Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cybil nominations start Wednesday, Oct. 1

Jen Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page has kindly written an explanation of the Cybil Awards (Children and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards), for which nominations begin tomorrow. There are plenty of categories, and anyone may nominate books; they will be voted on by panels of bloggers.

If last year's short list is any indication, we will all have plenty of fabulous books to add to our must-read lists as the nominating and winnowing process proceeds. Winners will be announced on Valentine's Day, 2009.

Go to the Cybils home page for more information and to nominate your favorite books.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Librarian Ponders Summer Reading Club

Summer is over, Summer Reading Club 2008 statistics and reports have been turned in, and planning has already begun on Summer Reading Club 2009 – and I’m feeling confused and uncertain about this annual ritual.

2008 was an historic year for me – after more than 16 years working in branches as a Children’s Librarian and then Branch Manager, I transferred to an administrative position in our Children’s Services Department last fall, a wonderful job that allows me to train, aid, and encourage Children’s Librarians in all our branches, to work closely with books and other materials, to help develop and administer system-wide children’s programs, and much more.

What this means is that 2008 is the first year that I have not worked directly with the public. No daily shifts on the information desk, no regular storytimes, no puppet shows – and no Summer Reading Club! My office did a fine job of supplying our Children’s Librarians with supplies, incentives, and great ideas – but then we sat back and let SRC run its course in the branches.

Perhaps this distance is what has made me ponder the purpose of Summer Reading Club. In general, most folks agree that libraries offer SRC to keep kids reading all summer long, so that their reading skills stay honed during the long break from school. In addition, we are trying to attract non-library users to the library for the first time with our exciting programs and themes. Also, we want to promote the idea of reading for fun, tempting reluctant readers with goodies like graphic novels and providing personal reader’s advisory to kids who are already enthusiastic readers.

Those are all fabulous goals, but does SRC achieve them? In my library system, sign-up statistics (meaning simply the kids who signed up and received a reading folder) were slightly up from last year, while program attendance was up sharply across the board. I find sign-up statistics a bit misleading – a librarian can invite dozens of classes to visit the library in June and sign up every kid, creating large numbers, but how many of those kids come back all summer long, or even once? Program attendance is more interesting, especially considering that our Children’s Librarians had much less funding for “professional” entertainers such as magicians and puppeteers, and so presented mostly less flashy home-grown programs. Was the economy affecting the number of kids who went to summer camp or on summer trips?

But whether these statistics soar, decline, or stay even, they don’t answer some crucial questions. Are SRCs encouraging kids to read more than they normally would? Does attendance in SRC lead to better reading skills and higher grades? Are children reading more for fun as a result of SRCs?

The answers to all these questions may well be “yes,” but it’s hard to know how we can measure our success in these areas. Studies have probably been done, tracking the grades and/or reading skills of SRC participants vs. non-participants – although even if SRC participants turned out to be more successful in school, that could be simply because they come from families where libraries are valued, and therefore might already have a built-in advantage.

Certainly SRC must attract a fair number of kids to the library who have rarely or never visited, and often they bring their families with them. Children’s Librarians in my system visit as many of their local schools as possible, making presentations in assemblies or blitzing every classroom to entice kids to join SRC this summer. It’s a reminder to school-weary kids that libraries aren’t just about homework resources and a place to study; we’re free, we’re air-conditioned, and in summer we’re all about having fun.

I can’t help feeling, however, that books and reading sometimes fall by the wayside in all the excitement. Sure, the folders that children receive have spaces for reading and most Children’s Librarians have some sort of bare-minimum reading requirement in order for children to receive an incentive; I always asked that they either have read a book over the past week or be in the process of reading one (after all, it can take more than a week to finish a chapter book). Ask a question or two about the book or books (what was your favorite part? Which was your favorite book? Since you liked that mystery so much, would you like to try another?) if there isn’t a long line, initial and date the folder, hand the kid a cool pencil, and on to the next kid.

Mostly, though, the focus seems to be on the programs, the incentives, and the theme. A cool theme (we used “Reading is Magic” this year – very popular) can generate excitement among both kids and staff and is an excellent way to build programs and activities. Incentives can mean a lot to a kid who is very proud of herself for reading one whole book in a week (or three weeks). Innovative Children’s Librarians can and should always link a fun program like a magic show back to some great books that kids can check out.

But with all this frenzy, it’s especially important to find the time to focus on individual kids and their reading needs and desires. Plenty of families arrive at the library in a great flurry of kids and strollers, stay just long enough for the program and maybe the weekly incentive, grab a DVD or two or six, and then leave. Now, maybe they’ve got shelves overflowing with books at home, but how cool to take home a library book hand-picked by their very own librarian.

Or what about those kids who hang out at the library all day playing on the computers? They can sometimes be dragged into a program, they might consent to signing up for the reading club, but they’re at the library not because they like to read but because they have nowhere else to go – and the computers are free here. Some of these kids are only seven or eight and might be easy to hook on books if we put forth a bit of effort. Even a thirteen-year-old isn’t too old – my own husband accidentally discovered Paula Danziger’s The Cat Ate My Gym Suit at age 13 or 14, and read it all the way through. It was the first book he had ever read for pleasure, but not the last.

Unfortunately, branches are often busy and understaffed, and no one is busier than the Children’s Librarian. No one is more important, either, and I hope that Branch Managers can give their Children’s Librarians a bit of time to roam the children’s area and to simply sit down with kids and read to them once in a while. Too often, librarians are chained to the information desk. Some kids do venture up to us there – but many don’t.

