Monday, March 28, 2011

Book Review: Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (2010)

Big Red Lollipop, written by Rukhsana Khan and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, was named one of the Best Illustrated Books of 2010 by the New York Times. I have been looking for a copy since December, and finally, the library ordered it, and it arrived at my branch last week! As it turns out, it was well worth waiting for - I absolutely loved this story!

Rubina is the oldest of three girls in a Pakistani-American family. When she is invited to a birthday party, her mother doesn't fully understand what that means, and insists, in the interest of fairness, that Rubina must take her younger sister, Sana, with her to the party. Rubina knows her friend thinks this is weird, and on top of  that, Sana is not a good guest at all.  She ruins the party for everyone by demanding that she win all the games and crying when she doesn't get her way. At the end of the party, each girl is given a goodie bag. By the end of the day, Sana has ruined hers.

Sana doesn't know how to make things last. By bedtime, her candies are all gone, her whistle is broken, and the ruby in her ring is missing. I put my big red lollipop on the top shelf of the fridge to have in the morning.

To make matters worse, while Rubina is asleep, Sana gets hold of her lollipop and eats every bit of it but one small triangle, thus ruining the one good thing Rubina was able to salvage from the party. Thanks to Sana, Rubina stops receiving party invitations and starts feeling left out at school. 

Some time later, Sana is invited to a birthday party herself, and the third sister, Maryam, wants to go with her. The girls' mother insists once more that the fair thing to do would be to take both Rubina and Maryam to the party. Rubina sees this as a chance for Sana to be embarrassed as she was, but decides to prevent the cycle from repeating a second time.

I could just watch her have to take Maryam. I could just let her make a fool of herself at that party. I could just let her not be invited to any more parties, but something makes me tap Ami on the shoulder.


"Don't make Sana take Maryam to the party."

After the party, a grateful and newly matured Sana brings Rubina a green lollipop, and the girls become friends again.

According to the book jacket, this story is based on Rukshana Khan's own childhood experience - she is the real-life Sana, and did indeed tag along with her older sister to a birthday party. This does not surprise me at all, as the emotions in the story - embarrassment, frustration, anger, jealousy, and confusion - felt very real, and certainly summed up exactly what it's like to have a sister who drives you nuts. This was a very honest portrayal of the love and hate children feel for their siblings, as well as an interesting look at how one family became accustomed to American traditions while still maintaining their own cultural identity.

Illustrator Sophie Blackall does an amazing visual interpretation of this story. Her paintings - done in Chinese ink and water color - convey the emotional subtleties suggested by the text. Her figures' faces are particularly expressive - a girl who excludes Rubina from her birthday party gives a surreptitious glance over her shoulder on one side of the page as Rubina's shoulder's slump in defeat on the opposite side. In the scene from the birthday party where Sana behaves badly during musical chairs, Blackall uses really interesting angles to draw the focus of the image to Sana crying on the floor, and Rubina looking uncomfortable. The chairs are drawn at odd angles, which hint at the constant motion of the game, and each of  the girls' faces shows a particular  reaction - mainly amusement, or disdain. Best of all, when Rubina gets mad at Sana for eating her lollipop, her face becomes almost scary, showing all her  teeth, and exploding with the rage that has been boiling beneath the surface from the start of the book.

Sophie Blackall is also the illustrator for  the Ivy and Bean books, and she has two blogs: and Rukhsana Khan also has a great website at .

This book is a must-read for girls who have sisters, and especially for families dealing with sibling rivalry. It not only validates the feelings children have when their siblings make them mad - it also provides a positive, constructive way for dealing with, and rising above, those feelings. Such an excellent book.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Book Review: About the B'nai Bagels by E.L. Konigsburg (1969)

About the B'nai Bagels was first published in 1969, on the heels of Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which won a 1968 Newbery honor and the 1968 Newbery medal respectively. It had a couple of tough acts to follow, but overall, I think it rose to the occasion.

Mark Setzer is twelve years old. He's coping with the loss of his best friend who has recently moved to a richer part of town and made a snobby new friend, while also preparing for his bar mitzvah, and trying to get out of the shadow of his over-achieving older brother, Spencer. On top of that, his mother has volunteered to manage his little league team. When Mark becomes aware of some information that could jeopardize the team's success and undermine all his mother's work, he wonders whether he should tell, or keep it to himself. What he decides, in the end, results in a coming of age experience that puts Mark firmly on the path to adulthood.

The language in the book now seems quite dated, but I actually enjoyed that aspect of it. I think it might bother a contemporary young reader, but as an adult, I've become interested in some of the older, forgotten children's books, and I enjoyed being immersed in the style and context of another time period. I also enjoyed Mark's wry observations about his family life, his interactions with other boys on his team, and in his neighborhood, his struggle to hang onto aspects of his lost friendship, and most of all, the humorous and realistic dialogue Konigsburg writes for the Setzer family.

