Thursday, August 26, 2010

Poetry Friday: Teens Heart Poetry

By night, I'm a children's book writer and kidlit blogger, but by day, I teach kids in K-12 who are homebound with medical conditions (e.g., cancer). This gives me a unique little window into how kids think. So let me tell you about a couple of my students. I recently worked with a 17-year-old boy I'll call Alex who was the rocker type, with skinny black jeans and tee-shirt, purple sneakers, and long dark hair covering everything but his nose. As we studied U.S. History, I did a lesson with him on the blues, tying it to the works of Langston Hughes.

This kid wanted to borrow the book of Hughes's poems that we read from during class. (We weren't studying English, unfortunately.) A few months later, when he was about to return to his regular school, Alex asked me, "Can you recommend some more poetry books? I really like poetry."

Then there was a girl I'll call Misha. She was in a group home, having been in juvie and a psych ward already by the age of 14. Misha let me know she was tough. The only books she would agree to read were the Goosebumps series, which I felt were a little young for her. But as we studied English, I quickly discovered that Misha wrote poetry. Here was a door into this girl's world!

I suspect there are a lot of secret poetry buffs among teens, although they may not bring it up in the group setting of a full class. So, moving past the younger standbys of Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, what kind of poems do you give a 16-year-old? Sure, there are famous published poets whose work I happily share with students, e.g., Maya Angelou for Misha. But the secret weapon here is actually well-written poems by other teens. When I gave Misha one of Betsy Franco's poetry anthologies, she was thrilled. I recommended Franco's anthologies to Alex, as well, along with the work of other, more well-known poets.

Betsy Franco has put together four collections of poems written by teens. I haven't read Night Is Gone, Day Is Still Coming: Stories and Poems by American Indian Teens and Young Adults, but I will present the other three in brief below. I should note that one strength of these collections is their inclusion of young writers of many races and ethnicities.

Things I Have to Tell You: Poems and Writing by Teenage Girls

Illustrated by black and white photos of real (non-glamorized!) girls, featuring poems and short essays. Here are a few samples:

Let's see if the high school can offer me an English class that will make me sweat. Then I'll be willing to rethink my criticism. Otherwise, I'll be back to my usual hobby of picking through the trash in hopes of finding the Holy Grail.
—from "A Girl Snapping, or My Application for Advanced Placement English," by Marijeta Bozovic, age 16

All I wanted was a cup of coffee
but when I asked for
"a tall single, please"
the guy at the coffee stand
thought I was asking for him.
—from "Tall Single ISO Coffee," by Anonymous, age 16

my friend and i
got caught in a storm
with tears for rain,
and shouts for thunder,
lightning fists
lashing out.
—from "Clouds Rolling In," by Melissa Leigh Davis, age 14

You Hear Me? Poems and Writing by Teenage Boys

I wish this book had black-and-white interior photos, too, but I think it's an even stronger collection than Things I Have to Tell You. Here are some examples:

May I ask you something?
Why are you following me?
Every time I turn around
You are there telling me
something to wish for:
his blue Mercedes
his caramel girlfriend...
—from "Envy" by Kyle L. White, age 17

He shaved his head to release his imagination.
—from "He Shaved His Head," by Rene Ruiz, age 13

The trombones slap me in the face with their high-life beats, and the piano's glamorous tunes tap me on my shoulder and whisper in my ear. As I look down into the Juke-Joint from my bedroom floor, rotted house, rotted life, plain rotten seems forgotten as the music plays and the beats go down to the rhythm of my heart's pound. There's a Harlem Renaissance in my head, there's a Harlem Renaissance in my head.
—from "There's a Harlem Renaissance in My Head," by Maurice E. Duhon, Jr., age 17

Falling Hard: 100 Love Poems by Teenagers

As the flap copy puts it, "The writers are straight, gay, lesbian, bi, or transgender; they live next door or across an ocean; they are innocent or experienced. Poetic explorations range from new love to stale love, from obsession to ennui, from ecstasy to heartbreak, and every nuance in between."

I do remember your mouth,
how it curled up on the right in Puck-like pleasure
because you knew exactly what I was thinking
(I never was a very good actress).
—from "Making Love to Shakespeare," by Ellie Moore, age 16

She's my motorcycle
She's my cigarette
When the night's this quiet I think I can hear her thinking
—from "New Friend in Mexico," by Nick Ross-Rhudy, age 17

In the presence of people
Packed in boxes,
Each wanting to be
—by Thomas Andrade, age 17

Aside from the obvious (poetry's great!), I believe teens like poetry because of its immediacy and the intensity of its emotional content. A poem may also seem less intimidating, yet more intimate, than a full-length prose novel. After all, there's a reason novels-in-verse are increasing in popularity among Young Adult readers.

Two other books of poems along these lines are Paint Me Like I Am, teen poems from WritersCorps, and a collection edited by Naomi Shihab Nye, Time You Let Me In: 25 Poets Under 25. (The poems in the latter are great, but sound more like college writers, which they probably are.)

Note for Worried Parents: Betsy Franco's poetry collections contain mature themes, such as drug use, cutting, and sexuality. Some poems also contain profanity, including the f-word. In general, best for older and more sophisticated teens.


