Have you seen this book yet?

Why Sagging Bookshelves?

I have been creating an annual “best of the year” list for almost 20 years now. I’ve decided to enter the blogging world in order to talk about my favorite books in a more timely manner, address some issues that come up in the world of children’s books, and to share information about what is coming up in this world of books.

I am Joan Kindig and I am a professor at James Madison University where I teach Children’s Literature, Young Adult Literature, and a variety of Reading courses. I have served on the Newbery, the Caldecott, the Carnegie, and the Odyssey Awards. I am an incurable bookaholic.

Playing for the Commandant by Suzy Zail

I am always drawn to stories from the Holocaust and try to read everything that comes out. It’s odd, I think, to want to read about something so unthinkable but I do. For me it is akin to staring down the devil. While teaching in London back in 2011 I made a pilgrimage to the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. It was a difficult trip but I felt that I wanted to witness what happened to all of the people who died so horribly in those camps. I am glad that I did.

9780763664039_p0_v3_s260x420In Playing for the Commandant, Zail takes a new look at the Holocaust through the eyes of a young girl, just 16, who was an accomplished pianist in Budapest, Hungary when her family was arrested and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. At the camp she and her mother and sister are spared the gas chamber and sent to a barracks where their daily torture of starvation and back-breaking work begins. Soon her mother begins to lose her faculties and Hannah and her sister try desperately to protect her from the daily “selections.” Hannah is chosen to be the Commandant’s personal pianist and with very mixed feelings she accepts the position. She knows she will be given more food and better clothing that she plans to pass along to her mother and sister. At the commandant’s house Hannah gets to witness close up the abject cruelty in the heart of her captor but she is surprised by his artistic son who despises what is going on in the camps his father oversees. The conflict between playing beautiful music and “selling out” is a wonderful dynamic in this story. I think this book will find a place in the corpus of Holocaust literature for young adults. This book is meant for readers age 12 and up.


This book brought a documentary film to mind as I read it. Called The Lady in Room 6 it tells the story of Alice Herz Sommer, a 109 year-old survivor of Terezin. Ms. Sommer was an extraordinary pianist who secured a place in the Terezin orchestra and, through the music, was able to survive the Holocaust. This documentary is absolutely fantastic. Ms. Sommer had a joie de vivre that was unbelievable given what she had been through. The documentary won the Oscar for best documentary in 2014. Sadly, Ms. Sommer died just before the Oscar was awarded. She died at 110. Treat yourself to this documentary which is available in numerous places online. It was the most uplifting true story I have ever seen. Her story had a lasting effect on my life.

Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

One of my favorite books last year was Katherine Rundell’s novel, Rooftoppers. I have book talked it all over the place and when I do I have come to describe it as a cross between Mary Poppins and Roald Dahl. Roald Dahl because of the quirkiness of his characters and their eccentric lives in England. In Rooftoppers we find baby Sophie in the English Channel sailing in a cello case following the sinking of a ship. She is found by an eccentric professor, Charles, and he decides to raise Sophie himself since she is clearly an orphan. And their life together is wonderful to them – but to, say, a child welfare clerk, maybe not so much. It is just different but we all know what different can lead to! The welfare agency threatens to take her away from Charles and the two of them head for Paris. Sophie has always felt that her mother is still alive and is convinced she is living in Paris. Charles and Sophie make it their mission to find out. It is there in Paris that Sophie meets Matteo and joins him on the rooftops of Paris looking down at the city. It is this foray onto the rooftops that helps the three of them figure out what happened to Sophie’s mom. It is an adventure, it is a little wacky, and it’s a wonderful, wonderful read. I haven’t had anyone say they weren’t crazy about it – quite the contrary – it’s a huge hit. It would make a great classroom read aloud for kids ages 8 and up.


