Saturday, July 30, 2011

Review of Lexie by Audrey Couloumbis

Couloumbis, Audrey.  Lexie.  Random House, 2011.

Going to the shore is going to be different this summer for almost 11-year-old Lexie; her parents have gotten divorced, so Lexie will be going with her dad while her mother stays home.  Though it feels a bit strange and sad, Lexie is looking forward to both the shore and spending time with her dad - so when Lexie discovers that her dad has invited his girlfriend Vicky and her two sons as well, Lexie is not pleased.

This book isn't about Lexie's feelings about her parents' divorce, as she has clearly done lots of thinking about that already and seems, if not happy about it, at least resigned and perhaps willing to believe that it might be for the best.  Rather, it's about five people trying to figure out how they fit together during one week in a very small beach house. 

Lexie observes and interprets very carefully everything that the people around her say and do.  Although it's not stated, it's obvious to me that she has become, perhaps though months of watching her parents' marriage fall apart, extremely attuned to any sign of discord.  Within the first few hours of Vicky's arrival with 14-year-old Ben and 3-year-old Harris (or "Mack" as he prefers to be called), Lexie can tell that her father's lackadaisical habits, that so infuriated her mother, also bother Vicky - but that Vicky has different reactions to them.  And Lexie can also see how some of Vicky's parenting methods regarding Mack rub her dad the wrong way.  Will all this friction end up causing an argument?  Will Vicky and the two boys leave early?  Lexie doesn't want to share her dad with 3 strangers during this trip - but she doesn't want discord, either.

And as it turns out, Lexie begins to enjoy herself.  She's actually quite good at negotiating tricky interpersonal relationships - when Ben freaks out about a small sand shark, she carefully doesn't mention that they're fairly common and not dangerous, and she overcomes her distaste of Mack's eternally sticky, fuzz-covered hands in order to spend some time with him.  The situation is awkward - and gets more awkward when Lexie learns (from Mack of all people) that her dad plans to marry Vicky - but Lexie likes these people and just wants everyone to get along and feel at ease.

We get to know the characters through Lexie's eyes, and it's Mack who is the most carefully and lovingly drawn character.  Lexie becomes quite fond of him and even admires him for his calm single-minded pursuit of his passion - which is for vehicles.  In fact, Mack sees himself as a vehicle, and constantly emits a low rumbling engine noise.  Ben, as a teenager filled with contradictory feelings about his mom's romance, is a bit beyond Lexie's understanding but not her empathy.

The language is simple and a pure delight to read.  The insights are as meaningful for this middle-aged reader as they will be for 10-year-olds.  And there are many funny, sweet bits to savor all through the book.  I was sorry it ended and would love to read more about these folks.

Highly recommended for ages 8 to 11.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Library Day in the Life

This is round 7 of the Library Day in the Life project; check out this page to find links to all kinds of library staff and students doing all kinds of work.

Naturally, this particular week, or at least the first few days of it, has been been rather less eventful than usual - no meetings, no presentations, no workshops, no driving out to branches.  It's been great for catching up on email, planning, and meeting with staff - but that kind of stuff is hell o' boring to write (and read) about.

Remember, I don't work directly with the public anymore - so while I like to think of my office as the Nerve Center of Youth Services at LAPL (yeah, baby!), it's not like I have all these fabulous anecdotes to toss around at cocktail parties or in blog posts anymore.  Sigh.  Let's just say my butt and my office chair are very well acquainted, as most of my work happens at my desk.

