Category Archives: book reviews

Books I’ve read and can’t wait to rant (or rave!) about.

Park Slope Methodist Book Sale Finds

This weekend was one of my favorite annual Park Slope traditions: the Park Slope Methodist book sale!  Every year, this neighborhood church collects thousands of book donations (and CDs, and records) of every kind, and the BK literati flock to pick up hardcovers and paperbacks for just a dollar or two.

This year, I tried to exercise some restraint – after all, I’ve got books spilling out of the shelves in my room as it is!  But I did manage to pick up a few art and home-related titles (I was in a non-fiction mood), that are really fun!

My favorite book of the day is A Book Of Garden Flowers by Margaret McKenny and Edith F. Johnston (Macmillan, 1940). Margaret McKenny turns out to be a renowned Washington State naturalist, and I later found some of her enthusiastic letters about mushroom hunting. But the piece de resistance is Edith Johnston’s GORGEOUS lithographs of flowers! Each one is more beautiful than the next (so much so that I almost scanned the whole book!). Take a look . . .

Truly lovely, no?

I also picked up a couple of cookbooks that I’m really digging:

The Pleasures of Slow Food by Corby Kummer (Chronicle Books, 2002). – This glamorous coffee-table volume takes a warm glimpse into the “slow food” movement – where hand-crafted cooking methods enjoyed among company take the place of modern American fast-food culture. I can only hope that I’ll get around to cooking soft-shell crab bisque or pickled herring with apples and creme freche, because the photos are absolutely drool-worthy!

Speaking of photos, I’d never normally buy a cookbook without them, but this little gem caught my eye and I think it’ll be most useful! Edible Pockets For Every Meal by Donna Rathmell German (Nitty Gritty Cookbooks, 1997) is a super-simple guide to all kinds of dumplings, turnovers and “pasties” ( . . . whatever those are!). You can mix-and-match various dough/roll recipes with endless combinations of fillings from different cultures.  Check out how friendly the design is:

Want some of these delightful titles for yourself? Make sure to be on the lookout for the Slope’s book sale next February!


Video Half-Day Friday: Hope For Haiti

Do something good before jetting off this weekend – check out this beautifully-produced video from Pearson’s We Give Books and On My Mind Foundation. These two organizations paired up on a trip to Haiti to help schools affected by the earthquake disaster last year, and address the overwhelming illiteracy rate in that area. Now, We Give Books is providing 1,000 books to kids in Haiti, and you can find out more and help here.

The video features Jesse Joshua Watson, author/illustrator of the Putnam book Hope For Haiti, one of my favorite picture books we’ve published recently.  Jesse’s artwork is brilliantly colored and perfectly suited to this uplifting story.  It goes well beyond soccer and speaks straight to the heart of Haiti’s youngest generation.  A must read – and I’m so glad that children in Haiti were able to experience it in their own language!

My Princess Boy Part II: Books With Non-Traditional Gender Roles

Since writing my first post about My Princess Boy, I got to thinking about boys who wear pink, and other non-traditional gender roles.  Was there a place for them in children’s books before this news story?  Turns out, there was, and librarians and readers have been making lists for ages!  Here’s my own list, with some personal favorites for boys and girls:

(Note: I also went to the bookstore and read My Princess Boy. My two cents? I’m not a fan of an illustration style with faceless figures, though I understand the attempt to be “universal” and androgynous, and I know others that liked it. Ultimately, though, I respect the point of the story, and that’s satisfying enough for me!)

Little Women – by Louisa May Alcott / There’s no contest: Louisa May Alcott, in the guise of her autobiographical protagonist, Jo March, is the original tomboy.  She’s independent, stubborn, and refuses to accept the feminine societal norms that eat up the rest of her sisters’ time and energy.  Women for generations have idolized the way she bravely cuts off her hair (her one beauty!), but fans were a little less content with her refusal to marry Laurie… or anyone at all.  In fact, Alcott later wrote,

“Jo should have remained a literary spinster, but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare refuse and out of perversity went and made a funny match for her”.

Listen to a great story about Jo March on NPR, here.

Hattie Big Sky – by Kirby Lawson / There are many wonderful contemporary novels featuring spunky historical heroines, but my favorite is “the one about the girl homesteader”, aka. Hattie Big Sky. Hattie is a 16-year-old orphan who winds up with a piece of land in rural Montana, and has to successfully farm it in less than a year to stay.  I love Hattie’s unique voice and the community that she creates for herself within a harsh setting… she can’t help but have guts to stick through her situation!

The Paper Bag Princess – by Robert N. Munsch / Since 1980, this princess has been kicking some serious dragon-butt, proving that girly-girls everywhere can get down and dirty, bring on some clever defense, and rescue the prince all on their own . . . even if he turns out to be not-so-Charming.

