Thursday, September 29, 2011

Cats and No Cats

I first came across There Are Cats in This Book in a review from a three year old copy of Family Fun magazine (November 2008).  The review called the book “mischievious” and a “real crowd-pleaser”.  I put it on hold, primarily because it didn’t seem familiar to me, and after many years in a library setting, most titles or authors do.  Then, before I’d even had the first book delivered to me, I saw an announcement in my Children’s Book of the Month Club catalog for a related title, There Are No Cats in this Book.  Talk about serendipity!  I waited until the second book was ordered at my library and then put that on hold too.
In There Are Cats in This Book, as soon as you open the book, you are informed by the narrator/author “The cats aren’t on this page.”  They aren’t on the second page either, but you learn the cats’ names – Moonpie, Tiny and Andre.  It’s on the third page where you really begin interacting with the three cats.  Readers see a fuzzy die-cut blanket, which they can peel back to see the three cats, sleepily blinking up at them.  Schwarz has embued these cats with the most humorous of cat personality traits.  The cats wax on about yarn, cardboard boxes, pillows and fish.  And through it all, they rely on the reader’s help.  The cats instruct the readers (“Can you dry us too?  Just blow on the page…”), harangue the readers (“Turn the page! Turn the page!”) and love the readers, with lots of purring.  And the narrator/author closes the book out in the same manner in which she began – “Did you like the cats?  I think they really liked you.”.
In There Are No Cats in This Book, readers familiar with the first title will recognize the cats on the front cover, peeping through cut-out eyeholes.  In this title, the three cats are on their way to see the world.  So they are leaving the book (and the readers) behind.  But their attempts to leave the book on their own (including a fold-out of the cats leaping fruitlessly towards the reader) are futile.  It’s only when the cats again ask for the reader’s help that they are successful.  Schwarz uses the same affectionate humor in this plot – these cats are lovable, but not especially bright – but some new techniques.  This keeps the story fresh and enjoyable,  but still connected to the first title.  In fact, when you pick up the second book, you feel like these cats are your old friends.
Schwarz uses a combination of brush and ink illustration with collage in both titles, along with the die-cut and fold-out elements.  The collaged items are things that are real, like the fish in the first book.  The cats dive into an ocean full of fish, and revel in these brightly colored, realistic fish.  This adds an exotic touch to the cats’ world.  I think it helps draw readers’ eyes to other things on the page besides the cats.  The use of die-cut pages and dimensional cut-outs in both of the titles is well-used.  Even though the first book is three years old, the die-cuts still look fresh and sturdy.  These elements help readers move through the story.
One of the most remarkable things about these book is how Schwarz uses the cats to encourage interactivity.  Their beguiling tones, their friendly faces, and their direct questions to the reader got my girls to interact with these stories in a way I have never seen previously.  Frances and Gloria were fighting each time we read to do what the cats asked.  They wanted to be the first one to peel off the blanket or turn the page when the cats instructed them to do so.  Frances and Gloria are ordinarily passive listeners – if a question is asked in a book, I have to prompt them to answer.  But these books were different – from the first reading, their magic got the girls to answer, loudly and immediately.  Schwarz’s book satisfied and engaged them.  I think these would be terrific read-alouds at storytimes, and I am only sorry I didn’t know about these while I was doing storytimes for crowds.

There Are Cats in This Book.  Viviane Schwarz.  Candlewick, 2008.
There Are No Cats in This Book.  Viviane Schwarz.  Candlewick, 2010.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

What Are You Doing?

