Monthly Archives: January 2008

Happiness in Audioland

For a mere few weeks, I have been the proud, proud mama of a brand new, pretty deluxe, silvery iPod Classic. (Said iPod was even engraved with a delightful, secret message on the back by my fella – betcha yours isn’t!)

And so I have entered the delightful land of Audiobooks – I’ve even signed up for a monthly membership at a download-able audio site. Geeky, but oh-so-much-fun.

Here’s what I’ve picked so far:

full_image.jpg Just started this one yesterday – loving it. The narrator is spot on.

full_image1.jpg Finished it. I was worried that I couldn’t possibly enjoy the audio version as much as the novel itself, but it had the delightful effect of making me appreciate Tarshis’s writing all the more. It’s narrated impeccably by Mamie Gummer (that’s Meryl Streep’s daughter BTW).

full_image2.jpg I’ve been doing this one in installments for over a month because how many talking woodland creatures can one really handle in a stretch? I must say I chose it half because I felt guilty over never having read any Redwall, and half due to the awesome fiery-ringed rat silhouette on the cover.

For me, it’s all about the narration. I listen to the sample clips and if the reader’s voice doesn’t make my little ears prick up, then forget it.

Now, a request to all you audiobook aficionados… do tell what your best-ever listens are, or simply share what you’ve heard lately and loved. I’ve got my eye (and ear) on The Book Thief as my next selection, because who could resist this voice?


Pieces of Georgia


Georgia McCoy is on the “At Risk” list at her school, with the words “financial/single parent  – father/possible medical?” written next to her name. Jen Bryant’s verse novel begins when the school counselor gives Georgia a journal in which to record her “thoughts and feelings” and also for Georgia to write down what she might like to tell her mother, if she were alive. Pieces of Georgia is this journal, and through writing and developing her artistic talent, Georgia journeys towards a better understanding of herself, her art, her distant father and the mother she hardly had the chance to know.

Georgia is an artist like her mother was, but at the beginning of this story, she doesn’t really believe it. Then a gift arrives in the mail for Georgia, signed anonymous. It is a membership to the Brandywine River Museum, which houses many works by N.C. Wyeth and Andrew and James Wyeth. Georgia’s visits to the museum are transforming experiences. She teaches herself everything she can by her close observation of the Wyeths’ remarkable artwork. This is the beginning of greater change in the rest of Georgia’s life – at school, and in her friendships and family.

I hesitated for a moment before attaching the “poetry” tag to this book, since I cannot easily accept this one as poetry. Just because something has line breaks and looks like a poem doesn’t mean it is a poem. For me, a strong verse novel means that I must be able to remove many of the poems from the context of the story and still recognize in them the attributes of poetry. Bryant’s verses do not achieve this. I found the format distracting and contrived, as if the very fact of writing in verse gave the story more weight. I don’t think this was required. Georgia’s gentle and perceptive character, the poignancy of her situation, and the mysterious and powerful presence of N.C. Wyeth’s art, all give the story as much intensity and interest as could be hoped for, verses or not. It would have more natural and believable if the story had simply been offered in journal form, instead of free verse.

This aside, the parts of the story where Bryant describes the Wyeth paintings leap off the page. Georgia’s thoughts as she sees Wyeth’s work for the first time are so fresh and utterly honest, they made me want to rush off to the Art Gallery and stare at some paintings for an afternoon. I’m not sure how this novel would work as a read-aloud, but I can imagine it as a natural choice for Literature Circles focused around the theme of young artistic talent and self-discovery. I particularly like that Bryant suggests that art can be appreciated by ordinary people. Just about anyone can find power in art as long as you face it openly, without intimidation. A worthwhile read, especially for teens with artistic aspirations.

Story of a Girl


Sara Zarr’s Story of a Girl is one that I’ve been meaning to read for some time, and my upcoming interview with Sara finally pushed it to the top of the pile. If, like me, you haven’t made it to this jewel, you’re in for something good. And then you’ll be all caught up when Sarah’s new YA novel, Sweethearts, comes out on February 1st.

16 is pretty young to have a past that you want to erase. Deanna Lambert knows what that’s like. When she was 13, her dad caught her in the backseat of a car with her brother’s 17 year old friend, and ever since, she’s been “that girl who slept with Tommy Webber.” So school is misery, and life at home isn’t much better as Deanna’s relationship with her father ground to a halt right there when he found her in the car three years before. Deanna wants to escape – not just from her school, and her home life, but from herself as others see her. This is why the book packs such an emotional punch, for what could be sadder than a young, thinking kid who feels worthless but doesn’t even really know herself yet. Sara Zarr pulls us inside Deanna’s head, and I was impressed by the truthfulness of the character’s voice and her insightful perspective. 

This would be a smashing read for a teen book club, or even better, for a parent/daughter book club. It hits many big themes: how families work and how they break down, forgiveness of self and others, the wisdom and generosity of some young people set against the judgment and cruelty of others. Hey, if that’s not the real world, then I don’t know what is. I saw Juno while I was reading this book, and the film made me think immediately of Sara’s book. In both stories, smart young people trapped in the consequences of one action, find their way through towards new possibilities. Story of a Girl doesn’t suggest that starting over is possible, but moving forward inch by inch can sometimes happen.

So tune in about a week from now for my interview with Sara. She seems pretty groovy. And I’m nearly through Sweethearts so I can safely say that its every bit as rich as Story of a Girl (and with a far more delicious cover!). On Monday, Sara will be over at Kate Messner’s Blog, launching her Sweethearts- related travels around the kidslitosphere.

