Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hunger Games Teaser Trailer

It's out, the first trailer for the upcoming Hunger Games movie! Take a look, courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.com. At a glance, I'd say Jennifer Lawrence makes a pretty good Katniss. And I like the way they have the fire and her arrow transitioning to the mockingjay pin. (You will have to skip the first ad and sit through another quick one... maybe YouTube has a cleaner copy.)

Update: Thanks to Amy of Amy's Library of Rock for referring us to Jezebel, who provides an ad-free copy of the trailer. Plus the girl's blog post has the alluring title, "Watch the Hunger Games Teaser Trailer and Do the Pee-Pee Dance!"

Can't argue with that.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Back to School with New Middle Grade Fantasy

Take a look at some great new fantasy reads! We've got one July book, three August books, and a September. (Though one of the August books is more of a December, actually—wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)

The Wizard of Dark Street by Shawn Thomas Odyssey

In a departure from tradition, first I have to talk about Shawn Thomas Odyssey. This author, who is not the tiniest bit shy, has done a rap about his book. I mean, the guy can moonwalk!

Next STO "performs the prologue" to the book. And it is indeed a performance, with sepia tones, a great hat from the late 1800s, and a very fun British accent which I think STO is enjoying at least as much as viewers will.

And, finally, we can experience "Welcome All to Dark Street/Calling Oona," another musical number (or two) by STO about the book, in yet another style.

Then there's the man's website, which has a blog, trading cards, the aforementioned videos, quizzes, and a whole lot more.

I haven't seen this kind of stuff since James Kennedy hit the scene! So perhaps it won't surprise you to learn that Odyssey worked in a theater as an actor and stagehand for several years, then as a composer for video games, TV shows, and films. To top it all off, he is an author.

And—on to the book. Twelve-year-old Oona lives with her uncle, the Wizard of Dark Street, in a magical slice of land between Fairy and old New York. (The year is 1876, to be precise.) The gate to New York opens briefly every night at midnight; the gate to Fairy is never open, and opening it would invite an invasion.

Now everything is shaken up because Oona, even after years of training, refuses to become her uncle's apprentice. She has her reasons, sad ones, but she also simply has other plans. Oona wants to become a detective.

She gets her chance all too soon when a motley crew of potential apprentices arrives and her uncle disappears right before her eyes. Oona races to recover her uncle, finger the culprit, and keep her highly magical home from being stolen by an ambitious resort builder.

Odyssey, besides having the world's coolest last name, has written a rollicking combination of of detective story (a classic locked-room mystery, no less) and fantasy (just a whiff of Potter) that will appeal to a lot of readers. His world building is a kick, from Oona's pompous encyclopedia in the shape of a crow to the lawyers with tattooed faces and the witches living under the hill. His characters in particular stand out: the blind actor with the magically powerful sense of smell, the mean girl who is the daughter of a famous designer of magical clothing, and the eerie servant who is a fairy in exile, for example. The whole thing has a theatrical feel, and now I know why! Here's an excerpt, about one of the rooms in Pendulum House:
The windows were all shaped into round ship's portholes, and on the wall hung various charting tools and spyglasses and a spoked steering wheel nearly twice Oona's size. But it was not the room's decor that made it so peculiar. The smell of salt water clung to the dampened air, while the floor rocked beneath their feet like a ship adrift on calm waters. After Oona's baby sister, Flora, had been born, her mother would often visit the Captain's Cabin, and the rocking motion would lull the baby to sleep.

You don't have to watch all of Odyssey's video fare, but you might want to read this book!

Oh, and take a look at this print interview with STO by T. Lynne Tolles at Paranormal Romance Everything. Which reminds me, there's even a hint of romance for our girl Oona in The Wizard of Dark Street.

The Ogre of Oglefort by Eva Ibbotson

Ms. Ibbotson passed away last fall, and she will be missed. Fortunately, we get another dose of her wry, funny, even giddy take on middle grade fantasy in this new book. Once again, Ibbotson turns fantasy tropes upside down in delightfully silly ways.

The story begins in London, where a little group of magical creatures have been teamed up for a sort of annual service project, the Holiday Task. Yep. You know how kids are assigned summer homework packets or summer reading? It seems magical beings are given summer quests! Everyone else is getting easy stuff like ridding a carnival of a plague of mice...

Then the three fates (Norns), who are grouchy old ladies wheeled around in a large hospital bed, give our little group their assignment:
"It is the Princess Mirella," said the First Norn in her sing-song voice.

"She must be rescued," said the Second Norn.

"Saved," said the Third.

"And the ogre must be slain," said Norn Number One.

"Killed," said the Second Norn.

"Pulverized. Absolutely," said the Third.

If the team does not get the job done, the Norns will punish them with horrible ghosts from the depths of the British train tunnels. And the Norns are not interested in excuses.
"You are the Chosen Ones," said the First Norn.

"You are the monster-slayers," quavered the Second.

"The rescuers," said the Third.

"But—" began the Hag.

She had infuriated the ancient creatures.

"There is no BUT," screeched the First Norn.

