Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"A Boschean Delight": Half World by Hiromi Goto

"Half World is Boschean delight a la Goto: a magical, madcap, and deliciously creepy tale of tribulations, terror and triumph; a girl-power adventure in screaming jelly-toned colours"

Nalo Hopkinson

First of all, I am in love with Gillian Tamaki's incredible cover for this book. I can't even display the whole thing--it wraps around the back and also around the inside flaps--but it's so artful and rich. Tamaki's work has always seemed to me to have an echo of those elegant old japanese wood-blocks, but done with a modern aesthetic and energy. Her cover captures the psychology of the book, with its mirroring imagery and its folkloric elements (the crow and rat helpers who help the heroine navigate the dark dangers of her quest, the shabby girl who is transformed in a magical moment). Tamaki has also illustrated the interior of Half World with a series of eerie black-and-white drawings which suit the story beautifully.

It is fitting that the cover art for Half World packs such a punch, since Goto's text is so vividly visual and even sensual in a grotesque, surrealist kind of way. Early on there are references to the work of Frida Khalo, Escher, and Hieronymous Bosch, in particular the painting depicting the bizarre and disturbing Hell in the tryptich The Garden of Earthly Delights. A modern rendition of Bosch's Hell, Half World, is the landscape for the bulk of the story's action.

Melanie Tamaki, the story's heroine, lives in the Realm of Flesh (our earth) but does not know that she was actually conceived in Half World, a stepping stone between the Realm of Flesh and the Realm of Spirit. Half World is where we go after death, to work through our earthly traumas and arrive in the Realm of Spirit peaceful and purified. However, the cosmos is out of order and each of the realms is degenerating; Half World in particular has become a nightmare, with people endlessly reliving their worst moments, those strong enough to extend their cycle becoming psychologically twisted and losing their humanity. Cruelty and depravity abound, particularly in the form of a malevolent and powerful being called Mr. Glueskin. When Mr. Glueskin summons Melanie's mother back to Half World after 14 years on earth, Melanie follows in a terrifying attempt to rescue her. Accompanied by animal helpers (crows and a jade rat amulet which can come to life) Melanie finds that she has a power herself; after all, she is alive in a way that the suffering denizens of Half World are not, and as a living being, is capable of making choices that can change the future. As befits a dark fairy tale quest, Melanie's final choice of compassion has healing magic powerful enough to restore balance to the three broken realms.

Goto's writing is exciting, inventive, full of peril, and, to quote Hopkinson again, "deliciously creepy". The fantastical elements are grounded by serious themes of self-sacrifice and courage in the face of evil. This is a book that should appeal to fans of Neil Gaiman or Charles de Lint, both of whom have given Goto rave reviews. I've also seen it compared to the film Pan's Labyrinth. And, for such a "deliciously creepy" book, the ending is wonderfully redemptive. Perfect for teens who like their spines chilled just a little.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Let's Do Nothing! by Tony Fucile

This book is a blast. I can't wait to try it out for a school-age storytime. Let's Do Nothing involves two very active boys who find that they can't turn off their imaginations, even when they try to sit still. The pictures are absolutely hilarious--check out the page where Frankie tries to Do Nothing by imagining that he is the Empire State Building, "Tall. Heavy. You've been sitting still for years and years. No silly pigeon or puny dog could rattle the likes of you, O Majestic One.". And then King Kong starts climbing up, and ...wait for it...does he rescue Fay Wray? No! He puts on Frankie's glasses and makes a goofy, big-eyed face! Now that is what I call seeing the world from a child's point of view.

The book trailer does a good job of capturing the spirit of the book. Take a look:

Monday, September 21, 2009

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

"Shot with spiritualism, laced with love, and fraught with conundrums, this book, like Marcelo himself, surprises."


What a brilliant past few years it's been for teen fiction. It feels like the quality of writing for teens is absolutely exploding right now, accelerating at a pace that seems as heightened as technology. Marcelo in the Real World definitely fits right into this upward trend. It's a work of real literature, thematically complex, emotionally nuanced, and highly engrossing. What really sets Marcelo and the Real World apart for me is the narrative voice. Marcelo is such an unusual and pleasing narrator; thoughtful, observant, highly idiosyncratic . His rich inner life includes a deep interest in religion, "internal music" which only he can experience, and a love of working with horses. Marcelo is on the autism spectrum, which gives his thoughts a slight formal quality that I liked.

In a way, this is a loss of innocence story. Marcelo has a happy and successful life, going to a special school where his specific needs are accomodated and he can work with the horses he loves. His mother is an understanding and nurturing presence in his life. His father, however, wants him to move outside his comfort zone and begin to function in "the real world", and he arranges for Marcelo to have a summer job in his law firm's mail room. The summer does indeed challenge Marcelo in ways that he (or his father) had not foreseen. He experiences great moral confusion, and also experiences envy, longing, and compassion for the first time. He makes strong connections with some people, while others try to manipulate him. And he is given the gift of "the truth"--an understanding of the ethical ambiguity of his father's world that he did not have before.

This would make a great discussion book for a teen book club, since so many good questions could be drawn out of it. Marcelo's a pleasure to get to know, and I think he makes the "real world" of fiction a more interesting place.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Words to My Life's Song by Ashley Bryan

Ashley Bryan's Words to My Life's Song made me catch my breath with its flat-out beauty. Not only because it is lavishly illustrated with Bryan's own art, although this certainly adds to the stun factor. But Words is the kind of lovingly designed book where everything, from the photography to the illustration to the layout and even the creative use of typeface, feels meticulously crafted and gorgeously inviting. It seems like the book's text is not so much being illustrated as it is being enveloped in the visual. Bryan has been a presence in the field of children's book illustration for many years now, but somehow I had never before appreciated the full impact of his body of work. It is now clear to me that Bryan's contribution to children's book illustration can stand alongside the best artists in that field. This is a book I want in my own library so I can read it over and over, and absorb its spirit on a regular basis.

