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, December 11, 2014

OPENLY STRAIGHT by Bill Konigsberg and LOCOMOTIVE by Brian Floca

 We had a wonderful holiday celebration dinner at our last meeting, and great discussions of our books. We started with the novel, openly straight (sic) by Bill Konigsberg. Two people really liked it a lot, and thought that it portrayed Rafe's struggles in a good way as he explored getting rid of the label, "the gay kid." A couple of people didn't enjoy it at all because of the 'kidspeak' which they found difficult to understand and which they felt got in the way of the story. None of us particularly loved the way Rafe's parents were portrayed -- it just seemed that they were too, too cloying and positive, and not at all realistic. We all agreed that it wasn't the best literary writing ever, but that it was certainly very accessible to YA readers, and that kids of that age could certainly relate to what Rafe was going through; it could either possibly mirror their own situations, OR they could learn something about someone who was different. We also agreed that it was probably difficult for a group of heterosexual women to have any kind of an accurate idea of how Rafe really felt, even though the author created scenes and situations to give us something to think about. 
 
 
In a rare unanimous moment, we all LOVED the picture book, Locomotive by Brian Floca. There were so many things to like: the illustrations were fantastic, both in their detail, and in the fact that they told a story of a family traveling across the country on the train. Details in the illustrations brought this 'story' to life, even though it wasn't specifically mentioned in the text. We agreed that it could be used on several different levels -- as a read aloud to younger children, due to the very simple text; as a source of a wealth of information about the trains heading to the site of the hammering down of "the golden spike," as well as about the inner workings of steam locomotives; and as a kick-off point for research in a variety of curricular areas. We were all happy to have had the experience of reading it.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Streak: How Joe Di Maggio Became America's Hero by Barb Rosenstock and Freedom Summer: the 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi by Susan Goldman Rubin

We had great discussions at our last meeting, even though there were only five of us. We all liked  The Streak: How Joe Di Maggio Became America's Hero by Barb Rosenstock, the nonfiction picture book about Joe Di Maggio for various reasons, although we were not all equally thrilled with the illustrations. Even a couple of people who dislike/know nothing about baseball liked this book. One of our members questioned the use of the words, "...America's Hero" in the subtitle, since she didn't feel that an athlete deserved to be labled such. However, as we talked about it more, and the time it occurred -- the summer of 1941, just before the U.S. entered into WWII, we agreed that Di Maggio's streak was something that truly brought the nation together. We agreed that it presented a short moment in history and baseball-lore in a great way, that it humanized Di Maggio, and that interested readers would probably want to read more about him. One person questioned why Di Maggio was held up to be such a hero, given some of his personal 'issues' (Marilyn Monroe, anyone?), but we ultimately agreed that this book merely dealt with his 56-game hitting streak, and that the rest of his life had nothing to do with this. We also liked the 'back matter' and the quotes that were shown on the endpapers. As for the illustrations: Some thought they were terrific, other's didn't. Some of us questioned the paintings' disproportionate visual portrayals of the athletes -- shown with small heads and upper bodies and huge, long legs. Others felt that the illustrations perfectly fit the story, and truly presented a picture of baseball at that time. We all agreed that it could work as a read-aloud, and that the illustrations could be easily seen and deciphered from a distance -- even with the huge legs!

For the longer nonfiction book we also had a wonderful discussion. We all agreed that Freedom Summer: the 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi by Susan Goldman Rubin, the story of the 1964 Goodman-Schwerner-Chaney murders in Mississippi was well-told, providing great detail about everything that happened leading up to the murders, and their aftermath. We thought the writing was quite journalistic, though very well done, and that the quotes from people who had actually lived through the various incidents added a human touch to the facts. Those who had previously known little about the Freedom Schools and the other Mississippi events of that era felt that this book truly presented a clear picture that increased their understanding. One person felt that there wasn't really a 'point of view' in the writing, even though it was excellently done. We all commended the author on her impeccable research, including the use of primary sources, and felt that the book presented essential information related to the Civil Rights struggle.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

