Wednesday, December 30, 2009

10 Most Influential Books of 2000-09

10 most influential books of 2000-2009 (according to Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune)

"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" (2000) by J.K. Rowling. The fourth installment in Rowling's cataclysmically popular and utterly enchanting series was the first to be published in this decade. The chronicles of a boy wizard and his world are built to last.

"White Teeth" (2000) by Zadie Smith. Linguistically splendiferous, this engaging novel shatters ethnic categories and narrow prejudices -- and ushered in a global lit.

"Twilight" (2005) by Stephenie Meyer. Along with its evil spawn -- er, I mean sequels -- this dully written series smashed records at the bookstore and at the box office. Vampires may live forever, but these books won't.

"Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" (2003) by Lynne Truss. Grumpy grammarians had their day in the sun with this book and its many imitators.

"The Tipping Point" (2000) by Malcolm Gladwell. The runaway success of this book and others by the same author ignited a mini-genre: the anecdote elevated to a business truism.

"The Da Vinci Code" (2003) by Dan Brown. Lord help us.

"Be Near Me" (2006) by Andrew O'Hagan. The anti-"Da Vinci Code": a beautiful, tragic, provocative novel about faith and loss.

"The God Delusion" (2006) by Richard Dawkins. Militant atheism found its leader in this brilliant British academic, who turns his withering scorn upon religious believers.

"Wintergirls" (2009) by Laurie Halse Anderson. Young adult literature came of age with Anderson, who taps into teenage fears and hopes with heartfelt precision.

"Oryx and Crake" (2003) by Margaret Atwood. Apocalyptic lit, a new genre, found its bleakly bewitching oracle

Friday, December 18, 2009

Looking Like Me

I am an big advocate of public education and have dedicated many years of my life to teacher preparation and school improvement. But, sometimes schools can be places that define a child in purely academic terms--you're either a good reader or not, good at math or not, a good test taker or not...especially in this time of state mandated testing. The pressure on schools, teachers, parents and ultimately children, can be overwhelming.

When my son was in elementary and middle school, he would come home so worried about the state test. Weeks and months leading up to the test would be spent on test taking skills and drills. I remember sitting down and talking with him about the fact that he is so much more than someone who does or doesn't do well on a test. He is a violinist, a runner, a soccer player, a best friend, a writer of poetry, a son, a grandson, a volunteer, a dog lover and on and on.

Yes, school is important and many decisions are made based on tests, but we are so much more than the sum of our test scores. This seems to be the message in Looking Like Me written by Walter Dean Myers and illustrated by his son, Christopher Myers. Below is a nice review of the book from Kirkus:

The Myerses-father and son-reunite for a poetic celebration of self that blends a sort of Whitman-esque hip-hop with '70s-vibe visuals. Adapting the cumulative cadences of Bill Martin's Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, Walter Dean Myers's text immediately establishes a preeminent self-affirmation: "I looked in the mirror / And what did I see? / A real handsome dude looking just like me." Narrator Jeremy hears from a succession of family, neighbors and community members and adds role after role to his portfolio. He's a brother, son, writer, city kid, artist, dancer, talker, runner, dreamer: "Looked in the mirror- / I look like a crowd." Christopher Myers overlays eclectic photo collages with stylized, silhouetted figures in saturated hues of chartreuse, butternut, chocolate, magenta and more. The text's two upper-case typefaces look like gritty, spray-painted stencils and whimsical woodcuts. There's a touch of call-and-response in the refrain ("He put out his fist. / I gave it a BAM!")that begs to be read aloud. This vibrant synthesis of poetry and pictures is a natural for classrooms and family sharing.

An interview with Walter Dean and Christopher Myers is available on the Follettee Liberary Resources website.

Looking Like Me celebrates every child, and every thing that every child can be." Publishers Weekly writes, "a funky, visually fluid funhouse that proves pigeonholes are strictly for pigeons."

Monday, December 14, 2009

National Ambassador of Young People's Literature

As we anxiously await for the announcement of the next National Ambassador of Young People's Literature on January 5, 2010, here are two articles from our inaugural ambassador, Jon Scieszka:

L.A. Times: Children's books 2009: It's all good! says Jon Scieszka

The Huffington Post: National Ambassador for Young People's Literature Must Go!

IRA Reading Radio

The International Reading Association announced today its new IRA Reading Radio, a collaboration between IRA and Body and Mind (BAM!) Radio Network, a radio website for the education community.