I think adults who enjoy children's literature, and like to look back as well as forward, should definitely read this book. Kids, though, will be harder to sell on it, unless they really like realistic fiction,or have an interest in what day to day life was like in the late 1960s. There's not even really enough actual baseball action in this book to make it appeal to baseball fans. There will be the rare kid, though, who will read this and love it, and whoever that kid is, I hope he stops by my desk in the library to talk about it when he's done.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Revisiting Marc Brown's Arthur Books

Arthur's Nose, the first book in Marc Brown's Arthur series, was published in 1976. The Arthur appearing in that story was very obviously an aardvark, with a long, drooping nose and a droopy disposition to match. 35 years later, Arthur is someone else entirely - a noseless, bespectacled, everykid who resembles neither an aardvark nor any other actual creature, but who has a much more agreeable personality, and can be trusted to guide kids through the many difficulties associated with growing up.

I hadn't read any Arthur books in a long time - probably not since long before the series became a television show - so I decided to read one title from each of the three series my library has on its shelves.

I started with a picture book, and read Arthur's First Sleepover, which is the 20th Arthur adventure and was originally published in September 1996. It was also adapted as part of Episode 30 in Season 1 of the television show, which first aired on June 2, 1997.

Arthur invites his friends Buster and the Brain to sleep over in the tent in his backyard. The morning before the sleepover, Arthur's father is reading "The National Requirer" at breakfast. One of the articles in the tabloid is about spaceships. Always ready to torture her brother, DW starts trying to convince the boys that aliens will disturb their sleepover. When night falls, and the boys settle into their tent, DW even tries to scare them by making alien lights  with her flashlight. They are frightened only momentarily; then they recover and exact their revenge using a scary mask. In between all the alien talk, kids also get to see the fun of a sleepover, and enjoy the excitement of staying up late, even after the parents say it's time to sleep.

The second book I read was an easy reader called Arthur's Hiccups, which was written by Janet Schulman, not Marc Brown, and published in 2001. The book includes a sheet of stickers for kids to use in telling their own Arthur stories.

When Arthur develops the hiccups, everyone has a suggestion for getting rid of them. The Brain says that at least one person has died from hiccups in the past, and instructs Arthur to stand on his head until they go away. Buster thinks a good joke will take care of them, and Muffy and Francine recommend lollipops licked upside down. DW helps not at all by teasing her brother, but ultimately it is she who solves the problem by hiding under the bed and scaring Arthur. Unfortunately for her, she then ends up with hiccups herself. This is a perfect easy reader: it deals with a universal experience, has a definite structure, and comes full circle with a humorous ending.

Finally, I tried an Arthur chapter book, the 10th, entitled Who's In Love with Arthur? which was written by Stephen Krensky and published in 1998. The book is based on an episode of the Arthur television show from Season 2, entitled "Arthur and the Square Dance," which originally aired on January 28, 1998.

The students at Lakewood Elementary School are square dancing during gym class. After Francine and Arthur dance together, a rumor gets started that they are boyfriend and girlfriend. Suddenly, their usually friendly gestures are being misinterpreted by their friends, and attempts to set the record straight only add fuel to the fire. In the end, during the next square dance lesson, Francine and Arthur avoid each other like the plague, and when finally forced together, they both blurt out that they're not in love. The misunderstanding is cleared up, and they go back to being friends. It was interesting to read an Arthur book with so few illustrations - I actually found it somewhat difficult to imagine the characters without visual cues. And kids who read this would definitely need to be familiar with the characters because there is no character description or development whatsoever.

Overall, three things stood out for me in each of these books:

  1. Arthur doesn't really have a personality. He's kind of a stereotypical boy, who likes sports and playing outside and becomes overwhelmed by attention from girls. He goes through the usual milestones of childhood, and deals with a lot of familiar problems, but any child could easily insert himself or herself into the story in his place. I think that is why the books are so appealing.

  2. DW is pretty much a brat. I guess I always knew she was annoying, but she really never misses an opportunity to make life difficult for Arthur! I saw a review on Amazon that criticized Arthur's Hiccups for promoting bad sibling behavior. I didn't think it was quite that bad, but it does seem like Arthur is usually the good kid, and DW the troublemaker. Big brothers might feel that way, though, so it works within the context of the stories.