"No BUT whatsoever," yelled the Second.

"Not anywhere is there a BUT," cackled the Third.

The bed shook with their rage.

Our heroes consist of a Hag in a "long Dribble-colored dress" whose familiar has gone on strike, a wizard whose banshee mother bullies him (Dr. Brian Brainsweller, AKA Bri-Bri), a troll named Ulf who has been displaced from his ancestral home by loggers, and a small boy named Ivo.

The vengeful ghosts are eventually unleashed, and a terrible crew they are (okay, and really, really funny)! Read more about them in my post memorializing the author last fall, "Lessons from Eva Ibbotson."

Because the thing is, while it's true that the hideous ogre has been transforming people into animals, he turns out to be a hypochondriac with giant problems. And the princess has troubles of her own—she may remind you a bit of Cimorene in Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede.

Ibbotson's little team of magical beings (and one boy) must use their dubious talents, not to mention their kindness, loyalty, and persistence, to solve any number of complications, including those ghosts.

If there's a message in this book, it's "Don't judge by appearances." And maybe, "You don't have to be wildly talented to help; just do your best." But these themes are delivered in the midst of plenty of action and magic and humor, so no didacticism here.

So many children's fantasy books today seem dark and grim that I find it refreshing to read Ibbotson again, with her sad sack-yet successful, off-the-wall characters and her cheerful tongue-in-cheek tone. (In fact, some of Ibbotson's characters have a wistful hopefulness reminiscent of Stan Laurel or Charlie Chaplin's Tramp.) The Ogre of Oglefort is a delightful farewell offering from one of the most gleefully outrageous fantasy writers of the past half century. Thank you, Eva!

Note: Check out this transcript of Just One More Book's podcast interview with Eva Ibbotson.

Also: The cover shown is the British one. I ordered my copy early from the UK!

The Dragon's Tooth by N.D. Wilson

I fell hard for N.D. Wilson's 100 Cupboards trilogy a year or so ago, and then I read Leepike Ridge, which was, perhaps, even better. So I was eager to get my hands on the first book in his new series.

If Rick Riordan's series were as dark as the later Harry Potter books, they would be something like N.D. Wilson's books, especially this series launch. In other words, boys who are into action movies and video games will like this stuff. However, the books aren't just for reluctant readers: they're for any major fantasy fan, and probably for you dystopian fans, too. The Dragon's Tooth is Harry Potter meets film noir—a little edgy, kind of gritty. And fast paced, to boot!
The Lady is an archer, pale and posing twenty feet in the air above a potholed parking lot. Her frozen bow is drawn with an arrow ready to fly, and her long, muscular legs glint in the late-afternoon sun. Behind her, dark clouds jostle on the horizon, and she quivers slightly in the warm breeze pushed ahead of the coming storm. She has been hanging in the air with her bow drawn since the summer of 1962, when the parking lot was black and fresh, and the Archer Motel had guests....

To a traveler's eyes, the motel is dead and useless, a roadside tragedy, like the remains of some unfortunate animal in a ditch—glimpsed, mourned, and forgotten before the next bend in the road. But to the lean boy with the dark skin and the black hair struggling in the thick brush behind the pool, the motel is alive, and it is home.

Soon Cyrus Smith has an encounter with a strange old man named William Skelton, or Billy Bones, who lights up the long-dark archer, nearly zapping the boy as he apparently calls down lightning. The one-and-only guest in the hotel, Mrs. Eldredge, pitches a fit when the Smiths let the old man stay—and Skelton insists on staying in Cyrus's very own room. After the visitor passes along a couple of his secrets to Cyrus and his sister Antigone everything really goes haywire, leaving Skelton dead, the Smiths' older brother Daniel missing, and an uber-creepy guy named Maxi determined to take the treasure Billy Skelton left in Cyrus's keeping.

Following a strange meeting with Skelton's lawyer and a car chase in a limo, bullets flying, Cyrus and Antigone end up at Hogwarts.

Just kidding: the place they land is called Ashtown. It's a training academy and headquarters for a group of mysterious guardians, but most of them are decidedly unfriendly to the Smith siblings. In a politically charged meeting of the Order, Cyrus and Antigone are denied proper entrance. Then they are given into the keeping of a strange young-old man who lives among the poisonous spiders in the deepest dripping-pipe basements. Not quite the dorm room they expected!

Now the games begin—Cyrus and Antigone must try to pass a set of outdated entrance requirements while figuring out which members of the Order are traitors. And all the while, Maxi is after Cyrus and the secret he carries....

You can practically feel the spider venom in this great new series starter from N.D. Wilson!

Note for Worried Parents: The Dragon's Tooth has a fairly high level of violence and suspense. I recommend it for kids (especially boys) 10 and up, or younger kids who are comfortable with teen-level video and movie violence.

By the way, this is another book where the publisher tries not to show the main character on the cover with skin as dark as it should be. The book trailer also depicts the Smith sibling as white. But they aren't!

Wildwood by Colin Meloy

And you thought Shawn Thomas Odyssey was intriguing! This book was written by the lead singer and songwriter of the indie folk rock band, the Decemberists, with illustrations by the author's wife, Carson Ellis.

