Thursday, July 28, 2011

Poetry Friday: A Watery Preview

I just heard from my editor at Chronicle; apparently she is working on selecting the cover art for my very first poetry collection, Water Sings Blue (illustrated by Meilo So). Woo-hoo! It's coming out next February or March, just in time for National Poetry Month 2012. I thought I'd give you a sneak preview by sharing two poems that didn't quite make it into the collection. After all, July and oceans go together nicely!


The sky is my ceiling,
the sea is my floor,
as much as I can
I avoid the shore.

The clouds are my walls,
the wind is my chair,
I stride over water
and sleep upon air.

Advice to a Young Plankton

Slosh, slish,
swosh, swish.
Try to steer clear
of the ravenous fish.

Beware their mouths
like soup tureens—
those jaggedy teeth
above and beneath,
just waiting
to sweep you between—

and whatever,
whatever, whatever you do,
stay away from the glowering
mountains of blue,
with their caves of tall baleen.

—Kate Coombs, 2011, all rights reserved

Now, on to our many special guests this blue-sky-and-watermelon Poetry Friday! As always, please post your links in the comments, and I'll list them below as the day goes by. (I should start posting by 6:30 a.m. Mountain Time, so hang in there, East Coasters...)

—What better way to start off than with a bit of summery "Solitude" from William Wordsworth and our Poetry Friday leader, Mary Lee, at A Year of Reading?

—Unless it's with exuberant congratulations to the very talented Heidi Mordhorst, who is getting married tomorrow after 20 years with Fiona thanks to the new marriage laws. She celebrates with a love poem by e.e. cummings, "I carry your heart with me," at Juicy Little Universe!

—Thanks to April Halprin Wayland of Teaching Authors for giving us, not only sailboats and soursops in Fiji, but also a very cool poetry writing exercise involving keys.

—Charles Ghigna, AKA Father Goose, offers us a lovely original poem about a young dancer, "Stella Saw a Star."

—Over at Gottabook, Greg is celebrating summer with his strongly sensory original poem, "At the Beach."

—On the other side of the world from me, in Singapore, Myra Garces-Bacsal of GatheringBooks has an interview with poet Tita Lacambra Ayala about the 30-year anniversary of her Road Map Series featuring promising poets. In addition, Myra posts Ayala's poem, "Love Poem Macabre."

—At Paper Tigers, Corinne invites us to an event featuring Francisco X. Alarcón, author of four season-themed bilingual books of poetry, starting with Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems/Jitomates risueños y otros poemas de primavera. (Just want you to know I own all four books!)

—Our favorite Author Amok got to tour Louisa May Alcott's former home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts, last week. She shares highlights of her tour and a poem by Alcott, "A Song from the Suds." Thank heavens for washing machines!

—Now take a look at Changming Yuan's surprising white "Crow" over at Tabatha's blog, The Opposite of Indifference.

—Diane Mayr has given birth to Poetry Friday quadruplets! You can read Amy Lowell's poem, "A Petition," over at Random Noodling; enjoy Diane's own poem "Pledge of Allegiance" from her World War II collection, Kids of the Homefront Army; savor "Cricket Jackets" by Aileen Fisher at Kurious Kitty's Kurio Kabinet; or copy down the wonderful Mary Oliver quote at Kurious K's Kwotes. (This last is from one of my favorite Oliver poems, "When Death Comes.")

—Carol of Rasco from RIF reminds us that summer can be scorching with a poem by Denny Lyon, "Sweltering Summer Heat."

—Over in Haiti at There Is No Such Thing as a God-forsaken Town, Ruth shares the ultimate classic when it comes to summer: Shakespeare's sonnet, "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?"

—Mandy of Enjoy and Embrace Learning reminds us to savor the moment with Regie Routman's poem, "Now."

—On a sadder note, Doraine Bennett speaks of a friend losing her husband to cancer at Dori Reads; she gives us an Emily Dickinson poem, "As Imperceptibly as Grief," to honor him.

—Pentimento remembers her old parish church with an excerpt from John Logan's "Cycle for Mother Cabrini."

—Steven Withrow points out that sometimes summer days can feel too long with his original poem, "Boooooring." He has a poem for teens at Crackles of Speech, too: "School Play."

—As Shakespeare proved (see above!), you can do worse than spending your summer writing love poems. Irene Latham of Live. Love. Explore! shares her concise original poem, "Sixteen Words for Love."

—Thanks to Madigan at Madigan Reads for reviewing a new rebus take on nursery rhymes, Will Hillenbrand's Mother Goose Picture Puzzles.

—Anastasia Suen previews Marcus Pfister's clever couplet collection, Questions, Questions at Picture Book of the Day.

—Remember running through the sprinklers on a hot summer day? Elaine Magliaro of Wild Rose Reader does in her refreshing original poem, "Backyard Mermaid." Then at Blue Rose Girls, Elaine shares Margaret Atwood's "You Begin" and the original poem it inspired in honor of her daughter's wedding.

—Next Katie gives us a review of Read a Rhyme, Write a Rhyme by Jack Prelutsky over at Secrets & Sharing Soda.

