Friday, June 29, 2012

Happiness is.. a good book (Summer Reading edition #5)

The Hero's Guide To Saving Your Kingdom
Author: Christopher Healy
: Todd Harris
Published: 2012
Pages: 438
Age Range: 8-12
Genre: Fantasy/Adventure
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G
First sentence: Prince Charming is afraid of old ladies. Didn't know that, did you?

Prince Charming is tired of all the stories going around about him. They all are.  There are actually 4 princes (Duncan, Frederic, Liam and Gustav) each with their own talents, quirks and stories to tell.  But the bards who tell the tales seem to find pleasure in giving all the glory and great bits to the princesses and relegating the heroics of the princes to over generalized sentimentality. Ironically they find themselves being shunned by their various princesses for a number of different reasons and even being thrown from their kingdoms. So, separate from each other they each set off to hunt down the bards and change their stories.

Eventually they all meet up with each other and stumble on a wicked plan by a dastardly witch to kidnap the bards and have them tell of her exploits making her the most famous (and evil) character in history.  Determined to re-gain their hero status they combine forces to combat the witch with a little help from Cinderella, some dwarves (and please don't call them dwarfs), a giant, a dragon and more. Together they overcome a few of their personality quirks (or learn to use those quirks for good) and personal trials making them better people in the end, of course. The bards are also rescued but even in the end they don't seem to be able to get things right.

This was an utterly charming (pun intended) story with thoroughly enjoyable characters. As I read it I kept seeing a Disney movie running through my head (and I mean that in the best way possible) especially the newer versions with a bit of sarcasm and spunk and slightly off-kilter portrayals of typically stereotyped characters. Briar Rose was a spoiled brat, Snow White was a ditzy granola tree-hugger type, Rapunzel was shy and more of a loner and Cinderella (the primary princess) had a lust for adventure and a bit of a hero complex herself.  But it was truly the princes' story.

The dialogue was witty and quick full of banter and narrator asides and commentary that made me laugh out loud in spots.  Here's a sample:

I've got some important news about the royal wedding."
"Will there be cheesecake?" someone shouted.
"No, I'm sorry. No cheesecake. Actually--"
"Will you be taking your vows in a hot-air balloon?" another voice called out.
"No, of course not.  Why would someone do that?  So, about the wedding--"
"Will there be little sausages on toothpicks and a choice of dipping sauces?" yet another person yelled.
"What about cheesecake?"
"I already said there'd be no cheesecake. Look, people, please let me--"
"Will you ride up the aisle on a unicorn?"
"There's not going to be any wedding!" the prince blurted out. (pg 84)

The princes waved good-bye to the trolls and galloped off for their climactic showdown with Zaubera. Together again, and having had a little taste of victory, they were more optimistic than ever--which they probably wouldn't have been if they'd known that one of them was not going to walk away from that battle.
Oops, sorry about that. I probably should have said, "Spoiler alert." (pg 344)

Obviously my ideal Disney is tainted with touches of The Princess Bride, Stardust, some mild  Monty Python and the like. :)

In true fantasy fashion there was a map of the land and kingdoms at the front but I wish there'd been a list of the cast of characters as well. I kept getting interrupted in my reading (for days at a time) and when I'd go back I'd mix up which prince was which and the princesses they belonged with.  But that's pretty much my only complaint. It was just good, plain fun! Boys and girls will both love it and it would make a fabulous read aloud (though it is a bit on the long side.)  This would also make a fantastic audio book with the right reader.  And while there was a neat and tidy ending the author could easily pull a loose thread here or there to spin out a sequel or two.

And now fair readers I am off to enjoy a fabulous outdoor concert. Who will I be seeing?  Why, these amazing people...yes, again!

And I've also made a judicial decision. Rather than posting a book review every single day I am hereby declaring weekends 'review free'! I've just had so many other things coming up lately I don't think I'll be able to keep up.  So, you'll still get a review each day Monday through Friday until our Summer programs end in August but I may be MIA Saturday and Sunday.  I know you'll miss me but I'm giving you time to get some of these books to read for yourself!  So get busy! :)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #4)

Mistress of the Art of Death
Author: Ariana Franklin
Published: 2007
Pages: 400
Age Range: Adult
Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score:****
Rating: R

First sentence: Here they come. 

