Sunday, February 16, 2014


Hartman, Rachel. Seraphina. (2012) Random House: New York City, NY. 512 pages. 
Ages 12 and up. 

Rachel Hartman’s debut novel, and winner of YALSA’s William C. Morris prize, is an epic tale of music, forbidden love, royalty, religion, politics, secrets, murder, misfits and yes, dragons. Sixteen-year-old Seraphina is adjusting to her new life at court as the assistant to the royal composer and although her passion and talent for music make this a dream job, she must constantly guard her terrible secret - she is half-dragon. Dragons in this world have the ability to take human form but are considered cold, soulless beings that have been at war with the people of Goredd for centuries. A child between the two species would be considered an abomination. A tenuous treaty barely holds the peace and when the crown prince is found murdered in a suspiciously dragon-like manner, it appears it may crumble. Seraphina finds herself in the middle of this investigation as she begins to understand her mysterious new abilities and tries to conceal her dragon-ness from those around her. Hartman’s beautiful prose, rich descriptions, and full-fledged characters help elevate Seraphina from becoming just another fantasy book about dragons, and instead is one that readers will find themselves instantly pulled into by the intrigue, suspense and magic of this ambitious new YA favorite. 

This review has previously appeared on the 646-spring14 Wikispaces page

Saturday, February 15, 2014

March Vol. 1

Lewis, John and Andrew Aydin; illus. by Nate Powell. March Vol. 1. New York : Top Shelf Productions, 2013. 128 pages, grade 6 and up.

TL;DR version can be found here: March Vol. 1 by John Lewis

I consider myself fairly educated in American History and feel like my high school American History courses went in depth into the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement. How is it then that although John Lewis’ name sounded familiar, I honestly could not place it in context? The more I read about this time period, the more I am aware that I know the broad strokes but I am woefully lacking in specifics. I had a similar realization after reading No Crystal Stair and feeling like all I knew about Malcolm X was his name and he wore glasses. Thankfully, we appear to be experiencing a boom of great children’s literature about the Civil Rights Movement and the history of racism in this country that will help educate this generation about the people, not just the events.

March Vol. I, uses President Obama’s 2009 inauguration as a framing device for John Lewis to tell the story of his childhood and how he ended up involved with the Nashville sit-ins in 1960. His interest in becoming a priest and nonviolence begins in his family’s chicken coop, where a young Lewis (nicknamed Bob from his middle name) preaches to his hens and protests his parents against their doomed dinner table fates. An eye-opening trip up North to Buffalo, NY with an uncle, running away from working in the fields to go to school, hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio and reading about the Brown v. Board of Education court case all are important influential steps on his way to becoming the famed activist politician he is known for today.

This is a powerful book and uses the graphic novel form well. Powell’s drawings are often loose, sketchy and filled with movement but they are tightened in places to highlight a dramatic scene or an important plot point. There are some more stylized panels to balance the intense realism and can be seen as a shorthand to give the reader some understanding of Lewis’ internal narrative. Powell illustrated another Civil Rights era book last year, The Silence of Our Friends, and I think his art has improved. These two books could be paired well together to give additional historical context (and an African-American perspective) to the more personal story told in Friends. March Vol. I has been very well received critically, receiving a Coretta Scott King Honor Award and placing in YALSA’s Top 10 Great Graphic Novels for Teens and Outstanding Books for the College Bound lists. Powell noted on his Goodreads page that March has replaced two other historical graphic novels, Persepolis and Maus. I think it deserves a place on that list, but why can’t it exist alongside other graphic novels, why can there only be one? Those two books are great for teens to understand foreign cultures and I think removing them from the list and replacing them with a US history book is an isolationist move. Regardless of that one list’s mistakes, March will soon become required reading in many middle and high school history classes and in my mind, the more visual literature that is incorporated, the better.  Although the writing can be a bit bland and formulaic - this could be a tone adjustment for younger readers and a consequence of the “Well, when I was a boy...” storytelling - the plot moves quickly and I am eagerly awaiting the next two volumes.

Highly recommended. Grades 6 and up. There are a few depictions of violence - Emmett Till’s body is shown but it is not too graphic - and some language.

