Monday, February 28, 2011

Review of Young Fredle by Cynthia Voight

Voight, Cynthia. Young Fredle. Illustrated by Louise Yates. Knopf, 2011.

Fredle is a young house mouse who resides with his family and other members of his tribe in the kitchen of a farmhouse, where life, while beset with dangers such as a cat and traps, is pretty good. When Fredle gets ill after eating a strange and delicious food (chocolate, as it turns out) and is cast out by his family (because no one can support a sick mouse that can't forage for itself), he is certain he will die. No mouse who has ever been cast out has ever come back.

Instead, he is tossed outside by the human lady of the house. There, Fredle meets new animals (outside mice; a friendly dog; gregarious but dangerous raccoons), sees stars and flowers for the first time, and learns to question, to listen, and to live boldly. When he does finally make it back inside to his family, he finds that he has changed too much to accept the old ways.

Although the jacket art and sweet drawings make this look like a book for young readers, the 240 page length make it clear that this is for the same kind of readers who devour Avi's Tales of Dimwood Forest books (Poppy et al) or Kate Dicamillo's The Tale of Despereaux. The exotic hazards of being a tiny creature in a large world also bring to mind Mary Norton's The Borrowers, and Fredle's adventures and the fascinating, eccentric creatures he meets remind me a bit of Russell Hoban's A Mouse and His Child. Fredle learns quite a bit from everyone he meets, from the brave, quarrelsome, hungry raccoons with their hooting laughter to sweet and loyal dog Sadie, and he realizes that life is full of wonders and should not be avoided or denied through timidity or fear. (we shy readers need to be reminded of that every once in a while, as well)

Though not every character is memorable, Fredle certainly stands out as a mouse of stature and worth - kids will enjoy getting to know him. Recommended for ages 9 to 12.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Another Saturday at the Library

Today at Central Library, patrons could choose between:

Taking a full-length SAT practice test (with a follow-up next week)

Sitting in on an Introduction to Investing

Listening to an Afternoon of Chamber Music, performed by members of the LA Philharmonic

Enjoying Get Well Soon stories and a puppet show

And taking in a fashion show presented by a group of talented teens

Don't forget those tens of thousands of books, movies, music, and more, plus computers and smart, friendly library employees.

All Free!!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Nominees, finalists, and more

The 2011 NCTE Notable Children's Books in the Language Arts list has been announced, and as usual, it's a good one!

The LA Times Book Prizes YA Literature finalists have been announced - there are the usual suspects but also a surprise or two. And how fabulous that Beverly Cleary has received the Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement!

And find the 2010 Nebula Award Nominees here, including the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy way at the bottom.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Review of Heart of a Samurai by Margie Preus

Preus, Margie. Heart of a Samurai. Abrams, 2010.

During a bad storm in 1841, the fishing boat that 14-year-old Manjiro and his companions were in is swept away from the Japanese coast, finally coming to rest at a barren island covered - at least for a short while - with hundreds of albatross. Just before they succumb to starvation, they are rescued by an American whaling ship commanded by Captain Whitfield. Manjiro's companions choose to be dropped off in Hawaii (or the Sandwich Islands as they were then known), but Manjiro has come to love life at sea and stays with the ship.

After months of whaling, Manjiro lives for a while in Massachusetts, staying with Captain Whitfield's family while attending school, helping out on the farm, and apprenticing with a cooper. Finally, his itch to go back to Japan becomes so extreme that he sails off to California, where he finds enough gold to finance his trip back to Japan. Although the Japanese rulers are very wary about Manjiro's experiences Outside, they see finally that he is a valuable resource at a time when the eastern and western worlds are finally coming in contact. This story is based quite closely on the real Manjiro's experiences and includes many sketches he made during and after his travels.

Manjiro is portrayed as an eager and curious teen with a quick mind and an adventurous spirit. It's easy to see why Captain Whitfield liked him so well that he took him into his own home, and how he came to be accepted by so many despite prejudice concerning his race and origins. That prejudice was always present in some form or another, but Manjiro seems to have been able to shrug it off, quoting his mother, "Fall down 7 times; get up 8 times."

