Monday, March 29, 2010

When You Read to Your Kids...

This is only sort of off topic, but I want to give a shout-out to my sister Loni Coombs, who was a prosecuting attorney for L.A. for many years and is now doing legal commentary on television--you may have seen her on episodes of KTLA News, Court TV or The Dr. Phil Show recently. (Here's an older clip.)

So, first of all, I'm proud of her, and second, look what happens when you take your children to the library EVERY SINGLE WEEK! Which is what my mom did with the seven of us (all adopted, multi-ethnic, so Loni and I look nothing alike). You might just end up with a children's book writer and an articulate television personality with an impressive legal career under her belt!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Review of A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner

There are only a handful of writers whose work I admire with near-slavish devotion, and Megan Whalen Turner is one of them. So I awaited Book 4 of The Queen's Thief series with vast anticipation. And yep, Kirkus, School Library Journal, Booklist, Horn Book, and Publishers Weekly all gave A Conspiracy of Kings starred reviews. That's practically unheard of: Five. Starred. Reviews. In case you haven't been following the adventures of trickster Gen (Eugenides), I will attempt to explain why.

But first, an introduction to the plot. In Book 3, the marvelous The King of Attolia, we were told in passing that Sophos was missing and feared to be dead. Sophos, nephew of the tyrannical king of Sounis, first appeared in The Thief (Book 1). Despite being heir to the throne, Sophos was basically a wimp. He was also a sweet kid who developed a crush on the queen of Eddis.

Now we backtrack to find out where Sophos has been. He barely survives a kidnapping and escapes, but only in part. He ends up being a slave on a great estate, working outdoors as a digger. Here Turner brings up questions about destiny: what if you're supposed to become a king, but you'd really rather just keep your head down? But events—and gods—conspire to bring Sophos out of hiding, and he must begin to make still more difficult choices.

One such decision is how to deal with Gen, who is being aloof for reasons everyone but Sophos seems to understand. Turner doesn't explain this to readers, either. The grandmaster of "Show, don't tell," she lets us draw our own conclusions.

Eventually, our low-key hero takes action, and events play out in surprising, satisfying ways. If anything, A Conspiracy of Kings is Sophos's coming-of-age story, in which he figures out who he is and what he wants. We get another one of Turner's refreshing romances, too, where people don't just follow a Barbie/Cinderella pattern, but act in real and awkward ways, compelled by an array of motives.

One of the key lessons of this book is, "You can't be a king and be a softie." This may sound like egotism, but it's really just Turner being a shrewd pragmatist, like her trickster hero, Gen. However, Turner tops this off by teaching Gen a rather startling lesson about friendship. In Book 3, Gen pointed out to Attolia's spymaster that even the strongest person needs to be able to trust someone. Now Gen himself is on the receiving end, reminded that while power may be the currency of kingship, trust is the currency of humanity. And hey, who trusts a trickster—rightly? What effect does it have on a trickster to be so trusted? Turner raises more intriguing questions about human nature in one scene than most authors raise in an entire book. And she respects her readers enough to expect them to truly think about these things, staunchly resisting the ever-present authorial temptation to hand out easy answers.

For example, Spiderman may have told us that "With great power comes great responsibility," but Megan Whalen Turner shows us what that really means!

Rich characterization, intricate plotting, thought-provoking explorations of human dilemmas, and finely tuned craftsmanship are this writer's hallmarks, the reason why, not just fantasy readers, but other fantasy authors look up to her (e.g., most of the folks at The Enchanted Inkpot). It should also explain why Turner takes more than a year to write each book! Then again, this sounds like a literature lesson: it doesn't begin to explain the appeal of these stories, and especially of the vain, obnoxious, tender-hearted, and ruthlessly clever Gen.

I will say I liked Book 3 better than this one, but that's basically because Book 4 focuses on Sophos rather than on the inimitable Gen. Other Gen fans will probably feel the same, but still—just the chance to visit this world and experience Turner's writing again is well worth the read. It's one of those situations where you should spend your time reading this author's "A" book instead of whining that it isn't an "A+," when you consider that most books out there are in the B, C, and even D range. (We Megan Whalen Turner fans are a spoiled bunch!) Of course, if you haven't already done so, what you really need to do is read all four books in order. I strongly recommend against reading A Conspiracy of Kings without reading its predecessors.

And by the way, I'm not the only person who thinks The King of Attolia should have won the 2008 Newbery Award.

Although the publisher says the Queen's Thief books are for readers ages 9-12, Booklist wisely recommends them for readers in grades 7-10. There is a complexity to the thinking in this series that transcends the adventures and makes them a better fit for more sophisticated readers, including adults.

I was pleased to see that A Conspiracy of Kings is dedicated to Diana Wynne Jones, another of my favorite fantasy writers and the person who "discovered" Megan Whalen Turner, recommending her to an editor at Greenwillow. I was even more pleased to learn that Megan Whalen Turner has plans for two more Queen's Thief books.

Here is a delightful interview with the author at Hip Writer Mama, including a list of Turner's numerous book awards. (When HWM asks, "What is your writing routine?" MWT replies, "Routinely, I wish I had one.") You can also visit the author's website. A new interview with Megan Whalen Turner has been posted at The Enchanted Inkpot. Another interview appears on Literary Life Notes. And one more at Damsels in Regress. There's a review I really like at Book Smugglers, too--take a look!

Update [with Spoiler!]--Some of MWT's fans over at Amazon have been concerned about the way Gen makes himself king over all three of these small kingdoms. Here's my response, posted in an Amazon review:

For those of you who worry that Gen is exploiting Sophos and Eddis, I refer you to the title, A Conspiracy of Kings. Gen and Eddis are already conspiring when the book starts, and they push Sophos to grow up so that he can conspire with them. Because the mountain really is going to fall down on Eddis, and the Medes really are going to invade these three smaller countries one of these days. Is Gen the king of kings here? Well, yeah--but we were told about that on the last few pages of The King of Attolia. (And Sophos would have been killed by a Mede or one of his barons in about five minutes if he'd tried to take the throne of Sounis without Gen as an ally/mentor.)

Update #2: This book ended up having SIX starred reviews! I think #6 was VOYA.

A Review of The Boneshaker by Kate Milford

Natalie loves machines. She helps her mechanic father in his shop, repairing motorcars and bicycles and trying to build clockwork machines like a small flyer. It's 1914, and Arcane isn't an ordinary small town. The crossroads is a place of power, where the devil once battled an old musician for his soul and lost.

At least, that's the story Natalie's mother tells her, but is it true? As The Boneshaker progresses, we learn not only that the story is true, but that the uncanny Doctor Jake Limberleg's Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show has something to do with demons, as well.

