Thursday, March 22, 2018

Mary's Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein written and illustrated by Lita Judge

Here is a brilliant new fictionalized biography about Mary Shelley by Lita Judge, just in time for the  200th anniversary of the publication of her best known work, Frankenstein. I have to admit that when I read Frankenstein in junior high school, I never really thought much about the author. I was reading it on my own then, and even when I reread it in college, Mary Shelley was basically ignored (perhaps my professor was a fan of Roland Barthes' The Death of the Author). Of course, we all learned that Frankenstein was the result of a challenge by Lord Byron to his companions to write a better horror story than the ones he had been reading,

and that Mary took up the challenge, and created her masterpiece. Oh, how I wish I had had Mary's Monster when I was first reading Frankenstein.

Written in free verse from Mary Shelley's point of view, Judge has created this fictionalized biography of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley that will change the reader's perceptions of her and give them real insight and a new appreciation for both the author and her novel. Judge has divided Mary's story into nine parts, mirroring the nine months it took Mary to write Frankenstein. There is also an Introduction by Judge, and a Prologue by Mary's Creature.

The story then begins in 1812 with Mary on a boat, traveling alone from England to Scotland at her step-mother's insistence, to live with friends because the debts of the family business have increased considerably. On the trip, Mary recalls her childhood - the death of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, in 1797 when she is only 11 days old, her caring, unconventional father, her loving step-sister Fanny, and favorite visits from poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But this all quickly morphs into unhappiness when Mary's father remarries a cold, ambitious woman, who doesn't get alone with Mary and demands that she be sent away.

After two years, Mary returns home to London in 1814, and it is then that she meets and falls in love with aspiring poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary runs off with him at age 16, leaving England to live together, first in Paris, then Switzerland. Shelley is already married to another woman named Harriet, but has convinced Mary that his marriage to her is over. Mary soon finds herself pregnant with Shelley's baby.

Disowned by her father, Mary's life continues to be one of unhappiness, disappointment, betrayal, broken promises, and loss. Nevertheless, she manages to write Frankenstein while still in her teens and pregnant.

Mary's Monster is an extraordinary book, a perfect melding of both romantic and gothic fiction, two genres that were popular in Mary Shelley's day. And as if her nuanced poetry weren't enough to pull the reader into Mary's life, Judge has included over 300 pages of black and white watercolor illustrations that add to the ominous atmosphere permeating this work. Nor does Judge pull any punches or skirt around the hard issues and events in Mary's life. Because she includes the fact that Mary and Shelley made love beside her mother's grave (and most likely conceived their first child there), the deaths of Mary's children, the use of opium by her husband and his friends, the suicides of her half-sister and Shelley's first wife, I would recommend this book for mature teen readers - and I do highly recommend it.  

Although this is a fictionalized biography, Judge has included back matter giving more information about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, as well as an Author's Note, a list of the people in Mary's life and what became of them, a list of books that they were reading, notes for each part of the book, and a Bibliography.

Frankenstein was the creation of one man and composed of the parts of many. Perhaps Mary felt like she was too -
Something to think about as you read the hauntingly poignant fictionalized biography.

You can find an extensive, useful Teacher's Guide for Mary's Monster HERE

You can find a very enlightening interview with Lita Judge about the creation of Mary's Monster HERE

Lita Judge has shared a very interesting timeline of her writing and research process that you can read HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 15+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Monday, March 19, 2018

Feather by Cao Wenxuan, illustrated by Roger Mello, translated by Chloe Garcia Roberts

In this simple story about identity, longing and belonging, a single feather, blown about by the wind, begins to wonder what kind of bird she belongs to after two children find her and ask the same question. As the wind carries the feather off again, she longingly thinks that perhaps if she belonged to a bird, she could soar high into the sky. As she is carried along, the feather runs into all kinds of birds, including a kingfisher, a heron, a cuckoo, a peacock, and even a magpie, asking each in turn if she belongs to them. Some dismiss her question, others ignore it, and the peacock is just insulted that a plain feather would be so bold as to think it belonged in his beautiful plumage.

Finally, a skylark offers to fly the feather high up in the air, but then the skylark meets a tragic end when a hawk attacks. Floating back down to the ground, the feather lands on a tuft of grass. Demoralized and traumatized by the hawk, the feather decides that walking the earth can be just as wonderful as flying. No sooner does the feather thinks this, but the sun comes out and a mother hen and her chicks come along. And yes, the hen is missing a feather.

Feather, originally written in Chinese, has a lovely nuanced folktale quality to it that luckily does not get lost in the translation. It is a poignant story about our desire to belong and to know our place in the world, however humble that place may be. There is definitely a philosophical bent to the story which is meant for readers as young as four years old, bit it isn't so deep that they can't handle the questions feather's story asks.

