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, March 25, 2021

I TALK LIKE A RIVER by Jordan Scott and FRANKLY IN LOVE by David Yoon


We started with our picture book, I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott. It was beautifully read aloud to us by one of our members, and when she finished, we all just said, "Wow!" One member said the book was 'breathtakingly gorgeous,' and another said it was 'what a picture book should be.' We loved the quiet support the dad gave to his son who had a stutter, and felt self-conscious every time he had to talk in class because his words churned around in his head but just wouldn't come out of his mouth properly. When the two of them visited a nearby river, the boy realized that the gurgling, flowing, pounding, rushing sounds of the river were similar to the way he felt when he tried to talk. We loved the quiet kinship between father and son and the idea of connecting the boy's troubles to nature and all the kinds of movement of the river, which were beautifully depicted on a double-page foldout in the center of the book. We were pleased to learn in the Author's Note at the end that this was his own story, and an homage to his father. We felt the book was a wonderful read-aloud, but we weren't sure if it would be equally appreciated in the hands of a young reader. But -- regardless -- we all loved it.


We were equally enamored by our novel, Frankly in Love by David Yoon. We loved being in high school senior Frank Li's head as he tried to figure out his life. How could he be a good Korean son and a regular American kid at the same time? What does love really mean? How important was his best friend, 'Q', an African-American kid who was equally smart and nerdy? Which girl did he really love? -- very American 'Brit Means' or 'Joy Song', daughter of Korean family friends. What would be his future as a college student and a music designer? These and other questions made for many smaller stories in the total plot, which a few readers felt was a bit too long, but which was enjoyable reading, full of fun metaphors and humor, and provided a surprise ending. We liked how the story dealt with family relationships, work, racism, friendship, school, a mirror into the life of a Korean immigrant family, and how -- in life -- you never know what will happen because things keep changing. We felt that YA readers would love this book because of its accessibility, realism, and humor.

Friday, February 26, 2021

BEFORE THE EVER AFTER by Jacqueline Woodson and ANTIRACIST BABY by Ibram X Kendi


We were unanimous in our love of our novel, Before the Ever After told in short verse pieces by Jacqueline Woodson. We loved the voice of ZJ, a 12-year-old youngster whose dad, Zachariah 44, a famous professional football player, is deteriorating before his very eyes -- probably due to the many concussions he has experienced throughout his career...now known as CTE. We learned from the author's end note that in 2000,when this story takes place, little was known about this condition...fortunately, now that has changed. Everything about ZJ and his descriptions of his life felt real: his relationships with his mom and dad, the importance of music between ZJ & his dad, the love and friendship provided by "his boys" -- four guys who each brought specific skills and behaviors and support and fun and joy to him, his questioning and distrust of doctors, and his awareness of how things were changing almost from moment to moment and the feelings all of this created in his mind and heart. A couple of readers felt that it was "individual pieces," -- i.e.,1 or 2-page poems that could stand alone, and not really a story; but others felt that wasn't really an issue. We felt there was a strong connection between the situations ZJ described and the issues he was attempting to handle. We felt it would be very accessible to young readers, both because of the format, and the real voice of ZJ. One reader said it was, "breathtakingly beautifully written," and we all agreed. 


Our picture book for our February meeting was Antiracist Baby by Ibram X Kendi. Our first remark was "this is a book for adults, not young children."  We felt it was didactic; the language -- especially for an obvious read-aloud -- used vocabulary way beyond what even a brilliant young child might know; it wasn't a very smooth read. We couldn't imagine a young child being very engaged by listening to this non-story.
Some of us liked the illustrations better than others, and there were a few illustrations that we felt might be useful in iliciting responses and beginning discussions with children. We also felt that many of the suggestions in the 'back matter' could also be helpful. We agreed that a well-told story that would hit kids emotionally could do far more in creating positive attitudes about people who are in some way different. We were happy that authors are taking on this very important issue of helping children to become antiracist, but we all agreed that this book is not the one to accomplish it. We also agreed that people who "really need" this type of book are probably not going to ever pick it up.

