Creative use of staircases

It was only after finishing the last page that I fully remembered the first book in this series, Truly Devious. 

Yes, it was a book that barreled to the end, full of twists and turns and surprises.  Yes, it was in a nice, perfect kind of closed setting – a boarding school with a past and many, many secrets and even some tunnels.  Yes, the detective in question was a quirky and super smart young woman.  All of these things I like.

But the ending.  The ending annoyed me, because I was going to have to wait for a sequel, this sequel.  And I am not going to do the research to figure out if that ending also annoyed me in the same way this one did, perhaps because it sped along, full force, until it just stopped.  Ended.  Many things left unexplained.  A lot of questions to wonder about.

So here we are.  I’m super annoyed.  Loose strings everywhere and no answers in sight for far too long.  Grrr. 

If you haven’t read the first one, read it.  But maybe wait until the whole series is out there in the world, because if you don’t, you’ll be like me.  And while I am undeniably fabulous and wonderful on most days, I am also a wee bit grumpy right now.  Avoid that, my friends.

The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson

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Open your eyes

“I felt like a newborn whose eyes have just opened to the light,” said Wilma Mankiller about finding a home at the Oakland Indian Center, making connections with other tribal communities, going to traditional dances, and listening to traditional stories.

So much of her life is accessible to many kinds of people – having a kind of funny name that kids at school mock, not fitting in to the community your parents move to, ending up in relationships that don’t match who you really are, finding your place among a community you love.  Her life is full of experiences all kids can relate to, even if they don’t match their own perfectly.

And it’s a life that should be lifted up as ground-breaking and powerful.  Wow.

Wilma’s Way Home: the life of Wilma Mankiller by Doreen Rappaport and Linda Kukuk

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The absence of …

Art can add whole different layers to a story, and this adaptation of The Giver is a complex and chilling expansion of everything I believed I saw in the original text.   Lois Lowry notes in the conversation with the author at the end that some fans come to the story by way of the play or the movie, and that this adaptation just becomes one more way to share it. 

For me, it’s the perfect example of how one story can speak to you as a reader or listener or watcher in many ways. Sometimes a new version will bring out something you didn’t notice before. Sometimes new eyes will create a whole new perspective on a world.  Superb.

The Giver:  the graphic novel adaptation by Lois Lowry, adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell

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Devoting a Saturday to Death’s daughters

Robin LaFevers does not mess around when she writes a book.  This one is almost 500 pages long, so it’s not for the meek or faint of heart.  But it IS a book that almost makes you wish for the awful weather we had not long ago, so that you can stay in and read all day, cozy on the couch.

Courting Darkness is the first of two books to follow on the His Fair Assassin trilogy.  I’m not sure you have to read the trilogy first, but it’s great, so if you’ve got the time, do that first.  This one is full of just as much political intrigue as the others, but it’s fascinating to see medieval history through the lens of empowered women – how would you survive that?  What choices would you have?  What power could you possess? 

My only frustration is that it ends with some situations unresolved, and that it ends at all (I want more!) – but it’s the first of two, right?  I should have expected it, but it will make the wait an especially long one.  Grrr. 

Courting Darkness by Robin LaFevers

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Seeing who you are, seeing who others are…

Some books make you re-think episodes in your own life, even if you are nothing like the main character.

Jordan is a black seventh-grader going to a new school, a prestigious private school his parents want him to try out instead of going to an art school.  There are so many layers to his new life – how his relationships in the neighborhood might change, the long commute and the different personas he takes on over the trip, how he’ll fit in as one of the few kids of color, how kids and adults will make assumptions about him based on their own expectations for who he is and what he’s doing there, and also money.  How do you navigate all that perfectly?

What’s universal is the whole challenge of being new – at a school, in a job, in a new community, in a place full of people mostly NOT like you. 

What’s powerful  is the way Jordan and other kids sometimes name the quiet racism and blanket of expectations that come along with the school and its population, and how they connect around it all. 

