Monday, August 29, 2011

Mirror, Mirror

Mirror, Mirror was a book I have heard about for more than a year.  I read reviews and pre-publication discussions about it, I purchased it for the library I worked for, my library consortium added it to their mock list...and still I didn’t actually read it.  After 2010 was over, Mirror, Mirror was on a best of the year list, and that finally spurred me to read it.  Now that I have, I am angry I didn’t read it earlier so I could have advocated for this book all year long.
I am a big fan of poetry, but Marilyn Singer has really done something magical in this book.  Singer uses fairy tales as her framework for this collection.  But she uses a unique form of poetry in this book, called reversos.  Singer uses the same words in two poems, set back to back on the page.  These poems have the exact same words, but the second poem is an exact reversal of the first.  Some of the punctuation may change to reflect the different meanings of the words, but otherwise the words are exactly the same.  It is truly jaw-dropping to see how carefully these poems are constructed.  I can’t imagine the work that went into adding and subtracting words to get the balance and meaning just right.
Not only are these poems exquisitely constructed, but they also turn familiar fairy tales on their ear.  Singer amazingly takes fairy and folktales that we all recognize and reverses the tale just as she does the words of the poem.  For instance, in the pair of poems called “Cinderella’s Double Life”, Cinderella begins the pair of poems bemoaning “Isn’t life unfair?” before describing her stepsisters gaily going off to the ball.  At the end of the second poem, where Cinderella is the belle of the ball, dancing gaily with the prince, she asks “Isn’t life unfair?” in more of a triumphant manner.
I was so awestruck by Singer’s work that I can’t even name a favorite poem in this book.  However, Frances can.  She loved “Longing for Beauty” about Beauty and the Beast.  I actually didn’t set out to share this book with Frances.  But she happened to walk by as I was reading it.  Frances immediately sat down and made me start at the beginning and read it all to her.  While we have read plenty of books with rhyming text, I’m not sure we’ve read an entire book of poetry, and I didn’t think she would be interested through the whole book.  But she was transfixed.  She correctly identified the tales from the pictures and titles and listened intently.  When Gloria walked by after we finished, she told Gloria excitedly “Gloria, look at this book!  It has Cinderella in it!”.
Part of my daughters’ interest in this book was definitely the illustrations.  We have loved Josee Masse’s illustrations before, and once I began to recognize her technique in this book, I felt she was a perfect choice to illustrate these poems.  Her paintings on peeling, striated, cracked wood bring an ethereal, old-fashioned touch to these poems.  She incorporates familiar elements into the paintings (the gingerbread house laden with sweets in the Hansel & Gretel poems), but her characters have a spark of independence, competence and whimsy about them.  They are modern and old-fashioned at the same time.
I can’t rave enough about this book.  It is perfect and I can’t believe it wasn’t more popular with award committees last year.  I would have voted for it over and over!
Mirror, Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse.  Marilyn Singer; illustrated by Josee Masse.  Dutton Children’s Books, 2010.
Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Ooh La La Polka-Dot Boots

Who hasn’t wanted a pair of polka-dot boots?  They are a staple of fashion for little children everywhere.  I quite often talk in my reviews about Frances, who is four years old, and the books she is interested in.  But this is a book that Gloria, who is almost three and introduces herself as “the guy who reads books”, adores.  She calls this book “the polky-dot book” , and I’d like to look at some of the things that made this book such a hit with Gloria.
Each double-page spread has four children on it, each wearing a specific item of clothing in a different way.  Shirts, sweaters, pants and many other items are all depicted with individual flair.  There is a little girl wearing a small shirt (its button popping off), a boy wearing a silver spaceman hat, a boy in front of a silo wearing country pants (overalls) and many, many more.  The description of each of the children’s clothing is brief – two words per child, each piece of rhyming text dancing above the child’s head.  Inset into each double-page spread is a page about the third of the size of the rest of the book.  When the smaller page is flipped over to the left, it reveals each of the children wearing some form of polka-dot boots. 
While the text is brief, the descriptions are extended by the vivid, individual portraits of the children.  Engel’s illustrations are diverse and carry all the energy young children have inside them.  None of these children are sitting still, hands folded daintily.  They are all moving, running, full of fun and joy.  Gloria loves to pore over the details – the girl riding a scooter and showing off her peacoat, the girl painting a tree on a wall.  Engel also does a great job interpreting “polka-dot boots”.  They are rainboots, cowboy boots, sneakers and slippers.  Each child is unique, and that’s what makes the book so fun.
The great portraits combined with the short text make this book very accessible for young listeners.  After having the book read to her once, Gloria could “read” it herself.  She may not use the exact vocabulary  (she says “crazy coat” instead of “zany coat”, for instance) but she knows that each spread has all the same type of clothing.  She also knows that when you flip the smaller page over, it all looks better with polka-dot boots.  Gloria likes to point out the shoes that are not technically boots, especially the slippers.  She spends lots of time with this book, and I have found the book all over the house.
One of the things I really like as a parent and a book-lover is its durability.  The pages are coated and seem stronger than most other picture books.  They feel more like a thin board book page.  Even the smaller pages are tightly bound in, so after multiple readings (our copy has been owned by our public library for 18 months), it still looks brand new.  It is so well-made that I don’t have to worry about Gloria taking it in her bed, where pages get crushed and folded down on a daily basis.