I couldn’t figure out how Rundell could pull off such a distinctive book again but she did it in Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms which came out in August. Twelve year-old Will (short for Wilhelmina) is in heaven on her family’s farm in Zimbabwe. she loves the wide open spaces, all of the different animals, and the new adventures that pop up every day. Her dad loves her to pieces and leaves this idyllic farm to a friend of theirs to keep for Will until she is grown. Enter the wily woman who tricks him into marrying her and the farm is gone in no time. The wicked stepmother packs Will up and sends her off to an English boarding school where she will be out of her hair. Will hasn’t a clue how to act with all these girls wearing the same outfit and mocking her every chance they get. When she can take it no more, this n]brave and gutsy girl decides to strike off on her own and takes off into London. She has survived the wilds of Zimbabwe – can she survive London? This is such a great read and, like her first book, wonderfully imaginative and fun.


You’ll enjoy every minute of this story!

National Book Awards for YA Literature Announced

As promised, NPR announced the five finalists for the National Book Award which is scheduled to be announced on November 19th. They are (in no particular order):

Threatened by Eliot Schrefer


Revolution by Deborah Wiles


Brown Girl Dreaming

Noggin by Corey Whaley


Port Chicago 50


I have yet to read Threatened and Noggin – wouldn’t you know they were the only two on the long list I hadn’t gotten to! I know what the next two books I’ll be reading are! The other three are stellar examples of what the world of young adult literature offers. I can’t possibly say which I like best because they are all outstanding. We’ll leave the announcement to the judges. I think they have a very tough job ahead of them!

The National Book Award Finalist announcement on October 15th!

Tomorrow we find out which of the ten books on the long list for YA fiction will survive the cut. The list will be down to five finalists and, from there, will come one winner. That winner will be announced at a benefit dinner on November 19th in New York. I grabbed this announcement from the National Book Award web site so that you can all tune in tomorrow to find out the five finalists:

On October 15, at 8:40am ET, the Finalists for the National Book Awards for Young People’s Literature, Poetry, Nonfiction, and Fiction will be revealed exclusively on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Very Exciting!

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

In an attempt to read all the books from the National Book Award long list, I have just finished 100 Sideways Miles. From the flap copy I wasn’t sure that I was going to like it. A teen thinks he just might be caught in his father’s science fiction novel? Generally not my taste. But that goes to show how sticking to the safe books can mean missing out on a lot of those quirky, risky (and wonderful) novels.


And this one is very quirky and also hilariously funny. Finn, our protagonist and also the protagonist in his father’s book, is 16 going on 17 who has a best friend named Cade. Cade is legendary for things, well, best not said. :-) He’s a star athlete and says exactly what is on his mind whenever it comes into his mind. No filter there! Finn is kind of a loner and that’s likely down to his epilepsy. Ever since the accident that killed his mom and injured him (did I mention a dead horse fell on them? I told you it was quirky!), he has suffered with seizures. Smith writes them so that we can see, feel, and almost touch them. They’re that wild. But Julia, the new girl in school, sees beyond that and despite the  damage they both bring to their relationship, they begin seeing each other all the time.

Cade and Finn set off on a road trip to visit a college in Oklahoma and it is on that trip that Finn begins to see that he is not predestined by his father’s book; he is Finn the friend, boyfriend, son, protagonist of his own story. Despite all the wild and crazy trappings, this is a coming of age book. It’s deeply satisfying to see Finn come out of the whole experience all in one piece.

El Deafo by Cece Bell

Honestly, this graphic novel is one of the most engaging and creative books I have read all year. It’s just astonishingly good and I think kids are going to absolutely love it.

9781419712173_p0_v3_s600Cece Bell already has a reputation for producing great books. She won a Geisel Award in 2013 for Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover, a wonderful beginning reader that she wrote and illustrated. She also has a number of strong picture books. Among them are Sock Monkey in the Spotlight, Itty Bitty, and Crankee Doodle which her husband, Tom Angleberger, wrote and she illustrated. It’s not surprising, then, to see her tackle something as unusual and personals  El Deafo.