We all have at least a handful of Eager Readers who check out stacks of our favorite books and whom we think of when we order the latest well-reviewed fiction, but there are plenty more who roam the shelves, guessing that there might be something interesting there but not quite sure how to find it, or who sit slumped at a table, bored out of their minds while waiting for the next available computer. These are the kids who parents probably didn’t bring them to our storytimes and so they don’t know us and don’t quite believe that books can be anything but a chore.

If Summer Reading Club were toned down a bit – still fun, still an exciting change from the boring school year, but less about flashy performers and prizes – maybe Children’s Librarians could reach some kind of balance. We could still attract some non-users to the library, still offer enough cool stuff to interest kids all summer long, but we’d have more time to add a personal touch that was less about entertainment and toys and more about books and reading.

“The right book for the right child” has always been a wonderful mantra. If I, as a Children’s Librarian, had eschewed the ritual weekly “handing out of the incentive” and instead simply asked kids to come talk to me about the books, I wonder how that would have worked. Instead of zooming from the community room to the information desk after a standing-room-only program so that I could hand out a sticker to 60 kids, I could have invited them all to join me in the children’s area so that we could find some fabulous books. Yes, I would have been swamped, but the focus would have been on books, not checking off a reading folder.

That sounds all very idealistic. Kids (and librarians) do love performers, incentives, and the rest of the SRC trappings. I’m just pondering the possibility of a slight change in focus and attitude, of reminding oneself every day what we’re all about and why we raise such a hullabaloo every summer. I think that, when I talk to Children’s Librarians who are either new and alarmed or faded and jaded, I will suggest that they concentrate not on numbers and statistics but on getting the right book to the right child, one kid or audience at a time. The theme and incentives are fluffy icing; the books are the cake; the kids are our guests. Let them eat cake!

Friday, September 26, 2008

'Tis the Season for Newbery Buzz

If all the amazing fall books piling up on your must-read shelves are whetting your appetite for some good Newbery Buzz, then go to the brand new blog Heavy Medal, hosted by School Library Journal and moderated by Nina Lindsay and Sharon McKellar.

Currently being discussed - The Underneath by Kathi Appelt. Yep, in my opinion it's definitely a contender!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Play With Me by Marie Hall Ets

Play With Me by Marie Hall Ets (Viking Press, 1955).

As an adult, I have an entirely different relationship to books than I did as a child, and it's a real shame. Maybe it's related to the loss of the ability to play make-believe that I experienced some time just before puberty hit - although I do think "Narnia!" whenever I walk down a mysterious misty tree-lined path (or even when a sidewalk in my urban neighborhood is canopied by an overgrown stand of bamboo). Maybe I've just don't know how to lose my self in a book the same way - although I dive into books with complete and blessed immersion as my main goal.

I don't think that adults identify so viscerally with books as children do. I love and need books as much as I ever did, and there are adult books that I truly love. A terrific book sweeps me along so fast and hard that I lose track of time and have to tear myself away in order to get a bit of sleep. But still, the book and its characters are separate from me. Some of its flavor might linger and a tiny bit of a good book must surely become a part of me forever, but I never lose track of the borders between the story and my own life.

However, kids inhabit the books they love. They are not just fully absorbed spectators, but actual participants in the story. The book has all the meaning that a real life event might, with the added benefit of being able to be experienced over and over, to be pored over and pondered.

Reading my frayed copy of Play With Me, I can remember the intensity with which I identified with its nameless narrator. The jacket vanished so long ago that I can't remember what it looked like; pencil scribbles and odd stains mar the beige back and cover but the cream-colored outlines of the little girl chasing a rabbit, blowing the seeds from a milkweed flower, and so on are still very visible.

That little girl was me. She was a wispy blonde to my tangled brunette, she wore an odd tie-up-the-back pinafore that looks to my adult eyes like a hospital gown, a truly silly bow nodded at the very top of her head. But she was all alone, a state of being that still resonates with me strongly to this day.

She is alone in a meadow with a few trees and a creek, not too far away from the house that is just visible in the distance, but far enough that you just know that all she can hear is the babble of water in the creek and the wind rattling the leaves in the trees, and probably lots of insects as well. And she is lonely and wants to play, but every animal she tries to catch or touch runs away.

The illustrations are simple charcoal pencil drawings against a cream-beige background, with the little girl's pink-beige skin the only bit of color. The plants and flowers are drawn with a careful, childlike enthusiasm - leaves are round and blobby, grass is spiky and sparse - and the animals (a rabbit, a grasshopper, a scolding blue jay, a turtle, a snake, a fawn, a frog) have only just enough anthropomorphism to make their eventual "friendship" with the girl seem not only plausible but perfectly wonderful.

For the girl eventually gives up on chasing animals and just sits quietly on a rock watching a bug in the creek, and as she continues to be still, all the animals come back one by one, closer and closer, until finally - huge moment for me, no matter how many hundreds of times I read it - the fawn comes up and licks her cheek.

I'm very good at staying very still and quiet, a skill that has stood me in good stead through many long and boring meetings, presentations, and social events. Could it be a result of this book? One thing I've learned, though - in order to make friends in the real world, a different and more challenging sort of skill is required. As an introvert, I find it easier to make friends with tiny hamsters, surly chickens, and indifferent squirrels than with people.
What did I gaze at more than anything else? The snake puddling his way back into his hole, the fawn hiding behind a stand of blobby-leaved plants, the little girl blowing the milkweed, the fawn licking the quietly delirious girl - and the serene sun, drawn just the way a little kid would, with rays and a face, smiling down on every page.
It is this kind of connection to books, and not just any books but to children's books, that led me to children's librarianship. I had to be around these books. I still do. They nourish me every single day. Thank goodness that my job (and motherhood) has allowed me to pass this joyful, eternal connection on to lots and lots of kids.
Whew. Time to get back to my book!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

As if I didn't already have enough on my to-read shelf...

