Saturday, January 31, 2009

Juicy Science Fiction for Teens

I’ve been an avid reader of science fiction since those formative years of age 12 or 13, when the humor, subversion, and limitless imagination of that genre struck a chord in my newly awakening teen soul.

Although I started with what might be dubbed Robert Heinlein’s YA novels, I quickly moved on to Stranger in a Strange Land and then outward into Ray Bradbury, Philip Jose Farmer, and other writers for SF for adults. My huge enjoyment of the genre has continued to this day, as a glance at my GoodReads SF shelf will testify.

As a Children’s Librarian, I have naturally attempted to foster an SF obsession in my young patrons, but with limited results. The reason? There simply aren’t very many books for kids that represent the truly awesome power of SF at its best. There are of course plenty of goofy SF titles, the old chestnut Stinker from Space by Pamela Service being a prime example. Sure, it’s very entertaining, but mostly because of its humor; it’s unlikely that reading Stinker will awaken an urge to read more SF as a result. My Teacher is an Alien and other similar titles by Bruce Coville are other examples of supremely funny books with plenty of child appeal – but little in them to create that SF urge.

While great SF often does contain humor, it must do something more than entertain the reader. The SF that I find most engrossing makes me ponder important issues and intriguing possibilities, poses questions about morality and the role and definition of humankind in a changing world, and takes me on a mind-bending adventure, whether in the far reaches of space or right here on earth.

Luckily, there seems to be a resurgence of SF for kids and teens, and some fabulous books have been published in the past few years that should prove alluring to SF fans and newbies alike. Most are for ages 12 and up – the very complexity of some of the themes makes them a natural for teen readers. Here are some of the most toothsome:

Adlington, L.J The Diary of Pelly D. (Greenwillow, 2005) and Cherry Heaven (Greenwillow, 2008).
Fine examples of a dystopian future, in this case on an earth-colonized planet. Astute readers will recognize parallels with the Holocaust.

Collins, Suzanne. Hunger Games. (Scholastic, 2008)
This got huge buzz (although no awards) in 2008 for a very good reason – a strong female character, plenty of kill-or-be-killed action, and powerful, thought-provoking social commentary. Another dystopian civilization of the future.

Doctorow, Cory. Little Brother. (Tor Teen, 2008)
This dystopian future – a highly invasive police state in San Francisco – could happen next month or next year if we aren’t careful. A bunch of teen hackers rebel against a nasty over-protective government that doesn’t hesitate to step on any rights necessary to “protect” its citizens.

Farmer, Nancy. The House of the Scorpion. (Atheneum, 2002)
This is intense stuff. What will happen when cloning humans is a reality? Even if strict laws are put in place, what is to stop very rich and immoral people from growing their own clones in order to provide them with perfectly matched livers and such? And are those clones people or things?

Pearson, Mary E. The Adoration of Jenna Fox. (Holt, 2008).
If a teenaged girl is composed of an uploaded personality and a lab-grown body, is she a person? Does she have a soul? And what about down-loaded personalities that no longer have a body – are they still human? Do they have rights?

Pfeffer, Susan Beth. Life As We Knew It (Harcourt, 2006) and The Dead and the Gone (Harcourt, 2008).
Survival after an astronomical event creates severe and worldwide climate havoc. Life will never be the same…

Reeve, Philip. “The Hungry City Chronicles” (Eos)
All four of these books, about a future when huge cities have become mobile and go zooming around on enormous treads finding and “eating” other cities (a process called “municipal Darwinism”), are complex and engrossing – a terrific example of the Steampunk genre at its finest.

Rex, Adam. The True Meaning of Smekday. (Hyperion, 2007).
By far the lightest title on my list, the humor and whimsy of this tale of an alien invasion (and the subsequent reluctant and problem-fraught friendship between a girl and an alien) make it a favorite of mine.

This is a ridiculously incomplete list, as any SF fan will immediately protest. Consider Scott Westerfeld’s series that begins with Uglies to belong on this list, as well as Kate Thompson’s trilogy that begins with Fourth World and Waugh’s trilogy about aliens on Earth that begins with Space Race.

With SF this chewy, entertaining, and thought-provoking finally hitting the YA shelves, I have high hopes that a new generation of SF fangirls and fanboys is being created and nurtured.

