Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Review of Three Quarters Dead by Richard Peck

I first heard about this book a couple of years ago at an SCBWI Conference where Richard Peck spoke, mentioning his upcoming projects, and I've been looking forward to it ever since. How would one of the greatest craftsmen in the field of children's books handle YA paranormal?

Of course, you could argue that he's already done that with his Blossom Culp books, which I always thought were middle grade, but which are now being called YA, at least in the front matter of this new book. But the Blossom books are also historical fiction, and Three Quarters Dead is about a contemporary teen.

Kerry is a sophomore attached to a popular, powerful trio of senior girls: beautiful Tanya, graceful Natalie, and lively Makenzie. Kerry earnestly assures us that the three of them aren't mean girls. Her reasoning? They talk to her. (Never mind the little zingers they throw in.) They sort of include her. And even though events—along with outside observers—conspire to convince Kerry that she is being used, the heady wine of hanging out with this particular group has her too drunk to admit things aren't so great.

Readers will be quick to see that Tanya, the leader of the pack, is a little obsessed with a particular boy and with destroying the girl she thinks stole him from her. She enlists Kerry's help without giving her any real information, then leaves Kerry hanging when her plans go south. Which is just one example of the small and large clues we get about Tanya's true nature. Another key point in the early chapters is Kerry noticing Tanya's seeming ability to stop time, or rather, to draw it out to suit her purposes.

[SPOILER, THOUGH IT'S IN THE PUBLISHER'S BOOK BLURB AND NONE OF THIS WILL MAKE SENSE IF I DON'T TELL YOU!] Then the unthinkable happens: Tanya, Natalie, and Makenzie are killed when they wrap their car around an apple tree. Here's where Peck's premise gets extra good. Kerry goes into a fugue state, until one day she gets a text message from Tanya telling her to meet the three dead girls in the city at Tanya's Aunt Lily's apartment. Kerry's reaction is relief: "I'd known all along this entire...situation had been too bad to be true."

The haunting of Kerry, which she participates in fervently for pages, is horrifically satisfying. Here's a brief sample, when the four girls dress up in old-fashioned clothes from Aunt Lily's closet to go out on the town. Note the author having fun with macabre puns, the eerie scent of apple blossoms (referring to the tree the car hit), and narrator Kerry's oblivious acceptance of the fact that the dead girls need "major makeup":
There wasn't a mirror on any wall, and that was better. There'd been thousands of us in the mirrored dressing room. Now it was just us four. Taller in our heels, swirlier in our skirts, bigger and bustier in our bras. I was the only one who didn't need major makeup. Just a little something to make my eyes pop. Too much makeup too young is always a dead giveaway, Tanya always said. Too much makeup is always about being the most desperate girl in ninth grade.
Though as Tanya also said, "A little lip gloss wouldn't kill you, Kerry."
There we were in a room that had never changed, the four of us in a dangle of earrings, a wobble of heels, in a cloud of Arpège perfume out of a swag bag. The Arpège fought a little with the lily of the valley, and just under that, apple blossom.
Peck uses the archaeological dig that is Aunt Lily's closet to suggest timelessness, then embroiders these scenes with elderly women hiding from the ghosts in a neighbor's apartment. Of course, the old women represent the way Kerry should be reacting.

The driving force in this book is Kerry's unwillingness to let go—and her problem with being such a follower. You could read the entire haunting as taking place in Kerry's mind if you really wanted to, but I don't think that's what Peck is doing here. Kerry's eagerness to be haunted is just as creepy as the ghosts themselves, and as painful. When Kerry finally snaps out of it, readers will be cheering for her emancipation.

By the way, there's a touch of romance here, but nothing that overwhelms a story that's essentially about girls and their friendships.

Now, as far as suspension of disbelief goes, Tanya's powers work best when they're not examined too closely. There was one point late in the book where I felt like we got a little too much explaining and I found myself doubting Tanya's abilities, but for most of the story, I was completely sold on these events.

Other than that, the only false note qualifies as a quibble: Dear Mr. Peck, Teenage boys today are not called Bob or Sandy. You might get a Rob, an Alex, or a Xander, but that's about it. The youngest Bob I know of is my brother, and he's 49. While Sandy is a 63-year-old plumber. (Fortunately, the key boy in this story is named Spence!)

Quibbles aside, I think the most gorgeous thing about Three Quarters Dead is the tone, Kerry's voice and the way it interacts with pacing to build suspense. Peck has Kerry recount her experiences by looking back on the whole thing. In another book, this might create a sense of drag, but here it suits the genre, evoking a hushed midnight rendering of a ghost story lit only by a sleep-over flashlight. Considering the framing, there's an amazing feeling of suspense as we watch Kerry make a series of mindless mistakes, putting complete trust in someone who doesn't deserve it whether she's alive or dead. Reading Three Quarters Dead feels like watching one of those movies where the girl walks down the long hall of the haunted house, and you tell her on the screen, "Don't open that door!" You know, the door with the monster behind it? But of course she does.

And isn't that what high school is like sometimes, when you can be enthralled by a "friend" who is nothing but trouble, nothing but selfish? Even so, Three Quarters Dead isn't preachy; it's just scary. And—no surprise here!—beautifully well written. It's a slim book, but then, there's never a wasted word in the work of the fantastic Mr. Peck.

If you like this ghost story, try Margaret Mahy's The Tricksters (for older teens).

Note for Worried Parents: Three Quarters Dead is a book for teens, though it's pretty wholesome other than some teen drinking, a scene in a nightclub (mostly dancing), and a little talk about dressing to enhance one's breasts.

