Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Review of Mothstorm by Philip Reeve

I wonder if I can typeset the title of Philip Reeve's third book in this steampunk series correctly. Yes, it's Mothstorm: The Horror from Beyond Uranus Georgium Sidus. When your older sister is a proper Victorian lady—or likes to think she is—she will surely be unwilling to use the term “Uranus,” even if she is running the engineering room of your spaceship.

Reeve is probably best known as the author of The Hungry City Chronicles, a dystopian sci-fi series for teens in which Earth’s cities roll around on ginormous tractor feet devouring smaller cities. His more recent book, Here Lies Arthur, casts a cynical eye on Arthurian legend and is a Carnegie Medal winner.

Larklight: A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space, Starcross: A Stirring Adventure of Spies, Time Travel, and Curious Hats, and now Mothstorm, are positively rollicking in comparison to Reeve’s work for older readers. Reeve, surely one of today’s most innovative children's book writers, has imagined a world in which stoic British children ride spaceships and encounter B-movie aliens in the skies over Victorian England. (Mere matters like how to breathe are blithely set aside, just so you know.) Within this context, Reeve has a great deal of fun, throwing in icthyomorphs of the high aether (space fish) as well as pigheaded bureaucrats, old salts and helpful aliens of various kinds. There are a lot of muttonchop sideburns and elegant moustaches in these books—the latter so elegant, in fact, that the twirling ends of one such moustache are supported by small helium balloons. Which should give you an idea about the writer's sense of humor.

Reeve casually makes the children’s mother a Shaper, essentially a goddess. And while the setup is wonderful, the best thing about Mothstorm and its predecessors is those children, Art (Arthur) and his older sister, Myrtle. Art recounts most of their adventures, but occasionally throws in a chapter by his sister. So you get, for example, “Chapter Eighteen: In Which I, Miss Myrtle Evangeline Mumby, Shall Take Up the Reins of This Narrative, Since Art Was Too Affected by the Sad News I Brought from Mothstorm to Observe Anything Which Happened During Our Voyage to Mercury,” and then you come to “The Real Chapter Eighteen: Our Voyage to the Tin Moon, as Told by Art Mumby, with None of the Slushy Bits.” I should note that Myrtle is much inspired by Miss Whipham's A Young Lady's Primer, while Art draws courage from The Boys Own Journal. He explains at one point, "Remember, Charity, we are British, and there is nothing that good old British Pluck cannot accomplish!"

As in the first two books, the intrepid Jack Havock plays a part—think Indiana Jones, only a teenage boy with a somewhat begrudging crush on Myrtle. Most of Art’s dreaded “slushy bits” have to do with Jack and Myrtle’s romance, which is usually interrupted by a battle or the need to rescue people.

Mothstorm recounts the story of a mysterious cloud appearing out by Uranus (AKA Georgium Sidus). The two known colonizers of that planet, a missionary named Cruet and his daughter Charity, have sent a warning message and then lost contact with the rest of the British space empire. Art and his family soon set out to discover what has happened to the Cruets, and they find themselves at war with a new alien invasion, one specifically targeting their mother and her work.

Philip Reeve wraps up so many ongoing plot threads here that I can’t help wondering if the series is finished. We even get to meet Queen Victoria herself, although that stately woman nearly foils Art’s attempt to save the world while she is suspended upside down from her own Christmas tree. Which reminds me—I forgot to mention the holiday setting of this third book. A few pages into Mothstorm, you’ll know you’re in for a good time when Mr. Mumby whispers, “Thank Heaven you’ve arrived! A most vexing thing has happened. The Pudding has gone Rogue!”

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

2009 Newbery Award: Indies vs. Blockbusters and the F Factor

The other day I came across an article on the Internet about which Academy Award winners for Best Picture shouldn’t have won over the years. Jonathan Crow wrote, “Like the Supreme Court and the College of Cardinals, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is an exclusive and obscure deliberative body that is prone to its own brand of weirdness. The Academy loves to reward actors who play endearing lunatics and actresses who hag it up for a part. It throws trophies at lavish historical epics and anything about the Holocaust” (“Oscar’s Worst ‘Best Picture’ Picks,” Oscar Blog, 1/21/09).

It took me a second to realize why this sounded so familiar. Then I thought, oh yeah, this guy took a page straight out of the recent kerfluffle over the choices made by the Newbery Committee, a debate which began with Anita Silvey's infamous School Library Journal article questioning the relevance of the award. I read more of the ensuing dialogue (or perhaps slugfest—although, do librarians even have fists?) in children’s book blogs over the weeks that followed and eventually concluded that the whole thing was a matter of indies vs. blockbusters, a question that constantly dogs Academy Awards picks.

Back when I was young, I remember being surprised to hear that Chariots of Fire had won the Academy Award for Best Picture. I had loved the movie myself, but I hadn't thought anyone else would care about what seemed like an obscure little film. Since then, I have become wiser in the ways of the Academy, and it no longer surprises me when an indie or at least a "quiet" film kicks the stuffing out of a blockbuster (Titanic aside, but then, Titanic had indie pretensions, despite its high ticket sales—historical fiction seems to be inherently appealing to Academy voters). In fact, take a look at this year’s Oscar race: The Black Knight is arguably brilliant, but it lost out early, at the mere nominating stage, to a movie with underdog and indie appeal, Slumdog Millionaire.

I wasn’t around for the travesty of the heart-warming How Green Was My Valley stealing Best Picture from Citizen Kane back in 1941, but I do recall Forrest Gump beating Pulp Fiction in 1994. As a fantasy fan and an English major, it’s easy for me to picture this kind of warfare—whether about films or books—as the righteous ivory tower types wielding their artsy, intellectual swords against the crude attacks of pop culture troglodytes. I'm hesitant to go there, however, because I prefer to think of the battle itself as being very useful.

