Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Anxious Christian

The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good?
By Rhett Smith

Reading this book was no coincidence. I read it intentionally. I am a Christian. And I get anxious.

Overall, I thought Rhett Smith’s little book was worth the read. It was fast, not weighed down with jargon and technicalities. However, at the same time, it didn’t have a lot of meat to it. Maybe it’s my American quick-fix psychosis talking, but when I read a book on anxiety, I expect to come away with some techniques, some tools for dealing with anxiety. I didn’t really get that with this book.

One of the main premises of Smith’s book is that sometimes, instead of fighting anxiety, God wants us to lean into our anxiety. He says that sometimes God is trying to tell us something or push us to a new place in our lives through the anxiety and only by embracing and exploring our anxious thoughts can we discover where God is at work.

Smith has some good insights. I did have a few ah-ha moments while reading. He quotes from the book of Exodus, found in the Bible (and for those of you who aren’t familiar with the Bible or the way the Christian sub-culture operates, Exodus is a little-quoted book). He quotes Exodus 17:1 (NRSV), which says, “From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded.” He then goes on to reflect on that passage: “Exodus 17:1 continually reminds me that we are people in the wilderness. There is just no way around it. The reality of life is that we are constantly moving from one big transition to another. At moments we may experience a respite from the journey, but that doesn’t alter the fact that life is rooted in the wilderness experience of continuous transition and choice.”

Yep, we are a people in a series of uncertain transitions, when really, what we long for is security. No wonder that makes some of us anxious. Who would have thought insights like that could be found in Exodus?

I found it refreshing to see anxiety dealt with from a Christian perspective in a positive way. The author avoided falling into the “Just trust God” trap that’s so frustrating for a Christian who honestly desires to trust God but who is also dealing with an anxiety disorder.

I was mildly pleased with this book. Not enough to want to own it and underline in it, but enough to be glad I read it. Rhett Smith’s experience and personal insights touch deeply at times, and I know that many young people dealing with anxiety will be able to easily identify with Smith’s thoughts and encouraging words.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Reviews Slowing Down....Why?

First of all, I have to apologize.

The number of books I review has decreased greatly over the last month and may continue to trickle in at a steady, yet smaller, stream than what I would like.

My husband and I have an amazing, exciting opportunity to go on a six-week mission trip in September-October to Mozambique. The trip was just finalized within the last two weeks, which leaves us a little over three months to get prepared for the trip.

Plane tickets.

Support letter written.

Financial support raised.

Preparations for what we will do there.

Read as much as possible about Mozambique culture, land, food, history, economy, politics.

Learn as much Portuguese as possible. Tudo bem?

This poor little Type A brain is going a little bit bananas trying not to be stressed about it all. Plus, at the library we're getting ready for our summer reading programs. I am the assistant for the children's summer reading programs, and I am in charge of leading the adult summer reading program (a new position for me). Don't get me wrong-- I'm excited about all of these things! But in the midst of all of this busyness, something had to go, and for now it was reading and reviewing. So. Sad.

Reading could never really go by the wayside for me, so I will continue to read and review, but the reviews will probably just come less frequently for a few months.

Bear with me please!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Snow White and Rose Red

I love to read fairy tale re-writes, and I love Patricia C. Wrede’s writing, so when I found a copy of Snow White and Rose Red by Wrede at a Goodwill, I was elated. I had mixed feelings when I started to read, however. I know and love Patricia C. Wrede from her Enchanted Forset Chronicles, which are written to be humorous (and for me, they definitely are) and from her book of short stories, The Book of Enchantments, in which the stories run the gamut from humorous to somber.

Snow White and Rose Red wasn’t humorous, nor was it supposed to be, but because I’ve read the Book of Enchantment, I know she can write serious fiction and do it well. I was surprised when I started reading that Wrede had decided to make the characters speak in Elizabethan English. All the ‘thees,’ ‘thous,’ and ‘dosts’ were a little distracting, though I would be curious to hear her reasoning for choosing that technique. Unfortunately, the narrative of the story is in modern English, and the clash of Elizabethan and modern didn’t appeal to me.

The storyline jumped around a lot between Snow White and Rose Red, the prince of Faerie, and two sets of antagonists. That’s a lot of jumping! I found all of the different viewpoints a little bit confusing, especially at the beginning, before I had a good idea of who everyone was. All of the jumping between characters also made it hard to get to know the main characters really well. Although Snow White and Rose Red were the protagonists, I didn’t feel like I knew much about them, even by the end of the story; they were hard to sympathize with, which for me is the kiss of death for a story.

Each chapter of Snow White and Rose Red begins with an excerpt from the original fairy tale. (If you’re interested, you can read through the original here.) I hadn’t read this story since childhood, and I was reminded just how choppy and confusing the original fairy tale is. So many questions unanswered, so many random characters and plot elements. I decided that it’s no wonder Wrede had a hard time retelling the story! In comparison to the original, Wrede made the story fit together and flow well.

