Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Crooked Kind Of Perfect - by Linda Urban

Bloggers all over the kidslitosphere have been shouting praises of A Crooked Kind of Perfect, and I should have known that they would be right. It wasn’t love at first sight (although I do love the title and the cover is beautifully simple). During the first few pages, I wasn’t sure what I was in for, but boy am I glad that I picked this book up. It’s definitely one of my favorites of the year.

Zoe Elias had big dreams of recitals on grand pianos in front of audiences that proclaim her a child prodigy, instead she got a Perfectone D-60 organ with a vinyl seat and music to the hits of the sixties. Her dad doesn’t leave the house and spends all his time on correspondence courses like “Make Friends and Profit While Scrapbooking” and “Golden Gloves: Make a Mint Coaching Boxing”. Her mom is absorbed in her work. Her friend just informed her that Zoe has been replaced with a new best friend. And Wheeler, the class bully, has started following her home to hang out with her dad every day. Sounds a little depressing, doesn’t it? But oddly enough it's not; it’s brilliantly funny!

You don’t see a lot of books aimed at this age group that include parents dealing with a mental illness. It was so nice to read about a father with anxiety issues who still manages to be a loving and supportive dad, and while their relationship is important to the book it’s not the main focus. The characters all have their quirks, but they are believable and I quickly bonded with them and hoped for the best.

The chapters are short, Zoe’s narrative is witty, and the book goes so quickly, you’ll be left wanting more. This book earned the title, it truly is A Crooked Kind of Perfect.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac - Gabrielle Zevin

I really fell for Gabrielle Zevin’s first book Elsewhere so even though her second novel, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, had a plot seemingly plucked straight from a soap opera, I didn’t hesitate to pick it up.

This book is a far departure from Elsewhere’s science fiction premise. 16-year-old Naomi falls on the front steps of her school one evening and when she wakes up, she can’t remember the last four years of her life. Another teenager, James, discovered her on the steps and accompanies her in the ambulance to the hospital. Naomi is disappointed to discover that athletic Ace is her boyfriend, not James. In fact, there are a lot of things that surprise her about how her life has changed since sixth grade, like her parents’ divorce and the birth control pills in her nightstand drawer.

While the premise of amnesia may seem a little too cheesy, and the crush on a dangerous boy was also a little too soap opera for me (I could have done without James in the novel at all because I don't really get the bad boy appeal), the reader really connects to Naomi’s experience and can’t help but ask themselves if they would be happy with who they’ve become if they were in Naomi’s situation. Would you be happy with your friends or would you wonder why you chose them? Would you love the things you’d committed yourself too, like the yearbook and playing tennis, or would you take the opportunity to go in a different direction? When your memory of the last four years comes back, would you be happy with most of it or would you want to try to permanently forget it?

Zevin created a believable teenager’s voice in Naomi and I hypothesize that most teens who pick up the book will be able to predict most of the plot, but they will still enjoy the novel. It’s not as fresh and Elsewhere, but it’s still thought provoking.

Book of a Thousand Days - by Shannon Hale

Shannon Hale is one of my favorite authors so I was thrilled to see the glowing reviews rolling in for her latest book, The Book of a Thousand Days. I picked it up at the library, and I’m sorry, but it must be said, this is my least favorite of Shannon Hale’s novels! Of course her other books meant for the young and young-at-heart were so wonderful, that to say this is my least favorite doesn’t mean that it was horrible or even bad; I just won’t rush out to buy my own copy to highlight and cherish. I hesitated to review the book because I thought maybe it was just me, but the reality was confirmed when three other bookclubbers agreed it was definitely their least favorites too.

It’s loosely based on the Grimm fairy tale Maid Maleen (and if you’re saying, “Huh?” you are not the only one). The best I can explain it is part Rapunzel, part Cyrano De Bergerac, part Little Red Riding Hood set in country loosely based on Mongolia.

The main character, a fifteen year old girl named Dashti, approaches the castle seeking a job after being orphaned. Because Dashi knows the healing songs of muckers (a nomadic people) she is hired to be the maid to Princess Saren. Unfortunately for Dashti, she finishes her training and approaches the Princess the same day the King declares the Princess must live in a sealed tower without light for seven years as punishment for refusing to marry the suitor he selected for her. The Princess convinces Dashti to volunteer to be imprisoned with her and their solitude and boredom begins. As you might imagine, it’s hard to describe a few years of tedium without becoming a little tedious. While in the tower, two suitors visit Saren, Lord Khasar, who strikes fear in both Dashti and Saren; and Saren’s secret betrothed, Khan Tegus. Saren is “tower-addled” and forces Dashti to talk with Tegus while pretending to be the princess, and Dashti falls for Tegus’s tenderness.