Here is Monday, July 25. Don't say I didn't warn you:

  • Arrive at work at 8:30.
  • Pick up the Building Manager cell phone (Principle Librarians at Central Library take turns being in charge each day; mostly, this means being the person called when an irate patron demands to speak to "the person in charge!")
  • Talk with Dora (Youth Services Librarian III) about the YA Librarians' Information Meeting (all YA librarians at each of our 72 branches and Central come together one morning every 3 months; my office coordinates the content of the meeting - training, guest speakers, updates, etc)
  • Phone call with Beyond the Bell staffer about how to partner up to serve kids in foster care
  • Building Manager cell phone rings, just after we open at 10 am.  Patron is upset that she isn't allowed to bring in her wheelie cart heaped with loose clothes and food.  Security officer and I let her store it in a locked storage area while she uses library; ask her to put clothing/food in bags/containers for next time.
  • Go over various items with the new Teen'Scape Dept  Senior, one of two new employees who transferred to Youth Services last week.  (these days, we don't hire anyone; we just move 'em around)
  • Phone call (one of many) with TrueFlix rep - they let us offer BookFlix for free, but are giving us the hard sell for TrueFlix.
  • Read and answered numerous emails from our children's and YA librarians, administrative staff, organizations, etc etc.
  • Wrote draft of YA Librarians' Info Meeting agenda
  • Set up a meeting between the new Teen'Scape Senior, our new Youth Services Senior, and the Cataloging Dept (because we all work closely together, plus those Cataloging folks are AWEsome!)
  • Ate lunch at my desk while trying in vain to catch up on issues of Booklist, Kirkus, PW, SLJ, LJ...yeah, see what I mean?
  • Set up a time with a branch children's librarian to guide him through an orientation with his two newest GAB volunteer readers.  We try to really nurture our GAB readers, so that first orientation is so important in setting the mood, answering their questions, and showing how they will be supported in all their volunteer duties.
  • Completed part 1 of a mandatory (and truly deadly dull) City Ethics online workshop.
  • Answered more emails and phone calls.
  • Looked over and submitted 3 batches of holiday book reviews to the School Library Journal review editors (8 or 9 of us LAPL librarians spend every July immersed in Christmas and Hanukkah books so that YOU can read our reviews in the October issue - ho ho ho and all that)
  • Went down to our storage area with 3 other Youth Services staff and packed summer reading giveaway books in boxes to send out to branches that had requested more.
  • Prepared for Tuesday meeting with Target reps who will hopefully give us a big, juicy grant for our early literacy services (note: this meeting was canceled.  Argh!)

And that's where I stopped taking notes!

Planning, coordinating, communicating, training, supervising - that's my job.

Monday, July 25, 2011


In The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (my review), 12-year-old September is at one point under a spell or curse that is turning her into a tree.  Her skin turns thick and bark-like, her fingers turn into bundles of twigs that snap off, and her hair turns into dry leaves that blow away, leaving her bald.  At one point, a hole opens in her cheek and continues to get bigger.

This scene continues to haunt me, and it reminds me of several picture books, all of which happen to be fine read-alouds.

Tedd Arnold's Parts is narrated by a young boy who is panicking because parts of him keep falling off or coming loose - his hair, his belly button lint, his boogers, his teeth.  The joke is of course that this is normal - but the poor kid is envisioning total physical breakdown when he wails, "And now I'm thinking to myself/What's next in line to go?/Might be my ears; might be my eyeballs./How's a kid to know?"

In David Small's Imogene's Antlers, a girl happily spends the day with a huge pair of antlers rearing from her head (though her parents aren't too pleased), and then wakes up the next morning with the antlers gone but an entire peacock's plumage erupting gloriously from her rear end.  One can only assume that these strange transformations will continue indefinitely, making Imogene's life rather unpredictable.  How can one plan one's wardrobe when one has wings one day and flippers the next?

In David Shannon's A Bad Case of Stripes, poor Camilla's skin keeps changing from one wild pattern to another, and each "cure" makes it worse - "She sprouted roots and berries and crystals and feathers and a long furry tail."  Finally, she melts into her room - "Her bed became her mouth, her nose was a dresser, and two paintings were her eyes."  Could this be any more nightmarish?!  The illustrations are downright terrifying.

Now - these books are lighthearted and funny, and even have small lessons embedded in them, but I find the situations extremely disturbing.

