Sunday, October 31, 2010

There were giants in those days

Seven of us youth services-oriented Central Library folks went out for drinks after work last night. We drank, ate pub fries, and regaled each other with hilarious and affectionate anecdotes of some of the larger-than-life librarians who retired in the past year. In fact, a major theme of the evening was the halcyon days of LAPL, when the Library Punch at holidays parties was spiked, when Fairfax and WLA branches had regular staff softball matches, when a branch might decide not to charge its needy patrons overdue fees and no one in Admin would notice, and when eccentricity and - more to the point - initiative and creativity were not only tolerated but celebrated.

This could have devolved into a pity party. 2010 has been one of the hardest years in LAPL's history, with retirements, lay-offs, and a hiring freeze leading to chronic staff shortages and reduced public hours. We all have increased workloads and responsibilities, and more uncertainty and turmoil are in the cards for the next few months.

And yet... our little group at Casey's Pub laughed, drank, marveled at the Librarians of Yore, and went home in (for me, anyway) rare good spirits. It reminded me that when I first began working at LAPL as a "student librarian," we were in dark times. The devastating Central Library fire of 1986 had destroyed much of that collection and rendered our historic building unusable, and all the Central Library staff had to be farmed out to branches. And then the budget woes of the late 80s/early 90s hit and we were slammed with a years-long hiring freeze and greatly reduced book budgets.

But we had fun! Sure, there were grim, inflexible, or downright scary supervisors ready to squelch us, but our institutional culture still had enough freewheeling flexibility (and staff members) left over from the 70s to allow for all kinds of weirdness and joy to flourish.

A great swelling of bureaucratic control and risk aversion over the next couple decades has led to a culture of distrust and cynicism among many workers. An uprising of hope when we got a new City Librarian was almost extinguished by the horrible budget woes that hit us over the past couple years. And now, as I said, we are overworked and facing a future as a newly lean and vastly altered library system.

Maybe it was my unorthodox but strangely satisfying dinner of Strongbow cider and fried potato wedges last night, but I'm feeling optimistic. Back in the late 80s, we took responsibility for our own sense of joy and accomplishment in our work. We didn't wait for Administration to make things easy for us, but rather worked hard and made time for fun, even if it had to happen after work. A sense of humor was practically a requirement for the job.

I start to hyperventilate when I contemplate the monumental tasks and challenges facing me, the Youth Services department, and in fact the whole library system in the coming year. But the very fact that we're going to have to be strong and self-reliant to even survive, much less flourish, makes me know we can do it.

The beleaguered, exhausted LAPL staff of the last few months is destined to be the next wave of glorious Library Legends. Our grace under pressure, our style and savoir faire, our unrelenting willingness to see the absurdity and humor in any situation - these will help us create a new LAPL that not only gives the best service possible to our communities but is actually an amazing and energizing place to work.

Less pity parties, more pubs! Celebrate the past, laugh at the present, and welcome the future!

And please, draw me another pint of that cider...

Friday, October 29, 2010

One kid's thrill is another kid's chill

NPR had a segment this morning on scariness in children's television and how, while producers of kids' tv shows want to thrill kids without terrifying them, sometimes one can't predict what will scare kids. A funny example was an Arthur episode in which one character describes what happens when you bottle up your feelings, and demonstrates by shaking up a bottle of soda. The other kids imagine Francine's head flying off and landing in someone's yard - which seemed silly and funny to the grown-ups creating the show but apparently super-scary to hundreds if not thousands of young viewers.

Children's librarians are well aware that some kids are more easily frightened by others, and as a result lots of us tend to go easy with our Halloween programming. My audience was usually quite young, so I stayed on the Plumply Dumply Pumpkin end of the scariness spectrum, and never got much scarier than an interactive telling of The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything - and even then I kept watching my audience to see if I should make my clomp-clomps and clap-claps goofy rather than ominous.

How lovely, then, to get to tell and read stories to older kids, who WANT to be scared! For them, it was always The Peculiar Such Thing and Sopdoll, and any number of other folk tales, told with maximum suspense and creepy sound effects.

But one can't always predict what will scare a kid. When I took my older daughter to Knott's Berry Farm, she did just fine on her first roller coaster ride on the "Jaguar". What really freaked her out, though, was the atmospheric lead-up to the ride, which took the line through a dimly lit, Aztec-like temple full of eerie noises. In fact, any dimly lit and somewhat mysterious place had her clinging to me in terror, even if it was a museum - this one in particular literally made her run for the door. Granted, it's a weird museum, but scary? I wouldn't have thought so.

