Monday, June 29, 2009

On vacation!

This truly is a vacation - I'm staying in an apartment with no internet access! So this is the first time I've logged on since Friday - felt an overwhelming need to upload a couple of reviews. Other than that, it's been easy to quell those frantic must-log-on urges - after all, I have my relatives, lots of lakes, and the Mall of America to keep me occupied.

And books, plenty of books!

Review of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Stead, Rebecca. When You Reach Me. Wendy Lamb Books, 2009.

Perhaps because it takes place in the late 1970s in New York City, maybe because it references A Wrinkle in Time to such great effect, maybe because it has a slightly quirky yet timeless writing style – but somehow this book reminds me of those unique books of the 1970s. Harriet the Spy, The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Westing Game, and any other book featuring smart kids who live in high-rise apartments (whether with swanky doormen or simple buzzers) and make their way through the gritty city streets – these came to mind while I read this delicious book.

Like 12-year-old Miranda and the enigmatic Marcus, I’ve had many conversations about time travel, the most recent being occasioned by the new Star Trek movie. Can you travel back to your own past? What happens when there are two versions of yourself occupying the same place and time? Can you go back to the past and change the future – or is it impossible, because whatever is to be has already happened? The possibilities for mind-warping debate are endless and some of the issues are explored, in an appropriately kidlike way, in this story, but mostly the plot speaks for itself, letting the reader figure out the mechanics of this time-travel mystery.

Miranda finds several strange notes that seem to prove that the writer has some knowledge of the future, but it isn’t until a tragedy and a narrowly averted tragedy happen almost simultaneously that Miranda is able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together and figures out who must have traveled back in time to the late 1970s – and why. The answer is bittersweet and will shock thoughtful readers with its import and meaning. What starts out as a much better than average friendship story turns into both a first-rate mystery and a fascinating look at some weighty issues, including but not limited to theoretical physics and personal responsibility.

And by the way, there are some really fun and quirky bits of writing in this book. Here’s one that struck me as wonderful. Miranda is making an unscheduled visit to the apartment of a friend with whom she has been on the outs. Here she is in the elevator:
“On the way up, it hit me that it was truly strange to come over here without talking to Annemarie first. But at the exact same time I got nervous about that, I also got this other feeling, which I can only describe as love for Annemarie’s elevator.”
She goes on to briefly describe the coziness of this elevator, remarks that “the whole thing was beyond weird” and then goes on with her visit to Annemarie. Meanwhile, I was filled with love for Rebecca Stead’s writing.

Highly recommended for kids in grades 5 and up.

Review of Emmaline and the Bunny by Katherine Hannigan

Hannigan, Katherine. Emmaline and the Bunny. HarperCollins, 2009.

After storytime, while the kids are industriously crafting a paper bag puppet or decorating a picture frame made out of a manila folder, parents often take the opportunity to ask questions of the children’s librarian. There are easy questions like “we’re going on a plane trip – do you have any picture books I could share with Amber?” and more difficult and subjective questions like “which local schools do you recommend?”

One of my favorite questions was “I’d like to start reading chapter books to my five-year-old. Do you have any good, not-too-long ones to recommend?” Emmaline and the Bunny would fit the bill perfectly. A somewhat loud and occasionally messy little girl who lives in a town so neat that normal kid and animal behavior is rather sternly frowned upon wants a bunny. Not a tame do-nothing bunny but a wild bunny that hops and digs. She finds a mysterious and magical bit of nature just outside her tidy town where such a bunny resides – but it’s not until her too neat but very loving parents unbend and let Emmaline turn their yard into an oasis of greenery that the bunny feels welcome and comes to visit.

The story is simple and sweet enough to appeal to most young kids, the soft watercolors by the author are childlike and charming (the bunny is adorable but Emmaline’s baby sibling does look like a cross between a piglet and a gnome), and there are enough eccentric exclamations and turns of phrase (“hoopalala!”) to make this a fun book to read aloud. The frequent use of “mostly” at the end of sentences feels a bit mannered or precious, but I suspect that most kids won’t find it irritating.

Verdict (as Library Journal would say) – an extremely appealing read-aloud for young kids or a read-alone for grades 1 – 2. This is an adorable book, mostly. (Oh, and it’s printed on recycled paper, too)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Review of The Treasure Map of Boys by E. Lockhart

In this third Ruby Oliver novel, Ruby continues to obsess about boys and friends – but mostly boys. Readers of the first two books will know that she hasn’t had good luck with either one, managing (through a series of miscommunications, mishaps, and mistiming) to alienate and/or anger many of the students in her small and prestigious Seattle private school.

Although I was an insignificant person in my own large urban high school, my younger daughter’s experiences in her tiny public charter school showed me how stifling and claustrophobic a small school can be. My daughter was with the same class of kids (and the same teacher) from 5th grade through 8th grade – and there was only one class per grade. Furthermore, most of the students had gone to the same elementary school, and many of them had even known each other in preschool. Relationships, whether between friends or “romantic,” simply seethed with stagnant intensity.

