Sunday, November 28, 2010

Review of Front and Center by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Murdock, Catherine Gilbert. Front and Center. Houghton Mifflin, 2009.

I feel a little guilty reading these 2009 books when I should be frantically catching up on 2010. After all, the ALA award announcements are just a little more than a month away, and it sure is embarrassing not to have read the Newbery or Printz winners.

On the other hand, this title fairly leaped out at me from the library shelves. Having loved Dairy Queen and The Off Season, I couldn't believe I had missed the third in the trilogy. And having just read an interesting but rather grim zombie (er, I mean "undead") novel, I needed a bit of light and wonderful teen fiction.

D.J. is a junior at her small high school in a small Wisconsin town. When she isn't playing basketball, milking cows, missing her ex-boyfriend Brian, or agonizing about which college to go to, she's worrying about how her desire to be part of the background keeps making her unhappy. See, not only does it keep her from having fun when out with new friends, but it also means that all the big 10 universities that are courting her for their basketball teams are freaking her out. I mean - the pressure! People expect big stuff from D.J., and she doesn't want to let anyone down.

As her many fans know, D.J. is a straightforward jock of a girl who would much rather shoot a jillion hoops than get all introspective or angsty. But life is complicated, and so D.J. has to do some deep thinking about herself and other people - and it's so fun to watch her figure stuff out. She is self-deprecating, and yet she manages to express herself well in a folksy, simple, yet affecting way.

My ONLY complaint about the book is that the photo on the jacket looks nothing like my idea of D.J. But that's a tiny quibble. If you're seeking realistic YA fiction with a strong, unusual, and extremely likable heroine, this is an excellent trilogy. If you listen to the audiobook editions with narrator Natalie Moore, you're in for a treat - she does a fine Midwestern accent.

Highly recommended for ages 12 and up.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Review of The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity by Mac Barnett

Barnett, Mac. The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity (#1, The Brixton Brothers). Illustrated by Adam Rex. Simon & Schuster, 2009.

This was published last year, but better read late than never, especially as it features secret ninja-like Librarians with a capital L.

12-year-old Steve Brixton is a big fan of the Bailey Brothers detective novels, a fictional version of the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mysteries, not only reading them but taking much of their wisdom about detecting and derring-do to heart. But when a visit to the library plunges him into a sinister web of mystery and intrigue, Steve and his chum Dana discover that much of the advice in the Bailey Brothers' Detective Handbook, from using disguises to how to land a "haymaker punch," doesn't really work in real life. Luckily, Steve has wonderful luck, a stalwart chum, and bones apparently made of rubber, as he keeps falling from great heights.

Steve's faith in the dated, stilted Bailey Brothers novels and handbook to teach him everything he needs to know about detecting is hilarious, both because it's clearly misguided and also because, strangely, everyone he runs across, from criminals to policemen, takes it for granted that he must be a detective, even though Steve himself insists he's just a kid. There's something delightful about adults taking his ludicrous mail-order Bailey Brothers detective license seriously and saying things like "You private eyes are all the same. Too good for us regular police - until you get into some real trouble, that is. Then you come crying to us for help."

The wild and improbable adventures (including being chased by a bookmobile, being trapped in a library by those ninja Librarians, being locked in the hold of a boat, and much more) are reminiscent of classic kids' mystery series, as are the short and choppy sentences and self-consciously corny dialogue. Excerpts from the Bailey Brothers' Detective Handbook add a bit of old-fashioned flair, as in "The Bailey Brothers aren't just ace detectives and terrific students - they're swell athletes, too!"

Rex Adams' drawings were created digitally but look just like the retro pen and ink drawings in a typical Hardy Boys book; all that's missing is a roadster or coupe (as the boys get around on bicycles). The endpapers are sprinkled with small illustrations of Steve and Dana being chased by a giant bird and parachuting away from a mid-air explosion.

I don't know if kids will understand the goofy allusions to the Hardy Boys, but it seems certain that they will be as charmed by the humor and adventure in this first installment of the Brixton Brothers series as I was. Now I'm ready to read #2, The Ghostwriter Secret, which came out last month.

Recommended for kids ages 9 to 12.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Read with Janet and Mark

LA Times columnist and blogger Carolyn Kellogg has a series called School Reading, in which she asks authors about books they read as students.

In today's column, Mary Cappello (author of Awkward and the upcoming Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration, and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them) waxes intense about a book from the Dick and Jane series, which holds an enduring fascination for her because this was the first book she ever read.

"The book's red ball, my red ball, was like Helen Keller's water pump and well," she says. Every little bit of this book was entrancing to her, including "a lock of hair (a ringlet or flip) and the pie crust ripple of an ankle sock...I also have a vivid memory of hyphens...The hyphens were just as mesmerizing to me as the letters."

