The Goblin and the Empty Chair

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Earlier I posted about a dear friend we lost recently. The week following I knew I had to read something about grief but not something so sad I’d be a puddle every time I read it to the kids. Just something that touched on grief that would help me and may be interesting to the little ones.

The Goblin and the Empty Chair was the perfect choice. It’s by the amazing Mem Fox and lushly illustrated by the Dillons. If you click on that link there’s even a full length video of Mem Fox reading the whole story. Wonderful stuff.

It’s written in the style of an old fairy or folk tale. Long ago there was a goblin who happened to see his reflection and was so terrified of his looks, he stayed hidden and covered his face. One day he comes across a family who have obviously suffered some loss and are still grieving. The goblin, in turn, does things to ease the burden of a farmer, his wife and their child. He takes great pains to not be seen, but he is seen and quietly invited in.

It is never obviously revealed who has been lost, who was the former occupant of the empty chair. In an interview Mem Fox has said she imagined it to be a grandparent. If you look carefully at the illustrations, there is one that shows a framed pictureof a family of four on the wall indicating the Dillons took it too mean the death of a child, which is even more tragic.

It was good for me though. I did cry a little the first couple of times I read it but not a big deal. By the end of the week it really had helped me and led to some interesting conversations with the children. I actually didn’t focus on the grief aspect of the book that much. Since I’ve been reading books about kindness for the last few weeks, or at least books with characters having to deal with unkindness (The Invisible Boy, Bootsie Barker Bites, etc.) I focused on how the goblin was doing kind things for this family without even expecting recognition for it. I had the impression that was a new idea for some.

I’m in the middle of inventory but I’ll try to finish up the last three publishers I heard from at the Midwinter book buzz presentations over the next couple of weeks.

Four Feet, Two Sandals

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I’ve been reading this 2007 title to some of the classes this week, for obvious reasons. I love that there has been at least one Muslim kid in each class who exclaims “That’s my language!” when I get to the phrase “As-salaam alaykum. Peace be with you.” I always ask if I pronounced it correctly and thank them when they say I did.

A girl from Afganistan is in a refugee camp in Pakistan. She finds a new sandal, her first new shoe in two years. Another girl, new to the camp, finds the other. They decide to share the sandals and become friends. The rest of the book describes daily life in the camp, people they’ve lost and one of them finding out she’s being resettled in America.

Diverse books matter. Representation matters. It matters more than I’d like right now but I’m glad I have books like this to at least get some of them thinking.

More Book Buzz from ALA Midwinter 2017

Two of the standouts for me in the Charlesbridge Publishing presentation was Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education because it’s gorgeously illustrated and because you can’t have enough books about Malala, a personal hero of mine. The other one was about a young Nina Simone but it doesn’t seem to be on their website yet.

I don’t usually discuss board books but Disney Book Group’s Feminist Baby is hilarious.

Feminist Baby likes pink and blue.
Sometimes she’ll throw up on you!

Feminist Baby chooses what to wear
and if you don’t like it she doesn’t care!”

And Mo Willems has a board book called Welcome: A Mo Willems Guide for New Arrivals that is his first one written specifically for the format, but again, not up on their site yet.

If you are unaware, there is a popular Marvel series of comics about a new superhero called Squirrel Girl. I am not making this up. Now Shannon Hale (yes, THAT Shannon Hale!) has a middle grade chapter book about her called Squirrel Meets World. I already had a favorite 5th grader read the ARC and she loved it (and she hadn’t heard of Squirrel Girl before this.).

Disney is also going to be putting out Elephant and Piggie “Biggies” which will be hardbound books with collections of five Elephant and Piggie stories each. Kind of like the George and Martha books. These will not be new stories, just collections of the books we already know and love.

You BETTER Know Star Wars in MY Library!

I was checking in books this morning and some of the kids were talking about Star Wars. I said, “Did you hear that the next series movie has a title now?”

Kid: Really? What is it?

Me: The Last Jedi.

Kid: Cool. I wonder who that is.

Me: I don’t know. I imagine it might be Luke Skywalker.

