Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness (ages 12 - 15) - a powerful story of a boy coping with grief

I sometimes wonder if we, as parents, try to protect our children from the hard things in life too much. We try to protect them, even though our children deal with hard things every day. And other times, I wonder if we are trying so hard to deal with our adult issues that we don't really see our children and the issues they're wrestling with. Conor, in Patrick Ness's powerful new book A Monster Calls, knows all too well about wrestling with life's pain. His mother is battling terminal breast cancer. And yet in so many ways, Conor is alone to deal with his pain - alone, that is, until the monster comes walking.
A Monster Calls
by Patrick Ness
inspired from an idea by Siobhan Dowd
illustrations by Jim Kay
Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2011
ages 12 - 15
available from your local library, favorite bookstore or on Amazon
Life for Conor has been completely changed by his mother's cancer. Breakfasts alone, as his mother struggles with the effects of her treatments. The recurring nightmares, filled with screaming and falling. And of course, school - where everyone avoids him, not knowing what to say. And then, the monster comes. At 12:07, to be precise. The monster is looming, giant drawn up from the earth, from the ancient yew tree outside Connor's window.
"Conor O'Malley, it said, a huge gust of warm compost-smelling breath rushing through Conor's window, blowing his hair back. Its voice rumbled low and loud, with a vibration so deep Conor could feel it in his chest.
I have come to get you, Conor O'Malley, the monster said." (p. 8)
Jim Kay's illustrations add a powerful, almost visceral element to A Monster Calls. He uses everything from beetles to breadboards to create marks, textures and images from Conor's dreams and his sense of reality. The dark pen and ink, along with relief printing and various printed textures, convey the dark, twisted, nameless horror and grief that consumes Conor. The illustrations are perfectly pitched toward a teen audience, suitably abstract, dark and disturbing.

This book is utterly compelling, completely riveting, and deeply painful to read. On the one hand, I want to tell everyone I know about it. And on the other hand, I can't imagine the effect it would have on children. My 5th grader would get terrible nightmares from this - she just wouldn't be able to process Conor's pain. And yet other children yearn for books that make them feel, that make them understand others' pain, perhaps to get a sense that their pain is understandable or manageable, or to get a sense that they are not alone.

Each person will bring their own stories, their own journeys to A Monster Calls. What I was so impressed with was the way Ness approaches this story. As Tasha Saeker writes in Waking Brain Cells,
"Ness does not duck away from anything difficult here, rather he explores it in ways I haven’t seen before. He takes the darkness and makes it real, makes it honest, creates truth from it and lays it all bare. It is a book that is difficult to read but too compelling to put down."
As Ness writes in his author's note, A Monster Calls was inspired by an idea developed by the writer Siobhan Dowd, the author of "four electric young adult novels", as Ness says. She had this idea for a story, but "what she didn't have, unfortunately, was time." Dowd passed away from breast cancer before she was able to develop her ideas further. But her ideas grew in Ness's imagination, and he ran with them.

I was fascinated reading a conversation between Patrick Ness and two teachers who both lost their mothers to illness during their childhood. Head over to Monica Edinger's blog Educating Alice to read Ness's thoughtful comments on their reactions.

A Monster Calls has been recognized by many as one of the best books of 2011:
The review copy came from my personal collection. This is a book that will stay with me, in my heart, for many years. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you!). Thank you for your support.

Review ©2011 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I Want My Hat Back, by Jon Klassen (ages 4 - 8) - a book to read aloud!!

We had so much fun today in our library! Ms. Carter and I read aloud I Want My Hat Back, by Jon Klassen, for our 4th and 5th graders. But we didn't just read it aloud, we had FUN with it! Some books are just meant to be read aloud, with silly voices that bring the characters to life. This is a book for kids who want something a little different, easy to read but one that makes you want to play with it. What's especially funny - I just totally didn't get it the first time I read it. It took several friends to convince me to try it again and again.
I Want My Hat Back
by Jon Klassen
NY: Candlewick Press, 2011
ages 4 - 8
available at your local library, your favorite bookstore, or on Amazon
A large, brown bear walks sadly along, asking other forest animals if they have seen his hat. "My hat is gone. I want it back. / Have you seen my hat?" The words are so simple that the first time I read this, they just sat on the page. The illustrations didn't jump out at me; the words just fell flat. But friends raved about it. What was I missing, I wondered. Then I asked my daughter to read it aloud, and she did it with this wonderful sad, grumpy bear voice. Voila, that's it! You've got to get the character's voices to come alive in your head!

