Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Children's library spaces for not-so-little kids

Last March, I wrote this post about the changing nature of children's library areas. Heavy, dark tables and chairs have often given way, at least in the picture book section, to cozy and comfortable areas where very young children and their families can read and play together. The emphasis on early literacy in libraries has meant that families with young kids are much more likely to find a welcoming corner where they feel at home.

But what about spaces for older kids? Even if a library is lucky enough to have a spot for toddlers and preschoolers, usually all that's left in the children's area are rows of shelving and some tables with chairs around them - very similar to what a child 75 years ago might have found in her library! Is this the best way to meet the needs of kids ages 5 to 12?

Kids do need tables and chairs for homework, projects, and reading. However, when it comes to recreational reading, most kids would rather flop onto a big cushion or lounge on a comfortable armchair or couch than sit upright at a table. Wouldn't you? Perhaps it's time to look at our children's areas with an eye toward creating a space, even a very small one, for school-age kids to feel comfortable and welcome, a place where they might even hang out a while.

Check out what Adrienne, of What Adrienne Thinks About That, has done in her children's area. She has taken what is basically one wall at the end of some rows of shelving and has put in an attractive shelving unit, some comfy informal seating, a diner booth, and made some great books and magazines easily accessible. Presto magico - a place for slightly older kids (the ones who either come to the library on their own or do NOT want to hang out with mom while they're there) to kick back, read, and maybe even chat a bit without disturbing anyone.

What I like about Adrienne's tween area is that it's quite simple and doesn't use much space. Granted, some children's areas have basically NO space - but surely there might be a corner where a couple of child-sized comfy chairs might be placed. Put a small table with a box of kid mags and some cool books on it between the chairs and you've got your own mini tween area. Perhaps the Friends group might be willing to pay - or start a little mini-fundraiser.

It's appealing to try to use our library space to welcome kids and to invite them to stay and read awhile, rather than just rolling our eyes at the noisy gaggle of tweens around the computer stations and hoping they'll go home to dinner soon!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Review of We Can't All Be Rattlesnakes by Patrick Jennings

Jennings, Patrick. We Can’t All Be Rattlesnakes. HarperCollins, 2009.

After a boy named Gunnar captures her, puts her in a cage, and names her “Crusher,” a gopher snake vows to live free or die. Unfortunately, this is easier said that done, as Crusher’s fellow prisoners – a lizard and a tortoise – can attest. Crusher is just one of many animals that have suffered and even died at the hands of this “slimy” young human, who spends most of his time playing video games when not alternately mauling and neglecting his pets.

Although she refuses out of pride to eat the live mouse that Gunnar lowers into her cage, Crusher decides that the only way to freedom is to get Gunnar to trust her by making nice. She lets Gunnar pick her up and hold her, flicks her tongue sympathetically, hisses at his enemies, and listens to him – and although her attempt at escape fails, she finds herself feeling strangely sympathetic toward this unlikable but pitiable boy. Weirder yet, she bonds with the hyperactive mouse (“Breakfast”) with whom she now shares living quarters and finds herself treating the other captured reptiles, whom she formerly thought of only as food or lesser beings, with respect.

This story is necessarily told from Crusher’s point of view, and her knowing, dry, and sardonic voice is a delight. Her scathing remarks on almost every creature and topic are invariably “overheard” (through reptile telepathy) and remarked upon by her fellow prisoners – it’s a good thing Gunnar, his rowdy friends, and his hapless parents don’t know what they're saying. Crusher’s unwilling contact with other creatures forces this habitual loner to come off her high horse a bit and consider other points of view, while still retaining her fresh, don’t-mess-with-me attitude. By the end of the book, the entwined fates of Crusher and Breakfast will come as no surprise to any reader.

This book may well cause young owners of small pets to gulp and re-examine the way they treat their animal companions – but they, and most readers, will cheer Crusher on and relish her eventual well-earned return to freedom and wildness. Highly recommended for kids ages 8 to 12.

Hens are hip but rats are readers

Or at least, rats are great reading companions. See? I read, the ratties (these are the girls - LiLi, Lola, and Marley) free-range, and everyone is happy.

Yeah, they don't call me the Crazy Rat Lady of Venice for nothing...

This would make a great children's book

Check out Color Me Katie's "invisible dog" project - it'll cheer up your Monday!

I wish she would move to L.A. - we need some zaniness around here.

With a "book book" here and a "book book" there...

