Sunday, August 31, 2014

Book Review: The Orphelines in the Enchanted Castle by Natalie Savage Carlson (1964)

The Orphelines are thrilled to be moving to their new orphanage. The building looks like a castle, and the girls are convinced that the boys joining them there will be just like knights. Unfortunately, the boys are not as thrilled about sharing space with girls, and they welcome the orphelines with a series of mean pranks.

Each book of this series is completely charming, and this one is no exception. The personalities of the girls - especially Brigitte and Josine  - clash perfectly with the boys' rougher, street-wise attitudes, making for a series of truly humorous episodes at the castle. Kids as young as five will understand the girls' indignation over the boys' mean jokes, as well as the impish boys' desire to rebel against their imposed knighthood. Readers will also appreciate the clever "magic" by which the adults ultimately reform the boys' behavior while still allowing them to feel in control of their fate.

Of the three books in this series that I have read, this is the only one not illustrated by Garth Williams, and though Adrianna Savozzi's pictures are fine, I did miss Williams's characteristic style. Pictures aside, however, this book is a cheerful tale with a happy ending from which readers can walk away feeling utterly satisfied. I can't wait to share this series with my daughter in a few years!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Book Review: Betsy and Joe by Maud Hart Lovelace (1948)

In Betsy and Joe, Betsy is now a high school senior, and at long last, she and Joe overcome the various obstacles that have kept them apart and begin to pursue a relationship. Of course, this only happens after they surmount several large bumps in the road, not the least of which is Betsy’s concern for her friend, Tony, who has been known to make bad decisions, and who seems to have feelings for Betsy that go beyond friendship. Other complications in Betsy’s life include missing Julia, who has gone to Germany to study opera, worrying about Tacy, who might become an old maid if she doesn’t begin to show an interest in finding a husband, and an overwhelming sense of sentmentality over doing many high school things for the final time.

Like most of the other titles of the series, this book makes me nostalgic for a time period I have never lived in. I love the old fashionedness of the girls’ concerns about marriage, and the very polite and courtly way the boys and girls interact with one another. I love what a huge deal it is for Julia to visit from Germany, and the way Betsy tries so hard to fill her shoes because of how heavily Julia’s absence weighs on her close-knit family. While no time in history is truly idyllic, Lovelace makes it seem like nothing could be more pleasant than living in Betsy’s time, a fact about these books which undoubtedly contributes to their popularity.

Another great thing about this book is the involvement of Betsy’s younger sister, Margaret, who is so markedly different from either of her sisters. She has always been too young to have much impact on the plot, but now that she is a bit older, it is interesting to read Betsy’s reflections on her relationship with Margaret as compared to her relationship with Julia. I actually found myself even worrying a bit over how empty the house will seem to Margaret if Betsy also goes away from home (which I imagine she does, given the title of the next book, Betsy and the Great World.)

Betsy and Joe would make such a great graduation present, as it really causes the reader to stop and think about the end of high school and what is to come next. Betsy and Joe are also great role models when it comes to dating. They show a great deal of respect for themselves and each other, and a kiss is a major, serious event in their relationship, rather than something taken for granted. I just can’t help but be drawn to the innocence of these books overall, and I wish there were more contemporary reading choices out there with similar values.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

