In addition to being a Maryland-based author, Mary Downing Hahn is known for creating memorable characters who go through some tremendous situations that young readers can relate to. In Where I Belong, Hahn does it once again with Brendan Doyle, a misfit living in foster care who wants to find someplace where he can fit in and feel safe. Brendan’s life has been full of misfortune; abandoned at birth by his supposedly crack-addicted mother, he has bounced around in the foster care system until he feels completely unloved and unwanted. Yet, Brendan’s saving graces are his artistic ability and amazing imagination which allow him to escape the painful reality that surrounds him.
Brendan loves fantasy fiction, particularly stories about the Green Man and the creatures that live in the forest. When running away from some bullies, Brendan stumbles into the forest near his home and discovers an ancient oak tree that he feels would make a great fortress. Although he completes his treehouse, he totally neglects his schoolwork and is forced to enroll in summer school in order to enter middle school in the fall. At first, Brendan tries cutting class until his new teacher explains things in a way that finally makes sense. Brendan even tries to befriend Shea, a girl with her own painful secrets, and a mysterious stranger in the woods who may be the Green Man himself. It seems as if Brendan may finally have found two people he can care for until a series of events threatens to permanently destroy his world.
Hahn does an amazing job of capturing the way Brendan perceives his life and his frustrations about not being understood by people such as his teachers, school mates and foster mother. For both children in similar circumstances and adults who have experienced being an outsider, Brendan’s struggles to be himself yet longing to fit in somehow will resonate with them.
In William Alexander's Ambassador, Gabe Fuentes is an illegal alien. The Envoy is an extraterrestrial alien. Together, they might just have a chance at saving Earth.
Gabe is a quiet, competent boy, used to juggling his family, school and friends in such a way that he causes the minimal amount of trouble. He thinks things through before he acts in the most efficient manner. These traits, and the fact that he’s still “neotenous,” young enough to be open-minded, land him the almost completely powerless but absolutely necessary position of “Ambassador of Earth.” When he sleeps, his entangled mind is transported to a dreamscape populated by the children of every sentient culture in the galaxy, and sculpted to make sense to the mind of the viewer. Gabe sees his ambassadorship as a large playground, and so long as he doesn’t look at them sideways and break the illusion, all of the other ambassadors look like Earth children.
He’s going to need to figure out this interstellar diplomacy stuff fast. Space pirates are trying to kill him. A hostile alien force is marching across his stellar neighborhood on a campaign of purification. The cops just pulled his father over on a routine traffic violation and are going to deport his parents. His house just blew up. He’s not alone. His family are survivors. His best friend’s family has had back-up plans for him for years. Gabe also has the Envoy, a morphing blob who speaks in his mother’s voice, both helping him negotiate and throwing him into the path of pirates and genocidal conquerors.
William Alexander throws out invention after wild glorious invention, but grounds them in the normal family life of people outside the law. Gabe is a kid like a thousand other kids, marginalized by the laws of a country that doesn’t want to accept he even exists. He may save the day, but that might create even bigger problems. Expect the sequel in September of 2015.
According to Chinese astrology, time passes in a 12-year cycle with each year associated with an animal. On February 19, it will be time to welcome in the Year of the Sheep (or Goat). Those born in the year of the sheep are believed to be cooperative, kind-hearted and creative. These aspects can be seen in the main character, Sydney, in The Year of the Sheep: Tales from the Chinese Zodiac by Oliver Chin.
The sheep family welcomes a new year and a new baby, Sydney, into their herd. The shepherd’s daughter, Zhi, and Sydney become great friends, and Zhi teaches Sydney how the people and the sheep take care of each other. Most of the sheep would stay together when going out to pasture, as there is safety in numbers. However, Sydney wants to explore and has a tendency to stray off the beaten path. Luckily, Zhi and her dog Dao come to her rescue as her curiosity results in Sydney getting stuck in a tree and later falling down a chimney. When a storm comes, it causes the land to become a mess. The pasture withers and the river no longer flows with water. Can Sydney discover what has caused this devastation and rally the animals of the zodiac to help Zhi bring the water back to the riverbed?
With themes that include cooperation, friendship, creativity and even a dose of engineering, this delightful picture book is an excellent choice to share with young children. The soft watercolor illustrations by Alina Chau are a perfect fit for the story. My favorite picture is towards the end of the story where the tiger is taking a “well-deserved rest” and is counting sheep with numbers written on their wool in Chinese.
What would have happened if the author of Frankenstein and the world’s first computer programmer met as girls in early 19th century London? Why, they would have joined forces and become private detectives! Follow along as Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace sort through a false confession, eliminate some odd suspects and finally solve the mystery of a stolen necklace in The Case of the Missing Moonstone, book one of The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency series by Jordan Stratford.
Brilliant, yet socially inept Ada Bryon is not happy about the departure of her governess and the arrival of her new tutor, Peebs. However, this change does bring to Ada the first true friend she has ever known, the adventurous and kind Mary Godwin. The girls notice the newspaper contains several articles about crime so they decide to form a “private and secret constabulary for the apprehension of clever criminals.” It isn’t long after they run their advertisement for the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency that they accept their first case and begin their adventures.
