“It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas.”
One book that I always turn to in December is Trina Schart Hyman’s presentation of Dylan Thomas’s wonderful prose poem A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Thomas’s almost achingly evocative descriptions of the Christmas of a small boy, sometime in the nebulous past, are perfectly matched by Hyman’s glorious illustrations, which show the boy’s eccentric, yet all-too-real relatives and friends.
No other story and no other illustrations have ever so perfectly captured the hilarity of holiday relatives, the conversations of little boys, and the feeling of world-wide silence after a snowfall. Undeniably the most perfect Christmas book ever.
Posted by: Sarah
It’s the season for spooky books, and for kids who want a scare, ONLY a spooky book will do. Some children, though, want their creepy books to be creepy with a difference–not just cheap scares and cliffhangers, but something atmospheric that draws a reader fully into the world of the book. Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz is perfect for those readers. Schlitz takes us into the Gothic, foggy 150-years-ago world of Lizzie Rose and Parsifal, two children who work for Grisini, a not-at-all-nice puppeteer. When Grisini is hired to perform for the birthday party of rich Clara, a girl who seems to have everything (except siblings, all of whom have died), Lizzie Rose and Parsifal think their fortunes are looking up. Unfortunately, first Clara, and then Grisini disappear, and their lives take a turn for the desperate.
This book is beautifully, spookily written, with compelling characters and perfectly described settings. It won’t be for children who hate historical fiction, or anyone who wants a quick read, but for kids who want a long spooky night where they can enter another world, this is an excellent choice.
Posted by: Sarah
As far as Deza knows, hers is the only family in Gary, Indiana with their own family motto. The Malone’s like to say that “We are a family on a journey to a place called Wonderful.” The nice thing is, they really are. Their journey though, is rather circuitous with more than their share pitfalls and dead ends.
Unfortunately, the Malone’s live in Depression era Gary, Indiana. The area’s been hit hard by the “economic downturn,” especially, if your skin is brown. Wonderful almost always seems to be just around the bend, out of reach.
However, readers will be left with the feeling that for Deza, her mother, father and her brother, Jimmie, Wonderful is not so much a destination as it is the feeling whenever they are all together. Wonderful is a state of being, not a state.
Christopher Paul Curtis has brought this wonderful family to life in a way that I can’t remember him doing since The Watsons Go To Birmingham. They are characters who care deeply about each other in with and in spite of their frailties which make them all the more appealing to readers. From father’s desperate job hunting and mother’s quiet strength in the face of her ignorant, racist employer to Jimmie’s fierce need to be seen as a teenager rather than a ”little kid” and Deza’s passion to be learning while still being a help to her family, these are people we care about and cheer for. The strong sense of family is missing in so many books these days. Curtis has show, admirably, that even when the prospect looks bleak, real families can and do exist in literature just as they do in life. Kudos, Mr. Curtis.
Posted by: Eileen
This story is about the year after Arkansas was forced to integrate their high schools. The Little Rock Nine, nine African-American teens, braved the crowds, the publicity, the hate and the racism to take that first step toward equality in the Little Rock public school system. The author thought that that was what she was going to write about when she went to Little Rock. But when she started talking to people, all they could talk about was the year after the Little Rock Nine, when the governor of the state closed the schools in order to avoid integration.
Marlee is twelve years old and very shy–she only talks to her family. Her older sister has been sent away to highschool because the school in Little Rock is closed. Marlee misses her terribly. Then she meets the new girl, Liz, who says she just moved to Little Rock. Liz singles Marlee out to be her best friend and Liz is everything that Marlee is not. Liz speaks her mind, even with Marlee’s best friend Sally who is really kind of a bully. But Liz is very diplomatic and is able to get around Sally with flattery too. Liz decides that she is going to help Marlee talk and Marlee is amazed to find herself speaking up for the first time in her life. She also finds out that being friends with someone you really like and admire and share interests with can be very good. But then Sally finds out that Liz is actually African American and Liz has to leave school.
Can Marlee and Liz stay friends? How does Marlee feel about integration? Her Dad believes in it. Her mother is afraid of it. Can Marlee make a difference? Can she help reopen the schools so that her sister will come home? And what is going to happen with the older brother of the boy whose math homework she does? He wants to get back at Liz and her family for passing for white and Marlee knows he has dynamite in the trunk of his car! This is a wonderful friendship story, a coming of age story and a scary adventure story too. You may get bogged down a bit when Marlee is helping the Women’s Organization but keep reading. The action is yet to come!