A Review of The Invisible Order Book One: Rise of the Darklings by Paul Crilley

Most people don't have the Sight, but 12-year-old Emily does. The place is Victorian London, and Emily is selling watercress in the streets to support herself and her younger brother now that their parents have disappeared. Then she takes a shortcut down an alley just in time to see a battle between two groups of fairy creatures. After she helps a wounded straggler named Corrigan, she finds herself sucked into the ancient war between the Seelie Court, the Unseelie Court, and a secret order of humans founded by architect Christopher Wren to hunt them both.

All three groups try to use Emily, and all three tell her lies—or insufficient truths. It's up to Emily and her sometimes irritating, larcenous friend Spring-Heeled Jack to sort out what's real and save London from a fae invasion.

This is dark fantasy, with monstrous fairy folk and humans who are equally horrible. Mr. Ravenhill of the Invisible Order is utterly ruthless, as are the Unseelie King and the Seelie Queen. The Unseelie King sends out Jenny Greenteeth and Black Annis, who lurk in the Thames devouring children. The Seelie Queen's servant, a soul-sucking black slug of a cloud called the Sluagh, is even worse.

But Crilley does leaven his tale with humor. Emily is a rather stern little soul, but Spring-Heeled Jack is a joker, practically a trickster. We also meet a clan of gnomes who live beneath the city, imitating the Victorian upper-class with amusingly mixed results. Oddly enough, Jenny Greenteeth and Black Annis are kind of funny—in a way the Grimm Brothers would have appreciated.
"You can't escape us, Emily Snow. As soon as you touch water, we know where you are. But even on land, we'll catch up with you in the end. We need something personal, of course. Blood's preferable, but hair will do. How does it taste, Jenny?"
"Like fear, Miss Annis," replied Jenny. Lovely, juicy fear, ripe for the bursting."
"Bless her," said Black Annis to Emily. "She likes the taste of fear, don't you, Jenny?"
"I do, Miss Annis. It makes me shiver."
"Right," said Black Annis. "Come along. Before that wretched sneak Ravenhill thinks to check out the back." She turned and set off down the dark street, the two sacks thrown casually over her shoulder.
(The sacks contain Emily's friends Jack and Corrigan, whom the two creatures have just snatched.)

There are fight scenes along with a solve-the-riddle prophecy, and Emily is one of those Chosen One-type kids, but these plot machinations sometimes seem less important than the atmosphere of the book, which is satisfyingly colorful, as long as your color palette consists of shadow black, chilly midnight blue, and bone white. Crilley has created a goosebump-inducing version of Victorian London, with grotesque fairy creatures filling in for the likes of Jack the Ripper.

The adventure moves fast enough to please young readers. Slightly quaint chapter headings include a "ticking clock" time frame, which contributes to the sense of motion, e.g., "Chapter Eleven: In which the All-Seeing Eyes watch Emily. A magical artifact stolen from Merlin. Inside the Royal Society / Four o'clock in the afternoon on the first day of Emily's adventures." (By the by, the way the fairies use unsuspecting Londoners' glass eyes is one of Crilley's best touches.) After a lot of chasing, capturing, escaping, and riddle solving, Rise of the Darklings ends with a battle and a bang, as Emily makes a choice that solves the book's central problem even as it propels her into a new, sequel-worthy adventure involving time travel.

If you like this one, try Charlie Fletcher's Stoneheart trilogy for a more modern but equally dark and uncanny adventure in the great city of London. Or take a look at China Mieville's Un Lun Dun.

Note for Worried Parents: This book is for middle grade readers (9-12), but it's a little scary. Generally speaking, I would recommend it for the older end of the MG spectrum.

Also: I requested this book as an ARC from Amazon's Vine program.

A Review of Trance by Linda Gerber

What intrigued me about reading this book was that it left me feeling so sad. And I mean that in a good way! Linda Gerber's Trance has a poignant tone that wraps around you and makes you feel like you've just been haunted. Kind of appropriate for a gray autumn day right before Halloween...

Ashlyn and her mother were in a car accident, and now her mother is dead. Her friend Michelle tries to help her deal with her grief, but Ashlyn secretly feels the accident was her fault, and she's not ready to be comforted. Besides which, her father is barely there, and her older sister has left home, apparently to avoid Ashlyn as well as memories of their mother.

Ashlyn's situation is all the more tough because she and her sister Kyra have powers, and Ashlyn feels like she should have been able to prevent the accident. Every so often, she goes into a trance state and writes strings of numbers (a phenomenon called "trance writing"). Kyra has trances and writes numbers at the same time, even if she's far away. It's only by combining the images they see in the trances that the two sisters can make any sense out of them, and they don't know what the numbers mean at all, despite having done some research.

Ashlyn takes a job working at a mall in a little photo booth, where she gets to know her prickly coworker and the cute guy who works for the music store across the way. But she avoids Jake's efforts to get to know her better, frightened by her trances and her failure to save her mother. When Ashlyn begins to confide in her pregnant coworker, Gina, she learns about a different system of numerology. She's newly hopeful about getting answers, except that without Kyra, how will she be able to prevent a looming tragedy, the accident predicted by her latest trances?

Like Richard Peck's book, Three Quarters Dead, reviewed above, Trance is character driven despite its high concept. The book focuses on Ashlyn's struggle to deal with her grief and to redefine herself. She tries to hide her trances—her fellow students think she's epileptic. Running seems to make her feel better, but then her track coach takes her off the team (supposedly temporarily) after she has one of her "seizures" at school.