Kid: Who’s that?

Me (loudly, pointing at the door): You get out of here RIGHT NOW MISTER and don’t come back until you know who Luke Skywalker is!

Other kids fell on the floor laughing. (It’s okay, they know I’m kidding!)

Bloomsbury 2017 Book Buzz

Picture Books

Okay this one will be timely. The first book they showed off that caught my eye was a lovely one about Pete Seeger. Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the path to Justice. The times are certainly ripe for re-listening to Pete Seeger songs.

My Kite Is Stuck! And Other Stories is a colorful and easy reading collection in the Elephant and Piggie vein. Looks like another fun reader’s theater choice.

One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes. Multiple starred reviews. The best African-American artists do the illustrations. And it’s by NIKKI GRIMES y’all! What else do you need to know? Looks great.

Chapter Books

Prisoner of Ice and Snow by Ruth Lauren looks good. The publisher rep said it was for fans of Shannon Hale books. It’s got a prison break, action, adventure, girl power, a cool cover painting and looks like something kids who grew up watching Frozen and Brave on a loop will be ready for.

Life in a Fishbowl by Len Vlahos sounds weird in a good way. There are books that show you how amazing people can be and books that show how terrible people can be and then there’s this kind that shows both at once. There’s cancer, there’s eBay, there’s a tumor with a point of view and a strong father/child bond. Oh, and starred reviews of course.

Young Adult

The Edge of Everything by Jeff Giles sounds exciting and gripping and all those buzzwords. James Dasher, Cassandra Clare, and even filmmaker Peter Jackson all love it. It’s the first of a series. It’s sounds like it’s a people from different worlds coming together story with great characters.

Nowhere Near You by Leah Thomas is a follow up book to Because You’ll Never Meet Me getting starred reviews.

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson sounds powerful and intense. A young girls works hard to get out of her poor neighborhood but finds the mentoring program she’s signed up for which billed itself as being for “at risk” students is really just for Black girls from “bad” neighborhoods and even though her mentor is African-American, that doesn’t mean she understands. Multiple starred reviews.

Crossing Ebeneezer Creek looks like a powerful historical novel. Based on true events, it traces the journey of a young woman and her younger brother following Sherman’s March and dreaming of what comes after slavery. Starred reviews.

Penguin Young Readers 2017 Book Buzz

At the ALA Midwinter conference I sat through many publisher presentations showing off some of their current and upcoming titles. Penguin is first because they fed us lunch. I’m not the President and the Emoluments Clause doesn’t apply to me. It was yummy.

This is not a complete list. Just some of the ones that caught my eye or are otherwise seem worthy of the buzz.

Picture Books

Penguin has a delightful Ordinary People Change the World series. I admit I thought they looked a little twee when I first saw them but heard from someone who’s opinion I respect that their kid was devouring them up so I got a few to try in the library. Yup, very much enjoyed, so will be getting more soon. These are for the K-2 crowd and they have a new one on Jim Henson.

Tired of reading Scaredy Squirrel when it comes to trying something new? NOPE! by David Sheneman looks gorgeous and hilarious. It’s about a mother bird trying to get her little one out of the nest.

Life on Mars by Jon Agee looks fun, as his stuff usually does. Kid goes to Mars to prove there IS life there with unexpected and hilarious results.

The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra. C’mon! Do I even have to tell you more? Ok, goats with a candelabra (it’s fine, keep going) go looking for the feared Chupacabra with hilarious results.

Charlotte and the Rock looks fun. Girl wants a pet, parents get her a pet rock. Can it love her back? Maybe…especially if not is all as it seems…

Dad and the Dinosaur by Gennifer Choldenko (Al Capone Does My Shirts) and illustrated by the super amazing Dan Santat. Already has a starred review and looks like a beautiful book on facing your fears.

Chapter Books

See You in the Cosmos is one you will be definitely hearing about. Already has starred reviews and sounds great. Being compared to Wonder and Walk Two Moons for it’s grace and emotional journey. A boy who idolizes Cal Sagan (okay, I’m hooked already!) travels around and records what life on Earth is life with the intention of launching his iPod into space the way Carl Sagan’s golden record was launched on the Voyager probe. Along with other things, he discovers some secrets and learns about his family.