Words to My Life's Song describes Bryan's artistic education and influences, beginning from an early age. We learn that he "published" his first books in kindergarten as part of a class project ("I got hugs, kisses and applause from family and friends for these books. The teacher called these 'rave reviews'..."). His parents encouraged his artistic interests, brought home paper for him, and sent him to free community art classes. As an adult he attended the Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering, and later, drafted into the U.S. army and sent to work the dockyards in Glasgow, he attended Glasgow School of Art part-time. After the war he completed his art studies at Cooper Union, then, troubled by his war experiences, sought answers doing a philosophy degree at Columbia University. Still later he studied landscape painting and fresco in Maine, then spent several years in France and Germany learning languages at University and developing his painting on his own.

His introduction to the publishing world came in 1962, when an editor at Atheneum books visited his studio in the Bronx and was impressed by the books Bryan had illustrated as art projects, and especially by the variety of styles at his disposal. And lucky for us that she made that visit, since Bryan has been illustrating and writing for Atheneum pretty much non-stop ever since, to our great benefit.

There is a sense of graciousness in Bryan's telling of his life's story. Incidents which in another person might have inspired bitterness, such as poverty or racism, are acknowleged but not dwelt on. Instead, Bryan's life story is filled with a sense of good fortune, generosity, and joy in creation. One of my favourite children's book blogs, Seven Impossible Things, asks the authors and illustrators they interview which three people they would most like to share a glass of rich red wine with, if they had anyone alive to pick from. If I were asked that question, Ashley Bryan would be my first pick, easy.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going

"Give it a rest, Allan," Pete says. I'm not trying to be anybody's father, and if your son happens to be looking for one, maybe you should ask yourself why that is."

Dad laughs.

"If my son happens to be looking for one, I don't think he's going to find it in a cross-dressing disc jockey who lives in a trailer park."

Well, you never know...

K.L. Going wrote a book a few years ago that just knocked my socks off. Fat Kid Rules the World, it was called, and I remember reading it on the subway and snorting with laughter, so much that people around me broke the ignore-each-other subway etiquette and actually asked what I was reading. This book felt so fresh to me. I loved the fat ungainly narrator with his loser life and his outsider's point of view. He spent the book nurturing his inner Eeyore, but still, it was madly engaging and I fell for him hard. On the strength of my beloved Fat Kid, I went on to read Going's next three novels, which all disappointed me (just me, mind you. They were all well reviewed, but somehow I found they lacked the flavour of her debut). With King of the Screwups, however, Going has gotten my attention once more.

One of the things I think she does best is write oddball characters, get down deep into them, and make them real. Not just real, but worthwhile. She really makes you root for her good guys, no matter what their problems. In King of the Screwups, it's not really the protagonist who's a screwup, although he has certainly been brainwashed into thinking he is. No, it's his parents who are the losers in this story. Behind their successful worldly facades, they are too wrapped up in themselves to really do the hard work of parenting. Liam believes he is letting them down, but really, from my point of view, they are the ones with the problem. And I say "they" deliberately because, even though Liam's Mom is a much more sympathetic character than his cold-hearted Dad, when push comes to shove she chooses to turn her back on her son. The really sad part of this story is that Liam loves his parents so much, both of them, and trusts them too. It breaks my heart. The arc of the journey, for Liam, is not just figuring out what his strengths are, but also tearing down that curtain behind which his Dad is hiding and bellowing "I AM OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL! BECOME LIKE ME OR BE FOREVER BANISHED FROM MY SIGHT!". And trying to get his Mom to step up to the plate like an adult and do her job, which is being a parent. To him. Not to her husband, needy as he is. His turn is over now. Time to grow up.

The other thing I think Going does best is be funny. And despite the serious subject matter, King of the Screwups is a very successful comedy. Liam's Dad kicks him out of the house by chapter 2, so despite the massive room he takes up in Liam's brain, he's not actually around much. Liam ends up living in his gay glam-rock uncle's small-town trailer home. "Aunt Pete" is a great character, flamboyant, comfortable with himself, a bit out of his depth with Liam at times but definitely capable of giving him love and support. If anyone can turn Liam's life around, it's Pete. I loved watching it happen, and I loved the band mates who pitch in to help. King of the Screwups is a book that I'd like to see a sequel to--I've grown attached to Liam and his new family, and now that he's beginning to blossom, I'd love to see how far he can go.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

At Forty-Five, I'm Finally Ready: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

My parents gave me my own copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a child. This was actually unusual for them--they gave me remarkably few books considering what a ravenous reader I was. I was a real library kid.

The irony was that, at age 9, Huck totally stumped me. I read some of it--I was the kind of kid who would read a cereal box if there wasn't a book in front of me--but I didn't like it. It made me feel uncomfortable. I didn't know how to process it, and I really couldn't relate to Huck. I mean, Tom Sawyer, sure, he acted wild, but I knew he was a regular kid underneath, and that Becky Thatcher would eventually tame him even if Aunt Polly couldn't. But Huck lived on riverboats and in forests, didn't wash, had a seriously evil father, and seemed unlikely to become a banker or a lawyer when he grew up. I was the kind of kid who would have begged the Widow Douglas to take me in and civilize me if I were in Huck's shoes, but Huck rejected civilization to the end. What's more, he saw through it, or partly did, or should have, in ways that I wasn't ready for. His life was edgy, and I was scared to live it, even vicariously.

It's taken me quite a while to return to Huck, but this summer at the cottage my husband read it aloud to me over the course of two weeks. And it was so wonderful--we were intensely engaged and it provoked much discussion and emotion between us. There were times when the tension ran so high I couldn't listen any more, and other times when I wouldn't let Doug stop reading. I loved the outrageously brilliant language and the sense of place and Twain's ability to be so side-splittingly funny but also so dark and daring. There is a sense of innovation that comes through fresh and strong, even though Huckleberry Finn is over a hundred and twenty years old. This is definitely a book which rewards reading aloud, especially by a reader who is good with dialect and expression.

