Thursday, July 31, 2008

Tween Books with Girl Characters - 4 Hearty Endorsements

Notice how I most definitely did not call this a list of Girl Books! There's been some great stuff in the blogosphere about the dangers of typecasting books and readers by gender, and I agree wholeheartedly.

That said, these will be easier sells to tween girls than to boys - just look at the dang covers!

Which brings us to Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls Book 1: Moving Day by Meg Cabot (Scholastic 2008). 9-year-old Allie's dilemma is one with which not all readers will sympathize (or at least not this reader, living as she does in a small, bland, mid-century house) - her family is moving from the suburbs to an old, three-story house in a more urban area. "12-foot-ceilings!" her mother gushes, but Allie is convinced the house is haunted by a disembodied zombie hand - it's just plain creepy. Leaving her friends and school behind is also not a happy prospect, even though her supposed best friend is less than ideal and her new school and neighbors seem great, so (in a dorky and predictable bit of plotting) Allie tries to sabotage the move. Doesn't work, naturally, and the reader will be glad, for Allie's next-door neighbor Erica is just her age and understands the important social niceties; when Allie tells her she'll be attending Erica's school, Erica "let out a polite scream to show she was excited..." Their following conversation leads to one of Allie's rules - "If someone is yelling from excitement, the polite thing to do is yell back." Allie has many more rules for living, and they're all conveniently listed in the back of the book. My only beef with this book is that the girl on the cover looks about 7 years old.

9-year-old Julia Gillian also keeps a list - a list of accomplishments. In Julia Gillian (and the Art of Knowledge) by Alison McGhee (Scholastic, 2008), Julia Gillian spends a lot of time wandering around a 9-square-block area of Uptown Minneapolis with her large and extremely lovable dog Bigfoot. What else can she do? It's summer and her parents, both teachers, are trying to complete their master's degrees and thus spend all day indoors, surrounded by heaps of books. So Julia walks with Bigfoot and visits with assorted folks in her neighborhood - oh, and her Problem (because every main character must have one) is that she is scared to read a certain green book because there is an old dog in it that she is quite certain will die. So - not much thrill and action in this book, but huge amounts of quirkiness and charm. Julia wears her home-made raccoon mask (one of her accomplishments) in public, has a tendency to use mannered phrases like "indeed I do," and in general shows every sign of being the kind of geeky, odd child that is close to my heart. A certain 9-year-old niece of mine who happens to live in this very neighborhood will recognize many of the local restaurants and landmarks lovingly mentioned, and all readers will fall in love with Bigfoot the Dog. This is the first book by Alison McGhee, and hopefully there will be many more to come.

In A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban (Harcourt, 2007), 10-year-old Zoe yearns to learn to play the piano, but instead is given a Perfectone D-60 organ with "luxuriously realistic walnut veneer!" and "ultra-gold speaker covers, now in fashion weaves!" - in other words, the dorkiest of instruments. Dodgedly, Zoe takes lessons and eventually masters her chosen piece ('Forever in Blue Jeans' by Neil Diamond) to play at the Perform-O-Rama (which is to organists what a recital is to pianists). The short chapters, Zoe's put-upon but hopeful tone, and her imperfect parents (her Mom loves her busy job and is thus somewhat distracted; her dad is agoraphobic and mostly stays at home and takes such mail-order classes as Patty Cake, Patty Cake: Make Some Cash) are some of the things I like about this book. There are Friend Issues, too, and they are realistic, poignant - and funny as hell. Another first author - woo!

And now for something completely different - Chris Riddell's Ottoline and the Yellow Cat (HarperCollins, 2007). Young Ottoline (who is perhaps 7? 8? Not that it makes the slightest difference in this particular tale) lives alone in an apartment, watched over by her friend and companion Mr. Munroe, while her parents gallivant around the world. No, this is nothing like Eloise. Although as richly and humorously illustated as the Eloise books, the similarities end there. Mr. Munroe is a small, mysterious bog creature from Norway who very reluctantly lets Ottoline brush his long and abundant hair when she needs comfort - they have a wonderfully sweet and understanding friendship. Together they solve a crime involving a cat burglar, rich ladies, and numerous lap dogs, and more adventures are in the works. A certain 13-year-old I know with sophisticated reading tastes found this book entrancing, and I think fanatic AND reluctant readers of both genders would love it as well. Truly odd and truly wonderful.

