penderwicks in springJeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks in Spring is pretty much everything you could want in a quadrequal. (Okay, I know that’s not a real word, but let’s move along…)

Like all successful sequels of books with sequels, it:

1) retains the spirit (read: oodles of genuine Penderwick charm) of its predecessors,

2) is perfectly satisfying to read as a stand-alone,

3) yet builds upon the existing story/universe thus far by bringing something new

One such “something new” is Batty’s (now almost eleven!) love of music and budding passion for singing. And she, her musical mentors, and Birdsall by extension, have impeccable taste in music.

“I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” or the song when Batty first realizes she has real singing talent. Larghetto in the key of C. Continue Reading »

penderwicks in springI was lucky enough to catch Jeanne Birdsall on her book tour to promote The Penderwicks in Spring. Porter Square Books was packed all the way to the door–and the person we have to thank for it all is a young Penderwicks fan who wrote to Birdsall awhile back, asking her to put the bookstore on her list of tour locations. That fan was in the crowd when Birdsall spoke, and I hope she got a free book or two as a reward.

Predictably enough, one of the first questions Birdsall got was, “where do you get your ideas?” You could almost sense Birdsall rolling her eyes, but she must be used to it by now, and patiently explained the influence of childhood favorites like Five Children And It, not to mention Little Women (though she stressed several times she wouldn’t be killing off any of the sisters). She also emphasized her steadfast belief in the importance of books for the 8-12 age range, which is why Penderwicks in Spring leaps forward five years in time, allowing Batty, age 10, to be our narrator. Although Jane, Skye and Rosalind show up, we never see anything from their perspective, and Birdsall confirmed she has no desire to get inside their teenage brains. Other highlights from her talk:

  • the Penderwicks have a new sibling! Lydia, age two, was added to the story so Birdsall could write the fifth and final book from Lydia’s perspective, when she’ll be ten or so. If Lydia’s toddler personality is anything to go on, I have high hopes for the sequel.
  • by Penderwicks in Spring, faithful Hound was so old he had to die, but Birdsall was kind enough to kill him off between books. Not that it made it any easier…any mention of Hound in this book is a tearjerker.
  • Hound’s willing-to-eat-anything personality is based on a dog Birdsall had as a kid. Her dog really did eat everything, including the labels off all the canned goods in the kitchen, setting off pandemonium on the cooking front.
  • for anyone who dreads the prospect of a Penderwicks movie, fear not. Birdsall has no intention of selling the rights, and she’s not a fan of the book-to-movie route, since it ruins how every reader has imagined the book. As Birdsall pointed out, can anyone separate Harry Potter from the face of Daniel Radcliffe anymore?
  • when Birdsall first began writing, the Penderwicks were named the Pendergasts. But when Birdsall showed the draft to friend and fellow author Patricia MacLachlan, MacLachlan, with much swearing, kept getting the name wrong by adding extra “r’s” where they didn’t belong, and got so frustrated she convinced Birdsall to change the name.
  • Birdsall may be the only New Englander who welcomed this past winter. Penderwicks in Spring begins in April, when there’s still snow on the ground. But the past winters have been so mild that Birdsall considered changing the book to begin in March–until this year, when the weather confirmed that snow in April still makes sense.

Cover of The Crossover by Kwame AlexanderThe 2015 ALA Youth Media Awards were remarkably diverse. We’ve got the obvious standouts, like The Crossover winning the Newbery medal, and the outpouring of love for graphic novels. In the wake of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and other recent efforts, it’s a welcome change. And that got me thinking about the larger trend of diversity in children’s book awards, which led to an insane exercise where I cataloged the winners of eight kidlit book awards over eleven years.

One thing that became immediately obvious is that this year’s ALA awards bucks the trend. Consider, for instance:

  • 2015 is the first year since 2005 (Kira-Kira) that the Newbery Medal-winning book stars a character of color. Think about that. Two winners in 11 years.
  • Now compare that with the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, where 6 of the past 11 winners have starred a protagonist of color (The Thing About Luck; Inside Out and Back Again; Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party; Brown Girl Dreaming)
  • If you consider protagonists from other under-represented groups (disability, LGBT, etc), then the NBA gets one more (Mockingbird), and the Printz Medal has four winners (In Darkness, Ship Breaker, American Born Chinese, I’ll Give You the Sun), but the stats for the Newbery remain unchanged. These “diverse” books (for lack of a better catch-all term) are even rarer as Caldecott Medal winners. There’s just one: Chris Raschka’s The Hello, Goodbye Window from 2006.

Continue Reading »

Once again, it’s time to test my non-existent powers of divination. I know so little about most of this year’s judges that it’s truly a tossup for most of the matches. So here goes:

Round One

Brown Girl Dreaming vs Children of the King, Judge: Holly Black

–the Newbery curse strikes again!

