Saturday, August 30, 2008

Review of Masterpiece by Elise Broach

Masterpiece by Elise Broach (Henry Holt, September 2008)
Marvin, a young beetle, lives with his family in the wall behind the kitchen sink of the Pompaday’s New York City apartment. When 11-year-old James Pompaday gets a pen-and-ink set from his dad, Marvin tries it out, masterfully sketching the scene outside James’ window. Within pages, James (who all the adults think created this amazing masterpiece) is enlisted to make an exact copy of a tiny Durer sketch, so that it can be “stolen” and then tracked to the folks who have been dealing in other stolen Durer drawings. Only James knows that it’s Marvin who is the real artist, and when the plot goes wrong and the real Durer is stolen, they track down the thief.

Even if you accept the beetle-as-prodigy premise (and, as a big fan of The Cricket in Times Square, I do!), this plot strains credulity at many points. However, Marvin is an insightful little bug, the writing is breezy, the plot moves along in a sprightly manner, and the drawings by Kelly Murphy are charming.

For grades 4 to 6.

Review of Impossible by Nancy Werlin

Impossible by Nancy Werlin (Dial Books, September 2008)

Until she turns 18, the only blot on Lucy Scarborough’s life is an insane mother, who abandoned her when she was a baby and now lives on the streets. Lucy loves her foster parents, Leo and Soledad, who send her off to the prom – where she is raped by her date, who dies in a car crash immediately afterward. Lucy, despite the medication she takes, becomes pregnant.

It turns out that Lucy is the latest in a long line of women who give birth at 18 and then go insane. An ancestor named Fenella made the big mistake of refusing an elf lord, who cursed all her descendants to insanity and subservience – unless a Scarborough girl could fulfill three seemingly impossible tasks, detailed in a version of the song Scarborough Fair. Luckily, the modern age, and in particular the Internet, has made all manner of wonders possible, and Lucy accomplishes the impossible in the nick of time.

It’s not the magical portion of this tale that is enthralling, but rather Lucy’s changing feelings toward her longtime friend and neighbor Zach, and the slow transformation of their relationship into something truly strong and even powerful. Only together can they overcome the elf lord’s tyranny.

Part classic YA saga and part modern-day fantasy, this suspenseful and well-written novel will appeal to fans of Ellen Wittlinger and Melissa Marr.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Deep-fried Cheese Curds at the MN State Fair

This is my sis modeling a dish of deep-fried cheese curds at the Minnesota State Fair, one of the top food faves. We also ate grilled corn, Australian Battered Potatoes, Sweet Martha's chocolate chip cookies, lingonberry lefkes, plenty of dairy products, and so on.

We did NOT eat deep-fried alligator on a stick, deep-fried ostrich on a stick, or (sadly) coffee mocha on a stick.

Other food options we declined to explore appear below:

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Pizza Delivery Superheroes

The sight of a pizza delivery person is always inspiring, especially when the pizza is coming to you. Even though I haven't yet ordered a pizza from Galactic Pizza on this trip, the sight of these odd little vehicles pulling up to the curb has given me a frisson of excitement all over Minneapolis. Some evening soon, a skinny dude in a skin-tight superhero costume will come to my door, brandishing a Shroomer pizza.

The weather has been fresh and bright, warm with a trace of crisp breeze - fabulous for the natives, but we visitors were looking forward to some major heat and humidity. A trip to the lake yesterday was refreshing, but did not feature the usual hordes of folks sitting in waist-deep water just to get some relief. We'll probably get our wish just in time for our visit to the State Fair, where it just isn't an authentic experience unless you're dripping with either sweat or an afternoon thunderstorm.

We're taking the whole fams out to Quang's tonight for some eggrolls and bubble tea, but first I have to take the high school senior off to Macalester College in St. Paul for a tour of the campus. As I refuse to travel anywhere specifically to look at universities, the poor child will only get to see colleges in the Twin Cities and in Southern California. It's a good thing so much life-long reading has given her a great imagination...

Monday, August 25, 2008

Review of The Spell Book of Listen Taylor by Jaclyn Moriarty

When I first picked up The Spell Book of Listen Taylor by Jaclyn Moriarty, it seemed to be quite obviously YA, published as it is by the Arthur A. Levine imprint of Scholastic and featuring a 12-year-old girl who finds a book of spells. Easy-peasy!

Well, no. To my initial uneasiness but then vast delight, this book quickly began soaring away from any possibility of pinning it down into a category or genre. Sure, there’s a Junior High School girl named Listen, whose spells may or may not be having some intriguing and unexpected effects on the people around her. But most of the characters are young women in their 20s and 30s, who are dealing with jobs, relationships, children, and other grown-up preoccupations.

