Friday, February 26, 2010

Jane Gets a Makeover

I was making my rounds through a bookstore the other day, scanning the YA (teen) shelves, when my eyes were caught by another imitation-Twilight cover, stark black with a passionate red rose and a couple of white roses hovering behind. I picked it up, expecting to see a title along the lines of Fangs in the Night or My Brooding Werewolf Lover.

But the book was Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. With a teaser phrase on the front in all caps: "THE LOVE THAT STARTED IT ALL." The back jacket let me know that there are two more books in this set, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, AKA "LOVE NEVER DIES," and Romeo and Juliet, "THE ORIGINAL FORBIDDEN LOVE."

Just so we're clear, what this means is that Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, and William Shakespeare are jumping on the Twilight bandwagon—courtesy of HarperTeen. (This edition of Pride and Prejudice is ranked #7,707 in sales on Amazon today, not a bad number, really. FYI, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight is currently ranked #121 in Amazon sales. In terms of total sales, Twilight is catching up fast, with more than 17 million to P&P's 20 million.)

So how does Pride and Prejudice stack up against Twilight? Yes, thousands of women just howled in outrage, sounding like Taylor Lautner in full fur. But read on...

We've got Elizabeth vs. Bella, for starters. Elizabeth is a little older and has way more confidence. She spends most of the book irked at Mr. Darcy and only gradually relents, overcome by a growing awareness of her mistaken assumptions, as well as by Mr. Darcy's unexpected gallantry and his really gorgeous mansion. Bella, for her part, is addicted to Edward Cullen almost from the get-go and is pretty self-effacing, even self-deprecating.

Mr. Darcy vs. Edward? No contest. Mr. Darcy outbroods Edward Cullen and Robert Pattinson put together, and without being melodramatic. Each hero is capable of leaping into the fray to help his ladylove, but Mr. Darcy sacrifices his famous pride on the altar of Elizabeth, humbling himself to aid his enemy Mr. Wickham for her sake. Edward merely beats up a vampire and manages not to drink all of Bella's blood.

As for wit and fine writing, craftsmanship and subtle humor... No, I can't go on. I'm starting to howl like Taylor Lautner. Let's just state the obvious: Jane Austen is a really, really good writer.

Having gotten a kick out of seeing these new editions, I walked a few steps farther and came across a Marvel Comics version of Pride and Prejudice which insisted on coming home with me. I'm not sure how you feel about graphic versions of classic literature—appalled? amused? But I was curious to see just what the adapter and illustrator had done with one of my favorite books ever.

Apparently this edition was originally published as a series of four comic books. The covers are nicely tongue-in-cheek, each set up to resemble a magazine cover. Fake article teasers used on the book jacket include "Lizzy on Love, Loss, and Living," "Bingleys Bring Bling to Britain," "17 Secrets about Summer Dresses," "How to Cure Your Boy-Crazy Sisters," and, of course, "Who Is Mr. Darcy?" Marvel has kindly included the other three jackets in the back of the book for your enjoyment. (I should warn you that the interior artwork does not look anything like the cover art.)

The oddest thing about this book is the front flap copy, which could have been highly entertaining, but isn't. Not a bit. It seems more like a super-condensed version of CliffsNotes, to tell you the truth, remarking on social relevance, major themes, and Austen's writing style. If the Marvel people were going to go there, they should have just thrown in a more detailed note at the back of the book.

I have to say, Nancy Butler does a very good job of picking out the best of Austen's wonderful dialogue and including it in this graphic adaptation. Think of the book as a movie. Like a movie, a graphic novel has to re-envision a novel as a series of scenes and preserve key dialogue while replacing description and action with visual images.

Presented in such a tight format, P&P does seem a little more soap opera-ish. This impression is aided by Hugo Petrus's artwork, which conforms to comic book conventions by giving almost every woman in the book, and certainly the Bennet sisters, surprisingly full lips for people living in an age prior to Botox. However, to Petrus's credit, he doesn't enhance anybody's breasts except maybe Mrs. Bennet's, and that suits her portrayal as a rather blowsy woman. The only moment that seems truly out of character and anachronistic here is when the artist shows Mr. Darcy holding Elizabeth in his arms (entirely off the ground, cheerleader-catch style) after he has re-proposed and she has accepted. Highly improper! But it's just the one frame, so I think I'll forgive the guy.

Petrus's palette is inclined towards browns and golds, a good match for the era. He manages to give the long dialogue scenes a surprisingly energetic feel by varying his compositions and showing characters' shifting emotions. The only thing that threw me off about the artwork was that in the fourth segment, Petrus's style seems to have changed—maybe he's using a different medium, or the printing method has changed, or he's simply using fewer lines to portray these characters.

As for the artist's rendering of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, I wasn't on board at first, but they grew on me. I imagine most of us have pictures in our heads of favorite literary characters, and these didn't match up for me. Still, once I got used to them, I rather liked them, Botox and all.

Another version of P&P that has been shelved in the YA section lately is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. I had such a good time writing my Amazon review of this book last year that I'll share it with you here:

Imagine a fifteen-year-old girl reading Pride and Prejudice. No, better yet, imagine her watching a DVD of Pride and Prejudice, preferably the one with Keira Knightley. Her best friend is plopped down beside her. They're eating low-fat microwave popcorn and sighing blissfully every so often, when suddenly the girl's younger brother shows up, along with his own best buddy.

The two boys look at the screen for about three seconds and say, "Gross!" Then, with an evil look, the first one says loudly, "You know what would make this better? If there were zombies in it."

"Yeah," his friend says, "hungry for brains. And that girl right there could be a kick-butt zombie fighter."

"Elizabeth Bennet?" the big sister says, appalled, yet vaguely charmed by the thought.

"Ha," her friend says, "she and Mr. Darcy could kick zombie butt together! That would be kinda romantic. In a disgusting way, I mean."

Just then Mr. and Mrs. Collins come on-screen. It doesn't take long for the boys to realize how boring they are. "That guy has to die," says the girl's brother.

"Yeah, and the girl could turn into a zombie," says his friend.

"Okay, you can shut up now," the fifteen-year-old tells the intruders. "We get it. You're funny."

But her brother isn't quite finished. "What this story needs the most is a lot of vomit. Because it makes me sick!"

