A Slip of a Girl

“An economy of words” was a phrase I used to guide my eighth graders in the writing of poetry; I wanted them to seek the fewest but most powerful words to express themselves. Giff is a master at this in her sparing free verse novel about Anna Mallon, the title’s “slip of a girl,” whose family is scattered by hunger and the Irish Land War. Giff wrings volumes of pain and poignancy out of a mere 25 to 75 words per page in her work of historical fiction, much like Karen Hesse does in Out of the Dust (published 23 years ago and still a must-read). Anna brings to mind the Fearless Girl statue on Wall Street – arms akimbo and chin jutting defiantly in the face of forces she’s been told are more powerful than she is. Land barons are heartlessly throwing out whomever famine hasn’t killed or chased away. Anna’s brothers Willie and John and sister Jane leave for America; her mother dies; and her father is jailed when Anna acts on a vengeful but understandable impulse at the home of the earl who wants to evict them. She must now look after herself and her younger sister Nuala, who is developmentally disabled. It is a harrowing journey to the home of an elderly aunt with a curmudgeonly reputation, but Anna pins her hopes on the bonds of family, no matter how distant. In a lovely turn, the aunt quickly develops a great tenderness for Nuala. Knowing her little sister is safe with Aunt Ethna, Anna chooses to return home after hearing organized resistance against land owners is gaining momentum. Her fight to reclaim what belongs to her family is not finished. On her deathbed, Mam had told Anna to keep Nuala safe, as well as the land and the house, but Anna’s Da said to his wife, “Anna’s only a slip of a girl.” Mam responded, “Ah, no. She’s more than that. Much more.” Indeed.

The Ghost Collector

It wouldn’t be October without a review of a ghost story! The premise of Allison Mills’s debut novel is unique: the women in Shelly’s family have the ability to interact with ghosts, and if those spirits are causing a disturbance, they can capture them in their hair, remove the haunts from the site, and help them on to the next place. Shelly and her grandmother have to keep their hair bound when they leave the house; otherwise they immediately attract ghosts. (And not just the human kind. Animals wind themselves into their tresses, as well!) The book offers great spine tingles, but it does go beyond cemeteries and angry ghosts, examining the impact of death on those left behind. Shelly uses her supernatural gift inappropriately as she grapples with a passing (handled powerfully by what ISN’T written about it – that’s all I can say without giving anything away). She assumes she’ll be able to contact the deceased, but her discovery that she cannot adds to the devastation of the loss. She lashes out in anger and makes selfish choices, but as the sad, messy journey of grief (oooh, don’t even get me started on that eight stages garbage) unfurls before her, she finds a strength in herself and in familial bonds that will see her through. Humor and relatable details of daily life are woven into this deeper layer and into the eerie elements of the book, and the characters are appealing. This is a thoughtful and entertaining ghost story to curl up with on a chilly autumn night! And you might think twice about whether it’s a draft in the room stirring the ends of your hair…

Parrots, Pugs, and Pixie Dust

I am a low-maintenance kind of gal when it comes to my appearance – I get my hair cut for about $10 at a walk-in salon, wear almost no makeup, and my closet contains only black clothes. So I can’t really explain why one of my secret wishes is to someday glide into Cartier or Harry Winston and spend hours trying on rings and necklaces and earrings with absolutely obscene price tags. Big, glittering baubles of blue and red and green and pink and white… sigh, you get the idea. That’s one of the reasons I just love this picture book biography of Judith Leiber, the fashion designer who became a superstar for her spectacular, whimsical handbags, many of which were carried by the likes of Queen Elizabeth, Mamie Eisenhower, and Greta Garbo. She designed handbags shaped like ice cream sundaes and frogs and butterflies, and for two first ladies, bags shaped like their pets. Leiber said her petite creations were only meant to hold a lipstick, a $100 bill, and a credit card, but what they lacked in size, they made up for in extraordinary detail done entirely in crystals (up to 13,000 per bag). But the sparkles aren’t the only or even the best reason to laud this book; the most powerful aspect of Leiber’s life story is that she didn’t just survive unimaginable strife but thrived on the other side of it. As a young woman, Leiber left her native Budapest to study in London, but war erupted in 1939 while she was home on a break and she would remain there. Initially training in a handbag house, she – with her family – would be forced to sew Nazi uniforms instead. They would eventually have to go into hiding in a basement, emerging at last in 1945. Leiber married an American soldier and came to live in the States with him. A sculptor and painter, he helped her manage the handbag house she was finally able to open. Leiber would continue designing bags until 1998. What a triumph Leiber’s life was: she pursued her passion for handbag design, beginning with sweeping floors in a Budapest shop, making bags from scraps at night after she had labored during the day for the Nazis, persisting in bringing loveliness to life in the face of ugliness, and becoming a legend for it. Blumenthal’s narrative has a fairy tale tone, making it a good fit for reading aloud. D’yans’s illustrations are stunning; bright, rich colors reflect the happy days of Leiber’s life while the impact of the Nazi occupation is represented by dark blues, browns, and greens. Dyans employs the wet-in-wet watercolor technique for much of her artwork, but she utilizes tiny dots of paint to mimic the crystals of Leiber’s handbags to a most charming effect. This picture book biography is about so much more than a fashion designer who made pretty accessories; it’s about refusing to let the darkness extinguish one’s light.