We had a coffee table book of Life photos in the house when I was a kid, and I pored over it incessantly, even obsessively. The context for most of the photos was unknown to me, so I just took the photos at face value, aided (sort of) by the short captions next to each one. Some photos were obviously tragic and disturbing (dead soldiers), some were obviously funny (a baby with spaghetti on its head) - but some I couldn't interpret at all.

It strikes me as odd now, but this photo filled me with dread. The caption used the term "pied piper" and said that he was leading the children away - and I knew the terrible ending to that particular tale. What was going on here? The photo seemed light-hearted on the surface, but I sensed very dark and sinister depths and was chilled everytime I looked at it.

Kids can't quite distinguish between real life and fantasy until at least age 5 (and in my case much later - and in fact I'm not sure I've ever quite figured out the distinction) - so we need to be careful about sharing spooky books with young kids. But on the other hand, a child may shudder with fear at a story or illustration that would strike almost anyone else as innocuous.

So this Halloween, read and tell stories to little kids that are thrilling but not too chilling - and when in doubt, throw in a bit of humor and silliness, give kids a warning and an out ("this next story has a scary pumpkin in it that says 'boo!' - so if you hate pumpkins who yell 'boo!', you could cover your ears at that part"), or even talk with kids afterward about the story to let them relieve a little nervous tension.

Just please don't tell any stories about pied pipers.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Breakfast with Jacqueline

There's no better way to start the day than by breakfasting at the Skirball Center with dozens of writers, librarians, teachers, and fans of literature for young people, and that's what I plan to do on Saturday, November 6th. After breakfast, Jacqueline Woodson (Jacqueline Woodson!!!) will give a talk, and if that's not enough excitement, Marla Frazee, Kathleen Krull, Mary E. Pearson, Hope Anita Smith, and Andrew Smith will be receiving awards.

AND Maureen Wade, Librarian Extraordinaire, will be honored with the Dorothy McKenzie Award for Distinguished Service to the Field of Children's Literature.

AND there will be oodles of books to buy and get signed ('cause the holidays are right around the corner).

AND then attendees get to visit the Skirball Cultural Center exhibits for free (check out the Maira Kalman exhibit, among other nifty things).

If you're in Southern California, this is an event not to be missed. So get yourself over to the Children's Literature Council website and Sign up today!

Review of Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

Draper, Sharon. Out of My Mind. Simon & Schuster, 2010.

In 5th grade, things finally begin to change for Melody. Unable to walk, talk, eat without assistance, or control most of her movements thanks to cerebral palsy, she has been relegated to Special Ed classes for years. However, when she gets to go to music class and begins to meet some other 5th graders, her world begins to open up.

Although no one seems to be able to tell, Melody is really smart. Blessed with an amazing memory and an urge to suck in everything she sees, hears, and reads, all her knowledge and thoughts are just simmering inside of her, yearning to burst out. A special computer that enables Melody to communicate allows her to let her mind off its leash and experience a full gamut of 5th grade experience, including a Whiz Kids competition.

This book is all about the pleasure of listening to Melody's feisty, dry voice as she narrates her tale. The idea of being imprisoned in one's own uncontrollable body, unable to communicate even the simplest ideas, is a horrifying one, and yet Melody manages to portray her life in a matter-of-fact and even humorous manner. Her situation sucks hugely, as she will be the first to admit, but it's what she's always known. And she has what have to be the most awesomely patient and fabulous parents in existence.

Harder to take are the reactions of her classmates to Melody. Even the nice ones would rather not deal with her most of the time, and Melody knows that her occasional involuntary drooling, shrieking, and kicking are all pretty off-putting, not to mention that she can't speak. And yet the person inside is a composed, funny, warm, smart girl. The contrast is so great that even after she can use her computer to compose witty responses, her classmates can't quite believe that Melody isn't stupid. It's horribly frustrating and painful.

Some circumstances seemed a bit contrived - for instance, a dramatic and scary scene involving Melody's sister feels unnecessary, and the obligatory mean girls never rise above stereotypes - but mostly the scenes and characters feel warm and real. Melody may often seem wise beyond her years, but hey, she's had a lot of time to think and observe. And that sassy, eye-rolling humor and her penchant for slang land her back squarely and appropriately in tween territory. Is Melody black? I don't remember if it's ever explicitly stated. Sharon Draper is black, and Melody describes herself and having short, dark, curly hair - but no one's race is mentioned, that I can recall.

