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 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.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

THE BEST MAN by Richard Peck and RIFKA TAKES A BOW by Betty Rosenberg Perlov

We had an enjoyable discussion of Richard Peck's The Best Man at our last meeting. The title could be perceived to relate to weddings, which it did, and also to who was literally 'the best man' in 12-year-old Archer's life. Everyone liked at least something about this book, some more than others. A couple of readers thought that the quick run through Archer's life from first grade through fourth in the early chapters was somewhat boring and didn't add much to the story. One person questioned the 'voice' as being too old, but was reminded that 12-year-old Archer was the one telling the story. We all mostly liked the story, and were especially pleased that although one of the plot points dealt with two gay men -- Mr. McLeod, Archer's student-teacher, and his Uncle Paul -- and the acceptance they received in Archer's family and in their community in general were handled in a very matter-of-fact, non-didactic way. We felt it also dealt positively with several other things: children who pick certain adults as their role models; dealing with bullying; a healthy family relationship; the quirks of a boy growing up; the transition from elementary school to middle school; the portrayal and growth of Archer's friend Lynette; and the obvious love between the various family members. . . (and a bit of what we knew as Peck's hatred of computers!) We unanimously agreed that the inclusion of annoying, spoiled, Hilary Calthorpe, the son of a diplomat stationed in Chicago and his upper-class British family were entirely unnecessary, and added nothing to the story except to create an outrageous Halloween costume party and an obvious plot mechanism to get the two men together. A few Richard Peck fans felt that this book didn't match up to the caliber of some of the author's previous work, but we all enjoyed reading it.

We also had a read-aloud of Rifka Takes a Bow by Betty Rosenberg Perlov, which we had wanted to read but couldn't since there were no library copies available. We all loved the story of a little girl whose parents were actors in the Yiddish Theatre in New York in the early 1900s, and how her curiosity landed her on stage in the middle of a play. We learned from the author's notes at the back, who was 93 when the book was published, that this was, in fact, her own story. We were less enamored by the illustrations by Cosei Kawa, which we felt were very elusive, too busy, unrealistic, and didn't fit well with the straightforward text of the story.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

THUNDER BOY JR. by Sherman Alexie

We had a wonderful holiday pot luck feast at our last meeting, and although we were all very full, a great discussion of Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie; illus. by Yuyi Morales. Several people loved it, a few did not. A couple of readers felt the story was very disjointed, and didn't really say much. Others loved the fact that Thunder Boy Jr. wanted his own name, and although he loved his strong, powerful dad, he needed his own identity. As he went through various possibilities of names based upon things he was really good at, he was finally happy when his dad actually gave him his new name, Lightning, because then they could be strong and powerful together. Several readers thought that there were just too many possible name choices, and got tired of reading about them. Others felt it was fine, because it provided a good picture of who the little boy really 'was'. Most of us really liked the illustrations, but a couple of folks weren't thrilled with them. We weren't sure how young readers would respond to the book, but one of our members, a school librarian, informed us that when she read it to kids in her school, they liked it, and they responded in different ways according to their ages. So....mixed feelings all around, and contented, full, tired people heading home later than usual from a book group meeting.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth, and Harlem's Greatest Bookstore by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and The Case of the Case of the Mistaken Identity by Mac Barnett

At our last meeting we discussed our picture book, The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth, and Harlem's Greatest Bookstore by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson first. We all liked it a lot! We loved the cover, where a young boy seems to be uplifted by a symbolic 'bed of books' as he lounges and reads. We also loved the illustrations which we felt beautifully reflected the information and tone of the account by young Louie Michaux as he described his dad, Louis Sr.'s "Book Itch," which prompted him to encourage everyone in his family and community to READ, and which ultimately led him to open up the first African-American bookstore in Harlem, NY. One reader said the title kind of gave her the creeps...the 'itch' part, but it didn't deter her from liking the story. We felt it was told in a very straightforward way, with Louie's voice coming through clearly as he described various incidents including meeting Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X in the store, and his and his dad's sorrow when Malcolm was assassinated. We also liked Louis Sr.'s many (somewhat) poetic sayings which were shown in various very bold and large fonts throughout the story as well as in the endpapers. We loved the design of the book -- where some of the illustrations were framed on a single page, while others were double-page spreads. We also liked the author's note, photos of the actual store, and bibliography at the end. We all agreed that it would be a great book for adults to share with kids -- at school or at home, though we weren't sure if many kids would just pick it up to read. In the end, we felt it was an important story, well told, and an inspiration to anyone who loves books and reading.

