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Monday, April 18, 2016

National Library Week

Happy Belated National Library Week!

So last week was National Library Week and what better way to celebrate libraries than by spending some time reading books about books. Here are just a few exceptional stories in which libraries, librarians, books, and reading play a significant role.

1. Matilda by Roald Dahl
I have been quite effusive in past posts about my Roald Dahl obsession and Matilda happens to be my favorite book by the splendiferous author. I was also a precocious reader as a child (even though I was not reading Dickens at age four) so I could relate to Matilda's weekly sojourns to the local library and her use of books as an escape mechanism.

  The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing  people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with with Rudyard Kipling. She traveled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English Village.

Now that I am a children's librarian I cannot help but admire the kindly Mrs. Phelps who helps Matilda on her path to becoming a reader. One of my favorite lines is when Mrs. Phelps tells Matilda: "And don't worry about the parts you can't understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music."

2. Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein
Well, it is not really surprising that a children's book about the most fantastic library ever imagined is written by an actual children's librarian. You already know that I adore Roald Dahl and Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library is like a zany trip through Willy Wonka's factory if it was filled with books rather than candy.
Part mystery, part comedy, part treasure hunt, and all fun every kid will want Mr. Lemoncello to build a library in their hometown.

3. Bats at the Library by Brian Lies
There are oodles of picture books about libraries, but Bats at the Library is one of my favorites.  Using brilliantly detailed illustrations and a lively, rhyming text Brian Lies tells the story of a colony of bats that visit the library after closing time.

Readers young and old will get a kick out of identifying all of the literary references acted out by these bat bibliophiles. I particularly adore the bat as Blind Pew from Treasure Island.

Blind Pew

4. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
What reader has not fantasized about a beloved character stepping off the page and into the real world? The Inkheart trilogy proves that fiction coming to life may not be as wonderful as imagined.  When Meggie was just a toddler her father, Mo, read aloud from a fantastical book called Inkheart and miraculously brought several of it's characters, including the story's diabolical villain and his henchman, into their living room. Simultaneously, Meggie's mother was sent into the fictional world of the book. Nearly ten years later, Meggie learns the truth of her mother's disappearance and also that she has inherited her father's strange talent.  Now it is up to Meggie to banish Capricorn from the real world and rescue her mother from the pages of Inkheart.

5. Seven Day Magic by Edward Eager
Seven-Day Magic is actually part of the Tales of Magic series written by Edward Eager during the 50's and 60's. In this seventh and final book of the classic series five children quickly discover that the tattered library book they checked out magically brings to life anything that they imagine.

Obviously, I included Seven-Day Magic on this list because it revolves around a magical library book.  However, I highly encourage everyone, young and old, to read the entire Tales of Magic series. First of all, the books in the series are very much intertwined with recurring characters and references to previous adventures in each one. Most importantly, though, Eager's books are timeless and delightful fantasies that you will want to read again and again.

6. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
Most of us have imagined ourselves as the main character of our favorite books, but young Bastian learns while reading that he really is the hero of The Neverending Story. Now if you have only seen the move let me tell you now that you are cheating yourself.  Don't get me wrong, I love the 80's classic and I had a huge crush on Atreyu as a kid but the movie only tells half the story.  The movie ends with Bastian riding Falkor, the luck dragon, after saving Fantasia from The Nothing. In the book, this is just the beginning of Bastian's adventures in Fantastica (which is what Fantasia is called in the book) as he uses wishes and imagination to restore the magical land.         

7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
I debated including Fahrenheit 451 on this list just because Bradbury's bleak dystopian novel is a librarian's worst nightmare. Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953 as a direct response to the threat of book burning during the McCarthy Era.  In the future Bradbury creates society decided to do away with books because they contained too many dissenting ideas. Since books are outlawed anyone caught with one has their home and all of their possessions burned by "firemen". Years of banning books has resulted in a society where the people do not read, write, converse, or even think.  Rather, their attention spans have shrunk to the point that they do nothing but watch wall-sized television screens or listen to "seashell radios" that attach directly to their ears.