Unfortunately, left to their own devices, purists tend to go to extremes. In the children’s book world, this means forgetting that the works in question aren’t required to be the equivalent of somber, sobering grown-up novels, only with prettier jacket art and shorter main characters. The Newbery Committee may not need someone like Anita Silvey to remind them that the books they review are intended to be read by still other short people, but I would say that the historic, ongoing struggle between intellectuals and pop culture in this and other fields forces the former to think in richer, more dimensional ways.

I did finally get my hands on a copy of last year’s winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz. It’s arguably an obscure book from the point of view of fans of photobiographies of the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus, but I have no problem admitting that Schlitz’s creation is brilliant. I mean that as a reader, a poetry person, and a writer, as well as a teacher. One goal of the Newbery Committee is to select books that will stand the test of time. They have certainly made their share of successful choices: we need only look at Holes (1999), The Giver (1994), and Maniac Magee (1991) for some shining examples. Sure, the committee has missed a few here and there, but considering the pressure they’re under—and the gazillion books they have to evaluate—they actually hit the mark surprisingly often.

Which brings us to this year’s winner, The Graveyard Book (see my review dated 1/10/09). Why did this book win, and what makes it such a wonderful choice? If Newbery Committee members were truly bound by the fairly predictable concept of a Merchant/Ivory-type children’s book, they would have chosen Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, Helen Frost’s Diamond Willow, or maybe Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath (all terrific books, to be sure). But this is the same team that chose Holes a few years back, so let’s give them some credit for thinking outside the box.

After all, it’s a given that the winning book must be well written. That means there will always be a solid group of strong contenders at the top, any one of which would be a good choice. In that case, did Shlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village win in 2008 because it offered us a nice history lesson? Nope. The book had the F Factor, and so does The Graveyard Book. That would be the Freshness Factor, and thank heavens for it! I suspect that far from being out of touch, the Newbery Committee has made some truly innovative choices over the past decade.

Think back to the works that have changed the field of children’s books: Where the Wild Things Are and A Wrinkle in Time, for starters. The best books don’t just please us with their beautiful language and capture us with their appealing characters, they surprise us. I can’t say that every Newbery winner, every single year, has been stunningly fresh, but I believe that the best of them have been. A fresh book is one that is intriguing. It is not necessarily experimental in the sense of being avant garde, but it feels new. (An example of a fresh film would be The Sixth Sense—remember how its plot twists revived jaded audiences?)

I’ll confess that while I love books as much as I ever did, I’ve gotten to the point where it takes an amazing book for me to truly lose myself in wonder. Only two books I read this past year really swept me away—one was Alabama Moon, which I finally read, and the other was The Graveyard Book. So when I heard that the Newbery Committee chose Gaiman’s book for the medal, I felt such a rush of happiness. Their choice was the perfect rebuttal to all of the commotion about the committee’s work: a book that is not only well written in terms of language, characters, and plot; a book that not only gives us encounters with tenderness, humor, and fear; but a book that surprises us with its fresh, strange beauty.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Handful of Poems: Five Anthologies for Small Children

I was reading The Usborne Book of Poems for Young Children, edited by Philip Hawthorn (Usborne, 2004), when I came up with the Wynken, Blynken, and Nod rule, which states that any poetry collection for little kids that includes Eugene Fields’s sappy poem, “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” should be red-flagged as being behind the times. I solemnly swear that I came up with the rule before the British Corollary occurred to me. It states that any book of poems for small children which includes “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” is likely to be British.

Sure enough, the only other book of the five I’m reviewing that includes WBN is My First Oxford Book of Poems, edited by John Foster (Oxford UP, 2000). Now, random as my rule may seem, it hints at other facets of children’s poetry collections published by the Brits. In general, I found the poems to be more sophisticated. Whether this means that UK editors consider young children to be capable of listening to longer, more complex poems than American editors do or simply indicates that they had a wider age range in mind, I do not know. But I do know that the two British collections include more classic, literary poems than the other three collections. The books somehow seems more stately to me than the American ones, if a little old-fashioned. They also have the advantage of drawing on poets not always added to American collections, e.g., John Agard and Roger McGough. This may be more of a sideways shift than a measure of fuller breadth, but it is still refreshing.

Heavy hitters like William Blake, Christina Rossetti, Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Victor Hugo, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Shakespeare are represented in Philip Hawthorn's Usborne anthology, but so are Spike Milligan, Edward Lear, Ogden Nash, Roald Dahl, and the famous Anon. (Did you know that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that verse about the little girl with the little curl in the middle of her forehead? I didn’t!) I particularly enjoyed the poems I hadn’t read elsewhere, such as the first in the collection, “Magic Cat,” by Peter Dixon. The poem tells of a family cat who accidentally becomes magic and then turns the human family members into various things with her wand of a tail. Roger McGough has three poems in the collection. My favorite is “The Sound Collector,” in which an ominous figure carries away all of the household sounds in a bag. “He didn’t leave his name/Left us only silence....”

Cathy Shimmen’s illustrations suit Hawthorn’s book, light and bright without being saccharine. They don’t overpower the poems, but they do round out the pages nicely. The Usborne Book of Poems for Young Children skews a little old for toddlers, but it’s a solid collection for four- to eight-year-olds.

One thing I like about John Foster’s collection, My First Oxford Book of Poems, is that he organizes the poems into categories: Out and About, Creatures, From Dusk till Dawn, Beside the Sea, Fantastical and Nonsensical, and Weather and Seasons. A children’s poetry collection can feel like such a jumble without an organizational strategy, and besides, I like being able to read one section each night before bed.