In many recent YA paranormals, the main character's trouble accepting her magic/psychic powers and her role as a kind of savior figure rings false, but Ashlyn's worries feel all too real. Trance is nicely paced, alternating between Ashlyn's growing friendship with Gina, her efforts to be patient with her emotionally absent father and to track down her missing sister, and her cautious encounters with Jake, as well as her trances and their impact. Here's a sample of Ashlyn's voice:

My dad and I had a thing when we ran together—we didn't say a word to each other for at least the first couple blocks because that's usually how long it takes to work the kinks out and fall into your stride. When Michelle started running with me in his place, this was a hard habit for her to get used to. Michelle's a talker. For her, keeping quiet for two feet was a challenge, let alone for two blocks. The way she kept glancing over at me that morning, I could tell she wasn't going to make it that far. Sure enough, we barely reached the end of the block before she cleared her throat.
Ashlyn makes an appealing heroine. I really like Gina, too. She has troubles of her own, yet a spicy, sensible approach to life. The scenes involving the photo booth are a lot of fun, with Gina riffing on the absurdities of parents bringing in out-of-control little kids to get their pictures taken.

And then there's Jake, who's a real sweetie, can play the piano, and looks awfully good on a motorcycle!

These days, YA paranormals seem like they're a dime a dozen, but Ashlyn's story is compelling, while the use of trance writing and numerology is a fresh approach to the "teen powers" novel. Trance stands out from the pack, and I look forward to reading the sequel implied by the last few lines of the book.

If you like this one, I also recommend Meg Cabot's Haunted and 1-800-Where-R-You? series.

Linda Gerber is a writing friend of mine. She just happens to be a very talented writing friend!

Note for Worried Parents: Some of you might object to the psychic powers, numerology, and use of Tarot cards in

Friday, October 22, 2010

From Harry to Scary: Trends in MG Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Wear a little garlic. Carry a couple of amulets. Be nice to black cats. Come closer and see...

EXHIBIT A—As Harry Potter and his friends grew older, Voldemort gained power and the books got darker, with more of a horror vibe.

EXHIBIT B—A girl named Bella and a vampire named Edward fell in love, causing the hearts of teenage girls (and their moms, plus some romantical guys) to go pitter-pat.

EXHIBIT C—Neil Gaiman reenacted the British invasion in children's books: his Coraline was made into a movie, causing some children to have nightmares about the buttons on their clothes. Then The Graveyard Book won the Newbery Award.

EXHIBIT D—If you cruise the shelves of YA (Young Adult) literature at your local bookstore, you just might find that approximately 2/3 to 3/4 of the new books are teen paranormal, mostly with romance involved. [Mini-waves: (1) vampires, (2) werewolves, (3) sneery/urban fairies, (4) ghosts/psychics, (5) zombies, (6) angels/demons, (7) unicorns/pegasi. I suggest we try hauntingly misunderstood sphinxes and moirae next.]

EXHIBIT E—If you cruise the shelves of MG (Middle Grade) literature, not only will you see a lot more paranormal these days, reflecting the YA trend at a slightly slower pace, but you will discover that some of the fantasy has been infused with paranormal, like a leak of dark blood into an unsuspecting little pond.

Not that MG fantasy has always been sweetness and light, by any means. As Diana Wynne Jones satirically puts it in The Dark Lord of Derkholm, an awful lot of fantasy books feature some variation of a Sauron or a Voldemort.

Even so, I would argue that more and more, today's MG fantasy contains elements borrowed from the paranormal or horror side of things, creating what's sometimes referred to as "dark fantasy." (Thank you, Neil Gaiman, AKA The Dark Lord of Minneapolis.) And then there's the fact that high fantasy has fallen out of favor. At the same time, low fantasy is definitely on the upswing. (Thank you, Rick Riordan. That would be the guy who's living in a cloud-shrouded penthouse just above the Empire State Building.) We can see a snapshot of these trends by looking at a year's worth of titles recently nominated for the Middle Grade Sci-Fi/Fantasy Cybils Awards*:

—Low fantasy (42)
—Paranormal/horror (23)
—Traditional or high fantasy (21)
—Science fiction/dystopian (17)
—Historical fantasy (9)
—Anthropomorphized animals (8)
—Time travel (5)
—Steampunk (5)
—Other/hard to categorize (4)**
—Superheroes and supervillains (2)
—Magical realism (2)
—Urban fantasy (1)

Please note that of the 21 "traditional" fantasies, relatively few are completely traditional. They are all set in imagined worlds, often of the pseudo-medieval European variety, but they're a motley crew. About a third of them are partly tongue-in-cheek or flat-out spoofs. Two books are adventures without any magic at all, though the worlds are invented. A few more are hybrids of one sort or another. There are only 9 or 10 books I would consider classic or high fantasy—the kind that evokes J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings a little or a lot.

EXHIBIT F—By way of providing still more non-statistically-significant-yet-intriguing evidence, I'll mention that I caught a glimpse of the MG Sci-Fi/Fantasy listings on Publishers Marketplace the other day, and most of the new books bought for publication over the past year were either paranormal, low fantasy, or dark fantasy. Again, there was only a smattering of books that might qualify as traditional fantasy.

EXHIBIT G—Even the covers seem darker, with a lot of bruised-looking black and blue, also some bloody red and oozy green.

Of course, many children's fantasy books are actually a mix of subgenres. For example, consider Rise of the Darklings (The Invisible Order, Book One) by Paul Crilley, which I'm currently reading. It's set in Victorian London, but a London inhabited/invaded by fairies, and not the nice ones, either. There's a horror element reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere here, with Jenny Greenteeth and Black Annis devouring a boy on page 54. For purposes of my little survey, I classified the book as historical fantasy, but it could also be defined as urban fantasy or as dark fantasy.