My mom clipped this article from the Sept. 24 New York Times on yet another chicken-lovin' person - this time it's Jan Brett. I knew from her picture book Daisy Comes Home that she must be a hen fangirl, but here is proof.

Thanks also to Chicken Spaghetti for posting about the article and for sharing the exquisitely coiffed Lovey with us.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hip Hens

More than a year ago, I wrote an early review of a Jan. 2009 picture book by Terry Golson, called Tillie Lays An Egg. As you'll see from my review, I found Tillie a charming book in its own right, but it had special resonance for me because I keep backyard hens - I have 4 at the moment. Terry's webcam of her own wonderful hens is a big inspiration (that coop is gorgeous).

I've kept in touch with Terry over the months, and when she came to Los Angeles for the SCBWI conference, she very kindly presented a Chicken Storytime at the Palms-Rancho Park Branch Library - with a live hen, no less! That's Terry reading her book, with her friend in green holding a hen (just barely visible) on her lap. I wish I could have brought one of my own gals, but family obligations got in the way. In fact, Terry and I still haven't met, although we were both at SCBWI.

I was excited to hear that Terry has been interviewed by Susan Orlean for an article ("The It Bird") in the September 28th edition of the New Yorker. Only the abstract is available online and I haven't received my own copy yet (we always get it late, thanks to being on the west coast or to our lackadaisical post office or both), but I'm sure it's terrific and can't wait to read it. In the meantime, here is Susan Orlean and her own chickens:

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Review of Strawberry Girl by Mary Ann Hoberman

Hoberman, Mary Ann. Strawberry Hill. Illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin. Little, Brown and Company, 2009.

10-year-old Allie is sad to be moving away from her best friend Ruthie to a new town, but the fact that it's on a street called Strawberry Hill fills her mind with images of a hillside covered in green grass and ripe strawberries. Of course, it turns out to be an ordinary street with no strawberries in sight, but there is a farm nearby, plenty of room in her new house for her mom, dad, little brother, and Allie - and there are even two girls her own age on the street.

This turns out to be rather problematic, of course. The two girls, Martha and Mimi, aren't friends - and Allie feels she has to choose one or the other. Martha, her first choice, is fun and interesting but also occasionally lies, can be mean, and has an awful friend named Claire. Mimi, who at first seems clearly inferior what with her tendency to cry, her problematic family, her chubbiness, and poor reading ability, turns out to have sterling qualities after all. Allie is a sensible child with a keen sense of right and wrong, and she manages to find room in her life for all her friends, including a girl at school also named Allie.

I sank into this book with a feeling of great comfort and enjoyment. It took me back to some of the books I loved as a girl, golden classics like Thimble Summer, Strawberry Girl, Ginger Pye, and the Ramona books, that were about girls and their families and friends. Like those (almost all Newbery winners), this book is simply and impeccably written. Issues such as anti-Semitism and the Great Depression (the story takes place in the 30s) are touched on with a light hand, but Hoberman devotes her most affectionate attention to that issue dear to every girl's heart - friendship, with its corollaries of fairness and honesty. Family is important, too (like many kids, Allie is fascinated by her friends' parents, with their different ways of doing things), as well as such dilemmas as being forced to wear goofy home-made rompers to the first day of tap school.

Highly recommended for kids, especially girls, ages 8 to 10.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Review of Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko

Choldenko, Gennifer. Al Capone Shines My Shoes. Dial, 2009.

12-year-old Moose Flanagan lives, as those who have read Al Capone Does My Shirts will know, on Alcatraz Island, where his dad works. Al Capone seems to have done him a huge favor by somehow getting his autistic big sister Natalie into a special school, and now it’s payback time – Moose finds a note in his freshly laundered shirt that says “Your turn.”

After agonizing about what kind of favor Capone might be expecting from Moose and how it would mean certain dismissal from his Alcatraz job for Moose’s dad if anyone found out (and good jobs aren’t easy to come by in 1935), Moose does manage to fill Capone’s eventual small request without too much trouble. However, a “bar breaker,” a device that inmates use to gradually stretch apart prison bars, turns up in Natalie’s luggage, and this turns out to be just part of a well-orchestrated and dangerous escape plot that only the children of Alcatraz Island notice and foil.

It’s a fairly claustrophobic life living on a tiny island, most of which is off-limits, with only a few other kids near your own age. Choldenko delves quite effectively into the intricacies of trying to get along with everyone while still being true to your self – Moose, whose charm and main flaw both stem from his desire to please everyone all the time and never make anyone mad at him, eventually comes to the conclusion (helped along by his irritated friends) that sometimes people you like can and should hear the truth from you, especially if you want to get closer to them.