Oliver Button Is A Sissy – by Tomie dePaola / This story has a lot of heart, and with a main character who’d rather paint pictures and read than play sports, it’s pretty easy to spot that this is an autobiographical dePaola story.  This may have been the first time that male gender stereotypes were addressed in a picture book, and I’m happy to see that Oliver Button still resonates today.

Ferdinand – by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson / I didn’t think of this book immediately, because Ferdinand reminds me more of my shy 175-lb. Pyranese dog, Jaxon, than any kid I know, sissy or otherwise.  But when it was on all the related lists about books defying gender stereotypes, it gave me pause to think. Maybe this little bull could give comfort to a shy boy who’d rather pick flowers than wrestle himself.

Billy Elliot / Okay, okay . . . this isn’t technically a book (though it is now adapted from the screenplay!).  But this movie touched the hearts of so many, because a man doesn’t have to be gay to want to express himself creatively.  I loved the film, and can’t wait to see the Broadway musical this weekend!

Pinky And Rex series – by James Howe, illustrated by Melissa Sweet / Pinky and Rex defy traditional gender roles in a cool, easygoing way — by just being themselves.  Pinky likes pink and animals, Rex likes dinosaurs, but they’re best friends and brave enough to stick up for each other anyway. As a first-grader who was more comfortable playing with boys and animals in the mud than with Barbies, this was one of my favorite early-readers growing up!  And FYI? My favorite color at that age was blue.

Top Ten Award Winners On My To-Read List

1. Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (Newbery) / I love surprises, and so does the Newbery!  So this underrated debut novel, set in 1930s Kansas, is sure to send booksellers and librarians scrambling to put copies on the shelves.  Can’t wait to see if it lives up to the top dog award!

2. Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (Printz) / When it comes to YA, no trend sucks me in more than dystopian fiction.  The story of Nailer, a scavenger who finds a wealthy girl trapped among the wreckage of Gulf Coast oil ships, has intrigued me since it was nominated for a National Book Award.  I’m hoping the action is as gripping and bold as the novel’s graphic cover.

3.  One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia (Coretta Scott King, Newbery Honor) / If I had to place bets on a winner before the awards came out . . . this would’ve been my pick, because everyone’s been raving about it for ages. And something tells me those 3 sisters on their Brooklyn-to-California adventure are gonna steal my heart too.

4. Dark Emperor and Other Poems Of The Night by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Rick Allen (Newbery Honor) / Three cheers for a picture book getting a Newbery, not just a Caldecott, Honor!  It’s wonderful to see authors of books for younger readers be recognized, because it’s just as hard to say something beautiful in few words as it is to say in many.

8. will grayson, will grayson by John Green and David Levithan (Stonewall Honor, Odyssey Honor) / What can complicate high school even more than it already is?  Having two characters with the same name. What can make a book even more hilarious than anything that’s come before it?  Two authors: John Green and David Levithan.  I’m obsessed already.

6.  90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis (Pura Belpre Honor) / Isn’t the cover just lovely?  The colors drew my attention, but its the story that kept me interested: the based-on-a-true-story tale of the children of “Operation Peter Pan“, which brought 14,000 kids as refugees from Cuba to the US.


7.  Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride (William C. Morris Honor) / The real awards for this book should be, “Coolest Title” and “Coolest Cover”.  In a sea of kind of dated-looking material, this is by far more edgy and teen boy-appealing than any of the other winners.  I’m all for funny-scary, or scary-funny… whatever.

5.  Dave The Potter: Artist, Poet Slave illustrated by Brian Collier, by Laban Carrick Hill (Caldecott Honor, Coretta Scott King) / This is the one Caldecott pick I haven’t read, and with two awards, I guess I better pay attention.  Seems like it has a pretty traditional vibe for a picture book.

9. Bink And Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile (Geisel) / What a fun-looking study in character expression!  The amount of buzz I’ve seen about this book might just put Bink and Gollie in the realm of classic friend pairs like “Frog and Toad” and “Henry and Mudge”.  I bet it’ll get me moving on my own early reader!

10.  The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston (William C. Morris) / Strange cover, and looks like a strange book. But isn’t strange what makes life interesting?  The dark themes might not make this the most pleasant of reads, but I’m hoping it’s just crazy enough to be wonderful.

My Princess Boy: Wearing Pink Isn’t Just For Girls

Since reading She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan, I’ve had a particular interest in gender studies.  Boylan’s memoir, in a hilarious, moving and honest way, explains the oft-stereotyped and overlooked issue of transgendered people. For me personally, this was a life-changing book – I’ll always remember reading:

“After I grew up and became female, people would often ask me, How did you know, when you were a child? … It seemed obvious to me that this was something you understood intuitively, not on the basis of what was between your legs, but because of what you felt in your heart. Remember when you woke up this morning-I’d say to my female friends-and you knew you were female? That’s how I felt. That’s how I knew.”

