WELCOME

WELCOME! Once a month, usually on a Thursday evening, a group of writers, illustrators, teachers and librarians meets in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles to discuss children's books. Usually we talk about one picture book and one middle grade or YA novel. After the meeting, Sandy Schuckett, a retired LAUSD librarian, summarizes our discussion. Here are her reports of our thoughts about the books we have read. We'd love to have your comments too!
Thanks to Nancy Hayashi for our wonderful title art! Our group has been meeting since 2007. It was organized under the auspices of the Children's Literature Council of Southern California (CLCSC).

Thursday, June 13, 2019

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ALICE by Mara Rockliff and THE GIRL WHO DREW BUTTERFLIES by Joyce Sidman

We were very happy to read nonfiction books about the contributions of two little-known women to science and the arts. We began with our picture book, Lights, Camera, Alice by Mara Rockliff, the story of how Alice Guy Bache, who lived in France, produced, directed, filmed, colored, and edited movies as early as 1907, preceding some of the men who are usually given this credit. We were happy to know about this revolutionary woman, but after a few great beginning sentences we felt that the remaining text of this picture book didn't really do her justice. It told little about her except that she liked to tell stories and decided to create moving pictures....and we all hated the ending, which was like being dropped off a cliff. The back matter, fortunately, presented many more details about her life and work, and we felt much of that information could have been included in the text of the story, and would have definitely made it richer and more interesting. There were also links to two of her 1907 short films, which we watched on a laptop, and all agreed that she was amazingly talented as a producer/director, PLUS she had a great sense of humor.

Our longer book was about another somewhat undersung heroine: The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian's Art Changed Science by Joyce Sidman. There was a considerable amount of information about this enterprising scientist/artist who, from a very young age, was fascinated by caterpillars and worms, and kept track of their metamorphosis by drawing and painting EXACT pictures of their various stages of development, including the actual plants and flowers that provided their habitats. She was the first to present insects in exactly that way, and it became the norm years later. We loved how persistent and daring she was, 'bucking the system,' and even traveling along with her daughter from Germany to Surinam in 1699...a rare action for a woman at that time. We unanimously loved her original illustrations throughout the book, which were photographically perfect, and beautifully colored. However, we were put off by many of the editorial decisions made for this book. One- or two-paged boxed explanations of various historical events/issues/entities, were seemingly inserted to present historical context but instead created breaks in the continuity of Maria's story and most of us found them annoying. We felt they could have been included in the 'back matter' or even aluded to in the text with a few explanatory sentences. We didn't object as much to the boxed quotes from Maria in Italics on yellow background throughout the book. A few readers objected to the little 'poems' that introduced each chapter...especially since Sidman is known for her poetry, which is usually much better than the 'vapid poetry', according to one reader, that was presented in this book. We were glad that we read both books and learned about these amazing women of yesteryear.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

THE REMEMBER BALLOONS by Jessie Oliveros and HOW THEY CROAKED by Georgia Bragg and Kevin O'Malley

We began with our picture book, The Remember Balloons by Jessie Oliveros. A few of our readers had a problem with the idea of using balloons as a metaphor for the memories of a lifetime as a little boy visited with his beloved grandpa who told about the many wonderful memories of his life, including those that included the boy himself. Then the balloons began to float away, until there were none left in Grandpa's hand. Most of us felt that the idea of the "memory balloons" floating away was understandable for young children, especially those who could be dealing with an older person who might be in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's disease. We liked the illustrations which were mostly black-and-white, except for the colorful balloons, and we liked the interracial family and how the drawings of each of the memories were highlighted. As the little boy worried about why his grandpa was forgetting things, and even him, we liked how his mom explained that now he would 'carry' the balloons -- and the memories -- in the form of stories he could tell. We felt this story could also be useful as a prompt for children to create and draw their own "memory balloons."

 Our reactions to our longer book, How They Croaked by Georgia Bragg & Kevin O'Malley were generally positive. We liked the way the writer used humor and many gory details to explain, in chronological order, how nineteen very famous men and women, from King Tut through Albert Einstein died. Most of their deaths were due to the lack of medical knowledge during the long-ago times when they lived. We liked the 2-or-3-page explanations of scientific or medical facts following each vignette, and we also liked the exaggerated, almost cartoon-like drawings of each person in the throes of their misery. A couple of readers felt that it would have been a good idea to also emphasize why each person was famous and their contributions to the world, as well as an accurate drawing or photo so that readers could learn what they actually looked like. One reader mentioned that her 4th-grade grandson LOVED this book, to the extent that he kept shouting, "Hey Mom!!" in the middle of reading (even tho' his mom was trying to rest!) We felt that most young readers, from fourth grade through middle school would be similarly fascinated by this book. We also had input from a REAL doctor, who also loved the book, and didn't question any of its factual exposition. We felt the book would be a good starting point to encourage young readers to explore the lives of these luminaries by reading additional factual biographies about them. We also liked the lists of source materials and the suggestions for further reading at the end.

