Saturday, December 18, 2010

Picture Book Roundup: What Ewan and I Are Currently Laughing Our Heads Off At

A recent article in the New York Times remarks on the decline in picture book sales in 2010, and posits that parents are hurrying their kindergarten and grade 1 children into "big kid" or chapter books in order to prepare them for academia.  Not in our house, mister!  I love picture books (what's not to love?  They have PICTURES!), and I love reading them with Ewan, my book-devouring second grader.  And I don't for one second subscribe to the idea that picture books will dumb him down.  In fact, I believe that the use of humour in many picture books can be way more sophisticated than in chapter books, because the interplay between text and picture is so open to dramatic possibility.  And don't even get me started on vocabulary--a little soporific lettuce, anyone?  So, here's a roundup of some of the smart and funny picture books Ewan and I have been kicking back with this week. 

Let's start will Melanie Watt, shall we?  Have I Got a Book for You! is a hilarious spoof of pushy salespeople, particularly those on T.V. infomercials.  The whole story is the salesman trying to sell us the book.  Talk about meta-fiction.  It wouldn't work half as well without the pictures, which show us:
1)  exactly how satisfied Mr. Al Foxword's previous customers are,
2)  why we should buy Al's book RIGHT NOW!, and
3) what we can do with not one, but two of Al's awesome books (or how about 742 of make the Book Fort you've always wanted!)
Ah, the delicious, ridiculous irony of it all....and by the way, gotta love that surprise on the last page!

Michael Ian Black's new book, A Pig Parade is a Terrible Idea, is kind of the opposite of Have I Got a Book For You!  This book assumes we're sold on a crazy idea ("Like most children, you have probably thought to yourself at one time or another, I bet a pig parade would be a lot of fun.") and goes to enormous lengths to persuade us of its potential for disaster.  Pigs don't march, they snuffle, and "snuffling is simply an inappropriate way to conduct yourself along a parade route.".  They won't wear those snappy majorette uniforms, and they prefer sad country ballads to "good, spirited marching-band music".   They also don't see the point of floats.  Even pig-themed floats.  And if you try explaining any of these things to a pig, "they just look at you as if you are speaking a language they do not understand."    Pictures showing pigs destroying marching band instruments and wreaking havoc with snappy majorette uniforms, never mind getting their snouts stuck in the used bubble gum on city sidewalks, clearly demonstrate that this writer knows what he's talking about. Ix-nay on the Pig Parade, already!

David Bruins and Hilary Leung's Ninja Cowboy Bear Presents the Way of the Ninja is a friendship story that illustrates what can happen when one member of a group  is more adventurous than the others. Ninja, cowboy and bear are friends.  "When they got together it usually led to merrymaking, buffoonery and hilarity."  But sometimes cowboy and bear are too sedate for rambunctious ninja.  When cowboy wants to paint, ninja wants to jump on beds.  When bear wants to pick flowers, ninja wants to climb trees and poke bee's nests.  To ninja, a swing isn't a swing, it's a launchpad.  Let's shoot for the stars!  But when cowboy and bear get hurt playing with ninja, he thinks they are poor sports.   How the spirited ninja learns to include his friends in  his wild play makes for a story that is both funny and sweet.

 And, last but definitely not least, Olivia Helps With Christmas.  As in all the Olivia books, the visuals are everything.  They show us every nuance of the drama, and with Olivia, we know there's got to be drama, yes?  The opening spread ('Twas the day before Christmas.  Olivia and her family had been out all morning, busy with last-minute shopping.  Olivia was exhausted, yet there was still so much to do.") features a picture of Olivia's Mom and Dad, juggling packages, trees and children but looking pretty spry, following a bedraggled, burnt-out Olivia, who, as Ewan delightedly points out, isn't carrying one single thing!    Christmas morning brings us a shot of Olivia and her two little brothers bounding downstairs, mouths open wide, beneath the dry line "noiselessly they crept down the stairs.".   My very favourite page is where we learn that "Some of Santa's offerings were better than others. Pajamas.  Skis!  Sweater.  Sled!  Booties.  Maracas!", with correspondingly glum and lively faces on the gift recipients.  Santas of the world, listen up:  sleds and maracas will trump pajamas and booties every time!   'Nuff said.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Keeper by Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt set a very high bar for herself with her previous novel The Underneath, a richly magical tale set in the Texas bayou, which was lauded as a modern classic reminiscent of Sounder and The Yearling.  In my opinion it was much more sophisticated than these older stories, although it did center similarly around the emotional lives of animals and their vulnerability to human interference.   Keeper, published this year, is an equally lovely but lighter story, maintaining the depth and mystery of The Underneath but conjuring up a tone of poignancy rather than suspense and heartbreak. 