In 1969, California schools adopted the Janet and Mark series by Mabel O'Donnell, and that series, rather than Dick and Jane, is what I remember reading in 1st grade circa 1971. I remember very few specifics about the series, except for an episode in which Mark loses his library book or something of that sort; this resonated, as my mother was a librarian. Otherwise, I remember being both puzzled and attracted by the exotic suburban setting and tone of the books. I didn't know any children who resembled the neatly clad, rosy-cheeked Janet and Mark, and their mom and dad were even more alien. Their mom wore GLOVES!! My mom wore a hand-crocheted bikini. The streets of Janet and Mark's town were mostly empty except for a few smiling passersby. The streets of my town were festooned with graffiti and thronged with hippies, winos, skateboarders, Holocaust survivors, poets, and flocks of somewhat grimy children.

Apparently my brain was being warped by sexist, racist rhetoric even while I marveled at Janet and Mark's smooth and clean lives. It's a good thing I was busily sucking up all manner of diverse reading material at home, or I might have grown up to wear aprons and gloves.

Mary Capello sounds so intelligent and eccentric in Kellogg's interview that I will certainly read Awkward and Swallow. Best of all is her last paragraph, when she is asked what book she would assign first graders.

"If I were teaching a similar class today, I'd bring students into a room filled with books and let them find the one that called to them. Their choice would be equivalent to their own mysterious relationship to the world."

Lovely! I do believe Capello might be a librarian at heart, and certainly she must be a true book addict.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Review of Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Forge. Atheneum, 2010.
In the sequel to Chains, Curzon takes up the story of what happened to Isabel and him after their hair-raising escape from New York City. After a few months together, Curzon finds himself alone and on the run, and almost immediately (and certainly unintentionally) he becomes a soldier in the 16th Massachusetts Regiment of the Northern Continental Army of the United States of America.

This is an integrated regiment, and Curzon's fellow soldiers are a mostly young, friendly bunch (with one notable exception). After spending a hideous winter at Valley Forge, the approach of spring brings hope - until Curzon runs into his former master Bellingham. Bellingham, who had agreed to set him free, reneges on his agreement and forces him back into slavery as his house boy. Surprisingly, Isabel is also a household slave of Bellingham, and together they plot their escape.
Except for that last bit of credulity-straining coincidence, this is a smooth-flowing, quick-paced, extremely satisfying novel. Curzon is a hugely likable chap, with a fine sense of humor and intelligence to match Isabel's own. Unlike Isabel, he isn't inclined by nature to be broody or angry, and so his narration is sprightly and fresh. In fact, although slavery, war, and Valley Forge are not light topics, the tone remains bouyant, reminding me a bit of Mark Twain or Philbrick's The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg (although a different time period, of course).
The details about Valley Forge are fascinating and horrifying. Soldiers went barefoot in the snow, had so few rations that they half-starved, and had to construct their own rough huts with insufficient tools. And yet Curzon loves being a soldier because he is doing it of his own free will and for a cause he believes in. It's only when he is forced back into slavery that Curzon is filled with a smoldering and almost uncontrollable anger.
As with Chains, the reader is plunged right into Curzon's world, circa 1777/1778. Even the typeface has a period look, adding to the verisimilitude of the experience - and yet there is nothing stilted or "old-fashioned" about this novel. It carried me along like a stable boat on a smooth and swift river, and when it ended (at another turning point for Curzon and Isabel), I jumped without pause into Anderson's fabulous, informative appendix.
We stil don't know the fate of Isabel's little sister Ruth, much less what will happen to Isabel and Curzon, so I'm waiting eagerly for part 3!
Highly recommended for ages 11 to 15.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Review of Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

Westerfeld, Scott. Behemoth (#2, Leviathan Trilogy). Illustrated by Keith Thompson. Simon Pulse, 2010.

In the follow-up to last year's Leviathan, Deryn (or Midshipman Dylan Sharp of the British Air Service, as she is known) and Alek (who happens to be the heir to the Austria-Hungarian empire) are only on the airship Leviathan a short time together before Alek decides it is time to escape into Istanbul. Deryn, meanwhile, leads a dangerous mission that lands her in the streets of Istanbul as well. Joining forces with a rebel group called the Committee of Union and Progress, they hatch a plan to wrench control of the Ottoman Empire away from the Germans.

There is, as Westerfeld notes in his afterword, some distinct resemblance to events that actually took place in 1914, including the names of German ships, the Orient-Express, the fascinating mash-up of cultures in Istanbul, and much more. But the steam-powered, mechanized Clanker culture of the German-speaking countries and the biological engineering of the Darwinists in Great Britain transform this into an imaginative and glorious Steampunk saga.

I made sure to read this (rather than listen to it as an audiobook, as I did with Leviathan) in order to savor Thompson's intricate illustrations, laden with metal pipes and gears and tentacles. The descriptions of life in Istanbul, which has been partially modernized by the Clankers and so boasts a library with quite an astounding mechanized method of finding and retrieving books (sort of a precursor to RFID technology), are fascinating; rich folks get around in strange steam-powered vehicles that boast six beetle-like legs instead of wheels.

