"review" · chapter/series · Children's · concenter · fiction · recommend

{book} ruby’s magic madness

ruby lu brave and true coverRuby Lu, Brave and True by Lenore Look

illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2004.

Hardcover, 105 pages incl. “Ruby’s Fantastic Glossary and Pronunciation Guide”

Library borrow. Ages 6-10.

Most days the best thing about being Ruby is everything. Like when she’s the star of her own backyard magic show [“Ruby’s Magic Madness”]. Or when she gives a talk at the school safety assembly on the benefits of reflective tape. Or when she rides the No. 3 bus all the way to Chinatown to visit GungGung and PohPoh.
And then there are the days when it’s very hard to be Ruby. Like when her mom suggests Chinese school on Saturdays. Or when her little brother, Oscar, spills all of Ruby’s best magician secrets. Or when her parents don’t think she’s old enough to drive!
Come along with Ruby Lu in her chapter-book debut — which even includes a flip book of a magic trick — and share the good and the not-so-good days with an (almost) eight-year-old Asian-American kid.—Publisher’s Comments

When Natalya was in grade-school, the most popular chapter book choices for reading aloud to each other were those with a high whimsy, strangeness, or humor factor. Had I known Lenore Look existed then, her books would have been bought and shelved next to Junie B. and Dragon Slayer Academy. The Alvin Ho books (my first intro to Look) are awesomely funny, but Ruby Lu, she has an absolute charm all her own.

Anne Wilsdorf illustrative contribution reflects the spunky, live-wire world of Ruby Lu. They have a comic-realist balancing act that fits the character and her stories. They provide visual breaks in the text and clarify the events/antics of the story in a pleasing way. Wilsdorf and Look entertain.

There is a straightforward style in the telling of the story that suits Ruby Lu very well. There are little neighborhood stories that characterize and are characterized by Ruby Lu. Certain interests and attributes thread the small chapter book together. Look begins with the things Ruby likes and then dislikes and as the story progresses Ruby’s relationships with many of these things vacillate based on circumstance. Her baby brother is a great example of this…so is Chinese school. Her “likes” rely on what suits her, and when—sound familiar?

But Ruby is true, true to self and whilst learning is undeniably Ruby Lu—actually, I wonder now if most of the learning is on the part of the reader. Ruby’s bravery is a bit foolhardy at times—there is a marvelous mouth-covering sequence suspending the reader between horror and humor. But her bravery allows her to endure the uncertainty of whether she can learn what she needs at school, whether the bully can be revisited, or whether her emigrating cousin Flying Duck will an embarrassment or a familiar.


Ruby Lu has her charming little quirks that celebrate individuality and, well, childhood; and she isn’t the only one. Ruby’s family is sweet, very present and parental—including the grand-parental. I adore her family and her little Seattle neighborhood.

With concerns over her Asian-cultural education and Ruby’s concerns of integrating her emigrating relative, Ruby Lu has the double-pleasure of telling a story specific to the Asian-American protagonist and providing a glimpse for those with different childhood experiences. Look thoughtfully includes a “Glossary and Pronunciation Guide,” but if there are any worries that Look’s chapter book reads “educational,” relax. Learning about Ruby Lu and life on 20th Avenue South is as effortless as Look makes her storytelling ability appear—which is incredibly fluid and compelling. Look draws such a delightfully funny and fierce heroine, you are guaranteed to enjoy having this one read-aloud to you.


{image belongs to Anne Wilsdorf}

other books in the Ruby Lu series: Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything (2006) and Ruby Lu, Star of the Show (2011).


lenore lookLenore Look is the award-winning author of numerous children’s books including the popular Alvin Ho series. other books: Love as Strong as Ginger (1999); Henry’s First Moon Birthday (2001); Uncle Peter’s Amazing Chinese Wedding (2006); Polka Dot Penguin Pottery (2011); Brush of the Gods (2013)

Learn more about Lenore Look on her site; there is a nifty “q&a” page open for questions wherein I learned much, but here is a few things: She started writing when she was 6 and published her first book 31 years later (‘kento’) ; Look is “from Seattle, WA. [Her] parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all emigrated to the U.S. from China’s Guangdong province. [… ] My parents speak only Chinese to one another and to their children, so Toisanese, which is the country-cousin version of Cantonese, was my first language. I also understand Cantonese, which is more widely used, so I use it in my books (‘tanja’); & in answer to ‘aiden’: “I have two favorite books that I love equally and re-read nearly every year. CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White, and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee.”

