Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Doll Bones

I'm going to start this blog post with a confession.  I couldn't read this book for more than six months.  It was sent to me by the publisher way back last June, and I was so excited to read it.  I do love Holly Black, and there had already been enough pre-publication buzz that I knew I wouldn't want to miss it.  But when I received it, the cover...well, it really freaked me out.  And I am a wimp about scary stuff.  So every time I would pick it up to read it, I would be afraid that I'd be up all night with nightmares, or...yeah, the cover really did it to me.

But that buzz I mentioned didn't go away, and it was quite often associated with the word "Newbery".  I knew I needed to get past my fear and dive in, because I would be sorry if I hadn't read it by the end of January.  Lo and behold, I finished it at the beginning of January and could grin when it won a well-deserved Newbery Honor.

The story begins with three friends - Zach, Alice and Poppy.  They've been friends for a long, long time, and one of the things they like to do best is play the game.  It's an ongoing, perpetually changing story that they tell and act out with a ragtag bunch of characters.  There are pirates, thieves, women raised by bands of carnivorous horses, and the Great Queen.  Most of the characters are action figures, bought at yard sales or thrift stores - the thief, Lady Jaye, is a repurposed GI Joe figure.  But the Great Queen is different.  The Great Queen lives in a glass-fronted display cabinet at Poppy's house.  She is a china doll who sits perched on the shelf. "Zach couldn't remember when exactly they'd decided that she was the Great Queen, only that they'd all felt like she was watching them, even though her eyes were closed..." (p. 8).  So they incorporated that creepy observation into their game.  The Great Queen had the ultimate power over the game - if a character displeases her, then they are cursed until they regain her favor.

This game has gone on and on, morphing in different directions over time.  But as the three friends turn twelve, things are changing.  Alice, who lives with her grandmother, is being noticed by boys.  Her grandmother is getting more controlling about what Alice wears and does.  Zach's father, who is back living with Zach's mom after having moved out three years ago, is focusing on Zach's basketball skill.  He doesn't approve of anything else.  "' You're growing up,' he said, which seemed to be one of those weird things adults would say sometimes, stuff that was really obvious and to which there was no reply." (p. 23).  And Poppy feels lost and left out more often - she has been growing up in a family with very little parental supervision, and she just doesn't seem to know where to go next.

Then Poppy and Alice come to Zach's house in the middle of the night and tell him an incredibly creepy story about the Great Queen.  Poppy has taken her out of the cabinet - "The Queen's dull black eyes were open, her gaze boring into his own.  He'd always thought she was creepy-looking, but in the reflected beam of the flashlight, she seemed demonic." (p. 62).  Then Poppy explains that she had a dream where she had seen a dead girl, who sat at the edge of Poppy's bed.  The dead girl told Poppy that she couldn't rest until her body was buried and that Poppy had to help her.  Even worse, it turns out that the dead girl is really the doll.  Her ashes have been made into the china doll.

There is a mystery surrounding this doll, of course, but there is also a quest.  The doll (and the girl) need to be buried in Liverpool, Ohio, which isn't far from where the three friends are.  So they set off to get her to Liverpool.  It's partly fear, sure.  The Queen (whose real name is Eleanor) told Poppy if she didn't help Eleanor, she'd get her.  It sounds ominous and no one wants to find out exactly what she means.  But even though they don't name it, they all know that this may be their last chance to play the game.

There is so much to talk about in this book.  One of Black's gifts is wiring a middle grade book that is scary, but not too scary.  There are definitely some creepy things going on.  At one point, Zach wakes up after they've spent the night outside, at a makeshift campsite.  "Turning, he saw the Queen resting in the dirt right behind his head, far from where she'd been the night before. ...Zach sprang up and scuttled away from her, his heart racing." (p. 113).  The campsite is trashed, with food scattered and a ripped sleeping bag.  There is never a real explanation for what happened - was it bears or other animals?  Was it the doll? The lack of a concrete explanation only ratchets up the suspense.  It doesn't help that just before he wakes to the mess, Zach has been dreaming about Eleanor as a little girl.  The fact that a china doll is seemingly controlling their trip through their dreams is also a little unnerving.  It's the sort of delicious discomfort and readers might enjoy without getting too scared.

One of the most interesting things about this book from my point of view is Black's choice of Zach as the narrator.  It's definitely not what a reader would expect, especially from the title and cover illustration.  They do indicate that the book will be scary (there are bones in the title and the doll on the cover looks very unsettling).  And yet the book is told from a boy's point of view.  As I continued to read and dwell on Zach as narrator, I realized he is actually a perfect narrator.  To the outside world, he is beginning to look like a jock.  He has grown very tall, and is playing basketball.  Poppy condemns him by saying "'You're going to be one of those guys who hangs out with their teammates and dates cheerleaders and doesn't remember what it was like to make up stuff.'" (p. 199)  But while Zach may appear that way to the outside world, we know that isn't the way he really is.  We know "That was why Zach loved playing: those moments where it seemed like he was accessing some other world, one that felt as real as anything.  It was something he never wanted to give up." (p. 3) So Zach isn't what he seems.  It makes him a really interesting character to me.

