Tuesday, September 30, 2008
If last year's short list is any indication, we will all have plenty of fabulous books to add to our must-read lists as the nominating and winnowing process proceeds. Winners will be announced on Valentine's Day, 2009.
Go to the Cybils home page for more information and to nominate your favorite books.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
2008 was an historic year for me – after more than 16 years working in branches as a Children’s Librarian and then Branch Manager, I transferred to an administrative position in our Children’s Services Department last fall, a wonderful job that allows me to train, aid, and encourage Children’s Librarians in all our branches, to work closely with books and other materials, to help develop and administer system-wide children’s programs, and much more.
What this means is that 2008 is the first year that I have not worked directly with the public. No daily shifts on the information desk, no regular storytimes, no puppet shows – and no Summer Reading Club! My office did a fine job of supplying our Children’s Librarians with supplies, incentives, and great ideas – but then we sat back and let SRC run its course in the branches.
Perhaps this distance is what has made me ponder the purpose of Summer Reading Club. In general, most folks agree that libraries offer SRC to keep kids reading all summer long, so that their reading skills stay honed during the long break from school. In addition, we are trying to attract non-library users to the library for the first time with our exciting programs and themes. Also, we want to promote the idea of reading for fun, tempting reluctant readers with goodies like graphic novels and providing personal reader’s advisory to kids who are already enthusiastic readers.
Those are all fabulous goals, but does SRC achieve them? In my library system, sign-up statistics (meaning simply the kids who signed up and received a reading folder) were slightly up from last year, while program attendance was up sharply across the board. I find sign-up statistics a bit misleading – a librarian can invite dozens of classes to visit the library in June and sign up every kid, creating large numbers, but how many of those kids come back all summer long, or even once? Program attendance is more interesting, especially considering that our Children’s Librarians had much less funding for “professional” entertainers such as magicians and puppeteers, and so presented mostly less flashy home-grown programs. Was the economy affecting the number of kids who went to summer camp or on summer trips?
But whether these statistics soar, decline, or stay even, they don’t answer some crucial questions. Are SRCs encouraging kids to read more than they normally would? Does attendance in SRC lead to better reading skills and higher grades? Are children reading more for fun as a result of SRCs?
The answers to all these questions may well be “yes,” but it’s hard to know how we can measure our success in these areas. Studies have probably been done, tracking the grades and/or reading skills of SRC participants vs. non-participants – although even if SRC participants turned out to be more successful in school, that could be simply because they come from families where libraries are valued, and therefore might already have a built-in advantage.
Certainly SRC must attract a fair number of kids to the library who have rarely or never visited, and often they bring their families with them. Children’s Librarians in my system visit as many of their local schools as possible, making presentations in assemblies or blitzing every classroom to entice kids to join SRC this summer. It’s a reminder to school-weary kids that libraries aren’t just about homework resources and a place to study; we’re free, we’re air-conditioned, and in summer we’re all about having fun.
I can’t help feeling, however, that books and reading sometimes fall by the wayside in all the excitement. Sure, the folders that children receive have spaces for reading and most Children’s Librarians have some sort of bare-minimum reading requirement in order for children to receive an incentive; I always asked that they either have read a book over the past week or be in the process of reading one (after all, it can take more than a week to finish a chapter book). Ask a question or two about the book or books (what was your favorite part? Which was your favorite book? Since you liked that mystery so much, would you like to try another?) if there isn’t a long line, initial and date the folder, hand the kid a cool pencil, and on to the next kid.
Mostly, though, the focus seems to be on the programs, the incentives, and the theme. A cool theme (we used “Reading is Magic” this year – very popular) can generate excitement among both kids and staff and is an excellent way to build programs and activities. Incentives can mean a lot to a kid who is very proud of herself for reading one whole book in a week (or three weeks). Innovative Children’s Librarians can and should always link a fun program like a magic show back to some great books that kids can check out.
But with all this frenzy, it’s especially important to find the time to focus on individual kids and their reading needs and desires. Plenty of families arrive at the library in a great flurry of kids and strollers, stay just long enough for the program and maybe the weekly incentive, grab a DVD or two or six, and then leave. Now, maybe they’ve got shelves overflowing with books at home, but how cool to take home a library book hand-picked by their very own librarian.