Thus we have Ruby Oliver, still stuck with the same tiny group of kids she’s known for untold years, all milling about like rats in a too-small cage. She hates herself when she fails to go after whom she wants but she also hates herself when she goes after whom she wants – and the whole time she wonders if she really wants these people in the first place. No wonder she’s in therapy. Ruby definitely exhibits some major self-destructive behavior, which takes on a particularly annoying passive-aggressive form – she won’t stand up for herself when people act like completely jerks to her, nor will she be forthright and open with people – but then she does stuff that is guaranteed to be misunderstood.

My advice to Ruby is to stop the navel-gazing and to spend as little time in that toxic school as possible (bleah, most of the students seem supremely nasty). Enjoy Seattle – what a fabulous place to live.

I love the Ruby books for their breezy tone, major likability, and great cover art. They shoot me right back to my boy-obsessive junior year of high school, which is not especially a comfortable place to be – and when I get annoyed with Ruby for her complete lack of perspective, all I have to do is read my diary from that year. As Ruby would say, “Ag!”
Highly recommended for Ruby Oliver fans ages 12 and up.

Read E. Lockhart's blog - lots of deliciousness!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

More Customer Service goodness...

"Be Selfish, Promote Service" by Michael Casey and Michael Stephens in the June 15 Library Journal isn't just a commonsense look at offering great library customer service during hard times, but works as a pep talk as well - and boy, that's just what we need.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why I could never be a teacher...

We've been hosting a "summer camp" for kids at the library every morning this week. I'll blog about it later (after I've recovered) - but for now, because I am somewhat brain-dead from being with 25 high-energy kids all morning, I'll give you a couple good links instead.

(The best thing about being a children's librarian? You get to hang out with kids - but not all day! There is also plenty of interaction with grown-ups. Teachers have my whole-hearted admiration, 'cause it takes an amazing sort of person to hang with kids all day long)

Okay, now that you think I'm one of those crabby, curmudgeony librarians...

Want some good books to hand to 6th graders? Read this post from The Reading Zone for suggestions from real live 6th graders on what the next class of 6th graders should absolutely, positively not miss reading.

And under the category of "posts I wish I'd written," please see On Fantasy and Why I Read It from the Things Mean a Lot blog.

Oh goodness, it's only Tuesday...

Monday, June 22, 2009

There's something to be said for Fearless Leaders

I'm so excited! In two weeks, the Los Angeles Public Library will have a new City Librarian, almost a year after the retirement of Fontayne Holmes. All I know about Martin Gomez are the bits and pieces I've read in articles and online, but I have very high hopes.

First of all, Mr. Gomez is a big supporter of the library out-of-school-time (OST) movement, which he helped to develop as president and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council. Partnering with other neighborhood youth agencies to offer services and programs based on sound research about what kids need and the best way to meet those needs - it just makes so much sense. And Mr. Gomez's obvious interest in youth services can only mean good things for LAPL.

Mr. Gomez also seems, to judge from an interview that ran in the December 2006 American Libraries, to be a proponent of outcomes-based planning and measuring. LAPL, like many library systems, currently measures the effectiveness of its programs and services mainly by output - how many kids sign up for the Summer Reading Club, for example - rather than outcome - figuring out the goal or outcome to be achieved and then figuring out if that outcome was achieved. As Mr. Gomez says in the AL interview, "We also need to take on the rigor of acountability and not be afraid of where that might lead us. Funding requires accountability. you may have programs in place, but the challenge is to benchmark your outcomes." We need to plan our programs more effectively, targeting specific outcomes based on our community's needs, and then be rigorous about collecting data about our programs. If we do this with thought and care, our community will benefit - and our funding agencies and donors will be impressed.

I'm also hoping for a wee bit of innovation. We are one of the biggest library systems in the United States, but we are far from being on the forefront of innovation. Early adaptors we are most emphatically not, and (like a huge and unwieldy ship), we don't change our course easily or quickly. What we need is a strong leader who can set us on a course toward the future and encourage us to try out new technologies and ideas. Right now we are cautious to the point of outright fear, and it makes us look bad. We shouldn't have to pitch, over and over with absolutely no luck so far, the not-particularly-outrageous idea of an internal wiki for the children's librarians in our farflung 71 branches. This is 2009, for pete's sake. Let's embrace technology that helps us do our jobs better, not push it away out of ignorance.

What does Mr. Gomez say in the interview about innovation? "Maybe there are things we can let go of so we can embrace new needs. In some ways, our traditions encumber us. We need to balance tradition with innovation." Yeah, that's a little scary - but it's also rather thrilling because our need to change and grow is so great.

There are many ways Mr. Gomez could take our wonderful library system and make it truly great. Communication would be my own number one priority - if our powerful administration could learn to feel comfortable with sharing the decision-making (or at least the rationale behind the decision-making) with the rest of us and and with inviting real input from the truly talented, smart, and creative staff members who don't happen to inhabit the upper echelons of our organizational chart, LAPL would be a much stronger institution.

