Red Butterfly

by A. L. Sonnichsen
First sentence: “Mama used to have a piano
with an on/off switch
and a dial to make drums beat.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: It’s pretty long, which will turn some readers off, though it’s in verse, which makes it easier to read (but also might turn readers off). The Chinese words, while spelled phonetically, might also be a deterrent. It’s in the middle grade (grades  3-5) section of the bookstore.

Kara was abandoned at birth, and in China, that generally means certain death. Especially since she is a girl and born with a deformed hand. But a kind, elderly American woman living in Tianjin took Kara in. Now, eleven years later, Kara is wondering why Mama never leaves the house, why she has never gone to school, and why they can’t leave to go join Daddy in Montana.

It takes a while for things to spill out: Mama is always telling Kara to be content with what she has, and not long for something more, but things do eventually come to light. In China, one needs papers to be a legal resident. Kara, because she was abandoned and rescued, has none. And so, they’ve been in hiding all these years.

On the one hand, I enjoyed this peek into China, especially the lives of those children who are neglected and abandoned to the orphanages because of the one-child laws. It’s told in verse, which suits Kara’s contemplative nature and her desire to figure out who she is and where she belongs.  I liked the people Kara met and her interactions in the orphanages.

However, while I got to know Kara and her story, it felt, well… too American. An American pulled her off the streets when she was a baby. She befriended a New Zealander worker in the orphanage (not American, but English-speaking/Western). She ended up in Florida with a second adoptive family. There were Chinese characters, but they were almost afterthoughts in Kara’s life. And while I understood why, I was sad not to get to know China or the Chinese.

It wasn’t bad, overall, but it wasn’t my favorite either.

Fables for Our Time

by James Thurber
First sentence: “Once upon a Sunday there was a city mouse who went to visit a country mouse.”
Content: There’s nothing overt, and no swearing. It’d probably end up in the poetry section of the bookstore.

I think I’ve vaguely heard of Thurber before this book was picked for my in-person book group. But I’d never really paid him much attention. So I didn’t really have any expectations going into this.

It’s a series of short fables followed by illustrated poems (the poems are by other people). Pretty simple, right? The fables are pretty standard: animals doing human-like things. But the twist was that they had pretty… unusual… morals.

Things like “It’s not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.”

And: “Early to rise and early to bed makes a male healthy and wealthy and dead.”

And: “Never allow a nervous female to have access to a pistol, no matter what you’re wearing.”

And: “The male was made to lie and roam, but woman’s place is in the home.” (The title of that one was “The Stork Who Married a Dumb Wife.”)

And at that point, I decided that Thurber — no matter what time period he’s writing in (the 1930s) is horribly sexist and doesn’t deserve to be read.

That’s a bit harsh. I get that these are satire (which I have a hard time with, anyway), and that they’re supposed to be stereotypes. But STILL. I was more impatient than amused. Stop it already with the sexist crap.

Brown Girl Dreaming

by Jacqueline Woodson
First sentence: “I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital Columbus, Ohio, USA — a country caught between Black and White.”
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Content: There’s nothing objectionable. And it’s even an easy-ish read. Sure, it’s poetry, but it’s not difficult. Hand it to anyone with an interest in writing, kids, and history. It’s in our middle grade biography section at the bookstore.

I’m not quite sure where to start on this one. It seems We’ve (the collective we, here) been inundated by memoirs and biographies of celebrities, People of Note, and at first glance Jacqueline Woodson’s new book just falls into that pit of “celebrity” (of a sort) biographies.

Except, it’s not so much a biography or memoir as it is a reflection upon a childhood. Woodson makes her childhood an Everyperson experience, something that the reader can readily identify with, even if they didn’t have her exact same experiences.

Her childhood begins in Ohio, but mostly it’s spent in South Carolina, with her grandparents, and in Brooklyn, where her mother finally settled with Jacqueline and her brothers and sister. I kept trying to figure out the timeline (if she was born in 1963, then it must be…) but eventually, I just gave up and let myself get absorbed in the story.

And absorbed I was. Woodson wove historical elements into her story — sit-ins in the South; the way her grandmother felt about the way she was treated in stores by white people; music that was playing on the radio — all of which helped put her personal story in a larger framework. I could easily forget I was reading a memoir; it felt so much like a novel.

Part of that, too, was the form. Written in free verse, the memoir took on a lyrical quality. There were moments, especially toward the end, where I was moved by her insights not only in her life, but for Life in general.

One more thing: I appreciated her portrayal of religion. I get the sense she’s not a practicing Jehovah’s Witness anymore, but she portrayed the religion of her grandmother and her own childhood with respect. It was neither good nor bad; it was just a part of her life. And I found that refreshing.

Highly recommended.

Poisoned Apples

by Christine Heppermann
First sentence: “The action’s always there.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing and one (very well placed) f-bomb. The content is about female empowerment, so if you give it to younger readers, be ready for questions. (Not a bad thing at all!) We have a kids poetry section at the store, but this doesn’t really fit. I could put it with the adult poetry but it might get lost. So, I might just shelve it in the YA section (grades 6-8), though it could go for any age.

