Thursday, April 30, 2009

Words I Looked Up This Week

Chthonic--of or relating to the underworld. The “ch” is silent, so it’s pronounced “thawnic.” The alternative would be chthonian, with a long o. I don’t know if I’ll ever have occasion to use it, but I like it!

Puce--I keep seeing this word and not quite knowing what color it is, so I finally checked. That would be a dark grayish purple or a purplish red. It’s a homely sounding word, isn't it? Too close to puke for my liking, but nevertheless a handy addition to the mental dictionary.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Thanks to Farida, Minh, and Harold!

Okay, I’d like to thank my mother, my six brothers and sisters, my chiropractor, and my neighbor across the street, also SCBWI. Yes, I actually won a contest! But mostly I had a VERY good time writing entries for Farida and Minh's cool competition, Picture Book Sequels That Never Were. (Instead of working on my current manuscript, ’cause who wants to do that?) My prize-winning entry was a sequel to Harold and the Purple Crayon called Harry and the Can of Purple Spray Paint. Check out the announcement of my win, then scroll up (and down!) to read more entries, all of them very funny in different ways, at Farida’s website, Saints and Spinners. Then take a look at Minh’s new jacket art for my entry and many others at wry and hilarious Bottom Shelf Books. I especially like the sequel to Kitten’s First Full Moon! I also like knowing how funny and warped (in a GOOD way) the people who love children’s books can be. And here’s a picture of the prize Farida sent me in its new home with other artful oddments atop my file cabinet. That would be the handmade green butterfly herder with his blue donkey standing front and center. I believe Farida will be selling her dolls starting in May at a site called Alkelda, so watch for them!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Review of Help Me, Mr. Mutt! by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel

I’ve liked Janet Stevens’s work for years—she may be best known for her Caldecott Honor book, the folktale Tops and Bottoms, but my personal favorite is her rendition of The Three Billy Goats Gruff, complete with the biggest goat brother in a leather motorcycle jacket and dark glasses. Priceless!

Help Me, Mr. Mutt! by Stevens and her sister came out about a year ago, in Spring 2008, but if you’re like me, you missed it. I discovered the book a few months ago, and I’ve been sharing it with friends ever since. I suppose the ideal audience for this picture book would be dog lovers, but pet owners in general and just about anyone with a sense of humor will probably appreciate it.

Mr. Mutt gives us a series of letters from dogs to a canine Dear Abby whose responses will amuse humans because they implement dog logic, not people logic. For example, a dachsund writes that he is wasting away because his owners have put him on a diet. Adding to the humor, he includes a drawing of himself as stick thin—alongside a photo that shows he truly is plump. Mr. Mutt’s advice? Swipe people food. The counselor includes a doggy food pyramid which indicates that dry dog food should be avoided and things like hamburgers, birthday cakes, and Thanksgiving turkeys should be ingested at a high rate. Mr. Mutt recommends that big dogs scavenge on countertops, while smaller dogs will have to use teamwork. Checking the trash or lying under the baby’s highchair should also help. And for an after-dinner drink, try the toilet.

If it just consisted of these letters, the book might not quite work. But there’s a running gag which provides a narrative thread: Mr. Mutt and his correspondents are constantly exchanging jibes about spoiled house cats, and a cat named The Queen in Mr. Mutt’s own home takes offense. The cat, who is apparently lurking beneath the very table where Mr. Mutt is typing, begins inserting warning letters on regal stationery, e.g., “Watch it, Muttface. Cats are not spoiled rotten. Especially me. I am royalty. I am The Queen. P.S. The Queen would never drink from a toilet.” Little by little, as the book progresses, The Queen gets more angry, until at last she goes after Mr. Mutt, who must then be rescued by his loyal fans.

The humor in this book is on the sophisticated side--a four-year-old wouldn’t really get it. But six- to eight-year-olds should be vastly amused, especially with some help from a grown-up reader and more particularly if they own cats and/or dogs. Be sure to look at the final endpaper, which rounds out the tale. Help Me, Mr. Mutt! may be something of a niche picture book, but it is also the funniest thing I’ve seen since The Flim-Flam Fairies.

A Review of Bubble Trouble by Margaret Mahy and Polly Dunbar

New Zealander Margaret Mahy is one of those rare authors who writes cross-genre with incredible skill: picture books, humorous chapter books, and dark, sophisticated books for teens. Before there was ever such a character as Edward Cullen, I fell in love with the troubled witch boy in her classic supernatural tale, Changeover. But today I’m reviewing something at the other end of the spectrum, Mahy’s latest giddy picture book, Bubble Trouble.

The story is fairly simple: a little girl named Mabel is blowing bubbles and one bubble lifts her baby brother into the sky, where he floats along, chased by a growing crew of would-be rescuers as colorful as that chain of goose-grabbing people in the old fairy tale about making a sad princess laugh. As her brother is faced with increasing peril late in the story, Mabel manages to save the day.

This is all very nice, but what it doesn’t tell you is just how amazing the rhymes are. We’re talking page after page of near-tongue twisters. The internal rhymes in particular are works of genius. If Bruce Degen’s Jamberry went to Oxford University, I’m thinking it would graduate as Bubble Trouble.

