Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Things that cheer me up

1. This avocado-and-sushi-rice Very Hungry Caterpillar

2. Getting a shout-out by Brian Kenney in the latest School Library Journal (about half-way through his editorial on reader's advisory)

3. Knowing that a copy of Mockingjay is waiting for me, whenever I have the time to get to it

4. Platelet levels are up! Take that, Big Bad Wolf!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Learning history from anime?

I've been hearing a lot of buzz about the anime series Hetalia: Axis Powers, which has been available online as a webcomic and anime series but will be released as a DVD on September 14th and as a manga series on September 21.

Turns out my 15-year-old has been obsessing about the series all summer. She came bursting into my room one evening, asking "Is Sealand a real country?" Strangely, this odd series has sparked in her an interest in WWI and WWII. She'll tell you a bit about Hetalia here:

And here is a tiny taste of the series - the ending theme song (Italy):

Wolves at the door

While I was able, a couple weeks ago, to be intrigued by the name of a loved one's newly diagnosed disease, I find that I am not able to be tolerant of even the tiniest aspect of lupus. Many days, complications, and odious medical procedures later, lupus evokes not quaint fairy tale wolves but rather a ring of slavering beasts encircling my worried but defiant family.

Our vocabulary has increased along with our stress level. A month ago, I couldn't tell you with any confidence what a rheumatologist, hemotologist, or nephrologist was, and now I speak with representatives of these medical specialties daily. Lupus nephritis, plasmapheresis, thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, and creatinine are just a few of the terms we sprinkle into our conversations.

Oddly, most of the doctors who visit the hospital room daily are astonishingly good-looking. Or perhaps we are just seeing them through a golden haze of hope. I imagine that the woodcutter who chopped open that hungry wolf looked pretty darn handsome to Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother.

Naturally, I've been plunging into books whenever possible. Although I've finished an enormous adult fantasy tome (Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven) and two YA novels (Karen Healey's Guardian of the Dead and Emma Clayton's The Roar), the two books I'm reading now have been most successful at distracting me. They are Ian McEwan's Solar and Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. Although these books couldn't be more different, they both feature 60-something modern-day Englishmen whose trials and tribulations provide a fine escape from my own.

One book I'll be avoiding for a while is Neil Gaiman's The Wolves in the Walls. Too close to reality right now.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Review of Stuck on Earth by David Klass

Klass, David. Stuck on Earth. Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010.

Most teens feel alienated at least some of the time, especially if they happen to be a bit odd or different, so when a highly intelligent snail-like being from another planet crawls up 14-year-old Tom's nose and takes over his body, no one notices much of a change. Ketchvar, the alien, has been charged with conducting a bit of research to ascertain whether humans are at all worthy of their own planet, or whether they should be exterminated so that a more evolved species in need of a new world can live on Earth instead.

Needless to say, Ketchvar finds much to horrify and dismay him, from the way humans have destroyed much of their planet, to the nasty way they treat each other (it happens that Tom is a frequent victim of the local bullies), to the depressing and dysfunctional nature of Tom's own unhappy family. Luckily, in the end Ketchvar finds reason to "believe there is hope for this benighted species."

While masquerading as Tom, Ketchvar never makes any attempt to adopt the vocabulary and speech patterns of a typical American teen, and so sounds quite a bit like Mr. Spock on a particularly pedantic day. Charmingly, no one seems to think this is very odd - apparently Tom, whom the bullies had nicknamed Alien long before Ketchvar crawled up his nostril, is one of those awkward nerdy types who can't help talking a bit like a computer. What folks do notice is that Ketchvar is quite a bit more mature and insightful than Tom ever was, which helps some situations and relationships while hindering others.

In one delightful twist, Tom is sent to the school counselor due, in part, to his stated belief that he is in fact an alien named Ketchvar. (Ketchvar sees no reason not to be honest about his mission, so long as he doesn't endanger it). After the counselor suggests that this belief is an "empowerment fantasy" used as a refuge to escape from constant bullying and abuse, Ketchvar begins to suffer an intense, teen-like identity crisis. What if he really IS a human teen who just THINKS he is an alien named Ketchvar? The reader, who has no similar doubts, will be relieved when in fact Ketchvar's alien identity is affirmed.

