Hammer and Nails

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Hammer and Nails.jpgTitle: Hammer and Nails
Author: Josh Bledsoe
Illustrator: Jessica Warrick
ISBN: 9781936261369
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Flashlight Press, c2016.

Darcy crumpled up her playdate plans and plopped onto her bed.
Her best friend was sick, and now Darcy’s entire day was ruined.

Father and daughter take turns completing their to-do lists, including mowing the lawn, laundry, dressing up, doing their hair, and *gasp* manicures! Is Darcy’s Daddy man enough for a manicure? Brightly colored illustrations invoke small details, like grass stains and the slowly deteriorating hair styles. Aside from a blurry background wall photo and the too-big heels Darcy clumps around in, her mother is never mentioned in the text. While children will laugh upon seeing stocky Daddy dressed in plaid with a pink tutu, the message is clear that Darcy is loved and dads and daughters can do anything they want.

Clementine, Friend of the Week

Clementine Friend of the Week.jpgTitle: Clementine, Friend of the Week
Series: Clementine #4
Author: Sara Pennypacker
Illustrator: Marla Frazee
Narrator: Jessica Almasy
ISBN: 9781440777929 (audiobook), 9780545283076 (hardcover)
Discs/CDs: 2 CDs, 2 hours
Pages: 161 pages
Publisher/Date: Recorded Books, LLC, c2010. (Scholastic Inc, by arrangement with Hyperion Books for Children, an imprint of Disney Book Group, LLC.)

“It’s time to give us your presentation. That’s quite a smile. I’m glad to see you’re so happy about it. Come on up.”
I looked through my backpack in case I had forgotten that I remembered to make some notes last night, but nope.
“That’s all right,” my teacher said. “Just come up and tell us about your life.”
“So I went up to the front of the class. “I was born,” I began. And then nothing else came out, because it is very hard to think when you are standing at the front of the class with all those eyes on you. (40)

Clementine has been chosen as Friend of the Week, an honor that bestows upon her the ability to be line leader, feed the fish, collect the milk money, and tell the class her autobiography. At the end of the week, she will receive a book from her classmates detailing all her positive attributes. But Clementine doesn’t feel like a very good friend, as she doesn’t understand why Margaret is mad at her. She starts granting compliments, tattoos, names, and decorations for the upcoming bike rally. But when her kitten Moisturizer goes missing and that’s all she can focus on, will Clementine loose the friends she’s worked so hard to gain?

I written before how much I love and am charmed by Clementine. She’s got a personality that is impossible to not love. Marla Frazee’s pictures convey the emotions of the entire family, and it’s a shame that they aren’t included in the audiobook format. But Almasy continues her narration of the series, conveying these same emotions through her inflections. Clementine’s distress when her kitten goes missing is authentic to a third grader who looses a pet. She is intent on finding her, at whatever the cost (and it does cost, as more than a few wanted posters are printed by her parents). The outcome realistically solves all the problems. Pennypacker smartly restricts the action to a week in the life, letting everything play out naturally, and I’m excited to see what everyday adventures Clementine gets into next.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington

Sunday Shout Out series was created to remind/encourage me to provide links to news stories, blog posts, and other things that I think are interesting and noteworthy. If you’re interested in participating or being featured in my next Sunday Shout Out, just drop me an e-mail. Do you have some news or links to share? Feel free to link to your own Sunday Shout Outs in the comments.

Birthday Cake for George Washington.jpgTitle: A Birthday Cake for George Washington
Author: Ramin Ganeshram
Illustrator: Vanessa Brantley-Newton
ISBN: 9780545538237
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2016.

In the kitchen, my papa, Hercules, is baking an amazing cake. But there is one problem: We are out of sugar.

Hercules, a slave owned by President George Washington, is a valued member of the White House Staff as the cook for the president. When Washington’s birthday arrives, Hercules is tasked to bake a cake, but there is no sugar to be found anywhere in the kitchen. With a little improvising of using honey instead of sugar, the cake is successfully made. The charcoal pencil pictures are supplemented with Photoshoped images of actual cookware. The enslaved kitchen staff are shown with a variety of skin colors.

