Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Review of Scumble by Ingrid Law

Law, Ingrid. Scumble. Dial, 2010 (August).

I suffered my first, and hopefully last, attack of hives a few weeks ago, brought on by an allergic reaction to a virus that laid me low for a few days. Because the allergic reaction was within my body, the areas of burning itchiness kept migrating all over my body, from my scalp to the inside of my right elbow to my left ankle to my neck. It was just like a band of badly behaved bees was rampaging around under my skin, using my veins like a highway to travel about and attack me from the inside. Small welts rose up wherever they stopped to carouse.

13-year-old Ledge (younger cousin to Mibs of Savvy fame) gets much the same feeling when his savvy sap starts to rise in his veins. It prickles him, it feels like ants beneath his skin, it drives him mad "like an itch foot inside a winter boot." When he gets that awful savvy prickle, he knows that it's going to come bursting out of him - and something is going to break.

Because that seems to be Ledge's savvy - the destruction of man-made objects. Ledge considers this to be not only worthless but downright inconvenient. How will he be able to go to school or live in polite society at all if he can't learn to "scumble" his talent?

His parents wisely decide to leave Ledge and his little sister Fedora at the Wyoming ranch of their uncle Autry. Autry's daughters are there, as are Ledge's other cousins Rocket, Samson, and Gypsy. Life on the ranch - which is an insect ranch, by the way, a way with bugs being Autry's savvy - would be fine if it weren't for Ledge's lack of control over his frustrating savvy. Matters are greatly complicated by the snooping presence of a strange local girl, Sarah Jane, who seems determined to root out all the family's secrets. To make matters worse, her father is set on repossessing and obliterating many of the businesses in town, including the ranch.

Like Savvy, Scumble has a bit of tall-tale folkiness to its language. Ledge, like Mibs, is a narrator who likes to use language creatively. Exaggeration and hyperbole are relished, not avoided. "After seeing the foreclosure sign, I didn't have the nerve to spill my guts - in case my uncle decided to feed them to his carnivorous beetles." This works because Ledge is in general a good and sensible kid. That he causes mass destruction wherever he goes is a source of great distress to him.

Ledge starts out rather clueless and gains confidence and, well, savvy as he makes his way through the summer, learning to control and understand his talent and himself. Along the way, he stops being so absolutely self-centered, realizing that Rocket and Sarah Jane have their own problems. Law's light, deft touch with language and humor keeps readers turning the pages, as does the ever-present possibility of yet another household appliance or large automobile exploding spectacularly.

And the savvy? It's magical, fun, and occasionally unpredictable. An O'Connell clan member wielding his or her talent with skillful and happy aplomb is a sight to behold, and readers will wish they had a savvy of their own.

Or maybe they do. This book had me wondering what my own previously unsuspected savvy might be. An uncanny ability to understand how rodents are feeling? A certain knowledge of what exactly is going on with my internal organs, particularly the digestive ones, at any time? You never know...

Recommended for grades 4 to 7.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Recovering from ALA

Now that the euphoria of ALA has dissipated somewhat, what's left is that feeling of impending doom brought on by the conference reports one must write. I've already written one (for the ALSC Blog) but have many more to go, both for this blog and of course for my library system.

Oh, and I've got some reviews to write (because those coast-to-coast plane rides were good for something).

Sigh. I'd much rather read one of the luscious ARCs I scored, like Scott Westerfeld's Behemoth (sequel to Leviathan) or Catherine Fisher's Sapphique (sequel to Incarceron).

Saturday, June 26, 2010

ALA so far - bugs, dogs, teens, and tech

(I wanted to add a photo of the highlight of my D.C. visit so far, which was holding a gorgeous giant grasshopper in one hand and a Madagascar hissing cockroach in the other at the National Museum of Natural History - but it didn't turn out. So here is a friendly moment with Jamie, a gal who works for the FBI and sniffs out bombs for a living.)

Once, at one of those publisher cocktail parties during which folks are thrown some beverages, some h'or doeuvres, and are expected simply to mingle, I didn't see anyone I recognized, and so I sat down at a table with three women who were chatting amiably. Mustering my courage, I smiled and introduced myself.

The trio stopped talking, blinked at me in surprise and - I swear it - distaste, nodded at me, reluctantly introduced themselves - and then continued talking amongst themselves. They were all YA librarians - and I swear, they made me feel like I had sat down at the wrong lunch table. I was a dorky children's librarian who was gauche enough to sit down with the Cool People, and they froze me out.

I know lots of YA librarians, and they are almost uniformly warm people and enthusiastic librarians who love what they do, so obvious those three Mean Girls were anomalies.

Still, as a very new YALSA member (I've been an ALSC member for lo, these many 20 years or so), I signed up for my first YALSA preconference with lots of excitement and a wee bit of trepidation. Silly me! Presenters and attendees alike were helpful, friendly, professional, and even as Super Nice as any children's librarian.

