Tuesday, January 31, 2017

And The Winner Is...

How do you feel when it's time for the Youth Media Awards? Or when you read any of the award and "Best Books" types of lists?

I know some librarians get excited about it and look forward to seeing if their picks won, but I'm always left feeling a mixture of frustration, inadequacy, and WTF?? when I see these lists. I always find that even though I read quite a bit (never as much as I'd like!), I've only read about 3-4 of all the winners and honorees, and I'm only familiar with probably another half-dozen or so. This is what makes me feel frustrated and inadequate. As an almost children's librarian, I feel like I should be more "in the know" and in sync with what others in the profession think are the best books. While I do try to read books if several people mention it, usually I just grab what interests me off the "New" shelf when we get them. Clearly, the people on these awards committees and I have very different tastes! 

So for the next couple of months, I'm playing catch up and trying to read (or at least flip through) as many of the winners and honorees as I can. Some of them I find I really like a lot and see why they were chosen, but then many others I look at and and I'm completely underwhelmed and baffled why it was chosen. I often wonder what am I missing here? Am I out of touch? Or am I just more focused on what kids would like while the committees are more interested in prioritizing diversity, promoting alternate formats (free verse, graphic novels, wordless books, etc.), and leaning more towards what appeals to adults??

This is often particularly true of the Caldecott winners and honor books. I rarely like them! I can sometimes appreciate the artwork and the story and find it appealing to adults, but usually I can't imagine them appealing to a child. I haven't even seen the winner (Radiant Child) because my system doesn't even own it because it was felt it wouldn't circulate (and I'm sure it won't after all the librarians and teachers have seen it). They All Saw A Cat was okay, but seemed like a good idea that could have been executed much better. I found the text dull and awkward, and the artwork sloppy. 

Du Is Tak? was cute at first, but went on too long, and I feel like this kind of thing has been done before. Plus the illustrations were very small. I wouldn't use either of these in storytime. Freedom In Congo Square is one I don't know would particularly appeal to kids, though something a teacher might select. I know storytime use certainly isn't the only purpose for picture books, but it does tend to be the metric I'm interested in, and I don't think I've ever been excited to use a recent Caldecott book in storytime. I am also very disappointed that Ida Always was not at least an honoree!

I tend to fare a bit better with the Newbery's, though sometimes I still think they are just ok, and nothing special. I did like all of last year's honorees, and though fantasy and magical realism aren't my thing, I did find The Girl Who Drank The Moon to be a very well-written and beautifully told story and I enjoyed it quite a bit, and think it will appeal to some kids, but not others. 

I haven't had a chance to read the honor books yet except for Freedom Over Me (also a Coretta Scott King honor book), which I thought was ok, but I'd rather know real stories of slaves, rather than fictitious ones, and I wasn't impressed with the artwork. As Brave As You (Coretta Scott King honor book & Schneider winner) was pretty good, reminded me a bit of Gone Crazy In Alabama.

I was pleased to see Girl Mans Up as a finalist for the Morris award for first-time teen lit authors, though disappointed it wasn't in the finalists for the Stonewall award for LGTBQ literature. I did think the Stonewall winner for YA LGBTQ literature, If I Was Your Girl was also a very good book. It was a very well-told story, and while it might be a little unrealistic in a couple of points (which the author addresses in the endnotes) I think it sends a needed positive and hopeful message to transgender teens, though I think it's a good story for anyone to read. I was, however, a bit surprised that the Hammer of Thor was the middle-grade winner. 

The Printz winners and honorees are almost always too bizarre or depressing for me, but I was pleasantly surprised to see The Sun Is Also A Star as a Printz honoree and King/Steptoe Newcomer Award winner, as I enjoyed that one quite a bit. I love how it tied up all the loose ends and had an ending that gave closure, yet was still open-ended. I hate loose ends and unfinished storylines! 

Well, that's it for what I've had a chance to read so far. I've included links to my reviews of any books mentioned that I've reviewed, and you can also go the the SLJ article to get the complete list, with covers and links to SLJ reviews for most of them.

So how did you fare with this year's winners? Were you left feeling vindicated and confident in your librarian skills, inspired to read some great books you had missed, or left feeling like you're a bit off the bubble and struggling to catch up like me?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard. September 6, 2016. Harper-Collins. 384 pages. Teen & up.

Sixteen-year old Pen (short for Penelope) has always been different from other girls. She prefers to wear her brother's clothes, cuts her hair short, and is just one of the guys with her friends Colby and Tristan. But though she may prefer to look more like a boy, and is attracted to other girls, she doesn't want to be a boy. She knows who she is and how she wants to be, and doesn't think of herself as "lesbian" or "queer" and definitely not "transgender". She doesn't really understand why other people feel the need to question her about her sexuality or gender and try to label it.

Unfortunately for Pen, her parents are very "Old World" Portuguese, all about outward appearances, traditional gender roles, and showing respect for ones elders by always doing what you're told. They are embarrassed by Pen's appearance and behavior, and try to force her to bend to their will and become a princesa, a girly-girl who is obedient to her parents and will grow up to be a wife and have babies like she is "supposed" to. At the same time things are coming to a head with her parents, Pen's relationship with her friend Colby begins to disintegrate, as he also becomes more and more controlling, pushing the bonds of friendship and loyalty to the breaking point.