Adelia is a doctor who specializes in postmortem diagnoses.  She's been summoned from her work in Salerno to investigate the murders of several children in Cambridge and to prove the innocence of a small group of Jews living there who have been blamed for the attacks. The only problem? It's 1171 and female medics are burned as witches. Add to it the fact that she's traveling with a Jew and a Saracen (and the countrymen just back from the Crusades) and she's bound to not be welcome or be able to do the job.
She gains friendship and a secret ally in the local prior whom she services on their journey and a tax collector who, because of his knowledge and interest in the case becomes one of Adelia's prime suspects. Forced to do her work primarily in secret and be subject to people's assumptions and judgments of her and who she is (she acts as the Saracen's interpreter and assistant in most cases) she struggles with prejudices, narrow mindedness, superstitions and blind obeisance of the townspeople and its leaders. Meanwhile children continue to die in a most gruesome manner. Will she be able to do her job well enough to stop the killer?

Taut and suspenseful it's an intriguing mystery woven into a beautiful historical tapestry that captures your attention and keeps you guessing. Henry II makes a cameo appearance and bulks up the historical part with details added about the instituting of common law, the creation of juries and other judicial changes which came about during his reign as well as the part the Crusades played in shaping the kingdom and its people. There were many traditions and appreciations brought back to the motherland along with some deepened prejudices (as well as their own versions of PTSDs.) Evil and goodness each have their say, sometimes mixed into the same characters and moments just as they are in life. There are conflicts between faith and unbelief, faith vs. The Church as well as caste and sex discriminations that rear their heads at the most inopportune times.

It's a bit gruesome and gory in parts, not for the faint of heart. Because the victims are raped and molested there are some rather vivid descriptions; much of the violence perpetrated against children, most of the rest against women. There is also some frank talk of sex and anatomical responses (though it's often from Adelia's more clinical point of view.)

By this time you all know I love me a good historical fiction and this definitely fit the bill. I loved the varied cast of characters. While it was Adelia's story you did get some notion of what life was like for each of the other groups mentioned (children, nuns, upper class etc. were all touched on.) The historical setting was a rich backdrop while the mystery could have stepped off the set of any crime scene tv show. I do like my violence to take place mostly off screen, so while it didn't detract from the story or writing at all I squirmed uncomfortably in a few places, but that's just me.

Here's a short passage that gives you just a flavor of the setting and the river which is practically a character in its own right:

In the distance loomed Great Bridge, a massive, workmanlike arch crammed with traffic.  Beyond it, where the river formed a deep pool below the castle on its hill--almost a mountain in this terrain--shipping so crowded the quays it seemed impossible from this view, that it should disentangle itself.  Wooden cranes dipped and rose like bowing herons.  Shouts and instructions were being issued in different languages.  The crafts were as varied as the tongues; wherries, horse-drawn barges, poled barges, rafts, vessels like arks--even, to Adelia's astonishment, a dhow. She could see men with blond plaits, hung about with animal skis so that tey looked like bears, performing a leaping dance back and forth between barges for the amusement of working dockers. (pg 111)

I'm nearly halfway through the second book in the series (though rumor has it the author wrote the third installment with quite a cliff-hanger ending and then passed away) and am enjoying it just as much as I did the first. For those of you who enjoy a smart mystery I'd highly recommend it!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Happiness is...a good book. (Summer Reading edition #3)

Red Knit Cap Girl
Author and Illustrator: Naoko Stoop
Published: 2012
Pages: 32
Age Range: 3+
Genre: Fantasy/Picture Book
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G

First sentence: In the forest there is time to wonder about everything.

The little red knit cap girl loves spending time in the forest, for in the forest there is time to wonder about everything. She and her friends wonder about nature, the flowers and clouds but mostly she wonders about the moon. She’d love to talk to the moon but has no success in reaching her for she’s too far away and finally seeks the advice of the wise old owl. She and her friends eventually decide to throw a party with lanterns and singing but the moon still doesn’t appear.  It’s not until the lights are out and everyone is quiet that the moon can finally be seen.