Take a look at the bleak, shadowy tone of other fantasy titles from the past five years: e.g., Charlie Fletcher's Stoneheart, Chris Wooding's Storm Thief, or N.D. Wilson's 100 Cupboards. For that matter, what about Adam Gidwitz's upcoming book, A Tale Dark and Grimm? And, speaking of Grimm, let's move on to EXHIBIT H. Check out the flap copy for Inkheart author Cornelia Funke's latest MG fantasy, Reckless:
Beyond the mirror, the darkest fairy tales come alive....
For years, Jacob Reckless has enjoyed the Mirrorworld's secrets and treasures.
Not anymore.
His younger brother has followed him.
Now dark magic will turn the boy to beast, break the heart of the girl he loves, and destroy everything Jacob holds most dear....
Unless he can find a way to stop it.
If you're looking for happily ever after, you've come to the wrong place.
That last sentence pretty much it sums up. It's as if a bunch of children's fantasy books sat around getting depressed, while the wind rose and the sky grew dark and rain streaked the window with fear....

Admittedly, thousands of books over the years have defied description, let alone ready classification, which is one of the nice things about books. Nevertheless, the human mind likes patterns (see Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point), and I think it's safe to state that high fantasy is currently out, while low fantasy and dark fantasy are in. The present popularity of paranormal goes without saying! Today's kids seem to like reading about main characters like themselves, contemporary children who must deal with magic and the supernatural either in their ordinary lives or just off the edges of those lives. And a lot of young readers get a kick out of being scared, at least within the safe space of a book.

But what about those other subgenres on the Cybils list? I agree with the reviewers who've been pleased to observe that more science fiction has been written in the past few years, after a long drought. One type of science fiction that has really taken off in YA and is spilling over into MG is dystopian fiction, as exemplified by Suzanne Collins's bestselling book for teens, The Hunger Games. (This trend is easily linked to contemporary fears both nationally and globally about a dark future, by the by. Looking beyond the Meyer-Gaiman Effect, we might argue that dark fantasy and dystopian fiction powerfully represent the generalized anxiety disorder of our time.)

Urban fantasy seems to be a better fit for YA and adult fantasy, though Lesley M.M. Blume's Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins, and Other Nasties: A Practical Guide by Miss Edythe McFate certainly gives it a good shot.

Some kidlit bloggers have remarked that the supposed rise of steampunk reflects a hankering on the part of grown-ups rather than an actual interest on the part of young readers, and I think they're right. Comparatively few of today's kids are into Victoriana and oversized windup toys, frankly.

Historical fantasy is basically a variation of low fantasy, featuring seemingly ordinary children who are beset by magic. It's just that they live a few hundred years ago instead of in contemporary New York or Los Angeles or Tokyo. Time travel is a closely related subgenre, naturally—or perhaps unnaturally. I suspect that broadly speaking, kids may be a bit less interested in historical fantasy than in low fantasy because some tend to feel like they're getting a history lesson when they read these books. (I know, there's some amazing historical fantasy out there! But it may not be the first thing certain kids reach for.)

Another oddster category in SFF is magical realism. I think this is another one that fascinates literary adults more than it does children, but maybe I'll change my tune when someone writes a really stunning MG novel fully implementing this technique. Because hey: Subtlety, thine age is not 10. But I've seen various agents hopefully requesting magical realism, so we'll see what happens.

While a handful of writers have tinkered with superheroes and supervillains in MG fiction, the characters often feel like they took a wrong turn looking for the door to Marvel Comics. However, I firmly believe somebody's due to write something really astonishing in this niche of SFF.

What is the next trend? Besides those sphinxes and moirae, that is? Well, this might not be a trend so much as a request, but I do think we're still waiting for a really good fantasy featuring kids from somewhere like South America, Southeast Asia, or the Middle East—one that isn't just a travelogue, but that implements a specific culture fully into the narrative without poaching or condescending.***

And then there's the world no one's imagined yet... Which is exactly the promise of fantasy, the thing that keeps SFF fans of all ages coming back for more.

Now, we might ask, are the current trends in middle grade sci-fi/fantasy good or bad? The answer is, both. Trends throw their weight around, influencing acquisitions decisions. As a fantasy author who really likes fairy tale retellings and tongue-in-cheek princess stories, I find myself wondering whether I should be writing the next great MG paranormal instead. Yep, the pressure's on!

Then again, the trends are good in the sense that they have refreshed the genre. Any genre needs to be continually reinvented in order to stay strong and surprising. Even though new trends eventually grow stale, their initial effect is to shock readers in a pleasing way, smacking them awake like the chainsaw-grade alarm clocks I read about in the news last week.

Just don't expect a lot of epic fantasy to be published for young readers in the next few years. And don't be surprised to find a touch of chill seeping into your low fantasy!

*If you count the nominees, then add my numbers and discover I'm off by one or two, don't be shocked. But I think I'm pretty darn close. All of the book covers shown above are from the Cybils nominees list.

**In "Other," I included two collections of legends, a book about a guardian angel, and one that was absolutely everything but the kitchen sink.

***See Cynthia Leitich Smith's interview with Tu Book's Stacy Whitman for more thoughts on the potential for multicultural fantasy. Thanks to Charlotte's Library for the link.

Note: You might want to check out our discussion last March at Enchanted Inkpot about
trends in children's fantasy.

Update 10-24-10: Charlotte's Library also shares the news that British fantasy writer Eva Ibbotson has died. In a recent interview Charlotte links, Ibbotson comments on the trends that are the focus of this post. We read: "The current trend for more shocking stories in children's literature surprises [Ibbotson]. In her own childhood, books were a comfort; an escape route from her "pillar-to-post" existence... [Ibbotson states,] 'My impression is that the writing has got better and better but the books have got darker and darker. I don't know what I think about that, being so addicted to making children happy.'"