Although some of them were cooler than I'm used to. In particular, there were many instances of Fabulous Eyewear (I was quite taken with the cat's-eye frames worn by one woman at my table - perhaps that should be my new look).

So - the preconference was Promoting Teen Reading with Web 2.0 Tools, which is an idea near and dear to my heart. I've been wishing for a while that I still worked in branches and could use Animoto, YouTube, Glogster, Scratch, Storybook,,, and other free tools with kids and teens (see my slide show w/ examples of some of these) - but now I'm in a position to actually encourage my whole library system (or drag them kicking and screaming) to use these tools.

I'll report on the preconference in depth in an upcoming post, but some of the slide shows and hand-outs can be seen here in the meantime.

And stay tuned for reports on programs ranging from community involvement to summer reading club as well, plus Disney Hyperion's diverting afternoon of mini peanut butter/chocolate eclairs and the Super Chicken Nugget Boy song!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Review of Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve

Reeve, Philip. Fever Crumb. Scholastic, 2010.

Fever is bald, beautiful (but doesn't know it and wouldn't care if she did - too irrational), and logical. She lives in a post-apocalyptic London, a city which is still stationary, this being a prequel to the Hungry Cities series.

As an apprentice Engineer, she is hired by an Archaeologist to help him determine the origins and use of ancient technology - but really, Kit Solent knows that Fever in some way is the key to the knowledge held by the great Auric Godshawk, a Scriven lord, scientist, and inventor, now dead.

Fever appears human except for her bi-colored eyes - but she is soon hunted by the last Skinner of the city (who rid London of the Scriven years ago) and a whole mob of Londoners. Meanwhile, a whole country/army on wheels is massing outside London ready to roll in and take over. Fever, faced with all this, begins understandably to lose a bit of that dispassionate rationality that Engineers are famous for, and to allow herself to feel more like a 14-year-old girl.

This exciting steampunk novel stands alone; no knowledge of the Hungry Cities series is required, though it may well lead readers to those wonderful books. As with all Reeve's books, there is plenty of action in the form of riots, romances, strange and terrible technology, battles, and more. There is also a Dickensian element, with a young mistreated orphan boy, Charley Swallow, being taken on as a helper by the obsessed, glint-eyed Skinner named Bagman. And this London, though much transformed by the ravages of time, is still recognizable by such place names as "Pickled Eel Circus." That this is the future is obvious by the way Internet terms and symbols like blog and @ have been transformed (there's a guy called @kinson).

Fever herself is a compelling character. She wants to be rational, but can't help feeling emotional, especially as she is hit by all sorts of bizarre experiences. Because Fever was brought up in a society of men with no kids or women around, she has no knowledge of politeness - she doesn't understand that though it may be irrational to thank a person who is just doing his job, it's still the polite thing to do. She is stiff and quaint at first - and although by the end, she has loosened a bit, she retains a marvelous sense of composure and stillness.

Readers of the Hungry Cities books will come across a few familiar characters here. For instance, we learn the origin of Grike and find out why he is a bit sweeter than your average Stalker. And of course, we discover how London gets up off the ground and becomes mobile.

This is highly recommended for its strange and gritty atmospheric technology, its fast-moving plot, for the intriguing cast of eccentric characters, and most of all for Fever, its bald heroine. Grades 6 and up.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Save a Zombie! Keep Libraries Open!

If this doesn't convince your average citizen of the need to keep our libraries open and our librarians at work, I don't know what will!!

Thanks to Boys Rule Boys Read for sharing these videos supporting the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Review of The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork

Stork, Francisco X. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors. Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2010.

What do people see when they look at you? Do different people see different things? Do any of them see the "real" you? Can anyone see a complete picture? Is there a "real" you at all, and how do you find out what it is?

These are the sorts of questions that arose as I read this excellent coming-of-age novel. Pancho is a New Mexico teenager to whom several awful things have happened all at once - his dad died in an accident, his older "simple" sister died in what Pancho considers to be suspicious and sordid circumstances, and he has not been allowed to stay in his family's trailer, being deposited instead at an orphanage run by Father Concha.

I was certain that Father Concha would be a pivotal character, but instead this story is about how Pancho's quest to get revenge for his sister's death gets entwined with the need of fellow "orphan" (although not really - his mother is very much alive) D.Q. to live out what days remain to him as a "death warrior," sucking marrow out of the bones of life before he dies of cancer.

