Thursday, May 26, 2011

First Lady's Advice on Reading and Writing

I was pleased to see that our president's wife gave a shout-out to reading and writing in a recent Q&A at a girls' academy, Elizabeth Anderson Garrett School. Better still, she emphasized revising!

Here's the quote, in response to a question about what she and her husband tell their daughters to encourage them in their studies:

Read, write, read, read. If the president were here--one of his greatest strengths is reading. That's one of the reasons why he's a good communicator, why he's such a good writer. He's a voracious reader. So we're trying to get our girls, no matter what, to just be--to love reading and to challenge themselves with what they read, and not just read the gossip books but to push themselves beyond and do things that maybe they wouldn't do.

So I would encourage you all to read, read, read. Just keep reading. And writing is another skill. It's practice. It's practice. The more you write, the better you get. Drafts--our kids are learning the first draft means nothing. You're going to do seven, 10 drafts. That's writing, it's not failure, it's not the teacher not liking you because it's all marked up in red. When you get to be a good writer, you mark your own stuff in red, and you rewrite, and you rewrite, and you rewrite. That's what writing is.

Monday, May 23, 2011

I Shall Wear Midnight Wins Norton

Let's hear it for the marvelous Terry Pratchett, who, as you may recall, won the ALA's 2011 Margaret A. Edwards award a few months back for his body of work as a YA writer. Now his fourth and final book in the Tiffany Aching quartet, I Shall Wear Midnight, has won the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

In case you missed this book, check out my review from last summer. And in case you've somehow missed all four books (perish the thought!), they are as follows: The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight. Set in the Discworld of Pratchett's adult comic fantasy series, these books star a pragmatic young witch who is trying to figure out how to best use her powers up in the sheep-raising countryside where she lives. (Guest-starring Granny Weatherwax, my favorite Pratchett character! I think you'll be pleased to find that Tiffany has a little Esme Weatherwax in her.)

In these books, while Pratchett's signature humor is present and accounted for, most often in the form of a tribe of little blue men called the Nac Mac Feegle, there is also some amazing character work, especially in his depiction of the yearning and fierce pride of a bright, unique teenage girl.

Update 6/6/11: Read this excellent interview of Sir Terry Pratchett by Jonathan Hunt of School Library Journal. Thanks to Betsy Bird at Fuse #8 for the link.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Review of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

It didn't surprise me to see that the jacket quote on this book is from Neil Gaiman, who says, "A glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian fairy tale, done with heart and wisdom." After all, Valente's book reads like a cross between Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Gaiman's own Coraline. (Which is ironic, since Coraline has been compared to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. But structurally, Valente's book is really much more Alice-like than Coraline is.)

In case you weren't aware, Valente is the writer of dark, beautifully strange and successful adult fiction, most notably The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden and Palimpsest. She wrote this, her first children's book, in a series of crowd-funded online posts, reminding me of the way her Victorian predecessor, Charles Dickens, first wrote his books—as magazine serials. Then The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making got its due by winning a 2009 Andre Norton award. In a publishing story for the 21st century, the book contract followed.

The book itself is mostly not 21st century in tone, except for an overall stylistic cleanness and a subtle tongue-in cheek feel. Valente's ornate approach and her love of props like smoking jackets and velocipedes hark to the steampunk subgenre (or "mythpunk," as she has half-jokingly called her work). In any case, when young September runs away from the dullness of washing her mother's teacups and playing with her family's "small, amiable dog," she does so with a fine heartlessness that the author informs us is typical of children:
One ought not to judge her: All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one. But, as in their reading and arithmetic and drawing, different children proceed at different speeds. (It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else.) Some small ones are terrible and fey, Utterly Heartless. Some are dear and sweet and Hardly Heartless at all. September stood very generally in the middle on the day the Green Wind took her, Somewhat Heartless, and Somewhat Grown.

Yep, there's an intrusive narrator commenting along the way. This technique sometimes backfires or is overdone, but here it feels completely of a piece with the rest of the Victoriana.

But on with our plot: A girl named September agrees to be taken to Fairyland by the Green Wind, a Harsh Air who rides the Leopard of Little Breezes. He issues various warnings, e.g., "Obviously, the eating or drinking of Fairy foodstuffs constitutes a binding contract to return at least once a year in accordance with seasonal myth cycles." None of this deters September, who is, after all, wearing an orange dress.
She liked anything orange: leaves; some moons; marigolds; chrysanthemums; cheese; pumpkin, both in pie and out; orange juice; marmalade. Orange is bright and demanding. You can't ignore orange things. She once saw an orange parrot in the pet store and had never wanted anything so much in her life. She would have named it Halloween and fed it butterscotch. Her mother said butterscotch would make a bird sick and, besides, the dog would certainly eat it up. September never spoke to the dog again—on principle.

Hmm, I'm only on page 6, and I keep finding things I want to quote you. This is a very good sign, though not a very good way to write a book review (I remark, in rather Valente-ish tones). Suffice it to say that September goes on to meet three witches, one of whom is a wairwolf and the husband of the other two. She agrees to retrieve a magic spoon for one of the witches, mostly because she wants a storybook-type quest. She next meets a wyvern with its wings chained who becomes a quest companion. But even as this author seems to do something ordinary when it comes to fantasy, she doesn't: The wyvern turns out to be the son of a wyvern and a library. His name is A-Through-L, though he lets September call him Ell.