Natalie, whose biggest concern up till now has been her inability to ride the odd bicycle her father has rebuilt for her, the titular boneshaker, now has a whole new set of worries. With her friends, she begins to explore the eerie doctor's medicine show. What she discovers frightens her, but things get even worse when her brother and father decide to bring her ailing mother to the medicine show for treatment.

The author builds her story—and the suspense—beautifully, pulling readers deeper into Natalie's all-too-appropriate fears about Dr. Limberleg and the "paragons" who accompany him. Meanwhile, Natalie's continuing efforts to ride the boneshaker lead us to a final chase scene in which she must ride the bike on a wild night-time journey to save her town and everyone she loves.

Milford gives us fun details like the time Natalie tries to sell a single bee to the town's shopkeeper, along with curious details such as the miniature automata inside Dr. Limberleg's trailer or the way the front left wheel pops off of every vehicle that comes into Arcane through the crossroads. And the medicine show, a kind of carnival, is described nightmarishly well.

The characters here are as marvelously strange as the medicine show. We get to know Old Tom Guyot, the elderly black musician who challenged the devil and won; a devious drifter named Jack (whom you might recognize from folklore); a mysterious rich man who isn't quite human; and stalwart townspeople like the pharmacist and Natalie's friends Alfred and Miranda.

You'll find that Kate Milford has a way with words. Here's Natalie's first glimpse of the flame-haired doctor:

Something about this man seemed...out of place in the general store. It was hard to say where a man like that might belong, but he surely didn't belong here.
He was taller than anyone she knew, and he wore an old-fashioned frock coat like her grandfather wore in old pictures: long and flared at the bottom and too heavy for a summer noon. He carried a tall silk hat under one arm, and there was something odd about his hair, too; the way it stood off his scalp was like the way her hair billowed when she dunked her head underwater.
But, evil though he seems, there is more to Dr. Limberleg than readers first suspect. For that matter, Natalie discovers there is more to her own self than she had previously realized. Natalie solves the problems in Arcane in difficult and thoughtful ways, achieving far more than a victory over her uncooperative bicycle.

Milford's work hints of magical realism and Alfred Hitchcock's subtle touch rather than today's scare-a-minute horror stories. A rich and shivery historical fantasy—or what I like to call rural fantasy—The Boneshaker will appeal to kids who are willing to take the time to watch fear unfold in increasingly unnerving detail.

(Listen to the old Charlie Daniels Band song, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," for an earlier take on the American musician's-pact-with-the-devil legend. And here are the Muppets performing the song!)

Note for Worried Parents: In addition to mature themes relating to the serious illness of a parent, The Boneshaker features pacts with the devil and demonic horror elements. It's definitely creepy, which explains the publisher's suggested reading range of 10 and up.

I requested this book from the Amazon Vine program after hearing about it on The Enchanted Inkpot. The Boneshaker will come out on May 24.

A Review of The Name of This Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch

I haven't met a lot of dedicated bibliophiles under the age of 18, unfortunately. So I was really very gratified to run into a kid named Chelsea in the children's book section of Barnes and Noble the other day. It started when she told me the book I was holding was good. Pretty soon we were exchanging book suggestions—I was surprised how many of the newest titles Chelsea had already read. But she made her very best pitch for a book that's been out a couple of years, The Name of This Book Is Secret. It was one I'd passed up, but then this sixth grader sold me and I decided to take a look. (Thanks, Chelsea!)

There's a Lemony Snicket feel to this one, and presumably to the other two books in the series, If You're Reading This, It's Too Late, and This Book Is Not Good for You. The author spends the prologue and Chapter One warning you not to read the book, for your own safety. Pseudonymous Bosch (great play on words!) continues to interject remarks throughout the book, which I sometimes found distracting.

I liked his (her?) main characters, though, code named Cassandra and Max-Ernest. Cass's key idiosyncrasy is that she is a survivalist, carrying a backpack of supplies at all times. For his part, Max-Ernest talks a mile a minute. Even more amusing are his parents, who live in the same house "for their son's sake," but have split it down the middle and are driving the kid nuts with their parenting competition.

While hanging out with her adopted grandparents, Larry and Wayne, at their antique shop, Cass encounters a mysterious box called The Symphony of Smells which was discovered at the house of a vanished magician. Cass and Max-Ernest end up investigating the house, where they meet up with the book's villains, the ultra-creepy Dr. L and Mrs. Mauvais. The couple are after the magician's notebook, but Cass and her friend get there first and then make a run for it. After reading the notebook, Cass realizes that the doctor and the too-beautiful blonde have kidnapped a boy from her school. Feeling responsible, Cass sets out on a rescue mission to a spa called the Midnight Sun, with Max-Ernest close behind her.

The author has fun with satire in The Name of This Book Is Secret, such as the way a popular girl at school collects a kind of lip gloss called "Smoochies," magnanimously offering her used ones to outcasts like Cass, or the over-the-top depiction of the youth-and beauty industry at the spa. And the adventure will pull young readers along. I especially liked the idea of The Symphony of Smells, as well as the role synesthesia plays in the book.

Readers who get a kick out of the tongue-in-cheek tone of books like Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events and the more recent A Whole 'Nother Story by Dr. Cuthbert Soup might want to give Bosch's series a try. But be warned, be thoroughly warned! Because Pseudonymous Bosch really wants you to think twice about reading these books.

Note for Worried Parents: We get suspense and then some scary peril at one point, but everything turns out okay for our young heroes in this middle grade offering.

Bestsellers and the Big 30

Greg of GottaBook has news for us. First, a link to a Publishers Weekly breakdown of Bestselling Children's Books—by dollar amounts. Discover how Stephenie Meyer still outsells everybody on the planet! Watch Fancy Nancy add lace to dollar bills! See where the celebrity authors' books and Disney tie-ins fall, not to mention your own favorites!

Now, April is National Poetry Month, and that means it's nearly time for Greg's 30 Poets/30 Days event, which I visited joyfully last year. Basically, Greg has invited 30 children's poets to contribute poems, one for each day of April. Even more fun, all of the poems will be previously unpublished. Here's the announcement with a list of participating poets, including great names like Bobbie Katz, Alice Schertle, and Laura Purdie Salas.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Springy Picture Books

It's spring, and I'm in the mood for picture books. Fortunately, HarperCollins just sent me a batch of them, so I'll share a few of my favorites with you. Thanks, HC! I will point out, though, that none of the Easter-themed books made the cut. (In my experience, holiday-themed books tend to be cutesy or bland.) Here, then, are books about spring chicks, a cat with a spring in his steps, and a springy-dingy case of the sillies.

