home. Maybe it's the familiar feeling of being home sick for a day and wanting nothing but to be taken care of by those who love me, or maybe it's the imaginative idea of all creatures, big and small, "scary" or cuddly, having a unique personality. 

Amos McGee has a job that almost every child, at some point in their childhood or adolescence, dreams of having--he is a zookeeper at the City Zoo. Amos' routine is simple: he wakes at early dawn, prepares himself a hearty, warm breakfast, dresses in his zookeeper uniform, and catches the number five bus to the zoo. However, once Amos reaches the zoo, although he has "a lot to do at the zoo," he takes time to visit his animal pals. Author and illustrators Philip and Erin Stead portray Amos playing chess with the elephant, sitting quietly with the bashful penguin, and reading stories to the owl who is afraid of the dark.

So what happens when Amos wakes with "the sniffles," unable to make it in to work? Well (of course) his zoo friends, lonely and wondering where Amos is, decided to hop on the number five bus and pay him a visit! They spend the day keeping Amos company, playing chess, hide and seek, and ending the day with a lovely bedtime story.

I highly recommend reading this story, both for yourself and your kids. It would certainly make a great story to share together on a sick day when your little one is feeling blue :)

5Q: Very deserving of the Caldecott--gorgeous pictures an endearing, imaginative set of characters that are relational, and a unique, easy-to-follow storyline.
5P: I don't know much about elementary-level reading circles, but I'd wager that this book is and is going to continue to be a huge hit among kids, teachers, parents, and librarians alike. The story will stand the test of time, and the pictures are irresistible.

Photo taken from anniesklaver.wordpress.com via creativecommons.org