There is a simple sort of magic in being still and quiet and the red knit cap girl rediscovers this truth.  All who read this will want to do the same.  We don’t spend enough time wondering, pondering, and just basking in the silence and our lives are the poorer for it.

I love the illustrations! They are light and luminescent, the sky changing from blue to red and back again throughout the day. The wood grain pattern shows through the painted backgrounds (including the starry end pages!) complementing the ‘return to nature’ aspect.  The creatures are realistic yet with an other-worldly quality to them that enhances the magical feel while still keeping it completely believable. The girl also has rounded edges and tiny eyes, making her fit right in with her woodland friends. I even love the touch of creepiness in the forest as she approaches the owl and the fact that she has to try multiple times to get his attention.  All good things require a bit of bravery and effort.

There’s not much to dislike here; it’s just a simple yet profound message encapsulated in a magical setting. I’d love to use this in conjunction with a midsummer or fairy celebration and read it before going outside for a moon watching expedition or a midnight tea party.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Happiness is...a good book. (Summer Reading edition #2)

I'm baaaack!

So sorry about the confusion in the posting earlier.  For a quick re-cap go here or just know that I'll be posting a book review for each day of our Summer Reading programs at the library. We're back on track now with book #2.

The Secret Tree
Author: Natalie Standiford
Published: 2012
Pages: 245
Age Range: 8-12
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Cover score: ***
Overall: ***
Rating: G

First Sentence: Ghosts can live anywhere.

Voodoo curses, a Man-Bat, a missing cat, The Witch Lady, and a strange boy who lives in an abandoned model home; these are just a few of the mysteries Minty encounters the summer just before she turns eleven.  Add to that a best friend who doesn't feel so 'best' most of the time, constant tormenting by the Mean Boys, and anxieties about starting middle school and Minty's life is in constant disarray.

At first she and Paz (the BFF) are preoccupied by their obsessions with roller derby, practicing new moves and routines in every spare minute.  But when a mysterious prowler leads Minty on a chase through the woods she finds a hollow tree with a scrap of paper in it. And on that paper is written a secret. A secret that will change Minty's life forever.

The prowler turns out to be just a kid, Raymond, who lives alone in the model home next door to The Witch Lady. Together Raymond and Minty compile of book of photos of everyone in the neighborhood and additional secrets they continue to find in the tree, matching each person to their secret after spying on them. Paz can't be bothered with childish games and abandons Minty for the older, more mature Isabelle, leaving Minty hurt and confused. Raymond has more than his share of secrets and Minty wonders if she's the only one who isn't hiding something.

Their snooping leads to a few misunderstandings but ultimately the truth outs and all is well.

Here's a sample of the text:

The next day, my life was one sentence different than it had been the day before.  I kept looking at people I was used to seeing every day, and I wondered whether they felt that nobody loved them except their goldfish. Or if they were international spies.  (pg 31)

"Bring your harmonica over next time and we can play together."
"I don't have a harmonica."
"Too bad," Raymond said. "Everybody needs a harmonica. It's like a little pocket friend.  Goes wherever you go."
  (pg 99) 
(**How could I not mention the harmonicas?!)

I was learning this thing about secrets: Even if they're not about you, once you know them, they feel like they could be about you.  Every secret connects to something inside of you, whether you know it at first or not.   (pg 148)

I was reminded of more than one book while reading this one...
  • the snooping and creating a book with everyone's secrets made me think of Harriet the Spy
  • the Man-Bat and various other neighborhood folklore made me think of Dandelion Wine
  • the secrets hidden in the hollow tree trunk instantly reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird
It had an old-fashioned sort of feel to it with the kids being allowed quite a bit of freedom to come and go all day long, but there were enough modern references to keep it safely out of that realm. The characters were believable and realistically portrayed even if the solutions to their problems weren't quite as realistic. I don't see this as becoming a classic but it's a great middle reader that will definitely find fans (especially in the all-too-small niche of young roller derby enthusiasts!)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Happiness is...