...here are more books (for grown-ups, no less, so probably extra-long!) to add to my already groaning must-read shelf.

The National Book Foundation has released their "5 Under 35" 2008 fiction selections. Thanks to Bookfox for the link.

Slightly old news, but only three of these are in my library system yet anyway - The Man Booker Prize 2008 announced their shortlist earlier this month. These are always worth a read.

I think I need some kind of illness - not life-threatening or contagious, mind you - that will force me to stay in bed all day for a week or a month, eating buttered toast and reading reading reading.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

September Carnival of Children's Literature

Go visit Jenny's Wonderland of Books to read a great round-up of posts about children's books past and present. My Little Brute Family post is there...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Review of All the Lovely Bad Ones by Mary Downing Hahn

All the Lovely Bad Ones by Mary Downing Hahn (Clarion, 2008)

Having been kicked out of summer camp, Travis and his sister Corey are packed off to stay with their Grandma at her bed and breakfast, the Vermont Inn. As soon as they find out that the inn is supposedly haunted, although no ghosts have been seen for years, the kids decide to plan a spooky visitation of their own. Their pranks thrill the guests but also wake up the real ghosts, who create quite an impressive poltergeistly display.

It turns out that there are two separate types of ghosts roaming about – a group of high-spirited young boys and a blood-curdling old woman. Without spoiling the plot (which is fairly predictable in a nicely shivery kind of way), let me just say that the inn used to be a poor farm, where destitute families came when they had nowhere else to go – and many of them in fact never went anywhere else again, thanks to a nasty piece of work named Miss Ada.

Travis and Corey figure out what the young ghosts need in order to rest peacefully, and they manage to accomplish it – but then they have to deal with the deadly rage of the ghastly Miss Ada.

It’s hard as an adult to read a ghost story for kids and to tell if it will hold any chills for them; my spooky-bone has been somewhat dulled by grown-up tales of terror. Having closed my eyes through much of the movie “The Orphanage,” to which All the Lovely Bad Ones bears a tiny resemblance, I found this book to be a cakewalk. However, I do think this will be a pleasantly scary book for any kid who hasn’t launched straight into Stephen King, especially with the fairly horrific tales of life at the poor farm. There are long-ago beatings and even death, as well as a gruesome (but luckily toned-down) grave exhumation, so this isn’t for the completely tender-hearted.

Give to kids ages 9 and up who insist they want a really scary book.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Review of Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano.

Balsa, a woman warrior and bodyguard, is no shrinking violet, and she’s no spring chicken either. I knew I would like her when I read this description – “Her long, weather-beaten hair was tied at the nape of her neck, and her face, unadorned by makeup, was tanned and beginning to show fine wrinkles.” Brave, sensible, and superbly skilled in martial arts, Balsa is 30 years old – a refreshing age for the heroine of a children’s book, when they usually haven’t hit 18.

Oh, there’s a child in this book – Chagum is the 11-year-old second son of the Mikado, the king who rules New Yogo, and he just happens to have inside him an egg laid by mysterious creature called the Water Spirit, who dwells in an unseen world that exists side by side, or perhaps superimposed on, our own world. Chagum, as the Moribito or Guardian of the Spirit, must somehow get this egg to its distant home before the dreaded Rarunga comes to eat the egg, which will not only bring on terrible drought but will kill Chagum. However, Chagum himself isn’t the main focus.

There is much palace intrigue, as various factions try to figure out how best to protect the kingdom from the turmoil, and because Chagum’s life is in danger, his mother secretly hires Balsa to get him away from the palace and hide him. Many exciting but mercifully brief fight scenes follow, all as stylish as if a bit more realistic than those in movies like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Although there are injuries, no one dies.

The pursuit of Chagum by both Palace Hunters and the hungry Rarunga is exciting, but far more interesting to me was the friendships between Balsa, Chagum, her old pal Tanda, and the old but still feisty wise woman Torogai. There is romantic tension between Balsa and Tanda, but Balsa doesn’t want to commit to a relationship until she has saved eight lives, in atonement for eight lives that were lost to save her as a child.

The translation from Japanese to English flows naturally – I was almost never aware that I was reading a translation (okay, “weather-beaten hair” is a bit odd, but I like it). Balsa and Tanda are warm, humorous, and occasionally cranky characters, and it is perfectly obvious why Chagum, after spending a winter holed up with them, doesn’t want to return to his cold and scheming court. Torogai’s strong voice and gleeful cackle still ring in my ears.

It’s easy to understand why this 10-book series, a hit in Japan, has been made into manga and movies. I can’t wait to read more about Balsa – I do hope she and Tanda (a gentle healer who tries to lighten up Balsa’s intensity whenever possible) end up together.

For ages 10 and up.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

That Brute Family - Russell and Lillian Hoban's all-too-real creation

Hoban, Russell. The Little Brute Family. Illustrated by Lillian Hoban. Macmillan, 1966.
Hoban, Russell. The Stone Doll of Sister Brute. Illustrated by Lillian Hoban. Macmillan, 1968.

Among the many tattered books I still have from my childhood are the small, smelly and disreputable first editions of the two books listed above.

Long before the Simpsons or the Bundys, there was The Little Brute Family. A thoroughly miserable family, they squabble while they eat their revolting stew of sticks and stones, can't play without fighting or getting hurt, and always go groaning to bed. So far so good - my own family has days like this.

Then one day Baby Brute finds "a little wandering lost good feeling in a field of daisies," which he puts in his pocket and takes home. It flies out at dinnertime and suddenly a golden glow hovers over the little Brute family, and they say "please" and "thank you" and all five Brutes are so transformed that, after several seasons of warm familial perfection, "the little Brute family changed their name to Nice."

