Thursday, December 31, 2009

A light-filled library in Minneapolis

Hennepin County Library's Central Library in downtown Minneapolis is quite new (2006) and impeccably planned. Filled with light, it's an inviting and gorgeous building with plenty of comfy places to sit.

The children's area is absolutely amazing, filled with places to study, read, and play. The teen section is quite small but popular - the teen librarian told me that the snack vending machines, and in fact all the features in the teen room, were a direct result of the input of more than 150 teens who took part in the planning process.

Hennepin County Library has a website that makes me envious - check out their "birth to six" section.

Review of Ever Breath by Julianna Baggott

Baggott, Julianna. Ever Breath. Random House, 2009.

I wasn't hooked by the Anbodies trilogy, written by Baggott under the name N.E. Bode, but her Prince of Fenway Park was fresh and unusual, so I turned to The Ever Breath with great anticipation.

Long, long ago, the world was inhabited by all sorts of folks and creatures, magical and mundane, before it was split into two worlds. Our world is the Fixed World, a place of no magic but whose creativity and imagination derive from our proximity with the Breath World, where all the magical creatures live. The worlds are connected by the Ever Breath, which resides in a passageway and has been guarded since time immemorial by a special family with ties to both worlds.

Twins Truman and Camille learn that they are members of this family when the Ever Breath is stolen and things on both sides of the passageway begin to fall apart. And if the passageway is severed completely, both worlds will begin to die. Truman and Camille journey to Breath World, where they must help a desperate group of revolutionaries find the Ever Breath before it's too late.

Anyone who has traveled in a very foreign land will appreciate Truman's disorientation as he puzzles over the strange food, customs, politics, and history of Breath World, details that are fluently relayed in a way that made me believe in this complex society and want to know more about its people. Mewlers, locust fairies, talking mice, people with horns - Breath World teems with unusual folks who get along with one another or don't. And all is not well by any means, as the Office of Official Affairs uses fear and intimidation to rule its people. Its slogan - "Us versus Them! The difference is simple!"

The first part of the book, before the twins get to Breath World, is a bit too long, and the last part is a whirlwind, too-quick effort to get the Ever Breath back, revealing a master villain who is a bit of a disappointment. In-between, however, the story is fascinating - and there is bound to be a sequel exploring more of the magical Breath World.

Recommended for fantasy fans who enjoy tales of magical worlds connected to ours, such as the Chronicles of Narnia.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Underground Library

To get to the Walker Branch of the Hennepin County Library, you have to go underground - which makes it feel like a cozy mole hole when the temperature is 15 degrees, as it was today when I visited Walker.

Steve Lopez on Susan Patron

One of my favorite LA Times columnists writes about one of my favorite writers, our own Susan Patron.

Review of Clover Twig and the Magical Cottage by Kaye Umanskya

Umansky, Kaye. Clover Twig and the Magical Cottage. Roaring Brook Press, 2009.

Some heroines are bold and fearless, some are sweet and good - and some, like Clover Twig, simply like to keep things clean and orderly. Ten-year-old Clover's superb cleaning and organizational skills get her a well-paying housekeeping job with Mrs. Eckles, the gruffly kind but breathtakingly messy village witch. A perquisite of the job is her own little bedroom in the cottage's loft, a fine change of pace from Clover's slightly squalid and very overcrowded home, but a drawback is Mrs. Eckles' nasty witch sister Mesmeranza, who manages to steal the cottage and all its contents, including Clover, young Wilf the delivery boy, and Mrs. Eckles' huge and mangy cat Neville.

Clover doesn't wrest back the cottage or vanquish Mesmeranza (those feats belong to Neville and Mrs. Eckles' grandmother, respectively), but her common sense, love of order, and a dose of stubbornness do serve to counter the goofiness, ineptness, irrationality, and messiness of all the other characters - demonstrating that those fine qualities possessed in abundance by (for instance) many librarians can save the day.

This is a charming story that takes fairy tale staples like the plucky peasant girl and the witch's cottage in the woods and uses a whimsical and slightly dry humor to create a fresh and entertaining fantasy. Mrs. Eckles' love and admiration for Neville (who exudes both an appalling stench and a huge personality), Mesmeranza's fascination with footwear, her prison guard's doomed love for her allergic cat-obsessed secretary, Wilf's clumsiness, and Clover's mania for tidiness are all entertaining. At one point, Mrs. Eckles suggests that Clover, to pass the time, should take a potion that causes her to go berserk and make a huge mess. "The effects only lasts an hour. Then you goes back to normal and cleans up. You'd enjoy that part," she adds drily.

Recommended as a light and diverting fantasy for grades 3 - 5.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Climate shock

On Thursday, I went from 72 degree weather in Venice to a winter wonderland in Minneapolis. I love my town, but there is something to be said for tubing downhill on a snowy night - over and over and over.
Having to haul on gloves, hat, scarf, coat, and boots every time I go outside means I've been spending lots of time inside eating and reading; I finished and reviewed Drizzle by Kathleen Van Cleve for School Library Journal, the description of which alone had my niece and nephew arguing about who got to read the ARC first, and now I'm reading the most excellent Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, due out in January.

Leftover Christmas cookies, family, snow, and a tall stack of books. Life is good.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Books, kids, and videos - a fine combination

Storytubes is an annual contest in which kids, alone or in groups, create very short videos highlighting a book or books. It's run by a group of library systems, but any child can enter.

This would be a really fun library program for school-aged kids. I can imagine it taking at least 2 sessions - one to explain the contest, show them videos of previous award-winners, and talk with them about what books they might want to booktalk. The next session would be the actual filming - an inexpensive Flip camera or any video camera would do. And then the videos could be uploaded to Storytubes, assuming the parents of each kid had signed the permission form.

For a good time, check out the 2009 Judge's Choice winners. My favorite is the winner of the Group category, grades K to 6, and their version of Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A smelly book is a much-loved book

Much of what bookseller Josie Leavitt says in her post "Joyous Thoughts" could be echoed by us public librarians - except this sentiment:

"One other thing that always makes smile are the many customers who surreptitiously sniff their books after they buy them."

Not particularly advisable when the book has circulated 73 times! And what are those alarming stains on page 128?

Pratchett's "Nation" in Plasticine

In October, the Guardian announced a contest for teens to turn a pivotal scene (the first meeting of Daphne and Mau) into a short film. Thanks to Leila of Bookshelves of Doom for the link. Here's my favorite, the winner of the age 10 -14 category:

Monday, December 21, 2009

A cure for the unquiet mind

Pico Iyer had an interesting article in yesterday's LA Times on the "tyranny of the moment." He ends it like this:

"A few days ago, I conducted a small experiment in my two-room apartment here in rural Japan. I spent two hours clicking through what are among the most literary and unhurried of the alternatives to books, the online versions of the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. I came away with delectable snippets of information about Richard Holbrooke, American schools and the Obama campaign. I could talk now about any of these matters of current interest at a dinner-party with three minutes' worth of wisdom. But I also felt, as I logged off, a little as I did when I worked four blocks from Times Square: wildly stimulated, excitingly up-to-the-moment, alive with ideas -- and with no time or space to hear myself think.

Then I picked up a novel a friend had just given me, the not very remarkable Swiss book "Night Train to Lisbon." It's a long way from Virginia Woolf or Emily Dickinson, and it didn't begin to hold me as Alice Munro or Colm Tóibín might. But when I looked up from my reading, I'd forgotten what time it was, my self and my life seemed much larger -- and it was as if I'd stepped out of a traffic-jammed car on the 405 at 5 p.m. on a Friday and into a deep forest rich with secrets.

Define happiness, someone asked me recently. Absorption, I said instantly (it was an e-mail interview), and anything that gives me an inner life and a sense of spaciousness, intimacy and silence. The world is much better for many of us now than it was 10 years ago, and I never could have dreamed so many of us would have so many kinds of diversion, excitement and information at our fingertips.

