Sunny Side Up by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm

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Earlier today, I read Sunny Side Up, the new graphic novel by the brother and sister team behind the very popular Babymouse series.  This one, a semi-autographical story based on their childhood, is for a reader a bit older – I would recommend it to kids ages 10 and over. As I read, I kept thinking of how much those Raina Telgemeier fans are going to love this book!  It’s the natural next book for the readers of Smile and Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl.

Sunny Side Up takes place in 1976, when ten-year-old Sunny spends the summer with her grandfather in Florida while her parents devote time to Dale, Sunny’s older brother’s who is making increasingly risky decisions.  Naturally, when Sunny hears Florida, she thinks Disney World , but her grandfather lives in a retirement community and his idea of a day out is a trip to the grocery store. Luckily for Sunny, there’s Buzz, the groundskeeper’s son, who introduces her to the world of superheroes and comic books. Interspersed with Sunny’s and Buzz’s adventures are flashbacks to the situation that led to Sunny’s summer in Florida. While these are sobering moments, Sunny Side Up is an upbeat (even “sunny”) story of a young girl who cares about her family – and ultimately gets to visit Disney World!

I’m about the same age at Jennifer Holm so the references to products and events from 1976 made this an especially fun read. Sunny’s bedroom includes a copy of Tiger Beat magazine and pictures of Dorothy Hamill!

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I read another book today – but it was much shorter, in fact only 32 pages with minimal text. But I loved it.  Job Wanted by Teresa Bateman is one of those picture books that is made for reading aloud to a group of kids – which means I’ll be reading it again very soon.

The story opens with an “old farm dog” with an empty stomach looking for a job. “Do you need a dog?” he asks the first farmer he sees. The farmer doesn’t give the dog the response he wants: “Dogs just eat and don’t give anything back. They’re not like cows, or horses or chickens that pay for their keep.”

Of course, the dog (who is expressive and lovable) finds creative ways to prove his value and there is a satisfying ending.  The illustrator, Chris Sheban, clearly had some fun with Bateman’s story. The farmer wears glasses, but his eyes can’t be seen through them. Is he pointing out that the farmer can’t see the great dog standing right in front of him? By the last page, it’s clear the farmer gets it!

One more thing….

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A librarian from Ohio (who works with my sister) sent me this awesome diagram – which conveys an entirely recognizable situation. I’ve traveled to places carrying more books than I could possibly read – with the knowledge that I will purchase books during the trip. Of course, I’ve tried e-readers, but something is lost with the words on the screen. It feels like I’m reading one long e-mail. Like many readers, I carry my heavy tote bag from one place to another and keep my eyes open for the next bookstore!

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

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Ali Benjamin’s debut novel, The Thing About Jellyfish, won’t be in bookstores until September 22, but the buzz has been building for months. The Thing About Jellyfish received starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Booklist. The IndieNext Kids list will feature it as one of their top ten picks for fall – and it’s on every list of notable fall releases I’ve seen.

This weekend, thanks to my friends at Buttonwood Books and Toys, I was able to borrow an advance reading copy. Benjamin’s novel is over 300 pages long, and I read it in two sittings. After reading the last page, I sat on the deck quietly, hesitant to break the book’s spell – and overwhelmed by its wisdom, beauty, and heart.

Suzy Swanson is a twelve-year-old girl who is struggling to understand why, at the end of 6th grade, everyone around her seems to be changing – especially her closest friend, Franny Jackson. Hurting from Franny’s decision to join a popular group of girls, Suzy immerses herself more deeply in her commitment to science and facts. But during the summer before they start 7th grade, Franny unexpectedly drowns and Suzy retreats into a world of silence.

On a school trip to an aquarium, Suzy becomes convinced that Franny died from the sting of a jellyfish and she sets out to learn everything she can about them.  “I could tell you a lot about jellyfish – more than you’ve probably ever thought to wonder,” Suzy reports. She is determined to solve the mystery of Franny’s death and relieve her crippling guilt about something she did that damaged their friendship.

Inspired by her understanding and caring science teacher, Suzy approaches her study of jellyfish – and Franny’s death – using the scientific method. She states her purpose, explains her procedure, does thorough research, and presents her findings.  Suzy has the support of her divorced parents, her brother and his boyfriend, and a new friend at school, but until she navigates the rocky path through her grief, she is unable to let them help her. Ultimately, Suzy understands the hard truth that “sometimes things just happen.”