The plot starts out scattered and complicated, but the disparate threads all lead the reader to the tightly knitted heart of the center. To reveal too much would detract from the pleasure of this tale, so I will only say that the Zing family (Mr. and Mrs. Zing, their two 30-something daughters Marbie and Fancy, Fancy’s husband Radcliffe, and Marbie’s boyfriend Nathaniel) has an unusual and all-consuming Secret.

Meanwhile, Nathaniel’s daughter Listen has found a handmade book that cheerfully exhorts her to follow easy but very concise instructions that will lead to such results as someone finding something unexpected in a washing machine. She follows these instructions with bemusement and then a kind of desperation – after all, the book promises to “mend your broken heart.” Listen’s heart has been broken by her group of friends, who have turned on her now that they’re all at a new school.

And finally there is Cath Murphy, a young and peculiarly lucky 2nd-grade teacher, whose love affair with a fellow teacher at first seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the story, except that she is Fancy’s daughter Cassie’s teacher.

These young women – Cath, Fancy, Marbie, and Listen – are the heart and soul of the story, with Mrs. Zing (Maudie) playing a more distant but crucial role as well. While Cath is down-to-earth and practical, Fancy and Marbie are more nebulous and fey, drifting through their lives and wondering (or grumbling) at where the winds of chance blow them. All that really inspires them to real action is The Secret – which explains a lot about their apparent passivity. By the end, they have discovered the desire to shape their own destinies. Cath, on the other hand, is put in the unsettling position of having to figure out how much of what she thought was her own free will was due to outside forces.

Listen’s story is the most heart-breaking. I cringed at her absolute acceptance of her friends’ assessment of her as a “taker” because she listens a lot but doesn’t do a lot of talking. After explaining in earnest detail why their group had to “shift away from you,” her friend Donna adds, “And this is really, really hard for us, okay?” It’s devastating, as is Listen’s subsequent failure to find any other friends at her new school.

Moriarty cuts right to the emotional heart of things. Her writing is gorgeous, her characters are odd and unique in the way that people are, and what seems to be a ludicrously far-fetched plot turns out to be … well, not exactly normal, but certainly understandable in terms of ordinary people and extraordinary love. This is a daring and thrilling book, and a damn good read. It’s my new favorite book of the year.

Will teens read this book? Sure, and I really hope that the YA designation doesn’t prevent adults from reading it as well. Librarians, writers, editors, and avid readers, do not be afraid to cross that YA/Adult border with impunity! Break down the barriers! Great books should be read by everyone.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Review of Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls: The New Girl by Meg Cabot

Not having gotten my hands on an ARC, I had to leave on my vacation before my library had received a copy of The New Girl. Happily, my 9-year-old niece, whose mama reads this blog and had checked out Moving Day on my recommendation, had a nice fresh library copy of The New Girl. Even happier, she generously agreed to loan it to me, even though she had only just started it.

This, in my opinion, is a true measure of familial love and affection.

Allie has now moved into her new (but old) house in her new neighborhood. She has a friendly next-door neighbor named Erica with whom she is on Excited Yelling terms ("When someone is yelling at you with excitement, it's polite to yell back"). She is even friendly with Erica's two nice friends, and they are all going to be in the same 4th-grade class together.

However, it isn't easy to start a new school a couple of months into the new year, and so Allie wears her most excellent outfit - a plaid skirt with jeans. After all, "When you are starting your first day ever at a brand-new school, you have to wear something good, so people will think you're nice."

The mean girl of the 4th grade (mean not in the classic Bitch Goddess mode but rather in a rough and physical I'm-gonna-beat-you-up sort of way) makes fun of her outfit the first day and continues to be a thorn in Allie's side. Other concerns are a pressure-filled spelling bee (Allie's parents and grandma show up! No one else's family comes!), a kitten who has to be bottle-fed around the clock, and a tension-filled visit from a cranky grandma.

Allie's voice is consistently vivid and authentic, a joy to read, and there are segments of this book that are so real, it's scary. Grandma's fraught visit, for instance, will bring a shiver of recognition to adults and children alike. The grandchildren try to balance their honest affection for her with their knowledge that she is absolutely likely to buy them totally great presents, while Allie's mom tries not to kill her when Grandma finds it ludicrous that the family has waited weeks for a special back-ordered oven, and buys them one herself. (This on top of many fault-finding and/or catty comments from Grandma on all aspects of the house and family).

Allie's new friends occasionally speak more like sitcom characters or college students than real 4th-graders. For instance, Sophie says, "All we're saying Alie should do is incapacitate her enemy, then run for help." Fair enough, but when asked to explain what incapacitate means, she goes on to say, "You know. Prevent Rosemary from functioning normally for a moment because she's busy writhing in pain." This and several other similar examples occasionally jarred me out of what is otherwise a pitch-perfect novel.

This is a fast-paced read with lots of funny bits to savor, and kids in grades 3 and 4 will love it. My favorite rule? "The polite thing to say when someone gives you a compliment is Thank You."