Higgledy-Piggledy Chicks by Barbara Joosse, illustrations by Rick Chrustowski

I tend to like and write picture books for the 5-7 end of that 3- to 7-year-old range, so I have to take my mind to a slightly different place to read books intended for the Pre-K set. Remember, the dinky crowd appreciates stories about other little creatures who venture away from mommy briefly and come back safely. They also like stories with refrains or what we could call "I know that!" elements, words and phrases they can call out as the book progresses. And the next time, and the next time... From there they move on to play-reading from memory, a good step toward real reading.

Author Joosse gets the story off to a sleepy yet suspenseful start with these lines:
Here's the barnyard
in the deep, dark night—
everything in its place, waiting.
On the next page, it's morning, and Banty Hen and the Aunties are scratching in the dirt. But Banty gets a "broody" feeling, and she lays seven eggs. I like the author's sound words here and in other spots in the book, e.g., "Bucka-buk! Bucka-buk!" for the mother hen's voice.

We watch with Mama as the eggs grow and then hatch. Soon the chicks are running around the farmyard: "zzzzip...zzzzip... zzzzip...zzzzip...zzzzip...zzzzip...zzzzip!" But the chicks tend to explore dangerous things, such as strange creatures with claws and teeth.
Mama clucks.
Kuk! Come when I call.
Kaak! Watch out for danger.
Over and over, Banty Hen calls to her seven chicks, and they come running. Here the younger reader can help count the chicks to make sure they're all safe, just like the mother hen does. Finally it is night, time for bed.

In a book which ends with the word "safe" too, well, safe? Nope. Not for three- and four-year-olds. This book has plenty of chick action in the middle, supported by onomatopoeia, even as it begins with cozy night and ends with cozy feathers.

Higgledy-Piggledy Chicks wouldn't be nearly as effective without Rick Chrustowski's artwork. Did you know that Robert McCloskey kept baby ducks in his bathtub when he was doing the artwork for Make Way for Ducklings? There are two nice notes in the back of this book—one from the author telling us how chicks grow, the other from the illustrator, with photos of real chicks on top of his artist's desk. The illustrator explains how he made the art and describes his "hundred-year-old hobby farm...the backdrop for our story." Very cool.

Chrustowski uses collage, and the result is lively as well as reader-friendly. The chicks aren't all a matchy-matchy gold, either: some are brown, some have brown backs and light bellies, and one is black. This gives the chicks, and the book, more personality. You may not be able to tell from the cover art shown here, but the artist has used colored pencils to add texture to his collages, making the illustrations that much richer.

Higgledy-Piggledy Chicks is unlikely to hit the top of the charts because it isn't the flashiest story in the world, narratively speaking. But it's the kind of book you might find yourself reading over and over at bedtime, listening to your child count chicks and point out dangers, then smiling to discover all seven chicks present and accounted for on the very last page. Just like your own little chick.

Bonus: Have fun teaching your kid to say "higgledy-piggledy"!

Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin, illustrations by James Dean

"Mr. Eric" Litwin is first and foremost a performer—his CD's of songs for children have won Parents Choice and other awards. He has performed at numerous schools and libraries, and even the Lincoln Center. Then this particular song earned itself a book deal, no doubt with a little help from the Internet.

The story begins:
Pete the Cat was walking down the street in his brand-new white shoes. Pete loved his white shoes so much he sang this song:
"I love my white shoes,
I love my white shoes,
I love my white shoes,
I love my white shoes."
But then Pete steps in a large pile of strawberries. "Oh no!...What color did it turn his shoes?" And the little reader will call out enthusiastically, "Red!" as you flip to the next page. The book continues with the same pattern, giving us a bit of a twist at the end, as well as a cheery moral: "...because it's all good."

Illustrator James Dean is apparently famous for his cat pictures. Pete is not a cute little fuzzy kitten; he's sly, he's cool, and he plays the electric guitar. Pete is also an intriguing shade of blue, while his shoes are hightops. Considering what a simple narrative this is, it's surprisingly funky. I liked small details such as the hand-drawn font changing color with the story's color changes. And check out the endpapers!

Again, Pete the Cat is a book with a refrain, just right for young readers who like knowing the "answers." To get an idea what I mean, watch this darling video of a child who looks like she's about five reading/singing the book to her younger sister, who naturally guesses the colors and chimes in on the refrain.

I looked up the song on the author's CD, The Big Silly with Mr. Eric (2006), and discovered that most of the story is chanted, with only the refrain being sung. Said refrain is nothing extraordinary (reminding me, oddly, of a fragment of an old pop song, "I know what boys like..."). But somehow, the combination of a cumulative story, a singable refrain, and Dean's hip, even hippy artwork make for a book your child just might like very much. For one thing, I'm sure young readers will be able to come up with other things the cat could step in, and corresponding colors for his shoes. (No, not that! Be nice!)

The Wonder Book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrations by Paul Schmid

This isn't a picture book, but it is for younger readers. While I cheated and read The Wonder Book in one sitting, it's really meant for here-and-there dipping. You know, your kid is antsy and you say, "Let's find something fun in The Wonder Book!" Which is supposed to calm them, much like music allegedly calms the savage beast.

I'll just give you the first few items as a sampler. We start with a poem called "Pancake College," in which a kid explains how her dad gets up on Saturday mornings and makes creative pancakes. One stanza reads:
I'll tell you where he got
All that golden-brown knowledge
My dad pulled all-nighters
While attending Pancake College
Next up are four humorous retellings of nursery rhymes, e.g., "Mary had a little lamp." This one speaks for itself:
In the sea
Don't look under
While I pee...
A poem called "Typical Day" nicely spotlights the way parents crank out those yeses and no's. We then get a page full of "I wonder" statements. My favorite is "I wonder who left something under the tooth fairy's pillow when she was little." And so on, for a collection of rhymes and puns and palindromes and miscellany, all very upbeat and sometimes off-the-wall (a page of wordplay just for "rust"?)

Paul Schmid's black-and-white drawings are friendly and clever, successfully rounding out what the author is trying to accomplish with this book. Schmid's loosely inked child characters play throughout the pages of the book, their faces capturing the myriad emotions required by the text.

Certain poems in the collection work better than others, as poetry goes, but the overall concept and mood of The Wonder Book will make it a happy contribution to your family's "To Read" list. There's a kind of sweetness to the fun. And in case you haven't noticed, silly is good!

(See also a review of The Wonder Book at Charlotte's Library.)

A Review of Twilight: The Graphic Novel, vol. 1 by Stephenie Meyer and Young Kim

On a darker note, I picked up the first Twilight graphic novel this week. A few statistics: The book has been out four days and is #24 in's sales ranking. Forty-one customer reviews have already been posted, with an average rating of 4-1/2 stars.

