Saturday, January 31, 2009

Slow Food: The Case for Taste

Author: Carlo Petrini

First line: In Bra, a small city in Piedmont on the edge of the territory known as the Langhe, a group of young people were involved in social issues in the middle of the 1970s.

Why you should read this book: Inspired by a group of left-leaning Italian youth intent on preserving the best of recreational culture and fired in the crucible of anti-McDonald's activism, the Slow Food movement is a radical expression only in regard to the radical degradation of modern global culture it seeks to cure. Based on an ideal of conviviality, Slow Food is a movement dedicated to the preservation of culture, flavor, and the environment through the recognition of promotion of exquisite, historical, local specialties, breeds, and cultivars. This book documents the history and ideals of the movement, showcasing the philosophy, literature, and above all, the work that emphasizes tradition and excellence in food production, which ought to be available to the entire world.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're working in your garden.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Rumpelstiltskin Problem

Author: Vivian Vande Velde

First line: Once upon a time, before pizzerias and Taco Bells, there was a troll named Rumpelstiltskin who began to wonder what a human baby would taste like.

Why you should read this book: The problem, as identified by the author, is that the original story just doesn't make sense: what would compel humans to behave as the humans do in this old tale? In six original, humorous, yet focused stories, Vande Velde finds six solutions to attribute believable motivations to the characters. Light-hearted, but intelligent fantasy for young readers.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You've ever sacrificed your only child in a misguided attempt to make yourself look important.

The Higher Power of Lucky

Author: Susan Patron

First line: Lucky Trimble crouched in a wedge of shade behind the Dumpster.

Why you should read this book: Talk about misnomers: Lucky's father never wanted her; her mother accidentally stepped on a live wire, electrocuting herself while admiring the landscape after a storm; and Lucky's guardian, her father's beautiful, sophisticated, first wife, Brigitte, hates the hardscrabble town of Hard Pan (population 43) and is certain to abandon Lucky to an orphanage and run home to France any day. This is the rare book where the child narrator's voice dovetails seamlessly with exquisite writing, every sentence heavy with meaning, humor, and life, inspiring real characters moving through real landscapes to deal with real conflicts. Just a perfect novel (the Newbery committee thought so too).

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're offended by the concept of a Higher Power.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Half Magic

Author: Edward Eager

First line: It began one day in summer about thirty years ago, and it happened to four children.

Why you should read this book: When Jane comes across a small coin that looks almost like a nickel stuck in a crack in the sidewalk, it turns out to be the perfect antidote for a long summer, a busy mother, and an authoritarian nursemaid. Whenever one of the family makes a wish touching the coin, it comes true, or rather, half-true: the wish takes you half as far as you want to go, or gives you half as much as you ask for. As the siblings learn to understand and manipulate the coin's power, they find that it has its own agenda, to fix all their problems not with magic, but with love.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Your children are all perfectly clean and obedient little comforts.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

How It Happened in Peach Hill

Author: Marthe Jocelyn

First line: Mama taught me to lie.

Why you should read this book: Usually, Annie and her mom, Madame Catarina the clairvoyant medium, pull off their subterfuge with ease and profit, but after that nasty business in Carling, Mama settles on a new scam in Peach Hill. However, Annie is almost sixteen years old, old enough to bristle at being forced to play the idiot to her mother's omniscience, old enough to notice--and kiss--the handsomest boy in town, old enough to draw her own conclusions about her mother's clients and her mother's line of work. The only problem is that Annie herself is so deep into her mother's deception that truth and honesty are farther away than the spirit world, and much more difficult to contact.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You don't blow your nose without consulting your horoscope.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Someone Slightly Different

Author: Judy Frank Mearian

First line: I have two vivid memories of my father.

Why you should read this book: With her father long gone and her mother struggling to make ends meet, twelve-year-old Marty is a latchkey kid: home alone all afternoon, doing chores for her mom, and stinging under the cruel aspersions of her richer and more secure peers. Then along comes Flossie, her father's mother, the grandmother she's never met, who can bake bread, sew new clothes, and teach a cat to do tricks like a dog. Marty's dull gray world explodes with hope as she learns from Flossie lessons about integrity, happiness, and life.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You go around asking kids to sign pledges that they will refrain from vice for their entire lives.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Wreath for Emmett Till

Author: Marilyn Nelson

First line: Rosemary for remembrance, Shakespear wrote:/a speech for poor Ophelia, who went mad/when her love killed her father.

