Sunday, May 31, 2009

Review of The Silver Door by Holly Lisle

In part 2 of the Moon and Sun series (after The Ruby Key), Genna and her friend Catri are abruptly wrenched from a slightly dull and anti-climactic life in the nightling city Arrienda, and transported (via dragon cheeks) to the last existing, although almost completely deserted, sun wizard city – the Spire.

Like a weird kind of long-lasting technology, the magic that ran the Spire is still active, and Genna and Catri learn a great deal about the last great battle between the nightlings and the humans a thousand years ago, that resulted in the humans serving as beasts of burden for the nightlings ever since. Assisting in their orientation to sun wizard history and ways is Jagan, a boy a couple of years older than the girls who was frozen into a magical sleep one thousand years ago by his parents – who never came back to wake him up. It is Catri’s impulsive kiss that does the trick.

Genna’s destiny as Sunrider can’t allow her to remain a scholar living in the lap of luxury, of course, and soon enough drastic events compel her to leave the Spire and plunge back into danger in order to rescue her loved ones – and to do not the easy thing but the right thing.

Genna’s brother Danrith and her friends Doyati and Yarri make only brief appearances in this story, which belongs to Genna, Catri, the dragon, and of course the cat. The mystery of who or what the cat is irritates Genna like an itch she can’t scratch – although she certainly tries. The cat, with his customary mixture of disdain and bad temper, puts her off – and somehow he remains as intriguing and attractive as ever, despite his penchant for clawing Genna at every opportunity.

We learn much more about the culture of Genna’s people and about the secret magic and traditions that certain people have passed down through the generations directly from the sun wizards themselves. Honor and integrity are valued highly, which makes sense for a people who are controlled almost entirely by hostile outside forces. What you can control – your own actions, your sense of right and wrong – becomes all-important. Readers will appreciate gaining an understanding of Genna’s people and will empathize with her uneasy feelings about the comfortable but restrictive environment in the Spire.

The tension of ever-present danger and impending doom that drove the plot forward in the first book only appears occasionally in this installment. Instead, we get a breather along with Genna, as she prepares for what appears to be an impossible challenge – to unite humans, nightlings, and the people of the moonroads. I, for one, can’t wait to find out how she and her friends and allies will achieve this.

Highly recommended for grades 5 to 8, but only if they’ve read book 1 – The Ruby Key.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Hangin' with kindergartners

My colleague Maureen and I spent our Saturday being the face of Children's Services at LAPL for hundreds of brand-new preschool graduates and their families at Los Angeles Universal Preschool's annual Ready for Kindergarten event.
While kids colored simple die-cut bookmarks (and I'm here to tell you that little kids still love to color! Computers and video games are all very well, but there's nothing like a piece of paper and some markers), Maureen and I chatted to their parents about summer reading club, Read to Me LA, Live Homework Help, GAB, and the wonderful fact that all our branches are air-conditioned. We handed out 250 bags filled with family-related library information before we ran out of bags, and then managed to give away all the rest of our literature as well. A very good day, and one that will hopefully result in at least a few families visiting the library for the first time. Wonderfully, many families were already regulars at their local libraries, and smiled in recognition when I mentioned their children's librarians by name.
Maureen and I don't work with the public in our current jobs, but once a children's librarian, always a children's librarian - we always jump at the chance to represent LAPL at festivals, to visit schools, and to present storytimes. Training, advocacy, collecton development, and program coordination are all very important - but the kids and their families and caregivers make it real.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Review of Magickeepers: the Eternal Hourglass by Erica Kirov

Kirov, Erica. Magickeepers: the Eternal Hourglass. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2009.

In short order, young Nick Rostov discovers that he possesses heretofore unsuspected magical powers and that he, as the most powerful sprig of an impressive magical family tree, is in great danger from his family's enemies.

This is familiar magical territory, but some refreshing new territory is introduced. To teach him to use his magic – and to protect him from the dreaded Shadowkeepers – Nick is brought to the luxurious compound of his large and eccentric magical family, who are all of Russian descent and quite proud of it. And where is this compound located? In the heart of Las Vegas (although I’m not entirely sure Las Vegas has a heart), in a fabulous hotel, where the family stages a magic show that is so spectacular precisely because real magic is employed, not just tricks and sleight of hand.

Being spirited away from his dad to live with a bunch of weird relatives, being forced to eat strange food (caviar blinis and borscht), learning Russian, and dodging creepy oily Shadows isn’t Nick’s idea of a great way to celebrate turning 13. However, he does figure out a way to turn the tables on Rasputin, the ultimate Bad Guy, by preventing him from stealing a magical hourglass that would have given Rasputin untold power to do evil.

Although the setting is colorful and there is lots of potential in the idea of a magical Russian family preventing powerful treasures from getting into the wrong hands, neither the writing nor the plot live up to the promise. My questions began almost at once, when I wondered why Nick had to change schools all the time. Sure, his dad (a mediocre magician) kept losing jobs and so had to work at one seedy Las Vegas hotel to another, but why did they have to live in each of these hotels, rather than in a cheap apartment or with Nick’s grandfather, another Las Vegas denizen? And even so, why would Nick need to change schools if all the hotels were located in or around the Strip?

These kinds of niggling questions kept popping up over and over as I got deeper into the story. Was it really likely that Nick would know nothing of his heritage or this huge family living just blocks away? And wouldn’t have Rasputin and his minions cottoned onto Nick’s existence long ago? And how could Nick have all this innate magical power and never have accidentally discovered it?

I was ready to thoroughly enjoy Nick’s Russian relatives, but unfortunately they never came fully alive for me. Even Nick doesn’t demonstrate much spark or curiosity – his magical skills leave him rather cold (he does very little experimenting) and he seems to have no interest in the only other person his age in the compound, a girl named Isabella. What was her childhood like? Why aren’t there more children? When did she start learning magic? And why on earth is this powerful family leading this rather pointless and shallow existence performing for a Las Vegas hotel when they could be out using their magic for the good of humanity?