Monday, February 3, 2014

And ... back

Well that was a spectacular failure.
New year, let's try this again.
No longer working as a middle school library aide, and I am half-heartedly attacking grad school and attempting my MLIS.
I never made that ridiculous 100 book goal last year. Life kind of got in the way.
I am however required to read a ton for a YA lit class I'm taking and will have to write review for some of the material we read so I will be posting those here as well and expanding on them.
So far I have read 12 books in 5 weeks, so that's something!

How many attempts does it take to make routine writing stick?
Here's to round two...

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Stargazing Dog

Murakami, Takashi. Stargazing Dog. New York : NBM, 2011. 124 pages, ages 10 and up.

I’m not sure if I have read any manga before. I’ve watched a lot of anime though and understand the style and some of the kind of shorthand that is used to express different emotions or circumstances. But it is unnecessary to have had any prior experience with the genre to enjoy the sweet sad story told in Stargazing Dog by Takashi Murakami. If you cried watching “The Dog Episode” of Futurama, or if you have a heart at all, you will cry reading this book. The story is told in two parts,  the first from a dog named Happie’s perspective and recounts his relationship with Daddy, the father of the girl who takes him in. The second story, called “Sunflowers” follows a social worker who is trying to bring some closure to the first. The art is very simple black and white line drawings with very characterized people. The narrative is told in the naive words of a dog who is blissfully unaware of human problems. His inability understand the increasing gravity of Daddy’s situation makes the story all the more sad. I’m not one for sappy stories usually, especially about dogs, but I didn’t feel that manipulated by this one. I think it is because of the unique perspective and the utter devotion that Daddy shows Happie, even when he has lost everything else. That human and dog bond is shown in a relatable and normal way. Some people will do anything for their pets - especially when they are sick - even sell every last thing they own to make sure they’ll at least have their companion back. Stargazing Dog was extremely popular in Japan when it came out and there is talk of a movie, but I’m not sure I’d see it. The most intriguing part of the book is the subtlety of the story and the way Happie is unable to pick up on clues that his family is falling apart that a human reader can see happening. This is a strong animal-perspective short story that I don’t think would translate well into a feature length film. But who knows, maybe I’ll be surprised.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Friends with Boys

Hicks, Faith Erin. Friends with Boys. New York : First Second, 2012. 169 pages, ages 12 and up. 

These posts will not always be very professional in format and not entirely objective because, well, they don’t have to be yet. This is a personal project and will often read so, and this one I’m afraid will be a little cranky. So, Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks, I’m still not entirely sure what to do with this book. Full disclosure: I should probably go back and read it a little more carefully and not sleepy with cough syrup, but on an initial read, I’m not impressed. I was really looking forward to this one, it's been on my list forever and was recommended by people I tend to agree with. I have gone to other review sites and there are overwhelmingly positive feelings about this book from critics, and it just won a Cybil Award. So what am I missing? I never felt attached to any of the characters and why WHY is there a ghost? That just felt unnecessary and weird and last minute and to me didn't add anything to the plot. I guess it is supposed to be like the specter of their missing mother since all of the siblings can see it but I thought that was just dumb if that’s the case. I don’t really understand what this book was trying to tell me. What was it even about? Sort of a coming of age story, intro to high school, trying to make friends but I felt that nothing actually happened. I suppose you could make the argument that, well life is like that sometimes. There isn't always a clear beginning, climax and resolution. But well, sorry but that’s what art is for. It’s not just a mirror to reality because that would be boring.

Here’s the general gist of the story. Maggie is the youngest and only girl of four children. Their father is a police chief, their mother has inexplicably left, leaving Maggie to start high school - after being home-schooled to this point - without any real guidance. Oh and there’s a ghost, FOR NO REASON. The loneliness of being the new kid was sort of addressed, but my probably with Maggie is that she didn't do anything about it. She just waited until someone decided to get to know her. She is a very passive character and I never felt like we really knew her - or anyone else for that matter. I think this is a very difficult task to do within the graphic media because they are generally shorter and less word descriptive than a novel. You have to get a sense of your characters very quickly and early on without just throwing in “Maggie likes the movie Alien, isn't that quirky for a girl?” half way through the book. I would think I would be the prime audience for this book because I’m young enough to remember awkward high school time without too much nostalgia, but I didn't feel like the story had anything to say to me beyond “This girl is having a hard time -sort of- feel bad for her?” Another thing, this book is called “Friends with Boys” but well, Maggie has one friend (kind of? I’m confused about Alistair and what his purpose is in general) who is a boy beyond her brothers because she never makes an effort to make any friends! AGH! Was this a web comic? I could see it being successful in that form if it is intended to continue far beyond the confines of one volume. Otherwise I felt that the character’s didn't do much of anything, didn't have any real agency and were extremely thinly drawn. And the ghost sub-plot was totally unnecessary and that is why I am not even touching on it. All in all, a disappointment.