Today, I persuaded Ms. Carter to read it aloud for me. We performed it as Reader's Theater - that's the school word for playing with our books, reading them aloud in voices that make the characters come alive. She was the PERFECT bear, sad, a bit bewildered, and then surprised and angry. The kids - yes, these oh-so-cool 10 and 11 year-olds - ate up every word of it.

The bear ambles through the forest asking all the animals if they have seen his hat. No one has seen it. The fox hasn't seen it. The armadillo asks, "What is a hat?" The rabbit insists that he hasn't seen it. "No. Why are you asking me? I haven't seen it. I haven't seen any hats anywhere." Hmmm... Are you noticing anything in the picture below? The bear sure didn't, and just went on his way.

I Want My Hat Back doesn't just hand you the whole story on the page. You have to bring your creativity to it as well. Klassen asks the reader to create the voice of the characters as they read this story. And he makes the readers figure out what happens. No simple answers here. As our kids said, they like it because you can talk about it, you can talk about what happened. They also just love the subverted, deadpan humor. Life is not always about the nice guys.

I Want My Hat Back is receiving much well-deserved praise, and is included in the following lists:
The New York Times list of The 2011 Best Illustrated Children's Books
Publisher Weekly's Best Children's Books of 2011
Fuse #8's Best Books of 2011

Many thanks to friends who encouraged me to read and reread this: Kathy Shepler, Walter Mayes, Mac Barnett, John Schu, and especially Jen Vincent. Here's the blog post that totally opened my mind up to trying it again at Teach Mentor Texts, by the wonderful Jen Vincent. This is really a case of my Twitter PLN (personal learning network) helping me develop to be a stronger reader, a better librarian.

The review copy was a gift from Natchez and the Lee family at Emerson. Thank you so much!! If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you!). Thank you for your support.

Review ©2011 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Inheritance Cycle, by Christopher Paolini (ages 10 - 15)

Two of our students came in two weeks ago so, so, so excited because Inheritance had just been published. I loved feeling this excitement, and so sat down with them today to ask them all about Christopher Paolini's Inheritance series.
Book 4 in the Inheritance Cycle
by Christopher Paolini
NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011
ages 10 - 15
available from your local library, your favorite bookstore, or on Amazon
Luca and Sebastiaan began reading Eragon in 3rd grade, drawn in by this complex fantasy. They share the feeling that Eragon is THE BEST BOOK EVER. Here are some of their thoughts about Eragon:
"It's so well written. You can tell he (Paolini) took his time with it."
"It has a lot of details, and a lot of action."
"I love the way he tells the story. You have no idea what's going to happen next."
"I really like the use of the ancient language to cast spells. You can read the spells at the back, to know what they mean. But you really want to remember them as you're reading, so you try to memorize them."
Luca and Sebastiaan's excitement is spreading in the school. Another friend also loves fantasies, and he's trying out Eragon for the first time today. Luca and Sebastiaan recommend this series to friends who are strong readers, who love fantasy and action in their stories. "You have to be a really strong reader because there are so many details," they explain to me. They like reading this series quickly, so they can absorb all the details and get to the action.

Their favorite parts? Oh, it's so hard to pick, but here are just a few:
  • in the volcano with the tunnels inside of the mountain
  • the creativity in the landscape and the description of the dragons
  • Eragon's connection with his dragon Saphira - you can tell they really care about each other
  • the life cycles of all the creatures, not just the dragons
You can get a sense of the drama from this book trailer:

I think my students will really enjoy this video of Christopher Paolini reflecting on his experiences writing the Inheritance Cycle:

If your child loves fantasies like Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, but is ready for a complex series - try out the Inheritance Cycle. Here are the books in order:
  1. Eragon
  2. Eldest
  3. Brisingr
  4. Inheritance
Many thanks to Random House for sending a review copy, and many thanks to Luca and Sebastiaan for sharing their enthusiasm for this series. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you!). Thank you for your support.