Um, so, anyway—that's what this book is like. Just exchange the ten-year-old brother for a literate thirty-something screenwriter and you've got this hybrid, which is said to be 85% Jane Austen, 15% Seth Grahame-Smith.

What's most impressive is how smoothly the guy weaves his "unmentionables" and things like the Bennet sisters' martial arts training into the original text. Take this bit, for example:

"Upon entering Meryton...the eyes of the younger [Bennet] girls were immediately wandering up the street in quest of officers, and nothing less than a very smart bonnet indeed, or the wail of the undead, could recall them."

Then there's a parlor game that's all the rage—Crypt and Coffin. Or the fact that London is a walled city divided into military enclaves in order to deal with the zombie menace. Elizabeth's favorite aunt and uncle live in Section Six East, just in case you were wondering.

One thing Grahame-Smith has fun with is letting Elizabeth and her sisters' combat training render them rather bloodthirsty, especially in response to the most irritating characters in the book:

"To the girls, who could not listen to their cousin [Mr. Collins] without taking a silent inventory of the countless ways they could kill him, the interval of waiting appeared very long."

Grahame-Smith also gives Mr. Wickham a much more severe comeuppance than Austen ever did. And Elizabeth gets into angry martial arts face-offs with, not only Mr. Darcy himself, but Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Austen's "co-author" occasionally misses a beat when it comes to having other characters respond normally to his additions, and he gets a bit carried away with the vomit, but I have to admit, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is remarkably clever in its own little rotting-flesh way.

Of course, the greatest irony of all is that avowed anti-snob Seth Grahame-Smith has a name that makes him sound like he'd fit in nicely with Darcy and Bingley's elegant London crowd.

Now, zombies aside, what do you think about that phrase on the imitation-Twilight book jacket of the latest edition of Pride and Prejudice? Is this book really "The Love that Started it All?" Well, HarperTeen's other title, Romeo and Juliet, came long before Austen's book and arguably defined star-crossed lovers for all time. Which makes it a better comparison to Twilight, actually! (Hm. How many of you just howled like a drunken Elizabethan?) As for Pride and Prejudice, let's just say that every romance novel written in the past century or so and every rom-com ever filmed, particularly the ones with the slightest hint of initial dislike between hero and heroine or any sort of witty banter, owes a big fat thank you to Ms. Austen. With or without that black cover adorned by a bloody-looking rose.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Review of Steel Trapp: The Academy by Ridley Pearson

Steel Trapp: The Academy is Book Two in a series I think of as one of the Alex Rider imitators, and I mean that in a good way. Few children's and YA books tend to be written for and about boys, so I deeply appreciate Anthony Horowitz's series about a reluctant teen spy. When I asked one of my new tenth grade students recently what he'd been reading, he told me how much he loves the Alex Rider books. A few days later, I gave the first book in the series to another student to read.

Of course, within the Alex Rider school of writing (James Bond or The Bourne Identity for kids), some titles are better than others. I thought the first book in Ridley Pearson's new series, Steel Trapp: The Challenge, was one of the better entries in the espionage/thriller genre for kids. I was particularly pleased that the whole story was set around a national science fair, and that Steven "Steel" Trapp was nicknamed for his mind. His compatriot, Kaileigh, was also presented as a science fair competitor. The only reservation I had about the book was that I felt that the adult characters (e.g., federal agents) got too much page time and had too much power over the plot. This is, of course, where teen spy books get tricky—they are essentially a thinly disguised form of fantasy. In real life, how much access could a couple of teens possibly have to things like weapons and national secrets?

In Steel Trapp #2, The Academy, Steel goes to spy school, although the school won't admit what it is up front. Steel, who discovered in Book One that his own father was a spy, gets suspicious when Kaileigh shows up at the same East Coast boarding school on scholarship. He and his friend begin investigating a secret society on campus.

Eventually Steel confirms his growing suspicion that Wynncliff Academy is a recruiting ground for future spies. He and Kaileigh are invited to join a junior espionage team whose mission is to track down a group of sophisticated young pickpockets stealing diplomatic secrets from guests at elegant Boston hotels. Of course, Steel and Kaileigh spend much of the book wondering who to trust.

The author intertwines Steel's story with the experiences of the pickpockets, essentially a group of bright street kids recruited by a mysterious woman, a chilly faux mother figure. The pickpockets are presented as an intriguing opposite number to Steel's group of privileged young academy spies. This gives us a feeling of having the best of both worlds, say, from Horowitz's Alex Rider series and Robert Muchamore's grittier Cherub series.

Pearson has a good time with Steel's difficulty in reading Kaileigh's signals when she subtly expresses her attraction to him. There's no sex here, just some social interplay that adds liveliness to the plot. Steel is also attracted to an older girl who has her own reasons for keeping an eye on him. (Note to the author: "handsome girl" is not a term used by today's teens! At least it's not in the dialogue...)

I'll just point out that Pearson's wording is occasionally clunky, but generally serviceable.

I was happy to come across a sports subplot in The Academy. Steel not only has some very physical adventures while playing spy games—most notably one involving hiding between the valve arms of a giant pipe organ to avoid being caught—but he learns to play a variation of dodgeball called ga-ga. According to Wikipedia, the game is Israeli in origin. Steel's sports practices and games add further appeal for boy readers. I have to admit, I found myself thinking about quidditch, despite the lack of flying brooms.

While Steel is athletic, his greatest ability is a photographic memory, which proves useful whether he's playing ga-ga or spy games. Pearson shows that Steel's abilities can't always save him from disaster, however, which makes the boy more likable. In fact, Steel is a little embarrassed about his gift because people have fussed about it so much over the years.

Less finely drawn as a character because the books are really about Steel, Kaileigh Augustine does make a good hook for bringing girl readers to the series. She is bright and talented in her own right, although she is set up to be a more cautious counterpoint to Steel, which struck me as a bit stereotypical.

As a relative newcomer to the teen spy genre, Steel Trapp seems more than capable of holding his own. I was pleased to find that Book Two kept its focus squarely on the kids. Let's hope the series just keeps getting better!

