Posts tagged ‘Children’s Fiction’

Listen, Slowly

Listen SlowlyTitle: Listen, Slowly
Author: Thanhha Lai
ISBN: 9780062229182
Pages: 260 pages
Publisher/Date: HarperCollins Children’s Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, c2015.

Dad is waiting for me to turn toward him. Yeah right. One little glance would encourage another diatribe about connecting with my roots. They’re his roots, not mine. I’m a Laguna Beach girl who can paddleboard one-legged and live on fish tacos and mango smoothies. My parents should be thanking the Buddha for a daughter like me: a no-lip gloss, no-short shorts twelve-year-old rocking a 4.0 GPA and an SAT-ish vocab who is team leader in track, science, and chess. I should at least be able to spend the summer resting my brain at the beach. Instead, I get shoved on this predawn flight.
My parents slapped me with the news just last night when I was floaty and happy because sixth grade was finally over. I was thinking summer vacation, sunsets, bonfires. But noooo, with buggy eyes and stretchy smiles, they cooed out the news that I “get to” escort Ba, Dad’s mom, back to Vietnam for six whole weeks. (1-2)

Twelve-year-old Mai (known as Mia at school) is being forced to fly halfway around the world to help her grandmother Ba come to terms with their grandfather’s disappearance during the Vietnam War. Never mind that it happened years ago, and that Mai had plans for this summer, that she doesn’t understand the language, and that her own father isn’t staying with them due to previously scheduled charity work. The detective is struggling for specifics, so in the meantime Mai meets her many, many cousins, including Anh Minh who learned English with a Texas accent at an American boarding school, and Ut, a reluctant tour guide who is more interested in caring for her frog than her newfound family member. The culture shock is incredible, resulting in a misunderstanding about thongs and powerful smelling herbal remedies for lice and stomach aches. But as time passes, Mai begins to see the beauty in this alternate way of life, discovering that it might be up to her to re-acquaint her grandmother with seeing the good things of today instead of focusing on the past.

The details in the book are incredible. You can feel the heat, you can smell the medicines, and you can experience a world that probably few readers would ever consider visiting before reading this book. Mai’s changing moods, spoiled nature and trepidations, but also her awe of this whole new environment, are convincingly displayed.

Away from the airport, it’s green and more green rice paddies. This doesn’t seem right. The documentary showed the airport was right in the middle of the city. Ba stirs, reaches inside her bag, and [… her] other hand twists a knob in the air. Dad agrees, of course. The air conditioner, which makes her even more carsick, goes off. Windows down. Invisible flames whip into the taxi. I feel like on of those desserts Mom blows a torch on. […]
I stick my head out. No it doesn’t feel any cooler. Then I can’t believe it–right on the roadside, not behind a fence or anything, stands a real live water buffalo. Chewing on grass, mud on its back, nostrils the size of golf balls, mega croissants for horns. […]
“Stop, Dad, tell him to stop. STOP!”[…]
“This is so cool!”(15-16)

I am slightly unsure about the portrayal of some of the older Vietnamese ignorance about modern-day conveniences, but it seems like it’s plausible based on details presented in the book, such as the lack of reliable and widespread Internet. It does however show that there are some benefits behind traditional ways, which I think balances out those portrayals. I learned quite a bit about Vietnamese language and history, as Mai and her cousins exchange vocabulary lessons. I’m not attempting to duplicate those symbols and lessons here because I wouldn’t know how. Conversations in Vietnamese are designated by italics, and translated into English with more frequency as the book progresses. While the contextual clues make it clear what is being said, I do wish a glossary and/or author’s note had been included for quick reference and further information.

The final reveal of the truth of Mai’s grandfather’s whereabouts and life during the war is something that will pull at people’s heart-strings. Mai’s turn around is convenient but appropriate after spending so much time among her Vietnamese family. This is a coming of age story for sure, but also a story of coming home and coming to terms with your past. Highly recommended.

Lailah’s Lunchbox

Lailah's LunchboxTitle: Lailah’s Lunchbox
Author: Reem Faruqi
Illustrator: Lea Lyon
ISBN: 9780884484318
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Tilbury House Publishers, c2015.

