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The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (audio and print)

Source: Purchased
Paperback and Audible, 447 pgs. or 14+ hours
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The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which was a book club pick from last year and took me more than the month allotted to read, is a look at Chicago’s endeavor to build a World’s Fair to rival that of Paris. Larson attempts to contrast the beauty of the white city created by some architectural greats with the dark serial killings of  H. H. Holmes. The story is one of a city growing up and expanding, which generally brings with it the darker elements of crime. As women began to seek out jobs and not marriage, many were preyed upon by criminals, including Holmes. These comparisons are easy to see, but the main bulk of this book is focused on the political issues of the 1893 World’s Fair and its construction.

“Jane Addams, the urban reformer who founded Chicago’s Hull House, wrote, ‘Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs.'” (pg. 11)

“To women as yet unaware of his private obsessions, it was an appealing delicacy. He broke prevailing rules of casual intimacy. He stood too close, stared too hard, touched too much and long. And women adored him for it.” (pg. 36)

Like the previous book I read by Larson, the narrative is big on detail — too much detail in some places — and this often bogs down the narrative and leaves the reader wondering if the book is about the fair or the serial killer. To finish this pick, I ended up reading along with the audiobook to keep my attention focused, as I found it wandered too much just listening to the audio and too much when reading the book — I started scanning pages rather than reading them.

The most interesting parts of the book for me were those short chapters about Holmes, and it makes me wonder if Larson had a hard time finding enough about him and his crimes to write about him alone — hence the need for the World’s Fair and its comparison with the darker side of Chicago. This was less boring than the previous Larson book I read, which isn’t saying much.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson was a mixed bag for me. The World’s Fair parts of the book were interesting but too long winded, while the parts about Holmes are too little throughout the book until the end. Saving the show-stopper for last is a detriment for this book. These subjects are not really related to one another, and the only thread holding them together is Larson’s slight juxtaposition of them and the fact that they both occurred around the same time. It would make readers wonder if Holmes would have been as successful as a serial killer if the World’s Fair had not distracted the police, officials, the government, and tourists alike.

RATING: Tercet

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Knock, Knock: The Biggest, Best Joke Book Ever

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 352 pgs.
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Knock, Knock: The Biggest, Best Joke Book Ever from Highlights for Children is a book my daughter received from Santa Claus, and if we are taking a trip in the car, she will take it with her. We started telling her knock, knock jokes a couple years ago, and she told us that we made them all up ourselves. Now that she has this book, she can see that we didn’t, but we were clearly inventors in her eyes for a while.

My favorite one to tell her was the one with the banana, and when she got this book, she insisted I had made it up. Eventually, she found it in the book and was surprised that I hadn’t. I love those little moments.

This book has brought her hours of fun and enjoyment, and if you could hear her read from the book and her grampie tell her knock, knock jokes he remembers, you’d be laughing. They go back and forth for hours sometimes. The pure joy makes this book worth every penny Santa spent.

RATING: Cinquain

Parkland Speaks: Survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas Share Their Stories by Sarah Lerner

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 192 pgs.
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Parkland Speaks: Survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas Share Their Stories edited by Sarah Lerner is deeply moving and filled with passion — a passion for making a difference and a passion for the lives that were cut too short and should be remembered. From students to teachers, these essays, poems, photos, and drawings will make you an emotional mess. Reading through this collection, you can tell how scared these kids were when the shooting occurred on Feb. 14 , 2018. The lives of these unsuspecting students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was upended by one school shooter.

The initial reaction was disbelief because many thought the second fire drill was just routine, but the rapid fire soon became the scariest thing they had ever heard. Many lamented they didn’t stick to their routines and wait for friends, while others wanted to have done more to save their friends. There was the interminable wait for their friends to respond, but the silence was deafening. The heavy weight of sadness was soon wielded as a weapon against those who dare not to talk about gun reform, with many kids marching and lobbying for change still.

From “Can’t You Hear?” by Alyson Sheehy

You can blame what you want, pull on whatever thread
Bully us into silence and treat us like we don’t matter.
However, don’t forget there is no future when all of us are dead
Although it seems that is still not enough for all lives to matter.

Can’t you hear the screams now? Cause they are only growing louder.

The speech from Emma Gonzalez is widely known, but it bears repeating.

