Wednesday, April 29, 2009

31 cent ice cream!

I'm going to Baskin-Robbins tonight between 5 pm and 10 pm for some 31 cent ice cream, 'cause I like ice cream AND fire-fighters. A lot. Here is me at one of our yearly (or twice-yearly when I could get away with it) fire-fighter programs at the library. LAFD Station 63 is the best!

Ultra-crowded L.A. Festival of Books

No, I didn't go - and no, I don't regret it, because luckily my colleague Madigan went and so I'll just link to her post.

Oh, and Kathryn Fitzmaurice (author of The Year the Swallows Came Early) went with her son, who got high-five Ray Bradbury.

Let's not forget Lisa Yee (author of Absolutely Maybe and so many more) who blogs about her day here.

I'm sure there are more of you - if so, please link to your posts in the comment section.

What did I do instead of attending this spectacular event for book-lovers? Saturday - ran 20 miles, then nursed my allergies and sore legs the rest of the day. Sunday - drove to Monterey Park with my older daughter to shop for authentic Chinese/Asian groceries (bought some "glutinous black rice" with which I made a yummy - if scary-looking - rice pudding with coconut milk and lime shavings) and to eat vegan Chinese food.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Weekly (ha!) graphic novel review - Stone Rabbit series by Erik Craddock

Craddock, Erik. BC Mambo (Stone Rabbit: book 1). Random House, 2009.
Craddock, Erik. Pirate Palooza (Stone Rabbit: book 2). Random House, 2009.

In these full-color graphic novels, Stone Rabbit has a series of action-packed and somewhat incomprehensible adventures.

In BC Mambo, he plummets through a hole in his bathroom floor and ends up in the time of dinosaurs, Neolithic rabbits, a crazed genius Neanderthal, and robots. Barbecue sauce and boogers play crucial roles.

In Pirate Palooza, Stone Rabbit and his friend Andy (a dog, I’m pretty sure) find a pirate peg-leg replacement for their broken coffee table leg at their neighborhood comic bookstore – but it turns out that a ghastly pirate has been imprisoned inside the peg-leg. Let loose, he spirits them off to a ghostly pirate ship, where they fight ghosts and play checkers.

The illustrations are frenetic, kinetic, and quite pleasing – but they do move the action forward a bit more quickly than is advisable for a coherent storyline to develop. Will kids mind? Probably not – this stuff is lots of fun. Reluctant readers might even take the time to read the vocabulary lists at the end of each book – “Rogue (rohg): A dishonest, untrustworthy person who is loyal to no one.”

Not the best graphic novel series out there, but sure to be a crowd pleaser. Recommended for grades 2 – 4.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Reading Life is a Life Worth Living

Please read my musings on the ALSC Blog on why it's so important to at least make the attempt to hook kids on books - because a childhood spent immersed in books leads to an entire life enriched by words.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Review of Curse of the Night Wolf by Paul Stewart

Stewart, Paul and Chris Riddell. Curse of the Night Wolf. David Fickling Books/Random House, 2008.

This first installment in the Barnaby Grimes series starts like this:

“Have you ever felt your skin being peeled slowly away from your arms and legs? Your muscles being torn and shredded as every bone in your body fights to burst through your flesh? Have you ever felt every tendon and sinew stretched to breaking point as your skeleton attempts to rip itself apart from the inside?

I have, and I’ll never forget it.”

With that, we are whirled into the action-packed Victorian London life of a certain young Barnaby Grimes, a young tick-tock lad whose job it is to hand-deliver messages to and from people all over London. He often employs the rooftops as a shortcut, spinning and leaping his way along the skyline of London in a practice known as “highstacking.”

In the course of his duties, Barnaby has a near-death encounter with a wolf. Soon, it is evident that this wolf has something to do with a rather dodgy doctor who has been administering doses, free of charge, of a miraculous elixir to some of the poorest and loneliest folks in town. Barnaby investigates, and eventually finds himself in that appalling situation described in the first few pages as he is transformed into a wolf himself.

