Sunday, November 29, 2009
Enchanted Inkpot Giveaway Extravaganza
But you have to link over there and comment at the very least to have a chance at winning. The grand prize winner gets first pick of the baskets and a gift certificate to a bookstore, too. To win that, you also have to twitter/blog/post on Facebook about the contest. Second prize is similar, but third prize is simply a drawing based on comment participation. So if you're interested, link on over and have at it!
Update: This contest ended December 9, 2009, and the winners have been posted.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
In Case You Missed It
Friday, November 27, 2009
Christmas Books Old and New
A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck
I read Richard Peck's new book, A Season of Gifts, last week, and I thought, Richard Peck doesn't need me to write a review of his book. But then I thought, I need to write a review of his book. The back jacket flap quotes the Washington Post as describing Peck as "America's best living author for young adults." I don't know about young adults vs. children, so I'd just say Peck is "America's best living author for young people." The companion novels, A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder, made the American Library Association notable lists in both the children's and young adult categories; they also won a Newbery Honor and Newbery Medal, respectively.
I really hope you've already met Grandma Dowdel in those previous books, but if you haven't, I recommend you read all three. In the first two books, she is hosting her grandchildren. In this book, she is much older but still going strong. We catch a glimpse of her great-grandson, but mostly we see her with the children who live next door.
It's sort of astonishing that a book about an old lady could be such a great read for children, but then, Mrs. Dowdel isn't your run-of-the-mill old lady. When children come into her orbit, they are not only baffled, entranced, and entertained, they are also altered. Mrs. Dowdel is more than just irreverent and unpredictable, she is kind, though her kindness is hidden beneath a veil of eccentricity and toughness. Mrs. Dowdel is pretty good friends with her shotgun.
The story is told by a boy named Bob who moves into the next-to-last house in a small town, along with his preacher father, his worried mother, his Elvis-crazy older sister, and his lost puppy younger sister. The last house in town is Mrs. Dowdel's. At first Bob and his family catch only glimpses of their strange neighbor, but pretty soon their lives are enmeshed in surprising ways. Mrs. Dowdel manages to be a hero and a friend subtly, without taking away the dignity or decision-making power of the people she helps, in this case Bob's family. Bob is being bullied, his father needs a congregation, his older sister is secretly seeing the town bad boy, his mother needs help with all of the other family members, and his little sister needs a grandma.
But this would be just another feel-good book without the author's humor, or without his spare, perfectly constructed prose. And I do mean perfect. Here's a sample:
I followed her across the hall and jumped back at her door. To help her settle in, Mother had let Phyllis paint her room in her choice of color. She'd picked a Day-Glo pink that really yelled at you. It was like being inside a stomach.A Season of Gifts is solidly posed as a holiday book, building up to Christmas. Between Mrs. Dowdel's gruffly kind tendencies and Bob's preacher father, you will find messages about being a good person here. But the book really isn't limited to one denomination, and the holiday setting ends up being a lot less important than the shotgun-wielding granny's good intentions and the often-sly way she goes about getting what she wants.
Then Phyllis had painted a stripe of that same Day-Glo pink down the center of the floor and warned Ruth Ann never to set a sandal across it.
Phyllis had hung her Elvis Presley posters, all eight of them, around both sides of the room. I know for a fact Phyllis wrote letters to Elvis Presley regularly, though she never heard back. Ruth Ann sat bunched up on her bed, clutching her dolly. Looming above her was a giant poster of Elvis in a cowboy rig and neckerchief, strumming a guitar. Another was Elvis in the gold coat he wore on his tour last year. Elvis was all swooping hair and sideburns and showing teeth in life-size sneers, all over the room. He was everywhere. It was like being in a revolving door with him.
"I'm scared," Ruth Ann said over her knees. She made big eyes up at a poster. "Don't go out and leave me with him." She whispered for fear Elvis would hear.
The antagonist in A Season of Gifts is the aforementioned town bad boy. The war between Roscoe Burdick and Mrs. Dowdel has apparently been going on for a while, but in this book, we first meet Roscoe when he bullies Bob in a really creative way involving Mrs. Dowdel's privy (leading to the funniest joke in the book, referring to a famous Bible passage). Later Roscoe takes advantage of Phyllis's Elvis fetish to win her heart, or at least to capture her imagination. But Mrs. Dowdel isn't through with Roscoe, and though she loses a few skirmishes, there's never any doubt she'll win this war. The only question is how she'll do it.
It took me a while to catch on, since Coyote and Loki don't usually come dressed up as cranky old women in small-town America in 1958, but yes, I think Mrs. Dowdel is actually that classic mythological character, the Trickster. But mythology or no, I have to say: lucky, lucky us. Because 'tis the season, and Richard Peck has given us another marvelous gift of a book.
Voices of Christmas by Nikki Grimes and Eric Velasquez
The second Christmas book I've acquired this year is Voices of Christmas by Nikki Grimes, with illustrations by Eric Velasquez and even an audio CD. In case you haven't heard of Nikki Grimes, she's a famous writer of poetry and novels for children. In this book, she presents a poem for each character in the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Each poem is introduced by the character's name and a quote from the Bible at the top of the page, followed by a poem at the bottom, all encased in the artwork.
The obvious characters are included, but we also get the thoughts of a neighbor and of less well-known Biblical figures such as Simeon and Ana at the temple when the baby Jesus is taken to be blessed. Each of the magi is given his own page, drawing out their portion of the story in a way that echoes the shape of their journey in its elongation. Grimes even uses something implied by the Biblical narrative—that by the time the magi arrive, the baby is now a child, living in a house with his parents. (Most versions show the magi arriving at the stable, a chronology that doesn't work well even without the reference about the child and the house.)
