Saturday, May 29, 2010
Sedgwick, Marcus. Revolver. Roaring Brook Press, 2010.
The corpse of 14-year-old Sig's father Einar, enigmatic and secretive in death, lies on the table. Sig's stepmother and sister have gone to town to get help. And then a dangerous man named Wolff shows up, demanding that Sig tell him where Einar has hidden a cache of gold supposedly stolen ten years ago. When Sig's pretty sister Anna returns home without her stepmother or anyone else, she too is threatened with death - and other horrors as well.
Wolff has a revolver that he keeps trained on Sig and Anna. But Sig and Anna have a revolver, as well. If they can just get to it, they will come a little closer to evening the odds.
This short and intense story takes place in Nome, Alaska in 1899 and in Giron 100 miles above the Arctic circle in 1910, places so cold and hostile that it takes all one's resources and luck just to survive. To actually flourish is next to impossible. Why a man with a wife and two young children would choose to stay in this kind of intemperate and decided family-unfriendly environment is one of the mysteries of the story.
Whether it is 1899 and the very last ship of the season has left Nome, abandoning Einar, his sick wife, and two children behind to try to survive 7 months in a wild and completely isolated town where no one has enough food, or whether it is 1910 and Sig's whole world has shrunk down to one tiny cabin, one violent and desperate man, and two revolvers, this is a tale that induces stomach clenching stress and claustrophobia. Death is always patiently waiting right outside the door in the killing cold even if all is well indoors - and all is not well indoors. Almost every page crackles with tension and danger, if not outright violence.
Both Sig's father and his long-dead mother have had a profound impact on Sig's psyche, and both parents influence his actions in the end, as does a game Sig and his sister used to play. His father taught him the intricacies of the workings of Colt revolvers, while his mother taught him to turn the other cheek and, most of all, to have faith. Even Sig's intimate knowledge of the strange and snowy world he has lived in all his life plays a crucial role. The outcome of the stand-off is just right, although the epilogue, taking place in 1967, detracts a bit from the nail-biting suspense of everything that came before.
Highly recommended for ages 12 to 15.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Sunday, May 23, 2010
When my mom felt too busy to cook or hadn't been shopping in a while, she'd serve my sister and me "bits 'n' pieces," which consisted of whatever food - usually uncooked - that we had in the fridge and cupboards. A typical bits 'n' pieces meal might consist of apple slices, triscuits, cheddar cheese, apples, and maybe a couple of Vienna sausages. We always loved bits 'n' pieces meals.
So this is a bits 'n' pieces blog post. I haven't had time or energy to conjure up a warm, freshly cooked post, and in fact I can't even offer bits 'n' pieces on a single theme (as I managed a few days ago). Hopefully you'll be patient with this mismatched quickie meal, and even enjoy its picnic-y style, knowing that a hot, nourishing dinner will come your way soon.
I've been thinking a lot about the audiobooks my sister and I used to listen to back in the early 70s. They were very abridged (just one or two cassette tapes each) versions of Queenie Peavy, Caddie Woodlawn, Strawberry Girl, Thimble Summer, A Wrinkle in Time, Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang, and more. Some had a single narrator but most had a cast that included children. I think they were published by Viking Recorded Books. And man, they were GREAT!!! Do any of you 40-somethings remember these?
My sister and I would listen to a tape every night, and we must have listened to each book dozens and dozens of times. I still remember the exact intonation of many lines - "There IS such a thing as a tesseract."
"Oh Caddie - You spilled the milk all over the floor!"
"I'd like two pounds of firm red tomahtoes. I'd like two pounds of firm red tomahtoes."
It would be wonderful to hear these tapes again; too bad they're long gone. I found the 1972 audiobook version of Queenie Peavy on Amazon for $20 - pretty tempting.
Speaking of audiobooks... disc 2 of my library copy of Numbers by Rachel Ward (narrated with verve by Sarah Coomes) is defective and won't play in my car disc player. ARGH! Now I have to wait until I can get another copy. Darn it. Good thing I've got Lord Sunday by Garth Nix to listen to in the meantime.