Review ©2011 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Chronicles of Harris Burdick - a fascinating collection of stories (ages 8 - 12)

Do children want their stories all wrapped up, with easy answers? Or do they like stories that ask the reader to think, that leave us feeling a bit off-kilter? I would argue that many children like stories that don't have tidy endings, but that let the reader come up with their own answers. Our students are fascinated by books by Chris Van Allsburg, precisely because he wants his stories to leave mysteries that are unsolved.

Twenty-five years ago, Van Allsburg shared with us The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. One day, an author Harris Burdick showed up in a children's book editor's office with sample illustrations and titles for fourteen of his stories. This editor was fascinated, but Burdick never came back to share his full stories. This editor shared these stories with Van Allsburg, who was determined to share these. Ever since The Mysteries of Harris Burdick have been published, children have been writing their own stories to complete Burdick's stories.

Now, in The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, fourteen children's authors have shared their own stories based on Burdick's original stories. Ranging from Jon Scieszka to Kate DiCamillo to Stephen King, these authors have responded to Burdick's original illustrations, keeping true to the illustrations, the titles and lines from the stories. The interesting thing, as Van Allsburg said in a recent interview on West Coast Live, is that Burdick's stories plant a different seed in whoever responds to the illustrations.
The Chronicles of Harris Burdick
Fourteen Amazing Authors Tell the Tales
by Chris Van Allsburg and others
illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011
ages 8 to 14
available at your local library, favorite bookstore or at Amazon
audiobook available on Audible or Amazon
Each of the stories will plant a seed in your mind. The authors create an idea of what might have led to Burdick's illustrations, but they don't provide definitive answers. What I love best about these stories is that they allow the scenarios to echo in my mind, as I wonder about what might have happened. Some authors revel in Van Allsburg's mysterious suggestions. Jon Scieszka's and Stephen King's stories will send eerie chills down your spines, and you'll never look at your own house quite the same way. Other authors stretch outside of their usual comfort zone. Walter Dean Myer's story, Mr. Linden's Library, has an almost old-fashioned, fable-like quality as it follows a girl who finds herself utterly compelled to read a story that has a different ending each time she reads it.

I'm interested to hear from teachers how students respond to these new stories. Many teachers use Harris Burdick's illustrations as writing prompts in the classroom. I wonder how children will feel reading author's stories after they've written their own. I am hoping that they see the way that art can inspire creativity in different ways in different people.

My daughter and I had great fun seeing Chris Van Allsburg in conversation with Lemony Snickett and Mac Barnett at the San Francisco Public Library yesterday. If you want to have a fun sense of Lemony Snickett's take on the story, watch this funny book trailer. Snickett is convinced that the Burdick mystery continues. Learn more about Van Allsburg through the wonderful video interviews at Reading Rockets.

For other reviews, check out:

The review copy was kindly sent by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you!). Thank you for your support.

Review ©2011 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books.

Monday, November 7, 2011

FANTASTIC visit with Jonathan Auxier!!

Last week, we had an amazing, fantastic, captivating visit at Emerson School from Jonathan Auxier, the author of Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes. He brought such energy and enthusiasm to our students as he shared about his book - the whole room was captivated, each and every student. That energy is still buzzing through the school and community. Our local bookstore has already had parents requesting Peter Nimble, saying their child couldn't stop talking about it. Here's a silly picture of me with Jonathan - you can get a sense of the excitement his visit generated!

Jonathan has written all kinds of stories - movie scripts, comics, plays - but Peter Nimble is his first book. He told the kids that he needs their encouragement, and that really helped them get involved in the presentation. He has put together an amazing presentation, complete with yo-yo tricks, costumes and student volunteers that had the kids alternating between laughter and rapt attention. He's developed a yo-yo routine that will knock your socks off, timing tricks with his summary of the story. When Peter is at sea in his baby basket, Jonathan performs a "cradle" with his yo-yo. The kids were amazed and totally captivated. Here's a picture of Jonathan with our student reporter, August, and our 4th/5th grade teacher Ms. Gray, showing that great books can bit a bit scary - watch out for thieves in the night!