Barnaby is a daring and intrepid lad who knows London – a rather fantastical and gravity-defying version of it, anyway – backwards and forwards. Full of pluck and plenty of hints about intriguing and outlandish adventures in his past, he caroms around his city like a Dickensian guttersnipe, wearing ragged yet raffish clothes (his extremely tall stove-pipe hat is a wonder) and bearing a slender swordstick at all times.

At 205 pages, this is a fairly short fantasy (much shorter than your average Edge Chronicles installment), and the large font size and small trim size make for a quick and breezy read. Reluctant readers who find themselves sucked in by Barnaby’s fast-paced adventures will find themselves challenged – hopefully pleasantly – by Barnaby’s employment of rather ornate and colorful turns of phrase, and by some unusual vocabulary. Running across a pair of young river-toughs with chin tattoos who threaten him with their swordsticks, he addresses them thus – “’No need for roustabouts, my dear ink-chins,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you sheathe up your slicers, I’ll sheathe up mine – and I’ll be on my way.’”

I’m betting that the large font, enticing opening, and colorful characters will lure kids in and that they’ll keep reading even when they encounter words and phrases that challenge them. Kids don’t need to know what “foppish, if tatty, double-knotted cravats and embroidered waistcoats” look like in order to savor the description of the two river-toughs – and if they wish, they can check out the detailed illustrations by Chris Riddell, which pepper the book and bring Barnaby’s grimy, intriguing London to life.

Hopefully we’ll learn more about Barnaby’s home life, as well as some of those adventures he hints at so tantalizingly, in the next installment. Recommended for grades 4 to 6.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Kindle makes for terrible toilet paper

In case you are considering buying a Kindle, Allan Mott at Bookgasm considers some situations in which you might prefer a Kindle over books - and vice versa!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Money Woes and Bad Decisions

Times are tough and money is scarce. For every library system large and small, reprioritizing is a necessity.

I like to think this can be a good thing. I have this vision of folks in my library system coming together and discussing all our programs and ways of doing things and deciding, as a library system, what will best serve the needs of our community and our staff while staying within a greatly diminished budget.

And it would not be just Administration making these decisions - and not, for goodness' sake, one very powerful person or small group of persons - but rather people from all the different parts of the library. Administration, the coordinating offices, IT, and of course the librarians out in the branches would all be able to make their voices heard.

This is not what is happening in my library system.

We are not a progressive, democratic, or even communicative system at the best of times, and now these bad times are bringing out the worst. Decisions are being made right and left with NO input from branch staff or anyone but a very few powerful people in certain administrative positions. The favorite word currently is "no," with no rationale given for the decision.

Because staff members who might actually have some expertise or experience in these matters are not being consulted, the decisions are uninformed and therefore often problematic. Staff morale is suffering, but worse - service to our patrons is being diminished.

These days, reassessment, planning, and communication are more important than ever. When our library system reacts with fear and close-mindedness, staff and the public suffer - and the ramifications of these arbitrary decisions and lack of communication will continue for years to come.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Cool digital idea to promote books and libraries - Glogster

Thank you to The Book Chook for this post about Glogster, a site that lets you design your own multi-media "posters."

This would be a great tool for libraries to use, both to create their own neat posters and - more importantly - to enable kids to advertise their own favorite books, book characters, fictional worlds, and so on.

I'm not very visually creative, but here's my first attempt. Be patient, it takes a minute to load.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Elizabeth Strout wins the Pulitzer Fiction Prize

Congrats to Strout for her Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Oh hurray, I did so enjoy Olive Kitteridge. My short but positive Goodreads review is below:

Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories by Elizabeth Strout

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
13 stories linked stories portray a small town in Maine and particularly the strong-willed and often irascible Olive of the title. Olive is the main subject of only a couple of them and appears peripherally in the rest, making at least a small impact in many townspeople's lives by the force of her personality (which is less than sunny and warm, but she is a thinker). This is a fine, fine book - the writing is smooth as silk and the characters are memorable.

View all my reviews.

The other shortlisted books were Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich and All Souls by Christine Schutt - my Goodreads Reviews below.

All Souls All Souls by Christine Schutt

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the kind of book that makes me feel that I'm not getting quite enough oxygen. The writing is excellent but somehow a bit rarefied - there are many characters, but I never felt much empathy or even understanding for a single one of them.