There is no denying that the message of Fahrenheit 451 is still relevant.  Today we have computers, video games, cell phones, televisions, tablets, etc. all vying for our attention and as Bradbury stated: "You do not have to burn books to destroy a culture, just get people to stop reading them." Even though people are spending less and less time reading, I choose to be optimistic that books will always hold a place of reverence in our world.

8. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak 
Aahhh, more book burning! The Book Thief takes place in Germany during World War II when books were harshly censored and, yes, even burned. The story, which is narrated by death (yep, you read that right), revolves around a young foster girl, Leisel Meminger, sent to live with an older couple outside of Munich.  Leisel finds herself irresistibly drawn to books, sensing in them an intrinsic magic that can dispel even the worst of her nightmares.

There have been countless books written about World War II and specifically the Holocaust, but The Book Thief is exceptional. Oh, it will rip your heart out and make you cry buckets, but do not let that deter you from reading it. There is also hope, beauty, and compassion that will make The Book Thief an enduring classic.

9. The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie
Ok, the library really only serves as the location of the corpse but who cares I am a sucker for a good whodunnit. Let's be honest, Agatha Christie is the grand dame of mystery authors. Personally, I prefer Hercule Poirot to Miss Marple but The Body in the Library is an ingenious mystery that will have you bamboozled until the big reveal.

10. All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness
Sometimes you just need to read something that is a bit of a guilty pleasure. I must confess that I enjoyed every page of this paranormal romance. When history professor and witch, Diana Bishop, discovers an antiquated alchemical text it attracts the attention of other creatures including vampire, Matthew Clairmont. The two fall in love despite relationships between vampires and witches being forbidden by an ancient covenant. Yes, there are parts of the story that are a tad hokey (like when Diana and Matthew go to yoga class together), but there is plenty of action, steamy romance, and intriguing characters.  Not only do the two main characters meet in a library, there are oodles of historical and literary references throughout the entire trilogy. In fact, book two of the All Souls Trilogy, Shadow of Night, takes place entirely in Elizabethan England and there are appearances by Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and Mary Sidney just to name a few.

There you have it. Ten books about libraries, librarians, books, and/or reading to make you realize just how important libraries are. I know that I could add more, but my posts tend to get long winded. Keep reading and don't forget to support your local library!

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Storytime Anytime-Shapes

Books are an excellent way to introduce young children to important concepts such as shapes, colors, numbers, and ABC's.  I know that shapes may not seem like the most exciting theme for storytime. Especially if you are thinking that a story book about shapes is just going to be a series of simple pictures and the words "this is a circle", "this is a a square", "this is a rectangle", etc. written underneath them.  Fortunately for kids and parents, there are a number of picture books about shapes that are fun, beautifully illustrated, and do not resemble a set of flashcards.

Children's author/illustrator, Ellen Stoll Walsh, has written some of my favorite books to use during storytime. Her trio of mouse books (Mouse Shapes, Mouse Paints, and Mouse Count) teach simple preschool themes, but do so in a playful and engaging way.

Virtual Book Club for Kids, which always has fun book-related ideas, featured Ellen Stoll Walsh for a month and posted 12 activities inspired by Mouse Paints, Mouse Shapes, and Mouse Count. If you are looking to help your little one learn colors, numbers, or shapes in a fun way check out Walsh's books and give some of these easy activities a try.

Most children are captivated by bright colors. I guess that they are similar to sharks in that way (and also in their insatiable appetites). Michael Hall's bold and graphic illustrations make his books easy winners with young readers. In Perfect Square, Hall shows all of the ways a simple, construction paper square can be torn, wrinkle, cut, or folded to create a fountain, garden, or mountain. I don't know about you, but I am not always feeling creative and/or ambitious so I love it when a book basically spells out an activity for me to do with my child. All you have to do is take a bunch of colored squares and let your child rip, crumple, fold, cut, and glue to see what they can create.

Another one of Hall's books featuring a specific shape is My Heart is Like a Zoo. Since all of the animals in this book are created using hearts I usually save this book for around Valentine's Day. As with Perfect Square, coming up with a craft to go with My Heart is Like a Zoo is a no-brainer. Cut out multiple hearts in various sizes to create one or more of the animals. 