Upon publication, there was quite a bit of discussion regarding this book. My library was one of the few to purchase and receive a copy before Scholastic discontinued publishing the title due to public outcry regarding the portrayal of the “smiling slaves”. I’m unaware if the reviews influenced the artist’s note at the back of the book, which stresses that “While slavery in America was a vast injustice, my research indicates that Hercules and the other servants in George Washington’s kitchen took great pride in their ability to cook for a man of such stature. That is why I have depicted them as happy people. There is joy in what they have created through their intelligence and culinary talent.” An author’s note attempts to separate fact from fiction, clarifying that while Hercules’s daughter (who is the narrator in the story) doesn’t seem to have ever been at the center of government in the Philadelphia house, Hercules’s son Richmond was present for at least a while as a favor to the cook. The author’s note also emphasizes that Hercules along with the other slaves were rotated out to avoid allowing them freedom under a Pennsylvania law that freed slaves who resided in the state for more than six months.

I’m unsure how much control the author had over the illustration process, but it seems that the text taken by itself does not promote a “happy” situation. At various points in the story Hercules “roared at the kitchen maids”, “growled at Chef Julien” (a white chef from France) and at the kitchen boy, “scowled at the swirling, whirling snow” and “Only when Mrs. Washington comes into the kitchen does Papa turn his scowl into an easy smile.” I can imagine an imperialistic tone as he orders his staff around, repeatedly voicing “You! […] And you!” While the pictures show a smiling group of workers, the text reflects an uncertainty and anxiousness as they try a new recipe for the very first time to be presented at a Presidential birthday party. The cake (and the feast in its entirety) that is finally produced seems rather small for the number of guests one would expect at a birthday party for George Washington. The text presents an enslaved chef who is hiding his anxieties in front of his owner to avoid any disciplinary action, who takes responsibility for the entire cake so if something is wrong he saves others from being reprimanded, or worse. “No one seems to breathe until the cake platter comes back” empty, and Delia’s heart is “pounding” as the President approaches afterward. This is not the presentation of happy, accomplished culinary chefs confident in their ability, but slaves who know if they do something wrong it could mean dire repercussions.

When the controversy first surfaced, author Mitali Perkins publicized how she would have corrected the book to further stress the condition of slaves during that time period. While her rewriting of the text certainly stresses the dangers of not successfully caring out the orders of their owners, it’s a minimal change to a text that ultimately portrays a story that is intended for young children with a limited exposure to the concept of slavery.Writers portraying slavery and other historical social issues must balance a fine line of keeping it factually accurate but also factually appropriate for that age group. This book also provides a glimpse at a slave who was an anomaly, one who was well-known and dare we say respected, as evidenced by Washington allowing father and son to work together as a “favor”. My opinion is a different illustrator may interpretation of the text may have negated the controversy.

I am a huge admirer of Mitalie Perkins’s Bamboo People and thought that she also raised several issues regarding Scholastic’s decision to pull the book from production. Is it censorship? I find myself asking the same question, especially in light of other books being questioned post-production. It’s not only children’s books, but adults books as well. Back in 2012, The Jefferson Lies by David Barton was pulled from store shelves, and the publisher’s Senior Vice President and Publisher Brian Hampton was quoted in an NPR article asserting that:

“There were historical details — matters of fact, not matters of opinion, that were not supported at all.” […] “The truth is, the withdrawing a book from the market is extremely rare. It’s so rare I can’t think of the last time we’ve done this,” Hampton said. But, he said, “If there are matters of fact not correctly handled or the basic truth is not there, we would make a decision based on that.”

