Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Merry Everything!

Book Aunt is taking this weekend off to celebrate Christmas. Back next week with reviews of two YA alien invasions and Hilari Bell's new dystopian YA... Meanwhile:


















Merry Christmas!

Happy Kwanzaa!

A belated Happy Hanukkah!

And a joyous winter solstice!

Also wishing everyone who just likes having a few days off a great winter vacation,

not to mention a Happy New Year to those of you whose new year starts in January!


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Steampunk and the New Romantics

Steampunk was supposed to be the next big thing in YA, but it isn't. Why not? I've been toying with a theory, and now that I've read both Leviathan and Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld, I'll toss it out there and see what you think.

First of all, steampunk is a little tough to define, but it usually contains one or more of the following: (1) alternate history, (2) clockwork (automatons, vehicles, monsters, etc.), (3) a Victorian setting (mostly British, but sometimes European or even American, as long as it's nineteenth century).

The question being, what kind of readers would like this stuff? Answer: grown-ups. We're talking Pride and Prejudice or Sherlock Holmes fans, for one thing. Certainly historical fiction fans, and that's often a group that doesn't include the under-18 crowd, who are busy reading about the ADHD offspring of Greek gods battling harpies in modern NYC. Or maybe reading stories about teen heartbreak in your average high school, texting and all. These readers prefer their supernatural adventures to take place in a small town in Washington in the 21st century, not in London in the 1800s.

As for the appeal of steampunk, don't you think it might be a bit of a backlash from the sheer weight of all this contemporary technology, from the overwhelming streamlined-ness of the Ipod and the Ipad? Contrast clockwork, where you can actually see the gears and hear them turning, to the sleekness of our current tech, where you need a microscope and a college degree to figure out what the machine is actually doing. Call it the new Luddite movement or simply call it a wave of nostalgia, but I'm wondering if steampunk is really a revolt against, well, that cell phone which can not only call Japan from Chicago in seconds, but can play a movie, ruin a career, or reveal a decade's worth of diplomatic secrets at the touch of a few keys.

Then again, the Luddites aren't a great comparison. A better one might be the Romantic movement. My high school students have been reading about how the Romantics embraced poetry, medieval themes, and ruffled shirts as a backlash against the machines and pragmatism of the Industrial Revolution. There's a romance to steampunk that makes it feel similar to me at this point in time.

Of course, steampunk is also a delightful alternative to a decade of Harry Potter and another decade of teen vampires, for those of you who want a change in your sci-fi/fantasy every so often. It's either that or dystopia right about now! (With dystopian books arguably forming a chronologically symmetrical rejection of today's high-tech, out-of-control world.) So I, for one, do like steampunk. I'm just not sure it has much appeal for kids and teens, most of whom are deeply, happily engaged in this tech-toy landscape.

For those of you who are grown-ups and the occasional steampunky kid, check out Chasing Ray's wonderful steampunk roundup from the past week. See also Charlotte's Library, with a look at steampunk offerings for MG/YA in 2010. And once again, I'll recommend the list of steampunk books for children by Heather M. Campbell at School Library Journal.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Best Children's Books of 2010

Travis of 100 Scope Notes has posted his list of the best 20 children's books of 2010, and a fine list it is, indeed! Of course, that got me thinking about my own best reads this past year. I'm not going to name 20, and you should know by now I have a fantasy bias, but that said, here are my top 10, approximately in order (lots of ties!). The only one I haven't reviewed yet is The Ring of Solomon (reviews linked below).

1. I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett (YA)
2. A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner (MG)
3. The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz, with illustrations by Angela Barrett (MG)
4. Bink and Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, with illustrations by Tony Fucile (Easy Reader)
5. The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud (MG)
6. Dash and Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan (YA)
7. Black Hole Sun by David Mcinnis Gill (YA)
8. The Boneshaker by Kate Milford (MG)
9. The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan, with illustrations by Peter Sis (MG)
10. The Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh (MG)

Then there are the many terrific books I rather ruthlessly left off the list: Scumble by Ingrid Law, Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood, Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, and the graphic novel Hereville by Barry Deutsch, to name a few. I also devoured N.D. Wilson's entire 100 Cupboards trilogy with great relish this summer. Thanks, Mr. Wilson! And let's give a shout-out to poetry: I hope you've read Ubiquitous and Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman, as well as Mirror Mirror by Marilyn Singer.

I suspect the only real dark horse on my list is The Crowfield Curse, a fine book I feel has been underappreciated, though it does pop up with an awards nomination here and there. I will note that I'd rather see an astonishing book that takes risks and has a couple of flaws than a book that plays it safe and makes fewer mistakes. This is one reason I liked Flora Segunda by Isabeau Wilce, for example. Still, though there aren't many perfect books out there (Charlotte's Web, maybe?), all ten of the books I've listed are very well written. Each has its own particular strengths and type of appeal, but I can tell you that the two I consider the most perfectly crafted—roundly, like circles—are The Night Fairy and Bink and Gollie. Richest character work? That would be I Shall Wear Midnight and A Conspiracy of Kings.

Dash and Lily wins the award for funniest, also for most off-the-wall riff on romance and relationships. I should add that Bink and Gollie is very funny in an understated, Winnie the Pooh or Frog and Toad way. The Boneshaker and Black Hole Sun are the most atmospheric, though in rather different ways. More solid characterization, to boot. And while The Boneshaker is more eerie, sci-fi thriller Black Hole Sun wins the award for most pulse-pounding. Dreamer gets my vote for most poignant and, yes, poetic, while The Ring of Solomon combines humor and adventure completely deliciously; I liked it even better than the author's previous trilogy. Finally, The Crowfield Curse is a subtle yet powerful new take on historical fantasy, with a wintry medieval abby setting that will not only chill you, but will leave you feeling like you'll never have another good meal in your life.

December is the time of year for such lists, of course. Here's a look at the Horn Book's best of 2010 as summarized on Read Roger, along with the Kirkus lists of best books for children and teens in 2010. And, in case you haven't been following along, here's a nice slice of the Heavy Medal Mock Newbery discussion; be sure to look at the comments, especially Jonathan Hunt's tally and notes about 3/4 of the way down. To sum up, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner, Joyce Sidman's poetry collection Dark Emperor, and a nonfiction book called Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos seem to be favorites among a number of readers and reviewers.

What are the best books for children and teens you've read this year?

A Review of Prisoners in the Palace by Michaela MacColl

When you picture evil regent types trying to wrest control of kingdoms from sweet young princesses, I don't think Queen Victoria instantly springs to mind. Yet that's exactly what this book is about. And while the inclusion of an intrepid maid as narrator and a rakish reporter and young thief as allies is an invention, apparently the young Victoria really did have to battle her mother and Sir John Conroy for control of her country and her future. See the Author's Note for all the gory details!

Now, on to the book proper. And, my, is it proper! In case you weren't aware, being a teenage princess in the 1800s would be like being a prisoner even if your mother and her comptroller weren't trying to keep you on a tight leash—a leash so tight that Conroy even gave it a name, the Kensington System. This meant that Victoria slept in the same room as her mother, was hardly ever allowed to see anyone, never got to be alone or talk with peers, and had to follow a strict schedule of schooling.

I had to double-check to see if this book was written in first person, but it is not. Even in third person, Liza Hastings gives us a strikingly strong narrative viewpoint as we read her tale of being suddenly orphaned and making her way by becoming the maidservant of 18-year-old Princess Victoria. (See chapter titles like "In Which Liza Confronts a Newspaperman and a Fallen Woman.") Liza's own position is precarious to start with, and then she enters into a politically perilous household. Victoria is dependent on her loving but highly protective governess, Baroness Lehzen, and is restless over the restrictions placed on her by her mother the Duchess of Kent and her mother's secretary and comptroller, John Conroy. Soon the Baroness is asking Liza to spy on Conroy and the Duchess, and Conroy is asking Liza to spy on the princess. Besides which, Conroy looks at Liza in a lascivious way, and there are rumors that he had something to do with the previous maid's departure. The Duchess of Kent's enmity with her brother-in-law the king makes everything all the more complicated. Meanwhile, Liza must navigate the hostile environment belowstairs, where she is distrusted because she was a lady before her parents died.

As for Victoria, the princess is spoiled and immature. Liza tries to befriend the girl for her own purposes; besides which, she feels sorry for Victoria. Unfortunately, it's hard to trust the princess, and Victoria is rarely able to converse with Liza. But little by little, Liza manages to find out more about what's going on, and she is even able to offer the princess her help.

In doing so, Liza has two allies: first, a scruffy boy she discovers is actually living in a little nest inside the royal rooms. (This, too, is based on real events, though from somewhat later in Victoria's life.) Inside Boy introduces her to a second ally, a reporter who publishes broadsheets hinting that Victoria is unfit to rule. Liza rightly suspects that Conroy is behind the stories and initiates a counter-offensive.She also finds herself being attracted to the journalist, Will Fulton.

The intrigue gets intrigue-ier, till finally Victoria is trapped in the palace with Liza, the Duchess having left her daughter in Conroy's hands so that he can force her to sign a promise to put him in charge of England's treasury when she becomes queen. It is only thanks to Liza and her friends that Conroy's plot is defeated. Then Liza must choose whether to stay with the princess or pursue a future with Will.

