Sunday, February 28, 2010

Jacqui Reads Her Children & Herself Books By & About People Different From Her: the wrap-up

Well, I did it. I read a book by or about someone different from me every day for a whole month. Because it was Black History Month, I did mostly African/African-American authors/characters. I am really, really glad I did this, because I discovered some great books about which I should've known long ago, and some others about which I'd never have heard otherwise. Here's the wrap-up.

Note: If I read a book and didn't think it was worth your time, I didn't mention it here. That's why the list doesn't go to 28. It also means I at least liked all of these. "You should really read this" recommendations are starred.


* When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune (Lori Aurelia Williams)

* Touching Snow (M. Sindy Felin)

Ten Things I Hate About Me (Randa Abdel-Fattah)

Romiette and Julio (Sharon M. Draper)

* The Skin I'm In (Sharon G. Flake)

Tyrell (Coe Booth)

Kendra (Coe Booth)

The Rock and the River (Kekla Magoon)

Mare’s War (Tanita S. Davis)

* 8th Grade Superzero (Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich)

Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Adichie) (for adults)

Out (Natsuo Kirino) (for adults)

Chapter Books/Middle Grades

This was the hardest category for which to find books. Where are the modern chapter books with African-American main characters?! There's a whole blog post in my head about role models and what a crime it is that there aren't more choices in this category...

Starring Grace (Mary Hoffman)

The Broken Bike Boy and the Queen of 33rd Street (Sharon Flake)

Georgia the Guinea Pig Fairy (Tink convinced me I had to include it since Georgia is a fairy of color and is pictured as such on the cover; I suppose it's a good thing to which to give positive attention.)

Donovan’s Word Jar (Monalisa DeGross) (This was a re-read, but I read it to Tink this time)

Picture Books

Fireman Small - Fire Down Below! (Wong Herbert Yee)

* I'd Really Like to Eat a Child (Sylviane Donnio)

* My Best Friend (Mary Ann Rodman)

* Henry’s Freedom Box (Ellen Levine)

Pink Paper Swans (Virginia L. Kroll)

Pitching in for Eubie (Jerdine Nolan)

Looking Like Me (Walter Dean Myers, illus Chris Myers)

Books I Really Wanted to Read That Didn't Get Into My Library In Time

Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything In It (Sundee Frazier) - MG

Sassy Little Sister is NOT My Name! (Sharon Draper) - MG

When Mules Flew on Magnolia Street (Angela Johnson) - MG

Mr. Chickee's Funny Money (Christopher Paul Curtis) - MG

Kindred or Fledgling (Octavia Butler) - adult

Flygirl (Sherri L. Smith) - novel

Caucasia (Danzy Senna)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Spoons, Chihuahuas, and Autonomous Robots

What better way to celebrate absurd books on Thursday than with The Bookseller's 2009 Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year?

Here are some of the finalists:

Afterthoughts of a Worm Hunter (David Crompton)

Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich (James A Yannes)

Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes (A K Peters), and

The Changing World of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Ellen Scherl, Maria Dubinsky)

The first one raises all sorts of ideas for first lines ("Look! It's growing back! Now we can have seconds!"). But my favorite has to be...

Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots (Ronald C Arkin)

Because, um, WHY? What the heck happened over at the Arkin lab that made Ronald an expert in governing lethal behavior in robots? Is he a robot expert, or can we expect a Governing Lethal Behavior in... series?

If you need inspiration or giggles, check out Wikipedia's list of past winners.

And, if lethal robots aren't your cup of tea, maybe you could write me the story behind Gary Leon's 2005 winning title:

People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What To Do About It.

Because I have always wondered.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Fireman Destructo

A one act play created in part by Jacqui Reads Her Children & Herself Books By & About People Different From Her (explanation of JRHCHBBAPDFH here).

Act I
In which JACQUI reads Wong Herbert Yee's Fireman Small: Fire Down Below to CAPTAIN DESTRUCTO and DESTRUCTO takes offense.