As far as the plot goes, the whole situation of convicts living practically cheek-by-jowl with families is fairly suspenseful, and when you mix in a smart and charismatic criminal like Capone, plus some seemingly trustworthy convicts who are allowed to work in the warden’s own house, the action heats up quickly. Add in Moose’s own personal problems with friends, an attractive but difficult girl, and his sister, and it all adds up to a worthy successor to the first book.

Highly recommended for fans of the first book, as well as any reader ages 9 to 13 who relishes a straight-forward suspenseful tale told by a completely likable character.

Review of The Dream Stealer by Sid Fleischman

Fleischman, Sid. The Dream Stealer. Illustrated by Peter Sis. Greenwillow, 2009.

Susana misses her good friend Consuelo Louisa, who has moved from their small Mexican village up to Guadalajara, so when a dream she has about Consuelo Louisa is suddenly snatched away, Susana is upset. When she discovers that the culprit is an odd polka-dotted birdlike creature called the Dream Stealer, she lays a trap for him and demands that he give her dream back.

This leads to a flight to the Dream Stealer’s strange and distant castle, where dreams float about looking like fireflies and creatures from nightmares are locked up in dungeons. Susana saves the Dream Stealer from a terrible fate when the nightmare creatures escape, and by the time the Dream Stealer has dropped her back off in her village, she has realized that she doesn’t need her dream after all and that she has made a new polka-dotted friend.

At 96 pages, this is a slim fairy-tale adventure that would make a wonderful read-aloud or a non-demanding read-alone for a child who has graduated some time ago from easy readers and can tackle words like “manacles” and “mesquite.” Susana is a plucky heroine and the Dream Stealer, who is at first rather grumpy (he has the tendency to say “bosh” with great impatience), redeems himself with his kindness toward Susana and his eventual bravery. Like a fairy tale, much is left unexplained – where did the Dream Stealer come from, where did he get his castle, and why does he take dreams? – but it doesn’t matter. The reader will go where this tale leads him or her, as a sleeper follows a good dream, with pleasure and acceptance.

The illustrations by Peter Sis were not available in my ARC, but if they are like the cover art, they’ll make a fine companion to this adventure.

For readers ages 8 to 10 and as a read-aloud for ages 6 and up.

Review of The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

Ryan, Carrie. The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Delacorte, 2009.

Generations after an extra-nasty virus has caused all infected people to die and then “return” as zombies hungry for human flesh, a small village maintains constant vigilance against the Unconsecrated who swarm the forest all around and press against the walls, moaning to get in and devour its inhabitants. As far as the villagers know, they are the only humans left in the world – but Mary discovers not only that there must be others living somewhere beyond the village walls, but that the Sisterhood, the powerful religious order in the village, is keeping plenty of secrets.

Mary, whose mother and father have both been infected (by the bite of an Unconsecrated, the only way to acquire the virus) and are haunting the forest as zombies, is kicked out of her house by her older brother and must become a reluctant initiate of the Sisterhood. Fairly soon after she discovers that the Sisterhood has hidden an outsider, a young woman named Gabrielle, and has caused her for some unknown reason to become Unconsecrated, the zombies break through the village’s defenses and overrun the town. Mary manages, along with several other young adults, a small boy, and a dog, to escape down a fenced-in road that has been secretly maintained as an escape route by the Sisterhood.

This book has several elements that are familiar in dystopian post-apocalyptic fiction – the primitive life-style, the ignorance of the world beyond the small confines of the community, the loss of knowledge of the world before disaster hit, and above all the Secrets kept by a very powerful few. This formula is freshened and invigorated by the addition of the Unconsecrated. Not only does the constant danger of being torn apart (or at the very least infected) add a decided frisson of terror and suspense to all proceedings, but the zombies are described in delicious detail. As they singlemindedly scrabble after human flesh, their own dead flesh falls off their bodies, their bones break and protrude through torn skin, and they basically disintegrate – it’s all very gruesome and fascinating. Mary even feels a sort of affection, or at least kinship, with the Unconsecrated thing that Gabrielle becomes – her relentless desire and energy feel very familiar to Mary.