Please submit your links in the comments, and I'll start listing them Friday morning. I do have comment moderation, but never fear, I'll get your links! (I will be gone in the middle of the day at a funeral, but will continue to add to this post as soon as I get back.)

--First off, Amy LV of The Poem Farm shares #14 in her series of poems about poems, a mask poem called "Love Me Real."
--Next, Charles Gigna sees "Sidewalks" as magic carpets at the Father Goose blog.
--Kelly R. Fineman gives us an original poem, "Letter to Mum" at Writing and Ruminating.
--Julie Larios offers up "an original left hand/right hand poem" (and a challenge to post your own) at The Drift Record.
--Mary Lee from A Year of Reading explains that in order to share a poem about laryngitis, she had to invent a new poetry form, the Twitter Search Poem.
--The Stenhouse Blog weighs in with Kenn Nesbitt's school-themed poem, "Perfect."
--Toby Speed reminisces about summer with a poem called "Day Lilies, Night Lilies, Night-Light Lilies" at her blog, The Writer's Armchair.
--Tabatha Yeatts experiments with book spine poems at The Opposite of Indifference.
--Laura Salas offers us "We," a selection from Lee Bennett Hopkins's memoir in poems, Been to Yesterdays. She is also the host of a weekly photo-poetry challenge, 15 Words or Less. (I often participate in this particular event.) Here's this week's post.
--Jeannine Atkins discusses the balance between giving readers information and letting readers guess when writing poetry.
--Hooray for B.J. Lee, who just had a poem published yesterday at A Handful of Stones!
--Carmela Martino gives us an original poem by April Halprin Wayland saluting summer at the Teaching Authors blog. She also reminds us that Naomi Shihab Nye has published a book of poems by younger writers called Salting the Ocean. (I do own that one, Carmela; it's wonderful!)
--Jama Rattigan shares Barbara Crooker's poem, "Patty's Charcoal Drive-in," over at Alphabet Soup. Jama's posts always make me hungry!
--In a very nice coincidence, Elaine Magliaro of Wild Rose Reader reviews a book of school poems by Betsy Franco, Messing Around on the Monkey Bars and Other Poems for Two Voices. She then goes on to list several other books of school poems, providing links to those previous reviews, including Stampede by Poetry Friday participant Laura Salas (see above). But wait; there's more! Over at Blue Rose Girls, Elaine shares some beautiful vacation photos plus Marilyn Kallet's poem, "Fireflies."
--Kerry Aradhya of Picture Books and Pirouettes reviews a rhyming picture book, Miss Tutu's Star by Leslea Newman, with illustrations by Carey Armstrong-Ellis.
--At Little Kid Lit, Erin Oakes is "admiring Allan Ahlberg," especially his poetry collection, Please Mrs Butler.
--Janet Squires of All About the Books spotlights The Fastest Game on Two Feet and Other Poems about How Sports Began, written by Alice Low and illustrated by John O'Brien.
--Then at Liz in Ink, Liz Garton Scanlon gives us Pablo Neruda's poem, "Poet's Obligation."
--Karen Edmisten (The Blog with the Shockingly Clever Title) shares her love of Billy Collins and her dog with a Collins poem, "Dharma."
--Danika Brubaker of TeachingBooks talks up Ashley Bryan's ABC of African American Poetry, even providing an audio clip.
--Chicken Spaghetti's Susan T. tells us about Natasha Tretheway's book of poems and memories, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
--Ms. Mac of Check It Out posts Naomi Shihab Nye's poem, "Boy and Egg," in memory of a former student who died unexpectedly at a young age two weeks ago.
--Heidi Mordhorst presents Mary Ruefle's school-themed poem, "The Hand," at My Juicy Little Universe.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Review of Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

For those of us immersed in the world of children's books, yesterday was a big day: the third and final book in Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy came out. I bought my copy on the way home from work, then walked into the house and began to read, skipping dinner to finish. I went to bed thinking about Mockingjay, I woke up thinking about it. So no, I won't wait till my regularly scheduled weekend slot to review this book. (Note my lack of spoilers below, which was hard to pull off!)

Just about any other writer, having established the wealthy, hedonistic Capitol led by evil President Snow in oppressing the twelve outlying districts, and having delivered Katniss into the hands of the rebels, would have then presented the rebels' heroic fight against the Capitol forces most heroically, with Katniss as their mascot. And that's—sort of what happens. But this is Suzanne Collins. I am now in awe of Suzanne Collins. Because she immediately proceeds to have the rebel forces, led by Alma Coin, the hardnosed president of supposedly nonexistent District 13, use Katniss in much the same way President Snow used her.

Twice in the last book and once in this book that I can recall, another character comments that Katniss doesn't know the effect she has on people. This may seem a bit too pointed. Furthermore, anyone reading Katniss's account of these events can see her flaws so clearly that they might have trouble understanding the effect Katniss has on others. So just what is that effect?

