Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Review of A Whole Nother Story by Dr. Cuthbert Soup

I'd better start at the beginning, which goes like this, in the timelessly elegant prologue by Dr. Cuthbert Soup:
If I could give you all just one word of advice, it would be... well, an incomplete sentence. Besides being grammatically iffy, I'm sure you'd agree that a single word of advice is rarely of much use. Even the phrase "Look out!" (which could prove to be life-saving advice—especially where large falling objects or missing manhole covers are concerned) is two words.
To simply shout out "Look!" to a friend as a tuba falls from a ninth-story window toward his unsuspecting head will, at best, only serve to make sure he gets a good look at the tuba before it parades him, unceremoniously, into the sidewalk.
I have to say, any author who can use "parade" as a verb in quite that way is a man after my own heart. Assuming the author is a man—who knows? A Whole Nother Story is very much in the vein of Lemony Snicket as far as having a goofy invented author/narrator, odd interpositions, and a tongue-in-cheek tone.

Cuthbert Soup introduces himself and then the true heroes of our story: Mr. Ethan Cheeseman and, more important, his three children, who have no friends despite being "smart, pleasant, witty, attractive, polite, and relatively odor free." But their father is one of those handy fictional characters who has invented a very dangerous machine, the subject of a search by a super-secret government agency, spies from an Eastern European country, and the representatives of an evil corporation. In fact, one of those groups arranged the death of Mrs. Olivia Cheeseman two years earlier. Which is why Cheeseman and his offspring—along with a psychic dog and a sock puppet—are constantly on the move with the not-quite-finished time/space travel (LVR) device.

Note that the Cheeseman kids rename themselves with every move, so in Chapter One they're Barton, Saffron, and Crandall, but they're Jough, Maggie, and Gerard for the rest of the book. Or rather, Gerard LaFontaine, Magenta-Jean Jurgenson, and Jough Psmythe (the latter only sounds ordinary!).

Soup is good at at creating small touches that add humorous dimension to the story. For some reason, I was especially amused by an ongoing argument among the corporate henchmen about the difference between various destructive terms, such as "crush," "squish," and "squeeze." (There's a payoff to this running joke late in the book.) The names of the different agents are also funny, as are the traveling companions of the Eastern European spy, Pavel Dushenko.

Banana guns, the appeal of dirt clods, Jough's new friend/baseball manager Elliot, and a traveling circus sideshow without a circus are just a few of the other jokes you'll come across in Soup's offbeat first outing. The book evokes the humor of writers like Douglas Adams or, according to Kirkus, Dave Barry. (Be sure to pay attention to the way the circus sideshow has humanely gotten rid of its wild animals.)

As head of the Center for Unsolicited Advice, Dr. Cuthbert Soup pauses every so often to give readers advice loosely related to the narrative. For example, we have a page titled "Some Generous Advice on Gift Giving" that clarifies:

Good gifts: A bottle of champagne, a box of fine Belgian chocolates, the Statue of Liberty.
Bad gifts: A bottle of shampoo, a box of fine Belgian matches, the Trojan horse.
No explanation is given for how Soup knows the things he knows about the Cheesemans, although the fugitives do drive by his center at one point. (For a fun video about the elusive Dr. Soup, visit the book's website. Or take a look at this BookPage column, in which he tells us about knowing Ethan Cheeseman back in college, among other, goofier things.)

The plot of A Whole Nother Story occasionally meanders and stalls, while characters seem to be introduced in much the same way people walk onstage to perform in a vaudeville review. But I think you'll find you won't care. This book is simply a lot of fun. And yes, it's obviously the first in a series, so there's more Soup to come. As the great Lewis Carroll might put it, "Soo—oop of the e—e—evening,/Beautiful, beauti—FUL SOUP!"

A Review of Raiders' Ransom by Emily Diamand

Emily Diamand won the first London Times/Chicken House Children's Fiction Competition with this book, beating out more than 2,000 other writers. It's easy to see why. I can't decide which is better, her world building or her characterization.

It kind of surprised me to realize that Raiders' Ransom, the start of a series, is dystopian fiction, set in 2216 after rising sea levels have changed countries like England forever. I'm used to seeing that subgenre of science fiction and fantasy dominated by Young Adult writers, perhaps because it tends to be Dark Stuff Indeed.

Which is not to say that Diamand's vision of the future isn't bleak. But it is also swashbuckling, and this book is middle grade fiction, not YA (though perhaps for the older end of the spectrum, say fourth through seventh grades).

In Diamand's future, the British Isles are made up of the Last Ten Counties, a region of southwest England ruled by an oppressive Prime Minister; Greater Scotland to the north; and the warrior tribes (Raiders) who inhabit the marshes along the now-abbreviated southeast coast. In a luddite backlash, technology has been destroyed by the fearful denizens of the southern regions, though Scotland has retained some and is trying to get their hands on more.

Our story has two narrative voices—fishing girl Lilly, accompanied by the psychic seacat she simply calls Cat, and a raider boy known as Zeph, the son of a ruthless tribal leader. Zeph's father leads his men to Lilly's fishing village to find a lost tech treasure for the secretive Scottish Ambassador and instead kidnaps Prime Minister Randall's seven-year-old daughter, Lexy. Lilly's beloved grandmother is killed in the raid, and when the Prime Minister takes out his wrath on her village, Lilly sets off on a fairly hopeless quest. Disguising herself as a boy (natch), she steals the tech jewel from Lexy's aunt with the goal of ransoming the missing child and saving her friends.

Nothing goes as planned, of course. Zeph and Lilly's paths cross in a dangerous half-drowned London, where trust is offered and then betrayed as the two try to achieve their disparate heart's desires. Both have troubles that can't easily be wrapped up in the course of a single book, but the plot comes to a satisfying stopping point, which pleased me—series or no series, a book's plot should be as round and whole as an orange instead of trailing off like an unfinished sentence.

Diamand's characterization is a real strength in Raiders' Ransom. Lilly and Zeph are imperfect, yet likable. Lilly is initially more empathetic than Zeph, who is being taught by his father to be brutal. But Zeph ultimately makes his own decisions, as does Lilly, both of them not so much rebelling against the adults around them as finding their own ways to be. I was happy to find that many of the author's secondary characters are rounded, as well, some surprisingly so (e.g., Lexy's aunt and Zeph's "stepmother").

One of the oddest characters in the book is the handheld computer or jewel, which seems like a ghost to superstitious southerners, including Lilly. Diamand has fun with the AI by making him prissy and self-serving, which means that his reactions make even less sense to Lilly, who is busy fighting for her life, than they would if she had any idea what computers were all about.