I can almost forgive Foster for his inclusion of the overly adorable WBN because he also includes Nancy Willard’s marvelous, mysterious bedtime poem, “Magic Story for Falling Asleep,” which begins: “When the last giant came out of his cave/and his bones turned into the mountain/and his clothes turned into the flowers/nothing was left but his tooth....” Foster ranges a little farther afield with his choices than Hawthorn does, pulling in some poets who are less well known and are more contemporary, such as William Jay Smith, Kaye Starbird, Judith Nicholls, and Russell Hoban. Listen to this passage from Richard Edwards’s strange and beautiful poem, “Badgers”: “Badgers don’t jump when a vixon screams,/Badgers drink quietly from moonshiny streams,/Badgers dig holes in our dreams.”

I am a big fan of Eleanor Farjeon, so I was pleased to see three of her poems in this book. And take a look at the first stanza of Sue Cowling’s poem, “Pond”: “The pond is green as glass, the water slow,/It barely stirs the frills and fronds of weeds./Ponds have all day to dream, nowhere to go.”

The interior illustrations for My First Oxford Book of Poems are by eight different artists, so maybe it isn’t surprising that I thought they were a mixed bag. I’ve seen incredible poetry collections illustrated by various artists; however, some of the illustrations in this book are far more evocative than others. Like Hawthorn’s book, My First Oxford Book of Poems runs older, in spite of the title. I would recommend it for five- to eight-year-olds.

In comparing the two anthologies, I discovered that Hawthorn’s collection was more rollicking than Foster’s, jumping around from one subject to another and offering readers more funny poems. Foster’s collection had a more consistent tone—even with occasional touches of humor, it felt strongly imagistic, even haunting, to me.

Of course, no talk of poetry collections would be complete without the inimitable Lee Bennett Hopkins, so let’s look at his anthology, Climb into My Lap: First Poems to Read Together (Simon and Schuster, 1998). Like Foster’s book, it is divided into categories: Me! Secret Places, It’s So Funny! Some People, Worlds of Make-Believe, It’s Story Time! Little Hands and Fingers—Little Toes and Feet, and Good Night. You should know that Hopkins creates his collections, not only by looking at poems which are already out there, but by recruiting promising poets to write to the themes he’s selected.

Like Foster, Hopkins gets extra points for including Nancy Willard’s poem, “Magic Story for Falling Asleep.” But oh—I’m in shock! I just found WBN lurking two-thirds of the way through the book! (Not sure I’ll recover from the blow.) So much for the British Corollary. Perhaps we’re looking at the age of these editors? (I’ve gone from sounding anti-Brit to ageist in one fell swoop!)

Climb into My Lap is for a younger audience than the first two—I would recommend it for three- to seven-year-olds. The editor is particularly skilled at slipping back and forth between the pensive and the playful. The poems in this collection also strike me as being more straightforward, but in some cases this means they are less imagistic than the ones collected by Hawthorn and Foster. Still, the best poems in Climb into My Lap are lovely. Besides which, any collection that includes Deborah Chandra has got to be good! And Hopkins has chosen one of my favorite poems ever, Charlotte Zolotow’s “People,” which begins, “Some people talk and talk/and never say a thing./Some people look at you/and birds begin to sing.”

Kathryn Brown’s art for Hopkins’s anthology is just right, clear yet soft, as well as subtly multicultural. I don’t know which I like better, her cast of children or her day-and-night illustrations of the famous Quangle Wangle’s hat. (You should know that Climb into My Lap is out of print, so check it out at the library or track down a used copy.)

Jack Prelutsky’s contribution to this corner of the poetry world is Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young (Knopf, 1986). Prelutsky is known for writing humorous poems with a lot of strong-edged sounds and wordplay, which pretty much describes the tone of his anthology. One example would be Lenore M. Link's "Holding Hands," which starts out, "Elephants walking/Along the trails/Are holding hands/By holding tails...." Marc Brown’s illustrations are just as playful as the poems. This collection has great kid appeal and is well suited to the reading needs of three- to seven-year-olds. Plus, no sign of the dreaded WBN.

I have to say, I do think this is the only time I’ve ever seen a poem from Maurice Sendak’s wonderful Chicken Soup with Rice anthologized—“January.” The other surprise is a snippet of Dr. Seuss, “We have two ducks. One blue. One black....” (Which makes me wonder, how much did they have to pay for the privilege of using those?) Among the many other poets Prelutsky features are Bobbi Katz, Judith Viorst, Myra Cohn Livingston, Aileen Fisher, Karla Kushkin, and Lilian Moore. His collection is perfect for having fun with words and for getting started with poetry. I should point out that there are a lot of poems squeezed onto the pages of Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young, but the visual organization is clear enough that all but the very youngest readers should be able to follow it.

Jane Yolen, AKA Madame Versatile, recently gave us another poetry collection for small children, Here’s a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry (Candlewick, 2007). Her co-editor is Andrew Fusek Peters and her illustrator is Polly Dunbar. Which means that here is, not only a little poem, but the best of both worlds—American Yolen working with two Brits to create something that's simply gorgeous.

The collection is divided into four sections: Me, Myself and I; Who Lives in My House? I Go Outside; and Time for Bed. This book really, truly is for small children, probably ages two to five. It contains far fewer poems than Prelutsky’s collection, but the presentation is stunning, with only one or two poems per spread, each encompassed by light, fresh illustrations. Even the font is large and simple, sans serif so that a kindergartener could read it with some help.

