Friday, September 30, 2011

Review of The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer

 Wolitzer, Meg.  The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman.  Dutton, 2011.

Three pairs of kids are competing in the Youth Scrabble Tournament:

April, paired with her best friend Lucy, is the lone Scrabble fanatic in a big family of jocks.  She wants to win the tournament, but she is also hoping against hope to see a boy she taught to play scrabble while staying at a motel three years ago.

Nate, paired with his friend Maxie, is a NYC skateboarder who would like to attend school but must stay home and study Scrabble all day thanks to his crazed dad, who lost the YST as a kid and is determined that Nate redeem his shattered pride.

And Duncan Dorfman is a kid with an inexplicable talent - he can "read" anything with the fingertips of his left hand.  You can see the applications to Scrabble (think about reaching into that bag full of tiles), if you don't mind cheating - and Carl, Duncan's amoral scrabble-mad classmate, doesn't mind cheating and very much wants to win the YST.  So he bullies Duncan into becoming his YST partner.

The kids play Scrabble.  They win some and they lose some.  They talk endlessly about bingo-bango-bongos and 2-letter words and anagrams.  Duncan worries about the secrets he is keeping and the lies he has told in order to take part in YST - because as it turns out, he learns to love Scrabble, enough to want to avoid using his magic fingertips.

There are some not very successful subplots - April's search for that motel boy; a very weird attempt at cheating by Nate's dad and his old YST partner; and the secret that Duncan's mom has been keeping all his life.  None of these is particularly interesting or convincing.

The fantasy element - Duncan's fingertips - feels utterly beside the point.  It serves merely as the reason Carl ropes him into the YST, plus as a source of tension for Duncan as he agonizes about whether or not to cheat.  It could have been left out entirely, especially since we never discover why or how he has this gift.

I did like all the Scrabble talk.  And the narrative style is easy-going with just a bit of quirk to keep things interesting (except when it goes overboard as in the Funswamp episode).  All in all, a perfectly pleasant but underwhelming book (won't call it a fantasy, because it hardly is) for grades 4 to 6.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A fan of any age....

A writer friend and I were talking the other day about the problem of children's and YA author programs at libraries.  There are two problems, actually.
1.  Attendance can be sparse
2.  Even if there is a good turn-out, the audience often consists of... grown-ups!
    Even at bookstore book signings and author appearances, kids and teens can be mighty scarce.  Case in point - Susan Patron's recent book signing at Skylight Books.  There was a packed house of fans, but only a handful of kids.  There are plenty of kids who read and love the Lucky books - but they don't turn out for book signings.

    Picture book writers can get an audience by working with the librarian to promote the appearance as a storytime that just happens to feature the writer of one or more of the books.  My mom, author of "Hi, Pizza Man" knew she couldn't build a whole program around one short picture book, so she developed a whole pizza-themed storytime, complete with masks for kids to act out her book.  Parents brought their kids because it sounded like a fun program.

    But it is much harder for a middle-grade or teen book writer.  Even if he or she has flogged social media nearly unto death and sent notices of the appearance hither and yon, this will at most generate an audience of - grown-up fans.

    Now, to this librarian, an audience is an audience and I'm happy to see them, no matter how old they are.

    But my writer friend protested that writers like to meet their readers, and would like to think their readers want to meet them.  Which makes absolute sense.

    But the more I think about it, the more impossible it seems that we'll ever get older kids and teens to come in droves.  Sure, some authors have a huge and avid fan base and will certainly attract a big audience of kids or teens if they appear.  But it's unlikely that they'll even hear about an author appearance if it doesn't happen to occur right at their library, since kids and teens don't follow twitter or author blogs. And let's face it, older kids and teens have a lot of autonomy when it comes to how they spend their time - and mostly, they will not choose to attend an author program if it's the slightest bit of bother, even if they have read that author's books (which is unlikely).

    I can understand n.  While meeting authors thrills me to the point of speechlessness, I don't seek these occasions out.  Why?  For most of us readers, it's about the book, not the author.  In some cases, I don't even want to know what the author looks like, much less meet him or her.  It's simply beside the point.

    And that's fine, isn't it?  Sure, librarians will still strive to get kids and teens to attend children's and teen author programs, because it's cool for kids to see that a real person created that book that transported them so magically - and that maybe writing (or illustrating) a book is something they might do themselves one day.  And writers do like to meet their young readers face to face.