Diamand gives her characters' voices a nice little futuristic twang without going overboard. I'm not always fond of books written in present tense, but after the first few pages I got into the swing of things, deciding that the sense of immediacy suited the storytelling. (It's a trend that may grow, perhaps in reflection of film and other "present tense" media, even texting.)

Here is Lilly's voice:
Maybe Cat can smell fish? Fish guts curling off the harborside into the water; fish scales decorating the stones like pearls. Scrape, slice, pack: the daily chore of fisherfolk. And Cat's a favorite, with his pretty gray markings and his seaweed eyes. Any one of 'em, man or woman, would give him a tidbit, hoping to steal him away. He makes the most of it, gets a bellyful whenever he can, but it doesn't matter what they do, how much fish they give him; he'll thank 'em, eat it neatly, then come straight back to me.
This series start promises real adventure in a newly envisioned future, one where young heroes must navigate the treacherously high seas surrounding the British Isles as well as the untrustworthy shoals of politically motivated adult behavior. As for a possible environmental message, Diamand launches her plot off a current question about the ocean rising to cover up the world's key port cities. From there, her imagination takes her to a new place: I recommend you visit it in Raiders' Ransom and the books to follow.

Note for Worried Parents: There are a few off-color references and a raider has a concubine, plus the Viking-like raiders are pretty scary, especially when they start throwing knives.

A Review of Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore

Steampunk meets Jane Eyre in this first book by Dolamore, who also throws in some fairies. We eventually learn that since the last Fairy War, the Sorcerer's Council has divided into two factions, with the enlightened previous leader of the council missing under suspicious circumstances. The new leader, Soleran Smollings, has a small mind—he is prejudiced against the fairies who live in the next kingdom over and against people like our heroine Nimira, a dancer from the Arabian-type land of Tassim.

Nimira is living hand-to-mouth as a "trouser girl" in a dance hall in a fantasy city resembling nineteenth-century London. Then she is chosen by the aloof and handsome Hollin Parry (AKA Mr. Rochester) to sing with his expensive mechanical piano player. The maids at Parry's estate whisper that the automaton is haunted, and in fact, it has scared away previous singers with its moans and imploring looks. Clever Nimira suspects there's more to the situation than a mere haunting. She waits until no one's around and uses a simple code to ascertain that the pianist is actually a person named Erris who is under an awful enchantment.

Erris is only one of the house's gothic mysteries, which include a screaming woman guarded by the terrifying housekeeper...

And Parry shows signs of falling for his new singer, taking her on picnics and having her dressed in expensive ladies' gowns rather than the costumes of her native land. But Parry is basically a wimp.

You know how in movies today, they often cast twenty-somethings who are attractive, but seem to lack the depth and emotional maturity to handle the demands of their plots? Well, Dolamore's cast is a bit young that way. The peril doesn't seem quite as perilous as it should, and the romance doesn't seem as real as it should. None of this is helped by an abrupt and undercooked ending. Even books anticipating sequels need to end, coming to a natural and rewarding stop.

Still, Magic Under Glass is a pleasant YA romance with fantasy elements and hints about continuing adventures for our star-crossed lovers. The author's world building, with its threat of intrigue and war in regard to the nearby land of the fairies, is promising. Your tween or teen daughter may very well enjoy it, having read all of Stephenie Meyer's books, Beautiful Creatures, etc.

But you really should hand her some YA fantasy with a little more oomph, say, R. J. Anderson's Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter, Maggie Stiefvater's Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception, Lisa Mantchev's Eyes Like Stars: Theatre Illuminata, Act I, or Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer by Laini Taylor. Or perhaps Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Wrede and Stevermer, to go back a bit farther.

Note for Worried Parents: There is a mention of one of the dance hall girls sharing the bed of the manager, and the point is made that men come to the dance hall to see the girls' legs rather than to hear them sing, but that's about it. Still, this book is meant for teens.

Update, 1-30-10: This book has recently been the subject of an uproar because the main character is clearly described as being dark-skinned in the text - basically middle Eastern, though in a fantasy land - but the cover photo shows a white girl. Publisher Bloomsbury is now going to reprint all of the jackets with a more appropriate look. (Bloomsbury came under similar criticism a few months ago for the cover of Liar by Justine Laralestier.) Great news for those of us who believe that books about brown people are just as appealing as books about lighter-skinned characters. A good book is a good book, period.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Nonfiction Monday: Don Brown's Picture Book Biographies

Some children, like some adults, aren't interested in stories about pirates and knights, princesses and fairies. These literal-minded sorts prefer nonfiction. My nephew is one of them—when I took him to the bookstore for his birthday, he always picked out Eyewitness books. I remember his interest in rocks and minerals and Egypt, for example, when he was six.

For this group, let alone for other children in your class or your family who will be spending years reading nonfiction for school, Don Brown's picture book biographies nicely anticipate the greater variety of fare available to older readers.

Brown's biographies are written at a level appropriate for 7- to 9-year-olds. The most well-known of these is probably Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein. Unlike other Don Brown books I've read, Odd Boy Out is written in first person, a choice which gives the book a strange immediacy that suits the man who theorized about the relationship between space and time. Brown has a knack for selecting the most intriguing details, and for making his subjects seem both ordinary and extraordinary. Here is a snippet:
Young Albert does well in the school subjects that he likes and ignores the others. He likes math. Not so, Latin and Greek. When questioned in class, Albert lingers over his responses, frustrating his teachers, who prefer quick, snappy answers. And afterward the teachers see his lips move as he quietly repeats the answer to himself. Is Albert dull-witted? the teachers wonder.
Another of Brown's biographies I've read is American Boy: The Adventures of Mark Twain. Brown quickly shows us that as a boy, Sam Clemens caused all kind of mischief, just like his alter ego, Tom Sawyer. One of his buddies was the precursor of Huck Finn:
Both Sam and Will kept a frowned-upon friendship with Hannibal's wild boy, Tom Blankenship. Tom was from a seedy family and was dreaded by the town's respectable mothers. He never went to school or church, nor need obey anybody. Sam ignored Tom's outcast reputation. "He was ignorant, unwashed, and insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as any boy had," Sam said.

I particularly appreciated discovering Brown's biographies of unusual, adventurous women. In Alice Ramsey's Grand Adventure, we follow the first woman to drive a car clear across America—back in 1909, when most of the roads were dirt and the only road maps were for the Eastern states. Alice acted as her own mechanic on a car, which, Brown tells us, featured headlamps that had to be lighted with a match and a gas level Alice measured with a stick.