The jacket art is crisp and appealing (it reminds me of Cynthia Lord's Rules - must be the fish), the title, with its double meaning, is clever, and the story will grab most 5th graders. Highly recommended for ages 9 to 12.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Opera Dogs and more

If you're in the Los Angeles and want a great reason to visit Central Library, drop on by tomorrow afternoon.

We've got two Performing Books shows happening at 2 and 3 pm, and the featured book is The Dog Who Sang at the Opera by Jim West and Marshall Izen. A storyteller (Peter Kors), an opera singer (Heather Calvete) and a pianist (Linda Zoolalian) bring the story to life, accompanied by slides of illustrations from the book.

It's free! Bring along a kid and prepare to have a musical afternoon. And don't forget, parking is only $1 under the library with validation!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Eva Ibbotson

I just found out that Eva Ibbotson passed away yesterday at the age of 85.

She is one of those authors whom you feel you get to know well, just by reading her books. Her books, from the light yet satisfying fantasies like Which Witch and The Secret of Platform 13 to her historical novels such as The Star of Kazan and The Dragonfly Pool, are funny, wise, magical, and wonderful - and I'm sure that Ms. Ibbotson was exactly the same. I was lucky enough to be assigned several of her novels to review for School Library Journal over the years, and it was always a joy.

If you want a treat, go to the library or bookstore, choose any Ibbotson novel, and read it tonight - and then recommend it to a friend. That would be the perfect tribute to this fine writer.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Review of Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Bacigalupi, Paolo. Ship Breaker. Little, Brown and Company, 2010.
Nailer (who might be 14, might be 15 - he isn't sure) scrapes out a living by crawling through the ducts of old, long-wrecked oil tankers, pulling out copper wire and anything else valuable he can find for his crew. He and the rest of the ship breakers live day to day in temporary shacks made of found junk, hoping to survive to adulthood and beyond.

After a huge storm (a "city killer"), Nailer and his friend Pima find a wrecked clipper ship, which is the term for the light and incredibly fast ships that use sophisticated materials and technology to skim along the ocean's surface on hydrofoils. In the wreck is a girl named Nita, a "swank," who has lived a life Nailer can't even imagine. Against his better judgment, he helps her to escape both the people who have been chasing her and also his own dad, whose villainy knows no bounds - and this decision changes his life.

This is dystopian science fiction but it could just as easily, with some tweaks, take place today. Nailer lives in a Gulf Coast hit by city-killing hurricanes and flooded by rising ocean levels. Oil is a fuel of the past, hence the crippled, obsolete oil tankers, and in fact the earth has been stripped clean of much of its resources. However, the bare and harsh existence Nailer has lived since he was born looks a lot like that of a slum child in India or Brazil or many other third-world countries. Nita, the rich girl, would never call her world a "dystopia" - for her, it's a paradise until it turns upside down.

Nailer isn't always likable. Although he's obviously a good person, his brutal life has made him tough and pragmatic, and he doesn't always waste time being nice. And yet he's clearly so decent and even fragile (being young and not a psychopath) compared to those around him. Except for Nailer, we don't get much of an understanding of the characters, but most of them are fairly interesting and one in particular is fascinating - that of the intriguing dog-man Tool (yes, he's genetically altered), bred to be a loyal fighter bound to a patron but somehow fiercely independent.

This is gritty and violent SF, with little glamor or even advanced technology (except for those clipper ships and a fancy train). It feels much more realistic and likely than another drowned-Earth book, Raiders' Ransom by Emily Diamand (my review), in which the surviving citizens of England have formed clans that resemble something out of the Dark Ages. It's hard to read about the almost insurmountable rift between the millions of teeming masses barely able to survive and the few rich elite - especially since that situation does exist in our world today.

A bit of swash-buckling adventure on the high seas adds a final exciting element to this tale (not to mention giving characters and readers some welcome relief from the muddy, oily coastal setting we are mired in for most of the story), making this all the more recommended for ages 12 and up.

Note: This title is a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award in the category Young People's Literature

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review of Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce

Pearce, Jackson. Sisters Red. Little, Brown and Company, 2010.