Or what about those kids who hang out at the library all day playing on the computers? They can sometimes be dragged into a program, they might consent to signing up for the reading club, but they’re at the library not because they like to read but because they have nowhere else to go – and the computers are free here. Some of these kids are only seven or eight and might be easy to hook on books if we put forth a bit of effort. Even a thirteen-year-old isn’t too old – my own husband accidentally discovered Paula Danziger’s The Cat Ate My Gym Suit at age 13 or 14, and read it all the way through. It was the first book he had ever read for pleasure, but not the last.
Unfortunately, branches are often busy and understaffed, and no one is busier than the Children’s Librarian. No one is more important, either, and I hope that Branch Managers can give their Children’s Librarians a bit of time to roam the children’s area and to simply sit down with kids and read to them once in a while. Too often, librarians are chained to the information desk. Some kids do venture up to us there – but many don’t.
We all have at least a handful of Eager Readers who check out stacks of our favorite books and whom we think of when we order the latest well-reviewed fiction, but there are plenty more who roam the shelves, guessing that there might be something interesting there but not quite sure how to find it, or who sit slumped at a table, bored out of their minds while waiting for the next available computer. These are the kids who parents probably didn’t bring them to our storytimes and so they don’t know us and don’t quite believe that books can be anything but a chore.
If Summer Reading Club were toned down a bit – still fun, still an exciting change from the boring school year, but less about flashy performers and prizes – maybe Children’s Librarians could reach some kind of balance. We could still attract some non-users to the library, still offer enough cool stuff to interest kids all summer long, but we’d have more time to add a personal touch that was less about entertainment and toys and more about books and reading.
“The right book for the right child” has always been a wonderful mantra. If I, as a Children’s Librarian, had eschewed the ritual weekly “handing out of the incentive” and instead simply asked kids to come talk to me about the books, I wonder how that would have worked. Instead of zooming from the community room to the information desk after a standing-room-only program so that I could hand out a sticker to 60 kids, I could have invited them all to join me in the children’s area so that we could find some fabulous books. Yes, I would have been swamped, but the focus would have been on books, not checking off a reading folder.
That sounds all very idealistic. Kids (and librarians) do love performers, incentives, and the rest of the SRC trappings. I’m just pondering the possibility of a slight change in focus and attitude, of reminding oneself every day what we’re all about and why we raise such a hullabaloo every summer. I think that, when I talk to Children’s Librarians who are either new and alarmed or faded and jaded, I will suggest that they concentrate not on numbers and statistics but on getting the right book to the right child, one kid or audience at a time. The theme and incentives are fluffy icing; the books are the cake; the kids are our guests. Let them eat cake!
Friday, September 26, 2008
Currently being discussed - The Underneath by Kathi Appelt. Yep, in my opinion it's definitely a contender!
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
The National Book Foundation has released their "5 Under 35" 2008 fiction selections. Thanks to Bookfox for the link.
Slightly old news, but only three of these are in my library system yet anyway - The Man Booker Prize 2008 announced their shortlist earlier this month. These are always worth a read.
I think I need some kind of illness - not life-threatening or contagious, mind you - that will force me to stay in bed all day for a week or a month, eating buttered toast and reading reading reading.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Sunday, September 21, 2008
It turns out that there are two separate types of ghosts roaming about – a group of high-spirited young boys and a blood-curdling old woman. Without spoiling the plot (which is fairly predictable in a nicely shivery kind of way), let me just say that the inn used to be a poor farm, where destitute families came when they had nowhere else to go – and many of them in fact never went anywhere else again, thanks to a nasty piece of work named Miss Ada.
Travis and Corey figure out what the young ghosts need in order to rest peacefully, and they manage to accomplish it – but then they have to deal with the deadly rage of the ghastly Miss Ada.