The characters are the students (seniors all) and teachers of an exclusive girls' school in Manhattan (in 1997, for some reason), along with a few assorted parents, with the hub of the story being Astra Dell, a senior with a particularly virulent form of cancer. Astra's illness affects all the characters to a greater or (often) lesser degree, but the girl herself remains a cipher.

If there were more warmth or immediacy to this slim book, I would recommend it to older YAs - but unfortunately, the diamond-clear writing simply makes everything feel a bit cold.

View all my reviews.

The Plague of Doves: A Novel The Plague of Doves: A Novel by Louise Erdrich

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Everyone in Pluto, North Dakota, whether white, Ojibwe, or both, is related to everyone else through blood, marriage, or circumstance. Various characters take turns telling their tales, some from the late 19th century but most contemporary or nearly so, and the stories are so intertwined that a chart would have been much appreciated. Some stories are tragic, others bittersweet, funny, or downright odd (one of the strangest and hardest to grasp was Marn's story of her marriage to a cult leader named Billy - it involved snakes, cultish scariness, sex, and some magical elements) - but most have a strip of solid humanity and humor that links them all together. The people of Pluto are unique and intriguing folks and have plenty to say. My favorite Plutonian is Mooshum, a grandfather who hangs out with his fiddle-playing brother, drinking booze and delighting in baiting the local priest. He's outrageous and irrepressible and plays a constant, if peripheral, role in the goings-on of the town. This is a lovely read - Erdrich sure knows how to tell a story (or 5 or 6).

View all my reviews.

Guilt - or - Imperfect and trying really hard to accept it

I didn't sleep well last night, probably due to a variety of reasons. Our next-door neighbor left yesterday morning for a two-week trip, leaving a "very close, old friend" to house-sit, and of course this friend immediately got on her cell phone and invited everyone she knew to come on over that evening. In the wee hours of the night, folks were still sitting out on the patio next door (which is next to our bedroom window), having a very good, rather loud time. My heroic hubby did call over the fence to let them know they were disturbing us, but the damage was done.

And then there was that very large dinner I had, accompanied by not one but two drinks - mostly to stave off the realization that it was, alas, Sunday night and as usual, I had accomplished only the tiniest portion of what I had planned for the weekend. So there was that Sunday Night Woe to contend with as well, and it was also a very warm night, meaning much stickiness.

Naturally, I found myself lying in bed, sweating listlessly and obsessively fretting about one failing of mine after another. For some reason, falling behind on my photo-taking, photo-uploading, and especially photo-printing caused particular stomach-wrenching guilt and stress, to which was added the fact that my camera - with a particularly densely-packed and un-uploaded SD chip inside - has gone mysteriously missing in the last couple weeks.

After angonizing about this for a nightmarish time, I segued into a bit of nauseating guilt about the Los Angeles Festival of Books, happening at UCLA this weekend, April 25 and 26. Theoretically, this is my kind of event. Books! Wee! And plenty of great children's and YA authors will be there, like Susan Patron and Laurie Halse Anderson and Deb Caletti and Patrick Carman and N.D. Wilson and... well, read the author list for yourself. There will be panels and signings and even a special section devoted to graphic novels and comic books.

Sounds great, right? Except I don't want to go. I'm rather a busy gal right now, between my full-time job and my additional 6 to 10 hours a week spent preparing for and teaching an evening class and then all the family and household and exercise-related stuff. If I go to the Festival of Books, I'll feel obligated to take pictures (and remember, my camera is lost, so I'll have to use my cellphone) and pay very close attention and take notes - so that I can blog about it later.

So here's this wonderful, positive event completely dedicated to a subject I'm almost obsessive about, and I don't want to go! I don't want to pay close attention! I don't want to blog about it! I just want to spend what little spare time I have reading books. Not going to an event about books, not writing about books - just reading them. But then I feel guilty because I have nothing to blog about, especially as I read books for grown-ups more often than I read children's or YA books.

Pathetic, aren't I? Nobody is forcing me to blog, and yet I feel like a failure that I'm not posting at least once a day. And then I get all irritable and can't sleep at night, which makes me even more irritable, which just makes me want to curl up with a good book (and I can't because I'm too busy).

