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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Favorite Books of 2013

A few weeks ago I mentioned the American Library Association (ALA) Youth Media Awards, and I specifically wrote about the Newbery Medal. Many of you may not be aware that the Michigan Library Association has its own Children's and Teen book awards.

Prior to this year, the MLA had one award for the best teen book (the Thumb's Up) and one award for the best children's book (the Mitten). This year the mitten has been divided into two awards: The Mitten and the YouPer, which stands for young person, but also is a pun on UP (Hooray for puns!). The author of the year's best picture book will be awarded the Mitten and the Youper will go to the author of the best book for kids aged 7-12.  For a more detailed explanation of the awards you can look at the MLA website here.

The selection committees for each award are made of up Michigan youth librarians, and I am very excited to be on the committee choosing the very first YouPer!  The YouPer committee is actually meeting next week for our final voting, but I thought that I would give you a rundown of the five books that are topping my list. This award will be given out this year to best book published last year in 2013 (is that too confusing). 

Anyway here are my top 5 favorite books from 2013:

1. Twerp by Mark Goldblatt
There are so many books out there that deal with bullying, but this one really stands out (at least to me). It is not the typical root for the underdog geek who is being tormented by the popular football player bullying story. Rather, Twerp is a painfully honest portrayal of the "follower".  Julian Twerski is not a bad or mean kid, but he is a kid (like so many others) that allows his friends and/or the crowd to dictate his actions even when his conscience tells him not to.  When he participates in a horrible act of cruelty, Julian must cope with his own culpability and remorse. More than anything Twerp is a book about gaining the strength, integrity, and maturity to not only  learn from your mistakes, but make amends for them.

2. The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible...On Schindler's List by Leon Leyson
Since this is an autobiographical account of the Holocaust, I would recommend that his book be reserved for the more mature reader.

Leon Leyson (born Leib Lezjon) was only a ten year old boy when the Nazis invaded Poland. Forced into the Krakow ghetto and eventually the Plaszow work camp, young Leon was subjected to terror, torture, and soul-wrenching despair. Fortuitously he became the youngest person saved by Oskar Schindler and his famed list.
Schindler's List--Leon is listed as number 289.
Leon uses sparse and unadorned language to tell a story that is tragic and horrific, but also abounding with courage, hope, and love. The Boy on the Wooden Box is simply beautiful and a must read for children and adults.

Leon in Schindler's factory.

 Although, Leon Leyson died this past January at the age of 83 his story will live on forever. Watch a video of him telling his story here.

3. Rump: The True Story of Rumplestiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff
Fractured fairy tales are currently a hot genre in children's literature, but the majority are geared towards girls. (Think Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine or The Frog Princess series by E.D. Baker) Shurtliff's literary debut is wonderfully creative. Rump is a fun, fantastical romp that is sure to appeal to kids across the board.

Most of us think of Rumpelstiltskin as a conniving, baby-stealing villain, but Shurtliff turns the classic fairy tale totally upside down .  In a magical land where your name is your destiny, poor Rump was only given half a name before his mother died. Twelve years later Rump is unlucky, small for his age, and due to his unfortunate name the frequent "butt" of jokes (ha, ha, ha). Life seems to be looking up for Rump when he discovers that he has the magical ability to spin straw into gold. Magic can have dire consequences, though, and Rump embarks on a quest to escape his past and find a new destiny.

4.Will in Scarlet by Matthew Cody
This is an interesting and unique take on the Robin Hood legend and I loved every action-packed page. As the young son and heir of a lord, Will Shackley has led a privileged and protected life. With King Richard and many of England's lords (Including Will's father) fighting in the Crusades, England is awash with power-hungry traitors intent on stealing the crown. When violence erupts in his ancestral home, Will is forced to flee to Sherwood forest. Half dead Will is discovered by a band of thieves who nurse him back to health. However, these are not the Merry Men portrayed by Disney and Cody's Robin Hood is definitely not Errol Flynn or even Kevin Costner.

It may not be the legend you are familiar with but, Matthew Cody tells an amazing story about incredibly likeable and intriguing characters. You will find it difficult to put down this swashbuckling adventure.

5.The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel by Deborah Hopkinson
Deborah Hopkinson is really a master of historical fiction for kids. She can recreate history and make it entertaining and relevant to her young readers. In The Great Trouble Hopkinson accurately depicts the crowded streets and filthy conditions in London during the 1854 Cholera outbreak. Eel is a 12 year old orphan desperately trying to survive on the streets of London by working odd jobs and scavenging in the Thames for scraps to sell (mudlarking).  When his friends and neighbors begin to get sick, Eel runs to Dr. John Snow for help. Deftly mixing fictional characters with historical ones, Dr. John Snow, who is known as the father of modern epidemiology was pivotal in proving that Cholera was spread through contaminated water rather than bad air or "miasma". The history is interesting, well-told, and Eel is a character that the reader wants to have a happy ending.