Note for Worried Parents: This book is listed for ages 9-12, but it feels like a wholesome YA to me. That simply gives it a nice broad range! There's a little flirting and boy-girl stuff here, nothing major. For example, Kaileigh suggests that in a pinch, she and Steel can pretend to kiss (yes, that old chestnut). Much blushing ensues on Steel's part, although at one point he really does kiss the girl.

A Review of Jack: Secret Circles by F. Paul Wilson

Here's another Book Two, Jack: Secret Circles, which follows Jack: Secret Histories, published in 2008. Both books are essentially prequels to the author's adult series about a man called Repairman Jack. In fact, after I read the first book about a teenage Jack, I went looking for some of the Repairman Jack books. They are quite bleak, a cross between detective fiction and horror. What I like best about them is the idea of the title character. Jack operates off the grid, solving problems that can't be solved by the law. This makes him something of a vigilante, although Wilson gives him a supernatural mythos, defining him as a dark warrior for the Light, AKA an antihero. The most intriguing thing about Repairman Jack is how creatively he solves problems, although his turn-the-tables approach sometimes backfires.

The books about young Jack aren't quite as successful as the adult series, but they still have plenty to recommend them. Jack lives near Jersey's Pine Barrens, where supernatural creatures roam and a secret society steals powerful magical objects. Jack himself is more of a pragmatist in his initial attempts at troubleshooting. His realism balances out the effect of the supernatural components of the story, in fact.

In Secret Circles, Jack tries to help his friend Weezy retrieve a mystical artifact that was taken from her in the first book, clearly by the secretive Lodge, a group led by creepy Mr. Drexler. Weezy is convinced that people like Mr. Drexler also have access to a book she is sure exists, The Secret History of the World. Jack doesn't believe her, but what if she's right?

Meanwhile, the circus is in town, a five-year-old boy is missing, and a monster is roaming the Pine Barrens, where Jack and Weezy discover an ancient stone structure that seems to have been designed as a cage. And when Jack discovers that a respected citizen beats his wife, he tries to make things right, only to find out that some problems aren't easily solved.

Adult writers who switch to writing for teens and children sometimes have trouble with the transition. Wilson's Jack is occasionally too grown-up in his thinking, and the author's pacing reflects the more leisurely adult novel, dragging in spots. Mostly, though, I suspect that Wilson's grand vision of his Secret History of the World books, which he is filling in little by little as outlined in an elaborate chart at the back of this and every book, sometimes lead him to forget to simply settle down and do some storytelling. So the plot's kind of up and down, too.

But I still like these books. F. Paul Wilson has an interesting mind, and Jack is one of speculative fiction's most original characters. For young conspiracy theorists who like some paranormal with their suspense, the YA Jack stories are a creep-worthy read.

Note for Worried Parents: I looked up the target audience on Amazon, and it's ages 9-12. This is another book that I feel has more of a teen/tween sensibility than a middle grade one. The darkest parts of Secret Circles are probably some horror elements (dead bodies) and the wife-beating, though both are presented in a fairly restrained manner. Some parents may be bothered by the author's attempt to show that the wife who is being beaten resents being rescued, but it's really pretty thought-provoking, illuminating Jack's growing awareness that there are a lot of things he doesn't understand about other people's lives. I would recommend a family discussion about this aspect of the plot.

A Review of Heist Society by Ally Carter

Ally Carter should be thanked for giving teenage girls their very own Alex Rider in her Gallagher Girls books: I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You; Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy; and Don't Judge a Girl by Her Cover; with Only the Good Spy Young coming out in June of this year. Now Carter brings us another series, but instead of a girl spy-in-training, we get a girl thief, one who's already surprisingly well trained in the family business.

A note about tone: unlike the boy spy and amateur vigilante/detective books reviewed above, let alone the Alex Rider books themselves, Ally Carter's books are lighthearted, fast-paced, and practically cute. Her work reminds me a lot of Meg Cabot's, with feisty heroines, conversations about clothes and boys, and plenty of humor. She also sprinkles in clever, good-looking boys who are attracted to our girl heroes. But saying that makes both Cabot and Carter's books sound like sheer fluff, and I would hasten to assert that one brand of good storytelling is, well, simply entertaining, with more of a movie/TV sensibility than a heavy-duty literary one.

In that light, I'll tell you that I got a real kick out of reading Heist Society. Here's how the flap copy starts out:

When Katarina Bishop was three, her parents took her on a trip to the case it. For her seventh birthday, Katarina and her Uncle Eddie traveled to steal the crown jewels. When Kat turned fifteen, she planned a con of her own—scamming her way into the best boarding school in the country, determined to leave the family business behind. Unfortunately, leaving "the life" for a normal life proves harder than she'd expected.

Soon an old friend named Hale shows up and tells Kat that her father needs her help. One of the best thieves in the world, Kat's dad has been accused of stealing paintings from a very scary Italian business tycoon, the kind who employs his own people for handling payback. Disbelieving Kat's claims that her father is innocent, the man gives Kat a deadline for getting his paintings back. He also has his goons spy on Kat while she's working on the problem.

As the title suggests, this is a heist book. Think Ocean's Eleven with a group of teenagers. Although Carter's plot is stronger at some points than others, the overall trajectory of the story works. And teenage girl readers will enjoy the obvious attraction between Hale and Kat, as well as Kat's jealousy towards her beautiful, too-cool cousin, Gabrielle.

Kat is at the heart of the story, and while her unwillingness to see how much Hale likes her seems a little silly, her worries about the threat to her father and about engineering a successful heist in a nearly thief-proof museum make her all too human, someone readers will cheer for. (The only truly credulity-straining plot point is Kat's assumption about the location of the paintings, a gigantic leap upon which to base an entire heist! But oh well...)

Carter gives us some fun touches, such as the names of cons and strategies that our seasoned young thieves throw around during their planning meetings, e.g., Groundhog and Fallen Angels. Kat's team includes colorful characters, as does her larcenous family. We meet the mysterious Nick, an apparent rival for Kat's affections, and we glimpse the handiwork of a legendary thief, Romani, who takes a special interest in recovering artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War II. Plenty of sequel fodder here.

Heist Society is the kind of book that will make you smile—or, if you don't smile, your teenage daughter will. Because even though I really like Alex Rider's seriousness, it's a nice change to meet up with Ally Carter's version of the YA suspense story. One with a definite sense of humor.

