Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Banned Books and The Catcher in the Rye

This week is banned books week. There are a lot of books I love that have landed on this list over the years: To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm and the Harry Potter series to name a few. But today I want to write about my least favorite book from this list: The Catcher in the Rye.

I studied Children’s Literature in my graduate program and one of the books I was assigned to read was J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I came into the book with no preconceived notions—the title felt familiar to me—I had heard of it in passing but knew nothing of the book itself. I read it and strongly disliked the book.

I came to class that week not excited for the discussion at all. But in the course of the discussion, a classmate of mine said, “Holden Caulfield is my hero,” and my ears perked up. She went on to tell how this book was so meaningful to her as a teenager and she looked up to Holden Caulfield – he was her childhood hero. My first thought was, “Wow. We had very different childhoods.” As I went on to listen to her, I came to realize what great value this book held for her. By the end of the class I didn’t like the book anymore than when I began, but I saw its value.

Ironically, the book we discussed the very next week was Little Women—talk about two different books! I read the book while underlining passages and using the back of my hand to wipe away my tears. That class started out with a collective groan from many of the students because they had found the book so boring. The juxtaposition of these two books and my experience with Little Women and my classmate’s experience with The Catcher in the Rye showed me, in a very real way, the need for a diversity of books.

My initial thought of “Wow. We had very different childhoods” was true. We grew up in different homes, in different states, and in different circumstances, so it only makes sense that we would be drawn to different books. Often in the banned books dialogue, we talk about how people who seek to ban books might like the books they try to ban if they actually read them. This may be true in some circumstances. However, I think the more important discussion is about the value a book holds for someone else, even if it is a book that you don’t like, think is inappropriate, or would never have your child read.  

Every year when banned books week rolls around, I think of The Catcher in the Rye and I hope it, and other books like it, make it into the hands of someone like my classmate—for whom it was the perfect book at the perfect time.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Brown Girl Dreaming

Winner of the National Book Award and a Newbery Medal Honor, Brown Girl Dreaming has been one of this year's most talked about books. It is Jacqueline Woodson's memoir, written in verse, of her childhood - an African-American girl growing up in the 1960s and 1970s between Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York.

I listened to the audio version of this book read by Jacqueline Woodson. It is amazing. Writing it through the medium of verse makes the book accessible to all - especially the middle grade reader.   Woodson is able to give detailed snapshots of her childhood that are both moving and succinct.

Brown Girl Dreaming tells not only of the discrepancies between black and white, but also of family and of dreams. Woodson's pathway towards becoming a writer is woven throughout the story - from writing that first letter J on paper to telling stories to friends and teachers and selling them as the truth to moving those words to paper with pen and ink - we see her struggle to become, to find her voice and her dream.

A book every middle grade reader (and beyond!) should read.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Books I am Reading Over and Over Again

I have an almost 18 month old boy. For awhile he had little to no interest in reading books - so many things to see! To do! To destroy! But recently he has fallen in love with books. He brings a book to any reader in the family, scoots backwards into their lap and waits for the story to be read. Over and Over again.

Here are a few of his favorites:

Steve Light's Trains Go and Planes Go are far and away his very favorites. They contain colorful pictures of varied trains or planes set against a white background. The text names the diesel train or space shuttle and then gives the sound they make. Our Trains Go is in two halves now it is so beloved and my son runs around the house chirping "choo choo" and "WooooOOOoooOO WooooOOOoooOOO."

A classic. Goodnight Moon is definitely one of his go-to grabs. He especially loves the little old lady whispering "hush".

John Burningham's Colors and Opposites are one word books with pictures - yellow, red, heavy, light. They are favorites around here.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Counting by 7s

I recently read Holly Goldberg Sloan's Counting by 7s. It was highly recommended, but I must admit that I was hesitant when told that the premise of the book is "a middle school girl who has no friends and her parents are killed in a car crash." It sounded like such a downer.

But despite the fact that the description I was given is true at the most basic level, the book is not depressing. Willow Chance is a 12 year-old child genius, and a little odd. She is fascinated with plants and counts everything by 7s. She has no friends at school and her parents die in a car accident at the start of the novel.

The story that unfolds is Willow's journey to find herself and a family in her new, shaken-up world. Somehow Sloan is able to bring together the quirkiest cast of characters and make it work:
Dell, the unprofessional school counselor and at home hoarder
Mai, the high school, almost friend, she meets through counseling and ends up living with
Quang-ha, Mai's older brother who is not pleased to be sharing their one room garage
Pattie - Mai and Quang-ha's mother who owns a nail salon
Jairo Hernandez - a taxi cab driver Willow befriends

This is a group of characters that are remarkably different from each other, and their interactions kept me smiling throughout the book. And despite their differences, their friendships felt genuine. It is the characters endearing specificity that makes this book so great. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


Tomorrow brings the announcement of all of the ALA awards. I always love to hear the winners and add books to my list to read. I haven't had a clear Caldecott front runner this year until I saw Raul Colon's Draw!