September and Ell come across a golem made of various kinds of soap and nearly get eaten by Glashtyns while crossing the river. September does lose her shadow, bargaining for the life of a Pooka child who looks like a jackal cub. Then she reaches the capital, and rather than obtaining the magic spoon, she finds herself sent on a dire quest by the terrible Marquess, the dictator of Fairyland who at first glance looks like a little girl crowned in ringlets. September does manage to rescue a marid boy named Saturday on her way out of town.

Of course, the Marquess has given September a deadline, and the best way to cover a lot of ground fast is by lassoing a mount from a herd of migrating velocipedes. "Remember, they are fast and tall and vicious! Many have perished or, at least, been roundly dumped off and bruised in the attempt to travel by wild bicycle." These dangerous, magnificent beasts are one of Valente's best creations, as is the woman who regularly rides with the herd, Calpurnia Farthing.

September's adventures grow still more dangerous after she reaches the Autumn Provinces. I will give you one more passage as Valente's narrator introduces these lands:
I suppose you think you know what autumn looks like. Even if you live in the Los Angeles dreamed of by September's schoolmates, you have surely seen postcards and photographs of the kind of autumn I mean. The trees go all red and blazing orange and gold, and wood fires burn at night so that everything smells of crisp branches. The world rolls about delightedly in a heap of cider and candy and apples and pumpkins, and cold stars rush by through wispy, ragged clouds, past a moon like a bony knee. You have, no doubt, experienced a Halloween or two.

But, we learn, our autumns are nothing more than pale imitations of the richness of autumn in Fairyland. (Ahem: "a moon like a bony knee"? I am in awe of that metaphor!)

Only autumn is the harbinger of winter, and therefore of chilly death. Following a feast with some slightly unnerving spriggan scholars, September ventures into the woods to find what the Marquess has sent her for, a treasure in a glass casket. There September meets her own death, a small creature at first. Until it grows bigger.

That's a taste of what's in this book, but you'll find so much more. Valente's Fairyland is both beautiful and dangerous, a place where life and death rub shoulders more often than you might wish. September has blithely chosen the road to heartbreak, and she certainly has her heart wrenched a time or two in this story. There is a dark streak in the book, the reason I mentioned the Coraline comparison above. Valente seems very interested in the idea that "the dark and the light go together," as my mother likes to put it.

Make no mistake, blood is required in this book. But then there is a magic key that flies around trying to catch up with September throughout her journeys, and it is nothing less than a shining scrap of winged hope. Which makes September something of a Pandora, I think.

Some of the edgy touches that crop up in Valente's tale are presented tongue-in-cheek. For example, there's a running joke about how September misunderstands the clause about not eating fairy food. ("Witch food must be okay! And dragon food! And...") We learn, too, that human visitor September gets classified as Ravished, kind of like Persephone, rather than as a changeling or a child who has merely stumbled through a hidden gate (or wardrobe!). I suppose it's technically because the Green Wind is bit of a rogue and lures her away, though that's certainly the extent of it.

Speaking of ravished, what ravishes me literarily is freshness, or what I call the F Factor. A book that's pleasingly new in its style, voice, description, language, metaphors, plot, and/or characters makes me swoon every time—and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making qualifies on all counts.

Note: The book is illustrated by one of my favorite illustrators of all time, Ana Juan. And check out the very cool book trailer.

Note for Worried Parents: The book is a little dark, but it's no stronger than Coraline and is much more of a fantasy story than a horror one. Some mournfully deep/painful notes are sounded in spots; however, younger MG readers might miss that stuff altogether, to tell you the truth!

A Review of The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall

I don't know that we realize how hard family books are to pull off until we see it done really well. Those who can perfectly capture sibling interactions, for example, are a rare breed. This explains all the acclaim for Jeanne Birdsall's Penderwick books, and why I was so very happy to get my hands on the third installment. It also explains why the Penderwicks made my list of Top 10 Literary Families. (Scroll down through my March awards post to see the full list.)

Birdsall takes her show on the road this go-round, and she shakes things up a bit while she's at it, sending the ever-so-capable Rosalind off on a summer vacation with her friends and appointing Skye as OAP or "oldest available Penderwick"—meaning the sibling in charge, particularly of lively five-year-old Batty. Only Skye's notes on the care and keeping of Batty get wet, so she can barely read them. Why on earth would she need to blow something up?

The degree of angst Skye brings to her new responsibilities is a hoot, building to a point where good friend Jeffrey must intervene and relieve her of her office, at least for one night.

Also funny is writer sister Jane's determination to study Love, leading her into the depths (and heights) of a crush on a laconic, bewildered, and unintentionally heartless skateboarder named Dominic. Jane tries to make him into one of her literary crushes, say, Peter Pevensie from the Narnia books, but it's hard going. Take a look at their towering romance, which mostly consists of Jane sitting on a bench at the park watching Dominic ride his skateboard:
...they weren't really walking together, because Dominic wasn't walking at all, really—he was on his skateboard, either ahead of her or behind, or making large circles around her. She didn't care, not really, trying to thrust away the suspicion that Peter Pevensie would never make circles around a maiden. You're being disloyal, she scolded herself, and anyway, there weren't any skateboards in Narnia. Besides, soon they reached French Park, and Jane was able to sit down on the bench, and although Dominic continued to ride in circles for a while, she could now close her eyes to better picture him as a noble presence worthy of her love, and by the time he sat down beside her, she was feeling steadier.