Live Long and Prosper!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Notable and Best Books

I served two years on ALSC's Notable Books for Children committee a few years back (and would again in a heartbeat!) and so know firsthand the truly astonishing amount of reading and discussion it takes to put a list like this together:

2009 Notable Children's Books

And here are some more lists full of Good Stuff:

2009 Notable Children's Recordings
2009 Notable Children's Videos
Fall 2008 Great Interactive Software for Kids List

And from YALSA:

2009 Best Books for Young Adults
2009 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults
2009 Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults
2009 Fabulous Films for Young Adults

And you thought you were DONE with those 2008 titles... Happy Reading!

Monday, January 26, 2009

One more reaction...

I just have to squeeze in Mo Willems' reaction to winning the Geisel!

And the winners react...

Thanks to Monica Edinger of Educating Alice for this link to Neil Gaimon's stunned and excited blog post.

And here is Ingrid Law's reaction to winning the Newbery for Savvy - rather shorter, but give her time!

Oops, break is over - time to get back to work.

Phew, we've got plenty of copies!

I watched the awards with my boss, and (personal feelings aside) we were much relieved that we have plenty of copies of both the Caldecott - The House in the Night by Swanson, illustrated by Krommes - and the Newbery - The Graveyard Book by Gaimon - in our library collection. That the latter is currently in our YA collection only is a small matter, easily rectified. Last year, we only had a few copies of that dark horse Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! and had to scramble madly to meet demand.

On to personal feelings - notice that my post on award hopes failed to make the mark in any category (although I scored honors for the Newbery and the Printz). No matter! The Graveyard Book is a honey of a choice, sure to win the hearts of thousands of kids, and no one could argue with The House in the Night, or at least I won't.

Now at the top of my must-read list - Marchetta's Jellicoe Road and Engle's The Surrender Tree, Printz and Newbery Honor/Pura Belpre author award winners respectively.

I was surprised that neither Green's Paper Towns nor Collins' Hunger Games garnered any awards, but it's no use wondering at what isn't there, when there is so much to celebrate about the books that did receive awards.

More thoughts later! Time to put a special awards order sheet together for our stalwart children's librarians...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

All a-quiver with award fever

All right, that post title didn't quite rhyme, but close enough for government work...

Determined to have read at least the major Printz and Newbery winners, if not the honors, I tore madly through Kristin Cashore's Graceling this weekend (oh yes! Shades of Tamora Pierce and Alison Croggon, but with its own fearsome energy. I want to be Katsa in my next life, but only if I can have Po...) and will finish John Green's Paper Towns by bedtime (I'm loving it, much to my surprise. I found Looking for Alaska to be fairly annoying, but Paper Towns has a deliciously loose and free vibe - Green really gives his inner geek free rein, with nerdtastic results). Madapple and The Knife of Never Letting Go and many others remain unread, vibrating impatiently on my shelf.

So - the awards will be announced tomorrow morning, and while I will be happy with any number of books as winners (it was a really good year, wasn't it?), here are the books that are close to my heart and would give me extra pleasure if they happen to be winners:

Newbery - Horvath's My One Hundred Adventures or Appelt's The Underneath
Caldecott - Nelson's We Are the Ship
Printz - Lanagan's Tender Morsels or Green's Paper Towns

At 7:45 am MT (which is 6:45 am Eva M. time), I'll be hunched in front of my work computer, cheering madly along with all the rest of you book-addled folks.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Yep - I liked Hunger Games too

I don’t have enough time to write a full-fledged review, and anyway, it’s all been said before. Suffice it to say that I fully agree with all the accolades this rollercoaster of an SF book has received. My only quibble (and it’s a tiny one) - I though the fact that the decadent citizens of the Capitol all had Roman names was a bit too broad a brush stroke. We get it already! Otherwise, it was an adrenalin-filled ride. Woo! Thank goodness Catching Fire will be out in September.
Grades 8 and up

Review of The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester

Weird, isn’t it, how a particular theme will pop in several different books all of a sudden? In The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester (Feiwel and Friends, 2008), young Piper McCloud has a special gift – she can fly (making her name quite apt). This gift – and the fact that other kids around the world are born with other unique gifts – and Piper’s down-home folksiness reminded me quite a bit of Ingrid Law’s Savvy, with those unique Talents that a certain family inherits at age 13. And then there’s Graceling by Kristin Cashore (currently waiting impatiently on my nightstand for my return from work tonight), in which some people are inexplicably born with a Grace, which is essentially a superpower.