Just Like Beverly

Beloved children’s author Beverly Cleary had an idyllic childhood. Farm animals were her earliest playmates. Her parents were loving and involved. And she had a gang of friends with whom she spent endless hours outside. But she would have to endure a bout with smallpox and a cruel teacher who shamed her for falling behind rather than help her catch up. She struggled to read and dreaded returning to school the following year, but oh, what a difference a kind and gifted educator can make in a child’s life. Her second grade teacher worked with her one-on-one, and little Beverly blossomed. Her appetite for books was insatiable, and her favorites were those with children just like her and her friends. Cleary’s love of reading led to a love of writing, and well, the rest is history. A delightful, inspiring history of channeling her passion to the benefit of kiddos who reminded her of herself at their age, wanting fun books filled with relatable young characters. The book includes detailed end material that fleshes out Conrad’s light narrative. Hohn’s sunny, 1950’s-style illustrations, paired with Conrad’s cheerful text, make this book a charming study of what it can mean – not just to ourselves but to others – to follow our dreams.

Little Libraries, Big Heroes

Whoooeee, people, I need to keep going with the heroes theme. Just when I think the jerks in this world can’t outdo themselves, they say, “Here, hold my beer.” So let’s duck our heads into another book about the good guys and ignore the yucky ones. This is the heartwarming story of the little free library, those delightful tiny boxes of literary goodness that have popped up all over the world. Todd Bol, the kind soul behind LFL, struggled with reading as a child but his mom was his constant cheerleader, telling him he could do anything. When she passed away, he found solace in honoring her by building the first little free library, a wee one-room schoolhouse put together from pieces of an old door, and installing it in his front yard. Once his teeny schoolhouse was noticed, it became a popular neighborhood gathering place. Bol and a friend decided to build more, but it took going out into different communities to really get folks’ attention. Within a year, 400 little free libraries appeared across the United States. You’ll need a Kleenex before we go any further. I’ll wait… Got one? Okay. Paul highlights three extraordinary examples of the good that little free libraries have done. After Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, a six-year-old girl collected 2,000 books and distributed a box of them to every little free library in the city. She then got one of her own, and it’s still active. Fifteen years later. A librarian established a little free library in El Paso, and with the help of her students, placed more than 50 additional ones around the city, giving families greater access to books in both English and Spanish. In western Uganda, a little free library in a refugee camp served as a resource for people who had fled violence with very little if anything in their possession. Many of them could not read but would learn how, using the books available to them in that little box. See? Told you. Paul’s book isn’t just about the start of the little free library program. The message that anyone can be a hero undergirds the details of Bol’s lovely idea and how it expanded worldwide. The book tells kids who are struggling – not just with reading, but with anything, really – that they, too, have something extraordinary to share with the world. There’s substantial end material, including – you may want to grab another Kleenex – the sad fact that Bol passed away from pancreatic cancer as the book was being finished. Little free library stewards (many of whom are children, by the way) placed white or gray ribbons on their tiny libraries in memory of him, and a gray ribbon has been included in one of the illustrations in the book. You’ll want to go back and look for it, of course. Give this book to a child who needs to know they, too, have something special to contribute. Share this book with a class and come up with a community-minded project, not necessarily a little free library, but something that serves others. Goodness knows we could use more of that.

