Saturday, November 26, 2011

Over and Out - for now

This is going to be my last blog post for quite some time - perhaps even a year or more.  Partly it's that I want to use the time I spend writing posts on other pursuits (mainly more reading) and partly it's because I've been appointed to the 2013 Newbery Committee (I'm almost afraid to announce that, in case I jinx it.  But I've avoided reading any and all manuscripts - so all is good.  All is blissful, in fact.  Yay!!), so posting reviews of 2012 middle-grade books would need to be avoided anyway.

Blogging about children's and YA literature and library services has put me in touch with an amazing, nationwide community of librarians, authors, teachers, parents, and book lovers.  My Google Reader will remain in active use as I continue to follow their blogs.

Huge thanks to all who have read this blog over the past few years.

Feel free to follow my reviews at (though I won't be reviewing any Newbery contenders in 2012). 

I tweet occasionally (mostly library-related stuff) @evamitnick.

Here's wishing you a focused and happy 2012!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Engaging tweens

Is it enough to give tweens slightly longer and more complicated storytimes or invite them to teen programs?  I ponder service to tweens on the ALSC Blog.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Nuggets of Nourishment

The annual California Library Association conference was that happy mixture of inspiration, ideas and relaxation.  Unlike ALA, there is no staggering about in a foot-sore, exhausted daze; the exhibits are a manageable size and there are only 2 days of workshops and sessions, with another day of institutes tossed in.

Sometimes conference workshops and speakers synch exactly with what I am doing at work, and there are multiple "Eureka!" moments that transform my thinking on one or several topics (early literacy, outreach, etc).

This didn't happen for me last weekend, but almost every event or session I attended either planted a kernel of an idea or nourished a sprout that has already taken root.  Here are a few:

 "Dream Big! CLA's 2012 Summer Reading Workshop"
Our children's and teen summer reading committees have already begun planning our 2012 club, and this workshop was full of great ideas for kids', teen, and adult programs - check them out here.

My take-away nugget -
  • Buttonhole Sarah Vantrease (easy, 'cause she's at LAPL) to talk about ways we might incorporate an altruistic element into our program - if not in 2012, then in 2013 for sure.  Kids reading to earn a grooming for shelter animals?  Now that is magic!

"The Future: Frankenbooks, Social Collaboration and Learning on Steroids"
No one could ever say that Stephen Abrams tiptoed around a subject, and thank goodness.  His talk on how to keep libraries relevant was both positive and heartening (books are not going away, they're just in a different format; librarians are more necessary than ever in this booming informational world) and a wake-up call (don't live in the past! get out there and show the world what our values and strengths are and why they're more relevant than ever).

My take-away nuggets-
  • It's librarians, not books, that need to be the branding for libraries.  
  • Libraries are about community, learning, and discovery.
  • We're good at teaching patrons how to frame questions and at showing them how to get at those how and why questions that Google sucks at answering
  • It's about engagement with our patrons - this is our strength
"Single Service Point, Multiple Models: The Market Place Concept in a New Economy"
Several different library systems (Pasadena, San Jose, Orange County) presented their experiments in offering patrons new models in terms of face-to-face service.  In most cases, this means offering one all-purpose information desk that can handle both reference questions and circulation questions (while also offering patrons more and better self-check machines).  Staff are cross-trained and empowered to answer many types of questions (support staff can do catalog searches; librarians can answer questions about fines).

My take-away nuggets:
  • Patrons don't divide their questions into two types (circ and ref); they just want answers.  Why bounce them from one desk to another?
  • Love the idea of empowering staff to do more.  We all know that it's the pages/MCs who get asked all the questions while putting books away
  • Librarians and clerks should get out from that desk and be out with the patrons, mingling and helping.  ENGAGE!
  • When librarians help at the front (and only) desk, they are meeting patrons they never met before - 'cause most patrons don't go to a reference desk.  They find their stuff, then check it out - no librarians required.
  • Love San Jose's lazy-S narrow info desks allowing "hip-to-hip" service to patrons that allows staff to show patrons how to do computer searches
  • Also love the "marketplace," which guides all patrons past face-out displays of popular (home and garden/cookbooks/etc) and new items.  Think browsing at a bookstore
"Play and Learn: Early literacy and Childhood Development"
Rancho Cucamonga Library shared how they created their cool museum-like "Play and Learn" stations, not just for their own branches but to lend out to other library systems - for free!

My take-away nugget:
  • Ever since I watched a webinar about Storyville, I've been mulling over a way to bring small-scale, portable versions of these "play stations" to our branches.  The Play and Learn stations are a bit bigger than I was thinking, but they are much closer to something that would actually work for us.  I can imagine how we might get funding to do a pilot in one of our Areas, so that 10 or 13 libraries might share 4 different types of learning stations, keeping each for 2 or 3 months.  A "market" station, a "kitchen" station, a "construction" station, a "dinosaur discovery" station, an "art" station... so many possibilities.
And I attended lots of other meetings and events as well (a New Vision for Summer in CA meeting, the CALTAC luncheon, the CA Young Reader Medal/Beatty banquet), plus I was a panel speaker for the program "Reaching out with your SRP: CLA's Outreach and Outcome-based Summer Reading Initiative."

Good stuff!  Can't wait for ALA Midwinter...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Juggling sharks

It's been mostly a juggling act at work lately, trying to keep all my projects and deadlines from crashing down around me.  Or maybe it's more like an endless swim across choppy seas - exhilarating, sure, but then there are those lurking sharks down below and an uncertain and constantly shifting shoreline somewhere up ahead.

So far, I've managed to keep my nostrils above water.  It sure has helped that this is now officially Book Season, filled with invigorating, soul-warming author events.

Last Saturday, the Children's Literature Council of Southern CA held its annual Fall Gala.  Hearkening back to the early days of its 50-year history, the Council decided to throw a glitzier event than the breakfasts that have predominated over the last decade.  Dress was "semi-formal," drinks were served, and (because the event was held in the afternoon), guests could segue into cocktails and dinner afterward at one of Pasadena's many fine restaurants.

The keynote speaker was Lois Lowry, whom I don't think I've ever heard speak. Her presentation, accompanied by dozens of photos from her childhood, was poignant and funny, rich and humorous, and just the right length (we wanted more but were left well satisfied).  I felt like the only person in the audience who hadn't known that The Giver and Number the Stars feature jacket photos that Ms. Lowry took herself in the 70s. 

What is particularly nurturing about the Fall Gala and similar local events is that it is essentially a gathering of good friends.  Even in the early days when I didn't know many folks, I felt surrounded by good, interesting, smart folks who love books as I do - and as I got to know them, this turned out to be true.  It's a great opportunity to greet old friends and make new ones.  Unfortunately, I was so busy doing this on Saturday that I missed out on meeting Lois Lowry herself, though I would have been too shy to do more than beam at her.  Next time, darn it...

Luckily, there were yet more bookish delights yesterday at the quarterly YA Librarians' Information Meeting.  Planning and convening these meetings is one of my responsibilities (same for the Children's Librarians' Information Meeting) - and while the other 3 YA meetings this year have been packed to the gills with updates, training, and presentations, it felt necessary to end this very challenging, crazy year with something more spiritually enriching.

So - I invited Jennifer Hunt, VP of Acquisition and Development and editor-at-large at Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers (and newly relocated to LA - yes!), and seven local YA authors (Cecil Castellucci, Holly Goldberg Sloan, Sherri Smith, Margie Stohl, Carol Tanzman, Janet Tashjian and Lisa Yee) to come speak to each other and our YA librarians about all things YA Lit - the controversies, the trends, the struggles, the passion.

Yee, Tashjian, Tanzman, Stohl, Smith, Sloan, and Castellucci

Lisa Yee and Janet Tashjian
Wow!  The morning zoomed way beyond my expectations (which were pretty high to begin with).  Jen moderated the discussion with humor and insight, but the authors needed no prodding to share often quite hilarious stories and thoughts.  (Sherri Smith talking about the color of the hand on her first book Lucy the Giant?  Priceless!).  The YA librarians welcomed the chance to sit back, relax, and revel in the presence of folks who produce the books they love - and the authors were thrilled to be talking with the folks who actually get those books into the hands of teens.  It was a revitalizing morning.