JACQUI: ...The End. Aw, that was a good one.
JACQUI: His jacket looks just like your fire coat.
DESTRUCTO: Yes, but I cannot be him.
JACQUI: Why not?
DESTRUCTO: Because he is different from me.
JACQUI: (panics, wonders if whole premise of the JRHCHBBAPDFH project -- that kids will relate to characters regardless of race -- is bunk, blames self for raising racist three year-old, etc. etc. etc.) Really? (gulps)
DESTRUCTO: (exasperated as only a three year-old can be) Mama! He is Fireman SMALL. And I'm BIG.
JACQUI: Oh! That is true.
DESTRUCTO: I would be Fireman HOOJ.*
JACQUI: Yes, you would.
DESTRUCTO: You tell me story 'bout me in the BatCave now, okay?


* Huge

Thursday, February 18, 2010

But then we'd need a skating rink...

Welcome to this week's Thursday News of the Absurd Will Someone Please Write Me This Book Inspirational Moment (TNoftheAWSWMTBIM).

Scene: this morning, breakfast. Tink (and she was being serious, I think) announces, "Mama, I do not want a guinea pig any more."

"No?" I say, chuckling to myself at the fact that she felt it was necessary to tell me this. Because otherwise I was about to rush right out and add RodentStinkAndChaos to our already zen-like existence.

"No," she announces. "I want a penguin."

I laughed. She said it again. I laughed again. She said it twenty more times in increasing levels of whininess. I said something suitably soul-crushing and mom-ish like, "Okay, Tink. It was funny the first time. Now cut it out."

"But I DO!" she said.

Thor chimed in. "We'd need to turn the backyard into an ice pool."

And I thought, "What if we did?" And then, "Oh, this is a book."

Have you read When Dinosaurs Came With Everything (by Elise Broach, illus. David Small)? Great fun, that picture book. But I want penguins.

Mostly, I want a chapter book, I think. I want the little girl to hear her father say, "We'd have to build an ice pool in the backyard" and to believe him. So she starts planning and saving, and maybe even building. It's never going to happen. Obviously. It's impossible. But what if she doesn't know that?

She has to get it in the end, of course. Despite the fact that it is ludicrous, she has to convince them and it has to work and be wonderful and make us all feel like maybe we need to widen our ideas of what's "possible."

Also, it has to be hilarious and it has to ave a scene with men in tuxedos who look like a colony of penguins.

Who will write me this book?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I win!

In which I justify hours of late night messing around on the internet.

It was late at night, at that moment when you think, "I should sleep. I should escape this darn World Wide Web of Doom and sleep. But first, I shall check this ONE last thing."

So I checked my Google Alerts, and...hey!

Two of a Kind has been voted one of the Chicago Public Library's "Best of the Best" for 2009!

This means a lot to me since I spent HOURS in the Chicago Public Library, and was teaching there when I wrote Two of a Kind.

So then I thought, "I'll just tell the folks on Twitter about this."

And voila! I won a contest. Yes, from now on you must refer to me as "Almighty Queen of Imperial Visual Propaganda." All because I watched too much TV as a kid and love stupid puns (and so did/do the hilarious Tara Lazar and Mike Jung.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

You Don't Even Know Me

The JRHCHBBAPDFH book recommendation for the day is You Don't Even Know Me, a collection of short stories and poems by Sharon G. Flake.

The author writes:
They fall in love, plot revenge, seek to be understood. They sit in class, show their colors, date your daughter and dream of making it big. But do you know them, these brazen, brilliant, bold young men walking among us? In my new novel, young men celebrate love, mentor younger boys, wrestle with AIDS and contemplate suicide. They dodge adults who mean them harm, brag about becoming president and wonder if they'll be alive in the morning. Boys: Do we know 'em?

Confession: I haven't read You Don't Even Know Me. It is, in fact, just coming out today (happy birthday, book). You can read reviews from people who have read it here and here.

That said, I just finished The Skin I'm In, also by Ms. Flake, and it's the kind of book that makes you want more soon. Maleeka gets made fun of for being so tall and skinny and dark. She befriends the mean bully Char, hoping it will help. It doesn't; Char is worse to her than anyone. Okay, here you are thinking I am going to say, "...blah blah blah Maleeka learns to love the skin she's in." And it's true, Maleeka does learn that, but the way it comes about is not predictable or clich├ęd or easy. I love it when an author can get me all tense and jumpy thinking, "No! Don't do that!" while still pulling 100% for a character. And I love that in the end, Maleeka still looks like herself (i.e. there's no fairy tale makeover).