It’s hard as an adult to read a ghost story for kids and to tell if it will hold any chills for them; my spooky-bone has been somewhat dulled by grown-up tales of terror. Having closed my eyes through much of the movie “The Orphanage,” to which All the Lovely Bad Ones bears a tiny resemblance, I found this book to be a cakewalk. However, I do think this will be a pleasantly scary book for any kid who hasn’t launched straight into Stephen King, especially with the fairly horrific tales of life at the poor farm. There are long-ago beatings and even death, as well as a gruesome (but luckily toned-down) grave exhumation, so this isn’t for the completely tender-hearted.
Give to kids ages 9 and up who insist they want a really scary book.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Balsa, a woman warrior and bodyguard, is no shrinking violet, and she’s no spring chicken either. I knew I would like her when I read this description – “Her long, weather-beaten hair was tied at the nape of her neck, and her face, unadorned by makeup, was tanned and beginning to show fine wrinkles.” Brave, sensible, and superbly skilled in martial arts, Balsa is 30 years old – a refreshing age for the heroine of a children’s book, when they usually haven’t hit 18.
Oh, there’s a child in this book – Chagum is the 11-year-old second son of the Mikado, the king who rules New Yogo, and he just happens to have inside him an egg laid by mysterious creature called the Water Spirit, who dwells in an unseen world that exists side by side, or perhaps superimposed on, our own world. Chagum, as the Moribito or Guardian of the Spirit, must somehow get this egg to its distant home before the dreaded Rarunga comes to eat the egg, which will not only bring on terrible drought but will kill Chagum. However, Chagum himself isn’t the main focus.
There is much palace intrigue, as various factions try to figure out how best to protect the kingdom from the turmoil, and because Chagum’s life is in danger, his mother secretly hires Balsa to get him away from the palace and hide him. Many exciting but mercifully brief fight scenes follow, all as stylish as if a bit more realistic than those in movies like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Although there are injuries, no one dies.
The pursuit of Chagum by both Palace Hunters and the hungry Rarunga is exciting, but far more interesting to me was the friendships between Balsa, Chagum, her old pal Tanda, and the old but still feisty wise woman Torogai. There is romantic tension between Balsa and Tanda, but Balsa doesn’t want to commit to a relationship until she has saved eight lives, in atonement for eight lives that were lost to save her as a child.
The translation from Japanese to English flows naturally – I was almost never aware that I was reading a translation (okay, “weather-beaten hair” is a bit odd, but I like it). Balsa and Tanda are warm, humorous, and occasionally cranky characters, and it is perfectly obvious why Chagum, after spending a winter holed up with them, doesn’t want to return to his cold and scheming court. Torogai’s strong voice and gleeful cackle still ring in my ears.
It’s easy to understand why this 10-book series, a hit in
For ages 10 and up.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
"What is one thing you wish you knew about blogging when you started or what advice would you give a newbie blogger?
What is your best blogging tip?"
I still AM a newbie blogger and so am still learning! But here is what I've learned so far:
Unless your job has directly sanctioned your blog, only blog on your own time (it's my break right now!), even if your blog and your job are related.
Don't fret - it's about fun (or because you're so obsessed by books that you need an outlet for your frenzy), not about how many posts you write or how many folks read your blog.
Find a focus, but don't feel you have to stick to it absolutely all the time. This may be a book blog, but I'm going to post a photo of deep-fried cheese curds if I feel the urge!
Best blogging tip? Read lots of other blogs! I'm so fond and admiring of so many folks out there - they are a constant inspiration. See my blogroll at the left for a list of them.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Ah! There is really something so soul-satisfying about the heft of a long-anticipated ARC in your hands. Full disclosure – I read earlier versions of the manuscript of Lucky Breaks. But when a manuscript is transformed into an object that looks like a book, with jacket art by Matt Phelan depicting Lucky, Lincoln, and Miles looking up into a very starry sky, and weeds (creosote, perhaps?) growing patchily in front of the words “Susan Patron” – well, it all felt brand-new and I raced through the book once again.