A host of historical figures, including Charles Dickens and Charles Babbage, make appearances in this fun children’s book. While Stratford has admittedly taken liberties with regards to the timeline (Mary Shelley was actually 18 years older than Ada Lovelace), the setting and character behaviors are historically accurate. A humorous, action-packed story, this book features strong female characters who use math, science and deductive reasoning skills to solve the crime in a vivid, alternative historical setting. I wouldn’t be surprised to find this one on school reading lists this summer.
Wendy McClure’s newest book, On Track for Treasure, is the second installment in the Wanderville series. She has written several books for adults and children including The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, which in 2011 won the Midwest Bookseller’s Choice Award for adult nonfiction. She is also a senior editor at the children’s book publisher Albert Whitman and Company, producing picture books, young adult novels and the popular Boxcar Children Mysteries. She grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, and now lives in Chicago with her husband. Between the Covers recently caught up with her over the holiday season.
Between the Covers: Wanderville ended on a very tense note! Where will we find Jack, Frances, Harold and Alexander as On Track for Treasure, the next book in the Wanderville series, begins?
Wendy McClure: They’ll be in the middle of an escape! And it won’t be just the four of them — the other kids they rescued at the end of the first book will be with them: 10 kids in all! And when trouble hits, they find it’s hard to find places where they can all hide, so they realize their best option is to hop on a freight train out of town. Then it really gets interesting!
BTC: One of the most compelling relationships in Wanderville is the connection between Frances and her little brother Harold. In researching the real orphan trains for writing the Wanderville series, did you find that siblings often stuck together? What was your inspiration for Frances’ determination to keep her brother close?
WM: When I was researching kids in the tenements of New York City, I came across a photograph showing two or three girls out on the sidewalk holding their baby siblings on their hips. The caption read “Little Mothers,” a term that described girls who had to take care of their younger brothers or sisters all day because their mothers had to work. When I saw that I knew I wanted that to be the backstory of Frances and Harold before they were in the orphanage. Frances would have pretty much raised Harold. As for the orphan trains, I imagine the circumstances of the train journeys would have compelled siblings to stick together as much as they could. But the sad reality is that they were usually encouraged to forget their old lives, including family ties. And then when the placement process began, siblings were often separated, since it was hard to find a home that could take in more than one child. Some siblings were lucky enough to be placed out together, or to at least wind up in homes in the same town, but many more were forced to be apart. In Wanderville, Frances soon realizes the danger that she and Harold are in, and that helps motivate her to escape.
BTC: In your book The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, you connect deeply to the books you loved as a child and demonstrated how that love of reading can influence one's future. What do you hope the children who read Wanderville take away from this series?
WM: I hope that for kids I can capture the exhilaration of being independent — of having adventures without adults around, of creating and building things on their own. That’s a very basic but important thing. I also hope the books can nurture a curiosity about the past — not just history, but a richer sense of this different world that came before ours. That was certainly one of the things that I loved most about the Little House books.
BTC: What challenges do you find writing a series rather than just a stand-alone novel? What about writing children's books versus books for adults?
WM: Writing a series is sort of an odd way to write a long story. It’s like painting a huge mural by starting at one end and then having to paint in only one direction without going back to change or adjust anything. Book one was already published by the time I wrote the third book. It’s fun trying to make everything work, though. As for writing for kids versus adults—it’s hard to say, because the Wanderville books are the first long-form fiction I’ve ever written, whereas my adult stuff is all nonfiction. I remember when I first started working on the books I felt this giddy sense of freedom because I got to make things up. But at the same time, having that freedom can be terrifying.
BTC: What are you working on next?
WM: I’m just finishing up the third Wanderville book, Escape to the World’s Fair, which comes out later this year. And now I’ve been going through old family photos from the early 1900s. They might help me with another Wanderville book if I get an idea for a fourth book, or I might use them in a new story. Or else I could write an essay about them. I know I’m going to write about them, but I just don’t know how yet!
The most prestigious awards for teen and children's literature were announced by the American Library Association (ALA) in Chicago today. Awards were given in a wide range of categories that covered all formats and age levels. You can find a complete list of awards, winners and honorees on the ALA website.
The Randolph Caldecott Medal is awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. This year’s winner is The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend written and illustrated by Dan Santat. This beautifully illustrated tender tale of one imaginary friend waiting patiently to be picked by a child will captivate young readers with its creative spark.
The oldest of the medals awarded, the John Newbery Medal, is awarded to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. This year’s medal recipient is Kwame Alexander for The Crossover, a novel in verse sharing the coming-of-age story of twins Josh and Jordan and their changing lives on and off the basketball court.
The Michael L. Printz Award annually honors the best book written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit. This year’s winner is I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, the story of twins (again!) Noah and Jude, their fractured relationship and attempt to recover what they once had.
The Coretta Scott King Awards are given to outstanding African-American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African-American culture and universal human values. Christopher Myers received the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for his vibrant collage combinations of paint, paper and photographed elements which bring to life the inspirational story of a budding ballerina in Firebird, written by Misty Copeland. Jacqueline Woodson, already the recipient of the National Book Award, was awarded the Coretta Scott King Author Award for Brown Girl Dreaming, her lyrical novel in verse of her childhood in the 1960s and 1970s.