A library system that look out at trail-blazers in the field to observe what other libraries are doing and then adopted and adapted the best practices for our own use would be a wonderful thing, and I get the feeling that Mr. Gomez is aware that a whole amazing world of libraries exists outside of LAPL. We are so big - and so good at many things - that many of our adminstrative folks seem to forget that books, articles, conference programs, and blog posts are regularly promoting new ideas about everything from library management to strategic planning to early literacy to AV formats. I comb professional literature and the internet voraciously and read up on everything I can - and sometimes I feel that LAPL lives in a separate, alternate universe from the rest of our profession. It would be nice to utter the phrase "library 2.0 for kids" and not have folks blink at me with incomprehension or alarm.

Mr. Gomez, I suspect that LAPL and Mayor Villaraigosa did a truly wonderful thing when they hired you. It's going to be hard, sweaty work shaking up this venerable, stodgy institution - but it will be worth it. We have three huge assets - our excellent library buildings (Central and the branches alike), our strong and diverse materials collection, and (most of all) some of the best librarians you'll ever find anywhere. Harness these assets, treat them with the respect and honor they deserve, and there is no limit to the greatness the Los Angeles Public Library can achieve.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Summer crowds mean a captive audience

We can dread the almost certain record number of kids who will throng into the library this summer - or we can look at them and think "this antsy child will be a life-long reader and library user if I play my cards right." Please visit the ALSC Blog to read my post on the subject.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Review of Skeleton Creek by Patrick Carman

Carman, Patrick. Skeleton Creek. Scholastic, 2009.

15-year-old Ryan and his best friend Sarah have discovered something very odd about their small Oregon town of Skeleton Creek. An abandoned mining dredge in the woods appears to be haunted by the ghost of a man who was sucked into the gears decades ago. No one in the town will talk about it, though – and the subject of a strange and very secret society called The Crossbones is absolutely buried, even though Ryan’s dad may be a member.

After a midnight accident up at the dredge damages his leg so badly that he is virtually bedridden for weeks, Ryan stays in his room and fills his diary with paranoid musings about his town’s sinister secrets. Sarah, meanwhile, keeps filming her clandestine visits to the dredge and posting them on her website for Ryan’s eyes only. They’ve been forbidden to contact each other, but luckily no one has taken away their computers.

The book takes the form of Ryan’s diary entries, of course, and by themselves they are ominous, if not absolutely chilling. Even though Ryan is certain his parents are spying on him and may be involved in whatever weirdness is permeating Skeleton Creek, it’s hard to imagine that his parents are up to no good. Maybe it’s because Ryan himself doesn’t quite believe it. Anyway, I read the book all the way through while snug in my bed and didn’t once consider leaving the closet light on all night.

Throughout Ryan’s diary, he mentions the videos Sarah has posted online, commenting on them in an enigmatic enough manner that we’re not really sure what happens in them. The idea is to watch each video as we come to them in the story, but I hate logging on while in bed, so I watched them all the next morning.

Oh boy!

These shaky, handheld videos owe much to The Blair Witch Project, complete with creepy sound effects and not quite enough light. You may be rolling your eyes, but the BWP scared the socks off me 10 years ago and these Skeleton Creek videos were eerie enough to speed up my heart rate. Some of them are just Sarah sitting in front of her webcam going on and on about how weird everything is, and these are wonderfully authentic in their rather boring dorkiness. And then there are her night-time trips to the dredge, with crunching leaves and heavy breathing and the rubbing of old wood and metal and sudden shadowy glimpses of scary stuff. Yikes!

This is a terrific book to share with middle school students. It is slim and covered with skulls, always a plus, and if you go to the website and show them the very first video, they’ll be hooked, I guarantee it. Shudder-inducing, to be sure, and it might even inspire them to make some scary book-and-videos of their own. Check out Scholastic's website for plenty of cool extras, and Patrick Carman's website is worth a peek as well.

Grades 6 - 9

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Review of Best Friends and Drama Queens by Meg Cabot

Cabot, Meg. Best Friends and Drama Queens. (Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls, #3). Scholastic, 2009.

In the third installment of this light and fun series, Allie has fully settled in to life in her new school, and so it comes as a shock when a new girl arrives in her 4th grade classroom and thoroughly upsets the social order.

Although it is something of a relief at first not to be the New Girl, Allie is unsettled by Cheyenne and her high-heeled boots and exotic Canadian origins. Not only that, but Cheyenne disses Allie and her friends the very first day by telling them their favorite game of pretend is babyish. This, after they were just trying to be nice to her! And Four Queens is the best game ever!

Cheyenne’s subsequent take-over of all the 4th grade girls (except for Allie and her clique) and her revolutionary introduction of the Kissing Game (in which a hapless boy is chased by all the girls and then kissed by Cheyenne) soon has the whole class in an uproar – and it even shakes up Allie’s tight-knit group. In fact, this story isn’t so much about mean girls as it is about loyalty and standing up to peer pressure. This would have been a bit more thought-provoking if Cheyenne hadn’t been so absolutely awful in every way – the reader won’t ever have a moment’s empathy or admiration for her. Also, Allie’s coterie of girls blends together rather in this installment – none of them gets to shine as individuals except maybe the brave Charlotte. Nevertheless, this is light and fun affirmation that it’s okay to want to be a kid, not a teenager, in 4th grade – and that schoolyard bullies may be intense and powerful, but they don’t stand a chance next to loving and involved parents and small but strong groups of friends.