"I have many things to tell you, Dominic," she said.

"Yeah." Dominic shuffled his feet. "Me too. I mean, I have something to ask you."

"You do?" This was a surprise. Until now, asking personal questions had not been one of Dominic's skills. "You go first, then."

"No, that's okay."


"Okay, here's my question." Dominic shuffled his feet again, then cleared his throat. "Can I kiss you?"

"Excuse me?" Jane was so surprised, she jumped off the bench. Did he love her, too? She hadn't hoped for as much.

"It will be a short, little kiss." He looked sternly out to sea. "Hardly a kiss at all."

She sat down again. "Oh, Dominic, love has no measure."


"I mean, yes, please kiss me."

A quick kiss, and Dominic takes off on his skateboard, leaving Jane dizzy and blissful, as well as filled with determination to write a truly marvelous love poem for her swain...

Yep, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette is that funny, so funny that I forgive Birdsall for reminding me I don't speak French and therefore don't know how to pronounce Mouette—or is it one of those Americanized pronunciations, the way people have bowdlerized half the Spanish names in Los Angeles? (I just checked: the French would be moo-ET, or almost mwET. It means "seagull." And I am not kidding when I say I started writing this paragraph thinking, "Why couldn't she just have named it Seagull Point or something?")

Another nice story strand is that Jeffrey and Batty start hanging out with Alec, a musician who has a house just up the beach. Jeffrey is a musical protégée and loves spending time with Alec's piano, but the real surprise is Batty, who turns out to be musically gifted. Except—her sisters simply refuse to acknowledge this. Their reasoning is that there's no such thing as a musically inclined Penderwick, so they brush off Batty's music talk.

More dramatic, at least early in the book, is when Aunt Claire hurts her ankle and gets a brace on it. Skye doesn't want Rosalind or her parents to worry, so she downplays the situation. But her own worry ratchets higher and higher as she tries to fill her role of OAP under difficult circumstances and pretty much loses it.

We also get moose watching, a golf ball collection, a concert played for seals, and a storm or two, not to mention a secret revealed, one that changes more than one life.

A couple of key plot points rely heavily on coincidence, but I found I didn't care a bit because they're such great coincidences. Which just goes to show that you can break the rules of literature with abandon as long as you can sell it!

I am crazy about Hilary McKay's Casson family, but I have to admit: the Penderwicks are just as lovable. They are also a bit less edgy, and therefore perhaps better suited to younger middle grade readers. No wonder they've been compared to the Melendys.

If you haven't read the three Penderwick books, you've been missing out on a deeply satisfying experience!

Note: Here's Jeanne Birdsall talking about her new book.

A Review of The Midnight Gate by Helen Stringer

Face it, there are a lot of fantasy series out there. So the question becomes, did I like the first book enough to read the second one? In this case, yes, I thought Spellbinder was good enough that I wanted to read Book 2, The Midnight Gate, and continue following the adventures of young Belladonna Johnson. (See my review here.)

Belladonna is relatively happy even if she is being raised by ghosts. Her departed parents are loving and attentive, though they can't leave the house. Her mom still manages to fix her lunches, and signatures for field trips are provided by Belladonna's grandmother, a psychic who lives just across town.

Then Belladonna runs afoul of the school bully. In her ongoing quest to humiliate others, evil Sophie puts a carefully weakened chair at Belladonna's desk and expects her to sit down, then fall down. Instead, Belladonna's ghost friend Elsie warns her and Belladonna puts the chair at Sophie's desk. When Sophie falls down, she decides to ruin Belladonna's life. All she has to do is rat Belladonna out for living "alone" in her house. Belladonna's grandmother has disappeared, and she quickly finds herself being packed off by a social worker to live with a pleasant older couple, the Proctors.

Except—the Proctors are eeeee-vil! Though it takes Belladonna a while to figure this out, let alone to know what to do about it. (You've just gotta love it when Child Protective Services places a child in a building that doesn't actually exist. Nice touch!)

Belladonna's paladin Steve is being fairly cold to her, to boot. Till finally she gets him hooked into the necessities of her new adventure, in which Belladonna's powers are being used for a very fell purpose indeed.

Eventually Belladonna extricates herself from the Proctors long enough for her and Steve to go after a set of ancient coins that should help them stop what's happening. I like the way Elsie, the British schoolgirl ghost, helps them retrieve eight of the nine coins. But the ninth is hidden in the land of the dead, in the keeping of the Queen of the Abyss. To reach her, Belladonna and Steve must pass the seven guardians of seven gates. All of the guardians are threats, while a few are literally out for blood. Though the guardians are mostly mythological creatures, the author manages to portray them in amusing new ways. Here Steve and Belladonna are talking to the harpy Aello, who feels underappreciated and longs for the good old days when she and her sisters used to terrorize the populace:
The bird-woman looked at her feet sadly and scratched small circles in the sand with a claw.

"Why were they scared of you?" asked Steve.

"You're joking, right?"

"Well, I can see that you don't look...that the way you...but that's just a first impression, and—"

"We're harpies," said Aello irritably. "We stole their food, ripped the unsuspecting from their beds, and dragged them here to the Land of the Dead. There were no first impressions, only final ones."

After which Aello points out that she's going to have to eat Belladonna and Steve.

I like the subtle humor, including surprises like a Coupe de Ville ride in the Land of the Dead. I also like how Belladonna doesn't always know what to do next, and Steve has a sometimes surly, sometimes funny personality, which seems exactly right for a boy his age. Ghostly Elsie is a real charmer, so much so that I always want to see more of her.