But information cannot teach the use of information. And diversion doesn't teach us concentration. Imagine a seven-hour-long heart-to-heart with someone who's been saving up all her life for what she's about to whisper in your ear. The medium that has been dying the whole century may be one way we can rebel against the hidden dictatorship of Right Now."

Fed by numerous sources of information and inspiration, my brain hums along very merrily at a rather high RPM, enabling me to complete an alarming number and assortment of tasks at work in a quick and capable manner while holding in my head a vision that unifies all the work that I do in the name of children's literature and library services. However, this ability comes with its price - it's really hard for me to shut my darn brain off when I get home from work. Whether I'm running, cooking, or trying to sleep, my brain keeps processing and planning away, which may be a wonderfully efficient way of getting work done but does nothing for my peace of mind. At work, I like to keep my mind active and engaged. At home, I treasure tranquility and relaxation.

I don't know how to meditate. Mindfulness eludes me. But becoming utterly absorbed in a book - this is something I can do. This is the ONLY thing that shuts off my brain, in fact. While reading, I become, as Iyer says, completely absorbed. My body relaxes, the adrenalin ceases to flow - I'm sure that a brain scan would show my brain waves rolling peacefully along rather than peaking jaggedly.

Now, more than ever, people need to have the ability to tune out the constant barrage of information and stimulation. I subscribe to so many blogs that I find myself skimming through them, which is fine for most of them but absolutely defeats the purpose of thoughtful and well-written posts like Peter Sieruta's
Collecting Children's Books. And yet it's difficult to slow down and read a screen of text word by word. If a life-long reader like me can't concentrate long enough to read a medium-length blog, what is the world coming to?

So far, I have no problems concentrating on books. If I ever lose that ability, you'll just have to cart me away - but for now, fiction is balm to my restless soul.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Review of Unfinished Angel by Sharon Creech

Creech, Sharon. The Unfinished Angel. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins, 2009.

I read The Unfinished Angel yesterday, and coincidentally there was an article by Anne Rice in today's Parade about "The Angels Among Us." Having single-handedly begun her own vampire craze a generation before Twilight, Rice has just published a book called Angel Time, which I haven't read. In her Parade article, Rice explains that while she understands the appeal of vampires, "with angels we are most certainly on surer ground....One cannot help but be glad that once the present vampire craze is over, angels will still be busy guarding their earthly charges and answering prayers."

Frankly, I don't think that, as Anne thinks is possible, fans of vampires are really seeking angels. C'mon! Vampires are dangerous and sexy. Angels might occasionally be dangerous, but sexy? There are some intriguing Renaissance paintings and sculptures of famous biblical angels wielding mighty swords and looking most fabulously ferocious - but nope, vampires and angels are apples and oranges.

The angelic narrator of the Unfinished Angel couldn't be more different from a vampire, but it doesn't exactly fit our ideas of what an angel should be, either. Right away, we find out that this angel is far from perfect and is well aware of the fact. It knows it's an angel but doesn't know exactly what it is doing in this place in the Swiss Alps, what its purpose is, or exactly how far its "territory" extends. It has never seen another angel. Although it is supposed to know every word of every language, it realizes that its knowledge is very incomplete. It fears that it hasn't received some kind of crucial angel training. I was reminded of a worker who has been plunked down in an office all alone by an amiable but overworked supervisor and left there after a few vague and encouraging words.

One problem with this angel's assignment is that there aren't very many kids, just lots of old people whose lives are quiet and needs are few. But then Zola and her dad arrive from America with plans to open an international school, and things begin to liven up. For one thing, Zola can actually see the angel, quite a rarity. (For the record, the angel looks person-like, with an attractive face, a crooked yet regal robe, an indeterminate gender, and no wings). For another, she has discovered that there are runaway children, presumably orphans, living rough in a shed nearby - and this fact suddenly gives the angel quite a lot to do.

The angel's uncertainty is both charming and fascinating - many of its questions are the ones that we want to know, too. On the other hand, those questions are the same ones that we humans ask ourselves and each other. Why am I here? What is my nature? What is my purpose? Why am I so imperfect? And although these questions are not answered, what the angel (and the reader) gradually realizes is that one can be imperfect - in fact, one can be one of those amazingly flawed "peoples," as the angel calls humans - and still do a lot of good on this earth. This realization shakes the angel up a bit. "My head, is has flown off to the moon. Is everyone an angel?" But eventually, the angel understands that, like itself, humans are "unfinished."

The way the angel speaks - with a way of getting words and syntax slightly wrong - is a quaint way of demonstrating its imperfection and slight otherworldliness, but it can be a bit too cutesy. Luckily, the angel itself isn't cutesy, having the tendency to be balky, cranky, and uncertain. Always, though, its intentions are good (it's an angel!). The whole orphaned children plot felt rather inauthentic to me, as I simply couldn't believe in their all showing up in a shed in Switzerland (they come from all over) nor in their personalities (each has an odd little quirk) nor in their fairy-tale fates. In fact, I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that even Zola didn't interest me. For me, this book is all about the angel.

One big question I have is about the pigeon. What is this miraculous pigeon that Zola describes as showing up in her preemie brother's hospital room? Is it something of the same nature as our angel? Is it of a higher order? What is its significance (it must have one - a pigeon graces the cover)? The angel wonders all these things as well, but if there are any answers, they eluded me. 'Sokay - I don't always need answers.

This is a quick, quirky, accessible, and thought-provoking story - I suspect that quite a few kids will find its tone quite appealing. Recommended for ages 9 to 12.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Review of The Serial Garden by Joan Aiken

Aiken, Joan. The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories. Big Mouth House, 2009.

Why, oh why didn't I know about these stories when I was a child? The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and its sequels I read several times over, but I had never even heard of these stories until this compilation was published.

My expectations were very, very high, so it's not surprising that the first two stories didn't instantly meet them. But I kept reading, and by the end of the collection, I was a citizen of that strange little English village inhabited by a large family of 6" people, a unicorn, a multitude of witches (er, I mean old fairy ladies), druids, and plenty of ordinary folks who mostly manage to live and let live, so far as their magical neighbors are concerned. Lucky, lucky Mark and Harriet, to be able to face up to amazing magical people and situations with plenty of breezy aplomb - and to have parents tolerant of, if not always thrilled with, the chaos that magic can bring.

These are the kind of stories that make the drab sidewalks and humdrum houses of one's own neigborhood sparkle with the possibility of magic. And although most of it is benign, some of it might be unknowing or careless of the human world and some might be altogether malevolent. As far as that last goes, the worst things that happen in these stories are brought about not by evil magic but by human error, as when Mrs. Armitage horrifyingly destroys the last known garden in which Mr. Johansen's love is trapped (luckily a chance of a happy ending comes in a later story) or when a gnome child is accidentally run over and killed. These tragedies shook me up badly and reminded me that life, even in lighthearted children's fantasy stories, has a way of being unexpected.

These are quirky, unpredictable, and veddy British stories. I'm devastated that now (unless more are found in a trunk somewhere) I've read all the Armitage stories that exist. I'll just have to read them all again someday. Recommended for fans of E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, and any fantasy that features ordinary kids in magical situations.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Salvation Army bells ring, are you listening?

Dissipate some of your pre-holiday stress with this bit of magical street improv. If this doesn't get you to drop a few coins in the next Salvation Army kettle you see, I don't know what will. Find the original post at Color Me Katie.