In fact, enough of the vocabulary words in this book are rather elevated that some people might be a tad intimidated by them:

In her garden, Chrysta Gribble had begun to cry and cavil at her lazy brother, Greville, reading novels in his bed. But she bellowed, “Gracious, Greville!” and she groveled in the gravel when the baby in the bubble bibble-bobbled overhead.

I’m here to tell you that this book is worth it—your child won’t need to understand every word to follow the story, and the rollicking sounds of the words will be a pleasure to adult readers and lap listeners alike.

For their part, Polly Dunbar’s lively illustrations contribute great good humor to the narration. Watch for the innovative use of a Scrabble board in both the art and the story telling, for example. I also really liked Dunbar’s work on Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters’s terrific poetry collection, Here’s a Little Poem. She’s one of those British illustrators we need to import more often.

If you want an upbeat read as well as a workout for your tongue, get your hands on Margaret Mahy’s Bubble Trouble and share it with the nearest small human!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Review of A Walk Through a Window by kc dyer

I’ll start with my bias alert: This book is by a member of my writing group, kc Dyer! kc is the author of the Eagle Glen trilogy, about a girl named Darrell Connor who travels through time to Scotland, Italy, England, and Spain at crucial points in history and deals with villainous intrigues; she is also the author of Ms. Zephyr’s Notebook, about three kids who share a teacher—and secrets—on a hospital ward.

With A Walk Through a Window, Dyer returns to time travel, this time in her native Canada. Our intrepid traveler is Darby Christopher, a teenage girl whose parents send her to a small town on Prince Edward Island for the summer. Darby stays with her grandparents, but as the book begins, two things are apparent: Darby doesn’t want to be there, and something is wrong with her grandfather.

While exploring the neighborhood on her skateboard, a cranky Darby meets a boy named Gabriel who apparently lives in an abandoned house. After hearing her complaints about being stuck in a small town instead of Toronto, Gabriel pulls her into a series of time travel adventures. A shadowy Darby joins the Inuits crossing the Bering Strait, the Irish fleeing the Potato Famine to worse troubles on a coffin ship, and finally some later immigrants who turn out to have a direct connection to her own family.

Along the way, Darby loses her attitude, caught up in her curiosity about the past. She also grows a little more patient with her grandpa, who is beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s. In fact, the subplot with Darby and her grandfather, which at first seems less important in the book, eventually takes center stage, becoming especially poignant in the final chapter or two.

This book is about history, but it is also about family. As the author gently reminds us, our families make us who we are. Like the inuksuk, a small Native Canadian sculpture made out of a hodge-podge of rocks and used to good symbolic effect in A Walk Through a Window, our lives are composed of bits and pieces of experience and heritage. Take a walk with Darby, and discover what it means to come from somewhere.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

What Is It with British Writers and Fantasy?

There’s just something about British fantasy—but what is it? You’ve heard of the “It” factor in Hollywood (no doubt sex appeal), but what is the “It” factor when it comes to fantasy, and how come British writers seem to be so very good at that particular genre?

Or, to be less intimidating about it, since many American fantasy writers are very talented, how is British fantasy unique? To answer that question, we obviously need to compare Monty Python and the Holy Grail to I Love Lucy, or Wallace and Gromit to The Simpsons, or When Harry Met Sally to Bridget Jones’s Diary. Therein we will surely find the answer, especially if we stick blithely to sweeping generalizations, which I hereby pledge to do in today’s post.

Actually, I looked at a couple of lists of American film comedies and TV shows, trying to decide what they have in common, and I concluded that Americans are very good at what the term “sitcom” tells us: situational comedy. Our humor is based on plot twists. We’re especially good at putting people in embarrassing situations and watching what happens—e.g., I Love Lucy, Everybody Loves Raymond, Get Smart, Seinfeld, and just about every “reality” show ever made. And just like in reality shows, the situations we find funny tend to be derived from things that do actually happen, or things that could happen very easily.

In contrast, British humor tends to lean towards the surreal—witness any number of scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but just for instance, take the one where the guy’s arms and legs have all been chopped off and he’s yelling at his opponent to come back and fight. Or the killer rabbit, or the coconuts. It’s all kind of nuts, and I mean that in a good way!

Combined with the strangeness, we get a real deadpan reaction from the characters. When something goes wrong for Lucy, she scrambles to handle it, but ends up flipping out. Wallace of Wallace and Gromit fame, like other British comedic characters, reacts to the most bizarre happenings with equanimity and an air of faint puzzlement.

Which brings me back to books: there’s something literary, not to mention clever, about British comedy, and about British fantasy writing. The words that keep coming to mind are wit and whimsy. I realize these tend to be used stereotypically, but then, stereotypes can have their roots in truth. I suppose we can define wit as cleverness and surprising humor. Just what is whimsy? Overused, it can become saccharine attempts to be cute, or as the British themselves, especially Terry Pratchett, might say, “twee.” But whimsy is creativity with a cheery grin. It is the oddly hopeful thought processes of a child, taking us to strange places which are not inhabited by vampire boyfriends, but rather by giant, traveling peaches and by baby griffins who eat too much and require our young heroes to earn extra money in order to feed them (thanks to Roald Dahl and Joan Aiken, respectively).