I did find Wrede’s depiction of the world of Faerie intriguing, and despite my misgivings, the book did hold my attention to the end. But only just. If you are looking to discover why Wrede is such a well-loved author, check out her Enchanted Forest Chronicles, The Book of Enchantment, or Sorcery and Cecilia instead.

Visit Patricia C. Wrede

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Lonely Book

The Lonely Book
Written by Kate Bernheimer
Illustrated by Chris Sheban

This is the story of a book, a book with a picture on its cover of a girl in the forest under a toadstool.  When the book comes to the library for the first time, it is placed on the shelf for all new books and it is checked out by many children. This makes the book happy. Years pass and the book is checked out less and less. Its cover is faded, its pages are torn. The book is lonely. Then one day a little girl, Alice, stumbles upon the book and checks it out. She doesn’t care that the cover is worn, pages are torn, and the last page is missing altogether. She loves the book and shows it to all her friends. When the book is returned to the library, Alice is sad and wants to go back to find the book. By the time she goes back to the library, the book has been accidentally taken down into the basement, with all of the other books that will be put on a library book sale, though to Alice and the librarian who tries to help her, the book is only missing. At the book sale, Alice finds the book and takes it home with her for good.

I thought the author of this book did an excellent job of making something as commonplace to a librarian as a book getting old and being weeded out of the collection into a beautiful, touching fairy tale. The soft, muted illustrations only added to the hushed fairyland effect. As a librarian, I found myself shaking my head and wondering why a book that was missing pages and as worn as this one seemed to be hadn’t been given the heavy-ho long ago.

This was the same way I felt when watching the movie The Pagemaster. The books that Richard eventually brings home from the library at the end of the movie are huge, old, and warped. Where was the librarian who was supposed to be weeding out damaged materials? And, whether for good or for ill, librarians should be keeping track of what books have fallen out of popularity and weeded out of the collection to make way for newer titles. The book, The Pagemaster, by David Kirschner, doesn’t allude to the books being dilapidated, so my librarian feathers weren’t ruffled. In any case, I would highly recommend The Pagemaster in its book form, but even the movie is a good choice for kids.

I digress.

Reading The Lonely Book reminded me of my own affinity for certain books. Not just for certain titles, but certain copies of certain books. I found myself remembering how my library had discarded the exact copy of Black Beauty that I had read as a nine-year-old and how I excitedly snatched it off of the sale rack.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. Sometimes books about books just appeal to book lovers. But sometimes books about books make book lovers. Read The Lonely Book to your children and see what happens! And while you’re at it, follow that up with a read-through of The Pagemaster

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

More from Sylvan Dell Publishing!

I have the honor of introducing to you a few more great Sylvan Dell Publishing books! Hopefully, by now, you are as much in love with Sylvan Dell as I am!

Written by Scotti Cohn
Illustrated by Susan Detwiler

Children will have so much fun reading this book that they won’t even realize they’re learning. Or, even better, they will realize they’re learning and decide that learning’s fun! This story follows a pack of wolves through the months of the year; each page spread shows a new month and adds one new wolf to the pack. 

The story is written in a lilting chant that will make this a fun read-aloud book. The words are beautiful, and it’s fun to experience the mix of poetry and biology! Only in a few places did the rhyming sound forced. The illustrations are bright and detailed; each page is a beautiful contrast to the pages before it. Kids’ eyes will be glued to this book as they read!

As always with Sylvan Dell, the last pages of the book offer great educational games for kids to play. My personal favorite was a wolf communication activity, in which the reader matches the wolf’s posture with the message the wolf is trying to convey. For someone who can be a little nervous around strange dogs (like me), this might just come in handy!

Written by Phyllis Perry
Illustrated by Susan Detwiler

This Mom’s Choice Awards winner tells the gripping story of Liling and Tengfei, a panda and her cub, who lived through the 7.9 earthquake that hit northern China in May of 2008. Liling and her cub are peacefully sleeping in a tree when the ground beneath begins to shake. The shuddering ground causes the tree limb to break off and both pandas plummet to the ground. They are not hurt, but the wall of the enclosure in the reserve where they live is knocked down. Frightened by the rocking ground, the pandas flee into the mountains. They wander, foraging for food and huddling in fear when more quakes shake the ground. Eventually their keepers at the reserve find Liling and Tengfei and bring them home.

I really appreciated this book. The first thought that struck me was that I rarely get the chance to read about natural disasters from an animal’s point of view. I was made to think about just how disorienting that experience must be for an animal. Also, for an animal that has lived its entire life in a reserve, suddenly roaming around a forest and needing to find food would be quite terrifying!

