Thursday, March 26, 2015

Dreaming Up

I found a note in a pile of stuff not that long ago, reminding me to blog about this book.  It was more than likely due at the library, so I returned it and then went on to read other stuff and then promptly forgot it.  That's what happens, right? There are so many good books to read and write about, and I look up and two years have gone by!  But I found that note and checked Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building out again.  I am happy to say that this unusual, creative book has been possibly even more popular with Frances and Gloria this time around.  Dreaming Up is a book with so many applications - I am happy to share it with you!

Christy Hale had the clever idea of taking three seemingly disparate elements and connecting them on the page.  On the left hand side of each spread is a picture of a child building something - toddlers stacking cups, a boy building a house of cards, children bundled up while playing in an igloo.  On the opposite page is a photograph of a real house or building that has something in common with the child's creative play.  In the example of the children playing in the igloo, the photo across from them is of an astronaut in a space suit, walking around a domed shelter.  The picture is a little bit surprising.  It makes the reader question how the shelter and astronaut came to be there.  But a reader can also immediately identify similarities between the picture of the children and the space shelter.  Both are dome-shaped, with similarly-sized entrances.  And where the igloo has been created with snow in cool tones, the space shelter looks to be created in a sort of honeycomb pattern.  Circles echo in both sides of the page.  The children's fluffy snowsuits and boots also resemble the astronaut's spacesuit.
We'll come back later to the astronaut and the space shelter, but for now I want to focus on the last element on each two-page spread.  There is a piece of concrete poetry that ties the two illustrations together.  The poems are often shaped in unique ways, which helps to further engage the reader.  A poem connecting a sandcastle with La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is shaped like drips of wet sand.  As a child, I lived in San Diego, and seeing the poem makes my fingers itch to dribble sand through their fingers.  But the poem doesn't just explain the child's activity.  Hale does an amazing job of helping the reader to see that link between the two.  Her poem, which reads in part "Towers twist high, sparkle with sea glass, treasures and shells." can equally apply to La Sagrada Familia, which we learn later in the book is covered in mosaic glass.
One of the many things that I pondered as a result of this book was the creativity that is shown both in the children's play  and the buildings that are highlighted.  The buildings that are shown are amazing works of art.  There are the concentric swirls of the Guggenheim museum, the stacked terraces of Fallingwater.  But there is also the draped look of the suspension roof at the Yoyogi National Stadium in Japan, which mimics the shape of a blanket tent hung over chairs.  What is glorious about all of these real-life examples are their inspirations - space, nature and our lifestyles.
But I was also amazed by the diverse ways that children build and use their imaginations every day.  We could all probably think of a few ways children build, and they are fairly traditional (stacking cups, blocks, legos).  But there are other ways that children construct, such as the blanket tent, sandcastles, and building with toothpicks.  While the book calls itself a celebration of building, it is just as much a celebration of creativity.
This book can be used by so many types of readers, too.  I hate the perception that "picture books" should only be used with younger children, and this book fits my belief perfectly.  Of course, you could read this book with groups of young children (although I'm not sure that children much younger than Kindergarten would really be able to get it).  However, as children get older, it could be used as a model for creating concrete poetry.  It's definitely a higher order thinking challenge.  Primarily Hale draws strong connections between the illustrations with her poems so readers have similarities pointed out to them.  But expressing those connections in words or drawing the architectural elements would also be fun ways to work with this book.
And finally, one of the things I love most about this book is its amazing back matter.  Each building is reproduced in the back, along with a description of the materials it was created from, or the elements that make that building unique.  There is also a brief biography of the architect or builder, along with some of their guiding principles and a portrait.  And perhaps my favorite part of these biographies is a quote from the architect that perfectly fits the building in question.  For example, that space shelter is actually Mars One, in Hesperia, California.  It was created from sandbags, stacked in a dome shape (which is also alluded to in the poem), and held together with Velcro of all things!  The builder, Nader Khalili, believed that "the best substances for constructing shelters would be the materials under the astronauts' feet."  The quote is "'Everything we need to build is in us, and in the place.'"  To me, it encapsulates the building perfectly.  There is also an excellent page of sources for readers to research, both for photos and the quotations.  This book might seem simple, but the layers are satisfyingly complex.
Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building. Christy Hale.  Lee & Low Books, 2012.
Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Monday, March 16, 2015

Starry Night

I have been an Isabel Gillies fangirl for a long time.  When I was separating from my husband a few years ago, I discovered her memoir, Happens Every Day.  Even though the circumstances were very different, I took solace in her words.  Even though I knew I was doing the right thing, she too had felt that odd heartbreak and grief in saying goodbye to what she believed her life would be and greeting something very different.  She felt like the much cooler older sister that I never had, whose wisdom and pain I could learn from.  I reread Happens Every Day earlier this year, because I had just read her newer piece, A Year and Six Seconds.  I put them on hold at our library, and it was then that I discovered that she had just published a young adult novel.  I put that book on hold immediately, hoping I would love it just as much.