Appelt is a literary writer and her style is an important part of the reading experience.  It's the kind of style you either like or you don't. This is a meandering story, which moves backwards and forwards in time and follows many different points of view.  The pacing is leisurely. The imagery is skilled and poetic.  This is not a book to race through, but a book to wander with and enjoy.  However, Appelt is not one to let her wanderings lead nowhere--she knows exactly where she is taking us.  She is taking us into the heart of family, into the heart of belonging.

Keeper is a ten-year-old girl having a bad day before a blue moon.  The problem is, blue moon days are rare and special, and the people Keeper loves most in the world have had dreams and wishes centered around this particular blue moon.  Signe wants to make her seductive blue moon crab gumbo.  Dogie wants to sing "marry me" to Signe.  Mr. Beauchamp wants to see his mysterious lost love, Jack, one last time.  But Keeper has ruined the gumbo, burned the gumbo pot, broken the ukelele and let the dog destroy Mr. Beauchamp's night-blooming cyrus.  Overwhelmed by her problems, Keeper decides to take a boat out to the sandbar at night to meet Meggie Marie, her mermaid mother, in hopes that a mother's love can help her solve her problems.  But in the dark of the night, Keeper's small boat is swept out to sea and she loses an oar.  There are no mermaids sparkling around the sandbar.  And despite the blue moon shining in the sky, Keeper can no longer find her way home. 

This is the kind of story where we experience loss only so we can also experience the joy of being found.   By the end of the story, Keeper has found her true mother, Dogie and Signe have found what they mean to each other, and Mr. Beauchamp...well, what he finds is most miraculous at all. I have to say that I took great pleasure in how matter-of-factly Appelt has woven the romance of these two old men, one with "wrinkles upon wrinkles" and one "as old as barnacles",  into her tale of inclusion.  The image of Mr. Beauchamp and Jacques de Mer holding hands was, for me,  one of the loveliest in this whole lovely story.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer

"Come on, love.  Come and join us", Thomas whispered.
"What did you say?" asked a familiar voice.
Thomas couldn't keep his eyes open, he was so sleepy.
"I said, 'Come on, love, come and join us,'" he murmured.
"Okay", said Jesus.  The Lord sat down on the edge of Thomas's bed. 

 This little book came out a few years ago, and I thought it was wonderful.  Every few years I start to wonder if it really is as good as I remember it, and I spend some time curled up with it again.  Yes, it is just as good.   

The Book of Everything was originally published in the Netherlands, where Guus Kuijer is a well established writer. I think it's one of the best examples of magic realism in children's fiction I've ever seen.  The mood Kuijer conjures up is hard to describe--the themes are shadowy and threatening, and Thomas, our child protagonist,  is very innocent, so we  feel protective of him.  At the same time, there are some  fiesty, powerful characters, like Aunt Pie and Mrs. van Amersfoort, who champion the side of right. There's a sense of  wonder and even humour at the unexpected occurances in the story, and just a hint of awe at the glimpses of the Divine we are privileged to see through Thomas's eyes.  This is a story where the biblical merges with the supernatural to unusual and beautiful effect.  As Patrice Kindl said, "this book glows". 

