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 10, 2015

Evil Librarian by Michelle Knudsen and The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant

We had a delicious holiday dinner at our December meeting -- good dishes provided by all of the attendees. Big YUMS all around!
We discussed Evil Librarian by Michelle Knudsen first. Even though it won the SCBWI 2015 Sid Fleischman Award for Humor, each and every one of us kept asking, "...but what was actually funny in this book?" We'd love to have an answer from -- someone. Needless to say, we didn't love the book. We mainly felt that the story was very contrived, and that the main characters, Cyn and Ryan, were pretty much stick figures -- sort of like those that Annie might draw. We felt that we knew very little about them or their inner feelings, and it was just all very flat. Some folks said they got tired of Cyn's 'gaga over Ryan' narrative. We did actually feel that the portrayal of Annie may have been the strongest in the book. A couple of people said that they thought the descriptions of the supernatural occurrences were well written, and a strength of the book -- if the book had any strengths at all. Several people said that they couldn't even finish it. We also discussed why the author chose to have a school librarian (an endangered species!) be the 'bad guy'. Perhaps because this author also wrote Library Lion?....or -- was it purely an editor/publisher's marketing decision? If anyone who reads this blog can give some examples of humor in this book, we'd love to know!
As for our picture book, The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus, everyone liked it a lot; some of us loved it. We had quite a discussion about the illustrations (by Melissa Sweet), with some folks stating that the illustrations completely overpowered the text because of their details and power, while others felt that the text was very strong and stood up on its own as it described Roget's obsession with words and organizing them throughout his life. We liked the 'end matter,' and were amazed to learn of all of the other things Roget accomplished in his life. We agreed that it would be a great read-aloud in a school setting, to introduce students to the Thesaurus. We also felt that it would be a perfect companion to Jeri Chase Farris' Noah and his Words, which we discussed in February 2013 and unanimously loved. We all agreed that it was a neat book, and a great addition to the children's literature field. (Note: No Thesauri were killed in the writing of this re-cap!)

Thursday, October 29, 2015

REVOLUTION by Deborah Wiles and SEPARATE IS NEVER EQUAL by Duncan Tonatiuh

We had a small group at our last meeting, and we unanimously loved Revolution by Deborah Wiles. We felt that the writing was exemplary, especially the beautiful phraseology she used without in any way ruining the voice of Sunny, the main character. We liked how the story was told from two points of view as Sunny, white, and Raymond, black, described the events that happened in their own lives in Greenwood, MS during Freedom Summer in 1964 when large numbers of young organized workers, black and white, came to the south from all over the United States to register black voters and to organize freedom schools. Interwoven with this important story was Sunny's wish to find her long, lost mother, and her interactions with various members of her family, including a new stepmother. We thought the plotting was excellent, and that the many pages of primary source materials, including song lyrics, pamphlets, photos, and other ephemera were especially helpful in understanding the era. We liked the inclusion of short accounts of the contributions of Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson's accomplishments, the story of the friendship between Polly Spiegel and Dorothy Height, and a discussion of the Viet Nam War. We were not sure if average young readers would automatically pick up this 544-page book, but we felt that with good book-talking by a teacher or a librarian they might try it, and that once they were 'into' the story they would stick with it.

We had varying opinions on Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh. We all thought this story of the original school desegregation case in Orange County, CA in 1947 which was a precursor to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, was an important one that everyone should know. We agreed that the writing in this book was somewhat flat, although factual, as Sylvia Mendez's parents went to court so that Sylvia and her siblings could attend the 'white school,' which was in every way superior to the 'Mexican school' that they were forced to attend . . . not only visually, but also in terms of the education provided for the students. We were split in our opinions about the illustrations, even though they had won the Pura Belpre Award for illustration. Though he used art reminiscent of Mixtec codexes from Mexico, some of our members thought the illustrations were also flat and quite unexpressive, while others of us felt that they were excellent examples of Mexican culture and fit the story well. We felt that the book was certainly very accessible to young readers, and that they would learn a lot from reading it and possibly want to do more research on this issue.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Family Romanov by Candance Flemming and One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul

We had a wonderful meeting this week, accompanied by several Russian-themed noshes for us to savor as we talked. We could not heap enough accolades on Candace Fleming's The Family Romanov. From the opening pages with the map of early twentieth-century Russia, the family tree showing (a lot of) inbreeding, including Hemophilia carriers, the excellent collection of photos, and the first-person narratives from people who were actually there, to the 99-item bibliography including primary and general sources, we agreed that this book was a definite tour-de-force. We all agreed that the writing almost made it seem like a novel -- and a love story at that -- and that the moving between the tsar's life with his family in the various palaces and what was going on with the 'real people' in Russia at the same time was beautifully done. We were astounded by Fleming's research, and all but two of us loved the first-person accounts that were placed throughout as incidents unraveled. One of our members felt that perhaps Fleming could have gone into greater depth about what happened after the Revolution, because it seemed that there weren't that many actual changes in the lives of the common people. But we ultimately agreed that The Romanovs were the focus, and to get too much into politics would have spoiled that focus. All in all, we found it to be an ultimately fascinating book, and we gave it a unanimous (and rare for us!) grade of 'A'.

We had mixed feelings on the picture book One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul. We all agreed that it was a useful book for young kids: an easily accessible story about the importance of recycling and cleaning up one's environment and how one person can make a difference. We had some problems with the writing, although one of our members felt it was perfect and quite poetic. We thought there were some awkward transitions as the story progressed, and some things that didn't quite flow smoothly as Isatou Ceesay and the women of her village began to crochet little purses from the discarded plastic bags that inundated their landscape. We loved some of the illustrations, but not all of them. We felt that the difference between the very flat collage of the women's dresses clashed with the almost photographic portrayal of the women themselves and was at times jarring. We thought this might be a typical type of Gambian folk art, but it didn't resonate with everyone. Although it didn't receive an 'A' we were all glad we had read it, and we were glad to know that the women continue to create and sell the purses which has created an important income flow and benefit to their community, including a library!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

ECHO by Pam Munoz Ryan and ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER by Andrea Beaty

At our last meeting everyone liked parts of Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan, but only a couple of us truly loved all of it. We all agreed that it was quite an amazing undertaking for the author to write, in essence, three different stories, set in three different times and places, tied together by one old harmonica, and we commended her for that. Several people said they loved the first two stories, about Friedrich and Michael, but didn't love the final story about Ivy in the 1940s. They didn't feel it was realistic that she would receive the harmonica, and they thought the information about school segregation in Orange County at that time and the Japanese-American Internment during World War II was somewhat didactic, and didn't really add much to the story. Some also felt the final chapter, when the three protagonists met at Carnegie Hall in 1955 was just too cliched and unrealistic. However a couple of us loved everything about the book: the fact that it was very 'fairy-tale-ish' -- with things in threes, with magic, and with a happily ever after ending. We felt young readers would like that also, and that maybe today's kids need to read things with happy endings. We also felt that the information related to WWII was helpful, and would give readers some necessary information about that time in history which might spur them to do further research.

We all loved the illustrations by David Roberts in Andrea Beaty's Rosie Revere, Engineer. We loved all of the explicit details in each picture, even including Maurice Sendak's 'Wild Thing,' and felt it could serve as a read-aloud that would encourage young children to observe carefully and describe what they saw. But -- we didn't feel the same way about the writing, and no-one loved the attempt at the 'Seussian' rhyming. Everyone thinks they can be Dr. Seuss, but -- in reality -- usually they can't. We felt some of the rhymes were stilted -- and included wording to move the story along, but the end result in the rhymes was less than wonderful. We liked the idea of 'Rosie' figuring out that she could continue tinkering and building weird things, and could become who she wanted to become, but we thought the last page which showed everyone in her class building strange things was just kind of thrown in, with no prior explanation or introduction. So -- yaaayyyy for the illustrations, less so for the writing.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