Note for Worried Parents: This book is listed for YA, but it's pretty wholesome. I'm guessing some parents might not want their kids to read a book that glorifies teen thieves, though Kat is presented as being conflicted about her family's career in general, not to mention about the possibility of going to jail. Overall, she tends to have kind of a Robin Hood sensibility. There is some teen attraction in this book, also talk about how sexy Gabrielle looks. When Kat's boy buddies see her dressed up (for the first time), they comment with humorous amazement that she has boobs. Otherwise, we get some hugging, a quick kiss or two, and that's about it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Percy Jackson and His Sexy Friends

So I went and saw The Lightning Thief movie on Friday. It wasn't bad overall, although it didn't hold a candle to the best of the Harry Potter movies. No full review here, just an observation, and that is, apparently Hollywoodizing a children's book now includes a sensual if not sexual component. Thank you, Twilight. Or should we be thanking the likes of movie directors Judd Apatow, Todd Phillips, and John Hamburg, not to mention the last decade or two of Saturday Night Live writers, all of whom seem incapable of telling a story without a dose of steam?

For example, when Percy Jackson arrives at Camp Half-Blood in the movie, he sets his eyes on his about-to-be-sidekick, Annabeth, as played by Alexandra Daddario. Only in the movie, unlike in the book, Percy and Annabeth exchange a seemingly endless series of longing looks that reminded me of the yearning looks exchanged between Bella and Edward in the movie version of Stephenie Meyer's YA paranormal, Twilight. Here Annabeth Chase's slightly parted pillowy lips seem designed to accessorize her noticeable bosom. Yes, this is the hot version of Annabeth, which threw me off a bit as a reader of the series and also makes the Potter movies' cute-but-true-to-the-book-character Hermione seem better than ever. Especially considering Annabeth is written by Riordan as such a strong character, smart and independent. At least she gets to show off her combat and archery skills as the movie progresses!

Even Grover does not escape unscathed: he is presented as what the Brits in our midst would call randy. (In the books, Percy and Grover sometimes notice girls are cute, but that's about it.) Grover is also a hip-hop caricature; I suppose this is sort of fun, but I'm not sure I'm sold on it. Anyway, movie Grover acts hot-to-trot in Vegas, land of the Lotus Eaters, and even with Hades' wife Persephone, who also gets to be sexy in this film, coming on to Grover in turn. I realize satyrs have a reputation in mythology, but Riordan really didn't go there.

Finally, Logan Lerman, the actor who portrays Percy, looks like a young Chase Crawford. Which is pretty funny, since Gossip Girl's 24-year-old Chase is so young himself that he really shouldn't have a junior clone. But he does. Meet the movie Percy, who, like Annabeth, is fully capable of smoldering stares in the middle of the action.

At best, these touches of sensuality are a little distracting. At worst, they mar what started out as perfectly good middle grade fiction. Again, I have to recommend the Harry Potter movies, which manage to show adolescent crushes in a natural way, as part of the storytelling, i.e., without any panting, lip-parting, or pat sexual innuendos.

Good things about the movie? Well, the depictions of the gods and monsters are terrific. In particular, as the critics are saying, Uma Thurman's Medusa is wonderful. And I really did enjoy seeing this best-selling adventure story retold onscreen. But if you go to the movie theater to watch The Lightning Thief, be prepared for a few surprisingly sultry moments.

Cybils Award Winners

Just in case you didn't catch the link elsewhere, the 2009 Cybils Award winners have been announced. These awards for the best children's books of each year are nominated by the Kidlitosphere blog community, i.e., librarians, teachers, parents, writers, and other bibliophiles, with final judging done by committee. One nice thing about the awards is that they include genre categories such as Sci-fi/Fantasy and Graphic Novel. Here are a few of the top picks:

Picture Book: All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee

Middle Grade Fiction: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

MG Fantasy and Science Fiction: Dreamdark: Silksinger (Fairies of Dreamdark) by Laini Taylor

Note that both of the award-winning graphic novels, The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook by Eleanor Davis for middle grade and Gunnerkrigg Court: Orientation by Tom Siddell for YA, are reviewed in my recent "Getting Graphic" post.

And Pam Turner's wonderful book, The Frog Scientist, won for YA nonfiction! (It's equally accessible to middle grade readers, so they shouldn't miss out.)

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Review of Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware by M.T. Anderson

Reviewing Mac Barnett's The Brixton Brothers: The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity a few weeks ago reminded me that I had yet to read the latest in M.T. Anderson's series of tongue-in-cheek adventure stories, M.T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales, AKA Pals in Peril. (The first two books are Whales on Stilts and The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen.) So now I have, and I've got to tell you: I thought M.T. Anderson was giddily over-the-top with the first two books, but he really outdoes himself here.

Which is all the more odd and impressive when you consider that this author is better known for writing award-winning, dark, and dense historical fiction for teens about an African American boy during the American Revolution: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, volumes 1 and 2. Not to mention for writing a tough futuristic YA book, Feed, a work notable in part for having some of the best opening lines ever written.

Come to think of it, Anderson is just a whiz at openers. Here is the first sentence of Whales on Stilts:
On Career Day Lily visited her dad's work with him and discovered he worked for a mad scientist who wanted to rule the earth through destruction and desolation.
Linoleum Lederhosen starts off:
"Great scott!" cried Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut. "Your mother just lost her hand in the rotating band saw!"
(Um, she didn't really. In case you were worried.) And then we come to Flame-Pits of Delaware:
When Lily Gefelty got out of bed on the morning of the big game, she looked out the window to see what kind of a day it was going to be. She discovered that it was the kind of day when a million beetles crawl out of the ground and swarm the streets, forecasting evil.
Anderson shows his funny side in this underappreciated series—spoofing and satirizing along at a hundred miles a minute. His three main characters are Lily, an ordinary girl; Katie, star of a series of monster-fighting books called Horror Hollow that were popular just a few years back; and Jasper Dash, star of a series of adventure books for boys published a good sixty years previously and now thoroughly out of print.

Section One of Flame-Pits is subtitled "An Eye for an Eye." It turns out that the top sport at the local high school is staring matches—and we get to hear all about one such match, with Jasper as a top contender against a suspicious team of out-of-towners with eerie eyes and powers. (Jasper and his friends are apparently in high school, but the kids seem more like middle schoolers, and except for the sophistication of the satire, the books read like middle grade fiction, which is also how they're labeled for marketing purposes. Whew!)