Why you should read this book: The author, like many of her generation, found the story of Emmett Till, a black teenager brutally lynched in 1955, following her through life until she let it catch up and take root in the present. In a heroic crown of sonnets, she offers up remembrance for a life unlived, expresses the wish for a less tragic series of events, and uses the language of flowers to honor Till's memory. From pain and terror, she creates sparks of hope in the darkness.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Terrible, naked pain; descriptions of the worst that humanity has to offer; real life monsters and waking nightmares.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Phantom Tollbooth

Author: Norton Juster

First line: There was once a boy named Milo who didn't know what to do with himself--not just sometimes, but always.

Why you should read this book: In a story that never gets old, young Milo, afflicted with the thoroughly modern disability of apathy, finds himself transported by means of a phantom tollbooth and an electric car to the astonishing and thought-provoking lands beyond, where metaphor shapes reality and speaking figuratively has unexpected consequences. But all is not well since the banishment of the princesses, Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason: their brothers, the respective leaders of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis cannot agree on anything, the ancient city of Wisdom is abandoned, and nonsense pervades the beautiful land. From the Sea of Knowledge to the Mountains of Ignorance, Milo, the faithful watchdog, Tock, and the usually useless humbug, discover how much there is to know and how interesting it is to learn as they quest to free the princesses from captivity.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You take everything literally.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Author: Robert C. O'Brien

First line: Mrs. Frisby, the head of a family of field mice, lived in an underground house in the vegetable garden of a farmer named Mr. Fitzgibbon.

Why you should read this book: In the tale of a mother determined to save the life of her child is a story that, on the surface, talks of friendship, dedication, and persistence, but underneath presents a treatise on how on why self-sufficiency should form the cornerstone of an enlightened society. In her efforts to help her sickly son, Mrs. Frisby makes an unusual assortment of friends and eventually learns that her late husband was one of twenty-two experimental animals who escaped from a lab where they had been given injections to make them hundreds of times smarter than ordinary animals. From the mundane circumstances of a common field mouse's existence to the remarkably fantastic civilization created by super-intelligent rats, this award-winning story draws the reader in to world just as real and believable as our own.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're laying down poison to keep those rats in your rosebush out of the grain silos.

This Place Has No Atmosphere

Author: Paula Danziger

First line: "I think he likes you," Juna whipers, as Matthew sits down at the other end of the table and smiles at me.

Why you should read this book: Beautiful, popular teen Aurora has everything the year 2057 has to offer: a bunch of cool friends, a grandmother who lends her money for retail therapy, and a hot boyfriend whose ESP is good enough to know how she feels about him without her saying a word. Then, her old-fashioned parents decide to drag Aurora and her sister to the least cool place in the universe: five years on the bare bones moon colony, thousands of miles from the nearest mall, and, for that matter, the nearest bathtub. Aurora's struggle to find herself in absence of the superficial trappings of her life on earth lead to an adolescent blossoming of the most brilliant kind.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Your adult daughter has just packed up and taken your grandkids to France.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Author: Roald Dahl

First line: These two very old people are the father and mother of Mr. Bucket.

Why you should read this book: Classic children's literature with a moral message carefully camouflaged beneath a rich fabric of delicious fantasy, silly puns, and beautiful nonsense. Poor, starving Charlie Bucket finds himself the recipient of one of five coveted golden tickets, allowing him to tour the top secret Wonka Chocolate Factory, where the chocolate is churned by waterfall and travel is accomplished in a giant, boiled sweet Viking boat, or else by glass elevator. Dahl's creation of a world where a child's behavior directly determines his or her fate reminds readers that fair consequences exist, even when evidence indicates otherwise.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You believe children should receive everything they ever ask for and dictate the course of adult lives.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Boy Whose Hands Were Birds

Author: Roy Seeger

First line: Their broken teeth & ribs shall,/too, fall to the dust/of abandoned buildings/& take root--each leaf unfurled

Why you should read this book: The birds that speckle this book of poetry are not to be categorized as small symbols, but ubiquitous reminders of the transitory nature of reality: these birds are creation, destruction, and transformation. In the small moments that pass between lovers and the long moments the insomniac travels alone, Seeger delineates hidden paths through the dust of worlds, moving from one place to the next, refusing to become mired in past, present, or future. In these poems, there is always hope: an uplifting work grounded in the real earth.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're looking for something snappy, with unicorns and heroic couplets.