This is a lively adventure as well as a fascinating look at a time in history that I thought I knew, but got to know better thanks to Liza Hastings and Princess Victoria. For example, the contrast between Lisa's view of Prince Albert and Victoria's is a hoot. Another nice thing about Prisoners in the Palace: How Victoria Became Queen with the Help of Her Maid, a Reporter, and a Scoundrel (A Novel of Intrigue and Romance) is that we get to see some of the struggles of the servants and lower-class Brits, especially women. I should note that Victoria's diary entries are apparently all authentic, and the author incorporates them seamlessly into her story. Prisoners in the Palace is a thoroughly enjoyable read!

Note for Worried Parents: This is a book for teens. There's a thread about an unplanned pregnancy and fallen women here, with hints about rape. Of course, the context is how few options women had during this era in history.

Also: I requested a copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program.

A Review of Facing Fire by kc dyer

I'm rather fond of this author's previous book about skateboarder and time traveler Darby Christopher, especially because of its glimpse into the lives of the ancient First Peoples who crossed the Bering Strait to North America. This new book offers us three more slices of history, and middle schooler Darby is just as feisty and appealing here as she was in A Walk Through a Window.

Just don't expect an appearance from Darby's guide, Gabe. Or rather, expect him to show up in a relatively non-helpful way. This time Darby is accompanied by a new guy, a fellow skateboarder named Zander who has even more of an attitude than Darby does.

In her latest adventure, Darby travels from Toronto to Kingston, where she has offered to help Fiona, a friend of her mother's, largely in an attempt to avoid spending all summer watching her baby sister. She is also avoiding dealing with some trouble she got into with her friend Sarah. And once again, a mysterious window at a historical site allows Darby to travel into the past.

Darby winds up at Fort Frontenac in 1758, in the middle of a group of Acadians fleeing a British attack during the Seven Years' War. Though the people she observes can't see her, Darby is still subject to danger, and she barely escapes a fire to return to her own time.

In between texting her friend Sarah, Darby goes skateboarding and meets local boy Zander, who is cutting class. When she and Zander get together at a skate park, she learns that he is Mohawk and has his own interest in Canadian history. Later she and Zander fall into the past together, winding up on board a ship that is transporting two prisoners, an American doctor and a Shawnee boy who is Tecumseh's nephew. Once they get back home, Darby and Zander have some interesting debates about what it means to be Canadian and why Darby, whose ancestors are relative newcomers, should be more capable of time traveling than Zander, who feels he has more right to it. Eventually Darby and Zander go back into the past again, where they witness the near-capture of a runaway slave.

When writing time travel, an author has two basic choices. Should his characters interact with the people in the past or just observe them? Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses, of course. When a character from the present interacts with people in the past, it can make the storytelling more lively; however, it can also distort the history, especially if the focus remains on the time traveler and she affects the events in which she participates.

In the Window books, dyer has gone the other direction, creating characters from the present who mostly observe the past they visit. This keeps the history pure and in some sense mysterious, as Darby must put together what's happening from the bits and pieces she sees and hears. She sometimes does research after she gets home so she can figure out the history she has observed. And really, isn't that what we always end up doing when we study history that goes back more than one or two hundred years? This reminds me of reading Bill Bryson's book about Shakespeare, in which he points out how little we really know, since very few records remain from the 1600s.

Now, dyer balances out her contemporary characters' somewhat passive role as observers of history by giving them other, present-day concerns: Darby is afraid of being blamed for an arson incident with her friend Sarah back in Toronto, while Zander has issues with his heritage and is thinking of dropping out of school. Another minor but intriguing subplot is Fiona's work with water needs on the First People lands.

I find that most time travel books read more like historical fiction and sometimes contemporary realism than fantasy, with the time traveling simply acting as a doorway—or window, in this case—to another era. It's nice to see these historical events taking place in Canada, since my students and I generally only get the American viewpoint. I always tell them that if they were to read about the American Revolution in a British schoolbook, they would get quite a different perspective. Facing Fire made me want to get my hands on more books written locally about the histories of different countries around the world.

Like A Walk Through a Window and the author's Eagle Glen time travel trilogy, Facing Fire brings the past to life, and it slips in a few lessons about life in the present, too. While I missed Gabe, I enjoyed meeting Zander, who is a strong character in his own right. Maybe in Book 3 we can see all three of these kids in one place, or rather, one time!

Note: kc dyer is a member of my small online writing group.

A Review of Stolen Child by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

To tell you the truth, I've been waiting to review this book till it showed up on Amazon (U.S.), but it still isn't there... Finally I asked the author what's up, and apparently there's some businessy situation about rights which means that this won't be happening any time soon. So if you search for the book on Amazon (U.S.), you'll only find a couple of used copies. The trick, it turns out, is to look it up on the Amazon Canada website.

You've probably heard of Hitler, the Nazis, and World War II. You're no doubt familiar with the terrible events of the Holocaust. But have you heard about the Lebensborn Program? It's yet another nasty thing the Nazis did in their push for Aryan purity. Basically, they sorted through children in villages throughout Eastern Europe, sometimes using women called the Brown Sisters to do the job. Their goal was to find kids who looked Aryan and take them away to be raised as Germans. As Skrypuch explains in her author's note:
The stolen children were put through tests, including the measurement of sixty-two body parts, to ensure that they were "racially valuable." Any tiny shortcoming meant the difference between an adoptive home and either a concentration camp or a slave labour camp.
The final round of racially valuable children was then sent to special homes where the children were brainwashed into thinking that they were German. Some were told that their parents were dead, or had only been spies and liars. Children who were still young—under the age of eight—were then placed with their new Nazi families. Older children were put in Nazi Youth boarding schools or fostered out.

Skrypuch presents the story of one such child in a unique way, showing Nadia after she has been essentially rescued by a couple who takes her to Canada to start a new life. But Nadia is troubled by flashbacks to her life as a German child, and her classmates call her Nazi because of her accent. Who is she really? It takes a series of events and memories for Nadia to remember her life in Germany, let alone the life she had when she was very small. In a way, this is the story of a girl who is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and must be deprogrammed. (Her kind new guardians do not actively try to bring this about, as they have no information on how to do so.) Just keep in mind: Nadia's struggle to adjust to her life as an immigrant in a new country would be difficult enough without her astonishing and painful history as a stolen child. Skrypuch makes Nadia's extraordinary story seem ordinary, writing it in a way that the book will be accessible to middle grade readers. You will have to judge for yourself whether your child is ready for the mature themes of war and kidnapping, of course.

In a companion book due out in a year or so, Skrypuch will give us the story of Nadia's older sister, who was made into a slave laborer.

Sadly, many of the children in the Lebensborn Program never recovered their original identities. According to Skrypuch, not only did the Nazi destroy the records of these children when they saw that they were going to lose the war, but "most of the stolen children refused to leave their German parents, even if their birth parents were still alive and could be located."

I'll close by telling how the author found out about the Lebensborn Program:
I first heard about [it] from my mother-in-law, the late Lidia (Krawchuk) Skrypuch. The Nazi front passed through her city of Zolochiv twice and soldiers took over her house. She and her parents became prisoners in their own home. One day she overheard bits of conversation from the Nazi officers. Something was happening at her school the next day. Her parents kept her home. When she did go back to school, all of her blond and blue-eyed female classmates had disappeared.

As in her previous books, Skrypuch has a way of making historical events present and personal. She has received a number of awards for her writing, including the 2008 Order of Princess Olha from the President of Ukraine. You may have trouble tracking down Stolen Child, but I suggest you try.

Note for Worried Parents: This material is handled gracefully, but there are some scary moments, as when Nadia recalls her kidnapping and brainwashing. The whole book is rather intense; while it is written for readers ages 9-12, some young readers may be more ready for the story than others.

Also: Marsha Skrypuch is a member of my online writing group.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Enchanted Inkpot Repost at SFWA

Okay, I'm pleased about this! The post I wrote at The Enchanted Inkpot on fairy tale retellings has been reposted (with my permission, of course) at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America blog (SFWA). Yay! Here's the link in case you missed it the first time or just want to take a look. Be sure to check out the comments at the original post, since I only listed a handful of retellings, then asked people to talk about their favorites in the comments. (It was really more of a discussion starter!)

Art by John Waterhouse, "Miranda and the Tempest."

¡Feliz Navidad!

Yep, I'm white. But I also happen to speak Spanish. I've lived in Argentina, and as a teacher in Los Angeles, I work with a lot of kids whose families are from places like Mexico, Guatemala, and Puerto Rico. So it is with particular interest and pleasure that I introduce you to three bilingual books that came out a few months back, plus a bonus book about flamenco.

I will also try to give you a sense of how well I think the translations work. The tricky thing about translating, of course, is that a literal translation is likely to fail: it will sound gawky and robotic, especially in a field like children's literature, where the prose is expected to be beautiful as well as serviceable. The best translations therefore preserve much of the original language, but also consider the spirit of the ideas and how well the phrasing flows.


Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez/Lado a Lado: La Historia de Dolores Huerta y César Chávez by Monica Brown, illustrated by Joe Cepeda

When I was a kid, I remember hearing about a grape boycott and a man named Cesar Chavez. Years later, I drove along a street in Los Angeles that had been renamed for Cesar Chavez at some point, and I knew that he had helped organize the migrant laborers in the fields of central California. But I am sorry to say that I didn't know about Dolores Huerta until I read this picture book!

Delightfully using the theme of "side by side" in more than one way, this book first tells a little about Dolores on the left-hand page, then a little about Cesar on the right-hand page—until finally they meet up and begin working together. So as the book begins, we get:
In New Mexico, there lived a little girl named Dolores who talked so fast that her grandfather once said, "Dolores, you must have seven tongues!"
Many miles away in Arizona, there lived a little boy named Cesar who was a very good listener. Cesar listened to his mother cry when his family lost its home and they had to become migrant farmworkers.
We learn that Dolores was involved in community service with her mother from a young age, and that even though Cesar had to drop out of school to work in the fields, he always carried a book and continued to learn as best he could.

After four such spreads, Dolores and Cesar become friends and combine their efforts to help the migrant laborers, eventually creating the group, United Farm Workers of America. The story of the grape boycott is told, as well as a march on Sacramento and Cesar's hunger strike. We also discover that when workers were discouraged, believing change was impossible, Dolores coined the simple but effective phrase, "Yes, we can!" (It actually has a slightly richer meaning in Spanish, I think. "Sí, se puede!" can be translated rather literally as "Yes, it's possible!")

Joe Cepeda's illustrations are done in nice, strong colors, showing ordinary people working together. The art has a slightly cartoonish quality which makes the seriousness of the text more accessible, I think. Cepeda used "oil over acrylic, collage, and pencil on illustration board" for a vibrant, unique look that evokes Mexican or Central American folk art.

The English text is clear and straightforward, and this quality is maintained by translator Carolina Valencia. However, she does insert the occasional flourish. Here's a subtle, yet lovely example:

English sentence: "Cesar's family moved to California to follow the crops and work in the fields."

Spanish translation: "La familia de Cesar se mudo a California para trabajar en los campos, de cosecha en cosecha."

Translation of translation: "The family of Cesar moved to California to work in the fields, from harvest to harvest." Meaning, "from one harvest to the next." Not only is that a pretty phrase, but it manages to imply the seasonal nature of the work, which makes a family's income even less certain.

I'm sure some people might find a biographical book about the work of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta overly political, but let's face it: the labor movement is a very real part of our country's history and reflects our constitutional rights to speak out and assemble. (In contrast, I've been trying to teach my high school students that they wouldn't be able to state their opinions about the government with impunity if they lived in a country such as North Korea or China.) I found this book to be very clear, appropriate for second and third graders studying California history or simply the history of Americans who have worked to bring about change. An author's note at the end gives further information, including a website address for Dolores Huerta, who's still at it at the age of 80!


¡Muu, Moo! Rimas de animales/Animal Nursery Rhymes, selected by Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy, with English versions by Rosalma Zubizarreta and illustrations by Viví Escrivá

Award-winning poet, author, and anthologist Alma Flor Ada has worked tirelessly to promote bilingual literacy and bicultural understanding, so be sure and look for her other books, some written with F. Isabel Campoy. For example, I also liked their first collection of nursery rhymes, ¡Pío Peep! In this volume, they have focused on nursery rhymes and songs about animals.

Here's a nice example, "Los sapitos" (Note that titles are not capitalized beyond the first word in Spanish. Neither are months of the year.). I especially like the sounds the translator chose for the toad songs.
The Meadow Toads

The meadow pond is filled with toads
seeking shelter from the storm.
The baby toads sing high,
the grown-up toad sing low.
Quirk, quirk, quirk, quirk, croaking high,
quark, quark, quark, quark, rumbling low!

Here's the original:
Los sapitos

Los sapos de la laguna
huyen de la tempestad;
los chiquitos dicen: tunga,
y los grandes: tungairá.
Sapito que tunga y tunga,
sapito que tungairá!

And a literal translation:
The Little Toads

The toads in the pond
flee from the storm;
the little ones say: tunga,
and the big ones: tungairá.
Little toad that tungas and tungas,
little toad that tungairas!

As you can see, translation is not an exact science! Instead, it is an art. Most of the translations in this collection are quite nice, especially when you factor in the rhymes. In fact, I suspect I chose "Los sapitos" specifically because it doesn't have the constraints of rhyme. Imagine having to translate meaning, maintain a rhythm, and include rhyme all at the same time! Of course, English words with the correct meanings aren't necessarily going to rhyme, so the translator is left to juggle the language in order to create comparable rhymes, which is really a formidable task. My only quibble is that Zubizarreta occasionally pads a line with a word like "quite" or "so," but you can see why that would be tempting, considering the challenge.

Zubizarreta makes some wise decisions. For instance, in the nursery rhyme "Debajo de un botón," a series of two-syllable words all ending in -ton or -tin in Spanish play the following game of repetition using the final syllable. I'll just show you the first of the two verses:
Debajo de un botón

Debajo de un botón, ton, ton,
que encontro Martín, tin, tin
habia un ratón, ton ton,
ay, que chiquitín, tin, tin!

Which would basically translate as:
Underneath a button, ton, ton,
that was found by Martin, tin, tin
there was a rat, rat, rat,
oh, how little, tle, tle!

Only you can see how "rat" doesn't work because it has only one syllable. And we lose the whole "tin," "ton" set of exact rhymes when we get to "little."

The translator does this:
Martin Found a Mouse

Martin found a mouse, mouse, mouse,
'neath a button on the floor, floor, floor,
in a tiny house, house, house,
with a tiny door, door, door.

Which not only does the job, but introduces the fun new element of the tiny house, while maintaining the whimsical spirit of the original. Zubizarreta deals with a similar challenge in the long poem, "The Rooster Cock-a-Doodle-Dows," where she puts together a new set of names for animal and human characters using a single rhyme.

Again, the only place the translation feels a little awkward to me is when some of the verve of the original is lost to the need to create a line's rhythm. Here's just one example:
El burro

A mi burro, a mi burro
le duele la cabeza,
el médico le ha puesto
una corbata negra.

The translation reads as follows:
My Donkey

My donkey told me today
his head is hurting, oh my!
The doctor said that he should
put on a long black tie.

(There are more verses in which the doctor treats the sick donkey in various silly ways.)

Here is a more literal translation:
The Donkey

To my donkey, to my donkey
his head hurts him.
The doctor has put on him
a black tie.

So you can see why the wording needs to be stretched out a bit. But from a meaning standpoint, it is stronger to say that the doctor simply put a black tie on the donkey than that he said the donkey should do so. I think this is a sacrifice one must make at times when creating a rhymed translation. I bring it up partly to show you how hard the task is, and partly to let you know that if you as a reader can only access the English, you will have lost a bit of freshness and flow from the original in spots. As I mentioned above, a good translator really does need to do her own thing to some extent. It's definitely a balancing act, and the inclusion of rhyme makes it that much harder.

This is the last verse from the same poem:
A mi burro, a mi burro
ya no le duele nada,
el médico le ha dado
jarabe de manzana.

The translation reads as follows:
My donkey told me today
he no longer hurts at all!
The doctor decided to give him
some apple syrup this fall.

And a literal (or close to literal) translation:
To my donkey, to my donkey
nothing hurts him anymore.
The doctor has given him
syrup of apple.

Really, what's a translator to do? It's not like you can rhyme either "syrup" or "apple"!

Now, moving on to the artwork... Viví Escrivá's illustrations, which appear to be done in watercolor and colored pencil, are very sweet, especially her depictions of children. Many of these poems and rhymes are set in the countryside, and the overall effect is peaceful and pastoral.

As you can see from the excerpts I've shared, this is a happy collection—plus it gives parents options who are worn out on Mother Goose. Of course, ¡Muu, Moo! will be of particular interest to bilingual families, parents who have children learning Spanish as a second language at school, and those of you who just want your kids to know that the world is pretty wide.


Once Upon a Time: Traditional Latin American Tales/Había una vez: Cuentos tradicionales latinoamericanos, by Rueben Martínez, illustrated by Raúl Colón

Ahhhh. I love folktales, so I was especially pleased to get my hands on this one! The reteller, who does his own translations, thank you very much, shares seven traditional tales from Latin America in both English and Spanish. Martínez has selected a nice mix of stories:

"The Wedding Rooster" is a cumulative folktale about a vain rooster who asks the grass to clean his dirty beak so he can look handsome for his uncle's wedding, but the grass says no. So the rooster asks a goat to eat the grass to punish it, but the goat says no. And so on, until the rooster asks the sun, and the sun says yes. Everyone cooperates at that point—and the rooster has been praising the sun in the morning ever since.

"The Tlacuache and the Coyote" is a trickster tale with a rather grim ending. (Apparently a tlacuache is a lot like an opossum.) "The Mother of the Jungle" is a cautionary tale, practically an allegory, about a man who ruthlessly chops down the rain forest, until the great magical guardian of the jungle intervenes.

