Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What do you MEAN they didn't win?

I should just rename this post: Zilpha Keatley Snyder and Nancy Farmer just can't win... but that would sound mean. Even if it is true. Both authors, whose books are generally beloved, and who exercise no small amount of talent, have been Newbery runner-ups three times each. Three times! I don't think I've ever gotten second place for anything of note ONCE. I'm sure they have far more mature reactions to this phenomenon, but I'll be indignant on their behalves. Newbery, why do you torture them so?
So, it may be fair to point out that while it was not a Newbery medal winner, Nancy Farmer's
House of the Scorpion DID win the National Book Award for Young Adults (and the Printz Honor, as well). The reason for the many accolades this title has accumulated is for a very simple reason: It's awesome. Set in the (not so) distant future, this bleak, dystopian novel takes place on the former border of the US and Mexico, aptly named Opium (for its chief export) from the point of view of a clone. A clone who, he soon realizes, is being raised with the sole purpose of providing organs to the ailing, aging leader of Opium. When harvesting day comes, Matt goes on the run, and the reader gets to tag along on a dark and fascinating tour of the country. What I loved most about this book were the two parental figures that Matt has: Tam Lin the bodyguard, and Celia, the housekeeper. Neither are his biological parents (duh, he's a clone), but they are both such wonderful nurturing parental figures, who give Matt the tools he needs once he goes on the run. I also love that, when I handsell this book, or give it away as a gift, I inevitably hear great reviews laters. My cousin Jack liked it so much he made his parents read it. Who of course, loved it also.
Also by Nancy Farmer, another Newbery Honor book, is A Girl Named Disaster. Set in contemporary Mozambique and Zimbabwe, this wonderful tale of survival, bravery and redemption was also a really cool field guide to African plants and animals. There's a fabulous passage in which Nhamo, the main character, lives among a troop of baboons. After reading Sapolsky's A Primate's Memoir, I was particularly fond of this passage, because Farmer's depictions of the baboons and their social structure matched up with Sapolsky's non-fiction (neuroscientist's perspective) account. Good for kids (probably mostly girls, but I'd try boys on it anyway) ages 10 and up, this novel also serves as a really great introduction to the nature of daily life in different places in Africa. Though Nhamo comes from a tribal village, she travels in solitude in the wilderness, and then ends up in a large city. The cast of characters include her fellow tribesmen, missionaries, Portuguese traders, jaguars, baboons, ghosts, scientists... the list goes on. Vividly decsribed, and thoroughly rendered, A Girl Named Disaster is a great book for kids who like learning about other cultures, or survival/adventure stories.
Farmer's third (THIRD) Newbery Honor book, The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, is also set in Zimbabwe. Only this time, it's a century into the future. A bit like a riff on The Wizard of Oz, complete with witch, but minus Toto, The Ear, the Eye and the Arm stars three runaway children, and the three detectives (for whom the book is named, each given a name coupled with their deformities) who are sent to find them. The cast of characters and variety of locations in this novel are head-bogglingly vast (in a good way) and thoroughly imagined. I was impressed with Farmer's ability to weave in true details about tribal culture in Zimbabwe in this otherwise fantastical novel. I'm bummed, however, that the current cover is a little strange looking, and that a lot of kids seem to see that bright blue monkey on the front, and decide preemptively that they're just not interested. Which is a shame, because it's a rollicking adventure of a book, one I imagine would be well suited for full-family read alouds, since it has enough substance to entertain the older kids, and is not too (just a little) terrifying for the younger ones.

And now, for something completely different.

From Zilpha Keatley Snyder, author of the fantabulous-oh-my-gosh-it's-so-good (Newbery Honor) The Egypt Game, is The Headless Cupid, another Newbery Honor book, with just a light touch of creepy. Like the Egypt Game, the kids in The Headless Cupid are trying to create rituals (though, this time of the occult, not from Ancient Egyptian custom) with what could be some effect. Also like the Egypt Game, this novel features a wide cast of characters, including one very precocious young lady, and a very earnest and responsible older brother. The kids, whose parents have just been married, have all moved into a large, country house together, that has a history of its own. Amanda, an only child now subjceted to four new siblings, is convinced (and convinces the others) that she can make contact with the ghost who lives there. Part mystery, part ghost story, The Headless Cupid also offers up a wonderful story about becoming a new kind of family. I truly cherished how lovingly and accurately family life is depicted, and would recommend this to all the kids who liked The Egypt Game (of course), but also to those who liked Steinbeck's Ghost, by Lewis Buzbee.
Lastly, the National Book Award Finalist, The Tiger Rising, by Kate DiCamillo. DiCamillo won the Newbery for her novel, The Tale of Despereaux, in 2003. I also have high hopes for her novel that came out this year, The Magician's Elephant, for the 2009 Newbery. But Tiger Rising was something altogether different than the other DiCamillo books that I have read. The narrator has such a soft touch in this tale of redemption, sadness and loss, and as such it rings a completely different chord than her other books that I have read, all of which utilize a very voicey narrator who takes you, safely, to that happy storytime place. There is no such distance from the content in Tiger Rising, and I think rightfully so. The main character, Rob, is dealing with the loss of his mother-- there's no making that any softer. As he grapples with serious emotional repression, he finds a tiger, in a cage, in the forest. Simply wrought with majorly resonant results, The Tiger Rising is a tale of unlikely friendship, and the feelings of which we're most afraid. And I cried, and I cried, and I cried. On the BART train. Great for ages 7 or 8 and up.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Clockwork by Philip Pullman

Pullman, author of the amazing Dark Materials Trilogy, (which I plan to reread around Christmas, it's an awesome cold-weather read) is expert at taking large, complex ideas and making them accessible for kids. In this case, rather than a making a deftly crafted treatise against organized religion, Pullman turns his eye on storytelling. And, in less than two hundred pages, he doesn't just address the writer's side, but also the process in which stories are created and the many mechanisms within stories that make them move forward. Hence the very apt comparison to clocks, which are, throughout the entire story, a relentless motif. That was my reading of it.

But what really makes this book awesome is that it's a good, straight ahead story, too. It boasts a rich cast of characters, including a brave young heroine, an overwhelmed clockmaker, a writer and a man who may or may not be the devil himself. It does have a few scary moments (murders can be rough for the more sensitive readers and this one is pretty visceral), and so generally I would recommend it for ages eight and up to avoid nightmares with the younger, precocious readers who read above their level. It's not as creepy as Coraline, by Neil Gaiman (which I also totally recommend, a succinct, fun but totally creeperiffic) which I have received more than one angry customer complaint about on the grounds that it is too, too scary. But it IS scarier than, say, a Roald Dahl book, even if that headmistress CAN chuck you into the great, blue yonder.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine D'Engle

Sometimes, I can't remember if I actually read a book as a child, or if my older sister, Mikka, did, and just told me the entire plot so comprehensively that I think that I did. Like Lloyd Alexander's Westmark Trilogy, (an awesome series about a revolution that goes from the books up) the Newbery Winner, A Wrinkle in Time, was a book I knew the story of, but had never actually read. I realized this when I reread it last month, and came across passages I knew I had never heard before-- passages of startling imaginative resonance, and surprising (but realistic) romance. I can see, easily, why this book won the Newbery.

