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.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

why tom should read octavian nothing like right this very second, and other such electronic pressures, or, why MT Anderson is god, part II

Though I have yet to hit my stride with the perfect kid to recommend this book to, The Game of Sunken Places is still one of my favorite handsells for anyone who will listen to me. Two, odd couple friends get sucked into a game somewhat akin to Jumanji, minus the safari animals and psychotic hunter, but plus a troll going through an existential crisis. They eventually realize they are being pitted against one another, and it is a touching moment when their friendship and teamwork prevails. I think this was the third book I read by Anderson, but I know this is when my appreciation for him really began to materialize. Here, in this old school adventure story, Anderson is able to depict a very real friendship in a very unreal situation, and toss in secondary characters who beg the question of whether or not the capacity to recall makes someone real. The dialogue in this book is fantastic, and the exchanges between the two boys are particularly well handled. Anderson doesn't just write for smart kids, but he writes about them too.

So, the one time I got to meet MT Anderson, at the super cool Not Your Mother's Book Club ( more information about NYMBC available at the following link: the crazy slick thing I managed to squeak out when I made MT Anderson sign EVERY SINGLE ONE of his books (I was told not to be embarrassed about this, but, well, c'mon, I even had the picture books) I said: Hey, did you know when you say MT out loud, it sounds like empty? Yeah, because I'm super cool like that. But he very graciously played along with the joke (which wasn't even my joke, it was my coworker Bob's) and told me that he and his editor used to laugh at the notion that his first YA book, Thirsty, was by someone named empty.
Thirsty is Anderson's vampire book, in what I can only assume is his quest to conquer every genre. And amidst what I will only refer to as the promise-ring-vampires, it was refreshing to find this intelligent, non-lovey-dovey-icky-sticky vampire story to recommend to the reader looking for VAMPIRES, real vampires, scary, blood-drinking vampires. It's one of those books I wish existed when I was twelve, (which is when I went through my vampire faze) because this would have been an easy favorite. Like any good horror movie, Anderson moves deftly between truly scary moments and relieving humor. In this world of vampires, people do not necessarily become vampires because they are bitten, since some, like the protagonist of this story, become a vampire during puberty. Talk about the horrors of adolescence. And to kick it off, right at the beginning of the story, we are witness to a vampire lynching (yes, that's Anderson's word choice) and to news reports of a mother killing her baby twins since one of them was something un-human. So even in his vampire story, Anderson finds ways to ask questions about the society we live in. But what really impressed me about this book was the ending, which I will not ruin here. Since one of my major complaints about kids books is that often authors will pull punches and tack on a happy ending so as not to hurt the fragile minds of the children (won't somebody PLEASE think of the children?) Anderson, by contrast, wrote the ending that the story demanded.

And now, the real gushing begins. It's hard to say that I have a favorite among Anderson's books. I really do love them all. But Feed is certainly the novel that has had the most effect on the way I think on a daily basis. It's hard not to look at the iPhone, (for which there are applications you download so that if you simply point your it at something that is playing a song you like, and it will immediately connect you to that song on iTunes so you can buy it) and feel like Anderson saw this all coming. Feed is a novel that eloquently (though in a manner and voice that feels legitimately teen aged) questions the relationship between consumerism and technology, and what very negative outcomes that could have on the future of autonomy and our ability to create real connections with one another. As the protagonist, Titus, explains: "...the weirdest thing is that you know you're more alone than anyone , but that people are thinking about you more than ever before. They're all just there, holding their breath, watching you're every move...So you're more alone, but more watched" (Anderson, 195). It's a book I love to handsell, not only because invariably, kids come back with wide eyes, telling me how cool that book was, but because it's one I could see making a difference in the way that future generations look at the cross section of consumerism and technology.
On a side note, it's also the only time the afterward with an author has made me teary eyed:"You already think in ways I'll never be capable of, and are dreaming things I can't conceive of. Keep it up. We're counting on you."

There is only one of Anderson's chapter books I haven't written about, and that's Burger Wuss. The reason for that is, simply, because I haven't read it yet! I'm saving it for sometime when, inevitably, I'll have read a stretch of not-so-good books, and I'll need something good and new to cleanse the palate. But that is, basically, what is the coolest thing about MT Anderson. You can always depend on him for a good, smart book.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

