Sunday, November 29, 2009

Review of The Dragon's Pearl by Devin Jordan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 27, 2009

Review of The Hotel Under the Sand by Kage Baker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What I've been doing instead of blogging

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

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

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

Running! The 2010 LA Marathon is looming...

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fun with String (and handkerchiefs and paper)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

Review of Dreamdark: Silksinger by Laini Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended for all fantasy fans ages 10 to 14.

Review of Ottoline Goes to School by Chris Riddell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Review of The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Review of The Tree That Time Built by Mary Ann Hoberman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Review of The Carbon Diaries 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Sent by Margaret Peterson Haddix

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eva and Hagrid - separated at birth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Even cake addicts need a cookie once in a while

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

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

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

Review of Bad News for Outlaws by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended for ages 8 and up.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Review of Darkwood by M.E. Breen

Breen, M.E. Darkwood. Bloomsbury, 2009.

In Howland, the moon has not been seen in seven centuries, and when the day is over, night slams down over the land without the grace of a sunset or dusk. Why this is remains a mystery throughout this dark and atmospheric fantasy, although we gain an idea of what vile creature is responsible for this black and dangerous night.

In the night, hungry animals prowl - the "kinderstalk," who are held responsible for the disappearance, one by one, of many of the children in Dour County. But when young Annie tries to run away after learning that her uncle is selling her to the mines, she learns the fate of most of these children. And when she goes to tell the King of the evil mining foreman Gibbet and his deeds, the plot thickens - the kinderstalk, who have a complex society of their own, turn out to be major players in the events that are quickly coming to a climax in Howland, and Annie is irrevocably connected to these creatures.

This plot ebbs and flows, driven by the cruelty of greedy men, strange and joyous revelations, and moments of comfort and affection. Exotic details like the sudden night, Annie's inexplicable ability to see in the dark, and her sister's apparently complicated relationship with the King kept me eagerly turning the pages, even when the plot skittered and jolted. The geography of Howland eluded me - I couldn't understand the distances involved between one point and another or where various landmarks were located in relation to each other. This became a bit problematic during a crucial scene when men and wolves and Annie were all racing toward a climactic meeting point - I had absolutely no sense of what was going on and so had to trust that Annie knew what she was doing. Unfortunately, some of her actions and decisions don't make sense; again, the reader has to suspend belief and go with the flow in order to enjoy the story, rather than ask questions like "why, oh why isn't Annie telling those kind sisters Serena and Beatrice about her travails at the mine?"

The prose is mostly straightforward and even plain, rather a comfort in a story whose few good and normal people are surrounded unknowingly by sinister forces and shuttered in each night by the most impenetrable of scary darkness. The ending, both satisfying and horrifying, leaves the reader with a handful of rather urgent unanswered questions, meaning that there will surely be a sequel.

Recommended for fans of the type of atmospheric fantasy that only slowly reveals its secrets. Ages 11 to 14.

Reading is alive and well

There is an interesting piece on "The Future of Reading" by Tom Peters in the Nov. 1 issue of Library Journal.

He discusses various types of reading and readers, emerging formats, and much more. The last couple paragraphs:

Reports of the death of reading are premature. Readers are resilient and inventive. What worries me is not so much that reading will become an attenuated, marginalized field of practice but that the developmental paths of librarianship and reading will diverge in the 21st century. We may wander off from our power base, or it will evolve away from us.
Librarians should encourage—nay, aid and abet—experimentation in reading. We need to cleave to the needs and wants of readers. We must continue to study their reading habits, then design and redesign our content collections, systems, and services to help them improve and maximize their reading experiences. We are in a long-term commitment with readers. We need to be vocal, flexible, and patient as the longstanding relationship between readers and the libraries that serve them continues to evolve.

Right on!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Recharging one's professional soul

I haven't been to an ALA conference since Anaheim 2008 and was going through major Conference Withdrawal, so I decided it was high time I attended my state conference - it's been quite a few years since my last one. The California Library Association held its conference in Pasadena last weekend, and although it was of course very slim compared to ALA, there were plenty of thought-provoking programs.