Which is good - because I'll need all kinds of energy and good vibes for this weekend's CA Library Association conference!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Mayhap it's time to take a break from fantasy

I'm listening to The Game of Thrones by G.R.R. Martin on audiobook during my daily commute.  We're talking 28 CDs!  Good thing I'm on the road two hours a day.

The problem with audiobooks is they take so dang long to listen to; in the case of The Game of Thrones, there's no skimming quickly past the frequent clash-thunk-and-bloodspray of sword fights or the interminable speeches in pompous fantasy-talk.

Speaking of which -can we call a moratorium on the fantasy adjective "wroth"?  What's wrong with angry, mad, livid, or furious?  I'm tired of the phrase "But I'm almost a man grown!" (which every boy and teen in the book uses at least once). And "mislike" instead of "dislike" is just plain silly.

Actually, I'm loving the book - it's truly a luscious wallow in Epic Fantasy.  But perhaps it could do with the 90-second treatment?  See this example below (thanks to Fuse #8 for the link - I'm jealous, jealous, jealous of that film festival!):

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Creeeeeeepy school stats

The scariest thing that happened to me on Halloween was getting my daughter's "School Report Card" in the mail.  My daughter is a senior at Venice High School, from which my older daughter graduated in 2009 and my younger sister graduated in the 80s.  Venice High is one of 129 high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

So - what was so scary?

Right on the front page of this pamphlet was this statistic about Venice High:
Students Graduating in Four Years - 57% (393 out of 691 students).  And this is slightly better than the LAUSD average, which is - 54%! 

Cue the Psycho shower theme!

Here are some other spooky statistics from Venice High:

Students scoring at the proficient or advanced performance level in:
English Language Arts - 43% (LAUSD average - 37%)
Math - 24% (LAUSD average - 16%)

Seriously - 24%?  16%?????  And didn't I just read that most of the decent jobs in the 21st century are going to require math and science knowledge?  This doesn't bode well.

Students achieving a "C" or better in all A-G courses (these are 15 courses needed to be eligible for acceptance to a Cal State University or University of CA):
28% (LAUSD average - 25%)

Ironically, 42% of students say they "plan" to get a 4-year college degree.  This does jibe with the fact that 47% of students took the SAT and achieved a "minimum" score.  In fact, 61% of students who took the SAT got a minimum of 1400 - which ain't great but isn't rotten, either.  But only 38% of LAUSD students as a whole scored at least 1400.

And what really gets me is that it's been SO HARD to get LAUSD to see the Los Angeles Public Library as a truly valuable ally in helping students succeed.  We can't even get LAUSD administration to return emails, much less sit down and listen to how we can help.  It makes me want to hooowwwwllllll! 

But we'll keep trying.  'Cause that's the way we roll at the Library.

Can't scare us!

Monday, October 31, 2011

8:45 am to 9:45 am - reflection

In a perfect world, my job would include an hour or two reserved purely for thinking, reflecting, planning, and mulling things over.  Some of this thinking would be targeted at particular issues facing existing or upcoming programs - trouble-shooting, fine-tuning, problem-solving, and improving - but some of the reflecting would be unfocused and undirected.  How lovely it would be to feel free to wonder "what if..." and see where that question takes me. 

As is the case for so many people these days, the reality is that there isn't enough time in the day to spend on all the projects I'm responsible for, much less time to dream and ponder.  Surely this is a problem!  There is great pressure for libraries - and for my library system in particular, which is trying valiantly to pull itself out of a slump caused first by a decades-long, head-in-the-sand culture and now by terrible budget woes - to be innovative.  Yet can there be innovation and creativity if we're fighting hard just to keep our noses above water? 

As I've gotten older, I've discovered some truths about myself, some of them rather dismaying.  The main thing I've learned over the past 5 years is that I'm simply not creative in that brilliant, lightbulb-flashing-on way that I so admire in others.  I don't get sudden fabulous ideas.  I'm not going to be the one who comes up with an amazing new service model that wows the crowds at a future ALA conference.  (Well, never say never - I could be a late-bloomer, right?)

Luckily, along with the sad self-revelations come positive ones as well.  For instance - it has become more and more clear to me that not only do I do my best work when collaborating with others, but I love it.  For an introvert who felt for years that I could be happy shelving books all day long if I could get a decent wage for it, this is Big News.  And happy news, too - because my colleagues are intelligent, hard-working, and (most importantly) brimming with amazing, creative ideas.  Aha!

So my tiny Youth Services staff met with a handful of fiercely dedicated YA Librarians on Thursday and with similarly enthusiastic Children's Librarians on Friday, and together we created the outlines - and even fleshed in some details - of what will be a terrific 2012 Summer Reading Program.  My job was to lay out all the things we needed to discuss and decide - and then guide the discussion, coax out details, keep folks on track and enthusiasm high...

...and then get to the unglamorous task of turning all the great ideas into a program we can implement.  Because that's another one of my strengths - being practical and hard-working. 

But to help transform LAPL into not just a well-functioning library system but also a dynamic and responsive one, I need to encourage the creative people around me to share their ideas with me and prod me into figuring out a way to make them happen. 

And even a busy workhorse like me needs some time just to dream and ponder. 

What if...?!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Child characters, adult books

I've just read two books, one right after another, in which the main character is a young person, and yet both books are for adults.  Weirdly, both books are almost exactly the same size, being somewhat smaller and having fewer pages than most adult books.

In Matthew Kneale's When We Were Romans, a 9-year-old British boy named Lawrence writes of the tumultuous, confusing time when his mother drove his little sister and him to Rome quite suddenly.  Lawrence understands that they are fleeing the threat of his father, who has separated from his mother but who is apparently stalking the family.

What Lawrence doesn't understand, though the reader slowly does, is that Lawrence's mother is mentally ill.  At first she seems to be a fine and loving mother who is perhaps a bit paranoid or overly worried - but through the course of the novel, it's clear that she is seriously disturbed.  Lawrence is an extremely intelligent, sensitive, and appealing boy - but though he finds some things about his mother's statements and behavior illogical or strange, he has neither the perspective nor the desire to understand that there are some big problems here.  Instead, he has no choice but to embrace her delusions entirely.

Older teens would surely read between Lawrence's slightly misspelled but precocious lines and know that Lawrence's mother is spiraling out of control.  Teens are also just far enough from childhood themselves that they can empathize with Lawrence's point of view while also seeing the limits of his understanding.  As well, teens will enjoy the added layer of meaning created by Lawrence's delicious descriptions of various tyrants, gleaned from the Hideous Histories series he is reading.  Would a child actually write this way?  Well, no - and yet, there is a decidedly young flavor to the narration, with its breathless sentences, misspellings, and childish phrasing.

This book is about adults - their manias, their relationships, and the way children are dragged along in the wake of their dramas.  But teens, while not as autonomous as adults nor as likely to be parents, won't find the situations incomprehensible. In fact, I'm betting many older teens would enjoy this book quite a bit.  It would make a fine book to discussion in an English class. 

Quite different is Megan Abbott's The End of Everything.  Told from the point of view of 13-year-old Lizzie, it's about the apparent abduction of her friend Evie.  Abduction of teen girls is a common theme in YA fiction (think Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott and Stolen by Lucy Christopher, to name just a couple).  So why is this particular book meant for adults?

The story takes place in the 1980s, and though the 13-year-old narrator tells of events in the present tense, there is no feeling that this is a 13-year-old voice. Lizzie's choice of words, her sentence structure, and her preoccupations all give the feeling is of an adult looking back at a very intense and life-changing time. 

One of the main themes running through this novel is the awakening of sexuality in girls, and this tinges the narration with a diffuse, lush, awkward, and sometimes uncomfortable sensuality.  Lizzie is at the end of her childhood and she knows it, yet she also knows how very much she doesn't know about sexuality.  This confusion feels both familiar and stylized to me as an adult reader.  That is, I remember the confusion, excitement, frustration, and fear of being 13 - but if I had been asked to describe it, I would have blinked in astonishment.  The sophistication of Lizzie's narration is masterful - and not necessarily something that teens themselves, even older ones with a bit more perspective, would recognize or relate to.