This is a book that can be recommended to adults, as well as to thoughtful young readers, ages 11 and over.

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Recently, I read an article on The Atlantic’s website by Egyptian author, Alaa Al Aswany, called “How Literature Inspires Empathy,” and I copied this passage:

“I define fiction this way: It’s life on the page, similar to our daily life, but more significant, deeper, and more beautiful. What is significant in our daily lives should be visible in the novel, and deeper because we live many moments which are superficial—not deep, not profound. The novel should be more significant, more profound, and more beautiful, than real life.”

There are lots of middle grade novels that inspire empathy, but here are five recommendations:

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The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

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El Deafo by Cece Bell

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Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

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Wonder by R.J. Palacio

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The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney

 

Summer Photo Edition….

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A key element of a happy summer is visiting a new or favorite independent bookstore – with an unlimited amount of time.  Luckily, our summer included a visit to one of the best stores in the country – Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont.  A few years ago, after many fellow readers recommended Northshire to us, we went to the store and knew immediately that it was a special place. You could feel it as soon as you walked in the door. As we drove into Manchester last week, I was fearful that that it would not be the place I remembered – that it wouldn’t hold up to my idealized memories. But it does – and our three visits over two days were some of the best hours of the summer.

My husband and I have different approaches. He covered about a third of the store during each visit – going slowly, section by section, and never looking ahead. I’m the opposite. Within five minutes of walking through the front door, I had been to every corner of the first floor and checked out the children’s section on the second floor. I need to see the layout and make a plan.  For example, after seeing the huge selection of children’s and young adult books, I knew that would require a dedicated visit.

Here are some pictures from the first floor which includes lots of regional books and gifts – even some Bernie Sanders swag!

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What made my visit to the children’s section so memorable was talking with Aubrey, one of the children’s department’s booksellers. We discussed Rebecca Stead’s new novel, Goodbye Stranger, Mosquitoland by David Arnold, The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benajamin (which I’m reading now), and George by Alex Gino. It was fun to exchange quick reviews, recommendations, and favorites with someone so knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

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Another highlight of our summer was the Roz Chast exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I’ve always loved her funny and wise New Yorker cartoons about stress and anxiety, and last year’s graphic memoir about the death of her parents, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, is one of the most honest and beautiful books I’ve ever read.  So when I heard there was a major exhibit of Chast’s work in Stockbridge, I was committed to seeing it.

I took some pictures, but it’s on display until October 26 – so if you’re traveling in the Berkshires…

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Link to information about the exhibit:

http://www.nrm.org/digital/rozchast/

Random things:

One thing I noticed during our short trip to Vermont is that it seems to be a place where people go after most of us think they are gone. The Kipling sign is in front of a parking space. And Elvis apparently lives in a post office:

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And, finally, the other day I looked at two books I had put aside to read next. Look at the colors!  Different publishers – but clearly the colors to use on middle grade book covers right now….

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Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon

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A few months ago I read a young adult book about love. A common enough subject – but Nicola Yoon’s debut novel, Everything, Everything is different. It’s not only about love between two young people experiencing its joys and challenges for the first time, but other kinds of love as well.

Maddy is a 17-year-old – half Japanese and half African-American – girl who has never gone to school or the mall or to a friend’s birthday party. She has a rare disease that requires her to live indoors in a climate-controlled apartment. I was thinking about similarities to The Fault in Our Stars as I started reading, but Yoon’s novel is something different.

As Tolstoy said, “All great literature is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” So I knew that Maddy’s unquestioning acceptance of her situation was going to be challenged when a “stranger”  (in the form of a new family moving next door) “comes to town.” Among the family members is Olly, the first boy Maddy has ever known.

I wondered how Yoon was going to connect Rapunzel with her neighbor, but seeing each other through a window solves that problem. And it’s not long before Olly holds up a sign with his email address for Maddy to see.  She writes first: “Hello. I guess we should start with introductions? My name is Madeleine Whittier, but you can tell that from my e-mail address. What’s yours?”  And that’s it – a conversation and a challenge begin.