—And finally, Libby joins us at A Year of Literacy Coaching with an appropriate end-of-the-day poem by Shel Silverstein, "Tired."

Thanks to everyone for participating in our beach picnic of poems!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Feeling Kinda Crazy: Three Unusual Picture Books

The fact is, sometimes a book appeals to us, not because it's just the right thing to read to Jack and Jill Averagechild, but because it isn't. Here are a few unique picture book selections:

The Rock & Rol
l Alphabet by Jeffrey Schwartz, illustrated with photos by Chuck Boyd

I couldn't resist getting a review copy of this one. I mean, how cool is that? Granted, I don't think this book is really about teaching 4- and 5-year-olds the alphabet, but I think it could be a hoot for teaching 8- and 9-year-olds a little about American music.

I recently studied music history with a high school senior, and since he's an aspiring rocker, we spent a lot of time on American popular music. It's a rich history, building on things like the blues of Langston Hughes's day and the Celtic music that made its way to the Appalachian mountains long before Elvis was born.

Which brings us to Chuck Boyd, a photographer who worked with the rock stars of the 60's and 70's. This book was created in his honor by Jeffrey Schwartz, a historian specializing in rock and roll in general and Chuck Boyd's photography in particular.

Each letter of the alphabet in the book represents a rock star or a band, while every two pages of text comprises a rhymed couplet. For example, the first two pages read, "A is for Aretha, oft referred to as the Queen" and "B is for The Beatles in their 'Yellow Submarine'."

Of course, "C is for Cream and the British blues invasion," while "D is for The Doors and their sonic exploration."

Other letters I particularly liked were "K is for KISS, a sight to see on stage" (so true!) and Schwartz's solution to the problem of the X page, "X is for T-Rex, Bang a Gong, Get it On'."

As I studied the history of rock music with my student this year, it occurred to me that the disconnect between the young and the old, and between classical music (considered respectable but stodgy by some) and popular music (considered ubiquitous and undeserving by others) is a fault in our handling of cultural history. American popular music is sometimes tainted by its association with drugs and sex and the ritual trashing of hotel rooms, but it deserves to be honored for what it is: an amazing new creation that took place over the course of a mere hundred years or so.

If you're not a music buff, you may not be very interested in Schwartz's new alphabet and what it represents. But for some of us, it's a starting point for teaching kids about a colorful, powerful part of our past.

After all, Lady Gaga wouldn't be here if it weren't for Madonna, and Madonna owes a musical debt to everything from Motown dance music to Led Zeppelin, while the Rolling Stones freely acknowledge blues artist like Muddy Waters as a major musical influence (not to mention the source of the band's name), and on it goes...

The Rock & Roll Alphabet reminds us that music has a history, and that artists in every medium build on one another's work. If you don't want it for your kids, hey; get it for yourself! It may not be as big as the usual photographic tomes, but it makes a great miniature coffee table book.

You can preview The Rock & Roll Alphabet on YouTube.

A Rule Is To Break: A Child's Guide to Anarchy by John Seven and Jana Christy

"Chaos and kids go together like lemon and fish." That's the opening line of the e-mail I got telling me about this book.

In a world where the term "anarchy" is often associated with lawlessness in the sense of "here come them bandits and we don't got no sheriff to save us," a picture book teaching children to be anarchic may sound a little unnerving. But wait—take a look at this book (which Jules of Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast introduced along with more of the team's work in a recent post).

The main character is a little girl dressed in a red suit which at first glance looks like a devil costume; it actually turns out to be a wolf costume, in a nice homage to Where the Wild Things Are—a book which is pretty much about children and anarchy, too. (See also my post from a few years back, "Anarchy of the Imagination: Why I Love Children's Books.")

This little girl is a free spirit, and really, she simply acts out the exuberance we see all the time in small children. Like my new neighbor across the street, 4-year-old Louie, who jumps more often than he walks.

The first page of A Rule Is to Break says, "The opposite of rules is anarchy. There are plenty of ways to make anarchy." The illustration shows our wild child—who has blue hair, by the way—running past naked and grinning.

Next we get, "Don't look like everybody else. BE YOU!" And we see the girl sewing her red wolf costume, then wearing it.

Followed by, "When someone says 'Work!' you say 'Why?'"

And "Ignore school and read books. Use your brain!" This one shows the wild child up in a tree, happily reading a book.

But just when you might be thinking, "What will this book do to my sweet little child?" we turn the page and see, "Hug the ugliest monster you can find." With our red wolf-suited girl hugging a truly Sendak-worthy gray monster.

You may not appreciate the book's advice to "Paint pictures on your TV," but you might like "Forget about grocery stores and get dirty in your garden." I will restrain myself from giving you more, but suffice it to say, there's some great stuff in here.

Jana Christy's illustrations are clean and bright, with her personable red-clad child roaming freely across grocery sack-colored pages. The blue hair with the red wolf outfit is a great touch every single time it appears. Christy's artwork is cute without being cutesy. It succeeds without appearing to try too hard, an approach which perfectly matches its subject matter.