"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · fiction · mystery · sci-fi/fantasy · series · young adult lit

{comic} questions

ACjacket_smallWho is AC? by Hope Larson, illustrated by Tintin Pantoja.

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2013. hardcover, 176 pages. 12 & up.

borrowed from the Library because you know I am a big fan of Hope Larson’s work.

“Meet Lin, a formerly average teenage girl whose cell phone zaps her with magical powers. But just as superpowers can travel through the ether, so can evil. As Lin starts to get a handle on her new abilities (while still observing her curfew!), she realizes she has to go head-to-head with a nefarious villain who spreads his influence through binary code. And as if that weren’t enough, a teen blogger has dubbed her an “anonymous coward!” Can Lin detect the cyber-criminals vulnerability, save the day, and restore her reputation?

“With ingenious scripting from graphic novel phenom Hope Larson and striking art from manga illustrator Tintin Pantoja, this action-packed story brims with magical realism and girl-power goodness.”—publisher’s comments.

I know I tend to rely on the publisher’s synopsis for its precision in “reviews,” however, I quote it here because I had to use it to orient myself—after I’d read the book. Granted, it was late when I read it, but Larson and Pantoja move quickly and I found myself with questions of identification that I’m not sure the novel intended.

who is ac1_004

The story seemed straightforward enough. Budding writer and zine self-publisher, Lin has created a fictional superhero named Rhea Ironheart, but in her new town, Lin finds herself to have become a superhero of fictional proportion, strikingly similar to Ironheart. But where fantasy was just fine, being a super-heroic figure herself is problematic, and not just because of curfew or angry bystanders. A superhero was not how this author was willing to courageously put herself out there.

who is ac page

Who is AC? features a lot of courageous risk-takers from the awkward boy asking a hot girl out to self-publishing to blogging difficult emotions without regret. The problem of putting yourself out there, in print, in-person or on-line are the trolls and digital shadows, or trying to disappear or change when identity takes on additional technological complexities. And there is also the trouble with reality versus the identity projected onto a person by another. How can someone tell what is really going on if there isn’t a conversation, but a bunch of one-sided speech/documentation. Audience figures in, the need to be seen and heard—really seen and heard. We see a disconnect in reality , too: in the comparison’s between Trace’s family and Lin’s.

Hope Larson is gifted when it comes to characterization and familial and friend interaction; and this is what really anchors the story when everything else seems racing forward and far-flung. Her fluid transitions are beautiful, but end up shoving me into the action, often into another character’s sequence. “Can Lin detect the cyber-criminal’s vulnerability, save the day, and restore her reputation?” Can she? Does she?

who is ac double

I love the multicultural town, the multiracial family, that Lin rides a bike and publishes zines. The illustrations are fantastic! And the reluctant hero is a girl who should hold up to some great storylines where the magically real intersects technology. Her enlisting the talented Pantoja to render an adventure that involves concerns popular to manga. Who is AC? is an intriguing intersection of American- and Japanese-influenced comic storytelling.

According to Booklist, “Fans of Naoko Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon will find a lot to like here, and the added technological twist adds a freshness to the subgenre.” (Mar. 2013)

Who is AC? is an ambitious comic book to remain only singular volume, because it leaves plenty of strings to fill-out a series. For instance, forget who AC is; Lin’s new and strange alter-ego dubbed by an angry caller. I want to know who is responsible for creating her in the first place. Said cyber-criminal is the true oddity and just what the hell he is up to is confusing—unless confused is what he intends to render his hapless victims. Cue even weirder cyber-girl straight out of Tron. There isn’t time to possibly explain her in the novel either.

who is ac ac

What seems to matter most is Lin coming to grips with the change, to surrender herself to it to some degree and begin to ask and answer the titular question. It really is only a beginning. The question then becomes, was I excited enough to want to follow Lin and company into subsequent stories. Perhaps if I were some years younger, such as the age of the intended audience. As it was, I found myself impatient with what ultimately amounted to gestures.


a concenter-quality read: the diversity in lit qualification is evident; the protag and portrayal of family life and community yields verisimilitude and well as empowerment.