"Martina the Cockroach and Pérez the Mouse" is a very well-known story about a pretty little cockroach with a new hat who attracts the attention of a variety of animal suitors. She turns them down one by one, mostly because their singing voices don't please her. Finally the sweet-singing mouse Pérez wins a date and even her hand.

"The Flower of Lirolay" is a fairy tale reminiscent of the European stories "The Water of Life" and "The Singing Bone" (plus variants). The author indicates that this story can be found all over the world, but I was pleased to see a version with Argentine place names I've actually been to. I especially love saying the name of one province included in the story, Jujuy ("hoo-HOO-ee").

"The King and the Riddle" is another story that appears in the oral tradition of other countries; the author says this version comes from Spain. It's about a girl who matches wits with a clever king and eventually marries him.

"Pedro Urdemales and the Giant" features a key trickster character from Latin American folklore, comparable to Jack in the British tales or Nasreddin in Islamic mythology, among many more. This story, in which Pedro fools a giant, is also found in the European tradition, e.g., in the story of "The Brave Little Tailor." (See also a picture book, Clever Beatrice, by Margaret Willey and Heather M. Solomon.)

Each of the seven stories is accompanied by a one-paragraph author's note explaining where it comes from and how it relates to Latin American culture. Once Upon a Time will make a nice addition to any collection of folktales from around the world.

(Note that if you're learning Spanish, a book like this is a fun way to improve. When I had to take a Spanish test for a teaching job 13 years ago, I brushed up by reading the first Harry Potter book in Spanish!)

The illustrations are by the marvelous Raul Colón, with his recognizable earth tones and scratchboard style. Each story has one piece of art plus some borders. Frankly, I would have loved to see even more illustrations.

As for the translation, the English and Spanish versions flow beautifully together. Unlike the translator of ¡Muu, Moo! this author was not constrained by rhyme and rhythm requirements. While there are many places where the language is a very close match, the Spanish sometimes has some extra phrasing. (I suspect the author wrote the tales first in Spanish, then translated to English.) For instance, when the fire in "The Wedding Rooster" refuses to help the titular cock, we read in English: "'I don't want to,' the fire answered." But the Spanish says, "—No quiero—respondió tranquilamente el fuego y siguió crujiendo." Which means in English, "'I don't want to,' the fire responded tranquilly, and continued crackling."

In either language, Martínez's retellings are clear, humorous, and well paced. Here's a final excerpt, this one from "The Flower of Lirolay":
They crossed rivers and climbed mountains. They passed huge plains. Finally they were able to see in the distance the mountains the old man had described. The road before them forked in three directions, so each brother decided to take a different path.
I do wish the author had given us a better translation of just one thing, and that's the expression used to end folktales in Spanish: "Colorín colorado, este cuento se ha acabado," here used in "The King and the Riddle." In essence, beginning with what are pretty much nonsense words chosen for how great they sound together plus the rhyme they provide, the expression says: "Colored-y, colored, this story has finished." But then, every English speaker seems to recognize the English phrase "and they lived happily ever after," which is what Martínez uses instead. Admittedly, today's readers are less familiar with the older variant in English folktales that would be quite comparable to the Spanish expression: "Snip snap snout, this tale's told out."


Bonus Book: ¡Olé¡ Flamenco by George Ancona

This one isn't bilingual, but hey—it fits our theme! Of course, I'm more familiar with tango, having lived in Argentina, so I was curious to find out more about flamenco, which vaguely invokes pictures of the opera Carmen in my head. I knew this dance came from Spain, but I had no idea it originated with the gypsies! (While I was in Argentina, I met some gypsies and drank herb tea with them in their tent.) What I did know is that George Ancona has done other terrific photo-essay books for children. In fact, he's written more than 100 books for kids. Aaaand to top it all off, he's studied flamenco guitar.

¡Olé¡ Flamenco is a leisurely journey through the world of a dance you may never have seen except on TV. The book centers around a girl named Janira Cordova and her efforts to prepare for a dance festival in her town of Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she studies with a group called Flamenco's Next Generation. But in his introduction, George Ancona actually starts with his memories of a visit to a small village in the south of France many years ago, where he witnessed the dancing at an annual reunion of gypsies.

Next we meet Janira, and then Ancona gives us a history of the dance, showing how flamenco began with the gypsies and eventually settled with them in a part of Spain called Andalucía (Andalusia). The author gives readers a map to show how the gypsies are thought to have migrated from northern India eastward over into North Africa and Europe. He also provides some historical photos and art of gypsies dancing—fascinating! Plus more photos from Spain and photos of flamenco singers. Did you know there's even a word in Spanish just for the strong emotions that inspire flamenco singers?

We learn about the music, the clapping methods, the difference between a regular guitar and a flamenco guitar, and the meaning of "olé!" Of course, we also learn details of how flamenco is performed, including hand movements, facial expressions, and the use of the castanets. The book culminates with a performance by Janira and her fellow dancers. In addition, we find out a little more about Latino-American culture and the local Spanish Market, where Janira performs again.

When you think about it, conveying music and dance in pictures is a real challenge. (Who hit the mute button?) Yet George Ancona carefully leads us through the history and present-day practice of this dance with photos so spot-on and lively you can almost hear the flamenco guitar.

Update: Alma Flor Ada, co-author of ¡Muu, Moo! posted in the comments (for the "Lemonade Question" post below). She pointed out that the translator, her daughter Rosa Zubizarreta, considered another tricky factor I hadn't even thought of: "As you well recognize it is a daunting task, not only when trying to maintain the rhyme but also the rhythm, since many of these selections are songs and she has made sure that they could be sung in either language to the same tune." Very cool, not to mention that much more difficult. Go Rosa!

Update #2 (1-10-11): ¡Olé¡ Flamenco won a Pura Belpre Honor Award for writing in the 2011 ALA awards.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Lemonade Question

If you're (a) bored, and (b) paying attention, you may be asking yourselves, "Why the sudden burst of bloggy productivity from Book Aunt?" The answer, my friends, is that I just finished writing a book, my new MG fantasy. Woo-hoo! It's called Lemonade Wings, hence the artwork. (No one's actually done a picture of wings made of lemonade, so we'll have to settle for just the lemonade.) Anyway, in about a week, I'll be knee-deep in another project, a rewrite of a book I'm converting from third person to first person, among other things, and will settle back to my ordinary blog routine. In the meantime, I have a question for YOU!

That is, like most avid readers, I find I can't buy or even track down every book I'm looking forward to. Or it's on the towering To Be Read pile. So here's a list of books I've been wanting to read, all of which came out this year, most in the past 4-5 months.

My question is, which ones are the best? I figure some of you will have read at least part of my list and can let me know! (Also, feel free to mention books not on the list, as long as they're from 2010. Preferably books I haven't reviewed here on the blog.)

Agent Q: Pals in Peril—M.T. Anderson
Ancient, Strange, and Lovely—Susan Fletcher
Cloaked in Red—Vivian Vande Velde (Red Riding Hood stories)
The Clockwork Three—Matthew J. Kirby
The Clockwork Angel—Cassandra Clare
Diamonds and Toads—Heather Tomlinson
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth—Jeff Kinney
Faery Rebels: Wayfarer—R.J. Anderson
The Genius Wars—Catherine Jinks
The Ghostwriter Secret—Mac Barnett
The Goblin Gate—Hilari Bell
Grounded—Kate Klise
Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys—Bob Raczka
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword—Barry Deutsch (graphic novel)
Keeper—Kathy Appelt
Linger—Maggie Stiefvater
The Lost Conspiracy—Frances Hardinge
The Mockingbirds—Daisy Whitney
Pegasus—Robin McKinley
Penny Dreadful—Laurel Snyder
Reckless—Cornelia Funke
The Search for Wondla—Tony DiTerlizzi
Sophie Simon Solves Them All—Lisa Graff
The Steps Across the Water—Adam Gopnik
The Suburb Beyond the Stars—M.T. Anderson
The Unsinkable Walker Bean—Aaron Renier (graphic novel)
The Web of Titan and The Cassini Code —Dom Testa
When Rose Wakes—Christopher Golden
You Wish—Mandy Hubbard

Steampunk Link

For those of you who've been wondering what the heck steampunk is, or for those of you who are already in love with this sci-fi/fantasy subgenre and have, for example, read both Leviathan and Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld, here's a fabulous annotated list of titles from picture book to YA from Heather M. Campbell at School Library Journal. She also includes web resources. Thanks to Charlotte's Library for the link! (Image from Ubersuper.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Enchanted Inkpot Giveaway, Etc.

The writers who host the Enchanted Inkpot blog are doing their second annual Giveaway Extravaganza, and all you need to do to enter is comment on what upcoming MG and/or YA fantasy books you're looking forward to reading! So head on over and see if you can be the first or second place winner of ELEVEN books in one fell swoop, including possibly (in one of the batches) mine.

On a slightly chagrined note, I will tell you that the sequel to my book, The Runaway Princess, is on sale at Amazon right now. While I'm not sure this is a good sign from my perspective as an author, I figure some of you might want to take advantage and get your hands on a copy of The Runaway Dragon for a lot less than the usual price.