    I'd suggest that the best way for writers to meet kids is to make presentations at schools.  Make arrangements with the teachers beforehand so at least some of the kids will have read the book - and then the writer has a captive audience (and one that is probably fairly grateful to be listening to an author rather than doing fractions).

    But the best way for librarians and writers to collaborate is to work together to get those books into the hands of kids.  It's okay for writers to talk to a big crowd of librarians, teachers, and other grown-ups who work with youth.  Why?  If they get all fired up, they'll read the books and then booktalk/handsell/promote the heck out of them to the kids they come in contact with.

    And kids do listen to librarians and teachers about books.  They won't try all the books we recommend, but they'll try a few.  And if they like those books, they'll try a few more.

    And that's the connection that matters - a young reader reading a writer's book.  A match made in heaven.

    Tuesday, September 27, 2011

    Can I be Lady Cool-Beans, please?

    Seen around the Internet:

    Those of you who have read N.D. Wilson's Dragon's Tooth will appreciate this chance to win a boxing monkey patch.  And everyone will appreciate that Wilson calls himself "Captain AWESOMESAUCE.  By order of the Queen."  I mean - right?!

    The City of West Hollywood has an amazing new library, part of the County of Los Angeles Public Library system (not to be confused, though it often is, with my own municipal Los Angeles Public Library system).  It's open now, but the grand opening is October 1Jackie Collins will be there!

    Speaking of October 1, that's when the Cybil nominations open.  You nominate your favorite kid and YA titles in the categories of your choice; expert kidlit bloggers read and discuss, then vote on the best ones.  The result?  Amazing lists of must-read titles.

    Some LA children's and YA authors write about being banned this week at the LA Review of Books Blog.

    Librarians are sometimes guys - here's proof.  Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the link.

    Monday, September 26, 2011

    The spice of life

    My younger daughter turns 17 tomorrow.

    She's reading Ursula LeGuin's The Farthest Shore, Jose Saramago's Blindness, and Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full - all at the same time.

    No matter where life takes her - she'll always have books.

    Sunday, September 25, 2011

    Sartre called it Bad Faith

     Today's Doonesbury strip struck me as particularly apt today.  There was a nice piece in the Parade about the effects of the economy on the Parker Public Library in Arizona, which, though depressing, showed that folks value the library.  Except then there's the fact that hundreds of library aides in LAUSD elementary schools just had their last day of work on Friday, a horrific and barbaric situation on which Steve Lopez has done a good job reporting.

    The powers that be, whether at LAUSD or in government, give lots of lip service to libraries (and to education and kids in general) - but all those things are the first to be cut.  If we were to gift politicians and bureaucrats with Skulls of Truth, they'd all sound a lot like our Honest Man above.  Who cares whether we have any educated or literate young adults 20 years from now?  Let's slash libraries and education and health care to the poor right now, 'cause it's low-hanging fruit.  After all, it'd be "class warfare" to pick on the poor rich people and apparently it's just useless to get anyone, Democrat or Republican, to understand that spending money on education today means spending less money on jails tomorrow (or rather, in 20 years - but that's science fiction to politicians) - not to mention that maybe, just maybe, it might be best to have citizens who are literate and well-educated and healthy and productive.


    Friday, September 23, 2011

    Review of Dragon's Tooth by N.D. Wilson

    Wilson, N.D. The Dragon's Tooth.  Random House, 2011.

    I finished this book a week ago but have put off reviewing it because it reminds me strongly of another book - or maybe a movie - and I've been wracking my brains trying to remember which one.  No matter, I'll charge on regardless.

    Siblings Cyrus and Antigone live in the seedy, molding motel that their older brother Daniel has been operating ever since their dad died and their mom lapsed into a coma.  This depressing and sorrowful life comes to an abrupt end when old Billy Bones shows up at the motel, bequeaths some magical objects to Cyrus (keys; a dragon's tooth, a small snake named Patricia) with the aid of his lawyer Horace, and promptly dies.

    Immediately, a very bad individual named Maxi and his henchman, sent by the sinister Mr. Phoenix, show up and all hell breaks loose.  Daniel is kidnapped, and Cyrus and Antigone just barely make it with Horace to the headquarters of The Order of Brendan, an ancient society of magical explorers, adventurers, and heroes.