I was sorry to learn that Tricycle Press, the publisher of this great book, closed earlier this year, so access to this book may be limited.  I still highly recommend it and hope that you are able to find a copy at your local library or in a bookstore.

I think this book would work very well in a preschool setting.  Preschools and daycare centers often have weekly themes, and this book would work well in a clothing theme for sure.  The brief text and engaging pictures are perfect for young attention spans, and the flip pages make the book very interactive.  We like to look at the children’s feet before and after the polka-dot boots, laughing at the variety of bare feet, colored socks and boots.  The enthusiasm and energy in this book are really infectious.  I’m not sure Gloria will allow me to return this book to the library.  I may have to sneak it out of the house!
Ooh La La Polka-Dot Boots.  Olson-Brown, Ellen; illustrated by Christiane Engel.  Tricycle Press, 2010.
Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Okay for Now

When I began hearing Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now mentioned over and over as a potential Newbery winner this early in the year, I can’t say I was very surprised.  After all, he’s won the Newbery Honor Award twice (as well as a Printz Honor and other awards).  I think you would be foolish to count him out.  But I am going on record as saying if this book doesn’t win the Newbery (and possibly a Printz Award too), I’d be very surprised.  It is a multi-layered  narrative, combining history, family, coming-of-age and a little bit of romance and mystery.  It also bridges the divide between Newbery and Printz age groups gracefully.
Schmidt takes a character from The Wednesday Wars (Doug Swieteck) and moves him from Long Island to Marysville, New York.  Doug, who is going to start eighth grade, comes home one day to find out that his father has been fired after a fight with the owner of the lumber business where he works.  In Marysville, Doug’s father has a friend who can get him work at the paper mill, so off they move.  Doug’s father is a tough man, the kind who blusters, thinks he knows better than anyone else and isn’t afraid to let you know it.  He is a drinker and there is abuse in Doug’s household.  He is capable of amazing cruelty to his family, which the Swieteck boys see every day.  Each of them deal with this differently, and Doug mostly handles it by keeping his head down or disappearing when it’s a “wrong day”.
When they get to Marysville, Doug happens across the Marysville Free Public Library on a Saturday, the only day it’s open each week.  And it’s there that he sees the most amazing picture of a bird he has ever seen.  A librarian, Mr. Powell, tells Doug the book is Audubon’s Birds of America and Doug is mesmerized.  His regular visits to the bird portraits in a glass case lead to Mr. Powell teaching Doug how to draw.  He practices his skills using the portraits of the birds.  As Doug learns the techniques Audubon used to create the birds, he also learns to observe closely and to analyze exactly what makes the drawings so compelling.  The chapters are all named after birds Doug sees and draws, and I found it very helpful that reproductions of the plates are included in Schmidt’s book.  Many of the birds were not familiar to me, and as Doug describes their magnificence, readers can go back and see what he is describing for themselves.
There are so many tightly-woven details that make up Doug’s story, and I don’t want to ruin the experience for you.  Suffice to say that every story Doug retells and every detail included in this narrative counts.  Doug’s oldest brother, Lucas, is serving in the Vietnam War when the novel begins, helping to set the historical period.  But what I believe is one of Schmidt’s greatest skills is his ability to totally craft a historical era, along with period details, but allow the narrative’s themes to be very contemporary in feel and tone.  Doug is also telling the story to the reader, which feels more contemporary to me.  His tough-guy demeanor (learned at home) gradually gives way to a different way of talking to the reader as the novel moves on, and it is a good indicator of the changes in Doug.
One of the themes in this coming-of-age novel is judgment and how that can be accurate or inaccurate.  The Swieteck boys are perceived as no-good troublemakers when they arrive.  Or at least, the middle brother, Christopher, is.  He is repeatedly questioned by the police about a series of burglaries.  It does seem as if there is some evidence pointing to his involvement, but Christopher always insists he is innocent.  In the meantime, Doug is judged by his teachers, the principal and other townspeople just because he is the brother of a troublemaker.
Another theme in this book is faith – not the religion type of faith, but faith in Doug.  Because as the year goes on, more and more townspeople begin to show faith in Doug.  It begins with Mr. Powell , who sees something in Doug’s careful viewing of Birds in America that makes him take Doug under his wing, so to speak.  There is Doug’s science teacher, who tells Doug directly that it doesn’t matter what his brother does, it matters what Doug does.  There is the police officer’s family on his grocery delivery route who asks Doug to babysit their children.  This is a town full of people who get to know Doug and see his potential.  And as he is recognized for his good qualities, you begin to see a change in Doug.  He begins to break out of the mold he seems destined for at the beginning of the novel.
This book is breathtaking, both in its cruelty and its hope.  You root for Doug from the beginning, but as you get to know his family and the town of Marysville, you want them all to succeed.  I strongly believe this should be on every Mock Newbery and Printz list (Glendale Public Library, I’m talking to you!) this year.  Its combination of historical fiction, coming-of-age story and layered family narrative are compelling and exquisite.  Read it now – don’t wait until it wins a medal.