El Deafo is Cece’s story , plain and simple. When she was four years old she contracted spinal meningitis and life was never the same for her. She lost her hearing and as much as we think we all know what that would be like, it takes Cece to tell us how baffling it really was. Why couldn’t she hear the TV, her Mom, her friends? When you are four years old how do you know that you are deaf? Cece had to adapt to a quiet world (pros and cons, she says) and especially to being different. She had something called a Phonic Ear which was a very large amplification system that hung around her neck on her chest. She wore it under her clothes to hide it but the ear buds were always visible. I have seen her Phonic Ear, by the way, and it really was unbelievably gargantuan! Cece’s art is perfection in this graphic novel. Her characters are bunnies which distances her a bit from her own story. By the time you finish this book you will have a whole new way of looking at all people and realize that each of us is different – some more obviously than others. This is a tale worth telling and I am so glad Cece has shared her experiences with all of us. This is an awesome book in every way!


The Joy of Children’s Literature Conference at The College of William and Mary

On Friday, October 10th, William & Mary is hosting their JCL Conference. It’s a one-day event and it is terrific. I am particularly excited this year because the two featured authors are ones I think highly of.

Barbara O’Connor is a wonderful author who has given children a number of good reads over the years. I just checked online to refresh my memory on her titles and was amazed at how many I read and enjoyed. Here are just a few of them.

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Check them out online. They are really perfect middle grade novels. My two favorites are How to Steal a Dog and The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester.  I really can’t wait to hear Ms. O’Connor talk about how these ideas came to her and how they came to fruition. It should be great. Here’s a link to her website:

Also on the bill is Candace Fleming. I adore her work. The amazing thing about Candy is her versatility. She does fiction, non-fiction, and even picture books. I have mentioned her newest book, The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia, and raved about it. It was one of the two best works of non-fiction this year for YA audiences. The second is Susan Goldman Rubin’s Freedom Summer: The 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (also mentioned here in the blog). In addition to her incredible non-fiction, Candy has done some remarkable picture books. Boxes for Katje tells the story of a small town in Holland that was suffering terribly after the end of World War II. It was a harsh winter and warm clothes and food supplies were frighteningly low. A small town in America adopted this town and helped them recover in small but important ways. Love it!


I love her Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! books. Rabbit will get to the garden no matter what the gardener does. The text is so lyrical (a great read aloud) and the art by G. Brian Karas is wonderful.


Another one I have to mention is Oh, No! With one false step, animal after animal fall into the deep pit. How on earth will they get out? The art is by Caldecott winner, Eric Rohmann, whose work is just fantastic.

9780375842719_p0_v1_s260x420Try to make it to the conference. It should be wonderful. I’ll be there doing a couple of talks and I would love to meet you there! Here’s the link: 

Kate DiCamillo at the Virginia Festival of the Book!!!!

I love Kate DiCamillo. I love her stories, her writing, and she cracks me up as a person. But what I like most of all is that she’s going to come to the Festival of the Book on March 19th. She will talk at the Culbreth Theater at 7:00pm and I can tell you that she does wonderful presentations. I just caught her at the National Book Festival and loved every minute of it. Go to the Virginia Festival of the Book website and buy tickets. They are charging a nominal fee to help support getting fee books into the hands of third and fourth graders in the community. Well worth every cent I say!


Let’s get out and support the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature!

National Book Award Young Adult Long List

Earlier this week the NBA announced their long list of YA titles under consideration for the National Book Award. Not many awards announce the books they are considering beforehand and I think it’s great fun to read along with the committee as they decide. I liken it to the Oscars. You can check out the films and root for your favorite when the awards are announced.

The books are judged by a jury predominantly made up YA writers so the perspective is very different from other awards. Another difference is that a short list will be announced; in this case on October 15th. The field gets whittled down from10 books to five. How exciting is that?!

The books under consideration are:

Laurie Halse Anderson, “The Impossible Knife of Memory” [A terrific and prolific writer whose work includes the amazing  Speak. I have just started the book and, so far, it's awfully good]


Gail Giles, “Girls Like Us” (Candlewick Press) [I have loved Gail Giles' work and this seems to be a bit different from her earlier books. That makes me want to read it all the more!]