I also just picked up The Broken Bike Boy and the Queen of 33rd Street. Tink's review coming soon.

Sharon G. Flake's interview at The Brown Bookshelf here.
Evanston Library's list of other books you might like if you like these here (love the "readalikes" idea).

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Touching Snow

"Um, Jacqui?" you may be saying. "Where have you been? And what ever happened to that project you were doing for Black History Month?"

It's a reasonable question. Blogging has been sparse and linky. The good news is that when blogging is sparse, it usually means other writing is prolific and good. It's the weeks I'm blogging daily that you know the book is stalled to a stand still and I am looking over the ledge. But no, I am deep in thought about a book, at the "so obsessed I neglect my children" phase, and it kind of takes all my words right now.

That said, I am reading up a storm. Which also usually happens when writing goes well -- it's like I am using so many words that I need to replenish them with tons of reading.

And oh, what good reading it has been! Seriously, this Jacqui Reads Herself & Her Children Books By & About People Different From Her has been amazing. But book reviews here take a lot of time. I have to CLICK and FIND the links, and WRITE the reviews and UPLOAD the covers -- it's like working in a salt mine. Okay it's not. But it takes time that I want to use WRITING. So the updates will come in waves.

Today, though, I had to tell you about M. Sindy Felin's Touching Snow. Because it is absolutely amazing, and given the honors it received (National Book Award Finalist and an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, for starters), everyone who reads young adult books should have read it three years ago. But I hadn't, which is pitiful.

Atheneum writes: Karina has plenty to worry about on the last day of seventh grade.

Boy, does she: All Ds and Cs on her report card, problems with her teachers, bullies, and a father who beats she and her sisters violently for any perceived mistake. When her stepfather nearly kills her sister, Karina is torn between wanting him gone, and hating the dire straits into which his arrest would throw her family; they need his income, and they need not to have the police sniffing around the circumstances of their family's immigration from Haiti.

Five things to love about Touching Snow, besides that it is incredibly well-written.

1. It begins: “The best way to avoid being picked on by high school bullies is to kill someone.” Brilliant. And it lives up to this tension, to the dark humor, and to the painful blending of everyday life in high school with much less everyday violence.

2. It presents one of the best, most realistic depictions I have read of life with an abusive parent and the ways in which the violence -- and the effort to avoid it -- color everything in a kid's life.

3. Karina is not smart or gorgeous or even the bravest of her sisters. She is not saved by a boy, by a trusted adult, or by random chance. She uses what she has to make her own way, and she is likeable and admirable even when her choices pain you.

4. Karina has a surprise and beautiful romance with another girl. That is all I am going to say, because it's such a lovely surprise and I'd hate to ruin it.

5. The ending meets my picky criteria for a great ending: it is a surprise, no doubt. But it is also satisfying and realistic and, when you consider the rest of the story, inevitable.

Even if you don't usually read young adult books, this is one that is good enough to try.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow day!

I am really quite a Grinch about snow days. When I was a kid, and especially when I was a teacher, snow days were the best invention ever. Now, I have to admit, I've been up since 5am and have already ended two different games for fighting and doled out two time-outs and, well, IT'S ONLY EIGHT INCHES PEOPLE. DOESN'T THIS TOWN HAVE A PLOW? What? Yes, you have to go play in the snow. I don't care if it's 20 degrees out and you can't breathe because your overall-style snowpants are your two sizes too small. Get out there. Don't let your brother run in the street. Much. And take the snow shovel.

Sigh. Last year, I was so cheerful about it. You can read my less cranky snow day post and snow book recommendations here.

And I hope your snow day is all cocoa and marshmallows.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

If you learned it...

...then you shoulda got an A on it.

I love this.

I am working desperately on the writing equivalent. If you wrote it then...what? All I can think of is me standing at the front of the classroom, asking "Whose paper is this? If you wrote it then you shoulda put your name on it." Who has better ideas?