The Book of Everything is about the disconnection that can occur between God and religion.  It's about the pain that can hide in the heart of families living with abuse, the pain that mirrors the darkness of the world.  It's also about bravery and the secret of happiness.  It's about miracles and witchcraft.  But most of all, it's about Thomas, a young boy who sees things no one else can see,  a boy who wants to be happy when he grows up.  A boy who all the angels in heaven are hopelessly in love with.  And probably a few readers too.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick

"One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it."
Anton Chekov

"My mother's children are not murderers."
 Sig Andersson, Revolver

I'm really interested in the first lines of books.  I think a strong first line sets the tone for the whole story, and I actually have a little collection in my head of favourite first lines of novels.  Revolver opens with a one-line paragraph:  "Even the dead tell stories."  This book had me at the first sentence.

Revolver is the best frontier novel I've ever read.  It's stunning, really.  It reads like the kind of book that's been polished and pared down again and again and again until there is nothing left but the pure crackling light of the story.  Every word counts.  Chapters begin with the shortest of sentences.  "How things unwind."for example.  Yet despite it's spare frame it features a dramatically tense plot, an almost visceral sense of place and time, and beautiful characterization.  At the heart of this intelligent book is the working out of an implacable ethical question:  is it right to shoot another to save oneself?  

Revolver is alternatingly set in 1910 in Giron, a small Swedish settlement north of the Arctic circle, and Nome, Alaska, in the late 1800s (the gold rush period).  Sig Andersson, a young man living with his father, stepmother, and older sister in Giron, has just discovered the icy corpse of his father, who had fallen partway through the ice while driving over a lake by dogsled.  The lake Einar himself has warned his son never to cross.   Sig's sister and stepmother leave to get help from neighbours who live miles away, and Sig is left alone in the cabin with his thoughts and his father's frozen corpse.  But then a stranger breaks in, a man who claims that Sig's father had cheated him out of a fortune in gold.  The stranger wants the gold back, and he has a gun. 

Revolver is really so perfectly plotted that I don't want to spoil the story for anyone.  But the decision Sig must eventually make is whether to accept the practical philosophy of his father (" 'A gun is not a weapon"' Einar once said to Sig. 'It's an answer.  It's an answer to the questions life throws at you when there's no one around to help.") or the ideals of his mother, a devoted Christian who believed in nonviolence and forgiveness.   His very survival depends on what he chooses, and Sedgwick makes us feel the weight of that all the way through this gripping story.     

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Teen Fiction Book Trailers

Here are a few book trailers that caught my fancy....

I Read Twilight (And I Liked It)

Kraken are the New Vampires

Now here's a neat official trailer for Leviathan...reminds me a bit of shadow puppetry...

A cartoon trailer for the tween graphic novel Smile:

And here are some still images.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Glimpse by Carol Lynch Williams

"An edge-of-the-seat thriller written in sharp, glinting shards of words.  Fantastic!"
Tim Wynne-Jones

Glimpse is an example of the verse novel at its finest.  It follows the emotional trajectory of 12-year-old Hope, who one day walks in on her older sister Lizzie holding a gun, thinking about shooting herself.  Lizzie ends up hospitalized with near-catatonic depression, and Hope is desperate to understand why.

The love between these sisters is beautifully realized and totally convincing.  It is the light in a very dark story, because, as we slowly realize, Lizzie is being badly abused by her mother, a prostitute who is forcing Lizzie to follow in her footsteps.  Hope has been kept sheltered by Lizzie, which is how her mother has been keeping Lizzie compliant (she threatens that if Lizzie tells anyone, she will press Hope into service as well).  There is a strong quality of protectiveness in the relationship between the two girls, and Hope has many memories of being protected by Lizzie's extraordinary courage, which is a strong contrast to their mother's self-centeredness.

a long time ago, 
took us to the river.

I was little,
just learning to swim.
Momma fastened an orange
Styrofoam bubble around
my waist to keep me afloat....

I love my babies,
Momma said.
Run into the water, Hope...

Momma was quiet a moment, 
then she said,
My God, they're moccasins.
Run, Hope.
Run, Liz.

