Category Archives: Best Books

Journey by Aaron Becker

Journey by Aaron Becker is a wordless picture book that was recently awarded a Caldecott honor and has been nominated for a Cybils Award in the picture fiction category.  All of these accolades (and then some!) are deserved.  Although I usually say I am not a fan of wordless picture books, I’ve about decided I need to quit saying that because I’ve read several that I’ve enjoyed.  This one communicates the story so well that I “read” it aloud to my children with no problem at all.

Journey is the story of a little girl who is lonely–everyone in her family is too busy to play with her, so she picks up a magic red crayon from her bedroom floor and draws a door in the wall that leads her into a magical world. She uses the crayon to draw various conveyances that take her into different worlds or settings:  a red boat, a red hot air balloon, a red flying carpet.  Several settings look a teeny bit like real places in the real world:  a huge castle with canals for roadways; a Middle Eastern city.  Others are fantastical.  The common thread from setting to setting is the little girl and her red crayon.  The story ends very pleasingly with the little girl being led through a purple doorway back into her world. There she finds a friend with a purple crayon.

Obviously, what makes the story in this wordless picture book so wonderful is the pictures.  The girl’s world is boring–sepia colored–until she finds the magical crayon.  The worlds she enters thereafter are lush and colorful.  The watercolor, pen, and ink illustrations are highly detailed and invite closer study.  I can definitely see why this one won a Caldecott honor, bested only by Brian Floca’s Locomotive.  I couldn’t help but be reminded a little bit of Harold and the Purple Crayon, and the DLM serendipitously picked it out of our huge picture book anthology to read the very same day we read Journey.  Journey gets a Highly Recommended from the House of Hope.  It’s one I’d love to add to our collection.  (Candlewick Press, 2013)

I had friends tell me, “You’re crazy to do this in watercolor.” But all my favorite books for kids are in watercolor.  –Aaron Becker

(I couldn’t agree with Becker more.)

Here’s a wonderful little video about Becker’s journey making Journey.

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The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

Our first chapter book read-aloud of 2014 is one Sherry recommended for us in her annual reader advisory post, and it’s one I’ve had on my radar and on my Classics Club list for a while.  The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander, which is based partially on Welsh mythology, is the story of Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper who goes on a quest to find the oracular pig, Hen-Wen.  On his journey he is joined by several unlikely companions, including a mouthy enchantress-in-training who rescues him when he is captured by the evil Achren; a hyperbolic king-turned-bard named Fflewddur Fflam; and a wolfhoundish creature named Gurgi who’s most interested in “crunchings and munchings.”  Together they search for Hen Wen and seek to warn the Sons of Don of impending evil.

Although I added this book to my list several years ago, it’s not a book I’d normally gravitate towards (especially were I to judge it by its cover).  I’m not really a fantasy person, despite the fact that I love all things Narnia and I finally did manage to read and enjoy The Hobbit a few years ago.  The Book of Three is an easy book to enjoy, though, even for those of us not well-versed in the tropes and symbols of fantasy.   First, there are a limited number of characters, so even though they have names which are at first unpronounceable (hint:  check the back of the book for a pronunciation guide), there aren’t so many that they’re easily confused.  Second, it’s a work of juvenile fiction, so it’s not so long that the plot meanders or we forget where we’ve been and where we’re going.  What we have, then, is a book in which good and evil are very carefully delineated, and Taran’s whole quest is easy to take in.  I love that one of the predominant themes–courage in the face of overwhelming odds–is so easy to discern.  This is from the author’s note at the beginning of the story:

The geography of Prydain is peculiar to itself.  Any resemblance between it and Wales is perhaps not coincidental–but not to be used as a guide for tourists.  It is a small land, yet it has room enough for gallantry and humor; and even an Assistant Pig-Keeper there may cherish many dreams.

The chronicle of Prydain is a fantasy.  Such things never hapen in real life.  Or do they?  Most of us are called on to perform tasks far beyond what we can do.  Our capabilities seldom match our aspirations, and we are often woefully unprepared.  To this extent, we are all Assistant Pig-Keepers.

To me, that’s an irresistible introduction.

