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.