So—is this book only for the offspring of neo-hippies, rock musicians, and the more liberal sort of home-schoolers?

Not at all. If there was ever a book for starting a conversation about rules and the very idea of civilization and societies, for better or for worse, with 5- to 7-year-olds, it would be this one. Not to mention some of the advice is a lot of fun.

I was reminded of a rather amusing picture book called 17 Things I'm Not Allowed to Do Anymore by Jenny Offill and Nancy Carpenter, although John and Jana's book is far more free-wheeling and, I would say, appealing. (Offill's main character, also a girl, is restricted over and over, but her imagination just won't stop.)

Go beyond using A Rule Is to Break to teach your child a new vocabulary word, "anarchy," and use it to teach your child about out-of-the-box thinking, not to mention being true to oneself.

Which is really the point, I suspect.

Find out more about A Rule Is to Break and other works by this author-illustrator team (e.g., Happy Punks) at AuntieUncleBooks, home of the Wee Anarchists Un-Club.

La Bella Durmiente por Jacob y Wilhelm Grimm, con ilustraciones de Ana Juan

It's a little self-serving of me to throw this one in, considering it's in Spanish. A few days ago I had dinner with a friend I hadn't seen in 26 years, an Argentine woman, which took me back to my time spent in Argentina, of course. It was great hearing that unique Argentine Spanish spoken once again...

But I mostly got this book, which I ordered from Europe, because of the illustrations, not the text. I am a huuuuge fan of Ana Juan's artwork! In particular, I love her illustrations for Frida, Jonah Winter's biography of Frida Kahlo. See also her illustrations for Elena's Serenade by Campbell Geeslin and for The Jewel Box Ballerinas by Monique de Varennes. And her newest work, the illustrations for Catherynne M. Valente's much-talked-about middle grade fantasy novel, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. (See my recent review here.)

La Bella Durmiente, or Sleeping Beauty, is an old-fashioned fairy tale picture book, with a left-hand page of relatively dense text and and an illustration on the right-hand page. Rather than a retelling, the text is simply the original version by the Brothers Grimm, translated to Spanish. (The publisher is from Spain, Sopa de Cuentos, which means Soup of Stories or Story Soup.) Our story begins, "Hace mucho tiempo había un rey y una reina que exclamaban todos los días: —¡Ay, si tuviéramos un hijo! —y no consiguían tener nunca uno. Entonces sucedió que, estando la reina una vez en el baño, saltó un sapo del agua..."

In English this reads: "In times past there lived a king and queen, who said to each other every day of their lives, 'Would that we had a child!' and yet they had none. But it happened once that when the queen was bathing, there came a frog out of the water..."

So Juan's first illustration is a frog, looking out of the page.

The next illustration gives us a pleased-looking queen all dressed in black, holding her baby daughter, who is swaddled in cream. The king peers over the queen's shoulder like an Eastern potentate, while the queen wears one of those hats with a veil around the sides, her crown perched on top.

Juan's fairies are unique, sort of pink floaty shapes with barely discernible faces. I'm not sure how well they work, but it is nice to see a different approach. The evil fairy bursts onto the next page looking for all the world like a red Georgia O'Keefe flower, looming over the child, while the king and queen are shown off to one side, diminished.

A briar motif done in gray winds down the center of each spread, dividing the illustration from the text. It is also used to good effect on the endpapers.

I like the later images in the book best, when the princess goes up the stairs and then falls asleep. For instance, as the princess ascends a stone spiral stairway, her long robe billows out behind her, trailing around the spiral in a ghostly way. Very nice!

I also like how, when the prince shows up, Juan depicts him standing beside the bed, with the princess politely covering a yawn as she drags open her sleepy eyes. No kiss here, but a clever glimpse of how a real person wakes up!

In general I am not as fond of the artwork in La Bella Durmiente as I have been of Juan's illustrations in other books, but if you are, like me, a major fan, it might be worth your while to track down a copy.

Note: You can see more of Ana Juan's artwork at her website.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Queen's Thief Series Honored

YES!!! Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief series has won the 2011 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature! If you are a fan of fantasy, court and political intrigue, adventure, and complex character development and you haven't read this series, you are really missing out.

(FYI, the 2011 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature went to Karen Lord's book, Redemption in Indigo.)

Together with the L.A. Times Book Prize to A Conspiracy of Kings for best YA book of 2010, this award to the Queen's Thief series should put to rest the fuss from certain awards committees that shall not be named, a fuss which denied Turner's books her due because "they couldn't stand alone." Others have complained that the books are too sophisticated for young readers, and while I might not hand them to a 9-year-old, I would certainly consider them for a thoughtful 12-year-old, let alone a teen.

Alone or together, Megan Whalen Turner's books are among the best in the business.

Fun with Fairy Tales

The fairy tale may be struggling in the picture book realm, but it's making astonishing inroads elsewhere. The July 22 Entertainment Weekly provides a Comic-Con-themed preview of upcoming movies and TV shows, but what really caught my eye were the fairy tale offerings. As Jeff Jensen points out, "Perhaps the biggest trend (also presaged by Thor) is a shift toward mythic and fairy tale fantasy. Besides The Hobbit, 2012 will bring Clash of the Titans 2, Bryan Singer's Jack the Giant Killer, two Snow White movies, and the deliciously titled Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters."

