Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Review of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaimon

In his acknowledgments, Gaimon mentions owing a huge debt to The Jungle Book by Kipling, which certainly resonates throughout The Graveyard Book – a boy in great danger is rescued and then adopted and brought up by an unlikely assortment of foster parents, all of whom impart what wisdom they can to him. Meanwhile, menace lurks just outside his small and cozy domain.

After a cold-hearted killer murders his whole family, a tiny toddler accidentally eludes his knife by crawling out the door and into an old gated graveyard, where he is rescued from his killer by its ghostly inhabitants, especially Mr. and Mrs. Owens and his guardian Silas. They name him Nobody Owens, or Bod for short, and keep him safe by raising him within the confines of the graveyard, which has its own rules and secrets. But Bod’s killer Jack is still out there and still wants him dead, as do Jack’s powerful employers. Because growing up will mean leaving the graveyard, Bod will have to either hide from his would-be killer – or face him.

I never would have thought an old, cold graveyard could be cozy, and the thought of a small boy sleeping on a tomb (and wrapped only in a gray winding sheet) would have given me chills before I read this book. Strangely, I’m somewhat envious of young Bod’s ability to see a graveyard not as a spooky place but as home, filled with dead denizens who range from irritable to warm-hearted to utterly fascinating. He learns handy skills (Fading and Fear, for instance), and explores the creepy secrets of a barrow and a ghouls’ gate.

Silas, a mysterious figure who is neither dead nor alive (one suspects him of being a vampire or similar undead creature) and who is often busy on urgent errands, is a most compelling character. Bod loves and admires him deeply, but would never hug him – one doesn’t hug Silas. He dispenses knowledge, advice, books, food and more, but rarely shows emotion. It doesn’t matter, because his huge responsibility for the boy translates to what in another creature would be affection or even love.

This is a compelling read, with the homey details of life in the graveyard just as fascinating as the thrilling dangerous bits. My favorite chapter is one that could be a short story unto itself – “Danse Macabre,” in which the dead and living come together in a joyous and outrageous evening of dancing. It is fey and odd and wonderful.

Fey and odd and wonderful – those are fine words to describe the entire book, and so I’ll leave it at that.

Gr. 4 - 8

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Review of Flora's Dare by Ysabeau S. Wilce

This is the luscious sequel to Flora Segunda (Harcourt, 2006), featuring the intrepid and impetuous daughter of the Commanding General of the Army of Califa (known to Flora as Mamma) and the ex-aide-de-camp to the previous commanding General, ex-Ranger, and ex-drunk and crazy person (whom Flora calls Poppy). Their household is an illustrious one, but due to the huge restrictions Mamma has placed on their house Butler (a supernatural creature of the “domicilic denizen” type), the mansion is decrepit and Flora must do all the chores.

In Flora’s Dare, Flora has reached her 14th birthday and thus gained the age of maturity, but nothing has changed. Her father, though no longer drunk, has become quite a tyrant and her mother shows no signs of letting Flora pursue her dream of being a ranger (rather than go into the army, which is the family career). However, Flora is incapable of leading a boring life, and soon she must cope with the tasty but dangerous Lord Axacaya, the possession and then zombification of her best friend Udo, a giant pregnant monster imprisoned under the city who is causing earthquakes – and much more, of course.

This is an alternate world. The setting is very clearly San Francisco in California, called here the City of Califa, and various sites figure prominently in the story (the ruins of the bathhouse, the Fort, and many more) – but the culture and history are very different. It’s a world of military might and magic (the two elements being more or less inimical in this society), with everything being run by what seems to be a handful of Great Families, including Flora’s family the Fyrdraacas. There are balls and extravaganzas, but there are also seedy dives featuring thrash music and mosh pits. There are horses, spirits, and amazing fashions (Frock coats! Weskits! Stays! Kilts! And plenty of “maquillage” as make-up is called). Well-brought up people greet each other with formal gestures called courtesies, made up of bows, curtsies and gestures that have various ultra-specific meanings, such as Acknowledging Heroic Style; As a Servant to His Mistress, Respectfully but Without Servility; To One Who is Owed Great Thanks; and so on. There must be a courtesy for every situation under the sun.

