Please Don't Eat the Apple

Sometimes purely entertainment reading is something that I want to do.  It takes my mind off the stresses of the every day.  And when I am feeling like reading one of those books I seek out a good fantasy, science fiction novel, or classic.  But every once in a while I pick out a good mystery.  Everyone can easily grab a Grafton, a Grisham, a Patterson or an Evanovich.  And they would be good fun.  There is even a series of fun mystery novels that have come out based upon fictional characters in a TV series.  But I wanted to find something different, when a title that came across the library desk caught my eye.
Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus came across the library desk.  When I usually think of Snow White I am thinking of a happily ever after, or if I am at Disneyland I may end up thinking about the poison apple.  But I am generally not thinking that anyone would desire the death of Snow White other than an evil queen. So when I began reading the first few pages of the story, beginning with a creepy scene of someone taking care of a person who is not talking, moving on to a prison release, then quickly to another scene of someone being pushed off an overpass on a freeway, I was immediately caught in the tale.

The characters are well drawn and thought out, with good enough back story for motivation.  From Tobias Satorius, the convicted murderer trying to re-establish himself and help out his father, despite the towns hating him, to Oliver von Bodenstein and Pia Kirchhoff, detectives who stumble onto a larger case through investigating the attempted murder at the overpass, to Amelie the teenage girl who is drawn to Tobias because of a desire to have something, anything, exciting happen in her life and eerily resembles “Snow White” the missing and presumed dead girl who Tobias supposedly murdered, the characters that Neuhaus draws are intricate, complex and going through a journey in which they will all connect with each other with death hanging around every corner. 

Neuhaus carefully weaves the tale with overlapping stories.  Each little story from a particular character’s perspective leads the reader to more and more mysteries.  Could Tobias have really blacked out during the murders?  Who is this mysterious individual that takes care of a dead girl?  Why did the man push the lady over the overpass?  Is Tobias actually innocent of the murders to which everyone blames him for?  And can Tobias live any kind of life after this in his hometown even if everyone finds out he is innocent?  Every question leads the reader on a winding maze with an uncertain conclusion.

I was looking for something to take me away and it captivated me almost instantaneously.  Take the Snow White Must Die home for yourself, and watch the time melt away.


Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies!

“Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can't strike them all by ourselves; we need oxygen and a candle to help. In this case, the oxygen for example, would come from the breath of the person you love; the candle would be any kind of food, music, caress, word, or sound that engenders the explosion that lights one of the matches. For a moment we are dazzled by an intense emotion. A pleasant warmth grows within us, fading slowly as time goes by, until a new explosion comes along to revive it. Each person has to discover what will set off those explosions in order to live, since the combustion that occurs when one of them is ignited is what nourishes the soul. That fire, in short, is its food. If one doesn't find out in time what will set off these explosions, the box of matches dampens, and not a single match will ever be lighted.” -Like Water for Chocolate
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel is a wonderfully written book, filled with romance and mysticism, sparking the imagination with great imagery. Written in installments and incorporating Mexican recipes, the novel is a simple tale of love and war and passion... and food. Yet there is a complexity in the characters, their thoughts and interactions that give the novel its depth. Food is a main character as well, being used to bring characters closer or to drive them apart. It is also used to give strength to certain characters in the novel, helping them express emotion through cooking and food preparation.
The novel spans many decades, following the De la Garza through their trials and tribulations. At the core is a true love story.
Laura Esquivel has a way with words. She could describe any emotion in such a descriptive way, it leaves the reader feeling that emotion for the character. This gives the novel a lot of strength.


WRITING for Early Literacy

Early literacy is what children know about reading and writing before they actually learn to read and write. Literacy is like growing, it happens slowly over time.

Reading and writing go together.  Writing helps your child get ready to read.
Printed words surround us.  Our children watch us jot down a grocery list, read signs on the way to the store and compare labels on products before buying.

It takes time for children to develop the fine motor skills they need to write letters and words themselves.  At first their efforts will look like scribbles and marks, but they are nevertheless learning the connection between written and spoken language. Provide materials and lots of opportunities to write and draw.  Encourage them to “sign” their name to their drawings or to label the parts of their drawings.

Later on, they will be able to form actual letters and write their own name.

When they are ready to learn the names and sounds of the alphabet, head to the library for some books for fun with letters.  Having fun is the best way for preschoolers to learn!