Susan Detwiler did not disappoint with her magnificent illustrations. Through her illustrations, I was able to experience the rich flora of a mountain in China. The emotion she conveyed on the faces of the pandas had me sympathizing with them over their plight!

I hope you enjoy these excellent reads from Sylvan Dell Publishing!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
By Lisa See

This book kept me up at night. Literally. The story of Lily and Snow Flower’s laotong relationship is haunting, beautiful, and heartbreaking.

The story, told from Lily’s point of view, takes place in nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county. Lily, a daughter from a poor family, is paired with Snow Flower as a laotong, an “old same.” This emotional relationship is sealed with a contract and will last a lifetime. For women, considered less valuable than men, this relationship was often stronger than a marriage relationship.

The book follows Lily and Snow Flower through the painful days of footbinding into their engagements and marriages into different villages. They celebrate over the births of sons together and watch their children grow.  Because of Lily’s perfectly bound feet, her “golden lotuses,” she married into a prominent wealthy family. Snow Flower did not marry well. These differences, as well as others, set the stage for a pivotal misunderstanding that rends their laotong relationship.

I learned more about Chinese history in this novel than I ever have up to this point in my life. Lisa See skillfully walked the delicate balance between too little historical detail and too much. I was effectively and believably put in the mind of a woman living in nineteenth-century China. I was able to understand the strong tide of tradition that swept girls of good breeding into a life of bound feet. I nodded sympathetically as I began to understand why women accepted their helpless fates at the hands of their in-laws and their husbands, and I was intrigued by the secret women’s writing called nu shu.

I really don’t have much in the way of criticism for this book. I guess it was a little somber for the mood I was in when I first started reading it. It was sad. But it was also beautiful. See? I’ve got nothing.

The adult book club that I lead at our library will be discussing this book next weekend, and I’m eager to hear what they have to say about it. I highly recommend Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I would love to hear what you say about it too!

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Mysterious Benedict Society

The Mysterious Benedict Society
By Trenton Lee Stewart

My reading recently has been pretty scattered and sporadic, not only in the amount of time I spend reading but also in what I read. A few pages here from this book. A few pages there from that book. Put that book down, pick up a different one. Put this book away, half-read.

The Mysterious Benedict Society, however, held my attention and delighted me. The story is told mainly from the point of view of Reynie, a remarkable little boy who has no parents. Through a series of interesting tests, he is recruited by Mr. Benedict to help with a mission. Reynie and three other bright young children are sent as secret agents into a strange school run by Mr. Curtain. As the children find out, Mr. Curtain is trying to take over the world through a special machine that whispers lies into the minds of people. Only minds that seek the truth have been able to withstand the messages, but soon Mr. Curtain will increase the power of his broadcasts. It’s up to the children to find a way to stop him.

As I mentioned above, this book was a delightful read. The four main characters, Reynie, Kate, Sticky, and Constance, are all lovable (in their own ways) and well-developed. Throughout the book the values of independent thinking, putting others first, and caring for people despite their shortcomings are paraded. I love that.

I also appreciate that the author shows through his characters that sometimes doing the right thing is the hardest thing to do. I loved getting to watch the characters grow and develop, and the plot was interesting enough that I was kept guessing until the end.

A thirst for knowledge is applauded in this book, to the point that I wanted to set the book down and go learn something! I definitely acquired an interest in Morse code while reading this book; if you pick it up yourself, you’ll know what I mean.

Besides the main characters, however, many of the other characters were a little unbelievable. They all had cardinal traits that made them obvious individuals, but they weren’t developed. Normally what makes reading novels so enjoyable is that I can suspend my reality for a while and live in the reality that the author creates. The exaggeration of some of the support characters in this book made suspending reality a little bit difficult because I kept catching myself wondering what else is going on in a support character’s head besides the obvious cardinal trait the author brought out.

However, critiques aside, I sincerely enjoyed this book. We’re going to be using it for our 3rd-4th grade book club at the library this summer, and I’m looking forward to hearing what the kids think of it! I am excited to pick up the sequels in this series. Check out The Mysterious Benedict Society!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Monkey's Friends

Monkey’s Friends
Written and Illustrated by Ruth Brown

Monkey is going for a walk. As he walks, he greets his friends who are somewhat hidden. The reader has a chance to guess, from the picture and from a rhyming word, which animal friend Monkey is going to meet up with next.

This is a beautifully illustrated and charming story. The monkey’s facial expressions are adorable! Though it’s simple, children will enjoy being able to guess which animal is coming up next in the story. I also enjoy how this book gives kids a chance to practice rhyming words.  

One complaint I have for this story is that the animals Monkey meets are highly unlikely to all be in the same habitat together (I mean, highly unlikely).  Monkey meets up with a kangaroo, then an elephant, a crocodile, a snake, a chameleon, and finally a bear. Many other books put a strange array of animals together, and sometimes this doesn’t bother me. I think the reason it bothered me in this book was because the illustrations were so accurate and lifelike. I just assumed that the ecosystem presented would be accurate as well!