{images belong to Hope Larson and Tintin Pantoja}

"review" · Children's · Illustrator · Picture book · recommend

a quick little chat

30 DAYS OF PB 2013 aDay Three: While Mama had a Quick Little Chat

by Amy Reichert  illustrated by Alexandra Boiger

A Richard Jackson Book (Atheneum, 2005).

quick rrring-rring


Oh, my! but this is a delightful one! Those quick little chats on the phone are never just a moment or two, are they?—unless a moment equates to 30 minutes or an hour. Amy Reichert has fun with this phenomena and I guarantee* that you will have fun, too. It is amazing what Rose is able to accomplish in the span of a quick little chat. She is certainly capable of feats beyond her mother’s bedtime preparatory expectations.

quick maamaReichert’s rhythm and rhyme infused evening has the story humming along. The lines do not come off as forced or contrived. And maybe some of it is the settting, but that fluidity of Madeline comes to mind–not that I wasn’t won over completely with the end rhymes: hors d’oervres and serve, weird and appeared. The mother-daughter interactions, too, were a riot.

quick comingRose’s vibrant red hair captured my attention and her personality just as vividly pops off the page. The blues and grays of Alexandra Boiger’s watercolor foreground the reds, yellows and greens. The interiors of the house are expansive and become filled with these larger than life characters and events. Rose’s adventure becomes as exaggerated as her mother’s sense of time, and they are a lovely pairing this way—and visually, too. They both come across a ridiculously fun—because who has not experienced the “quick phone call” scenario from one side or the other…I only wish mine had included such an exciting party.

This is one of those writer/illustrator teams I would love to see again–so yes, I will be looking up Take Your Mama to Work Day (Atheneum, 2012).


*as a test I interrupted Natalya (aged 13) in the middle of an intense scene behind enemy lines in the 12th chapter of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. She agrees that the picture book is indeed funny and fun.

recommendations… a book to enjoy together, and not necessarily mother-daughter. a good bedtime book, as well as anytime book..except for maybe when one is on the phone.

of note: would be fun to invent a story of all the fun things that could happen while the parent is finishing their quick little chat after sharing this one together–do use big words and big imaginations, rhyme optional.

quick chat

the author’s story behind the story. a piece about the book on NPR.

I was reminded that Alexandra Boiger is the very same Illustrator on one of my favorite picture books from last year: the little bit scary people with Emily Jenkins (Hyperion 2008); my review.

{images belong to Alexandra Boiger. do follow the above link to her site to see more of her lovely work!}

"review" · Children's · fiction · Picture book · poet-related

{book} lulu and the brontosaurus

Do you know an early reader who is a spoiled? A reader, who, like Lulu, is a pain? Not “a pain in the elbow” or “a pain the knee,” but “a pain–a very big pain–in the butt” (3)? Maybe said person isn’t a reader but would be willing to sit down and enjoy a nice story by Judith Viorst and illustrations by Lane Smith? Of course you do not know any such small person. Good thing Lulu and the Brontosaurus isn’t only for them.

Lulu always gets what she wants. Even if it takes screeching till the lightbulbs burst, throwing herself on the floor, kicking her heels, and waving her arms in the air. Until now. For when she asks her parents to give her a brontosaurus for her birthday, they say–for maybe the first time ever–“No!”

So Lulu takes matters into her own hands and finds her self the perfect brontosaurus for a pet. Or is he? I’m not telling. –publisher’s comments.

What I had to appreciate about Lulu is that when she doesn’t get her way, “she takes matters into her own hands.” I can’t help but like independent minds, even when they reside in awful-behaving little children.

Lulu doesn’t have a hissy because she is helpless or incapable. And maybe that is why she truthfully seems so monstrous. It isn’t that she is demanding what she needs and is being denied it. Nor is it that she is asking the impossible and the parents are the only ones with access. (Yes, the brontosaurus is indeed possible in this story.) As she learns by the end of the book (regardless of which ending you choose), there are other means of finding what it is you want–because it isn’t the wanting that is bad, it is the way in which you ask for it. If one really wants something, perhaps they should consider more acceptable ways to go about it. Being polite, and offering gifts in trade (bribery) may be good options. Lulu would teach diplomacy.

