Category Archives: Reviewing

Coming Soon: Brian Selznick’s The Marvels


Brian Selznick is one of the great artists of our time. In what is now a trilogy (The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Wonderstruck, and now The Marvels) he has created a unique storytelling style, one that blends illustration and text in an engrossingly original way. It is an aesthetic and emotive experience not like that of a graphic novel, but one closer to a cinematic viewing experience or a theatrical one; the three books are rich with scenes of powerful beauty created with paper, page turns, close-ups, and more. Upon completing The Marvels, I sat still, feeling as I did after a remarkable theatrical experience, say a dramatic opera, a visually stunning film, or a striking play, in awe of what I’d just experienced. Hours later it lingers with me, a gorgeous work of art.

The Marvels begins in the 18th century with images, hundreds of pages of them relating a mysterious story of a theatrical family over several generations. Ships and theaters, riggings and scenery, weather and atmosphere, adventure and drama, light and dark, youth and age, convention and strangeness  — it is all there. Midway the images end and it is 1990 with a story now told exclusively in words. We meet Joseph who has run away from boarding school and is now in London desperately seeking out the one address he knows: 18 Folgate Street where his uncle lives, someone he knows nothing about and has never met. A fortunate encounter with a child his own age finally brings him to his relative who is not at all happy that he has come. There are mysteries galore — that of Joseph’s uncle’s remarkable house, of Joseph’s friend from school who has disappeared, of his and his uncle’s family, and of another one called the Marvels. By the end, the first two parts of the book are made whole in a brief, but powerful and brave conclusion, told again in drawings, set in the present day.

The book was inspired by a remarkable man, Dennis Severshis house in London at 18 Folgate Street, and his friend David Milne. My own familiarity with their story, visit to the house a few years ago, and experiences during the period of the second part of the novel made my reading of The Marvels both aesthetically powerful and personally significant. As Joseph’s story and that of his uncle’s and his house began to unfold I started to recognize aspects of it and had a premonition as to where the story was going, causing me to remember others, artists I knew and cared for so much and whose lives were all too brief. And so I know that my reading was quite likely different from that of someone without my background, especially child readers.

Thank you, Brian, for The Marvels, for creating this work of art that remembers, looks behind and ahead, that celebrates the power of love, of art, of books, and the future with extraordinary art, grace, and elegance.

Also at the Huffington Post.


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Kelly Jones’ Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

Kelly Jones’ terrific Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer is described by its publisher as quirky a word that, for me, doesn’t really get across the warm-heartedness of this eccentric epistolary story. Twelve-year-old Sophie Brown has, along with her parents,  just moved from LA to a seemingly animal-free farm they have inherited from her Great-Uncle Jim. The lonely Sophie, seeing a flyer for the Redwood Farm Supply company in the barn and being unable to find them on the Internet, takes her mother’s suggestion, and writes them an old-fashioned letter requesting a catalog. After all, “…if I have to live on a farm, I think it ought to be an interesting one, with chickens and ducks and some peacocks or something.” Frustrated not to receive an answer she writes again irritatedly and then, as things started getting more complicated, more urgently.

Mixed in with these letters are others. Say the wistful diary-like letters Sophie writes to her beloved deceased abuelita. “I know you’re dead, and I don’t believe in zombies, so you don’t need to write back or anything. I just wanted to write someone.” Or the lighter ones she writes to her late Great-Uncle Jim as things get…er….even…more….complicated.

For the farm isn’t animal-free for very long. One of Sophia’s Great-Uncle’s chickens shows up followed by several more and Sophie quickly learns that they have just slightly special qualities that makes them very much the unusual chickens of the book’s title. Now Sophia has to learn how to take care of them — finding some new local friends who help– as well as protect them from someone else who seems to have her eye on them and not in a good way.

Sophie’s voice is delightful. She eagerly explores the place, finds that first chicken, and is off taking care of her (and the others that follow). I loved that she read them The Hoboken Chicken Emergency and found other books about chickens, helped by the local librarian, Ms. O’Malley.This isn’t a girl who mopes about, but one who gets to work, whether cleaning up the barn, tracking down missing chickens, or writing letters. That said, in those letters to her grandmother, scattered among her descriptions of her practical rolling-up-sleeves activities, are the occasional acknowledgements of much she misses her. Refreshing, as well, are her occasional mentions of how someone or another in the small rural town perceives the bi-racial Sophia and/or her Latina mother within some very limited racial stereotypes.