Monday, April 22, 2019

ALMA AND HOW SHE GOT HER NAME by Juana Martinez-Neal and MERCI SUAREZ CHANGES GEARS by Meg Medina

We began with our picture book, Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal. We were generally underwhelmed by this book. Many of us felt the story was 'thin' and didn't really do much as Alma's dad explained to her the origins of her several names and the ancestors that they honored. That was the whole story, which did emphasize the multiple names that may often be given to children in Latino and Spanish cultures. Some of us felt that the book could be put to good use in a classroom to encourage young kids to question their families about the origins of their own names. As for the illustrations. . . also underwhelmed. One reader thought the drawings of Alma made her look like a bee, and we all wondered how/why this book garnered a 2018 Caldecott Honor award.

We had mixed feelings about our novel, Merci Suarez Changes Gears, the 2018 Newbery Award book by Meg Medina. One reader stated that she would have loved to read a book like this when she was ten, but there were none like it around at the time. Others said they weren't significantly engaged enough to even finish it. Some readers felt that the many incidents described by Merci in her home, her neighborhood, and her school were very disconnected, preventing the story from having a continuous story arc. We pretty much liked the depiction of the relationships in Merci's family, including her closeness with her grandpa, Lolo, and her bewilderment when his behavior changed as he began to show symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease. We understood her anger that no-one in the family would tell her the truth, making her feel very betrayed by them. We agreed that the book was quite accessible for middle-grade readers, who would probably relate to a lot of it, but we all felt that this book, at 368 pages, was just too long -- especially for readers of this age group -- and that it would have benefited by editing out many of the lesser school incidents.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery by Sandra Neil Wallace and Hana's Suitcase: The Quest to Solve a Holocaust Mystery by Karen Levine



At our last meeting, we had the rare occurrence of unanimous positive reactions to both of our books. We enjoyed the picture book, Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery by Sandra Neil Wallace and illustrated by Bryan Collier. We all agreed that it was such an important story, for a variety of reasons: It spoke to one young boy's persistence in getting to do the thing he loved -- create art -- even though many people thought it would be better for him to be a football player. He actually did both! We liked how the story came full circle, from the point where he visited a museum in North Carolina and asked about paintings by black artists and was told, 'Your people don't express themselves that way," to the point where his artworks were exhibited in many of the finest museums in the country, beginning with paintings framed by weatherworn stakes from the fence around his family home while his father was dying in the hospital. We loved the fact that he never stopped creating art, even as a professional football player, and the crowning glory of his career was when he became the official artist of the NFL. We learned how his discipline and dedication brought him to many other experiences, awards, and honors. We all liked the illustrations, some of us a bit more than others, but everyone loved the depictions of Barnes' actual paintings, where the movement and passion and electricity of athletic moments jumped from the page. We felt that this would be a great read for youngsters, both because of its emphasis on persistence and discipline and because of its interest for budding young artists.

Many tears were shed during our own readings of Hana's Suitcase: The Quest to Solve a Holocaust Mystery by Karen Levine. Most of us liked the alternate chapters between the true story of Hana Brady, a young Czech Jewish girl who was sent, along with her family, to a concentration camp during World War II, and Fumiko Ishioka, a teacher in Japan, who began in 2000, along with a group of students, to unravel the mystery of Hana's name written on a suitcase she had found while teaching them about the Holocaust. One reader was a bit 'put off' by the alternate chapters, but we all loved the way Hana's story was told in such a way that we all really cared about her (tears when we realized she had been exterminated). We liked the story of Fumiko's persistence in seeking more details about Hana's life, before she was imprisoned by the Nazis and afterwards in camp in Terezin. This quest ultimately led to Fumiko's finding Hana's older brother George (more tears), a survivor who was able to provide more detailed information and photos of their story. We liked the fact that Fumiko and George ultimately travelled around the world teaching children about the Holocaust, and we all agreed that this book is essential reading for all young people to create an understanding that can prevent such a thing from ever happening again.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

DRAWN TOGETHER by Minh Le and Dan Santat and ONCE YOU KNOW THIS by Emily Blejwas

We had delicious nibblies for our last meeting, and great discussions on both of our books. We started with our picture book, drawn together [sic] by Minh Le and Dan Santat. Most of us agreed that the illustrations were beautiful, at least the large, colorful ones and the detailed line drawings when the little boy and his Thai-speaking grandpa began to communicate with each other through 'drawing together'. We liked the way they came to understand each other, and the happiness that the little boy, his mother, and his grandpa felt as a result. However, some readers were not thrilled with the comic-book-like illustrations that showed the actual scenes of the story. One reader thought it might make a good graphic novel....although a very short one! We all agreed that it was not a great read-aloud for a group, since even the good illustrations needed to be seen up close, and there wasn't really that much to actually read. We did think it might be good for an adult to share with a young child who might be experiencing the same lack of communication with an older relative because of language differences. We felt that the theme of the story was quite relevant, but that this book did not completely fill the bill for telling it.