Flora goes bashing about this world in an outrageously spirited and pig-headed way, her frizzy red hair flouncing and her stays straining around her plump and energetic body. Udo, gorgeous and always fabulously dressed and maguillaged (often his biggest decision of the day is whether to wear scarlet or blue lipstick), is Flora’s side-kick in her adventures – when he becomes infatuated with the Warlord’s daughter Zu-Zu, Flora is disgusted, annoyed – and perhaps jealous.

Flora narrates this tale, and so the language is florid and vivid, spiced up with outrĂ© observations of her fellow citizens, complaints about her too-tight stays, and wise sayings of the most famous ranger of them all, Nini Mo – an example is “You’d be amazed how much dry socks matter.” Although events hasten pell-mell one after another, Flora’s narration keeps the reader on course and caring deeply about her fate (which often seems headed straight toward doom of one kind or another). She is quite candid about sexy Lord Axacaya’s rather visceral effect on her, but she can’t acknowledge her feelings for Udo until the very end.

Endless excitement and boundless imagination, all centered in an exotic yet strangely familiar world and on the most exuberant of female characters. There had fiking well be a third book, is all I can say!

Grades 6 and up.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

It's the "Other" Eva...

Heh, this made my day! Thanks to Monica at Educating Alice for the link to this site, where you can get your very own Coraline-esque button eyes.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

For "Wind in the Willows" Fans

Here is a thoughtful and lengthy article in on Wind in the Willows at its 100 anniversary, written by Gary Kamiya.

Newbery controversy goes mainstream

The Washington Post offers this article, which essentially comments on and rehashes Anita Silvey's School Library Journal article.

This quote make me snort:

"I can't help but believe that thousands, even millions, more children would grow up reading if the Newbery committee aimed to spotlight books that are deep and beautiful and irresistible to kids," said Lucy Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University's Teachers College and a professor of children's literature.

Oh, so now the Newbery Award is being blamed for turning millions of kids off reading? Puh-lease.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Favorite Holiday Titles

Every year I coordinate School Library Journal's round-up of December holiday book reviews, and I'm telling you, it's hard to concentrate on Santa, latkes, and kinara candles when it's a perfect beach day in July.
There have been some awful years when all the publishers seemed hellbent on publishing whatever hideous holiday manuscripts were submitted to them, but 2008 was not so bad.

Here is the entire list of our holiday reviews (written by me and lots of colleagues and friends), and here are my favorites:

Millie in the Snow by Alexander Steffensmeier (Walker, 2008) - funny and sweet, with Millie the cow!

Harvest of Light by Alison Ofanansky (Kar-Ben, 2008) - different take on the holiday - a family gathers olive oil from an orchard in Israel.

Hurry! Hurry! Have You Heard? by Laura Krauss Melmed and ill. by Jane Dyer (Chronicle, 2008) - anachronistic and slightly puzzling, but little kids will adore the illustrations of cute animals.

Looking Forward to those 2009 Books

Although I'm still frantically catching up on my 2008 reading, I can't help but anticipate those crispy, fresh 2009 titles.

Here's a partial list of what I'm looking forward to in January:

Chicken Cheeks by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Simon & Schuster) - this picture book is about animal butts and it got a starred review in Kirkus. 'Nuff said.

3 Willows by Ann Brashares (Delacorte Press) - 8th-grade girls try the whole Sisterhood thing. Starred PW review.

The Kind of Friends We Used to Be by Frances O'Roark Dowell (Atheneum) - Dowell can't write a bad or uninteresting book, and this one is a "light fantasy"!!

Tillie Lays an Egg by Terry Golson (Scholastic) - I reviewed this way back - it's a charming picture book about a silly hen, and who could want more?