THE UNDERNEATH by Kathi Appelt and I FEEL FIVE by Bethanie Murguia

We had a small group and an excellent discussion at our last meeting. We started with the novel, The Underneath by Kathi Appelt. We all thought the writing was quite phenomenal. One person said it was the 'best-written book' she had read since joining our group. Another said that although she basically loved the writing, Appelt's frequent use of the names of trees, animals, flowers, etc. in threes at the beginnings of many paragraphs became annoying. Another likened it to the flow of a river or a stream. Several of us thought it would be great to read aloud to a class, a few short chapters at a time. We also thought it had the rhythm of a Native American tale. We marveled at how the author was able to weave the plots of three different stories, including a 1000-year time difference, into this book. Several of us felt that Gar Face, the owner of the dog, Ranger, was just a despicable psychopath. We felt some of the descriptions of his actions were very difficult to read, and we wondered how kids might react to him. We agreed that some young readers might find him too hard to take for a variety of reasons. We also discussed the few black-and-white illustrations, and agreed that they didn't add much to the story -- except at the very end, where the silhouettes of the two cats and the dog were shown...happily' heading off into the sunset' after all of their travails. When all was said and done, we thought it was a quite amazing book.

As for the picture book, I Feel Five by Bethanie Murguia, we all liked it. We talked about birthdays, and whether one really feels different when that day is reached...even if it's a 'significant' birthday, like 15, 16, 21, 30, 50, etc. We agreed that for a little kid like the boy in the book there are huge expectations...especially on turning five and entering kindergarten. We liked the fact that the story began with his fourth birthday, and some of the same elements were repeated on his fifth, including the fact that he got ONE present! (Perhaps a message for many of today's overindulged kids?) We liked the ending when he felt 'bigger' after helping a friend get an apple from the tree. We felt it was a sweet story that little ones would enjoy, and we liked the illustrations also.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

A FINE DESSERT by Emily Jenkins and A TALE DARK AND GRIMM by Adam Gidwitz

We discussed the picture book first: A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins. We all liked it for various reasons, although one of our members felt the writing was somewhat flat, and lacked spark. We liked the illustrations, but we had some discussion of the little black horse that was shown on a shelf in each of the four households. Some people didn't notice it all, one person thought it would have been more effective in a more subtle color. We wondered whether the four families in the book were in any way related, since this little horse seemed to be passed town from generation to generation. Sadly, neither the author nor the illustrator made mention of this in their ending notes. We all agreed that it would be a great book in a school setting, since it delineated so many historical issues related to food preparation, slavery, and ways of living in the different eras and it could lead to good discussions and further research, but we didn't think that a kid reading it alone would enjoy it so much.
As for the novel, A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz, we also had mixed feelings. Some were annoyed at first by the interjections by the author in between the tales, but said that as the book went on they appreciated the comments. One person noted Freudian and Shakespearian undertones, which came as a surprise to us, but totally made sense. A couple of people were worried that some of the tales were just too gory, while others felt that kids would love that. We also agreed that the author gave sufficient warning when gore was approaching, so the reader could stop right there if they so desired. We agreed that it was a quite clever construction by the author to aggregate a group of tales about Hansel and Gretel, using the usual fairy tale elements, and that it followed the usual quest in fairy tales, ending with 'coming home and living happily ever after.'

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Paula Bunyan by Phyllis Root and Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Odell

We were a very small but enthusiastic group at our last meeting. We started by remarking on the fact that both of our books were stories of very strong young women who used their intelligence, initiative, creativity, and 'pluck' to do the things they needed to do to solve their problems and make life more bearable. We also liked the fact that in both books the main characters solved their problems by themselves without any adult help or intervention.

We all liked the picture book, Paula Bunyan by Phyllis Root. We thought it was a good 'takeoff' on the traditional 'Paul Bunyan' story, imagining what his sister might be like. We liked that it followed the parameters of a Tall Tale, and that Paula's amazing powers helped her to accomplish some 'very tall' deeds -- a true example of the exaggeration present in tall tales. We loved the illustrations -- both the full-page, full-color scenes on the pages opposing the text and the black ink drawings at the top of the text pages. We thought it would be great to expose children to this 'made up' tall tale (as opposed to one from the oral tradition) and to compare it with the Paul Bunyan stories.