why MT Anderson is god, among other compliments

MT Anderson is that writer I like so much, I want to extract his brain in some painless procedure and then place it, very gently, where my pizza with extra cheese and soda pop addled brain once was. That is to say, I wish I had thought of any of the awesomeness he has bestowed on the world of children's publishing. Any of it.
Pictured here is Anderson upon winning the National Book Award for Young Adult Fiction for his [insert uproariously-praise-filled adjective here] novel
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One The Pox Party. And the award wasn't just for the longest title ever. It also won the Printz Award. Though it does on some level fill me with sadness that only his most grownup book (in terms of diction, thematic elements and content) has received the crazy accolades that this novel did, it is undoubtedly a work of staggering accomplishment. The second volume, The Kingdom on the Waves was similarly fantastic, though, some have criticized it for the lack of focus in comparison to the first, very taut, installment (I actually favored the second for its scope, but that's just me). Published in two volumes, just as books would have been published in the era Octavian Nothing lived, these books serve to ask all attentive readers very pertinent questions about the nature of American freedom. By providing a narrative that illuminates the origins of our nation through the lens of a man subjugated by that very celebrated system, Anderson allows readers to examine their collective history on a very personal and very contemporary (despite the historical setting) manner. The back of the books suggest the reading age of 14 and up, but I have come across more than a couple of younger readers capable of handling it. Both installments contain brutally honest depictions of atrocities committed against slaves, yes, but the beauty of Octavian's narrative voice serve to show even the younger readers that there is power not only in literacy, but in appreciation and love of well-crafted prose. It is, in fact, Octavian's love for narrative that in many ways sets him apart, and for that reason he is the perfect conduit for Anderson's tale.
But even in Anderson's less serious works, his commitment to creating intelligent work for young readers is undeniable. In his series for middle readers, MT ANDERSON'S THRILLING TALES!, Anderson follows three main protagonists, two of whom are already stars in their own separate children's books series. The first installment, Whales on Stilts, is exactly as it promises. Whales. On stilts. Bent on world domination. Oh, with laser beams coming out their eyes. The second installment, Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen circles around a mystery unfolding in a ski lodge where the stars of numerous children's franchises are staying. (The third, Jasper Dash and the Fire Pits of Delaware, is not out just yet). But what Anderson does in these decidedly goofy tales that is, well, not goofy at all, is to playfully remind the readers of the absurdity of these franchises in the first place. While at once spinning a crazy story about something completely silly, he seems to be gently reminding the reader that anything that is made simply so that people will buy it is something that is, well, silly. On my favorite page in the first book, there is a page dedicated to an add for Katie Mulligan's (one of the three central protagonists) products, which prompts consumers to: "rush out and stuff your arms, pockets, and mouth with more... HORROR HOLLOW BOOKS" The books, which have gotten into the 200's, use exclamation points in triplets and all sound like Goosebumps titles. Basically, it's the series I recommend to all kids who are in the Dairy of a Wimpy Goosebumps Nancy Hardy Stilton Treehouse rut.

To be continued... (I've only gushed about half his books now, so stay tuned for more gushing)

or, just click this link, and hear it from the horse's mouth:

Thursday, March 5, 2009

terrorists, tech geeks and inept authority, oh my!

When Marcus and his role-playing tech geeks friends ditch school on the wrong day (a terrorist attack hits San Francisco, throwing the city into chaos) they are arrested by homeland security, and mercilessly interrogated for days. The depictions of these teens being tortured is just the beginning, however, and when they are released, it is into a San Francisco where everyone is treated like a potential terrorist. Fast Trak transponders are used to track people's movement, the internet is heavily watched. And so Marcus does what any brave tech nerd would- he starts a rebellion from the computers up.
It's a must read for any kid who witnessed the Bush administration, which is to say, I really do think all teens should read this. It was already named NYT top 10 books for YA in 2008, and is up for the Nebula as well. But awards aside, what really amazed me about this book was the way it textured my life after I read it. Doctorow lifts the veil of technological surveillance such that even the most tech-lame citizen (like me) can see it for what it really is. Like MT Anderson's Feed, which is also a must-read, it is impossible to return to your normal tech-consumer lifestyle after the last page is turned. What is extra cool about Little Brother is that rather than making you want to live off the grid in some cabin in the woods where no one can find you ever again, it inspires you to take a hold of the technology available to us and figure out how to use it with as much autonomy as you can muster.
You can also check out this super cool blog, to which Doctorow contributes:

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

LeUyen Pham is good at drawing. no joke.

Little Alvin Ho is just a little scared of... everything. When he goes to school, he's so scared of his teachers, the other kids and all the pressure to know answers that he can't even speak. But when he goes home, he's Firecracker Man, an alter ego in the manner of Calvin's Spaceman Spiff, who wears a colander on his head. He must contend with school, siblings and his parents in this very modern, very real (even though it's told from Alvin's perspective) short novel with illustrations. The hyper-evocative pictures and the narrative voice of the book suit it well for read aloud with younger kids, especially those that might find school just a little scary. For kids who read on their own, it's well suited for ages 6-9.

Bonus points for the Shakespearian insults, the very realistic appointment with a child therapist, and Mr. Ho's ill-fated rocket launcher.