”Lailah, did you forget your lunch?” asked Mrs. Penworth.
Lailah opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out.
Samantha volunteered, “I’ll share my lunch with Lailah!” (unpaged)

Last year, when she lived in Abu Dhabi, Lailah watched jealously when her friends were allowed to fast for Ramadan. A year later she’s living in Georgia with her family, and her mother is finally letting her participate. But a note to her teacher makes her realize she’ll be the only one, and is afraid of looking weird. How is she supposed to avoid eating and explain her fast to her classmates and teacher?

This is a very simplistic way of explaining fasting to a child. I wish there was slightly more explanation behind the meaning of Ramadan, the reason they fast, and/or the religious significance of the holiday, but that also would have made the book much more didactic. The beauty of this book is its simplicity. It’s also important that the book explicitly shows that Lailah is doing this with the supervision and support of her family, which distinguishes it for children who might be tempted to try it themselves. Notable for its focus on Ramadan, as non-religious stories are few and far between, but not something I would find myself recommending if it didn’t include that diversity element.

The Graveyard Book Graphic Novel

Graveyard Book Vol. 1Title: The Graveyard Book Volume 1
Author: Neil Gaiman
Adaptation by: P. Craig Russell
Illustrators: Kevin Nowlan, P. Craig Russell, Tony Harris, Scott Hampton, Galen Showman, Jill Thompson, and Stephen B. Scott
ISBN: 9780062194817
Pages: 188 pages
Publisher/Date: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, c2008 (text), c2014 (illustrations).








Graveyard Book Vol. 2Title: The Graveyard Book Volume 2
Author: Neil Gaiman
Adaptation by: P. Craig Russell
Illustrators: David Lafuente, Scott Hampton, P. Craig Russell, Kevin Nowlan, and Galen Showman
ISBN: 9780062194831
Pages: 164 pages
Publisher/Date: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, c2008 (text), c2014 (illustrations).

If you are familiar with the Newbery Winning title from 2008, your familiar with the plot of the graphic novel adaptation of The Graveyard Book, originally written by Neil Gaiman. It’s been a few years since I’ve read the original, so I don’t trust to comment on the accuracy or thoroughness of the adaptation. However, from what I remember, it seems to be true to the source material.

The opening pages of volume one could be disturbing to young readers. While in the original, the first page only shows the knife used in the murder, subsequent pages in the graphic novel show the bodies, with throats slit and blood gushing from the wounds. It’s appropriate for the tale, but it may affect readers more than the words in the original would have affected them. The same could be said about Silas, where allusions of his origin are made much more obvious in the illustrations than in the original.

The division point between the end of volume one and the beginning of volume two was well chosen, with the dance of Macabray happening at the end. There is an interlude though that I think would have been better served at the beginning of volume one, providing a symmetry between the volumes. Then each would have opened with a reference to the killings (as you see the knives on the first pages of each) and ending with references to Nobody Owen’s interactions with the living and the real world. It’s an interesting decision overall to have multiple artists do the illustrations and divide it into two volumes. Some artists contributing chapters to both volumes, and the shift in styles can be somewhat jarring, especially chapter three in volume one, where both Tony Harris and Scott Hampton contribute noticeably different drawings. The coloring is excellent though, with the moody graveyard in dark blues at night, and bright green and yellows during the daytime and in the outside world. The ghosts are portrayed in monochromatic blue-gray, further distinguishing them from the land of the living and allowing readers to tell when Nobody is invoking his freedom of the graveyard.

The accelerated pace of the adaptation also means that readers loose some of the suspense of the original. For fans of graphic novels or for readers who need an introduction to the format, this would be a good pick because it’s an adaptation, but I think there are works that impressed me more, including the original 2008 publication.