Review of Toby Alone by Timothee de Fombell

De Fombelle, Timothee. Toby Alone. Candlewick Press, 2009.
As a child, I read The Borrowers quite a few times. It was clear to me that the room my sister and I shared, with much of the floor covered with all sorts of fascinating and useful little items from Legos to doll clothes to dice, could easily sustain a family or even several families of Borrowers very comfortably. Everything about the book, from its descriptions of hazardous journeys through human rooms to the details of Borrower furnishings and food, made sense, and the illustrations helped me to understand the scale of the Borrowers, who are about 5 inches tall, in relation to the human world.
Toby Alone is also about a society of very tiny people; Toby, a boy, is no more than two centimeters tall. As I read about Toby's family's forced exile from the higher reaches of the Tree to the Low Branches and Toby's hours-long trips to visit his friend Elisha, there was something wrong. All of Toby's adventures remained an abstraction to me because I just couldn't visualize Toby and his world.
The problem was that darn two centimeters. Now, I clearly remember the excitement with which one of my teachers - was it 1st grade? 3rd grade? - passed out painted wooden objects to us. One was an orange cube, a centimeter on all sides and another was a green oblong - a decimeter. These objects heralded a new and glorious system of measurement - the Metric System! We used our centimeter and decimeter to measure various objects and so on, and then all the excitement died away and that was that. But I remember very distinctly the appearance, feel, and even smell of that centimeter cube and so I knew how tall Toby was supposed to be. Not very tall at all.
The problem was that I couldn't quite picture those 2-centimeter-tall folks in their Tree, and the illustrations didn't help much. They are captivating and full of charming, expressive details, but sometimes they are rather misleading in terms of scale - while the illustration of a man riding a giant weevil makes sense (he looks like he's riding an elephant, it's so big), other illustrations aren't so rigorous and seem to portray the Tree folk as being at least several inches tall. Even the fabulous book jacket that unfolds to become a large drawing of the whole Tree with its various communities and landmarks indicated didn't help, as it clearly wasn't to scale. It was a dilemma for me as a reader.
Therefore, I commissioned my younger daughter to draw a 2-cm-high Toby for me and then propped him up in various trees in my house and yard. In the Christmas tree, Toby was waist-deep in thick bristles. In the dwarf Meyer lemon tree outside, there were very few thick branches where Toby and his people could build a home and make a living (although those lemons could come in very handy).
In our Chinese elm, however, there would be plenty of room for an entire society, just as in Toby's Tree. Thick branches would provide wide-open spaces, thinner branches would make wonderful suburbs, and the peeling bark and relatively small, sturdy leaves would lend themselves to a multitude of uses.
So, back to Toby Alone. Now I can visualize much of the story much more clearly, from encounters with insects and birds to the weird foods (black bark juice, butterfly pate) people eat. I still have some big questions - where do things like pianos and file cabinets come from? And considering how vertical trees are, how does Toby get around without a rope? - but sometimes one has to suspend one's disbelief.
Luckily, there's a lot in this book that makes suspension of disbelief well worth the effort. While the structure of the story is sometimes confusing, especially in terms of the timeline, many episodes are compelling. Toby has a double battle - not only must he rescue his parents from the clutches of a government that is under the sway of an evil man named Big Mitch, but he must clear his own name before he is killed or imprisoned by his own people. Oh, and Big Mitch is creating shoddy developments and spearheading a mining operation that is causing ecological and societal havoc. There is also the matter of the demonizing of the Grass People, who live at the base of the Tree and who used to trade with the folks in the Tree but are now being killed or captured to work in the mine. It's all turning into a disaster and only Toby can stop it - if he can stay alive.
It's a long and complicated saga, and it was hard for me to wrap my head around the geography of the Tree, the distances between landmarks, and the sheer implausibility of a tiny piano existing in this world. But - readers who stick with it will become absorbed in Toby's adventures and in the complex society of the Tree and they will be rewarded by the sequel that is sure to come. Recommended for dedicated readers such as those who love Brian Jacques' Redwall series.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Susan Patron and others in Sunday's LA Times

Susan Patron has a great article in Sunday's Los Angeles Times on What Titles Should You Choose For Your Kids? Other luminaries wrote fun pieces as well, such as Jon Scieszka's It's All Good and Susan Carpenter's With a Reluctant Young Read, the Grosser the Better.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

It will be the best of times and the worst of times

At the end of the year, it's traditional to look back at the highlights and low points of the last 12 months. This year, I can't help but reflect on all the changes that will be coming in 2010, and there will be plenty in my library system.

Already, an unprecedented City budget crisis has made it necessary to furlough most employees 3.5 hours every other week. Because this has stretched our already thin staffing to the breaking point, we have also, as of yesterday, cut back on Friday hours at all our branches - from open hours of 10 am - 6 pm to 1:30 pm to 5:30 pm.

Our staff is about to get much smaller. Due to the passing of a City early retirement incentive package that is hoped to save the City money by encouraging retirements, we will most likely lose about 20% of our library workforce in the next few months. All of these folks are of course experienced and most are in frontline and/or crucial managerial or administrative positions. It'll hurt to lose them.

We'll survive - and we may even thrive - but it will mean a lot of change and some tough decisions. What exactly those changes will be is probably being hashed out even now in the highest levels of the library's administration. Input has been encouraged by our City Librarian Martin Gomez, but as yet no one knows who exactly is doing the decision-making, what the decisions will be, and when they will be made.

All that is too scary and uncertain for me to dwell on right now so I think I'll focus on the positive, and there is plenty of fodder for me even in these dark times. Mr. Gomez gave a presentation to Senior Librarians and other staff members last Wednesday, during which he made some extremely encouraging remarks.

The first had to do with two items he felt we should focus on in order to strengthen LAPL's performance: staff development/training and performance measures/evaluation. Yes! These are two issues that are dear to my heart (here's my lament on so many training needs/so little time and one of many posts on the beauty of outcome measures) and to which our library system has not paid much attention. Staff development and training almost disappeared the moment the budget got bad, and we have yet to adopt a system-wide method of measuring performance or outcomes. According to Mr. Gomez, a staff that is trying to do a topnotch job with fewer resources needs more and better training, not less. And in a time when we might be cutting back or streamlining services, we'd better be darn sure the services we do offer are performing effectively.

I was also extremely glad to hear Mr. Gomez announce that he feels we should focus on 3 main goals rather than the 8 or so in our strategic plan, which is luckily expiring in 2010 - see the outcome measures post I mentioned above for some comments on that. Those goals are:
Invest in reading readiness
Help students succeed
Bring the benefits of technology to all
This is balm to my children's librarian's heart, let me tell you! We're already doing much in these areas, and we can do much more with every level and part of our library (not just the Children's Services department) working toward these goals.

So - we may have a much smaller staff in 2010 and we may have to undergo some possibly painful reorganizing and cutting, but I sincerely believe that the result will be a more effective and efficient organization with its resources and energy firmly focused on some very crucial goals. I'm so happy I'll be a part of it - in whatever capacity I end up serving after all the reorganizing shakes out!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Sorrows of a Young Magician

Grossman, Lev. The Magicians. Viking, 2009.

The Magicians is a book tailor-made for adults and teens who are and always have been bonkers for fantasy, the kind of readers who think "Narnia!" when they walk down a wooded path or compulsively pick up coins off the ground on the off-chance they might be magical.

Young Quentin is just such a teen. He has never felt at home in his own skin and can't manage the knack of being happy, so he escapes in his imagination to Fillory whenever he can. Fillory is the magical land visited by 4 British siblings, the Chatwins, in Quentin's favorite childhood fantasy series (think Narnia). "Like most people Quentin read the Fillory books in grade school. Unlike most people...he never got over them. They were where he went when he couldn't deal with the real world, which was a lot."

It turns out that Quentin actually has magical abilities; he is whisked off to a hidden College of Magic where he passes a rigorous exam and enrolls in five years of intensive magical study. Yes, the parallels to Harry Potter are strong (some of the characters even make jokes about this). Although this is a college, it feels like a prep school with its uniforms and its rivalries between different Disciplines, and there's even a special competitive outdoor magical game called Welters (very different from Quidditch, though). The focus is not necessarily on the coolness of the magic or even on the relationships between classmates. Rather, Quentin is always the focus, whether he is studying furiously or falling in love. Magic turns out to be Very Difficult, no matter how talented one is, but even mastering it only gives Quentin short-lived pleasure. Even requited love seems to pall after a while.

When Quentin and his cohorts find out after graduating that Fillory is a real place and manage to journey there, things quickly go haywire. It may be populated with cute talking animals, but it is no paradise. A fearsome enemy dwells in Fillory, and suddenly the newly minted magicians are in serious, deadly trouble. Magic no longer seems like a novelty or a game; it can have horrible consequences, as Quentin learns.