Recommended for kids who love friendship and school stories, as well as for fans of the previous Allie Finkle books. Grades 2 – 4.

Great children's book characters

Here is what they're discussing on the Cooperative Children's Book Center listserv:

Character-Driven: Favorite Characters in Children’s and Young Adult Literature. You know who they are. The characters that stand out because of, or sometimes in spite of, the story of which they are a part. Characters that live on in your imagination long after the story ends. During the second part of June, we invite you to talk about your favorite characters in children’s and young adult literature, whether they are old friends from childhood, or welcome new acquaintances.

Sign up here to join the discussion - or just to read folks' inspired contributions. Every time I'm about to send in my thoughts, someone beats me to it or comes up with a character I would have thought of - eventually (Harriet Walsch! Turtle Wexler from the Westing Game! Ferdinand the Bull!). What about Charlotte the spider? Or Olivia the pig? Someone voted for Ramona, but I adore Beezus (yeah, I'm an older sister...).

Great library service

I just read two great blog posts today on how to provide excellence customer service.

The first is from David Lee King and it looks at how we can eyeball how our competitors (Netflix, bookstores, Google) do business and see either how we can do it better or how we enhance and expand the things we do best. Here are some points to muse on from his post - they are simple ideas but worth thinking hard about:

OK – so libraries have competition. What can you do about that? Here are some thoughts – please add more:
  • What do you do better than everyone else? Focus on that. Prioritize that.

  • You’re a natural community gathering place. Focus on your community. Feed it. Grow it.

  • Ask people why they don’t use your library. Use that information to improve your services.

  • Find your largest population segment of “potential patrons” and focus on growing patrons there.

  • Don’t focus on yourself or your stuff – instead, turn your focus on your customers and their needs.

  • Maybe it’s something as simple as rearranging your stuff so normal people can actually find things. We can do better than LC or Dewey call number order. Really.

  • Work on improving the experience at your library – both in the library and

And here is a stupendously wonderful post on interpreting customer body language - and, not coincidentally, offering terrific customer service. Although Elizabeth Bluemle is talking about bookstores, and specifically children's bookstores, everything she says can be transferred to a library setting. Here's a small tidbit of her post (but you really must read the whole thing):

Body language is huge when you're recommending books to customers. They will literally lean toward you and a book when they're interested, and lean away or step back when they're not. Kids are particularly funny about this: kids (especially ages 6-10) who don't know you, and who are not yet as schooled in politeness as most adults, may actually silently refuse to take hold of a book you're showing them if they aren't intrigued. When this happens, I either move on to the next recommendation or, if it's a great book I'm pretty sure the child will love, I reassure them that they don't have to commit to any book they take a look at, and that they might find it worthwhile to read a page or two of the proffered title. I also let them know that these are just suggestions, and that they certainly won't hurt my feelings if they decide not to get a book I've recommended. "You want the right book at the right time, a book you're in the mood for," I tell them, and—the pressure lifted—they usually are willing to take a look at whatever book with an iffy cover but terrific insides I'm trying to hand them.

The lovely thing about great customer service is that it doesn't need to cost money - it only requires a bit of thought, time, and attention. A perfect recipe for these hard times.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Lake-side Reading

I live near the ocean, but somehow I don't seem to spend much time reading on the beach, trying to keep sand out of the pages. Luckily, a week of vacation is coming up soon and I'll be spending it near a bunch of lakes, all surrounded by small but pleasant beaches. My towel, my sunscreen, my sunglasses, my stack of ARCs and paperbacks, and my unevenly tanned bod will soon be adorning those beaches - and here's what I'm gonna read, in no particular order:

Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes (May 2009) - his adult SF is terrific, so there is much potential in his first YA book (it's not SF, though - phooey)

The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo (Aug 2009) - orphans and elephants and DiCamillo. Duh!

Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko (Sept 2009) - more Alcatraz adventures, woohoo.

The Eternal Smile by Gene Luen Yan and Derek Kirk Kim (May 2009)- yummy yummy YA graphic novel.

The Color of Water and The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa (June 2009)- more graphic novel yumminess.

and (drumroll, please...)

I am determined to read these two massive 2008 tomes:

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation - v. 2 by M.T. Anderson (lord, even the title is long)

Anathem by Neal Stephenson - I worship this man and everything he writes, so there is no excuse not to have read his latest masterpiece.
The loveliest bit? Almost all of these are ARCs or paperbacks, meaning I can love 'em and leave 'em.

Monday, June 15, 2009

An outstanding fantasy series - the Pellinor books by Croggon

I've just finished the last installment of the Books of Pellinor - The Singing, by Alison Croggon (Candlewick, 2009). This series, which began with The Naming and continued with The Riddle and The Crow, is a rare example of impeccable world-building, memorable and complex characters, and a plot that moves inexorably toward a final clash between good and evil.

Tolkienesque? Yes, but not at all derivative. Like Tolkien's ordinary heroes, Maerad and Hem, young siblings, undertake their world-saving roles only with the greatest reluctance, knowing that if they don't, evil will conquer the world forever - but they would much prefer to be ordinary people leading safe and normal, even boring, lives. Their growth as the series develops is both astounding and absolutely understandable, given the context of their talents and their experiences.