Most people have had dreams of their teeth falling out 2 and 3 at a time, and these are always nightmares.  They seem, in my case, to be connected with a feeling of not being in control of some aspect of my life, whether it's my family life or my job or my own ability to stay sane and organized.

But as I read about September's discomfort and even terror as her body became an alien, disintegrating thing, it occurred to me that I understood exactly how she felt. It's not just lack of control, but the knowledge that this particular kind of helpless change is leading directly toward death.  I have felt much the same emotions myself over the past 10 years, as I noticed the first lines at the corners of my eyes and observed my hair becoming ever more gray.  It's with true dismay that I behold the crepey skin at the insides of my elbows and all over my neck.  ("I feel bad about my neck" doesn't even BEGIN to cover it). 

It's just going to get worse!  Until I'm dead!  No wonder all those tales of uncontrollable transformation creep me out.

Of course, kids are transforming at a much more rapid rate, and they manage to handle it (until puberty, when heretofore imperturbable kids stare in the mirror in horrified disbelief at their pustule-covered faces, awkward bumps and protuberances, and hair sprouting from strange places).

It's just another phase of life, this new downward slide toward the grave, with its inexorable loss of skin tone and increase of wrinkles.  I'm sure I'll adjust more or less gracefully, as billions have before me.  What choice do I have?

Oh, but that ever-widening hole in September's brittle bark cheek... I'm going to have nightmares for MONTHS!!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

I prefer bubble baths

But for chickens, a dirt bath is heaven on earth.  Case in point - Kaya, who takes her baths very, very seriously.

Friday, July 22, 2011

More SRC obsessing

I try to remember all the things that are fabulous about our summer reading program changes this year rather than dwell on the things that didn't work.  Certainly, next year's program is bound to be an improvement, as we'll have much more data to work with, or so I hopefully state in today's ALSC blog post.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Review of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Valente, Catherynne M. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.  Feiwel and Friends, 2011.

12-year-old September gets swept off to Fairyland by the kind and paternal Green Wind, where she expects to have some diverting magical adventures but instead finds herself on a quest that pits her against the nasty Marquess who rules with an iron hand.

As the Green Wind muses to September at a point when her fortunes are at their lowest, her story "seems familiar to me so far.  A child whisked off to a foreign land beset by a wicked ruler, sent to find a sword..."  There are shades of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Wizard of Oz, and most especially Alice in Wonderland.  As in these classics, September journeys through strange lands, meets stranger creatures, and must battle her own weaknesses and those of others.  The pace is so quick that neither the reader nor September ever get to know the people and places she encounters, which does create a distancing effect. 

The characters that accompany September do make a lingering impression - a Wyvern named A-through-L, who is charmingly half-Wyvern and (on his father's side) half-Library, and an enigmatic Marid named Saturday - as do myriad inanimate objects (or what would be inanimate objects in our world) such as an eager-to-please green jacket and a loyal golden key. 

And September herself is an interesting character.  Unlike many fantasy characters, she does not suffer much of that soul-wrenching Faceoff With One's Own Dark Side; she pretty much does the right thing instinctively.  But she suffers such awful things in this book, and comes through them with such pluck, that readers will pull for her all the way.  Though she tries to steel herself by calling herself an Irascible Child, she is mostly a very brave one.

While this book didn't have enduring emotional resonance for me personally, except in certain small but key episodes (the killing and eating of a fish, for instance, which shimmered with simple, strong emotion), I think that many readers will find this novel entertaining.  And some will find it astonishingly gripping and moving.  It's unusual enough, despite its familiar tropes, to recommend to lots and lots of kids ages 9 to 12.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review of the Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

Van Draanen, Wendelin.  The Running Dream. Knopf, 2011.

On the very first page, the reader discovers that Jessica, a high school junior, is in the hospital after a horrific car accident that killed a classmate and wounded Jessica so grievously that her leg had to be amputated below the knee.

