Patrick Ness and a New Spin on Dragons

Lynn: Just when I had decided that there was nothing new and interesting in the dragon-tales category, Patrick Ness came along with his new book, Burn (Harper, June 2020), and turned that notion upside down. I shouldn’t be surprised as Ness has a habit of giving old tropes a new look and I couldn’t be happier that he has brought his imagination to this science-fiction-with-dragons story. Wonderfully crafted and totally immersive, this is a brilliant book that completely absorbed my attention and that is saying a lot in this time of pandemic fear. I couldn’t put it down and I can’t resist saying that I burned through it.

The story begins in 1957 in rural Frome, Washington where Sarah Dewhurst and her taciturn father wait to meet the dragon they have hired to clear the new field at their struggling farm. The dragon turns out to be a rare Blue and while it appears that he works for a sliver of gold, his real reason in something else entirely. The focus shifts to a pair of FBI agents also in the area. They are tracing vague rumors of some kind of cult and a rumored assassin and arrive in time to check out a grisly murder scene. The focus shifts again to meet 17-year-old Malcolm, an assassin on a critical mission. Sarah’s family farm is the focal point of these three threads. An eons-long struggle is coming to a tipping point for both dragons and men in this and other worlds. None of the people who come together in the next few days will ever be the same.

The intricate plotting is a joy to read as all the plot points have purpose, all the relationships interlock, and every thread comes together. The characters are vivid and multi-dimensional in every sense and the world-building was exquisitely done. Incorporating the tense history of 1957, the Cold War, Sputnik, and the space race, Ness has given dragons and dragon magic a whole new spin.

Get ready for twists and turns and a wild finish! The door seems slightly ajar so I am hoping there will be a sequel and another trip possible to this universe. More, please!

Cindy: Wow. Patrick Ness is one of the most original writers we have and he delivers a dragon’s hoard in this new book. In addition to the creative world-building and the surprises in the plot (the big show down I anticipated was in the middle of the book. What?) he explores the themes of the costs of war and the tragedy in prejudice. In particular, bi-racial Sarah is shunned in town for her heritage just as her white father and now deceased mother were when they married. She has to hide her relationship with her boyfriend Jason Inagawa as the small town’s prejudice is even worse against anyone of Japanese heritage in this post-WWII decade. And then there is assassin Malcolm’s acceptance and exploration of his homosexuality, a thread that is beautifully, tenderly, and heartbreakingly portrayed. All of this while the adventurous plot spins out.

Do you really need to know more than this is written by Patrick Ness and this is the opening sentence:

On a cold Sunday evening in early 1957—the very day, in fact, that Dwight David Eisenhower took the oath of office for the second time as President of the United States of America—Sarah Dewhurst waited with her father in the parking lot of the Chevron gas station for the dragon he’d hired to help on the farm.

I didn’t think so. Get your preorder in with your local independent bookstore, pronto.

Books to Nest-le in with: Three Youth Nonfiction Bird Books

Cindy and Lynn: Spring! The birds in our yards are busy building nests and the Canada Geese are already swimming by Cindy’s house with their goslings in tow. Here are some books to read while you watch the nesting activity in your neighborhood.

Lynn: At first glance, Randi Sonenshine’s debut picture book, The Nest that Wren Built (Candlewick, 2020) might be easy to underestimate. Don’t! This lovely book in its brown and cream tones is truly outstanding and, like its small subject, full of surprises and energy.

Sonenshine’s poetic text is in the style of The House That Jack Built and it is a real pleasure to read aloud with a familiar cadence, wonderful word choices, and rhymes that flow naturally with nothing forced. The story is of two Carolina Wrens who build a nest and raise a family and I was so impressed with the amount of information that was incorporated into the story. Wrens are a real favorite of mine and I learned so much. Who knew they decorate their nests with snake skins to scare away flying squirrels intent on robbing the nest? I have observed female wrens dismantling the nests the male built to attract her but I had NO idea that the male builds sometimes as many as 20 “dummy” nests and that after the female makes her choice, the pair re-build the nest together.