Lucky is about to turn 11, which feels like a real turning-point to her. She’s leaving the immaturity and doubt of her first ten years behind her, or so she sincerely hopes, and is racing forward toward her amazing future. She even makes a new friend named Paloma, the niece of a paleontologist who is exploring the area around Hard Pan with a bunch of other ‘ologists, as Miles calls them. And as Paloma is not only the kind of person with whom you can collapse into helpless giggles, but also shares a name with a long-ago woman whose brooch (or part of it, anyway) might be found in a nearby abandoned well, Lucky feels that there is much significance to their friendship, as well as fun of a unique kind.
Lucky may be bonding with Paloma, but she becomes more and more irritated with her old friend Lincoln, who is not only steadfastly remaining his usual solid, intelligent, knot-tying self, but doesn’t seem to notice Lucky’s turbulent thoughts and inner changes. Worse, he might even abandon her altogether if he wins the knot-tying contest he has entered. Lucky’s meanness gland begins working overtime, much to Lincoln’s bewilderment.
There is a mystery (what on earth is in that coffin-shaped box that Short Sammy had delivered?) and an adventure (abandoned wells and impetuous almost 11-year-olds are not always a good match) and some excellent chat among the denizens of Hard Pan about the nature of our galaxy and how to make good s’mores. Brigitte’s accent comes through with everything she says (“Pfft!”), as she continues to absorb the best of America into her very French core. Oh, and the word “scrotum” does show up, but not until page 44 this time.
But the true heart of this book is Lucky’s always-fascinating inner voice. She is so roiled by a variety of conflicting emotions – impatience, loyalty, hope, frustration, affection, irritation, love, doubt – that she finds herself doing and saying things that make her truly sick of herself. After a bout of fairly awful meanness towards Lincoln, Paloma asks Lucky why she acts that way when Lincoln likes her. Lucky doesn’t know how to answer.
“She knew that she would never like someone like her. She would hate someone like her. She would really, really hate someone who acted like her, and she’d get as far away as she could. But how, Lucky thought, do you get away from someone you can’t stand if that person is you?”
It’s a horrible feeling, and Lucky struggles with it, and against it, throughout the book until she realizes, with a bit of help from Brigitte, that she doesn’t have to feel that way forever.
Not every scene is so intense – many are absolutely hysterical, and some are both intense and funny (like an amazing scene in which Lucky waits at the bottom of a well to be rescued - how does Patron do that?). After I read the chapter in which Miles and Lincoln, to Lucky’s utter amazement and chagrin, charm the socks off Paloma’s sophisticated L.A. parents, I went right back and read it again. Miles leans toward Paloma’s mom Mrs. Wellborne, “sniffing her perfume and very subtly touching the fabric of her blouse. It was clear that Miles was entranced.” He gazes at her “with his chocolate-chip eyes and smiled his dear, tender, cookie-mooching smile,” so that even his oddest comments (caused by some wild lies told earlier by Lucky) prompt only a heart-felt laugh. Lincoln manages to dazzle with some very impressive, technical chat with Mr. Wellborne about his Hummer. The scene is just priceless. Poor Lucky can only come to the conclusion that “the world can be a very mysterious place.”
Readers will be hooked from the very first two paragraphs, which feature some of the most virtuoso writing I have ever come across and which whammed me right onto the bouncy back seat of Lucky’s school bus. It’s good to be back in Hard Pan.
(Matt Phelan’s b/w illustrations were not available for review.)
Monday, September 15, 2008
But, on the other hand, if you are ready for an intense, moving, and stomach-clenching tale of heartbreak, survival, and love, then dive right in.
By now, The Underneath by Kathi Appelt has been reviewed all over the place, so most folks are familiar with the story. An abandoned pregnant cat (see? The sadness has already started) finds her way through the swamp to the home of Ranger, a hound dog who (more grimness here) remains eternally chained up by his quite hideous master Gar Face, who makes his living by selling the skins of just about any animal he can shoot or trap.
The mama cat takes to Ranger right away, and he to her. She has her kittens under the house, which provides a safe haven for them – until Gar Face discovers them one day. Nastiness ensues, and death. The boy kitten, Puck, ends up on the far side of the river, with an overwhelming desire and need to get back to Ranger and what remains of his family.