The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett (Simon & Schuster) - because it's a picture book by Gravett! Nothing more needs to be said.

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick (Blue Sky Press/Scholastic) - a Civil War adventure with plenty of twists, written by the author of the incomparable Freak the Mighty.

Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud (Hyperion) - finally, a new fantasy by the author of the Bartimaeus books.

Rhyming Dust Bunnies by Jan Thomas - any story time is better with a Jan Thomas book.

And now, back to those 2008 books, which I am determined to read before January 26th!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Laura Miller discusses the Narnia Books at LAPL

Although I don’t live in New York City, where writers, librarians, and publishers always seem to be getting together to chat, share books, and frolic (yes, I’m looking at you, Betsy Bird!), we inhabitants of the sleepy burg of Los Angeles do occasionally get to attend a fantastic literary event.

My very own Los Angeles Public Library hosted an ALOUD presentation this past Wednesday, December 10 featuring Laura Miller - journalist, book reviewer, and cofounder and senior writer for the book section. She has written a book called The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (Little, Brown, 2008), which is an exploration of the Narnia books and their author C.S. Lewis from the standpoint of a person who loved the books as a child and loves them still, even as her relationship toward and understanding of them have changed.

This isn’t a book review, as I’ve only read the introduction so far, but rather a pondering of some of the issues Miller raised during a free-ranging conversation with David Ulin, Los Angeles Times book editor – although really, it was less a conversation than a wonderfully rambling, intensely interesting monologue, occasionally punctuated by Ulin’s comments and questions.

Miller told us that, in writing The Magician’s Book, she was interested in literary criticism that would address not just the quality of the book but also the reading experience itself – the relationship that a reader has with a book. She also wanted to explore how books shape a person’s very identity, especially when the reader is young. As she says in her introduction, after comparing the relationship between book and reader to a love affair:

“The meeting of author and reader has a similar soul-shaping potential. The author who can make a world for a reader – make him believe that the people, places, and events he describes are, if anything, truer than his real, immediate surroundings – that author is someone with a mighty power indeed. Who can forget the first time they experienced this sensation? Who can doubt that every literary encounter they have afterward must somehow be colored by it?”

A point she made that resonated with me was that the way children read is so different than the way most adults read. A child doesn’t filter what she is reading through a whole lifetime of thoughts and experiences, but rather meshes with the text in an immediate way that does not seek out or even notice underlying patterns or symbols. This ability to immerse herself in a world where anything seemed possible is a quality that Miller misses now that she is an adult reader. Although she read the Narnia books over and over as a child, she always felt that “something different” might happen. The world Lewis created was so vivid and yet so “loose” that the story did not seem inevitable, giving Miller’s imagination free rein.

Here’s what Miller says in her introduction to The Magician’s Book:

“A lot of people remember the bliss of their earliest reading with a pang: their current encounters with books offer no more than faint echoes of what they once felt. I’ve heard friend and strangers talk about the days when they, too, would submerge themselves in a story, surfacing only to eat and deal with the minimal daily business of childhood. They wonder why they don’t get as much out of books now.”

Although at first Miller mourned the loss of that childhood ability to give herself completely to the world of Narnia every time she read the books, she came to realize that she is now bringing something new but just as valuable to her reading experience – the ability to look at the books with a whole new perspective, enriched by all that she has read and experienced and contemplated. It is not that she has lost any “innocence” or is jaded or disillusioned, but rather that she has changed and grown and is ready to see the books with fresh eyes. Miller compared this to Lyra’s ability to read the alethiometer in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Although Lyra loses this ability as she reaches puberty, it is not to be looked at as something lost, so much as a new understanding and maturity gained.

I have to say that I still read in almost the same intense and addicted manner as when I was a child, and I'm guessing that most book-addled, book-addicted adults feel the same. The best books are the ones that suck me in and allow me to imagine roaming around in their worlds at will. And although I no longer am certain that the very next mirror I touch just might allow me beyond the looking glass, I do still get that shiver of “Narnia!” whenever I find myself in a wooded area. The world is full of an underlying shimmer of enchantment, thanks to books.