Then there's the "abduction" of Evie (by a neighbor named Mr. Shaw), which is inextricably linked for Lizzie with Evie's father Mr. Verver, Evie's older sister Dusty, and with Lizzie's intense and incoherent feelings about these people.  There is strangeness here - Evie sort of sees it and the reader definitely does.  It's nothing definite, and yet most readers will feel very queasy indeed about how the charming and undeniably great Mr. Verver relates to his daughters and to Lizzie.  As for Evie and Mr. Shaw - well, the mystery is not so much in what happens as in Evie's thoughts and reactions to what most would agree is a heinous crime.

Teens have read with great interest Emma Donoghue's Room, Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, and other adult books about intensely disturbing situations involving teens or young women.  There's nothing in this book that is any worse than those, and I suspect many older teen girls will in fact read this one as well.  I'm not sure, though, that the revelations will hit readers of this age with quite as much force as they would older readers.  Sure, there is the intrigue and nastiness of the basic situation - but it's all the subterranean currents that make this a powerful read, and I'm not sure teens would be as apt to pick up on them. 

Each of these two books is clearly meant for adults, but with characters, themes, and a smaller size that make them possibly intriguing to teens as well.  Do we recommend these and other adult books to older teens?  It depends on the book and on the teen, of course - but in general, I like the idea of guiding teens to the bounty of the adult fiction shelves.  While they may have already discovered adult genre fiction (fantasy, horror), it's a bit more daunting to find those small gems hidden among the Stephen Kings and George R.R. Martins.  Short, well-written books with young main characters are natural bridges, even if they contain adult themes that teens may not have the experience or perspective to fully appreciate.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review of Tighter by Adele Griffin

Griffin, Adele.  Tighter.  Knopf, 2011.

"You'll have to give this book a try when I'm done with it," I told my 17-year-old when I was halfway through Tighter.  "It's creepy - kind of a modern version of Henry James' Turn of the Screw."  Which she hasn't read - but after hearing the plot, she agreed that Tighter might be worth a try.

It starts out most promisingly, with a troubled 17-year-old girl named Jamie getting what sounds like a cushy summer job babysitting a rich 11-year-old girl named Isa on a ritzy resort island in New England.  Naturally, there has to be a catch.  First there's the matter of the tragic death of last year's nanny, Jessie, and her boyfriend Peter.  Then there's the dour housekeeper Connie and Isa's disturbing older brother Milo.  Finally, there's the matter of that ghost that keeps popping up and doing mischief.  Add to all that Jamie's depression and pill-addiction, and it ends up being one heck of a summer.

Until about halfway through the novel, the tension keeps winding tighter and tighter.  However, with the introduction of some local teens with whom Jamie interacts, the plot loses some of its tantalizing claustrophobic menace and becomes more mundane.  The spookiness ratchets up a notch towards the end, when the reader finally realizes just how unreliable a narrator our Jamie is - but then fizzles out over the anticlimactic last chapter, which could easily have been left off to much better effect. 

There are some unanswered questions for readers to ponder - what is really going on at Skylark?  Are all the ghostly activities just in Jamie's head?  And what's up with Isa, anyway? 

Jamie's voice is compelling and will keep most teens reading breathlessly to the very end of the book - especially those who have never read Turn of the Screw.  As for my daughter, she snatched Turn of the Screw off our bookshelf after I described it; whether she'll read Tighter as well remains to be seen.

Recommended as a mildly spooky psychological thriller for ages 14 and up.

The lure of jammies

Right now I could be downtown at the Central Library seeing Colson Whitehead speak, but though I quite liked The Intuitionist and enjoyed Sag Harbor up until I got bored with it - AND though I'd love to be the sort of person who partakes in the cultural life of the city - well, shameful truth be told, I'd rather be at home in my jammies reading Zone One than hearing the author talk about it.  I'm a hermit at heart.

Strangely, this doesn't hold true for children's and YA authors, which is why I'll be at the Children's Literature Council Fall Gala on Saturday, November 5th, hearing Lois Lowry speak and schmoozing with plenty of other authors as well as librarians and teachers and children's literature fans of all kinds. 

It doesn't hurt that it's a daytime event, so there isn't that longing for jammies that generally hits me about 8 pm...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Review of The Apothecary by Maile Meloy

Meloy, Maile.  The Apothecary.  Putnam, 2011.

It's 1952 and 14-year-old Janie's parents have just been blacklisted, which means a move for the whole family from Los Angeles to London.  Janie experiences major culture shock - not only is post-war London gray, cold and drab, but also they have to put pennies in a meter just to heat their flat, there is still rationing, and the students at her new school are learning Latin.

Mostly, the students seem fairly snobby, but one boy, Benjamin, appeals to Janie.  Intense and defiant, he wants to be a spy, not an apothecary like his father - but his father, it turns out, is much more than a simple dispenser of drugs and medicaments.  Rather, he is one in a long line of apothecaries who have guarded the hard-won secrets of herbal and medicinal lore, all of which have been written down in an old tome called the Pharmacopoeia.

The Soviets, aided by the East Germans, want to get their hands on these secrets and will stop at nothing, including torture and murder, to get them.  Janie and Benjamin join forces with a small bunch of eccentric and brilliant scientists, plus a street-smart urchin named Pip, to preserve those secrets and save the world from the threat of nuclear war.

Clearly there are familiar elements here, with bits and pieces reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code, Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and Kane Chronicles series, Baccalario's Century Quartet series, and even N.D. Wilson's recent The Dragon's Tooth.  Ancient knowledge must be kept out of the hands of the bad guys, and only a couple of intrepid kids and a few trustworthy adults can save the world from Evil.

So yes, it's been done before.  But what makes this book stand out is the freshness and competence of the writing, which sparkles with both humor and warmth.    Meloy has a gift for introducing a scene in just a few perfect sentences, giving us an immediate sense of both place and emotional resonance.  Here is Janie describing her first day at school.
The school was in a stone building with arches and turrets that seemed very old to me but wasn't old at all, in English terms.  It was build in 1880, so it was practically brand-new... Two teachers walking down the hall wore black academic gowns, and they looked ominous and forbidding, like giant bats.  The students all wore dark blue uniforms with white shirts... I didn't have a unform yet, and wore my bright green Hepburn trousers and a yellow sweater, which looked normal in LA, but here looked clownishly out of place.  I might as well have carried a giant sign saying I DON'T BELONG.
 Making Janie an American who finds herself in England means we get to experience all the foreignness of a different country along with her, and in addition the readers can see how different 1952 was, when the Soviet threat felt very immediate and kids had to take part in bomb drills at school. 

This isn't supposed to be a fantasy; it's science, not magic, that creates all the fantastical effects.  However, any potion that can turn children into birds or make them invisible counts as magic in my book, so let's call this a fantasy and not science fiction.  After all, Benjamin becomes a starling while Janie becomes the very American red-breasted robin, which feels like a very magical touch.

The blossoming of romance between Janie and Benjamin is both sweet and age-appropriate, and makes the ending all the more bittersweet.  And yet the end is satisfying and right, even if it's one few readers would hope for. 

The plot is supremely far-fetched in almost every way, and the science or magic or whatever makes no sense whatsoever - and these are definitely flaws, when one considers the masterful plotting of a book like Stead's When You Reach Me.  But they are only small imperfections when measured against the quality of the writing and the delight of Janie's adventures with Benjamin and the rest of her odd companions.

Highly recommended for ages 11 to 14.

Friday, October 21, 2011

program overhaul

Ever realize you've sunk into a rut, program-wise, and need to freshen things up?  I've got a post on the ALSC Blog that mulls this over.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Halloween cosplay

Halloween is only a week and a half away, looming in all its orangey-black glory.

Back when I was working with actual real children in the library every day, I wouldn't dream of showing up on Halloween without a costume.  Perish the thought!

But now I'm in an office all day and haven't put on a Halloween program in... oh, it must be at least 5 years.

On the other hand, my office is in Central Library, so I could wear a costume and stroll nonchalantly around the children's and teen departments.  In fact, there's no excuse not to!

First choice costume - the gown worn by the Statue of Civilization, which I pass every day at work. 
The two sphinxes that guard the top of the stairway are nifty, too, but that might be tough to pull off.  Maybe I should just replicate the gorgeous 20's gown pictured below.