Mockingjay confirms that Katniss is a folk hero in spite of the efforts of leaders like Snow and now Coin to mold her into a Folk Hero. That's because Katniss believes in things like justice and kindness, values instilled in her by her parents (even her troubled mother, a healer) and by her own struggles to survive equitably in a tough world. Katniss tries to do the right thing no matter how hard it is, driven by her own moral compass even as others work to manipulate her into serving their ends.

Collins never takes the easy road. Katniss has been damaged, and will be damaged again. She suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome and various physical ailments, more of them as the book goes on. The rebels' work to patch her back together becomes increasingly ironic and symbolic as Katniss, blown about by a detonation of agendas and deliberate attempts by President Snow to destroy her both psychologically and physically, becomes still more stubborn about what truly matters from moment to moment.

The plot twists in Mockingjay are jaw-dropping and satisfying. I'll admit I made the mistake of thinking as I bought the book, Hmm, this one looks smaller. How much can this writer accomplish, and is she going to give her story short shrift? Is she worn out?

The answer is a resounding NO.

Suzanne Collins masterfully offers up both an action-packed, suspenseful dystopian adventure and a symbolic, theme-packed commentary on age-old and contemporary social issues. Most notably, she questions the ethics of war and of our new media's determination to transform dimensional individuals into flat, packaged types for the sake of money and power. This author refuses to glamorize heroism, war, power, or celebrity.

She also refuses to glamorize romance. In Mockingjay, Collins addresses what it means to love someone, bringing up the idea that people change—does that make love more, or less likely? Is loving someone selfish, unselfish, or both? And, paradoxically, does loving someone mean saving them, or killing them? Suzanne Collins is not one for simple answers. Katniss plays out the complexity of human interactions in this book; even her terrible relationship with President Snow takes on unexpected meaning.

All of this comes to us in the form of one increasingly tortured girl's desire to make a good world for the little cluster of people she cares about, a goal that appears more and more unlikely as Mockingjay progresses. Along the way, not all of Katniss's choices may seem wise, but each of them will strike readers as true.

Few authors have used symbols so well in contemporary YA literature: take a look at what Collins does with those mockingjays, or with white roses, and how she turns the idea of a girl "catching fire" thematically and more literally in a contrived entertainment context on its head. Perhaps most notably, watch how the war becomes a new version of the Hunger Games.

Reviewers have commented that Catching Fire managed to be a better book than The Hunger Games, and now Suzanne Collins pulls off the impossible: Mockingjay takes it a step higher, ending this trilogy powerfully, thought provokingly, achingly well.

Thank you, Ms. Collins.

Note for Worried Parents: All three books are for teens. They include violence, death, much suffering, war, betrayal, torture, and mild references to sex. However, this material is handled gracefully, if painfully, and the Hunger Games books end up being downright inspiring.

Monday, August 23, 2010

In Case You Missed It...

I've found some very fun stuff in the Blogosphere lately, so I'll give you the links in case you didn't catch it yourself.

--First up is the entertaining YA Fantasy Showdown, created by the talented team of Heather Zundel, Beth Revis, Charlotte Taylor, Danyelle Leafty, Chelsea Swiggett, and Lois Moss. Click on participating character names to read scenarios about how the various battles might play out. Final match-up? That would be the wizard Howl (from Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle and sequels) vs. Eugenides (from Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief and sequels). Go Gen! Oh, and Go Howl! Many of us would like to see a tie for that one.

--Betsy Bird of Fuse #8 tells us about her blogger husband's intriguing analysis of heroes in film; Betsy then applies the categories he's created to children's books. I read all of Matt Bird's posts and learned a lot!

--Adele of Persnickety Snark is an Australian teacher currently living in Japan. She polled blog readers to ascertain the Top 100 YA Books of 2010. This is the final list, but you can scroll down to individual posts about each book, counting up to #1, Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games.

--Author Malinda Lo posted a beautiful showcase of Fall 2010 Fantasy Cover Trends (in YA) over at Enchanted Inkpot; take a look.

Note: Art shown above is borrowed from the YA Fantasy Showdown site.

Update: Gen (Eugenides) won the YA Fantasy Showdown. Hooray for Gen, and for Megan Whalen Turner's wonderful books! If you haven't read them, you've been missing out. In order, they are The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, and A Conspiracy of Kings. Also, read Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, another terrific book.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Me and Will, We're Like This!

I hope you're imagining my index and middle fingers held up together, slightly crossed, to accompany the header. So the point is, I'm going on vacation! Yes, I might even see a few of the Book Nieces and Nephews. But what I will for sure be doing is going to a Shakespeare festival in Southern Utah. (With my mom, who is a history and literature buff, also delightful company.) I've always wanted to go, but never got around to it. Now, we're talking six plays in three days! Plus various other travels.

Therefore, I will not be posting next weekend.... But never fear, I'll be back the following week, just in time to host Poetry Friday on August 27. Perhaps I should post a Shakespearean sonnet or two!

Note: If you want the real skinny on the bard, try Bill Bryson's book, Shakespeare: The World as Stage. Bryson debunks all kinds of rumors and myths surrounding the great playwright as he shares what really is known. The answer? Not much! For instance, not one of those portraits of Will you see here, there, and everywhere has been truly authenticated. Bryson's book is surprisingly slim (see "not much" above). He also has a thoroughly likable, readable style.