Well, That Was Awkward is not something that remotely interests me, but my daughter might like it as well as many fifth graders and middle school students. It’s that whole girl with a crush on a boy who has a crush on her best friend thing, but apparently it’s really well done and getting starred reviews because of it’s wonderful characters and dialog.

Young Adult

I don’t buy YA for elementary school but I like to keep up with what’s out there for my soon to be in high school daughter (AAAAAHHHHHH!) and just because. Three titles they have coming out that look great are City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie Anderson, We Are Okay by Nina LeCour and Alex & Eliza: A Love Story (for those jillions of young Hamilton fans).

Remembering Our Neighbor

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Annette Feil with Harper, 2005

I’m working on some more ALA Midwinter posts to share some of the upcoming books I heard about from publishers but I wanted to let you in on why I had to shorten my conference and couldn’t make it on the big awards day.

When my daughter was about 18 months old we moved from Athens, GA to Lilburn where we had gotten teaching jobs. We moved into a little brick ranch house within walking distance to a cool park and a lovely little public library. I saw this older lady in her 80s outside working on flowers in her garden next door and introduced myself, telling her about my daughter and my wife, Annette.

“Well my name is Annette too,” she said, “so I know we’ll have to be friends.”

And just like that, we were. She was completely delighted with little Harper and we all became adopted family members. Harper saw her more often than her own grandparents and Annette saw us more than her own children (though they are all amazing and visited her quite often. As well as her grandchildren and great grandchildren!)

One day we lost track of little Harper and freaked out. She wasn’t in the house! She wasn’t in the back yard! We ran out into the street and were about to call the police when she came out of Annette’s with a handful of candy. She kept visiting Annette on her own like that for years. (Though she told us where she was going after that!)

She taught Harper to help her plant roses and pick her tomatoes. When Harper began piano lessons she would play for Annette and it brought back Annette’s love for that as well. We gave her the gift of having her piano tuned and got her a piano lamp and Harper would share her sheet music. They played together and for each other quite a bit.

We always knew we’d want a bigger house but put it off for years because of the mortgage crises and then because of Annette. When we finally decided to go ahead and look around it was knowing that it couldn’t be far from her. The one we ended up with was less than ten minutes away.

She wasn’t happy we moved but we ended up seeing her more often. I’d go every Monday after school, take out her trash and recycling and check her mail. Then, more often than not, I’d be invited to sit and chat for a while.

My wife went every Saturday morning to have tea and coffee and sometimes breakfast. Sometimes she’d do a little shopping for her as well. I became her tech guy whenever a TV or phone was giving her trouble.

Finally, last year, she decided she was getting too old to care for herself. No serious physical problems, just too tired to cook and clean anymore. So even though she’d been living alone in that same house for more than 40 years, she had her son find a retirement home for her. It was about only ten minutes away from us going in the other direction, so we continued our weekly visits, helping out whenever we could. My wife did this every single Saturday morning. I went here and there. We all saw her again over the holidays which was a treat I’m eternally grateful for.

She was funny and sweet and interested in everyone. She was in that home less than a year but has three incredibly close friends there.

My favorite recent story about her was when my wife read out the weekly menu to her because her eyes were starting to fail. She noticed the lunches seemed to be the big meal of the day with dinner being lighter fare, which she was a little grumpy about. “Maybe they think if you eat too much for dinner you won’t sleep as well,” my wife told her.

Immediately she shot back with, “I’d rather not sleep!”

She loved food and was an excellent cook. She was the one they went to for every big church event. She was so thoughtful and often had amazing leftovers or desserts for us.

She even called MY parents on the phone, as recently as last week, to check on them.

Thursday was a wonderful day for her. She spent it with her daughter-in-law Norma,shopping and eating out and getting her hair done. She had a bit of a fall when she came back so they called the paramedics. You can’t be too careful with those 94-year-olds no matter how good of a shape they’re in. One of the paramedics flirted with her and she actually danced with him a bit!

