Monday, September 22, 2014

Conversation’s Comeback (Maybe)

Dinner time. The phone rings.  Another political recording. Maybe, instead of gritting my teeth , which I do, I should start a conversation with the real people around me about the importance of voting. A new book categorized as young adult (YA) nonfiction could launch a new meal time activity: talking to each other.

A WOMAN IN THE HOUSE (AND SENATE): How Women came to the United States Congress, Broke Down Barriers, and Changed the Country, by Ilene Cooper, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley. Foreword by Former U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014

Through a curious set of circumstances, at the same time this book captured my attention, I was also reading A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren and Tough Choices by Hilary Rodham Clinton. What an interesting trio of books!

If you’d like a tip about which one to read first, I’d recommend the YA because it is a good summary and grounding for the other two.  In her acknowledgements, the author, an editor for Booklist whose first book was Susan B. Anthony, says lack of space prevented her from profiling many other women. She encourages readers to look at Women in Congress 1917-2006. I did.

Information from this book is available on the website:

This site is definitely well worth the time if your curiosity and courage are heightened by reading author Cooper’s book. Mine were.

The three books on my reading table related well. Both Elizabeth Warren and Hilary Clinton are profiled in author Cooper’s lively and well researched book which includes an appendix, bibliography, and an index which is on its way to being well-thumbed at my house.  Maybe yours, too.

Go ahead. Start a conversation.


Sunday, September 7, 2014

What Every 5th Grader Needs

Too old for a babysitter. Not old enough to stay home alone. Just “almost.” That’s Albie’s dilemma. Until he gets a new nanny.

ABSOLUTELY ALMOST by Lisa Graff, Philomel Books, 2014

Calista tunes in right away. She tells Albie she isn’t a baby sitter. They will just hang out.

Entering a new 5th grade is hard enough. When you are always “almost” and never “most”, as Albie sees himself, life is tough. Add a few bullies, which seem to populate every 5th grade story, and you know fairly soon what Albie is up against. Then Calista arrives. She helps him see life and himself differently.

Calista is like a bridge between Albie and the adults in his life—parents, teachers, neighbors in his New York apartment building-- and between Albie and his friends and classmates who may or may not be the same people.
Complications rush in like a run-away subway train when the family of his best friend Erlan, who Albie suspects may be his only friend, is selected to allow TV cameras into their home. Suddenly Erlan lives in the middle of a successful reality show. The boys try to work around it, but it’s almost--that word again--impossible to have a private best friend talk with a camera leaning in.  

If, as a parent, you read this book before you place it somewhere to be discovered, think of it as a guide for crossing the bridge between parent and pre-teen experiences. You will see all sides of these developing relationships. No one will be right all the time. Good news for you, because you will be thinking in the not too distant future that surely no one could be wrong all the time.

 A former children’s book editor, Lisa Graff has written other books, too, among them A Tangle of Knots and Sophie Simon Solves Them All.  I can't help but wonder if she didn't have a bit of Calista's savvy when she was a teen.   



Sunday, August 31, 2014


Megan Sovern owes me a Saturday afternoon. That’s what I lost because I had to take a nap because I was up half the night reading her debut novel.

THE MEANING OF MAGGIE by Megan Jean Sovern, Chronicle Books, 2014

I learned a long time ago I can’t pull an all-nighter the way I used to. That knowledge didn’t stop me from wanting to see how Maggie’s life turned out when it began with her dad in the hospital and ended in the same place except…

It’s the "except" part that kept me reading. Maggie is sprightly, fun, bright, too bright some would say, but smart girls should be IN not left OUT of things, especially when you have Maggie’s temperament, are the future president of the United States of America and own stock in Coca-Cola. She loves, especially her family, cares, especially about other people, is spunky, and thinks her dad and mom are the top guys on the planet. Mom and Dad may be pushing that last part, however as Maggie gets older and begins to realize her older sisters aren’t all bad and maybe Mom and Dad aren’t all perfect.

Maggie is about to turn 11 or as the book jacket puts it, “one year closer to college. One year closer to voting. And one year closer to getting a tattoo. *” Footnotes throughout the book tell us what Maggie thinks, and the tattoo footnote tells us Maggie thinks tattoos are terrifying.  It’s just nice to know she is one year closer to getting one if she wants to.