Meanwhile, there is a more mystical tale going on. A shape-shifting snake spirit called Grandmother Moccasin, older than time itself, has been trapped in a jar beneath the roots of an ancient tree for the past 1000 years. 1000 years ago, she rediscovered love in the form of a much-beloved daughter – but then lost her when the daughter fell in love and assumed her human form. Grandmother Moccasin reacted badly – and tragedy resulted. She has been seething for 1000 years, and wants her revenge.
Grandmother Moccasin’s tale is told in a slow and stately manner, as befits an ancient spirit to whom time is nothing, while Ranger and the cats are allowed no such luxury – their story is one of heart-pounding suspense punctuated by both terrifying swoops of action and piercing sweetness. Naturally, all the stories arrive at one place in one moment in time in an almost unbearable climax – and by then, the reader is a limp and soggy wad of nerves. But a happy wad of nerves! Some characters are redeemed, justice prevails, and the swamp subsides into business as usual.
The ancient 100-foot-long Alligator King, who has seen all and mostly keeps his thoughts to himself, is the most mysterious character of all. Only once do we get a sense of his moral character (or that he even has one), when he feels compelled to give a piece of advice to his old friend Grandmother Moccasin. She doesn’t heed it, of course. Meanwhile, the Alligator King lives, breathes, swims, and eats – and plays his own crucial role.
The omniscient narrator’s voice, with its tendency to lecture, exhort, and warn the reader (“Do not go into that land between the Bayou Tartine and its little sister, Petite Tartine. Do not step into that shivery place. Do not let it gobble you up. Stay away from the Tartine sisters.”) jarred me at first, but then the intimate feeling of being directly addressed, as well as the lulling, mythical repetition of various words and phrases, began working its magic on me. I’m curious to know how children will react to this narrative voice, and to see if the find Grandmother Moccasin’s story, which is slower and more distant, compelling or boring.
This is one of the most powerful and skillfully told books for children that I’ve read all year, and it is certainly a strong Newbery contender. Read this book.
Read it now!
Friday, September 12, 2008
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
When, in short, you know that it’s simply obnoxious to sink into such a morass of self-pity when you should practice Thankfulness for all life’s many gifts (including your own Little Brute Family) but you can’t summon up the energy – then it’s time to lay whatever book you’re reading aside (ignoring those pangs of guilt at the vast piles of unread books lying around your house and office) and pick up one of the early Complete Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz. I own 1950-1952, 1953-1954, and 1955-1956, and the rest are on my wishlist. Classics all, and hugely comforting.
As a child, I was captivated by Charlie Brown’s world, peopled by children who spoke like adults but with whom I identified completely. I dreamed of morphing like Gumby into the Peanuts strip, where I would comfort Charlie Brown, observe Lucy from an admiring but wary distance, and sit in contemplative silence with Linus.
The early Charlie Brown, from 1950 to 1952, bears almost no resemblance to the Charlie Brown of later years. Round-headed but totally devoid of worry or self-doubt, he revels in teasing girls into chasing him and hanging with Shermy, Schroeder, and the other local kids. By the end of 1952, however, Violet and the other girls are calling him “wishy-washy,” and when he calls Violet in a panic to let her know he’ll be late for her party, she says, “Oh, aren’t you here yet, Charlie Brown? We hadn’t even noticed!” Lucy, at this point, is still a toddler.
From 1953 to 1956, Charlie Brown slowly evolves into the put-upon, long-suffering guy we all know and love, but he still retains quite a bit of the sass of those first couple years. Although he complains constantly that no one likes him, his small smirk makes clear that he doesn’t quite believe it, and after all, he does has plenty of friends. Tiny Linus’ prodigal ability to show up Charlie Brown at almost any activity, from folding newspaper into boats (Linus makes a three-masted clipper ship) to blowing up balloons (Linus’ are cuboid) to making snow forts (Linus’ resembles a medieval fortress) fails to lower Charlie Brown’s spirits, and Lucy may be intensely exasperating, but she can’t, at this stage anyway, truly hurt him at his core.
