Sunday, November 28, 2010

Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum

When we went to the public library about ten days ago, we walked over to the children's new nonfiction display.  I always like to see what is available - as you can tell, I'm reading a lot of children's nonfiction.  On this trip, Frances (who is 3 1/2) went over and immediately selected Pop!: The Invention of Bubble Gum.  I sort of groaned inside, because I'm not that interested in bubble gum, and I believed that once we got it home Frances would never look at it again.  Besides, my girls aren't even allowed to chew gum!  But we checked it out, and amazingly Frances proudly carried it over to her aunt's house that night.  We finally sat down to read it the next day, and boy, was I impressed!

Pop! is a simplified version of the Fleet company's invention of bubble gum.  It enfolds the specific story of Walter Diemer, an accountant turned inventor at Fleet, into this history.  McCarthy's skill is in distilling this story (and the history of chewing gum) into one or two compelling, interesting sentences per page.  Frances and Gloria (3 1/2 and 2) listened to the entire story twice, which especially speaks to its readability. 

But just because it is short and basic doesn't mean that McCarthy skimps on research.  In fact she artfully includes quotes from Diemer in the easy to read text.  She also includes a strong bibliography in the back matter, along with a biography of Diemer and facts about gum.  So her research is solid and will allow kids to use this book as a starting point for papers and projects.  To me, this book is unusual in its strength for preschool-grade 2 nonfiction.

And the illustrations are just as appealing as the story McCarthy reports.  The majority of the illustrations are double-page spread acrylic paintings, rich in their color.  The figures in the paintings have super-round eyes, resembling perfectly blown bubbles.  The people depicted are friendly and smiling, giving a great impression of determination and goodwill.  Without making the paintings busy with a lot of background detail, McCarthy still conveys the historical time period through dress, automobiles and buildings (the majority of the book takes place in the 1920's). 

Pop! is a truly successful nonfiction book.  It makes the history of bubble gum interesting and the scientific process exciting.  McCarthy has made a believer out of me.  But my girls will not be chewing bubble gum any time soon!!

Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum.  Meghan McCarthy.  Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2010.  Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Saturday, November 27, 2010


I am appreciating the National Book Award finalists this year because in reading them, I am breaking out of my comfort zone, just a little.  In my previous life as a teen librarian, Lockdown was the kind of book that I would have recommended to teens, especially boys.  I would have a general idea of what it was about ("Reese is a teen in juvenile detention, trying to survive until his release date."), but I would have missed out on an extremely thought-provoking novel.

Reese committed a burglary two years ago, stealing prescription pads from a doctor's office.  At the beginning of the novel, Reese has just basically been surviving in juvenile detention.  There isn't a lot of evidence that he has changed through this experience so far, but he hasn't gotten any worse, either.  His family, on the other hand, is not doing so well.   Reese was living with his mother, who is addicted to drugs.  His older brother is a drug dealer and has also already been in juvenile detention.  Reese's young sister has miraculously escaped all the trouble for now, and is holding out the only hope Reese can see.
While Reese's life on the outside is full of despair, his life on the inside is no better.  There are frequent lockdowns on his unit, and the staff is cruel to the inmates.  Reese's harsh reality is evident from the very beginning of the book.  There are the title lockdowns - every inmate in their own cells, solitary detention, physical checks whenever an inmate has visitors or leaves the building, gangs... Myers does not shy away from the grittiness of juvenile detention, almost as a warning that there is nothing cool about prison.  There is no humanity, except for the social worker on the unit who gets Reese a job working in a nursing home to help rehabilitate him.
One of the most striking things about Reese is the dilemma that he finds himself in.  The drug dealer that he sold the prescription pads to blames Reese for someone's drug overdose.  The police confront him in detention and tell him that he has three days to decide whether he will plead guilty or stand trial for a crime he didn't commit.  Reese believes that if he has to stand trial, the jurors will never believe that he is innocent, so he feels that he must plead guilty.  This is the source of much of the novel's tension - that Reese has no option because he has already been found guilty of a crime.  You can feel his panic and worry for him as he contemplates his adult life spent in prison.