From “We Call BS” speech by Emma Gonzalez

“The students at this school have been having debates on guns for what feels like our entire lives. AP Gov had about three debates this year. Some discussions on the subject even occurred during the shooting while students were hiding in closets. The people involved right now, those who were there, those posting, those tweeting, those doing interviews and talking to people, are being listened to for what feels like the very first time on this topic that has come up over 1,000 times in the past four years alone…”

Parkland Speaks: Survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas Share Their Stories edited by Sarah Lerner must have been a cathartic experience for the writers, artists, and photographers who participated in sharing their stories, emotions, and trauma with readers. It’s a must read for anyone who does not understand the movement toward gun control. Our world has changed, our children are no longer safe in school, and more guns are not a viable solution.

Rating: Quatrain

Sleepover at the Museum by Karen LeFrak, Illustrated by David Bucs

Source: Publisher
Hardcover, 40 pgs.
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Sleepover at the Museum by Karen LeFrak, illustrated by David Bucs, is a delightful read full of adventure and riddles for young readers to solve. A trio of friends, including the birthday boy Mason, are invited to have a sleepover at the museum. This is an adventure that they will never forget, as it tests their knowledge of history, evolution, and biology. These friends work well together solving the riddles and in the process Mason gets to imagine what it would be like to sleep in each of the rooms at the museum. Which one will he actually pick, is something readers will have to find out for themselves.

This was a book that my daughter and I read together over several days as she did her nightly reading. There were some large words like “biodiversity” and “behemoth” that were a challenge for an early reader, but sounding out smaller chunks helped her get through them. She loved reading the riddles with Mason and his friends and even figured some out on her own. She was very proud that she knew some of the answers. The images are detailed and colorful and will have kids looking at everything all at once.

Sleepover at the Museum by Karen LeFrak, illustrated by David Bucs, will test kids’ imaginations and knowledge, as well as ensure they strengthen their vocabularies. My daughter was thrilled with this book, and enjoyed following Mason on his birthday trek through the various parts of the museum.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

Karen LeFrak is a creative and philanthropic New Yorker. She is a magna cum laude graduate of Mt. Holyoke College. Karen continued her education earning an MA in Music History from Hunter College. Her thesis “In Search of the New Classics,” which surveyed the commissioning activity of the New York Philharmonic from 1842-1986, won the Dean’s Award in Arts and Humanities. Karen’s education also includes courses in archival management and historical editing at New York University. In 2010, in recognition of outstanding achievement, the Hunter College Alumni Association elected her to the Hunter College Hall of Fame.

About the Illustrator:

David Bucs studied illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. After working in the animation industry in Los Angeles as an art director and character designer, David moved to Beijing, where he was a designer in a 3D animation studio. He loves to create characters, bringing them to life through strong expression using digital media. David is the illustrator of Sleepover at the Museum by Karen Lefrak (forthcoming from Crown/Penguin Random House). He has also created artwork for Capstone, Highlights magazine, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt leveled readers. David lives with his wife and young son in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where life is sweet. Find him online: @davidbucs / davidbucs.com.

Wild Embers by Nikita Gill

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 160 pgs.
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Wild Embers by Nikita Gill is a collection of poems to empower women to embrace all that they are — wild or not — and to inspire them to love themselves enough not to fall into the deadly traps of wolves.

One of my favorites from this collection was “Multiverse” in which the poet examines the concepts of time and universes — parallel lives in which things are better. I also loved “Your Heart Is Not a Hospital” in which the idea of fixing lovers and friends is explored. “Learned Helplessness” and “The Bones of Trauma” also are fantastic. These poems are personal and examine the roots of abuse and learning to move forward and love oneself.

Gill takes on some fairy-tale characters and goddesses and recharacterizes them in poetic sketches. But these are not as in-depth or as powerful as those persona poems created by other poets. They barely scratch the surface of these characters and sometimes read like a litany of characteristics we learned about in school. While the purpose and intent are sound — empowering women — the execution fell flat for me. I far preferred the first half of the book that was more personal.

Wild Embers by Nikita Gill is a good first collection, even if the second half of the collection falls a bit flat. The beginning poems are worth reading more than once and sharing with others.

RATING: Tercet

About the Poet:

Nikita Gill is a twenty four year old madness who likes to write short stories that are, kind of like her, barely there. She has recently published her first anthology and is now working on her book of poetry.