One of the best things about Stringer's books is the way the main characters respond so naturally to supernatural situations. For instance, it becomes abundantly clear to these kids that as heroes, they're utterly expendable. To backtrack a bit, Belladonna and Steve are also frustrated when, after the first adventure, they're just expected to go back to being ordinary schoolchildren. The only other author I've seen handle this as well as Stringer is Anne Ursu. In contrast, many books just imply that a Chosen One will pass through a great deal of peril, but must be preserved at all costs and so is not-so-secretly untouchable. And Harry Potter is expendable only in the sense that he has been Chosen to die. But Belladonna and Steve figure out that the Powers that Be are quite cavalier about the potential for them to die along the way; if this happens, they'll simply be replaced. It's both funny and chilling, and it feels more realistic than the usual approach, now that I've seen it. (I am also reminded of Anthony Horowitz's young spy, Alex Rider, who is all too aware that he is being used by British Intelligence and that his death might result in a sort of "oh well" shrug from most of the higher-ups.)

At any rate, Belladonna and Steve do manage to survive, and they sort of defeat the bad guys, though not as thoroughly as readers might wish. Still, while there are some creepy situations left hanging at the end of the book, the plot mostly wraps up, with Belladonna getting her home, her parents, and her grandmother back.

If your child is one of those kids who devours fantasy, put Spellbinder and The Midnight Gate on the reading list!

Note: Thanks to the author for providing me with a review copy. Visit her eerie website here.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

In Case You Missed It - Willie Wonka Cast

Did you see the cast of the 1971 movie, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, on the Today Show recently? In case you missed it, click the link to watch it!

No offense to Johnny Depp, but Gene Wilder really nailed that part. It's fun to hear a little on-set gossip about the making of the movie from long ago. Even if the fruity wallpaper really only "tasted like wallpaper"!

Of course, nothing can match the book itself, Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but you can't help liking those portrayals of Veruca Salt, Augustus Gloop, and the rest. Note that the adult "Charlie" (Peter Ostrum) seems just as sweet as the child did. I got a kick out of seeing how each of those children turned out 40 years later.

And did you know that Roald Dahl went to school near a chocolate factory? Apparently the boys at his school were sometimes called upon to test the chocolates. No wonder he came up with such a great story!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Tween Books on Enchanted Inkpot

Click over to The Enchanted Inkpot fantasy writers blog, where I'm hosting a discussion about the no man's land of books for older MG or younger YA, AKA tweens.

Are publishers more uncomfortable with books in this age range than readers are? See what you think, and feel free to chime in with a comment!

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Bouquet of Picture Books

Spring is heading towards summer now. The jacaranda are starting to bloom here in Los Angeles, and you really should check out some of the picture books that have come out in the last few months. Here's a sampler:

All the Water in the World by George Ella Lyon, illustrated by Katherine Tillotson

I didn't get this one in time for Earth Day, but it ends with a "Keep it green" message that makes it a good pick for anyone's Earth Day collection. Mostly, though, it's a science lesson about the water cycle, told in Lyon's beautiful poem and illustrated flowingly by Tillotson. We're told that water "wobbles in blue pools" and "fills your cup up." Best of all is the author's simple, focused description of the way water leaves an ocean or lake and moves cloudward: "Thirsty air/licks it from lakes/sips it from ponds/guzzles it from oceans," and then we're shown with text moving up the page that "this wet air/swirls up...."

Tillotson's illustrations are rendered digitally, but they have the feel of watercolor, appropriately enough. White backgrounds heighten the effect of strong blue water moving across the page, pouring in simple, graphic-style illustrations from grass-green hoses and grape-purple taps. Yet the real strength of this book is the clear lines of poetry that take us on a journey through the water cycle and show us the importance of water for the living things on our planet. An effective work of nonfiction poetry and a lovely book for your collection.

The Loud Book! by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Renata Liwska

If you're like me, you fell in love with The Quiet Book and made a point of getting your hands on this follow-up volume by the talented Ms. Underwood. In the previous book, the author listed different types of quiet, but now we find out about the varieties of loud. I won't give away too many, but a few of my favorites are "last slurp loud," "crowded pool loud," and "deafening silence loud."

Liwska's cast of soft-looking animal children enact the different louds with panache. Underwood takes care to set many of her loud moments at school and at home so that they will be familiar to young readers. I especially like the surprising ones, when the bear and the rabbit and their other friends are caught with their eyes wide and their mouths round.

This is a simple book, but a satisfying one, the kind you and the kids can savor and reference long after you close the cover. It would also make a good writing prompt, since children would no doubt enjoy making up their own kinds of loud. Like its predecessor, The Loud Book! is well worth adding to your library.

Rapunzel, retold and illustrated by Sarah Gibb

Fewer of these long picture book fairy tales are being published these days, so I was happy to see a new version of Rapunzel hit the market. Perhaps it was spurred on by last fall's Disney movie, Tangled... At any rate, Gibb's illustration style is markedly different from the style of what I consider the best-known version, Paul O. Zelinsky's 1998 Caldecott-winning book. Gibb's artwork is relatively flat, in some spots resembling silhouette art, though with color. On other pages, Gibb goes all out with black silhouette figures. The art is also rather decorative.