Both deliciously funny and rather touching, this view of a tiny, seething corner of Earth by an outsider who turns out to be anything but objective will resonate with most teens. Highly recommended for ages 12 to 15.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hungry like the Wolf

A family member has very recently been diagnosed with lupus, and amid all the questions, uncertainty, worry, and discombobulation, part of my brain has been mulling over the fascinating matter of the disease's name.

Lupus is Latin for "wolf," casting a dangerously exotic aura over its victims. Wolves have been maligned and feared throughout human history, but also revered as symbols of freedom, strength and courage. As entrancingly complicated icons, wolves are an intriguing namesake for this disease. I was hoping to discover some arcane and super-cool explanation for this (lupus sufferers get hairy during the full moon?), but the reality is pretty mundane. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, a 13th century physician named Rogerius thought that the skin lesions of some lupus patients looked like wolf bites.

Skin rashes aside, the word "lupus" conjures up all those hungry wolves in folklore and children's stories. There's that lurking wolf who menaces Little Red Riding Hood and her granny, the wolf with impressive lung power who manages to blow down two houses before meeting his match in the third little pig, the wolf who dabbles his paws in flour to impersonate a nanny goat in order to eat her kids, the Gunniwolf who is so lulled by a little girl's song that he can't stay awake long enough to eat her, and many, many more.

Hungry like the wolf
, indeed!

Curiously, these wolves are all solitary. We talk about "lone wolves" but aren't they pack animals? Isn't that why wolves are so terrifying to humans - they work together to bring down their prey?

Of course, wolves aren't necessarily solitary by choice, and certainly werewolves are often forced into secretive and lonely lifestyles by their inconvenient syndrome. Professor Remus Lupin of Hogwarts comes immediately to mind. Luckily, Jacob Black of the Twilight series demonstrates that werewolves can be happily social in packs of their own kind.

Folks with lupus don't have to go it alone, either - there are plenty of support groups. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, about 1.5 million Americans have some form of lupus - which I can well believe, as just about everyone to whom I've mentioned lupus knows someone with the disease. Even my dentist has lupus, as it turns out.

It's a tricky and complicated disease, as are most autoimmune disorders. Still, I prefer the name "lupus" to that of another autoimmune disease - Crohn's disease. I know how it's spelled and what it is - but still, every time I hear that name spoken aloud, I think of the old and wicked witches in fairy tales, the ones whose warted noses and whiskery chins almost touch each other. Both diseases are nasty - but let's face it, lupus has the cooler name.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Review of Happyface by Stephen Emond

Emond, Stephen. Happyface. Little, Brown, 2010.

Have you ever wished that you could just re-invent yourself? Perhaps, if you started over with people who didn't know the old you, you could be the sort of person you always knew you could be.

After Happyface and his mother move into a crummy apartment in another part of town, forcing Happyface to change schools, he has the chance to do just that - reinvent himself. And being unhappy with his previous situation, he decides to become a happy-go-lucky guy with an ever-present smile. It's better than being the guy that all that bad stuff happened to.

Hence his new nickname - Happyface. In fact, we never do get to find out his real name. And though he fills his journal with sketches of all his new friends, and includes himself in the drawings and cartoons, he draws himself with a huge happyface head.

Needless to say, his big smile and absolute refusal to ever talk about anything serious or give away anything of importance about his own life or thoughts keeps his new friends at a distance. Happyface sees himself as being an excellent friend, the kind that is always upbeat - and he's dismayed when he can't get close to anyone.

My two teen daughters, ages 15 and 19, liked this book more than I did, but that's probably testimony to its extremely authentic feel. While I thought the interminable and repetitive dwelling on trivial conversations and small slights was annoying, my teens were fascinated. This is how teens are - stuff like that is what the very fabric of life is made of.