Here’s a guaranteed crowd-pleaser: ABC T-Rex, by Bernard Most.  How can you top the appeal of a Tyrannosaurus who “loved his ABC’s so much, he ate them up.”  Each page pairs a letter with an adjective.  For example, “A was appetizing.  B was even better.”  In the illustrations, the cheerful dinosaur chomps a corner out of a large letter.   Look carefully, and you’ll also find many other items starting with that letter. No fair looking at the lists in the back of the book until you attempt to find them yourself.

The letters themselves become the characters in Alphabet
Adventure by Audrey Wood.   The lower case letters get distracted on the way to school, where they are supposed to help a boy learn his ABC’s, when little “i” loses her dot.  The three-dimensional-looking digital illustrations give the letters a surprising amount of personality.  I would not recommend this book for the youngest, because seeing the letters in so many different positions might be confusing.  But slightly older children might find it fascinating. Sequels: Alphabet Mystery and Alphabet Rescue.

Children love to show off what they can do. (“Look at me, Mom!”) Denise Fleming channels this enthusiasm for little readers of Shout! Shout it out!, which covers not only the alphabet, but also colors, numbers and some animals and vehicles.  The book begins, “Everybody loves to shout, so if you know it, shout it out!” I can imagine some rather raucous storytimes using this book; maybe it’s not the best choice for just before bedtime! It would be a great way to reinforce learning, though.  

For more lively alphabet books, try “Fun With Letters” in the Book Talk Book Lists. (Link above)

This is the fourth in a series of Book Talk articles about books that help parents get their children ready to read by engaging in interactive everyday activities. These recommendations are based on “Every Child Ready to Read®@Your Library®,” which is a program of the Association for Library Service to Children and the Public Library Association, divisions of the American Library Association. For more information about early literacy, go to


Love, Loss and Los Angeles

“Through others we become ourselves.” ― Lev S. Vygotsky

Our narrator in Anna Stothard’s The Pink Hotel doesn’t have a name.  Her mother, Lily, has died and she has come all the way from England to California looking for closure and some clues about her mother’s life.  When our narrator was a small child, Lily left her behind in England and came to America to start her own life anew.  The novel opens at the raucous, drug-and-alcohol-filled wake at a hotel in Venice Beach and then takes us on a trip through some of the seedier spots of Los Angeles.  Looking to find something to connect her to her mother, she steals a suitcase filled with Lily’s clothes, photographs, maps, and some love letters.

Though she’s only seventeen, our narrator is street smart.  She is able to track down some of the men from Lily’s life and learn more about her mother, while managing to dodge Lily’s husband, who wants the suitcase back.  She’s a little bit like Pippi Longstocking, unabashedly (and a tad naively) going through the world like it was one big adventure; a little bit like Holden Caulfield, dissecting the situations she finds herself in, trying to find meaning; and a bit like Odysseus, going place to place, trying to find a home.

This is a book about loss, but also about creating a life.  As our narrator travels around L.A. looking for clues about her mother, she is also discovering her own identity.  Early on she tells us, “I’m usually very good at being invisible.”  She fades into the background and doesn’t draw attention to herself.  By the end of the novel, she has a better understanding of who she is, what she can handle and what she will put up with.  She doesn’t need to be invisible any more. 


SINGING for Early Literacy!

Early literacy is what children know about reading and writing before they actually learn to read and write. Literacy is like growing, it happens slowly over time.

SINGING with your child is one of the five early literacy practices that help him or her get ready to read. Singing to your child is often an instinctive habit and more than likely something you’ve been doing since he or she was a baby. Did you know that singing, rhyming and chanting can be one of the most important activities you do for encouraging your child’s speech and language development?

Songs, rhymes and chants along with rhythm and movement help your child learn the intricacies of speech patterns, pronunciation and individual sounds.  Singing teaches children how language is constructed. When you sing, words and phrases are slowed down and can be better understood.

Songs, rhymes and chants help children develop listening skills. Singing children’s songs and rhymes will help your child to build up a vocabulary of sounds and words even before they understand their meaning.
Clapping along to songs  or rhymes helps children hear the syllables in word and improves their motor skills at the same time.  Finger plays are often done with rhymes and this helps develop those fine motor skills required for writing. The content of songs and rhymes add to your child’s general knowledge while promoting comprehension and verbal memory.