In related news, we have two fairy tale-themed TV shows premiering this fall. Grimm appears to be Supernatural meets police procedural with imported fairy tale baddies, while Once Upon a Time has more of an earnest character focus in the ultra-fictional town of Storybrooke. ("How did Jiminy Cricket become a cricket? How did Grumpy become grumpy?" executive producer Adam Horowitz inquires pensively.)

And perhaps earlier this year you saw Red Riding Hood, the movie with Amanda Seyfried as the rather grown-up heroine facing werewolves and the uber-religious hunters who track them down.

There are actually three Snow White movies in the works: The Brothers Grim: Snow White with Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen; Snow White and the Huntsman, the first in a planned trilogy in which Snow White (Kristin Stewart) and the huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) join forces with the seven dwarves (Ian McShane, Eddie Izzard, etc.) to lead a revolution against the queen (Charlize Theron); and Snow and the Seven, which finds our girl in China in the 1800s, assisted by seven martial arts-type Shaolin monks (script by Michael Chabon; directed by Yuen Wo Ping, the fight choreographer for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix).


So what do we notice about these movies? That they're nearly all action films, with our fairy tale heroes and heroines highly inclined to kick butt. (Then there's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Maybe he can team up with Hansel and Gretel. Unless the kids take a detour to Salem, Massachusetts, that is.)

Of course, last year's Tangled is another example of the genre, although everyone knows the girl's hair was, um, inspired by Shannon Hale and Nathan Hale's graphic novel, Rapunzel's Revenge.

All of this is a little odd, but not exactly unsatisfying. And it leads us to a new question: What's next? Here are a few of my predictions for upcoming movie projects:

Sleeping Beauty: Narcoleptic Noir Detective—She walks the dark streets in a fedora, and it's only her sidekick the magically animated rosebush that keeps her from getting her throat slit when she falls asleep in the middle of a chase or a bar fight.

Rumpelstiltskin, Serial Killer—He lures them in with fool's gold and then chokes them with spinning wheel thread or stabs them with a spindle or... Let's just say this one's ripped straight from the headlines.

Cinderella's Heist—She's gathered her old friends the birds and mice, and they have a delightfully devious plan. Featuring lots of extra-mini Mini Coopers and a bank with those evil stepsisters on the Board of Directors.

Beauty and the Beast: Vengeance—When the Beast is killed by marauding CEO's, Beauty hitches up her satin skirts and sets out on a mission of revenge. Along the way, she trains with the greatest swordsman of all time, the greatest archer of all time, and the greatest poison-maker of all time.

Frog Legs—The no-longer-enchanted prince may look thin and a little greenish, but he's a champion kick boxer. He teaches the no-longer-spoiled princess everything he knows, and together they defeat the evil regent who has taken over the kingdom.

Nothing Gold Can Stay—A tragic tale of juvenile delinquency and drug abuse, to which three bears are horrified spectators. (Okay, so no martial arts in this one.)

OR: Goldie and the Bears—Yep, it's the country band from the deep woods. But will fame spoil Goldie? Will she be lured by a greasy yet hunky agent into starting a solo act? Will Baby Bear's voice change? Will they win a Grammy before it all goes sour? Will they tenderly reunite and go back to the unspoiled safety of the woods?

Three Little Pigs: Twirling Trotters—After a series of challenges and a whole lot of bullying at a performing arts school, the Big Bad Wolf ends up in a dance-off with the talented dancing pigs. He loses.

The Gruff Brothers—They are known only as The Family, but they don't leave horses' heads in your bed; they leave trolls' heads. Beware... the Gruffness.

Little Red Bakes Bread—A lighthearted story of a gal who rediscovers herself in the face of the selfishness that surrounds her. Feminist comedy gets a remake as Red gets her wheat on.

Any more ideas? Pop them in the comments and I'll list them below!

Update, 8-25-11: Check out this interview with literature professor emeritus and fairy tale expert Jack Zipe on the subject of all those upcoming fairy tale-based movies.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Review of The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill

When Jack comes to a small country town, everything changes. All he knows is that he's going to spend the summer with Uncle Clive and Aunt Mabel, but his coming impacts the people in the little town even before he reaches the unusual purple house where his aunt and uncle live. Little Frankie, the boy with the scarred face and the missing voice, hears a sound of bells, and his sister Mabel smells something sweet and strange. Anders feels a humming and prickling in the summer grass beneath his feet. Even Clayton Avery, the town bully, gets an odd ringing in his ears. Here's how Anders responds to the sensation:
"So," he said out loud. The bees hummed, the ground hummed, even his bones and skin hummed and hummed. "So it's coming back. Now. Right?" He waited, as though someone might bother to answer: the growing corn, the tangled wood, the clear wide sky. Nothing did. Anyway, he was pretty sure the answer was yes.