Talk about a solid punch to the solar plexus!  And Jessica is just as anguished as you'd imagine.  Maybe more - turns out this is a girl who loves to run, who was a star on her track team.  Oof - a double punch.

But if you're worried that this book is a pity party of regrets and angst, relax.  Jessica is a can-do girl who is determined to get walking - and even running - again.  She doesn't waste much time on moaning or navel-gazing or being terrified that no guy will ever like her.  No, Jessica is a jock in the best sense of the word.  She is focused and uncomplicated, a person who keeps her eye on the prize.

And this makes The Running Dream a breeze and joy to read.  Sure, it's fairly predictable - there are no surprises.  Will Jessica walk again, using a prosthetic leg?  Will she run again, and super-fast?  Will she enter a race pushing her new friend, wheelchair-bound CP-sufferer Rosa, in an emotional 10-mile race?  Yes, yes, and yes.  And thank goodness!  It couldn't happen to a better person.

Recommended for both girls and boys ages 11 to 16.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Monday, Monday

 Today, or the first time in exactly a year, the Los Angeles Public Library opened Central Library and all its 72 branches to the public on a Monday.  We're still staffed with a skeleton crew, so it's not going to be easy - but better times are coming (thanks to the passage of Measure L) and this is a lovely, lovely first step in our recovery.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Review of Bake Sale by Sara Varon

Varon, Sara.  Bake Sale.  First Second, 2011.

You know those moods you have sometimes, when you feel so fragile and vulnerable that your psyche can be bruised by the tiniest suspicion of criticism?  When every new day, hour, and minute just seems like another opportunity to fail?

I don't know of any antidote, but you can alleviate the symptoms for a while with a graphic novel like Bake Sale.

Cupcake owns a bakery, where he creates scrumptious, award-winning desserts.  When he's not at work, he plays the drums in a band and hangs out with his best friend Eggplant.

But when Eggplant invites Cupcake to come with him to Turkey, where Eggplant's aunt lives, Cupcake's life is turned upside down.  You see, Eggplant's aunt knows Turkish Delight, a renowned pastry chef - and Cupcake worships Turkish Delight.

To earn the money for the ticket, Cupcake throws himself into a frenzy of baking, making goodies for all kinds of special events.  And in the process, he loses sight just a little of the good things about his life - his band and his best friend.  But Cupcake is imminently sensible, if romantic - and has his priorities in order by the end of the book.

Why do I love this book?
  • Varon's (Robot Dreams) charismatic food characters have skinny arms, big eyes, and ready smiles.
  • The little details in her drawings are strangely absorbing and intensely soothing
  • Swamped as I sometimes feel by the pressures and stresses of work and family, Cupcake's life is immensely appealing in its simplicity
  • The message - do what you enjoy, enjoy what you do, and cherish your friends - is a worthy one, and expressed in the sweetest possible way.
Recommended for ages 10 to 99.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Review of Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Lai, Thanhha.  Inside Out and Back Again.  HarperCollins, 2011.

I knew I'd be stuck in a waiting room while a relative had minor outpatient surgery, and I was almost done with The King Of Attolia - so I grabbed Inside Out and Back Again before I left the house.  "Look, I'm all covered!" I said. "Plenty to read!"

"Ya know," my relative said.  "That's a really quick read."  And sure enough, when I riffled the pages - white space!  Lots of white space!  The dang thing is written in spare free verse.  Argh!

Luckily, the surgery went quickly, and I managed to eke out the pages to last almost the whole time.  Phew...

10-year-old Hà lives in Vietnam in 1975.  As the south falls to the communists, her mother manages to get her and her three older brothers out of the country, first to a refugee camp in Thailand and then to Alabama, where they are sponsored by a man Hà thinks of as "the cowboy," though he doesn't ride a horse (to her unending disappointment).  Though Ha's father disappeared in 1966, they still hope to be reunited with him one day.