In Uncommon Traveler: Mary Kingsley in Africa, we learn of a British woman who spent her childhood in isolation, caring for her invalid mother and reading the books in her father's extensive library. Mary's father was a doctor and traveled to many parts of the world. Her parents died when she was thirty, whereupon Mary Kingsley set out to explore West Africa all by herself, finding native guides when she got there. In this fascinating book, we read of Mary's encounters with various wildlife, swamps, and African tribes.
In a swamp, an eight-foot-long crocodile "chose to get his front paws over the stern of my canoe," said Mary. "I had to retire to the bow, to keep the balance and fetch him a clip on the snout with a paddle. This was only a pushing young creature who had not learnt manners."
Don Brown has written picture books about other intriguing women who discovered fossils or flew planes back in the days when only men were expected to have adventures. He has also written about the day the American Revolution began and the sinking of the Titanic. I suppose my favorite title is Dolly Madison Saves George Washington, though I've yet to read that one. Another title of interest is One Giant Leap: The Story of Neil Armstrong.

Now, a question that comes up in connection with these books is the quality of the author-illustrator's artwork. Brown's watercolors are soothing, but sometimes simple to the point of being bland. For the most part, they seem to suit the books, though they lack the kind of dazzling craftsmanship we've come to expect from illustrators working in the field today. Occasionally, Brown's artwork pops, however. For example, the illustrations in Odd Boy Out are uniformly good, in particular a spread featuring Albert Einstein pushing a baby buggy beneath a spacescape spinning with equations.

More important, the author's choice of subjects and the way he tells these true stories will make his books an asset to your school or home library. Relatively speaking, there just aren't enough picture books out there for young nonfiction aficionados, although the science side of things has improved markedly in the last decade or so. For the budding student of history and history makers, Don Brown's biographies further fill the gap.

Today's Nonfiction Monday is being hosted by Diane Chen on her School Library Journal blog, Practically Paradise. Link through to find other posts on nonfiction for children.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Review of David McPhail's Favorite Tales

I am happy to report that this collection, first published in 1995, was reprinted a few months ago. I was recently looking for picture book versions of fairy tales written for younger readers, ones that first and second graders can read to themselves. David McPhail's Favorite Tales was one of the best I found. The author-illustrator corrals his previous books The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and The Three Little Pigs in one volume.

Of course, the book also works nicely as a read aloud for 3- to 6-year-olds. In case you haven't run across McPhail's work, he has a recognizable style—slightly stocky characters with watchful eyes, strong ink outlines, and a home-like quality. I am particularly fond of one of his less well-known works, the illustrations for Nancy Willard's The Nightgown of the Sullen Moon. You may remember other books he has written and illustrated, such as Edward and the Pirates, The Teddy Bear, and Pigs Aplenty, Pigs Galore! Just as a good author has a clear voice, so does a good illustrator. David McPhail's artistic voice is both distinctive and pleasing.

As for the retellings, in the first selection, McPhail wisely keeps Beatrix Potter's original language. His other three stories are written in prose that's reader friendly without being condescending. You'll find that he deliberately eliminates the more violent story elements. In "Little Red Riding Hood," for example, no one actually gets eaten, and even the wolf's death is only a threat. However, McPhail makes these changes so smoothly that the adapted stories work just fine. I especially like the way he ends "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." Again, this approach makes the tales just right for primary grade readers and lap listeners.

I should point out that I've seen a lot of disappointing fairy tale collections and anthologies for this age group. For a more extensive collection, I've been using A First Book of Fairy Tales, edited by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by Anne Millard and Julie Downing. But the more truncated tales in that collection seem awfully—well, truncated. Granted, McPhail's little collection is really a matter of putting four complete picture books inside two covers. (See one of the original book covers to the right.) But even as a mini collection, it's a satisfying book.

There's a sense in which a young reader might feel like David McPhail's Favorite Tales, with its comfortable heft, is an early chapter book. I know the holiday buying season is over, but I suggest you keep this one in mind next time you go book shopping. My only caution to you is that I found the book at the Barnes and Noble site, but not on Amazon or Borders—nor, oddly enough, at the publisher's website (Scholastic).

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Poetry Friday: Faith and Hope

Whether your spirituality is personal, organized, or simply based on the joy of human growth, thought, and creativity, you have probably drawn on some version of faith and hope. At this time of year when so many people around the world are thinking about their purpose in life, I give you two poems, one about faith and the other a classic about hope.


Where the path closed
down and over,
through the scumbled leaves,
fallen branches,

through the knotted catbrier,
I kept going. Finally
I could not
save my arms
from the thorns; soon

the mosquitoes
smelled me, hot
and wounded, and came
wheeling and whining.
And that's how I came

to the edge of the pond:
black and empty
except for a spindle
of bleached reeds

at the far shore
which, as I looked,
wrinkled suddenly
into three egrets—

a shower
of white fire!
Even half-asleep they had
such faith in the world

that had made them—
tilting through the water,
unruffled, sure,
by the laws

of their faith not logic,
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.

—Mary Oliver

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

—Emily Dickinson

Note: "Egrets" is from one of the best collections in my library, New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, Boston, 1992. I regret that I was unable to represent the indentations properly. As laid out in New and Selected Poems, they stair-step in groups of four or five lines. Lacking those, I have added extra line spaces here solely in order to convey the sense of the poem's movement on the page. I want to be clear, however, that the line spaces shown above do not occur in the original poem.

It's Christmas Day, so I'm not sure how much participation to expect, but please leave your poetry links in the comments and I will post them here Friday morning till about 11:00 and then again in the late afternoon or early evening.

--Father Goose shares an original poem (and a terrific Truman Capote quote) with "The Christmas Tree Trimmer."

--Elaine Magliaro goes all out, presenting a Judy Garland video and an Elf Yourself greeting at Blue Rose Girls, along with several original poems and a lovely animated Christmas card at Wild Rose Reader.

--Diane Mayr has a Christmas excerpt (with a carol!) from The Wind in the Willows and a haiku at Random Noodling, as well as an intriguing poem narrated by Mrs. Claus from the author of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Write Sisters.

--Mary Lee gives us holiday greetings with a traditional carol at A Year of Reading.

--Laura Shovan of Author Amok has written a post about Alice in Wonderland, featuring that wonderful poem, "Jabberwocky."

--Tricia joins us with Longfellow's "Christmas Bells" at The Miss Rumphius Effect.

My apologies to Sally and Tiel, whose comments did not show up in my e-mail for some reason. Here are their links:

--Sally shares a post about "Winnipeg at Christmas" over at Paper Tigers.

--Tiel Aisha Ansari of Knocking from the Inside has art and a poem for us, Unnumbered Releases.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Grieving in Picture Books

Earlier this week a few friends and I, teachers all, were making plans to get together for lunch during winter break. One friend reminded us that she's not available on one particular date because it's her son's "death day," the date he and his wife and little boy were killed in a car accident several years ago. She will be spending it with her other children.