To get you in the mood, I'll just quote Ellis, who comments of her and Meloy's childhoods: "We had such overactive imaginations that the normal world did not suffice."

This becomes readily apparent when you enter the I.W. (Impassable Wilderness), a vast off-limits and magical forest realm in the middle of Portland, Oregon. Of course, the residents of Portland don't realize there's a spell set to keep them out, or that anything unusual exists within the region.

So why, after her baby brother is abducted by a murder of crows, is Prue McKeel able to enter the forest, known to insiders as the Wildwood? And why can she take her not-exactly-friend Curtis with her?

The first shock for Prue and Curtis is the talking animals, but there's more to follow as they find themselves smack in the middle of a buildup to war between the acting authorities and a witch in exile—with her coyote army.

Unlike most fantasy villains, this one has sympathetic motives, yet her ultimate goals are still horribly ruthless.

Various parties gradually come together to join the fray: in addition to the townspeople and the witch, we get a group of bandits, the Avian Principality (birds), and a peaceful farming community of animals. Meloy creates the characters from each faction with a fine hand, among them the regal owl who leads the Avians, coyote soldiers with varying degrees of cowardice and loyalty, a sort of nature priestess who is supposed to be a pacifist, the powerful leader of the bandits, and a postal carrier who agrees to carry more than just the mail.

As for the villainous Dowager Governess, she has a bit of a White Witch thing going, though it doesn't take Turkish Delight to entrance Curtis, just some flattery. I am reminded that it's a lot harder to tell who the good guys are when you're down in the trenches of a story rather than reading it.

Prue is a bit prickly, but then, she has to be if she's going to save her baby brother. (Shades of Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There!) Curtis starts out as a pleasant wimp, manipulated by the bad guys, but shows unexpected strength and cleverness before the book is over.

The author surprises us with a couple of plot twists along the way. His tale wraps up the major conflict with a bang, though it does leave a few questions unanswered about political machinations in the South Wood and the Governor-Regent's mansion.

One of the nicest things about this book is that Meloy's voice is so beautifully ordinary that he makes the story feel very real. Here's an excerpt, from a scene where Prue is trying to get past a large and noisy crowd of supplicants to speak to the Governor-Regent:
Prue looked down and saw a field mouse, calmly chewing on a split filbert. He appeared to be on his lunch break. He was sitting against the base of one of the room's columns, and a kerchief laid out in front of him displayed a tidy selection of foods: a chunk of carrot, a tiny wedge of cheese, and a thimble of beer. He washed down a mouthful of the filbert with a swig of beer, cleared his throat, and said, "Are you on the list?"

"List?" asked Prue, nonplussed. "What list?"

Ellis's artwork is fresh and unique, a great complement to the story.

All I can say is: How soon till the sequel comes out?

Note for Worried Parents: There is some scary violence and peril here, most of it associated with war. In one scene, the witch gets a child drunk in order to discover his secrets. And Prue's parents are weak, if not negligent.

a sample of the Decemberists' music, try this YouTube link. Or you can watch the book trailer, featuring some of Carson Ellis's artwork. Or take in this lovely interview with Colin and Carson. And don't miss Colin Meloy's Wildwood playlist: scroll down the Amazon book page to find it.

Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham

Try not to be too put off by the main character's voice, okay? It helps to compare Max (the Wolf) to Jasper Dash from M.T. Anderson's Pals in Peril books; he's a tad pompous and old-fashioned. But his amnesia-based adventure in a strange forest won't be at all what you're expecting, and I think you just might like it.

After Max finds himself in the forest, he draws on his Boy Scout skills to get his bearings, but he's further mystified to run into a talking badger named Banderbrock, then a monster of a barnyard cat named McTavish who talks quite a lot, and finally a talking bear named Walden. Max thinks maybe he's dreaming, but Banderbrock, who also has no memory of how he got there, wonders if perhaps he is dead.

And there's more to this forest than talking animals. Max and Banderbrock are sitting peacefully around their campfire when McTavish first appears, bringing a hunter and his dogs down on their heads. You would think that the human hunter wouldn't go after Max, but he does—why?

It turns out he is no ordinary hunter, but one of a group called the Cutters, wielding his Blue Sword to transform the creatures he is tracking down.

Max and his new friends must go on the run, avoiding the Cutters while trying to find some answers.

Keep in mind that Bill Willingham is best known for his Fables, a series of adult (PG-13 and occasionally R-rated) graphic novels about fairy tale characters.

In terms of pacing and action, Willingham's new story for children works, but there are certain aspects of the world building that seem a little less child-like in tone. The bad guys in this book are motivated, ultimately, by rather grown-up concerns (with tongue-in-cheek connotations for the publishing world), and I'm not sure the creation myths are convincing, either. We also get an occasional "adorable" moment; um, no.

But if you simply take Down the Mysterly River as storytelling—which is what young readers will do, after all—Max's adventures are compelling, and the plot twists are surprising.

