Finding Their Way Home: A Review of Refugee by Alan Gratz

Told in three separate yet connected stories, Refugee is a novel of perseverance and commitment to who you are in the face of persecution.

refugeeJosef is fleeing from 1930s Nazi Germany and the threat of concentration camps with his parents and sister. Isabel, her parents, and her neighbors use a makeshift raft to escape Cuba in 1994, during the unrest of Castro’s regime. Mahmoud, along with his parents and younger siblings, leave the violence of war in Syria in 2015, traveling through Europe as they search for a safer place to live. Though the details of their stories are unique, Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud share more similarities than just their situations.

The attention given to creating characters with heart and conviction is engaging, while the conflicts each protagonist faces ensure none of their individual stories get stuck in the emotion of the book as a whole. Refugee tells an important story, and does so without preaching or sensationalizing the experiences of refugees past and present. Maps and an author’s note highlight the reality of Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud’s stories and show the readers how they can help with relief efforts.

We’re Not Afraid! Two Not-Too-Scary Stories

In the spirit of Halloween, we’d like to share two new picture books with characters who rethink their requests for scary stories.

i want to be in a scary storyLittle Monster is confident he wants to be in a scary story, until he’s stuck in the middle of one. Witches, ghosts, and spooky houses? “Golly Gosh!” and “Jeepers Creepers!” he says. Little Monster doesn’t want to be scared; he wants to do the scaring! The narrator (indicated on the page with black text, where Little Monster’s words are purple) acquiesces, putting Little Monster in charge of the upcoming frights. Is Little Monster ready to scare? With charming dialogue and just enough forewarning for what the next page holds, I Want to Be in a Scary Story will delight any child who wants to be in a story – on their own terms.

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Parents who’ve struggled to satisfy competing requests will recognize Papa’s burden in The Too-Scary Story. Grace and Walter settle in for a bedtime story, but they can’t agree on how scary it should be. The dark forest setting is “too scary” for Walter, so Papa introduces the “twinkling lights” of fireflies. But that’s not scary enough for Grace! Back and forth the story goes, scary to safe, until Walter and Grace agree – the story is too scary! Luckily, Grace has her magic wand, and Papa is never too far away to bring the story back to safety. Murguia’s mixed media illustrations follow the alternating moods of the text and complete this bedtime adventure.

A Review of Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Allen Say

This is one of the most remarkably affecting books I have ever read. When a baby is born, he or she doesn’t know s/he is deaf, autistic, or any different from anyone else; it is positively heartbreaking to read about this one’s introduction to a world that was almost unfailingly cruel.

Born in in 1899 in rural Idaho, James Castle was deaf, unable to speak, and autistic. Through straightforward narration, his nephew attempts to show the world through baby James’ eyes: “James opened his eyes to the world and saw things that moved and things that were still. Anything that moved seemed to scare him. He cried as his parents bobbed around him with darting eyes and flapping mouths. But James couldn’t hear himself shrieking. For him the world would always be silent.” It is truly the stuff of nightmares, interpreted hauntingly by Say’s mixed-media art, some in smudgy grayscale and some in color. Images of young James engaged by various scraps of paper, charcoal, and other “found” art materials are almost peaceful; they are juxtaposed by harrowing scenes of him holding his arms around his ears while other children scream taunts at him.

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Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Allen Say (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, 2017)

James’ own parents were no doubt as terrified and perplexed by their son as he was by the world; unfortunately, they were ill-equipped, or unable or unwilling, to figure out how best to rear him. At first, they gave him old paper or other throwaway items, since those things seemed to keep him entertained or at least occupied. They sent him to a school where he appears to have found some level of engagement: looking books and printed materials in the library, although he could not read; watching teachers sew books together; and doing “well in shoe repair class.” But the school considered him a failure because he could not learn to speak. There is no judgement made explicit in the text on the principal who advised James’ parents “…not to give James and drawing materials at home. He said James should learn to read and write and not waste time on drawings.” Readers will come to their own conclusions about the humanity, or lack thereof, in this approach.

As an adult, James became extremely isolated, essentially living in a barn where he had his “studio” and a mattress on the floor. Continually tormented by kids stealing his artwork, and called names such as “Dummy” and “Crazy Jimmy,” he nonetheless persisted in doing the only thing that seemed to give him any pleasure: using whatever he could find (soot with spit, charred sticks, and the like) to create art. Say’s portrayal of the type of illustrations James was creating at this time show eerie pictures of people with boxes or blank circles where faces should be, as well as quotidian images of small wooden houses and little puppets of dolls, farm animals and birds. We’ll never really know, but it’s possible James was expressing his wishes, desires, and silent dreams for home and companionship in the only way he knew how.

There is some redemption to James’ story with an art show organized by his nephew’s teacher in art school, and an eventual trailer in which he could live that was a big step up from the shacks he’d inhabited for most of his life. Nowadays, “found” or “naïve” art is a recognized genre, and James Castle is a respected contributor to it. Say’s closing portrait shows James as an adult, standing in front of his “Dream House,” with what might be a hint of a smile. The text reads “I think he was happy.”

An author’s note, bibliography, and photos of some of the found materials Say used to create the art round out this haunting picture book biography for older readers.

Groovy Joe Returns

by Hal Patnott

One of my favorite story time dogs is back with a second book. This week, I am excited to share Groovy Joe: Dance Party Countdown. In keeping with our theme of selecting titles that uphold ALSC’s Core Values (collaboration, excellence, inclusiveness, innovation, integrity and respect, leadership and responsiveness), this week’s featured title represents collaboration and excellence. Stop by the Butler Center to check out our advanced review copy of this September 2017 release.