No, what is so heartbreaking about Charlie Brown is that, by the end of 1956, he has demonstrated that only his own failings have the power to rend his soul. Unlike Lucy, who, when Charlie Brown asks her what her New Year’s Resolutions are, loudly proclaims that she likes herself just the way she is, Charlie Brown is keenly aware of his own failings. He has two bouts of extreme insomnia in 1956 – once when he strikes out and loses a baseball game. He relives the moment in bed, wearing his baseball cap, for strip after strip – “The nights are the hardest,” he says in agony. Ain’t it the truth? After Christmas, he is so upset at not receiving a single Christmas card that he seeks solace in sleep. “Sleep is the only real cure for discouragement…you just have to go to sleep and try to forget everything, and…” at which point he rears up and wails, “Not even one!” Charlie Brown’s amazing capacity for experiencing Angst begins here.
There are plenty of purely light moments in these early strips – charming, fresh, and howlingly funny. But even these early strips are not totally devoid of the pop culture that reared its ugly head to often wearisome effect in the 70s. On June 22, 1956, Lucy says “Yes, sir, boy!” not once but three times with great enthusiasm and appreciation, while gazing at a photo of – Elvis Presley.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I identify quite strongly with Lucy. I don’t possess her unconquerable self-confidence or self esteem, but I do share with Lucy a strong sense that folks could stand to have a few of their faults pointed out to them – purely as an aid toward their own betterment. It’s not my best quality, but like Lucy, I am quite often an over-critical fussbudget.
Finally, there is Pig-Pen. I have never found strips featuring this perpetually messy but usually blithe boy to be particularly funny, but I do love one strip. Violet and Patty are being nasty to Pigpen, who is sitting calmly in a mud puddle reading a book – Patty: Just look at that “Pig-Pen.” Violet: Isn’t he awful? Patty: “Terrible…just terrible! Violet: A real “good-for-nothing.” Patty: I’ll say…a complete flop!
As they walk off, Pig-Pen stands up, still clutching his book, and shouts after them, “I’m well-read!”
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
In a parallel story, teenaged Luka, a Galrezi, has been a virtual slave for the last 10 years, first digging in a quarry and then imprisoned under awful conditions in a flavored-water factory. She manages to escape, and makes her way home with vengeance on her mind.
Kat and Tanka’s new home is gorgeous, nestled next to a now-defunct cherry orchard, and it happens to be Luka’s former home, where her family was killed and where she was captured. Kat begins to question the carefully constructed lies about the fate of Luka’s family and about the New Frontier, while Luka tries to get revenge on the powerful people who have destroyed her life. Finally, they meet, and the truth about the New Frontier comes out – rather than being an open and tolerant place, Galrezi have been just as loathed as in the Five Cities. Rather than exterminate them, the New Frontier simply used them as work slaves.
Luka’s story is chilling – her story, told in first-person, has a vivid and compelling voice that forces the reader to imagine every brutality she describes. Kat’s story, on the other hand, is more distant. Perhaps it is because of the third-person narration or because Kat herself has tried to forget that horrible time 10 years ago when her parents desperately and vainly sought shelter before being dragged away and eventually killed, but the nightmare of the Five Cities wars is muted.
The parallels with the Holocaust and other incidents of genocide throughout history are obvious. Readers who haven’t read The Diary of Pelly D won’t know that the indelible Galrezi, Mazzini, or Atsumisi labels that all colonists must wear on their hands are the results of a tiny and meaningless gene tag. Somehow, the Atsumisi gene became the superior one, with Mazzini being tolerated and Galrezi being scum – all completely arbitrarily. Adlington does a good job of describing, both in this book and in Diary, how much chaos can come about from the natural but evil human instinct to despise those different from oneself, even if those differences are invisible until tested for and brightly labeled. There are plenty of logical problems, and Adlington doesn’t always get across the subtleties of how ordinary people react (or not) to thinly disguised evil being done under their noses – but most teens will find this a scary and thought-provoking read.
Ages 13 and up.
Monday, September 8, 2008
Jazz runs for the nearest Tube station, and soon finds herself deep underground and under the care of Harry, a Fagin-esque character (but with more heart) who nurtures an odd assortment of young thieves who, for various reasons, have no home other than the bowels of London’s ancient underground warren of abandoned Tube stations, air raid shelters, and still older tunnels and rooms.