The snakes must have
seen us by then. They
turned in our direction.

Momma didn't pick a thing up.
Not the umbrella, 
not the towel she sat on, 
Not even that sweet smelling
olive oil.

She just ran,
leaving me and Liz behind.

Liz hollered after her.
Wait for us.
Liz grabbed
me by the hand
but all of a sudden
I couldn't even move.

Lizzie said.
Come on.

She tried to pick me up,
but that bubble
made it hard.

Now the snakes were
on land and coming fast,
so fast,
and I couldn't move.

Come on, Liz, Hope,
Momma called.
She was a good ways away.

The rain kept coming down
all silver looking.
It ran in my eyes.

Just leave Hope there,
Momma called.
Her voice was scared.
Leave her and run to me.

Liz grabbed the belt 
of the bubble and 
pulled me along, 
like you might a pup 
tha didn't want to follow.

Liz screamed, 

Now the snakes were so close
I could see their eyes.
One opened its mouth
and I saw the white cotton.

Liz screamed at me.
And somehow
I could move.

We ran


Williams' storytelling is spare and beautiful.  As glimpses of Hope's memories and observations accumulate,  she begins to understand that there is a secret between their mother and Lizzie which is somehow at the root of Lizzie's despair.  Williams conveys Hope's fear of learning the nature of this secret and knowing what Lizzie has gone through, and her guilt as she slowly realizes that Lizzie had been obliquely asking for help without Hope understanding.  Hope in the end becomes her sister's protector, unveiling the truth through the diary which Lizzie had left for her to find and confronting their predatory mother, who flees rather than face the authorities.

Glimpse is a strong book that sometimes hurts to read, a book where home is "haunted" by bad dreams that turn out to be real.  It's a page-turner which skillfully captures the point of view of a 12-year-old enmeshed in frighteningly adult situations.  But there is a tenderness to this book all the same.  This is the kind of book where you feel that the author cares deeply about her characters, and you're glad, because you care too.  I'm glad that Williams leavened the ending with some surrogate parent figures stepping in;  a kindly neighbour to foster the girls, a caring psychiatrist to help both sisters heal emotionally.  I was so invested in Hope and, through her, in Lizzie, that I would have found the story unbearably bleak otherwise.  It is, in the end, a story about love, about those who are capable of giving it and those who aren't.  It's a story I could easily re-read many times.  I won't forget it soon. 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Me & Death, an Afterlife Adventure by Richard Scrimger

"Do you know what a ghost is, Jim?  A ghost is a guy who was a piece of crap when he was alive."
"But you weren't!"  I said.  "You were the bomb.  I thought you were the coolest!"
"I lied, I stole, I hurt people.  I let them down.  I was a bad guy, Jim."
I struggled with this.  "Yeah, but you were a good bad guy," I said.

Jim is a 14-year-old junior gangster who lives in Roncesvalles with his alcoholic mother and his unpleasant, sometimes crazy-seeming sister.  He skips school, steals, insults his neighbours,  kicks cats, and bullies a kid named Lloyd.  Nothing much to like here.  So who could be surprised when Jim gets hit by a car and sees the ghost of Tadeusz, who used to collect rents along Roncy "with a baseball bat", waiting to teach him what the afterlife is like for bad guys.   Tadeusz kicks off a Scrooge-type reform program for Jim, complete with ghosts, visions of the past, and important life lessons.  Jim's sure to emerge from his coma a changed person--or is he?

I find Scrimger as a writer is kind of hit-and-miss (as a person he's hysterical, if you get a chance to see him talk, definitely go) but this latest book is big-time wonderful.  It's emotionally compelling in a way that I don't think he's ever been before. Jim's voice is so authentic. You can see that he's never been exposed to any, shall we say,  alternate moral paradigms.   Scrimger's writing is always funny, that's his trademark, but here it's funny in a darker and older way than in his previous books. I think Scrimger is developing a wicked gift for characterization.   His ghosts are full-bodied, not flat like Dickens' are.   They have backstories and afterlives of their own.  And unlike Dickens' Scrooge, when Jim wakes up, he's got a lot more to do than just hand out geese and Christmas bonuses.  He has some scary amends to make. 