L'Engle said, in her Newbery acceptance speech, that the best books are the ones that provide just a little bit of light against the overwhelming darkness of our world. And A Wrinkle in Time is a book that does just that. According to Lewis Buzbee (author of the fabulous Steinbeck's Ghost, which, incidentally, begins with a reference to Comazotz, the scary-zombie-like planet) more people site A Wrinkle in Time as their favorite childhood book, than any other title. While I can't agree (because I never read it as a child) I can see how this would be true. The possibilities for a child's impact on the world, as imagined in this story, are vast, yet still dependent on innate traits any child might have. Walking the line between fantasy and science-fiction, with the emotional rawness of realism, A Wrinkle in Time was a pleasure to finally read.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Adventures in badassery!

Scott Westerfeld, the author of the fun, body-image-centered trilogy,
Uglies, Pretties, Specials, the vampire series, Peeps, and puzzle-horror series, Midnighters, has a new book out, the beginning to a very promising new series. Leviathan, a steam-punk retelling of WWI, is a rollicking start to what I'm hoping is going to be Westerfeld's best series yet! Perspective switches every two chapters between an unseated prince (Aleks), who has been humbled by his parents' deaths, and Derryn, a cross-dressing girl in the British Royal Navy. Driving both characters is the need to keep their true identities secret, and when their paths cross, their central tensions blend in compelling and juicy (yes, juicy) ways.

Like all Westerfeld's novels,
Leviathan kicks off the action immediately, and I was hooked from page one. This world of Clankers (large, mechanical war vehicles) and Darwinist Beasties (hybrid war animal-machines) is so much fun that even though I was seriously pissed when I realized that this book was the first in a series (I shake my fist at you, Scott Westerfeld!!! Now I have to wait???) I can't say I'm not excited to spend more time in this world. For those readers that enjoyed Hunger Games, His Dark Materials, or Eon, this book might be a go. Like Hunger Games, this book moves quickly. Like His Dark Materials it occurs in a world that is at once an alternate past and a possible future. And like Eon, it features a strong, cross-dressing lead, succeeding in a man's role.

I am a little embarrassed to admit I didn't actually read this... I listened to it on audio on the drive from Seattle to San Francisco, as read by the (badass) Alan Cummings (who does an AWESOME job, seriously, AMAZING) but I liked it so much I'm going to read a hard copy, too. I suggest you do, too!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Wizard in the Tree by Lloyd Alexander

If you're a kid (or adult) who hasn't read Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles (Newbery Honor for the second book, The Black Cauldron and Newbery Winning for the High King , a series starting with The Book of Three) do it. Sure, it's kind of a Lord of the Rings knockoff for kids, but Alexander's ear for poetry in prose is undeniable, and perfectly suited for children's literature. I loved those books as a kids, and as an adult, reread (sort of... I never really read it in the first place, but knew the plot of all three books since my sister told me the stories so many times I might as well have read them) the Westmark Trilogy, a fabulous trilogy about a revolution from the books up.
So when I found this odd title, The Wizard in the Tree, at my favorite used bookstore in the bay area (Dark Carnival, go guys go) I had to read it. And while it was not quite as good as some of Alexander's other, more famous work, it was still an incredibly enjoyable read, perfect for middle grade readers in the middle of the pack, ages 8 to 12. At times funny, others violent (there are some murders), this book creates a wonderful anti-Potter definition of the true nature of magic, with some clever environmentalist themes that make it timely, even if it is the silly story of a little girl who finds a wizard in a tree.
Complete with plucky heroine, curmudgeonly wizard, and eeeevil (yes, so evil he's eeeevil) squire, The Wizard in the Tree is a clever story from a very clever author, whose breadth of work I am just beginning to appreciate.

And seriously, read the Prydain Chronicles, and its awesome companion book of short stories, The Foundling. Awesome.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

When I finished the 1968 Newbery Honor book, The Egypt Game, I could for no stretch of the imagination see why it hadn't simply won straight out. Until I realized it was an honor book the year that my very very favorite, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, was the winner. Fair enough, Newbery, fair enough. Apparently 1968 was a good year for kids books, because The Egypt Game was a wonderful story about imagination, learning and the joy of play. I'm so sad I didn't read this book as a child. I know my older sister did, because I found her copy at our mom's house (and didn't steal it, it's still there Mikka, I promise). But I know I would have loved it then, for the very same reasons I love it now.
The Egypt Game starts from the perspective of April Hall, a little girl who's just moved to a new neighborhood so that she can live with her grandmother while her mother runs around Hollywood. Despite the fact that April finds the new town far too provincial for her tastes, she soon makes friends with the decidedly less precocious Melanie Ross, and by proxy, Melanie's very serious little brother, Marshall (who never goes anywhere without his safety octopus, aptly named Safety). The three begin playfully reenacting ancient Egyptian rituals, and are soon joined by two boys, Ken and Toby. With five players in the Egypt game, all bringing their own ideas and research to the table, the game becomes more serious, and when strange things start happening, the kids can't help but wonder if they are making it happen. Meanwhile, a child murderer is in the neighborhood, and everyone suspects the Professor, the strange old man whose backyard is the secret location for the Egypt game.
It's a silly thing to focus on, since there are so many wonderful things about this book, but I loved the characterization of Ken Kamata. Ken plays very reluctantly, and is always a little embarrassed and incredibly self-conscious. There's a fabulously funny illustration in the chapter entitled: Ceremony for the Dead, in which all the children are shown in the wild throws of a dramatic funeral. All except Ken, who (despite being in character by beating his chest) is looking straight out of the page at the reader, a slightly embarrassed look on his face, as though even doing this in front of the reader is just more humiliation than he can bear. Maybe I just like Ken, because when I was a kid, I was a bit like him. I wish I had been a kid like Marshall, but so it goes.
I don't think you can even throw a rock without finding a third or fourth grader who's curious about ancient Egypt. So throw a rock, hit a kid and then buy them a copy of this book. The parents will totally drop charges when they see how awesome the book is. Or you'll go to jail with a funny story about bad advice and good kids books.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman

The Newbery Winner of 1987 (and illustrated by the great Peter Sis) The Whipping Boy was a surprisingly funny read, complete with dancing bear, blundering con men and a bratty prince with an untapped heart. Even kids who are not necessarily interested in historical fiction will find points of interest in this book. The story is told from the perspective of the prince's whipping boy, an orphan named Jemmy. If you, like me, before I read this book, have no idea what a whipping boy is, it's a designated person to suffer punishments on the prince's behalf. Since the prince in this tale is rotten, Jemmy takes many whippings, a fact the prince cares about very little. When they run away together, Prince Brat (as he is also called) begins to learn the errors of his ways, and he and Jemmy strike up an unlikely friendship. At 89 pages long, even more reluctant readers will be unafraid to pick up this absurd little tale of empathy, trust and friendship. Perfect for early readers making the transition to chapter books, with a pleasantly snarky narrative voice.