Please check in with this website to see the podcast of Laura Miller’s presentation. As of this writing, it isn’t yet up, but it’s worth waiting for. For a Salon interview with Laura Miller conducted by Rebecca Traister, visit this site. And by all means, read the book! I’ll be doing that myself, once I tear myself away from Iain M. Banks’ Matter and Ysabeau S. Wilce’s Flora’s Dare (yes, fiction always comes first with me).

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Training New Children's Librarians - What exhaustion, what joy!

See my post on the ALSC Blog to find out what new children's librarians have to learn (and they do it with a smile, those sweet puppies!).

Libraries Make the National News

Everyone is acknowledging what we librarians knew all along - when times get tough, folks turn to their libraries. Libraries are more necessary than ever, but unfortunately we have very little money to buy books and hire staff.

Los Angeles Public Library had a boom year in 2008, with a record number of card holders and circulation; this despite a period from January to June during which book buying ceased almost entirely.

In this video clip from yesterday's NBC Nightly News, those are LAPL branches you see, although we aren't singled out for mention.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Huge Honor - The Butterfly Award!

I am so thrilled that Jill of The Well-Read Child (which happens to be one of my favorite blogs) gave me and some other great folks a Butterfly Award for being a "cool blog." Spreading knowledge of and appreciation about other blogs out there is a fantastic idea and I'll be giving a Butterfly Award very soon to some of my faves - I'm not sure how to limit my list, though!

Review of Simon Bloom, the Gravity Keeper by Michael Reisman

As a child, I was stunned when I first came across the teacher’s edition of one of our elementary school class’s textbooks. Good lord, all the answers were in there! Our teacher didn’t need to know it all off the top of her head after all. Although, knowing Ms. Hernandez, she probably did anyway.

Even more powerful and useful is the tome 6th-grader Simon finds in a mysterious – or rather, it finds him (chooses him, as it turns out) by falling out of a rent in space/time and falling on his head. It’s called “Teacher’s Edition of Physics” but it is really a compendium of all the physics laws in the universe, handily distilled into magical formulas that, when uttered, allow the speaker to control particular aspects of physical laws, such as those governing gravity, friction, velocity, and so on.

Simon and his friends Owen and Alysha have quite a bit of fun with this, until two different factions – the members of the Order of Physics, plus a couple of nasty rebels intent on controlling the world – realize that Simon has the book and try their best to get it back. Much chaos ensues, as Simon and his friends battle against the others by temporarily changing and warping the laws of physics.

This is similar to last year's The Seems: The Glitch in Sleep by John Hulme in that a boy is chosen to become privy to the secret workings of the world while the rest of humanity ignorantly goes about its business. Like The Seems, this is written in sprightly and energetic language, with plenty of imagination and some amusing jokes and asides that pay homage to Reisman’s stated hero, the late Douglas Adams.

Also like The Seems, there is little real character development, the emphasis being on plenty of action and derring-do. This is a problem in the case of Simon, who – although a nice enough lad and certainly one whose tendency to daydream I can empathize with – does not seem in any way to earn the honor bestowed upon him by the amazing Book. He doesn’t seem particularly clever, insightful, or able to lead. Why is Simon chosen to be a Keeper, one of the most powerful people on Earth? Who knows? Kids probably won’t care, as Simon does a capable job as managing his new powers and fighting the Bad Guys.

Much more interesting is The Narrator. He’s British, of course; all the best Narrators are. Not only is he in fact the narrator of our tale, but he is also an intriguing, appealing, and enigmatic character in his own right. Truly, this story belongs to him, not Simon, a fact that seems to be borne out by a tiny twist at the very end of the book.