I sound like I'm doing a bit of Dickens bashing here, but I don't mean to. I love A Christmas Carol and used to re-read it every year before Christmas when I was a teen and a long time afterwards.  All I'm saying is, Scrimger takes the story, runs with it and makes it his own.  And I think he's done a great job.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Dragonbreath by Ursula Vernon

This was better than school.  The only locker for a hundred miles belonged to Davy Jones.  He was still the only dragon in a crew of frogs and lizards, but now he was the terror of the seas!  No one made fun of his mythical status, or he'd make them walk the plank! 

There was just one problem...where was that beeping coming from?

The beeping, alas, is from Danny Dragonbreath's alarm clock, waking him from his magnificent piratical dream to the mundane reality of yet another school day.  Not only is Danny always getting picked on for being the only mythical creature in his school (otherwise populated by reptiles and amphibians),  but he has neglected to do his science paper on oceans, due today. Picking  his nerdy best friend's brain doesn't help--all Wendell knows about the ocean is that it's big, wet, salty, and has fish in it.  Danny gets a big fat red F and has to rewrite, prompting a visit to his cousin Edward the Sea Monster, who gives Danny and Wendell a guided tour of the ocean world.

Such is the plot of Dragonbreath, the first volume in a lively new series by Ursula Vernon.  Dragonbreath's playful prose  is complemented by many delightful pages of comic-style illustration, all done in a palette of green, black and white.  The illustration reminded me a little of the Babymouse books, with its perky representations of  anthropomorphized animals and their vivid imaginations.  I would say that the reading level of the Dragonbreath series is just a smidgen higher than Babymouse, mostly due to the chapters of plain text.  But the entertainment value of Dragonbreath is every bit as high...and that's saying something.

Ewan's favourite line:  "AGGGH!  The scurvy!  It burns! ".  Dramatic, yes? 

Saturday, July 3, 2010

My Favourite Cupcake Queen

I just get such a kick out of the Babymouse books.  I can't resist sharing this, courtesy of Unshelved, a library webcomic I also think is great.  Jennifer and Matt sum it up better than I ever could:

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Little Less Dumb than I Would've Been: The Photographer by Guilbert, Lefevre, and Lemercier

"It's hard to describe all that the Afghans gave us,"  Robert observed.  "I reckon that thanks to them we're just a little less dumb than we would've been".

I don't normally review adult books here, but I'm making an exception for The Photographer, since I think it has such great "crossover potential", as we say in the biz;  in other words, I think many older teens could get a lot out of it.  I sure did. 
The Photographer is a collaboration between Didier Lefevre, photographer, and his close friend Emmanuel Guilbert, graphic novelist.   In July of 1986 Didier agreed to accompany a group of medical professionals from MSF  (Doctors Without Borders)  who were setting up a clinic in rural Afghanistan.  His task as a photojournalist was to document the group's journey to their destination and the work of the clinic they set up.  He came home to his native France three months later with four thousand photographs.  Six were published that year in a French newspaper. Some of the remainder were published in Didier's 2002 photography book Voyages en Afghanistan.  Many more appear throughout the remarkable pages of this book. 

What this book gave me was a sense of really being shown, in the finest detail,  another, very foreign, part of the world under the heightened circumstances of war.  The sense of immediacy Didier's photographs give the book is really profound.  In an interview, Guibert explains that The Photographer is really documenting three different things;  the work that goes into photojournalism, the work of NGO medical aide groups such as Medicins Sans Frontiers, and the lives of the people in certain regions of Afghanistan at a particular moment in history.  I found each thread fascinating.  Much of it surprised me--for example, I was shocked at the huge task it was for the party to simply get to their destination.  Because Soviet troops were controlling the roads, Didier, the doctors, and their guides walked overland for several weeks to reach the rural community they were there to treat.  By "walking overland" I mean crossing mountains on foot, sometimes in the dark to avoid being fired on by Soviet planes.  This was a physically gruelling experience that left Didier stripped of all his body fat. On the other hand, I was moved by the many photographs of elderly Afghani men carrying their grandchildren around on their backs and otherwise caring for their grandsons and granddaughters.  These aren't images I would have expected to come out of a patriarchal Islamic culture. 

