Thursday, September 29, 2011

Book Review: Pie, by Sarah Weeks

Weeks, Sarah. Pie. 192 p. Scholastic. 2011. Hardcover $16.99. ISBN 9780545270113.

In this cozy mystery for middle grade readers, Alice’s beloved Aunt Polly, a famous but humble pie maker, has unexpectedly passed away. It seems Aunt Polly has left her secret pie crust recipe to her cat, Lardo, and the cat is left to Alice. But there’s a catnapper on the loose, and everyone in town is suddenly trying to bake award-winning pies... which means almost anyone could be a suspect. While reeling from the loss of her aunt, Alice sets out to solve the mystery.

Young readers will enjoy this book's whodunit mystery combined with themes of healing, friendship, and self-discovery. Language is straightforward and simple, and the 1950s setting provides a charming backdrop for a heartwarming story. The author skillfully captures the crushing loss of a loved one, subtly depicting those small moments in which the sadness overtakes everything else, yet the narrative is never bogged down by Alice's grief.

Characterization takes a bit of a backseat to plot, but the reader gets a good sense of who Alice and her friend, Charlie, are, as well as who Aunt Polly was. Alice’s mother is unrealistically unpleasant, but I suspect that she and other adult characters are purposely written as almost caricatures-- they are adults as seen through a child’s eyes, which is appropriate for the intended audience. A child doesn’t always see adults as well-rounded people with real concerns, after all. While an adult reader might view Alice's mother's change of heart in the end to be a little too convenient, it will likely be reassuring to a younger reader.

Now, perhaps my favorite part of this book is that it comes with TASTY PIE RECIPES. The beginning of each chapter is marked by a recipe from Aunt Polly’s notebook, and each one looks easy and delicious. I was only three chapters into this book when I broke down and HAD to make a pie.

I chose the buttermilk pie recipe, and am IN LOVE. It was so easy! My 2.5 year old helped mix the ingredients, proudly proclaiming, “I'm a baker!” and alternately asking with his typical curiosity, “Why makin’ pie, mama?” (Well, sweetie, so mama can EAT it, of course!)

It was the first time we baked together, and both of us were very pleased with the results. The pie was creamy with a perfectly mild sweetness and just a hint of lemony tartness. It was especially good fresh out of the oven- isn’t that true of everything?- but also delicious after being chilled in the fridge. I admit, I had to go back for more than one slice. (Ahem... okay, considerably more than one slice.)

Pie will be available in bookstores everywhere on October 1st. I received the ARC at the YA in Bloom event hosted by Bridge to Books earlier this year.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Conference Recap: KidLitCon 2011

KidLitCon logo designed by Sarah StevensonLast weekend, I had the most excellent opportunity to attend and present a panel at KidLitCon 2011 in Seattle, and it was SO. MUCH. FUN. What a great conference. The organizers, Colleen and Jackie, put countless hours into making this a wonderful experience for everyone, and it was such a great success. I loved the sense of community at this event-- authors, publishers, librarians, teachers, and bloggers coming together to exchange ideas about achieving a common goal: getting books into the hands of readers. There was so much packed into a day and a half-- it was everything a conference should be: energizing, affirming, and a terrific opportunity to connect.

I came away with renewed enthusiasm and direction for blogging. Author Stasia Ward Kehoe’s session in particular gave me lots of food for thought. She invited us to consider things like how our blogging identity and our "unblogging" identity mesh, and how the title of our blog reflects our content. When I volunteered that I named my blog "Reading Everywhere" because I'm always reading several books in different locations at any given time, she asked me, "So, do you do anything with that? Post pictures of books in their various locations?" And I was like: "......WHY AM I NOT DOING THAT?!" So, readers, from now on, expect to see more pictures of books on my nightstand and in my car and such. Thank you for the brilliant idea, Stasia!

I came away feeling empowered to write critical reviews. This doesn’t mean I’m going to totally pan a bunch of books! On the contrary, a very thought-provoking session presented by a fabulous group of youth services librarians, Kelly, Julia, Abby, and Janssen, highlighted the idea that reviewers can be critical without being negative. I was especially struck by the idea that there's a difference between writing substantial, thoughtful reviews and being part of the "publicity machine." Zoe, the associate manager for school & library marketing for Little, Brown Book for Young Readers affirmed this line of thinking in another session by pointing out that bloggers don’t owe the publishers positive reviews, and that a critical review won't necessarily ruin a blogger's relationship with a publisher. It’s a business to the publisher, and they’re used to seeing all kinds of reviews. Book reviewers should be professional, and be balanced in our criticisms.

I came away excited for transmedia storytelling. The team from Angelpunk provided a great overview of the evolving movement of using various media platforms to tell a story. I think this dynamic method of showcasing a story will really speak to the generation of kids growing up right now. My two-year-old intuitively knows how to work an iPhone, and as much as he loves books, he’s going to want his stories to come in all formats, using different technologies. I like the idea that transmedia storytelling isn't just bells and whistles or using technology for technology's sake, but rather a way to tell a story using the the media that will best suit the telling.

