Wednesday, February 29, 2012

SLJ's Battle of the Kids' Books

Have you heard of School Library Journal's Battle of the Kids' Books, fondly known as BoB? No? Well, take a look! I'm one of the site's "Super Fans," and my post introducing the contest just went up. You can check out the brackets while you're at it.

With BoB in the house, you may not even need that cup of coffee to deal with your bleary-eyed mornings during the weeks to come... The build-up, which began with the introduction of the judges, continues till March 13, and then it's battle time!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Princess, Cyborg, Witch, Thief

Princess of the Wild Swans by Diane Zahler

With this retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Wild Swans," Zahler is becoming the go-to author for middle grade fairy tale retellings. (Well, Zahler and Jessica Day George!) Her previous outings include a retelling of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" called The Thirteenth Princess and a retelling of Andersen's "The Princess and the Pea" called A True Princess.

As in the other two books, our heroine is a tween, this time 12-year-old Meriel. She and her five older brothers are surprised when the king their father comes home from a journey with a new queen, coldhearted Lady Orianna. The lady is surprised, as well—in the course of her whirlwind (read: calculating) romance, she had not realized her new husband had five sons. This puts a cramp in her plans to have a son and put him on the throne. Orianna transforms the five princes into wild swans, and it is up to Meriel to save them. As you may recall from the original tale, this means Meriel must weave five shirts out of nettles before it's too late. (It's eleven brothers and shirts in Andersen's story, but this is a minor change.) In addition, Meriel must not speak a word while she makes the shirts. Here we see the princess preparing for the task:
I put on an old dress that Riona had outgrown, for she told me that the nettles would rip and stain anything we wore. Then we started out for the field. I felt the weight of my task heavy on me as we walked, and knew I was afraid. Riona had explained that we had to soak the nettles, so that their fine, stinging needles would come off, and then dry them, even before I began to spin. It seemed an endless series of labors, and the very thought of it wearied me. My days, I saw now, had been filled with play and entertainment, and I wondered why I had complained so about the simple tasks Mistress Tuileach set me. I did not know how to work. How could I possibly pick and soak and dry, spin and weave and sew, and do it all before the lake froze?

Rather than sending the princess to a foreign land and introducing her to a prince who wants to wed her, as in the original story, the author keeps Meriel around to continue challenging the witchy queen. Fortunately, there are other, nicer witches (or half-witches) around, and they help Meriel. Zahler gets past the silence thing by allowing Meriel to speak mind-to-mind with her allies. She'll need all the help she can get, especially since the author introduces a new threat—apparently Orianna has been wheeler-dealing with the fay. The ending may be a foregone conclusion, but it's nice to see how Meriel's struggle with the evil queen plays out.

Zahler's retellings are reader-friendly books for the 8 to 12 crowd with feisty tween heroines whose friends and pluck help them combat the forces of evil. There's a hint of romance for the younger crowd in each one, along with a more serious romance between an older prince or princess and a potential mate (often a worthy commoner). Recommended for fairy tale-mad middle graders, as well as for teens who prefer their retellings without violence and sex.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

This one has a really great premise—it's a Cinderella retelling set in a dystopian future, with Cinder as a cyborg! Cyborgs being people who are part machine and don't have rights because they are merely property, of course. Cinderella was adopted by her father, who remarried and gave her an evil stepmother and two stepsisters (one of whom is pretty nice). In a further world-building twist, Cinder lives in New Beijing, so we get details incorporated from the place's Asian heritage. Our story begins with Cinder working in the marketplace at her little repair booth when Prince Kai stops by and asks her to fix his malfunctioning android. He seems to be flirting with her, but she can't believe it. She does hide her mechanical hands and leg from him, not wanting him to look down on her.

The plot is rather complex thanks to an evil queen who rules the colony on the moon. The Lunars have mind-controlling powers similar to fairy glamour in the old tales, which makes them even more dangerous. Warmongering Queen Levana threatens to destroy the Earth if Kai doesn't marry her. Also, a plague is spreading across the land—and scientists are allowed to experiment freely on cyborgs.

Here are the first few paragraphs, where we meet Cinder:
The screw through Cinder's ankle had rusted, the engraved cross marks worn to a mangled circle. Her knuckles ached from forcing the screwdriver into the joint as she struggled to loosen the screw one gritting twist after another. By the time it was extracted far enough for her to wrench free with her prosthetic steel hand, the hairline threads had been stripped clean.

Tossing the screwdriver onto the table, Cinder gripped her heel and yanked the foot from its socket. A spark singed her fingertips and she jerked away, leaving the foot to dangle from a tangle of red and yellow wires.

She slumped back with a relieved groan. A sense of release hovered at the end of those wires—freedom. Having loathed the too-small foot for four years, she swore to never put the piece of junk back on again. She just hoped Iko would be back soon with its replacement.

Cinder is a fresh approach to fairy tale retelling with some excellent world-building. Cinder makes a valiant heroine, and the low social status of the cyborg class is genuinely poignant. My only real source of disappointment is that the story doesn't wrap up on the last page. We get Cinderella's ball, but we don't get a happily ever after. Yep, we'll have to wait for the sequel (second in a total of four planned books, as I understand). Consider yourself warned!

Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood

In Spotswood's alternate history, there really were witches during the time of the Salem Witch Trials, and they ruled the land with their powers until men rose up to destroy most of them. Now witches must keep their abilities hidden or the Brothers will punish them with imprisonment or worse. A nun-like group called the Sisters support the Brothers in their work. All girls have to choose or accept a husband or join the Sisters by the time they turn seventeen. In the meantime, they must attend church classes where the Brothers thunder against immorality, strong women, and magic, i.e., the power of the witches.

Cate Cahill has spent the years since her mother's death trying to keep her younger sisters Maura and Tess out of trouble. The problem is, Maura is getting increasingly restless. All three of the girls are witches, something they must keep secret. Take a look at Cate and her sisters, not to mention Cate's childhood friend, Paul:
"You're hopeless, both of you. Perhaps you ought to go and ask Elena about the proper etiquette for entertaining callers." I take Paul's arm and feel his muscles twitch beneath my palms. "A walk would be delightful. Please. Before I murder them both."

I mean to sweep out dramatically, but somehow the doorsill drops away and I lift my foot into empty air. I trip forward, narrowly avoiding rapping my skull on the hall table and destroying an heirloom vase that belonged to Great-Grandmother. Instead, Paul catches me. In fact, he holds me closer than is entirely necessary. I hear a titter behind me and spin around to see Maura, her hand over her mouth, shoulders shaking. Even Tess can't suppress a smile.

Lord help me, my sisters are evil and my best friend's become a rake.

Paul is back from the city and wooing Cate, but she finds herself attracted instead to a poor bookseller's son named Finn instead. A meddling neighbor introduces a governess named Elena into the household and Cate begins learning of her mother's secrets. Turns out there's a prophecy about three sisters who are witches, and the Brothers really want to stop it from happening...

This is quite the potboiler and fairly engrossing. It is also a book for teens, with some frank references here and there to sex and sensuality (e.g., passionate kissing leads to Cate's magic acting up!). Naturally, the story cliff-hangs in the final pages, so you'll have to look for a sequel to see what happens to our girl Cate—who is willing to sacrifice anything to protect her sisters. I have to say: This book reminds me a tiny bit of Stephanie Burgis's Kat, Incorrigible. If you take out the lightheartedness, focus on the oldest sister, and add witch hunters, that is.

Thief's Covenant by Ari Marmell

I'm a Megan Whalen Turner fan, so maybe I just like stories about clever thieves, but Thief's Covenant is a good book in its own right. I will caution you that the author makes extensive use of flashbacks, which adds to the suspense but might irritate some readers just a tad. The other caution I have is that the book has a rather high level of violence and gore. It's definitely meant for teens (and adults)!

But let's turn to page 1 of the Prologue, where we discover a young woman named Adrienne Sati clinging to the rafters high above a room filled with people being slaughtered. Tears run down her face, but she keeps silent even after the murderers depart and the city guardsmen arrive. It seems they don't see her up there in the shadows. And Adrienne is about to reinvent herself once more, this time as a thief named Widdershins.

The Prologue takes place "Two years ago" and Chapter One starts off "Eight years ago." How did Adrienne come to be in that room, and how did she get out? More important, how did she wind up carrying her own pocket god named Olgun around the city?

Now Widdershins is trying to carry out a bit of honest theft undisturbed, but the city thieves' guild is after her, and so is the city guard, along with a couple of far more ominous villains. Somebody isn't happy that Adrienne escaped the carnage that terrible day. Couple all of this with a visit to the city from the high priest of the land's number one religion (basically the pope), and Widdershins is up to her neck in trouble.

The book is also pretty darn funny. Here's an excerpt that introduces Adrienne and gives you a small taste of the humor.
Hours later, the sun setting at her back, Widdershins wandered the crowded boulevard, whistling a jaunty tune. She wore a tunic of verdant green and earth-brown breeches topped by a green-trimmed black vest, a combination that made her look vaguely like an ambulatory shrubbery. Her chestnut hair hung in a loose tail, her rapier swung freely at her side (the intricate silver basket now reattached), and her coin purse overflowed with the smallest portion of the baron's liberated gold. All in all, the last couple of days had been magnificent, and she was determined to share her good cheer.

And, Olgun aside, the thief possessed only one close friend in Davillon with whom she might share it.

Some parts of the story use recognizable fantasy tropes. For example, the clever thief hero has certainly been done before. But Marmell's tapestry of plot threads is intriguing, especially thanks to his creative use of gods. Widdershins herself has dash worthy of the Scarlet Pimpernel and a bit of Gen's whininess and self-doubt. We even get a few city guardsmen who may remind you of characters from Pierce or Pratchett. I'm pretty sure you'll be cheering for Widdershins and her buddies every step of the way. I know I'm looking forward to Book 2. (And I'd like to thank Ari Marmell for actually ending the book! Hooray!)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Black History Month Medley

Lots of bits and pieces today, all in honor of Black History Month. First, two new picture books from HarperCollins:

Freedom's a-Callin Me by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Rod Brown

Shange is well known as a poet and author, perhaps most notably for For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. She has written other children's books, We Troubled the Waters—illustrated by Rod Brown—and Coretta Scott and Ellington Was Not a Street, illustrated by Kadir Nelson.