Trouble by Gary D. Schmidt

Well, I’m torn. I thought I’d never love a literary dog more than the clever and stalwart Cracker in Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam by Cynthia Kadohata (Atheneum 2007), but now there is Black Dog. Her head-cocking, belly-exposing, tail-wagging, grinning presence makes her one of the main characters in Trouble, and one of the best reasons to read the book.

Oh yeah, and there’s Henry, a 14-year-old from an old-money Massachusetts family, whose older brother Franklin (a sports hero but otherwise not a stellar individual) is hit while jogging by a pick-up truck. Inside the truck is Chay Chuan, a teen from Cambodia. Although the accident was clearly just that, the rift between the whites (both rich/entitled and blue-collar/blame-their-woes-on-immigrants) and the recent Cambodian immigrants widens precipitously. Franklin loses his arm and then much more, sister Louisa and both parents are almost house-bound with shock and sorrow, and Henry – he decides to hike up Mt. Katahdin in Maine, as he had always wanted to do with Franklin.

While the first half of the book deals with the family’s and community’s various reactions (mostly negative) to the situation, and does so in a measured and masterful way, the second half gets a little out of control. Henry and his buddy Sanborn (a laconic guy with a dry sense of humor whose dorky exchanges and tussles with Henry keep things real throughout the book) find themselves headed north in Chay’s pick-up (he’s running away) and suddenly there are encounters with evil, prejudiced fishermen, escapes down one-way streets, accidental participation in a classic car parade, Black Dog running happily amok after a balloon and tossing members of a marching band like bowling pins, a rather symbolic shipwreck, and even a shooting. Like that sentence, the second half goes on too long and is too filled with unlikely events.

Schmidt ties things up satisfactorily at the end, and Henry comes to terms with his intense and contradictory feelings about Franklin, Chay, his family, and his life in a way that is believable and moving.

For teens ages 12 and up.

The audiobook version is narrated by Jason Culp. His Massachusetts and Maine accents may or may not be authentic but they sure added to my enjoyment of this New England tale.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson

Ibbotson, Eva. The Dragonfly Pool. Dutton, 2008
Available September 4.

11-year-old Tally has received a scholarship to attend free-spirited Delderton Hall, an “experimental” boarding school in Devon, and though she doesn’t want to leave her loving father, London in 1939 is not a very secure place to be. As it turns out, she thrives there (clothing and classes are optional and the dance instructor exhorts the students to be forks or pillows - sounds a bit like my younger daughter's Waldorf-influenced school. Except for the first two items.).
When the (fictional) country of Bergania, whose king has refused to let Hitler’s armies march through his land, announces an international children’s folk-dancing festival, Tally convinces her school to take part. During the festival, the king is assassinated, and Tally and her friends and teachers rescue 12-year-old Prince Karil and smuggle him to England, where he must live virtually imprisoned by his well-born relatives, until he manages to escape and is united with his Delderton Hall friends again.
Tally has a bit of Sara Crewe of A Little Princess about her; although her father is still alive, she is a singularly compassionate and generous person, well-liked by almost all who meet her; luckily, her worries and occasional imperfections make her wisdom lovely rather than irritating. Prince Karil and several adults receive meticulous and fascinating character development, but many characters remain rather one-dimensional, known mainly by one or two eccentric traits (a girl with allergies, a boy from Africa). The unsympathetic characters, and in particular Karil’s awful London-based relatives, come across as ludicrous cartoons, so unremittingly negative is their depiction.
Although the battle between good and evil is painted with a broad brush, Ibbotson treats most issues with a wise, subtle, and always humorous touch; as always, her writing is sublime and her tone is impeccable. The epilogue, taking place six years later, is most satisfying and will have readers giggling through their tears. The epitaph of a tiny dog (and pivotal character) on the last page is both ridiculous and hilarious - and it ensures that any lingering feelings that this book had too earnest a tone at times are swept away.
Approximately grades 4 to 7.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin

Those who read last year’s Mistress of the Art of Death, a forensic mystery set in 12th century Cambridge, England, will not be disappointed by this second installment in the series. These books are so much more than mere historical mysteries, which often contain jarring dialogue and anachronistic details. Our heroine is Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar (Adelia for short, thank goodness), raised by a Christian and a Jew in southern Italy and educated by Muslims to be a doctor – more specifically, to be a forensic pathologist.