As for me, I found myself looking to see how Kim's artwork compared to the movie cast, because hey, isn't that the first thing you would do? For the record, this Bella is much sweeter looking than Kirsten Stewart, who has a kind of world-weary edge to her. Edward looks a little younger and sweeter, too, for that matter. And so does Bella's dad, who is blond here. And Jacob. Everybody is just less square-jawed... Do I sense a trend? Well, Alice looks exactly like movie Alice, and so do Mike and Jessica, Bella's new friends at school. But that's about it.

Of course, we should address more important matters. I think you'll find, as I did, that the graphic novel is a terrific format for this kind of storytelling. After all, Twilight is essentially dot-to-dot angst, and a graphic novel provides a snapshot of each of those dots. If anything, this format allows for heightened drama.

Purists (AKA worshippers) will be bugged by minor differences, but those of you who appreciate Twilight in a less-avid way and who are fans of graphic novels will probably be happy with Young Kim's rendition of the bestselling book in the universe. Considering how much talking goes on, Kim manages to make the story feel relatively fast-paced. Watch also for the occasional mixed media touch, such as a photo of a car in the background instead of a drawing.

While most of the book is in black and white, color is added in a few key spots, most notably in the meadow scene, where the richness of the color highlights the way this couple's cosmically destined love takes them out of ordinary reality. Of course, the artist can't resist using red in a couple of places, too, e.g., for Bella's blood. Kim refrains from putting it on the book jacket, however, creating a new, softer look.

I suppose the black and white used for the majority of the pages suits the mood of Twilight, but I do find myself wondering what the book would have looked like with color throughout. And I have a weird quibble: Kim often uses a heavy black line for the "tail" portion of the voice bubbles, which I felt was distracting. (If any of you know what that part of a voice bubble is actually called, let us know! If there isn't a name, we should make one up...)

My shortest review ever, and why? Because I think the word "spoilers" is passé at this point, as is any kind of plot summary for such a well-known story. Suffice it to say that if you're a serious Twilight fan, you should run out and buy the graphic novel right this minute.

Note: This is not the entire first book in Stephenie Meyer's series. It takes us up through the forest scene and stops, To Be Continued in Volume Two. And by the way, the eminently mockable glitter chest works better here than in the movie.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Review of The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz

The Night Fairy is one of those books that have been reviewed by other bloggers already, including the well-known Betsy Bird, so I wasn't planning to review it myself. Then I read the book. And felt compelled to talk about it.

First of all, night fairy Flory is not the sweetly pink-dressed winged sprite you tend to read about in old-fashioned books for dear little girls. She's more like the fairies in Laini Taylor's books, Blackbringer and Silksinger. Only Flory is less civilized than even those fairies. Here Newbery Award-winning author Laura Amy Schlitz creates fairies who are tiny and sentient, yet also part of the fauna of the wild. Their wings and even their magic are presented as just another adaptive survival strategy, and something the fairies grow into. For example, we're told:

Young fairies have no one to take care of them, because fairies make bad parents. Babies bore them. A fairy godmother is an excellent thing, but a fairy mother is a disaster.
Because fairies do not look after their children, young fairies have to take care of themselves. Luckily, they can walk and talk as soon as they are born. After three days, they will not drink milk and have no more use for their mothers. They drink dew and suck the nectar from flowers. On the seventh day of life, their wings unfold, and they fly away from home.
On the night of Flory's peril, she was less than three months old...
The fairies have a truce with the bats, but a bat tries to eat Flory, breaking off her wings. This traumatic event drives Flory into hiding, and she decides to become a day fairy. As she thinks things through and takes action, it will be very clear to readers that Flory is young and uninformed. But she is hard-working and determined. Little by little, she learns to fend for herself, coping with the demands of the unfamiliar day world.

At first glance, this is simply an adventure story with fairies. In fact, I would take that farther and call it a survival story, comparable to Gary Paulsen's Hatchet. But then, Flory's survival has as much to do with socialization as with the challenges of finding food and shelter. (And by the way, Schlitz has fun giving us Flory's disdainful, baffled analysis of the human "giant" in whose backyard she lives.)

Having been thoroughly shaken up by her life-threatening encounter with the bat, Flory's first impulse is to react by becoming fierce, using the spells that come to her to practice defensive and sometimes offensive magic. When she discovers a stinging spell, she is pleased: "I like that spell," said Flory. "I'm never going to forget it. I'll practice it over and over—and if I ever see a bat again, I'll sting him until he squeaks." The narrative goes on to say:

If a person—whether she is human or fairy—spends most of her time thinking of ways to sting, it is bound to show. In the weeks that followed, Flory practiced her stinging spell so often that she began to have rather a prickly look. Her nose and chin grew more pointed, as did the tips of her ears.

Flory uses the spell to tame a young squirrel named Skuggle, who hopes to eat her, to eat anything, really. Flory rides the squirrel around the garden, in return helping him get food, for example from the supposedly squirrel-proof new birdfeeder. It isn't a friendship at first; we're told that these two are using each other. But it gradually becomes something like a friendship.

Flory misses flying and decides she wants to ride a hummingbird, but the wild, nearly alien birds refuse to cooperate. Even when Flory is in a position to force the issue, the hummingbird is true to her essential nature—a brilliant piece of writing on Schlitz's part.

The absence of other fairies means Flory has to acquire social skills in a roundabout way, but gradually she learns to be a bit less self-centered and to have more respect for the unique, yet basic desires of the different animals she encounters.

I was astonished by how well Schlitz taught subtle life lessons while telling a strong, fast-paced adventure story. If someone were to ask me what the book is about, I would have to say, "Forgiveness." The author shows us in more than one situation why this isn't an easy lesson to learn. Flory not only grows from the height of one acorn to the height of two acorns during the course of the book, she becomes a better person, with a wider view of the world.

The Night Fairy is the best of everything a book should be—an adventure, a fresh take on fairies, vivid storytelling, and a tale in which the main character's experience of becoming will sweep readers along with her. To top it off, this book is physically beautiful, with a design and interior illustrations so perfectly suited to the story that it's hard to believe the illustrator isn't the author. (Instead she's Angela Barrett, illustrator of gorgeous versions of Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, and The Emperor's New Clothes.)

Is it too early to start talking Newberys? I know fantasy doesn't always win, but if I were on the committee, I'd make this an Honor book, anyway. At 117 pages, The Night Fairy is a pocket-sized treasure. Look for it.