After a sheltered and lonely childhood on an old-fashioned farm, Piper’s gift is discovered and she is sent to a special facility for gifted children like herself. At first she is ecstatic – the food is terrific and best of all, there are lots of other kids, each of whom has a unique ability. A pair of twins can control weather, a girl is super-strong, another girl has mastered telekinesis, and a boy named Conrad is super-intelligent. But all is not as it seems, and it turns out that this institute – run by the formidable Dr. Hellion – is has a downright sinister mission.

Although this is a well-written and fast-paced book, it was not wholly satisfying, mainly because seemed to be trying to be several different books at once. As I mentioned, the folksy charm of the first few chapters reminded me of Savvy and even a little bit of Chicken Feathers by Joy Cowley. Then suddenly the action shifts to the comfortable yet sterile atmosphere of Dr. Hellion’s institute, which feels like The Little Princess meets The Mysterious Benedict Society meets Brainboy and the Deathmaster. In other words, this is a fantasy that transforms into a science-fiction novel halfway through, and it discombobulated me just a tad. This might not have been so bad if Piper had seemed more real or convincing – but she never really came alive for me.

It’s an entertaining story, but it’s not the first book I would recommend to either a fantasy or SF fan. However, I’m looking forward to the next book by this talented first-time author.
Grades 4 - 7

In what Pratchett carefully explains in an afterword is a parallel universe, a giant wave washes over miles of ocean and thousands of small islands, killing thousands of people and destroying entire villages. Young Mau is the only one left on his substantial island, called the Nation, but he is soon joined by the only human survivor of a shipwreck – a teenaged girl named Daphne who happens to be 138th in line to the throne of her England-like country – and a growing trickle of survivors from other islands near and far. Not only must they all learn how to live together, but they must also prepare for an invasion by a dreaded tribe of cannibals.

Pratchett’s tone in this book is different from the sometimes arch, tongue-in-cheek style of his Discworld books – there is something that I think can be called tenderness in his affectionate depiction of Mau, who is a most fascinating and complicated character. Mau is a consummate control freak who feels he must be hyper-vigilant at all times or his entire world, already tenuous, will fall apart around him. His fierce cry of “Does not happen!” is emblematic of this. (I’m going to try shrieking this at my family the next time they come between me and my vision of a happy family by squabbling like crazed weasels at the dinner table.) Mau is eventually able to accept (grudgingly) the hideous thing that has happened to his world and to move beyond it to a more endurable relationship with the gods (if they exist, that is), his ancestors (why must they keep nagging him?), and himself.

Daphne never did relish her old life, with the shackles it placed on young, smart females like herself, and she reinvents herself with some initial trepidation but much eventual success and gusto. Her common sense and her knowledge of the world beyond the island provide Mau with both a firm grounding and vision of vast possibilities.

Humor, insight, and plenty of action don’t always come together in one book successfully – Pratchett remains a master. Highly recommended for grades 6 and up.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Review of After Tupac & D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson

When I heard, as a high school student, that John Lennon had been shot, I called my friend Kathy and we cried on the phone together, and I cried off and on for many days after that. Lennon, although old enough to be our dad, had shaped our identities and musical tastes. We were devastated. It felt like the end of an era.

Children and teenagers feel things intensely. Music has huge meaning, and musicians can sometimes enter your soul and reverberate there. For the nameless young narrator of this book and her friends Neeka and D, Tupac is such a musician. Not only his songs but his very living of the lifestyle he sings about elevates him to a mythical height in their eyes. They feel the tragic elements of his life as keenly as the events in their own lives – Neeka’s gay brother being in jail, the scariness of being black in an unjust society, D being a foster child, all three girls growing away from childhood, and D moving away from New York City all together.

The three girls’ instant, intense friendship (after an initial and very short period of wariness) is spot on, as is their easy banter, spoken in slangy black English that their own mothers try to squelch. They’re trying to figure out who they are and how they will fit into their own futures – at one point, Neeka imagines being a professor, maybe of law, lecturing to a whole room of attentive, respectful faces. Our narrator, who has been friends with Neeka since birth, wants to laugh at first but then realizes that this isn’t a farfetched dream. The girl whose point of view we share throughout the book is the bookish one. She observes everyone but also participates in the action and freely shares her thoughts. Despite this, I found her a bit of a mystery – we never gain the understanding of her and her family the way we do of Neeka or even of D, the original Child of Mystery. What does our narrator want from life? Where is she headed? Somewhere important for sure, with those powers of observation and introspection – perhaps she’ll be a writer.

