Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Review of Ordinary Magic by Caitlen Rubino-Bradway

Rubino-Bradway flips the Hogwarts scenario on its head by creating a society a lot like ours in which almost everyone has magical powers. The handful of people who don't are hated, mistrusted, and exploited. When Abigail Hale, daughter of an elite magical family, is tested on her twelfth birthday and learns she is an ord (for ordinary), her life is thrown into chaos. The students and teachers at school shun her and she is thrown out. Two hardnosed adventurers, Barbarian Mike and his partner Trixie, try to buy Abby. Fortunately, Abby's family stands by her, unlike the families of many other ords.

Rubino-Bradway is a creative world builder, especially when it comes to the ords. In this world, an ord can cancel out magic, walking through magical security systems and wards, for example. That means an ord can cause a lot of trouble, even becoming a successful thief or, less independently, a carnival attraction. Of course, adventurers in search of magically guarded treasures like to send an ord in first—even if the ord ends up dead because of other, more physical obstacles. In this society, ords are considered to be subhuman, pariahs, and possessions.

But Abby's oldest sister, Alexa, who is one of the most powerful magic makers in the kingdom and works for the king, knows what to do. Abby must go to a special school for ords so she will be safe. There she will learn self defense, among other useful tricks for surviving in a world that treats ords very badly. Which is a really good idea, especially considering Barbarian Mike and Trixie are still trying to get their hands on an ord, whether Abby or one of the other students.

The writing is brisk and reader friendly, and the characters are a group worthy of Hogwarts. I particularly like the self-defense teacher, Becky, and an often-surly fellow student named Peter ("Peter has two modes: annoyed and golem."). Abby winds up in the clutches of the school cook, who seems determined to bring our wealthy heroine down a peg or two—as if being an ord isn't bad enough! We learn that the school is guarded by minotaurs as well as spells on the outer walls. But ultimately, it won't be enough to keep some horrific intruders out.

In Abby's world, magical creatures are just part of the scenery. Here Abby meets the minotaur who is the school's security chief:
Suddenly there was a mountain next to us, one with horns.

Mr. Dimitrios was a minotaur. A real minotaur; the hoofs, the horns, the tail, the nose ring, even the spear, it was all there. His horns were short, just peeking out of his floppy hair, which made him look young—well, youngish. Minotaurs don't really like people knowing things like how they age and how old they get. I had never seen a minotaur before except on those shows where they interview movie stars; huge and hulking in the background are the minotaur bodyguards. Which is probably why Mom and Dad were smiling so much as they shook Mr. Dimitrios's hand. If this school had hired a minotaur, even a young one, they were serious about security.

You'll find action, menace, and social struggle in this well-thought-out book from newcomer Caitlen Rubino-Bradway. Ordinary Magic promises to be the start of an intriguing new fantasy series for middle grade readers. (Ages 8 and up)

A Review of Enchanted by Alethea Kontis

Most fairy tale retellings are built around just one story, occasionally two. Enchanted gives us the Woodcutter family, whose children—most named after days of the week—appear to be the stars of a bunch of well-known fairy tales: The Princess and the Frog, Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, The Princess and the Pea, and Jack and the Beanstalk, to name just a few.

Sunday is the main focus of the book. She befriends an enchanted frog, visiting and talking with him more than once and really enjoying their conversations. When she agrees to kiss him, nothing happens. What she doesn't know is that the kiss works, only a little later. All she knows is that her friend disappears and she misses him.

Meanwhile, the frog prince, Grumble-now-Rumbold, has returned to his palace, where not everyone is glad to have him back. The Woodcutter family knows Rumbold as the prince who was responsible for their son and brother Jack disappearing. Rumbold's father, a suspiciously youthful king, appears to be tangled up in some kind of dark magic. When the king throws three balls, ostensibly in honor of his son, and begins to woo Sunday's sister Wednesday himself, Sunday is very worried. Her aunt, a fairy named Joy, begins teaching Sunday magic, but what of the fairy named Sorrow, who lives in the palace? It's all very complicated.

Take a look at the beanstalk, its seeds planted, not by Jack, but by Sunday's fey adopted brother, Trix. The stalks are growing up around a huge old tree.
Magic and monsters, all before breakfast. Sunday wouldn't have it any other way. She bravely cupped a hand around a budding leaf; its new velvet skin tickled her palm as it unfurled and continued to stretch its way heavenward. The monster stalk's leaves yawned above the tree's top into the breaking light of dawn. The vines plaited themselves into a mass as thick as the trunk of the tree at its base. Sunday's feet itched, remembering her own waltz as she watched the vines dance.

There is magic around every corner in this book, and sometimes it seems a bit cobbled together, even frenetic: How many fairy tales, tropes, and even nursery rhymes can we jam into one book? Each of the Woodcutter siblings should be an entire book, and maybe that's where Kontis is going with this. It's as if, magically speaking, you had a family in which one sibling was Sandra Day O'Connor, another was Yo Yo Ma, another was Kobe Bryant, and so on. All of it is fascinating, but there's just so much going on. I would also say that the plot feels middle grade, but the romance and character interactions come across as YA (the book's apparent market).

Of course, Enchanted cries out to be read without too much analysis—the thing to do is just enjoy the ride and cheer for the good guys, waiting for Sunday and Rumbold to defeat the villain and share a happily-ever-after kiss. I suspect that Kontis can only get better—she has a wonderful imagination. (12 and up)

Note for Worried Parents: The villains' scheme is creepy and there's some violence and peril, but I would say the book is just fine for upper middle grade and tween readers.

Also: I requested a copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program.

A Review of Once Upon a Toad by Heather Vogel Frederick

Cat Starr is horrified to learn that when her astronaut mother goes on a months-long mission, she will have to stay with her father. Oh, his wife is nice, and Cat's toddler half-brother is cute, but her stepsister Olivia is the very definition of "mean girl." Olivia sets out to make Cat's life miserable, especially at school. Things get worse and worse, till finally Olivia has the entire school calling Cat an awful nickname. Cat begs her mother for help, and what she gets is Great-Aunt Abyssinia, a highly colorful personality who travels in a mobile home. Abyssinia is not much help, in Cat's opinion. Pretty soon she's on her way again.

But when Cat opens her mouth to talk at breakfast the next morning, toads come out with each word. Since only her little brother sees this, Cat immediately declares herself to have laryngitis. She also finds out that Olivia has been struck, too—although when Olivia speaks, jewels fall out of her mouth. So unfair!

Naturally, the information that Olivia is spitting out jewels spreads fast. People start calling her Diamond Girl. The government shows up, and so do some criminals. Pretty soon Cat and Olivia hit the road, bonding the tiniest bit as they try to find Great-Aunt Abyssinia to see if she can help. Because Geoffrey's been kidnapped, and Olivia herself is supposed to be the ransom.

As in her well-known Mother-Daughter Book Club series, Frederick shows that she's a dab hand at creating middle school girls. Cat and Olivia seem all too real, especially when they're quarreling. Frederick's contemporary retelling of the fairy tale doesn't stick too closely to the original, but then, it doesn't need to: the basic premise takes this story a long way. And though Aunt Aby's intention of bringing the girls closer together with a spell seems pretty obvious, the storytelling is so rollicking that readers are unlikely to get hung up on the book's message. We also get some nice secondary characters, though they are much less interesting than Cat and Olivia. Here's a sample of what it's like for Cat to live with dear, sweet Olivia:
If I went upstairs to our room, Olivia would inevitably be there talking about me on the phone to Piper, or worse, sitting there with Piper in person, the two of them making loud snarky remarks about my clothes (what was wrong with jeans and a T-shirt?), my hair (why should I have to brush it more than once a day?), my lack of makeup (who wanted to smear that goop all over their face?), and everything else they could think of. Oh, and forget practicing my bassoon. I had to barricade myself in my dad's office if I wanted to do that, otherwise Olivia would moan about it hurting her ears.

Just the right summer read for 10- to 13-year-old girls who like their fantasy mixed with sisters and school, not to mention gemstones, toads, road trips, and kidnapping plots. (10 and up)

A Review of Deadly Pink by Vivian Vande Velde

In this slightly futuristic sci-fi/fantasy mix, Grace has a real superstar of an older sister. Emily is a genius, also pretty and popular. So Grace is startled to learn that Emily, who works for the Rasmussem video game company, has apparently disappeared into one of the artificial reality games and won't come out. Or can't come out—really, it's not clear exactly what went wrong. But Grace is drafted to go into the game and bring her sister back.