The author weaves historical figures and events into the story in a compelling way and the family and setting are appropriately exotic, but there is simply not enough depth or richness to the characters or the plot to make this fantasy rise above the many other fantasies for young readers.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Look-alike fantasy book jackets

So I've been reading Magickeepers: The Eternal Hourglass by Erica Kirov (review coming soon). The jacket art kept reminding me of something.

Oh yes! It looks a lot like these two books - and I'm sure there are more and I just can't think of them right now.

It (almost) makes me wish I was a teen again

But then again, the nerdy, not-a-joiner teen that I was would never dream of entering a super-cool contest like this.

The funny thing is, I've listened to two of those three fantasy series on audiobook (the Gemma Doyle trilogy and the Percy Jackson books) and I loved them both. And I coincidentally just put the audiobook of the first Legend of Beka Cooper book on hold.

AND I've been experimenting (in an extremely lame manner - see this effort, plus this one (ha, notice how I slipped those in - but I earned some bragging rights, people, okay?)) with making movies. Nothing creative so far, but that's got to be the next step, right?

So this would be the perfect contest for me, if only I were 25 or 30 years younger - like in this picture (which even seems to have been taken on a road trip!).

See? I'm not the only one searching for meaning in the Summer Reading Club

You may have read my posts from last week and last year about my desire for a more meaningful, less stressful library Summer Reading Club. Well, I just discovered this older and oh-so-relevant post from What Adrienne Thinks About That.

Kindred spirits, Adrienne!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Review of Pip: the Story of Olive by Kim Kane

Kane, Kim. Pip: the Story of Olive. David Fickling Books, 2009.
This Australian import is an odd duck (or odd platypus, maybe) – in fact, its interesting blend of offbeat plot, eccentric characters, and slightly quirky narrative voice reminded me quite a bit of North American author Polly Horvath (she seems to bounce from the US to Canada and back with ease).

Olive is the only child of Mog Garnaut, a successful attorney whose energy, beauty and moxie are legendary, but who lacks traditional housekeeping skills, not to mention time to spend with Olive. It’s not that she’s unloving or unaffectionate – the reverse, in spades – but her job keeps her very busy.

Olive is a pale, small 12-year-old with long, pale braids (plaits, in Australian – and in fact the book brims with intriguing Australian terms such as mozzies, tuck shops, and the always startling rubbers). When her friend Mathilda, with whom she doesn’t have much in common but whose oh-so-normal life and mother Olive envies, ditches Olive for super-wench Amelia, Olive is thrown into turmoil. Suddenly school, never exactly fun, becomes a nightmare as Olive becomes a social disease overnight.

Right about then, the mysterious Pip enters her life. Pip looks like Olive’s twin – literally – but is much sassier, wilder, and more daring. Readers will soon notice, or at least I did, that no one seems to talk to Pip or even notice her, and yet her presence has a big impact on Olive, who refers to her as her sister. Together, they decide to search for their long-lost father, about whom they know (because Mog will say) almost nothing.

Pip is rather a mysterious presence and yet her spunky earthiness has an effect on Olive that allows her to finally stand up for herself, to her schoolmates and even to her mom. Readers will buy this, but what remain unanswered are the questions of where Pip came from – and why. The last short chapter seems to indicate that Pip had a real existence – outside of Olive’s own imagination and fancy, that is, but still – why did she come to Olive? Did Olive, in her great need for both a friend and some gumption, somehow conjure her up out of nowhere, or was Pip some sort of being, a good fairy, who sensed her need and came to help? Or none of the above? Although I do have to see the title as a sort of clue – Pip seems to have been Olive’s alter ego, the risk-taking part of her.

I didn’t worry about these issues overmuch while reading this book. Despite Olive’s apparent naiveté, the tone of the narration is rather witty and occasionally makes rather knowing jokes, often at the expense of Olive herself but mostly at the Amelias and Mrs. Grahams (Mathilda’s formidable mother) of the world. Mean girls are lost causes but nerdy loners often have hidden depths – something I could have told Olive but that she has to discover for herself (she knew she was skating on the edge of unpopularity but didn’t ever think of herself as in the same class as, say, the girl everyone knows only as Nut Allergy).

Recommended for its intriguing quirkiness and Australian slang to kids grades 5 – 7.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Review of Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

I don’t know what took me so long to get to this book, seeing as how I’m a huge fan of both Reeve’s Immortal Engines quartet and practically anything even remotely Arthurian (including books that simply take place in the cold and mucky England of yore – very long-ago yore).

Here Lies Arthur was well worth the wait. After Myrddin the bard rescues young Gwyna from the aftermath of one of war-band leader Arthur’s slash-and-burn raids, she is transformed from a slave who just tried to get through each day to a person who suddenly has the opportunity and perspective to think about the world around her and even to change the course of events.

It starts with a cliché of many historical novels with strong female characters – Gwyna must be disguised as a boy, not only to ensure her safety in a rough, male-dominated world, but also to conceal the fact that she took part in a Myrddin-designed ruse to convince Arthur’s soldiers and enemies that the Lady of the Lake (little Gwyna, actually) gifted him with an ancient and powerful sword.

Although Gwyna is forced by her own growing body and by circumstance to change from Gwyn to Gwyna and back again several times, this is not the focus of the tale. Rather, it is Gwyna’s observations of Arthur’s small fiefdom, of the ways of its men and women, and most of all of the way people see mainly what they expect to see that form the backdrop of this tale. There are some small and brutal battles, but mainly Gwyna is able (as a girl) to avoid being in the thick of these. However, what she can’t avoid is the knowledge that the kingly, heroic Arthur created by Myrddin’s songs and tales is very different from the actual power-hungry, thoughtless Arthur who lives to hunt and raid.

Myrddin wants to be a king-maker, not through any desire for power of his own but because his own childhood, spent as a Saxon slave after his village was destroyed, convinced him of the urgent necessity for safety and order in Britain. Myrddin is smart and clear-eyed – he knows that Arthur is just as brutish and short-sighted as any other petty leader of an insignificant warband. However, his status as the son of Uther is one advantage Arthur has, and the other is having Myrddin as his advisor. Myrddin has a keen understanding of human nature and politics, and he hopes that the legends he spreads throughout Britain will take on a life of their own and sweep the real, less-than-perfect Arthur along with them until all of Britain is united and strong under his rule.