Anne Hunter chose a warm soft palette of colors for her ink and pencil illustrations and they are exquisite. Lovely to look at, the drawings are also full of details that reinforce the text. Hunter captures wrens so well with their sassy, bossy fearlessness and the illustrations of the babies just getting ready to fly are adorable.

Excellent back matter includes an illustrated glossary and a page of additional facts about wrens. A perfect choice for a STEM classroom and one that would make a great writing prompt as well.

Cindy: Speaking of STEM classrooms, an early bird nest book from Candlewick that I recently found would pair nicely with Sonenshine’s book. Bird Builds a Nest (2018, 2020pb) written by Martin Jenkins and illustrated by Richard Jones is a part of Candlewick’s “A First Science Storybook” series. In addition to describing the nest-building process, this one includes information about forces: pushing, pulling, and gravity. The bird pulls a worm from the ground, tries to lift twigs that are too heavy, pushes a twig into one side of the nest, pulls it out a little and pushes it in a different way, and drops twigs to the ground during the building process. Jones’ mixed-media illustrations in bright but natural colors suit the book nicely. Questions to ask children about the forces and an index are included at the back.

For the youngest children, try Curious About Birds (Peachtree, 2019) by Cathryn and John Sill. This board book points out the physical features, behavior, and habitats of birds using a variety of species. Each is featured on a single page that includes a bright watercolor illustration, the fact about the bird, and a bonus, the species name of the bird. That’s often left off in books for the very young. For instance, one spread shows the Rainbow Lorikeet with the caption, “Some birds eat plants,” on one page and an Osprey holding a fish in its claws with the caption, “Some birds eat animals.” The book launches with the familiar Northern Cardinal and American Robin but includes Swallow-tailed Kites, Acorn Woodpeckers, Wood Ducks, Ovenbirds, Snowy Egrets, and other birds less frequently found in books for children. Happy birding!

Golden Arm – a Terrific Underdog Sports Story for Teens Missing Baseball

Lynn: Are you and your teen readers missing baseball like I am? I have just the book for you! Golden Arm (Houghton, 2020) by Carl Deuker will have you feeling as if you are sitting in the stands marking your scorecard.

Deuker is a master at sports writing and he has a sure winner with this new story about a talented underdog, Lazerus Weathers. Living in a Jet City trailer park, a gang and drug-ridden part of Seattle, Laz struggles with a stutter and learning disabilities, mostly letting his younger brother Antonio do his talking for him. But Laz shines when he takes the field where he is an immensely talented pitcher for his struggling high school team. The school has few resources, a lone coach, and barely enough players to field a team, but for Laz, baseball may be his only way out of Jet City. Laz is devastated when he learns that his high school is discontinuing baseball for his senior year but Laz’s talent has drawn the notice of coaches and players in the Seattle area. The father of one of Seattle’s most promising young players offers Laz a startling opportunity: come play for the most dominant high school team in the area, live with his family and help win a long-sought-after state title. For Laz, it is an opportunity to pursue his dream but it means leaving behind his mom and younger brother and trying to find his place in a new and unknown world. Antonio is being pulled into the dark world of drugs and crime—can Laz leave his brother and best friend behind?

The sports descriptions in this wonderful story are truly outstanding and Deuker had me forgetting I wasn’t watching actual games with a talented young player developing his skill and control. But it isn’t just the baseball that is so compelling in this book. Deuker hits all the bases with a really endearing team of characters, s suspenseful nail-biting plot, and a richly depicted setting. I loved every word from the opening sentence to the satisfying epilogue.

You don’t have to be a sports fan to love this story and I guarantee all readers will be rooting for Laz and his family. This book is a real winner!

Bloom – a Dystopian Thriller for Teens Without a Virus

Lynn: Grab your heavy-duty garden shears and get ready for a wild ride with Kenneth Oppel’s new science fiction thriller, Bloom (Random/Knopf, 2020). This series opener will have you looking at plants in a whole new way!