How to Catch Santa by Jean Reagan, illustrated by Lee Wildish

Source: Purchased school book fair
Paperback, 32 pgs.
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How to Catch Santa by Jean Reagan, illustrated by Lee Wildish, is a delightful book for kids this Christmas season. It’s easy enough for them to read on their own if they are early readers and offers a few more challenging words for older readers. The book offers tips to children on how to catch Santa and involve their entire family. It advises that children be clever but gentle in their efforts. Kids should even ask their parents for what tricks they used to try and catch Santa.

Be warned that your child may want to try some of these out and one of them includes an envelope full of glitter so you can track Santa’s movements throughout the house.

I was delighted to see my daughter read this one on her own and sound out the harder words on her own as well.  She loved the colorful pictures of Santa behind piles of letters and so much more. Even Rudolph makes an appearance. How to Catch Santa by Jean Reagan, illustrated by Lee Wildish, is a warm story for kids who want to keep Christmas adventurous.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author and Illustrator:

Jean Reagan was born in Alabama but spent most of her childhood in Japan. She now lives in Salt Lake City with her husband. In the summers, they serve as backcountry volunteers in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. To learn more about Jean and her books, please visit JeanReagan.com.

Lee Wildish became interested in art at a very young age. He is the illustrator of many acclaimed children’s books, and he has also worked in advertising and greeting card design. Lee lives in Nottinghamshire, England. Visit him on the Web at WildishIllustration.com.

The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 128 pgs.
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The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins covers a range of emotion, mirroring the title of the collection with the beauty of Portugal and the sadness of the gloomy rain. Some poems are ripe with his characteristic wit, while others (particularly the one about Seamus Heaney) are elegiac. My favorite poems are those in which delightful moments of observation (anticipated or already known) emerge for the reader.

Such as the opening poem, “1960,” where the narrator is listening to an old jazz album, anticipating the moment when a man’s laugh is heard like a discordant note because the album was recorded live in a club. There is that sense of surprise and familiarity because we’ve all had those moments where someone outside of our group is loud enough to be heard over the hum of conversation or the blare of horns. What has happened to this intruder now that time has passed? And yet, it doesn’t much matter because the moment brings you back to a time you remember fondly.

from "Basho in Ireland" (pg. 12)

I am not exactly like him
because I am not Japanese
and I have no idea what Kyoto is like.

But once, while walking around
the Irish town of Ballyvaughan
I caught myself longing to be in Ballyvaughan.

The sensation of being homesick
for a place that is not my home
while being right in the middle of it.

Collins’ poems are nostalgic and questioning, allowing the reader to see how the ordinary can become extraordinary. How do you become homesick for a place you are visiting at that moment and is not your home? As if something has shifted since your arrival that you can’t quite put your finger on. Isn’t that the mystery of existence?

from "Bravura" (pg. 54)

I will never forget the stunner
modestly titled 'Still Life with Roses,'
which featured so many decanters and mirrors
the result was a corridor of echoing replications.

“Sirens” is another poem that has an unexpected turn, but that little gem you’ll have to discover on your own. Collins is examining notions of being present and how one knows when they are there, in that moment and how long does that last? When do you know it has passed? Do you hold on or let it go? What happens if you do one or the other? Themes like these are strongest in “The Present” and “Bags of Time,” but they recur in each poem throughout the collection, leaving readers with much to consider.

The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins is beautifully rendered with so much to ponder about how time passes even when we’re not paying attention, and how little attention we pay to the things that pass before us and around us. What would happen if we paid a little more attention? Would we get lost in the infinite possibilities? Don’t miss this collection.

RATING: Quatrain

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About the Poet:

Billy Collins, is an American poet, appointed as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. In 2016, Collins retired from his position as a Distinguished Professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York after teaching there almost 50 years.

Pete the Cat’s 12 Groovy Days of Christmas by Kimberly Dean and James Dean

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 48 pgs.
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Pete the Cat’s 12 Groovy Days of Christmas by Kimberly and James Dean as you might have guessed is a reworked version of the “12 Days of Christmas” song. In Pete’s version, his groovy gift giving begins with the grand road trip to the sea. The text in this song is fun and easy to read for young readers, though I’m not sure what is supposed to be “groovy” about it, unless you find fuzzy gloves and cupcakes groovy.  For kids, this may be the case. Or perhaps it was the use of “far-out” to describe surfboards.