As care-free as Maggie seems, she is super worried about her cool dude dad whose legs have fallen asleep. She tries hard to honor the family motto, “Pull up your bootstraps.” Not easy. Author Sovern’s insights into how each member of the family handles Dad’s increasing disability turn Maggie’s family into the reader’s family, too.

If you lose a night of sleep reading this book, it’s not my fault. Tell the author. She lives in Atlanta. Probably hangs out in coffee shops with a notepad and pencil. Or a laptop. Maybe a tablet. Smart phone? Happy hunting.


Saturday, August 23, 2014


You may not be anywhere near the Birmingham Museum of Art. You may not be able to enjoy its current exhibit, Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor. That won’t stop the readers at your house from getting caught up in the action of a debut novel that combined this ancient art with our American love of baseball. Speaking of which, I am hooked on Little League these days. Anybody else watching the World Series with me?

SAMURAI SHORTSHOP by Alan Gratz, Dial Books, 2006

As noted, this was a debut novel. The author did not stop there. In addition to his obvious penchant for thorough research, he delights in combining and twisting unrelated topics: Bushido--the Samurai code--and baseball. Shakespeare and pulp mystery fiction. He makes disparity work. Gratz's latest middle grade series is being launched as I write this. It combines steam punk and the 1870’s.  

First Samurai Shortstop: Toyo is 16. The year is 1890. When the mighty Shoguns were overturned twenty years earlier, Japan’s isolation ended. Toyo is born into a country opening its eyes to the rest of the world. However, his father and uncle belong to the traditional world of bushido, the way of the warrior.
When Toyo’s uncle commits ritual suicide to avoid modernization, Toyo agonizes that his father may do the same thing.

Toyo’s traditional samurai training at the prestigious Ichiko Japanese boarding school and his clash with the spirit of Ichiko law lands him squarely in the same dilemma faced by teens today: how do you fit in and still stand up for yourself?

Alan Gratz figured this out and young readers casting about for one last absorbing story before summer ends will find the ending as satisfying as a baseball game when your team wins.

Now is the time to check out the author’s web site and see what other twists he has in store.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


If you’re headed to the Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor exhibit  at the Birmingham Museum of Art, this book will whet the appetite of your middle grade boy readers. Girls, too.  It’ a riveting book, museum trip or not.

WHITE CRAIN by Sandy Fussell, illustrated by Rhian Nest James, Candlewick Press, 2010.
Niya Moto, narrator, is a 14 year old boy whose father was a samurai. However, Niya can’t attend his father’s school for training because he has only one leg.

Along with five fellow students who have their own obstacles to overcome, Niya studies with sensei Ki-Yaga, an ancient but legendary warrior. Ki-Yaga teaches them not only physical skills, but mental and spiritual ones.

The humor is sly and subtle. Chapter titles like “Bad Breath and Big Feet” are gigglers.

The learning process is deep and gentle. A glossary of useful words and the 7 virtues of Bushido (samurai code) ground the story.

The kids are well defined personalities and even though they encounter great cruelties because of their lack of physical perfection, disability is only a small part of what tags each one. Sensei leads, guides, prods them into greater perspectives. Their spirit totems reveal character while friendship, loyalty, and using one’s head to think a problem through create triumphant outcomes.

This is Sandy Fussell’s debut novel. Illustrator Rhian Nest James has illustrated more than 60 children’s books. Both live in Australia.  



Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Summer is wrapping up and you want to give the kids a bit of culture, maybe a trip to a museum. Hard to sell? A new exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art (through September 21, 2014), is titled, Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor. No need to mention museums…yet. Just leave a novel or two about these warriors in traditional Japan lying around. Take it from there.

HEART OF A SAMURAI by Margi Preus, Abrams, 2010

Every author has a story in her heart that just begs to be told. Some carry that story for years before it bursts forth on the page. Author Margi Preus stumbled across this story of “a courageous boy who nurtured friendship and understanding between two previously antagonistic countries.” She traveled to the boy’s hometown, hardly a trek next door, and her journey resulted in introducing the young reader, maybe even a reluctant reader boy, to Manjiro.

