Saturday, January 29, 2011

Thoughtful Picture Books You've Never Heard Of

I have a shelf in my library that's just for the sort of picture book of which reviewers tend to write, "This might appeal more to adults than children." Or at least, for the kind of book called "quiet," the kind for thoughtful children: philosophical, contemplative books. And because I'm in a contemplative mood myself, today I thought I'd share a selection of such books. (Some of them are out of print, just so you know.) I'll match up the ones with similar themes.

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird, by Jacques Prévert, illustrated by Mordecai Gerstein

The first book is not actually in my house at all. I loaned it to a 17-year-old student who is doing an art project about birds and is using it for visual reference (along with half a dozen other picture books about birds!). Gerstein, author/illustrator of the more familiar The Man Who Walked Between the Towers and the recent metafictive work, A Book, has got to be one of the most creative people in picture books today, right up there with Emily Gravett. Here he has taken a poem by a French surrealist poet and made it into a stunning picture book about creativity, art, and hope. A boy artist tries to capture a bird in his painting—literally. The bird is alternately a muse, a work of art, and a kind of friend. The boy is patient in a way that few children are, but it's not a bad idea to present young readers with the possibility of such patience.

To Everything There Is a Season, Ecclesiastes (The Bible), illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon and Turn! Turn! Turn!, Ecclesiastes (The Bible) and Pete Seeger, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin

These two books are celebrations of that beautiful passage in the Bible about the changing seasons of life. Halperin specifically bases hers on Pete Seeger's lyrics, which are drawn from Ecclesiastes. Each of her watercolor illustrations is presented in a circle, evoking the mandala as well as the circle of life and other classic seasonal imagery. And each circle is broken into smaller illustrations that reflect the verses on the page. This is the kind of book where you sit and look at each part of each spread, commenting together with a young reader or just thinking by yourself.

Much as I like Halperin's take on the famous words from Ecclesiastes, I have no qualms about saying that Leo and Diane Dillon's book is even better—though perhaps less kid friendly. Well, unless you have an older child studying art history. No, really. The Dillons illustrate each couplet with a different art style from around the world. There's a nice annotated list at the end of the book explaining all this. Suffice it to say that they include everything from Inuit stone-cut art to shadow play from Thailand, from Russian icon paintings to Japanese woodcut. (No Impressionism here, but Europe is represented. The spread shown above, which you will no doubt guess is inspired by Egyptian art, illustrates "A time to be born and a time to die.") It's all very beautiful and inspiring in a way I can't even explain. Just try to get your hands on this book!

The Little Stone Lion, written and illustrated by Kim Xiong

This is a simple book written in the voice of a small stone lion who is the guardian spirit of a Chinese village. He speaks in measured tones of his role protecting the village. And—that's about it. But there's a good feeling to this book, which is quietly upbeat in spite of being illustrated in dim, nearly monochromatic tones. While it's not exactly a hot addition to your children's book collection, there's just something nice about this haiku-like book. If you like rock gardens and classic Asian poetry, take a look at The Little Stone Lion.

Thank You, World by Alice B. McGinty, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin; Homeplace, by Anne Shelby, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin; and Love Is, 1 Corinthians 13 (The Bible), illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin

Hmm. I hadn't realized how many of these were illustrated by Halperin! Actually, I don't have Love Is, but it obviously complements Turn, Turn, Turn, listed above. Thank You, World has a sort of Good Night Moon rhythm as a child's voice expresses thanks to things like the sky, the sun, and the grass. What makes this one really great is that each spread is accompanied by art showing children in eight different countries around the world: the U.S., Mexico, Bolivia, France, Mali, Saudi Arabia, India, and China. So we see how the kids interact with whatever is being thanked in the text. (Pair this book with Jeannie Baker's Mirror.) A great choice for showing children that kids around the world do and care about the same things.

Shelby and Halperin's Homeplace tracks a house through generations of the same family somewhere in small-town America. The house gets additions, and so does the family as members come and go, love and grow. Halperin creates a feel of ordinary intimacy with her watercolor artwork. It's one of the coziest books you'll ever read and is also an excellent introduction to ideas like heritage and the passage of time.

The Fox by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Ron Brooks

I was reminded of this book when I saw it on a blog list of best Australian picture books while participating in the Comment Challenge a few weeks ago. There are times I'm not sure I even like this book, but it's gorgeous in a brooding, brutal way. Aesop's fables meets YA dystopian fiction—that's the tone here. You know those YA novels where the girl has a nice relationship with the boy next door, and then she is seduced away by the false promises of a hot bad boy, only to learn that he is using her and go back to the first boy, emotionally damaged by her experience? It's that story, only with friendship instead of romance. Plus the boy is a dog and the girl is a magpie. Oh, and they are both crippled and help each other with their disabilities. Then there's Fox, whose hunger has envy and malice in it. The artwork is brilliant, but sort of scary, all blacks and oranges and a touch of blue. Even the text is written by hand in a rough, apocalyptic style. The title character himself is the most stunning incarnation of "fox" you'll ever see, his oranges blazing across the duller backdrops. The author, aptly named Margaret Wild, sets up a sweet little scenario of friendship and then proceeds to destroy it. And yet, the last page leaves us with a flicker of hope.

This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeon, illustrated by Olivier Tallec

This is actually a book about defining poetry, or a book showcasing a poem about poems, but it doesn't really matter because the story is a happy meander through a world where various neighbors, relatives, and even canaries are willing to pause in their work (or their singing) to take a stab at defining poetry, all because a boy is asking. And he is asking because his goldfish is sick, dying of boredom. One of my favorite couple of lines in the book is his mother's response to the problem: "—Hurry, give him a poem! And she leaves for her tuba lesson." There's also a quiet humor to the way the boy replies to each definition of "poem" he's given: "—Oh...? Okay." There's a bit of metafiction going on as the boy puts all of the definitions together into a poem about poems which he recites to his sick fish, but the fish has a response of his own, giving the book's ending the kind of twist you expect to find at the end of a good poem. Of course, the definitions are tiny poems in their own right. They'd make a good writing prompt; you could have kids write their own definitions of what a poem is and create a class poem. Here's an example from the book, the canary's definition: "A poem is when words beat their wings. It is a song sung in a cage." The canary's name is Aristophanes. Of course.

The Weaver by Thacher Hurd, illustrated by Elisa Kleven

I like both Hurd and Kleven, and while I don't know if this book quite works in some ways, it makes me smile because it's lovely and symbolic and expresses a great fondness for the world and all the people in it. The author and illustrator envision a young girl in a red dress high up in the sky who weaves our days—the beauties of nature, each smile and moment—then sort of flings them over the world into being. Pragmatic children may question the concept. But there's a nice feeling to this book, and I think it makes a very soothing bedtime story. The Weaver quietly emphasizes the way all of us share the same world.

I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, and
I Am Cherry Alive by Delmore Schwartz, illustrated by Barbara Cooney

Okay, maybe you've heard of these two. Both are written in a child's voice, and some might argue that they're a little self-conscious that way. On the other hand, I think both of them do a good job of capturing the joie de vivre of childhood. Krauss's book is just a ramble of dreams, beginning with words that seem ordinary but gradually lead us into the world of the imagination: "I want to paint my bathroom blue—my papa won't let me paint it blue—once I painted a rocking-chair blue and it was pretty. I want to paint my kitchen yellow and my sitting-room white with turtles and all my ceilings green." The dreams then move off in a new direction, and then another. It's slight, and it ends rather abruptly, but it moves readers into a place they might not otherwise go, a place Harold might have created with his purple crayon. Instead of a story starter, this book is a dream starter. Sendak's illustrations, as always, are just right.