I will mention that most of the humor has to do with McTavish as an over-the-top, vain and brutal king-of-the-world type; you will no doubt find Walden's food obsession and Barney Fife backstory amusing, as well. You mustn't mock Banderbrock, though: he's a warrior!

In addition to following our small band of heroes, Willingham gives us the Cutters' point of view every so often, which adds dimension to his narrative and makes the Cutters seem slightly more human.

I'm not sure how I feel about the ending—it's a little like the way the Wizard of Oz movie finishes off.

This book still has a lot to recommend it, however. Take a look and see what you think!

Note: There's not much out there in the way of video material, but you can watch the author auctioning off a copy of the book in support of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund Auction.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Big, Fat Controversy

Have you heard about the new picture book coming out in October, Maggie Goes on a Diet by Paul M. Kramer? At the risk of adding to its "any publicity is good publicity" campaign, I thought I'd bring the book up. For starters, check out this news video from Yahoo.

Basically, the book is the story of a 14-year-old girl named Maggie who is overweight and is teased at school. After she goes on a diet and loses weight, she becomes happy and popular. FYI: The cover shows a fat Maggie looking hopefully at a skinny Maggie in the mirror (see image, left).

Apparently a lot of people are up in arms because the book is likely to make little kids self-conscious about their weight, but as a children's book person, I'm stuck on a more basic question: Why is a book about a teenager being written for and marketed to 6-year-olds?

And then there's the quality of the writing; um, it's in verse. Here's a sample: "Searching the refrigerator in hopes she would feel better/eating lots of bread and cheese including some cheddar." Make of that what you will, but I suspect Dr. Seuss is rolling in his grave!

So, what do you think of all the criticism? Not to mention how many copies this guy is going to sell as a result?

More to the point, can any of you recommend children's books about being overweight that aren't so annoyingly didactic? (Preferably not picture books, in the name of common sense.)

Update, 11-24-11: See also Eddy Shapes Up, the semi-autobiographical story of how a young Ed Koch went on a diet because of peer pressure and became thin and happy. Also a picture book, this time by the former mayor of NYC and his sister, Pat Koch Thaler, with illustrations by Jonathan Hoefer and an introduction by President Bill Clinton. This one appears to be more age appropriate, but is still didactic.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Read-alouds for a Seven-Year-Old

Okay, I just sent a list of suggested books to my friend for her son, who's going into second grade. She wanted read-alouds, but I threw in a few independent books, too. She says she's read him Charlotte's Web, which he warmed up to after a bit, and that he wasn't really interested in The Lightning Thief. Any other suggestions?

Chapter book read-alouds:

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Matilda, and The Twits by Roald Dahl
The Borrowers by Mary Norton (series)
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (series)
Ramona the Pest (series), Henry Huggins, and The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary
Little House in the Big Woods (series) by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Stuart Little by E.B. White
The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
--Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume, plus sequels
Sideways Stories from Wayside School and and sequels by Louis Sachar
Attack of the Growling Eyeballs by Lin Oliver (series)
The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks

For him to read on his own:

—The Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner
—The Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osbourne
—The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black

Suggestions from the comments:

—Bridget recommends The Fairy Rebel by Lynn Reid Banks.
—Rina suggests the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, perhaps in a year or two.
—Brandy suggests the Nathaniel Fludd: Beastologist books by R.L. LaFevers, the Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald J. Sobol, and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.
—Anne recommends the classic My Father's Dragon and sequels by Ruth Stiles Gannett as a read-aloud and the Geronimo Stilton series as a read-aloud transitioning into independent reading.
—Robin has a lot of great ideas (sent by e-mail): Edward Eager's books, e.g., Half Magic, Knight's Castle, and Seven-Day Magic; Ruby Lu, Brave and True, by Lenore Look; All the Alvin Ho books by Lenore Look; Any Which Wall, by Laurel Snyder; All the Clementine books by Sara Pennypacker; Goony Bird Greene, by Lois Lowry; The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Black Hearts in Battersea, by Joan Aiken; The Ivy and Bean books, by Annie Barrows; Lucy Rose: Here's the Thing About Me, and the sequels (Lucy Rose books and Melonhead books), by Katy Kelly.
—Lin suggests The Giggler Treatment by Roddy Doyle.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Random Notes from SCBWI's 40th Anniversary Summer Conference

—How does Judy Blume look so darn good at 73?

—Editors' panel predicts next big trend in YA: suspense, thriller, sci-fi, and horror. Makes sense to me!

—David Small bares his soul with humility and hope; must read his autobiographical graphic novel about his abusive childhood, Stitches.

—Gary Paulsen is everything his books might suggest and more, a mountain man and one of the funniest, most down-to-earth speakers I've ever heard. He doesn't trust the government or the publishing industry and has been stomped on by a bull moose. He'd rather be attacked by a bear than a moose, moose are so vicious. Yep. [See photo below.]

—Note to self: When Libba Bray gives a workshop, go. She would be funny reading the obituaries. And quirky doesn't even begin to cover it.