To her surprise, the game is not very cooperative. Neither, when she does find her, is her sister. Grace must deal with increasingly difficult scenarios and hostile characters, of which Emily is one of the most hostile. Grace begins to suspect that the game is not the problem: Emily is. But why?

On the one hand, we have Grace trying to figure out how to play a virtual reality video game in which the rules have been changed. On the other hand—well, actually, the same thing applies to her sister. Emily is not acting like herself.

The game itself starts out as a sweetsy pink world of charming Venetian-style gondoliers and pastel fairies, but it turns into a place that would just as soon burn players to a crisp using dragons. Eventually Grace and Emily must team up to escape being killed in a game that winds up being a fantasy world with its own denizens and desires. A place where they might just stay dead.

Deadly Pink has a definite theme: Don't cheat. Grace finds out that she must make up for the ways she has tried to cheat at the video game she's been trapped in, and Emily has her own troubles to deal with. I'm not crazy about "the moral of the story is" when I'd rather just read for character and plot, but the story itself has a good premise, and I liked watching how Grace deals with her sister, let alone angry sprites.
"Two more," she said. Either she'd helped design the maze or she'd navigated it quite a few times, for she seemed entirely familiar with its twistings and turnings. We came to another pot, this one holding hollyhocks. I thought I was doing a good job with hiding how impatient I was getting, but maybe not, because she said, "You can save us some time." She pointed the way we'd been walking. "Around that corner"—it was a right-hand turn—" then take the second left, and there's a vase holding a gerbera daisy. If you can get that for me while I pick these, then we can go back and drink some lemonade on the porch and discuss things.

"Okay," I said.

It only worked as far as "take the second left." There was no vase.

And when I retraced my steps to the pot of hollyhocks—which were all still there, by the way—there was no Emily, either.

The author has written two earlier books about the Rasmussem Corporation: Heir Apparent and User Unfriendly. I'm actually more fond of some of her fantasy, such as Dragon's Bait and Witch Dreams, but Deadly Pink is a fun and clever summer read. (10 and up; due out on July 10th)

Note: I requested a copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Review of Giants Beware! by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado

Medieval kid Claudette is just a tad bloodthirsty, so it's no surprise she ends up going on a quest to kill a giant in this graphic novel. Of course, she gets the idea when an old man tells the village children the terrible story of "The Baby-Feet-Eating Giant." Claudette is incensed by the story's ending—or lack thereof:
Pascal: Pierre XXXII and his men valiantly chased the giant...
all the way up the tallest mountain in the territory. And he never bothered our village ever again.

Claudette: AND THEN WHAT?
Well?
So, how did the marquis kill the giant?

Gaston (Claudette's little brother): I don't want to know.

Claudette: Burnt him at the stake?

Pascal: No.

Claudette: Stabbed through the heart?

Pascal: No.

Claudette: Choked him?

Pascal: No.

Claudette: Poisoned?

Pascal: No.

Claudette: Oh, wait, I got it...
THEY TOLD THE EVIL GIANT A POINTLESS STORY, AND HE DIED OF BOREDOM!

Pascal: ...

Claudette: Is that it?!
Aw, get to the bloody part, already!

Naturally, Claudette concludes that since the "irresponsible" long-ago marquis never killed the giant, the evil creature is still up on the mountain, needing to be killed. By her. Of course, she takes two buddies along: her fearful little brother, who wants to be a chef and a master sword maker, and her friend Marie, the current marquis' daughter who wants to be a princess. (We also learn that Claudette's blacksmith father is missing both legs and one arm because he used to be a monster slayer and eventually lost.)

Often, in such stories, the hero or heroine is a valiant teen, but a lot of the humor here stems from Claudette being seven or eight years old, nine or ten at the most. I'm going with seven or eight because of her simplistic, determined world view. This means Claudette doesn't reason very far ahead. It also might explain why Gaston brings pots and pans on the trek, but no actual food. And why, as they tromp through the village to set out on their quest, all of the adults who hear where they're going think it's just a cute game the kids are playing. These three really are babes in the woods. Make that the Forest of Death, which is one of their first stops.

In true quest fashion, the three heroes have three encounters with monsters or other threats along the way. Then their fellowship is splintered by Claudette's hubris (and some lies she told, inspired by the current marquis' philosophy) before they truly join forces and achieve their goal. Or rather, arrive at their goal and reassess the situation. Meanwhile, Claudette's blacksmith father and his mysterious companion are hot on their heels, as is a less capable group of villagers who are being paid for their efforts.

Illustrator Rafael Rosado gives us a relatively bright palette dominated by Claudette's carrot-top. He outlines characters and key setting components with strong, contoured ink lines. I got a kick out of noticing that Claudette's outfit resembles Robin Hood's at first glance, but also evokes the Girl Scouts. Rosado is a dab hand with action scenes, especially in the forest and at a river that must be crossed.

The real strength of the storytelling lies more in the characters than in the plot. Claudette is ox-like in her determination, as much foolhardy as courageous. Her pride and eagerness as she wields her wooden sword are so very young that they are cute rather than irritating. Gaston starts out seeming like a stereotype—the sweet boy whose ultra-tough father doesn't understand his interest in creating fine cuisine. But Gaston really does long to make swords as well as pastries, and his knowledge of food has surprising benefits. As for Marie, at first she is just every other girl who wants to be a princess. But humor adds to the effect. Her efforts to test the pea-under-the-mattress premise are very funny, for example. And ultimately, we discover that Marie is a lot smarter than previously suspected. Each of the quest companions winds up solving one of the problems they encounter in a great display of teamwork.

I was a little less sold on the secrets of the giant, but still had a lot of fun following the twists and turns of the plot.

There is a certain nuance to another aspect of the story, which is that the villagers have been cowering inside the high walls the long-ago marquis built for at least a couple of hundred years. Led by the three children to venture out of their fortified village, the villagers learn that they can overcome their fears. The world broadens, and not just for Claudette and her friends.

A combination of adventure, humor, and heart, Giants Beware! is the perfect graphic novel for readers ages 6 through 10. And really, we have television to thank for this and many of the other graphic novels hitting the children's book market: the writer and illustrator come from the animation and children's TV industry.

A Review of Explorer: The Mystery Boxes, edited by Kazu Kibuishi

You may have heard the name Kazu Kibuishi before. Kibuishi is the creator of the Amulet series. (See my review of Book 1 here.) Now Kibuishi has put together an intriguing graphic anthology. Apparently he asked each graphic artist to start with the idea of a mysterious box and go from there. Here's a look at what they came up with:


"Under the Floorboards" by Emily Carroll

A girl finds a little wax doll in a box under the floorboards. At first the doll helps her with her chores, but then it starts causing trouble for her—and growing bigger. How will she stop the doll before it ruins and maybe even takes over her life?


"Spring Cleaning" by Dave Roman and Raina Telgemeier

When Oliver's dad tells him to clean out his closet, he finds an odd puzzle box that he tries to sell online. Instantly wizards start showing up at the house, trying to buy the box. He runs to his friend's house, where further online research shows the probable origin of the box. Now they just have to figure out what to do with it.


"The Keeper's Treasure" by Jason Caffoe

A young treasure seeker braves dangers to find a secret maze and the monstrous man who guards it. But is he really our hero? The keeper of the treasure seems to value imagination over the gleam of gold. The treasure seeker leaves, satisfied, but none the wiser, while readers might find some real wisdom in the treasure keeper's approach to life.


"The Butter Thief" by Rad Sechrist

A young Japanese girl's grandmother captures the little spirit who's been stealing butter from the family kitchen in a box and buries it out in the backyard. The girl goes out that night to dig up the box and see what's inside, but the angry spirit turns her into a being as small as he is. Only the promise of more butter from the kitchen might entice him to turn her back...


"The Soldier's Daughter" by Stuart Livingston

When Clara and her brother get the awful letter telling them their soldier father has been killed in the war, Clara is determined to kill her father's killer in revenge. Her brother questions her choice, so she calls him a coward. But instead of revenge, Clara finds a mysterious man with an even more mysterious box—and one more chance to talk to her father.