    It turns out that Cyrus and Antigone's dad was a member of the Order - but not one in good standing.  Cyrus and Antigone are inducted as Acolytes - which brings Maxi and the rest of Mr. Phoenix's nasties down full-force upon the Order of Brendan.  They'll destroy everyone and everything to get those magical objects of Cyrus' - and only Cyrus, Antigone, and their friends can stop them.

    There is a great deal of fascinating secret-society lore going back hundreds of years; apparently plenty of famous folks and objects are linked to the Order of Brendan (or its nemeses).  Rick Riordan fans will enjoy the plucky, bantering kids and their relationships with adults good and bad, plus the link with ancient traditions and myths.  There is a hint of Neil Gaiman in the intricate details of a full and bustling secret world existing underneath and parallel to our own familiar world.  The ancient and mysterious artifacts, not to mention the dashing derring-do, bring to mind the Indiana Jones movies. And all those kids, teens, and adults hustling urgently here and there in various uniforms, learning ancient languages, flying planes, and practicing with weaponry - well, this is the part that reminds me of some book or movie and I can't think which.  Any thoughts?

    As with all his books (Leepike Ridge, the 100 Cupboards series), Wilson peppers Dragon's Tooth with quirky and complex characters.  Simple down-home folks have hidden depths; everyone has at least one secret under their sleeves, and both allies and traitors pop up when least expected.  The history of the Order and its members, not to mention the mysteries surrounding Cyrus' and Antigone's own family, is so tantalizingly hinted at that readers will finish the last page gasping for the next installment.

    Highly recommended for grades 5 to 8.

    P.S.  For some words from N.D. Wilson on his 5 kids, the inspiration for 100 cupboards, and more, click here.

    Thursday, September 22, 2011

    "Altruistic indulgence"

    Hudson Park, NYPL
    For a couple sneering quotes about children's librarians and storytelling from John Cotton Dana, plus other nuggets about Library Days of Yore, see my post on the ALSC Blog.

    Monday, September 19, 2011

    I sat next to Lindsey Philpott at dinner last night.  Lindsey Philpott is the Southern CA-based knot expert who served as consultant to Susan Patron as she wrote her Lucky trilogy.  That hammock Lincoln was creating in Lucky Breaks?  Mr. Philpott created a model for Susan, so she could see it and touch it and know exactly how to describe it.

    One would think that The Knot Guy would have string and yarn hidden about his person, but no - when we asked Mr. Philpott to demonstrate a knot, all he had on him was the string holding his glasses around his neck.  I can't remember the name of the knot, but apparently he tied this complex shape for the first time when he was 6 years old.

    Mr. Philpott described to me the anxiety of showing a knot, created slowly and painstakingly in solitude, to a fellow expert and hoping for approval rather than disappointment.  He sounded very much the way a writer feels, offering up a manuscript to be read for the first time.  The passion he feels for his work is clear (despite not having any string with him); he described in meticulous detail globe knots - all the different ways they can look, depending on type of line used and many of factors.  Some of them can have 100 sides!  I imagined them looking like D and D dice made of string.  When I googled "globe knot" looking for images, the one I chose (the one above, due to its beauty) turned out to have been made by - Lindsey Philpott!

    We were all at Skylight Books before dinner, celebrating the publication of Susan Patron's Lucky for Good with a packed house of writers and librarians and friends and fans.  It was a lovely way to end a literary weekend that also included a dinner with some Scholastic folks, some independent children's booksellers from the Southern CA , and - Allen Say!  He'd spoken at the Japanese American National Museum earlier that day. 

    It was fascinating talking children's books with booksellers rather than librarians.  Several mentioned that Brian Selznick's Wonderstruck was selling slowly due to its $29.99 price, $3 more than The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  The booksellers felt that it crossed a psychological barrier for customers, and no wonder when you could buy it on Amazon tonight for $16.49.  Or get it at the library for free.  Not that I said that.  Man, it's got to be tough being an independent bookseller.

    Though I think if Skylight Books was down the block instead of across town, I'd find myself spending quite a bit of money there...

    Saturday, September 17, 2011

    Reading (and Running) Season

    Though September and October are usually very warm months in Los Angeles thanks to the Santa Ana winds, a bit of cloud layer has some Angelenos hauling sweaters down from the top shelf.  Though it never snows and seldom rains, we cherish the changing of the seasons, even if we do have to use our imaginations quite a bit.

