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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.

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.”
“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.

Big Magic

Big Magic.jpgTitle: Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
ISBN: 9781594634710
Pages: 276 pages
Publisher/Date: Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, c2015.

There is a famous question that shows up, it seems, in every single self-help book ever written: What would you do if you knew that you could not fail? But I’ve always seen it differently. I think the fiercest question of all is this one: What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail? What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant? (pg. 259)

About halfway through the book, Elizabeth Gilbert summarizes her entire book in just two sentences: “The essential ingredients for creativity remain exactly the same for everybody: courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust – and those elements are universally accessible. Which doesn’t mean that creative living is always easy; it merely means that creative living is always possible.” (158) Disregard all the other distractions, excuses, and doubts, and just make an effort, and if you don’t think creativity is present at the start, it will be at the end, because it’s always available if you are willing to use it. She supports her claims with stories from her own past and those of people she has met, with a few quotes from other, primarily spiritual, sources.

If you are looking for the science behind creativity, or specific steps to increase or improve your creativity, you’ll be disappointed. I did something that I don’t typically do, and read the book with a packet of sticky notes. When I compiled those quotable moments, it amounted to less than two pages. Once I realized that she’d done TED Talks on creativity (which I haven’t seen), the dearth of real advice became more understandable, and it felt like she had tried to hard to expand her ideas to cover a book length.

Her personification of creativity and other traits as spirits was a detour I could have done without, especially in the chapter about “Enchantment”, which boils down creativity to a combination of a state of mind and dumb luck. The chapter about “Permission” was equally vague, stressing the fact you need to abandon your own doubts about whether you should be attempting creative endeavors. In fact all of the concepts mentioned are internalized, and Gilbert encourages people to either stop or start thinking in a certain way, with few suggestions on how to do that, at one point telling people that if they dress up and make themselves appealing, creativity will find them and want to work with them. I find myself shaking my head thinking “If only it were that easy”.

One portion I specifically found contradictory, in which she tells readers “Whenever anybody tells me they want to write a book in order to help other people, I always think Oh, please don’t. (98)” She defends herself by further justifying that “I did not write this book for you; I wrote it for me. I wrote this book for my own pleasure, because I truly enjoy thinking about the subject of creativity. It’s enjoyable and useful for me to meditate on this topic.” (100) While I agree that she seems to find pleasure in the writing, if she was just doing it for herself then she wouldn’t have published the book, and simply would have kept a meditation journal instead of a manuscript. Anyone who publishes anything has ideas that they want to share with people, and something as philosophical, abstract, and communicative about establishing patterns of behavior as this book is certainly intended to invoke change and ultimately help people; in this specific case, help them be creative. Readers may find kernels of truth, like I did with my two pages of quotes, but the book didn’t need the rest of the background noise.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

The Seventh Most Important Thing

Seventh Most Important Thing.jpgTitle: The Seventh Most Important Thing
Author: Shelley Pearsall
ISBN: 9780553497281
Pages: 278 pages
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, c2015.

Arthur’s first week back at school was about as successful as his first day or probation had been. Going from juvie to school was like going from one extreme to the other. In juvie, you learned to avoid everyone else. If some convict kid wanted to cut in front of you in the food line or steal your banana pudding at supper, you let him, no questions asked.
When Arthur got back to school in December, everybody avoided him. He felt as if he were inside an invisible box. Nobody bumped into him in the hallway. Nobody spoke to him. When he sat down in the cafeteria for lunch, the other kids picked up their trays and left. The whole school knew what he’d done, of course. Nothing was a secret at Byrd Junior High. You couldn’t fart without somebody knowing. (57)

Arthur T. Owens had his reasons for throwing a brick at the Junk Man’s head, but the judge doesn’t want to hear them. The judge also doesn’t want to listen to the fact that the brick actually hit him in the arm, but he will listen to the Junk Man. That’s how Arthur finds himself working 120 hours of community service for the Junk Man, whose real name is James Hampton. Mr. Hampton gives Arthur a list of seven things to collect, including mirrors, lightbulbs, and cardboard, which Arthur has to dig through trash, quite frequently in the snow, in order to find. But as his hours start adding up, Arthur’s involvement with Hampton also increases, until eventually it’s his investment that is the only thing keeping the project alive.