Having been summoned by Henry II to England to solve some particularly ghastly child murders in Book 1, she has been commanded to stay in England in case he should need her, and need her he does – when his beloved mistress Rosamund Clifford is poisoned, Adelia must not only find the murderer but also prove that it was not Queen Eleanor – for if it was, another civil war might rip England apart.

Accompanied not only by her faithful companions Mansur (a Muslim who accompanied her from Italy) and plain-spoken old Gyltha, but also by her baby Allie (product of a love affair with a man who is now unfortunately Bishop of Saint Albans), Adelia reluctantly sets forth – and is instantly embroiled in intrigue, murder, and decaying corpses.

Adelia is a deliciously complex woman. Dedicated and scary-smart, she has spent most of her life focused on her science, and only since arriving in England has her heart begun to catch up to her brain. She is fond of but exasperated by England, with its gorgeous land and warm people, but with a most primitive way of thinking about many things - most frustratingly for Adelia, about women and their proper role in life. Adelia is bull-headed and has few social graces - she yells when embarrassed and her attire is a disgrace - but her intelligence and love of her work make her fascinating.

This book is not without flaws. Neither Gyltha nor Mansur are given much opportunity to become much more than stock characters, and baby Allie is practically a cardboard figure of a baby (although she does wet her clouts and need to be nursed). Less seriously, there isn’t much sense of the 12th century, although Ariana Franklin takes pains to explain in an afterword that several details that seem anachronistic are actually accurate. I suppose I prefer my Middle Ages as stinky and earthy as possible, but this is just a quibble; it’s pretty certain Henry II’s subjects didn’t think of themselves as either quaint or backwards. All in all, this is a well-balanced mixture of detective story and medieval saga, sure to satisfy fans of both genres.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A New Steampunk Anthology

For those of you interested in the Steampunk genre, there is a new anthology of short stories called Steampunk by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. I haven't read it yet (it's going on the wishlist!), but it's gotten great reviews, including this one from LA Times. These are "grown-up" stories but I bet teen fans would love them.

See my post on Steampunk below for a definition of sorts, plus examples in the YA world.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Internet for Infants

Heh! Check this out for an uneasy laugh, courtesy of the talented Kean Soo, creator of Jellaby. Thanks to Educating Alice for the link.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Lamplighter by D.M. Cornish

I’ve finally finished the lusciously thick and richly illustrated second volume of the “Monster Blood Tattoo” trilogy, and I’m horrified that there is only one more to go. I’ve never been much of a Fan-Girl (well all right, I did get my high school to change my middle name to “Galadriel” on all official school documents), but this stuff is too good to be anything but obsessive about.

Lamplighter by D.M. Cornish (Putnam, 2008) is, like its predecessor Foundling (Putnam, 2007), a dark and dense pleasure indeed. Young Rossamund has begun his prenticeship as an Emperor’s Lamplighter at the labyrinthine stronghold Winstermill and begins to adapt to the rigorous schedule. Rossamund has a remarkable talent for finding and befriending the gems among some truly rough characters, and these friends come in very handy as a sinister hidden plot results in Winstermill being controlled by nefarious schemers. To shorten the rest of the plot to one sentence – Rossamund and his reluctant friend Threnody are prematurely placed in the most dangerous, monster-ridden stronghold in the Empire, survive several nasty monster attacks, and end up back at Winstermill, where Rossamund is accused of something that the reader has suspected all along. What that is, you’ll have to discover for yourself; I’m no plot spoiler!

The many vivid characters and their intriguing relationships to each other, the intricate details of dress, routine, language, food, and everything else, and most of all Rossamund’s growing awareness of his own nature and thoughts about the world – these elements, bound together by masterful prose, make reading these two books an intense experience. Cornish has built an entire rich world, and I plunged into it gladly.

May I use that word “obsessive” again? Cornish’s drawings, tables, charts, glossary, and maps point to a seriously deranged mind. Reading these books is like reading a foreign language you’re not quite fluent in; you have to keep checking the glossary until finally you just let the strange words sweep you away into the story. In one section of Lamplighter, Rossamund and some others play a card game called Pirouette. Some general rules were given. I checked the glossary; there was an entry but the full rules weren’t given. However – I am quite sure that if I dropped by Mr. Cornish’s house in Australia and asked him to play a game of Pirouette with me, he’d whip out a deck of cards (handpainted by himself) and teach me to play.