Soon Jasper receives a psychic distress call from an old friend, a young monk named Drgnan living in a hidden monastery high in the mountains of Delaware. (Don't worry, Lily and Katie are just as incredulous about hidden monasteries, oppressive governments, and dinosaurs in the mountainous jungles of Delaware as you are, at least until they arrive and see it all for themselves.)

Here's a sample for your reading pleasure, showing Katie spying on the scary parent leader of the scary staring team:
Katie craned her neck. Still she couldn't see whatever it was that lurked in the dark. Luckily, Katie had hidden beside a battered Oldsmobile Delta 88 jammed diagonally in a compact-car parking space with its front tires up on the curb. The Oldsmobile Delta 88 was a car so enormously long that Katie could have slunk down its tawny side with a whole SWAT team gesturing to each other behind her and still have been masterfully concealed. She thanked the stars above for good old-fashioned gas-guzzlers with room for twenty clowns and a hurdy-gurdy and snuck forward in a crouch, her fingertips padding along the car's pockmarked surface.
And Katie is masterfully concealed, spying on the bad guys in their van—right up until her mother comes up the sidewalk and says loudly, "Hey! Katie!...Yoo-hoo, honey! What are you doing crouched over like that?" And then, "Straighten your back, darling! You're beautiful! Is crouched over next to a Delta Eighty-eight the kind of posture they teach at this school?" Whereupon the villains naturally emerge and get a good look at Katie. (Hee hee.)

And then there's Jasper Dash. In this outing, he gets a little blue about not fitting in. More fun from Anderson, since Jasper is so screamingly different from everyone else that the real surprise is that it took him this long to notice! Technonaut Jasper is big on inventions, although his creations are generally bulky and old-fashioned and prone to blowing up at inopportune moments. The mere fact that Anderson casually drops such a character into this series is head-scratchingly brilliant. Watch how Jasper reacts when Katie and Lily stand by him in a difficult situation:
Jasper was clearly moved. "By the squealing fruits of Arcturus, you are the best friends a man could have," he said.
Not every kid is going to get these books, but if your child has a quirky sense of humor, reads voraciously, and likes sci-fi/fantasy and adventure/suspense, give the series a try. Because where else are you going to meet the kangaroo-riding cannibals of Delaware but in Anderson's East Coast jungle?
With cruel shrieks and hooting calls, the cannibals of Delaware dismounted and began to pace toward the three friends. Except for six who, disoriented by all the hopping, paced in the wrong direction, spun in circles, or went to throw up in the bushes. The rest, however, looked menacing. They looked hungry. They dressed in loincloths and terrycloth sweatbands. They were greased, and their hair was long and shaggy like rockers'. In their hands were spears, long forks, chips and salsa, and, cradled in one man's arms, a Cobb salad in Saran Wrap.
Their kangaroos hunkered behind them, waiting for the slaughter. The chief stood on the path right in front of Lily, Jasper, and Katie. He wore a headdress—a busy, brutal confection of pheasant wings, rat skulls, and sequins—and an old barbecue apron that said I'M HERE WITH SCRUMPTIOUS.

As Publishers Weekly said succinctly of Whales on Stilts back in 2005, "Highly wacky."

Note for Worried Parents: Monsters and peril, but it's all very funny. I mean, if you can't joke about cannibals, what can you joke about?

A Review of The Ever Breath by Julianna Baggott

The first thing that grabbed me about this book was the back jacket flap, wherein I learned that this author is the elusive N.E. Bode, writer of the Anybodies series. Perhaps you already knew that, but it was news to me! And I can see parallels, as the first book in that series, Anybodies, featured a strange old house and an unusual grandmother, too.

The house in The Ever Breath is literally located in the middle of a golf course. Truman and Camille's grandmother ("call me Swelda") explains:

In this idiotic game of balls and clubs and loudly colored pants, the golfers must get from the seventeenth tee box to the seventeenth hole. Here, they have to go around this house... And they don't aim well! So don't be surprised if you wake up in the morning to the sound of golf balls popping off the roof. Louder than acorns, I tell you! I've boarded up the windows. Tired of replacing the glass! Golfers tee off at five a.m. I hope you two are early risers!"
But the golf course ends up being the least bizarre thing about Swelda and her home. Swelda feeds the kids unusual foods—which somehow don't cause an allergic reaction in Truman, who normally suffers from extensive allergies, asthma, motion sickness, you name it. (His sister Camille is extra healthy, in contrast.) During the ceremonial vegetarian meal, which includes seventeen types of tea along with delicacies such as pear noodles and apple-dipped jelly yolks, Swelda tells her grandchildren stories about a parallel world called the Breath World, where magic and magical creatures flourish. The Ever Breath, the talisman that maintains the balance between the two worlds, must never be moved, or both worlds will be in trouble. Although Swelda doesn't tell the kids quite yet, the Ever Breath is in fact missing.

Yep, it's a portal story! That night Truman finds his way into the other world and begins to bumble around trying to fulfill his mission there. Only he doesn't bumble as much as usual, since in the Breath World, Truman no longer needs his glasses or his inhaler. (But Camille does, when she shows up!) The Breath World is being ruled by an overly cheerful government whose motto is explained on a card with one black side and one white side, reading, respectively, "Us versus Them!" and "The difference is simple!" Or as one of Truman's new allies puts it:
"The Office of Official Affairs has divided all of us into the Officially Good and the Officially Evil, trying to make us believe that there are only two types of creatures. To protect the Officially Good, the Office has to do away with the Officially Evil."
"How can they tell the Officially Good from the Officially Evil?"
"Ah, well. It's simple." Artwhip raised his finger. "The Officially Good agree with the Office of Official Affairs, and the Officially Evil don't."
Members of the resistance movement, the jarkmen, end up helping Truman, who learns he has a very good reason to take an interest in the head jarkman, a boy about his age.

In a breezy, matter-of-fact tone, Baggott gives us a slew of colorful details such as ruckus tents, locus fairies, prophetic snow globes, and Truman's new sidekick, a cat-like creature named Praddle who can sort of talk. Truman attempts to save the head jarkman and find the missing Ever Breath while avoiding capture; he also hopes to protect Artwhip, since he's seen a dangerous future for the resistance fighter in his snow globe.

