The Ruby in the Smoke, Classic Young Adult Historical Thriller

After years of being urged to do so, I’ve just finally read Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke.  It was originally published in 1985 and is the first of the Sally Lockhart Mysteries quartet.  Let me start by saying that you’ve got to read it.  And, there’s a reason why books like these are classics.

It’s 1872 in London and sixteen-year-old Sally Lockhart, our protagonist, has fairly recently lost her father, a shipping agent, to drowning in the Far East.  Although briefly forced to live with a distasteful aunt and prevented from getting at some of her inheritance, Sally has a head for financial matters and devises a plan to make the most of her immediate family’s investments.  Sally is intelligent, practical, conscientious, a bit shy and a tad self-conscious about the untraditional education she received from her father, which did not include classic literature.

One day Sally receives a mysterious letter from Singapore which warns her to “beware of the seven blessings”.  When she mentions this odd message to her father’s company’s secretary, the man has a heart attack and dies.  It is here that she meets Jim, a smart and straightforward boy a few years younger than Sally who takes it upon himself to help solve the mystery surrounding the letter.

Sally shortly receives a note from a Mr. Marchbanks asking her to come see him.  When she does, this frightened man warns her of the presence on his property of Mrs. Holland -- one of the novel’s principal baddies –  and hurriedly gives Sally a diary to help her figure everything out.  Although all but a page or two of this diary is shortly stolen from Sally, she manages to escape Mrs. Holland’s pursuit of her by hiding out in the tent of Frederick Garland, a talented young photographer.  The two strike up a friendship and Sally eventually moves in with Frederick and his sister, repaying them by using her business acumen to revive their photography business. 

This is just the beginning of a novel filled with suspense and adventure, all centered around the priceless gem mentioned in the title and Sally’s father.   Characterization is rich and varied and there is honest self-reflection on the part of Sally.  The Ruby in the Smoke is a true page-turner with a capable but real heroine who does feel fear but decides to take thoughtful action.  I recommend this novel for middle schoolers, teens and adults.

I actually “read” the audiobook and I very highly recommend this format.  Anton Lesser’s nuanced vocalization of the text brought so much to the story and all of the characters’ personalities  – you’re tempted to listen to the whole thing at once.  It was hard to believe that I was listening to just one reader, so varied were the voices and tones that he leant each character.  This Random House/Listening Library edition actually won an AudioFile Earphones Award and was recommended by the American Library Association for both young adults and children. 

At OC Public Libraries, we have the print version of The Ruby in the Smoke (and its sequels), the audiobook and the film, all available for you to check out.  Also, here is a Booklist article about additional Victorian mysteries for young people in our Literature Resource Center database.


Title Drop! A Plenitude of Picture Books

Reading books has long been known to be important in developing language, comprehension, and creativity, for anyone of any age.

The benefits of reading out loud to children are not as well-known, but are possibly even more crucial; children form many of their life-long habits towards literacy when they are young. Children can also learn more advanced vocabulary and nuances of communication by being read to from books, which tend to have a much more varied and rich language than everyday speech. Having well-developed vocabulary, comprehension and communication skills has been found to help children do much better when first starting school.

And it’s fun! There isn’t one negative effect of reading out loud to children, unless you count them wanting you to read another book, then another, and another, until they learn to read, and then they’ll want to read a book to you, then another one, and another, and then they’ll start reading books to themselves, then another one, and another…

Who really wants to be the reason their child is curious, expressive, imaginative and thoughtful? That’s a trick question, don’t answer that.

Start reading aloud with one or more picture books from this list of some of my favorite recently published titles.

Dojo Daycare, by Chris Tougas
Six little daycare ninjas kick and KAPOW! with impunity, despite the poor daycare dojo master’s dismayed attempts to instill in them the tenets of all good ninjas. Bright illustrations, great read-aloud effects, told in clever and fluid rhyme, with a warm message of respect, responsibility, and teamwork! And ninjas for the win! Ages 3 and up.

The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt
With warm, adorable illustrations by the amazing Oliver Jeffers, this title explores what happens when a boy’s box of crayons revolt, leaving him letters explaining their various grievances (Black wants to do more than outlines, and White wants to be used more, period!) with hilarious (and color coordinated) results. Ages 3 and up.

Stuck, by Oliver Jeffers
New York Times best-selling illustrator and author Oliver Jeffers explores how one boy tries to solve the problem of retrieving his kite, stuck in a tree. With each escalation, his situation gets more serious (and more hilarious), and the end will leave you laughing (but maybe a little concerned). Ages 3 and up.
The Numberlys, by William Joyce
Award-winning author of The Guardians of Childhood novel and picture book series (which inspired the film The Rise of the Guardians), Joyce presents an original, engaging tale of how the alphabet was first invented, back when everything had a number instead of a name. No letters meant no words, and no words meant no colors, or desserts, or fun!  Ages 3 and up.