The poems in Voices of Christmas are simple, yet well crafted. As the title might imply, the voice of each character is as important to the success of the poetry as the story they are telling. Mary speaks of her bedroom walls "[beaming] brighter than moonrise" even after the angel is gone, Zechariah laments being "a dim-witted man" for having questioned the promise of a son in his old age, and the innkeeper, shown as a smug woman in the artwork, justifies herself with an irony readers will recognize even if she does not:
I led them to a dry spotThis book is very beautiful. It is also very somber. Even the colors are dark, with an emphasis on blues and grays and browns. I don't know that those who lack an interest in the Christmas story will be drawn to this one, which ends on a note of faith, addressing You, the reader, as the last character. But for anyone with the slightest bit of belief, let alone a strong commitment to Christianity, Voices of Christmas is a book to add to your collection.
in my stable,
and a bed of hay
on which to lay themselves.
It was the most I could offer,
other than to share
my own, warm room.
And who would care
to do that for strangers?
It's not as if they were royalty, right?
A stable would do for the night.
I will confess that I have not yet listened to the CD enclosed with this book, but it's something I look forward to this holiday season! The 20-minute CD is narrated by the poet and Craig Northcutt, with music added by Keith Ward.
An African American writer, Nikki Grimes has earned Coretta Scott King honors for several books, most notably winning the Coretta Scott King Award in 2002 for her novel Bronx Masquerade. There is often an unabashedly spiritual component to her work, and I especially like her poetry.
Now I'll share some Christmas books that have been in my library a little longer...
The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumor Godden and Barbara Cooney
My favorite Christmas book for children is this one, the old-fashioned, magical story of a little girl who gets off a train at the wrong stop on purpose to go looking for her grandmother, even though she is an orphan and truly doesn't have one. The author tells us right up front, "This is a story about wishing," and oh, is it ever! Ivy wishes for a home and a doll, while little doll Holly wishes for a child to hold her and the policeman's wife is wishing, too. Unless you've read any of the author's other doll stories and recall her matter-of-fact tone, you might not understand how a book can be this sentimental without being irritating or schmaltzy. But it works. There's even a highly original villain in the form of a toy owl named Abracadabra. I get this book out every Christmas and read it with just as much joy as the year before. Cooney's illustrations are equally simple and direct, yet with a touch of softness, complementing the story exactly as they should. Especially if you have daughters ages 5-7 or even 8 or 9 in the house, give Holly and Ivy a try. (Trivia extra: Demi Moore named her oldest daughter after this author.)
I should tell you that my love of Christmas-themed stories began with my mother, who told us her favorites every Christmas Eve for years. She eventually collected most of the stories in a book which is now out of print, Under a Christmas Star. Among the stories she told us was Rumor Godden's "Holly and Ivy." As I recall, my mother had found it printed in a women's magazine and kept it with her Christmas things until it was falling apart.
One year when I was far from home in Argentina, my American roommate and I decided to celebrate Christmas in June, since it was winter where we were and thus, to our homesick twenty-one-year-old minds, should have been Christmas. I had a little stash of American food someone had sent me, so we made tuna sandwiches and I recounted the story of Rumor Godden's "Holly and Ivy" in great detail. A few years later, after my friend and I were back in the States and had gone our separate ways, the story was made into a picture book with illustrations by Barbara Cooney. Kathy discovered it and sent me an inscribed copy—a keepsake to this day.
Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl S. Buck and Mark Buehner
Are you familiar with this often-anthologized story about a farm boy who gets up early to surprise his father by milking the cows? In the hands of a lesser writer, the story would be didactic. Here the characterization is so strong and the telling so stark that the sentiment is rich without being cloying. Because let's face it: there is a place for tenderness in this world, and the very fact that here it is expressed between a father and son who don't usually talk about that sort of thing makes it all the more moving. Mark Beuhner's illustrations, as somber-hued as the ones in the Nikki Grimes book described above, are well suited to evoking both the winter darkness and the deepest, truest places in the human heart.
How Many Miles to Bethlehem? by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Peter Malone
This British author is currently best known for his heavy-duty children's novels about a flawed King Arthur, beginning with The Seeing Stone. Here he writes a picture book about the Nativity, and like Nikki Grimes, he gives voices to the characters in the story. Peter Malone's illustrations are deliberately medieval in feel and also rather dark, although with more warm browns and yellows than the books I've told you about so far. The author's tone is much lighter, however, and his characters' voices more contemporary in style. For example, here's Crossley-Holland's version of the innkeeper:
Sorry, Joseph! Every space is taken, and there's nothing left to eat—I'm even out of figs and grapes.Each character in this narration is lightly linked to the character on the proceeding page, creating a cumulative feel. I recommend How Many Miles to Bethlehem? to you as an artful and unusual Christmas book.
We'll all be hungry tonight. My guests. My cats. Everyone except the stone-hearted Emperor.
B Is for Bethlehem: A Christmas Alphabet by Isabel Wilner and Elisa Kleven
Last month I talked about Elisa Kleven's artwork in my review of Tony Johnston's The Whole Green World. This nativity-themed alphabet, also illustrated by Kleven, is another gorgeous book. Each letter is accompanied by an appropriate couplet from the author. For example, we get "N is for Night, so quiet, so still./Peace in the stable. Peace on the hill." The words are nice, but not extraordinary. The illustrations are both giddy and grand, however, well worth your time.
The Nativity, slightly adapted from the King James text, illustrated by Julie Vivas
For instance, the passage from the Bible about the Anunciation shows us Mary (in house slippers and an apron) and the angel (in unlaced boots) sitting at a kitchen table—chicken standing beside them—deep in conversation over cups of what might be coffee or soup. As they talk, Gabriel's wings are spread behind him like parchment scrolls, glimmering with lavender and gold and tattered at the edges. Some might find this rendition of the story facetious, but I think it's touching, not to mention a nice change from some of the books I'm not listing here, which tend to look like so many failed attempts at painting like the Renaissance masters.