Some years ago, back when I worked with kids, several took an opportunity to go to a private school on scholarship.   Their experiences were not so different from Jordan’s, even though they lived in the Midwest.  Kids made assumptions that one of the boys must be in a gang, because his pants were hanging low and he lived in what they saw as “the hood.”  Others found themselves listening to kids talk about trips to the Virgin Islands and Paris (over spring break) as if it was no big deal.  One spoke up in class when another student made disparaging remarks about the homeless, saying that she’d been homeless, so the others shouldn’t sit around and judge people for what they didn’t understand. 

Mirrors and windows – we all need them, now more than ever.    A really wonderful book.

New Kid by Jerry Craft

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On the search for unicorns…

If you are looking for a cute, sweet, glittery unicorn, move right on.   This horse with a tall hat (or unicorn) is just a silly walk through a goofy park, with a twist of believing-in-the-unbelievable thrown in.  Perfect.

Do You Believe in Unicorns? by Bethanie Deeney Murguia

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When the chatterbox saves the day…

There is nothing quite like the young talker.  Want to know what they’re thinking?  You already do!  They are constitutionally incapable of keeping any idea in their young brain.  They must share.  And it’s actually pretty fun most of the time.  That golden period almost always ends, though – hello, adolescence!

Except in the case of Wordy Birdy.  Wordy Birdy might just be a little annoying, even to all the animal friends who want to go camping together.  There’s just so darn much to share – the trees are amazing, there are stars to look at, wishes to make, natural features to love

But Wordy Birdy is also a genius of protective chatter.  When Mr. Cougarpants – so named by Wordy Birdy – shows up to maybe eat the friends, a really chatty bird is just what the situation needs.  Wordy Birdy can talk her way out of danger.  (Talkative animals are apparently not as tasty, you see.)

Much fun! 

Wordy Birdy Meets Mr. Cougarpants by Tammi Sauer and Dave Mottram

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Why? Why? Why?

So many questions and secrets.  Fionn, more than anyone else on this island, seems to not know what the heck is going on.  He’s just arrived, leaving behind a mother struggling with depression.  He and his incredibly difficult older sister are set to stay with his grandfather for the summer.  His sister seems to know things about the island and others hint, but his grandfather, who has all the answers, is careful with information.  There are weird candles all over the house, mostly labeled with weather events.  There are also creepy and kind of mean people, who seem to resent Fionn for things he knows nothing about and/or want information from him that he doesn’t have.

Again and again, he has questions.  So he makes mistakes and does things he shouldn’t.  Are people just setting him up?

I liked a lot of things about this book, and I realize that the book would not make a lot of sense if Fionn, like one of the other characters, had been brought up in the lore of the island.  He’d understand what happened to his dad, maybe, or he’d recognize the power of things he didn’t understand. 

But I had questions, too.  If his family was trying to protect him, wouldn’t information be power?  How can he be expected to do the right thing or fight the right fight if he is clueless about it all? 

Also, I spent a large part of the book expecting what our family jokingly calls the “this will be the final battle” moment.  But it turns out, the ending was more of a “this will be a sort of cliffhanger” moment.  I will be shocked, shocked, shocked if this is not part of a series, and it’s too bad to end the first one with such a whoomp of “Wait a minute!  What about defeating that evil sorceress?”

A good book, but still kind of disappointing.  Or maybe I’m just in a cranky mood.  Winter will do that to a gal.

The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle

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Elitist pandas in need of hats

Lady Coco Fitz-Tulip is definitely part of the 1%.  She cuts in line, waves around her invitation to an exclusive party, and wears a hat any baby bunny would recognize as food not fashion.  What can you do, if you’re Mr. Pockles and have a fabulous hat collection, and all you really want to do is go show them off at the exclusive panda gatherings?