In Shape by Shape by Suse MacDonald and Go, Shapes, Go! by Denise Fleming a new shape is added on each page to create a mystery animal. I love picture books that encourage interaction and little ones will have a blast guessing what animal will eventually be depicted.

Most shape books are very simple since they are aimed at young children who are just learning their shapes. Circle, Square, Moose by Kelly Bingham is a quirky, humorous story that will have older kids laughing too. In this sequel to Z is for Moose Zebra's goofy best friend, Moose, has decided this time to invade a book about shapes (because he loves shapes). Of course, Zebra spends the entire book trying to repair the damage done by the over-exuberant Moose. If you want to learn more about Z is for Moose and Circle, Square, Moose check out the Moose page of Bingham's website.

The illustrations for both books are done by the spectacular, Caldecott winning artist, Paul O. Zelinsky. In case you could not tell, I love love love love Zelinsky. It amazes me how recognizable Zelinsky's artwork is, but at the same time each of the books he illustrates has a unique feel.

So, another really easy activity to go along with your shape books is to cut out a bunch of random shapes and let little ones create pictures. Each of the books I highlighted should give the kids plenty of inspiration. After listening to Shape by Shape by Denise Fleming most of my storytime kids wanted to make monkeys. However, there were also people, flowers, cars, and houses and a couple of kids just glued all of the shapes on the paper in a crazy hurricane of color.

Classic tangrams are a fun and easy way for kids (and adults) of all ages to play with shapes. If you have never heard of a tangram it is an ancient Chinese puzzle that uses seven basic shapes, called seven pieces of cleverness, that can be arranged and rearranged to make countless designs. There is actually a website called Tangram Channel that has oodles of tangram puzzles of varying levels of difficulty that you can do online.There are also tangrams that you can print and cut out and even instructions on how to draw your own tangram although you would probably want to save that activity for older kids. Below is a picture of a few simple tangram puzzles along with the seven pieces of cleverness that I printed and laminated. Sorry that the picture is sideways, but you get the idea. Some of my younger kids needed help from mom or dad, but all of them were fascinated by the tangrams. The best part is that tangrams are super cheap and easy to recreate at home.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Fractured Fairy Tales

So, does the phrase Fractured Fairy Tales give anyone else flashbacks of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show? Since Rocky and Bullwinkle aired in the fifties and the sixties twisting a classic fairy tale is nothing new. However, if you turn on the TV or go to the movies today it is apparent that the retelling of fairy tales is a current trend. Fans of Grimm, Once Upon a Time, The Descendants, and blockbuster hits like Maleficent have no shortage of books to read either since a multitude of authors are reinventing the fairy tale in a variety of ways.


Of all the fairy tale themed chapter books written for young readers I think that Liesl Shurtliff's are my favorites.  Let's face it, the majority of books in this genre are princess-themed stories aimed at girls. Not being a girly-girl myself, Shurtliff's hilarious and creative spins on the classic tales of Rumpelstiltskin and Jack and the Beanstalk are more up my alley. Both stories are teeming with interesting characters and giggle worthy moments. Who knew that Rumpelstiltskin wasn't some evil imp but just a hapless twelve year old struggling to find his true destiny while combating a magical curse? In her second book Shurtliff takes on Jack and the Beanstalk in a madcap adventure somewhat reminiscent of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

Check out the trailer for Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood which comes out this April. I cannot wait!


In the Hero's Guide series, Christopher Healy turns those antiquated princess fairy tales on their head by focusing on all of the Prince Charmings whom we know so little about. Now, some young readers may be intimidated by the thickness of these books, but  give the Hero's Guide series a chance. I nearly peed my pants (more than once) as Prince Liam, Prince Frederic, Prince Gustav, and Prince Duncan bumbled through the various kingdoms trying to prove their heroism.

The Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley brings all of those wonderful fairy tale characters into the modern world. After their parents disappear Daphne and Sabrina are sent to live in a small town with a grandmother that they thought was dead. Granny Relda informs the sisters that not only are they the descendants of the famous Brothers Grimm, but fairy tales and all of the monsters, princesses, witches, etc. from them are real and living in Ferryport Landing. As Grimms, it is up to Sabrina and Daphne to investigate any crimes or mischief perpetrated by Everafters (fairy tale characters). You can imagine the hijinks that occur in a town where Puss-in-Boots is the local exterminator, Prince Charming is the mayor, and Cinderella is a relationship counselor on the radio.

The Hero's Guide and Sisters Grimm series are light and somewhat silly takes on fairy tales. Juvenile fiction author, Adam Gidwitz, has written a trilogy revolving around the classic Grimm fairy tales that is, well, a bit more grim. The narrator even warns readers that small children should just go to bed before listening to the story. That is not to say that there is not plenty of wit and humor, but Gidwitz does not shy away from the gorier parts of traditional fairy tales. If you are the least bit squeamish when it comes to beheading, dismemberment, vomit, guts, blood etc. then you should probably avoid these books. Older readers with a penchant for horror, however, will delight in the carnage.  

Each book revolves around a pair of children: Hansel and Gretel in A Tale Dark and Grimm, Jack and Jill in In a Glass Grimmly, and Jorinda and Joringel in The Grimm Conclusion. Horribly mistreated by the adults in their lives, the children are forced to make their way through the bloody landscape of a mishmash of well-known fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. Yes, the books are somewhat gruesome, but there is also whimsy, humor, and hope. Not to mention a hilarious, snarky narrator who repeatedly breaks the fourth wall (acknowledges and speaks directly to the reader).  Some readers do not like it when the author breaks the fourth wall, but I think that the way Gidwitz does it is hysterical. His frequent interjections also lighten the darkness of the books.

If you want more twisted fairy tales for young readers there is a more complete list here.

Keeping with the Grimms, Polly Shulman's tween/teen novel, The Grimm Legacy, is wonderfully imaginative and entertaining. Having an after-school job in a library may not seem that exciting. However, Elizabeth is working in an extraordinary library that lends out objects rather than books. When the powerful, magical items from the Grimm room begin to disappear, Elizabeth and her friends set out to find the thief.

If you enjoy The Grimm Legacy, you can read about more adventures involving the New York Circulating Repository in The Wells Bequest and The Poe Estate.

Who would think to toss Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, and Red Riding Hood together in a futuristic science fiction story line replete with cyborgs, genetic mutations, space travel, and androids? That is exactly what author, Marissa Meyer, does in The Lunar Chronicles and the results are ingenious and wildly fun. I will say that everything wraps up a bit too tidily in the end and some of the romance is a bit ridiculous. That is where you have to remind yourself that, hey, this is a series written for teenagers. Overall, The Lunar Chronicles are an entertaining ride from the earth to the moon and back again.

Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz may not be traditional fairy tales but I have decided to include two young adult series inspired by them in this post.

The first of these is The Looking Glass Wars (obviously based on Alice in Wonderland) by Frank Beddor. Imagine for a moment that Charles Dodgson (aka: Lewis Carroll) did not invent a magical place called Wonderland to entertain a young girl named Alice Liddell. Rather, Wonderland is a real place and Princess Alyss Heart was the heir to the throne before being orphaned and stranded in Victorian era England. After being adopted by the Liddell family Alyss (renamed Alice) tells family friend, Dodgson, of her homeland and he uses her stories as the inspiration for the famous children's book. Fast forward a dozen years and Alice is a beautiful young lady who has convinced herself that her memories of Wonderland were just fanciful dreams. That is until her royal body guard, Hatter Madigan, rescues her from the Red Queen's assassin, the Cheshire Cat, on her wedding day. Dragged back to the homeland she believed to be fantasy, Alice must remember that she is Alyss Heart, the rightful queen. Using the power of imagination Alyss fights to rid Wonderland of Red, the evil usurper of the throne.

I love how Beddor seamlessly combines historical figures and "reality" with the fantastical world of Wonderland. Although inspired by Lewis Carroll's classic children's book, Beddor's Looking Glass Wars stand on their own. The way Beddor re-conceives Carroll's characters is fascinating. I particularly love how the featherbrained Mad Hatter is transformed into Hatter Madigan, a powerful, intelligent warrior who is a cross between a Navy Seal and James Bond.