Update: I have to say, the bard still rocks! Kudos also to the Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City for putting on such stunningly good productions of Macbeth, Much Ado about Nothing, and Merchant of Venice (along with other, non-Shakespeare plays). Merchant of Venice in particular was so, so moving, between Shylock's performance and the way the production addressed anti-Semitism. Wow!

In the Dollhouse: Doll Books Old and New

When you think of doll books, you probably think of Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin's The Doll People and sequels. Or perhaps you go back in time to the 1930 Newbery medalist, Rachel Field's classic Hitty: Her First Hundred Years. Or to the 1947 winner, Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's Miss Hickory. Then there's a famous picture book, William's Doll, by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by William Pene Du Bois.

But before we talk about a couple of recent doll books, I really think we should consider the grandmaster (high maven?) of doll books, and that would be Rumer Godden. (Yes, Demi Moore named a daughter after her.)

To some, Rumer Godden is best known as the author of Black Narcissus, a novel that became a 1947 film starring Deborah Kerr. But to those of us in the world of children's literature, British writer Godden is famous for her doll stories.

In Godden's novel-length book, The Doll's House, Martin and Godwin's "Meanest Doll in the World" gets some serious competition from an arrogant doll named Marchpane, who disrupts life in a cheery little doll family. As some Amazon reviewers have pointed out rather uneasily, there's a doll death in the book as a result of Marchpane's machinations. There's sacrifice, too, along with heroism and a nice little plot twist involving the queen of England's taste in dolls. The book is well written, but has enough malice and tragedy in it that it might trouble the very youngest doll fanciers.

My favorite doll titles from Godden are Miss Happiness and Miss Flower and a nice collection of four of her shorter doll stories called Four Dolls. Ms. Godden was raised on a tea plantation in India as the child of a British colonialist, but she makes a real effort to introduce young readers to other cultures respectfully. For the most part, her story about two Japanese dolls sent to a little girl missing her previous home in India hits the mark even in 2010.

Main character Nona may remind you briefly of Mary Lennox from A Secret Garden, but Nona is more weepy and shy where Mary had an inner tough streak. (Here the tough streak comes in the form of Belinda, the youngest of Nona's three cousins.) Nona desperately misses India; she is also afraid to try anything new. When the cousins' great-aunt sends the girls a pair of Japanese dolls, however, Nona begins to come out of her shell, eliciting the help of a bookshop owner and her woodworking older cousin, Tom, to build a replica of a traditional Japanese home for the two dolls. Meanwhile Belinda, who is uninterested in the dolls, sulks, jealous of the attention Nona and her project are getting. After a selfish act on Belinda's part (skillfully and drolly described by Godden), things eventually sort themselves out. You'll find that the author provides information about Japanese festivals and customs in a note at the end of the book. She even includes detailed directions for the complex project of building your own Japanese dollhouse.

As in other doll stories by Godden, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower gives us a lonely child comforted by her interaction with dolls, and the dolls themselves have thoughts and opinions, accessible to the reader rather than the young doll owner. But the point of intersection between child and doll is wishes, which is a very nice conceit, to say the least.

"The Story of Holly and Ivy" is one of my favorite Christmas stories of all time, markedly old-fashioned and sentimental, yet saved from bathos by Godden's matter-of-fact style and her understanding of how kids talk and think. The story is available in picture book form, as well, illustrated by Barbara Cooney, and here is my review in a post titled "Christmas Books Old and New" from November 2009.

"The Fairy Doll" tells about an awkward little girl badly in need of a fairy godmother. As the youngest child, Elizabeth is considered inept by her older siblings—she breaks things, forgets ordinary tasks like brushing her teeth, and can't learn to ride her new bike. Then Great-Grandmother comes to visit at Christmastime, and when Fairy Doll falls (flies) down from the top of the Christmas tree, Great-Grandmother appoints clumsy Elizabeth as the doll's new guardian. Elizabeth discovers that she is an expert on what fairy dolls need: she builds the doll a beautiful little home in a shoebox and takes her everywhere she goes. With the help of a bell-like Ting that seems to come from Fairy Doll, Elizabeth begins to find confidence and lose her awkwardness, which readers will suspect was largely a result of living down to people's expectations and feeling flustered all the time. (One thing Godden really gets right here is just how hard older siblings can be on a younger child!)

In the story of "Candy Floss," a little doll is part of an odd family consisting of a young man named Jack who works a coconut shy at carnivals and fairs, a dog named Cocoa, and a toy horse named Nuts. Candy Floss is Jack's luck, sitting on the horse atop a sort of music box and turning to the sound of the song it plays. And Jack treats Candy Floss like part of the family: "Sometimes they ate hot dogs from the hot-dog stall; Cocoa had one to herself but Candy Floss had the tip end of Jack's." Though it may seem odd to grown-up readers that Jack plays make-believe with Nuts and Candy Floss, young readers probably won't notice. What they will notice is young Clementina Davenport, a Veruca Salt type who shows up at the fair with her father. When Candy Floss catches Clementina's eye and Jack won't sell the doll, the girl steals her. But Candy Floss isn't happy and manages to let Clementina know in her doll-like way. Between the doll's hints and the child's conscience, Candy Floss is eventually reunited with her carnival family. This story has a rather typical message about stealing, but Godden pulls it off. The details of Candy Floss's unusual life and how much she likes it are especially appealing.

