“'There's cold chicken inside it,' replied the Rat briefly; 'coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrench

'O stop, stop,' cried the Mole in ecstacies: 'This is too much!'”
-- from
The Wind in the Willows

Friday, July 31, 2009

It's nearly birthday time. And one critic's (Jennifer Brown's) reviewing tips.

Next week, The Picnic Basket turns one! It's been a year since I launched this blog to give teachers and librarians a sneak peek at forthcoming children's and teen titles as well as a forum for them to share their thoughts on the books. We've featured over 80 books and I encourage you to check out the reviews (in the left sidebar) organized by category and date. There's nothing like hearing from your colleagues about what worked (and didn't) with their classes/students/kids.

A few of you have emailed to say that you'd like to get involved but haven't ever "officially" reviewed a book before. My response is a bit like Dr. Spock: "Trust yourself; you know more than you think you do." I'm not a reviewer, either, so I turned to the ever-wise, ever-generous Jenny Brown, who covers children's books for Shelf Awareness, a daily e-newsletter dedicated to helping the people in the book biz to buy, sell and lend books most wisely. Here are a few tips -- enjoy.

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One Critic’s Tips by Jennifer M. Brown

What goes into writing a review? Since so many of you either evaluate children’s books yourselves or rely on others’ reviews to make buying decisions, I thought you might be interested in learning about one critic’s review process. Much of my approach has been culled from the wisdom passed on to me over the years, especially by Diane Roback of Publishers Weekly, and by Trevlyn Jones and Luann Toth at School Library Journal. Ultimately, every reviewer develops his or her own approach and voice, but here are some guiding principles that I’ve found useful.

Try to give readers a sense of thumbs-up or thumbs-down in the first sentence. People may just want to know straight off whether or not you’re recommending a book (e.g., for Along with the Ride: “Sarah Dessen, in her best book to date, captures the essence of a transformational summer as Auden West prepares to go to college” http://tinyurl.com/mzdnp4). Then use the rest of the review to support your opinion.

Include only enough plot on which to hang your criticism. You do not have to give a blow by blow; these are not cliff notes, thankfully (see, for instance, this recommendation of Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse.) You also don’t need to discuss the ending unless you feel that it undermines the build-up that preceded it, leaves too much hanging, or is simply spectacular. In other words, no spoilers unless absolutely necessary.

Feel free to use quotes from the book. Quotes give readers a flavor of the book and also allow them to come to their own conclusions about the book’s style and appeal. (Quotes give a sense of how Jacqueline Kelly handled the turn-of-the-20 century themes in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.)

If this is an illustrated book, do the illustrations add something to the story or do they detract from it? Artwork can be challenging to describe. How do you give readers a sense of the illustrations if they’re not looking at the pictures? Are they light and airy (watercolors)? Dense and dark (oils or acrylics)? Do they accurately reflect the mood of the story? Try to describe what you see as specifically as you can (see Suzy Lee’s Wave).

Review the book that’s in front of you. Over the years, I’ve noticed a tendency on the part of reviewers to review what they wish the book had been. I’ll never forget debating Tracy Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren with Patricia MacLachlan: It was published at the start of the Whole Language Movement, and I argued that Kidder should have profiled one of these innovative teachers who were using trade literature in the classroom. Patty said, “But that’s not what he set out to do; he wanted to profile an average teacher struggling to get through the day.” She was right. And though I wasn’t reviewing the book, she taught me a valuable lesson. Our job is to assess whether or not the book succeeds as it stands; it is also not our job to speculate about what the author or artistintended. We cannot know what his or her intention was; we can only evaluate what exists on the page.

Proofread your work. In addition to checking for the usual spelling and grammar mistakes, watch for unintentional word repetition and, as Strunk & White would say, “Omit needless words.” Whenever possible, write the review a day or two in advance. Sometimes a little distance helps in the proofing process.

Most of all, have fun! We are lucky to work in a field that has such people in it.

Jennifer M. Brown has worked as an editor and in marketing for HarperCollins Children’s Books, where she began her career and remained for nine years. She has taught elementary school, and was the children’s reviews editor at Publishers Weekly for 10 years. She now works as children’s editor at Shelf Awareness, an e-newsletter for the book trade, and recently launched Twenty by Jenny, a children’s book resource for parents, grandparents, and others interested in children’s books.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Philippa Fisher and the Dream-Maker's Daughter • Middle-grade fiction

Philippa Fisher and the Dream-Maker’s Daughter

Written by Liz Kessler September 2009 Candlewick Press • Middle-grade fiction Ages 8-12

Fairies, magic, and friendships old and new are woven together in this sparkling new adventure from the creator of Emily Windsnap!