The poets represented here are from both the U.S. and Great Britain. Though all of the poems are uncomplicated and many are funny, the editors manage to work in some nice imagery along the way. For example, here’s an excerpt from Berlie Doherty’s poem, “Grandpa”:“Grandpa’s hands are as rough as/Garden sacks/And as warm as pockets....” We also find “Bumblebee,” not the piece of writing for which Margaret Wise Brown is best known, but a poem with one of my favorite similes of all time: “Where are you taking/Your golden plunder/Humming along/Like baby thunder?”

Here’s a Little Poem avoids the indignity of “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod”; instead we get bedtime poems like Dennis Lee’s, which begins, “Silverly,/Silverly,/Over the/Trees,/The moon drifts/By on a/Runaway/Breeze.”

I’ll add that any “first collection of poems,” even Yolen’s, should be preceded or at least joined by a good Mother Goose. The best one I’ve come across is My Very First Mother Goose, edited by Iona Opie and brilliantly illustrated by Rosemary Wells (Candlewick, 1999). After whetting your young child’s appetite with Mother Goose, you might consider reading the anthologies I’ve described in the following order: Here’s a Little Poem, Climb into My Lap, Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young, My First Oxford Book of Poems, and The Usborne Book of Poems for Young Children. Once a week could even be poetry night at bedtime, with the other six nights saved for narrative and other picture books.

One final note: I’ve observed that most editors of poetry collections for children can’t resist slipping in a couple of their own poems. The question I always ask is, how do these poems hold up in comparison to the rest of the book? So here’s a quick report for you: Philip Hawthorn gives us “The Train from Loch Brane,” an adaptation of an anonymous poem called “Have You Ever Seen?” and “Classrhymes.” All three poems are pleasant, but not outstanding. John Foster does not include any of his own poems in his collection. Lee Bennett Hopkins offers up “My Name” and “Toy Telephone,” both clever and fun. He also retells a poem, “Five Great Big Dinosaurs.”

For his part, Jack Prelutsky gives us six poems: “Whistling,” “The House Mouse,” “Skeleton Parade,” “The Mistletoe,” “Sometimes,” and “Somersaults.” All six are well done, but I thought “Sometimes” was the most memorable. In any case, Prelutsky has much better poems in several of his own collections. Jane Yolen’s poems, “Recipe for Green” and “Dream Maker,” are both very good. I wasn’t as pleased by her daughter Heidi E.Y. Stemple’s poem, “Ice Cream Cone,” which is cute, but not striking.

These five anthologies are a way of dipping your toes into the friendly waters of children’s poetry. Eventually I’ll take a look at anthologies for slightly older children and then collections by individual poets. There are so many wonderful poets out there—Shel Silverstein, Kristine O’Connell George, and Valerie Worth are just a few of my favorites. But the five books I've talked about make a good starter set. Throw in the Mother Goose and you’re ready to play Pied Piper, leading your child toward an enduring love of words.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Butterfly Award

How very cool--my writing/blogging friend Linda Gerber of Death by Bikini and Death by Latte fame has given this site a Butterfly Award! Be sure to take a look at Linda's blog--great graphics, interviews, give-aways, and news about YA fiction. Now, these are the rules of the Butterfly Award:

1. Put the logo on your blog.
2. Add a link to the person who awarded you.
3. Award up to ten other blogs.
4. Add links to those blogs on yours.
5. Leave a message for your awardees on their blogs.

Fortunately, I have been building my blogroll for two weeks now and have come across some truly amazing blogs. Here are just a few, for which I will provide more specific awards titles:

Best Masthead Art--3 Evil Cousins

Best Title (evoking, for me at least, the spinning tops of doom from Kimpossible)--Bookshelves of Doom

Most Obscurely Hilarious (Please keep posting!)--Bottom Shelf Books

Best Targeted Blog--Welcome to My Tweendom

Most Artfully Intriguing--Jacket Whys

Most Helpful Overall--Jen Robinson's Book Page

Friday, January 16, 2009

Book Riff: Move Over, Steampunk!

In looking back over the children’s fantasy books I’ve been reading for the last few years, I think I see a new trend forming on the horizon. And, unless you count Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire books for adults, which I don’t, I am proud to say that children’s literature is leading the charge on this one.

Do half a dozen books make for a trend? Possibly—read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and draw your own conclusions. Me, I’m going to go out on a limb and at least predict a new trend, a subgenre I like to call rural fantasy. Now, “rural fantasy” isn’t nearly as cool a term as “steampunk” (e.g., Phillip Reeve’s Larklight and sequels), but it seems an apt counterpoint to the recognized subgenre of “urban fantasy,” as practiced in young adult literature by Delia Sherman, Charles de Lint, Will Shetterley, and Holly Black. (I’ll admit I thought about the term “backwoods magic,” but it felt just a little too Hatfield-and-McCoyish.)

Savvy is the most recent example and has gotten the most recognition so far. Joseph Helgerson’s Horns and Wrinkles (2006) is number two, I would say. A less well-known book, Marly Youmans’s Ingledove, is another contender, along with its predecessor, The Curse of the Raven Mocker (2003). Another example of rural fantasy would be Magpie Gabbard and the Quest for the Buried Moon, by Sally Keehn (2007), as well as Keehn’s earlier work, Gnat Stokes and the Foggy Bottom Swamp Queen (2005). The Witches of Dredmoore Hollow by Riford McKenzie (2008) is the last book on my list.

I suppose we could add Jodi Lynn Anderson’s May Bird and the Ever After (2005), along with its sequels, except that the rural girl who is its main character spends most of her time in the land of death, not her home town, which I’m guessing makes it Bangsian fantasy instead. (Anderson has since gone on to write Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants-type contemporary realism about teenage girls in a rural Southern setting with her Peaches trilogy.)