This is action-packed science-fiction with a light and humorous touch that should appeal to kids looking for adventure stories. As a bonus, readers may learn some basic laws of physics without even noticing.

Gr. 4 - 7

Friday, December 5, 2008

LA Times "Best of 2008" lists

Sonja Bolle, a talented writer and fanatical reader who really should be given much more space in the LA Times (not just once a month in the electronic version), has shared her list of 2008 faves in YA and children's fiction.

And here is her list of choice 2008 picture books. Unfortunately, no jacket art is shown - boo, LA Times!

Review of My One Hundred Adventures by Polly Horvath

Life is messy and unpredictable. Folks don’t always act the way they should – even grown-ups! Even parents! Unpleasant feelings tend to well up and pervade one’s mind like a miasma. But there is unexpected joy in life as well, often in the simplest things and during the oddest moments. Polly Horvath understands this.

12-year-old Jane is the oldest of four children. She lives with her single mom and her two brothers and one sister in a worn but beloved house on the beach, where her Pulitzer-winning mom is apparently able to make a small living from writing poetry.

This summer, Jane inadvertently becomes the sidekick for Nellie Phipps, the preacher at church, with whom she goes around giving away bibles and searching for spiritual truth in some rather dubious places. A short trip in an air balloon during which Jane drops bibles from midair leads to a stint doing slave labor babysitting for a huge family of tiny messy children. Meanwhile, men keep appearing out of the blue, all of whom seem to have been her mother’s boyfriends at one time or another – whether they still are is hard to tell. Finally, there are old women with amazing hats and various illnesses, who must be prayed for and coddled. Thank goodness for Jane’s friend Ginny, who has a level head on her shoulders and a steady bead on her future as a fashion designer.

Jane tries to do the right thing and think the best of the people she meets – until she realizes that there is a reason that she keeps having negative, bitter thoughts and it’s not because she’s a bad person. These folks – Nellie Phipps and quite a few others – are behaving badly! They are taking advantage, being selfish, lying, and in general not being sterling examples of goodness.

These characters are delicious to find in a children’s book. Nellie Phipps, single-minded and outrageously self-centered despite her role as minister, rings absolutely true. How does a kid deal with someone like this? Probably a lot like Jane, who keeps hoping that Nellie (being a grown-up and a minister) has Jane’s and everyone else’s best interests at heart and is of course eventually bitterly disappointed.

A character with a bit part, Dr. Callahan as the town’s long-suffering doctor is priceless. He just wants a bit of peace, but he has to deal with all the old ladies and their ailments. At the funeral of one such old lady, Mrs. Parks, Dr. Callahan tries in vain to tell everyone that she had bursitis, not the thrombosis Mrs. Parks had complained of. Finally, he snaps, “I’m telling you, she was in the PINK of health. And that’s what I told her. The pink. The silly fool wanted to go into the hospital… It is my opinion that you send one old lady to the hospital and they all want to go.” This understandably leads to some heated (and hilarious) discussion, quite disrupting the funeral.

Jane’s mom is a bit of an enigma. She avoids most people and hates making public appearances, tending rather to float through life, tending to her children and making jam. That all these men suddenly return to her life this one summer is somewhat of an unconvincing coincidence – who are they and why did they all come back? Are any of them the fathers of Jane or the other kids? Which ones? Does it matter? I would think it does matter, and yet Jane eventually makes a conscious decision to not bring it up with either her mother or the one man who sticks around. (Another man suddenly runs off to marry a student, a third man apparently drowns – or does he? Another mystery, and a fourth lives a quiet life reading in his trailer).

There is so much to this deceptively simple book – I could go on and on about the various intriguing plot lines and characters. To summarize my favorite thing about the book – the messiness and strangeness of life can lead to important insights that flit through your thoughts and then vanish, altering your perception of the world forever. My library copy is bristling with post-its that I’ll have to pull off before I return it, so here is just one tiny example:

“But Mrs. Merriweather probably wouldn’t understand this. She was busy at her sister’s bringing berries. She has had another sort of day and will never know ours. Suddenly I realize that everyone in the whole world is, at the end of a day, staring at a dusky horizon, owner of a day that no one else will ever know. I see all those millions of different days crowded into the one.”