I adore a good sea adventure, so I particularly relished the scenes that take place on various ships, spiced as they are with plenty of salty sailor slang and plenty of action. By contrast, the Massachusetts sections are more staid, with most of the tension coming from a bully who won't leave Manjiro alone. Those hoping for richly detailed gold mining scenes will be disappointed, as they are the most minimal part of the book.

Although this isn't one of those books I clasped to my chest with fervent love when I came to the last page (admit that you do this sometimes!), Heart of a Samurai is fascinating for its basis in true events and appealing for its vibrant main character. The tone was a bit reserved and I remained at a distance emotionally, but I had no problem finishing the book. The back matter is intriguing; I would have loved even more of it.

Recommended for fans of swashbuckling sea adventures like Karen Hesse's The Stowaway and Iain Lawrence's The Smugglers (and others in that series).

Winner of the 2010 Newbery Honor Award

Friday, February 18, 2011

Susan Patron loves libraries

It was so lovely to wake up to an eloquent essay on the value of libraries in today's LA Times, written by Susan Patron.

"Measure L stands for Los Angeles libraries, for light-filled open reading rooms, for lasting benefits for children and families and seniors, for literature and leisure reading, for the promise of literacy to those who cannot yet read and for librarians who offer an array of professional services that will enhance the quality of life for all of us."

Please vote yes on Measure L, and show the world that libraries matter to Angelenos.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My Big Fat Google Feed Reader

I wander away from my feed reader for just a few days and look what happens - I miss all this great stuff!

Thanks to Fuse #8 for sharing this scrotolicious video:

You probably already know that the 2010 Cybils Winners have been announced. Yay for The Strange Case of Origami Yoda!

You have probably also read Scott Turow's praise of libraries, but in case you haven't, here it is.

Speaking of libraries, our own Los Angeles Public Library has a great need of praise, money, and tender loving care. Read all about Measure L on the March 8 ballot at Save the Library and Yes on Libraries.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Unfinished books

It happens once in a while - I'll start a book but then decide not to finish it. Usually, I'll give it a minimum of 20 pages, and more often 50 or more, and if it hasn't sucked me in, I toss the book aside (unless, of course, I'm supposed to review or discuss the darn thing).

Do you suffer pangs of guilt when you don't finish a book? Usually I don't. There are plenty of fine books in the world and not nearly enough time. Why plod through a book when you could be soaring?

I am, however, feeling slightly guilty about abandoning Great House by Nicole Krauss. It's gotten kudos and great reviews galore since its publication in fall 2010, and I got my hands on it a couple weeks ago, fortuitously just after learning that in fact I'd have time to read adult novels this year.

But I can't get into it, after multiple tries and in several different moods. The book is obviously well-written and carefully crafted. But - Great House has failed to offer me that deep, immersive reading experience that I crave. Maybe it's not what I need right now, maybe it's a matter of taste, maybe it's too lofty for me (yes, that last thought is worrisome - am I just too darn middle-brow? Not that this book is intellectually demanding...).

But man - how can I not enjoy a book on which so many folks are heaping praise?

This does make me think of that old Newbery issue concerning readability and appeal for kids. It's clear that no matter how praised and fabulous a book may be, not every kid in going to be swept away by a Newbery book, simply because it's a Newbery book. In fact, some folks argue that Newbery winners are sometimes less likely to appeal to your average kid. I'm not going to get into that whole discussion here, because to me it's a moot point. Appealing to the greatest number of kids is NOT what the Newbery is about.

But my inexplicable inability to like Great House (and I'm particularly predisposed to derive enjoyment from books!) gives me plenty of sympathy and understanding for kids who can't get cozy with a book that it seems practically everyone else in the universe has adored. My own 16-year-old, a voracious reader of fantasy, tried several times to read Hunger Games (at my disbelieving insistence) before it finally "caught" enough to entice her to read the whole trilogy. But her reading experience was much more detached than usual - she found it hard to dive in and forget the world around her. Why? It just didn't do it for her.

Reading a truly fine book - the kind you turn to again and again throughout your life - can be a transformative and enriching experience, and it's something librarians hope to impart to kids. But reading books that make you laugh out loud or stay up too late is also magical experience, even if those books aren't generally considered particularly great literature. If we can get a kid addicted to a paperback series, that is a job well done - especially if that kid comes back to us for more recommendations.

