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, March 26, 2020

THE RABBIT LISTENED by Cori Doerrfeld and WISHTREE by Katherine Applegate

Due to the corona virus, our meeting this month was cancelled. However, several of our members who had read the books shared the following comments.

The Rabbit Listened
Reader #1. I found the title intriguing, and the art charming – faces and bodies of both Taylor and the animals highly expressive. The choice to omit any background art was an effective way of keeping the focus on the characters. I particularly liked the fact that Taylor could be either a boy or a girl, so any child can identify. And the images of Taylor and the rabbit were sweet and tender. The message of the book was an essential one – sometimes just listening is the best choice – but ultimately the story came off as a little too message-y. Overall, though, I liked it. 
Reader #2. I thought it would be a great read-aloud and I loved the illustrations -- the expressions on Taylor's and the animals' faces were wonderful, and I also liked all of the white space which eliminated distractions and allowed the reader to focus on what was actually shown. I thought it was so good that Taylor could be a boy or a girl...the illustration gave no clue or opinion on that. I also liked the parallel between all of the animals' suggestions and what Taylor ultimately told Rabbit, and I loved the fact that Rabbit listened -- a great message for young and old.
Reader #1.  I wanted to like this book much more than I did. Katherine Applegate is a terrific writer, and she can be very imaginative. I loved Ivan. This novel had some strong moments and a certain dry, arboreal humor, but it took forever to get started, and once the story was launched, it was too sentimental for my taste, and too predictable. A kid, however, might be much more engaged than I was.
Reader #3. It took way too long to get into the story. I’d doubt that kids would be that patient. If I remember correctly it took nearly 30 pages before any kid came in. I nearly didn’t read further, but suffering from a mother’s admonition to “finish what you start,” plugged on and was sorry that I did. Too pat, too predictable, too preachy.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

SAVING WINSLOW by Sharon Creech and THE UNDEFEATED by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

We started with our novel, Saving Winslow, by Sharon Creech. We had an interesting range of opinions on this short novel for young (probably grades 1-3) readers. One reader wanted to know more about Winslow, a newborn mini-donkey, who she felt should have been the main character, since his name was in the title, rather that the young boy, Louie, who devoted his energy to ensuring that Winslow would live. She also was a bit put off by the inclusion of 49 very short chapters, which she felt broke up the story too frequently. Others felt that this book, with its short chapters and very spare but concise writing which nevertheless included emotions and ideas, was very accessible to very young readers, who might be thrilled to finish a "thick" 165-page book for the first time. Many of us felt that the writing was perfect for this age group, and that there were several particular passages that were beautifully constructed. Some readers had questions about the actual time and place of the story, while others felt that didn't really matter, since the crux of the story was about perseverance, finding commonalities between people who seemed different, and dealing with loss. We all loved the care and concern that Louie had for his older brother, Gus, who was away in the military, even though we didn't know exactly where he was....on a nearby base or in an actual war. We also liked the relationship between Louie and his neighbor Nora, who seemed a bit strange at first, but, as the story developed, began to communicate more with Louie and share his feelings for Winslow. Many of us were put off by the fire at a grouchy neighbor's house near the end, and felt that it didn't really add much to the story. One reader, who had spent time on a farm as a young girl and had cared for sickly newborn animals, was completely enthralled by the story, to which she could completely relate. It was another example of how readers' own life and experiences inform their reactions to different stories.