We had varying opinions on the novel, The Case of the Case of the Mistaken Identity by Mac Barnett. We discovered that it was the first in a series, which already has two additional titles. We liked the idea of Steve, a budding detective (who wasn't really a detective), who used what he had learned from reading a fictional series of 59 books about boy detectives to solve an uncanny case that suddenly involved him, some CIA-type librarians, a crooked teacher, and a quilt with a secret message. We all agreed that it was a great book for kids, probably boys, because of the short sentences, short chapters, and moments of suspense in an intriguing (though completely impossible) plot. Several of us thought that as the story went on, some of the elements of the 'mystery' were just too convoluted and complicated, but we found many good writing techniques that Barnett used to keep kids interested. We also loved the fine-line black ink illustrations, which beautifully reflected various parts of the story, and the facsimiles from the "Detective's Manual" that Steve had sent for after reading the 59 books. For most of us adults, it wasn't exactly our 'cup o'tea' but we could appreciate the writing that was obviously geared to young readers.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of BOOK CHAT THURSDAY

It was ten years ago in October that our group of children’s book librarians, authors, illustrators, teachers and other lovers of children’s literature began meeting about once a month to discuss children’s books as we enjoyed a selection of munchies brought by our members. We are grateful to all our members who have held the meetings at their houses, but particularly Ann Whitford Paul whose house is our usual meeting place. And we are grateful to Sandy Schuckett for keeping us informed via email, writing our monthly blog reports, and for bringing the delicious celebratory chocolate cake that you see in the photo! Book Chat Thursday is one of the several regional discussion groups organized through the Children’s Literature Council of Southern California.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

BROTHERS AT BAT by Audrey Vernick and PAPERBOY by Vince Vawter

We discussed our picture book, Brothers at Bat by Audrey Vernick first, and thought it was an OK story (based on fact) of the 1930s New Jersey family of the 12 Acerra brothers who had their own winning family baseball team, and were ultimately recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY in 1997. Someone had said that the underlying unifying theme of this story was Baseball, but we all disagreed, and instead felt that it was Family. We thought it was well-told, in a semi-journalistic fashion, and that the illustrations mostly fit the story well. There was one problem, however, with a double-page spread of the brothers in a large airliner flying over the '1939 World's Fair' in New York. It showed a plane that was waaaayyy later than 1939 as well as a globe image from the World's Fair which actually was from 1964, not 1939. Some liked the book more than others....but we all felt it was well-done.

We were once again unanimous with varying degrees of positive thoughts and feelings about Paperboy by Vince Vawter. We all loved the voice of 'the paperboy' (whose name we did not know until almost the end) who loved words but had a severe stuttering problem, and was therefore typing his 1959 story on a typewriter -- with no commas and no quotation marks! We thought that all of the characters were very vividly described by the boy as he told about his day-to-day activities when he took over his best friend's paper route for a week. We liked the way he seriously thought things through, and his reactions to different characters, even though some of his decisions led to very dangerous experiences. We liked the relationship between him and 'Mam,' the African-American housekeeper who took care of him since his parents, though loving and supportive, were always busy doing other things. One person objected to his parents' lack of input into his life and daily activities. A few of us had a problem with the dialect that was attributed to 'Mam' and thought the book would have been better without it. One person was thrown off each time the boy was forced to talk because it was written as "s-s-s-s...word...s-s-s-s" and she felt that it interrupted the story. Others didn't mind that at all. We all agreed that it was a good read that really explained what a stutterer experiences, as well as an accurate picture of 1959 Memphis, TN and we liked the Author's Note at the end where he explained that this was his own memoir, but with some fictional additions, and he provided resources for those who wanted to know more about stuttering.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

PRESIDENT SQUID by Aaron Reynolds and JEFFERSON'S SONS by Kimberly Baker Bradley

At our last meeting, we began with our picture book, President Squid by Aaron Reynolds. We weren't very thrilled with the story of this very 'Trumpish' pink squid who thought he had the five necessary characteristics of a president who could fix everything, but when he discovered that actually helping someone required work, he changed his mind about wanting to be president....(and then decided he wanted to be King of the World.) We liked the illustrations, which were very colorful and quite humorous, and felt that one use for the book would be as a read-aloud to kick off a class discussion of what it really takes to be a leader. We didn't love the ending....except that it was kind of 'Trumpish' also. We did feel that the book was quite apropos during these unusual political times in which we are currently living. We also wondered at the timing of its publication...how quickly had it gone through the publication process which usually takes as long as a year or more?

We had a good discussion of our novel, Jefferson's Sons: A Founding Father's Secret Children by Kimberly Baker Bradley. We thought it did a relatively good job of explaining the institution of slavery to young readers, although it left a lot of questions unanswered. Several of us were put off by the construction of the novel: jumping around between the points of view of Beverly and Madison (Maddy,) the young sons of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, and their friend Peter, another young slave. We felt that confused the flow of the story. We also felt that it was amazing that there was no feeling of underlying anger on the part of these boys and their mother, as well as their friends, whose lives were completely under the control of the whims of Jefferson. We thought the author had done quite extensive research, but we still had some problems with the dialog, which in many cases sounded too modern, especially in the uses of terms like 'okay' and 'nope' which weren't yet even coined during the 1809-1827 time period of the book. One of our members had read the actual historical accounts (the only ones available) of this unusual 'family,' and found some inconsistencies with the story we were reading. We agreed that it was a very difficult topic to bring to the table for young readers, and wondered how it would have been treated by an African-American author rather than the white one who wrote it. And the final question still remained: How could the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence (which was quoted in the story) have so little real consideration for the feelings of these human beings who were in fact his own family?

On a related note, one of our members thought people might like to read this discussion of slavery as it is treated in childdren's books. Link here: http://www.motherjones.com/media/2016/08/diversity-childrens-books-slavery-twitter