10 Tips for Evaluating Picture Books

Evaluating picture books is an important part of a children's librarian's work, and at least a small part of the lives of anyone who works with or has children. Below are ten of the strategies I use to determine a picture book's quality. I wrote the list from a librarian's point of view, but many of the points listed can be applied to blog reviews, personal library purchases, and classroom use.
  • Listen to the language.
    A truly great picture book will flow smoothly, with no clunky rhymes, confusing transitions, or awkward sentence structures. Most picture books are intended to be read aloud, either one-on-one or in a group, so reading the book aloud, even just to yourself, should give you a good idea of its quality.
  • “Read” the illustrations.
    A picture book is nothing without pictures! Take some time to really explore the illustrations separate from the text. Look for those little details that children will linger over as their caregivers read to them. Pay attention to the way the illustrator portrays characters and setting based on the cues given by the author. The illustrations should enrich, not detract from, the author’s work.
  • Observe cooperation between words and pictures.
    In a successful picture book, the words and illustrations work together to tell the story. There will be details in the illustrations that are not directly mentioned in the text, and vice versa. In the ideal situation, the pictures are just as important as the words and the story’s meaning is dependent upon both elements.
  • Imagine the intended audience.
    Some picture books are for adults, others for teens and tweens, and still others for beginning readers, or babies. Figuring out who a book is geared toward can help you decide how to think about it as you consider its strengths and weaknesses. If the book doesn’t work for a preschooler, think about a group for which it might be more developmentally appropriate and imagine how they might respond. 
  • Reflect on all the possible uses of the book.
    Many books are intended for story time, but many others are not. Be careful not to dismiss a well-written book simply because it doesn’t suit the purpose you have in mind. If you can’t share the book in story time as is, brainstorm ways to adapt it to a more crowd-friendly format, such as a flannel board or puppet show. If it’s just not a story time book, suggest it to individual readers, either in a reader’s advisory transaction or through a display. Ranganathan’s third law, every book its reader, requires us to consider the many possible readers of a book, and not just whether or not we like it or can use it ourselves. 
  • Eliminate “cute” from your vocabulary.
    Some books are cute. There is no question. I want to cuddle the animals in Zooborns, and there is nothing more adorable than the illustrations in the Stella Batts books. Cuteness, however, says nothing about quality. Other words to drop from your repertoire include interesting, neat, fun, and nice. Instead, use meaningful terms that describe the book’s focus and function. 
  • Keep an eye out for errors and stereotypes.
    Many older books - even some considered classics - are plagued by stereotypical language. Try to be aware of these issues before promoting a book heavily or using it in a program. Also consider weeding - or at least putting into storage - books with outdated or inaccurate information. (The worst offenders right now are books like So You Want to be President? the older editions of which state that there has never been a president of color, and any space book where Pluto is identified as a planet.)
  • Consider the design.
    A book’s design often contributes to its reader’s enjoyment. Notice how the author uses page turns to create drama and suspense. Pay attention to how the illustrator works with the book’s gutter (the place in the center of the book where the pages come together.) Books also sometimes include important information on the end papers, front cover, title page, and back cover, all of which contribute to the book's overall effect.
  • Compare to canon.
    It can be difficult to evaluate a picture book in a vacuum, but you really don’t have to. Become familiar with the classics and the award winners to give yourself a strong foundation in what is already in the canon. Then, when you evaluate a new book, you have context. By comparing a book to others of high quality, it becomes easier to see its strengths and flaws, and also to figure out which readers might like it best.
  • Look beyond your personal preferences.
    Do I like this book?
     and Is this book any good? are two different questions. I like certain types and genres of books, but that doesn’t mean those titles are the only quality literature available. Using the criteria on this list you should be able to take an objective inventory of a book’s strengths and weaknesses that will help you decide whether a particular picture book is successful separate from whether or not you personally enjoy it.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Reading Through History: Betsy Was a Junior by Maud Hart Lovelace (1947)

It is Betsy’s Junior year and she has decided to get serious - about her schoolwork, about Joe Willard, and about being there for her family now that Julia has gone to study at the U. When she learns of her older sister’s interest in joining a sorority, however, Betsy is distracted from all her plans by a desire to start a high school sorority of her own for the girls in the Crowd, and to encourage the boys to start a fraternity. Thus the Okto Deltas are born. While Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, who has recently returned to Deep Valley from Milwaukee, are initially thrilled by their exclusive organization, as time passes by, they realize their cliqueishness is driving away many other potential friends and ruining their reputations within their class.

The wonderful thing about this entire series is that Betsy is always good-hearted, but never perfect. She makes the kind of mistakes in both academic and social situations that plague the lives of real girls, regardless of when and where they live. There is a chapter in this book called “Agleyer and Agleyer” referring to the fact that “The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men. Gang aft agley.” This phrase more than any other really captures what this book is about. It’s a story that teaches girls how to recover from their mistakes, and to make amends with the people they have hurt. No one forces Betsy to make good choices; rather she learns her lessons and makes things right simply because she knows it is the right thing to do.

Also refreshing is the fact that Betsy is portrayed as a smart girl, but not a great student. She leaves projects - such as her herbarium - to the last minute, fails to win a spot in the essay contest, and generally seems to prefer socializing above all academic endeavors. I think many girls can relate to her desire to spend time with her peers, as well as to the end-of-year panic that sets in when a major assignment is not completed. Readers with older sisters might also understand her sense of inferiority in the face of her sister’s many natural talents, and they will relate to her daunting task of trying to fill her sister’s footsteps.

Finally, I love the way Lovelace slowly develops Betsy’s romance with Joe, and that she pairs Joe with someone else for the duration of this book. This approach not only keeps the reader interested as the books progress, but it also emphasizes Betsy’s own reserved approach to love, and the fact that romance, in her day, means serious commitment. I have grown weary of YA novels with mature sexual content, and this book is the refreshing polar opposite of books of that nature.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Book Review: Anastasia at This Address by Lois Lowry (1991)

Though Anastasia has sworn off boys, she can’t help but reply to a personal ad placed in the newspaper by a 28-year-old man. In attempting to conceal her true age, Anastasia writes a series of letters filled with lies, pretending to the older man that she owns a sloop and knows about managing stock portfolios, and trying to pass of her own mother’s photograph as her own. When unforeseen circumstances bring Anastasia and the unsuspecting gentleman face to face, Anastasia realizes she has made a fool of herself and brings the whole imagined affair to an apologetic conclusion.

What I like most about this book is its innocence. In today’s world, most adults are horrified at the thought of young girls corresponding with older men because of all the stories we hear in the news about abductions and sexual abuse. In this story, though, Anastasia is always aware that she is out of her league, and the man in question is never presented as anything more than a normal, everyday guy who is briefly duped by the writing skills of a 13-year-old. While I suppose there is a place for the cautionary tale in the world of children’s and YA literature, I was glad to find that this was not one, and that the story was just another funny scenario in Anastasia’s never-ending series of fiascos.