Monday, January 25, 2021

DANCING HANDS: TERESA CARRENO PLAYED THE PIANO FOR PRESIDENT LINCOLN by Margarita Engle and RESTART by Gordon Korman


 We began our January discussion with our picture book, Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreno Played the Piano for President Lincoln by Margarita Engle (2019). Some of us thought this book was wonderful; and no-one actually disliked it. We all loved the colorful illustrations, and the way that they portrayed the mood of Teresa's story through the physicality and expressions of the characters and the depictions of the scenes. A couple of people were confused by the illustration of the Civil War soldiers, since it was difficult to recognize the difference between the Union and Confederate uniforms. Several of us also noticed the colorful little bird that appeared on many pages, and found it interesting when President Lincoln requested that 10-year-old Teresa play "Listen to the Mockingbird," even though she was miffed by the fact that the White House piano was out of tune, but we wondered why the bird wasn't on every page. Most of us liked the poetic language of the story, but one reader noted that there had been an abundance of similes, which she found somewhat jarring. We all liked the "Historical Note" that was actually shown on the back endpaper and we were all pleased to learn a story about a person about whom we had never heard, and felt that it would be a good story for young readers -- or -- as a read-aloud.


We all had positive things to say about our novel, Restart by Gordon Korman (2017), which tells the story of
 Chase, a 13-year-old boy suffering from amnesia after a bad fall, who was trying to figure out who he really was: the football-playing bully he had been before or the nice guy he was becoming now. We agreed that the writing, although not literally magnificent, was quite straightforward and accessible for young readers -- specifically middle-schoolers, the target age group. We felt that the story was plot-driven rather than character-drive, and we didn't really feel any true connection with any of the characters. But we did feel that it portrayed the angst and impulsivity of kids of that age as we read accounts by Chase's 'friends' and 'enemies' and learned of the events of his 'before' and 'after' lives. We all knew how it would end, and several of us felt that there were too many scenes to get through before arriving at the satisfying conclusion. We thought it would be a good kickoff for a discussion about bullying and the "nature vs. nurture" issue: could one's behavior really change in a situation like this? One reader who had not heard of Korman before was now eager to read all of his books, and to introduce them to middle-school students...so that is a good thing!


Thursday, December 10, 2020

BUNNY'S BOOK CLUB by Annie Silvestro and PRAIRIE LOTUS by Linda Sue Park


We began with our picture book, Bunny's Book Club by Annie Silvestro. We all loved this book for the following reasons: 1) the poetic, flowing, clever, sometimes alliterative language; 2) the warm and loving illustrations which fit the story perfectly; 3) the fact that it was a perfect read-aloud; 4) the titles of the books that each animal chose to check out from the library; and 5) because anything that encourages young children to become readers is a good thing. That pretty much says it all.


For our novel, Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park, we basically all liked it, with a few caveats. Some readers felt that this re-imagining of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder was a bit didactic, as the author tried to 'right some of the wrongs' from the historical series. A couple of readers felt that the language was a bit too sophisticated for the protagonist, Hanna, a bi-racial Korean-American 14-year-old girl who had migrated from Los Angeles in 1888 to the Dakota Territory with her white father after her Korean mother had been killed in the Chinese Massacre of 1871. We loved the stress on the importance of school and reading, and the many mentions of the wisdom Hanna remembered from her deceased mom. We liked Hanna's bravery, her growth as she found her own voice, and learned to deal with bullying, racism, communicating with her dad, and the work it would take to reach her own goal of becoming a dress designer and seamstress for the town in which she lived. We also liked the role of the teacher, who, though seemingly nonjudgmental, ultimately acted in ways that were very helpful to Hanna's endeavors. One reader was enchanted by the title, but then became disappointed that was an "issue book." Some felt that Hanna's 'inner voice' was great, and really felt for her, while others were not moved by Hanna's voice at all and felt that it didn't really come from her heart. A couple of readers thought there were too many scenes that could have been more fully developed. We all liked the Author's Note at the end, where Park explained why she undertook the writing of this story, as well as all of the first-hand research she had done related to Native tribes, their language and culture, and Asian-Americans who settled on the Prairie in the late 1800s. We thought it was an important book, and look forward to a Native American writer perhaps creating another version of this time and place in history.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

SCHOOL'S FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL by Adam Rex and INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS by Dusti Bowling