    For book award fanatics, there's no question that fall is right around the corner.  Not only are the fall books streaming in from publishers, but bloggers have cranked up their engines and have started circling the course.  At Heavy Medal, Nina and Jonathan have gotten their toes wet with some fun, kvetchy posts about too-long books and Over-praised Fantasies with Too Many Capital Letters, plus the expected discussion about Okay for Now's flaws in an otherwise amazing book.  Betsy has given us her fall predictions for both Newbery and Caldecott, adding to my need-to-read list.
    After resigning from the 2012 Newbery committee last January (full story here), I decided that this would be the year to read whatever the heck I wanted - YA, middle-grade, adult.  As a result, there are big holes in my reading for any one list, be it Printz or Newbery.  On the other hand, it's been a LOT of fun trying to catch up on my adult reading.  I keep notebooks for jotting down adult titles as I read PW, Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus, and I'm now only two notebooks behind, having finally caught up to 2009.

    That said, it may be time to toss those notebooks away and focus on Newbery and Printz-eligible titles for the remainder of the year.  Oh, but first I've got to read The Magician King by Lev Grossman!  And Vernor Vinge's The Children of the Sky...

    Hmm, this may be another year when I end up not having yet read the Newbery winner, ignominious as that is.

    LA Roadrunners
    By the way, it's the start of the running season, too - and thanks to our library system being open on Mondays again, my Saturdays are now mostly free to run with the LA Roadrunners again.  Meep meep!

    Wednesday, September 14, 2011

    Hard times call for hunny

    The paper was a bit disheartening today.  Poverty has hit a 50 year high in the United States, thanks mostly to our lack of jobs. 

    Like many library systems, my own can't remedy this problem in even the slightest degree.  I just heard that an extremely talented recent library school graduate, who has been yearning to work for the Los Angeles Public Library, simply can't afford to live in Los Angeles any longer and must return home.  We need her - and other young, dedicated librarians like her - at LAPL.  Jeez, it's frustrating.

    Meanwhile, the LA Unified School District is even worse off, library-wise.

    Time to self-medicate with a little Winnie-the-Pooh.

    Monday, September 12, 2011

    Summer dissection

    Signing up at the Platt Branch, LAPL
    What I've realized since taking on the planning of the summer reading program last year is that it's like a snake with its tail in its mouth; the summer hasn't even ended when planning for next year begins.

    The children's and teen librarians on the front lines are enjoying having completed summer reading for another year - but here in the Youth Services office, we never escape its insidious, time-sucking grip!

    We do have a few weeks of reflection on the successes and failures of the summer before plunging headlong into planning next month.

    Our summer reading program was run very differently this year in many different ways.  To name just a few, all 72 branches and Central Library used exactly the same game board (counting minutes read for kids and a combination of reading and activities for teens), the same prize structure, and the same start and stop date.  We added a preschool component, with its own game board highlighting early literacy activities, for the first time, and we used Evanced to keep track of registration.  Also, we gave everyone, from babies to teens, the chance to earn a free book.

    As we did last year, we collected surveys from kids and teens to measure their thoughts on various aspects of the program as well as to track how many were joining the program for the first year, second year, etc.  As in previous years, I also asked children's and teen librarians to fill out a report on what worked, what didn't, and how the program could be improved for next year.

    So now I have LOTS of data, more than we ever had before.  I know who signed up, ratio of boys to girls, how old they are, which branch they attended, and in which zip code they live.  I know how many kids and teens actually "finished" the program, as well as how many hours were read altogether by our reading club participants.  And just as importantly, I know what worked and what didn't, both from my own point of view and from the librarians out at the branches, and I know what librarians want from the program next year.

    We're forming a Summer Reading Program committee for the first time this year, rather than Youth Services planning the whole thing (it nearly killed us last year, I swear).  Actually, we'll have two committees - one to create the children's program and one to create the teen program.  These committees will decide on the details of the programs, from how incentives will be rewarded and what those incentives will be to what the game boards will look like.

    But I can tell them some things right away.  For instance, children's librarians (I haven't tabulated the teen librarians' reports yet, as I'm still missing a few - tsk!) overwhelmingly feel that the 2012 program should begin in mid-to-late June and should last 8 weeks.  Most think we should continue to count minutes read, though many would like to also give kids "credit" for attending programs, writing book reviews, and doing activities online.  Most librarians feel we should use Evanced again next year for registering and keeping track of statistics.