Pen's older brother Johnny is a constant source of support, and she begins to develop two new relationships that finally help her realize that to be the kind of person she wants to be, she is going to have to "man up" and push back against those who want to control her.

My Thoughts 
At first I wasn't really quite sure what this book was about, but from reading the jacket summary, Pen sounded like a badass, and that combined with the conflict with old world Portuguese values intrigued me. This is not a "coming out" story or a LGBTQ romance (thought there is an element of romance in it), but really about the conflict between what one person wants for herself verses what everyone else expects, or rather demands, of her. It's also about friendships, loyalty, and recognizing when relationships have become toxic and realizing it's time to distance yourself. I think many people could relate to these themes, regardless of sexuality or gender.

I thought this story was very well-written and relatively fast paced, with characters that are well-developed and believable. Pen is tough and gritty and flawed, but also cares about other people, and has her friends' backs. I loved the relationship between Pen and her brother Johnny; without his love, acceptance, support, and running interference with their parents, Pen probably would have had a much harder time accepting herself and being comfortable in her own skin, and the story might have ended very differently.

I really enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to anyone looking for good books with LGBTQ characters, those who like characters that are somewhat tough and gritty, yet sympathetic, and anyone who can relate to having to deal with reconciling the expectations others have for them and what they want for themselves. 

About The Author
This is M-E Girard's debut novel, though she has written a couple of short stories that have been published in magazines or included in anthologies. Ironically, in addition to writing, she works as a nurse, which is what Pen's mother kept pushing her to do.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Magnus Chase: The Hammer of Thor

The Hammer of Thor (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard #2) by Rick Riordan. October 4, 2016. Disney-Hyperion. 480 pages. Ages 10-18.

After preventing the release of Fenris Wolf and stopping the beginning of Ragnarok (great battle leading to the end of the world), Magnus Chase is back at Valhalla, concerned about the recent disappearance of his friends Blitzen and Hearthstone and the fact that Thor's hammer, Mjolnir, is still missing, while the giants are threatening to invade Asgard.

Magnus and his friends are joined by a new einherji, Alex, who turns out to be another child of Loki, and is gender fluid. At first Alex is angry about being an einherji and lashes out at the others, but soon becomes part of the group and develops a friendship with Magnus.

Magnus is upset to learn that as part of his latest scheme, Loki has promised Sam's hand in marriage to a giant named Thrym, despite the fact she is already happily betrothed to Amir. After discovering that Thrym possesses Mjolnir, the group decides Sam must pay the dowry and pretend to go through with the wedding in order to retrieve Thor's hammer.

Can Magnus retrieve Thor's hammer and put a stop to Loki's nefarius plan before Sam ends up married to a nasty giant, or worse??

My Thoughts 
I did not find this second installment of Riordan's Norse mythology-inspired series nearly as engaging as the first one, and had a hard time getting into it at first. Part of it was the beginning seemed a little thin, and just didn't draw the reader in as well as the first book, and I think part of it was that it had been so long since I read the first book, plus I had read several others based on Norse mythology in between, so I had trouble remember past events and characters, and confusing parts of the various storylines. I wish I had read a summary of The Sword of Summer first to refresh my memory.

This book is pretty fast-paced, with many of the same characters returning from the first, as well as a new gender-fluid character who I wasn't really sure what to make of at first, and wondered if the character was really going to be integral to the story, or window dressing. I did find I grew to like the character of Alex the relationships she/he (the character seems to prefer gender-specific pronouns) began to form with Magnus and Sam. Like the first book, this story has a great deal of humor, from the character of Magnus' dry wit, and from the way the gods are portrayed. This is definitely not your classic mythology!

I was a little surprised that Annabeth Chase did not have a role in this book as I had expected. We don't see more than a brief mention of her until the end of the book, but she does drop a line that hints we may see a certain other character from Riordan's first series in the next book, The Ship of the Dead, which will be released on October 5, 2017, concluding the series.

Other Works By This Author
This book was preceded by the August, 2016, release of a companion book for the Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series, titled Hotel Valhalla Guide to the Norse Worlds, which is written in the format of a guidebook commissioned by Helgi, manager of Valhalla, in order to help orient new arrivals and answer common questions.

Rick Riordan has written many books based on Greco-Roman mythology and Egyptian mythology, including the series Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Percy Jackson and the Heroes of Olympus, The Kane Chronicles, The Trials of Apollo, numerous companion books, graphic novel versions of some of his books, and short story crossovers of Percy Jackson and the Kanes.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Some Good Scary Reads!

Since it's almost Halloween I thought I'd put together a quick re-cap of some of the books I have reviewed in the past year that are spooky, creepy, or scary in some way, since I don't have time to do a proper bibliography. These will range from middle grade through teen. Just click on the link for a full summary and review.