I Am Cherry Alive is a proclamation of uniqueness, far more convincing than the stuff generated by hopeful self-esteem movement types. Its words are heartening, and the illustrations are just plain pretty. The book begins: "'I am cherry alive,' the little girl sang./Each morning I am something new./I am apple, I am plum, I am just as excited/As the boys who made the Halloween bang:/I am tree, I am cat, I am blossom too." Besides Krauss and Sendak's book, try pairing this poem about a child imagining herself to be any number of things with Don and Audrey Wood's Quick as a Cricket. Or with Sendak's Really Rosie.

Switch on the Night by Ray Bradbury, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, and
The Boy and the Cloth of Dreams by Jenny Koralek, illustrated by James Mayhew

Bedtime stories are a dime a dozen, and Mercer Mayer's There's a Nightmare in My Closet is the quintessential book for soothing kids who are frightened of the dark. But here are a couple of unusual, touching books that address the same issue. Switch on the Night is Bradbury's one and only picture book, first published in 1955. Whichever editor chose the Dillons to illustrate this new edition was a genius (1993, with a reprint in 2004). The book tells the story of a little boy who is afraid of the dark. When night comes, he turns on every light in the house. And he is still scared of the night, lurking outside. Then a little girl named Dark comes and points out that the boy isn't switching off the light, he's switching on the night. She introduces him to the beauties of the night, and he goes outside and plays with other children who are there enjoying a moonlit romp. (You might want to pair this one with The Moon Jumpers by Janice May Udry, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.) Of course, a lot of people don't let their kids play outside after dark these days, except maybe in the backyard. But the book still works, especially when the boy and his new friend figure out that switching on the Night also means switching on the crickets, the frogs, and the stars. Here Bradbury's text really begins to soar, overcoming a certain didacticism. The book is further elevated by the illustrations, some of the Dillons' most stunning ever.

The Boy and the Cloth of Dreams is a sort of allegory, yet it works as a story. What's really marvelous is that the illustrator created a real "cloth of dreams" for the jacket and endpapers, framing his watercolor narration. When the story begins, a small boy (he looks about five) tears the cloth of dreams his grandmother made him—a very special blanket. When she first spread it over his cradle, she said, "It will keep the dark night things away...but only, of course, until he is big enough to forge his own courage." Now, when the boy wakes with nightmares for the first time ever at his grandmother's house because the cloth is ripped, he must seek her help. But instead of simply comforting him, she explains that he must go to the top of the house by himself and fetch the threads of moonlight and sunlight that she needs for mending the blanket. This book is a quest book, a fairy tale, and a story about growing up, all within a very small space. When you read it, you'll appreciate why the tone of the text is slightly elevated, like the storytelling of a Homer or a Tolkien. The illustrations are rich and mythical, dark and mysterious, yet touched by gold. It's no surprise that The Boy and the Cloth of Dreams was one of the New York Times best illustrated books of the year in 1994.

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer by Walt Whitman, illustrated by Loren Long

I suspect mostly grown-ups would appreciate this book, in which Walt Whitman's poem is brought to life by Loren Long's artwork. The poem is small, the narrative slight, and the paintings rather dark. And yet—what a wonderful poem. What elegantly effective illustrations. Perhaps a slightly older child will appreciate the meaning of the moment captured by this book, in which a young boy accompanies his parents to hear a lecture by an astronomer and winds up going outside to just look at the night and the stars. There are a couple of nice touches here. For one thing, Loren Long adds spot illustrations of rocket ships and stars done in pencil by his own young sons on the white pages bearing the text opposite the deeply colorful narrative paintings. And I like the Einstein quote included on the last page. (Pair this with Billy Collins's poem, "Introduction to Poetry," perhaps.)

This is a good book to end on, with the image of a boy looking up at the stars alone, thinking and dreaming. Because, much as I love a rowdy story like The Three Little Pigs or No, David!, sometimes it's best to go slow, and to let your imagination find its own path. Perhaps one of these books will help you—and your young reader—to do just that.

See also my Amazon Listmania list, "Simply Beautiful Picture Books."

Note for Worried Parents: The little girl in I Am Cherry Alive is very innocently nude in a couple of the illustrations, e.g., when she goes swimming in a pond. And, as I explained above, The Fox is awfully dark in tone for the picture book crowd. Perhaps older children would enjoy reading and discussing it.

Update: Thanks to Tabatha for this link about an award-winning short film based on the same poem Gerstein used, To Paint a Portrait of a Bird.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Review of Small Persons with Wings by Ellen Booraem

All you other MG fantasies out there, beware: this is the one to beat in 2011! Funny, poignant, and original, Small Persons with Wings carves out an instant niche for itself in the world of children's literature.

Mellie Turpin is the first-person narrator, explaining that she still hasn't lived down her kindergarten humiliation as the girl who claimed she had a fairy and then couldn't prove it. Fidius had played with her endlessly—until she said she wanted to take him for show-and-tell. Then he disappeared, leaving her to face the wrath of a class full of five-year-olds who soon came up with a nasty nickname for chubby Mellie: Fairy Fat. To top things off, Mellie's artistic parents, who had seemed to accept Fidius's existence as real, called him her imaginary friend when questioned by the horse-faced school counselor. Under the weight of so much betrayal, Mellie told herself sternly that there was no such thing as fairies and retreated into the world of facts. She dedicated herself to earning straight A's and became a minutiae-spouting know-it-all, especially with regards to numbers and art history. For years she continued to be bullied by the other kids, still called Fairy Fat.

Now 13-year-old Mellie's parents have received word that her dad's father has died and they have inherited his old inn. The Turpins move there, planning to renovate the inn and sell it. Only once they arrive, things get weird fast, beginning with the introduction of one of the book's most marvelous characters, a fairy named Durindana. Mellie is in the pub part of the decrepit inn when she sees something fall out of the chandelier. As she gets a closer look, she panics:
No, no, no, not again not again notagainnotagainnotagain...
...Options: (a) Unfreeze, run out the door; (b) Count the bricks in the foundation; (c) Both of the preceding options; (d) Stomp on her, just in case.
There's never a school counselor around when you need one.
Eventually Mellie realizes that the fairy is terrified of her and, um, drunk. Looks like Durindana has been into grandpa's liquor! She starts babbling in French, but eventually switches to English, calling Mellie a "warm dolt." (The Parvi are very chilly to the touch, capable of leaving freezer burn on human skin.) In talking to Durindana, Mellie finds out more about the fairies, enough to realize that her parents have known about them all along! Mellie storms off to confront them. She's just spent eight years being bullied and forcing herself to worship facts, and for what? "All the time I'd been counting stuff and organizing stuff and keeping King Kong under control, I could have been reading Roald Dahl."

Mellie's parents confess that the Turpin family has a long tradition of sustaining the Parvi Pennati or "small persons with wings" (apparently they hate being called "fairies"). While she stews over that one, the police chief who lives next door shows up with his son Timmo in tow. He's suspicious about Grand-père's death. Mellie wonders if Timmo might become a friend, but quickly rejects the idea: she's been treated too badly to believe that's possible.

