Things That Go Bump…at The Crossroads at Midnight

Cindy: Crossroads at Midnight by Abby HowardTeens who love horror and graphic novels are going to devour Abby Howard’s newest comic, The Crossroads at Midnight (Iron Circus Comics, 2020). This eerie collection of five graphic (in the best way) short stories focus on late night encounters with the macabre. The ages of the characters vary, from a story about young kids at the beach, to a college student studying for exams, and to an aging woman, but all focus on the feelings of lonliness and longing for connection and understanding. In this book, those connections all come at a price. 

The grossest story for me, starts with the college girl, poor and tired of sleeping on the floor, finds a discarded mattress on the street, and decides that the thought of comfort outweighs the the risks of bedbugs or filth on the stained mattress. Her roommate is not amused, but the disgusting scary options that they are worried about are the least of their worries after the girl sleeps on this mattress for a few nights…

As in all short story collections, readers will have a personal favorite. Mine? The final story about an old woman, living alone in a remote area at the edge of a bog who gets a late night visitor. The woman at the door doesn’t speak, but rather than be frightened, the homeowner invites her in and finally has someone to talk to and begins to spin her life’s stories during each visit. Intrigued by her strange guest, she heads to the local library and to a local historian, and digs up an old mystery. 

Last Halloween, Children by Abby HowardI chose to read these stories slowly, one each day, lingering over the art and thinking about the stories. Lynn found this book, but now that I’ve finished, I just placed Howard’s other 2020 horror graphic novel on hold at my library. I can’t wait to read The Last Halloween: Children soon.

Lynn: I had to pace myself with these to keep from gobbling them up in one sitting. Talk about scary, creepy, and eerie! Each and every one made me shiver and they made me want to instantly start the next one to see what weirdly wonderful idea Abby Howard was playing with next.

Howard wisely stuck to a palette of black and white which resulted in intensifying the impact of the artwork. She also brilliantly uses suggestion, corner-of-the-eye glimpses and perspectives with partial views in her panels in ways that encourage a reader’s imagination to mentally draw the rest of the scene. And boy oh boy, did my brain accept the challenge! The drawings of the characters’ expressions convey SO much with just a few lines.

I loved all these stories and choosing a favorite was hard. I trembled on the edge of choosing the first one about a heartbroken teen, angry and hurt over the announcement that her parents are sending her to a camp to “cure” her, who discovers an unseen friend through the fence into the forbidden field of the farmer next door. That one almost won out but I too came down, too, on the last story that struck me to the bone. I’m with Cindy here!

Howard concludes each tale with an ending that allows readers minds to fly away on their own nightmare path and isn’t that the scariest thing of all?

Deb Caletti: One Great Lie – Historical Fiction

Lynn: One Great Lie by Deb CalettiThe cover and the initial plot of Deb Caletti’s newest, One Great Lie (S&S/Atheneum, 2021) could lead readers to think this is a light sweet story of a summer spent in beautiful Venice. A college-bound aspiring writer wins a scholarship to a writing program being held in Venice, Italy. For Charlotte, the biggest thrill is that it is being taught by her favorite author, Luca Bruni.  Readers will be in for a surprise but really, shouldn’t we know that Deb Caletti always offers a lot to think about?

There is a smoldering anger in Caletti’s writing here as she builds a fire made of historical evidence of how women were treated in the Italy of the 1500’s. Outspoken women, women of intellect or artistic ability or simply young women who were inconvenient to their fathers, brothers, or spouses were casually disposed of to convents or prisons. Along side these embers, Caletti adds the fuel of a modern story of casual dismissal, appropriation, and shaming for young women at the hands of a powerful man. It is a scorching story of historical injustice that continues today and no one reading this story will miss the heat or fail to build their own fire of anger.

There is a lot happening here. A compelling family mystery, a first deep love, a story of sisterhood, coming of age, and taking a stand. All this is set in the watery ancient beauty of the city of Venice. I am a long-time fan of Deb Caletti’s books and and this is one that demands much of the reader. I needed time to process the story when I finished it and I know it is one that is going to stay with readers for a long time.