The pictures are what I come to expect from these books with basic designs and colors, animals and shapes to attract children to the page. Many of the animal characters from the previous book make an appearance in this one, and kids will like seeing them in action with their gifts. As the song is really about the extravagance of gift giving, it is kind of appropriate that some of the gifts Pete gives are a bit weird, like sloths. However, I’m not sure that kids will pick up on those nuances as much as adults will, and that should prompt a conversation about Christmas and what it means (i.e. not about getting gifts). The last page of the book should help with that since the friends are all at the beach enjoying their company. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating for any preaching here in Pete the Cat.

Pete the Cat’s 12 Groovy Days of Christmas by Kimberly and James Dean is a fun rendition of a classic carol that will have younger readers singing along with different lyrics if they already know  the song. In our case, it was mom why are you saying the lines like that and I had to explain there was a song with different lyrics.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author and Illustrator:

James Dean’s art has sold in more than ninety galleries and shops across the United States. He has devoted his paintings to Pete the Cat for ten years and has turned his natural love for cats into his life’s work. James published his first adult book, The Misadventures of Pete the Cat, a history of his art work, in 2006. He illustrated his first self-published children’s book, Pete the Cat I Love my White Shoes, written by Eric Litwin, in 2008, and the follow-up book, Pete the Cat: Rocking In My School Shoes, in 2011. James lives in Savannah, Georgia with his wife, Kimberly.

In 2004, Kimberly & James Dean sat down at their kitchen table to work on a children’s book together. Their dream has finally become a reality with the release of this new Pete the Cat book, Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses. Both left corporate jobs in the late nineties (James was an electrical engineer, Kimberly worked in the press office of the governor of Georgia) to pursue their passion for art, and they have experienced a life made up of strange and wonderful coincidences ever since. Pete the Cat has brought magic into their lives. They work in side-by-side studios, sharing their home with five cats and Emma the pug.

The Sun Is Kind of A Big Deal by Nick Seluk

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 40 pgs.
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The Sun Is Kind of a Big Deal by Nick Seluk imagines the sun as a rock star of sorts in the solar system where everyone knows his name and his importance. Even Pluto is in the background of this one. My daughter loves books where she’s learning without realizing it. Nonfiction told in a way that’s fun and engaging will always be a big hit with her. Seluk achieves that for the most part in this book.

The book includes a main dialogue about the sun as well as some sidebars about specific facts on the solar system and space terms like “asteroids.” The pictures are colorful and fun, especially since space can be very black and colorless.  My daughter loved how the planets introduced themselves, with Saturn being the “Hula-Hoop Champion.” And Seluk uses a racetrack to illustrate the rotation of the planets around the sun. Very helpful for younger readers just learning about space. The visuals explaining direct and indirect sunlight and its affect on Earth were helpful as well.

However, there are some larger words like Condensation, Evaporation, and Precipitation that make an appearance in the water cycle section, which younger readers may stumble over. Challenging words, however, should never be a discouraging thing. My daughter and I made a game out of mispronouncing the word and breaking each down into smaller, more pronounceable parts until she got them right.

One of our favorite parts of the book is the visual of the sun’s roll in the water cycle where the sun is putting raindrops down an enclosed slide for precipitation. It’s cute. At first my daughter thought the book was too challenging until she realized how fun the pictures were and the thought bubbles became amusing to her.

The Sun Is Kind of a Big Deal by Nick Seluk is chock full of facts about the solar system, nature’s cycles, and so much more. The pictures are bright and engaging, and the characterizations of the planets and other elements are amusing for young readers.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Nick Seluk worked as a graphic designer before becoming a full-time illustrator. He is the creator of the popular Awkward Yeti comic and author of the New York Times bestselling Heart and Brain, and its follow-ups Gut Instincts and Body Language. His work has appeared on CBSNews.com, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, reddit, and blogs across the internet. Nick lives in Michigan with his wife, three kids, and a very awkward dog.

Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds, Illustrated by Peter Brown

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 32 pgs.
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Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown, is the latest addition to the Jasper Rabbit series and, of course, my daughter had to get this from Scholastic. In this book, Jasper is obsessed with eating wild carrots he finds in the field on his way to and from school. He cannot help but pull them up and gobble them down. In true Jasper style, he begins to sense that something is wrong — could the carrots be following him?

