Sunday, June 27, 2010

And the Summer Giveaway Winner Is...

That would be Bridget, a children's librarian from Tennessee! Bridget said that the summer books she's looking forward to reading this summer are:

1. The Inside Story by Michael Buckley (Sisters Grimm)
2. The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye by Nancy Springer (Enola Holmes)
3. The God of the Hive by Laurie R. King (Mary Russell)

I've happily read The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye, the final book in Springer's terrific series of mysteries starring Sherlock Holmes's cool-headed, much younger runaway sister, and I've recently been reading Laurie R. King's Holmes-inspired books for grown-ups, as well. Great picks!

And now Bridget will be the proud owner of my books, The Secret-Keeper, The Runaway Princess (which she's already read), and The Runaway Dragon. Congratulations to Bridget, and happy summer reading to you all!

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Review of Biblioburro by Jeanette Winter

I live in L.A. and a lot of my students are Latino, so I'm always on the lookout for books that will show them the publishing world knows they're alive. I was pleased to come across this "true story from Columbia," as the subtitle puts it, about a man who rides a burro through the hills to the remote rural villages of his homeland, leading a second burro laden with books—a hay-eating bookmobile!

Winter explains in her endnote that Luis Soriano "started with a collection of 70 books that has grown to over 4,800, mostly from donations. Now the Biblioburro travels to the hills every weekend. Three hundred people, more or less, look forward to borrowing the books Luis brings."

Of course, children will be drawn to the main text and Winter's illustrations, whose straightforward, folk art style are particularly well suited to telling about Luis and how he shares his passion for reading. The words of the story are also clean and simple.

Deep in the jungles of Columbia, there lives a man who loves books. His name is Luis.
As soon as he reads one book, he brings home another. Soon the house is filled with books. His wife, Diana, grumbles.

But Luis eventually dreams up an idea for sharing his many books, and the burro-back library begins. The two burros are named Alfa and Beto, just in case you were wondering. The author manages to work in the burros' occasional stubbornness and an adventure with a bandit to show us what Luis's journeys are like. We also see him passing out pig masks, then sharing a familiar story about little pigs with some village children.

Now, hearing about Biblioburro, perhaps you're thinking of a very nice 2008 picture book called That Book Woman, by Heather Henson, with illustrations by David Small. That Book Woman tells the fictional story of the effect on a particular boy's life of one of the WPA's Packhorse Librarians, who rode around the mountains and valleys of the rural United States in the 1930's, carrying books on horseback. Obviously, the two books would make a terrific pairing.

Other picture books about librarians or libraries? A tall tale called Library Lil by Suzanne Williams and Steven Kellogg; Tomás and the Library Lady by Pat Mora and Raul Colón; and the powerful, poignant Richard Wright and the Library Card by William Miller and Gregory Christie are a few I'll recommend. Oh, and how can I forget Jeanette Winter's own The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq, about saving books during the war in Iraq?

On a related note, The Library by Sarah Stewart and David Small tells about a girl who, like Luis, fills her home with books and eventually decides to share them, though without burros.

There may be a certain amount of didacticism to giving kids books that celebrate books, libraries, and librarians, but somehow, I think not. What these books tell young readers is that books are treasures, and rather than acting like circular arguments, such stories can show the very point they are trying to make by being treasures in the hands of children. The power of story is undeniable, even in a well-told story about the power of story!

As we all know, books have a lot of competition these days when it comes to capturing kids' attention. But maybe hearing about how hard it is for some children to get their hands on a book, and about the trouble someone like Luis will go to in order to make that possible, will help book-rich kids take their story treasures a little more seriously.

A Review of How to Clean Your Room in 10 Easy Steps by Jennifer LaRue Huget and Edward Koren

Okay, this is a very post-modern book, highly self-conscious and satirical, so at first I was a bit suspicious. But then I just started laughing at how perfectly Huget captures the relationship between a kid and her messy room, not to mention the one between said kid and her hair-pulling mother. Tongue-in-cheek and entertaining, the book is beautifully complemented by Edward Koren's famously hairy-looking pen-and-ink artwork, here highlighted with color. (You've seen his New Yorker cartoons, trust me.)

How to Clean Your Room in Ten Easy Steps is framed by a first person narrator, but is mostly written in second person since it's an instruction manual. The girl shows us a clean room, tells us that we really need a messy room to get started, and then shows us the same room on the next spread as a complete disaster. Note the differing facial expressions on the pets and stuffed animals on the clean and messy pages, by the way.

Step One says:

Always wait until your mother hollers, "GET UP THERE AND CLEAN YOUR ROOM—NOW!" using all three of your names.
You can pretend you're too busy to hear.
Or you can answer her. Say, "But my room isn't messy. I know exactly where everything is!"
When she hollers again, you'd better get moving.

Step Two tells you to take out absolutely everything you own, giving readers a list that includes things like "your marbles and your dolls and their eensy-beensy little shoes" before directing you: "Dump it all in the middle of the room. Then plunk yourself down, pick a doll out of the pile, and braid her hair until someone comes up to scream at you again."

Heehee. I can relate to a lot of this, being a hardcore messy room kid myself way back when—and sometimes to this day. (What inbox?)

Watch for how this girl involves her poor little sister in the cleanup project, dumping stuff in the tidier child's room. And the good use she makes of her closet and the space under the bed...

The book is about a girl and talks a little about dolls, but it's not the least bit sweet, and I think boys will have just as much fun with it, especially if they are anti-room cleaning.