In addition to the letters there are other documents: a test, a correspondence course about chickens, newspaper articles, posters for the annual poultry show, and so forth. And mixed throughout are Katie Kath’s lively illustrations.

This is definitely a favorite of mine this year — enough for me to want to look at it again in terms of Newbery. I think it is that good.

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Two School Stories, Sophia McDougall’s Mars Evacuees and Robin Stevens’ Murder is Bad Manners

Two new British imports, Sophia McDougall’s Mars Evacuees and Robin Stevens’ Murder is Bad Manners, offer middle grade readers clever young women, wry and witty authorial voices, hapeless teachers, excellent sidekicks, well-developed settings, and page-turning plots. Both are also just a lot of fun.

Mars Evacuees opens at the Muckling Abbott School for Girls where twelve year-old Alice Dare learns that she is one of a handful of kids being evacuated to Mars. This is most likely because of her mother, a celebrity military pilot in Earth’s war with the Morror, invisible aliens who have caused catastrophic climate change. Harkening back to those children who were evacuated from London during WW II, Alice and a similar group head off to Mars. Overseen by military and scientist adults, the children are divided into age cohorts and tended to and taught by some surprisingly personable robots — Alice’s is the Goldfish. She acquires friends: smart and quirky Josephine, good-hearted Carl, and his sweet little brother Noel. When all the adults mysteriously disappear, after coping with some serious Lord of the Flies situations, the four head off to find help, encountering a young Morror along the way. There is an Indiana Jones quality to the story — the way the kids barrel into one over-the-top challenge after another, figure them out, and carry on. While there is tension and you have no idea what will happen, Alice’s voice is so determined and charming, that you are just sure they will survive. And they do and more than that — they save the..well, world isn’t quite the right word…the world and other stuff, shall we say. It is great fun! (Hmm…writing this makes me think this will be my next read aloud.)

Whereas Mars Evacuees is set mostly on a futuristic Mars, Murder is Bad Mannerswinner of the 2015 Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prizeis set firmly in a 20th century past. It is 1934 and 8th grader Hazel Wong has been sent from her Hong Kong home to the very English Deepdean School for Girls where she encounters the lively Daisy Wells. After a teacher literally drops dead, Daisy organizes the Wells & Wong Detective Society, determined to find the murderer. The timid Watson-like Hazel writes of their efforts, fretting as Daisy, very much the Sherlock of the two (more in terms of leadership as she is far more socially apt than the adult detective), brazenly determines just what they have to do. A diverse protagonist, a school story, a cozy mystery in the vein of Christie, a friendship narrative, and one with some interesting touches regarding race and prejudice, Murder is Bad Manners is all in all a delight. The first in the Wells and Wong series, I can’t wait to read the next one.

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Coming Soon: Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Hired Girl (Cover Reveal and More)

Fans of Laura Amy Schlitz are a patient bunch. We know that it takes time for her beautiful, unique, and complex stories to come into being. Happily, the wait is always worth it. Such is the case for The Hired Girl, out this fall from Candlewick Press. In the form of a diary, the entries are written by the only daughter of a hardscrabble Pennsylvanian widower farmer with four sons. Eager to read, write, learn, and gain knowledge of every sort, 14 year-old Joan Skraggs, when we first meet her, has a brutal life and it seems as if there will be no way out for her.  Yet being resourceful and clever, Joan …well, you will need to read the book to find out what happens. As you would expect from Schlitz, the language is lush, full of vivid sensory details and emotional resonance. I was immersed in Joan’s 1911 experiences, anxiously following her through pain, happiness, despair, love, humor, knowledge, consideration of class, and serious contemplation of faith. Something you all have to look forward to this fall. Until then, here is the lovely cover. Thanks, Candlewick, for inviting me to do this (my first cover reveal!).





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Coming Soon: Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger

Rebecca Stead started out quietly in 2007 with her first book for children, First Light. Her second, When You Reach Me, started out quietly too, but the decibels went up when it won the 2010 Newbery award. These were followed by Liar & Spy,  also a solidly middle grade title that made a loud splash by winning the 2012 Guardian Children’s Book prize. With three fine books under her belt, the question is: what will the next one be like?  My answer (in a vague spoiler-safe way):  just as good as the previous ones.  Coming out this summer, Goodbye Stranger is everything you’d expect from this smart, profound, and thoughtful writer.