Update 10-27-10: Kim Aippersbach of Dead Houseplants has written a post about her thoughts on this issue, "Darkness in Children's Literature: How Much Is Too Much?" Apparently the darkening of children's books was addressed by a panel at the recent Surrey International Writing Conference. Aippersbach suggests that even the darker books should include an element of hope.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Review of April and Esme: Tooth Fairies by Bob Graham

I'll admit that I wanted to get ahold of this book partly because I have a picture book about the Tooth Fairy pending publication (waiting, waiting, waiting for an illustrator!), and I wanted to check out the competition. But that reason is secondary to a really important one, which is that April and Esme: Tooth Fairies is by Bob Graham. In case you aren't familiar with his work, here's my review of his beautiful book How to Heal a Broken Wing. I also like Graham's "Let's Get a Pup!" Said Kate—and not just because the girl is named Kate and the mom has a tattoo and a nose ring. (Trust me, they're the sweetest characters!)

Now, April and Esme Underhill are the children of Tooth Fairy parents, living in a tiny house nestled against a tree stump. Imagine seven-year-old (and three quarters!) April's surprise and joy when she gets a request for a tooth pick-up, her very first. What's more, she's going to bring her little sister Esme along. At first her parents say no, but they gradually come around, and the two girls are off on a splendid adventure, carrying a coin in a mesh bag as they fly across the countryside and into the suburban home where one Daniel Dangerfield is sleeping. They make the money/tooth exchange, though not without incident, then wing home in triumph.

This story is pretty simple, but it's just so lovely, and there are two reasons for that: first, Bob Graham's text shows a rich awareness of how real people, especially real children, talk and act. For example, April gets the tooth request on her cell phone, and when she hangs up and her dad asks what the call was about, she replies, "Don't say anything, Daddy... We're collecting a boy's tooth tonight, and I have to write this down." Later, when she and Esme reach Daniel's house and are wondering where his room is, they decide their best bet is to follow the trail of toys. Look also for a funny moment in Daniel's grandmother's room.

The other reason April and Esme is so very nice is Graham's endearing artwork. It's hard to believe his illustrations can be so darn cute without being overly sentimental. Watch for mundane yet clever details: the teeth swinging from the ceiling of the Underhills' cottage, the way Mrs. Underhill takes a bath in a (human sized) teacup and plays a game with her winged children using her blow dryer, also the fact that the toilet is apparently made from an egg cup. (I think the sink is a thimble.) As always, Graham's characters are sturdy and ordinary looking, though here they have the minor addition of wings. Even the family dog has fairy wings!

Graham understands that real life is just a bit grungy, so his cover art, while it shows the two little girls flying through the night above some flowers, includes a popsicle stick and a soda can tab amongst the dandelion leaves and grass. Plus the kids' clothes are slightly mismatched and askew.

This small team runs into a surprising difficulty during the tooth retrieval, but April handles things with perfect logic and even panache. Upon their return home, the two fairy children are greeted with lots of hugs, and we get a hint about the eventual fate of the teeth that have been collected. Graham makes an interesting decision on the last page: he ends the story with a wistful, wide-angle glimpse of the little cottage dreaming on its hill. The language in this brief epilogue sounds like something out of a fairy tale... Which only makes sense.

I think what I like best about Bob Graham is how lovingly he portrays families—and what loving families he portrays. Whether they're adopting dogs, rescuing hurt pigeons, or flying around at night collecting baby teeth, this author-illustrator's families somehow manage to be more warm and caring than the families in all the other picture books combined.

You really should discover Bob Graham's work.

A Review of Bink and Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee

I don't always buy books straight off of blog reviews, but I have to say, Betsy Bird of Fuse #8 raved about this one in a far louder voice than you'll generally hear in her more enthusiastic reviews, and I was dying to see what all the fuss was about.

So, wow: she's really, really right!

This is the best team of lovingly mismatched friends since Frog and Toad; or, leapfrogging (heehee) to more recent standouts, since Elephant and Piggie. But why stop there? Starsky and Hutch, step aside. Oscar and Felix, forget it. You've got to meet Bink and Gollie!

Bink is a short, dandelion-haired girl, certainly the more sloppy and impulsive partner in this little duo. She looks like she's about 6. Gollie is much taller, built on Olive Oyl lines, and appears to be somewhere between 8 and 10. Gollie is more elegant in her speech as well as her appearance, and her statements are sometimes misunderstood by Bink, who lacks the vocabulary or even the syntax to follow Gollie's more erudite pronouncements. Yet Gollie clearly appreciates Bink's enthusiasm and loyalty. In fact, when these authors tell a tale of jealousy, it's the more reflective and mature Gollie who turns green, not passionate Bink.

Here's how we first meet the twosome, presented split screen. Each is wielding a cell phone—Bink on a chair with a jar of peanut butter nestled between her crossed legs and a sticky spoon in her other hand, Gollie lounging on a couch reading a book even as she talks:
"Hello, Gollie," said Bink.
"What should we do today?"

"Greetings, Bink," said Gollie.
"I long for speed."

After a page turn, Gollie adds, "Let's roller-skate!" Then we see the girls on a bench putting their skates on. Gollie sits up, lacing her skates neatly, while Bink lies on her back, tackling her laces with great and semi-effectual concentration.

I should note that, like Frog and Toad, Bink and Gollie live in their own homes, with nary an adult in sight. We don't see the houses till page 15, when we discover that Gollie lives in a Streamline Moderne tree house, while Bink lives at the foot of the same tree in a cottage that appears to have been built by the architectural firm of the Three Little Pigs.

Easy reader Bink and Gollie is divided into three episodic chapters. In the first, "Don't You Need a New Pair of Socks?" Bink buys a pair of "outrageously bright socks" that offend Gollie's sensibilities.
"Bink," said Gollie, "the brightness of those socks pains me. I beg you not to purchase them."
"I can't wait to put them on," said Bink.
The situation soon turns into an epic battle involving pancakes. Naturally.