War is hell. People die in awful ways for the worst reasons. Evil threatens our heroes from all sides. But Maerad and Hem, as well as their stalwart companions, manage to hold on to their own common sense and their deep certainty that good and evil are not relative but rather absolutes. And luckily, this is not all doom, gloom, and heroic stands - far from it. There is plenty of humor and sparks of joy - as in Tolkien's works, it's the humble activities such as eating a good meal and sharing jokes with friends that make life worth living - and saving.

This is one of those rich fantasy series that would satisfy any adult fantasy reader. Another series that has similar cross-over appeal and whose plot and writing style is honed to perfection is William Nicholson's Wind on Fire trilogy, beginning with The Wind Singer.

Both series are highly recommended for sophisticated fantasy readers, grades 7 and up.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A bit of info, a lot of sparkle

In my library system, each children's librarian is responsible for visiting every elementary school in his or her library service at least once and preferably twice during the school year.

During my many years at various branches, I usually visited all the classes in each school once during the fall and winter - each presentation lasted 15 to 20 minutes, so it would take me quite a few morning to get through the entire school. I'd read a few books, booktalk a few more, and let them know the 411 about my library's location and hours, how to get a library card, and other crucial stuff.

Right before school let out for the summer, I'd go back to my schools and tell all the classes, either in 5-minute classroom blitz presentations, multi-classroom auditorium presentations, or the dreaded whole-school assembly presentation, all about our library Summer Reading Club.

Although I'm now an adminstrator and no longer work at a branch, I have been visiting schools for the last couple weeks, filling in for libraries with vacancies or librarians who aren't able to make the school visits this year. Whew! School visits are exhausting and exhilirating - and since I am speaking to kids who have never seen me before and never will again, these have been especially challenging.

Here are my secret Summer Reading Club presentation weapons -

1. Link the theme to books, movies, and info that thrill kids. Our theme? Treasured Islands! Pirates, parrots, treasure - the possibilities are endless. Get the kids excited about these things, and they will be more likely to visit the library.

2. Tell kids, over and over and in every way possible, that the library has whatever it is they want and need. And if we don't have it, we'll get it.

3. Sparkle. Yep, sparkle. This has taken me many years to get halfway decent at, but it has served me better than all the polished booktalks in the world. Basically, to sell your library, you need to sell yourself to the kids. Exude charisma, charm, and approachability. Be nice, be fun, be a person they'll want to visit the library to see and talk to. This is the part that utterly exhausts me - after a full morning of sparkling, all I want to do is curl up with a book and a gin and tonic with extra lime. But it is so, so worth the effort.

I have another school visit tomorrow, far far away from both my house and my regular workplace. I'm not familiar with the area and I've only been to the nearby library a few times. I'll be talking to 5 huge groups of classes, one for each grade, in the auditorium. It will be tiring. But I'll be armed with information about the library, a few great books about pirates, my SRC spiel - and plenty of sparkle. If I do my job well, those kids will visit their local library at least once this summer, to see what all the fuss is all about. And the fabulous library staff at the Valley Plaza library will take it from there...

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Review of Gone by Michael Grant

Grant, Michael. Gone. Harper Teen, 2008.

It took me a long time to get to this post-apocalyptic YA novel, which is rather unusual as I have a strange fascination for this often-bleak genre. It must be the appalling jacket, which depicts four of the main characters – the “good” boy and girl and the “bad” boy and girl. The bad kids are sort of fabulous, actually, but what is with the heavy foundation, dowdy blouse, and fuchsia lipstick on poor good-girl Astrid? At least our hero Sam looks appropriately worried – as well he should.

Imagine this horrifying scenario – in the very small town of Perdido, CA, everyone aged 15 and over suddenly disappears. Poof! Only kids and young teens are left, and they have no phone service, television, or Internet. There’s some kind of impenetrable barrier that won’t allow them to leave their town and the surrounding area, and no one can get from the outside world to them. Oh, and some of the kids have been developing strange powers – superhuman strength, the ability to shoot fire from their hands, and so on, and animals have been mutating rapidly into rather fearsome creatures indeed. And finally, there is some horrible, powerful Dark Thing residing deep underground, and it does not wish humans well.

Scary stuff, even if all the kids were basically well-meaning but simply terrified out of their wits. However, this book ratchets up the tension by positing a truly chilling little group of amoral genius kids who take over the town and create an evil little dictatorship. Throw in those powers, the mutant animals, and the Dark Thing, and you’ve got Lord of the Flies meets Animal Farm meets Dean Koontz. Yep – very scary indeed.

Once you suspend the disbelief that these 14-year-old kids are consistently behaving like folks 5 to 10 years older, in both good and bad ways, then this is one thrilling book. The author has thought of all of the ramifications, big and small and tragic, of all adults disappearing from a town, and the terror and confusion of these kids is convincingly portrayed. That all candy bars in the town will be eaten up within days is a given, as is the fact that kids may not think to search every house – until it’s too late for at least one infant who was left alone in a crib when its parents vanished.

