Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Day-Glo Brothers

From the first moment you see this book with its bright colors against a dark background, it will grab your attention. (My scan of the book does NOT do it justice.) And it's likely to grab the attention of any kids with you as well. Have you ever thought about where fluorescent colors come from? I know I never did before this remarkable book.

Book: The Day-Glo Brothers: the true story of Bob and Joe Switzer's bright ideas and brand-new colors by Chris Barton; illustrated by Tony Persiani

Vital Stats: Published in 2009 by Charlesbridge, 44 pages with black and white and day-glo colored illustrations throughout
Awards: Cybils award, Sibert Honor Book
Marketed Toward: Second to fifth grade, 7 to 10 years-old
The Quick and the Short of It: Highly recommended for elementary students, especially those with an artistic or scientific bent

Book Synopsis:
In non-fiction picture book style (which means vivid illustrations and 1 to 3 paragraphs of text per two page spreadd), this book tells the story of two brothers and some bright ideas starting in the 1930s and continuing through their remarkable lives. The two brothers, Bob and Joe Switzer, are entrepreneurial young men who liked magic tricks, solving problems, and working hard. While trying to make some of his light magic tricks better, Joe recruited his brother Bob recovering from an injury and very bored. Together they started playing with the newly developped black lights and fluorescence for ways to improve the magic strips. One night in their father's pharmacy, they discovered certain bottles would glow. Thus they began mixing up various chemicals, reading up about it, and learning to make glow-in-the-dark paints. they found they were useful not only for magic tricks, but also advertisements, store windows, posters, and more. Eventually of course it would also be used to make reflective strips for airports, ships, and road signs.

My Take:
Apparently no one else had written about the invention of neon colors because the author found no supporting material and did almost all her research from interviewing family members and reading the papers of the Switzer brothers. What a great resource for a historian! (And what a great inspiration for young historians.) The story is simply told, but quite inspiring. At the end there is a nice (but brief) author's note on research and notes on the science of fluorescent lights and day-glo colors.

My favorite (striking) feature of this book is the use of day-glo colors. The pictures begin in black and white and as the brothers invent and perfect the color process, more and more neon colors are introduced.

Possible Issues of Concern/Christian Connection:
I did not see any issues of concern with this book. I really enjoyed how the book talked about the two brothers' different personalities, different workstyles, and how that contributed to their teamwork. How their different strengths allowed them to work more effectiely. I also really appreciated the emphasis on their hard work and persistence, good traits to encourage.

One of the brothers had dreamed of being a doctor and saving lives, while that never happened, the use of his colors on signals has helped to save lives (starting with WWII) as the book points out. The other brother wanted to dazzle crowds as a magician and ended up doing so with his colors. A Christian parent could make a nice point about how our plans and God's plans for our lives may not always be the same, but how He can use us just the same.

For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. -Jeremiah 29:11

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Boy Who Climbed Into the Moon

When librarians go to conferences, publishers often give them free copies of upcoming books as publicity tools. These are called pre-pubs or ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies). At the American Library Association Midwinter conference I picked up a couple of them that I'll review here in the next few weeks. This first one is by the award winning David Almond and is due out next month (April).

Book: The Boy Who Climbed Into the Moon by David Almond; illustrated by Polly Dunbar

Vital Stats: Published by Candlewick Press in April 2010, 128 pages with full color illustrations throughout
Marketed Toward: 9 to 12 years
The Quick and the Short of It: This is delightful fantasy that should sit well with anyone who likes Roald Dahl though it does not quite reach his level of brilliance.

Book Synopsis:
One day a boy named Paul stays home from school and has a delightful adventure. He feels oppressed by the weight of the city (somewhere in England) and the apartment building (where he lives with his parents in the basement) and decides to touch the sky. So he travels to the top of his apartment building meeting several people along the way. At the top of the floor lives an eccentric woman named Molly (or is it her identical twin sister Mabel?) and with her Paul shares his (newly discovered) theory that the moon is actually a hole in the sky. Reuniting with his parents, they join Paul and Molly to meet Molly's brother Benjamin who also believes Paul's moon theory. Of course the only way to test it is for Paul to climb into the moon. Doing so involves all the characters met thus far and leads to even more interesting people.

My Take:
I liked this book. The final copy (though not my advanced copy) will have full color illustrations which I am quite looking forward to. It should be a beautiful book. This is full of the delightful nonsense that appeals to kids and tweens. Can you climb into a moon? What would you find if the moon were a hole in the sky? Who else might have accidentally fallen into it? I don't think this book will reach classic or award winning status. It's never laugh out loud funny or extremely moving. However it is a very solid, piece of amusing that will suit very well for anyone looking for a light read. I can't wait to recommend it as summer reading this summer at my library.