We also had good feelings about our novel, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell. We had decided to read it to see if it stood up over time since it was originally published in 1960. We decided that it did. We felt that it was a great adventure story that both boys and girls would like, and that the portrayal of Karana, a courageous young girl who figured out what she had to do in order to survive living alone on the island could be inspirational to young readers. We also liked the detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna on the island and how Karana figured out how to use everything at her disposal to make her life safe, livable, and even comfortable. There was a question of whether the portrayals of Karana's tribe and of the Aleuts was accurate, but we agreed that given the pre-Internet time it was written the author had probably done the best research possible at that time. We also agreed that the writing was not the most magnificent prose ever created, but that it was straightforward and very accessible to kids, and given that Scott O'Dell had been a journalist prior to becoming a children's author, it made sense that this would be his writing style. A couple of our members said it belonged on their 'All-Time Best' lists.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

RAIN REIGN by Ann Martin and SCARECROW by Cynthia Rylant and SCAREBIRD by Sid Fleischman

Our meeting space was almost divided in half between 'loved it' and 'not-so-much' regarding Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin. Those of us who loved it felt the voice was authentic and sincere, and liked how Rose's obsessions with homonyms and prime numbers aided her in functioning in her somewhat complicated world of school, her distracted, confused single-parent father, and her love for her dog. We liked that she made an effort to make friends at school, even though she was so 'different' from her classmates, and how she used every bit of her talents and capabilities to find her lost dog, and then -- because she believed in 'following the rules' -- made sure that the dog was returned to its original owners. We felt it was a very touching story.

Some of our colleagues questioned the voice, and didn't think it rang true. They were also annoyed with the constant insertion of the homonyms or number sequences in the narration, and felt that was a distraction from the story. Several of our members had experience working with kids with Asperger's syndrome like Rose, and their opinions varied as to the authenticity of the voice. We discussed at length the role of Rose's father, and reacted to his final decision to leave for Rose's own good (and probably his, as well) and also her relationship with her uncle who seemed to be the only person who really understood her.

In our comparison of the two picture books, Scarecrow by Cynthia Rylant and Scarebird by Sid Fleischman, we agreed that Scarebird was the 'winner.' We felt that Fleischman's expert storytelling stood out, and that it was a heartwarming tale that children would like. A couple of people felt sad for the 'scarebird' who seemed to be abandoned when the real boy, Sam, came along to be a companion for the lonely farmer. But, all things considered, we all really liked it.

As for Scarecrow, although we all loved the illustrations, and how they showed the changing of the seasons on the farm, we felt it was a poem written more for adults than for kids. We didn't think children would 'get' the intent or even actually enjoy reading/hearing it. It was a very interesting comparison between two books on the same subject by two very highly respected authors.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson and THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN by Marla Frazee

We had a terrific meeting in January, and a quite animated discussion on our 'novel' (actually a memoir) Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. Even though this book garnered starred reviews in every library/book-related journal, and the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, the majority of our members in attendance didn't love it. Some were put off by the line breaks in the poetry; others said they didn't get a sense of how the author really felt as she experienced (as a child) some of the important moments in civil rights history as well as upheavals in her own family. However, a couple of us had a more positive take: one person said the book felt 'like a symphony,' weaving in and out and around a theme; another felt it beautifully pointed to the importance of family, teachers, words, stories, and books that went on to inform the author's desire to become a writer. Differences of opinion make for great discussions!
As for the picture book, The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee, our discussion started out with everyone saying it was 'cute' and 'pleasant' and a 'nice read.' But as we discussed it further, we began to agree that it was a much deeper story about the real meaning of family, friendship, loneliness, and love. We ended up all agreeing that it was indeed a terrific book, with wonderful illustrations by the author that portrayed the feelings of the story almost as much as the text did.