October 18, 2016

Book Review - The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

Written by William Joyce
Illustrated by William Joyce & Joe Bluhm

"Mr. Morris Lessmore loved words. He loved stories. He loved books. His life was a book of his own writing, one orderly page after another. He would open it every morning and write of his joys and sorrows, of all that he knew and everything that he hoped for.

But every story has its upsets. One day the sky darkened. The winds blew and blew...

...till everything Morris knew was scattered--even the words of his book."

I fell for The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore within seconds. A few years ago Ted Kooser recommended this picture book to me, and I'm sorry to admit I haven't read it until now.

It's wonderful.

(Sidenote: If you haven't read Ted's picture books House Held Up by Trees and Bag in the Wind, you really should. As a two-time U.S. Poet Laureate, his poetic gifts are evident in each of the book's crafted language and the accompanying illustrations are stunning. You can read my reviews of them here and here. His third picture book, The Bell in the Bridge, just came out this summer. I'm looking forward to reading it soon!)

Mr. Morris Lessmore loves books and reading, but in so doing he's isolated himself from the world. During a storm, his personal library is blown away in the wind leaving him feeling unsettled and lost.

On his journey he encounters a book of nursery rhymes that leads him to a large library full of stories he's never read before. The illustration of the library as shown above is absolutely lovely. It would be beautiful framed and displayed in a home library, children's room, or office space.

Mr. Lessmore's time in library not only introduces him to worlds of new stories, but also invites him to share his stories with others who visit the library. The power the books have on him and those around him changes lives and the story ends in sweet, emotional tones.

If you're a reader, I can not imagine how you wouldn't love this story. It's heartfelt and inspirational message about the power of words and community are very memorable and you could spend hours gazing at the colorful, full-page spreads.

Have you read The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore or any of William Joyce's other picture book titles?

October 5, 2016

Book Review - What Do You Do with an Idea? by Kobi Yamada

What Do You Do With an Idea?

Written by Kobi Yamada, Illustrated by Mae Besom

"One day, I had an idea.

'Where did it come from? Why is it here?' I wondered, 'What do you do with an idea?'

At first, I didn't think much of it. It seemed kind of strange and fragile. I didn't know what to do with it. So I just walked away from it. I acted like it didn't belong to me.

But it followed me."

Kobi Yamada and Mae Besom's award-winning and best-selling 2014 picture book is an imaginative rendering of what happens when we have an idea and choose to foster it.

At first, the child narrator is worried about their idea and what others will think of it. The child tries to hide the idea away and pretend nothing has changed, but the idea feels magical and it makes the child feel happy.

As the child's confidence grows, so too does the idea. Though not everyone responds encouragingly to the idea--and in fact some criticize it--the narrator overcomes fear by choosing to instead protect, care for, and give attention to the idea helping it flourish and soar to new levels.

Kobi Yamada's language is kid-friendly and simple enough for a child to read on their own, though the story makes for a great parent and child to read together to encourage conversation thereafter. The main character is purposefully rendered without use of male or female pronouns so that all child audiences can more easily relate and identify to the story's message.

Besides the inspiring message, Mae Besom's illustrations are a lovely combination of pencil and watercolor. The child narrator's world is mostly black and white and bare until the idea (a crown-topped egg) arrives and brings with it color and a sense of magic. As the child nurture's the idea and it grows in size, the full-page illustrations increase in color, warmth, and detail.

I really enjoyed this simple yet lovely picture book. If you're a fan of Yamada and Besom's collaboration, you can check out their 2016 follow-up What Do You Do With a Problem?

September 29, 2016

2016 Banned Books Week

2016 Banned Books Week

I would be entirely remiss if as a teacher, reader, and writer, I didn't take a post to give a shout-out to the American Library Association's Banned Books Week. During September 25th - October 1st, 2016 this annual event fights for and celebrates reading freedom.

Someone once tried to make me feel bad about reading banned books. It was an off-hand comment they made to me in passing and I just kind of stood there dumbfounded. Clearly, they had no idea with whom they were speaking. Exhibit #1: that semester I was teaching a class using only banned literature.

The majority of people's push-back to celebrating banned books is their mistaken belief that by enjoying these books and the right to choose, you are somehow infringing upon their right not to read select texts. For me, that couldn't be more inaccurate. I'm a devout believer in everyone having the right to choose to read and not read whatever they want. Along with this, however, is my position that you better not dare take that right away from someone else. Don't mess. To each his or her own.