Here are a few more memorable Christmas titles, plus one Hanukkah favorite:
The Story of Christmas by Jane Ray
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
Mr. Willoughby's Christmas Tree by Robert Barry
The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie DePaola
The Legend of Old Befana by Tomie DePaola
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
The Miracle on 34th Street by Valentine Davies (better known as a movie)
The House without a Christmas Tree by Gail Rock (a movie on TV, I think)
Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances by John Green, Lauren Myracle, and Maureen Johnson (Young Adult)
Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric A. Kimmel and Trina Schart Hyman
Feel free to note your own favorites in the comments. And in the coming weeks, I wish you much happiness!
My Books, the Return
Sunday, November 22, 2009
Art is "Erstaunlich," Margret Hofheinz-Doring, Strukturmalerei, 1964.
A Review of Spellbinder by Helen Stringer
So begins this clever new book from a British expat living in Los Angeles. (Spellbinder is clearly set in England.) Only the humor slips away a bit, leaving us with a darker tone, when all of the ghosts in town start to disappear. Right before he goes, Belladonna's dad tells her to call her aunt, but uptight Deirdre refuses to explain anything to Belladonna. Her grandmother also underestimates Belladonna, who naturally takes matters into her own hands.
In this she is assisted by Steve Evans, a kid who is constantly getting in trouble at school thanks to his exceedingly creative exploits, and by Elsie Blaine, the only ghost who has managed to escape the mass disappearance. Well, there is one other ghost still hanging around on the Other Side, as Belladonna and Steve discover when they manage to find the last door and get over there. He is the sinister alchemist Dr. Ashe, who tells Belladonna and Steve to find a missing amulet in order to solve the ghost problem. But he doesn't seem particularly trustworthy, so what does he really want?
Stringer uses some familiar tropes, such as the young person with a powerful mission who doesn't know her own special destiny and appearances from evil spy ravens, hellhounds, oracles, and the Wild Hunt. I was also faintly reminded of Jodi Lynn Anderson's Maybird and the Ever After because of the whole chthonic theme and setting. (I love that word!) But the author manages to infuse Spellbinder with freshness thanks to her strong way with words, her appealing characters, and some clever plot twists. For instance, the location of the missing amulet, let alone how Belladonna and Steve must retrieve it, is original as well as hilarious.
Belladonna is a likable heroine, one of those shy kids who just hopes not to be noticed—even if it is because she can see ghosts. Stringer's school scenes are handled deftly. The kids go on a field trip to Arkbath Hall, and the author perfectly captures what that's like. Here's a sample:
Stringer's humor gives this often dark book a surprisingly light touch. For example, as the above scene continues, the guide at the castle, who I should point out manages not to be a flat character, tallies up the students using a counter, leading Belladonna to wonder why he needs "a mechanical device to count to twenty-eight."
They stopped in front of a massive black gate, and Mr. Watson pressed the doorbell. He turned and looked out over his charges, suddenly nervous.
"Now, I want—for God's sake, Evans, give the boy his glasses back!—I want you all to behave yourselves.
Arkbath Hall was built in the late fifteenth century—"
"Sixteenth," muttered Belladonna.
"Sorry? Yes, very good, Johnson, the late sixteenth century. Quite right. Anyway, it's very old, so I don't want any of you touching anything. Is that clear?"
"I said: Is that clear?"
Twenty-eight dreary voices said, "Yes, Sir," in unison, though not one of them sounded even remotely like it had heard what Mr. Watson had said.
He looked at their faces as their attention wandered to the building, the
grass, and the snail on the path. Belladonna suspected that in his quiet hours Mr. Watson despaired for the future of their country.
Later we get the daunting headmistress, Miss Parker, who has a buzzer and little lights outside her office door—
The green one said "Enter," the orange one said "Wait," and the red one said "Busy." According to Steve, if the red one came on when you knocked at the door, then you could go back to class, and sometimes she'd forget all about you.It's touches like these that really bring the book to life.
Belladonna's accomplice Steve is one of the best characters in the book. I've seen a lot of roguish lads in this kind of story, but he comes across as more of a curious, bright kid than a troublemaker, though his troublemaking talents enable him to be a great help to Belladonna. The interactions between Steve and Belladonna ring so true that this duo seems more real than many other such teams in children's fantasy.
Another colorful character, Elsie the ghost girl, died playing tennis at the school a century ago (the story of her death is very funny). She and Steve instantly clash. Elsie is one of those exasperatingly chirpy girls, yet she turns out to be helpful as Belladonna and Steve move forward with their quest.
Some of Stringer's inventions work better than others. I was a little uncertain about the charnal sprites, but they do play a key role later in the book.
The Wild Hunt brings up a mystery involving Belladonna's aunt, one that will obviously be addressed in the future. We are also left wondering about Steve's mother and even the true identity of the headmistress. Stringer further hints at the existence of a mastermind overseeing the villain featured in this debut book.
Spellbinder is a first novel and every once in a while it shows, but I really like this book, which besides being funny and adventurous is simply a well-told tale. I was pleased that it ended thoroughly, even while hinting at a sequel. For middle grade fantasy enthusiasts, Spellbinder is a real find.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
The Popular Kids
When I cruised the bookstore yesterday, I came across a new book in another popular series, the Alex Rider books by Anthony Horowitz. The flap copy for Crocodile Tears doesn't give away much, except to say that Alex has been recovering from a gunshot wound inflicted by a sniper and that he wants to live a normal life, but human suffering is a business, and he's about to have another spy-type adventure related to that business. This reminds me why I like the Alex Rider books—they're not like those movies where being a young spy is a frolicsome thing. We are shown, rather, that being a teen spy is to be hurt and dirty and even exploited by one's spy superiors. There are a lot of Alex Rider wannabe's out there, most of them inferior because the characterization isn't as strong, which is why I bought the book, no questions asked. And one of these days I'll get organized enough to write a detailed post about the Rider imitators!