This new book is a collection of poems about the African American slave experience, with the focus on failed and successful efforts to escape to freedom. There is a loose narrative arc, beginning with a poem about a young man who tries to escape. In the second we see he has been caught and is being whipped for it. "Never again?" Hardly. Again he tries, and he seems to get farther this time. The poems aren't all about the same young man, though. We get a poem about Sojourner Truth and a group of slaves who are escaping, one about a slave tracker, and another about a man who is caught while the rest of his group gets away. The swamp, an abolitionist, a secret hiding place, and more make their appearances in Shange's book. The poems are strong of voice and spirit. They are probably too strong in theme for the younger crowd, but their very potency makes them a valuable, moving read for children perhaps 8 or 9 and up. Here's a sample from "Time Tuh Go," in which a wife asks her husband not to go and he replies:
but listen to me
ah jus' can't take it no more
ah am not some animal to be worked from dawn to dusk
livin on the entrails of hogs & such
ah am a livin bein' & ah got to be free
or ah am goin to kill somebody real soon
somebody white who don't even see me
ah don't want to be a killer
ah jus' want to be a free man

When Grandmama Sings by Margaree King Mitchell, illustrated by James E. Ransome

Belle's Grandmama has an amazing voice, and when she gets a chance to tour the South with a swing jazz band, she takes Belle along. The story begins:
My Grandmama Ivory Belle Coles loved to sing. She sang in the church choir. She sang while she cooked and cleaned and worked in the garden. Whenever she wasn't singing, she was humming.

We lived in Pecan Flats, Mississippi. The summer I was eight, Grandmama would come by the house and listen to me read to my sister, Carrie. Grandmama couldn't read herself. But she always had a song to sing.

When Grandmama goes on tour and brings Belle, Belle experiences segregation and discrimination firsthand in the form of whites-only hotels and restaurants, a club manager who refuses to pay Grandmama and the band, and police who pull the group over and dump all of their things on the side of the road just because. Without getting everyone in trouble, Grandmama stands up for what's right as best she can. The book ends with a marvelous concert at the band's last stop, and even though the white people sit on the main floor and the black people sit in the balcony, everyone there loves the same music. When Grandmama Sings doesn't shy away from the hard realities of the era, but it shows how Grandmama perseveres and sets an example of hope for her granddaughter. Belle's voice and the simple narrative keep the book from being preachy, but the story carries a great message just the same.

Next, an homage to one of my favorite poets, Langston Hughes. Did you know it was his birthday a few weeks ago, on February 1? Here's a nice bit of biography from Wiki (see footnotes for original sources):
While in grammar school in Lincoln, Hughes was elected class poet. Hughes stated that in retrospect he thought it was because of the stereotype that African Americans have rhythm.[12] "I was a victim of a stereotype. There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everyone knows, except us, that all Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me as class poet."[13] During high school in Cleveland, Ohio, he wrote for the school newspaper, edited the yearbook, and began to write his first short stories, poetry, and dramatic plays. His first piece of jazz poetry, "When Sue Wears Red", was written while he was in high school. It was during this time that he discovered his love of books.

Langston wrote one of his most famous poems at the age of 17 as a he rode a train over the Mississippi. Here is how "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" begins:
I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Langston attended Columbia University for a year or so, but left because of prejudice and his focus on Harlem. He was part of the Harlem Renaissance and a key inventor of jazz poetry. (See photo of Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, below left.) He also wrote short stories, plays, and numerous essays. Langston began basing his poetry more and more on the rhythms of the street. He explains:
Seventh Street in Washington was the long, old, dirty street where ordinary Negroes hang out. On Seventh Street they played the blues, ate watermelon, shot pool, told tall tales, and looked at the Dome of the Capitol and laughed out loud. I listened to their blues. And I went to their churches and heard the tambourines play and the little tinkling bells of the triangle adorn the gay shouting that sent sisters dancing down the aisle for joy. I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on South Street, ...songs that had the pulse beat of the people who keep going. Like the waves of a sea coming one after another, so is the undertow of black music with its rhythm that never betrays you, its strength like the beat of a human heart, its humor, and its living power. [quoted in the Introduction to Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes, ed. David Roessel and Arnold Rampersad, Sterling 2006.]

You might call Langston Hughes the father of the "black is beautiful" movement. His own father was ashamed of his race, but Langston worked long and hard to express his love and honor for his people, as in the poem "My People":
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

Langston was a wise and diligent dreamer, and some of his best poems are about dreams. One that is dear to my heart is titled simply "Dreams":
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Certain poems by Langston Hughes are often anthologized, of course. Here is one you may not have seen, "Homesick Blues":
De railroad bridge's
A sad song in de air.
De railroad bridge's
A sad song in de air.
Ever time de trains pass
I wants to go somewhere.

I went down to de station.
Ma heart was in ma mouth.
Went down to de station.
Heart was in ma mouth.
Lookin' for a box car
To roll me to de South.

Homesick blues, Lawd,
'S a terrible thing to have.
Homesick blues is
A terrible thing to have.
To keep from cryin'
I opens ma mouth an' laughs.