Now, I pored over this book plenty as a young child and was particularly enamoured of the flower-pattern endpapers and the illustration of Baby Brute floating on his back (this after the Coming of the Good Feeling), but the better condition of this book tells me that my memory is correct - all this feel-good stuff did not inspire me, even when I was very young and impressionable.

No, the book that I truly loved, and that still entrances me to this day, is The Stone Doll of Sister Brute. Although published 2 years after The Little Brute Family, it is a prequel, taking place "before the Brute family changed their name to Nice." Sister Brute has nothing to love, so Mama Brute gives her a large stone. Sister Brute draws a face on it, makes a dress for it, names it Alice Brute Stone, and loves it. It's pretty heavy to lug around, but still, it's better than nothing. But then, while walking in the woods one day, she meets an ugly dog who demands, "Love me, or I will kick you very hard." As he wears hob-nailed boots, he kicks rather hard. Unfortunately, he is so enamored of Sister Brute that he follows her home, kicking her all the way.

This is still better than nothing, but just barely - now Sister Brute has two things to love, but she also has "tiredness and kicks and bruises." Luckily, Mama Brute finally notices that Alice Brute Stone's face looks just like hers, which causes her heart to melt, and she suggests that Sister Brute try to love not only her but the rest of the family as well. Unlike the first book, there is a satisfying but far from perfect ending - because love is complicated, Sister Brute's love of her family gets her a fascinating mixed bag of blessings.

"Sister Brute loved them all, and they loved her back, and she had hugs and lullabies, kisses and knee rides, smiles, string, colored glass and turtles and kicks and bruises. And she was happy."

Isn't it great that she doesn't stop loving her heavy stone doll or her ugly kicking dog? Even 40 years later, I know that Good Feelings are all very well, but the love you give and receive is what counts, even if it comes with a few flaws.

My rapture for this book (given to me by my mother when I was 2 - she wrote "To Eva from Mama because I love you. Feb. 24, 1968) was so extreme that, like the ugly kicking dog, I treated the object of my affections rather roughly. My copy is discolored, stained, and actually chewed up on one corner, and my paintings and drawings fill the empty pages at the beginning and end. Mama Brute's swirly red bun captivated me, as did the ugly kicking dog's snaggle-toothed grin. There is nothing about this book that I would change. Not a thing.

The Little Brute Family is still in print (in paperback) but The Stone Doll of Sister Brute is out of print. How can this be??

My two daughters demanded numerous readings of these books, and I plan to hang on to my own copies so I can read them to my future grandkids - and to their kids. Genius doesn't age!

Thoughts about Blogging

Over at My Friend Amy, Amy suggests that we post about blogging itself, and specifically -

"What is one thing you wish you knew about blogging when you started or what advice would you give a newbie blogger?
What is your best blogging tip?"

I still AM a newbie blogger and so am still learning! But here is what I've learned so far:

Unless your job has directly sanctioned your blog, only blog on your own time (it's my break right now!), even if your blog and your job are related.

Don't fret - it's about fun (or because you're so obsessed by books that you need an outlet for your frenzy), not about how many posts you write or how many folks read your blog.

Find a focus, but don't feel you have to stick to it absolutely all the time. This may be a book blog, but I'm going to post a photo of deep-fried cheese curds if I feel the urge!

Best blogging tip? Read lots of other blogs! I'm so fond and admiring of so many folks out there - they are a constant inspiration. See my blogroll at the left for a list of them.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Review of Lucky Breaks by Susan Patron

Lucky Breaks by Susan Patron (Atheneum, March 2009)

Ah! There is really something so soul-satisfying about the heft of a long-anticipated ARC in your hands. Full disclosure – I read earlier versions of the manuscript of Lucky Breaks. But when a manuscript is transformed into an object that looks like a book, with jacket art by Matt Phelan depicting Lucky, Lincoln, and Miles looking up into a very starry sky, and weeds (creosote, perhaps?) growing patchily in front of the words “Susan Patron” – well, it all felt brand-new and I raced through the book once again.

Lucky is about to turn 11, which feels like a real turning-point to her. She’s leaving the immaturity and doubt of her first ten years behind her, or so she sincerely hopes, and is racing forward toward her amazing future. She even makes a new friend named Paloma, the niece of a paleontologist who is exploring the area around Hard Pan with a bunch of other ‘ologists, as Miles calls them. And as Paloma is not only the kind of person with whom you can collapse into helpless giggles, but also shares a name with a long-ago woman whose brooch (or part of it, anyway) might be found in a nearby abandoned well, Lucky feels that there is much significance to their friendship, as well as fun of a unique kind.

Lucky may be bonding with Paloma, but she becomes more and more irritated with her old friend Lincoln, who is not only steadfastly remaining his usual solid, intelligent, knot-tying self, but doesn’t seem to notice Lucky’s turbulent thoughts and inner changes. Worse, he might even abandon her altogether if he wins the knot-tying contest he has entered. Lucky’s meanness gland begins working overtime, much to Lincoln’s bewilderment.

There is a mystery (what on earth is in that coffin-shaped box that Short Sammy had delivered?) and an adventure (abandoned wells and impetuous almost 11-year-olds are not always a good match) and some excellent chat among the denizens of Hard Pan about the nature of our galaxy and how to make good s’mores. Brigitte’s accent comes through with everything she says (“Pfft!”), as she continues to absorb the best of America into her very French core. Oh, and the word “scrotum” does show up, but not until page 44 this time.