Which, amusingly enough, include the Young James Bond books by Charlie Higson. It's obvious that somebody in the Bond franchise saw how well the Alex Rider series was doing and said, "Hey! We should be writing those, about a younger version of Agent 007!" So they did. In my opinion, the Higson books are a bit uneven. I think Robert Muchamore's Cherub series comes closer to the Alex Rider books as far as being gripping. You'll find that Muchamore's young heroes are more earthy, in part—truly—because they aren't upper-class kids like Alex. Along the same lines, I've noticed that my teenage students, who are mostly Latino and African American and quite poor, have no interest in Alex Rider. I figure it's because he's too rich and white and British. I suppose I'm not the first to wonder if we'd have more readers in the inner city if we had more books, not just about pregnant girls and drug dealers a la Precious, but along the lines of the Percy Jackson or Alex Rider series, only with young minority heroes.
Of course, the first book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, The Lightning Thief, is now a movie that will be coming out on Presidents' Day weekend in 2010. In case you haven't seen it yet, here's the trailer. The movie poster is shown to the left.
Just who are the most popular kids in the world of children's books? For boys, always an uncertain audience, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is currently number one—it's about a middle school kid, but readers in grades ranging as low as fourth or even third get a kick out of it. For one thing, it's a friendly read, with a hand-written-style font, relatively few words on the page, and lots of illustrations, making it sort of a graphic novel, or halfway there. Main character Greg Heffley is one of the most selfish kids you'll ever meet, but the joke is that he's a pretty typical middle school kid and has no idea he's that selfish. Very few writers have captured the essential boyness of that age as well as Kinney has. And the stuff he makes into humorous episodes! Greg's little brother turning potty training into a racket, what happens when you tell a 12-year-old boy he has to do his own laundry, and the true terrors of public pools are just a few things that come to mind. If anything, the DWK books resemble a really well-written, character-driven comic strip like Calvin and Hobbes or FoxTrot. Makes sense, since Kinney is first and foremost a cartoonist. There's some Malcolm in the Middle and Everybody Hates Chris here, too. Of course, movie plans are already underway for the wimpy kid.
The Percy Jackson books were burning hot about three years ago and continue to be popular, with the upcoming movie amping up interest. In case you haven't heard, they're about a boy who finds out the Greek gods are alive and well and living above Manhattan. What's more, Percy is the son of Poseidon. He soon finds himself fighting off monsters and going on quests with his new friends, many of whom are also demigods. There's even a training camp!
As for the Alex Rider books, they're a little less popular now than they were five or six years back, but they continue to be recognized reads for tweens and teens, especially boys. (The movie didn't do very well.)
For girls, the Twilight books are still sizzling, with the rising of New Moon, the movie, getting fans ages 13 and 31 all twittery and giggly again. (Team Edward or Team Jacob?) But Twilight has migrated to the adult bestseller list somehow, and the true hot book on this week's New York Times bestseller list for children is Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins' highly anticipated sequel to last fall's hot book, The Hunger Games. The books are about a dystopian post-U.S.A. where teens from the 24 districts are forced to compete in gladiator-like games to the death. When two teens manage to beat the system in Book One, the government tries to use them in Book Two. Katniss and Peeta also find themselves becoming the symbols of a resistance movement.
I'll give you a hint about book popularity: besides checking the bestseller lists, note how many customer reviews have been written on the Amazon book page. Catching Fire has only been out since September 1 and it has already garnered 300 customer reviews, which is more than most books rack up in 5-10 years. Since a single review is unlikely to stand out in a batch that big, what's really happening is a conversation, with people feeling wildly compelled to chime in. I'm sure you're wondering, so here you go: Twilight has 4,536 customer reviews, while Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone has 5,543. The Hunger Games has 674 and The Graveyard Book has garnered 327, both in the past year. And books that aren't so popular, the vast unwashed masses of the publishing world? They usually show somewhere from 10 to 30 customer reviews.
Two other key books on the New York Times Bestseller list for children's chapter books this week are Ellen Hopkins' Tricks and Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver. Ellen Hopkins, as I've said before, is not for the faint of heart, and definitely not for Worried Parents. I heard her talk about this book and read a selection in a workshop at the August 2009 Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Conference. She said something like, "Well, if people think my previous books were shocking, wait till they see this one!" Her latest novel-in-verse is about how a handful of teen characters become prostitutes. The author read us a poem about a teenage boy reluctantly having sex with two older men, and I have to say I felt all prudish just listening! But there you have it—it's a bestseller. [Note: See Ellen Hopkins' note in the comments. It is her hope that the book will deter young people from pursuing this lifestyle.]
Shiver is a werewolf story (207 customer reviews on Amazon), so its popularity may be linked to the phenomenon that is Twilight. I have read Stiefvater's book Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception, and what I learned is that the woman is a very good writer, better than most of the people currently writing teen paranormal fiction. It shouldn't surprise you to hear that Shiver was just optioned to be made into a movie.
Neil Gaiman's Newbery winner, The Graveyard Book, continues to enthrall, speaking of well written. There's no question about this one becoming a movie!
Another much-anticipated book in the NYT's top ten is Fire by Kristin Cashore. I read Graceling last year and thought it was good, though I wasn't quite as enamored of it as some of my friends in the Kidlitosphere blogging community. Graceling is about a magically gifted warrior girl on a quest to circumvent the evil first manifested by the kidnapping of the elderly father of a king. Prequel Fire is set in the same world as Graceling, telling the story of an unnaturally beautiful girl, the daughter of a monster, who has powers of mind control and gets caught up in her country's political struggles. (I try not to get Catching Fire and Fire mixed up!) The cover art to the left is from the UK edition.
The other four books in the NYT's top ten are The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo (which someone just gave me for my birthday), The Million-Dollar Throw by Mike Lupica, Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick, and Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. These are, respectively, another magical fable from the Newbery award-winning author of The Tale of Despereaux (which, you'll note, was made into a movie), a sports book in a series that's growing in popularity and really should generate at least one movie, a Twilightish paranormal romance about a hunky fallen angel, and a Young Adult novel about the reasons a teenager has killed herself.