Carl Hiaasen, “Skink — No Surrender” (Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers/Random House)  [I just finished this one and I have to say that I don't think it's NBA worthy. Sorry Mr. Hiaasen. It's a good mystery but I don't think it transcends the genre in any way]

Kate Milford, “Greenglass House” (Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) [I don't know a thing about this one, I'm sorry to say. I have to get on that]

Eliot Schrefer, “Threatened” (Scholastic Press/Scholastic) [Schrefer's first book with Scholastic was Endangered which was a great story of saving the bonobo apes in the Congo. It was a NBA finalist. Imagine that!]

Steve Sheinkin, “The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights” (Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan Publishers) [This is an EXTRAORDINARY book. Sheinkin is such an incredible story tell and he writes non-fiction. Amazing! This civil rights story is one I was entirely unaware of and am so glad to know about. He was previously an NBA finalist for his superlative book, Bomb: The Race to Build - And Steal -The World's Most Dangerous Weapon].


Andrew Smith, “100 Sideways Miles” (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster) [Andrew Smith got all kinds of great attention with his novel called Winger. I have not tackled this one yet but I have high hopes]

Deborah Wiles, “Revolution: The Sixties Trilogy, Book Two” (Scholastic Press/Scholastic) [This is an AMAZING book! Book Two in her Sixties trilogy, this one deals with the Freedom Summer in 1964 in Mississippi. Beautifully written and the characterization is wonderful. This one is a treasure!]


Jacqueline Woodson, “Brown Girl Dreaming” (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Group) [I can't think of a memoir I admire more. Jacqueline Woodson tells of her life growing up Black in the South but it is not a polemic. I loved the insights she provided and I found that her Mom and my Mom had some of the same "sayings" we both heard again and again. Prejudice definitely impacted her life but what I loved most was the warmth and caring of her grandparents and parents. It was spectacular. Did I mention it is written in poetry? I found myself reading and rereading poems and loving them]



I have not read all of them yet, obviously, but so far my top three are (in no particular order): Brown Girl Dreaming, Revolution, and The Port Chicago 50. I’ll keep reading and report back.

The Paper Cowboy by Kristin Levine

I pulled this book from my sagging shelves yesterday because I really liked both of Kristin Levine’s previous books. I often do that – find an author I like and read everything they’ve written. I particularly liked The Lions of Little Rock. Set in Arkansas, this story of segregation takes place about a year after the Little Rock Nine crisis when the ugliness of segregation rears its head again. Two girls become good friends until one leaves school abruptly. Marlee finds out that Liz left their school because she was found to be black, not the white girl she pretended to be. The friendship endures through an awful time of white vs. black violence and all the ensuing unrest. Will Marlee and Liz be able to be friends in this polarized society? It’s really a marvelous book.

9780399163289_p0_v1_s260x420The Paper Cowboy is a multi-layered novel. It’s the story of a bully named Tommy whose occasional bullying initially seems to be more like pranks. It’s also the story of his mother’s mental instability following the birth of her 4th child.  It’s the story of rumor and innuendo as well.

This book is set in the McCarthy era when people became suspicious of one another being associated with Communism. Just as McCarthy ruined the careers of many people who he accused of being communists (without proof), Downers Grove is torn apart when a copy of The Daily Worker is found in town.

On the surface, life in Downers Grove in the 1950s seems as calm and staid as any other small town. Tommy’s family, however, is struggling. In the months following the birth of her 4th baby Mom is becoming more and more out of control. Wild mood swings, violent behavior, and depression turn her into someone he doesn’t know. His eldest sister, Mary Lou, protects him until she has an accident that puts her in the hospital for months. The pressure on Tommy is enormous and his behavior goes from mild bullying to out and out meanness. Relationships change in town when The Daily Worker surfaces bringing the reality of the McCarthy witch hunts front and center. Tommy is smack in the middle of it all. This is a beautifully written story of a bully whose behavior spirals out of control as his life in small town, post-war America  unravels before him.

This is a novel well worth reading. Kids from 10-13 is the targeted audience.


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