We all loved this book.  It’s suspenseful and humorous and just an all around great story.  The characterization is wonderful.  My girls never wanted me to stop with just one chapter.  We give this one a Highly, Highly Recommended and can’t wait to read the next book in The Chronicles of Prydain.  (Henry Holt, 1964)

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson

Sherry recommended Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson to me in her yearly reader advisory post, and I decided to read it before I forgot about it.   I’m so glad I did!  I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a story as much as I did this one.  Set in the small English village of Silverstream in the 1930s, this is the story of one Miss Barbara Buncle who writes a book for no other reason than she needs the money.  She has no real aspirations as a writer, but somehow she captures Silverstream (which she renames Copperfield) so well that the story is an immediate best seller.  When the good folks of Copperfield (er, Silverstream) read Miss Buncle’s book, they recognize themselves and are either flattered and amused or embarrassed and outraged.  In fact, some of Silverstream’s leading citizens take it upon themselves to find this John Smith (Miss Buncle’s nom de plume) and have his head.  Of course, figuring out John Smith’s identity is another thing entirely, and meanwhile life imitates art (or vice versa), and a very entertaining tale unfolds.   I absolutely love how Stevenson ends the story–I can’t think of a better way to end it.  In fact, there isn’t a single part of this story I don’t like.  I read this one directly on the heels of Emily Climbs, and I can’t help but think that any fan of L.M. Montgomery will love this humorous, lightly romantic, character-driven story.  I give it a Highly, Highly Recommended and look forward to reading its sequel, Miss Buncle Married, and possibly others of Stevenson’s many novels. (Sourcebooks, 2012; originally published 1936)

As always, I am having a hard time adequately expressing what I love so much about this story, so I’ll just end this post by sharing a few more excerpts that showcase what makes this one so good:

John Smith had held up the mirror to poor Stephen and had said, “Here you are, old chap!  I hope you like yourself.  Those nasty marks from your nose to the corners of your mouth, and those others between your brows are marks you put there yourself, you know.  You can’t blame God for those.”  And poor Stephen replied, “Good Heavens, is that me?”  (or he would probably have said, “Is that I?” for he was a pedantic and serious soul) and he would gaze at Margaret–just as she had described “in a queer way”–wondering if it could possibly be true that she was thinking of leaving him, and he would make an effort to be less like David Gaymer.  And lastly he would fly up to town to tackle the publisher and find out who this man was–this John Smith who seemed to know more about himself and his wife than he himself knew.  (85)

Barbara Buncle looked around the room and saw all her puppets (with a few exceptions) assembled together for the purpose of reviling their creator.  She wondered if any other author had ever beheld such a curious sight.  It would be exciting to write a play, Barbara thought, to see your creations put on the garment of mortality, to hear your words issuing from their mouths.  But a play must always be a little disappointing; no actor can completely satisfy an author, and there must be some discrepancy between the author’s conception of a character and the actor’s expression.  This was far better than any play, for the actors were themselves.  They couldn’t act out of character if they tried, for they were the characters–as large as life and twice as natural.  (163)

“Lor’, Miss Barbara, you’re never going out now?”

“Yes,” said Barbara breathlessly.  “I’m going up to The Riggs.  If I’m not back in two hours you can ring up your friend Sergeant Capper and tell him to search for my dead body in the cellars–where’s my umbrella, Dorcas?  Where on earth’s my umbrella?”  (250)

 

Locomotive by Brian Floca

Wow.  That’s the first word that comes to mind when I think about Locomotive by Brian Floca.  This is a nonfiction picture book that manages to pack an epic story–the building of the transcontinental railroad–into the interesting narrative of a family making their own transcontinental journey on that very railroad.  In other words, the information about the railroad is interwoven throughout the family’s journey much as if they have their own personal historical  guide they’re sharing with the reader.   The story itself is written in a very poetic prose that verges on pure poetry both in sound, rhythm, and format:

Up in the cab–small as a closet, hot as a kitchen–

it smells of smoke, hot metal, and oil.

 

The fireman keeps the engine fed.

He scoops and lifts and throws the coal,

from the tender to the firebox.

 

It’s hard work, hot work,

smoke and cinders,

ash and sweat,

hard work, hot work–

but that’s a fireman’s life!

He tends the fire

that boils the water,

that turns the water into steam.

 

Beautiful typography–stylized capitals, script, boldface–all help communicate this very rich narrative.  Floca‘s illustrations, which are rendered in watercolor, ink, acrylic, and gouache, are every bit as much the star of the story as is the text.  He uses a variety of perspectives to communicate the immensity, power, and detail of the steam engine itself and what it was like to travel cross country by it.  One of my favorite illustrations is a huge, two-page close-up of the train’s wheels on the track, which are accompanied by the very onomatopoetic text that includes the words huffs, hisses, bangs, and clanks in large, colored, boldface typography.  The very next two-page spread includes small vignettes:  an aerial view of the train; the ticketmaster collecting tickets; our passengers looking out their window; the engineer leaning out of his window with “the wind on his face, the fire by his feet.”  If you’re expecting a gorgeous picture book, you won’t be disappointed.  However, don’t expect a simple, pre-school story; this book is appropriate for all ages, from school-aged to adult.  I read it to my three year old, and while I think he probably missed most of the details (and honestly, so did I–this is no lightweight informational book!), he appreciated the rhythmic text and the beautiful illustrations.  From the detailed endpapers (maps, the history of the Transcontinental Railroad, and a beautifully detailed diagram of a steam locomotive) to the author note and lengthy list of sources, this is a not-to-be-missed informational picture book for history lovers and train lovers alike.  I won’t be surprised by any accolades this book receives–a Cybil, a Caldecott–whatever.  Don’t miss this one.  Highly, highly (highly) Recommended.   (Atheneum, 2013)