Note: Some of the other reviews in the blogosphere are from Betsy Bird of Fuse #8, Charlotte's Library, Oops Wrong Cookie, Fantasy Book Critic, Books 4 Your Kids, A Year of Reading, and Doret of The Happy Nappy Bookseller. As the latter points out, Flory appears from the text and artwork to be black, another nice touch.

Note for Worried Parents: At least one reviewer expressed concern about Flory's fierceness, her acquisition of a thorn dagger and her willingness to use it. There are also scenes of peril involving predators, most notably a praying mantis. The Night Fairy is middle grade fiction, though, and is appropriate for most 8- to 12-year-olds and even some 7-year-olds.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Review of Knightley Academy by Violet Haberdasher

There's enough Harry Potter going on here that some might accuse Knightley Academy of being derivative: poor, underdog boy unexpectedly qualifies to go to a special school, arriving there via train, where he makes a couple of good friends, including a goofy boy and a clever girl... The boy's name is even Henry, which is of course a form of Harry. And yep, the author is a Brit.

Then again, I prefer to think of this book as being partially inspired by Harry Potter. Because Knightley Academy is a likable tale, with a likable main character, Henry Grim. And Haberdasher quickly turns the story into her own creation. For example, the school in question doesn't offer instruction in witchcraft and wizardry; it's a training school for knights. In fact, there's not a trace of magic in Haberdasher's book. (I should explain that these knights don't wear armor and joust, although they do fence. Knightley is basically an academy for nurturing leaders and certain kinds of civil servants.)

At her website, Haberdasher herself explains the genesis of her story:

Knightley Academy began quite innocently, in the dimly lit balcony of a theatre during intermission. I attended an elite school for young ladies, which I quietly despised. As my classmates giggled over the performance, I sat and wondered if every school had a student who felt like an outsider. I wondered what sort of boy would be branded odd and different at a school for knights.

Henry Grim is Haberdasher's outsider. At first he lives at another school, an academy for privileged boys. Only he isn't a student, he's a servant. Fortunately, a genial professor has proved willing to offer him secret lessons. All of the boys in the school are hoping for admission to Knightley Academy, and when the examiners come around, Henry is amazed to find himself sitting for the entrance exams. It turns out Henry is the only boy from Midsummer School who gets into Knightley, to the dismay of the regular students, especially the snobby Valmont (um, totally Draco Malfoy!).

Lord Winter, the new headmaster at Knightley, is much less conservative than the Board of Trustees, who are appalled at this turn of events, but grudgingly agree to let two more openings at the academy be given to commoners as a sort of pilot program. When Henry arrives at Knightley, he is snubbed by the arrogant noblemen's sons, including his nemesis Valmont, who manages to show up, after all. However, Henry is assigned to room with the other two commoners, Adam and Rohan, and the three become fast friends.

Rohan may be Haberdasher's most interesting character. In a book with an acknowledged alternative British setting, Rohan is the adopted son of a lord, but is actually Indian. This means that he has the upbringing and, to some extent, attitudes, of the privileged boys, but is completely disdained by those boys for being dark-skinned. For that matter, Adam is Jewish. One of the themes of the book is discrimination.

At Knightley Academy, Henry and his friends face, not only bullying from the other boys, but outright sabotage from unknown enemies who want to see this experiment with commoners fail. (Among the suspects is a Snape-like instructor, Lord Havelock.) Happily, Henry has allies—besides his roommates, he can call upon his old tutor, who is now at the school instructing Lord Winter's daughter, Frankie. The girl is another ally and a great character: she has been kicked out of various ladylike boarding schools for her irrepressible ways and soon teams up with the three commoners. One of my favorite scenes is when she warns a bully not to mess with her, citing her semi-delinquent history in a most sinister way.

The bigger threat in this book is a country called Nordlands, which promises to provide fodder for the rest of the series. In Nordlands, individual freedoms are increasingly curtailed—the place reads like a mashup of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and today's Iran. (For example, the government forbids education for women.) In a slightly awkward plot point, news of the oppression is printed only in the gossip rags in Britain. This means that the lower classes believe the rumors, but boys like the Knightley students do not. At least, not until the boys from Knightley travel to Nordlands for an inter-school tournament, and Henry finds out a few things for himself.

Now, perhaps I'm being unfair to first-time author Haberdasher when I compare her story to Harry Potter. But one of the strengths of her book is something I find very Potterish indeed, and that's a sort of hopeful, cheery tone, a convivial sense of the power of friendship among a group of nice kids. It's a tone that characterized J.K. Rowling's earliest books about Harry Potter, and I think you'll be pleased to discover it in this first book about Henry Grim. So while Haberdasher doesn't do the same kind of world building as Rowling in terms of wildly inventive details (e.g., quidditch and Bertie Bott's Everyflavor Beans,), she does write a group of characters worth reading about, in a new school that kids are going to want to visit.

Tellingly, Tamora Pierce is quoted on the front cover: "Steam-punky, subversive, and enthralling!" Pierce is best known for her series about girls training to be knights. Like Henry, they are outsiders, treated badly by boys who don't think they should be there. While I don't know about subversive or even steam-punky (what a word!), Knightley Academy is pretty enthralling.

Note for Worried Parents: Knightley Academy is middle grade fiction. Other than some bullying and an oblique mention of torture, it's quite wholesome.

Update: Here's a link to the Knightley Academy book trailer. If I'm not mistaken, the part of Frankie is being played by the author, the pseudonymous Violet Haberdasher.

A Review of Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins

I'm amazed I picked up this book. There are just so many teen books about vampire academies and fairy academies and zombie academies out there that I tend to walk right on by. But Hex Hall, besides having great cover art, gave me the feeling that it wouldn't take itself too seriously, and sure enough, I enjoyed Rachel Hawkins' take on the paranormal school story. Another first-timer, the author is a former high school English teacher, so she does know her teens and can no doubt diagram a mean sentence.

The initial scene in Hex Hall would be the last scene in a different book: young witch Sophie Mercer takes pity on a dateless fellow prom-goer and arranges for the girl's crush to come and dance with her. Only Sophie overdoes the spell and prom goes haywire. (As one boy shouts out, "Carrie prom!") A few days later, Sophie finds herself at a reform school for young Prodigium, meaning witches, faeries, and shapeshifters. All of them have misused their powers, putting the secretive supernatural community at risk.