Scipio Jones – a Hero to Meet for Our Time

race-against-timeLynn:  I have a new hero and it saddens me to say that this extraordinary person, Scipio Jones, was unknown to me before reading Sandra Neil and Rich Wallace’s latest book, Race Against Time: The Untold Story of Scipio Jones and the Battle to Save Twelve Innocent Men (Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, 2021). Scipio Jones was a singularly courageous and inspiring man whose name should be known to every American and I hope this outstanding book helps make that a fact.

Race Against Time is a story of Scipio Jones but it is also about another buried but important event—the Elaine Massacre—and the twelve men wrongfully condemned to execution. The time was 1919. In Elaine, Arkansas, returning Black soldiers came home to find that oppression, discrimination, and fear were still the prevailing conditions. Sharecroppers, they struggled with unfair prices for their cotton and a system that looked the other way at not just inequality but at blatant terrorizing of the Black community. After risking their lives to fight for their country, many of these Black veterans refused to accept the situation and in Elaine, a union was organized to fight for fair prices. While meeting one night in a local church, carloads of white vigilantes attacked, shooting and killing more than 200 men, women, and children. During the melee, 5 white men were killed, some by their own bullets in the confusion. Almost immediately, 12 Black men were arrested for murder, tried, and convicted.

Enter Scipio Jones, who risked his life, spent five years of intensive work, and expending most of his personal wealth, desperately striving to save the twelve. Eventually the case made it to the Supreme Court and became the first time African Americans won a Supreme Court decision. As always, the Wallaces write with admirable clarity, making this complex legal story understandable for a teen audience. This is also a heart-stopping story of suspense. Fascinating and deeply relevant in our time, this is a story that should be read and remembered.

Cindy: Like Lynn, and the Wallaces before they unearthed the story while researching a later court case, I’d never heard of this courageous and brilliant lawyer or the story of this important legal battle to not only save lives, but to move justice forward for persecuted African Americans. We still have a long way to go for legal justice for all, but Scipio Jones certainly provided a push in that progress, and at great personal sacrifice and risk to his own safety.

I also don’t know as much as I should about the history of the NAACP, so it was surprising to me how little faith the leadership had in having a black lawyer represent the case that he had worked so hard to prepare. In some states, especially in the segregated south, it was also a legal mandate for a white lawyer to present the cases. Of course, in 1919, Scipio Jones couldn’t even ride in the same train car as his white colleague or sleep in the same hotel. For his own safety, after a long day in court he had to find a local family willing to host him for the night, changing his location daily for his protection, and that of the people willing to help him.

This horrifying and fascinating story also includes famed Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who visited the incarcerated men and wrote about them, and held a protest to raise funds for their defense. Jones also had a young attorney working with him on a final case against the Little Rock school district, who he was suing for equal pay for Black teachers and administrators. Scipio died before the case was finished but that young attorney, Thurgood Marshall, continued on and won the case.

Scipio Jones, born enslaved and self-taught, and his heroic and brilliant work need to be known, and honored. Start by reading this powerful book.

Think You Know the Ending? Try These Picture Books

Lynn and Cindy: We have written before about our conviction that young readers love picture books in which they figure out what piece of wool is being pulled over a character’s eyes before he/she does. We love those too and we especially love it when we THINK that is happening but the story goes on to take a twist we never anticipated. We have two new picture books that do just that and we’re still smiling thinking about them!

Lynn: How to Catch a Clover Thief (Little, Brown, 2021) How to Catch a Clover Thief by Elise Parsleyby Elise Parsley had me laughing from page one. Wait – I think it had me laughing the moment I saw the cover! Roy the Boar has discovered a just-about-ready patch of his favorite meal – clover! All he has to do is lie there patiently and wait for it to be deliciously ready. Enter Jarvis, a suspiciously friendly gopher. He assures Roy he knows this is Roy’s patch and won’t trespass BUT he’s sure Roy will like the cookbook he is bringing, How to Cook with Clover. Roy is wary but he is quickly absorbed by tempting recipes and before readers can shout a warning, Roy is off gathering mushrooms! And of course, when Roy returns to his clover patch, it is noticeably smaller. Enter Jarvis with a new book, this time on camping! It is hilarious and kids will be sure they know that poor Roy is being tricked. But this story goes on to upend readers with a  terrifically unexpected twist. Readers will laugh and cheer! Parsley’s wonderfully goofy illustrations are the perfect addition to this to this clever bait-and-switch. Fabulous fun  and I love that books are key to the ongoing wackiness.