Although it didn’t hit me personally with the same force as the astounding Miracle’s Boys, After Tupac & D Foster is an absorbing read for grades 5 and up.

Mini-review of Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller by Sarah Miller

Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller by Sarah Miller (Atheneum, 2007)

This book astonished me with its intense depiction of Annie Sullivan as a flawed but persistent teacher with a tragic past. She was only 20 years old and fresh out of Perkins Institution for the Blind when she arrived at the Keller household, so it’s no wonder that she was not a calm and competent model of serenity. In fact, Miller’s portrayal of her as a person starved for affection and sparking with pent-up anger makes total sense considering Annie Sullivan’s early years in the Tewksbury State Almshouse.

The intensity of Annie’s focus on the violent and animal-like young Helen made me feel almost claustrophobic. Just getting Helen to stop acting wild and learn to obey was a huge struggle, both mental and physical, and Miller makes the reader feel every sweaty, wrenching moment of it. Annie’s frustrating efforts to get Helen to understand the concept of language is a bit less successful in that it’s an abstract concept that young readers may not quite grasp. After all, we’ve all been using language since we can remember, and so it’s hard to understand what Helen could possibly be thinking – or feeling, rather, since how can you “think” without language, hearing, or sight?

Fascinating and startling. Highly recommended for grades 5 and up.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Review of Emiko Superstar by Mariko Tamaki and Steve Rolston

As a Very Quiet high school student, I just wanted to be invisible. Well, even more invisible than I already was. Except maybe to the couple of boys I had crushes on. It wasn’t until college that I became enamored of the long-defunct world of Andy Warhol and Lou Reed and dreamed of tramping around seedy NYC streets smoking too many cigarettes. The vision ended there, but it had enough aesthetic appeal to cause me to keep my hair very short and very black for quite some time. Fishnets, boots, and thrift-store clothing also figured prominently. I wanted to show all my Angst and Weirdness on the outside.

Emiko, a half-Japanese, half-white Toronto high school student, takes her dreams of Freakdom one step further when she finds herself irresistibly drawn to The Factory every Friday, where Freaks reign supreme and creative souls perform art on stage (slithering through toilet seats while smeared in grape jelly, using sock puppets to dramatize a difficult mother/daughter relationship, and so on).

One artist named Poppy embodies the free, creative, brave spirit that Emiko longs to possess. Emiko does finally work up the courage to perform at The Factory, but her performance is cribbed from the very personal diary of the woman for whom she babysits. Despite this rocky start and the rather abrupt demise of The Factory, Emiko has managed to jumpstart her own creativity – and finds out you don’t need to be a Freak to be an artist.

Emiko’s attraction to these odd free spirits will be perfectly understandable to many readers, and her awkwardness and shyness are made clear by both her mumbled responses and her body-language – writer Tamaki and illustrator Rolston seem to be absolutely on the same page, making the reading of this graphic novel a smooth experience. There isn’t much depth to the story or much innovation in the illustrations; compared to the truly awesome Skim, this is pleasant but not ground-breaking. What is wonderful about it (and about all Ms. Tamaki's work) is its portrayal of a person with "normal" outsides but seething, edgy insides - freakiness isn't always visible.

Highly recommended for grades 8 and up – especially those Freak-wannabes out there.

Some of whom grew up and became librarians, but remain full-fledged geeky Freaks on the inside.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pam Munoz Ryan and those Abba Zaba wrappers

We Southern Californians do occasionally enjoy a literary event now and then, and one of my favorites is the annual FOCAL Award luncheon. FOCAL (Friends of Children and Literature) supports and enriches the programs and resources of the Children's Literature Department of the Los Angeles Public Library's Central Library - so it is essentially an extra-special Friends group.

Every year FOCAL presents an award to a distinguished book with California content, the only requirement being that the author be alive to accept the award. Each year, a handmade puppet (created by the talented Carol Onofrio) is given to the recipient; a twin of the puppet is given to the Children's Literature Department. In 2008, the award was given to Pam Munoz Ryan for Esperanza Rising, and we enjoyed lunch at Ciudad restaurant and a delightfully succinct and hugely entertaining speech by Ms. Ryan.

After thanking the committee for this unexpected recognition of Esperanza Rising almost 10 years after its publication (the cool thing about the FOCAL Award is that the winning book be from any year, with that "alive and kicking author" stipulation), Ms. Ryan told us that when she informed her marketing director at Scholastic about the award, this person mock-groaned, "Oh, we are so over that book."

