Friday, December 31, 2010

Review of The Shadow Hunt by Katherine Langrish

Langrish, Katherine. The Shadow Hunt. Harper, 2010.

Almost immediately after young Wolf runs away from the monastery where he has been under the thumb of awful Brother Thomas, he has a confusing and scary encounter with a wolf hunt led by a local lord, culminating in the discovery of a small child hiding in a deep cave.

Certain that this is an Elf child, Lord Hugo orders that the child be brought back to his castle. Wolf tags along and is happily absorbed into the busy life of the castle, with the admonition that he must teach Elfgift (as the child is named) to speak before Christmas. Lord Hugo is certain that his wife did not die and go to heaven years ago, but rather went to the realm of the Elves, and he wants Elfgift to give him information about her.

Despite this seemingly impossible task (Elfgift, a feral child, starts to understand language but shows no signs of ever saying a word), life at the castle suits Wolf fine, especially as he befriends Lord Hugo's daughter Nest and a traveling jester named Halewyn. But with Christmas comes not only Lord Hugo's dreaded deadline, but also Nest's long-planned marriage to a lord she's only met once - and when he arrives with his entourage, long-simmering tensions suddenly explode.

There's something about daily life in a busy, drafty, rustic medieval castle that always intrigues me, with its eccentric characters, volatile lord, and ever-present hounds, chickens, and pigs. Throw in a hob who lives in the hearth, a female spirit who haunts the courtyard, and of course little Elfgift, and I'm happy as a clam. Except - there are dangers inside and outside the castle walls, and one person in particular is not who he seems. Elfland, as it turns out, is terrifyingly, appallingly real. This is a world filled with danger, both human and supernatural. Children are abandoned by their parents, the Crusades are unholy in their brutality, and the Elf Lord may claim you for his own awful kingdom.

Langrish is a fine storyteller with an excellent sense of pacing, and she balances with ease the various elements of this tale - supernatural and down-to earth, chilling and humorous. A sure sign of a story's success is an unwillingness on the part of the reader to let these characters go. I would dearly love to read about the further adventures of Wolf, Nest, and Elfgift.

Highly recommended for fantasy readers, but also for those who enjoy stories set in the Middle Ages. For ages 9 to 13.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Berlin day 6

I'm writing this several days, a major holiday, and thousands of miles later, but day 6 remains fresh in my mind despite the hazy, miserable state I was in thanks to those allergies.

Nadia was out of commission the whole day and stayed in the hotel room, so I lurched out on my own, determined to visit the Museum of Childhood and Youth and the Berliner Dom.

The Museum of Childhood and Youth is located on the top floor of a fairly generic building and consists of a long hallway lined with exhibit-filled cabinets and 5 rooms exploring such childhood themes as toys, clothing, and most of all school. One whole room featured schooling in East Germany, with lots of pictures of Young Pioneers in neckerchiefs looking very much like Boy and Girl Scouts.

I was the only one in the museum, so after giving me time to wander through all the rooms on my own, the kind docent on duty gave me a tutorial on writing with a feather and a steel nib pen, then taught me to play an old fashioned game with a peg top (set in motion with a string on a stick, and then you whip at the top with the string to keep it spinning). She takes school groups through on a regular basis, and spoke in a slow, calm, and enthusiastic voice that was soothing to my fevered brain.

Reluctantly, I plunged back out into the elements. It truly was dismal weather, still cold but without either the snow or the blue sky that had graced the previous days. The sky, a soggy, misty grayish yellow, seemed much too close to the ground. Rather daunted but unwilling to return to the hotel, I set off for the Berliner Dom, snapping this photo of it on the way.

The Berliner Dom was built around 1900 and is a baroque-style cathedral featuring an enormous, elaborately decorated dome. The lovely thing about churches and cathedrals is that they have lots and lots of seating, and so I sat in a pew for a loooooong time, listening to the soporific tones coming through the headset on my audioguide and letting my feet thaw out. The place is absolutely gorgeous, but what I liked best, besides the dozens of coffins in the basement filled with Prussian royalty dating back to the 1600s, was the little coffee shop on the property, where I had an extremely satisfying cheese sandwich and some peppermint tea.

Berlin, like every German city I've been to, has bakeries (and sometimes two or three) on every street, or so it seems. Most are franchises of big chains, and while the pastries are rather disappointing, the bread and rolls are always SO good, and I've never been disappointed by a simple cheese sandwich from even the sketchiest of subway station snack stands. Which is a good thing, because bread, cheese, chocolate, and coffee were pretty much what Nadia and I lived on. How I miss those breakfast rolls spread with jam or Nutella...

It was 4 pm and already dark by the time I left the Dom, so I decided to skip the last thing on my agenda (the Holocaust Memorial) and head back. And that pretty much concludes day 6.

Thursday, December 23 was our travel day back to L.A., and we were so lucky - our two flights were on time and went smoothly. Customs at LAX took 2 hours due to "technical difficulties," but at least we were home!

Since being back, I've finished Catherine Fisher's Sapphique and Katherine Langrish's The Shadow Hunt - more on those soon.

Back to work tomorrow, when I'll hopefully learn who all our former adult librarians/new children's or YA librarians are at LAPL. Lots of training ahead for the Youth Services department! And ALA is coming up, with the first meeting of the 2012 Newbery committee and a great YALSA institute as conference highlights, and I'll be teaching Library Programs and Services for Children at UCLA's library school this quarter, starting Jan. 3.

I'm convinced that 2011 can't be as bad as 2010 was - but it's showing every sign of being just as busy.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Berlin day 5

What is the difference between a cold and allergies? Obviously one is caused by a virus and is contagious, while the other is caused by an over-active immune system and is not contagious - but sometimes it's hard to tell what has caused one's nasty symptoms. Nadia has had a cold for several days, so I assumed I caught it - but according to Dr. Internet, my plugged-up head, itchy throat, and burning-lumps-of-coal eyeballs are all allergy-induced. Apparently the color of one's nasal mucus is a good indicator...

Germy or just allergic, I did slow down a bit on day 5. Left Nadia sleeping and took a streetcar to the Friedrichshain Park, where the Fairy Tale Fountain (Maerchenbrunnen) is located. Obviously the fountain wouldn't be running in this weather, but I was still hoping to see cunning statues like this one, based on Grimm fairy tales:But because of the extra-cold weather, all the statues were sheltering inside cozy little boxes:

To thaw out and get over that nasty disappointment, I headed over to the Alexa mall at Alexanderplatz, where I spent an unknown amount of time wandering through the heavy pre-Christmas crowds. Normally, this would be my idea of hell, but it was just so darn WARM in there - plus my head felt like a helium balloon just barely tethered to my body, which strangely enhanced the whole mall experience. I stood in front of the Sheepworld shelves in one store for at least 20 minutes, swaying gently and happily (see the picture above for an example of Sheepworld products). When allergies hit me, they hit me hard...

However, it did seem wasteful to spend so much of my Berlin trip in an American-style mall, so I headed back to the hotel, swooped up Nadia, and... went to see the movie Tangled at the Sony Center. In English. I know, I know - but we were both feeling too sick to do anything else. There was a group of loud American teenage girls sitting right behind us, and Nadia did recover enough to wax scathing about them. There is nobody more judgmental about teenage girls than other teenage girls. "I bet they're from Indiana," she seethed, after yet another bout of shrieking and giggling from the row behind us. Meow!