Deryn has of course fallen hard for Alek and is tempted to tell him she's a girl, especially when a gorgeous, fierce rebel named Lilit appears on the scene. She retains her usual bluster and bravery, however, and remains the most vivid and wonderful character. Alek is still very idealistic and upright, but that's okay - we wouldn't want a potential ruler to be any other way, and luckily he has a sense of humor.

Second books in series or trilogies are often maligned as being "bridge books," short on action and long on either filling in the background or setting the stage for the third book. I find them very satisfying, however, because the reader is already familiar with the characters, the setting, and the world, and can immediately plunge right into the story. And so it was with Behemoth, which has so many details to ponder and relish.

The last book in the trilogy promises to take place in Japan, a Darwinist country in this alternate world history.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Video break

I'm too busy for a REAL post, but here are a couple videos that made me laugh.

First - the stars of Harry Potter attempt American accents (found on 100 Scope Notes):

And now "Gandolf Goes to the World Cup," starring our favorite noise maker (found on Charlotte's Library):

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Central Library is the place to be

Really, anytime (except Sundays and Mondays) is a good time to visit Central Library. But here are two reasons to drop by this Saturday, November 20:

1. The Friends of Children and Literature (FOCAL) are selling 2 gently used children's fiction books for the price of 1! Yes, 2 novels for the price of 1 - what a bargain (and they're super inexpensive to begin with). And a bunch of brand-new VHS movies are selling for only $1 a piece. Nov. 20, 10 am to noon, in the 2nd floor rotunda.

2. Hang out downtown for a while (maybe take the Dash to Olvera Street or MOCA), then come back for a performance of Belinda and the Glass Slipper, part of our Performing Books series. You'll hear the book read aloud, but will also see it acted out by 2 ballet dancers, accompanied by a pianist. Performances at 2 pm and 3 pm in the Taper Auditorium on the first floor.

See - could a Saturday get any better?!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Review of A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

Gidwitz, Adam. A Tale Dark and Grimm. Dutton, 2010.

A brother and sister, Hansel and Gretel, are born to a king and queen (and this is a tale in itself). Their happy childhood is, however, brought to an end when (due to one of those Grimm fairytale dilemmas) their own loving father chops off their heads. They are brought back to life, but, as they can't stomach the idea of having parents who would chop off their own children's heads, they run away.

Their journey is a dark and bloody one, meandering as it does through one lesser-known Grimm tale after another. Even the familiar tales (such as Hansel and Gretel) have an unfamiliar sinister, nasty edge to them, as Gidwitz is basing them on the original Grimm tales and not the sanitized ones that we know (and those can be creepy enough). People die in horrifying ways, including a great many innocent people of all ages, Gretel chops off her own finger, Hansel turns into a were-creature and is skinned alive, and so on. Blood flows, drips, and forms puddles. There is much agonized screaming.

Hansel and Gretel undergo awful travails, but what is most distressing to them is the constant disappointing behavior of the adults around them, starting with their own parents. Even when adults aren't actively trying to hurt the siblings or someone else, they can't seem to keep anyone from harm or to solve any problems. Hansel and Gretel are forced to take matters into their own hands again and again, while the weight of their bitterness and anger grows even as they become experienced and wise.

Our storyteller introduces these stories to us, warning us that they are dark and violent, and continues to break in occasionally with admonitions to get any little children away before reading the next part, comments on the story, and a couple of pointers on pronunciation. This running commentary is fairly common in both grim stories about children (as in A Series of Unfortunate Events) and in a certain type of fairy tale-derived fantasy (as in Frances O'Roark Dowell's Falling In), and it can be snarky, cutesy, or generally intrusive. Luckily, this particular prone-to-interruption narrator won me over with comments that are amusing, informative, and even insightful.

A reader may wonder what is the point of all the blood, violence, and general unhappiness in these tales and in Grimm's tales. Why must the characters go through so much hell (literally, in this case) to get to a happy ending? Our narrator says in the introduction, "It is the story of two children striving, and failing, and then not failing. It is the story of two children finding out the meaning of things...(I)n life, it is in the darkest zones one finds the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom." Life can be vile, in fairy tales and in reality, and it is up to each of us to make our own stories. It's not fair, but sometimes bad things happen to good people. In fairy tales of the grim, Grimm variety, this happens an awful lot, and lessons can be learned.

The fallibility and imperfection of adults, even one's parents, is one of those lessons. Though most kids don't have to learn the way Hansel and Gretel do, it's a shock nevertheless. And children do realize, despite the best efforts of their well-meaning parents to shield them, that nasty things happen in the real world. As readers of Bruno Betelheim know, reading bloody fairy tales is a way to portray a fictional, magical version of our violent world that children can think about and process in a safe way.