Godden is something of a feminist, perhaps surprising in someone born in 1907. Her stories may seem sweet, but there's a realistic note of stubbornness and individuality in both her child and her doll characters. "Impunity Jane" is also about a child who steals a doll, but it has a different outcome. We first meet the little doll named Jane when she is bought by an old woman for her granddaughter back in the days of gas lamps and carriages. The story begins: "Once there was a little doll who belonged in a pocket. That was what she thought. Everyone else thought she belonged in a dolls' house. They put her in one but, as you will see, she ended up in a pocket." The grandmother tells her granddaughter that Jane is a tough little thing, having "impunity." The doll decides that this will be her name: "'Imp-imp-impunity,' she sang."

On the way home from the shop, Jane sees horses: "'Oh, I wish I were a little horse!' cried Impunity Jane." Then she hears bells and wants to be a bell, sees a shuttlecock flying up and wants to be one of those, too. "In the barracks a soldier was blowing a bugle; it sounded so brave and exciting that it seemed to ring right through her. 'A bugle, a horse, a bell, a shuttlecock—oh, I want to be everything!' cried Impunity Jane."

Imagine Jane's disappointment when she is stuck into a dollhouse instead and passes fifty years being played with every so often by a series of prim little girls. Then Ellen's cousin Gideon comes to tea, and Impunity Jane wishes herself into being stolen from the dollhouse. She has a series of exhilarating adventures with Gideon and later his friends, graduating from doll to "model" (read: action figure) when the boys tease Gideon about her. Then Impunity Jane and Gideon have a crisis of conscience, only Gideon is ultimately able to keep the little doll. Aside from the rather dated references to the behavior of the boys (including, sad to say, their aversion to telling lies), this story about a tomboy doll is just wonderful.

As I hope you can tell by a few of the details and excerpts I've shared, Godden has a keen eye for depicting very real children and child substitutes in the form of dolls. She might also teach your child what TV these days mostly does not—that things found in the garden or made from household items can make for more creative play than store bought everything.

Which brings us to today's dollhouse stories. (The most famous of these are actually the Toy Story movies, which, like Godden's work, remind us that creative play is still the best kind.)

In a picture book by British folk artist Jane Ray called The Dollhouse Fairy, a real fairy comes to live in a little girl's dollhouse for a while because she has torn her wing and needs to convalesce. The dollhouse was built by Rosy's dad, who helps her make furniture for the dollhouse very Saturday morning—or he used to. Now he's in the hospital, and Rosy is really worried about him. She is happy to be able to focus on taking care of Thistle while he's gone.

Thistle isn't as sweet as you might imagine:

Rosy ran outside and picked raspberries and rose petals and all sorts of things to make a perfect fairy breakfast. She also filled a dollhouse cup with rainwater and took everything back to Thistle. But it wasn't Thistle's idea of a perfect breakfast.
"Have you got any potato chips?" she asked.
Thistle ends up being messy, too. She basically trashes the dollhouse. But Rosy doesn't care. I especially like the spread that shows Rosy jumping on the bed while Thistle zooms around the room: Rosy is "[helping] her practice flying again."

When Rosy's dad returns from the hospital, she wants him to meet Thistle, but the fairy is gone. His gentle response, along with other bits in the text, might make readers wonder whether the whole thing was a game of make-believe Rosy came up with to comfort herself, up to and including the parallel between a convalescing father and convalescing Thistle. But the illustrations say otherwise, and I, for one, am sticking with the illustrations! They're really the best part of the book, anyway. (Though I do like the idea that a dad would have such a strong relationship with his daughter. Despite the changes in our society, you don't always see that depicted this specifically in a picture book.)

Our last book comes from the rather surprising team of author Francesca Lia Block and illustrator Barbara McClintock. Block is best known for her Young Adult books, which are edgy and surreal, stylized to the point of romanticism. McClintock is known for her intricate, old-fashioned line art in picture books such as her own Adele and Simon. Here Block writes a dollhouse story for middle grades, with artwork by McClintock.

First of all, let's just acknowledge what a pretty book this is. House of Dolls has an unusually small trim size, 5-1/2 by 7 inches, obviously meant to imply the miniature scale of dolls and their houses. Luxurious line art winds through the books in spots and as full-page spreads, sometimes wrapping around the text. The decorative arts feel to McClintock's illustrative voice turns out to be perfectly suited to a book about dolls.

Block's story is a bit less successful, though it has its moments. After we meet three dolls—Wildflower, Rockstar, and Miss Selene—we meet their owner:

The house belonged to Madison Blackberry, a tall-for-her-age, sour-faced girl who secretly wished, more than anything, that she could live in the dollhouse with the dolls. They seemed so warm and cozy, and they nestled so closely together among the black-and-rose needlepoint pillows on the green velvet chaise lounge in the parlor, as if they never wished to be apart.
This was very different from life in the cool, all-white-and-gray penthouse apartment where Madison Blackberry lived with her mother, father, and little brother, Dallas George.
At first Madison just ignores the dolls, and they don't mind a bit. For one thing, Wildflower has a boyfriend named Guy, an African-American GI Joe type. And Rockstar has a gentleman friend, too, a "devastatingly handsome stuffed bear" named B. Friend. Selene is gracious, but has a secret sorrow, an empty cradle.