  3. The Arthur books have stuck around for a long time! The newest of these three books is ten years old, but they are still extremely popular in my library, and at least in the case of the illustrated books, impossible to keep on the shelves. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Horrid Henry vs. Horrible Harry

I always knew of the Horrible Harry books, since they were around when I was little, but Horrid Henry was new to me when I became a librarian. Given the strong similarity between the characters’ names and temperaments, I had to wonder - are these the same story? Or is there something unique about each one that sets it apart?

Here is what I discovered after reading the first volume in each series, Horrible Harry in Room 2B by Suzy Kline, and Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon.

Horrible Harry in Room 2B is narrated by a classmate of Harry’s, revealed after the first chapter to be his best friend, Doug. Though Harry does terrible things - dangling snakes in the face of his crush, Song Lee, threatening his classmates with scary costumes, and creating Stub People out of garbage in his desk that he swears will “bring doom to our room” - the story doesn’t demonize him. Filtered through Doug, Harry appears as an interesting kid, who is definitely a troublemaker, but who is also a real, fully developed human being. His feelings can be hurt, as  they are in situations where a classmate calls him Harry the Canary, or Doug chooses someone else as a field trip bus buddy. And in the end of the story, we see Harry actually being nice, in a moment Doug identifies as one of those occasional times when Harry isn’t so horrible after all.

Horrid Henry, on the other hand, doesn’t have quite the same tenderness as Horrible Harry in Room 2B. Though we begin in a chapter where Henry is not acting horridly, his behavior is motivated solely by the desire to knock his little brother, Perfect Peter off his pedestal. Once that is achieved, Henry returns to his usual horrid ways.

Though she does not narrate the story, Henry also has a friend, Moody Margaret, whose presence in the story is perhaps my most favorite thing about it. I was interested in her mainly because she’s a trouble-making girl. Children’s literature has given us girls like Ramona and Clementine, who aren’t always on their best behavior, but their stories are focused more on growing pains and the confusion that comes from making sense of various first-time experiences. Moody Margaret, though, is every bit as horrid as Henry, and sometimes she actually wins in their battle of wills. It was also nice to see that Henry wasn’t necessarily into stereotypically male activities.  He goes to dance class, and hates camping, for example. Because of this, Henry is a well-rounded character, and not just another typical “bad boy.”

Overall, though both books have their strengths, I think Horrible Harry in Room 2B is the better story, and Horrible Harry the better written - and more sympathetic - character. But I'd recommend both, and think each series would be equally appealing to boys or girls.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Ten Things I Love About the Penderwicks

Recently, I read The Penderwicks and The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall.

The first book follows four sisters - level-headed twelve-year-old Rosalind; imaginative eleven-year-old Jane, feisty ten-year-old Skye, and eccentric four-year-old Batty - and their father, a widowed botany professor to a cottage in the Berkshire mountains on the grounds of an estate known as Arundel, where they befriend a lonely boy, despite his mother’s misgivings about the girls.  The second book follows the girls home to Gardam Street, and introduces us to their wonderfully rich home lives, and introduces the difficult situation of the girls’ father beginning to date after living four years as a widower.

I loved many more than ten things about these books, but for the sake of blogging, I’ll keep it to ten.

  1. Dad speaks Latin. I don’t know a word of Latin myself, but Mr. Penderwick is a botany professor, and he speaks to all of his children in delightful Latin phrases. I especially love that the author doesn’t translate them for us. If we want to know what’s being said, we have to look it up!

  2. The Penderwick children are well-read. The ChildLit wiki provides a full list of the books referenced in the second book, but they are very much present in both. Eva Ibbotson, Arthur Ransome,  C.S. Lewis, and many other wonderful authors’ names appear in the story, and the girls are familiar with each one. The fact that only older, more “classic” authors are mentioned also adds to the timeless feel of these books.

  3. Each of the Penderwicks has a distinct unique personality. I think this makes the books hugely relate-able to kids. The Penderwicks feel like real people to me - especially Batty, who is my favorite - and I could also see something of myself in every one of the girls, despite their differences.

  4. Batty. I love every move this character makes. From parading around Arundel in a pair of wings, to voicing the family dog’s innermost secrets, to sitting in her wagon, decked out in unusual ties, she is delightfully strange, and completely adorable.

  5. MOPS, MOOPS, and OAP. The Penderwick sisters have secret meetings - MOPS stands for Meeting of Penderwick Sisters, which is a meeting all the girls attend. MOOPS means Meeting of Older Penderwick Sisters, and  excludes Batty. The OAP is the Oldest Available Penderwick, who is to assume responsibility for the younger ones, and for upholding the family honor. I love the little views these books give us into the mindset of children, and I especially love the idea of children organizing  themselves like that without parental involvement.

