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!

Eyes that Kiss in the Corners: an AAPI Own Voices Picture Book

Cindy: If you are as dismayed as we are by the numerous racial attacks on members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, this new book will give you some comfort. Last week’s publisher delivery of Eyes that Kiss in the Corners (Harper, 2021) by Joanna Ho couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

When a young girl realizes that her eyes are very different from her round-eyed friends, she describes them as “eyes that kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea.” They are just like her mama’s. Her description grows with each family member as she describes her mother’s, Amah’s, and baby sister’s eyes.

My eyes crinkle into crescent moons
and sparkle like the stars.
Gold flecks dance and twirl
while stories whirl
in their oolong pools,
carrying tales of the past
and hope for the future….

The girl’s understanding of her beauty, her strength, her family, and her story grows throughout the book into a revolution and an appreciation of who she is and the worth she has. Dung Ho’s digital illustrations showcase nature and legend in addition to the females’ eyes and will delight readers young and old. This book belongs in every library collection for young people and should be read aloud to groups of children of all ethnicities. Count this as a solid addition to Own Voices literature.

Serving on the Lee Bennett Hopkins Children’s Poetry Award Jury

Cindy: The 2021 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award was announced this week and I’m delighted to share the news with all of you. It’s been hard to keep the winners under wrap while waiting for the press release but now we’ve been given permission to reveal the title that took the prize.

Our jury of five selected Lois Lowry’s On the Horizon (HMH, 2020) a verse memoir of her childhood during World War II as the winner of the 2021 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award. We also selected two honor books, Ice: Poems About Polar Life, written and illustrated by Douglas Florian (Holiday House, 2020) and Punching the Air, by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (Harper/Balzer + Bray, 2020).  The press release provides more information about the books and the award. Additional jury members’ comments about each winning title can be found on this year’s award page.

When I was invited to serve as the chair of this committee back in August 2020 by the Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s Director, Karla Schmidt, I was honored and I didn’t yet know that would mean getting to work with admired and award-winning poets Marilyn Nelson and Tony Medina—definitely a bonus and a great experience. I also had the joy of working with Karen O’Connell, coordinator of the Arkansas Center for the Book, and Suzanne Walker, Indiana Young Readers Center librarian, knowledgeable and dedicated jury members as well. What a fun time we had with this dream job of being tasked to read poetry!

We all thoroughly enjoyed the months of reading the wealth and diversity of poetry for youth and picking a single winner is always hard. I’m thankful for the inclusion of our two honor award titles. Lowry, Florian, and Zoboi & Salaam’s titles show excellence at every audience level of the award’s age 0-14 criteria and all of them will beg to be read again and again just as we jury members did when we were preparing to discuss and select our winner.

Many fine titles were not given awards and I’d love to highlight some of those, but that’s not allowed. Trust me that there are many poetry gems waiting to be found in your local libraries and bookstores every year. Don’t miss them.

I’m sorry that I never got a chance to meet Lee Bennett Hopkins before his death in 2019. I’m grateful for the many books he wrote and edited for children; I used many of them over my three and half decades of public and school librarianship. What an honor and a treat to be a small part of this award.

Literary Wardrobes, a Cat, and Kids saying, “Whoa!”

Lynn and Cindy: We LOVE books that get kids talking and there is nothing like time travel or portal travel and ambiguous resolutions to make that happen! If you love that too we have such a treat for you. We have two new books that are wildly different from each other but who share some important connections. Yup – wardrobe portals to other times or places, lots of references to well-loved books in the genre, compulsive plots and endings that are guaranteed to make kids say, “Whoa!”

Lynn:  Da Vinci’s Cat ((Harper/Greenwillow, 2021) by Catherine Gilbert Murdock is an enchanting and intriguing story set in the 1500s and also the present, featuring a noble young hostage to the Pope, a modern young girl just moving into a new house, famous artists a mysterious cat and cabinet that connects them all. Packed with historical figures and backed with terrific research, the details of both settings are vivid and the historical and cultural background necessary for young readers is provided seamlessly. Sympathetic characters are at the heart of this story but the mindblowing aspects of time travel power the plot and enhance the tension. Readers walk with Federico and Bee as they explore the puzzle of the cabinet, sharing in the initial puzzlement, then giddy excitement, and finally in the horrifying realization of the future altering consequences.

