I’m back! Pardon the unexpected hiatus — it’s been a busy, busy week month year and I’m still catching up on my blogging.

And I thought the holiday stress was bad! I could barely read last December (at least until after Christmas), so aside from finishing all my trivia books for the year end, my December reads were mostly short kidlit that I unearthed from the annals of my TBR: Pippi Longstocking, A House of Tailors, The Key Collection, Granny Torrelli Makes Soup, Catwings, The Cybil War, and The Great Mom Swap. These make books 199-205 for 2010, and after this I owe you one more (for a total of 206; apparently I overlooked one book), and then will proceed to my 2011 reviews.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, translated from the Swedish by Florence Lamborn, illustrated by Nancy Seligsohn, trade paperback

The 411: Pippi Longstocking, a classic character in Swedish children’s literature (in Swedish, it’s Pippi Langstrump), is a nine-year old girl living alone (without adult supervision) in a house named Villa Villekulla¬† (with her monkey Mr. Nilsson and her horse) after her sea captain father is lost at sea. Pippi (full name Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim’s Daughter Longstocking) is a peculiar kid, not just because of her carrot-colored hair, freckled nose and wide, toothy grin. She has the strength of a weightlifter (i.e. can carry boys, grown men, and even her horse without breaking a sweat) and she pretty much does whatever she wants, whenever she wants.

The book is a collection of Pippi’s hilarious adventures with her neighbors, the straight-laced Tommy and Annika: making pancakes and stuffing themselves silly, going to school and confounding the teacher, leading policemen on a merry chase, going to the circus, teaching burglars how to dance, and more insane episodes only Pippi can pull off.

My take: I remember seeing the 1988 movie, but I never got to read the book until recently. I actually dug out my copy of Pippi Longstocking because of various references in the Millennium Trilogy, and really, Pippi is as much of a character as Lisbeth Salander is. Pippi is a lot more sociable than Lisbeth is, but they’re both highly original, independent, and quite special. Lisbeth Salander fans will surely be amused of the parallels drawn by Stieg Larsson between his unconventional heroine (more on that here) and the classic Pippi. And while Pippi is not exactly your poster child for good behavior, her originality and outlandish humor definitely make a good bedtime tale.

My rating: 3/5 stars

A House of Tailors by Patricia Reilly Giff, trade paperback

The 411: It is 1870, and thirteen-year old Dina dreams of a grand life in America as she leaves her small German town and dreams of leaving behind her dreary life as a dressmaker’s daughter. When she arrives at her uncle’s doorstep in Brooklyn, she is disheartened to learn that life is more difficult in the big city, and worse, she has to earn her living by sewing. Dina is miserable and homesick, but as she faces the challenges of her new life, she learns to accept her talents, endears herself to her new family (and a boy at the tailor’s shop down the road! :D) and marks the path for her future.

My take: I love reading historical YA, and I was so surprised at how charming this book was that I wanted to kick myself for not reading it sooner. Dina is feisty heroine, one who has to endure more than a few hard knocks throughout the course of the story, and she rises above them admirably. Giff does a good job at Dina’s characterization in a story that is both about coming of age and the immigrant experience; Dina’s persona rings true and draws a lot of empathy from the reader, and I was really rooting for her character in the midst of all the tragedy she was facing. In the afterword, Giff reveals that the story is loosely based on the experience of a real Dina: her great-grandmother. This story was written with much love, and I think the sentiment translates very well on the page.

My rating: 5/5 stars

The Key Collection by Andrea Cheng, illustrated by Yangsook Choi, hardcover with dust jacket

The 411: Xiao Jimmy loves his Grandma Ni Ni more than anything in the world — she takes care of him when he gets home from school, makes the most delicious jiao zi (dumplings), teaches him to write with Chinese characters, tells him wonderful stories about her childhood in China, and shares with him her key collection. But Grandma Nini is growing old, and has to move to California, where the weather is warmer and she can live with Jimmy’s Auntie Helen, a doctor who can look after her better. Jimmy is devastated as they empty Grandma’s house and she flies to California, leaving him with the jar of keys from her collection. Jimmy soon learns that the bond between him and Grandma Ni Ni is stronger than the distance between them.

My take: This early reader book is a warm family story, and I like how it takes on themes not normally¬† tackled by other short chapter books. The Key Collection explores the relationship between a grandparent and grandchild, and how a young boy might feel about his grandmother growing old, getting sick, and moving away. It also delves into Chinese ancestry, as Grandma Ni Ni reconnects Jimmy with his heritage, teaching him the Chinese characters, and the Chinese zodiac, making rice porridge and jiao zi for him, and telling him stories about her old life in China. It’s a short read, but a good introduction to more complex themes.