Beyond offering up solid plotting and appealing characters, children’s books—especially fantasy—really should surprise us. I’ve written before on this blog about the Fresh Factor, by which I mean innovation, the kinds of plots and language and details that make us sit up and take notice. Perhaps it’s a sad tribute to the televisionization of American culture that so many of our stories are prone to being predictable. In any case, I don’t know why some of the best or certainly most off-the-wall fantasy is British, but I can only surmise that there’s a little less TV involved and a lot more Lewis Carroll.

Whatever the explanation, the most innovative children’s fantasy I’ve read in recent years has been by British writers. This may seem like a cruel thing to say considering all of the excellent American fantasy out there, but I’m comparing good books to other good books, truly. My point is simply that the most fantastical fantasy tends to be British. There’s Diana Wynne Jones with her dragon’s blood smugglers and moving castles, Terry Pratchett with his frying pan-wielding young witch and his tidal wave-and-ghost-washed island, and Philip Reeve with steampunk space adventures and moving cities that devour smaller cities, for example. Not to mention Garth Nix’s bell sorceress in the land of the dead or his key-seeking Arthur Penhaligon in the seriously strange House, let alone Neil Gaiman’s Other Alice and Mowgli-in-a-Cemetery. (Yes, I realize Garth Nix is Australian, but I’ve decided to lump him in!) Frankly, one of the most original concepts I’ve seen in years is from a less well-known book, Eva Ibbotson’s Dial-a-Ghost, in which a temp agency that places ghosts in houses gets two orders mixed up. I also recently read the collected Armitage Family stories by Joan Aiken in The Serial Garden—and really, if you want to know what I mean by British wit and whimsy, her book perfectly exemplifies the phrase.

Of course, the big name in British fantasy today is J.K. Rowling. People who fuss about her rather ordinary prose are completely missing the point, which is that this is the woman who invented Bertie Bott’s Many Flavored Beans and quidditch. Besides the lovable characters, it’s those crazy, brilliant details that lift the Harry Potter books out of the ordinary.

And despite all the press, Rowling hasn’t actually unseated Roald Dahl—his stuff is still the best bet I know of for almost any eight-year-old on the planet. Talk about wit and whimsy! Golden tickets for the possibility of entrance to a mysteriously unknown chocolate factory? A girl who chews a stick of gum and turns into an oversize blueberry? I won’t get into lions and witches and wardrobes, but I hope you get the idea.

I got started thinking about all this because I read two British fantasies this week: Magical Kids by Sally Gardner and The Deep Freeze of Bartholomew Tullock by Alex Williams. I didn’t realize they were British at first, but I started getting the feeling I wasn’t in Kansas anymore and checked those back flaps to see where the authors were from. Suspicions confirmed!

Neither book is amazing, though both are pretty good. Magical Kids is a flip book—one side is a novella called The Smallest Girl Ever and the other is one called The Boy Who Could Fly. The idea of a shrinking child is not new, nor is the rather pop psychology explanation that Ruby Genie shrinks because adults are belittling her. The idea of a boy getting his wish to be able to fly is an oldie, as well, and it’s burdened by a creaky subplot about a dad who has forgotten how to have fun. But in each case, the story telling rolls cheerfully along just the same—especially in The Smallest Girl Ever, whose title character spends part of the book inhabiting a ladies’ purse while improving the magic tricks of an inept but helpful magician. (Apparently this is the second volume, by the way; the first volume consists of The Strongest Girl in the World and The Invisible Boy.)

The Deep Freeze of Bartholomew Tullock features one of those moustache-twirling villains intent on taking the family farm, also the farmwife. Only in this case, the farm is an oddly crafted house where the Breezes make intricate mechanical fans, and the farmwife is Elizabeth Breeze. Bartholomew Tullock has turned the town into a wintry, miserable place where everyone but the Breezes works in his turnip fields under a dark gray sky. As the villain increases the pressure, Madeline Breeze and her father leave town with a charming con artist to try to sell their fans in a warmer climate, while Rufus Breeze and his mother try to keep the bad guys from destroying their house. The book is a fun, fast-paced read, but as other reviewers have pointed out, the best thing about The Deep Freeze is the fans, which are utterly bizarre and are described in loving detail, making readers want to own one.

Like Magic Kids, The Deep Freeze of Bartholomew Tullock is a good way to spend an afternoon. Bo
th books have that sense of whimsy, a valuable commodity in a fantasy world often overrun by dour plotting.

Of course, all is not lost on the American front. Going back to humor, I am happy to report that Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and sequels actually give British humor a run for its money (particularly Louise Rennison!). And when it comes to TV, I am both relieved and proud to say that The Simpsons makes up for any number of predictable, unfunny TV comedies cobbled together by less creative Americans.

As for children’s fantasy, I suppose we can attempt to claim Neil Gaiman, despite the deplorable persistence of his entrancing accent. More important, we have some innovative newcomers appearing on the horizon: Marie Rutkoski (The Cabinet of Wonders), Ingrid Law (Savvy), and Joseph Helgerson (Horns and Wrinkles) all seem promising.