I hope the Southern belles and the Appalachian folks won’t mind that I’m grouping their work together under one heading, but it does seem to share a similar sensibility. And just what is that sensibility, you may ask? Why, it’s pluck, dagnabbit! Much as I love classic British fantasy, it’s great to see someone come along with a new take on magical storytelling. Not that we’re talking about cross-Atlantic rivalry, but an American tall tale flavor permeates the books I’ve mentioned, particularly Savvy and Magpie Gabbard and the Quest for the Buried Moon.

Savvy is arguably the most successful of the group. Rather than being grandly elven, its magic is on the home-cooked side: members of the Beaumont clan have talents like going back in time twenty minutes whenever they sneeze or saving snatches of music in mason jars. Though Mibs Beaumont’s brothers’ talents are more awe-inspiring—channeling electricity and calling up storms—even those gifts have a kind of front porch feel in this particular setting. It only takes a traveling Bible salesman with his troublesome stock of pink Bibles to complete the picture. If Savvy had a guardian angel, I imagine it would be Sid Fleischman’s McBroom, all dolled up in overalls and wings. Savvy is getting a lot of much-deserved critical attention, including a recent Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award.

Of the two Appalachian tales, Ingledove is dark where Magpie Gabbard and the Quest for the Buried Moon is light, although both are quest stories. Moody, atmospheric Ingledove features an orphaned girl who travels the mountains with her older brother, seeking answers about her mother’s hidden homeland of Adantis. When her brother is attacked and then stalked by an evil creature in the guise of a fey young woman, Ingledove must go to the Witchmaster for help. Together they journey beneath the mountain, looking for a cure before spirit-poisoned Lang can be completely destroyed. Marly Youmans creates an unusual mix of Celtic and Cherokee magic in this book.

Sally Keehn based Magpie Gabbard and the Quest for the Buried Moon in part on two English fairy tales, one about the lost moon and another called “The Three Heads in a Well.” And speaking of body parts, Keehn’s book has a great first line: “Dear All and Sundry, I mean to visit my brother Milo and give him back his foot.” Magpie Gabbard is so rollicking it makes Savvy seem tranquil by comparison. You should know that Granny Goforth has a prophesying kettle, Gabbard honey has teeth-whitening properties, and goblins have stolen the moon. But Magpie is more than equal to tracking down the moon, let alone ending a backcountry feud and returning her brother’s foot.

Joseph Helgerson’s Horns and Wrinkles opens with Claire being dangled from a bridge over the Mississippi River by her cousin Duke, who has just swiped her box turtle, to boot. When he drops her but she floats her way down, while Duke takes a tumble of his own and ends up sprouting a rhino horn, Claire concludes that “Something rivery is happening.” We soon discover that Duke has to perform a highly unselfish act to keep from turning into a rock troll. Fortunately, the plot turns out to be more adventuresome than instructional. I look forward to reading the sequel, Crows and Cards, due out in April 2009.

I was less impressed by The Witches of Dredmoore Hollow, although I’m hoping Riford McKenzie will pick up steam in his next offering. He has such a great name, for one thing! And his main character, Elijah, is quite promising, as are some of the details of the boy’s encounter with his witchy aunts, who take an inordinate interest in the appearance of Elijah’s first chin hair. Turns out Elijah’s mother never told him she comes from a family of witches and that she is the cause of them losing their magic. Elijah has always been a chicken, but when he observes strange happenings in the family cemetery and then his parents disappear, he finds out his everyday worries have seriously underestimated the potential for real trouble.

So—what are we to make of this sudden sprouting of fantasy set in the backwoods, the back hills, or the back forty? I think one explanation is that writers have felt a need to distance themselves from Hogwarts. It seems that after the first wave of imitation died down, J.K. Rowling inadvertently prompted another kind of Renaissance in children’s fantasy writing, a backlash that is giving us fresh and welcome books to read, including the ones in the infant subgenre I’ve described. Will the woman’s influence never stop?

Of course, it’s only been a few paragraphs and I’m already starting to think about changing the name of this possible subgenre to “tall tale fantasy”—maybe that way we could include Shannon Hale’s graphic novel, Rapunzel’s Revenge, which might otherwise fall under Westerns. Another upcoming fantasy that sounds like a Western is Patricia Wrede’s Thirteenth Child, part of her new Frontier Magic series. (Shades of Josh Whedon’s Western sci-fi show, Serendipity!) Still, any which way you slice it, seems like Americana is taking over fantasy right about now... What do you-all readers, writers, parents, and librarians think about that?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Grabbers: The Best Books I Read in 2008

Alabama Moon, by Watt Key (2006, ages 9-12)

I’m with the crowd asking why Key’s book didn’t get a Newbery, or at least a Newbery Honor. What an amazing read! Its young hero reminded me of Candide crossed with Maniac Magee. The adventure just sings, buoyed up by an underlayer of emotional resonance.

Moon Blake has been raised in the backwoods by his survivalist father, and he’s learned his lessons well—he can trap, fish, dig for roots, and handle almost anything the wilderness might throw at him. He is less well prepared for the challenges of civilization, however. When his father dies, ten-year-old Moon attempts to comply with his father’s final instructions to go to Alaska and look for other people who hate the government, but he soon finds himself caught up in a system that doesn’t understand him in the least. From the hostility of a rural constable to the walls of a reform school, the traps close in on Moon. But he adapts by applying his survival skills in creative ways, and pretty soon he and two new friends are on the run, back in the woods. Of course, even a capable kid like Moon can’t solve every problem.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is its characters, which are flawed, yet real and likable. Moon is a very compelling young hero, but the secondary characters are of interest, too. For example, Hal is first introduced as a bully, but Moon doesn’t know how to play that social game. He fends off Hal’s attacks, then casually befriends the baffled boy. No one has ever expected anything but trouble from Hal, and Moon’s straightforward respect helps Hal to become a different person.