—Eating out at RockSugar with online critique group buddies is a superior activity. Marsha Skrypuch is a genuine woman warrior, kc dyer is a free spirit and loads of fun, while Linda Gerber knows absolutely everybody and is a genius at networking. Four storytellers = great conversation. Four friends = humor and heart.

—Annual braid check of Co-Regional Advisor for Australia and New Zealand reveals that Christopher Cheng's still got it, that two-foot long gray Rapunzel-esque icon. Nominate it for SCBWI mascot?

—Lin Oliver is funny even with laryngitis. Maybe funnier.

—The only thing more happy and rowdy at a poolside party in their jammies than authors would be illustrators. The conga line made up of people dressed up as a number of the 101 Dalmatians is a special treat. (They are allegedly from San Diego.)

—All awards luncheons, and indeed, all conference luncheons, are constructed around a chicken dish, and SCBWI is no exception. (But the dessert, a dark chocolate book-shaped box filled with whipped cream and topped with "40th," is pretty impressive.)

—Richard Peck is the most eloquent person on the planet. Bar none.

—Remember to attend on SCBWI's 50th. Seeing the historical photos of its early days in honor of their 40th is a hoot. Thanks to Lin and Steven for starting this thing up—simply because there wasn't one and they were beginning to write for children without a net.

—Smartest person in the room? That would be Donna Jo Napoli, author and linguistics professor who graduated from Harvard and did postdoc work at M.I.T. An earnest and thoughtful speaker, Napoli addresses why we should write about difficult topics for children—if they've suffered, it will comfort them; if they haven't, it will teach them empathy. [See photo below.]

—Editors used to accept submissions from conference attendees for a couple of months afterwards even if they normally weren't accepting unsolicited manuscripts. In fact, this is how I sold my first book. Now they tell you all about what they're looking for in their workshops and talks, but then, you can't actually submit to them without an agent. A little contradictory? (This also means that, more than ever before, agents are the gatekeepers of the children's publishing industry.)

—Biggest bummer? John Green had to have emergency surgery and couldn't come. He is missed—hope he's doing better!

—It is clear that although all of the guest editors and agents worry about money and the business end of things, they really do love-love-love children's books for their own sake, too.

—Bruce Coville and Laurie Halse Anderson are the introductory and concluding keynote speakers. Both of them speak with passion about the powerful role of children's book creators in young peoples' lives. Truly inspiring. (And it turns out all the best writers are from Syracuse, NY. Go figure.) [See photo, left. That's Laurie, not Bruce!]

—End result? For me, the conference always gets my creative juices flowing. I come home rarin' to write! For that matter, I remember why I write.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Review of Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge

The July/August Horn Book Magazine features the ALA awards winners and their acceptance speeches. I was especially touched by Caldecott winner Erin E. Stead's speech and her husband Philip C. Stead's article about his wife. It turns out Erin is painfully shy and has experienced periods of extreme self-doubt about her abilities as an artist. As Erin put it in her speech:
Philip always knew I should make books. I did not. I thought I was too serious, my pictures too tiny and quiet to hold their own on a bookshelf. This was a career I deeply admired and respected but felt I did not deserve. And maybe couldn't handle.

I was reminded just a little of Erin E. Stead when I read Laura Lee Gulledge's graphic novel, Page by Paige. Actually, it's closer to being a graphic journal than a novel, and I definitely don't mean that in a Diary of a Wimpy Kid way.

Introspective teen Paige has just moved to New York City from Virginia, and she is struggling to adjust. She is also struggling with her desire to define herself as an artist. This book is a record of her journey. (All done in black and white, by the way.)

What's really nice is the way Gulledge has Paige mix visual metaphors into her storytelling. For example, when Paige says, "I've been giving myself a lot of pep talks in my head lately," we see in the next drawing that the sign over the high school entrance says "BE AN EXTROVERT" instead of the school's name. On the next page, as Paige goes up the hall, she sees a hand-lettered sign on the wall reading, "Psst, Paige, You Belong Here." Below, as Paige writes, "I tell myself that everyone else feels alone, too," we find a drawing of a lake with dozens of teens paddling around in very small boats, each isolated though surrounded by others. These images ebb and flow nicely as Paige goes about finding her way in a new place.

The detailed depiction of Paige's worries and self-analysis might strike more confident readers as self-absorption, but I'm guessing many teens (and adults!) will relate to her self-consciousness. Paige's conflicts with her well-meaning but intrusive parents are another plot thread that will feel familiar to a lot of young readers. This relationship is not unrealistically one-note, though: At one point Paige shares a joke and a hug with her dad, and her parents are fairly sympathetic characters as they try to understand how their daughter is doing.

Happily, Paige falls in with a great little group of new friends who not only help her to feel less isolated, but who support her blossoming as an artist. With Jules, Longo, and Gabe cheering her on, Paige starts up an art blog and even designs some guerrilla street art projects. For example, at one point she and her friends leave a bunch of plastic Easter eggs around town, each filled with a message or a small token like a Hershey's Kiss or a feather.

Paige's friends are appealing individuals in their own right: Jules, the lesbian singer whose lyrics combine things like vampires and robots; her brother Longo, a goofball and, like Paige, a closet artist; and Gabe, a quiet boy and a writer.