While his four companions whine and complain and make the harrowing experiences of their 1841shipwreck personal, Manjiro looks for a way to survive. He tries to make the situation better for everyone, but when he reveals during their long, lonely vigil, scanning the horizon for a rescue ship, that his ambition is to be a samurai, they laugh, knowing full well that he was not born to be one. They are finally rescued by an American whaler. Another adventure begins as Manjiro learns a new language, new laws, and sometimes the confusing customs of America, a foreign land inhabited, as his friends believe, by devils that will gobble them up. Manjiro realizes upon his return to Japan that everyone in his country believes that about Americans. Japan had been isolated for 250 years. The Japanese people had no way of knowing anything about America.

Admiral Perry arrives and insists the Japanese open their ports to him. Manjiro is able to translate. Although he does not speak directly with the Americans, he does advise the shogun.  

Manjiro is a fine role model for boys of any century. In his longing, he brings the samurai code to life and makes it his. Spoiler alert: He is made a samurai by the shogun. “Unprecedented for a person not born of a samurai family and of such low rank to be elevated to such status.” 

In the epilogue, we learn that Manjiro wrote the first English book for Japanese people, A Shortcut to English Conversation, started the whaling industry in Japan and joined the first Japanese Embassy to the United States as an interpreter. Believed to be the first Japanese person to set foot in America, he has been called “the boy who discovered America.”

The book is enriched by a number of illustrations, including pencil drawings by Manjiro who became known as John Mung.

I plan to share a couple more samurai books. Circle a date for that museum trip.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Hitch in Summer Plans?

You’re stuck at the beach and it’s raining. Or the plans for a fun day at home fell through and your house has an echo: “There’s nothing to do, nothing to do, nothing to do.”  Your kids aren’t teenagers yet. They’re too young to sound so old. If only your reluctant readers liked to read.

That’s not just boredom talking; it’s opportunity knocking. Hide this book where it’s sure to be discovered.

A HITCH AT THE FAIRMONT by Jim Averbeck, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014

Chapter one, sentence one: “No body meant no casket,…” Here begins Jack’s tale of woe, guaranteed to make any bored pre-teen realize life could be worse.  11 year old Jack never knew his dad and now his mom has driven off a pier. Jack is sitting in the funeral home looking at his mother's head shot and all the props supplied by her acting troop for a Hollywood funeral. By the end of the chapter, Jack and his buddy Schultzie have wiggled through a basement window in the funeral home. Jack has decided to seek answers. What they find is two sheet covered bodies that have no answers for them, but Jack decides not to take no, or no response, as final.

Then his Aunt Edith arrives to take charge. Boo, hiss! Things get worse and, if there were such a word, worser.

One would think that when Aunt Edith is kidnapped, life would be better for Jack. It’s really hard for the reader to feel sad about this turn of events. Why not say, “Good riddance!” or “Who cares?”

But Jack cares. Remember, he never knew his father, has lost his mom to a tragic accident, and except for Aunt Edith, he is a Boy Alone, a whole orphan with no family. 

Then he meets Alfred Hitchcock. THE Alfred Hitchcock.

The first page of each chapter features a panel of drawings, cartoon style, by Nick Bertozzi. How appealing for any reader who has been confronted with a writing assignment in school and made to tell his story in words, not pictures. I suspect the author may relate.

Each chapter is a title of a Hitchcock movie. At the back of the book, the author has provided a list of these movies with famous scenes and where to see those…look for it…Hitchcock cameo appearances. Parents may be inspired to start a series of summer movie nights. There are 35 chapters and 35 Hitchcock films to enjoy.

I don’t want to spoil any surprises. With lots of action and Hitchcockian suspense, readers will be eagerly turning pages to get to the end which they won’t see coming. I didn’t.

Parents will enjoy reading about the author’s interesting life. Their kids will be too busy reading the book.

It's hard to predict when you will realize the book you so cleverly tucked away has disappeared. Your reluctant reader has disappeared, too. Find one and you will find the other.


Hillview School Library