Better Nate Than Ever

Better Nate Than EverTitle: Better Nate Than Ever
Author: Tim Federle
Narrator: Tim Federle
ISBN: 9781442374157
Discs/CDs: 5 CDs, 5 hours 54 minutes
Pages: 288 pages
Publisher/Date: Simon & Schuster Inc, c2013.
Awards: Odyssey Award Honor (2014), Stonewall Book Award Honor (2014)
Series: #1 (there is a sequel, titled Five, Six, Seven, Nate)

Thirteen-year-old Nate Foster has a dream of being on Broadway which is difficult to fulfill when you are one of two Broadway geeks in the entire town of Jankburg, Pennsylvania. His best friend Libby has taught him everything he knows (everything he thinks he needs to know anyways) and Nate is confident in his acting ability, even though he’s never had formal lessons. So confident that when his parents head out of town for the night and leave Nate’s brother in charge, Nate and Libby hatch a plan. Nate’s going to take the bus to New York, audition for the newly scripted E.T. The Musical, wow the producers, the directors, the choreographers, and whoever else he needs to, and prove once and for all that his true place in life is on Broadway. Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

Things definitely go wrong for Nate, including underestimating his budget and his time frame, not having directions before his arrival in NYC, and believing everything everyone says and that everyone is his friend. I found myself comparing him to Jack from the television show Will and Grace; over the top (he swears using the names of Broadway flops) and unable to take care of himself (he’s miraculously saved from both homelessness and an uncharged phone multiple times). His awkward “monologue” explanation for why he’s out alone is completely unrealistic, and the author forces him to “perform” not just once or twice but multiple times, getting more awkward each time. A lot of the plot seems to be on repeat, as Nate’s experiences are a push and pull of emotions as his hopes and reams are real, then dashed, then restored, then dashed, and readers are left with no resolution to the “Does he or doesn’t he” million dollar question. This roller coaster continues for much too long and I started to loose interest in the plot, which seems to place me in a minority among the multitudes of fans this book has garnered. My sympathies towards Nate were the only thing that grew because I felt his overly-enthusiastic antics were being used as entertainment for the mean-spirited adults who relished his peculiarities rather then  as an opportunity to teach the craft and profession.

This straight read through by author Federle was campy and over the top, just like his character Nate Foster, although it is difficult for me several weeks later to remember anything remarkable about the narration specifically. Nate is a laughably naive person, from his clothes choices to his interactions with children and adults. For someone who so desperately wants to be involved in a Broadway show, it’s unbelievable that he would know so little about how the industry works and how optimistic he is regarding his chances of making it big. In this way I guess one of the values of this book is that it teaches readers how the industry work, but at the expense of poor Nate. While his antics remind me of book characters geared towards younger readers, similar to maybe Ramona or Wimpy Kid, the content is skewed much older, with Nate not “choosing a sexuality” yet, drunkenness (both adult and teen drinking), and several homophobic slurs being repeatedly dropped. I’m usually pretty open-minded regarding book content (I was reading teen fiction alongside my Animorphs books in 5th grade), but if a library has a tween section it would make sense to put it there. The 13-year-old character is too young for most teens in young adult areas but the content limits it’s appropriateness to readers under 13 and I think adults may find more enjoyment from this book than children. Case in point: Our copy has been checked out only 6 times in two years

This One Summer

This One SummerTitle: This One Summer
Author: Mariko Tamaki
Illustrator: Jillian Tamaki
ISBN: 9781626720947
Pages: 318 pages
Publisher/Date: First Second, c2014.
Awards: Caldecott Honor (2015), Michael L. Printz Award Nominee (2015), Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards Nominee for Best Graphic Album-New (2015)

When I first came to Awago I was scared to swim in the lake. Then my mom taught me how to open my eyes under the water.
I thought it was something special. Like a power.
Until I told Windy and realized like, everyone can do it if they try. (111)

Rose and her family have gone to Awago Beach for the summer ever since she can remember. It’s there she meets up with Windy, whose family also annually rents a summer cottage. The entertainment of choice for the two girls is secretly watching scary movies they rent from the small store. It’s there that they also eavesdrop on the small town gossip, which seems like it’s all anyone can talk about. Rose’s family has their own drama and trauma that they are trying to overcome, but it seems like this summer it’s more difficult than ever to avoid their real life.