We librarians in the audience may never look at a candy wrapper wadded up on a bookshelf in the same way again. Ms. Ryan informed us that her first exposure to the public library came when, as an almost-5th-grader seeking air-conditioned respite from the searing heat of a Bakersfield summer, she discovered that the library was the perfect place to eat her Abba Zabas in cool comfort. Oh, and she read some books, too. In fact, she surmises that the librarians overlooked her breaking of the strict no-food policy in order to hook her on books.

And what does Ms. Ryan read? Everything from children's and YA books to romance novels to literary tomes. While she didn't divulge any ALA Award predictions, she did express huge admiration for Susan Campbell Bartoletti's The Boy Who Dared and hoped it would receive some recognition.

I have some great news for Pam Munoz Ryan fans! A novel based on the childhood of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda will be published in Spring 2010 - and it will have 30 illustrations by Peter Sis! This will be hard to wait for. Oh, and she has started work on a companion novel to Esperanza Rising - no dates or further information yet.

Here we are, looking a bit dazed and happy after a very large lunch. Ms. Ryan is the attractive one who looks WAY too young to be a grandmother. I'm the graying one with the chic name sticker.

Review of The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich

I’m desperately playing catch-up, trying to read any and all books that have been mentioned as Newbery and/or Printz possibilities. Because I’d rather spend my time reading than writing at this crucial point (just a little over a week until the ALA awards are announced!), this is only a mini-review.

Louise Erdrich has always struck me as being a particularly warm and accessible writer, for whom humor is never far away and who can write about tragic events with a poignancy that never veers into pathos.

The Porcupine Year (HarperCollins 2008) is the third – but not the last – in the series about an Ojibwe girl named Omakayas and her close-knit extended family. The Porcupine Year relates the events of the year 1852, during which the family is uprooted from their beloved home next to Lake Superior in Minnesota all the way up to the Lake of the Woods, where they hope to meet up with family. Omakayas grows in many ways, finally becoming a woman when she gets her first period, but also experiencing strange new emotions about a young man and learning many essential lessons about healing plants and surviving on very little.

The small group has some good luck but is also beset by much misfortune, even coming close to complete starvation. There is a death and much loss. However, though they must often mourn, Omakayas’ family and loved ones never despair. They do what they must, accept what they must, and continue on, never forgetting to celebrate good fortune, however small and fleeting. This quiet resilience is captivating, as is the way the family members interact. Some are grumpy, some are gruff, and Quill can be just plain silly – yet their ties are so strong that they all treat each other with respect and love.

Quill, Omakayas’ younger brother, continues to be an annoying yet often refreshing clown of a character. He lightens many a scene, and yet he also gets his chance to shine as he becomes a skilled and dedicated hunter. The character that is most intriguing to me, however, is Old Tallow, whose wrenching story we finally learn. That we always have a choice in how we will live our lives has rarely been more convincingly or affectingly conveyed.

Erdrich’s simple sentences and understated prose manage to relate a story of surprising depth, lightened by sparks of humor, and her talent is such that she makes it look easy.

A thoughtful and entertaining read for grades 4 and up.

Friday, January 16, 2009

2009 Edgar Allan Poe nominees - children's and YA

The nominees for the 2009 Edgar Allan Poe awards were announced this morning. Winners will be announced at the banquet on Thursday, April 30th.


The Postcard by Tony Abbott (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Enigma: A Magical Mystery by Graeme Base (Abrams Books for Young Readers)
Eleven by Patricia Reilly Giff (Random House Children’s Books – Wendy Lamb Books)
The Witches of Dredmoore Hollow by Riford McKenzie (Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books) Cemetary Street by Brenda Seabrooke (Holiday House)

Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd (Random House Children’s Books – David Fickling Books)
The Big Splash by Jack D. Ferraiolo (Harry N. Abrams Books – Amulet Books)
Paper Towns by John Green (Penguin Young Readers Group – Dutton Children’s Books)
Getting the Girl by Susan Juby (HarperCollins Children’s Books - HarperTeen)
Torn to Pieces by Margo McDonnell (Random House Children’s Books – Delacorte Books for Young Readers)

Looks like I have some more reading to do! There'll be plenty of time AFTER January 26th...