The Book With No Pictures, by B.J. Novak
A picture book with no pictures, say whaaaa-? A New York Times bestseller, this title encourages children’s interest in textual content with its humorous, clever approach to reading.  The premise is that whoever is reading the book (usually a very serious adult) has to read WHATEVER the book says, no matter how silly.  With illustrated words in different fonts and bright colors for added visual interest. Ages 5 and up.

New York Times’ bestselling peas star in this delightful introduction to some of the most common colors. Each page is illustrated with a BIG eye-catching word spelling out its color, surrounded by dozens of the cutest “little green peas” in various acts of color-coordinated activities and paraphernalia. Kids will love pointing out all the little details. For ages 4 and up.

Mix it Up, by Herve Tullet
Author of the marvelously inventive New York Times bestseller Press Here, an interactive picture book relevant to today’s iPad-savvy kidsters, this innovative title takes the same concept and adds more COLOR, with gorgeous photorealistic textures and illustrations. By the end of the book kids will either want to read it again, or reach for real paint to mix! Ages 3 and up.

Journey, by Aaron Becker
A 2014 Caldecott Honor book, Becker’s wordless yet engrossing story follows a lonely little girl who, with a red marker in hand, draws herself a red door into another world, and a series of magical adventures marked by her red-hued creations. Without words, but beautifully illustrated, it still manages to convey its messages of friendship, determination and imagination. Ages 4 and up.

Going Places, by Paul A. Reynolds
A fantastic story of teamwork, creativity, and the joys of not quite staying inside the lines, illustrated by New York Times bestselling illustrator Peter H. Reynolds (Judy Moody, The Dot). When a class of students receive identical kits for building a go-cart for racing, two children, one who excels at following instructions and another whose bright imagination is tempered by practicality, work together to build something that may not be exactly what everyone else has, in the best way possible. Ages 4 and up.

Uni the Unicorn, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
With Disney-worthy huggable illustrations, this title takes an old tale and spins it into an adorable new story about friendship and believing in the impossible (also, unicorns!). A young unicorn is told there are no such things as little girls, but he believes there are no matter what the adults say.  Coincidentally, far, far (but not that far) away, a little girl believes that unicorns exist, no matter what they tell her. Ages 4 and up.

The Most Magnificent Thing, by Ashley Spires
A brilliant, encouraging story of ingenuity, failure, perseverance, and creativity, from an award-winning author and illustrator. A little girl, with the help of her best friend (her dog) decides to make “The most MAGINIFICENT thing!” but even with the best-laid plans, failure happens. And happens again. And again. Then you get mad. And want to quit.  Then actually quit.  But sometimes all it takes is a little time (and a little help), and a lot of tinkering, before truly magnificent things can happen. Ages 3 and up.

My Teacher Is A Monster!, by Peter Brown
From the New York Times bestselling author and illustrator of quirky giggle-inducing favorites like The Curious Garden and Creepy Carrots comes an endearing story that many children with intimidating teachers will relate to.  A little boy claims that his stomping, roaring, anti-paper airplane teacher is a monster (with reptile-like snout, and huge clumping pumps), but a chance encounter outside of the classroom reveals that there's more to a person, once you get to know them, from both perspectives, high and low.  Ages 4 and up.

Click on any of the titles to visit the OC Public Libraries website and reserve a copy today!

And to find more recommended titles, visit our Book Lists tab (above), or click here.


More Toddler Favorites

About a year ago, I shared some of my favorite books for reading aloud to toddlers. If you want to read that blog again, click here . That time around, I was looking for titles that I had read over and over (as toddlers like to do).  Since then, I have come across more books that have gone over well with toddlers that I would like to share.  They aren't all necessarily new, but were new to me.

Be sure to try Baby Parade by Rebecca O'Connell. This book appeals to tiny tykes' love of waving hello and good-bye. Readers are encouraged to wave to babies passing by in the illustrations, who ride in wagons, rest in backpacks and so on. So simple, yet so inviting of active participation.  These are some cute babies!

Another book with a simple, yet satisfying concept is Hooray for Hat by Brian Won. Grumpy Elephant is so cheered by a surprise gift of a box of hats on his doorstep that he ends up sharing them one-by-one with a succession of his similarly grumpy friends. Readers can join in by exclaiming, "Hooray for Hat!"