The situation is nightmarish – the whole world is apparently overrun with zombies, with more being created every time a person becomes infected and is not immediately killed. Tiny pockets of humans remain, scratching out a bare and extremely fragile existence. Luckily, zombies aren’t smart or cunning, which would seem to be humanity’s only hope. Set against this background, Mary’s agonizing about her love life and her future feel a bit trivial – but oh, so very human and essential. There are plenty of unanswered questions – we never do find out some essential secrets of the Sisterhood, for example, or why it’s only a bite and not a scratch that infects someone – but it’s intriguing to wonder about how the Return came about and how it could be overcome. This is an example of many ordinary elements coming together to create a gripping story of survivial.

Recommended for ages 13 and up.

Back from the Land of Bears

I'm back from a week spent at Glacier National Park. Its natural wonders and scenic beauty really are indescribable, so I won't attempt it. The views around every corner are so awe-inspiring that even my tiny digital camera and my non-existent photography skills couldn't help but produce some decent shots. This is the Many Glacier Hotel, where we stayed three of our nights.

This is Grinnell Lake, created by run-off from Grinnell Glacier - at 6 miles from the trail head, it's the most accessible of all Glacier National Park's rapidly disappearing glaciers. They will all be gone by 2020 or 2030, so visit the park now.

As we prepared for our trip by reading travel books and searching online, we kept running into mention of grizzly bears. Although I had read many horrifying accounts of bear attacks (especially this one), I managed to not dwell on this too closely until the day before our first hike (to Grinnell Glacier, as it happens). The trail map that we acquired from the front desk warned very strenuously that Glacier is chock-full of bears and that, while most hikers do not encounter bears at all, running across one would be a Bad Thing, especially if it decided you were a threat. After suggesting that folks should hike in groups, the pamphlet went on, "Let bears know you are coming by making noise. Bears will often move away if they hear people coming. Bells may not be as effective as many people believe. The human voice works better. Call out, sing, or talk loudly and often." Then follow several suggestions for surviving an encounter with a bear that "may help." The last is to fall to the ground in a fetal position "to reduce the trauma of an attack."

Well, yikes! My husband and I were now very slightly freaked out and remained so throughout our entire Glacier visit. While this didn't prevent us from hiking up to 15 miles a day, it did add a frisson of terror to the proceedings. While other hikers resorted to those ineffective bells (of the tinkling sleigh bell or clanking cowbell varieties), Dan and I chattered at the top of our lungs, and when we couldn't think of anything to say, we sang such appropriate songs as "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" or chanted "We're Going on a Bear Hunt" over and over and over. I kept thinking about Blueberries for Sal, which took on a decidedly sinister aspect as I tromped along a trail surrounded by masses of ripe huckleberry bushes (like blueberries, a favorite food of bears). I did not want to meet a mama bear, a baby bear, or any bear at all.

And luckily, we didn't - although a bear did cross the road right in front of our car. The closest we came to encountering a bear up close and personal was this pile of what I assume is bear poop, full of partially digested berries. And that is close enough.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Noisy library; peaceful mind

Anyone who has walked into a library in the last couple decades knows that they aren't the quiet Temples of Learning they once were, where you could sit at a heavy wooden table and read for hours, and the only sounds you would hear were the murmur of the librarian, the occasional fwip of a page, and your own tummy rumbling.

That's rather an enticing vision for a noise-averse person like me, but it is impossible to reconcile with modern ideals of good service. While a hushed library environment may calm my weary brain, it's a bustling, vibrant, and yes, loud library that gets my blood flowing. I like to hear small kids and their grown-ups reading or playing together in the picture book nook, parents helping kids with homework, patrons at the computers conferring with each other on how to set up a personal blog, clerks chatting with folks at the check-out desk, and librarians helping folks over at the information desk or out on the floor. All of this together, in what is usually essentially a very large room, tends to create a bit of hubbub. A thriving library is necessarily rather loud.

Not everyone feels this way, obviously. Many patrons complain that it's impossible to find a quiet spot in the library to read and study - and that is often true. While some branches are lucky enough to have "study rooms" or even peaceful nooks, most don't. The children's room blends into the adult reading room, the YA section is stuck wherever there is room, the public help desks are front and center, and there are computer terminals everywhere. Mostly the study tables are out in the middle of all this chaos - and while some folks seem to thrive in this kind of hectic atmosphere, many don't appreciate it.

Sometimes it does get too loud - but it's strangely hard to tell when that is. Tolerance levels differ from person to person, and what one librarian considers to be a "busy buzz" might be an unacceptable level of noise to another. While I prefer a quiet environment in my personal life, I tolerate quite a bit of noise at the library. I will never shush a parent giving a dramatic reading of "No David" to his preschooler or a couple of toddlers building a tower of soft blocks together or a volunteer helping kids with homework or patrons and staff whooping it up at the help desks - and all those things together can get noisy.

