Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Review: Blackout by John Rocco (2011)

This picture book opens with a full-page illustration of a little girl looking bored, staring out the window. This nameless little girl, who is the youngest in her family, is lonely because everyone is too busy to play with her. Her sister chats on the phone, her mother taps away on the computer, and her father is busy in the kitchen, stirring a pot on the stove. She decides to keep herself company with a video game, but just as she settles in, all the lights go out! From that moment, things change in the little girl's household. In the silence, she and her family huddle together and by the light of candles and flashlights, climb to the roof. The neighbors join in, and soon there is "A block party in the sky" and another one in the street below, where a local business gives away free ice cream, a firefighter allows children to use the fire hydrant as a sprinkler, and a couple plays and sings music.

"No one was busy at all," observes the girl. Everyone has time for her because they are disconnected from their other duties and distractions. Without technology and  electricity to keep them occupied, everyone must turn to one another for entertainment, support, comfort, and enjoyment, a habit one family may just not want to lose even after the blackout is over.

There is very little text in this book, sometimes not even a full sentence on a page. The illustration style really lends itself to comparisons with graphic novels, as it uses a mix of large and small panels, as well as different font faces, sizes, and colors to convey not just narration, but dialogue and sounds as well. The panels show the slow movement of time from moment to moment, and also zoom in and out appropriately to highlight intimate family moments as well as larger community-oriented happenings.

As with many of my favorite illustrators (Marla Frazee and Sophie Blackall, namely), Rocco's pictures give us lots to look at and discover that isn't expressly stated on the page. One of my favorite moments early on in the book occurs when we see the family's apartment building at considerable distance on one page, and then zoom in on their windows more closely on the next. Flipping back and forth between the two pages shows that the same scenes are depicted on each page, just with different levels of focus. I love that the illustrations tell most of the family's story, while the text focuses more on the universality of the blackout experience.

I love the way this story isn't just about what happens during a blackout, but about the way disconnecting technology and electricity for one evening brought a family close together. The illustrations are beautiful - they show how many colors make up the dark - blues, blacks, grays, greens - and how bright even the stars can seem when nothing else is lit up. This would be a great story to have on hand to read to kids during a power outage, and it's also a neat way to share the experience with kids who haven't yet experienced a blackout, especially city kids whose entire lives are lit by streetlamps and store signs. I think this is also a great, positive title for combating fear of the dark, and for empowering younger siblings who often feel left out or inferior. 

Make sure to check out the book, but in the meantime, enjoy this wonderful trailer, which interviews New Yorkers about the major blackout in New York City back in 2003.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Reading Through History: Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt (2011)

Doug Swieteck has recently moved to Marysville, New York, with one of his brothers (the other, Lucas, is serving in Vietnam), his mother, whom he loves, and his abusive dad. Desperate to be out of the house and dissociated from his brother's criminal behavior, Doug starts visiting the public library, where John Audubon's drawings of birds are on display, one at a time, inside a glass case. The librarian, Mr. Powell, notices that Doug has an interest in and aptitude for drawing and helps him slowly learn to draw each of the birds. Doug enjoys these drawing sessions, and also sees stories and messages in the paintings that are dictated and sometimes even changed by happenings in his own life.
Throughout these first months in Marysville, Doug also gets a job as a delivery boy, which gives him the chance to meet many different people in the community, including an eccentric author, and he learns to read, after a teacher discovers that he secretly can't. He also meets Lil, who proves to be a friend as well as a bit of a know-it-all, and he does his best to hide the jacket he received from baseball player Joe Pepitone, so that his brother or father doesn't steal it away from him.

This book contains some of the most beautiful writing I have ever had the pleasure of reading. There's some grim stuff, too, mostly having to do with Doug's father's abusive behaviors, but even those haunting passages are written to a higher standard. I think the only things that prevent this book from acheiving true greatness are the plot points near the end of the book. Doug's brother returns from Vietnam, a major illness befalls someone important to Doug, and suddenly his father seems to clean up his act in a very contrived and completely unbelievable way. I thought these moments cheapened the story quite a bit, and condescended to the readers in a way that isn't necessary in a sophisticated book like this.

Read-alikes for this story include Tales of the Madman Underground, which is all about trying to survive a world where adults continually screw up, The Catcher in the Rye, whose Holden has a tone of sarcasm just like Doug's, and The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin, which also focuses on escape from an abusive parent. Don't miss this book. Its brilliance far outweighs even its most glaring flaws.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Book Review: The Greedy Sparrow by Lucine Kasbarian, illustrated by Maria Zaikina (2011)

The Greedy Sparrow is a retelling of a folk tale from Armenia which the author, Lucine Kasbarian, learned from her father. The story begins with a sparrow who has a thorn stuck in his foot. A woman baking bread removes the thorn for him, and the bird goes on his way. Later, though, he returns, demanding the thorn, and when he learns that the woman disposed of it, he demands something else in exchange. As the story progresses, the sparrow makes more and more demands on more and more strangers, always demanding something in exchange for an item that isn't really his to begin with. In the end, his greed gets the better of him and he ends the story no better off than when he began.

I really loved this book. The story, whose moral is, essentially, "what goes around comes around" or perhaps "you reap what you sow" has a unique flair, and there aren't many other folk tales or fables that it reminded me of. I loved that the story mentioned specific locations, such as Mount Ararat, because it grounds the tale in the culture from which it came, and provides opportunities for children to learn about a new country as they read. The illustrations, which absolutely consume every inch of white space, are beautiful, and I loved seeing the Armenian style of dress represented on each page. The sheep in this book also have wonderful facial expressions, which gave them unexpected personality.

According to a note on the copyright page inside the book, the art for this book was created with wax and oil paint, and layers were literally cut away to reveal the colors underneath the wax. Knowing this gave me a new appreciation for the illustrations, where you can actually see the strokes the artist made as she worked on each page. It's just so appealing to look at, and even the smallest details, which must have been the most difficult, appear flawless.

This book is simple enough, certainly, to be shared with preschoolers, but would also work well for an elementary school unit about folk tales or Armenian culture. I really hope my library system will purchase a copy so that I can share it at story time and beyond.

Visit Lucine Kasbarian online at