 But my fave idea is still to rig up a Robe of Skulls, or in my case an old Fairy Costume of Skulls.  Dozens of 1" plastic skulls are on their way to me from the Skeleton Store.
I'll just sew them on the hem of my fairy costume to create an off-kilter (as in pastel) version of My Hero:

Monday, October 17, 2011

Kids read it; we talk about it

Children's literature - it's written for kids, and yet it's written by grown-ups, critiqued by grown-ups, studied by grown-ups, bought by grown-ups, sold by grown-ups and recommended to kids by grown-ups. 

Kids read children's books - or they don't - but they don't do those other things, as a rule.

Grown-ups read children's books, too.  But we are adults, and our reading experience is going to be vastly different than a child's, no matter how much we tell ourselves that when we read, we most closely approach a child-like state as we immerse ourselves in the story.  And of course writers of children's books are grown-ups, and no matter how well they remember their own childhoods and what it felt like to be a child, they are no longer children.

For an intensely detailed, deep, and rather funny (in a nerdy, academic sort of way) exploration of the ways adult writers and readers bring themselves to children's literature, I highly recommend Perry Nodelman's The Hidden Adult: Defining Children's Literature.  I'm noodling my way through it now and though I'm only 1/4 of the way along, my mind is already sparking with the ideas he raises.

A book that explores this theme in an entirely different way is Laura Miller's The Magician's Book: a Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia, an extremely personal but also scholarly look at the author's favorite childhood series and how her perception, knowledge, and experience of the book has utterly changed now that she is an adult.  And though some things have been lost as a result, much has been gained.

Meanwhile, Liz of A Chair, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy is one of the latest to comment on the weirdness of zipping through a gripping YA novel, only to realize that - OMG, I'm older than the protagonist's parents!!!

Now, as the parent of a 17-year-old and a 20-year-old, this is no shocker to me.  But I can't help but pay close attention to how the grown-ups in a children's or YA book talk, act, and think - way more than a kid or teen reader would, most likely.

Even when I'm fully engrossed in a truly absorbing children's book and am right there with the child main character, I don't feel like a child myself.  I'm an engaged reader who happens to be an adult, with all the life experiences and (sometimes more importantly) book experiences that I've accumulated.  The fact that I've read thousands - and reviewed hundreds - of children's books means that I can never read "like a child" again.

Which is fine with me.  I'm as addicted an adult reader as I was a child reader; if anything, I'm getting more pleasure from reading than ever.

Yet many of us adult readers care deeply about the experience that a child reader is having with a book.  We librarians, writers, publishers, teachers, and parents want kids to enjoy reading for many reasons.  And so at the heart of much of our endless reviewing, discussing, blogging, and critiquing is the question "will a child like this book?"  But not always.  Sometimes we're just having the discussion as adult readers who happen to truly enjoy this type of literature.

What is it that draws some grown-ups to children's literature?  That's a subject for another post - or an entire book or three.  As for me, it's in small part because I loved my books fiercely as a child and never grew out of it.  But mostly it's because I love a damn good book, and children's books happen to be some of the best books in existence.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Apples, oranges, and a happy accident

Due to a tiny snafu, the National Book Award committee nominated 6 books for the Young People's Literature category instead of 5.

Hey, more to read and love, right?  And I would have been heartbroken if Chime (my review) hadn't made the list.  Ooh, and both Inside Out and Back Again (my review) and Okay for Now (my review) are so good! 

Haven't read the others - have you?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review of Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

Ursu, Anne.  Breadcrumbs.  Walden Pond Press, 2011.

5th-grader Hazel's life isn't perfect.  Her dad left fairly recently, meaning (among other things) that Hazel had to leave her mellow private school and start at a public school where the boys are mean and the girls don't seem to notice her.  And she feels different, mostly because she lives with one foot always in the world of fantasy - Narnia and Wonderland and a dozen other realms found only in books - but also because her white parents adopted her from India when she was a baby.  Not that she's the only kid of color in her school or even the only kid adopted from another country, but still, it's just another thing that sets her apart from others.

But there's one really good thing in her life and that's Jack.  Her neighbor has been her best friend since they were six years old, and now they go to the same school!  But things are already a bit awkward, and when Jack gets a piece of wickedly magic glass in his eye - well, first he starts acting uncharacteristically jerk-like, and then the Snow Queen comes and takes him away to her palace.  Hazel, naturally, goes off into the woods to rescue him.

Hans Christian Andersen's stories are studded throughout this fantasy, with themes not just from The Snow Queen but also The Little Match Girl, The Red Shoes, The Wild Swans, The Nightingale, and probably others as well.  Fantasy readers will also recognize mention of more recent books from When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead to the Narnia books to Pullman's His Dark Materials series.  And like Andersen's stories, the adventures that befall Hazel range from ominous to creepy to downright dangerous.  Hazel proves herself up to all the hazing, but she doesn't escape unscathed.  Not only does she receive a nasty facial wound (that does NOT magically heal), but she also learns some rather tough lessons about human nature.  The woods seem to bring out the worst in people, as Hazel discovers. 
"She saw signs of another village in the distance - she smelled smoke and saw the faint glow of something like civilization.  But there was nothing for her there.  She had to go get Jack now, and anyway, she was safer out here with the wolves."
 Hazel's habit of never paying much attention to boring stuff around her (her parents, her teachers) doesn't stand her in good stead in the magical woods, when she wishes she knew a few survival tips.  Towards the end, when she is very cold and with few resources left, she has shed her dreamy escapist tendencies in favor of a more practical, realistic viewpoint.  "This is what it is to live in the world.  You have to give yourself over to the cold, at least a little bit." 

Hazel's time in the woods is so vivid and horrifying that it rather makes her trials with 5th-grade boys and impatient teachers feel light and not quite real by comparison.  There are some loose ends; for example, a couple of visits with a girl named Adelaide and her nifty uncle seem destined to be important plot points later in the story, but they never fulfill this promise.  And the final rescue of Jack from the Snow Queen is hurried and anti-climactic after all that came before.  Readers may be wondering why Hazel went to all that bother in the first place, as Jack's worth is never proven to us, glass shard or no glass shard.  We just have to take Hazel's rose-colored assertion that he is her heart's companion.

Of course, the point is that, now that Hazel has successfully completed her quest, she can now look beyond Jack - and her childhood - and start broadening her horizons.  There is Adelaide, there are some promised ballet lessons, there are even those 5th-grade boys, who maybe aren't as bad as Hazel thought.  Hazel has found herself more than a match for the world and she's ready to really live.

This stands up very well to Gardner's Into the Woods and similar fantasies, and though it doesn't match the caliber of Gidwitz's A Tale Dark and Grimm, Breadcrumbs is highly recommended for ages 9 to 11.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Meaning of Life

StingRay meets Lumphy for the first time
Plastic's question "Why are we here?" that so plagues Lumphy the plush buffalo in Jenkins' Toys Come Home is actually two questions in one.

I assume, based on Plastic's bouncy toddler/preschooler persona (she's a plastic ball who asks lots of questions), that what Plastic was really asking was "What confluence of events brought us to exactly this place in this moment of time?"  This can be a dizzying question - but I bet if StingRay had mustered the patience and creativity to answer it in sufficient detail ("well, I'm here because I was given to the Girl for her birthday last year and you are here because you were a party favor for her birthday this year and..."), Plastic would have been satisfied.  Sure, there would have been more follow-up "but WHY"s than anyone could tolerate for long, but eventually Plastic would have found some other question to ask.

This isn't the question that so filled Lumphy with Dread.  Rather, Lumphy couldn't bear the corollary question, which is "And now what?"  In other words, now that we're here due to some dizzying and incomprehensible sequence of events, how do we proceed?  Is there any meaning to the fact that we're here?  If so, what is it?  How do we find it?

Plenty of young kids will understand Plastic's need to have the first question answered.  But few kids under the age of, say, 10 or 12 would even recognize the existence of Lumphy's dreaded questions, much less understand his terror of it.

Or so I assume, using my own childhood and that of my daughters as my main reference points.  My kids had plenty of questions when they were little, some of which produced anguish, but they tended to be along the lines of "Should I wear the blue t-shirt or the yellow t-shirt?" or "Why does cookie batter taste so good but make you throw up if you eat the whole bowl?"  There were no abstract or existential questions until they were into their double-digits.

The first time I remember being shaken by abstract ideas beyond my small and concrete world was while watching a sunset at the beach (I know - kinda trite) when I was about 11 or 12.  It suddenly struck me that the beauty I was witnessing was a Big Thing that couldn't be fully contained or expressed, and this realization expanded my soul in one enormous bang.