THIRTEEN REASONS WHY by Jay Asher and MR. TIGER GOES WILD by Peter Brown

We had a small group and great discussions at our last meeting. We mostly thought Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher was a very important book for teenagers (and the adults who work with them) to read, since it portrayed how people's words and actions can have an affect on others -- sometimes a very negative affect. One person said she absolutely 'hated it,' and she felt it wasn't realistic for someone contemplating suicide to take the time to meticulously make tapes explaining the reasons, as well as to create a specific plan for their dispersal. We also felt that throughout the whole story we never really got to know Hannah or Clay or any of the other characters beyond the suicide-related issues. We did feel that it was good to read about Clay's remorse over not having said or done something to help Hannah, but we understood how a teen-aged boy's reluctance was probably quite normal and usual. We did agree that it was a compelling and engaging story, and we knew that many teenagers were obviously reading it as evidenced by the well-worn (and sometimes sticky!) library copies.

We all liked the picture book, Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown, although one of our members felt it was quite predictable and a bit didactic in its message of 'be who you are.' We loved the illustrations, which although quite stylized, provided many specific and humorous details when perused carefully, like the animals' expressions, their clothing, etc. Some of us saw a similarity between this book and Where the Wild Things Are. . .the abililty of the main character to go off and 'be wild,' and then to come back and be welcomed (even though Mr. Tiger's food wasn't still warm like Max's!!) We felt it was a great read-aloud, and that young children would probably like it and understand it.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

THE TREE LADY by H. Joseph Hopkins and THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE by Laila Sales

 We were not completely 'blown away' by The Tree Lady. We learned that when the author read it aloud at a writers' conference a few years ago it had been amazing, poetic, and very moving, but evidently some editorial changes had turned it into a very dry, completely nonpoetic entity which was somewhat of a grind to read. Several of us were very annoyed by the phrase, "...and she did" (or something similar) at the end of every page. We all liked the illustrations by Jill McElmurry a lot, and agreed that the book would be useful in a school setting to introduce a science unit on botany or to introduce the concept of biography to young students. We also felt that it did present good information on how the 'tree population' of San Diego, CA was created, and we felt that perhaps students who had interest in this subject might want to read more about it in more extensive works.  [The Tree Lady is the winner of the 2014 FOCAL Award.  Read more about the award and Kate Sessions (the tree lady) HERE.]

 As for our novel, This Song Will Save Your Life, we had very differing opinions. One of our members said it was only "mildly interesting," and that it was a chore for her to finish the book. Many of us questioned some of the plot points, i.e. the fact that (somewhat geeky) Elisa left her house late at night and walked alone to a local warehouse district where she frequented the weekly party there, and her otherwise seemingly engaged, though divorced, parents never had a clue as to what was happening. A couple of us felt Elisa's voice came through clearly, and we could really 'get' her feelings about being an outcast, her failed suicide attempt, her need for friends, her love of music, and her relationships with Vicky, Pippa, and DJ Char as well as her classmates and family members. Others felt that her voice didn't come through at all, and, in fact seemed more like what the (probably) 30+-year-old author was trying to project about her own feelings and reactions to the (usually pretty loud) music that is a big part of the story. And, for all of the specific songs that were mentioned, we never actually learned what specific meaning they each had for Elisa -- which would have been a big plus. ...and so it goes.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

ELIZABETI'S DOLL by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen and COUNTING BY 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Almost everyone liked something about our picture book, Elizabeti's Doll, and there were also things that various folks weren't thrilled about. Most of us thought the last line was completely unnecessary and actually distracting. We liked the premise of the book, and thought it was a pleasant enough story about a little girl with a new baby brother who needed something to care for herself and decided on a 'baby-sized' rock (her 'doll') who never cried, kept clean diapers, and slept well every night. One person thought it was kind of 'old-fashioned' (published in 1998) and might not even be published today. Another member strongly objected to the use of the rock as the 'doll,' since, as the size of the rock was depicted, it would have been way too heavy for Elizabeti to even lift. We did feel it was a good read-aloud, and that young children could certainly relate to its premise and would probably like it a lot.
 
