Wednesday, April 23, 2014

YA Review: Wish You Were Italian by Kristin Rae (ARC)

Wish You Were Italian
by Kristin Rae
2014. Bloomsbury.
ISBN: 9781619632868
 Pippa is seventeen, and alone in Italy. Ditching the art history program her parents intend for her to join, she instead spends the next two months on her own personal to-do list, which includes, among other things, falling in love with an Italian. There is an Italian bad boy on Pippa’s radar, and he is pretty irresistible, but she also keeps running into an adorable American archaeology student whose reputation is far less dubious. Before the summer is out, she will need to choose between her romantic possibilities and make a plan for what happens when she inevitably returns home.

When YA readers look for romance, this is the exact type of story they have in mind. The protagonist is both smart and flawed, the male leads are not just physically attractive but also have layered personalities, and the Italian setting is the perfect backdrop for falling in love. Every character from Pippa herself, to her best friend Morgan, to her grandmother, to the various people she meets in Italy is a three-dimensional person, and each has an important role to play. Pippa visits a variety of Italian landmarks, including the Colosseum, and much of her story is just as much travelogue as it is romance. The supportive friendship Pippa develops with an Italian girl named Chiara is also one of the book’s greater strengths.

This is that rare romance novel that is appropriate for almost all teens, as there is no sexual content and no foul language. There is some kissing, and characters are occasionally described as “sexy” but aside from that, it’s as wholesome as a romance story for this age group can be.

Wish You Were Italian is part of a new series of romances from Bloomsbury, published under the collective title of If Only…. It is being published simultaneously on May 6 with Fool Me Twice by Mandy Hubbard and will be followed by Amy Finnegan’s Not in the Script later this year. Additionally, it makes a wonderful read-alike for Flirting in Italian, Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes, and Meant To Be.

I received a digital ARC of Wish You Were Italian from Bloomsbury via NetGalley.

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Story Time Music: Going it Alone

Today's post is the second in a series about my experiences using music at story time. Last week, I reflected on the ways I have used recorded music, and on the pros and cons of this approach. This week, I'm talking about the advantages of singing a cappella.

Deciding not to depend on any recorded music for my story time sessions was intimidating at first. There is a huge difference between singing along with a CD and leading a whole group in song with nothing but your own voice. Still, once I found the courage to try it just once, the experience was completely liberating. Suddenly, I had all these great opportunities at my fingertips:
  • I could use any song, provided I had memorized the tune and could either remember or read the words from a cheatsheet.
  • I could use piggyback songs, or write my own verses for songs I liked, for which I thought the lyrics were weak.
  • I could control the pace of my singing depending on the age of the kids, and add or delete verses depending on the reaction of the crowd.
  • I could transition easily into a song without worrying about whether the equipment would cooperate.
  • I could do story time at a moment's notice, in any space, with any set-up and never have to worry about whether there would be a CD player. (This was especially useful when I began doing more outreach.)
  • I was able to model singing for parents and caregivers who might be shy about singing with their kids, and every adult in attendance was able to take the songs home with them without having to check anything out or wait their turn for the CD to come back.
My story time audiences never complained about the lack of recordings. Some of them even paid me compliments for my singing voice, which I did not expect, but which gave me the confidence to keep going. I made sure to continue singing favorites like The Wheels on the Bus and Chickadee, even though I didn't use the CDs anymore, and I also introduced lots of new favorites as time went on. I felt much more like myself when I was doing story time in this way, and I never really missed the CDs like I thought I would. (In fact, on the few occasions I tried to bring back some of my audience's favorite recordings, they were not well-received at all!)

Finding the guts to sing without accompaniment in front of a large group also gave me confidence to take on a new challenge: playing the ukulele. The next post in this series will talk about incorporating live music into story time.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Middle Grade Review: Too Good To Be True by Laurie Friedman (ARC)

Too Good To Be Trueby Laurie Friedman
2014. Lerner Publishing Group
ISBN: 9781467709262
Too Good To Be True is the second installment in Laurie Friedman’s series, The Mostly Miserable Life of April Sinclair. Told in diary format, the story narrates what happens when middle schooler April wins a spot on the dance team over her best friend Brynn, makes an untrustworthy new friend, accidentally kisses a boy who is not her boyfriend, and alienates said boyfriend.

The subject matter of this book has been covered by authors like Judy Blume, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and Lauren Myracle, but despite the lack of original plotlines, it is still fun to read. April is a convincing character, with a great combination of likable spunk and irritating flaws. She does complain a lot, as the series name suggests, but the overall tone of the book is lighthearted and fluffy. The diary format makes the story move quickly, and provides a nice vehicle for allowing time to pass between important events without causing the story to drag.