In "P.S. I'll Be Back Soon," we learn that Gollie has her own share of imagination. She is playing a game where she chooses a country from a globe and then explores it—in her living room. ("'The finger has spoken,' said Gollie.") A note on her door addressed "To whom it may concern" warns that she is unavailable right now. Bink proceeds to knock on the door. The notes get increasingly firm, and so does Bink's determination to enter the premises and see what her friend is up to.

In "Give a Fish a Home," Bink brings home a goldfish. She's so enamored of her new pet that she doesn't notice Gollie's towering three's-a-crowd jealousy. Which starts off like this:
"Bink," said Gollie, "I must inform you that you are giving a home to a truly unremarkable fish."
"I love him," said Bink.

This book is not for the very beginning reader. It is closer to the reading level of Frog and Toad, and some parents might object to the inclusion of "big words" like "inform" and "unremarkable." I would argue that 6- and 7-year-olds will get into the spirit of Gollie's personality and will learn some cool new words while they're at it. In fact, kids that age often get a kick out of knowing "big words." Besides, the context carries the narrative along, aided concisely by the illustrations.

The success of Bink and Gollie is just as dependent on Tony Fucile's amazing artwork as it is on its DiCamillo-and-McGhee-crafted language. Much of the art is rendered in black-and-white (emphasis on the white), but the two girls and their clothes and the occasional detail are presented in color. You could argue that this approach hints that the setting is somehow imaginary, but why spoil things? I prefer to believe it's just a way of highlighting our main characters. And they deserve highlighting, if only for their apt and personable facial expressions.

I'll admit, my humor runs to the wry and dry, which is what's going on here, but I have trouble imagining the reader—young or old—who won't enjoy getting to know Bink and Gollie one way or another. The contrast between the two girls, coupled with their obvious affection, is heartwarming without being a bit schmaltzy. I highly recommend this book.

Update: See also Jules's post at Seven Imp, which shows more of the artwork.

A Review of Animal House by Candace Ryan

I've been so caught up in the middle grade and YA books I've been reading, I confess I've gotten behind on my picture book reviews. Here's a goodie that came out this summer.

Animal House is an intelligent picture book, designed for smart little cookies who like wordplay. In the context of verifying a homework excuse—a "vulchair" ate the narrator's homework—teacher Mrs. Nuddles comes to visit and discovers a house made of animals, not to mention portmanteau words.

If most of us were to sit down and try to invent these things, I'm guessing we would come up with three or four, but Ryan's inventiveness is astonishing: she's got a hampster to put the laundry in, a boarway to walk through, a microwave (note the word "crow") to cook with, and a back perch (the fish) to sit on, to name just a few.

Mrs. Nuddles runs a-fowl of Jeremy's household and needs rescuing, but she eventually takes the entire school class on a field trip to a mooseum, getting into the spirit of things. The plot here may be of less interest than the wordplay, which will make teachers itch to design a language lesson.

Check out this sample page:
Jamie left the skink running, and it knocks Mrs. Nuddles up toward the sealing. The chandeldeer tries to catch her, but his antlers get stuck in the sealing's whiskers.
Luckily, one of our armapillows comes to her rescue.
"Why, thank you," Mrs. Nuddles says, straightening her dress.

The artwork will help young readers explore which animals are meant by each term in the text, as some are a little harder to figure out than others. Illustrator Nathan Hale is probably best known for his work on Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack, two graphic novels by Shannon "Not His Wife or Even His Cousin" Hale. Here he uses a style halfway between cartoon and realism, with a wink and a nod. Incorporating some of these animals into the walls and furniture must have been a bit of a challenge, but Hale pulls it off smoothly.

After reading the book, your kids might want to design their own houses, whether they incorporate animals, toys, monsters, or robots.

I can't decide which features of Ryan's Animal House I like best... probably the "windodo" and the "harecase." But, as depicted by Hale, Jeremy's mother's "zebras" (ze-bras) made me laugh the most!

Now, I've mentioned that books, like movies, tend to come out in surprising waves. It certainly isn't enough to constitute a trend, but I will note that Jon Agee's picture book, Mr. Putney's Quacking Dog, also came out this summer and features portmanteau creatures. Only his book uses a question-and-answer format, lacking the narrative or the house context of Ryan's. The two would obviously make a nice pairing. I'm guessing second and third graders would be the best audience for Animal House, as well as for Agee's book.

(I was going to try to create an animal portmanteau word out of "review" for the post title, but all I could think of was "emu" and then I got stuck. Kudos to Candace Ryan!)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Linda Gerber's Trance Blog Party

This is a linky kind of week for me--now my writing friend Linda Gerber is featuring me on her blog in connection with her book launch. Look for Trance in bookstores this week! Here's the book description:

Ashlyn Greenfield has always known when bad things are going to happen. Each time that familiar tingling at the back of her neck begins, she knows what's to come--a trance. She's pulled in, blindsided, an unwilling witness to a horrible upcoming event. But she's never been able to stop it--not even when the vision was of her mother's fatal car accident. When soulful Jake enters Ashlyn's life, she begins having trances about another car accident. And as her trances escalate, one thing becomes clear: it's up to her to save Jake from near-certain death.
So, as part of Linda's blog party to celebrate the publication of Trance, she's running the numbers (of a fortune-telling sort) for various guest authors, and I'm one of them. Link through to read my magic numbers and my response, tying them back to my writing.