Peter Nimble has been circulating all fall, but now kids are asking for it like crazy (yay!). I'm hoping they read it, thinking about some of the books that influence Jonathan - books about orphans, thieves and things that don't seem exactly the way you suspect. We've already had kids check out two of the books that Jonathan mentioned: Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson (whose Blind Old Pew "scared the snot" out of Jonathan when he was a kid), and "The Hitchhiker" from Roald Dahl's collection The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More.

Peter Nimble is a great adventure story, but one with a lot of depth, humor and heart. I hope it reaches kids and families, and was so happy to be able to share this experience with our students at Emerson.

So most of all, I want to say a heart-felt thank you to Jonathan, for spending the time with us at Emerson, for bringing his enthusiasm to kids everywhere, for lighting our imaginations on fire with the sense of possibility and adventure in his story.

If you have the opportunity to invite Jonathan to your school, jump at it. If you know any parents or teachers in Pittsburgh, call them and tell them they need to invite him to their school. Your 5th and 6th graders will love visiting with him! If you have a book club that loves fantasy, contact Jonathan about possibly doing a Skype visit. Honestly, this is an opportunity too good to be missed!

While my original review copy was kindly sent by Jonathan Auxier and Abrams Books, I have since purchased two books for my home library and two more for my school library! If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you!). Thank you for your support.

Review ©2011 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes - wonderful fantasy adventure (ages 9 - 13)

I find that so many kids I know, especially the tweens in 5th and 6th grade, either love realistic fiction or fantasy fiction. They either want to read about friendships and dilemmas they're experiencing themselves, or they want a complete escape from reality. One of my favorite summer reads was Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, by Jonathan Auxier - an enthralling fantasy that captivates readers. At Emerson School, we are thrilled to be having Jonathan come speak with our 4th and 5th graders this week.
Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes
by Jonathan Auxier
NY: Amulet Books / Abrams, 2011
ages 9 - 13
available at your local library, favorite bookstore, or Amazon
Abandoned as an infant, Peter Nimble has always known how to fend for himself. At an early age, Peter learns the careful art of thievery, necessary for his survival. Despite the fact that he is blind, he can sense his surroundings, pick locks and pocket treasures better than any other thief. Soon Peter is under the control of Mr. Seamus, who makes him steal for his supper (yes, do think of Dickens’ Fagin). But Peter’ wretched existence takes a complete turn when he steals a box containing three pairs of mysterious eyes. Putting a set into his own eyes, Peter is suddenly whisked away to a magical land with knights, evil rulers, and a mysterious cry for help.

Auxier has created a exciting debut, with elements of magic, adventure, companionship and suspense as Peter battles against all odds. Peter befriends Sir Tode, a bewitched knight who is half-cat, half-horse; the pair set out to solve a riddle that is a desperate call for help. Peter and Sir Tode quickly find themselves launched on an epic quest to rescue a vanished kingdom, traveling by sea, across desert and underground. I loved the world Auxier has created, Peter's determined character, Sir Tode's wit, and the final climax. But most of all, I loved Auxier's writing, the way he carefully leaves hints about Peter's quest and identity, but just enough so that I guessed what was happening just before it happened.

Young fantasy fans will love the suspense, the action and the climax in this enthralling book. One of the highlights of my fall has been talking with a student each week as she's been reading Peter Nimble. There is so much to think about within this book - she's been able to sink really deeply into the story, asking herself questions, wondering and predicting as she goes along. Auxier's writing style is complex and he uses complicated vocabulary, but he builds such vivid scenes with strong characters and clear action that children are pulled through. This would make a great read aloud (either at home or in class) for kids who love fantasy.

Want to know more? Head over to the website for Peter Nimble. Entice kids by showing them this fantastic trailer for Peter Nimble:

The review copy was kindly sent by Jonathan Auxier and Abrams Books. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you!). Thank you for your support.

Review ©2011 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books.