This romanticized approach comes together nicely, however, and I think it will appeal to the target audience. The way I see it, it's all right to go a little prissy/girly with this stuff as long as you do it beautifully, and this illustrator does a fine job. There's an almost theatrical feel to the page spreads. I particularly like the one of the prince riding through the forest, with the tower glimpsed between the trees up ahead and his dog looking back to see if the prince is coming. (I'll show part of that spread here.)

The retelling, while detailed, is clear and moves along at a good clip. I was only occasionally distracted by clichés, as in the description of Rapunzel: "Her long hair was a shining waterfall of gold, and her eyes sparkled like twin stars."

Speaking of stars, your starry-eyed princess-mad 7- to 9-year-old might like Sarah Gibb's Rapunzel very much.

When a Dragon Moves In by Jodi Moore, illustrated by Howard McWilliam

What's really fun about this book is that the dragon moves into a small boy's sandcastle at the beach. I don't know that I've ever seen a dragon at the beach in a children's book before, although I have seen bats. There's a bit of a secondary, symbolic story here when the dragon represents the boy's apparent frustration with his family, who won't pay attention to him and his talk of dragons. I was more interested in the dragon's mischief for its own sake, however, and that's most likely what young readers will get out of the story, too.

The book has a great first line, by the way: "If you build a perfect sandcastle, a dragon will move in." We see the boy putting the finishing touches on one side of the castle as the dragon ducks his head to move in, suitcase in hand, on the other side of the castle. (A suitcase covered with travel stickers, mind you, one of them clearly reading "Route 66.")

The dragon is a pleasing shade of red, and all that fieriness makes a great fit for a July/August beach beast. McWilliam's slightly cartoonish artwork is rendered in vibrant colors, beginning with the yellow of the sand. I especially like the early scenes, when the boy plays with the dragon, using it as a raft, a kite, and a bully deterrent, among other things. After an interlude in which his family won't believe in the dragon and the boy starts acting up, we get a nice ending with still more dragons showing up to inhabit still more sandcastles.

A Butterfly Is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long

The team is back! In case you haven't cast your eyes upon An Egg Is Quiet or A Seed Is Sleepy, get a move on—and check out this new book while you're at it.

Much as I love the interior text and illustrations, my favorite thing about the duo's books is matching up the endpapers, which in this case are set one page in (not sure what the name for that would be, exactly!). In An Egg Is Quiet, one set of endpapers had eggs, while the other set showed what the eggs would hatch into. In A Butterfly Is Patient, you can look at the caterpillars in a spread at the front of the book and then find their matching butterflies in a spread at the back. (Though I did find two extra butterflies, ones whose caterpillars aren't shown in the front!)

The large text in the book, presented in very pretty handwriting, says things like the title phrase, "A butterfly is patient," and "A butterfly is creative." Smaller text explains what the butterflies are up to, elucidating the meaning of the larger phrase. Color-drenched artwork brings all of this to life, sometimes providing special touches like a close-up of a Great Purple Hairstreak's egg on the bottom of a leaf or a whole page of Monarch butterflies on the wing. Butterflies, eggs, and caterpillars are neatly labeled by name throughout. We also learn the difference between moths and butterflies, how butterflies form "puddle clubs," and the identities of the world's largest and smallest butterflies.

I've read reviews of the earlier books in which nonfiction folks criticized the attribution of feelings to natural objects such as eggs because of the use of terms like "patient," but I don't think kids are that easily confused. Their lives are full of metaphors, let alone facts and opinions. Most of them catch on to the difference, even though they may at times use their imaginations rather deliberately to assign emotions to flowers, goldfish, and dolls/action figures.

The bottom line is, these are gorgeous books, and they stand out in the rather large crowd of books on topics such as eggs, seeds, and butterflies. (Besides, you know you want to figure out which two caterpillars are missing!)

Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min

In this upbeat book, Aneel's grandparents come to visit, and he clowns around with his marvelous grandpa, Dada-ji. With a wink and a smile, Dada-ji tells Aneel of his boyhood adventures—a series of tall tales in which he wrestles water buffalos and hissing cobras, besides working on his parents' farm. What's the source of his youthful strength? Piles of hot, hot roti! Kind of like Popeye's spinach, only resembling pancakes. (Or tortillas, or Navajo fry bread—most cultures seem to have a variation of this one!)

When Dada-ji hints that he's hungry, there's only one thing to do: Aneel starts cooking up roti for his grandfather. After cooking and eating, both are newly energized and go outside in search of adventure.

This book has more flavor and flair than the plot might suggest. For one thing, Zia punctuates her story with energetic expressions like "Arre wah!" For another, Dada-ji is a great character, full of personality, a lot like his favorite side dish, "tongue-burning mango pickle." I like seeing such a solid grandfather-grandson bond, as well.

Ken Min's illustrations capture the story's energy with bright colors and strong lines. His portrayal of Dada-ji is especially effective.

There is a bit of a didactic, meet-the-culture feel to this book, but that's okay: how many picture books about Indian American families have you come across? Have a taste of Hot Hot Roti with Dada-ji to round out your multicultural collection!

(Note: There's a glossary at the back, though what I really wanted to see was a roti recipe. Aha! Here we go; it's found at the Lee and Low website.)

Quacky Baseball by Peter Abrahams, illustrated by Frank Morrison

I really like this author's Echo Falls mysteries for middle graders, so I was curious to see what he would do in a picture book. The answer would be: play ball! It's Thumby Duckling's first day at the ballpark, and he's all thumbs. Erm, feathers. Actually, this little duck is nervous, and he's a thumbsucker.