As for Jack himself, it hasn't really occurred to him just how strange his own life is: the kids at school, bus drivers, even his own parents tend to forget about him. But the experience intensifies when his mother drops him off. Afterwards, he tries to call her or his father, but he can never get through. He writes a letter, but the words disappear from the paper before he can get to the mailbox as his uncle's two big cats watch him far too knowingly.

On the other hand, Jack makes friends for the first time, with Anders, Mabel, and (sort of) Frankie. But town bully Clayton Avery tries to beat him up, and Clayton's wealthy father apparently wants to kill Jack. Why?

Kelly Barnhill's new book is a fantasy, but it is also a mystery, its suspense building as we try to understand who Jack is and why he matters to so many different people. The other mystery is what happened to Frankie, who disappeared for a time and then was rescued by Jack's uncle. During the period when he was missing, people tended to forget he had ever existed. Other people have also disappeared and were forgotten, mostly children who vanished from the old schoolhouse.

Meanwhile, Mr. Avery assigns his smirking assistant Mr. Perkins to spy on Jack, and the man manages to get his hands on Jack's backpack, which contains something Uncle Clive has been trying to keep away from Avery.

And Jack is feeling awfully weird. For one thing, these vines keep crawling in his window. And the house itself seems to be paying attention to him.

All of it comes to a head when Mabel disappears and Jack knows he must find her. The truth about how Mr. Avery got his wealth and what happened to those children is about to come out—and it will give Jack the answers he's been looking for, too.

I suppose my only quibble with this book is that there's a certain amount of explaining required to clarify the situation at the root of everyone's troubles, and I'm not sure I was completely sold on the underlying concept. But that's what suspension of disbelief is for, after all. I do think the tale succeeds handily just the same, especially in light of the strong characterization.

Branhill's clear style, her well-drawn characters, and a sense of emotional nuance add to the success of her storytelling. Here's one more excerpt:
His glasses itched terribly under his nose, but when he tried to adjust them, he realized that he couldn't move his right arm. Or his left. Tendrils of grass and ivy slithered along his side. They twined around his ankles and wrists and held him tight.

"What's going on?" Jack squeaked, but a wave of moss covered his chest and a tangle of roots pulled him into darkness. "Help me!" he yelled, "Somebody help me!" And in that last second—when the sky above him was reduced to a spot the size of the head of a pin—only one thought remained:


For kids who like mysteries as well as fantasy, The Mostly True Story of Jack will be a captivating summer read.

Note: I received a review copy of the book from the publisher. The Mostly True Story of Jack will be available in bookstores on August 2.

Which of Rick Riordan's New Series Is Best?

If you're a serious Percy Jackson fan, you're probably going to read both of Rick Riordan's new series. But what if you only have time for one? Will it be the Percy Jackson follow-up, which introduces new characters, but promises to bring back Percy himself in Book 2? Or will you leave Greece (and Rome) and head for Egypt, the source of magic in The Kane Chronicles?

Decisions, decisions!

With Heroes of Olympus, The Lost Hero, you do return to Camp Half-blood. But there's something different about our new set of heroes, and not just the fact that one of them is being blackmailed to betray the others. We've got Jason, who can't remember his life before the bus ride with which Book 1 begins; his supposed girlfriend Piper, who is dismayed to find out who her mother is; and a Latino boy named Leo, who's been commandeered by a rather senior goddess from an early age and has a pretty scary power. But could Jason be the son of a Roman god, not a Greek one? (Try not to think too hard about the logistics. It boggles the mind.) Either way, there's a new prophecy and a new villain in the land, and these three are only the first of a team of seven who must be assembled in order to win the day. Not to mention that Percy is missing—where, oh where, can he be? Annabeth definitely wants to know! Meanwhile, our new trio heads west on a quest to stop the rise of Porphyrion, a giant baddie, and rescue Hera before it's too late...

Then there are The Kane Chronicles, which pick up speed in Book 2, thankfully. (Book 1 got a bit bogged down in backstory.) The Throne of Fire returns with brother-and-sister act Carter and Sadie Kane, who have turned their spell-protected house in Brooklyn into a training camp for those who want to fight the forces of evil with them. Making it a mini version of Camp Half-blood, of course! The story begins with the siblings and a couple of other kids trying to steal an artifact from the museum. Soon the Kanes are traveling all over the world, trying to find the scrolls comprising the Book of Ra so they can wake the sleeping king of the gods and he can defeat a terrible rising serpent named Apophis (Chaos). Along the way, Sadie and Carter split up rather often the way characters in horror movies do ("Please stick together! Oh, no..."), increasing their peril on a regular basis. Carter's still crushing on Zia, now the original rather than a copy, and is determined to find her, while Sadie likes a boy named Walt in addition to (secretly, and with some chagrin) Anubis, the god of the dead.

Now, let's compare the two series.