That kids will start to hatch sophisticated, Machiavellian plots is much less believable, and the nasty Bad Kids were simply too evil to be real. They do make for some stomach-clenching plot twists, of course, and they provide a natural foe for our heroes to battle against. But when you throw in those other dark forces, it turns into an unrelenting, unending nightmare. But man, what a page-turner!

At the end of the book, the dilemma is far from resolved. They’re all still stuck inside their giant bubble, the Dark Thing and the mutant animals are still out there – and food is starting to get scarce. What next – cannibalism a la so many post-apocalyptic books? Perhaps that’s still taboo for a YA book. And speaking of taboos, Gone definitely shies away from any sexual issues – rape and other sexual crimes seem to be the only bad behaviors the young amoral kids in this book don’t engage in, and given the torture and murder that they dabble in with great glee, this seems a strange (but merciful!) omission. And believe me, there is violence, maiming, and death galore in this book.

I will absolutely read book 2 (Hunger)– but I already know it’s going to be a harrowing experience.

Recommended for kids ages 13 and up who want a really scary and visceral adventure story – with some intense psychological mind-games thrown in.

Friday, June 12, 2009

More need, less library

This video segment on the huge demand for libraries is no surprise to any librarian:

Visit for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

The City of Los Angeles announced that most city agencies would completely shut down on the second and fourth Friday of every month, starting July 10. Yes, that means every Los Angeles Public Library branch, as well as our Central Library, will be closed an additional two days a month.

LA City Parks and Recreation Centers will also be shut down on those days.

The LA Unified School District has cancelled summer school for all elementary and middle school children and for most high school children.

Meanwhile, families are struggling more than ever and don't have the money for vacations, summer camp, and movies - not to mention daycare.

We're going to have some busy, busy libraries this summer! Hopefully we'll convert some first-time visitors into life-long library customers - this is an amazing opportunity and not to be wasted.

But those second and fourth Fridays are going to be difficult indeed - for the people of LA who need their libraries and other city services, and for LA city employees who are all taking a 10% pay cut.

And I haven't even mentioned the impending layoffs...

The mood here is as gloomy as the weather, which has been unremittingly gray and cool.

But - LA Public Library has just hired a new City Librarian after more than a year without a leader at our helm! More on Martin Gomez in my next post.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I used to feel so alone...

...but that was before I became aware of the many Crazed Readers out there. Here's a list of 'em, courtesy of MotherReader and her amazing 48-hour Reading Challenge.

Reading, like running, is a solitary activity - but even we lone wolves like to get together (even if electronically) once in a while.

Monday, June 8, 2009

48-hour challenge - final tally

I read and blogged pretty much straight from 6:30 pm to 9:30 pm last night, bringing my total reading and blogging time to 13 hours.

Not particularly impresssive, but I did meet MotherReader's suggested minimum goal of 12 hours, so that's something.

I finished two books that had already been started, started and finished another two, and got half-way through a fifth (Gone by Michael Grant, which is a quite a thrilling page-turner).

What I discovered is that, though I really thought I would relish the excuse to sit my butt down on the couch and simply read straight through the day, this was not the case. My workweek is extremely busy, so weekends are luxurious not just for the opportunity to catch up on reading, but also to get all those things done that add to the comfort and beauty of one's surroundings and to one's own well-being.

So, in addition to reading, I cooked, ran, saw a movie, chatted with the kids, chatted with Beaker the attention-hungry parrot, played with our rats, watered the garden, and basically enjoyed myself.

It was a wonderful weekend!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Review of Also Known as Harper by Ann Haywood Leal

Leal, Ann Haywood. Also Known as Harper. Henry Holt, 2009.

After Harper Lee Morgan, her little brother Hemingway (Hem for short), and their mom are evicted for not paying the rent, they move temporarily to a nearby cheap roadside motel. Because her mom is working extra hours trying to earn enough money to get them out of this fix, Harper Lee is forced to stay out of school to babysit her little brother, a particular onerous situation because this is the week that the entries for the Whaley County Poetry Contest are due at school.

Harper Lee, you see, is a poet. Like her mom, she has a love of the written word and a gift for setting her thoughts down on paper in a way that makes other people take notice, and she feels frantic that she’ll miss her chance. Luckily there is one bright spot in her life, in the form of another homeless girl who lives in an encampment near the motel. Another person Harper Lee meets is Dorothy, an old woman who lives near the motel and helps out the homeless folks nearby. Dorothy is one of those people who make you feel like you’re your best self when you’re with them, and her presence in Harper Lee’s life is pivotal.

Every single person in this book has suffered some kind of injury in the past and still carries a bit of the damage inside, and this is one of the things I like best about it. Whether it’s Harper Lee trying to come to terms with her negative feelings about her mercifully absent dad, her new friend Lorraine’s refusal to talk due to a trauma in her past, or Dorothy’s loss of her family long ago, they all have to make the best of the cards they’ve been dealt. Trying to cope with their own difficulties while helping, not hurting, others seems to be the path to redemption – and even the “bad” characters show a surprising good side now and then, demonstrating the fact that folks are complicated and unpredictable.

