Around the World

My friend A~, with whom I share many aspects of taste in books (including getting reading material primarily from the public library), is not generally one for graphic novels. So when she has laid down money for one, and then put it my hands to tell me to read it, I do. (Even if I had to wait a few months for it to burble to the top of the pile.)

Around the WorldAround the World by Matt Phelan. Candlewick Press, 2011.
In the late 19th century, Jules Verne’s still-entertaining Around the World in 80 Days rocked the world with the idea that one could easily and quickly travel around the world. It was fiction when it was first written, to be sure – but could it be done? Phelan’s historical graphic not-a-novel recounts the stories of three real-life adventurers who made it around the world.

We first meet Thomas Stevens, a young Californian who used all the savings from his mining job to buy himself a Columbia Standard bicycle in order to ride across the United States. It was 1884, and the still-new invention cost $110, which an on-line inflation calculator tells me would be $2,444 in today’s dollars. He learned to ride the bicycle with its giant front wheel along the way, and decided when he got to Boston to continue his journey around the world – by ship across the oceans, and by bicycle across Europe and Asia.

In 1888, Nellie Bly, the already-famous intrepid reporter, decided to try to go around the world in 74 days, becoming in the process the first solo woman to travel around the world. Travelling with just a carpet bag, primarily by train and ship, she battled sexism, seasickness and storms. Her progress was anxiously followed by newspaper readers around the world.

Very different from these energetic young adventurers, Joshua Slocum was a widowed grandfather when, in 1895, he decided to sail solo around the world. His journey lasted for years instead of months, but was no less entertaining to read about.

As with Phelan’s 2013 book Bluffton, the story is illustrated in energetic pencil filled with soft watercolor washes. Phelan includes his sources, both the memoirs all three travelers wrote and more recent books about them. Nowadays we think ourselves the most modern generation ever – and while of course we are, it’s easy to forget how exciting and world-changing things like trains, bicycles and steamships were when they were first invented. Phelan’s book reignites that old excitement in a book that feels vintage while using modern picture storytelling and language to make it easily accessible to today’s readers. But if you’re giving this to a kid (and you should) you can leave out the important historical and educational aspects, and just tell them about the adventure. There’s plenty of it.

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Ivy + Bean (series)

IvyBeanIt’s a little disconcerting after a son who really only likes speculative fiction, but so far, my daughter seems to prefer realistic fiction.  It’s a good opportunity to reacquaint myself with the world of Ramona-like quirky girl protagonists.  We had previously listened to nearly all of the Junie B. Jones books by Barbara Park.  These were a big hit, but we had to reluctantly conclude that as funny as Junie B. is, our five-year-old wasn’t quite old enough to separate the funny-in-a-book naughty behavior from good to emulate behavior.

IvyBeanBoundtoBeBadSo, on to something else. We just finished going through all ten books of the Ivy and Bean series.  These are short books – one disc long on audio or a little over a hundred pages with lots of pictures in print.  My library’s early chapter book section has a strict cut-off of 100 pages, which puts these in youth fiction instead – but if these aren’t early chapter books, they’re the very next baby step up, and perfect for my five-year-old, who’s just getting used to listening to books that can’t be read in a single sitting.  We listened to all but one of these on audio, and I read her the last one aloud because my library’s audio copy had gone missing.  (It’s now back, of course.)

Ivy + Bean
by Annie Barrows. Illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Read by Cassandra Morris
Chronicle Books (print) and Recorded Books (audio), 2006.
Ivy + Bean and the Ghost That Had to Go, 2007.
Ivy + Bean Break the Fossil Record, 2007.
Ivy + Bean Take Care of the Babysitter, 2008.
Ivy + Bean: Bound to Be Bad, 2008.
Ivy + Bean: Doomed to Dance, 2009.
Ivy + Bean: What’s the Big Idea?  2010.
Ivy + Bean: No News Is Good News, 2011.
Ivy + Bean Make the Rules, 2012.
Ivy + Bean Take the Case, 2013.