Incorporate singing into your daily activities—it’s fun! Don’t be embarrassed to sing with your child.  They love to hear the sound of your voice.  Remember, you are your child’s first teacher, and he or she loves learning from you!

Keep learning new songs or action rhymes by attending storytimes at your local library where rhymes, finger plays and songs are incorporated into the reading activities. Look for OC Libraries’ Toddler Totes to take home with you.  These themed kits have activities and nursery rhymes to go along with the books inside.

Here are a few recommendations for books and books with CDs that encourage singing and rhyming. Ask at your local library for more recommendations, or find additional titles under Booklists here on OC Public Libraries Book Talk Blog.

This Little Piggy : Lap Songs, Finger Plays, Clapping Games, and Pantomime Rhymes by Jane Yolen. This is the perfect book for babies and toddlers. You’ll find a rhyme or chant for every purpose in this comprehensive anthology of well-known and not so familiar rhymes, lap songs and clapping games. A bonus CD features favorites like “Hickory, Dickory Doc,” “Miss Mary Mack” and “I’m a Little Tea Pot.” Whimsical illustrations accompany the text.

Down by the Station by Will Hillenbrand.  Puff, puff, toot, toot off you’ll go as this little train stops for a menagerie of passengers from elephants to kangaroos!  Your pre-schoolers will love this repetitive story that builds as each animal boards the train.

How do You Wokka-Wokka? by Elizabeth Bluemle.  With nonsense rhymes and lively illustrations your kids will respond to this book with some nonsense sounds of their own. You’ll all be up moving by the time you reach the end of this tale of a neighborhood celebration!

Little White Duck by Walt Whippo; music by Bernard Zaritzky. Narrated by a little brown mouse with a guitar, this is the story of a duck who causes a big commmotion in the pond. Raffi sings this song on his album Everything Grows. You probably won’t be able to get it out of your head once you learn it.  But it’s such a fun book to read (sing) together that it will become a favorite.

Sandra Boynton has several song books with pictures, lyrics, musical scores and CD. These are story poems with full color  illustrations by Boynton. The music and lyrics are sophisticated and like listening show-tunes from a Broadway production with a little bee-bop thrown in. Check out Rinocerous Tap with musician Michael Ford or Philadelphia Chickens with singles by artists like Meryl Streep, Patti Lupon and the Bacon Brothers. The whole family will appreciate songs like ‘tickle time,’ ‘the crabby song’ and ‘faraway cookies.’ Boyton’s humorous lyrics and illustrations make this a favorite for anytime—in the car, on vacation or just dancin' around the house.

This is the third in a series of Book Talk articles about books that help parents get their children ready to read by engaging in interactive everyday activities. These recommendations are based on “Every Child Ready to Read®@Your Library®,”which is a program of the Association for Library Service to Children and the Public Library Association, divisions of the American Library Association. For more information about early literacy, go to


100 Years of Crimes, Bombs and Inside Access to the Leaders of the World.

[Cover]The 100-Year Old Man who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson is a clever novel indeed. It starts with a bang. When Allan Karlsson decides that he does not want to celebrate his 100th birthday in the nursing home which he detests, he manages, with his old achy legs, to escape out the window, bedroom slippers and all, find his way to a bus station, unwittingly nab a suitcase full of millions of dollars that he had been asked to guard, and board a bus to a remote village in Sweden where he rather innocently happens to form an alliance with a gang of criminals. Money such as this will win friends and take you anywhere you want to go.

On the down side he is nationally reported as a missing person and both the police and the criminal who asked him to watch the suitcase are beyond livid and out to find him as well.

The story then flips back and forth between the chase to find him and then back to his history as a rather bumbling man who became a talented munitions expert and then bumbled his way into the highest places of security and hobnobbed so many heads of state along the way. Once the story starts rolling it is hilarious. There are murders and explosions and spying and counter spying, all quite just sort of needing to happen along the way. There are baffled detectives who think they find something and then have to renounce their stories to the press who hound them. There is romance and an elephant whose owner will not travel without her as the group finds it necessary to escape from one continent to another. And there are bribes, luxury resorts, and plenty of vodka and parasol drinks in exotic places; because there is always lots and lots of money and everyone from criminals to government officials in high places who know how to get things done.