Happyface does, of course, finally realize that his approach to friendship has had the effect of keeping everyone at arm's length, and his friends' reaction to him after he lets his guard down is gratifying while also quite realistic. I understood completely how pissed off his friends were, because I found that constant smile and stupid jokiness supremely off-putting. It was hard for me to really like Happyface, despite being privy to his private thoughts. He reminds me a little of the heroes in John Green's books, always pining after the most awesome, complicated, gorgeous girl. Puh-leeze.

But that's just my own bias. Two real live teen girls, both well-read and with great taste, really liked this book, and so it's a sure bet other teens will, too. And, this being a fine book, you might, too - so give it a try!

Recommended for ages 13 and up.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Review of Num8ers by Rachel Ward

Ward, Rachel. Num8ers. Chicken House/Scholastic, 2010.

This book practically booktalks itself. All you have to say is, "If Jem looks into someone's eyes, she can see the date they'll die. Sound cool? Maybe not so much. Imagine looking into a baby's eyes and seeing she'll only live to age 31. Or looking at a kid's eyes and seeing he'll die in three years. Or knowing that the only boy you've ever gotten really close to will die in just a few days. You don't know how. You don't know why. You only know when."

If that doesn't get a teen to whip out her library card and take this book home, I don't know what will. Try throwing in the fact that Jem is something of a lost cause (drug-addicted mom who died of an overdose, a series of foster families, behavioral problems) who no sooner lets her guard down with a super tall, lovable, fellow lost cause named Spider than they are both on the run, accused of blowing up the London Eye. Gritty urban teens sleeping rough in the countryside while chased by England's entire Anti-Terrorism unit - this is a very bad situation, but kind of romantic, too.

Until you remember that Spider only has days to live. Doomed love, indeed.

Funny, surprising, touching, and absolutely, intensely gripping. Jem's voice is authentic and immediate, and Spider is one of the best characters to be found in YA fiction. And the ending is a chiller. This is one of my favorite books of the year.

Highly recommended for ages 13 and up.

Go, Ged!

Do you ever find yourself wondering what would happen if Tally Youngblood and Katniss Everdeen were to duel? Then don't miss the YA Fantasy Showdown, happening now.

Monday, August 9, 2010

big sister, little sister

I just found this photo while browsing through some old albums (the kind you can put on your lap, with browning sticky stuff and plastic pages to keep your photos in place). That's my sister and I in the pool at my grandparents' mobile home park, circa 1974.

Can you guess which one is me? Yes, I'm the prim one with hands behind my back, staring in disbelief at my weird little sister. WHAT is she doing? WHY must she be so freaky?

The Ramona and Beezus movie is getting not too terrible reviews, but I'm still dubious. And it's because I was (and am) an anxious, earnest, dorky older sister - a Beezus to the core. And my sis was a Ramona - can't you tell from the photo? I was appalled as a child at what seemed to be her inherent amorality, just as Beezus was furious when Ramona takes one bite from every single apple in the basket (because it's always the first bite of an apple that's the best).

My sister now a talented and esteemed public defender, by the way. And she has two children - an intense, occasionally anxious older daughter and a smart, wild, and crazy younger son. Yep - she's got a MALE Ramona!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Review of The Shadows by Jacqueline West

West, Jacqueline. The Shadows. (The Books of Elsewhere, book 1) Dial, 2010.

Shortly after 11-year-old Olive and her parents move into the old McMartin place, it becomes clear that this house is somewhat unusual. There are seemingly innocuous (but strangely sinister) paintings in which objects seem to move, a talking cat named Horatio, and a Very Scary Basement, to name just a few oddities.

The discovery of a magical pair of glasses allows Olive to enter the paintings, and imprisoned in one of them she finds a small and annoying boy named Morton. A much more dangerous person lurks in another painting, and when she is set free, the way is paved for an evil power to take back the McMartin house.