I should note that this book has rich appeal for boy readers, more than just about anything I’ve ever read.

Since I came a little late to Alabama Moon, which was originally published in September 2006, I’ll note that some reviewers have objected to the book’s happy ending—and to them I say, well, every so often, in actual real life, things turn out right. For example, I know an older couple who recently adopted a six-year-old child out of the foster system. She is now being raised by loving, educated people who deeply care about her needs. So yeah, it can happen.

That said, I think the ending of this book works. It doesn’t seem tacked on so much as well earned by the indomitable Moon. Read Watt Key’s wonderful book and you’ll see what I mean.

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (2008, ages 9-12)

I’m not generally crazy about horror, but I was a big Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan because (a) it was essentially fantasy and (b) the writing and storytelling were simply amazing. That’s pretty much how I feel about Neil Gaiman’s work. Coraline wasn’t my favorite book in the world, but it was arguably good. And now, with The Graveyard Book, I leave behind any lingering reluctance about genre to exclaim that Gaiman has written the proverbial tour de force, taking Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book as his starting point and creating something utterly new.

Bod (Nobody) Owens is a toddler when his family is brutally murdered in the middle of the night. He wakes up and leaves the house, meandering over to the edge of the nearby cemetery. There he is rescued from the murderous Jack by Silas and the Owens—a vampire and a ghostly couple. The Owens take the little boy in and raise him in the cemetery, with Silas (AKA Bagheera) providing food and protection. (Note that the word “vampire” is never actually used in the book—readers are left to draw their own conclusions about Silas.)

Bod is educated by other ghosts, and one of the droller aspects of the book is that we understand what Bod does not: that his curriculum is thoroughly antiquated, being taught by tutors who predate him by a century or two. But he learns other useful things in the graveyard, phantasmal skills such as Fading, Haunting, and Dreamwalking. He also befriends a dead witch and a live girl and learns just why ghouls should be avoided.

I first read about Bod in a short story in an anthology last summer. I was utterly riveted and went to Gaiman’s website to beg him to write more about the boy raised in a cemetery. Upon discovering that a whole book was coming out, I marked the publication date on my calendar. When the day finally arrived, I rushed over to the bookstore and waited for a clerk to open up a box in the storeroom so I could get my copy.

As they say (far too often!), I was not disappointed. I think what I like best about The Graveyard Book is the tenderness intertwined with the horror. This book isn’t just a macabre adventure story: it is creative and funny and poignant and scary all at the same time.

The Arrival, by Shaun Tan (2007, Young Adult; I’d add ages 9-12)

Shaun Tan’s lengthy, wordless fable may be the most stunning book ever to emerge from the field of children’s literature. Of course, it is just as easily a book for adults. Having read Tan’s intriguing book, The Red Tree, I had looked forward to seeing what he would create next. It’s an understatement to say that The Arrival surpassed my expectations. I suggest you find a quiet place and block out some time to experience his book uninterrupted.

The Arrival is the story of an immigrant. With its sepia tones and old-fashioned clothing, it appears to be set in the 1940s, its hero leaving Eastern Europe to find a home in America. But readers will soon realize that the tale is set in another world altogether. The language of that new world—as written on incomprehensible signs—is like nothing we have ever seen before. Neither are the pets or the public statues or the mechanisms of everyday life.

If you know anything about Tan’s earlier work, you might ascribe the fantastical machines and animals in The Arrival to his penchant for including such things in his work. But these components take on a new meaning in the context of immigration: readers become immigrants themselves, just as baffled by the things they see as our quiet hero is.

The implied time setting serves to remind us that our ancestors were all immigrants at one point or another. And so The Arrival succeeds in its quest to universalize the immigrant experience—a feeling reinforced by the tales that the main character and his new friends share about the kinds of oppression they fled in their former homes.

Funny how such a pointed tale doesn’t seem didactic. Instead it is a rich, heartfelt read, with details such as the contents of the man’s suitcase juxtaposed with sweeping vistas such as the clouds overlooking his journey by boat to a new land. In Shaun Tan’s work, everything becomes fraught with symbolic meaning, yet none of it seems heavy-handed. Tan’s book is a gift, and it is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Note: I’ve been telling people about this book all last year, so I was very pleased to see it win a 2008 Special Citation for Excellence in Graphic Storytelling from the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards committee.

Forever Rose, by Hilary McKay (2008, Young Adult; I’d add ages 9-12)

I’m a big fantasy fan, but Hilary McKay’s five books about the eccentric Casson family are my new favorites when it comes to realistic contemporary fiction for children. Like her predecessors—Beverly Cleary, Louise Fitzhugh, and Cynthia Voigt—McKay has created a group of characters that simply can’t be compared to any others.

You really, really need to read all of the books in order: Saffy’s Angel, Indigo’s Star, Permanent Rose, Caddy Ever After, and Forever Rose. You’ll meet the ineffectual Casson parents—a dreamy mother who is usually painting in a shed in the backyard and a vain artist father who spends most of his time in the city trying to impress people. Then there are the children, each of whom is named after a paint color. Each also has a book, though irrepressible Rose eventually takes over the series. First Saffy (Saffron) tries to find out about her adoption and befriends a non-stereotypical girl in a wheelchair. Then musician Indigo faces bullies with some help from his sister and her friend. Artist Rose, who is the youngest, paints on the walls and deals with her father’s defects and defection, among other adventures. Eldest Caddy (Cadmium) is crazy for animals, falls for her driving instructor, and leads the troops because of her parents’ absentminded absences. These plots might sound typical, but as you read the books they become something new. You fall in love with these characters and they seem completely real—one of the greatest compliments I can give to any book.