Where Heroes of Olympus Excels:

—KC's Brooklyn House feels like a pale imitation of HOO's Camp Half-blood. The subplot about the mean girl dominating Aphrodite House in The Lost Hero is especially nice.
—Both series offer comic relief, but KC's funny ally, the terribly ugly dwarf god Bes, and some adventures in a nursing home for gods aren't nearly as amusing as the HOO crew's encounters with the wind and his dysfunctional kids, an icky tribe of Cyclopes, and Medea reigning over an evil department store. Leo is also pretty funny all by himself.
—While both of the current books, let alone the entire series, use a quest format, HOO's plot development feels a tad more natural and less deliberately choreographed than KC's. (In particular, the way Carter and Sadie keep splitting up to go off on their own and then end up getting attacked feels contrived.)
—Leo and Piper are strong new characters, while Jason is pretty good, too, though less distinctive. KC's siblings feel richer in Book 2 than in Book 1, but I still found Leo and Piper more appealing. (Plus Carter continues to lag behind his sister in depth and interest.)
—Leo's mechanical dragon totally rocks, beating out Carter's griffin.
—This book also wins for coolest action scenes. KC's mummy scene doesn't quite cut it, but HOO's Cyclopes scene and the whole thing in the house of the winds are wonderful.
—Despite the complexity of the plot, HOO feels more fast-paced than KC, even if we overlook KC's relatively dense start in Book 1. KC has moments of drag, but I didn't see many of those in The Lost Hero.

Where The Kane Chronicles Excel:

—Both books have new, humongous villains attempting to rise from beneath the earth, but I'd say a giant snake that can destroy with its very presence is more horrific than an angry giant.
—The romance factor is handled with sweetness and humor in KC as Sadie tries to ignore her feelings for two different boys and Carter heads knowingly into a major trap for love of a girl who won't even know who he is (kind of a doppelganger thing). In contrast, the romance in HOO is minimal if not confusing.
—Perhaps I'm just burned out on Greek and Roman mythology, but the Egyptian mythology feels fresh and nicely strange in this series.
—The overall story arc of the KC series seems smoother, perhaps because the major plot point created by distinguishing between the Greek gods and Roman gods strains credulity a little.
—I found KC's save-the-world plot more compelling, perhaps because HOO's save-the-world plot seems like a rerun. Plus the Hera thing didn't quite work for me, while the situation with Ra is a delightful soap opera. (I can't wait to see how it gets resolved.)
—Like its predecessor, HOO has a cast of thousands, while focusing on just two siblings in KC makes for a cleaner read.
—Sadie and Carter's magical powers are intriguing, especially their relationship to the gods who have tried and will try again to possess them. In contrast, fire making and the other powers in HOO seem predictable.
—When it comes to girl-power, Sadie's got it in spades. Piper is an excellent character, but not nearly as gutsy and outrageous as Sadie.

Hmm. I think I'll give four prizes here. Kane Chronicles wins "Most Improved" and "Most Potential," but Heroes of Olympus still triumphs when it comes to "Most Appealing Characters" and "Best Storytelling." If you have to choose, I'd say go with that second round of Greek (or maybe Roman) demigods. Then again, here's hoping you'll get to read both series.

Readers, which of these series do you like best? Let us know in the comments!

Note: Book 2 of Heroes of Olympus, The Son of Neptune, is due out on October 4. If the ending of Book 1 is anything to go by, we'll be visiting the Roman side of things next.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Buffy Says Read

Sarah Michelle Gellar makes some very nice points about reading with your kids in this video from Yahoo MOM (Moments of Motherhood).

I used to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer on a regular basis; the show was fantasy/paranormal, one of my favorite genres, and it was so darn well written. Which means that of course I had to check this clip out, and I was pleased to note that Sarah did a good job. In particular, her story of turning daughter Charlotte into an avid reader is inspiring as well as cute.

Not that you have to be an actress to care about getting children to read... So what's your story? How have you hooked your kids (or students) on books? Leave a note in the comments and I'll list some highlights below!


E. Louise: For us, it's important not just to read TO our kids, but to let them see us reading. My husband was often read to, but he never saw the adults around him reading, so he still grew up not valuing reading (until he married me - HA!). I, on the other hand, grew up in a family that had "library nights" where we would all go, pick out a stack of books apiece, and come home and sit around the living room reading together, sharing popcorn and soda. It was our favorite night of the week, and since my sister and I saw our parents loving books as much as they wanted us to, it happened quite naturally for us. My husband and I read to our girls, and we let them see us reading, too, and at two and three-and-a-half, they are both already hooked on books!

Kim Aippersbach: I agree that modeling reading is important, and having lots of books in the house, and taking lots of trips to the library. (But that could just be me making a virtue of my own habits!)

Both my oldest kids transitioned from being read to to reading independently with a single book. I can't remember which one it was for my oldest, but for my daughter it was Harry Potter. Chapter ended on a cliffhanger, my husband refused to start the next chapter, so she begged to be allowed to take the book to bed with her. 'Oh, I suppose so, just this once,' we said, secretly giving each other high fives behind her back!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Book Aunt Strikes Again

I recently put my blog name into effect, so I thought I'd let you know that I'm true to my slogan. I practiced my craft on my unsuspecting 10-year-old nephew and 15-year-old niece in honor of their birthdays, which are only a few days apart.