So I'd love to know what 8-year-old readers think of Lumphy's nights of dread and wondering.  Can they understand?  Do they get it?  Even if they don't, they will certainly feel that the answer Lumphy finally gets from his friends is an apt one - "We are here for each other."

All this thinking was caused by this hillside, which we passed while on a long hike up to the Nordhoff Lookout in the mountains just north of Ojai.  First I had my usual moment of regret about my huge ignorance of geology - all those cool striations, tilted like a dropped layer cake, and I have no idea what the layers are composed of or how they were formed.

But I do know that it took a LONG TIME for the layers to form, and another LONG TIME for this section of hillside to bulge and thrust up the way it has.  And this is when I start to feel my own form of Dread - because there I am, crawling like the tiniest bug along this ancient hill that is attached to the even more ancient Earth, that is a part of a universe so vast and old that my heart starts racing  just to think about it.

And as I contemplated the terror of this literally unthinkable, incomprehensible hugeness of space and time, I was also very aware of the path I was walking on and the smell of the sage and other bushes and the new view that unfolded with every curve of the path and the stupid bee that buzzed in my ear ALL the way up to the summit.  And all these things were adding up to a very lovely hike (well, except the bee). 

Suddenly, the idea that my mind could be simultaneously wheeling around in the unfathomable wonders of the universe AND taking pleasure in the crunch of my shoes on the rocky path filled me with a kind of blissed-out giddiness. 

(Meanwhile, my husband was getting farther and farther ahead of me.  Sure, he was carrying the backpack stuffed with all our food and water - but I was burdened by these Very Weighty Thoughts.)

Remember R.L. Stevenson's Happy Thought?  "The world is so full of a number of things, I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings."  As a child, I begged to differ (understanding it, as a child does, very literally).  But though it seems to be a naive sentiment that ignores the great suffering in the world, there is a great truth at its core.  Surely it is a good idea to cultivate an enjoyment for the simple things in life, as well as wonder in the big things.

There's no one answer to "Why are we here?" but maybe the point is to keep on asking the question and looking for answers.  And to live one's life according to the answers we come up with.

"We are here for each other" will do very nicely as one of those answers.  Lumphy has good friends.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Review of Toys Come Home by Emily Jenkins

Jenkins, Emily.  Toys Come Home.  Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011.

This prequel to the magnificent Toys Go Out and Toy Dance Party depicts the arrival of StingRay (a stuffed stingray, naturally) to the Little Girl's house and her gradual assimilation into the household, where she lives with the other sentient toys and objects, from a pompous walrus named Bobby Dot to a wise old towel named TukTuk. 

StingRay, who is very smart and rather complicated, is a good soul at heart (she rescues Sheep from a terrible predicament, at great personal risk) but she does suffer from uncharitable and petty thoughts.  She prefers that the others think she knows everything (and will make stuff up so as not to destroy their illusions), and she can't help but think "better him than me" when the demise of Bobby Dot means that StingRay gets to sleep on the Girl's bed with her. 
"The joy, the guilt, the loss, and the relief: all these feelings toss around inside her in the night..."
 Oh StingRay - been there, honey!

But it's Lumphy the buffalo (such a sweet and brave guy) who truly suffers existential Angst, brought on by the newly arrived and irrepressible Plastic asking "Why are we here?...Why are we here in the Girl's room? In this town, on this planet?"  StingRay can't answer, of course and so sputters "I'll tell you later.  Right now I have some important stuff to do."

But poor Lumphy can't stop wondering about the question - it keeps him up at night, worrying.  He has Dread, which, he explains to Plastic, "...has to do with too much dark.  And not knowing why we're here.  And not sleeping." 

Jeepers!  Truly, can anything be better than a story with lovingly drawn characters (not just figuratively - Zelinsky's illustrations are pretty darn good), hair-raising adventure, pathos, humor, Big Philosophical Questions, AND a 3rd-grade reading level?  I think not. 

Highly recommended, as are the other two books in this trilogy, for all ages ('cause it makes a great read-aloud for younger kids as well).

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Alone but not lost

Back in the Before Time when I was in college, a certain very young and intense man read this passage from Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel to me; it's from the point of view of the main character Eugene as a baby in his crib:
...he knew he would always be the sad one: caged in that little round of skull, imprisoned in that beating and most secret heart, his life must always walk down lonely passages.  Lost.  He understood that men were forever strangers to one another, that no one ever comes really to know any one, that imprisoned in the dark womb of our mother, we come to life without having seen her face, that we are given to her arms a stranger, and that, caught in that insoluble prison of being, we escape it never, no matter what arms may clasp us, what mouth may kiss us, what heart may warm us.  Never, never, never, never, never.
This young man felt that this and other similar passages in Wolfe's books were very profound and moving indeed, and they touched him deeply.*

And while I in turn was moved by this young man's passion for literature (Reader, I married him), these particular sentiments left me cold.  My feeling was that this eternal separation from others, this inability to ever completely know another being, was essential to sanity and happiness.

26 years later, I still feel that way.  My own skull isn't my prison; it's my refuge.  Interaction with people, whether it's superficial or deep, can be exhausting and fraught - being alone in my head is a saving grace, not a tragedy.

Of course, sometimes it's not so fun being trapped with oneself, unable to escape one's thoughts and very existence.  In that case there are only 3 possible remedies for me:
  • Mindfulness meditation (if I could ever make myself practice it regularly enough to get competent at it)
  • Running (in a miraculous alchemy, stressful thoughts transform into invigorating adrenaline)
  • Reading
Reading.  It doesn't solve any problems, nor does it treat the underlying causes of stress.  And yet the relief it offers is pure, reliable, and immediate.  The mind stills,  thoughts cease to circle and flap like maddened crows.  More than just distraction, books offer a focus for one's attention that is utterly engrossing.

And going back to Wolfe and his despair, running as a constant theme through all his books, at the human failure to every truly know or communicate with others (in another passage, this one from Of Time and the River, a character wonders "What is wrong with people?...Why do we never get to know one another? ...Why is it that we get born and live and die here in this world without ever finding out what any one else is like?") - well, I submit that reading books is a fine way to get to know one another (especially for us natural-born hermits). 

An author is setting down carefully crafted words that communicate thoughts and ideas and visions and stories that can resonate deeply with readers.  Books communicate truths both mundane and profound; I've never thought so much about what it means to be human as when reading books.  I may not be getting to know those writers personally, but we are sharing ideas and concepts that go deeper than that. 

And even a "frivolous" story well-told can spark associations and ideas for days, weeks, and years after the book has returned to the library and almost forgotten.

Some of us are like Thomas Wolfe, always striving outward, always yearning for meaningful human connection from the people they meet, constantly seeking out true companions.

And some of us would rather be reading.

*My husband read that passage aloud again to me a couple nights ago, this time with melodramatic flair, laughter, and some nostalgia for the young man he used to be.  But he added that he still understands and agrees with the sentiment, though he doesn't feel it with quite the same Weltschmerz that he used to.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Review of Junonia by Kevin Henkes

Henkes, Kevin.  Junonia.  Greenwillow, 2011.

The world of an only child is filled with grown-ups, or at least that's the case for Alice during an annual vacation in Florida.  Generally there are other kids as well, but not this year, the year she is turning 10 years old.  This year, the only other kid is the problematic Mallory, the 6-year-old daughter of Alice's Aunt Kate's new boyfriend.

So Alice spends her vacation, and her birthday, having attention lavished on her by the adults around her - but also having to be mature herself when relating to the troubled Mallory, who misses her far-away mom.  It's not always easy for Alice, who finds herself full of resentment and hurt when ancient Mr. Barden remarks that Mallory is the prettiest girl he ever saw.  But conquering her irritation and doing the right thing turns out to have its own rewards.

This is a quiet book on the surface, but full of the heaving emotions that can boil in sensitive people of any age, often unexpectedly or even inexplicably.  It feels a bit claustrophobic and intense at times; you just want Alice to be able to run along the seashore joyfully without being jostled about by currents of annoyance or sadness or disappointment or anger.  And she does, actually, but never for long - for small things do seem mighty fraught in Alice's life.  Perhaps it comes of being the only child of older parents and of having an aunt with no kids of her own, plus plenty of other adults in her life who spend a fair amount of their time thinking and caring about her.