The Brave Cyclist

With a whole lotta grown-ups doing a whole lotta sucky things lately, kids could use some good stories about heroes, true heroes – the “helpers” of Fred Rogers’s wonderful quote (on which I myself lean quite often nowadays). Gino Bartali was one such helper. The Italian Bartali, an avid cyclist since childhood, won the Tour de France in 1938, but that wouldn’t actually be his greatest achievement. In 1943, he was asked by Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa to help with an effort to spare persecuted Jews. False identification documents were being printed for them in Assisi so they could flee to safety, and Bartali agreed to store needed paperwork and photographs inside the frame of his bicycle and deliver them to the men making the papers. He would then return to Florence with completed documents. He was stopped once by soldiers but used his fame as a champion cyclist to escape discovery. Thinking quickly to keep them from examining his bike, he said the position of his seat, handlebars, and pedals had to be left exactly as they were to prevent possible injury. The soldiers believed him and let him go on. He experienced several close calls including brief imprisonment in 1944 after Mussolini’s thugs found letters from the church in Rome, thanking Bartali for his “good work.” He convinced them he had only helped feed the poor and was released. While his fellow citizens celebrated the eventual end of the war, they also had to endure its lingering ravages, and Bartali stepped up again, thinking he might bolster his countrymen’s spirits with another win of the Tour de France. At 34, he was considered “old” by athletic standards, but he rode to victory in 1948, giving Italians another reason to cheer. Hoffman’s narrative is clean and simple yet tinged with tension, making this a good candidate for a read-aloud. Fedele’s illustrations feature rich earth tones and bold black, underscoring the somber times and grave responsibility that Bartali bore. The end material includes a photograph of Bartali and a detailed afterword that mentions an annual bicycle ride over part of his route between Florence and Assisi to commemorate his all-important role in saving Jews. Merviglioso! Include this book in a unit on World War II, as September 2 will mark the 75th anniversary of its conclusion. Or use it to start a discussion on the importance of being a helper in ways both large and small.

Summer Green to Autumn Gold

Presumably fall will show up at some point. In January, perhaps. So there’s still time to incorporate this lovely book into your lesson plans. It introduces the youngest of leaf peepers to the process of senescence initiated by photoperiodism (oh, don’t be too impressed; I had to look up them fancypants words) with an uncomplicated and cheerful narrative that’s just right for reading aloud to students beneath a tree on a crisp autumn day… should we have one of those. The book begins in the summer and proceeds through the spring, and wow, is the journey a visual delight. Rich cut-paper collages and watercolors fill the pages with stunning shades of green, yellow, red, and orange. The book is a perfect start to a unit tying together science, art, and writing. The opening spread identifies commonly-found leaves, a boost for budding collectors, and the simpler main text is supported by satisfyingly in-depth end material for use in reports. Posada reminds her audience that trees are vital for the food and shelter their fallen leaves provide the tiniest critters scurrying around on the ground – one more argument students can make in a persuasive presentation for the planting of trees in their community. And ohhh, the potential for art projects! Have kiddos paint real leaves and press them on paper to make imprints, or have them mimic Posada’s cut-paper collage technique and create their own forest in fall. Or have them reproduce the same outdoor scene throughout the four seasons. Or… well, you get the idea. Posada’s celebration of this most glorious process is truly a must-have. It reminds us that Mother Nature had a good thing going waaaaay before pumpkin spice was a thing.

Small Spaces

If you’re like me and believe every single year that August will “go on and on and onnnnnnn,” to quote Paul Bunyan as played by Oliver Platt (LOVE him), then I’ve got a book for you. This spooky delight by Katherine Arden will bring the chill of autumn right to your door, where it’ll sneak in and tap you on the shoulder with ghostly fingers. It is a fun, fun read. In the wake of her mother’s death, Ollie frequently escapes into books. However, the one she snatches from the grasp of a distraught woman before she can toss it in a river (Ollie is horrified that anyone would treat a book that way – good girl!) will prove to be anything but a welcome distraction. The book is an accounting of a family’s losses, and a deal made with the Smiling Man that while intended to heal broken hearts, only makes a tragic circumstance even more so. The terrifying legacy of the Webster family will envelop Ollie, much like the thick fog that roils around and swallows her stalled school bus after a class field trip to the Webster farm. Arden’s settings are deliciously eerie and the bad guys VERY creepy. The book is more than an entertaining indulgence in scary fiction, however; appealing characters and thoughtful layers of plot add depth. Arden weaves grief and bullying, compassion and respect into her story, but they never overwhelm the primary purpose of it, which is to scare the pants off her readers. So run to Hobby Lobby, grab a spiced pumpkin candle and a few artificial autumn leaves to scatter around it, and settle in for a goose-bumpy, spine-tingling read that will help tide you over until Halloween.