I picked What Are You Doing?Up off the display shelf at storytime one morning.  The cover attracted me – who wouldn’t want to pick up a book where a father and son are cheerfully reading?  Mark my words, this is an award winner (probably a Pura Belpre)so I wanted to make sure you are familiar with it when its name is called!
When Chepito leaves his house first thing in the morning, his mother reminds him that school starts after lunch today.  Chepito doesn’t want to go to school, and he runs out the door (in a move reminiscent of the gingerbread man!).  As Chepito travels around town, he sees people all around, and they are all reading.  As each person tells Chepito what they are reading, he sings “Why, why, why?”  They all explain why they are reading and what they are learning.  Finally, Chepito is worn out and returns home for lunch and school.  His teacher, too, has a book in his hand, and she tells Chepito that they will learn to read it together. 
One of the things that I like best about this book is the diversity of people reading.  There is the man reading the paper to find out who won the game, the teenager who is looking through a magazine for a new hairstyle, a tween girl who reads a comic book, and perhaps most interestingly, an archaeologist reading hieroglyphics on a Mayan ruin.  All of this reading is introduced naturally – it isn’t forced, and it isn’t forced on Chepito.  None of these readers look at Chepito and tell him “You have to go to school (a place Chepito isn’t enthusiastic about) to read this.”  They are all out in the world, living their lives.  It shows how organic literacy is in our lives.  We cannot exist in our information-rich world without literacy.  And eventually being introduced to all these reasons to read makes Chepito eager to learn. 
Monroy’s illustrations help make this book a star.  As each person is introduced to Chepito, he looks up at them with wonder and enthusiasm.  Chepito’s broad face is welcoming and thoughtful.  The jacket flap calls Monroy’s illustrations “delightfully retro”, and I would agree.  The muted browns and blues evoke the Latin American village where Chepito lives.  You can almost hear the seagull squawking when he lands next to Chepito on the ocean-side dock.  The pictures are simple, without extra flourish, but there are details to pore over.  On the wall of Chepito’s home, the Virgin Mary watches over them from a niche.  The young woman checking hairstyles has multiple magazines scattered below her, with pages left open for viewers.  The pictures are soft and relaxed, allowing Chepito to take center stage while his story is told.
I do love this story about the importance of literacy, but there are a couple of missteps for me.  Chepito says to himself on the first page that he doesn’t want to go to school, but we are never sure why he is reluctant.  Is it because he doesn’t want to be cooped up inside (he spends the majority of the book outside in the village)?  Or is it because he doesn’t want to learn to read (since everyone shows him how exciting reading is)?  We are never sure.  Then when he offers to “read” the pictures of his book to his sister, Rosita mimics him, asking “Why, why, why?”  On the last page, Chepito is about to answer Rosita “Because it’s fun.”, when Rosita demands “Read it to me.”, so he does.  So if he’s learned the importance of reading from the people around him, he didn’t pass that love on to his sister.  Even with these inconsistencies, I still really like this book for its natural portrayals of literacy.  I think this is a real winner.
What Are You Doing?Elisa Amado; pictures by Manuel Monroy.  Toronto/Berkeley: Groundwood Books, 2011.
Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Paul Galdone Classics

When I was working in public libraries, I loved recommending Paul Galdone’s books to parents and students.  His versions of classic fairy tales, folk tales, and nursery rhymes are perfect for young children as an introduction to the tales.  Galdone had a talent for distilling the story down to its simplest parts while injecting it with lots of personality and humor.  So I had to guard our library’s copies of the Galdone titles carefully, since they were so great, but sadly out of print.  We mended them over and over, taped the covers and hoped they wouldn’t go missing.  Now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has made my year by reissuing four of Galdone’s titles in the Folk Tale Classics series.  They are gorgeous editions – hardcover books, with gold highlights on the front covers.  The endpapers of all the titles have clover scattered across them (with one title also offering lucky ladybugs throughout the clover).  I am beside myself with excitement, and want to celebrate these books with you.
First is the nursery rhyme Three Little Kittens.  Since it is a rhyme, it is the shortest of the four texts.  However, with just a couple of lines of text per page, the illustrations have to give the standard text its personality.  The pictures are filled with bright pastel colors and mischievous kittens.  And when the mother cat scolds the kittens for having lost or dirtied their mittens, she practically vibrates with annoyance.  Galdone also uses the illustrations to heighten and incorporate the text – the three little kittens chirp their meows in a word balloon above their heads.  This picture book, unlike the others in the series, does not have full-page spreads.  The illustrations are boxed in black, with white space filling the page above and below.  But Galdone uses this limited space effectively with crisp, clear illustrations to help young readers interpret the text and read along.
Next it is three more of something…The Three Little Pigs.  This story is the longest one of the series.  Galdone uses his trademark humor to keep the story full of energy and interest.  He doesn’t skimp on the traditional facts of the story – the wolf eats up the first two pigs fair and square.  There’s no attempt to hide them in each other’s houses or have them pop out of the wolf’s belly.  The third pig does trap the wolf in his pot of boiling water and then eats him for supper, but the only carnage is the wolf’s tail sticking out of the pot.  The wolf is depicted as ferocious and devious, but he never looks scary or gruesome.  There is a lot more text on each page of this story, but the text and illustrations flow well together.
Here’s three more of a kind – The Three Bears.  And just from the title, you can see that Galdone’s sympathy is squarely with the bears, not Goldilocks.  In fact, Galdone’s Goldilocks is unattractive, with a pug nose and gapped teeth.  It is the bears who are warm-looking and kindly, at least at the beginning.  Galdone uses the text very cleverly in The Three Bears.  When the baby bear is speaking, it is in a tiny font, and so on.  So not only does the reader see the small bowl, but they can connect the small bowl with the baby bear’s voice in the text.  Even a pre-reader who has heard the story at least once can identify what is going on.  When the bears begin shouting and roaring, the font continues to grow larger, giving readers an indication of the seemingly benign bears’ true power.  But once Goldilocks is gone, they are back to their usual domestic routine.
And finally, my favorite of the four stories is The Little Red Hen.  On this one, Galdone really goes for broke.  The design of the pages are really exquisite – my favorite is the first time the cat, dog and mouse refuse to work.  Each animal is lying comfortably on their own bed in previous spreads.  Galdone creates this spread so that the reader’s eye travels from the cat’s face peeking over a windowsill to the center stage dog spread out on a hammock to the other corner, where the mouse’s ears peep through another window.  Their positions are highlighted by the text, as “Not I” is centered over each snoozer.  This is why Galdone is such a genius!!  And another time they refuse the hen, each animal’s face (suitably lazy) fills the O in the phrase “Not I!”  Again, it brings personality to the story and gives life to what could have been stock characters.
In the few weeks we’ve had these books checked out from the library, I have come across Gloria numerous times, retelling the stories to herself.  At 2 ¾, she is young enough to be the perfect audience for Galdone’s stories.  And she loves them as much as I do.  I want to own my own copies.  Please, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, bring back more Galdone!!  And people, go buy your own copies of these tales – they are classics and you won’t go wrong with them.  These books stand the test of time.
Three Little Kittens.  Paul Galdone.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986.
The Little Red Hen.  Paul Galdone.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, copyright renewed 2001.
The Three Bears.  Paul Galdone.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1992.
The Three Little Pigs.  Paul Galdone.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1970 1998.
Borrowed from the Lewis & Clark Library