But what kept us both glued to the book and kept it alive for us afterwards was the way Huck's story was twined in with Jim, the runaway slave. Jim unsettles everything and turns what might be a "boy's own" style adventure into something real and serious. Jim is the vehicle for Huck's growth but also shows us Huck's limits. Their relationship is complicated and I, as a modern reader, often felt that Huck was letting Jim down in ways he didn't seem to even understand. The episodes where Huck would end up leaving Jim alone on the raft (or worse) without a thought for days or even weeks at a time drove me insane. Likewise the nightmare fact that their trip wasn't taking them in the direction that Jim needed to go to attain his goal of freedom, and Huck wasn't doing much about it. The times when Huck considered turning Jim in to the authorities felt like real threats to me as well. As much as Huck and Jim are companions, Huck just never seemed intellectually capable of challenging the idea of slavery as a social institution. So frustrating! But there is a genuine closeness between them despite all this, and I found it moving how Jim slowly lets Huck know more about his inner life, his wife and children and how constantly they are in his thoughts.

Reading it now, I understand why this was over my head thirty-five years ago. I'm left wondering--is this really a children's book?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Jerk, California by Jonathan Friesen

"Heaven laughs at me every day."

Jerk, California is a debut novel for Jonathan Friesen, and one of the books I read over my recent vacation. It was a great holiday read, with an interesting hook (a narrator with Tourette Syndrome), and a vacation-appropriate road trip plot. To me, this book had a really masculine feel--not in a "macho" sense, exactly, but in a more philosophical, "what makes one a man" sense, which I think is one of the interesting questions of our time. There is a strength to this book and to its protagonist Jack, and it is a pleasure to watch that strength unfold. Jerk, California is a quest story that digs deeper than the where-can-I-find-some-self-esteem journey that many teen books take us on. Jack's journey is about character.

Jerk, California tells the story of 17-year-old Sam Carrier, a young man with Tourette Syndrome who feels like, and is generally treated as, a freak. Sam, with his twitches and jerks and occasional bouts of spontaneous cursing (usually at the worst possible time) is incredibly self-conscious and pessimistic about himself in terms of relationships--any relationships, not just romantic ones. Sam's father James died in an accident when Sam was a baby, and his mother, perhaps the only person on earth who loves him, nevertheless fails to protect him from his nasty obsessive-compulsive stepfather Bill. Sam's self-loathing comes largely from Bill's and his classmates' jeering reactions to his Tourettes but also from the stories he has been told about his dead father, who, according to his stepfather, was a worthless, womanizing alcoholic who wouldn't even hold his infant son.

Everything begins to change for Sam the day he leaves home to work for George, a master gardener and his late father's best friend. George insists that Sam's real name is Jack Keegan (Bill had changed Jack's name when he entered their family--can you say "control freak"?) and he wants Jack to hear a different version of his family past. George dies, but before he does, he plans a road trip where Jack can meet some of his father's friends and finally his grandmother, who lives in Jerk, California. Jack takes the trip along with a young woman, Naomi, who has some tough problems of her own to work out and needs some thinking time.

I love how Friesen peopled his book with such strongly drawn and believable characters. Not just Jack, whose head we truly enter, but so many minor characters feel very real. Jack's stepfather is a horrid person who beats his wife and spews bile at Jack on a daily basis, but Jack carries around two childhood memories of this man's kindness to him, and these small memories help us, and Jack, see Bill in a more complex way. James turns out to have been a loving family man, a fact that proves tremendously healing for Jack. In fact, one of the few things I found difficult to accept in this book was how Jack's mother could have chosen two such opposite men to marry--James, with his kindness, strength, and principles, and Bill, with his petty mind and explosive temper. You'd think that her relationships with James would have made her quicker to blow the whistle on Old Bill. When she finally does leave, baby son in tow, Bill is finally seen as the real failure in terms of manhood. As Jack finally realizes, Bill is "all lies".

Jerk, California makes me want to read more Friesen. I'll be waiting in line for the next book.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Hanging Out with the Dream King: Conversations with Neil Gaiman and His Collaborators

I've suspected for a long time now that one of the chief pleasures of being a creative person must be getting to work with other creative types. This book of interviews confirms my suspicion. Joseph McCabe has assembled an extremely readable and comprehensive look at Gaiman's body of work and working style based on interviews with twenty-seven artists, writers and musicians that Gaiman has collaborated with over the span of his career. Some, such as Tori Amos, Terry Pratchett, or Dave McKean, are widely known, while others are more obscure (such as Todd Klein, who has lettered many of Gaiman's comics). Taken together, they present an intelligent, detailed, generously illustrated, and intimate portrait of Gaiman's literary legacy-in-the-making.

I predict this is both the first and last time a book on my blog gets to claim this honour, but Hanging Out with the Dream King was nominated in its year of release (2005) for both the Bram Stoker Award and the International Horror Guild Award.

Could I be going Goth?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Swim the Fly; or, How to See Your First Real Live Naked Girl

There's something wonderfully cinematic about Swim the Fly. I'm seeing teen movie written all over this. Perhaps it's not surprising since Don Calame, new to writing novels, has a previous career as a screenwriter. Like Melvin Burgess's notorious Doing It, this is sort of a romantic comedy. But guy-style. And with some major embarrassment thrown in.

Swim the Fly is the story of three best friends with a long-standing tradition of challenging themselves each summer to reach a group goal. This summer, their goal is "to see a real live naked girl for the first time". Since they are too young to get into a strip club and none of them has ever had a date, it's not immediately obvious just how this is going to happen for them. Let's just say their progressive attempts to succeed get more and more ridiculous, and when they finally reach their goal, it's hilarious. I've never seen reality crash into fantasy quite so hard.