This story is one of those stories that you don’t think could possibly have happened, and then you realize it’s inspired by actual events. There actually was a James Hampton, an eccentric artist who lived during that time period, although come to think of it the only mentions to a year are in the very first chapters and the lack of technological references mean it could have taken place in any time period. Pearsall’s author’s note separates fact from fiction and includes a couple pictures, although it becomes obvious she’s taken a few liberties with details and timelines. But this is ultimately Arthur’s story, and it makes sense that Arthur’s character was the most developed. He’s not a bad kid, but he’s not seen as a good kid either based almost exclusively on his family history, and so when one thing goes wrong, the whole world turns against him. His judge and parole officer are no nonsense type people, his principal assumes the worst of him and is convinced Arthur’s the instigator in trouble at school even when told otherwise, and even his younger sister keeps calling him a bad person, but he makes allowances for her because she doesn’t understand. Arthur swings from proving them all right to proving them all wrong as he works at making his own reputation, and I feel like those attitudes are fairly accurate to modern day beliefs as well. This novel could provoke discussion on a number of topics.

A Nearer Moon

A Nearer Moon.jpgTitle: A Nearer Moon
Author: Melanie Crowder
ISBN: 9781481441483
Pages: 150 pages
Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2015.

[…] It was one of Mama’s never-to-be-broken rules:
Don’t go past the bend in the river.
Don’t go below the dam.
Steer far away from the slick.
People said there was a creature that lived beneath the slick lying still as a gravestone on top of the water, a creature that cast a curse on the swamp and sickened anyone who drank it. But Luna didn’t believe in the creature, and she didn’t believe in curses. (10-11)

Luna and her little sister Willow love going out on the water on their pole boat, trying to catch fish in the dam that their village of stilted houses lives over. Only the oldest residents remember the days before the dam mysteriously appeared, stopping the river and turning the bright waters into the treacherous swamp. Luna doesn’t believe in curses until their boat mysteriously dips under the water line and Willow ends up with the swamp sickness. With only weeks until the wasting illness kills her sister and no cure in sight, Luna might have to start believing in magic and miracles.

Told in alternating perspectives, first from Luna’s and then from the view of a water sprite decades prior, it’s at first a little confusing. But very quickly readers will realize that they are similar stories of sisterly bonds and the lengths sisters will go to maintain them. Having just watched My Friend Totoro, the two stories are similar, with an independent pair of sisters who take advantage of the world around them, encounter a magical creature, and have to overcome an illness. Crowder’s writing style and word choice also remind me of Thanhha Lai’s Listen, Slowly, very lyrical and descriptive. Luna’s grandmother at one point “raised her eyes to the ceiling, searching the cobwebbed corners of her mind” which just sounds so poetic.

Luna is a likeable character, who feels guilt over her involvement in her sister’s illness and that it’s her sister and not herself who got sick. She adventures time and again out by herself, or with steady childhood friend Benny by her side, in efforts to cure this disease that everyone else has resigned to the fact that it’s incurable. “It was a supremely stupid thing she was doing. And if the brief history of her life was any indication, if she was set on doing a supremely stupid thing, it was best to have Benny along.” (33) I’m envious of her freedom of movement, as I don’t think my mother would have let me out of her sight after the first attempt, much less the second or third. Any other book would have made Benny and Luna a romantic pairing, but I’m so glad they are just friends here.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sprite’s side of the story. It proves Crowder’s efficiency with words, that she’s able to so effortlessly squeeze two stories into only 150 pages. Perdita is an adventurous water sprite whose twin sister worries about her never-ending ramblings and roving. She and Luna are a lot alike in their independent and inquisitive natures. The stories start decades apart but they finally catch up to one another in the end. I loved the ending, as (if blog readers will allow me one final comparison) just like in Frozen there really isn’t a bad guy, but only broken hearts that once mended heal everything. A beautifully told story.

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