The highlight of the book, in my opinion, is the interaction this kid has with her mother regarding the possible disposal of stuffed animals. (I will refrain from spoiling that bit with further details.) And some of you will shudder when you hear our narrator's advice about dealing with food discovered while tidying up.

But mostly, I think you'll laugh. How to Clean Your Room in 10 Easy Steps might just become a family favorite. What's more, as implied by the final sentence, it lends itself to being used as a classroom readaloud and writing prompt, since students could use the book as a launch to writing satirical instructions about other everyday procedures in their lives.

Note for Worried Parents: This book might give your child ideas... But I do hope you have a sense of humor about room cleaning!

A Review of My Best Friend Is as Sharp as a Pencil by Hanoch Piven

My Best Friend Is as Sharp as a Pencil: And Other Funny Classroom Portraits is an art book and a poetry book at the same time. It's also the kind of book that makes elementary school teachers light up like pinball machines ringing with the words, "Cool lesson plan! Cool lesson plan!"

Which only makes sense, since artist Piven has traveled around teaching kids to create the same kinds of portraits he gives us in this book, the kind of artwork that has also appeared in major magazines and newspapers. My Best Friend is one of several Piven picture books along these lines, two of the others being My Dog Is as Smelly as Dirty Socks: And Other Funny Family Portraits and What Presidents Are Made Of.

Piven has a young girl telling us her grandma asks her about her class and her teacher. The girl says, "I'll show her!" And means it literally. For example, an early spread reads:

Now, Grandma, let's see. You asked about my teacher, Mrs. Jennings.
Mrs. Jennings talks in a voice as sweet as candy (except when she is very excited).
She can spell anything without making one mistake!
And she smells soooo lovely—as lovely as flowers.
But you gotta be careful: she notices everything, just like a pair of glasses.
Next to each description is a photo of a real item: candy, a small loudspeaker, plastic alphabet letters, buttons shaped like flowers, and a pair of bifocals. (The girl herself is a drawing.)

Then on the next page, we have these words on the left: "Mrs. Jennings, I am giving you an A+!" While on the right is a portrait of the teacher incorporating the items show on the previous page. Her hair is made of alphabet letters, her eyes are the blue flower buttons, her mouth is the candy, and so on. Piven surprises by not always incorporating these elements in the places where you would expect them, e.g., he doesn't use the buttons as buttons. And check out the portrait on the book's cover, where a microscope has been used to capture the shape of a nose!

The descriptions as well as the art are thoughtful and positive without being schmaltzy. I believe they will inspire children to think more carefully about their own friends and relations, especially if kids work on creating their own portraits.

From a poetry standpoint, I have to say that the metaphors are also effective, initially for their efficacy as images and further as symbols of personality characteristics. Jack, for example, is a sciency kid, "as curious as a magnifying glass and as precise as a microscope." Portraits of a school librarian and an art teacher are marvelous, as are portraits of other classmates. "My favorite teacher is as mysterious as dark glasses." Another friend is "as graceful as a ballet slipper."

Without good models, young writers are apt to create clichés when using metaphoric language. Piven's written images are strong and fresh, showing kids that a great comparison can be apt as well as surprising. Besides its obvious use for an art lesson, this book would lend itself to a poetry unit focusing on metaphors and similes. But even if you're not a teacher, I think you and your child will enjoy experiencing this book.

I often worry over the lack of originality in children whose play seems to be scripted by toy companies and television programming. My Best Friend is as Sharp as a Pencil is one antidote, a way of waking up the creativity in kids who will really like seeing their world through new eyes, ones made of library cards or seashells or nuts and bolts or jellybeans.

A Review of Little Sister and the Month Brothers by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers and Margot Tomes

I almost didn't review Little Sister and the Month Brothers because it's a reprint of an old fairy tale picture book and fairy tale picture books aren't doing so well these days, but then I thought, Hmm, that's exactly why I should draw your attention to this well-crafted book by an altogether impressive classic team, Beatrice Schenk de Regniers and Margot Tomes.

Besides, this is one of the more intriguing fairy tales out there. In a nearly unrecognizable Slavic variation of the Cinderella story, Little Sister lives with her unkind stepsister and stepmother on the edge of a forest. She does all of the work inside and out, with the cruel duo treating her spitefully, besides. "All day long they hollered and they grumbled and they complained." But Little Sister is diligent, kind, and pretty, which drives her stepsister nuts. "What if a young man were to come by? He might choose Little Sister for a wife instead of the stepsister!"

So the stepsister hits on the bright idea of sending Little Sister out into the woods in the middle of winter to pick fresh violets, hoping, of course, that the girl will freeze to death and never return. (She doesn't even have a coat.)

Instead Little Sister walks on and on, then climbs up a huge rock when she sees there is a light at the top. She finds twelve "men" sitting around a fire—actually the twelve months of the year. Little Sister politely asks them if she can warm herself at their fire, and they offer to help her with her problem. As they pass the staff from January to February, then March to April, the ground around them thaws and violets bloom. Little Sister picks violets, thanks the Month Brothers, and hurries home.

Of course, her stepmother and stepsister are astonished. The next day, they send Little Sister out to pick strawberries. When she comes home with the fruit, they interrogate her about where she got them. Duly enlightened, the stepsister dresses herself in warm furs and rushes out to find the Month Brothers herself—but she is so rude that January raises a snowstorm and the stepsister doesn't come home. Neither does the stepmother, who goes out to look for her.

As for Little Sister, she stays home and takes care of the farm, eventually marrying a pleasant young farmer. And the Month Brothers quietly watch over her for the rest of her life.