Visit to get an inkling of the Half-Continent’s allure. There's even a blog, oh happy day.

For obsessive readers grades 8 and up, including addled adults.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Forever Rose by Hilary McKay - and some musings on Capital Letters

Thank goodness for British children’s books! There is something about a book in which characters say “shan’t” and use mysterious objects called spongebags and occasionally talk in Capital Letters that warms my heart like a spot of tea and some beans on toast.

Forever Rose by Hilary McKay (Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, 2008) is the fifth and last in the series that started with Saffy’s Angel in 2002. As fans of the Casson Family series know, there are four children (each named after a color), an absent-minded and impractical but loving artist Mum, and a Dad who is an Important Artist and lives in London. That the family members are eccentric and unpredictable is only part of this series’ charm – it’s the warmly affectionate and usually understanding (if occasionally disparaging or scornful) way the Cassons treat each other that is so enticing. Oh, and the deft way McKay has with words, letting her address significant issues with a lovely lightness (somewhat reminiscent of Eva Ibbotson and Sylvia Waugh). And don’t forget those capital letters! Yes, everything and everyone comes together at the end of this book and it is Very Slightly Soppy, but oh so satisfying. I wish there would be more!

It must be Winnie-the-Pooh (Dutton, 1926)that first got me hooked on capital letters. I know many folks think they’re a tad twee, but I think they’re so perfect for expressing thoughts of a particularly Serious and Weighty Nature (if only in the mind of the character or narrator, who might be slightly pompous or might simply be waxing ironical). Here is an excerpt from Winnie-the-Pooh’s “Eeyore Has a Birthday” chapter. Owl has asked Pooh what Pooh is giving Eeyore for his birthday.

‘“I’m giving him a Useful Pot to Keep Things In, and I wanted to ask you…”
“Someone has been keeping honey in it,” said Owl.’

Then Pooh asks Owl to write “A Happy Birthday” on the present, as his own spelling is Wobbly. Owl writes, “HIPY PAPY BTHUTHDTH THUTHDA BTHUTHDY.”
‘Pooh looked on admiringly.
“I’m just saying ‘A Happy Birthday,’” said Owl carelessly.
“It’s a nice long one,” said Pooh, very much impressed by it.’

Lord, I love Winnie-the-Pooh.

Remember those hilarious Bagthorpes? The Casson family starts to look pretty darn normal in comparison. In the series “The Bagthorpe Saga” by Helen Cresswell, all the siblings go around madly adding Strings to their Bows and the grown-ups are either ditzy, malicious, or downright bonkers. In Absolute Zero (MacMillan, 1978), the second installment, one sibling enters The Happiest Family in England contest (they’re all constantly entering contests) and – oh horrors – wins. “It will drive us all,” predicted Mr. Bagthorpe, “to the brink of breakdown. If we have to look happy for more than five minutes on end, the strain will prove too much.” In a family of self-important, ambitious, odd individuals, thank goodness there is young Jack and his sweet, stupid dog Zero to keep the family slightly grounded. These books, with their slightly hysterical, extremely farcical, madcap tone, are direct descendents of the Bertie Wooster books by P.G. Wodehouse.

Long live the British! Keep those Eccentric Family Sagas coming!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Completing what I start...

Hmm, the list of books I'm currently reading and listening to keeps growing, and yet I don't seem to be finishing any books, much less reviewing them. But they are ALL good (I've even grown fond of An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England) and reviews will appear soon, as well as the promised posts on middle-grade "girl books" and science fiction. And now, back to the books...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Review of Rex Zero, King of Nothing by Tim Wynne-Jones

11-year-old Rex Norton-Norton (aka Rex Zero) made friends and conquered an ersatz panther in Rex Zero and the End of the World by Tim Wynne-Jones (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007). Now he’s back in Rex Zero, King of Nothing (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008) and dealing with problems ranging from a mysterious and moody Dad (does Rex has a long-lost half-brother??) to a nasty teacher to a beautiful woman with an abusive husband. This last is rather a stretch, plot-wise – Rex and his friend manage to chase away a brutal man, apparently for good, a deed that even a grown-up might find hard to accomplish. But that is the charm of these two books. Rex may be hindered by a lack of context and understanding of Adult Issues, but this also allows him to make leaps of faith that a grown-up might be too inhibited to perform. There are a number of sly and subtle jokes that younger readers might not get but that add another level of humor for older readers.
Bottom line – Rex Zero is a realistic and appealing hero, 1962 Ottawa is faithfully and affectionately portrayed, and both boys and girls in grades 4 to 6 will find this an enjoyable, if not hugely action-packed, read.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What is Steampunk?