Oh, and there's just one vampire—who happens to be Sophie's roommate and inspires fear in the other students. One of the funniest moments of the book is when Sophie sees how Jenna has decorated their room:

I don't know what I was expecting a vampire's room to look like. Maybe lots of black, a bunch of books by Camus...oh, and a sensitive portrait of the only human the vamp had ever loved, who had no doubt died of something beautiful and tragic, thus dooming the vamp to an eternity of moping and sighing romantically....
But this room looked like it had been decorated by the unholy lovechild of Barbie and Strawberry Shortcake... The curtains were beige canvas, but Jenna had twined a hot-pink scarf over the drapery rod. Between the two desks was one of those old Chinese screens, but even this bore Jenna's stamp, as the wood had been painted—you guessed it: pink. The top of the screen was draped with pink Christmas lights. Jenna's bed was covered in what appeared to be deep pink Muppet fur.
Jenna caught me staring at it. "Awesome, right?"
"I...I didn't know pink existed in that particular shade."
As you can see, Sophie has a lively narrative voice, which helps counterbalance the darker elements of this story.

Our heroine soon runs afoul of a coven of popular witches, all of whom look like supermodels. When Sophie refuses to join their ranks, they go out of their way to make her life miserable. It doesn't help that the boy Sophie finds herself attracted to, Archer, is dating the coven ringleader, or that Archer insulted Sophie himself when they first met. But a Hex Hall version of detention throws Sophie and Archer together, and they gradually become friends.

Meanwhile, Sophie plays detective, trying to figure out how a student who used to be in the coven died, especially after another student is attacked. She also learns some surprising news about her long-absent father and has a strange encounter with an apparent ghost. A group of humans determined to wipe out all Prodigium provides a big-picture threat that the author will be clearly be developing in future books. Hex Hall ends with a twist that caught me completely off guard.

Interestingly, Hyperion lists this book's intended audience as "11 and up." By which they mean tweens as well as teens, of course. (Amazon just says 9-12, although the book is too teenagey to be considered middle grade fiction.) I'm beginning to wonder if what I would call "wholesome YAs" will eventually get their own category as publishers try to reach the tween market without going quite as edgy as the more mature YA books.

If you've read Marlene Perez's Dead Is the New Black and sequels, you'll have a ballpark idea of this book's tone, although Hawkins tells a longer, more detailed story. For those who like their witches and vampires with a touch of humor, Hex Hall promises to be the start of a satisfying series.

Note for Worried Parents: Girls die in a gruesome way, and there are scary supernatural threats. Also some romance and kissing.

Update: Here's an interview with Rachel Hawkins at Enchanted Inkpot (September 2010).

A Review of The Birthday Ball by Lois Lowry

Princess Patricia Priscilla is bored, bored, bored—both right this minute as the book begins and by the thought of the upcoming royal ball. When the almost-16-year-old finds out she is expected to choose among three (well, four) royal suitors, she is aghast, and with good reason. Not only is she uninterested in the idea of marriage just yet, but the suitors are uniformly horrible.

I shouldn't say "uniformly." Lowry's greatest creations in this book are these suitors, who would fit nicely in a lineup with Roald Dahl's most appallingly icky characters. Actually, you may not be surprised to learn that the book is illustrated by Jules Feiffer, America's answer to Quentin Blake.

Suitor #1 is Duke Desmond, who is so hideous that no mirrors are allowed in his presence. Duke Desmond has issues with dental hygiene, and with hygiene in general. Even his hair is a menace, a coarse whip-like tuft that has been known to brain people who are foolish enough to get in its path.

Duke Desmond abuses his power and wealth, but he seems pleasant in comparison to Prince Percival of Pustula, who dresses in black, adorns his dyed black hair with grease, and stares in the mirror constantly, murmuring compliments to his own pecs and thighs. The prince has a habit of spraying saliva when he says words that start with P. Here's how Lowry introduces Prince Percival:

Black matched the darkness of his moods—he was always depressed—and, in fact, the color matched his heart. Percival was a black-hearted man who hated his subjects, the Pustulans, the populace of his domain; who hated his own family (he had sentenced his own mother to a minimum-security prison seven years before and he did not venture there on visiting days, never had, not once, and on the most recent Father's Day he had given his aged father a tarantula); and who, in truth, hated everyone but himself.
Quite the romantic, Percival figures that he and Princess Patricia Priscilla will be a good match because they both have a lot of P's in their names.

I'll leave it to you to discover the third, or rather third and fourth suitors, for yourselves. Suffice it to say that you wouldn't want your daughter to go on a date with any of these guys, let alone marry one of them.

But the princess has found a way to distract herself from the upcoming ball, as well as from her everyday ennui. She trades clothes with her maid and sneaks out to go to school in the village, calling herself simply "Pat." There she notices that the young schoolmaster is rather appealing. (I was happy to see that school and reading are presented as privileges in this book.)

The Birthday Ball represents a departure from double Newbery winner Lowry's dystopian works for older readers. Turns out Lowry can write comic fantasy, although I'll admit I was on the alert for social satire at the very least. I did find it, but more than anything, this book is just a rollicking, goofy read.

Lowry has fun with fantasy tropes, let alone plain old human nature. For example, Patricia may have changed her clothes, but she has no idea how to act like a commoner and puzzles everyone she meets with her strange pronouncements, all the while thinking to herself that she's pulling it off just fine.

We also get three singing servant girls, the princess's spoiled cat, and a romance between Patricia's maid and the pulley boy. Not to mention a king who collects butterflies and a nice nod to Lewis Carroll.

At 186 pages, The Birthday Ball isn't a very long book, but that should add to its appeal for reluctant readers. It is such an absurdly delicious read, with little surprises tucked in among the well-chosen fairy tale tropes, that I can recommend it to readers of Dahl and fairy tales and everything in between.

Note for Worried Parents: The Birthday Ball is middle grade fiction. There's a little mild bathroom talk from some of the princes, who are meant to be repulsive.

FYI: I requested a copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program.
The Birthday Ball will be available on April 12th.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The New Fantasy for Kids

I just posted a panel discussion I'm leading over at the Enchanted Inkpot, a blog created by a group of children's and YA fantasy writers. This week's topic? "'New-Fashioned' Fantasy: What Does It Look Like?" We talk about current trends in fantasy for young readers, indicating how the genre has changed since the days of Tolkien, Lewis, and Barrie. Take a look!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Looking Glass Reviews of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

This morning I took a quick look at to see what the reviewers were saying about Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, and I had to laugh. Talk about mixed reviews! "Loved it" alternated pretty evenly with "hated it."

So this afternoon I saw the movie for myself, and I think I've figured out why the reviewers are so riled up. The following are my Tweedledum and Tweedledee takes on Tim Burton's Alice.

The Review for Alice Purists: Why You'll Dislike This Movie

What a travesty! Tim Burton takes the complex, whimsical world of Alice in Wonderland, where anything might happen, and transforms it into a setting for a straightforward, predictable quest fantasy in which an insecure main character, aided by new friends, must get the courage and self-confidence to slay a dragon and return home triumphant. The story is too linear, not to mention unsurprising. So what if a cool-looking CGI monster pops up every so often? Those things are a dime a dozen in today's movies.