There are some similarities to Neil Gaiman's Coraline in this story. Because Olive's parents are mathematicians whose minds are on numbers and not always on their daughter, Olive is left on her own to explore her new house. As in Coraline, there are strange and unnerving parallels to the real world in the paintings Olive enters - in one, she finds a grim and shadowy simulacrum of her own street. Coraline was aided by a slinky and mysterious cat, and Olive has not one but three feline protectors (or are they allied with the Dark Side?). And like Coraline, this tale is imbued with spooky menace, especially when it comes to that basement, and there is a chance that Olive could become trapped in a painting and never get back to her parents again.

Unlike Coraline, The Shadows didn't get an unyielding grip on my collar. The tension ebbs and flows, with light moments providing some humor and quirkiness, and even the scary moments, though spookily atmospheric at times, are not super intense. This isn't a bad thing - I think the balance will suit many readers just fine.

The plot itself remains a bit nebulous, with plenty of inexplicable bits and pieces. If so many people went missing on Olive's street in the olden days, wouldn't someone have noticed? And what does the shadowy Bad One want, anyway, besides, of course, Absolute Dominion (bwah hah hah hah!)? It's possible that these questions and more will be answered, as more installments of The Books of Elsewhere are promised.

All in all, a very promising series debut for readers of magical fantasy, quirky stories, and spooky tales. Ages 9 to 11.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A beautiful relationship takes work

Back in the halcyon days when we had more money for programming, my library system had a wonderful project called "Meet the Author." Our Children's Services department put a list together of local children's authors and illustrators who would present a program in our branches, and funds were provided for each of our branches to host at least one author a year - or more, if they chose to use regular programming funds as well.

Since then, our programming funds have dwindled dramatically. Our Meet the Author list still exists and children's librarians can still choose to use programming funds for these author programs. The problem? Branches only get 2 or 3 paid programs a year, and authors don't draw nearly the audience that, say, a magician, a professional puppeteer, a live animal show, or a musician does. The competition is fierce, and our author list languishes.

The obvious solution for a children's book writer or illustrator who wants to connect with library audiences is to offer free appearances at libraries. Don't do it for the money (which is insignificant anyway unless you're Cornelia Funke or Mo Willems) - rather, do it for the chance to share your book directly with kids and parents.

Even free programs can be difficult to arrange, however. Librarians are more overworked than ever these days, and it takes time and effort to plan and promote a program, even if it's a free one. And getting an audience for an author program (again, unless you're Cornelia or Mo) can be really, really tough. Sometimes librarians just don't want to make the commitment.

It's time for writers, illustrators, and librarians to get creative! Here are my suggestions:
  • Authors and illustrators should expect to do more than just do a reading, explain the process of book creating, and then sign a few books. In fact, you probably won't be signing any books at libraries, because only for very big author events do we sell them.
  • Prepare a 30-45 minute polished, age-appropriate, fun presentation prepared. If you're a picture book author, build a whole storytime around your book's theme, with other books, songs, creative dramatics, a craft.
  • If you're a nonfiction writer, make the presentation about the cool subjects of your books, and bring along a slide show, objects, and activities.
  • Illustrators have it made in the shade - they can draw for kids, teach kids to draw, illustrate a story that kids write together, and more.
  • Middle-grade and teen authors face a slightly bigger obstacle, because library audiences will not necessarily have read their books or even heard of them. So here's your chance to win a bunch of new readers! Ask your librarians if you can talk to a kids' book discussion group or teen council, and use the opportunity to hone your book-talking skills. You could also talk to the kids about what they like to read and why, and get a whole discussion going. If you're really motivated, you could do a mini writing program.
  • Consider getting together with several other children's and teen writers in the community and offer yourselves as a panel to libraries. Librarians who are dubious about having just one not-very-well-known author will be quite pleased at having four, because the chance of getting a good audience just doubled (if not quadrupled).
  • Consider aiming your panel presentation at adults - teachers, parents, librarians, fellow writers, general children's and teen lit fans.
  • In general, you'll want to organize with other authors - there is strength in numbers. Thanks to the Los Angeles Young Adult Authors (the LAYAs), we're going to have middle-grade and teen authors making appearances at branches all over LA during Teen Read Week. These authors are doing this for free, and in return they'll get to meet librarians and kids, get a few of their books into the hands of kids (we'll be buying copies of their books for the branches they visit), and get publicity as we promote the program citywide. Plus they'll have my personal, undying gratitude.
  • Build up your own network of fans and followers, and invite them to your library presentations.
  • Consider making yourself available to libraries via Skype (try Skype an Author Network), chatting, or online conferences. How cool is it to talk with young fans while wearing your jammie bottoms?!
Most of all, don't give up on libraries just because you can't get your librarian motivated at first or because you gave a presentation that only drew one kid, one parent, and three library staff members. Librarians love authors and illustrators and we want to work with you. It just might take some creativity, teamwork, and patience to form what turns out to be a beautiful relationship.