Steampunk has a rather exact definition - here is Wikipedia's version - but basically the term refers to the sort of fantasy in which technology has continued along the steam-powered approach of the early industrial age, rather than moving on to electricity, gas, and so on. There is often a gritty, dark, industrial feel to this sort of fantasy. I do stretch this definition to include fantasy with any sort of alternate technology (and by that I do not mean magic).

Some examples:
Any of China Mieville's books (Perdido Street Station, etc)
Airborn by Kenneth Oppel (Eos, 2004) and its sequels
Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series (seriously!)
Philip Reeve's "Hungry Cities Chronicles" series (this is SF, but has a serious Steampunk vibe)
D.M. Cornish's "Monster Blood Tattoo" series

Anime fans should check out Otomo's Steamboy. Disney's Treasure Planet is also a fun example.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Dental Agony

I had the latest in a long series of dental appointments today, all in service of saving Tooth #30, a large molar in my lower right jaw that has been plaguing me since January. Much pain and agony, much visiting of specialists, much wrangling with representatives of my truly inadequate dental insurance. There is, for example, a small piece of metal stuck irretrievably down one of my narrow, crooked tooth roots - just one chapter of this saga.

But Thomas Buddenbrooks, in Thomas Mann's juicy yet erudite family saga Buddenbrooks (first published in 1901), had it so much worse. Toward the end of the novel, he goes to the dentist, Herr Brecht, to find some relief from a decaying tooth that is causing him agony. The dentist's breath smells like cauliflower and beefsteak. During the extraction, undertaken of course without anesthetic, "the pain grew and grew, to limitless, incredible heights; it grew to an insane, shrieking, inhuman torture, tearing his entire brain." After a "violent shaking as if his neck were broken, accompanied by a quick cracking crackling noise," the dentist tells Thomas Buddenbrooks that unfortunately only the crown broke off - the four infected roots are still embedded in his jaw and will have to be pulled out, one at a time. But Thomas can't take anymore and says he'll return the next day. On the way home, he collapses. "He fell upon his face, beneath which, presently, a little pool of blood began to form."

So yeah, I've had a few very bad months, teeth-wise - but I'll try to count my lucky stars. Oh, and read Buddenbrooks for lovingly drawn portraits of some rather eccentric people. The Buddenbrook siblings alone (stalwart Thomas, self-important Antonie, hypochondriac Christian) are worth the price of admission, but there's much, much more.

Frustrating Link

I'm learning as I go, and one thing I learned is that the GoodReads link is very frustrating, as you have to sign in. So I promise to post my reviews in a more readable format in the future - so sorry for the inconvenience!

Back soon with some middle-grade Girl Books and some grown-up SF...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Escaping Reality

I just finished Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan (Viking, 2007), a slim grown-up novel about the very last day at a Red Lobster that is being closed for good. It's an aging restaurant, standing across a parking lot from an aging mall, but Manny, the diligent manager, has put his heart and soul into the place for more than 10 years. After today, he'll be one of several assistant managers at an Olive Garden, but for this last lunch and dinner shift, he's trying to keep his disintegrating staff, not to mention his less-than-satisfactory personal life, together while he gives the best service possible to the few customers who wander through the front doors one last time.

Anyone who has worked in food service, been a supervisor, or simply tried to deal with too many frustrating tasks at once will read this novel with an almost suffocating sense of recognition. There's a big world out there, but for Manny, stuck in his restaurant in the middle of a snowstorm, he can only do the best he can. It's pointless - the restaurant is history, there is no further way to shine here - but he continues to struggle and strive, a very ordinary but noble Sisyphus.