Okay for Now.  Gary D. Schmidt.  Clarion Books, 2011.
Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Monday, August 1, 2011

Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets

I think it’s natural that when I read middle-grade and teen fiction, I prefer to read books with girl main characters.  After all, as librarians know very well, we tend to be drawn to books that look as if the main character is their particular gender.  Boys will choose books with boys on the cover, and girls are attracted to prominently featured girls.  This is why I think even the title Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets is so genius.  Just with six words, Eric Luper has indicated that this book will satisfy both boys and girls.  And when readers look at the cover, they see both Jeremy and the Cupcake Cadets prominently featured, along with a neutral blue background.  Everyone on the cover has their arms crossed, showing their readiness to fight.
First – Jeremy Bender.  He’s an average 6th grader with a couple of big problems.  First, there’s his problem at school.  The problem’s name is Paul Vogler, and he is a bully who picks on Jeremy and his best friend, a skateboarder named Slater.  His second problem is much larger.  Jeremy believes that he can show his father how responsible he is by meticulously caring for his father’s prized Chris-Craft boat.  But when he and Slater bring sodas on board the boat…let’s just say there is one very sticky mess.  He needs $450 to fix the engine before his dad tries to take the boat out next summer.  But Jeremy doesn’t even have 450 pennies to his name.
This is where the Cupcake Cadets come in.  The Cupcake Cadets sponsor a model sailboat contest with a $500 prize.  The only catch?  You must be a Cupcake Cadet – and a girl – to enter and win.  Jeremy and Slater plunge right in, dressing as girls to infiltrate the Cupcake Cadet troop.  While the Cupcake Cadets seem sweet and innocent, they are not always that na├»ve.  The Cupcake Cadets’ song says it all “I’ll use teamwork and cooperation, and innovative thinking.  I’ll use caring and sharing, and a bit of vanilla frosting.  While the Cupcake Cadet troop fosters all of those traditional girl qualities – caring, sharing, cooperation- it also looks for innovation.  The troop rewards creativity and intelligence.  While they may not recognize Jeremy and Slater for the boys they really are (and many of the girls either go to school with them or have met them before), they reward the boys for working hard and teamwork.
And while Jeremy and Slater aren’t technically allowed to be Cupcake Cadets, they actually fulfill the tenets of the troop.  One of the biggest examples of this is a car wash the boys hold to sell their cupcakes.  The cupcakes are the Cadet equivalent of Girl Scout cookies, only much less tasty.  The boys have a lot to sell, having been manipulated into taking another Cadet’s portion along with theirs.  The boys are having a terrible time getting rid of them, until they hold a car wash, “giving” the customer a free cupcake with each wash.  They eventually get their whole troop involved in the car wash.  Slater is a good example of cooperation, caring and sharing.  After all, while he helped make the mess that landed them in the Cupcake Cadets, dressing as and impersonating a girl goes above and beyond the call of friendship.  By the time the sailboat competition comes around, the boys are far more invested in the troop than they expected.
What I love about the girls in the Cupcake Cadets is that they are smart, competitive and tough.  The Cadet who Jeremy and Slater spend the most time with is Margaret.  Margaret has won the sailboat competition for years running, and has taken an aerodynamics class this year in order to create the best sailboat.  Not only is she competitive and smart, she is ambitious as well.  Margaret is the Cadet who gets Jeremy and Slater (they are known as Jenna and Samantha within the troop) to sell all of her cupcakes along with their own.  There is a rival Cupcake Cadet troop, whose leader is out to get their troop’s leader, Mrs. Rendell.  And Jeremy’s older sister, Ruthie, an ex-Cupcake Cadet (where else would the boys get the uniforms and wigs?) is savvy and sharp.  She spends most of the novel on the phone, dispensing advice to Jeremy while cultivating gossip from everyone in her class.  Trust me, these girls are more spice than sugar, just the way we like our main characters.
Jeremy  and Slater’s predicament is laugh-out-loud funny.  It is also suspenseful.  We keep reading to find out when someone is actually going to look past their uniforms and wigs to see them for what they really are.  Among the other memorable characters is a very cool children’s librarian who is always complaining about the other librarians who don’t like children.  Librarians always appreciate seeing a great librarian character in the novel they are reading!
By the end of the book, there are resolutions to both of Jeremy’s problems, but they may not be the solutions you expect.  While the bullying issue is handled with a light hand, the boys are genuinely leery of Paul, and I believe readers will be able to empathize with their problem.  I appreciate that the solution to the bullying doesn’t include bribery, hiding out or adult involvement.  Luper gives readers another solution to dealing with bullies, and this one will resonate with kids.  All in all, this is a satisfying read for both boys and girls.  It has something to appeal to everyone!

Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets.  Eric Luper.  Balzer & Bray: HarperCollins, 2011.
FTC Full Disclosure: I was given this book by the publisher, hoping I would review it.