P.S. If you are a Southern CA children's or teen author or illustrator whose books are already published or about to be published by an established publishing house - AND you are interested in making presentations for kids at libraries and/or our librarians at meetings - please email me at evasbookaddiction at gmail.com!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Authors and Librarians - One True Pairing

Today, I forced myself to perform that most odious of tasks. Kindly but firmly, I explained to an author by email why I couldn't add his book to our library system's collection. In a nutshell, it was because the book in question was self-published and, although it wasn't terrible, it had many of the hallmarks of a self-published book. The flimsy paperback format, the super-skinny spine lacking title and author, the absence of any CIP information, the computer generated illustrations, and the clunky text all demonstrated why going through the effort and agony of having your book published by an established publishing house is well worth it. As always, I recommended that the author join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

It's painful to reject the product of an author's blood, sweat and tears, especially because the authors are often so astonished. What?! Don't libraries put EVERY book on the shelves? Aren't they SUPPOSED to??

Well, no. While the word "censorship" is anathema to us, we do have standards and collection development policies, not to mention limited budgets, so we don't even add all the books of mainstream publishers to our collections, let alone the vast hordes of self-published books.

But still - it's hard for me to say "no" to authors. No one loves authors and illustrators more than librarians. They are our sun and moon, our true-life heroes and gods! Without writers past and present, my own personal life would be diminished beyond recognition, and my profession would be non-existent.

Given our druthers, we would build little shrines in our libraries to our authors, and when they came to visit us in the actual flesh, we would fling marigolds and money at them in delirious abandon, hoping for a blessing.

However, money is in short supply these days. Even an author who is well-represented in our collections may find that we can't quite cough up the dough to host him or her. In fact, the agent of a well-known children's and YA graphic novel author/illustrator has tried off and on for months to arrange a library visit with us while she's in the area for a week this October, but due to the combination of logistics, the fee (which, though an outrageous bargain, was still significant for us), and the worry that after all the work, we wouldn't be able to draw a decent audience, I was forced to give up and pass her on to a neighboring library system. I WANTED to have her (I'm a fan myself), but it just wasn't working.

The painful truth is that library audiences can be very unpredictable. Even a well-known and/or well-reviewed author, whose appearance the librarian has promoted high and low in the community, might draw just a handful of folks to a library program, a hideous situation that every librarian (and most likely, every author) has experienced and that has surely added to my own white hair count.

And if the author isn't well-known? Well, forget about it. Does a child or its parent have any interest in coming to an appearance of an author they've never heard of, whose book they have never read? Nope.

As much as librarians want to promote books and their authors to the kids and parents in their communities, they are often reluctant to waste scarce time and money on planning, promoting, and implementing author programs that attract a handful of people.

What is the answer? Tune in next time for...
Creativity, Flexibility, and Shared Passions to the Rescue!

Photo by Luis de Bethencourt

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Check back soon!

For several days,
A touch of Malaise
Has hindered jogging,
Sleep, and blogging.

I'm self-medicating with large doses of reading and will be back soon with posts on summer reading club, how libraries and authors can work together, and of course plenty of reviews.