The awe and respect everyone, including children, shows Harper Lee’s poems doesn’t feel quite realistic, and neither does the way the children talk – the old-fashioned, folksy feel to their utterances sometimes makes them sound like little, wise, eccentric old ladies from a Southern novel. I’d also expect a lot more despair and resistance from Harper Lee about the situation she has been plunged into – sure, she’s a person who clearly puts the best face on things, but the grimness of moving into an old, abandoned building with no running water or electricity is barely touched on. If Harper Lee thinks going to the bathroom outside is at all awful, we don’t hear about it. Finally, the sudden good fortune that blesses Lorraine’s family, and also Harper Lee’s, is a relief but also way too pat to be believed.

Those quibbles aside, I do think this is a fine book to recommend to readers of realistic fiction in grades 5 to 7.

I am SO not winning this challenge...

...unless the whole point is to make reading a priority for one weekend and to have lots of fun, in which case things are just fine. Because stress and pressure make me all sweaty and nervous, I have done other stuff when I felt like it this weekend - sleeping, cooking, laundry (I like doing laundry, okay?), and movie-going. But there has been lots of reading going on, too.

But NOT anywhere close to my fellow bloggers. 25 hours! 33 hours! 15 books read! Yes, I AM a slacker. But a well-rested, well-fed one (lotsa pasta, lotsa cupcakes).

I read 2 hours last night (finished The Magic Thief: Lost - here's my review - and started Also Known as Harper by Leal).

Didn't start reading until 12:30 pm today (unless the Sunday paper counts. It doesn't? Rats), but then read for 2 hours and finished Also Known as Harper. Review to come soon.

Read blogs and posted my own for 1 hour.

Total time spent reading and blogging so far - 10 hours. But it's only 4 pm and I've got until 9:30 tonight!

And now it's time to start Gone.

Review of The Magic Thief: Lost by Sarah Prineas

I loved the fresh voice and intriguing premise of The Magic Thief, so I eagerly dove into book 2.

Conn has discovered that explosions allow the magic of his city Wellmet to talk to him, and since his locus magicalicus stone was destroyed at the end of book 1, this is very important to him. Unfortunately, Conn accidentally blows up his master Nevery’s house, at which point he is exiled from the city. This is horrifying to Conn but just as well, as Conn is quite certain that the magic of Wellmet wants him to investigate and solve the problem of the Shadows that have been invading Wellmet – and the root of the evil seems to lie in the desert city of Desh. With his friend Rowan and her retinue, he struggles against a mysterious magician and an ancient, malignant magic.

With the destruction of his powerful locus magicalicus, Conn has seemed to lose some of his vigor and energy. Despite his penchant for explosions, he seems strangely subdued and even taciturn – even Rowan notices, pointing out to him several times that he has stopped talking to her. Even his narrative voice has gotten terser – when Nevery says “Well, boy?” Conn thinks ‘Not really well, no,’ and doesn’t say a word. Getting exiled from his beloved city and its magic – and from his friends and his master – is horrifying and tragic for him, and it just makes him more silent and intense. Although this makes sense, it’s a bit distancing for the reader.

Luckily, some bouts of mortal danger toward the end of the book serve to wake Conn (and the reader) up, and we all gallop together toward the action-packed conclusion. Finally, at the very end, comes the emotional scene that has been lacking, and we realize that Conn and Nevery both have feelings that they very rarely share. Not that they’ll get much chance for that in the near future, as the city of Wellmet is under attack, and we won’t know the outcome until book 3.

Despite Conn's apparent depression, he still has a way with words, especially verbs - he "snickpicks" locks, "wobbleflaps" into the air when Nevery turns him into a bird, and "splat-lands" when he tries to come down for a landing. This fresh way with language embues the narration with some much-needed energy.

Final verdict – all fans of the first book must read this installment despite its occasional lack of affect. By the end, the old Conn is back, and readers will be on tenterhooks to find out what happens next. Recommended for grades 4 to 7.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Ouch - only 5 hours of reading so far

It's a good thing I have plenty of time to read tonight and tomorrow, because I'm far away from the 12 hour goal!

Here's the tally so far:

Friday, June 5 - 9:30 - 10:30 pm - 1 hour (finished The House on Fortune Street by Livesay)

Saturday, June 5 - noon - 2 pm - 1 hour (finally sat down to read, but was interrupted every few minutes by my chatty teenage daughters and my own sugar jones - at which point I gave up entirely and made cupcakes (golden with chocolate frosting - vegan! Book - The Magic Thief: Lost by Sarah Prineas. Food - leftover ravioli for lunch)

Saturday, June 5 - 2 pm - 5 pm - 3 hours (that's what I'm talking about! 3 hours of uninterrupted reading bliss, accompanied by Beaker the Parrot, my current favorite reading companion. Because I don't want her to be lonely during her stay with us, I've hauled her cage inside and outside, from one favorite reading spot to another. She is always ready to engage in intense eye contact and perplexing body language, but doesn't seem to mind when I dive back into my book again. Still working on The Magic Thief: Lost, but almost done. Food - one cupcake, a cup of coffee, and a cup of tea.)

Total reading time so far - 5 hours

Time spent blogging so far - 45 minutes.

A shaky start....