And leaping to an entirely different subject (hence the bits 'n' pieces motif)...
I visited two families with babies this past Friday, one of them a round-headed and joyful 10-month-old girl and the other a tiny-featured 3-week-old boy with a toddler big sister whose greatest pleasure currently is to water the lawn, the plants, and most of all herself. I got to hold both babies - ah, the bliss!
And then the next day I saw the movie Babies, featuring 4 babies in very different cultures. I had heard that the San Francisco couple, white older parents, come off badly (the scary "the earth is our mother" baby yoga session being mentioned a lot) but they just seemed as loving and affectionate in their West Coast way as all the other parents were (well, the dads of the African and Mongolian babies were absent, being off doing their manly duties, one assumes). And though a baby storytime might look mighty artificial when compared to a baby boy sitting naked on a metal pail and contemplating the vast gorgeous steppes in front of him, empty but for a bunch of cows and sheep, that baby storytime is important in our own culture.
I have to say, though, that those Namibian moms, who spent a lot of time chatting in the shade of a tree nursing or doing each other's hair and chatting away while babies, kids, and dogs tumbled over each other, looked to have a pretty great life. Certainly, they seemed to stress over the whole baby thing a LOT less than I did as a new young mother!
And that's all the bits 'n' pieces I've got today. Perhaps I'll serve a steaming hot casserole tomorrow...
Thursday, May 20, 2010
I just listened to the audiobook of Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, and though it was an interesting bit of alternative historical fiction and a fine adventure, I don't know if I'd call it steampunk. It's 1914, and the Germans and Austrians (what the British call "clankers") have created big, noisy, awkward, and powerful machines that run on things like kerosene. Because Darwin managed to figure out how to splice DNA back in the 19th century, the British can fabricate strange creatures that they use as vehicles, weapons, and communications devices.
Alan Cummings' narration was fine - he did a German accent for Alek and his companions, while Deryn had an appropriately urchin-y Scottish accent. I often find male narrators' female voices to be a little off-putting, as they can sound so much like female impersonators - sort of plummy and annoying - but it kind of worked with Dr. Barlow, the posh female boffin.
Still, I really wish I had read this, because I didn't get to see the absolutely awesome illustrations by Keith Thompson which which the book is liberally sprinkled. While listening to the audiobook, I couldn't quite understand how the whale zeppelin and the medusa air balloon were supposed to look (usually I'm good at this, but my imagination kept showing me stuff that just didn't work). But now that I've seen the illustrations, I get it. And I have to say that these creatures, all coils and tentacles and with gondolas hanging off them, do look pretty steampunkish, even if they do run on biological energy, not steam energy.
Check out Thompson's Leviathan artwork here to see what I mean.
Monday, May 17, 2010
First, there are these delicious children's book-themed cakes from Cake Wrecks.
And then there are these wonderfully obsessive posts from Anna the Red, in which she re-creates meals from various Miyazaki films. I've always been fascinated by the fish casserole from Kiki's Delivery Service, and apparently I'm not alone. For all the photos, check out Anna's Flickr page.
And finally we have the Book Chook, who is creating a digital cookbook called (are you ready for this?) - the "Book Chook Cook Book!" Is that not the best book title ever? We all get to contribute, and this post tells you how.
Now it's time to eat a cookie.
Saturday, May 15, 2010
In One Crazy Summer, 11-year-old Delphine sure doesn't take her mom for granted. Cecile left Delphine, her 9-year-old sister Vonetta, and her 7-year-old sister Fern when Fern was just a baby - and now their father has decided it's time for the three girls to fly out from New York to Oakland for the summer of 1968 to get to know their long-lost mother Cecile.
Cecile - or Nzilla as she calls herself now - is formidable. Tall and given to wearing pants, hats, scarves, and sunglasses, she exudes an exciting menace and intensity - which is absolutely not for show, as she is so focused on her poetry that she has little attention left over to share with her 3 daughters or anyone else. There is no softness or give to her and she doesn't care what anyone thinks. She won't even waste a kind word on her own kids, much less give them breakfast or lunch, but at least she is always true to her own nature. If it wasn't for her extreme selfishness, especially where her daughters are concerned, I'd find her quite admirable.