I highly recommend two books about Langston Hughes and his poems: the poet's own The Dream Keeper and Other Poems, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007) and Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes, referenced above. You can read an account of the writing of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in a picture book, Langston's Train Ride, by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins (Orchard, 2004). Or look for a lovely rendering of the poem itself, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Hyperion, 2009).

Now, here's a nice link to some good books for kids about African American history and achievements. You'll notice that one is a book of poems for children by Langston Hughes, The Sweet and Sour Animal Book.

Finally, a shout-out to some of my favorite black illustrators, whether elder statesmen or up-and-comers:

Ashley Bryan—2012 winner of the Coretta Scott King/Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award; among his many wonderful books are three Coretta Scott King winners: Beat the Story Drum, Pum-Pum (1981); Beautiful Blackbird (2004); and Let It Shine: Three Favorite Spirituals (2008). He has won numerous Coretta Scoot King honor awards, as well. One of my own favorites is Ashley Bryan's ABC of African American Poetry. Bryan won the 2009 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for his contributions to children's literature. The illustrator uses bold, bright colors with strong lines and shapes.

R. Gregory Christie—Christie won Coretta Scott King honor awards for his illustrations for The Palm of My Heart: Poetry by African American Children (1997), Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth (2001), and Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan (2006). My own favorite book he illustrated is Yesterday I Had the Blues by Jeron Ashford Frame (2008). Christie's style varies by the project, but his baseline voice as an illustrator merges flat shapes and blocks of color with more realistic facial expressions and other details. It's a little different, but it works. (Here's a trailer for his latest, It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate, due out in April.)

Bryan Collier—This artist is the Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King illustration winner for Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave (2011); Coretta Scott King winner and Caldecott honor for Rosa (2006), and Coretta Scott King winner for Uptown (2001). He has won Coretta Scott King honors for other books, too, including one about Langston Hughes, Visiting Langston (2005). Collier's work has a rich, smooth realism, often with a dark palette.

Leo and Diane Dillon—He's black, she's white, and this husband-and-wife team have been winning illustration awards throughout a 40-year career, including back-to-back Caldecott wins in 1977 and 1978 for Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions and Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears, respectively. They've done a slew of book jackets in addition to their picture books. The Dillons won the 1997 Grand Masters Award for their body of work from Spectrum for being Best In Contemporary Fantastic Art, a Virginia Hamilton award for their body of work in children's literature in 2002, and a World Fantasy Convention Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. They've actually won more body-of-work awards, but you get the picture: people are rightfully impressed! One of my favorite books from the Dillons is To Everything There Is a Season (1997), in which they use art styles from various countries and historical periods to illustrate the famous verses from Ecclesiastes in the Bible. I'm partial to a story called Wind Child, too. But there are just so many to choose from! Though the Dillons do experiment, you can usually recognize their distinctive style, which has a sort of airbrushed look to it. Their latest is Never Forgotten by Patricia C. McKissack.

Kadir Nelson—A talented author/illustrator, Nelson won the Coretta Scott King Award this year for writing for Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, and he won an Honor for the book's illustrations. As an illustrator, he won Caldecott honor awards in 2008 for Henry's Freedom Box and in 2007 for Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom; the latter book garnered Nelson a Coretta Scott King win. He has won further King awards and honors in both writing and illustration, e.g., for We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. Nelson's Moses is a wonderfully tender and inspiring book about Harriet Tubman. The illustrator's work is realistic, though slightly stylized. He tends to work with warm tones.

Jerry Pinkney—This 2011 Caldecott winner for The Lion and the Mouse had previously won five Caldecott honor awards and five Coretta Scott King awards, among other honors. Pinkney won a Virginia Hamilton lifetime achievement award in 2000 for his long, highly regarded career as a watercolor genius.

Brian Pinkney—Brian is Jerry Pinkney's son, and he specializes in scratchboard art; he won a Caldecott honor and a Coretta Scott King honor in 1996 for The Faithful Friend, as well as a Coretta Scott King honor award in 1993 for Sukey and the Mermaid and in 1999 for Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra. The latter won a Caldecott honor award, too. Brian won the Coretta Scott King Award for illustration in 2000 for In the Time of the Drums.

At my day job, I am currently working on curriculum materials for a South Carolina state history book for eighth graders, and I included instructional activities relating to slavery. E.g., I'm having the kids read Julius Lester's To Be a Slave. I've also included an activity featuring Hill and Collier's book, Dave the Potter. I'm heading into the twentieth century soon, so we'll see what that brings. I may not be able to cover the Harlem Renaissance in a South Carolina book, but that won't stop me from thinking about Langston Hughes' wonderful voice, let alone about the artwork and writing in today's children's books that celebrates African American history and present-day experience.

Some people may find Black History Month a little scripted, but I think of all those kids of many races who, if they know nothing else, now understand a few things about Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King. And maybe even about George Washington Carver, Marion Anderson, Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, General Colin Powell, Toni Morrison, President Barack Obama—and always, please, Langston Hughes.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Bushel and a Peck: Picture Book Quick Picks for Valentine's Day

My grandmother used to say, "I love you, a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck."