We started with our picture book School's First Day of School by Adam Rex (2016). We all had generally positive feelings about this book. We all loved the voice of the newly built Frederick Douglass Elementary School, who was trying to figure out why he was even there. His morning and afternoon conversations with Janitor, helped him to figure out what a 'school' was and what he was supposed to be and do. We liked how his 'personality' evolved, as students arrived and went through their first day, where he also learned a few things, played a couple of tricks on the students -- a fire drill and a water squirt -- and felt empathy for a little freckled girl who didn't even want to be there -- but by the end of the day changed her mind. One reader felt that the beginning and ending were somewhat 'flat' but she liked the middle and main part of the story. A couple of other readers felt that the ending was quite abrupt and unsatisfying. We all liked the illustrations showing a multicultural group of children a lot, and one reader pointed out that reading the book and looking carefully at the illustrations several times made her notice new details in the pictures each time. All things considered, we all basically liked the book and felt it would be a great read-aloud for a new kindergarten class on the first day of school, and could help children to compare their own feelings with those of 'the school' as well as the students in the story.
We had mixed feelings about our novel, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling (2019). We felt that it was an important story, since it dealt with the main character, Aven, who was born armless and had been adopted, and her two best friends, one of whom had Tourette's Syndrome and the other who was dealing with obesity. These are areas not frequently handled in most middle grade fiction, and we thought that the story could provide good information for young readers about differences, acceptance, self-reliance,and friendship. But we also felt that some of the text that described the kids' different situations was a bit too 'explanatory' and didn't add much to the emotional feeling of the story. We all agreed that this story's strength was in the characters -- not the plot. One reader was disappointed that it was not really about a cactus, but she kept reading it anyway. We felt that as a story, the plot lacked moments of real excitement or intrigue, even though there was a mystery that the main character, Aven, wanted to solve, and even when she solved it, there was minimal emotion, and it almost didn't really matter. We all agreed that the plot could have been developed better, and that it could have been a 'dynamite' book -- but, sadly, it wasn't.
 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

TODOS IGUALES/ALL EQUAL--A Ballad of Lemon Grove by Christy Hale and SCARY STORIES FOR YOUNG FOXES by Christian McKay Heidicker

We began our October discussion with Todos Iguales/All Equal -- A Ballad of Lemon Grove by Christy Hale (2019), the story of the first successful school desegregation case in the United States in Lemon Grove, CA in 1921. We all agreed that this narrative of Roberto Alvarez -- an excellent student -- who, along with his other Mexican-American schoolmates was denied access to the local public school, and sent instead to an "equal" (but actually quite inferior) school for Mexican students, was an important story that had to be told. We felt that it was a good companion to a book about a similar case in 1947, involving Sylvia Mendez in Westminster, CA, Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh. We loved the illustrations which were brightly painted and reminiscent of the labels on the wooden crates of citrus fruits that were used in the 1920s-1940s. We also liked the pictures of the various children, and especially liked the several pages of  'Back Matter,' which presented photos of the actual people involved, more details about the case, the school board, the judge, the decision, maps, quotes, etc. What we felt was missing from this book was emotion...it was told in alternating sections of English and Spanish in a very straight-forward journalistic manner, and attempted to include too many details, while neglecting any real evidence of the feelings of the children (and their parents) involved in the lawsuit, which they finally won. We were also a bit confused by the fact that the book was based on a Corrido -- a traditional Mexican-style ballad about a historical event -- the music and lyrics of which  were produced in their entirety on the first two pages, but never mentioned again. We wished that the text of this important book had been wonderful and compelling, but we were still happy that it had been created, and we felt it had an important place in classrooms, both in 3rd-5th grade, and even in middle or high school when the issue of school desegregation was a topic of discussion as a part of the Social Studies curriculum.


Our feelings about Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker ran the gamut from, "I loved it" to "I couldn't finish it." Readers who loved it loved everything about it: the writing, the fact that -- although a fantasy -- it depicted descriptions and facts about the behavior of actual foxes and the places where they live, and its connections to human emotions. Other readers felt it was hard to get 'into' it due to the confusing multitude of characters, the seemingly disjointedness of the events and hopping around between genres. A couple of readers who were normally not fans of any type of horror story were completely turned off by some of the violence, and couldn't even continue reading. We felt that there would be young readers who would probably love it -- either because they love animal stories or scary stories or both, but that it wasn't a book for every reader.

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!