Pancho sees his life - and himself - as empty and meaningless. All he cares about at first is getting revenge, and then he figures he'll get sent to jail, where he'll be killed. And that's fine with him. But D.Q. sees something else in Pancho the moment he claps eyes on him - a fellow death warrior and, more importantly, a potential friend. And although Pancho doesn't understand or particularly like this odd, brainy, desperately ill white guy, there's no denying that D.Q. has some uncanny insight. While other folks see all kinds of things in Pancho - tough guys see a fellow tough guy looking for a fight, little kids see someone to play with, talk to, and trust, and a certain girl sees someone she could fall in love with - D.Q. seems to see all of Pancho all at once.

It's how Pancho learns how to see - and understand - himself as well as the people around him that is the heart of this story. The reader has to get to know Pancho, and he doesn't make it easy, but by the end of the book we know and appreciate him as much as D.Q. does. Pancho is the kind of rich and completely real character that is hard to part with at the end of a story - I'd like to find out what he's doing in 5 years, and in 10.

Highly recommended for ages 13 and up. By the way, this is the third absolutely excellent coming-of-age story I've read recently that features a teenage boy, after The Cardturner and As Easy as Falling off the Face of the Earth. Very refreshing trend.

Monday, June 21, 2010

ALA as a family affair

Although I've roomed at almost every American Library Association conference with my mama (one of the many benefits of being a second-generation librarian), I've very seldom brought the rest of my family. Only twice have other family members experienced the wonders of ALA.

In July 1993, my husband and older daughter (at that time, my only daughter) came with me to New Orleans, where my daughter was alarmed by the horns on the river boats but seemed to enjoy the sultry air. There she is, aged 2, wearing her obligatory freebie pins snagged from the exhibits.
In July 2007, I brought my younger daughter, then 12 years old, to Washington DC so that she could share in the joy of Susan Patron's speech at the Caldecott/Newbery banquet (my daughter being an early and strong fan of The Higher Power of Lucky). She liked the banquet and some baby ducks we saw near the Capitol, but the museums left her cold, while the muggy weather left her much too warm.
In a few days, I'm flying with my husband to Washington DC, his first ALA since 1993. I'll be busy most of every day, so I sure hope he's in the mood for museum-hopping. Luckily, my evenings will be free - I'm thinking a mint julep at dusk and a night-time stroll to the Lincoln Memorial sounds romantic indeed.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Review of Crispin: The End of Time by Avi

Avi. Crispin: The Edge of Time. Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins, 2010.

Starting right where the Crispin: At the Edge of the World left off, this final installment in the trilogy has Crispin and Troth staggering, exhausted and tattered, through France as they search for Iceland. Bear always told them Iceland was a place where people could be free, and though Bear is dead, Crispin sees Iceland as a shining beacon of hope.

Troth finds a haven early on, but Crispin pushes on, falls in with a band of traveling musicians who also happen to be murdering thieves, makes his way with them to Calais, and finally finds himself on a cog sailing toward Iceland. And there the story ends, my friends.

Although a boy named Owen who is traveling with the musicians might become a friend, Crispin doesn't have much opportunity to get to know him, and so he spends most of this novel cold, scared, and most of all alone. Readers will miss Troth, but I must say I was happy that she found a place where she can be safe, appreciated, and even happy. As for Crispin, he is his usual good, sweet self. I can't understand how every half-way decent person he meets doesn't want to take him home, dress him warmly, and stuff him with nourishing stew - but then again, he doesn't meet too many half-way decent people in this book.

Not a whole heck of a lot happens, as Crispin is mostly trying to get away from this scary family that has rather forcefully admitted him into their midst. This family is portrayed in quite an interesting and sinister manner. The matriarch, Elena, is obviously a woman of great complexity and intelligence - you can feel Crispin's disappointment that her warmth is directed only at her own family.

The oddest episode has to do with the manner in which Crispin comes across a warm and attractive outfit - in what apparently is an old grave. What does it mean? Why is it that the best thing that happens to him in the whole book is courtesy of a dead man?

The ending is both a relief and a worry, as Crispin is finally free of that hideous and dangerous family but is setting off for a very uncertain future. What on earth will he do in Iceland? Will he even make it there? Won't he be awfully chilly in the cold north? I'm concerned about the poor boy and I wish I had some reassurance that he's got a lifetime of full bellies ahead of him. He has had to endure so much hardship in his 13 years.

Although not as satisfying as the first two in the trilogy, this is still action-packed and well-written, a must for Crispin fans. For ages 10 and up.

I prefer impertinent posts, myself!

Charlotte of Charlotte's Library awarded me a Pertinent Posts award - thank you! Her posts are always the first I read in my feed reader, always containing great reviews and insightful commentary about children's and YA fantasy, but I guess I can't give her the award in return.

Hmm - I often read blogs precisely because the posts are very different from what I write, but they're what I would write if I had more time or talent, a different job, and so on.