But the true heart of this book is Lucky’s always-fascinating inner voice. She is so roiled by a variety of conflicting emotions – impatience, loyalty, hope, frustration, affection, irritation, love, doubt – that she finds herself doing and saying things that make her truly sick of herself. After a bout of fairly awful meanness towards Lincoln, Paloma asks Lucky why she acts that way when Lincoln likes her. Lucky doesn’t know how to answer.
“She knew that she would never like someone like her. She would hate someone like her. She would really, really hate someone who acted like her, and she’d get as far away as she could. But how, Lucky thought, do you get away from someone you can’t stand if that person is you?”
It’s a horrible feeling, and Lucky struggles with it, and against it, throughout the book until she realizes, with a bit of help from Brigitte, that she doesn’t have to feel that way forever.

Not every scene is so intense – many are absolutely hysterical, and some are both intense and funny (like an amazing scene in which Lucky waits at the bottom of a well to be rescued - how does Patron do that?). After I read the chapter in which Miles and Lincoln, to Lucky’s utter amazement and chagrin, charm the socks off Paloma’s sophisticated L.A. parents, I went right back and read it again. Miles leans toward Paloma’s mom Mrs. Wellborne, “sniffing her perfume and very subtly touching the fabric of her blouse. It was clear that Miles was entranced.” He gazes at her “with his chocolate-chip eyes and smiled his dear, tender, cookie-mooching smile,” so that even his oddest comments (caused by some wild lies told earlier by Lucky) prompt only a heart-felt laugh. Lincoln manages to dazzle with some very impressive, technical chat with Mr. Wellborne about his Hummer. The scene is just priceless. Poor Lucky can only come to the conclusion that “the world can be a very mysterious place.”

Readers will be hooked from the very first two paragraphs, which feature some of the most virtuoso writing I have ever come across and which whammed me right onto the bouncy back seat of Lucky’s school bus. It’s good to be back in Hard Pan.

(Matt Phelan’s b/w illustrations were not available for review.)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Review of The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Look at the cover of this book. Do you see those sweet kittens cuddled against the saggy jowls of a loyal old hound? Do you? If you think this might be an adorable, frothy story of animals facing slight and perhaps even comedic danger, do not open this book.

Do not!

But, on the other hand, if you are ready for an intense, moving, and stomach-clenching tale of heartbreak, survival, and love, then dive right in.

By now, The Underneath by Kathi Appelt has been reviewed all over the place, so most folks are familiar with the story. An abandoned pregnant cat (see? The sadness has already started) finds her way through the swamp to the home of Ranger, a hound dog who (more grimness here) remains eternally chained up by his quite hideous master Gar Face, who makes his living by selling the skins of just about any animal he can shoot or trap.

The mama cat takes to Ranger right away, and he to her. She has her kittens under the house, which provides a safe haven for them – until Gar Face discovers them one day. Nastiness ensues, and death. The boy kitten, Puck, ends up on the far side of the river, with an overwhelming desire and need to get back to Ranger and what remains of his family.

Meanwhile, there is a more mystical tale going on. A shape-shifting snake spirit called Grandmother Moccasin, older than time itself, has been trapped in a jar beneath the roots of an ancient tree for the past 1000 years. 1000 years ago, she rediscovered love in the form of a much-beloved daughter – but then lost her when the daughter fell in love and assumed her human form. Grandmother Moccasin reacted badly – and tragedy resulted. She has been seething for 1000 years, and wants her revenge.

Grandmother Moccasin’s tale is told in a slow and stately manner, as befits an ancient spirit to whom time is nothing, while Ranger and the cats are allowed no such luxury – their story is one of heart-pounding suspense punctuated by both terrifying swoops of action and piercing sweetness. Naturally, all the stories arrive at one place in one moment in time in an almost unbearable climax – and by then, the reader is a limp and soggy wad of nerves. But a happy wad of nerves! Some characters are redeemed, justice prevails, and the swamp subsides into business as usual.

The ancient 100-foot-long Alligator King, who has seen all and mostly keeps his thoughts to himself, is the most mysterious character of all. Only once do we get a sense of his moral character (or that he even has one), when he feels compelled to give a piece of advice to his old friend Grandmother Moccasin. She doesn’t heed it, of course. Meanwhile, the Alligator King lives, breathes, swims, and eats – and plays his own crucial role.

The omniscient narrator’s voice, with its tendency to lecture, exhort, and warn the reader (“Do not go into that land between the Bayou Tartine and its little sister, Petite Tartine. Do not step into that shivery place. Do not let it gobble you up. Stay away from the Tartine sisters.”) jarred me at first, but then the intimate feeling of being directly addressed, as well as the lulling, mythical repetition of various words and phrases, began working its magic on me. I’m curious to know how children will react to this narrative voice, and to see if the find Grandmother Moccasin’s story, which is slower and more distant, compelling or boring.
Drawings by David Small manage to be winsome and moving without succumbing to unsuitable adorableness.

This is one of the most powerful and skillfully told books for children that I’ve read all year, and it is certainly a strong Newbery contender. Read this book.

Read it.

Read it now!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Solace of "Peanuts" - an Appreciation

When your life fails to glide smoothly along but rather stutters like unwaxed skis on old snow – when your family’s incessant squabbling would put the Little Brute Family to shame – when you realize that not only will you never run the L.A. Marathon in under four hours, but apparently your bum ankle will make it impossible to ever run more than 5 miles without pain - when your vegetable garden failed to yield even one single decent-sized tomato and you only got three green beans at a time, for a grand total of 15 – when your weed-infested front garden makes a mockery of your pathetic dreams of being a stop on the Venice Garden Tour – when sure, work is fine, but really, all you want is to be paid to read and write about books all day long, and everything else is drudgery…

When, in short, you know that it’s simply obnoxious to sink into such a morass of self-pity when you should practice Thankfulness for all life’s many gifts (including your own Little Brute Family) but you can’t summon up the energy – then it’s time to lay whatever book you’re reading aside (ignoring those pangs of guilt at the vast piles of unread books lying around your house and office) and pick up one of the early Complete Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz. I own 1950-1952, 1953-1954, and 1955-1956, and the rest are on my wishlist. Classics all, and hugely comforting.