  6. Remembering Elizabeth Penderwick. Though the girls lost their mother to cancer, her memory lives on through the stories Rosalind tells to Batty at bedtime, and by the way each girl remembers her, and speculates as to what their mother would think  about various situations. I also love the way Mr. Penderwick hasn’t forgotten his beloved wife, and even as he prepares to go on a date in book two, still mentions her and how she knew better than to talk through a symphony performance.

  7. The absence of technology. While the second book felt much more contemporary than the first, these characters are still not texting, surfing the internet, or chatting online with their friends. I think this contributes to the feelings of nostalgia it brings up for adults, and I think it also encourages kids to remember all the things they can do when they’re not being bombarded from all sides by flashing messages from fancy gadgets.

  8. The family honor. There is great concern on the part of the Penderwick sisters that the family honor not be in any way tarnished or destroyed. Sometimes they take their quest to defend the family honor a bit far, but their fierce loyalty to their father and to each other is admirable.

  9. Love. The Penderwick girls who have crushes do so in an endearing and realistic way. And the books aren’t romances. Crushes are resolved in these books  the way they often are in real life - imperfectly, and sometimes heartbreakingly.

  10. There are more to come! The best thing about the Penderwicks is that their story isn’t even half over! The third book, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette will be published this May, and there are  two more books planned after that. I eagerly anticipate each one, and hope they live up to the high standards established by the first two volumes.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Book Reviews: The Secret Language of Girls (2004) & The Kind of Friends We Used to Be (2009) by Frances O'Roark Dowell

You could share a history with a person, know their mom and their little brother and what kind of laundry detergent they used [...] but the second that person became a middle school cheerleader, forget it. It's like all that stuff never existed.
-Frances O'Roark Dowell, The Kind of Friends We Used To Be, page 19

I can't even count at this point the number of  times I've been drawn to Frances O'Roark Dowell's books. I have handled them in libraries and bookstores quite a few times, but somehow always managed to brush them aside in favor of reading something newer, or something in a different genre.

Finally, though, I pulled The Secret Language of Girls from the library shelf on my lunch break the other day, and I knew, when I read more than 100 pages in 45 minutes, that I was definitely a fan.

The Secret Language of Girls is the story of a changing friendship as main characters Marylin and Kate enter middle school and begin to grow apart. As someone who went through the difficulties of such changes at the age of 11 and 12, I was both surprised and thrilled by how much of my own life seemed to be represented in the story. I was also touched, unexpectedly, when this book actually helped me to better understand the torment and trauma that I endured.

I love that the book is written from multiple points of view. Not only do we hear from Kate and Marylin, who are both extremely sympathetic voices, but we also get more objective commentary on what's happening from Marylin's brother Petey, and her new friend, Flannery, as well as Kate's non-conformist dining companion,  Paisley, and others of the girls' classmates. while it was somewhat predictable that the middle school cheerleaders would be at the top of the popularity food chain, the cliches in this book didn't bother me, because Dowell described  everything so specifically, and in a style all her own.

Especially realistic and powerful was the scene where Marylin and Flannery give Kate the silent treatment for no apparent reason. I remember the frustration associated with being ignored, and Dowell took me right back to the middle school classrooms where the same thing happened to me. She has a wonderful talent for making the universal feel personal, and vice versa.

The sequel, The Kind of Friends We Used To Be, builds upon the framework established by the first book. Marylin and Kate are no longer sworn enemies, but their changing interests - Marylin's in student government and Kate's in songwriting - keep them from crossing paths as much as they once did. The cliches aren't as prevalent in the second book, and what struck me as the book's greatest strength was the inclusion of so many different kids, representing all the many cliques and special interests that emerge among early adolescents. Whereas Paisley, the non-conformist in the first book, might feel like she was plopped into the story to serve a specific purpose, and  then yanked out again, the supporting characters in The Kind of Friends We Used To Be have more of their own stories to tell, and they don't necessarily prescribe neat little moral lessons on how to live.

My only complaint about this second book is the author's continual use, both in dialogue, and narration of the phrases "all of the sudden" and "all the sudden."  I know that these are now somewhat commonly used phrases, but to my knowledge, the only correct way to say it is "all of a sudden." Every single time I saw "all the sudden," I cringed and was pulled out of the action of the story.

Overall, though, I think these books are both perfect middle school reads. I've been mentally comparing them to Judy Blume books like Blubber and Just As Long As We're Together, and I also think they would appeal to fans of Paula Danziger and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice series. They'd also make an excellent (and better-written) recommendation for fans of Nancy Krulik's How I Survived Middle School series. Yes, this topic has been covered before, but I think it's always new to the kids living through it, and it's nice to have books set in the present day to recommend for today's kids.