Although I was often irritated with Quentin's inability to truly appreciate what he has been given - of all people, he should most appreciate his entry into the world of magic - I dove into this book and stayed immersed for one whole Sunday. As Quentin himself realizes, "When the oldest Chatwin, melancholy Martin, opens the cabinet of the grandfather clock ... and slips through into Fillory..., it's like he's opening the covers of a book, but a book that did what books always promised to do and never actually quite did: get you out, really out, of where you were and into somewhere better." Until some real magic comes along, I'll gladly use books. They're safer, anyway.

The language is fluid and a bit show-offy and overblown at times, much like very smart and talented college students might speak, in fact. Often it is rather reminiscent in its affectionate air of nostalgia to the language in Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Mostly, I enjoyed it very much. Here's a description of a student named Eliot:

"He had an air of magnificent melancholy sophistication, as if his proper place were elsewhere, somewhere infinitely more compelling even than Brakebills, and he'd been confined to his present setting by a grotesque divine oversight, which he tolerated with as much good humor as could be expected."

I wonder if this might be something to try at work?

Readers who are tempted to give up on Quentin as an unbearable ass should hang on to the very last couple pages. I wouldn't say he redeems himself - but he gives every sign of being ready to finally shed his ludicrous and self-indulgent burden of guilt.

Most delightful. Highly recommended for teens and adults.

Those who don't write, link to those who do

Thank goodness folks are busily creating great content for their blogs, 'cause I'm sure not. Good stuff to come, so watch this space - but in the meantime, here are excellent posts for your amusement and edification:

Librarian Lump of Coal Gift Guide from 100 Scope Notes

Scary Santa cakes from Cakewrecks

A G version of the infamous SLJ "bloggers at the bar" cover from Collecting Children's Books

Why libraries should take charge of their own websites from David Lee King

Thoughts about a UK report on links between students' technology use and writing skills from the Librarian in Black Blog.

Best Comics for Kids 2009 from Good Comics for Kids

Third part of a series on how and why Guys Read (and how to get them to read more) from Stacked

Enjoy! I'll be back soon.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Review of Mike Stellar: Nerves of Steel by K.A. Holt

Holt, K.A. Mike Stellar: Nerves of Steel. Random House, 2009.

Good science fiction for kids can be hard to find, and those titles all seem to take place on Earth. Sometimes the kid protagonist comes in contact with aliens (Adam Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday or Terry Pratchett's Only You Can Save Mankind), sometimes the kid IS an alien (Pamela Service's Alien series), sometimes the kid comes in contact with amazing scientific powers or gadgets (Reisman's Simon Bloom: Gravity Keeper), and sometimes time travel is involved (Stead's When You Reach Me). If we venture into YA territory, we find Bechard's Spacer and Rat (gritty space station) and Anderson's Feed (features jaunts to Mars and the moon).

While I enjoy Earth-based SF, there is something about a tiny tin can of a spaceship, packed with the messy lives and relationships of humans, hurtling through infinite, deadly space, that really gets my geek blood humming. How lovely, then, to find a good space-based SF title aimed right at middle-grade readers.

Readers no sooner meet Mike Stellar than they are whisked off with him on a colonizing journey to Mars. His parents work for the Project, which terraforms planets for human habitation, but it's still quite a shock when they tell Mike that they'll be traveling with the upcoming expedition - which leaves the next day. Within a couple days of space travel, Mike knows something peculiar is going on. A beefy "executive assistant" named Mr. Shugabert (Sugar Bear as far as Mike's concerned) shadows the family everywhere, a weird girl named Larc attaches herself to Mike like a leech, and horrifically, Mike's scary teacher from Earth shows up on board. It seems there is a conspiracy - but it takes Mike a while to figure out what it is and who the Good Guys and Bad Guys are.

Who the bad guys are and what they want and how they plan to get it - is the thinnest part of the book, being rather lightly sketched in. Or maybe I was paying so much attention to the book's real attractions, which were Mike's ebullient personality, his penchant for throwing himself headfirst at trouble, and the breezy, slangy, and often extremely funny way he narrates his story, that I missed some crucial plot points. Larc, the tow-headed tall girl with bright blue braces, a hooting laugh and wicked sense of humor, and a knack for off-the-cuff comments that tend to knock Mike off-balance every time, is a heroine after my own heart - even if she is harboring a rather startling secret about her own identity.

Like most good spaceship-based SF, there are long and sterile corridors, doors that whoosh open in unexpected ways, airlocks, and a pervasive tone of subversive humor. In short, everything an SF fan could wish for. It may well convert a few norms, as well. Highly recommended for ages 9 to 12.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Review of Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman, Neil. Odd and Frost Giants. Illustrated by Brett Helquist. Harper, 2009.

When one winter stretches long into the months usually reserved for spring, crippled 12-year-old Odd leaves his stir-crazy Viking village and hikes through the snow to his dead father's old woodcutting hut - having stolen some supplies, he figures he has at least a week's respite from all the folks who bully him. Almost immediately he has a strange encounter with a bear, a fox, and an eagle, who turn out to be Thor, Loki, and Odin. Thanks to the Loki's weakness for pretty women, a frost giant managed to trick Loki into giving him Thor's hammer, allowing the frost giant to steal Freya and kick the gods out of Asgard. Odd, being a resourceful lad, manages not only to get the gods back to Asgard but uses his awesome powers of persuasion to talk the frost giant into leaving.

At 117 pages, this is a tidy and completely satisfying little story. Despite Odd's dismal situation, it is impossible to feel sorry for him - his abrupt decision to go off on his own and his brave rescue of the ensorcelled bear from a honey tree mark him as an independent soul who knows how to take his own fate by the horns. Balancing Odd's rather enigmatic and steadfast persona are the three gods, who provide both comic relief and a patina of powerful otherworldliness to the proceedings. Odd's dealings with them and the pathetic frost giant are not so much clever as commonsensical, and so his reward for helping four great gods (for remember, he helps Freya, too) is not grand but is just right for him.

Highly recommended for all sorts of readers, especially fans of Norse mythology, and as a read-aloud, too. Ages 8 to 12.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The rewards of reviewing

Here are the happy School Library Journal December Holiday reviewers (Los Angeles Public Librarians all) enjoying a well-earned meal at Drago Centro. Reading and reviewing dozens of holiday book in the July heat does have its rewards!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Review of The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge

This is one of those books that is so rich in detail, so brimming with fascinating characters and convoluted plot lines, that it is difficult to do it justice when summarizing it.

Therefore, here is the most cursory of plot descriptions. The island of Gullstruck, populated by a breathtaking variety of tribes, was colonized hundreds of years ago by a "civilized" culture from the mainland. One tribe, the Lace, has been marginalized for almost that long after cultural misunderstandings led to a bloody pogrom. On Gullstruck, a few children are born with the ability to send their 5 senses beyond their bodies and out into the world - they are called the Lost and are trained to be a sort of communications network for the island. Young Hathin, a Lace girl, is the caretaker and interpreter for her 13-year-old sister Arilou, a Lost child - except Arilou has never once made herself understood and so Hathin and the whole village suspect she is merely an imbecile and not Lost at all. But they keep up the deception even when a Lost inspector comes to test Arilou - and when he and all the rest of the Lost on the island suddenly and mysteriously die, it is blamed on the Lost and Hathin and Arilou must flee. However, they find that all over the island, the Lost are being treated as scapegoats and sent to labor camps.

Readers will note many parallels to the colonization of native people in Africa and South America, to the Holocaust, and to any situation in which cultures clash. The tribes of Gullstruck have elements of Aztec and Mayan cultures, of certain Asian cultures, and so on - but they are very much original creations and absolutely unique. The Lace, for example, all have semi-precious stones and coral and shells embedded in their teeth, and they all smile all the time, whether they are happy or not. In fact, in stressful times their smiles are wider and more rigid than ever, causing alarm and disquiet in the colonists who fear them. They all have names that sound literally like natural occurrences - Hathin's name sounds like dust settling - so that they will be forgotten by the volcano gods that rule their island.