Jazz soon discovers that her keen awareness of London’s old ghosts is linked to the Uncles’ relentless pursuit of her. Harry has his own mysterious agenda, as does a dashing thief named Terence whom Jazz meets while robbing the same house. There is magic in London, and it’s dragging the City down, miring it in old tragedy and sorrow while the rest of the world moves on. All the players in this story are aware of this magic and want to use it for their own purposes.
Jazz’s constant and well-founded paranoia makes this book a prickly and exciting read, even as she gains self-confidence and a sense of purpose. Her fumbling attempts to make friends and achieve a sense of intimacy are touching and bittersweet, and are balanced by breathtaking and almost cinematic scenes that take place along abandoned Tube tracks and during dangerous heists. The conclusion is both satisfying and slightly ambiguous; there is plenty of hope, but also some unanswered questions and plenty of sadness.
Although not marketed as a YA book, this is an excellent book for teens, and no wonder, considering that both Tim Lebbon and Christopher Golden have written for teens. The mixture of magic, danger, and a secret underground London world had my teen daughters clamoring to read this after I finished it. Perhaps this is not as poetical or imaginative as Neil Gaimon's Neverwhere or his other books, but it satisfies.
Recommended for ages 14 and up, plus Charles de Lint and Neil Gaiman fans of all ages.
Friday, September 5, 2008
Attack of the Growling Eyeballs by Lin Oliver, illustrated by Stephen Gilpin (Simon & Schuster, 2008).
This is the first in the "Who Shrunk Daniel Funk?" series, in which Daniel discovers the ability to shrink down to the size of a toe and has plenty adventures with his tiny and long-lost twin brother Pablo. Eccentric characters abound - after all, the series takes place in nutty Venice, CA, my hometown, where we like to work our weirdness. Plenty of text, but jolted by funny drawings every 5 pages or so.
Cool Zone With the Pain and the Great One by Judy Blume, illustrated by James Stevenson.
1st-grader Jake (the Pain) and his 3rd-grade sister Abigail (the Great One, natch) take turns describing events such as the disastrous Bring Your Pet to School Day and the day Abigail changed her name to Violet Rose. Quietly hilarious, and there are others in this series to enjoy.
Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Schwartz & Wade, 2008)
Thursday, September 4, 2008
Grades 3 to 6
8-year-old Leap Forward, living in an old part of Beijing in 1966, thinks his life is just about right. Sure, he misses his dead father, and it would be great to have a bit more food on the table – his mom and five sisters have to carefully count out every grain of rice. But Leap Forward flies kites with his best friend Little-Little, makes friends with pretty Blue, tends his silkworms, and tries to encourage his caged wild bird to sing by playing on a flute.
Leap Forward doesn’t think anything is wrong with all-white kites (rather than the multi-colored beauties of the previous generation) or all-blue clothing or revolutionary songs, and these facts are presented to the reader in a child’s accepting and nonchalant tone. But when the Cultural Revolution slams down on Beijing, Leap Forward can’t help but notice how narrow and limiting life is becoming. His friend Blue and his sisters must cut off their long hair or risk having it cut off by force. Kite-flying is banned, books and art are burned, and school is closed.
Suddenly, Leap Forward understands why Little-Little was always so troubled by his caged bird. “Wouldn’t you rather be free, just for a day, than spend a lifetime in a cage?” Little-Little asks. It is Little-Little, a free spirit by nature, who urges Leap Forward to go with him again to their spot by the river, away from the trucks and loudspeakers of the Red Guards, to fly a forbidden kite and to play music on the flute – not revolutionary songs or scales but wild and free music. When Leap Forward finally decides that he must let his caged bird fly free, something within him is able to stretch free of its bonds and fly free as well.
Never depressing or gray, this is an authentic child’s-eye view of Communist China. Try as it might to wring color, spontaneity, and joy from people’s lives, Mao’s government never did succeed. Red berries, yellow birds, and green mulberry leaves sparkle in Leap Forward’s story, making it come vividly to life. The many watercolor illustrations depict the people and places of Leap Forward’s world in winsome, jewel-toned detail.