My rating: 2.5/5 stars

Granny Torrelli Makes Soup by Sharon Creech, hardcover, drawings by Chris Raschka

The 411: 12 year olds Rosie and Bailey have been best friends since they were in diapers, but every so often get into a fight. Rosie always runs home to her grandmother for comfort, and as Rosie grumbles about Bailey, Granny Torrelli tells her own story, about her childhood best friend Pardo and their little tussles back when they were growing up in Italy. Granny Torrelli’s wise words and hearty Italian cooking — thick zuppa, orange salad, and spaghetti and meatballs — give Rosie and Bailey a well-meaning nudge in the right direction, smoothing things over between the friends, and voila, tutto va bene – all is well!

My take: I really love Sharon Creech’s books for their excellent insight into the young mind. Rosie is feisty, and she and Bailey remind me a lot of Vada and Thomas J from My Girl. Later on the story reveals Bailey is not your average boy next door; he is legally blind, and I like how Rosie treats this like a personality trait rather than a physical disability (NB: Bailey is also described as always smiling, which leads me to think he may have Down syndrome, although this is not explicitly stated). The story is light-hearted and sweet, and I agree with Granny Torrelli’s philosophy — good food can make everything better. Plus points for being a foodie book — I was craving for a platter of pasta by the time I was done with it!

My rating: 4/5 stars

Catwings by Ursula K. Le Guin, illustrated by S.D. Schindler, paperback

The 411: Behind a dumpster in an alley in the city, four winged kittens are born to Mrs. Jane Tabby: Thelma, Roger, James and Harriet. Mrs. Tabby is a city cat at heart, but she is worried that the city is no place to raise her kittens, so she instructs them to fly away to start a new life away from the city. The kittens eventually reach the countryside, where they are miserable because the field animals (finch, bluejay, mouse, owl), resent their presence, until an unexpected new friendship gives them a new home.

My take: I’ve only read one other Ursula LeGuin book, and that’s The Left Hand of Darkness for the FFP book discussion last June. I know her Earthsea series (still in my TBR) is for young adults, but I didn’t know she had children’s books too, so I was totally surprised when I found this tiny book in one of our warehouse raids.

Catwings is also a fantasy story, but more on the fairy tale side — not a sugarcoated wonderland, but a warm and enchanting story that cat lovers of all ages will enjoy. And I’m very picky about animal stories, even those about cats, but I loved how each cat had its own personality: the motherly big sister Thelma, the level-headed Roger, the rambunctious James, and the fiercely independent Harriet. S.D. Schindler’s exquisite, old-fashioned illustrations add even more charm to the story, and I’m looking forward to reading the next books in the series.

My rating: 4/5 stars

The Cybil War by Betsy Byars, trade paperback

The 411: Ten-year old Simon is in love with Cybil Ackerman, the coolest, most popular girl in school. The problem is, his best friend Tony Angotti is in love with her too, and he’s hell-bent on beating Simon to Cybil’s heart. Tony tries to one-up Simon by telling him Cybil’s legs are like popsicle sticks — and then he tells Cybil he was quoting Simon on it! Simon takes it as a declaration of war, and a series of hilarious episodes of the boys trying to outdo each other in claiming Cybil’s affection while Cybil takes her sweet time making a choice.

My take: I remember borrowing this from the school library when I was in fourth grade, and although I don’t remember particularly liking the book, spotting it at a warehouse sale made me a bit nostalgic. I think I probably didn’t like the book back when I was a kid because it’s told from a boy’s point of view (in the same way I loved all Judy Blume books except Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, but then again, I enjoyed The Three Investigators more than Nancy Drew), and well, I couldn’t relate because I was studying in an all-girls school. Reading it now, I appreciate the book more, especially for the thoroughly entertaining junior male one-upmanship. And while it’s a string of comical episodes, the boy’s family backgrounds give the reader an insight into their personalities and motivations, and their experiences mirror the everyday dilemmas of their age.

The rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Great Mom Swap by Betsy Haynes, trade paperback

The 411: Lorna Markham and best friend Scotti Wheeler are next-door neighbors who are forever complaining about their nagging moms, who are always comparing their daughters with each other. When school lets out that summer, Lorna and Scotti work out a great idea: switching moms! The girls slyly get their parents to agree, and Lorna moves into Scotti’s all-American, health-nut family while Scotti moves into Lorna’s loud Italian household. Lorna and Scotti are thrilled to be living new lives, but a few days in each other’s bedrooms make the girls think they’ve made a BIG mistake.

My take: I’ve never read this book before, but the TV movie based on the book was a childhood favorite. I was disappointed that I liked the movie better — it’s a bit more dramatic, as the girls in the movie were sworn enemies who were sentenced to the house-swap, and there was the whole rich girl – poor girl dynamic (not to mention the moms-were-middle-school-rivals plot twist) going on, and they all eventually become friends by the end of the movie (and yes, the rich girl’s big brother was the absolute cutest!). The book is a tamer (and ultimately more believable albeit less entertaining, although it’s still pretty funny) version, but young readers will find it easy to relate to nagging parents (warning: the parents are stereotypically annoying) and wanting to switch families, and by the end of the book, the sentiment that there truly is no place like home.

My rating: 3/5 stars (partial to the movie!)

[amazonify]::omakase::300:250[/amazonify]