Lulu also speaks to entitlement. Is what Lulu wants a bad thing? She wants a brontosaurus for a pet. Yes, impractical, but bad? “A pet is a very good thing” (52). Even the brontosaurus agrees. Of course, there is some miscommunication (of yet another form). Who gets to decide who the pet (read subordinate) is here? Why should the brontosaurus be the pet, why not Lulu as the pet? Which is a funny idea, especially in light of what we’ve seen Lulu do this far into the story: She defied her parents, squeezed a snake very hard, hit a tiger on the head with her suitcase, and stomped on a bear’s foot making him limp away. She would disrespect her parents, leave home, sing loudly and disturb the animals resting while she goes “tromping” through the forest, how would this giant mythic beast make Lulu into a pet? When it seems impossible that Lulu will be able to change, the impossible happens. She learns to empathize. She learns to regret her actions. And the epiphanies do not come easy nor out of character.

Judith Viorst (of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) is a poet and she implements her craft in Lulu. Lulu has her catchy songs, and the text has a nice read-aloud quality. Viorst also plays to another of her strengths, defiance. The story is hardly predictable, and while imparting a few wise messages, she would share it for the child’s sake, not the parents’. Really, the only heroic figure is the brontosaurus, who is noticeably more childlike and Lulu-like, than elderly and sage.

The narrator admits to taking liberties with the story and inserts funny parantheticals along the way. And pretty much immediately, the narrator reflects an irreverence, defying institutional dictates–like paleontologists’ (right) decision to rename the brontosaurus as apatosaurus. If you don’t mind the narrator’s willfulness then proceed and experience it some more–the blame is on the reader, they were given an out. The narrator, though unspecified, is hardly typical in the way one ending after another is discarded in favor of something a bit more suitable. As the narrator would engage the reader in the story-telling process, the multiple endings are hardly surprising, nor is the narrator’s encouragement for them to pick the one they like. There is something co-conspiratorial about the whole book.

Lane Smith (illustrator ofThe Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales) translates the sassy Lulu into an irrepressible figure who, even when small still dominates the page. She never looks helpless for long–because, well, she isn’t. He really complements the text. I dig his use of stripes, circles, and sharp angles. And the pencil on pastel paper creates a nice texture to the black/white images. The divider pages (as seen above) are a nice green that bridges mad-house walls and nature’s forests. The juxtaposition/sequences of classical elements with the non-traditional is wondermous.

Viorst, Lane, and Lulu play with what is expected and the unsuspecting. I would encourage anyone to play along.


recommendations: early-young readers and non-readers. Lulu is usually found in Juvenile Fiction, where parents of pre-schoolers should be browsing anyway. For people who like their independent-minded children to remain so and yet still have manners and empathy. For story-tellers and lovers of the ridiculous and smart.

Lulu and the Brontosaurus by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Lane Smith

Atheneum (Simon&Schuster), 2010; hardcover,  115 pages. [I own this one.]

{images: all are illustrated by Lane Smith: (top) p 24-25 via “Lane Smith’s Art” blog; (middle) p 46-47, 30-31 via Simon & Schuster; (bottom) the cover}

"review" · Children's · Illustrator · Picture book · recommend · Uncategorized

{illustrator} david small


It has been a while since I highlighted an illustrator and that is just what I am going to do.

Do you follow “7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast?” I do. They deal primarily with illustrated books and their illustrators and David Small was being talked about the other week, February 7th. Jules was looking at the recently released Dial picture book One Cool Friend written by Toni Buzzeo and illustrated by Small. You may remember that David Small wrote and illustrated the graphic memoir Stitches (W.W. Norton & Co., 2009). I reviewed it. I decided to check out more of his picture book work.


A bit about David Small, in snips from his site’s biography page:

“David Small was born and raised in Detroit. In school he became known as “the kid who could draw good,” but David never considered a career in art because it was so easy for him.” [Eventually, and fortunately, a friend convinced him to pursue an art career anyway.] “After getting his MFA at the Yale Graduate School of Art, David taught art for many years on the college level, ran a film series and made satirical sketches for campus newspapers. Approaching tenure, he wrote and illustrated a picture book, “Eulalie and the Hopping Head”, which he took to New York, pounding the pavements and collecting rejections for a month in the dead of winter. “Eulalie” was published in 1981. Although tenure at the college did not follow, many more picture books did, as well as extensive work for national magazines and newspapers. His drawings appeared regularly in The New Yorker and The New York Times. A learn-as-you-go illustrator, David’s books have been translated into several languages, made into animated films and musicals, and have won many of the top awards accorded to illustration, including the 1997 Caldecott Honor and The Christopher Medal for “The Gardener” written by his wife, Sarah Stewart, and the 2001 Caldecott Medal for “So, You Want To Be President?” by Judith St. George. To date he has illustrated over 40 picture books.” The “date” being concurrent with his working on Stitches.

image from The Library by Sarah Stewart.

