October 31, 2013
by Gene Luen Yang
:01 First Second
Saints is the companion book to Boxers, but don’t read Saints until you have read Boxers. The two need to be taken together and the reader will better understand Saints having recently read Boxers.
Saints tells of Fourth Girl, the only one of her mother’s daughters to survive infancy. Her grandfather refuses to name another girl, thus she was called by her birth order, Fourth Girl. Unfortunately, in Chinese this word is a homonym for Death Girl. Unsurprisingly, Fourth Girl’s family convinces her that she really is unlucky and quite probably a devil. When she hears Christianity described as the devil religion, she goes to the only Chinese Christian she knows and to the local priest to learn more about this devil religion.
It is a time of famine in China and the food offered to Fourth Girl by the local Chinese Christians may be the greatest draw to this new religion. When she allows the priest to baptize her, she is severely beaten by her uncle and leaves her family behind to join the priest as he moves to a new church in a larger town.
In Saints, we read about the Boxer Rebellion from the perspective of Chinese Christians. As with many, Fourth Girl, called Vibiana after her baptism, is attracted initially by the food and doesn’t fully understand the faith. Like Little Bao, who sees the spirits depicted in Chinese Opera, Vibiana sees spirits, but she sees Joan of Arc. Joan speaks to her about driving foreigners from France. When Vibiana learns that Joan lead men in battle, she is convinced that this is her vocation, to lead Chinese Christians against the Boxers.
When she meets one of a Boxer cousin, he tells her the Boxer motto, to drive the foreigners out of China. Vibiana wonders if she is on the right side.
As with the first book, the graphic novel format is perfect for capturing Vibiana’s visions, first of a raccoon and later of Joan of Arc and her army as well as the French king.
My one concern is that readers will think that Vibiana is unintelligent for misunderstanding Christianity so completely when such a misunderstanding would be all but inevitable given the language and cultural differences between herself and the priest.
These books deal with a complicated, conflicted time in Chinese history and manage to give a very complete view.
October 28, 2013
by Gene Luen Yang
:01 First Second
Boxers tells of Little Bao , a youngest brother who struggles to find his place among his older brothers. He lives in a farming village that follows the traditional ways in spite of the many foreigners (Europeans) in China’s coastal cities. When a priest comes to the village, he is the first foreigner Bao has ever seen. Bao watches, horrified, as the priest smashes the clay statue of Tu Di Gong, an earth god still worshiped by Taoists today. The band of Chinese Christians take food and harass the local people.
When Bao’s father, a just, respected man, attempts to take tell the local magistrate what happened, foreign soldiers severely beats him. He never recovers and this pushes Bao to join the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist.
Known by Westerners (ie, us) as The Boxers, the Society believed that through special exercises, meditations and ritual practices their fighters would become the spirits of great warriors and gods and drive the Europeans out of China. Not surprisingly, they also targeted Chinese Christians. Little Bao becomes a great warrior and leader but struggles to define what is truly just when he is put in a position to kill a fellow villager, a Christian.
You will often see Boxers mentioned with Saints. Together, these graphic novels tell the story of China’s Boxer Rebellion (1899 and 1901). The war came about largely because of the interference of Western powers in China. Given our war on drugs, it is ironic that part of this interference was the importation of opium into China by the west.
Why two books to tell the story? As it says in the subtitle, “Every war has two faces.” The graphic novel format is the perfect face for this complex story. Yang brilliantly pulls various aspects of folk belief that would be hard to describe through text alone but who come to life through his artwork as we see figures of Chinese opera and various gods, goddesses and heroes. To get the full story, you must read Saints as well. Must. Read. I’m serious.
I was thrilled to see graphic novels not only depicting Chinese culture but Chinese history. That said, reading about the the Boxer Rebellion is like watching cowboys fight indians when you know how poorly things turned out for the indians. If you read Saints as well, the story ends with a grain of hope.
October 24, 2013
How Big Were Dinosaurs
written and illustrated by Lita Judge
Roaring Brook Press
Although we think of dinosaurs as immense, even on the cover author/illustrator Lita Judge makes it clear that some may have been immense but others were no bigger than a chicken. The little one is microraptor, a deadly hunter no bigger than a chicken. The big one is Argentinosaurus, as long as four school buses and weighing more than 17 elephants.
Many books give information on size but do so in terms that raise even more questions — how long is a meter, 6 feet or 40 feet? Judge does a superb job of making the sizes of various dinosaurs meaningful to her young readers discussing them in terms of familiar things such as the height of an adult man, no bigger than a dog, or a small SUV.
Her paintings are cartoony enough to be fun but give enough realistic detail that you can easily tell her Microraptor from her Leaellynasaura. She also made sure to include a wide variety of animals based on size (small to large and heavy) but also familiar (Velociraptor) and unfamiliar (Tsintausaurus).