Truman thrives in the Breath World, which makes for a kind of instant character evolution. Camille is somewhat less important to the story, although I wonder if that will change in future books. Swelda is a hoot, and I particularly liked a talking mouse named Binderbee Biggby, who has the most interesting crisis of conscience in the whole book.

This is the start of a series, and it's a promising one. I'll admit The Ever Breath gets messagey in spots, and I was a little thrown off during the big fight scene by the author's overt efforts to keep the main villain alive to wreak havoc another day. But Julianna Baggott is a darn good storyteller, and I do recommend the book to young fantasy readers.

Note for Worried Parents: Monsters, peril, and villains, but no sex whatsoever. This is solidly middle grade fiction.

A Review of The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone

It's hard not to read this book without thinking back to another book about children sneaking around in a museum, E.L. Konigsburg's The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Only this time we're in the Art Institute of Chicago, zeroing in on the titular sixty-eight rooms in the Thorne miniatures collection. (And yes, I've been there, although I was more interested in the Chagall window, not to mention the satisfying discovery that a board game my family had when I was a child, Masterpiece, was obviously based on paintings from the Art Institute.)

As our story begins, Ruthie goes to the museum on a field trip and is entranced by the Thorne Rooms, encapsulations of different countries and eras in history. Ruthie, who shares a cramped room with her older sister, wishes she could have one of the beautiful rooms all to herself and sleep in an exquisite canopy bed. Meanwhile, her bold friend Jack asks a staff member, Mr. Bell, about the mechanics of the exhibit, and Mr. Bell lets Jack take a peek into the back hallway behind the miniatures. Jack pulls Ruthie over to take a look, too, and sneaks inside—where he sees something on the floor and tucks it in his pocket.

Jack's find turns out to be a beautiful little key. When Ruthie tells him he should put it back, he convinces her to return to the museum with him the next day and look for the lock the key fits. Only once they sneak back into the corridor behind the Thorne exhibit and Jack lets Ruthie hold the key, Ruthie shrinks down until she herself is a miniature girl. Briefly shocked and then thrilled by their discovery, Ruthie and Jack experiment with the key. Later, having properly tricked their families, they hide in the museum by night and explore the rooms in the exhibit at their leisure, even learning that they can walk through the outside doors of the rooms into the past and talk to people, i.e., in France a few years before the Revolution and in a Massachusetts village during the Salem Witch Trials.

One of the best things about this book are the strategies Ruthie and Jack come up with for getting around the exhibits while they're small, such as unshrinking when needed, using duct tape ingeniously, and dealing with a giant cockroach. Their adventures in the past are brief, but intriguing. They must also solve the mystery of who used the key before them, leaving items like an ordinary pencil and a barrette in surprising spots.

The Sixty-Eight Rooms is a pleasant book, though perhaps not a compelling one. Of course, the author's passion for the Thorne Rooms will be more appealing to some young readers than others. I did notice that exposition, a sort of adult voice which sounded a lot like my high school history teacher, crept in and out of the book, at times overanalyzing the rules of the magic and interfering with the storytelling. I also found myself wishing that Ruthie weren't so unwilling to take risks in contrast to Jack's brashness, a combination which felt a bit stereotypical. (Even their names reflect this—Ruthie is a sweet, old-fashioned name, while Jack sounds like the daring boy in "Jack and the Beanstalk" or even Captain Jack Sparrow.)

However, there are some nice adventurous moments in The Sixty-Eight Rooms. I was especially pleased when the kids were able to walk out of the rooms into the past, though a few more such occurrences would have really enriched the book. Fans of historical fiction, time travel, and intellectual puzzles are likely to wish they were Jack and Ruthie, shrinking down to explore a miniature world of mysterious rooms.

Note: This book is due out on February 23. I requested a review copy from the Amazon Vine program.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

And So It Begins!

I woke up grumpy this morning and was saved by the realization that Betsy Bird of Fuse #8 has started her countdown of the Top 100 Children's Novels, the results of her poll regarding the best middle grade fiction. Bliss, bliss, joy!

I should point out that Bird gives quotes, commentary, history, and links for each title, so it's fascinating stuff, like opening a mysterious box of treasures (or a portal, or a time capsule: pick your adventurous MG analogy!). Please visit Betsy's blog and follow the evolution as she counts up to #1. It's better than breakfast cereal, trust me.

And even though the following is about a picture book, this seems like a good time for me to share a children's book moment. Yesterday I went to the home of a 6-year-old Latina child being treated for cancer and offered her a choice of picture book readalouds by way of starting class. When her eyes fell on Esphyr Slobodkina's Caps for Sale, her whole face lit up. She insisted on showing her mother that I had brought the book. "Te acuerdas, Mami?" Remember, Mom? Then she informed me, "There are monkeys!" A key fact, to be sure.

As I read her the book, she leaned forward, glowing with anticipation. When the peddler sat down beneath the tree to rest, she said again, "There are monkeys in the tree." (Like I said, key!). Of course, her joy brimmed over when the monkeys actually made their appearance.

She was a little less sure about joining me in acting out the fist shaking and foot stomping, but she loved making the monkey sound.

When the book ended, she sat back, her day made complete by the addition of monkeys. My efforts to teach her to count by tens seemed paltry at best after the glory that was Caps for Sale.

And that, my friends, is what children's books are all about.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Thank You, Ev!

A few days ago Ev Bishop nominated me for a Prolific Blogger Award, which just goes to show, my dogged (obsessive?) determination to post every single weekend has been rewarded! Thanks to Ev, not only for the award, but for the opportunity to nominate a few of my own many favorite blogs, with an emphasis on active involvement as well as quality.

To begin with, let me tell you that I find myself visiting CHARLOTTE'S LIBRARY an awful lot these days. Why? Because fantasy is my favorite genre, and Charlotte Taylor keeps me up to the minute with her posts about middle grade and YA sci-fi/fantasy. I particularly like her new Sunday roundups of middle grade sff reviews from throughout Kidlitosphere, also her frequent lists of the latest books coming off the presses. Charlotte's own reviews are both down-to-earth and intelligent, which not everybody can do at the same time!