    Mostly, librarians really liked the new preschool component and so did families.  We could make it more exciting, though, by building in some progress similar to the children's and teen programs and by adding a small incentive or two in addition to the free book that folks who finished the game board got.

    As for improvements, here are the most common comments from children's librarians:
    • Make it more simple!!!!  (In particular, the "raffle ticket for every 2 hours of reading" was really onerous for staff to manage)
    • More and better incentives at the branch level!!! (Our big incentives were all based on centralized prize drawings, which felt too distant and detached to the kids, and we didn't have enough prizes for the 20,000 plus kids who signed up.  Biggest requests for branch incentives - lanyards and pencils)
    • Better give-away books!!!!  (We got thousands of books for pennies a book from First Book, but the choice of titles was limited, to say the least)
    And thanks to Evanced, I know that most of our children's reading program participants are 7 and 8 years old - and that by far, most 11 and 12-year-olds choose to join the teen program.  Girls outnumber boys, but by quite a narrow margin.  These are statistics that will help us shape next year's program more effectively - AND I'll be able to buy our giveaway books knowing how many I need for each age group.  This year, never having run a book give-away program during the summer and not knowing how many I'd need or for whom, I was flying in the dark.

    All in all, I'm really pleased with the results of this summer reading program despite some elements not working so well.  Trying new things has shaken us out of our usual summer ennui and gotten us thinking hard about what the summer reading program is all about and how to make it really valuable and dynamic.  Many librarians submitted amazing ideas for 2012 with their reports, and we've got plenty of volunteers for our committees.

     Truly, I'm even looking forward to our first SRP planning meetings in October.  Bring on 2012!

    Sunday, September 11, 2011

    Review of White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick

    Sedgwick, Marcus.  White Crow.  Roaring Brook Press, 2011.

    London teen dragged to a tiny town against her will, doomed to spend summer away from her friends - it's an old story.  And Rebecca's reluctant friendship with the village oddball, Ferelith, who is lonely, very smart, and troubled as heck, has a familiar ring to it as well.  Add to that a grand old building with a ghastly past, and you've got all the ingredients for a delicious Summer Gothic.

    Lest you roll your eyes, keep in mind that Sedgwick is a master in the fine art of creating tension and bringing it to the breaking point - and beyond.

     In third person, we learn Rebecca's side of the story.  She lives only with her dad, a police inspector who has been accused of negligence that resulted in the death of a teenaged girl; to get away temporarily from all the fuss and negative media attention, he has escaped with Rebecca to the dying town of Winterfold, on the English coast.  Rebecca is Not Thrilled. 

    Ferelith tells her own story, which has the effect of letting us get to know her more than anyone else has ever bothered to do but which becomes chilling when we realize we didn't really know her at all.  Like Rebecca, we find ourselves unable to gauge exactly how disturbed Ferelith might be.

    Oh, and then there's the truly creepy diary of a Winterfold pastor, recounting the grisly events that occurred - with his full cooperation - in 1798 at the Hall.  The reader knows that these events must be connected to the present day - and that it can't bode well.

    A supernatural chill runs through the story, bred by the pastor's obsession with hell and the devil.  What becomes clear is that humans can work plenty of evil without any help from the devil.

    The twist at the end is particularly compelling and keeps the book focused on what it is really about - loneliness and human connection.  Highly recommended for teens who relish a creepy, atmospheric read with a bit of depth. 

    Saturday, September 10, 2011

    Review of Lucky for Good by Susan Patron

    Patron, Susan.  Lucky for Good.  Atheneum, 2011.

    If you lived in Hard Pan, who would you be?  Are you a creative and thrifty Short Sammy type, living in a water tank?  Or are you more like Klincke Ken, who can fix anything and has a fondness for cats and donkeys?  Perhaps you're more like sociable Dot, who operates the only beauty salon in town or the Captain, who holds the only steady job with benefits that exists in Hard Pan (postmaster).

    Myself, I'd be Mrs. Prender, grandma of the smart-and-sweet 6-year-old Miles and mom of Miles' mom, Justine, who has just returned from a longish stint in prison. Mrs. Prender has been raising Miles as best she can, bringing him books from the library to feed his hunger for knowledge, and then her intense and complicated daughter returns as a new, passionate, and outspoken Christian.  The kind that takes the bible as literal and won't let her son read any books about dinosaurs or anything else that contradicts what the bible says about the creation of the earth.