Let me just say flat-out that I think Mo Willems is a comic genius. He has written best-selling picture books (Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, Knuffle Bunny) and readers ( the Elephant and Piggie books). He has also started a series for the youngest readers: the Cat the Cat books. The first is called Cat the Cat, Who is That?  In Cat the Cat's world, everyone has a name that reflects who they are: Cat the Cat, Mouse the Mouse, etc. Not only that, everyone is her friend, even the mysterious critter who says "Blarggie! Blarggie!"  Every one of the books in the series has a humorous twist. For example, in Let's Say HI to Friends Who Fly all the friends are sure Rhino the Rhino can't fly -- until he shows up in an airplane!

Karen Katz is a prolific author whose many books are geared to toddlers. Here's one of her newer titles: Now I'm Big! A number of children with Katz's signature large round heads, stubby arms and cheerful wardrobes list all of the things they can do now that they are not babies any more.  Best of all, now they can help their baby brothers and sisters.

If you have any favorite books for toddlers, please list them in the comments below. We want to keep our youngest readers happy!


Every Choice Has A Price

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister by Amélie Sarn, translated by Y. Maudet, is a short novel about teenage sisters living in a Muslim community in France. Sohane and Djelila are very close until they reach high school. Since they are the second generation born in France, their parents allow many liberties customarily not permitted in a Muslim household. Sohane embraces Muslim traditions. In contrast, Djelila elects to become secular which allows her to dress as she wants and socialize with her non-Muslim friends. Because of her choices, a local Muslim gang bullies Djelila. Sohane dislikes her sister’s decisions so she watches on as the bullying continues; hoping Djelila will learn a lesson. Conversely, when Sohane publicly pronounces her religion by wearing a scarf, her school expels her when she refuses to remove the scarf. Djelila may not agree with her sister’s beliefs, but she supports Sohane’s pursuit to express her individuality.
The simple prose is in Sohane’s voice, following her train of thought as the chapters alternate between past and present events. This heartbreaking story raises the issues of freedom of religion and expression, individual values, family relations, feminism, guilt, grief, morality and what it is like to be a Muslim woman in a secular society. Seemingly torn from the headlines, this book is ripe for a thought provoking discussion in any book club.


Picture Book Month

November is Picture Book month! Join us in celebrating this month-long celebration of picture books. How many picture books will you read this month? 

Picture books are essential for early literacy. The best way to help children get ready to read on their own is for children and their families to read together! Reading picture books aloud to your child teaches them concepts such as, print awareness, letter knowledge and print motivation. Learning to recognize letters, hold a book and follow words on a page are all skills that will help your child get ready to read on their own as well as help instill a lifelong love of reading.


There are many ways to find picture books you and your children might like to read. One option is to search the OC Public Libraries’ catalog and utilize the “power search” option. Under power search, locate the “Reading Level” tab and select Children’s Primary Fiction. You can then search all the OC Public Libraries branches for books or limit your search to an individual branch of your choosing. This is a great way to search if you just want to browse picture books. You may find your next favorite picture book!

Another option is to use Book Talk as a resource to find great picture books recommended by OC Public Libraries’ staff. Look to the right side of your screen and you will see the subject tags in the margin. Locate the Read Aloud Picture Books link. Click this link and view all the Book Talk posts about picture books! There are a lot because we love picture books and are so excited to share them and recommend them!

There are many other great ways to find picture books. Each year the prestigious Caldecott Medal is awarded and honors the artist of one exceptional children’s picture book. The Caldecott Medal was first awarded in 1938 and you can find the entire list of award winners from 1938 through the present on the OC Public Libraries’ website. Some of my favorite Caldecott winners include, This is Not My Hat, Lon Po Po, The Polar Express, and Where the Wild Things Are. In honor of Picture Book Month, take a look at this list and find your favorite Caldecott winner!

Each year the publication School Library Journal puts out a best picture books list. Take a look at the SLJ Best Books 2013 Picture Books and keep an eye out for the upcoming 2014 list. The editors of School Library Journal who select the books on the list describe this list of picture books as being the year’s “best of the best”. The Picture Book Month website has lists of picture book authors and illustrators along with a variety of information and literature about the importance of picture books. This site also has a variety of fun activities for children, families, and teachers. Take a look at this website to learn more about Picture Book Month.

Don’t forget! You can always visit or call one of your OC Public Libraries branches and ask for a picture book recommendation. We all have our favorite picture books and are happy to share. Think of the month of November as a special time to devote to gobbling up these beautiful books. Let’s all celebrate Picture Book Month!