The book's title refers to another challenge the book's narrator, Matt, sets for himself, which is to swim the 100-yard butterfly against the girl of his dream's buff ex-boyfriend. To impress her, natch. Never mind that he's the worst swimmer on his team, the ex-boyfriend is solid muscle, and the butterfly is a killer stroke. Never mind that the girl of his dreams is an airhead who keeps calling him Mark instead of Matt. Never mind that his coach never seems to do any actual coaching...well, you get the picture. Wouldn't be a challenge if it were easy, right?

Along with being so funny, this book is affectionate and warm. The characters are convincing, and we really like them, even when they do dumb things. And they grow, but we don't get hit over the head with their "life lessons". It's all kept light and lively. I think I'd go so far as to say that this is my favourite summer romance of this year. And I'm not even a teen boy.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Storytime Winner: Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krause Rosenthal

Duck! Rabbit! is so much fun and so, so simple. Ridiculously simple, really, when you look at how successful it is at conveying a fairly complicated concept, the double picture optical illusion (one image which can be seen two different ways). It must have been a lot of work to make a book this smart and succinct, but I'm glad Rosenthal went the distance, because now I have a brand-new book I can read at a mixed-ages storytime without boring either the two-year-olds or the ten-year-olds. In my world, that's a rare and precious thing.

In Duck! Rabbit!, two characters we never see argue about whether the picture on the page is of a duck or a rabbit. As each character makes a point (It's a duck! That's its bill!) the other one comes up with an equally plausible counter-point (It's a rabbit. And those are its ears). No matter how the picture moves on the page, or what backdrop it is given, it is always possible for us to imagine it as either a duck or a rabbit. The clean black outlines and clear colours make it possible for even very young readers and listeners to see what's going on, and the fact that, in real life, ducks and rabbits don't look like each other at all only adds to the fun. I loved the sly little touch on the back cover (look for the ISBN barcode--or is that a zebra?)

Duck! Rabbit! reminds me a bit of Jules Feiffer's Bark, George, another of my favourite read-alouds, again based on a simple concept that I really should have thought of first, but didn't.

I guess that's why I'm a librarian and not a writer.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Reaching Out by Francisco Jimenez

"I thank Francisco Jimenez for honoring all brave children who grow up poor in America."
Sandra Cisneros

Reaching Out is the kind of memoir I love; quiet, intimate, affecting. It hasn't been getting much attention here in Canada, despite its being a multiple award winner and a Belpre Honour book in its home country. In fact, the major urban library I work for does not even own a copy--I had to buy this myself in order to read it. I think this book may find its audience slowly, but will be richly rewarding to those who come across it and appreciate its simplicity and insight.

Francisco Jimenez grew up in poverty. Not modern North American poverty, but real spend-your-childhood-working-the-fields poverty. Born in Mexico but raised as an illegal alien in the United States, Francisco is the first in his family and community to attend University. His father has never been to school at all, cannot read or write, and is crippled by back pain brought on by a lifetime of itinerant field labour. In Reaching Out, Francisco leaves home for the first time to pursue an education as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University.

Francisco faces many challenges in his four years at school; guilt over not assisting his family financially, loneliness, anxiety over his academic capability, and what I would describe as socio-economic culture shock. He describes how jarring his fellow student's freshman antics seem to him; for him, school is serious, attending University a privilege. Despite Francisco's intelligence, it is clear that his previous schooling has not prepared him for higher education, and were it not for several teachers who reach out to mentor him, he may well have had a very different experience. Reaching Out honours those mentors, who consistently took the time to give him the feedback and the support he needed to achieve success in this foreign environment.

This book made me reflect on how important a role confidence and encouragement play in learning at every level. It made me reflect on the idea of learning communities, as places where personal connection is a recognized part of the learning process. I was affected by the respect for learning Jimenez brought with him to the classroom, the value he placed on his education. While understandably frustrated that it takes him a week to write an essay his roommate knocks out in one night, there is a dignity to Francisco as he travels the path to his goal. Respect is a big value in Reaching Out, and thanks to both the respect Francisco has for his opportunities and the respect for his abilities, however latent, his teachers consistently demonstrate throughout his undergraduate years, he has gone on to have a distinguished academic career. I find it fitting and happy that Francisco is now a teacher himself, and I suspect his students consider themselves lucky people indeed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Magic Trixie and the Dragon, or, How to Have Fun With Your Baby Sister

Ohhh, I'm such a Jill Thompson fan. Particularly her children's books, the Scary Godmother series (all out of print, for crying out loud, but they're so great I tracked them down secondhand, because really, how can my kids grow up without them?) and now the Magic Trixie series. One of my life goals is to own some Jill Thompson originals. Her art is so lively and dynamic and playful, with all these great little details and such a vibrant palette. It's full of verve and character, yet clear enough for kids to easily follow. And I love how stylish all the characters are--no dowdy spooks or spectres in these books, no siree!

Ewan and I treated ourselves to the latest Magic Trixie adventure, Magic Trixie and the Dragon, at bedtime last night and it was so, so satisfying. When Magic Trixie's grandmother Mimi takes her to the circus, Magic Trixie gets to see real live Performing Dragons and is instantly smitten. She pleads for a dragon of her very own, but no one else seems to think this is a good idea. Parents are such spoil-sports. Magic Trixie's cat, Scratches, becomes more and more despondent the more Magic Trixie raves about how dragons are the Ultimate Thrilling Pet. But when Magic Trixie accidentally transmogrifies her baby sister Abby Cadabra into a dragon, she discovers that dragons, like baby sisters, are not exactly Tame. Or problem-free. It's a good thing Miss Magic Trixie is so brave and resourceful!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Two Voices, One Story

Fortunately I have a son, my beautiful boy.
Unfortunately he is a drug addict.
David Sheff
It's not like I owe these people anything. This is my life to live--or throw away. Isn't that true?
Nic Sheff