"Whatzit" by Johane Matte

Deet's grandpa is going to give him a special job in his intergalactic factory, checking off inventory before the product ships. But some of the more senior employees aren't too thrilled about Deet's promotion, and Deet finds an odd box that's not on his list. When he opens it, the creatures inside escape in a Pandora's pandemonium of knocking over still more boxes. Wait till you find out what the product is, let alone how Deet manages to solve his problem.


"The Escape Option" by Kazu Kibuishi

Kibuishi concludes the collection with a short fable about a boy who is offered the chance to escape the destruction of Earth. Only the destruction isn't a question of alien attack, it's a matter of environmental disaster. James makes an unpredictable choice, which is just as well. Turns out the alien who found him wasn't telling him everything he knows.


Half the fun of reading this book is seeing the styles of the different illustrators. We get more realistic approaches like Caffoe's and Kibuishi's, along with more cartoonish work from artists such as Matte and Roman and Telgemeier. Since all of the other illustrators use ink outlines, it's nice to see what Sechrist does without them. Matte's work has a bright, Loony Tunes vibe, while Carroll's and Caffoe's are hauntingly atmospheric. All of the artists are highly accomplished, and a look at the thumbnail bios on the last page explains why. It looks like most of them work together in animation at places like Dreamworks, and I'm sure you've heard of Raina Telgemeier's award-winning graphic novel, Smile.

In terms of storytelling, Caffoe's, Livingston's, and Kibuishi's segments are the most didactic, but the stories are still worth reading and hold together well—especially Caffoe's with its delicate humor. You'll have seen the basic plot of "Under the Floorboards" before, but Carroll's artwork and the final solution are satisfyingly fresh. For fun and entertainment, nothing beats the plot and dialogue of "Spring Cleaning," though "Whatzit" comes close. And "The Butter Thief" offers us a nice new take on both the character of the pesky house elf and what happens when a child magically shrinks.

This book could obviously be used as a set of story prompts for students to write and illustrate their own tales about a magic box. The very different takes on the premise in Explorer will show students that they, too, can come up with an all-new approach to the magic box story. The book could also be used to discuss concepts like tone and theme, which are sometimes difficult for students to grasp.

But you don't have to be a teacher to appreciate the artistry of Explorer: The Mystery Boxes. Just a fan of good graphic art and storytelling.

Note: Illustration above left is from "The Keeper's Treasure" by Jason Caffoe.

A Review of The War at Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks

I liked Friends with Boys so much that I looked online to see what else the author of that graphic novel had done. Zombies Calling is funny, but it seems to be aimed at the college crowd. The War at Ellsmere is more clearly a story for tweens and maybe teens, featuring one of those boarding school battles between the scholarship girl and the rich mean girl.

Hicks does interesting things with this much-used premise. Juniper is the new student, while Cassie is her roommate and wanna-be friend. Juniper accidentally snubs sweet, naive Cassie during their first encounter, but ends up coming to her rescue when she is insulted by mean girl Emily while waiting for assembly to begin. Emily responds with a typical put-down. Watch how Juniper handles the situation:
Emily: Hey, look, it's Bishop's latest scholarship project. Did you have a comment, project, or just a chunk of McDonald's stuck in your throat?

Juniper: McDonald's. No, really... that's great.

I mean, you totally got me there. I'm the charity case.

By all means, continue to make fun of my thrift store clothes, my ten dollar haircut, my single working mom... Wow, it's like all of my deep, unconscious fears are begin laid bare before me—

And y'know, I'm with you. Poor people suck, and I sure do wish I had your spending ability. But you know what I'm glad I don't have?

Emily: Um... no. what?

Whereupon Juniper nails Emily for her probably crappy parents and her insecurities. Emily leaves the assembly in a huff—and the war is on.

At first, Juniper wins, mostly because Emily doesn't know her weakness, which has to do with her dead father. When Juniper does finally snap, she is put on probation. Emily even suggests it, but only because she is planning something much worse for Juniper, something that will destroy her entire future.

I will just mention that I found it very satisfying that Juniper and Cassie laugh at most of Emily's insults. This is just part of the storytelling, but it makes a good model for so many kids who take hurtful remarks to heart. The power of Juniper and Cassie's friendship is another strength of the book.

Now, you may not be thinking that The War at Ellsmere is a fantasy, but it is. Cassie tells Juniper stories about the mythical creatures who live in the woods, and Juniper is startled to find out that the stories may be true. What exactly happened to Lord Ellsmere's sons when the school was still an aristocrat's estate? Trust me when I say that no one has ever before used unicorns the way Hicks does in this book. Good will triumph in the end, and Juniper will learn that while being smart isn't always quite enough to defeat someone like Emily, she can still hold her own with the help of Cassie and of the universe.

Like Friends with Boys, The War at Ellsmere is well illustrated, but just as important (or more so), it is well thought out. The dialogue is especially sharp, and I'm very fond of Hicks' humor. I'll leave you with just one more example:
Cassie: You were talking to yourself.

Juniper: Noooo. I was narrating. There's a difference.

Note: I'm not sure what grade these girls are in—maybe middle school? Booklist says it's for grades 5-8.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

More Sorcery and Cecilia

Last week, I shared the first letter of the Sorcery and Cecilia trilogy as it appeared in the Letter Game, before Patricia C Wrede and Caroline Stevermer decided to turn the letters into a novel called Sorcery and Cecilia, Or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot. This week, check out Kate's reply, written by Stevermer.

10 April 1817
11 Berkeley Square

Dear Cecy,

If you've been forced to listen to Reverend Fitzwilliam on the subject of the emptiness of worldly pleasures for hours together, I feel I ought to write something bracing to cheer you up. (As for the Vanities of Society, it would take a confirmed cricketer to fully understand them -- and I trust once the weather turns fair our good reverend will spend his afternoons out on the pitch where he longs to be instead of indoors boring the earrings off harmless young ladies.) But after three days of a London Season I find it hard to come to the defense of frivolity with any spirit. Perhaps it will make Rushton seem more amusing to you if I complain vigorously. (Don't worry, I haven't said a word to anyone else, not even Georgina.)

First, there was our arrival in Berkeley Square, a very welcome event after a day spent in the coach with Aunt Charlotte complaining of her migraine and Georgina exclaiming, "Only look, a sedan chair!" at every opportunity. It was very late and we were very tired and soiled with our travels, too weary to feel the proper emotions on entering such a grand house for the first time. (Horace Walpole is by no means Aunt Charlotte's favorite author, but the opportunity to hire his London town house for the Season has given her a new appreciation for him and his works.)

Make no mistake, it is very grand. On the outside it is a high, narrow, polite looking house built of brick. On the inside there is a high-ceilinged entrance hall with a marble staircase winding up two flights. On either side of the hall are reception rooms. The one on the right is called the blue saloon. It is very comfortable with a bow window overlooking the Square. On the left side of the hall is the drawing room, much grander than the blue saloon, furnished with lyre-back chairs, delicate sofas and a spinet. There are velvet drapes in the windows and a highly polished marble floor, upon which I slipped and sat down hard as we were being shown about the house. This was my first piece of clumsiness in London, but I suspect it will not be my last. The general effect of the marble floor and ivory drapes is almost arctic. Only touches of primrose and black relieve the whiteness. At the top of the two flights of stairs are the bedrooms. Georgina's looks out over the Square and mine faces back into the lane behind the house. If I crane my neck I can see down into the kitchen garden -- but there is nothing much to look at. Nothing to compare with the gardens at Rushton.

It seemed like a dream to me, following Georgina up and up the stairs -- she like a kind of angel climbing to her proper place, her golden hair bright in the light from the lamps -- me like a ramshackle shadow lurking after her, shedding hairpins and stumbling over the hem of my skirts.

The bedrooms are lovely, but that night they seemed grand and cold and I was a little dismayed to find myself in my own room all alone -- can you credit it, after I schemed for years to get a room to myself? So I slipped in to Georgina to say good night and get my top buttons undone. Georgina was sitting at her window, trying to guess from the darkened glass what direction she was facing so she could say her prayers toward home. I turned her around and didn't tease her, even when I saw the lock of hair she had clenched in her moist little palm --Oliver's, tied up in a bit of pink ribbon. Can you believe it?

Well, as I say, I got her pointed in the right direction and she got me unbuttoned and told me that I had a smut rubbed clear across my forehead and a spot coming on my chin. (As if I hadn't been driven half mad feeling it coming out all day long in the coach . . .) So we parted, she to her prayers and I to my bed, the highest, hardest, narrowest, dampest bed on four lion's paws (London would be grander still if they knew how to air their sheets.)