The one strength is the art, and you can't review a graphic novel without at least mentioning the artwork. So I'm mentioning it. The illustrations are all black/white with shades of grey and the style is a little bit anime with great expressive figures. There's a good attention to detail without overwhelming the simplicity of the line drawing and the spaces felt fully realized and realistic. If only the depth and attention she places in her artwork translated to the plot and characters, this book would have worked a lot better for me.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Silence of Our Friends

Long, Mark and Jim Demonakos; illus. by Nate PowellThe Silence of Our Friends. New York : First Second, 2012. 200 pages, ages 14 and up.

This has been a really strong year for Civil Rights literature for young people. In the non-fiction field there was We’ve Got a Job : The 1963 Children’s March, for fiction there was The Lions of Little Rock, and blurring the line between the two was the very unique and completely engaging "documentary novel" No Crystal Stair. And now to round this group out, the beautifully drawn and richly told, The Silence of Our Friends. Semi-autobiographical, the story is a glimpse of how two families, one black and one white, deal with the prejudice, racial tension and violence of 1968 Houston, TX. Told through the sympathetic eye of the author’s father, a local news reporter, the book never falls into the in hindsight trap of, oh yes white people helped too. I call it “The Help” syndrome and it has become all too common lately and you know what I’m talking about. It’s the stories of a struggling black character(s) who is looking for justice and equality but they just can’t do it on their own without the help of an angelic white lady/powerful white man. Could also easily be called “The Blind Side” phenomenon. It’s this weird reverse on the old “Magical Negro” trope (a subverted version strangely worked in Django Unchained but that’s a topic for a whole other blog) and its just gross. Happily, this book avoids that, even though it is mainly from the perspective of the white news reporter and the white author.

A personal and detailed account of the court case against five black college students wrongfully accused of the murder of a police officer during what began as a peaceful protest is at the heart of the book. Long’s father was present at the event, filmed it and was called to testify in the case. Alongside these monumental events its the little daily moments, like the author and his sister watching the Saturn V launch late at night, that round out the book as a whole. Long does a wonderful job creating historical context, especially the frustration of day-to-day racial hatred which is clearly depicted in a memorable scene at a convenience store and the KKK flier left rubber banded to the Long’s door. The title comes from a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the book ends with his death. The last scene is a march of mourning citizens, both white and black that slowly start rising up from the street. It is a beautiful closing image that honors King and all of the people who were lost in the struggle for equality. My one qualm is that I wish there was more source material at the end. There is a letter from the author but I had to seek out interviews and discussions about why this book can't be cataloged as a non-fiction memoir. This book is definitely for an older crowd though, more appropriate for late middle-school and high school. There is quite a bit of language -  not just the N word although it is frequent and used accurately, and depictions of alcoholism. A great resource for an American History class to get a personal look at the events of the late ‘60s.

Graphic Novels

Look at all those books!

Some what coincidentally, I am reading a whole lot of graphic novels right now. I do try to sprinkle them in here and there during my general reading but this is a graphic heavy month. I am trying to do The Hub Challenge and part of that almighty list includes the Great Graphic Novels Top Ten list. Although I probably won't read all 10 of them (I feel kind of meh about Spider-Man and Daredevil but we'll see) I was able to request 5 of them from the library already and they all arrived on the same day. I have already read Drama, loved it and won't be writing about it here. If you want an excellent discussion of the book, head on over to the SLJ blog Good Comics for Kids and I agree with everything that was said here when it won a Stonewall Book Award. Over the next week I will be reviewing My Friend Dahmer, The Silence of Our Friends, Friends with Boys, Stargazing Dog, Trinity : A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb and Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller. Here we go!