We begin with a great picture of the two teams all lined up. Somebody on the opposing team is blowing a bubble, and our hero has his thumb in his mouth. Next we jump to the top of the ninth, when outfielder Thumby "makes the catch. Out number three. How about that?"

But then the duckling is up to bat, and he starts striking out...

Yep, Abrahams has written a classic sports story starring the underdog, or rather, underduck. I doubt there's a question in anyone's mind about what's going to happen, but the book is well paced, and you'll probably find yourself cheering for the little ball of yellow fluff in the baseball cap by the time you get to the game's final moments.

The author then throws in a few pithy sports pointers along the lines of "You win some, you lose some" on the very last page.

Frank Morrison's color-saturated illustrations are done in what appear to be acrylic. The sky is so blue, the dirt is very brown, the grass is intensely green, and Thumby's uniform is a hearty orange and blue. The crowd scene when Thumby makes the game-winning hit is particularly good. Morrison manages to combine small-animal cute with baseball gritty in just the right balance.

Go team!

Me...Jane, written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell

What a lovely, lovely book! The artwork in the full illustrations is simple and well executed, with a quiet beauty that suits its slightly muted palette (colors, but with a hint of old-fashioned sepia tones). The final, perfect touch is the use of faint, lightly tinted "ornamental engravings from the nineteenth and early twentieth century" on the otherwise white text pages. McDonnell even incorporates a few pages from Jane Goodall's childhood journal, her notes from the nature club she formed, The Aligator Society [sic].

This biography focuses on the famous chimpanzee scientist's early days, when, aptly enough, she hauled a stuffed chimpanzee named Jubilee with her everywhere she went. And where she went was out to observe nature—including sitting quietly inside her grandmother's chicken coop until she could see for herself how eggs were laid.

The simplicity of the text belies its efficacy, particularly in association with the paradoxically sturdy-yet-delicate illustrations. Kids who read this book are likely to get a clear picture of how being a curious child can lead to an entire lifetime of scientific study and adventure.

I think you'll appreciate, as I did, the photos of a young Jane with Jubilee in tow at the front of the book and of the adult Jane with real chimps at the back!

The book also includes notes from the author and from Ms. Goodall herself. The primatologist encourages young people to join her international Roots & Shoots program to work on behalf of the environment.

As Jules put it over at Seven Imp, "...McDonnell’s title on Dr. Jane Goodall is one of the best books you’ll see all year. I say that with confidence, even though it’s only March...." Take a look at her post for more illustrations. (Perhaps you've come across McDonnell's work before, since he is also the creator of the comic strip, MUTTS.)

And now that I have the book in my hands, I have to agree with Jules—Me...Jane will be hard to beat!

Note: Quacky Baseball, When a Dragon Moves In, and Hot, Hot Roti for Dad-ji were provided to me by the publishers or PR folks.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Huck Finn Illustrations

Don't know if any of you are familiar with the work of classic British author/illustrator Edward Ardizzone: I have a copy of Eleanor Farjeon's The Little Bookroom that he illustrated, for example.

Well, the daughter of publisher Heinemann's founder recently discovered illustrations for an edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that Ardizzone had done tucked away inside her father's desk. The artwork is going to be auctioned off. Here's a sample, and follow the link to see more.

I am currently reading Huck Finn with one of my students who is studying both U.S. History and American Literature. We were talking about how ironic it is that the book is considered racist by some because of its (historical) use of the N-word, when it is actually a subtly beautiful anti-racism story. (We are substituting for the word as appropriate when we read the book aloud.)

Plus Huck is just a rip-rousing story, and I'm laughing all over again about the 15-year-old girl who drew all those morbid pictures, "Alas"!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Review of The Silver Bowl by Diane Stanley

There's a touch of Upstairs, Downstairs in this book about a roughly raised poor girl who is sent to the king's castle to work as a scullery maid when she is only seven. Little by little, she learns to get along with the castle staff and do a good job. Her one encounter with royalty makes it clear that princes are snobs. But she rolls up her sleeves and gets back to scrubbing the pots, encouraged in her endeavors by her friend Tobias, the donkey boy. In time Molly is promoted to silver polisher, and her life path seems plain. She ignores the fact that she sometimes sees visions of people's deaths, telling herself she simply imagined them.

Except—it turns out the royal family has been cursed, and the irrepressible Molly learns she has a strange connection to the events of the cursing. But first the king and his sons suffer greatly, until the entire castle worries what might happen next. And Molly starts seeing more visions in the great silver bowl she has been assigned to polish by Thomas, the keeper of the castle's silver. Molly had believed what she was told as a child, that her mother was crazy, but was she really just a witch? And is Molly a witch, too?

When things get bad for Alaric, Molly and Tobias take a series of huge risks to protect him. I like the way their cleverness and practicality makes them perfectly capable of handling a horrible situation. Under pressure, Molly and her friend's qualities shine like polished silver.

Part mystery, part fairy tale, part reconciliation of class differences, The Silver Bowl is altogether satisfying as the pieces come together. Molly uses her visions from the bowl to help solve the mystery, though she has difficulty figuring out who the true villain might be, to her great peril. Fortunately, Tobias is there to help, and even Alaric begins to contribute usefully and a bit more humbly to their plans. Stanley builds suspense as Alaric becomes the last royal standing and his common-born friends turn out to be the only ones capable of saving his throne from his greedy cousins and the shadowy figure of the curse-maker.