But let’s focus on the really kooky stuff. For madcap, whimsical, Britishy off-the-rails books, there are two American writers to watch: Ysabeau S. Wilce and James Kennedy. Wilce is the author of Flora Segunda: Being the Magical Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. The sequel, just in case you can’t guess, is Flora’s Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room). The first book tends to ramble, but is nevertheless something new and intriguing—imagine a California about a century or so ago if the Aztecs were still around and had territorial rights, and if all concerned had magical abilities. Throw in a teenager with a Califan slang vocabulary and insufficient supervision, then watch what happens. Flora’s mother is the Califan military leader, while Flora herself is a rambunctious fourteen-year-old who gets suckered by a banished magical butler. I will say that the second book hangs together better. (It is also more clearly a Young Adult title.)

James Kennedy’s The Order of Odd-Fish isn’t perfect, but it is astonishing and funny. Here’s my Amazon review:

Jo was discovered as a baby by the flamboyant actress, Lily LaRouche, inside a washing machine, accompanied by a note that read: “This is Jo. Please take care of her. But beware. This is a DANGEROUS baby.” When our story opens, Jo is thirteen years old, living with Aunt Lily in the extravagantly moldering ruby palace in the middle of the California desert. The night of Lily's annual costume Christmas party, a Russian colonel whose actions are directed by his intestinal rumblings shows up, as does a narcissistic giant cockroach butler, not to mention a package for Jo that falls out of the sky. Chapter One ends, “After that, everyone had the leisure to start screaming.”

Soon Jo and company are being chased by a billionaire with evil aspirations. They end up in Eldritch City, where Jo finds out just why she is considered dangerous and must continue to hide her identity from her newfound friends, fellow squires to the Knights of the Order of Odd-fish. The order is working on making, not an encyclopedia of all knowledge, but an appendix “of dubious facts, rumors, and myths.... A repository of questionable knowledge, and an opportunity to dither about.”

As this task implies, author James Kennedy prefers to range along the road from the absurd to the ridiculous, stopping along the way in the outrageous. He also makes arguably masculine side trips into the realms of bodily functions and violence.

The plot is a little uneven in spots, perhaps because Kennedy combines one of those dark end-of-the-world story lines with the aforementioned nuttiness—and sometimes these two efforts seem to pull each other sideways. A few bits and pieces work better than others: I didn’t quite buy the parts involving a pie-loving character called Hoagland Shanks, for example. However, many OTHER bits are simply hilarious—and refreshingly creative. The rituals related to dueling, particularly the exchange of insults, are among Kennedy’s bizarre gems. Think of Eldritch City as the love child of Lewis Carroll and Neil Gaiman. It is well worth the trip.

I will caution you that Kennedy does not shy away from big words, nor from an irony worthy of a satirist writing for adults. I suspect a lot of the humor will sail right over young readers’ heads, although Lemony Snickett has already established a precedent for using irony and obscure vocabulary in children's books. Watch in particular for the subplot involving the vain cockroach butler, Sefino, and his archenemy, a centipede newswriter.

I can’t resist closing this review with the most astonishing sentence in The Order of Odd-Fish, a lovingly concocted work of art that will give you some idea what you’re in for: “But soon Ken Kiang found he was both cat and mouse in a bewildering showdown with the Belgian Prankster, in which strategies of ever greater sophistication were deployed, canceled, reversed, appropriated, adapted, and foiled; pawns sacrificed, attacks repulsed, fortresses stormed and captured, treaties signed and betrayed, retreats faked and traps sprung, territory gained, lost, besieged, divided, despoiled, and exchanged—it was a shadow world, of infinite levels of deceit and disguise, of decoys that were Trojan horses full of more decoys that were red herrings in non-mysteries that had neither a solution nor a problem, concerning people that didn't exist in a place that was nowhere in a situation that was impossible!” (275)

Frankly, I can’t wait to see what Kennedy writes next.

Now, I suppose this idea of British fantasy I’ve been trying to describe may be a style—and it may even be partly imaginary. (How apt!) But if there’s a lesson American fantasy writers can learn from the Brits, it is that we needn’t limit ourselves to simply finding a new method for establishing a portal to another world or swiping a medieval setting and introducing sorcerers. There’s a special kind of risk-taking involved in letting your imagination go significantly farther afield. So perhaps with this entry, I’m issuing a challenge to children’s fantasy writers, myself included. Because the mind can come up with far more creative worlds and plots and details if you will only let it travel higher into the ether.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Review of Mama Says: A Book of Love for Mothers and Sons by Rob D. Walker and Leo and Diane Dillon

The more poetic type of concept book has lost ground in recent years. At a recent SCBWI conference I attended, it was clear that editors were hungry for action-packed, TV-esque plotting in children’s books. I’ve also heard it from my own editors: “This is lovely, but it’s not commercial enough.”