The first installment is an interview between IRA Executive Director Bill Harvey and Peter Johnston, chair of the IRA/NCTE task force that prepared the recently revised Standards for the Assessment of Reading and Writing. Together, they explore what literacy means in today's digital age and the need for new standards to measure literacy. Peter Johnston’s interview is just the first of many thought-provoking programs that will be posted monthly on the IRA website and address topics that range from reading assessment to the role of parents in literacy development.

In January, watch for an interview with IRA President Kathryn H. Au on Culturally Responsive Instruction.

You can play the program directly from your computer or download it onto an I-Pod or other mp3 player.

PW's Starred Reviews

-- Publishers Weekly, 12/14/2009

Picture Books

Bunny Days by Tao Nyeu. Dial, $16.99 (48p) ISBN 978-0-8037-3330-5

As in Wonder Bear, a large white bear looms large in Nyeu’s latest, but this sophomore effort is a world apart. In three short and endearingly silly stories, six adorable bunnies prove to be the very definition of “victims of circumstance,” thanks to their industrious but clueless neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Goat. The good news is that the Zen-like Bear puts things right; the comically ambivalent news is that the cure often seems as bad as the disease. Thus, when Mrs. Goat unknowingly extracts the napping bunnies out of their hole with her vacuum cleaner, Bear decides the best way to rid them of grime is to hang them from a flagpole and blast them with “the big fan.” Nyeu’s winkingly demure writing, fluidly schematic line drawings, and limited palette (each chapter is keyed to a single dominant color) make knowingly naïf foils for the outrageous acts and outlandish solutions that the bunnies endure. Whereas Wonder Bear was sentimental and loosely (at best) plotted, this sardonic, tightly constructed satire offers spot-on fun for the age group, even as it gleefully sends the primly narrated animal story up the river. Ages 3–5. (Jan.)

The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) by Barbara Kerley, illus. by Edwin Fotheringham. Scholastic Press, $17.99 (48p) ISBN 978-0-545-12508-6

Kerley and Fotheringham (What to Do About Alice?) pair up again to offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of another famous family. Wanting to present a portrait of her papa beyond that of just humorist and author, Mark Twain’s 13-year-old daughter Susy spent a year chronicling her observations and reflections. While her entire work was published in 1985 (Papa: An Intimate Biography of Mark Twain), Kerley contextualizes the teenager’s admiring musings with vivid familial backdrops. So when Kerley notes that Twain’s wife often would “clean up any questionable passages” in his writing, Susy’s biography states that this meant “some delightfully dreadful part must be scratched out.” Minibooklets titled “Journal” appear in the fold of many spreads, containing excerpts from Susy’s notebook (some may find the flowery typeface of the inserts hard to read). Adding dynamic flair to the limited palettes of each digitally created scene are curlicues representing words, which emanate wildly from pen tips, pages, and mouths. Author notes about Susy and her father, a time line of Twain’s life, and tips for writing an “extraordinary biography” complete this accessible and inventive vision of an American legend. Ages 7–11. (Jan.)


Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce. HarperCollins/Walden Pond, $16.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-183683-1

The hero of Boyce’s enchanting third novel has grown a bit over the summer. “Seven inches is not a spurt,” his father says. “Seven inches is a mutation.” Having facial hair and the height of an adult is a nuisance for 12-year-old Liam, until he realizes he can pass for a grownup. The charade escalates into danger when Liam passes himself off as his own father and wins a trip to a new theme park in China with his friend Florida, where they will be the first to experience an out-of-this-world new thrill ride. “The Rocket” turns out to be a real rocket, and the novel opens with Liam and four other kids literally lost in space. What follows is a hilarious and heartfelt examination of “dadliness” in all its forms, including idiotic competitiveness and sports chatter, but also genuine care and concern. Luckily for the errant space cadets, Liam possesses skills honed playing World of Warcraft online—yes, here is a novel, finally, that confirms that playing computer games can be good for you. A can’t-miss offering from an author whose latest novel may be his best yet. Ages 8–12. (Jan.)

Eighth-Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. Scholastic/Levine, $16.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-545-09676-8

Rhuday-Perkovich delivers a masterful debut, telling a layered middle-school tale filled with characters who are delightfully flawed and, more importantly, striving to overcome those flaws. Reggie McKnight has been saddled with the nickname “Pukey” thanks to a disastrous incident on the first day of school. Attempting to get through the rest of the year unnoticed, he spends his time with his best friends, political activist Ruthie (who shares Reggie’s Jamaican background) and aspiring rapper Joe C. While working on a project at a homeless shelter with his church’s youth group, he becomes increasingly interested and involved in the community, leading to his participation in his school’s presidential race, first as an adviser to a classmate, eventually as a candidate. Rhuday-Perkovich doesn’t take shortcuts, forcing Reggie to deal with a world in which he doesn’t always get the answers or successes he wants, and the book shines as a result. Messages of social justice—whether through church projects, parental discussions, or recognition of racial biases among his friends—complement the story and characters, rather than upstage them. Ages 10–14. (Jan.)