Bean is an outdoorsy, active play kind of girl with a disregard for all things girly and bookish.  That’s why she’s always ignored her mother’s suggestion that she should be friends with that prissy Ivy across the street, who always has her nose stuck in a book, just because they’re both seven.  But when circumstances push them together, Ivy and Bean discover that they really do have a lot in common.  They set off on a series of adventures that involve playing pranks on Bean’s mean older sister, Nancy, as well as playing with the other kids in their second-grade class and on their street, Pancake Court.  (Pancake Court seems to be relatively diverse – my biggest quibble with the series is that all the diversity is kept to the sidelines.) Through subsequent books in this lighthearted series, their adventures range from trying to find a way to set a world record to convincing adults to care about global warming to opening up a PI office.  Sometimes they are on the side of chaos, sometimes of order, but they are always entertaining.

ivyBeanTaketheCaseCassandra Morris does an excellent job of reading with a variety of convincing little-kid voices and very clear diction – always, for instance, clearly separating the two “k” sounds in “Pancake Court”. This might sound trivial, but kids usually aren’t easy to understand.  Making the narration easy to understand while at the same time engaging and sounding like a wide range of kids is a feat for which I have the utmost respect. I really appreciated the illustrations in the one volume that I read aloud.  Sophie Blackall’s cartoony illustrations have expressive faces that really convey the characters’ emotions and add to the fun feeling of the series, even when the characters are clearly upset.

This is a deservedly popular series, perfect for both reading aloud and reading to self for kids new to chapter books.  It’s obviously marketed to girls, but the humor makes it equally appropriate for boys interested in everyday sorts of adventures.  Even my ten-year-old son, usually interested in more epic fiction, laughed aloud to the books in the car and crept into my daughter’s room to listen when I read it to her at bedtime.

Other short chapter books my daughter has enjoyed include

We’re currently reading El Deafo by Cece Bell, which I’d guess to be aimed at a slightly older audience – but she is loving it anyway.

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Picture Book Round-Up

My sweet little girl is home sick today, with Daddy and Brother.  Before I left for work, the two children were curled up on the sofa together, with Brother doing his very best dramatic reading of The Last King of Ankor Wat for her.  Here are three more picture books she’s enjoyed recently.

noodlemagicNoodle Magic by Roseanne Greenfield Thong. Illustrated by Meilo So. Orchard Books, 2014.
I put this title on hold as soon as I saw it come into the library because noodles! My daughter would eat noodles every day if we would let her, and I knew she would love a story of magical noodles. The Chinese setting is a bonus. Young Mei loves to help her Grandfather Tu in his noodle shop. But when it’s time to make the special long-life noodles for the Emperor’s birthday, he says it’s Mei’s turn to do in. She’s not quite sure he’s right that she has the magic she needs to do it already, and asks the Moon Goddess for help. The watercolor illustrations are both beautiful and full of humor, while the text has some fun repeated onomatopoeias that make it work well for reading aloud. A whimsical cat and rooster made of magical curling noodles appear in almost every picture, which led us to pick this book for my daughter’s kindergarten book project. Our noodles didn’t want to twirl around as much as the ones in the pictures, but we had fun making cats out of spaghetti noodles and gluing them to a moonlit watercolor landscape! This is an entertaining story of finding your own strength, with lots of appeal for young noodle lovers!

normanspeakNorman, Speak! by Caroline Adderson & Qin Leng. Groundwood Books, 2014.
Watercolor and ink illustrations give this modern American story a traditional Chinese feeling. A boy and his parents adopt the saddest-looking dog they can find at the shelter, and fall in love with his enthusiasm and affection. When Norman doesn’t learn to follow the boy’s commands, he decides that Norman just isn’t very smart, but he loves him anyway. Then one day in the park, they accidentally learn that Norman understands Chinese! Once they start trying to learn Chinese themselves, so they can talk to him, they find new respect for Norman’s intelligence – but that still isn’t why they love him. It took my daughter a while to let me read her this book, but she loved it once she did, and insisted I read it to her class. There, I was very lucky that there was a Chinese-American girl in the class to help me with the Chinese phrases in the book. I’m not sure that a Chinese-language dog counts as a diverse protagonist, but it’s a heartwarming book with a valuable, not-preachy lesson on the challenges of learning a new language and the really important things of life.

isthereadogIs There a Dog in This Book by Viviane Schwarz. Candlewick Press, 2014.
Tiny, Moonpie and Andre from There Are Cats in This Book and There Are No Cats in This Book are back! But there seems to be an intruder in their book/house – and who would want a rambunctious dog around? As before, the cats beg the reader for help lifting flaps and turning pages to help find the stranger and keep the cats safe. This is more silly, interactive fun, with a gentle message on getting to know people before passing judgment. It’s maybe not as wildly creative as the first two in the series, but was still very popular both at my house and in my daughter’s K/1 class.

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Sword Book Blitz with Giveaway

Sword Book Blitz

Dear readers, I don’t think I’ve ever participated in a book blitz before.  But I read something from Amy Bai on John Scalzi’s blog, and she had me hooked at “inspired by Aerin-Sol”.  Even though I haven’t read the book yet, I hopped right over and signed up to participate.  Keep going for a summary of the book, author interview, and giveaways – one ebook copy just for readers of this blog, and an international giveaway of the print book plus goodies for all the book tour stops combined.