There is plenty of humor provided by the two protagonists’ encounters with each other and with centuries of differences in culture, manners, and clothing. The introduction of the famous art and artists is one of the highlights here – who knew Michelangelo shunned baths! This fascinating item and more will certainly send many young readers to look up the artists and their works involved in the story. Juno, Da Vinci’s cat with an intriguing connection to Schrodinger’s Cat, and the time-traveling closet are such clever devices and Murdock incorporates them into a compelling story in a brilliantly effective way.

Cindy: I’m sorry that we are tempting you with a book that won’t publish until May 25th, but know that we are as eager as you are to see the finished book with “Decorations” by Caldecott Medalist Paul O. Zelinsky. Federico is based on a boy hostage of Pope Julius II, who, according to the author’s note, in the galley lived in “the papal palace for three years, befriending artists and attending countless banquets.” The story that Murdock spins from this and her research of Raphael and Michelangelo is fascinating but told well for her young audience who may need an introduction to the players and the times. Like her Newbery Medal novel, The Book of Boy, Murdock says this is “fantasy grounded in fact.” And, it’s a fact that this novel is fantastic.

The galley blurb promises that Da Vinci’s Cat is recommended for readers who loved When You Reach Me and A Wrinkle in Time. Coincidentally, David Levithan’s introduction in his new book mentions both of these titles as inspiration for writing his own middle-grade book with fantasy elements.  The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. (as told to his brother)  (Knopf, 2021) is quite different from Murdock’s book, but it’s also quite different from Levithan’s previous books, and not just that it’s written for a younger audience than his previous teen titles.

A tale of two brothers, one of whom disappears, is a page-turner from the very beginning. Lucas’ older brother Aidan just vanishes one day and a police search begins. Six days later he shows up and his answers to questions about where he’s been are hard to believe. The adults all think Aidan is covering, but our narrator, Lucas, is determined to get to the truth. Is there a place with fantastical beasts and green-colored skies? If there is, why does his brother want to return there so badly and leave this world behind? I don’t want to give away much more, it’s more fun to journey with Lucas through his investigation and ponderings while innocent. One thing is sure, David may have changed his target audience and paid tribute to the novels he loved as a tween, but his themes of love and acceptance shine through brightly and aren’t hidden behind any doors, be they on closets or magical wardrobes. I only wish that Levithan could jump into Da Vinci’s time-traveling wardrobe and take a copy of this book back to his 12-year-old self. I’d like that kid to tell adult David to keep writing middle grade books as well as teen and adult.

Lynn: I loved David’s book too! The voice of Lucas, the younger brother and narrator was simply terrific—a thoughtful observer of events and interactions around him, is spot on, believable and compelling. Lucas’ story is the device that raises the issues, spots the inconsistencies and then assesses the reactions. Lucas reports both what he sees and hears but what is also unsaid or remembered—beautifully increasing the feeling of uncertainty and doubt. This is both an urgent, can’t-put-it-down story and a thoughtful set of powerful observations that require a pause to consider—not an easy combination to pull off. What is truth, what is the impact of truth on the listener when what may be the truth is unimaginable? Should the truth always be told and when and why would you alter it?

David skillfully plants seeds of doubt everywhere in Lucas’ narration, leaving the reader always feeling slightly off-center. Often young readers dislike open-ended stories but those stories motivate them to have instant conversations and that is a powerful thing. Some readers of both of these books will race through them and more sophisticated readers are going to discover so much to consider. All readers are going to find that both stories linger long after the pages are finished. And one more terrific quality of both of these books is that they are absolutely perfect read-alouds for classrooms or to use as book club books. Brace yourselves for LOTS of conversations!

Overcoming Fears – New Chapter Books for the First Grade Set

Lynn: I am firmly convinced that writing well for children is extremely difficult and writing well for the K-Gr. 2 set is one of the most difficult challenges of all! My all-too-necessary-in-Michigan stocking hat is off to people that manage to be authentic, engaging, and developmentally appropriate while telling a wonderful story! One of the best is Emily Jenkins, author of one of my favorite chapter book series, The Toys Trilogy. I am delighted to report that Jenkins has a new chapter book that will be published in June, Harry Versus the First Hundred Days of School (Random/Schwartz & Wade, June 2021. I fell in love with 5-year-old Harry Bergen-Murphy on the first page.