And in that vein, let me just point out that this is a great time of year to buy your nieces and nephews, or sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and spouses and friends and, well, everybody, a book! Or two or three books, for that matter. I'm guessing I'm not the only one who used to love spending the afternoon of December 25th as a child reading the new books Santa brought me for Christmas...

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Review of The Painted Boy by Charles de Lint

Charles de Lint is one of a number of adult fantasy writers who are now writing for teens. You should know that Canadian writer de Lint is a very big name in fantasy, having almost single-handedly invented the subgenre of urban fantasy with his Newford stories, in which the world of Faerie overlaps—ruthlessly, if not chillingly—with the humans in a modern city based on Ottawa. (Actually, if he's the father of urban fantasy, then Terri Windling would be the mother!) A talented Celtic folk musician, de Lint often incorporates music and musicians into his work.

I've found that De Lint's books and stories for adult fantasy readers are sometimes slow going, but they are also thoughtful and beautifully written. I liked his earlier YA novel, The Blue Girl. Two other YA novels, Little (Grrl) Lost and Dingo, were nice, but not quite as good. His new book, The Painted Boy, sends a Chinese American teen with a secret dragon heritage from Chicago to the Southwest. He winds up in an Arizona border town called Santo del Vado Viejo. As a member of the Yellow Dragon Clan, James Li has special powers, but his tough little grandmother didn't teach him how to use them. Instead she taught him focusing exercises which do not seem especially helpful to James when he begins to run into trouble.

James has barely hit town before he is shadowed by gangbangers, and he finds shelter at a small restaurant named La Maravilla with a little help from a girl named Rosalie. She turns out to be friends with a girl named Anna who's the lead singer in a band called Malo Malo—and James is attracted to Anna. But before he can settle in, getting a job at La Maravilla, he has to deal with the adult leader of the Presidio Kings, El Tigre. That huge dragon art on James's back isn't a tattoo at all; instead it reflects his nature as a son of the Yellow Dragon Clan, and his very presence in town is a challenge to El Tigre. James establishes a temporary truce with the man, but eventually things fall apart and James has to take action.

In the meantime, James is learning more about his dragon self. For example, he practices walking in the magical desert world that lies just next to his own, led by a giddy little shapeshifter who's a jackalope girl. He meets a rattlesnake woman with uncertain loyalties and another old woman who used to run the whole region until El Tigre came along and messed things up, among other supernatural people. So what is James's role in all this, and to what extent should he get involved?

I was pleased to note that almost the entire cast of this book is Latino or Asian, though de Lint doesn't make a fuss about that. It's just such a boon to librarians and parents looking for fantasy that shows a broader world! And even though some of the characters are gang members, many more are not. De Lint has a gift for creating likable teen characters, let alone colorful secondary characters. In addition, the desert setting is striking and well used, as is the music of Malo Malo, described here:

Hector began a scratching counter rhythm on his turntable, sounding like chickens pecking in a yard, then suddenly a spot came on to capture Ramon and Gilbert at the front of the stage, sharing a mic. They started with a flourish on their trumpets and played some jaunty mariachi tune until Gilbert backed away, switching to long, slow notes, while Ramon started rapping the story of how the band came together.
The spots weren't on Anna yet, but her guitar could be heard weaving a delicate harmony to Gilbert's trumpet. The band hit the chorus with everybody singing, then the music stopped for a moment before it
came roaring back in double time, the trumpets high and sharp. The spotlight touched Anna just as she broke into a killer guitar break that sounded like speed-metal flamenco.
Malo Malo's music, along with James and Anna as a couple, evoke the growing mix of cultures that is life in so many urban centers these days. Now, Chinese and Mexican may seem like an odd combination, but then, I live in L.A., and I used to work near a restaurant that featured both soul food and Chinese food.

Message-wise, The Painted Boy ends up being very anti-gang. But its preachy moments aren't especially distracting; you'll be too busy cheering for James to figure out how to use his powers so he can protect his new friends from the bad guys. This is basically his coming-of-age story. And if the narrative has an occasional slow spot, overall it flows just fine. Because after 60+ books and a whole lot of music and imagination, Charles de Lint really knows how to tell a tale.

A Review of Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card

In this new YA book from another well-known fantasy writer, we meet a boy named Rigg who has been raised in the forest by a man he calls Father. In addition to learning to track and hunt, Rigg has learned—apparently by the Socratic method—a lot of other things, including how to handle himself with people from differing social strata, depending on what he wants. Most of the information seems pretty useless to Rigg, but the time comes when he suddenly has to apply a great deal of it. After Father is fatally struck down by a tree in the forest, he sends Rigg away, telling him to sell their stash of furs and go in search of his sister. Of course, Rigg didn't even know he had a sister till that moment.

As he sets out, Rigg nearly falls from a dangerous river crossing above a waterfall, attempting to save a younger boy who walks in exactly the wrong place. Unfortunately, Rigg's rescue efforts are hampered by his gift for seeing the paths of the past as colored trails winding along the ground or even through the air. This time, his gift brings him into actual contact with someone from the past, who inadvertently interferes with Rigg. The boy's brother, Umbo, at first thinks Rigg has killed the boy deliberately, and Rigg has trouble convincing the villagers not to kill him in turn. He also loses the entire load of furs. But a woman who was a friend of his guardian gives him a secret stash of jewels and some coins, as well as the information he needs to seek his sister, then sends him on his way. Umbo follows him, and the two country boys set off for the city. It turns out Umbo has his own gifts relating to time and space, and he and Rigg begin to experiment with combining their abilities.

Rigg's story is interspersed rather surprisingly with the tale of a spaceship carrying refugees from earth, almost all of them in suspended animation. The one human who remains awake works with sophisticated androids to make decisions about the mission. It shouldn't take long for you to realize that Rigg's abilities have something to do with the spaceship, which runs into trouble that causes it to split into different causalities and move backwards through time.

Quibbles? Rigg seems far older, more sophisticated, and clever than he should at times. And I wasn't entranced by the various long conversations about the implications of time travel, though I realize some readers will love this stuff. (In his afterword, Orson Scott Card kindly clarifies what happens with the spaceship and how it affects the narrative.) Then again, it is through those conversations and their experiments that Rigg and Umbo discover ways of using their abilities to evade their enemies.

This becomes necessary when Rigg reaches the city, only to find himself at the mercy of political machinations that seem likely to destroy him. Yet in the midst of all this time travel and politics, what ends up mattering most in Pathfinder is that Rigg has two loyal friends—Umbo as well as Loaf, an innkeeper and former soldier who escorts the boys to the city. The interplay between Rigg and Umbo is especially nice.
"Share the sausage. Here's what Nox gave me. Halves on everything."
"I know the traveler rules," said Umbo.
"This is your half."
Umbo looked from half to half.
"It was even when I divided it," said Rigg.
"It's still even as far as I can tell. Haven't you eaten?"
"I've eaten as much as I want. I want this food to last."
"What good is it to make food last? So the animals who find your starved corpse will have something delicious to eat and leave your flesh alone?"
"I had what I need," said Rigg. "We often go for a few days on short rations, just for practice. You get so you kind of like the feeling of being hungry."
"That is the sickest thing I've ever heard," said Umbo.

I suspect that as many of Orson Scott Card's adult fans as teens will want to read Pathfinder and will then look forward to the next book. Because even though this story comes to a satisfying stopping place, it also leaves us with the promise of further complications. And Orson Scott Card, like Charles de Lint, is a practiced storyteller with a knack for fresh premises and plot twists, as anyone who has read and loved Ender's Game can attest.

Quick Picks: Tricksters, Thieves, and Other Thuggery

Come Fall by A.C.E. Bauer—This slim book has a great premise, answering the question, "What happened to the little Indian page from A Midsummer Night's Dream?" Actually, Bauer posits a different scenario for Oberon and Titania's disagreement; here the boy, Salman Page, is a foster child in a contemporary setting, where he has been hidden from Oberon. Salman's foster father dislikes him, and his foster mother, while tough, puts him to work in her vegetable garden, a task that ends up being satisfying for the lonely boy. Seventh grader Salman makes two friends at school, a girl named Lu who is assigned to show him around and a boy named Blos Pease who apparently has Asberger's. Salman is friends with a crow, as well, which results in some teasing from the "mean kids" crowd. As the story goes on, we get to see the war between the fairy king and queen through Puck's eyes, and we worry about how that war will affect Salman. This sweet, slow-paced book is really about kids and their struggles and friendships, but the unusual fantasy elements make it into something more.

Starcrossed by Elizabeth Bunce—Celyn "Digger" Contrare is a young thief, mostly of political documents and thus secrets. As she runs through the city trying to escape from the Greenmen, or political-religious police, she winds up in a boat with four aristocratic teens and becomes a lady-in-waiting to Merista. Then, in a distant, snowy fortress where an avalanche blocks any possibility of escape, Celyn is forced to spy on the household by a blackmailing lord. Little by little, Celyn's self-serving, survivalist approach to life is overturned by new loyalties and larger concerns. And of course, the girl has secrets of her own... Starcrossed is an intelligent, satisfying fantasy with a large dollop of political intrigue and a lot of plain old sneaking around, as in one memorable scene in which Digger climbs up the outside of the wintry castle trying to steal back her life.