Delphine, a pragmatic and "plain" child (as in plain-spoken, plain-thinking), thinks her mom is crazy, pure and simple, and isn't thrilled to have to be spending all day every day at a day camp run by the Black Panthers, where she has to watch Vonetta make lots of friends instantly and defend Fern from people who make fun of her for loving her little white baby doll Miss Patty Cake. It's surely difficult being the sensible big sister when you're thrust into a bizarre situation.
Throughout the next few weeks, Delphine figures out how to make the visit work, making delicate arrangements with her mom (such as being allowed in the kitchen - where Nzilla's printing press is - to make dinner), making a few friends, observing the goings-on of the Black Panthers with a wary eye, and even managing to take her sisters on a great trip to San Francisco. When her mother is arrested and later released, she and her mother have a showdown that is both painful and cathartic, and for me the most powerful part of the whole book.
Throughout this novel are many moments that illustrate the often uncomfortable and awkward rubbing together of the old Black culture (Delphine's grandma Big Ma, for example, who refers to herself as Negro or Colored) and the new (the Black Panthers, modern career women who don't automatically identify with Big Ma just because they share the same race). Delphine observes and judges it all, but refrains from forming her own hard and fast opinion - or perhaps it's just that she would rather try to get through each day. Delphine takes so much on her shoulders - finally her own mother (rather ironically) advises her to just let go, have fun, and be eleven years old.
The part of this book that touched me most is the way Delphine keeps thinking and worrying about Fern and her white baby doll Miss Patty Cake. Fern has loved that doll since she was an infant - but when Vonetta ruins Miss Patty Cake in a fit of rage, Fern seems to forget all about the doll. What does it mean? How can Fern forget all about something she has loved so long and so deeply? Is she mourning her on the inside? What is going on? It makes us wonder, too, which brings us back to the mystery of Cecile and how she could leave her family. There aren't any real answers, but lots to ponder.
The climax at the protest, with the girls' reciting of Nzilla's poem and Fern's own bombshell of a poem, felt inauthentic to me - it was too much a Book Moment, especially Fern's part. Could a 7-year-old really understand what the scene she witnessed meant, and articulate it so forcefully? Nah. It was effective - but at the price of the realism that pervades the rest of the book.
As the third generation to be born in Oakland, after my dad and my dad's mom (broke the chain with my own kids, darn it), I'm thrilled to see a slice of Oakland history, and of Black history, brought to such vivid life. Now a part of me will always see Oakland through Delphine's eyes.
Highly recommended for grades 4 - 7.
I read the March/April and May/June Horn Books practically back to back. Huge kudos to the Horn Book editors and contributors! Every single dang article in both issues was delightful, thought-provoking, and absolutely a joy to read.
Unfortunately, one of my favorite articles isn't available from the website, so get yourself a hard copy of the May/June issue and read Megan Lambert's "The Boy Ramona" on page 118. It's about her son Rory, now 13 years old, who has always been an intense reader, reading for solace and escape but also to discover new ways to be in the world and new ideas to explore. Lambert writes,
"I think he gets this strength, in part, because of that rich inner world of reading and rereading that's he's built for himself and that is populated by similarly quirky, bright, and sensitive kids... And whether he grows up to be a philosopher, a writer, a Shinto priest, an editor, or an English professor like me, I know he will always be a reader."
I've got a couple of those kids, too! Here's the 15-year-old...
Friday, May 14, 2010
Yolen, Jane. Foiled. Illustrated by Mike Cavallaro. First Second, 2010.
Teens feel different - they are different from the way they were as children, they are different from adults, they are different from each other. How seductive, then, is the possibility that they are not just freaky and awkward because they're going through a Phase, but because they are actually part Elf or Faerie, or have magical powers, or are in some other way much more cool and special than others might think.
