A Saucy Read: Tomatoes for Neela

Tomatoes for Neela by Padma LakshmiCindy: My husband rarely gets credit for his support of Bookends Blog or his suggestions for my to-read list. He saw an interview with the host of Top Chef and Taste the Nation, Padma Lakshmi, on this Today Show segment about her new picture book, Tomatoes for Neela (Viking, 2021) and told me he wanted to read it and that I should consider it for the blog. Now, I’m not a fan of “celebrity author” childrens books, but this one, illustrated by Caldecott Honor Winner Juana Martinez-Neal is an exception. I am a fan of any food books that encourage healthy eating and that promote families spending time cooking together. Lynn found the book at the public library and read it and then handed it off to me the day I had spent the morning canning tomatoes and tomato sauce! Perfect timing.

IMG-2622Young Neela loves to cook with her amma (mother) and copies their recipes in her own notebook just like her amma and her paati (grandmother) have always done. To Neela, these books seem magical, like a wizard’s spell book. A trip to the green market that day is highlighted by a stunning display of tomatoes in all sizes, shapes, and colors. I could hang that spread on my tomato red  kitchen wall and never tire of looking at it. The acrylic and colored pencil illustrations beautifully showcase the the fruit and the love between Neela and her amma and their joy in purchasing such treasures in season.

In addition to the lessons on making the sauce and dishes using the sauce (recipes included), the story is infused with family tradition, Indian culture, and information about tomatoes and the farmworkers who bring those fruits to market. The backmatter includes more information including a list of books for children about Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

I wish I’d read this gorgeous book before canning this year, as I didn’t fry my garlic before adding it to the sauce, nor did I know to cut x’s in the bottom of my tomatoes before boiling them to loosen the skins, but I will try both next year. I learned to can tomatoes from my mother but it became a tradition my father and I did together every August while my mother was selling antiques on the weekends. 

It is one I continue with my husband as I spend the day thinking of my father and enjoying the satisfaction of putting away a bit of summer to enjoy in the cold days of winter. 

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Magicked Gingerbread & Sourdough Starter Save the Day!

Cindy: Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking by T KingfisherI’ve baked hundreds of gingerbread people in my day, but I’ve never been able to make them rise from the cookie sheet and dance or fight off invaders, like Mona does in A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking (Argyll, 2020) by T. Kingfisher. The tag line on the cover (Siege. Sorcery. Sourdough.) tells you most everything you need to know. If you aren’t intrigued by the title, the tag line, and the cover art, this book probably isn’t for you.  I’ll give you a few details, though, since I’m eager to promote this book to everyone who likes a good fluffy biscuit, whether it’s been magicked to be fluffy or got there on its own. Fourteen-year-old orphan Mona works in her aunt’s bakery and in a world where some people have magical talents, she has a way with dough. In the bakery basement lives Bob, a loyal sourdough starter that blurps and fights with the best of the kingdom’s defenders when some mages-turned-evil try a coup against the reigning out-of-touch duchess.

When Mona finds a dead body in the bakery very early one morning, her life becomes, shall we say, complicated. Initially she runs to save her own life after Bob saves her from an attack but eventually she finds herself in a fight to save the kingdom that involves twelve-foot-tall gingerbread golums under her control. As a loyal citizen, and someone who is fighting to be accepted for her differences, she takes on the battle, but Mona is rightfully resentful.  Why are a couple of kids having to get involved with something that adults in power should have paid attention to and handled? Many teens will relate to that sentiment with the non-magical issues facing us today.

This book flew under the radar for me until a friend read it and raved about it. When I read Kingfisher’s story about the long fight to bring this story to print, I wish I’d been able to send some gingerbread men of my own to help her. At any rate, I’m thrilled to have found it and read it, and dare I hope for a sequel??? Did I mention that I loved this absolutely charming book?

Lynn:  Cindy is absolutely right about this delightful book! I had it on a to-read list but it certainly wasn’t on my active radar. Thanks to an on-the-ball friend who insisted we read this!

If you are looking for something that is the perfect recipe for a summer escape, this book is the delicious answer. Having used a sourdough starter in my past and watching my daughter-in-law now giving it away to everyone, I laughed out loud at Bob—every sourdough baker’s nemesis. And who would imagine a gingerbread cookie army?

Great characters, a fairy-tale trope baked to perfection, and plenty of humor sprinkled on top—this is a satisfying treat that mustn’t be missed!

Cindy & Lynn: Readers, have YOU read anything else by T. Kingfisher? We are placing library holds as we post this; what should we read next?

Someone Builds the Dream: A Tribute to the Trades

Cindy: Someone Builds the Dream by Lisa WheelerHardworking people in the trades are center stage in Someone Builds the Dream (Dial, 2021) by Lisa Wheeler and Loren Long. Architects, engineers, artists, scientists, amusement park designers, and even authors use their imagination, knowledge, and skills to dream up important and sometimes fun places, structures, or books, but the work doesn’t end there. It takes many hands to build the dream. For instance, and engineer designs a bridge but:

Someone works to mine the ore,
smelt the iron, pour the beam.
Someone needs to weld the steel.
Someone has to build the dream.