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer

I was going to start this post in the same way I start many posts.  I tend to tell you what I don’t like about a genre and then tell you about an exception.  And just maybe I’ve been wrong about what I really like.  Maybe what I like isn’t a particular genre, I really just like a well-written book and a good plot.
Hold Me Closer, Necromancer was on last year’s William C. Morris Debut YA Award shortlist.  I finally got around to reading it recently.  I am tired of supernatural books being all the rage, and this advertises its supernaturality right in the title.  It seems like every other book coming out this year is supernatural fiction.  On my nightstand right now I have a historical fiction title concerning magic, a book about werewolves and an adult title about vampires…and I’m not actively seeking out supernatural fiction!  So it has to be pretty special for me to really feel like it’s worth bringing to your attention.
Sam begins this book working in a fast food restaurant.  He has friends, but he’s always felt different than everyone else.  Sam (whose real name is Samhain) has dropped out of college and has given up trying to find his “thing” in life.  But then an ill-fated game of potato hockey in the parking lot brings a very creepy man into the restaurant.  The man starts accusing Sam of being and doing things Sam doesn’t understand.  Is it coincidence that the pouch of herbs Sam’s mother gave him, that he always wears around his neck, has broken that night?
One of my teen librarian friends says that Sam is one of the hottest teen male characters this year, and maybe that will get some of you to pick up the book.  It’s set in Seattle (where the author is from) and maybe that will get some of you to read it too.  Here’s what I think makes this book unputdownable…everything.  Sam is a great character.  Although he is a slacker, and can’t seem to find his groove in life, Sam is witty and clever.  He has a group of friends who are willing to just let him be himself – they are just along for the ride.  He has already dropped out of college, making him older than the normal teen hero, but he does have the typical teen problems.  He is trying to find himself, and nothing has ever seemed right.  Sam is human and relatable, even though he can commune with the dead.  A creepy situation, but not a creepy guy.
I dare you not to hum along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” while you read this.  That’s not the only song title or lyric that McBride uses in a clever way in this novel.  All of the chapter titles are from songs as well.  They fit each chapter’s contents perfectly – they are witty and smart.  I can’t imagine how long it must have taken to come up with the perfect matches.
One of the other things that makes this novel stand out is its fresh take on the supernatural.  As the book goes on, many of the themes emerge that are in other supernatural books – uncovering the main character’s latent power, the battle between good and evil.  But McBride’s talent is in making Sam’s journey seem fresh and unlike what we have read before.  Sure, there is a Council, made up of representatives from several families – werewolves, the fey, necromancers, witches.  But it’s the characters within these families that make this novel interesting.  All of these characters are slightly quirky, but are strong, too.  They are willing to fight for what they love.  Sam’s friends fight to save him from a powerful necromancer because he is important to them – which says something about all of them.
And really, there is (among other hilarious/gross touches) a severed talking head and a zombie panda in this book.  It’s got the gore and death and action you would expect from a supernatural book.  It is a real winner, so pick it up today, especially if you love the supernatural.  I have to return it, though, to get “Tiny Dancer” out of my head.