Since then, we’ve had titles like A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall, where the smiling slave portrayal was questioned even as it won award recognition. Ghosts by acclaimed graphic novelist Raina Telgemeir is having its portrayal of Dia De Los Muertos questioned because it was slightly fictionalized and Telgemeir’s own experience in that culture is being questioned. And recently When We Was Fierce by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo is being “postponed” for “further reflection”. I must say I have not read any of these yet. Is this concern over cultural portrayals a desired response to the We Need Diverse Books movement, or will it backlash and yield even fewer depictions out of fear that they offend or prove too fictionalized? I’ve read reviews where factual inaccuracies have been brought to life in nonfiction books that don’t prevent their publication. Are we then being hyper-vigilant regarding fiction for a particular reason, and should we pass that same scrutinizing eye on nonfiction? If readers, reviewers, and the public in general are more willing to challenge a fictionalized publication, then we should evaluate why.  How much license should be allowed? I don’t have any of these answers, but they should be questions that are broached when discussing these and future incidents. In regards specifically to A Birthday Cake for George Washington, I think reprinting with a different illustrator and making a few minor corrections, like Perkins suggests, would make it more acceptable. However, I’m not a member of that African-American culture, and recent conversations seem to imply that I must defer my opinion to those who are members. That doesn’t mean I can’t voice them here.

Alex + Ada

Series: Alex + Ada
Volumes 1, 2, and 3
Story by: Jonathan Luna and Sarah Veughn
ISBN: 9781632150066 (vol. 1), 9781632151957 (vol. 2), 9781632154040 (vol. 3)
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Originally published in single magazine form by Image Comics, c2015

You might think about getting one.”
“Me? An android?”
“Sure. You could always put her in the basement when you find someone.”
“Do you know how sick that sounds? It might as well be a dungeon.”
“Kinky.”
“Grandma… I appreciate the idea. But, no– even if I had the money– I don’t want an android girlfriend. It’s just… weird.” […]
“Grandma, what were you thinking?
“‘Thank you’ would suffice.”
“When I gave you a spare key, it was for emergencies only! It is not okay for you to sneak into my house and drop off a robot! How did you even get it here?” (unpaged)

Alex is getting over a break-up and is tired of everyone offering him advice, from his coworkers to his friends. So when his grandmother sends him an artificially intelligent, realistic looking android, he is less than happy. Especially amidst speculation that the security features keeping them from being sentient are possibly malfunctioning. But Alex can’t shake the feeling that there is more to the robot named Ada, and pursuing those possibilities might lead him into deep trouble.

The premise reminded me of a more militarized version of the movie Bicentennial Man, and could definitely spark discussion about the current state of artificial intelligence, technological advances, and the ubiquitous nature of surveillance and information gathering. Different viewpoints are presented, and while obviously readers are meant to side with the main characters, both sides have valid arguments and neither one is victimized or demonized. For instance:

“Daniel would have so much potential if he was unlocked. He’d have a life.”
“But it would put him in danger.”
“Is it really all just about the danger.” […]
“I like the way things are. It was why I got Daniel in the first place. I didn’t want complications. But if he’s not sentient, then I don’t see an issue. What harm is there in keeping him as he is now?”
“It would be wrong to keep him locked just because he doesn’t know there’s more for him.”
“Or is it wrong to unlock him when the world isn’t prepared for it?”
“Plenty of people have done important things in history when the world wasn’t ready.” (Volume 2, unpaged)

I was admiring the ability of the artist to keep Ada straight-lipped throughout the series (since I’m assuming her robotic origins would limit mobility) but then realized that every character is drawn in that same manner. The pacing provided by wordless panels enhances the story, as it forces readers to consider reactions before they happen, slow down in the reading, and really look for the incremental differences in facial expressions and body language that provide cues of the character’s intentions and thoughts. While the predictable plot is enjoyable, it also prevents the series from standing out among the cliche of sentient robot stories.

Thunder Boy Jr.

Back in June, I did a Father’s Day craft and story time, and I’m finally finding the time to blog about it. Rather than stick with the more tried and true “I love you” stories, which I didn’t think would capture the attention of the older kids in attendance, I intentionally chose three newer books that show three more unconventional relationships between child and father. This was one of the ones I used.