An afterword at the end of the books explains how scientists know how big various dinosaurs were and also gives information on where to find out more about your favorites.
I can see this book having a great deal of appeal for dinosaur lovers but also being a great jumping off point for discussions on size (bigger, smaller, etc.). That said, if you are going to read it aloud, you might want to practice some of the dinosaur names ahead of time. I stumbled through Tsintausaurus but am still unsure of how to say Leaellynasaura.
October 21, 2013
A Rotten Tale in 15 Voices
by David M. Schwartz
Early on young scientists learn terms like decomposers. They even learn that decomposers help break down plants and dead animals and return their various component parts back to the soil for reuse. This is the first book that I’ve found that details how this process works as well as the wide variety of animals and molds that play a part, and David Schwartz gives each a voice in his narrative.
The first player that readers “hear” from is the pumpkin himself, a fun, fabulous jack-o-lantern. Once Halloween is over, he is moved back to the garden where mice, squirrels, and slugs, all voices in this story, pay him a visit. Slime trails left behind by the slugs provide footing for the spores of the first molds.
Some readers may be tempted to write the various molds off as nothing but nasty, disgusting messes but listen and they will tell you about the useful jobs that they do, curing illness (Penicillium) and make bread rise (yeast). They also break the flesh of the pumpkin down so that it is available as food for some of the smaller creatures in the story, like the sow bugs.
This is an excellent choice for any unit that touches on decomposition and the web of life. I have to appreciate the fact that Schwartz respects his readers enough to give them big names to play with, such as Penicillium, instead of trying to dumb things down.
October 17, 2013
by Aaron Becker
In this wordless picture book, illustrator Aaron Becker introduces us to a young girl. Father has his computer. Mother has her phone. Big sister has a handheld game. No one has time for this girl who just wants someone to join her in flying a kite, riding her scooter or playing ball.
Finally, she wonders off to her room where she finds a bright red crayon. First, she draws a magical door on her bedroom wall. When she passes through it, she finds herself in a wooded land where the trees are hung with lanterns.
At a dock, she draws a boat and makes her way downstream.
Becker’s illustration are pen and ink enhanced with watercolor and are certainly not subdued. Still the red things created by our young traveler stand out, vibrant and alive.
I don’t want to tell the entire story which would be easy to do — it is such an amazing and fun tale. To keep it brief, in an act of bravery and generosity, she finds another young adventurer and together they create a bicycle that will allow them to explore the world together.
Wordless books can be tough to pull off but Becker’s images are rich without being overdone, giving the eye plenty to see while telling a very clear story. With illustrations as rich as these, the book would definitely stand up to repeat “readings.”
This would be an excellent choice for the prereader or the reluctant reader in your life. Either would benefit from enjoying a story that pulls them in and allows them to create the story for themselves.
October 14, 2013
by Holly Black
Margaret K. McElderry
As a child, Cassel dreamed of being a worker like everyone else in his family. His mother works emotions. His brother Baron works memories. His oldest brother Phillip is a physical worker, able to inflict damage and pain, but that’s nothing compared to Grandfather. He is a death worker, able to kill with the touch of an ungloved hand.
As luck would have it, Cassel is a worker but he is the rarest worker of all. A Transformation Worker, he can change anything or anyone into something else. Eventually he learns that he can even change himself in order to make a hasty escape.
Now that Cassel knows he is a worker, he finds himself hip deep in one con after another. His mother wants him to help her find a new mark to finance her lifestyle and his education, and the richer the better. His brother, now on the outs with the Zacharov crime family because of Cassel, want him to join another family, but still in the role of assassin. Lila Zacharaov has been worked to believe that she loves him and wants to pose as his fake girlfriend. Even the feds are involved, wanting him to find the killer behind a series of disappearances as well as his brother’s murder.
Surprisingly, Cassel always thought of school as a place full of phonies but he finds himself making at least a few friends who know who he is and don’t try to use him.
This is the second book in the Curse Workers series. While I think you could follow this book without reading Book #1 (The White Cat) first, there are subtleties and reasons behind various events that you would miss. Read The White Cat first.
This is an easy book to like because, messed up as Cassel is, he is incredibly likable, more-so than many of the other characters.
But this is also a very hard book to describe because it deals with some complex moral issues. What does it mean to be a good person? Can you be a good person if you do bad things but for someone’s own good? How much should you risk to protect a family member who has forced you to murder and then erased your memories? Does the end result purify the motive behind it?
This is an urban fantasy. The characters walk in our world if we lived in a world in which magic is possible but feared and despised. You will adore some of the characters as much as you dislike others but they will all make you think.
