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, November 2, 2017

MY FAVORITE PETS: BY GUS W. FOR MS. SMOLINSKI'S CLASS by Jeanne Birdsall and ORPHAN ISLAND by Laurel Snyder

We had a large group at our last meeting and we discussed our picture book first: My Favorite Pets: by Gus W. for Ms. Smolinski's Class by Jeanne Birdsall. All of our comments were favorable. Many liked the book, some loved it, and one reader liked it but thought it was a little too "comic-bookish' due to the dialog balloons in many of the illustrations. But -- that being said, we all loved the illustrations, including the expressions on the sheep. We thought they were humorous, and perfectly fit with the text which was Gus' actual report on sheep, done in 2nd-grade-type manuscript writing, shown realistically on each page. We liked the arc of the story as the sheep's activities became more and more ridiculous, and the way Gus teased his little brother and the way his parents reacted. We thought the book could be useful in a classroom setting as an example of writing a simple report, and even as an introduction to the study of animals on a farm. We liked the ending, where the teacher's grade (B+) and remarks were shown in red pencil on Gus' report. Basically positive reactions all the way around.
 
We had a great discussion of the novel, Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder. Everyone said they loved the beginning, and were brought immediately into the story by the descriptions of the nine orphans on the seemingly perfect island, and the various personalities and interactions between them as they learned about using elements of their natural world to survive, and followed a hierarchy of 'power' according to age. When Jinny's best friend, Deen was called to leave in the green boat, and was replaced by the newcomer, Ess, a little girl, Jinny suddenly had new responsibilities as a caretaker, since she was now the oldest. As her character was developed,and various crises occurred, it became more and more obvious that this role was difficult for her, and she learned many things about herself. But -- when the green boat returned (we assume a year later) for her, she decided not to leave. Suddenly things became very chaotic on the island, and she felt responsible since she had disobeyed the rules. This is when many of our opinions about the story changed. Many of us felt that the remainder of the book was not so much fun to read, as the narrative was more and more in Jinny's head -- the angst of a 12-year-old girl -- and it just became cumbersome. No-one liked the ending, although it was obvious that there would be a sequel. Some said they would never read it; others would. We also had many questions about how the island got 'organized' in the first place, who decided which children went there, who made the rules that everyone followed, where the green boat went when it left, and more. Perhaps a prequel would have been a good idea? Everyone agreed in their dislike for the character Ben, who was a year younger than Jinny, did all of the cooking, and seemed to know everything and always have the answer. He was just too perfect for words! So....mixed reviews altogether, and some curiosity about what might come next from this author.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

NANETTE'S BAGUETTE by Mo Willems and FULL OF BEANS by Jennifer Holm

We had a small, but verbal group at our last meeting, including the grandson of one of our members, a third-grader, who read our picture book, Nanette's Baguette aloud to us. In his opinion it was great! He said it was "weird, but in a good way," and that it was a "tonguetwister." He also loved the use of the words, 'Krack!' and 'Kaboom!' It was neat to hear the opinion of a real kid! We pretty much agreed with him. We liked it a lot, the use of '-et' words throughout a delightful story of a little girl sent for the first time to buy a baguette for her family at the neighborhood bakery allowed for many language activities in a classroom. One of our members who grew up in France explained that this was a real honor for a small child, and that it was very normal to eat up the pointy ends of the warm, good-smelling baguette on the way home. Nanette, however, ate the whole thing, and was worried about her mother's reaction once she returned home, but we loved how the mother understood perfectly and they both returned to the bakery for another one, which mom proceded to eat on the way home. (Krack!) We thought the illustrations were humorous, and appropriate for the story, although some of us would have preferred that the characters shown were actual humans instead of frogs. We learned that Mo Willems had actually created a paper village for this story, and that the scenes in the book all occurred in parts of this village -- as shown in each illustration...quite an unusual and creative premise. Altogether, positive opinions on a fun read.
We also all liked our novel, Full of Beans by Jennifer Holm. We liked the fact that it reminded us of a simpler time (1934) when kids were pretty much left alone to explore their town and solve their own problems without helicopter parents. We liked that Beans and his friends were very resourceful in finding ways to earn a bit of money during this Depression-affected time in Key West, FL. A few readers felt it was somewhat reminiscent of many of the Beverly Cleary books. A couple of readers were a bit put off by the fact that Beans did some illegal things: transporting liquor for a rum-runner in his wagon and setting of fake fire alarms to distract attention from what he was doing. They thought that he wasn't adequately punished for these things, even though his guilt had a profound effect on him. We thought it was a well-plotted and well-written story, and we liked Beans' voice as he described his life and the activities of the WPA people who had come to Key West to revamp the town to attract tourists. We also liked the Author's Note, which explained that many of the incidents in this story had actually happened, and the list of resources at the end provided many websites with further details and photos of Key West before and after the WPA project. So -- two good books, two positive reviews. It's great when that happens!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