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Many Reviews are in the Works

I brought an entire suitcase of ARCs with me to Minneapolis, the idea being that I will not only get lots of reading done, but will also have room in my suitcase to take plenty o' new clothes and Penzey's spices back home with me.

On my to-do list (besides hanging with my homeboys and girls) - a visit to Quang's, featured in Julia Gillian (and the Art of Knowing) which happens to take place right here in Uptown Minneapolis; a long day of State Fair; immersion in various lakes; plenty of reading and reviewing; many visits to Wuollet's Bakery.

Tune in soon for reviews and some very dorky pix.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Review of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

Even as a desperately unhappy student in a Los Angeles public high school, I knew that the boarding school life was not for me. The idea of being forced to live with teenagers 24 hours a day with no escape was absolutely horrifying; sure, I was a teenager myself, but it was only a regrettable and temporary condition, soon to be rectified. Other teens, it seemed to me, absolutely gloried in their hormone-soaked, irrational, enclosed universe. I hated it and wanted out. Now.

Boarding school, from what I can tell through reading The Literature, is being a teenager to the nth degree. Living, eating, socializing, and attending class with your peers leads to a hothouse atmosphere that is like college dorms without the increased responsibility, rationality, and brain development that usually kicks in between the ages of 18 to 22. Scary! Plus you can probably count on most boarding school kids to be rich/spoiled, right? Unless it’s one of those schools for “challenging” children, which is a whole other kettle of fish.

Excellent fodder for YA books, however. British authors have been setting books at boarding schools for years, from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett through Harry Potter to Meg Rosoff’s What I Was and the upcoming The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson. South Africa produced the excellent and kooky Spud by John Van de Ruit, to be followed soon by (what else) The Madness Continues.

Although we don’t possess the strong tradition of boarding schools that the British do, American authors have jumped into the ring with John Green’s Looking for Alaska, the terrifying Waverly Academy of the Gossip Girls series by Cecily von Ziegesar, and adult books such as Cornelia Read’s The Crazy School (talk about the boarding school from hell).

Which brings us to E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. As in her previous books, Lockhart brings us a heroine who has a very unique and particular way of looking at her life. Frankie has an analytic and active mind, so she is not content to merely rest on her laurels when she miraculously (after becoming pretty and growing boobs over the summer) lands a gorgeous, smart, and nice Senior named Matthew. Most importantly, he is a big man at Alabaster Prep – his friends are not only the most witty and fun students on campus but are also (as Frankie discovers) members of a secret society called the Order of the Basset Hounds. They are also all guys – and Frankie, being female, is locked out.

Frankie discovers that there is nothing she detests more than not being taken seriously. Sure, the guys think she is cute and smart, but Frankie knows that isn’t enough. She wants total admittance into what she sees as the real circle of power and knowledge on campus – and so she discovers the secret history (unknown even to its current members) of the Basset Hounds, and proceeds to mastermind a series of outrageous pranks, attributing them to the Senior she most wants to impress – the enigmatic Alpha Dog. When all comes out, she becomes reviled by the very circle she wanted to join, but that turns out to be acceptable to Frankie. The main thing is, she has become notorious, and no one will ever underestimate her again.

Sassy, witty, fast-paced, and occasionally frustrating (WHY is Frankie wasting her considerable powers on impressing these chuckle-headed guys?), this is boarding school fiction at its best. Like all boarding schools, Frankie's Alabaster Prep is a great place to read about, but I wouldn't want to live there.

Monday, August 18, 2008

List-o-mania - a review of Sarah Simpson's Rules for Living by Rebecca Rupp

Here is a short and very incomplete list of books featuring lists:

1. Meg Cabot's Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls: Moving Day - a 9-year-old girl makes a list of such important Life Rules as "Don't Shove a Spatula Down Your Best Friend's Throat."
2. Alison Mcghee's Julia Gillian (And the Art of Knowing) - a 10-year-old girl lists her Personal Accomplishments, including making paper mache masks.
3. Julie Schumacher's The Book of One Hundred Truths - a 12-year-old girl who tells many lies must list 100 truths, among them "I don't know what to write in this notebook."
4. Lee Wardlaw's 101 Ways to Bug Your Parents - a 12-year-old boy makes money off this self-explanatory list, which includes #19 - "Don't Flush."
5. Jennifer Holm's Middle School is Worse Than Meatloaf - a 7th-grader's list of stuff she wants to accomplish over the school year includes #3 - "Look good in the school photo for once!!!!"

Why so many books featuring list-writing kids? Besides being a convenient gimmick, kids really DO love lists. I was one such kid, as proven by several journals I kept over the years. Lists of friends ("not in order!") predominate, but at age 13 I wrote a list of "people I'd like to have a conversation with (not in order). These are the people I picked on Jan. 14, 1979." The list includes Jesus and George Washington, among other notable figures (to cover my bases and to prove I'd been paying attention, most likely) but then gets to the real meat: #5 - Lucy Van Pelt. #6 - Charlie Brown. #7 - Snoopy. It degenerates from there, with #13 being "any cat" and the 14th and last personage being "Morris the Cat speciffically (sic)."