Posted by: Fran
This book is the second in a series. The first book is titled Faraway Island. The first book won the Batchelder award in 2010 and this book took a Batchelder Honors award this year. I did not read the first book and I still enjoyed this one.
Stephie and her sister have been evacuated from Vienna because of the Nazis and sent to live with families in Sweden. They are Jewish and their parents are still in Vienna but are trying to leave. The girls have been separated because there wasn’t a family able to take them both. Stephie has been awarded a scholarship and at thirteen is going to continue her education at a school in Goteburg. She has to cross from her island on the ferry and she will be living with a family in the city.
I really liked Stephie. She was a loving and responsible big sister, a good student and a good friend. She is attached to her adoptive family and respects their opinions. Life is really hard for her though. She has to handle a lot of situations, some of them very upsetting and frightening, some of them confusing, at a time when she is growing up and experiencing her first love and at a time when the world is engulfed in war and prejudice. There are two more books I believe planned for the series.
I recommend this book for girls in grades 5 through 8 who like historical fiction and particularly for girls who like books about the Holocaust.
Posted by: Fran
I like to reread The Long Winter in January or February – after the holidays and during that long stretch when winter feels most cold and bleak to me. It tells the story of how Laura Ingalls and her family survived the harsh winter of 1880-81, enduring seven months of near constant blizzards in their little house in town in the Dakota Territory. Through this winter, the Ingalls family is together but cut off from all supplies (the trains can’t run) and often even cut off from their neighbors living yards away. The Long Winter tells of stories that I cannot even imagine; like how, when the first blizzard hits, Laura and her classmates must leave the schoolhouse and make their way home not a mile away, yet all the while the threat of being lost out on the prairie is imminent, for they cannot see in front of them and apart from their little prairie town there is nothing for miles and miles. It tells of the kind of resourcefulness Laura’s family displays, making kindling out of twisted bunches of hay when there is no firewood to be had. And it tells of how Laura’s family manages to create moments of joy throughout the dark months, making a pie out of green pumpkins and celebrating a festive Christmas with what little food and treats they have, song, and stories.
I love this book because I am inspired and comforted by the way Laura’s family never compromise their love for each other or their dignity during some of the harshest circumstances, and I always close the book with new resolve to meet life with courage and joy. And as with all of the Little House books, I relish in the details of a way of life so different from my own – so that if the need should ever arise, I now know to make a lamp with a button, a little grease, and a bit of cloth.
Recommended as a family read-aloud, preferably by the fireside of a cold winter’s evening.
Posted by: Parry
After a fall season full of innovative and original new fantasies for children comes a fairy tale retelling that is both original AND traditional.
The Princess Curse retells the traditional story The Twelve Dancing Princesses, but with a twist. The first wave of fairy tale retelling novels were pretty straight-forward: merely novel-length retellings of the fairy tale. The second wave contained heroines that were more strong and opinionated, but they often seemed all of a type — just modern women dropped into medieval settings with all their anachronistic ideas intact. The authors took pains to point out that their main characters weren’t “just” princesses, but they never gave us any examples of what else they were.
Reveka, of The Princess Curse, on the other hand, is very clear about who she is and what she wants. She was raised in a convent (while her father, a soldier, was fighting in various wars), and is now an herbalist’s apprentice. What she wants more than anything is to be an herbalist herself and to have her own herbary in a convent. Her needs and desires — and considerable skills! — tie directly into the action of the plot, and is the catalyst for several major revelations in this well-told story.
In addition to a compelling and believeable protagonist, Haskell gives us a very specific setting. The story is set in Sylvania, a fiction region of the real country Romania, and mentions Hungary and Transylvania. Many of the fantasy elements are derived from the Romanian language and folklore, and are worked into the dialogue and description seamlessly.
We all think we know the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, but really: what’s life like in the castle for those who aren’t royalty? How are the countries surrounding their kingdom reacting to the problem? How did the princesses end up in that magical predicament anyway? And who precisely is it that placed them under that enchantment? What does that mysterious person really want, and why? Reveka’s journey through her own story will give readers the answers to all these questions.