    What a dilemma!  It's hard for Mrs. Prender, it's hard for Miles, it's even hard for Lucky.

    There are other things going on in Lucky's life, and the most dramatic is that the county, personified by Stu Burping, may have to close down Brigitte's Hard Pan Cafe due to a code violation that doesn't allow the commercial serving of food out of a residence.  Luckily, the eccentric and independent residents of Hard Pan prove themselves up to the task of teaming up to come up with an innovative solution, leading to a scene of outrageous hilarity and thrills when a tractor with no brakes, towing a cabin, heads slowly and precariously down the road.  Unbeknownst to the driver, Klincke Ken, the road ahead is filled with animals and people - so Lincoln and Lucky's friend Paloma jump aboard the tractor to warn him.  Klincke Ken can't hear him and is a little annoyed.
    "Later!" Klincke Ken shouted. "I'm a little busy!" He resolved to ignore those two and turned back around to face front and the home stretch.  And what he saw caused him to rise up in his seat.  Kids! And women! Half the blasted town, it looked like - all over the road!
    Homes and propane tanks on the left, a 4-foot drop to a sandy shoulder on his right, and no brakes!  The tension mounts but somehow the comedy does, too - until a combination of factors suddenly clears the road.  Klincke Ken accepts the miracle.  "The sky had never in his life been so blue, the air so pure, or the sun so brilliant."

    Lucky, being her usual slightly fierce and rather tenacious self, has her own troubles.  After socking a mean boy in the jaw (well, she had good reason, okay?), Lucky is assigned a task as punishment - to create her family tree.  And this means investigating her absent father's side of the family.  That Lucky handles this with style and aplomb demonstrates how much she has grown up since the day she ran away two books ago.  In The Higher Power of Lucky, Lucky is still quite fragile and desperate for reassurance and in Lucky Breaks, she is trying to handle some powerful and not so positive emotions.  Now, Lucky shows herself able to meet difficult situations head-on, with common sense and perspective.

    (well, except for that momentary loss of sanity when she punched that boy - ahem!)

    It's clear that Lucky is going to weather adolescence just fine.  Oh, it'll be rocky at times (because like I said, Lucky is both fierce and tenacious), but her sense of humor and her intelligence will see her through.  And Miles will be okay, too - because he's got a great friend in Lucky, plus a loving family in Justine and Mrs. Prender.

    And Lincoln?  Well, I'd definitely vote for him for president! 

    Hmm, this seems not to have been a review so much as a catching up on some folks I love to visit when I'm in the area.  So, to wrap it up - this is a funny, thought-provoking, and touching finale to Lucky's trilogy.  And I'm devastated that I won't be able to read about Hard Pan any more.  Nooooooooooo!

    Wednesday, September 7, 2011

    In praise of school uniforms

    Today was the first day of school for the almost 700,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  Can you imagine the effect that had on commute times?  Yep, we'll be in traffic hell until June.

    In homes all across Los Angeles, scenes played out much like this one, which took place in my bedroom at about 7 am this morning.

    (Nadia, a high school senior, enters the bedroom of Eva, her mother, who is getting ready for work.)
    Nadia:  So how do I look?
    Eva: That's a cute blouse.  But woah, those shorts are really short.
    Nadia:  It's going to be super-hot today.
    Eva:  Yeah, but those shorts are going to attract a lot of attention.  Do you really want to make that kind of impression on your first day as a senior?
    (there follows a heated discussion on short shorts, which ends with Nadia leaving the room.  She returns a short time later in a different outfit)
    Nadia: So how's this?
    Eva: Hey, I like that dress with the blouse over it!  But...(looks more closely) the hem is so uneven.  Did you cut it?
    Nadia:  It's part of the look, Mom.
    Eva: (figuring that a ragged hem is better than short shorts) I like it.  You look really cute and whimsical.
    (Nadia looks immediately dubious at this sign of parental approval and leaves the room, returning a short time later in a third outfit)
    Eva: Oh no!  That dress is way too short and way too low-cut!  It would be fine for going out at night with friends but no way is that appropriate for school.
    Nadia: (pulls the loosely crocheted vest over her decolletage) I'm wearing a vest over it!
    Eva: No! Definitely not!
    (Nadia stomps away and returns in a fourth outfit - a loose thrift store dress with no rips or tears)
    Nadia: I feel totally ugly in this but at least it's comfortable.
    Eva: That's a fine compromise between comfort and style - you look cute without trying too hard
    Nadia: I don't feel like I look dramatic, and you know I like to look dramatic. How about if I wear dark lipstick?
    Eva: Perfect! And there's your centimeter-long hair and your nose ring for added impact.
    Nadia: True.