Of the books on the list, The Magician's Elephant and Thirteen Reasons Why are probably the least commercial. I'm a little leery of teen suicide books, but that's just me—I've got more of a middle grade fiction personality than a YA one. Without even reading it, I can recommend The Magician's Elephant to you. Not to mention The Graveyard Book, which I have read. It manages to be both literary and commercial, a fairly remarkable achievement on Gaiman's part.
Overall, I thought this list was more promising than the list of Top Ten Bestsellers in Children's Picture Books, which made me want to cry. Read it and see if you can guess why: Fancy Nancy: Splendiferous Christmas by Jane O'Connor, The Christmas Sweater: A Picture Book by Glenn Beck, LEGO Star Wars by Simon Beecroft, Nubs by Mary Nethery, Waddle by Rufus Butler Seder, Eragon's Guide to Alagaesia by Christopher Paolini, Skippyjon Jones: Lost in Spice by Judy Schachner, Otis by Loren Long, Julie Andrews' Collection of Poems, Songs, and Lullabies by Julie Andrews and her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, and Where the Wild Things Are: The Movie Storybook by Barb Bersche.
From the depths of my soul, the question bursts forth: What are these kids reading? And close on its heels: What are their parents thinking?
Most of these "picture books" are movie tie-ins, books with visual effects, books by political pundits, etc. While I know Fancy Nancy is popular, I feel that after the first book, the series quickly sold out and went downhill, becoming a fashionable franchise (no pun intended) rather than true storytelling. For me, the only real books on the list are the poetry collection edited by Julie Andrews and her daughter, Skippyjon, and Otis. I have yet to get my hands on Andrews and Hamilton's anthology, but as a poet and poetry lover, I look forward to reading it. I confess I'm not a big fan of the Skippyjon books, possibly because I don't own a cat, although I suppose in this case the cat is actually a stand-in for a small child. I read Otis standing in a bookstore and thought it was a nice story about an anthropomorphized tractor, though not as compelling as, say, the classic Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton.
If you take the time to skim through Amazon's list of the Top 100 Bestselling Books for Children, you'll get a little better picture of the market, finding other commercial books such as the 39 Clues series and my 9-year-old nephew's favorite, Klutz Press's very fun Encyclopedia of Immaturity, along with more literary works. Well, a few, anyway. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is holding its own, for instance.
I did notice a boxed set of the first four Magic Treehouse books in the top 100. Mary Pope Osborne has really cornered the second grade series market, and yes, her books are a pleasant read. But I'm telling you—I can't wait for someone to come up with a far more wonderful series for that age group. So far, it hasn't happened. This begs the question: how good can a series actually be? Does the very concept of a series somehow dilute the literariness of books? Then, too, why do some books seem more like powerful sequels than a series series? Yes, some of the successful books listed above are series, but do second and following books fall short by definition?
On that conundrumical note, I'll conclude my report on the coolest of the cool. It's kind of like watching the popular kids at school. Sometimes you wonder why they're popular when they seem so ordinary, or even, in some cases, so unappealing. On the other hand, there are times it makes sense. Some of the popular kids are truly extraordinary, and their singular status seems completely deserved.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Book Lists and Other Bits of Niceness
Let the Wild Rumpus Start!
On a happier note, I give you my two favorite factoids about Where the Wild Things Are, both from an essay called "Visitors from my Boyhood" by Maurice Sendak in William Zinsser's Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children (1990). The first is that Sendak originally conceived of a book called Where the Wild Horses Are, but he couldn't draw horses, so he switched to monsters. The second follows close on its heels:
Then, very gradually, these other creatures began to appear on my drawing paper, and I knew right away that they were my relatives. They were my uncles and aunts. It wasn't that they were monstrous people; it was simply that I didn't care for them when I was a child because they were rude, and because they ruined every Sunday, and because they ate all our food. They pinched us and poked us and said those tedious, boring things grown-ups say, and my sisters and I sat there in total dismay and rage. The only fun we had later was giggling over their grotesque faces—the huge noses, the spiraling hair pouring out of the wrong places. So I know who those "wild things" are. They are Jewish relatives.That's all the psychology this book can bear, if you ask me.
I will add that I read a few of the earnestly positive reviews of the WTWTA movie and got the message that the director has created something new that works in its own right. I waffled a bit, then went to the bookstore and surreptitiously read the movie picture book. Suspicions confirmed—pop psychology runs through the adapted story like a musical motif. Or a ton of bricks, whichever you prefer.
Yes, I know Sendak himself likes the movie, grumping in a curmudgeonly if not wild way that anyone who thinks it's too scary can go to hell. More power to him, and to anyone who has enjoyed the movie.
Still I choose not to sully my love of the book by seeing the movie.
There are those who are not in love with the book, of course. My mother is one of them. She is irritated by it, for lack of a better word. And she is not a wimpy person. I've never quite figured out why she doesn't like it, except perhaps the obvious: she dislikes a book that encourages children to be wild. Since she raised seven children and had to tame them with the trick of looking into all their yellow eyes personally, this is understandable.
So why do I love the book? Why do I think Where the Wild Things Are is the best picture book ever created, bar none?
I am not alone in feeling this way, you realize. When Betsy Bird of Fuse #8 did a poll designed to identify the top 100 picture books of all time, Sendak's 1964 Caldecott winner topped the list. (Number two was Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd's Goodnight Moon and number three was Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar, in case you're wondering.). Furthermore, Where the Wild Things Are has sold more than 19 million copies worldwide in the nearly fifty years it's been in print.
Again, what's the appeal?
It helps to consider the platonic ideal of a picture book, which is to say, a tight interweaving of words and pictures with a text so compact and lovingly crafted that it is often compared to a poem. What's more, a picture book needs strong characters and plot, conflict, and feeling without sentimentality. In other words, all the trappings of a successful novel, but telescoped into a tiny format. That is what Sendak has achieved in this book.