Story: Philippa Fisher is trying to have a good time on vacation with her parents, but she’s feeling lonely. When she meets Robyn, a girl with sad eyes and a strict father, she enjoys the company, but can’t help wondering what Robyn and her dad might be hiding. Meanwhile, Daisy, Philippa’s best friend (and fairy godsister), sneaks into her former charge’s room for a visit, but now has a furtive new mission and must dash away. Philippa longs to uncover the reasons behind her friends’ odd behavior, but friendships can be tricky when there are secrets – and unexpected danger – involved!

Story behind the story: “Philippa Fisher and the Dream-Maker’s Daughter might be the best book I’ve written so far,” Liz says. “All my family and friends have cried when they read it — which I always think is a good sign.” So dear reader, make sure to keep a box of tissue near by!

Praise for Philippa Fisher’s Fairy Godsister:

“Upbeat, middle-grade fantasy. Philippa is believable as a middle-schooler navigating difficult friendships and embarrassing parents, and the message of being careful what you wish for is delivered with a light touch.” Booklist

“Charming… The gentle storytelling and theme of finding oneself will resonate with girls going through their own emotional awakenings.” – School Library Journal

“Light tone, imaginative incorporation of fairy-world details …and gentle development of the theme of empathy all work well together to make this a realistic school story with a magical twist.” – The Horn Book

“The elaborate fairy world, complete with amiable characters, creatively reinterpreted bureaucracy, and clever rules about fairy presence among humans, is memorable in both the amount of detail included and in the unusual perspective on fairies.” – The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

FYI: all the review copies for this title have been sent and reviews are in the works; please check back and click on the "comments" link below to read what your colleagues have to say.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Other Half of Life • Historical fiction

The Other Half of Life
Recently published  • Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers  •  Historical fiction  • Ages 12 and up
A fascinating, heartbreaking story of World War II Jewish refugees fleeing to safety -- inspired by a true story.
The Other Half of Life is a wonderful introduction for young readers to contemporary history and its traumatic and moral challenges.” --Elie Wiesel
Story: Fifteen-year-old Thomas is on board the MS St. Francis, a luxury liner whose crew is made up of Nazis -- yet whose passengers are Jewish. While he feels fortunate to be one of the few Jews to escape Hitler's Nazi regime and flee to safety in Cuba, he is also skeptical. Most passengers are celebrating their escape from a life of imprisonment, persecution, and death; but not all. When Thomas begins noticing some of the crew's shady antics, his suspicions are confirmed that the congenial atmosphere and the promise of a life of freedom are not what they seem. Upon the ship's arrival in Cuba, Thomas and the other passengers endure the implementation of changes in immigration policy, forcing them to return to the dreaded place from which they fled. The Other Half of Life tells a lesser-known World War II story, and gives readers another lens through which they can view the plight of these Jewish refugees.
Story behind the story: Kim Ablon Whitney's fascination with the true story of the MS St. Louis began immediately after she read an article about the ship's doomed voyage; she was captivated by the heartbreaking story and what life on board must have been like. "From the first time I read The Diary of Anne Frank and Night, I have always been interested in events surrounding World War II and the Holocaust. When I heard of the tragic story of this journey, I knew I wanted to try to bring it to life for future generations."

In addition to reading many books and newspaper articles on the voyage of the St. Louis, the author also viewed the handful of videos with interviews with survivors -- and even interviewed one of the survivors herself. The Other Half of Life encourages readers to consider the origins of persecution, other countries’ reactions and responsibilities to persecution, and the humanitarian treatment of refugees. See the teacher's guide and video of a presentation about the book for additional information and ways to get the discussion going.

“[Kim Ablon] Whitney has written a captivating novel with superb detail.” --Herbert Karliner, MS St. Louis survivor

“[A] gripping novel… the dialogue, especially the flirting, is fast and tender, and Whitney builds the story’s excitement.” --Booklist Magazine

“The pacing and onboard mysteries will keep readers involved.” --Kirkus Reviews

FYI: all the review copies for this title have been sent and reviews are in the works; please check back and click on the "comments" link below to read what your colleagues have to say.