Harry doesn’t think he is ready for first grade. He has worries. Will he get lost in the big building? Will his teacher yell? What about mean kids and scary classroom guinea pigs? Not even the new Fluff Monster keychain on his backpack makes Harry feel ready. This absolutely endearing tale chronicles Harry’s experiences with school, the ubiquitous Hundred Days lessons, and how he becomes an expert at, not one, but three things! Jenkins masterfully puts readers right inside Harry’s head as he takes on the challenges of first grade. Funny, sweet, and absolutely dead-on authentic, this book addresses the complicated whirl of a child’s fears, misunderstandings, and confusions as well as the growth, revelations, breakthroughs, and triumphs of that important early school experience.

Harry is a complete delight. Loaded with Jenkins’ signature wry humor, the book is as insightful in the ways a young child thinks as it is funny. This will be a perfect read-aloud for classrooms, for parents helping prepare a child for that first day of school, or as a solo read for kids tackling chapter books on their own. Kids will delight in finding their First Grade experiences reflected here. Adults will find a heartwarming story of a little boy discovering his strengths, aided by caring teachers and supportive adults. Jenkins includes a terrific Author’s Note that includes comments on the lessons and a list of the many stellar books referenced in the story. I’d also just like to say the “Fluff Monsters” that Harry loves and invented for the story are the next fad waiting to sweep First Grades everywhere! Emily—you need to copyright this now!

I read this in galley which included just a few of the promised illustrations by Pete Oswald and I’m eager to see the finished copy. I can’t think of a better book to use as a first-grade classroom read-aloud or one for a parent to read with a first-grader to be. Absolutely stellar in every way.
Cindy: I have a story about a girl who has tackled and survived first grade, but has many more fears to conquer. Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey (Greenwillow, May 2021) by the talented Erin Entrada Kelly introduces us to 8-year-old Marisol who is afraid of everything. Small, quiet, and timid Marisol Rainey is a main character that many children will relate to, although they may need to be introduced to silent movies and their stars like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Marisol is a fan of those funny movies and how the actors can say so much without saying anything.
Marisol names everything, her stuffed animals, the refrigerator (Buster for Buster Keaton), and the huge scary tree in the back yard, which she named Peppina. She names all of the important things in her life as she says she wouldn’t want to be called “human” or “girl” so why shouldn’t refrigerators and trees have names?
Marisol has a supportive family and a patient best friend, Jada, who all understand Marisol’s fears and let her tackle them when she is ready. She also has mad Claw-Machine skills that have helped to grow her stuffed animal collection, but even then, she uses them to rescue the one-eyed misfit animal in the far corner of the machine. Marisol is kind. She is the kind of friend all first to third graders should get to know.

M.B. Goffstein Fans Rejoice! Reissues Are Coming!

Cindy: I first encountered M.B. Goffstein‘s books at my first professional job as a public children’s librarian in 1984. I read Sleepy People (1966) and was hooked. I still yawn even thinking about that book with a small family living in a slipper drinking hot cocoa. I’ve wanted to purchase it, but rare copies sell in the hundreds of dollars. You can imagine the joy of finding a review package from The New York Review Children’s Collection on my doorstop with not one but TWO M.B. Goffstein reissues inside! Fish for Supper and Brookie and Her Lamb will be back in print on March 2nd.

Brookie and Her Lamb (Farrar, 1967) is the only Goffstein book I own so I am able to compare the second edition with this new NYRB release. Gone is the paper jacket and the little pink flowers surrounding the cover illustration. Gone, too, is the jacket flap information that tells readers the message of the book. The rest of the book is delightfully intact. Opening it to see Goffstein’s pen and ink spare illustrations is a joy all over again. A drawing of Brookie taking her lamb for a walk with the jaunty pair viewed from the back just makes one smile. This is a story of unconditional love and so much more. “Brookie had a little lamb and she loved him very much.” She taught him to sing and read, but he could only sing “Baa, baa, baa.” And he could only read, “Baa, baa, baa.” She loved him anyhow. I always found it magical how Goffstein could say so much with so few words and such nuanced, but seemingly simple, illustrations. According to the press release, “Goffstein once said it took nine hours to draw a vacuum cord just right.” Mary may have had a little lamb, but I’ll take Brookie and Her Lamb any day! And, here’s to more Brooke Goffstein reissues…PLEASE!

Lynn: the New York Review is also re-releasing Goffstein’s 1977 Caldecott Honor book, Fish for Supper. This was the first Goffstein book that I remember meeting. This is the charming story of the determinedly independent old lady who goes out early, fishes all day, eats her catch and prepares to happily do it all over again the next day. I fell in love with it all over again, perhaps because I’m a grandmother now myself!

These new editions are in the small trim size and the covers look much the same although the tiny flowers on the first editions have been removed for a cleaner look. Don’t miss these!