The Crossover vs Egg & SpoonJudge: Isabel Quintero

El Deafo vs The Family Romanov, Judge: Elizabeth Rusch

–the hardest one yet. I basically flipped a coin.

Grasshopper Jungle vs The Key that Swallowed Joey PigzaJudge: Jo Knowles

The Madman of Piney Woods vs Poisoned Apples, Judge: G. Neri

The Port Chicago 50 vs The Story of Owen, Judge: Rachel Hartman

This One Summer vs A Volcano Beneath the Snow, Judge: Nathan Hale

–I wasn’t a big fan of either book, but Volcano was too long and read at times like a textbook, so I’m counting on This One Summer’s artwork to give it the win

We Were Liars vs West of the Moon, Judge: Kelly Barnhill

Round Two

Children of the King vs Egg & Spoon, Judge: Jason Reynolds

El Deafo vs The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza, Judge: Cat Winters

The Madman of Piney Woods vs Port Chicago 50, Judge: Elizabeth Wein

This One Summer vs West of the Moon, Judge: Alaya Dawn Johnson

Round Three

Children of the King vs El Deafo, Judge: Kekla Magoon

The Madman of Piney Woods vs West of the Moon, Judge: Marcus Sedgewick

The Undead Revealed

I think Brown Girl Dreaming and El Deafo have high hopes of getting the most votes, with The Family Romanov as a possible runner-up. So that means the final round will be:

The Closing Battle

El Deafo vs The Madman of Piney Woods vs Brown Girl Dreaming, Judge Clare Vanderpool

And I’m giving the win to Madman of Piney Woods, for no other reason than a steadfast belief in the Newbery Curse. May it finally be broken this year…

thecontenders_rev-300x285I’m a bit behind this year on BoB contenders, but of the 13 I’ve read so far (everything except A Volcano Beneath the Snow, This One Summer, Egg & Spoon), here are the ones I’d love to see as the winner–or at least a top 3/Undead winner.

Brown Girl Dreaming, Children of the King, El Deafo: I’m always keen to see middle grade books triumph, and these three are incredible. Besides, we haven’t had a MG winner since Okay for Now in 2012.

The Family Romanov, Port Chicago 50: we need more nonfiction winners (the last one was Marching for Freedom in 2010), and both are highly worthy.

Story of Owen: my favorite, by far, of the YA contenders. Why? Because it’s a TRAP!

Review: The Port Chicago 50

PortChicago50While two titles do not qualify as a trend, I’d say Sheinkin has a knack for bringing under-the-radar stories from WWII to life and light. After his scientists-and-spies thriller depicting the race to build or steal the world’s first nuclear weapon, Sheinkin revisits the wartime Forties in The Port Chicago 50, about the Port Chicago explosion (also bomb-related!) and the remarkable fallout that forced the US Navy to confront the systemic racism within its ranks.

To tell the story from the perspectives of the Port Chicago 50, a group of black sailors who boycotted their unsafe and segregated work conditions, Sheinkin trawled through court documents and scores of interviews to stitch together this uniquely personal account.

“We had expectations to go to sea on a big Navy ship,” recalled Spencer Sikes, still a teenager when he enlisted. Instead, to keep the Navy segregated, black sailors ended up at Port Chicago in California, where the officers giving orders were white and the crews handling the bombs were black. Worse, the men were expected to load explosives onto Pacific-bound ships without any prior training; the officers made a game out of betting on which crews could load the fastest. The pressure was so bad, Sikes was convinced he’d perish on the pier and never see his mother again. Continue Reading »

Sequels: they’re everywhere. It seems like half my reading life is consumed by the reading, or consideration of reading, a book that’s part of a series. Sometimes the decision is easy, as I impatiently waited for The Whispering Skull in the wake of The Screaming Staircase. At other times, I didn’t think a sequel was necessary, but I was glad for the chance to plunge back into a familiar world (The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing).

Then there’s my vague confusion when I’m confronted with a sequel whose prequel is just a distant memory, and I’m torn between reading the sequel and hoping the author reminds me of everything I need to know, or giving up altogether and succumbing to reader’s guilt. Case in point: I enjoyed How to Catch a Bogle, but I honestly can’t recall single character’s name at this point. So do I read the newly-released A Plague of Bogles? Or do I use the time for other books, which, given the proliferation of multi-volume series, will probably open the door to another book whose sequel will come out in another year, thereby setting off the conundrum anew.

Surely I can’t be the only one with this problem? To help ease my indecision, I’ve created a flowchart: may it assuage your sequel confusion and free you from the guilt of giving up on certain books.

sequel flowchart

Click to zoom in.



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