These things I know for sure: Toddlers cannot modulate their voices. Preschoolers never walk when they can run. Babies sometimes shriek and cry. Grown-ups sometimes talk very loudly due to deafness, cultural differences, or simply because they're not too great at modulating their voices, either. People who are interested in what they are doing tend to get noisy, whether they are little kids, teens, or grown-ups. And as long as the noise is not negative or unnecessary, I'm okay with that. Other librarians shush when any kind of noise rises above a certain decibel level - which is fine, except that, as I mentioned, that would mean that small children would be shushed quite often.

When do I intervene? When I hear an argument about the computers, when patrons become abusive to staff or each other, when children behave in a way that is more appropriate to a playground than a library, when folks are having a loud conversation that is disturbing others, and when there is yelling of any sort. I seem to be hyper-sensitive to noise that is negative or denotes out-of-control or possibly destructive - whereas I must admit that my tolerance for the kind of noise caused by, say, a table of teens giggling and flirting between sporadic bursts of studying is probably higher than it should be. But if a patron complains about those teens in a polite and legitimate way, I'll ask those teens to keep it down so they don't bother others.

Cell phones don't bother me much. If a cell phone buzzes and a patron has one of those murmuring phone conversations (which I can't manage for the life of me - yes, I'm one of those people who can't help but speak loudly on a cell phone), then fine. If the phone rings at top volume, that's pretty annoying - but if the patron fumbles quickly for it and turns it off with a sheepish expression, I'm not going to say a word. I had a colleague who made a point of storming over to patrons the moment their cell phones rang and berating them loudly and peremptorily - not good. Loud cell phone conversations should be handled the way any loud conversation should be - by the librarian asking the patron politely to continue the conversation outside.

What I do hate are intercom systems being used to page librarians or other staff. Talk about loud and obnoxious noises! Does the whole library have to know that there's a reference call on line 2? There are better ways, surely...

My library's Rules of Conduct don't deal with noise per se, although #3 prohibits "use of loud, abusive, threatening or insulting language" and # 13 suggests "to avoid disturbing other library users, mute the volume of electronic devices and use cell phones in the lobby or outside the library." Ironically, in the last two libraries I worked, conversations held in the lobby echoed horrifyingly throughout the library and were strenuously discouraged.

I suppose my point, if I have one at all, is that being hardnosed about noise is possible - but it isn't really constructive. Librarians should figure out what sort of noise is the result of a good and busy library - and then tolerate as much of that kind of noise as they can. This kind of noise might bother some people - but those people may just have to put up with it. We welcome everyone in the community, not just the very quiet ones, and so we must tolerate the noise as well.

And I must admit that, having bopped happily down the aisle at Trader Joe's to the strains of 70s funk or 80s pop, I sometimes think that it would be lovely to play some soft Miles Davis or Bach in the library. Oh, not really, I suppose - folks would hate it! But on the other hand, why not? A bit of soothing music might rub the sharp edges off loud noises, the way the sound of the surf at the beach makes everything else - seagulls shrieking, people laughing and talking and yellow, small planes putting across the sky towing banners - sound so muted and distant.

And now, back to my quiet, foggy Saturday afternoon. Ah...

Friday, September 11, 2009

Library Tweets

My cell phone functions as ... a phone. And a camera. And that's it. I don't have a texting plan or an automatic link to the Internet. I do have a Twitter account and I tweet every week or so, but mainly just to update my Facebook status. I follow very few folks because the only time I can read their tweets is when I log on to my Twitter account to add an update - ie, every week or so.

However little use Twitter has for me personally at the moment, I can see fascinating applications for library systems. Kelly D. Allen lays them out here, just in case you (or your library system - or MY library system) need convincing. (Thanks to Librarian in Black for the link)

And here's an oldie-but-goodie post from David Lee King on Twitter Explained for Librarians.

The burning question I have is "If my library system decided to use Twitter, who on earth would write the tweets??" Someone in PR? Hmm.... Someone in our "Information Technologies" department? Yikes! I like the idea of several different folks from various departments (children's services, YA services, adult services, branch library services, and more) having the responsibility for writing fun, creative, and informative tweets. "Tweet-duty" could even rotate among interested staff members.