The really silly thing is that I'm sure no one notices when I don't blog every day, or when I fail to post my "weekly" graphic novel review for two weeks in a row. Which is sorta depressing in itself...

It's time for a sharp reminder to myself to Stop Obsessing About My Many Failures and Imperfections and to think about something else for a change. Like how great my poppies and sage are looking (despite the fact that I haven't worked in the garden in weeks and the weeds have become a sort of unsightly groundcover, and my roses have rust, and my lemon tree needs iron, and I left my last snap peas on the vine too long and they puffed themselves up into inedible spheres and then the vines all turned yellow and shriveled up, and...)


Here's a section of a mural near my house that always cheers me up. Happy happy joy joy.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Kids as readers; kids as media junkies

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study called "Generation M," kids ages 8 to 18 spend almost 6.5 hours a day using media, 7 days a week. Mostly, they're watching television (nearly 4 hours a day), but they're also listening to music (almost 2 hours a day), using the computer for non-homework purposes (1 hour a day), and playing video games (5o minutes a day). Yes, that adds up to more than 6.5 hours, but that's because kids are multitasking - using more than one medium at a time.

As for reading books, magazines, or newspapers for pleasure - they're doing that 43 minutes a day! (You think that's bad - chores only get 32 minutes and homework gets 50 minutes). And yes, many kids are reading while listening to music, watching tv, and so on.

This might get a big so-what shrug from a lot of people - 43 minutes of reading a day isn't so bad, considering how busy kids are, and they're exercising their fascinating new Net Generation brains with all this non-sequential, non-linear electronic multitasking. Read Marc Prensky's "Don't Bother Me Mom - I'm Reading" or Don Tapscott's Grown Up Digital for some positive takes on this new phenomenon.

Consider, though, what the National Endowment for the Arts has to say about the ramifications of not reading. Its 2007 study "To Read or Not to Read," based on 2004 data, concludes that Americans are spending less time reading, their reading skills are eroding, and (most importantly) these declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications. People who can't read well are less likely to graduate from high school and to get good jobs, and they are much more likely to go to prison (only 3% of the U.S. prison population reads at a "proficient" level). In contrast, people who read well get better jobs, are more likely to donate time and money to their communities and to engage in cultural activities.

What it boils down to is - the more you read voluntarily - for pleasure - the better you get at it. And the better you are at reading, the more likely it is that you will succeed in life.

So when I think about those 4 hours of television-watching (as opposed to 43 minutes of reading), I get worried. And what are we to make of this statistic? - in 2004, 53% of 9-year-olds read for pleasure almost every day, but 33% of 13-year-olds and only 22% of 17-year-olds read for pleasure. What happens at puberty that makes books so dang unappealing to teens? And how can we children's librarians get more 9-year-olds to read for pleasure?

Sophie Brookover and Elizabeth Burns of Pop Goes the Library! fame - the blog and the book - argue that all those hours of media saturation is why a firm knowledge and even embracing of pop culture is essential to making our libraries relevant and exciting to kids today. If we don't know what kids care about, believe me, it shows. So perhaps one key is to attract kids by appealing to their media-savvy souls. Are the kids in your community crazy about a particular tv show? Throw a Dance With the Stars party (maybe a dance instructor? maybe a contest?), but be sure to use books, music, and DVDs from your collection to give your program substance.

Another approach might be to use digital media to enhance children's enjoyment and sharing of old-fashioned books. Kids can create multi-media extravaganzas in the library using cool computer applications; their creations can be posted on the library's website, on YouTube, shared via Facebook (13 and older only, please!) or iPhone, and so on. An example is Storytubes, a library contest in which kids make videos of themselves promoting their favorite books, and the Learning Curve program at the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library is a high-tech paradise.