The writing is beautiful and Alice's emotions are genuine and age-appropriate - but this feels like a grown-up book nonetheless.  Perhaps it was sentences like this one that took me out of Alice's head and made me feel like an adult observer - "She was loose jointed, and although she felt awkward much of the time, she often appeared graceful."  No kid would think about about herself or any other kid.

Thoughtful, introspective children may well feel that they've found a soul-mate in Alice, but even these kids may crave a tiny bit more action.

For ages 8 to 11.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Visions of sugarplums

To find out how some of my LAPL colleagues and I spent the summer, check out our School Library Journal reviews of December Holiday Books.

And bring on the eggnog, heavy on the rum!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Review of The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer

 Wolitzer, Meg.  The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman.  Dutton, 2011.

Three pairs of kids are competing in the Youth Scrabble Tournament:

April, paired with her best friend Lucy, is the lone Scrabble fanatic in a big family of jocks.  She wants to win the tournament, but she is also hoping against hope to see a boy she taught to play scrabble while staying at a motel three years ago.

Nate, paired with his friend Maxie, is a NYC skateboarder who would like to attend school but must stay home and study Scrabble all day thanks to his crazed dad, who lost the YST as a kid and is determined that Nate redeem his shattered pride.

And Duncan Dorfman is a kid with an inexplicable talent - he can "read" anything with the fingertips of his left hand.  You can see the applications to Scrabble (think about reaching into that bag full of tiles), if you don't mind cheating - and Carl, Duncan's amoral scrabble-mad classmate, doesn't mind cheating and very much wants to win the YST.  So he bullies Duncan into becoming his YST partner.

The kids play Scrabble.  They win some and they lose some.  They talk endlessly about bingo-bango-bongos and 2-letter words and anagrams.  Duncan worries about the secrets he is keeping and the lies he has told in order to take part in YST - because as it turns out, he learns to love Scrabble, enough to want to avoid using his magic fingertips.

There are some not very successful subplots - April's search for that motel boy; a very weird attempt at cheating by Nate's dad and his old YST partner; and the secret that Duncan's mom has been keeping all his life.  None of these is particularly interesting or convincing.

The fantasy element - Duncan's fingertips - feels utterly beside the point.  It serves merely as the reason Carl ropes him into the YST, plus as a source of tension for Duncan as he agonizes about whether or not to cheat.  It could have been left out entirely, especially since we never discover why or how he has this gift.

I did like all the Scrabble talk.  And the narrative style is easy-going with just a bit of quirk to keep things interesting (except when it goes overboard as in the Funswamp episode).  All in all, a perfectly pleasant but underwhelming book (won't call it a fantasy, because it hardly is) for grades 4 to 6.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A fan of any age....

A writer friend and I were talking the other day about the problem of children's and YA author programs at libraries.  There are two problems, actually.
1.  Attendance can be sparse
2.  Even if there is a good turn-out, the audience often consists of... grown-ups!
    Even at bookstore book signings and author appearances, kids and teens can be mighty scarce.  Case in point - Susan Patron's recent book signing at Skylight Books.  There was a packed house of fans, but only a handful of kids.  There are plenty of kids who read and love the Lucky books - but they don't turn out for book signings.

    Picture book writers can get an audience by working with the librarian to promote the appearance as a storytime that just happens to feature the writer of one or more of the books.  My mom, author of "Hi, Pizza Man" knew she couldn't build a whole program around one short picture book, so she developed a whole pizza-themed storytime, complete with masks for kids to act out her book.  Parents brought their kids because it sounded like a fun program.

    But it is much harder for a middle-grade or teen book writer.  Even if he or she has flogged social media nearly unto death and sent notices of the appearance hither and yon, this will at most generate an audience of - grown-up fans.

    Now, to this librarian, an audience is an audience and I'm happy to see them, no matter how old they are.

    But my writer friend protested that writers like to meet their readers, and would like to think their readers want to meet them.  Which makes absolute sense.

    But the more I think about it, the more impossible it seems that we'll ever get older kids and teens to come in droves.  Sure, some authors have a huge and avid fan base and will certainly attract a big audience of kids or teens if they appear.  But it's unlikely that they'll even hear about an author appearance if it doesn't happen to occur right at their library, since kids and teens don't follow twitter or author blogs. And let's face it, older kids and teens have a lot of autonomy when it comes to how they spend their time - and mostly, they will not choose to attend an author program if it's the slightest bit of bother, even if they have read that author's books (which is unlikely).

    I can understand n.  While meeting authors thrills me to the point of speechlessness, I don't seek these occasions out.  Why?  For most of us readers, it's about the book, not the author.  In some cases, I don't even want to know what the author looks like, much less meet him or her.  It's simply beside the point.

    And that's fine, isn't it?  Sure, librarians will still strive to get kids and teens to attend children's and teen author programs, because it's cool for kids to see that a real person created that book that transported them so magically - and that maybe writing (or illustrating) a book is something they might do themselves one day.  And writers do like to meet their young readers face to face.

    I'd suggest that the best way for writers to meet kids is to make presentations at schools.  Make arrangements with the teachers beforehand so at least some of the kids will have read the book - and then the writer has a captive audience (and one that is probably fairly grateful to be listening to an author rather than doing fractions).

    But the best way for librarians and writers to collaborate is to work together to get those books into the hands of kids.  It's okay for writers to talk to a big crowd of librarians, teachers, and other grown-ups who work with youth.  Why?  If they get all fired up, they'll read the books and then booktalk/handsell/promote the heck out of them to the kids they come in contact with.

    And kids do listen to librarians and teachers about books.  They won't try all the books we recommend, but they'll try a few.  And if they like those books, they'll try a few more.

    And that's the connection that matters - a young reader reading a writer's book.  A match made in heaven.

    Tuesday, September 27, 2011

    Can I be Lady Cool-Beans, please?

    Seen around the Internet:

    Those of you who have read N.D. Wilson's Dragon's Tooth will appreciate this chance to win a boxing monkey patch.  And everyone will appreciate that Wilson calls himself "Captain AWESOMESAUCE.  By order of the Queen."  I mean - right?!

    The City of West Hollywood has an amazing new library, part of the County of Los Angeles Public Library system (not to be confused, though it often is, with my own municipal Los Angeles Public Library system).  It's open now, but the grand opening is October 1Jackie Collins will be there!

    Speaking of October 1, that's when the Cybil nominations open.  You nominate your favorite kid and YA titles in the categories of your choice; expert kidlit bloggers read and discuss, then vote on the best ones.  The result?  Amazing lists of must-read titles.

    Some LA children's and YA authors write about being banned this week at the LA Review of Books Blog.

    Librarians are sometimes guys - here's proof.  Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the link.

    Monday, September 26, 2011

    The spice of life

    My younger daughter turns 17 tomorrow.

    She's reading Ursula LeGuin's The Farthest Shore, Jose Saramago's Blindness, and Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full - all at the same time.

    No matter where life takes her - she'll always have books.

    Sunday, September 25, 2011

    Sartre called it Bad Faith

     Today's Doonesbury strip struck me as particularly apt today.  There was a nice piece in the Parade about the effects of the economy on the Parker Public Library in Arizona, which, though depressing, showed that folks value the library.  Except then there's the fact that hundreds of library aides in LAUSD elementary schools just had their last day of work on Friday, a horrific and barbaric situation on which Steve Lopez has done a good job reporting.

    The powers that be, whether at LAUSD or in government, give lots of lip service to libraries (and to education and kids in general) - but all those things are the first to be cut.  If we were to gift politicians and bureaucrats with Skulls of Truth, they'd all sound a lot like our Honest Man above.  Who cares whether we have any educated or literate young adults 20 years from now?  Let's slash libraries and education and health care to the poor right now, 'cause it's low-hanging fruit.  After all, it'd be "class warfare" to pick on the poor rich people and apparently it's just useless to get anyone, Democrat or Republican, to understand that spending money on education today means spending less money on jails tomorrow (or rather, in 20 years - but that's science fiction to politicians) - not to mention that maybe, just maybe, it might be best to have citizens who are literate and well-educated and healthy and productive.


    Friday, September 23, 2011

    Review of Dragon's Tooth by N.D. Wilson

    Wilson, N.D. The Dragon's Tooth.  Random House, 2011.