Perhaps our new library director, Martín Gomez, will make it happen...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A growing list of books featuring kids of color

As I mentioned last month, race in children's books has been much discussed recently, and Elizabeth Bluemle of Shelftalker not only invited readers to suggest great books that feature kids of color but are not actually about racial matters, she actually put the list together on Librarything.com. Because it's a work in process, Elizabeth is encouraging folks to give her more suggestions - feel free to add them to her blog post here.

The list is especially wonderful for its preponderance of very new (2009 and even 2010) titles, as well as for its ability to be sorted in all sorts of ways.

The only drawback is that I don't see a way to sort by the race or ethnicity of the kids - in fact, I don't even see that information listed for any of the books. Might be a good thing to include on this kind of list.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Hey, Newbery FanGirls and FanBoys - Heavy Medal is back

Just when the first signs of Newbery Fever have begun to manifest themselves (the urge to read every starred children's novel, the desire to endlessly discuss one's favorite - and least favorite - contenders, etc), along comes Heavy Medal - back from its spring/summer hiatus to help us scratch our Newbery Itch!

But I'm a dork, not a dweeb!

Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for pointing the way to this diagram. Although it says I'm a dweeb, I stand by my earlier self-assessment.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Booker Shortlist Announced

Here's the list:

The Children's Book by A S Byatt (Random House, Chatto and Windus)
Summertime by J M Coetzee (Random House, Harvill Secker)
The Quickening Maze by Adam Fould (Random House, Jonathan Cape)
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (HarperCollins, Fourth Estate)
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (Little, Brown)
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Little, Brown, Virago)

I read The Little Stranger, which gave me enjoyable chills, and The Children's Book is obviously on my to-read list. I suspect I won't get through the others before the winner is announced on October 6.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Review of Happenstance Found by P.W. Catanese

Catanese, P.W. Happenstance Found (The Books of Umber #1). Aladdin, 2009.

Young Happenstance awakens in a dark cave, not remembering who he is or where he came from. A voice tells him his name - and then a group of explorers discovers him and the sealed note in his pocket. It seems that the owner of the mysterious voice wants Happenstance to go with this group - the dapper and indefatigable Lord Umber, a teenager with a missing hand named Sophie, and a strong man named Oates - and so he does.

Lord Umber is a collector of mysteries, preferably magical ones, traveling all over the world to uncover them and to bring information back home to his home in Kurahaven. He is also an inventor, a merchant, a conqueror of an evil witch, and rather a mystery himself.

Most of all, Umber is one of those vivid and charismatic characters whose ebullience and complexity make him stand out from everyone around him. The story may take place from Hap's perspective, but he remains a bit of a cipher, even to himself, due to his amnesia. He's a nice enough lad, and certainly his strange powers and green eyes are intriguing, but this story belongs to Umber.

There are a couple of other interesting characters, but they are not nearly so well developed as Umber and in some cases seem woefully sketchy - the biggest example being Sophie, who is almost never mentioned after we first meet her. I very much want to learn how a young artist like her got a job illustrating Umber's manuscripts.

Although not all that much happens plot-wise (a Bad Creature comes hunting Happenstance; Happenstance starts uncovering his own puzzling powers; a tiny man wields a mighty sword during a kidnapping), I was quite happy with the quirky writing, the atmospheric setting, and most of all the strange mysteries of Hap and Umber. An imaginative new fantasy series is always cause for joy.

Recommended for ages 9 to 13.

LA County Fair - no MN State Fair, but it'll do

We usually visit our Minneapolis relatives in late August and one of the highlights is our traditional trip to the Minnesota State Fair, which is surely the epitome of the American Fair - enormous warehouse-like barns holding hundreds of cows, pigs, horses, fowl, and llamas, every kind of food on a stick possible (usually deepfried - have you every tried bacon wrapped around a hardboiled egg, dipped in batter, and deepfried? Neither have I), and of course the life-sized butter sculptures of the year's Dairy Queen and her court (carved in a rotating glass-walled freezer while you watch!).

Our MN trip was in early July this year, so to satisfy our fair jones, my daughter and I spent Sunday of Labor Day weekend at the LA County Fair. It had been quite a few years since our last visit, and I remembered it as being a fairly respectable fair - no Minnesota State Fair, of course, but certainly up to snuff as these things go.

I don't think my memory is completely faulty - things have changed at the LA County Fair, and not for the better. However, it's always best to start off with the good stuff.

Good stuff:
1. Plenty o' parking - this is LA County, after all! Got to have parking.