Sheepish by Helen YoonCindy: I have another “wolf in sheep’s clothing” in Helen Yoon’s delightful Sheepish: (Wolf Under Cover) (Candlewick, 2021). The trope of a wolf disguising himself as a sheep to get a good dinner, gets a twist in this picture book that will have children howling at the antics. Wolf is sure that his disguise is so good that the sheep in this rural boarding-school environment will never notice a thing. He’s delusional, of course, as kids will see the nervous and fearful expressions and responses from the sheep when he grabs his breakfast tray and goes through the cafeteria line with them, thoughts of roasted sheep dancing in his head as he picks up okra. In addition to his disguise, he needs to be helpful, friendly, and a team player to lower their suspicions and defenses. All is going according to plan…until it’s not. A few twists send the story in a new direction, to the relief of sheep-lovers….and wolf-lovers. Yoon’s illustrations are full of fun details to explore and are infused in humor…and some love. Don’t miss this gem.

Just Like That: Schmidt Does It Again

Lynn: Gary Schmidt has done it again. His new book Just Like That (Clarion, 2021) is another gem of a middle-grade novel. He makes a startling Just Like That by Gary D Schmidtmove with an event that takes place just prior to the book’s opening. A reader-favorite character, Holling Hoodhood, dies, leaving his best friend grappling with the grief and despair she terms “the Blank.” Unable to face returning to their shared junior high school in the fall, Meryl Lee is sent by her parents to an elite private boarding school in Maine, St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls. Placed in a room with 3 hostile girls from wealthy privileged families, Meryl Lee feels even more alone and adrift.

In a concurrent and very Dickensian story line, young Matthew Coffin has also landed in the area. On the run from a Fagin-type character and in possession of a cache of money stolen from him, Matt is also adrift in loneliness, guilt and grief. He works the fishing boats, avoids authorities, and fights to stay unnoticed. But Dr. Nora MacKnockater, head of St. Elene’s, sees both teens, their qualities and their struggles. Both story lines intersect as Meryl Lee takes on pearl-wearing roommates, class discrimination, Shakespearean sonnets, dissection, and field hockey. A catalyst for change, Meryl Lee alters the lives and paths of everyone around her—including her own. Heartfelt, insightful, very funny, and deeply moving, this memorable story is Schmidt at the top of his game. Stellar in every way, this book is a gift to readers of all ages.

Cindy: I started reading this in print but then had to be on the road so I bought the audio version and what a treat it was to hear this story read aloud. The 1968 Vietnam War era is well-infused into this story, sometimes in grief-stricken ways, and others more light-hearted, like the ill-fated luncheon when Vice President Spiro Agnew visits the school. Meryl Lee has a bit of Anne Shirley in her, she means well, but unfortunate things just happen sometimes. Dr. MacKnockater is the kind of teacher every kid needs at some time in their journey and both Meryl Lee and Matthew benefit from her wise counsel that also encourages them to figure out what they need to for themselves. Gentle nudges and loving support. Growing up is hard enough, growing up while grieving is even harder. Like last year’s fabulous Pay Attention, Carter Jones that we posted about, the grief is palpable and informed by Schmidt’s own journey, but his humor scenes show that life continues between the blanks. Obviously this is for fans of Schmidt’s connected novels, The Wednesday Wars and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, but Kate DiCamillo fans will embrace these vivid characters and their story too. 

Are You Languishing? – Our Antidotes

Lynn and Cindy: We’ve commented throughout the year about issues with reading focus and our struggles to read at our usual pace. It was heartening recently to learn that not only are we not alone in our issues but there is a name for the problem! Apparently it is called languishing! It is characterized by the inability to focus and a lack of motivation. For us one of the major symptoms has been our inability to focus on reading. For reviewers that is a major challenge! But some books grab us from the first sentence and keep us turning the pages. What books make that happen? Is it the style, the genre, the setting? Curious minds want to know! Here are some books that have been our antidotes to the dreaded languishing:

House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne JonesLynn: For me the key to happily reading a book to its finish this year has been re-reading! Maybe it is the reassurance of knowing ahead that I was deeply smitten by the style, the flow, and the outcome. Starting an old favorite again is like sliding into a warm bubble bath. My brain goes, “Ahhhhh,” and I find myself turning the pages and smiling. Re-reading has allowed me to then eagerly pick up some new books that I can read with pleasure. Adult mystery series have been a prime remedy but so have re-reads of youth series.