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This is a long-ish video of Floca discussing his creation of Locomotive (which is essentially about “a big teakettle on wheels”) at the 2013 National Book Festival:


 

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

I read Sherry’s review of Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein and immediately clicked through to purchase a copy.  Then it languished on the shelf for almost four months before its shortlisting for the YA fiction category of the Cybils prompted me to pick it up.  After being completely blown away by Wein’s Code Name Verity, I knew this one would be one I wouldn’t be able to put down, and I was right.   Rose Under Fire isn’t a sequel to Code Name Verity; instead, it’s sort of a companion novel, a novel with a few characters in common, as well as the general setting and time period.

It’s the story of Rose Justice, an eighteen year old pilot from the U.S. who comes to Britain to fly, like Maddie Brodatt in Verity, for the ATA.   The first third of the novel or so is about Rose’s experiences in war-time England–she’s just on the periphery of the war itself, losing a new friend in a crash after the friend tries to “tip” a German doodlebug–a winged bomb, an unmanned aircraft set on destruction–out of the air.  Rose is one of Maddie’s bridesmaids when Maddie has a hasty war time wedding.  Rose has her own soldier beau.  In other words, her world has been upended by the war, but not in any real tragic way.  Then, through a series of blunders brought on by her foolhardy courage in the air, Rose is captured by some Luftwaffe pilots and eventually ends up in Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi work camp.  What follows then is harrowing and heart wrenching and ultimately (but only ultimately) full of hope.

Rose falls in with a surrogate family in Ravensbrück that includes her lagermutter (camp mother), Lisette, a French beauty who mothers the younger women after losing her Jewish husband and her three handsome sons to execution by the Nazis; a spitfire of a  Polish girl, Róza, one of dozens of Ravensbrück “Rabbits,” the victims of unspeakable Nazi medical experiments; and Irina, a Red Army pilot–a double Ace, no less–who’s tough as nails and hates the Communists almost as much as she hates the Nazis.   Ultimately, Rose and her unlikely family have a single goal:  to tell the world about the Ravensbrück atrocities, specifically those committed against the Rabbits.  This, along with the poetry Rose writes, is what keeps her and her friends going.   I won’t reveal any more about the plot than this because this book is one best left unspoiled.

Whew.  What a story.  I almost couldn’t read it fast enough, and yet, it is heartbreaking.  Wein is definitely a master storyteller, and she withholds just enough information to keep from putting this one totally over the top in terms of heartbreak and misery.  This one reads like an actual survivor’s story, though it is fiction.  One of my favorite parts of Rose’s story is her poetry–it’s very, very good.   Of course, I couldn’t help but think of Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place while I was reading this since Corrie and Betsie were held in Ravensbrück, too.   The obvious differences are first the fact that Rose Under Fire is fictional; and second,  Corrie and Betsie’s faith in Christ is  front and center in The Hiding Place, while in Rose Under Fire the only reference to religion or any of its accoutrements that I recall is a reference to Lisette reminding the girls to pray over their food (and which Rose and Roza do later in remembrance of their lagermutter) and Rose’s thinking of herself as a “good little Lutheran girl.”  While I definitely think both stories are worth reading (and I feel, to a certain extent, that we have an obligation to keep reading and writing about such atrocities), this one is definitely not for the faint of heart.  Beyond the obvious subject matter concerns, this one contains quite a bit of foul language.  While I don’t find it too off-putting given the subject matter, I know some of my readers will want to know it’s there.

So, will this one get a Cybils nod?  I don’t know.  Can it stand up against all the YA angst?  I don’t know.  It’s definitely a worthwhile read, and I won’t be a bit surprised by any of accolades it receives.  Wein is a fantastic writer, and I don’t feel like I’ve even scratched the surface of what makes this such a wonderfully, terribly compelling read.  Highly Recommended (with the aforementioned caveat).  (Hyperion, 2013)

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