Thunder Boy Jr..jpgTitle: Thunder Boy Jr.
Author: Sherman Alexie
Illustrator: Yuyi Morales
ISBN: 9780316013727
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Little Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, c2016.
Awards: 2016 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Honoree

But I am named after my dad. He is Thunder Boy Smith Sr., and I am Thunder Boy Smith Jr.
People call him Big Thunder. That nickname is a storm filling up the sky. People call me Little Thunder. That nickname makes me sound like a burp or a fart. (unpaged)

Thunder Boy Jr. hates his name. He understands the importance of where it comes from, being named after his dad who he loves. However, he wants his own name, that “sounds like me” and celebrates him. Trying out several new names throughout the book, his father realizes the problem and together they come up with a name that reflects where he came from, as well as the boy’s own individuality.

I choose it because it presented a “stereotypical” family (mom, dad, two kids, dog) but with dark skin, and my current community is heavily diverse. The family was slightly unconventional (mom rides a motorcycle –how cool!) but it presents a very typical problem of a child being unhappy with their name, and explains the thought that might have gone into choosing a name. The pictures by Yuyi Morales are bright, colorful and full of action, quite frequently bursting off the edge of the page.

However, when presented to a group of children in conjunction with a father’s day program, they laughed at the names the little boy came up with as possible replacements. Although that ensured they were more engaged in the reading of what is essentially a laundry list of names and life events, I was unsure (and still am) on how to respond to the delightful mirth that came from the suggestions. I can’t speak for the validity of those types of suggested names, and whether they are offered in jest or in all seriousness. Some of them, like “Full of Wonder” and “Star Boy” sound to my admittedly untrained ear as a legitimate option. Others, like “Old Toys are Awesome” present as absurdly unpractical and possibly meant to elicit laughter, like Phoebe in the television show Friends changing her name to “Princess Consuela Banana-Hammock”. Written by well-known and well-respected award-winning author Sherman Alexie, does the author’s Native American heritage prevent us from seeing what could be construed as mocking the naming conventions of different cultures? Does Alexie realize that the name finally chosen, Lightning, is also the name of a popular cartoon sports car character in a multi-film franchise, or did he do that intentionally so that it would be more accepted by the audience as a “legitimate” name? Lightning is no less unusual in the modern world than Thunder Boy, although it is slightly shorter.

After some quick searching, I found Debbie Reese over at American Indians in Children’s Literature also had some of my same concerns about the book, with an equally mixed reaction. With the recent uproars over the presentation of African American history in books like A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George, and the long standing arguments that sports teams named after Native Americans are cultural misappropriation, where are the calls of misrepresentation here? Does diversity only apply when it is something as politically divisive and visible as African American history?

I still like the book, as the problem of liking or disliking and choosing names is universal. I’m still hoping to use it again for other story times, but I feel like I may need to add some context the next time I use it. The audience laughter over what the little boy himself calls a not normal name still bothers me.

Study Hall of Justice

Study Hall of Justice.jpgTitle: Study Hall of Justice
Series: Secret Hero Society
Author: Derek Fridolfs
Illustrator: Dustin Nguyen
ISBN: 9780545825016
Pages: 175
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Inc., c2016 DC Comics

This school is weird!
Yesterday I felt a kid blur past me. Today I witnessed a girl flying through the air. I’m not kidding. Not to mention there’s a ton of clowns and . . . I think I’ve even seen ninja lurking about.
It’s crazy.
My mind and body have been trained by the very best (Alfred saw to that with private tutors). My eyes aren’t playing tricks. So there must be a logical explanation for it.
My investigation continues. But I must also make time to beat level seven of Vigilante Fighter Turbo. Resist the urge to download a cheat code. (28)

Bruce Wayne has recently been accepted to the prestigious Ducard Academy. Upon arrival however, Bruce keeps noticing unexplained things happening. With the administration ignoring the warning signs and possibly aiding in the classroom chaos, who can Bruce turn to for assistance? Equally confused Clark Kent and Diana Prince are also hiding something, but they seem the best options to aid in his investigations. Now the key is to solve the mystery without getting suspended.