This book has definitely made waves, especially since the Media Awards were announced in February. I’ve been struggling with accepting the honorees for the Caldecott Award since they were announced, because they broke the mold so thoroughly this year. The Invention of Hugo Cabret did the same thing when it won the award for 2008, but it seems like librarians were more willing to accept it into their fold because it still was an acceptable acquisition for an elementary school and/or the children’s department. It still met our definition of a children’s book. And while the Caldecott Award does specify that books intended for an audience of up to and including age 14 are to be considered, they are traditionally acceptable reading material for most age levels, and the ability to read something of that length was the only barrier. Now we have a piece of work dealing with sensitive, mature themes, such as teenage pregnancy — and all the various related topics like diseases, contraception, and conception — underage drinking and language. Not really something you would unquestionably hand to a second grader, I don’t care how open-minded of a librarian or how stringently you adhere to the mantra that we do not act in loco parentis.

Several librarians have also raised the concern that graphic novels present a unique question of where the natural separation is between pictures and text, especially since graphic novels blur those lines so frequently. Are speech bubbles considered part of the graphics? Are textual panels or narrative text considered part of the graphics? Are sound effects (picture the BAM and WHACK from early comics) part of the graphics, especially when used in place of an alternative pictorial representation, or part of the text?

There’s a very good reason for asking these questions, which I’m sure the Caldecott committee spent some time considering in their deliberations. The choice of the monochromatic blue/purple conveys the moody atmosphere, but the dialogue and expository text emphasizes the unease and awkwardness that the long-time friendship is suffering. Initially I didn’t care for the graphic novel, probably for this very reason, as the introspective nature of the narrative forces readers to be “in the mood” for that type of thing. It’s a very different story than say Roller Girl (previously reviewed) and therefore recommended for an audience that would appreciate that type of story. It’s a moody portrayal of a young girl’s loss of innocence, as Rose grapples with some very heavy themes. I chose the quote at the top because this is literally the summer where she opens her eyes. There is a noticeable gap between Windy and Rose from the very beginning that continues to widen, and readers understand and accept that, possibly before either of the girls, although I think Rose is coming to that same conclusion.

While it has merits, I’m not sure if it, in my opinion, fully deserves the notoriety that the Caldecott committee has now infamously and infinitely granted it as the first graphic novel to be recognized by that award. It’s was also recognized by the Printz Committee, designating excellence in Young Adult Literature, which is an audience that I think is better able to engage and appreciate the graphic novel’s subtleties. I may be late to the initial commentary and debate, but this is one discussion that I’m sure will go on for some time, and rightfully so.

Roller Girl

Roller GirlTitle: Roller Girl
Author/Illustrator: Victoria Jamieson
ISBN: 9780803740167
Pages: 240 pages
Publisher/Date: Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, c2015.

“By the way, did you see this in the program? There’s a junior roller derby camp, starting this summer.”
“What?! Let me see! Please!”
“It starts next month, right after school lets out.”
And just like that, my fate was decided. I was going to be a roller girl. (24-25)

Astrid’s mother periodically takes twelve-year-old Astrid and her friend Nicole to events for “evening of cultural enlightenment”. Usually they consist of concerts or museums, but this time around it’s a roller derby match. Astrid is hooked from the very beginning, even though she doesn’t own skates and doesn’t know how, and is eager to sign up for the upcoming junior roller derby camp. Nicole though, has not caught the bug, and Astrid worries about attending without her only friend. When she gets there, Astrid realizes that while it may look like fun, it’s also a lot of work, and she’s worried that while she might look like a roller girl with newly dyed hair, is she really ready to compete?

Fans of Raina Telgemeier will celebrate that there is another bold, brightly colored, friendship based, girl centered graphic novel for them to find and check out. Astrid is just a tiny bit clueless when it comes to her good friend Nicole and will just not accept that the two could have such drastically different interests. Her acts of rebelliousness — like dying her hair and lying to her mother — are realistic. This non-traditional sport has been gaining popularity and cultural presence, I think ever since the Drew Barrymore movie came out. Author/artist Jamieson is a competitor in real life, and takes the time to explain the game to readers in a way that allows them to learn along with Astrid. I loved that her single-parent family was presented in such a way that I didn’t even notice until the end that her father isn’t mentioned once. We don’t know what happened, and it doesn’t matter because it’s not central to the plot and Astrid has a loving, involved, and supportive parent who acts like a parent. Highly recommended.

