Sunday, January 30, 2011

5 Notably Overlooked Books from 2010

One month into 2011 and my thoughts are already on this year's batch of excellent books. Major awards have been awarded, the Battle of the Kids' Books roster has been announced and we're just a few days away from the announcement of the CYBILS winners.

I'd like to take a moment to look back at some of my favorite 2010 titles I thought deserved mounds of praises but seemed to be overlooked in year end lists and by award committees.

Bruiser by Neal Shusterman

This was by far the best young adult novel I read this year. I enjoyed Shusterman's The Schwa was Here but this titles absolutely floored me. I thought Shusterman did an absolutely fantastic job juggling the multiple narrators. The characters and their motives all seemed so realistic that the fantastical elements that come out and shock you about 25% of the way through the novel hit that much harder. I'm not one for too much narrative summary in a review or recommendation and for this title I'll simply say that you're in for quite a big shock and it's not one that is likely to go away after finishing the book.

Can I Play Too? (An Elephant and Piggie Book) by Mo Willems

2010 was a huge year for Mr. Willems. Both City Dog, Country Frog (with illustrations from Jon Multh) and We Are In a Book! are destined to become classics. The later earned a Geisel Honor and the former was robbed of both the Caldecott and Newbery. Willems also completed his "Knuffle Bunny Trilogy" with Knuffle Bunny Free. With all the justifiable praise heaped on these three titles it seems like Can I Play Too? managed to fall through the cracks. I am not going to claim that this installment of the incredible Elephant and Piggie series is stronger than We Are In a Book! but I do think it might be the second or third best of the E&P books, which is saying quite a lot.
In this installment a small green snake hopes to join Gerald and Piggie as they play catch.
Unfortunately, the snake (like most snakes) lack the appendages essential to the game. After a ton of bonks on the head and a blizzard of falling balls, Gerald and Piggie figure out a delightful way of getting the snake into the game.
When I saw this title last summer I thought Willems had topped himself once and once again locked up the Geisel. Little did I know he would surpass this jewel of a book just a few months later. Nevertheless you don't want to miss this fantastic addition to the best early reader series since Frog and Toad. (Also next week sees the release of the next installment in the series: I Broke My Trunk )

13 Words by Lemony Snicket with illustrations by Maira Kalman

I have a confession to make. I'm not a fan of Snicket's Unfortunate Events series. I read The Bad Beginning recently and just could not work up the enthusiasm to read the next 12 books. It's not that I thought the book was bad, it just wasn't my cup of tea. I do, however, enjoy Snicket's The Composer is Dead and share it with my second graders every year.
Last week I received a review copy of 13 Words in the mail and gave it a quick read. I found myself laughing out loud. The next day I read it to my class and they too were in hysterics (even the boys, not sure that's scientifically possible so let's just say the boys were laughing a lot too). I love the concept of lampooning the idea that vocabulary learning can be done consciously. My students are almost all English language learners and are constantly encountering new words. During the their first two years of school they were most likely presented with words and corresponding pictures in a systematic/artificial manner and told to understand and remember the words. While this type of explicit instruction does not take place in my classroom my students are familiar enough with the method to take particular joy in the examples Snicket provides here. The biggest laugh of the book occurred on the eleventh word: baby. Kalman's wonderful painting of the infantile haberdashery owner sent my students over the edge.

Agent Q, or The Smell of Danger! by MT Anderson
The Ghostwriter Secret by Mac Barnett

Agent Q, or The Smell of Danger! is the fourth installment of the Pals in Peril (nee Thrilling Tales) series by MT Anderson. The Ghostwriter Secret is the second book in Mac Barnett's Brixton Brothers series. I've lumped these two titles together because they appeal to a similar type of funny bone which I happen to possess and clearly award committee members do not.
There was a three year gap between the Anderson's Case of the Linoleum Lederhosen (the second adventure of Jasper, Kate and Lily) and 2009's Jasper Dash and the Flame Pits of Delaware so I was surprised to see the fourth installment appear on the shelf so quickly. Agent Q might be the weakest of the four novels but that does not make any less brilliant. Anderson continues his story immediately following the events in Jasper Dash and the Flame Pits of Delaware and the reader gets the privilege of spending another novel in the strangest state in the union. (Note: between reading Jasper Dash and Agent Q I had the chance to spend a night in Delaware. I was extremely disappointed, not a single catapult or dinosaur was spotted.)
As we've come to expect with this series, Angent Q is pure adventure. We get great chase sequences, absurd villains, convoluted plotting and footnotes from the best footnote writer in the business. What's not to love?