After an uber-realistic novel like this, I need a book that takes the familiar and gives it a twist - not straight fantasy or science fiction, necessarily, but perhaps something like Tunnels by Gordon Roderick and Brian Williams (Scholastic, 2008). 14-year-old Will Burrows, like his father, has a mania for conducting surreptitous archaeological digs underneath the city of London. After his father disappears, Will and his new friend Chester discover a long-lost underground colony, run by a group of odd and menacing creatures called the Styx. The action moved quickly and the details (the clothing, food, and architecture of the folks down below, for intance) were fascinating enough to keep me reading. Two flaws, however, kept this novel from being a completely satisfying experience. First, there were many logical flaws - for instance, how has no one found out about this place, considering all the modern-day development in London? The puny explanation - that those who accidentally found out are "disappeared" down below - simply doesn't work. Many similar questions kept floating into my brain as I read, but I was able to suspend my disbelief most of the time, if only so I wouldn't get fed up and simply stop reading. The more damaging flaw was the flatness of many of the characters. We are told that Will loves his extremely dysfunctional family, but we are given no evidence of this. We are told that Will feels great loyalty toward his father and his friend Chester, and indeed this is a wonderful thing - but when he escapes after suffering terrible dangers, only to immediately go back underground to rescue his father and friend, it feels a bit unreal. We are told about the emotions and attachments of the characters, not shown them, and it makes it hard for the reader to care. Still, readers in grades 6 to 8 will savor the unusual, action-packed plot.

China Mieville is a fantastic writer in the so-called Steampunk genre, having produced such grown-up masterpieces as Perdido Street Station and The Scar. His first young adult novel, Un Lun Dun (Random House, 2008), portrays a sort of alternate London, a dreamlike, surreal world that occasionally interacts with and is affected by "our" London, and vice-versa. A young teen of our world, Zanna, is pulled over to UnLondon because she has been picked out by a book of prophesy as being the Schwazzy, or Chosen One, who will save UnLondon from The Smog (yes, this hideous specter comes from our London, but is controled by evil UnLonders). Zanna and her sassy friend Deeba orient themselves with difficulty to the very different UnLondon, where junk from London becomes sentient (an empty milk carton becomes Deeba's pet) and strange denizens have come up with a whole different sort of economy. Mieville's imagination runs full force, although I felt he reined back a bit on his prose style, keeping his sentences and paragraphs less complex and baroque than in his adult books. Still, this is a gorgeously intricate novel that should appeal to adults as well as kids in grades 6 and above, and especially to fans of Garth Nix's Keys to the Kingdom series.

Lamplighter by D.M. Cornish (Penguin, 2008) is a book I can't wait to read (it's on hold for me in the circulation department as I write - oh joy!). It's the 2nd in the Monster Blood Tattoo series, the first of which was Foundling (Penguin, 2007), which I actually read twice within a few months - a very rare occurrence for me, as there are just TOO many books to read even once, let alone twice. This is the series for readers looking for a complex, ambitious, fully-realized, well-developed world in which to immerse themselves. Rossamund Bookchild is a boy with a girl's name who was abandoned as a baby at a home for foundlings. In his world, the Half-Continent, children (and especially foundlings) dream of becoming brave sailors in the Navy or even heroic monster-killers - but Rossamund is hired to become a Lamplighter for the Empire. On his journey to his new headquarters, however, he has a series of misadventures that lead him to the company of the dashing and mysterious Europe, a monster-slayer of great repute. The humans in Rossamund's world are engaged in a general eradication of monsters, many of whom are indeed quite nasty; however, it doesn't take long for Rossamund to wonder if perhaps not ALL monsters are terrible. This, along with his job as Lamplighter, will certainly be addressed further in the second volume. The detailed drawings and insanely complete addendum (maps, calendars, dictionaries - I'm telling you, this author is totally obsessed) add huge appeal to fantasy-addled readers like me. For readers in grades 6 and up who thrive on challenging fare.

And don't forget the "Hungry Cities Chronicles" by Philip Reeve, which began with Mortal Engines (HarperCollins, 2004). Cities trundling about on giant treads, mashing all beneath them and gobbling up smaller cities ("municipal Darwinism"), while airships rocket above - and young Tom and Hester try to find their place in a mad world. Gripping from the beginning of the series to the end. For grades 6 and up - and for adult fans of China Mieville as well.

I've just finished Waiting for Normal (see my review below) and am starting the second Rex Zero book - good stuff, but I can't wait to escape to other worlds and realities. See you there...