The plump and orange-haired 12-year-old heroine of Sarah Simpson's Rules for Living therefore feels very familiar to me. Sarah writes much more interesting lists in her journal than I ever did, including "My List of Awful Things" which starts with #1 - "The universe is falling apart." Yep, that's pretty awful. She also includes #4 - "I am really ugly." which to a 12-year-old girl is just as bad. In this very short and breezy book, Sarah gets through sixth-grade, learns to tolerate and even like a geeky but smart and ethical guy, handles the moving-in of her mom's boyfriend and 5-year-old son with something approaching grace, and even begins to treat her dad's new Malibu Stacy wife with civility. That's a lot of progress in 84 short pages, but thanks to Sarah's cranky intelligence, it works.

Recommended for kids ages 8 - 12.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Two Intriguing Graphic Novels for Kids

Although the jackets of these books are bright and winsome enough to attract young children, a closer look will reveal the darker side of these stories. On the back jacket of Korgi: Book 1 by Christian Slade (Top Shelf Productions, 2007), a troll-like creature lurks darkly behind a tree. Under an illustration of two anime-cute kids and a pink rabbit (all looking a tad worried) on the cover of Amulet: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi (Graphix/Scholastic, 2008), a tentacled horror emerges from a partly closed door.

Korgi is, except for an introduction by Wart, a toad who is Scrollkeeper of a magical village, completely wordless, relying on the black ink illustrations to tell the story, both in panels and full spreads. Korgis, Wart tells us, have brought new joy and energy to a small woodland village inhabited by amiable, pointy-eared folk called Mollies. One day a young Korgi named Sprout chases a winged creature far away, and Ivy, a young Mollie, follows him. They end up falling into a scary place infested by giant spiders and all manner of fearsome creatures, including a troll who wants to eat them. They get away, thanks to Sprout's awesome fire-breathing abilities and Ivy's cool wings, and happily return to the village. However...! A creature bearing a strong resemblance to an evil hamster has spied on them and reports back to its creepy alien-looking master. And thus ends book 1 - to be continued. The atmosphere is pure fairy-tale in that it manages to be both enchanting and menacing. Danger lurks all around Ivy and her village, yet one is certain that the innocence of the Mollies and the bravery of the Korgis will see them through the attacks that are sure to come in the next books. Recommended for ages 6 to adult.

Amulet has some seriously chilling elements to it and should probably be avoided by particularly young and/or sensitive kids. The prologue depicts the terrifying death of Emily and Naven's dad in a harrowing car accident, witnessed by Emily and her mom. 2 years later, Emily, her younger brother Naven, and their mom move to a large and mysterious house that has been in the family for ages. Almost immediately, the family is sucked into terrifying adventure - Emily and Naven find an amulet, their mom is swallowed alive by a gruesome slimy blob with many teeth, and they find their missing great-grandfather, who is apparently an inventor/ruler of the alternate world Alledia. He dies, bequeathing his power and his odd assortment of robots (one of them the pink rabbit) to Emily. They rescue their mom, who has been poisoned, and are chased and attacked by any number of vile creatures. As Book 1 ends, they are traveling (in their great-grandfather's enormous walking house) to another city of Alledia to find an antidote to the poison. Told in classic comic book form on glossy pages and in full color, this is an absorbing and hugely entertaining read. There are several thrilling twists and turns, and the anime-esque illustrations add fascinating details to the story. Not for the faint-hearted or very young, but kids ages 8 and up will be entranced. Oh, and apparently it's being made into a movie starring young Willow and Jaden Smith, children of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith.

Review of The Dead & the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer

What is it about post-apocolyptic novels that is so devastatingly fascinating? Reading them is like picking at a scab – it’s painful but tantalizing. I listened to The Road by Cormac McCarthy on my CD Walkman while staggering around my neighborhood; if my stricken, tear-stained face attracted any stares, I didn’t notice.

The Dead & the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer (Harcourt, 2008) is a companion to her earlier Life as We Knew It (Harcourt, 2006). Same disaster (asteroid hits the moon out of alignment and worldwide cataclysmic disasters – floods, earthquakes, volcanoes – result), different location.

This time we experience the hell through the eyes of 17-year-old Alex, who lives in an apartment in New York City. He only has a couple of pages to be a normal guy with a job in a pizza parlor and a successful berth as a scholarship student in a prominent Catholic boys’ school before all hell breaks loose and suddenly he must keep his two younger sisters safe in a world gone mad. His parents are missing and presumed (at least by Alex) dead and his older brother is a Marine in California.