The design of the book is as simple as the tale being told. Each bird that feather encounters is given a two page spread on different colored pages, and illustrated not necessarily in a natural setting, but in various stylized ways and always highlighting the feather along with each different bird.

Most of us know Cao Wenxuan from his novel Bronze and Sunflower, so beautifully translated into English by Helen Wang. Cao, a professor at Peking University in Beijing, is China's best known children's author, and a very prolific one at that. Most of what Cao writes is taken from his own childhood in the 1950s and 1960s, including China's Cultural Revolution. In 2016, Cao won the Hans Christian Anderson Award given by the International Board of Books for Young People (IBBY). Hopefully, as his popularity grows beyond China, more of his books will be translated into English.

This book is recommended for readers age 4+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss Plus

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review and Interview: I'm a Duck by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Will Hillenbrand

I'm a Duck is a gentle story told in rhyming couplets about a young duckling who must overcome his fear of swimming in a pond.

While still an egg, duckling rolls  out of the mother duck's nest and begins to sink to the bottom of the nearby pond. Saved by his quick acting mother, when the duckling hatches, it is afraid to go into the water: "I cannot swim and that is bad/a landlocked duck is very sad."

Watching his siblings splashing around in the water and having fun, duckling is encouraged by his friends, kind Big Frog, who tell him: "Just slide in fast; don't even think/You're a duck and ducks don't sink" and Wise Owl, who advises him: "You're a duck. Use common sense/and try to get some confidence."

Duckling decides to practice swimming in a puddle and after a day of going round and round, he's finally ready to try swimming in the pond, even though he is still scared. With encouragement from his mother, siblings, Big Frog and Owl, the little duckling takes the plunge and realizes that he really can't drown - he's a duck: "I was wrong to ever think/a well-made duck like me could sink."

This is the perfect book for any child who has to face doing something they are afraid of trying (and isn't that all kids at some point). The message here isn't simply about overcoming fears, but also the fact that overcoming them needs to be done in the person or duck's own way and in their own time. It's a good message for kids who feel pressured by friends or family to go at a faster pace than they are ready for, and it makes this a great read aloud for the whole family. Once again, Eve Bunting is just so spot on with this story.

Will Hillenbrand's appealing soft focus mixed media illustrations really capture the duckling's dilemma and especially his mixed feelings. I've always found Hillenbrand's illustrations so captivating and recently, I was fortunate enough to be able to interview him about his life as an artist, and what makes him tick. And Hillenbrand was kind enough to do a video interview which I hope you enjoy as much as I did.

This book is recommended for readers age 3+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Candlewick Press

Monday, March 12, 2018

Blog Tour: How to Coach Girls by Mia Wenjen and Alison Foley

From the Publisher:
How to Coach Girls provides the most comprehensive guide available to the many issues associated with coaching girls teams across the spectrum of sports, from soccer to lacrosse, field hockey to softball. Volunteer parents and experienced coaches alike will find invaluable advice on the process of making a successful team, encouraging girls to stay in sports beyond the middle school years. Twenty-two chapters cover all the major issues, including how to pick captains, the importance of growth mindset, issues around body image and puberty, as well as the intricacies of coaching your own daughter. This invaluable guide is the brainchild of Alison Foley, Head Coach of Women's Soccer at Boston College and Mia Wenjen, a parenting and education blogger at and the mother of two daughters, who provide personal accounts to illustrate issues discussed throughout the book. The combination of Mia's voice of parental experience coup0led with Alison's professional expertise provides an innovative and highly accessible apporach to considering potential pitfalls and how to avoid them. In the final section, a broad range of experienced college coaches, including former Olympians, give crucial guidance on what it is that girls need from a coach to allow them to flourish in sports, and most importantly, have fun.

I am not the least bit athletic, although I did play right wing on my high school field hockey team for four years. We had two coaches, and I and my teammates remained part of the team mostly because we all liked the coaches, but I never thought about it beyond that until I read How to Coach Girls.

I was not the least bit surprised to learn that 70% percent of kids give up organized sports by the time they reach middle school, and that girls drop out 6 times the rate of boys. Why? Well, according to Wenjen and Foley, coaching girls is different than coaching boys. In short, they conclude that girls need a social emotional relationship with their coaches, whereas boys don't. The way to achieve this kind of connection is called the Whole Child Approach. Once the players feel comfortable, safe and engaged, they are willing to take the kind of risks on the playing field that boys just seem to automatically take.
Authors Alison Foley and Mia Wenjen

This is a slim volume divided into three sections. Each section deals is devoted to ways a coach can  achieve a winning team of girls. The first section, The Big Picture, looks at the ways a coach can makes team sports fun, but also how they can develop a team chemistry, using positive reinforcement and, most importantly, have a team of good people, not just good players.