Next a strange woman named Gigi who says she's the real estate agent comes along and pokes her nose into things, obviously using some kind of magic to get people to do what she says. Gigi doesn't seem quite human, though Mellie can't figure out why. After that the entire SPWW tribe moves into the inn's pub, which they redecorate using illusion in a French Baroque style to rival Versailles. Timmo finds out about the Parvi and gets roped into the subsequent adventure involving a missing ring that holds part of the diminutive tribe's magic. But Gigi wants the ring, too. And the grandfather clock on the second floor of the inn just won't shut up...

The portrayal of the Parvi as a sort of madcap miniature version of the French court is hilarious, but the real heart of this book is Mellie. She's prickly, she's stubborn, she's soft-hearted, and she's very real, not to mention a wonderful narrator. Here's another excerpt:
Left temporarily to myself, I wandered down to look at the Bishop's Miter Pub, which I'd never been alllowed to see. I stood out on the sidewalk for a minute, enjoying the fresh air. A freckled kid about my age came out of the regular two-story house next door and started walking over. Oh great, I thought. Animal life. He was pretty scrawny, but he looked to be my age. His light brown hair was longish and straightish and flipped out at the ends like a misshapen ski hat.
The boy, Timmo, is another solid character, as are Mellie's parents, who are surprisingly nice. (Booraem has said she did this on purpose. She was tired of all of the terrible parents in children's literature!)

In addition to the humor, the adventure, and the magic, Small Persons with Wings has a strong anti-bullying theme. Mellie is the main victim of bullying, but if you count carefully, I think you'll find that there are four more victims in this book. Yet Booraem doesn't let her story get bogged down by her theme, instead weaving it naturally into the narration. And she has the good sense to show how Mellie changes in her response to bullies rather than simply punishing them or removing them from Mellie's orbit.

About the only thing I found distracting were a few passages explaining the different types of Parvi magic. Otherwise, the book flows beautifully. The missing ring is found and turns out to be capable of conveying the truth to people and destroying all illusion. Only, as the author points out, would that really be such a great thing? Magic starts flying fast and loose, with Gigi menacing everyone and more than one plot twist to keep readers guessing.

There's also a lovely idea about Mellie "growing into her grandeur" that I know you'll like. So find this book. Read it. And stop using the F word. Because obviously, the correct term is "small persons with wings"!

Also: Check out the interview with Ellen Booraem at The Enchanted Inkpot!

Note for Worried Parents: This is a book for middle grades. I will mention that one of the tricks the bullies play on Mellie is to put a tampon in her back pocket as she goes up to solve a math problem on the board. So there are a couple of references to that. Then we get some drinking by both fairies and by Mellie's grandfather, who is an alcoholic and needs to get help.

A Review of Cloaked by Alex Flinn

I haven't read Flinn's second fairy tale retelling, A Kiss in Time, but I did read Beastly, which is about to come out in movie form. That one had such a fun premise, making the Beauty and the Beast prince a spoiled contemporary rich boy. Cloaked, on the other hand, is more of a fairy tale mash-up, with plot points borrowed from The Elves and the Shoemaker, The Frog Prince, The Six Swans, The Golden Bird, The Valiant Tailor, The Salad, and The Fisherman and His Wife. (A handy author's note explains all this!)

Our hero is a boy named Johnny who lives in Miami and works in a shoe repair shop inside a fancy hotel. Like his good friend Meg, he's part of a family business that's barely making ends meet. Unlike Meg, he's interested in seeing the genuine princess who's coming to stay in the hotel.

Victoriana is a gorgeous party girl with a sort of French-sounding accent and all the money in the world, so why would she take the least bit of interest in Johnny? Well, she wants his help. Apparently her brother has been turned into a frog by a wicked witch, and he was last seen heading for Florida. But Victoriana's political enemies are keeping a close watch on her, trying to force her to marry a prince from a rival kingdom, and she can't continue the search herself. She needs a nice, ordinary boy with a heart of gold. She needs a hero! (Cue old song from Footloose soundtrack...)

Oh, and the princess offers to pay Johnny. And even marry him! Since he and his mom are not doing at all well financially, he agrees. But he hides what he's doing from his friend Meg, since she'll think he's nuts if she finds out he believes in fairy tale curses.

Using a magic traveling cloak, part of the equipment Victoriana gives him, Johnny hits the road. He is more or less assisted by six swans and a fox, all of whom used to be human. A lot of funny dialogue from sarcastic enchanted animals ensues, after which the bad guys start chasing Johnny.

Eventually Meg does get in on the action, which is just as well. She seems a lot more savvy than sweet Johnny!

I had a little trouble buying this one for some reason. It's a fairly busy book, and I didn't find all of the subplots convincing. For example, a subplot about Johnny's desire to be a premier shoe designer didn't quite work for me, though I'll admit it's a clever idea. And there's a subplot involving Johnny's father, and one about Meg's secrets. Plus we have those swans to deal with, along with a couple of giants in the Everglades and some mixed-up romance.

The fact that Meg likes Johnny (and he likes her back but hasn't figured it out) is telegraphed from miles away. It's sort of amazing that the boy doesn't get a clue a whole lot sooner. Then again, Johnny is easily snowed by a villainess posing as a hot girl, so his blind spot about girls' intentions is apparently a character trait.

At any rate, Cloaked is an exuberant story, and kids who like fairy tale retellings will probably get a kick out of it. Like Beastly, it has a male protagonist, which is also nice. Pick it up and see what you think!

Note for Worried Parents: This is a book for teens, but it doesn't have anything particularly objectionable in it. A little kissing and some mild teen boy conversations about wanting to connect with beautiful girls in bikinis; that's about it.

A Review of A True Princess by Diane Zahler

In her debut middle grade novel, The Thirteenth Princess, Zahler retold the story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Now she tackles The Princess and the Pea. As in her earlier book, she takes the basic premise and runs with it, fleshing it out with additional subplots. Our story begins with a girl named Lilia who decides to run away from home. A foundling, Lilia has been raised by a shepherd. While he and his two children, Kai and Karina, love her, the man's second wife does not. Yes, it's a wicked stepmother!

But she's only the initial villain of this piece, quickly left behind. Lilia hits the road, bringing along the blanket that was wrapped around her when she was discovered floating down the river. She is surprised but heartened to find herself accompanied by fellow runaways Kai and Karina.

The children meet some noble strangers at an inn, one of whom, a handsome young man in a blue cloak, seems attracted to pretty Karina. When he and his friends learn that the three are headed toward their own northern kingdom of Dalir, they offer the travelers advice, as well as a sword for protection. Their most important warning is to avoid the Elf-King and his daughter. And if Lilia and her siblings run across Odin's Hunt, they must cover their eyes or they will die. Even so, encountering the hunt will mean that their lives will change in a big way.

Sure enough, as the kids travel through the forest, they are attacked by bandits and get lost. In an encounter with the Elf-King, they end up forfeiting Kai, but at least Lilia is able to make a bargain for perhaps regaining him—along with other human captives, a group of changeling children. And of course the girls manage to run into Odin's Hunt before leaving the woods!