What's more, he manages to convey the key conflict of childhood—getting mad at your mom , or more to the point, her getting mad at you (How could she? How dare she?). Sendak combines this homely motif with the hero's epic journey, borrowed from traditional fairy tales. The dragon slayer sets out, slays or at least tames the dragon, and comes home covered in glory. Or in this case a wolf suit.
Then there is what I call the F Factor, the freshness factor. In a world dribbling with derivation, Where the Wild Things Are is perenially filled with strangeness, such as the wolf suit, the forest growing in Max's room, the boat appearing (sea monster included), the very language describing his epic journey, and of course the wild things, their crowning of Max as king, and the lovely, jubilant rumpus.
The overused phrase "a celebration of the imagination" does come to mind, since Max essentially creates his own world.
In the same way that Sendak the writer can turn a phrase, Sendak the artist has the ability to turn a visual phrase. As the book looks homeward, we read:
"Now stop!" Max said and sent the wild things off to bed without their supper. And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.The expression on Max's face on this page, with its utter wistfulness, is simply perfect, the more so because it is juxtaposed against the isolating absence of the three wild things around him, who are lost in drowsiness and sleep. (We also get the little side joke of Max being the one in charge, and of feeling his own inclination to send someone to bed without supper.)
Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat, so he gave up being king of where the wild things are.
Some people have been put off by the talk of "eating people up," both from the wild things and from Max yelling at his mother. Food sends Max to his room, food draws him home again, and the last page with "and it was still hot" is an acknowledged tour de force. In another essay, "Jack and Guy and Rosie" from Origins of Story: On Writing for Children (edited by Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire, 1999), Sendak tells of a teacher who asked a class of emotionally disturbed children to explain the book We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy. Sendak reports:
One answer was from a little boy, who said the book's message was that you should eat a lot because all my books feed you: because in Wild Things there was dinner, and in In the Night Kitchen there was cake, and in Higglety Pigglety Pop! there was everything to eat. In Jack and Guy there was a lot of fresh bread. So he saw my works as a meal, which is as good a compliment as one could have.Maurice Sendak turns anger into hunger, and he turns anger into a party. He tames the wild thing in this book, namely Max, by giving him what might smarmily be called a creative outlet for his energies. In doing so, the author-illustrator summons the inner world of a child.
Oops. That sounds like the psychology I was bemoaning earlier. My point is that each child is a universe of thoughts and hopes and energies. Each child is a place. Rather than psychoanalyzing that place, we should rejoice in it. I will clarify that I am not referring to the goals of the self-esteem movement. Rather, I believe with a sort of simple faith that every person on this planet contributes uniquely to humanity and should be considered a component of something resembling a historical trust, a brain trust, some kind of trust, a mutual treasure.
Stories give us examples of this vast individuality like gifts, the way Sendak gives us Max—feeding us all a hot supper.
Make no mistake, this book is not about telling kids to be wild. It's about telling kids they are loved despite their wild side, the wildness every one of us has and needs to nurture/tame one way or another. In Maurice Sendak's hands, this is not a smarmy message, just an eerie truth whispered across days and weeks and years.
I have Sendak on my mind in part because I recently read Gregory Maguire's Making Mischief: A Maurice Sendak Appreciation. (Yes, that would be the same Gregory Maguire who penned Wicked.) In case you hadn't guessed, reading this book will show you that Sendak himself is a wild thing. I suspect the best children's writers often are.
What surprised me is the extent to which Sendak includes homages to various works of art and other creative luminaries in his illustrations. Maguire spends time pointing out these homages, beginning with a surreal tour of Sendak's home studio/gallery. Happily, Maguire's snatches of essay simply act as Vanna White hands, framing the bountiful illustrations.
Making Mischief is designed for children's book afficionados. It's kind of like a coffee table book, although it's not fluff. Maguire goes on to talk about Sendak's influences, which range from German Romantic painters and Mozart to silent films and Mickey Mouse. The author riffs on Sendak's themes and evocations of emotion, reminding us intriguingly that "[c]hildren's lives are fiendishly hard." Maguire includes a number of unpublished works of art, courtesy of Sendak's own collection—I especially liked one of a boy and an elephant (100). Maguire provides us with a look at what he feels are Sendak's Top Ten works of art. And finally, he pulls off the amazing feat of retelling Where the Wild Things Are using illustrations from Maurice Sendak's other books.
Reading Making Mischief brought more favorite Sendak works to mind. I think the Nutshell Library is still one of the best children's books, or rather sets of children's books, ever—Chicken Soup with Rice is especially marvelous (with still more food!). The expressions of the myriad small children in Ruth Krauss's classic A Hole Is to Dig showcase Maurice Sendak's mastery of human emotions, captured in the slightest strokes of ink. Less well-known books that you might want to seek out include Sendak's illustrations for a collection of Grimms' fairy tales titled The Juniper Tree and a picture book by Charlotte Zolotow called Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present. Have you seen Sendak and Sesyle Joslin's What Do You Say, Dear? and What Do You Do, Dear? They are very, very funny, putting all of the other children's books about good manners to shame. Then there are Else Holmelund Mindak's Little Bear books, classic easy readers illustrated by Maurice Sendak with great tenderness. You'll find that in addition to creating his own books, Sendak has made other people's writing live and breathe. Another example is his 1984 edition of George MacDonald's tale, The Light Princess, a story made new by Sendak's pen-and-ink illustrations. And of course, we have Sendak's creepy rendering of an obscure fairy tale, Outside Over There, plus his own cool-but-controversial In the Night Kitchen. (Little boys have penises. Who knew?) For a complete listing of his books, try the Wikipedia entry for Maurice Sendak.)