Here are Charlotte's latest Sunday roundup, a cool post that introduced me to the term "field of care," and her most recent list of new sff books for kids.

Becky of BECKY'S BOOK REVIEW awes me because she is such a prolific reader! (I thought I was, till I started visiting her blog...) She also has an eye for off-the-wall picks and a nice wry voice, which further endears her to me.

Here is Becky's recent Poetry Friday post about a great poetry collection for children, The Bill Martin Jr. Big Book of Poetry. Her latest review is of Cynthia Kadohota's A Million Shades of Gray.

Doret of THE HAPPY NAPPY BOOKSELLER has left some thoughtful comments on my blog and on other blogs I've visited. She's an active voice in Kidlitosphere, a voice in particular for African American literature, and a voice for great books, period. Read her reviews and you'll see what I mean.

Here are her thoughts on Black History Month, plus links, and a review of Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves.

I know YA author LINDA GERBER from the online critique group I belong to, lucky me. She used to be the SCBWI rep over in Japan, but she's back in the States and still going strong. Linda networks like nobody's business—she seems to know everybody in the YA world. Linda's blog is cheerful and lively, filled with interviews, giveaways, and Linda's own exuberant personality.

Check out Linda's latest "Freebie Friday" post, a review, interview, and book giveaway featuring Jen Nadol's YA book, The Mark.

INTO THE WARDROBE's Tarie helps me remember how cozy the Internet can make the world, since she lives in the Philippines. Tarie focuses on multicultural literature with wit and good humor, bringing books to my attention that I might otherwise miss.

Here is Tarie's overview of the Spirit of Paper Tigers Project, an effort to get multicultural books into underfunded libraries around the world. And here are a review, a video, and an author interview for my new favorite nonfiction book, The Frog Scientist by Pamela S. Turner. (I just recommended it to a fellow teacher, who took it to a homebound student along with five or six other books she thought he'd like better. But he chose The Frog Scientist!)

SCRUB-A-DUB-TUB may be familiar to many of you, but I can't talk about blogs without highlighting one of our literacy activists! Along with Jen of Jen Robinson's Book Page (see also Booklights), Terry keeps us on track when it comes to getting kids to fall in love with reading—really the driving force behind so much of what we do.

This is Terry's February Roundup of Resources for Literacy and Reading, for example.

Finally, I'll mention a blog that's new to me, although it looks like many other blog readers already know about it. The blogger of GREEN BEAN TEEN QUEEN is one of my favorite things, a tween/teen librarian, and I was impressed by her recent review of this year's Coretta Scott King award winner, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson's Bad News for Outlaws, a biography of Bass Reeves.

Take a look at GBTQ's "In My Mailbox," where this week she spotlights The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott, The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee, and Wherever Nina Lies by Lynn Weingarten. Or try her recent review of Lesley Livingston's Wondrous Strange.

I'll confess that I don't go out visiting other blogs nearly as often as I should, so this award has served to remind me just how nice it is to see what everyone else is up to. Check out the blogs I've listed and then visit a few more, looking for those not-so-hidden treasures in the marvelous world of people who love and blog about children's books.

Note to winners: Feel free to give this award to your own 6-7 Prolific Blogger picks!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

12x4 Equals a Whole Lot of Dancing Princesses

There are trends, and then there's "something in the air." For example, a few years ago I thought, Hey, nobody's really written a retelling of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses"! So I wrote one. I finished it a year and a half ago, and it's still unpublished. But as soon as I was well underway (and afterwards), not one, but three different novel-length retellings of the story came out! Each time, I worried that people would later think, like in a grade-school class, that I had "copied." I even had to change the title because one of the three came too close to mine.

This has happened to me before, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. After my picture book, The Secret-Keeper, was published, at least one blogger remarked on the similarity of my premise to the premise of The Safe-Keeper's Secret by Sharon Shinn. Sigh. I had written my story when I was 23, sold it 13 years later after some minor revision, and then, while waiting 6-1/2 years for the illustrations and publication to kick in, watched Shinn's book come out. Around the same time, Hollywood made a contemporary children's movie with a similar theme.

It's also happening with my newest manuscript to some extent. But I suppose when you set out to create a YA paranormal suspense novel in the current market and eliminate vampires, werewolves, and zombies, you're not going to be the only author to surf the next wave in the genre, one I'll loosely call psychic abilities.

So in case you were wondering, sometimes what looks like imitation truly is a handful of writers thinking, Hmm, nobody's done this yet. Call it cosmic irony, synchronicity, whatever: the lightbulb flashes on above all of their heads at the exact same time. Then two or three years later, a crop of books with certain similarities appears in your local bookstore.

Of course, I felt compelled to read the other versions of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" to see what the other three writers had done with the story. (Plus I have a couple of shelves in my library just for fairy tale retellings!) I am pleased to report that all of the books are good, each giving us a new way of looking at the original fairy tale. The first is Juliet Marillier's Wildwood Dancing (1/07), the second is Jessica Day George's Princess of the Midnight Ball (1/09), and the third, which I read a few days ago—prompting this post—is Diane Zahler's The Thirteenth Princess (2/10).

Marillier, who is best known for her adult fantasy writing, sets WILDWOOD DANCING in Romania, in a castle called Piscul Dracului. But her "princesses" are five sisters, the daughters of the wealthy merchant who now owns the castle. The girls have a magical secret—since they were very young, they've been able to slip through a hidden portal in their bedchamber to visit the world of Faerie. There they dance and befriend the odd creatures of the Other Kingdom.

When the girls are older, trouble besets them. Their father has gone away to regain his health in sunnier climes. Second oldest daughter Jena, our first-person narrator, tells how her cousin Cezar gradually takes control of the household, the business, and the family, oppressing the sisters in various ways and eventually proclaiming his determination to marry her. She is unable to get word to her father because Cezar is intercepting her letters. Cezar also casts a disdainful eye on Jena's longtime companion, a pet frog named Gogu who, it will be obvious to readers, is under some kind of a spell. Spurred on by mysterious deaths in the valley, Cezar sets out to destroy the creatures of the Other Kingdom and eliminate the portal he rightly suspects is being concealed from him by his cousins.