This is my favorite book of 2008, I think.

Gr. 4 - 7

Horn Book Best of 2008

Here is another list that leaves off those three hugely buzzed titles Savvy, The Underneath, and Chains. I'm not even going to bother hyperlinking those titles.

That said, there are some delights here. I was happy to see, among many other gems, Dowd's The London Eye Mystery, Lanagan's Tender Morsels, and McKay's Forever Rose.

In picture books are two of my absolute faves - Grey's Traction Man Meets Turbodog and Kohara's Ghosts in the House!

Amidst the usual suspects in nonfiction is Greenberg and Jordan's Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Through the Gates and Beyond which is a readable and stunning art book.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Kirkus Best YA Books of 2008

Argh - and I thought I was doing so well with YA books this year! Then Kirkus releases this list and I see all sorts of - gasp - nonfiction and non-fantasy I want to read.

For L.A.-based Narnia Fans...

If you think "Narnia!" every time you find yourself on a tree-lined path, then come on down to the Los Angeles Public Library's Central Library to see Laura Miller talk about her book The Magician's Book: a Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia with David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times.

Wednesday, December 10 at 7 pm.

Part of the Aloud series, funded by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, admission is free but reservations are recommended.

I'll be there with bells on!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Book Inspection - nearly extinct

These Children's Librarians with the Los Angeles Public Library are busily engaging in what is unfortunately a dying practice - the fine art of book inspection.
Yes, our Children's Librarians actually get to see books before they buy them for their branches! They inspect the jacket, the binding, the size of the print, the illustrations, the paper quality - and in the case of picture books, they read them cover-to-cover.
Does this seem innovative and amazing? It should, because most Children's Librarians in most library systems must select their books without ever clapping eyes on them. That is, if they even get to select their books at all; many library systems use centralized purchasing, thus taking away one of the main important functions of a professional Children's Librarian.
Sure, Children's Librarians can often get a good sense of what to buy from reviews, buzz, a knowledge of authors and series, and a deep familiarity with their own communities and collections. However, nothing is as good as picking up a picture book and reading the whole thing cover to cover. Will it work for story time? Is it perfect to read to a class? Is it a wonderful lapsit book for a grown-up to share with a favorite child? I trust reviewers to tell me what they think of a book and why, but tastes do differ.
Nonfiction is just as important to inspect as picture books. Size, shape, thickness, and size of font all have an impact on the appeal and usefulness of a nonfiction book, and reviews (if there even are any; nonfiction reviews are sadly rare, especially for series) don't always give this information. I want to see the table of contents, the bibliography, and the index. I want to judge whether the illustrations pull me in or leave me cold. I want to hold the book in my hand and imagine the child, teacher, or parent I will hand it to.
No one can read a novel during the four hours we get for book inspection, but again, the size of the font and the sheer heft of the book can tell me a lot. Also, reading the jacket flap and the first page (just like kids do) will let me know if the kids in my community might read this book - it may have gotten starred reviews, but kids do judge a book by its cover and first page! Of course, Children's Librarians should read reviews and buy books that receive great reviews but have unfortunate covers or a less than thrilling first page - but they must be ready and willing to promote them at every opportunity.
The bottom line is that when Children's Librarians are able to inspect books before they make their purchasing decisions, they are less likely to wind up with duds - those "dang - why'd I order that?!" feeling. The books are more likely to be the ones they actively use in programs, take out into the community, and handsell to their patrons. And that is a better use of scarce tax dollars.
Our book inpections only occur every other month now rather than monthly - budget woes have cut down on how often our Children's Librarians can meet. We can only hope that book inspection doesn't disappear entirely, as we all feel that it is essential to getting the right book into the hands of the right child.