That nothing quite works out as Myrddin plans, and that he has to set in motion several nefarious schemes in order to get closer to his grand goal, is one of the tragedies of the book. Not only do people lose their lives and loves, but his plan fails – and Gwyna is disillusioned in her old mentor, who she discovers too late has always loved her like a father.

The tension between the relatively new Christian religion and the old gods is underscored in many key ways throughout the book, with Myrddin providing a third (and very modern-feeling) perspective with his disbelieving and cynical views. To believe in nothing is freedom, he says, as he isn’t shackled by the fear and superstition that hamper other people and thus he can manipulate them more easily.

Gwyna’s story was so engrossing and so vividly told that I was absolutely bereft when she and her companion buy passage on a ship called Hope, “outbound for somewhere better.” I want to know what she does next and what her life is like. Whether she becomes a wandering bard herself or finds a safe croft in which to settle down and raise a family, I’m sure Gwyna will continue to observe the world around her closely and to come to her own conclusions.

Highly recommended for grades 5 and up.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Librarians should never stop asking "why am I doing this?"

There must be some children's librarians who have never experienced burn-out, who continue to face each day, each storytime, and each puppet show with enthusiasm and an unwavering sense of purpose - but I'm not one of them.

While my joy in my job has never taken a serious hit, I have sometimes questioned why we do what we do. Sometimes the answer jumps right back at me - we present storytimes to share the pleasure of books and reading with young children and their parents, for instance. We visit schools to awaken an urge in kids to come to our library. We conduct early literacy storytimes and workshops to demonstrate the power and importance of reading aloud. And so on.

However, the answer to "why do we present a Summer Reading Club" never satisfied me. (See this post for an earlier attempt to get at the meaning of SRC) Or rather, the perfectly fine answers that everyone gives - to introduce kids to the pleasures of voluntary reading; to keep kids' reading skills from slipping over the summer; to provide a safe and fun place for kids to come during the summer - never seem to have much to do with how we actually conduct the Summer Reading Club.

And when I say "we," I'm talking my own library system, although perhaps this applies to yours as well.

What do we do? We decide on a theme (it's "Treasured Islands" this year - think "pirates," think "branch libraries as nifty interconnected islands"). We have cool graphics on flyers and reading folders. We sign kids up for the club, give them folders in which to record their books, and give small incentives to reward them for coming to the library and/or attending programs and/or reading books. We offer free weekly programs. And that's all fine.

But then it's time to fill out the report, and there are no questions about how many kids really connected with a book for the first time or about whether kids had more positive feelings about the library at the end of summer than at the beginning, or even about how many kids came to the library for the very first time in order to join the Summer Reading Club.

No, the questions are all about how many kids signed up for the Club and how many programs we presented and how many kids came to the programs. Oh, and whether the numbers had increased or decreased from the year before. True, there are questions about the effectiveness of various elements of the program (folders, incentives, etc) and about how the librarian promoted the program and about possible ideas for the next year. But notice none of the questions really measure the things that librarians value about the Summer Reading Club.

So every year as a children's librarian in a branch, I got excited about Summer Reading Club. And then the weeks went by and I either had less kids than usual (and then felt like a failure and worried about how those stats would look on my report) or I had plenty of kids, perhaps more kids than I could handle (and then I was overwhelmed and felt that I wasn't able to spend any meaningful time with any one kid because they came to my programs in a huge group, mobbed me afterwards to show me their reading folders, and then stampeded right out again).

What was missing for me was a strong sense of the outcome I wanted to achieve with my Summer Reading Club. I knew the output of my Club - the number of programs, the number of kids who came to my programs, the number of kids who signed up, and the number of kids who remained active participants all summer long - but those numbers didn't tell me (or our donors) whether the Club had any success at all in doing all those things that children's librarians want Summer Reading Club to do. Did any children read a book they really loved? Did any children read enough to keep their skills from slipping? Did kids enjoy the programs? Sure, I might have a sense of the answers to those questions, but I couldn't prove it because I wasn't measuring it.

Ah! So perhaps I was measuring the wrong things. But what exactly did I need to measure and how on earth was I to measure it? This is where the idea of outcomes comes in. In order to measure a program's success (or lack thereof), one needs to know what the outcome of the program should be - and in order to decide what the outcome should be, one needs to know a heck of a lot about the community, about the library's mission statement, about the branch's goals and objectives, and much more.

This is where it gets challenging - and fun. Outcomes can be all sorts of measurable things - gaining skills, gaining knowledge, improving attitudes, changing behavior. Let's say I've done my homework and determined that my Summer Reading Club should be all about turning kids on to the joys of reading for pleasure. My desired outcomes could be, oh... "by the end of summer, participants will have voluntarily read at least one book that they really enjoyed and they will have learned how to find more books that they will enjoy reading." Or maybe "by the end of summer, participants who identified themselves as reluctant readers will have a positive, improved attitude about reading for pleasure ." And so on. It has to be measurable, even if one doesn't actually measure it - before and after surveys might be one way, focus groups might be another, informal interviews, observation, and anecdotal accounts might all be ways of evaluating if the desired outcome has come about.

In a way, measuring is almost beside the point for me in this particular hypothetical example. The point is when I start thinking about the Summer Reading Club in terms of the outcomes I desire from it, my whole attitude about and approach to it begins to change. Suddenly every activity must be looked at anew, with the question "will this bring about my desired outcome?" I might change the way I've always "rewarded" kids for reading. I might offer different sorts of programs, or a different number. I would certainly make an attempt to infuse everything I did with the idea that there is just the right book for every child, even the most reluctant of readers.

If my library system were using the Be Creative @ Your Library campaign, I might decide that my outcome should be "participants will learn many different ways they can express their creativity, and will produce their own works using these methods." I could offer many different programs highlighting watercolor painting, writing haiku, creating music with digital technology, drumming, and on and on - and a craft component would be included. Thus each program would have its own outcome - "in the haiku program, children will learn what a haiku is and write their own" - which would combine to create the desired SRC outcome. These could be measured by simple surveys and even just by observing what kids did in the programs.