Last year's winners were:

Juvenile - The Night Tourist by Katherine Marsh (Hyperion Books for Young Readers)
YA - Rat Life by Tedd Arnold (Penguin - Dial Books for Young Readers)

The Night Tourist was fast-paced enough to keep me reading, though I didn't love it. Didn't read Rat Life. See? I can't keep up.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Newbery Buzz, getting louder and louder

Until I have time to create my own fabulous posts and/or finish some of the bazillion books I'm reading, I'll have to simply link to my fellow bloggers.

Although you've probably already seen this, I just have to point out Betsy Bird's Fuse #8 predict-o-rama post. I love her "won't win" predictions - very interesting slant on the usual predictable predicting lists.

This Heavy Medal post by Nina Lindsay gives succinct summaries of the discussions of their Mock Newbery short list. I yearn to be on the Newbery Committee some day - but this is tiding me over in the meantime.

By the way, the winners they chose have awakened my old Newbery fear - that I won't have read them! This does happen more often than I'd like, and I haven't yet read The Porcupine Year or After Tupac and D Foster (although they're on my shelf at home, along with Nation and a few others). Let's hope that by the time the Newberys are announced, I'll have read EVERYTHING and won't have quickly put my name in the hold queue for the winner.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Tough Times, Tougher Librarians

Please see my post on the ALSC blog on using tough times as a great opportunity to get reacquainted with both your library collection and your creativity.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Susan Patron on the importance of the Newbery

Susan Patron, author of Newbery-winner The Higher Power of Lucky, has written this response to the Newbery kerfuffle in today's LA Times.

By relating her own childhood connection to Newbery books, she makes an important point. Every child reacts differently to every book; what makes one child shrug and walk away might change another child's life. Newbery winners, being distinguished by fine and often powerful writing, have all the more potential to become part of the heart and soul of a child who reads and connects with them. And some kids prefer Junie B. Jones or Captain Underpants or manga. And some read it all! That's fine - that's why librarians purchase all sorts of books. There is room on our library shelves for all of it.

I'll be tuning in bright and early on Monday, January 26 to hear what those worthy and hard-working award committees have chosen. Can't wait!!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Podcast of Laura Miller's Narnia discussion

Laura Miller, author of The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia, gave a wonderful presentation at the Los Angeles Public Library last month. The podcast of the presentation (a conversation with David Ulin of the LA Times, actually) is now available on the LAPL website. Give it a listen!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

No more PB and J!

I bring my lunch to work every single day. Because I'm congenitally unable to cook small meals, my lunches almost always consist of leftovers, which makes me very happy.

Yesterday's LA Times had an article on ways to make a more innovative and exciting packed lunch, which immediately reminded me of one of my all-time favorite books, Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban.

As you will remember, Frances goes through that dreaded I-will-only-eat-one-kind-of-food phase, which in her case is bread and jam. Although not a particularly adventurous eater as a child, I still thought Frances insane to prefer bread and jam to all the luscious foods her family ate. I was most envious of Frances' friend Albert, whose school lunches were a veritable feast.

'What do you have today?' said Frances.
'I have a cream cheese-cucumber-and-tomato sandwich on rye bread,'
said Albert. 'And a pickle to go with it. And a hard-boiled egg and a little
cardboard shaker of salt to go with that. And a thermos bottle of milk. And a
bunch of grapes and a tangerine. And a cup custard and a spoon to eat it

Luckily, Frances does come to her senses:

Albert said, 'What do you have today?'
'Well,' said Frances, laying a paper doily on her desk and sitting a tiny
vase of violets in the middle of it, 'let me see.' She arranged her lunch on the
'I have a thermos bottle with cream of tomato soup,' she said.
'And a lobster-salad sandwich on thin slices of white bread. I have
aclerery, carrot sticks, and black olives, and a little cardboard shaker of salt
for the celery.
And two plums and a tiny basket of cherries.
And vanilla pudding with chocolat sprinkles and a spoon to eat it
'That's a good lunch,' said Albert.

I got into the spirit as soon as I read that article yesterday. Here is what I packed in my lunchbox yesterday:

An apple. A cup of yogurt. A nifty compartmentalized tupperware containing leftover rice pilaf with leftover cajon black-eyed peas on top, plus leftover seasoned collard greens.

And today's lunch:

An apple. A cup of yogurt. A pita sandwich with hummus, feta cheese, and leftover stir-fried onions, peppers, and "chicken" strips. For dessert, a tiny cup of tapioca pudding.