Monday, September 21, 2009

after long radio silence...

Alas, I am terrible at keeping up with this blog. But, fortunately, I'm better at reading than I am at writing, and so I have plenty of books to write about! For today, I'll start with these 3:

I Am Apache, by Tanya Landman: A YA book meant for readers age 12 and up (but that I have already recommend to mature 10 year old readers), I Am Apache is an elegantly written story about an Apache (duh) woman who decides, after the untimely and violent death of her younger brother, to follow the path to become a warrior. All my ra-ra-ra feminism aside, it's an psychologically compelling read, if not a little heavy-handed. One of the things I've found myself wondering as I read it was (since Landman is British, and hence has not been subjected to all the PA announcement tropes including Native Americans and the environment, you know the one, with the one tear) if some of the language choices were a little stale. A "heart soaring like an eagle over the plain" for example, did not feel particularly fresh. But other than moments like that (of which there were relatively few) it's a wonderful read for those who want to be a tough woman, who are tough women already, or just love tough women on principle.

Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware by MT Anderson: Anderson is always my favorite. Even when he's writing silly stories in a fictional Delaware, complete with kangaroo-riding cannibals, he's always the best. In this case for the motherly advice not to fall in love with boys whose names are like boarding schools (Choate, Thatcher, etc) because they'll just break your heart. Sound advice, Mrs. Mulligan. Sound advice. Jasper Dash is the third book in the Pals in Peril Series (previous MT Anderson's Thrilling Tales), a middle grade series in which each book is a satire of a particular genre-- the first was an alien invasion story, the second a mystery. This newest installment is an adventure story, akin to Tarzan, but with way more silliness. It's by far the longest volume in the series, and there are some parts where it gets a little long. But I could see why. I probably wouldn't want to edit anything out either, even if not doing so is to the detriment of the flow. Anderson's fictitious Delaware is so much fun, so absurd, so silly, that I for one couldn't pick anything that had to go.

The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor: My favorite adult-who-reads-kids-books customer recommended this book to me, and I have long since learned that ignoring her recommendations is done at my own peril. So I bought my copy and started reading it. Four months ago. And just now finished it. At first I was really into it-- Wonderland as a more science-fiction like landscape was an exciting prospect. Plus, the cover art and interior illustrations (there's a little section in the middle) are pleasingly stylish. And even the story (Princess Alyss of Wonderland stranded in the real world, Queen Redd wreaking havoc) was fun. In theory. But I never felt myself compelled the keep reading once I'd picked up the book. The narrative voice is scattered since POV changes all the time. I felt like the story might have been better served by a more limited scope of point of view characters, to focus the story a bit more. While Hatter might be the most badass body guard to pop up in kids lit in a while, there's not much psychological depth to him (or many of the other secondary characters). But reading it, I could see that there was a lot this book had to offer, especially for kids who love the dystopian aesthetic. There's action, intrigue, and a tough female lead, and it is a very NEW take on Wonderland. All things I always like. But it still wasn't my favorite.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Dark Carnival Books

3086 Claremont Ave, Berkeley, CA, 94706.

Go there, for stacks and stacks of the most eccentric, awesome, obscure, culty, random collection of titles ever. The books are literally falling off the walls, in something that resembles alphabetical order, and it's literally my favorite place to waste hours and money. There are plenty of books that I could write down the titles of and order through my store (and plenty used or UK editions that I could not) but I buy them there. Why? Because it's the only place I know that would stock everything that they stock and so they deserve the sale.

Recently purchased there:

The Wizard in the Tree by Lloyd Alexander,

and 3 Bellairs middle-grade horror/mysteries, including one recommended on the Dark Carnival website, The Chessmen of Doom.

Thanks for being awesome, Dark Carnival.

Holes by Louis Sachar

It's amazing that I managed to be thirteen around the time this book came out, and yet was never inclined to read it. I remember hearing about it, or at least being aware of it, but I never even picked it up. In fact, I had some half-baked notion that it was a novel about a summer camp where enormous holes start popping up, magically.
This however, was not the case.
When I picked Holes up to read it as part of my Newbery Challenge deal, I promised my coworker Robyn (hi Robyn!) I would read the book and watch the movie, then compare. Which I did. But I'll start with the book.
Which I loved. There are so many layers to the plot of this intricately woven tale of transgression and atonement, yet it remains incredibly accessible. Debts are repaid. Friends are made. Character is built. Adventures are had. However, all of this is pushed against the violent history shared by black and white people in America, giving the story more resonance than one might have imagined a story that features a kid called "Armpit" might have.
The unlikely hero of this story is Stanley Yelnats, an over-weight, well-meaning pushover with an incredibly sturdy moral compass. When he is sent to Camp Green Lake (for a crime he did not commit), a desert wasteland juvenile detention camp, to dig 5 foot holes on a daily basis as means of penance, he befriends a boy called Zero (short for Hector Zeroni) who is written off by all the other campers and camp authority figures as a failure. He teaches Zero to read, and when Zero runs away from the camp into the foreboding desert, Stanley follows him with intent to rescue.
What made Stanley so likable to me was his lack of cool. He's not a smart-talking, slick guy at heart, even if he manages to come across that way. And that to me, was one of the first things I did not much care for in the movie. Shia Lawhateverhisnameis is just too cool to be Stanley. That next to the fact that the warden (played by Sigourney Weaver) is way more attractive than she is described in the book, the man called Mom is a more bumbling idiot than calculating coward and Zero is far more adorable... well, you get the idea. It seems like in translation the characters became too smooth around the edges for my liking.
So read the book. But don't necessarily see the movie. Unless you like a LOT of meaningful musical interludes, of which there are plenty.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

Everyone loves the Newbery Winner, The Tale of Despereaux. Loves it. I only liked it. It was cute of course, and DiCamillo's narrative voice carried me immediately to that safe, story time place that makes me feel like I'm six years old again. But I thought that it did more to reinforce classism than much else, and as a result I was only lukewarm on it. Of course, I'm literally the only person in the entire literary universe who seems to feel that way.

But DiCamillo's new book, The Magician's Elephant, was something else entirely. I again was taken to that safe, story time place. But this time, I felt DiCamillo used her allegorical style to its fullest, and I found myself in tears by the end of it.

When a magician conjures and elephant (and then is unable to send it back from whence it came) that comes crashing through a theater ceiling, everyone in the tiny town's life seems to change. Soon, the elephant is at the center of the social, moral, spiritual and dream world of everyone in the town. And as the townspeople learn the accept the possibility of the impossible, many of the citizens begin to pin their many assorted impossible dreams on the elephant.

Heartwarming and perfect for family read aloud, I loved The Magician's Elephant the same way I love The Little Prince, one of my all-time favorite children's novels. If there were a book I could force on everyone this fall, I think this would be my choice.