Why must the stories be quite so bloody? As our narrator himself asks at the end, "What did all of this mean - these strange, scary, dark, grim tales? I told you already. I don't know. Besides, even if I did, I wouldn't tell you. You see, to find the brightest wisdom one must pass through the darkest zones. And through the darkest zones there can be no guide. No guide, that is, but courage."

I'm tempted to see in these stories an deliberate attempt to thwart our over-protective culture that keeps children inside and away from all danger, real and imagined. The author says in his acknowledgments that he himself had to learn "to trust that children can handle it. No matter what "it" is." Gidwitz may well be saying that children need to be allowed to explore and take risks so that they can grow and learn, something Michael Chabon has written about as well, bemoaning the loss of the "Wilderness of Childhood."

I agree that most older kids will handle these tales just fine. Bloody as they are, they are also imbued with wisdom. Highly recommended for kids ages 9 to 13. (hey - the narrator does warn us repeatedly about the especially nasty parts, so faint-hearted readers have only themselves to blame)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Adult Librarians - a dying breed at LAPL

We're in the midst of a fascinating and unsettling situation here at the Los Angeles Public Library.

Thanks to ongoing City budget woes, we haven't hired any new librarians for about two years, so we haven't been able to fill holes caused even by normal attrition. And then about a year ago, an Early Retirement Incentive Program was approved, which encouraged over 100 retirements, mostly from the supervisory and administrative levels, by May 2010. In June, about 160 LAPL employees were laid off, including 20 librarians.

As a result of this severe pruning of our workforce, we eliminated two of our open nights and all Sunday hours at all agencies last April, and in July we eliminated Mondays as well, leaving us open only 5 days a week.

Here's where it gets interesting. Back before all of this, the professional staff at a typical branch consisted of one branch manager, one adult librarian, one young adult librarian, one children's librarian, and one more half-time librarian (who might be adult, YA, or children's, depending on the branch).

Thanks to our leaner workforce and shortened hours, that professional staff has been cut back - now the typical branch must have just one branch manager, one young adult librarian, and one children's librarian. A few larger or busier branches might have a bit more staff, including perhaps an adult librarian, but in general the adult librarian positions have been eliminated, as well as almost all the half-time positions.

Ah, but there are still plenty of librarians inhabiting those eliminated adult and half-time positions!

Bluntly put, those adult and half-time librarians must make a change.
  • If there is a children's or YA vacancy in their own branch, they may choose to take that position.
  • If there isn't a vacant children's or YA position but the adult librarian has seniority over the children's or YA librarian in that position, the adult librarian may "bump" that librarian. The bumped children's or YA librarian must then interview for a vacant position in another branch.
  • If adult librarians don't wish to remain in their previous branch, they may interview for a vacant position.
  • Same thing goes for half-time librarians - except that since they aren't allowed to become full-time right now due to the hiring freeze, they must inhabit half of a position, leaving the other half vacant and available for another half-time librarian.
What all this means is that a bunch of adult librarians have bumped children's or YA librarians in their branches, a bunch of children's and YA librarians have been displaced and will be interviewing for children's and YA positions in other branches, and some adult librarians will also be interviewing for positions (children's, YA, and the very few adult positions available).

Interviewing will take place through the end of this month, selections will be announced in the beginning of December, and all librarians will start in their new locations and/or positions on January 3.

Now - if you were a life-long adult librarian who became an adult librarian precisely because you did NOT want to be a children's or YA librarian, would you be happy right now? Probably not. I'm figuring that there are at least a few worried, scared, annoyed, and downright angry and resentful adult librarians out there in LAPL-land, dreading January 3 with all their souls.

On the other hand, there well may be a few adult librarians who are thrilled (or at least cautiously optimistic) about the prospect of joining the ranks of dedicated children's and YA librarians. After all, it is undeniable that we have the most fun (even if we do work the hardest as well). And if I do say it myself, our Youth Services coordinating office pretty much beats the pants off all the other departments.

Still, I have to acknowledge that there will be a bit of unwillingness, some negative attitudes, and quite a bit of ignorance about early literacy, teen advisory groups, manga, storytime, and on and on. I'm rather worried that some of these soon-to-be children's and YA librarians don't even seem to like or understand kids and teens.

My challenge is to provide these librarians with the training, the resources, and the motivation to do their new jobs well. The skills and knowledge are easy to impart, but the enthusiasm and missionary zeal that we dyed-in-the-wool children's and YA librarians feel about our jobs will be a harder sell. I don't want a bunch of half-hearted librarians serving this City's children, teens, families, teachers, and caregivers. Good service matters, now more than ever.

I plan to draft all our excellent, experienced children's and YA librarians (at which ever branch they end up after the Great Migration) to help me train, mentor, and encourage their new youth services colleagues. It's going to be an exciting and energizing challenge.

Bring it on!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Iron and steam

I haven't yet managed to get to Scott Westerfeld's Behemoth, the sequel to his 2009 Leviathan - but this sweet Steampunk post whet my appetite.