Our first day in London was spent shopping, which means I kicked my heels while Aunt Charlotte and the modiste went into raptures over Georgina. The second day we were taken to see the Elgin Marbles, which was interesting, and to listen to other people see the Elgin Marbles, which would make the eyes roll right back in your head with boredom. The third day we went back to shopping and I was able to get gloves. Please find enclosed a pair which I think will suit your pomona-green crape to perfection. I bought a pair for myself and have spilt coffee on them already. So you see London hasn't changed me yet.

I feel quite envious about Lady Tarleton's dance. Aunt Charlotte has spoken of Almack's but never yet without looking at me and giving a little shudder of apprehension. She intends to call on Lady Jersey tomorrow. If their acquaintance has been exaggerated (and you know that sometimes people do not care quite as much for Aunt Charlotte as she thinks they do) I don't know how we will obtain vouchers. It is plain, however, that without vouchers for Almack's Assembly, Georgy will never truly shine in society, no matter how lovely she is. For my own sake, I hope I get to go too. It would be a shame to have trodden Robert Penwood's feet black and blue learning to dance and then never to get a chance to put it to the test.

Do you think a wizard's installation would be a lady-like thing to attend? We passed the Royal College on the way to the Museum and I'm sure I could find my way.

Do tell me all about the dance and mention Oliver a little so Georgina doesn't sigh herself away entirely.

Love,
Kate

I reread the other two books in the trilogy this week and will give you a quick preview of each one...

THE GRAND TOUR starts out with our two couples going on a sort of shared honeymoon trip through Europe—with Thomas' mother along, no less (at least for the first part of the journey)! The letters have turned into Kate's daybook and Cecy's depositions for a magical inquiry after the adventures are over. Because of course these two get into further scrapes, and James and Thomas do their part, as well. This time, the party briefly gets their hands on a vial of oil used to christen monarchs. Soon it becomes apparent that someone is collecting royal regalia, possibly in hopes of setting up a new emperor over Europe. Bit by bit, the foursome tracks down clues and makes magic, trying to stop the thieves, who begin to threaten our heroes' lives once they realize they are being hunted.

Because the romances are already in place, this book is a little less dimensional than Book 1; however, it's still a lot of fun following the quartet all over Europe. Kate and Cecy in particular are as charming and intrepid as ever. It's especially nice to see Cecilia learning and using more magic. As before, any attempts by James and Thomas to keep their wives safe is doomed to failure. Kate and Cecy are adventurous souls, thankfully for readers.

THE MISLAID MAGICIAN takes place, as the subtitle suggests, "Ten Years After," when each of our couples has a brood of children. In the comments of last week's post, we talked about wanting to see books starring the kids. Here we get a glimpse of that, though we read about the adventures of Cecy's nine-year-old twins and Kate's Edward in their parents' letters, which creates a bit of a remove. (There are younger children, but we hear the most about these three.) I was pleased to see that in Book 3 James and Thomas write letters, too. Their voices are just as they should be and a delightful addition to the mix.

Cecilia and James leave their children with Kate and Thomas and set off to the north to hunt down a missing surveyor-magician. They wind up staying with a pair of ill-bred siblings who seem to be keeping secrets. This book gets a little bogged down in talk of ley lines and the new steam trains, but then the effect of some ancient stone circles kicks the story into high gear. Edward's inadvertent kidnapping is also a romp for readers, if not for his mother. Georgina, Aunt Charlotte, Aunt Elizabeth, and Mr. Wexton make an appearance in the book, some more obnoxiously than others, as befitting their personalities. Cecy and James practically have to rescue the bad guys from Aunt Charlotte!

Overall, the adventures in the trilogy are a little staid, yet they seem appropriate for the Regency era, with a certain British formality. Fortunately, the characters' personalities are engaging and lively enough to make up for the sometimes sedate plot points. There's a droll, witty style to the letters and interactions that makes for a very happy read. (Think Jane Austen.)

I would like to see some books about Kate and Thomas' and Cecy and James' children as teens or young adults. Perhaps losing the epistolary format would allow for faster-paced storytelling, though.

In the meantime, I do recommend the trilogy, particularly because of the setting and the thoroughly appealing characters. You'll find yourself wanting to go on an adventure with Cecy and Kate.

One last thing: Caroline Stevermer wrote a related book with appearances by Thomas and Kate. Magic Below Stairs is a short novel about a boy named Frederick who becomes part of Thomas Schofield's household and ends up saving the day with the help of a brownie named Billy Bly. Also a lot of fun!

The two book jackets up top are the print versions of the books, while the set below are the new ebook reissues we're celebrating with a blog tour. The gentleman at the upper right would be George IV while Prince Regent by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Note: I am working on getting a link to the edited version of Cecy's first letter. Will keep you posted.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Merry Month of May: More Picture Books

Picks from other blog reviewers, a cool poetry blog friend, the ever-crazy Mac Barnett, and even an interviewer—welcome to another batch of intriguing picture book picks!


Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons, created and illustrated by James Dean, story by Eric Litwin

I don't always review sequels, but this one stands alone just fine—more than fine, in fact! (Here's a post with my review of Book 1, Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes.) I wasn't as impressed by Book 2, Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes, but I love Book 3. This time, Pete the Cat has four groovy buttons in four different colors. So of course he has to sing a button song:
"My buttons, my buttons,
my four groovy buttons.
My buttons, my buttons,
my four groovy buttons.

POP! OH NO!
One of the buttons popped off and rolled away.

How many buttons are left?
Three. 4˗1=3

Did Pete cry?
Goodness, no!
Buttons come and buttons go.

As you can guess, Pete continues to shed buttons and to maintain his usual hang-loose style. There's a great twist near the end of this cumulative tale. The book combines a little subtraction, a little humor, some rhythm, and a surfing cat who always keeps his cool. Dean's brightly colored artwork keeps the static design of the cat himself from dampening the book's verve. As before, you can download a performance of the book by Mr. Eric for free. Note also that Book 4 will be out in September: Pete the Cat Saves Christmas.

Pair this book with This Plus That by Amy Krouse Rosenthal.


A Leaf Can Be by Laura Purdie Salas, illustrated by Violeta Dabija

Laura Salas is the host of a weekly poetry event called 15 Words or Less. She is also the writer of some excellent poetry collections, most recently Book Speak! Poems about Books. A Leaf Can Be is a single book-length poem illustrated by Violeta Dabija (who lives in Moldova, of all the interesting places!).

The book starts out like this:
A leaf is a leaf.
It bursts out each spring
when sunny days linger
and orioles sing.

A leaf can be...
Soft cradle
Water ladle
Sun taker
Food maker

There's more, and it's just as creative and hopeful, but I'll restrain myself from typing out the whole thing. Though some of the phrases convey traditional ideas about leaves, others will thoroughly surprise you. The language itself is often unexpected. The illustrations are different and lovely, as well, with two smiling foxes and a cast of birds and other animals adding interest to the green-soaked spreads. When the seasons and the weather turns, the pages take on new colors and still more surprising lines from Salas.

I recommend pairing this book with Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger.


Monsters Eat Whiny Children by Bruce Eric Kaplan

Eve and Henry are going through a whiny stage. They whine constantly. "Their kindly father warned them that monsters eat whiny children. They didn't believe him. So they whined and whined until finally one day a monster came and stole them away." Fortunately for these two, the monster and his wife can't decide exactly what kind of whiny child dish to prepare. Salad? Hamburger? A monster neighbor chimes in, and so does an aunt. Things get messy, plus Kaplan's deadpan humor shines. For example:
"We could make some rice, put a little curry on them, and have an Indian dish," someone suggested halfheartedly. Perhaps a whiny-child vindaloo."

They all tried to figure out if they were in the mood for Indian food.

Sometimes it's so hard to figure out if you're in the mood for Indian food.

Meanwhile, Henry and Eve are playing with monster toys and planning their escape. Which does not involve cucumber sandwiches, exactly.

Kaplan's illustrations are contour line drawings in pen and ink. I feel madly compelled to warn you that his characters have blank ovals for eyes. I find this a little creepy, but hey: It's a style! Apparently Kaplan draws for the New Yorker and has written for Seinfeld and Six Feet Under. Which explains a lot. Be sure to check out the endpapers—they contain a map filled with small, odd incidents from Eve and Henry's lives (e.g., "Library where Henry and Eve like to be too loud"). If you have a slightly off-the-wall sense of humor, I think you'll like this one.