*A new pair of shoes

*This movie
and the subsequent dreaming about Scotland that followed

*Lemon meringue pie
(PS-It was pretty delicious. Don't you wish you'd taken me up on my offer last week?) ;)

*This movie
and the subsequent dreaming about Indian food that followed

*And a new Summer-flavored playlist

Here Comes the Sun The Beatles
Fireflies Owl City
Ice Cream                  Sarah MacLachlan
America                  Neil Diamond
Summer in the City The Lovin’ Spoonful
Fun, Fun, Fun         The Beach Boys
I’m a Believer           The Monkees
Ain’t Going Down Til the Sun Comes Up Garth Brooks
Walkin’ on the Sun Smash Mouth
Home                  Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes
Coconut                           Harry Nilsson
You Are My Sunshine Sara Gazarek
Ring of Fire          Johnny Cash
It’s my Life          Bon Jovi
Hot Fun in the Summertime Sly and the Family Stone
Shine            Vienna Teng
July, July          The Decemberists
Walt Whitman          Trampled by Turtles
It’s a Great Day to Be Alive Travis Tritt
Late in the Evening Paul Simon
Summer Breeze          Jason Mraz
Summertime        Oscar Peterson

How's your summer progressing?

See you tomorrow with more book reviews!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Happiness is...a burst of color.

So, last week before the mini-heat wave hit wilting and bleaching everything in sight, I took a walk around the neighborhood basking in the gorgeous weather and the brilliant flora.

The hydrangeas were particularly vibrant...

like an avalanche of cotton candy colored snowballs cascading over hills of emerald green...awesome!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Happiness is...the start of summer!

Happy Summer Solstice, all!

Today is the longest (and possibly the hottest so far) day of the year and in honor I've made a list of things I feel are quintessentially summertime, things I want to make sure I do before the air turns crisp and the leaves change colors and I'm forced to wear socks and shoes again on a regular basis.

  • Go on a picnic
  • Spend a day at the beach
  • Watch a movie under the stars
  • Blow bubbles
  • Make lemonade
  • Go to an outdoor concert
  • Watch fireworks
  • Make ice cream
  • Participate in a water fight
  • Go to an amusement park
  • Make a summer playlist
  • Take advantage of the neighborhood pool
  • Go camping
  • Eat BBQ
  • Decorate the sidewalk with chalk
  • Watch lightning bugs
  • Go hiking
  • Run through the sprinklers
  • Make a meal solely with food bought at a farmer’s market
  • Go to a baseball game
  • Lie on my back and count the stars

Anything missing?  What are your favorite summer pastimes?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Happiness is...a good book. (Summer Reading edition #1)

**This is what I get for trying to be organized!  So, our Summer programs don't actually start until next week. I totally jumped the gun in the posting department (this wasn't supposed to run until next Monday.) It still stands as post numero uno but I won't be posting the next one until Tuesday the 26th.  So sorry!  But just think, now you've got more time to send me suggestions of books to read between now and then :)

It’s that time again.  Our Summer Reading programs started today at work and I’m feeling the need to challenge myself and mix things up a bit.  Our programs run through August 24th and I’m shooting to post a book review on each of those 60 days. I’m also going to be changing my format a little and hopefully making them a bit more useful than the short critiques I’ve given in the past.  We’ll see if it works better or if I end up reverting back to the lazier mode!  I’d love your opinions and comments (and as always your book suggestions!)

The Year of the Book
Author: Andrea Cheng
Illustrator: Abigail Halpin
Pages: 146
Age Range: 7-10
Published: 2012
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score:****
Rating: G

First sentence: Ray, the crossing guard, is waiting at the curb in his orange vest that catches the sunrise.

Anna is struggling with being a kid.  Her best friend has mostly abandoned her for the snobby popular crowd who mocks her homemade lunch bag, the way she knits a toe sock for Ray and her tendency to daze off in class while reading. She's embarrassed by her mother who doesn’t speak English well, works as a janitor on Saturdays and still hasn’t passed her driving test.  She's frustrated at Chinese school where she doesn't understand what's going on.  She's smart but her schoolwork is never as neat and tidy as the other girls' in her class and somehow no matter what she does it just doesn't seem good enough.