So maybe I'll give Great House another try in a year or so. In the meantime, I'm faced with the delicious quandary of what to read next!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Review of The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith

Smith, Andrew. The Marbury Lens. Feiwel and Friends, 2010.

16-year-old Jack is kidnapped by a psychopath but is almost miraculously able to free himself. Rather than tell anyone (like, say, the police), he and his best friend Conner try to take revenge on the creep themselves, but things go horribly wrong.

And then - off Jack flies to London for a long-planned trip. Already eaten up with almost unbearable feelings of anguish about what happened, he can barely function and is worried he's going crazy. And that's before he is given a pair of glasses that takes him to a nightmarish alternate world called Marbury, where he is desperately trying to save himself and two younger boys from hordes of cannibalistic plague-ridden ex-humans called Hunters. Bouncing between London and Marbury is disorienting enough, but there's also a ghost called Seth, a pretty girl named Nickie, and Jack's intense feelings about that kidnapping and its aftermath to contend with. And then Conner arrives in London, and suddenly everything gets even more complicated.

This is one grim, gripping story. Jack is a normal teen, awkward, occasionally crude, but mostly a good person - and the stuff that happens to him is just way out of whack. The only thing that makes this book bearable to read (besides being well-written and addictively suspenseful, that is) is Jack's budding relationship with Nickie. She is too good to be true and never quite comes fully to life, but she provides some much needed relief to Jack and to the reader. And the relationship between Jack and Conner, though often strained by the situation, is vivid and realistic.

Marbury is a bleak desert full of hideously defiled bodies and utterly depraved creatures who are bent on destroying every last shred of humanity. I was reminded of lots of different films and books - The Terminator, with its scenes of a future in which humans are desperately fighting a losing war against robots, and McCarthy's The Road, with a future full of starving humans raping and eating each other, and Terry Brooks' Demon Series, in which a man is constantly bombarded with visions of what the world will become if evil wins out over good.

This is a complicated story, with many different interpretations and unanswered questions. What is Marbury, and why do some people experience that world and this one? The answer seems to have to do with the trauma Jack underwent with the kidnapper - but again, it's not clear. The end of the book is as fraught with tension and uncertainty as anything that happened before, so if you don't like stories without clear resolutions, don't read this book. But if gut-wrenching situations and ambiguous but taut plots are your cup of tea, the Marbury Lens is for you.

There are sexual situations (explicit though far from hardcore) and plenty of gruesome violence. Recommended for unsqueamish readers ages 14 and up.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lucifer at the Library

Conspiracy theorists and fans of Dan Brown will appreciate this surprisingly well-written look at the "Occult Symbolism" permeating the Los Angeles Public Library's Central Library. Includes photos!

A fine quote from the conclusion:

"To most people, the Los Angeles Public Library is nothing more than a functional building, which happens to be beautifully ornamented. When one understands the occult symbolism displayed around the complex, the Library turns into a temple of illumination, dedicated to occult mysteries and Masonic principles. It is a celebration of the accomplishments of the luciferian elite and of the prevailing of its occult philosophy. The fact that the library is dedicated to secret societies, despite the fact that the LAPL is publicly funded, tells volumes about the true nature of America’s power."

Jeepers! I always wondered about those sphinxes, which are found right outside the door to our Teen'Scape department...

Monday, February 7, 2011

Review of Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett

Hartnett, Sonya. Butterfly. Candlewick Press, 2010.

Plum Coyle is turning 14, which makes her life feel full of possibility - and yet there are those troublesome friends, frustrating parents, a body that feels like a science experiment going wrong, and an inability to behave in just the right way. Plum finds support and possible friendship from her next-door neighbor Maureen, a self-confident and beautiful woman with a young child, but then is forced to question Maureen's motives when she discovers that Maureen is having an affair with Plum's 20-something brother Justin.

Plum's life is one big Awkward Phase. Reading this, I was plunged back into my adolescence, during which I wanted more than anything to just be invisible so no one could witness my gawky, bespectacled, desperately uncomfortable existence. Or no - like Plum, I knew the best thing would be to not care at all what people thought - but that was even more impossible than becoming a graceful, lovely teen.