And so I give the Pertinent Posts Award to Marge's Tiny Tips for Library Fun, which has a lovely mix of book reviews, practical and creative tips for practicing children's librarians, and links to interesting posts; to Yo! Venice! for a plethora of short and photo/video-rich posts about my home town; and the Book Chook for tipping me off to all the rich interactive literacy sites that the Internet has to offer.

Hmm, must ponder to whom I'd give an Impertinent Posts Award... Thoughts, anyone?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Review of The Magical Misadventures of Prunella Bogthistle by Deva Fagan

I reviewed this for the June 2010 issue of School Library Journal. See the rest of the Grade 5 and Up reviews here.

. The Magical Misadventures of Prunella Bogthistle. 272p. CIP. Holt. June 2010. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-8050-8743-7. LC 2009023447.

Gr 4–6—Prunella Bogthistle may have the name and chicken-foot-festooned braids of a bog-witch, but she can't cast curses or grow warts. To prove her witchy worth, she goes on a quest to find her infamous ancestor's long-lost grimoire, joining forces with Barnaby, a foppish Uplander with a mysterious past. On their travels, it becomes clear that what little magic there is in the Uplands is draining away. As Prunella and Barnaby try to discover the cause, they realize that good and evil can come packaged in deceptive forms—nasty bog-witches, malevolent wizards, and beautiful queens aren't always what they seem. Prunella's tetchy interactions and thrilling adventures with Barnaby are tinged with her unwillingness to admit to herself that she is, at heart, a kind, if occasionally contrary, bog-witch. A spectral horse, a lonely ghost, and numerous wary and prejudiced villagers add humor and danger to this magical adventure. If the denouement is a bit hurried, no matter; all ends are satisfactorily tied up. This colorful, fast-paced fantasy is recommended for fans of funny, fairy-tale-inspired stories.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Black Thursday

Despite valiant efforts by staff and supporters, over 100 Los Angeles Public Library employees were laid off today.

As they came in to work, supervisors gave them their packets, explained that their positions had been eliminated, and asked them to clear their desks and leave. It was excruciating for the laid off workers, for their supervisors, for their co-workers, and for all of us at LAPL. Many of us wore black to mark the day.

I haven't seen a list of all the employees who lost their jobs today and we won't know the final tally until everyone has been notified. It is certain, though, that among them are many librarians who have served youth in their communities with passion and creativity. My heart is breaking that the City has torn these librarians away from us and the young people and families of Los Angeles.

If that isn't bad enough, Central Library and all of our 72 branches will be reduced to 5-days-a-week service starting July 6, after having had our Sundays and 2 nights cut last April.

I do think that there are some incredible innovations and improvements in store for LAPL in the next couple years. We have new administrators who are brave and creative, and good things are already in the works.

But I'm in anguish that we must go forward without our brothers and sisters who have been laid off today.

June 17, 2010 - Black Thursday.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Review of Countdown by Deborah Wiles

Wiles, Deborah. Countdown. Scholastic Press, 2010.

It's 1962 and Franny is 11 years old, a truly awkward age. It's the age when girls begin to try and figure out the teenager they are on the cusp of becoming, and yet they're still very much kids in so many ways. Franny is still attached to her childish anklets, headbands, and Nancy Drew mysteries, even as her best friend Margie becomes ever more dismissive and distant.

Things aren't so great at home, either. Franny's little brother Drew is practically perfect, while her older sister Jo Ellen, a college student, is gorgeous, smart - and engaged in mysterious activities about which she won't tell Franny. Her dad is often away at work, her mom can be cranky, and her uncle doesn't seem to realize that WWII is long over.

And don't forget, it's 1962. Drop and cover drills take on new seriousness with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. With a nuclear war threatening to break out any moment, it's no wonder Franny is stressed out. The whole community is stressed out!

In fact, the whole nation was stressed out, as Wiles' "documentary novel" demonstrates. Using a combination of vintage images, quotes from songs, poems, newspaper articles, and other sources, and essays on subjects like JFK and civil rights activist Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer, Wiles presents 1962 as a turbulent time. The United States was heaving with strong issues - racial injustice, the "communist threat," the missile crisis, the civil rights movement, the cold war, women's rights - and strong emotions - fear and hope chief among them.

Franny, though she may not even realize it, is touched by all of these issues, as canny readers will understand. Although Franny is understandably perturbed by the terrifying missile crisis, her best friend's betrayal and her crush on a neighbor consume most of her thoughts - like most kids, the most intense parts of her life take place within the narrow confines of her home and her neighborhood. And yet the events of 1962 encroach on her life in all kinds of ways, from her sister's involvement with organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to her teacher's marriage to a Cuban-American.