When it came in, I started it right away.  I quickly realized that I had another problem.  I couldn't stop reading it, yet didn't want it to end.  It has some of my favorite elements of young adult fiction in its pages - romance and school - along with fascinating characters, an amazing setting, and parents who are cool but also know how to set boundaries with their children.  It feels like a big, giddy whoosh of a book, but it also has the pinprick of real emotions.  I couldn't get enough!

The story centers on Wren Noorlander.  At 15, she seems to be sailing through life on the outside.  She has a very tight-knit group of friends - Vati, Reagan, Farah, and Charlie.  Wren is an amazing artist with a blossoming talent.  She is secure in her place at her private girls' school, knowing she has a great talent, but still having to work very hard in other subjects.  Wren has an older brother, Oliver, who is a senior in high school.  Despite the fact that he is getting older, and beginning to become slightly unknowable, he still has a strong relationship with Wren.  And their younger sister, Dinah, is a pre-teen with a cooking show on Food TV.  But all three siblings are also quite normal.  The next quote is a little out of context, but it illustrates Wren and Dinah perfectly: "...then the door at the top of the stairs flung open to reveal Dinah, still in her uniform, hand on her hip, head cocked to the side.  'You are going down!' she announced, not looking surprised at all that Nolan was standing there.  I glared at her. 'Is Mom home?' I whispered loudly as I trotted up. 'Oh yeah, she is, and she's on fire.  She had to start knitting because you are so late! It's a total ten.'" (p. 157)  This sample is so big sister-little sister that it still makes me laugh.

And then there are Wren's parents.  They have interesting jobs to start with - Wren's mom has a pottery studio, Wren's dad is the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  No big deal, just the Metropolitan Museum of Art!  They are sophisticated, live in a large brownstone in New York City.  But here's what I love about the Noorlanders: they don't take all the opportunities they are afforded for granted.  They see all the amazing things they are lucky enough to give their children and they are clear about what those opportunities require of all of them.  Wren tells readers about how Dinah gets her own cooking show: "...Bravo called to say they were interested in having Dinah host a thirty minute cooking show.  Mom was repelled, but Dad, who is more relaxed about publicity and media and sort of everything, convinced Mom that it would only be good for Dinah.  I remember him saying at dinner, 'Nan, love, it's a wonderful life experience for her.  I don't see how we can stand in her way.'  My mother protested, 'I can stand directly in her way, David.  She is only NINE!'" (p. 27).  I read quite a bit of young adult fiction, and the parents are primarily absent, physically or emotionally.  Wren's parents may not know every single thing their children do, but they have a pretty good idea of what's happening in their lives.  I really like how connected Wren's parents are to Wren.  They may not always make the easiest or most popular choice for their children, and they are okay with it.  They are always there to supervise what's happening and support their children when they need it.  As a parent, I love their example.  It's a hard road to follow, but they put in the effort.

It's funny to me that I have gotten this far in my review without summarizing the plot.  One of Oliver's newer friends, Nolan, comes over to the Noorlander house after school one day.  Oliver, Nolan, Wren and her friends (Vati, Reagan, Farah and Charlie) have all been invited to their first Metropolitan Museum of Art opening.  It is a huge deal and the girls are besides themselves with excitement.  Then Wren meets Nolan, and things shift dramatically.  "' Who are you?'  Now this might sound weird, but Nolan's 'who are you?' did not come out was more like he was asking because he was enchanted with me, so that was wild - and nobody had ever asked me who I was  before, so I was way into it." (p. 88)  And she's off, muddling through her first love.  Wren and Nolan make some bad choices in their longing to be together, but those choices aren't totally terrible.  The night of the opening, Nolan talks Wren into ditching the party (and her parents) to go to a club and go dancing.  The consequences of that impetuous decision leaves Wren grounded and without a phone for weeks.  But it also leads to sweet scenes like this: "'Isn't it weird, how yesterday we didn't know each other, and now we are each other's person?' Nolan mused as he walked through the gates into Central Park." (p. 154).