For my part, I can assure you that our Christmases haven't been the same since my father died nearly five years ago. The old traditions don't seem to work anymore, and new traditions are still half-formed. Sometimes I'm not sure they'll ever grow into anything at all.

Another friend recently confided in me that she doesn't know what to do about her mother, who can't handle the holidays since her younger daughter died just last year.

Because the holidays are a time for family, they may remind us of family we have lost. And they may not feel particularly frolicsome for other reasons. There are many kinds of loss, including plain old loneliness. Today I am missing my home teaching students. Four of the five will be going back to school in January and I will be assigned new ones—our last day was yesterday.

Books for children about grief or loss—whether of a pet, a grandparent, or even oneself—tend to be didactic or overdone for obvious reasons. Here I will try to highlight the handful of books about death that avoid over-sentimentalizing loss, treating it with respect, compassion, and a subtle human pain.

The first book is new, and it's one I've been wanting to share with you for a couple of months. Australian author Mem Fox is best known for her book, Possum Magic, and for her efforts to promote children's literacy, especially reading with your children. Possum Magic and other books by this author are so cheery that it's almost a shock to come across this tender, solemn tale. The Goblin and the Empty Chair is a demanding book because it unequivocally expects you to read between the lines. Here we have a family consisting of a mother, a father, and a daughter. They are seen through the eyes of a lonely goblin who is basically spying on them, worrying about how sad they are. The goblin has his own problem—he hides his face from everyone because of his horrible looks.

It will make things more clear when I tell you that the book is illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. This story reads like a fairy tale, with some evocation of the tradition of the helpful brownie or household elf. In the Dillons' illustrations, the goblin and the people have a quiet elegance; they certainly aren't cute. The empty chair of the title has two meanings—it represents both the family's loss (see the family portrait on the wall) and the place that may be waiting at the table for a new friend. The Goblin and the Empty Chair isn't the kind of book that tops the bestseller list, but it's one of those hidden gems, especially for a family that has suffered the loss of a child. It's the subtlest, strangest book I've ever seen about death and grief, and I highly recommend it.

The Tenth Good Thing about Barney is Judith Viorst's classic book about the death of a pet, illustrated by Erik Blegvad. In it, the small boy narrator tells about the death of his cat, the funeral in the backyard, his argument about heaven with a neighbor girl, and his list of good things—ending with a new idea about Barney now that he's "in the ground." Viorst doesn't discount the idea of heaven, but takes a pragmatic approach to the mystery. Her depiction of this boy's experience is frank and simply told, touching without being contrived. One reason the book is so effective is that the narrator's parents handle the situation calmly and supportively. I'll let you read about the ten good things for yourself, but here's an excerpt from the funeral:
In the morning my mother wrapped Barney in a yellow scarf. My father buried Barney in the ground by a tree in the yard. Annie, my friend from next door, came over with flowers. And I told good things about Barney... At the end of the funeral we sang a song for Barney. We couldn't remember any cat songs, so we sang one about a pussywillow. Even my father knew the words.
There's a reason the book has been in print for decades!

Badger's Parting Gifts is perhaps the most didactic book I'm spotlighting today, but I think it works. Again, the tone is matter-of-fact, which really helps. Those who don't believe in an afterlife might dislike the fact that Badger is shown going down a kind of tunnel when he dies, and there's a hint of "he's looking down on us from heaven," although this is never stated overtly. But mostly, what's nice about the book is the way it shows how natural death is for the elderly, how sad those left behind will feel, and how sharing memories can bring some comfort. In this case, author-illustrator Susan Varley particularly focuses on what Badger has taught each of the other animals, the "parting gifts" of the title. Nice to know you can communicate the concept of "legacy" to kids without once using the word! The watercolors in this book may remind you of Ernest Shepherd's illustrations for The Wind in the Willows, as they did me. They are just right for telling the story.

The next two books are out of print, so perhaps you can find them at your local library or order them used. Both are about the loss of a grandfather. Jane Yolen's book, Grandad Bill's Song, is illustrated by Melissa Bay Mathis. In it, a young boy asks different family members and a family friend, "What did you do on the day Grandad died?" Every person answers a different way, and the following page gives us that individual's memories of Grandad Bill in "photos," often when he was much younger. So the entire book is a dialogue, but Yolen has written each section as a poem, with the utmost mastery. Here's an example:

Mama, what did you do on the day Grandad died?
I looked in the mirror, and then, son, I lied.
I said to myself that my daddy's not dead.
But the mirror looked back at me, shaking its head.
Isn't that just beautiful? By the end of the book, we realize that the narrator is a little worried about his own reaction to losing his grandad. But his father has an answer for him, and it's a good one. Grandad Bill's Song is a powerful book about how different people react differently to a death, and how that's just fine.

The Magpie Song by Laurence Anholt, illustrated by Dan Williams, has more of a narrative feel, although it, too, is structured, in this case by a series of letters between a little girl and her grandfather. Carla, who lives in the city in an apartment, exchanges letters with her grandad, who lives in the country. Carla's parents are struggling financially, and her grandfather is having some health problems. The motif of the old rhyme about magpies is used to tie the grandfather's letters together, and he even carves a magpie for Carla. The endpapers give us the complete rhyme, with themes echoed by different parts of the story ("One for sorrow/Two for joy/Three for a girl...").

In an age when the tie between grandparents and grandchildren is sometimes undervalued, this book shows how important that relationship can be. It's a fairly sophisticated story and the ending jumps chronologically, but I think The Magpie Song is worth a little extra thought. Events are handled subtly; for example, Carla starts writing little letters that just say, "Why haven't you written?"—and readers will realize that her grandfather is seriously ill. Considering that the grandfather's death is evoked rather than described, The Magpie Song is a surprisingly effective book about loss. The author also manages to touch on the connection between the father and the grandfather and even what it means to be true to yourself, all without being heavy-handed or derailing his narrative.

Now, I teach children who are recovering from surgery or seriously ill, and sometimes they die. The last book I'll mention is about the death of a child. It's a small book called The Purple Balloon, and it's by Chris Raschka. The author-illustrator chooses to represent people as balloons. Very few people could make this work, but the incredibly talented Raschka pulls it off. The book begins, "No one likes to talk about dying. It's hard work." First we see an elderly balloon who is going to die, and then we read about a young balloon who is very ill: "There is only one thing harder to talk about than someone old dying—someone young dying." Raschka emphasizes the many people who gather around to offer companionship and support. That's really the focus of the book: "Good help makes dying less hard." I looked through Amazon for alternatives to The Purple Balloon and didn't see anything else with this matter-of-fact quality. One thing I've found as a home teacher is that kids who are dying don't like being fussed over by people dripping with sympathy. They do like plain old, garden-variety human attention, however. (It's surprising how normal you feel when your teacher gives you math homework.)