Karina and Lilia next make their way to the palace at Dalir, where they find work and meet the noble strangers yet again. It seems the prince is looking for a bride, and each supposed princess who comes to visit must spend the night in a mysterious room. On a hunt of their own, Lilia and Karina decide they have to search that room...

Lilia is a courageous girl, especially in her determination to save Kai and the changeling children. Karina is quieter, but makes a nice best friend for Lilia. The tone of this book is cheerful and even funny; one amusing touch is a pamphlet owned by one of the palace maids called How to Tell a True Princess. Its tips provide the chapter titles for Zahler's book, mostly presented in tongue-in-cheek opposition to the events of the story: "A True Princess Does Not Eavesdrop," "A True Princess Does Not Perform in Public," "A True Princess Moves with Measured Grace." And so on!

I also like the inclusion of a helpful brownie-type character called a nisse (from Scandinavian folklore, also known as a tomte). He's gruff, but he comes through for Lilia and Karina when they're dealing with the Elf-King.

The plot is predictable at times and relies on a couple of coincidences, but A True Princess is still a fun, fast-paced read, a happy addition to the growing canon of fairy tale retellings. You will no doubt enjoy seeing how Lilia puts the famous pea in a decidedly secondary role in this adventure with a touch of romance. I recommend the book for 9- to 11-year-old girls who like fairy tales and intrepid heroines.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Springy Giveaway

Hi all! I have given away copies of my MG fantasy books every so often here at Book Aunt, but I haven't given away a copy of my picture book for some time. And it has a spring/rejuvenation theme in there somewhere...

So leave a spring comment in the next (almost) two weeks, by midnight on February 1, and then I'll draw names and send an autographed copy of The Secret-Keeper to the winner. It's an original folktale, which I know very well is a contradiction in terms, but I suspect you know what I mean, right?

Anyway, in your comment, please share either a spring thought or a happy secret, i.e, something nice you haven't mentioned to anyone else yet. It can be something small like "The bush out front is starting to bloom" or something upbeat like "Passed a kid on the street today who gave me such a great grin and a hello as he went by." (Now, I'm in L.A., and I realize spring isn't there quite yet on the East Coast and in certain other parts of the world, but you can look forward to it with your comment!) Of course, you can always recommend a spring-appropriate book as an alternative.

Do be sure you're reachable, whether by your regular link or an e-mail address or by checking back on February 2nd. Thanks!

(And yes, I ship prizes internationally. I hate to leave anyone out.)

Note: Jacket art and illustrations in general were created by the wonderful Heather M. Solomon.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Bloggers Recommend...

One of the benefits of hanging around in the blogosphere, and particularly Kidlitosphere, is that it's one giant book club (like Goodreads, only—more focused and interrelated, I suppose). Which means that some of the books I read are a direct result of other bloggers' reviews and recommendations. Here are three such books I've read in recent months, two old and one new. I wish I could tell you who recommended them, but alas; I have no idea. In two of the three cases, I do recall that the books were the subject of talk on more than one blog, which was what got my attention. Whereas Whelan's book was a solitary jewel.

Shakespeare Bats Cleanup by Ron Koertge (2003)

I know, I know, everybody but me read this book and the sequel a long time ago! But just in case you haven't, I'm here to tell you why you should. Shakespeare Bats Cleanup reminds me a little of Love That Dog by Sharon Creech in tone and style, which is a darn good thing. This novel in verse is about a 14-year-old baseball player who gets mono and is stuck at home for weeks. Normally blasé about his writer dad's work, Kevin is bored enough to tinker with poetry, even sneaking a book on the subject out of his father's office. He ends up keeping a poetry journal in which he experiments with form even as he experiments with thoughts about his life. When Kevin goes back to school and his first love, baseball, he keeps writing, chagrined but secretly pleased to find out that he's hooked on poetry. And there's also a girl he likes...

Check out this sample of Kevin's poetry. I forgot to tell you how funny his thoughts about poetry are, and how much the humor tells us about this kid!

How Do You Do, Haiku

I thought I'd start small. I kind of
remember haiku from school last year.
I at least remember they're little.

But, man—I never saw so many frogs
in the moonlight. And leaves. Leaves
all over the place.

Weren't there any gardeners in ancient
Japan? Weren't there any cats and dogs?

Still, haiku look easy. Sort of. Five
syllables in the first line, seven
in the second, five in the third.

Frogs, frogs, frogs, frogs, frogs.
Frogs, frogs, frogs, frogs, frogs, frogs, frogs.
Frogs, frogs, frogs, frogs, leaves.

Very funny, Kevin.

At least I finished it. I can't finish anything
else, except my nap. Seventeen syllables
is just about right for somebody with my
reduced stamina. Perfect thing for an

Oh, man! Look at that: in valid. I never
saw that before.

Just a single space
in a word I thought I knew
made the difference.

Stylistically, the free verse in Koertge's book may seem simple, even too prosy. But there's a definite music to it, and it's the music of character and voice. Which is actually a pretty stunning accomplishment. Note, for example, how the line break after "I can't finish anything" and before "else" mirrors the content both beautifully and with comic effect. The rest of the line breaks in that stanza do something similar, leaving us with a clear and ironic picture of how frustrated this active boy is by his illness.

And finally, Kevin's thoughts about haiku and the power of "just a single space," then rendered in a haiku (indented in the original), presents a deeper thought about the form than most poetry classes teach, yet without losing the narrator's young voice. The book would obviously be a great tool for teaching 6th-10th graders about poetry forms.

Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs is the sequel, also very good. If you, like me, are one of the few people who hasn't read these books, I suggest you hurry to the library or bookstore and remedy the situation!

Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan (2005)

The year is 1919, and a girl named Rachel Sheridan is living with her missionary parents in British East Africa when the influenza epidemic sweeps the planet. Her parents work hard to save lives in their medical clinic, but both end up contracting the illness and dying. What will become of Rachel? Well, her neighbors, an arrogant British couple, have an idea. They had been planning to send their daughter to her wealthy grandfather in England to try to ensure that she inherits his estate when he dies—which, frankly, they believe will be soon. But Valerie Pritchard dies in the epidemic, too, and Rachel looks a lot like her... Soon Rachel is caught up in the Pritchards' deception, on her way to visit her "grandfather" and feeling very bad about the whole thing. But there is no one to care for her, and certainly no one to support her dream of keeping her parents' clinic open. So she bids farewell to her native friends and hopes for the best.

There's a bit of a Secret Garden feel to this story, but it still manages to capture a period in history, as well as what it would be like to suddenly have your entire life turned upside down. Rachel's clear first-person voice is matter-of-fact, yet poignant, as she wonders what to do in an untenable situation. Her love for Africa is a contrast to the Pritchards' dislike of the place, just as her love for the people her parents serve is a contrast to the Pritchards' racism and snobbery.

One of the nicest thing about the grandfather in England is that he is an avid bird watcher, and he enlists Rachel/Valerie to go out and watch birds on his behalf now that he is too ill to leave the house.

As you might guess, the Pritchards get their comeuppance and Rachel finds her own way, but this relatively simple story is such a nice little book that I really recommend it.

(If you like it, you might then look for Eva Ibbotson's Journey to the River Sea, which features an intrepid young orphan who falls in love with the Amazon region, in contrast to the attitude of her uptight British guardians.)