Thanks to Cheryl Klein for the Tweet/link

Monday, February 8, 2010

This Week's Library Haul

This week's library haul was huge in number, range, and impact. Here are some highlights.

So far, this Jacqui Reads Her Children & Herself Books By & About People Different From Her (explanation here) idea is one of the best I've had.

I'd Really Like to Eat a Child
by Sylviane Donnio, illus. Dorothee deMonfried

How can you not love a book with that title? And yes, it is about an alligator who wants to eat a kid. But he's too little, so when he tries, the tasty morsel he's chosen calls him cute and then tosses him in a lake. I wish I could find (and pirate) the interior art of that page, because it's hilarious. We had several good laughs with this one, which has the bonus of adding the phrase "I'd really like to eat a child" to your child-chasing-pretending-to-nibble game.

The next two books are more appropriate for elementary kids, not preschoolers.

Pitching in for Eubie
by Jerdine Nolen, illus. E.B. Lewis

Have you read Plantzilla? What about Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm? Did you know they were written by the same person and that in addition to hilarity, she writes lovely realistic picture books like this one?

Well, I didn't, and now I'm a little in awe of Jerdine Nolan. I picked this book up because we were so in love with E.B. Lewis's illustrations in My Best Friend (and his ten million other books). In it, a little sister tries to figure out what she can do to pitch in when the whole family works to pay for her older sister's college tuition. Tink liked it, and the artwork is as fabulous as anticipated. Also, it drove us back to Plantzilla, prompting the announcement "I like her funny books better." Which I can understand.

Henry's Freedom Box
by Ellen Levine, illus. Kadir Nelson

Tink is a little fascinated by the idea of the Underground Railroad. I think it appeals to kids her age, because the horrors of slavery are so overwhelming to envision that it helps them to focus on what somebody was doing to fight it. This is the great true story of a slave who mailed himself to freedom. It's a great example of one person's tale giving the larger historical story. There is pain and loss and terror in it, but delivered in a way that even my somewhat tender-hearted seven year old could handle it. And, it's Kadir Nelson; do I have to mention that the illustrations are fantastic?

Also, we took out ten (I swear I am not exaggerating) Rainbow Fairy Magic Books, which are about people different from me as I do not GASP every fifteen seconds and have an unnatural fascination with Jack Frost. We had to take out ten because it wasn't enough for Tink to be obsessed: Destructo had to decide he loves them too. "I do yuv fair-yeez, you know, Mama." I know, Destructo. "Why you hitting you-self on the head with dat book, Mama?"

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Adorable Kitten of Death

We interrupt to bring you this week's Thursday News of the Absurd Will Someone Please Write This Book Inspirational Moment. We are going to be religious about our TNoftheAWSPWTBIMs from now on, due to a comment from a non-writer friend that Jacqui's Room is "hilarious, except when you talk about, you know, writing."

Leaving the fact that this means I am funny approximately 1% of the time, there's a new grim reaper in town and I love this story idea.

From YahooNews & Reuters:

Doctor casts new light on cat that can predict death

In 2007, scientists released a paper describing Oscar, a nursing home cat who can sense death coming; he consistently curls up in bed with people right before they die. Now the doctors who broke the story are concerned Oscar has gotten an unwarranted reputation for being a harbinger of doom, when really he's just trying to comfort people.

Yeah. Right. Even I, a lifelong cat lover, have to scoff. A cat who wants to comfort humans?

Oscar is clearly killing these people. OR, Oscar can sense death coming, because Oscar is Death. And that is the book I want. What if Death were not a skeletal or pale-faced hooded ghoul? Because who wouldn't run from that? If Death really wants to trap as many folks as possible, he'd appear as a totally adorable kitty-witty.

But outside the nursing home where they recognize him, Death gets no respect. He comes to take people's souls and lay his cold paws upon them and they all pet him and forget how to say the 'l' sound.

"Oh, is the widdle kitty twying to --"

Death tries to growl, "I am NOT a widdle kitty. I am the Gwim Weaper." But the people just giggle and offer him milk.

Okay, maybe it's not a book. Maybe it's a Monty Python sketch. Or maybe you have a better idea.