As a child, I was captivated by Charlie Brown’s world, peopled by children who spoke like adults but with whom I identified completely. I dreamed of morphing like Gumby into the Peanuts strip, where I would comfort Charlie Brown, observe Lucy from an admiring but wary distance, and sit in contemplative silence with Linus.

The early Charlie Brown, from 1950 to 1952, bears almost no resemblance to the Charlie Brown of later years. Round-headed but totally devoid of worry or self-doubt, he revels in teasing girls into chasing him and hanging with Shermy, Schroeder, and the other local kids. By the end of 1952, however, Violet and the other girls are calling him “wishy-washy,” and when he calls Violet in a panic to let her know he’ll be late for her party, she says, “Oh, aren’t you here yet, Charlie Brown? We hadn’t even noticed!” Lucy, at this point, is still a toddler.

From 1953 to 1956, Charlie Brown slowly evolves into the put-upon, long-suffering guy we all know and love, but he still retains quite a bit of the sass of those first couple years. Although he complains constantly that no one likes him, his small smirk makes clear that he doesn’t quite believe it, and after all, he does has plenty of friends. Tiny Linus’ prodigal ability to show up Charlie Brown at almost any activity, from folding newspaper into boats (Linus makes a three-masted clipper ship) to blowing up balloons (Linus’ are cuboid) to making snow forts (Linus’ resembles a medieval fortress) fails to lower Charlie Brown’s spirits, and Lucy may be intensely exasperating, but she can’t, at this stage anyway, truly hurt him at his core.

No, what is so heartbreaking about Charlie Brown is that, by the end of 1956, he has demonstrated that only his own failings have the power to rend his soul. Unlike Lucy, who, when Charlie Brown asks her what her New Year’s Resolutions are, loudly proclaims that she likes herself just the way she is, Charlie Brown is keenly aware of his own failings. He has two bouts of extreme insomnia in 1956 – once when he strikes out and loses a baseball game. He relives the moment in bed, wearing his baseball cap, for strip after strip – “The nights are the hardest,” he says in agony. Ain’t it the truth? After Christmas, he is so upset at not receiving a single Christmas card that he seeks solace in sleep. “Sleep is the only real cure for discouragement…you just have to go to sleep and try to forget everything, and…” at which point he rears up and wails, “Not even one!” Charlie Brown’s amazing capacity for experiencing Angst begins here.

There are plenty of purely light moments in these early strips – charming, fresh, and howlingly funny. But even these early strips are not totally devoid of the pop culture that reared its ugly head to often wearisome effect in the 70s. On June 22, 1956, Lucy says “Yes, sir, boy!” not once but three times with great enthusiasm and appreciation, while gazing at a photo of – Elvis Presley.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I identify quite strongly with Lucy. I don’t possess her unconquerable self-confidence or self esteem, but I do share with Lucy a strong sense that folks could stand to have a few of their faults pointed out to them – purely as an aid toward their own betterment. It’s not my best quality, but like Lucy, I am quite often an over-critical fussbudget.

Finally, there is Pig-Pen. I have never found strips featuring this perpetually messy but usually blithe boy to be particularly funny, but I do love one strip. Violet and Patty are being nasty to Pigpen, who is sitting calmly in a mud puddle reading a book – Patty: Just look at that “Pig-Pen.” Violet: Isn’t he awful? Patty: “Terrible…just terrible! Violet: A real “good-for-nothing.” Patty: I’ll say…a complete flop!

As they walk off, Pig-Pen stands up, still clutching his book, and shouts after them, “I’m well-read!”


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Review of Cherry Heaven by L.J. Adlington

Cherry Heaven by L.J. Adlington (Greenwillow Books, 2008)

In this sequel or companion to The Diary of Pelly D, two teenaged sisters move with their foster parents to the New Frontier. The war in the Five Cities may be over, but devastation and awful memories remain; Kat and Tanka’s parents, both identified as Galrezi and thus inferior, were rounded up and killed 10 years ago.

In a parallel story, teenaged Luka, a Galrezi, has been a virtual slave for the last 10 years, first digging in a quarry and then imprisoned under awful conditions in a flavored-water factory. She manages to escape, and makes her way home with vengeance on her mind.

Kat and Tanka’s new home is gorgeous, nestled next to a now-defunct cherry orchard, and it happens to be Luka’s former home, where her family was killed and where she was captured. Kat begins to question the carefully constructed lies about the fate of Luka’s family and about the New Frontier, while Luka tries to get revenge on the powerful people who have destroyed her life. Finally, they meet, and the truth about the New Frontier comes out – rather than being an open and tolerant place, Galrezi have been just as loathed as in the Five Cities. Rather than exterminate them, the New Frontier simply used them as work slaves.

Luka’s story is chilling – her story, told in first-person, has a vivid and compelling voice that forces the reader to imagine every brutality she describes. Kat’s story, on the other hand, is more distant. Perhaps it is because of the third-person narration or because Kat herself has tried to forget that horrible time 10 years ago when her parents desperately and vainly sought shelter before being dragged away and eventually killed, but the nightmare of the Five Cities wars is muted.

