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, September 10, 2020

BROWN ANGELS by Walter Dean Myers and THE VANDERBEEKERS OF 141st STREET by Karina Yan Glaser

We started with our picture book, Brown Angels by Walter Dean Myers (1993). The book presents many black-and-white or sepia-toned photos of African-American babies and young children that appear to have been taken in the early 20th century. Myers began purchasing these photos in second-hand stores years ago, and had amassed a collection of thousands when he was inspired to write poetry for several of them and combine them in an album-like book. We all loved the photos showing beautiful children in their Sunday-best as they probably posed for professional photographers. We felt that each photo had a story to tell, but that, sadly, Myers -- brilliant writer that he was -- fell a bit short when it came to poetry. We did single out two that we liked: "Pretty Little Black Girl," -- a counting rhyme -- and "Jeannie Had a Giggle," which was humorous, but very real. We weren't sure that young readers would relate to the rest of the poems, since their observations seemed much more adult-like. We thought that young readers today would probably enjoy looking at the photos, and that in a classroom setting it might be fun to have students write their own poetry or stories after seeing them.

We had mixed feelings about our novel, The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street (2017) by Karina Yan Glaser. We all agreed that it was a very 'old-fashioned' book, reminiscent of The All-of-a-Kind Family or Little House on the Prairie, and that factor was a plus for some readers and a minus for others. A couple of us loved this story of a family of Mom and Dad and five children: Jessie and Isa,12-year-old twin girls; Oliver, 9; Hyacinth, 6; and Laney, 4 3/4. The family was losing their lease of their dad's childhood brownstone home in Harlem (NYC) by their seemingly grouchy landlord, Mr. Beiderman, who was feared by all. As the children tried various plans to circumvent this dire situation, five days before Christmas, they became individuals -- each with their own quirks -- and there were several plot twists that brought out each of their personalities as well as those of their parents. Everyone agreed that once they 'got into' the actual story there was suspense, and even though we knew the family would probably be able to stay in their house at the end, there were several surprises before that was actually assured. But some readers felt that the language was just too old-fashioned, and that even though the story takes place sometime after 2007, it just wouldn't grab the interest of today's kids in the 9-13-year-old reading crowd. Some felt that there was a disconnect between the language of the narrative and the way kids actually talked during the time of the story. We basically agreed that it was definitely a very 'wholesome' story and that it was great that the children were given space to figure things out and to solve their problems without hovering parents. Another issue was the fact that this seemed to be an interracial family, but that was never really clearly dealt with, which seemed unrealistic, given the time and the place. Some readers felt that this story could have taken place anywhere; and even though it was in Harlem, in New York, they really didn't get a feeling of that from the story. We learned that this book is the first in a series, and that three sequels follow. Some will read them; some will not. This discussion was a great example of why the differences in opinions and reactions to books makes our group so interesting and fun!

Thursday, August 6, 2020

BIG PAPA AND THE TIME MACHINE by Daniel Bernstrom and THE OLD TRUCK by Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey

At our last meeting we discussed Big Papa and the Time Machine by Daniel Bernstrom (2020) and The Old Truck by brothers Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey (2020). We realized that these two books had many things in common: Each dealt with three generations of an African-American family; each had a vehicle that made imaginary trips; each dealt with the strength and persistence of particular family members.

But the books were quite different. 'Big Papa's' strength was shown in the title character -- a grandfather -- who, while driving around Chicago with his grandson who was afraid of starting school, recounted various events in his life, and emphasized that every time he was scared, he also realized that he was brave. Their magical car went back to Arkansas, 1952; Chicago, 1955 & '57; Chicago, 1986; and Arkansas, 1941. In each instance, Big Papa recounted his fear, and how what he had learned had made him brave.The lyrical writing and the conversation between the two of them was a pleasure to listen to aloud. The emphasis on learning from life and in school were evident throughout. We all agreed that the strength of this story was in the language, but  we also liked how the 'historical' parts were shown in dreamlike/foggy/pastel colors, while the 'today' parts were in bright colors. We all felt the book was a 'hit'!



The Old Truck was completely different. In this book, the illustrations tell the story. The very spare, simple, straightforward text only works well if one can clearly see the illustrations, which were made using 250 different ink stamps in various combinations to create a farm through three generations of one family, where a red truck is used, discarded, and then brought to life and used again through the ingenuity of the last daughter. Here the strength was shown in the young girls who became women who continued the work of the farm. Sadly, the text was not a thrilling read-aloud, and since everyone did not have a copy of the book in hand, the illustrations did not come through well in a Zoom situation. We agreed it could be used with a small group of children who could see the pictures closely, and on each double-page spread there was much to notice and discuss. Although a wonderful story, it had to be seen closely to be properly understood and enjoyed.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

FEARSOME GIANT, FEARLESS CHILD by Paul Fleischman and THE TABLE WHERE RICH PEOPLE SIT by Byrd Baylor

We had a small but engaged group for our July (and third) Zoom meeting. It appears that we are all getting used to this way of meeting, and learning new things each time about how it all works.

