Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Three New Jewish Books

A few months ago, we had some discussion on child_lit and various blogs about why there weren't more books about Jewish kids that aren't totally focused on being Jewish. (My thoughts are that as far as I can see there isn't any dearth of such books; I can think of lots of examples. That doesn't mean there shouldn't/couldn't be more, but I don't think there's a big lack.)

Anyway, here's a coincidence: the first three ARCs I read from ALA are all about Jewish kids. And okay, it happens that they're all historical fiction, but two of them are straight-up slice-of-life books that I think will please the people who are looking for more of that.

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, by Margarita Engle (published in April), is another verse-novel, like her Newbery-Honored The Surrender Tree. It's the story of Daniel, a young German Jewish teen who escaped the Holocaust and arrived in Cuba, but without his parents; and Paloma, a Cuban girl concerned with the plight of the refugees. The characters are crystal-clear (especially in the case of secondary character of David, an older Russian Jew who has lived in Cuba for decades), and I just gobbled this book up even when I tried to savor the poetry. One thing I really appreciated about this book is that it assumes some knowledge of World War Two; Engle doesn't waste space explaining details about what's going on back in Germany. I noticed when I was waiting in line to meet Engle at ALA that many people seemed to be picking this up, perhaps more than The Surrender Tree, and I think the subject matter is perhaps more appealing--so many people are interested in Holocaust stories who might not think they'd be interested in a Spanish-American War story. I didn't think this was as compelling and finely-wrought as The Surrender Tree, but it is excellent, and maybe more accessible (and for slightly younger readers). I recommend it highly.

This tropical heat
is a weight in the sky
crushing my breath,
but I will not remove
my winter coat or my fur hat
or the itchy wool scarf
my mother knitted

or the gloves my father gave me

to keep my hands warm

that we could all

play music together
someday, in the Golden Land

called New York.

(quote is from the ARC)

Strawberry Hill by Mary Ann Hoberman (out this month) surprised me when it turned out to be a book about a Jewish girl. The back cover hooked me because it sounded like a new book of a Gone-Away Lake or Miracles on Maple Hill stripe. ("When ten-year-old Allie learnes that her family will be moving from a two-family home to their very own house, she's hesitant until she finds out they will be living on a street with the magical name of Strawberry Hill. That changes everything!") I was also surprised to open it up and discover that it's set in the Depression era. (The ARC didn't have a cover illustration.) I was hoping for something modern-day, perhaps less arch and derivative than The Penderwicks. So keep this in mind when I don't give this book a glowing review: I wanted it to be something it wasn't.

Allie's family is not very religious, but being Jewish is a part of her identity that becomes more important when she makes friends in her new neighborhood with a popular Catholic girl (Catholics don't come off well in this book) and a Jewish girl who is an outcast. She encounters anti-Semitism for the first time, but it isn't central to the story. Strawberry Hill is a mild and gentle book that will probably please some young readers (and will definitely please their parents), but it lacks the magic of classic we-move-to-a-new-place-and-everything-is-awesome books. But I know those books have generally been pretty WASPy, and this is a nice contrast.

The Importance of Wings by Robin Friedman (out this month) is altogether different, and quite interesting. It's set in the 1980s, juuuust before my time; enough that the setting feels familiar to me and will feel like home to my oldest sister. This book is rough, but, I think, unique, and I enjoyed it more than I expected to. For one thing, I thought with that title this would be a teen angst story about finding your own wings. No, the wings in the title refer solely to feathered hair. Nice.

Thirteen-year-old Roxanne, who immigrated to New Jersey with her family from Israel when she was a little girl, is the star here, and I love her. Roxanne and her little sister spend a lot of time watching TV--Wonder Woman and The Brady Bunch, chiefly. Look, I spent plenty of time playing outside and reading when I was a kid, but I also watched those late-afternoon reruns, and I loved finding a character in a book who did that, too. It sounds like a dull character trait, but Friedman works it in well; the girls just seem REAL.

The story begins when another Israeli girl moves in next door, and this girl, Liat, is a bit larger than life and broadly drawn--but then, that's part of the story, too; Roxanne often compares her to Wonder Woman. Liat is more involved with Israeli culture than Roxanne, who is focused on trying to be a "Real American". In her own mind, she never quite succeeds.

This is a book about growing up in the 1980s, about being an immigrant, and about being thirteen (remember the title--the most important thing in the world, to Roxanne, is feathered hair). While the writing was heavy-handed in spots, especially at the end, and the story was a bit jumpy, I felt like I was reading something new and different but real here. The Importance of Wings won't be winning any awards, and I'm not quite sure what kids will make of the 1980s setting, but this is a solid book that I think will appeal to middle school girls who are bright but aren't advanced readers.

(Except I really hate it in books when it turns out that the plain protagonist is actually really beautiful. Ahem.)

Friday, July 17, 2009

ALA round-up

I am about to leave for Granny Burton's house, the only place in my life without Internet, so a full report will have to wait until next week.

My weekend at ALA Annual in Chicago was amazing, filled with books, authors, and editors, plus great learning about ALA itself and best practices for working with my students.

Best celebrity author moment: watching Sherman Alexie and Laurie Halse Anderson bump into each other and start chatting, three feet from me, as I lingered by the wall before the Newbery banquet.