For the record, Saffy’s Angel won all kinds of recognition from reviewers and award committees, starting with the British Whitbread Award for best children’s book of 2002. The other books have also been well reviewed.

I will note that I loved the Casson books so much I went looking for McKay’s earlier work, but I was a little disappointed. Although her older stuff is fun, it isn’t nearly as compelling as the newer books. Suffice it to say that the author came into her own with her stories about the Casson family. I implore you to add them to your shelf of books!

Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney (2007, ages 9-12)

In the same way that Mo Willems has shot to the top of the picture book world, Jeff Kinney seemingly came out of the blue to write the quintessential book for and about middle school boys. Which is a real relief because, as Jon Scieska has pointed out, there aren’t that many great books for and about boys out there, partly explaining why boys don’t read more.

A latecomer to Kinney’s books, I don’t feel I need to discuss plot in detail, except to say that the books make you want to tell someone about different scenes in order to make them laugh. Coincidentally enough, this is the same way a boy the age of main character, Greg Heffley, might come home from seeing a funny movie and retell scenes in limpid, clear language along the following lines: “And then [stop to snort with laughter], and then [laugh some more] he did this thing, and then [laugh-laugh-laugh] it was just so funny!” Which reminds me that a very nice pothead in one of my high school English classes used to recounts scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in a similar fashion when we were supposed to be listening to the teacher.

Okay, so my favorite detail is the Cheese Touch, which alludes to the way that any kid who accidentally touches the decrepit piece of cheese lying on the outdoor basketball court at Greg’s school since time immemorial is said to have the equivalent of leprosy, or at least the cooties, until someone else is touched by him and it’s passed along.

I did find myself telling my nephew, when I got him the first book for Christmas, “Now, the main kid in this story is kind of selfish, but he doesn’t know he’s selfish.” Which makes it, not necessarily okay, but all the more funny, for some reason. My nephew and I were both happy to learn that the third book, after Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules (2008), is coming out at the end of this month: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw. You should read it. Because it’s really [snort, snort, chortle] funny!

Savvy, by Ingrid Law (2008, ages 9-12)

Mibs Beaumont’s relatives on her mother’s side all have unique magical gifts called savvies, and now it's her turn—almost. Mibs is about to turn 13, which is when a savvy manifests itself. One of her brothers channels electricity and another creates storms (not always conveniently!). Her mother’s intimidating savvy is to do things perfectly, while her grandfather can create new land where there wasn’t any before. I like how her great-aunt would go back in time 20 minutes every time she sneezed, but my favorite savvy is the one that belonged to Mibs’s grandmother—she collected snippets of old radio music in jars to play back later simply by taking off the lids.

The whole family is gearing up for Mibs’s 13th birthday and the onset of her savvy when disaster strikes: her father, who is out of town, gets in a car accident and hovers near death. With the wild hope that her soon-to-be savvy will allow her to heal people, Mibs sets out to see her father—only she doesn’t have permission to go. Soon she and a little entourage of fellow runaways have commandeered the bus of a traveling Bible salesman and are making their unexpectedly circuitous way to her father’s bedside.

The savvies, Mibs’s interactions with her sibling and friends, and odd bits and pieces of plot such as the salesman’s trouble selling a shipment of pink Bibles all combine to make Law’s book a fresh contribution to a genre that too often consists of a stultifying blur of swords and magic portals. (An agent once told me he simply refused to read even one more attempted fantasy featuring kids going through a magic portal!) It just won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award, and there’s been some talk about it getting a Newbery nod. Whether that happens or not, Savvy is helping to reshape a genre that, by its very nature, calls out for continual reshaping.

The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories, by Joan Aiken (2008, ages 9-12)

In my first riff (soon to post!), I’m going to talk about people getting a little tired of British fantasy, but the fact remains that the best of it is simply outstanding—I’m thinking of two of my favorite authors, Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, among others. The Serial Garden is a somewhat old-fashioned book, a collection of stories Joan Aiken wrote over the course of many years, and yet it’s utterly compelling and fresh.

Think about it: who wouldn’t want the chance to raise a baby griffin? One reason for Aiken’s success her is that none of the outlandish scenarios are treated by her characters as if they were shocking. Whether Harriet and Mark are kept up late doing assignments by a ghostly governess while supposedly on vacation or their parents are turned into ladybirds (ladybugs), they see the situations as handy adventures or problems to be solved. The parents are especially stoic about all of this random magic.

Aiken is sometimes poignant and often funny. Yes, if the golden apple is in your house, the three Furies are likely to move into the coal cellar and cast an aura of gloom over the whole place. If miniature people live nearby, they are simply another set of neighbors, and fairly troublesome ones, at that. Living in a magical spot can also mean your home will be co-opted by wizards or cursed by witches at some point. And if you’re an Armitage, you really must keep an eye out for elderly druids fighting over a bathmat made of beard hair in your backyard.

Paper Towns, by John Green (2008, Young Adult)

I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about and read one of John Green’s books. So hey—he’s a really good writer! That just might kind of possibly explain all those awards and glowing reviews. At any rate, I would say that John Green has claimed the crown as the new voice of YA fiction for boys, with Rachel Cohn as his counterpart for girls (a sort of anti-Homecoming king and queen, considering the outsider status of their key characters). Put it this way: Green and Cohn’s books are the ones I usually recommend to people who want to know what YA is all about these days.