Yoon fills her novel with e-mails and IM messages and Maddy’s health charts and schedules and lots of other stuff which provide energy and immediacy to the story. I found myself turning the pages faster and faster to see how this impossible situation was going to resolve itself. But there are some twists and turns along the way.

Everything, Everything will be published on September 1. I recommend it to readers ages 13 and over because spoiler alert: they find a way to get together!

Yoon’s novel was just given a starred review from Kirkus and it is the September selection of the Parnassus (Ann Patchett’s independent bookstore in Nashville) Young Adult Book Club.

 

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

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Roller Girl, a graphic novel by Victoria Jamieson, has been on my list all summer and finally – over the weekend – I read it in two gulps, both of which flew by as fast as a roller derby (which I now know something about!)…..

The reviews by both professional sources and friends in the business were so glowing that Roller Girl is on Inly’s summer reading list, and I plan to find the kids who read it as soon as school starts. This is a book to recommend to every young person going through all of the hard stuff that comes along with adolescence – new interests, navigating changing friendships, and tensions in family relationships.

As Roller Girl begins, twelve-year-old Astrid has a happy life. She’s close to her mother and shares everything with her long-time best friend, Nicole. But after Astrid’s mother takes both girls to a roller derby event, Astrid’s life changes. She wants to sign up for roller derby camp the next day and assumes Nicole will want to join her.  But Nicole is becoming more interested in ballet – and her friends from ballet class. Although the idea of doing something without Nicole is hard for her, Astrid signs up anyway.  The classes are hard, and Astrid is bumped and bruised and ends many practices feeling discouraged. At home she misses Nicole, but feels new connections with the girls at roller derby camp.  As Astrid becomes more determined to overcome her fears of roller derby, she also navigates the complicated world of friendship.

I have never seen a roller derby or met a young person who participates in it, but one of the most appealing things about Roller Girl is the chance to learn about a sport that, at least in this part of the country, is not very well known.  I also loved Jamieson’s emphasis on the transition of a young person from the relatively simple emotions of childhood to the far more complex feelings of adolescence. In that way, I was reminded of the movie, Inside Out.

On a completely different note, I saw a list of notable fall releases and these are the books that caught my eye….

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The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende (a WWII era novel)

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M Train by Patti Smith (looking forward to October 6 – publication date for Smith’s new book. This one is about places that are meaningful to the singer and writer)

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The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff (The author of Cleopatra writing about the Salem Witch Trials, and it’s awesome that the book is being released during Halloween week!)

Looking way ahead, but worth marking your spring 2016 calendar….

Some Writer! – a picture book biography of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet, the illustrator of, among other books, The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, a 2015 Caldecott Honor Book.

 

Simmons Center for the Study of Children’s Literature: Summer Institute

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Unknown-1This summer has not gone as planned, to put it mildly. After the adventure I’ve had over the past three weeks, my advice to you is this: check for ticks. For such tiny parasites, they can certainly cause havoc.

One of the things I was most looking forward to this summer was the Summer Institute at Simmons, a three-day conference featuring the authors of books for children and young adults, master’s seminars, opportunities to talk with teachers and librarians, and to reconnect with other graduates of the Simmons Masters in Children’s Literature program.  So, while my unwelcome visitor caused me to miss most of the conference, I did participate on Saturday and it was so worthwhile.  Among Saturday’s speakers were:

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Kwame Alexander – the 2015 Newbery winner for his novel in verse, The Crossover

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Rita Williams-Garcia – the author of many young adult novels and the award-winning middle grade trilogy: One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven, and Gone Crazy in Alabama

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A Panel of Illustrators, including Shadra Strickland, David Hyde-Costello, and Hyewon Yum

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Emily Jenkins – author of Toys Go Out, That New Animal and Five Creatures — and as young adult author E. Lockhart, the author of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and We Were Liars.

Although all of the speakers were interesting and inspiring, it was Emily Jenkins’s presentation that I found especially moving. She was a generous speaker – warm and honest. At the end of her talk, I felt like gathering all of the books she’s written (as both Jenkins and Lockhart) and re-reading every one of them!

