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Credit: SLJ Battle of the Kids’ Books

It’s almost time for my favorite kidlit event of the year: SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books. This year’s a bit tough, because I know nothing about most of the judges. I’ve only read the books of four of the judges: Frances Hardinge, Cece Bell, Mariko Tamaki and Ann M. Martin. So my predictions are even more random than usual. Here goes…

ROUND ONE

3/7 Judge Michael Buckley
The Boys Who Challenged Hitler vs Challenger Deep 

3/8 Judge Maris Wicks
Drowned City vs Echo 

3/9 Judge Melanie Crowder
Gone Crazy in Alabama vs Goodbye Stranger 

3/10 Judge Erin Kelly Entrada
The Hired Girl vs I Crawl Through It 

3/14 Judge Tim Federle
The Marvels vs Most Dangerous 

3/15 Judge Frances Hardinge
My Seneca Village vs Nest

–I’m counting on Hardinge to choose the book that least resembles the types of books she writes. It’s worth a shot, especially since I found Nest a bit lacking in character development.

3/16 Judge Cece Bell
Nimona vs Rhythm Ride 

–I’m using the opposite reasoning here with Cece Bell. Besides, Nimona is fantastic.

3/17 Judge Pamela S. Turner
Symphony for the City of the Dead vs X: A Novel Continue Reading »

I was lucky enough to catch the musical Allegiance on Broadway last month, in one of its last performances (it closes Feb. 14). Loosely based on George Takei’s childhood memories of his family’s time at a Japanese-American internment camp, it’s a stunning story, and a crash course on a part of American history that’s often skated over (spoilers below).

20160126_212958

The sign outside the theater, referring to this amazing video: http://tinyurl.com/gwqxpwz

As the title suggests, the musical explores allegiance in all its forms. What makes it so wonderful is how every character responds differently to how, or if, they should be loyal to the U.S. government after it’s labeled all Japanese-Americans as enemies and locked them behind barbed-wire fences.

The main character, Sam Kimura, joins the army because he thinks it will restore the public’s trust in Japanese-Americans. Sam’s father can’t understand how his son could fight for a country that’s treated them so badly, and when the government sends out a “loyalty questionnaire” to sniff out traitors, Mr. Kimura answers honestly (no, he isn’t willing to serve in the armed forces, and he can’t swear absolute allegiance to the United States), even though he knows it will land him in a labor camp away from his family.

Meanwhile, Sam’s sister Kei falls in love with a young man at the camp named Frankie, who burns his draft papers and refuses to serve in the army. Kei just wants to keep her family safe, so she finds herself torn between her brother and her boyfriend–who are at odds with each other–and doesn’t find her own brand of allegiance until the end. Hannah, a white nurse at the camp, has a different kind of struggle, as she tries to reconcile her love for Sam with societal expectations.

The boldest statement about allegiance comes from Sam and Kei’s grandfather Ojii-chan (the Japanese word for “grandpa”). In a lovely moment of resistance, he takes the hated questionnaire and folds it into an origami flower, which Kei wears in her hair. Continue Reading »

Review: The Hired Girl

the hired girlSet anything with class distinctions and fancy households at the turn of the twentieth century and it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Downton Abbey. But that would be a huge disservice to The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, which has the requisite detail and decorum for a period piece, but also substance and heart.

Fourteen year old Joan’s narration begins when she pours her thoughts and feelings into the diary her teacher gifts her after her father forces her to drop out of school and earn her keep on the farm. A harsh and stingy man, he isolates Joan, treats her like a servant, and belittles her at every turn. When he tries to break Joan’s spirit after she stages a one-woman strike to gain a sliver of financial independence, she flees to the city with the meager emergency fund her dead mother left for her.