This is not a rowdy book, but the low-key humor adds dimension. For example, as the four compare backgrounds and we find out with Paige that Gabe is Japanese-American and Jules and Longo are Italian-Latino, our English-Scottish-Irish-German-Swiss girl remarks, "Wow, you guys are so exotic! Me, I'm just like if all the pale countries got together and had a big orgy."*

Paige continues to struggle with self-doubt in the face of setbacks, but mostly she quietly grows more confident both as an artist and as a person. Her budding romance with Gabe is especially lovely: their kindness to each other is what you really want to see in a teen relationship, or in any relationship, really. Paige's joy in her new boyfriend and in their tentative kisses is, of course, depicted in part by more symbolic drawings.

Paige also works things out—to a reasonable extent—with her parents. This book is basically a coming-of-age story, as Paige goes from a place of fear to a place of becoming her promised self. Each section of Paige's sketchbook begins with a "rule" Paige assigns herself as she tries to be more adventurous, more confident, and more open about her artwork. For example, Rule #3 is "Shhh... quiet... listen to what's going on in your head." Here's a complete list of Paige's art/life rules all in one spot.

I would especially recommend Page by Paige for shy, thoughtful, and creative teens.

Note for Worried Parents: This is a Young Adult book. I don't think younger children would be particularly interested in the quiet angst of a girl artist. There is some kissing between Paige and her very nice boyfriend. The orgy joke above is about as off-color as it gets.*

Check out Laura Lee's blog, which should give you a hint that the book is fairly autobiographical, at least when it comes to art, self-doubt, and depression. Gulledge is also involved in doing some very cool community art. We've got a "motion comic" book trailer for Page by Paige, body painting (PG-13), new drawings, and live mural painting—and that's just mid-July through mid-August! That's more of a blog for grown-ups, though, actually; another one is aimed strictly at teens and other people interested in this YA graphic novel (and future projects for YA readers).

A Review of Desperate Measures by Laura Summers

In my June review of Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, I compared Jacobson's book to Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming. Now Laura Summers' new book compares nicely to both of them. Only instead of children being abandoned by their troubled mothers and running away in search of some kind of home, here we have three siblings who run away just before they are going to be split up and sent from a foster setting they share to two or three different places.

This title is a candidate for the ALA's Schneider Family Book Award, since one of the three siblings is disabled. Vicky's twin sister Rhianna was oxygen deprived at birth and suffered brain damage. When their foster mother goes into the hospital due to complications with her pregnancy, the social worker threatens to put Rhianna in an institution for special needs children and find other placements for Vicky and her feisty younger brother Jamie. Responsible Vicky isn't the one who thinks up the idea of running away, but she soon gets into the spirit of things and the three head off in the direction of their great-aunt's lakeside home.

Three aspects of the plot stood out for me: first, the adventure that comes from being on the run; second, the interactions between these three kids, especially their frustrations and differences; and third, the question of where their absent father is—why he hasn't been caring for them and whether he might be able to do so again. These plot threads are nicely intertwined, but the interplay between the siblings is probably my favorite part of the book. I should note that Rhianna and Vicky take turns narrating, and Summers does a good job of differentiating between their voices and personalities. Here's a sample of Vicky's voice on the twins' birthday:
Rhi gave me her card, and I made a massive fuss over it. I knew she'd been making it for about two weeks, but I pretended it was a big surprise. It was like the sort of thing Jamie used to bring home from preschool, all smudged with paint and big, wonky letters. I gave her another big hug and told her it was my best card. She looked so proud, I knew she believed me. Then I gave her a present, a Furby—she's wanted one for ages—and, thinking maybe this was a good time, I broke the news that she'd have to walk to school with Jamie. I didn't want to look after her, today of all days. She'd spoil everything. She always did.

Whoa! Big mistake. You'd have thought I'd told her she had to stick her head in a bucket of worms, she made such a fuss. Talk about an instant thunderstorm.

The thing is, Vicky is going to walk to school with a boy, a boy named Matt who's the cutest guy in her class. And now let's hear from Rhianna:
All boys are vom. And boys called Matt are the vommiest of all. She could have let me come. I wouldn't have said anything. I would have walked behind them—they wouldn't have known I was there. I can walk really quietly, even when I've got my clodhoppers on.

I hate walking to school with Jamie. Something always happens. This time he said we had to go past one of the houses really quickly in case some boy saw us, and he did, so Jamie shouted, "Leg it!" and we had to run. He nearly made me fall over because we were going so fast. I got a stitch, but Jamie still wouldn't stop. We ran up to Sam's house (that's Jamie's friend) and banged on the door. Sam's mom answered, and the boy ran off shouting that he and his friends were going to beat Jamie up after school. Jamie yelled back that he didn't care, but his face went all chalky like it did when Mrs. Frankish told us that we weren't allowed to live with Dad anymore.