My grandfather would sing us an old song:
Oh, I'll think I'll be wed in the summertime,
I think I'll be wed in July.
I think I'll be wed when the roses are red
And the weather is sunny and dry.
Hand in hand, together we'll stand,
My sweetheart united to be.
Hand in hand, together we'll stand,
My bonny wee [grandchild's name] and me!

This was sung in a rather roaring voice as we rode in a big old farm truck up the mountain to the sheep camp. My grandfather's family were sheep ranchers.

People claim Valentine's Day is a holiday invented by (or at least hyped by) greeting card companies, but I hope you have a few fond memories of grade-school valentines and, better still, of the ones you used to make for your mom and dad. Let alone however you may celebrate with your sweetheart today. Here is a bouquet of red rose picture books in honor of Valentine's Day.

Plant a Kiss by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds

The plot is a little vague for children, but the simple, cheerful text and illustrations rescue it for the smaller crowd (though it clearly makes a good gift book for older romantics). A small girl takes the old expression literally and plants a kiss in the ground like a seed. (She doesn't actually kiss the ground, but you get the idea.) Like the boy in The Carrot Seed, she waits with some impatience for it to come up. Here are the first few pages of text:
It goes like this.
Little Miss planted a kiss.
Planted a kiss? Planted a kiss.
Sunshine. Water. Greet. Repeat.
Wait and Wait. Getting Late.
Doubt. Pout.

But then her seed does come up! And her friends show up to tell her not to share it. Of course, she does. The plant is shown as a sort of gold sparkly something, by the way. A sweet V-day treat.

Hugs from Pearl, written and illustrated by Paul Schmid

The first of two books about somebody who's too prickly to hug, this story features a grade school-age porcupine (Pre-K or kindergartner, I'd say) who loves to hug her friends. Unfortunately, they don't love being hugged by her. Pearl tries various solutions and finally comes up with a way to give hugs without hurting anyone. Another fairly minimalist text (the current style for picture books), though it sounds more like a Narrator telling the tale. The art is clean and cute. Pearl is adorable in a very young way. A nice celebration of hugs and of individuality.

Hedgehug: A Sharp Lesson in Love, created and illustrated by Dan Pinto, written by Benn Sutton

This book has a similar message to Schmid's, but it's a more prickly story. Even the artwork is less sweet.
"Hello, bunny." Hedgehug waved. "I have something for you." And he gave the bunny his heart [in the form of a valentine]. Hedgehug was so happy he could... [hugs bunny]

"OUCH!" [page turn]

"You spiked me," said the bunny.

"Sorry, bunny," mumbled Hedgehug.

"My name isn't bunny, it's Doris! And I don't want your stupid heart!" Doris stormed off.

Hedgehug continues on his quest to find love. Until finally he comes across someone who appreciates him. And no, it's not another hedgehog. I found the artwork in this one a little less appealing, but it does the job just fine. This is a fun pick for the Kinder and Grade 1 crowd, who will like the humor.

Snowy Valentine by David Petersen (Creator of Mouse Guard)

A longer story about an adult rabbit named Jasper Bunny who sets out in the snow to find the perfect valentine for his wife, Lilly. He visits various neighbors and asks them what they're giving their sweethearts for Valentine's Day, even experiencing some peril before giving up... But then he inadvertently comes up with a lovely gift. This book is a little too didactic for me, but the artwork is pretty and the final twist is a lot of fun.

French Ducks in Venice by Garret Freymann-Weyr, illustrated by Erin McGuire

Keeping it sort of real, here's a book that came out a few months ago, and it's about a broken heart. Believe it or not, there are folks out there thinking, "Oh, great, Valentine's Day" in a pink-tinged version of Scrooge this morning. This is the book for them! It's a picture book, but it seems to be meant for adults, or at least older children. Georges and Cécile are ducks living in Venice Beach, California, where they are friends with a pretty young fashion designer named Polina Panova. When her heart is broken, the two ducks set out to find the magic that will make her feel better. Their gift is marvelous, but Polina is still sad about her lost love. This baffles Georges, an incurable romantic.
"Polina Panova is a Russian princess," Georges says. "How is it possible that she will always be sad?"

"A little bit sad," Cécile says.

"Princesses are not sad," Georges says. "Not even a little bit."

The artwork resembles Disney animation rather strongly (and beautifully), but the author wants us to know that Disney got it wrong. Heartache is part of the human condition. Right along with talking ducks? Don't ask me how, but it works! This book is for sharing with your artsy friends.

In the interest of "Hey, I just had a book come out," I will mention that my retelling of the Brothers Grimm tale Hans My Hedgehog is also about the redeeming power of true love. In a rather convoluted, prickly, and magical way. With pigs.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Note: The first four books were sent to me by HarperCollins. Thanks, HC!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

There Is Such a Thing as a Tesseract

It was a dark and stormy night.

In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraith-like shadows that raced along the ground.

The house shook.

Wrapped in her quilt, Meg shook.

She wasn't usually afraid of weather. —It's not just the weather, she thought. —It's the weather on top of everything else. On top of me. On top of Meg Murry doing everything wrong.

I read a lot when I was a kid, and I mean a lot. But I still remember the feeling I got from reading A Wrinkle in Time. I was an odd duck, like Meg, and late elementary/junior high school was a difficult time for me. I just didn't fit. So reading the book was reassuring—here was someone like me, and she said the wrong things, and she got emotional like me, and yet, she was a hero. Not in a smooth and shiny way, but in a prickly, klutzy way, which I knew very well was the only way I would ever be any kind of hero.