I recommend pairing Monsters Eat Whiny Children with Beware of Boys by Tony Blundell and I'd Really Like to Eat a Child by Sylviane Donnio.


A Bus Called Heaven by Bob Graham

I liked How to Heal a Broken Wing very much (see my review), and "Let's Get a Pup!" Said Kate is just perfect. Now we find out that a bus called Heaven has been accidentally dropped off on Stella's street, and everything changes as a result.
Stella changed, too. She took her thumb from her mouth, where it usually lived, and said, "Mommy, that bus is as sad as a whale on the beach." Then she pushed open the door and climbed on board.

Stella leads a pack of neighbors who basically turn the abandoned bus into a community center. When two taggers from the Street Ratz write on the bus, Stella's mother enlists them to repaint the bus with a mural instead.
People came with donations.
Popi brought her goldfish, Eric.
Luke gave a set of Supercomix.
Stella carried in her table soccer with the missing goalie.
Mrs. Stavros brought a bus cake.

Soon everyone is hanging out on the bus. (It was empty of seats, and they filled it with old furniture.) Neighbors play chess, talk, and read. This is a very inclusive book, with people of all colors and religions—even a rabbi, a priest, and an imam. Some might argue that the book is too touchy-feely about bringing everyone together, but Graham's down-to-earth artwork—especially his knobby-nosed humans—helps keep the book from getting lost in a sea of didacticism. After all, when the bus is threatened, Stella's heroism has as much to do with table soccer as with dreaming about world peace. A Bus Called Heaven is another gently funny and beautifully illustrated book from Bob Graham. In today's world, you could do worse than discover a picture book about the joys of community.

I wrote a pretty good book about community, so I'm going to say it: pair this book with The Secret-Keeper by Kate Coombs.


Mustache by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Kevin Cornell

This one's practically a fable. It's a little strange, but also fun. You see, King Duncan is in love with himself. He thinks his face is so gorgeous, it's a gift to his people to see it. (Narcissus pales by comparison when it comes to Duncan. Really.) The king puts statues and pictures of himself everywhere while his kingdom goes to pot. When the people ask him for help, he gives them an even bigger picture of himself. For some reason, they aren't very grateful.

The worm turns, an suddenly all of the king's pictures and statues turn up with mustaches drawn on them. Duncan is furious! Readers soon learn who is doing the drawing, and eventually so does the king. He jails the culprits—which isn't nearly as satisfying as he thought it would be, for reasons I will let you discover for yourself. The last page is a tad ambiguous, but it seems that King Duncan has learned his lesson at last.

Cornell's cartoon-like drawings are well suited to this tongue-in-cheek tale. The cover design is especially clever. Perhaps Mustache isn't as good as Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World). But it is an entertaining read for the K-2 crowd and might prompt a discussion about arrogance and priorities.

Hmm. Maybe pair this book with I'm the Biggest Thing in the Ocean by Kevin Sherry. Or better, still, try Joseph Bruchac's book, How Chipmunk Got His Stripes.


No Bears by Meg McKinlay, illustrated by Leila Rudge

I think I read about this one on Betsy Bird's blog. (Thanks, Betsy!) It's said that the best children's book illustrators can tell a slightly different story in the pictures even as they support the writer's words. In this case, there's a deliberate disconnect between the words and the pictures—so young readers will get a big kick out of finding out what's really going on by keeping an eagle eye on the artwork. The text represents the point of view of Ella, who addresses readers this way:
Hi, I'm Ella, and this is my book.

You can tell it's a book because there are words everywhere. Words like ONCE UPON A TIME and HAPPILY EVER AFTER and THE END.

I'm in charge of this book, so I know everything about it—including the most important thing, which is that there are NO BEARS in it.

I'm tired of bears. Every time you read a book, it's just BEARS, BEARS, BEARS—horrible furry bears slurping honey in awful little caves.

You don't need BEARS for a book.

Whereupon Ella tells us what you do need in a book, pretty things like fairies and princesses and castles. Ella begins telling a story in which she is the princess, but the story turns scary, with a monster coming to get her.

Now, this whole time, there's a bear hiding out on the pages of the book, looking puzzled by Ella's anti-bear stance. In fact, this kindly, clever bear, who is wearing a yellow dress (or long shirt) with a pattern of green leaves and bees on it, takes steps to slow and finally stop the monster from its quest to kidnap Ella. Though Ella jumps to conclusions and someone else gets the credit, there are those who are wise enough to acknowledge the bear's efforts. Ella wraps up her story, but the true story here is—the bear's.

Rudge's gentle illustrations make both Ella's 'tude and the scary monster more palatable. And the bear is, like a certain bowl of porridge, just right.

No Bears is a book about storytelling. It's a cousin to books like Lane Smith's It's a Book, David Ezra Stein's Interrupting Chicken, and Barnett's Chloe and the Lion. Best of all, it implies that stories have a life of their own. Look for this one. It's a goodie!

Try pairing this book with The Obstinate Pen by Frank W. Dormer. Or (haha) The Bravest Ever Bear by Allan Ahlberg.


Trains Go by Steve Light

Trains Go is a simple book, and one that instantly evokes comparisons to Donald Crews' Caldecott Honor book, Freight Train. Like Freight Train, it shows brightly colored train cars against a stark white background. However, Trains Go veers off the track in that each spread shows a different train, whereas Freight Train builds a single train and gets it moving. Trains Go also uses the text to give voice to the sounds of the trains. Listen to the first three:
The freight train goes,
SQUEAK CLANG TING
BING BING BING!

The streamliner goes,
WO WOOO
WOOOOOO
WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

The mountain train goes,
TRIP TRAP FUFF PUFF
TRIP TRAP FUFF PUFF
TRIP TRAP FUFF PUFF

I'm not sure it's intentional, but there's a little play on words there. "Goes" can be used in place of "says," especially if you're from L.A. like I am. And of course, "goes" refers to a train's movement. I suspect the mountain train spread contains another joke, an allusion to the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff.

Light's trains and tracks and smoke have a bolder, grittier feel than Crews' perfect procession of train cars. The contoured shapes and lines add to the sense of motion, and the brashness of Light's style seems to fit the energy of the trains. I should note, too, that the sound words quoted above are presented in different sizes, which gives them a more energetic feel, as well. Light has also scuffed the letters of the interior font, another touch that puts grit in the book. Finally, this board book is shaped like a box car, short and wide.

Trains Go is a simple book, but a great choice for a lap reader who enjoys sound effects and likes truck and train books.

Aside from the obvious, I would pair Trains Go with Zimmerman, Clemesha, and Yaccarino's Trashy Town. (It's about trash trucks, but trust me on this one!)


House Held Up by Trees by Ted Kooser, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Jon Klassen has three new picture books out that I know of—Extra Yarn (see my preview here), I Want My Hat Back, and now House Held Up by Trees. I will just warn you that this book is best suited for adult readers unless you have a very thoughtful and introspective child. The text is by Pulitzer Prize winner and former Poet Laureate of the United States, Ted Kooser, so it goes without saying that the language is lovely. The book begins:
When it was new, the house stood alone on a bare square of earth. There was a newly planted lawn around it, but not a single tree to give shade in summer or to rattle its bare twigs in the winter cold. There had been trees there once, but all of them had been cut down to make room for the house. Even their stumps had been pulled up and burned.

We learn that the two children play in the wild trees that surround the lot, crawling through the tightly woven bushes beneath them. Meanwhile, the father of the family mows the lawn, religiously pulling up the tree sprouts that grow when the seeds from the trees around the lot blow onto the grass and take root.

Years pass. The children grow up and move away. Still the father cares for the yard, keeping the trees out. Until—one day he doesn't. He moves to the city to be closer to his adult children. Untended and unsold, the house and yard sit, seemingly still. But now the tree sprouts do grow up. They grow and grow until they surround the house and even, as the title suggests, slowly lift it into the sky with their branches. Read this wonderful line:
The winds pushed at the house, but the young trees kept it from falling apart, and as they grew bigger and stronger, they held it together as if it was a bird's nest in the fingers of their branches.

