Monthly Archives: March 2014

Margi Preus’s West of the Moon

Mixing fairy and folktale with harsh historical reality, Preus has created a gorgeous story of migration set in 19th century Norway. So many stories of immigrants to America focus on their lives when they arrive. Here is one about the old country inspired by something Preus read in a diary her great-great-grandmother wrote as she traveled to America.  Thirteen year-old narrator Asti is a complicated girl: brave, smart, difficult, angry, foolhardy, imaginative, and in the end, endearing. I dare you to read her story and not care deeply about her when you are done. Asti and her younger sister Greta have been stuck working for their aunt and uncle on their hardscrabble farm after their father has gone off to America, promising to send for them when he has the money. The girls’ lives are harsh and miserable; the lack of letters from their father makes it challenging to hold onto hope. But they do, Asti fiercely. But then, although it would seem to be impossible,  things get worse. Asti is sold to a truly horrific goat man and this remarkable tale takes off from there. Swirling in and out of Asti’s narrative of her harsh life with the goat man, her escape, and her efforts to get to America with her Greta are the stories she tells, ones of folk, of enchantment, and of magic. Beautifully considered and written, I can’t recommend this book enough.


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Thoughts on Newbery: Patrick Ness’s CBAITS

Some of you may bristle (or already have) about this topic, but I think it is one to take very, very seriously. It is Patrick Ness‘s provocative point in his SLJ Battle of the Kids’ Book decision this week about what he has termed CBAITs:

Crappy Books About Important Things; you know exactly what I’m talking about: books with either important subject matter or important formats that are so terrible-but-worthy they turn reading into medicine for young people.  People tend to be far too afraid to give these books bad reviews and they often go on to win prizes.

I think Patrick has a point, an important and enormously complicated one. First of all, what Patrick may consider a CBAIT may not be what someone else does. That is, our criteria may be different, our idea of what is good, our taste, and so forth. Which is why, presumably, some end up winning prizes. That is, enough people on a particular award jury may have the same sense of what is good even if it isn’t what others think. And so they are going to give an award to a book they sincerely think is good not crappy.

And that gets to the heart of Patrick’s issue: what do people consider to be a good book? Many indeed think a book is good if it takes on an Important Thing and will dismiss questions about the quality of sentence level writing that would be something I’d be paying attention to . While Patrick and I probably would agree that something with painfully poor sentence level writing is crappy there are some who might feel differently. Not to mention what I might consider overwrought writing might be something someone else would think is wonderful, and vice versa.

That said, I do think there is a tendency for those of us who review and/or participate in selecting best books, award books, and such to pay a lot of attention to books that deal with topics that we feel need to be more known. And sometimes we excuse weaknesses in such books because we think they are so important. Because they are so few and because we so badly want young people to take in the topics, to know about these Important Things.

I think this has special resonance when considering the Newbery award. While the criteria are clear that it is for literary merit not popularity or didactic intent, I suspect most  of us can look back at the books that have received the medal and find one we’d call a CBAIT.

Thank you, Patrick, for pointing out that metaphorically children’s book award emperors sometimes have no clothes.



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The New Book Group Facilitator

Ms. Trivas represents a new phenomenon: the professional book group facilitator. A writer with a master’s degree in English literature from Middlebury, she presides over three adult groups, for which she charges up to $300 per session. She also runs a group for children, who nestle under a tree with their parents and read books like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

“They felt empowered sharing their opinion of the book,” she told me. “I asked them who they would rather have a play date with: Veruca Salt or Augustus Gloop. And if they could make up a different ending.”

From the NYTimes piece, Really? You’re Not in a Book Group?.

Just to let the world know, I’d considered taking a bit  less than $300 an hour to “facilitate”  a children’s book group. After all, I’ve been doing it for around three decades. I call it  “teaching.”

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Kalte Krieg and Kaisers, My Trip to Berlin

I’m German Jewish — my parents left Germany as teens due to the Holocaust, but my father then became a specialist in post-war German politics. As a result we visited and lived there a lot when I was a child. I’ve close family friends and third cousins galore there. (We also have the results of the Holocaust. My grandfather was deported and killed; my nationalistic great-aunts who couldn’t imagine what was happening commit suicide rather than being deported; others went to England and Brazil;and some ended up in, but survive the camps.) My mother cooked German food. We did Christmas and Easter. I wore dirndls. I was required to knix to adults when I shook their hands. And so I often returned to German as an adult.  I speak a messy childish German, but fairly fluently. If I lived there I’d quickly become truly bilingual.  But until last week I hadn’t been there for a long time — the last visit was with my father  in 2005 to his hometown of Frankfurt to celebrate my great-grandfather’s 150th birthday and his Edinger Institut.