Beautiful Boy by journalist David Sheff and Tweak by his son Nic Sheff both grew out of an article David wrote for the New York Times magazine, "My Addicted Son". Together, these two books form an unusually full account of a family impacted by hardcore drug addiction. I read Beautiful Boy first, and what a heartbreaker it was. What must it be like to have your child repeatedly steal from you, lie to you, disappear for months at a time, risk his life on a daily basis, and respond to your concern with anger and contempt? David's hope for his son's permanent recovery comes crashing down time after time with each of Nic's many relapses. His intense focus on Nic to the detriment of other aspects of life leads to the deterioration of his own health and stresses his marriage. It also compels him to research and understand his son's condition, and this book tells us as much about methamphetamine addiction and its physical effects as we would ever want to know. So great is the impact of Nic's addiction on David's mind and heart that he sometimes wishes he could just "erase' his son from his life. Ironically, when David has an aneyurism and lies in the hospital, unable to remember the year or his own name, his only clear thought is that he must call Nic, must call Nic, must call Nic.

We are connected to our children no matter what. They are interwoven into each cell and inseparable from every neuron. They supersede our consciousness, dwell in our every hollow and cavity and recess with our most primitive instincts, deeper even than our identities, deeper even than ourselves.

My son. Nothing short of my death can erase him. Maybe not even my death.

In Beautiful Boy, the father-son relationship is the crux of the story. In Tweak, it is sadly peripheral. Nic spends most of the time he describes here away from home, cut off from his family. Reading Nic's story is like watching the same car crash again and again and again. It's hard to tell whether he won't let go of the drugs or the drugs won't let go of him, but something in Nic craves the excitement, danger and edginess of his drug-fuelled lifestyle, and that something seems just as powerful as his physical addiction. It's a sure bet that no one will accuse this book of glamourizing drug use; Nic's story is replete with the most off-putting anecdotes, like the description of an arm infection after he uses a dirty needle, or the time he gets his ribs broken by a "date" as he is working as a prostitute to support his habit, or the time he OD's and ends up on life support, only to pull out the IV as soon as he comes to so he can go home for his next fix. Not to even mention the many descriptions of broken and fragmented relationships and of some rather unattractive egocentrism which Nic's drug use won't let him grow past. It's fascinating and horrifying all at once, and you get so frustrated with Nic each time he comes clean and then relapses. Although little underground glimpses of Nic's love for his family occasionally break through, for much of the book he is incapable of expressing or acknowledging this attachment. There is a kind of empty sadness in this depiction of a soul who is so loved by his family and to whom it makes so little difference.

David and Nic are both compelling writers, and while their styles are very different, they are both incredibly insightful and open about their experience. Although they have different publishers, they have toured together, and it looks to me like their writing has opened a private dialogue between the two of them, as well as the larger public dialogue they are inviting. I hope they can maintain their new connection and be at peace.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Go Katniss! The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

"Any book that starts out with 24 children and ends up with 22 of them dead--that's tough to beat."

Lois Lowry

I was really scared to read this one. Despite the MASSIVE love for it out there from everyone from teens to critics to every blogger in the kidlit universe, I was sure it would make me sick. I don't have much stomach for cruelty, and I had heard enough about the plot of this dystopian book to know that it would hit a particularly vulnerable place for me--cruelty to children. I made a bargain with myself--I would start it, but if it got too bad, I'd stop immediately.

I read the damned thing in less than a day. The kind of reading where you don't stop to eat, breathe, or listen to people trying to ask you questions at the reference desk. The reputation this book has is well deserved--it is completely, absolutely gripping. Right until the very last page. And even beyond, because....aaargh!'s the first part of a TRILOGY! Which means a MAJOR LACK OF RESOLUTION even for those who have raced to the end! Now I know why those lucky people who have landed arcs of the sequel are all gloating.

The plot, in case anyone doesn't know it yet: Katniss Everdeen lives in a bleak futuristic society where, every year, each district surrounding the capital must select one boy and one girl for the Hunger Games, a barbaric televised "entertainment" where they must fight to the death until there is only one survivor. This is the capital's way of punishing the poverty-stricken districts for having dared, once, to revolt. When Katniss's younger sister is chosen to be the female Tribute for her district, a horrified Katniss volunteers to take her place, and she is plunged into the brutal world of the Game.

Why do we all get so caught up in this story? M.T. Anderson, one of my literary heroes, put it best:

The reason I think this book deserves the attention it's getting--beyond the pacing, beyond the pleasing dissonance of the unresolved love that in it, a central and real and very troubling question--to what extent is compassion merely a weakness--and kindness merely an evolutionary flaw??--that question is played out quite directly through the action, embodied directly in the plot in scene after scene. We deeply care about Katniss in part because we deeply want some shred of what we think of as humanity to survive. When I read it, I thought it was remarkable that Ms. Collins took this terrifying question and really explored it. She didn't back down or soften the investigation....

The Hunger Games, by the way, was declared winner of this year's inaugural and very entertaining Battle of the (Kid's) Books hosted by School Library Journal. Go take a peek.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Nation by Terry Pratchett

Perhaps [the gods] do exist. I want to know why they act as if they don't...

I've been a lover of Terry Pratchett (his books, I mean) for many years now. To me, his books feel like old friends who happen to also be outrageously funny. I've heard critics say his humour is sophmoric, but I think that's just sour grapes. He's a brilliant man. With Nation, he has produced a book which stands out from the rest of his work, a book which allows his trademark wit to be complicated by deep emotion, loss, and the failure of faith. Nation is a coming-of-age story of great sophistication and maturity, yet magically it's also enormously entertaining. Only Pratchett could attain such a balance. I think it is telling that he wrote Nation during the period that he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease, a diagnosis which he reacted to with a "sense of loss and abandonment" and great anger. These feelings find plenty of expression in Nation, particularly in the character of Mau, the book's protagonist. Despite it being precisely tuned into its teen audience, this feels to me like a very personal book for Pratchett.