Klassen's sometimes austere and even sere style is appropriate for this rather distant story and voice. It's a unusual book, but it speaks in its own right. If you're a collector of poetry and unique picture books, watch for Kooser and Klassen's ultra-quiet tale. I suppose there might be a moral to this story, but for me it's simply about nature and the power and wonder of trees.

Although I do like the idea of the trees as the heroes of the story!

Why not pair this with the famous poem by Sara Teasdale, "There Will Come Soft Rains"?


An Awesome Book by Dallas Clayton

There are two reasons I'm inclined not to like this book: first, it's one of those didactic pop psychology offerings about having imagination and dreaming big, and second, the art style is a little too psychedelic for my tastes. And yet—there's something randomly, strangely likable about Dallas Clayton's picture book. I'll give you the first few pages (the book's written in all caps):
THERE ARE PLACES IN THE WORLD WHERE PEOPLE DO NOT DREAM...
OF ROCKET-POWERED UNICORNS
AND CANDY CANE MACHINES
OF MAGIC WATERMELON BOATS
AND MUSICAL BABOONS...

Naturally, Clayton provides pictures of all these dreams and more. Then he talks about places where dreams are dead. He challenges young readers to dream big and even bigger dreams, which they should then make real. All the while he's tossing out art that's kind of bizarre, fitting for the way people dream at night, in fact.

I don't know if this is an awesome book, but it's a cool book, the kind that might make you smile and review your own dreams. I guess I would call it A Funky Book, myself. See what you think!

I suggest pairing this one with Rain Makes Applesauce by Julian Scheer.


Step Gently Out by Helen Frost, illustrated with photos by Rick Lieder

I am happy to say that I was recently interviewed by Erika Rohrbach for Kirkus, and Erika was very fun to talk to. Among other things, I told her she had to read The Arrival by Shaun Tan. She told me in turn that I had to read Step Gently Out by Helen Frost. So of course, I did.

Helen Frost is a poet best known for her novels in verse, e.g., Diamond Willow, Hidden, and Crossing Stones, but Step Gently Out is a picture book poem about the world of insects, spiders, and beetles. The book is illustrated by stunning close-up photographs of each creature. Because the focus is on each small actor, backdrops blur away, though they are vaguely recognizable as green leaves, foggy mornings, and twilights. The whole effect is one of a subdued world with glorious scraps of life beating brightly at its heart. We begin:
Step gently out, [a praying mantis on a daisy]
be still, and watch a single blade of grass. [a louche-looking caterpillar on a blade of grass]
An ant climbs up to look around. [just what it says!]
A honeybee flies past. [a perfectly clear bee mid-flight]

There is rhyme in this book occasionally. The words are certainly strong, but I have to say, the photos tend to trump the text. Though ultimately, the two work together, telling us of a world we don't always notice or think about, reminding us of its power and singular beauty. (A note at the end explains each creature in more scientific detail.)

Thanks, Erika!

I would pair Step Gently Out with The Beetle Book by Steve Jenkins or Bug Off! Creepy, Crawly Poems by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple.


Note: HarperCollins sent me An Awesome Book and Chronicle sent me Trains Go.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Goodbye, Maurice











A moment of silence, please. It's the end of an era. Maurice Sendak has died. (He was 83.)

His Where the Wild Things Are is still arguably the best picture book of all time.

His Max is still every angry little kid you've ever met. The one who gets over it just in time for a hot meal. And there's even cake.

Did you ever notice that every little boy Sendak drew was a young Maurice?

Sendak was a curmudgeon till the end, recently giving a delightfully cranky interview to Stephen Colbert, who is writing a tongue-in-cheek picture book out of it.

Sendak got sick of talking about Where the Wild Things Are, which I suppose is understandable. He has created other wonderful books, as well, most recently Bumble Ardy. My personal second favorite is the Nutshell Library, especially Chicken Soup with Rice and Pierre. Oh, and what about his Rosie?

Maurice Sendak changed the course of picture books, showing that they can be rich and subversive rather than sweet and didactic. Every picture book written in the last 50 years owes a debt to Sendak.

What's your favorite Sendak book? Higglety Pigglety Pop? Outside Over There? In the Night Kitchen? Or the books he illustrated: Little Bear, The Moon Jumpers, Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, The Bat-Poet, The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, The Light Princess...

Thank you, Maurice. Thank you and goodbye. Maybe the angels won't pester you about Where the Wild Things Are. And maybe you'll see Jenny again.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Letter Writing, Hot Chocolate, and Magic

Before there was Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis, before there was even Downton Abbey, there was Sorcery and Cecilia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, an epistolary fantasy novel which reads like a Regency adventure with a dollop of romance but includes magic as a rather ordinary aspect of British society in 1817.

What's really great about this book (besides the story itself) is that it began as the Letter Game, in which two writers build a story by writing back and forth as characters, not planning ahead in the slightest. When fantasy authors Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer played the game, they went all out: the letters turned into a novel! (Book cover above left is from the 2004 print edition. Book cover below right is from the new ebook edition.)

We begin with Cecilia, who has been left in the country (Essex, to be precise) while her cousin Kate goes to London. Normally one would expect the two to go to London together, but there was this incident with a goat... At any rate, the aunts have decided to split them up. Doing so does not, however, keep the girls out of trouble.

Here's an image of the very first letter from Patricia C. Wrede writing as Cecilia. Or you can use this link to take a closer look.






























Things aren't quiet for either girl. Kate is at an event and stumbles into a pocket garden where a terrifying woman tries to make her drink poisoned hot chocolate, apparently thinking Kate is Thomas, Marquis of Schofield. Cecilia (AKA Cecy) meets Dorothea, who is far too attractive to every young man in sight, as if she were using some kind of magic. Yet Dorothea is a very nice person. And why is there a charm bag under Cecilia's brother Oliver's mattress? Then Cecilia discovers a young man named James Tarleton skulking about, spying on Dorothea.

The ominous doings prove to be not only complex, but intertwined. Kate steals a book from a magic maker and creates her own charms, while Kate dances with the marquis at a ball and learns far less than she would like. Then she is attacked by magic, and her cousin Oliver disappears.

One thing I really like about this book is that while Thomas and James start off having all the fun (okay, danger) and trying to keep the young ladies out of it for reasons of safety, they fail. Kate and Cecilia are clever, active, and practical. Readers will observe that Thomas and James can only get so far with gallantry and great waistcoats; they really do need Kate and Cecilia's help. Not to mention that two romances are brewing. Make that four romances, actually. Brewing, as I said...

Which brings me back to that enchanted chocolate pot, the center of the troubles Thomas is having with a pair of nefarious wizards. Naturally, Cecilia has a plan. Although this foursome will need more than one plan to solve the various problems created by their enemies.

As Leah Hanson once put it, "[t]his mystery is a perfect combination of Harry Potter's magic and Jane Austen's love stories."

I was happy to reread Sorcery and Cecilia as a participant in a 2-part blog tour to honor the reissue of the trilogy in ebook form (yes, there are two sequels). The book is just as much fun as I remembered. Look for Post #2 next Monday, when you can see how the first letter evolved. In the meantime, drink some non-poisoned hot chocolate and track down this book!

Here's a link to Stephanie Burgis's post about the books.

Note: That would be Patricia C. Wrede to the left and Caroline Stevermer above right. Other good books by Wrede include Dealing with Dragons and the rest of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, along with Mairelon the Magician and Magician's Ward (recently reissued in one volume as A Matter of Magic) and the new Frontier Magic books. Other books by Stevermer that I like are A College of Magics, A Scholar of Magics, and River Rats.

Update (5-13): The link to the letter isn't working at the moment. I'll let you know if I can get a working link again!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Cinco de Book Pick

Well, between a big deadline at work and a special post going up on Monday (involving a magic chocolate pot!), I'm not going to be posting reviews this weekend.

However.

I will ask you this: Would anyone like book recommendations for a child in their life?

Let me know in the comments and I'll give you a list. (Assuming a limited number of people inquire. If it's too many, I'll draw names.) I'll need to know the age and gender of the child, preferred genres, last 4-5 books read and liked, and, if the child is a reluctant reader, favorite movies and TV shows. Note that a lot of kids are either more sci-fi fantasy oriented or more interested in realistic and historical fiction or nonfiction, so let me know if that's apparent to you, as well.