We all know loss is part of the human condition. Most of the time, the children in our lives won't have to deal with it, at least in the form of death. But when they do, I hope you'll think of these books. Because, unlike platitudes, a good story can offer true comfort.

Suggestions from the Comments:

--Always My Brother by Jean Reagan, illustrated by Phyllis Pollema-Cahill
--Bird by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Shadra Strickland (for older readers, about losing a brother to drug addiction and then death; African American family)
--Michael Rosen's Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake (some find this too dark; see debate in Amazon customer reviews)
--Tess's Tree by Jess M. Brallier, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds (about the loss of a favorite tree; can also be used as a metaphor for other losses and the grief process)
--Wishes for One More Day by Melanie Joy Pastor, illustrated by Jacqui Grantford (about a Jewish family, two children who lose their grandfather)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Book about Books

I was at a teachers' meeting yesterday and one of my friends had torn out an ad from his New Yorker for me, prompting me to throw my hands up and ask the universe: "Why haven't I heard of this before?" Anita Silvey, who is known for her books recommending children's literature, has edited a collection of brief essays by famous people about children's books that have affected their lives. I can't review Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's Book yet, but I just ordered it and I'm looking forward to reading it by the fire with a cup of hot chocolate in hand over the holidays...

A few of the names mentioned in the ad are Julianne Moore, Jon Scieszka, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., with more than 100 contributors included. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, quoted on Amazon, "This handsome compendium is dense and delightful. And the longish title is a perfect catalyst for more conversation, in classrooms and at the dinner table. What children's book taught you something valuable? Discuss."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Checking it Twice

Here's another list for you, School Library Journal's Best 100 Children's Books of 2009. And yes, Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me is on it! This list is a mixture of nonfiction, picture books, middle grade fiction, and Young Adult titles, so you'll have to sort it out a bit according to your interests.

Happy reading, and Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Best Middle Grade Fiction: 110 Years' Worth of Books

You thought this was the time of year for endless Christmas carols on the radio and too many cookie choices in your office, but actually, it's the time of year for lists. Here's me jumping on the bandwagon with my Top 50 middle grade books from the twentieth century, followed by an annotated list of my Top 10 (+1) from the first decade of the new millenium. Please note that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Little Women were published prior to 1900, as were Treasure Island and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

The books below are funny, heart-wrenching, influential, and flat-out creative. See if there are any you've missed reading, and if there are any you feel I should have listed, please let me know your thoughts in the comments.

My Top 50 from the Twentieth Century

--Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (series)
--Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (series)
--Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
--The Borrowers by Mary Norton (series)
--Bridge to Terebithia by Katherine Paterson
--Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
--Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey (series)
--Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman
--Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
--Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
--The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper (series)
--Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones
--From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
--The Giver by Lois Lowry
--Half Magic by Edward Eager (series)
--Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
--Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (series)
--Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
--The High King by Lloyd Alexander (series)
--The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
--Holes by Louis Sachar
--Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt (series)
--James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
--The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (series)
--Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (series)
--A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
--A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
--Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
--Matilda by Roald Dahl
--Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
--Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O'Brien
--Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
--The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
--Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
--Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary (series)
--Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (series)
--Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
--The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
--Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
--Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
--The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
--Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
--The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
--The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
--The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman
--The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
--Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
--The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
--The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
--A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

My Top Ten for the 2000's

In compiling this list, I certainly relied on personal taste, but I'd like to think there was a little more to it than that. All of these books have strong, realistic characters who make you care about them for page after page. The characters inhabit fresh plots, as opposed to stale plods. Their authors also have a way with words, to put it mildly. And humor adds grace notes to each book (or, in the case of Jeff Kinney, creates the melody!).

Alabama Moon by Watt Key

This is one of the best children's books I've read in years and an extra good pick for reluctant boy readers. Moon lives with his survivalist father, a Vietnam vet with a pathological distrust of the government, out in the middle of a forest in Alabama. His clothes are made of animal skins and he's always hungry, but it's the only life he knows. When his father dies, he tries to follow the man's instructions to go to Alaska, but the outside world has other ideas. Pretty soon Moon is applying his survival skills in a boys' home, but he doesn't stay for long, and when he escapes, he takes his new friends with him. Moon is a unique character, just the right combination of strength and vulnerability as he realizes that, unlike his father, he needs other people. The boy is this generation's Maniac Magee.

The Casson Family books by Hilary McKay (Saffy’s Angel, Indigo’s Star, Permanent Rose, Caddy Ever After, and Forever Rose)

I am suffused with a true reader's joy whenever I talk up these books about a family of artists in which the kids are all named after paint colors. It's about the only time I act like a car salesman, since I'm usually not the marketing type. How shall I describe the Cassons? The parents aren't particularly good parents, but there's such a core of love at the heart of this family and of these books—along with a great deal of humor, the rich kind that emerges from interactions between strong characters. A friend of mine once said of a situation, "That's so lifey," which is also a good description of McKay's books. Get to know Saffy, Indigo, Caddy, and especially Rose, along with their friends. It might just ruin you for other books!

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney (series)

Jeff Kinney's wildly popular series is another hit for boys in grades 4-8, but frankly, my 12-year-old niece laughed her head off when she read them. As did I—and I'm practically an old lady! The funniest thing about Greg Heffley is that he doesn't know how self-centered he is, or why people react the way they do in various situations. He's such a perfect embodiment of a middle school boy. The humor here is worthy of a Jerry Seinfeld, with ordinary life writ large. And just when you think author Kinney will zig, he zags. The hand-lettered-style font and cartoon illustrations perfectly complement the writer's narrative.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

This book has won so many awards that Gaiman had to install a special weight-bearing wall to hold up the shelf he puts them on. Or so I've heard. The fact is, the author is a very talented guy, and his greatest gift is probably his ability to infuse darkness with tenderness. Here he gives us a loose retelling of Kipling's The Jungle Book, only he sets his tale in a cemetery. Bod (Nobody) Owens is our new Boy Who Lived, a baby who escapes when the rest of his family is murdered. Having toddled across the road to the cemetery, the child is adopted by ghosts and given the freedom of the graveyard. Bod's upbringing is utterly unique, yet somehow deeply human. And then there's the humor: it runs through The Graveyard Book like a black ribbon, trimming the story perfectly with its dark shine.