(Note: Amazon is linking to, but not actually selling at this time, The Boy Whose Hands Were Birds. You may want to search Main Street Rag and order directly from the publisher.)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Describer's Dictionary

Author: David Grambs

First line: Consider the case of a traveler or student who wants to describe, in a letter, what the scenic landscape and local dwellings are like in a remote and beautiful area of Ecuador where she is staying.

Why you should read this book: Billing itself as "a treasury of terms and literary quotations for readers and writers" halfway between a thesaurus and a dictionary, this reference book is the perfect resource for anyone searching for that elusive apt and literal term. Whether you are describing something that is like a hedgehog (erinaceous), like a shore (littoral), or like an upside-down pear (obpyriform), you'll find le mot juste on the recto, paired with lovely, relevant exposition from famous authors on the verso. A precise, appealing, useful work for anyone with the slightest interest in the English language.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Just not into communicating clearly.

God's Dream

Author: Archbishop Desmond Tutu

First line: Dear Child of God, What do you dream about in your loveliest of dreams?

Why you should read this book: This completely non-sectarian picture book emphasizes the values that won Tutu a Nobel Prize for Peace: empathy, equality, non-violent conflict resolution, and acceptance. Children of different cultures are depicted in friendly interactions, enjoying themselves and making God happy. With simple logic, the text explains a doctrine of love, erases perceived differences among children, and demonstrates that the world is a much, much nicer place if everyone agrees to get along.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You are a total crank and your doctrine of atheism trumps any moral messages that might appear in a book that assumes the existence of a divine being.

The Grouchy Ladybug

Author: Eric Carle

First line: It was night and some fireflies danced around the moon.

Why you should read this book: A grouchy ladybug ignores kindness and offers snark and aggression over and over again, in lovely patterned prose that highlights the ridiculousness of belligerence and the need to temper anger with rationality. Carle's inimitable style provides wonderful detail in terms of texture and size, as the ladybug picks fights with larger and larger animals, and the pages themselves get larger and larger. In the end, of course, the grouchy ladybug bites off more than it can chew and learns a valuable lesson in courtesy and looking for trouble.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You were always the biggest kid on the playground.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Midwife's Apprentice

Author: Karen Cushman

First line: When animal droppings and garbage and spoiled straw are piles up in a great heap, the rotting and moiling give forth heat.

Why you should read this book: From a worthless, unwanted beggar sleeping in a dung heap, Beetle takes the slow journey to self-actualization through the questionable charity of Jane the Midwife, a cold but fair practitioner of the birthing arts. Renaming herself Alyce, she struggles with her own fears of failure and sense of worthlessness, more than once rendered helpless in situations where her knowledge might triumph, were it backed by self-esteem. Beautifully written and beautifully researched, this book creates a realistic slice of medieval life from the perspective of the lowest rung on the ladder.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You are horrified even picturing a girl who has never in her life bathed or washed her hands assisting at a birth.

The Cat Ate My Gymsuit

Author: Paula Danziger

First line: I hate my father. I hate school. I hate being fat.

Why you should read this book: Young teen Marcy Lewis struggles for comfort with herself and her own body against the pressure of stubborn, tyrannical, reactionary authority figures, until Ms. Finney, a radical English teacher, helps her come out of her shell and join the world as a human being, rather than the blimp she sees herself as. When Ms. Finney is fired, ostensibly for her refusal to say the Pledge of Allegiance, but in reality for being a nonconformist who encourages kids to think for themselves, Marcy is surprised to find herself, along with one of the cutest guys in school, the ringleader for the protest action. Although dated at times in its discussion of feminism and hippies, this modern classic continues to speak to teens dealing with violence in the home, issues of personal acceptance, and the drive for fairness and equality for kids, who just want to be treated like human beings.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You don't rock the boat. You do what everybody else is doing.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Tales of Beedle the Bard

Author: J. K. Rowling

First line: There was once a kindly old wizard who used his magic generously and wisely for the benefit of his neighbors.

Why you should read this book: Fans of Harry Potter series will delight in this collection of seven fairy tales for young witches and wizards, which includes several pen and ink drawings from the author's hand. The stories are whimsical and amusing, suitable on their own as well as artifacts from Potter's universe, but the "commentaries" on each tale, written in the voice of Albus Dumbledore, are equally clever and provide Rowling a voice to explain the moral message of the story, throw subtle aspersions at those critics who seek to censor children's literature, expand the world she has created, and stretch her creative muscles a little further. All proceeds from the sale of this book go towards providing voices for disenfranchised European children, and hopefully, more work in this vein will be forthcoming.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You've petitioned your child's school library to have Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone removed from the shelves.