I also really like the way Lowry handles coincidence in this book. Of course it is unlikely that Anastasia and a random man she reads about in the newspaper would ever meet, but Lowry sets up the man’s backstory in such a way that it makes perfect sense for them to run into each other at a wedding. I also love the awkwardness Anastasia creates for her mother, who never does find out why that strange man kept looking at her all through the wedding.

It’s amazing how consistently good these books are. Though Lowry has won the Newbery twice for more serious books, the writing in these funny episodes is every bit as good and certainly more appealing to a wider audience.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Reading Through History: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos (2011)

Jack Gantos, the hero of this semi-autobiographical novel set in Norvelt, Pennsylvania, has the whole summer ahead of him when he makes two stupid choices. First, he shoots off his father’s Japanese rifle in the backyard and scares the whole neighborhood half to death. Then he angers his mother by mowing down her corn crop, a transgression she does not forgive despite the fact that Jack’s own father told him to do it. Grounded for the entire summer, Jack’s only opportunities to leave the house come about when Miss Volker, an elderly neighbor, calls for him to help her write obituaries for the original Norvelt residents who seem to be dying one right after the other.

Jack Gantos is an interesting guy, and only he could have written this strange, meandering tale of life in a dying town. Since I listened to this story as an audiobook, which Gantos himself narrates, there was no escaping Gantos’s voice, or mistaking his tone, which is mainly sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek. The main character’s entire outlook on life, and his ways of expressing himself, reminded me of many twelve-year-old boys I know, even though their lives are totally different from Jack’s. The many references to blood, guts, weapons, historical battles, and dead bodies also encouraged me to think of this book as one that will mainly appeal to middle school boys who enjoy being grossed out, rather than to girls, or even to very many adults.

I wanted to read this book because it won the Newbery, and I had certain expectations about the writing based on that shiny sticker on the front cover. I was surprised, therefore, when the writing was not that impressive. Gantos uses lots and lots of adverbs, to the point of distraction from what he is trying to convey. He also likes to substitute certain words for the word “said,” especially “ordered” and “revealed,” each of which appears many times more often in this book than any other I have ever read. Once I noticed these quirks in the writing, I couldn’t stop noticing them, and they took over much of the reading experience for me. Also somewhat painful were the similes Gantos uses that seemed either unnecessary or irrelevant. Here’s just one example, from page 216: “A cloud of smoke hung over his head like a cartoon thought bubble full of swirling, unformed thoughts.” It seems like Gantos uses figurative language because he feels like he should, and not for any particular purpose that serves his story.

This book is undoubtedly interesting. It takes place in a real town established by the National Industrial Recovery Act, which is something I didn’t really know about, and it explores the role of history in the lives of its residents, and in Jack’s own life. A murder mystery, a dead Hell’s Angel, baseball, and parental conflict all figure heavily into the plot, and the story itself comes together nicely, with some surprise twists and turns along the way. I can see why the Newbery committee believed it was distinctive; I just think it’s too bad that the writing seems so disjointed and unpolished compared with other Newbery winners. I think I would have enjoyed the book much more had the Newbery hype not raised my expectations so high.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Book Review: A Brother for the Orphelines by Natalie Savage Carlson (1959)

In A Brother for the Orphelines, the second book of the series, Brigitte and the 19 other girls who live in the orphanage are thrilled when a baby is left on their doorstep. Unfortunately, though, the child, whom they name Coucky, is a boy. According to Monsieur de Goupil, who owns the orphanage, the baby will have to go live in the boys' orphanage, as it is inappropriate for boys and girls to share close quarters. Madame Flattot and her charges do everything they can to delay this inevitable move, fearing the sadness that will follow when the girls lose their beloved brother.

Like The Happy Orpheline, this book deserves many kudos for originality. The unusual setting combined with the unique conflict makes this a story unlike any other, either of  the 1950s, or of  today. In keeping with the cheerful mood of  the series, even the most dire problem - potentially losing the baby to the boys' orphanage - is handled with warmth and humor, and the situation is ultimately resolved with an unexpected and fitting ending. Despite the potential for sadness, this winds up being a feel-good read, just perfect for kids who are easily upset and wary of tearjerkers.

Garth Williams reprises his role as illustrator, and his drawings once again capture all the action and emotion of  the story. Especially sweet are his images of baby Coucky sitting in a basket, having his diaper changed,  and being dressed as a girl to hide his true gender. He also does a lovely job of capturing a scary moment where Josine, the smallest of the orphelines, takes a spill down the staircase.

A Brother for the Orphelines is a great twist on the typical "new sibling" books that are perennially popular in middle grade series. It will appeal most to girls in third and fourth grade, as this is an age when kids tend to be especially enamored of babies. It's also a great read-alike for the plethora of baby-themed middle grade novels out there, including The Year of the Baby, Ramona Forever, and Superfudge.