Typical of most kids (and adults for that matter) she feels as if she's the only person having problems and no one understands what she's going through.  Particularly she's at odds with her mother, the English traditions and culture constantly clashing with the Chinese.

But then Anna finds out that Laura's parents are fighting and getting divorced. Ray the crossing guard slips and breaks his leg, Camille (her only friend at Chinese school) has a hard time with school and may have to repeat 4th grade and even Allison isn't as perfect as she appears.

She teaches Laura to sew, helps Camille with some of her homework and finds strength and reassurance from her adult friends, Ray and Mr. Shepherd, and a very supportive teacher.

There are brief mentions of some of Anna’s family’s Chinese traditions and culture such as Chinese New Year, the way they celebrate Thanksgiving and more. There's a pronunciation guide at the front with the Chinese phrases used (and illustrations of their characters). And the small sketches sprinkled throughout (many of them recreating the covers of the books Anna is reading) add the perfect touch.

I'm a sucker for books about books. I love it when the character is an avid reader (or not and gets swept up in reading or catches the reading bug thanks to an encouraging teacher or a certain book.) I love it when they make reference to the books they've read or allude to characters in other books. Anna uses her books as an escape tactic, getting lost in them (as all good readers do!) But she also draws inferences, makes connections to her own life and uses them to ask herself some deep and difficult questions and see the world through the eyes of other people.

Here’s a sample of the writing:

Allison is a skinny girl with brown hair and sweater sets. Now she's whispering something to Lucy and looking sideways at Laura.  She's a whispering kind of girl.  (page 63)

Instead of Anna Wang, I could be Anna Brown or Anna Smith.  I see my reflection in the glass pane in the door.  But then my name wouldn't match my face. There’s is a girl in the Chinese class named April Sawalasky.  She was adopted from China, so she has a Chinese face without a Chinese name.  I wonder if she even thinks about that. (page 71)

My biggest complaint is that I wish there'd been a list at the end of all the books referenced.  So I made my own!

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler by EL Konigsburg
Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni
*My Louisiana Sky by Kimberly Willis Holt
*Hush by Jacqueline Woodson
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeliene L'Engle (with honorable mentions to the rest of the series)
The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain
George Shrinks by William Joyce
Where the Sidewalk Ends by  Shel Silverstein

*books I haven't read yet and added to my list!

But I love the tiny book illustrations on the front cover and the allusions in the title to the Chinese Zodiac mentioned near the end of the book. And I do love that there were directions for sewing your own drawstring bag on the back cover!

Multi-ethnic kids will appreciate Anna’s struggles and avid readers will appreciate all of her book love. Definitely recommended!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Happiness is...a day for dads.

My dad and I have never had a fabulous relationship.  I love him dearly and I know he loves me but we are just so different (or maybe we are too similar?) we have always had a hard time getting along. One of the greatest things that has come from my move across the country is an improvement in our relationship.  I don't know that I'll ever be a daddy's girl (and I harbor secret envy of those who are) but my love and appreciation for him grows exponentially on a daily basis.

He is one of the smartest people I know, but also one of the most stubborn. I highly respect him and value his opinion but am also finally coming to understand and appreciate the fact that he doesn't know everything.  And he is learning to value my opinion as well.

He is one of the hardest working people I've ever met and he taught me to do a job well.

He has an undeniable faith and is willing to serve and teach and share that faith with others in any capacity. He's taught me to put the Lord first and do the same.

He's not perfect but he's always been there for me and I know he will be no matter what happens.

Even when we've not been able to see eye to eye I know that I can trust him and that he has nothing but my best interests in mind (even if it doesn't always come across that way.)

Thanks dad. For putting up with me.  For supporting me in so many ways. For being the example and the foundation of my life. I can only hope that I'll choose wisely enough that my children will be as lucky with their example of fatherhood as I was with mine.

I love you!

Happy Father's Day

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Happiness is...a bit of domesticity.