Doll Bones

Doll BonesTitle: Doll Bones
Author: Holly Black
Illustrator: Eliza Wheeler
Narrator: Nick Podehl
ISBN: 9780804122900 (audiobook)
Pages: 247 pages
CDs/Discs: 5 CDs, 5 hours
Publisher/Date: Listening Library, c2013.
Awards: Newbery Honor (2014)

“It wasn’t like a regular dream,” Poppy said, her fingers smoothing back the Queen’s curls and her voice changing, going soft and chill as the night air. It reminded Zach of the way Poppy talked when she played villains or even the Queen herself. “It wasn’t like dreaming at all. She was sitting on the end of my bed. Her hair was blond, like the doll’s, but it was tangled and dirty. She was wearing a nightdress smeared with mud. She told me I had to bury her. She said she couldn’t rest until her bones were in her own grave, and if I didn’t help her, she would make me sorry.”[…]
“Her bones?” he finally echoed.
“Did you know that bone china has real bones in it?” Poppy said, tapping a porcelain cheek. “Her clay was made from human bones. Little-girl bones. That hair threaded through the scalp is the little girl’s hair. And the body of the doll is filled with her leftover ashes.” (62-63)

Zach, Poppy, and Alice have played an ever-changing, imagination based game involving pirates, mermaids, treasure, curses, and the Great Queen, influenced by a bone-china doll locked in Poppy’s mother’s cabinet. It’s all pretend, and Zach’s father is urging him to grow up. But Poppy claims to recently receiving dreams from the Queen, urging the trio to bury the doll in her empty grave. They set off in one last adventure, with Zach and Alice not quite sure what to believe. Is Poppy possessed, or is this just play? When things start going wrong, it’s anyone’s guess whether they will be successful.

Have I mentioned before how much I love Nick Podehl’s narrations? Because I really do. While this book did not require the range and variety that I know he can create, it was still an excellent audiobook. Black paints this questionably creepy situation where the events of the book could be explained away as someone playing a trick…. except maybe it really is a ghostly presence influencing the group. It was the creepy factor that did it to me, as the doll was described so well, I was picturing a feminine version of Chucky. The cover really doesn’t do the doll justice, and unfortunately neither do the interior illustrations. The beauty of the narration is the imagining, the what if, and the illustrations pull you out of that spook factor. I read one review that compared this to Toy Story meets Sweeny Todd, which I guess is apt although I think Sweeny Todd is much more graphic in nature than this one.

You can tell that a lot of thought went into this book. For example, if you Wikipedia East Liverpool, Ohio, where the bulk of the story ends up happening, it really does exist. And it really did have a number of potteries, “once produced more than half of the United States’s annual ceramics output. Throughout East Liverpool’s ceramics history, there were more than 300 potteries.” (link) You can read all about Holly Black’s road trip to this tiny town, which she did for research. The trio’s adventures were fully realistic, whether it was getting from point a to point b, budget issues, or dealing with suspicious adults who paid a little more attention then they would have liked to three unchaperoned minors traveling together. A pivotal scene takes place in a library with a pink-haired librarian who is super savvy about the ways of teens, and you can tell Black is a fan of librarians through her portrayal of this character.

I did wish that Alice and Poppy had more personality. While there is some exposition regarding Zach’s attitudes and evolution, we never really hear about the two girls and how they feel about the game that Zach’s father is so keen in making Zach give up. I think Zach’s father’s change in attitude towards the end came about a little too neatly, and the quest’s end was very convenient in nature. But it’s the journey, that’s the part that compelled me to keep reading, and the uncertain ground that Black keeps you on, forcing you to question everything that is happening. Leave the light on, and you’ll never look at your dolls the same way again. Especially the china ones, which plays such a big roll to making the whole premise work.

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