I ask you: who wants to see a jabberwock, let alone a vorpal sword? The jabberwock is a legend for a reason, a terrifying collection of details like teeth and claws hiding in the shadows, here sadly reduced by being made visual. And if that sword truly had to be shown in a movie, I'm pretty sure half the kids in this country could have come up with a better design!

Besides, Burton followed the new rule of "children's" film-making: unless your movie is for five-year-olds, you will make the hero or heroine somewhere between the ages of 16 and 20. In fact, this Alice is so old and jaded that she thinks her long-ago childhood adventure was a dream, one she's mostly forgotten. She spends half the movie trying to convince herself that what's happening isn't real (cliché alert!).

As if this weren't enough, Alice is on the verge of marrying a smarmy, unimaginative man, pressured by half the population of England to say "yes." In other words, Burton wants this movie to be a feminist fable, showing us not-at-all-subtly that any girl who can drum up the courage to slay a jabberwock can handily turn down a bad offer of marriage, gosh-darn-it. (Watch for an ally near the end of the movie who, in the London of Alice's day, would never have cooperated in the least.)

Furthermore, the whole story has been written to give Johnny Depp as much screen time as possible, which throws the pacing off. Burton also insists on repeating some of Carroll's coolest lines until they're beaten into submission. Then he shows his utter lack of confidence in his audience's smarts by having Alice point out the last little Wonderland touch in the final seconds of the movie. Ouch!

The Review for Non-Purists: Why You'll Like This Movie

Location, location, location. What a gorgeous world Tim Burton has created! A marvelously long rabbit hole; dreamy, ominous forests; creepy fairy tale castles for the Red and White queens; and an appropriately odd tea party for the Mad Hatter and Company. (Watch for the Mad Hatter to hide Alice from her enemies in a fun way during the tea party scene.)

The characters are rendered wonderfully, as well, mostly in terms of design, but also thanks to great casting. You'll like Johnny Depp as a soulfully mad Hatter, but wait till you meet Helena Bonham-Carter as the Red Queen, or—my personal favorite—Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar (here named Algernon). The card soldiers are perfect, and of course, Crispin Glover as the Red Queen's evil knight is poignantly repulsive.

Small, creative touches abound, such as the Red Queen's oversized head, especially in combination with the way her courtiers wear false oversized body parts to curry her favor. I like the Dormouse as a miniature warrior with a ghastly penchant for spearing eyeballs. The Cheshire Cat is a tour de force, especially as used to further the plot and for one particularly lovely match cut involving the moon.

I'll remind you that Lewis Carroll's book is mostly episodic, albeit delightful. This means it meanders, which is not what movie scripts are supposed to do. Perhaps that's why Tim Burton decided to go his own way, using Wonderland's setting and characters to create something new. While his plot is fairly ordinary in fantasy terms, it does allow him to show off the setting and characters while moving things along at a brisk pace.

Each scene is a nice little capsule of lunatic dialogue and bizarre beauty. And as fantasy battles go, the climactic scene is especially good.

Could Burton have done justice to Carroll's Alice if he'd stuck to the original storyline? I doubt it, although I would have liked to see him try. But while this movie isn't a perfect rendering of Carroll's story, it does capture the author's vision of a strange and wonderful world, a happy departure from our own reality.

Note for Worried Parents: Small children will probably be frightened by the monsters, menace, and occasional gore in this film.

A Review of Falling In by Frances O'Roark Dowell

I know this writer best for her moving, literary contemporary and historical fiction, e.g., Dovey Coe and Shooting the Moon. (Here's my review of the latter from last year.) So of course, I was intrigued to see how she would handle fantasy. It didn't surprise me to find that Falling In felt as much like magical realism as fantasy in spots, despite the whole portal-to-another-world trope with its nod to Alice in Wonderland.

Because Falling In isn't really about magic, it's about people and prejudice. It's about being a loner and an outsider, whether you're a grown woman or a young girl. It's about the power of the imagination, the way it comforts and protects the outsider, and the ways it can fail her. Also the way imagination can change the world. No small themes here.

First we meet Isabelle Bean and find out that she's not like the others. She's quirky, imaginative, a dreamer. She is also thoroughly ostracized by the kids at school. Even her mother, an orphan and a widow herself, isn't certain how to interact with a girl who isn't interested in shopping at the mall.

There's a barely visible edge of otherworldliness to Isabelle, a silver thread that runs from the top of her head to the bottom bump of her spine. It frightens other children away. They're afraid that if they sit too close, the thread will weave itself into their hair and pull them into dark places they can't find their way out of. A girl named Jenna claimed it reached out to grab her one day as she walked up the aisle on her way to recess, but she had her scissors in her pocket (don't ask why) and nipped it before it could entangle her.

Isabelle is surprisingly stoic about all of this, as much puzzled as troubled by the situation. A great reader, especially of fantasy, she decides she must be a changeling. For one thing, what is that buzzing noise she's been hearing all morning at school? Sent to the principal's office for not paying attention in class, Isabelle steps into the nurse's office and, imagining the possibilities, opens a mysterious door. Her final remark to a classmate waiting for the nurse is, "Yes, I believe I'd like to visit the country of Mice. I'll try to be back by lunchtime, but if I'm not, save one perfect french fry for me, would you?" Then Isabelle "falls in," emerging in another world, another school.

There the children take one look at her clothes and accuse her of being a witch. After semi-convincing them she's not, Isabelle sets out to explore her new domain. It turns out the local villages send their children away to camp in the forest for fear of a horrible witch. (This witch, like a medieval queen, embarks on a grand progress each summer. Only instead of simply visiting her subjects, she travels from village to village in search of children to catch and devour.)

Isabelle being Isabelle, she heads straight for the witch. Along the way, she meets a village girl named Hen who agrees to accompany her, although Isabelle hides her true purpose. They eventually come to the cottage of an old herbwoman named Grete who feeds them and teaches them her craft—but Isabelle begins to suspect that Grete is the witch.

Other than Isabelle's initial journey to another world and some mild psychic powers, there's not a whole lot of magic in this book. Instead, Dowell is interested in the idea of how someone might come to be labeled a witch, and how awful stories might be born from communal fears. Fortunately, she is also interested in laying such fears to rest.

Isabelle's own connection to this strange land and its witch add further dimension to the tale.

The author occasionally comments during the story, interposing short chapters in which she addresses the reader. Because she's a very good writer, the interludes are well written and often funny, but they do pull the reader out of the story. This is done deliberately, so you'll have to see for yourself whether you like the effect. For example, just as Isabelle is about to turn the knob of that mysterious door, the writer interrupts to say, "I'd like to stop for a moment, if I could. I want you to think about how many times you've opened a door. What happened?"