Today was a wonderfully productive day.  I started out the morning by making strawberry freezer jam with my roommate (real jam with a water bath and the works will be on my list when I have a kitchen bigger than a breadbox, and all the equipment!)

Next up was reorganizing my drawers (things fit so much more neatly and easily this way.  I've packed like this for years, why I'd never thought to do this at home still boggles my mind.  Thanks Pinterest!) 

And finally I spent some time switching up the bedroom a bit (I finally found the perfect color of robin's egg blue accessories. There's a fuzzy blanket--one can never have too many fuzzy blankets--, some napkins I stitched together to make pillow covers, and some strategically placed ribbons.  Next step, paint the walls to match!)

Not too shabby if I do say so myself!  How was your weekend?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Happiness is...time spent with friends.

I spent just over two hours with my good friend Neil tonight. He's getting along in years and time is beginning to take its toll but he's still got a lot in him.  His voice is a bit deeper and a lot more rough and gravelly than it was when he was younger.  He pulled off a pretty decent Rex Harrison impression in some of the more vigorous moments and took some time out to reminisce (like any old man would) but otherwise he went non-stop.

At times he waxed philosophical and faced his mortality and other times discussed some of the loves in his life.  He had a come-to-Jesus moment and together (with 50,000 of our closest friends) we sang Sweet Caroline at the top of our lungs...5 times!  Not bad for a fella who's practically old enough to be my grandpa!

Here's one we didn't get a chance to hear...

(He's still just as stylish as ever!) While we didn't get to experience the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders tonight there was a snazzy trio of ladies that helped to re-kindle my secret desire to be a 60s era back-up singer (ala the Supremes). Those people get to have all the fun!  Where does one go to school for that?

Oh, and there was a harmonica!  It doesn't get much better than that!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Happiness is...a piece of pie.

I saw MIB 3 while I was home with my parents this past week and found myself thoroughly enjoying its familiar silliness and slightly more serious tone. I wish however that I’d had a notebook with me to jot down a few of the lines.  There was a whole section where Tommy Lee Jones’ character rhapsodizes on the glories and benefits of eating pie.  All answers can be solved by indulging in a piece of pie, letting the deliciousness sink in and the mind wander and clear, the answers slowly making themselves manifest in the aftermath.  There were some great quippy quotes that I’ll be making use of once I can rewatch it on DVD but the gist was, ”There is truth in pie.”  Amen and amen to that.

Later that week I was mulling over a host of life altering questions and joined some of my favorite family members for late night pie; and it was cathartic.  We laughed, we cried, we ate and behold my mind was cleared.  I didn’t find all the answers I needed but I found truth nonetheless.  So, thus inspired I decided I must make a pie of my own to aid my decision making. (I’m just afraid that this might be a deadly habit…I’ll really have to increase the running/yoga I’ve been doing!)  Thanks to several friendly mentions (most notably here) strawberry rhubarb was the winning flavor and it was an excellent choice!

It was the perfect mix of sweet and tart, warm and gooey with a light and flakey crust and a crumbly sugar topping.  The perfect pastry, the perfect end to the rainy, slightly gloomy day we had yesterday.  And it did wonders for my soul if not my waist.  My mind and heart are more at ease even if I haven’t solved all the world’s problems just yet. I think I may need a bit more pie for that.  Whaddya say this time next week, you me and some problem solving pie? How does lemon merengue sound?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Happiness is...a trip home.

4 hours + 1 plane ride + 2000 miles + 3 super thick shakes + 4 dinners with friends + 1 mani/pedi + miles of  mountains + 2 darling nephews + 1 birthday celebration + 20 hugs from a two-year-old + 5 kisses from a one-year-old + countless moments with grandparents + 1 rousing game of glow-in-the-dark air hockey + 2 massages + 1 afternoon movie - all stress - 24 hours of work - any doses of reality + a bit of typical family drama = 1 terrific trip home!

And now we're back to real life. Why is it that vacations are never long enough?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Happiness is...a sign.

The other day this was the first song that played on my ipod.
It was followed rather shortly by this song.
Then later at work I finished reading this book which tells the stories behind various children's authors, illustrators and books. It made mention of not one, not two, but three different books that in some way revolve around harmonicas.