I picked up three picture books of which David Small is the illustrator from the Library; too small a sampling compared to his proliferation, I know; but I would share them with you just the same.

7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety––your preferred one?

David: I use a sheet of good imported rag paper. My line work is done with brush & ink, sometimes a nib pen. I add watercolor washes with touches of pastel chalk.

That Book Woman by Heather Henson (Atheneum, 2008)

 That Book Woman is inspired by The Pack Horse Library Project, a 1930s WPA carried out in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. It is a precursor of the Book Mobile, where (primarily) women rode horses packed with books and kept routes throughout the mountains distributing books to the rural homesteads to encourage and improve literacy.

Cal is not the readin’ type. Living way high up in the Appalachian Mountains, he’d rather help Pap plow or go out after wandering sheep than try some book learning. Nope. Cal does not want to sit stoney-still reading some chicken scratch. But that Book Woman keeps coming just the same. She comes in the rain. She comes in the snow. She comes right up the side of the mountain, and Cal knows that’s not easy riding. And all just to lend his sister some books. Why, that woman must be plain foolish — or is she braver than he ever thought?-publisher’s comments

Cal moves from resentment to an understanding of why his sister spends so much time in a book and why his (multi-generational) family outright encourages it. The story values both work and education, indeed, what shows a greater determination and passion in their work than the Pack Horse Librarians. “I year to know what makes that Book woman risk catching cold, or worse,” Cal says. Both the Librarian’s and Cal’s risk-taking find reward.


Princess Says Goodnight by Naomi Howland (HarperCollins, 2010)

When a little girl pretends she’s a real princess, her imagination soars and her bedtime routine is transformed into a majestic affair. While practicing curtsies on her way to bed, she gets the royal treatment: chocolate cream Éclairs, glass slippers, ladies-in-waiting, a tiara—even a bubble bath with a special fluffy towel to dry her toes. Being a princess is so much fun! But at bedtime, there’s one thing a little girl—or a princess—always gets: a kiss before saying goodnight.-publisher’s comments

Princess Says Goodnight imagines how it must look for a princess would say goodnight aka go to bed, even while teh reader must imagine what actions correlate to the little girl’s saying goodnight.

Princess Says Goodnight is playful, but quiet, not eye-popping candy-colored or sparkly energy. The girl is vibrant sure, but the wash of colors and movement is softened.  The text is rhythmic, the words are lulling. It is a good bedtime book. And one that is good for a sibling who likes to have their special time in play and intimacy with their parents. This is a really nice tuck-in-bed book that shouldn’t exhaust with re-reading even while it should prove useful for those who desire a cooperative and calming bedtime.

Naomi Howland:Your style is so fluid; nothing looks labored at all. Do you do a lot of preliminary drawings first?

David Small: It’s sleight of hand! All illustrators aim for the Effortless Look, but even someone whose work is as loose as Quentin Blake has admitted publicly to laboring over and throwing away a lot of pictures. (When I read that I felt a very brotherly feeling for Mr. Blake, and grateful to him as well, for admitting that he doesn’t just toss things off.)

interview between author/illustration from Naomi Howland’s site

Elsie’s Bird by Jane Yolen (Philomel, 2010).

 Elsie is a city girl. She loves the noise of the cobbled streets of Boston. But when her mother dies and her father moves them to the faraway prairies of Nebraska, Elsie hears only the silence, and she feels alone in the wide sea of grass. Her only comfort is her canary, Timmy Tune. But when Timmy flies out the window, Elsie is forced to run after him, into the tall grass of the prairie, where she’s finally able to hear the voice of the prairie-beautiful and noisy- and she begins to feel at home. Jane Yolen and David Small create a remarkable, poetic, vividly rendered book about finding one’s place in the world.–publisher’s comments.