That wasn't the only reason I loved the book, though. I was enchanted by the rest of the cast, too, particularly Charles Wallace and the three not-exactly-witches with the way-clever names. I loved the strangeness of the story, as well, the way it led me across the fold of a skirt to planets where beautiful beings lived, and terrifying ones.

Of course, IT was such a brazenly B-movie villain (even if I didn't know the term "B-movie" quite yet); I'm still asking myself just how it is that Madeleine L'Engle makes him/it work? She leads us up to that moment with those robotic kids playing in front of their poison cookie-cutter houses, that's how. And the mind-capture of Charles Wallace—shudder! L'Engle has a wonderful touch with details. I've never forgotten the disquieting softness of a father's beard and hair that have grown out as he stood trapped inside his futuristic cell.

Well. It's been 50 years since the book first come out. I can't remember where I first read the story, but Madeleine L'Engle had a very difficult time getting the book published. She sent it off to a couple of dozen publishers and they all turned it down, so she stuck it in a drawer and basically gave up. Then a friend of hers told her she knew John Farrar of Farrar Straus and Giroux. Please note that FSG did not have a children's division at the time. The friend passed the manuscript to Farrar and he loved it, so FSG basically started a children's division for L'Engle's book. The next year, when she won the Newbery, Madeleine went to a celebratory dinner and was approached by various editors saying, "Why didn't you send it to me?" Her answer, of course, was, "I did." They were astonished, but she had the rejection slips to prove it. (Part of this account appears in the commemorative edition's afterword.)

One interesting note: I've found that people (especially librarians) can debate endlessly over whether this book is science fiction or fantasy. It fits easily in both categories, though I suppose I lean a little towards science fiction, myself. At any rate, A Wrinkle in Time opened the door to a new kind of creativity in the children's SFF genre. (The art to the above left depicting Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Who is by Eugene Eian Lee.)

As a participant in A Wrinkle in Time's 50th anniversary blog tour, I agreed to write a poem or two in honor of the occasion. (And yes, I will give a brazen shout-out to my forthcoming poetry book, Water Sings Blue, while I'm at it.) It was easy to decide to write a poem about Meg, but then I said half-jokingly on Twitter that I might write a poem about the boy with the ball, and the response was pretty positive. So I've written both. The second poem also attempts to answer the question my sister asked me last week when I told her about the post: "What happened to the rest of the people on Camazotz?" And by the way, in case you were wondering, the planet was named after a Mayan bat god associated with death, night, and sacrifice.


Sometimes I look down
at my feet as I walk
through dirt and gravel
and dead grass, stepping
and stepping, not getting
very far really.

The numbers line up
in my head like the students
in my class.

At lunch, who
will sit with me?

After school, which
one should I punch first?

Every morning, why
do I brush my hair
and go back?

There is no one who
will tell me what
to do or why
to do it.

All I am
is Meg walking down a street
to meet something terrible.

All I am
is Meg holding hands
with a small
wise-eyed brother.

All I am
is Meg.

The Boy with the Ball

It hurts, it hurts, it hurts
and then—
it stops. I drop the ball
(the thing that started it all).
But it is mine.
I pick it up again, put it
in my pocket.

Where before there were walls
without windows or doors.
I walk down a gray hall.

Up ahead, I see someone running
the other way.
No one comes.
No one yells at me.

I wander
till I find a vast space.
A brain pulses on a dais.
I feel unseen claws grasping.
This is the thing
that hurt me. I stand still.

Boy, you are one of mine,
the brain tells me. But its words
cannot hold me.
My heart skips. I stumble
and fall like a dropped ball.

I scramble up.
"No," I say. "I am broken."
That's what they told me.
(But I got up just now.)
I take the ball from my pocket
and throw it as hard as I can.
It makes a dull thunk.

I run out of the building,
past confused people
in dark suits. I run
to the street where my house is.
Children stand staring down
at red rubber balls
and jump ropes lying there
like dead snakes.

"Come on," I say,
and they follow me
up the hill, where I show them
how to climb a tree.

Meg and Charles Wallace, Calvin and Mrs. Whatsit—like Harriet the Spy and Charlie of chocolate factory fame, they will live on across many wrinkles of time, iconic, flawed, and lovable. Because Meg loves her little brother, and so, in spite of Meg's feeling of being all wrong, everything really is all right.

Here's the link to the Wrinkle in Time Facebook page and the list of 50 participating blogs (wow!).

The 50th Anniversary Commemorative edition has some extra features. It's the orange book shown at the top of this post on the right; the book at the top left is the paperback commemorative edition.

o Frontispiece photo*+
o Photo scrapbook with approximately 10 photos*+
o Manuscript pages*+
o Letter from 1963 Caldecott winner, Ezra Jack Keats*+
o New introduction by Katherine Paterson, US National Ambassador for Young People's Literature +
o New afterword by Madeleine L'Engle's granddaughter Charlotte Voiklis including six never-before-seen photos +
o Murry-O'Keefe family tree with new artwork +
o Madeleine L'Engle's Newbery acceptance speech

I will confess that this list came with no explanation for the various asterisks, so feel free to make up your own meaning for them. But you get the idea!