One of our members read aloud: Fearsome Giant, Fearless Child: A Worldwide Jack and the Beanstalk Story by Paul Fleischman (2019). It is an interweaving of archetypic characters and motifs of JandtB from around the world. The book turned out to be a less-than-wonderful read-aloud because the beautifully colored illustrations are such an important part of the story, and must be viewed closely for best impact. Each page contains a small (usually 4"x6") box with a scene that illustrates the accompanying text, framed by wide 2-colored border art containing the name of the country depicted and motifs of that country as well as symbols related to that part of the story. Without being able to see these beautiful illustrations closely and clearly it was difficult for the listeners to really "get" the author's intent. We all loved the concept and the weaving together of different cultures showing the parallel developments of the story from each place. We also loved the end papers of the book which presented a flat map of the world, which pinpointed the locations from which the parts of this story originated. And we loved the idea of the illustrations when we were able to see close-ups of a few of them that were available online. However, as for the story itself, we unanimously agreed that it might not work well with young children if they were not completely aware of the original JandtB story and its variations. We felt that jumping around from place-to-place/story-to-story was somewhat confusing. However, those of us in education felt that it would be very helpful to use with kids after they had heard various iterations of the story, and they could then compare the various elements depicted from one place to another. We also thought the end paper maps would be very helpful in discussing how fairy tales changed from one location to another.


One member called our attention to a book The Table Where Rich People Sit by Byrd Baylor (1998). It's the story of a young girl who is unhappy about her family's lack of money as they sit around their old raggedy kitchen table. But as they all talk together, she discovers that actually they DO have many riches -- those provided by the natural world around them. We felt that this is a good book for these times, when there is a lot of "stuff" that we suddenly DON'T have, but there are still plenty of wonderful things all around us that can bring us joy and contentment.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

MARVELOUS CORNELIUS: HURRICANE KATRINA AND THE SPIRIT OF NEW ORLEANS by Phil Binder and WE ARE THE GARDENERS by Joanna Gaines

We had our second Zoom meeting on June 4 (the first for me!!) and it went quite well. I think we are all learning how to deal with this experience in the best way in our own homes....lighting, placement of computer, how to show pictures, etc. I personally missed the Good Food that usually accompanies our discussions, and look forward to the time when we can continue -- IN PERSON -- again.

First, Michelle read Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Binder (2015), the story of a beloved sanitation worker in New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina. We loved the illustrations which we felt really gave us the feeling of New Orleans, and we also loved a lot of the lyrical language that described Cornelius, his work, and his city. We felt that the story had a folktale-like feeling..perhaps similar to 'John Henry' stories, and that it was well-done. THEN we read the author's note at the back, where we learned that Cornelius Washington was a real man, a diligent and beloved worker for the NOLA Department of Sanitation, BUT that many of the events told in the story did not actually happen, and were just included to make the story better. WHAT??? This note totally destroyed our good feelings about the book, and we felt that it could have been solved if the author had merely stated, at the very beginning, something like, "...based on life and work of Cornelius Washington" We also noted that even though 'Hurricane Katrina' is in the title of the book, only two pages are devoted to that horrific tragedy....which didn't seem exactly right. So -- we liked it, but with reservations.


Caroline read us the second book, We Are the Gardeners by Joanna Gaines (2019). We acknowledged the fact that Gaines and her husband Chip are hosts of a reality show on HGTV which deals with home decor, gardening, cooking, and other family endeavors. We liked many things about this book: the fact that the family worked together, the explanations of how they planned their garden, and the trials and tribulations of creating a large family garden, and never giving up. We liked many of the illustrations showing how the plants developed, and the explanations of the various elements that are needed for a successful garden to thrive. We were unhappy however, that there was no real explanation of the time element entailed in creating a garden -- from the first planting of the seeds to the ultimate joy of having actual vegetables to eat. We thought that could be misleading for kids (and families) who might want to try the same activity at their own homes. We also thought that the entire narrative was just too long, and would have benefited from some cuts. We weren't sure that young readers would keep reading all that was written. But -- a book with some good qualities...so -- OK!

So -- not a bad way to spend an hour online doing something we all love: reading children's books!

Thursday, May 7, 2020

SOMETHING TO TELL THE GRANDCOWS by Eileen Spinelli and THE TWO BOBBIES: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival by Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery

This month we had our first ever virtual meeting of Book Chat Thursday on Zoom. We had eight participants and a lively discussion. With libraries and book stores closed, we did not attempt to read books ahead of time. Instead, Ann Paul chose two books off her shelf and read them aloud, showing the illustrations via a second screen. The first was Something to Tell the Grandcows by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Bill Slavia, a fictional telling of a true event. We loved the way the cow conveyed her emotions and excitement of the adventure and at the same time was very cow-like. We also liked the inclusion of so much information about the trip and Antarctica–what they brought (suitcases, building material, even a ukelele) and what they saw (icebergs, seals, endless sunshine in summer and endless nights in winter.) We liked the language of the story and the illustrations that paralleled the light-heartedness of the text. Here’s a link to an article about the actual expedition: Cows in Antarctica

Our second book was The Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival by Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery, illustrated by Jean Cassels.  This book tells the true story of a dog and a cat, both without tails, who got left behind during Hurricane Katrina and after fending for themselves for four months, finally found a friend at a construction site, and eventually a permanent home. We liked how the story depicted the friendship of the two animals and the way they helped one another. This book felt much more matter-of-fact than the first story. We discussed whether it would be shelved with fiction or nonfiction in the library. Some felt that it was fiction because no one knew exactly what happened to Bob and Bobby before they were rescued; others felt that as a true story, it should be classified as nonfiction. In any case, we felt that young children would enjoy hearing this story of friendship and learning more about the impact of Hurricane Katrina.

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.
Wishtree
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.