After a few years they manage to escape from the tower only to discover the King’s land has been conquered by Lord Khasar, and all the people have fled or been slain. Dashti resorts to dragging the Princess to Tegus’s home, where she refuses to identify herself as royalty so they resort to finding work scrubbing pots in the kitchen.

This is one of those books where everything would be quickly solved if everyone was just honest and open in the beginning instead of avoiding the truth, a premise that drives me nuts! If Dashti would reveal that she wasn’t the princess and the princess was posing as a dishwasher, she would avoid much heartache. If Saren would tell Dashti the truth about who Lord Khsar is, she wouldn’t seem crazy and wimpy and he could be easily conquered. But of course neither will share their secrets and the book goes on and on.

I did find in interesting that Hales continues her theme of the strength of language. The Goose Girl could speak to the elements, in Princess Academy, they could communicate through stone, and Dashti can heal people through song. While I didn’t love this book, I did enjoy it and I hope Hale continues to entrance us with her lyrical language.

Monday, November 05, 2007

November - Mysteries

Here are the books that we are reading this month along with some questions to get your thinking. Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass
These questions are from Wendy's site, and they contain some major spoilers!
  1. What three items did Jeremy and Lizzy need to deliver for Mr. Oswald?
    Discuss the significance of each item (in relation to the respective
    owner, in relation to Jeremy, etc.) What “life lesson” did Jeremy take
    away from each encounter?
  2. “I have named the hour between eleven and midnight the Hour of
    Jeremy (H.O.J. for short).” (p. 27) During the H.O.J, Jeremy reads, does
    research on the Internet, etc. If you had a specific time allotted just for
    yourself, what hour would you choose? What would you do during that
  3. In a conversation between Jeremy and Lizzy, she asks “So what’s your
    strength?” “Good question, replies Jeremy. “What is my strength? Do
    I even have a strength?” (p.18) Ask students how they would answer
    that question. Then read aloud the story about the fight between two
    wolves on page 271. Discuss the concept of good vs. evil and the notion
    that the wolf you feed can be considered your strength. Ask students to
    write a list of their own strengths.
  4. Jeremy has an internal battle with himself over the difference between
    fate and bad luck. (p. 82) Conversely, Lizzy sees the fact that they
    missed their stop as “a good sign for sure.” (p. 83) Do you believe in
    fate? Do you think there is such a thing as bad and good luck? Many
    people think that the number 13 is unlucky, as Lizzy and Jeremy discover
    when the 13th floor is missing (p.86). Do you think there is any truth
    to this custom? As an extension activity, have students research the
    mystery of the number 13.
  5. Mr. Randolph defined the meaning of life as finding one’s potential and
    embracing it. (p. 156) And Dr. Grady is referring to life in his statement,
    “It’s the journey, not the destination.” (p. 186) How are these two
    declarations related, if at all? Would you agree with Mr. Randolph and
    Dr. Grady? Does the letter written by Jeremy’s father reflect these
    sentiments? How?
  6. There is a central theme of loss in this novel: the death of Jeremy’s
    father and the abandonment of Lizzy’s mother. Do you think that
    is what draws Jeremy and Lizzy together as friends? Describe their
    relationship. When Samantha moves in, Lizzy begins acting strange
    and all of a sudden becomes concerned with what Samantha may
    think of her. Why do you think Lizzy is behaving differently? Does it
    impact Jeremy and Lizzy’s friendship? Cite several examples of the bond
    between Jeremy and Lizzy.
  7. Were you surprised to discover that Jeremy’s father had planned this
    entire adventure and that everyone was in on the plan? What lifelessons
    did Jeremy learn? How has this experience changed him? Do
    you think that the summer’s events helped Jeremy better deal with his
    father’s death? Describe the transformed Jeremy?
  8. Jeremy spends the entire summer trying to discover what is in his
    Meaning of Life box. When he finally gets it opened, his father informs
    him “…that’s all life is, really, a string of moments that you knot
    together and carry with you….The trick is to recognize an important one
    when it happens.” (p. 272) And within the box are numerous rocks—
    each one representing an important moment. Think about your own life, what meaningful items would you save and what would you write in your letter?