The Ghostwriter Secret benefits greatly from being a the second in the series. Without having to spend too much time setting up the characters' back stories, action gets underway quickly and does not let up. The plot is full of enough u turns and double backs to keep you guessing the whole way. One of the things I like best about the Brixton Brothers series is the realness of the violence. There is a real sense of danger to Steve and his friend Dana's situations. Knowing that Barnett is willing to seriously hurt, kill or maim Steve or Dana sets this series apart from the cartoon violence of most middle grade adventure titles. Just check out the bullets on the cover just missing the kids! I'm not sure who the audience for this book is since so many of the jokes seem to be aimed at adult readers, but I'm not complaining.

Well those are some of my favorite but overlooked books from 2010. What are some of yours?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Thoughts from a Ten Day Weekend, or how I spent my surprise vacation

Four inches of snow in Atlanta resulted in five straight snow days. Two weekends and today's MLK day help add up to a wonderful ten day respite from my classroom. I spent the welcomed break reading, reading, and reading (plus some nfl playoff viewing, orange basketball viewing and 2 brutally cold days of ultimate in athens).

Day 0 (Friday January 7)
Super early wake up the following day meant staying in Friday night and finishing the last couple chapters of Gary Schmidt's upcoming Okay for Now. I got an andriod phone over the holidays, downloaded some e-reader apps and signed up for NetGalley. I was overjoyed to discover that Schmidt's newest was available for review! I wouldn't recommend reading a 360+ page novel on the small screen of a smartphone but it certainly beats waiting until April for a title this amazing. I can't seem to talk or write about Okay for Now with out resorting to hyperbole so I simply say that I feel as strongly about this title as a did about When You Reach Me when I first read it. I can't wait to get a physical copy and read it again.

After finishing Okay for Now I reached for The Hive Detectives. Another great addition to the Houghton Mifflin's Scientists in the Field series. I wish I could put a standing hold at my local library for all the new titles in this series. Each one I've read has been great. Can't wait to pick up Kakapo Rescue and Project Seahorse this week.

Day 1 (Saturday January 8)
Ultimate in Athens, GA. Tried to read Genius Files the first installment in Dan Gutman's latest series in the car on the way to Athens but even at 6:30 AM my teammates where a bit to rowdy for any car reading. Gutman's coming to Little Shop of Stories (Decatur's independent children's bookstore) next Monday so I do need to get this ARC read asap.

Day 2 (Sunday January 9)
Snow begins to arrive in the early evening my wonderful school system keeps us in suspense until 8pm. I decide to reread some of the Cybils early readers that I've gotten my hands on so far. Also get through a few more chapters of Jane Leslie Conly's Crazy Lady (one of the 8 1990s honor books I haven't yet read).

Day 3 (Monday January 10)
Newbery Day!!!!!!!!!
Love being home to watch the live webcast. Not going to recount the award winners here but I will say that the Geisel Committee did a super job! I was thrilled to see Holm's Turtle in Paradise pick up a nice shiny Newbery Honor. Then came the worst part of Atlanta's snowpocalypse, not only had I not read or purchased Moon Over Manifest, but because of the snow no bookstores were open! I would have to wait for the ice to melt off the road in order to pick up a copy of the Newbery winner.
Snowed-in. I reread Turtle in Paradise and read some more of Crazy Lady. It being the first of a then undetermined number of snow days I spent most of the day watching bad television.

Day 4 (Tuesday January 11)
Read Eric Wright's Frankie Pickle and the Pine Run 3000 since it's a CYBILS finalist I can't tell you what I thought.
Finally read Anne Fine's The Jamie and Angus Stories knocking off the one 2000s' Horn Book Award winner I hadn't gotten around to reading yet. I liked the book. I think it is very successful and can see children really falling in love with the stories. Anyone have other Anne Fine titles they would recommend?