Like many emigrant kids, Hà must deal with learning English (with its idiotic exceptions to its weird rules), coping with culture shock, and suffering the slings and arrows of outrageously annoying classmates.  There is plenty of unfriendliness in Hà's new town, but there are good people as well, and Hà and her brothers do start to adjust and even to thrive, even as they finally learn to say goodbye to their father.

Hà is a terrific Every Kid - she's stubborn, observant, sulky, willful, curious, and brave when she has to be.  Readers will stick with her every step of her journey, and will understand how it feels to be a stranger in a strange land.  And kids who have been emigrants themselves will feel this story in their bones.

I hardly noticed this is written in free verse, so effortlessly did I glide through the story.  Ordinarily I tend to avoid novels written in this form - they just don't seem meaty enough - but this is one of those occasions when I'm so glad I was stuck in a waiting room with only one book.  Lightly lyrical, natural and often funny, Lai's writing is a pleasure to read.

This story of a year in a girl's life will give readers some knowledge of the effects of the aftermath of the Vietnam war on one family - but more importantly, reflects the reality of refugee kids all over the world.  Recommended for ages 9 to 12.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

OMG, awesome sword!

I was looking forward to hunkering down with Entwined by Heather Dixon, a 12-dancing-princesses fantasy that has gotten plenty of enthusiastic reviews.

And I loved the opening pages - a ball is about to begin in a castle that was once ruled by a crazed High King who so abused magic that it had to be banned.

But then, on page 3, comes this exchange between Royal Steward Mr. Pudding and Princess Azalea as they're cleaning up some stray pine needles off the floor:
"It's all right, Mr. Pudding," said Azalea. "I've got it."
"Right you are, miss, so you do," he said, collecting the needles with gnarled hands. "It's only...your mother wants to see you, miss."
Azalea paused, the needles pricking her palms.
"She does?" she said. "The King is all right with it?"
 This threw me right out of the story and back into my own world with a jolt.  'The King is all right with it?' Does this not sound jarringly 21st century?

But I was already enjoying the story, so I counseled myself to be more tolerant.  On I read - until disaster struck on page 6.  Azalea is visiting her sick mother before the ball, all dressed in her finery.  She has just told her mother that her little sisters are in the garden.
"Oh," said Mother. "Well.  If they are having a jolly Christmas Eve, then... I'm glad for it. Ah, but look at you! Princess Royale! You look a picture print! The green makes your eyes pop.  I knew it would."
 I had a tiny problem with the word 'jolly' and then I puzzled for a moment over the phrase 'you look a picture print,' which seemed nonsensical.  But 'the green makes your eyes pop'?!  What is this, Seventeen magazine?  Good lord!!

At this point, I sadly put Entwined aside.  If the language annoyed me this much by page 6, there was no way I was going to get through the whole book.  The language of fantasy is really important to me.  Have any of you read Entwined - or any other book that used jarring language?  What are your thoughts?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Captains Jack and Jacky

It was while listening to an audiobook of LA Meyer's Rapture of the Deep that my 16-year-old came up with this inspired crossover One True Pairing:

Captain Jacky Faber and Captain Jack Sparrow!

Both of them salty sea dogs of the first order, both piratical, both of them no strangers to rule-flaunting, law-breaking, and extremely unconventional behavior - and of course they share a name, which just adds to the perfection.

Wouldn't YOU like to see Jacky throw over that straight-laced James Emerson Fletcher, at least for a little while?

Oh, I don't know that Jacky and Jack would actually hook up. But I can see a sparks-flying love-hate relationship, that's for sure.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Review of Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Bray, Libba.  Beauty Queens.  Scholastic, 2011.

Sometimes it's hard to remember that Libba Bray wrote the Gemma Doyle Trilogy, seeing as how she followed that historical England-based fantasy with the quirky, surreal contemporary American road-trip adventure Going Bovine and now the even more quirky, surreal, and super-snarky Beauty Queens.  Where will Ms. Bray go from here?  One can't even imagine.