Desperate Measures takes our threesome across the countryside, where they are constantly on the verge of being turned in by well-meaning adults. At one point, they find a haven with an old woman living alone in a crumbling manor house ("just like the one from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe"). Later they hide near their aunt's home in a cave which turns out to "belong" to a sad boy named Daniel. Daniel tries to help them, though he is easily offended. Eventually real life catches up with the fugitives, and it is ultimately Rhianna who puts her foot down, determined to make things right. Then Vicky chimes in and, well, there's hope for these three kids.

Summers also throws in a little romance between Vicky and Daniel (since Matt turned out to be uncomfortable with Vicky when things got tough). Bullying is another theme in the book—both in Jamie's life before the kids go on the run and again at the lake. How can these siblings help each other in the face of bullying, and how can Daniel, like the Cowardly Lion, find his courage?

None of these young protagonists are perfect, any more than their lives are, but when push comes to shove, they are loving and loyal. I think you'll find yourself rooting for Vicky, Rhianna, Jamie, and Daniel to be happy and safe in an unpredictable world.

Note that Desperate Measures was first published in Great Britain, where it made a number of awards lists. (Hmm. Maybe it won't be up for a Schneider, after all.) In this Guardian article about the book making the shortlist for the Waterstone's Book Prize, we learn that Summers, a television writer, was inspired to write the book by her own disabled daughter. She says, "I've got a daughter with a learning disability [and] I felt there weren't any role models for children with disabilities and their siblings.... But I didn't want to write a story which was just about disability–I wanted an adventure story too, which was exciting, so it would appeal to as many children as possible."

I'm here to tell you: she succeeded!

Note for Worried Parents: At one point, there's an attempt by a scary guy to entice Rhianna away, but Vicky rescues her pretty quickly. The bullying and lack of parenting might bother some younger readers.

A Review of Sparrow Road by Sheila O'Connor

Raine O'Rourke has no idea why her mother has dragged her off to spend the summer at an artist's colony, and she's not happy about it. For one thing, she misses her grandpa. For another, it seems strange that her mother has volunteered to be the cook, and apparently Raine shouldn't be there at all—at least according to the most cranky of the artists. But the other artists take Raine under their wings and she begins to have fun, even if her mother is acting particularly nervous and doesn't want Raine to go into town at all, ever.

This book has a colorful cast of adult supporting characters, beginning with Viktor, who owns and runs the place. He is silent and seemingly cold. One rule of the colony is that no one is allowed to speak during the day so that the creative types can concentrate. Of course, this is not an easy rule for Raine to follow. Fortunately, Viktor makes an exception for Raine and poet Lillian, who is a little senile and clearly used to live at Sparrow Road when it was an orphanage, perhaps as a teacher.

Diego is a painter who incorporates found objects into his work. He encourages Raine to dream and takes an interest in Raine's mother.

Writer Eleanor is a curmudgeon who complains a lot about Raine, providing a counterpoint to the other artists' kindliness.

Quilt-maker Josie is a huge, loud personality who quickly befriends Raine and brings the girl out of her shell with her sheer enthusiasm. She takes Raine into the forbidden town for treats and invites the town out to Sparrow Road for an art show. Here's Josie:
Suddenly Josie marched into the kitchen, her long, sure steps reminding me of the cowboys in the westerns Grandpa watched. Except in place of cowboy boots, she had on men's black work boots, big and clunky, with heavy silver buckles that jangled when she walked. Her dress looked like a patchwork sack of scraps. A nest of neon braids framed her freckled face.

"You've come home!" Lillian said.

"I'll always come home, Lilly." Josie smacked a kiss on Lillian's head. "Oh boy," she said. "I'm beat. Two days of watching clouds drift really wore me out." She gave a great big laugh.

"We have a brand-new orphan," Lillian said.

"Fabulous," Josie cheered. "We need more orphans at this place." A wide gap flashed between her two front teeth. She gave my hand a forceful shake. "So you must be the long-awaited Raine O'Rourke."

As for Raine's mother, Molly, she is keeping secrets. For one thing, Raine's mom used to sing and play guitar: why did she stop? And how did she meet Viktor in the first place?

Raine is determined to uncover her mother's secrets, and the secrets of Sparrow Road, too. The orphans have left a few signs of themselves behind. A picture drawn by a boy named Lyman inspires Raine to make him into a sort of imaginary friend. As she talks to him about his lack of parents, her own missing father becomes a more important figure in the plot.

Inspired by her new friends, Raine is infused with her own sense of artistry and ends up writing a piece about Lyman which she reluctantly reads at Sparrow Road's First Annual Arts Extravaganza. I found myself wondering whether Lyman was Raine's alter ego. Though I have to say, I would have liked to hear more about Lyman the orphan. He deserves his own book.

Despite the lack of overt magic, there's a bit of a magical realism feel to O'Connor's tale. That is, there's something a touch surreal about Sparrow Road. The setting reminds me of Mary Lennox' secret garden or that magical attic where Sara Crewe discovered that after all of the horrible things that had happened, someone still loved her.