In one of the more realistic pictures of fairy tale marriage, the author compares Little Sister's life with the farmer to her life with the stepmother and stepsister:
Little Sister was no longer lonely. The farmer was very fond of her, and he helped her with the work.
Sometimes the farmer hollered or grumbled or complained, but not very often.

Schenk de Regniers' text is friendly and well paced, improved by the addition of some voice bubbles—I'm not sure if she added those, or the artist did, or they worked on them together, but I like them. It didn't surprise me to learn that this author wrote for the theater, as the tale has a lightly theatrical feel. Margot Tomes's illustrations are nicely homely, with Little Sister looking like she's ten or eleven compared to the sour grown-ups she lives with. (She looks a tich older near the end of the book; it works!)

For those of you who are tired of reading the same handful of Disnified princessy fairy tales over and over, here's one your child probably hasn't heard before, and I think you'll find that the idea of the Month Brothers is particularly charming.

Note for Worried Parents: The evil stepmother and stepsister go out and apparently freeze to death, but that was exactly what they had in mind for Little Sister. In the world of the fairy tale, justice is served—which actually seems quite right to most young readers. But some of you may want to avoid the story for that reason.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Blogger Award - Thank You!

Charlotte Taylor of Charlotte's Library, my favorite sci-fi/fantasy site for children's books, recently gave me a blogging award, the Pertinent Posts Award. Thank you very much, Charlotte!

So whose blogs do I find pertinent? Well, Betsy Bird of Fuse #8 hardly needs me to commend her blog, and Charlotte GAVE me the award, so I can't very well name hers. I have also honored some of my other favorites in the past with previous awards.

I will therefore refer you to a few different children's book or fantasy blogs that I currently consider pertinent:

The Miss Rumphius Effect and poet Laura Salas's blog both offer poetry workshops/challenges that I look forward to happily each week.

Then there's Diamonds and Toads, a blog that focuses on fairy tales in a grown-up, university-ish way, where I've found some interesting tidbits and conversations.

I find I'm becoming increasingly hooked on another blog I'm sure is well known, but I'll say it just the same: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast has the most gorgeous interviews, mostly with children's book illustrators, though occasionally with authors.

And a new favorite, Kinderscares, promises to fill a niche nicely, blogging about horror for children, MG and picture books with the occasional YA thrown in for good measure.

You may have noticed that my blog roll is very long. I blame Jen Robinson... No, really, I just think there are a lot of great blogs out there in Kidlitosphere! And every so often I check them all, or update by adding something new and fun. So if you're ever bored on a Saturday afternoon or can't sleep some night, try a few of those blogs.

Summer Writing Class

It occurred to me that I should let you know I'm teaching an online class about writing for kids in July. Last summer I taught a class on picture books and middle grade, which ended up being a fairly tricky combo, so this year it'll be MG and YA instead. You're welcome to join us! Here's the info:

July 5-30, 2010
"Creating Strong Middle Grade & YA Fiction"
by Kate Coombs
$30 at

You want to be the next Roald Dahl, E. B. White, or even J. K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer, but how do you get from here to there? The answer, of course, is to make your manuscript strong enough to stand our in a crowded, competitive field. Join us for a workshop in which we get you started or refine the work you've already drafted with an eye toward improving your chances for publication. If possible, try to have at least one chapter of your manuscript written when class begins, however rough it may be.

Course topics include:

* Good/bad news - where your book falls in today's market
* Targeting hidden obstacles that keep books from fulfilling their potential
* Strengthening character and plot
* Tightening text, brightening language
* From irresistible beginnings to slam-bang endings
* Finding your spot and maximizing your voice
* Tips about submissions and publishers
* Developing new children's book projects

Kate Coombs has three books in print, a 2006 Parents' Choice Recommended picture book called The Secret-Keeper and a 2007 American Library Association Notable Book called The Runaway Princess along with a well-reviewed sequel, The Runaway Dragon. Kate has three more books coming out in 2011-2012. In addition, she maintains a children's book review blog called Book Aunt. Kate has also worked as a college writing teacher, a K-12 teacher, and a curriculum specialist.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Review of Smells Like Dog by Suzanne Selfors

If you've read Fortune's Magic Farm, you already know that Suzanne Selfors writes weird books—and I mean that in a good way. You get about five pages into some story about a fairly ordinary kid and realize that you're in for another wild ride.

In the case of Smells Like Dog, I was a little surprised by all the talk about treasure hunting, and by the fact that farm boy Homer Pudding's treasure hunter uncle dies and leaves him a beagle plus a gold coin enscribed L.O.S.T., but I didn't fully catch on to the level of whimsy here till the end of Chapter 6, when Homer stares at a small cloud outside his schoolroom window, "And something in the middle of the cloud stared back at Homer." As the next chapter begins dubiously,

A cloud with eyeballs is perfectly acceptable in a fairy tale. And if the reader finds the cloud confusing, he or she can reread the chapter as many times as he or she wants until it makes sense. There might even be a glossary in the back of the book with a definition: Cloud with Eyeballs—A distant cousin to Tree with Ears.
But in the real world, clouds with eyeballs are not supposed to exist. Even Homer, who believed in all sort of things that weren't supposed to exist, like the Lost City of Atlantis and King Arthur's Camelot, felt dumb-founded.