As far as their reading tastes go, suffice it to say that Kyle is a fan of Rick Riordan's books, while Kristina is a Sarah Dessen fan.

It was too hot to go to the bookstore, so we sat at my sister's computer and shopped on Here's what I ended up getting for Kyle:

War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells--this was at his request. Kyle is a math-and-science kid, a future Bill Gates, no doubt. I think this title might be self-explanatory, but if you're not familiar with it, it's a classic. Your basic alien invasion.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld--I pitched this to my nephew, and he was intrigued. This book is the first in a steampunk series set in an alternate World War I Europe. Great Britain and her allies are the Darwinists, using biologically cultivated war machines like a flying whale that's an airship. The Germans and their allies are known as the Clankers because they use sophisticated mechanical war machines. We follow the adventures of the son of the slain archduke of Austria and a girl who poses as a boy airman on that whale of an airship.

The Atlantis Complex (Artemis Fowl) by Eoin Colfer--also Kyle's request; he's read all of the previous books. In case you're not familiar with these books, Artemis is a young genius, a budding supervillain whose criminal tendencies are sometimes softened or at least diverted by his alliance with the rather tough fairy world.

Some of the other possibilities I brought up were the Ranger's Apprentice series by John Flanagan, the Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins, and the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz. I gave Kyle a little list of these books to look for at the library.

On to Kristina's b-day gifts... She was looking for something new to read, so I hit her up with a trio of books I figured she had missed. She was definitely interested.

The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May & June by Robin Benway--this is my review.

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins--see my review here.

Angus, Thongs and Full-frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison--I found out Kristina had never read any of Rennison's wild-and-crazy Brit books. In case you haven't read them, they're the diaries of one Georgia Nicolson, a girl who is self-centered, but also very funny and off the wall. Worth it for the evil cat alone (see cover art).

So, dear readers, that's how it went down, on the ever-so-sunny 4th of July. Any other thoughts about books for these two kids? Let me know in the comments! Meanwhile, Book Aunt has done her thing, and the summer reading season is properly launched for my sister's offspring. As for the birthday party itself, we had three kinds of pie with ice cream for the main course, then barbecued chicken and steak for dessert. 'Cause why not?

Note for Worried Parents: The books I ordered for Kristina are probably PG, with some teen-type talk about sex, longing, and (from the girl's perspective) breasts, but nothing too strong. Oh, and there's teen drinking in Benway's and Perkins' books, though it's presented in a negative light.

A Review of Fly Trap by Frances Hardinge

This author got a lot of attention last year for The Lost Conspiracy, but did you read her book, Fly by Night, a few years back? It was one of those odd, cool, and yes, under-appreciated MG fantasy novels. Now Mosca Mye is back and better than ever in a sequel, Fly Trap.

Talk about world building! Hardinge takes the ideas of astrology and religion and creates a society with hundreds of "Beloveds," or minor deity that dominate every day and night of the year. In Fly Trap, for example, each chapter is titled with a Beloved. The first five are "Goodman Springzel, Bringer of Surprises," "Goodlady Plenplush, Binder of Bargains," "Goodlady Whenyouleast, Mistress of Reunions and Remembered Faces," "Goodman Postrophe, Guardian Against the Wandering Dead," and "Goodman Jayblister, Master of Entrances and Salutations." Each chapter reflects the theme implied by its Beloved.

And there are more Beloveds mentioned in the text, say, "Goodlady Emberleather, She Who Prevents the Meat from Becoming Chewy and Unwholesome." Or sometimes, we're just given additional information. I like Goodman Springzel's other title, for example: "He Who Tips Ice Water Down the Collar and Hides the Pearl in the Oyster," for this Beloved is in charge of "surprises both good and ill."

Mosca and her companions, a violent goose named Saracen and a rotund, urbane con artist named Eponymous Clent, launch our story in a pretty pickle, then make their way to a strange town named Toll, where the Beloveds play a greater role than they did even in the first book. Here's Mosca in the first few pages, when Clent has been thrown in jail for damages done by Saracen, leaving her to offer her reading services in the icy streets of a strange town:
The rain washed people, stalls, and barrows from the market square, leaving only that one figure like a particularly stubborn stain. Drips fell from the tip of a pointed nose. Beneath a drooping bonnet with a frayed brim, hair spiked and straggled like a tempest-tossed blackbird's nest. An olive green dress two sizes too big was hitched at the waist and daubed knee-high in thick yellow mud. And behind the clinging strands of damp hair, two large black eyes glistened like coal and gave the marketplace a look that spoke of coal's grit, griminess, and hidden fire.

This shivering, clench-jawed scrap of damp doggedness had a name, and that name was Mosca Mye. Mosca meant fly, a housefly name well suited to one born on an evening sacred to Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies Out of Jams and Butter Churns. It was a name that would have been recognized in her home village, where a number of people would have had questions to ask about the burning of a mill, the release of a notorious felon, and the theft of a large and savage goose.
Mosca manages to spring Clent from debtor's prison, but not before she is kidnapped by a murderous conspirator named Skellow who is heading for the secret midnight auction of the Pawnbrokers Guild and needs someone to read for him. Then Mosca falls afoul of an old enemy, Mistress Bessel.