We all agreed that the illustrations in The Undefeated, by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, were gorgeous and astounding. We had mixed feelings regarding the text. Some felt that the marriage of the text and illustrations was perfect, while others felt that the text -- without the illustrations -- could not stand on its own. Many said that they liked how the book began, as it described, in poetic form, the trauma, passion, perseverance, and accomplishments throughout African-American history in the U.S., but some began to be a bit put off by the fact that the actual people mentioned later were athletes and music stars...where were the writers, scientists, political figures, philosophers, historians, etc. who had contributed so much to our culture? We felt that this was not a typical 'children's picture book,' and that it would be most useful for Grades 5 and above, as well as for adults, and we agreed that the 'Back Matter,' which identified in greater detail the historical figures and events depicted in either words or pictures throughout would be helpful for readers interested in doing further research to learn more.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

SKULLS by Blair Thornburgh and PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING by Randy Ribay

We began our January discussion with our picture book, Skulls, by Blair Thornburgh and illustrated by Scott Campbell. We all liked the illustrations and the fact that this seemingly simple picture book raised the issue of how important our skulls are to our lives. We loved how the book began, but sadly, we felt that it became a bit boring, as certain facts were unnecessarily repeated. We tried to figure out why it was a 40-page picture book, which is unusual, and we felt that it would have worked better in the traditional 32-page format with some of the redundant parts eliminated. We liked the idea of introducing young children to this very important part of their bodies. There were a couple of page spreads that we really liked, and we liked the last page which included several facts about the skull. We thought it might work well in a school setting if combined with a more traditional nonfiction book about skulls with actual photos and more emphasis on facts. A couple of readers also felt that this could be a great book to use for 'Day of the Dead' celebrations, where images of skulls/skeletons play a big role.

We had mixed feelings on our novel, Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay. We all agreed that this story of high school senior, Jay, who travels from his home in Michigan to the Philippines to find out why his beloved cousin, Jun, was accused of being a drug dealer and killed by the government at a very young age provided a great glimpse into contemporary Filipino culture. Most of us didn't really relate to Jay, and we had minimal feelings for him, even throughout his trials and tribulations. We felt that the book was more plot-driven than character-driven. One reader felt that the whole reason for this book was to expose the current situation in the Philippines. Another reader said that she just didn't like Jay at all -- he was a self-centered, cell-phone-driven obnoxious teen-aged boy -- but she thought that the information about the current culture in the Philippines and the havoc that its despotic ruler is wreaking on its citizens was important for young readers to know. We felt that high- schoolers might like this book since they could relate with much of the angst in the story.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Holiday Dinner Meeting

Holiday potluck of Book Chat Thursday
We had a feast at our Holiday Dinner meeting, where we dined on Chicken Marbella, tasty Ham and Beans, at least three terrific GREEN vegetable dishes, Sour Cream Cherry Pie, Pecan Pie, and candies and cookies. Thanks to all who brought these delicious and nutritious treats to our annual pot luck! We didn't discuss any specific books, but we DID talk about a lot of other things. It was a great evening.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang and ODE TO AN ONION: PABLO NERUDA AND HIS MUSE by Alexandria Giardino

We started our discussion at our October meeting with our novel, Front Desk by Kelly Yang. We all agreed that this very accessible book contained so many issues that relate to the times in which we are now living: immigration, poverty, racism, families, extortion, injustice, and empowerment, among others, as 10-year-old Mia helps her immigrant Chinese family run a somewhat seedy motel in 1990s Anaheim, California. Mia's resourcefulness and deeply felt indignation at the various wrongs she observed in her daily life at the motel and in school leads her to write a series of letters that she feels could solve the problems. Although we felt that some of her actions and her letters were a bit far-fetched, we agreed that they created a good story that young readers would want to follow to its conclusion. We liked the group of diverse characters, both adults and children, and the relationships that were formed between several of them. We thought it provided a good message for these times.

There were two things we really liked about our picture book, Ode to an Onion: Pablo Neruda and his Muse by Alexandria Giardino: the illustrations and the fact that we could read Neruda's poem in its entirety -- in English or Spanish -- in the back matter of the book. But sadly, we felt that this very short, and drily written story about one lunch with the Chilean poet and his muse, Matilde, which came from vegetables they discovered in her garden -- including an onion -- did little to show the depth of this very sensitive and intuitive man. Although some of the illustrations did present a clue as to how Pablo created 'Ode to an Onion,' we didn't feel that was enough. We thought the book would be a good companion to a couple of other outstanding books for young readers that have been written about Neruda.

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.