Homer's sensible parents don't want him to be a treasure hunter any more than they want his fiery older sister Gwendolyn to be a taxidermist. But Homer is suspicious about his uncle's death, since getting eaten by a giant tortoise doesn't exactly make sense. After all, tortoises are herbivores. When Homer gets a mysterious invitation to a VIP event at the museum in The City and his father takes away all his treasure hunting supplies and Homer accidentally destroys a rather important piece of his small town, he goes on the lam with his sister and the beagle. Once in The City, they plan to attend the VIP event, but first Homer makes friends with a girl named Lorelei, someone the author hints shouldn't be trusted (as if her name weren't enough of a clue!).

This and other bits of plot, like the meaning of Uncle Drake's greatest treasure, will be apparent to young readers long before Homer figures them out, as Selfors telegraphs the information rather deliberately. Her foreshadowing fits nicely with the chatty tone of the book, however, and I didn't find it a problem.

Smells Like Dog is an adventure story, but the book is so over-the-top that it reads like a fantasy. We eventually get an explanation for the cloud with eyeballs, and for the giant woman Homer meets on the train, and even for the carnivorous tortoise, but it's all fairly unrealistic just the same. Fantastical adventure, maybe?

Selfors sets us up for a sequel in which Homer seeks the lost treasure of the pirate Rumpold Smeller, although this first book is about defeating the evil Madame la Directeur, who works at the museum and is trying to get her hands on the treasure map before anyone else, at all costs.

You have to smile, reading one of Selfor's loopy tales. Smells Like Dog rambles a little, like a beagle following a scent, but I think your kids will be happy to follow Homer and Dog's trail.

A Review of The Magical Misadventures of Prunella Bogthistle by Deva Fagan

My favorite thing about this book is that it gives us a girl who just isn't cut out to be what she is meant to be—a bog-witch. Young readers will snicker to read how Prunella longs for a wart or two, and for the ability to cast curses properly! Instead she has mixed-up magic and even a hearty dose of most un-witchlike compassion...

When Prunella catches a young thief named Barnaby in her garden, her attempts to curse him set him free instead. Whereupon Prunella's exasperated (and wise) witchy grandmother throws her out, so Prunella tags along with Barnaby, bickering happily with the human boy. For some reason he wants her to take the decorative chicken bone out of her hair. (Note that Prunella is dark-skinned, which is shown nicely in the cover art. Thank you, Henry Holt!)

Prunella and Barnaby both want to find the mysterious and terrifying Lord Blackthorn—Prunella to retrieve her great-great-grandmother's missing spell book and win her place with the bog-witches, Barnaby to find a magic chalice.

Fagan has a great time with her setting, giving us giant alligators (pets to the bog-witches) and slithery pondswaggles, not to mention a full-scale attack on a village by terrible creatures like toothy wights and spectral stallions.

Along with the author's creativity and humor, the growing friendship between Prunella and Barnaby is a plus in the book. These two characters do the Bogart-Hepburn thing remarkably well in a sort of pre-teen way.

"Prunella!" Barnaby hustled me along the road double-time until the boy had vanished behind the next hill. "Could you possibly try not to insult everyone we meet?"
"Me?" I tugged my arm free. "He was the one staring at me like I was a gobbet of mudwhelp slime. And did you see that talisman? I'm no wraith!"
Barnaby let out an exasperated breath. "You're the one who wants to walk around looking like the spawn of the pits. You can't blame him."
"I'm not putting on petticoats and a frilly cap just so some brainless donkey boy doesn't have a fit."
Barnaby rolled his eyes. "Wonderful. We aren't even inside the city gates and I'm regretting this...."

Of course, the Uplanders think the worst of Prunella, but she manages to grudgingly impress them right after they almost execute her. (The people have good reason to be touchy about magic, as the whole land seems to be cursed.) Meanwhile, Barnaby is being chased by a thief-taker named Rencevin, and we find out that the boy might not have told Prunella the truth about the Mirable Chalice. For that matter, what's up with Queen Serafine, and who is Lord Blackthorn, really?

Like Fagan's previous book, Fortune's Folly, this story gives us plenty of action, fun plot twists, and a very nice central character. Prunella may not be destined to become a bog-witch, exactly, but she's obviously meant to shake things up in this likable fantasy. And while the author wraps up her plot, she does leave room for a sequel. Fans of Patricia Wrede and E.D. Baker will be glad to discover this adventurous middle grade fantasy.

Here's a link to a review at Charlotte's Library. (You'll find that Charlotte and I are both in love with fantasy!) And look for an interview with Deva Fagan at the Enchanted Inkpot on June 23, 2010.

A Review of Emily's Fortune by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

If you're like me, you'll wish this book were a little longer. Of course, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor is a force to be reckoned with, often in rather serious stories, but here she goes for a good old-timey rollicking adventure of the "orphan heiress pursued by evil uncle" variety. I can't recall if the author included any actual moustache twirling, but she could have very easily.

Naylor even has fun with conventions, ending every single chapter with a sentence or two printed in very large type of the kind used for posters in the Old West. These are oral tale-telling-style questions for the reader. Here are the first few:

*** But somebody else was on the way to Luella's big house! Now, who in the flippin' flapjacks could it be?
*** And who in creepin' creation do you suppose was in it?
*** ...where in tumblin' tarnation was Emily supposed to sleep?
*** And what in blinkin' bloomers do you think she saw?
That should give you a good idea about the tone of this book!

When Emily's mother and the wealthy woman she works for, Miss Nash, are killed in a carriage accident, Emily wants to go live with her father's kindly sister-in-law, Hildy, though she is more closely related to her awful Uncle Victor, who "had the silver-black hair of a wolf, the eyes of a weasel, the growl of a bear, and a tiger tattoo on his arm. He had a gold tooth that gleamed when he opened his mouth, and he could crack two walnuts in the palm of one hand just by squeezing his fist."