I picked this up because Anne Ursu (whose work I’ve enjoyed, and who is fast becoming one of my favorite people on Twitter/Tumblr) told me I needed to. I don’t generally read poetry; I’ve never quite “gotten” it, and I don’t particularly want to curl up with a collection of poetry. But I couldn’t resist the draw of modern fairy tale retellings, even if it was poetry. (Plus: Anne Ursu!)

I didn’t know what to expect, but what I got was a weird, wonderful, empowering collection of poems. Hepperman mixes fairy tale retellings with modern issues, from anorexia and photoshopping to the everyday over sexualization of women. It’s a seamless transition from fantasy to reality. One of my favorites was “Retelling”, which is about what the miller’s daughter should have done. Thankfully, Heppermann got a bunch of people to read this, so you don’t have to listen to me sum it up.

But my favorite, the one I texted a picture to M about, was this:

But what really makes this book (aside from the awesome poems) are the weird and wonderful photographs that accompany the poems. They add a fantastical element that just makes this slim collection absolutely perfect.

C has already devoured this several times over and has declared that we need to own it. I agree.

Rhyme Schemer

by K. A. Holt
First sentence: “First day of school.”
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Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at work.
Release date: October 14, 2014
Content: Aside from the bullying (which made me uncomfortable), there’s nothing difficult about this book. It’ll be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Kevin is the youngest of five brothers who are all a lot older than he is. He likes some of his brothers; others, not so much. His parents — both doctors — are gone a lot. So, somehow, he’s become that guy at school who laughs when people fall down. He’s the kind that gets in trouble for tripping a Loser. And he does, often.

But he has a softer side: one that writes free-verse poems (which is the format for this book). He keeps them in a notebook, that he takes with him. He also rips pages out of library books, creating poems by circling words, and sticks them up around the school.

Then his world comes down around him. The kid he usually bullies finds his notebook, and uses it against him, slowly making Kevin into the kid being bullied.

It’s a quiet little book, but one that packs a punch. I appreciated seeing Kevin from both sides: the bully-er and the bullied. It was interesting to see his transition, and to realize that all people are just that: people. And with the backstory — his parents really aren’t the greatest — it was easy to see where the bullying came from.

But what I loved (LOVED!) was the way the librarian (!) saw past everything Kevin was doing and made him feel like a person. Yay for librarians!

Compelling and engrossing and all those other good adjectives.

What the Heart Knows

Chants, Charms, & Blessings
by Joyce Sidman, Illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski
First sentence: “
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Content: None. The book would go in the children’s poetry section at the bookstore.

I picked this one up because it made the list for the SLJ’s Battle of the Books and I was curious. I didn’t know it was poetry.

Let me just say, up front, that the artwork is gorgeous (you can check some of it out on this video here). I almost want to buy this book because of the gorgeous artwork. And maybe buy some notecards with it as well.

I liked the idea of the book: a series of chants, songs, incantations, and blessings. But, I just. don’t. get. poetry. So I don’t know if they were any good or not. I enjoyed some of them, and didn’t enjoy others. And maybe that’s all I need to know about poetry. I guess, sometimes, that I feel I need to have a deep connection with poetry, and I just… don’t.

I don’t know if the answer is to stop trying, or keep on hoping that someday it’ll make sense.

The Importance of Being Ernest

by Ernest Cline
First sentence: “I started writing and performing poetry in the mid-90s when I moved to Austin, TX.”
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Content: Chock full of sex talk (no actual sex, though), f-bombs, and other swearing.

I’m going to start a review — granted this is more a reaction than a review; then again, most of my “reviews” are “reactions”, I’m just being up front about this one — the way I’m not supposed to and say: I dislike poetry.

I don’t “get” it, I don’t particularly like it, and even though we have a shelf of poetry books — collected best-ofs as well as the Shel Silverstein/Jack Pretlusky ones parents are supposed to have — I rarely crack them open.

And so when my manager — who usually is spot-on pinpointing taste and books people will like — suggested I give this one a shot (because I really did love Ready Player One) I didn’t jump up and say, “Sure! I’d love to!”  It was only as we were paring down the inventory after Christmas when she said she thinks it’s worth a shot, and couldn’t I please give it a look over so maybe we can sell it? Please?

So I did.


It’s Geeky poetry. There’s that.
But I’m not sure I’m the target audience.
And they are really foul. Like REALLY. Foul.
I’m not one to get turned off by language, usually,
but I did this time.

Some of the poems — most notably
“When I Was a Kid” —
made me laugh.
And “Nerd Porn Auteur” was spot-on
about smart girls
even though it made me blush.

But some of it was just
very Geek Gamer Guy
which I’m not.
And I don’t care enough
about poetry
in order to care enough
about Geeky Gamers
to like/get/understand
this collection.

That said,
I guess I know who I
can sell it to now.

Two Middle Grade Verse Books

I read these two back to back while getting my hair done a while ago. And since they were so similar in style and tone, I figured I needed to review them together.