I came away eager to make stronger connections with authors. Author Suzanne Young and Sara of Novel Novice shared about the benefits of author-blogger connections, and they sounded like they had so much fun collaborating on innovative ways to promote the author's work, which in turn, drives traffic and provides engaging content for the blogger. I was inspired!

I came away feeling more balanced about reviewing older books in addition to ARCs and new releases. Everyone wants to be on the cutting edge, and reviewing ARCS can feel special and shiny, but as expert book bloggers, Maureen, Jen, and Melissa, discussed, there are real benefits to highlighting older titles as well. It can set your blog apart and provide the opportunity to share an undiscovered gem with your readers. Reviewing older titles can absolve a blogger of any sense of obligation to the publisher that they may harbor when reviewing an ARC-- they can post the review at their own pace without being concerned about coinciding with the book's publication date.

As for our own session, Michelle and I had a blast presenting about podcasting in the kidlitosphere, covering the essentials of starting your own podcast, from technical specifics to best practices for creating content. At the end of our session, we invited audience members to step up the mic and put into practice the voiceover techniques Michelle shared by contributing to a special KidLitCon edition of our podcast, Authors are ROCKSTARS! The episode turned out SUPER AWESOME, if I do say so. The contributors shared about what they're reading right now, and they all sounded ready to start their own podcasts! So please give it a listen and be sure to share some love for our contributors in the comments-- they were really brave to get up and record in front of a crowd, and they all did a fabulous job.

Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the fantastic panel on diversity in fiction, presented by Lee Wind, which sparked insightful discussions about topics like authenticity and the idea that there can't be only one correct way to represent any given culture or ethnic group- that there are multiple truths out there. Good stuff!

Also, the keynote speech by Scott Westerfeld was amazing! He spoke about the lost tradition of illustrated novels in Western literature, and discussed how it informed the creative process behind his Leviathan trilogy. Although I've enjoyed many of his other books, I haven't had the chance to read this trilogy yet, and after hearing him speak, I'm determined to fit it into my reading schedule-- it sounds incredible!

Michelle and I meeting Scott Westerfeld.
(He's really nice!)

And speaking of awesome authors, a particularly special part of the weekend was meeting Kirby Larson. Earlier this year, I had the privilege of reviewing her wonderful novel, The Friendship Doll, for School Library Journal, and she had very kindly contacted me to thank me for the review, which completely bowled me over as I never expect to be contacted about my reviews. Since we were both going to be at KidLitCon, I brought my copy of the book and she graciously signed it for my daughter, who shares a name with one of the characters in the book. Such a treasure! The Friendship Doll is a lovely, lovely book, and Kirby is just as lovely in person. What a pleasure to get to know her! Thank you so much, Kirby-- I hope we'll meet again!

To sum up, I'm really glad I had the opportunity to be a part of this fantastic conference, and am so grateful for the wonderful conversations I had with other people who love books just as much as I do. I don't know when I'll be able to attend KidLitCon again-- it rotates between different areas of the country each year, and won't be back on the West Coast for another three years. Next year is set for New York, which is awfully tempting... however, with two little kids at home, I don't know if a cross-country trip is in the cards for me. But if you're reading this and have never been to KidLitCon, I wholeheartedly recommend that you make plans to attend. It's as good as everyone says it is.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Book Blogger Appreciation Week: Community

Today's Book Blogger Appreciation Week theme is Community, and we're encouraged to highlight bloggers who have made book blogging a unique experience for us. I'm sliding in under the wire here around 11 pm PST, but here goes...!

Michelle from Never Gonna Grow Up Reviews - you probably know that Michelle and I co-host the Authors are ROCKSTARS! podcast together, but what you may not know is that we've known each other since we were MERE TEENS. And we lived halfway across the country from each other and I never thought we'd meet in a million years. And now we're, like, mature adults (or something) and we have husbands and houses and kids and we're practically neighbors! How awesome is that? Michelle inspired me to start blogging. Her blog is such a pleasure to read-- updated consistently with thoughtful and honest reviews.

Beth from A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust - In addition to being an amazing blogger, Beth is a middle school teacher, and her dedication and enthusiasm for education are so inspiring. I hope every student has a chance to learn with a teacher like Beth. She and I met via online wedding planning message boards almost ten years ago, and I'm so glad we're still in touch.

Lalitha from SoCal Library Connection - Not technically a book blogger, but library bloggers are in the same vein, right? You don't even know how awesome this gal is, but if you meet her at a library conference- because she's always there, participating and contributing- you'll quickly find out. We worked as library assistants together, we went through library school at the same time, we had our kids within months of each other both times around... it is is a privilege to call Lalitha a friend, and I'm so glad she's started blogging. Watch for her posts-- she's always doing something cool.

Katie from Secrets & Sharing Soda - And now for something completely different: I don't actually know Katie. But I love her blog! Her reviews are always so insightful and well-written, and her "Old School Sunday" feature, in which she reviews middle grade fiction from the '80s and early '90s, brings a nostalgic smile to my face every time. Thanks for the memories, Katie!