Madison's anger, jealousy, and boredom grow, and she begins to take her frustrations out on her dolls. She sends first Guy and then B. Friend off to war, even giving the latter injuries. Upset that her grandmother has made beautiful clothes for the dolls but not for her, she next takes away all of her dolls' clothes. The dolls wander their dollhouse, naked and heartbroken. Finally they appeal for help by leaving a tiny note for the grandmother when she comes to visit: Dress. Grandmother leaves some more paper out, and the dolls leave her miniscule sketches of clothes in turn.

Grandmother, who used to play with Wildflower as a child, is imaginative, but she's falling short when it comes to seeing how unhappy her granddaughter is. Wildflower turns out to be wiser than her former owner. She wishes and wishes, not for a direct end to her own troubles, but that Grandmother will reach out to angry Madison. Fortunately, Grandmother responds. As the book ends, Guy and B. Friend come home. Selene's secret sorrow is ended in joy, as is Madison's. "The war," we are told, "is over."

Writing this, I'm not sure why House of Dolls doesn't work better. It certainly has a unique premise, a child being jealous of her own dolls. I suppose the book's message-y nature overcomes the storytelling in spots. Francesca Lia Block is working in a short form here. She creates some amazing characters, but doesn't get the time to develop them, so has to inform her readers about the heartaches and themes rather a lot (see excerpt above for an example). A nice story, but not a riveting one.

I think you'll find that both Jane Ray and Francesca Lia Block were influenced by Rumer Godden's work. Do I know this for sure? Nope. But there are touches in both books that I suspect are homages to Godden. For example, the things Rosy does to make a comfortable home for Thistle remind me of what Elizabeth does for Fairy Doll, and Madison Blackberry could easily be a Clementina Davenport or Nona's jealous cousin Belinda. Then there's the fact that Madison's dolls use wishes to make things right—very Godden.

Take a look at Ray's and Block's books if you like, but if you haven't read Godden's doll stories, you've been missing out. Her legacy continues even in a day when kids don't always play with dolls (and action figures) the way they used to. Godden uses her doll tales to capture the worries and longings—and joys—of childhood with humor and exactness. Like other classics, her stories might just stay in your mind and your heart forever. Kind of the way you still remember (and maybe even keep) a beloved doll from when you were little. I remember mine: her name was Cherry because my mom had sewed her a dress made of white fabric with cherries on it.

See also a review of House of Dolls at Charlotte's Library.

Additional Suggestions from the Comments:
--The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Wren Wright (B.C)
--The Dollhouse Caper by Jean S. O'Connell (Brimful Curiosities)
--Midnight in the Dollhouse by Marjorie Stover (Madeleine)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Review of The Shadow by Donna Diamond

I've been watching with interest the rise of the paranormal in YA and its trickle down into middle grade fiction and picture books. Yes, the Twilight effect, like its predecessor the Hogwarts effect, is a powerful thing!

But so far, most of the creepy supernatural stuff has hit intermediate books rather than picture books. The horror picture books we've seen are mostly funny, though Bobbi Katz and Adam McCauley's The Monsterologist: A Memoir in Rhyme and Ryan Heshka's ABC Spookshow and just-published Welcome to Monster Town might be a tad darker, if only because of the illustrations.

None of them have been as scary, or as subtle, as The Shadow, a new picture book from illustrator and fine artist Donna Diamond.

I'll give you the product description first so you can see how the publisher is presenting the book:
A young girl confronts her fears in an eerie, wordless picture book featuring stunning, hyper-realistic illustrations. It’s an ordinary afternoon. A child comes home, heads upstairs, and sprawls on the floor to do some drawing under the watchful eyes of a pair of favorite dolls. But there’s another character in this wordless story: the shadow, unnoticed at first, then slowly creeping into her field of view. It’s a terrifying sight. Will the girl cower, or will she take on this shadow and tell it who’s boss? And where will the shadow go from there? With mesmerizing intensity, this dreamlike story tells an unflinching tale about recognizing and staring down one’s fears—if only for a time.

And this is from Donna Diamond's website: "The Shadow is a suite of seventeen paintings that tell a story. The pictorial narrative creates a psychological drama about fear, how it grows in the dark, and takes on a life of its own."

In these beautiful paintings of a girl going upstairs and playing in her room, you will probably notice the child's shadow before she does. It doesn't match. It is a Halloween shadow with two spaces for eyes. (Look closely at the shadow to the girl's left in the cover image above.) At first it just follows the girl, like an ordinary shadow. But up in her room, it looms over her threateningly.

Finally the girl, who appears to be about seven years old, sees the shadow and responds. After her initial shock, she gets tough and subdues the shadow, which is rather heartening. She even drives it away—or does she? As she goes to sleep, we discover that the shadow has secreted itself in a traditional shadowy spot, where it continues to lurk.

