Sunday, November 28, 2010

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

I loved the first two Hunger Games books-- they were fun, smart and undeniably propulsive. Katniss provided a fabulous heroine that served as a pleasantly proactive alternative to many of the more passive female leads in YA lit. The world was fascinating. The action was crisp, and kept coming fast enough to keep even the most reluctant readers tuned in. The series has been a fabulous tool as a bookseller, as I have yet to find a kid who hasn't liked it-- from precocious 9 year olds who read like it's their job to tear through series, to the 15 year olds who treat English class like death camp. And since I'd read both of the previous installments as ARCs, I awaited the conclusion just as breathlessly as everyone else. So my response to this final installment probably isn't fair, due to my overwhelming anticipation.
Before I launch into the many things that gave me pause, I should clarify that I still read Mockingjay in about 4 hours. Collins' style and clear prose remain, and her sensibility as a landscape builder is as strong as ever. When the novel opens, Katniss is meandering around the smoldering remains of her decimated home in District 12. Peeta has been captured by the capitol, and Gale, Katniss's mother and sister and the remaining survivors of District 12 have taken refuge in the underground prison camp that is District 13. As the story progresses, Katniss steps into the role of revolutionary symbol (not leader, a distinction that troubles her), called the Mockingjay. As she struggles with her restrictive new role, she also wavers between Peeta (who has been brainwashed by the capitol) and Gale (whose new outlook on war is disturbingly bloodthirsty). The scenes in which Katniss visits District 8 are emotionally explosive (and literally explosive, those poor people) and the character work around Finnick was sound. In fact, he ended up being my favorite character in the book. Which leads me neatly into the things I liked less.
One of the things I loved about Katniss in the previous books was that, despite her strange and horrible circumstance, she was incredibly relatable. She struggled to understand her own motives in a way that felt truly teenaged; she loved her family fiercely and she yearned, very realistically, for a different life. But the Katniss in this book was so emotionally shut down it was nearly impossible to empathize with her. This was particularly troublesome in the scenes that follow Prim's death. The whole reason Katniss became involved in the Hunger Games in the first place was to protect Prim. When she is ultimately killed, rendering Katniss's efforts in vain, I expected a much bigger emotional hit than there was. Similarly, given the amount of time she spends going back and forth between the two, when Katniss ultimately decides upon Peeta (which seemed as much out of convenience as anything else) we get a rather truncated epilogue with little passion left in it. And of course, they have babies. Why do they always have to have babies?
In both the previous installments, I ignored the fact the structure was incredibly back-loaded, assuming that was done on purpose in order to set up the next book. Huge, climactic scenes that opened up lots of loose ends tended to pop in the last 50 pages or so-- and I didn't read this as a flaw. But in the final installment, the same structure holds, to a much less satisfying effect. There was also the issue of Katniss frequently being knocked unconscious during the climax of scenes, which is really irksome given the first person constraint of the novel. It's a ploy that I've also been noticing as I read JRR Tolkein's trilogy (for the first time... I know, worst nerd ever) so maybe it's something that really only irritates me.
So maybe this was my least favorite of the series. It's still a great series, and I still love recommending it almost ubiquitously to kids and adults alike. I also had the pleasure of meeting Suzanne at a lunch for booksellers, and listening to her talk about her intentions with the novel only solidified my confidence in handing it to new readers. Did you know, for instance, that Katniss is meant to be an allegory to Spartacus? Once she pointed it out, it seemed obvious, but I certainly didn't catch it.

Things 2nd Grade Boys like

Since I abandoned this blog to the cold winds of internet neglect, I've started officiating some book clubs for kids. One of them is a group of 2nd grade boys who vary wildly in reading level, so aside from the fact that planning a discussion for a handful of 8 year old boys is kind of like trying to choreograph cat herding, we also struggle to find books that every one can relate to. Below, are the books we've read so far.

I started us off with The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes. It was originally titled The Iron Man: A Story in 5 Nights, but the title was changed when the superhero superceded Hughes' novel in popularity. Now there's a movie, which is AMAZING and every one should watch it, but is totally different than the book. And even if you've seen the movie (which I agree, is awesome) you should still read the book and hopefully you'll like it even a fraction as much as this group of boys did. I started off the discussion simply, by asking what their favorite parts were. The boys then clamored with their answers, revisions to their answers and dramatic readings of their scenes of choosing. It was the perfect book to get us started. Fun, simple, full of startling and direct symbolic imagery, The Iron Giant is a great book for reluctant readers obsessed with Star Wars and the kids who can already read Harry Potter (with a parent). I decided NOT to bring up the fact that Hughes wrote it to comfort his children after his wife, Sylvia Plath, had a run in with her oven.
the current edition since changing publishers
 Second, we read Whales on Stilts by MT Anderson, the first in the Pals in Peril series (previously called MT Anderson's Thrilling Tales). Anyone who's listened to me blather about books knows that MT Anderson's basically my favorite, and I was really excited to have a chance to force his book on a bunch of kids subjected to my literary whims. Unfortunately, the sense of humor was a little beyond a few of our readers, and while we still managed to have a lively discussion rich with dramatic readings we also spent a lot of time clarifying vocabulary and plot points for some. Jasper Dash's character, particularly, who speaks in a hilariously outdated vernacular, left some of group behind. But I was really pleased to find that the kids who could keep up with Jasper and his chums loved the book, and took to the absurdity nicely. One of the readers has even continued on with the series on his own, and had already completed the second book by the time we met. And, being the group's only Jew, I was pleased to explain what gefilte fish is to the general disgust of all our members.
the new cover, which no longer features Peter Sis's illustrations
Despite the horror most of the mothers expressed to me over the title, I still assigned Sid Fleishman's Newbery Winner, The Whipping Boy. Though it was a struggle to get the boys to focus on this particular meeting date, we still managed to get some of the most insightful discussion we've ever had from this book. Toward the end of our discussion I asked if the boys could think of any examples in which, like in the book, someone or something is punished for misdeeds committed by another. Initially many examples of wrongful accusations among siblings and household pets were offered, but eventually one boy gave the following example, which I thought was not only apt, but very thoughtful: "It's like," he said "when someone lets go of a balloon, and they think it's really funny to watch it float away, but then eventually it pops and it lands in the ocean, and then a turtle eats it, because it thinks it's a jellyfish, but it's not. And then the turtle suffocates and dies."