So travel with Allan and meet decades of world leaders: Churchill, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Stalin, Chairman Mao and his third wife, Kim Il Sung, Chiang Kai-shek, De Gaulle and so many others; and see Jonasson's wry observations on how the big world decisions might have really happened. History was never so fun.


Reinventing Yourself in your Senior Years

You’re never too old to try a new activity, or even a new career.  Retired after 37 years as a Probation Officer, Lee Gale Gruen started attending acting lessons through the Santa Monica Community College Emeritus Program.  With her mother recently passed away, her 85-year old father was still grief-stricken and spent too much time home alone, so Lee Gale asked him to attend class with her.  So begins a 3-year trek of a father-daughter acting team as chronicled in the book Adventures with Dad: A Father & Daughter’s Journey Through a Senior Acting Class.

Lee Gale overcomes her stage-fright, and realizes she has a knack for acting, and is actually quite good at it. Her dad is funny in the role of a cantankerous old man. As her acting career starts to take off, her father’s health starts to decline.  Lee Gale’s book is a straightforward, heartfelt account with plenty of humor and love.

Being the caregiver of my own father, I know first-hand that caring for an aging parent is a rewarding, yet also emotionally draining experience.  I could relate with many of the events in this book.  Adventures with Dad will resonate with seniors, Baby Boomers, caregivers, and those in need of care.  Budding actors and those who enjoy being on stage will also find much of interest.

Lee Gale Gruen will talk about her book and her journey at the El Toro Branch Library on Friday October 18th, at 1pm.  This program is free and open to the general public.


A Masterful Tween Ghost Story for Halloween

I haven’t read many ghost stories, as they typically linger in my mind for quite some time after I’ve read the last page.  But now that I have a six-month-old puppy by my side at home, I felt rather more courageous recently and read Avi’s excellent and just-spooky-enough The Seer of Shadows.  

It is 1872 in New York City, October of course, and fourteen-year-old Horace has started an apprenticeship with photographer Enoch Middleditch.  Avi writes that at that time, “photographic images were considered remarkably truthful, reality itself,” a notion important to remember as we consider characters’ reactions to certain future events.  The knowledgeable Middleditch teaches Horace a fair amount about his craft, and Horace’s description of nineteenth century photographic processes is fascinating from a historical perspective. Yet Middleditch is also selfish and deceitful with his customers.

Pegg, who is also fourteen years old, stops by Middleditch’s studio one day and makes an appointment for her employer, Mrs. Von Macht.  This wealthy woman desires a photograph of herself to place in her recently deceased daughter Eleanora’s tomb.  Middleditch decides to take advantage of this situation and create a “spirit photograph” by superimposing a photograph of Eleanora into the composition.  Horace, scrupulously honest, is tormented by the idea of involvement in such a scheme, but decides that he must do what his employer asks in order to keep his job and thus not burden his parents.  However, once the sessions at the Von Macht home commence, Horace begins to feel that he actually has captured the ghost of Eleanora in his own photographs…and perhaps even unleashed her vengeful spirit.

I found The Seer of Shadows to be a true page-turner.  The suspense builds quietly, but suddenly you are right there with Horace, quickly closing a door behind you to escape something frightful.  Yet the ghostly scares are brief and manageable even for a ghost-story-avoider like me, especially as the close friendship that Horace develops with the trustworthy Pegg lets us know that our hero is never really alone.  I would recommend this novel for middle school readers, as well as those fourth and fifth graders who can handle scary tales.  As the story is both paranormal and an educationally valuable work of historical fiction, it would make a great read-aloud for tween classrooms at this time of year. 

A few years ago I read another of Avi’s novels, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.  It’s not a ghost story, but like The Seer of Shadows, is very well-written, suspenseful and narrated in the first person by a nineteenth century young person finding their way amidst unfamiliar challenges.  I’m beginning to understand why Avi is considered to be a master of storytelling by so many, and plan to read much more of his writing.   


Star Wars Reads Day

In a library, very, very near by… is the second annual Star Wars Reads Day! Saturday, October 5th.

A collaboration between one of the most popular and enduring science fiction franchises and one of the most enjoyable of human past times (books and reading, that is), Star Wars Reads Day is an international event that celebrates everything we love (and maybe love to hate) about George Lucas’ cinematic legacy, literacy, and all of the wonderful books, films, and various Star Wars incarnations inspired by those stories of a galaxy far, far away.