Little by little, Raine flourishes in this odd setting, finding the answers to most, if not all, of her questions. Raine learns to dream herself into someone else's world and even to forgive the ones who need it most. Like Raine, I'll think you'll be happy to spend some time in the town aptly named Comfort, particularly in that cozy nest of an artist's colony, Sparrow Road.

Note for Worried Parents: There's some talk of alcoholism and an (implied) unwed mother in this book, but it's all handled with grace and wisdom.

Check out Sheila O'Connor's Sparrow Road page on her website for some rave reviews.

Monday, August 1, 2011

SCBWI Summer Conference

This week I'm off to the SCBWI Summer Conference in L.A.! A few factoids:

—The all-star line-up includes authors such as Donna Jo Napoli, John Green, Mary Pope Osborne, Jon Sciezska, Gary Paulsen, Jennifer Holm, Bruce Coville, Laurie Halse Anderson, Lisa Yee, Ellen Hopkins, Bruce Hale, and even Norton Juster.

—Then there's the parade of illustrators, among them David Small, Richard Jesse Watson, Laurent Linn, Paul O. Zelinsky, Kadir Nelson, Marla Frazee, Denise Fleming, and Jerry Pinkney.

—But the most important authors for me are the three members of my online critique group who are meeting me there. We've been hanging out online for 7 years, but I've only met one of them face to face so far. For lack of a better term, I keep calling our meet-up a reunion, though it would be more accurate to call it a thrill! (You can see some of their book covers here.)

—Not to shock you, but I don't think I'll be posting this weekend. I might give you a few highlights of the conference when I get back, though...

—Now, if you're feeling left out, fear not: you can follow the conference at the official SCBWI Conference Blog. Join in the fun!

A Review of The Pocket and the Pendant by Mark Jeffrey

This is one of those sci fi/fantasy crossovers: it has aliens, but it also builds on Sumerian creation myths. In fact, one mentor-type character explains that magic and science are really the same thing. But ultimately, I would say Mark Jeffrey's new book is more of an action/adventure story than anything else.

Max Quick is fleeing from the abusive head of an orphanage in a California coastal town named Starland when he less-than-coincidentally runs into a museum to hide and encounters Johnny Siren, who has super villain written all over him:
He was dressed in an impeccable suit, with long black hair slicked back and pulled into a ponytail. He carried a black iron cane that terminated in a golden claw. This claw gripped a ruby the exact color of blood from a fresh cut.

But it was the man's face that shocked Max the most.

It was white as salt.

Max winced involuntarily as he realized the man's skin was covered in scars. They crisscrossed his cheeks, his neck, and his hands as though he had once been flayed by millions of miniature whips.

Worthy of a Bond villain, no?

Meanwhile, Casey is at school across town, sitting in her homemade clothes that the other girls mock, writing in her notebook: So angry. So angry. So angry. So angry. So angry....

We're off to a good start!

Then suddenly Time stops—or it stops for everyone in town except for Casey and Max, who eventually meet up and compare notes.

In a scientifically precise moment, Jeffrey lets us know that Time hasn't stopped so much as slowed almost all the way down. This means that Casey and Max can move at near-super speeds, and they play with this ability, naming it whooshing. Casey is afraid of whooshing in a very girly way, but at least she's the one who's good at pulling ordinary objects out of stopped time, so that, for example, food can be eaten. The author's attention to this sort of detail is intriguing.

The two kids see some flying saucers, only the saucers look like something out of that museum Max visited earlier—they are "made of obsidian and sandstone and covered with jewels." Max suspects, based on what he overheard from Johnny Siren earlier, that the man has made a deal with an alien queen named Jadeth. (She may remind you a little of Jadis, the evil queen in the Narnia prequel, The Magician's Nephew, and not just because of the name.) Max and a more reluctant Casey decide to go east to track down Johnny Siren and find out what's going on.

On the way, they encounter a town with an entire gang of kids who are also outside time. These kids have set up a mini society in which they use their new super abilities to fight and show off; their leader, a boy named Ace, is a bully. He threatens to set up a hunt with Max and Casey as prey, but one of his crew, Ian, frees the two instead using a magical Book.

Inside the Book, our heroes find themselves in Johnny Siren's abandoned mansion, where they discover new mysteries. They almost lose Ian to wolves, as well.

But the real mystery here is Max, who seems to have no past. And what about Casey? She has a secret of her own. As our duo—now trio—closes in on the answers, they must fight to stop Jadeth's plans to enslave the entire human population.

Jeffrey has some things to say about free will and destiny in this book, and in certain spots his explication about these issues and various slices of backstory create a bit of drag. I would have liked to get a better sense of Casey's character, too; I found Max to be much more accessible than his girl Friday. As for the ending, I thought the solution to the Jadeth problem was a little strange, with just a touch of deus ex machina.

However, Rick Riordan's books suffer from the same problems on occasion. Like Riordan's books, The Pocket and the Pendant is mostly a fun, fast-paced adventure that kids are really going to enjoy. The whooshing, the apparently skater-inspired kid society, the abandoned farmhouse, and the arrogant villains all add up to a lot of satisfying action and suspense. I look forward to seeing what happens to Max Quick in Book 2.