Sword by Amy Bai 

Publication date: February 10th 2015
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult


Sword shall guide the hands of men . . .

For over a thousand years the kingdom of Lardan has been at peace: isolated from the world, safe from the wars of its neighbors, slowly forgetting the wild and deadly magic of its origins. Now the deepest truths of the past and the darkest predictions for the future survive only in the verses of nursery rhymes.

For over a thousand years, some of Lardan’s fractious provinces have been biding their time.

Kyali Corwynall is the daughter of the Lord General, a child of one of the royal Houses, and the court’s only sword-wielding girl. She has known for all of her sixteen years what the future holds for her–politics and duty, the management of a House, and protecting her best friend, the princess and presumed heir to the throne. But one day an old nursery rhyme begins to come true, an ancient magic wakes, and the future changes for everyone. In the space of a single night her entire life unravels into violence and chaos. Now Kyali must find a way to master the magic her people have left behind, or watch her world–and her closest friends–fall to a war older than the kingdom itself.




Amy Bai has been, by order of neither chronology nor preference, a barista, a numbers-cruncher, a paper-pusher, and a farmhand. She likes thunderstorms, the enthusiasm of dogs, tall boots and long jackets, cinnamon basil, margaritas, and being surprised by the weirdness of her fellow humans. She lives in New England with her guitar-playing Russian husband and two very goofy sheepdogs.

Author links:

AmyInterview with Amy Bai

1) What is your novel about?

Sword is a coming of age high fantasy about a girl pretty much at odds with everything, including and especially herself. It’s set in a fictional kingdom called Lardan, one with a long history of magic and war, and a population so complacent they’ve forgotten that either one ever applied to them. They learn differently when history begins to repeat itself: there’s an uprising, the kingdom is thrown into civil war, and the royal family, of which my main character Kyali is a satellite member, is murdered. Kyali, her brother, and the princess are forced into exile with a small army of refugees. Kyali was badly hurt during the uprising, and comes out of that a changed person; unfortunately for her she’s now the only person with the training to command what is left of the army, and her friends need her.

Sword is her story, how she learns to deal with what happened to her without shutting out the people she loves, and with the responsibilities she has to shoulder now that the older generation is dead and the kingdom is overrun. It’s about loyalty and love, fate and family and politics. It’s also violent, occasionally sarcastic, and unabashedly sappy.
2) What inspired you to write the story?

I had a very sullen young woman with a battered old sword and no patience kicking my frontal lobe. As motivators go, it was a pretty good one.

–Ok, so that’s a little dramatic, but really not too far from the truth (except the part about the frontal lobe, of course). Kyali Corwynall started out as a patchwork of some of my favorite characters from books like Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, and Patricia McKillip’s Cygnet, going all the way back to Barbara Helen Berger’s Gwinna, which I read when I was seven. My brain is like cosmic flypaper: the stuff I like (or hate) sticks, accumulates, eventually acquires a gravitational field, and before I know it light’s bending around it and I’m up at 3 am mainlining coffee and my keyboard’s broken. Sword was like that. One day I had scattered pieces, and the next I had a character with layers, flaws, goals, scars, and a complicated history. Stories always start that way for me, no matter how cool my premise may be (or how cool I may think it is, anyway) –my characters inspire and drive it, start to finish.

3) Since your novel is medieval-influenced, can you tell us a bit about your researching journey?

Wow. How I’d love to give you a list of planned, organized steps I took. It would make me feel so much smarter!

But no. I stumbled into the research for Sword much like I did the story itself. I think my research began the moment I realized I had no idea how heavy a sword really was, or how hard it might be to wear armor and, you know, walk at the same time. I remember thinking writing fantasy would be easy (yes, feel free to laugh at me). It didn’t take long before I realized it was very, very obvious when I didn’t know what I was talking about. So I went from looking up Irish baby names online to running to the library after work to find the Focloir Scoile or The Book of the Sword. I eventually learned to restrain myself, because research can be a wonderful excuse for not writing when you’re stuck– but overall, it was great fun.
4) What’s your best revision tip?

Remember basic dramatic structure when you’re reading your draft(s). It definitely doesn’t always apply, and definitely shouldn’t always apply, but I’ve found it can be a great lens: I can look at the whole story, each subplot and character arc, each chapter, and each scene with that structure in mind, and I’ll always find something to tweak. Or mangle. Or outright kill.

…Revision is a slightly violent process for me.


Win an ebook copy of Sword! Tell me about your favorite sword-wielding heroine in the comments.  This giveaway runs through midnight EST, February 26. You can (also or instead) use the Rafflecopter plugin to enter to win the grand prize package of a print copy of Sword with an extra short story, character sketches, and a poster.  The Rafflecopter giveaway ends February 26.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Once upon a time, I traveled to Germany for my junior year abroad. There, in addition to my regular university classes, I took one class from the school for outlander students, a look at German children’s literature. I read a great many enjoyable books in that class, even though the professor was one of those tedious types who thinks that fantasy literature needs to be a metaphor that can be explained away into normal reality. Momo was my favorite book, one that I soon found was also a favorite of my new German friends. I was scared off of ever trying an English translation, because the American in the class who’d tried to get away with reading it in English found it so different that she wasn’t able to follow the discussion in class.

So I went along, re-reading the book in German to myself every few years (until I loaned it to a German friend here who seemed to need it, and never got it back), but with no way to share it with my children, who don’t speak German. I was very excited when I heard of a new English translation, and very grateful to get my own copy for Christmas this year. Continue reading

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Cybils Winners Thoughts

Cybils-Logo-2014-Rnd1armchaircybilsAnd… the Cybils winners have been announced!  Hop on over to see the list of winners!  In my own category, the winner is The Luck Uglies – congratulations to author Paul Durham!!!

I’ve been trying to read through the finalists in several categories, as part of the Armchair Cybils, hosted by Amy at Hope is the Word.  And… well, I guess when I go back to trying to keep up with blog reading and stuff around the house and sometimes even eating lunch with my colleagues instead of just sitting and reading Cybils books, my reading pace goes down.  I’ll try to get longer reviews of the ones I haven’t reviewed yet later, but here’s a quick rundown on what I’ve read in the not-middle grade speculative fiction so far.  Continue reading

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Over at Netgalley

Today I’m over on the Netgalley blog talking about books for reluctant middle grade readers, my love for the Cybils award and more.  Thank you to Tarah of Netgalley for inviting me.  Go take a look!

And tomorrow… tomorrow the Cybils winners will be announced.

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3 More Cybils Spec Fic Nominees – Familiar Authors

Here are three more from my Cybils reading – only this time, books that were on my TBR list before they were nominated, as they’re from authors I’ve enjoyed in the past.

sevenstoriesupSeven Stories Up by Laurel Snyder. Random House Children’s, 2014.
In the 1980s, Annie goes with her mother to meet her dying grandmother, who lives in a grand, deserted hotel. Falling asleep to the sound of her mother and grandmother arguing, she wakes up in the same room in 1937. There she meets her grandmother again – now a young girl named Molly, who’s confined to her room because of her asthma. Careful not to let her grandmother know who she really is, Annie nonetheless convinces Molly to sneak out of her Lonely Room and explore the city and the hotel. But the longer she stays, the more trouble she has remembering her modern-day self. Can she figure out a way to get back to her mother? This is a sweet story filled with adventures of the everyday sort. It has lots of appeal for those who like gentle historical stories and would be perfect for girls graduating from the American Girl books. Snyder is also the author of the independent book Bigger Than a Breadbox.

rosemagiciansmaskRose and the Magician’s Mask by Holly Webb. Sourcebooks Jabberywocky, 2014. Published in the UK by Orchard, 2010
In book three of the stories about Rose (which was a Cybils mgsf finalist last year), an enormously powerful magical mask has gone missing from the palace, clearly stolen by the magician who caused the unnatural winter in Rose and the Lost Princess. When visions reveal that he’s hiding in Venice, the city of masks, her master, the king’s alchemist Mr. Fountain, his bratty daughter Bella and Rose’s fellow apprentice all head off for Venice. The great masked ball at New Year’s Eve is an event of great power that will seal the mask to its new owner if they can’t retrieve it in time. Somehow, everyone seems to think that Rose and her heritage – still a mystery to her – is central to these happenings, even as Rose is determined to be satisfied just being herself. There are new depths and hints of revelations to come about both Rose and Bella in what is still a highly satisfying series. It has lots of appeal for kids (both boys and girls, despite the covers) on the younger end of the middle grade spectrum, while the story is compelling enough to appeal to adult readers as well.