Meanwhile, Happy Cinco de Mayo! Did you know this is an Americanized holiday? That is, it's a big party day for Mexican Americans, but not for Mexicans. It celebrates a victory in a battle in Puebla over the French in 1862, so it is a big deal in Puebla. Mexican Independence Day is September 16, though, and that's comparable to our July 4.

Still a great festive day in the United States for honoring Mexican heritage. Considering a big chunk of our country used to be part of Spain and later Mexico, that makes sense. And let's hear it for guacamole!


Update (5-9-12): Here are my book picks for Amy's and Tracy's kids:

Book Picks for Amy's Kids

I read far more SFF, but I'll give it a shot!

My favorites for realistic fiction are a series by Hilary McKay about the Casson family. The parents are not particularly admirable people, but the siblings are great characters. I've loved all of the books. Saffy's Angel is the first and is pretty good, but they just get better from there: Indigo's Star, Permanent Rose, Caddy Ever After, Forever Rose, Caddy's World.

Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor and Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson are a couple of other recent books I'd recommend. But I especially recommend an older series, Cynthia Voigt's Tillerman books, starting with Homecoming. The girls might also like The FitzOsbornes in Exile and sequels by Michelle Cooper (historical fiction, character heavy).

For your son, have you tried Discover magazine? I tried Popular Science and found it too gadgety, though he might like that. Discover is a nice mix of articles from the different sciences. I have a subscription. For a fan of adventure fiction like Paulsen's, my favorite book is Alabama Moon by Watt Key. The sequel, Dirt Road Home, is pretty violent (set in a boys' prison), but it's a good follow-up. They're both survival stories. Oh, and N.D. Wilson's book, Leepike Ridge!

Science wise, I'm thinking books intended for adults. I like an overview called The Canon by Natalie Angier and the classic The Double Helix by James D. Watson. Older stuff, but good: Genius and Chaos by James Gleick, The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, and of course, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking.

The Tipping Point and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell are fascinating.

I would also suggest books on being savvy about statistics and media propaganda: the classic How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff, a more recent book called unSpun by Jackson and Jamieson, and Wrong by David H. Freedman.


Book Picks for Tracy B's Kids

For your youngest, I would suggest the Maze Runner trilogy by James Dashner and the Ranger's Apprentice books by John Flanagan, along with The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and sequel by Tom Angelberger. Also Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilson, Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, and Catherine Fisher's Incarceron and sequels. He might also like Garth Nix's Keys of the Kingdom books.

Other ideas, if he likes Alex Rider, are the Young James Bond (Charlie Higson), Young Jack London/Secret Journeys (Christopher Golden), and Young Sherlock (Andrew Lane) series. I like a British series called Cherubs by Robert Muchamore, but the books are a bit strong when it comes to violence and sex of the YA variety.

Has your older son read Scott Westerfeld's series, Uglies etc. and Leviathan etc.? Other books he might like are Philip Reeve's Hungry Cities Chronicles—I believe it starts with Mortal Engines; Jane Yolen's Dragon's Blood books, N.D. Wilson's 100 Cupboards books, and Diana Wynne Jones's Chronicles of Chrestomanci (first The Lives of Christopher Chant, then Charmed Life and Witch Week, etc.), Archer's Goon, and others. I quite liked Charlie Fletcher's Stoneheart trilogy, Pod by Stephen Wallenfels, and a funny YA book called Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride. Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein and Starswarm by Jerry Pournelle are a couple of teen sci-fi books I'd recommend. If he's up for reading grown-up sci-fi (or you don't mind), I suggest Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan books. And then there's Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, which eventually spilled over into MG/YA with Wee Free Men and sequels. What about Megan Whalen Turner's books? I'm a huge fan! They are The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, and A Conspiracy of Kings (so far). I assume he's read Tolkien and the Harry Potter books already.

Anyway, those are just a few of the many cool books out there... Happy Reading!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Thank You, Diana Wynne Jones

Last spring, British fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones passed away from cancer. I felt a huge, personal sense of loss. After all, I've loved her books for as long as I can remember. She's in my trio of best children's fantasy writers, along with Megan Whalen Turner (whom she helped to publish a first book) and another Brit, Terry Pratchett.

What makes DWJ's books so great?

I'll begin with the details. I've noticed a lot of the best fantasy books and stories have shockingly creative details. Just think about it: glass slippers, a giant beanstalk, a cat in boots, an aerial school sport played on broomsticks, a young witch who uses her little brother as bait and hits a river monster with a frying pan.

Now, consider Diana Wynne Jones's inventiveness: a dirty sneakers spell, a scrawny young goddess who longs to go to a girls' boarding school, a nine-lived enchanter supervising magic through the dimensions like a chief of police, a song that brings down a mountain, a goon at the kitchen table, a young woman who is cursed with old age, a spell that's a conga line...

And Jones's parallel worlds always include big doses of the ordinary, making the dragon's blood matter all the more.

Convolution. (I wanted to say convolutedness, perhaps because it sounds more twisty!) DWJ's books are unpredictable, with a subtle vein of humor running through most of them. One of the biggest compliments of my life was when an editor compared the ending of my manuscript to Diana Wynne Jones's work because I had what he called a cast of thousands plus a complicated ending.

There are certain scenes in Diana Wynne Jones's books—you know, the kind that make you smile and even laugh a little because you know they're coming up in a few pages. One of them is the conga line mentioned above, actually from one of Jones's books for grown-ups, A Sudden Wild Magic.

Of course, the reason you know they're coming up is because you're rereading. Some books can only be read once. But DWJ's books are rereadable in a big way.

One of the best things about Diana Wynne Jones's writing is her way with characters. For example, her kid characters aren't heroic, particularly. They're grubby and surprised and sometimes unkind, though they do have their good points. I am very fond of Christopher Chant and Millie, not to mention Howard and Sophie and obviously Howl, just for starters. Plus the Goon. And a cat named Throgmorten! The villains are dimensional, too. Anyone who has ever had a horrible older sister will nevertheless gasp at Gwendolyn Chant's complete and utter ruthlessness, as well as her ongoing efforts to upset Chrestomanci with her over-the-top spells.

DWJ's books are also characterized by a kind of practical, nearly hardnosed, sort of whimsy.

I have my favorites, as you can tell. Here are a handful of them:


Cart and Cwidder

Like the other books in this unconnected set, the Dalemark Quartet, Cart and Cwidder takes place in a vaguely medieval setting. You'll find that the author's way with character extends to an understanding of families and how they function, or rather how they straggle along. Clennen is a larger-than-life personality on a small stage, a musician and performer traveling around Dalemark with his children. But when they pick up a new passenger, Moril learns that his father is not what he seems, and Moril will have to be braver and more musical than he ever imagined. I say this, sounding epic, but the fact is that these kids squabble along even as they try to fulfill their father's mission and beat the bad guys. They don't always know what to do, and yet they plug along, alternately messing up and getting it right. Like I said, real.

Random excerpt:
While Lenina was cooking supper, Clennen fetched the big cwidder down, polished it, tuned it carefully, and beckoned Moril. Moril came reluctantly. He was rather in awe of the big cwidder. Its shining round belly was even more imposing than Clennen's. The inlaid patterns on the front and arm, made of pearl and ivory and various colored woods, puzzled him by their strangeness. And its voice when you played it was so surprisingly sweet and quite unlike that of the other cwidders. Clennen took such care of it that Moril still sometimes thought—as he had when he was little—that this cwidder was an extra, special part of Clennen, more important than his father's arm or leg—something on the lines of a wooden soul.

How's that for writing?? Keep in mind that that's her early stuff. DWJ was just getting started!


Howl's Moving Castle

A lot of people know about this book, or at least the 2004 film of the story made by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. In a world where fairy tale rules dictate that the younger daughters will have all the luck, Sophie doesn't see herself having much of a future—and that's even before the Witch of the Waste turns her into a little old lady. Freed from her shyness by dint of old age, Sophie sets out on an adventure. She catches up with the terrible wizard Howl's moving castle and basically forces herself in, making friends with a strange fiery creature named Calcifer. Of course, this is a DWJ books, so there are about 50 subplots. Yet she makes them all work!

Random excerpt:
[When Sophie tries to tidy up Howl's room and then the yard.] "Not here either," he said. "You are a terror, aren't you? Leave this yard alone. I know just where everything is in it, and I won't be able to find the things I need for my transport spells if you tidy them up."