I believe with all my heart that reading well is more important than ever, and that reading for pleasure can set kids on that road. Libraries have always been the best at leading kids to books that make them want to read, and we need to figure out ways that we can continue to do this. Times are changing - no, times have changed already - and librarians need to meet the future with open arms but also with eyes firmly on our mission. No groaning, no wistful backward glances. Onward!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lucky - and so much more

Hurray, Susan Patron has a brand-new website! Discover which book made her want to become a writer, get some great ideas for using The Higher Power of Lucky in the classroom, and see a photo of the real signpost with hanging tea kettles that appears in Lucky Breaks.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

(Non) Review - very early! - of Fire by Kristin Cashore

Fire: a Novel by Kristin Cashore. Dial, September 2009.

This is not a review, honestly! The cover of my very early ARC says very clearly that “this version should not, under any circumstances, be used for review.” So consider this commentary.

This novel takes place in the same world as Graceling, but several decades in the past and an impenetrable (almost) mountain range away from the Seven Kingdoms. Fire, our teenaged heroine, is a monster. Like monster cats, birds, insects, and other species, she has brilliant coloration – in Fire’s case, it’s her astoundingly vivid hair, in shades of red, orange and even pink, that draws attention. She also possesses a strong magnetism, almost a glamour, that causes both fascination and overwhelmingly strong emotions (positive and negative) in everyone who sees her. Oh, and she’s absolutely uncannily gorgeous – that’s part of her monsterhood.

Readers won’t be envious. In fact, she attracts so much unwanted and dangerous attention – mostly from men and fellow monsters – that she must always cover her hair and be accompanied by a group of guards. Luckily, her important position in court allows her a certain measure of protection and even influence – although she is loathe to use her mind-reading/mind-altering powers.

Fire is just as vivid, likable, and amazing character as Katsa in Graceling. I was right there with her every step of the way from the first page to the last, never once being jarred out of my trance by awkward prose any other flaw - an occurrence that is so magical and relatively rare that it makes me reel with delirious joy when I find this kind of book.

Delicious, delightful, multi-layered, heartrending – damn, this is good. Graceling readers will feel a chill of horror at the first few pages, in which a certain well-known character makes a sinister appearance that does not bode well for Fire. Sure enough, Bad Stuff happens – and it’s even worse knowing what will happen during the next few decades in Katsa’s part of the world – but this shiver of fear only enhances the transcendent moments of friendship and love (oh yes, there is love).

September is a long time for Graceling fans to wait, but they will be well rewarded. Fire is a masterpiece.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Those opinionated children's librarians of yore

It was an odd coincidence that Roger Sutton recently quoted Effie L. Power's outrageous and fairly hilarious statements concerning the reading habits and tastes of the children of various ethnic groups, from Jews to Germans to Czechs. I've been browsing through her 1943 Work With Children in Public Libraries (a revision of a 1930 edition) in preparation for teaching a UCLA GSEIS course on "Library Services and Programs for Children" and find it a fascinating window into the mores and sentiments of the time.

After listing all the many attributes that a children's librarian should possess (knowledge of child psychology and educational principles, interest in sports, natural history, botany, science, etc, being "simple and straightforward in manner, without affectation or brusqueness..."), she adds, "(Children) respond intuitively to youthfulness in others, buoyancy of spirit, and colorful beauty. Knowing this, the wise children's librarian wears pretty clothes and keeps her library room cheerful and bright." I do try to keep my spirit bouyant, but that youthfulness thing is just beyond me these days.

In discussing vocational and professional opportunities, Power states, "There is a need for men workers to aid with administrative problems and with boys' reading." Yep, the poor guys get stuck behind a desk wrestling with paperwork and supervisory problems except when the children's librarians on the floor need assistance with that most thorny of issues - figuring out what to give boys to read.

Even more fascinating is a collection of essays and speeches called Library Work with Children, compiled by Alice I. Hazeltine and published in 1917. From William Isaac Fletcher's famous 1876 article "Public Libraries and the Young" and Caroline Hewins' 1882 survey "Boys' and Girls' Reading" to a 1903 article on "Maintaining Order in the Children's Room" and any number of essays on storytelling, collection development, and the fascinating "Work with Children at the Colored Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library" from 1910, this is an amazing look at library services to children when they were at their most formative stage. I thought that telling stories to kids in the neighborhood playground was a 70's phenomenon, but no - there are not one but two articles on this practice, one from 1901 and one from 1911.