One character I haven't yet mentioned in this post so far is the city of New York.  It is so interwoven into the story that it feels like another person.  After the above scene, Nolan and Wren stand under the echo bridge in Central Park and share their experiences of the bridge.  It bonds them - one of those initial moments in a relationship when everything seems to be identical in your lives up until you met.  But Nolan and Wren's relationship takes place in front of the city's backdrop: "We rode the 1 train up Broadway and he told me about his parents' divorce as the train rocked and screeched into station after station all the way to Eighty-Sixth Street." (p. 116)  "The air felt loaded in New York City.  It was one of those days that you feel not only that the temperature will drop but that something tremendous is going to happen.  It was a Monday in November and the sky was so blue it was violet, uninterrupted by clouds." (p. 4)  It's an amazing setting for me, living in a small(ish) Montana town with not a subway in sight.  For readers in most of the country, the teens' lives feel a little glamorous, full of a different sort of freedom that we ever taste as Wren and her friends casually move about the city.  For readers from New York City, I suspect it feels very accurate and real.

One of Gillies' strengths as a writer is her knack for the small details that make up our lives.  Wren describes her home like this: "There are Persian rugs running down the halls, and under those rugs the beaten-up floors are made from smooth, wide wooden planks.  Photographs and paintings hang on the walls from the floor to the ceiling, all mixed up." (p. 50)  Their home is eclectic yet cozy and you can feel its essence through Gillies' description.  Her writing is very concrete and real.

What I also love is how strong Wren's voice is throughout this novel.  Wren is often wrong about things, but she commits to a plan of action wholeheartedly. "I spent the next long time lost, feverishly drawing a barn owl rocketing into the night sky, shooting up, wings spread wide, soaring up up up and off the paper with one hundred of her feathers fluttering in the headwind.  If Oliver came upstairs, I didn't know it.  He might have come up and decided not to bother me.  I was somewhere far away." (p. 170-1)  Wren is full of giddy love, excitement, strongly held beliefs and emotions.  She is so endearing, and as the story unfolds, my heart broke for her in several different circumstances.

There is one other thing about Wren that I wanted to call attention to in this review.  In the beginning of the novel, while talking with her friends, Wren notes "I can never get names until at least ten minutes after I need them.  It's one strain of my other learning disorder: dysnomia.  I have that along with the dyslexia, dysgraphia, and a dollop of ADD." (p. 31).  Wren's learning disorders are definitely not the focus of this novel, but they are part of her too.  She has strategies to help her manage these: "...trying to zip up my backpack and go through the mental list that I am supposed to go through every time I leave the school so I don't space on anything." (p. 146).  Wren is matter of fact about the side effects of these - her impulsivity and her ability to focus on just one thing like her art are two sides of the same coin.  This story isn't about that struggle for Wren, but I like how it is presented here - as one small part of the whole.

I haven't even scratched the surface of the events of this novel, or the emotions contained within it.  But I'll encourage you to read this, to hear more about the Noorlander family and Wren's group of friends.  And I'll beg Isabel Gillies to keep writing about Wren and her friends, because I never want to leave their world.

Starry Night.  Isabel Gillies.  Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2014.

Borrowed from the Lewis & Clark library

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Bow-Wow's Nightmare Neighbors

This year Gloria started Kindergarten in the same school where Frances is now in second grade.  We were lucky to already have a great relationship with the school librarian (who is a reader of this blog, yay!), so she wasn't surprised to have another reader on her hands.  Now we check out piles of books out of our public library on a regular basis.  But there, the girls check out as many books as they want, so there is very little actual selection on their part.  They take home everything they might be interested in.  But at the school library, Frances can only select two books at a time, and Gloria's class only checks out one book at a time.  I'm always fascinated by what they choose to bring home on those visits.  Frances tends to choose chapter books.  A few weeks ago, she brought home My Friend Flicka because she loves the movie.  I'm not sure she ever opened it, though.  She also checked out Just Grace last week, and actually renewed it this week because she liked it so much.  But two weeks ago, Gloria checked out a book that we both instantly loved.  I wouldn't let her return it until I had blogged about it (although the librarian was nice enough to let Gloria check out another book while I kept this one an extra week!).

I also want to note that this book was also published by Roaring Brook Press, who published the book I featured last week, Viva Frida. These books are both very cool pieces of art, and I hope that the rest of their offerings are just as magical!  I'll be looking out for them.  So back to Bow-Wow's Nightmare Neighbors...