A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz—This title has been reviewed quite a bit elsewhere, so I'll just say that it is wonderfully well made, though self-conscious in a very post-modern way, as Marjorie Ingall points out in her glowing New York Times book review. For example, the narrator is so present that he becomes a kind of character in the book. Gidwitz sends Hansel and Gretel on a Joseph Campbell-esque journey through a series of the Grimms' grimmest tales, where they experience having their heads chopped off, being threatened by a cannibal witch, and (in Hans's case), being turned into a magic wolf-bear beast and skinned alive—among other things. The author takes the symbolism and messages of these tales and heightens them in such a stylized, overt way that it reminds me a little of Kabuki theater. His genius is that he makes this work.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Honk If You Still Love Fairy Tales

What if you're not on board with the publishing industry's newly dismissive attitude toward picture book fairy tales for 5- to 8-year-olds? What if you—and your kids—are still in love with fairy tales and their happily-ever-afters? Fortunately, there's a lot of good stuff already in print and still more at your local library.


Picture Book Fairy Tales and Folktales

Since many folk- and fairy tales have been around for a few centuries, illustrators are the place to start, most notably illustrator Trina Schart Hyman, whose romantic renderings continue to appeal to girls wanting a good princess fix. For that matter, her Caldecott Honor book Little Red Riding Hood has never been beat. Neither has her Sleeping Beauty. Or her Snow White. Besides which, her dragon in Caldecott winner St. George and the Dragon is pretty much the coolest one I've ever seen.

Kinuko Craft is the new go-to illustrator for classic fairy tales, though some have argued that her artwork has more adult appeal than child appeal. My favorite story she has illustrated is Marianna Mayer's retelling of Baba Yaga and Vaselisa the Brave—featuring the scariest witch of all time! Gennady Spirin is another fairy tale illustrator whose work, I feel, has a real adult sensibility. Then again, one reason to collect the literary fairy tale is because the art can be so sumptuous.

Paul Galdone brilliantly illustrated many folktales. The Three Billy Goats Gruff is a good example of his robust, loose-line style.

Look for Errol Le Cain's illustrations, as well, with their art deco feel. I especially like his Cinderella.

Or find books illustrated by Margot Zemach, particularly The Funny Little Woman and The Three Wishes. Also track down Duffy and the Devil, retold by Harve Zemach. As The New York Times Book Review said of this Caldecott-winning book, "Margot Zemach draws like an intoxicated angel" (qtd on Amazon).

James Marshall created some of the best—and funniest—versions of fairy tales and folktales ever, e.g., his Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and The Three Little Pigs.

Other folk- and fairy tale illustrators of note include Susan Jeffers, Ruth Sanderson, and Caldecott winners Gerald McDermott and Paul O. Zelinsky. Not to mention Anita Lobel—look for her illustrations for Princess Furball, as retold by Charlotte Huck.

As for authors, four big names in folktale retelling are Robert D. San Souci, Rafe Martin, Eric A. Kimmel, and Aaron Shepard. I'll recommend The Talking Eggs for San Souci (a Caldecott Honor book), The Rough-Face Girl for Martin, Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock for Kimmel, and One Eye! Two Eyes! Three Eyes! for Shepard. These and other writers will introduce your child to world folktales, a great way to look beyond the European tradition.

A publisher called Barefoot Books is well known for its collections and single titles of world folktales, so watch for their stuff and check out their catalog.

Or try Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, a Caldecott Honor variation of the Cinderella story set in Africa. And illustrator Rachel Isadora is single-handedly rewriting the Disney canon, producing well-told versions of well-known tales, all set in Africa—most recently The Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Princess and the Pea, Rapunzel, and Hansel and Gretel.

A few other favorites of mine are Mr. Semolina-Semolinus by Anthony L. Manna and Christodoula Mitakidou, illustrated by Giselle Potter; The Language of Birds by Rafe Martin, illustrated by Susan Gaber; and East of the Sun, West of the Moon, whether illustrated by P.J. Lynch or Mercer Mayer.

For a gritty, funny American backcountry tale, try The Old Woman and the Willy Nilly Man by jill Wright, illustrated by Glen Rounds.

Of course, we must also acknowledge the greatness that is The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith! And the equally wonderful The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.

Some more standouts, in my opinion:

--Bearskin, by Howard Pyle, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (look for the multicultural families!)
--Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like, by Jay Williams, illustrated by Mercer Mayer
--The Fearsome Inn, a Newbery Honor book by Isaac Bashevis Singer, illustrated by Nonny Hogrogian
--The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, a Caldecott winner retold by Arthur Ransome and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz
--The Frog Prince, translated by Naomi Lewis, illustrated by Binette Schroeder
--The Gunniwolf, retold by Wilhelmina Harper, illustrated by William Wiesner (not the newer version, please no!)
--Heckedy Peg, by Audrey and Don Wood
--Henny-Penny, retold and illustrated by Jane Wattenberg (with photos)
--Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, retold by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
--Iron John, retold by Marianna Mayor, illustrated by Winslow Pels
--King Bidgood's in the Bathtub, by Audrey and Don Wood
--King Grisly-Beard, by the Brothers Grimm and Maurice Sendak
--The Lady and the Lion, retold by Laurel Long and Jacqueline K. Ogburn, illustrated by Laurel Long
--The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza, retold by Philemon Sturges, illustrated by Amy Walrod
--Lon Po Po: A Red Riding Hood Story from China, a Caldecott winner retold and illustrated by Ed Young
--The Magic Nesting Doll, by Jacqueline K. Ogburn, illustrated by Laurel Long
--Mirandy and Brother Wind, a Caldecott Honor book by Patrician C. McKissack, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
--O'Sullivan Stew, by Hudson Talbott
--Ouch! retold by the wonderful Natalie Babbitt, illustrated by Fred Marcellino
--Puss in Boots, translated by Malcolm Arthur, illustrated by Fred Marcellino
--Snow White, retold by talented middle grade author Josephine Poole, illustrated by Angela Barrett
--Snow White, illustrated by Charles Santore
--Sugar Cane, A Caribbean Rapunzel, by Patricia Storace, illustrated by Raul Colón
--Tam Lin, retold by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak
--The 3 Bears and Goldilocks, retold by Margaret Willey, illustrated by Heather M. Solomon
--The Three Billy Goats Gruff, illustrated by Janet Stevens (note the biggest goat in shades and a black leather motorcycle jacket)
--Three Sacks of Truth, retold by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Robert Rayevsky
--The Tinderbox by Hans Christian Andersen, retold by Stephen Mitchell, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
--Tom Thumb, retold and illustrated by Richard Jesse Watson
--Tops and Bottoms, a Caldecott Honor book illustrated by Janet Stevens
--The Twelve Dancing Princesses, retold by Marianna Mayer, illustrated by Kinuko Craft
--The Twelve Dancing Princesses, illustrated by Jane Ray
--A Weave of Words, retold by Robert D. San Souci, illustrated by Raul Colón
--The Well at the End of the World, retold by Robert D. San Souci, illustrated by Rebecca Walsh
--The Wild Swans, translated by Naomi Lewis, illustrated by Anne Yvonne Gilbert

There are many more, but I'll stop there! For Cinderella variations, see my annotated list in this post: "How Cinderella Got Twittered."



Original Folktales, a Contradiction in Terms

These would be stories by writers who love fairy tales and folktales and have written their own—I've done one myself. Hans Christian Andersen is the most famous such author, with his The Little Mermaid (the original is very sad), The Emperor's New Clothes, and The Snow Queen, among others. I also really like James Thurber's delightful tongue-in-cheek tale, Many Moons, whether illustrated by Louis Slobodkin or Marc Simont. And Jane Yolen has written some books I treasure, most notably Good Griselle and Dove Isabeau.

And then there's Eleanor Farjeon's long and lovely story, Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep, illustrated by Charlotte Voake. Did you know, too, that Ursula K. LeGuin wrote an original picture book folktale? It's got trolls in it! Look for A Ride on the Red Mare's Back, illustrated by Julie Downing. Or perhaps you'd prefer a fairy godmother story by Charles Dickins: The Magic Fish-Bone, illustrated by Robert Florczak.


Collections, Adapted or Academic

Basically, fairy tale collections fall into two categories: adapted collections for children, often used as read-alouds, and lengthy collections of tales for scholars or serious fairy tale fanatics (um, like me!). Just note that a lot of the collections really are for grown-ups, so the stories can be fairly mature, especially when it comes to violence. The Brothers Grimm are famous for that.

Since most of the adapted collections for young readers I own are out of print, let me just recommend that when you choose a collection, you should read some sample stories first to make sure the reteller has a way with words and hasn't completely slaughtered the plots in doing the adapting. The most poetic reteller I've come across is Geraldine McCaughrean, who's done collections of the Greek and Roman myths, for instance. If you want a highly simplified collection, I will suggest DK's A First Book of Fairy Tales, edited by Mary Hoffman and Anne Millard, illustrated by Julie Downing.