The Spirit of Cattail County

My inaugural juvenile fiction review! I am really excited to take over this collection at FPL (I do still have my first baby, the j nonfic section). Imagonna put it out there that these posts will be skewed to favorites (books about spitfire heroines, a la Dicey Tillerman, and books about Americana – think Richard Peck’s Year Down Yonder) versus the more objectively selected books with wider-ranging topics over there in my nonfiction posts. But hopefully, since you’re here, you’ll find a recommendation for j fic that is useful to a kiddo you know. (Or yourself!) Alrighty then, away we go!

On a fun level, Piontek’s first novel would make a great read for those chilly autumn nights leading up to Halloween as it’s populated with one mischievous ghost boy and other, less-formed spirits who swarm around kind folks on this side of the veil (depending on how you feel about it, this could be a good reason to be nice or a good reason not to, gulp). On a deeper level, it’s a story about finding one’s place – in this world and in the next. Sparrow is already kept at arm’s length by the community of Beulah, and when her mom dies, she feels even more isolated. She’s at the mercy of her awful Auntie Geraldine, who has decided to sell Sparrow’s beloved family home on the edge of the swamp and take Sparrow away to live with her. Sparrow does, though, find her first real friends in siblings Maeve and Johnny Casto, who help her seek the answer to a question that may turn things around for her. Intertwined with her search is that of the ghost boy, who has been Sparrow’s constant companion and must find something very important of his own. Piontek’s development of her characters is terrific. The reader roots and aches for lonely Sparrow and for her ghost boy. Sundry lesser members of the cast – Elena and her Uncle Eli; Maeve, Johnny, and Mason Casto, etc. – are just as endearing. On the other hand, Auntie Geraldine and Ansley and Andrew Monroe, a pair of relentless bullies, are spiteful and easy to despise. And her rich description of the teeming swamp makes it as much of a compelling player in the story as the people. This is a truly satisfying first effort by Piontek. She adeptly weaves the goose-pimply supernatural aspect of her story with the sometimes painfully realistic experiences and interactions of her living characters, and the plot has twists and turns that will keep the reader guessing (I said, “Oh, no!” out loud several times) as to what lies at the end of Sparrow’s quest.

When Sue Found Sue

Buzzeo takes her audience along on the thrilling morning Sue Hendrickson spots a tantalizing bit of what turns out to be the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton found to date, and her description of the quiet scene is wonderfully suspenseful, even for readers who already know the outcome. Sue, accompanied only by her dog, hikes in thick fog toward a cliff face to which she has been inexplicably pulled, and spots three huge backbones sticking out of the mountainside. But this is not even the best thing about the book! As the narrative builds toward the finding of Sue the T. rex, Buzzeo is already celebrating shy, studious Hendrickson, who “wasn’t like other kids,” and how her insatiable thirst for knowledge and intense curiosity would lead her on an incredible journey from hunting random trinkets as a child to looking for tropical fish, lost boats and planes, and fossils as a specialist in paleontology and marine archaeology. She concludes by pointing out again that Hendrickson as a child was “so different from the others” but her “curiosity has lead her to find things – and always will.” What a wonderful message for kiddos, introverted or just otherwise unsure of themselves: who you are is amazing! Sudyka’s artwork, beautifully rendered in muted earthtones, is warm and happy. Use this book to kick off a unit on paleontological digs and/or prehistoric beasts (solemnly swear to make a dig for kids by hiding treasures in a sand pile), but it really is about so much more than the perennially favorite topic of dinosaurs. Keep it in mind for that kiddo in the back row who quietly sparkles.