I always look forward to a new book by Oppel and this time he brings a scary new twist to a planetary threat that is a tip of the hat to the John Wyndham classic, The Day of the Triffids, a SF classic from 1951. Set on a Canadian island near Vancouver, readers meet three teens, two of which have severe and recent allergies and one, Seth, hides rows of small surgical scars on his arms. All are experiencing strange dreams and hide worries. When a fierce 3-day rainfall hits the island and in fact, the whole world, the two girls suddenly find their allergies improving. More startling is the overnight growth of a strange black grass that is almost impossible to destroy and that grows with terrifying speed, overwhelming farms, gardens, and cities. And that is just the start of what starts to grow. The teens begin to experience startling changes themselves as they and the world fight for their lives against the invaders.

Fast-paced and immersive, this terrific story of toxic pollen, horrifying pit plants, and a fabulous super-powers wrapped me up like one of the black vines in the story and I raced through this book as fast as I could turn the pages. Oppel uses real plant biology skillfully to nurture world-building that is terrifyingly believable. The story builds to a nail-biting climax and resolution only to land a sucker punch of a cliff-hanger event on the last page. I was very happy to discover that Book 2, Hatch, is scheduled for Fall 2020.

Cindy: There might not be a virus in this book, but there are people trapped in their homes and a shortage of toilet paper at school due to the increased allergies until the schools are closed down. Reading this while on Stay at Home orders during the COVID-19 Pandemic was a little unsettling at times.  In an insert in my advanced reader copy, Oppel says that the seed for this story came from a dream his daughter had. Perhaps she was having dreams that predicted the future just like those of his characters! I dreamt about hiding a toilet paper stash last night, and I don’t HAVE a stash.

Besides the scary invasion survival story going on here, there is a unique look at the changes during adolescence, not only misunderstandings in friendships but in an individual’s acceptance (or not) of the changes that are happening in their own bodies or to their own identities. It will be interesting to watch this thread with these three characters as the series continues as much as cheering them on against the bad guys. Sometimes, the bad guy is the person inside us who needs to be conquered. Bring on book 2, I have my wing barbs sharpened so I can fight my way to the top of the arc pile…it’s a good thing for some of you that ALA Annual has been canceled. The Random House/Knopf booth could have been quite dangerous!!! HAHAHAHA.

The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh: A Controversial Life

Cindy: From the back cover of The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh (Random/Schwartz & Wade, 2020) by Candace Fleming:

First person to successfully
fly across the Atlantic.

Media Sensation.

Nazi Sympathizer,
Anti-Semite.

Environmentalist.

White Nationalist.

Charles Lindbergh
was all this and more.

Fleming delivers a stunning teen biography of a complex man, structuring it in two sections: his historic rise to world fame, and his fall from hero-worship by many and his disenchantment with technology that had been his life’s passion. Most students will have heard of his achievement of completing the first solo trip across the Atlantic in an airplane, a feat that brought him discomfort with the celebrity. Some will have heard about the kidnapping of his firstborn son, but Fleming’s storytelling, using much dialogue right from Charles’ and wife Anne’s diaries and other writings will keep them turning the pages as the tragedy and the investigation unfolds. Fewer will know the details of his fascination with Hitler and Nazi “orderliness,” his serious work with a doctor in inventing a pump that kept organs alive outside the body in order to prolong life, perhaps indefinitely, and his rise as a White Nationalist leading rallies that sound oh-so-familiar today.

Just as Fleming did with The Family Romanov and another aviator in Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart, Charles comes to life with all of his human frailties, incongruities, and troubling behaviors. Just as clear is his drive and demand for precision. I realize it was a different time, but Anne was a saint to put up with him…as were his other two families in Europe that she didn’t know about. In fact, Anne is as fascinating to read about in many ways as is Charles. In this wonderful Publisher’s Weekly Q&A with Candace Fleming, she admits she came to like Anne quite a bit. Celebrities and heroes. There’s a lot to ponder here. Strap on your reading goggles and prepare yourself for quite a ride when you read this one!