I have happily worked my way through a great swathe of books by Diana Wynne Jones. I will always and forever love Sophie and Howl. I recently finished The House of Many Ways and I could have stayed in that world forever—even with the that purple lubbock in the garden. I am also reading my way through Terry Pratchett’s enchanting books about Tiffany Aching who has the Nac Mac Feegles and Granny Weatherwax providing backup—with the occasional use of a little sheep liniment. I have I Shall Wear Midnight queued up and ready. 

The re-reading recess somehow helps me to welcome and mentally walk into the excellent new books that have come my way this year. How about you? Are you languishing? What books would you prescribe?

Cindy: Last June, I retired during the pandemic from almost four decades of children’s public and middle school librarianship reading very little besides youth literature, with the exception of the occasional John Grisham audio book, or other rare foray into adult books. It wasn’t quite that one-sided, but it definitely felt like it. When I no longer had to read to booktalk and do readers’ advisory with my students, I felt like a free woman. I started reading more adult books, nonfiction, birding guides, and taking lots of long hikes to look for birds. Shape of Thunder by Jasmine WargaMy stacks of youth books no longer felt so imperative and my reading of them has definitely been languishing in the past year. My solution is to sometimes tackle my stack of unread picture books, sure to bring a smile or laugh (depending on the title), and the satisfaction of having finished a book quickly. I also am spurred on by favorite authors, more confident that I will be happy to keep reading. We recently posted about David Levithan’s The Mysterious Disappearance of Aiden S. (as told to his brother), and we have an upcoming post for Gary D. Schmidt’s recent novel, Just Like That. I’m currently reading Jasmine Warga’s The Shape of Thunder, but I also have Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard by Douglas W. Tallamy going as well.

For me, diversity is going to be the key going forward. A well-balanced reading meal. But, we warned you recently that bird migration season is upon us and I saw a rare Cerulean Warbler, a lifer for me, this week, so I will be on the trails many hours this month and my car audio book has been replaced by bird song apps. What is pulling you away from reading? Or are you hunkered down with your books in survival mode? Let us know your tips for overcoming languishing.

 

Curse of Specter Queen: Book 1 of a New Fun Series

Curse of the Specter Queen by Jenny MokeCindy: We haven’t even told you anything about this novel yet, but by the time we do, you’ll be delighted to know that Curse of the Specter Queen (Disney/Hyperion, June 8, 2021) by Jenny Elder Moke is the start of a new series, because your younger teens are going to want to continue to adventure with this crew. Samantha Knox is the quiet star of the cast that includes her wealthy estranged best friend, Joana and her brother Bennett, Sam’s childhood crush. When a mysterious ancient diary arrives in the mail at the antique book shop where Sam works, it sets in motion a reuniting of these friends as they  begin a high stakes version of the puzzle-solving ciphering they did as kids for Jo and Bennett’s father. Sam always took that play seriously but now she may be in over her head. The mystery, set in the 1920s during Prohibition takes them to Ireland, where Jo is more interested in the pubs than the monastery in the country where they are to stay. Her sarcastic banter and love of fashion provides some lighter moments to counter the dangerous and frightening situations the teens face while trying to find an ancient relic to stop a world-threatening curse. This will make a great read-alike series for fans of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series.

Lynn:  This book was such a treat! Reading it was a welcome escape from the ongoing stresses of our current situation. Curse of the Specter Queen is packed with just the sorts of elements I relish most in a book: a smart book-loving but self-effacing and insecure heroine who finds her strengths, an ancient curse, a twisty plot full of mysterious clues, a great setting, and lots of red herrings! Who could want more? Besides the compelling plot, I thoroughly enjoyed the depictions of the long-time friends whose had friendship had foundered on misunderstandings and that of the bickering siblings. I can’t resist a book with ciphers and codes and this one delivered!