    I finished this book a week ago but have put off reviewing it because it reminds me strongly of another book - or maybe a movie - and I've been wracking my brains trying to remember which one.  No matter, I'll charge on regardless.

    Siblings Cyrus and Antigone live in the seedy, molding motel that their older brother Daniel has been operating ever since their dad died and their mom lapsed into a coma.  This depressing and sorrowful life comes to an abrupt end when old Billy Bones shows up at the motel, bequeaths some magical objects to Cyrus (keys; a dragon's tooth, a small snake named Patricia) with the aid of his lawyer Horace, and promptly dies.

    Immediately, a very bad individual named Maxi and his henchman, sent by the sinister Mr. Phoenix, show up and all hell breaks loose.  Daniel is kidnapped, and Cyrus and Antigone just barely make it with Horace to the headquarters of The Order of Brendan, an ancient society of magical explorers, adventurers, and heroes.

    It turns out that Cyrus and Antigone's dad was a member of the Order - but not one in good standing.  Cyrus and Antigone are inducted as Acolytes - which brings Maxi and the rest of Mr. Phoenix's nasties down full-force upon the Order of Brendan.  They'll destroy everyone and everything to get those magical objects of Cyrus' - and only Cyrus, Antigone, and their friends can stop them.

    There is a great deal of fascinating secret-society lore going back hundreds of years; apparently plenty of famous folks and objects are linked to the Order of Brendan (or its nemeses).  Rick Riordan fans will enjoy the plucky, bantering kids and their relationships with adults good and bad, plus the link with ancient traditions and myths.  There is a hint of Neil Gaiman in the intricate details of a full and bustling secret world existing underneath and parallel to our own familiar world.  The ancient and mysterious artifacts, not to mention the dashing derring-do, bring to mind the Indiana Jones movies. And all those kids, teens, and adults hustling urgently here and there in various uniforms, learning ancient languages, flying planes, and practicing with weaponry - well, this is the part that reminds me of some book or movie and I can't think which.  Any thoughts?

    As with all his books (Leepike Ridge, the 100 Cupboards series), Wilson peppers Dragon's Tooth with quirky and complex characters.  Simple down-home folks have hidden depths; everyone has at least one secret under their sleeves, and both allies and traitors pop up when least expected.  The history of the Order and its members, not to mention the mysteries surrounding Cyrus' and Antigone's own family, is so tantalizingly hinted at that readers will finish the last page gasping for the next installment.

    Highly recommended for grades 5 to 8.

    P.S.  For some words from N.D. Wilson on his 5 kids, the inspiration for 100 cupboards, and more, click here.

    Thursday, September 22, 2011

    "Altruistic indulgence"

    Hudson Park, NYPL
    For a couple sneering quotes about children's librarians and storytelling from John Cotton Dana, plus other nuggets about Library Days of Yore, see my post on the ALSC Blog.

    Monday, September 19, 2011

    I sat next to Lindsey Philpott at dinner last night.  Lindsey Philpott is the Southern CA-based knot expert who served as consultant to Susan Patron as she wrote her Lucky trilogy.  That hammock Lincoln was creating in Lucky Breaks?  Mr. Philpott created a model for Susan, so she could see it and touch it and know exactly how to describe it.

    One would think that The Knot Guy would have string and yarn hidden about his person, but no - when we asked Mr. Philpott to demonstrate a knot, all he had on him was the string holding his glasses around his neck.  I can't remember the name of the knot, but apparently he tied this complex shape for the first time when he was 6 years old.

    Mr. Philpott described to me the anxiety of showing a knot, created slowly and painstakingly in solitude, to a fellow expert and hoping for approval rather than disappointment.  He sounded very much the way a writer feels, offering up a manuscript to be read for the first time.  The passion he feels for his work is clear (despite not having any string with him); he described in meticulous detail globe knots - all the different ways they can look, depending on type of line used and many of factors.  Some of them can have 100 sides!  I imagined them looking like D and D dice made of string.  When I googled "globe knot" looking for images, the one I chose (the one above, due to its beauty) turned out to have been made by - Lindsey Philpott!

    We were all at Skylight Books before dinner, celebrating the publication of Susan Patron's Lucky for Good with a packed house of writers and librarians and friends and fans.  It was a lovely way to end a literary weekend that also included a dinner with some Scholastic folks, some independent children's booksellers from the Southern CA , and - Allen Say!  He'd spoken at the Japanese American National Museum earlier that day. 

    It was fascinating talking children's books with booksellers rather than librarians.  Several mentioned that Brian Selznick's Wonderstruck was selling slowly due to its $29.99 price, $3 more than The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  The booksellers felt that it crossed a psychological barrier for customers, and no wonder when you could buy it on Amazon tonight for $16.49.  Or get it at the library for free.  Not that I said that.  Man, it's got to be tough being an independent bookseller.

    Though I think if Skylight Books was down the block instead of across town, I'd find myself spending quite a bit of money there...

    Saturday, September 17, 2011

    Reading (and Running) Season

    Though September and October are usually very warm months in Los Angeles thanks to the Santa Ana winds, a bit of cloud layer has some Angelenos hauling sweaters down from the top shelf.  Though it never snows and seldom rains, we cherish the changing of the seasons, even if we do have to use our imaginations quite a bit.

    For book award fanatics, there's no question that fall is right around the corner.  Not only are the fall books streaming in from publishers, but bloggers have cranked up their engines and have started circling the course.  At Heavy Medal, Nina and Jonathan have gotten their toes wet with some fun, kvetchy posts about too-long books and Over-praised Fantasies with Too Many Capital Letters, plus the expected discussion about Okay for Now's flaws in an otherwise amazing book.  Betsy has given us her fall predictions for both Newbery and Caldecott, adding to my need-to-read list.
    After resigning from the 2012 Newbery committee last January (full story here), I decided that this would be the year to read whatever the heck I wanted - YA, middle-grade, adult.  As a result, there are big holes in my reading for any one list, be it Printz or Newbery.  On the other hand, it's been a LOT of fun trying to catch up on my adult reading.  I keep notebooks for jotting down adult titles as I read PW, Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus, and I'm now only two notebooks behind, having finally caught up to 2009.

    That said, it may be time to toss those notebooks away and focus on Newbery and Printz-eligible titles for the remainder of the year.  Oh, but first I've got to read The Magician King by Lev Grossman!  And Vernor Vinge's The Children of the Sky...

    Hmm, this may be another year when I end up not having yet read the Newbery winner, ignominious as that is.

    LA Roadrunners
    By the way, it's the start of the running season, too - and thanks to our library system being open on Mondays again, my Saturdays are now mostly free to run with the LA Roadrunners again.  Meep meep!

    Wednesday, September 14, 2011

    Hard times call for hunny

    The paper was a bit disheartening today.  Poverty has hit a 50 year high in the United States, thanks mostly to our lack of jobs. 

    Like many library systems, my own can't remedy this problem in even the slightest degree.  I just heard that an extremely talented recent library school graduate, who has been yearning to work for the Los Angeles Public Library, simply can't afford to live in Los Angeles any longer and must return home.  We need her - and other young, dedicated librarians like her - at LAPL.  Jeez, it's frustrating.

    Meanwhile, the LA Unified School District is even worse off, library-wise.

    Time to self-medicate with a little Winnie-the-Pooh.

    Monday, September 12, 2011

    Summer dissection

    Signing up at the Platt Branch, LAPL
    What I've realized since taking on the planning of the summer reading program last year is that it's like a snake with its tail in its mouth; the summer hasn't even ended when planning for next year begins.

    The children's and teen librarians on the front lines are enjoying having completed summer reading for another year - but here in the Youth Services office, we never escape its insidious, time-sucking grip!

    We do have a few weeks of reflection on the successes and failures of the summer before plunging headlong into planning next month.

    Our summer reading program was run very differently this year in many different ways.  To name just a few, all 72 branches and Central Library used exactly the same game board (counting minutes read for kids and a combination of reading and activities for teens), the same prize structure, and the same start and stop date.  We added a preschool component, with its own game board highlighting early literacy activities, for the first time, and we used Evanced to keep track of registration.  Also, we gave everyone, from babies to teens, the chance to earn a free book.