My heart goes out to the transgender community, who are dealt one of the most difficult hands I think a person can get.  There is very little education or acceptance of the issue, and I hope that in the future, as with race and sexuality, that can slowly start to change.

So I was immediately drawn to the story of “My Princess Boy“, Cheryl Kilodavis’ self-published story that was recently picked up by Simon and Schuster.  Michel Martin of NPR’s Tell Me More interviews Kilodavis, the mother of the inspiration for “Princess Boy”, as well as Sara Mindel, director of clinical services at the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League in DC, and Bonnita Spikes, the mother of an older transgender male-female.  Listen to the story here.

Kilodavis’ 5-year-old son, Dyson is male (so far, he’s a boy, inside and out), but he goes for anything sparkly, his favorite color is pink, and he prefers wearing dresses. In a world where girls can wear jeans and play with trucks, no problem, why is the opposite such a difficult concept? For Kilodavis’ family, they’ve let Dyson stay as he is, and are hoping to bring others more acceptance through this children’s book. Kids should be allowed to play and dress according to what makes them happy.

What’s the problem?  It’s doesn’t lie with the kids, it’s with the adults.  When presented with non-traditional children, parents can’t help but make it about grown-up concepts – homosexuality, gender – when the child may simply like the “wrong” color or toys. As interviewer Michel Martin awkwardly admits, most people have a hard time talking about boys dressing as girls without jumping to the question, “But is he GAY?”  The answer is: he’s FIVE!  If he was wearing blue, no one would even think about asking a five-year-old’s sexual orientation. As Jennifer Finney Boylan writes:

“It certainly had nothing to do with whether I was attracted to girls or boys. This… was the one that, years later, would frequently elude people, including the overeducated smarty-pants who consituted much of my inner circle. But being gay or lesbian is about sexual orientation.  Being transgender is about identity.”

At this point, “Princess Boy” and the Kilodavis family are big news, featured in almost every news media outlet, including the Today Show.  But is this children’s book really going to bring acceptance to unique kids like Dyson? Amir Shaw’s editorial on claims that the mother is just seeking media attention, and drastically changing Dyson’s life in the process.

While I believe the parents have the best of intentions, Shaw brings up valid points: this small child, now in the spotlight, is going to have to confront major adult issues in a very public way.  While he could have grown out of dresses and pink in the privacy of his small community, now he’ll have photographs and interviews following him for the rest of his life.  That’s a lot for a kid to bear – especially one who is now going to have to deal with transgender and gay questions, whether he wants to or not.

Is “Princess Boy” a beautiful story designed to help different kids feel that they’re not alone?  Or is it bringing up social issues that shouldn’t be affecting young children’s lives?  I haven’t picked up the book yet, but I sincerely hope its the former.  Stay tuned…

Matched: Will Leave You “Breathless”

When considering the perks of working in publishing, I have only two words: free books.  Between galleys and take shelves, there’s always something to bring home. But the best part is when Penguin decides to give away a free, hot-off-the-presses title… delivered right to your desk!

I’d heard about the famous “Penguin 5”, a selection of new YA titles whose advance copies were packaged and sent to industry folks, setting them all abuzz with excitement (did I mention the power of free books?).  I’d be surprised if the above trailer and website didn’t send every teen reader of paranormal/romance/horror/dystopia/fantasy running “breathless” to the nearest bookstore.  But the book I was excited to read myself was Matched… and guess what pretty, pretty hardcover showed up on my desk in honor of its release yesterday?

I think I can accurately describe Matched as The Giver for the teen girls of 2010. Heroine Cassia Reyes is a 17-year-old member of The Society, the universal government that dictates everything from your clothes and your food, to the art you consume, your job and – of course – your mate.  Cassia receives her optimum match, and in a stroke of luck, it’s her best friend and resident blond hottie, Xander.  But in an unlucky “error”, another face comes up on her match-card as well: outsider Ky.  Ooooh snap!

Who is her true “match”?  Will knowledge lead her to buck “The Society” and realize it isn’t all that perfect?  Though the answers seem obvious, I’m a third of the way through… and I’m still enthralled.  Definitely a great YA read!

Check out the super-mysterious website for Matched, as well as a video of the author, below.

Celebrate The Haul-idays With Chronicle Books!

The ever-amazing Chronicle Books is having a Celebrate The Haul-idays contest: post a wish-list for up to $500 dollars of their books, and if I’m randomly selected, I could win the whole list.  I’m SO there!

It gets better – if you post a comment here, YOU could also win the list.  So go ahead and give a shout-out . . . you never know, you could take home $500 worth of Chronicle Books, too!