2. A really huge Ferris wheel right next to the main entrance, just right for getting your bearings.

3. One of the most amazing outdoor miniature railroad set-ups I have ever seen. Huge, meticulously decorated, and run by obsessed men in engineer's caps (who will happily explain anything you need to know), there were dozens of trains. Thrillingly, there was even a steampunk train!

4. An hilly, grassy, shady nook at the southern end of the fairgrounds, which for some reason this year features some ostriches, a baby zebra, a couple of camels, and two zebus. Not many people make their way to this part of the fair, which is the perfect place to decompress.

Alright, on to the not-so-good stuff:
1. Only one smallish animal barn, which was (as you can imagine) stuffed to the gills with all the folks wanting to see some real live animals. Not dead, chopped-up, and deep-fried animals (which were to be had at most food stands), but the mooing, oinking, baaing kind. It was so packed that I didn't even try to enter. VERY disappointing, especially after my Minneapolis sis had just posted all her Fair photos, filled with baby pigs and fluffy bunnies and soulful llamas.

2. Only one small hall filled with the stuff (baked goods, art, sewing projects, canned goods, etc) folks had entered in contests. I seem to remember there being more of this in years past. Luckily, the table settings were front and center, and Nadia and I spent a long time gazing at them in wonderment.

3. Too much stuff to buy! This was really horrifying - there are something like 9 "halls" at the LA County Fair, and every last one of them was stuffed with booths of folks selling the stuff you see advertised on television late at night. There is nothing more depressing than row upon row of miracle cleaners, devices that make your hair pouf up in front, and shoe inserts. At least a few of those halls used to contain the contest exhibitions (one of my favorites was always kids' collections - bottle caps, hotel soap, hot wheels, Harry Potter stuff, that kind of thing) and exotic bunnies and fowl. Once, my other daughter Vivian and I tried to win a small and gorgeous hen in a raffle. We didn't win - but man, was that fun. Now it's all about shopping - like we don't get enough opportunity to do that anyway.

4. The Fair food is unimaginative. No Australian battered potatoes, no Scotch eggs, no Mocha on a Stick - just bbq, hot dogs, pizza, and the occasional deep-fried Snickers or frog legs. We did feast on some delicious freshly made potato chips, however, and of course you can never go wrong with soft ice cream and corn on the cob.

We had plenty of fun, Nadia and I, especially once we discovered the ostriches. However, ostriches are no substitute for baby pigs. Next year, I'm going back to the Fair of Fairs in Minnesota.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Review of Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Baskin, Nora Raleigh. Anything But Typical. Simon & Schuster, 2009.

12-year-old Jason is autistic, and there is no hiding the fact – when he gets upset, his hands fly around his face, he utters strange noises, and occasionally he even throws things, breaks things, or climbs under furniture. Even at the best of times, his responses to people and even his clothing (he likes to wear his belt cinched tightly around his waist, which pulls his pants up above his ankles) make it clear to everyone around him that he isn’t “typical.”

Jason is lucky to have a little brother who adores him, loving parents who try their hardest to understand and accept him, and a gift for writing short stories that he shares on the website Storyboard. He also has a rather stunning ability to understand himself, even if other people sometimes leave him a bit mystified, and this self-understanding is what constitutes both the strength and, for me, the off-putting aspect of this book.

We learn about his adverse reactions to stimuli like bright lights, loud noises, and frustrating or confusing situations not so much from his description of how he feels but from his description of how others react to his behavior. This has the excellent effect of demonstrating just how distanced Jason feels from the reasons for other people’s behavior – surely one of the hallmarks of his autism. However, his measured prose (he is a writer, after all) as he discusses yet another episode in which he inadvertently causes a scene distances us from Jason, as well; except for the fact that his reactions are extreme, it’s hard to understand how a certain situation has affected him so viscerally. I didn’t get a sense of his emotions as he reacts to a situation, and perhaps that’s the point – Jason can analyze himself and the world around him, but for him, emotions are more difficult to understand or describe.

His relationship with his family is moving and wonderfully described, as is his frustration at and eventual acceptance of the fact that he cannot escape who he is, and I was quite relieved at the realistic outcome of his real-life meeting with a girl he met through Storyboard – but in the end, I couldn’t quite believe in Jason. Despite the outward symptoms of his autism, he simply comes across as way more insightful than any real 12-year-old boy. It makes for a fascinating and well-written book but also a slightly distancing one. And speaking of distancing, I think the cover art is not going to attract many kids - this is definitely a book that will have to be hand-sold and booktalked, as it will not spring off the shelves by itself.