After Miss Catchum, the child catcher, comes around, the neighbor ladies help Emily onto a stagecoach heading for Aunt Hildy's home. She makes friends with a grubby orphan boy named Jackson, her first and only friend besides her small pet turtle, Rufus. But Emily doesn't know she has inherited Miss Nash's fortune, and pretty soon Uncle Victor is after her so he can get his mitts on the money.

Did I mention this book is rollicking? There's a lot of humor here—for instance, the only thing that seems to scare Emily's uncle is two flirtatious and over-painted spinster sisters who think he's manly. And the depiction of the stagecoach passengers is a hoot. Once Uncle Victor joins the road trip, you'll be holding your breath as a disguised Emily tries to keep from being recognized by him. It's only a matter of time before he catches on...

I enjoyed watching timid Emily become braver as she pursued her quest to get to Aunt Hildy's, helped along by Jackson's influence as well as her own delight in new skills like climbing trees. As I read, I was reminded of Sid Fleischman's style, also Avi's, in their humorous historical fiction. No huge surprises here, just a satisfying little story, an old-fashioned yet fast-moving stagecoach road trip, a melodrama with a hint of tall tale for almost any young reader.

A Review of Magic Below Stairs by Caroline Stevermer

I've been looking forward to this one because I'm a fan of Wrede and Stevermer's alternate-England epistolary fantasy novel, Sorcery and Cecilia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, not to mention Stevermer's school fantasy, A College of Magics, whose protagonist reminds me of Garth Nix's Sabriel. But I didn't realize I would run across some of the Sorcery and Cecilia characters in this book, which pleased me very much!

Plucky Frederick Lincoln lives in a dour orphanage, but he gets along better once he is assisted by a brownie named Billy Bly. Of course, Frederick barely glimpses Billy and tends to think he's imagining the whole thing. Having learned handy skills like knife sharpening and knot tying from the orphanage's cook, Frederick is eventually able to snag a coveted job working for the wizard Thomas at Schofield House—mostly because he is suddenly able to fit into the potential employee's uniform. The wizard, of course, is the same Thomas who fell in love with Cecilia's cousin Kate in Sorcery and Cecilia, only now Kate is Lady Schofield.

Still, our story is mostly about Frederick, whose ability to tie a cravat is positively uncanny, so much so that he is eventually promoted out of Lord Schofield's kitchen to become assistant valet.

The thing that most interested Lord Schofield about Frederick was the way he tied his cravat.
"You look remarkably tidy on a daily basis, and I know for a fact you can't have more than two neck cloths to your name. How do you manage it?" Lord Schofield demanded when next they met. "It takes Piers an hour and a dozen neck clothes every morning, and if I'm not to go out looking like a badly made bed, I have to tie the thing myself."
"It's just a knack. Sometimes I have to find a looking glass," Frederick admitted.
Lord Schofield frowned at Frederick's cravat. "There's more to it than a knack. Explain the trick of it to Piers."

Meanwhile, Billy Bly has been caught and banished by Lord Schofield, who thinks brownies are nothing but trouble. Billy finds a loophole and comes sneaking back around the wizard's country home to protect Frederick and the rest of the household from a curse that has supposedly already been removed.

As Lord Schofield suspects, Frederick turns out to have gifts of his own, gifts the wizard plans to cultivate.

The greatest strength of this book is Frederick, who is curious, hard-working, sometimes cranky—much like Lord Schofield, in fact—and courageous. He reads as a very real person, and you'll be happy to see him finding his place in the world.

I did find the plot a tad muddled in regards to the curse, Billy's role, and how the curse is dealt with. (Is it a curse or isn't it? Is Billy making things better or worse?) But I think you'll enjoy this book and will wish, as I did, that it were a lot longer. I suspect we'll see more of young Frederick in future books by Stevermer. I certainly hope so!

Take a look at this review over at Charlotte's library, as well. I think she's right that Magic Below Stairs has a Diana Wynne Jones feel to it.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Run Away with a Book - Summer Giveaway

Yes, I do write books! For this giveaway, I will send the winner copies of ALL THREE of my published books. (Next year I'll have two more out.) That would be an original folktale called The Secret-Keeper (picture book), a comic middle grade fantasy called The Runaway Princess, and a sequel called The Runaway Dragon.

To enter, leave a comment listing some of the books you've been wanting to read this summer, whether they just came out, are about to come out, or you missed them somehow and want to play catch-up. I will do a drawing from the comments after the giveaway closes at midnight on June 25th.

And by the way, it's not just the kids who get excited about the school year ending: we teachers are counting the minutes! The beach is calling... Beach pictured is in Terasawa, Japan, but I guess I can settle for Santa Monica or Leo Carillo, since I live in L.A.

(Of course, summer school is calling, too. I'm trying not to listen.)

Books I am looking forward to reading? There are sooo many, but here are just a few: Magic Below Stairs by Caroline Stevermer (out this week!), a picture book by Candace Ryan called Animal House (July), and Scumble by Ingrid Law (August).

Please remember to check back, or leave your contact info in your comment.

Update #1: Chachic wants to know if this giveaway is international. Yep! It's a global community of readers, and I can't bear to leave you out just because I might have to ship a package to Ireland or the Philippines.

Update #2: This giveaway is now over. The winner will be announced shortly.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Oh No! and Blue Whales from Mac Barnett

In January I reviewed Mac Barnett's The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity, a tongue-in-cheek detective story that blithely and cleverly mocks the Hardy Boys. So I was eager to get my hands on a couple of Barnett's picture books, Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem (2009) and now the brand-spanking-new Oh No! (or How My Science Project Destroyed the World).