And if it doesn't make you laugh, think of it this way: I could be, you know, talking about writing.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

My Best Friend

Tink and I fell in love last night. With this:

My Best Friend
by Mary Ann Rodman,
illus. E.B. Lewis

First of all, look at that cover. It's gorgeous. The inside is just as gorgeous. Honestly, the book could have had no words and no story and it would still be worth falling in love.

But it does have a story, and if you know anyone who is a year older than you and cool, it is the story of your life. Six year old Lily desperately wants to be best friends with seven year old Tameka, but Tameka barely notices her. Lily tries having the right kind of bathing suit and learning how to dive, but it's useless.

While I read, Tink squirmed and shook her head. 'That's never going to work," she predicted. "Oh boy," she worried. "Ugh," she groaned, squirming in recognition.

When I got done, she sighed in contentment. "That was good," she said, hugging the book.

Then we spent the rest of bedtime looking at the pictures all over again, and wishing it was summer and we were swimming.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Jacqui Reads Her Children & Herself Books By & About People Different From Her, day 2

(explanation here)

Looking Like Me
by Walter Dean Myers*, illus. Christopher Myers

Jeremy looks in the mirror and sees all the things that make him himself: a brother, a son, a runner, a dancer...

Every once in a while I read a book to my kids and think, "Oh, I wish I had a classroom full of kids right now." If I were still teaching, I would snatch up Looking Like Me and we would read it alongside George Ella Lyon's fantastic poem "Where I'm From" (read it here). And we would write our own poems of what we see and where we're from, and we would study Christopher Myers collages and talk about how we are all collages, really, of all that makes us us, and then we'd make our own collage self-portraits and...

My kids enjoyed it. The verse is fun to read and there's a chance on each page to yell "Bam!" and give a fist-punch. But man, if I were a teacher, the fun we would have.

I know it's cheating to start with the Myers family. It's not like the genius of Walter Dean Myers is a hidden gem none of you know. But considering I decided to do this project exactly three minutes before I told you about it, I had to go with what I had around unexplored. And if you haven't read any Walter Dean Myers, go -- go now and buy Monster or Sunrise Over Fallujah, or any of them really, and settle in for some brilliance.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Jacqui Reads Herself & Her Children Books By & About People Different From Her

This is a long post. If you have a short attention span, skip to the big letters in the middle of the page that are the same as the title.

There's been a lot of kerfluffle this month about race and children's book covers and how some people think other people don't buy books whose covers have people of color on them.

This is interesting to me for many reasons, not the least of which is that my first book's cover features a giant brown face smiling out at you.

Which is how I wanted it. Richard Jackson and I openly discussed it in the editorial process. I was a public school teacher in New Haven and Chicago and Philadelphia. I never had a class of white students in my life. And I wanted the book to be for and about my students. He totally agreed. When Two of a Kind came around, I reminded S&S of that and they said, "Of course." It never occurred to me that I was driving customers away.

Now, I know it's different for picture books. And I don't mean to be flip. But I'm fascinated by this. White people won't buy a book because it has a person of color on the cover. Because it's not someone like them. When half the fun of reading is diving into someone else's life and either learning something or finding out it has a lot of the same struggles as your own. This makes no sense.

But yet. I look at the list of my top ten chapter books and am blinded and shamed by the whiteness. And I do think that it takes a little more effort to find great books that aren't in your normal book comfort zone, that publishers think are for a "limited market" or that get less buzz.

So. Here it is Black History Month. Let's celebrate. Let's everybody -- no matter how you self-classify -- pick up a book by or about someone different from you. You can define "different" however you want. We'll call it:

Jacqui Reads Her Children & Herself Books By & About People Different From Her*

Every day this month** I will EITHER read my children or myself a great book by someone different from me and tell you about it (or have Tink and Destructo review it), OR I will point you towards a great resource for finding such books for your own enjoyment. Sound like fun? I am very excited.

Who's in??? All you have to do is say, "I'm in!" and report back on anything you find that you like. And who has suggestions for me?

* I gotta get me an intern in charge of naming my features. This is getting ridiculous.
** And by every day, I mean every day that I can, with the caveat that I am trying to write two books at once as well. Which is probably why I took on this suddenly huge-seeming project.