 [Editor Patricia Gauch] also got one of her award-winning illustrators, David Small—an artist who I admired greatly and enjoyed personally—to do the illlustration. He also lies in that area and his wife has made a spectacular “prairie garden.”–Jane Yolen on writing/publishing Elsie’s Bird.

Elsie’s Bird focuses on the power of sound and song, as well as its value to many. It is very much about “finding one’s place in the world.” Like a caged bird may sing, Elsie could, too, but she was limited and she needed to see that. I adore the movements captured behind or around Elsie, sound making people and objects and actions. With Small’s fluid use of color and sketched-line–very animated, perfectly applied.

"review" · concenter · fiction · juvenile lit · poet-related · recommend

dancing home

Dancing Home  by Alma Flor Ada and Gabriel M. Zubizarreta

Atheneum Books, 2011

hardcover, 147 pages.

Juvenile Fiction (ages 8-12)

Mexico may be her parents’ home, but it’s certainly not Margie’s. She has finally convinced the other kids at school she is one-hundred percent American–just like them. But when her Mexican cousin Lupe visits, the image she’s created for herself crumbles.

Things aren’t easy for Lupe, either. Mexico hadn’t felt like home since her father went North to find work. Lupe’s hope of seeing him in the United States comforts her some, but learning a new language in a new school is tough. Lupe, as much as Margie, is in need of a friend.

Little by little, the girls’ individual steps find the rhythm of one shared dance, and they learn what “home” really means. In the tradition of My Name is Maria Isabel, Alma Flor Ada and her son Gabriel M. Zubizarreta offer an honest story of family, friendship, and the classic immigrant experience: becoming part of something new, while straying true to who you are. ~publisher’s comments (jacket copy)

Dancing Home provides the young reader with a valuable insight into an immigrant experience. It isn’t shy about its goal to inform ignorant readers and commiserate with those who are not. I can’t say it is the most lyrical experience or the most “literary,” but need it be? Dancing Home is an ambitious little book, but with so few of these middle-grade stories by their (oft marginalized) authors getting through the Publishing World’s sieve (especially large presses), little wonder why.

Publishers Weekly (July) did not care much for Dancing Home.

“Working with a potentially rich multicultural family story, [the authors] instead deliver a timely but lifeless novel about a Mexican-American girl in California and her newly arrived Mexican cousin. […] The 11-year-olds […] come across as little more than mouthpieces for the authors’ message. While the opening chapter, in which Margarita unhappily brings Lupe to her own classroom, is promising, the authors rely too much on descriptions and summaries, forgoing opportunities to ‘show, don’t tell.’ […] Margarita’s eventual appreciation of her heritage and Lupe’s adjustment to her new country are predictable and too easily come by to have true emotional resonance.”

I rarely disagree with Publishers Weekly, and I am not going to completely disagree here now. The “mouthpiece” complaint is an issue, and one not limited to the two girls. “Lifeless” is a harsh criticism, but wooden did come to my mind at turns—child actors in an afterschool special. Given the content versus the accessible length of the novel, I think ‘show, don’t tell’ is necessarily set aside at points. You have one shot to bring an important sense of awareness to our young people’s consciousness, how much do you leave to chance? Do we want another series? Or another book in verse?*

Admittedly, I do not require all my reads to be lyrical and/or deeply emotional. It is true that the ending did not provide “true emotional resonance” for me either, but my mind was engaged. Does the grade-school reader require and/or exact an emotional resonance with Dancing Home? Is the ending that trite, or does it come off as an offering of hope? Is there insult in an attempt to be heart-provoking, where all it does is provoke our minds?

Dancing Home writes from two primary perspectives, that of the coddled American girl and the mature via fire Mexican girl; one is ignorant–due to sheltering and perhaps carelessness, the other is experienced—due to familial conflict brought on by cultural stressors; one is the outside looking in, the other—the same, just from another window on another side of the house; importantly, there is some overlap. One or more of those perspectives is where we are asked to connect as the Reader. The already large scope of these two narrators are expanded by those they encounter (family, friends, etc) and even more perspectives are offered. Like the offering of perspectives, there are several questions to choose from as well. Relevancy in Dancing Home shifts depending on the Reader and how they approach the novel. Of course, this could be said of any read, but I think it vital to success of Dancing Home in particular.

