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).

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

THE POET X by Elizabeth Alcevedo and CROWN: AN ODE TO THE FRESH CUT by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James

We were a small but mighty group at our last meeting. We discussed our novel, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo first. We all loved the voice, the descriptions, the spirit, and the introspection of teen-aged Afro-Latina Harlem high school student Xiomara, as she tries to understand the various facets of her complicated life: her changing body (becoming quite voluptuous,) an ultra-religious mother who doesn't approve of most of what she does, a father who is physically there but emotionally absent, a new relationship with fellow student Aman, and, above all -- wanting/needing her voice to be heard. We loved the development of the story as Xiomara's poetry begins to help her deal with her life, thanks in part to her twin brother, Xavier (whom she refers to as "Twin"), and her best friend, Cari, plus an understanding teacher. We felt that this novel in verse would be totally accessible to young readers because of its subject matter and ease of reading. Our only two criticisms were: 1) we were dying to know which poem she presented when she finally agreed to participate in a Poetry Slam; and 2) we felt the ending events came too suddenly, without proper development. We watched a YouTube clip of the author reciting her poem "Hair" and were thrilled by its power as she presented her emotional delivery.

Acevedo's poem was a perfect segue to our picture book Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes & Gordon C. James, which is also about hair. We loved this book about a young boy's feelings and descriptions as he goes to the barbershop for a particular haircut, and the way it makes him feel like a proud young black person when he comes out. We learned that the mission of this book's publisher is to present stories that enhance pride and positive self-image in African American children and young people, and it certainly succeeded with this book. But even though some readers didn't feel they were 'the audience' for this book, others of us felt it would be very helpful for children of other cultures to read it also, to provide them with a window into the black community and some of its thoughts and values and institutions...like the importance of the barbershop. We all thought the illustrations were gorgeous -- beautiful paintings that, although not completely 'photographic,' were still realistic and artistically constructed. We were glad we had read both books.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

DIG by A.S. King and THE CURIOUS GARDEN by Peter Brown



We had a beautiful array of delicious snacks at our last meeting, and we began our discussion with our novel, Dig by A.S. King. We had a variety of opinions on this somewhat complicated (at first) story. A few readers said that they didn't really 'care' about any of the main characters, four teenagers, only two of whose actual names we learned near the end, who each let us into their thoughts and various aspects of their lives in somewhat dysfunctional family situations. But most of us kept reading, partly because there was some really terrific writing, and because we got swept into their lives and the way they finally realized that they were cousins, the grandchildren of a pretty selfish and obnoxious couple, Marla & Gottfried, who were the reason they, and their parents, were all estranged and separated from one another. We had mixed feelings about "the Freak," who was actually a ghost/spirit of a fifth cousin, a girl who had been killed several years earlier, and who kept appearing and actually knew everything about what they all needed. We all agreed that there were some excellent plot developments as the story unfolded, but we also agreed that parts of the book were quite 'preachy,' and that these teenagers were 'mouthpieces' for the author's point of view regarding racism, white privilege, urban development, and finding one's own 'self'. We felt that young people would probably enjoy this book though, and might also feel empowered after reading it, since these teenagers figured out a way to unite and become a family of people who cared about each other, even given some of the dire circumstances of their lives.

We were pretty unanimously un-thrilled by our picture book, The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. We appreciated that it tried to tell the story of a little boy who went up a creepy stairway to an abandoned rail line, and magically made beautiful plants and trees take over what looked like a wasteland. But we just couldn't relate to the fact that it was The Garden that was curious, which is why it kept spreading farther and farther out from its source until it covered everything in sight. We weren't huge fans of most of the illustrations, although we did like a few of them, especially the ones that showed other kids helping the little boy, and the 'before-and-after' double-paged spreads of the area, which showed how ugly smokestacks and tracks and rocks and dirt had blossomed into beautiful areas by the end of the story. We realized that the author/illustrator had been inspired by the High Line in New York City, which had been re-purposed from a long-abandoned elevated rail line into a vibrant green space, and we thought it was an admirable subject for a picture book, but that it could have been told in a much better way.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

ME AND MOMMA AND BIG JOHN by Mara Rockliff and THE 57 BUS by Dashka Slater

At our July meeting we discussed our picture book first: Me and Momma and Big John by Mara Rockliff. We all loved this book! We loved that it highlighted a female worker/artist who was a stonecutter, one of the many 'little people' who actually do the work to create landmarks, and whose hand cut stone was ultimately hoisted high up on the front of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City ("Big John") We loved the illustration that showed where 'her stone' was finally placed on the facade. We loved the authentically childlike voice of the storyteller -- a young boy who knew that his mom worked hard every day and did very important work. We loved his pride in his mom's work, and his wish that she be adequately honored for it, as well as his description when he entered "Big John" for the first time and was amazed by its size. We loved the illlustrations, and were astounded to learn that they were entirely done on a computer...they looked like original paintings! We also appreciated the information in the 'back matter' which explained more about this historic church, and the apprenticeship program that hired many young workers and taught them the art of stonecutting. We learned that it was inspired by Carol Hazel, a young mother who actually did this work.

We all felt that our 'novel' -- a nonfiction book, The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater -- contained a very important story. We agreed that it was excellent journalistic writing, and a few readers felt that it had literary qualities as well. The story of Sasha, an agender teenager who liked to wear skirts and Richard, a fun-loving, 'goofy' 14-year-old boy who set Sasha's skirt on fire -- on an Oakland, CA bus -- raised so many issues about identity, teen-aged behavior, accepting consequences for one's actions, the juvenile justice system, and the importance of support from family and other adults. We loved the fact that the students in their respective high schools united in support of both of them. We thought it would be very accessible for young readers because of the very short (often just 1- or 2-paged) 'chapters' which alternated between Sasha's and Richard's stories. One reader stated that her 8th-grade granddaughter had read and loved this book, and said that she vacillated between rooting for Sasha and/or Richard while reading it. We were pleased to know that Sasha survived and is now a university student, and that Richard, who had written an early letter of apology that was not delivered until after his trial, will be released from custody soon, after serving his 'time' in juvenile detention taking classes, learning, and exhibiting exemplary behavior. We all wish him well in the future. We also liked the Glossary, early in the book which defined the various terms for gender, sex, sexuality, and romance. We thought it was a timely story, well-told.

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.