Up Next:
For January

For February

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Worst Blogger EVER? A picture book and Early Reader update

So it's only been two months since my last post, but thankfully I read far more often than I log into this blog, so there's plenty to catch up on...

For instance, since my last post in August, SOCKSQUATCH by Frank Dormer has hit the shelves. Blessedly short and silly, and therefor perfect for toddler heavy storytimes, Socksquatch is my new go-to book when I recognize all the attendees as kids who have already heard Bear in Underwear more than a million and twelve times. Socksquatch lumbers around, looking for a sock for his cold foot. Along the way he meets a mummy, a werewolf and a damsel who's not in distressed so much as she is perturbed and good at problem solving. The way that Socksquatch holds himself reminds me a little of the Bad Mood from Big Rabbit's Bad Mood, and I like him all the more for that.

Also out now is BINK AND GOLLIE, an early reader featuring three, perfect short stories by Kate DiCamillo, Allison McGhee and illustrated by Tony Fucile. Bink and Gollie are odd couple friends whose distinct personalities and voices drive the stories effortlessly. Hilariously told, playfully illustrated and surprisingly touching, Bink and Gollie is the perfect book to read to younger kids starting to make the transition into longer stories, but who are not quite ready for full chapters yet, and kids who are reading independently, but are too young for books like Clementine (by Sarah Pennypacker and Marla Frazee) or Ivy and Bean (by Annie Barrows). If for no other reason, pick up Bink and Gollie for excellently executed dialog. 

Also for early readers, but more advanced than Bink and Gollie is LULU AND THE BRONTOSAURUS by Judith Viorst and (expertly) illustrated by Lane Smith. I love this book from the green polka-dotted chapter breaks, to Lulu's tiger-smashing suitcase. It's perfect as a read aloud book to the kids in the My Father's Dragon age group/attention span, since not only is it about the same length and density of illustrations, but it's clearly a modern, snarky update of that wholesome classic. Where Elmer was kind and curious, Lulu is stubborn and rude, though she learns far more from her quest than Elmer does. Smith's illustrations echo Gannet's without copying, while updating them in a way that's undeniably cool. Come Christmas and Channukah, I will literally be throwing this book at parents.

Friday, August 20, 2010

ATTACK of the Fluffy Bunnies by Andrea Beaty

When twins Kevin and Joules Rockman are sent to summer camp, they find their summer filled with something even more awful than sing alongs: large, fuzzy white bunny aliens who eat people and then hijack their bodies for their own malevolent purposes. Playfully illustrated by Dan Santat, Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies delivers everything that the title promises. Short chapters and a diabolically goofy conceit make this story the perfect read for that snarky kid who doesn't care less about the Hardy Boys. So if you know a 7-10 year old who loved Whales on Stilts, Zombiekins or the oldie-but-hopefully-still-goodie, My Teacher is an Alien, then this is the book for them.
I was really surprised when I found this silly, rollicking tale of fuzzy alien invasion, since author Andrea Beaty's previous book, Cicada Summer, is a serious story about trauma, healing and forgiveness. But, like M.T. Anderson, Beaty has proven herself adept in at least two different voices. And though Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies is unlikely to make any curriculum, it's a great book for reluctant readers with an eye for the extremely silly.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Scott Pilgrim, the books, the movie, the epic of epic epicness

Scott Pilgrim Versus the World hits the theaters today, but I'm happy to say that I've already seen it twice. Yes, I'm that super-dork who talked her way into two screenings (thanks Roommate!) one of which was at Pixar (yessss, nerdgasm) and who, despite having seen this movie twice in the last two weeks, still wants to go see it in theaters to support it in the box office. And I hope you do, too.
Based on the series of 6 graphic novels by Brian Lee O'Malley (yay for creative hapas!), Scott Pilgrim the movie (named for the second book of the series) is fabulously adapted by super slick director Edgar Wright, who also directed a few of my other favorite movies, Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (starring the awesome and hilarious Simon Pegg). While I had a little bit of a hard time getting into the graphic novel series because of the aesthetic (giant manga eyes, particularly, and characters who look very much the same other than their hair-dos) I did like it even though I stopped at the 4th book. But the movie was better for its brevity-- crazy kinetic and stuffed full of great one-liners, sight gags and hilarious/awesome fight sequences and the coolest arcade game visual style ever made the movie go so fast that I worried I might have missed things since I was laughing so hard. I was particularly keen on Thomas Jane's cameo as the vegan police. Leading boy/man Micheal Cera does an awesome job bringing humor and vulnerability to Scott's character, and Kieran Culkin kills it as Scott's gay roommate, Wallace. I'd list everyone who was awesome, but there's no weak link in the chain-- the acting is great, the humor is campy and the arc is deceptively sentimental.
Read the books to get into the world. Watch the movie to revel in it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

New Story Time Picks

For the Toddlers: A Sick Day for Amos McGee (by Philip and Erin Stead) is a very sweet and very simply story about a zookeeper's life on a normal day, and then his life when he has to stay home sick. The repetitive structure and adorable animals help keep the younger set seated and listening, and the woodblock/pencil illustrations and limited palatte create a low impact, soft setting that suits younger readers nicely. I've read this story a couple times at story time, and while it does not quite engage the 4+ set, those who are younger give all the telltale signs of enjoyment, which really just means that they listen the whole way through.