Later, she visited with one of her good new friends, showing her the purchases of the day. Her friend said she was going to go change, then she’d come back to pick up Annette and they could go down to dinner together. When she came back for her, our dear Annette had had a stroke and was unresponsive. Those same paramedics came back and took her to the hospital but it was too late. She passed.

So Monday our family joined with hers and many friends to celebrate her life, grieve and have her funeral. The family asked me to be a pallbearer.

We were so lucky to know this loving lady.

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Annette Feil, 1923-2017

ALA Midwinter Report

This will be a short report because something came up I will be blogging about later which prevented me from attending for more than one day.

The ALA summer and “midwinter” conferences are always huge and always in a different big city. Not being one to travel much, I’ve been waiting many years for one of them to come back to Atlanta. It was exciting to be there and I learned quite a bit but if you are not WAY into the youth media awards (Newbery, Caldecott, etc.) on Monday then it’s probably not worth it for you. But that awards ceremony is something to see. Or so I hear. I couldn’t make that this time.

I did, however, get to “walk the floor” and see some cool stuff. More than half of the huge exhibition hall was technology stuff. Not that interesting for me as a school librarian. Most of that was for people at my county level who decide on things for the whole district (or public or university libraries, that kind of thing). But the Library of Congress area sure was cool.

The other side was all the publisher stuff and that’s what drew me in. Tons of upcoming books, Advance Reader Copies, reps to tell you about them and even some authors and illustrators dropping in to sign books.

I got to meet Nathan Hale of the Hazardous Tales series! I even got some signed books from him and got super librarian Andy Plemmons to get a photo of us to show my students.

I got to take pictures of books on display and share them with authors who couldn’t make it. Sage Blackwood and David Lubar are two I follow on social media that appreciated seeing their books being promoted.

I got to meet Library Goddess Ms. Yingling! She lives in a small town in Ohio very similar to the one I did. We both became school librarians. We both have eerily similar dogs. But her blog is about a thousand times more awesome. She reads EVERYTHING she might or has bought for her library and reviews most of it on her blog or on Goodreads.

I got to see, but not talk to, amazing book editor Nancy Paulsen. She’s one of the best.

I felt a bit guilty not being able to participate in the Women’s March so I bought a tshirt from the wonderful Harry Potter Alliance for my daughter that says, “Hex the Patriarchy!” One of my favorite things I say that day was a very big, burly security guard wearing a pink pussy hat knitted for the march.

I spent most of the time in the Book Buzz theater listening to publisher reps go over their upcoming titles for the spring and summer and highlighting some of their favorites. As always, there is some amazing stuff coming out!

I may post about some of those titles soon. I chatted with Ms. Yingling about blogging (she does it constantly, I do it…periodically). She said it’d be nice to have someone blogging about all the upcoming titles to look out for. I don’t think I can be the one to do that consistently, but I can do it for this and will try to keep up with at least what I and my students and staff are looking forward to as I look ahead for my consideration lists.

I also got some great ARCs I hope to review soon (as soon as I get them back from My Lovely Bride and my daughter).

I won’t go over the winners here. There are plenty of places for that and like I said, I had to miss that event. But I can tell you that there was a buzz about John Lewis coming and his March books. The third volume won FOUR awards. Before all of this hoo ha came up in the news recently, my book club had already slated us to read the first volume to discuss in…March of course. My girls got me the boxed set of all three for Christmas. I’m waiting to read them but will try to soon so maybe my daughter can read them as well and join us for the discussion in March. Would love to hear her take.

I’ve read on Twitter that at one of the airports, as John Lewis walked down the concourses there where what was described as “rolling standing ovations” for the great man. And he didn’t even have to pay anyone to do that!

There’s Never Been a Great Prequel

Bold statement I know and my research has hardly been exhaustive, but from the evidence I’ve found I think this is true.