Another bout of insomnia, this one absolutely allergy-induced, allowed me to finish two books:
The White Horse Trick by Kate Thompson
This last installment of an Irish fantasy trilogy that includes The New Policeman and The Last of the High Kings is a bit disturbing, featuring as it does the destruction of human civilization, thanks to global warming. This is clearly a trend in YA literature - think of Carbon Diaries 2015, Raiders' Ransom, Ship Breaker, and many others. At least in The White Horse Trick, there is T'ir na n'Og to escape to. This is rather a bleak book nevertheless, although it does possess the glimmering bits of down-to-earth humor that make Thompson's books so enjoyable. The Adam and Eve ending is quite disappointing for its blatant wink/nudge aspect, but otherwise this is a fine wrap-up to the trilogy.

Real Live Boyfriends by e. lockhart
Ah, Ruby. We love you and your self-doubting, self-criticizing, self-destructive ways - but enough already! Actually, it's her therapist, the redoubtable Doctor Z, whom I wanted to shake. Enough with the wise silences and the repeating of Ruby's words back to her - just tell her that overthinking everything, though not necessarily healthy, doesn't mean you're bonkers. There's more Guy Trouble, though of a more garden-variety nature this time - and by the end of this slim book, Ruby is actually on the road to maturity. Hurray! Nothing special or new here, but of course a must for Ruby Oliver fans. (small quibble - why is Ruby never wearing her glasses in the jacket art for this series?)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Berlin day 4

I'm sprinkling this post with Scenes of Bitter Cold - you'll find both the view from our 5th floor room and from the bridge crossing the Spree River at Warschauer St (note the ice chunks). Brr...
Nadia and I marched forth regardless, and finally visited the East Side Gallery, a stretch of Wall painted in 1990 (a year after its fall) by over 100 international artists. It's only a block from our hotel, so we can visit it again. Again - the bizarre happiness of seeing murals painted on the EAST side of the Wall!

We spent an eclectic afternoon eating visiting a secondhand store with a better selection of shoes than I have ever seen at a thrift store, browsing through the Museum of Things (which consisted of exhibits of everyday objects from Germany of 1900 on, arranged by various themes), and eating veggie burgers. At this point, Nadia was ready for her book and quiet hotel room, so I brought her back and then set off on my own.

After much brisk walking through the cold and dark down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburger Tor (meh - maybe this would have thrilled me more if it had been 40 or 50 degrees warmer), I headed over to the Jewish Museum of Berlin. The fabulous thing about this museum, besides its zig-zaggy architecture, is the way it focuses on more than a thousand years of Jewish life in Germany, and not just on the decades of horror in this century, and while it doesn't gloss over the persecution that has always existed, it gives a full and vibrant view of Jewish life. My only quibble is that it was very hushed - more color and most particularly lots of music would give the place more life and make it not quite so elegiac. After all, Jewish culture still exists all around the world, and even in Germany (one exhibit briefly presents Jews who chose to live in Germany after WWII, or who are living there today).

Books finished:
Matched by Allie Condie
How perfect to be in the former East Germany reading a book about a future in which the State (called the Society) controls all aspects of human existence, and quells all signs of disobedience or independence. The Stasi would have really appreciated having a red pill they could make folks take when necessary. There are similarities to Lois Lowry's The Giver, but I loved this romance about a teenage girl named Cassia who decides that she will not "go gentle" into the constricted future her Society has fashioned for her. It's a compelling, fast-moving novel that doesn't have to have a sequel to be satisfying and thought-provoking - but luckily there will be one.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Berlin day 3

It snowed all morning, which made a picturesque backdrop to our cozy all-you-can-eat brunch buffet but was not such good weather for exploring. I dragged a reluctant Nadia onto the streetcar and over to Kollwitzplatz, where I'd heard about an organic, all-natural Christmas Market, and sure enough, there were plenty of objects for sale along the lines of little hand-knit animals made from hand-dyed wool from the humanely raised and sheered sheep of the seller's sister.

Although Nadia had been moaning about her frozen feet before we reached the market, a cup of organic Gluehwein soon put her to rights (though I did NOT let her have a shot of rum in it). Here she is, post-wine.Nadia spent the afternoon in the hotel while I visited both the Kathe Kollwitz museum (amazing and powerful) and the Story of Berlin museum (where I got a tour of a real nuclear bunker, one of 16 in Berlin, built in 1974). Between museums, my timing was excellent, as a Christmas parade was heading down the Ku'damm. But tackily, it was sponsored by Coca-Cola and included free cans of coke handed to the crowds. Sigh...I'll take hokey Christmas markets any day.

Every once in a while, such as today on the streetcar, it will dawn on me again how strange it is to be able to travel through what used to be East Berlin, and back and forth over what used to be a heavily controlled border. Our hotel is in East Berlin, for goodness' sake! My last visit, in 1981, was during such a different time.

This city is starting to feel very comfortable to me, even if I can't quite get the knack of tipping. My German tutor back in Venice is from Berlin, and so the accent is familiar and understandable. Folks are pleasant and courteous, and are clearly ready to enjoy the holiday Stimmung despite the weather. And the public transportation is a dream - oh, how envious I am!

My Euro-style twin bed awaits, as does Matched by Allie Condie (only a few more pages to go and then on to The White Horse Trick by Kate Thompson).

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Berlin day 2

Today wasn't quite as buzzing with activity as I had planned. I got another late start today, thanks to an hours-long bout of insomnia in the wee hours (on the positive side, I got lots of reading done). Nadia decided to stay in the hotel and power-sleep her way through a cold, and anyway, she had no desire to accompany me to the Charlottenburg Schloss. Above is a photo of the palace, with a picturesque part of yet another extensive Christmas market next to it. In addition to dozens of wooden huts selling all manner of food and handicrafts, there were at least 12 little huts selling Gluehwein, and those Germans, especially the older ones with cold bones, were definitely partaking. I decided that 1 pm was a bit early for wine, even the warm and spicy variety, so I settled for a hot cup of Chai.

The Charlottenburg Schloss reminded me of a poor cousin of the Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna - it's quite a bit smaller and was heavily damaged in WW2. Although it's been restored, most of the original furniture is no longer there. Still, it's a fascinating look at the Prussian monarchy and at an unimaginable way of life. I spent hours shivering my way from one ornate room to another (the rooms seemed to be heated to all of 55 degrees).

It was a clear and gorgeous day in the early 20s (Fahrenheit) today, and it's supposed to be the same or a bit colder tomorrow. Definitely a museum day, so it's a good thing Nadia has another Robin Hobb book to read. Now, if I can just get her to wear her hat, gloves, and scarf all at the same time (she always seems to think at least one of them ruins her look; no wonder she has a cold).

Thanks to all that insomnia, I've almost finished reading Matched by Ally Condie, which is fabulous. Such a relief to get lost in a book after my lukewarm response to the last two books I read.

Tomorrow - a few flea markets, Kollwitzplatz, and maybe the Museum Island (yes - an island in the middle of the Spree River simply bristling with museums. Bliss!).

Friday, December 17, 2010

Berlin day 1

After an exhausting journey that included a grueling 4 hour layover at Heathrow and a stumbling, snowy late-night slog via bus and U-bahn from the airport, Nadia and I finally made it to our hotel room, which is spare and clean in that particularly German way.