Many readers felt that the writing in our novel, Once You Know This by Emily Blejwas was stunning. We were amazed that the book was this author's first attempt at middle-grade fiction. We loved the voice of Brittany, the main character, and the way her relationships with her mother, her dementia-impaired granny, her best friend Marisol, and her neighbors were developed. We also loved the character of Mr. McInnis, Brittany's teacher, and the fact that he guided Brittany into solving her problems rather than telling her what to do. She was the hero of the story. She had to think and do research and talk to various people in order to solve the problem of her mother living with an abuser and how they could get away. We liked the way it showed the strength in Brittany's low-income community, and how the neighbors looked out for each other even though they were all struggling to survive, as well as the way it portrayed a (very smart) child in an abusive situation finding a way for a good resolution at the end. We are eager to see more from this author.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

THE FUNERAL by Matt James and MRS. SMITH'S SPY SCHOOL FOR GIRLS by Beth McMullen

We were unanimous in our reactions to both of our books at our December meeting. We started with the picture book, The Funeral by Matt James. Although we all agreed that there is certainly a place in the picture book arena for a story about this subject, this book wasn't it. To start, several of us were offended that the letters FUN were highlighted in the large lettering of the title on the front cover. Although young Norma and her favorite little cousin Ray did have fun romping around the churchyard after the services, we felt that shouldn't be the focus of a story about funerals. There were no redeeming features in the story that dealt with any deep feelings on the part of anyone related to the deceased, great-uncle Frank -- except that everyone was sad. There were no quotes from Norma's parents about what he had meant to them, and Norma barely knew him. Beyond seeing a picture, neither Norma nor Ray nor we readers learned anything about him. We were also not so thrilled about the illustrations. Norma never looked the same way from one picture to another; in one picture she looked like a teenager, and in another, like a 40-year-old woman. We felt there were so many different ways this story could be told that would have generated more feelings and more information helpful to young children hearing or reading this story. It did, however, make for a great discussion about our own experiences as young children faced with the death of a loved one and the activities that followed. A good discussion is always a good thing!

Our reactions to our novel, Mrs. Smith's Spy School for Girls by Beth McMullen were equally tepid. Although we felt that the protagonist, Abigail, had some good lines, and some good reflections and observations, most of the action of the story was entirely unbelievable and beyond impossible. It was difficult to keep track of what happened to her from one insane incident to another as she was supposedly being trained to be a spy. A lot of the actions seemed very cartoonish, though not funny, and in several cases, quite violent. We felt that the character of Abigail's mother, who was the reason she was sent to this odd boarding school in the first place, was less than fully developed, not to mention being a less-than-concerned mom for subjecting her daughter to such freaky and possibly life-threatening escapades. We felt the plotting was disorganized and difficult to follow. One reader said it had, "not enough substance and too much flash." And -- to top it all off, when we reflected on the whole story, we realized that it was Toby, a schoolmate, and not Abigail, who 'saved the day' each time with the help of his genius technological gizmos. We felt that the 'heroine' of a story should be a true heroine. Abigail wasn't.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN by John Green and LIBBA: THE MAGNIFICENT LIFE OF ELIZABETH COTTON by Laura Veirs

We all had some good things to say about our novel, Turtles All the Way Down by John Green. We all liked the spotlight it put on mental illness, specifically OCD, and the way it described Aza's continual struggles with trying to lead a normal teenager's life, while feeling like her body was contaminated and coping with the constant negative thoughts that wouldn't leave her alone. We noted that the author has suffered with the same condition for years, and we felt this was his way of alerting readers to what it felt like. We liked the way her friendship with Daisy was developed, but some readers were not so happy with the way that Aza and Davis, her young male friend, communicated. A couple of readers who were John Green fans were disappointed, and felt that this story did not live up to the standards of some of his earlier books. We all agreed that the whole story of the mystery of Davis' missing father was so convoluted that it took away from the main story of Aza, her life, and her friendships, and that the final solving of the mystery was just weird and unnecessary.


We all loved the illustrations by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh in our picture book, Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten by Laura Veirs. We were happy that the story of Libba, a self-taught musician and song-writer, was brought to the fore, but we found some 'nits' in the reading. We liked the lyrical quality of the text, but we felt there were gaps in the story: the way it jumped from her childhood to her adulthood; the way that, even though music was a huge part of her existence, she didn't play her guitar or sing for years. We also found the transition from her work as a store clerk to becoming the maid for the Seeger family uncomfortable. We saw a huge discrepancy in the story itself compared to the 'Back Matter' provided by the author which provided many more details, including the fact that growing up as an African-American in Mississippi in the early 1900s was quite difficult. We thought this and other facts would have created a better understanding on the part of young readers as to what Libba's life was really like.