Lynn: I am such a fan of Fleming’s biographies and this one not only captured my complete attention, it stayed in my mind for days after I finished it. Absorbing and wonderfully written, Fleming’s masterful biography incorporates the diaries and writings, as Cindy says, of both Charles and Anne, allowing these complicated individuals to tell much of their own stories. Charles especially reveals himself as incredibly complicated and flawed, socially stunted, and seemingly unable to connect emotionally with others. I was fascinated by his decades-long search for a way to end death, something that guided his thinking in multiple ways.

Lindbergh’s early years and the story of the tragic kidnapping of their first child was familiar to me from other books but I still appreciate Fleming’s presentations of this period of his life for young people. She did an excellent job of providing the necessary historical and cultural background necessary for understanding. I found the last third of the book, beginning with the family moving to England, the lead up to the war, the isolationist political efforts, and Lindbergh’s older years to be deeply interesting and packed with information that was new or provided expanded details.

The book includes outstanding back matter with an extensive bibliography and source notes and well-chosen photographs that tie directly to the text. I read this in galley and I am eager to see the finished copy. 6 starred reviews and every one deserved! This will be a great crossover book for adult readers.

Go With the Flow – a Graphic Novel We Wish We’d Had

Lynn: Half the school bleeds so why are menstrual periods still being treated as embarrassing and disgusting by so many people, wonders Abby. Readers meet Abby, Christine, and Brit on the first day back to high school in Go With the Flow (First Second, 2020) by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann. The three friends come to the rescue of new girl, Sasha, who has just started her first period and has leaked through her white pants, becoming the instant target of mean jokes and bullying. Fed up with the discovery that once more the bathroom dispenser is empty of pads and tampons, Abby decides to take on the challenge of de-stigmatizing periods and the issues of menstrual equality. She starts by going to the principal who is embarrassed and dismissive, eventually taking her activism to a level that impacts her friendship with the other 3 girls. Abby wants to change lives and make an impact but not this way!

My first thought when I heard about this upcoming graphic novel at ALA Midwinter was, “Why wasn’t this available when I was in high school?” That was the impetus behind the book for Williams and Schneemann. “Go With the Flow was born out of our desire to make the book we wished we had had growing up,” they write in the Authors’ Note. I am long past my menstrual days and it was both startling and saddening to discover that nothing much has changed in how menstruation is treated and talked about. The book is packed with frank and reassuring information but this is far more than an updated menstrual manual. The authors take on issues of bullying, gender equality, body norms, effective activism, family culture and more, weaving it all into a really charming and engaging framework of a supportive high school friendship.

I loved this terrific book and I told my husband while I was reading it that it should be required reading for every high school girl. He told me that it should also be read by every high school boy because they knew even less about this important topic! He is so right. This is a must purchase for every high school collection.

Cindy: When Sasha gets her first period at school while wearing white pants early in the book, I couldn’t help but flashback to reading the column “Was My Face Red,” in Young Miss Magazine in the early 70s. I always flipped there first when my new issue arrived to compare my embarrassing moments with those of other girls my age. I’d have devoured this book had it been available when I was in junior high.

In keeping with the theme, the art’s colors are done in shades of rusty red and feature a diverse cast of four friends and follow them from the start of school to a spring dance. The backmatter includes an authors’ note about the importance of sharing stories with friends to not feel so alone or abnormal and to understand the range of experiences that comes with menstruating, from irregular schedules to extreme pain and other scenarios. In support of Abby’s activism in the book there’s a list included “How to Be a Period Activist” with some useful tips for advocacy and action. The cover says “A friendship story. Period.” But it’s so much more. Make sure your school has multiple copies and that your machines are stocked, or better yet, that free supplies are available, just like toilet paper (post-COVID-19 hoarding, that is.)