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
Start off by checking out the book's website
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret has almost as many pictures in it as words. How did the art affect your experience of reading the book?
  • How is the book like a movie or how does it remind you of movies?
  • Did you learn anything new from reading this book?
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret takes place in Paris in the 1930s. Do you think this story could have taken place somewhere else or at another time? If so, where and when?

And for some really great questions, go to this site:

Kiki Strike: The Empress's Tomb by Kirsten Miller
  1. Kirsten Miller has further developed some of the irregulars in this book. Which one of the Irregulars do you most relate to and why?
  2. What is so appealing about Kiki Strike?
  3. This novel continues to introduce us to more young geniuses. What is Kirsten Miller trying to say about geniuses?
  4. The novel ends with Kiki headed to claim her home and Ananka revealing her secrets to her parents. Is this the end of the irregulars or do you predict a sequel?
  5. Not only are the Irregulars diverse, but so are their families. Describe the different parent/child relationships. Why do you think Miller chose to set the families up the way she did? (and on a side note, why no siblings?)
  6. Kirsten Miller keeps track of all sort of odd real life occurrences like underground cities, and stories of haunted houses. I think these intriguing stories that are interwoven into the Kiki Strike novels are part of what making them so intriguing, they leave you with a feeling that this might actually be possible. She chronicles many of them under Ananka's Diary on her web site www. Can you think of any real life oddities that might fit perfectly into a Kiki Strike novel or maybe inspire a novel of your own?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Did you know?

So the other night I was watching Meet the Robinsons, a movie based on the picture A Day With Wilbur Robinson by William Joyce, and I remembered a conversation that I had with my sister when she mentioned that she saw William Joyce on Martha Stewart a few year ago. If you're like me, you're wondering why on Earth William Joyce would be on Martha Stewart. I picked up a copy of The World Of William Joyce at the library to show you the answer.

Joyce says that some of his favorite childhood memories are related to the holidays and family traditions and he wants the holidays to be a magical time for his own kids so he goes all out. He even repaints his house for the holidays! He takes the whole month of October off to decorate for Halloween, his favorite holiday. Here's a picture of his mantle set for Halloween.

Spooky, right? He paints the black walls with snowflakes to convert the room for Christmas.And can you imagine Easter eggs hand painted by William Joyce? That would be an amazing site to behold! Every year, besides taking a month to decorate for Halloween, he throw a huge Halloween party. One year everyone dressed up as characters from his books. Can you identify this couple?And every year his nephews receive a handwritten letter from Santa. One year no letter arrived, but the next year a fat letter came explaining Santa's crazy adventures that had prevented him from writing the year before. The letter gave Joyce the idea for writing Santa Calls. Funny how the doodles on Santa's letters look a little like Joyce's doodles. Hmmmmm . . .

There is surprisingly little about Joyce on the Web (do you hear that William Joyce? We'd love a blog or a better web site!) but you can pick up a copy of The World Of William Joyce to learn more about him and you can see a Reading Rockets interview with him here. (Did any of you know about Reading Rockets? I just discovered them and they have some great author interviews!)

Friday, November 02, 2007

We Met Mo Willems!

We just happened to be visiting family in Irvine, CA when Mo Willems was there doing a book signing there at A Whale of a Tale for his latest picture book, Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity. We flew into Burbank and took our time driving down so we missed the beginning of his talk and reading, but we did get to catch him talking about the next pigeon book. It's being released on April 1, 2008 and mo announced that the title will be five words long. He even shared the first four words with us, The Pigeon Wants A ________. He's leaving it to kids to fill in the blank for now and he says that on April 1st children every where will rush to their local bookstore to be greatly disappointed that he didn't choose their title!
He was just as funny and as personable as you would expect. He's my very favorite picture book author so I felt a little like I was meeting a rockstar. While we were waiting in line to get our books signed I mentioned to my husband that I hoped that I didn't have a MotherReader moment (another kidlit blogger who says that she gushed to the point of embarrassment when she met mo). Mo overhead me and asked if I was a blogger and proceeded to tell me that he LOVES the kidlit bloggers! Then he was even more animated and friendly. (ok, and as if that didn't win me over enough, he oohed and awed over my son and commented on how gorgeous his blue eyes are, and what mom wouldn't love that?)
On April 1st, I will be lined up at my local children's book store to pick up the new pigeon book. I can't wait! Want to know more about Mo? You can view his web site here.
And because he says that he's phasing that out, you can see his blog here.

And his pigeon site here.

A few highlights? On his blog Mo has pictures of a teacher with a pigeon costume (and I thought that I was a big fan!)
And under Mo's Stuff he has a link to info on Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus the Musical, which looks fantastic!