Written in jaunty rhyme, this book celebrates the many skilled laborers who often aren’t included in the ribbon-cutting ceremonies and photo opportunities for new structures and places. I expecially appreciated the inclusion of book-making as children have no idea about how a book comes to be as it isn’t something that happens out in the open like the building of homes that they might see. I’ll leave the illustrations for Lynn to rave about, but Loren Long, ahem, nailed it with these paintings. 

Lynn: I’ve long been a fan of Loren Long’s work, especially his Otis the Tractor books, but for me, this is his best work yet. There is a wonderful feeling of homage to the WPA murals of the 1930s that also celebrated the workers across the country. But there is a lot more here than just a tip of the hard hat to WPA art. Long’s extensive craftsmanship is beautifully at work in the skillful design and pacing. Each series begins with a “dreamer” at work, often alone in a quiet space and the text shown against a white background. The next spreads in contrast are busy, muscular, vividly-hued and pulsing with activity as the workers use their skills to bring each dream to life. Each scene is packed with details and demands readers to pause and explore. There is so much to look at! I love that the workers are of a wide diversity of races, are both men and women, and depicted as skillfully engaged in the work.  This is a partnership of text and illustration at its best!

Cruella: Hello, Cruel Heart

Cindy: Hello Cruel Heart by Maureen JohnsonEveryone loves an origin story, and who better to learn about than Cruella de Vil? I mean, who makes coats out of puppy skins??? I read the Dodie Smith original The Hundred and One Dalmatians story, but I must have seen the Disney version more than a hundred and one times when my daughter was young. It was her favorite for years. I haven’t watched the new Cruella Walt Disney Studios film yet, but I couldn’t pass up Hello, Cruel Heart (Disney/Hyperion, 2021), a Maureen Johnson novel inspired by the movie. Here we find Estella squatting in a London hideout with two other waifs who had taken her in off the street when she was orphaned. Horace and Jasper taught Estella all of their pick pocket skills and over the years she learns to create the costumes and disguises for their bigger jobs, using a rescued sewing machine and fabric she lifts from all the finest shops. When fortunes finally change for Estella and she has an opportunity to leave her world of crime for one of fashion and fame, she doesn’t think twice about leaving her “family” behind. Johnson’s descriptions of late 60s London, the fashion and music scene, lunching in Soho, and the lure of Harrod’s for picking the pockets of the posh, are fabulous. Add in a dash of romance and an ending worthy of the best villian, and you have a fun romp of a read that might elicit just the tiniest bit of sympathy for the future Cruella de Vil.

Lynn: Tiniest bit of sympathy, Cindy? Oh I had a LOT of sympathy for Estella (Cruella-to-be) even with the knowledge of her as a future puppy poacher planning dastardly designs! Maureen Johnson gives us a fun romp as, Cindy says, but my heart really did ache for Estella as her dreams and heart got stomped on by those knee-high Soho boots!

The Soho scenes and Estelle’s fabulous fashions completely stole the show in this cinematic tale. I haven’t seen the new movie either but I can’t wait to see if it does ample justice to Maureen Johnson’s stylish and highly entertaining descriptions. This was a real delight to read and the perfect choice for readers looking for something diverting AND smart at the same time. In Johnson’s expert hands, Cruella becomes as three-dimensional as her fashion creations and readers may come just a bit closer to forgiving her future furry schemes.

Grief and Friendship: The Shape of Thunder

Cindy: Shape of Thunder by Jasmine WargaI know we have way too many young people who have had to deal with the aftermath of a school shooting, but that didn’t make it any easier to pick up this book. I sure am glad I did. The Shape of Thunder (Harper/Balzer + Bray, 2021) by Jasmine Warga is a powerful story about friendship and grieving and community healing that starts in two homes. Seventh graders Cora Hamed and Quinn McCauley have been friends since second grade but haven’t spoken to each other in a year. Quinn’s older brother died in a school shooting he initiated that also killed Cora’s older sister. Both girls are dealing with loss, Quinn’s compounded by anger at her brother, and a slowly revealed guilt over her belief she might have prevented the shooting. The story is presented in alternating chapters between the girls, and also in letters that Quinn writes to her brother as she struggles to balance her love for her brother with her hatred of what he did. 

What finally breaks the silence between the two friends is Quinn’s research and idea that they must travel back in time to before the shooting to prevent it. She has been studying up on worm holes and time travel and begs Cora to help her. Their desperation to fix what has gone wrong in their world is palpable and the pages turn fast as readers watch their efforts and wish for healing for them. 

Despite the grim topic, Warga spins a story that is hopeful and that will help healing in many grieving situations or even in rifts in longtime friendships that often hit the breaking point in seventh grade. Great for book clubs or lit circles, middle school counselors, teachers, and parents would do well to read this story, too.

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?

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. 

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. 🙂