Through luck, naivete and a bit of deception, Joan lands a position as a serving girl with the Rosenbach’s, a wealthy German Jewish household. Out of kindness, the Rosenbachs hire her without references, with the stipulation that their very old, very picky Orthodox housekeeper has the final say over Joan’s employment. Continue Reading »

Diversity in ALAYMA 2016

Last_Stop_on_Market_StreetI’ve updated my ALA Youth Media Awards spreadsheet with the results from 2016 (scroll over to column BI). It’s an encouraging trend: 6 of the 11 books that got Newbery, Caldecott or Printz recognition have diverse protagonists (Last Stop on Market Street; The War that Saved My Life; Echo; Out of Darkness; Trombone Shorty; Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement).* That’s a better percentage than last year, which had 5 books out of 13. Other noteworthy facts:

  • The National Book Awards this year only had one book starring a diverse character (Challenger Deep). In previous years, it wasn’t unusual to see two or three among the five finalists.
  • Three books this year got overlapping recognition from what I call category I awards (Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, National Book Awards) and category II awards (Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpré, Stonewall and Schneider). The books were Last Stop on Market Street, The War that Saved My Life and Trombone Shorty. There were four such books last year.
  • Since 2005, 12 books with Coretta Scott King award recognition have also earned some kind of category 1 award. But only 3 books have done so with the Pura Belpré. (The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and Viva Frida). I’m not sure what’s responsible for the discrepancy, but it’s significant. Since both the CSK and Belpré give out author and illustrator awards, there should be, theoretically, equal opportunity with both to get overlapping category I awards. Thoughts?

*The word “diverse,” in this case, means a character from an under-represented group, ie non-white, LGBT, disability experience, etc.

Review: The Scorpion Rules

scorpion rulesErin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules starts with a chilling premise: hundreds of years into the future, after humans nearly destroyed themselves fighting over dwindling resources, an artificial intelligence named Talis decided to take things into its own hands. (As Talis points out, the humans should’ve expected it: “I don’t know how it surprised people–I mean, if they’d been paying the slightest bit of attention they’d have known that AIs have this built-in tendency to take over the world. Did we learn nothing from The Terminator, people? Did we learn nothing from HAL?”)

Talis took control of the high-power weapons that could destroy entire cities. Then it tried to dissuade humans from launching small-scale wars by installing a hostage system: the president/king/queen/ruler of every country must give up their child. The kids are educated in schools called Preceptures, and released at age 18. But while they’re there, if a country declares war on another, the children of both rulers are killed. It’s proven quite effective at keeping wars to a minimum (“The world is at peace,” says the Utterances, a collection of Talis’ collected wisdom. “And really, if the odd princess has a hard day, is that too much to ask?”)

Bow starts the book long after Talis begins his rule. Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy (part of modern-day Canada), is a seventh-generation hostage. She’s not far from her 18th birthday, but her nation is on the brink of war. Greta has accepted her likely death, and vows to meet it with dignity—until a new student, Elián, arrives at the Precepture. Elián’s grandmother leads an army that’s about to declare war on Greta’s country, and unlike the other students, Elián doesn’t accept the rules of the hostage system. His rebellion forces Greta to open her eyes and see things for what they really are.

Up until now, it sounds like a familiar YA dystopia. But Bow twists the tropes into something new, so it never feels like you’re reading a well-trod genre. It ties with Black Dove, White Raven as my favorite YA read of the year. Among the welcome surprises: Continue Reading »

It’s been a while since we’ve put Daleks in the library. The kidlit library, that is. So because it’s the weekend, just for fun, hold on to your sonic screwdriver because it’s about to get geeky:

In an old house in Skaro, all covered with hand mines, lived twelve little Daleks in two straight lines.

In an old house in Skaro, all covered with hand mines, lived twelve little Daleks in two straight lines.

Exterminating baobab trees, one asteroid at a time. First B-612, next the universe. Exterminate!

Exterminating baobab trees, one asteroid at a time. First B-612, next the universe. Exterminate!

