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, 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.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

DRAWN TOGETHER by Minh Le and Dan Santat and ONCE YOU KNOW THIS by Emily Blejwas

We had delicious nibblies for our last meeting, and great discussions on both of our books. We started with our picture book, drawn together [sic] by Minh Le and Dan Santat. Most of us agreed that the illustrations were beautiful, at least the large, colorful ones and the detailed line drawings when the little boy and his Thai-speaking grandpa began to communicate with each other through 'drawing together'. We liked the way they came to understand each other, and the happiness that the little boy, his mother, and his grandpa felt as a result. However, some readers were not thrilled with the comic-book-like illustrations that showed the actual scenes of the story. One reader thought it might make a good graphic novel....although a very short one! We all agreed that it was not a great read-aloud for a group, since even the good illustrations needed to be seen up close, and there wasn't really that much to actually read. We did think it might be good for an adult to share with a young child who might be experiencing the same lack of communication with an older relative because of language differences. We felt that the theme of the story was quite relevant, but that this book did not completely fill the bill for telling it.

Many readers felt that the writing in our novel, Once You Know This by Emily Blejwas was stunning. We were amazed that the book was this author's first attempt at middle-grade fiction. We loved the voice of Brittany, the main character, and the way her relationships with her mother, her dementia-impaired granny, her best friend Marisol, and her neighbors were developed. We also loved the character of Mr. McInnis, Brittany's teacher, and the fact that he guided Brittany into solving her problems rather than telling her what to do. She was the hero of the story. She had to think and do research and talk to various people in order to solve the problem of her mother living with an abuser and how they could get away. We liked the way it showed the strength in Brittany's low-income community, and how the neighbors looked out for each other even though they were all struggling to survive, as well as the way it portrayed a (very smart) child in an abusive situation finding a way for a good resolution at the end. We are eager to see more from this author.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

THE FUNERAL by Matt James and MRS. SMITH'S SPY SCHOOL FOR GIRLS by Beth McMullen

We were unanimous in our reactions to both of our books at our December meeting. We started with the picture book, The Funeral by Matt James. Although we all agreed that there is certainly a place in the picture book arena for a story about this subject, this book wasn't it. To start, several of us were offended that the letters FUN were highlighted in the large lettering of the title on the front cover. Although young Norma and her favorite little cousin Ray did have fun romping around the churchyard after the services, we felt that shouldn't be the focus of a story about funerals. There were no redeeming features in the story that dealt with any deep feelings on the part of anyone related to the deceased, great-uncle Frank -- except that everyone was sad. There were no quotes from Norma's parents about what he had meant to them, and Norma barely knew him. Beyond seeing a picture, neither Norma nor Ray nor we readers learned anything about him. We were also not so thrilled about the illustrations. Norma never looked the same way from one picture to another; in one picture she looked like a teenager, and in another, like a 40-year-old woman. We felt there were so many different ways this story could be told that would have generated more feelings and more information helpful to young children hearing or reading this story. It did, however, make for a great discussion about our own experiences as young children faced with the death of a loved one and the activities that followed. A good discussion is always a good thing!

Our reactions to our novel, Mrs. Smith's Spy School for Girls by Beth McMullen were equally tepid. Although we felt that the protagonist, Abigail, had some good lines, and some good reflections and observations, most of the action of the story was entirely unbelievable and beyond impossible. It was difficult to keep track of what happened to her from one insane incident to another as she was supposedly being trained to be a spy. A lot of the actions seemed very cartoonish, though not funny, and in several cases, quite violent. We felt that the character of Abigail's mother, who was the reason she was sent to this odd boarding school in the first place, was less than fully developed, not to mention being a less-than-concerned mom for subjecting her daughter to such freaky and possibly life-threatening escapades. We felt the plotting was disorganized and difficult to follow. One reader said it had, "not enough substance and too much flash." And -- to top it all off, when we reflected on the whole story, we realized that it was Toby, a schoolmate, and not Abigail, who 'saved the day' each time with the help of his genius technological gizmos. We felt that the 'heroine' of a story should be a true heroine. Abigail wasn't.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN by John Green and LIBBA: THE MAGNIFICENT LIFE OF ELIZABETH COTTON by Laura Veirs

We all had some good things to say about our novel, Turtles All the Way Down by John Green. We all liked the spotlight it put on mental illness, specifically OCD, and the way it described Aza's continual struggles with trying to lead a normal teenager's life, while feeling like her body was contaminated and coping with the constant negative thoughts that wouldn't leave her alone. We noted that the author has suffered with the same condition for years, and we felt this was his way of alerting readers to what it felt like. We liked the way her friendship with Daisy was developed, but some readers were not so happy with the way that Aza and Davis, her young male friend, communicated. A couple of readers who were John Green fans were disappointed, and felt that this story did not live up to the standards of some of his earlier books. We all agreed that the whole story of the mystery of Davis' missing father was so convoluted that it took away from the main story of Aza, her life, and her friendships, and that the final solving of the mystery was just weird and unnecessary.