Posted by: Sarah
Maks is a “newsie” in New York City in 1893. He is selling The World. His parents are Danish immigrants and his family is struggling to make ends meet. Every penny counts. One day Maks is cornered in an alley by a gang of teenagers who are trying to drive off the newsies. Maks decides to fight but is losing when suddenly a shapeless pile of rags becomes an attack force with a stick. When the attack is over, the gang members have been run off and Maks realizes that the person who saved him is a skinny, smelly, raggedly dressed, homeless girl. He decides to take her home for the protection she can give him and also to repay her with a meal. The same day he brings Willa home, he finds out that his oldest sister who works as a maid at the Waldorf has been accused of theft and is in the prison called the Tombs. Thus begins an adventure for the homeless girl and the newsie. They find an odd and ailing detective who has Maks do his investigating for him at the Waldorf. In the process, Maks discovers some clues and also learns something about Willa’s family.
This is an exciting story and a good historical description of life in New York City for immigrant families living in the tenements. Recommended for children in grades 5 and up.
Posted by: Fran W.
A late 2011 release, I think Pie by Sarah Weeks may have squeaked in as my favorite book of 2011. Generally being a fan of both action and angst in my reading choices, I often lose interest in books with recipes, books that have exceedingly happy endings or books that feature unbelievably nice characters, but somehow this book contained all of those elements and managed to keep me enthralled.
Pie takes place in the small town of Ipswitch, Pennsylvania in the 1950’s. The story opens with the death of Ipswitch’s most famous resident, Polly Portman. Polly is famous because of her extraordinary pies that have earned her 13 coveted Blueberry Awards, a national award. This coupled with the fact that Polly gives the pies away for free brings people from all over the country to the small town. When Polly Portman dies suddenly, the entire town is left trying to figure out how to live without her famous pies. To make matters worse, Polly has left meticulous notes on how to make her pie fillings, but not her delicious pie crust. To everyone’s dismay, the pie crust recipe has been left to Polly’s cat, Lardo. Polly’s beloved niece, Alice, inherits fat, cantankerous Lardo and is therefore thrust into the spotlight as people from miles around try to hunt down Polly’s famous pie crust recipe. The recipe is so sought after that Lardo is kidnapped from Alice’s house and Alice and her friend Charlie must start an investigation of all of the town’s people to retrieve Lardo.
This book is filled with charm. The language Sarah Weeks uses to describe Ipswitch and its inhabitants is delightful. Scattered throughout the book are Alice’s original songs which sound like 1950’s advertising jingles. Finally, recipes for Polly’s pies open each chapter and are sure to inspire many bakers to try making them.
Posted by: Kelly
For a certain type of child, there is nothing better than anything tiny. Tiny books, tiny toys, tiny leaves and flowers. These are the children that tend to have elaborately tended dollhouses–no matter how patchily put together–and shelves full of miniature ‘found’ objects.
Children who like tiny things often like books about tiny creatures. Joining the grand tradition of The Borrowers, The Littles, and myriad others, is Richard Peck’s new book Secrets at Sea.
Peck’s book is part of what I call the ‘Mice in Outfits’ genre (The Rescuers, The Mouse and His Child, The Mousewife — all of which I adore), but he couples that tradition with his own particular sensibility. Secrets at Sea is the story of Helena, the eldest of a (distinguished but recently diminished) family of mice (Louisa, Beatrice and Lamont) who are living in the same Edwardian-era Hudson Valley house as the Upstairs Cranstons, a somewhat vapid family who decide to go to England to give their awkward eldest daughter a chance to catch a husband. The mice — in spite of their fear of water — go along, of course, and while the Upstairs Cranstons’ journey pays glorious dividends, the Downstairs Cranstons’ reaps completely unexpected results.
More like Fair Weather than any of Peck’s more recent books, Secrets at Sea is full of lovely details for both the tiny-oriented (a grand yardstick dinner table, spools for chairs, soup served out of thimbles), and those who love adventurous capers. Even young Titanic enthusiasts might enjoy reading about a non-doomed ocean voyage for a change. Secrets at Sea is recommended highly for all kinds of readers.
Posted by: Sarah