Read it.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

The next stop on the Newbery Challenge was the 1978 winner, The Westing Game. A multi-perspectival mystery that centers around a (possibly) deceased man's will, Raskin represents the American melting pot in a way that ages surprisingly well for something written in the late 70's. Clever, and by turns hilarious, the whole time I was reading the Westing Game, I kept thinking how much the scores of kids who love Trenton Stewart's Mysterious Benedict Society would like this book. In fact, I could not help but wonder if perhaps Stewart had been inspired by the character of Turtle (from the Westing Game) when writing his own petite contrarian, Constance.
What I liked best about this novel was when, about 2/3 of the way through, I thought I had the mystery entirely solved, only to find that Raskin had not only anticipated my solution but also debunked it, carrying the mystery into deeper, more interesting territory. Not to mention the fact that it's probably the most patriotic kid's book I've ever liked.
For ages eight and up, and adults who like a little wholesome fun, The Westing Game was very much deserving of its medal.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Chosen One by Carole Lynch Williams

There's so much hype around this new YA novel that I was afraid to read it. But it's about a facet of American culture I have a particularly hard time understanding (an isolated polygamist, separatist, male dominated theocracy) and so I felt like I had to, if for no other reason then simply so that I would maybe start to understand a culture like that just a little bit more.
The back of the book promises a compelling coming of age story, and that it is. But it did not quite live up to my hopes for it, for a couple major reasons.

While the voice was incredibly engaging, it did not provide the depth that I was hoping for when addressing the topic at hand, and while the voice suited the character well it did not help the story (if that makes sense). More importantly, however, I was troubled by the characterization of the "bad" characters; they were so two-dimensional that it was impossible to empathize with them in any way. They were one step short of stroking long-haired cats while cackling. And I was really hoping to get more insight about a part of society I blatantly do not understand.

I say this having read it in its entirety in 2 hours, so it's not that it was uninteresting or unreadable... I just was hoping for something much stronger from a book with so much support. I felt like it was a much more superficial effort than what I was expecting.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Kid Reviewers

So, yesterday was one of those great days at the store where everything went right. Teachers came in to buy mass quantities of paperbacks to keep their students reading during the summer, Love, Aubrey (a fantastic middle reader I reviewed in may) came out in hardback, new kids I'd never met came in and bought books I'm passionate about and to top it all off with a big fat scoop of awesomeness, I picked up 5 (5!!) new kid reviewers.
The Kid Reviewer program at my store is simply this: kids who really love books come in and talk to me about the books they like. I make them write a little staff pick card (with the word "staff" covered up with a handwritten "kid") and then I give them a free Advanced Reader Copy for their effort. Best case scenario, they come back in and and write a review for the ARC, but it doesn't always happen that way.
The best thing about the Kid Reviewers is that the only kids who even WANT to do it (it is offered way more than it is done) are kids who are passionate about books, kids who really, really love to read and who are, always, way more intelligent than kids their age have any right to be (which really just means smarter than me). Which are, of course, the kids that are the most fun to talk to.
I finally made a little notebook, in which I can compile things like contact information, birthdays and books reviewed to really keep track, since it's a rapidly expanding program. So hopefully, in the fall we can start doing events.
I left the store yesterday unable to stop smiling. There's a reason working in a bookstore is awesome, and for me, it's kids like the kids I got to talk to yesterday. One of my coworkers suggested a career in teaching. I told her that was a terrible idea. In teaching, you're put in the position of assigning reading, forcing it upon kids, making it a task. At the store, I don't have to do that. The ones who actually WANT to read, and are really passionate about doing so find me. Of course, I love to work with reluctant readers too. If you can hook a kid on reading, it feels fantastic. But there's something so warm, so validating, so heartening about the kids who love it all on their own. Whether or not they're reading books I like (which much of the time they are not) they're reading, and in the age of youtube and twitter, it's particularly meaningful. To me. Career nerd.

The Real Thief by William Steig

I found this very short tale of thievery, wrongful accusation and redemption to be an incredibly compelling morality tale. Ok, that probably sounds silly when addressing a story about a goose who is wrongfully accused of a crime actually committed by a well-meaning mouse... but nonetheless I was entirely impressed. In a very accessible way, Steig crafted a very complex moral spectrum. While the mouse (the "real thief") struggles with his inability to right the wrong he has created, Gawain the goose is wracked by the hurt wreaked by his friends who did not stand in defense of his innocence. At fifty-eight pages, The Real Thief is the perfect length for a two-night read aloud session with parent and child, or even as a single sitting for a child alone. It has all the complexity of a much longer book, in the language and length for a much younger child. Perfect for ages four and five (if being read aloud to) or six (for reading alone) and up, and for kids struggling to cross into chapter books.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Cool Hand Magee

The next installment of my Newbery Challenge was Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, the 1991 Newbery Winner. The lyrical and rhythmic narrative voice of this piece lent itself to an aural effect that fit the content of the story well. Maniac Magee, a little boy who's been running away (from home, from places that are almost home, and places that never felt like home in the first place) and in the meantime cultivates a hero-like mythology about him.
Though the entire book was well-written and enjoyable, my absolute favorite section was when Maniac starts living with Grayson, an old caretaker of the zoo and baseball field. When it turns out that Grayson was a minor league pitcher, he and Magee start to swap baseball advice for reading lessons (Grayson is illiterate). It was an incredibly emotional passage, and the descriptions of Grayson's old, leather baseball glove struck a chord with me particularly.
Though race is a central theme throughout this entire novel, Spinelli steers clear of familiar tropes, and the characters of this world are well rounded and believable. It made me wonder though, how much of this really feels fresh anymore. There are so many books written for kids about white people and black people learning to accept each other's humanity (Newbery Winner, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, for example), that at some point it begins to feel stale and didactic no matter how good the writing is. Of course, as my coworker Rich so aptly pointed out, I come from a very liberal, Bay Area racial education, and that my perspective on the matter is not typical country wide. He's right of course, but because I primarily deal with kids with a similar background to me, I wonder how well a book like this will hold up with that crowd.
It heartens me that the only way to find that out is to recommend it to as many kids as I can.

Friday, June 5, 2009

For Goosebumps grads

I wasn't expecting a reference to Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage in a book about a pizza/monster killing joint, but there it was. Just sorta tossed in there, as if to tell me, yes, there are werewolf/vampire crossbreeds in this story (called Guttata horridus, guttata meaning spotted in latin according my to coworker, Bob) but that does not mean this is a story without brains.
Which is not to say that Greg Taylor's Killer Pizza is going to be assigned in schools anytime soon. It's a campy horror story that was made to be fun and not entirely nutritious, just like the pizza it centers around. It's a very simple story about good friends, evil monsters (G versus E, as Taylor puts it), and secret aspirations. And while some of the dialog can be a little clunky, and the Japanese American girl is somewhat defined by her heritage in a predictable manner (Samurai blood, huh? yeah, me too, but I don't think I'd go for a career in lethal monster control, give me reasons better than that) and a little of what I like to think of as protagonist pampering (my, Toby, your bod is so hot now!) it's still a very enjoyable read, similar in essence to the Goosebumps books I used to DEVOUR in elementary school.
With genuinely scary moments and action to spare, Killer Pizza is the perfect summer read for kids getting just a little too old for Goosebumps, yet not quite as graphic as Christopher Pike or even RL Stine's Fear Street (am I dating myself? We don't even sell those authors anymore...) and certainly less frightening than Neil Gaiman's Coraline. It will also, I think, do well with adults who have an affection for B horror movies.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

more Newbery Winners...