A few weeks ago, NPR aired a segment on Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl's duo The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, in which Ms. Muhl named the Victorian age and the Steampunk aesthetic as being major influences on the themes in their songs.

Steampunk's influence is everywhere. Cakes, songs - and miniature trains at the LA County Fair.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Dominican Study - valuable, but not enough

In the November issue of School Library Journal, Carole Fiore and Susan Roman summarize the findings of the Dominican University's Graduate School of Library and Information Studies 3-year study on library summer reading programs. Called Proof Positive: A New Study Shows That Summer Reading Programs Boost Student Achievement and Combat Learning Loss, the article states, "...we can confirm what many librarians have log suspected: students who take part in their local library's summer reading program significantly improve their reading skills."

There are several wonderful aspects to this study. First of all, it followed students from 11 schools in 8 states, giving it a more universal flavor than many similar studies. Second, it tested the students (all going into the 4th grade) with the Scholastic Reading Inventory assessment tool both at the beginning and end of summer to determine if in fact the students' reading skills rose, declined, or stayed the same.

Here are three of the findings of the study, quoted from the executive summary:
  • Students who participated in the public library summer reading program scored higher on reading achievement tests at the beginning of the next school year than those students who did not participate and they gained in other ways as well.
  • While students who reported that they did not participate in the public library summer reading program also improved reading scores, they did not reach the reading level of the students who did participate.
  • Students who participated in the public library summer reading program had better reading skills at the end of third grade and scored higher on the standards test than the students who did not participate.
This sounded great to me when I first read it, because it seemed to prove what I wholeheartedly believe - that children who read not only don't suffer reading loss but actually make gains, and that library reading programs can play an important part in encouraging children to read over the summer.

But then I read this in Fiore and Roman's SLJ article:

"Parents of summer reading program participants used the library more often, had more books at home, and offered more literary activities at home (such as reading with their children, visiting the library frequently, and providing Internet access) than parents whose kids didn't sit in on summer reading programs."

Library summer reading programs are fabulous, but of course they didn't necessarily cause parents to read more to their children and so on. In fact, it's findings like this one (and also the one above about summer reading club participants scoring higher on tests than their non-reading club peers at the beginning of the summer as well as at the end) that diminish the overall usefulness of this study.

As the authors of the article note in a section at the end called "Study Limitations," the participants of the study were self-selected. That is, there was no control group. Or to put it in the words of the study itself:

The design of this study was causal comparative, which is that student participants were not
randomly assigned or randomized between attending/not attending public library summer
reading programs but instead independently decided to participate or not participate. The
treatment condition of program attendance was not manipulated by the evaluation team. The
treatment condition of the study was the exposure of student participants to the public library summer reading programs at the partner public libraries, as selected by participants’ families.

I would argue that kids who take part in the summer reading program are already predisposed for the most part to be readers. Their parents encourage them to join the club and to stick with it, and while I am certain that reading programs might well spur them on to greater feats of reading and that they are obtaining fabulous books to read that they wouldn't necessarily have access to if they weren't in the reading program, it's possible that these "library kids" would read even if they didn't join the summer program. Their parents believe in the importance of libraries and have made books, reading, and libraries part of their lives. It's a no-brainer that those kids score higher on tests both before and after summer reading club. This study does not prove that summer reading programs cause a rise in reading scores; rather, it proves that library users tend to have higher reading scores in general, and that could well be because they belong to families that value reading and so have books in the home, bring their kids to the library, read to their kids, and so on.

Which of course points to the important role that libraries play for these families. And there is no doubt that libraries, by providing a literature-rich environment for all families, rich or poor, can and do play a role in leveling the playing field.

What I would like to see, however, is a study that follows children who are NOT library users and have never joined a library summer reading program. One half of the kids would continue on as they always have and not join the program, while the other half would join and participate for the first time. One assumes that the test scores for both groups would be much the same at the beginning of the summer. The question is - would one summer of library reading program make a difference in reading scores at the end of summer?

Libraries' role in raising reading scores is much greater than just encouraging reading during the summer. To have the greatest effect, we need to reach families when their children are very young, or not even born, and convince them of the importance of making books, reading, and the library a part of their children's lives from birth on. If parents read to their babies, toddlers, and preschoolers regularly, those kids will take to reading like ducks to water and will come to the library over the summer, not because they need to be encourage to read but because they need fuel for their book addictions.

The Dominican study is important, but it doesn't go far enough in the role the library summer reading program can have for NON-library users. I agree with all of Fiore and Roman's "calls to action" in the article, and most particularly with the statement that librarians need to team up with teachers to "...identify nonreaders and under-performing students, reach out to them, and draw them into the library," to reach out to families and caregivers, and to spend special attention on creating programs that attract boys.

In addition, there are no doubt summer reading programs that are more effective at encouraging reading than others. The study purposefully didn't address this, but it would be a fascinating basis for a study. What works? What doesn't? Immersed as I am in designing our 2011 program, I'd love a little research on this.