Day 5 (Wednesday January 12)
Bookstores are all still closed. I'm thankful I can walk/slide the a few blocks to the grocery store.
I finally finish Crazy Lady. Conly's father wrote Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH as well as Z for Zachariah (which Conly completed after her father's death) two of my favorite 1970s books. Unfortunately Crazy Lady kind of fall into the lower third of the Newbery Honor pack for me. I like the characters but I thought the story fell a little flat.
Took a break to watch the undefeated Syracuse Orange basketball team defeat St. Johns proving once again who New York's college team really is!
I also watched the entirety of the new PBS Masterpiece series Downton Abbey. It was quite good. Not up to par with Andrew Davis' recent masterpiece Bleak House but comparable in quality to his Little Dorit. Downton Abbey comes to us from Julian Fellowes who wrote the screenplay for Robert Altman's Gosford Park. If you enjoyed the Altman film you should do yourself a favor and watch Downton Abbey it's well worth the 345 minutes of your time.

Day 6 (Thursday January 13)
Ice is beginning to melt on the main roads but most side streets are still a mess. I spend the morning reading Pete Hautman's Blank Confession. I didn't think this one lived up to its concept but I liked it enough to start looking forward to reading Hautman's 2004 National Book Award winning Godless.
By the middle of the afternoon the temperature has finally risen above freezing for the first time all week and more importantly I've found a bookstore that is not only open, but has a copy of Moon Over Manifest. Needless to say quickly scrape off my car, a carefully drive to a local Barnes and Nobles to pick up this years "most distinguished contribution to children's literature".
I was happy to find the copy of Moon Over Manifest was a first printing! I also picked up Heart of a Samurai.
Started reading Moon Over Manifest immediately. Overjoyed to see that school would be once again canceled on Friday allowing me to stay up all night reading Moon Over Manifest.

Day 7 (Friday January 14)
I finish Moon Over Manifest in the early hours of the morning. I think it's a very deserving winner. Great setting. Great characters. I enjoyed Vanderpool's writing style. I have only one small reservation about the plotting. Abilene has in her possession all of Ned's letters to Jinx. The reader, however, only has a chance to read said letters when the letters' contents correlate with Miss Sadie's story. Surely Abilene read all of Ned's letters early in the story. Therefore Abilene should be able to piece together parts of Ned's story before the reader has a chance. Not a real problem with the book, just a minor quibble. I still think its a fantastic Newbery Medal winner and can't wait to reread it.

Day 8 (Saturday January 15)
Syracuse plays the early game against Cincinnati. We demolish the Cardinals. All is right in the world.
The library is open! I pick up and read another CYBILS finalist Princess Posey & the First Grade Parade. Wish I could talk about it.
Start and finish reading Audrey Couloumbis' Getting Near to Baby. This was the last of the 33 '00s newbery honor books for me. I put it off for so long because the descriptions did not encourage me to pick it up. Over the holidays I read Couloumbis' Jake and liked it alright. I felt about the same about Getting Near to Baby. Not a bad book by any means, just not my cup of tea.
NFL playoffs provide a nice break.

Day 9 (Sunday January 16)
Recover from Saturday's sports overdose with more NFL playoffs. No reading.

Day 10 (Monday January 17)
I decide to read the MT Anderson's new Pals in Peril book Agent Q, or the Smell of Danger! the fourth installment in my absolute favorite series. Lilly, Kate and Jasper Dash are still in Delaware for this adventure. Shorter in length than the third book but not quite as witty or exciting. There were still a ton of good laughs, but here Anderson is not quite up to his typical brilliance. That said, Anderson's off day still ranks above most mortals' best work.

So that's how I spent my unexpected ten days off. Next up, Heart of a Samurai can't wait!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Cybils 2010 Finalists

The Cybils (Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards) finalist in all 11 categories were announced this morning. You can read about all the finalists at the Cybils website.

I will be serving as a second round judge for the Early Readers and Early Chapter book category. Below are the titles the other judges and I will be considering.

Early Readers:
Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: Spring Babies
Fly Guy Meets Fly Girl
National Geographic Readers: Ants
The Babysitters (Cork and Fuzz)
We Are in a Book! (An Elephant and Piggie Book)

Early Chapter Books:
Anna Hibiscus
Frankie Pickle and the Pine Run 3000
Home on the Range (Down Girl and Sit)
Princess Posey and the First Grade Parade: Book 1
Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Takes Off

Can't wait to start digging deeper into each of these titles.