The resulting chaos will be familiar to those who have read this genre. Natural disasters wipe out millions, food becomes scarce, hunger, disease, and violence wipe out millions more – and then, of course, a permanent soot-layer from the volcanoes covers the sun and so no more plants can grow. Grim? At least Pfeffer doesn’t add cannibalism into the mix!

What both intrigues and horrifies me about this literature is that I’m quite certain I’d be one of those who would die quickly – if not in the first 24 hours, then in the next week or two. I simply possess no survival skills – can’t forage, have no medical knowledge, don’t know how to use weapons, can’t even start a decent fire in my fireplace. I’m doomed. The horrifying part? I’m a mom, and I wouldn’t be able to keep my kids alive.

That’s what made The Road cut so close to the bone – at heart, it’s about a dad trying to keep his kid not just alive, but also human. And in The Dead & the Gone, Alex’s terror at the seeming impossibility of keeping his sisters safe and alive is the most moving part of the book. What is happening outside Manhattan feels meaningless to him, because his entire life has narrowed to one devastated island. Unfortunately, this leads to a disconnected feeling of unreality rather than heightened intensity. And where happens to the thousands of people who live right in Alex's immediate neighborhood? He has dealings with almost none of them, even right after the disaster.

This didn’t tear my heart out the way Life as We Knew It did, perhaps only because I read that book first. However, this is an intense and gripping story of bravery and hard choices.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Review of The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan

My review copy of The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan (Scholastic, 2008) came with 6 game cards embedded in the cover. After musing about how this would work in the public library, it occurred to me to read John Mason’s (Scholastic's Director of Library and Educational marketing, Trade Books) accompanying letter – library editions, of course, will feature reinforced binding and NO game cards.

Game cards? Yes, this is one of those “it’s a book! And a trading-card game! And an online game!” multi-platform series thingies. There will be ten books (outlined by Rick Riordan and written by various authors including Gordon Korman and Patrick Carman), hundreds of playing cards (starting September 9, you can buy Card Pack #1, containing 16 random cards, for only $6.99!), and over $100,000 worth of prizes. Oh, and maybe Dreamworks movie as well. Seriously.

Luckily, the online game isn’t up yet, as the street date for the book is September 9, 2008, so I didn’t have to worry about that aspect. (The website is up, though, and I did learn that Rick Riordan’s last name is pronounced not “Reer-dun” but “Rire-dun.”) I’m a book reviewer, damn it, so I’m going to review the book!

Not that I got to read the whole thing – due to the highly secretive and lucrative nature of The Game, only the first ¾ of the book was made available to reviewers, and the first real clue was not revealed.

That said, this book is part Westing Game, part Da Vinci Code, part National Treasure, and part The Amazing Race. 11-year-old Dan and his 14-year-old sister Amy (orphans, of course) are plunged into intrigue and adventure when their beloved grandmother Grace Cahill dies and they learn that they are part of a huge and mysterious family that wields huge power and prestige. Members of the various branches of the Cahill family are offered a choice – receive $1 million now or forfeit the money in favor of one clue that will lead them on a worldwide hunt for the secret of the Cahill family. Teams compete viciously against each other, and there is danger and excitement galore.

As fans of the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series know, Riordan has an accessible and appealing writing style, and he knows how to move a story forward. Dan and Amy are relatively fleshed out (Dan is a whiz at numbers and collects odd stuff; Amy is a shy and cautious reader), but most of the other characters, and especially the assorted evil family members, are completely implausible caricatures. That would be okay if this were a game of Clue, but I personally like my villains to have a bit more juiciness and moral ambiguity about them, not to mention a weensy bit of believability.

If this series encourages kids to read, I will be content (and so, he says, will Rick Riordan). If this series also encourages kids to buy many trading cards as well as millions of copies of the books, Scholastic will be content. Will children be content? Is this the next book-based craze?

We shall see.
For ages 8 to 12

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

(very) early review of Tillie Lays An Egg by Terry Golson

Tillie Lays An Egg (Scholastic Press) won't be published until January 2009 , which means I couldn't even find a photo of the jacket art to show you, but I couldn't resist writing an early review.

Terry Golson is very slightly chicken-mad - on the website devoted to her hens, one can check out their activities (inside and outside their coop!) via hen-cam, and of course Golson blogs regularly about the gals. Golson is also a cookbook writer, one of which deals exclusively with - surprise! - eggs.

Tillie Lays An Egg is about 7 chickens who live on Little Pond Farm. Six of these hens lay eggs regularly in 3 comfy nesting boxes, but the adventurous Tillie likes to explore; her eggs are laid in such inappropriate places as a dustpan, a sugar bowl, and an ironing board.