Poetry Friday – Frost

When you live in an old house, (100 years old, with windows that seem even older, if that’s possible), you know the cold means business when you open the curtains in the morning, and you can’t see out through the frost and you can feel the chill from a foot back. Even so, there’s something about a frost-covered window that makes me glad it’s winter, and sends me shuffling off downstairs to plan a cozy day indoors, safe (somewhat) from winter’s reach. And just about the only thing I might miss about our ancient windows is the golden, sharp, light slanting in through the frost on the bitterest mornings.

Here’s a poem by Valerie Bloom called Frost. It’s so short I can’t possibly just give you a teaser, so I’m throwing all copyright caution to the wind and offering the whole thing this week!


Overnight, a giant spilt icing sugar on the ground,
He spilt it in the hedgerows, and the trees without a sound,
He made a wedding-cake of the haystack in the field,
He dredged the countryside and the grass was all concealed,
He sprinkled sugar on the roofs, in patches not too neat,
And in the morning when we woke, the world around was sweet.

Pretty. You can hear Valerie Bloom reading it over at Children’s Poetry Archive.

(photo © Sarah Klockars-Clauser for CC:Attribution-ShareAlike)

Library Envy

Books are becoming a big-ish problem in my house. I’m trying to decide how long we can pull off the “teetering-stacks-on-every-surface” look, a la Shakespeare & Co., or if that sort of disheveled design aesthetic only works long-term if you live in Paris, next to Notre Dame.

The library I have in mind looks something like this:


That is the Trinity College Library, Dublin, as photographed by Candida Hofer. She has created a book that I now want (I think this is part of my problem). It’s called Libraries:


If I can only figure out where it can go…

Books to celebrate The Year of the Rat


Yesterday was a particularly busy day for visitors here at Shelf Elf. At first I thought it was due to the tremendous cleverness of my posts, and my general charm, but then I noticed that the top search that led people to my blog was: THE YEAR OF THE RAT. (Thank you Grace Lin).

So to acknowledge the upcoming celebration of Chinese New Year (and to satisfy those “Year of the Rat” searchers), here are a few books that are timely and/or rat-inspired:

The Year of the Rat – Grace Lin (I loved this book – and its companion, The Year of the Dog. Check out my review here).

Bringing in the New Year – Grace Lin

My Chinatown – Kam Mak (This book has the most stunning illustrations. My students could not believe that they were not photographs. A lovely look at life in Chinatown).

Moon Beams, Dumplings and Dragon Boats – Nina Simonds (Many fun activities to tie into the New Year’s celebration).

Rats! The good, the bad and the ugly – Richard Conniff

Oh Rats! The Story of Rats and People – Albert Marrin (A cool look at the history of rats. Boys especially get a kick out of this one).

The Short and Incredibly Happy Life of Riley – Colin Thompson (Funny, thought-provoking picture book, about what really matters in life, and how Riley the rat has it all figured out).

I dedicate this post to the lovely rat living in one of the Kindergarten classrooms at school. She has some kind of neurological thing that makes her bob her head up and down almost non-stop like a little real-life rat bobble-head doll. She seems happy enough, but I want to steal her away from all of the crazy kindies and call her my very own. Must check with the Siamese boss first.


Jon J. Muth’s Zen Ties


Zen Shorts, by Jon J. Muth is one of my favourite picture books ever. I think it is completely genius – the illustrations, the cleverness of the text, the 3 Zen tales nestled in the middle of the story. It delights me every time I read it.  Of course I could not resist the newest offering from Jon J. Muth, complete with the giant panda Zen Master, Stillwater. And I was prepared to be delighted. I didn’t even open the book at the store. I just bought it. I never do that.

In this follow up story, Stillwater’s panda nephew, Koo, comes to visit his uncle for the summer. The coolest thing about Koo (and the cutest too, I suppose), is that he speaks only in Haiku. A mini-panda haiku poet… can you say, enchanting? Stillwater and Koo spend most of the time hanging out with Stillwater’s kid-friends, Addy, Michael and Karl. Stillwater encourages Koo and the children to join him in regular visits to a grumpy and needy elderly neighbour, and after some initial resistance, the children learn a bit about how people are interconnected in unexpected ways. 

This is a quiet story. Part of what pleased me so much in Zen Shorts was the way that the text and illustration played off each other to create many humorous moments. This book is more subdued. It makes you smile, but in a contemplative sort of way. As in the first book, the illustrations are completely compelling, and inspire lingering.

I like that this book suggests that sometimes, when we do things that we don’t really want to do, we can learn about ourselves and others along the way, and can even be surprised by the pleasure that we find through these experiences. I wish more kids could be encouraged to learn this lesson. 

Some possible discussion points with the littl’uns: facing something difficult with courage, reaching out to others, finding the good in hard situations, appreciating the small moments in life. While not as dazzling as Zen Shorts (which was pretty much perfect in every way), Zen Ties is a worthy, quieter successor.

Jane Austen Movie Festival anyone?


Some PBS genius came up with the idea to show week after week of Jane Austen movie adaptations on Masterpiece Theatre. RIGHT NOW.

This is a brilliant decision, for reasons which hardly need to be detailed here. Let me just say, that I cannot imagine a better way to drag myself out of the mid-winter doldrums than a little serious Jane time.

I missed out on the first film last week, Persuasion (darn it… love that one). Tomorrow night it’s Northanger Abbey. Check out the details here.

Thanks ever so to Miss Laini Taylor of Blackbringer fame, for getting me in on this one!