knifeIn many ways Hayley Rose Kincain is like the rest of her peers–the ones that inhabit YA books about high school. She starts off as the typical new kid, unused to the social pecking order after years of homeschooling on the road with her dad. A self-imposed loner, she is readily armed with a snarky response to everything high school throws at her. And just by being herself, she catches the attention of Finn, a “swoon-worthy” jockey nerd/nerdy jock who pursues her in his quest to find writers for the school paper, whom she promptly declines.

But Hayley also has an exhausting secret she is trying to keep. Everyday after school, she monitors the odometer on her father’s truck to see if he actually went to work that day. She checks the contents of the fridge to see if her father’s been eating (good) or drinking (bad). And she does her absolute best to keep everyone else in her life at arms length, lest they realize how poorly her father is coping with civilian life after the trauma of serving tours in Iraq–and take her away from him.

In Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, it’s clear that as Hayley’s dad teeters on the brink of despair and destruction, Hayley is trapped just as trapped there beside him, even if she didn’t physically go to war. Continue Reading »

Laura vs. Bo: in Pictures

So, I may have cheated in the O’Dell Challenge by reading Bo at Ballard Creek before the other 8 books ahead of it on the list. I’ll save my real review for the right time, but for now I’ll tackle the persistent comparisons between Bo and the Little House books.

It doesn’t seem like a fair contest. After all, Bo has 2 adventurous fathers, eccentric neighbors, NatGeo magazines, lots of friends, and the excitement of a mining camp. Laura Ingalls has preachy parents, a goody-two-shoes sister and really boring Sundays. Still, both books contain episodic stories about a year in the life of a little girl growing up on the frontier. And the pictures offer plenty of parallels. Perhaps illustrator LeUyen Pham had Little House on her mind. Some of them even look like an homage to Garth Williams’ drawings:

Laura's family

Little House in the Big Woods

Bo's family

Little House at Ballard Creek: colder and wilder than the toughest Wisconsin winter.

Laura and Mary with their dolls.

Laura and Mary with their dolls.

Bo and Grafton with their teddy bears.

Bo and Grafton with their bears–gifts from the “good-time girls.”

Laura at a dance

Laura at a dance: finally, a chance to see people outside her immediate family.

Bo at a dance

Ballard Creek dance: Fourth of July with the neighbors.

Happy Chinese New Year!

The Year of the Horse

The Black Stallion, in GO pieces.

After kicking off the New Year with an evening of 五子棋 (5 in a Row) and 年糕 (sticky rice cakes–Lisa’s family recipe!), we bring you this list of horse books so you can celebrate the Year of the Horse all year long!

Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look–Not strictly about a horse, the great Tang Dynasty painter Wu Daozai does paint one in Meilo So’s gorgeous illustrations.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater–Every November, riders on vicious flesh-eating water horses sweep through Puck Connolly’s little town in the event known as the Scorpio Races. This year, to save her family, Puck enters the competition.

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo–Set against the backdrop of the horrors of WWI, War Horse tells the remarkable story about the bond between a boy and his horse.

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis–A Horse and his Boy meet a Horse and her Girl, who happen to be much better riders, and together they make their escape north towards freedom.

Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry–The classic horse book for generations, Henry has the market cornered when it comes to horses.

And of course, no New Years book list is complete without a Grace Lin book! Happy Reading!

ALAYMA 2014 Chat Reactions

floraLisa: Hello! So, Newbery reactions!
It was a good year for squirrels
Jen: and a good year for Floras!
Lisa: yes. I haven’t read Flora and the Flamingo but I could see Ulysses’ Flora attempting to dance with a flamingo
Jen: really? I think she’d be too cynical
Lisa: well, if her mother stuffed her into a tutu…
and there was a pink bird nearby…
soooooo, anything surprise you about this year’s ALA youth media awards?

bo ballard creekThe announcement of the newest Scott O’Dell Award winner, Bo at Ballard Creek, was another reminder that I should really pick up the pace. I’ve read six O’Dell winners this year, and at this rate it’ll take me more than three years to finish the remaining 21 books.