Even as he thinks he sees those carrots from the field, he turns and finds that they are just orange shampoo bottles, etc. Jasper begins to think his imagination is taking over.  His mother and father reassure him that the creepy carrots don’t exist, but in true Jasper fashion, he comes up with his own solution.

Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown, is another winner in our house, and my daughter loves that she can read these on her own now. I doubt the two books will be sitting on the shelves until next Halloween.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

Aaron Reynolds is a New York Times Bestselling Author of many highly acclaimed books for kids, including Dude!, Creepy Carrots!, Creepy Pair of Underwear!, Nerdy Birdy, and tons more. He frequently visits schools and his highly participatory presentations are a blast for kids and teachers alike. He lives in the Chicago area with his wife, two kids, four cats, and between three and ten fish, depending on the day.

About the Illustrator:

Peter Brown writes and illustrates books for young whippersnappers. He grew up in Hopewell, New Jersey, where he spent his time imagining and drawing silly characters. He studied Life Lessons at the School of Hard Knocks, and then got his B.F.A. in Illustration from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.

Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds, Illustrated by Peter Brown

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 48 pgs.
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Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown, follows big bunny Jasper as he travels to the underwear store with his mother. When he sees a ghoulish, greenish glow on the shelves, he has to have those green underwear! He convinces his mom to buy one pair along with the white ones, and he’s simply enamored with them. Eventually, Jasper’s imagination takes over and the creepy underwear begin to follow him everywhere even when he stuffs them in a drawer.

Reynolds knows just how to make a creepy (Halloween read) story come to life, especially when it comes to kids’ active imaginations that see things bumping in the night when there are none. Jasper is a young bunny looking to be seen as a big bunny, but he even doubts himself when the creepy pair of underwear strike. Maybe he isn’t as big as he thought. I’m sure kids of all ages have this feeling as they grow up, even as they put on a brave face.

My daughter loves this book, and it has become a yearly Halloween read since we purchased it a couple years ago at her school book fair. She loves that the main character is a rabbit — her favorite animal of the moment — and that there are creepy things going on. She’s very into Halloween. The illustrations almost give this a graphic novel feel with a noir atmosphere, which makes that green glow all the more creepy.

Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown, is a household favorite. When October rolls around, we reach for this book with several other creepy reads. Now my daughter can read this one mostly on her own, which makes it all the more of a treat for her.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

Aaron Reynolds is a New York Times Bestselling Author of many highly acclaimed books for kids, including Dude!, Creepy Carrots!, Creepy Pair of Underwear!, Nerdy Birdy, and tons more. He frequently visits schools and his highly participatory presentations are a blast for kids and teachers alike. He lives in the Chicago area with his wife, two kids, four cats, and between three and ten fish, depending on the day.

About the Illustrator:

Peter Brown writes and illustrates books for young whippersnappers. He grew up in Hopewell, New Jersey, where he spent his time imagining and drawing silly characters. He studied Life Lessons at the School of Hard Knocks, and then got his B.F.A. in Illustration from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.

Pete the Cat and the Cool Cat Boogie by James Dean and Kimberly Dean

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 40 pgs.
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Pete the Cat and the Cool Cat Boogie by James Dean and Kimberly Dean is another book my daughter picked out as a reward from reading this past month. She’s really been a trooper even when she’s frustrated with reading or not concentrated. Pete the Cat is a character that always makes her smile and whose books are easier for her to read in between those more challenging books the school gives her each week.

In this book, Pete loves to dance but Grumpy Toad tells him that he’s not dancing correctly. Pete goes on a journey to learn how to dance the Cool Cat Boogie, even though all the advice he receives are about different types of dances. Pete feels happy when he’s dancing and he wants to learn this dance no matter what. My daughter had a great time reading this one on her own to me.

My one quibble with this book is Pete’s reaction when his friends say “ouch,” and he’s accidentally bumped them or stepped on their toes while dancing. Rather than apologizing, he merely walks away dejected. These are not moments that Pete should walk away from. He should say he’s sorry. If his friends had said that he did the moves wrong or made fun of him, I could see him walking away and not engaging in an argument. This was not the case in these situations.

Pete the Cat and the Cool Cat Boogie by James Dean and Kimberly Dean even includes a step-by-step guide on how to do the Cool Cat Boogie, which will have kids getting out of their seats and onto the dance floor. It’s good to see my daughter reading on her own, even if the book is a bit simpler than the ones that challenge her from school. At least she’s continuously reading.

RATING: Quatrain