Monthly Archives: March 2012

Maryrose Wood’s The Unseen Guest

I am a big fan of the third person omniscient narrator, the sort that floats around, above, and within telling everything that is going on, sometimes even commenting directly to the reader. That said, I’m very picky — many recent attempts haven’t worked for me, the narrators were just too snarky, overbearing, derivative, or forced. Happily that is not the case with the narrator of Maryrose Wood‘s The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series of which the most recent The Unseen Guest has just been published.

I like Wood’s narrator, she or he is kind, gentle, charmingly didactic, and seems to know quite a bit about our heroine, the plucky sixteen-year-old Miss Penelope Lumley.  For those unfamiliar with the series, Miss Lumley came to Ashton Place from the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females to oversee the education of three children who were discovered in the woods and presumed to have been raised by wolves. Penelope, with a mysterious background of her own, takes on her role with great devotion and seriousness.  The narrator brings all sorts of curiosities to us in an opinionated but not snarky or harsh way; she/he appears to care about Penelope and her charges and wants as we readers do — to get to the bottom of their histories.

In this third book in the series, like the others delightfully illustrated by the excellent Jon Klassen, we learn a tad more about the three children’s life in the woods and some of those who cared for them there. New characters, some of whom may or may not be villains, are introduced and old characters return and become more perplexing as to their relationship to the children and their governess. For those who enjoy witty mysteries, plays on Victorian mores, and unpredictable oddities, I recommend this series highly.



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A Confounding Cover from Lemony Snicket

Who Could That Be at This Hour? comes out October 23rd. Yesterday, Mr. Snicket kindly revealed the cover with the following statement:

Judging a book by its cover is like judging a person for their crimes. You can examine the evidence, but you can never known the truth.

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Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s No Crystal Stair

I’m a fan of boundary crossings, those books that don’t sit neatly in one genre. Say Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck with their mix of textual and visual storytelling or Deborah Wiles’ Countdown with the atmospheric setting heightened through the use of documentary material. Now along comes another hybrid, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s superb No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller.

To say this is the story of a bookseller hardly does Lewis Michaux or his great-niece Nelson justice. For this bookseller was also political, socially aware, charming, smart, and a player through a significant historical time and place. Nelson spent years researching and figuring out how to tell the story of this incredible man. In her author note she writes:

Researching this family history was exciting and challenging, though nonexistent and conflicting information complicated the project, I did my best to tell Lewis’s story using facts when I could, filling gaps with informed speculation, making this a work of fiction. My goal was to leave readers with the essence of the man, an understanding of what shaped him, and a picture of how he and his National Memorial African Bookstore influenced a community. (166)

She brilliantly succeeds with this goal having created a book that is a community itself. A vibrant collection of voices take us from Lewis’s youth in early 20th century Newport News, Virginia all the way to 1970s Harlem. Throughout we hear from Lewis himself as he goes from a mischievous pig thief to a gambling den owner and on to the creator of a politically and unique Harlem institution, along the way considering the historical figures of his time — among them Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. We hear from his family — his lively father, his serious mother, his siblings — especially Lightfoot who establishes the reknown Church of God, his wives, and his son. And we hear from many others, in particular those who were touched by this charismatic man. Helping to provide context are fictionalized newspaper and magazine articles, programs for public events, and “off the record” memories of a fictional news reporter. And then there are the documents, among them photographs, fliers, programs, business cards, newspapers, death certificates, book covers and title pages, and FBI files.

I started the book wondering how I would ever manage to keep straight the many voices telling the story, but I had no need to worry. Each is absolutely distinct — when one returns to the narrative there is no question who it is. These individuals are poetic, energetic, moving, and full of fascinating historical information. In addition to the real people around Lewis, Nelson created several completely fictional characters based on “the oral-history stories of real people who were touched by the bookstore.” I particularly appreciated the”Harlem Teenager” later known as Snooze whose growing-up voice weaves among the other mostly adult voices. Furthering the genre-crossing aspect of the book are R. Gregory Christie’s excellent illustrations, the book’s fine design, and Nelson’s meticulous back matter filled with information and citations regarding her research.

No Crystal Stair is an elegant and riveting look at an extraordinary man who was part of a remarkable historical time.


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Wanna Buy Me Charlie Chaplin’s Cane?

Some readers know that I’m rather besotted with Charlie Chaplin. After years of casually showing his movies to my 4th graders, last year I made it all a proper study culminating in a movie a la Charlie. We are doing it again this year. Additionally, I’m working on a book about his Little Tramp character. So, yeah, I’m a bit obsessed.

