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Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Don't judge a book by its title. When I first encountered Cece Bell's latest book El Deafo in reviews, I assumed the title meant she had been picked on by others and called a name because she was deaf. It sounded cruel and insensitive, and I wasn't sure I wanted to read it. On the contrary, Elf Deafo is the name she chooses to represent her brave and powerful alter ego, the one who speaks the words she wishes she could say, the one who stands up for herself, the one who makes people truly understand what she wants and needs. El Deafo flies, spies, soars, and utters curses.

Biographical in nature, the story is immediately engaging, and Cece Bell captivated me with her genuine voice: honest, witty, sometimes uncertain, always wondering. Though her frustrations about being deaf certainly play a large part in her story, it was the yearning to find a true friend that spoke most to me. As she sought the best friend for her, she contemplated whether that person was feeling sorry for her or whether she should agree to do something simply to keep a friend or whether anyone would ever accept her for just being Cece. 

The graphic novel format - usually not my favorite - was perfect for this story. Speech and thought bubbles conveyed everything in first-person, allowing the reader to completely enter Cece's heart and mind. When necessary, narration blocks helped tell the story. Her formation of the garbled speech she heard when those around her watched television or listened to music or turned out the lights at a slumber party allowed me to imagine how she struggled to understand when lip-reading was not an option. A novel without pictures would not have been the same.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Growing Old

Age, as one realizes with age, is relative. My age used to seem old when I observed my aunts and uncles. Now in their early 70s, they do not seem old to me. Imagine, though, really going back in time to be an age you have already lived. But with that age, you have been able to keep the wisdom and knowledge gleaned from the actual experiences of your life.

Such is the case of eleven-year-old Ellie's grandfather in Jennifer Holm's latest book The Fourteenth Goldfish. When her mother comes home one day with a rather odd teenage boy (who has the teenage attitude and appetite), she soon discovers him to be her grandfather Melvin. Geeky, judgemental, brilliant, sassy, and always hungry, Melvin has become young in body through experiments done with a jellyfish. Naming the species T. Melvinus, he has taken a dose and gotten into some trouble. His only wish is to rescue the remaining sample from his refrigerator in the lab. 

Enter Ellie, who has been abandoned by her longtime friend for the popular crowd. To her credit, she sits with her cantankerous and strangely dressed grandfather/so-called-cousin at lunch and accompanies him on his excursions. She listens to his research ideas. She enlists the help of a boy named Raj who becomes her friend. And she begins to question, as she learns from Melvin about other scientists and their mistakes, whether it is right to stay the same age forever. She asks him, "Is growing up, growing old - life - is it all so terrible?" 

Recently, I listened to a TED talk by author Mac Barnett in which he discusses how children are able to suspend their disbelief in the unlikely, buying in to the scenarios and possibilities in the books they read. That was me with The Fourteenth Goldfish. Melvin's research and transformation was believable somehow. I contemplated with Ellie: "Who's going to be the grown-up?

The realistic dialogue and situations, the wonderful connection to Our Town, a fabulous title story, and an opening quote from Galileo added to my appreciation of this thoughtful science fiction book. Reading it aloud to fourth graders later this year will, no doubt, provide me with insights from readers who are still deciding about what it means to be old.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Quiet Reading

There are authors whose books I seek on lists of new releases, often searching their names or websites every so often in order not to miss anything I might want to read. Naomi Shihab Nye is one of those writers. How glad I am to have spent quiet reading time with her latest book The Turtle of Oman this week. Who in the book world would not love a main character like this: "He learned to read shoes first. Then he learned how to read books"?

Moving to a new place is usually not a welcome experience for most young people, and Aref is no exception. Though he knows many American students from his years as a student at the American International School in Muscat, he has never been the new kid. Now as his parents prepare for their doctoral programs in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Aref faces the challenge of making new friends as he learns about his new home. Most importantly, he will do that without the quiet guidance of his Siti, the grandfather whose model for living has shaped Aref's life. 

And so, as Aref's mother cleans and packs and organizes, Siti and Aref spend time reminiscing, gathering memories, learning together, and dreaming of what they will do when Aref returns in three years. The two head out in Siti's old vehicle, affectionately named Monsieur, and spend a glorious night at the Night of a Thousand Stars camp. "This was the way they talked for miles and miles, syllables unrolling with the pavement." (p. 135) Savoring roasted nuts, weighed on a balance with brass weights, watching turtles roll in the ocean waves, sleeping in a tent, meeting friends along their route...all these things keep Aref grounded in the love of his Siti. The wise man knows that the experiences they share will resonate with his grandson in his new home. 

The chapter titles kept me intrigued, the tiny ink illustrations by the paragraph indents are lovely, and the way her words play out on the page and in Siti's and Aref's dialogue added to my love of this quiet book. I know just the readers who will enjoy it, too. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Scent of a Book

A new fabulous library volunteer started at school today. As I read aloud to the fourth graders, she was shelving nonfiction. My sense that she was listening to the book was confirmed when, after the students departed, she said, "What book were your reading? I couldn't help but listen." I showed her Sterling North's Rascal. Taking the book from me, she said, "I knew it was an old one." She opened the book to its center and sniffed deeply. "I love this scent," she uttered with a sigh.