Craving some time in Germany I went to Berlin last week. I’d been there three times before, the first in 1965 when I was eleven with my mother who was from there. She left in early 1939 and so I was absorbed during that visit seeing where the family home had been in the Tiergarten,  visiting to her school, seeing the Wall and having her tell me how different the streets were when the city was whole, going to East Berlin, and much more.  I first returned in 1992 and was amazed to get a sense of the whole city as that had not been possible with the Wall.  There were destitute former Soviet soldiers everywhere, I recall, and a strong sense of the differences between East and West. While less pronounced, that sense was still there when I went again in 1999.  This time though it seemed almost completely gone.

What struck me most was how similar Berlin now is to other big cities — so many of the stores and such are the same everywhere. Happily there were still aspects that were distinctly German — all the wurst, the afternoon tradition of coffee and cake, and so forth.  What also struck me was the incredible focus on the DDR as history. That was absolutely fascinating to me.

My excellent hotel was just down the street from Checkpoint Charlie. the best-known crossing point between West and East Berlin during the time of the Wall. When I was in Berlin in 1965 we traveled between the two parts of the city by subway so I had never even seen this bit of the city until last week. And found it to be a good example of the way the Cold War has become a tourist attraction, partly well–presented via thoughtful museum exhibitions and partly incredibly kitchy. The later absolutely fascinated me.


For example, you could get your picture taken (for a small fee) in front of a re-creation complete with sandbags and men dressed up as soldiers.


Or buy an “authentic” piece of the Wall. How these are certified as authentic I can’t imagine. Awfully interesting that all of them have color on them. The piece I have (given to my father right after it came down from someone who was there) is grey. After all, only some of the wall was graffitied and much of it was just plain concrete and brick like my piece. Say like this section below.


Lots of fake gas masks, helmets, and uniforms to buy.


Even the local MacDonald’s had a Wall graffiti decor. Outside on the terrace were khaki-colored umbrellas.


Also related to the Cold War, but in a completely different way was the abandoned amusement park at Spree Park. Tours (in German) are available on the weekend so I went on one. And I discovered that it is all about DDR nostalgia. The guide and many of the others on the tour had been to the park when it was open. So they were there to remember. Others were there because they are simply fascinated by DDR life. As far as I could tell I was the only non-German in the group.  Fascinating in two completely different ways.




Having just seen the Divergent movie and read the book at last, this now makes me think of that!

At the train station near the park we came across a Berlin St. Patrick’s Day celebration.  A bit odd to say the least.


Having been raised with German food and fond memories of it in Germany itself, I was glad to see many aspects of it still intact. For instance, German Starbucks, along with the usual global fare,  have German-specific cake for the afternoon ritual known as “Kaffee und Kuchen.”


And there is still loads of wurst everywhere!


At the wonderful 6th floor of the KaDeWe department store I discovered that Germans see candy canes as a yearlong delicacy.  (I should say I stocked up on Haribo, a beloved childhood treat, as the German-made bears taste very different from what is available in America.)


Fun to see the German editions of this. Translates as “The Tribute from Panem: Deadly Games.”


We spent the final day on a tour of Potsdam. I’d been there in  1992 when it was still full of destitute Russian soldiers selling whatever they had. (I’ve a couple of pins.)  The German government finally, a couple of years later, paid to send them home since Russia wasn’t about to.  This time the tour was about the Cold War and Kaisers (the Kalte Krieg and Kaisers of the post heading).  Our guide gave us this and told us to study up as there would be a test at the end. I actually found all the stuff about Fredrick the Great and his relatives to be completely fascinating. But the Cold War stuff was equal to that. Again, the tour seemed to be 99% Germans there for nostalgic reasons.


This was where the Potsdam Conference took place; where  Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt divided up Germany and sort of the first bit of what would become the Cold War. Check out the Soviet red star in this very old space.


Not the circus that was Checkpoint Charlie, but equally important — at the Gienicke Bridge, prisoner trade-offs occurred causing it be called “Bridge of Spies”.


Then there was the Kaiser part of the tour, focusing on Fredrick the Great and his summer palace, Sanssouci.  It is gorgeous, but my photos aren’t so I suggest going elsewhere if you want to get a feel for the place. I was again moved by his burial with his dogs. Those little things are potatoes because evidently he popularized them in Germany.


They are cleaning a lot of the statuary, but all I could think of seeing these was Dr. Who’s weeping angels.


We did a bunch of other fun things. Say attending  the Berliner Ensemble‘s current production of The Three Penny Opera, directed by Robert Wilson. It was fabulous, but also — what a wonderful theater!  We had something to drink beforehand in the canteen and saw many of the actors in make-up scarfing down meals before starting.  There were photos in rooms around the theater including this one of their original production.


Afterwards we had dinner at the nearby Ständige Vertretung. The name refers to the office of the Federal Republic of Germany in East Berlin during the Cold War when they couldn’t have an embassy or anything like that. The food is very much of Rhineland which is where my friends are from and where I lived as a child.