It's just a typical Saturday night-- you know, sex, drugs, rock and roll. Or, reading kids books.

Ok, just the kids books part.

First, I finished the 1959 Newbery Winner, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare. It's historical fiction, set in a little
Puritan settlement. The protagonist, Kit, who was raised in Barbados, moves there when her grandfather/guardian dies. A strong-willed girl with a rebellious streak, Kit attracts more attention than she bargained for in her new home. But it is not until she befriends a little old Quaker woman named Hannah, who many in the town think is a witch, that she begins to feel at home. Unlike some historical children's fiction, The Witch of Blackbird Pond avoids dullness and dryness with plenty of romance, namely between Kit and the dashing sailor boy, Nat. However, I did have two qualms with this book: firstly, that several of the minor characters were a bit flat, namely Kit's cousins, Mercy, who is such a Polyanna I could barely stand it, and Judith, who is so self-centered and vain that it's impossible to relate to her on ay level. Secondly, the plot wraps up with a happily ever after that I found too good to be true. I know it doesn't take place in Salem, but I'm pretty sure accused witches didn't typically end up with their lover of choice. And I wondered, what good does it do to sanitize history for kids' sake? Everything is so peac
hy in the end, all the girls get the boys they want, slanderers go punished, and little old Quakers go safe and free... So, while it was an enjoyable read, (with nice historical details, of course) it was not my favorite Newbery Winner so far.

Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Clearly, won the Newbery in 1984, which also happens to be the year I was born. And I'm pretty sure the book is aging more gracefully than I am. When I
started this whole Newbery Challenge, this is exactly the kind of book I was hoping to
find. Dear Mr. Henshaw is a book of letters and diary entries
that a little boy named Leigh Botts writes to his favorite author, who ultimately gives him the advice to try writing himself. It is a suggestion that Leigh takes very seriously, and his voyage as a writer begins in his diary. Cleary expertly maneuvers through a very difficult constraint to create a book that is at times funny, sad and always, always honest. She doesn't let the narrative voice get in her way of telling a very true feeling story wrought with realistic emotional travails, and yet still infused with humor. It's the perfect book for reading aloud together for kids who are starting to read more substantial chapter books on their own, but could also be the perfect book for any kid who may look to writing as an outlet. I wish that I had read this book when I was eight or nine. Maybe I would have started writing earlier.


So, I loved (loved) the first Hunger Games book by Suzanne Collins. I read it all in one delicious gulp. And when I found the ARC for the second book, Catching Fire, I was thrilled not only to get a chance to see what happens to Katniss Everdeen, but also so happy that it was just as good as the first installment! Because the best part about getting to read this was not knowing what was going to happen, there will be NO SPOILERS in this review, so this might sound a little vague...

But it was awesome! Just as quickly-paced as the first installment, just as exciting. The twists are so plentiful in this plot that my head was spinning (in a good way) and I loved getting to know this dark, dystopian world better. Collins justifies her violent plot with sound thematic work (that I would explicate, but will not for fear of ruining the plot) and if you thought the first book was dark, well, it certainly doesn't get any lighter. Heart-thumpingly exciting, with sprinkles of humor, romance and always a dose of rebellion,
Catching Fire was better than I could even have imagined. Due out in September from Scholastic, it is sure to please reluctant and voracious readers alike. Just like the first.

And if you haven't read the first yet, seriously. It's time.

The Newbery Challenge continues...

So the internet has been down at my house for the last week... but in that time I read three Newbery Winners that I would break into two categories: fun and edifying. While all three were well written, only one really caught my attention as the type of book that would be fun for kids. The other two I could see having more value for teachers, and would make the best kind of homework.

The first, the 1930 Newbery Winner,
The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth, is essentially an introduction to Buddhism for children. It's the story of an artist in Japan who is commissioned by a temple to paint the death of Buddha, a scene which includes a wide variety of animals. When his housekeeper picks up a stray cat, despite the fact that household can hardly afford another mouth to feed, the artist unwittingly begins his journey to a new understanding of the Buddha. As he paints each animal, he considers the various traits they each represent, and searches to see honor in them all. Meanwhile, he becomes closer to his cat. And though cats did not visit the Buddha when he died, he ultimately decides to include one in the painting, causing his pet to die of happiness. Beautifully written, and pleasantly concise, The Cat Who Went to Heaven is a great book for parents who want their younger children to learn about Buddhism, though may not be a good choice for reluctant readers, or readers looking for adventure in their stories.

The Twenty-One Balloons, by William Pene DuBois, on the other hand is a fantastically fun read with enough hot air-balloon travel and explosions for any reader. It won the Newbery in 1948, and is the story of a San Francisco math teacher who decides to escape his boring life in lieu of a hot air balloon adventure. When he crash lands on the Pacific Island of Krakatoa, a paradise laden with diamonds, he encounters a strange, utopian society of former San Francisco residents. And though Krakatoa is a volatile volcano, the residents have an escape plan. A clever tale with humor to spare, The Twenty-One Balloons was a pleasure to read, with fantastic illustrations by the author. It would be well suited for a family read aloud with younger kids, as it's an entirely wholesome tale and all the air travel a reader can handle.

The 1996 Newbery Winner, The Midwife's Apprentice, by Karen Cushman is a story of self-realization, packed with wonderful historical details. The realities of childbrith in
middle ages are hardly sugar-coated, and while it is an incredibly
short book (128 pages) it is hardly suited for readers younger than maybe ten years old. (The book says ages 12 and up, but those ages always skew older than I necessarily think they need to.) While I found it an entirely edifying read, and was attached to the characters, I would still qualify this as the type of book best suited for classrooms, unless the child in question has a preexisting interest in historical fiction. Nonetheless, it is beautifully written, immaculately structured and fully deserving of its prize.

Monday, May 18, 2009

good then, good now: mrs. basil e frankweiler and the newberry challenge

Last week, I decided to reread the classic From the Mixed-Up Files from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by EL Konigsburg, which I hadn't even looked at since it was homework sometime around third grade. I loved it then. The description of the kids hiding from the museum guards by standing on the toilet bowls stayed with me particularly. Other details as well, like the tally of expenses, the bath taken in the museum fountain and Michelangelo's imprint on the velvet resurfaced with startling clarity. Every kid imagines what it would be like if they ran away; Konigsburg took that endeavor seriously and imparted to children a story of intellectual curiosity, self-reliance and practicality. What I'm amazed I somehow forgot was how funny it was; the underlying conceit of the entire story is that it is actually a very long letter written by Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to her lawyer, who she sporadically admonishes for his various ignorances. And the letter itself contains pitch-perfect dialog between two, clever suburban kids, whose characters are the perfect confluence of incredibly specific and universal personality traits. Perfectly crafted, wildly enjoyable, I love From the Mixed-Up Files from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler just as much as I did the first time.
Which got me to wondering how many of the Newbery winners still had shelf life left.
Which got me to the idea of reading all the Newbery Winners.
I printed out the list today. It's a lot of books. The first Newbery was given in 1922 to
The Story of Mankind by Henvrik Willem Von Loon. 87 years later, and Neil Gaiman got his for The Graveyard Book. I have only read eleven of the titles of the eighty seven, which leaves (this will be the most math that will ever appear in this blog) seventy six titles. I can't imagine that all will hold up as well as the mixed-up files. Several, such as Daniel Boone, have gone out of print. And I don't intend to reread all the titles that I have read. Some I read so recently that the point would be moot, but others I just don't care to. If I read one a week, it'll take more than a year. If I read one a month it'll take over six years. I'm not exactly sure how to pace this, but one way or the other, I've got a lot of reading to do.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