A concept picture book is centered around an idea rather than a plot. Or plot may be hinted at, but only because the concept conveys a certain degree of chronology or simply because pages are being turned. Alphabet books and books about colors or opposites are well-known examples, but the best concept books may be less obviously educational: take a look at Charles G. Shaw’s dreamy cloud book, It Looked Like Spilled Milk; Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s First the Egg; and Margaret Wise Brown’s The Important Book, for instance.

So what does it take to get a concept book published these days? Well, in the case of Mama Says: A Book of Love for Mothers and Sons, it takes the grand lions of illustration and a message the world seems to be in need of. Rob D. Walker is a fairly new author, but I hope you’ve heard of the formidable husband-and-wife illustration team, Leo and Diane Dillon.

Memorable concept books read like poems, and Mama Says is no exception. Each spread shows a different mother teaching her son, with her words presented as an unpunctuated seven-line poem. The lines are brief, as you’ll see in my favorite stanza:

Mama says
Embrace the moon
And marvel at the sun
Mama says
To study stars
And make a wish on one
This is about as specific as it gets, which isn’t what you want to see in poetry. Most of the stanzas sound like proverbs or the types of pat advice parents give their children, e.g., “Mama says/To put my heart/In everything I do.” But saying this does the book a disservice because Mama Says works better as a whole than in parts. One of the strongest messages of the book is that we live in a global community. Each spread represents a mother and son from a different part of the world, and each stanza is also given in translation from the corresponding language: Cherokee, Russian, Amharic, Japanese, Hindi, Inuktitut, Hebrew, English, Korean, Arabic, Quechua, and Danish (key at the back of the book). I also noticed that some of the messages seemed particularly relevant to the culture being depicted, another thoughtful aspect of the book, e.g., inner peace relating to meditation practices in India.

If the “showing” is not given in the words, it is provided in the illustrations, done in the Dillons’ signature soft-edged style. The idea of “sharing” sounds pretty vague, but it becomes clear as a Russian boy gives a loaf of bread he and his mother have just baked to an elderly man. The Japanese boy who is told to be true and put his heart in everything he does is shown in a smaller left-hand illustration confessing to having broken a vase, then repairing the vase with his mother’s help in the larger illustration on the facing page.

Good poems tend to conclude with a bang, and the last line of this book, in conjunction with the illustration, gets it right. The ending ties everything together with uncommon grace.

While I’m presenting Mama Says right now partly so you can think about ordering it as a Mother’s Day gift, I did wonder about the role of fathers and wish for a book like this for them, too.

There is more than one reference to God in Mama Says, which some readers might not relate to, but then again, the references are presented as being culture-specific and furthermore seem appropriate in a book about teaching children values in different countries. The mercenary, splintered, and combative nature of the modern world is a source of worry to many parents. Whether you’re religious or not, I believe you’ll find inspiration in this beautifully made book, Mama Says: A Book of Love for Mothers and Sons.

Because of the importance of Leo and Diane Dillon in the picture book world, I want to add a brief note about their other books. They are best known for winning back-to-back Caldecott medals, in 1976 for Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears (author Verna Aardema) and in 1977 for Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions (author Margaret Musgrove). They have won numerous other awards and created a lot of jacket art, along with many picture books. Recent books include Jazz on a Saturday Night (a Coretta Scott King Honor Book), Mother Goose Numbers on the Loose, The People Could Fly: The Picture Book (also a Coretta Scott King Honor Book), Earth Mother, and Whirlwind Is a Spirit Dancing. My personal favorites are out of print: two books by poet Nancy Willard—Pish, Posh Said Hieronymous Bosch and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice—and Wind Child by Shirley Rousseau Murphy.

But the most gorgeous book by the Dillons, which is still in print, is their rendition of To Every Thing There Is a Season, the famous verses from Ecclesiastes. A precursor to Mama Says in terms of both design and the theme of universal human truths, the book uses a different culture to represent each couplet, yet each spread is done in a different art style, from different periods of time (with a key at the back). If you don’t own this book, you should. It’s a real showpiece, one of my picture book treasures.

Note for Worried Parents: Mama Says includes one scene where a child’s dead male relative, presumably his father, is shown. The image is presented in the context of Hindu burial customs and is perfectly tender, but I realize some of you may shy away from the book for this reason.

A Review of Blueberry Girl by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess

If Neil Gaiman wants to make a concept picture book, he doesn’t exactly run into an argument from his publisher about how concept books aren’t that hot right now. Still, you might expect said concept book to be pretty dire, given Gaiman’s work as a horror/fantasy writer. Instead, his Blueberry Girl is warm and upbeat. I present it here as the mother-daughter counterpart to the mother-son book reviewed above, Mama Says. (Sorry, fathers, this just isn’t your year!)

According to the author, the book started out as a personal poem written for the soon-to-be-born daughter of a friend, singer Tori Amos. At that time, the child was affectionately being referred to as “the Blueberry.” Perhaps this explains the book’s intimacy, despite its universal themes and the depiction of more than one girl in Charles Vess’s illustrations. Gaiman recounts that people kept hearing about the poem and asking him for copies, and then Charles Vess saw it and liked it, and the two of put their heads together, deciding they could use it to raise money for causes protecting women and girls, and well—here’s the book!