Plum's efforts to grasp some control over her life are strange and rather pathetic - and yet are intriguing enough to grant the readers some insight into this imaginative and worthwhile person. Her friends are fairly awful, at least in a group, but we can see why they are rather fed up with Plum, who has decided that she can't just be herself with this crowd but can't figure out what to say or do instead. Plum is difficult, needy, and desperate for insight, and that last is exactly what makes her a worthy and interesting character - and one to whom many readers will relate.

The narration doesn't just stick to Plum, but, butterfly-like, lights occasionally upon Maureen and Plum's brothers Justin and Cydar. Cydar, a contemplative and moody 22-year-old, is a particularly poignant character; his feelings and worries about Plum, whom he has loved intensely since she was born, are strong and painful.

Plotwise, this is a typical adolescent slice-of-life, with Mean Girl friends and betrayed trust, but the breezy and quirky intensity of the narration, as well as Plum's vividness, raise this book above many novels for teens.

Recommended for ages 11 to 14.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Review of Factotum by D.M. Cornish

Cornish, D.M. Factotum (Part 3, Foundling's Tale). Putnam, 2010.

Young Rossamund, who started life as a foundling and was apprenticed out as a Lamplighter at a tender age, now finds himself the proud if wary factotum of Miss Europe, teratologist (ie monster-slayer) extraordinaire and Duchess-in-waiting. As such, he must prepare the "treacle" that keeps Europe's strange, man-made innards in working order, assist during monster-slaying expeditions, and in general do whatever Europe needs him to do.

As readers of Foundling and Lamplighter know, these are no easy tasks - especially considering that Rossamund not only feels a sympathy for monsters (and has been labeled a "sedorner" or monster-lover) but may actually be one himself. Rossamund manages to get himself in lots of hot water in the large town of Brandenbrass, but luckily his old friends Craumpalin and Fransitart have his back - as does the complicated and always fascinating Europe.

It isn't so much the plot as the atmosphere of these three books that is so compelling. Cornish uses a vocabulary all his own to create a rich and imaginative world, with cuisine, mode of dress, slang, history, religion, pastimes, and more all lovingly described - and if there isn't room in the narrative itself, there's a long glossary at the back of each book. When a new character appears, his clothing, hairstyle, and complexion are all laid out for the reader, and if that weren't enough, we often get an expressive drawing of the character as well, complete with labels detailing the finer points of the outfit. This all has the effect of plunging the reader straight into a complex and vibrant place that exists in its own right, always has, and always will.

The text is so dense with exotic words, however, that it's a bit like reading a book in a language in which you are not yet fluent. There is much flipping back and forth from the text to the glossary - and frustratingly, most of the terms are not even in the glossary, having already appeared in the glossary of the first or second book or simply not being explained at all. To prevent getting completely bogged down, the reader must let go of total comprehension and just flow with the story despite the many rocks and boulders of unknown words. Still, it can be exhausting.

By the end of the book, Rossamund has not only come to terms with who he is but knows how he will conduct the next phase of his life. It's a relief to see the sturdy but vulnerable foundling grow into a new maturity, but it's also bittersweet - Rossamund doesn't have an easy road ahead of him, and readers will wish they could find out where his journey takes him.

I'm quite certain that readers won't need to give up the Half-Continent altogether, luckily. Cornish has put so much time, thought, and energy into his world that we'll be reading more adventures set there, count on it.

March 8 - be a hero

Live in Los Angeles? Love your library?

Vote Yes on L - March 8!

For more information, go to and

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Little Rabbit FooFoo

2011 has already been something of a rollercoaster ride, so I was heartened by a colleague's reminder that Chinese New Year begins tomorrow. Hurray, a whole new start to the year!

But according to several accounts, including this one, the Year of the Rabbit 2011 may not be as placid and safe as one would hope. Drat it! We need a soft and amiable bunny, not a Fierce Bad Rabbit, to help us recuperate from last year's Tiger.

On a bright note, there are certainly plenty of good rabbit books and stories to help usher in the New Lunar Year - so we can count on some successful storytimes at the very least!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

That great democratic space

If you haven't read Philip Pullman's speech on his reaction to the proposed closure of 20 of the 43 Oxfordshire public libraries, you really must. His remarks on the idiocy of staffing libraries with volunteers and of having to "bid" for money for libraries are cutting and very, very apt.

And oh, how his words on his personal relationship with books and libraries resonate! Here's what he says about the reading experience:

And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?

If anyone can convey it, Philip Pullman can.