Franny is a geeky girl and proud of it. She wields a large and impressive vocabulary, which may account, or at least forgive, the fact that Franny's first-person narration doesn't sound childish at all, though the dialogue is age-appropriate. I think kids will like Franny, but they may become impatient (as Margie does) with her obsession with finding out Jo Ellen's secrets or her embarrassment over Uncle Ott.

Will kids accept the documentary portions of this novel as an enriching dimension of the story? Will they even understand the references? I'm not sure that they will. Though I found them interesting and sometimes incredibly poignant, I'm guessing most kids won't understand the context for most of these images and quotes. Not that it matters all that much - Franny's story can be read without paying a bit of attention to the nonfiction stuff. And perhaps the images and quotes will be sufficiently exotic, enigmatic, and even sinister to evoke a mood of the times without total understanding being necessary.

Perhaps the best way for kids to get the maximum enjoyment and appreciation from this book is to read it during or after a unit on this time in American history. (Do 5th-grade teachers even get to this decade? I seem to remember that my teachers never got very far into the 20th century before the school year ran out.) It's too bad in a way that Franny isn't portrayed as older - maybe 14. I think slightly older teens would appreciate some of the societal issues in this book, but won't be as interested in 11-year-old Franny's story.

I hope librarians give this to teachers and parents as well as to kids. Luckily, it's an attractive package that will appeal to all ages - the 45 rpm record on the cover has a rubbery ridge to it, and the end papers are also ridged, or in fact almost corrugated. My 19-year-old started flipping through the book solely because she liked the look of its stylish gold and black cover.

This is the first of a planned three-part series on the 1960's. Recommended for ages 11 to 13.

Review of The Cardturner by Louis Sachar

Sachar, Louis. The Cardturner. Delacorte Press, 2010.

I'm sure if I'd been keeping up on my blog reading, the mystery of this cover photo would have been explained to me. Does it have ANYthing to do with the story at all? Not that I can figure out.

Alton's parents force him to take a summer job driving his old, blind, and very rich great-uncle Lester to and from bridge games and being his "cardturner" - as Lester is blind, Alton tells Lester what cards he has and Lester tells Alton what to play. He learns to like bridge, his irascible uncle, AND young Toni, Lester's protegee. Thanks to what can only be called the strength of Lester's personality, even death cannot stop him from winning the bridge tournament of his dreams.

Verdict: Can bridge be as thrilling and involving to read about as its devotees say it is to play? Yes and no. I know nothing about bridge, and I quickly became fascinated by the quirks and complexities of the game, its players, and its culture. However, as a non-player, I couldn't follow many of the plays described in such loving detail, try though I might. I just didn't have a good enough grasp of the game. Luckily, Sachar provides a handy symbol denoting when things are about to get technical (a whale, symbolizing the meticulously described whaling ship passages in Moby Dick). It's not that I skipped these passages; in fact, I tried all the harder to concentrate on them. But I fear I could not fully appreciate them. Will your average teen? I'm guessing not.

Will it matter? Probably not. Like the slightly younger teenage boy in Perkins' As Easy As Falling Off the Face of the Earth, Alton is a likable guy whose keen powers of observation belie the rather blank exterior he presents to the world. He seems to like to appear clueless - and in fact he IS clueless about some things, or at least willfully naive. Why can't he see what a jerk his best friend is? At least Alton does understand when he himself has been a jerk - and he is refreshingly respectful of his cool little sis.

Because this is a book about bridge, there are lots of grown-ups in it, most of them quite old. There aren't too many fully realized, richly portrayed old folks in YA literature, so Lester, his bridge partner Gloria, and all his bridge buddies are a breath of fresh air. Even if only sketched briefly, these folks are authentic and a pleasure to meet.

The only exception to these excellent portrayals are those of Alton's mom and dad. We are expected to believe that two shallow, spendthrifty, obnoxious, money-grubbing parents are responsible for raising two fine kids like Alton and his sister. It just doesn't make sense and feels like something out of a bad "funny" teen movie.

I'm very curious to find out whether this book finds an audience with teenagers. Have any of you had any direct feedback from someone under, say, age 20 who has actually read The Cardturner?

Recommended for ages 14 and up, whether you skip whales or not.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Rats on the Roof

I hadn't realized how noisy my neighborhood was until yesterday, when I was ill and took to my bed for most of the day.

Here are the loudest things around my house:

1. My four hens, which kick up an outrageous ruckus every once so often that would make a band of screaming banshees sound tame.

2. Little Dog Teddy, my annoying canine next-door-neighbor. Yap yap yap yap yap yap yap YAP YAP YAP!

3. Crows. All day long, and so ubiquitous that I have almost stopped hearing them.

At night, things quiet down. Even Teddy eventually goes to sleep. But about a week ago...

Scritch scrabble scrabble scritch! It came from almost right over our heads. My husband and I stared up into the dark without saying anything. I know my husband was thinking about wires being gnawed until the sparks fly and the entire contents of our attic being chewed to shreds.