Here are some parting images from Didier's camera:

Monday, June 21, 2010

Mercury by Hope Larson

I've always been interested in Hope Larson's graphic books, which are so graceful and elegant and dreamily imaginative. Up until now, my favourites have been the earlier ones, Salamander Dream and Gray Horses.  Despite their simplicity and lightness I find them linger-worthy.  Larson's latest has a more complex, plot-driven story than her early work and is perfectly suited for tween girls who like romance, family dramas, or historical fiction but like them a little off-beat.  

Mercury  is deliciously shadowy and mystical, with a very strong sense of place. It's set in a small Nova Scotian community, French Hill,  at two different points in history.   Larson does a beautiful job of showing us the landscape of that part of the world, beginning with a gorgeous five-page  sequence showing the passing of time from the 1400s onwards, and the marks that various groups of humans have left on the land that becomes French Hill.  Her landscape includes some supernatural creatures which blend in with the forests and skies while adding an otherworldly dimension.

Larson shifts us  back and forth between the years 1859 and 2009 as we follow the separate stories of two young teens, Josey Fraser and her modern look-alike and descendant, Tara Fraser. Josey's story involves a mysterious young man, Asa, who appears at her family farm claiming to have found gold on their land.  As he becomes more involved with her and her family, Josey develops feelings for Asa.  These lead  lead her to clash with her mother, who views Asa with deep suspicion.  Tara, meanwhile, is in conflict with her mother around the fate of the family homestead, which has burned down.  Their two stories are linked not only by kinship and location but also by a secret treasure. 

I loved both the writing and the visuals in this book and felt that they complemented each other perfectly.  Larson is a true artist and a wonderful storyteller, all rolled up into one great package.  I look forward to reading more of her work. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Beware the Brontesaurus!

A Miniature World: The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz

This is really a tiny treasure of a book, and it comes so beautifully wrapped.  Before reading  a word I was impressed by its beautiful thick glossy paper, rich shimmery blue-black endpapers, elegant typesetting, and the lovingly detailed, full-colour illustrations by British illustrator Angela Barrett.  The level of craftsmanship that has gone into creating this book prepares its audience well for the special experience of reading it. 

 Laura Amy Schlitz, a Newbery medal winner for Good Masters!  Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village,  makes me realize just how flat and boring those popular fairy series books that girls have been reading for the past few years really are.  Her writing overflows with intelligence, imagination, literary quality, and respect for its audience.  I love how she uses vocabulary that is so flavourful  and precise, vocabulary which I'm guessing will gently stretch a lot of children's boundaries while never overwhelming them:

"On the night of Flory's peril, she was less than three months old.  It was a windy night:  cool and sweet with springtime.  Flory was coasting on the breeze, letting it toss her wherever it liked.  She was still very tiny--as tall as an acorn--and her green wings glittered in the moonlight.  A little brown bat swooped down upon her, caught her, and crunched up her wings." 

One of the many things I loved about this book was its depiction of the natural world.  Fairies are the only supernatural entities in this book, and Flory is actually the only fairy we ever see.  A night fairy by virtue of her time of birth, she turns herself into a day creature when she loses her flight, and makes her home in the garden of a "giantess" (in the birdhouse, actually).  Her life there is populated with squirrels and  raccoons and hummingbirds and insects and spiders.  The animals talk to her, but otherwise they stay completely in character.  Flory is not altogether benevolent at first;  she can be selfish and irritable, and it is interesting to see how organically her feelings develop:

"Flory felt a funny ache in her throat. She was not the kind of fairy who cried easily, and she didn't think the hummingbird cried at all.  But the words "the chicks will die" made her feel queer, as if her heart were swollen and sore.  She gave herself a little shake, trying to replace the queer feeling with crossness...".  