Heroes We Need: Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker

Cindy: Children who embrace time alone, time to think, and time for their own pursuits are going to quietly embrace Sara Pennypacker’s new middle-grade novel, Here in the Real World (Harper/Balzer + Bray, 2020). Ware’s summer plans with his grandmother get sidetracked when she falls and breaks a hip landing her in rehab. His parents immediately sign him up for another summer of “Meaningful Social Interaction” with a side of humiliation that is the local Rec camp. He offers to pay them twice as much as the camp fees to let him stay home alone, he’s eleven, after all. They refuse. He skips out of Rec on the first day during a morning run and takes refuge at a crumbling church nearby. There he meets Jolene, who is using the church’s lot to grow a garden in coffee cans. Battle lines are initially drawn as the two stake their claims and go about their projects. Ware, fascinated by the Middle Ages, is turning the church into a medieval castle. Soon their refuge is threatened by a bird welfare organization and the potential sale of the church. Jolene and Ware must join forces and fight for the land that is so important to them.

Both kids have personal issues. Ware is different and he has overheard his mother wish that they just had a normal kid. Jolene’s situation slowly comes to light, although experienced readers will understand her issues of abandonment and abuse sooner rather than later. Both kids inspire the reader to champion their cause and to enjoy watching the transformations that ensue. Being quiet and being different is okay.

Lynn: One of the things I admire most about Sara Pennypacker’s writing is the way she gets how kids think and then puts readers right there in that experience too. That aspect is a highlight of Here in the Real World. Introverted Ware with his rich inner life, is vividly and authentically portrayed here. We feel Ware’s acute anxiety over the prospect of daily immersion in the summer rec program and we also feel his misery at how he thinks he disappoints his mother by being who he is. Watching Ware grow throughout the story and become confident in himself is the real joy of the book. I was a kid like Ware. I remember still my deep unhappiness at the prospect of the noisy horror of things like birthday parties and I still shudder at the thought of games like Musical Chairs!

One of the great gifts of reading is the ability to see through someone else’s eyes and this thoughtful book provides children unlike Ware to experience his feelings and those like him to be reassured. And seriously – what kid could resist the idea of that medieval castle complete with moat? Don’t miss this quiet and wonderfully crafted book.

Mama Needs a Minute: A Board Book for Overwhelmed Moms

Cindy: My daughter-from-another-mother, a young mother named Alicia, is doing a beautiful job parenting two infant twins and a 2-year-old. Three busy little girls who keep her going night and day. Following her schedule online and in-person is exhausting just to observe! Did I mention she also works part-time outside the home, too, in adult probation and parole? When Nicole Sloan’s new board book, Mama Needs a Minute (Andrews McMeel, 2020), arrived in my review books, I knew who my test reader needed to be. I gifted the book to Alicia with some pampering lotions and waited to hear. She loved this story so much she ordered a copy immediately for her friend, Laura, another mom of twins and two other children. They are both reading it daily to remind themselves that it’s okay to take a minute for themselves.

The mamas in this book might have purple hair or green skin, but they all have one thing in common: they are there to help their child learn, eat, play, etc. but sometimes “Mama needs a minute” to shower, dress, have coffee, or rest. After multiple page turns of mama’s declaration that she needs a minute, the book comfortingly closes with a twist. With the baby quietly nestled in her arms, she proclaims, “This mama just needs a minute…with you.”

Here’s to Alicia and Laura and all mamas who need a minute!

Alicia and her girls.
Laura and her children.

One Little Bag – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Lynn: I am writing this post as I start the second week of self-isolation and as I do, I am thinking about how differently I am already seeing my world. Some things matter more to me and some seem completely irrelevant. I don’t know how much we will be changed by the events of COVID-19 but I suspect that many of us will feel an even deeper commitment to caring for each other and caring for our world. I loved Henry Cole’s book, One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey (Scholastic, April 2020) the moment I read it. Now, two months later, I find I love it even more for several reasons.

This is the story of a little brown paper bag, first used to bring home a flashlight a single dad buys at a store with his young son. Keep on eye on that flashlight because it will appear almost as often as the little brown bag that gets used and re-used and used again as the wordless story continues. The bag next holds the boy’s lunch. The father has drawn a red heart on the bag and in the small vignettes that follow the bag is used in a variety of other ways, holding marshmallows for a camping trip, music for guitar practice, and tools to repair a first car. The bag goes off to college with the boy, holds a wedding ring, a bear for a new baby, and checkers for a game between a grandson and his grandfather. This cycle of life tale ends with a heart-melting scene in which the paper bag holds a new tree planted in the forest to celebrate a life.