The Shadow is a really gorgeous book, and it's like nothing else out there. My only question is, who is it for? Although I can see having a conversation with a child about the shadow as a symbol for fear, I'm thinking kids aren't much for symbolism till they're a bit older than the target audience, perhaps even in middle school.

Much as I appreciate the way the child defeats the shadow, Diamond goes with a horror-movie ending—the shadow, like Freddie Krueger or Jason, is still there, waiting for another chance at our young hero.

Sorry to say, I can see this book giving first graders nightmares. The very realism of the paintings makes this book's terrors more believable than those illustrated in more cartoon-like or stylized picture books.

I will add that the fact that The Shadow is wordless completely suits the story, but again skews the audience a bit younger than might be sensible. (Interestingly, while Candlewick lists the book for ages 5-8, Amazon lists it for 9-12.)

My recommendation would be, if your 6- to 8-year-old blithely watches horror movies and reads the Goosebumps series with gusto, look for this book. If your kid is the sensitive type, maybe not.

But you might enjoy taking a look. Donna Diamond's The Shadow is unique—and chillingly lovely.

Note: Check out the website Kinderscares for more scary books for young readers, including some picture books.

P.S. Aha! I've thought of another sincerely scary picture book: poet Eve Merriam's Halloween ABC or (retitled) Spooky ABC, illustrated by Lane Smith. Beautiful poems, but truly creep-worthy. The book is often recommended for older kids and has even been banned on occasion. (Let's all shiver in unison!)

A Review of Zombiekins by Kevin Bolger

It had to happen. First there was the vampire wave, then the werewolf wave, and then the zombie wave. (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, anyone?) I valiantly resisted the onslaught of rotting flesh and eyeballs drooping like little dead Slinkies when it hit the YA market harder than a metric ton of brain goop, but I could no longer resist when it struck middle grade fiction—I had to take an anti-nausea pill and read a few of the new books.

Starting with Zombiekins, written by the man best known for his dashing knight, Sir Fartsalot of Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger fame. For those of you who worry about finding books for reluctant boy readers, look no further!

Here are the first few paragraphs of Bolger's new book:
The little town of Dementedyville was a tidy, uneventful town. The sort of place where home owners took care never to let their well-tended lawns become overrun by unsightly weeds or children, and birds sang in all the trees—but only between the hours of nine and five, as per the town's bylaws.
But even in Dementedyville there was one house that stood out from all the others....

Next we see the neighbors storming the creaky old home of Mrs. Imavitch with pitchforks and torches—to attend her yard sale.

At the sale our boy Stanley buys an odd stuffed animal called Zombiekins. Mrs. Imavitch is so pleased by his choice that she gives him a bunch of taffy with a twinkle in her eye and reminds him to read the new toy's instruction manual.

But our author knows boys: when he gets home, Stanley instantly discards the box and the instructions. His little sister takes an uneasy interest in Zombiekins, who is invited to attend a tea party with stuffed animals like Whimsy the Pfoo. "Hugs are cuddle-wonderful...Have a huggsy-wuggsy day," Whimsy says. You just know he's going down, along with Bolger's Barney and Elmo clones.

Sure enough, when the moon rises that night, we hear the awful sound of a zombie stuffed animal walking through the playroom, dragging his bad leg: "Stump!—scri-i-i-i-i-itch... Stump!—scri-i-i-i-i-itch..."

Stanley's dog, who appears to be smarter than Stanley, tries to warn the kid, but he doesn't listen. Naturally!

Of course, the fun's only beginning, because the next day Stanley takes Zombiekins to school and his teacher, Mr. Baldengrumpy, puts on a movie about the moon. Pretty soon Zombiekins is stalking through the school, turning sixth graders and kindergartners alike into zombies. Chaos—and hilarity—reign. Plus a bunch of delightful satire about school and bullies and such. For example, when Stanley's best friend Miranda tells a teacher the kids are zombies, we get this:
"Now, Miranda," Mrs. Plumdotty replied, "you know it's not nice to call the other children names."
"No, you don't understand," Stanley hurried to explain. "She means they're flesh-eating monsters who want to guzzle our livers and gobble our limbs!"
"Stanley, dear, don't be such a tattletale," chided Mrs. Plumdotty.

As you can see, Stanley and Miranda are running around the school trying to find Zombiekins and stop the zombie kids, or at least not get bitten by them.

Zombiekins is a funny and satisfying read, nicely illustrated by Aaron Blecha in a clean, cartoonish style. The Zombiekins character alone is a visual and visceral triumph. Watch out for Book 2!

(You can visit the Zombiekins website here.)

Note for Worried Parents: This is pretty goofy stuff, despite the horror elements. I wouldn't worry too much. Any kid who might be bothered by all this probably wouldn't touch the book in the first place. Now, I'm not implying you should leave out girl readers—I think they'll like Zombiekins, too. They might make faces, but then they'll laugh. A lot.

Kids in grades three through six are probably the best audience for this one.