Another thing that struck me about the journey the three friends go on is how ingenious and creative they have to be to get anywhere.  They all pack quickly, and pack what they can get without alerting anyone to what they are doing.  It's the middle of the night, and they are trying to make the scheduled bus to Liverpool.  "When he finally went to the cabinets, he felt as though he was provisioning himself for one of those epic fantasy quests... " (p. 71).  And no matter how carefully they've planned (which isn't really very carefully at all), they are soon alone, out of money and supplies, and very far from home.  But the three friends believe in the quest, and each other.  They each have different reasons for agreeing to take this journey, but they are all determined to succeed.

This book was creepy, of course.  But it's also a great book about friendship, growing up, imagination, and creativity.  I would also note that there is a really awesome librarian in this book too!  Now I'll shelve this book with the cover facing the wall so I don't have to look at that doll.  But every once in a while, I'll want to check to see if it's moved.

Doll Bones.  Holly Black; with illustrations by Eliza Wheeler.  Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2013.

sent for review by the publisher

Friday, February 14, 2014

Family Dinner Book Club - Our Thoughts

I wanted to do a follow-up post on how Family Dinner Book Club went at our house in January .  If you read the post linked above, you'll already know that Frances was far more interested in listening to Winnie-the-Pooh than Gloria was.  This continued all month.  Gloria mostly read to herself in bed while Frances and I enjoyed the story together.

Before I get to our book club meeting, I want to talk about my impressions of the book.  I'm not sure I had ever read Winnie-the-Pooh all the way through previously.  I've certainly read excerpts, probably also chapters.  I have a very strong memory of listening to some of the story on audiocassette as a child, narrated by Sterling Holloway.  It is a little embarassing to admit that my experience of the book had been so heavily influenced by my knowledge of the Disney movie, but it was.  I was surprised at how some of the little songs Pooh sings (especially "I'm Just a Little Black Rain Cloud") weren't in the chapter book.  I know, I know - I shouldn't admit how much I am influenced by Disney, but I am.  I can't help it.

One of the other things that surprised me was Milne's writing style.  I was especially struck by his use of the word "carelessly".  One or another of the characters is always saying something "carelessly", most often Christopher Robin.  For instance, in the chapter "In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump", Pooh wonders what a Heffalump looks like. "'You don't often see them,' said Christopher Robin carelessly." (p. 56)  The first few times I read the word, I was taken aback.  It isn't a word that I use in that context at all - it seems that Christopher Robin says things carelessly when he doesn't want to be questioned about his authority on the topic. Here, it is what a Heffalump looks like - Christopher Robin doesn't know, of course, but he still wants to seem like he does.  His lack of a description causes problems for the rest of the group later on.  Once I noticed the word "carelessly", it seemed like all of them were saying things carelessly.  I hate to say A.A. Milne overused a word, but it came up frequently.  It may have been used so often as a combination of the British sense of language and the time period, but it makes me want to start saying things carelessly.  I'll let you know what happens!

One of my favorite things about this experience was how much Winnie the Pooh became a part of our daily lives.  Since we finished reading it, I have heard Frances say to herself several times "Think...think...think.", just like Winnie the Pooh often does.  And both girls watched children on TV throwing sticks over a bridge into a river and called out "Pooh sticks!" in unison.  So they were both really listening and internalizing this book.  It is a fun ongoing connection for us.

Even more fun was the night we celebrated our book club meeting.  Gloria was sick and pretty lethargic, and didn't have any interest in celebrating by the time we got started.  In fact, she fell asleep on the floor while Frances and I were eating.  That was fine because Frances and I got to really talk about the book.  We used the questions from Growing Book by Book, and they were great conversation starters for us.  We took turns answering them and really thinking about things.  I used the placemats and name cards from Enchanted Homeschooling Mom  , as well as decorating with some of our Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals (down at the end of the table).    For the dinner part of the meeting, I made the Baked Honey Chicken from Daisy at Home (which was delicious!), and added roasted carrots in honor of Rabbit.  I also made Tigger Tails (recipe in this post).  Here they are:

 Finally (and this was probably unnecessary), I made Peanutty Shortbread.  In the magazine article where I  got the recipe (also cited in that post), they cut the cookies into hives and decorated them with little bees.  Obviously way too much effort for me, especially considering Gloria was sick.  So instead I used a heart cookie cutter and tinted the frosting pink.  They turned out really cute, and lasted a week in our house, bridging the time between book club and Valentine's Day. 