Crash a bunch of teen beauty pageant contestants on an island in the middle of nowhere.  Throw in a plot by an evil Corporation to sell arms to a particularly crazed dictator, reality television, corporatized pop culture, a Sarah Palin-esque beauty queen with a major Agenda, our culture's obsession with beauty and sex, the objectification of women, boy bands, and of course plenty of coconuts, palm fronds, man-eating snakes, and so much more - and you get one wild ride of a novel.

The pageant contestants - Miss California, Miss Texas, Miss New Mexico, and so on - start out as brain-washed caricatures (ho-hum, I thought, this is a duck shoot).  Quickly enough, though, the girls start having to think for themselves if they want to survive, and if that sounds predictable and eye-roll-inducing, I assure you that their saga is entirely unpredictable and ludicrously hilarious.

Each girl is a "token" - there's a Black girl and an Indian girl, a lesbian, an airhead, a defiant revolutionary, a deaf girl, a transgender girl, a repressed girl, and a scary, take-charge uber-beauty queen, to name a few.  Their interactions are sparky enough when it's just them together, but when a shipload of reality-tv-fake-pirates and some black-shirted Secret Militia types are thrown into the mix, all bets are off.

This all sounds over the top, and indeed it is.  Occasionally the relentless wise-cracks and one-liners and sheer crazed energy exhausted me, but mostly they cracked me up.  There's some seriously weird and twisted stuff in Libba Bray's mind, people, and lucky for us, she has no qualms about letting it out.  Here's a page I just opened to at random:
"I found a guy on the Internet to write me a prescription for horse diet pills."
 "Horse diet pills?" Nicole repeated.
"Yeah.  They worked great, but my mom made me stop when I grew an extra set of teeth inside my large intestine."
Petra stuck her fingers in her ears. "La-la-la-la-la.
 Just a small sample of the kooky awesomeness available on every page.

This is definitely not for everyone, and after I finished the last page, I turned hungrily to a book with more warmth and real characters interacting in real ways.  But entertaining and funny as hell?  Heck yeah!

Recommended for anyone ages 14 and up who relishes whip-smart, over-the-top satire with a major Girl Power theme.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

15,000 and counting!

We're almost halfway through our summer reading program, and it's been an adventure.  We've got over 15,000 kids and teens signed up online, and many more signed up on paper who will be added to the online database.

This was the first SRP which I got to fully plan as Manager of Youth Services, and it has been tremendously fun - and a huge amount of work.  Many of the things we're trying are firsts for our library system:
  • The same start and end date for all 73 agencies (yes, each branch used to stop and start when it wanted to)
  • The same program, with exactly the same rules, prizes, and so on, at all agencies (yes, each branch used to determine how to run the program, meaning we had 73 different programs)
  • 3 different programs for different age groups - an early literacy-based program for ages 0 - 4, a minutes read-based program for ages 5 - 11, and a reading and activity-based program for ages 12 and up.
  • A "group kit" with everything a group leader needs to run the summer reading program at a day camp, day care center, Boys and Girls Club, and so on.
  • Giving only stickers, chances at system-wide prize drawings, and BOOKS as prizes
  • Using Evanced online summer reading program in addition to paper game boards
  • Measuring outcomes for the CA Library Association
  • Partnering with 9 organizations for the New Vision for Summer in CA grant
For children's and YA librarians, it's been fun, confusing, exciting, and exhausting.  For me and my staff, it's been a huge amount of work, but (for me, anyway) completely exhilarating.  