Being a children's librarian and (not to mention the happy owner of four healthy, sweet pet rats), I had happy images of industrious ratties, perhaps wearing bonnets or kerchiefs and aprons, fluffing up blankets, feeding their darling little ratlings, and going off to find bits of food and nesting material. Domestic bliss, in other words. Their scritchings sounded so safe and cozy!

Then again, I also thought of Otis and Sophie Dog from James Marshall's Rats on the Roof:

"Otis and Sophie Dog had just tucked themselves in for the night when the sound of little dancing feet and shrill muscial instruments reached their sleepy ears.

'Oh no!' cried Otis. 'We've got rats on the roof!'"

My husband, like Otis, is stressed out by the whole thing. But I don't mind those little critters up there in the roof. I'll take them over Little Dog Teddy any day.

Laura Miller kicks into high gear

Laura Miller knows how to talk about books and reading. And just when I was thinking I hadn't read anything by Laura Miller recently, I find not one but two articles by her on youth and books.

The first, in Salon, is called "Book owners have smarter kids." Really, the point of the article is that studies have shown that children with books in the home tend to do better in school and are less likely to drop out. Although Miller sets up a strange either/or relationship between owning books and visiting bookstores and libraries - "As homey as a bookstore or local library branch might feel to you or me, they can make other people feel insecure, out-of-place and clueless" - the truth of the matter is that access to print is the most important factor. For a good report on this topic, read America's Early Childhood Literacy Gap.

Miller also has an article on dystopian fiction for youth in the current New Yorker - "Fresh Hell." This is must-reading for anyone interested in fantasy, science fiction, and/or teen fiction. There are plenty of insights and comparisons, making this a good, meaty read.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Review of Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

Marchetta, Melina. Finnikin of the Rock. Candlewick, 2010.

Like many of my fellow fantasy fans, I'm just mad about a book with a sword on the cover. Even when the sword has only the most tangential role in the overall plot, there is something so gleaming and heroic about a finely wrought blade.

However, it does get a bit confusing when one reads two sword-emblazened novels in a row, without stopping to review the first one before starting the next. Not that there's much similarity between the two books, except for certain familiar fantasy themes of conquest, conspiracy, and magic. Still, I have to shake The Red Wolf Conspiracy forcibly from my mind to focus on Finnikin.

The land-locked kingdom of Lumatere, peopled with fiercely loyal and intertwined clans and ruled by a beloved royal family, is conquered by treachery, wracked with five days of unspeakable violence, and then cursed by its most powerful witch. 10 years later, no one has been able to leave or enter Lumatere. What is happening within its boundaries is a mystery to the hundreds of exiles who live in miserable camps in Lumatere's surrounding kingdoms.

Most exiles have given up hope of ever returning home. Even Finnikin, who was just a young boy and the son of the captain of the King's Guard when the unspeakable happened, doesn't believe it's possible to return to Lumatere; instead, he and his mentor, Sir Topher, travel the kingdoms of the Land of Skuldenore, tallying the exiles in their camps, trying to improve their situation, and seeking a new piece of land the Lumaterens can call home.

But then a strange and very stubborn young woman named Evanjalin joins Finnikin and Topher, and she has a dream - that the remaining survivor of the Lumatere royal family will march back into Lumatere, accompanied by the captain of the King's Guard and other luminaries of that long-lost kingdom. That everyone thinks the entire royal family is dead and that Finnikin's father Captain Trevanion is in the worst prison in the land are no obstacles to Evanjalin, who will do and say anything to get what she wants. Who is she, and can she be trusted?

This is one of those fantasies in which the best scenes are those in which the characters, who initially don't trust each other (and for very good reasons), gradually, warily get to know, and even to respect, one another. All the folks in this book have been roughly treated by fate, some more than others, and they are scarred inside and out. Despite this, most of them keep striving not just to survive but to thrive, and this makes characters like Evanjalin, the young and obnoxious thief Froi, and the vilely mistreated Lady Beatriss both complex and fascinating. Finnikin himself is a heroic and rather uncomplicated character - but getting to know all these other folks helps him to grow in understanding and depth.

The Lumaterens both inside and outside the enchanted mist that surrounds the kingdom have faced starvation, plague, deadly attacks, rape, and other despicable acts of violence and terror. The hope and faith - in a royal family, in magic, in the Gods, in each other - that keeps people going is a theme that runs throughout this novel.

It's a restless novel, full of constant journeying from here to there in this small, slightly claustrophobic, but extremely diverse land. That such completely different kingdoms, with incredibly different languages, vegetation, climates, cultures, and ethnicities can lie so close together is a bit hard to swallow. On the other hand, European countries all lie smooshed together, and until relatively recently they were all very distinct indeed, thanks to the insular nature of pre-industrial life.