The story takes place not in Pratchett's usual discworld, but in a parallel universe to earth, on an island in the Pacific Ocean which the inhabitants refer to as the Nation. Mau is nearing the end of his people's coming-to-manhood rites, which involve being taken to another island and left to build your own canoe and paddle home. Mau leaves his boy soul on the boy's island and will receive a new man soul upon his return to the Nation. But while he is at sea, a tidal wave sweeps over his island and destroys his whole people. The same wave deposits a British passenger vessel on the island, its only survivor a minor royal Mau's age named Daphne. Mau and Daphne, who share no common language or culture, together take on the responsibility of survival, and eventually of reforming the Nation out of the survivors from nearby islands who straggle in. But Mau, according to his people's beliefs, no longer has a soul, and is plunged into a spiritual crisis which causes him to question many things. Why have the old gods failed him? Why do the voices of the grandfathers now deliver such futile guidance? Can he have faith in anything but death?

Thinking: This book contains some. Whether you try it at home is up to you.

Nation has been awarded the L.A. Times book prize for young adult literature.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Haven't Read the Book, But Love That Title! true. I don't know what's more discouraging, seeing people who deserve self-esteem slog along without it, or seeing people who don't deserve it revel in it.

Can't wait to read this.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls

A few years ago I had the privilege of working in the library of a well-known children's hospital. I worked with children in all stages of disease, including some who eventually died. And peripherally, I watched their families deal with their conditions. Sally Nicholls' debut novel, Ways to Live Forever, completely resonated with my memories of that time. It is remarkable in capturing the experience of a dying child with a minimum of sentimentality, and with an absolutely convincing first-person narrator.

Sam is an eleven year old with leukemia whose doctors estimate he has a year to live. He has many questions about death, ranging from practical ("does it hurt to die?") to philosophical ("why does God make kids get ill?). Together with Felix, his best friend who is also terminally ill, Sam tries to work out some answers, and also to pack as much living as he can into his remaining time.

I loved Sam as a character. He is inquisitive and thoughtful, and his insights and investigations seem completely right for his age and experience. There is some unexpected humour, as in the seance scene, where Sam, Felix and Sam's sister Ella try to communicate beyond the grave with an ouija board and a jelly bean. They call up the spirit of "Marian Twanet" ("Pack it in! I said. "Marie Antoinette's not spelled like that") who assures them that being undead is "BORING" and that she spends her days drinking gin and eating cake. Sam's not taken in by this fakester spirit, but considers the possibility that his grandfather is keeping an eye on his grandmother from the other side (she smells his pipe whenever she is particularly unhappy). Although the evidence is circumstantial, Sam believes that "if I were grandad, I'd want to visit too."

One of this book's many strengths is how it shows the effect of Sam's terminal illness on his family. Each person has their own way of coping, and how each one responds to this family crisis reveals a great deal. Small triumphs and connections are captured with delicacy, and grief is never allowed to become overwhelming. I did cry at the end, but Sam's death, surrounded by his family, felt very loving. Ways to Live Forever takes us through Sam's journey in a way that feels uncontrived and true.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George

And speaking of icy romance...Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow is a retelling of one of my favourite romance-oriented fairy tales, the ancient Scandinavian story "East of the Sun and West of the Moon". I first came under the spell of this story when I read the version so breathtakingly illustrated by P. J. Lynch. Jessica Day George's version spins out this tale into a novel comparable in quality to such favourites as Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine or Beauty by Robin McKinley.

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow follows the story of a young woman called Pika (or "lass") who lives "long ago and far away, in the land of ice and snow." Her mother dislikes her (and in fact refused to give her a name when she was born) but she is close to her father and her mysterious older brother Hans Peter, a former sailor haunted by memories "too terrible to relate'. The Pika learns a mysterious written language from Hans Peter, and gains the ability to talk to animals through an adventure of her own. But the real adventure begins the night that an isbjorn, or icebear, comes to her home and promises her family wealth if she will come and live with him for a year and a day.

I love the frozen landscape of this story. The vast snowy distances, the palace made of ice, the north, south, east and west winds who buffet Pika along as she nears the climax of her quest, all combine to create a wilder, earthier, more vigorous sense of enchantment than inhabits most fairy-tale romances. As befits a modern retelling, it is Pika's persistent curiosity and intelligence that allows her to understand the scope and source of the ice-bear's enchantment. Elements of the ancient story of Cupid and Psyche also weave their way through the tale, adding a mythological resonance. Altogether, this is a lovely, satisfying addition to the fairy tale cannon for tween and teen girls.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Katrina and I like our fantasy men Cold, Undead and Sparkly

Do I dazzle you?

Twilight fever has finally hit my home. I used to be such a snob about this series of books, even though they have made such a mark on the teen girl landscape--or maybe because of that, actually. It seemed a bit too pop-culture oriented for my taste. And also--vampires? Really! So not my style. All that changed the night my daughter brought home the DVD and I sat down to watch it with her. I finally got the point. Edward Cullen may be a vampire, but he is SMOKING CRAZY HOT! Kind of like Mr. Darcy would be if he could inhabit an undead, buff 17-year old body. What's really sexy, of course, is the intensity and singlemindedness of his passion for Bella, and his desire to know her deeply. And his constant need to restrain himself lest he devour her. And the whole breaking-all-the-rules aspect of their relationship. The adventure part of the story just adds to the spice. So ever since we've watched Bella and Edward onscreen Katrina and I have both been devouring the series with gusto.

So I'm sorry to have to say that I was somewhat disappointed in Catherine Hardwicke's Twilight Director's Notebook: The Story of How We Made the Movie. It's far too small, for one thing. It has pocket-book dimensions when the visual nature of it--largely collages of photos, storyboards and drawings, with some editorial content--calls for more generous sizing. Many of the pictures are so miniscule, my forty-something eyes struggle with the details. Also, I was hoping for something more substantive in terms of content. Lots of the notebook is concerned with how the movie's "look" was created--the character's wardrobes, the different locations scouted--but not much about things like script development, for example, or how the actors came to interpret their roles as they did. Having said that, there is some interesting material here, including some of Catherine Hardwicke's inspirational material (some stunning paintings created by Hardwicke's sister), some deconstruction of key scenes and their filming. The special effects material was fun, too. And I liked having details that had slipped by me pointed out; for example, that all of the Cullens wear a family crest in the movie, the girls as jewellery, the guys on wristbands. Didn't notice that.

