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Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

Toddlers often squeal upon first seeing the ocean, jumping up and down as the tide tickles their toes. Older kids charge forward into the waves with a whoop. But every now and then, a little girl stands on the shoreline with arms outstretched, as if to embrace the sweep of sky and water. Her  expression is one of awe and outright joy.

That would be  Alice Rice, the beguiling heroine of Kevin Henkes’ Junonia (HarperCollins Children’s Books), a sweet and gentle story  set on Sanibel Island.

An only child  growing up in Wisconsin, Alice looks forward every year to the winter week when she returns with her parents to the beach cottage called Scallop. Because she  will turn 10 while at the beach, Alice has high expectations as they cross the  bridge to the island and spot the first pelican.

“The bird was so  odd and silly looking, a mysterious, mesmerizing wonder. Alice reached out,  pressing her palms flat against the half-opened window. She’d seen pelicans  before, every year that she had been here, but when you see something only once  a year it’s always new, as if you’re seeing it for the first time.’’

But some things  have changed at Sanibel this year. Not all of the usual neighbors are on hand,  and Alice’s beloved “Aunt Kate’’ – her mother’s college roommate — has decided  to stay in the cottage next door because she is bringing her new boyfriend and  his 6-year-old daughter Mallory. Alice reluctantly makes friends with the  younger child,  taking her shelling and  patiently identifying their discoveries. Alice hopes this will be the year she  at last finds the rare junonia shell – now that would be a real birthday  present.

But Mallory  disrupts Alice’s birthday party, and Alice experiences a jumble of emotions as  she turns 10. She is growing up, and it’s not quite what she expected.

Henkes, who has  written and illustrated many best-selling picture books (Chrysanthemum, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse) as well as the  award-winning Olive’s Ocean for older  readers, writes lyrically of natural wonders and childhood feelings. He finds  the extraordinary in the ordinary.

The deceptively simple illustrations that begin each chapter  complement Alice’s small adventures on Sanibel, where Henkes and his family vacation annually. He says it is a special place. And Junonia is a special book.

Open Book: I read a digital copy of Kevin Henkes’ Junonia (HarperCollins Children’s Books) through NetGalley. It brought back a lot of memories of childhood trips to the beach,

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Because I started writing this blog a year ago this week, I at first thought I’d do a “State of the Blog” post and thank all the readers and writers out there that have made “On a Clear Day I Can Read Forever” so worthwhile and fun, etc., etc. But then I got lost in a lupus fog, and when the mist cleared, I’d forgotten what I was going to write beyond that.

I did remember that my first post was about Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, which had just won the prestigious Newbery Award for best children’s book, and its parallels with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which also won the Newbery in 1963. The time-travel tale was my favorite when I was a kid, just as it is of Miranda, the 12-year-old heroine of Stead’s story, which has its own mysterious elements. Middle-grade magical realism. Loved it.

This year’s winner of the Newbery, Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Mainfest, is as different as can be from When You Reach Me but equally engaging. In 1936 Kansas, 12-year-old Abilene Tucker hops off a train to spend the summer in her father’s small hometown while he works a railroad job in Iowa. Always before, Abilene has tagged along with her dad from town to town, job to job. She tries to be optimistic about again being the new girl among strangers and hopes to find out more about her dad’s boyhood.

But Manifest has changed over the years, from a thriving immigrant mining community to a dusty, rundown place. Abilene knows the country’s suffering from a Great Depression, but she thinks it’s more like a big rut, and Manifest has fallen hard. But then she finds a cigar box with some hidden letters and mementos that hint at  intriguing secrets from World War I, including a possible spy, the Rattler.

Was the spy for real? Through old newspaper clippings by Miss Hattie, and stories told by the Hungarian medium, Miss Sadie, at her divining parlor, Abilene and two new friends find out about the town’s past and the adventures of pals Ned and Jinx. There’s bootleggers, the KKK, a flu epidemic. Where does Abilene’s dad fit in?

This is Vanderpool’s first novel, but you’d never know it. Drawing on family stories and research, she crafts a rousing historical novel with characters to care about. Love it.

I also love serendipity. I don’t know Vanderpool, but she lives in Wichita, where I lived for five years many moons ago, and I’ve even been through Frontenac — on which Manifest is based — on my way to a writing conference at Pittsburg State University. It’s in Crawford County, the southeast part of the state, and the green, hilly landscape looks more like Ireland than the plains west of Wichita.