This post is linked to Poetry Friday (2/10), hosted by poet Laura Purdie Salas.

Also: I have the book with the yellow cover, 2nd up on the right. What about you? Which version matches
your memory of A Wrinkle in Time? Or did you have that turquoise one?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A Review of Pandemonium by Chris Wooding and Cassandra Diaz

My favorite thing about the relatively recent incursion of the graphic novel into children's literature is that for some reason the quality has been very high—as compared to, say, movies. With the exception of Pixar, most movie studios make a lot of bombs. But look at the current crop of graphic novels for kids, and you'll find a lot more success stories than failures. (My theory is that they're so much trouble to make that no one dreams of signing off on them unless they're really terrific, but I'm open to suggestions.) At any rate, Pandemonium is another winner.

Wooding (author) and Diaz (illustrator) launch right into fantasy tropes with a game of Skullball, which seems to be a dark parody of Quidditch. Our hero is Seifer Tombchewer, a dark-haired boy with wings. Actually, everyone in his kingdom seems to have wings.

At first the name "Tombchewer" sounds like a hokey attempt at a fantasy moniker, but then we learn that Seifer's grandpa "hasn't been quite right ever since he ate something poisonous that fell asleep in his porridge." The man literally gnaws on gravestones. He also regularly hunts his cat, knife and fork in hand, hoping to eat it, too. (There's another great cat joke later in the book.)

Seifer lives up in the mountains, at least until he's kidnapped and ordered to impersonate a missing prince. Seifer gets it all wrong, but he gets it right in unexpected ways. He makes a couple of friends and a couple of enemies. He survives various attempts on his life and muddles around trying to help his kingdom.

As you can tell by the bit about Seifer's grandpa, Wooding has a great time with all of this, throwing in satirical touches and funny dialogue even as he tells a somewhat classic dark fantasy tale. For example, when Seifer comes to after being kidnapped and knocked out, he cries out to Queen Euthanasia Pandemonium:
My queen. What would you have of me? How... How did I get here? [new bubble] And why does my body ache as if I've been expertly and viciously coshed by midgets?

Which, of course, he has. Wooding gives us a nice array of characters, from the cynical Prime Minister (Master Lumbago) to the little trio of red-cloaked, masochistic thuglets known as the Velvet Spies. We also come across a number of suitably horrid villains, as well a couple of princess sisters and a clever, dynamic kinda-girlfriend for Seifer, now known as Prince Talon.

Seifer-Talon apparently has a fiancée, too, though she doesn't show up for the time being. It's said of the beautiful Lady Asphyxia's mother, Baroness Crustacea Effluvia, "that one of her marathon nagging sessions drove her last husband to snort a bag of scorpions."

I hope you're getting the picture—Wooding spices his story with a lot of excellent tongue-in-cheek humor. Just one more example. When Seifer asks what happens if he doesn't agree to pretend to be the prince, the next page shows him dangling over a pit of fanged monsters, saying, "Alright! Alright! You could have just told me about the psycho carnage beasts." This is funny enough in and of itself, but then a few pages later, we glimpse the psycho carnage beasts filing their long, sharp nails as one says, "You didn't think it was a little too much? The whole 'RAAARGH' thing?" The other replies, "Oh, no. I think you got it just right." Thing #1 says, "Are you sure? Because I really wasn't feeling it tonight."

Heh heh.

Meanwhile, people are trying to kill Seifer-Talon, and he's trying to figure out how not to be killed, along with who exactly to trust. One issue is that the missing prince is a real jerk, while Seifer's a pretty nice guy. A drawback—but also a surprising source of strength. I like that Seifer knows enough to be scared when he gets tossed into an arena with a powerful opponent: "Oh, crud. I'm gonna die," he says. Nice real guy there!

Cassandra Diaz's artwork is dynamic, with a definite anime influence. Keep in mind that Seifer's kingdom is always in darkness, so backdrops vary from gray to black, with touches of blue and especially red or orange to add contrast. The whole effect is very striking.

If you're a fan of graphic novels, dark fantasy, and adventures, track down Pandemonium. It'll be worth it for the humor alone.

Note for Worried Parents: There's some violence here, though it's a bit cartoonish. Pandemonium does have a tween, if not teen, feel. For one thing, Seifer has to be at least 15 or 16. Amazon says the book is for 8 and up, but I would say 10 and up unless your 8-year-old is into anime, kill-the-orc-type video games, and/or dark fantasy.

Also: You can visit the author's website here.

A Review of Cold Cereal by Adam Rex

Adam Rex's latest will be in bookstores next week, and like the guy's previous middle grade book, The True Meaning of Smekday, it's more than a little nuts. I will note that Rex and his compatriot, the very funny Mac Barnett, are challenging Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith's reign as children's literature's Madly Humorous Duo. (See Barnett and Rex's YouTube video trailer for the upcoming picture book, Chloe and the Lion. And this outtake.) (Also: If you add in Dan Santat, it's a Madly Humorous Trio.)

You should also be aware that Rex is an illustrator. And a poet. E.g., in Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich.