Best non-celebrity author moment: learning that the quiet librarian sitting next to me during YA author speed-dating was herself a YA author who had just published Serendipity Market with HarperCollins this spring.

Some great conference reports posted this week:

I was delighted with Tasha Saecker's post about her conference because, while our themes are similar, she attended an entirely different roster of events than I did. That's how big this conference is!

Conference report from Publishers Weekly, and photos

Scholastic authors brunch, which I attended directly after YALSA's YA Authors Coffee Klatch (what a morning that was!)

Two reports on the Newbery/Caldecott/Wilder banquet. I was there.

More to come!

(And again, credit to the Baker & Taylor/YALSA grant that enabled me to have this incredibly memorable experience. I can't say enough about how fabulously I was treated by all the members and staff of YALSA who I met this weekend.)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

ALA Sanity Break

I'm sitting outside the exhibit hall at ALA in Chicago. It's hard to believe that yesterday I worked a full shift at my job as a registered nurse--just as yesterday evening, when I got on the train to Chicago, I had a hard time thinking about books.

I started the day by heading straight to Scholastic for an ARC of Catching Fire, as did many others. I hadn't heard much about whether there actually would BE ARCs, but I already turned one down that someone offered me a few weeks ago, saying "give it to someone else, I'll pick one up at ALA". Yes, they were there! I feel like the last blogger ever to have one, but I'm satisfied.

Since then, I have:

--made Richard Peck laugh (and I'm pretty sure it was at me, not with me; I told him about how I visited Madame Tussaud's to see where Blossom and Alexander posed in the Titanic exhibit, and he said "You believe everything you read, don't you?")

--accosted Elizabeth Bunce, Yuyi Morales, and Garret Freymann-Wehr as they were just walking along, trying to look at stuff themselves

--talked with Roger Sutton about, of all things, The Long Winter

--almost cried talking to Candace Fleming about The Lincolns

--really started to cry when thinking about what I would say to Margo Lanagan about Tender Morsels; luckily for her, she's not appearing until Monday, after I leave, because yeah, there would have been tears

--tried to convince a rep to sell me her display copy of Lincoln: A Photobiography so I could get it autographed by Russell Freedman (they'd sold out--she wouldn't; I bought the Marian Anderson book instead, and I'm sure it's great, but pooh)

--gotten totally tongue-tied when trying to speak to Kadir Nelson, whose gaze is more compelling than should be allowable under the law.

I also collected other ARCs (and bought books too--no one told me many of the publishers would be selling brand-new current books cheap!), and shortly after the Kadir Nelson incident, decided to mail almost everything home. I held onto Catching Fire for the train ride, and I mailed the copies I had autographed for my mother and brother of We Are the Ship and A Year Down Yonder. (The first for my mother and the second for my brother, which is interesting.) I thought I looked at every ARC I took very carefully to make sure it was REALLY something I wanted--but when I was unpacking my backpack, I discovered that most of them I didn't ever remember picking up. I was pleased to get the new Alvin Ho book, and the rep handed me another one that she said I would like too, about a boy in Hawaii. It was a special thrill to see my brother-in-law Matthew's book, Hungry Monkey, at the Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt booth.

Then I headed out to take a break, but had no more than turned on this computer before my sister Laurie called. She wanted to go to a session; did I want to take her place in the Simon and Schuster line so I could have a brownie and meet M.T. Anderson, among others? Um, yes. Simon and Schuster was passing out plain old BOOKS. Piles of Chains and Wintergirls were seized quickly, but I picked up several others that looked good. My backpack is starting to feel heavy again.

Oh, and I've seen many friends old and new--I waved at Nina Lindsay, had lunch with child-lit people including Cheryl Klein, Monica Edinger, Anastasia Suen and Lyn Miller-Lachmann, talked briefly with two Betsy-Tacy friends (there will be a large, jolly Betsy-Tacy lunch tomorrow), and said a quick "happy birthday" to Abby the Librarian. I was bummed to miss Liz Burns due to a schedule misprint, and I'm still hoping to run into her and Betsy Bird. Anyone else around?

Monday, July 6, 2009


This year, thanks to a Baker & Taylor/YALSA grant and a calendar that puts Annual in July, I am going to the ALA Annual Conference! The stars have aligned to give me not just a great professional experience for a school librarian, but also an opportunity I never imagined as I studied the Newbery Award poster that hung in my elementary school library.

Since it's Wendy who actually read all the Newbery winners, I have promised her a full report from the banquet and will share it here as well. I am very excited, as well, about attending the Printz Award Program. While the Newbery is the award of my childhood, the Printz began when I was an adult working in a bookstore, and the Printz books have been fantastic over the years. This year's winner, Jellicoe Road, is not an easy book, nor can it have been an easy choice for the award, but... WOW.

(I considered also writing a post about Nicholas Kristof's column, but fortunately I can now point you to this response from Lisa Von Drasek at Early Word. "Hoary old favorites" is right. The only thing I will add is that if you did not already know that Kristof grew up in Oregon, the bizarre inclusion of On to Oregon on his list would tip you off. I loved pioneer stories when I was a kid too, Nick, but I don't go around recommending Tree Wagon to kids today.)