"Doll Bones" by Holly Black

"The Ghost of Graylock" by Dan Poblocki

"Fuzzy Mud" by Louis Sachar

"In The Shadow of Blackbirds" by Cat Winters

"Sweet" by Emmy Laybourne

Enjoy! I personally loved Doll Bones and In The Shadow Of Blackbirds.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Middle School book Club

Last week I helped the school librarian with the book club at the local middle school. Her goal is to get as many kids involved as possible, not just the avid readers. So she chooses 5 books each year, of various genres and with a range of reading levels, and recruits volunteers to help lead discussion groups. Each month a different group of kids participate, with about 12 assigned to each group, then we meet in the library and break into discussion groups for each book, lead by adult volunteers (most of us work at public libraries). 

The books for this year are Do You Know The Monkey Man? by Dori Hillestand Butler, Heat by Mike Lupica, Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix, The Ghost of Graylock by Dan Poblocki, The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan.

The Book
This month I led the discussion of Do You Know The Monkey Man? by Dori Hillestand Butler (2005). This is a good high-interest, lower reading level book that, at only 193 pages, will appeal to both reluctant readers and those who like something they can finish in one sitting.

For as long as 13-year old Sam can remember, it's just been her and her mother. A long time ago they were once a family of four, but her parents divorced following her twin sister Sarah's tragic death, and her father disappeared from her life. But now her mother is getting re-married, and wants her fiance, Bob, to adopt Sam, which brings up old memories and confusing feelings.

Sam likes Bob, and wants her mom to be happy, but she doesn't want him to adopt her when she already has a father, somewhere. She decides to try to find and contact her father, with the help of her friend Coral. But things don't go quite the way she expected, and she begins to have doubts about the story surrounding Sarah's death. She continues to investigate, and when she finally confronts her father, what she finds will turn all their lives upside down.

This book is part self-discovery, part mystery, and part family drama, and is sure to capture the reader's attention.

Discussion Questions 
I looked over some prepared questions in advance, but I just let the discussion progress naturally and let the kids lead as much as possible, proposing new questions when the discussion slowed. Some of the questions/topics we discussed, though not necessarily in order, were:

1. Do you think Sam should have told her mother she wanted to try to find her father first?[All said she should, even though most thought her mother would probably say "No"]

2. How would you go about finding a long lost friend or relative? 
[Ask friends or relatives, social media, internet, private investigator...]

3. Would you consult a psychic like Sam did? 
[Some yes, some no, some maybe] Do you think psychics are real or fake? [Some said yes, some said no, some said not sure, and some said that most are fake but some may be real.]

4. Do you think twins have a special connection?  [Maybe, probably] If so, were you surprised that Sam never felt that Sarah might be alive before now?  [Mixed answers]

5. Would you be willing to help your best friend like Coral and Angela helped Sam? 
[All emphatically said "yes", and this led to a discussion of how Angela should have been more supportive, and how her experiences with her father affected how she saw Sam's situation.]

6. Do you think Joe should have gone to jail? 
[First most said no, then all agreed that he *deserved* to go to jail, but that it was better for T.J. that he didn't, and that was more important.]

7. Do you think Sam and T.J. will be able to forgive Joe? Could you? 
[Mixed answers, very unsure]

8. Do you think Sam's mom will ever be able to forgive Joe for taking Sarah and letting her think she was dead all this time? Why or why not? 
[Most said she probably wouldn't, but would try to pretend to for T. J.'s sake.]

9. Why do you think Sam didn't want Bob to adopt her? How do you think you would feel in a similar situation? Do you think she may change her mind now that she's found her father and learned what he did and what he's like? 
[Most understood that Sam felt like she already had a father, and most commented to the effect that she could still like him and have a close relationship without him adopting her. Several thought she might change her mind now that she knows what kind of a father Joe is.]

10. Do you think T.J. and Sam will ever be close, and really be like sisters? Will she and Suzanne be able to have a mother-daughter relationship? 
[Yes, but it won't be easy and will take time.]

11. Would you want to read the sequel?  [Several already had]  Would these books make a good movie?  [Yes! They all said they would love to see a movie version, a couple said they wanted to e-mail the author and ask her to have it made into a movie and/or write a third book.]

How It Went 
I had about 10 girls, and most were very enthusiastic about the book, and some had even already read the sequel, Yes, I Know The Monkey Man, which continues the story from T.J.'s perspective. About four of them weren't even supposed to participate until next month, but they had already read the book and couldn't wait to discuss it. We had a pretty lively discussion, with all of the kids contributing, though there were 2 or 3 who were on the quieter side and did not say as much.

They all talked about how much they loved the book, and the ones that had not read the sequel already said they really wanted to. One girl happened to spot it on the shelf nearby and jumped up and grabbed it so she could check it out that day. She was one of the two girls who reported that they normally didn't read much, but that they read this book from start to finish in one day. We had a great discussion, and the several of the kids mentioned how much they enjoyed it, and one even gave me a hug, which I expect from the preschoolers, but not middle schoolers.

I had not heard of this book before, and the library I work at doesn't even have it, but I would highly recommend it for this age and found it a great choice for a class read or book club as it appeals to all readers, even reluctant ones. I personally enjoyed it as well, though did not find the sequel to be quite as good as the first one. From the title and the cover, I had expected it to be more creepy and sinister, but it isn't at all.