This kind of detail creates a rich and multi-layered world that comes fully alive, and when Hathin and Arilou move beyond their seaside village and begin to interact with their allies and enemies, the story begins to soar. Hathin is one of those small, meek, young protagonists who is forced by circumstances to become the amazing person she was meant to be; she is utterly humble and completely captivating, even though she herself feels she is just muddling through as best she can. All characters, from the "good" ones to the truly creepy ones, are complicated, unpredictable, and fascinating. They are also quite believable - their motivations are understandable even when reprehensible.

I could go on and on, but I think I'll stop there. This is one of those books that I wanted never to end. Absolutely recommended for motivated readers ages 10 to 15.

Review of Raider's Ransom by Emily Diamond

Here is my review for School Library Journal, which appears in the December 2009 issue. All the December reviews can be found here.
DIAMAND, Emily. Raiders' Ransom. 352p. CIP. Scholastic/Chicken House. Dec. 2009. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-545-14297-7. LC 2008043692.
Gr 6–8—In the early 23rd century, much of what used to be eastern England is underwater or marshy, Greater Scotland extends down below London, and England consists of the 10 southernmost counties. Lilly is a fishergirl in a small English village, but when the marsh-dwelling raiders kidnap the Prime Minister's small daughter from Lilly's village, the 13-year-old sails off to get her back, along with her mysterious seacat. Zeph is the tough but conflicted son of the raider chieftain whose tribe stole Lexy. Their entwined fates are complicated by Lilly's theft of an ancient "jewel" that turns out to be a gaming computer from the late 21st century and by the bloody war that breaks out between the raiders and England. Readers will be fascinated by the results of environmental calamity upon civilization—Londoners who managed to escape the Collapse of their city have formed into primitive, Viking-like raiders, folks in southern England have reverted to an 18th-century lifestyle, and Greater Scotland still has access to advanced technology—not that they're sharing it with anyone else. The plot, although leisurely and sometimes straining credulity, is suspenseful, and both Lilly and Zeph are complex and interesting characters. Unanswered questions point to a sequel. This is an intriguing postapocalyptic adventure with a dash of Dark Ages spice.—Eva Mitnick, Los Angeles Public Library

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Review of The Dragon's Pearl by Devin Jordan

Jordan, Devin. The Dragon's Pearl. Simon & Schuster, 2009.

Sixteen-year-old Marco Polo (yes, that Marco Polo) has always chafed at having to stay home in safe old Venice while his father and uncle go gallivanting about the globe, so when his uncle comes home from an expedition with the dread news that Marco's father has been captured by creepy half-man/half-animal creatures under the sway of a magician named Arghun, Marco is determined to set off over the Insurmountable Mountains to the Unknown Lands (what we'd call Asia) to rescue him.

Shortly thereafter, Marco's uncle is murdered, cementing Marco's resolve. He and his friend Amelio (the son of a trusted household servant) set off for Constantinople and then, after meeting up with an ally of the Polos, find a guide and set off for the Unknown Lands, where magic is still alive and well and where, despite the power of Kublai Khan, an evil force is threatening to take over.

This book starts out promisingly with a swashbuckling practice sword fight between Marco and Amelio and then a quick and smooth transition from Venice to Constantinople. I do love fast-paced buddy stories in which a pair of friends fall into and haul each other out of all manner of scrapes, and at first this seemed to be such a tale. However, although the pace of the action gallops along, the two friends seem at times to be almost accidental travel companions - not only do the boys remain only sketchily drawn as characters, but they don't interact much and thus their friendship remains somewhat theoretical. Amelio has the potential to be a character along the lines of Harry Potter's friend Ron - but he remains a cipher. Even the cool little imp that adopts him is completely ignored except when the plot needs the creature to get the friends out of a jam.

The exotic setting - an Asia as yet undiscovered by Europeans and seething with magic - has lots of potential, some of which is realized in well-written scenes like the ones in the city of Bukhara, with its hillside location and its enormous marketplace full of intoxicating sights, sounds, and scents. However, the Unknown Lands and their people are left almost completely undescribed, leaving the reader with nothing to visualize except dots on a map. Certainly, no effort was made, other than the character of Kublai Khan and the fact that his daughter has black hair, to make this fantasy Asia bear any resemblance to the real thing. And considering what an amazing place Asia of 1300 was, this is a real pity.

This tale also suffers from some clumsy writing. Awkward sentences like "And when Kokachin refused to remove his headdress, they allowed him to remain consumed by his shrouds" are a bit too common. "Consumed" by his shrouds? Did they have teeth? Arghun, the villainous magician, is a stock character of such complete evil that he is of no interest whatsoever, given to spouting such ludicrous phrases as "I shall possess the wind dragon and all will tremble" and "These are my dragon claws. They're about to feast on your flesh."

And one last quibble - although this wonderful world of ours is composed of men and women, approximately 50% of each, you wouldn't know it from The Dragon's Pearl. There is only one female in the entire book, and she only appears as female at the end (having been in a male disguise before). Yes, books about dudes having adventures are all very well - but there was a bit too much testosterone in this one. I'm hoping the next installment will contain a few more female characters.

I do recommend this book as an adequate fantasy adventure with an unusual slant and enough action to carry readers effortlessly to the finish - just don't expect perfection (except in the compelling jacket art by Jim di Bartolo). For ages 11 to 15.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Review of The Hotel Under the Sand by Kage Baker

Baker, Kage. The Hotel Under the Sand. Tachyon Publications, 2009.

Nine-year-old Emma is blown by a storm (of an uncertain nature) to a legendary island, where she meets a young ghost named Winston. No sooner has Winston told Emma of his job as Bell Captain at the most amazing hotel ever built and of the hotel's tragic burial, just before its opening day, under the sand during a huge storm more than 100 years ago (which brought about Winston's death as well), than another storm blows away all the sand and reveals the Grand Wenlocke in all its glory.

The Grand Wenlocke was built by a most unusual and enterprising gentleman, and its most amazing innovation is a device that allows time in and around the hotel to stand still, so that its guests can take as long a vacation as they want and no time will have passed in the outside world. This magical technology means that the hotel, and its sole occupant, the cook Mrs. Beet, are entirely preserved in pristine condition. Emma, Winston, and Mrs. Beet are eventually joined by a pirate and the last remaining scion of the Wenlocke family - together they open the hotel to a throng of highly unusual and magical guests.

The calm and even tone of the narration makes this story feel timeless - although the reader knows that Emma is a fairly modern girl and that Winston lived in the time of telegraphs and cinematographs and phonograph cylinders, the weird and magical isolation of the hotel really does manage to make one's era feel meaningless. This gives the book an old-fashioned feeling with a slightly quirky edge to it.

There isn't much plot, most of the story centering around discovering the wonders of the hotel, finding its treasure (a fun sort of quest in itself), and getting it up and running. Although we hear a bit about the prior lives of most characters, Emma remains an enigma. We know only that she is the sole survivor of a terrible storm that wiped away everyone and everything in her life forever, and while she isn't one to mope, this gives the girl a tinge of sadness that only shows up sometimes. It's also a bit distancing - we don't get to know Emma well, and the other characters are quaint and even appealing but not quite real.

What I found most appealing was the idea of a place quite separate from the rest of the world. Like the Titanic, it is perfectly preserved in a grand moment of time, and everything connected with it is exotic and otherworldly. Who wouldn't want to escape and spend some time in an elegant hotel on a tropical beach, where the food is first-rate and all eccentricities are looked upon benignly? And of course you can stay as long as you want, because time stands still in the hotel. I can only imagine that this idea would be almost as enticing to a young reader as it is to me.

More troubling, there is one of those time-related conundrums that I can't seem to wrap my head around. The big gimmick of the Grand Wenlocke is that you can stay as long as you want "but when you left, only a weekend would have passed in the outside world," as Winston explains to Emma. So then - how could the Grand Wenlocke, not to mention Mrs. Beet, be perfectly preserved after 100 years have gone by in the outside world? I would think that if time had slowed down in the hotel, thousands of years might have gone by in there. I suppose we're supposed to assume that time is actually non-existent in the Grand Wenlocke or exists on a whole different plane. Still, it doesn't feel logical. But maybe my brain is just too noodley to understand space/time continuum-type concepts.