This is what Myers is best at - communicating the utter lack of possibility in the life of these prison inmates.  The social worker continually reminds Reese that most of the young adults in juvenile detention will become adult prisoners.  There is very little possibility for them in the real world, and as Reese realizes, they will often be blamed for additional crimes whether they were involved or not.  It takes a strong person to rise above the reality.  Is Reese that man?

This is a strong book by Myers.  Since the National Book Award ceremony has already taken place, I know it didn't win.  But Reese is a character full of the dichotomy of dreams and reality - one who doesn't have a lot of hope and yet chips out a small piece of hope for himself.  Ultimately he fins a small measure of redemption.

Lockdown.  Walter Dean Myers.  Amistad: HarperCollins, 2010.  Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Circus Ship

A ship wrecks off the coast of Maine, carrying fifteen circus animals on their way to Boston.  The greedy circus owner forces the ship's captain to save him, abandoning the animals in the water.  The fifteen animals, including a snake, lion, elephant and tiger, are forced to swim to safety towards an island.  There the villagers are understandably surprised and afraid of the seemingly wild animals.  However, they soon learn to care for the animals, and they become part of the community.  So when the villainous circus owner tries to claim the animals again, the villagers have to find a way to keep those animals safe and free.

I had reviewed A Camping Spree with Mr. Magee in 2003 for School Library Journal, and really loved it.  Many of the hallmarks of that book are on display here.  Van Dusen has created characters full of personality in both his illustrations and his verse.  You can see every expression on the faces of the captain, worried about the circus animals, and the angry circus owner.   The animals have human eyes and expressions, turning them from wild animals into friendly, kind faces. 

One of the most entertaining things about the book is the way Van Dusen allows the animals to peek out from the island scenery.  Readers can listen to the rhyming text and discover the hiding animals at the same time.  Van Dusen's sense of humor peeks out from the pages also, with a monkey popping out of old-fashioned bloomers.  There is something to laugh at on every page, and the book is total fun to read aloud.

But the real reason I was drawn to write about this book has to do with another aspect of the illustrations.  Van Dusen comments on this in the author blurb on the back jacket: "I've focused on light sources and textures in the artwork for this story."  And how!  The color and light in these gouache paintings are luminous and stunning.  Even the paintings in the middle of the storm that helps cause the wreck are moody and full of that weird stormy light.  The light peering over the horizon lightens the sky, creating rich shades of blue and yellow.  It truly sparkles on each page of Van Dusen's work.  The book is gorgeous and unusually vibrant.

The text doesn't suffer in comparison to the art, either.  The text is in verse, but it scans easily, making it easy to read.  There are no words that sound jarring in the rhyme scheme, or that have to be said in an unnatural way to rhyme, which can make the book a chore to read.  The verses are sprightly and short, too, moving the plot along at a nice speed.  Van Dusen has included humor in the text, too.  While the setting is old-fashioned, the text is not - there isn't any modern slang, but it is accessible to young readers.

Finally, Van Dusen includes an Author's Note to tell readers about the origins of the story.  It was inspired by a true, tragic event - the circus ship (in the 1830's) actually sank and the animals were not saved.  I appreciate both that the author made the effort to tell us about his inspiration and also his creativity in recasting the events in a more fun, upbeat way.
There is so much more to talk and write about - the Maine setting, the enraged circus owner/villain... but I'll let you pick it up and discover it for yourselves.  Enjoy!!

Van Dusen, Chris.  The Circus Ship.  Candlewick Press, 2009.  from Lewis and Clark Library (up for the Treasure State Award)

Sunday, November 14, 2010


I usually don't waste time writing about books that I don't feel passionately about.  I don't think as readers of this blog, you want to hear about every little thing I read, especially when it isn't something I either love or feel compelled to talk about.  But this book was different - even though I didn't love it, it is one of the National Book Award finalists for Young People's Literature.  And I did say here that I would be reading them all, so I felt that I needed to comment on it.

