Roald Dahl is arguably the most popular children’s author of all time and with good reason. His books stand the test of time and continue to delight children around the globe. The multitude of adaptations in a wide variety of arenas is a testament to the enduring appeal of the magic of Dahl. Two of his most popular works are celebrating milestone anniversaries this year.
One of Dahl’s darker titles, The Witches, was first published 30 years ago and is the story of a young boy, his Norwegian grandmother and a whole lot of witches bent on eliminating the children of the world. This story won Dahl the prestigious Whitbread Award (now the Costa Book of the Year) for “Best Children’s Literature.” In 1990, the year of Dahl’s death, the book was adapted into a film starring Anjelica Huston and Rowan Atkinson. More recently, the book was transformed into an opera. Actress Miranda Richardson spectacularly narrates a recent audio version of this remarkable story that makes a great family listen.
Matilda, the story of Matilda Wormwood, a genius with awful parents, marks its 25th anniversary of publication. With illustrations by Dahl’s friend, Quentin Blake, this story captures the imagination of readers who can empathize with the main character and the nasty adults wreaking havoc in her world. The novel was adapted as a film in 1996 and a London musical in 2011. The musical premiered in the U.S. earlier this year and has set box office records. A recently released audio version narrated by Kate Winslet, capturing the essence of this tale, is garnering rave reviews. For a taste of the fabulous Ms. Winslet’s splendiferous performance, listen here.
Maryland author Charles Belfoure’s debut novel The Paris Architect is gaining the attention of readers across the country. In 1942, Parisian architect Lucien Bernard is largely indifferent to what is happening to Jews in Occupied France. When he is asked to create a hiding place for the Jewish friend of a wealthy businessman, he can’t resist either the challenge or the compensation, so he agrees. Despite the danger, he begins designing places for others to hide from the Gestapo. His ingenious designs embed hidden cubbyholes into the architectural features of buildings. When one of his hiding places fails, he can no longer ignore the reality of the situation. Over the course of the novel, the horror of what is happening to Jews in his city becomes very real and personal to Lucien.
NPR’s Alan Cheuse compares this story to novels by Alan Furst. The historical and architectural details bring the story to life. This fast-paced World War II thriller leaves readers wondering how we would have reacted in the same situation, which makes it a good choice for book clubs. Discussion questions and additional information about Belfoure’s inspiration are also included in the book. The Paris Architect will appeal to readers who enjoyed Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay and City of Women by David R. Gillham.
Belfoure, who lives in Westminster, wrote a fascinating series of posts about this novel for The Jewish Book Council blog. He will appear at several upcoming local events to promote his novel. A full list is available here.
Acclaimed poet Mary Oliver, winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, celebrates the dogs she has loved with words of tender care on each page of Dog Songs. Pet owners and animal lovers alike will find a kindred spirit in the voice of Oliver, who has immortalized her wooly confidantes with compassion and humor in a tone reminiscent of the veterinarian memoirist, James Herriot.
Oliver is known for her elegant treatment of the natural world but Dog Songs reveals a rare and intimately domestic side to the poet’s heart. She invites us into her home and introduces us to the cherished pets of her past and present like the unforgettable souls of Bear, Luke, Benjamin and Percy. Whether on a long walk, down at the surf or curled on a couch, each dog’s personality radiates with bliss and, at times, secretive wisdom.
However, we are not spared the pain that unavoidably comes with loving a life outside your own. While grieving in the poem “Her Grave,” Oliver addresses her lost friend by asking “How strong was her dark body!/ How apt is her grave place./ How beautiful is her unshakeable sleep./ Finally,/ the slick mountains of love break/ over us.” Too often the death of a pet is portrayed as an unimaginable horror but Oliver offers a holistic alternative where heartbreak and light might linger. Although devastated, she holds onto the love she has shared with her fallen friend and stands in awe of the animal who has brought her such joy, warmth and spiritual fullness.
Lifelong fans of Oliver, acclaimed for Why I Wake Early, Red Bird and Thirst, will find this both a gratifying and surprising addition to her life’s work. The narrative tone of these portraits, accompanied with gentle line drawings, make this collection appealing to non-poetry readers as well.