Check out the winners and honorees at BCPL!
Emmy Rushford is a precocious and civic-minded 6th grader. When her class is assigned to do a community service project, Emmy thinks she has a great idea: Her group will collect food for a local less fortunate family. On the surface, this may sound like a good idea, but Emmy is not telling the whole story to her classmates or her family. In Peg Kehret’s book, Dangerous Deception, Emmy begins innocently enough but she is soon put in harm’s way.
Kehret makes Emmy a rather mature-for-her-years but believable character who wants to do good but naively believes she can handle some very adult issues. The family that Emmy is trying to help is in trouble. However, she cannot turn to her parents or teacher for help without exposing some lies she has told. Kehret sets up a dilemma for her heroine that may seem a bit beyond the abilities of most 6th graders, but she keeps Emmy from becoming a superhero. She is flawed but well-intentioned, and young readers may learn a lesson or two from some of Emmy’s poor decisions.
It’s no secret that dads can have tremendous influence on their children’s lives. Here are three very different picture books from 2014 which highlight the myriad ways in which dads positively shape their little ones, whether over the course of an hour or a lifetime. Here’s to you, dads!
A rainy day. A bored little girl. A dad who takes time to spur his child’s imagination by asking “If you had your druthers, what would you do?” Flights of fancy ensue. In the space of a few pages, author Matt Phelan demonstrates the impact of a dad who simply takes the opportunity to engage in a little play time in Druthers.
From author Daniel Beaty comes a tale of the strong bond between father and son over the chasm of many years’ absence. Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me begins with one young boy’s loving memories of his father and the knock-knock game they used to play every morning. One day, there is no knock, and a new and palpable absence begins in the boy’s life. Missing his father, the boy writes a letter urging him to come home. In time, he receives a poignant letter in return. In it, his father encourages his son, reminding him of his love and all the ways in which he will always remain with him. As the letter unfolds, illustrator Bryan Collier’s richly evocative images foreshadow the boy’s path to adulthood and his eventual reunion with his father.
Young fans of illustrator James Dean’s Pete the Cat series will warm to his latest Mighty Dads, created in collaboration with author Joan Holub. Sing-song, rhyming text pairs with appealing illustrations of construction machinery in dad and child sizes. Hardworking, protective, patient and encouraging, the mighty dad machines act as teachers and role models to their young companions, who help them over the course of a day at the construction site. Punctuated by satisfyingly repetitive and onomatopoeic descriptors (“Crash, bang, boom!”) and bold, colorful illustrations, Mighty Dads is a deceptively simplistic picture book with an underlying message about the important roles dads can play in their children’s lives.
"Seven half-bloods shall answer the call,
To storm or fire the world must fall.
An oath to keep with final breath,
And foes bear arms to the Doors of Death."
The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan is the end, the final book in a five year saga, and the fulfillment of prophecy. Roman mythology and Greek mythology have clashed with each other, with Gods, Goddesses, Titans and the very Earth itself. It's been clear since the beginning that someone was going to die. Would it be Jason Grace, son of Jupiter? Piper, daughter of Aphrodite? Maybe it would be one of the five other heroes, including a returning Percy Jackson and Annabeth Chase. The action is big, the threats are far out there and the characters are still quipping.
In a post-Potter world, any number of contenders have stepped up to provide fantastic sagas for the young. Riordan has become the Dean of Children's Mythology. Every page in his books are full of reimagined Greek and Roman (and sometimes Egyptian, and soon to be Norse) mythology that can be quickly and easily digested by new readers. It's by turns hilarious, horrifying, action-packed and zooming along with all the speed of a thriller. There's a potency to The Blood of Olympus that comes from being built on stories that have lasted for thousands of years.
This is not a perfect book. Most of the ensemble cast run through their character arcs and just stick around for lack of anywhere else to be. The humor can be patchy. It doesn't matter, because this is smart, imaginative writing that will inspire the next generation. Some of the kids who read this will go on to be archaeologists, mythographers and authors. The rest will have a good time in a world that's grown bigger since they started reading.
Scholastic Books announced that author and illustrator Norman Bridwell died last Friday in Martha’s Vineyard at age 86. Bridwell was best known for creating the lovable Clifford the Big Red Dog character which spawned into a hugely successful children’s book series.
The first book was published in 1963 and the series would grow to include more than 150 Clifford titles. The series has been translated into 13 languages, and sold 129 million copies worldwide. Clifford successfully crossed over to the small screen with a PBS Kids’ animated series, which drew more fans. He is headed to the big screen in 2016.
Dick Robinson, chairman, president and CEO of Scholastic, noted in the company’s press release that, “Norman Bridwell’s books about Clifford, childhood’s most loveable dog, could only have been written by a gentle man with a great sense of humor. Norman personified the values that we as parents and educators hope to communicate to our children — kindness, compassion, helpfulness, gratitude — through the Clifford stories which have been loved for more than 50 years.” Listen to Bridwell himself on the magic of Clifford in this 50th anniversary video.