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Graphic Novels for Kids - a Partial Round-up

Are you thinking of those rows of nearly identical paperbacks with bewildering names and endless numbers of volumes? Children's graphic novels are a different animal entirely.

Little Lit's Toon Books imprint (a division of RAW Junior) has published an impressive array of graphic novels for beginning and stepping-stone readers. Most are the same size and shape as a classic independent reader, making them easy to shelve in that section if desired - but the format, with comic-book panels and dialogue in bubbles, is graphic through and through.

For the youngest readers, or for toddlers and preschoolers reading with a grown-up, there is Jack and the Box by Art Spiegelman (RAW Junior/TOON Books, 2008). An exception to the usual I.R. shape, this book is short and wide. Jack, a kid-bunny with Little Orphan Annie eyes, receives a jack-in-the-box as a gift. Understandably wary at first, Jack and his new boisterous toy soon make friends. Anyone, young or old, who has had a love-hate relationship with a jack-in-the-box will savor this very silly book.

Geoffrey Hayes' Benny and Penny in Just Pretend (RAW Junior/TOON Books, 2008) is a gently told, gently illustrated tale of sibling irritation. Benny wants to play pirates but is constantly being interrupted by his little sister (dressed in a princess outfit), who wants to play but doesn't demonstrate the correct piratical spirit (she likes to hug). Needless-to-say, by the end they've reached an understanding. Easy enough for beginning readers, pre-readers will enjoy sharing this with their favorite grown-up or older sibling.

A playful variation of the King Midas myth, Otto's Orange Day by Frank Cammuso and Jay Lynch (RAW Junior/TOON Books, 2008) illustrates (literally) that one should be careful what one wishes for. A cat who loves orange learns that a completely orange world means orange lamb chops - bleah! Luckily, a pizza-loving genie sets things right again. Kids in grades K to 2 will enjoy the misadventures of this retro-looking kitty.

Preschoolers and early readers alike will love Stinky by Eleanor Davis (RAW Junior/TOON Books, 2008). A snaggly-toothed, scraggly-haired monster tries to scare off a boy (gasp!) who starts hanging out in his woods, but they eventually become friends. Stinky and his smelly, lumpy pet toad are hugely appealing - this will be a hit. (and strangely enough, the plot slightly resembles that of Bird Lake Moon by Kevin Henkes, reviewed elsewhere in this blog).

Fans of The Incredibles movie and various Nick Jr. cartoons will appreciate Mo and Jo: Fighting Together Forever by Dean Haspiel and Jay Lynch (RAW Junior/Toon Books, 2008). Two siblings with super-powers can barely stop fighting long enough to thwart the evil Saw-Jaw's plan to hijack the hippo balloon from a big parade. Not so full of charm as the previous titles, but action-packed and sure to appeal to kids in grades 1 to 3.

And moving on to graphic novels for older readers, I recommend Coraline (HarperCollins, 2008)for everyone who loved Neil Gaiman's book. Adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell, it covers the ground of the original story completely, using detailed, realistic drawings to enrich the reader's enjoyment. Some of the illustrations are seriously creepy, but somehow I found that this version lacks the seething evil and dread of the original book. No matter - there is room for both versions in every library collection.

Flight Explorer volume 1 (Villard Books, 2008) is a compilation of 10 graphic short stories by Kean Soo, Kazu Kibuishi, and other contributors. Some have major cute appeal, some are clever, and a couple fall flat, but as a whole, this collection will entertain kids in grades 2 - 5, and will spark the imaginations of young artists/writers. Created by the folks who gave us the more YA/Adult-oriented Flight series.

Love adorable stuff? Try the "Owly" series (Topshelf) by Andy Runton.

Not yet read but eagerly anticipated by this reviewer:
Amelia Rules! (series) by Jimmy Gownley (Diamond Comic Distributors, 2007)
Artemis Fowl: The Graphic Novel by Eoin Colfer (Hyperion, 2007)
Amulet/Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi (Graphix, 2008)
Korgi by Christian Slade (Topshelf, 2007)
Jellaby by Kean Soo (Hyperion, 2008)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Am I a Hufflepuff?