A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata. S&S/Atheneum, $16.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-4169-1883-7

Newbery Medalist Kadohata (Kira-Kira) shows that truth has as many shades of gray as an elephant in this emotionally taut survival story, set in war-torn South Vietnam. After American troops leave his village, Y’Tin, his family, and his neighbors are left to fend off their enemies themselves. But Y’Tin’s mind isn’t on war. It’s on his pet elephant, Lady, and his dreams of opening an elephant-training school. His hopes vanish when North Vietnamese soldiers devastate his small village (Y’Tin helps dig a mass grave at one point). Y’Tin manages to escape into the jungle with a friend, where he reunites with Lady, but separated from family and friends, his thoughts grow dark. As the days go by, he becomes angrier and less trusting, wondering “if he would ever feel safe again or if safety was gone from his life forever.” Illustrating the wisdom of Y’Tin’s father’s words—“The jungle changes a man”—Kadohata delves deep into the soul of her protagonist while making a faraway place and the stark consequences of war seem very near. Y’Tin’s inner conflicts and changing perception of the world will haunt readers. Ages 10–up. (Jan.)

Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers. St. Martin’s Griffin, $9.99 paper (256p) ISBN 978-0-312-57380-5

Backstabbing, rumor mills, and freeze-outs by the in crowd are familiar territory, but Summers (Cracked Up to Be) takes these traumatic experiences to a new level of nasty. Regina Afton, once a member of the elite Fearsome Fivesome, is dumped after word gets out that she slept with her queen bee best friend’s boyfriend at a party. What no one knows—or doesn’t believe—is that it wasn’t consensual: Regina was nearly raped. In a series of pranks that go beyond the usual cold stares (the word “whore” painted on her locker, books thrown in the pool, a vicious “IH8RA” Web page, a four-on-one beating), her ex-friends exact a revenge meant to inflict permanent damage. Regina’s only salvation is her nascent friendship with a loner she bullied back in her heyday, but even his forgiveness is hard won. Parents and teachers are suspiciously absent (and oblivious to Regina’s suffering), but it’s Regina’s lack of recourse that makes this very real story all the more frightening and effective. Regina’s every emotion is palpable, and it’s impossible not to feel every punch—physical or emotional—she takes. Ages 12–up. (Jan.)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

NPR: Ounce, Dice, Trice

Every good book begins with good words. Ounce, Dice, Trice is a book for children that is full of words — magnificent, wonderful words like "frangipani," "dimity," "gloaming" and "nunnery." And don't forget "murdo," "drumjargon" and "chumly." Host Scott Simon speaks with Weekend Edition's ambassador to the world of kiddie literature, Daniel Pinkwater, about this new release of an old book.

Monday, December 7, 2009

PW's Starred Reviews

-- Publishers Weekly, 12/7/2009

Picture Books

Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli, illus. by Kadir Nelson. S&S/Wiseman, $16.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-4169-3505-6

While Nobel Medalist Wangari Maathai has been the subject of two earlier picture biographies (Jeanette Winter's Wangari's Trees of Peace and Claire Nivola's Planting the Trees of Kenya), this story is structured more like a folktale, portraying Maathai as healer and botanist. “These are strong hands,” she tells a woman who does not have enough food to feed her family. “Here are seedlings of the mubiru muiru tree.... Plant as many as you can. Eat the berries.” Nelson's (We Are the Ship) breathtaking portraits of Maathai often have a beatific quality; bright African textiles represent fields, mountains, and Maathai's beloved trees. Maathai knows that some trees make good firewood, others form hedges to keep livestock safe, while the roots of others clean dirty water. After every encounter, a Kikuyu expression is repeated: “Thayu nyumba—Peace, my people.” Mama Miti, as Maathai comes to be known (it means “mother of trees”), is rewarded not with fame or power but with the satisfaction of seeing Kenya restored. Napoli (The Earth Shook) creates a vivid portrait of the community from which Maathai's tree-planting mission grows. Ages 4–8. (Jan.)