not that kind of monster

I got a huge kick out of Kristin Cashore's first book, Graceling, but I have to say I may have liked her new book, Fire, even better. Fire takes place in the same universe as Graceling, but not in the same world. The gap is bridged by the origin story of the evil king, Leck, who stumbled into the Dells as a child. After a supremely creepy prologue told from Leck's father's perspective, the story belongs to Fire (yes, her name is Fire, and her best friend's name is Archer, a really neat experimentation with form informs the plot nicely) a native of the Dells. Fire is a "monster", a class of being in the Dells that are identified by their brightly colored bodies and typically vicious natures. There are monster variations of all animals, and they pose a danger to all those near them. Fire struggles with her own beguiling beauty, and her ability to enter people's thoughts, and even to shape them, because of her late father's public and political abuse of just those same traits. The story really picks up steam when Fire relocates to the king's palace, and the reader is able to spend more time with Prince Brigan, the one person whose mind Fire cannot access. Lots of political skulduggery I don't care to explain here (it'd be the longest blog post ever, and aren't these things supposed to be short? I haven't even gotten to reviewing this thing yet) ensues, and a war begins. All the while, the reader hears whispers of Leck's presence that grow louder and more insistent, until he is on the page in full force.
Structurally, Cashore has really hit her stride. The plot moves along swiftly, with several compelling subplots that tie into the overall arc of the story satisfyingly. She has also amassed an army of minor characters with incredible precision, all with their own clear motives and histories. Fire is an appealing character, strong yet very vulnerable, and her romantic interest, Brigan is appropriately swoon-worthy. Cashore did such a wonderful job tying these two, seemingly unrelatable worlds together, and sets them up for collision in a way that was entirely believable, not to mention totally exciting. Perhaps the next installment will feature monsters versus gracelings?
While Graceling was wrought with all the feminist rage a debut novel can muster (I loved that about it) Fire is more character driven, and Cashore has provided the reader with a narrator who is more in touch with their own emotions, which allows the reader a more emotive read. Due out it October of this year, from Dial.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Robyn knows all...

My very media savvy coworker just texted me to confirm, that yes, not only has Percy already been optioned, it's filming right now, and directed by Chris Columbus, director of the first 2 Harry Potter movies (alright, maybe it is fair to compare them as franchises). Set to release in 2010, IMDB tells all:

So get pumped to see Pierce Brosnan as a centaur, Uma Thurman as Medusa, and ROME's own Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) as Poseidon!

"Kiss my quiver"

When I first started working at the store, I had no kid-cred until I started recommending Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. It's a really fun series, steeped in Greek mythology in a freshly imagined way, with enough action to make a screenwriter drool. Fittingly, it is owned by Disney Hyperion, so I'm sure we'll see a movie, or a TV show, or something soon.
The last book in the series,
The Last Olympian, came out this Tuesday, and after I was sure there were enough copies in the store to create 3 displays, I borrowed a copy and read it over the last couple of days. It was exactly everything that the series has always promised: monsters, swords, angry gods, pithy dialog, pretty girls and a hero who loves nothing more than to charge into an angry mobs of monsters. So of course, it was good fun, just as all the other books were. However, the one thing I was a little disappointed about was the lack of emotional depth displayed in the face of extreme tragedy. While Riordan ups the body count considerably, killing kids and monsters and gods alike, the emotional reactions of the characters were very flat, not to mention very fleeting. And aside from making it a less compelling read, it may also do the further disservice of downplaying the psychological destruction that violence wreaks. I'd had no qualms with the glorified violence before, since it was all directed at monsters, who just dissolved and then reformed anyway. But in this last installment, the narrative voice Riordan uses seemed to get in his way a little, and he was unable to create a compelling psychological landscape. While that may seem like a lot to ask from a series about Greek gods squatting in Manhattan, The Battle of the Labyrinth, (the 4th installment, and my favorite in the series) addresses the difference in immortality achieved though art or through godliness. So clearly Riordan is capable of asking big questions.
But of course, I say this all with the caveat that this may be one of the most enjoyable series for kids out there right now. There's not a single kid I've turned onto this series that didn't like it, and it appeals to kids who spend all their time reading and reluctant readers alike. Plus, it's never a
bad idea to retell the Greek myths. I just wouldn't be quite so quick to compare it to Harry Potter, is all.

Friday, May 1, 2009

and to round out a tragedy binge, the following titles

I actually read The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron right before I read Gayle Forman's If I stay. It won the 2006 Newbery Medal, and even some controversy over the use of the word scrotum on page one of this middle grade novel. I'm probably the last kid's bookseller in the world to read it, and of course, I loved it. Lucky is a little girl living with her guardian, Brigitte. Lucky's father is MIA and her mother passed away in a freak electrical accident. As Lucky starts to come to grips with what has happened to her mother, she also begins to fully appreciate the relationship she has with Brigitte. When she mistakenly comes to think that Brigitte is planning to leave her, Lucky panics. She hits her own rock bottom when she takes her anger out on Miles, a much younger boy she's friends with. Ultimately, Lucky is able to finally fully grasp what she has lost in her life, but also what she has gained. Simply written, and surprisingly funny in turns, The Higher Power of Lucky was everything that a Newbery winner should be. I was especially fond of Lucky's best friend and maybe crush Lincoln, who is the best knot-artist Lucky has ever met.
I'd been trying to get into one post apocalyptic novel and one urban fantasy novel with little to no luck when I decided to raid the advanced reader copy shelves at work. I picked up 10, and decided to read the first chapter of all of them, just to get a sense of either what I wanted to read, or what I wanted to give to kid reviewers. I found debut author Suzanne LaFleur's Love, Aubrey in the pile, and read it all in one night. Tonight, actually. I read the first chapter, same as the rest, but as soon as I tried to go back to my preexisting reading, all I was thinking about was this little girl. When the novel opens, Aubrey has been abandoned by her mother. Her grandmother quickly arrives on the scene, and moves Aubrey up to Vermont so that she can take care of her. Neither know where Aubrey's mother has gone, but Gram takes care of Aubrey as she slowly moves through the grieving process. The reader learns that Aubrey has lost both her little sister, Savannah and her father in a car accident. Because she was driving, Aubrey's mother feels responsible, and the pain of it cripples her. As Aubrey comes to grip with the pain in her life, she also begins to learn how to trust people again. Absorbing storytelling, and a very authentic kid's narrative voice made for an incredible emotional read. Like If I Stay, Love Aubrey moves elegantly between the present time of the story, and flashbacks to Aubrey's life before the accident, and before her mother abandoned her. In the end, I found myself so attached to Aubrey that I actually felt proud of her, and the way she handles her choices. From Random House Children's Books, Love, Aubrey comes out in hardback June 9.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Another Site!