All things considered, though, I would still recommend this book, though not highly. Between the illustrations, the fun rhymes and guessing game, this is still a fun choice for kids!

Mouse and Lion

Mouse and Lion 
By Rand Burkert
Illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert

Mouse and Lion is Aesop's fable, charmingly retold. In this retelling, Mouse is hurrying home when he accidentally mistook Lion for a mountain and scampered right over. Lion is insulted and decides to eat Mouse for such impertinence. Because of Mouse's amusing attempt at bravery, and declaration that someday he may be helpful to Lion, Lion decides to let Mouse go. As in the original fable, Lion later gets caught in a net and Mouse helps him escape, thus proving that even small animals like mice have their uses.

This story gains its momentum from the fact that it is already well-known and loved. In and of itself, the words of the story are fine, though not outstanding. The author tweaks the story slightly here and there, which makes it fun and unique.

But the illustrations are really what make this book noteworthy. The illustrator, who incidentally illustrated the first edition of James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl (one of my favorite books! I still remember the illustrations from that first edition.) works mostly in earth tones in this story. The pictures are detailed and accurate, yet uncluttered. I especially appreciated that the mouse pictured in this story is native to Africa (by my reckoning, a four-striped grass mouse): a mouse that a lion might actually come in contact with!

In general, this is a beautiful book. In my opinion, it's about neck-and-neck with Jerry Pinkney's The Lion and the Mouse. One obvious difference that could be either a strength or a weakness, depending on your situation, is that this version has words, while Jerry Pinkney's doesn't have many.

Check them both out and compare for yourself!

Check out Mouse and Lion at Scholastic

Friday, May 4, 2012

When You Are Camping

When You Are Camping
Written and Illustrated by Anne Lee

Tilly and Hazel are camping in a tent in the woods with their parents. They talk about all of the fun things they can do while camping: drink hot chocolate for breakfast, get muddy, watch caterpillars, and take baths with fishes in the river.

This book reminded me of all the reasons I enjoy camping! With so much technology saturating the lives of kids today, I appreciate that it encourages children to take pleasure in the outdoors, in little things. You and your child will enjoy the watercolor illustrations in this book as well as the reminder of the fun of camping!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Should I Share My Ice Cream?

Should I Share My Ice Cream?
Written and Illustrated by Mo Willems

The illustration on the cover of this book was enough to make me chuckle and alert me to the serious moral dilemma this book addresses. On a hot day Gerald buys ice cream from a street vendor. He’s excited to eat it but suddenly remembers his best friend, Piggie, likes ice cream too. He wonders, “Should I share my ice cream with her?”

The next several pages encompass Gerald’s inner struggle to decide whether he should share his ice cream with his friend.  Then the thought crosses his mind, “Where is Piggie?” Gerald begins to worry that Piggie is off somewhere, alone and sad. He decides he must find her so that he can share his ice cream and cheer her up. The illustrations hint at the twist that will come at the end of the story, but it’s still entertaining to see the story change course.

I thoroughly appreciated this story because, even as an adult, this is a moral dilemma that I must grapple with: do I put the needs of someone I love ahead of my own, or don’t I? Should I Share My Ice Cream handles the question in a light-hearted way but still leads readers to believe that putting others first is important. And, of course, as always, Mo Willems’ illustrations convey worlds of meaning with a few simple strokes. You and your child will experience Gerald’s dilemma right along with him!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Big Girls Go Potty

Big Girls Go Potty
Written and Illustrated by Marianne Richmond

This simple book tells, from a child’s point of view, the story of potty training. The little girl in the story lists all of the ‘big girl things she can do, but says that she still wears diapers. She tells the whole story of learning to use the toilet, both her successes and her mistakes. She says her parents are so proud of her. The book ends with her challenge to the reader: “I like being a big girl. Do you?”

Marianne Richmond has written numerous touching and thoughtful books for children, on many topics relevant to young children, including love, going to bed, and adoption. Her beautiful watercolor artwork, which stems from time spent at home during a brain tumor surgery recovery, is simple, yet very gracefully detailed.

I haven’t yet had to potty-train a child, but when I do, I’m sure I will enlist the help of Marianne Richmond’s book. This book makes potty training sound exciting, grown-up, and attainable for a young child. As a librarian, I have received numerous requests for books about potty training for kids, and from now on I will certainly be recommending this  one!

Big Boys Go Potty
Written and Illustrated by Marianne Richmond

This book is exactly the same as Big Girls Go Potty except for one obvious difference. Everything said in the review above applies to this book as well.

The fact that Marianne Richmond produced two identical books, one written for girls and one for boys is both a shrewd economical move on her part and a bonus to parents who are potty training.