The best thing about conferences is that I never know what nuggets of inspiration I'll take away from them. During a program on San Diego Public Library's online homework services, that system's collaboration with local schools spurred me to fill my notepad with thoughts on how my own system could improve our outreach and partnership with schools. A program on effective training programs brought home the fact that our system, as a whole, has no training program or budget - is there anything I can do to bring about some needed improvement in this area? A program on El dia de los ninos/El dia de los libros, and especially how it is celebrated in California, made me realize what a perfect match this would be for Los Angeles libraries. And two programs on self-evaluation and assessment reinforced my belief in the urgent need to build evaluation (probably in the form of outcome measurements) into every program and service we offer.

The last program I attended was called 21 Ideas for 21st Century Libraries, offered by a husband-and-wife consulting team. Kim Bolan Cullin, as a trained librarian, understands both the traditions and needs of libraries and their communities and from there makes inspiring leaps into what libraries could and should become. Some ideas are obvious, some are happening now, and some are deliciously full of potential. In her blog The Indie Librarian, Kim presents these ideas and more. I particularly like idea #3 - "multi-functional, zoned children's spaces" and #16 - "the demise of big service desks." And #12 - "people policies" which favors putting the customer first rather than arbitrarily making rules that focus on the word NO - is long overdue.
I won't be attending ALA midwinter (I'm not on a committee, darn it!), but PLA's conference in March 2010 should be amazing, and I'll be there with an open and eager mind.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What if I started a blog and nobody came?

When I was working as a children's librarian in various branches, I had a recurring anxiety dream that the children's area was filling up with children and their families, eager for a storytime that I had totally neglected to prepare for. As they watched, I started frantically searching for books, while minutes and even hours went by and my audience became more and more restless and dissatisfied.

In real life, this wouldn't happen (not only would I be able to gather books together in seconds, but I, like all children's librarians, know enough participation stories, songs, rhymes, and fingerplays to present a storytime without any books at all) - but in anxiety dreams, nothing goes well.

After reading Betsy Bird's enjoyable SLJ article on kidlit blogging yesterday, I had a dream last night that I arrived late to a Kidlit Blogger's Potluck Meeting. Not only was all the food gone, including Monica Edinger's famous cream puffs, but everyone looked askance at the odd rice concoction I brought and only Betsy very kindly and politely tasted it.

Rats - and I thought I had cultivated a very comfortable devil-may-care attitude about this whole blogging thing!

Review of Fortune's Magic Farm by Suzanne Selfors

Selfors, Suzanne. Fortune's Magic Farm. Little, Brown, 2009.

Ten-year-old Isabelle's "grandma," who unofficially adopted her after Isabelle was left on the doorstep as an infant, insists that there was a time when the sun shone in Runny Cove and folks were happy - but Isabelle has only known constant rain and a grueling life toiling away in Mr. Supreme's Umbrella Factory. In fact, that's the way life is for almost everyone in Runny Cove, where all hair is colorless, all skin is pruny with moisture, and slugs are the happiest creatures around. However, one day an elephant seal delivers a magic apple to Isabelle, and soon she has escaped with a mysterious, if slightly cranky, lad named Sage to the hidden land where her family tends a farm that grows magic. Not only does Isabelle blossom (almost literally) in the sunny splendor of Fortune's Farm, but she is able to use her new gifts and resources to bring much-needed aid to the good people of Runny Cove.

This fantasy draws a bit from Dickens (the nasty boarding house, the dreary factory, the poor orphans) and a bit from Dahl (over-the-top mean grown-ups, plucky kids with a specialness to them), but the overall effect is lighter and fluffier -perhaps it's because Isabelle's sunny nature is absolutely undeterred by her grim situation or maybe it's the eccentric folks and creatures (especially a slightly deaf elephant seal and a rock-throwing marmot) whom she meets. I was reminded of The Outlandish Adventures of Liberty Aimes by Kelly Easton, which has a bit of the same sweet, slightly fey quality to it despite the mistreatment of the heroine by ludicrously despicable adults.

The nature of the magic on Fortune's Farm, and especially its use and limitations, remains rather vague, and the happy ending (the transformation of Runny Cove into Sunny Cove) is too pat and hurried to be very satisfying, especially the marriage that occurs in the blink of an eye. One other quibble is the cover art, which depicts Isabelle not with gray hair (as she has in Runny Cove) or green hair (as she has in Fortune's Farm), but with brown hair. As someone who tends to scrutinize cover art (and I'm sure I'm not alone in this), I find such blatant inattention to details irritating. The inside illustrations, drawn by a different artist - Catia Chien - have much more eccentric charm.