Naturally, there are a plethora of books with this theme, and Foiled is one of them. Color-blind 10th-grader Aliera is passionate about fencing but otherwise feels rather pale and invisible. She falls unwillingly for her lab partner, the annoying but very good-looking Avery Castle at school, but when he finally asks her out and they meet at Grand Central Station, some very odd things start to happen - and Aliera discovers that there is an invisible magical world superimposed on ours, in which she is to play an important, and inherited, role.
This feels a bit like Holly Black's "Good Neighbors" graphic novel series (Kin and Kith so far), but for a younger audience. The artwork has a perky, manga-esque style that is quite different from Ted Naifeh's gothic, edgy drawings in Good Neighbors, and the story line is not nearly so dark. In fact, there really isn't much plot here at all; readers won't learn much about the importance of Aliera's ruby-topped weapon or why she and her family are Defenders or what Avery's role in all this is. I assume there will be a sequel, as the book ends with a great deal of unanswered questions.
Good stuff - Aliera's fierceness and her loyalty to her younger, wheelchair-bound cousin; the bright, unworldly spots of color brightening Aliera's color-blind world (although color-blind people don't see the world in shades of gray, right?); the depiction of Aliera as a lean and graceful fencer but an awkward high school student.
I wish the plot had more depth or at least more content - this is far too quick and light a read for fantasy and graphic novel fans like me. But this very quality makes Foiled just right for reluctant readers or folks who don't want to spend days on one book. This one should be easy and gratifying to hand-sell to kids in grades 4 to 8.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Monday, May 10, 2010
Sunday, May 9, 2010
My daughters are teenagers now, and in one year one of them, already an official adult, will be 20. I look back at their childhoods with love and wonderment and a bit of wistfulness (oh my god, they were so adorable!) and also some satisfaction that we all made it through. It wasn't easy! My journals from the years of my young motherhood are filled with accounts of the sheer frustration, drudgery, and labor involved in parenting young humans. Children are so volatile, irrational, and (before the age of about 7) amoral. Teens, though challenging, are paragons of reason in comparison.
Growing up is exactly what our children are supposed to do - this seems to me a cause for celebration rather than that strange clutching desperation that many parents seem to feel. There's a moving scene in the movie Please Give in which a couple shopping at a neighborhood store unexpectedly come across their own 15-year-old daughter browsing in the cosmetics aisle, unaware of their presence. For a few moments they are able to watch her with unabashed pride and amazement - I imagine that they are seeing both the little child she once was and the woman she is becoming, and it is a magical moment.
My husband thinks I love children's books because I had a happy childhood that I'm able to relive through children's literature. That's not it, I'm pretty sure. I did have a fine childhood, mainly because I had - and have - wonderful parents. It's true that I was in no hurry to become a teen, suspecting - accurately, as it turned out - that I would be no good at it. But adulthood has lived up to its promise, and more. My husband told me when I was all of 25 that I was born to be old. He was referring to my penchant for Masterpiece Theater and cozy British mysteries, but he was right. Things keep getting better.
(I do wish I could shake off the shattering self-doubt and anguish that hits me on a regular basis. That must be a remnant of my teen years, curse them. I'd definitely rather be 8 years old at heart than 12, but I fear I'll always feel In Between - no longer one thing, but not yet another. Or perhaps that's just the human condition.)
One aspect of childhood that most people lose as they grow up is the capacity for Play. Sure, even grown-ups can have fun, can enjoy themselves, can play - I love spending time on the beach during the summer because it's a place where you can see folks of all ages frolicking like little kids in the waves. But I mean that unselfconscious ability to get completely lost in an imaginary game, either the sort during which you murmur to yourself as you move toy dinosaurs and California Raisins figurines and Weebles around or the sort that you play with others, each person playing an essential and vivid role. These games are so real, so important, that they become transcendent, whether the player is 2 years old or 10 years old. As a child I read Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Egypt Game and of course it resonated with me intensely. As an adult I read it again, and was astounded at my childhood feelings for the book. I couldn't imagine how it felt to feel so strongly about a game of pretend.