This book is a fast read described by some as a hybrid graphic novel, which confused me for a while as to where to put it. After it arrived though, it obviously belonged with the graphic novels. While the primary story is told in panels and pictures, supplemental information is provided in paragraph format in illustrated diary entries, memos, reports, and text messages. Told in short vignettes that propel the main plot of finding out the school’s secrets, many readers with only a cursory knowledge of the DC Comics world will recognize superheroes and super villains featured, including the Joker, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Bane, Lex Luthor, and of course the three main characters. Clark is shown as a bumbling do-good, who on more than one occasion either spills or comes close to spilling information about his secret. Diana is shown as slightly more competent, but also more assertive and angry than either of the boys. Bruce is portrayed as a lonely know-it-all, although my favorite line is when he questions the lack of masks for both Diana’s and Clark’s secret identities. There are passing nods to future events, such as Clark becoming a reporter and Alfred’s at the time off-handed comment to Bruce that “I certainly won’t be a willing partner in your flights of fancy, sir!” (151)

The whole story however is relatively anticlimactic. While yes there are strange things happening in the school, no one is ever in any real danger, and even the weirdness is relatively low-key (getting pied in the face in the hallway, Brainiac as a library monitor, and even the ninjas repeatedly noticed don’t interfere with day-to-day operations until the very end of the book). Although it appears this is a start of a series, the resolution leaves me wondering how these three investigators are going to be able to combine their efforts again in the future. Overall, it becomes a nice introduction and mash-up for super fans or those who like their superhero stories light.

Calamity

Calamity.jpgTitle: Calamity
Series: Reckoners #3
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Narrator: MacLeod Andrews
ISBN: 9781511311748 (audiobook) 9780385743600 (hardcover)
Pages: 421 pages
CDs/Discs: 10 CDs, 12 hours
Publisher/Date: Audible Inc., and distributed by Audible, Inc. and Brilliance Audio. c2015. (audiobook) Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, c2016 (by Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC) (hardcover)

“I’m fine,” I said. “But they spotted me.”
“Get out.”
I hesitated.
“David?”
“There’s something in there, Mizzy. A room that was under lock and key, guarded by drones–I’ll bet they moved in there as soon as our original attack happened. Either that, or that room is always guarded. Which mean . . . ”
“Oh, Calamity. You’re going to be you, aren’t you?”
“You did just tell me to, and I quote, ’embrace my nature.'” I fired another salvo as I caught motion at the end of the corridor. “Let Abraham and the others know I’ve been spotted. Pull everyone out and be ready to retreat.”
“And you?”
“I’m going to find out what’s in that room.” I hesitated. “I might have to get shot to do it.” (27)

David is now the defacto leader of the Reckoners, or at least what is left of them. Their fight against Regalia in Babylon Restored did not go expected. Then again, when do David’s plans ever go as expected? After breaking into the Knighthawk Foundry to get supplies, they follow a lead to Ildithia, an ever shifting city made of salt. Their bare bones basic plan is to find out how to defeat Calamity while recovering one of their own team members. But the powers of the Epics are not what they seem, and as David fights to save people who were once allies, he may put in jeopardy the team members who have always stayed loyal.

Sparks, it is hard to talk about this third book, the conclusion to the trilogy, without giving away anything that has happened in the first two books. So forgive my vagueness. Beginning about two months after the end of Firefight, David has truly evolved into a leader, running team missions and being looked to by other team members for guidance and instruction. His bad similes/metaphors are back, and they seem to have leaked into the rest of his team. While that may be true to real life (speech patterns evolving based on who you hang out with most), it was less amusing when more and more people started spewing bad similes. I still have two really great favorites. The first one is David trying to describe his nerdiness/obsession about Epics:

“I’d call him obsessed, but that doesn’t do it justice.” […]
“I’m like . . . well, I’m like a room-sized, steam-powered, robotic toenail-clipping machine.” […]
“I can basically do only one thing,” I explained, “but damn it, I’m going to do that one thing really, really well.” (57,61)

The fact that person actually allows him to finish his metaphor so many minutes/pages later proves how much they have grown on each other. You really see David’s romantic side in this next quote. I wish I had someone to describe me like this.