So one my fellow students in the USF MFA program has a website! Mary wants to write for kids too, and reads way more than I do. So for more on all things kid lit, go to this link:

She has contests, so, you know. Go there.

Good grief.

So, I admit that things like seeing the crew from San Francisco getting eliminated on America's Best Dance Crew have made me cry. Once, a Campbell's soup commercial. It's true. So maybe it's fair to say it doesn't take much to make me cry. I'm a sucker. But, at the very least, I like to think I can tell when I've been sucker punched. And there are some things that earn the tears.
I recently read the new YA novel,
If I Stay, by Gayle Foreman, and cried and cried and cried and cried and then cried some more until my face hurt. It's about a girl named Mia who begins an out of body experience after she suffers a horrific car accident with her family. Her parents are dead on the scene, and her believably adorable younger brother is whisked away. The novel moves back in forth between the times before the accident, and after. What I found really compelling was the handling of the out of body conceit. Mia's body is comatose in the present action of the novel, and her spirit, her consciousness (or however you want to describe it) bears witness to visitations from her extended family, friends, and boyfriend.
When I was told what the conceit was, I had my reservations; it sounded a little Lovely Bonesish to me, and I seem to be the only person in the world who did not like that novel. But Foreman handles it elegantly, believably and most of all evocatively. The family and friends that create Mia's emotional landscape are empathetically and realistically portrayed. And while they are incredibly specific (a dad who used to love punk and now loves bow ties, for example) they also feel authentically universal in the love that binds them to one another. So while Mia struggles to decide between life with the crippling pain of losing her family and something that may be much easier, the reader is invited to look for moments of love in their own life.
And so even though the novel centers around the absolute worst-case scenario of family loss, it is ultimately a celebration the things that make life worth living. And so I cried and I cried and I cried and then I cried some more while I thinking about it later.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

oh mr. jeffers, you're so dreamy.

My favorite picture book artist, Oliver Jeffers, (I own all his books... and have no kids) put out a new book in January, called The Great Paper Caper. It's the story of a tree shortage in a forest that is ultimately accredited to a well-meaning but competitive grizzly-lookin' bear who just wanted to win the annual paper airplane contest. Perfectly illustrated, as always (Jeffers is also a working artist, whose paintings toy with the relationship between text and image-- swoon) the story utilizes a lot of great detective/police procedural vocabulary, not to mention to obvious conservation themes. And like The Incredible Book Eating Boy (also by Jeffers, winner of the Irish Children's Book Award) there are lots of clever little details in the backgrounds of the illustrations, though Incredible Book Eating Boy does not have anything quite like a pig making bacon as his alibi. Better for kids who are willing to have vocab words explained to them, this story did not do particularly well at my toddler-laden storytime. But nonetheless, I recommend it all the time, for ages 4 and 5 and up.

An Illustration from The Great Paper Caper

The Witness, a painting by Oliver Jeffers

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I love you, man.

You'd think that working at a bookstore, I'd be at no loss for good books to read, but every once and a while I hit a slump, and the last few weeks have been just that. At first, I thought it was the books that I was reading (why can't they read my mind, and give me exactly what I want right this very second, even if I don't know what that is? gosh), but after a while I came to the conclusion that it was actually just me, being lazy, or being unwilling, or some such excuse. Whatever the case, I'd picked up and put down over 6 titles, and not for lack of trying with them, either.
But 3 of my coworkers have all been recommending City of Thieves by David Benioff (which is now in paperback) and I'm glad that I finally listened. It was exactly the quickly paced, escapist, pleasingly cinematic novel I needed to pull me out of my reading slump. And it's a great book to recommend to older teens, not just for its accessibility, but also since it's a strong, contemporary coming of age story. For those interested in WWII, it's a good choice, and accessible enough for reluctant readers.

After being arrested for looting the corpse of a German soldier, the narrator, Lev, is sent on a wild chicken chase with a charming deserter named Kolya to find a dozen eggs for a Soviet colonel's daughter's wedding cake. If they succeed, their lives are saved. If not, you get the idea. Their search takes them beyond Leningrad, and into enemy territory. In the mean time, the unlikely duo create an unexpectedly sentimental bond.
And it's possibly the most bromantic book I've ever read.
Though sometimes all the maleness of the novel got to me (if you don't have the equipment, it can be boring to peruse the manual) the friendship forged between the two main characters was always entertaining. Benioff certainly has a talent for writing clever exchanges, perfectly suited for film, if not always so in novel form. His dialog heavy style makes the book move along at a nice clip, and the plot does as well, with more intelligence than one expects from a page turner.
Benioff may not be ready to stand next to Vonnegut and Heller in the category of tragi-comic WWII stories, but he's certainly crafted an intensely entertaining novel, so good, it could pull my head out of my own
You get the idea.

Monday, April 6, 2009

my skirt is poofier than yours

The Luxe series, by Anna Godbersen, is my favorite not-really-guilty read to recommend to girls too smart for some of the more average mean girl fare. Though diction certainly does not define the intelligence of a novel, the language in all three installments of The Luxe is appropriately luxurious, particularly when providing lush descriptions of the clothes.
And the clothes. Set in 1899 New York, the ladies and gentlemen of this series are all lavishly dressed in true designer garb-- that is, articles made for one person only, for a high price by the very talented. (I felt very rewarded for having read Dana Thomas'
Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, which is a non fiction work I'm a little disappointed in myself for not recommending to older, college bound teens.) However, changes in wardrobe have never been so menacing as in these winding tales of secrets, true love and jealousy. Great for lovers of historical fiction and romance, with outreach to those of us who are not necessarily bound by those two genres.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

bad mood city

Big Rabbit's Bad Mood has got to be my favorite picture book of the new year. It embodies exactly what makes picture books fun, with simple (yet detailed) and surprisingly sophisticated illustrations with a clever story of Big Rabbit, who is being followed around by his bad mood. The bad mood is a bigfoot-lookin' creature with orangutan-length arms, who does things like eat the radio, knock things over and wipe his boogers on the floor. I read this story at storytime last Saturday, and we actually couldn't move forward from the booger moment because all the kids were laughing so hard. It's the perfect length for read-aloud when one is dealing with a variety of ages, since the concept is simple, but the execution works on several levels. And, for all the simplicity of the illustrations, it is incredibly evocative. Big Rabbit's face expresses a spectrum of emotion, from ennui to elation. Not to mention the bad mood, whose facial expressions are hilariously hedonistic (he really likes to eat things, like the radio and cacti). Ultimately, the bad mood makes a silent exit when Big Rabbit's friends all show up for his suprise birthday. Even his mommy, complete with pancake-cake, is in attendance. Perfect for kids, but fun for adults, just the way picture books ought to be.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