Look, too, for collections of stories from different countries. As a child, I loved my collection of Japanese fairy tales, also the selections from the tales of the Arabian Nights that my grandma gave me for Christmas one year. Now you can get stories from every continent and many individual cultures, as well. For instance, being from Los Angeles, I'm quite fond of Jane Curry's collection of California Indian stories, Back in the Beforetime.

Grimms' Fairy Tales are available in various editions, but a couple of classics are The Juniper Tree, selected and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, and Tales from Grimm and More Tales from Grimm, illustrated by Wanda Gág of Millions of Cats fame.

For those of you who worry that the fairy tales are all about guy heroes, with passive princesses around every corner, try these feisty feminist collections: Tatterhood and Other Tales and The Maid of the North, both edited by Ethel Johnston Phelps; Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters, edited by Kathleen Ragan; and Not One Damsel in Distress, collected and retold by Jane Yolen, with illustrations by Susan Guevara. (The Phelps books are for older children, the Ragan collection seems geared toward adults, and the Yolen collection is for kids in about 3rd-6th grades, I'd say.)

Of course, I can scarcely mention fairy tale collections without referring you to Andrew Lang's classic series, named by color: The Red Fairy Book, The Blue Fairy Book, The Yellow Fairy Book, etc. These are densely told, so are not necessarily appealing to all of today's younger readers, but you sure get a lot of stories. Older kids with a strong interest in fairy tales might go for these.

In addition, I would suggest you get your hands on Jane Yolen's comprehensive collection for grown-ups and older children: Favorite Folktales from Around the World.


The Rise of the Retelling

I am happy to report that when one door closes, another door opens. Or maybe a window. Sorry for the cliché, but it does apply in this case—the demise of the picture book fairy tale in contemporary publishing coincides rather uncoincidentally with another trend, the rise of fairy tale retellings for middle grade and young adult readers. It's like when you're watching Peter Pan and everyone yells, "I do believe in fairies!" I won't make a lengthy list here, but a few key titles are Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine and Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. See also Adam Gidwitz's new book, A Tale Dark and Grimm, which deliberately incorporates some of the Grimms' gorier tales into a single long story starring Hansel and Gretel, here re-imagined as a prince and princess.

The retelling trend is heartening, as is the knowledge that publishing decisions come in waves—and that our libraries already contain a treasure house of picture book folk- and fairy tales. Long live the fairy tale, in whatever shape it takes during the next century!


Note #1: On Monday, I'll be hosting a discussion of fairy tale retellings over at the Enchanted Inkpot.

Note #2: The definitions of the terms "fairy tale" and "folktale" overlap, but the latter refers specifically to stories collected from the oral tradition and more recently has been used, I think, to refer to stories about animals or those tales beloved of smaller children, such as
Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Three Little Pigs, and Goldilocks and The Three Bears. In popular usage at least, fairy tales have come to mean mostly the princess tales, especially the classics coopted by Disney—Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Snow White. Fairy tales also tend to feature magical powers and spells, more than the simple inclusion of talking animals. It may interest you to know that in the original story, Rapunzel is not actually about a princess, despite the long golden hair and her depiction as a princess in the new Disney movie, Tangled. (On a historical note, the French nobility had such a craze for fairy tales during the 1600s that some of the aristocrats wrote their own, though these often ramble, tending to be more courtly than well plotted. Madame d'Aulnoy is the best known of these writers.)

Note #3: See also my annotated roundup of trickster tales from earlier this year.


Note for Worried Parents: Trina Schart Hyman's illustrations occasionally show semi-nude female figures, e.g., in the wood carvings. Jane Ray's folk art-style versions sometimes include breast-feeding women. And Grimms' tales, if not adapted, are pretty darn grim, with violence, child abandonment, betrayal, cannibalism, etc.

Update #1: At her blog, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, YA fantasy writer Katherine Langrish has been asking guest authors to talk about their favorite fairy tales. This week's guest is the marvelous Megan Whalen Turner. And look back over the previous ten posts in the series! (Thanks to ccwtaylor of Sounis for the link.)

Update #2: Check out this article by Marjorie Ingall in the New York Times Review of Books, "When Stories Had Sharp Teeth," in which she talks about three recent children's books inspired by Grimms' fairy tales.

Update #3: When it comes to the demise of the fairy tale (in general, not in picture book publishing!), folk- and fairy tale expert Jack Zipes begs to differ. Thanks to Amy of Amy's Library of Rock for the link to this article.

Update #4: Bildungsroman has posted a terrific list of fairy tale retellings!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Speaking of Fairy Tales...

I've posted here about the demise of the picture book fairy tale or folktale, and I'm not the only one who's commented on the trend. Now Disney, the great princess profiteer, is joining the club with an announced determination not to make any more movies based on fairy tales. It's the end of an era, as well as a reflection of trends in children's literature. The L.A. Times article reads in part:

So why has the clock struck midnight for Disney's fairy tales?
Among girls, princesses and the romanticized ideal they represent — revolving around finding the man of your dreams — have a limited shelf life. With the advent of "tween" TV, the tiara-wearing ideal of femininity has been supplanted by new adolescent role models such as the Disney Channel's Selena Gomez and Nickelodeon's Miranda Cosgrove.
"By the time they're 5 or 6, they're not interested in being princesses," said Dafna Lemish, chairwoman of the radio and TV department at Southern Illinois University and an expert in the role of media in children's lives. "They're interested in being hot, in being cool. Clearly, they see this is what society values."

I think the part that gets me is that small girls are already looking at "being hot" and taking on adolescent role models.

Granted, Disney will continue to make money from its library of princess classics for the next three or four hundred years.

And in the world of children's literature, while the fairy tale is no longer being made into picture books, it seems to have morphed into the fairy tale retelling for middle grade and young adult readers.

Still, Disney divorcing the princess? What a strange and sobering thought!

Update #1: Amy has followed up on this post with a great riff on princesses, her favorite childhood book characters, and just how Disney (and pop culture) gets it wrong over at Amy's Library of Rock.

Update #2: See also this post at Once Upon a Blog on Disney's decision, especially in connection with the box office success of Tangled. Thanks to Enchanted Inkpot author Marissa Meyer for the link!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lessons from Eva Ibbotson

I first discovered this author about fifteen years ago thanks to Diana Wynne Jones, who edited a collection called Fantasy Stories in 1994 (Kingfisher). Among them was a selection from Witch Which that charmed the socks off me. I got my hands on a copy of the book and started keeping an eye out for other titles by Ibbotson. Fortunately, the wave of post-Harry Potter fantasy included an increased availability of books by both Eva Ibbotson and Diana Wynne Jones, and my library grew most happily.

On October 20, 2010, the wonderful Eva passed away, leaving me to reflect on how much I will miss her and on what I have learned from her books as both a reader and a writer.

1. Conjure up the unexpected.

Which Witch is still one of my favorite Ibbotson titles, a great example of the author's ability to come up with a fresh premise and then throw in all kinds of crazy stuff. The book evokes beauty contests and certain reality TV shows I will refrain from naming with its fairy tale-like hunt for the perfect wife. Only the prince in this story is a (semi-)dark wizard. Our story begins when a couple named Canker discovers by dint of library research that there's a specific reason their baby boy is a tad unusual:
It was a shock, of course. No one likes to think that their baby is going to grow up to be a wizard, and a black one at that. But the Cankers were sensible people. They changed the baby's name from George to Arriman (after a famous and very wicked Persian sorcerer), painted a frieze of vampire bats and newts' tongues on his nursery wall, and decided that if he had to grow up to be a wizard they would see to it that he was a good one.
It wasn't easy. Todcaster, where they lived, was an ordinary town full of ordinary people. Though they encouraged little Arriman to practice as much as possible, it was embarrassing to have their birdbath full of gloomy and lopsided vultures and to have to explain to their neighbors why their apple tree had turned overnight into a blackened stump shaped like a dead man's hand.
When Arriman is a grown wizard and longing for a break, his secretary suggests that he marry and have a son to carry on his work. Arriman doesn't really want a witch around the place, but concedes that he probably should marry. Soon the members of the local coven are vying for the prize: a water witch named Mabel Wrack with an octopus for a familiar, a farming witch named Ethel Feedbag whose familiar is a pig, disagreeable twin witches named Nancy and Nora Shouter, the elderly Mother Bloodwort, and Belladonna, a distressingly good witch "with thick, golden hair in which a short-eared bat hung like a little wrinkled prune." Then an evil enchantress named Madame Olympia shows up, not to mention an orphan named Terrance and his pet earthworm Rover, and things get really interesting!


2. So many people are basically good.

Ibbotson's best-known book is probably The Secret of Platform 13. Beneath the train platform is a hidden entrance to a magical island. The door is only open for nine days every nine years, so imagine the dismay of the island's king and queen when their baby son is stolen by the awful Mrs. Trottle during that small gap and they must wait nearly a decade to mount a rescue mission. When they do, they send a motley crew: an elderly wizard named Cornelius, a plant-friendly fairy named Gurkie, a one-eyed ogre named Hans (they make him invisible for the journey except for his one eye, which shows), and a young hag girl named Odge who volunteers rather forcefully. The team hunts down Raymond Trottle, whom they suppose to be the missing prince, but they are dismayed by how horrid he is. Then there's the kitchen boy, Ben, who is exactly the opposite and proves very helpful.