The parallels with the Holocaust and other incidents of genocide throughout history are obvious. Readers who haven’t read The Diary of Pelly D won’t know that the indelible Galrezi, Mazzini, or Atsumisi labels that all colonists must wear on their hands are the results of a tiny and meaningless gene tag. Somehow, the Atsumisi gene became the superior one, with Mazzini being tolerated and Galrezi being scum – all completely arbitrarily. Adlington does a good job of describing, both in this book and in Diary, how much chaos can come about from the natural but evil human instinct to despise those different from oneself, even if those differences are invisible until tested for and brightly labeled. There are plenty of logical problems, and Adlington doesn’t always get across the subtleties of how ordinary people react (or not) to thinly disguised evil being done under their noses – but most teens will find this a scary and thought-provoking read.

Ages 13 and up.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Book review of Mind the Gap by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon

Teenager Jazz is nearing her London home one day after school when she realizes that something isn’t quite right. Her mother has always drilled into her the urgent need to stay alert and even paranoid, and to trust no one and nothing except her instincts. Jazz’s instincts tell her to scope out her house – and she discovers that the Uncles, a mysterious group of BMW-driving men who have both supported and terrified her mother since Jazz’s birth, have killed her mother and are waiting for her own arrival home.

Jazz runs for the nearest Tube station, and soon finds herself deep underground and under the care of Harry, a Fagin-esque character (but with more heart) who nurtures an odd assortment of young thieves who, for various reasons, have no home other than the bowels of London’s ancient underground warren of abandoned Tube stations, air raid shelters, and still older tunnels and rooms.

Jazz soon discovers that her keen awareness of London’s old ghosts is linked to the Uncles’ relentless pursuit of her. Harry has his own mysterious agenda, as does a dashing thief named Terence whom Jazz meets while robbing the same house. There is magic in London, and it’s dragging the City down, miring it in old tragedy and sorrow while the rest of the world moves on. All the players in this story are aware of this magic and want to use it for their own purposes.

Jazz’s constant and well-founded paranoia makes this book a prickly and exciting read, even as she gains self-confidence and a sense of purpose. Her fumbling attempts to make friends and achieve a sense of intimacy are touching and bittersweet, and are balanced by breathtaking and almost cinematic scenes that take place along abandoned Tube tracks and during dangerous heists. The conclusion is both satisfying and slightly ambiguous; there is plenty of hope, but also some unanswered questions and plenty of sadness.

Although not marketed as a YA book, this is an excellent book for teens, and no wonder, considering that both Tim Lebbon and Christopher Golden have written for teens. The mixture of magic, danger, and a secret underground London world had my teen daughters clamoring to read this after I finished it. Perhaps this is not as poetical or imaginative as Neil Gaimon's Neverwhere or his other books, but it satisfies.

Recommended for ages 14 and up, plus Charles de Lint and Neil Gaiman fans of all ages.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Six Boox with Pix and Yux - funny stuff for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders

Attack of the Growling Eyeballs by Lin Oliver, illustrated by Stephen Gilpin (Simon & Schuster, 2008).

This is the first in the "Who Shrunk Daniel Funk?" series, in which Daniel discovers the ability to shrink down to the size of a toe and has plenty adventures with his tiny and long-lost twin brother Pablo. Eccentric characters abound - after all, the series takes place in nutty Venice, CA, my hometown, where we like to work our weirdness. Plenty of text, but jolted by funny drawings every 5 pages or so.

Cool Zone With the Pain and the Great One by Judy Blume, illustrated by James Stevenson.

1st-grader Jake (the Pain) and his 3rd-grade sister Abigail (the Great One, natch) take turns describing events such as the disastrous Bring Your Pet to School Day and the day Abigail changed her name to Violet Rose. Quietly hilarious, and there are others in this series to enjoy.

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Schwartz & Wade, 2008)

It's a good thing 2nd-grader Alvin has his "desk buddy" Flea, his sassy little sister Anibelly and the rest of his fab family, and even a scary old crone piano teacher to keep him moving onward and upward. The plentiful Calvin & Hobbs-esque illustrations brim with quirky energy.

The title just about says it all (although I was disappointed to discover that this book is NOT about my sister-in-law). It's goofy, it's funny, it's weird as heck, and there are pleny of cartoony b/w illustrations confined in comic-style boxes or smeared across whole pages. A swift and chortling read, and just one in a series of four Fred & Anthony adventures.

Twins Stephanie and Zeke journey once again to Underwhere, where folks wear their undies outside their clothes. Any book with a magic toilet brush and a crazy cat is okay with me. This is half graphic novel, half old-school chapter book - the b/w drawings have a rounded Powerpuff Girls look to them which kids should find appealing.

So, a spaceship shaped like a carrot lands in Hercules' yard and out hop two huge space bunnies. They tell lots of terrible jokes, they sing and dance, and they want to save the children of Dingdale from a terrible fate. Plenty of Captain Underpants-style illustrations on every single page and not too many words slowing things down. What's not to wuv?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Book Review of Little Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing by Guo Yue and Clare Farrow

Little Leap Forward: A Boy in Beijing by Guo Yue and Clare Farrow. Illustrated by Helen Cann (Barefoot Books, 2008).

Grades 3 to 6
8-year-old Leap Forward, living in an old part of Beijing in 1966, thinks his life is just about right. Sure, he misses his dead father, and it would be great to have a bit more food on the table – his mom and five sisters have to carefully count out every grain of rice. But Leap Forward flies kites with his best friend Little-Little, makes friends with pretty Blue, tends his silkworms, and tries to encourage his caged wild bird to sing by playing on a flute.

Leap Forward doesn’t think anything is wrong with all-white kites (rather than the multi-colored beauties of the previous generation) or all-blue clothing or revolutionary songs, and these facts are presented to the reader in a child’s accepting and nonchalant tone. But when the Cultural Revolution slams down on Beijing, Leap Forward can’t help but notice how narrow and limiting life is becoming. His friend Blue and his sisters must cut off their long hair or risk having it cut off by force. Kite-flying is banned, books and art are burned, and school is closed.