Stressful, too.  There have been lots of glitches and problems.  Man, we've been learning a lot about how NOT to do things.
  • Kids have been racing through their 15-hour game board and then requesting another.  Which is fine - but it means we started running out of game boards at a rapid rate.  I threw up a PDF of the game board in the nick of time, so now librarians can print out 2nd and 3rd game boards for people.  Still, I had to order more game boards.
  • Our group game boards only have room for 24 names - and most groups have far more kids than that, meaning each group needs multiple group game boards.  Next summer, we'll make sure the group game boards have room for at least 50.
  • Never having given away books as prizes before, we had no idea how many we would need, nor how and when to give them away.  We settled on the completion of a game board for the very young children and the teens, and after 8 hours of reading for kids - whether this is working is still up in the air.  These books have been a major pain in the butt - everything from ordering them to storing them to shipping them out to all our branches (72 plus Central Library, remember...) has been fraught with difficulty.  And yet - it's SO cool to be giving books away!
  • I thought it would be easy to gather plentiful and nifty donations for our prize drawings - but while we have indeed received some cool donations (gift certificates for Vans shoes, passes to local museums and movie theaters, a year's family membership to the zoo, and more), they are not nearly as numerous as I had hoped.  We have tens of thousands of kids signing up for our program every year, so we figure most of those will earn at least one prize ticket, if not many more (kids earn a prize ticket for every 2 hours of reading; teens earn a prize ticket every time they complete a row of three activities), so it's kind of sad to offer just a handful of prizes.  We ended up supplementing the prizes with stuff we purchased - library logo-ed aluminum water bottles for kids and MP3 players for teens.  Next year we'll start much earlier and be much more systematic about it.
This summer is shaping up to be a fine learning experience.  We'll be forming two summer reading planning committees this fall, one for the children's program and one for the teen program.  We'll use the best elements of this summer's program, and improve on its drawbacks.    We're going to do everything way ahead of time.

We're going to make Summer Reading Program 2012 the best one EVER!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Review of True (...Sort Of) by Katherine Hannigan

Hannigan, Katherine.  True (...Sort Of). HarperCollins, 2011.

Delaware (Delly) Pattison is trouble.  Not because she's bad, mind you, but because her idea of fun (spitting contests; teaching all the kids made-up cuss words that sound worse than the real thing; and on and on) drives adults nuts.  And she gets called "bad" so many times that she starts to believe it, until she has gotten downright defiant by middle school and is close to getting kicked out and sent to a school for problem kids.

But then Ferris Boyd comes to town.  Ferris is a girl who looks like boy, and she doesn't talk or allow herself to be touched.  But Delly befriends her, VERY slowly but surely, as does a basketball-mad boy named Brud (Ferris is an amazing basketball player, though no one knows it) and Delly's little brother.  In the process, they all learn more patience, understanding, and kindness - and Delly gets her fun-loving groove back.

There is a folksiness to this tale that reminds me of Savvy and other recent tall tale-esque novels that take place in a mythical American heartland.  Delly's 6 brothers and sisters have names like Dallas, Tallahassee, Montana, and so on.  She says things like "Happy Hallelujah" and an entire glossary (literally - it's at the back) of other inventive words and phrases - "idierk" and "jiminy fipes."  Characters, whether appealing or exasperating, don't seem quite real.

And yet the issue at the heart of this tale - why Ferris won't talk or let anyone touch her - is very serious indeed.  It's never absolutely spelled out, but readers do realize from the beginning that Ferris' situation is bad.  Delly realizes it as well, but isn't sure what to do.  Ferris is so darn private, and Delly isn't sure what's going on anyway or what her own responsibility is or what might be considered meddling. 

How Delly deals with the mysterious Ferris and her delicate, awful situation is gripping, and it gives gravitas to what might otherwise have been simply another eccentric, folksy tale.  It doesn't completely gel - wouldn't adults have questioned Ferris' strange symptoms and home life, even a little?  But maybe not, as adults don't always want to leap to the worst conclusion. 

This is a charming tale with grit to it, rather like cute little Delly Pattison, whose "voice was raspy, as if a load of gravel lined her throat."  It'll take readers by surprise, and that's all to the good.  Recommended for grades 4 to 6.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Review of You'll Like it Here (Everybody Does) by Ruth White

White, Ruth.  You'll Like it Here (Everybody Does).  Delacorte Press, 2011.