Bonus: I've yet to read Sir Fartsalot, but I did watch this very funny cartoon short, also by Bolger and Blecha, Sir Fartsalot vs. the Dragon. Check it out for some fartastic humor!

A Review of The Zombie Chasers by John Kloepfer

Our story begins with Zack being tormented by the girls at his older sister's sleepover. (His parents are out on the town.) Zoe and her friends, including beautiful, vain Madison, tie him to a chair and put make-up on him. To make things worse, they videotape him and send the footage out to his friends by Internet. Next Madison eats Zack's carefully saved slice of birthday cake—though she is shocked to discover it's non-vegan.

Aaaand, then the zombies attack. Suddenly the neighbors, other kids, and the girls at the sleepover are turning into zombies. Zack and Madison may despise each other, but they quickly team up to escape being bitten. A more unlikely Bogart and Hepburn you'll never find.

Here's what it's like to have your neighborhood full of zombies:

Madison fished out another VitalVegan from her handbag and sidled up next to Zack. She took a casual sip, then looked out at the shambling swarm of blood-thirsty fiends. The zombies tottered randomly in every direction. Their arms were outstretched, disjointed limbs dangling out of their sockets, some slashed to shreds with bloody gashes.
Madison let out a choked yelp, dropping the plastic bottle out the window. It seemed to pause in midair before the plastic clinked noisily off the wooden slats of the ladder.
The zombies turned in unison, craning their necks toward the house.
Madison sucked in air, preparing to let out a full-fledged scream. But Zack cupped his hand over her mouth, and instead, she just sputtered into his palm. He shot her a sideways glance and wiped his hand on the side of his pants. Gross.
And then she screamed anyway.

The third member of this little tribe ends up being Rice, Zack's best friend. Madison delights in talking down to both of the boys, but the three of them make a surprisingly good team. Madison may be in love with herself, but she's not stupid. And Zack and Rice are smart in just the way you would expect from a couple of sixth grade boys who've watched a lot of TV—canny and determined to survive. Although Zack's not too sure about Rice's theory that ginkgo biloba is to zombies as garlic is to vampires.

Did I mention that they've made their escape in Zack's parents' Volvo, which Madison manages to drive? After a showdown in a supermarket, they go back to Zack's house to retrieve Madison's little purse dog and Zack's sister, a zombie whom they keep hitting over the head to keep her from biting them. One hockey mask, a leash, and a doggie car divider later (for Zoe, not the dog), they are on the road, heading for the nearest military base, which is where the radio announcer has instructed survivors to gather.

Ah, could the opening of those new BurgerDog fast food restaurants all over the country have anything to do with this national zombie epidemic? And conversely, might Madison's super-healthy lifestyle give her an advantage?

I should mention that the crew picks up another eighth grader named Greg, whom the boys know as a bully and Madison knows as a hottie. Zack looks all the better next to Greg, who is pretty much a lunkhead. But Madison doesn't necessarily catch that.

I have to say, if Kloepfer had simply given us Zack and Rice, this book wouldn't have been nearly as good. But the combination of these two boys with haughty Madison is a hoot, especially when you consider how well the three of them manage.

Illustrator Steve Wolfhard has a great time with his material, drawing zombies and dropping body parts with enthusiasm and panache. Don't forget to take off the book jacket and look at the fabulous map printed on the book cover itself.

I've decided the appeal of zombie stories is that it gives us an instant playground in theater of the absurd: hey, there goes your mom and the cranky neighbor next door, shambling around groaning and falling apart, literally. "Moooowaaaaaahhaaarrgh! It was the unmistakable zombie battle cry." Is that the skateboarder who lives up the street, skateboard in one hand and dead bunny in the other?

Kloepner does an incredible job of pacing this book, of writing realistically funny dialogue for Zack and Co., and of coming up with clever action scenes using zombie mayhem and the creative responses of our young carload of heroes. A very fun new series!

Note for Worried Parents: This is for a little older crowd than Zombiekins, pretty much fifth through eighth graders. The gruesomeness is more gruesome, and there are jokes about middle school crushes. On the other hand, I can think of some fourth graders who would like it... Perhaps I should say instead that Zombiekins is for a little younger crowd than this one.

Also: Your kids might like seeing the Zombie Chasers website, where they can join to participate in games relating to the book.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Diana Wynne Jones Week

It's Diana Wynne Jones Week over at Jenny's Books, and while I won't be posting a new review because I'm wrapping up summer school and my head feels like it's going to fall off any second now, I will refer you to my previous posts about the inimitable Ms. Jones: "The Queen of Children's Fantasy" and a recent review of Enchanted Glass, her newest book.

My own favorites are probably Dogsbody, Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant, Archer's Goon, Howl's Moving Castle, and Cart and Cwidder, but really, I like just about everything she's ever written. Oh, I highly recommend her Tough Guide to Fantasyland to anyone who reads or writes fantasy! Thanks to her entry on "Stew," I always make sure my own characters' meals aren't repetitive and boring.

It is with great sadness that those of us in the children's book community learned that Diana is fighting cancer. She is in our thoughts and prayers.

Visit Jenny's Books to link to reviews of Diana Wynne Jones favorites from the blog community this week and to read Jenny's "keynote addresses."