And yes, I'll review Trance here in a few weeks, after I get my copy! In case you aren't familiar with Linda's work, she's the author of the "Death By" YA mystery/suspense novels: Death by Bikini, Death by Denim, and Death by Latte.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Impossible Quests

Okay, I really need to work on revising my current work in progress, an MG fantasy, so I will not be posting any reviews this week. I will tell you about a cool project I'm involved in, though: I have a story included in the upcoming fantasy anthology for grown-ups, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress XXV, edited by Elisabeth Waters. The story is called "Impossible Quests," and it's about a prince and a princess (both of the warrior variety!) who meet up after being sent on quests by people who are really hoping they won't come back. It's essentially tongue-in-cheek, like my Runaway books only more so.

Anyway, author (and fellow contributor) Jonathan Moeller posted an interview with me on his blog yesterday, the first in a series of interviews with contributors to the anthology that will be appearing every Thursday for the next few months. There's a very brief excerpt from the story if you want to take a look.

I don't see the anthology on Amazon yet, which is weird, since all of the previous volumes are there. I'm guessing it will show up shortly. Meanwhile, here's the web address for the publisher, Norilana Books. The anthology will be out on November 15, 2010.

Note: Book cover image shown is from the ARC and is subject to change.

Update: I checked with the editor, and she says the book won't be on Amazon till the publication date. In the meantime, you can check out the list of contributors and stories at this page on the Marion Zimmer Bradley site.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A Review of Museum of Thieves by Lian Tanner

This new fantasy is something of a parable, which can be a didactic choice. But Tanner mostly gets away with it, thanks to some colorful world building and equally colorful characters.

In the city of Jewel, people are so worried about the safety of their children that kids are basically leashed, hooked to the Blessed Guardians by day and their parents by night with fine silver chains. (The harassed children have invented what they call fingertalk for communicating with each other). If children misbehave, they are chained more severely, in heavy Punishment Chains. When children reach the age of twelve, their chains are unfastened. Think of the chains as training wheels, preparing kids for sensible behavior. Only—how awful!

But just as Goldie Roth is on the brink of freedom in the public ceremony known as Separation, conducted by the city's kindly Protector, another official called the Fugleman bursts in with news that his office has been bombed and a child hurt. It is decided that Jewel is unsafe, and the Separation is canceled. Goldie, whose silver chain has been replaced by a white ribbon for the ceremony, can't bear the thought. She impulsively cuts the ribbon and runs away.

Her parents are jailed in the House of Repentance for what she has done, and if Goldie is caught, she will be placed in a reform school called Care. Before that can happen, though, she is taken in by the odd crew of the seemingly decrepit Museum of Dunt—admitted only after they have happily concluded that she is a thief!

Author Tanner plays with the idea, never mentioned, that museums are filled with artifacts stolen from their former resting places. She does introduce alternate ways of looking at the idea of a thief. As an older museum keeper named Olga Ciavolga explains:
"I do not wish to glorify theft....But there are some things, child, that you should steal. That you must steal, if you have enough love and courage in your heart. You must snatch freedom from the hands of the tyrant. You must spirit away innocent lives before they are destroyed. You must hide secret and sacred places."

And so Goldie starts learning the mysteries of the museum, assisted by a begrudging boy named Toadspit, the other three keepers, and a terrifying yet loyal dog called a brizzlehound. She discovers that the museum contains more than it seems, including swamps and lands and hidden places, and that even its exhibits are in disguise. The museum not only shifts its rooms around, but must be kept quiet and happy, or else it will let its darker contents out into the city. (The place is partly a Pandora's box!) Goldie begins her training to be a museum keeper, which means learning to be a special kind of thief. In one of Tanner's best passages, the girl studies the three kinds of concealment: Concealment by Sham, Concealment by Camouflage, and Concealment by Imitation of Nothingness.

Meanwhile, the Blessed Guardians are hunting for Goldie, helped and directed by the Fugleman, who is one of those handsome smiling villains. The Fugleman wants to take over the city, and he sees the mysterious museum as a means to that end.

I was left with a few minor plot questions unanswered, but the story flows nicely and comes to a full stop (which I appreciate), while still leaving room for Book Two in the Keepers Trilogy, City of Lies. Goldie is a determined, courageous main character, and you'll no doubt enjoy watching her make her escape and defeat the bad guys in Museum of Thieves.

This book reminded me of Roderick Townley's The Blue Shoe, another clever fantasy with the feel of a parable (here's my review). I'm probably being unfair to let the messagey aspect of these books bother me even a little... The truth is, like The Blue Shoe, Museum of Thieves is a lively adventure, a nice start to a new fantasy trilogy for middle grades.

Note: Your kids might want to try the online Museum of Thieves game, linked here.

A Review of The Witches' Kitchen by Allen Williams

A lot like the museum in Lian Tanner's Museum of Thieves (reviewed above), the kitchen in Allen Williams' book is a sprawling, crawling land of monsters and surprises. But I guess that's what you might expect from a witches' kitchen!

Our story begins with a wonderful in medias res scene as two witches prepare to drop a struggling toad into a cauldron bubbling with a spellful brew. Only it's not really a toad, or not just a toad... With a little unexpected help from a bird made of bones, the Toad escapes into the depths of the Kitchen, where she finds both new threats and help.

For example, an odd creature called Jack (short for Natterjack) offers to accompany her on her journey as she attempts to find her way out of the Kitchen, and a fierce little sword-wielding fairy warns her against a monster in a seemingly quiet well. The creatures in this book would fit nicely in a Fellini film or a Hieronymous Bosch painting; author Williams creates a nightmare grotesquerie to populate the Kitchen landscape. For example, here's the monster the fairy tells the Toad to watch out for:
A serpentine Form ran beneath the water into the darkness above, covered in reptilian scales that shimmered with a dull bluish glow, which was the only reason that she could still see its upper body, which stretched far above her, beyond the normal range of her night sight. At its midsection, it became segmented like an insect and at the intersection of each segment there was a long thin pair of arms ending in a single wickedly sharp barb. At the top, there were two longer, stronger arms.
These did not have hands...they had meat cleavers.