The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner (third book, after The Thief and The Queen of Attolia)

There are only a handful of books I've reread more than once, and The King of Attolia is one of them. You really need to read The Thief and The Queen of Attolia first, and then you should go on vacation, turn off your cell phone, and savor Megan Whalen Turner's craftsmanship along with her story. Gen (Eugenides) is now the king of Attolia, but nobody is ready to acknowledge his role, least of all Gen himself. Still, as a trickster and the former Thief of Eddis, he can't help manipulating the people around him, even if it's usually to try to make things right. These are some of the most real characters I've ever met. Very few authors working on this planet can tell a tale as skillfully or movingly as Megan Whalen Turner, so I'm pleased to note that A Conspiracy of Kings, the next book about Gen, is coming out in March 2010.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (series)

A few years ago, the hot series was The Spiderwick Chronicles. Before that, it was A Series of Unfortunate Events. Will Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series stand strong or head for the sidelines, replaced by the next big thing? All I know is that these lively adventures appeal to reluctant boy readers—perhaps more so than Harry Potter—and that alone endears them to me. Percy Jackson finds out that the reason he's a little out-of-control is because he's the son of a Greek god, Poseidon. Percy turns his energies to fighting evil, aided by new friends from Camp Half-Blood (Hogwarts for demigods): Grover (Ron), an awkward young satyr, and Annabeth (Hermione), a daughter of Athena. Naturally, there's an end-of-the-world prophecy relating to Percy, and young readers will enjoy watching him struggle to fulfill his destiny in this five-book series. Note that a movie version of The Lightning Thief is coming out in February 2010. Riordan is launching a new series based on the Egyptian gods in May 2010—which may mean that Percy Jackson and the Olympians will be sidelined by its very own author!

The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread by Kate DiCamillo (also Because of Winn-Dixie and The Magician's Elephant)

I just finished reading The Magician's Elephant, and it struck me that Kate DiCamillo is our twenty-first century Aesop. Of course, her fables are long and intricate, though she often pauses to address the reader in the nicest possible way, just as Aesop might if he were telling stories today. DiCamillo also has a fresh way of looking at the world. Her hero is a mouse who happens to be in love with music, as well as with a princess named Pea who is too kind to laugh at his dreams of being a knight errant. As for the villain of the piece, is it the narrow-minded elders who exile Despereaux, or is it Roscuro, the cynical rat brooding in the castle cellars? In a way, there can be no villain, not in a book filled with philosophy, soup, and forgiveness. DiCamillo's work is stylized, but written in such a clear, thoughtful voice that you will wish you could sit down and let her tell you her stories in person.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (also A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith)

The way I see it, Terry Pratchett honed his skills writing satirical fantasy in the form of the Discworld novels for years before focusing on children's books. The Wee Free Men is the story of a young girl living up in the chalk or rather sheep country of a place resembling the English countryside. Tiffany Aching is a witch, only she doesn't seem to know it yet. Nobody notices except the Nac Mac Feegle, a fierce and funny tribe of little blue men along the lines of pixies. That and the forces of evil, which always seem to notice their counterparts. Tiffany is soon caught up in an adventure to rescue her brother from the Queen of Fairyland. But then, plot isn't really as important in a Pratchett book as humor and especially character; the author revels in human nature with all of its quirks and kindnesses. Tiffany Aching is determined to figure things out and do what needs to be done—just like her quiet, tough grandmother once did. Any young reader who delights in fantasy will be happy to meet Pratchett's young witch, she of the big boots and the crew of pesky little blue bodyguards.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

This book has evoked comparisons to Harriet the Spy and A Wrinkle in Time, and it's partly an homage to them both. What most touched me was the way the author manages to quietly imbue the smallest details and events with significance. It's as if the whole story were a string of symbols like handmade ceramic beads. And yet this quality of the book does not draw undue attention to itself. It doesn't distract from the simplicity of the storytelling, or from the realism of the characters and their lives. When You Reach Me also surprises—and not just in a Sixth Sense kind of way. The book reminds us that we misunderstand people and their motives every single day of our lives. Yet this is no condemnation. Instead it is merely the way we must share the world, hopefully with kindness and patience, and maybe even with humor. When You Reach Me isn't a hefty tome, but it's powerful. There's something poetic about this book.

A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck (framed by A Long Way from Chicago and A Season of Gifts)

Richard Peck is a Very Good Writer. Better than most people you'll meet, his books better crafted than most you'll read. Did I mention funny? His books have a wry, elegant humor befitting a Jane Austen or a P.G. Wodehouse, so it's almost surprising to encounter it in these tales of a small-town grandmother and her visiting grandchildren. If the best characters in literature could become a pantheon of gods, Mrs. Dowdel would surely be among their number—a mythic trickster and a towering personality. She is also physically towering, armed with a shotgun and hiding her kindness beneath a much-tougher-than-nails exterior. This book is narrated by 15-year-old Mary Alice, who's come to spend the school year with her grandmother because of the Depression and quickly finds herself sucked into the formidable old woman's schemes. Mary Alice expresses what you might feel as a reader after spending time with Mrs. Dowdel: "I knew not to ask. It was just better to go along with her." Go along with these books, starting with A Long Way from Chicago (narrated by Mrs. Dowdel's grandson Joey), followed by A Year Down Yonder and A Season of Gifts.

Special Mention for the New Millenium

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

The Arrival is one of the most beautiful, haunting books I've ever owned. Other than the deliberately incomprehensible language included in the illustrations, it is entirely wordless. Using sepia tones and grays, the author tells the story of an immigrant to a new land. The immigrant experience at first seems recognizable, but we soon realize that the entire book is set in an imaginary realm. This results in making the story far more universal. We are able to follow the man who immigrates, sharing in his misunderstandings and his attempts to make new friends, as well as in the kindness of those who reach out to help him. The visual narration of The Arrival is touching, yet understated enough that it avoids being saccharine. My favorite part is the way the author manages to show us the reasons different newcomers have fled their homelands. Well, I have a lot of favorite parts. This book calls for a quiet spot and a thoughtful read—and yes, it is a reading experience, its absence of words eloquent.

Suggestions from the Comments

--The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud (series)
--Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer (series)
--The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
--The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
--Clementine by Sara Pennypacker
--The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
--Tangerine by Edward Bloor
--The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
--The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
--The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (I have to remind myself that this is a children's book! Yes, I'd better add it above!)

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Review of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

If you watched The Today Show yesterday (Friday, December 4), then you got to see Grace Lin talking about her new book, which was featured on Al Roker's book club for children. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a different kind of fantasy: a bearer of fairy tales, a tender-hearted fable, and a unique adventure set in ancient China.

A young girl named Minli lives in a small village on Fruitless Mountain, a place where rice will scarcely grow for lack of water. The reason lies in legend—the Jade River lost her dragon children when she resentfully withheld water from the people of the earth and her children decided to make up for her pettiness by ending the famine themselves. "The Story of Fruitless Mountain" is only the first of many tales that are recounted in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. I've seen the "story within a story" device work poorly in the past, but Lin's stories seamlessly work to support the larger plot, even as they entertain listeners both inside and outside the pages of her book.