 
We all loved the beginning of the story of Willow Chase in Counting by 7s. We loved being 'in her head,' and learning who she was as a person. But -- as the story continued on, most of us were less and less thrilled. A couple of people couldn't even finish the book. Although we agreed that all of the characters were very unique and well-written, we just felt that the premise that this 12-year-old, although very brilliant and highly-gifted, could accomplish what she did to bring a group of very quirky people together on her behalf. We just found many of the plot points to be completely unbelievable. One person said it sort of worked as a fairy tale, but she wasn't crazy about it. Only one person loved everything about this book. She loved the characters, the story, and the fact that it was all wrapped up neatly in a happy ending, which, she said, is so rare in many of today's novels for young people. 
 
...and it is the differences of opinion that make our meetings so much fun!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER by Kevin Henkes and SOPHIE'S SQUASH by Pat Zietlow Miller


Our discussion opened with one of our members saying that she did not have such great opinions of our novel, The Year of Billy Miller. She thought it had no plot, that nothing really happened, and, in fact, she was so bored with it that she couldn't force herself to finish it. The rest of us felt differently. Some absolutely loved it, others liked it a lot. We loved how it showed us the inner life of a second-grade little boy...the things he was worried about, and how he tried to take action where he could to fix the situations that bothered him. We liked how it was divided into four parts, which in a way mirrored the four seasons of the year. We felt like it was almost four separate little stories, each of which did have a plot and a conclusion. A couple of people thought that there were places where the vocabulary was too difficult for the intended readers (7 - 9-year-olds,) but others thought that good readers could understand the words through the context. We also liked the fact that it was Billy's idea that led to his father becoming a more successful free-lance artist. All agreed that it was a great read-aloud chapter book, and also a great first "long" book for beginning readers -- 240 pages!! (...in a large font) A couple of us also thought the character of Emma, Billy's nemesis, wasn't as well developed as it could have been...but maybe that's for a sequel!

Our reaction to our picture book, Sophie's Squash, was one rare unanimous vote of love! Everyone loved it! We all loved the story, the illustrations (especially the reactions on the dog's face,) the naturalness and believability of the events, how Sophie's loss of her beloved squash was treated, and how she acquired new "best friends." We liked the portrayals of the parents in both books: normal families dealing with everyday life in a loving and sensible way.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

NINO WRESTLES THE WORLD by Yuyi Morales and THE THING ABOUT LUCK by Cynthia Kadohata

At our last meeting we discussed the picture book, Nino Wrestles the World  by Yuyi Morales first. Only one person really liked it a lot. Everyone else -- not so much. Some folks thought that kids who had no experience or knowledge of Lucha Libre wrestling wouldn't have much interest in this book, even though they agreed that there was a good explanation at the end and detailed descriptions in the end papers of the various 'characters' that Nino vanquished. Most people liked the illustrations, but thought that there wasn't really a story. The lone dissenter felt that it was a good depiction of a little boy participating in imaginary play, winning his bouts with all of the bigger, stronger, 'wrestlers,' and then deciding that even though his two little sisters kind of scared him, things would be better if the three of them took on the world together.

There was no unanimity in our discussion of the novel, The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata. Although we all agreed that the author had done excellent research regarding wheat farming, (she actually had spent a great deal of time on a Kansas wheat farm) we weren't thrilled with her Michener-like detailed explanations of the whole process, and hoped we would never again meet another combine or thresher in a book! A few people loved the quietness and introspection of Summer, the main character. Others weren't so impressed with it. Some thought that she had knowledge beyond her twelve years, although at other times she appeared to be very young. Someone pointed out that this is pretty normal behavior for 12-year-old girls. We agreed that as a member of a migrant farm working family she had a very hard life. We also had a hard time figuring out what the character of Jaz, her brother, actually added to the story. Everyone loved Summer's grandparents, although some of us weren't so happy with the way their pidgin-English dialog was written. But we thought the fact that they both really loved Summer came through clearly. We also liked the fact that Summer accomplished the seemingly impossible task of driving a combine (or was it a thresher??) and that the young man Mick, whom she didn't like at first, actually came to her aid and became a friend -- one that she could relate to as an older brother. Finally, we couldn't figure out why the book A Separate Peace was so important to Summer as she tried to figure out her place in life.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Four books about Wangari Maathai: WANGARI'S TREES OF PEACE, PLANTING THE TREES OF KENYA, MAMA MITI, SEEDS OF CHANGE

At our last meeting we talked about three books, and were introduced to a fourth, about Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize-winning Kenyan woman who was responsible for the creation of the Green Belt Movement, whose goal is to plant trees in Africa.
 