Big sister Scarlett saved her little sister Rosie from a Fenris, or werewolf, when she was only 11 years old, but she lost an eye and gained many ugly scars in the attack. Seven years later, the sisters live to hunt Fenris, luring them with their lurid red capes and long hair to secluded areas, then fighting them to the death with well-honed knives and skill. Fenris, always men, prefer to devour young girls and women, the fluffier and more helpless the better, and the sisters want to save as many girls as they can from that fate.

Except Rosie is not quite as dedicated to the hunt as is Scarlett, especially when their good-looking neighbor and fellow Fenris-hunter Silas comes back from a long trip to California. Silas and Rosie begin to see each other as more than old friends, just when a huge influx of Fenris to their part of Georgia signals that the werewolf packs are looking for a Potential in the area - a boy or man who is ripe to be "turned." The three Fenris-hunters don't know who this person is or what makes a man a Potential - but Scarlett is determined to prevent this Turning from happening, and of course to kill as many Fenris as possible in the process. A move to Atlanta puts them right into the thick of things, and Scarlett goes into a frenzy of hunting while Rosie wonders if there could possibly be more to life than killing Fenris - like maybe falling in love.

Told from both sisters' points of view in alternating paragraphs, this is an intense, violent, and often gruesome story. The obvious parallels to the traditional Little Red Riding Hood tale add a bit of poignancy to the tale but also result in a too-literal re-interpretation of certain elements of the story that sometimes raises questions when the reader should be fully immersed in the unfolding events.

The red capes are excellent, and I'll buy the red names of the sisters, the fact that they lived with their Grandma, and the fact that Silas comes from a family of woodsmen. The all-male Fenris and their single-minded desire for succulent young girls and women strikes me as an oversimplified interpretation of the meaning of the wolf in the traditional tale, but I'll roll with it, especially since it's so supremely satisfying (if utterly unbelievable) to watch Scarlett and Rosie kicking major werewolf butt over and over.

I did wonder, however, why there are so many Fenris swarming all over Georgia. Surely, with all those attacks on young women that leave them pretty much just shreds of left-over flesh, someone would notice. And why are the Fenris so uniformly gorgeous in their human form? I won't reveal what makes a Potential, but it's rare enough that the Fenris can't be choosy about the looks of the guys who join their ranks. And why does Scarlett assume that there are only three Fenris hunters in the whole world? You'd think she'd go on the Internet and see if they could recruit more.

Okay, I get that it's a parable of sorts, but the thing is, the setting and characters are modern and realistic enough that these pesky questions do arise, and for me at least, they intrude into the tension of the story. But still, the tension does stay pretty high, the writing is smooth, and the emotional interplay between Rosie, Scarlett, and Silas is intriguing without detracting from the action. This tale is a must for fans of urban fantasy of the gritty, decidedly non-Faerie variety. And the jacket art is fabulous.

Recommended for ages 14 and up.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Review of The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

Yovanoff, Brenna. The Replacement. Razorbill, 2010.

My 16-year-old daughter is frankly incredulous that a fabulous fey creature like herself could have come from such conventional, plodding stock as her father and me. Although she hasn't actually claimed to be a changeling, I think that, deep down, she believes it.

I, on the other hand, was a clumsy and awkward teenager whose wish at all times was simply to be invisible (or to be outrageously beautiful and self-confident, natch, but that wasn't happening). Too tall, too skinny, too hairy, too blotchy - elbows too pointy, knees too knobbly, nose too pointy, chin too small, veins too visible - my god, I was a MONSTER!! Or so I was convinced.

16-year-old Mackie is also convinced of his essential wrongness. "I feel weird and freakish and pointless..." he says, and in fact he has good reason - other than being a teenager - to feel that way, being the real, honest-to-goodness changeling that he is. As a baby, he was placed in Malcolm Doyle's crib, the real Malcolm having been stolen by... those others. And so Mackie grows up like a cuckoo in the place of the human Malcolm, pale and black-eyed, unable to stand the sight or smell of blood, actively allergic to iron, and unable to enter consecrated places.

What makes this such an unusual and intriguing story is the fact that the Doyle family is not only fully aware of what Mackie is, but is determined to protect him and keep him safe. His minister father, his mother (with a strange past of her own), and most of all his sister love him despite the fact that he is not human and has replaced their own flesh-and-blood.