It is a wordless picture book that begins with a boy on his bed drawing pictures. The reader quickly moves inside the illustrations and into the plains of Africa. The boy is seen in the forefront drawing zebras, lions, elephants and even a charging rhinoceros. The story moves back to the boy illustrating on the bed and ends with him presenting one of his illustrations to his class. Colon has said that as a child he had chronic asthma and spent weeks at a time in bed, drawing.

I love how the story progresses and the animals come to life in the illustrations. The drawings are detailed and full of texture. Colon uses colored pencils and layers the colors on top of each other to create depth and more vivid colors.  He then uses an etching instrument to create more texture and movement in the drawings.

The result is an imaginative, beautifully drawn story that draws the reader into the plains of Africa along with the young boy artist.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Princess in Black

Shannon Hale has just come out with a new book that she co-authored with her husband, Dean Hale, and is illustrated by LeUyen Pham - The Princess in Black. I am a big fan of Shannon Hale in general and had seen a lot of positive reviews, so I bought it for my daughter's 4th birthday. And it was a huge hit. Not only with my 4-year-old daughter, but also my 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. They all sat around listening intently and wanted to know when the next one comes out. 

The Princess in Black is akin to Kate DiCamillo's Mercy Watson series - it is made up of short chapters and is filled with illustrations. It tells the story of Magnolia, a frilly and proper princess, but one who has a secret. She lives a double life as the Princess in Black, a monster fighting, black cape wearing, superhero. The story is filled with funny names such as "Duchess Wigtower" and the horse "Frimplepants." We also loved the sound effects assigned to the Princess in Black, such as "sparkle slam" and our favorite, "Twinkle Twinkle Little Smash."  

LeUyen Pham's illustrations perfectly capture this Princess's dual personality with bright colors and a mixture of frilliness and awesome super-hero style. 

I think this book is especially great for the younger crowd but as my two older kids kept grabbing the book to show their favorite part or illustration I think it clearly appeals to a wider audience. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The National Book Festival and Peter Brown

I love the National Book Festival.  It is one of my favorite book events of the year.  There is just something about a gathering of some of the nation's best authors and illustrators on the National Mall.  I was so sad this year to find out that the Festival would not be held on the Mall - all of the charm - moved to the convention center.   I was skeptical about the venue change but took my 7 and 9 year old children down regardless.  I am not going to lie, a lot of the charm was lost.  It was just not the same as it was on the Mall in DowntownDC.  However, there were some advantages.  I like to go to listen to the authors speak and the convention center is much more conducive to that.  There was no wind blowing through the tents making it difficult to hear and there was a lot more seating available as well.  There was also air-conditioning which on a hot and humid DC day is not something to take lightly.

One of the author/illustrators we went to was Peter Brown.  We love his books at our house, most especially A Curious Garden.  His presentation was so fun.  They let all of the kids sit on the floor right in front for the best view.  He had a funny slide show including his first picture book, written and illustrated at age six, and a picture he drew of his mother at a young age, complete with six fingers.  He also read to us his latest picture book My Teacher is a Monster! (No, I am Not.)

It tells the story of a little boy, Bobby, with a penchant for throwing paper airplanes. Mrs. Kirby, his teacher, does not find this amusing.  She roars and stomps her feet and Bobby realizes he has a monster for a teacher.  A trip to the park later that day finds a chance encounter with Bobby and Mrs. Kirby out of the walls of a classroom.  As they talk about ducks, paper airplanes and beloved antique hats their relationship alters - allowing each to see the other in a different setting aside from school.  At the festival he told how he thought of the idea for this story from his own childhood.  When he went to kindergarten he was sure his teachers were monsters.  But one of the teachers he had thought a monster, saw a drawing of his, praised it, and showed it to the principal.  From this one event Peter was placed in extra art classes in school which spiraled into extra art classes after school and helped him on his pathway towards becoming an author/illustrator.

The illustrations depict the changes in attitude and of the relationship throughout the book.  At the festival it was especially fun because he demonstrated how hedrew Mrs. Kirby.  He explained how drawing is done through the use of lines, circles and squiggly lines.  He proceeded to draw Mrs. Kirby by drawing three straight lines, two circles, squiggly lines and on and on until he had a finished character.  It almost made me feel like I could draw.  Almost.  However, I do think it made many a child not only want to go out and buy his latest book but to also pick up a pen and a paper to author and illustrate their first best seller.