This fantasy will not appeal to kids who want lots of action or even lots of magic; give it to kids who enjoy the gently humorous fantasies of Eva Ibbotson. I think it would also make a rather unorthodox but strangely compelling read-aloud. Recommended for contemplative kids ages 8 to 11.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What I've been doing instead of blogging

I've fallen behind on writing posts lately, but that's only because I've been keeping busy with:

Work! Yep, that's 40 hours (plus 7.5 hours commuting time) per week, not leaving much time left over for blogging. And those breaks, so handy for dashing off a quickie blog post, are usually used for getting more caffeine into my system these days.

Cybils! Oh, I am SO behind in my reading - so I feel lashed by guilt every time I sit down with my little netbook instead of a nominated middle-grade fantasy or SF book. I'm not sure this is much of an excuse, however. My co-panelist Charlotte has not only managed to read most of the nominated books, but she has been posting up a storm, including a weekly round-up of fantasy and SF reviews from all over the blogosphere.

Running! The 2010 LA Marathon is looming...

Crafting! The only thing that keeps me from melting into a little puddle of guilt while watching Netflix movies (when I should be reading!!!) is working on my creatures (photo above). It's for a good cause - I'm donating them to my library system's Nettie Frishman fundraiser, which raises money for children's librarians' staff development workshops. But will anyone buy them? Fear of rejection clutches at my heart, as well as the guilty hope that I'll be able to take my creatures all home again where they belong.

It's so convenient that even my excuses for not posting can become fodder for a post...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fun with String (and handkerchiefs and paper)

The twenty or so grown women (and one man) who attended Anne Pellowski's storytelling workshop at UCLA last Friday went through several moments of feeling about eight years old as we tangled string around our fingers, folded up paper, and tried to turn handkerchiefs into bunnies and babies rather then grubby wads.

Between our bumbling but oh-so-satisfying attempts to tell stories with these objects, Anne told stories using Matrushka dolls, pencil and paper, felt figures, an mbira, and even vegetables (a tale from Japan that relates all the excuses various fruits and veggies have for not visiting poor, sick Tofu in the hospital). She also showed us Indonesian scroll stories, Kamishibi story sets from Japan, Indian story cloths, and palm leaf picture books.*

What is so enticing about the stories Anne taught us is that the combination of simple story and prop creates a magic that is almost mystifying. You should have heard us gasp when Anne created a mosquito out of a piece of string and then swatted it out of existence or when a handkerchief became two babies rocking in a cradle. And when we had learned (rather laboriously - we were not quick studies, I have to say) to do it ourselves, I think we all wanted to jump right up and go show someone our new trick.

My mother, who started out as a children's librarian herself, told me plenty of stories when I was a child, and I remember the exact day I began telling stories in earnest to my own kids, during a long walk in Yosemite when my older daughter Vivian was 2 years old and I wanted to keep her mind off her tired feet. We started with Little Red Riding Hood and went through every story I could think of until we arrived back at the lodge. That was excellent practice for telling stories at storytime, at family programs, and during visits to classrooms, and to this day, I practice telling stories to my younger daughter, who is now 15 but has always been an avid audience.

I'll be teaching Storytelling at UCLA's library school next spring - I can't wait to teach my students to make mosquitos and bunnies!

*To find these stories and more, check out the following books by Anne Pellowski:

Friday, November 20, 2009

Review of Dreamdark: Silksinger by Laini Taylor

Taylor, Laini. Dreamdark: Silksinger. Putnam's Sons, 2009.

I reviewed the first book in the Dreamdark series (Dreamdark: Blackbringer) for School Library Journal, and while I gave it a good review, it did not for some reason win me over completely. Was it the book itself? Was it my mood? Had I read too many faery book recently?

Whatever the case, I approached Silksinger with some trepidation. Everyone else has been raving about it - what if I disliked it? I'd have to question my own reaction to books - am I too picky? Too discerning? Simply too cranky?

What a relief - Silksinger is a winner! Magpie Windwitch is, along with her friend Talon and her band of crow brothers, off on her quest to gather up all the Djinn - and it so happens that one of them, Azazel, is in the fierce possession of tiny Whisper, last of the Silksinger faeries. She's being pursued by devils who want it for their nasty devil master Ethiag, but his badness pales in comparison to Ethiag's own master, who plans to take over the world.

Magpie is as spunky and fearless as ever, and her relationship with Talon has an interesting tinge of complication to it. Willow, who has lost her entire clan and has nothing but her oath to protect Azazel to keep her going, finds an ally in Hirik, whose loyal and brave heart belies the stories of betrayal that taint his clan. Both Hirik and Willow are fascinating characters whose passion and desperation are so strong and believable that readers will immediately feel that they've known them forever. Even minor characters receive the kind of writerly attention to detail that makes them memorable - Slomby in particular, a lowly slave who resembles a snail, is quite winning. The city itself is a kind of character, with its bazaars and neighborhoods full of sights and sounds.

Simply put, this story sucked me in and kept me immersed in an exotic world of faeries, hobgoblins, imps, firedrakes, and devils. Any book that makes me forget that I'm a Grown-up Who Reviews Books gets high marks from me, and this one managed that feat. Perhaps I'll have to go back and give Dreamdark: Blackbringer another try...

Recommended for all fantasy fans ages 10 to 14.

Review of Ottoline Goes to School by Chris Riddell

Riddell, Chris. Ottoline Goes to School. Harper, c2008.

Poor Mr. Munroe. His status in Ottoline's life is rather unique - and rather unclear to outsiders. In fact, most folks can't quite tell what manner of creature he is, and so when he accompanies Ottoline to boarding school (the Alice B. Smith School for the Differently Gifted), he is labeled a dog and sent to stay in the east wing with the other assorted pets and companions (all of whom are at least as eccentric as Mr. Munroe).

This isn't Mr. Munroe's only dilemma. He is also suffering pangs of jealousy and sadness brought about by Ottoline's new friendship with Cecily Forbes-Lawrence III, a girl with rich but often absent parents (not unlike Ottoline herself, but they react to their similar situations rather differently). It is Cecily's attendance at the Alice B. Smith School that prompts Ottoline to enroll as well - and it's a good thing Mr. Munroe goes along, because he helps solve the mystery of a marauding ghost at the school.

I do love Mr. Munroe. He's not supposed to be the star of this book (it's not called Mr. Munroe Goes to School, after all), but his appearance is so odd (he's pretty much all long hair and feet, with a couple of large eyeballs peering through the mop that Ottoline loves to brush for him), his origins so mysterious ("Norway"), and his personality such a lovely blend of moroseness, optimism, and loyalty that he altogether steals the show as far as I'm concerned. Oh, Ottoline is a trooper, with her penchant for wearing different shoes on the same feet and absolutely making the best of her strange life living alone (well, except for Mr. Munroe and a bunch of helpers) in an apartment while her parents travel the world collecting stuff. But that Mr. Munroe...

Light on text and and liberally sprinkled with Riddell's intricate and piquant drawings, this airy, funny book will work well with readers ready for their first chapter books and as a one-on-one read-aloud. And here's a secret - my 15-year-old daughter is simply mad about the Ottoline books, so I know this one spans a great many grade levels. Cheerful, weird, and sweet. Recommended for ages 7 to, er, 15.

Here's a video of Chris Riddell drawing Mr. Munroe...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Review of The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan

Riordan, Rick. The Last Olympian ("The Olympians" book 5). Disney Hyperion, 2009.

As devout readers of this series know, uber-Titan Kronos has been gaining strength and gathering a growing army of Titans and monsters in order to topple the Olympian Gods once and for all. As it is merely days until half-blood Percy Jackson's 16th birthday, the dreaded prophecy, and Percy's role in it, is about to be revealed. As monsters and Titans rage across the United States and in Poseidon's domain, Percy and his half-blood comrades rally their allies for one last stand against their enemy in New York City.