Can you say surreal? That's one of the many words I'd use to describe Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem. When Billy won't clean his room or brush his teeth or eat his peas, his mom threatens him with an ever-so-obvious punishment, "or we're buying you a blue whale."

Narrator Billy tells us, "But I'm not worried. See, I know a thing or two about blue whales. I mean, they're the biggest animals in the world, ever. It's not like you can just have one delivered to your house overnight."

Whereupon we turn the page to find a late-night spread showing a ginormous delivery vehicle driven by a company called "Fed Up." Clearly, it is making an overnight delivery! Then during breakfast, Billy feels something watching him... And we see a huge cetacean eye looking in the kitchen window.

Yep, Billy is now responsible for a blue whale—his mom expects him to take it everywhere he goes, including school.

This story requires some suspension of disbelief, since the whale does surprisingly well out of water. But once you get past that, or sidestep it rather, you can just have fun with the author's playful "what if" scenario. Why would it be such a pain to own a blue whale? And how might a resourceful boy eventually turn the punishment around to serve his own purposes?

Illustrator Adam Rex does a superb job of transforming the author's nutso story into a reality, creating wonderful characters like a teacher who thinks a blue whale is the perfect show-and-tell item and a school bully who tells Billy his blue whale is a stupid pet. Then there's the whale itself, which manages to look slightly stoic and put-upon. (Despite having a whale owner's manual, Billy finds himself struggling to fulfill tasks like feeding his pet. "Dad...where can I find ten thousand gallons of seawater?")

I'm guessing second and third graders will appreciate this funky tale, and it could easily be built into a class unit for writing stories about how other pets might create certain difficulties. Yak, anyone?

Don't forget to check out the endpapers, which are sepia-toned ads for other products from the same company that goes around selling blue whales to suburban families. The ad for the whale itself can be found on the book cover, beneath the jacket.

The endpapers in Barnett's newest book, Oh No! or How My Science Project Destroyed the World, are just as good, or maybe even better, done by another talented illustrator, Dan Santat. Be sure and take off the jacket, which has a movie-style poster on the back.

"Movie-style" is a good description for this picture book, actually, which is partly an homage to Japanese monster movies like Godzilla. (See the translations of Japanese phrases at the bottom of the spread preceding the title page.) Like a movie, Barnett's latest begins in media res, as TV screens blare about a disaster and a fifth grade girl walks through the ruined city saying, "Oh no..." "Oh man..." "I knew it."

On the next page turn, we see a giant robot rampaging through the city, and the narrator remarks, "I never should have built a robot for the science fair." She goes on to mention some of the features she wished she hadn't included in her robot--and the ones she wished she had. Ah, hindsight!

So what is our young mad scientist-in-training going to do about it now?

The storytelling here is almost entirely visual, but is easy to follow as Mac Barnett and Dan Santat gleefully build on the author's latest "what if." Santat uses strong colors tempered by browns and comic book as well as movie conventions in his amused portrayal of a science project gone amok. Look for the scene where the narrator is being awarded first prize, as almost everyone in the room is unaware that her project has taken an unusual turn. The titles of the other science projects are especially funny.

And of course, the main character's quick-labwork solution has a bit of that The King, the Mice and the Cheese thing going on... I doubt we'll see a picture book sequel, but a movie sequel is implied, which fits right into the whole cinematic approach of this tale.

The feminist/teacher in me has to stop and thank Barnett and Santat for making the robot builder and science fanatic a girl, by the way.

Of course, boys and girls alike will enjoy this one. (Okay, I don't know if the Fancy Nancy crowd will appreciate it, but a lot of other kids will!) Oh No! is probably more approachable than Billy Twitters, but then, I think it's good to shake up kids' thinking with a dose of absurdism every so often. With nothing but TV thrown at them, children are unlikely to grow up thinking outside the box. Mac Barnett and Co. are here to remedy the situation!

Note: Take a look at Seven Imp's terrific interview with Dan Santat about Oh No! There's a luxurious amount of art in Jules's post. See also reviews at Fuse #8 (with book trailer links) and Books4YourKids.

Update: Canadian author k.c. dyer has pointed out in the comments that Twitter has a blue whale fail symbol--which means there's another bit of satire from Mac Barnett in his Billy Twitters title. (This may even give us a glimpse into Barnett's off-the-wall brainstorming process.) Update of Update: Nope! I found out in reading an interview with Barnett that he came up with Billy Twitters and the blue whale before Twitter even hit the Internet.

A Review of The Candymakers by Wendy Mass

You're going to have to wait a few months for this one, which I read in galley form, but you might want to put it on your list. We're talking Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Kurosawa's Rashomon.

The Candymakers is told in four sections, essentially four novellas narrated by each of the four main characters, with some repetition of time frame as well as extensions of plot. In each section, we find out surprising information not provided by the previous section.

We also build from a very Dahlesque premise to a book that contains quite a bit of young psychological drama. In fact, I'm going to have a little trouble writing this without spoilers. But I will attempt to give you a taste of The Candymakers.

Four twelve-year-olds are competing in a sort of cooking contest. (Other contestants are gathering at other candy factories.) Each kid must design a new kind of candy. Our cast of characters includes Logan, guileless son of the factory owner, who might appear to have an unfair advantage; Miles, a candy aficionado struggling to get over seeing a young girl drown a few years earlier; Daisy, a cheery country girl who seems to like horses; and Philip, who just seems like a jerk. (In fact, for much of the book, Philip reminded me of a pint-sized version of Mr. Slugworth from the 1971 movie, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.)