And I have to thank Danielle, aka the1stdaughter, from There's a Book... I've only recently "met" her via Book Blogger Appreciation Week, but I was truly humbled that she mentioned me in her post today, so I wanted to give a shout-out back! The quality of her blog is truly something to aspire to, and I can already tell she's just such a nice, outgoing person.

This is my first time participating in Book Blogger Appreciation Week, and I'm already liking it. What a fun opportunity to share the love!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Book Review: Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick

Selznick, Brian. Wonderstruck. 608 p. Scholastic. 2011. Hardcover $17.99. ISBN 9780545027892.

Quite simply, this is an incredible book. When I turned the last page, I wanted to start again at the beginning. It's that good. I forgot about the world for a while and completely lost myself in the story and the exquisite artwork.

Selznick weaves together parallel stories about two children separated by 50 years. Rose's story, set in the beautifully depicted 1920s, is told entirely through images, and Ben's story in the slightly gritty 1970s is told in words. Both children are searching for something, both have hearing disabilities, and both find solace at American Museum of National History in New York City.

Tension is sustained as the stories alternate back and forth, and the reader wonders what on earth is going to happen to these two kids. It's remarkable how much Selznick's art conveys. Rose's story is necessarily simpler than Ben's, but each illustration is so expressive, emotions come through with remarkable clarity and the reader becomes fully invested in the plot. Selznick's prose is strong, too. It's more descriptive than the text of his previous novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, since images substituted descriptive language there, but the writing is still fast-paced and sufficiently straightforward to draw in even reluctant readers.

When the two stories mesh, it takes a minute to sink in. I really had a moment of: "Whoah, wait a minute. What? OHHHH..." I can't say any more, because discovering it on your own is the most fun. But when you see it, you'll know what I mean. The transition is surprisingly emotionally affecting, and just gorgeous.

There are several themes at play in this novel. It's a very affirming book about searching and finding, and also about curating, documenting, and defining one's self and one's experiences. The rather unexpected theme of curation is especially endearing to librarians, as are the references to the Dewey decimal system and Ben's librarian mother.

When the last past is turned, there's a wonderful author's note detailing Selznick's meticulous research. Someday, whenever I have the opportunity to visit New York City, I will be sure to add the American Museum of National History to my list of places to see. In fact, I look forward to sharing this book with my children in preparation for a trip to New York. One of my favorite things to do when traveling as a child was visiting locations mentioned in books, and Wonderstruck lends itself perfectly to that agenda. I can't wait to share Ben and Rose with my children and seek out the special places they'll know from this book. Given that my children are currently still in diapers, I'll have to wait a while... but I know they're going to love it.

My big question after reading this title is, of course: will it win a Caldecott? I think it's completely deserving, but I wonder if Hugo Cabret's win will detract from this title's chances, since the format is very similar. I hope not! I feel like Selznick uses images in a slightly different way here than he did in Hugo Cabret, and I'd love to see this one win, too.

Thank you, Brian Selznick, for contributing another amazing book to the world.

Wonderstruck will be published on September 13. ARC for review was picked up by my library director at BEA and graciously shared.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Oh, by the way...

It's an honor just to be nominated! Seriously. I am floored that my little blog, started on a whim at the beginning of this year, made the short list in the Book Blogger Appreciation Week awards for Best New Book Blog 2011. I am humbled by the nomination, and want to extend a big thank you to the judges for putting me through to the short list!

I so did not expect this. Gosh, now I feel like I should fluff the cushions and put out fresh flowers for my new blog visitors. Make yourself at home, and I hope you'll stay a while!

If you're participating in Book Blogger Appreciation Week and are inclined to vote for Reading Everywhere, I certainly would appreciate the love. Be sure to check out the other blogs nominated in this category, too-- they're all fantastic!

Waiting on Wednesday

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. My choice this week:

Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise, Part 1, by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru
Publisher: Dark Horse
Release date: January 25, 2012

According to Dark Horse:

This series of digests rejoins Aang and friends for exciting new adventures, beginning with a faceoff against the Fire Nation that threatens to throw the world into another war, testing all of Aang's powers and ingenuity!

I reviewed the first Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novel several months ago, a collection of "missing moments" from the original series. While that volume was quite enjoyable, this one is bound to be even more awesome, as it's the continuation of the original series. That's right kids: continuation. And it's apparently a link to the upcoming sequel series, Legend of Korra!


And it's being written by Gene Luen Yang. Printz Award winning Gene Luen Yang! Author of American Born Chinese, the first graphic novel to win the Printz Award! Who was clearly a fan of Avatar even before he signed on to this project.



I've been a fan of Yang's work ever since I happened to pick up an ARC of Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order at a California Library Association conference in 2005. And then he won the Printz for American Born Chinese, and I felt like, "Hey, I knew about that guy before he was cool!" He's enormously talented and seems like an all-around awesome person, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what he does with the Avatar universe.
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