This functions as a very easy guessing game book - children are asked "Where has Tillie laid her egg?" and can easily find it in the accompanying photos. The text is simple and straightforward, just like Tillie. "On Wednesday, Tillie goes into the kitchen. She does not find any worms, but she does find some breakfast. Delicious, she thinks. This tastes much better than the corn in the barnyard." The photo shows a curious Tillie on the kitchen table, leaning eagerly over a bowl of cereal. The table is covered with a chicken-covered tablecloth and there are many other objects with chicken motifs - the bowl, the glass of orange juice, the napkin, the "Barnyard" comic book, and so on.
Ah, the photos! Filled with chicken object d'art and tschotchkes (all from Golson's own extensive collection), they exude nostalgic charm. Tillie and her fellow hens strut, peck, and peer out from every page. Even the background behind the text (which is always placed in a scalloped scrapbooky frame) is composed of various hen-centric retro designs.

Never have I seen such a clean and cozy chicken coop. Fluffy with many inches of soft wood shavings and utterly spotless, this is a far cry from the large but - um - rustic coop my own chickens live in. No doubt the coop was tidyed up for the photo shoot, but still - nice digs! And the farmhouse is to die for.

This is a delightful picture book that will be fun to share with kids at toddler and preschool storytime (use with Minerva Louise by Janet Morgan Stoeke and with all your other favorite chicken tales). Look for it with eager anticipation in January!

Above are a couple of my own girls, Kaya and Griffin - no longer young, but still possessing plenty of vim, vigor, and egg-laying potential.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Another Library in Danger

Argh. It's only a bit over 30 years old, but the main downtown library in Long Beach, CA is rather disheveled and so City Hall, in its wisdom, wants to shut it down completely to help close its $17 million deficit. One does have to wonder who had the great idea to put heavy concrete planters and benches on the roof rather than more light-weight materials (and please - isn't "brutalism" a hideous name for an architectural style?! Would you want your library to look brutal?). Still, to close the library entirely would be a travesty.

Apparently the idea of saving approximately $1.8 million is so enticing that the fact that this library serves at least 27,000 low-income kids can be overlooked.

Los Angeles Public Library was faced with the prospect of huge slashes to its book budget and the elimination of Sunday hours in its regional branches, but luckily an outpouring of protest and support from the Library Guild (AFSCME Local 2626), library administration and staff, and our wonderful patrons convinced the City Council that libraries are the last things that a city should cut.

It looks like supporters of the Long Beach library are mobilizing already. Let's hope that the Long Beach City Hall can come up with less damaging solutions to its budget woes.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Review of Toy Dance Party by Emily Jenkins

Fans of Toys Go Out (Schwartz and Wade, 2006) have reason to rejoice. Its sequel, Toy Dance Party, due out September 9, comes very close to the perfection of the first book, featuring as it does Our Heroes - "a bossyboots stingray, a courageous buffalo, and a hopeful round someone called Plastic."

If you have ever been fairly certain that many of the supposedly inanimate objects around are actually sentient, this book will resonate. (for an intriguing grown-up fantasy about a young woman who can communicate with all inanimate objects, from cars to garden gates to doorknobs, read A Red Heart of Memories by Nina Kiriki Hoffman). As a child (and even a bit to this day), I knew I had to be careful to show my animals and dolls I loved them, or their feelings might be hurt. Sure enough, there are plenty of hurt feelings (and then heartfelt apologies) in this book.

There are also moments of sheer inspired genius, for instance when StingRay works herself into a gasping, sobbing, writhing fit over her certainty that the Girl doesn't want or love her anymore. "This can't go on," thinks the pathos-averse Lumphy (the buffalo), and squelches StingRay's tantrum by covering her with TukTuk (a talking yellow towel) and then sitting on her. When at long last StingRay recovers her equilibrium, Lumphy says to her, "The Girl still loves us." "Okay," says StingRay meekly. "I just got concerned for a minute."

In another fabulous scene, StingRay insists that everyone act out a movie she has just seen with the Girl, but she gets rather distracted while dressing up for her role as Princess DaisySparkle and tries on a great many costumes, making all the other toys wait quite...a...long...time. Naturally, no one plays like StingRay wants them to and especially not Lumphy, causing the two to attack one another - injuries actually occur!

The two friends make up, and even the intrusion of a shark toy (yikes!) into their midst ends up okay after some initial misunderstandings. An ill Dryer gets repaired rather than scrapped. TukTuk and Lumphy make up after TukTuk's feelings get hurt. Only the fact that the Girl (whose name, they figure out, must be Honey as that is what her mom calls her) is slowly growing older and doesn't seem to want to play with them as much remains a confusing and painful situation to which they must become accustomed.

Luckily, the toys all have each other (plus Honey's promise that she will love and keep them forever), and therefore life is pretty good. There are games of Uncle Wiggly and cards, not to mention the Dance Party of the title. And here's something that will come as a relief - Barbies don't talk, and in fact seem to possess no sentience whatsoever! (Phew! Have you ever examined the expressions on Barbies? They vary wildly, and while some Barbies seem quite sweet and kind, others are clearly Mean Girls).

