Top Ten Debuts Catherine is Excited for in 2014

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This weekly meme is hosted by The Broke and Bookish—check out their wonderful blog if you haven’t yet. These are my anticipated reads for 2014, by debut authors. My list includes Middle Grade novels as well as Young Adult titles. Click on the title to find out more on GoodReads.

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Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens

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All Four Stars by Tara Dairman

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Pointe by Brandy Colbert

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Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

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Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

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The Ninja Librarians by Jennifer Swann Downey

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What the Moon Said by Gayle Rosengren

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When Audrey Met Alice by Rebecca Behrens

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The Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer

I am excited about these 2014 releases–are there any on this list you are anticipating? Other debut authors you can’t wait to meet?

Review: The Third Gift by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

The Third Gift (2011) by Linda Sue Park, Illustrations by Bagram Ibatouilline

Suggested age range: 7 and up

(Clarion Books, 32 pages)

Rating: 4/5 stars

Source: Library

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The Book: A boy accompanies his father as he collects resin from tree bark, the “tears” that become the valuable essential oil of myrrh. This is the father’s craft, and the story highlights the bond between father and son as well as the transferring of a craft from one generation to another. You may recognize the style of Ibatouilline’s illustrations—he produced the pictures for Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

The text includes information related to how the essential oil of myrrh was used in the past, and based on the allusion to the event of Jesus’ birth at the end of the story, the reader can guess the time period and place of the story. The realistic illustrations are acrylic-gouache, and include beautiful details of the Middle Eastern landscape and clothing.

The father’s product is pursued by a spice merchant in the marketplace one day, and the boy and father discover three richly dressed men who have traveled far and are seeking a valuable gift for a baby. The men decide to purchase the large tear the boy recently acquired, and the story concludes with the boy gazing after the men as they ride off into the desert towards the baby.

Spirituality in The Third Gift: The significant spiritual and religious event of the birth of Jesus Chris is alluded to in the conclusion of the story. However, the Father/Son relationship is another area of spirituality in the text; this father/son bond is unique in that the Father is imparting knowledge about a skill to his son. There is a significant connection forged between them. At the same time, he is also giving him more responsibility; the father allows his son to share his “tear” with the three visitors who are seeking a “third gift” for this baby they will visit.

A spirituality of wonder and awe is subtly hinted at in the closing illustration and text. The boy does not know all the details of these three visitors or the nature of their future visit to the baby, but he senses (communicated by the both the picture and text) that this is significant. Perhaps the boy will never know to whom his gift was given. What the text does communicate is that even the very young can play an important role in globally significant events.

Exploring this Book with Readers: This is perfect for a read aloud, and introducing this book during the Christmas season would be brilliant, but this is also a book that would work anytime of the year. Discussion with young reader could focus on several areas: Crafts and abilities we have that can bring joy to others, Middle Eastern culture, the gaps and mystery in the story that are left open for the reader to fill.

The content related to the essential oils and spices is another brilliant road into the story. Essential oils as natural healthcare is discussed in the story—historically, myrrh was used for “headaches…stomachaches…to soothe rashes.” In our own time, essential oils can still be used for these ailments, and I was especially interested in this picturebook due to my recent introduction to essential oils. I have found they have amazing properties and can answer many health concern questions, including sleeplessness, anxiety, headaches, and allergies. How excited I was to discover this beautiful picturebook that highlights an essential oil, myrrh, and frames it within the background of an event over 2,000 years ago.

The Final Word: I would definitely recommended sharing this with both elementary classes and even middle school classes. The age of the students could determine the depth of analysis and discussion, but certainly, this book has something to offer every reader. Its allusion to the Biblical event of the birth of Christ would make it especially appropriate for religious classrooms. However, this book would appeal, I believe, to readers of all backgrounds.

Storying Compassion: Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories (2008) by Reinhardt Jung

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Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories by Reinhardt Jung, illustr. Emma Chichester Clark (2008) [First published, 1998]

Suggested age range: 9 and up

(Egmont Press, 107 pages)

“A deep sigh stopped him in his tracks, a sigh which seemed to come from the rock itself” (p. 20).

Some books for young people have the potential to stir in readers a greater sense of compassion for others. A contemporary illustrated edition of Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories (2008) by Reinhardt Jung beautiful demonstrates how stories can generate social sensitivity and alert readers to the importance of noticing the unnoticed. Based on my own experience reading this incandescent collection of short illustrated stories, I can attest to the way in which the book can elicit a deep response from the reader. Each story illuminated a deep idea or truth that was implicit within the tale, but became clear and real to me, the reader.