Overall, though, I think the slightness of Hardwicke's Notebook makes it only for real Twilight diehards. Like me and Katrina. And a few million other girls and women out there...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Mother/Daughter Moment: So Totally Emily Ebers by Lisa Yee

My daughter Katrina just wrote a book report on So Totally Emily Ebers. She was pretty cagey about describing the book to me, though, so when I read in her report that she felt she could "completely relate" to Emily's feelings and experiences, of course I had to read it. Well, it turns out that Emily is mostly about a girl whose parents have split up and who blames her mother for the upheaval in her life. Ergo, almost every conversation she has with good old Mom (or "Alice", as Emily calls her) becomes a showdown.

Like this, for example:

"Oh, is she on your volleyball team?" Alice asked.
"How is volleyball going?"
"Do you like your coach?"
"Emily, can we talk?"
See? See how hard it is with her around?

Yep, real impossible Mom you've got there, Emily. You poor, poor thing.

Monday, March 30, 2009

"History is Relatives": The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, an Illustrated Memoir by Ann Marie Fleming

"Distances and differences kept us apart, and we forgot to remind each other of our own stories."

Ann Marie Fleming was inspired to research and document her great-grandfather's life after her grandmother passed away. She was absolutely unprepared for what she found. This wonderful quirky book, adapted from Fleming's documentary film of the same title, follows her journey into her family's half-remembered past. A graphic memoir that recreates the intimacy of a family scrapbook, The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam pulls together photos, posters, archival documents, comics, and illustration to tell its story with great liveliness and creativity. And, let's face it, Fleming lucked out in her subject matter--not all of us have a great-grandfather who was a world-famous Chinese acrobat and magician, and who led such a astonishingly colourful and eventful life.

I like the approach Fleming takes, not to simply tell us about Long Tack Sam but to show us her slow process of discovery. Her research takes her around the world, to China, Hawaii, Australia, and Europe. Some of the stories she hears contradict each other, and cannot be reconciled. From her conversations with magicians, acrobats, friends, family and neighbours, Fleming puts together the story of a charismatic and adventurous entertainer who created a place for himself on the world stage. This is a quick read, but a book I could return to many times with great pleasure.

Friday, March 27, 2009

"Love Fell in Particles, Like Snow": Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd

Meg Rosoff gave Bog Child a stunning review in The Guardian. All I have to say is, what she said.

Well, maybe I have a bit more to say. Bog Child is one of the best books I have read this year. The sense of place in this book is so strong. Bog Child takes you straight to the heart of the authenic Ireland, not the touristy leprechan/St. Patrick's day/green beer Ireland but an Ireland with depth and history and language and landscape. It's an immersive experience, and Dowd's Ireland is a compelling place to be.

What astonishes me about this book is how Dowd manages to infuse light and humanity into the most heartbreaking of political situations, without minimizing their tragedy. Not to give away the plot, but one of the major themes of this book is human sacrifice and self-sacrifice, both prehistoric and contemporary (well, almost contemporary, to some of us older readers). One of the most beautiful lines in Bog Child, "love fell in particles, like snow", is uttered by a young woman meeting her death.

This book has much in common with Dowd's first novel, A Swift Pure Cry, particularly with its focus on rural Ireland and its richness of language and character. Dowd was a truly literary writer. Sadly, she died of cancer last year and Bog Child was published posthumously. She has left one more unpublished work, which will be the last we hear of her moving and humanistic voice.

Monday, March 23, 2009

In Fair Verona, Where We Set Our Scene: The Juliet Club by Suzanne Harper

Did you know that each year thousands of twenty-first century mortals needing advice on that most vexed subject, love, write to Juliet Capulet? And send their letters off to Verona, Italy? And actually get an answer?

How is this possible, you ask? Well, it's the same kind of magic that allows the thousands of children who write to Santa in the North Pole right before Christmas to receive a reply from jolly old Saint Nick. Like Santa, Juliet has a bevy of ghostwriters who manage her correspondence. They call themselves the Juliet Club, and they are based in Verona, Italy.

Inspired by the real-life Juliet Club, Suzanne Harper has concocted a most entertaining romance revolving around a summer high-school seminar on the subject of Romeo and Juliet, whose lucky attendees get to study the Bard in Juliet's birthplace of Verona. The setting is scrumptious--lemon trees, cobbled streets, sunny mazes where one may, by happenstance, meet one's destined mate. The love story is suitably transforming ; our protagonist, Kate, loosens up a lot emotionally in one short month without losing an ounce of her savvy, and her love interest, Giacomo, evolves from a dedicated flirt to a charmingly devoted young man. The Juliet Club is set apart from other contemporary romances by the way Harper so deftly turns the study of Romeo and Juliet into the intellectual backdrop for her more modern tale. The underplayed humour throughout adds to the book's pleasures. This is a happy book that I would have gobbled down as a teen, like a luscious dessert that was actually good for you.


Friday, March 20, 2009

The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West by Sid Fleischman

A very lively and literate account of Mark Twain's roller-coaster life. The title comes from posters advertising Twain's first lecture tour. "Doors open at 7 o'clock. The trouble will begin at 8 o'clock." Later in his tour Twain modestly amended the posters to read "The wisdom will begin to flow at 8 o'clock."

Favourite previously unknown (to me) fact: the pen name Mark Twain comes from Samuel Clemens' early years as a riverboat pilot. "Mark Twain" is a riverboat term that refers to a depth of water 12 feet (or two fathoms), safe for the Mississippi pilots to navigate over.