Rise above, Mr. Pockles!  Help Lady Coco Fitz-Tulip!  Maybe those elitist pandas will turn out to be more democratic and welcoming than they seem.  A happy  and very inclusive ending might be on the way…

Hats off to Mr. Pockles by Sally Lloyd-Jones and David Litchfield

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Getting to perfect

Any mom or dad who’s finally managed to clear the toddler toys from the floor and create some open space can understand Eraser’s dilemma. 

Why are those pencils so darn cheery and fantastically messy?  It is clean, people!  Why do you have to go and mess it up again? 

Fortunately, there are lessons in creativity to be learned, even from the messy and annoying pencil types.  Maybe you will find a new way to create by uncovering something?  Perhaps you will find yourself in a rocket to the moon!  Anything can happen!

Perfect by Max Amato

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Another reason not to clean

The road to friendship  can be filled with obstacles – ants that don’t seem to care, sneezing cats, brooms!  Good grief! Just by sweeping the floor, I could be limiting a dust bunny’s options!  Who knew?

Apparently, Amy Hevron knew.  This sweet and almost wordless picture book reminds us all that sometimes friendship comes from unexpected (and even bad) experiences.  There you are, about to meet your doom, and new friends appear!  Hallelujah!

Dust Bunny Wants a Friend by Amy Hevron

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Be your own superhero

Pay attention, you powerful people who don’t want to listen to those park-loving tree-huggers from the neighborhood.  Timothy Top is here, and while he may seem to be a bullied-and-tired-of-it, ignored-by-his-troubled-parents kind of kid, deep inside he has a special power. 

I might question who gave his teacher a teaching license (mocking the kids in your class is generally frowned upon these days) and wonder about the future of his classmates (future thugs and serial killers, perhaps?) but Timothy is a small light shining in the darkness.  Tree lover?  Yes.  Superhero?  Perhaps.

Timothy Top, Book One, The Green Pig by Gud

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Plant and grow, seeds and stories

It’s not just the inspirational life story that grabs you here – arriving in New York from Puerto Rico, becoming a library storyteller, creating and building on what you do, bringing the community in… and puppets!  Did I mention the puppets? 

It’s also the vibrant, colorful, city life in the images – the skyline, the library, the people, the plants – that make this a really wonderful book.  Social change, librarians, puppets – so much to celebrate!

Planting Stories:  the life of librarian and storyteller Pura Belpré by Anika Aldamuy Denise and Paola Escobar

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Who is hoarding the eggs in this forest? And why?

This is one of those classicly Stone Soup kind of stories.  Mouse wants to make an omelet.  After a few other animals don’t have any eggs to share, the omelet turns into a cake that everyone wants to make.  Before you know it, you’ve got all kinds of ingredients, except the elusive egg.  Finally, finally, an egg will be found, a cake will be made, and a lesson will be learned.

My question: would it make you uncomfortable to ask a blackbird for an egg?  Maybe it’s a little odd, but these animals are living in that alternate universe where the owl is the one with the oven, so no worries!

Good Morning, Neighbor by Davide Cali and Maria Dek

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Wacky doesn’t even begin to cover this

Who knew that frozen fruit bars could be so aggressive?  And apparently asparagus can carry some really big and unfocused grudges at the world, or at least at the relatively warm fridge section.  

It’s hard to even know how to describe this one… silly?  odd?  charming?  goofy?

Let’s just say that it’s different in a good way, as most things with characters like Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast would be.

Mission Defrostable by Josh Funk and Brendan Kearney

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More snow? Buck up, buttercups! Spring is on the way!

So apparently we’ve recently surpassed some kind of lots-of-snow record from the late 1800s.  Are we tired of snow here?  We are!  I’m just hoping that this will not turn into the spring a few years ago that included inches of snow in April and a super dreary May.

But spring will be coming, people.  One way or another, there are going to be some flowers and sunshine in our futures.  And Bloom Boom! is the perfect reminder of how exciting and bright and beautiful that is.  It rhymes a little, but not in an annoying way, and is perfectly paced to work in a great interactive “boom!” for the kids listening.