Due to a delightful dinner with friends and then a situation involving the Amazon Grey Parrot my younger daughter is bird-sitting (she let her out of her cage and then we couldn't figure out how to get her back in), I didn't get to my book until much later than my original 8 pm start-time.

However, I did finish The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey - here's the mini-review I wrote for Goodreads:

The lives of two men and two women, all connected by their ties to each other and to the house where three of them live, are explored in turn. The writing is fluid and most of the characters are worth delving into - we learn about their troubled childhoods and uneasy psyches. One character, poor lackluster Sean, the boyfriend of Abigail, gets rather shortshrift. His story comes first, but is abbreviated and pale next to the perspectives that follow - Abigail, Abigail's intense friend Dara, and Dara's father, a quiet man with a complicated secret. A tragedy that occurs during Sean's portion is slowly brought out and semi-explained during the following segments, but this isn't so much about this event as about how lives are intertwined and how we have profound and often unknown and unpredictable effects on those around us. Not uplifting but also not a downer - simply a lingering, well-written look into the lives of four folks.

I haven't started reading yet this morning because I wanted to absolutely finish all my chores so that I could flop down on the sofa with absolutely nothing looming ahead of me. Good news - while driving from grocery store to garden nursery, I finished the audiobook of Lady Killer by Lisa Scottoline, a fluffy South Philly tale which was made engaging by the quirky characters and the fabulous voice of narrator Barbara Rosenblat, who switches from accent to accent with aplomb, if not dead-on accuracy.

And now - on to The Magic Thief: Lost by Sarah Prineas!!

Friday, June 5, 2009

48-Hour Reading Challenge - let me at it!

It starts for me at 8 pm tonight with jammies, tea, and a stack of books.

Here's what's in the stack:
The House at Riverton by Kate Morton (a wonderful book for adults; almost done)
The Magic Thief: Lost by Sarah Prineas ('cause I loved The Magic Thief)
Also Known as Harper by Ann Haywood Leal (the blog reviews have been positive)
Gone by Michael Grant (I've been wanting to read this post-apocalyptic YA novel since last year)
Mare's War by Tanita s. Davis (great reviews, neat cover)

I don't have the hubris to list any more - it'll be a miracle if I finish these. But dang, will I have fun trying!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Coraline envisioned and embodied by my 10-year-old niece for Dress as Your Favorite Character day at her school.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards announced

Thanks, Roger, for bringing us these glad tidings.

For the $.02 it's worth, I approve. Loved Nation, thought Bubble Trouble was a giggle, and The Lincolns has been residing on my coffee table these last few days (where even the dedicated fiction readers in my household can't help but leaf through it).

Those who have no time to write scintillating posts... to the scintillating posts of their brilliant fellow bloggers!

I've got a daunting few weeks ahead of me, filled with workshops to present and school visits to make (all miles and miles away from both my own house and my workplace) - my calendar is a mess of fearsome scrawls, punctuated by exclamation points and vigorous asterisks.

So here are some links, new and sorta new, that you are sure to enjoy:

Rosalyn Schanzer writes a terrific post in I.N.K. about an unintended consequence of political correctness - often, writers for children (and editors and readers) feel that they aren't allowed to let anyone but white males have negative emotions or do bad things, which is just another way of rewriting history and does a disservice to everyone.

Charlotte from Charlotte's Library writes this post about the ridiculous lack of people of color in children's fantasy and science fiction books. She does mention some titles that buck the trend, and in the comments folks (including myself) added more, but the exceptions prove the rule.

This post by Jen Robinson in Booklights made me want to play hooky from work, pack up a picnic and a bunch of books, and head to the beach.

Trevor Cairney of Literacy, Families and Learning gives us some great tips - handy for parents, teachers, and librarians alike - on how to listen to a child reading aloud in a way that is fun and helpful rather than stressful and demoralising.

And finally - here is how I would have spent my weekend if (1) I had gone to BEA in New York, (2) I were brave and social enough to talk up lots of authors and (3) I were MotherReader.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Review of Any Which Wall by Laurel Snyder

Here is the review I wrote for School Library Journal (see all the June reviews here). Because I had to conform to SLJ's format, it's short but sweet.

Gr 3–6—During an Iowa summer, two sets of sibling neighbors—first-grader Emma and fifth-grader Henry, fifth-grader Roy and seventh-grader Susan—are getting bored. Luckily, adventure looms in the shape of a huge wall in the middle of a cornfield. When the children discover that it is magic and figure out its rules and parameters, they are transported to Merlin's castle, the American frontier, the home of "the worst pirate in the world," modern-day New York City, and an ice-cream shop and a movie theater. This book begins with a quote from Edward Eager's Seven-Day Magic (Houghton, 1999) and, as in his fantasies, the charm of the story lies not just in the magic, but also in how four kids figure out how it works, what to do with it, and how to get along at the same time. That magic, like everything else, has consequences is made clear to the youngsters, especially when their adventures saddle them with a large, wounded, lovable, homeless dog to take care of. Snyder's fresh, down-to-earth voice is complemented by Pham's energetic illustrations, which seem at once retro and modern. Fantasy fans will enjoy this novel, but so will readers who like stories about ordinary kids.—Eva Mitnick, Los Angeles Public Library