No surprise then that my ears pricked up just now hearing an NPR piece about next week’s “Hollywood Legends” auction. There are, I learned a whole bunch of Chaplin items I’d love to have, say one of his hats, a cane, a pair of his “worn” bow ties, a carving of his iconic boots, or a mini-projector of his and some film reels. The sale also includes stuff I have absolutely no interest in owning, say his international driver’s license or a pair of his pajamas. Oh, there’s other stuff too — say photos of Marilyn Monroe and JFK’s rocking chair.


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Fairy Tale News

There’s been a few newsy bits about fairy tales of late that I want to weigh in on.

First there was the Guardian’s announcement of “Five hundred new fairytales discovered in Germany” that was immediately picked up around town and the world. In fact, reading further into the article and hearing from others, I learned that these fairy tales collected by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth had been published more than once and so weren’t quite the Indiana-Jones-ish-hidden-away-and-never-seen-before fairy tales suggested by the headline and others.  Now I’m pleased to see that fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar has weighed in with “CINDERFELLAS: THE LONG-LOST FAIRY TALES” over at The New Yorker.

Then there was Tuesday’s announcement (also in the Guardian) of a new collection of Grimm fairy tales retold by Philip Pullman.  Great news indeed, but just to point out that Pullman is no fairy tale novice. He’s been retelling fairy tales forever.  Even before he was a published writer he was a teacher and told stories to his students.  And as a published writer he has been telling new and old tales for quite some time.

Some of his retellings include:

And then there are his wonderful new fairy tales. Among them are:
In addition to being one of the greatest living writers Philip Pullman is also a wonderful mentor to many myself included. We became acquainted many years ago on child_lit and have since then met occasionally. Last summer I was in Oxford and Philip took me to a glorious lunch where he told me about the Penguin project and we had a wonderful time chatting about fairy tales.

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More on the 2012 Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts

School librarian Jonathan Schumacher has put together a fantastic collection of resources for this year’s Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts. For each title on the list he is providing book trailers, teaching guides, and other materials all nicely organized. You can find them here: Part I, Part II, Part III. Thank you, Mr. Schu!


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Congratulations to María Teresa Andruetto and Peter Sís for their 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Awards

Press release from IBBY:

The Hans Christian Andersen Award Jury of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) announces that María Teresa Andruetto from Argentina is the winner of the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Author Award and Peter Sís from the Czech Republic is the winner of the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Illustrator Award.

The Andersen medals and diplomas will be presented to the winners at the international IBBY congress in London, United Kingdom on Saturday, 25 August 2012.

The Hans Christian Andersen Award, considered the most prestigious in international children’s literature, is given biennially by the International Board on Books for Young People to a living author and illustrator whose complete works are judged to have made lasting contributions to children’s literature.

In awarding the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Medal for writing to María Teresa Andruetto the Jury recognises her mastery in writing important and original works that are strongly focussed on aesthetics. She creates sensitive books, which are deep and poetic with a clear literary base. Her books relate to a great variety of topics, such as migration, inner worlds, injustice, love, poverty, violence or political affairs.

Andruetto was selected from 27 authors nominated for the Award. The four finalists are Paul Fleischman (USA), Bart Moeyaert (Belgium), Jean-Claude Mourlevat (France) and Bianca Pitzorno (Italy).

In awarding the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Medal for illustration to Peter Sís the Jury recognizes his extraordinary originality and deep creative power to relate highly complex stories that can be interpreted on many different levels. The jury particularly appreciates his use of different design and artistic techniques, as well as his innovative approach using a subtle balance to depict well-documented and historical events and fantastic elements.

Sís was selected from 30 illustrators nominated for the Award. The four finalists are Mohammad Ali Baniasadi (Iran), John Burningham (UK), Roger Mello (Brazil) and Javier Zabala (Spain)

The other author candidates were Christobel Mattingley (Australia), Monika Pelz (Austria), Bartolomeu Campos de Queirós (Brazil), Tim Wynne-Jones (Canada), Elli Peonidou (Cyprus), Lene Kaaberbøl (Denmark), Sinikka Nopola/Tiina Nopola (Finland), Paul Maar (Germany), Christos Boulotis (Greece), Eoin Colfer (Ireland), Masamoto Nasu (Japan), Hwang Sun-mi (Republic of Korea), Tonke Dragt (Netherlands), Bjørn Sortland (Norway), Silvia Kerim (Romania), Ljubivoje Ršumovic (Serbia), Tone Pavcek (Slovenia), Agustín Fernández Paz (Spain), Lennart Hellsing (Sweden), Franz Hohler (Switzerland), Sevim Ak (Turkey), and Philip Pullman (UK).