So—Cold Cereal. It's a story of leprechauns and invisible rabbit men on the lam, and of kids who can see fairies, also kids who are science experiments and must constantly solve riddles. Scott (full name Scottish Play Doe) is new in town, and he's still seeing weird stuff. Then he meets twins Erno and Emily, who make his life seem downright normal. Both families have connections to Goodco Cereal Company, a place that is obvious eeee-vil in a mad scientist sort of way.

Pretty soon Scott is harboring a runaway leprechaun who says he's actually a clurichaun, and Emily and Erno are trying to avoid the people who apparently made their foster father disappear. Their baby sitter, who just might be Bigfoot, makes a really good ally.

I am currently reading The True Meaning of Smekday, and so far, I like it more than Cold Cereal. Still, Cold Cereal is a nice race around town with a giddy mash-up of mad scientists and legendary creatures to chase and rescue our heroic kid trio, respectively.

As a very big fan of good metaphors, I was especially happy to watch how the author threw these into the cereal bowl. Here are a few samples:
Laughter was batted back and forth like a squeaky balloon [in the classroom]...

...a seat right up front [in the bus], on which sat one very small and delicately pale eggshell of a girl. And exactly no one else.

Erno was a lean and rumpled kid—his clothes, which looked fine on their hangers, always looked on Erno as if he'd found them in the road on the way to school.

Mr. Wilson had the uncomfortable half smile of someone who was being forced to sit quietly while people sang "Happy Birthday" at him.

[About school lunches:] It so happened that they were serving pizza, or more accurately a kind of impersonation of it, as though the whole concept of pizza had been rather poorly explained to the cafeteria workers by people who'd only read about it in books and didn't really like children much.

As you can see, Rex is a dab hand at satire, and you'll find nice little pockets of it at regular intervals, including his terribly funny renderings of cereal commercials, which are illustrated in sequence.

The author lost me a few times in backstory, but really, his book is just a lot of fun—with a sequel or two clearly in the works. Go, Rex! And go, Madly Humorous Duo (or Trio)!

See Adam Rex's website, especially his blog.

A Review of Earwig and the Witch by Diana Wynne Jones

Did you watch the movie, Howl's Moving Castle? It was based, of course, on a book by British fantasy writer extraordinaire, Diana Wynne Jones (see my overview of her work in this post from 2009). To the sorrow of many reader fans, Ms. Jones passed away last year after losing her fight with cancer. Earwig and the Witch, published January 31, 2012 in the U.S., is, as far as I know, her last book.

Earwig and the Witch is for younger middle grade readers and is a very slim read, but it packs a lot in a few short pages. In fact, I'm pretty sure you will find yourself wishing for a sequel once you hit the last page. In her signature style, Jones pops magic into a rather ordinary contemporary world. Meet Earwig, a girl who was left at the orphanage as a baby with the following note:
Got the other twelve witches all chasing me. I'll be back for her when I've shook them off. It may take years. Her name is Earwig.

The Matron promptly changed the baby's name to Erica, but it turned back to Earwig easily enough.

Earwig's best friend is a timid boy named Custard. Earwig does not want to be adopted, considering she has the whole orphanage running just how she likes it. So she is not pleased when she is adopted—by a towering man with horns only she can see and a woman with a "raggety, ribby look to her face."

Sure enough, the man is really a Mandrake and the woman is a witch looking for cheap labor. When Earwig figures out that Bella Yaga has no intention of teaching her any magic, she sets out to rearrange things. Then readers will start to understand that Earwig didn't control the orphanage with boring old magic, but by being a very clever child. Of course, it helps that she has a magic cat to help her in her new abode. (A close read will reveal glimpses of the Baba Yaga story in the bones of this one.) Here's Earwig's first supper with the Mandrake:
To Earwig's surprise, the kitchen was an ordinary kitchen, quite warm and cozy... Earwig looked at the Mandrake. He was looming in a chair at the end of the table, reading a large leather book. He looked like an ordinary man in a bad temper. Even so, he did not look like a man who would have gotten supper ready.

"And what have the demons brought us today?" Bella Yaga asked in the bright, wheedling voice she always seemed to use to the Mandrake.

"Pie and chips from Stoke-on-Trent station buffet," the Mandrake growled, without looking up.

"I hate station pie," said Bella Yaga.

The Mandrake looked up . His eyes were like dark pits. A spark of red fire glowed, deep down in each pit. "It's my favorite food," he said. The sparks in his eyes flickered and grew.

Earwig quite understood then why she was not to disturb the Mandrake.

The book has pen-and-ink illustrations by Caldecott winner Paul O. Zelinsky. They are a bit twisty and often show Earwig scowling, but then, she is a witch girl. (Her face does soften when she's petting Thomas the cat.) My favorite piece is an entire spread showing a sort of time-lapse look at Earwig rushing around the witch's workroom working on a spell—we see 11 versions of Earwig by my count.

Earwig and the Witch could have been longer, it could happily have been three books about Earwig instead of just one, but it's not. Still, Earwig and the Witch is something very nice indeed: the treasure of one last satisfying read from the marvelous Ms. Jones.

Note: I have included both the British and U.S. covers for your reference (above left and above right, respectively). Which do you like best?