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer.  Lish McBride.  Henry Holt, 2010.
Borrowed from the Lewis & Clark library

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Reluctantly Alice

How much do I love Alice McKinley?  Let me count the ways…one, two, three,  four.  And now here’s a fifth way.
In Reluctantly Alice, Alice McKinley is starting seventh grade.  She and her friends have moved on to junior high, and I’m sure we have all felt the same way Alice feels.  “Junior high sure has a way of mixing you up, tossing kids around like a giant blender.” (p. 92).  Just before the summer began, Alice and her group of friends were at the top of their elementary school.  Everything they did was cool and clever to the younger kids in the school.  Now suddenly they are at the bottom of the barrel, watching the older kids to see what they do (9th grade boys perform a Boxer Check in front of Alice and her astonished girl friends).  At the same time, these seventh graders are desperately trying not to be noticed by older kids.  They aren’t sure what to do, and they feel a little overwhelmed and lost.
Alice has decided to concentrate on having everyone like her this year.  She wants to be the kind of girl that causes everyone to smile when they think of her, and if anyone can do it, you get the feeling Alice can.  She rarely has something mean to say, she’s fun and daring, smart and funny.  Alice is honest and even her mishaps seem endearing.  But almost as soon as the school year begins, Alice has an enemy.  An 8th grader in some of her classes, Denise, starts to dislike Alice and begins to taunt and bully Alice.  Like many bullies, Denise finds what she believes is Alice’s weakness (her mother’s death) and brings it up every chance she gets. This escalates into a serious bullying situation.  Denise and her group of friends throw food, trip Alice, laugh at her…it goes on and on.  And although this book was written before most of the focus on bullying in children’s literature, the solution Alice finds still rings true.  She comes up with this idea on her own, one that works for her without confronting Denise in a mean way (although she certainly thinks about it), but also extends kindness to Denise.  I don’t think her solution will work for everyone, but it fits Alice perfectly.  I also think it will help young teens realize that there may be a solution to their bullying problem that fits them.  Alice never tells a teacher about the bullying, but she does talk to her father and brother about it.  They give her suggestions, and Alice’s brother Lester does show up once at the school to help Alice, but they all seem to recognize that the answer has to come from Alice.
As in most of these books, Alice, Pamela and Elizabeth (her two best friends) continue to question love, romance and their changing bodies.  When Elizabeth has a pressing question that Alice tries to answer, Alice’s father steps in.  Alice has a strong, honest relationship with her father and brother.  They answer her questions with as much information as they think she can handle, and they know what to do if they don’t have answers to her questions.  Thus is set up one of my favorite scenes in this series so far.  Alice’s father takes Alice to the library, and allows her to research the answer to Elizabeth’s question herself.  When Alice is in the library stacks, “A librarian came by to get a book from the shelf, and she couldn’t help but see what I was looking at; she didn’t even blink.  Like it was okay to be curious.” (p. 90)  These are librarians at their most professional – they treat Alice respectfully and as an adult.  I love seeing librarians in such a positive light.  I love middle schoolers and teens getting to see that libraries can help answer questions in a non-judgmental way.  What a terrific scene!
There are many, many other things going on in this novel, some of which are carried over from other books in the series, some of which develop in this novel.  While it is definitely part of the whole series, you can pick up any Alice book and read it as a stand-alone novel.  However I would bet that no matter where you started in the series, you would want to read the whole set!!  I can’t say enough how much I do love Alice and the world Naylor creates in this series.  For the first time, in her biography at the end of the book, Naylor writes that she plans to keep writing the Alice series until Alice turns eighteen.  I’m so grateful – I can’t wait to see how Alice turns out!!

Reluctantly Alice.  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  Aladdin, 2000, ©1991.
Borrowed from the Lewis & Clark library