Back of the Bus by Aaron Reynolds, illus. by Floyd Cooper. Philomel, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-399-25091-0

This sterling collaboration views Rosa Parks's 1955 refusal to give up her bus seat through the eyes of a perceptive boy seated with his mother in the rear of the bus. Early on, the child rolls a treasured marble up the aisle and Parks good-naturedly shoots it back to him. He tucks the marble safely away when the bus fills with passengers and he senses trouble up front: “Some folks look back, givin' us angry eyes. 'We do somethin' wrong, Mama?' I say all soft.” Reynolds's (Superhero School) lyrical yet forceful text conveys the narrator's apprehension and Parks's calm resolve, which inspires the boy. “[S]he's sittin' right there, her eyes all fierce like a lightnin' storm, like maybe she does belong up there. And I start thinkin' maybe she does too.” Cooper's (Willie and the All-Stars) filmy oil paintings are characterized by a fine mistlike texture, which results in warm, lifelike portraits that convincingly evoke the era, the intense emotional pitch of this incident, and the everyday heroism it embodied. Ages 6–8. (Jan.)


The Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean. Harper, $16.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-06-183665-7

Kindhearted Pepper Roux has been led to believe that “[c]hildhood was a mouse trap from which he could never expect to escape,” his death by age 14 foretold in a dream. His maiden Aunt Mireille takes it upon herself to pave Pepper's path to heaven with daily prayer, constant confession, and rote memorization of last rites. So when Pepper awakens on his 14th birthday still alive, he launches himself on a sea voyage, intent on outrunning death. Mistaken for the ship's captain (his father), he is befriended by a compassionate, cross-dressing steward, Duchesse. Creating vivid characters is just one of McCaughrean's (The White Darkness) gifts—Aunt Mireille joins Dahl's Spiker and Sponge as one of the Most Evil Aunts in children's literature. Pepper flees across the French countryside from one disastrous job to another—delivery boy, horse wrangler, deli clerk, and even journalist, which allows McCaughrean to wink at readers as Pepper complains, “Copy editors cannot read anything without changing it.” As his journey ends in a cleverly orchestrated climax, readers will root for Pepper to get the ending he deserves—a happy one. Ages 10–up. (Jan.)

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher. Dial, $17.99 (448p) ISBN 978-0-8037-3396-1

Fisher (the Oracle Prophesies series) scores a resounding success in this beautifully imagined science fantasy set in a far future where, many years earlier, civilization was artificially frozen at late-medieval levels in order to save the world from dangerous technologies. Simultaneously, all of the world's malcontents and madmen were sealed into an unimaginably vast, sentient prison named Incarceron, where a dedicated group of social engineers intended to create utopia. Claudia, the brilliant daughter of the cold-blooded warden of Incarceron, has been raised from birth to marry and eventually control Caspar, the simpleminded heir to the throne. Finn, a young man without a past, is a prisoner in Incarceron, which has become a hideous dystopia, an “abyss that swallows dreams.” When Claudia and Finn each gain possession of a high-tech “key” to the prison, they exchange messages, and Finn asks Claudia to help him attempt an escape. While he negotiates the hideous maze of the prison, Claudia makes her way through the equally deadly labyrinth of political intrigue. Complex and inventive, with numerous and rewarding mysteries, this tale is certain to please. Ages 12–up. (Jan.)

Children's Comics

Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai by Stan Sakai. Dark Horse, $14.95 (64p) ISBN 978-1-59582-362-5

The heroic but sweet-tempered samurai rabbit celebrates the 25th anniversary of his first appearance in comics with this fully painted hardcover. Yokai are the evil supernatural creatures who can invade this world on dark nights; Usagi is walking through a forest on such a night when a distraught mother begs him to find her daughter, who's been stolen by a shape-changing kitsune. He meets a variety of hostile spirits and demons as he undertakes that mission. He also encounters his enigmatic acquaintance Sasuke the Demon Queller, from whom he learns that the yokai are gathering to swarm into the human world and conquer it. It's up to the two anthropomorphized little animals to stop them. Sakai's art deftly demonstrates that comics can be simultaneously cartoony and scary, especially in a double-page spread of the Demon Queen and her hoard; moreover, the comic's design, linework, and coloring are simply lovely. Unlike the bleak cynicism of many contemporary comics, this beautifully produced little book shows how much love Sakai still has for his rabbit ronin. A 2009 Eisner Award nominee for Best Continuing Series, Usagi Yojimbo is a genuine pleasure for readers of all ages. Ages 9–12. (Dec.)