One Clara Whitehill Hunt wrote in a 1913 about the dangers of what she saw as a growing trend toward "harmless" mediocre children's books and a tendency to overprotect and coddle children (" this day when parents are frantically protecting their children from the deadly house fly, the mosquito, the common drinking cup and towel; when milk must be sterilized and water boiled..." - sounds familiar!).

She rages, "And when children of good heritage, good homes, sounds bodies, bright minds spend hours every week curled up among cushions, allowing a stream of cambric-tea literature gently to trickle over their brain surfaces, we know that though the heroes and heroines of these stories be represented as prodigies of industry and vigor, our young swallowers of the same are being reduced to a pulp of brain and will laziness that will...affect their moral stamina, since fighting fiber is the price of virtue." Ouch! Think what she would have said about television, graphic novels, and video games.

Ah, my spiritual ancestors - they were opinionated, strong-willed, sometimes a bit bonkers, and absolutely dedicated to their mission - which they were creating as they went. They make me proud - even Ms. Effie Powers and her bizarre thoughts on collection development (she does have wonderful things to say about a number of other elements of children's services). We've always been an interesting and sometimes controversial group of folks - from the very earliest days.
Photo of the Aguilar Branch courtesy of the NYPL digital collection.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Review of The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice

The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice. Bowen/HarperCollins, 2009.

Gr. 4 – 6

It’s bad enough that Eleanor Robinson (called “Groovy” by her father and all her friends) has to watch her dad being arrested, but then she learns that her mom is the one who turned him in – for stealing Groovy’s $25,000 inheritance from her grandmother and losing it betting on the wrong horse.

Not only does Groovy’s dream of going to culinary school some day start to look unlikely, but she’s angry at her feckless father, whom she also can’t help missing. Her best friend Frankie is having problems, too – his mom suddenly shows up two years after leaving on what was supposed to be a two-week trip, and Frankie can’t bring himself to forgive her.

Just a few characters in Groovy’s small California town are highlighted – her beauty-stylist mom, Frankie’s stepbrother (and guardian) Luis who runs the Swallow Shop and Ferry, a mysterious street person named Mr. Tom, and a classmate named Marisol, whose ambition matches Groovy’s own. The characterization was the least effective part of the book for me – although all characters certainly felt realistic in both action and speech, no one came alive for me or felt particularly fleshed out or intriguing. Well, except that I wouldn’t mind Luis as a son-in-law. Mr. Tom, with his wise and insightful (though out of left field, as befits a mysterious street person) comments, feels a bit forced, but his physical description is vivid.

The easy tone and fluid writing make reading this book a breezy pleasure; the pace pulls readers along at an even clip. Earthquakes and the return of the San Juan Capistrano swallows, both slightly heavy-handed metaphors in the story, effectively evoke Groovy’s seaside town. Groovy is a likable girl with a huge amount of energy and drive (something I always find awe-inspiring in any person, as I have to fight off the urge to drift lackadaisically through life) who narrates her story with simplicity, immediacy, and insight.

This is a pleasant read that will appeal to kids who enjoy realistic fiction about friends and family.

Review of Snake and Lizard by Joy Cowley

Snake and Lizard by Joy Cowley. Illustrated by Gavin Bishop. Kane/Miller, 2008.

Gr. 1 – 4

Each chapter in this slim book by the author of the wonderful Chicken Feathers is a little story about two close, if somewhat mismatched, friends. Their first meeting is rather antagonistic – Snake has stretched herself rather obliviously across a path in order to sun herself, which incenses Lizard no end. This episode ends well, with Snake inviting Lizard to sun himself next to her and the two chatting up a storm, but the initial conflict sets the stage for many more to come. These two reptiles simply cannot avoid irritating each other.

In my favorite story “The Picnic,” which reminded me very much of mealtimes with certain beloved friends and relations of mine, Snake is grossed out by Lizard’s food and table manners – he gobbles his moths, fried flies, and caterpillars with such gusto that he ends up with fly legs all over his chin. Lizard in turn is horrified when Snake slithers up to a chicken’s nest and happily swallows nine eggs whole. Lizard gasps, “Look at you! I can see the shapes of the eggs inside your skin! Oh! Oh! That really is the most horrible sight!” After he calms down a bit, Lizard muses that perhaps in the future, the two friends should eat with their backs to each other. “Snake didn’t reply. She was fast asleep, curled up under a cactus like a string of striped beads.”