I felt like it was assumed that the Reader would be an outsider, an on-looker, ignorant of the struggles of a first generation immigrant and a new transplant. At the same time, Dancing Home hardly excludes a Reader in the know, offering vocalization with which they might identify. As the outsider (and adult, critical reader) I often remained in my seat before the stage. I was intrigued in turns, and I was able to relate in others.** That was my experience with the read. Spend some time reading the Goodreads collection of reviews. Stars swing dramatic back and forth. Even with the lower rated reviews, there are still paragraphs, if only to argue the realism portrayed. The greatness of the scope, the multiple entries, Dancing Home is a playground of discussion.

Dancing Home is aggressive in its informative nature, and I know that this is a turn-off for plenty. We like more clever manipulation, at least when we are asked to learn something. However, emotional manipulation in revelatory multicultural stories can be exhausting, to tell the truth. Dancing Home has a definite place.

Could the novel have been more elegant, less clumsy? Perhaps. For some. In the end, Dancing Home can be lifeless. The novel is missing something. An audience. Its Reader. A dancing partner.


*these are not necessarily a rhetorical set of questions.

**If you do not know your own immigrant story, you are past due, I suggest you look into it. 

Suey at “It’s All About Books” is pondering a John Waters quote, which, in part, recommends, “You should never read just for ‘enjoyment.” It was on my mind as I wrote this “review.”

a few authors to look into for more (and varied) immigrant stories, which provide Dancing Home some of its competition stylistically:  Julia Alvarez, Margarita Engle, Christina Diaz Gonzalez, Pam Munoz Ryan, Bettina Restrepo.

Doret at “The Happy Nappy Bookseller” wrote this review, and it was the primary reason I picked the book up at the Library. I’m glad I did. Dancing Home would be a great addition to your school-classroom or-library shelf. It reminded me in a lot of ways to Bettina Restrepo’s Illegal (my review), most notably in the way Restrepo is both bold in relaying hard situations and buoying potential despair with hope.

"review" · Children's · comics/graphic novels · juvenile lit


I picked up Zebrafish at the Library after seeing that “The Graphic Classroom” had reviewed it (though I had yet to actually read said review). I thought, haven’t seen this one, looks kinda fun for kids (and perhaps, myself).

Peter H. Reynolds and Fable Vision present:

Zebrafish as written by Sharon Emerson & drawn by Renee Kurilla

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010

Hardcover, 120 pages. Juvenile Fiction, ages 7-10.

Vita Escolar is ready to rock. She’s got a band name, a used guitar, and three chords under her studded belt. All she needs are a few bandmates to complete the picture. Instead, an activist, two gamers, and an artist show up to her audition. none play a lick of music. But when she can’t shake’em off, she resigns herself to join’em. After all, a virtual band is better than no band…er, right? With a little help from Walt, Tanya, Plinko, and Jay, Vita learns you can’t always get what you want—but you might get what your friends need. And that’s way better. Oh yeah! ~publisher’s comments, jacket copy.

Welcome to a before-during-and-after-school special where we learn that “we can’t always get what we want,” friends and family are our greatest resource for getting what we need, and we can change the world in various and creative ways. Yep, a middle-grade offering driven by a message. But it isn’t all bad.

Zebrafish begins with the establishment of the three pairings of the six main characters whom all intersect in different ways before five of the six meet afterschool for the Vita’s band auditions. This culturally diverse cast must then find a way to pool their diverging interests for a cause. At first it is just an activity to do together as Vita still wants to rock and the others want to help her. As Vita learns more about her older brother’s medical research and new friend Tanya’s cancer, the band’s existence takes on greater meaning.

{pages 50-1}

Zebrafish works hard to quickly solidify personalities and honor them with a consistency throughout. Each have their troubles (some more mild than others) but they each also have triumphs. In essence, while each character has individuality (if not some caricature) these are normal kids. The pairs are quietly disentangled so as to form solid connections with other members of the “band.” None of this character development feels unnatural, especially in limiting the story to an accessible length for young readers. By book’s end, the once “randomly” intersecting sets of two successfully become a singular party of 6+.