Soon on the road, or rather, the run, again, Mosca and Clent (and Saracen!) head for Toll, the city that guards the only bridge over the treacherous cliffs of the River Langfeather. In this strange city, Mosca discovers that her name will eventually make her part of the night Toll, while Eponymous is destined to be one of the day folk.

Here's where Hardinge gets exuberantly creative: every night, a bugle sounds and all of the people of the day city not only lock themselves into their houses, but are locked in by certain mysterious denizens of the night. Even the streets and buildings are reconfigured when darkness falls, creating a whole new city, the poverty-and-crime-filled Toll-by-Night. Toll therefore has two populations, those with negative Beloveds and names who may only come out at night, and those with positive Beloveds and names who may walk by day. In fact, a baby born with a night Beloved to a day-dweller must be given up for adoption to a night family and vice versa.

In someone else's hands, this might not have worked, but Hardinge is a brilliant storyteller, and she sweeps us along into the strangeness that is Toll.

What's more, Clent and Mosca are in the city with a mission, hoping to rescue the mayor's too-sweet, too-lovely daughter Beamabeth Marlebourne from a kidnapping plot planned by Skellow. Of course, they're in it for the reward money, which will allow them to pay their way out of the far gate of Toll. (This is necessary because Clent is too well known as a scammer in the lands they've left behind; he needs new sheep to fleece!)

The plot is further complicated by the need to investigate the kidnapping in night Toll as well as in day Toll. It's actually very difficult and dangerous to cross from day to night. Another factor is the town's Luck, a treasure which keeps the rather precarious bridge from falling down--and which Mistress Bessel pressures Mosca to steal for her.

In fact, there's so much scheming and color here that your head might well spin, but I can assure you, you'll be glad of it!

One of the best things about this book is the characterization, especially the way mostly selfish Clent and mostly survival-oriented Mosca subtly look after each other. Their relationship, a sweet-and-sour version of the father-daughter bond, is touching beneath its rough surface. Take this sample interaction between the two:
"...And what, pray, are your plans for me between now and the end of the mutton haunch? Have you auctioned my last hour to a press gang or a road-building crew?"

"Actually, Mr. Clent," Mosca suggested quietly, "I was thinking we could spend the time running away a lot."

You may find it intriguing to learn that Mosca tends to doubt the existence of the Beloved--and then worries about whether she should.

Other great characters include the saccharine Beamabeth and her anguished swain, Brand Appleton, a midwife named Mistress Leap, and the still-creepy Locksmith, Aramai Goshawk (last seen in Book One). I especially liked Laylow, a girl smuggler who wears claws on one hand and defies the Locksmiths each night, springing across the rooftops.

Watch, too, for the dreaded visitation of the skeletal Clatterhorse, and take a look at the way Hardinge uses the apparition-cum-protection racket to do some wild things with her already-convoluted plot. She also raises questions about class, prejudice, and injustice, weaving them seamlessly into her tale.

Furthermore, Hardinge is a brilliant wordsmith. In particular, her metaphors are as fresh as new bread and are utterly suited to their context. Here's a sample description to give you an idea. Note the incorporation of the villainous Skellow, who would be happy to catch up to our heroine and kill her.
...Mosca clutched the bonnet to her head as the cart jolted and jarred its way across the moor, the road before it little more than a conspiracy of stones.

The moor was less ominous in daylight, but Mosca still caught herself flinching each time a parchment-colored leaf spiraled down from a tree, or when a change in the wind splayed the dry grass that sprouted from the walls of stacked stones. Some trees were so knobbed and crooked that they seemed to be made up of elbows and knees. Skellow trees with thorns for eyes, watching her pass.

It really isn't necessary to read Fly by Night before reading Fly Trap, but I would certainly recommend it. In any case, for a labyrinthine, tense, witty, and utterly entrancing read, pick up Hardinge's new book!

Note for Worried Parents: Mosca lies when it suits her, usually to get out of a bad situation, and Clent lies for a living. I really don't think your children will be likely to imitate their behavior, though. The plight of the night folk and especially the state of prisoners in the town jail are awfully dire, and there's quite a bit of peril. The tone tends to the Dickensian.

Update 8-15-11: Link to the
Guardian to hear Frances Hardinge talk about the book and invite children to participate in a book review competition. Or just read this interview, also in the Guardian.

Update 8-25-11: Read this excellent interview of the author at By the Book.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Halfway between here and there, posting briefly on my sister's computer to let you know I should be set up and sharing reviews again this coming weekend...

Meanwhile, a shout-out to Terry Pratchett, since I've been rereading his Discworld books to keep my spirits up during the utter heck that is moving!

And since I've had poetry--and dreams--on the brain lately, I will also give you my favorite Langston Hughes poem:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-wing'd bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

I did that from memory, so please forgive any minor transcription errors. Isn't it simply perfect, though? [Happy sigh!]