The whole town of Gentry knows what Mackie must be, but there is some pretty serious denial going on, particularly when you consider that there have been plenty of children going missing or dying over the years. Everyone knows what that they are living a creepy, unmentionable contract - in return for some of their children going missing (to be replaced by creepy creatures that usually die quite soon in this hostile iron-rich, human environment), their town will thrive - or at least, it won't die as so many neighboring towns have.

The story starts strong and just gets more intense, as Mackie meets his people for the first time and begins to get to know life under the mound. Although he is intrigued, he is appalled by the blood sacrifice demanded by one powerful ruler and by the acceptance of this by all the other creepy but non-bloodthirsty denizens of this underground realm. For the first time in his life, Mackie feels compelled to take a stand - and it's one that forces him to redefine "monstrous."

This is an eerie, deliciously shudder-inducing tale, filled with complexities and nuances that will keep readers pondering life in Gentry long after they finish the book. As fascinating as Gentry's hidden Folk are, what is most compelling is the strange way the humans of Gentry incorporate this knowledge of the Unnatural into their normal, everyday existence - going shopping, playing football, hanging out the laundry, but hanging iron horseshoes over their doors and scissors over cribs as well. And never, ever talking about it.

That Mackie is actually a very lucky Monster will be obvious to most readers early on, but doesn't occur to Mackie himself until later; he is blessed with a truly amazing family and some intensely loyal friends. They stick by him even when he feels most alienated, and they help him to understand what being a person (even if not a human) really means.

Perhaps one day soon my own little changeling will see the value of her own lumpen but loving family!

Highly recommended for ages 13 and up.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

National Book Award finalists

Oh, for Pete's sake! Just what I need - more proof of how hopelessly behind in my reading I am.

The 2010 National Book Award finalists have been announced, and I've only read one of the books in the Young People's Literature category (One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia)and one from Fiction (So Much for That by Lionel Shriver).

Can we please add about 2 hours to each day, just for reading?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Chompo bar for my sister

On a long run, I always carry a Clif bar in case of hunger pangs. As the bar becomes squeezed and misshapen in my sweaty grasp, I always think about Russell and Lillian Hoban's A Birthday for Frances.

Frances, although conflicted about her little sister Gloria's upcoming birthday, uses her allowance to buy Gloria a Chompo bar and four bubblegum balls. All the way home from the store, Frances ponders the goodness of Chompo bars and the fact that Gloria is awfully young for that kind of candy, and meanwhile she pops the bubblegum balls in her mouth and squeezes the Chompo bar harder and harder. Gloria does eventually get that Chompo bar, despite more bouts of anguish on Frances' part, but only after even more Chompo-squishing in Frances' hot little paw.

I have a little sister of my own, and although I don't remember being jealous of her on her birthdays (perhaps knowing that mine would be coming only a month later), I was certainly aware of my duty as big sister to do what I could to tame a bit of that irrepressible, busting-out-all-over Little Sister personality. And my sister is a Leo, too! The danger to humanity was extreme. I'm convinced that my occasional necessary squelching of obnoxious little sister behavior helped make her the confident, well-adjusted, and decent person she is today.

It may be big sister Frances who is the exuberant main character in that wonderful picture book series, but often it's the little sisters who star. A book I pored over again and again as a child was Sarah's Room by Doris Orgel and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, in which little sister Jenny yearns to be allowed access to the glories of her big sister Sarah's room, with its pretty wallpaper, dollhouse and tiny treasures. I would never have scribbled on the wall as Jenny did, but on the other hand I was in awe and admiration at Sarah's tidiness - and so I identified, as readers were meant to, with young Jenny - who proves that she is capable of growth and change. Even big sisters can feel the frustration of being too young.

In Beezus and Ramona, the main character is clearly big sister Beezus, whose frustrations with little sister Ramona the reader feels strongly, but as the series continues, the focus turns to Ramona's thoughts and feelings, turbulent as they are. I read and re-read these books with total absorption, despite the fact that Ramona was often as perplexing to me as she is to Beezus. On the other hand, Ramona is often mystified herself by her overwhelming emotions and urges. That Ramona wants to pull on a classmate's boing-boing curls, just to watch them sproing, I can imagine. To actually DO it - well, that's a little sister for you. But it's brave Ramona who, in desperation, throws her own shoe at a scary dog blocking her path on the way to school, and then has to spend a day at school with only one shoe. That's little sister pluck. I was and am Beezus, but that Ramona, mysterious and volatile, has my heart.