I'm always amazed by how nice Ibbotson's characters can be, while still remaining idiosyncratic and interesting. In the modern world, where Machiavellian traits seem to be on the rise and are even valued, Ibbotson reminds us that there are plenty of goodhearted people out there. (I suspect it's the author's rampant humor that keeps these characters from coming across as cloying or annoying.) You will find that Ibbotson often writes about a group of people working together to make something good happen. This spirit of community and teamwork adds yet another layer of good cheer to the tone of the author's work.


3. Find humor in the quotidian.

In Ibbotson's new book, The Ogre of Oglefort, the three Fates (Norns) are cranky old ladies who are wheeled about in a large hospital bed. When they get mad and decide to punish someone, they call up some ghosts from the bowels of the British train tunnels. And what ghosts they are!
There was the Honker—a very old ghost with one leg and a crutch who had done nothing when he was alive but honk and spit and let out huge revolting gobbets of saliva which got on the seats and the floor of the train for other passengers to slip on.
There was a ghost in city clothes and a bowler hat who had sharpened the point of his umbrella like a rapier and stuck it into the feet of any passenger who got in the train ahead of its owner. The umbrella still had bits of skin and blood clinging to it.
Behind him came the Aunt Pusher....
And the Bag Lady, who would spread out all her things during air raids in the war and keep others from finding a spot. Also the Smoking Girl:
...a very young ghost hung all over with gaudy scarves and floating shawls, and she would have been pretty except that her fingers and the corners of her mouth were stained yellow with nicotine. She had smoked a hundred cigarettes a day, coughing and blowing the smoke at the other passengers on purpose.
There is a headless ghost called The Chewer "whose head was so stuck up with chewing gum that he had left it on the train." But the worst ghost of all is The Inspector, a merciless ticket puncher without a face.
Only two eyes, narrowed to slits, and a mouth set in a slimy calculating leer. The Inspector had had the power over the spectres when they were alive, turning off passengers whose tickets were not in order, pushing them out on to the line, separating mothers from children, making sure that trains stuck in tunnels for hours—and always talking about 'the regulations' to justify his cruellest deeds. His creepily soft call of 'Tickets please' had sent shivers down their backs and even now they were afraid of him.
The Inspector seldom spoke. He did not need to. His ticket puncher, which once had pierced paper, could now pierce ectoplasm.
As you can see, Ibbotson has Roald Dahl's glee for depicting disgusting people with ordinary habits exaggerated for the sake of humor and horror. However, Ibbotson's work tends to have more heart.


4. You can be charming without being cutesy.

It's hard to explain just how delightful Ibbotson's writing is, though I suppose you could write some sort of equation for that alchemy of humor, surprise, and humanity. Let me try giving another example—Dial-A-Ghost, my favorite of Ibbotson's ghost stories. You see, there's a temp agency that assigns jobs out for ghosts, and Miss Pringle and Mrs. Mannering are not the most organized people in the world. When they recieve a request for some sweet ghosts to haunt an abbey and some horrible ghosts to haunt a country manor, they get the orders mixed up, sending the Wilkinsons, a family of five ghosts whose house unfortunately blew up, to the manor and the terrifying Shriekers to the abbey. What no one realizes at first is that Fulton and Frieda Snodde-Brittle have ordered the Shriekers in hopes of scaring their younger cousin to death so that they can inherit Helton Hall; instead they have inadvertently provided the lonely boy, Oliver, with allies as well as friends in the form of the Wilkinsons. There are mysteries to be solved and ghost-busters to be foiled in this clever, tongue-in-cheek adventure.


5. Everyone yearns for a secret something.

Ibbotson's historical romances have recently been reprinted, this time repackaged for the YA market. I find these books to be full of yearning, and only partly for romance. Most of her heroines have a love of the arts or have taken on large projects such as saving broken-down castles.

Ibbotson's trademark humor still shines out in her romances, making her heroines more personable and her plots more clever. For example, in A Countess Below Stairs, when a young countess escapes the Russian Revolution and ends up getting a job as a servant on a British earl's estate, she covers up her inexperience by studying a book on housekeeping. These books have personality!

But if her books for older readers also display the humor found more noticeably in her books for children, I will point out that in Ibbotson's romps for younger readers you will find the poignant sense of longing more obviously evident in her books for older readers. For example, in The Ogre of Oglefort, a princess runs away from home because she really wants to be turned into a white bird and fly free of her family's clueless expectations. The longing for freedom—or for a real home and family, in the case of Ibbotson's orphan characters—is found over and over in her books.


6. Ogres are people, too.

Mermaids, ghosts, wizards, fairies, and ogres: in Ibbotson's hands, magical beings become all too human. For instance, given the chance, the fearsome title character of The Ogre of Oglefort takes to his bed with any number of imaginary ailments. And the wizard Brian would really rather be a cook, except that his mother won't let him do anything for himself even though he's a grown-up. (In fact, she still calls him Bri-Bri.)


7. Turn your sorrows into stories.

We read in a recent Guardian interview with the author:
Ibbotson's writing changed again after the sudden death of her beloved husband in 1998. "I didn't want to go on making jokes because I was too sad," she admits. "I thought, suppose I try writing a straightforward adventure story for children ... " The result was Journey to the River Sea. Set in 1910 in the rainforest city of Manaus in Brazil, it features a classic adventure story plot with Maia, an orphaned girl, a firm but fair governess, cruel relatives and a "hidden identity" device. But at the heart of the novel is the colourful, light-filled, wild landscape of the Amazon and all its flora and fauna, in tribute to Ibbotson's husband who would "upturn stones and show me the lovely things underneath. Beetles and spiders, he loved them all—it was a whole world to him." The book won the 2003 Smarties award, was made into a stage play and has been optioned for a film adaptation.
Ibbotson wrote two more historical adventures for middle grades after Journey to the River Sea: The Star of Kazan and The Dragonfly Pool. But she returned to what she called her "younger, more rambustious [books]" with her last story, The Ogre of Oglefort.


8. Kids deserve happy endings—or at least, hopeful ones.

Another Guardian interview quote:
Whether jokey or more serious, however, Ibbotson's readers are always guaranteed a magical tale and the reassurance that, ultimately, the young hero or heroine will triumph and the baddies receive their comeuppance. The current trend for more shocking stories in children's literature surprises her. In her own childhood, books were a comfort; an escape route from her "pillar-to-post" existence." ... Perhaps when I began to write the novels for children I was harking back to how much pleasure I got from books like The Secret Garden," she says. "My impression is that the writing has got better and better but the books have got darker and darker. I don't know what I think about that, being so addicted to making children happy."

And so, for instance, in a book like The Dragonfly Pool, children at a progressive school during the days leading up to World War II put together an international dance festival and use it to rescue a young prince from his country's enemies. Their goals are idealistic, but the fact that they pull it off with a non-saccharine "Small World" flair makes for a heartening as well as an adventuresome read.

9. When in doubt, add an aunt.

This quote is also from the Guardian interview: "'When I get stuck in a book now, I usually try putting an aunt in,' says Eva Ibbotson, matter-of-factly. 'I find it difficult to write a book without aunts. With The Ogre I had to put in three aunts, if I remember rightly.'"


10. Retain your sense of whimsy.

Ms. Ibbotson was 85 when she died last month. If you will read the interview I keep quoting, you'll find a lively, humorous mind, a childlike sense of curiosity and amusement that kept this author and her work fresh during a career that spanned decades. Eva Ibbotson—and her aunts—will be greatly missed.


*********************

BOOK LIST

I own a number of Ibbotson's books, including her latest, The Ogre of Oglefort, which I obtained by cheating; i.e., I ordered it from England a few weeks ago in a spirit of nostalgia and mourning. (It isn't due out in the United States till Summer 2011. British cover shown above.) Here's my list for your reference:

Middle Grade Ghost Stories

--Dial-a-Ghost
--The Haunting of Granite Falls (originally The Haunting of Hiram C. Hopgood)
--The Beasts of Clawstone Castle
--The Great Ghost Rescue


Middle Grade Fantasy

--The Secret of Platform 13
--Which Witch?
--Island of the Aunts (
or Monster Mission)
--Not Just a Witch

--The Ogre of Oglefort

Note that you can get Which Witch, The Secret of Platform 13, and Island of the Aunts in an omnibus edition.


Middle Grade Historical Adventure

--Journey to the River Sea
--The Star of Kazan
--The Dragonfly Pool


Young Adult Historical Romances

--The Countess Below Stairs
--The Reluctant Heiress
--A Company of Swans
--A Song for Summer
--The Morning Gift


Books I Haven't Read

--The Worm and the Toffee Nosed Princess
--Madensky Square
(adult/YA)
--A Glove Shop in Vienna and Other Stories (adult/YA)


See also author Laura Amy Schlitz's very lovely obituary for Eva Ibbotson. Thanks to Charlotte Taylor of Charlotte's Library for the interview and obituary links.

Note for Worried Parents: There's some discreetly handled sex in a couple of the YA historical romances, which were originally written for adults (e.g., The Morning Gift and A Company of Swans).