Monthly Archives: June 2013

Express Yourself, Little One

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Expressionista:
How to Express Your True Self
Through (and Despite) Fashion

Jackie Walker and Pamela Dittmer McKuen

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In a day and age when tarted-up toddlers are rewarded with reality shows and when magazines like Teen Vogue boast upward of nearly a million subscribers, it should come as no surprise that young girls are looking for fashion advice.

Written as a how-to guide for girls aged eight to twelve, Expressionista seeks to fill that desire, dispensing advice for tweens about expressing themselves through their clothing, accessories, make-up, and hairstyles.

Authors Jackie Walker and Pamela Dittmer McKuen, both of whom hail from the Chicago area, address such issues as fashion, style, and shopping in a short, hands-on guide full of quizzes, questions, and self-evaluations. Walker and Dittmer McKuen also examine issues of self-esteem and self-expression, showing readers how they can use clothing to reveal their true selves.

Whether eight-year-olds are aware enough of or even care enough about who their true selves are is debatable (seriously: plenty of forty-year-olds are still grappling with that issue). However, knowing that, by some reports, as many as 18 percent of preteen girls regularly wear mascara, eyeliner, and lipstick, one must acknowledge that issues of appearance, style, and fashion are of interest to many preteens and tweens.

Expressionista operates with that fundamental understanding. The authors acknowledge that girls—even very young girls—face issues with body image, self-esteem, and peer pressure, all of which can shape not just their childhoods, but their entire lives. Walker and Dittmer McKuen strive to balance these issues, suggesting ways for girls to identify the fashion personas that best suit their lives and lifestyles so that they can better match their outer appearances with their inner selves. The authors argue that girls who are able to confidently express their personalities through their clothing and accessories are happier in the long run.

This is laudable, even if there might be something sad about advising an eight-year-old to ask herself whether her personal style is conservative or traditional, to determine whether she is more dramatic or more natural, or to assess whether she prefers chunky jewelry to single-strand necklaces. Although many younger girls may well know what they like to wear and what they don’t like to wear, one might wonder whether they are really capable of the kind of self-reflection that would help them ponder the reasons behind their fashion choices.

Older girls may get more out of the book, particularly when it comes to the issue of how fashion is related to both self-expression and self-esteem. The authors make an especially strong argument for understanding not only one’s own fashion persona, but the personas of one’s friends, siblings, and other relatives. Doing so, the authors argue, makes it easier to respect the fashion choices that others make and, therefore, to respect the personalities of others in general.

At its heart, Expressionista shows tweens and preteens how they can use fashion to empower themselves. The authors shine when working to boost the confidence of young girls. At times, however, Walker and Dittmer McKuen use language that seems geared more toward parents than toward young readers, making one wonder whether they didn’t just simply adapt their usual message for adults to an audience of children. In addition, a number of the pithy quotes sprinkled throughout the book (i.e., the advanced reader copy) are misattributed, as when the oft-cited Oscar Wilde quote “Be yourself, because everyone else is already taken,” is attributed to Selena Gomez, or when the common saying “Reach for the stars” is attributed to Juliane Hough.

Helping girls respect themselves and those around them, regardless of the various fashion choices people make, is a positive message. Helping girls better understand themselves so they can make fashion choices that make them feel better about themselves is a powerful message. Telling an eight-year-old that she should embrace her fashion persona might be a good message as well. Parents will need to decide at what age those issues need to be addressed.

Three-Star Review

September 2013, Beyond Words/Aladdin (Simon & Schuster)
Children’s
$17.99, hardcover/$9.99 paperback, 224 pages
ISBNs: hardcover—1582704295/978-1582704296;
Paperback—1582704287/978-1582704289

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Looking to the Past to Find Her Future

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The Firebird
Susanna Kearsley

9781402276637-PRNew York Times bestselling author Susanna Kearsley has, in her latest novel, blended history, romance, and the supernatural in a complex story within a story that bridges past and present.

The Firebird takes off when Nicola Marter touches a handsome wooden carving, launching her powers of extrasensory perception to reveal the intriguing history of a seemingly otherwise nondescript object. Nicola’s touch reveals stories, glimpses of the lives of people who have come before. It is a gift she rarely uses, one she denies to herself, a secret she keeps from others.

Nicola’s touch of the carving—and the vision it shares with her—sets her on a journey to discover its provenance, ostensibly to help the owner, a woman who hopes it will be valuable enough to finance her future. The journey becomes a path toward self-discovery, allowing Nicola to examine her gifts and to decide whether she will accept her abilities or deny them.

Why, when she is loathe to admit to her abilities, Nicola chooses to follow the path set in front of her is a bit of a mystery, as is her reason for helping a woman she really doesn’t know. Kearsley seems more focused on showing readers what will happen to Nicola than on explaining her motivations for helping a complete stranger. As the impetus for Nicola’s journey, it seems a bit weak.

That weak start, however, in no way spoils the book, which is reminiscent of both A. S. Byatt’s Possession and Alice Hoffman’s Turtle Moon. The Firebird is a thick tapestry, colored by rich details and interesting characters. Kearsley sets an enchanting stage, expertly capturing people, places, and periods of time and deftly moving from Nicola’s story to the parallel story in the book, that of Anna Moray.