Here's an excerpt from a scene early in the book, when Tobias takes Molly upstairs in the castle:
"We must be silent as ghosts, Molly. And if one of them should come into the room, look down in a very respectful manner, and do not meet their eyes, for they don't wish to be reminded we are about."

"Why? If I had a castle full of servants, I'd be glad to be reminded of it."

"Well, they are not. We are as common as lice to them, and just as interesting."

I enjoyed the interactions between Molly and Tobias, which ripen rather unsurprisingly late in the book into romance, though that's not a major focus. Stanley does leave the door open for a sequel featuring these two characters.

I wasn't quite sold on the denouement, but for the most part, this book flows nicely. And of course, Alaric learns his lesson as both his life and his kingdom are saved by two of his lowly servants. Yet Diane Stanley's message doesn't distract from the sweep of her storytelling in this well-written fantasy. I recommend it to fans of books like Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted, Shannon Hale's Princess Academy, and Jessica Day George's Princess of the Midnight Ball.

Note for Worried Parents: The Silver Bowl is being marketed for teens (YA), perhaps because of a handful of grisly deaths and some peril, along with the eventual ages of the protagonists, but it reads as upper middle grade (MG) to me.

Troll Blood West of the Moon from Katherine Langrish

I read Troll Fell and liked it so much I kept an eye out for a sequel. Got it: Troll Mill. And then there's Book 3 in this trilogy, Troll Blood, which sends young Peer a-viking clear to the New World. Fortunately for readers of historical fantasy, the Troll Trilogy is now available in one volume, West of the Moon.

Katherine Langrish's trilogy is just as much steeped in folklore as it is in the realities of life in Norway several centuries ago. The trolls are particularly gruesome, for those of you who want a shiver with your adventure.

—In Troll Fell, Peer Ulffson is orphaned and sent to live with his horrible uncles, who concoct a plan to sell him to the troll king as a wedding gift. With the help of his friend Hilde, a cranky Nis (think brownies or even Dobby the House Elf, only not), and possibly the dubious, terrifying Granny Greenteeth, Peer can find out just what his uncles are up to, especially when their plan changes unexpectedly. You've always wanted to attend a troll wedding feast, haven't you?

—In Troll Mill, Peer's evil uncles might be back, and what's to be done with a baby that appears to be half selkie? New encounters with trolls plus Peer's changing feelings toward Hilde occupy this second volume, which may be even better than the first.

Troll Blood takes Peer and Hilde across the sea in a Viking boat, led by Gunnar and his son Harald, whose violent ways will endanger them all, especially when they run afoul of the natives in Vinland (North America). Langrish impressively weaves Native American mythological creatures into this new tale of her brave young Norse twosome. And for the romantics among you, Hilde finally realizes that Peer is an amazing guy (though not till late in the book, mind you)!

Langrish makes her adventures feel as real and unpredictable as everyday life. In Troll Blood, the Norsemen are mostly disdainful of the Native Vinlanders, whom they call Skraelings, but an abandoned boy finds out otherwise, as does Peer when he runs into terrible trouble. Harald's murder of two young native men on a hunting expedition comes back to haunt him in the same way the ghost of a dead seafarer haunts his father. And we get an interesting comparison between a Viking berserker and a creature from Native American legends, a version of the wendigo.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is the author's handling of the woman with the titular troll blood, Astrid. A cold, selfish girl, Astrid is eventually revealed as a rich and troubled character. There's a dimensionality to the interactions of so many of these characters when it comes to their friendships, their family lives, their goals, and their struggles. It all adds a satisfying depth to Langrish's work.

While Hilde makes a gutsy companion in the Troll Trilogy, Peer is the character whose perspective dominates the books, and he is a thoroughly likable boy, full of equal parts determination and self-doubt. We watch him grow up in these three books. In fact, Troll Blood might also be described as Peer's coming-of-age story. Here's a glimpse of him the morning after he has volunteered to go to Vinland only because Hilde is going:
Slowly he remembered. He and the twins were sleeping in the cowshed to leave more room for the guests. "Do you mind, Peer?" Gudrun had whispered last night. He'd minded very much, but of course he'd lied and said he didn't.

He remembered more, and a pit of dread opened in his stomach. What had he done? Had he really promised to go away for an unknown period of time, on a strange ship, to a strange land? Spring was on the way. He'd been looking forward to seeing the lambs being born, watching the barley come up, rowing out of the fjord with Bjorn and Sigurd to gather seagulls' eggs from the islands. Now all that would go on without him.

Of course, the star of the show in this trilogy just might be the Nis, the odd and clever little creature who sometimes scolds and sometimes helps our heroes. Plus there's Peer's dog Loki, who's always up for some troll fighting.

Langrish's books are rich in language, adventure, and fantasy. It's particularly nice to read historical fantasy that's set somewhere other than the British Isles. Norse folklore is a real treasure trove, as the Troll Trilogy demonstrates. You will also get a strong sense of what it was like to live in Norway all those centuries ago, from the building of sod houses to the snap of the sails in the middle of a seemingly endless ocean.

If you missed these books the first time around, you're in for a treat with West of the Moon!

Note for Worried Parents: These are middle grade books, but they're on the older end, mostly because they're sophisticated in terms of storytelling and character development. They include kidnapping, murder, and peril, along with some monster-inflicted gore. They also have teen attraction and jealousy in Book 3.