Emma Chichester Clark’s illustrations add an important dimension to the stories by depicting these multi-layered moments visually. The sometimes odd Bambert, a writer who “saw the world through the eyes of poets and writers,” lives alone. He enjoys looking out his attic window at night, “holding quiet conversations with the moon, for the moon, which seemed to know as many stories as Bambert himself, acted as a mirror in which he could see the world.” It is through writing his stories that he finds joy.  He ultimately decides to send the eleven stories from his Book of Wishes, via paper hot-air balloons out into the world, so that they can become true in a sense:

“Making a story come true would mean letting it out of the book to go off into the world and look for its own setting, searching for cities, riverbanks, sea shores: places where it could come to life in real human beings, against real landscapes and within real walls.”

Though Bambert keeps his characters the same in the stories, he allows the settings to be shaped by the location where they land. He sends the tales in hopes that those who discover them will situate the stories within a unique setting and return them to Bambert. There is space for a twelfth story, but Bambert is waiting for this story’s shape to emerge. When the cold weather finally sets in, Bambert releases the stories and “was happier than he had ever been in his whole life.” It is several seasons later, however, before Bambert receives the first story back from another country—and at this point Reinhardt Jung’s book delivers Bambert’s rich tales to the reader.

Certainly, Jung’s characterization of Bambert invites readers to consider this melancholy man’s point of view, a perspective we might not normally take the time to consider in the busyness of our own lives. Bambert’s sense of humanity is finely tuned; it is an awareness deep with concern, compassion, and at many times, hope.

His first story returns from Ireland, and focuses on a whale returning to the bay to thank the grandson of the man who rescued him as a young whale from certain death. It is a beautiful event when the boy sees “an ancient eye” staring at him out of what he think is a huge rock. The boy takes water from the sea, and pours it “carefully over the open eye like salty tears, to keep it from drying up in the wind blowing off the land.” The whale then begins to communicate with the boy through his thoughts, and the boy hears, “I was looking for you—you who are different from the others, my friend—and now I’ve found you.” It was a hundred years earlier that the boy’s grandfather rescued the whale in the middle of the night, and returned him to the sea, to safety, from his hunters. Now old, the whale assumes the grandson is the grandfather and says,

“I have looked for you ever since that day. You haven’t changed at all, but I have grown old. I wanted to see you once again, to thank you and say goodbye.”

It is a beautiful story—the tale of how a child reached out to a creature in its childlike state, and saved it from those who only valued the life of a whale for what it could give. It is the heart of the grandfather as a child that we applaud, and we discover his compassion through his grandson’s interaction with the whale. Interestingly, the character of the grandfather does not appear directly; his character emerges indirectly through the memory of the whale and the boy’s father’s description at the conclusion of the story.

This first tale of Bambert’s reminds us of the importance of respecting and caring for those creatures with which we live on the earth. My own spirituality has generated in me a love for animals and for the natural world—a love that urges me to treat them with respect. Though children, like adults, can be cruel towards the natural world and its creatures, many children seem to have a clear sense that we must act with love. This is how the boy in “The Eye in the Sea” operates, and how his grandfather before him responded. In this way, the tale reflects another important idea—that adults can transfer their own love and concern for the earth to their children. And this is powerful.

Harris Burdick: Finding the True Answer of Wonder

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About fifty years ago, a man named Harris Burdick approached a children’s book publisher concerning fourteen stories he had written and illustrated. He showed the publishing company fourteen black and white illustrations, along with a title and caption for each. Peter Wenders, a representative of the company, asked for the accompanying stories. Burdick promised to bring them the next day; however, he never returned with the stories nor did he ever claim his drawings. Who was Harris Burdick and where are these stories?

I can’t answer that question, but I can write about several of his mysterious pictures and perhaps begin to uncover what I think is a supernatural geography at work in the picturebook.  Specifically, I think the text underscores several spiritual manifestations, including the idea of destiny, the possibility of a supernatural realm, dreams as spiritual communication, and an aesthetic appreciation for the natural world.