For the 3-6yr olds: A Pirate's Guide to First Grade (by James Preller and Greg Ruth) went over swimmingly at this weekends' totally boy dominated storytime. We had three incoming first graders in the crowd who were especially pleased. Those who were not quite ready for first grade were equally amused, or at least were amused by my awful pirate voice (yarrr). What cracked me up as I read this story was that the kids were laughing the whole time, even when they had no idea what the pirate jargin meant. While I like to think that they may remember that "choppers" means teeth now, I have the sneaky suspicion that the idea of talking like a pirate at school was enough to keep the giggles coming for all 39 pages. I'm just glad I don't have to keep reading How I Became a Pirate (Melinda Long and David Shannon) over and over again in order to sate the still staggering need for pirate-voice stories. Yar.For Mixed Ages: Dog Loves Books (by Louise Yates) is a book guaranteed to have bookseller support since Dog, as the title promises, loves books so much that he opens his own bookstore. And while it's a store with little to no foot traffic, Dog passes the time reading books, and going places he'd never imagined with things like dinosaurs and martians and monsters. The kids at storytime were perhaps a little less amused by the bookseller jokes as I was, but they did love the pink pterodactyl, the kangaroos, the planes, the swords and all the adventures Dog finds in his books. As my coworker Bob put it on his shelf-talker: "Dog Loves Books: A gritty and unflinchingly realistic portrayal of the challenging and hurly-burly world of bookselling." Just what Yates was going for, I'm sure.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Goats by Brock Cole

In the opening chapter of The Goats, two outcasts, a boy and a girl, are stripped and left on an island in a cruel summer camp tradition. Though the idea is that they will jump on the opportunity and make like wild island goats, the boy and the girl instead embark on a journey in which they find each other, themselves and love before sex.

Cole pulls no punches in this startlingly sexual (yet complete devoid of actual sexual activity) story. The opening chapter reads like a rape scene. The boy and the girl, humiliated and terrified, spend the opening three chapters naked in each other's company. The boy, who the reader gathers has not quite hit puberty yet, notes that the girl has pubic hair where he does not, but no more is made of it. Cole's hand is purposeful and spare, but not overbearing. The kids maneuver their way off the island and into the world, journeying from a place of strict social hierarchy and embarrassment to a place in which they at least know they have one another.

I loved this book. The story of sexual awakening is practically ubiquitous in YA, a genre defined by coming of age stories, yet I've never read one this honest, this head on. I was shocked to find that this book was originally published in 1989, and had simply come back to our store as a new edition, though I guess I shouldn't be-- sex is sex and growing up is growing up no matter when it's written. Still, the novel holds up, and it doesn't cease to be startling, which is much more interesting to me than the shock value of a limousine deflowering scene (Gossip Girl) or a vamp's ice cold hands up the prom queen's skirt. I finished this book nearly a month ago, and haven't stopped thinking about it since. The central relationship is
that complicated, the social structure is that intricately wrought, the emotional landscape is that evocative.

If I got to chose one book that I've read this year to MAKE kids 12-15 read, this would be it. Elegantly crafted, dangerously insightful, I hope this new (and much improved) cover of
The Goats gets all the attention it deserves.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Forthcoming Titles: ARC Reviews

One of the best parts about being a bookseller is getting to sift through all the ARCs that we get shipped to the store from various publishers. I've never grown out of the stage in my life in which free=awesome, and so the novelty of ARCs has not worn thin for me yet. Reviewed below are three ARCs I've read in the last couple of months that I got a kick out of:

My threshhold for paranormal romance is very, very low, but I was invited to a dinner with Andrea Cremer, the author of Nightshade, by the awesome Penguin sales rep so I read it despite the subtitle: She can control her pack but not her heart, which gave me serious pause (as did the cover, which has more sparkles than I can reasonably tolerate). And even though I didn't end up making it to the dinner it was worth the read. Cremer utilizes the now familiar trope of one girl/two-different-but-both-attractive guys to nice, tense effect, and despite the fact that I am not interested in the subject matter, and did not even particularly care for the sentence level writing style, I was still sucked into the story, in which romance and twists are plenty. The protagonist, Calla, is an alpha female set to mate with the alpha of a rival pack (Ren) in order to create an alliance, and her strength and comfort with her own power made her an appealing lead. But, of course, there's a new boy at school, who's smart (as his pedantic in and out of class eruptions are meant to illustrate) kind and handsome, and Calla finds herself struggling to give herself over to Ren, the cocky, lady-killer, babe-wolf with whom she's been matched. Lust, suspense and monsters aplenty ensue, Calla makes her choice, and a sequel looms on the horizon. A fun, light read with the page-turning propulsion of romance, I would totally recommend this book to lovers of Twilight, Shiver and other vamp/wolf/angel/fairy/zombie/ghost/whatever romances.