Rollercoasters are exhilarating, board games and cards still entertain me, hiking gives me intense joy, and riding my bike lazily down a wide, sunny street can still make me feel just like a kid again. But only reading captures the intensity I felt as a child while Playing. Only reading engages my imagination and my soul so completely. Surely this must explain the addiction to reading that so many people have. It's not escape - it's living life on an even more intense level for a while.
My mom, a librarian and passionate reader, read to me from the time I was tiny. I don't know what I would do without books and reading. And my soon-to-be-grown-up children are readers, too. Whatever may befall them, they will always have books.
Children grow up and no longer Play - but if they read, they've gained something even better. What a cause for rejoicing on this Mother's Day - my mother's 45th and my 19th!
Thursday, May 6, 2010
The May/June issue of Horn Book has a refreshing, thought-provoking, and long-overdue article by Jennifer Armstrong called Reading Animals.
My older daughter, at the age of about 7, became a vegetarian after seeing the movie Babe. Her dad and I had eaten almost no red meat since our college years, but we still ate fish and fowl, and we didn't restrict our daughters' diets when they were away from home - both daughters enjoyed bacon, hot dogs, and other meaty foods.
But Babe was the turning point for Viv. She loved the animals in that movie - in fact, she has always loved ALL animals - and decided that it was therefore wrong to eat them. If it was wrong to kill and eat a cat, wasn't it just as wrong to kill and eat a pig? Pigs are at least as intelligent as cats, and twice as cute.
Viv made the connection early on between adoring animals and not eating them. Her young animal-loving cousin made the same connection recently as well, and has become a partial vegetarian. It's not surprising to me in the least.
What is surprising is how that so many Thanksgiving picture books are about saving the life of the turkey - and yet it's a sure thing that most of the authors who write them, the librarians and parents who read them aloud, and the kids who enjoy them happily devour a turkey every Thanksgiving. And any children's book featuring a cute pig is just tragic when you consider that pigs are raised purely to be some human's food and for no other reason. At least you could argue that Minerva Louise is happily laying eggs for us to eat or that the cows of Click Clack Moo are producing milk.
Here is what Armstrong says:
There’s more than a bit of hypocrisy involved in urging children to empathize with pandas and polar bears and bunnies and ducks in books and at a distance and then feeding them hamburgers and sliced deli meats. The United States kills approximately ten billion land animals every year for human consumption, which works out to over one million animals per hour. No number of books about runaway bunnies, or ducklings negotiating Boston traffic, or terrific and radiant pigs can compensate for that scale of violence, in my opinion. How does a child’s developing moral/ethical self resolve the jarring disconnect between the animal books she is given to read in the library and the animal meat she is given for lunch in the cafeteria? What is she to make of the trusted adult who holds in one hand a living baby chick to caress with tender care and a chicken nugget in the other hand to eat with special sauce?"Disconnect" is right! Now, most folks eat meat and that is absolutely their choice. But tell kids where meat comes from and don't sugarcoat it, and then let kids decide if they want to eat meat or not. Most will decide, as most adults do, that they want to eat meat regardless of how horrific the meat industry is. But some will follow their hearts and consciences, and that is something to be encouraged.
Monday, May 3, 2010
Sunday, May 2, 2010
Yesterday was a gorgeous, breezy day, so we left the door open and enjoyed some fresh air during the 2010 Spring Workshop held by the Children's Literature Council of Southern California.
The topic was Old Passions, New Technologies: Children's and Young Adult Literature in a Web 2.0 World. My fellow panelists were illustrious indeed:
- Greg Pincus of Gotta Book and the Happy Accident
- Tracy Grand of JacketFlap
- Elizabeth Khuri Chandler of Goodreads
I represented the librarian/dilettante contingent and so my presentation was a bit vague - half of it was about the joys of the blogosphere (and more particularly the kidlitosphere) for children's book addicts and half was about fun and free 2.0 tools to use (as a blogger or with kids or teens) to enhance, extend, and promote children's literature and creativity in general.
I'm not sure if the presentation will make sense without my spiel, but at least the links may be useful to you. Here it is below: