Monday, August 31, 2009

hobyah hobyah hobyah (bark bark bark!)

When I was a small and impressionable child, my librarian mother often told me the story of the Hobyahs.

"Hobyah hobyah hobyah - tear down the hempstalks! Eat up the old man and the old woman! Carry off the little girl."

If you know this story - the original, not any bowdlerized versions - you know that little dog Turpie keeps scaring off the Hobyahs, despite the fact that his incessant barking so annoys the old man that he cuts off first his tail, then each of his four legs, and finally his head. And then of course the Hobyahs eat up the old man and his wife and carry off the little girl - who is saved by yet a different dog and his owner, rather a la Little Red Riding Hood.

A small and yappy dog named Teddy lives next door to us, and recently he has barked so often and so annoyingly that I have found myself telling my husband, "That little dog Teddy barks so that I can neither sleep nor slumber, and if I live 'til morning, I'm going to cut off little dog Teddy's head."

This despite the fact that 1. I consider myself an animal fan, being the proud companion of a passel of hens and a tangle of rats and one scrofulous hamster 2. it's not Teddy but his human who deserves my ire and 3. little dog Turpie remains a shining example of selfless, courageous heroism to me.

Strangely, I once saved Teddy's life, sort of/maybe. I was once at home when a terrible screaming came from outside - Teddy had run into the street and been hit by a car. Teddy's owner was too distraught to think straight, so I grabbed a towel, scooped his ominously still and bleeding body off the street, pushed him into her arms, and drove them both to the emergency vet. And what do you know - it turned out Teddy had merely been tapped by the car, had bitten his tongue (hence the blood), and then had apparently fainted. He was fine.

"Why did you save him? WHY??" my husband has moaned to me many times, as Teddy yaps his way through the solemn bits of a Netflix movie or startles us awake at 3 am.

"Well, think what might get us if it weren't for Teddy, " I answer. "The Hobyahs might be out there right now, waiting to tear down our hemp stalks."

But I still can't help sympathizing with the old man, just the tiniest little bit.

It's time for some Newbery Buzz

C'mon, guys - it's practically fall already, and I've heard hardly a word about Newbery contenders. Since Heavy Medal, that fabulous Newbery blog written by Nina Lindsay and Sharon McKellar, hasn't revved back up yet, I'll have to start things rolling with some of my own favorites (click the titles to read my reviews):

The Singing by Alison Croggon - this probably won't be a real contender - it's YA-ish, plus it's #4 in a series - but man, it's good

Where the Mountain Meets the Sea by Grace Lin - a Chinese-inspired fantasy quest, impeccably plotted and charmingly written

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead - you've read the raves; now read the book! Best thing I've read in a long time

Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson - makes intensely good writing look easy

Okay, now it's your turn - let's get this party started!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Review of Bloodline by Katy Moran

Moran, Katy. Bloodline. Candlewick, 2009.

This is technically a fantasy, as there are some mystical out-of-body experiences - but like Manda Scott's stunning Boudica series (the first being Dreaming the Eagle, which takes place in the 1st Century AD) for adults, it's the historical setting that is so fascinating. Great Britain's history, particularly the era from Rome's conquest and then decline to the rise of the first kings, is rich in mystery and lore, so I'm always eager to read a book that plunges me right into the middle of tribal warfare amidst the dark forests and fertile fields and fetid swamps of pre-1000 AD Britain.

Bloodline takes place in the early 7th century, 600 years after Boudica's ultimately failed attempt to turn back the Romans. Not much is known about this hazy time, but Moran manages to bring alive a desperate time when warlords from Mercia, East Anglia, and Powys were warring against each other when not forming tenuous alliances. Christianity had won a foothold in many areas, but the Angles and Saxons worshipped their own Norse gods and perhaps some surviving Britains still practiced the old ways from before the Roman invasion.

Villages on the shifting borders of the warring tribes suffered, finding themselves on one territory or another, having to pay tribute to one warlord or another. In a similar situation is young Essa, whose father Cai is a dark-haired, dark-eyed Briton and whose mother - about whom Cai won't speak - was a red-headed Anglish woman. Cai abandons Essa in an Anglish village when he is 9, where he is raised by the woman chieftain. But when he is 15, his life suddenly changes - after an Anglish lord binds Essa to him with his ring and bids him to spy on a Mercian stronghold, Essa becomes embroiled in intrigue. His strange ability to enter the bodies and commune with the souls of animals, plus his accidental friendship with the son of a Mercian lord and his new wife, sends him careening across England trying to avert a disastrous war.

Unlike in Scott's Boudica books, the supernatural world is not an ever-present and vital force in Essa's world. Many of the old ways have been lost or forgotten, and although folks still talk of elves and spirits, it's clear that long-held beliefs are turning into superstitions. Essa's abilities, while believed in by those in his village, are never-the-less seen as bizarre and sort of creepy, a definite sign of his Iceni heritage (they were known to mate with elves in the olden days, one boy notes). And no one is around to teach him how to use his unusual skills. The side-by-side existence of Christianity, the Norse religion, and older British beliefs is an uneasy one, and well-portrayed in this book.

Also well-portrayed is Essa, who is an unapologetic hothead who is sometimes confused and often pissed off. But most of all, he is a good person who feels strongly that cruelty and war are a waste and tries his hardest to influence very powerful people. Obviously, he fails - what teenager can stop land and power-hungry lords from warring? But it's this combination of idealistic anti-war youth (with flaming red hair and a supernatural gift, to boot) and rude, attitudinous, often clueless teen that makes Essa very real and worth rooting for. And he's so sweet to his dog and his horse, calling them "my honey" - you have to love a guy who is kind to animals.

Life in 630 AD is described with little bits of detail - smoky fires, greasy pots, folks sleeping in heaps in the main building of a village. Moran's language is simple and effective, with dialogue spiced with just the occasional bit of archaic sentence structure here and there to give us a sense of a different time. There are some loose strings left at the end - an expected showdown as Essa's tribe wars with his friend Wulf's fails to materialize, for example - and I hope this means there will be more books to come about Essa and his tumultuous world. Recommended for ages 13 and up.

In the meantime, here are some other YA authors who do a fine job making the Anglo-Saxon period come alive - Philip Reeve (Here Lies Arthur), Rebecca Tingle (The Edge on the Sword), Kevin Crossley-Holland (well okay, his Arthur books are a bit later - 12th Century - but still), and Michael Cadnum (Raven of the Waves)

Friday, August 28, 2009

SCIBA award nominees are announced

As proof that there is a rich literary life in my sunny, smoky, goofy part of the world, the Southern California Booksellers Association (SCIBA) has announced its 2009 nominees. All books nominated reflect Southern California culture or lifestyle, with authors/illustrators living within the SCIBA region. Books were published between July 1, 2008 and June 30, 2009. Winners will be announced October 24th.

Of special interest are, of course, the nominees for:

Children's Novel
Hunger by Michael Grant
Pendragon Book Ten: Soldiers of Halla by D.J. MacHale
The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzhugh

Children's Picture Book
Pete & Pickles by Berkeley Breathed
Too Many Toys by David Shannon
Our Library by Eve Bunting

Worthy titles all! (although I must admit that I know nothing about the Pendragon book and wouldn't have guessed that it "reflects Southern California culture or lifestyle" - huh)

Another good excuse to read YA books

Tell your teens about YALSA's Teens' Top Ten contest - only teens get to vote! I've read 11 of these and they were ALL great, so there are some tough decisions ahead for those book-addled teens out there.

Can you "read" an audiobook?

I listen to audiobooks during my work commute, and if I finish them (which isn't always the case - I just returned Scat by Carl Hiaassen after only 3 discs, mainly because Ed Asner's slurry gravelly narration was making me sleepy - I'll have to try the print version), I review them for Goodreads or this blog or both.

Mind you, it's not the audiobook I'm reviewing (although I might comment on the narration if it's noteworthy) - it's the book. Whether I use my eyes to scan the print on a page or my ears to hear a voice reading printed words aloud, I have ingested and digested the book's contents. The narrator might enhance - or, more seldom, diminish - that experience, but it's all about the story and the language, not how they are imparted.

So is that reading? Not according to most dictionaries I consulted. Typical is's entry - no one part of the definition is quite right, although if you combine #4 ("to apprehend the meaning of (signs, characters, etc.) otherwise than with the eyes, as by means of the fingers: to read Braille") with #20 ("to hear and understand (a transmitted radio message or the person transmitting it); receive: I read you loud and clear"), you come close.

People need to be able to read written language, no question. But as a librarian and book addict, I feel that a good book's content transcends its format. Charlotte's Web will have great and lasting meaning for kids (and adults) whether they scan the printed pages or hear the words spoken aloud.

But don't take my word for it. Here's a wonderful post by Mary Burkey on the Audiobooker blog on "Why One English Teacher Values the Audiobook."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Encouraging Color in Kids' Books

Elizabeth Bluemle has a great post on Shelftalker about how difficult it still is to find children's books featuring black kids. Yes, of course we can all name some right off the bat - Karen English's "Nikki and Deja" series and Nikki Grimes' Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel (hey, did English name her character after Grimes?) for younger readers; Christopher Paul Curtis and Jacqueline Woodson for middle-grade readers; Walter Dean Myers and Sharon Draper for teens - and so on. Still, that's a drop in the bucket compared to books about white kids.

There's been a lot of buzz and controversy about this recently, from the cover of Justine Larbalestier's Liar (which Bluemle touches on in her post) to Color Online's Color Me Brown contest, which asks readers to submit reviews of books featuring people of color to a couple of posts by Charlotte of Charlotte's Library - an older post about the lack of color in fantasy and SF for kids and a new one about the lack of diversity in SF. Oh, and don't forget the SLJ article by Mitali Perkins on "Straight Talk On Race."

A YA librarian I know wishes she could find more YA books about black kids that don't involve guns, gangs, drugs, and teenage pregnancy. The middle-class black teens in her library's community are reading all kinds of stuff - including urban fiction - with great relish, but they aren't finding much that reflects themselves.

I'm thankful for this discussion, as it makes me remember how important it is for librarians to read all kinds of books, including and especially books featuring kids of color, so that we can promote them more effectively to our colleagues and patrons.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Review of Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson, Jacqueline. Peace, Locomotion. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009.

There are some writers who just knock me right over with their writing talent. They know how to hone their words down to the most essential bones, so that the language is deceptively simple but contains maximum beauty and meaning. Patricia MacLachlan is one, Susan Patron is another. Simplicity, pithiness, grace, and humor – they make it look so easy.

That Jacqueline Woodson belongs on that list was made crystal clear yet again by Peace, Locomotion. This book is told mostly through Lonnie’s letters to his sister Lili, who as we know from Locomotion is living in a different foster family, as well as a few of Lonnie’s poems. This is tough stuff. Lonnie is doing really well, considering that he’s in a foster family, is separated from his sister, and is still getting over the death of his parents. After all, he has gotten close to his foster mother Miss Edna and his foster brother Rodney, he’s got a nifty new teacher who appreciates his poetry, and his friend Clyde is a great guy to have in your corner. But Miss Edna’s older son Jenkins is in Iraq, where he is wounded in body and spirit – and Lonnie can’t help but miss his sister and his parents every day.

That the good and the bad parts of life are inextricably meshed in anyone’s life comes through clearly as Lonnie writes to Lili in his clear, honest, unsentimental voice. He’s a real poet – he always tries to get to the truth and heart of the matter. There’s never any soppiness – just straightforward words like these, which made me cry after all the stuff these three guys and Miss Edna have been through:

“Dear Lili,

A few days ago, Miss Edna took some pictures of me, Rodney and Jenkins. Me and Rodney were sitting on the couch and Jenkins was in his wheelchair. Miss Edna said, I can’t believe I’m going to finally have some pictures of my three favorite men.

And guess what? Today we got the pictures back. Miss Edna waited until we was all sitting down for dinner before she pulled them out. She said, I got something I think is going to crack a smile out of the hardest nut. Then she showed us the pictures and there was Jenkins, not even smiling one bit but giving me rabbit ears!

We laughed for a long, long time.

Love and Peace and Rabbit Ears,

Thanks to Woodson's skill, Lonnie comes alive for the reader - he's as vivid to me as many a real person, and more so than some I know! I'd recognize him if I saw him walking toward me on the street.

Highly recommended for grades 4 and up. Newbery contender, definitely.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Where the Waldorf Parents Are...

After my kids and I saw the trailer of Where the Wild Things Are, my 18-year-old said, "Wow, that's the ultimate dream movie for Waldorf parents." My younger daughter attended a Waldorf public charter school (LAUSD's Ocean Charter School) from 5th through 8th grade, and both kids (not having grown up under The Waldorf Doctrine - read about the pedagogy here and here) were fascinated by the cloth-covered wicker lunch baskets, the natural fibers, the arts and crafts, the singing, and the emphasis on nature and (strangely enough) fairies.

The kids liked all this stuff just fine, but the parents LOVED it. I mean, kids will go for brightly colored plastic toys in a heartbeat - but parents eat up stuff like this. Wood, cotton, wool, and all things natural = good. Plastic, technology, and other signs of the modern world are to be avoided as long as possible.

So Max living in the jungle with his Wild Thing friends, being all nature-boyish and imaginative and all, does seem right up the Waldorf alley (or country lane). The soundtrack sounds pretty Waldorfian, as well, at least judging by the single "All is Love" by Karen O and the Kids. I mean, the title of that song alone...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Review of The Farwalker's Quest by Joni Sensel

Sensel, Joni. The Farwalker's Quest. Bloomsbury, 2009.

In Ariel's world, there is no technology at all - not even a simple machine like a bike or a wheelchair. Oh, once there were marvelous gadgets - but then there was a terrible war that rendered everyone blind. Eventually, sighted children were born and the world returned to normal - except that folks had lost most of the knowledge they'd had before the war. And perhaps that wasn't such a bad thing, especially if that knowledge had led to the war.

When Ariel and her friend Zeke find a telling dart, a communication device from the old days, their world changes. Instead of settling into their chosen calling as every 13-year-old does, Ariel is kidnapped by two strange men who come to the village looking for the dart. Zeke follows - and from then on, their lives are completely upended.

This isn't just a post-apocalyptic novel - there is magic in the world, from the way trees and stones communicate with Zeke to a ghost who follows the children around. If the darts are a form of technology rather than magic, then it's one never seen in our own world. Unfortunately for Ariel's people, magic isn't enough to sustain her society. Due to her culture's distrust of new ideas and therefore of travelers and outsiders, even what little knowledge each village possesses - not just historical matters but such practical things as medicine and agriculture - is dwindling. Ariel's dart leads her and her companions to the realization that there is a great storehouse of knowledge from the past that could inject vital new life into the world, if only they could find it and then disperse it.

These are intriguing ideas, but they take a backseat to the more immediate action of the story, which involves Ariel's kidnapping, escape, and search for the Vault of knowledge. Her relationships with Zeke and with the enigmatic Scarl (one of her kidnappers) are always first and foremost in Ariel's thoughts, and this makes sense for a 13-year-old who always thought she'd be a healer like her mother, not some pivotal piece of a scary and all-important quest. Ariel's anguish and joy are always on-target and sometimes even move the plot forward - and yet I kept wondering about her world. How could each village stay so insular - didn't they need to trade with each other and even intermarry? Wouldn't they rely on goods from afar - and wouldn't new ideas arrive with those goods? (Reading Patricia Wrede's worldbuilding questions probably has made me a very picky reader of fantasy, indeed) I also got no sense of Ariel's culture - its religion, cuisine, dress, attitudes toward women. As a result, the action is vivid but all else is a bit hazy. Oh, and one more thing - at one point, Zeke says "geez." As a short form of "Jesus," this seemed out of place in a book that, whether or not it takes place on an Earth of the far future, certainly doesn't mention the existence of Christianity. Just a quibble, seeing as how I was nattering on about language last week.

Thanks to fine writing, interesting characters, and an imaginative plot, I stuck with this pleasant fantasy all the way to the end. However, I couldn't help thinking it could have been a great fantasy if more care had been taken with the details. I will definitely read whatever she writes next - which may well be The Timekeeper's Moon, a sequel that will be out in early 2010.

Recommended for fantasy fans in grade 5 - 8.

Friday, August 21, 2009

YA "Books that Rock"

L.A.'s own Cecil Castellucci created this list of rockin' YA titles featuring music as a life-changing force.

I was and am musically dorky - so the hip and/or obsessed kids in these books seem especially exotic to me.

And perhaps we can add Debbie Harry Sings in French by Meagan Brothers to Cecil's list. Anything else?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

1970s - the golden age of British television

My Netflix queue spit out a wonderful surprise yesterday - Children of the Stones arrived. I first heard about this 1977 British TV mini-series from this post from Charlotte's Library and knew I had to watch it.

Hoo boy! 7 episodes of campy, spooky fun, with a bit of Stepford Wives (eerily smart and serene villagers who say "Happy Day!" in greeting) and plenty of Stonehenge-y, ritualistic, ley line-filled goodness. The late 70s pouffy hair styles and high-waisted pants brought back quite a few memories - I was 12 in 1977 and would have loved this series (and certainly would have thought young Matt was hot). And even now, it sort of creeped me out just the tiniest bit. And then I crawled into bed and read Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, thus ensuring that I slept poorly all night long.

For a tiny taste, here is how each show opens. Turn up the volume on your computer to savor the fuh-reaky wailing/moaning soundtrack.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Review of Tumtum & Nutmeg by Emily Bearn

Bearn, Emily. Tumtum & Nutmeg: Adventures Beyond Nutmouse Hall. Little, Brown, 2009.

There is a certain type of book that I return to again and again, when I'm wracked with worries or am plagued by restless mind syndrome or have just finished a scary or disturbing book. It's a genre one could call The Cozy Book, in which characters who are good and simple souls go about their good and simple lives. Oh, there are problems - but there is never any worry on the part of the reader that they won't be solved, and maybe even in time for tea. There is often tea, plus some nice cakes or biscuits, in books of this sort.

My own favorite Cozy Books are Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne - just thinking about them fills me with more warmth and sweetness than hot cocoa with whipped cream. But I think that for some children, there will be a new contender in the Cozy Book category, as Tumtum & Nutmeg is a honey of a cozy story.

It's three stories, actually, each about a long-married mouse couple named Mr. and Mrs. Nutmouse who live in extraordinary comfort and even luxury in a large manor house (mouse-sized) in the long-forgotten and blocked-off broom closet of a small and somewhat decrepit cottage. Two children, Lucy and her little brother Arthur, live there along with their poor and absentminded father - and Nutmeg (for so Mr. Nutmouse calls his wife for the exotic color of her fur) and Tumtum (named by Nutmeg for his round stomach) adopt them as foster children of sorts, mending their clothes and fixing things around the house. Eventually the human children and the two mice begin a correspondence with each other, although they never meet and in fact the children think that it's a tiny and benevolent fairy that is doing all these good deeds.

Life in Nutmouse Hall is good, but even the coziest lives occasionally encounter a spot of bother - and in these three stories it is a virulent mouse-hating aunt, imprisonment in a classroom gerbil cage, and a scary encounter with rat pirates respectively. The adventures are exciting, the mice are intrepid - and everyone always gets back home safely and soundly. Detailed, old-fashioned, British-y drawings by Nick Price add to the cozy feel.

Nutmeg wears a dress and apron and bustles in the kitchen, while Tumtum mainly eats and sits by the fire - this portrayal of not only traditional but downright outmoded gender roles is disappointing but is partly redeemed by the fact that Nutmeg is by far the more imaginative and intrepid of the pair. And as their lifestyle seems to stem from some timeless British era of tweed suits and dresses with aprons, I suppose it all makes sense. Still, I'd like to see Tumtum cooking, cleaning, or sewing up a storm while Nutmeg settles down by the fire with a glass of sherry and a book.

Tumtum & Nutmeg would make an excellent read-aloud for younger kids in K to grade 2, while older children in grades 3 - 5 - especially those beset by Worries who need a lovely, comfortable read - will find this a fine read-alone.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Language of Fantasy

I read a lot of fantasy - the preindustrial, medieval-like sort - so perhaps it isn't surprising that three books I read in the past month all contained the word "mayhap." This word has always bothered me. What on earth is wrong with maybe or perhaps? Surely those words could be used in a fantasy without doing any damage to that archaic fantasy feel. Other words that often appear are "aught" and "naught," sometimes spelled "owt" and "nowt" if the speakers are peasants, standing in for the apparent too-modern terms anything and nothing.

The first book in which I encountered "mayhap" was Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Mercy. Anyone who has read Carey's Kushiel series knows how carefully language is used to give us a sense of the extremely mannered society of the D'Angelines, and so "mayhap" is the least of it. If you read the first chapter of Kushiel's Mercy, you will find "betimes" used for the word occasionally as well as plenty of names with so many apostrophes and accents that they are well-nigh impossible to pronounce. I love this series and have read every single book; the characters are enthralling and the plot is both intricate and action-packed. Oh, and there is plenty of spicy sex - something one doesn't often find in fantasy, or at least not this type of fantasy. (This is one fantasy series I have NOT recommended to my fantasy-addled 14-year-old daughter). But the language does sound stilted to me, even as it succeeds to a certain extent in portraying a very different sort of culture.

The second book in which mayhap appeared was Tamora Pierce's Terrier, from the newish Beka Cooper series. Now, maybe Pierce uses mayhap all the time and I just never noticed, but it jolted me when I heard it over and over while listening to the audiobook version (narrated by the talented Susan Denaker, who can talk in various Tortall accents like nobody's business), especially since Beka Cooper's world seems so... liberated, I guess. Sure, it's pre-industrial and all, but unlike, say, in a medieval English village, it's considered acceptable, if not exactly respectable, to women to join the guards (the police) or to become fighting knights - and to wear trousers while doing so. So why the heck use "mayhap?" I don't get it - it seems like a cop-out.

The third book was one I brought back to the library only half-read, not because it wasn't good but because I just wasn't in the mood right then. But I do forgive Ink and Steel by Elizabeth Bear, because it's an Elizabethan fantasy - and Shakespeare, who is a character, may well have used the term "mayhap" all the time.

So when Holly Black brought up, during a talk she gave at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators last weekend, some interesting points about the language of fantasy, my ears pricked up. The talk was called "Examining the Strange: the Basics of Fantasy Writing," and in it she mentioned Ursula LeGuin's essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," in which LeGuin talks about some pitfalls facing fantasy writers - many tend to write in a rather florid, archaic style in order to create that feeling of being somewhere besides our ordinary modern world, while others, trying to avoid this, employ a language that is dull and ordinary as cornflakes. Of course, I trotted off to the Literature and Fiction department to find this essay as soon as I got back to work, and was overjoyed to find that LeGuin actually addresses (after ripping to shreds writers who use thee, thou, the subjunctive form, and words like ichor and smite) my pet peeve! She writes "Mayhap. It can't be maybe, it can't be perhaps; it has to be mayhap, unless it's perchance." Yes!

LeGuin then argues for the use of straightforward language - not "journalistic" flat everyday prose, but "plain, clear English" as used by Tolkien. "Tolkien's vocabulary is not striking; he has no ichor; everything is direct, concrete, and simple." Now, I don't think the use of "mayhap" automatically ruins a book - I think Tamora Pierce writes just the kind of wonderfully direct and "real" prose that LeGuin praises. But fantasies that manage to build an entire complex world without such archaic terms are much preferable to me.

And by the way, use of certain terms can be very jarring in a fantasy, sometimes without any reason other than it seems to break The Rules of Fantasy-Speak. That fantasy-reading 14-year-old mentioned to me recently how weird it was to come across the expletive "F**k!" in the excellent fantasy The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, or maybe it was in the sequel Red Seas Under Red Skies. At any rate, I had to agree that it felt too... modern, I suppose. Surely the character could have used some other expletive. "Shit," especially when used as an expletive, also feels wrong and anachronistic, although really there isn't any reason why. Perhaps it's just that I've been accustomed all my life to fantasies that use "dung" or other equally colorful terms instead.

Holly Black gave a shout-out during her talk to Patricia Wrede's awe-inspiring (and daunting) "Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions." This is essentially a long and detailed list of questions a fantasy writer should ask him or herself when creating a fantasy world, divided into various categories. This is why I have never even considered writing fantasy of this sort! Here are some of her questions under "Food" - a topic one would figure to be simple enough. But no!

"What distinguishes a formal, high-court dinner from an ordinary meal, besides quantity and variety of food? How do high-court manners differ from everyday ones? When a guest arrives, is food or drink offered immediately, after an interval, or only on request? Is there a particular food or drink that is customary to offer a newly arrived guest? A guest who is just departing? Is sanitation good enough for untreated water to be safe to drink? If not, what do people drink instead? What things, while edible, are never eaten (what's not kosher)? Why? Are some common human foods pjoisonous to dwarves or elves (or vice versa)?" And so on for pages and pages, on every topic under the sun, from trade to customs to dress to politics.

A great example of someone who has done her worldbuilding homework is Sherwood Smith. Her Inda series is set in a world in which every detail has been carefully thought out for each country, from the Big Ideas like politics and government to smaller but equally important matters like cuisine, dress, architecture, magic, and even gestures (which differ from country to country but are also quite different from our own). The language she uses is simple and direct, and yet we know we're somewhere exotic, somewhere magical. In the land of the Marlovans, no one practices magic and yet it is used daily and almost without thought for things like washing clothes and dishes or getting rid of waste and dead bodies. In other lands, there are sorcerers who train many years and wield powerful magic indeed. It's all incredibly fascinating and carefully thought-out - I'm in awe of Sherwood Smith.

I couldn't do it myself. I don't think I could write the kind of fantasy I so love to read - it boggles my mind to imagine creating a world from scratch. But oh, thank goodness for all the crazy genius writers out there who do it - and do it so well.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Animoto Madness

I may become addicted to Animoto - these "videos" took all of 5 minutes each! (although figuring out how to share them took a little longer...)

Plenty of ways to use this application - for instance, a library website or blog could highlight its newest books for kids each week. And it's free (although a "full-length" or high quality video does cost money).

One note of caution - these videos are rather blurry, which my original photos were not. To get "high-res" videos costs $5!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Babies Love Books (and animal noises)

For all those folks out there who are dubious that a small baby can truly enjoy being read aloud to, check out this video. Thanks to Susan of The Book Chook for the link - enjoy more videos (including the same dad and baby with a quiet but very animated hand puppet), plus Susan's commentary, in this post.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Teaching "naked" - scary but liberating

I taught a course on "Library Progams and Services for Children" at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies this past spring. Although it wasn't my first teaching experience - I've also taught "Storytelling" for the same school - it was challenging in that I wanted to make sure that I fully imparted, in as coherent a manner as possible, all the huge amount of information on this very large, important, and ever-changing subject. As a Senior Children's Librarian, this is what I do for a living, after all! How could I make it both understandable and dynamic?

As this was my first time teaching the course, I turned to that favorite crutch of professors everywhere - the Powerpoint presentation. It did help me organize and deliver my material. It did NOT make for dynamic classes! Oh sure, we did have class discussions, special guests, student presentations, and so forth - but there wasn't a heck of a lot of give-and-take throughout the quarter.

I'll be teaching "Storytelling" (it's actually a course on children's library programming, from baby/toddler storytimes to puppet shows to book clubs) next spring (if UCLA doesn't simple shrivel up and die in the meantime), and I will not be showing a single slide. And if I ever teach a course on Children's Services again, I will give students access to the Powerpoint presentation on the class wiki but will NOT numb their brains with a hundred bullet points during class.

Here's a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on what is hopefully a trend toward "naked" teaching.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Review of The Locked Garden by Gloria Whelan

Whelan, Gloria. The Locked Garden. Harpercollins, 2009.

(sorry, Blogger isn't letting me upload the jacket photo due to an "internal error")

In 1900, Verna and her little sister Carlie move with their father to a small house on the grounds of an asylum for the mentally ill, where he has been hired to work as a doctor. Unfortunately for the girls, their ill-tempered Aunt Maude goes with them – their mother died two years ago, and Aunt Maude has been caring for them ever since.

Verna and Carlie both love the gorgeous grounds surrounding the asylum and soon make friends with several inmates, including young Eleanor, who has been hired to help Aunt Maude keep house. The only fly in the ointment – and it’s a big nasty one – is Aunt Maude and her nasty, critical vindictive temper. Jealous of the affection the sisters show Eleanor, she behaves more and more cruelly to her, until finally Eleanor is forced to leave both the asylum and her job and return home to her unhappy home. Verna, not content to let this injustice stand, hatches a plan to get rid of Aunt Maude and get Eleanor back.

Now that I think about it, that really doesn’t sound like much of a plot, and so it is a tribute to the writing that I became fully immersed in the small dramas of Verna’s life. Aunt Maude’s petty cruelties loom large because they are so horrible for poor Eleanor, and Verna’s outrage – and her responses - are vivid and understandable. Their father, although not often around, makes the right choices when he sees what is happening – he isn’t one of those well-meaning but oblivious adults that is found so frustratingly often in children’s literature.

The jacket art and title bring to mind The Secret Garden by Burnett, but this is deceptive – the garden plays a small part, but really this is the story of a small family’s intense dynamics. The asylum itself also plays a role, and it is fascinating to read about the innovative therapies that were being practiced, even as early as 1900, in some places.

This is one of those books that will make readers forget almost instantly that it is “historical fiction,” so caught up in the story will they be. Recommended for grades 4 – 7.

Monday, August 10, 2009

SCBWI report - Sunday afternoon

This is what is great about SCBWI (and by the way, I realized belatedly that nowhere in any of my reports did I state what this stands for, assuming that everyone must know. In case anyone doesn't, it's the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) - when the big double doors were opened to the Grand Ballroom for our luncheon, I dashed in and sat down at the first table I came to. A bunch of other folks soon came to join me, all strangers to me - and it so happens that among them were Greg Trine (author of the Melvin Beederman books), Tina Nichols Coury (who, besides being an author and blogger, produced the book trailer for Susan Patron's Lucky Breaks), and Alexis O'Neill (author of The Recess Queen, Loud Emily, and more). The less well-known folks were all authors, illustrators, or both (including a mom and daughter who both write YA fiction) - and when they heard I was a children's librarian, they pronounced me the most important person at the table. How often do we hear that?? I beamed.

By the way, my predictions for the vegetarian entree (pasta or grilled veggies) were both wrong - it was chopped and sauteed veggies wrapped in puff pastry, which would perhaps have stayed flaky if it were not soggy with tomato sauce. Oh well, the rolls were excellent.

So - the Sid Fleischman and Golden Kite Awardswere presented and the speeches were quite stellar (not that I will recap them here - this is the once-over-lightly report), and then Richard Peck gave a mini-keynote speech. I must admit that he terrifies me ever so slightly. Such precise pronunciation! Such scathing opinions! Such formidable talent! His speech was about soldiering on despite one's Despair (at the horrible state of the world, pretty much) and was inspiring and daunting at the same time.

I attended Marla Frazee's workshop session on "How Your Words Inspire Me to Draw Picture - and How They Don't" - not because I have ever aspired to write (or illustrate) picture books but because I'm a big Frazee Fan Girl. My kids and I spent hours reading Hoberman'sThe Seven Silly Eaters - sure, the bouncy weirdness of the story is fantastic, but it is Frazee's depiction of this wonderful, eccentric family in their hand-built house by a lake that we found (and find) so compelling. And all her other books are just as great and in fact keep getting better. She said that to her, pictures "amplify emotion" like a movie soundtrack does, while in chapter books (like Clementine by Sara Pennypacker), drawings punctuate the text. I was happy to hear that for Clementine, Frazee was inspired by Louis Darling's illustrations for the Ramona books. She showed plenty of slides, including some illustrations for her upcmoing All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon.

Then back to the Ballroom, transformed back into audience-style seating, where editor Elizabeth Law, now heading Egmont Publishing, told a howlingly good and spicy story about her misconduct while hanging out in Verla Kay's chatroom late one lonely Saturday night - and then told the audience to keep writing the good stuff, because the good stuff WILL find a home.

On that hopeful note, I rolled homeward on my trusty, rusty steed, feeling very lucky indeed to be steeped in the world of children's literature. It's a good place to be.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

SCBWI report - Sunday morning

What are all these people lining up for? Is a big author signing books? Has Neil Gaiman been sighted in the lobby of the Century Plaza hotel? No, these folks are just trying to get up the very narrow escalator from the Grand Ballroom level. It took me a good 7 minutes yesterday.

Now it's Sunday, and I'm stretched out on the floor outside the Ballroom while hotel staff frantically convert it from audience-style seating to (as Lin called it this morning) the Chicken Room, i.e. our banquet hall. I'm not having chicken breast - we shall see what the vegetarian option will be. From previous experience, I'm predicting either pasta or grilled veggies or both. As long as there's a chocolate dessert, I'll be happy.

Lucky Dan Yaccarino to be such a fabulous, crowd-pleasing illustrator that he could have just showed us his presentation of artwork, commercials, and short films without saying a single word - and we would have been agog with admiration. But lucky us - Dan's verbal presentation was funny, self-deprecating, and perfectly illustrative of his message to us - keep saying YES to the opportunities that come your way (or that you create for yourself), even if they are scary and new. Here's something I didn't know about Dan - he created artwork and even short animated commercials for Gardenburger in the late 90's. Hey, maybe that's what they'll serve me for lunch today.

Ooooh - then came Holly Black. I don't want to say too much about her talk, which was called "Examining the Strange: The Basics of Fantasy Writing," because I want to devote an entire post in it in the near future. Let's just say that her points about the importance of using language to embue fantasy with a sense of the "numinous" were well-stated and thought-provoking. Fun fact about Holly - she grew up in an old Victorian house with a mom who encouraged her sense of the mysterious in life. Not only did Holly's mom tell her stories about the ghost in the attic with whom she used to dance as a child, but she also warned Holly never to astral project - after all, while your soul was off having adventures, something could crawl into your empty body and take up residence. Now that is good motherly advice!

Next up - the Golden Kite Awards Luncheon, an afternoon workshop (can't yet decide between Marla Frazee and Dinah Stevenson/David Wiesner), and Elizabeth Law on the changing nature of children's publishing.

SCBWI report - Saturday afternoon

This has been the SCBWI conference of f-bombs. Not only did Sherman Alexie apparently let off one on Friday, but Karen Cushman quoted him Saturday morning (after referring to an author who writes self-described "shitty first drafts," Karen said she was allowed to say that after Sherman said "F**k you" on Friday), Ellen Hopkins told us how she called her husband a f**cker (goodness!) after he challenged her to get serious about writing, and then one of the agents at the panel yesterday used the f-word as well. What IS the sweet and cozy world of youth literature coming to?

Now that I've gotten over my palpitations, I'll briefly recap the sessions I attended Saturday afternoon. Ellen Hopkins talked about her own slow and rocky climb to the top of "the Mountain" as she called that goal of becoming a successful writer. I haven't read Crank or any of her other books, but now that I've heard about their parallels to her own interesting life, they're on my must-read list.

A panel of 6 agents, ranging from the extremely gung ho and cocky to slightly more self-effacing, told us about their agencies, their submission policies, and how they see the state of the publishing business. The impression I got is that the bad economy has been rather good to agents - because very few publishers now accept unsolicited manuscripts from unknown schmoes like you and me, writers are forced to sign with an agent in order to have even the chance of an editor glancing at their work. So... writers are selling less work directly to publishers, but agents are selling more.

My favorite session of the afternoon was the talk given by Ingrid Law, the wonderfully down-to-earth and warm author of Savvy. It was called "Major Villains Need Not Apply; Writing Fantasy Without an Archenemy," and I have to say it got the long-dormant creative part of my brain all abuzz with possibilities. Ingrid asked her small but intensely interested audience to think about the conflicts and problems in our lives - the things that keep us up at night. Then she asked us if they involve any sinister archvillains (bosses and ex-husbands don't count, she said), and of course most of us were struggling with more everyday, if still serious, problems involving work, family, the environment, and so on. After talking a bit about metaphor and inner vs. outer conflicts, Ingrid had us do a wonderful exercise that involved different ways of re-writing the 3 Little Pigs, coming up with a conflict that didn't involve the Big Bad Wolf. What fun! Within 30 seconds I had written "1. Pigs in competition with each other to build best house. 2. Storm, instead of wolf, blows houses down. 3. Mama pig gets empty nest syndrome, visits all the pigs incessantly, and drives them crazy. 4. Pigs get homesick; want to go home. And folks shared many much better ideas, involving the housing authority and more.

Fantasy is what I love reading most of all, but my (extremely unpublished) manuscripts are middle-grade and YA realistic fiction - I just couldn't imagine being able to write fantasy that would be as good as the fantasy books I adore. But Ingrid Law managed, in the space of less than an hour, to cause an entire shift of perspective in my rusty writer's mind.

As I biked home, I kept wondering if perhaps it might be time to start writing again...

Saturday, August 8, 2009

SCBWI report - Saturday morning

My colleagues and I always share a registration to the annual summertime SCBWI conference, which is conveniently held in Los Angeles - and this year I lucked out and get to attend both Saturday and Sunday! I've only been here a morning and already my blood is sizzling with inspiration and joy.

Arthur Levine moderated a panel of picture book authors and/or illustrators on the topic of "creating an extraordinary picture book." Arthur asked each panelist about a particular acclaimed, award-winning picture book that he or she had written, wondering if they thought this work was "extraordinary" and if so, why.

Eve Bunting talked about Smoky Night - after graciously explaining that she felt it won the Caldecott for David Diaz's amazing illustrations, she went on to say that this book came out of the strong feelings she experienced during and after the LA riots. As a resident of LA, she could smell the smoke and hear the commotion - and she wondered what the children were feeling amid all the hatred and violence and chaos. Eve feels that she was able to express these thoughts and feelings in a way that makes Smoky Night an important and enduring book.

Kadir Nelson talked about Moses. He felt a strong personal connection to Harriet Tubman, who reminded him of his apparently formidable grandmother, and this gave the story its heart and its strength. "As if you felt her hand on your shoulder while you were working on it," Arthur suggested. "Well...I wouldn't put it exactly like that," answered Kadir wryly.

Melinda Long discussed her fun How I Became a Pirate. As a child, she buried her mom's earrings in the backyard and marked the spot with an X, and as an adult she had fun writing about piratical adventures. She was quite firm in her statement that she doesn't feel funny books are at a disadvantage when it comes to being called "extraordinary" - and since I love funny picture books best, I applaud her certainty.

Two interesting tidbits from Kadir - he and his editors and designers were looking for a distinctive period look for We Are the Ship, which they felt they would achieve if the cover looked like a combination of an old Coca-Cola and a Hershey's bar. Cozy, attractive, and nostalgic..."spiffy," as one of his editors put it.
Also, Kadir told us that Michael Jordan's mom asked him to make a change in the artwork for Salt in His Shoes - because she didn't allow such things in her home, she asked that the Bruce Lee poster Kadir had depicted in Michael Jordan's room be changed to Roberto Clemente. Whether it was or not, I don't know (I'm writing this on the floor outside the Ballroom during the lunch break...).

And then Karen Cushman gave one of the those talks that makes you want to run home, rev up the old computer, and write a novel. As someone who always wants to add "once and future writer" after librarian on her nametag, I found this to be heady stuff indeed. Now, I wasn't sure what to expect, because once when Karen Cushman had won an award (the California Beatty Award, I think), she stood up, basically said "thank you," and then sat down. Does she not give speeches, I wondered?

She does, and how! I can't possible recap all the funny warm highlights of Karen's talk, but I will tell you that after she told us "don't listen to advice" about writing, she gave us these words - which she credited to someone whose name I didn't catch, darn it. The words of advice are these:
Show Up; Pay Attention; Tell the Truth; Let Go of the Outcome.
Good stuff, and equally applicable to parenthood, one's career, and any number of other important endeavors.

A couple of fun bits from Karen's speech - her daughter, who is a librarian in Oregon, dreams of opening a store that would sell books, chickens, and yarn. "Seriously," Karen says. And apparently her first drafts are "concise to a fault," a mere 50 or 60 pages that her editor Dinah Stevenson calls a "bouillon cube" of a book.

About that photo at the top - that's my pathetic view of Karen Cushman, as seen on the big screen. Notice all the heads in front of me. I seem to have surrounded myself with women in my life - as a children's librarian, I work with women and go to conferences (ALA, SCBWI, etc) where a good 80% of the attendees are women. What if I were a mathematician? How odd it would be to see all that short hair in front of me, all those masculine necks.

After lunch - Ellen Hopkins and more!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Those adorable little pests

So my abode is suffering a bit of a flea infestation these days. Despite liberal applications of hideous toxic chemicals (that I would never consider using if I weren't absolutely desperate), those sprightly little specks are still bouncing about merrily both inside and out. My 14-year-old has threatened to move out and stay out unless the situation improves and I've acquired the habit of obsessively inspecting my ankles every 5 minutes.

Thanks to children's books, I have surprisingly affectionate feelings for many types of creepy-crawlies. Snails (The End of the Beginning by Avi), worms (The Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin), flies (Tedd Arnold's "Fly Guy" series), spiders (Charlotte's Web by E.B. White), and even cockroaches (Martina, the Beautiful Cockroach by Carmen Agra Deedy) are all wonderful characters in terrific books, which have changed the way I think about these creatures.

When I tried to think of books about fleas, I drew a blank. After a bit of searching, I came up with these:

The Napping House by Audrey Wood. Everything I loathe about fleas is here - the biting, the destroying of sleep. Bleah! On to the next book...

The Flea's Sneeze by Lynn Downey. Another flea who wakes everyone up, but this time by sneezing. Still annoying, but kinda cute too. He snuffles in such an endearing way.

I Want to Stay Here! I Want to Go There! by Leo Lionni. In this quirky book, a flea with wanderlust drags his reluctant companion along to animal after animal. It reminded me a bit of my husband and me (I'm the traveler) - and yes, it has awakened a bit of fellow feeling in me toward my fellow flea denizens.

Ed & Fred Flea by Pamela Duncan Edwards. A cranky flea on a dog is doused with flea powder. Ha! Now that's my idea of a happy ending!

There was a moment last night when I was trying to stomp on a flea that was happily sproinging all over my bathroom floor and I thought, "This is one charismatic fellow." Then it bit me. No surrender! Down with fleas!

Movies by the patrons, for the patrons

This seems like a natural for movie-mad Los Angeles, but the Twin Cities beat us to it - dang. Thanks to American Libraries Direct for the link.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Review of The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen by Delia Sherman

I wrote this review for the August issue of School Library Journal - find the complete list of reviews here.

SHERMAN, Delia. The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen. 290p. map. Viking. 2009. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-670-01089-9. LC number unavailable.

Gr 5–7—In this sequel to Changeling (Viking, 2006), Neef is sent to Miss Van Loon's School for Mortal Changelings. She had known there were other mortals in New York Between, a magical New York City filled with the Folk (elves, sprites, nymphs, ogres, and every other kind of otherworldly creature), but she hasn't met many. Suddenly she must go to school—and get along—with 200 of them, from all the rival Neighborhoods—snooty East Siders, hipster Village types, techie geeks from Columbia. If learning hundreds of new rules isn't bad enough, Neef must go on a quest to find the Magic Magnifying Mirror of the Mermaid Queen before its loss leads to inter-Neighborhood warfare that could destroy Central Park. Although the focus is on Neef's new mortal friends and enemies, the Folk of New York play a big part in her adventures. Whether benign or sinister, they are usually tricky and always fascinating; a guide in the back explains who and what they are. Plenty of humor, a brave and likable heroine, and a nice balance between lunchroom chat and wild adventure combine to make this that rare beast—a cheerful urban fantasy. Spiced with just enough background information, it works just fine on its own, but it will create immediate desire to read Changeling as well.—Eva Mitnick, Los Angeles Public Library

Review of The Outlandish Adventures of Liberty Aimes by Kelly Easton

Here is the review I wrote for School Library Journal. Find all the August 2009 reviews at the SLJ website.

EASTON, Kelly. The Outlandish Adventures of Liberty Aimes. illus. by Greg Swearingen. 217p. CIP. Random/Wendy Lamb Bks. 2009. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-375-83771-5; PLB $18.99. ISBN 978-0-375-93771-2. LC 2008022119.

Gr 3–6—Ten-year-old Liberty has never been let out of her decrepit house on 33 Gooch Street, and her massively obese mother, Sal, doesn't dare leave either. Only Liberty's dreadful father, Mal, a self-described "friggin' genius," comes and goes. As Liberty discovers one day, he really is a genius (the evil sort) and has invented, among other things, potions for communicating with animals and for levitating. Using these devices to escape, Liberty sets off on a search for what she feels must be heaven on Earth—a boarding school called the Sullivan School—meeting friends, dodging scoundrels, and having adventures along the way. Liberty's reactions to the quirky folks and talking animals she meets and the strange situations she finds herself in are naive and full of wonderment, but also commonsensical. While the circumstances are reminiscent of those in Roald Dahl's work, particularly the many intensely nasty grown-ups, the understated humor and friendly, imperturbable tone of the narration bring to mind the fantasies of Eva Ibbotson. The charming illustrations sprinkled throughout add immense appeal to this warm, delightfully odd fantasy.—Eva Mitnick, Los Angeles Public Library

SLJ does FanFic

It's in the air - those fab librarians Liz Burns and Carlie Webber have written a piece for the August issue of School Library Journal called When Harry Met Bella, explaining the obsessive phenomenon of fan fiction, a feature of which I mused on here.

This would be a great topic for a tween or teen book club...

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Review of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Lin, Grace. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Little, Brown and Company, 2009.

In the best of fairy tale traditions, young Minli leaves her poverty-stricken parents and luckless village in search of the Old Man in the Moon, so that she can ask him how to change the fortune of her family. Her storytelling father has filled her imagination with wondrous tales all her life, and her mother is very right when she thinks that Minli might believe in them. Taking the advice of a talking goldfish, Minli begins a journey during which she meets a sweet, non-flying dragon, a wise king, irrepressible twins, a truly rotten tiger, and finally the Old Man in the Moon. The question she asks him isn't the one she started out with, but it doesn't matter - the experiences Minli has had have not only brought her a new appreciation and gratefulness for her life but have also brought about an amazing change in her formerly "fruitless" valley.

This is a flawless little gem of a book, written in a straightforward, warm tone that always has a hint of a smile in it. Minli's adventures are enhanced by the little stories told by various characters throughout the book, stories that sound like ancient fables but that are all connected not only to each other but to Minli's journey. There is a lovely sense of satisfaction as one link after another is connected, until the entire shape of the book is revealed like a Chinese knot - seemingly complicated yet pleasing and harmonious.

The physical book is extremely pleasing as well, with a compact size and creamy, sturdy pages. The font changes to a slightly more fanciful, curly font whenever a story is being told, a subtle way of alerting the reader that the narrative is being briefly interrupted, and small and lovely drawings (or maybe woodcuts?) decorate the beginning of each chapter while large, full-color paintings that look like Chinese tapestries are sprinkled throughout the book. That Grace Lin not only possesses such a graceful writing style but also abundant artistic talent is quite awe-inspiring.

The friendly and almost humble tone of this story will appeal to many children, who will be sucked in early on by the talking goldfish and the dragon. That the story and setting was inspired by China and its legends and folktales is clear and makes this tale stand out among the many fantasies involving quests and journeys. Minli and the other characters become a bit wiser (or not, as in the case of the Magistrate) by the end of the tale, but the lessons are not hammered home. Lin's deft touch keeps the tone light and the focus on a terrific read. Absolutely a Newbery contender, in my opinion.

Highly recommended for grades 3 and up.