Possible Issues/Christian Connection:
Quickly and briefly: Paul is described on page one as a boy who "didn't like school and school didn't seem to like him". There are various incidents of characters calling each other "silly" or saying mildly disparaging things to each other. The worst of these incidents is stopped and an apology is demanded and forgiveness given. The ideas that live in Molly's brother Benjamin's head are described as potentially being "the salvation of us all". Not meant in a religious sense, but might be interesting for someone who has only heard that word in a religious context. There is an often repeated phrase about sausages being better than war. It veers a bit close to cursing when one person refers to something as "no blinking good". There is also a moment where Paul (aided by many adults) climbs a ladder on top of a building. Please don't try that at home! None of those things should dissuade anyone from reading the book, but they are presented to make your own judgments. Often in children's literature the parents are non-existent, absent, or ineffective. However in this story, Paul's parents are very much main characters, seeking him out when he is missing and joining him on his adventures. It's a nice thing to see in a kid's book.

There would be a way to read a Christian allegory into this entire story. Paul is depressed and longs to escape the world. So he climbs up to the sky and eventually into the moon. Inside the moon is a delightful world full of other explorers who've ended up there. They all live in peace and happiness together in the moon. You could draw an allegory about escaping to Heaven, but I have no evidence that the author intended any such thing, especially since Paul chooses to return to his home.

You Might Also Like:
Anything by Roald Dahl, my favorite is The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) or The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.

God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. -Genesis 1:16

Monday, March 15, 2010

Graphic Novel: Copper

To reflect the changing face of comic books, they were renamed graphic novels. The genre now includes the traditional super heroes and funny comic strips as well as fantasy, adventures, memoirs, and much more. It's one of my favorite genres to read and it's great for encouraging reluctant readers. Often graphic novels can lead readers to find traditional novels. While there is an amazing plethora of graphic novels to choose from, not all of them are truly kid-friendly. Many are written for and aimed at older audiences and can contain more mature content. Yet there are still a lot of great choices available for younger readers as well. Today's review title was one I was eagerly anticipating. It began as a webcomic. Many comic artists are finding that they can support themselves from a webcomic and sale of related merchandise (i.e. books, tshirts, etc.), in fact some newspaper comics (such as Sheldon by Dave Kellett) have even moved only to the online only model which allows for more artistic freedom and more potential than the traditional print model. I read a lot of webcomics, it can be a lot of fun. Of course there are no editors or censors so choose your webcomic carefully!

Book: Copper by Kazu Kibuishi

Awards: Junior Library Guild Selection for Fall 2009
Vital Stats: Published in January 2010 by Graphix, 96 pages, full color throughout
Marketed Toward: Late elementary school and up
The Quick and Short Of It: This book should be a big hit (and safe for) anyone who enjoys Calvin and Hobbes.

Book Synopsis:
Copper began as a webcomic and can still be read here. It features the adventures of a boy/young man (he seems to live alone and is perhaps early twenties, but younger with his sense of wonder and adventure) named Copper and his dog, Fred. Copper is eager, enthusiastic, optimistic, and a bit naive, while his dog Fred is more of a pessimist, worrier, realist, and a bit more jaded. Together they have dreams, imaginations, flights of fancies, and adventures. Most of the book is single page standalone mini-stories where they go fishing, dance with robots, go hiking and more. (I just wanted an excuse to link to some of my favorite strips.) Interspersed among the standalones are a few longer multi-page stories. The entire book is rich with colors, rounded characters, cuteness and wonder. It's a book that inspires the imagination. The last few pages are an in-depth discussion by the author of how each strip is created. Perfect for inspiring budding comic artists with some great tips and techniques.

My Take:
We've all had to accept that there will never be any more Calvin and Hobbes, but fortunately there are a great number of artists to take their place. I gave this book to a friend of mine with two boys, she thought her kids (ages 5 and 8) were too young to get it. Fair point, but the next level up of kids will love it. I know I finished the book chucking, happy, and wanting more.

Possible Issues of Concern/Christian Connection:
One character calls another an idiot, another time an "old fool" and refers to something as it "sucks". (I've got two of the strips linked so you can see it in context.) It's online so you can read for yourself for free, and decide for yourself. I think with the 11+ crowd it should be fine.

You Might Also Like:
I also recommend the Sheldon by Dave Kellett I linked earlier. Great strip about a 10 year-old orphan genius who owns a billion dollar software company (he's a tech genius), is being raised by his grandfather, and shares his life with friends, a talking duck, a pug, and a lizard. Read it online or get one of the books. (Recently on Saturdays he's been doing a new sci-fi comic, don't let it confuse you.)