The boy/girl interaction in the story is a bit more mature than one might expect from most middle grade novels, and it may be a shock to some kids (and parents) given the innocence of Friedman’s Mallory series, but including these slightly more sophisticated situations makes this a good stepping stone between middle grade and young adult. Interestingly, despite the higher maturity level, this book does share many of the same themes as the Mallory books, including forgiveness and learning to be a good friend. It should also be noted that this book features a strong and believably close father/daughter relationship, which is a rarity in middle grade books.

Too Good to Be True (and the first book, Can You Say Catastrophe?) will appeal mainly to middle school girls who have begun to outgrow Dork Diaries but aren’t quite ready for Sarah Dessen.

I received a digital ARC of Too Good To Be True from Lerner Publishing Group via NetGalley.

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Old School Sunday: Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome (1947)

Great Northern?
by Arthur Ransome.
1947. Jonathan Cape.
ISBN: 9780224606424
Great Northern? is the twelfth and final book in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series. Once again, the Walkers (John, Susan, Titty, and Roger), the Callums (Dorothea and Dick), and the Blacketts (Nancy and Peggy) all come together for an exciting adventure filled with dangers real and imagined. Captain Flint has taken all three sets of explorers on a trip on a borrowed boat, the Sea Bear, which is just about ready to be returned when Dick makes a startling discovery on a Scottish loch. He observes two birds which he is sure must be Great Northern Divers watching over a nest. This would not be unusual except that Great Northern Divers have never been known to nest in Great Britain before. Wanting to be sure of his discovery, Dick consults with a bird expert whose own sailing voyage crosses paths with the Sea Bear, but he quickly realizes this is a mistake, as the man is not just a bird expert, but an egg collector who wishes to kill the birds, take their eggs, and put them all on in display in a museum. From the time Dick and his friends realize the danger the birds are in, they put all other plans on hold and work to help save the birds and to help Dick gather the evidence he needs to prove their newly discovered nesting habits. In the meantime, the entire group also clashes with Scottish natives who believe the explorers are in their country to drive away deer.

This book, like many others in the series, shows off Arthur Ransome’s ability to make almost anything into an adventure. Dick Callum, who becomes the central protagonist of this story, is hardly the typical literary hero. In earlier books, he has always gone along with the others on their adventures, but as a nerdy birdwatcher, his role has mainly been to bore the likes of Nancy and Roger with his interest in nature. He has a bit of a chance to shine when he links up with Tom Dudgeon and other members of the Coot Club, but even then, he is a secondary character and not the center of the action. In Great Northern?, though, Dick has his chance to take center stage. Ransome creates a perfectly believable situation in which, for the first time, Dick is in charge and the group rallies around one of his causes. Without recreating Dick’s personality, and indeed while celebrating his nerdy special interest in birds, Ransome makes him the hero of his own story. Kids who are themselves not the adventurous type will undoubtedly see themselves in Dick and rejoice in the fact that a kid like them has the chance to save the day for a change.

Another character who really comes to life in this book is the youngest of the explorers, Roger. Though this book was not necessarily intended to be the last about these characters, I found it a fitting ending to Roger’s story, as he spends more time on his own, and even has a chance of saving the day when everyone else is captured by the Gaels. It was interesting to me to look back on the very first scene of the first book, where he runs like a sailboat across the field to his mother, and to observe how his character has evolved into a mischievous and playful child with a mind and personality all his own. I only wish that the series could have continued for twelve more books in order to see the other characters realize the same level of character development.

Though there are books I have loved (Winter Holiday, We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, and Secret Water) and others I have not enjoyed as much (Peter Duck, Missee Lee, Pigeon Post), I have to say that reading this series over the past two years has been wonderfully enjoyable. It’s one of the few children’s series whose quality is maintained across many volumes, and whose author finds consistently compelling stories to tell, all drawn from real-world experiences. Few of the outdated references are truly problematic, and boys and girls alike can find characters and situations with whom they can sympathize in each book. It’s hard to believe that the only remaining story set in the Swallows and Amazons universe is the unfinished Coots in the North. I will dearly miss reading new adventures about these beloved characters, and I look forward to re-reading the entire series when my daughter is old enough to appreciate them.

Recommend Great Northern? and each of the other books in the Swallows and Amazons series to middle grade readers interested in adventure, nature, and sailing, and especially to those sophisticated readers who can truly recognize and appreciate great writing. Kids who read these books will find in each volume characters they’ll want to befriend and experiences they’ll wish they could have for themselves.

I own a copy of Great Northern? 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.