Still more impressive, Lin has done this by slightly reworking traditional tales. I've read collections of Chinese fairy tales, and I saw glimpses of those stories in the ones recounted by Lin's storytellers. Paintings coming to life, ghost stories, talking fish, and stories with Confucian lessons cautioning against greed are just a few familiar themes from Chinese folklore that Lin draws on to build Minli's own tale.

Minli's story begins when she spends one of her two copper coins to buy a goldfish. Her mother, who worries constantly about the family's poverty, is angry over the waste, not only of the coin, but of the food that will be needed to feed the fish. Minli bought the fish because the goldfish man told her it would bring her family good luck, but she reluctantly takes the fish to the river that night and lets it go, thinking that her mother is probably right. The goldfish then speaks to her, thanking her for its freedom and counseling her to seek the answers to her questions from the Old Man of the Moon.

Determined to change her family's fortunes, plucky Minli sets out on a quest, following the goldfish's directions to look for the magical old man.

When Minli's parents read her note, they are heartbroken. They try to find their daughter, but eventually go home to wait and hope for her return. Unlike many fantasy adventures, this story shows poignantly how the parents miss their child, worrying about her wellbeing. Minli, for her part, misses her parents and worries about them while she is gone. These moments are not overdone. Instead they are simple and touching.

Lin's language is also simple, but effective. Watch for her metaphors; for example, she says, "Every night the stars filled the sky like snowflakes falling on black stone."

Minli finds a traveling companion along the way, a dragon who cannot fly. (When she encourages him to accompany her to ask the Old Man of the Moon for help, I pictured Dorothy telling the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion to join her on her journey!) Minli must find a way to talk to the king of the City of Bright Moonlight in order to complete her quest. She has further troubles with monkeys and tigers before reaching her goal. She also meets helpful people such as an orphan who owns a buffalo and has befriended a mysterious magical girl, a pair of laughing twin children who defeat great evil by playing on a villain's anger, and, of course, the Old Man of the Moon. An episode involving the gift of a coat is especially lovely.

In keeping with the kindness that weaves through the narrative like a magical red thread, Minli must decide whether to make a great sacrifice for a friend in the book's final pages.

A further strength of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is the way Lin has quietly tied all of the pieces of her plot together in regards, not only to present events, but to the past—the past of a king, of a green tiger, of a goddess, of a wonderfully happy family, and of Minli's dragon friend.

Clear back at the root of the story is the discontentment of Minli's mother, which quietly echoes the anger and loss of Jade River.

Many of the characters in the book are poetically kind, yet they also seem real and rounded. Lin manages to tell a moral tale without preaching. Her lessons flow as beautifully as a river down a mountain where flowers and fruit do grow, after all.

Like so many books on the shelves of your library or bookstore, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is an adventure and a fantasy, but it is something more besides. In an age when commercialism too often overcomes the simplest and best truths, Grace Lin tells a story which conveys a kind of beauty of the heart.

As if that weren't enough, the author created lovely color-plate illustrations to accompany the tale. Invest in a new treasure for your family—go out and find a copy of this book.

Note: I learned about Where the Mountain Meets the Moon because Grace is a member of the fantasy writers' blog group I belong to, The Enchanted Inkpot.

A Review of Syren, Septimus Heap Book 5, by Angie Sage

When the publisher offered me an ARC of this book, I decided it would be interesting to try jumping into an established series in the middle to see how the book would read. The obvious question in my mind was, Why is this series popular? Fantasy fan that I am, I'll admit that I've given some of the current fantasy series a miss, including this one—until now.

Of course, the drawback to starting in the middle is that it took me a while to figure out who all of the characters were and what their relationships were to each other. Still don't know the backstory on everyone, though Septimus is the main character and Simon is obviously a somewhat reformed bad guy.

I'll address my pet peeve first and get it out of the way before focusing on the story. That is, the author (or her publisher) sets all of the magical terms specific to Sage's world building in boldface with initial caps. The impression this gives is that there's a video game involved, or that this is some kind of product placement. Or perhaps it's more like seeing the glossary terms in a middle school social studies textbook. At best, it's as if the author were saying, "Look! I'm inventing/claiming these words to describe the magic in my fantasy!" Yet most fantasy writers borrow/invent/re-spell magical terminology, and there's no need to fuss about it. From a reading standpoint, the boldface terms (Magykal, Sight, Seeing, Task, etc.) are distracting.

However, the story is far more important, so let's lay the funky boldface issue aside and take a look. Syren begins with a group of characters gathering in a portside town: Septimus, Jenna, Nicko, Snorri, Ullr (Snorri's panther companion), and Beetle, who have traveled here on a dragon named Spit Fyre. Septimus's companions are headed for a net loft, but he takes off on Spit Fyre again to check in at his wizard school.

Once Septimus leaves, the rest of the group meets up with a raffish sea captain named Milo Banda, who turns out to be Jenna's father. He invites them to his ship and they join him. Milo also takes delivery of a mysterious cargo. Thus ends the prologue.

Chapter One begins with Septimus "back in his bedroom at the top of Wizard Tower, Queste completed." (We find out that hardly anyone ever completes their Queste, which makes Septimus pretty unusual.) The ExtraOrdinary Apprentice checks in with his supervisor, ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand. She promotes him to Senior Apprentice, and he promptly sets out on Spit Fyre again to fetch his friends.

Meanwhile, Septimus's Aunt Zelda sends a kid named Wolf Boy on two errands—the first to deliver a rather delicate protection spell called a SafeCharm to Septimus and the other to visit a dangerous house in the port city and fulfill a witchy quest. But the spell ends up in the wrong hands, and the witches are much worse than Wolf Boy had anticipated.

These three strands—Septimus on Spit Fyre, Wolf Boy at the witches' headquarters, and the remaining friends on Milo Banda's ship—eventually converge on a strange island off the coast, where our heroes must resist the call of a Syren and stop a magical invasion.

There's a little J.K. Rowling in the tone of this book as it follows a group of friends on their adventures. Sage can be funny, too, as when the sly scribe who has stolen the protection spell opens it, not realizing it contains a genie:
Merrin raised the gold bottle to his nose and sniffed. It didn't smell very nice. In fact, it smelled distinctly unnice. However, he was not to know that jinn are not known for smelling sweet—and many of them make a point of smelling fairly disgusting. In fact, the jinnee that dwelled in the gold bottle clutched in Merrin's sticky hand did not smell too bad, as jinn go—a subtle mixture of burned pumpkin mixed with a touch of cow dung. But Merrin felt disappointed in his scent bottle. Just to make sure it really did smell so bad, he put the bottle right up to his left nostril and sniffed hard—and the jinnee was sucked up his nose. It was not a good moment for either of them.
Once the book gets off the ground, the three subplots are pretty compelling. I particularly liked Wolf Boy's hair-raising adventure at the witches' headquarters.