Blueberry Girl is written as a prayer, but it isn’t addressed to a Judeo-Christian god. Instead it’s addressed to “Ladies of light and ladies of darkness and ladies of never-you-mind.” The illustrator has drawn three women in long robes who might be the Three Fates from Greek mythology, the Maiden-Mother-Crone triple goddess, or even the Queen of Faerie and a couple of her ladies.

Mind you, Gaiman doesn’t seem to be making a point so much as inhabiting his rightful fantasy milieu as he calls on the logical deity for blessing a small girl child. This is the world of metaphor, after all. The blessings themselves are a mixture of the thoughtful and the playful, beginning with “First, may you ladies be kind” (which encourages me to go with that Three Fates interpretation). The second blessing is from a fairy tale, a famous story about fairy gifts, no less: “Keep her from spindles and sleeps at sixteen....” Some of the blessings are more contemporary and long-sighted in nature: “Nightmares at three or bad husbands at thirty, these will not trouble her eyes. Dull days at forty, false friends at fifteen—let her have brave days and truth....” Having worked with high school students, I suspect a lot of girls could use protecting from “false friends at fifteen”!

From a poetry standpoint, the best language here is when the author names the Ladies, which he does two more times for a proper fairy tale thrice.

As lilting as the words, the illustrations show a hopeful girl skipping along treetops, riding an owl, or diving with whales. She is always moving forward, accompanied by a small parade of animals and birds. Framing art at the beginning and end show a woman in a blue dress, first very pregnant and then holding her baby. The art has a loose, Earth Mother sensibility which may strike some as granola-ish, but I hope the book is read by more traditional folks, as well. The joy conveyed by Blueberry Girl is worth sharing with mothers and daughters everywhere.

Now, if you really want a treat, also a preview of the book, watch this YouTube trailer and listen to Neil Gaiman reading the entire text. He has such a lovely, word-loving voice that you may feel a little funny reading Blueberry Girl aloud after hearing him! In case you also want to see more of Charles Vess’s art, go to his website, then scroll down and click on What’s Old: Recent Projects and Paintings.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Proximidade Award

Em of Em's Bookshelf gave me (or rather my blog) a Proximidade Award! Thanks very much, Em! "This blog invests and believes in the PROXIMITY-nearness in space, time and relationships. These blogs are exceedingly charming. These kind bloggers aim to find and be friends. They are not interested in prizes or self-aggrandizement! Our hope is that when the ribbons of these prizes are cut, even more friendships are propagated. Please give more attention to these writers! Deliver this award to eight bloggers who must choose eight more and include this clever-written text into the body of their award."

For my part, I nominate Laura Salas's blog for her friendly 15-words-or-less poetry contests, which keep intriguing me; Candace Ryan of Book, Booker, Bookest for her fresh and thoughtful comments; Susan Thomsen of Chicken Spaghetti for reminding me to celebrate the birthday of Strunk and White's Elements of Style; Lynn Hazen for having an Imaginary Blog, my favorite kind; Linda Gerber for interviewing sooo many authors and having excellent contests, also for talking shop with me; Enna of Squeaky Books for her great Shannon Hale header quote, t-shirt designs, and chocolate analogies; Oops...Wrong Cookie because you can't go wrong with Texas librarians--plus they keep reviewing books that I really like; and Deanna H. of Once Upon a Time for sharing cool stuff like creative bookshelves and the Poetry Month poster, which I now covet avidly. Okay, Proximidade Award winners, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to give this award to eight blogs you like and leave them a comment letting them know they've been honored!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Review of Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

I’ve been looking forward to this book coming out for months! So when I saw it in the bookstore yesterday, I snatched it up, ran home, and read the whole thing straight through. Why, you may ask, such transportations of delight? Well, fantasy is my favorite genre, and Patricia C. Wrede has written some very fun books, most notably the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, starting with Dealing with Dragons. She also coauthored Sorcery and Cecilia or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot and its sequels with Caroline Stevermer—novels of manners set in an alternate England where magicians are the norm.

Another reason I’ve been dying to read Thirteenth Child is because it clearly falls in the new subgenre I’ve been talking about, rural fantasy. (See my blog entry for January 16: “Move Over, Steampunk!”) With this book, Wrede is starting a new series called Frontier Magic, in which Americans in the 1800s have magicians to help them settle the Wild West (only here they're called Columbians). Wrede’s world is new in other ways, I discovered: the frontier is populated by “natural” animals such as mammoths, bison, and woolly rhinoseroses, along with magical creatures such as steam dragons, spectral bears, and swarming weasels.

On the far side of the plains were mountains, sharp and high, that no one had seen but a few explorers. Papa said that at least ten expeditions had tried to find a way through them to the Pacific Ocean, but only three men had ever come back alive, and they were stark out of their heads. There was a monument in the capital to Lewis and Clark, who headed the first group that went missing, back in 1804. It was more than wild country; it was unknown.

Alternative history, indeed! But there’s more: formerly, magicians led by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin erected the Great Barrier Spell, intended to keep the lethal beasts of the frontier from overrunning and devouring Columbians. Now Eff and her family are moving out to the edge of the frontier, where her father will teach magic at a small college.