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins (2010)

This one's more recent, published just a few months ago, and it's unabashedly a YA romance about a girl who goes to school in Paris and falls for a French boy. But I think you'll find, as I did, that it isn't just another fluffy romance: Anna and the French Kiss is a pretty good boarding school drama and has some solid character development as Étienne St. Clair falls for Anna but tries to pretend it isn't happening because of his loyalty to his longtime girlfriend.

What's enjoyable about this book is seeing how Anna deals with things like her homesickness and her awkwardness at not being able to speak French as well as the other students. (She doesn't order a real breakfast for a couple of weeks because she doesn't know how to ask for the dishes.) Author Perkins builds a nice little cast of characters who befriend Anna and deal with their own troubles. Of course, there's also a gorgeous mean girl with minions! But despite some predictable elements, Anna and her friends feel very real. At times you may find yourself thinking, "Why doesn't this boy just dump his girlfriend and date Anna officially?" Yet the interactions are melodramatic in a believable way, if you're a teenager or know anything about teens.

It helps that Perkins leavens her story with humor. For example, Anna worries about not being French-cool, about wearing the wrong clothes, especially white sneakers. But she gradually realizes that people are still just people in Paris, and she even learns to speak some French.

Subplots about Anna's best friend and her sort of boyfriend back home, as well as Étienne's troubles with his parents, further complicate the book and the growing relationship between the two main characters. We get to know her a lot better than we do him, but by the end of the book, he does seem like more than just a pretty face. Overall, a theme about growth and risk-taking suits the story's romance as well as its premise about immersion in a strange culture.

Pick this one up if you're in the mood for a little romance, not to mention a little France!

My thanks to the bloggers who have recommended these three books, along with so many other great reads. In a small way, this post is my tribute to them.

Aha! It's all coming back to me... I think I was inspired to read Anna and the French Kiss after visiting Random Musings of a Bibliophile. Thanks, Brandy! Here's her review.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Amelia Bloomer Project

Okay first, I'm very pleased that my book, The Runaway Dragon, made this list of recommended titles for 2011. And second, the whole list is a great resource. Best of all, it's annotated.

In case you've never heard of the project, here's how it's described on their blog:
Welcome to the Amelia Bloomer Project blog! We create an annual booklist of the best feminist books for young readers, ages birth through 18. We are part of the Feminist Task Force of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association!

So take a look at the list—you know you want to!

Photo of Amelia Bloomer borrowed from the project blog. This nineteenth-century American feminist was the inspiration for the word "bloomers."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Announcing the Winners!

And once again, the Newbery committee baffles everybody... No, really, the ALSC awards were just announced, and as promised, there were a few surprises. Though in my opinion, the Newbery winner does fit a certain profile: realistic fiction, often historical, and not a book in a series. (Think Criss-Cross, Kira-Kira, The Higher Power of Lucky, etc.) Here's a partial list of the award winners.

Newbery Award: Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Newbery Honors: Dark Emperor by Joyce Sidman (poetry collection), Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, and Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm

Caldecott Award: A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin Stead

Caldecott Honors: Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick with illustrations by Bryan Collier; Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein

Printz Award (teen/YA): Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Printz Honors: Stolen by Lucy Christopher, Nothing by Janne Teller (translated by Martin Aitken), Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick, and Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

Geisel Award (early reader): Bink and Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile

Geisel Honors: We Are in a Book! by Mo Willems and Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same by Grace Lin

Coretta Scott King Award: One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Pura Belpré Award: The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Edwards Lifetime Achievement Award: Terry Pratchett

Random Thoughts for Your (Possible) Edification:

--One Crazy Summer was much talked about for the Newbery win and didn't get it, but the book is still an astonishing winner overall, garnering a Newbery Honor, the Coretta Scott King award, and the Scott O'Dell award for historical fiction this year.

--Jennifer L. Holm has one of the hottest careers in children's fiction. This is her third Newbery Honor award for historical fiction, after Penny from Heaven in 2008 and Our Only May Amelia in 2000, and she is also the writer of the bestselling Babymouse graphic novel series for middle grades with her brother, illustrator Matthew Holm.

--To no one's surprise, the Printz winners are all deep, dark, depressing books. But hey, if you're up for that, enjoy!

--Not one, but two of the winners for younger readers have metafiction themes: Interrupting Chicken and We Are in a Book!

--Fantasy didn't do so well this time around, unless you count the fact that YA winner Ship Breaker is dystopian science fiction. (Oh, and, as Charlotte of Charlotte's Library points out, Terry Pratchett is another fantasy star with his body-of-work award!)

--Picture book people are shocked that neither Art and Max by David Weisner nor City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems and Jon J. Muth got Caldecott recognition. But Willems did earn that Geisel Honor.

--Megan Whalen Turner's A Conspiracy of Kings was also overlooked. I'm guessing it got dinged for reading a little older and for being part of a series.

--The big coup here is that Moon Over Manifest is Clare Vanderpool's first novel. Go Clare!

For additional winners/the complete list, go to the ALSC website.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Graphic Novel Sampler

A lot of people are talking about how successful YA is right now and how picture books are on the downturn, but they're mostly referring to marketing and sales numbers—quantity, not quality. Despite some very cool individual titles, YA seems a little bogged down in cookie-cutter paranormal romances (sweeping generalization, I know!). The genre that is taking off and producing some really amazing stuff is the graphic novel, a variation on the comic book which tends to get attention for its reluctant reader appeal, but which should rather be fully appreciated as a burgeoning art/literature form comparable to the picture book. Not every attempt has worked, but I feel like a lot of the risk-taking in children's literature, creatively speaking, is happening in the graphic novel genre at this point in time.

I've read half a dozen graphic novels over the past month, many of them discovered thanks to other bloggers in Kidlitosphere. Of course, there were other standouts earlier in 2010, such as Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallero's Foiled or Shannon Hale and Nathan Hale's follow-up to Rapunzel's Revenge, Calamity Jack. Not to mention certain novels which were reimagined in GN form, e.g., Twilight. Here's a look at the graphic novels I've read lately.

Vögelein: Clockwork Faerie by Jane Irwin with Jeff Berndt

Steampunk meets the fey in this black-and-white graphic graphic novel about a small clockwork faerie whose protector dies, leaving her to wonder who will wind her up each day so that she won't die herself. But there's more to her quest than merely living or dying; she is a repository of memories going back more than a century, nearly to her invention by a German clockmaker. Flitting around a huge, dark city (New York?), Vögelein meets a homeless man and a potential human guardian who must prove his worth, as well as a real fairy who has become corrupted both by his long exposure to urban humans and by his hatred of them. We also get to hear a little of the clockwork faerie's history, including her travels with a gypsy and how she came to be more than just a wind-up toy. I thought the artwork could have included more setting details in spots, but the storytelling is intriguing. I also liked the poetry selections and quotes used at the beginning of each chapter. Clockwork Faerie will appeal to teen bibliophiles with an interest in fantasy and steampunk. The book is listed for 10 and up, but has an adult fiction sensibility that might make it best suited to older teens. Look for info about the sequel, Old Ghosts, at Jane Irwin's website.