But rule number one in this book is that no one is quite what he or she seems...

I started reading with a mild interest in the premise, but ended up hooked by the mysteries of the characters—their pasts, their worries, their hopes, and especially their secrets. In addition, someone appears to be a spy or a saboteur, intent on stealing the candy factory's secret ingredient, but who? And why? There's a lot of very fun sneaking around in this book, and the young characters are thoroughly likable, with the exception of Philip, and even he might win you over once you get his take on things.

Meanwhile, you will appreciate the sweet torment of questions like these: Why is Logan bad at candy making? Why does Daisy read the same romance novel all the time? When and where was butterscotch first created? And what is Phillip's secret talent?

By the end of the story, all four children have changed, and they come together in a really nice way to accomplish new goals.

The fifth character in the book is arguably the candy factory, Life Is Sweet, which has fantastical rooms and techniques that feel like an homage to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Who wouldn't want to visit the Cotton Candy Room, the Crunchorama Room, the High-Jumping Jelly Beans, or the chicle jungle in the Tropical Room?

I'm usually not fond of books that throw in pop psychology, and there's some of that here, but the storytelling tends to rise above it. Mass uses the approach from Rashomon (or Hoodwinked, if you will) skillfully as she builds the tale of The Candymakers. And of course, it doesn't hurt that you get to read about candy making... Look for this book in the fall!

Note: When I heard galleys were available, I requested one from the publisher, Little Brown. Currently scheduled for publication on October 5, 2010.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

When People (and Bats) Write Poems...

Once, years ago, I loaned a friend Randall Jarrell's book The Bat-Poet. When she returned it, she said, "It's about what it's like to be a poet." I was sort of surprised—I thought it was just a good story. But of course, she was right.

I remember reading somewhere that at least one parent in a lot of children's books is often a writer, or that the young main character is often an aspiring writer. This isn't surprising: Don't they say, "Write what you know"? Yet I wonder if there's room in the world of children's books for books about writing. I mean, isn't there something self-indulgent about that? Perhaps even more so when it comes to poetry, a form often dismissed as being too airy-fairy for real life, real people.

I'm biased, naturally, but I will point out that what these books have to say about writing is important. Not that kids should necessarily become professional writers later in life, but that writing is a tool for being human. Almost as good as fire and refrigeration, in fact. Here, then, are two classics about writing poetry, plus two new books on the same theme.

The Bat-Poet, written by Randall Jarrell and illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1964)

Character is king, and especially in this book. The little brown bat at the heart of poet Randall Jarrell's tale is just so eager and sweet and shy and curious, yet manages all this, like a real human child, without being overly sentimental. The small bat wants to know things, and then he wants to sing, and when that doesn't work, he begins to make up poems, trying to give shape to the yearning he has inside, a powerful need for self-expression. That description sounds like pop psychology, I'm afraid, but all of these ideas are couched in a nice little plot about a bat who's not like the others. He sets out to explore the day world, for example, and he gets a creative crush on the vain yet talented mockingbird. Little by little, he puts his observations into words.

Here's a piece of his first poem about the day, for example:
At dawn, the sun shines like a million moons
And all the shadows are as bright as moonlight.
The birds begin to sing with all their might.
The world awakens and forgets the night.
To which another bat responds, "The sun hurts... It hurts like getting something in your eyes." But the bat eventually finds a better audience in the form of a semi-interested chipmunk.

Poetry fans will find two of Jarrell's most well-known poems embedded in this story, descriptions of an owl and of a baby bat. (The latter begins, "A bat is born/Naked and blind and pale.")

The Bat-Poet won't appeal to every child, only the more thoughtful, patient reader, probably in the 10-to-12 range. But if you have a child who writes poetry, or if you write poetry yourself, this is the book for you to share, a peaceful yet gently humorous book about the joy of creating.

Love That Dog by Sharon Creech (2001)

It seems everyone I know has already read this book, but I just got around to it recently. And yeah, I got all teary reading it! This novel in verse is narrated by a boy in Miss Stretchberry's English class—a boy with a clear, strong voice. Initially, he doesn't want to write poems. So his first offering is this:
September 13

I don't want to
because boys
don't write poetry.

Girls do.
But little by little he begins to write more, although at first he writes simply to complain about things like William Carlos Williams' famous red wheelbarrow poem. As the poems evolve, it becomes clear that something is troubling this kid. He has something to say, and maybe he will eventually be able to say it, to write a poem about his dog, or more than one poem.

Creech's young writer later falls in love with the work of Walter Dean Meyers and, with his teacher's encouragement, invites the author to visit his class. The author agrees, which worries our narrator some, since one of his poems is an imitation of a Meyers poem. Will Meyers be mad at him for doing that?

Love That Dog includes some of the poems the narrator's class studies at the back, among them "Dog" by one of my own favorite poets, Valerie Worth.

I can see why Sharon Creech won the Newbery (for Walk Two Moons). In the spare format of this 86-page book, she evokes more character and feeling than most people manage in hundreds of top-to-bottom pages. Beautiful book for anyone, but especially for boys who don't think writing and poetry is for them.

The Dreamer, written by Pam Muñoz Ryan and illustrated by Peter Sís (2010)

There's a reason Ryan's latest book is winning rave reviews. It's one of the most poignant (fictionalized) biographies you'll ever read, and, like The Bat-Poet, offers insight into the creative heart. Peter Sís's illustrations simply add to the air of magical realism in this tender story of a young Pablo Neruda, whose flights of fancy clash with his militant, macho father's worldview and, if you can call it that, parenting.

