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 reviews...in 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?