It was a very fun night, and we can't wait for our next meeting.  The book has already been announced, and it is The Day the Crayons Quit.  We've already read it once, and are looking forward to our next meeting.  All of the questions, decorations and food will be posted tomorrow, but I already have a food idea.  Stay tuned for our next report!!

The World of Pooh: The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.  By A.A. Milne with illustrations by E.H. Shephard.  E.P. Dutton, 1957.

book from our own collection

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Let's Find Out

Part of my New Year's resolution was to catch up on some blog posts that I had waiting.  My "blogging" pile has an assortment of books in it, ones I really liked.  But for one due date (a publisher's or blog tour's due date) or another (due dates at the library), I would move other books past them.  I'm looking forward to sharing some of them with you in the next week, including an honor book from the ALA Youth Media Awards!

Today I'd like to highlight a series I requested last summer from Black Rabbit Books.  Even then, the series (and another series that I blogged about), were from a webinar that School Library Journal hosted last spring.  This series "Let's Find Out" is perfect for the 1st - 3rd grade reader who is interested in learning about lots of different subjects.

I was sent three books in the series for review - Let's Bake a Cake, Let's Go to the Playground and Let's Read a Book.  They are all written and illustrated by Ruth Walton.  Each of them expands on the title topic.  Let's Read a Book starts with the subtitle - Find out about books and how they are made.  But the subject of creating books has lots of tangents - libraries, different types of writing, the creation of paper and ink... Walton spends two pages on each of these topics and more.  With just two pages to devote to each, most are not covered in-depth.  But there is a surprising amount of information covered there too.  On a spread that discusses how paper is made, there are many pieces of information.  There is the main text that gives an overview of the paper-making process.  The illustration depicts the steps that the wood goes through to become paper.  There is text in the illustration as well, giving additional information and overlaying some of the machinery to guide readers' eyes along the way.  There is a text box that describes how pulp is made.  Finally, there are photographs with captions showing a paper mill and paper ready to be used in a book.  That is an incredible amount of information to have in just one double-paged spread.

And that can be a drawback to young, inexperienced readers working through the text.  There is so information that it can be overwhelming.  I suspect that a new reader would need some guidance on how to follow the main text throughout.  But on the other hand, more accomplished readers can pick and choose what information they'd like to read among the many topics.  On a page about wheat in Let's Bake a Cake, there is a large diagram of a wheat grain, with the parts of the grain identified.  There are other pictures on the same page of foods made with wheat (besides the cake of the title).  These foods are very different, yet readers will immediately tie them together.  On the same page, Walton defines self-rising flour (which is called for in the cake recipe) for readers who most likely would have been unaware of the distinction.

All three books use bold text to indicate vocabulary words.  In Let's Bake a Cake, there are words like carbon dioxide, harvest, and durum wheat.  All of these words are defined in the glossary, located in the back matter.    In Let's Bake a Cake, besides the glossary, there is a world map with the chocolate cake ingredients marked in the locations where they grow.  There is also an illustrated recipe for chocolate cake and an index.

My favorite of the three is Let's Go to the Playground.  In this book, the subtopic is forces and motion.  The format just really seems to work in this title.  There are questions for readers - in a photo of children on a teeter-totter that includes a definition of a fulcrum, the text asks readers "Where do you think the fulcrum is?".  There are simple experiments in this book and information that Frances and Gloria found really useful, such as what makes you go down slides faster (clothes made of smooth or shiny material, in case you were wondering).  The book seems to be more simple than the other two, with less information on each page.  It made this title easier for us to interact with and I felt like we learned a lot more from that.

The illustrations are done in a variety of media.  Mostly, Walton collages elements together.  In the picture of the children on the teeter-totter, the children and teeter-totter are a photograph, collaged into a park scene.  The grass, bushes and dirt are other photos, used in unusual  ways.  I'm not quite sure what the photo representing dirt was originally, but it's been manipulated to look more patterned.  Unless you are looking very carefully at the picture, you might miss all the details that go into the harmonious whole, but they are worth noticing.  There are lots of those details to pore over, and I believe they help catch the reader's eye.  A reader who might be speeding through the book, not paying much attention to anything but the main text, will be drawn in by the details and go back to learn more.  And the wide range of informational presentation in these titles will help attract readers of all learning styles.

These are the sorts of books that help springboard young readers.  As overwhelming as I sometimes found the information, the number of topics will be sure to interest any child, and may lead them into other, related topics.  They will work well within the Common Core implementation beginning across the nation, too.  Thank you to Black Rabbit Books for sharing them with me.

Let's Bake a Cake. Ruth Walton.  Sea-to-Sea Books, 2013.
Let's Go to the Playground.  Ruth Walton.  Sea-to-Sea Books, 2013.
Let's Read a Book.  Ruth Walton.  Sea-to-Sea Books, 2013.

sent by the publisher for review consideration