Obviously, I am not the only one to fall head-over-heels for Hatter Madigan because he is the main character in the graphic novel series based on the The Looking Glass Wars. The Hatter M graphic novels follow the royal body guard in his 13 year quest to locate Alyss Heart in the "real" world. Dark, gritty, with superb artwork, fans of The Looking Glass Wars will want to check these out. 

I was super geeked to learn that Beddor is writing a new series for middle grade readers based on The Looking Glass Wars. These prequel novels will feature a teenage Hatter Madigan and revolve around his adventures as a young cadet in Wonderland's Millinery Academy. The first of these books, Hatter Madigan: The Ghost in the H.A.T.B.O.X. comes out in April 2016!

Moving on to The Other Side of the Rainbow Collection by Danielle Paige. This collection consists of a trilogy and then a series of prequel novellas inspired by Frank L. Baum's Oz books. I must admit that from the moment the first book came out with the title Dorothy Must Die I knew that I had to read the series. Maybe I am just twisted, but the re-imagining of Baum's legendary characters (Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Lion, the Tinman, Glinda, etc.) as vile and corrupt was so intriguing and fun to read.

Amy Gumm is another ordinary girl from Kansas when a tornado whisks the decrepit trailer she lives in to Oz. This is not the same Oz from the books and movies, though. With an unquenchable lust for power and magic, Dorothy Gale and her villainous cohorts have enslaved the entire land and subjected the inhabitants to unbelievable atrocities. Now it is up to Amy, recruited and trained by the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked, to kill Dorothy and free Oz.

Once again, there were moments while reading these books that I had to remind myself who the target audience was. The character of Amy Gumm is frequently a little too whiny and angst-ridden for my tastes and the romance definitely came across as silly. For the most part, though, I enjoyed the novels. Especially how deliciously loathsome Paige made the beloved characters from The Wizard of Oz.


I cannot talk about riffs on the Oz books without mentioning The Wicked Years by Gregory Maguire.

Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with Wicked, the first book in this series, that has since been adapted into a Tony winning Broadway play.Wicked tells the true story of Elphaba, the wicked witch of the west, who perhaps wasn't quite so wicked after all. The Wicked Years are a clever and cynical take on an Oz that is beset by political and social strife.

Although I have not read it yet, Gregory Maguire's lates novel After Alice is riff on the Lewis Carroll Classic.
Gregory Maquire has also written a couple of enthralling novels that are twists on classic fairy tales.  As you can probably infer from the titles and cover art Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is inspired by Cinderella and Mirror Mirror is a unique spin on Snow White. Both books have the scathing wit and dark cynicism that is characteristic of Maguire's writing. I thought that it was especially interesting that Mirror Mirror is set in 16th century Italy and the wicked stepmother is none other than Lucrezia Borgia.

The latest novel by Gregory Maguire, After Alice, is a riff on the beloved Lewis Carroll classic. Published in 2015 to coincide with the 150 year anniversary of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Maguire tells the story of Ada, a young neighbor of Alice who also falls down the rabbit hole.

I have not had a chance to read After Alice yet, but the reviews have been stellar.

“Continuing his tradition of rewriting fairy tales with an arch eye and offbeat point of view, Maguire turns his attention to Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. . . . A brilliant and nicely off-kilter reading of the children’s classic, retrofitted for grown-ups—and a lot of fun.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))

 “[Maguire’s] playful vocabulary may be Carroll-esque, but his keen wit is closer to Monty Python, with a fine, unforced sense of play… his erudition is a joy, his sense of fun infectious.” (Joe Hill, New York Times Book Review)

 “Stunningly clever in its conflation of fairy tales, the mix and match of characters, woven throughout with references to philosophical ideas, the social issues of the day, and attitudes of the time…Maguire impressively channels Carroll’s penchant for humorous wordplay, literary nonsense, and logic games.” (Boston Globe)

I will definitely have to pick up a copy soon to see if After Alice lives up to the hype.