THE GIRL IN THE WELL IS ME by Karen Rivers and CITY DOG, COUNTRY FROG by Mo Willems, illus. by Jon Muth

We had very interesting discussions at our last meeting, starting with our novel, The Girl in the Well is Me by Karen Rivers. We all marvelled at the fact that a novel that almost totally takes place in a well where Kammie has fallen could even get published. We had varying opinions of the story however. Many readers said the whole thing made them feel very claustrophobic and therefore difficult to read. We basically liked how Kammie's story developed as she told about how her father had been sent to prison for embezzlement, why she and her mother and brother had to move to Texas, and how she had so much wanted to be accepted by the 'cool girls' -- who actually turned out to be mean girls, since they did little to help her after she fell in the well, and may have even caused her fall. Many of us felt that they didn't receive proper comeuppance at the end after Kammie was rescued. Although we liked Kammie's descriptions of the various details of her life, several of us felt that when she started describing what was going on in her mind, after she became delirious, it just went on for too long. A couple of readers skipped thru that part quickly. We also felt that there were a few things that just weren't plausible, even though they made for a good story. Mixed opinions all around.
We mostly all liked our picture book, City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems; illus. by Jon. J. Muth. We all loved the illustrations, which revealed new details each time one re-looked at them, and beautifully depicted the year as the seasons passed. Most of us liked the development of the friendship betwen the two animals as they taught each other new things each season, but a couple of readers felt that the friendship actually became too dispensable, since it appeared so easy for Dog to make a new friend at the end when Frog wasn't there waiting for him when Spring returned. We felt it could be a good story to read to a small child to help deal with the death of someone near and dear, OR to explain why a good friend had left. At first we all felt that Frog had certainly died, but as we talked more, we learned from one reader that frogs hibernate, so Frog could have just left for that reason. It's amazing how knowing one additional piece of information can affect one's perception of a story. . . which is why reading, and the thinking it creates, are wonderful things!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

ALCHEMY AND MEGGY SWANN by Karen Cushman and TIME FOR (EARTH) SCHOOL, DEWEY DEW by Leslie Staub

At our last meeting, we discussed our novel first: Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman. There were many parts of it that we liked: its depiction of Elizabethan Era London, the great 'cursing' language used by Meggy and her 'frenemy' Roger, and the details about alchemy that were given in the author's notes at the end. Several of us felt it didn't match up to some of the author's previous books, and one reader felt that her 'lists,' as she enumerated various elements in the London setting were just 'lazy writing.' A couple of readers felt that it wasn't a real story, as much as a series of vignettes or incidents, and that the relationships between Meggy and her father weren't well developed. Ditto for her relationship with her mother. We wanted to know more about why her mother thought so little of Meggy as she was growing up -- perhaps because of her physical disability, something that wasn't well-accepted in those times. We liked Meggy's 'spunk' and determination to make something of her life, given the hardships she had to endure, and we felt that would be encouraging for young readers. We also felt that it would give young readers a feeling for the time and place in which the story occurred.
 