    As we did last year, we collected surveys from kids and teens to measure their thoughts on various aspects of the program as well as to track how many were joining the program for the first year, second year, etc.  As in previous years, I also asked children's and teen librarians to fill out a report on what worked, what didn't, and how the program could be improved for next year.

    So now I have LOTS of data, more than we ever had before.  I know who signed up, ratio of boys to girls, how old they are, which branch they attended, and in which zip code they live.  I know how many kids and teens actually "finished" the program, as well as how many hours were read altogether by our reading club participants.  And just as importantly, I know what worked and what didn't, both from my own point of view and from the librarians out at the branches, and I know what librarians want from the program next year.

    We're forming a Summer Reading Program committee for the first time this year, rather than Youth Services planning the whole thing (it nearly killed us last year, I swear).  Actually, we'll have two committees - one to create the children's program and one to create the teen program.  These committees will decide on the details of the programs, from how incentives will be rewarded and what those incentives will be to what the game boards will look like.

    But I can tell them some things right away.  For instance, children's librarians (I haven't tabulated the teen librarians' reports yet, as I'm still missing a few - tsk!) overwhelmingly feel that the 2012 program should begin in mid-to-late June and should last 8 weeks.  Most think we should continue to count minutes read, though many would like to also give kids "credit" for attending programs, writing book reviews, and doing activities online.  Most librarians feel we should use Evanced again next year for registering and keeping track of statistics.

    Mostly, librarians really liked the new preschool component and so did families.  We could make it more exciting, though, by building in some progress similar to the children's and teen programs and by adding a small incentive or two in addition to the free book that folks who finished the game board got.

    As for improvements, here are the most common comments from children's librarians:
    • Make it more simple!!!!  (In particular, the "raffle ticket for every 2 hours of reading" was really onerous for staff to manage)
    • More and better incentives at the branch level!!! (Our big incentives were all based on centralized prize drawings, which felt too distant and detached to the kids, and we didn't have enough prizes for the 20,000 plus kids who signed up.  Biggest requests for branch incentives - lanyards and pencils)
    • Better give-away books!!!!  (We got thousands of books for pennies a book from First Book, but the choice of titles was limited, to say the least)
    And thanks to Evanced, I know that most of our children's reading program participants are 7 and 8 years old - and that by far, most 11 and 12-year-olds choose to join the teen program.  Girls outnumber boys, but by quite a narrow margin.  These are statistics that will help us shape next year's program more effectively - AND I'll be able to buy our giveaway books knowing how many I need for each age group.  This year, never having run a book give-away program during the summer and not knowing how many I'd need or for whom, I was flying in the dark.

    All in all, I'm really pleased with the results of this summer reading program despite some elements not working so well.  Trying new things has shaken us out of our usual summer ennui and gotten us thinking hard about what the summer reading program is all about and how to make it really valuable and dynamic.  Many librarians submitted amazing ideas for 2012 with their reports, and we've got plenty of volunteers for our committees.

     Truly, I'm even looking forward to our first SRP planning meetings in October.  Bring on 2012!

    Sunday, September 11, 2011

    Review of White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick

    Sedgwick, Marcus.  White Crow.  Roaring Brook Press, 2011.

    London teen dragged to a tiny town against her will, doomed to spend summer away from her friends - it's an old story.  And Rebecca's reluctant friendship with the village oddball, Ferelith, who is lonely, very smart, and troubled as heck, has a familiar ring to it as well.  Add to that a grand old building with a ghastly past, and you've got all the ingredients for a delicious Summer Gothic.

    Lest you roll your eyes, keep in mind that Sedgwick is a master in the fine art of creating tension and bringing it to the breaking point - and beyond.

     In third person, we learn Rebecca's side of the story.  She lives only with her dad, a police inspector who has been accused of negligence that resulted in the death of a teenaged girl; to get away temporarily from all the fuss and negative media attention, he has escaped with Rebecca to the dying town of Winterfold, on the English coast.  Rebecca is Not Thrilled. 

    Ferelith tells her own story, which has the effect of letting us get to know her more than anyone else has ever bothered to do but which becomes chilling when we realize we didn't really know her at all.  Like Rebecca, we find ourselves unable to gauge exactly how disturbed Ferelith might be.

    Oh, and then there's the truly creepy diary of a Winterfold pastor, recounting the grisly events that occurred - with his full cooperation - in 1798 at the Hall.  The reader knows that these events must be connected to the present day - and that it can't bode well.

    A supernatural chill runs through the story, bred by the pastor's obsession with hell and the devil.  What becomes clear is that humans can work plenty of evil without any help from the devil.

    The twist at the end is particularly compelling and keeps the book focused on what it is really about - loneliness and human connection.  Highly recommended for teens who relish a creepy, atmospheric read with a bit of depth. 

    Saturday, September 10, 2011

    Review of Lucky for Good by Susan Patron

    Patron, Susan.  Lucky for Good.  Atheneum, 2011.

    If you lived in Hard Pan, who would you be?  Are you a creative and thrifty Short Sammy type, living in a water tank?  Or are you more like Klincke Ken, who can fix anything and has a fondness for cats and donkeys?  Perhaps you're more like sociable Dot, who operates the only beauty salon in town or the Captain, who holds the only steady job with benefits that exists in Hard Pan (postmaster).

    Myself, I'd be Mrs. Prender, grandma of the smart-and-sweet 6-year-old Miles and mom of Miles' mom, Justine, who has just returned from a longish stint in prison. Mrs. Prender has been raising Miles as best she can, bringing him books from the library to feed his hunger for knowledge, and then her intense and complicated daughter returns as a new, passionate, and outspoken Christian.  The kind that takes the bible as literal and won't let her son read any books about dinosaurs or anything else that contradicts what the bible says about the creation of the earth.

    What a dilemma!  It's hard for Mrs. Prender, it's hard for Miles, it's even hard for Lucky.

    There are other things going on in Lucky's life, and the most dramatic is that the county, personified by Stu Burping, may have to close down Brigitte's Hard Pan Cafe due to a code violation that doesn't allow the commercial serving of food out of a residence.  Luckily, the eccentric and independent residents of Hard Pan prove themselves up to the task of teaming up to come up with an innovative solution, leading to a scene of outrageous hilarity and thrills when a tractor with no brakes, towing a cabin, heads slowly and precariously down the road.  Unbeknownst to the driver, Klincke Ken, the road ahead is filled with animals and people - so Lincoln and Lucky's friend Paloma jump aboard the tractor to warn him.  Klincke Ken can't hear him and is a little annoyed.
    "Later!" Klincke Ken shouted. "I'm a little busy!" He resolved to ignore those two and turned back around to face front and the home stretch.  And what he saw caused him to rise up in his seat.  Kids! And women! Half the blasted town, it looked like - all over the road!
    Homes and propane tanks on the left, a 4-foot drop to a sandy shoulder on his right, and no brakes!  The tension mounts but somehow the comedy does, too - until a combination of factors suddenly clears the road.  Klincke Ken accepts the miracle.  "The sky had never in his life been so blue, the air so pure, or the sun so brilliant."

    Lucky, being her usual slightly fierce and rather tenacious self, has her own troubles.  After socking a mean boy in the jaw (well, she had good reason, okay?), Lucky is assigned a task as punishment - to create her family tree.  And this means investigating her absent father's side of the family.  That Lucky handles this with style and aplomb demonstrates how much she has grown up since the day she ran away two books ago.  In The Higher Power of Lucky, Lucky is still quite fragile and desperate for reassurance and in Lucky Breaks, she is trying to handle some powerful and not so positive emotions.  Now, Lucky shows herself able to meet difficult situations head-on, with common sense and perspective.

    (well, except for that momentary loss of sanity when she punched that boy - ahem!)

    It's clear that Lucky is going to weather adolescence just fine.  Oh, it'll be rocky at times (because like I said, Lucky is both fierce and tenacious), but her sense of humor and her intelligence will see her through.  And Miles will be okay, too - because he's got a great friend in Lucky, plus a loving family in Justine and Mrs. Prender.

    And Lincoln?  Well, I'd definitely vote for him for president! 

    Hmm, this seems not to have been a review so much as a catching up on some folks I love to visit when I'm in the area.  So, to wrap it up - this is a funny, thought-provoking, and touching finale to Lucky's trilogy.  And I'm devastated that I won't be able to read about Hard Pan any more.  Nooooooooooo!