Do you know how the clouds hang poised,
those wonders of Him who is perfect in knowledge?
- Job 35:16

Sunday, March 14, 2010

House Of Night Series

Unless you've been living in cave for the last few years, you're aware that vampires are the thing in teen literature. Enough has been said about The Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer that there really isn't much for me to add (though yes I do have opinions, I always have opinions, this is why I write a blog). Teen girls have gone absolutely mad about vampire books; it's my single most requested thing in that age group. One other popular series that I get a ton of requests for is the House Of Night series by P.C. and Kirsten Cast. I've read and will review the first two books in this series. These books, written by a mother/daughter team from Oklahoma, seem to be marketed toward teens and young adults. My library has them in the adult section, but other libraries put them in the teen section, and they seem to primarily read by teens. My quick informal survey of other library catalogs seems that half of the libraries put them in adult and the other half in the teen section. For the record, the book spells vampire as "vampyre", but I find that to be an obnoxious pretense (much like "ye olde shoppe") and refuse to humor them, so I will be spelling it more conventionally. Also, as I review this I'm going to mention many issues that should make it a no-read for Christians, but I'm not even addressing the vampire part.

Book: Marked and Betrayed by P.C. Cast and Kirsten Cast (House Of Night series)

Awards: American Library Association Notable Children's Books (at least one volume)
Vital Stats: around 300 pages per volume, 6 books out with the 7th to be released in April 2010, St. Martin's Press
Marketed Toward: Teens and Young Adults
The Quick and Short of It: I do not recommend this book for any Christian person of any age. (So if you want, you can stop reading the review now, or I'll try to briefly explain.)

Book Synopsis:
In the first volume (Marked), Zoey a "normal" teenager is marked by the vampires. For unknown reasons as some teens go through puberty their body goes through a change. If they reject the change, they die; their only hope is to go to the house of night wherein they will turn into full fledged adult vampires. The process takes years and they spend the time in "vampire finishing school" learning about their new life. So Zoey is marked, and while this is life changing, it also offers her an escape from a home life that she feels is unbearable. Before getting to the house of night, she seeks out her Cherokee Indian grandmother, encounters Cherokee spirits and has a vision of the goddess that created the vampires. This causes her mark to fill in, making her super special. At the school, she makes friends, attempts to settle in to her new life, but encounters vampire politics, runs up against the leader of the vampire girls, etc. Fortunately she has all sort of special powers due to her filled in mark and connection to the goddess and is able to take control of the student group. In subsequent books she faces more adversaries among the vampires and from outside society, discovers more powers, has relationships with various boys, so on and so forth.

My Take:
Before I get into the very obvious Christian issues, let me address the literary merit. It's light fluff and we shouldn't read too much into it. However the Casts do fall into a common trap for young adult literature. Zoey is perfect. She has powers that have never before been seen in any vampire, she's the most powerful vampire every in history, she can do anything, she's amazing. Ugh. (For other examples of this trope see Clan of the Cave Bear (series) by Jean Auel.) Authors shouldn't fall in love with their own character. A perfect character is not a relate-able character. Other than that (majorly annoying in my opinion) flaw, this is no better nor worse than any other escapism teen lit.

Possible Issues of Concern/Christian Connection:
I'm guessing you got a lot of these issues already, but here we go. A brief list of the simple to explain: homosexuality (one of her vampire friends, a very major concern, it's definitely approved of and treated as normal and yes in later book he's in a relationship), underage drinking (which Zoey disapproves of, kinda), marijuana use, and sexual activities (in the first book she witnesses and describes fairly graphically sexual activities between others, in later volumes she begins to participate). There is the casting of circles and calling of the elements and the spirits in rituals that have been lifted word-for-word from new age and pagan websites (see plagiarism accusations here). She contacts the goddess, the goddess speaks to her in a quiet voice only she can here. I could go on, but you get the idea. In later books as she bounces between her human boyfriend and a vampire boy, she also develops an extremely inappropriate relationship with an adult male vampire. I rather just wanted to slap her and explain that no good comes from an adult man being interested in a teen girl.

Perhaps to me the most offensive was the portrayal of the step-father. He is a leader in the "People of Faith" community and is portrayed as overbearing and insufferable. Her mother is in what the writers probably think of as an example of a submissive marriage, but it bears no similarities to the Biblical submissive marriages I have seen. The mother is devoid of any freewill, only nodding mutely at whatever her husband says. This change since her second marriage is what most tears Zoey apart from her family. Over and over again people of faith (no they never say Christian) are shown as villians and a submissive marriage is shown as a trap and completely oppressive. But hey, they don't curse! No bad words! Or I was just so overwhelmed by all of this other stuff that I let the cursing slip on by.

Confession, I read the first two books in full and summaries of the rest of them. I feel that was enough to make a judgment (and I couldn't handle reading anymore), but I had to be honest about it. In case you didn't get my point, I am not recommending this book for ANYONE to read. I only went on for as long as I did to justify it, to give you reasons why you shouldn't read it as a Christian.

"Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. -Romans 12:2

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Space Books in the Sibert Award

Every year in January, the American Library Association hosts at their midwinter conference The Youth Media Awards. The most famous of these are of course the Newbery Medal (for written works for children) and Caldecott Medal (for illustrations for children). However a whole slew of awards are given out for both teen and children's works. One of my favorite awards is the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal or to put it more concisely, the Sibert Medal honors non-fiction books for kids. Non-fiction is some of my favorite things to read and I thought I'd start my reviews with two of them.

I'm a space geek. As a child there were family vacations to Cape Canaveral and other NASA sites. Someday there will be a moon base (about 15 years if you believe the official NASA site) and someday they will need a children's librarian. I'll be too old by then most likely, but I'll still apply. So I was thrilled when two space books made the Sibert Medal list. Last year was the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing and a number of great space books came out. It's a good time to be a space geek.

Book: Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared To Dream by Tanya Lee Stone

Awards: Sibert Medal, Finalist for YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction (basically the award for teen non-fiction)
Vital Stats: Published by Candlewick Press in 2009, 133 pages, full color with many photographs throughout
Marketed toward: Ages 9 to 12
The Quick and Short of It: Highly recommended for anyone, especially for students working at a 3rd to 6th grade level

Book Synopsis:
Shortly after the announcement of the country's first astronauts, the Mercury 7 (John Glenn, Alan Shepard and company), a number of female pilots were called in to undergo astronaut testing. Dubbed the Mercury 13 by their supporters and "astronettes" and "astrodolls" by the press, the women not only passed astronaut tests, they exceeded expectations. However NASA chose not to continue the testing process nor use these women in anyway in the space program. What followed next was a heated battle with the press, the public, and notable figures of the day all taking sides. Even after an appeal to the Vice President (LBJ) and testimony before Congress, the women never won their case. It would be another 20 years before Sally Ride went into space and even longer after that before a women would enter space as a pilot.

My Take:
I'm a space geek and I didn't know about the Mercury 13 women. I found the book fascinating and could not put it down. Anyone within earshot got to hear me read out loud particularly amazing or interesting bits of information in a near-constant commentary. It's an incredible story of amazing women who underwent difficult testing and public scrutiny and did it all with grace and valor. They are undoubtedly pioneers for all of us. According to the book, in 2007 only 6% of all pilots are women and only 3.5% of people who have the approval to fly commercial jets are women. I'm proud to say that one of my good friends is an awesome commercial jet pilot, former airforce pilot, air force academy grad, and a strong Christian. I believe it is possible to be all of these things. This book is a fantastic one to give to any child interested in being a pilot or astronaut or to any girl (or boy) who is looking for strong (female) role models.

Possible Issues of Concern/Christian Connection:
No real possible issues of concern other than one paragraph which discusses how either menstration or the sexual temptation women pose would be issues with putting them in space with men. One paragraph, not graphic, shouldn't be a problem at all.

On a very cool note, the "leader" of the Mercury 13 women was an Oklahoman named Jerrie Cobb. Described as "deeply spiritual" after failing to have the Mercury 13 women accepted as astronauts, she decided there still was a way for her to contribute as a pilot. She went to South America and delivered food, medicine, and supplies to the natives living in the Amazon. She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for this work. (Talk about a female role model!)

Book: Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca

Awards: Sibert Honor Book
Vital Stats: Published by Athenum Books in 2009, 48 pages, illustrated throughout with watercolors
Marketed Toward: Ages 4 to 8
The Quick and the Short Of It: I highly recommend this book for younger children

Book Synopsis:
Poetry and watercolors combine to tell the story of Apollo 11 in simple language. An author's note at the end fills in the details.

My Take:
This book has graceful free verse (and poetry is not my favorite thing to read) and beautiful watercolors. It's a great introduction to the Apollo program and might interest a child in learning more. It's too long for me to use in a storytime and too long for very young (think under three) children, but would be perfect to share one-on-one or as a bedtime story with the early school children (or the almost ready for school children). A marvelous addition to the fantastic array of space books out there.

Possible Issues/Christian Connection:
None that I can see.

You Might Also Like:
If either of these books are interesting to you, you (or your children) might also enjoy The Wright Sister by Richard Maurer which tells the story of Katharine Wright Haskell, sister of "The Wright Brothers" and their support, cook, promoter, and companion during the years they developped their plane and promoted it. For the budding space enthusiast, I recommend Team Moon: How 400,000 people landed Apollo 11 on the moon by Catharine Thimmesh, a great middle grade non-fiction work that focuses on the extraordinary effots of so many people to get man to the moon, including the little old lady seamstresses who sewed the spacesuits by hand. (This was the 2007 Sibert Medal winner.)

When I consider your heavens,
the works of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
-Psalm 8:3-4