“You,” I said, tipping her chin up to look her in the eye, “are a sunrise.” […]
“I would watch the sun rise, and wish I could capture the moment. I never could. Pictures didn’t work–the sunrises never looked as spectacular on film. And eventually I realized, a sunrise isn’t a moment. It’s an event. You can’t capture a sunrise because it changes constantly–between eyeblinks the sun moves, the clouds swirl. It’s continually something new.
“We’re not moments [redacted]. We’re events. You say you might not be the same person you were a year ago? Well, who is? I’m sure not. We change, like swirling clouds and a rising sun. The cells in me have died, and new ones were born. My mind has changed, and I don’t feel the thrill of killing Epics I once did. I’m not the same David. Yet I am.”
“I met her eyes and shrugged. “I’m glad you’re not the same [redacted] I don’t want you to be the same. My [redacted] is a sunrise, always changing, but beautiful the entire time.” (137-138)

However, David also develops a distracted internal monologue as a result of his more pronounced love interest that proved unnecessary and seemed out of character, especially with these happening in the heat of battle.

“I imagined her cursing softly, sweating while she sighted at a passing drone, her aim perfect, her face . . .
. . . Uh, right. I should probably stay focused. (16)

One of the things I admired about this book was Sanderson’s handling of the fight scenes. The team does take damage. While with the technology existing in the book not everything they undergo in the sense of physical injuries is permanent, there is a character death that I didn’t see coming and that seriously affects the team, not only emotionally but also in their ability to run future missions. Other readers/reviewers have mentioned the drawn out nature of the planning and the fighting, but I’m glad that time passes. Fights aren’t won in an instant, wars take time, and the exhaustion that the characters suffer as a result is mentioned repeatedly. We also see the aftermath of a battle, with bodies lying around, and David actually considers taking action to prevent a repercussion of war, before being convinced otherwise by his team that it would be too risky. His world view has expanded to not just consider his own goals, but also what sort of implications the end result would have on the citizens of this new city, which his focused way of thinking in Newcago would have never considered.

The book also showed that people have their own weaknesses and motivations, regardless of whether they are an Epic or a regular human. By the end, we definitely see that some people will never change, while others, especially David, have evolved over the course of the series, sometimes out of necessity but other times due to their own inevitable growth.

It’s the last about 20% of the book where the plot starts to fall apart. Sanderson has backed himself into a corner, with Reckoners falling back, falling down, and falling out of the fight. There is an epic (pardon the pun) showdown between David and the book’s major Epic (who for…. reasons I can’t name). Several new Epics are introduced, and one resurfaces from a previous book. From the beginning I felt like there was more to one of the new Epics than meets the eye, and his role/reveal in the final fight felt VERY convenient. The team’s interactions with him felt out of character, and this is where things start to get muddled. Then David has a last minute Hail Mary opportunity (literally, the last 50 pages of a 400 page book) to take out Calamity, which was never the primary goal of the entire plot of the book even though the book is named after him.

I love how Jessica from Rabid Reads posted on Goodreads that the problem is solved “just like that”, which is literally the words Sanderson uses.I went back to check, page 411. REALLY? Less than 10 pages to the end of the book and “just like that” problem solved. There’s no other way to describe it, that’s just lame Sanderson. You spend three books setting up this epic battle and circuitous rationale behind the powers, the weaknesses… everything. And then you go and pull (really great turn of phrase omitted because of spoilers) fake-out on us and refuse to answer any of the questions that result. It’s the epitome of “and then they woke up, and realized it was all a dream”.

Regardless of my anger towards Sanderson over his inability to provide closure or a straight answer to close off this series, Macleod Andrews continues his phenomenal job at voicing the series. I found myself by the end of this third book comparing his voice for David to a young Michael J. Fox, overly ambitious but still cautious about what’s to come. Meanwhile, the altered Epic they face off against seemed like the newest incarnation of Batman, where the voice gets gravely when assuming his alter ego. Seriously, listen to the audiobooks for these, but be prepared to be scratching your head and throwing the discs across the room by the end.

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