The illustration that accompanies that last line of the story shows the white, black, and orangey-red Snake coiled peacefully on the ground, each of the nine eggs visible as a lump along her body. Each illustration is small, charming, and colored with warm desert hues of brown, blue, orange, and green that look wonderful against the creamy paper. The endpapers depict many desert denizens – insects, a rabbit, a tortoise, various birds – against a warm yellow background.

Readers who love George and Martha, Frog and Toad, and other famous friends will move easily from those easy readers to this stepping-stone chapter book. Snake and Lizard’s friendship illustrates that it is not necessary to always agree – but friends should know how to disagree with kindness. Cowley’s dedication in the front of the book says it all: “To dear Terry who knows that friendship is not made out of sameness but the accommodation of differences.”

This is a funny, cozy book for reading alone or sharing with a friend (or a classroom of friends).

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

If you liked Graceling...'re gonna love Fire by Kristin Cashore! I'm still on vacation and therefore I'm still not blogging, but it is impossible not to let out a short and ecstatic electronic squeal of delirious joy that I received an early ARC of Fire and am not quite finished. It is SO good. The cover states sternly that "this version should not, under any circumstances, be used for review." Hmm, that "under any circumstances" sounds mightily like it might apply to bloggers. Well, look for my opinion, not my review, of Fire in the next day or two.

Monday, April 6, 2009

For Totoro Fans Only

I do not blog while on vacation, so I'll let another blogger do the work for me. AnnatheRed is an obsessed bento box creator who loves Totoro even more than I do. Obviously! Check out this post and this one and this one.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Weekly Graphic Novel Review - The Stardust Kid by DeMatteis and Ploog

The Stardust Kid by J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Ploog. Boom! Studios, 2008.

12-year-old Cody has a good friend named Paul who is not the 13-year-old boy he appears to be. In fact, exactly what he is remains somewhat unclear, but let’s call him a “magical spirit” who has been Cody’s companion (in various forms) since Cody was born.

What was just a fabulous friendship from Cody’s point of view changes suddenly when Paul’s mirror (sort of his evil twin or his other self – it’s complicated) rises up in anger at the nastiness humans have made of the world and seeks to transform everything into her own vision of perfection.

Unfortunately this vision is fairly dreadful, with evil shrubbery and hungry hornets and other scary beasties. Cody, his long-time friend Alana, and their two younger siblings are swept into a bizarre alternate world – where Cody discovers a secret buried deep inside him that saves them all, with some timely help from Alana.

First, my quibbles. There is an awful lot of wordiness in this graphic novel. The narrator (whose identity remains hidden until the end) expounds at great length throughout the book, and in very tiny font, too. If I felt compelled to skip over all the meandering ponderings and get to the action, then kids certainly will as well, and they won’t be missing all that much.
Another huge problem - the plot is a mess. It all might make sense in the minds of its creators, but many events and turns of plot are rather inexplicable and confusing to the reader.

That said, this is a fairly imaginative and compelling book. The full-color artwork is brilliant and almost juicy with plenty of eye-appeal. The characters don’t possess a huge array of expressions but they all possess a distinct look that makes it a cinch to tell them apart (this is sometimes a problem in graphic novels, I’ve found). Cody and his sis are white and Alana and her brother are black, and the creatures are oozy, drippy, convoluted, leaf-infested, and in general quite cool to look at.

The premise – Paul’s origins, the nature of his mirror, Cody’s eventual transformation – is complicated and a tad mystical, and will perhaps go over the heads of younger readers. Those readers who stay tuned will probably just skip all the aforementioned verbiage and let the exuberant artwork and dialogue tell the story.

Grade 5 and up.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Review of Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon

Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon. Illustrated by Tony Ross. Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky, 2009.