First up was Zeke Pippin by William Stieg.
Next was Lentil by Robert McCloskey.

And finally we had The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster.
I was beginning to think the universe was conspiring something. And sure enough, when I got home I had a flier in my mailbox advertising a concert for this fellow (whom I'd never heard of before but I'm pretty sure I need to buy tickets for it!)
It's a sign, there's no other explanation for it. Anyone know where I can buy a harmonica?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Happiness is...having a natural sanctuary.

Every now and then you just need to avoid reality.  I would have given anything to take a drive up the mountains today. To wind slowly to the pinnacle, to rise above it all, to look down on everything below, to gain an elevated perspective, to clear my head.  But as I'm hundreds of miles from anything that can realistically be termed a mountain I had to make do with what I have at my disposal...a river.

This afternoon I bailed from all of my duties and responsibilities and drove down the George Washington Parkway along the Potomac River. I pulled over, found a bench and spent a couple of hours letting the breeze blow through my hair, the sun kiss my face and my worries float down stream with the rest of the debris in the current.

Some days you just need to commune with nature and empty your mind of everything else. Today was one of those days.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Happiness is...a good book!

I haven't been wowed by a book for awhile but these recent reads have come pretty close.  Take a look. 

Dead End in Norvelt
Author: Jack Gantos
Pages: 341
Age Range: 10+
Published: 2012
Genre: Historical Fiction
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ****
Rating: PG

Part biography and part tall-tale this is the technicolored true story of Jack's own childhood growing up in the Depression Era neighborhood of Norvelt (named for co-founder Eleanor Roosevelt). When he accidentally shoots off his father's Japanese rifle from WWII his mother grounds him for the summer.  As further punishment he is pimped out to his older next door neighbor who writes the obituaries for the local newspaper but her arthritis acts up too much for her to do it on her own any more.  The two get into all sorts of trouble together driving illegally (Jack is 12), stirring up worry of a murderer in their midst, fighting off a gang of Hells Angels and more. There's a serial movie quality to it, the various episodes could almost stand on their own as short stories. And in some places it is laugh out loud hysterical. You feel sorry for Jack stuck in the middle of so much progress but also get a pretty good grasp on the whole societal shift from 'old fashioned' morals and lifestyle to the 'modern' age as everyone adjusts to the Cold War, growth and what not.

I’ve decided I have a real affinity for intergenerational stories. Anything that has kids and older generations forming bonds will almost always appeal to me. This book is no exception. Hand it to reluctant boy readers. They’ll thank you!

Author: RJ Palacio
Pages: 315
Age Range: 9+
Published: 2012
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ****
Rating: PG

Auggie was born with several birth defects requiring major surgeries for most of his young life. By the time he reaches 5th grade he's stabilized enough that he can finally attend school but he and his parents both have mixed feelings about his venturing out into the world. (By his own admission his face resembles Jenga Fett's when it is melted.) But after a few mishaps he finds a small niche at school and for the most part things go well. There's a student who is cruel and enlists the help of others (as he's pare of the popular crowd, of course) but there are those who rally around Auggie. Meanwhile his older sister has some growing pains of her own adjusting to being in high school and associating with a group of kids who don't know about her little brother. Told from various points of view (Auggie’s, his sister’s and 1 of each of their peers) this is a powerful story of the need for kindness.

The author does a great job of touching on all the feelings and emotions one might experience in any of the kids’ situations; fear, embarrassment, frustration, curiosity, anger etc. and the reader won’t be able to help but wonder how they’d respond in a similar situation. There's a little bit of 'neat and tidy' towards the end but somehow it works.  This is one I would recommend to any/every classroom for opening up some important dialogue about bullying and more. A truly amazing story!

This Plus That: Life’s Little Equations
Author: Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Illustrator: Jen Corace
Pages: 32
Age Range: 5+
Published: 2011
Genre: Fiction
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G

This is such a fun concept! Using the idea of math equations the author thinks way outside of the box and comes up with a few of her own ideas.  Here’s just a smattering of examples:  Cozy+smell of pancakes-alarm clock=weekend.  Chores divided by everyone=family. Sprinkles+anything=better. Chalk+sitting=school  while chalk+jumping=hopscotch. Teachers will be using this for writing prompts, I guarantee it!