Everyone liked the picture book, Time for (Earth) School, Dewey Dew by Leslie Staub. One reader absolutely loved it, and thought it was a perfect picture book. We all liked the illustrations, and the fact that it was a new 'take' on the 'being the new kid in a strange school' meme. A couple of readers were a bit put off by the weird words (in Dewey's language) that were used to describe everyday things.....even though we felt that kids would completely understand what he was saying. We liked the fact that Dewey was a character with whom young readers could relate -- mainly because he was the 'new kid,' and not for any other reasons that might create any kind of bias. We felt there were some very poetic passages, and we all loved the double-spread illustration when Dewey's smile lit up the playground (and the universe) after he made a new friend. A generally positive review by all.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

BANG by Barry Lyga and SLEEP LIKE A TIGER by Mary Logue

We had great discussions at our last meeting, combined with delicious pizza, since that played such a big part in our novel, Bang, by Barry Lyga. We all liked this book -- some of us more than others. We agreed that there were some interesting plot twists, and we liked the portrayal of the relationship between the 14-year-old protagonist, Sebastian, and his new friend Aneesa as they produced a pizza-making online video log. We thought that felt very natural and realistic. Some of us felt that making her a Muslim might have been a bit grauitous, given the times we live in, but we agreed that it was dealt with in a positive fashion without being 'preachy'. We talked at length about what it means to keep a big secret, as Sebastian did in the story while he planned the exact moment of his (possibly impending) suicide as the guilt of accidentally having shot and killed his baby sister when he was only four years old consumed him. We also talked about the necessity of communication, which seemed to be missing in Sebastian's life until he met Aneesa, and we were especially struck by the scenes in which Sebastian and his mother, and then later, he and his father finally let all of their emotions out, including the enormous guilt that each felt. The only thing we unanimously didn't like was the inclusion of an essay that a teacher had assigned -- against Sebastian's wishes -- where he asserted that his thoughts and feelings were nobody's business. We felt that essay added nothing to an otherwise gripping read, and a heartfelt glimpse into the mind of a troubled young teen. We also liked the addition of resources at the end that could possible be helpful to young readers in a similar situation.
 
We didn't agree on our picture book, Sleep Like a Tiger, by Mary Logue, and illustrated by Pamerla Zagarenski. A couple of readers didn't like it at all. They thought the illustrations were terrible, and would not be appealing to young children, and they thought the story was dull, not really saying anything, and not so much fun to read. Others however had a different opinion: that the story was an almost perfect circle as the little girl who 'wasn't sleepy' asked her parents about how various animals went to sleep, and then mimicked the same actions as she fell asleep also. We liked that the illustrations showed that all of these animals were actually her own toys. We agreed that this book wouldn't be so great as a read-aloud to a group, since the illustrations would be difficult to enjoy from a distance, but that an adult sharing it with a child at bedtime could help the child notice various nuances in the pictures which were more visible close-up. Mixed feelings and opinions always make for a good discussion.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

SOME WRITER! by Melissa Sweet and I DISSENT by Debbie Levy

We read two biographies for our last meeting, and we liked them both. We discussed Some Writer! by Melissa Sweet first. We all liked it, but we had varying opinions on the format and layout, where Sweet combined original art, photos, facsimiles of E.B.White's works, artifacts, and other design elements. Some people loved this and felt that the format was almost like a scrapbook, and was a perfect complement to the text. Others felt it was confusing and distracting. One reader thought it was almost like a website, and that maybe this could entice young readers who might be intimidated by pages containing only text. One reader, a longtime E.B.White fan who had read everything he had ever written, felt that the writing in this book, although accessible and well done, wasn't eloquent enough in discussing this esteemed subject. We liked most of the 'back matter' of the book, which included statements from the author and from White's granddaughter, plus a timeline, notes, and bibliographies, but we felt that all of that was probably more interesting to adults than it would be to kids. We felt that young readers would probably not pick this book on their own, but that if they were fans of Stuart Little or Charlotte's Web, they might be interested in knowing more about the author of these classics.