One thing is certain. The more you read, the better you get at it, and you're more likely to read if you can find a book you enjoy. So there you have it - a worthy role (one of so many) for librarians to play all summer and throughout the year!

Review of Keeper by Kathi Appelt

Appelt, Kathi. Keeper. Atheneum, 2010.

The beginning of this book finds 10-year-old Keeper and her dog BD on a very small boat in the middle of the night, scolding 10 crabs and waiting for the tide to rise so that she can free the boat from the pier it's tied to. Why is she on the boat? Why is everyone so mad at her? And what on earth do those crabs have to do with anything?

From that moment in time, the story begins swooping and spiraling, sometimes back in time a little to that morning before everything got ruined, sometimes way back to when Keeper was a little girl, or even farther back to when Keeper's ancient neighbor Mr. Beauchamp was a teenager in France, before catching up to Keeper again and taking her out to sea on that little boat. This indirect, circling-back narration is much like the flight of a crooked-winged seagull named Captain, who can't fly straight at something but must curve around to it.

The cast of characters is small, and each one of them has his or her unique history and part to play. White-haired, even-keeled Signe is Keeper's astonishingly young guardian, Dogie is the young proprietor of a local surf shop housed in an old bus, Meggie Marie is Keeper's long-absent biological mother (and possibly a mermaid), and Mr. Beauchamp is an old man who has never quite stopped hoping to be reunited with his long-lost love. And then then are the non-human characters, who (as anyone who has read The Underneath knows) are just as important as the human ones - the dogs BD and Too, the mysterious one-eyed cat Sinbad, the even more mysterious Jacques du Mer, and my own favorite, Captain the seagull.

Though the backgrounds of these characters couldn't be more different, the 10 years they have spent all living in the same sparsely populated region of the Texas coast has woven their fates together in some strange and unpredictable ways - and when Keeper frees some crabs that were meant for a very important gumbo, she sets off a string of events that ends with a most satisfying Happy Ever After for all involved.

The narrative style varies a bit from character to character and chapter to chapter, sometimes employing those short, choppy, emphatic sentences that were so effective in The Underneath, sometimes filling up paragraphs with dense evocative prose. A few of the 120 chapters are so short that they serve as little poems, as in Chapter 91:

"BD. BD. BD. BD. Her heart thumped.
Keeper called and called and called. No BD.
Only a fin.

The narration gives Captain, strangely enough, quite a vast and baroque vocabulary for a bird who thinks about food with 90% of his brain and about his friend BD with the other 10%, and whose only spoken word is "c'mon!" Not only does Captain (or the narrator, rather - but still, it's clear that this is what is going through Captain's head) twice quote the poem Jabberwocky by exclaiming "calloo callay!" but his love for watermelon inspires this passage: "...his favorite, his most beloved, his all-time highest exalted sublime most delicious stultifyingly extremely wonderful marvelous fantastic yes yes yes: watermelon!"

Sometimes this kind of self-conscious language breaks the mood or splashes a bit of cold water in the reader's face. That "calloo callaying" seems downright silly to me, given that it's a seagull who is saying it - a seagull brimming with brio and personality, it is true, but not one that has read Lewis Carroll. And some other stylistic decisions seem mannered, as when Keeper (or the narrator on her behalf) spells out words periodically for emphasis, something that happens in the first few chapters and then is dropped for some reason. Or maybe it continues and I just didn't notice because by then I was fully immersed in the story.

That's the thing about Keeper. All that circling and swooping, all those characters with their small contributions that end up making one intense story - these serve as threads that draw the reader further and further in. By the satisfying and happy ending, I was fully committed, heart and soul, and so of course needed to blow my nose and wipe my eyes. The emotions of Keeper and Signe, and of Mr. Beauchamp, are so masterfully drawn that I defy you to stay unmoved.

And August Hall's artwork is a lovely complement to this tale that is anchored in reality but has some supernatural elements swimming in the depths. The jacket art, with Captain's wing providing white space for the author and title, is particularly compelling, but I am also fond of the drawing of a fierce Signe holding young Keeper - all the love that Signe feels for Keeper is there.

So - despite finding some of the narrative quirks not wholly successful, I'm recommending this highly for ages 9 - 12.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Underdressed and overwhelmed

"You'll be the only one in jeans," my mother predicted as we drove toward the Skirball Cultural Center, the venue for the 2010 Children's Literature Council Fall Gala.

I'm not sure why I forget every year that this tends to be a somewhat dressy occasion, though it's probably because, despite the word "gala," this event takes place in the morning and features a breakfast. Somehow, getting dressed up for a breakfast is something that goes counter to my soul. Also, I had just spent the whole week wearing skirts, pantsuits, heels, and even pantyhose, and now it was a Saturday - finally! - and I was taking four hours vacation after the Gala. And anyway, these were not some faded, holey jeans, but my "dress" jeans, in a trouser cut.