So there they are. My top five kid's chapter books published in 2013. Looking at the list, I am instantly thinking of all the other books that I enjoyed reading. Although, any book can be recommended for the YouPer, ones that received starred reviews in major literary publications like Kirkus or School Library Journal are automatically put on the list for the committee to read. There are so many other books that the major reviewers didn't give stars to and, unfortunately, the committee cannot read every book published in a year.   Maybe, I am just too indecisive because I have about ten books that I would like to see win. I will let you know the committee's decision next week after the big vote.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Vampire Academy (the movie)

                   Sadly enough it started with                                                  This is better!
                                 this poster.
         I went to see Vampire Academy for Valentine's day since I have been a long time fan of Richelle Mead and would have to say I feel bad for her.  The decision to make the movie corny rather than serious I believe cost her a great deal of money and respect.  The movie was completely cheesy, it was funny but not up to what it could have been.  In my humble opinion if this movie had been made on a more serious note with better writing it could have been as large as the Twilight franchise.  I just think it was a waste of a great story, so please do not judge the books by the movie.  The books are not cheesy.

(This is just my opinion)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Big Red Dog Party!

Anyone who knows me is aware of my love for dogs. In fact, I often refer to my yellow lab as my third blond son. It probably has something to do with the way I was raised. There was always a dog in the house I grew up in and my parents call the two dogs they have now my little brothers.

My kids and my two little brothers.
What does my love of dogs have to do with the library? Well, February is Responsible Pet Owner Month (I love looking at those calendars that tell about all the obscure holidays and observances). To celebrate, as well as educate, about pet ownership, we are having a Big Red Dog Party on Saturday, February 15th at 10am.

You might be asking yourself:  Why is it called the Big Red Dog Party? It just so happens that February 15th is also the 86th birthday of Norman Bridwell who is the creator of everyone's favorite house-sized pet, Clifford!
Bridwell and the real Emily Elizabeth (his daughter).

Decades after the first book was published in 1963, Clifford is still the most popular canine in children's literature. Not to mention the toys, clothes, and the wonderful PBS cartoon in which the late John Ritter gave Clifford his voice.

School Library Journal interviewed Bridwell last year when Clifford turned 50 and you can read all about the man behind the big red dog here.

In addition to the Clifford-themed activities we have planned, the library is extremely excited to welcome Mackenzie's Animal Sanctuary on Saturday. Mackenzie's is located in Lake Odessa, Michigan and it is the largest no kill shelter in the Midwest. The wonderful people from Mackenzie's will be giving a special presentation on dogs, and I am pretty sure that they will be bringing along a  four-legged friend to help demonstrate.

Mackenzie's will talk about pet adoption and responsible pet care. Also, they will educate kids  on how to behave around dogs that they may meet in the park or at a friend's or relative's home. Learning how to behave appropriately around strange dogs is so important for kids that have their own dogs too.  My own children haven't always understood that they cannot run up to any dog they meet and squeeze, kiss, hug, and wrestle with it like they do with our dogs at home.

As you can see from these pictures, my son Zander believes that dogs should be used as body pillows.

Whether you are a dog owner, dog lover, or just hoping to help your children learn how to behave around dogs safely be sure to make it to the Big Red Dog Party this Saturday at 10am.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

2014 Newbery Medal Winner

On Monday, January 27th the American Library Association announced the 2014 winners of the youth media awards. The most illustrious of these is the Newbery Medal which is awarded to the author of the best children's book.

Last year I was overjoyed when The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate was awarded the Newbery medal. I must confess, though, that I was less than thrilled with the Newbery committee's pick for the 2014 medal.  If you are unaware the winner of the Newbery medal this year was Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo. This was a book that  immediately received attention from critics, librarians, book stores, etc. due to the prestige of the author. Kate DiCamillo also won the Newbery Medal in 2004 for The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread and a Newbery Honor for Because of Winn Dixie in 2001. In my opinion, Flora & Ulysses just does not live up to the hype and reputation of the author.

So why am I being so contentious about a book that everyone else (in the literary world at least) seems to adore? Let me start off by saying that the premise of Flora & Ulysses is so unique and fun that it could (and should) have been a home run.  A poor little squirrel is tragically killed in a vacuum cleaner accident and is brought back to life via CPR. Amazingly, he awakens with human like intelligence and a fierce desire to compose poetry. Who wouldn't cheer for a squirrel with super powers? Also K.G. Campbell's captivating illustrations and comic book inserts are an absolute giggle-fest.

Sound and looks good right? Let me ask now what age or grade level you would you recommend this book for? Based on the juvenile premise and appearance of this book  it seems to be geared toward a younger elementary (1st-3rd grade) audience. Also, looking at many of the reader reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, the fans of the DiCamillo's Mercy Watson and Bink and Gollie books are flocking to read Flora & Ulysses and those books are written at a considerably lower level.