If you want to be convinced that Green is good at what he does, read the first chapter of the dreadful Daniel X by overly popular writer James Patterson. Then read the first chapter of Paper Towns. Now, and this is tricky: which character do you care about? Please mark Q or—if you’re from the distant planet Who Cares—X.

Yes, folks, it’s all about the characters. Okay, well, plot matters, but plot without characters who matter is simply a waste of your valuable page time, especially when it comes to Young Adult fiction. In Paper Towns, we find that main character Quentin has been watching his bold neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman, from afar for a long time, so when she comes to his bedroom window asking him to take her on a vengeful series of midnight adventures, he quickly caves. Then Margo disappears, leaving Q to solve the mystery of her whereabouts and plans.

John Green uses the odd device of a paper town as the key symbol in this book; he also incorporates Walt Whitman’s poetry. A review I read complained that Quentin and Margo are one-dimensional and fail to ring true—like the paper towns. I would say instead that Green makes a point of showing us that Q thinks he knows who Margo is, and she thinks she knows who he is, but both are wrong. They eventually begin to move past their flat views of each another to catch glimpses of dimensionality. Which is what’s supposed to happen in real life, let alone in a book for and about teens.

Note for WPs (Worried Parents): There is enough talk about sex, drinking, and body parts in Paper Towns that you may not want your child to read it, especially if he or she is at the preteen end of the spectrum.

Traction Man Meets Turbodog, by Mini Grey (2008, Picture Book)

I am, quite simply, in love with this book, and with its predecessor, Traction Man Is Here! It represents action figure play better than anything I’ve seen since Pixar’s Toy Story. The child who owns the titular toy hovers just outside the edge of the story telling as Traction Man takes center stage, along with his faithful pal, Scrubbing Brush (cleverly drawn to act like a little dog).

In this second book, Traction Man and Scrubbing Brush get dirty playing, so much so that the kid’s father apparently attempts to throw Scrubbing Brush away and replace him with a snazzy new sidekick, Turbodog. Not only does Turbodog make a lousy Robin to Traction Man’s Batman, but Traction Man is worried about his missing friend. He sets out on a quest to find Scrubbing Brush, accompanied by the obnoxious one-note Turbodog.

Deadpan humor is the name of the game here, but I’m going to stop trying to describe these books and just tell you—step over all the action figures in your kid’s room and read the Traction Man books with him!

The Flim-Flam Fairies, by Alan Katz (2008, Picture Book)

Could it be that there is too much bathroom humor in this picture book? Of course not! Yet I don’t hear much talk about The Flim-Flam Fairies on the Web. I’m telling you, this one should be the new gold standard for potty humor. Forget Walter the Farting Dog; Flim-Flam Fairies is the book for any child who likes to say “poo” and then fall apart laughing!

In this cumulative tale, the sweet Tooth Fairy actually ends up losing her temper. But first the young reader is addressed by a series of fake fairies who interrupt each other to offer outrageous deals. All the child has to do is tuck certain items under his (or her) pillow: we meet the Earwax Fairy, the Dirty Underwear Fairy, and the Clipped Toenail Fairy, to name just a few. Rendered in a nice graphic style by Michael Slack, the fairies are a parade of goofy thugs, each with a slightly different wing style. The Flim-Flam Fairies is such a great, icky book for little boys—and also for small girls who aren’t obsessed with pink! (In fact, if Fancy Nancy ever had an opposite number, this would have to be it.)


The next two writers are in my small writing group, so I’ll just confess my bias up front. But here’s why you should check out their most recent books:

Death by Latte, by Linda Gerber (2008, Young Adult, though I’d add Tweens)

Aphra Connolly is gearing up to be the tween and teen girl’s answer to Alex Rider, especially in this second book. (At first I thought Aphra was going to be the new Nancy Drew, but there’s too much international travel and suspense for such a small-town, albeit classic, model.) The first book, Death by Bikini, was a lot of fun, but Gerber really hits her stride with Death by Latte.

Aphra fools her father and flies to Seattle in search of her mother, who has her reasons for not having been in touch—she’s CIA, in search of a rogue agent. The bad guys would love to use Aphra against her mother, but it’s still a shock when Aphra realizes her mom is not happy to see her. Aphra also has another encounter with Seth Mulo, whom she met in the first book, and discovers he has his own agenda. Soon an agent is murdered and Aphra and Seth must find the information he hid before he died—while avoiding a swirl of danger and double crosses. I look forward to the next chapter in Aphra’s adventures, Death by Denim, which is due out in May 2009!

Daughter of War, by Marsha Skrypuch (2008, Young Adult)

Historical fiction isn’t usually my first pick, but you should know what this Canadian writer has been up to: she’s telling the kinds of stories most people don’t know about or think about, and yes, she’s gotten death threats. She was also given a medal of honor by the President of Ukraine for her work. Skrypuch primarily writes books about dark chapters in history, such as the Ukrainian and Armenian genocides.

Daughter of War continues a story begun in Skrypuch’s 2003 book, Nobody’s Child. Marta has managed to escape the genocide, but she is virtually a slave and even becomes a concubine while living in Turkey, pretending to be Muslim. Amid shifting politics and threats, she struggles to locate her sister and her friend Kevork. Even if she can find Kevork again, will he accept what has happened to her since they were separated by the war? Teachers who’ve been concentrating on the Holocaust should seriously consider rounding out their curriculum with Skrypuch’s painfully moving books from the hidden corners of history.