Nicola’s initial vision of the firebird reveals Anna to her, sending her from England to Scotland (where she hooks up with an old flame and fellow psychic) to Belgium to Russia. With psychic friend Rob’s help, Nicola is able to see into the past and to track Anna as she herself follows her own journey, also one of self-discovery.

Despite the centuries that divide them, Nicola’s and Anna’s stories are not dissimilar. In fact, they may be too similar in some ways, particularly when it comes to the somewhat clichéd romances the two women fall into. Both, for instance, become smitten with men they resist. In Anna’s world the cliché is especially predictable: she hates him, she loves him, she hates him, she loves him. Nicola’s own romance is a bit trite as well: she loves him, she leaves him, she comes back to him, they fight, they get back together. No real surprises in either love angle, which may be a disappointment to some readers.

The somewhat hackneyed romances, however, aren’t enough to derail either storyline, both of which are punctuated with compelling history and interesting details about the art world. Kearsley has a lovely eye for scenery, drawing tableaux that create an evocative sense of time and place. Although the settings are gorgeous, Kearsey sometimes veers into explanations of key events that are much too facile, wrought seemingly in the desire to ensure that each of the various subplots of the novel culminates in a happy ending.

Not that there’s anything wrong with happy endings. Jane Austen made her name in happy endings. Because Nicola grows as a person, we can forgive the pollyannish aspects of the novel. Because the telling of the story is so rich, so well done, we can forgive both the flimsy foundation that sets Nicola on her journey as well as the overly simplistic way in which the tricky aspects of the novel are tied up, all neat and tidy.

Kearsley is a fine storyteller, even if she doesn’t exactly challenge the reader. For readers who like their romance with a little history, or their history with a little romance, The Firebird is a fine choice.

Three-Star Review

June 2013, Sourcebooks/Landmark
Fiction
$16.99, trade paperback, 539 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1-4022-7663-7

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Read Local

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Every day, we’re encouraged to shop local, buy local, eat local. So, why not read local as well?

Although one usually thinks of the East Coast as the country’s—if not the world’s—publishing hub, there’s a lot of good reading material being published closer to home. In fact, Chicago is home to more than 125 publishers in the city and suburbs. Broaden that out to the Midwest, and we’re talking about several hundred nearby publishers from which to select great books.

From trade houses to academic and university presses, from association publishers to education publishers, and from museum publishers to other specialty presses, literally thousands of books are coming out of hundreds of presses here in Chicago, in the surrounding suburbs, and in neighboring states.

Here at Chicago Book Review, we think that’s something to celebrate. We want to do whatever we can to highlight and support local publishers, authors, agents, and others who are helping to make Chicago and environs a thriving publishing center. Our reviews focus on books that are published here, written by authors based here, sold by agents headquartered here, set here … you get the picture. But we also want to shine a light on the industry itself, in the hopes that readers will become more aware of the ways they can not only shop local, but how they can read local as well.

Today, we look at university presses, and Chicago is home to some truly great academic publishing.

Columbia College Chicago Press, DePaul University Press, Loyola University Press, Northwestern University Press … the list goes on and on. Chicago is home to a number of academic and university presses, the largest of which is The University of Chicago Press, which, in fact, is the country’s largest university press. Founded in 1891, the Press has issued more than 11,000 titles since then, and it publishes about 250 new books a year. Most people think of The Chicago Manual of Style when they think about The University of Chicago Press, but the press also is home to such authors as Norman Maclean, Mike Royko, Milton Friedman, Jean-Paul Sartre, and J.M. Coetzee.

Up north, rival Northwestern University also boasts a fine press. Founded just two years after its Hyde Park neighbor, in 1893, Northwestern University Press originally focused on publishing legal periodicals and scholarly books dealing with the law. Today, NU Press publishes titles on a variety of subjects, from African studies to biography to philosophy to women’s studies, in addition to poetry, fiction, and literature. NU Press titles have been nominated for Pulitzer prizes, have won the National Book Award, and have earned great reviews from major media.

Farther down state, we have University of Illinois Press, which was formally established in 1918. UI Press has long been known for publishing high-quality academic and scholarly work. In 1977, the Press combined its focus on anthropology, folklore, African-American studies, and women’s studies when it published a biography of author Zora Neale Hurston. At the same time, the Press acquired paperback rights to Their Eyes Were Watching God, which went on to sell more than 356,000 (!!) copies. Although a commercial publisher has since reclaimed the paperback rights, UI Press still offers a gift edition of the book.

Neighboring Missouri is home to University of Missouri Press, which during the past year or so was much in the news due to a hullaballoo in which university administrators threatened to shutter the award-winning press. Editors quit, authors pulled out, and a PR nightmare ensued. Public outrage forced university officials to backtrack, and today the fifty-four-year-old press is back, publishing scores of new books on a variety of subjects. University of Missouri Press is known for a number of highly acclaimed titles, including The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo EmersonMark Twain and His Circle, and On Soldiers and Statesmen.

I could go on and on. Northern Illinois University Press. Southern Illinois University Press. Indiana University Press. University of Iowa Press. Nearby university presses are publishing hundreds of new titles every year, affording readers plenty of opportunities to read local while supporting local colleges and universities as well as the many local authors, professors, and editors who write and contribute to those titles.

Shop local. Buy local. And, yes: Read local.

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