I hate to assign an age range for this book, as so many will love it. How about - a fabulous read-aloud for ages 5 and up, and an excellent read-alone for ages 7 and up.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Review of The Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas

This stubby book, somewhat short and thick and with a jacket that makes it look like an ancient, leather-and-metal-bound tome, outwardly resembles many other recent fantasies – Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap books, for example. And sure enough, there are many familiar elements. An orphan street kid named Conn discovers (after attempting to steal wizard Nevery’s locus magicalus) that he has some latent magical ability and becomes Nevery’s servant/apprentice. Meanwhile, magic is ebbing at a frightening and mysterious rate in their city of Wellmet, and Nevery and Conn have different ideas about what might be causing it – not to mention what the very nature of magic might be.

Surprise! Prineas has taken a somewhat shopworn formula and made it fresh and vibrant. Conn is tenacious and spunky, as befits a kid who has grown up on the street, and he is also both likable and “true.” I believed in and rooted for him all the way. Nevery is gruff and too focused on his work to pay much attention to Conn, so although he is a decent sort, there is never any annoying sentimentality. Benet, the hired Tough Guy who doubles as Cook, mostly just growls – but he must possess a soft spot somewhere in his grizzled old heart, for he knits Conn a sweater and fixes the broken window in his dismal attic room.

One interesting feature is Conn’s growing certainty that magic is a living sentient being rather than a resource or force (as Nevery and his fellow wizards believe). We don’t learn why Conn is so adamant about this or what the ramifications are, so perhaps this will be explored in a sequel.

Kids ages 9 to 12 will likely enjoy this better-than-average fantasy.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Tossed Aside - an Un-Review of 4 Books

Over the past few days, I have managed to start and then discard four different books, sometimes after only a few pages. It’s not that the books are necessarily bad – could have been my mood or the phase of the moon. So this is an Un-Review of the following books:

In my eternal search for good books to listen to on my antique CD Walkman while loping around Venice, I happened upon Sweet Revenge by Diane Mott Davidson, narrated by Barbara Rosenblat. I had never read any of the previous books about Goldy the caterer, and at first was captivated by a murder in the library, just as Goldy is setting up for a Literary Breakfast for library staff. But after three disks, Goldy was still at the library and absolutely nothing was happening, so despite Rosenblat’s fabulous Marlo Thomas-like growly/squeaky narration, I gave up.

Next grown-up book – Now You See Him by Eli Gottlieb, about the effect of a writer’s murder of his girlfriend, and subsequent suicide, on the lives of his childhood friends. It is told (at least the part I read) in first-person plural, which irritated me vaguely, as did the writing style. And then, in restless dissatisfaction, I read the back flap, which said of Gottlieb’s previous book The Boy Who Went Away that it won many awards and “received extraordinary notices.” See? I’m so crabby.

In putting together a post on SF for tweens and teens, I’m trying to catch up on new and newish stuff I’ve missed. Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson seemed most intriguing, being about a cult of librarians who take over the world. But…it just didn’t work for me. Young Alcatraz struck me as being hugely unappealing, and then I read the description of an Evil Librarian – “She perpetually kept her hair up in a bun that was only slightly less tight than the dissatisfied line of her lips.” Okay, I know it’s supposed to be funny! My funny bone must be on the blink this week, I swear, ‘cause I’m just a bit too touchy these days.

I read almost all of The Seems: The Glitch in Sleep by John Hulme and Michael Wexler before tossing it aside with a sigh. The concept is fabulous – the world was created by the inhabitants of another world, The Seems, and is maintained and operated by them. Naturally, with such a complicated system, things go wrong, and that’s where the Fixers come in. 12-year-old Becker Drane is a stalwart and brave employee (and also an inhabitant of our World, as all Fixers are), but when a Glitch hits the Sleep Department, and no one in the World can fall asleep, things start to look grim. Why did I stop reading? I just stopped caring. The novelty of the idea wore thin, and there hadn’t been enough character development to pull me through. This would be fabulous for young readers with better temperaments than I apparently possess.

I’d love to hear from people who actually finished and loved these books – please convince me that I should finish them when I’m in a better mood. Perhaps with a gin and tonic in hand?

Monday, August 4, 2008

SCBWI - Los Angeles 2008

My colleagues in the Children's Services office split one ticket to the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators annual conference between the three of us, and I got to attend on Monday.

The highlight was most definitely Susan Patron's speech, the dessert of the conference and appropriately called "Endings: Surprising and Yet Inevitable." She riffed on the idea of euphemisms being soft lies, using as one example the term "pre-published" as being a polite but rather patronizing way of saying unpublished (as Susan said, "It's like calling me pre-thin"). Children more than anyone else need clear-eyed truth, not soft lies, in order to understand and come to terms with the world.