Also from Penguin (Dutton, specifically) is Matched, a new romance/dystopia from Ally Condie, which I picked up due to the promise that: "This is a perfect dystopian novel, sure to be a hit with fans of The Giver and The Hunger Games" from Colleen Conway, field sales. While I in no way agree that this book has the same appeal of The Hunger Games, I do see Colleen's point about the Giver; and indeed, Matched reads something like The Giver, if The Giver was wrought with all the teenaged romantic angst that I could handle. Like Nightshade, Condie utilizes the one girl/two guys trope, and again, to pleasantly tense effect. Set in the future, people in Matched are, just as the title promises, matched with the person they will marry by a system of people and computers, and the protagonist in Matched is pleased to find that she has been matched with her handsome best friend. But, just like Nightshade, another boy pops up in her life, and she has trouble giving herself over to the boy with whom she's been matched. However familiar the story, the writing style of this book is lovely, with elegant descriptions and passages of dialog that kept me tuned in, even as the critic in me whined about the overuse of the love triangle in YA. The future Condie imagined is one of cold plastic, tightly controlled art (only 100 poems, 100 songs, 100 paintings remain) and lives that was compelling, and, I imagine, particularly resonant for teens who may feel as though too much of their lives are controlled by outside forces. Come November, I will be pleased to recommend this book as a gift who kids who love dystopian novels.

Lastly was the new graphic novel from Scholastic, Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel. Set in a fuzzily defined Underworld, Ghostopolis is the story of fatally sick boy Garth, and Frank Gallows, the ghost hunter who accidentally sends Garth to the land of the dead. As Garth goes on an adventure, learning his full potential and getting to know the soul of his prodigal grandfather, Frank and his ghostly ex girlfriend Claire Voyant go on the search to bring Garth home to his poor, terrified mother. Though the story and the setting often make little to no sense, I kept reading because the humor and the drawing style were to appealing that I couldn't make myself put it down. I was particularly fond of Frank's face, which ranges in emotion from weary to irreverent, to deeply in love. The limited palatte of colors suits the Underworld nicely, and utilizes more warm hues than one might have imagined would work for the land of the dead. I'm not exactly sure who I should recommend this book to, other than aspiring illustrators, but I'm pleased to see it on our shelf just the same.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth: For the Win by Cory Doctorow

I loved Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. I loved that it was entertaining, compelling and that it taught me about a wide variety of geeky tech things I didn't know a damn thing about. I loved its honesty about scary things like government, sex and violence. I loved its moral compass. I loved its idealism. I loved the way it textured my life after I read it, how I couldn't help but think of the things I'd learned when I made a withdrawal from the bank, used Fastrak, bought Mac products.
But I loved
For the Win even more.
When I was in high school and was forced in my senior year to take economics, I HATED IT. It was a close second to my least favorite subject of math (at the time statistics) which makes sense. Both disciplines require attention to detail, number crunching, formulas. Things I do not like. And my continuing near complete ignorance in regard to all things money related has come back to bite me in the butt on numerous occasions, not least of all raising its head during the entire economic meltdown, which, when asked about it I would have to say things like: "It's just bad news all around," and/or "Um yes, I guess the president
should fix this... how? Oh wow, look over there!" [runs away]
So, despite what several reviewers cited as didactic passages, I loved how much I was able to learn from this book. Yes, I understand that this book is meant for teens. Yes, I know I should have known a lot of this stuff going into this book. Yes, I get that for people who already know all this, the "here's what's happening when people sell you stock" passages may feel overly didactic. But for someone totally ignorant (me!) it was great-- Doctorow makes all this stuff that made me want to stick glass in my eyes during high school totally interesting, fascinating even, and most of all cool. His comparisons are fresh, humorous and intelligent. The passage about the Coase cost utilizes light touches of neuroscience to help people like me engage, and feel clever for being able to do so.
If there's anything I cared about less than econ, it's online gaming. I'm a total nerd for some things (...I keep a blog of kids' book my adult life) but online RPGs are just past my threshold. And by just past, I mean way past. And just like econ, Doctorow was able to pull me in, despite overwhelming prejudice. I still don't want to play the games, but I have a new found interest in the people who do, and the meta-markets they support.
Set in 4 different countries, with an epic cast of characters, Doctorow puts a face to globalization in a way that is undeniably
cool, without glorifying the characters--there's a great moment of self-awareness when one of the 2 main American characters, a white kid named Leonard who goes by Wei-Dong (in order to fit in with his remote Chinese gamer friends) is forced to remind himself why he's gotten involved with the burgeoning online-revolution, and the loneliness inherent in his lifestyle. Each major character has a moment when they question fighting for a cause with people in countries they will never go to, and comrades they will never meet, to fantastic effect: the "real world" becomes an outmoded term, and the world of the gamers asserts itself.
These elements in conjunction with Doctorow's strong use of interpersonal relationships pressed against these larger frameworks, I felt, alleviates the (arguable) slowness of the didactic passages, keeping the plot tense and (most of) the dialog taut. If I had one complaint, it would be that the passages in which concepts are explained between Ashok the economist and General Robotwallah (Mala) and Yasmin in India feel a bit lazy, whereas the passages in which Connor (a game runner and student of economics) explains things to the reader do not. It makes sense that Connor's POV would include these passages. The conversations in India, on the other hand, feel expository, and are less fun in the telling. However, all conversations between Lu (a gamer) and Jie (his covert-revolutionary-radio host girlfriend) are so real, Lu's tenderness and vulnerability and Jie's self-defensive strength so compelling, that I could imagine an entire novel just about the two of them being written.
Just like in
Little Brother, Doctorow takes an incredibly idealistic concept, and backs it up with intelligence and logic, providing a strong, contrarian moral compass similar to that used by MT Anderson. It's probably obvious that I loved this book, and I admit that I'm predisposed to agreeing with both Doctorow and Anderson's senses of morality. But whether or not one agrees with the politics presented in this novel, I think there is enough meat and scope to at least be of interest to even the most labor-union-hating, gamer-despising, fiscally conservative reader, because ultimately, it's just a great story. And anyone can like a good story.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Kids Classic I Forgot to Read: My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannet

I've been slacking off lately, but since last August, I've been putting a "Kids' Classic I Forgot to Read" on our front desk for a month at a time. Previous titles are: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, Egypt Game, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, Mr. Popper's Penguins, The Cricket in Times Square, A Wrinkle in Time and 13 Clocks. In honor of Fathers' Day, I decided to select My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannet (illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannet), a fabulously wholesome story perfectly suited for reading aloud with the whole family. Little Elmer Elevator (the father of the faceless narrator) would give anything to fly. Luckily for him, he's made friends with an alley cat who knows where a dragon lives, held captive by a slew of wild animals. It is Elmer's quest to free the dragon, and chase his own dream of flying, and to do so he must use all his cunning, courage and (most of all) kindness to accomplish his goals. Elmer makes for a lovable protagonist, whose most memorable characteristics are that he is kind and he is clever. Though many of the animals want to eat him, he finds ways around them that do no harm to anyone. Win, win.
The illustrations are plentiful, and the type set is large, so the fact that it is 86 pages is a bit misleading. It's a very short story, similar in feel to many of the Japanese fairy tales I grew up reading (only with less tail-cutting-offness and swords). Simple enough for younger kids to follow, with all the adorable a grown-up can handle, I totally recommend this book for full family read alouds, barring the involvement of any snarky teens.
Shown above, an illustration of Elmer and his run in with the Rhino on Wild Island.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Kane Chronicles 1: The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan

I got a Greek-God-lovin' kick out of Rick Riordan's first series for kids, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and so I was pretty amped to pick up the first book in The Kane Chronicles, Riordan's new series. This time, Riordan places his focus on Egyptian mythology, which is awesome, since not only am I interested in it, but I get requests from kids all the time for books about it, and I can usually only pass them The Egypt Game (which is awesome!) but does not really sate the want for action.
But, good gods, does The Red Pyramid have action. So much action, in fact, that sometimes I felt a little overwhelmed by the explosions and underwhelmed by the characters who, of course, have learned that they have the power of gods within themselves. Being that the conceit of this novel is inherantly more complicated (the Egyptian notion of divinity is a bit more complicated than the Olympian) there was a lot of expository dialogue in which things are explained. Which was probably a necessary evil. As intrepid kid reviewer Clare pointed out, it's hard to introduce people to a whole new spectrum of Gods and monsters without being a bit expository, and she's totally right. There was a lot to take in here. But even with that in mind, I felt myself rolling my eyes during some of the more didactic passages, which to be fair, were NEVER boring. Ever. And I must admit, I did rather like the talking baboon.
I wonder, though, if perhaps Riordan bit off a weency bit more than he could chew when he decided to make his lead characters mixed-race. Being hapa myself, this is always something of great interest to me, and so I am a bit more critical of any material covering this topic than the casual reader. But I felt like the way in which Riordan calls attention to race felt neither organic nor necessary. The way that the characters discuss their race in their interior monologues felt a bit belaboured, and I couldn't help but wonder if Riordan was forcing himself to try and reach another demographic.
But none of these things that I've griped about here will stop me from recommending this book. It's an awesome primer for Egyptian mythology, just the way Percy was for the Greek pantheon. It's got enough action to keep even the most reluctant reader involved. It's got enough tough female characters to make Tamora Pierce proud. It's got enough pithy dialogue to keep the chuckles coming as fast as the explosions. It's got everything it needs to go blow for blow with Percy. Which I hope it does. A sly mention of the "other Gods" that live in Manhattan tells me this is happening in the same universe as the previous series. Battle of the Gods, anyone?

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Unwritten by Mike Carey

This isn't a book intended for kids, but like Battle Royale, I think it'd suit some of the older teens who like a little gruesome with their lit. It's another recommendation from the badasses over at Skylight Books, who also recommended Uzumaki to me. It's kinda like a meta-Harry Potter for grownups, with all the literary skulduggery one could hope for--inspired by children's literature, with plenty of appeal for adults, The Unwritten has so many cool elements (postmodern self awareness, humor, violence, a chapter about Kipling) it seems almost unfair. Peter Gross's illustrations are clean and evocative, and suit this fascinating story well.
Poor Tom Taylor is just trying to get people to understand: he is NOT Tommy Taylor, the hero of the crazy, international best seller, Harry Potter-esque series that his father wrote. But when Tom's life starts to resemble Tommy's, he's sent on a literary treasure hunt, left by his presumed dead father. Crazy fun plot twists and a pleasantly non-neurotic self-awareness (along with a slew of satirical Harry Potter moments) made this book an utter pleasure and a fascinating read. For those who liked The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, this book provides an awesome graphic counterpart. So for those who liked books about books, worlds within books and books in the world, give The Unwritten a go.

Friday, May 7, 2010

ahhhh l'amour

Occasionally, one grows weary of reading YA romance (so much stress over 1st kisses!), and it can be really refreshing to see love as meant for the younger, less angst-ridden set. Below are two 2010 books about l'amour for ages 3-6.

Henry in Love (by Peter McCarty) follows kitten Henry on a very normal day, waking up and getting ready for school, and then pining for Chloe, the loveliest (bunny) girl in his class. They play tag together, and after recess Henry is delighted to find that he has been reseated next to Chloe by their teacher. When Henry looks at Chloe, he sees her suspended in a field of pink blossoms. At snacktime, he gives her the blueberry muffin he's been excited to eat since morning. He trades her for a carrot, an agreement that seems to suit both Henry and Chloe nicely. It's amazing that there's something this sweet that doesn't immediately put you in a diabetic coma.