This isn't the first book about Bow-Wow.  Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug came out in 2007, and I only vaguely remember it.  But now, seven years later, here comes Bow-Wow again.  And he's not very happy.  Bow-Wow is rudely interrupted mid-nap by three perfectly white (ghostly) kittens.  They nip him on the tail, startling him.  Bow-Wow leaps straight up, and while he's in the air, the kittens steal his comfy teal bed.  They slip out the window, but Bow-Wow is in hot pursuit.  He races across the street, and enters an abandoned house.  It certainly looks spooky, built out of gray stone, with sharply pointed shrubbery surrounding.  There are many cracked and broken windows, but Bow-Wow knows it is the right place because two little white kitten faces peer out from upper windows.

The chase is on.  It involves secret passages, mysterious doors, and glimpses of white tails.  Also, sometimes he sees just a hint of the teal dog bed to spur him on.  Or so he thinks.  Everywhere he goes, kittens follow him.  They always manage to disappear as he turns corners.  The white kittens romp through rooms, just ahead of Bow-Wow, acting incredibly entertaining and very ghost-kitten-like.  Those white kittens prefer nipping Bow-Wow on the tail, over and over and over again.  Bow-Wow searches and searches for his beloved dog bed, surprising a burglar and scaring him off in the process.  It isn't until Bow-Wow opens the very last door that he comes across the reason those ghostly kittens needed his teal bed.  There is a whole floor full of rainbow-colored cushions, and Bow-Wow's teal dog bed completes it.  It's a surprising moment, but it's not the only one in this story - there is another moment when the determined Bow-Wow goes to take back his cushion.

What's funny about this blog post is that I told you much of the plot of this picture book just now.  But I've told you that without reading a single printed word.  Bow-Wow's Nightmare Neighbors is a perfect introduction to the graphic novel.  The pages are a combination of panels and full-page illustrations.  The action is very easy to follow.  There is a clear path that guides Bow-Wow from panel to panel throughout the house.  The kittens and Bow-Wow have likable, expressive faces so readers can tell exactly what they are thinking.  The book is expressly designed to convey lots of meaning without words.

There is a limited range of colors in the book.  Most pages only have five colors - gray, white for the kittens, a tan for Bow-Wow, and of course teal, used as an accent color and also for the infamous bed.  The usage of standard colors also helps young readers focus on the main action on the page, or in the panel.  The pictures still show movement, for instance, when the dog sees a mannequin wearing a teal dress.  Bow-Wow believes that the dress hides his teal dog bed.  He darts through the dress after two kittens who have popped out of the sleeves to taunt him.  You can almost hear the thud as Bow-Wow inevitably knocks over the mannequin.

The color palette also does something astonishing for me.  The colors are consistent from page to page, which frees your eye to see all of the details Newgarden and Cash have created.  A kitten hides himself between a wall and a piece of peeling wallpaper.  I especially love a series of drawings that starts with a ghostly kitten parading up the stairs with Bow-Wow's teal dog bed.  Bow-Wow follows behind him.  As Bow-Wow starts up the stairs in an upper right hand panel, another kitten jumps to bite him on the tail in a lower left hand panel.  And after all of them race up the staircase, more kittens peek out of each stair tread - beguiling, yet a little spooky too.

There is a definite gothic feel to the abandoned house across the street.  Bow-Wow (and hence the reader) never knows what to expect.  There's a cracked mirror, leaves blowing across the hallway through broken windows, a closet full of teal junk, cats running in mid-air.  It's surprising, yet not.  The quirky details even extend to the endpapers.  When you examine them closely, each of the fleur de lis in the wallpaper is made up of ghostly kittens.  It's all clever, and intriguing, fun and sweet.

This book rewards the careful reader.  Those details don't all show themselves on the first reading, or even the second reading.  It's why this book is a perfect introduction to panels in graphic novels, but an experienced reader will also laugh out loud at some of the fun scenes.  Bow-Wow's Nightmare Neighbors did a great job of surprising and delighting me.  We enjoyed every moment with this book.  Check it out if you're a graphic novel fan, a dog fan, a cat fan, a haunted house fan...or a fan of really cool books.

Bow-Wow's Nightmare Neighbors.  Mark Newgarden & Megan Montague Cash.  Roaring Brook Press, 2014.

borrowed from Helena School District library