Planning programs and services for outcomes-based results is an excellent way to stave off burn-out. Suddenly I am offering the community something that has a real meaning, a real point, and a real impact - and I can prove it. It's better than offering the same old programs over and over and over. It's refreshing, it's invigorating, and it's hugely appealing to donors and government agencies.

And it's made me think about my old bugaboo, the Summer Reading Club, in a whole new way - not to mention a host of other traditional and potential programs and services.

Thinking about the outcomes I want to see from the programs and services I offer, the measurable difference, even if very small, that they can make in my patrons' lives, makes me love my job all over again.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

If some books are good for you, are others bad?

Any librarian who sees kids eagerly grabbing commercial series paperbacks off the racks experiences some decidely mixed emotions.

On the one hand - hurray! These kids are treating books like hot commodities, and that's got to be a good thing, right? Books as cool objects of desire - yes!

On the other hand, what if it's some fairly mediocre literature they're checking out - indifferently written, incoherently plotted, and commercial to the core?

Can kids actually be harmed by this stuff? Can young minds be warped by terrible writing? Are these books the equivalent of candy, to be snatched away from kids with loud warnings? Careful, you'll get brain caries! Try this nourishing fare instead - and here we hand them a title we deem more healthful for young minds.

Nope, I don't buy it. Although there are some absolutely awful books out there, I don't shudder even a little when kids pull those bright, tattered copies off the rack. Books can be mediocre, but all reading is good. We all know a version of this mantra (I'm quoting a version from Jim Trelease's The Read-Aloud Handbook):

"The more you read, the better you get at it; the better you get at it, the more you like it; and the more you like it, the more you do it.
The more you read, the more you know; and the more you know, the smarter you grow."

The type of reading material isn't specified - anything that grabs the reader will do. And although there are plenty of good books in our libraries, a child has to feel confident about her reading before she will tackle them and she has to be fairly certain that reading is a fun and pleasurable activity. Those Spongebook books on the shelf have a familiar character on the cover and are being toted around by lots of classmates - they feel safe to read.

Remember, the more kids read for pleasure, the better they get at it, and the better they get at it, the more confidence they'll feel about reading. And the more confidence they feel, the more likely it is that you'll be able to convince them to read some of your own favorite titles or some titles (without commercial characters on the covers!) that other kids have read and loved.

Give kids the reading material they want - series paperbacks, graphic novels and manga, magazines. Encourage them to read whatever the heck they want. Don't feel guilty or worry that their minds are being destroyed by mediocrity. They are coming to the library! They are reading! They think books can be cool! These are the building blocks upon which to build your campaign to expose them to ever more challenging, ever more wonderful books.

Monday, May 18, 2009

One Lovely Blog Award

Thank you, Mrs. V, for giving me this wonderful blog award! Now that I've been awarded it, I get to spread the happiness by highlighting 15 blogs that I've discovered in the last (except I'm only doing 10 due to extreme busyness). So here goes:

I've been savoring these author/illustrator blogs -
Kathryn Fitzmaurice, author of The Year the Swallows Came Early, writes the wonderfully named and always enjoyable A Twisted Clump of Seaweed (and Other Treasures Found at Low Tide)
I've been a rabid fan of Adam Rex ever since I read The True Meaning of Smekday, but I've only just started reading his blog. Check out his must-have Boov merchandise!
I read E. Lockhart's books like they were ice-cream sundaes, so I don't know why it took me so long to discover E. Lockhart's Blog.
Librarian blogs -
In the Library with the Leadpipe keeps me up-to-date with cutting-edge info on technology and other library issues.
Just learned about Stacked last week (good name, eh?). Three librarians discuss library programs; all kinds of books for all ages; and much more - and one of 'em is an LAPL-er!
My colleagues are quietly blogging away during breaks and after work. They keep a low profile, but luckily I discovered Madigan Reads, which has children's book reviews, program ideas, and reports on children's lit-related events.
Book and Literacy-related blogs-
Because reluctant readers are often tweens, I was particularly happy to find Welcome to My Tweendom, which focuses on - yes - books for tweens.
Trevor Cairney's Literacy, Families and Learning blog is a source of constant inspiration to me - wish I'd learned about it ages ago.
Booklights is new to everyone - so all the more reason to highlight PBS's new book/literacy blog, with contributors from our own Kidlitosphere.
Candace Ryan's blog Book, Booker, Bookest actually fits in all the above categories - she has a children's book coming out in 2010, she is a rabid library fan, and she loves sharing what she and her young son have read lately.
If any of the above are new to you, please go check them out - you won't be disappointed!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Review of Winter Wood by Steve Augarde

U.S. cover on the left; UK cover on the right. No question for me, the UK cover imparts more the earthy, sometimes violent nature of the Various.

Augarde, Steve. Winter Wood. David Fickling Books, 2009.

After The Various and Celandine comes the final book in the Touchstone Trilogy. This installment focuses again on Midge, the young girl who in the first book became involved in a dangerous attempt to save the Various – a loosely united group of several tribes of very small human-like creatures living in the local woods – from destruction. Another returning character is Celandine, who had her own amazing experiences with the Various back in 1915 in Celandine; in Winter Wood, she is now extremely old, but she holds the secret to the whereabouts of the Orbis, which the Various need to get back to their own land again.

Most important characters from The Various re-appear, including Henty, Pegs, and Maven-the-Green, and scenes in which the different tribes wrangle about their future are interspersed with Midge’s discovery of the long-lost Celandine (Midge’s greatgreat-aunt) in a nursing home nearby and her attempts to locate the Orbis and get it back to the Various.

Like the first two books, this one takes its sweet time exploring the issues and setting the stage for the eventual bursts of tense action. I for one don’t begrudge the time spent listening in on Midge’s conversations with the ancient, forgetful, but fascinating Celandine, watching Maglin (leader of the Ickris) become convinced of the existence of a mystical homeland, or experiencing the warm wonders of a human sleeping bag with Romeo-and-Juliet runaways Henty and Little-Marten. Augarde’s use of language – matter-of-fact Briticisms for the humans and a rugged, rustic, old-fashioned dialect for the various – aptly highlights the differences between humans and Various, and also sets the mood for both mundane events and moments of high tension.

Not every question is answered, and the climactic last scene seems a bit hurried and pat (although I did love how Celandine’s story wraps up). It wasn’t until the end that I realized that the ethereal white-blond beauty pictured on the cover of my review copy (I so prefer the UK cover, by the way) wasn’t in fact supposed to be Midge (which would have been odd, as one pictures Midge to be more a normal-looking, sturdy sort of girl), but rather a character from Celandine who makes herself known at the last moment and whisks everyone off to the homeland. Not the most convincing of storylines, unfortunately, and also one that leaves the emotions rather unmoved.

Nevertheless, fans of the first two books will love this book despite those quibbles. Winter Wood doesn’t stand alone - readers will have to have read The Various to understand all the allusions to previous doings, although perhaps a previous knowledge of Celandine isn’t a prerequisite – but if you own the first two books, this last in the trilogy is a necessity.

Grades 5 - 8

Friday, May 15, 2009

An attempt at "Scratching"

After reading this article on Scratch in the May 2009 issue of School Library Journal, I was compelled to try it out.

My old brain had some serious difficulties, but after a great deal of experimenting, I figured out how to do this (I think you just click on the image to start it up):

Scratch Project

I'd like to figure out how to make my cat more animated - that's my next project! And if my computer had a microphone (d'oh!), I could have used my own voice instead of typing out Little Kitty's messages.

Definitely go check out the projects on Scratch - kids are having a good ol' time designing games, animation, and more.

Monica makes me wish I had become a teacher!

One of the beauties of belonging to the Kidlitosphere is getting to peer out from my own office at LAPL to get a glimpse of what outstanding teachers, public librarians, school librarians, authors, and other professionals are accomplishing. The innovative ways they are sharing books with kids never fail to inspire me.

Monica Edinger's commitment to books and kids knocks my socks off. Check out her recent post on student blogs and then go to the wiki she created (correction - the wiki was created by Ellen Nickles) on using blogs as a teaching method with her fourth grade students.

Those lucky students! And lucky me, because my creative wheels are spinning madly. How can children's librarians in public libraries use blogs and other interactive 2.0 technology to enhance their mission to get "the right book to the right child"? We have quite a few restrictions - technological, administrative, and so on - but that makes the challenge all the more tantalizing.

To all you dedicated and creative professionals out there - keep rocking my world! It's good to get shaken up on a regular basis.

One more title to add some quirk to your Friday...

Just when I was feeling some major post-100 favorite picture books countdown depression, along comes the new #60 to make my day. And yours too, I hope - just check out the book trailer. Thanks, Betsy!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Eva Ibbotson would have done a great job...

...but I'm perfectly happy that Hilary McKay (author of Forever Rose and all the other wonderful books about the Casson family) will be writing the sequel to Burnett's The Little Princess.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

18 years of reading, and many more to come

My older daughter Vivian turns 18 today! After a summer of traveling (paid for by her job as a library page), she'll be off to UC Davis in September.

We started her off early (she was just a few weeks old!) with board books, especially Tana Hoban's wonderfully vivid titles. According to Viv's baby book, Red Blue Yellow Shoe was a favorite. During her first year, she loved Byron Barton's Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs, Bill Martin Jr.'s Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Ruth Bornstein's Little Gorilla, Margaret Wise Brown's The Golden Egg Book, and anything by Helen Oxenbury.

We kept reading to her even after she learned to read on her own, but when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was published when Viv was 7, she wanted to read it - and all the following books - by herself. Reading aloud just took too long! From then on, all I had to do was bring home a stack of books from the library, and they'd be squirreled away into Viv's room.

Despite catching Harry Potter fever like every other kid, Vivian never really liked fantasy much. Realistic fiction, historical fiction, and nonfiction have always been her favorite types of books - one childhood favorite was Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice series. Currently, she has just finished Sijie Dai's Mr. Muo's Traveling Couch, is in the middle of Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, and has a bunch of travel books on hold (for that upcoming trip!).

I'm so proud of her - and so glad that, through good times and bad, she'll always have books.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Dreaming about "extreme customer service"

I do adore David Lee King - his posts and articles always make me think (AND they make me green with envy - why can't he work for MY library system?? Oh yeah, like my system would ever let someone innovative, creative, and daring upset the occasionally cement-like status quo. We're good at lots of stuff - but "change" isn't one of them. Early adaptors we're not).

Read this post about the Darien Library's "extreme customer service." Their catchphrase? "Why would we NOT allow that?" Isn't that astonishing and refreshing? Too often library policy seems specially formulated to NOT allow as many things as possible, and every time another little incident occurs, another negative policy or rule is created.

At the end of the post, King asks:

"Does your library have a core message, and how does that play out? And … does your library lock technology down so much so that it hinders the work of the library? What would happen if you opened that can of worms up? Would any escape? Something to think about…"

I'd love to let out all the worms!!

Review of Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede

Wrede, Patricia. Thirteenth Child. Scholastic, 2009.

Eff’s twin brother Lan is the seventh son of a seventh son, ensuring that he has greater-than-usual magical power. Unfortunately, Eff was born just before Lan, making her a thirteenth child – and superstition has it that thirteenth children can’t help but bring evil and misfortune on everyone around them. Although Eff’s immediate family finds this a ludicrous notion, Eff gets enough grief from other folks to internalize the fear that she is bad luck.

Even after her father moves the family out to the frontier town of Mill City out on the North Plains Territory in order to teach magic at a new college, Eff worries about being the thirteenth child. In fact, Eff worries for more than ten years – until finally, when she is 18 years old, her own strange and special kind of magic averts a disaster in the form of voracious magical bugs.

Eff’s story takes place in an alternate world in which magic has always existed. What we know as the United States is called Columbia, and the western frontier is plagued by all manner of fearsome and mysterious magical beasts. The settlers use a combination of somewhat feeble 19th century technology and complex magical spells to keep the beasts at bay and to keep things running smoothly. Because magic is used for so much in everyday life, from keeping flies away to keeping buildings up, technology hasn’t progressed at a very quick pace.

Not a heck of a lot happens for much of this book, which wasn’t such a terrible thing for the most part. Readers expecting thrill-a-minute magical adventures should look elsewhere, as for the most part Eff, along with her siblings and friends, goes to school, learns the theory and practice of several different magical traditions, and grows up. Eff is a fine narrator who keeps us interested in her life (even when nothing much is happening) but unfortunately she takes too much about her world for granted – while I, on the other hand, was dying to know the entire history of this alternate Earth. We get little hints and glimmers, enough to know that things are very different indeed in Eff’s Columbia and in her world at large. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were crack magicians, for instance (just what you’d expect), the Mississippi is called the Mammoth, there seem to be no native peoples in “Columbia” at all, and all the other countries have very different names and, presumably, histories.

Despite my desire to know more, I was fairly happy with the leisurely pace. It is sometimes hard to keep track of how old Eff is at various points in the story – but as she is a good, practical girl who has apparently no interest in any romantic liaisons or even a BFF (other than a lad named William – a future beau, perhaps?), this doesn’t matter so much. This lack of any close ties beyond her twin brother and her friend William is a bit of a problem, however, as Eff tends to come across as almost too self-contained and independent. We know about her insecurities stemming from that old thirteenth child problem – indeed, this is perhaps why she rarely forms close friendships – but it would have been delightful to get to know more of the townspeople and their ways. In the Little House books, readers get to know Laura’s family and community intimately, whether she is out in the prairie or in a town – but that never happens here. Mill City remains a somewhat anonymous and even generic frontier town to us.

This is the first in a series called “Frontier Magic.” I will certainly read the next installment, in the hopes of learning more about Eff, her mysterious magic, and her world.

Recommended for grades 6 and up.

Monday, May 11, 2009


On the left - my Spock. On the right - Nadia's Spock.

So we celebrated Mother's Day weekend, as did so many others, by going to Star Trek. I had a major crush on (the original) Spock, the oh-so-slender and cerebral Leonard Nimoy, when I was a barely-teen back in the late 70s, so it was fascinating (as Spock himself would put it) to see my younger daughter shivering with jealousy at the relationship between Uhura and Spock (Zachary Quinto) in the latest movie prequel. Nadia wants him all to herself. Ah, unrequited love. My older daughter thought the young Sulu (John Cho) was delish, while my husband thought Uhura (Zoe Saldana) acquitted herself with aplomb and gorgeousness (ah, those curly lashes and that flouncing ponytail). Myself, I liked the whole darn cast (well okay, but especially the dreamy Chris Pine as Kirk. He's only 15 years younger than me - is that so wrong??).
Meanwhile, my sister went to see Star Trek with her family in Minneapolis, and felt that Spock the Elder bears a startling resemblance to our 90-year-old grandmother. I always felt she looks just like Minnie Mouse (perky and with a fun sense of style).

In celebration of what has turned out to be a fabulously corny movie, here is a fine post from Cake Wrecks.
Live Long and Prosper!

Books plus kids times video equals Awesome!

See?! This here is what I meant by e-coolness a couple days ago. Thanks to Fuse #8 for the link to Rex Adam's excellent blog post and a kid-produced video of some Gorgs protesting The True Meaning of Smekday.

If you love fantasy, sf, or both...

...Ursula LeGuin is the absolute must-read author. There's an interesting profile of her in the LA Times. Genius of the world, is what I say.

Friday, May 8, 2009

E-coolness at the library

Reading is, in general, a solitary and anti-social activity - so how do we get kids not only to read but to demonstrate their love of books in such an exciting and innovative way that other kids can't help but be hooked?

Some libraries have found some fantastic answers to these questions. Several encourage kids and teens to make video reviews or trailers of their favorite books, which are entered in contests and shown on the library's website. King County Library System uses this approach for their teen Summer Reading Club - here is a winning video in the 2008 contest:

A similar library program is Storytubes, which looks totally cool. Check out the 2009 winning entries here.

Kids aren't old enough to post videos on YouTube and some of them don't have the equipment or savvy to make anad upload a video - so why not use an inexpensive video camera like the Flip to make book-review movies in the library? Kids could come to a series of programs that prepare them to make props, plan out the action, write a script - and then the librarian could film them or they could even film each other. Finally, the videos could be uploaded (with parental permission) onto the library's website. E-coolness!

Podcasts are even easier, if less glitzy. And of course, an interactive section of a library website could allow kids to upload written book reviews via blog comment or special form.

Cool apps like Glogster combine visual effects, including videos, and sound to create multi-media poster displays (see my own attempt here) - what kid wouldn't have fun with this? In fact, videos made in the library can be embedded into the poster. And how much better to load kids' creations onto the library's kid website, so that other kids will see these cool book-based creations.

This sort of application is absolutely free and requires only some computers and some creativity, making it a natural for a library program. Videos are a bit more involved, but really, only one inexpensive video camera (and support - tech and otherwise - from your library system) is needed.

And if you dream really, really big, perhaps you can envision someday having a library like this one in Aarhus, Denmark:

Wow - maybe some day. But in the meantime, we can provide cool, digital ways for kids to express their creativity and love of books, and we can use those same methods ourselves to promote our books and services to kids.

Weekly Graphic Review - Game On! (Adventures of Daniel Boom aka Loud Boy #3) by D.J. Steinberg

Steinberg, D.J. Game On! (The Adventures of Daniel Boom aka Loud Boy, #3). Illustrated by Brian Smith. Grosset & Dunlap, 2009.

In a premise similar to that of the Powerpuff Girls cartoons, 5 super-powered kids take on bad guys, especially an “international web of cranky people known as Kid-Rid,” aided by Daniel Boom’s genius scientist uncle, Stanley.

The kids are: Daniel Boom (superpower – loud voice), his sister Jeannie S. Boom (super-power – know-it-all chatterboxing), Rex Rodriguez (superpower – destructiveness and chaos), Violet Fitz (superpower – rage and tantrums), and Sid Down (superpower – fidgeting). If those awesome powers weren’t enough, they have plenty of cool gadgets, courtesy of Uncle Stanley.