So my goal this year is to read the next 10 books (I suppose this counts as my new year’s resolution?). That will take me past Bo and Chickadee (last year’s winner), and old favorites like Sarah, Plain and Tall and Out of the Dust.

To help push me along, maybe Jen could pledge to read 10 Newbery Challenge books too?

true blueTrust me when I say, don’t read Kathi Appelt’s latest book, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. Books like hers deserve to be heard. So do whatever it takes to optimize your experience. Find an elementary school teacher or librarian who does story-time, coerce your parents/child/sibling/spouse/kindly neighbor into reading to you, or listen to the audio recording. But don’t just read it–unless you’re reading it aloud.

True Blue Scouts flows as languidly as a long summer’s day on the porch with a glass of cool lemonade and a chatty relative. Equally whimsical but less melancholy or heart-wrenching than the The Underneath or Keeper, it’s adorably simple, silly, and sweet.

The tale opens with scouts Bingo and J’miah, who monitor Sugar Man Swamp–home of the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker (IBWP), incomparable local canebrake sugar, mouthwatering fried sugar pies, and legendary Sugar Man–from the headquarters of a vintage 1949 DeSoto. When Bingo and J’maih, who are racoons by the way, notice an ominous rumble-rumble-rumble-rumble headed in their direction, they have no choice but to rouse the Sugar Man to protect the swamp. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, humans Mr. Sonny Boy Beaucoup and Ms. Jaegar Stitch are scheming to evict twelve-year-old Chap and his mom from their house-cum-cafe (home of the world’s best sugar pies) so they can build an alligator wrestling arena and theme park over the swamp. The only things stopping Sonny–a boatload of cash or proof of the Sugar Man’s existence. And the only thing that will wake the Sugar Man from his slumber? A snip-snap-zip-zap from Gertrude, his serpentine companion, or the aroma of fresh canebrake sugar. Continue Reading »

bull runBull Run, by Paul Fleischman, has an ingenious setup: each chapter is a monologue told from the point of view of a different character, 16 in total. There are soldiers and doctors, artists and mothers, children, slaves, Union and Confederate generals. It reminds me of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, only more depressing, because with every chapter you know you’re getting closer to the actual battle itself.

It’s amazing how quickly Fleischman manages to convey what’s going on. Each chapter is just two pages long, yet somehow we get a sense of the character’s identity, conflicts, motivations, and the political situation around them. Some of the portraits are archetypes–like the woman who sees multiple family members off to war, or the boy who dreams of glory in battle and manages to tag along as part of the band. But the best characters are full of surprises: the photographer who exploits the soldiers’ fear of death to turn a profit, a black man who “passes” as white so he can join the Union troops, and the newspaper sketch artist who selectively draws certain scenes to maintain morale. My favorite, by far, is the cab driver who had to shuttle D.C. socialites to a grassy area overlooking the battle–because they wanted to eat a fancy picnic while ogling the action through binoculars. Yes, this kind of thing really happened. Bull Run was the first major battle of the war, and civilians on both sides were so sure of an easy victory that they treated it like a sporting match.

Fleischman goes out of his way to include details like that–odd and subtle facts that get left out of the sweeping Civil War narrative I remember learning in school. I had no idea that lots of soldiers tried to desert when their contracts expired, or that thousands died of disease in the camps before the battles began. The novel sometimes felt like great nonfiction in the style of Bomb–teaching history without feeling didactic. I suppose my biggest complaint is that even though each character was unique, 16 is just too many. I would’ve preferred 12 or 14 to cut down on the confusion, especially when some characters get more chapters than others and when their plotlines start to intersect. So, even though the book is quite good on its own, it would be even better to find some friends and stage it as a play.


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