Monday, March 2, 2009

whittling never seemed so cool

Despite its uber precious cover, The Silver Crown is crazy creepy, and not at all the adorable story of a girl and her bunny. Instead, the heroine, Ellen, starts off on her trail of intrigue after her home explodes, presumably with her entire family inside.
I should have known, since it's by the author of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, which is similarly goose-pimple inducing.
There are some dated moments, for instance, when Ellen tells her cohort Otto a story she'd heard about chinamen. But ultimately, this is a perfect adventure story, quickly paced and complete with brainwashed children, an expert wood-carver, and all the masked assassins that any reader can handle.

not at all silly things, like skeleton detectives and listening to audio books in my car during my lunch break

Other than Neil Gaiman's recordings of ANY of his books, this has got to be the most fun I've had listening to book on tape. So much fun, in fact, that it had me doing somewhat embarrassing things, like spending my very short lunch break in my tiny car, listening to an audio book whilst shoveling salad from a tupperware down my face. In public. Where people could see me.
There's not much nuance in this story of magic and mystery, but there's plenty of punches thrown and and plenty of gore. The dialogue is snappy and funny, and the characters, despite being able to do magic and/or be a skeleton dressed like a 1940's pimp, feel surprisingly real. There's even an HP Lovecraft reference.
It's the perfect book for reluctant readers who need a little humor and a lot of action to pull them into a book. I recommend it to kids who like The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. Like Percy Jackson, Skulduggery Pleasant exists in a world that stands next to the one we know. It's even for the same age group, 8 and up. The second book is currently out in hardback, and the third comes out this April.

Suriviving the zombie apocalypse, and other super grownup thoughts

Ever since I read this book a month or so ago, I've had at least one zombie related nightmare per week.
And it was totally worth it.
At the store I work in, we shelve this book in the adult section for obvious reasons (crazy graphic zombie related violence for a start) but really this book is no worse than the average R rated horror flick that most thirteen year olds watch when their parents aren't home anyway. And it's probably a lot smarter, with a lot of really interesting questions about our current dependence on technology. Written in the tradition of Studs Terkel's The Good War, Max Brooks uses the conceit of oral history to its most entertaining potential. Though completely fictional, the accounts are so vivid, and the spread of zombies so logical that despite its crazy premise it starts to sound downright inevitable.
So stock up your house with non-perishable goods, invest in a crowbar, shave your head and get ready for the zombie apocalypse. It's coming.

talking cat complete with pirate patch

Despite the fact that this books sports one of those covers that is clearly meant only for kids (which made reading it at the gym an exercise in more-than-usual embarrassment) I very much enjoyed it. It's a fun, entirely wholesome story for kids ages 7-10.
Little Madeleine lives in Paris and aspires to be a chef, though, working for her Uncle Lard's restaurant has hardly given her the experience she needs. When she stumbles into Madame Pamplemousse's magical food boutique, her career takes an interesting turn, and she unwittingly begins a battle with her Uncle Lard's obese ego.
Like Ratatouille, but all the cool real kitchen facts are traded in for accessibility. And there are no rats. Just a droll, talking cat who dons a pirate patch, named for one of my favorite soft cheeses.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Favorite Picture Books of 2008

In no particular order...

Pete and Pickles
by Berkeley Breathed. The clever tale of an unlikely friendship between Pete, a practical pig, and Pickles, an eccentric elephant. After Pete rescues Pickles from the circus, he finds his life is a little more unpredictable than the life to which he is accustomed. What really makes this book special is the relationship between the illustrations (which are highly detailed) and the text. There's a plot line that runs only through the illustrating, inviting kids to use their imaginations to connect the dots between the pictures and the text. ($17.99 from Philomel)

The Way Back Home by Oliver Jeffers. When a little boy finds an airplane in his closet (like you do) he flies it to the moon, and makes friends with a Martian who is similarly stranded. Working together, they engineer the means for their mutual safe trips home. The little boy is the same unnamed boy from the book Lost and Found and the penguin from said book makes an unnamed cameo in this new installment. This book is always a success at story time, keeping even the most restless child's attention for the entire duration of the story. And since the boy in the story is unnamed, any boy's name can be inserted while it is being told, which adds a nice personal touch. Because, really, what little boy wouldn't want to think he could fly to the moon and make a friend there to boot? ($16.99 from Philomel)

Wave by Suzy Lee. A wordless book depicting a little girl playing in the waves on a beach. Simply, yet evocative, this New York Times Best Illustrated book of 2008 invites kids to write their own words to the story. Similar to Wonder Bear, which also made the NYT Best Illustrated list, but with a more simple story line (little girl plays in waves, knocked down by waves, gets back up). ($15.99 from Chronicle Books)