As I looked over some of my own bookcases this morning, it was not a shock to me that some of my favorite books have been frequently banned and challenged. Some of these books helped shape my personality, inspired me, taught me about equality, and engaged me with humanity.

I only pulled a few off of the shelf for some quick pictures as there were many I could have featured. As I did so, I noticed an interesting trend: many of these books were one of multiple copies I've owned over the years. The Sun Also Rises? Second copy. To Kill a Mockingbird? Second copy. Their Eyes Were Watching God? Second copy. The Awakening? Third copy. For the books that have remained my first and much-loved edition, I love seeing the well-worn pages, rubbed spines, and slightly torn bindings. This is particularly evident on my copy of Gone With the Wind which has been read and loved twice.

Amid their promotional items, the ALA also posts information regarding the First Amendment, resources for teachers, events in which readers may participate, and details about frequently banned and challenged books by category (young adult, children's, classics, etc.). Much of this information has been gathered in part with the Office of Intellectual Freedom.

Some books I own that I didn't photograph have also been frequently challenged in recent years: The Glass Castle, Thirteen Reasons Why, The Hunger Games, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Nickel and Dimed, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and lest I forget, Harry Potter. That's right, HARRY POTTER! I love that series so much, the idea of someone taking it away from me would be devastating.

Do I want to read every book that's been banned or challenged? Nope, not at all. Some of those books don't sound interesting, engaging, uplifting, or simply my style. I rarely choose something to read simply because it's been on a list, but it can be educational to see what I loved or enjoyed that's listed on the ALA's Banned Books page. I've not yet read a Khaled Hosseini novel and he's frequently on these lists. Will that dissuade me? No. Could it for someone else? Probably. As long as we are both free to choose and have equal access, then for me that's what this week is all about.

Have you read or loved a frequently banned or challenged book? Are any of those I mentioned or photographed among your own favorites? What are you reading lately?

September 27, 2016

Book Review - Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Vinegar Girl

by Anne Tyler

"From time to time Kate entertained the notion of looking for work elsewhere, but it never came to anything. She didn't interview well, to be honest. And anyhow, she couldn't think what she might be qualified to do instead.

In her coed dorm back in college she had once been drawn into a game of chess in the common room. Kate was not very good at chess, but she was an audacious player, reckless and unorthodox, and she managed to keep her opponent on the defensive for some time. A small crow of her dorm mates gathered around the board to watch, but Kate paid them no attention until she overheard what the boy behind her whispered to someone standing next to him. 'She has. No. Plan,' he whispered. Which was true, in fact. And she lost the game shortly thereafter.

She thought of that remark often now, walking to school every morning. Helping children out of their boots, scraping Play-Doh from under their nails, plastering Band-Aids onto their knees. Helping them back into their boots.

She has. No. Plan."

In Vinegar Girl, Pulitzer-Prize winner and best-seller Anne Tyler retells Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew for a modern audience. Published by the Hogarth Shakespeare series, the book is a part of Penguin's movement to update the author's most famous plays.

I eagerly looked forward to reading Tyler's remake in large part due to the fact that it is my least favorite of Shakespeare's plays. Worse yet, it's not a favorite; I don't like it at all.

If you've never read or seen The Taming of the Shrew (watching the film 10 Things I Hate About You doesn't count here), you're not missing out on much. Though I've read almost all of Shakespeare's plays, many of his sonnets, visited his home in England, and adore his writing, this particular play always leaves me feeling ill inside. The play (categorized within Shakespeare's comedies) tells the story of two sisters: the beautiful if young and ignorant Bianca, and her older, stubborn "shrew" of a sister Katherina. While many men want to court Bianca, patriarchal tradition holds that Katherina must be married off first. As a dare, Petruchio decides to "tame" the shrew through various methods of psychological, emotional, and physical abuse. To Elizabethan male audiences this would have been comical. To modern-day audiences, it's nothing short of disturbing. While Shakespeare's verse is well-crafted and metered, the content is upsetting. My review of the play on my Goodreads account reads as follows: "Sexism in iambic pentameter."

I set out with high hopes for Tyler's story, wanting to see how she would update a misogynistic play and turn it into a story of modern-day empowerment. I was disappointed.