The themes in this novel aren't complex and there isn't any new ground broken. However, thanks to shining language, intriguing characters, and an unflinching look at the violence and indifference with which people often treat each other, this is a fine and worthwhile fantasy.

Recommended for ages 13 and up.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Sunday - 48 hour reading challenge

The 48 Hour Book Challenge is over for 2010.

Friday - 2 hours of reading
Saturday - 8 hours of reading; .5 hours of blogging
Sunday - 5 hours of reading

Total - 15.5 hours of reading and blogging

Considering how much Other Stuff I also managed to get done over the weekend (you know - chores, cooking, sleeping), I'm feeling pretty good about that.

Books read:

Finished The Cardturner by Louis Sachar
Began and finished True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff
Began and finished Miracle's Boys by Jacqueline Woodson
Began and finished The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
Began and finished Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson
Began and finished Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

Total - 5.5 books read

Many of these (all but the Sachar and the Marchetta) needed to be read or re-read for a committee I'm on. I'd been putting this off because my stack of new books is so tempting and tantalizing, but this weekend was the perfect opportunity to motor through those Woodsons, the Wolff, and the Selznick. And I'm so glad I did - great stuff deserves to be read again and again!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Saturday - 48-hour Reading Challenge

I'm doing much better than last year so far.

8 - 10 pm - finished Sachar's The Cardturner; started and finished Wolff's True Believer.

9 - 10 am - started Woodson's Miracle's Boys

noon - 3 pm - finished Miracle's Boys; started and finished Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret; started and finished Woodson's Locomotion.

4 -5 pm - started Marchetta's Finnikin of the Rock

6 - 8 pm - continued Marchetta's Finnikin of the Rock

8:15 - 8:45 pm - read kidlit blogs and wrote this post

Tally so far:
9 hours reading
.5 hours social media

I plan to read for at least 1.5 more hours tonight and then at least 5 to 7 hours on Sunday.

This was a good day! Besides lots of reading, I also did a couple errands, went on a long run, and did laundry - a nice balance.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Review of As Easy As Falling Off the Face of the Earth by Lynne Rae Perkins

Perkins, Lynne Rae. As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth. Greenwillow, 2010.

15-year-old Ry is on a train heading to summer camp. The train stops in the middle of Nowhere, Montana for no apparent reason. Ry gets off to stretch his legs and try for better cell phone reception, leaving his backpack on the train. Train leaves. Oops!

This book could be called Trains, Planes, and Automobiles (and Small Boats), because these are the various transportation methods Ry uses to try to get home again. Like all great road stories, this isn't about home itself but about the journey to get there. After all, when Ry finally does reach home (a brand-new home, to which his family has just moved), he discovers that no one is there, and so he must set off on yet another journey to round up some family members. No, this story is about being away from home, and the folks you meet and the things you see and learn while out in the big world.

Just about every character in this book is more or less lost and looking for home (or someone to call home). Ry's grandpa is having his own bewildering adventure, caused by a nasty bump on the head he incurred while walking Ry's dogs. The dogs, meanwhile, go home to find help - but then remember that they actually used to live in a different place, so they set off for their old home, hoping to find their humans there. Naturally, they're soon lost themselves, and their story is told comic-book style. Ry's parents are having some misadventures in the Caribbean, where their lack of set itinerary means that Ry can't reach them by cell phone. And even Del, the mellow, stubborn fix-it man and jack-of-all-trades with whom Ry travels, is a bit lost, though his heart's compass keeps pointing toward a certain woman on a certain small island.

What have we got between all these stories of lost souls who can't quite seem to connect with each other? There are strange characters (Carl, the half-blind man with numb legs who loves to drive stolen cars), hair-raising adventure (the episode involving Carl being a good example, but if you need another, try the duct-taped homemade airplane or the sinking sailboat), romance (Del and his gal), two fabulous dogs, and a narrative style rich with humor and fresh with quirk.

In short, this was one hugely entertaining read from start to finish. It's one of my faves of the year so far, breezy but also full of intriguing ideas about our relationships with people and places. That this is the experience of a lifetime for Ry is unmistakeable. That he'll always savor it, but be more than ready to move on and experience more of life is certain as well.

Highly recommended for ages 12 to 16.

By car, train, or underground

As Madigan of Madigan Reads points out, this pigeon decided that if you can't drive the bus, you might as well take the train.

In a very slightly related note (you know - traveling), my older daughter and I stopped off at Pismo Beach for lunch and a walk on the sand on the way home from Sacramento this past holiday weekend. I cannot think of Pismo Beach (much less visit it) without thinking of Bugs Bunny.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Interviews are just another kind of story

This should be the season in which eager library school grads hop happily from interview to interview. Unfortunately, while a few libraries are hiring, many are frozen solid and have been for a year or more, with no thaw in sight.