minionMinion by John David Anderson. Walden Pond Press, 2014.
Minion takes place in the same world as Anderson’s Sidekicked, which I read and loved last year because it was also a Cybils mgsf finalist. Our protagonist, Michael Morn, was raised by nuns until he was adopted by a mad scientist employed by various supervillains and crime lords. Only his adopted dad and his best friend know of his superpower, the ability to push people’s thinking in the direction he wants it to go. This comes in very handy when he needs to help his dad rob a bank or a store so they have enough money to pay the bills. His adopted father does everything he can to raise Michael right aside from the accomplice in crime as needed bit, including keeping his ability secret from the both of the crime bosses that battle over New Liberty. Michael and his best friend, Zach the human porcupine boy, enjoy visiting the mall to look for girls. But Michael is surprised when he actually meets one: Viola, a girl with a laugh like an arpeggio. Life gets much more complicated very quickly when New Liberty is plagued both by a rash of aggressive masked bad guys and its first, equally aggressive superhero. This is a compelling, ambiguous book about a boy searching for right in a world of grays. There are several scenes of violence, and the uncertain division between right and wrong makes it best for readers old enough to deal with that.

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Three Cybils-nominated MG Spec Fic Books

Friends, I am still trying to catch up with all the books I read for the Cybils back in December. These books deserve their own full-length reviews, but I’m keeping it brief in the interests of getting them out there.

onesafeplaceThe One Safe Place by Tania Unsworth. Algonquin Readers, 2014.
I’ve heard people, particularly those who prefer Literary Fiction, put down genre fiction as formulaic. But playing inside a structure can yield some very good results – nobody knocks Shakespeare for sticking with that sonnet rhyme scheme. This book clicks off down the dystopia checklist, missing only the love triangle (mercifully, especially for middle grade.) The result is a twist on the dystopia that has all the elements to appeal to fans, while still engaging with fresh twists and characters. The One Safe Place features a protagonist with synesthesia, a world with a sharp divide between rich and poor, and the formerly homeless children who endure unspeakable horrors in the picturesque Gabriel H. Penn Home for Childhood in the hopes of being adopted someday. This is nice choice, especially for middle grade dystopian fans.

orphanandthemouseThe Orphan and the Mouse by Martha Freeman. Drawings by David McPhail. Holiday House, 2014.
After a rather gruesome opening, where a brave young father mouse is killed by a cat, our story follows an orphanage in 1949 Philadelphia as the first mouse’s brave widow befriends one of the orphans there, Caro. Together they rescue each other from their various perils – both of them much more extreme than you’d guess from the cover – and put a stop to some truly unsavory corruption from the orphanage’s headmistress. In a nice touch, the mice (fans of the book Stuart Little can understand human speech, but not vice versa. It’s a charming mystery-adventure story, and really too bad about the cover.

bogBog by Karen Krossing. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2014.
Bog is a young troll who watches his father get tricked by troll hunters into staying out past sunrise. After learning a Dark Secret about his past, he leaves to hunt down the legendary Troll Hunter. On his way, he makes a friend of the larger forest troll named Small, and is joined – much against his will – by a young human girl name Hannie whose abusive father has made her wish to be a troll herself. Together, the three race against the troll hunter looking for the nose stone from the legendary father of the trolls, Ymir, which is rumored to have the ability to turn stone back to trolls. A delightful adventure with a beautiful northern Michigan setting and just-right messages of confronting prejudice.

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Nuts to You

Look! The new Amelia Bloomer list is out!

Animal fantasy is not normally my thing, but this Cybils finalist avoided many of the usual pitfalls and was unexpectedly charming.

Nuts to YouNuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins. Harper Collins Childrens, 2014.
Some young squirrel friends are playing together, when their antics unexpectedly result in one friend, Jed, being carried away by a hawk. Watching closely, TsTs and Chai see him fall far away, and decide to try to rescue him. But as they try to follow the “buzzpaths” to find him, they witness a new danger: the loud machines that are destroying the forest around the buzzpaths. Will they find Jed? And will they be able to stay on task long enough to warn the other animals of the coming danger?

So in general (Mouseguard being the big exception), I don’t really care for the epic struggles of anthropomorphized animals. Nuts to You worked largely because the squirrels really feel like squirrels, and their struggles are eminently believable. They are wired to play and to look for nuts, and it’s really hard for them to stay focused on anything else, even things as important as rescuing their friends. (That might make this a very relatable choice especially for kids with ADD!) And while part of the forest being chopped down isn’t the ascent of an evil wizard or the end of the world, it is the perfect scale of danger to be terrifying to a squirrel. I also appreciated the squirrel names, which sound so very much like the noises that squirrels make – especially TsTs and the new friend they make, Tchke. The pencil illustrations complement the story perfectly. It’s a story of drama, adventure, and friendship balanced with squirrel silliness that feels both exotic and familiar.

See also reviews from fellow Cybils panelists Charlotte at Charlotte’s Library
Sondra at Sonderbooks
Sherry at Semicolon

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