The other illustrator candidates were Pablo Bernasconi (Argentina), Bob Graham (Australia), Renate Habinger (Austria), Louis Joos (Belgium), Stéphane Jorisch (Canada), Charlotte Pardi (Denmark), Virpi Talvitie (Finland), Henri Galeron (France), Rotraut Susanne Berner (Germany), Efie Lada (Greece), Francesco Tullio-Altan (Italy), Satoshi Kako (Japan), Hong Seong-Chan (Republic of Korea), Anita Paegle (Latvia), Annemarie van Haeringen (Netherlands), Øyvind Torseter (Norway), Valeria Moldovan (Romania), Gennadij Spirin (Russia), Dobrosav Živkovic (Serbia), Alenka Sottler (Slovenia), Anna-Clara Tidholm (Sweden), Kathrin Schärer (Switzerland), Feridun Oral (Turkey), Chris Raschka (USA) and Arnal Ballester (Venezuela).

The ten members of the 2012 Jury, led by Jury President María Jesús Gil from Spain, met in Basel, Switzerland on 10 and 11 March 2012. The Jury of children’s literature experts comprised Anastasia Arkhipova (Russia), Françoise Ballenger (France), Ernest Bond (USA), Sabine Fuchs (Austria), Ayfer Gürdal Ünal (Turkey), Jan Hansson (Sweden), Eva Kaliskami (Greece), Nora Lía Sormani (Argentina), Sahar Tarhandeh (Iran) and Regina Zilberman (Brazil). Elda Nogueira from Brazil representing IBBY and Liz Page as Jury Secretary attended the meeting ex officio.


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Coming Soon: Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity

I am a coward.

I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending.

So begins Elizabeth Wein’s extraordinary Code Name Verity, due out in the US this May. The story of a passionate friendship set in the landscape of World War II Britain, women pilots, espionage, Nazis, the Resistance, and occupied France, it is one of the most remarkable books I’ve read.

The book begins as an account by one Verity — a young female British spy who has evidently been captured by the Gestapo in France and is now being forced to write out all she knows in a brutal situation of torture and misery. Day by day Verity relates both the experiences of her prison (and of those who supervise and manage her) and those of her past. Twisting in and around time, Verity introduces her dear friend Maddie who became a pilot at a time when female ones were few and far between. She tells of their unlikely friendship, of their parallel developments as pilot and spy, and of the events before, during, and after the night Maddie flies her to France for a mission that goes very, very wrong.

Code Name Verity is a harrowing, riveting, and deeply emotional read   — harrowing as there are references to torture, riveting as it is a thriller of the sort that keeps you agog to figure out just what is happening, and deeply emotional because of Wein’s brilliant writing. Who is Verity exactly? What was she sent to do? Has she compromised her mission? Her friend? Her country? Can we trust her account? Can we trust her?

Beautifully written from the most elegantly composed sentences to the exquisitely developed characters and the intricate puzzle of a plot, Code Name Verity is outstanding.


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And We Are Off!

Today begins the 2012 SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books. Age four now, my baby is growing up. We’ve got amazing contenders, judges, commentators (a couple of kids this year in addition to Mr. Hunt), sponsors, and followers.  Be sure to check in daily over the next few weeks.  It is going to be grand!

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Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction– An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories

A year after the devastating earthquake in Japan there are many memorials and recognitions, among them Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction — An Anthology of Japanese Teen Stories.  From their website:

Tomo (meaning “friend” in Japanese) is an anthology of young adult short fiction in prose, verse and graphic art set in or related to Japan. This collection for readers age 12 and up features thirty-six stories—including ten in translation and two graphic narratives—contributed by authors and artists from around the world, all of whom share a connection to Japan. English-language readers will be able to connect with Japan through a wide variety of unique stories, including tales of friendship, mystery, fantasy, science fiction and history.
By sharing “friendship through fiction,” Tomo aims to bring Japan stories to readers worldwide, and in doing so, to help support young people affected or displaced by the March 11, 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami disasters. Proceeds from the sales of this book will go directly toward long-term relief efforts for teens in Tohoku, the area most affected by the disasters, in the northeast region of Japan’s main island, Honshu. To begin with, Tomo fund donations will go to the Japan-based NPO Hope for Tomorrow (, which in addition to providing educational expenses (including university entrance exam fees, travel costs to exam centers, etc.) also provides mentoring, tutoring, and foreign language support to high school students in hard-hit areas of Tohoku.
Edited and with a Foreword by Holly Thompson, Tomo contributing authors and artists include Andrew Fukuda (Crossing), Liza Dalby (The Tale of Murasaki), Tak Toyoshima (Secret Asian Man syndicated comic), Alan Gratz (The Brooklyn Nine), Wendy Nelson Tokunaga (Love in Translation), Deni Y.  Béchard (Vandal Love), Debbie Ridpath Ohi (illustrator of I’m Bored), Graham Salisbury (Under the Blood-Red Sun), Naoko Awa (The Fox’s Window and Other Stories), Suzanne Kamata (The Beautiful One Has Come) and Shogo Oketani (J-Boys), among others.

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