However, once you begin reading Flora & Ulysses you quickly realize that the advanced vocabulary, as well as, some mature and existential subject matter would be completely baffling for the majority of children below 5th grade.

Let's begin with the vocabulary DiCamillo employs to tell the tale of her superhero squirrel. Honestly, I cannot see many children being able to read Flora & Ulysses without having a dictionary or adult on hand to decipher the meaning of half the text.

      uncynical, illuminated, malfeasance, cogitation, indomitable, mundane, dislocation, unassuming,   unanticipated occurrences, emblazoned, extended, hallucinations, dictums, multiplicity, hyperbole, neurotic, recitation, obfuscation, inevitable, surreptitious, imperative, notorious, euphemistically, unremitting, inconsequential (Hello, I know adults that would struggle with some of these!)

These are only some of the more difficult words from the first half of the book. Now, I am all for challenging kids and I, by no means, think that we should ever "dumb things down" for kids. It is  important for kids to expand their vocabularies and be able to infer meaning from text. In my opinion, though, DiCamillo goes a little overboard in Flora & Ulysses (did she have a thesaurus sitting on her lap while typing). She may simply discourage kids from even reading it. No doubt, many kids will pick it up and love the pictures and comic book pages, but will they actually read the text? I am not so sure.

You might be shaking your head in disagreement right now. Flora & Ulysses has received rave reviews and a number of awards and Kate DiCamillo is a much lauded children's author. Keep in mind, though, that children in elementary school are taught to use the five finger test when choosing a book to read. By this test, many young readers may put the book back on the shelf before even starting it.
In addition to the difficulty of the text, Flora & Ulysses is overflowing with angst, philosophy, and esoteric gibberish that most young readers would find unfathomable (ha ha I can use $10 words too).

Instead of a cute animal story (which is what Flora & Ulysses appears to be) this is a book about profound loneliness and rejection.  Flora's own mother says that she doesn't want her around and her father's heart has "closed off" leaving him totally detached from the world and his daughter. Poor William Spiver has displayed psychosomatic blindness since his mother replaced him and his deceased father with a new boyfriend. Then there is the character of Dr. Meescham, who imparts her deep and enigmatic wisdom throughout the book.

 “A squirrel flies in," said Dr. Meescham. "This I did not expect at all. It is what I love about life,  that things happen which I do not expect. When I was a girl in Blundermeecen, we left the window open for this very reason, even in the winter. We did it because we believed something wonderful might make its way to us through the open window. Did wonderful things find us? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But tonight it has happened! Something wonderful!" Dr. Meescham clapped her hands. "A window has been left open. A squirrel flies in the window. The heart of an old woman rejoices!”

“All things are possible. When I was a girl in Blundermeecen, the miraculous happened every day. Or every other day. Or every third day. Actually, sometimes it did not happen at all, even on the third day. But still, we expected it. You see what I'm saying? Even when it didn't happen, we were expecting it. We knew the miraculous would come.” 
  “Pascal," said Dr. Meescham, "had it that since it could not be proven whether God existed, one might as well believe that he did, because there was everything to gain by believing and nothing to lose. This is how it is for me. What do I lose if I choose to believe? Nothing!"

"Take this squirrel, for instance. Ulysses. Do I believe he can type poetry? Sure, I do believe it. There is much more beauty in the world if I believe such a thing is possible.” 
“Don't we all live in our heads? Where else could we possibly exist? Our brains are the universe.”  

Personally, I think that the characters in Flora & Ulysses come across as overly contrived. DiCamillo seems to be going for quirky and precocious, but she never gets there. The adults are bordering on creepy, like Mrs. Meecham (a warning to never go into a stranger's apartment) or indifferent and unsympathetic, like Flora's parents. As for the for the children, they reminded me of watching Dawson's Creek, because just like with that that show's ridiculously unteenlike dialogue (Check out #1 on this top 10 things we learned from Dawson's Creek),  you know that there is not a child on the planet that talks like Flora and/or William. Oh, you can have smart kids and quirky characters, but you still need to be able to identify with them and imagine that they exist. Think of Matilda by Roald Dahl or The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. Both of these children's books feature intelligent female heroines and an interesting supporting cast of characters, but there is an authenticity that is missing in Flora & Ulysses.

Of course, this is simply my opinion of the book so feel free to disagree (and I know that those die hard Kate DiCamillo fans are probably spitting nails by now). I just do not think that Flora & Ulysses is the right book for the right audience (if that makes any sense). For example, I adored Counting by 7's and that was thought-provoking, emotional, had intriguing characters, and used lots of big words (the main character is a 12 year old genius). The difference is that Counting by 7's is intended for and appealing to an older audience. Not many 5th or 6th graders are even going to give Flora & Ulysses a second glance because it looks and sounds too young for them. The younger elementary kids that will be attracted to Flora & Ulysses, though, are going to be completely lost with both the difficult text and the sometimes dark and disconcerting themes.