Not as cool as Frances', I admit - but I do eat my lunch at a sweet little table with two plants and a book (and a fork, knife, and spoon and a little bowl of gourmet salt-and-pepper).

Review of Chiggers by Hope Larson

Like boarding school, summer camp is an experience I never had as a child and so it seems exotic, thrilling, and a bit scary to me. Summer camp is perfect fodder for children’s and YA books – kids from all over are thrown together in cabins for a finite period. Some know each other, some are strangers, and somehow they must survive until their parents pick them up several weeks later – at which time they all go back to their “real” lives.

In Chiggers, Abby is thrilled to go back to summer camp where she had so much fun in previous years. However, all of her friends seem to have changed in the year since Abby last saw them. They are suddenly interested in boys or music or fashion or all three, and Abby feels completely uncool next to them. Then a new girl named Shasta joins the cabin, with mysterious medical conditions and some unbelievable stories. Are they true? Is Shasta a liar? Abby likes her despite being a bit uncertain – and although they weather some difficulties, they end up being friends.

The story rings absolutely true. Except for Shasta’s amazing affinity for lightning (or vice versa), all the events are absolutely prosaic – meals in the cafeteria, forest hikes, singing around the campfire, and lots of girls standing around in small groups talking and gossiping. A sweet D & D-playing boy tells Abby she looks like an elf – actually, a half-elf – and she floats happily for days. This is exactly the sort of comment that would thrill one particular 14-year-old I know, and it would have thrilled me at that age as well.

The ages of these girls aren’t stated, but late middle-school, very early high-school seems about right. Abby is clearly a late-bloomer, and how well can I remember what it felt like to feel my friends move away from me as they chattered to each other about boys and music, while I was still such a dorky kid (and happy to stay that way for a while longer). Abby’s friends aren’t quite old enough to fully participate in all that adolescence has to offer, but they desperately want to. There are no “mean girls” at this camp, but many of the girls make off-the-cuff remarks that are hurtful or catty, and of course two girls who have a close friendship can hurt a third girl without even realizing it. This book explores all the complicated ways girls relate to each other.

The black and white artwork is simple and expressive. At first I had trouble telling all the campers apart, but within 20 pages that problem disappeared and I was thoroughly absorbed in the story.

For grades 5 to 9.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Review of The Key to Rondo by Emily Rodda

At first glance, this sounds like dozens (and probably hundreds) of other fantasy novels for children. Two mismatched kids figure out a way into a magical realm and are immediately in danger. They set out on a quest, during which they meet many fascinating denizens of the realm and learn much about themselves and each other. Ultimately, all ends well.

This happens to a genre that is as delicious to me as strawberries with cream. Whether it’s the Narnia books, Alice in Wonderland, or the many contemporary examples of the genre, there is something about strangers in a strange land that gets the creative and imaginative juices flowing.

Luckily, The Key to Rondo happens to be an especially fine example of this type of fantasy. It has Rules That Must Not Be Broken (all pertaining to an old painted music box, which happens also to be the alternate world), as well as logical repercussions when these rules are broken. Strange and ominous occurrences in early chapters receive surprising explanations by the end of the book. Characters and plot work together in the most satisfying way.

Leo and Mimi are the two children who are plunged into this world when Mimi (a rather disagreeable child a la Eustace Scrubb from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader or – to use a non-fantasy example – Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden) insists on breaking the first rule of the music box that Leo (a risk-averse, obedient child) has just inherited from his aunt. Instead of stopping at three turns, Mimi winds it four times, which allows a nasty witch from the music box world to enter their own world. This witch steals Mimi’s beloved dog, forcing Mimi (and thus a reluctant Leo) to enter the music box world to get him back.

Neither Mimi nor Leo become different people – flaws and quirks thankfully remain in place – but their quest brings them greater understanding and appreciation of each other and allows them to grow, as every good quest must. They meet a variety of human, animal, and fantastical creatures, many of whom are based on familiar fairy tale characters (a bit like Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon Hale, Into the Woods by Lyn Gardner, and many other similar fantasies). However, these characters are complex and interesting folks in their own right and never once come across as undeveloped or stock.

Danger, treachery, misunderstanding, and plenty of magic and humor combine to make this a thrilling and engrossing fantasy for grades 4 – 8.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Mice are good and rats are bad?

I went to see The Tale of Despereaux yesterday and was sorely disappointed. It wasn't the animation or the adaption of DiCamillo's Newbery-winning book that left me cold (lukewarm would be more accurate), but rather the depiction of that most maligned of rodents - the rat.