With the ongoing 150th anniversary of the Civil War, quite a few books have been published recently dealing with many of the famous figures and battles of that era. However, one area that has not been explored very deeply is the role women played in shaping this period of history. In her book Maryland Women in the Civil War: Unionists, Rebels, Slaves and Spies, author and former Stevenson University History Professor Claudia Floyd examines some of the ways that women were able to make a difference behind the scenes whether they were for the Union or Confederacy.
Well-researched with an extensive bibliography and endnotes, Floyd sheds light on some remarkable Maryland women who often risked their reputations, freedom and lives to assist with issues about which they were quite passionate. During the Civil War, Marylanders fought for both the North and South, although the state technically remained part of the Union. Floyd introduces the reader to some remarkably courageous women who took up both sides of the cause. Some are familiar (Harriet Tubman) and some obscure (Anna Ella Carroll) but they all helped in ways that included assisting slaves to freedom, nursing wounded soldiers, spying (for both North and South) and holding together their families torn apart by the loss of the security provided them by their absent male relatives.
A meteor knocked the moon dangerously close to the earth and brought about tsunamis that wiped out whole continents and blocked the sun from reaching the planet, permanently changing everything. Susan Beth Pfeffer concludes her teen dystopian series with the fourth installment The Shade of the Moon. The Life As We Know It series follows the lives of a family and their friends as they grapple with the world they now live in and their struggle to survive as everything and everyone around them perishes.
Jon Evans and his remaining family have found themselves in Sexton, a heavily guarded community known as an “enclave” where the inhabitants are referred to as “Clavers.” His position in the prestigious town is always in jeopardy and his whereabouts are shrouded in suspicion. He, his stepmother Lisa and stepbrother Gabe gained entry to Sexton with passes given to them by another family. Jon takes advantage of the life he leads where he has access to purified air, education, health care and food while others work while exposed to chemicals in the air.
One wrong move can be fatal and no one is safe from the prying eyes of the officials who run Sexton. They will do whatever they need to do in order to maintain the safety and order of their community. The Shade of the Moon examines what the world could be like in the event of such a tragedy and the lengths people will go to save the ones they love.
Marvel Comics has issued the Ender’s Game graphic novel just in time for the movie. Based on the Hugo- and Nebula-awards winning classic science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card. The story follows Andrew "Ender" Wiggin as he enters battle school at 6 years old. Earth barely survived an invasion from the Formics, an insect-like alien race. Genetically bread to be a prodigy, Ender shows his aptitude for military strategy through his remarkable results in both the combat and mind games presented to him by Earth Command. Rising through the ranks and entering Command School at an accelerated pace, Ender learns to rely on no one but himself and his own instincts, regardless of the rules. Can Ender save humanity from the impending war with the "Buggers"?
This graphic novel is a compilation of the Ender’s Game: Battle School #s 1-5 and Ender’s Game: Command School #s 1-5 comics originally released monthly by Marvel beginning in October 2008. While the graphic novel format does not go into as much depth as the novel, it does stays true to the story. The movie adaptation, starring Harrison Ford, will be in theaters November 1.
Zombies and vampires have been all the rage lately, but not like this. Zombies who eat brains? Okay, sure. Vampires who suck blood? Makes sense. But vampires and zombies in tutus? Huh? Authors Kristyn Crow and Anne Marie Pace bring to life two adorably spooky characters with wonderfully supportive families.
Zombelina has a love of dance that she just can’t contain. She twirls through the house from one dance to the next. To her pleasant surprise, her mother says it’s time that she becomes a true ballerina. She takes her shopping for all of the ballet accoutrement and even signs her up for lessons. When she begins her class, it’s plain to see that Zombelina may be a little different from the other girls, but she practices hard and gains praise for her unique spin on ballet. Will the practice pay off for her big recital? Crow uses rhyming in combination with Molly Idle’s illustrations to create a story wholly unique. This book is a clear choice for any young reader with a passion for dance or who is looking for something to get them in spooky spirits.
Another book to go with the theme is Anne Marie Pace’s second installment of Vampirina Ballerina, titled Vampirina Ballerina Hosts a Sleepover. In this story, Vampirina shows just what to do to create the very best sleepover. It’s not all about work, though, as the little girls come over and frolic in this uncharacteristic house filled with mummies, monsters and spiders, oh my. Not everyone enjoys the slumber party when one little girl is spooked by an unexpected mummy appearance. Will Vampirina be able to save the party she worked so hard to plan?