And the pictures?  Thank you, flowers!  Thank you, leaves!  Thank you, blooms!

Bloom Boom by April Pulley Sayre

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Other ways in

Not long ago, a library patron who’s trying to read outside of her normal zones asked me about graphic novels.  She seemed to think that if she tried something there, she’d probably have to read about superheroes or slog through comic strips or something along those lines which would not interest her one bit.

But the sky was blue, and the sun was shining that day!  I love, love, love to tell people about all the alternatives in graphic novels.  You can find inspiring biographies, stories of refugees fleeing persecution, the lives of artists, and so much more.  Graphic novels can be a way into a complicated or beautiful story that reaches out to readers in different ways.

Oddly enough, another patron  – not someone you might imagine as the stereotypical comics reader – had just been telling me about this book, a graphic version of Anne Frank’s diary.  It’s a piercing reinvention of Anne Frank’s life and world, with her words (although some are left out – see the adapter’s note) and art that grabs at you in a kind of sneaky way sometimes.  Definitely worth a look.

Anne Frank’s Diary: the graphic adaptation, adapted by Ari Folman, illustrated by David Polonsky

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Purple is for unicorns, because…unicorns!

Some years ago, I had to try to explain why Americans think pink is for girls to a woman from another part of the world.  A “helpful” person had told her that she shouldn’t put her baby boy in pink – a perfectly nice pink sleeper on a baby!  who cares? – because only girls wear pink here.  Sigh.  I had never really questioned this particular cultural thing, so it was a little eye-opening for me, and probably started me down the wicked path I’m on now. Ha.

Anyway, this book is a sweet one.  All the colors of the rainbow are pretty wonderful if you think about it.  Why not try them all?

Pink is for Boys by Robb Pearlman and Eda Kaban

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Beautiful language…shapes and sounds

We often think about language being beautiful because of the sound, but until you seek languages that look different from your own – like Thai to an English reader – you don’t always think about the actual letters being beautiful.  This creation story from the Old Testament – a poetic version that bubbles with visual imagery –is enhanced exponentially by the use of the Hebrew letters (and words) to tell the story, and it works even if you don’t know any Hebrew.  How cool is that?

The information on the publisher’s website suggests this book was created for young Jewish readers, but it’s a wonderful example of a story (and some very cool art) that can be shared across diverse groups.

And There was Evening and There Was Morning by Harriet Cohen Helfand and Ellen Kahan Zager

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Valentine’s Day with some handmaidens of Death

If you were hoping for something sweet and gooey and romantic today,  you are most definitely out of luck.

But if you’re looking for a really wonderful YA series about young women living in a convent of St. Mortain in medieval Brittany (France) centuries ago, you are in the right place.  Is anyone looking for that?  Well, if you’re not, you should be.  I’m rereading one of them, Mortal Heart, right now, and it’s just as good as it was the first time I read it – dark and brooding at times, but full of intrigue, history, and strong women.  Perfect for the miserable weather we’re having!

Robin LaFevers is a wonderful writer, right up there with Kathi Appelt. (Regular readers will recognize her name from all my fangirling over her writing for young folks. If you have somehow missed her writing, I urge you to do something about that right NOW.)  LaFevers’ His Fair Assassin series has been a favorite of mine since it started some years ago, and she also wrote a great middle grade series about Theodosia, a young archaeologist/detective.  She has a new book, Courting Darkness, which is in the same universe as His Fair Assassins, so there is more fun to come very soon. 

Rereading is such a great way to reconnect with characters and authors you love.  So think of someone who’s made your life better through their book and make them your valentine by picking up a favorite book.  Hey!  I’m sweet and gooey after all.  Now where’s the dark chocolate?

A side note … Kathi Appelt also has a new book coming out, Angel Thieves, if you’re looking for something else to throw on your list of to-be-read books.

Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers

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