    One day down - all the rest of the school year to go.

    Tuesday, September 6, 2011

    Review of Fly Trap by Frances Hardinge

    Hardinge, Frances.  Fly Trap.  Harper, 2011.

    The streets of my town are covered with layer upon layer of memories.  I've lived here most of my life, and as I walk, run, bike and drive through the Venice streets, I somehow become simultaneously all the different versions and ages of Eva who were here before me. 

    Cities within cities, cities layered upon cities - there is something intensely intriguing about two or more locales existing in the same place at the same time.  Neil Gaiman explores the concept in many of his books, including Coraline.  China Mieville is similarly fascinated - just check out the enthralling The City & the City, or his YA novel Un Lun Dun.

    In Fly Trap (sequel to Fly by Night), the town of Toll is really two towns in one - Toll-by-day and Toll-by-night.  At dusk, the citizens of daytime Toll scurry into their homes and bolt their doors, not daring to come out until dawn.  In fact, they couldn't even if they wanted to - their doors have been locked from the outside as well, and entire facades of buildings shifted so that the daylight doors are blocked while the night-time doors are revealed.  Then it's time for the the nightlings to come out to conduct their business.  The nightlings live in the cracks, hollows, and left-over spaces carved out from the daytime dwellings - and never do they see their own city by daylight.

    Our 12-year-old heroine Mosca Mye, black-eyed and ferret-faced, is a true nighttime child, whether she likes it or not, thanks to the Beloved whose hour she was born in (Beloveds are like minor gods, and each has its sacred hours in the year).  As such, she is uniquely able, with her companion Eponymous Clent, to scrabble in the nasty crevasses of Toll in order to unearth plots and save the world (or at least Toll - or okay, her own skin if nothing else).

    Mosca doesn't have much comfort or security in her life.  She's homeless and townless - though not friendless, as she's got Clent and of course her fearsome goose Saracen for companionship.  And Mosca is quite fierce herself, a true survivor.  But I just yearn for her to have a mama to hug her and love her and feed her warm meals.

    Frances Hardinge is a wondrous writer.  From Fly by Night to Well-Witched to The Lost Conspiracy, her books are full meals, aromatic and filling.  And I do think that the next time I lope down a Venice street, I'll be imagining Mosca Mye headed down that same street, clogs clopping determinedly against the sidewalk and pipe clamped firmly between her teeth.

    Highly recommended for ages 10 and up.

    Down and out

    When wracked by insomnia at 3 am, I comfort myself by thinking how lucky I am to be lying in a comfortable bed under a solid roof - safe, warm, and secure.

    I'm just finishing up Fly Trap by Frances Hardinge, in which the 12-year-old Mosca Mye spends much of her time cold, hungry and certainly homeless.  In Holly Goldberg Sloan's I'll Be There, brothers Sam and Riddle aren't exactly homeless, but one can't really say they have a real home either.  And in Tim Wynne-Jones' Blink & Caution, two teens are living very rough indeed.

    We've always had a large homeless population in Venice, but it seems to have gotten bigger or at least more visible over the last few months.  During my daily early morning run on Ocean Front Walk, I've seen the number of sleeping bags and encampments double, treble - and now it's quite astounding.  And by 7:30 am, the sleeping bags are rolled up and folks have melted into our usual summer crowds.

    Many of these sleeping folks are young, and some are clearly teens.  It's uncomfortable at best and terrifyingly dangerous at worst.  Great organizations like the Los Angeles Youth Network help some youth but not all.

    Libraries can provide daytime shelter from the elements, computers, non-judgmental librarians, information, and policies that allow homeless teens to get some form of library card (even one that just lets them get online and perhaps check out a limited number of items).  Because the issue is clearly not going away.

    I shot this video while biking along the Ocean Front Walk at 6:30 am this morning.