I felt underdressed.

Mind you, I wasn't the only one in jeans, but that was because when asked about the dress code by several folks who were attending the event for the first time, I said, "Oh, these are children's book lovers - anything goes!"

According to a librarian at my table, the Gala took place at night way back when, which I assume means in the 60's and 70's, before morphing into a lunchtime and then finally a breakfast event. Ah ha! "Gala" makes much more sense paired with cocktails than with bagels and orange juice.

But I digress. The breakfast was lovely, in a large room sprinkled liberally with (well-dressed) children's book authors and illustrators, librarians, teachers, and children's literature fans of all stripes. Discussion at my table ranged from the best locations for ALA conferences (New Orleans and Chicago won out) to predictions on the next Newbery winner (well, there weren't actually any predictions - but several of us opined that if The Strange Case of Origami Yoda wins, we will rejoice.)

Well fed, we made our way to the auditorium, where Jacqueline Woodson gave her keynote speech. Ms. Woodson is WAY at the top of my Favorite Authors list, and consequently I was too shy to say hi. "Your books rock my world" will be all I can say if I ever get up the courage to talk to her. Anyway, I forgot to take any notes on her speech and so can only say that she is as warm and intelligent as her books, and quite hilarious as well (Hope Anita Smith, who was there to accept the Myra Cohn Livingston award for her Mother Poems, kept raising one arm in exuberant testimony throughout the speech.) She was wearing a skirt (curse my jeans! curse them!) and a pair of boots that I instantly coveted.

Then there were some fine acceptance speeches from Marla Frazee, Hope Anita Smith, Mary Pearson, Andrew Smith, and Kathleen Krull - and then my dear ex-colleague Maureen Wade accepted the Dorothy C. McKenzie Award for Distinguished Service to the Field of Children's Literature (whew) for her 20-year work with our GAB volunteer program, which trains adult volunteers to read with children (for fun!) at the library. Woot woot! We love you, Maureen!

Since I seem to be obsessing about clothing today, please take a look at Ms. McKenzie's eye wear. Are those cats-eye glasses not FABULOUS?

After the gala, my mother and I toured the Noah's Ark exhibit. This is a must-see, people. If you live in Southern CA, get yourself over to the Skirball and check this out, with or without a child. It's magical, and if it doesn't transport you to a child-like state of wonder and joy, I'll be most surprised.

The moral of this story is that mothers tend to be right about matters of a sartorial nature. But the lesson I'm taking away from the morning is that I'll be well-dressed as long as I sport a pair of kick-butt boots and some jeweled cats-eye glasses.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Manifestations of Magic

I've just finished reading and reviewing a fine middle-grade/middle school fantasy for School Library Journal called Small Persons with Wings by Ellen Booraem (Dial, Jan 2011). I disliked both the cover of the ARC and the title at first sight, but the story was sparkly, snide, exciting, and very, very funny - I'll be recommending a starred review.

It got me thinking once again about the nature of magic (this is something we fantasy readers do a lot). In Small Persons with Wings, the eponymous creatures possess a native kind of magic that is part of their very being, called Magica Vera. However, after learning a new kind of magic, the Magica Artificia, that allowed them to create amazing illusions, they (being rather extravagantly interested in the appearance of things) didn't need the Magica Vera anymore and so stored it in a moonstone. However - this Magica Artificia runs off a sort of generator called a Circulus, consisting of a bunch of Small Persons zooming around and around in a circle. Stop the Circulus, and the Small Persons can no longer draw on the power of the Magica Artificia.

The idea of magic being simply there for the plucking, with no consequences and no danger of the stuff running out, has always bothered me a bit. After all, magic is at least as useful and powerful, and quite a bit more dangerous, than most of our natural resources, and we take care to conserve those.

Diana Wynne Jones, though one of my favorite fantasy writers, is a bit too free and easy with magic for my taste, but still, her system makes sense. I see it this way - in her magical worlds (for instance, the one in which Howl's Moving Castle and its sequels take place), there is simply more magic all around than in our world. Perhaps it's a gaseous element that fills the air. It's available to use, at least in a limited way, by anyone who can cast a minor spell - and so, in the House of Many Ways, Charmaine's dad the baker uses spells to enhance his recipes. But there's only so much a regular person can do. It takes an extremely talented person to use the magic in really powerful ways, and these folks become wizards and witches. And so huge harm can't really be done by your average person - but what if a magically talented but unschooled or greedy young person accidentally misused magic? In fairy tales, they'd get a bunch of sausages stuck to their nose, and this is the sort of result that one finds quite often in Jones' fiction - but I can well imagine much grimmer outcomes.