Big sisters may do a bit of little sister squelching, for the good of humanity, but they are often fiercely protective as well. I just finished The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff (review coming soon), in which a big sister's love and protection of her strange and unnatural little brother ensures his survival in a hostile world. And in Sisters Red by Jackson Pierce (the book I'm reading now), Scarlett saved her little sister Rosie from a brutal werewolf attack as a young child, and can't stop protecting her even now.

During a family trip to the Grand Canyon many years ago, my older daughter was terrified whenever her little sister got within 10 feet of the edge, convinced that in typical little sister exuberance, she'd somehow manage to topple into the Canyon. She worries about her even now. "She reads too much fantasy. If she read more realistic books, she'd know what happens when you do dumb stuff," my older daughter said to me earnestly, pointing out that in YA books, risky behavior is often followed by unwanted consequences. "She doesn't even realize all the bad stuff that can happen."

Or, being a little sister, she is simply less risk-averse. Or perhaps I should say that little siblings in general are more prone to behavior that others might find odd. After all, it was not sensible big brother Peter but rather his little brother Fudge who ate Dribble the turtle in Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

My sister never ate a turtle. But even if she did, I'd still give her a Chompo bar for her birthday or any time, with only a bit of squishing for extra luck and love.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Review of Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm

When her mom gets a job as a live-in housekeeper with a lady who doesn't like kids, Turtle has to spend the summer with her aunt and cousins down in Key West, Florida. She hangs out with a bunch of boys who are members of the Diaper Gang (they watch babies in exchange for candy), meets a couple of relatives she never knew she had, searches for pirate treasure, and hopes that someday her dreams of living in a cute little house with her mom will come true.

It's 1935, and from the first page the reader is plunged into a world of Necco wafers, Ford Model As, and dusty travelers. But it isn't just a bunch of Depression-era term-dropping that brings the era alive, but rather the way that Holm uses Turtle's spunky narrative voice, the wise-cracking dialogue of the Diaper Gang, and all kinds of details large and small to great effect. In our over-protective world, it's down-right exotic to hear how these young and dirty boys haul babies around with casual and careless abandon, while the babies' moms are just happy to have some peace and quiet, and would never dream of being worried. And the snappy comebacks of the kids, especially Turtle and her cousin Beans, are reminiscent of some of the edgier Our Town episodes.

It's not that this is fiction of a hugely realistic sort. The tone is a bit too off-hand, there are a bit too many funny bits and pieces, and of course there's the matter of that pirate's treasure, not to mention a certain very famous writer. In fact, this is very much like a 1930s movie (maybe a Shirley Temple movie but without the sickly sweetness or Shirley Temple). And I mean that in a good way. For instance, there's a fabulous fairy-tale ending - but then disaster strikes. But then it all works out anyway, and much more satisfactorily! One can only sigh contentedly, as after a funny but touching movie.

I do believe that kids will find this blend of adventure and light slice-of-life quite entertaining, and the back matter, with true stories and photos about Key West and Holm's ancestors, adds even more value.

Highly recommended for ages 9 - 11.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

SoCal YA authors for Teen Read Week

An intriguing and eclectic group of YA (and some middle-grade) authors will be making appearances at 14 branches of the Los Angeles Public Library in just over a week!

Teen Read Week is fast approaching, so study this list to find out where to find Cecil Castelucci, Mark London Williams, Heather Tomlinson, Michael Reisman and 16 other talented authors during the week of Oct 18 - 23.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Review of The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman

Shulman, Polly. The Grimm Legacy. Putnam, 2010.

Elizabeth's mother read Grimm fairy tales to her when she was a young child, and Elizabeth's life has become something of a Grimmsian tale itself, what with her mother dying, her father remarrying, a new task-master stepmother, and two selfish older stepsisters. She is ripe, therefore, for the wonders of The New-York Circulating Material Repository, where she is hired as a page, and in particular its magical Grimm Collection.

The concept of a library that lends out objects - historical, rare, valuable, or simply interesting - is exotic enough, but to lend out magical objects seems to beg a whole host of problems. Sure enough, Elizabeth and her teen-aged fellow pages are soon embroiled in a dangerous search for the entities who are stealing powerful magical objects from the Grimm Collection.

Being an ordinary Muggle-type schmo with no magical ability whatsoever, I find fantasies about magic that can be worked by anyone, regardless of innate magical talent, to be rather alluring. While a wand from Ollivander's would open no doors for me, no matter how many times I shouted "Alohomora," the stick from the Grimm tale "The Raven" would open any door I (or anyone else) hit with it, no questions asked.