It's important to understand that Where the Wild Things Are irrevocably changed the way people make picture books, and perhaps books for older children, as well. Maurice Sendak taught us that children's books are for children, not grown-ups. That a book for children can surprise us with creative cartwheels rather than plodding didactically across the page. And most important, that children are wild and mysterious, not just "cute." I thank Sendak deeply for opening the doors he opened. And no, I'm still not going to see the movie.
Note for Worried Parents: Gregory Maguire's book, Making Mischief, is clearly intended to be read by a grown-up audience. Also, WPs will probably want to keep two or three of the pieces of art away from young eyes.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
A Review of The Magician of Hoad by Margaret Mahy
Later that day, I plopped myself down in my favorite reading spot and read The Magician of Hoad from cover to cover.
Just finding the book felt like serendipity to me, but there's more. First of all, I had just finished writing a new book, and the one and only literary reference in it is to a Mahy classic called Changeover.
Then the day after coming across Mahy's new book, I got my Horn Book Magazine in the mail and discovered that the lead article is an interview with—Margaret Mahy! HB's review of The Magician of Hoad follows in the review section. Fate obviously intended that I write about Mahy this week...
In all fairness, I will attempt to explain my current state of delirium. That is, some writers are good, some are really good, and some are Writers. Margaret Mahy is a Writer.
Her style reminds me of Cynthia Voigt's work, if you'd like a comparison.
Mahy's mastery of language is stunning. Read some of her work, and a lot of the books you thought were well written suddenly won't seem quite that strong anymore.
The author also has an intricate way of looking at the human heart, and at human interactions. I like the way she thinks about story, as quoted in the Horn Book Magazine interview:
[T]here's no end to story. The world suggests stories as you go along. You see things happen or you hear something said, and sometimes these things extend themselves into stories. It's partly because of being a reader, I think. Reading is very creative—it's not just a passive thing. I write a story; it goes out into the world; somebody reads it and, by reading it, completes it. [Horn Book Magazine, November/December 2009, 606-607]The Magician of Hoad has an epic feel to it. It has that whole hero-and-friends-defeat-villains thing going. But it's really the biography of a magician, which is a fairly bold move in the world of fantasy. We are accustomed to having magicians and wizards dropped on our heads randomly, as a matter of course. We don't often explore the nature of their evolution as people who contain magic. (Books about training, e.g., the Harry Potter series, don't count in this regard.)
Margaret Mahy traces the experiences of a boy named Heriot Tarbas who must find his place in the world. He knows his place in his family, or thinks he does, and when he is carried off to serve the king, he quickly learns his place in the castle. But that isn't enough for Heriot, who feels his different selves shivering through his bones like ghosts and wants to make sense out of them.
In her Horn Book interview, Mahy mentions that this book was originally some 800 pages long; it ended up at a mere 300 or so (on her computer, not in print, it seems). Which explains occasional transitions in which five years pass in a paragraph. But I didn't find this bothersome—the scale of the book simply swept me forward.
Like much of Mahy's work for older readers, The Magician of Hoad is not an easy book. It's markedly mature: it's a fairly dense read that expects us to think and even feel. It also has some violence, as well as a little sex.
Mostly the book is about people. In addition to Heriot, we meet various conflicted characters: a reluctant king who must enforce his desires for peace, three princes whose longings tend to be destructive, a noble girl who clashes with her politically minded father, a corrupt hero, and a street urchin who will become Heriot's closest friend.
None of these relationships are simple. For example, Heriot and the youngest prince have a magical connection, but are they using each other, or are they good for each other? Or both?
Perhaps the most intriguing characters here are the villains. The Hero is ambitious and untrustworthy, but why? And eldest prince Betony Hoad is an odd counterpart to Heriot. The prince wants, not political grandeur and power, but magic at the very least. He demands that the entire world become more exciting than it is, stranger and more glamorous. This is one of the oddest achilles heels you'll ever come across in fiction, but it finds echoes in a modern world in which the lures of celebrity and heightened experience call to so many people, promising the impossible.
When The Magician of Hoad begins, Heriot is a twelve-year-old farm boy living near the island which is the demesne of the King's Hero, Carlyon. Heriot is considered semi-crippled because of the fits he has had growing up. These make him sound as if he were epileptic, but there is another explanation, as we learn later in the book. Heriot has an experience which begins to free his magic, but next he has a vision, and people start gossiping about his abilities. Soon Lord Glass comes to take him away. Heriot flees, only to have a frightening encounter with Carlyon.
Despite his best efforts to stay at home, Heriot ends up being taken to the King. When he meets Prince Dysart, who is considered mad, Heriot learns that this is the boy he has seen in dreams over the years—and who has seen him in return. Dysart is comforted to find out that he's not crazy, after all, and he latches onto Heriot with great need and fervor.
Heriot becomes Magician to the King, which means he must act as a human lie detector and occasionally puts on magical shows for honored guests. He feels that his gifts are meant for a different purpose, but life conspires to keep him in the castle. He does make friends with Cayley, a young thief from the city streets.
In time Heriot and his friends face great treachery, and Cayley's own secrets and goals are revealed. But mostly, we as readers watch over Heriot, wondering if he will lose his mind—or find his truth.
I said that Margaret Mahy is a wordsmith. Here's a description of Prince Dysart, as Linnet (the nobleman's daughter) first sees him:
He had rough, wavy, mouse-colored hair that stood on end like a puppet's wig, a big nose, and a wide smile. His right eye was a light clear blue, while his left was hazel, so it was as if two different people were looking out of the same head. As she came into the tent, he caught her expression and burst into wild laughter. Later she was to think someone had stolen part of Dysart's life, and he filled the empty space by laughing, and that she had been able to tell this from the first moment she ever saw him.