True confessions: I missed West of the Moon's blog tour a few months back. Oh well—better late than never!

See Langrish's excellent series of blog posts from fantasy authors talking about their favorite folktales. Here's the first one, but look for all 21.

A Review of Jane Austen: A Life Revealed by Catherine Reef

Reading this book reminded me just of my favorite biography of Shakespeare, Bill Bryson's Shakespeare: The World as Stage. In a slim volume, Bryson basically explains that we know hardly anything about the bard himself. He provides the scraps of information we do have plus some nice historical context, then spends the rest of the book debunking common assertions that many believe to be facts. For example, it turns out none of the supposed portraits of Shakespeare can be authenticated in the least.

Even though she lived a few hundred years later, when better records were kept, Jane Austen left behind surprisingly scant information other than her novels themselves—though heaven knows, we're all grateful for that!

Still, Reef stitches together what is known and creates a surprisingly pleasing piece of needlework. We learn about the various members of Austen's family, things she said as quoted by family members, places she moved and when, and impressions of her from cousins and acquaintances, including those who disliked her.

It would have been wonderful to have her letters, of course, but her sister and other family members deliberately destroyed them after her death.

The author points out that Jane's books seem to give us a different impression of the woman than her family's descriptions of her, but then, there's a long tradition of not speaking ill of the dead. And perhaps Jane saved her finest, even edgiest wit, for her books rather than her conversations. Here's the passage I'm thinking of:
Her family described Jane Austen to the world as they wanted her to be remembered. "Her sweetness of temper never failed," wrote her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh. "Faultless herself, as nearly as human nature can be, she always sought, in the faults of others, something to excuse, to forgive or forget," wrote her brother Henry. Added one of her nieces, "I do not suppose she ever in her life said a sharp thing."

Not ever? It is hard to believe that such a sweet, forgiving creature would write lines such as these:

I do not want people to be very Agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.

For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?

Mrs. Allan was one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them.

The other portraits Reef paints are of Austen's books—plot summaries, when each was written, what Jane said about them, if anything, and comments made in family correspondence about how the writer's nearest and dearest felt about each one. For example, Reef tells us what her family thought of Austen's most universally admired book. Recall that in Austen's day, it was considered slightly scandalous for a woman to write a book, so it was usually kept quiet, with the book being published under a pen name.
The Austens all liked Pride and Prejudice. Jane read the book aloud to her niece Fanny Knight, who was often at Chawton. "[Aunt Jane] & I had a delicious morning together," Fanny noted in her diary. Charles Austen wrote that some of his naval-officer friends had read and enjoyed it. Jane tried to confine knowledge of her authorship to family and close friends, but word was getting out. "The Secret has spread so far as to be scarcely the Shadow of a secret now!" she wrote to Frank Austen. Their brother Henry had the toughest time keeping mum. More than once, Jane continued, Henry has heard people praise Pride and Prejudice, "& what does he do in the warmth of his Brotherly vanity and Love, but immediately tell them who wrote it!"

Readers who are familiar with Austen's work may feel impatient upon encountering Reef's summaries of the novels, but the intended teen audience is likely to appreciate the way these tie the chronology of Austen's life as a writer together.

Reef also includes a number of relevant images, ranging from the only known portrait of Jane (supposedly a poor likeness) to a still from the Keira Knightley P&P. The author threads her account with notes about the culture and the era, all of which make it that much easier to understand Jane. She explains, for instance, how much the Georgians loved Bath—although Jane did not. And she describes the etiquette required from a young woman dealing with a suitor before noting that "Jane and [one-time suitor] Tom skirted the rules of decorum, attracting the attention of their elders."

I very much enjoyed getting a better picture of Jane Austen, the person, as I read Catherine Reef's clear, pleasant account (155 pages plus references). For anyone who loves Pride and Prejudice—the book or the movie—and certainly for the older child or teen doing an author report on this famous writer, Jane Austen: A Life Revealed, is a book worth reading.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Conspiracy of Kings Takes Home the Prize

It's about time! Those of us who are endlessly impressed by Megan Whalen Turner's writing in her Queen's Thief series have been a little frustrated this year as various committees have said of her latest, "Yeah, the book is very good, but it's part of a series, and since we're not convinced it can stand alone, we won't select it for this prize" (to, um, paraphrase).

So if a book from a series is waaaay better than any of the standalones, it's nevertheless out of luck, essentially by default?

But the most wise L.A. Times Book Prize committee rose above all that and chose A Conspiracy of Kings for its best Young Adult book of 2010, as announced this past weekend. Hooray!

Congratulations to the marvelous Ms. Turner, whose craftsmanship, subtlety, and world- and character-building enchant readers and fellow fantasy authors alike.

Of course, A Conspiracy of Kings did get five starred reviews! I will just add that this series is so intelligent that some people say the books are too smart for kids, to which my response is, "There are some pretty smart kids out in Readerland."

Note for Worried Parents: Book 1, The Thief, a Newbery Honor winner, is considered (upper) middle grade fiction, but the rest of the series is being marketed as YA (for teens). I know a lot of adults who also read the books. Kids who like sophisticated fantasy by writers such as Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, Terry Pratchett, N.D. Wilson, and J.R.R. Tolkien should give these a try! Book 2 does begin with a rather upsetting (violent) event, but the series builds from there, using that pivotal event in thought-provoking ways, so see what you think based on your child's maturity.

See my review from last year here.