I appreciate the many books being published today that take on world-crushing issues and portray situations that have been historically oppressive. Those are badly needed. But we also need books that entertain, that lift us beyond difficult and challenging times. We need treats in our lives just as much as we need the meat. Curse of the Specter Queen is just such a treat for so many readers. Huzzah for Samantha Knox and her adventures to come.

 

Turtle in Paradise as Graphic Novel

Turtle in Paradise the Graphic Novel by Jennifer L HolmCindy:  Jennifer L. Holm’s Newbery Honor historical fiction Turtle in Paradise (Random, 2010) is getting a new graphic novel edition (RH Graphic, May 4, 2021) with art by Savanna Ganucheau and colorist Lark Pien! I couldn’t be happier as it is sure to bring new young readers to the story, perhaps in both formats. The cover is painted in wide swaths of Key West seaside-inspired hues that are used throughout the panels inside as the story of 11-year-old Turtle’s time with her aunt and boy cousins unfolds. I read the original novel on a Florida beach in 2010 and in a post we wrote for the Booklist Reader, I said:

This book, like a conch shell, slowly builds on itself as each episodic story is added. The boys (Beans, Slow Poke, Kermit and Pork Chop) call themselves the Diaper Gang and earn candy by watching babies for weary neighborhood mothers. The story, set in 1935, is a fun and touching look at a tough time for both Turtle and the Key West community she’s been dropped into.

It’s a fun trip to read it again in this new format. 

Lynn:  What a treat to meet Turtle and the Diaper Gang once more! I have to think that the Diaper Gang would be in huge demand today with exhausted pandemic families! Maybe some enterprising young readers will seize the chance.

The story has moved seamlessly into graphic format and illustrator Savanna Ganucheau and Colorist Lark Pien have used the perfect palette of warm island colors to evoke the setting of this charming story.

A wonderful addition to this GN version is the new back matter. Jennifer Holm writes of her family connection to Key West. Her Conch Great-Grandmother emigrated there in the 1800’s and Holm has memories of visiting there as a child. Included are some wonderful photos of Key West in the 1930’s. There is also a note from Illustrator Ganucheau.

If you’ve read the original, don’t miss this charming new version and if you are new to Turtle’s stories, be sure to read both formats!

 

Bookends Productivity vs Spring Bird Migration

Yellow-rumped Warbler photo by Cindy Dobrez
Yellow-rumped Warbler – Cindy Dobrez

Cindy and Lynn: If you notice a decrease in our posts this month and next, we are not responsible. Nope. We’re sorry, but we’re not. Despite temperatures in the 30s this week in Western Michigan and snow not far from us, spring bird migration season is upon us and our favorite Butter Butts (Yellow-rumped Warblers) have made it to our yards and parks.

tree-swallow-photo-by-lynn-rutan
Tree Swallow – Lynn Rutan

The rest of the warblers are not far behind and we are spending as much time outside with our eyes in binoculars as we are with our eyes in books. We are here for our faithful readers, we really are, but when there’s a chance of spotting an American Woodcock doing it’s 200-300 foot aerial mating display or sighting a lifer Cerulean Warbler, we’re sorry, but we may have to get back to you. 🙂

Autographed Books: Like, Feed

Feed by MT AndersonCindy: I’ve recently added some bookshelves in my house (yay!), which prompted a reorganization of my collections. As I sorted and tried to purge some books, I also had my hands on old favorites that won’t be moved along. Some of my favorites come from award committees or special publisher events where I picked up personalized autographs from favorite authors. Lynn and I thought it might be fun to start an occasional feature of some of our autographed books and any stories that might accompany them. Well, at least those that we have permission to share. Let us know what you think.

One of my very favorites came from my first meeting with M.T. Anderson. 2002 was my second year serving on ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and Feed was a National Book Award Finalist. At the time, I had middle school age daughters who used the word, “like,” more often than the characters slinging slang in Anderson’s futuristic story about never being able to turn off the “feed” because it has been implanted in your brain. At the dinner, I told Tobin that I’d started charging my daughters 25 cents per “like” used incorrectly, mostly because the bad habit had spread to my own speech. One night at dinner I began to sound like an auctionneer: “25, 50, 75 cents, a dollar!” We laughed and when he later signed my book, this was the autograph! I, like, cherish it, like, immensely!