October 5, 2018
Windows by Julia Denos, illustrated by E.B. Goodale
The French have a lovely term for the special time that is between day and night–a specific phase of twilight. It is a magical blue hour (“l’heure bleue”), when the indirect sunlight takes on a predominantly blue shade. Though all the colors are reflected, the light is “soft.” I have always been enchanted by this notion, and it came to my mind as I read Julia Denos thoughtful and magical book, Windows. In this simple tale, a young boy and his frisky eager dog head out for a twilight walk in their neighborhood, where the windows are “blinking awake as the lights turn on inside: a neighborhood of paper lanterns.” The mood is of quiet joy, safety, and security, as the mother watches her son venture out on his walk. He views neighbors making dinner, dancing, playing, and he and his dog delight in their own play at the park. The tale comes full circle as the boy heads home to the loved one waving behind the curtain at home. The language is rich and evocative: for example, a raccoon is observed “taking a bath in squares of yellow light.” The illustrations are a perfect complement with inked lines and watercolor, as well as collage. Perfect autumn book to read with a loved one of your own curled up on your lap, or to a small group of children for sharing.
September 22, 2018
The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag
You can tell from the title that this graphic novel is set in a world of magic, in this case with shape-shifters and witches. But gender rules what particular kind of magic boys and girls are culturally expected to follow. Aster’s family is of the traditional sort: his mother Holly is a witch, his father Tohor is a shapeshifter, and his older sister Juniper is a witch. But Aster is drawn to spells and chants and incantations, which are forbidden to him. He tries to learn the shapeshifting skills he is supposed to master, but struggles, and has to hide his passion for “women’s work” (read “witchery”). Then, his cousin Sedge disappears–and soon after, more of his male cousins go missing. Aster is the only one who is able “scry,” or see the missing boys. Will he be able to use his magic to save his family?
Lots of interesting dialogue about gendered roles, as well as interesting and unique characters . A fitting book to for middle school class discussions. Recommended!
September 15, 2018
Making Friends by Kristen Gudsnuk
Whether the middle school experience starts in grade 5, 6, (or 7 as it does in protagonist Danny’s world), it is a time of transition: understanding a new school culture, making different friends, and perhaps hardest of all, keeping friends that you care about. Danny finds it difficult that her best friends are in different classes than she now that she is in middle school, and they are forming new friendships and cliques. Enter magic: her rather odd great-aunt leaves her a magic sketchbook–where anything she sketches comes to life. What happens when she draws Madison, the perfect new best friend? And more to the point, what complications arise when your new best friend discovers she was created by magic? Be sure to take note of the details in the illustrations; Gudsnuk is known for including lots of little jokes in her drawings. The blend of fantasy, art, and the ups and downs of middle school friendship make this new graphic novels a winner.
September 8, 2018
The Day you Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael Lopez
I always look forward to a new book from Jacqueline Woodson; I have yet to be disappointed. In a long string of inspirational and moving books, The Day You Begin stands out for its heartfelt themes of finding your own voice, inclusion, courage, and friendship. Woodson’s poetic and lyrical writing is gentle yet powerful, as the words invite even very young children to find and recognize the beauty of their lives, and to share it with others in the world around them. Lopez’s illustrations are bright and vivid, and attract readers; at the same time they have a kind of dreamy quality that is the perfect complement to the words. I especially appreciate the acknowledgement that we all have moments of loneliness, loss, and fear. We may lose our voices and feel alone, yet hope is always there. Gentle and optimistic, this is a book to read aloud, share, and discuss with friends and family. Recommended for the start of the school year as a wonderful read to build community.
September 1, 2018
Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy
Parents and teachers, this is for you, though I also think young adults would appreciate the chance to relive their favorite childhood picture books and the literature they read and reread as tweens and adolescents. And readers also get to quibble about the books they were supposed to like, but never connected with. But I am getting ahead myself! What is this book, anyway?
Bruce Handy has written the perfect book to reconnect you to books that shaped you as a reader. Along the way, he offers his insights, research about the books and authors, and his own idiosyncratic reactions to the books he discusses. Sometimes I found myself cheering his humorous and very opinionated stance, to books like The Giving Tree, which I also detest. Handy states that the book leaves him cold: “I don’t see a wise ennobling, bittersweet parable about maternal steadfastness. I see two deluded losers engaged in a folie a deux: the Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo of children’s literature.” However, when he takes on Little Women, I simply have to push back and argue for my favorite book growing up.
I don’t want to give the impression that Handy critiques all the books, far from it. He is passionate about his reading and often compares the joy of his own reading as a child to reading the same books to his children’s. He delves into interviews with authors like Maurice Sendak and the life and early experiences of Margaret Wise Brown. His voice is always fresh and honest, his chapters intriguing in the categories he creates. I guarantee you’ll be delighted, inspired, nostalgic, and at times a bit hot under the collar. And you may just find yourself revisiting reading memories with your friends and family. Enjoy! And let us know what you think.
August 26, 2018
The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks
What a terrific adventure you embark on when you dive into The Nameless City! If you have readers in your family who are fans of the graphic novel genre (yes, please), you’ll want to get your hands on this new series. The artwork is stunning, with all kinds of different perspectives to show the city and the characters. And the characters are simply remarkable. The City itself is an ancient one, built by a people long long ago and no one remembers who they were. Since that time, the City, which is strategically located in a mountain pass, has been conquered again and again. Each time it is taken over, the new conquerors give it another name. The people who have lived there the longest refuse to use any of those names, and consider their home “The Nameless City.” Kaidu is one of the newest outsiders, a member of the latest nation to occupy the Nameless City, the Dao. He meets Rat, a native of the City, living by her wits on the street. The two become unlikely friends, working to unite all the City’s factions. As Kaidu and Rat explore the City, they compete with each other, taunt each other, and challenge each other on the road to becoming allies who teach the adults to look through new lenses. This is a perfect book for tweens and early adolescents, though I admit to really immersing myself in the adventure, too. I’ve just started the second in the series, The Stone Heart, which picks up exactly where the first leaves off. And I look forward to September when books 3 The Divided Heart comes out. You still have time to catch up in time for the latest adventure!
August 18, 2018
The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell
Such a perfect middle school graphic novel! (I must admit I loved it, too.) The “cardboard kingdom” is a small one–approximately a neighborhood block. But this kingdom (population: 16 kids) is peopled by knights, monsters, rogues, robots, not to mention an inner demon or two. The cardboard of the title is the substance (cardboard boxes) that creates the costumes that drive the make-believe play of this imaginative kingdom. The introductory story is worlds, as we view the pectoral story of an evil Sorceress and her minion torturing a captive princess. But wait! It’s siblings creating an adventure for themselves. They are embarrassed to be discovered by their neighbor, especially the Sorceress, who we are led to infer is initially ashamed to be seen dressing up as a feminine character. With the little sister’s encouragement, the Sorceress comes back better than ever.
This is a delightful and important book, filled with stories of adventure, heroism, imagination, and joyful play. Who wouldn’t want to take these stories as inspiration to create their own cardboard costumes? As an adult reader, it brought back memories of neighborhood creative play and building forts, hanging out with friends, and enjoying the summertime together. Highly recommended!