In this installment, an Uncle Stanley-designed gizmo called the Flooggget (which can fax any physical object) is sought by bad guy Old Fogy. Having disguised it as a banana, Uncle Stanley gives it to the kids to hide – but unfortunately, a classmate with a secret tie to Old Fogy steals it. Meanwhile, Daniel Boom discovers the joys of a videogame called Pig Planet. Eventually, Daniel must actually go inside the game to rescue a bunch of trapped kids, while crazed inventors Uncle Stanley and Old Fogy battle it out with an assortment of Awesome Weapons, including (but not limited to) a cane that shoots water balloons, huge sushi, and a smelly sock.

The Nickelodeon-style full-color artwork is laid out in easy-to-follow rectangular panels, both vertical and horizontal. The illustrations are action-packed and zany, and the text is minimal but funny and effective.

Recommended as a breezy, fun read for grades 2 to 4.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Children's Services is vanishing from UCLA GSEIS

With a one-two punch, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies ("library school" to us dinosaurs) has undergone some painful hits.

First off, Dr. Virginia Walter, a strong advocate of children's services and the only tenured faculty member who taught children's services classes, retired last year.  She had single-handedly transformed this library school into a breeding ground for excellent new children's librarians - and made it her mission to "convert" as many library students as possible to a career in youth services.  Her retirement was well-deserved, but it is a huge blow for current and future students interested in youth services and public libraries.

Then - oh the horror - the recession hit hard.  All the UCs have had major cuts, and what this has meant for UCLA GSEIS is that not only is there no money to replace Dr. Walter with another strong youth services-oriented professor, but there is also no money for adjunct lecturers.  While the department was able to hire adjuncts (including me) in 08/09 to teach YA Literature, Children's Literature, and Children's Services classes, there will be no youth services classes offered in 09/10.

No youth services classes at all for future children's and YA librarians to take in 09/10.

If I were considering library school, I wouldn't choose UCLA at this point.  It's such a shame.  Perhaps money will be scraped together or found under a rock - but it had better happen soon, or my alma mater will become known as the anti-public library school.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Katniss survives the final round!

Thank you, Lois Lowry, for capping the Battle of the Books with a brilliant post justifying (with absolutely no shame or fruit comparisons) your choice of The Hunger Games.

Be sure to read the comments, especially M.T. Anderson's...

And now it's almost time for the first stages of Newbery Fever to set in!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A good excuse to catch up on YA books if we needed a good excuse, right? Well, just in case you do, MotherReader is providing it in the form of her 4th Annual 48-hour Challenge, during which you read and blog about as many YA books as possible. This year, the weekend will be June 5 - 7 (any 48 hours within that time period).

Given my usual weekend, I'll be lucky if I finish one book. Still, I'm up for the challenge! MotherReader suggests not showering or sleeping if necessary. I can do that...

Monday, May 4, 2009

California Young Reader Medal

I've heard that authors and illustrators particularly value their Young Reader awards because it proves that kids - the intended readers! - really like their books. The Big Awards are fabulously prestigious - and extremely meaningful - but when you come right down to it, they're all judged by a bunch of grown-ups. Well-read, thoughtful, intelligent, sensitive, book-loving grown-ups - but they aren't kids any longer, not by a long shot!

The California Young Reader Medal is given to the authors (and illustrators, if applicable) of the winning book in five age categories - primary, intermediate, middle school/jr. high, high school, and picture books for older readers. Here are the kid-voted latest winners, just announced on Friday, May 1.

I was on the CYRM committee back in the 90s, as a representative of California Library Association (the CYRM committee is composed of members of four different organizations -
California Association of Teachers of English (CATE)
California Library Association (CLA)
California Reading Association (CRA)
California School Library Association (CSLA)
My term lasted 3 years, which makes sense when you consider all the elements of this award.

1. Gather book nominations in all 5 categories from kids all over California. This means communicating with (and begging and cajoling) hundreds of teachers and librarians to pick their students' and patrons' brains. During my term, we didn't get nearly as many actual kid-generated nominations as we wanted, and so we committee members did throw in our own suggestions, trying to base them on what the kids in our communities were actually reading. Nominations are due April 1, for consideration for the following year.

2. Go through the lists of nominated titles to make sure they match the criteria, were not previous winners or nominees, and to sort them into their age categories.

3. Read ALL the nominated titles! Yes, all of them, from primary through YA. And mind you, we weren't getting these from publishers like other award committees do - we had to check 'em out from the library and read 'em really fast.

4. Vote on the panel of nominees for each age category. Much fun discussion, much shuffling through 3x5 cards, much voting and re-voting.

5. Announce the nominees! Here is the current slate, announced Feb. 1. Kids have until April 1 of the following year (2010 for this slate) to read and vote on them.

6. Get the word out to teachers, librarians, and other interested folks all over the state.

7. Design a resource book chock-full of ideas for adults to promote these books with kids - crafts, reader's theater, related books, curriculum connections, and much much more.

8. Plan, with the other two members of your organization, the award celebration for the author (and illustrator, if it's a picture book) of the book that won for whatever category has rotated to your organization this year. The celebration is held at each organization's annual conference and usually features (at least at CLA) a meal, a speech and book signing by the author, and of course a pitch for promoting the CYRM books in libraries and schools.

While I was a Children's Librarian in various branch libraries, I promoted the program in various ways - by telling teachers all about it and referring them to the website, by putting up displays with ballot boxes in my children's area and providing multiple copies of all the nominated primary and intermediate books, by reading the nominated primary titles aloud to classes (and then having them vote right then and there) and by building book discussion clubs around the intermediate titles.

Kids were excited by the idea that it was only kids who were allowed to vote, and that the winner of the medal got a big fancy sticker on his or her book. It's empowering for kids to know that their votes make a difference - knowledge that will hopefully keep them voting their entire lives. If you have a Young Reader Medal in your state (and I think most do), then be sure to let kids and adults know about it.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Ugly-Wuglies - comic relief or scary beyond all reason?

This is almost shameful to admit, but I just read E. Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle for the first time! As an obsessive fantasy reader from childhood on, I just assumed I must have read it early on (I did read The Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet).

