Some Few Books to Be Chewed and Digested

Below we offer a rundown of three titles to share with loved ones, and, given the givens of 2020, not a one deals with sleigh bells or other traditional trappings of the season. Yet each is a reminder that hope remains a powerful antidote to overwhelming despair. Hang in there folks, and stay safe.

For young adult fans of historical fiction: The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep: Voices from the Donner Party, by Allan Wolf, Candlewick Press, 416 pages, $21.99.

From the author whose previous books explore, among other things, the sinking of the Titanic and a teenage murderer, you may be wondering how on earth this title makes an appropriate holiday gift. Trust me when I tell you that this chillingly poetic account of the ill-fated 19th-century Donner Party expedition is perhaps one of the most intriguing and expertly crafted stories to appear between hard covers this year. With the voice of Hunger serving as a sort of Greek chorus interspersed among multiple narrators, there’s more to this tale than mere hunger pangs–it is a bone-chilling examination of love, ambition, and blind faith in manifest destiny, all based on Wolf’s near-obsessive research on the subject, as evidenced through the accompanying historical notes, biographies, and further resources. No detail is spared, while middle-grade readers will finish the book pleasantly surprised that they devoured a novel written almost entirely in verse.

For adult offspring: Offerings: A Novel, by Michael ByungJu Kim, Arcade Books, 288 pages, $24.99.

Michael Kim’s debut novel draws heavily from his thirty years of experience in the world of international finance wherein a brilliantly woven narrative explores the simultaneous pull of family loyalty versus duty to one’s profession. Here, during the throes of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, Korean-American immigrant and now genius investment banker Dae Joon–known as Shane to his American compatriots–is summoned to his birthplace in a bid to save the country from financial ruin. As the family jangnam, or first-born son, Dae Joon was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the ranks of academia, but the siren song of Wall Street proved irresistible. While Dae Joon toils relentlessly to save the Korean economy from collapse–and, as it turns out, unravel a sordid tale of financial corruption–a mysterious illness threatens the life of his father. Throw in a mysterious romantic interest, and there’s plenty competing for Dae Joon’s time and attention, each creating a cohesive story that’s all but impossible to put down. Offerings has–dare I say it?–a cinematic quality to it, no easy feat for a writer. Here’s hoping there’s a second offering in the works.

Courtesy of the Folio Society

For lovers of the great outdoors: The Complete Flower Fairies, by Cicely Mary Barker, forward by Roy Vickery, Folio Society, $149.95. Orders for Christmas delivery must be made by December 10 and 17 for standard and express delivery, respectively.

Struck with epilepsy as a child, South London native Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973) was homeschooled and honed her artistic talents via correspondence courses. By 1911, her watercolors and drawings were gracing postcards, and in 1923 the first book in a series illustrating seasonal flora appeared as Flower Fairies of the Spring. The internationally bestselling Flower Fairies eventually encompassed eight charming volumes that, nearly a century after their first appearance, are now being offered as a limited-edition set by Folio Society. Botanist and Honorary Secretary of the Folklore Society Roy Vickery provides a nuanced explanation of why this collection extolling the virtues of the great outdoors remains a perennial favorite, even among cooped-up urbanites worldwide.

Tomie dePaola Dead at 85

Sad news out of New Hampshire: on Monday, beloved children’s book author and illustrator Tomie dePaola died at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center due to complications following surgery for head injuries sustained from a fall in his barn last week.

Born in Meriden, Connecticut, dePaola delighted generations of children with his tales of kindly and cheerful characters such as the beloved titular witch in dePaola’s Caldecott Honor-winning Strega Nona: An Old Tale (Prentice-Hall, 1975). Over 15 million copies of dePaola’s 270 + books have been sold worldwide and translated into twenty languages. 

strega

In a statement, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu praised dePaola as “a man who brought a smile to thousands of Granite State children who read his books, cherishing them for their brilliant illustrations.” An outpouring of remembrances from authors and illustrators are popping up across social networks as well.

 

 

Thank You for Being a Friend: Abby Reviews Two Picture Books for Kids and Adults

Abby looks at two titles today: a new picture book for grown-ups set to the lyrics of Andrew Gold’s theme song for The Golden Girls, and Castle of Books, Alessandro Sanna’s  joyous introduction to the worlds waiting to be unlocked by the gift of reading. Both are uplifting celebrations of friendships and a reminder that we’ve all got each other’s back, even when going gets a little dark. Brighter days ahead–

castle

La Dolce Vita: Abby Reviews Paolo: Emperor of Rome

With Italy and its people in our hearts, Abby brings you Mac Barnett’s latest children’s book about a dog who yearns for freedom in the Eternal City. The book will be available March 31 in both Kindle and print format.

If you’ve never heard of Barnett, check out Barbara’s 2014 interview with him when the Caldecott winner spoke about what he called the literary bargain children happily make when choosing something to read.

 

Abby Launches Video Book Reviews for Kids

Ok, we’re all home, but we can keep boredom at bay with great books. Abby, our roving 5th grade reporter, has stepped up with video book reviews for kids of all ages. Accompanying each review will be pertinent data (publisher, price, etc.) and links to where books are available in both digital and print format.

Here is Abby’s welcome video for a series we’re calling, “Book Reviews from Inside the Hot Zone.” The Hot Zone refers to where we are currently located–that this, a stone’s throw from New Rochelle. Be safe everyone. We will get through this together.