Horrid Henry and the Mega-Mean Time Machine
Horrid Henry's Stinkbomb
Horrid Henry Tricks the Tooth Fairy

Horrid Henry isn't quite as bad as Jack Gantos' Rotten Ralph, but he's ever so much worse than Suzy Kline's Horrible Harry. He ruins dance class and the school play, turns a family camping trip into a wet disaster, and in general stomps his cantankerous way through life. It doesn't help that his little brother is Perfect Peter, who aims to be always agreeable and adorable, a ray of sunshine to parental eyes.

Kids might spend a nano-second wondering why on earth Henry has to be so bad all the time - but then they'll get on with the more important business of enjoying every second of Henry just doing what Henry has to do. Wouldn't we all love to just let our inner horridness flow, unchecked by such mundane considerations as parental and teacher disapproval? It's not always fun to be a grouch - his camping trip is pretty miserable as a result of his own unwillingness to have a good time - but on the other hand Perfect Peter's good behavior means that he is stuck always being prisoner when the kids play pirates.

Short sentences and chapters make this perfect for readers just moving from easy readers to chapter books. Tony Ross's exuberant Quentin Blake-like drawings enliven almost every page and bring out Henry's glowering charm to perfection. This paperback series is certain to be a hit with all sorts of kids - perfect, horrid, and in-between. After all, who can resist prose like this? "'I hate you!' shrieked Henry. He was a volcano pouring hot molten lava onto the puny human foolish enough to get in his way." (from Horrid Henry Tricks the Tooth Fairy). That puny human would be Perfect Peter, of course.

Originally published in the UK.

K - gr. 3

Review of Troll's Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales by Datlow and Windling

I wrote this review for School Library Journal, April edition. The rest of the grade 5 and up reviews can be found here. Preschool to grade 4 reviews are here.

DATLOW, Ellen & Terri Windling, eds. Troll's-Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales. 176p. further reading. Viking. Apr. 2009. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-670-06141-9. LC number unavailable.

Gr 5–8—In their third collection for younger readers, Datlow and Windling have solicited original pieces from 15 well-known authors; the focus this time is on the bad guys of the fairy-tale world. Some tell a traditional tale from the villain's point of view, such as Nina Kiriki Hoffman's "Rags and Riches," a version of "The Goose Girl." Others demonstrate that change in perspective puts a whole different slant on fairy tales, as in Garth Nix's Rapunzel-based "An Unwelcome Guest" and Jane Yolen's "Troll," a revisionist look at "Three Billy Goats Gruff." Several poems are included as well; Neil Gaiman's "Observing the Formalities" is priceless and wouldn't be out of place in the New Yorker. Some stories are more successful than others, but almost all are both highly readable and thought-provoking. Many are funny, several are quite scary or creepy, and the final story, Kelly Link's "The Cinderella Game," is subtly yet powerfully chilling. A solid choice, particularly where sophisticated fractured fairy tales are popular.—Eva Mitnick, Los Angeles Public Library

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What kids really want to read

I loooooove my job in so many ways, but the one thing I loathe about it is that I'm not in a branch any more. Not only do I no longer have funny/startling/frankly horrifying patron anecdotes at my fingertips (just a bunch of old and dusty ones), but - gasp - I don't know what the kids are reading!! My own kids are teens, so they're no help at all, and my young niece and nephew (whom I do question with great interest when I see them) live thousands of miles away.

As 100 Scope Notes points out in this blog post, bestseller lists are misleading because parents are doing the purchasing, and of course medals are wonderful but only the kid-choice awards (for instance my own state's California Young Reader Medal) are voted on by kids, and even these often feature a slate of adult-chosen books. Kids will ask librarians for particular books, but many kids bypass us and go straight to the shelves for their reading material.

100 Scope Notes wisely turns to books that kids have placed on hold in the school libraries where he works. When I worked in branches, I looked at the sorting shelves, where returned books wait to be reshelved. It was always an eye-opener to see what had been returned recently - sure enough, there were all the mission books and history of medicine books that kids had swarmed in for a few weeks ago, but there were often surprises, particularly in fiction. And kids would always take out their favorite paperbacks, no matter how tattered and torn.

Although I don't call any branch home these days, I still visit branches several times a month in the course of my duties. From now on, I'll make it a point to cruise by the sorting and hold shelves first thing, and to question the children's librarians about kid favorites.