The black and white, almost newspaper-like qualities of Allsburg’s illustrations are vital in perpetuating an atmosphere of wonder and expectation in the reader. Allsburg’s presentation of text and image suggests that the supernatural is, in fact, possible. The nebulous relationship between text and image deters any straightforward explanations of these ‘impossible’ events; however, their newspaper-like quality suggests a factual dimension of the circumstances. Surrealistic art, upon a first, cursory glance, can appear realistic, and only upon closer inspection does one discover an element or structure of the fantastic.

Because massive gaps exist between the words and the pictures in Allsburg’s narrative, Wolfgang Iser’s theory of gaps and reader-response is useful for analysis of the text. In this case, the reader is forced to fill in gaps within the picture, the text, and between the picture and the text.

The first double-page spread features the text, “ARCHIE SMITH, BOY WONDER” and on the line below, “A tiny voice asked, “Is he the one?”

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Archie’s sleep state symbolically suggests that he may not be aware of his significance or sphere of influence. This raises the question of whether those with abilities to accomplish important tasks are often unaware themselves of the potential within them.

The orbs intimate the supernatural, and though the picture is black and white, the brightness of the orbs sets them apart from the rest of the objects in the picture. In this way, the orbs possess their own otherworldly color, distinct from the dimmer shades of black and white in the rest of the picture. The orbs work to illuminate objects in the room that might otherwise be difficult to perceive. This difference in intensity serves as a visual metaphor for the idea that the supernatural is different from everyday reality, but that it highlights aspects of life otherwise hidden.

Yet another symbolic reading of the picture reveals that a supernatural encounter can function to awaken the individual to a significant, life-changing experience. This reading fills gaps in the narrative and can also depend on the reader’s own ideas about the supernatural. Additionally, this reading must speculate about what happens after this particular scene. I would argue that all of Allsburg’s pictures and captions force the reader to imagine what happens after the featured events.

The image occupying the cover of the text, also known as the fifth illustration, features the title, “Another Place, Another Time,” and below, “If there was an answer, he’d find it there.”

The castle in the distance might symbolize the site where the mysteries of Harris Burdick unfold. If we consider the direction of the vehicle, it’s not necessarily leading towards the castle, though we may speculate about its route.

The dark, ominous clouds towering over the group adds a further dimension to consider. Is there a negative force opposing the characters? Might there be some kind of sea monster lurking in the water, hidden by the mist? Furthermore, I haven’t even mentioned the title’s allusion to the possibility of time-travel for this fragment. What is certain is the level of uncertainty connected with the arrival at the “true” meaning and significance of this picture of Harris Burdick’s.

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My last exploration includes “The Harp” and the caption below reads, “So it’s true he thought, it’s really true.” Allsburg displays a rich technique of shading and his ability to create depth of both physical and symbolic space is clearly seen in this image. Light, large birch trees on either side of the brook climb up and out of the spread, drawing the reader’s eye towards the sky and creating a diagonal over the central space of the brook. This diagonal frames the male figure and his dog on the left and the harp, in the right foreground.

Upon closer examination of the harp and its surrounding space, we can see a ripple in the water directly below the harp. There are a variety of possibilities to consider. One suggestion is that a person or creature (other than the male figure on the left) is responsible for this ripple. Does the harp itself possess some living, animated quality? The beauty in Allsburg’s text is its ability to encompass a multiplicity of explanations.

Another spiritual manifestation unfolds in the portrayal of the beauty of the natural world surrounding the traveler, his dog, and the harp. An aesthetic appreciation of the natural world can create a gateway into the spiritual through self-reflection about one’s individual destiny. Many literary works portray moments in which the protagonist experiences beauty that elicits a desire to discover meaning or embark upon a quest. Like the other illustrations in the book, “The Harp” accommodates a variety of response and speculation.

This is only a discussion of three of the pictures in the book. As one of Catherine’s favorites, more posts about this mysterious text may appear in the future.

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Falling into Autumn Reading

Summer is over and Fall is here! There is an abundance of new wonderful books for children and young adults emerging for autumn, 2012. Lois Lowry’s Son, has just been released and we hope all of you who read The Giver will be securing a copy of this long anticipated conclusion to the series. We will certainly be reading and reviewing the book on the blog.

The Peter Pan podcast is currently in the stages of getting set up to be posted on the blog, so stay tuned for our second episode. Thank you for your patience! We expect that our podcast episodes will be more frequent now that the fall is here, and I (Catherine) have quite a few books to discuss on the blog in the upcoming weeks, along with ideas and discussion specifically geared towards teachers. I am teaching 6th grade English this term, so I have a lot to say about books for this age and beyond!