As the last in the series, many secrets and revelations are finally unveiled, making the matter of reviewing the book a delicate proposition. Therefore, I will keep it short and sweet. The yawn-inducing trope of The Final Battle aside, this installment is as exciting and funny as any of the previous books. Grover rallies his nature spirits (and eats a bit of expensive antique furniture), Annabeth kicks butt and takes names, and Percy demonstrates some awesome leadership skills. The bad guys remain mostly venomous cliches, but some of the Gods - Hades in particular - take on added depth that is most surprising and satisfying. Percy has some choices to make, although the arguably hardest one - which girl to choose, Annabeth or Rachel? - is conveniently taken out of his hands, the lucky boy. The battle is fierce and there are some deaths - but they are mostly very much glossed over and take little emotional toll, especially since the denouement is so happy and satisfying. Although readers may take issue with one of Percy's big choices, they will be content to know that in the future, demigods will have much less of a tough row to hoe thanks to Percy.

And the best news of all? Another Camp Half-blood series is still to come! Or so Riordan promises in the acknowledgments. Woo-hoo!

Essential for all fans of the series. Grades 4 to 10.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Review of The Tree That Time Built by Mary Ann Hoberman

Hoberman, Mary Ann and Linda Winston, compilers. The Tree That Time Built: a celebration of nature, science, and imagination. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2009.

Mary Ann Hoberman is one of those writers who, in my opinion, can do no wrong. From her own collections of poetry (such as A Fine Fat Pig and Other Animal Poems and her series of two-person poetry books that began with You Read to Me, I'll Read to You) to her jaunty rhyming picture books (my younger daughter and I spent hours and hours reading and re-reading The Seven Silly Eaters) to her recent middle-grade novel (the excellent Strawberry Hill), our U.S. Children's Poet Laureate is always at the top of her game. Linda Winston, with whom I wasn't familiar before reading this anthology, is an experienced teacher, writer, and cultural anthropologist.

Together, they have compiled an anthology of poems, old and new, that explore the natural world. Beginning with a section called "Oh, Fields of Wonder," readers experience the curiosity, delight, and awe that both poets and scientists feel when contemplating life on earth - not only such classic writers as William Blake and Ralph Waldo Emerson but also Langston Hughes, Lilian Moore, Eve Merriam, and more. From there, we are led on a poetical tour of the sea and seaside, trees and plants, reptiles and amphibians, bugs and insects, flying creatures, other animals, and finally a section called "Hurt No Living Thing" that deals with humankind's often problematic relationship with animals and the natural world.

The list of poets is a roll call of luminaries - T.S. Eliot, May Swenson, X.J. Kennedy, Christina Rossetti, Dylan Thomas, Jelaluddin Rumi, Rainer Maria Rilke, Valerie Worth, Douglas Florian, and on and on. Not only does each section have an introduction that gives the reader some background, some context, or even just a telling anecdote, but many poems also include a small note about the poem, poet, or topic that enhance both a reader's knowledge and enjoyment. Tiny drawings decorate some of the poems, like the realistic bugs that crawl around Every Insect by Dorothy Aldis.

Most of the poems are rather short - only a very few are longer than a page, and many are no more than a few stanzas long. They lend themselves to being enjoyed at random (just open up the book and dip in), but they are even stronger when read as part of their sections - somehow, putting them within a larger context makes each poem resonate all the more. And read from cover to cover, ending with Mary Ann Hoberman's The Tree That Time Built, this anthology as a whole is something of a powerful call to arms - because we are an integral part of the world, we have a responsibility toward it that we cannot shirk:

Do not fret
And do not doubt.
You are in time.
You can't fall out.

No matter what
You say or do,
You are in time.
Time is in you.

And everything
That is to be
Will be in time
Upon this tree.

The book includes a CD with 55 tracks, mostly readings of the poems by the poets themselves, other artists, or one of the compilers. As Hoberman and Winston note in the introduction, poems are meant to be read aloud. The sound varies from track to track, with some sounding very soft, but it is a treat to hear Hoberman and others reading their own poems. I can see this as a lovely CD to listen to in the car, but I imagine its best application will be in classrooms, where teachers can play them to students. Not every poem in the book is on the CD - but the book clearly notes the track on which selected poems can be heard, as well as who reads them.

Adding to the general usefulness and classiness of this anthology are a glossary of both scientific ("adaptation") and poetic ("assonance") terms, suggestions for further reading and research, short biographies of all the poets and compilers, and permissions.

This is a scrumptious offering that makes a feast for teachers, scientists, poetry lovers, and kids of all ages. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Review of The Carbon Diaries 2015

Lloyd, Saci. The Carbon Diaries 2015. Holiday House, 2009.

One could think of this book as the British version of Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It and The Dead and the Gone, except the culprit is not an astronomical catastrophe but rather global warming and our own wasteful ways. England imposes a drastic carbon rationing on itself, which of course does not stop a series of floods and droughts - and life as 16-year-old Laura knew it is over. Private cars become an endangered species, no one hops a plane to the Continent anymore, all food is locally produced, and water and power are rationed to the point of stinky discomfort. What's a teenage musician to do, especially when her family implodes? Laura's answer is to obsess about her hopeless crush, worry about her family, start doing really poorly in school, and rock on whenever possible.

Oh, and she writes in her diary. Whether comically dissing her parents a la Georgia Nicolson or describing the terror of getting caught in a riot, her voice is distinct and compelling. Actually, what it reminded me of more than anything the narrative voice of Diary of a Worm - Laura and this small earthworm share a penchant for dry observances that are funny as all get out.

Strangely enough, I just reviewed a book for SLJ called Raider's Ransom by Emily Diamand (it came out last year in the UK as Reavers' Ransom and will be published here in December) that takes place about 200 years after just such global warming-created catastrophes as the flooding of London take place. Can't publish my review here until it appears in SLJ, but I did give it a good review.

Unlike the Pfeffer books, I never felt Laura's dilemma in an incredibly visceral way - although things get bad, there isn't a feeling that civilization, or at least London, is doomed. And frankly, that was fine with me, especially as I know I'd be one of the first victims of any Great Die-off. Considering this is a first novel, The Carbon Diaries 2015 is an excellent effort - smart, witty, and thought-provoking. Highly recommended for ages 13 and up.

Review of Sent by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Haddix, Margaret Peterson. Sent (The Missing: Book 2). Simon & Schuster, 2009.

In Found (The Missing: Book 1), 13-year-old Jonah, his younger sister Katherine, and Jonah's friend Chip keep one step ahead of their enemies as they try to figure out the link between 36 13-year-old orphans, including Jonah and Chip. By the end of the book, they discover that these children all went missing some time in history - and so instead of facing death, time-travelers from the future snatched them out of danger. Only something went wrong, and all 36 kids arrived in the 21st century as babies in a mysterious incident that the government immediately tried to cover up. All of this caused dangerous time ripples that need to be fixed by sending the children back - except of course they don't want to go back to dangerous lives they don't remember. And so as Found ends, Jonah and Katherine try to anchor Chip and a boy named Alex, but instead find themselves pulled back to 1483 - where Chip and Alex were once known as Edward V and Prince Richard, the Princes in the Tower.

That fast-moving, conspiracy-filled plot made Found a page-turner. Unfortunately, 99% of Sent takes place in the 1480s where the action moves rather more slowly. Yes, there is a bit of political intrigue, the danger of being discovered, and of course the worry that one will affect time adversely. However, it never feels like the kids are in any real danger and thus this reads like a slightly more intense installment of the Magic Tree House series. This is probably due to the fact that the time-traveling adult who is helping, JB, can not only communicate with them but can actually pull them "out of time" when he needs to give them facts or equipment. Speaking of equipment, they have a handy-dandy device called an Elucidator that not only translates the Middle English speech all around them, but can make them invisible. This major cop-out took away a lot of the danger and suspense.