Then there's the quote shown on the back cover, describing a moment when Heriot has just performed a great act of magic:
A wind composed of light and the breath of dragons beat through the company, rustling carefully assembled clothes and tangling hair, and there in the dimness Heriot began to shine. The broad planes of cheek and forehead remaining dark, the lines from nose to mouth and the creases of his eyelids etched on the night with fine lines of fire, each hair a thread of silver, lifting with reluctant grace when the wind blew. He appeared to be not so much contained by the air as embroidered on it.
If you are a serious reader, and especially a serious reader of fantasy, I suggest you take the time to meet Heriot Tarbas, the Magician of Hoad.
Note: Other books by Margaret Mahy you might want to take a look at include Carnegie Medal winners Changeover and The Haunting, as well as The Tricksters, Catalogue of the Universe, Memory, 24 Hours, Alchemy, and Maddigan's Fantasia. The author has also written many marvelous picture books, most recently this summer's Bubble Trouble, which further demonstrates her amazing facility with language.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
Best Children's Books of 2009
A Review of The Outlandish Adventures of Liberty Ames by Kelly Easton
Ten-year-old Liberty Ames, who was named after a can of vegetables, plays the Cinderella role as the book begins:
Once upon a time like now, and in a place like here, there existed a crooked house. The house at 33 Gooch Street was decrepit beyond description. If it could walk, it would limp. If it could talk, it would stutter. If it could smile, it would have rotting teeth. You get the picture...Libby's mother Sal is obese, consuming an astonishing quantity of food that Libby fries up for her each day, as well as the ominous buttergoo pudding Libby's father feeds his wife. Tall, thin Mal—who only bathes in months that have a Z in them—sells fake insurance to people when he's not down in his basement lab concocting miracle potions.
Libby Ames was small with two long dark braids and pale skin. She owned only one dress, a gray one, with big pockets to hold her cooking utensils and cleaning supplies.
Although she was ten, she was not in any grade, like you might be. Her parents had never allowed her to go to school. They told the school officials that she would be "homeschooled." Usually, that's a fine thing. For Libby, though, it meant that she was locked up all day, waiting on her parents hand and foot, dodging their insults like a beleaguered catcher.
As Libby eventually discovers, Mal really is the "friggin' genius" he calls himself. When she finally ventures to explore his lab, she discovers magic potions and imprisoned animals Mal has transformed in various ways, like a chicken with human feet. Libby has just tried a cream that allows her to talk to animals when she is caught by her father and must use one of the potions to take flight—literally.
Loving the freedom implied by her name, Liberty sets off on a series of adventures while trying to evade her father and the people drawn by the reward he offers for getting her back. The goal she sets for herself is a fancy private school, which she thinks will welcome her with open arms. Like many of Libby's assumptions, this isn't quite the case.
I like Easton's premise, and Mal makes for a delightfully grotesque villain, along with his sidekick, a skunk. Other memorable characters include a talking pigeon (who considers bird droppings his art form) and a group of circus performers. Mistaken for the new lion tamer, Liberty is inside the cage telling the volatile beast a story just when the cream that lets her talk to animals wears off.
The author is clearly setting us up for a sequel to these whimsical adventures in the final pages, so look for more Liberty Ames to come.
A subplot involving Liberty's mother and the worm scientist across the street seems a little thin and the author has a tendency to make distracting editorial remarks, but the humor and the storytelling in The Outlandish Adventures of Liberty Ames mostly work. The book is a fun read for 7- to 9-year-olds, especially because of its likable heroine, bright-eyed and hopeful despite her dastardly father and her dour upbringing.
A Review of The Blue Shoe by Roderick Townley
The cobbler has a secret. One night a stranger came to him and asked him to make a very special shoe, giving him a set of odd dimensions and a bagful of gleaming sapphires and even a blue diamond to use for decorating it. Grel completes the shoe—his masterpiece—and hides it, but the stranger never comes back. Eventually the townspeople find out about the shoe, which leads to trouble.
Now, the reason Hap became a thief at all is because in the village of Aplanap, begging is not allowed. Beggars are punished by being sent to Mount Xexnax. Hap's own father has been sent there. So when he sees an odd young girl begging, he tries to stop her for her own protection. First he gives her food; later, when she is thrown in jail, he trades a jewel stolen from his master's blue shoe to save her. But Hap ends up being sent to Xexnax himself, accompanied by a determined girl named Sophia.
Xexnax turns out to be a prison camp with a mine, where prisoners and a captive group of dwarf-like beings called Aukis dig ever deeper, seeking the mythical blue stones. Evil Mr. Slag runs the camp, in cahoots with the mayor of Aplanap, who is just as greedy as his wife. But Hap has other things on his mind. He believes that somewhere in the camp, he will find his father.
Did I mention that The Blue Shoe is something of a morality tale? The village of Aplanap, formerly a pretty place, is soon being punished for their mistreatment of the poor. It seems the hand of a goddess is involved. And the prisoners are about to rebel...
One of the nicest thing about the book is Hap, who is an appealing main character, a determined boy who focuses on the things that really matter in spite of all the chaos going on around him. The blue shoe itself is also intriguing, practically another character.
Mary GrandPre, known for her Harry Potter jacket art, provides illustrations that further support the tale.
However, I liked The Blue Shoe a lot more during the first half, before Hap is sent to Mount Xexnax. Once Hap gets to the prison camp and down in the mines, this book starts feeling like Hogan's Heroes, only without the jokes. And the story's ending is a scattered mix of comeuppance and deus ex machina. Fast-paced enough to be fairly entertaining, The Blue Shoe is not a bad read, but it's not going at the top of my list, either.
A Review of City of Fire by Laurence Yep
City of Fire introduces us to an alternative version of San Francisco in 1941. In this world, dragons take human form, and a well-to-do diplomat's daughter named Scirye has a lap-sized talking griffin named Kles. Her family represents the ancient kingdom of Kush. At a museum exhibit of Kushan artifacts, we meet the rest of our cast of characters—a boy named Leech, his companion Koko, and a disguised dragon named Bayang whose mission is to kill Leech.