This is an autobiographical book, and readers will be fascinated by Guo Yue’s afterword, which extends his story to the present day and includes several photos of the chubby-faced author as a boy.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Sarah Palin is also an attempted banner of books! In this Time article, we learn:
"Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. "She asked the library how she could go about banning books," he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. "The librarian was aghast." That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving "full support" to the mayor. "
Not okay! Not okay at all!
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
How I love a book with plenty of white space, BIG chapter names but very short chapters, and at least a sprinkling of funny illustrations, and I think I'm not alone. Those who share my proclivities will embrace the new Moxy Maxwell book (following 2007's Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little).
All the action takes place within about an hour or so as 9-year-old Moxy struggles to write 13 thank-you notes, which she must accomplish (so her mother says) before she will be allowed to visit her long-absent dad in Hollywood. Being Moxy, nothing is simple, and soon her stepdad's favorite recliner is broken, his new copier has spewed out 473 identical fill-in-the-blanks thank-you notes, and the words "HANK YOU" have been spray painted in gold paint across the living room wall (the "T" ends up on young Sam's sweater). Luckily, Moxy's twin brother Mark captures the whole thing with his still camera, and we readers get to see the excellent photographs, all thoughtfully captioned for us.
All this does not faze Moxy for long (although it takes her mom and stepdad a bit longer to recover their equilibrium), and even the falling-through of her New Year's plans fail to keep her spirits down. Kids will love Moxy's resilience and her absolute resistance to doing things the easy or obvious (or sensible) way.
Grades 2 - 4.
Monday, September 1, 2008
Current fave - Meg Cabot's Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls series
Sam (not pictured), 13 -
Current fave - Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series
Nadia (shown at left), almost 14 -
Current faves: fantasy in general, and specifically all books by Robin Hobb
Vivian (not pictured), 17 -Current fave: anything by David Sedaris
Gabriel (shown at right), almost 8 -
Current fave: anything (fiction or nonfiction) by Dan Gutman
Noah, 8 -Current fave: The "Horace Splattly Cupcaked Crusader" books by Lawrence David
When Liga’s daughters Branza and Urdda are still young, a small-time ignorant witch named Annie manages to accidentally cause a rift between the real world and Liga’s heaven, causing the occasional visitor, benign or malign, to cross over for a time from Liga’s old village into her heaven. Branza’s encounters with these visitors are sometimes confusing or unpleasant, but Urdda is enflamed with curiosity and must find a way to the real world. Find it she does, and manages to find good folks who understand who she is and can help her. Meanwhile, time spins much faster in Liga’s heaven, with one of Urdda’s years equaling ten of Branza and Liga’s years.
Urdda misses her family and wants to visit them; not only is she unable to do so, but an expert witch must be called in to bring out Branza and Liga from Liga’s fatally damaged heaven and make it vanish for good. Branza and Liga, one innocent by chance and one by choice, must figure out how to make their way in this dangerous, terrifying real world, where men and boys are violent and badness lurks around every corner.
This is the truly compelling part of the tale. Liga’s experience of the world was so awful that it is no wonder she created such a safe and static place for herself and her daughters, filled with bland folks who didn’t actually exist. But Branza and Urdda, being human, could not grow up healthy and whole in a place where the only complex beings were their mother and the occasional magicked visitor. They need to learn how to survive in this all-too-real world and to find their own heart’s desire if they can. Even Liga is human and belongs to this brutal world, and her slow healing is wondrous and painful to experience.
From its truly horrifying and brutal beginning to its satisfying but bittersweet end, this novel is mesmerizing. Language (characters speak in a country dialect that sounds both fantastical and utterly authentic) and tone remain consistent, whether the story is being told from Liga’s damaged but sweet perspective, from the perspective of one of the Bears who ends up in Liga’s heaven, or from those of any number of other carefully drawn characters. No one is perfect – all have flaws, some much more than others – but we can understand, if not sympathize with, each person. Often wrenching, at heart this is a truly tender story of healing, growing, and redemption.