It's astonishing that the child of such a determined dream crusher could survive and flourish as a creative person, but young Neftalí Reyes manages it. (The poet later takes on "Pablo Neruda" as a pen name.) He is helped in bits and pieces by other family members, but mostly by his own quiet determination. Note that Neftalí's difficulties are exacerbated by a stutter. Ryan offers us sorrows, but also moments of power from the famous Chilean poet's boyhood. For example, when his father takes him and his sister and stepmother to the beach, he forces the children to swim out into the sea every morning even though they're not very good at it and are frightened. Yet the boy also manages to find books, a secret hideaway, and a wounded swan that he cares for without his father knowing. Throughout The Dreamer, we see Neftalí collecting small objects like leaves and shells and rocks, but also images and words, which he treasures.
Neftalí grabbed a book from the bedside table. Even though he did not know all of the words, he read the ones he knew. He loved the rhythm of certain words, and when he came to one of his favorites, he read it over and over again: locomotive, locomotive, locomotive. In his mind, it did not get stuck. He heard the word as if he had said it out loud—perfectly.

We follow Neftalí to the point where he apprentices to his uncle the printer, who gives the boy a taste of political activism. After the print shop is burned down by hardliners, Neftalí goes away to study at the university, dreaming of using his words to support the rights of the poor and the indigenous peoples in his homeland. At every step of his journey, his father tries to stop the boy from pursuing his vision—and yet Neftalí perseveres. There's an obvious message here, but it doesn't read as didactic thanks to the powerful current of the author's storytelling, which carries readers along in the river of Neftalí's life.

The Dreamer is another book for the thoughtful reader, or perhaps it would make a good 4th-7th grade classroom read-aloud in conjunction with examples of Neruda's poetry and some Latin American history.

The cover art and design are exceptionally lovely, by the way.

So far, I'm calling this one and Laura Amy Schlitz's The Night Fairy for next year's Newberys.

Word after Word after Word by Patricia MacLachlan (2010)

The Newbery award-winning author of Sarah, Plain and Tall writes slim books, but she packs a lot into them. They have the feel of poetry that way, which is apt in this case. Word after Word after Word is the story of a group of fourth graders who have a visitor named Ms. Mirabel come teach their class about writing every day for a month. Ms. Mirabel is colorful and unconventional, at first making the more traditional classroom teacher, Miss Cash, nervous. (The contrast between Ms. and Miss is deliberate!)

We see a handful of the students dealing with what's up in their lives, eventually translating their experiences into poetry. The kids team up in a nice way, sharing some of their feelings as they sit talking beneath the huge lilac bush at Henry's house. For example, Evie is miserable about her parents' divorce and is determined to find her father a new wife, while May is upset that, as she puts it, "My very, very, very dumb mother is going to adopt a very, very dumb baby."

Upon hearing about this, Ms. Mirabel says, "I remember loathing my baby brother." Narrator Lucy asks her if she loves her brother now, whereupon MacLachlan bucks the cliché by having the writing teacher reply, "No, Lucy. He's not a very nice person, as it turns out." These and other little surprises keep the story fresh, although the basic premise may seem fairly ordinary.

Russell doesn't like writing, but he does have a baby brother of his own that he brings around. Early on we read:

"Some words may make you happy, some may make you sad. Maybe some will make you angry. What I hope"—a sudden gust of wind made Ms. Mirabel's hair lift—"what I hope is that something will whisper in your ear."
"What does that mean?" asked Russell.
Miss Cash sighed loud enough for me to hear. Russell always asked questions that made Miss Cash sigh.
Ms. Mirabel didn't sigh. She smiled brightly.
"You will know," she said.
This book is partly about the power of words. It is also about the power of lives. Lucy's mother has cancer, and her parents' efforts to protect her are just upsetting her. Lucy tries to write about hope, but "Sadness was all I had."

Yet there is humor here, too, as Evie dubs a new neighbor "Sassy DeMello" and maneuvers to get her together with her father, with unexpected results. With just a few lines of dialogue, MacLachlan is capable of painting a character perfectly. She is especially good at presenting the way children talk and think.

Some might say this book is heavy-handed in its presentation of kids and their problems, and of the power of writing. I think MacLachlan is simply comfortably open in pointing out what we all know, that everybody struggles with something, that life really is uneven and surprising and sometimes upsetting—but that people together can handle just about anything. A friend of mine once remarked of an experience I shared with her, "That's just so lifey." Which is a good way to describe Patricia MacLachlan's Word after Word after Word.

Of course, the title makes me think of "step after step after step," and that's how life must be lived, like it or not.

I'm thinking of another title by this author, Journey, and I would say that MacLachlan, like Kate DiCamillo, writes books that quiver with symbolism and meaning. By "quiver" I am referring to the motion made by sound waves and light waves. These are books that feel like poems in their own right, that view life and the people in it as real and metaphoric at the same time. I won't say that Word after Word after Word is MacLachlan's best book, but it's a book you'll like spending time with. All of her books are like that.

For those of you who are writers or whose children or students are budding writers, this summer bouquet of books should provide resonance and inspiration. Nonwriters will also find themselves uplifted, whether as readers or as participants in classes or the larger culture. One reason we write is to be understood, and all four of these books express an understanding, not only of poets, but of what it means to live and struggle and grow as a human on this planet.

Update: The Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards have been announced, and Pam Muñoz Ryan's The Dreamer is an honor book for Fiction/Poetry. Read the complete list here.