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Groovy Joe: Dance Party Countdown by Eric Litwin, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, Scholastic (2017)

Groovy Joe, the ice-cream-loving dog, returns with all new moves—bow wow. He’s dancing and singing at his own disco party when all of a sudden he hears a knock at the door. More dogs show up to join his fun. Although Joe has less room to dance each time, he never gets upset. “Goodness no!” He is happy to share his rocking fun with all his friends. At the end Joe invites the reader to join in on the action.

Fans of Groovy Joe: Ice Cream & Dinosaurs will recognize Joe’s upbeat and welcoming personality. Readers who enjoy Pete the Cat’s go-with-the-flow response to new challenges will discover the same laid-back attitude in this title.The purple and disco patterned backgrounds set the mood for Joe’s party. Rhyming and repetition make Dance Party Countdown an excellent read-aloud for story times. Litwin introduces simple addition skills every time more guests arrive to dance. An invitation at the end of the book presents an opportunity for readers to join the fun with a dance party of their own. Like the last Groovy Joe title, readers can download the “Disco Party Bow Wow” song from Scholastic’s website. Overall, Dance Party Countdown provides a fun story with a positive message about sharing and inclusiveness.

Books We Love by Holly Black

by Alena Rivers and Hal Patnott

The Butler Lecture 2017 will be held tomorrow, March 16th at 6pm. We are excited to welcome our featured lecturer, Holly Black, renowned children’s and teen author of many titles including, the Magisterium series, the Newbery Honor Book, Doll Bones, and The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. If you haven’t read anything by Holly Black, take a look at the ones we’ve highlighted below.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black, Little, Brown (2014)

In this chilling twist on vampire romance, seventeen-year-old Tana wakes up after an all-night party to a house full of corpses. To protect herself and the ones she loves, Tana, her irritating but charming ex-boyfriend, and a mysterious vampire boy set off on a quest for the last place Tana ever wanted to go, Coldtown. Although many teens dream of an eternal youth in the high-luxury prison, Tana doesn’t thirst for a life of blood and murder. Teen Readers craving a high-action, suspenseful story with a powerful, female lead will devour The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.

Doll Bones by Holly Black, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry (2013).

Ever since they were young, Zach, Poppy and Alice have been playing an imaginary game filled with the adventures of mermaids, pirates and thieves who are ruled by a bone-china doll they call the Queen.The three friends are in middle school now and their enthusiasm for the game suddenly comes to a stop when Zach puts an end to the game without a convincing explanation. Meanwhile, Poppy has been having dreams of the doll Queen and the ghost of a young child whose grave is empty. Poppy is compelled to find the ghost’s grave where the doll can be buried in place of the missing child and she convinces Zach and Alice to join her on the quest. Adventure, secrets, and strange occurrences will engage middle school readers.

The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, Scholastic (2015).

In this Harry Potter meets Avatar the Last Airbender adventure, Callum Hunt dreads his first day at The Magisterium, a school for children with magical power. His attempts to flunk the entrance exam impress neither his future teachers nor his fellow classmates. Callum’s father warned him of the danger and certain death that awaits him at the school. However, unexpected friendships and mysteries to solve open Callum’s mind to a new world of enchantment and wonder. Perfect for the middle grade collection, The Iron Trial includes a diverse cast of characters and subverts tropes of fantasy.

A Review of Honestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg

by Hal Patnott

This week’s review features the sequel to Openly Straight by Stonewall and Lambda Award-winning author Bill Konigsberg. Honestly Ben stands out for its achievement of more than one of ALSC’s Core Values (collaboration, excellence, inclusiveness, innovation, integrity and respect, leadership and responsiveness), but it especially shines for the inclusive way Konigsberg explores the complexity of identity. Stop by the Butler Center to take a look at our advanced reader’s copy of Honestly Ben.

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Honestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, 2017)

After winter break, Ben Carver returns to his boarding school still feeling betrayed by his ex-best friend Rafe who kept a big secret from him. Last semester Ben’s Calculus grade slipped to an unacceptable C-, when his social life got out of hand. With his father’s approval and a prestigious scholarship at stake, Ben is determined to leave Rafe in the past and focus on returning his GPA to perfection. However, his unresolved feelings for Rafe come back to haunt him as he develops a connection with an outspoken girl named Hannah. Ben struggles to understand his feelings and make sense of his identity in a society that demands he choose from labels that don’t fit him.

Companion novel to Openly Straight, Honestly Ben continues the story of Rafe and Ben from Ben’s perspective. Although the book takes place after Openly Straight, Ben’s narration provides enough context and setting that new readers can easily follow the story.  The characters are well-developed and flawed, often for a lack of awareness of their own privilege. Still, Ben, Rafe, and their friends remain lovable and sympathetic. Plenty of humor keeps the story engaging too. Konigsberg explores the themes of identity, honesty, and bravery in a thought-provoking way without offering easy answers to readers. Honestly Ben deserves an A+. This must-read book for teens is a necessary addition to the library’s young adult collection.

March B3 – Butler Book Banter

After a great group discussion on our featured Mock CaldeNott books for the February B3, we are already preparing for our upcoming March B3. It’s right around the corner on March 1st and we will be exploring gender identity. All of the books we are recommending were either featured on the 2017 Rainbow Book List or are part of our 2017 collection. You can also check out a couple of our past blog posts featuring Newsprints and If I Was Your Girl.

Join us in the Butler Center on Wednesday, March 1st from 5:30 – 7:00 p.m. (books and snacks out at 5:30 p.m., discussion at 6pm). We look forward to seeing you in March!

Picture Books

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Big Bob, Little Bob by James Howe, illus. Laura Ellen Anderson (Candlewick, 2016)

Graphic Novels
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Young Adult
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