PCP Three of Clubs: When I Was the Greatest

when i was the greatestWhen I Was the Greatest

by Jason Reynolds

Atheneum, 2014

This funny, gritty, tender story follows three young men growing up in Bed-Stuy, navigating the pressures and tensions that would pull them up or drag them under as they make their way to manhood. There’s Ali, bright, respectful and curious; Noodles, tight, irascible, and full of bravado; and his brother Needles, sweet, fragile, and genius. Needles struggles with Tourette’s, a syndrome his neighborhood doesn’t really understand, and finds solace in knitting (Ali’s mother’s very good idea), something else not everybody gets. Ali and Noodles have his back, until one night, at a house party, all hell breaks loose, and everything breaks apart.

There is so much to love here. The crisp writing crackles with wit and rings with authenticity. The exploration of maleness, and the ways in which young men are called to define themselves, is bare and nuanced. Every single character lives and breathes in three dimensions. But for our playing card purposes, it is these boys’ inextricable relationship that beats at this marvelous novel’s heart. Theirs is a special bond, and no matter what comes at them, they belong to one another.

For those looking for an especially immersive and gratifying experience, I recommend Random House Audio’s extraordinary audiobook recording, narrated by J.B. Adkins.

Boot & Shoe

boot & shoeBoot & Shoe

by Marla Frazee

Beach Lane Books, 2012.

There is no denying that Marla Frazee has made her mark on children’s literature. Her signature illustration style has delighted children and award committees with titles such as Stars, All the World, and A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever.

Boot & Shoe, Frazee’s 2012 gem, stands out for me among her work. I know this is partially because I’m a dog person—I even have two dogs who are brother and sister, similar to Boot and Shoe. But this book is much more for me than just being part of a target audience. It is rich with humor, artistry, and honesty.

Boot and Shoe come from the same litter, and they do everything together—eat, sleep, and even pee. But, Boot likes the back porch and Shoe likes the front porch. Frazee uses soft lines of black Primsacolor pencil and textures and details every page with gouche paint to bring out a wide variety of moods. Significant white space is used throughout the book to highlight vignettes, half-page spreads, and energetic scenes. The crisis of the book—when the dogs can’t find each other—instantly changes Frazee’s artistic style. In nighttime, sad scenes, Frazee uses harsher, straighter lines and deep colors of black and blue pencil. One of my favorite spreads is when the sun comes up, and both Boot and Shoe begin to cry.

So, the book changes. I read this book in a storytime, and kids were laughing and giggling and pointing at the beginning. But when the dogs couldn’t find each other, there was real fear in the room. When Boot and Shoe cried, the room was silent. While I was reading, I kept thinking, “Wow, this is a dynamic book.” Yes, it’s about dogs and friendship. But it’s also about loss; it’s telling children that it’s okay to cry when you feel sad, and it’s doing it with an honest intention and a comforting approach. Rather than books that are only charming and funny (which are great at times, too), Boot and Shoe really spans a variety of moods and emotions, just like we all feel every day. How great to have such authentic, conscientious storytelling for children.

And I gotta say it: If you have dogs or love dogs, this is a book for you. I grew up with one dog, and when she passed away my parents decided to get two—a brother and sister, Jem and Scout. Since getting to know these cuddly dudes, I’m telling you, I’ve never seen such friendship. Besides the fact that Jem would eat all of Scout’s food if he could and Scout bites Jem’s ears constantly, these two dogs are BFFs. Just like Boot and Shoe, they sleep together, eat together, play together. But they are individuals, too. Seeing how much they love each other just makes me want to love more, and to treat each person I meet the way they treat each other—with an open heart, a forgiving soul, and always a shoulder (or back or stomach) to lie on.

Thanks, Marla Frazee. You rule.

Check out Scout and Jem’s friendship throughout their lives below.

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Maggot Moon

maggot moon

Maggot Moon

by Sally Gardner

Candlewick/Brilliance Audio, 2013

There is so much I want to say about this book. So much. But each and every element or facet or consequence I might mention would rob you of the opportunity to experience it yourself, thereby diminishing your encounter. Even saying that much feels like something of a spoiler.

So I’ll make just these few short comments:

1) Every now and again you read something that feels actually new. This is one of those stories.

2) For a good while you will feel disoriented. Stick it out. It’s worth it.

3) There are some powerful, interactive spot illustrations in the print book that contribute to the mood. The audiobook is sharp and reserved and extraordinary. Take your pick.

4) Please read this book as soon as you can, then find me so we can talk about it.