Vanderpool also used to work at Wichita’s wonderful independent bookstore, Watermark Books, which was one of my favorite haunts. I went to my first big BEA convention– then known as ABA — with the staff from Watermark, driving to Dallas in a white convertible. I wouldn’t have become a book reviewer and a writer if not for Watermark and Wichita. Congratulations to Clare Vanderpool on her terrific first novel, and thanks to her for reminding me of my Kansas adventures.

Open Book: I bought an e-book copy of Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (Random House Children’s Book). Wish it had been a hardcover from Watermark.

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I’ve been reading a lot more than writing the last couple weeks, not just books but everyone else’s lists of best books, favorite books, recommended reading, etc. Consequently, my own TBR list grows ever longer, and I will be writing to Santa about that.

But it occurs to me as I start wrapping up books for holiday gifts, there’s no way I’m going to be able to blog about all the recent titles I want to recommend before the year’s up. If you follow this blog, you already know many of my 2010 favorites. If you don’t, check the archives. Here, though, are the late arrivals deserving of ribbons and bows.

An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin (Grand Central Publishing): Martin’s artful novel about the art world — auctions, galleries, artists, aesthetes, collectors, dealers — draws on his own experience as an experienced collector. Narrator Daniel relates the rise of the lovely Lacey, as charming as she is ambitious, as she deftly navigates New York’s social circles and art scene from the late 1990s to the present. Photographs of many of the art works in play are embedded in the text, making the hardcover book a most desirable object. 

The Black Apple’s Paper Doll Primer: Activities and Amusements for the Curious Paper Artist, by Emily Winfield Martin (PotterCraft/Crown Publishing): This one’s for my fellow Caroline Cousins, with whom I played catalog paper dolls for years. Both Meg and Gail are far craftier than I, but we all like playing with scissors and paper, and the whimsical dolls, costumes and nifty projects in this book are ready-made for rainy afternoons and let’s-pretend. We might share with the kids in the family.

Bloody Crimes, by James Swanson (Morrow): This one’s for my brother, who read Swanson’s Manhunt, about the search for President Lincoln’s assassin. Here, he continues the dramatic saga of the closing days of the Civil War, as Confederate Jefferson Davis flees the Yankees and Lincoln’s body is carried home to Illinois on a 13-day funeral train.

I Still Dream About You, by Fannie Flagg (Random House): Mom and I are sharing Flagg’s new novel, a warm-hearted mystery/comedy of manners as the real-estate market collapses in Birmingham, Ala. Maggie, a former beauty queen with a seemingly perfect life, plans to end it all before fellow agents Brenda and Ethel help her battle rival Babs, “the Beast of Birmingham.” Humor, romance, secrets from the past. No wonder’s it’s an “Okra Pick” by Southern booksellers.

It’s a Book, by Lane Smith (Roaring Books Press): For children ages 6-11, and for all of us readers in a digital age, here’s a sweet reminder to the wonder of turning pages. No batteries needed.

The Kneebone Boy, by Ellen Potter (Feiwel and Friends): My inner child has no problem declaring love for a witty, well-written tale for middle-graders. Otto, Clara and Max Hardscrabble know that people think they’re a peculiar trio because of their unusual family history. They also prove irresistible as they have unexpected adventures in London and a seaside village while perhaps solving the puzzle of their missing mother. Think Lemony Snicket meets Joan Aiken. Clever.

Rogue Island, by Bruce DeSilva (Forge/TOR): My sources tell me DeSilva’s debut mystery will hit home for all us ink-stained wretches, especially beat reporters, who have toiled in the newspaper trenches over the years. Liam Mulligan is an investigative reporter for a Rhode Island daily, which means he also covers cops, trend stories and dog tales at the behest of a city editor who makes Lou Grant seem like a cuddly puppy. There’s so much crime and corruption afoot, Mulligan’s reports on a series of neighborhood arsons fight for space above the fold. Read all about it!

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill): In the night silence of her isolated sick room, Bailey can hear the sound something very small crunching celery. It is her new companion, a wild snail, dining on a wilted flower on her bedside table. Bailey, totally bedridden by a mysterious motor neuron disease, becomes enchanted by the gastropod, closely observing its routines as time creeps by, well, like a snail. This small book, thoughtful and eloquent, belongs on the shelf with Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Open Book: Let’s see. I received an ARC of Bloody Crimes, a review copy of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, won the The Black Apple’s Paper Doll Primer as part of a Facebook promotion, and bought copies of An Object of Beauty, I Still Dream About You, It’s a Book, The Kneebone Boy and Rogue Island. More to come.