That said, the writing is confident and fluid. Jonah, whose point of view we share, is a practical and likable boy and, while he doesn't exactly glow with charisma and personality, he is certainly believable. Less believable is his cheerleader sister who, though not yet 12 years old, is not only fearless but uses phrases like "perpetuate a stereotype." Chip comes across as a boy with - no surprise - a chip on his shoulder, and Alex is the know-it-all Maynard character. More interesting than the slightly bland characters is a feature of time-travel called "tracers." When a time-traveler causes a person to act differently than he would have without the interference, the tracer is like a ghost, depicting the person still on the course history should have gone - so if I went back in time and bumped into a person on the street, he might stop momentarily while I apologized, but meanwhile his tracer would be continuing down the street as if nothing had happened. It's a fascinating idea, although one that raises more questions the more one thinks about it, which seems to the norm with time-travel concepts (look at all the discussion raised by When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead).

So - compared with the thrilling premise of the first book, this installment was merely a typical travel-back-in-time adventure. It will continue in book 3 with Jonah and Katherine being sent back in time to work out the time kinks caused by the snatching of Virginia Dare back in colonial days. Will some original elements be introduced, or will this series devolve into The Magic Tree House for slightly older kids? Only time will tell.

Recommended for those who read and enjoyed Book 1 - ages 10 - 12.

Eva and Hagrid - separated at birth?

At age 44, I can comfortably call myself middle-aged; if I get another 44 years of life, that will be a fine lifespan. Being this age is like standing on a mountain peak and getting a good view all around, not only of my past life and career up to this date but of the prospects ahead, filled with exciting promise.

The enthusiasm and commitment of newly minted children's librarians delights and inspires me, while reminding me of how far I've come - and I have only to observe the glowing careers of those librarians who are retiring around me to see all that I have yet to accomplish. New vistas are opening up with every step and my life is ripe with opportunity.

And yet - one is aware that one is aging. Rapidly. Irrevocably. And one wants to swan through middle age and on into old age with grace and style.

Hmm. Unfortunately, my bone structure isn't suited to this, and those features of my anatomy that once might have been labeled girlish or lithe will translate soon enough into Skinny Old Ladyhood. My mother once told me that when faced with the dreaded specter of vanishing youth, she upgraded her wardrobe, figuring that dressing well was the best revenge. This idea has some merit - while a jeune fille can get away with wearing all matter of eccentric rags and tatters, a Woman of Years deserves a bit of dignity and quality. Yes, but I have never possessed much style and so don't think I can rely on good clothing as my armor against encroaching age.

What I do have is hair. Rapidly graying and rather bushy it might be, but there is a copious amount of it - and more with every passing day. Could this be the answer? I believe so. My viewings of all the Harry Potter films have been tinged with envy of Dumbledore's silky waterfall of white hair, and I have also admired Gandalf's dramatic white widow's peak and the way his white locks fly as he battles his enemies. Who doesn't want to look like a wise and powerful wizard? So - my goal is to achieve a wizard-like mane of lustrous, soft white hair (preferably waist-length), within ten years. Not only will this add Drama and Mystery to my otherwise wrinkly, skinny, humdrum appearance, but if I braid my hair and wrap those 2-foot-long braids around my head, I'll look appropriately cozy and fairy-tale-grandmotherly to any future grandkids. Or completely freaky. But anyway, I do bake a mean batch of cookies and will read aloud for hours, so they'll love me no matter what.

Ten years may be too optimistic. Right now, I don't resemble Dumbledore so much as Hagrid - especially before I've had my morning coffee. But with a bit more length, a bit more whiteness, and plenty of heavy-duty hair smoothing products, I'll be well on my way to Wizardly Wisdom.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Even cake addicts need a cookie once in a while

As a round 1 panelist for the Cybils category middle-grade science fiction and fantasy, I have my work cut out for me - for a complete list of the nominated titles we are reading, see Sheila Ruth's Wands and Worlds post. Whew! It's a good thing I like this genre so much.

But I must admit that I do sneak away once in a while and read a grown-up mystery or a YA SF title or a middle-grade nonfiction book. Variety is the spice of life.

And I have learned from painful experience that not all these nominated titles are exactly up to snuff. So - stay tuned for our shortlist of truly excellent middle-grade science fiction and fantasy titles, arriving on January 1st, just in time for you to start making good on your New Year's Resolution to keep up with your reading!

Review of Bad News for Outlaws by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Nelson, Vaunda Micheaux. Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Carolrhoda Books, 2009.

This book stood out, quite literally, from a big cart of children's books I was annotating for an upcoming order sheet. At least an inch taller than the tallest picture book, the spine is white with one black slash near the top. The words "Bad News" are set in bold white against that black background with the rest of the title "for Outlaws" is set in black against white. Pulling out the book, I saw that the black stripe on the spine is the brim of the hat worn by Bass Reeves, whose large portrait cannot be contained on the cover. He stares out at us from under the dark brim of his hat solemnly but with a touch of humor and warmth, the whites of his eyes matching his starched collar. I was immediately smitten.

As the size of the book and his portrait suggest, Bass Reeves was larger than life. Born into slavery in 1838, he escaped from his owner during the Civil War and headed off for Indian Territory, where he lived with and was sheltered by Indians. After the war, he bought a farm, married, and "true to the song of his life, Bass had a big family" - 11 children. In 1875, Bass was hired by Judge Parker to track down outlaws as a deputy U.S. marshal - and because he was smart, honorable, a crack shot, and knew his territory like the back of his hand, he became one of the most valuable of the 200 marshals patrolling 74,000 square miles of what would later be Oklahoma.

The tales of his adventures and exploits read like tall tales, but apparently they are all true. To catch his quota of outlaws, he wore disguises, planned elaborate hoaxes, and in general used any trick possible to bring back in the bad guys - or bad ladies, as the case might be. Belle Starr, the bandit queen, turned herself in to Bass Reeves when she found out he had her warrant. After 32 years and more than 3000 arrests, Oklahoma became a state and Bass Reeves lost his job - so at the age of nearly 70, he become a police officer in Muskogee, OK and worked until he died several years later.

Both the text and the illustrations are captivating, creating a vivid portrait of a man who seems to rank right up there with Paul Bunyan and John Henry. The book opens with the capture of outlaw Jim Webb - "Jim Webb's luck was running muddy when Bass Reeves rode into town" - blasting us right into the action as Bass Reeves chases Webb down. This simple, colloquial language, glinting with just enough Western slang and lilt to make reading it aloud a joy, continues throughout the book. An example:

"Even horses played a part in his disguises. Like many U.S. marshals, Bass rode some of the finest. Most times, he forked a handsome sorrel. Bass rode proud in the saddle. There was no mistaking his silhouette. But prize horseflesh could be a dead giveaway that the rider was a lawman. Bass always kept some rough stock and rode lazy while undercover."

Don't know what "forked" means? Check out the glossary of Western words at the back, and while you're there, be sure to read the timeline (which includes Bass Reeves' induction into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City in 1992), the list of further reading and websites, a bit of fascinating information about Judge Parker and the Indian Territory, and best of all, a fine bibliography of books, articles, and manuscripts about Bass Reeves.

I've been a big Christie fan for years - his art is always powerful, whether depicting young Bass feeding a horse at dusk or an anguished but stern Bass turning in his own son after he had committed murder. Full-page spreads offer dramatic scenes, often outdoors, while smaller paintings show us smaller moments like that of Bass trying to talk sense into captured outlaws ("Getting through to them was like trying to find hair on a frog, butg Bass kept trying"). The text is often set on yellow-gold paper that looks creased and stained with brown, bringing to mind the travel-worn warrants that Bass must have kept in his saddlebags or folded into an inside pocket of his jacket. The endpapers depict Bass's United States Deputy Marshal star against this background.

This is altogether a marvelously entertaining and thought-provoking portrait of a little-known Western hero. The bold and action-packed illustrations will pull kids in and the rollicking text will grab hold and keep them hooked until the end. Don't let this sit on your shelves - display it and talk it up to kids, parents, and teachers.

Highly recommended for ages 8 and up.