Eff is the hero of our story, though she thinks she's its villain. Because she is the thirteenth child, her superstitious uncles and aunts and cousins tell her over and over that she will turn out to be evil and should have been drowned at birth. To make matters worse, her twin Lan is the golden boy, seventh son of a seventh son and mightily magical. Fortunately, he and Eff are very close. But one of the reasons Eff’s parents are moving out west is to get away from the relatives who treat their daughter as if she were cursed.

The story telling has an epic feel, beginning when Eff is five and ending when she is eighteen. Eff and Lan attend a small public school out in the settlement, though Lan is given supplemental lessons to cultivate his gifts. It doesn’t occur to anyone except the amazing Miss Ochiba that Eff might be plenty gifted in her own right. Miss Ochiba schools Eff and her friend William in Aphrikan magic during after-school tutoring sessions while Lan is busy learning the more commonly valued Avrupan (European) magic.

We also meet the Society of Progressive Rationalists, who abhor magic and are determined to build a settlement without using any at all. One such rationalist, Brant Wilson, studies with Eff’s father and turns out to be a bit of a hero; he also turns Eff’s older sister’s head. Another character of note is “Wash” Washington Morris, a circuit riding magician who troubleshoots problems in the scattered settlements.

In time, Eff’s gifts begin to show in unexpected ways as she and her family and friends take on a problem that is destroying the crops of the entire region. It’s not dragon fighting, but it’s a matter of life and death for these struggling farmers.

Thirteenth Child reads like historical fiction, and I was thoroughly caught up in the way the Columbian settlers handled their challenges. One of the strengths of the book is the way Wrede captures the "can do" feeling of frontier living and this era in our country's history. Her greatest success, though, is the character of Eff and her story, which is what really kept me going. I did get a little bogged down near the end of the book during explanations about different stages of beetles, but that’s the only place my reading faltered. I can assure you that Patricia C. Wrede’s latest series, like a settler taming new land, is off to a brave, strong start.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

A Review of The Books of Umber: Happenstance Found by P.W. Catanese

In some cases, as an author launches into a new fantasy series, there’s a noticeable grinding of gears, the kind you might hear at a large and prosperous gristmill during the Middle Ages. I didn't get that feeling with Wrede's new series, Frontier Magic (reviewed above), but I did get it with this first volume in P.W. Catanese’s Books of Umber, Happenstance Found. Still, the series definitely has potential.

The story begins with the discovery of a young boy in a series of ancient caves. His name is Hap, short for Happenstance, and he has no memory of anything prior to about five minutes before he is found. Hap turns out to be the hidden treasure an adventurer named Lord Umber has been seeking. Like a foundling on a doorstep, the boy has a note in his pocket, and it is addressed to Umber himself. Soon Umber and Hap are making their way out of the caves, accompanied by Umber's companions--a strongman named Oates who is magically compelled to speak only the truth and a shy one-handed archer named Sophie. The four barely manage to escape a dreadful wyrm, the collapse of part of the cave network, and a volcano. Then, as they set out across the sea on a leviathan boat, they realize they are being followed.

It soon becomes obvious to the others that Hap is a little different. He never needs to sleep, can leap much higher than ordinary people, can see in the dark, and can read and speak any language—even dead ones and languages from other worlds. He also has strange, glimmering green eyes. For his part, Hap finds out more about Lord Umber, especially once he is ensconced in the man’s fortress, the Aerie. Umber is a stranger to this magical world, bringing with him knowledge from the land of his origin. He is essentially a Renaissance man, but in addition to his own brilliance, Umber has a secret device that provides him with information.

The author gives strong clues early on, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Umber is a refugee from Earth. The explorer appears to be manic-depressive, as well, which is an interesting component in a fantasy. (At one point he tells Hap he misses his meds.)

Umber is well regarded as the savior of his city-state and a provider of ideas such as how to build a better ship. When Hap visits the royal palace with Umber, he meets three princes: the duty-driven heir to the throne, a jolly drunkard, and a poisonous snake type. Back at the Aerie, an uptight housekeeper, a miniature man, a mad librarian, and an extremely dangerous captive witch round out the cast. It is clear that the author intends to write future books involving the princes and the witch. But this volume is mostly about how Hap is pursued by a horrible being who seems to want to assassinate him. Even though Umber draws on all of his resources to protect the boy, the Creep eventually closes in on Hap. The climactic scene brings Hap face-to-face with his stalker, who turns out to have something far more terrifying than death in mind.

Fortunately, one of the best things about Happenstance Found is the way the good guys defeat the villain. I had been wondering how they were going to pull it off, and the answer turns out to be surprising, effective, and even funny. Watch for it!

As for flaws, I did get a little irked by the larger story arc and the way it’s presented: a powerful unseen being has led Umber to Hap, and his goal has to do with helping Umber save Earth, not the world of this story. That aspect of the plot felt like we were seeing the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. Besides relying on deus ex machina, Catanese devalues the world of the story by making it a sort of byproduct of the problems on Umber’s home world. Fantasy imperialism rears its ugly head, as does a messagey “save the environment, ‘ware the apocalypse” agenda for readers here on Earth. (Useful thoughts, perhaps, but difficult not to wield heavy-handedly in a fantasy adventure story.)