I’m mostly talking about movies here, but I’ll dip a toe into books too. There are basically three kinds of “prequels” that will be discussed here and not all of them are terrible. There’s the extended flashback (as in Godfather, Part II). That duel flashback and continuing story gave resonance to the entire work but I don’t consider it a “prequel.” To further bolster my claim that it is not a prequel, just look at the misguided “complete” Godfather where they re-edited all the flashbacks to before the first film. It was tedious.

In pop culture, similar examples would be the “early” X-Men movies where younger versions of the characters are featured. But I don’t really consider those “prequels” in the traditional sense. They are complete stories in themselves and don’t end at the moment the original series begins.

There are also “reboots” that walk the line of a prequel but I’m giving them a pass. The 2009 Star Trek, Batman Begins and 2006 Casino Royale are fun in and of themselves and while they may have moments that call back earlier themes, moments and characters they aren’t really trying to tell what happened before a specific story.

I’m mostly here to pick on Rogue One and prequels in a similar vein. The Lucas Star Wars prequels, Monsters U., The Hobbit movies and to a lesser extent Fantastic Beasts fall into this category of films purposely made to take place and fill in the story of an already existing story or series. They also tend to lead right up to the moment the original tale began.

I first asked about this on Twitter and was not surprised to hear Godfather II mentioned right out of the gate (by the always worth reading Tim Stahmer). It’s an excellent sequel and owes much to its filling in of the backstory to the first film but I think I’ve clearly stated why I don’t count it as a pure prequel.

Of course this is in my mind at the moment because of the disappointing (to me) double whammy of Fantastic Beasts and Rogue One. It’s probably not fair to consider Fantastic Beasts a prequel though, no more than it is to consider those young X-Men movies prequels. It’s a series following different characters (for the most part) in the same fictional universe but not directly leading to the original series. So I’ll skip it.

To be fair to Rogue One, it’s not completely terrible (as Monsters U. isn’t completely terrible.) It’s just that they suffer from something worse (to me). They are unnecessary. 

Good things about Rogue One: the character of Jyn Erso and the magnificent actor playing her. The badass Force believers of Chirrut and Baze. The actors overall. The diverse cast. The lack of romance! (And kudos to Teen Vogue for going into this so well and thoughtfully.) The Vader hissy-fit. The general look of the thing.

Bad things about Rogue One: Maggie Stiefvater summed it up pretty succinctly on Twitter saying it was, “Too strung out to be tense. Not fun enough to be fun. Not philosophical enough to be tragic.” I would also add that I found the CQI-ification of dead or aged actors to be jarring, rather course and not even done as well as it could have been.

The only one of those that really points out the weakness of the idea of prequels though is the lack of tension or suspense. We know what’s going to happen. It’s all right there in the first part of the opening crawl of the original Star Wars film we (or at least I) have seen a thousand times:

“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….”

Flashbacks and callbacks in series TV and long running stories can be awesome. I loved seeing the Starfleet Academy Picard get his butt kicked in a flashback. The last episodes of Breaking Bad made some fun references to the beginning of the series. But a whole movie or series of movies filling us in on what happened before we get to the stuff we already know we like? Yawn.

This was a problem with The Hobbit movies as well. I realize that the novel The Hobbit isn’t a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrote it first. Then later had the idea to expand his fictional universe with the later series. But the movies were different. The original trilogy of films were an amazing achievement and stand alone. Because of various legal reasons Peter Jackson was unable to obtain the rights to The Hobbit until after The Lord of the Rings films were completed. But he didn’t just make a movie of The Hobbit. He made a prequel trilogy to The Lord of the Rings, adding characters and situations and dragging it out in a way that sadly weakened it.

Since I’m a school librarian I’ll mention one children’s book series that could be considered a successful prequel, though I would argue that it’s really a reboot. Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson wrote a series of books about Peter Pan. It was, at first at least, presented as a prequel but there are so many (wonderful) differences that it’s really a “reboot” in the best sense. (This series was pointed out as a “good” prequel by an excellent educator named Sarah Guest, also on Twitter).

So there you have it. As far as I know, there is no such thing as an excellent prequel and there probably won’t be.

I’ll leave the final word to Patton Oswalt.