Here’s my Chronicle Books Wish List:

for myself

The Exquisite Book by Julia Rothman, Jenny Volvovski, and Matt Lamothe / $30 / I’ve heard so much about this book through their blog tour and Brooklyn event announcements, so I can’t wait to see the collaborations created by 100 artists for this epic version of the Exquisite Corpse!

This Is NPR by Cokie Roberts, Susan Stamberg, Noah Adams, John Ydstie, Renee Montagne, Ari Shapiro, and David Folkenflik / $30 / On quiet days of scanning and typesetting in the office, I’m addicted to getting my news and “didja know?” info from NPR.  Plus, who can live without This American Life and Radiolab?  And Diane Rehm?  My personal experts.

All My Friends Are Dead – by Avery Monsen and Jory John / $10 / Preview here.  Bahahahahaha.

The Little Book Of Letterpress by Charlotte Rivers / $25 / My mild obsession with letterpress has already been discussed.

Creative, Inc. by Meg Mateo Ilasco and Joy Deangdeelert Cho / $17 / This self-proclaimed “Ultimate Guide to Running a Successful Freelance Business” sounds like a perfect refresher course to all the tidbits I learned in art school.

Let’s Bring Back by Lesley M. M. Blume, illustrated by Grady McFerrin / $20 / I first became enamored with Ms. Blume’s blog when she published her Mad-Men edition, and as a sucker for everything vintage, I’m sure I’ll be a sucker for this, too.

Shadow by Suzy Lee / $16 / I think Suzy Lee’s first book, Wave, is one of the most thoughtfully-designed contemporary picture books out there.  Shadow, her follow-up wordless book, is just as playful, and I’d be super excited to own it.

Doodles: A Really Giant Coloring Book by Taro Gomi / $20 / This is one of those books that I already purchased as a gift, and, um . . . I kind of wish I kept it for myself!

How To Cook Like A Top Chef / $30 / Before I even attempted to cook, Top Chef had me inspired.  Well, at least to eat, anyway.

Fanzines by Teal Triggs / $40 / Maybe the most hipster thing about me is the fact that I really love zines.  Love ’em.  Even took a class on making them.

Tiny Art Director by Bill Zeman / $15 / This little girl would be the scariest boss imaginable, but I can’t stop laughing at her critiques!

for gifts

Antipasti: Fabulous Appetizers and Small Plates by Joyce Goldstein, photographs by Paolo Nobile / $20 / Known in our family as “grazing”, small plates is my favorite way to eat, and I’m sure my mom and Aunt Beth could work wonders with this cookbook.

The Book Of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks by Bethany Keeley / $15 / A little bit of humor for Grammar Nazis writers like my mama.

Lobel’s Meat Bible / $40 / Because now that he’s out in Minnesota farm country, my dad can grill with the best of ’em.

Photobooth Dogs by Cameron Woo / $15 / I’m not sure that JaXOn, our Great Pyrenees, would actually be able to fit in a photobooth, but this looks appropriate for my dog-loving family nonetheless.

Craft, Inc. by Meg Mateo Ilasco / $17 / This one’s for Deb, my super-talented stepmom who has mastered every craft from beading to scrap-booking, and I’m sure would love to make a little extra change doing it!

Little Pea by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Jen Corace / $15 / As the self-designated aunt who gives only books for holidays, this’d be first on my list for my own “little peas”, niece Alexis and nephew Thadd.

Simms Taback’s Safari Animals by Simms Taback / $13 / Simms Taback is one of my very favorite illustrators whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with at Putnam, and I’d be first to pass along any of his Chronicle titles to Alexis and Thadd as well.

Look!  It’s Jesus! by Harry and Sandra Choron  / $13 / What to get for a 19-year-old guy like my god-brother, Ryan?  Oh, maybe a humorous book, about “Amazing Holy Visions In Everyday Life”.  Why not?

Funnily enough, I would also get this for my Aunt Mary.

Ernie: A Photographer’s Memoir by Tony Mendoza / $13 / Before there was Maru, there was Ernie – this 1985 bestselling story of a photographer and his cat.  I bet it would crack up my Aunt Beth and Uncle Chris, perpetual owners of cats with large personalities. 

Like I Give A Frock by Michi, illustrated by Kat McLeod / $19 / Irreverent style tidbits of wisdom – this goes straight to my favorite critic-thinker-fashionista, Rebecca, and my hetero-life partner, Abby.

I ❤ Macaroons by Hisako Ogita / $15 / There are two people in this world who would appreciate this elegant book on the “real” macaroons – Rebecca and my world-traveling soulmate, Janelle.

Roomies by Kathryn Williams, illustrated by Jason Snyder / $13 / My roommates are my BFFs, but let’s be real – we need all the help we can get!

The Small Object Labels and Stickers by Sarah Neuberger / $11 / I can just picture Paula going to town on various first passes, expense reports, contracts . . . the sky’s the limit!