In the Harry Potter books, the witches and wizards have a native talent for magic that I assume we Muggles don't have. Apparently it's mostly - though not entirely, as witness Hermione and others born to Muggle parents - genetic. I imagine this magical talent to be like a talent for music. We're all born with some kind of ability to enjoy and even make music, even if that consists of humming only - and most of us could be trained to sing or play an instrument passably and to learn quite a bit about music. Some of us will become quite accomplished, thanks to native talent, hard work, or both. And so it is for witches and wizards - all possess magical talent that is nourished and groomed because their whole world is built on magic. As for Muggles - we're like a bunch of tone-deaf unmusical dullards in comparison.

I am particularly fond of books in which magic functions like a force to which physics-like laws must apply. If you expend this much magic, it must come from somewhere - perhaps from the magician's own body (resulting in hunger, exhaustion, sickness, etc) or perhaps from someplace else. There needs to be cause and effect, because surely any force that is so powerful must affect something if it is used. The Shifter by Janice Hardy treats this idea with particular creativity.

And what about the magic of illusions as opposed to magic that truly changes the nature of a thing? The first might change a rock into a piece of pizza that looks, smells, feels, and tastes like the real thing. A skilled magician might even keep the illusion so real that you could actually pass the rock all the way through your body without ever realizing you were digesting a rock. But still - it's a rock, and you won't get any nutrition from it whatsoever. But to make the rock actually become a piece of pizza would surely be a powerful, disruptive, and costly piece of magic. Ursula Le Guin tells us, via A Wizard of Earthsea and other books, that magic does indeed have a cost and is not to be used lightly.

But does magic have to be so hard-won as in the Earthsea books (man, Ged's school is tough) or in the terrifying and thrilling Resurrection of Magic series by Kathleen Duey? Any readers who crave a magical boarding school after reading Harry Potter will find an antidote to that longing in Duey's Wizardry Academy from Hell (not its real name - but it should be).

Strange and eccentric magical powers and creatures are a joy to find. What could be more odd and delightful than the ability of Beka Cooper (from the series by Tamora Pierce) to hear dead souls carried by pigeons and to communicate with dust devils on street corners? There's no need to limit one's imagination - which is why those of us who read fantasy prefer it above any other genre!

At least we haven't had THIS problem at LAPL

(at least, not yet). Yikes!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Review of The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter

Potter, Ellen. The Kneebone Boy. Feiwel and Friends, 2010.

There is a subgenre of children's literature that needs a name. It isn't fantasy - there is no magic and the setting is contemporary. And yet once could hardly call it realistic, either, as there are usually credulity-straining events and an atmospheric tension. Could we call it Contemporary Gothic, perhaps? The Series of Unfortunate Events would be a prime example.

And here is another. The three Hardscrabble siblings (note the outrageous Dickensian name) live in Little Tunks (I would point out the absurdity of this name as well, except that there are far stranger English place names). Their mother disappeared 5 years ago under mysterious circumstances when oldest sibling Otto was 8. Lucia, the middle sibling, and Max, the youngest, hardly remember her at all. Otto, though, stopped talking when his mother left and only communicates through a unique sign language that he and Lucia created.

Their father, who makes his living traveling around the world painting portraits of deposed royalty, leaves suddenly on another business trip, and the siblings, after a series of mishaps and adventures, end up in the seaside town of Snoring-by-the-Sea, where their aunt Haddie is staying in a folly on the grounds of Kneebone Castle.

Mystery #1 - Why did the children never know they had an aunt Haddie? (they only found out by accident when they read a letter meant for their dad)
Mystery #2 - What happened to the children's mother?
Mystery #3 - Which of the siblings is narrating the tale?
Mystery #4 - Who lives at Kneebone Castle?
Mystery #5 - Who is the Kneebone Boy?
Mystery #6 - ...well, there are many more mysteries, the further along in this delightful and convoluted tale one gets. The reader will discover the answers to these questions and many more, including several extremely unexpected ones.
One question to which I didn't discover the answer (and more than likely I missed it, since I forgot that it was a mystery until I finished the whole book) is why cats swarmed all over the Hardscrabble household in a downright unnatural way. See? Almost a fantasy, but not quite.

Our narrator sprinkles the tale with plenty of Briticisms, commentary (usually snarky) on the odd characters the Hardscrabbles encounter, and fascinating glimpses at the interactions and relationship of the intense, intelligent Hardscrabble siblings - whom the reader gets to know well and like quite a lot. Although they are fiercely loyal, they squabble enough, and in a reassuringly normal way, to keep them rather down-to-earth. The narration also makes clear fairly early on just who our narrator must be.

This is one of those books that manages to feel both modern and old-fashioned. There are bits and pieces of Enid Blyton, E Nesbit, Edward Eager, and more (can it be a total coincidence that Ellen Potter's first name begins with E??) - and yet the brisk, knowing narration and fascinating characters (especially Aunt Haddie) have a contemporary edge.

This is a mystery that readers will absolutely devour, I have no doubt. And the jacket art appeal even to my choosy, stylish 16-year-old, who agrees with a character in the book that Otto is quite "dishy."

Highly recommended for ages 9 to 13.