True, Roscuro is rather dashing in his shabby way, what with his earring and his world-weary expression. But Rat World...!!! A more horrifying place cannot be imagined, especially compared with the uber-quaintness that is Mouse World. Skulls, bones, rotting food, darkness, and vicious denizens - this bears no resemblance to my family's own sweet, curious, intelligent rats. However, in popular culture, mouse equals cute and rat equals squalid.

Thank goodness for Remy of Ratatouille, a movie rat all rodents can be proud of!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Review of Me, The Missing, and the Dead by Jenny Valentine

In a nutshell – London teenager Lucas Swain bonds emotionally with the cremated remains of an old famous pianist named Violet, causing him to come to a greater understanding not just of old people, but also of himself, his family, and his long-vanished dad. Oh, and Lucas gets quite a great girlfriend as well.

This is an unusual premise but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there was no hint of cloying quirkiness about this book. Young Lucas knows that communing with a dead old lady’s ashes is odd, but he doesn’t work the weirdness, much less anguish over it – he just gets on with his life, which at this stage means coming to terms with his damaged family and his own feelings about it.

The tone is matter-of-fact and not quite breezy, just right for all the bits involving slightly eccentric folks such as Lucas’ grandma Pansy and grandpa Norman. They are warm, strange, and wonderfully human – totally believable in other words. Lucas’ affection for these people shines forth and warms up the story.

Less successful is the portrayal of Lucas’ mother. She’s been a wreck since her husband left without a word five years ago – but it’s hard to see why. We get glimpses of her diary, we hear anecdotes from Lucas’ parents’ best friend Bob, and we even hear a bit from the woman herself – but it’s all confusing and contradictory. I didn’t understand her at all, although Lucas seems to come to terms with her eventually. Lucas himself is obviously a good person at heart, even if he occasionally comes across as a jerk (especially to his mom, naturally). He listens to people and is able to question his own feelings and actions – and even change!- as a result (a trait that is surprisingly rare). The fact that he befriends the ashes of an old lady demonstrates that this is one worthwhile teenage boy.

Although the emotional issues permeating Lucas’ family aren’t particularly successfully explored, the warmth and understated weirdness of this book make it definitely worth a read.

Grade 7 - 10

Review of Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale

Rapunzel doesn’t know there’s anything wrong with her life – a gorgeous villa, plenty of food, servants and guards, a powerful mother named Mother Gothel – until she manages to finally scale the high wall that surrounds her opulent home. Beyond it lies an industrial wasteland, starving workers policed by vicious guards, and… Rapunzel’s real mother, a worker dressed in rags whose baby was taken from her by Mother Gothel. Rapunzel furiously confronts Mother Gothel, who has her taken away and imprisoned at the top of the world’s highest tree. After five long years, Mother Gothel’s “growth magic” (the source of her power, as she can not only make things grow but keep them from growing) causes Rapunzel’s hair to grow to extraordinary lengths, allowing her to finally escape her prison.

Rapunzel takes up with a young lad named Jack (who travels with a goose who simply won’t lay an egg, a magic bean, and a number of other surprises) and they have an assortment of excellent adventures, greatly aided by Rapunzel’s hair, which she can use as a lasso or whip to great effect. All’s well that ends well – the intrepid duo rescues Rapunzel’s mom, vanquish Mother Gothel, and fall in love.

This works well as a graphic novel – the derring-do translates well to action-packed panels, as do the goofy visual gags. The setting is a fairy tale Wild West, and the sight of Rapunzel riding a horse with her copious braids coiled at her saddle like an orange lasso is priceless. The illustrations portray the humor of the story wonderfully, showing particular imagination in how folks are clothed.

Humor, both dry and broadly slapstick, bounces along on every page. There is plenty of silly banter between Rapunzel and Jack, and it only gets mushy at the absolute very end. Raging boars, snaggle-toothed and bearded bad guys, a ravening antler-wearing rabbit, and that ever-present goose provide non-stop goofy excitement, and Rapunzel’s hair is so much a part of the story that its eventual fate feels almost tragic.

Anyone who loves fractured fairy tales will dive right into this luscious tale, only wishing it were longer. Readers who enjoyed the graphic novel versions of Coraline and Artemis Fowl should also give this a whirl – boys as well as girls will like it, if they just get past the first few pages.

For readers ages 10 and up.