The Clockwork Girl by Sean O'Reilly and Kevin Hanna

More clockwork! This book has pretty art, but the storytelling's awfully predictable. Start with two mad scientists—one into machines and one into organic monster building (reminiscent of Scott Westerfeld's Clankers and Darwinists). Wilhelm the Tinkerer has built a lovely little clockwork girl who eventually adopts the name Tesla, while Dendrus the Grafter has patched together a monster boy named Huxley (AKA Wolf-boy). The two scientists show off their work at a science competition (picture a science fair for grown-ups), where they exchange insults. From there we get a bit of a Romeo and Juliet feel as Tesla and Huxley make friends behind their creators'/fathers' backs. Turns out Wilhelm and Dendrus used to be best friends, and who better than their creations/kids to help them make up? A nice, full-color book for middle grades, but not outstanding. The story lacks heft and feels like a TV episode. Here's The Clockwork Girl website if you'd like to take a look.

Lunch Lady and the Bake Sale Bandit by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

The fifth book in Krosoczka's yellow-and-black series about a lunch lady who's secretly a superhero, aided by her own "Q" (Betty) and a trio of kids called the Breakfast Bunch. In this installment, someone steals the bake sale goodies which are intended to be sold to fund a field trip to a museum. (The field trip will be the topic of the next book.) The Lunch Lady books are aimed squarely at the second grade crowd and are consistently fun and funny. I especially like the use of kitchen implements and cafeteria food as weapons and spy devices. And if Krosoczka's books are kind of lightweight, well, they don't pretend to be anything else. Have your reluctant boy reader go through this very friendly series, after which he can move on to things like Ursula Vernon's Dragonbreath books and Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants series. The series has girl appeal, as well, with its female superhero! Link through to Jarrett Krosoczka's website here.

The Odyssey by Gareth Hinds (and Homer!)

Graphic novel adaptations of great literature tend to feel like thinly veiled attempts to get reluctant readers to tackle Shakespeare and his buddies for instructional purposes, but this one soars past all that and stands on its own merits as a beautifully gruesome piece of epic storytelling. It's a fairly mature work, and not just because it makes you watch things like Cyclops and Scylla devouring humans or shows you just what a bloodbath Odysseus's homecoming really was. There's also a little sex, though mostly not shown in the act so much as before or after (with naked breasts, for those of you who dislike seeing that). No, it's just that the language is kind of dense from a kid standpoint and the story has what we call mature themes. Yet this is a very reader-friendly version of Homer's epic poem, all things considered, and just flat-out beautifully done. The pacing is perfect and the artwork is, too, page after page after page of gorgeous. I especially like how Hinds presents the gods and depicts the sea. Next I'm looking for his graphic novel version of Beowulf. Take a look at Gareth Hinds's website here.

Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel

Oh my, another chthonic tale! Garth Hale is a kid with a terminal illness, but he's not in hospice yet and certainly not ready to cross over. Except that a jaded ghost hunter named Frank Gallows accidentally sends Garth to the underworld while trying to capture a runaway ghost horse. Garth makes friends with the skeletal horse and meets up with his very own grandpa, while Frank gets fired and launches a secret rescue mission with the help of his ghostly ex-girlfriend, Claire Voyant. Then there's an official rescue mission, not to mention the fact that the other side has been taken over by a sneery guy named Vaugner. I love how TenNapel divides the afterlife into districts ruled by beings such as the Bone King, the Mummy Pharaoh, the Will-O'-the-Wisp Queen, and the Specter King from the South. I also like his humor and his vivid visual storytelling. Don't miss the cameo appearance by Benedict Arnold, for example. Oh, yes, and the fight scenes, complete with superpowers and characters turning into buildings. This is a marvelous graphic novel, and I hope there's a sequel. Ghostopolis is listed as YA or grades 7 and up, but I think a lot of 4th through 6th graders would like it, too. Check out TenNapel's website here. Also, it looks like they're going to make this one into a movie starring Hugh Jackman, presumably as Frank Gallows. (For more stories of the afterlife, though not graphic novels, try Neal Shusterman's Skinjacker Triology, Jodi Lynn Anderson's May Bird and the Ever After and sequels, and Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin.)

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch

This graphic novel has gotten a lot of attention, and with good reason. It's set in a rural orthodox Jewish community—the time frame is unclear, but I guess that doesn't matter much. (One reviewer said it's contemporary, but it could just as easily be set in the early 1900s.) Originally a web comic with the provocative slogan, "Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl," Deustch's story is about Mirka, who lives with a slew of irritating siblings and a stepmother who's both irritating and wise and caring. Mirka really, really longs for adventure, and she gets her wish when she makes enemies with an angry talking pig, meets a witch, and then battles a troll in the apparently enchanted forest. Watch for the ways Mirka's culture is interwoven with the plot. Especially keep an eye out for knitting, not to mention Mirka's logic, which she apparently learned at her stepmother's knee. Aside from his obvious creativity, Deutsch's biggest success is the character of Mirka, who is very real and likable. Now, your average kid may not reach for Hereville, and I do think young readers would benefit from a little intro about Orthodox Judaism before launching into this book, but then they'll discover a great read. See the Hereville website for additional info.

Bonus Book: Not for kids, though! I also recommend the two volumes of James Turner's Rex Libris: I, Librarian and Book of Monsters. Very funny in a dry, off-the-wall way. Adventures of a square-jawed world-saving librarian with a noir sensibility. I suppose these are actually comic book compilations, though the lines between comic books and graphic novels are getting a little blurry these days. It becomes a technical matter of first being published in shorter installments. But then, that's how Charles Dickins worked, too!

Note for Worried Parents: As mentioned above, The Odyssey has gory violence and some references to sex.

Update (1-15-11): See also this 2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens list from YALSA, which I found thanks to a post at Kids Lit.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Cybils Shortlists and Other Listy Items

The 2010 Cybils nominees were announced today! In case you weren't aware, these are produced by a panel of Kidlitosphere bloggers who read something like a billion books and then try to balance that famous Newbery "distinguished" literary quality with the concept of strong kid appeal. One of my favorite things about the Cybils is that they include a graphic novel category. This is the 5th year for the Cybils and my first year as a judge. I'll be working on the shortlist for middle grade sci-fi/fantasy books to choose a single winner. Those titles are:

--The Magnificent 12: The Call by Michael Grant

--The Dead Boys by Royce Buckingham

--Dragonbreath: Attack of the Ninja Frogs by Ursula Vernon

--Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve

--Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

--Reckless by Cornelia Funke

--The Books of Elsewhere: The Shadows by Jacqueline West

In other list news, we have Betsy Bird's very fun Golden Fuse Awards for 2010 over at Fuse #8. And at the Heavy Medal Mock Newbery blog, Jonathan Hunt kindly corrals the books that have made some of those key "best of" lists into, well, a list! As in, which books have made more than one such list?

The buzzword for this year's award season is "wild card," which means, "Your guess is as good as mine." It also means that there are a lot of quirky books this time around, the best of them appealing in such different ways that the air is positively scented with apples and oranges.

But the standout title for a Newbery win so far is One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. I would be very surprised if it didn't get at least an honor award, and I would not be at all surprised if it won the coveted crown this year.

P.S. I am absurdly pleased that my Cybils nominee for YA Fiction, Watt Key's Dirt Road Home, made the shortlist! (Here's my review.)

Also: My picks for the Newbery? I'll say One Crazy Summer for the win, then tell you that the Honor books I'd most like to see are A Conspiracy of Kings, The Night Fairy, and Dreamer.

