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.