Susan also spoke of what seems to be an innate yearning for connection; it's a subtext in many books and a main theme in The Higher Power of Lucky. Great endings in books bring readers to the conclusion that is the best and truest, and thus helps them to make those satisfying connections (dopamine burst, anyone?). Susan finds it very cool that a novel, which is essentially the fabrication of an elaborate lie, actually leads readers to a greater understanding of the truth.

We lucky audience members were treated to the first paragraph of Lucky Breaks, to be published in March 2009, as well as a truly funny and moving summation of the meaning of the SCBWI annual conference that had us laughing and tearful at the same time. Major standing ovation for Susan Patron, who speaks for us all - but much more eloquently.

Connie C. Epstein gave her usual concise report on the state of the children's publishing market - picture books are slightly down, but the categories of middle-grade, teen, early readers, and graphic novels are holding steady or growing. But we knew that...

Four incredibly smart and gorgeous young editors - Gretchen Hirsch from HarperCollins, Amalia Ellison from Abrams, Namrata Tripathi from Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, and Nancy Conescu from Little Brown - were the panelists at a program called "Emerging Editorial Voices."

One question was "would you rather receive a manuscript that had a great voice but little plot, or a great plot with little voice?" Interestingly, the panel was evenly split, with Gretchen and Amalia saying that there was plenty of "voice" out there but few page-turners, and Namrata and Nancy maintaining that you can often fix plot but if the voice isn't there, you can't magic it into existence.

All four editors are clearly dedicated and professional - if they are any indication, the future of children's book editing is in good hands.

Speaking of plot, Bruce Coville had plenty of tips on what he feels makes a great story:

1. Ha!
2. Wah!
3. Yikes!
In other words, some laughter, some tears, and some surprises.

Bruce suggested that writers "take a character you like and get him in trouble" and then figure out what a character doesn't want and throw that at him. Above all, make sure the character needs to make moral choices - not necessarily between good and bad, but maybe between the lesser of two evils.

There's a new kid in town, namely Egmont USA, headed by Elizabeth Law, formerly of Viking and Simon & Schuster. Their first list will appear in Fall 2009 with about 11 to 15 titles, and when they are completely up and running, they hope to publish about 50 titles a year, mostly middle-grade and teen, but also some picture books. Look for new books by Todd Strasser, Walter Dean Myers (in collaboration with Christopher Myers), Mary Amato, and Janet Lee Carey, to name a few.

Finally, I waited in such a long line to get The True Meaning of Smekday (my current fave SF novel for kids) signed by Adam Rex that I missed the dessert buffet. Dang! Worth it, though. If you can drag your eyes away from Adam's adorableness, please note my Curmudgeonly Librarian t-shirt.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Gender and Genre

I was lucky as a child to have a librarian mom who brought home piles of books to feed my ravenous hunger for novels. She brought home the stuff she loved, plus anything she thought I'd like, so I grew up on award-winners, fantasy, classics, and all-around great stuff.

One genre Mom didn't bring home was science fiction. Oh sure, I read and loved A Wrinkle in Time - but that was a book that received lots of mainstream attention and kudos; it wasn't relegated to the Science Fiction Ghetto, and so I got my hands on it. But my mom didn't read much, or maybe any, science fiction and so didn't bring much of that genre home to me.

Being an addict, the juicy and ever-present stack of library books next to my bed simply wasn't enough, and I foraged for more reading material wherever I could, particularly after the age of about 11 or 12, when I became aware of an enticing universe beyond my familiar world of family, school, and friends.

This is when I simultaneously discovered and devoured two books - Starman Jones by Robert A. Heinlein and Venus on the Half-Shell by Kilgore Trout (aka Philip Jose Farmer). One is an action-packed space adventure and the other is a tongue-in-cheek parody - they both blew my mind. I found them both on my own - Starman Jones was on a rack in the fiction department of LAPL's Central Library and the lurid cover of Venus shone out in all its trashy splendor from the huge collection of SF paperbacks owned by a friend of my family.

This liberal-arts, science-averse (I had to take "Physics for Poets" twice in college before I finally passed) touchy-feely vegetarian children's librarian has been an avid SF reader ever since. Give me post-apocalyptic despair, rollicking space opera, intense military SF, or any other permutation of the genre - I'll take it all.

My point? Don't assume anything about what kids will read. Don't keep Clementine from boys and Danger Boy from girls. We advocates should read widely and outside our comfort zones so that we can get the very, varied best into the hands of kids. Mysteries, historical fiction, science fiction, school stories, graphic novels - give a kid a smorgasbord of these, along with some quickie two-sentence booktalks, and send him or her to a table to look them over. You might be surprised at what gets checked out.

Coming soon -

Excellent Science Fiction For Teens!

Pix and Yux - for Captain Underpants Fans

SCBWI - Starry-eyed in Century City