Dowell asks readers if they've ever imagined opening a door and finding something unusual on the other side. Then she suggests:

If you have a little time to waste, go put your hand on the knob of the door to your room. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. What's that noise you hear? Could it be your books reading themselves to one another? Is that your goldfish whistling Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik? That thump, thud, crash!—your pillows having a pillow fight? Do you smell the earthy, froggy smell of trolls? What exactly goes on in your room when you're not around?
But I digress. Back to the story.

In the end, Isabelle's adventure in the world she visits is more character than plot driven, and a bit didactic to boot. Still, Dowell is talented enough to make this work. She spices her tale with humor, too: when the witch finally runs into trouble, the situation is both scary and amusing. Then things get darker and Isabelle has to do some quick thinking to turn the tide.

Falling In is a quirky book, but a likable one. I think my biggest disappointment might be expressed as a dream of my own. I can't see Dowell writing a traditional fantasy—I know she needed to do her own thing here, and her roots as a writer of tender real-life stories sort of seeped into the genre she chose. Pragmatic Dowell seems to pull back from the magic in her tale. For example, having given us the "silver thread" passage quoted above, which is lovely and unearthly, Dowell tells us a few pages later that a strange light the other students see hovering around Isabelle turns out to have a realistic explanation. Dowell then goes on to tell the story of a witch who isn't one, or at least not very much. I realize one of the themes of this book is how small communities can transform a slightly unusual person into a monster, but I feel that something else might be going on, as well: this author seems torn between her habitual reality hat and the new fantasy one she's trying on.

What Dowell does beautifully here is write magical realism. The places where she uses that approach in this book, primarily in the early chapters, make me long to see a story from her that is neither contemporary realism nor fantasy, but entirely magical realism. Because anyone who imagined Isabelle Bean could create something truly wonderful in that genre.

Finally, I want to point out that I was an Isabelle once, and I suspect that some of Dowell's readers will be, too. While Falling In doesn't make everything right for the dreamers of this world, it does offer them comfort, laughter, and a kind of secret hope.

Note for Worried Parents: Bullying, threats of violence, and an upsetting story about a baby who is hurt. Generally encouraging, however.

A Review of The Pickle King by Rebecca Promitzer

The Pickle King reminds me of a particular group of books, most of them about villainous factory owners, particularly food fabricators, and many of them drizzling with perpetual or near-perpetual rain: Fortune's Magic Farm by Suzanne Selfors, The Secret of Zoom by Lynn Jonell, Canned by Alex Shearer, and The Deep Freeze of Bartholomew Tullock by Alex Williams. More distantly, Pickle King has echoes of Charles Dickens and Joan Aiken. In each book, evil rich people oppress a town, their misdeeds covered up by bribery and/or dark magicks. The awful secrets are eventually brought to light by a kid or a group of kids.

Amazon calls this a YA, although it reads like middle grade fiction much of the time. The publisher's website says "10 and up." The Pickle King includes horror elements such as rats, roaches, and, most important, human body parts. In some ways, the book is simply a mystery about contemporary kids. But psychic powers, hidden histories, and things like a secret community of misfits living beneath a garbage dump make it more of a paranormal/fantasy/horror story, part of a new subgenre inspired by books like Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book.

This entrant is a little uneven, but there are quite a few things I liked about it. The setting has a nice Twilight Zone vibe, and Bea draws you into her worries as well as her friendships and adventures. I was basically a happy reader for about half the book, after which I felt a slight loss of interest. I ended up being disappointed by the way the story concluded—as much for plot choices as for a heavy-handed cliffhanger after what seemed like four final chapters in a row.

The rain is essentially a character here, and Promitzer describes it really well, bringing it up over and over again. If you get tired of this, recall that main character Bea is just as sick of it as you are! One of her chief goals in life is to escape the rainy town of Elbow and go visit a place like Florida, where the sun shines. Here's a rainy sample from the first chapter:

Anyway, it was summer vacation in Elbow and, of course, it was pouring rain.
I don't know if you've ever been anywhere where it rained for a few days without a break, not even a little one. If you have, you'll know that it makes you feel edgy, kind of jumpy inside. There are shadows, an unnatural kind of light, strange rainy noises, and you start to feel like you can't trust the regular things around you, the things you take for granted. Sometimes it seems like the things you've seen in scary movies or your own nightmares have come alive and are real—and have moved in for good. Other times it's as though you're living underwater and there's no air, and you really start to believe the sun will never ever shine again. It's no good for anybody to spend the summer in Elbow, but it's the kids like me who have to hang around; kids with no money or no parents or a bit of both. Some of us have got green growing between our toes from all the rain. It's a kind of mold. Bertha says it's the start of webbed feet.

TV screenwriter Promitzer tells a fairly compelling story in The Pickle King, and readers will find themselves going along for the ride with Bea on the bike she has spray-painted purple. The first place Bea brings us is an old house, where her friend Sam shows her a dead body. Aspiring photographer Bea takes pictures of the corpse, only to find when she gets home that the dead man's ghost appears to be haunting her camera.

Bea is accompanied by a nice little cast of characters. First there's Sam, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who is alternately neglected and abused by his thuggish older brother and his father the drunk. We also get Sam's dog Jellybean, who provides comic relief along with some Lassie-like proclivities in a crisis. Sam and Bea reluctantly seek out other members of "The Summer Club," starting with rich girl Madison, whose initial superficiality and shoe fetish turns out to hide her unhappiness and a bad habit. Next we meet Eric, a young mad scientist who's really not that good at inventing things, and Butterfly, who is endlessly doomed to babysit her younger brother, Nelson.

Throw in some sinister villains, a jar of Herman's Red Devil Relish (also haunted), and you've got quite the summer vacation! Although sometimes the "blech" factor seems a little calculated, young readers will probably get a kick out of it. This book is obviously intended to be followed by a sequel. While I could wish for a slightly stronger plot next time, I do recommend Bea Klednik as your guide to some unusual adventures.

Note for Worried Parents: Sam smokes, and he offers to share his cigarette with the other kids, one of whom accepts. Other than that, just the horror elements mentioned above and a little preteen attraction—one kiss and some hand-holding, for example.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Wimp Yourself

Thanks to Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect and Travis at 100 Scopes Notes for this link, where you can "Go Wimp Yourself!" Here's my Diary of a Wimpy Kid avatar. (Note the astonishing similarity to my Book Aunt portrait...) I'd say it's worth the movie ad--go try it for yourself!