Jenkins had a peripatetic childhood – living on several communes with her mother, visiting her father in New York City, and her grandmother on Martha’s Vineyard.  Books, she said, were her stability. She loved Pippi Longstocking because she “created a home for herself.” She was a fan of The Boxcar Children because of their “fantasy of self sufficiency.”  She also talked about the importance of a 1978 book called Getting Organized by Stephanie Winston. (I just checked – you can buy a used copy on Amazon). Winston’s book belonged to her grandmother and it was about making a home, a topic that resonated with Jenkins. Although, as she pointed out, a young girl was not the target audience for this book, she read Getting Organized over and over until Winston’s book was part of the experience of visiting her grandmother.

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It brought me back to my grandmother’s house in Kettering, Ohio. She had a cabinet of paperback romances, and I pretty much made my way through the entire shelf – several times. My favorite was a book called Sally’s True Love – an Amish romance. (yes, it’s embarrassing now) Years later, thanks to a web specializing in romance novels, I found a copy and bought it. Just looking at it reminds me of sitting on the floor in front of that cabinet reading one romance after another. I wouldn’t have been interested in those books in any other setting, but sitting there felt like home.

Jenkins also talked about the importance of children owning books, not to the exclusion of visiting the library, but in addition. Owning books makes them “part of your internal picture of home,” she said. “You share your life with them.”  And my favorite line of the whole day was Jenkins’s definition of home as “the place where she keeps her books.”

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I’m a little behind on my reading this summer (due to the previously mentioned varmint), and there are so many books I should be reading, but last night when I was selecting my next book to read, I decided to read exactly what I want to read with no feelings of guilt. I’m reading Re Jane by Patricia Park. I first heard about Parks’ novel, an updated version of Jane Eyre, from Maureen Corrigan on Fresh Air (http://www.npr.org/2015/06/02/411457923/four-books-that-deliver-unexpected-and-delightful-surprises-this-summer).

That was in early June. Since then, I’ve read several glowing reviews, and yesterday, author Jean Kwok talked about it on NPR’s Weekend Edition.  That sealed the deal. I’m on Chapter Four and it’s wonderful. The other books can wait.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

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As always, my winter dreams of summer reading bump up against reality.  There’s always something that gets in the way of my plan. This year it’s a virus that has hung around way too long – which explains my blog silence and my low summer reading count.  But yesterday, I finished David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, which was worth every hour I devoted to it.

In a personal act of hometown pride, McCullough’s new biography jumped to the top of my stack the day it was published. The Wright Brothers are the pride of Dayton, Ohio – my hometown.  I knew their basic story and, in fact, grew up not too far from the house Orville lived in between 1914 and his death in 1948.  I’m not proud to admit this, but my only hesitation in reading McCullough’s book was that it would devote countless pages to the mechanical aspects of flying.  As a frequent airline passenger, maybe I should care more about this, but I just can’t do it.

I could not have been more wrong. McCullough’s book in an inspiring and truly amazing story of perseverance and true genius.  What comes through most clearly is how incredibly true both Wilbur and Orville were to themselves and their home. After years working in quiet obscurity, they ultimately were honored by titled people all over the world, but as McCullough writes:

“For all they had seen and done, the unprecedented glory bestowed on them, it had by all signs neither changed them nor turned their heads in the least. There was no boasting, no preening, no getting too big for their britches, as said, and it was this, almost as much as their phenomenal achievements, that was so greatly admired.

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There were lots of places when I had an “I never knew that” moment. For example, I didn’t know that when Charles Lindbergh returned from his historic flight to Paris, he visited Orville Wright in Dayton.  It was also interesting to consider what a relatively short time there was between their first flights in 1903 and planes being used to drop bombs in WWII.

I’ll be in Ohio in a few weeks and my first stop will be Carillon Park, the home of the original 1905 Wright Flyer.

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There’s another book in my life – one that I haven’t read, but feels like a big elephant sitting in the corner of the room. Go Set a Watchman is causing me pain. I’m going to read it. I think.  I’ve read the reviews and know what’s waiting for me. I even listened to an hour-long discussion on WBUR’s On Point about the controversy. The guests made convincing arguments about a more realistic and complex view of Atticus, rather than the idealistic figure of To Kill a Mockingbird. That could be true, and I don’t shy away from complex characters – they’re my favorites. But I think I just need some time to sit with this one.  I’m having trouble squaring the Atticus who tells young Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it”  with the Atticus who says: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

There are lots of books to read – the elephant can stay in its corner for now.