Ig-trolls, demons, skeletal birds, a giant dreaming man who has become both a landmark and an oracle—Williams has created an amazing dark world through which the Toad must navigate. The fact that all of this takes place in a kitchen just adds to the surrealism. And of course, the Kitchen tends to shift and change shape.

Then every so often, we get a chapter which shows us what the two witch sisters are doing as they search for the missing Toad and try to complete their spell. Think of the aunts from James and the Giant Peach, only with magic, and you've got a pretty good idea what Serafina and Emilina are like. (One of the more subtle touches in this book is the way the witch sisters interact with each other.)

Early on, it is obvious that the Toad is under a spell, so it shouldn't surprise you that she not only exhibits unexpected magical powers, but has a history which she eventually recovers. In the meantime, there are battles to be fought and evasive action to be taken.

The Witches' Kitchen feels a little inconsistent, occasionally bogging down in explication. But it is definitely innovative, and many of the details and adventures in the Kitchen make this book worth the read. As a bonus, it has appropriately ghoulish illustrations scattered throughout, also created by the author.

I've noticed lately that more and more children's fantasy is being colored by the flood of paranormal hitting the market. In other words, the fantasy being written today, even for middle grades, feels darker, more horrific, and more perilous than much of the fantasy that was written for past generations. The Witches' Kitchen supports my theory: it's part fantasy, part horror story. Of course, it's essentially a quest tale, and our Toad makes it through in one piece, if not precisely the piece she started the book with. (And I just noticed Amazon is calling this a book for teens!)

Like so many fantasy books today, The Witches' Kitchen ends with a hint of things to come. I have to admit, I'm curious to see what Williams will do with these characters next. Will he take them back to the Kitchen, or create a broader, even stranger world for them?

Note for Worried Parents: This is kind of a scary book, and the pictures may give a timid reader nightmares. That said, the Toad doesn't ever really get hurt, surviving the many threats against her. Her friends also escape relatively unscathed, though some minions and monsters are not so lucky. The Witches' Kitchen has definite boy appeal, with its hideous creatures and fight scenes. It's labeled YA, so it's basically intended for readers ages 12 and up, but I could see some 10- and 11-year-olds reading it happily.

Also: I requested this review copy from the Amazon Vine program.

A Review of The Wyverns' Treasure by R.L. LaFevers

This author may be best known for her Theodosia Throckmorton books, but I'm beginning to take quite a shine to her series for younger readers, Nathaniel Fludd: Beastologist. More than anything, it's great to see a solid new fantasy series for the second grade crowd. It's a reading level dominated by the Magic Tree House books, which I find a little bland.

The first two books in this series are The Flight of the Phoenix and The Basilisk's Lair. Nathaniel Fludd is the son of famous explorers who have disappeared and are presumed dead. (But are they really?) His new guardian, Aunt Phil, is so intrepid that her expectations for Nathaniel often fill his timid heart with fear. But somehow, he manages to survive the adventures he's thrown into, especially once he learns that his family is responsible for studying and preserving the world's great mythical beasts. (Nice environmental protection theme there!)

Unfortunately, someone is working against Nathaniel and his aunt, a greedy man from an outcast branch of the Fludd family who also seems to be searching for the mythical creatures, but for nefarious purposes. As The Wyverns' Treasure begins, Nate and Aunt Phil return from their latest adventure, only to discover that their house has been ransacked. Next they receive word from Wales. The wyverns, a kind of dragon, have been living quietly in hiding on the basis of a covenant made with human guardians, but now they're rising up in anger, threatening to fly out and terrorize the countryside. It sounds like that horrid Fludd cousin Obadiah might be causing this new trouble, too. So Aunt Phil and Nate set off again, hoping to calm the wyverns and catch the culprit.

One thing I like about this series is how the author very solemnly presents us with zoological information about the beast in each book. She uses existing information drawn from myths and legends, then builds on it logically, adding further details. For example, Aunt Phil gives Nate a handful of new pennies and tells him to use them to distract the younger wyverns, who like shiny things and are too young to know that they shouldn't take a bite out of a human found wandering through the caverns where they live.

Aunt Phil's near-foolhardy nature makes a nice contrast to Nathaniel's nervousness. It doesn't take a close read to see Indiana Jones in Aunt Phil, especially since these stories are also set in the 1930s. Nate is a kind, appealing boy who keeps trying despite his fears. One of LaFevers' most entertaining characters is Greasle, a gremlin (borrowed from slightly more modern lore, i.e., a famous Twilight Zone episode). Greasle lives on planes, eating oil and spare parts—or sometimes not-so-spare parts. She becomes Nate's sidekick, though Aunt Phil keeps threatening to get rid of her. Here's a passage in which Greasle catches a pigeon, hoping to eat it:
"Stop!" Aunt Phil called out. Nate and Greasle froze. "Planes, trains, and motorcars aren't enough for you? Now you're going to eat my messenger as well?"
Nate and Greasle stared at her blankly.
"That's a carrier pigeon. With a message. See?" She pointed to the small pouch strapped to one of its feet. "Let it go," Aunt Phil ordered.
Greasle scowled. "I caughts it fair and square."
"Now," Aunt Phil said in her most stern voice.

This series offers fun, adventurous fantasy for younger readers, with the storytelling enhanced by Kelly Murphy's cheery illustrations. They're slender books—The Wyverns' Treasure is 154 pages, including Nate's glossary at the back. But that just makes them a more accessible read for their intended audience. I can happily recommend the Nathaniel Fludd: Beastologist books to kids who have run out of Magic Tree House books and are wondering just what to read next!

Note: Visit the author's website for more information.

Also: I requested this review copy from the Amazon Vine program.