Update on 1-5-10: One Crazy Summer has now won the 2011 Scott O'Dell Award for best children's historical fiction of the past year.

A Review of Trickster's Girl by Hilari Bell

This book is going to make you want to get on a motorcycle and take a road trip to Alaska, which, coincidentally enough, is pretty much what the author did when writing Trickster's Girl (though maybe she drove a car).

Now, we've seen a lot of dystopian YA fiction over the past few years, but it doesn't often include fantasy elements. Bell comfortably marries a damaged human future with the mythological beings who want to make things better. Well, some of them do. The rest think it would be great if all of the humans thoroughly destroyed themselves.

Even though Bell's premise, set on our planet a century from now, at first glance seems environmental, it also includes terrorism: someone has unleashed a biological weapon that kills off trees as well as giving people a particularly powerful form of cancer, and its influence is slowly spreading northward from South America.

Raven, that ancient trickster, decides to save the planet he finds so entertaining, so he scrounges up an unwilling recruit to run the human side of the spells needed to heal various crucial power spots (having to do with ley lines and nexuses, if you know your sci-fi/fantasy tropes). Naturally, as the book begins, Raven disguises himself as a hunky teenage boy and infiltrates a high school, where he stalks Kelsa until she agrees to listen to him.

Don't mistake this for one of those current YA paranormal romances, though. You know, where the hot supernatural guy falls hard for an oh-so-ordinary girl who is his junior by a century or two and then spends the rest of the book alternately protecting her and making out with her? Right. This isn't that book.

So Kelsa isn't interested in what Raven has to say except—her father has died from the cancer and she is not getting along with her mother one bit. To help solve the problem that killed her father, she grouchily agrees to accompany Raven to just one place. Whereupon they break into a museum in the dead of night in order to steal a medicine bag. Again, not what Kelsa had in mind! Then Raven tells her he wants her to go on a road trip to Alaska on her motorcycle. The girl has no intention of cooperating at this point, but he cleverly argues her into it.

Of course, Raven is still withholding information, like the little fact that he has enemies, beings like himself who don't want the problem fixed. And those enemies have recruited humans to stop Kelsa. That's aside from ordinary problems like what to eat and dealing with flat tires and whether they will be able to cross the Canadian border without getting caught (in a world where DNA-based personal identity cards make it hard to do that sort of thing). Or the problem of Kelsa figuring out how to work a brand-new kind of magic when she doesn't even really believe in magic except that this irritating boy turned into a raven and back right in front of her to prove it.

Little by little, Raven and Kelsa succeed, and soon the enemies' efforts escalate, till it's not certain Kelsa will live, let alone finish her part of this task. It takes the last-minute help of another kid to pull off Kelsa's final defeat of her enemies, and then the magical torch is passed to that boy, a Native American who will be the main character in Bell's second book in the Raven Duet.

One thing I've discovered in reading Bell's previous books (Goblin Wood and A Matter of Profit, among others) is that she isn't interested in black-and-white storytelling. Bell goes for ambiguity and nuance whenever she gets the chance, e.g., in a discussion of faith healing and why Kelsa's father died. Those of you who feel that fantasy is too often morally simplistic will appreciate the complex humanity of her books, including this one.

Kelsa is not always cheerful or appealing and her motives are sometimes petty, but she hangs in there and gets the job done. I appreciate seeing that her grief for her father doesn't render her saintly; far from it, in fact. I also like Bell's version of the mythological trickster figure, whom she envisions as changing names and faces over the centuries, depending on what myths the humans create.

Setting is important in Trickster's Girl, both in a solid, functional way and in a spiritual sense. Here's a sample, as Kelsa is about to heal a glacier:

Like the glacier itself, the dip was bigger than it had looked from a distance. Kelsa stared curiously, for this shallow trench was nothing like the water-cut gullies and canyons she was accustomed to, just a slightly deeper groove amid hundreds of others the glacier had carved into the mountain's stone....
Kelsa could see nothing now but a wall of white curling away, for its top was far higher than her head. It didn't look very inspiring, but this dirty snowbank was just one branch of an ice field that could be seen from space, and that even now was carving away the peaks that towered around her.

The question arises: How well does Bell's blending of science fiction and fantasy work? I think she succeeds. The science fiction is simply an extension of our modern world, with slightly more sophisticated technology and believable social/political developments relating to terrorism and other concerns. The mythology is also extended, centered around Raven and a barely glimpsed pantheon of mostly Native American gods and nature spirits.

Trickster's Girl is a focused story compared to some of the cast-of-thousands books we've been seeing, in part because the quest/road trip format gives it a fairly linear shape. It doesn't have the over-the-top intensity of something like The Hunger Games, yet it has its own quiet kind of intensity. I think you'll find it's easy to get on that motorcycle with Kelsa and head to Alaska, attempting to heal a troubled Earth with the help of an unreliable mythological being.

Note for Worried Parents: There's some peril here, with motorcycle gangs and talk of guns and drug smuggling. Trickster's Girl is pretty wholesome, albeit mature. Its intended audience is teens.

This book is due out on Monday, January 3rd. I requested a review copy from the Amazon Vine Program.

Also: My interview with author Hilari Bell is now up at The Enchanted Inkpot.

A Review of Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences by Brian Yansky

Ah, a horror-comedy alien invasion book for teens! Just what you wanted to start off the new year, right? The Sanginians are a little goofy here, except for what they do to the humans. Lord Vertenomous and his people conquer Earth in ten seconds flat, saying non-apologetically of the billions they have killed, "I am sorry for your loss." The remaining humans, preserved because of their latent psychic abilities, are referred to as "product" and enslaved. Jesse is one such human, and he is the first-person narrator of Yansky's cheerfully odd new story.

Jesse is sitting in history class one day when everyone in the room but him "falls asleep." Jesse hears a message inside his head informing him that his planet has been conquered by "the greatest beings in the known universe" and that it only took ten seconds. His first thought upon hearing the voice is that he's losing his mind.

The world is conquered in ten seconds? Come on. Also, the voice itself isn't particularly scary. Not like the breathy, booming voice of, say, Darth Vader. It's more of a whisper and a little squeaky around the edges. In fact, I'm kind of disappointed that the imagination of my damaged mind couldn't do better. But then I notice what I've been too freaked out to notice before. No one is moving. Every single person, including Mrs. Whitehead, looks sound asleep. I feel a shadow over me then, and it practically knocks me off my feet. I struggle to breathe. I force deep breaths. Then I do what you do when people are sleeping at a totally inappropriate time and in a totally inappropriate place. I try to wake them. I shake Carlee Thorton, who is the best student in school and would never, ever fall asleep in class. I punch Jackson on the arm.
"Jackson, dude, it's me, Jess. Wake up," I plead. He doesn't....
I try my cell but it's dead. I go out into the hall and try some good old-fashioned screaming. No one screams back.
I'm all alone.
It's so quiet.

As the story progresses, Jesse is taken to work in Lord Vert's compound, where he cautiously makes a few friends among the other slaves and finds his own psychic powers growing to the point that he starts hearing another human's mental voice in his dreams. As Jesse loses some of his fear of his captors, he begins to plan an escape. The action ratchets up from there, as Jesse and a few companions do get away and the aliens use their technology to try to hunt down the missing product.