As for the picture biography, I Dissent by Debbie Levy, we all liked it. Some readers were put off by the many examples of dissent, disagreement, etc., shown in huge letters in the illustrations, which they felt presented a view that portrayed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as always being negative. Others didn't mind that aspect of the art, but didn't love the way Ginsburg was visually portrayed as a child and a young woman -- sort of cartoonish, and not very pretty -- although photos of her showed that she was in fact quite attractive. We all liked how the story of her life showed the incidents and social issues that helped to shape her thinking and made her confident that a young woman could become anything she wanted to, and could fight for justice. We thought that the writing, although not exceptional, was adequately accessible for young readers, and we hoped the book would be inspiring for young girls and could show boys that "girls CAN do anything!"

Thursday, March 2, 2017

BOOKED by Kwame Alexander and THE TREE IN THE COURTYARD: Looking Through Ann Frank's Window by Jeff Gottesfeld

At our last meeting we began with the novel-in-verse: Booked by Kwame Alexander. We all agreed that the premise of this book was nothing new: a middle school kid passionate about a sport, with a crush on a girl, a terrible teacher and a nice librarian, a best friend with whom he competed, parents contemplating a divorce, and other 'stuff' that had been done before -- again and again -- in books for young readers. However -- we agreed that this story -- told in very short and tight poems, with a minimum of words, condensed so that only the most necessary details were revealed -- was well done by Alexander. We also liked the footnotes related to various words that Nick had to learn, given that his dad was a linguist. Half of us loved the book; the other half didn't hate it, but were less enthused. One reader who is not a big fan of novels in verse wasn't thrilled with it, but as a horse-lover she was at least pleased that the section where Nick takes his 'crush', April, on a date to ride horses was accurate as it described how to take care of a horse. We also liked the fact that it mentioned many other important books for kids throughout the story, even though a bit gratuitously. We agreed that it would be good for reluctant readers because of its brevity, and also for readers with short attention spans, since they could just read a few poems at a time. Some felt that Alexander's previous book, the 2015 Newbery Award winner The Crossover was a better book overall.
We had mixed reactions on the picture book, The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank's Window by Jeff Gottesfeld; illus. by Peter McCarty. We all agreed at first that the brown ink drawings provided an appropriately somber mood for this World War II story. However, upon further discussion, we decided that maybe it might have been better if there had been a bit of color -- specifically in the depictions of this chestnut tree which was the only thing Anne Frank could see from her window as she and her family were sequestered/hidden in the rear annex of her father's factory in Amsterdam. We felt that some color would have added more to the story, since the tree seemed to be one thing that brought joy to Anne. One of our readers, who is also an artist/illustrator pointed out that the illustrations related specifically to the war -- the Nazi soldiers invading the city, the bombers flying overhead -- were drawn at a slant, as if everything was topsy-turvy and 'out of whack'. We had a problem with the personification of the tree as a 'she,' and felt the story would have been stronger told in a different voice. We also wondered what would be the best age for a young reader of this book, given some of the unpleasant subject matter related to Anne and her family. We also thought it would be useful for middle school and even high school kids as an introduction to Anne Frank and her story, and it might encourage them to read Anne Frank's diary. We were pleased that the excellent 'Afterword' at the end of the book contained more details about Anne Frank, her family, the saving of her diary, and the tree itself. We learned that this specific tree had been struck by a lightning bolt, and after repeated efforts to save it over a ten year period, had died in 2010. However it was heartwarming to learn that saplings of this tree have been planted in 11 locations throughout the U.S. and in other places around the world. We were glad we had read this little-known story about one very significant tree.