Section two, Solutions to Specific Issues, offers some really helpful how-to ways for different situations, such as coaching one's own daughter, building confidence in players, how to handle a losing streak, and issues around body image, puberty and sports.

Section three, Pre-Season Planning, is a really helpful section for new coaches, especially for volunteer coaches who may not be very experienced, and let's face it, with budget cuts, girls' sports get slashed first in school and sometimes the only way to play is if parents help with the coaching. Here coaches will find some very useful guidelines, such as creating a player code of conduct, a parent code of conduct, putting together that all important medical emergency plan, setting goals and evaluations, and finally, pre-season logistics.

When I began this, I said that me and my teammates continued to play field hockey for four years because we liked our coaches. It turns out that many of the approaches I read about in How to Coach Girls were actually many of the reasons why we remained. We were lucky, but so often girls continue to drop out of sports because their coaches don't understand the difference between coaching boys and girls, and girls begin to feel like just a player expected to win, and not a person playing a sport that she enjoys being a part of. 

How to Coach Girls is an invaluable guide for all coaches, offering suggestions, strategies, and guidance to help make each girls' team, regardless of the sport they are playing, the best they can be.

To learn more about this book, please visit the  How to Coach Girls website, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook page

Be sure to visit these stops on the How to Coach Girls Blog Tour:

February 22  Shelly Bean the Sports Queen   
March 1        Wise Owl Factory                       
March 2        The Conscious Kid                     
March 3        Jump Into a Book                   
March 4        Books My Kids Read                 
March 5        Ms Yingling Reads                     
March 7        All Done Monkey                     
March 8        Miss Panda Chinese                   
March 9        Biracial Bookworms                 
March 10      Mom of all Capes                     
March 11      Franticmommy                         
March 12      Randomly Reading                   
March 13      Here Wee Read                         
March 14                       
March 15      The Pragmatic Parent               

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

Nothing makes Clayton Bryd happier than sneaking off to Washington Square Park and playing his blues harp (a/k/a harmonica) with his beloved grandfather Cool Papa Byrd and his friends the Bluesmen, except possibly playing a twelve-bar solo. But all Cool Papa keeps telling his not yet. Then, the unthinkable happens and Cool Papa is gone from Clayton's life.

No sooner is Cool Papa's funeral over than his daughter, Juanita, Clayton's mom, decides to sell all his belongings - records, guitars, clothing, everything. All Clayton manages to salvage is Cool Papa's porkpie hat. Sad and angry, Clayton just doesn't understand why his mom is so bitter towards her father.

To make matters worse, Cool Papa always read to Clayton at bedtime, and no sooner does he return to school, when the teacher announces a new book for the class to read together - the very same book Cool Papa read to help Clayton fall asleep, the one he was reading when he passed away. When Clayton tells the teacher he has already read the book, could he please read another, she insists he read what the class is reading. But Clayton associates that book,  The Four Corners of the World with going to sleep and that's just what happens everything time the class begins reading it.

After finally getting suspended for constantly falling asleep when he should be reading, Clayton's mother takes his precious blues harp away. Angry and hurt, and still missing his grandfather, Clayton hatches a plan. The next day, instead of going to school, Clayton finds his blues harp, his grandfather's porkpie hat, and his money - all $17.00 of it - and heads to Washington Square Park to find and join the Bluesman. And that is just the beginning of Clayton's coming of age journey, thanks to the ragtag group of buskers he meets on the subway, and who are just trying to make some money performing hip hop underground.

There is so much going on in Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, I almost don't know where to begin. On the one hand, there is Clayton's story, the loss of the most stable person in his life, followed by  his anger and frustration at his mother and teacher for not understanding how profoundly his grandfather's death has impacted his young life. Then, there is his desire to recapture what he had with his grandfather by finding and joining the Bluesmen. But there is also Clayton's mother and her anger and frustration at her father for being gone most of her childhood, coupled with feelings of jealousy as she watches Clayton get the love and attention she had once wished to have, while she is now forced to work long shifts at the hospital to make ends meet.

Cool Papa had always said that "a bluesman ain't a bluesman without that deep-down cry" (pg 6) and that is just what Clayton's underground education helps him understand. Now, I've been riding the NYC subways my whole life and even I had a few breath-holding moments reading Clayton's experiences with those hip hop buskers he meets. And yet, kudos to Williams-Garcia for letting Clayton make wrong decisions and have those scary experiences.

The blues and hip hop, both African American musical and cultural genres. are the perfect musical accompaniment for Clayton Orpheus-like journey to the depth of the underworld to find a way to release his "deep-down cry." To his credit, it is his father who ultimately hears Clayton's cry, the father whose access to Clayton has always been limited by the angry Juanita but whose desire to be part of his son's life never flagged.

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground is an achingly realistic novel, and a brilliant coming of age tale for today young readers.

You can find a detailed, useful downloadable Discussion Guide for this book HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss Plus
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