We all loved the illustrations by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh in our picture book, Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten by Laura Veirs. We were happy that the story of Libba, a self-taught musician and song-writer, was brought to the fore, but we found some 'nits' in the reading. We liked the lyrical quality of the text, but we felt there were gaps in the story: the way it jumped from her childhood to her adulthood; the way that, even though music was a huge part of her existence, she didn't play her guitar or sing for years. We also found the transition from her work as a store clerk to becoming the maid for the Seeger family uncomfortable. We saw a huge discrepancy in the story itself compared to the 'Back Matter' provided by the author which provided many more details, including the fact that growing up as an African-American in Mississippi in the early 1900s was quite difficult. We thought this and other facts would have created a better understanding on the part of young readers as to what Libba's life was really like.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

THE CAMBODIAN DANCER by Daryn Reicherter and THE FIRST RULE OF PUNK by Celia C. Perez

At our last meeting we discussed our picture book, The Cambodian Dancer by Daryn Reicherter, first. Two readers really liked it a lot. They felt that a very simply-told text was used to explain to young readers (or listeners) how a young girl, Sophany, was driven to keep dancing even though chaos was breaking out all around her as Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge terrorized Cambodia during 1975-79. They felt it spoke to her courage and dedication to dance throughout her life, even after migrating to America as an adult and continuing to teach Cambodian dance to other young girls. We all mostly liked the illustrations, especially the ones that showed the dancers' hands and outfits, as well as the shadow puppets, but we felt there were some inconsistencies with the visual portrayal of Sophany, who looked like a different person in different illustrations. One reader who had been to Cambodia, and had actually seen many of the ruins illustrated in the book felt that there were several inaccuracies. Many of us felt that the text was too simple, and didn't really say much other than the fact that Sophany loved dance. We thought that the part where she saw herself as a shadow after the atrocities occurred would be confusing for children. We felt that the Author's Note at the end of the book, which might have been very helpful, did little to provide additional information.

We all liked our novel, The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Perez a lot. One reader stated that she wished there had been books like that when she was a young teenager. We liked the fact that Ma Lu's parents, though divorced, had an amicable relationship, and that both were involved in their daughter's life in a positive way -- each focusing on different strengths and talents she had. We thought the portrayals of the various young characters, their dialogue, and their middle-school interactions were very realistic, and we also felt it was a good depiction of a mixed Latina/Caucasian teenager who was just trying to figure out her place in the world -- encompassing parts of both of her inherited cultures. We liked the portrayals of the various adult characters also. We liked the illustrations of Ma Lu's 'zines,' where she expressed things she liked (or not) and things that were important to her. We thought that for all of these reasons young readers of today would like this very accessible story.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

AHIMSA by Supriya Keljar and HER RIGHT FOOT by Dave Eggers

We felt that Ahimsa by Supriya Keljar, the story of 10-year-old Anjali and her family in 1942 as India was fighting for it's independence from British rule was important, but that this particular book left a lot to be desired. We all agreed that it was quite preachy and didactic, not so beautifully written, and plot-driven rather than character-driven. In fact, many readers said they felt absolutely nothing for the main character or her parents and friends, even though their life was a series of trials and tribulations, and a couple of readers couldn't even finish it. We all agreed that it provided a good glimpse into the culture of that specific Indian village, as well as details of some of the unrest, discrimination and other political situations that occurred there. Although the Author's Note at the end provided some additional information about the struggle, we felt that some more specific back matter -- a Timeline, for example -- would have been helpful to young readers who had no awareness of this segment of history. An important story, but sadly -- not well told.
All but one of us loved our picture book, Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers, although a couple of readers felt that it was far too long (104 pages) for a picture book, and could have used some tightening up in the editing process. We mostly loved the humor in the telling and the illustrations showing the diversity of Americans and the history of the Statue of Liberty and the details of her right foot that show her literally 'walking out toward the sea' to welome the newcomers with her torch. We felt that this was an important message for these times, and that the book provided a good starting point for talking about the meaning of immigration and of America's promise to the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." We liked the photos at the end that showed the actual monument and the plaque containing Emma Lazarus' famous poem.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

GHOST by Jason Reynolds and THE ANTLERED SHIP by Dashka Slater

We had a small but vocal group at our last meeting. We began with the discussion of our novel, Ghost by Jason Reynolds. Everyone found something to like in this story of a young boy becoming involved with track running in order to help him forget a bad experience in his life as well as to prepare to become a great basketball player. We all liked how the story developed as he learned many things about himself--getting along with others, discipline, being honest, and receiving consequences for his mistakes. A couple of readers loved the book; others liked parts of it, but felt that some of the language was confusing: changing from vernacular in the dialogue to quite literate prose (in 'Ghost's' voice) as he described what was happening. Some also felt that all of the adults portrayed were just "too good," and that this wasn't realistic. We all agreed that this book served very well in the role of "a mirror and a window" -- a story where black youngsters like 'Ghost' could see themselves and their community reflected in the story, while others could learn about a community about which they might have no knowledge or experience. Upon learning that this book was the first in a series of four books about different members of 'Ghost's' track team, a few people expressed desires to read the other three books also. We commended the author on his compelling storytelling.

Stunning, gorgeous, exquisite -- we could not find enough adjectives to describe the magnificent illustrations in our picture book, The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater and illustrated by brothers Terry and Eric Fan. We loved the intricate details of the ship, the expressions on the animals faces, the geographical elements, and the various 'props' that were included on the animals' sea voyage in search of a 'wonderful island.' The story however, was another matter. A couple of readers loved it. One (a traveler) loved the aspect of how travel is always a learning experience. Another said she couldn't wait to have a grandchild to whom to read this story. But some of us felt the story would not be so interesting to young children as a read-aloud since it had issues that seemed too obscure, and generally just fell flat. And so it goes...