Within Zebrafish, Family is represented in different ways and to great significance. Vita and her elder brother Pablo with whom she resides are orphans. Or at least, there is no mention of a father and their mother has died of cancer. There is also a reference to social services and a move. I’m not completely sure what that is all about. But you have a brother supporting his still-in-school sister, and they rescue a stray dog. The first pair you meet is Plinko and Jay and you get that Jay is the best friend adopted into the family. He goes out to dinner with them, is comfortable in their home. Walt and Tanya are siblings, and Walt is very attentive to his sister. Zebrafish, of course, becomes a kind of tribe. Notably these relationships are strongly steeped in empathy; as if the basis of what makes people family is our formation of a strong empathic connection.

{pages 40-1}

The title, Zebrafish, comes from an actual fish called zebrafish, and they are used by Pablo in his laboratory. He uses a mutant form to help him “watch cancer cells metastasize in real time” (40). So you not only gain insight into the lives of these children (of indiscriminate age/grade)–Tanya and Vita in particular–you get some interesting science information as well. Zebrafish is not subtle with its “teaching points.” The reader will learn interesting and important facts and they will gain insight.

I mentioned accessible length. I’m not sure Zebrafish had time to be subtle; that or it underestimates its critical audience. The book is 120 pages, but many of the panels are full-page, full-page with ~2 insets, or double-page; panels are large print, essentially–Child-friendly. Marjane Satrapi’s Embroideries came to mind in turns because of the occasional removal frames and the stacking of speech bubbles. There were times I was a little confused in a conversation’s progression, but I could see the form of each page/panel trying to mind the young audience. It was fun and flexible, playful.

Combined with the bright and warm colors, the book finessed a lot of movement and energy. The clipped chapters also kept the ambitious level of content moving. 120 pages and 19 chapters, it felt stilted at turns. The pacing was awful actually (i.e. yes, dogs are cute and inclusion of animals in elementary school fare feels necessary, especially purple ones, and to include them in your song at the end—aww!—& for Vita to actually get what she wants for once. However, proportionally speaking, the pages dedicated to this venture…). I didn’t understand the chapter titles (even on the second try). And the segues were time stamps, “One week later,” etc. There were also a lot of illustrated time lapses to a single page and those were cleverly done. Necessarily, we had to get to know the characters, their situations, and then Zebrafish couldn’t come together in a week. Zebrafish had a lot to do in a short amount of time. Vita has lessons to learn; the constant drumming of “you don’t always get what you want”, but “you sometimes get what you need.” Vita’s life is all about that lesson; and so are all the other characters’ lives to some extent. But Vita is the one with whom the reader is to identify.

Zebrafish should also be fun and culturally resonant. The cartoon styling is familiar for a reason, an attractive choice for its intended audience and their teachers. The humor is suitable and dispersed liberally, keeping the reader engaged. Plinko and Jay are comic relief; which works to balance out the weightier situation with Walt & Tanya–Tanya who is a vibrantly drawn character who when not getting treatment, or is sick, is the “average” girl, replete with crush. I guess she counterbalance her story line on her own.

The endpage for the “Afterword”, pre-text (via Kurilla’s blogsite).

There is the “Afterword” on page 120 by Peter H. Reynolds encouraging the book’s close to function as an actual beginning. I can, of course, get behind being creative, and applying our creative interests toward a cause (see: TalyaWren). Zebrafish would be a book that could inspire, the “Afterword” is a mere punctuation mark. Big projects for causes for which we are passionate take creativity, organization, multiple talents, perseverance, cooperation… Zebrafish models this while providing the reader with the why. You get to use your gifts, your passions; you make friends; you learn the importance of/benefit from collaboration; you help people!—you could help people you know and love! Zebrafish does not go off without a hitch but it all works out. These children are capable, they are gifted and loving and determined—something with which the readers should identify. As Kevin Hodgson at “The Graphic Classroom” writes, “If you have students who are itching to do some community service project, ZEBRAFISH might be a nice companion story about how even young people can change the world for the better.” I think in a setting where you know you are in for something educational, Zebrafish will be more digestible treat. –or will it?


the book’s website, wherein Vita’s song is available.

a fascinating interview (one the young reader’s will enjoy, too). Renee Kurillo on illustrating Zebrafish among other things. Wherein I also discovered a reference to Zebrafish 2.

—noted: “a portion of the proceeds from this book is being donated to the Children’s Hospital Boston.”~inside cover and website. so, will this be coming to a classroom near you? Children, and likely many educators, are much more forgiving a reader than I am; the pacing  may not even affect the younger reader the same.