requisite crazy feminist posting

I grew up watching this chick on TV (and then went to an all women's college), so I guess it's no surprise that I get a little kick out of YA novels that star tough, resourceful women who are never waiting for their prince to come save them. And sure, the tough grrrl fantasy card has been played a lot, and there's something troubling about having to look to universes populated by dragons and fairies and spaceships to find strong female role models, but that doesn't mean there aren't some great books with some kick-butt (mind your language, children) femmes that are totally worth reading. 2008 was a great year for strong women, too. So if you're looking to get beyond Lyra in Oxford, beyond Cimorene in the Enchanted Forest, beyond Tally Youngblood in Prettytown and LEAGUES beyond Bella in Forks, then here are some hardback titles that might be worth checking out:
Graceling, the debut novel from Kristin Cashore, is a must-read for Tamora Pierce graduates. Set in a fantastical, somewhat medieval world, the protagonist, Katsa, is one of the people who have what is called a grace, which is essentially just an extraordinary talent. Many people in this world have graces, but most are basically useless. Katsa's, however, is presented as a grace for killing people. Things get interesting when a dashing young man with his own mysterious grace is introduced, and Katsa begins to fall in love. One thing I really enjoyed about this novel, particularly amidst all the Twilight craziness, was that novel centers around a romantic relationship that thrives on the equality of the two people in love. Both are strong, both are talented, yet it is their separate strengths that compliment one another, creating a bond forged in mutual need (though, not dependence, and important distinction). I was also thrilled (thrilled) to find a sex scene in a fantasy novel in which birth control is used. It might seem silly to harp on such a small detail, but it was very contemporary moments like that, which steer Cashore clear of many fantasy novel cliches. It's also just refreshing to see sex presented as the perfect confluence of love and responsibility, not just as something that begets offspring. Kudos to Cory Doctorow, for using birth control in Little Brother, as well. The climactic battle against the evil king (yes, there's an evil king) is ultimately Katsa's battle, however, and she does it sans lover (who is hiding out in a cabin by himself as he goes blind, fighting his own battle). Though Katsa's narrative voice can be a little distant, it serves the complex plot of this very enjoyable story well, making it a great, escapist read.
I admit, I was reluctant, even after several glowing recommendations, to read Eon: Dragoneye reborn. Firstly, I have mostly departed the stage of my life in which dragons hold much interest. Secondly, the cover (which, upon reading the novel, I realized is actually perfect for the content) turned me off. Wrong I was. That's what I get for judging a book by it's cover, I suppose. It took me maybe about 50 pages to get into the novel, since the beginning is mostly descriptions of technical-sounding sword-fighting practice sequences. But as soon as I realized that this seemingly male narrator was suffering from 'moon cycles' I realized this was a much more interesting endeavor than I had given it credit for. From then on, I was hooked. Minimal dragons and maximum intrigue make the world of Eon one wrought with political skulduggery, personal vendettas and a full cast of eunuchs, drag queens and other such genderfull fun. And like the Bartimaeus Trilogy and Thirsty, it has the ending the story demands, depicting a very frank and terrifying apocalyptic coup d'etat. In the last hundred or so pages, I amended my previous assessment of age range on the book, due to the incredible graphic descriptions of beheaded corpses of friends, and the execution of a mother and her baby. It's not a direct line between the crowd that like Paolini's trilogy to Eon, but it may actually reach the less fantasy-genre inclined group of readers, which is really saying something for a book co-starring dragons.
Lastly, there was Hunger Games, the first book in what will be a trilogy, and already named NYT top 10 for 2008. Hunger Games is a perfectly paced, thrilling read, perfectly suited for voracious and reluctant readers alike. The plot moves ahead at breakneck speed, but it is the socio-economic commentary that really make this novel interesting. In the post-apocalyptic world of Hunger Games, 24 children are selected by lottery every year from the 12 different districts to fight to the death. The wealthy districts can afford to train their kids, and so it is typically those districts who prevail in the fights. The poorest districts, such as the agricultural district and the coal-mining district (where the novel's heroine, Katniss hails from) almost always lose. But Katniss refuses to go so easily, and her fight for survival is a riveting read that, like Eon, sets up for the next book perfectly. As she fights, more is learned about the different districts, and Collins' depiction of the agricultural district asks particular pertinent questions about many of the industrialized agricultural industries that set our tables. And it seems like every kid I've turned this on to comes back to the store with that crazy look in their eye, asking when the next installment will come out. Like my kid reviewer Gabe aptly wrote: "If you like books about kids fighting to the death, then this is the book for you." Right you are Gabe, right you are.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

come and dance the macabre

Neil Gaiman is a rock star. It's true. He wears a leather jacket and everything, and he collaborates with Tori Amos. He writes novels, short stories, screen plays, picture books, graphic novels, and god knows what else. His hair is always picturesquely tousled .
So even though I didn't like the Newberry winner, The Graveyard Book as much as I liked some of his other work (particularly Coraline and Stardust, which are two of my favorite stories) I still thoroughly enjoyed it. It's particularly awesome to listen to it on audio since Gaiman records it himself, and of course, does an awesome job at it.
Right before the Newberry was announced this year, two people returned The Graveyard Book to our store on the basis that it was too dark. I also got one adult who came back angry that Coraline had given her nightmares. And Gaiman's work is dark. But for those readers that like imagining all the creepy crawlies in the dark, like a world wrought with impossible imagination and like stories that are always positively affirming, then Gaiman may be a fun place to start.
Though focused around a world of death, Gaiman managed to craft a book entirely about life. Consistently, throughout his entire body of work, Gaiman explores positive representations of death not as a morbid fascination, but as a way of reducing fear. And the Graveyard book is no exception.

also, check out his awesome interview with Stephen Colbert:

Also, thanks to my older sister for introducing me to him in the first place. He was her favorite for years, and she used to read his work to me. We read his story, Chivalry (from the short story collection Smoke and Mirrors), on Christmas with our mom, and it's still one of my favorite family memories. I also used to steal her Sandman Chronicles when she wasn't home. Sorry, Mikka.

you blob of glup.

It's no easy task to defeat an evil, aggressive Duke (who's only vice, he pleads, is wickedness), but it's all in a day's work (well, day and some hours) for a dashing prince, a forgetful but prophetic sidekick and a princess with very, very warm hands. And aside from being a virtually perfect fairytale (complete with evil but not too terrifying villain) what makes this book so much fun is the playful language in it. Thurber uses a full arsenal of poetic devices to make up this clever, and comic universe, in a manner similar in nonsense and cleverness to the world of Doctor Seuss. And like Seuss, Thurber's prose is perfectly suited for the best kind of read aloud.
If play is the best way to learn, then Thurber's undertaking is much more substantial than a simple plot of good versus evil; it's a primer for the appreciation of literature, not just as a means for escape, but as an art. It's a pleasure to read, both to yourself and especially out loud. Even if it's still just to yourself. From start to finish, The 13 Clocks is a energetically crafted novel for kids, for people who used to be kids and even for people who were never kids at all.