Meanwhile, eldest sister Tatiana has fallen in love with one of the Other Kingdom's darker denizens, a man named Sorrow who might be the vampire attacking the locals. When Tati is kept away from her love and believes she might lose him, she begins to die of a broken heart.

With the help of her sisters, the unpredictable fox-riding witch DrĂ¢guta, and her own determination, Jena is finally able to set things right, but not without a struggle. Written for teen readers, Marillier's story is beautifully crafted and a fascinating recasting of the original tale. You'll find yourself rooting for Jena and her sisters at every turn, not to mention hating Cezar, who is a terribly effective villain, as much for his sexism and bullying as for his hidden crimes.

PRINCESS OF THE MIDNIGHT BALL sticks to the original story more closely than Marillier's book. Every night, twelve princesses go to bed and are locked into their room. Every morning, their dancing shoes are worn through. In Jessica Day George's retelling, the dozen princesses are dancing in order to fulfill a contract their mother made with an evil sorcerer imprisoned beneath the earth—the heartless King Under Stone. But the sorcerer manipulated their mother, now deceased, and he has nefarious plans for the girls, who will clearly never escape his clutches...

At least, not without the help of a brave young soldier named Galen, who ends up working as an undergardener at the palace and soon develops feelings for the eldest princess. Rose is the weary, harried mother figure to her eleven younger siblings. When she falls ill, the King Under Stone has no patience with her troubles. I like that George give us a sense of how hard it would be to be one of the twelve dancing princesses of fairy tale fame: it turns out enchanted princesses don't get any sick leave.

Add in political intrigue and the ominous fates of those who try to help the princesses, and things seem to get worse by the minute. But Galen has received magical help in the form of an invisibility cloak, while his talent for knitting turns out to be surprisingly useful. As you can imagine, it's a little difficult to sort out twelve characters, a problem George solves by giving us clearer portraits of a few of them—Pansy and Poppy, for example. But this is really Rose's story, and perhaps Galen's even more so. Princess of the Midnight Ball is a warm and lively read for the 9- to 12-year-old crowd.

THE THIRTEENTH PRINCESS has a slightly younger feel than the other two books, especially as the story begins. Diane Zahler imagines a king who is increasingly angry with his wife for giving him daughters. When she dies in childbirth bearing a thirteenth daughter, he banishes the newborn to the castle kitchens in his rage. At seven, sort-of servant Zita learns that she is sister to the princesses and daughter to the king. She doesn't bemoan her lot, but she does sneak around behind her father's back befriending her lovely older siblings. Happily, the older girls are very willing to take her under their wings. Zita also befriends a stable boy named Breckin whose brother is a soldier (aha!).

It isn't until she is older that Zita starts to worry that her sisters might be under a spell. For one thing, the twelve princesses don't understand themselves why whenever suitors come to call, they are unable to speak. Thus they all remain unmarried. Then Zita's sisters begin to appear weary and sickly, and their shoes turn up with the soles worn through every morning.

With Breckin's assistance, Zita investigates her sisters' troubles; she also discovers a helpful witch living in hiding in the woods. (The king has banned magic from the kingdom, or so he thinks.) But somebody is watching Zita, and she still hasn't figured out who is behind the malevolent spells. She even worries that the king himself has done this terrible thing to his daughters.

Zahler's personable retelling offers readers a nice build-up of suspense. I like the author's vision of a castle on a lake, which starts out as a romantic gift along the lines of the Taj Majal and then literally gets moldy. Zita is an appealing main character and first-person narrator, while Breckin and the witch Babette bring freshness to the plot. Breckin further provides Zita with a younger, parallel version of the story's key romance. In fact, even the king has a romance, since the tragic history of his great love for the deceased queen influences the plot in many ways. About the only detail I found distracting is the ease with which Zita and Breckin learn to become invisible. Otherwise, Diane Zahler gives us a hopeful, magical reinvention of the story of the twelve dancing princesses—plus one.

Wildwood Dancing is probably the best of the three in terms of creativity and craft, but it is intended for a YA audience (though fine for tweens, as well). If your 3rd-7th grader is a fan of fantasy adventure in general and princess stories in particular, Princess of the Midnight Ball and The Thirteenth Princess are both excellent picks.

As we examine different versions of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," I think the upside of multiple retellings becomes clear. From a reading standpoint, it can be very satisfying to discover different takes on the same well-loved tale. Witness the many middle grade and YA versions of "Cinderella" that came out a few years back, most notably Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted. On a broader scale, it's like the way those of us who enjoy mysteries find ourselves reading numerous books in the genre, each a variation on the same classic question of "Who done it?" And of course, countless readers who've finished Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books then seek out other YA vampire series, looking to recapture if not re-envision the magic.

Picture hundreds of writers out there, feverishly tapping away on laptops in their garrets, trying to come up with stories to tell. It's often said that there are really only seven plots. For example, how many incarnations of Romeo and Juliet or star-crossed lovers can you list off the top of your head? As a very old and famous book puts it, "There is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

A justification for the manuscript sitting on my computer? Well, yes. But I find myself intrigued by the notion of storytelling as a collective endeavor, a kind of game in which we build and vary myths, sharing them back and forth among writers and readers alike the way children on playgrounds remake and pass along jump-rope rhymes year in and year out.

Note for Worried Parents: The Thirteenth Princess mentions the king's "dalliances" in his younger years and makes reference to unwed mothers among the castle servants. Some readers may also be bothered by the king's rejection of his youngest daughter, though this is later softened a bit. Wildwood Dancing is intended for teens and has a more mature tone than the other two, but contains no objectionable material other than menace from the darker creatures of the fey.

If you're a published writer who's experienced But-I-just-wrote-this-itis, please tell us about it in the comments!

Finally: This post is linked to Kidlitosphere's February Carnival of Children's Books, hosted this month by Sally Apokedak at her site, Whispers of Dawn. Link through for a set of great book reviews and more.

Update (10/8/10): And the madness continues... There are two more retellings of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" scheduled for publication now, one in 2011 and the other in 2012. An MG and a YA. I'm thinking I'll wait a few years on mine!

Update #2 (9/11/11): The two books are Heather Dixon's Entwined (Spring 2011) and Merrie Haskell's The Princess Curse (Fall 2011).