The back-cover summary of Vinegar Girl describes its main protagonist, Kate, as "a thoroughly modern, independent woman" and questions if she "would ever sacrifice herself for a man." The novel, however, doesn't give us an independent woman: Kate is lazy, bored, unhappy, dependent on the safety of her father's home, and unwilling to change anything about her life to improve her situation. A college drop-out, Kate works at a child daycare center not because she loves (or even likes) children, but because it was the only place she could get a job. She cooks the same thing every night for dinner, pulls the same weeds from her garden once a week, walks the same way to work, and is in general completely dull on every level. She lacks wit, drive, compassion, and any interest to the reader. Her younger sister, Bunny, is naive, rather stupid, and whiny. Their father is selfish, ignorant, and emotionally distant. This all sounds rather harsh, but it's true nonetheless.

Kate's father, a rather unsuccessful college scientist, is on the verge of losing his lab partner, Pyotr, and consequently any hopes of proving his worth to the university (whether or not his research actually holds any merit remains unclear). Before Pyotr's work visa runs out and he's sent home to Russia, Kate's dad asks his eldest daughter to do him a favor and marry Pyotr. Healthy family dynamic, right?

[Spoiler paragraph] What's worse than reading about a boring, unhappy character who's complicit in her own boredom and unhappiness, is Kate's completely passive, disinterested attitude as the plot proceeds. She feigns anger at her father's request, but her actions say otherwise, and ultimately she agrees. She doesn't like Pyotr, but marries him. Though she's never been happy and there's no evidence that she's happy now, the author wraps up the novel in a cute bow as if this were a teenage rom-com and the two live happily ever after. While some might argue that change could foster Kate's happiness, are the accompanying suggestions about mental health really the moral messages the author wants to convey? That depression is a quick fix? That women are chattel? That relationships don't require work? No evidence within the story suggests Kate's happy ending is plausible, healthy, romantic, or well written.

The entire book's execution left me confused, frustrated, and annoyed. I was hoping for a rewrite and instead ended up with a story as messy as the first. Ultimately, readers get the tale of a woman who repeatedly demeans herself and submits to abusive, controlling men in order to sacrifice the possibility of her own happiness, freedom, and agency for their convenience. The message remains destructive. I did think that the first third of the story had promise, but then the novel ultimately crashed and burned.

While I really appreciate Hogarth Shakespeare's mission to retell Shakespeare's plays, I wonder if in reaching out to Tyler and asking if she'd be interesting in rewriting The Taming of the Shrew, if she wasn't also given a sort of editorial cart blanche. The published novel feels more like an early concept than a well thought-out and polished interpretation. Not having read anything else by Tyler and hearing mixed reviews from friends about her most recent novel A Spool of Blue Thread, I'm wary to tread her authorial waters again. If you've read Vinegar Girl, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Have you read an Anne Tyler novel? Have you read The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson or Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson, the other two volumes in the Hogarth Series? Their next installment is titled Hag-Seed, a retelling of The Tempest by none other than Margaret Atwood, is due out this October. As a huge Atwood fan, I'm hopeful she will do well with her adaptation.

[Book copy from the publisher.]

September 23, 2016

Book Quotes - The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

When Rat and Mole Meet Pan

I stumbled across a statue of the Greek God Pan and it reminded me of a passage from Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. Ratty and Mole are out searching for Toad, but they meet Pan instead:

Slowly, but with no doubt or hesitation whatever, and in something of a solemn expectancy, the two animals passed through the broken, tumultuous water and moored their boat at the flowery margin of the island. In silence they landed, and pushed through the blossom and scented herbage and undergrowth that led up to the level ground, till they stood on a little lawn of a marvellous green, set round with Nature's own orchard-trees—crab-apple, wild cherry, and sloe.

"This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me," whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. "Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!"

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror—indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy—but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side, cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.

Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered. 


Paul Branson's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

"Rat!" he found breath to whisper, shaking. "Are you afraid?"

"Afraid?" murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. "Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!"

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

Sudden and magnificent, the sun's broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.

As they stared blankly, in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realised all they had seen and all they had lost, a capricious little breeze, dancing up from the surface of the water, tossed the aspens, shook the dewy roses, and blew lightly and caressingly in their faces; and with its soft touch came instant oblivion. For this is the last best gift that the kindly demi-god is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness. Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and light-hearted as before.