The Sky is Everywhere
Author: Jandy Nelson
Pages: 275
Age Range: 15+
Published: 2010
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ****
Rating: R (see notes below)

When her sister dies Lennie is heartbroken to say the least.  Abandoned by her mother as a baby and living with her eccentric grandmother and Uncle Big she's trying to cope with this new reality without Bailey in it. Her first day back to school she meets devastatingly handsome Joe who is new to school and has been holding her clarinet spot in band. She falls for him right away but things get complicated when she also finds herself falling for Bailey's boyfriend Toby.

This is a beautifully written book about love, loss, growing up and finding yourself as the three (along with grandmother and Uncle Big on the sidelines) navigate through their grief and hormones and come to recognize their relationships for what they truly are.  There is some strong language (multiple f-bombs) and frank sex talk (hard ons etc.) and some drug use (underage drinking, uncle smokes pot) but all realistically portrayed, just make sure you hand it to older readers.

Revenge of the Dinotrux
Author and Illustrator: Chris Gall
Pages: 32
Age Range: 3+
Published: 2012
Genre: Science Fiction
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: ****
Rating: G

The dinotrux live in a museum where they are poked and prodded and the worst days of all are when kindergarten kids come and swing, scream and bang their way through the building.  One day they decide they've had enough.  They break out of the museum and wreak havoc on the town until the mayor orders them to go to school and learn manners.  At first they are rude and unruly but eventually they learn and even help build a playground for the kids.  And it’s just perfect for swinging, banging and screaming!

This is a fun and silly mix of dinosaurs and trucks (almost amazing to think that the two have never been combined before) that kids (boys especially, of course) will devour!

His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg
Author: Louise Borden
Pages: 136
Age Range: 10+
Published: 2012
Genre: Biography
Cover Score: ***
Overall Score: ****
Rating: PG

Raoul was a young boy growing up in a privileged Swedish home prior to WWII.  He spent many summers traveling the world learning languages and coming to love and understand many types of people. He studied architecture in the US and spent time with Jewish refugees on his way home from the Middle East.  When war broke out, Sweden remained neutral and longed to find ways to help the Jews and other refugees who were being sent from their homes and killed. Raoul worked in trade and traveled back and forth between many countries gaining a reputation of fairness and courage. The US asked for a special delegation and soon Raoul found himself on a train to Budapest to undertake the rescue of thousands of Hungarian Jews with no real plan. He created false passes and documentation offering them safety under the Swedish rule, distributed food and supplies to ghettos, housed and hid families in makeshift apartments, won over many government and Nazi officials and lasted through several coups and overthrows only to wind up in a Russian prison, his eventual fate unknown to this day.

This was a story I'd never heard before but was familiar for its acts of courage and decency. It’s filled with photos and facsimiles of documents, passes, journal entries and more. An author's note concludes with her initial desire to learn more about him, her process of writing and her journeys to visit his remaining family. This is an excellent resource and one that will stand with those of other brave youth and people of the day. It’s very readable and the plethora of photos and images will add to the appeal for reluctant readers. 

Have you read any of these? What did you think.  Do you have any suggestions for my summer reading list? I'd love to hear them!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Happiness is...the first firefly of summer.

At this exact moment we are experiencing a crazy tropical storm system with tornado warnings, torrential downpours, the works.  But yesterday was a beautiful day.

Last night I stood outside having a thoroughly enlightening conversation with a friend until nearly midnight.  The air was warm, the grass was cool on my occasionally bare feet and as the sky grew darker the lightning bugs came out in full force. They flickered around us, in and out of the grass and trees like stars falling from the sky or fairies playing a game of tag.

I always have to control myself to keep from wishing on them.  Well, that's a lie.  I usually do make at least one wish on the first one, just like I do with stars.

Star light, star bright
First star I see tonight
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight.

If I could see the stars (or the fireflies) through the clouds and the deluge tonight I know just what I'd wish for.  How about you?