Meggie has just finished 6th grade when her neighbors turn against her and her family and storm their house, convinced they're aliens.  As it turns out, Meggie, her older brother David, her mom, and Gramps ARE aliens.  They're from a dying planet and were hoping to start a new life on Earth - but xenophobia keeps rearing its ugly head.

So they travel in their "carriage" to a new planet - but it seems to be an alternate Earth.  The city they arrive in, Fashion City, reminds them of 50's America, except that the people are rigidly controlled by "the Fathers." There are no books, no art, no Internet access, no bright colors, no mixing of races.  Kids attend "school" by doing lessons via computer, television-watching is compulsory, and people quell any discontentment by popping pills.  If this isn't bad enough, Gramps is sent on a mandatory "vacation" - which of course is much more sinister than the family realizes.

This dystopian novel is reminiscent of many others - Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Sylvia Waugh's "Ormingat" trilogy, and so on - but without quite the subtle bite or emotional resonance of those works.  White is a fine writer and Meggie's family's attempts to adapt to a new and imperfect culture are fascinating enough to make this a page-turner.

And yet I didn't buy the whole "alternate Earth" scenario.  In this one small city, we find alternate versions of Elvis as a young man, Abe Lincoln and Martin Luther King (who led a rebellion years before and went off to live in the "Western Province"), L. Frank Baum, and lots of people from their Earth town, including Meggie's best friend Kitty.  This is so implausible that it has the effect of shaking the reader out of the story - Parable Alert! 

And after the family escapes to the blissfully free Western Province, Gramps and Mom offer a dissection of some of Fashion City's practices, in case we didn't get it on our own.
"What about the drabness?... Why didn't they want bright colors?"
"Color can be stimulating," Gramps the painter explains. "It can send the human imagination spinning into daydreams and fits of creativity.  Good music inspires us in the same way."
"And time?" I ask. "Why did we have no weeks or months or names of days?"
"The Fathers didn't want us measuring time," Gramps says.  "They encouraged us to live only for the forget we were destined to be soldiers at sixteen, factory drones every day thereafter, and corpses at sixty-five.  For the same reason, they wanted us always in a stupor..."
 And so on, as if the reader hadn't already figured that out. 

 All in all, I found this a pleasant but ultimately disappointing novel, lacking in the kind of sharp insight that readers of dystopian novels expect.  As a result, I'd recommend it to kids in grades 4 - 6 as a stepping stone on the way to grittier YA fare.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Review of Flood and Fire by Emily Diamand

I wrote this review for the July 2011 issue of School Library Journal.  

DIAMAND, Emily. Flood and Fire. Bk. 2. 351p. (Raiders’ Ransom Series). CIP.Scholastic/Chicken House. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-545-24268-4. LC 2010023544. 
Gr 5-8–In this follow-up to Raiders’ Ransom (Scholastic, 2009), readers are plunged right back into the action as Lilly and Lexy try to escape raider territory and sail home to Lilly’s fishing village. Instead, they travel to Cambridge and then to London, where a battle between the English and the Viking-like raiders is raging. Much of 23rd-century England is under water, and technology, being blamed for the breakdown of society, was banned long ago and is considered evil. Yet because of its power and rarity, Lilly’s late-21st-century gaming console is an object of desire for the raiders, and Lilly’s raider friend Zeph is forced to choose between his loyalty to his friends and to his Family. Readers will sympathize with his dilemma but it’s the fast-moving plot and the wild-and-woolly post-technological setting that will keep the pages turning. The game console AI, a conceited and high-maintenance personality, provides invaluable assistance and comic relief, and its aid in battling a malfunctioning military computer’s marauding robots results in a vivid finale against the backdrop of a flooded but still-vibrant London. Fans of the first book will be satisfied with this exciting sequel.–Eva Mitnick, Los Angeles Public Library