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.