Which raises plenty of questions about how easy it would be for this kind of magic to become common-place. Knowledge has a way of spreading, so if a piece of yarn, knotted and muttered over in a certain way, protected someone from magical harm, wouldn't every teen suddenly know how to do this, the way they all seem to know how to make a friendship bracelet? And if there really were magical objects that could be used by anyone, they'd all be in the hands of rich and powerful folks. Which is of course the point of the Repository - to protect these objects while still allowing their use - but I can't help but think that this protection is mighty slim, particularly taking into account the folks who know about the Grimm Collection and all the other mind-boggling special collections at the Repository.

That is all rather beside the point, however. This tale is a imminently readable blend of a contemporary urban fantasy (and with no faeries, vampires, or werewolves!) and a timeless Austen-esque romance in which the girl won't admit to herself that the guy who has been irritating the heck out of her is really the man of her dreams - or at least fine boyfriend material. There is danger and intrigue, and if Elizabeth's family members remain absolutely one-dimensional and stereotypical, that just proves how really fairy tale-like they are. This is a charming fantasy - AND it has librarians and pneumatic tubes, making it awesome indeed.

Recommended for ages 13 and up.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ho ho ho

How did you spend your summer vacation? A small and dedicated group of Los Angeles Public Library (and ex-LAPL) folks spent June, July, and August reading and reviewing December holiday books for School Library Journal, in the hope that our reviews will help you spend those meager book budgets wisely and well. And hurray, there are some fine books to choose from this holiday season.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good pphhhbbbttt.... (which is how we all felt, dozens of holiday books later...).

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Review of The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

Angleberger, Tom. The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. Amulet Books, 2010.

The problem with a lot of really funny books is that they don't portray a version of life that is particularly realistic. Sure, they might be hilarious - but it's not as if one reads them thinking "oh man, that is just SO true" or "wow, did this author actually get inside my brain?"

How fabulous, then, to read a book that is not only extremely funny but is actually strangely close to matching my memories of junior high school, which was populated by more intensely strange and nerdy children than you would believe. In 1978, it was a brand new magnet school called the Center for Enriched Studies (now quite renowned and difficult to get into), and somehow it attracted ueber-dorky kids of all ethnicities (or rather, it attracted their parents). We didn't have our own campus, and therefore we spent the first three years on three different campuses (the first year, our classes were held on the grounds of the gorgeous Wilshire Boulevard Temple). We had no gym, no lockers, no cafeteria - but the classes were challenging and the teachers were first-rate. It was a nerd breeding ground.

What does this have to do with Origami Yoda? Everything! I knew kids just like Tommy, Harvey, Kellen, and especially Dwight. And you know, they were FUNNY. Yes, they goofed around and acted like fools - but they also did Yoda imitations, Monty Python imitations, were always ready with wisecracks and one-liners, and could be really hilarious. That's what this book reminded me of - hanging out and kidding around with the dorky guys at school (because the cool, good-looking guys were way out of my league, and anyway they didn't seem very nice OR funny).

Plot in a nutshell: Dwight, Inexplicably Weird Boy Extraordinaire, makes an origami Yoda, puts it on his finger, and gives advice and/or predicts the future. Strangely, the advice is often wise and has good results, leading Tommy and many other 6th-graders to wonder if the origami Yoda could be really channeling Yoda or another wise spirit. After all, Dwight is just too weird to come up with that stuff. Tommy and other kids take turns telling Yoda anecdotes, while sceptical Harvey weighs in with dissenting opinions.

These kids talk, bicker, and obsess just like those Center for Enriched Studies dorks of yore. All dialogue is startlingly authentic, as is the humor. Does the fact that I still find Yoda imitations funny mean that my sense of humor has never progressed beyond middle school? (I have driven my children crazy with this Yoda admonition - "No. Try not. Do... or do not. There is no try.") The illustrations are likewise very middle school-esque.

Best of all, there are some lessons learned, both of the small and inconsequential variety and the poignant sort. Dwight, of course, is the true hero of this tale. He remains an enigma, but as kids learn to look beyond the Yoda on his finger and really see him, they begin to understand what a complex and fascinating (if utterly unpredictible and still bizarre) person he is.

Highly recommended for everyone ages 9 and up. Read this you must.