I just finished reading Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days. Based on an obscure Grimm tale, it's written in journal entries, jotted down by Dashti, a teenage Mucker (similar to the nomads of the Mongolian steppes - think yurts and yak milk) who is forced to become lady's maid to Saren, whose father is about to wall her up in a tower for 7 years thanks to Saren's refusal to marry a nasty lord. Dashti is stalwart, practical, brave, good-tempered, resourceful, warm-hearted, and witty - needless to say, she gets herself and the useless Saren out of any number of awful situations.

Any reader will root for Dashti from the beginning; she is an eminently likable heroine. More than just liking her, though, most readers will identify with her. She is the kind of person we all want to be, and while I was immersed in her tale, Dashti and I became indistinguishable. Blame it on the compelling first-person narrative or simple the Magic of Reading. Only when she showed her blind spot by turning honorably away from the man she loved did the spell break momentarily - she was so clearly being an idiot.

Now, I am no Dashti. Nor am I a Harry Potter, a Hermione, or in fact any kind of brave Gryffindor person. If I were at Hogwarts, the Sorting Hat would either put me in Hufflepuff (due to a certain meekness of soul) or Ravenclaw (after all, LAUSD's Sorting Hat put me in the Gifted program). No one would want to read about someone like me. I wouldn't want to read about someone like me!

And yet I've identified with the main character of most of the enthralling books I've read. They are generally just like me, only more inclined to be active and brave, and even when they are so good at magic, derring-do, or witty repartee that I can't quite make the leap, I can easily imagine being their faithful side-kick.

Some of my favorite books have been the ones in which the characters are people I want to befriend. Although I did feel I was part Piglet (meek, often afraid, but a good friend) and part Rabbit (efficient, bossy) with a little Kanga mixed in (common sense), the draw of the Pooh books was the 100 Acre Woods and its denizens - I wanted to live there. I also wanted to live down the street from Charlie Brown et al. Although Lucy would certainly boss me around, Schroeder would probably fall for me. I want to be one of the eccentric adults in Hardpan, where I could be alone for days or weeks on end and when I finally emerged, folks would merely nod in a friendly but not overly-curious manner. Those Eager books - I was the fifth child, always.

So I suppose there are two kinds of books - the sort that take you out of yourself and let you become someone else, doing things you'd never do in your regular humdrum existence, and the sort that make you feel that you're yet another character. One kind for escape, one kind for comfort.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Newbery Buzz

The year is half over - has the next Newbery winner been published yet? I've only ever predicted the Newbery winner correctly twice in my life - Susan Patron's The Higher Power of Lucky and Linda Sue Park's A Single Shard. Or to be accurate, my favorites just happened to win those years.
So far, many of the books I've loved this year aren't even eligible, being British - Well Witched by Frances Hardinge and The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd, for example. But here are some Newbery Possibilities so far:
Fortune's Fool by Kathleen Karr - medieval Germany, a roaming jester and his intrepid companions, plenty of wit and wisdom.
The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry - a smooth and oh-so-satisfying parody of those "old-fashioned" books.
Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls Book 1: Moving Day by Meg Cabot - okay, not exactly high-brow, but oh so fun to read.
I'd like to read Savvy by Ingrid Law, and of course there are any number of nonfiction titles that have been getting great reviews.
Please give me recommendations!

Currently reading...

I've got three books going at the moment.
The cover of Bird Lake Moon by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow 2008), a blurry, old-fashioned photo of a boy with a net in a lake, murmers "for special readers" or perhaps more directly "shelf-sitter." In other words, one isn't in for a rip-roaring adventure yarn. However, I'm enjoying it immensely. The tone is quiet and contemplative, but the plot, involving boys from two different families during a summer at the lake, moves along at an easy, if not action-packed, pace. I'm half-way through and looking forward to diving back in. For kids in grades 4 to 6.
Rex Zero and the End of the World by Tim Wynne-Jones takes place in 1962 in Ottawa, where almost-11-year-old Rex has moved and is trying to make friends before school starts. His huge, sister-dominated family and a mysterious creature on the loose (maybe a panther?) are equally compelling plot elements, related in a breezy tone that makes this an excellent "boy book" for grades 4 to 6.
Finally, I'm listening to An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke, my obligatory grown-up book, about a guy named Sam who bumbles through life. He means well, but manages at 19 to set a fire that kills two people. Later, his marriage fails through sheer inertia and haplessness. The writing is fine, but Sam is irritating as hell - I just want to shake some sense into him.