Despite those quibbles, this is highly recommended for ages 10 to 14.

In defense of graphic novels

Here are two folks who have recently weighed in on the validity of graphic novels and comics - Alex Simmons from the Graphic Novel Reporter on "Are Comics Like Real Books?" and Julia Keller in today's Los Angeles Times on "Graphic Novels: Reading, but in a Different Way."

Information, entertainment, and great stories come in all different formats. Whether I absorb a story by listening to it or by reading pages of text or by interpreting a combination of words and pictures - to me, it's all good.

Something's gotta give

The employees of the Los Angeles Public Library are waiting with baited breath to find out how the City of Los Angeles will go about dealing with its $530 million shortfall.

Many of us are hoping for an early retirement package (latest news here) that will give our long-time employees an incentive to leave the system.

If that option doesn't come through, lay-offs and furloughs are almost certainly unavoidable.

Our newest children's librarians, just hired last fall, are dedicated, talented, and enthusiastic. We can't afford to lose them.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Review of Going Bovine by Libba Bray

Bray, Libba. Going Bovine. Delacorte, 2009. (out Sept. 22)

I hadn't read any of the many pre-publication reviews of this novel before I began, so my thoughts during the first few chapters ran along the lines of "ah, this is another of those smart-alecky books about a maladjusted, snarky, hard-up teen-aged twig-boy." But then I kept reading.

16-year-old Cameron starts having strange hallucinations and losing control of his body; soon he is diagnosed with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy - mad cow disease - and in short order he has been admitted to the hospital. So is this a "teen problem novel?" Will there be heart-rending scenes of redemption and renewal?

Heck no, if for no other reason than Cameron himself, whose core of sarcastic irony is almost impenetrable. He is so committed to his misery that he can't be bothered to lift his little finger to do anything that might endanger it. So when a punk-rock girl angel with huge fluffy white wings appears to him at his hospital bed and exhorts him to save both himself and the world - while taking a hypochondriac teenage dwarf named Gonzo along with him as a sidekick - Cameron takes a bit of convincing before he agrees to the mission. But he does agree.

And he and Gonzo go on the strangest road trip ever. It's pointless to recount the plot, but I will say that a yard gnome (who is actually a Norse hero under a spell), a crazed happiness cult, some mad scientists, scary fire giants, New Orleans, Florida, drunken horny teens, and spring break all figure prominently - and that's only giving you a tiny fraction of the excitement. Everything is connected and the world is rife with weirdness. Think Repo Man and Buckaroo Banzai and The Big Lebowski and Holden Caulfield (but even more foul-mouthed and with a much better sense of humor) and yes, even Don Quixote, all rolled into one - and there are lots more allusions that I can't quite think of now.

The only episode that seemed both too over-the-top and too obvious in its satire was the CESSNAB cult, with its "everyone is special/think good thoughts" mantra. Otherwise, I was too busy laughing to care about any lack of subtlety. My college years may be more than two decades behind me, but this kind of dialogue brought me right back to my huge communal college house, filled with physics geeks, math weirdos, computer nerds, and one oddball female Philosophy/German Lit. major:

Cameron and Gonzo are having their first intense conversation, during which Gonzo has shared a difficult memory of his mother. Part of it involved burying a bunch of toy Fast Wheels in the backyard. Cameron, not knowing what to say, makes a lame joke.

"I know you hated your mom. Shit, I don't blame you. But what did those little toy cars ever do to you to deserve such a fate? Dude, that's harsh..."
"My friend," he says with a snort. "I am the Ayatollah of Harsh. Do not f**k with the little people. We will lay waste to your souls!"
"Oooh," I say. "Now you got me scared, dude. Terrified."
"I put a freakin' fatwa out on those cars." He's laughing so hard he sounds totally manic, but hey, whatever it takes to keep him up.
I put the pillow back behind my head. "Well, they didn't deserve to live. They were tools of the infidels."
"Goddamn right," he says, his voice less tight."

Stupid, right? And funny, and indicative of same major bonding going on. And if that kind of badinage doesn't appeal to you, then don't bother to read this book, because it's chock-full of this kind of nerdy/hip cleverness.

I don't want to give away the end - but I did have some major questions, the biggest being "What happened to Gonzo afterward?" Was the whole thing a dream/alternate reality kind of thing for him? Does he still have Drew's number? At the very least, I bet his relationship with his mom will change...

Good stuff. Recommended for ages 14 and up.

And check out the trailer - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KloEAoKvBqA