The Enchanted Castle was published in 1907, more than 100 years ago, and yet it feels as fresh as any recent novel. The children bicker and then make up; they lose their tempers and then regret it; they are occasionally unkind but mostly want to do the right thing. Gerald is a particularly vivid character. It would have been easy for him, as the oldest boy, to simply be bossy, officious, and upright - and he can be bossy, but only a bit. He has a way with adults, particularly the ladies (man, will he be a charmer one day), and has the annoying (to his siblings) yet entertaining (to us) habit of refering to himself in the first person, as if reading aloud from a book of heroic adventures. "Our hero, who nothing could dismay, raised the faltering hopes of his abject minions by saying that he ws jolly well going on, and they could do as they liked about it." It's endearing because it prevents him from being the stuff mini-English Gentleman that he could very easily have been.

I was most fascinated by the Ugly-Wuglies, those creatures created out of coats and hangers and pillows and blankets and broom handles and hockey sticks and gloves to fill out the seats for the children's home theatrical performance. They come alive accidentally due to an unwise wish, and scare the dickens out of everyone when they start applauding at the end.

It's horrible when these scarecrow-like figures get up and stump down the hall on their odd and unwield legs but worse yet when one of them tries to talk. A long string of vowels comes out of its painted-mouth, vivid against its white pillow-case face, and it says the same thing over and over - Aa oo re o me me oo a oo ho el?" until finally Gerald understands. And what horror did this Ugly-Wugly utter?

"Can you recommend me to a good hotel?"

The absurdity of this banal question, coming as it does from an unnatural animated assemblage of household objects, is wonderfully funny. And yet, it's rather awful, too. Mostly funny, though, especially as all the Ugly-Wuglies seem to have come to life as rather respectable, staid, middle-class townspeople who have just seen a theatrical performance and now want to know why the carriages they had called for haven't come. As all the Ugly-Wuglies become rather restless and start demanding a hotel, Gerald outdoes himself in placating and reasoning with them, finally leading them all the way to the enchanted castle and locking them into a tunnel on the grounds.

What is horrible about the Ugly-Wuglies is their unnaturalness. They do seem like respectable people in a somewhat confusing situation (look at it from their point of view - they've suddenly come to life, having just existed as a bunch of inanimate objects before now, and the only thing they're certain of is that something isn't quite right), but they surely might be capable of anything. Gerald, wearing the magic ring that keeps him from being absolutely terrified, tries to reassure the other kids. "It is such fun! They're just like real people, quite kind and jolly. It's the most ripping lark."

The others aren't convinced, and yet the brave Mabel accompanies Gerald and the Ugly-Wuglies down the dark streets and all the way to the castle, with the Ugly-Wuglies making horrible clanking and chunking noises with their odd feetless limbs on the pavement and their shadows looking absolutely grisly. It's a long, impossible nightmare for Mabel, and it only gets worse when the Ugly-Wuglies realize something is fishy at the last moment and prevent Gerald and Mabel from closing the door on them.

"Through the chink of [the door] they could be seen, a writhing black crowd against the light of the bicycle lamp; a padded hand reached round the door; stick-boned arms stretched out angrily towards the world that that door, if it closed, would shut them off from forever. And the tone of their consonantless speech was no longer conciliator and ordinary; it was threatening, full of the menace of unbearable horrors."

Stephen King couldn't write that scene better, and it's made all the worse by the fact that minutes earlier, the rose-wreathed lady Ugly-Wugly had taken Mabel by the arm and said "'You dear, clever little thing! Do walk with me!' in a gushing, girlish way, and in speech almost wholly lacking in consonants." The banality of evil indeed, or perhaps in this case it's more like the horror of banality.

The Ugly-Wuglies do turn violent later on, or at least one of them does, and another becomes (or has always been, in that strange way of magic) a very respected stock broker, even as the others turn back into heaps of clothing, bedding, and sports equipment. The whole thing is scary and unnerving, but also very funny in its sheer oddness. We may be laughing nervously, but we're laughing nevertheless.

I haven't found quite that level of horror in any other lighthearted fantasy novel, although of course high fantasy or good-vs-evil, light-vs-dark fantasy has its terrifying moments (barrow wights in particular always reduced me to a quivering ball of fear). Nesbit has managed to create a long and riveting scene which so meshes elements of comedy and terror that it is impossible to separate the two - a damned good trick. Wish I'd read The Enchanted Castle when I was a child, but better late than never where masterpieces are concerned.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Review of Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters by Lenore Look

Look, Lenore. Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters. Ill. by LeUyen Pham. Random House, June 2009.

After a misadventure during which Alvin is strapped (voluntarily, mind you) into a homemade straitjacket and taped into a box, Alvin’s dad decides that he and Alvin need some special time alone. Unfortunately for the cowardly Alvin, his dad figures that a weekend spent camping and hiking would be just the ticket. Alvin, his confident big brother Calvin, and his peppy little Sister Anibelly have lots of fun preparing for this big event – and when the time comes to leave, Anibelly manages to cajole her way into the car.

The camping trip itself is almost a disaster thanks to Alvin’s dad having forgot much of the food as well as a can opener, but luckily a fellow camper and his odd son save the day with some Italian sandwiches. Despite a few setbacks (a lost Batman Ring, a case of poison oak after Alvin’s dad uses the wrong leaf as toilet paper), the camping trip ends up being a big success so far as Alvin and Anibelly are concerned.

For the first few pages, during which Alvin over-explains himself and all his friends and family, I was perturbed (as with the first book) by Alvin’s too-knowing, too-old tone. As soon as the story proper began, however, Alvin’s breathless, nerdy, endearing narration won me over. We see his extremely vivid family (all except his mom, who barely figures in this story) through his nervous yet admiring eyes; Alvin’s dad and uncle, although less than perfect, are depicted with an especially loving and admiring touch.

The only jarring element is the entrapment of Alvin’s dad in a dangle trap made by Alvin and his new camping friend. This completely unbelievable and slapstick situation (the illustration depicts Alvin’s dad dangling by one leg high above the ground) is out of place in this tale, being more the sort of misadventure that would befall Homer Simpson. Poison oak on Alvin’s dad’s bottom – sure. Gravity-defying cartoon gags – no thanks. Still, that’s only a small quibble in an otherwise sweet and funny tale, which is perfectly complemented by Pham's sassy, piquant illustrations.

Highly recommended for readers in grades 2 to 4, or as a read-aloud to slightly younger kids.