Continue Reading »

western frontI used to be skeptical of authors commissioned to continue a beloved series. Surely, the new sequel couldn’t be as good as the original. Then I read Jacqueline Kelly’s Return to the Willows and was thoroughly charmed. So I had high hopes for Kate Saunders’ Five Children on the Western Front, and I’m pleased to say it exceeded all my expectations. Saunders’ reboot has all the humor and heart of E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, but it goes deeper, and feels more grown-up while remaining quintessentially middle-grade. Bonus: it lacks the casual racism of Nesbit’s book.

As the title suggests, Western Front takes place during World War I. The Pemberton kids are all grown up now, with Cyril off to war, Anthea a volunteer nurse, Robert in college but expecting to join the army at any point, and Jane itching to become a doctor. Even the Lamb is 11, too old to spend much time with the Psammead when the sand fairy mysteriously returns. Luckily, Saunders has introduced Edith (Edie), a younger sibling not found in Nesbit’s books, and she soon becomes the Psammead’s best friend.

Continue Reading »

20150911_191359I’ve been terribly delinquent about writing up the Jack Gantos talk I attended a few weeks ago, when he came to Porter Square Books to promote his latest novel/memoir, The Trouble In Me.

Gantos being Gantos, he took a long, meandering path toward explaining his book. It took him 15 minutes to mention Trouble. First, he summarized his writing process (fountain pen and paper), and how every book crystallizes through the messy process of jotting down random ideas and observations in a journal, which he carries everywhere. Somehow he transitioned from this to reminiscing about his childhood, and the day he stood on the U.S.S. Intrepid watching a military plane explode in the sky after a mechanical failure (no one was hurt–the pilot parachuted safely down). His father’s naval career features quite prominently in Trouble, not to mention Dead End in Norvelt.

Continue Reading »

Review: Listen, Slowly

listen, slowlyTwelve-year-old Mai Le has no desire to hear why she must give up her summer vacation to accompany her grandmother to Vietnam. As far as she’s concerned, the “quack” detective her grandmother hired to find Mai’s grandfather, who was captured by the Viet Cong and disappeared during the Vietnam War, is leading them on a wild goose chase.

Neither is Mai interested in discovering her roots. A Laguna girl through and through, Mai knows she belongs on the beach with her gal pal, Montana, and the boy she’s secretly crushing on, not slumming it in the stifling heat of the remote village where her grandfather grew up, where she doesn’t speak the language and the notion of personal space and privacy is nonexistent.

So Mai makes it her personal mission to help her grandmother accept the truth. The sooner Ba finds closure, the sooner they can go home. This turns out to be easier said than done.

In Listen, Slowly, author Thanhha Lai takes a refreshing approach to the familiar story about a third culture kid experiencing her ancestral homeland for the first time. Happily, neither the plot nor Mai’s character arc hinge solely upon Cultural Identity and A Newfound Appreciation For One’s Heritage and Land of Origin.

Instead, Mai preoccupies herself with trying to escape her predicament. She also gets into scrapes, has teenage concerns, makes friends, meddles in the villagers’ daily routines (and love lives), and even does an impressive amount of sleuthing with the help of her new friends.

Continue Reading »

Growing up, one of my favorite books was (and still is) Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. I was fascinated by the Danish Resistance, and clueless enough not to realize some of the characters were part of the Resistance until Lowry revealed it to us. But I never stopped to think how the Resistance got started. I just assumed they’d sprung up organically once the Nazis invaded.

I didn’t know the true story until I read Phillip Hoose’s The Boys Who Challenged Hitler, and the truth is so outrageous it’s truly stranger than fiction. Hoose’s book is the perfect companion to Number the Stars, adding historical context and depth. It got me thinking about other nonfiction/fiction kidlit pairings that work perfectly. This is my initial list:

calpurnia_tatecharles-and-emmaThe Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, with Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman.

–if you want to understand the scientist who inspires Calpurnia’s interest in science, Charles and Emma is the perfect biography, especially because Calpurnia would have fit perfectly into Darwin’s life. Darwin raised his kids to have open and inquisitive minds, so Calpurnia is kind of a fictional, surrogate Darwin Jr.
Continue Reading »