Written by a husband and wife team (Randall and Peter de Seve), The Duchess of Whimsy is an imaginitive version of the standard tale of romance in which opposites attract. The Earl of Norm loves the Duchess of Whimsy, and tries (and fails) at all manners of wooing her. But he's just not cut out to be whimsical, and the Duchess continues to ignore him. It's not until they both attend an ill-planned fete (for which no food has been prepared) that the Duchess sees what the Earl has to offer: the simple, but delectable grilled cheese sandwich. After that, the two are pleased to learn they actually have many things in common. Peter's illustrations are so evocative (his career as an animator is evident) and the characters' faces are delightfully expressive: we can see the Duchess's delight and the Earl's earnest love clearly. I feel like I know so many couples who remind me, just a little, of the couple depicted here, that I cannot help but love it.

Gwen Millward's Drawings are Swell

Gwen Millward is a British illustrator who now lives in Bristol. You can check out what she has to say for herself at her website. Reviewed below are two very different stories, both illustrated by Millward.

Guess What I Found in Dragonwood (written by Timothy Knapman) is the adorable story of a dragon who finds a Benjamin (human boy) in the forest, and promptly attempts to adopt him. He's shocked to find that Benjamin comes from a whole family of Benjamins, does not like to eat worms, and has the upsetting habit or crying rather than breathing fire. Millward's illustrations create a tactile and detailed landscape, complete with labels like "my favorite smoking volcano" and "this is a tear. It's a sad thing." The citrus palette for the dragon's home stands in pleasant contrast to the grays and blues of Benjamin's city, underlining the themes of difference and perspective nicely. Plus, it's a book that's got BOTH dragons AND soccer. Win, win.

Recently, we received The Bog Baby (written by Jeanne Willis) and I've been excited to handsell it since. The Bog Baby tells the story of two sisters who, when visiting a magic pond, capture a little blue, winged creature called a bog baby. Though they do everything they can to make the bog baby feel at home, they must ultimately release the delicate creature back into the pond where it belongs. It's a touching story about love and letting go, and Millward's delicately detailed illustrative style suits the tale perfectly. The full-page illustrations are breathtaking, capturing the magical sensibility of the story and illuminating it. The two page illustration of the bog baby being put back in his natural habitat is full of soft blues, lavendars and dusky pinks and shows the bog baby looking so pleased and happy that one cannot doubt that he's in the right place.

Monday, May 3, 2010

2 Oliver Jeffers Book in 1 Year?

Thanks universe. Hate to post a link to Amazon, but here's the cover. I can only hope this book is about the boy teaching the penguin to fly.

Also, Jeffers books in french makes them cuter. Why is that?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Neat things happen, like MT Anderson making a website

Anyone who knows me sort of a little knows that I love MT Anderson's books. And now I love his website! Check it out. Awesome graphics, representing an awesome author. Oh yeah, and there's a dirigible. And who doesn't like dirigibles?

Monday, April 26, 2010

GUEST BLOGGER: Clare Sabry age 11, on Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games is a great book, and not just for certain people. Anyone can fall in love with the amazing way that Collins can portray the scene so well it makes you feel like you are right there, seeing the characters yourself. Fast-paced and dynamic, this book can fall under many categories. You really get to know the characters. And I find the plot is so fresh you want to read it again and again, soaking up all that you can of this tantalizing story.
I've read it 16 times, and I've noticed that it's really well put together, no changing or repeating facts, or forgetful sentences. It's almost perfectly thought out.There's so much you can take away from this book. I found that every time that I or someone else reads it, there is something new that I never saw before. Something amazing! For example, I recently noticed that the world in which it takes places is much like ancient Rome: the districts, the names of the people, and even the games themselves, giving a great realistic touch to an otherwise purely fictional book. Also, the pure realism of the characters: brave Katniss sacrificing herself for her sister. Sweet Prim, who at age 12 has had to deal with the loss of her and Katniss's father, and the fact that their kind of survival is sadly and stunningly rare. Charming Peeta, whose every word so convincingly pure he has the whole country hanging on his every move. And every other person, real, living, breathing.

Friday, April 23, 2010

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

It's nice to find a book that directly addresses the not-inherantly funny topic of race in a hilarious fashion, which is exactly what this lively graphic novel does. Set in a mostly-white American high school, Jin Wang (later to be called Danny) struggles to accept his own heritage, embarrassed as he is by it. A surreal and HI-larious section featuring Danny's cousin Chin Kee, a loud-mouthed, know-it-all Chinese stereotype who constantly expresses his desire to bind women's feet, cleverly illustrates what self-hating racism feels like in a way that is fresh, and as previously mentioned, laugh out loud funny. Already the winner of the Printz Award, a national book award finalist, a Booklist top ten Graphic Novel for Youth, NPR holiday pick, Publisher's Weekly best comic of the year, San Francisco Chronicle best book of the year, 2007 Eisner Award for best Graphic Album, Time Magazine Top Ten Comic of the year and an Best Graphic Novel/Comic of the year, I'm clearly not the first person to like this book, and certainly won't be the last.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Shiver by Maggie Steifvater

Shiver is better than Twilight.

I can't say I understand the whole finding werewolves sexy thing, (dogs/dog-like behavior = sexy... not for me) but I can say that this nation wide bestseller does offer some fun, page-turning paranormal romance that the tweens drooling over Taylor Lautner will enjoy. Or already have enjoyed, since it's been on the NYT bestseller for ages now. Human Grace and werewolf Sam fall in love, share tense moments, etc, etc.

What I much preferred about this novel was that, unlike Bella and Edward, Grace and Sam do not get tunnel vision for one another. Their friends and families still matter, and have a profound effect on the plot. So rather than spending 400+ pages trapped inside a hormonal, one track mind, Grace and Sam both keep hold of the lives they had before they had one another. Oh yeah, there's also way less sexual guilt, and no creepy Rosemary's Baby birthing scene. Of course, that could still be coming, since
Shiver's follow-up, Linger, comes out this summer.

It's not my favorite book I've read this year, but I did tear through it like I was getting paid to read it. Which I wasn't. So if you're looking for a gift for that 13 year old with a Team Jacob tee shirt on, or just looking to fill the supernatural romance void for yourself, give Shiver a go.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Uzumaki (Spiral Into Horror) by Junji Ito

On a recent pilgrimage to the awesome SKYLIGHT BOOKS in Los Feliz, mega manga monger Dan (if you're there, ask for his or Darren's help in the graphic novel section, their combined knowledge of the market is more than humbling) recommended Uzumaki by Junji Ito to cure me of my manga-phobia. And it worked. Badass art and the awesome conceit of a town haunted by spirals (the noun and the verb) make this manga a total page turner that'll have you shuddering every time you see a spiral in real life. Which is often, being that the spiral is a crazily commonly occurring shape in nature, being that it's the best basic visual for a fractal. Which leads me neatly to my only complaint, which was that the spiral conceit, at least in the first volume (there are 3) is not exercised to its fullest potential, and by the end I did feel like the stories were getting a bit repetitive. However, if I'd read this at ages 13-16, the intended age of the audience (it was originally published in installments in a Japanese girl's magazine), it would have scared the pee out of me. The visuals are haunting and terrifying, and there were moments that made me shudder, need to put the book down, then immediately pick the book back up again. A perfect read for the morbid set of reluctant readers, and for silly adults like me who did not believe in the power of manga.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Something that is even more awesome than that time I found $16 is a pair of pants, which is saying something because that was awesome.

New Storytime Champ: Bear in Underwear by Doodler

Thanks, Todd Doodler, for writing an awesome, short and silly book that makes the storytime I do on Saturdays way, way easier. It's not always easy getting a bunch of kids to sit still for one page, let alone a whole story when there are things like other kids, other books, grownups talking loudly, dogs, bubble gum, things with stickers in them, things that have lots of little parts, lollipops and things that are shiny around. But Bear in Underwear gets it done. What's in the backpack? Underwear! Where do they go? On bear's bare bottom! Is there enough underwear for everyone? Yes! Laughter ensues. Bottoms stay in seats, until, of course, everyone gets up to touch the squishy cotton underwear on the cover of the book. Gross.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Oliver Jeffers makes neat things

Out this past Tuesday is Oliver Jeffers' new picture book, The Heart and The Bottle, a poignant (I bet that's the word literally every review of this book will include. But it's the only one that fits!) story about a little girl filled with curiosities. Incorporating more of the mixed media style he uses in his paintings, coupled with many found images reminiscent of The Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, Jeffers crafts a deceptively simple story about love, loss and recovery. He stills plays with recurring images from his other books, including rubber duckies, whales and, of course, the penguin, but it's a beautiful new development of his aesthetic. I have loved all his books, and this new one is no exception. (And I'm especially glad there's now one about a girl.)
The only hazard of handing people this book is that if they are, at this very moment, in the process of losing someone close to them they can, will and did break down and cry at the counter of the bookshop. Turned out she was shopping for things to DISTRACT her, including two of Jeffers' other books when I made the suggestion. I've never felt like such an ass for handing someone a book. She did, however, tell me a really wonderful story about her uncle, who gave her a cat who was all the colors she could think of, and an old fashioned baking mixer for her to use to make bubbles in the bath.
The Heart and The Bottle is not the only awesome new thing out from Oliver Jeffers this week! (That was a terrible transition. Sorry. There was really no good way to do that.) Completely unrelated to his books, Jeffers has teamed up with his studio mates to make a few items now for sale at the following link:
I'm a big fan of the "this machine kills fascists" pencils and the "Places on Earth: a Self Congratulatory Guide to Personal Globalization" map.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

3 awesome books with illustrations, for ages 7 and up

Mr. Popper's Penguins by the Atwaters: An adorable, totally wholesome story about Mr. Popper, a humble house painter with humongous dreams of being an Arctic and Antarctic explorer. When, in response to a fan letter, Mr. Popper's favorite explorer promises a suprise over a radio broadcast, Mr. Popper's life is changed forever by the delivery of a penguin of his very own. Now charged with caring for the strange bird, Mr. Popper finds all means and manner of solutions, and eventual showmanship with his ever-growing flock. Hilarious, and so cute it's almost physically painful, Mr. Popper's Penguins is a perfect book to read aloud to younger kids and for kids to read on their own. Because, really. Who doesn't like penguins?

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman: Join a boy (aptly named Odd, Gaiman has a way with names) on an adventure with three very cranky Norse gods who, thanks to Loki, have been turned into animals and robbed of their powers. This is the newest children's book from Newbery winning Gaiman, and as usual he is able to delivery snappy dialogue, individualistic protagonists and a thoroughly comical view of famous mythological deities. Unlike The Graveyard Book and Coraline, this book has plenty of adventure without being too scary for younger readers. It can also serve as a really great intro to Norse mythology for the younger set. Personally, my favorite part actually came at the end of the book, and isn't even a part of the story (but is rather the about the author, clearly written by the author) which is not to say the content is fantastic fun... it's just that that's a really good about the author.
The Cricket in Times Square by George Seldon: Chester Cricket arrives in New York quote by accident by way of picnic basket. But once he settles in, he finds all the Big Apple has to offer: friendship (with an adorable cat and mouse pair, yeah, they're friends, things work differently in the city, they tell Chester) music and even fame. Despite a pretty outdated depiction of an older Chinese gentleman (writing in dialect doesn't help anyone...) this book holds up pretty well, with enough adorable to give you diabetes. The illustrations by Garth Williams (who also illustrated Charlotte's Web) punctuate the book nicely. A generally lovely little book.