Favourite anecdote:

"In New Orleans, Clemens passed a school promising to teach foreign languages, one for $25.00, three for $50.00. Who could ignore a nifty bargain like that?...He walked in and signed up at once for French, German and Italian. He was given phrase cards to study in each language. After a few weeks, he decided he could do without German gutterals and the operatic vowels of Italian. But he remained loyal to the French, and years later, on a visit to France, he was disappointed when he spoke French that he never succeeded "in making those idiots understand their own language".


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How to Drive a Librarian Crazy

I don't know about anyone else out there, but there is almost nothing that irks me more than really falling in love with a book and not being able to hook my kids on it. Drives me up the freaking wall. I usually end up having to mutter under my breath that "right book for the right child at the right time" mantra that we librarians use to remind us that kids have their own taste and are in their own unique developmental space, both of which we've got to respect. However much it may floor me (I'm speaking as a parent here) that my otherwise perceptive children don't always appreciate the MASTERPIECES of literature that I expectantly offer them.

How to Heal a Broken Wing is, sadly, a case in point. I loved this book. Loved, loved, loved it. It's one of those perfectly executed picture books that don't just tell a story but illuminate it. The simple prose ("No one saw the bird fall. No one looked down...except Will.") is understated but direct: a bird will die unless someone helps it. And the person who open-heartedly chooses to see and to help is Will, a young boy, and his parents. With patience and gentleness, Will and his parents feed, water and house the broken bird until it is once again whole. And then they let it go.

The pictures are what really fill in the story and evoke our sympathy and joy. Will's face is so earnest throughout, and he is surrounded by rich warm colours, corresponding to his goodness of heart. (The unnoticing, uncaring grown-ups trudging past the wounded bird are all a dull grey). The smaller sequential pictures that show Will and his family caring for their new friend are full of detail and reward lingering. In certain scenes where Will is handling the bird he seem to be surrounded by a halo, like a modern, budding Saint Francis. I love how Will's whole family is so hands-on involved in the bird's healing and care, but how Will is clearly in the centre of the action. After all, it is really his empathy which has given him the eyes to see the distress of his fellow creature and the simple, childlike conviction that he must help.

However, I regret to report that this is definitely not the book to share with 5 year old boys who are currently enamoured of Rotten Ralph.

Monday, March 9, 2009

And the Newbery Goes To.....

The inside of Neil Gaiman's head must be a very spooky place. Interesting, mind you. Inventive. Weirdly captivating. But haunted. What can you say about a man who turns a homage to Kipling's Jungle Book into a story about a human child raised in a graveyard by ghosts, with a werewolf and vampire acting as guardians against human predators? Gaiman's got a lush and exuberant imagination, and it seems to thrive in the twilight zone.

This is a really wonderful book. Little Bod (short for Nobody) Owens escapes the mysterious man who kills the rest of his family and he finds refuge and a new family in an abandoned local graveyard. The whole ghostly graveyard community, in fact, from Caius Pompeius, the senior inhabitant, to Liza Hempstock, the local witch, takes an interest in young Bod, his upbringing, education, and safety. Gaiman cleverly makes the graveyard seem cozy and secure, the outside world perilous (although there are some nail-biting moments around the ghoul's gate) . As Bod grows up, he is increasingly drawn to the outside world, and the dangers around him multiply.

The Graveyard Book is at heart much more of an adventure story than a horror story, and a large part of the pleasure of reading it comes from seeing Bod grow in his capacity to stand up for and protect himself. At the end, I felt a sense of loss when it becomes clear that, just as Mowgli must leave the jungle, the young man Bod has become must leave his graveyard home and take his place with others like himself. But how can a childhood like this fail to leave a mark? Bod will never be ordinary, and I hope Gaiman will treat us to more of his adventures.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

What I Wouldn't Give for a Never-Put-On-Weight Fairy

Justine Larbalestier claims she has a procrastination fairy, but I know better; what she really has is a doos book-writing fairy. (Doos = cool, ace, brilliant--you know you're reached a certain age when you find yourself consulting the glossary in a book of teen fiction). How to Ditch Your Fairy is a fun, fast, playful read with lots of verve and a very determined main character, Charlie, who is at serious odds with her fairy.

Yes, that's right, her fairy. In Larbalestier's world, everyone is born with their own personal fairy. No one can see them (although you can sometimes see their auras in a mirror) but you know that they are with you based on your own special brand of luck. Charlie's best friend has a shopping fairy, so whenever she goes shopping she finds fabulous clothing at ridiculously low prices (that fit her perfectly, natch). Charlie's mother has a knowing-what-your-children-are-up-to-fairy, so when Charlie gets into trouble she has absolutely zero hope of hiding it from her Mom. Charlie herself has a parking fairy. Which means that whenever she is in a car, no matter where she is going, she always finds a free parking spot right in front of her destination.

Now Charlie is only fourteen and can't even drive yet, but she is tired of being made to accompany parents, relatives, neighbours, and the school bully every time they want to drive somewhere. The only way Charlie can win back her life is to change her fairy. When starving her parking fairy by walking everywhere fails to work, she and her classmate Fiorenze decide to switch fairies. Fiorenze has an all-the-boys-will-like-you fairy she can't wait to get rid of. (Literally. All the boys. Even the gay ones. They only like her when she's around, mind you, but that's enough to make her wildly unpopular with the girls).

Well, the fairy swap brings new problems, and the story goes on from there. Happy ending, of course. But the story's turns are never absolutely predictable. (Well, except for the fact that Charlie will want to escape the the all-the-boys-will-like-you fairy. Saw that one coming a mile away). Part of the fun of the book is seeing the types of fairies that crop up. Fiorenze's family is so posh and wealthy thanks to her grandmother's stealing fairy. And Charlie's crush Steffi has a never-get-in-trouble fairy--how useful is that!

Hmmmm...wouldn't mind a chocolate fairy either...