We thought Wangari's Trees of Peace was a bit 'clunky' but we liked the colorful, almost-primitive illustratons. We felt the book would be useful to introduce young children to Wangari's life and work, but the amount of actual information about her was minimal, and there were many unanswered questions regarding how the men reacted and her time spent in jail.
 
Some of us loved the illustrations by Claire Nivola in Planting the Trees of Kenya because of their feeling of vastness as they showed how the trees were destroyed and then re-planted in Kenya. We also liked the additional specific information that was provided by the Author's Note at the end. We thought the story was acceptable, and gave good insight into the work that Wangari did for her immediate  community as well as the larger African landscape, and that it provided a good explanation of how important trees are to life.
 
 
We all agreed that Kadir Nelson's oil paint and fabric illustrations for Mama Miti were stunning, but we weren't all thrilled with the text. Some said it almost read like a folktale or a myth, and didn't really provide enough detail in the text of what really happened -- especially over a long period of time. We all liked the 'back matter' -- especially the Glossary of the Kikuyu names for the various types of trees, and the explanation of how Wangari's work embodied the idea of harambee, the act of working together for the community.
 
 
The fourth book, Seeds of Change, by Jen Cullerton and illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler, was read aloud to us by one of our members. We all agreed that its text actually presented the most information, especially about Wangari's childhood and early life as a young girl, and how she was able to go to school in Africa and then attend college in the U.S. before she returned to Kenya for her 'life's work'. We also loved the colorful illustrations, which were easily clear and visible from a distance when it was read aloud. Many of us thought that the text was a bit too long for a read-aloud, but that a student reading it alone would get a lot out of it. 
 
One of our members, a school librarian, stated that she had used all four books together with students, and that in this way they could compare and contrast, and they could get the most complete picture of the life of this amazing woman, who, sadly, died in 2011.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

THE DAY THE CRAYONS QUIT by Oliver Jeffers and DOLL BONES by Holly Black

In a lively discussion of The Day the Crayons Quit, our group found two areas of agreement. We all thought that the idea of crayons threatening to walk off the job – each for a different, quirky reason – was funny and original. We also agreed that the art was delightful throughout. In fact, we looked at several books by Oliver Jeffers and were universally charmed by his illustrations. According to a librarian source, kids find this book extremely funny, requesting it over and over again. We adult readers, while appreciating the humor, were more critical. Some of us felt that the book was all character and no story, and that the one bit of conflict the author introduced – the rivalry between the yellow and orange crayons – should have been resolved in the final image. Some found that the voices of the crayons were too similar, and that the protest letters they wrote were too long. There were times, too, when the author seemed to be stretching to find yet another reason for a crayon to be unhappy with its lot. On balance, though, the group’s response was positive, thanks to the cleverness of the concept and the appeal of the art.

Opinions on Doll Bones, a novel for children between 10 and 14, were similarly mixed. The story, about three kids who go on a quest to bury a doll they feel is haunted by a dead girl, appealed to many in the group. Although adventure and fantasy rule the plot, there’s a strong element of realism: a complex relationship between the three main characters, a fairly dark view of family life, and a subtle treatment of the protagonists’ awkward age – one foot still in childhood, the other dipping tentatively into adolescence. Some felt that the author trod this tricky line between realism and fantasy successfully; others weren’t so sure. One question involved the book’s level of scariness. These days, kids are actively looking for scary books, but this one is only intermittently spooky – maybe enough for younger readers, but too tame for 14-year-olds, or kids looking for a major thrill. Although the doll, the book’s scariest element, appears to move, and to create chaos, and to have the power to impose her will, some ambiguity always remains. We never really see her do anything. Also, although the main character is a boy and there’s much in the story that might appeal to younger boys, the doll at the center of the book makes it unlikely a boy would check it out of the library. Other criticisms involved flat writing, uneven prose (sometimes mundane, sometimes more elevated), and unrealistic plot points. Would kids that age actually leave home and take a bus alone at night? Could they get a stolen sailboat across a river, having never sailed before? Still, for those in our group who bought into the concept (the majority, by my count), Doll Bones was a compelling tale.

With thanks to Monique de Varennes for this month's post!