Even so, the array of characters in Happenstance Found bodes well for future volumes, and I’m curious to see what the author does with them, especially Hap and his strange gifts. The book is told from Hap's point of view, yet there’s no doubt Umber is really the star of the show, an intriguing cross between Indiana Jones and Leonardo Da Vinci, with a morose drop or two of Sylvia Plath thrown in for good measure.
And so it begins: If this first volume is all about setting the stage, then the stage is very well set.

Note for Worried Parents: The bad guy is pretty scary. I mean, really scary, especially in that climactic scene. The witch is kind of horrific, too. Amazon lists the book as being for 9- to 12-year-olds, but I’d say it depends on the 9-year-old.

A Review of Tiger Moon by Antonia Michaelis

A story within a story, Tiger Moon owes a debt of thanks to Scheherazade. In this case, however, there’s a slightly different reason that the young wife is doomed: having failed in various attempts to escape, she will be killed when her new husband finds out she is not a virgin. As the book begins, this girl is sold by her poverty-stricken parents to be the eighth wife of a volatile and wealthy Indian merchant, Ahmed Mudhi, who prefers to be called Rajah. The girl herself is named Safia, meaning Virtue, but prefers to be called Raka, the Full Moon. Or so she tells a young eunuch who sometimes attends her in the Rajah’s harem. He is called Lalit, The Beautiful One, by the household, but prefers his own name, Lagan, meaning The Right Time.

In case all this talk of names seems like a muddle, think of it as a symbol of the surprises to come. For one thing, the "fictional" framed story is far more powerful than the "real" framing story. For another, all of the important characters in Tiger Moon first appear to be something other than their true selves. The main character, Farhad Kamal, is even able to change his appearance readily, beyond what would be explained by mere disguise. Later in the book, he uses a series of names that represent transformation. Michaelis makes us think about the differences between who we are and who we seem, as well as the differences between who we are and who we may become.

As she awaits her fate, Raka begins to tell Lalit a story about the Hindu god Krishna setting a trap to catch a hero. Of course, Krishna doesn’t seem to get quite what he expected. Even the place he sets his trap has been altered—an ancient sacred grove turned into a large garden by the British. The author writes, “Krishna ground his teeth, but he sat down and waited patiently for his hero. The hero turned up around midday.”

We learn that “Farhad means Happiness and Kamal means Lotus Blossom, and up to this point in Farhad Kamal’s life, he had not discovered what his life had to do with either of them.” A scruffy sixteen-year-old trickster and thief, Farhad is drawn to the silver amulet Krishna has placed in the center of a lotus blossom. But as soon as he touches it, he is also drawn into Krishna’s schemes, assigned to rescue the god’s daughter from the demon Ravana. As the story continues, we understand that the girl Farhad must rescue and Raka are one and the same—only they’re not. Michaelis's two stories overlap lightly and cleverly in the beginning, then boldly and mystically by the end of the book.

In the meantime, we are utterly captivated by Farhad, a flawed but likable young man whose doggedness charms even though we know he’s mostly pursuing Krishna’s quest so that he won’t spend his next life on Earth as a worm or a woodlouse. (I was reminded of Lloyd Alexander's slightly vain, mistake-prone heroes.) Farhad's task is not a straightforward one. Before he can rescue Krishna’s daughter, he must steal a cursed jewel, the bloodstone, in order to bribe the Rajah’s chief servant. Farhad must also steal a sacred tiger, for the tiger will be his steed as he races across the desert, trying to reach the girl before it’s too late.

No quest would be complete without a villain, and Farhad's is a man he first encounters as a fellow prisoner when the boy is thrown into jail. Like Farhad, the Frenchman is in pursuit of the lost jewel. Like Farhad, he is more than a master of disguise, changing his appearance as he comes after the bloodstone again and again with increasing viciousness. But Farhad has allies of his own, most notably the great white tiger, Nitish. The two bicker, yet gradually become partners in Krishna’s enterprise, compensating for each other’s weaknesses—selfishness and cowardice in Farhad’s case, pride and a fear of water in Nitish’s.

Farhad’s growth during the course of his journey is rough, but nevertheless heartening. By the end of the book, we are more than ready for the framing story and Farhad’s tale to merge, and the transformation somehow works. From a writing standpoint, it’s a tremendous accomplishment. Most of all, however, Tiger Moon is a magical reading experience. I found myself madly rooting for Farhad to succeed.

I’ll just mention that this book came to my attention because it won a 2009 Batchelder Honor award, given to the finest children’s books in translation. Originally written in German, Tiger Moon was translated into English by Anthea Bell.

Note for Worried Parents: This is most definitely a Young Adult book, and it’s pretty open about sex. There are a couple of discreet, yet clear scenes of sex between main characters, as well as a few less pleasant encounters and references. I have already mentioned that a key plot point is Raka’s not being a virgin. Though none of this particularly detracts from the story telling, some readers might find it offensive.

Update (5-16-12): Rethinking my take on this book after reading a review from Book Smugglers. Wow!