We slept through breakfast, finally leaving the hotel at noon today. It snowed most of the day, so we chose indoor, Nadia-friendly venues for the most part - the Alexa shopping center at Alexanderplatz (where we found some comfortable chairs to read - Nadia read Fool's Errand by Robin Hobb and I read a Berlin guidebook), the Fernsehturm (where I gawked at the snowy 360 degree view of Berlin view while Nadia read Fool's Errand), and the KaDeWe department store (the largest in Europe), where we were so overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place that we had to replenish ourselves with bean soup (me) and Fool's Errand (Nadia).

It's the season for Weihnachtsmaerkte, and we inspected the one at Alexanderplatz (that's Nadia in the photo), one of many I plan to visit in the search for nifty handmade presents. And Gluehwein - plenty of Gluehwein (hot mulled wine) to ward off the winter chill!

Books read on the journey so far:
Dash and Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Two teens who have never met lead each other on a romantic scavenger hunt through NYC during the holiday season.This was a light and charming read, but it lacked the heart of Nick and Norah's Ultimate Playlist, being an uneasy mix of teenage earnestness and slapsticky rom/com (culminating in Dash and Lily getting thrown in jail). It starts really well but just gets more and more unlikely. I kept seeing it as a cute movie (a 2010, teen version of When Harry Met Sally). Left ARC on the LAX/London plane.
Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
Caitlyn, an 11-year-old girl with Asperger's Syndrome, tries to deal with the death of her older brother, the sadness of her dad, and the bewildering world of people and their emotions. It's written from Caitlyn's point of view, which worked fine for me - but I have to say that this wasn't a book I loved. Parts of it felt very grown-uppy and contrived, such as the search for Closure. It won the the National Book Award and may very well win the Newbery, so feel free to take my reaction to it with a grain of salt. Left ARC on the London/Berlin plane.

Tomorrow we tackle the Charlottenburg Palace, Kollwitzplatz, and much, much more!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Ich steh' auf Berlin

I'm leaving for Berlin in a few days, a city I last visited in 1981. The Wall is gone, and in fact I'll be staying in what used to be gloomy East Berlin.

The most recent book I read with a Berlin setting was Kathryn Lasky's Ashes, and of course Christopher Isherwood's tales of Berlin in the 30's and 40's loom large in my imagination.

However, it is two books I read while a teen living in Germany in 1980/1981 that have created the image of Berlin currently inhabiting my mind. Both were written by Germans in the 1970s, using a casual slangy kind of language that I found much easier to read than Goethe or even Thomas Mann.

Ulrich Plenzdorf's Die Neuen Leiden des Jungen W (The New Sorrows of Young W) is written from the point of view of a rather feckless young East German named Edgar Wibeau who takes off for Berlin and promptly falls for a pretty and married young Kindergarten teacher named Charlotte. He riffs on all manner of topics, from what "real blue jeans" consist of to the odious ubiquity of Van Gogh's sunflower paintings - and eventually he comes to a tragic and ridiculous end. Edgar's complete self-absorption is absolutely spot-on - even as a 16-year-old, I could recognize a certain type.

Christiane F's Wir Kinder Vom Bahnhof Zoo (We Children from Bahnhof Zoo) was a whole other kettle of fish, depicting a West Berlin full of young heroin addicts who lived in depressing high-rise apartments and prostitute themselves to support their habits. I spent my year in Germany living in two different small towns, surrounded by rural countryside, and so this view of modern German urban life was an eye-opener. Even had I been inclined to be a bad girl, this book would have cured me of any belief that drug use was cool or sophisticated. The movie came out while I was in Germany, featuring David Bowie as the soundtrack to all the geilen Wahnsinn.

I went to Berlin with other exchange students and our host brothers and sisters, and while we did go to a few discos, we also gamely trouped around various museums and spent a day in East Berlin, being terrified to so much as throw a cigarette butt on the sidewalk, for fear we'd be dragged away and interrogated. Compared to the glitter and glitz of West Berlin, the East was gray and depressing.

It's going to be interesting experiencing Berlin as a middle-aged mom. Accompanying me will be my 16-year-old daughter, who finds the concept of a divided Berlin to be quaint and ancient history. But I hope she finds the city as captivating as I did both in books and in reality.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Review of Boneshaker by Kate Milford

Milford, Kate. The Boneshaker. Clarion, 2010.

I watched the movie The Polar Express for the first time just a couple of days ago and was astonished at its general eeriness. Quite apart from the motion capture animation technique, which created some odd facial expressions, there was a creepy, sinister feeling to the whole movie that I didn't expect. One scene, in which three children wander through an apparently deserted North Pole town, accompanied only by piped-in tinny Christmas music coming from invisible speakers, reminded me of the early 90s video game Myst. The children seemed to be in mortal peril throughout the film, and I think it would have terrified me as a child.

Boneshaker's creepiness was likewise a surprise to me; the illustrations, the 1914 Missouri setting, and the whole Medicine Show aura led me to expect a more folksy sort of fantasy, with the bad guys being perhaps a bit goofy.

But no! The men - or whatever they are - who come to Arcane, Missouri and set up Dr. Jake Limberleg's Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show are truly evil creatures, with malice and mayhem on their minds. And there are other dodgy characters peopling Arcane as well, including a walking dead man (or something like that) who happens to be the town's richest inhabitant. And oh yes - there are demons, and while one of them is a bit comic, the other means business.

At the heart of the story is 13-year-old Natalie Minks, whose father is a mechanic and whose ill mother has a secret. Natalie doesn't trust Dr. Limberleg and the four "paragons" who help him run his medicine show, and she discovers that all is not as it seems. Somehow these "healers" are actually spreading a horrible disease instead, and only Natalie can stop them before they destroy her town - and maybe the whole world.

The Medicine show, with its tents and lights and strange steampunky contraptions and sinister inhabitants, is most of the important action takes place, and it's a terrifying place to be. As in Polar Express and Myst, it is a surreal setting, strangely silent and still except for unsettling jagged pieces of sound (jingling bells, clashing cymbals) and the feeling that something bad is about to happen.

The explanation of this scary medicine show, and much else besides, comes in fits and starts - mostly by overheard conversations and also by strange "memories" that Natalie experiences, a symptom of her emerging magical gift. This technique drags down the pace somewhat but doesn't detract from a story that becomes more creepy the more it unwinds. There are indeed some folksy bits - an ancient black man who tangled with the devil and managed to best him, for instance - and somehow the juxtaposition of these with the scalp-crawling elements make the whole thing even creepier.

It doesn't all hang together. The point of Natalie's unusual bicycle and the other mechanical elements is unclear to me, and the walking dead man's tale, which I'm betting is intriguing indeed, will apparently be told in a sequel (or at least it better be). The pacing is uneven and the role of Natalie's fellow townspeople is somewhat vague - what they know and how they know it isn't made clear.

Nevertheless, this is a fine and unique example of an American-style tale of the Devil, with our folk hero Clever Jack playing a cameo role. It's not something I'd hand to just any kid, as it's a complicated and scary tale, but it's quite a meaty and satisfying read. I'm looking forward to reading more about the strange town of Arcane, Missouri. For ages 11 to 14.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Just cluckin' away ("book book")

I was glad to see that Io9's post on Geeky Gifts for Kids included plenty of fine books, and that same fine site also pointed me to 5 Sci-Fi Children's Books (which aren't real but maybe should be for the jacket art alone - check out Goodnight Dune and Kirk and Spock Are Friends).

Although Betsy Bird's reports on publishers' librarian previews are always fun, I was particularly taken with her description of one book in the Simon and Schuster spring 2011 line-up, which uses the phrase, "I hear you cluckin', Big Chicken." I can't quite imagine uttering that to any of my bosses, but surely just thinking it will improve the day.

Even if you don't use bookplates (and I don't, since I mostly read library books), you may well be tempted to purchase some of these desirable Etsy creations, as chosen by Carolyn Kellogg of Jacket Copy.

I've been going back and forth about whether to buy an e-reader. An upcoming trip abroad had me considering the benefits of being able to carry travel books, a German/English dictionary, and any number of novels on one slim, light device. But on the other hand, I want to catch up on all the great children's and YA novels I've been stockpiling, and what better opportunity than that long, long flight? Better yet, I've been saving my ARCS, which I can leave behind as I read them (leaving room in my suitcase for souvenirs).

I'm sure I'll buy an e-reader sooner rather than later, though. A Kindle seems like the best bet, but it's frustrating that I won't be able to read Google books, much less library e-books. I'm telling ya, I'm used to getting my books for free! Anyway, I'm grateful that Bookshelves of Doom recently addressed the question of which e-reader to buy - check out the extremely helpful comments on her post.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

pointy teeth

It brightened my morning to come across an interview with David Shannon in the Los Angeles Times. Although I disagree with the statement that "...Shannon bears little resemblance to the pointy-toothed, pug-faced troublemaker at the center of his much-loved series..." I kinda think he DOES look like that naughty David. See what I mean? (And check out the cake below)

It also gladdened my heart to read Amy (Ask Amy) Dickinson's suggestion that families start a new holiday tradition by leaving children wrapped books on their beds on Christmas morning or on any holiday. She's calling this campaign A Book On Every Bed.

Now if we can just get every influential person out there to delivery a similar message about the importance and joy of sharing books with children, the world will be a better place.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Review of Northward to the Moon by Polly Horvath

Horvath, Polly. Northward to the Moon. Schwartz & Wade Books, 2010.

This is the sequel to My One Hundred Adventures, which was one of my favorite books of 2008. Jane is now 13 years old or so, and is at the tail-end of a so-so year up in Canada, where her step-dad Ned has just been fired from his job as a French teacher (it took the school almost an entire school year to figure out that Ned can't speak any French) and in general, no one is very happy.

Therefore, it's excellent timing when Ned gets a phone call from some folks he knew for a brief time 20 years ago, setting the family off on a road trip that leads them to a mysterious bag of money and then to Ned's mom's horse ranch in Nevada. After Ned's mom has an accident, a bunch of Ned's sisters descend upon the ranch as well, and soon Jane is happily surrounded by new and strange relatives - and one alluring, if elusive, ranch hand named Ben.

Although it starts out as a road trip novel, the real meat of the story occurs at the ranch and is mostly about the mysterious and ever-fascinating nature of people and relationships. There is the frustrating riddle of her sister Maya's depression, the intriguing puzzle of how Ned's family functions (or doesn't), and of course the engrossing question of what goes on in Ben's mind and heart - since Ben doesn't ever say a word to Jane or even seem to notice her, Jane's imagination has full rein in this case.

Some main characters stay in the background (like Jane's mom and her two little brothers), while others receive much avid attention, and I think this reflects who Jane herself is thinking about. For example, her feelings about her step-dad keep changing as she goes from feeling like his side-kick (because they both love adventures) to feeling patronized and belittled when Ned offhandedly reveals Jane's feelings to Ben - and so we hear lots about Ned. Ned's sisters and mother are mostly vividly portrayed, and of course Jane worries quite a bit about her difficult sister Maya.

Although this didn't resonate with me in the same strong way that My One Hundred Adventures did, the strong writing, the novel but not too offbeat situation, and the imperfect, cranky, unpredictable characters make this book a pleasure to read.

And though none of Jane's questions (most notably who her father is) get answered, no matter. There will be a third book, as the last two sentences make clear. Jubilation!

Friday, December 3, 2010

My very favorite part of the Star Wars movies

I'm saving the very top of my holiday list for this most fabulous of geeky toys (thanks to io9 for the post). And do observe the similarity to the Walkers from the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld. Find more illustrations from the series here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Swords and Swans

I went to see LA Opera's production of Lohengrin last Sunday, and I liked it quite a bit, despite its daunting length (over 4 hours) and the fact that Ben Heppner portrayed a hefty and weary-looking old Lohengrin, and not a young and dashing hero.

The music was gorgeous (and I did not know beforehand that "Here Comes the Bride..." comes from this opera), but it was the story that drew me in and kept me mesmerized. It was both too simple and too convoluted in that usual opera way, and altogether silly. And yet, at its heart it was a fantasy pure and simple - and you know how I love a fantasy. The costumes may have been blood-stained WWI uniforms, but the setting was a castle by the sea, and I could well imagine armor and gowns.

Lohengrin is based on Arthurian legends - apparently, he is the son of Parsifal, Knight of the Round Table and Keeper of the Holy Grail. (For a synopsis of the opera, which will tie my fingers in knots if I repeat it all for you here, see the Metropolitan Opera's succinct summary.) Arthurian legends are fascinating for the way they mix paganism and Christianity, magic and holiness. The Holy Grail itself makes for quite a wild story - even if you ignore all the Celtic/Arthurian bits, you've still got this magical cup, given to Joseph of Arimathea by Jesus, that provided Joseph with food and drink for 42 years! This reminds me of certain magical kettles, bags, and tablecloths that provide never-ending feasts.

Although Elsa is annoyingly passive and Lohengrin doesn't exhibit many heroic qualities (we have to take it on faith that he is a hero), Ortrud (played by the fabulous Dolora Zajick) is a vivid and fascinating character. She's a witch who, having finagled a marriage with Count Telramund of Brabant, is determined that her pagan gods (Wotan, Freya, et al) must once again come to power in Brabant and overthrow that wussy upstart religion called Christianity. Yes, she uses deceit and magic in her schemes - and yet, if this were a Norse myth, Ortrud would be a heroine of the first order. The world of her gods is disappearing fast and so she's desperately, bravely fighting back.

And she does score a victory of a sort. Lohengrin will only agree to marry Elsa and save Brabant from the invading Hungarians if Elsa will swear never to ask him who he is and where he comes from. Even his name is forbidden to her. Where have we heard this kind of ultimatum before? Don't ask me my name! Don't go into that room! Don't look behind you! For if you do, all is lost. Well, Ortrud manages to infect Elsa with enough niggling doubt ("what if this mysterious man isn't sent from God but is a sorcerer instead? I mean, he arrived on a swan-driven boat, for goodness' sake!") that Elsa can't even get through her marriage night without breaking down and begging Lohengrin to reveal his secrets.

Lohengrin reveals all but then departs back to his mystical heavenly realm, leaving behind some folks who are hugely irritated with the all-too-fallible Elsa. If only she could have trusted her man, had a little faith - because that's what those ultimatums are all about. And it's true that faith is necessary for both relationships and religion - but did Lohengrin give Elsa any real reason to trust him so utterly? She dreamed about him and he arrives, and everyone assumes he is there to rescue them and so are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But Elsa has to bear the full brunt of trust - and of course she ends up dying.

I don't think that Ortrud dies - but she doesn't get control of Brabant, either (because Elsa's brother, the heir to Brabant, is rescued by Lohengrin from his enchanted form. Yes, he was the swan!!). I like to think that Ortrud lives on to scheme on behalf of her beloved gods, against all odds.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

clank and hiss

It's always lovely to have another good list of steampunk titles, like this one from Heather M. Campbell in the December School Library Journal.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Review of Front and Center by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Murdock, Catherine Gilbert. Front and Center. Houghton Mifflin, 2009.

I feel a little guilty reading these 2009 books when I should be frantically catching up on 2010. After all, the ALA award announcements are just a little more than a month away, and it sure is embarrassing not to have read the Newbery or Printz winners.

On the other hand, this title fairly leaped out at me from the library shelves. Having loved Dairy Queen and The Off Season, I couldn't believe I had missed the third in the trilogy. And having just read an interesting but rather grim zombie (er, I mean "undead") novel, I needed a bit of light and wonderful teen fiction.

D.J. is a junior at her small high school in a small Wisconsin town. When she isn't playing basketball, milking cows, missing her ex-boyfriend Brian, or agonizing about which college to go to, she's worrying about how her desire to be part of the background keeps making her unhappy. See, not only does it keep her from having fun when out with new friends, but it also means that all the big 10 universities that are courting her for their basketball teams are freaking her out. I mean - the pressure! People expect big stuff from D.J., and she doesn't want to let anyone down.

As her many fans know, D.J. is a straightforward jock of a girl who would much rather shoot a jillion hoops than get all introspective or angsty. But life is complicated, and so D.J. has to do some deep thinking about herself and other people - and it's so fun to watch her figure stuff out. She is self-deprecating, and yet she manages to express herself well in a folksy, simple, yet affecting way.

My ONLY complaint about the book is that the photo on the jacket looks nothing like my idea of D.J. But that's a tiny quibble. If you're seeking realistic YA fiction with a strong, unusual, and extremely likable heroine, this is an excellent trilogy. If you listen to the audiobook editions with narrator Natalie Moore, you're in for a treat - she does a fine Midwestern accent.

Highly recommended for ages 12 and up.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Review of The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity by Mac Barnett

Barnett, Mac. The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity (#1, The Brixton Brothers). Illustrated by Adam Rex. Simon & Schuster, 2009.

This was published last year, but better read late than never, especially as it features secret ninja-like Librarians with a capital L.

12-year-old Steve Brixton is a big fan of the Bailey Brothers detective novels, a fictional version of the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mysteries, not only reading them but taking much of their wisdom about detecting and derring-do to heart. But when a visit to the library plunges him into a sinister web of mystery and intrigue, Steve and his chum Dana discover that much of the advice in the Bailey Brothers' Detective Handbook, from using disguises to how to land a "haymaker punch," doesn't really work in real life. Luckily, Steve has wonderful luck, a stalwart chum, and bones apparently made of rubber, as he keeps falling from great heights.

Steve's faith in the dated, stilted Bailey Brothers novels and handbook to teach him everything he needs to know about detecting is hilarious, both because it's clearly misguided and also because, strangely, everyone he runs across, from criminals to policemen, takes it for granted that he must be a detective, even though Steve himself insists he's just a kid. There's something delightful about adults taking his ludicrous mail-order Bailey Brothers detective license seriously and saying things like "You private eyes are all the same. Too good for us regular police - until you get into some real trouble, that is. Then you come crying to us for help."

The wild and improbable adventures (including being chased by a bookmobile, being trapped in a library by those ninja Librarians, being locked in the hold of a boat, and much more) are reminiscent of classic kids' mystery series, as are the short and choppy sentences and self-consciously corny dialogue. Excerpts from the Bailey Brothers' Detective Handbook add a bit of old-fashioned flair, as in "The Bailey Brothers aren't just ace detectives and terrific students - they're swell athletes, too!"

Rex Adams' drawings were created digitally but look just like the retro pen and ink drawings in a typical Hardy Boys book; all that's missing is a roadster or coupe (as the boys get around on bicycles). The endpapers are sprinkled with small illustrations of Steve and Dana being chased by a giant bird and parachuting away from a mid-air explosion.

I don't know if kids will understand the goofy allusions to the Hardy Boys, but it seems certain that they will be as charmed by the humor and adventure in this first installment of the Brixton Brothers series as I was. Now I'm ready to read #2, The Ghostwriter Secret, which came out last month.

Recommended for kids ages 9 to 12.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Read with Janet and Mark

LA Times columnist and blogger Carolyn Kellogg has a series called School Reading, in which she asks authors about books they read as students.

In today's column, Mary Cappello (author of Awkward and the upcoming Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration, and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them) waxes intense about a book from the Dick and Jane series, which holds an enduring fascination for her because this was the first book she ever read.

"The book's red ball, my red ball, was like Helen Keller's water pump and well," she says. Every little bit of this book was entrancing to her, including "a lock of hair (a ringlet or flip) and the pie crust ripple of an ankle sock...I also have a vivid memory of hyphens...The hyphens were just as mesmerizing to me as the letters."

In 1969, California schools adopted the Janet and Mark series by Mabel O'Donnell, and that series, rather than Dick and Jane, is what I remember reading in 1st grade circa 1971. I remember very few specifics about the series, except for an episode in which Mark loses his library book or something of that sort; this resonated, as my mother was a librarian. Otherwise, I remember being both puzzled and attracted by the exotic suburban setting and tone of the books. I didn't know any children who resembled the neatly clad, rosy-cheeked Janet and Mark, and their mom and dad were even more alien. Their mom wore GLOVES!! My mom wore a hand-crocheted bikini. The streets of Janet and Mark's town were mostly empty except for a few smiling passersby. The streets of my town were festooned with graffiti and thronged with hippies, winos, skateboarders, Holocaust survivors, poets, and flocks of somewhat grimy children.

Apparently my brain was being warped by sexist, racist rhetoric even while I marveled at Janet and Mark's smooth and clean lives. It's a good thing I was busily sucking up all manner of diverse reading material at home, or I might have grown up to wear aprons and gloves.

Mary Capello sounds so intelligent and eccentric in Kellogg's interview that I will certainly read Awkward and Swallow. Best of all is her last paragraph, when she is asked what book she would assign first graders.

"If I were teaching a similar class today, I'd bring students into a room filled with books and let them find the one that called to them. Their choice would be equivalent to their own mysterious relationship to the world."

Lovely! I do believe Capello might be a librarian at heart, and certainly she must be a true book addict.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Review of Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Forge. Atheneum, 2010.
In the sequel to Chains, Curzon takes up the story of what happened to Isabel and him after their hair-raising escape from New York City. After a few months together, Curzon finds himself alone and on the run, and almost immediately (and certainly unintentionally) he becomes a soldier in the 16th Massachusetts Regiment of the Northern Continental Army of the United States of America.

This is an integrated regiment, and Curzon's fellow soldiers are a mostly young, friendly bunch (with one notable exception). After spending a hideous winter at Valley Forge, the approach of spring brings hope - until Curzon runs into his former master Bellingham. Bellingham, who had agreed to set him free, reneges on his agreement and forces him back into slavery as his house boy. Surprisingly, Isabel is also a household slave of Bellingham, and together they plot their escape.
Except for that last bit of credulity-straining coincidence, this is a smooth-flowing, quick-paced, extremely satisfying novel. Curzon is a hugely likable chap, with a fine sense of humor and intelligence to match Isabel's own. Unlike Isabel, he isn't inclined by nature to be broody or angry, and so his narration is sprightly and fresh. In fact, although slavery, war, and Valley Forge are not light topics, the tone remains bouyant, reminding me a bit of Mark Twain or Philbrick's The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg (although a different time period, of course).
The details about Valley Forge are fascinating and horrifying. Soldiers went barefoot in the snow, had so few rations that they half-starved, and had to construct their own rough huts with insufficient tools. And yet Curzon loves being a soldier because he is doing it of his own free will and for a cause he believes in. It's only when he is forced back into slavery that Curzon is filled with a smoldering and almost uncontrollable anger.
As with Chains, the reader is plunged right into Curzon's world, circa 1777/1778. Even the typeface has a period look, adding to the verisimilitude of the experience - and yet there is nothing stilted or "old-fashioned" about this novel. It carried me along like a stable boat on a smooth and swift river, and when it ended (at another turning point for Curzon and Isabel), I jumped without pause into Anderson's fabulous, informative appendix.
We stil don't know the fate of Isabel's little sister Ruth, much less what will happen to Isabel and Curzon, so I'm waiting eagerly for part 3!
Highly recommended for ages 11 to 15.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Review of Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

Westerfeld, Scott. Behemoth (#2, Leviathan Trilogy). Illustrated by Keith Thompson. Simon Pulse, 2010.

In the follow-up to last year's Leviathan, Deryn (or Midshipman Dylan Sharp of the British Air Service, as she is known) and Alek (who happens to be the heir to the Austria-Hungarian empire) are only on the airship Leviathan a short time together before Alek decides it is time to escape into Istanbul. Deryn, meanwhile, leads a dangerous mission that lands her in the streets of Istanbul as well. Joining forces with a rebel group called the Committee of Union and Progress, they hatch a plan to wrench control of the Ottoman Empire away from the Germans.

There is, as Westerfeld notes in his afterword, some distinct resemblance to events that actually took place in 1914, including the names of German ships, the Orient-Express, the fascinating mash-up of cultures in Istanbul, and much more. But the steam-powered, mechanized Clanker culture of the German-speaking countries and the biological engineering of the Darwinists in Great Britain transform this into an imaginative and glorious Steampunk saga.

I made sure to read this (rather than listen to it as an audiobook, as I did with Leviathan) in order to savor Thompson's intricate illustrations, laden with metal pipes and gears and tentacles. The descriptions of life in Istanbul, which has been partially modernized by the Clankers and so boasts a library with quite an astounding mechanized method of finding and retrieving books (sort of a precursor to RFID technology), are fascinating; rich folks get around in strange steam-powered vehicles that boast six beetle-like legs instead of wheels.

Deryn has of course fallen hard for Alek and is tempted to tell him she's a girl, especially when a gorgeous, fierce rebel named Lilit appears on the scene. She retains her usual bluster and bravery, however, and remains the most vivid and wonderful character. Alek is still very idealistic and upright, but that's okay - we wouldn't want a potential ruler to be any other way, and luckily he has a sense of humor.

Second books in series or trilogies are often maligned as being "bridge books," short on action and long on either filling in the background or setting the stage for the third book. I find them very satisfying, however, because the reader is already familiar with the characters, the setting, and the world, and can immediately plunge right into the story. And so it was with Behemoth, which has so many details to ponder and relish.

The last book in the trilogy promises to take place in Japan, a Darwinist country in this alternate world history.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Video break

I'm too busy for a REAL post, but here are a couple videos that made me laugh.

First - the stars of Harry Potter attempt American accents (found on 100 Scope Notes):

And now "Gandolf Goes to the World Cup," starring our favorite noise maker (found on Charlotte's Library):

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Central Library is the place to be

Really, anytime (except Sundays and Mondays) is a good time to visit Central Library. But here are two reasons to drop by this Saturday, November 20:

1. The Friends of Children and Literature (FOCAL) are selling 2 gently used children's fiction books for the price of 1! Yes, 2 novels for the price of 1 - what a bargain (and they're super inexpensive to begin with). And a bunch of brand-new VHS movies are selling for only $1 a piece. Nov. 20, 10 am to noon, in the 2nd floor rotunda.

2. Hang out downtown for a while (maybe take the Dash to Olvera Street or MOCA), then come back for a performance of Belinda and the Glass Slipper, part of our Performing Books series. You'll hear the book read aloud, but will also see it acted out by 2 ballet dancers, accompanied by a pianist. Performances at 2 pm and 3 pm in the Taper Auditorium on the first floor.

See - could a Saturday get any better?!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Review of A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

Gidwitz, Adam. A Tale Dark and Grimm. Dutton, 2010.

A brother and sister, Hansel and Gretel, are born to a king and queen (and this is a tale in itself). Their happy childhood is, however, brought to an end when (due to one of those Grimm fairytale dilemmas) their own loving father chops off their heads. They are brought back to life, but, as they can't stomach the idea of having parents who would chop off their own children's heads, they run away.

Their journey is a dark and bloody one, meandering as it does through one lesser-known Grimm tale after another. Even the familiar tales (such as Hansel and Gretel) have an unfamiliar sinister, nasty edge to them, as Gidwitz is basing them on the original Grimm tales and not the sanitized ones that we know (and those can be creepy enough). People die in horrifying ways, including a great many innocent people of all ages, Gretel chops off her own finger, Hansel turns into a were-creature and is skinned alive, and so on. Blood flows, drips, and forms puddles. There is much agonized screaming.

Hansel and Gretel undergo awful travails, but what is most distressing to them is the constant disappointing behavior of the adults around them, starting with their own parents. Even when adults aren't actively trying to hurt the siblings or someone else, they can't seem to keep anyone from harm or to solve any problems. Hansel and Gretel are forced to take matters into their own hands again and again, while the weight of their bitterness and anger grows even as they become experienced and wise.

Our storyteller introduces these stories to us, warning us that they are dark and violent, and continues to break in occasionally with admonitions to get any little children away before reading the next part, comments on the story, and a couple of pointers on pronunciation. This running commentary is fairly common in both grim stories about children (as in A Series of Unfortunate Events) and in a certain type of fairy tale-derived fantasy (as in Frances O'Roark Dowell's Falling In), and it can be snarky, cutesy, or generally intrusive. Luckily, this particular prone-to-interruption narrator won me over with comments that are amusing, informative, and even insightful.

A reader may wonder what is the point of all the blood, violence, and general unhappiness in these tales and in Grimm's tales. Why must the characters go through so much hell (literally, in this case) to get to a happy ending? Our narrator says in the introduction, "It is the story of two children striving, and failing, and then not failing. It is the story of two children finding out the meaning of things...(I)n life, it is in the darkest zones one finds the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom." Life can be vile, in fairy tales and in reality, and it is up to each of us to make our own stories. It's not fair, but sometimes bad things happen to good people. In fairy tales of the grim, Grimm variety, this happens an awful lot, and lessons can be learned.

The fallibility and imperfection of adults, even one's parents, is one of those lessons. Though most kids don't have to learn the way Hansel and Gretel do, it's a shock nevertheless. And children do realize, despite the best efforts of their well-meaning parents to shield them, that nasty things happen in the real world. As readers of Bruno Betelheim know, reading bloody fairy tales is a way to portray a fictional, magical version of our violent world that children can think about and process in a safe way.

Why must the stories be quite so bloody? As our narrator himself asks at the end, "What did all of this mean - these strange, scary, dark, grim tales? I told you already. I don't know. Besides, even if I did, I wouldn't tell you. You see, to find the brightest wisdom one must pass through the darkest zones. And through the darkest zones there can be no guide. No guide, that is, but courage."

I'm tempted to see in these stories an deliberate attempt to thwart our over-protective culture that keeps children inside and away from all danger, real and imagined. The author says in his acknowledgments that he himself had to learn "to trust that children can handle it. No matter what "it" is." Gidwitz may well be saying that children need to be allowed to explore and take risks so that they can grow and learn, something Michael Chabon has written about as well, bemoaning the loss of the "Wilderness of Childhood."

I agree that most older kids will handle these tales just fine. Bloody as they are, they are also imbued with wisdom. Highly recommended for kids ages 9 to 13. (hey - the narrator does warn us repeatedly about the especially nasty parts, so faint-hearted readers have only themselves to blame)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Adult Librarians - a dying breed at LAPL

We're in the midst of a fascinating and unsettling situation here at the Los Angeles Public Library.

Thanks to ongoing City budget woes, we haven't hired any new librarians for about two years, so we haven't been able to fill holes caused even by normal attrition. And then about a year ago, an Early Retirement Incentive Program was approved, which encouraged over 100 retirements, mostly from the supervisory and administrative levels, by May 2010. In June, about 160 LAPL employees were laid off, including 20 librarians.

As a result of this severe pruning of our workforce, we eliminated two of our open nights and all Sunday hours at all agencies last April, and in July we eliminated Mondays as well, leaving us open only 5 days a week.

Here's where it gets interesting. Back before all of this, the professional staff at a typical branch consisted of one branch manager, one adult librarian, one young adult librarian, one children's librarian, and one more half-time librarian (who might be adult, YA, or children's, depending on the branch).

Thanks to our leaner workforce and shortened hours, that professional staff has been cut back - now the typical branch must have just one branch manager, one young adult librarian, and one children's librarian. A few larger or busier branches might have a bit more staff, including perhaps an adult librarian, but in general the adult librarian positions have been eliminated, as well as almost all the half-time positions.

Ah, but there are still plenty of librarians inhabiting those eliminated adult and half-time positions!

Bluntly put, those adult and half-time librarians must make a change.
  • If there is a children's or YA vacancy in their own branch, they may choose to take that position.
  • If there isn't a vacant children's or YA position but the adult librarian has seniority over the children's or YA librarian in that position, the adult librarian may "bump" that librarian. The bumped children's or YA librarian must then interview for a vacant position in another branch.
  • If adult librarians don't wish to remain in their previous branch, they may interview for a vacant position.
  • Same thing goes for half-time librarians - except that since they aren't allowed to become full-time right now due to the hiring freeze, they must inhabit half of a position, leaving the other half vacant and available for another half-time librarian.
What all this means is that a bunch of adult librarians have bumped children's or YA librarians in their branches, a bunch of children's and YA librarians have been displaced and will be interviewing for children's and YA positions in other branches, and some adult librarians will also be interviewing for positions (children's, YA, and the very few adult positions available).

Interviewing will take place through the end of this month, selections will be announced in the beginning of December, and all librarians will start in their new locations and/or positions on January 3.

Now - if you were a life-long adult librarian who became an adult librarian precisely because you did NOT want to be a children's or YA librarian, would you be happy right now? Probably not. I'm figuring that there are at least a few worried, scared, annoyed, and downright angry and resentful adult librarians out there in LAPL-land, dreading January 3 with all their souls.

On the other hand, there well may be a few adult librarians who are thrilled (or at least cautiously optimistic) about the prospect of joining the ranks of dedicated children's and YA librarians. After all, it is undeniable that we have the most fun (even if we do work the hardest as well). And if I do say it myself, our Youth Services coordinating office pretty much beats the pants off all the other departments.

Still, I have to acknowledge that there will be a bit of unwillingness, some negative attitudes, and quite a bit of ignorance about early literacy, teen advisory groups, manga, storytime, and on and on. I'm rather worried that some of these soon-to-be children's and YA librarians don't even seem to like or understand kids and teens.

My challenge is to provide these librarians with the training, the resources, and the motivation to do their new jobs well. The skills and knowledge are easy to impart, but the enthusiasm and missionary zeal that we dyed-in-the-wool children's and YA librarians feel about our jobs will be a harder sell. I don't want a bunch of half-hearted librarians serving this City's children, teens, families, teachers, and caregivers. Good service matters, now more than ever.

I plan to draft all our excellent, experienced children's and YA librarians (at which ever branch they end up after the Great Migration) to help me train, mentor, and encourage their new youth services colleagues. It's going to be an exciting and energizing challenge.

Bring it on!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Iron and steam

I haven't yet managed to get to Scott Westerfeld's Behemoth, the sequel to his 2009 Leviathan - but this sweet Steampunk post whet my appetite.

A few weeks ago, NPR aired a segment on Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl's duo The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, in which Ms. Muhl named the Victorian age and the Steampunk aesthetic as being major influences on the themes in their songs.

Steampunk's influence is everywhere. Cakes, songs - and miniature trains at the LA County Fair.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Dominican Study - valuable, but not enough

In the November issue of School Library Journal, Carole Fiore and Susan Roman summarize the findings of the Dominican University's Graduate School of Library and Information Studies 3-year study on library summer reading programs. Called Proof Positive: A New Study Shows That Summer Reading Programs Boost Student Achievement and Combat Learning Loss, the article states, "...we can confirm what many librarians have log suspected: students who take part in their local library's summer reading program significantly improve their reading skills."

There are several wonderful aspects to this study. First of all, it followed students from 11 schools in 8 states, giving it a more universal flavor than many similar studies. Second, it tested the students (all going into the 4th grade) with the Scholastic Reading Inventory assessment tool both at the beginning and end of summer to determine if in fact the students' reading skills rose, declined, or stayed the same.

Here are three of the findings of the study, quoted from the executive summary:
  • Students who participated in the public library summer reading program scored higher on reading achievement tests at the beginning of the next school year than those students who did not participate and they gained in other ways as well.
  • While students who reported that they did not participate in the public library summer reading program also improved reading scores, they did not reach the reading level of the students who did participate.
  • Students who participated in the public library summer reading program had better reading skills at the end of third grade and scored higher on the standards test than the students who did not participate.
This sounded great to me when I first read it, because it seemed to prove what I wholeheartedly believe - that children who read not only don't suffer reading loss but actually make gains, and that library reading programs can play an important part in encouraging children to read over the summer.

But then I read this in Fiore and Roman's SLJ article:

"Parents of summer reading program participants used the library more often, had more books at home, and offered more literary activities at home (such as reading with their children, visiting the library frequently, and providing Internet access) than parents whose kids didn't sit in on summer reading programs."

Library summer reading programs are fabulous, but of course they didn't necessarily cause parents to read more to their children and so on. In fact, it's findings like this one (and also the one above about summer reading club participants scoring higher on tests than their non-reading club peers at the beginning of the summer as well as at the end) that diminish the overall usefulness of this study.

As the authors of the article note in a section at the end called "Study Limitations," the participants of the study were self-selected. That is, there was no control group. Or to put it in the words of the study itself:

The design of this study was causal comparative, which is that student participants were not
randomly assigned or randomized between attending/not attending public library summer
reading programs but instead independently decided to participate or not participate. The
treatment condition of program attendance was not manipulated by the evaluation team. The
treatment condition of the study was the exposure of student participants to the public library summer reading programs at the partner public libraries, as selected by participants’ families.

I would argue that kids who take part in the summer reading program are already predisposed for the most part to be readers. Their parents encourage them to join the club and to stick with it, and while I am certain that reading programs might well spur them on to greater feats of reading and that they are obtaining fabulous books to read that they wouldn't necessarily have access to if they weren't in the reading program, it's possible that these "library kids" would read even if they didn't join the summer program. Their parents believe in the importance of libraries and have made books, reading, and libraries part of their lives. It's a no-brainer that those kids score higher on tests both before and after summer reading club. This study does not prove that summer reading programs cause a rise in reading scores; rather, it proves that library users tend to have higher reading scores in general, and that could well be because they belong to families that value reading and so have books in the home, bring their kids to the library, read to their kids, and so on.

Which of course points to the important role that libraries play for these families. And there is no doubt that libraries, by providing a literature-rich environment for all families, rich or poor, can and do play a role in leveling the playing field.

What I would like to see, however, is a study that follows children who are NOT library users and have never joined a library summer reading program. One half of the kids would continue on as they always have and not join the program, while the other half would join and participate for the first time. One assumes that the test scores for both groups would be much the same at the beginning of the summer. The question is - would one summer of library reading program make a difference in reading scores at the end of summer?

Libraries' role in raising reading scores is much greater than just encouraging reading during the summer. To have the greatest effect, we need to reach families when their children are very young, or not even born, and convince them of the importance of making books, reading, and the library a part of their children's lives from birth on. If parents read to their babies, toddlers, and preschoolers regularly, those kids will take to reading like ducks to water and will come to the library over the summer, not because they need to be encourage to read but because they need fuel for their book addictions.

The Dominican study is important, but it doesn't go far enough in the role the library summer reading program can have for NON-library users. I agree with all of Fiore and Roman's "calls to action" in the article, and most particularly with the statement that librarians need to team up with teachers to "...identify nonreaders and under-performing students, reach out to them, and draw them into the library," to reach out to families and caregivers, and to spend special attention on creating programs that attract boys.

In addition, there are no doubt summer reading programs that are more effective at encouraging reading than others. The study purposefully didn't address this, but it would be a fascinating basis for a study. What works? What doesn't? Immersed as I am in designing our 2011 program, I'd love a little research on this.

One thing is certain. The more you read, the better you get at it, and you're more likely to read if you can find a book you enjoy. So there you have it - a worthy role (one of so many) for librarians to play all summer and throughout the year!

Review of Keeper by Kathi Appelt

Appelt, Kathi. Keeper. Atheneum, 2010.

The beginning of this book finds 10-year-old Keeper and her dog BD on a very small boat in the middle of the night, scolding 10 crabs and waiting for the tide to rise so that she can free the boat from the pier it's tied to. Why is she on the boat? Why is everyone so mad at her? And what on earth do those crabs have to do with anything?

From that moment in time, the story begins swooping and spiraling, sometimes back in time a little to that morning before everything got ruined, sometimes way back to when Keeper was a little girl, or even farther back to when Keeper's ancient neighbor Mr. Beauchamp was a teenager in France, before catching up to Keeper again and taking her out to sea on that little boat. This indirect, circling-back narration is much like the flight of a crooked-winged seagull named Captain, who can't fly straight at something but must curve around to it.

The cast of characters is small, and each one of them has his or her unique history and part to play. White-haired, even-keeled Signe is Keeper's astonishingly young guardian, Dogie is the young proprietor of a local surf shop housed in an old bus, Meggie Marie is Keeper's long-absent biological mother (and possibly a mermaid), and Mr. Beauchamp is an old man who has never quite stopped hoping to be reunited with his long-lost love. And then then are the non-human characters, who (as anyone who has read The Underneath knows) are just as important as the human ones - the dogs BD and Too, the mysterious one-eyed cat Sinbad, the even more mysterious Jacques du Mer, and my own favorite, Captain the seagull.

Though the backgrounds of these characters couldn't be more different, the 10 years they have spent all living in the same sparsely populated region of the Texas coast has woven their fates together in some strange and unpredictable ways - and when Keeper frees some crabs that were meant for a very important gumbo, she sets off a string of events that ends with a most satisfying Happy Ever After for all involved.

The narrative style varies a bit from character to character and chapter to chapter, sometimes employing those short, choppy, emphatic sentences that were so effective in The Underneath, sometimes filling up paragraphs with dense evocative prose. A few of the 120 chapters are so short that they serve as little poems, as in Chapter 91:

"BD. BD. BD. BD. Her heart thumped.
Keeper called and called and called. No BD.
Only a fin.

The narration gives Captain, strangely enough, quite a vast and baroque vocabulary for a bird who thinks about food with 90% of his brain and about his friend BD with the other 10%, and whose only spoken word is "c'mon!" Not only does Captain (or the narrator, rather - but still, it's clear that this is what is going through Captain's head) twice quote the poem Jabberwocky by exclaiming "calloo callay!" but his love for watermelon inspires this passage: "...his favorite, his most beloved, his all-time highest exalted sublime most delicious stultifyingly extremely wonderful marvelous fantastic yes yes yes: watermelon!"

Sometimes this kind of self-conscious language breaks the mood or splashes a bit of cold water in the reader's face. That "calloo callaying" seems downright silly to me, given that it's a seagull who is saying it - a seagull brimming with brio and personality, it is true, but not one that has read Lewis Carroll. And some other stylistic decisions seem mannered, as when Keeper (or the narrator on her behalf) spells out words periodically for emphasis, something that happens in the first few chapters and then is dropped for some reason. Or maybe it continues and I just didn't notice because by then I was fully immersed in the story.

That's the thing about Keeper. All that circling and swooping, all those characters with their small contributions that end up making one intense story - these serve as threads that draw the reader further and further in. By the satisfying and happy ending, I was fully committed, heart and soul, and so of course needed to blow my nose and wipe my eyes. The emotions of Keeper and Signe, and of Mr. Beauchamp, are so masterfully drawn that I defy you to stay unmoved.

And August Hall's artwork is a lovely complement to this tale that is anchored in reality but has some supernatural elements swimming in the depths. The jacket art, with Captain's wing providing white space for the author and title, is particularly compelling, but I am also fond of the drawing of a fierce Signe holding young Keeper - all the love that Signe feels for Keeper is there.

So - despite finding some of the narrative quirks not wholly successful, I'm recommending this highly for ages 9 - 12.