We did a lot more, of course. It was great to be back in Germany, to be in that exciting city, but most of all, it was wonderful to be with Hanne Pollmann, a very, very close family friend, someone I’ve known most of my life.  She was with me the last time I was in Berlin and it was wonderful to be back there with her again.



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The Story of Dido Elizabeth Belle


I’ve long been interested in the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle who lived in the late 18th and early 19th century. The child of the British admiral John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman (possibly named Maria Belle), she was sent to Kenwood House, the home of her great-uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield as a young child.  The earl was already raising his great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray who was the same age as Dido and so the two girls grew up together with Dido evidently becoming Elizabeth’s personal companion.  While in his rulings as Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Mansfield indicated his distaste for the institution of slavery, in his own household there is evidence that Dido was treated in demeaning ways, clearly not viewed as equal to Elizabeth and others in the family.  You can learn more about her here and here.

Now there is a movie about Dido, Belle, due to be released here soon. Variety has given a favorable review, noting that while it will appeal to Austen fans it doesn’t shy away from addressing the harsher topic of slavery.  The Guardian also weighed in, And below is the trailer. I’m eager to see it and learn for myself as to how successful it is.


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This Week in Children’s Books: Keith Richards and Rush Limbaugh

Keith Richards is penning a children’s book and  the Onion got some people-on-the-street reactions.

And then there is the children’s book author Rush Limbaugh turning up on the Author of the Year shortlist for the Children’s & Teens Choice Book Awards.

Since Author of the Year finalists  “… are selected by the CBC from a review of bestseller lists with an emphasis on Bookscan” I wondered what Keef’s chances are once his book comes out.


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2014 SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books is Underway!

It is the 6th year of the BoB and we’ve already had smashing decisions from three terrific judges along with clever graphics again from SLJ’s art director Mark Tuchman, smart commentary from kid commentator RGN, and wonderful responses from our loyal followers. Be sure to check it out!

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Africa is My Home: A 2014 Children’s Africana Book Award Winner

Yesterday I was over the moon after learning that Africa is My Home had been honored with a 2014 Children’s Africana Book Award (also know as CABA). I have long been familiar with this award and have often discovered new books through it. So to be honored with one myself is amazing.

Here’s more about them:

In 1991, Africa Access in collaboration with the Outreach Council* of the African Studies Association created the Children’s Africana Book Awards  with three major objectives (1) to encourage the publication of children’s and young adult books that contribute to a better understanding of African societies and issues, (2) to recognize literary excellence, and (3) to acknowledge the research achievements of outstanding authors and illustrators. The first CABA was presented in 1992. Today over seventy-four titles have been recognized and more than 100 authors and illustrators are members of our Winners Circle. Each winning title has been vetted by our awards jury which is composed of African Studies and Children’s Literature scholars.

There will be an award ceremony on Saturday, November 8, 2014 at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. From this cool slideshow of last year’s celebrations, I’m expecting that it and the other related activities are going to be wonderful.

My great thanks to the committee for honoring Africa is My Home this way.



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William Grill’s Shackleton’s Journey

I have always been fascinated by polar expeditions. I’ve viewed many documentaries, visited museums such as Oslo’s Fram Museum and Tromso’s Polar Museum, and read a lot. One story that has long enthralled me is that of Earnest Shackleton’s extraordinary 1914 expedition and successful attempt to get his whole crew to safety after their ship was consumed by the ice. This story has been told many times and many ways, say by Jennifer Armstrong in  Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World and by the American Museum of Natural History in their exhibit years ago where they created an awesome room with the James Caird (the small boat Shackleton used) itself featuring huge images of waves on every wall and sound effects. Now it is being told anew by William Grill in his gorgeous new book, Shackleton’s Journey.

This is a large, beautifully designed and produced book from Flying Eye Books, a small newish publisher doing absolutely terrific stuff. With a unique illustrative style, Grill balances small images with massive ones to evoke vividly Shackleton’s preparations, the early days of the expedition, the closing in of the ice on the Endurance, and their subsequent efforts to survive, and travel to safety. Grill’s text and images do a fabulous job communicating this incredible story. The large size of the book, the ample use of white to evoke the snow and ice of the region, and some jaw-dropping full-page images make this a book to look at over and over. (Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast featured the book and a whole lot of its art here.)

My one reservation is the lack of documentation.  There are several quotes, a glossary, and much provided to learn about Shackleton, his men, the ship, polar exploration, and so much more, but there are no citations. I would have dearly loved to have seen even a brief list of sources.

That said,  the book is absolutely spectacular to browse through and worthy of owning. Kids and adults are going to pour over it and, hopefully, want to then go learn more.


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Africa is My Home: In Sierra Leone

Two friends who also served in Sierra Leone in the Peace Corps recently returned for a visit bringing along several copies of Africa is My Home as gifts. But what a gift they gave me by sending this photo of Peggy reading it to the people of Kenema Blango. I get weepy every time I look at it.


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