Other picture books to celebrate the spooky season are Bone Soup by Cambria Evans and Gibbus Moony Wants to Bite You! by Leslie Muir.
From Newbery Award-winner Patricia MacLachlan comes The Truth of Me, a new classic delivered in a deceptively simplistic format. Robbie — he hates to be called Robert — is the only child of two brilliant but distant musicians. He knows his parents care for him, but also that the music has and always will come first. Fortunately, Robbie is also the beloved grandchild of one very quirky lady...who just may have a special gift when it comes to communicating with wild animals.
Maddy may be a little unconventional as grandmothers go — she’s even been known to serve donuts for dinner — but to Robbie there could be none better. More than a grandmother, Maddy is Robbie’s best friend — well, apart from his dog, Ellie — and he always looks forward to the time they spend together. During the summer that his parents’ quartet is touring in Europe, Robbie’s stay with Maddy will open his eyes to new truths; about his grandmother, about his family and even about himself.
A poignant tale and understated to a fault, The Truth of Me is a story of the little truths about ourselves that help us see the big picture. On its surface, it's a simple portrait of a young boy, his grandmother and his dog. At its heart, it's a story of self-actualization and love. Recommended for thoughtful young readers and anyone who enjoys gentle teaching tales. Fans of Kevin Henkes’ Junonia, in particular, may be drawn to The Truth of Me.
Dianne Dixon’s second novel, The Book of Someday, links three seemingly unrelated characters in an intriguing story of betrayal, love, loss and maternal protection. Livvi is a successful author with an abusive past. She has recurring nightmares about a woman in a silver dress, but has no idea why or what the dreams mean. Recently, she has fallen in love for the first time but is confused by her boyfriend’s evasiveness and family secrets.
Micah is a talented photographer who has recently found out she has breast cancer. As a result, she is on a cross-country journey to try to make amends for past wrongs.
AnnaLee is a housewife with a young daughter. Her husband loves her, but he is a disappointment to her career-wise and their financial struggles have further strained their marriage.
Told from the alternating perspectives of these three characters, Dixon slowly peels back the layers of the story to reveal the interconnectedness. There is also introspection and self-discovery as each woman matures and better understands the gray areas of their past and present relationships with others.
Dixon is a screenwriter and employs brisk writing, succinct dialogue and concise descriptions to create context and keep the story moving forward. The complex characters and plot twists contribute to a dramatic tale which will keep readers up late at night to unravel the mystery. Fans of Jodi Picoult or Kristin Hannah will appreciate the unique ending, which answers some questions but doesn’t tie everything up too neatly. Highly recommended as a book club selection, or as a good couch read on a chilly fall day.
As a child, author Kimberly Rae Miller would pray that her home would catch on fire. Her prayer was answered but, to her horror, it came with some unforeseen consequences. In her memoir, Coming Clean, Miller writes about her experiences growing up as the only child of parents who were hoarders.
Miller makes it clear that hoarding isn’t just a messy home with too much clutter. Hoarding à la the Miller parents means never throwing anything away. It means online shopping so obsessively that delivered but unopened packages are stacked to the ceiling. It means sleeping on the edge of a mattress otherwise piled with junk, never opening the refrigerator since it contains moldy sludge and showering at the gym since to call in a plumber to repair leaking pipes would mean being reported to social services. Yes, it means moving to a new home to escape the detritus in the old house.
It would be easy to dismiss this book as piggybacking on the odd appeal of the popular reality TV show Hoarders. The descriptions of the Miller family’s living conditions are shocking and sad. Miller also relates the shame she felt as a child, colluding with her parents to present a picture of normalcy, and the guilt, too, after the wished-for house fire resulted in the deaths of her beloved pets. Yet, this story is multi-layered, and Miller is clear that she was raised by loving and intelligent parents who encouraged and supported her in academic and social pursuits. Coming Clean reminds us that imperfect people and good parenting are not mutually exclusive, and our circumstances do not define who we are. Visit Miller at her blog, TheKimChallenge, where she writes about food, fitness, perspective and love.