Here are some of the more stellar titles in recent Star Wars-inspired literature that any good Jedi (or good I mean bad I mean evil Sith) should know:

Darth Vader and Son, by Jeffrey Brown, is an imaginative graphic novel for adults but is completely accessible to kids that offers this supposition: What if Darth Vader had been around when Luke was just a tyke?  Something a little like this:

Vader’s Little Princess is a sequel to Darth Vader and Son and explores the flip-side of the Skywalker sibling spectrum: How would Darth Vader have dealt with a pint-size Princess Leia?

Jedi Academy, Jeffrey Brown’s latest entry to his collection of Star Wars-themed books, is aimed at the Diary of A Wimpy Kid demographic, and offers somewhat more original fare but is still teeming nonetheless with familiar midi-chlorian-powered antics that Jediphiles will go completely Wookiee over.  One particular wise figure of some renown is featured as an academic official:


The Strange Case of Origami Yoda (Origami Yoda #1) The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, by Tom Angleberger, is the first book in a juvenile fiction series featuring a version of our beloved green-skinned Jedi Master that I’m sure no one would’ve expected; paper-folded Yoda! A collection of “case-files” scribbled, dictated or doodled by a group of sixth-graders, it describes their experiences with the little origami sage which has the uncanny ability to dispense (sometimes precognitive) advice not unlike that of its original namesake, completely at odds with the inclinations of the weird boy who made him. Other books in the series include:

 Darth Paper Strikes Back (Origami Yoda #2)  The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee  (Origami Yoda #3) 
 The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett (Origami Yoda #4) 
William Shakespeare's Star Wars William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, by Ian Doescher, is exactly what it sounds like, but then again it’s probably not so simple to imagine unless you’ve had the particular experience of reading it. Not for the casually curious, nor for those who are disinclined towards iambic pentameter, it is highly recommended if you simultaneously are one who enjoys reading Shakespeare (guilty) and also gravitate towards all things Star Wars (which I do, most helplessly ). It’s definitely not a spoof, more accurately described as a re-telling of that grand galactic epic in the decadent prose of one of the best writers of literary epics. Doescher illustrates his love of both with this laboriously (I’m only speculating) crafted piece of literature, even down to the less epic Star Wars minutiae:
"C-3PO: Now is the summer of our happiness/
Made winter by this sudden, fierce attack!
R2-D2: Beep beep,/
Beep, beep, meep, squeak, beep, beep, beep, whee!
C-3PO: We’re doomed."

Click on any of the titles to visit the OC Public Libraries website and reserve a copy today. 

Check with your local library branch to see how they plan on celebrating Star Wars Reads Day, and for more general information about this annual event, visit the official Star Wars website here.

May the force (of literacy) be with you! Use the Library, Luke! (By Luke, I mean all of you, not just the ones named Luke).

Jeffrey Brown illustrations used with permission from Scholastic and Chronicle Books.


That Is Not a Good Idea

 Mo Willems’ That is Not a Good Idea is a wonderful interactive picture book, with a spin on the traditional bad wolf fairy tale.  The storyline is simple with very little text, and an unexpected surprise ending. Although in color, the book’s illustrations are presented in pantomime and the white text and frame encasing it, pop out of the black background, are all reminiscent of a black-and-white silent era film.

A sly wolf and an innocent and helpless-looking female goose meet while walking down the street. They are immediately interested in each other, and when the wolf invites the goose to join him for a stroll, and she readily agrees, the gosling begin a chorus warnings of "that is really not a good idea!”

The story continues with the wolf leading the goose away, and asking: “Would you care to continue our walk into the deep, dark woods?" The audience, the goslings, believing they know what is inevitably going to happen, tries to warn the goose with ever louder choruses of "that is really not a good idea!”  It appears that the wolf is luring the goose to a certain bad end, and she is destined to become his dinner. But do the goslings have the right idea?

With illustrations that are classic Willems, a story that unfolds with humor, a moral lesson that appearances can be deceiving, and a very clever twist that takes the reader by surprise, this book is pure read-aloud delight. The endearing repetition of the goslings' chorus feeds the interactive flow of the story, while the ending will not be soon forgotten. A really fun book to read to an audience that will certainly invite participation!