The students love the book. When I began reading it on the first day of school (to all six sections of information literacy students), I was not certain it was the right choice. Set in 1918, it definitely offers a glimpse into a slower pace of life...without television and computers. Yet after a few pages, the students were hooked, begging for me to read beyond May, the first chapter. Almost palpable tension swirled as Sterling and his friend Oscar attempted to trap a mother raccoon and her four babies. Sterling's drawing of the short straw, bringing him to the branch of an oak tree where that mother screeched, made them cringe in anticipation of what she might do. But when Oscar's mother showed Sterling how to feed the raccoon warm milk through a wheat straw, many nodded in understanding. 

In June, they love how Rascal, at two months old, learns instinctively how to wash a minnow caught in Sterling's bait pond, how to better hold a crayfish in order not to be pinched, how to open the screen door to get to his companion's human bed, and how to hold a bottle of strawberry pop to get the last drops. They also love how Rascal learns quickly not to wash his sugar lump as he would wash a minnow! I love how this gentle story captivates readers almost a hundred years after the events occurred. It was an excellent choice.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Grudge Keeper

When end papers give integral information to a story, readers take note. In my library, if I do not show the end papers, readers ask to see what they missed. In Mara Rockliff's new book The Grudge Keeper, they would have missed a surprised young man, a young woman grimacing in pain and holding her shin, and another young man just in front of her, his angled movement indicating he caused the young woman's injury. The following half title page reveals a seemingly quiet village. And the title page shows an older man trudging behind a wooden cart piled high with scrolls of paper: the Grudge Keeper.

Imagine a town like Bonnyripple where no one held a grudge except old Cornelius. Whatever trivial or monumental grievances occurred were scrawled on paper and stored in his cottage. The jars and containers on his shelves are filled with them, in much the same way the BFG kept dreams. The text is filled with word play, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and imagery. Eliza Wheeler's ink and watercolor illustrations, filled with shadow and light, call attention to the thousands of scrolled grudges. When a howling wind blows, the people of Bonnyripple find that "squabbles were scrambled with quibbles" and in the middle of the heaps of displaced grudges, the people heard the groan from Cornelius. 

I love a happy ending, and this book finishes with friendliness and comfort, prompting me to think twice when I want to hold onto a grudge. The final end papers reveal a happy pair of women, their grudges forgotten. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Observant Mouse

Born in a cheese box in the attire at Number 33 Offley Street, the narrator of Hermelin the Detective Mouse is observant and witty. Mini Grey's artwork pairs perfectly with her text, making this a mystery, a case book, and writing opportunity all in one.

The opening pages display the happenings of Offley Street residents, each going about daily business and some distraught (observant readers may predict has happened to them). The narrator is revealed on the second double-page spread. It is Hermelin, a mouse who was fortunate to acquire a pair of binoculars in the morning breakfast cereal. With them, Hermelin can zoom in on the neighborhood residents. Hermelin happens to be  a rather literate mouse, so the presence of a typewriter in the attic allows the mouse to communicate with others, something extremely helpful when the neighbors display notices asking for help! 

Hermelin finds Mrs. Mattison's handbag, Dr. Parker's glasses, and many more items. But when the neighbors ask Hermelin to attend a party honoring those acts of servitude, the crowd reacts with shrieks and gasps. Hermelin discovers that being a mouse is akin with being a pest! One neighbor finds a way for them to work together, however, bringing the perfect resolution to the problem. 

My fingers are tingling to type on an old typewriter like Hermelin's!

Note: Hermelin is also a cheese, similar in taste and texture to Camembert.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Traveling Through Architecture

If I had chosen other career paths, I know being an architect or a photographer would have been tops on the list. The latter is possible in an amateurish way as I document what I observe and encounter in life's journey. The former is what causes me to marvel when I visit new places, what I imagine in my mind, and what I sometimes envision in my nighttime dreams.

Reading The Story of Building by Patrick Dillon has immersed me in the history of architecture via a timeline of buildings, styles, and placed. Subtitled From the Pyramids to the Sydney Opera House, it encompasses the various structures that allowed buildings to soar, let in light and air, and serve functional purposes. Stephen Biesty's cross-section artwork pulls apart the platforms, arches, beams, and inner-working elements to reveal how the buildings remained intact and how they served users. Side panels taught me about the classical orders (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Tuscan), arches, domes, the Middle Ages, cantilevers (used in the Forbidden City), symmetry, geometry, pattern, and reinforced concrete. Every inquiry that formed in my mind was answered a paragraph or page later in the text! I visited places I have seen (and now wish to revisit) and places I wish I could see in person. 

Most engaging was how I traveled in time and style from the Pyramid of Djoser in Egypt to the Parthenon to the Hagia Sophia to Notre Dame and on to the 21st Century's straw bale house in London. The last few pages of the book provide the index above the detailed timeline of architectural events, discoveries, and trends. Readers will appreciate the wrtier's engaging style and be captivated by the illustrations. I look forward to reading chapters aloud and challenging them to consider what they observe and perhaps even how they want to live.