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Who knew? Years before Nancy Drew ever cracked a case, Zora Neale Hurston was solving mysteries in early 20th-century Eatonville, Florida. At least that’s the way writers Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon have imagined it in their engaging new novel for middle-graders, Zora and Me, narrated by Zora’s best friend, Carrie Brown.

The summer before fourth grade, Zora, Carrie and their pal Teddy set out to solve the murder of a wandering minstrel/turpentine worker named Ivory. Was he killed by the mythical, shape-shifting gator-man who prowls the swamp and who Zora claims to have seen standing on Mr. Pindar’s porch, his big ol’ gator snout perched on a man’s shoulders? Or is human evil responsible for the death that’s upsetting both the blacks and whites in segregated Central Florida? How does Zora’s penchant for storytelling fit into the mix?

Carrie has always counted on Zora telling stories to make sense of the big events in their lives, But now, Zora tells her, “Every time I try to explain to myself what probably happened, what really happened outgrows my imagination.”

Zora and Me is fiction, but with the blessings of the Zora Neale Hurston Estate, Bond and Simon have created a spunky, curious heroine who could well have grown up to be the celebrated writer, anthropologist and folklorist. They’ve done their homework, borrowing the local color of Hurston’s childhood — Joe Clarke’s storefront, the Blue Sink, the Loving Pine, Lake Maitland — to paint a vibrant story, much like one Zora might have told. 

Zora was always an unreliable narrator when it came to details of her real life, not one to let facts necessarily get in the way of a good story. I expect she’s smiling with approval of Zora and Me.

Open Book:  I wrote numerous stories about Zora Neale Hurston, her life and works, during my years at the Orlando Sentinel, and interviewed scholars, biographers, family members and fans. I highly recommend  Valerie Boyd’s 2003 biography, Wrapped in Rainbows, for further reading. I borrowed a copy of Zora and Me (Candlewick Press) from the Orange County Library.

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Because Winn-Dixie is closing its Clermont store, I immediately thought of Kate DiCamillo because she grew up in Clermont and because her award-winning kids’ book Because of Winn-Dixie is set in that small Florida town near Orlando. Not as it is now, with sprawling subdivisions and modern supermarkets in  shopping plazas, but back 30 or 40 years ago, when Highway 50 sliced through the groves of orange trees and dusty roads and pretty lakes, and kids walked to school and made magic of mundane things.

Kate has been making magic with words for more than a decade now. A University of Florida grad, she kicked around Central Florida for several years, then moved to Minneapolis and worked in the children’s section of a book warehouse. She wrote Because of Winn-Dixie during a long, cold Minnesota winter when she was homesick for Florida and wanted a dog. Her apartment didn’t allow pets, so she imagined a big, friendly mutt. A lonely girl named Opal names the stray after the grocery store in which she first rescues him. And then, because of Winn-Dixie, Opal begins to meet people and all sorts of things — some odd, mostly good — begin to happen.

Kate proved to be a winning writer in every way from the start. Because of Winn-Dixie, published in 2000, was a Newbery Honor Book and was Orlando’s One Book, One Community 2003 selection. Her second novel for middle-graders and also set in Florida, The Tiger Rising, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her third, the oh-so-wonderful The Tale of Despereaux, “being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread,” won the 2004 Newbery, the highest award in children’s fiction.

So what does Kate do for an encore — two picture books, six early chapter books starring the toast-loving pig, Mercy Watson, and two more more magical novels, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, about a china rabbit’s unexpected voyage of love and self-discovery, and last September’s The Magician’s Elephant, a dream-like story about an orphan boy, an old soldier, a fortune teller, and a magician who longs to make “true magic” and conjures an elephant instead of lilies.

Kate is a fabulist in the best sense of the word, who long ago discovered the truth in fiction. Coming this fall is a new chapter book written with Alison McGhee, Bink and Gollie, about the comical adventures of two precocious little girls, “one tiny, one tall, both utterly irrepressible.” Looking at the cover illustration by Tony Fucile, I’d bet money the tiny one with the fly-away hair is Kate. I recognize the mischievous grin of a girl about to make more magic.

Open Book: Because she is one of my favorite storytellers, I’d write all these things about Kate even if she wasn’t a friend. Check out her website, www.katedicamillo.com, watch the video about The Magician’s Elephant (Candlewick Press), and be sure to read her most recent journal entry. Wait for the moon.

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