It is apt that I am writing this just before Valentine’s Day as it is love in its numerous manifestations that is central to this novel. There is the love of friendship, the main one here between three 7th grade girls who have been close and committed friends since very young, vowing never to fight. There is sibling love as shown between the main character Bridge and her older brother. There is the love between parent and child that comes wafting through in Bridge’s memories of her childhood near-death after a horrific accident. There is the love between grandparent and grandchild expressed through unsent letters by Sherm, a 7th grade classmates of the girls. And there is romantic love, something that the girls, Sherm, and their classmates are beginning to explore and consider. How do you know about this sort of love? the young people wonder. What does it mean to like someone? As a friend? As something else? How do you show your interest? Or not? What happens when feelings change? After a few months or after many years? Stead doesn’t so much provide answers as avenues to consider these. Her characters make good and bad choices. They go too far at times. Or not far enough.

Despite its slim appearance, this is a weighty novel. Challenging and complicated issues swirl in it. Some are timeless and some may seem more current, say the tricky way relatively innocent flirtations can, through cell phones with cameras, become something far more difficult. The way jealousy can cause people to do hard-to-understand mean things. That one pair may wait for their first kiss for years while the another might be exploring sexuality sooner. How certain friends and family members can stay the same while others change.

Elegantly crafted and written, this is a book to savor. Stead fans have quite a treat to look forward to this August.



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Kate Saunder’s Five Children on the Western Front

I learned about this title when it was shortlisted for the UK Costa Award and immediately ordered it from the UK. I’ve now read it and here is what I wrote on goodreads:

I’m a fan of Nesbit’s original FIVE CHILDREN AND IT, but I’m not sure it is necessary to be familiar with it to enjoy this intriguing and elegantly crafted sequel.

Nine years after their last meeting with the Psammead (a grumpy sandfairy), he suddenly shows up in his old gravelpit. Cyril, Robert, Anthea, and Jane are now young adults, the Lamb an active eleven-year-old, and there is now one more — Edith, age nine. World War I has begun and is the center of this tale. It turns out that their old magical friend has a problematic history that he needs to resolve, most of all to feel some sort of regret. The young people’s involvement with the war twists around the Psammead’s not-so-pleasant behaviors of his far-off past in ways moving, exciting, and sometimes sad. There are references to their earlier experiences, the nature of wishing, and how to consider the past. Beautifully written, this is a tale that I hope sees publication and promotion in the US.




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X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon

Fictionalized history is a tricky business. On the one hand, the past is a wealth of fascinating material for use in creating imaginary worlds. On the other hand, those doing that creating can’t go wild, they must honor the historical truth the best they can, especially when they are writing about real people from not so long ago. And so we come to X: A Novel, a gritty and glorious rendering of Malcolm X’s youth by his daughter Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon.

Friends tell me trouble’s coming. I ease out of the restaurant onto sidewalk, gun in my pocket. Hand in there, too, keeping it close for good measure. I gotta get back to my pad, and quick now. One foot in front of the other. Keep my head down, hope no one sees me.

These first tense sentences introduce readers to the young Malcolm. It is 1945 Harlem and he is clearly in trouble. Big trouble. By the next page we know more about the trouble and more about Malcolm. He’s shrewd, clever, and at this moment very scared, rueing the direction his young life has taken. And then we are taken back to 1940 Lansing, Michigan where we see a younger Malcolm setting out on his new life. The novel goes on, fluidly moving back and forth in time, filling in elements of the young man’s history. There is family: a tragically lost father, sad mother, and supportive siblings. After a childhood of profound poverty,  Malcolm leaves for the city, exploring exciting and darker places, girls, drugs — a very different world from that of his childhood. Settings are remarkably evoked, the dire poverty and horrific racism of Lansing swirling in and out amidst the jittery jazz environments of Boston and New York. Shabazz and Magoon do a remarkable job generating atmosphere, balancing family love in the face of dire circumstances against the pulsating energy of a self-assured young man swaggering through Harlem streets in a fine zoot suit and a conk. At times the language is blunt and challenging, appropriately in this fierce rendering of  the youthful development of an iconic figure of America’s past.

The story of a reckless young man finding himself, X: A Novel is historical fiction at its best — an artistic exploration of a part of a renowned person’s life , one that stays true to his time and place.

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