All in all, this is a cheerful and fast-moving fantasy with just the right amount of whimsy. Recommended for ages 8 to 10.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Review of Camp Alien by Pamela F. Service

Service, Pamela F. Camp Alien (Alien Agent #2). Carolrhoda Books, 2009.

Science fiction is a genre that, unless it's being deadly earnest and full of Message, delights in being both subversive and funny, with a sense of humor that can be dry, outlandish, or tongue-in-cheek. Pamela Service, author of the modern classic Stinker from Space, keeps third and fourth graders well supplied with breezy science fiction that might well create an SF addiction that leads to longer and more challenging fare as the years go by.

Young Zack grew up thinking he was a human kid adopted by loving human parents, but as he found out in book 1 of this series, he is actually an alien agent placed on Earth to prepare humans for future membership in the Galactic Union. As Zack tells us, "I was numb for a few weeks after learning it all , but it's odd how quickly you can get used to things." And now, just as he's looking forward to a normal, fun summer at camp, he gets swept into a mission headed by a young alien cadet named Vraj who bears a startling resemblance to a velociraptor. They must find 100 Duthwi eggs before they hatch into creatures that could cause a worldwide ecological disaster. Complicating the situation are Bad Aliens with Major Weaponry and of course campers of all types.

Zack is the perfect narrator, self-deprecating and prone to the occasional dry comment and eye-roll. He's got some fascinating alien powers, but he's wary and almost embarrassed of them rather than thrilled. The characters, plot, and events are broad without crossing the line into outright goofiness, and Service's absolute command of a certain brisk yet humorous tone (familiar to and loved by SF fans young and old) raises this series above most other SF series for this age group, a good example being the first two sentences of the book:

"Agent Sorn walked to a table in the Galactic Union headquarters cafeteria and plunked down her plate. The cafeteria's gurlg worms were never as crispy as her brood mother used to make them, but they would do."

Good stuff! Recommended for ages 8 to 11.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Review of Ring of Fire by Pierdomenico Baccalario

Baccalario, Pierdomenico. Ring of Fire (Century Quartet #1). Random House, 2009.

Four 12-year-old kids - an Italian girl, a French girl, a Chinese boy, and an American boy - are brought together to undergo a mysterious but vital quest. At first it seems mere coincidence that brings them together in the Roman hotel that belongs to the Italian girl Elettra's father, but it is soon clear that there are too many coincidences, the most obvious one being that they were all born on the same day - February 29th.

When they are given a suitcase by a strange and desperate man who is murdered soon after, the contents set them off on a search to find the Ring of Fire, although what that is they have no idea. One clue leads to another, but as the kids look for the Ring of Fire, a contract killer is looking for them.

This adventure has a strong Da Vinci Code feel to it, with a mysterious object that links ancient events to modern times, secret groups, and strange events that occur regularly over the centuries. Rome makes a fine backdrop for the kids' adventures and is brought to life by a full-color "scrapbook" of photos of the buildings the kids visit, receipts, maps, and all the clues they find. There is nothing particularly clever about the clues or the way the kids figure them out, but that makes the story more realistic - these kids are fairly ordinary, not intellectual giants.

What makes this a fantasy and not just a suspenseful adventure is that Elettra possesses a kind of supernatural power or ability - although what it is exactly is hard to tell. She stores up energy and lets it out in powerful bursts that can disrupt electrical power all over town, and these bursts seem to happen when she is close to an answer, as her skin starts to glow hot, her hair writhes, and her eyes turn yellow.

What this means - in fact, what any of it means - is not answered in this installment. Yes, the kids do find the Ring of Fire, but its significance remains utterly unknown to them and the readers. Who the various adults are who work like puppet masters behind the scenes is equally mysterious, except that some are Very Bad. What seems certain is that somehow, the fate of the world is in the hand of these four leap-year children.

Only the barest dashes of personality - and their nationalities - help us tell the kids apart - we don't learn much about them or what makes them tick. They all apparently speak English fluently, allowing them to communicate with each other without a hitch - and Elettra can translate learned tracts like a PhD at the drop of a hat. When one of their number is kidnapped, the kids search for her, but they never seem too worried, nor does it occur to them that it might be a good idea to tell the police or at least a trusted adult. So yes, it is necessary to suspend one's disbelief quite a bit.

However, the exciting plot and the exotic setting make this a fine book to hand to kids - and if they like it, the second installment will take place in New York City. For kids ages 10 to 12.