 

 

Green Day

Mother Earth needs our help. Easier said than done, right? The challenges are enormous and it’s tempting to simply buy a reusable grocery bag and call it a day. But every little bit–including that reusable grocery bag–helps, and plenty of options exist to make the world a cleaner place. But where to start? According to Jen Gale in The Sustaninable(ish) Living Guide: Everything you need to know to make small changes that make a big difference (Green Tree, 296 $16), taking Draconian measures to “go green” aren’t necessary to make significant change. Gale knows, because she went to those extremes by undertaking an entire year without buying a single new item for her and her family, which she chronicled on her website. That experience, though difficult, revealed that she and her family (which included two young children) were capable of becoming more thoughtful consumers. But going whole hog isn’t for everyone, and this book grew out of a desire to permanently change her behavior without having to pull up stakes and move to Amish country.

Sustainable(ish) provides easy, achievable ideas on how to reduce consumption and help save the planet. Topics run to the usual suspects, like reducing food and plastic waste, as well as the more unexpected and thought-provoking, from an examination of the astounding amount of waste that goes into producing our clothes to how the most mundane of items, like markers and baby wipes, can be toxic for the planet.  Each chapter follows a similar pattern of laying out the statistics, providing Gale’s experience with the problem, and a series of suggestions for the reader to implement that become progressively more involved.

Engagingly optimistic, there is much here to help readers find their way to a cleaner, greener future, but financial stats provided in pounds and UK-based resources will leave many American readers wondering where to turn for further guidance, but that is easily remedied via a quick online search. Our choices matter, and Gale helps us take realistic action that will benefit the health of our planet and the next generation–in other words, this is the earth-friendly guidebook for all of us.

giphy

Brad Meltzer and Chris Eliopoulos Debut TV Series on PBS That’s Anything But “Ordinary”

The men who brought you the Ordinary People Change the World book series have created a TV show! Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum premiered November 11, 2019. I spoke with author Brad Meltzer and illustrator Chris Eliopoulos about how they paired up, why they like writing and drawing, and what they hope kids will learn from the new series.

Chris and Brad share a love of comic books, and got closer with the power of Twitter. Brad proposed they write a series, and Chris was happy to help. They’ve written dozens of books in the Ordinary People series since 2014.

You might be a bit curious about the name of the new TV series: Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum isn’t something you hear too often. As a kid, Brad always liked names with the letter X in them. Xavier is one of these rare few. He also loved riddles. Puzzling things out was a favorite activity of his. Hence the name, Xavier Riddle.

Brad was inspired to become a writer thanks to his ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Spicer. She told him he could write. Brad was dubious — he didn’t expect to be a writer. However, when he wrote his first book, he visited his teacher’s classroom, thirty years later, and said to her, “My name is Brad Meltzer, and I wrote this book for you.” The teacher started crying. When he asked her why, she explained that she was planning on retiring that year, because she didn’t think she influenced anyone. Clearly, she was wrong.

I Am Marie Curie

Brad picks his subjects with a particular characteristic in mind: “I always chose a hero, not because they’re famous, but because their life provides a lesson that I can give my own kids, and, truthfully, that I need myself.” The hero’s childhood is what strikes Brad as the most interesting for young readers. When talking about his biography of Amelia Earhart, Brad said that, “I loved the idea that there was this little girl, and everyone said to her, ‘You’re never going to be successful. You’re never going to be able to do what you want to do.’ And she just didn’t care. She just kept plowing forward. She wouldn’t let anything stop her. That’s the lesson I want for my sons, it’s a lesson I want with my daughter.”

Now let’s talk about the illustrator. Chris always knew he was talented at art, especially as a kid. “If you’d asked me back then, ‘Would you rather go to Disneyland or would you rather sit and draw pictures?’ I’d rather draw,” he said. He grew up a shy child, and Chris drew pictures to tell other people what he was feeling. “I would give these drawings to my parents, and they would read these stories and go, ‘Oh, okay, now we know what’s going on in Chris’s life.’” As an adult, he decided that he wanted to be a children’s book illustrator.

Brad and Chris work closely when it comes to the book or television creating process, as Chris explained: “Brad writes a script, and then sends it to me, and we talk about it a little bit, and then I go off and I draw the whole book out in pencil, so that everybody can see it. We decide if something works or doesn’t work. He’ll suggest things, or I’ll throw things in. Once everybody’s in agreement, I go back and I fix the things that need fixing, and I ink it up in ink, and then I send it back again. And then they all decide what looks good, what looks bad, what needs to be fixed. And then I go back and fix it, and then I color the whole book and I send it back.”

I Am Walt Disney Cover

Sometimes, the people in the books have a say in how the book will look. During the creation of I Am Caring: A Little Book About Jane Goodall, for example, Jane read the book and made Chris go back and re-draw over ten pages because she was holding hands with wild animals in the pictures, and she didn’t find that appropriate for children. Chris told me that it was tiring to go back and redraw so many pages, but, in the end, the book did turn out to be better!

When I told Chris that his work seemed to resemble the Peanuts cartoons, he replied, “They’re my favorite thing in the whole wide world!” he explained why he adored them: “Peanuts was the biggest influence in my life. When I was a little kid, my uncle owned a remaindered book shop — basically where all the leftover books went. I used to take all of the Peanuts books–I still have them here in my studio–and I would just read them, cover to cover, all the time.” As he got older, Chris discovered Calvin and Hobbes, a popular cartoon by Bill Watterson about a boy and his tiger. Look at Chris’s drawings: big heads, tiny bodies, strange squished faces. The Peanuts cartoons look quite similar.

Xavier Riddle aims to teach kids the same message that the books do: that kids, no matter what, can be extraordinary. Brad said that making sure these stories are exciting is important to keep kids interested: “If you remind kids that these aren’t the stories of famous people, this is what we’re all capable of on our very best days, suddenly kids will look and go, ‘tell me more about that.’”

Abigail C. Richter is a fifth grader and lives with her parents and two basset hounds in New York.