Suddenly, Leap Forward understands why Little-Little was always so troubled by his caged bird. “Wouldn’t you rather be free, just for a day, than spend a lifetime in a cage?” Little-Little asks. It is Little-Little, a free spirit by nature, who urges Leap Forward to go with him again to their spot by the river, away from the trucks and loudspeakers of the Red Guards, to fly a forbidden kite and to play music on the flute – not revolutionary songs or scales but wild and free music. When Leap Forward finally decides that he must let his caged bird fly free, something within him is able to stretch free of its bonds and fly free as well.

Never depressing or gray, this is an authentic child’s-eye view of Communist China. Try as it might to wring color, spontaneity, and joy from people’s lives, Mao’s government never did succeed. Red berries, yellow birds, and green mulberry leaves sparkle in Leap Forward’s story, making it come vividly to life. The many watercolor illustrations depict the people and places of Leap Forward’s world in winsome, jewel-toned detail.

This is an autobiographical book, and readers will be fascinated by Guo Yue’s afterword, which extends his story to the present day and includes several photos of the chubby-faced author as a boy.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

As if enforced creationism and (attempted) enforced abstinence weren't bad enough...

Sarah Palin is also an attempted banner of books! In this Time article, we learn:

"Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. "She asked the library how she could go about banning books," he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. "The librarian was aghast." That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving "full support" to the mayor. "

Not okay! Not okay at all!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Review of Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank-you Notes by Peggy Gifford

Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank-you Notes by Peggy Gifford (Schwartz & Wade, 2008).

How I love a book with plenty of white space, BIG chapter names but very short chapters, and at least a sprinkling of funny illustrations, and I think I'm not alone. Those who share my proclivities will embrace the new Moxy Maxwell book (following 2007's Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little).

All the action takes place within about an hour or so as 9-year-old Moxy struggles to write 13 thank-you notes, which she must accomplish (so her mother says) before she will be allowed to visit her long-absent dad in Hollywood. Being Moxy, nothing is simple, and soon her stepdad's favorite recliner is broken, his new copier has spewed out 473 identical fill-in-the-blanks thank-you notes, and the words "HANK YOU" have been spray painted in gold paint across the living room wall (the "T" ends up on young Sam's sweater). Luckily, Moxy's twin brother Mark captures the whole thing with his still camera, and we readers get to see the excellent photographs, all thoughtfully captioned for us.

All this does not faze Moxy for long (although it takes her mom and stepdad a bit longer to recover their equilibrium), and even the falling-through of her New Year's plans fail to keep her spirits down. Kids will love Moxy's resilience and her absolute resistance to doing things the easy or obvious (or sensible) way.

Grades 2 - 4.

Monday, September 1, 2008

A handful of kids name their current fave books

Natasha (shown at right), 9 -

Current fave - Meg Cabot's Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls series

Sam (not pictured), 13 -

Current fave - Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series

Nadia (shown at left), almost 14 -

Current faves: fantasy in general, and specifically all books by Robin Hobb

Vivian (not pictured), 17 -

Current fave: anything by David Sedaris

Gabriel (shown at right), almost 8 -

Current fave: anything (fiction or nonfiction) by Dan Gutman

Noah, 8 -

Current fave: The "Horace Splattly Cupcaked Crusader" books by Lawrence David

Review of Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Grades 9 and up
After being evilly abused for most of her short life, 15-year-old Liga attempts to end her own life and the life of her infant. Some benevolent power sends her instead to a parallel version of her cottage and village, where there are no bad people or even any unpredictability or unpleasantness. It’s a place where she can raise her two daughters (for she was pregnant again when brought here) in tranquility, where nothing and no one will ever make demands on her. It is, in fact, her own heaven.

When Liga’s daughters Branza and Urdda are still young, a small-time ignorant witch named Annie manages to accidentally cause a rift between the real world and Liga’s heaven, causing the occasional visitor, benign or malign, to cross over for a time from Liga’s old village into her heaven. Branza’s encounters with these visitors are sometimes confusing or unpleasant, but Urdda is enflamed with curiosity and must find a way to the real world. Find it she does, and manages to find good folks who understand who she is and can help her. Meanwhile, time spins much faster in Liga’s heaven, with one of Urdda’s years equaling ten of Branza and Liga’s years.

Urdda misses her family and wants to visit them; not only is she unable to do so, but an expert witch must be called in to bring out Branza and Liga from Liga’s fatally damaged heaven and make it vanish for good. Branza and Liga, one innocent by chance and one by choice, must figure out how to make their way in this dangerous, terrifying real world, where men and boys are violent and badness lurks around every corner.

This is the truly compelling part of the tale. Liga’s experience of the world was so awful that it is no wonder she created such a safe and static place for herself and her daughters, filled with bland folks who didn’t actually exist. But Branza and Urdda, being human, could not grow up healthy and whole in a place where the only complex beings were their mother and the occasional magicked visitor. They need to learn how to survive in this all-too-real world and to find their own heart’s desire if they can. Even Liga is human and belongs to this brutal world, and her slow healing is wondrous and painful to experience.

From its truly horrifying and brutal beginning to its satisfying but bittersweet end, this novel is mesmerizing. Language (characters speak in a country dialect that sounds both fantastical and utterly authentic) and tone remain consistent, whether the story is being told from Liga’s damaged but sweet perspective, from the perspective of one of the Bears who ends up in Liga’s heaven, or from those of any number of other carefully drawn characters. No one is perfect – all have flaws, some much more than others – but we can understand, if not sympathize with, each person. Often wrenching, at heart this is a truly tender story of healing, growing, and redemption.