Sage also invents some colorful characters, such as the catlike man who guards the lighthouse and the thuggish Thin Crowe and Fat Crowe, not to mention Syrah, a girl who is a prisoner of the eerie Syren.

Septimus himself reminds me a bit of Harry Potter. He is loyal and determined, and he thinks fast in a pinch. Yet he is pleasantly fallible.

Aside from my quibble about boldface terms, the only issue that caught my eye was that Sage sometimes uses magic a bit too freely to solve problems. Need to cross an ocean? Here's a magic submarine. Need to camp on a desert island? Here's an enchanted survival kit, complete with water. Need to heal a dragon? Here's a spell-type cure. This approach doesn't always draw attention to itself, but I did notice it here and there.

All in all, Syren is a fun and fast-paced read, with an appealing cast of characters whose adventures are a good pick for kids who have finished The Spiderwick Chronicles, if not Harry Potter. I haven't decided whether I'm going to take the time to read the first four books, but I can certainly see why Septimus Heap has won so many fans.

A Review of Ice by Sarah Beth Durst

I love retellings of fairy tales, and this one's a honey. It would have to be frozen honey, though—there's more snow in this book than you'll find anywhere but in a biography of Admiral Peary. Durst has taken the Scandinavian Beauty and the Beast story, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," and set it in the present day, giving us a girl who lives on an Arctic research station with her gruff father and his assistants.

As a young scientist, Cassie is far from being inclined to believe in magic, though when she was little her grandmother used to tell her a seemingly fanciful story about how her missing mother was the adopted daughter of the North Wind, stolen by trolls after having bargained Cassie away to a magical bear.

Cassie thinks her father doesn't believe in fairy tales, either, but when she meets the Polar Bear King, her father panics. She realizes that her father has lied, and her grandmother's story is true. The bear returns, convincing Cassie to accompany him to his icy palace. There she learns to enjoy his company, eventually falling in love with him. (It helps that he takes the form of a man by night.)

But each will yet betray the other. In time Cassie wins her mother back, but at the price of her love. Now she must journey to the ends of the earth, fighting enemies with snarling faces, with smiling faces, and without any faces at all.

The author keeps the bones of the original tale, but uses them to build a new mythology linked to Inuit-type animal gods who preside over birthing and survival.

The original folktale, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," is a story about being willing to do anything for the sake of love. Durst's retelling amplifies that feeling, with the stakes raised because her Cassie is going to have a baby.

Durst has a gift for communicating her cold setting to the reader:

By evening, the sun was to her right. Ice crystals sparkled in a halo around the sun and in gold sheets around Cassie. The powdery mist cut visibility even more. She forced herself to concentrate on the ice in front of her. But even with all her concentration, she stumbled over invisible frozen waves. She had no depth perception in the glare of infinite whiteness. Her remaining eyelashes were icicles, framing her view of the world. Her nostril hairs had also frozen. She exhaled through her nose to keep it warmer. Her Gore-Tex pants rustled as she stumbled along. It was the only sound in the emptiness besides the huffing of the bears.
In the Arctic wilderness, Cassie encounters not only the dangers of ice and cold, but also creatures who could easily kill her. This heroine uses her knowledge of survival as well as relying on magical allies and trickster strategies to accomplish her goal of retrieving her shape-shifting mate.

It isn't easy to combine fairy tale elements with modern science, but the author makes it work, leading us smoothly through two overlapping worlds. For example, each chapter begins with latitude, longitude, and altitude. And animals such as the polar bears, while linked to the magic of their king, otherwise behave like ordinary wild creatures.

I was curious to see how the author would handle the trolls, but I should have guessed that her story's resolution would contain an intriguing twist, rounding out the unusual and moving new vision that Durst has created in Ice.

Note for Worried Parents: This is a book for teens. There's some discreetly handled sex in Ice, along with talk about birth control, pregnancy, and birth.

A Review of Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Beautiful Creatures is another YA that seems to be have been inspired by Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, but Garcia and Stohl do some interesting things with the concept of star-crossed paranormal soulmates.

Here the Bella character and narrator is played by a boy, Ethan Wate, who lives in a tiny Southern town called Gatlin. Ethan is drawn to the new girl, Lena Duchannes, though the rest of the kids at school and indeed the entire town quickly deems her socially unacceptable. Aside from her artsy goth-punk style of dressing, Lena is the niece of the sinister Old Man Ravenwood, a recluse who lives on a large plantation-turned-estate on the edge of town. Lena is also very beautiful, dark-haired and green-eyed. She's the Edward character in this novel, of course.

And even before she moves to town, Ethan is dreaming of her. In his dreams, he is saving Lena from falling.

So, despite the warnings of both his peers and his elders and even the girl herself, Ethan seeks Lena out. Together, they begin to investigate the history of an earlier pair of ill-fated lovers, a couple who lived during Civil War days. Ethan learns that while he is merely a Mortal, Lena and her family are Casters, a type of witch or wizard. And when Lena turns sixteen, she will either turn light or dark. It seems she won't have much choice in the matter. Even so, her cousin Ridley and her estranged mother are making trouble, hoping to pull Lena toward the evil side of the equation. But Lena's unusual connection to Ethan surprises everyone, and might even confound her fate.

This series start contains predictable elements such as the gorgeous mean girl at school, dark talismans, ancient books full of secrets, and what has recently become a trope: the human-friendly family of witches/vampires/werewolves (AKA Cullens) who are trying to defeat their evil, human-hating counterparts. But what kind of YA paranormal would it be without some of those elements, I ask you?

Lena makes a good doomed-or-is-she-really love interest, and Ethan is a likable narrator. Here he tells what happens when he tries to bring Lena to sit with his friends at lunch:
If this was a movie, we would've sat down at the table with the guys, and they would've learned some kind of valuable lesson, like not to judge people by the way they look, or that being different was okay. And Lena would've learned that all jocks weren't stupid and shallow. It always seemed to work in movies, but this wasn't a movie. This was Gatlin, which severely limited what could happen. Link caught my eye as I turned toward the table, and started shaking his head, as in, no way, man. Lena was a few steps behind me, ready to bolt. I was beginning to see how this was going to play out, and let's just say no one was going to be learning any valuable lessons.
The teens act and talk like teens, and the story flows nicely. I especially liked how these authors used nasty small-town gossip to fuel plot twists, later tying that destroy-by-grapevine campaign to another subplot in surprising ways. The town's secret paranormal library and its librarian are another fun touch. YA readers looking for a follow-up to the Twilight books might just find themselves hooked by Beautiful Creatures.

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