Although jobs are scarce, folks will want to keep their interviewing skills honed. The New York Public Library's blog has a post by Amy Armstrong on Five Questions to Get You Through Any Interview.

And for those potential children's librarians out there, remember that interviewing is like learning and telling a wonderful story. The main points are the same:

1. Decide on the story you will tell!

Is this a story about your flexibility and enthusiasm? Is it about your experience working with children? Is it about your customer service skills? Is it about your knowledge of cutting-edge technological issues? The story you tell depends both on your own talents and experience and on the position for which you are interviewing.

Remember - YOU know this is a story worth telling, full of interest and value, and your job is to figure out how best to convey it to your audience (otherwise known as the Interview Panel).

2. Don't memorize! But - be very familiar with your theme and major plot points and refrains. Don't digress.

All storytellers know that rote memorization of stories can really trip you up. However, knowing the basic plot of your story and all the important points to emphasize will ensure that you communicate effectively and confidently. Prepare by writing down your story theme (flexibility and enthusiasm) and then list bullet points, making sure that each one backs up your theme. Keep your outline brief - you want to sound confident and relaxed, not rehearsed.

3. Practice your story!

The more you practice getting your story across, the better you'll feel during the real interview. Write down practice questions, figure out the responses that will tell your story, and then have someone play the part of interviewer. If you're really brave, have someone video you so that you can check to make sure you are smiling, making eye contact, and not fidgeting, over-gesticulating, or talking too fast - all common errors for beginning storytellers.

4. Make sure the beginning and ending of your story are amazing!

The best thing about interviews? No matter what questions are in the middle, there is usually a question at the beginning that goes something like "Tell us why you are a good candidate for this position?" or "What experience or skills have prepared you for this position?" There's also always a question at the end along the lines of "Do you have anything else you'd like to add?" Make sure you've prepared a wonderful opening and closing, both of which should express and enhance your chosen theme.

5. Have fun!

The story you will tell during your interview is a story you know better than anyone. It's the story of why YOU are the best person for this job! So take a deep breath, relax, and smile as you tell your story. Storytellers know that if they are enjoying themselves, their audience probably will, too!

Good luck, grads! If my library system wasn't in a hiring freeze, I'd snap all of you up in a heartbeat!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Review of The Mysterious Howling (book 1 of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place) by Maryrose Wood

Wood, Maryrose. The Mysterious Howling (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, book 1). Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins, 2010.

As so many young and penniless but well-educated women have done in so many novels, 15-year-old Penelope Lumley takes the train on a journey toward a job as a governess in a grand yet mysterious house. Once she arrives, she finds that the children - and the job - are not quite what she had expected, the two brothers and their little sister having been raised by wolves before being "rescued" by Lord Frederick and his new wife Lady Constance.

Penelope's stalwart and creative response to the obstacles posed by this situation is just one of the many joys of this quaint yet fresh and lively book. The children are taught some English (spoken with a howling accent), some Latin, some poetry, and learn (with limited success) not to be driven into a frenzy by the sight and smell of squirrels. In short, Penelope makes tremendous progress in just a short time, aided by the children's natural goodness, intelligence, and excellent senses of humor.

All is not well, however. Lord Frederick is overheard making several rather ominous remarks about the children's fate. Lady Constance gets drunk at her own huge Christmas party. And several of the male guests seem to think there is going to be a hunt later in the evening - a hunt that they seem to think will involve the three children.

What is Lord Frederick's plan? What is the origin of these three mysterious children? Who released that squirrel right in the middle of the Christmas party, causing pandemonium? And what is making that strange noise behind that attic wall?

The tone is a piquant combination of earnest, old-fashioned, sly, and tongue-in-cheek. The narrator is clearly of our times, mentioning such modern things as plastic-wrapped meat in supermarkets, and yet this book feels like Jane Eyre and every other 19th-century Sensible Young Governess novel rolled into one - with a zesty sense of fun that those older books sometimes lack. Kids may not recognize all the tropes, but they will love this book never-the-less. Who could resist the three howling siblings with their endearing pronunciations (they call their governess Lumawoo - which sounds annoying but isn't, I promise) and their enactment of the "'Wreck of the Hespawoo.' A poem by Longfelloo," during which young Cassiopeia lashes herself to a potted fern while her brothers rather thrillingly portray the bowlegged captain and the stormy night?

The illustrations, appropriately rascally, add plenty of appeal. And there's still some huge mysteries unsolved at the end of the book, promising a sequel that will be published in March 2011 (argh...! too long to wait!)

Tremendous fun for most kids ages 9 to 12, as well as Gentle Readers of all ages.

And here's the videwooooo! (which doesn't have NEARLY enough howling)