Caitlin is ten years old, and at the time of this book, it is arguable which is her defining characteristic - her diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome or the fact that her brother has just been killed in a school shooting.  She is struggling to cope - Caitlin's brother really supported her and guided her in her interactions with the rest of the world.  Without him, she is lost.  Her father is also falling apart with the combination of the loss and dealing with Caitlin's issues at the same time.  And in their small town, reminders of the shooting are everywhere, including at her school.  She meets both the child of another victim and the cousin of one of the shooters in her school environment.  The only thing that Caitlin really has going for her is a supportive school counselor with boundless patience and a talent for connecting with Caitlin.

The way Caitlin's brain works separates her from her classmates and father.  She doesn't understand others' feelings, and often puts her own way of feeling onto others, mostly unsuccessfully.  The book is told from her point of view, but perceptive readers will be able to empathize with those around her as they grapple with all of the events.  Caitlin's Asperger's Syndrome also affects the way this story is written - the concepts that she feels strongly about are capitalized.  For instance, Caitlin is searching for a way to get Closure - something she has been told will help her move on.  Caitlin's counselor is also searching for a way for Caitlin to connect with friends since she has lost her brother.  All of the dialogue in the book is italicized , which can be confusing when there is more than one person talking.   Caitlin tells the story directly, without a lot of comments such as "Mrs. Brook said", leaving the reader to keep track of who says what.

Erskine states in the author's note that she wrote the book in response to the Virginia Tech shootings, thinking about how a shooting would affect a family.  I really respect her reasons for writing it, but by the end of the book I felt it was a little precious.  Caitlin seems to come out of her shell and to begin to connect with people.  However, the way she ends up being the closest to the people also involved in the shooting, without any prompting from anyone else, seems somewhat forced.  While I think her counselor, Mrs. Brook, is wonderful, she seems a little too wonderful - she even calls Caitlin while away on an unexpected family emergency to make sure Caitlin is okay.  Her brother, Devon, also seems a little too perfect - one of the youngest students to work towards his Eagle Scout badge, he is trying to include Caitlin in the process of earning his badge. 

The book is tied to To Kill a Mockingbird , but because of the way Caitlin's brain works, the connection again seems forced.  She brings up the same things over and over again - how her brother Devon thought of her as Scout, how the mockingbird was a symbol of innocence.  I know this is a function of  Caitlin's brain, but it feels like the reader is being beaten over the head with it.

I do think it is an interesting look at Asperger's Syndrome and I would hope that it would lead to tolerance and understanding in classrooms with Asperger's students.  I just felt that it was all too much when it was taken together with the theme of To Kill a Mockingbird and the school shooting too. I worried that it was just me who felt this way - after all, it is a NBA finalist, but I have seen at least one other review mentioning some of the same issues I brought up.   I was so wowed by Ship Breaker, and I just felt that this paled in comparison.

Erskine, Kathryn.  Mockingbird.  Philomel, 2010.  Borrowed from Helena School District.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ship Breaker

Ship Breaker is a National Book Award finalist in Young People's Literature, and while it had been on my radar since the beginning of the summer, it didn't seem like the kind of book I'd be interested in, so I let it pass by.  But I decided I wanted to read all the finalists, and I started with Ship Breaker.  Boy, was I wrong about it not being my kind of book. 

The book opens with Nailer working light crew, which entails sliding through small ducts in old ships, trying to strip the ship of anything usable.  As the first chapters unfold, readers become aware of how hard Nailer's life is, with an abusive father and violence and drugs pervading the harsh society.  There are small sparks of hope in his life, including his friend Pima and her strong mother, but Nailer is facing an uncertain future.  Eventually he will become too small to go through the ductwork, and will have to find another way to earn what little money he can.  But suddenly a "city killer" storm rips through his beach community, turning Nailer's life upside down.  He discovers a hydrofoil ship which has wrecked up the coast from his shack.  Nailer and Pima go to look for scavenge on the ship, and discover a rich girl, barely alive.  What Nailer and Pima do next goes to the core of who they really are.

This summary sounds compelling, but it doesn't do justice to the plot of this novel.  At heart, this is an adventure story and things happen to Nailer at a rapid pace.  And once you're sucked in to the story, Bacigalupi does not let the suspense slack off.  It is a heart-stopping pace, with Nailer, Pima and the rich girl (Nita) escaping both Nailer's abusive father and other pursuers in an effort to get Nita back to her family.  There were times I could not stop reading, thinking "I should really stop - oh, I'll just read one more chapter...".  You want to see Nailer and Nita safe, but it seems that their society has other ideas.
Bacigalupi's talent is science fiction, and while this is an adventure story, the background is definitely sci-fi.  I really hate the world-building part of a science fiction novel - I don't like the feeling of uncertainty and not understanding what is going on.  Ship Breaker is not like this.  There are enough familiar elements to guide readers and the world-building is introduced slowly and in context.  The book takes place off the Gulf Coast, sometime in the future.  Technology has continued to advance, including clipper ships that can travel incredibly fast due to an ingenious hydrofoil system.  But all of the technology, including genetically enhanced half-men and weaponry is accessible to teen readers and doesn't bog down the plot.
I do feel obligated to talk about the violence in this book.  While some of the violence is drug-fueled (Nailer's father is a druggie and often beats Nailer while high), much of the violence is necessary as different factions struggle for power in this shipping-based society.  However, life for Nailer is full of violence, even if he is not comfortable with it.  This ties into some of the current topics that Bacigalupi weaves into this story, including the wide gap between rich and poor in this society.  There is also prejudice between various groups and climate control (most of New Orleans is underwater now).  Basically, life for Nailer has always just been about survival, and suddenly he is fighting for more than he ever dreamed possible. 

I also have to say that I am relieved for once that there is not an obvious opening for a sequel.  It seems like every great book lately has an ending which will lead to a trilogy, and this ending was a breath of fresh air. 

I think this is a great National Book Award finalist, and I am glad I made the effort to read it.  The pacing, the combination of science fiction and adventure, and most of all the characters made it worth my while.  Well written.

Ship Breaker.  Paolo Bacigalupi.  Little, Brown and Co., 2010.  Borrowed from the Lewis and Clark library

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Grooming of Alice

One of the first children's books I read in graduate school was Alice the Brave.  I loved it so much - even as an adult, I could still connect with and feel comforted by this short novel.  Ever since, I have loved this series of books for its wisdom and its sense of certainty in a world that is always changing.

And in The Grooming of Alice, the world is definitely changing.  Alice and her group of friends are moving on to high school in the fall.  They have the summer stretching out before them, and the girls decide to get into shape to look good in high school.  Alice's friend Elizabeth takes this diet too far after a teasing comment from a boy and begins to teeter into possible anorexia. 

The summer is also filled with potential changes for Alice.  Alice's single father is planning a trip to England (where his girlfriend is teaching for a year) to convince her to marry him. Alice is volunteering at a hospital where a much-loved teacher is dying.  Alice's friend Pamela is fighting with her father.  Life is messy, but it goes on.  Not everything is resolved in a happy manner, but it is resolved successfully.

This episode in the Alice series deals with sex in a frank but nonjudgemental way.  Alice has been with her boyfriend Patrick for a couple of years, and while they only kiss, she's beginning to wonder about...more.  Alice's mother died when she was young, which means that she often has to turn to her father and college-aged brother for advice.  Interestingly, her big brother does take the time to analyze sexual behavior with her, allowing her the freedom to ask questions without becoming too uncomfortable.  The girls also attend a seminar where they see pictures of naked bodies - the point being that there is a wide range of bodies and that all sizes and types are normal.  Again, this is really comforting for the kid who has questions and is afraid to ask their own parents.  However, it also makes this book (and others in the series) not appropriate for every reader.

Alice is every bit her age.  She isn't perfect - she makes mistakes, is grounded and yelled at, just like every other teen.  But she is wonderful - she has a real sense of herself and is questioning and changing.  Alice supports her friends, but is honest too.  She has a group of friends, but doesn't just follow the pack mentality.  She has a strong relationship with her brother and dad, but it's real too.  For instance, Alice asks her older brother what part of her body he would change, and he tells her that her lips should be changed - they should be stapled shut!

Because I've had a sick child this week, I found myself turning to Alice for comfort when I had a break - sometimes just a chapter, sometimes more.  I have always meant to read the series in order (and maybe collect them all!), since I've only read some titles, skipping around in the series.  So now is my opportunity to read the series in order ( I found this chronological listing on Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's website).  I already have the three prequels checked out from the library.  I'll report back!

The Grooming of Alice.  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2000.  from my personal collection

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Broom, Zoom!

First, my housework confession.  I've needed to wash my laundry room floor for two weeks now because of a detergent spill.  It's been on my to-do list, but I've done everything possible to avoid it.  Two nights ago, I checked Broom, Zoom! out of the library and wanted to blog about it.  I sternly told myself the laundry room floor came first, even though I was so anxious to talk about this book.  Now here I am, laundry room floor clean and shining, so I can tell you how much I love this book.

Little Witch begins the book gazing longingly at the full moon.  It's beautiful, craggy and luminous, and she wants to explore it.  She goes inside to get a broom, but Little Monster is using it.  There's been a spill, and Little Witch and Little Monster must work together to clean it up before going for a ride.  The first two sentences in this descriptive paragraph have twenty unique words giving you the plot of the story.  Broom, Zoom! tells the whole story with just 18 unique words!  And this limited vocabulary is composed of one syllable words, many of them sight words.  This makes Broom, Zoom! perfect for very new readers to read independently, once they've read it through with a more accomplished reader (there are words like Yikes! that a new reader may not recognize on the first trip through).  The plot does not suffer at all from the tight vocabulary - it is charming and inventive.  The story is told primarily through dialogue between Little Witch and Little Monster, who must work together to solve both of their need for the same broom.  This promotes successful teamwork and problem solving as well - again, all with 18 unique words.  Amazing.

Book design is also key to the success of this book.  The dialogue is clear because of its placement on the page, near the character who is talking.  There is only one line per page, eliminating the need for extra words such as "Little Witch said" or "Little Monster exclaimed".  Interestingly enough, you don't even discover the characters' names in the actual story, but they are located on the jacket flap (which is how I know that green guy up there is a monster and not an alien!)

Ruzzier's illustrations are digitally produced, allowing for smooth black lines and deeply saturated color.  The pictures are simple, without a lot of extra touches, which might distract early readers from the text.  Ruzzier also gives hints to the readers in the illustrations - for example, the witch makes an "oooo" of delight on the first page, and her mouth is a corresponding O, letting readers know how to read the word with expression.  Although the characters are a witch and a monster, they are not scary at all.  On the contrary, they are friendly and mostly smile through the book (with the monster's charming crooked teeth overhanging his mouth). 

And while this book is about a witch and a monster and the moon, it is definitely not a Halloween book.  They do not reference the holiday at all, making it a wonderful book for sharing and reading at any time during the year. 

If you can't already tell, I think this is a terrific book.  We will be asking for our own copy for Christmas, and I can only hope the Geisel committee  has taken notice of it.  It deserves an award.  Well done!

Cohen, Caron Lee.  Broom, Zoom!, ill by Sergio Ruzzier.  Simon & Schuster, 2010.  checked out from the Lewis & Clark Library.