Yansky does some interesting things with the idea of colonialism that should bring to mind what European nations did in places like Africa and Southeast Asia in the nineteenth century. That is, in Sanginian society, sentience is measured on the basis of psychic ability. Anyone lacking that ability is considered an animal and can be killed without compunction. But when Lord Vert's people recruit human servants with a little psychic ability, their interactions prompt that ability to blossom. This means that a planet full of humans with negligible sentience is becoming a place with signs of greater sentience. The answer to Lord Vert's dilemma is, of course, to create a cover-up so that product-rights activists back on his home planet won't take up the cause of the humans on Earth. (Compare his decision to limit the evidence of psychic skills to the efforts of colonial Europeans to prevent native peoples from learning to read and write, which might indicate that they were as intelligent as their conquerors.)

We get the Sanginian point of view from Lord Vert's correspondence, mostly with his politically powerful and intimidating father. Because Vert is comically afraid of his father and of making bureaucratic screw-ups, it's easy to forget that Vert is himself very powerful, has personally committed genocide on a scale of billions, and uses the humans as slaves, including sexual slavery. If you take the time to think about it, this juxtaposition is a little jarring. But Yansky's point is a good one: we tend to imagine alien invaders as soulless monster-machines. Yet isn't there something even more terrifying about a rather ordinary personality with such power over others? A guy like Lord Vert, who happily justifies doing horrible things and then worries about what's for dinner?

The human point of view in Yansky's book is also poignant, as people who thought they were pretty independent and relevant are suddenly treated like animals. (Again, slavery and colonialism would have felt like that. Or the way Jews were treated by the Nazis.) As Jesse tells a fellow slave, a girl he's starting to like, "We matter." And she asks, "Why?"

Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences is fast-paced, often funny, and deeper than it seems at first glance, when it appears to be just another action-adventure tale. The book ends with a little group of human rebels in place as Jesse's powers take a surprising turn, clearly setting us up for a sequel. I hope that Brian Yansky can sustain his clever balance of humor, suspense, and even philosophy in the second book.

Note for Worried Parents: This isn't exactly a happy scenario, and Lord Vert has taken one human character as a concubine, a fact that, while it is never exploited, is quite clear (as well as necessary to the plot). A book for teens.

A Review of Pod by Stephen Wallenfels

Gritty-cool. That's the term I've decided on for Pod. This book pulls off what all kinds of alien invasion and action films have failed to achieve in recent decades: it's the ultimate sci-fi suspense thriller. All this without ever showing us a single alien—just their ships.

There are two stories in Pod as we follow a couple of kids whose lives implode when the aliens come. Josh, apparently a high school sophomore, is living a happy suburban life with his parents in a town near Seattle, only his mother is away at a medical convention in L.A. Then early one morning, Josh is woken by a horrible screeching noise and all of the radios and TVs in the house lose power. He and his father see a huge black pod descend from the sky. More pods descend, until they can be seen floating in every direction. Beams from the pods start to disintegrate all of the cars and trucks. Next the newspaper girl, who is running towards Josh, is gone in a flash of blue light as Josh's father holds him back from going out the door to help her.

Cut to Los Angeles, where twelve-year-old Megs is living a very different life from Josh. She and her mother have a car, but that's about it, ever since they ran away from the mother's abusive boyfriend. Megs's mom talks big, though it's pretty obvious she's making it on prostitution gigs. On this particular morning, she goes off with a man she's met, leaving Megs in the car, which is parked in a hotel parking garage. She promises to take Megs to Denny's when she comes back and blows her a kiss, telling her to lock the doors. Only not long afterwards, Megs hears a terrible screeching sound, and all hell breaks loose.

From there, we go back and forth from Josh to Megs, watching how they react to the situation in which they find themselves, now that anyone who goes outside will be disintegrated. In many ways, Megs's experience is the more horrific, since a group of thugs led by the chief security guard takes over the hotel and terrorizes the occupants under a pretense of creating order. Megs continues to hide in the parking garage, where she creeps from car to car, trying to find food and water. Unfortunately, two of the hotel thugs also come to the garage, looking for valuables in the cars. They become aware of Megs's presence, and she must play her already awful game of hide and seek even better. Megs has found a kitten, and even though she knows she probably shouldn't, she tries to keep it alive. Megs becomes more aware of how bad things are inside the hotel and even tries to help, especially after the kitten is captured by her enemies—whose preferred means of killing people is throwing them outside so that they will be destroyed by the alien pods.

Josh's troubles seem more subdued by contrast, but they are powerful in a quiet way. His father immediately starts worrying about water and supplies, becoming increasingly obsessive about counting every bite of food in the house. He and Josh bicker as they consider the future, if there is a future at all. And should they eat the dog? If it comes down to it, should they eat each other? This portion of the story slowly grows in intensity, made all the more horrifying as Josh sees what happens to the people in the apartment building across the street.

Yet in the midst of all this, animals can roam outside without being killed, which might lead readers to suspect that the aliens are pretty much against humans and their technology. (Various aspects of technology are destroyed along the way.) Are we talking ruthless environmentally concerned aliens?

At any rate, things get worse and worse for Josh and especially for Megs. Here's a sample of what it feels like to be Megs in the parking garage:
This is my new address:
Megs Moran
Level 6 Orange
Row J, Space 12
Los Angeles, California
Here are the directions. You go to Level 6 Orange—orange because all the levels have different colors. If you have kids, avoid the bloaters on levels 3 and 5. The smell is so bad they might puke. Find Row J—you can't miss it, there's a little brown Toyota truck at the front with muddy monster tires that Richie slashed. Walk all the way down to space 12, that's two cars up from the end. If you go too far you'll be staring at three huge spaceballs. I'm next to the White Ford Focus with dangling side mirrors (be careful not to step on the broken glass—there's lots of it). Knock three times on the trunk of the blue Volvo. I'll pop out like a weasel and say Nice to see you!—unless you're Richie or Hacker, in which case I'll scream my head off. Like I did an hour ago when I woke up from a dream about Richie cutting into the trunk with a chainsaw.
FYI, Richie and Hacker are the thugs who are looking for cash, guns, and Megs, AKA "the Parking Lot Pirate." "Spaceballs" are what Megs calls the pods. Bloaters are dead bodies, of course.

I said this is the ultimate sci-fi suspense thriller, but Pod is more than that. While most suspense thrillers tend to be more plot-driven than character-driven, here the suspense is all the more powerful because Josh and Megs feel so real and important to the reader, as do some of the secondary characters.

Although this book is easily classified as science fiction and is specifically an alien-invasion story, it is also a work of dystopian fiction. Only Pod takes place right when things fall apart. (See the author's ironic use of a Ronald Reagan quote at the beginning of the book.)

The kinds of threads Wallenfels leaves hanging at the end of Pod will make you really want to read the sequel. Even small details, like the brief exposure Josh has to one of the alien rays, though not the killing kind, make you wonder what might happen next. (Megs appears to have been exposed, too.) Besides which, we get a glimpse of how the two stories could eventually tie together.

I'll confess that Pod came out nearly a year ago, but I recently got around to reading it and had to wonder why I waited so long!

Note for Worried Parents: This is tough stuff, and not just because it's easy to infer that Megs's mother is prostituting herself. The alien invasion results in numerous deaths, and this somehow manages to pale by comparison to the misery and violence unleashed by the thugs who take over the hotel in L.A. Definitely a book for teens.