Eva of the Farm
by: Dia Calhoun
ages: 9+
First sentence: “On top of the hill, I lean against the deer fence and write a poem in the sky.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!

Twelve-year-old Eva lives on her family farm in Eastern Washington. For the most part, she’s been happy, but tough times have hit the area, and things are Changing for her. Her best friend’s family lost their farm and had to move to Seattle, and they’ve grown apart in the months since. And since finding out her family’s finances — not to mention the mounting medical bills from her younger brother’s illness — were more than precarious, Eva’s been trying to find ways to help, to find Hope in her life again.

For the most part, the book is a lovely verse novel. I liked that Calhoun tackled the plight of small farmers, and how hard it is to keep the small family farm going in this era of Big Farm. I enjoyed the imagery, and I especially liked the relationship Eva has with the Bead Woman, and the things about Hope and Love she learns. The thing that didn’t work for me was the poetry within the poetry. See, Eva’s a poet, and her poetry played a big role. But I almost felt like it was overkill: to have a novel in verse, and then throw in extra poetry. It just didn’t work for me. (And, yes, I skipped all the poems.)

But, otherwise, it’s a lovely little book.

Looking For Me
by: Betsy R. Rosenthal
ages: 9+
First sentence: “I’m just plain Edith.”
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This one is a slim historical book about a large Jewish family in Baltimore based on the author’s mother’s life. Edith is number four in a family of 12 children, growing up during the Depression. Her father is remote, trying to make ends Follow my blog with Bloglovinmeet running a diner. Edith doesn’t really know who she is: she’s always being bossed around by her older siblings and being expected to take care of her younger ones. She doesn’t think she’s the brightest person (she doesn’t know all the big words, and she can’t spell terribly well). But she has a good heart.
While enjoyable, Looking for Me lacked the emotional punch that I wanted from this story. Maybe it had something to do with the form — though usually, verse novels don’t turn me off — but, I wanted more from this one. There’s a death that wracks the family, but I felt… nothing. I wanted to feel pain and hurt, and hope when Edith began recovering, but I was kept at a distance by the novel, and I found that ultimately disappointing. Also, while she got the business and crowdedness of a big family, she missed, somehow, the deep friendship and love that exists in a family that large.

It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t brilliant either.

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Out of the Dust (reread)

by Karen Hesse
ages: 11+
First sentence: “As summer wheat came ripe, so did I, born at home, on the kitchen floor.”
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My original “review”, from a long, long time ago was this: “Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse: Free-verse poetry about the Dust Bowl in Kansas. I’m not crazy about the free-verse idea; I found it difficult to ‘get into’ the story.”

First off: I was wrong. It’s the pan-handle of Oklahoma, not Kansas. Now that I live here, that’s a very important distinction to make. We’re not just all plains states lumped into one category out here.

Secondly: I’ve come to  actually really like novels in verse. And I think it suits this book; it’s spare like the environment is out here, especially during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. It works as a form, and it doesn’t bog the story down.

That said, this book is SO depressing. 

It’s the story of Billy Jo, age 14, in 1934, the height of the Great Depression. It’s just her and her parents, out on the prairie; her father keeps trying to beat the odds and grow some wheat. Her mother is pregnant when tragedy strikes and both she and the baby die. Billy Jo, who is also injured in the accident, and her dad stick it out, trying to make everything work, even as it all is falling apart.

See? Not exactly cheery.

Other than elegance of the form and the depressing story, there isn’t much to say. It’s not my favorite out of the Newbery winners, but it’s not too bad, either.

Crossing Stones

by Helen Frost
ages: 14+
First sentence: “You’d better straighten out your mind, Young Lady!”
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Muriel Jorgensen is living a pretty ordinary life in late-1917’s Michigan. She’s about to graduate from high school, and she’s not terribly thrilled with President Wilson’s decision to enter into World War I. Her friend (and possible beau) Frank has decided to join the army, to go serve in France. And then her younger brother Ollie sneaks away to join up, also. What is Muriel to do, especially when she wants to do something, but everyone tells her that girls can’t do much of anything, except cook, clean, and have babies. Thankfully, there’s Aunt Vera and the suffrage movement to help Muriel figure things out.

That sounds trite, but this novel is anything but. Helen Frost has a way with words, yes — it’s a novel in verse, and Frost finds ways to do things with form that make the novel beautiful to look at as well as read — but it’s more than that. She’s written about a time in American history that I don’t think we talk about much anymore. There’s incredible relevance though: the impact of war, both on the boys who served as well as their families and communities. It’s a very pacifist book; the implicit message is that there is no such thing as a “good” war. Or, at the very least, all war has negative consequences. Combined with that is Muriel’s desire to speak out against the war, to find a way to express her opinion, which is difficult, considering there is no outlet for women at that time. Enter the suffrage movement, and the impact that it had on this country (women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920? Really? If I knew that, I’d forgotten.). There were brave women; not just the leaders of the movement, but the individuals out there trying to make a difference. But, most of all, this book is a moving story, powerful in its simplicity.

Another reason to really love novels in verse (and Helen Frost).