So there was probably a bundle of souls or a box of chewed hearts somewhere out here, Sophie thought. She felt really thwarted. "Tidying up is what I'm here for!" she shouted at Howl.

"Then you must think of a new meaning for your life," Howl said... "Now trot along indoors, you overactive old thing, and find something else to play with before I get angry. I hate getting angry."

Sophie folded her skinny arms. She did not like being glared at by eyes like glass marbles. "Of course you hate getting angry!" she retorted. "You don't like anything unpleasant, do you? You're a slitherer-outer, that's what you are! You slither away from anything you don't like!"

Howl gave a forced sort of smile. "Well now," he said. "Now we both know each other's faults."


Archer's Goon

A boy named Howard comes home to find the Goon sitting at the kitchen table, scaring baby sitter Fifi and not exactly scaring Howard's holy terror of a little sister, Awful. The Goon wants something, but what? I can sincerely predict that you'll never guess where this is going, but it has something to do with the two thousand words Howard's father must turn in to a man named Mountjoy every three months. When the pages get waylaid, the electricity is turned off. And that's just the beginning of the troubles that come to Howard's family. Let's just say things escalate—it's rotten and hilarious all at the same time. Howard discovers that a group of unpleasant siblings are running the city, a crime family with magical powers. I'll stop there, but this is another odd, convoluted tale. I love it! Especially the Goon.

Not-So-Random Excerpt (because it's the prologue):
1. A Goon is a being who melts into the foreground and sticks there.
2. Pigs have wings, making them hard to catch.
3. All power corrupts, but we need electricity.
4. When an irresistible force meets an immovable object, the result is a family fight.
5. Music does not always soothe the troubled breast.
6. An Englishman's home is his castle.
7. The female of the species is more deadly than the male.
8. One black eye deserves another.
9. Space is the final frontier, and so is the sewage farm.
10. It pays to increase your word power.


Dogsbody

To my dismay, when I sat down to write this post, I realized I had loaned Dogsbody to my associate editor. Why, oh why? Well, I figure it speaks volumes that when I realized she was a fantasy reader and writer who had missed out on a lot of the best stuff, this was one of half a dozen books I loaned her, as well as Howl's Moving Castle (she had seen the movie). Dogsbody has a fairly gritty subplot about a little girl who is living with unloving relatives and a parallel subplot about a puppy she rescues from the river. Only, this being DWJ, the puppy is something more, a lost somebody on the run from enemies, but stuck in a puppy mind. He has trouble protecting Kathleen, let alone himself. A strange and tender story with an appearance by the horned god in the forest.

No excerpt. Sorry!


The Lives of Christopher Chant and Charmed Life

DWJ's best invention is arguably Chrestomanci, which sounds like a name but is actually a title. The most powerful enchanter in the series of known worlds is obligated to be trained to police magic in those worlds. In The Lives of Christopher Chant, the son of rather awful feuding parents is often at loose ends. Is it any wonder he responds when his too-bland governess and his mother's friend involve him in a scheme to take advantage of the fact that he travels to the Anywheres in his dreams? One of the two funniest things about this book is the gruesomely amusing way Christopher keeps getting killed in his dreams (in answer to the old question, if you die in your dreams, do you die in real life?). The other is a friend Christopher makes in one of the worlds, the young Goddess of Asheth. Her idea of bliss is to read books about girls at boarding schools, e.g., Head Girl Millie. Then the plot thickens. And swerves. And does a loop-de-loop. I especially like the creativity of the bootboy, the cook, the gardeners, and some maids who are called upon to join the magical defense of the house.

Charmed Life features a Chrestomanci who turns out to be the grown-up Christopher Chant. He always wears silk dressing gowns around the mansion full of magic workers. Since he can be summoned by repeating his name three times, he tends to show up in his dressing gown. But our story begins with a boy named Cat (Eric) Chant and his vain, ringleted older sister Gwendolyn. The two go to live with Chrestomanci. Gwendolyn expects to be cosseted, if not revered, so she is enraged to find that's not what happens. Meanwhile, Cat wanders around, bewildered, finding out the various small secrets of a house full of magic. There's a mystery surrounding Cat and his sister that gradually emerges as the plot progresses. And then Gwendolyn disappears, leaving an astonished doppelganger behind.

Random Excerpt (from Charmed Life):
"Why were you in the bath?" he said, wondering whether to search the bathroom.

"I don't know. I just woke up there," said Janet, shaking out a tangle of hair ribbons in the bottom drawer. "I felt as if I'd been dragged through a hedge backward, and I'd no clothes on, so I was freezing."

"Why had you no clothes on?" Cat said, stirring Gwendolen's underclothes about, without success.

"I was hot in bed last night," said Janet. "So naked I came into this world. And I wandered about pinching myself—especially after I found this fabulous room. I thought I must have been turned into a princess. But there was this nightdress lying on the bed, so I put it on—"

"You've got it on back to front," said Cat.

Janet stopped scanning the things on the mantelpiece to look down at the trailing ribbons. "Have I? It won't be the only thing I'm going to get back to front, by the sound of it. Try looking in that artistic wardrobe. Then I explored outside here, and all I found was miles of long green corridor, which gave me the creeps, and stately grounds out the windows, so I came back in here and went to bed. I hoped that when I woke up it would all have gone away. And instead there was you. Found anything?"

"No," said Cat. "But there's her box—"

"It must be in there," said Janet.


The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

If you're going to write fantasy, you should read this book. And if you're a fantasy reader, you should, too. DWJ presents a delightfully diabolical, tongue-in-cheek look at all the most standard-issue fantasy tropes every written. This send-up is very, very funny, but in addition, it has helped me to think differently about my own writing. For example, I never serve my fantasy characters stew, and that's entirely due to this book. Note that Ms. Jones sets the whole thing up as a tour. (See also her book The Dark Lord of Derkholm. The Guide is a companion to that one.) Here are a few sample entries. Note that OMT stands for Official Management Term.
DUKES. This is the highest form of lord, often one of the KING's family. Very few of them are GOOD and most of them are wicked uncles at the very least. The few Good Dukes are always frantically busy and beset with cares of state [OMT]. The Rule is that all Dukes, Good or EVIL, are always forty years old or more. See also REGENTS.

from COLOUR CODING. Eyes. Black eyes are invariably Evil; brown eyes mean boldness and humour, but not necessarily goodness; green eyes always entail TALENT, usually for MAGIC but sometimes for MUSIC... grey eyes mean POWER or healing abilities (see HEALERS) and will be reassuring unless they look silver... blue eyes are always GOOD, the bluer the more Good present; and then there are violet eyes and golden eyes. People with violet eyes are often of Royal birth and, if not, always live uncomfortably interesting lives. People with golden eyes just live uncomfortably interesting lives, and most of them are rather fey into the bargain.

Of the hundreds of books that have taught me to write, Diana Wynne Jones's are among the few at the top of the list. I can only imagine
that her books will continue to touch, delight, and teach writing to young readers for many years to come.

Thank you, Diana, for the treasure of your books. Through their cleverness, creativity, and wry good humor, I do feel I got to know you. Again, thank you.


See also my 2009 post, "The Queen of Children's Fantasy"; my recent review of DWJ's last book, Earwig and the Witch, and a review of the book before that, Enchanted Glass. You can find a complete list of Diana Wynne Jones's books at this Wiki page.

I will add that I wro
te this post as part of a blog tour honoring DWJ. Here's the site where you can link to the other posts in the tour. You should be aware that Firebird has reissued some of Diana Wynne Jones's books in her honor with new introductions and extras, as follows:
Three Firebird reissues (DOGSBODY, FIRE AND HEMLOCK, and A TALE OF TIME CITY—each is the definitive edition, and each has an intro by a star—DOGSBODY (Neil Gaiman), A TALE OF TIME CITY (Ursula Le Guin), FIRE AND HEMLOCK (Garth Nix). FIRE AND HEMLOCK also features the essay "The Heroic Ideal," which DWJ wrote about the writing of the book; it has never before appeared alongside the book, or THE TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND (the Firebird edition is also definitive, entirely redesigned, with new art and material), the novella THE GAME, or her final book, EARWIG AND THE WITCH.

Yep, I have the updated Tough Guide to Fantasyland in my hot little hand, and I will lure you with the title of this special page, "How to Compose a Ballad." You will want to check out the map, too, and find out the secret of those epic fantasy names with the apostrophes in the middle.