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

This is not a book for precocious kids who read up. It's not really a book for kids at all, or at least, I don't think it is intentionally. But I can't imagine that some of the older teens (and adults, too for that matter) who read and loved The Hunger Games would not like this rollicking, bloody, and totally graphic novel of middle school students fighting in a death match. Because who doesn't love a story about kids fighting in a death match? Parents, you say? Bah.
For ages at least 15+, this book may fill the void that
Mockingjay (the last in the Hunger Games trilogy) is leaving in the bloodthirsty pit of YA-reader's souls. Though it's not as cleanly (or expertly) written as Hunger Games (which may be in some part on account of being translated) it's almost as addictive, and for added morbidity, the children in this novel have all known each other for years. What follows is an incredibly violent, bloody and horrible fight to the finish, with the most loving descriptions of brains hanging out of a crushed skull that I am likely to ever read.
And if that's not graphic enough for you, check out the manga version.

Incarceron (and Sapphique) by Catherine Fisher

Already published in the UK (and recipient of the Times Children's Book of the year) Incarceron is an awesome YA novel I'm very excited to hand off to fans of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Though Incarceron is not as readily accessible as Hunger Games (and therefor less likely to appeal to the precocious readers who read UP for Hunger Games), it does have the same undeniable (and addictive!) sense of forward prepulsion. Like Hunger Games, Incarceron is a page turner, with enough violence to appeal even to the blood thirstiest young readers. However, thematically, Incarceron stands very much apart. Set (half) in an enormous, sentient prison, the characters in Incarceron are very much aware that they are under constant surveilance. Even in the parts which take place outside the prison, the characters bear the same burden. Imagine Foucault wrote a speculative sci-fi fantasy novel. For kids. Kids who took to the sight and surveilance themes of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow may also enjoy this novel, if they are willing to go into an alternate universe. Add these themes into a world of a constantly shifting and unstable reality, along with enough serpentine plot twists to make you dizzy, and you have the world of Incarceron.
I liked this book so much that, despite never using Amazon in the US, I hopped on Amazon UK to order the sequel,
Sapphique, which is not out in the states yet. And it was TOTALLY worth my lapse of moral consumerism! It is a worthy follow-up indeed, and it does exactly what a second book in a trilogy should, which is to expand the world we've already encountered and to complicate the problems and relationships of the characters. Fisher uses varying points of view for maximum tension, even that does occasionally mean switching POV as a way of punctuating exciting moments. I am wary of saying too much about this sequel, since I enjoyed it so much because it was so suprising, and I would hate to ruin that experience for anyone else. Suffice to say, it was a pleasure to read, and I anxiously await the third book, which is due out in May (in the UK).

Friday, January 8, 2010

Sisters of the Sword by Maya Snow

I felt obligated to read Sisters of The Sword because one of my most prolific kid reviewers, Clare, told me it would be my kind of book since "there are girl warriors... and I know you like that." Right you are, Clare. So, just on the principle of never saying no to a book that features butt-kicking females, I read Sisters of the Sword over the Thanksgiving break. And Clare was right. There are some tough, butt-kicking females in it. And though the writing was not my favorite, sometimes drifting into the annoyingly didactic when explaining Japanese customs and vocab words (like sansei, which I felt like did not need to be explained, or italicized) it was still a rollicking fun read with likable protagonists at its core. The antagonists, on the other hand, were so evil, that one could in no way have any empathy with them whatsoever, which I found disappointing. Bad guys are usually my favorites, but these were typical, sexist, elitist, evil and most unsatisfyingly two-dimensional. However, for readers yearning for violence, action and all the samurais they can possibly handle, Sisters of the Sword may be just the ticket.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Told from the point of view of a rapidly developing 6th grader, When You Reach Me is a bit like an updated A Wrinkle in Time, with a few decidedly contemporary twists. Set in New York in the 1970's, this very sweet (but not saccharine) coming of age story features a single mother, an only child, and freshly illustrated racial tension. It also features time travel. When Miranda starts receiving mysterious notes that seem to predict the future, the story really starts to pick up. Immaculately crafted, such that many clues are set from first chapter well into the last, When You Reach Me is a great choice for attentive readers who enjoy a bit of puzzle-solving in their reading, not quite to the extent of The Westing Game, but perhaps akin to The Mysterious Benedict Society. And, for those in the 8-12 age range who are just dying to grow up as fast as possible, there's even a bit of romance, albeit, very age-appropriate romance (think kiss and then run for your life). Newbery Winners are not announced for 2010 until January 16th, but this book already has its fair share of buzz.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. Obrien

Winner of the 1972 Newbery Medal, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, from the author of Z for Zachariah and The Silver Crown, is a thoroughly imagined tale of mice, medication, and one of the toughest moms in all of kids' lit. Mrs. Frisby is a widow, with four small children, one of whom is gravely ill. In order to keep her son Timothy alive, she must contract the help of the rats of NIMH, former lab rats who, after being subjected to steroids, tests, captivity and other such calamities, escape into the countryside. It is not long before it is revealed that Mr. Frisby was the only suriviving mouse for said experiments. Mrs. Frisby, who is not gifted as the rats are or her husband was, braves owls, cats and rat poison in the name of familial love. What I found most striking about this book was the complexity of the rats' world. Though talking rats and mice and crows and shrews do not exist, the world they inhabit in this novel comes across as completely reasonable, and the tests the rats describe have a surprisingly element of realism. Perfectly suited for reading aloud with the whole family, (with a few slyly funny moments, to boot) this book was a pleasure to reread. It was also made into an awesome movie in 1982, entitled The Secret of Nimh.