Cole’s style and detailed illustrations have always enchanted me, offering new rewards with each reading. There is most often an underlying sweetness to Cole’s work too that never fails to please along with a welcome dash of humor. Those things are strongly at work in this new book too. Each exquisitely drawn page holds clever details, the sweetness of life’s ordinary and special moments and a lot of smiles. While the book is wordless, there is a message that comes through strongly about the importance of taking care of each other and taking care of the planet, and of re-using what we have. In a time when so much feels out of our control, this story and this message seem more important every day.

Cindy: I may have to use my stored paper bags for toilet paper if the hoarding doesn’t abate. I haven’t been able to buy a roll since this COVID-19 emergency started. I grew up with a mother who was born during the Great Depression and we reused everything. Plastic bread wrappers were rinsed out and clothespinned to the kitchen curtain rod to dry and reuse. So this book, with its creative journey of one paper bag, is dear to my heart and will be to yours, as well, once you’ve read it. Henry Cole’s work is well known, and his talented art is on full display here. Six double-page spreads show the journey from a tree in the forest through the manufacturing of a paper bag to its use at the grocery before we even get to the title page. Working in three colors, his black ink drawings feature touches of brown as the bag comes to life and small red hearts are added to the bag, one by one, through the years of use. These color choices keep the focus on that bag.

While reading this book, I suspended belief as the bag lasted through generations…that’s one tough bag. But then I read the Author’s Note and learned that Henry used a paper lunch bag for three years of school…and then willed it to a friend who used it for another year. He was moved by the events of the first Earth Day in 1970 to reuse that bag. And reuse it he did. This book will publish just a few weeks ahead of the 50th anniversary of that first Earth Day. What a great book to have on hand to remind us of the importance of conserving our resources.

 

Dragon Hoops: Gene Luen Yang and Basketball

Cindy:  March Madness may be canceled, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have basketball in your life! Regular readers know they can count on a basketball book from Bookends each March. Have we got a champion for you this year! Dragon Hoops (First Second, 2020) by Gene Luen Yang puts a new finger roll, er…spin, on graphic novel memoirs. Yang needs a story idea and wonders if a comic nerd can get his head in the game by following his high school basketball team’s run for the state championship. Yang teaches math and computer science at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, CA. He steps out of his comfort zone and talks to Coach Lou Richie about his idea, even though he’s unsure that it’s a good one. In superhero stories, you know who the good guys and bad guys are and who will win in the end. That’s not the case in sports.

Dragon Hoops is an interesting blend of an O’Dowd basketball season, player backstories (including their ethnic, racial, or religious identities and the challenges they’ve overcome related to those), basketball history, and Yang’s pull between teaching, comics, and his family life. The recurring theme of taking a “step”—across a threshold, onto a court, or into a life-changing decision—is beautifully played. Once again, Yang takes not just a step, but a giant leap in his graphic novel mastery…I can’t wait to see the finished book with its shiny gold foil cover accents. (It published yesterday so we no longer have to wait!)

Lynn: I’ve loved all of Gene Yang’s previous books but this one takes the game into overtime! It is highly entertaining and completely engaging while at the same time doing so much. Yes, it is about a championship basketball season but it is also about family, commitment, the craft of writing, courage, fidelity to the truth in story, friendship, work ethic, love and more. It is important to remember that while Yang is a superb storyteller, he is also a superb artist. He is masterful at conveying emotions through his deceptively simple drawings and in this book he also manages to create the intense action of a championship basketball season. Dragon Hoops leaves a reader feeling both satisfied and deeply thoughtful. This book is a winner!

Cindy and Lynn: Follow Gene Luen Yang on Facebook or Instagram to see some of the great promos accompanying this social-distanced book launch. He’s working hard to make up for the canceled book tour.