October 9, 2013
Building Our House
by Jonathan Bean
Farrar Straus Giroux
When the narrator, her parents and baby brother move to the field far outside the city, they have the tools and plans to build a house. That said, they will be living for quite some time in a tiny little trailer with little more than two windows and a chimney.
They story follows them as they haul supplies (lumber, sand and stone) and collect rocks from a nearby field. It shows them staking the corners of the foundation, building forms and chiseling beams. When, at long last, the frame is ready to go up, family and friends converge to get the job done in one short day.
For many of us, this story will read like fantasy. Hand me a hammer and look out — and, no, I don’t mean amazing progress is about to be made.
But this is based on Bean’s childhood — he is the little brother in the story. His parents bought a field and spent five years building their dream home. Bean has altered things somewhat since his house in done in a shorter time and the narrator is his older sister and not himself.
This book will appeal to young builders of both genders. Dad may be the one that hammers in the stakes but Mom isn’t watching soaps all day long.
In a culture where everything is instant and projects you can complete in a weekend, I think this book shows something important — a family together can do something big and wonderful. Yes, it might take some time, but the results will be well worth the efforts. It will appeal to those who like to get their hands dirty, get involved and make something all their own
Beans colored black line drawings bring the story to life in a straightforward appealing way.
October 7, 2013
Penny and Her Marble
by Kevin Henkes
When the story opens, Penny is walking her doll Rose up and down the sidewalk. On one pass, Penny imagines they are walking through a great city. On the next, they are navigating a great wood. As she passes her neighbor’s front yard, Penny spots a big, beautiful blue marble. She quickly slips it into her pocket and heads home.
But when you think you might have done something even a little bit wrong, imagination can be a bad thing. Thinking about the marble that she isn’t sure she should have, Penny isn’t interested in baking cookies, even her favorites, or eating dinner. That night, sleep is a long time coming.
When she gets up the next morning, Penny is determined to do the right thing and when she does something amazing happens.
Beginning readers, even more advanced readers with multiple chapters such as this, aren’t easy to write. Vocabulary and sentence length must be kept at a manageable level for youngsters who are just learning to control the strings of letters they will one day read with ease. Some writers produce beginning readers that are mediocre at best, but not Henkes.
Henkes gives us a solid, likable character with a realistic problem. Not only is it realistic, but it is something readers will get. After all, they’ve all been there before.
Henkes illustrations, black pen and water color, are as charming as always. His characters always look fun and maybe just a little silly but they are capable of a full range of emotions. Add to this the fact that, as with all good beginning readers, Henkes illustrations give the young reader contextual clues for deciphering words like stroller, marble and curtain that they might not immediately recognize even if they’ve encountered these things in their lives.
Fans of Henkes’s picture books will be happy to find his story in a book that is written just for them to decipher with their brand new skills.
October 3, 2013
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel
by Robin Sloan
The Great Recession has effected no one as much as Clay Jannon. He’s sure of it. He has gone from being a first class web-designer for an offbeat bagel company to the night clerk at a 24-hour bookstore. His qualifications for this job are two:
- He’s never before worked in a bookstore.
- He met his best friend because of a favorite book.
- He can climb a ladder like a monkey.
And in Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore, the latter is essential. Wedged in beside a San Francisco strip club, the bookstore occupies a tiny hunk of real estate, stretching upward story after story. The problem is that the bookshelves may be several stories tall but the store itself is only one story (Mr. Penumbra has a tiny office on the second floor). This means that clerks must use an arcane computer system to locate obscure titles and then climb the ladders to locate one strange book among many.
While there are normal, but aged, books near the front of the store, Clay refers to the bulk of the books as the Wayback list because they are obviously old and read by only a handful of oddball customers who never pay for the books but check them out one at a time.
Clay makes it his mission to figure out what is in these unreadable books. They aren’t Kindle compatible but he did finally crack one open only to discover an obscure code. Clay may be stymied but his friends are sure that between them they can figure out what is up with these crazy old books. Fortunately, Clay’s friends are as varied and interesting as the bookstore itself. There is his girlfriend, an up-and-coming Googler; his roommate, a special effects genius; and his best friend, who may not have touched a book in years but has animated all the best breasts in gaming. There is some off screen sex.
No, this isn’t a children’s book, but it is a book that young adults and new adults will love both for its irreverent humor but also for the questions that it poses regarding change, new technology replacing old and our responsibilities in preserving what has served us in the past.
This book will strike some readers as strange, and it is definitely unusual, but it does make you think about how computers have changed society, how we look at the world and how we process, even if we really do continue to process, the information available to us. Or if, perhaps, access is significantly more important than actually doing something with it.