Schlitz's writing contains echoes of The Secret Garden in places;  doesn't that paragraph read like it could be about Mary Lennox?  And in the end, Flory's wings regrow and she is at last able to fly again, just like Colin is able to walk.

 Much of the fascination in The Night Fairy comes from seeing our world in miniature through Flory's perceptive eyes.  It's also a treat to see how resourceful and adventurous she becomes, as the lone fairy in her environment.  This would be a beautiful read-aloud or the perfect book for an imaginative child to curl up with on a summer afternoon.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

Oh my gosh, what a lovely romantic book this is.  I can totally see a well-worn (but still impeccably clean) copy of this sitting on a teenage Emma Pillsbury's bookshelf, right next to Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Perrault's Fairy Tales.

Jessica Day George, author of Sun and Wind, Ice and Snow, has given us another beautifully executed and bewitching fairy-tale-turned-novel.   Princess of the Midnight Ball is based on the Grimm story The Twelve Dancing Princesses, in which twelve princesses disappear nightly into a magical land below the earth with trees of silver and leaves of gold, to dance the night away.  The king, their father, offers a reward of marriage to the prince who can discover why his daughters' dancing slippers are fresh each evening and worn out by morning. After various princes fail to do so, a soldier succeeds in the task with the help of a cloak of invisibility, and is rewarded with a princess and a kingdom.

George's version sticks closely to the original plot, but it's the embellishments that make it special.  The soldier, Galen, is a wonderful character. Raised by a soldier father and a mother who washed the soldier's clothes, Galen has no love for battle and is glad to return to civilian life at the end of the war.  He finds work as the apprentice to his uncle, Master Gardener at the Royal Palace.  It's sweet to see him courting the eldest Princess, Rose, as he works among the flowers.  And he knits, too!  He's an interesting blend of valour and domesticity.   The older princesses are well-developed characters, Princess Rose in particular. I liked how they have so much family feeling and are so protective of each other throughout the story, and how interested they are in Galen, even though he is a servant.

I always found the original Twelve Dancing Princesses to have an eerie, otherworldly mood.  It's not altogether clear what kind of magic creates the opulent underground kingdom, and whether the princesses go willingly to their ball.  Princess of the Midnight Ball darkens this otherwordly quality;  here, the girls are trapped by a bargain their dead mother made with the fearful  King Under Stone, who rules the underground land (truly an underworld) with a cold and relentless hand.  They cannot speak of the curse they are under, and when they try and rebel by staying away, the sons of the King Under Stone erupt into the Palace garden and climb the Palace walls as a warning.   They are menacing presences, these sons, and the story's suspense builds when the ultimate goal of the King Under Stone, to have the twelve princesses marry his twelve sons,  is revealed.

The daylight world, in contrast, is downright pastoral.  Although there are hints here and there of an impoverished, war-torn kingdom, the bulk of the daytime action takes place in the Palace or its lush gardens, which are so descriptively drawn you can practically smell them. The king is kindly, Galen and Rose are exceedingly well-matched, and when the King Under Stone is finally defeated, there is no doubt that our new friends will all live happily ever after.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Nothing Like You by Lauren Strasnick

"Holly".  The way he kept saying my name over and over made me feel so totally small.  "You're not my girlfriend."  You're not my girlfriend.  You're not my girlfriend.  It echoed in my ear.  I hate you, I thought as he dragged me across the taupe-colored field to the bleachers.  We ducked underneath.  "Do we need to set some ground rules?...I like you, Holly, I do.  But I'm not going to do all this girlfriend-boyfriend bullshit with you, okay?  I already have one relationship I have to manage...What we have should be easy."
I remember a few years ago reading an article in one of our city newspapers about how the "friends with benefits" relationship trend is aging down to high schoolers and even middle schoolers, who apparently now don't bother with crushes,  courting, or building relationships. According to this article, arranging with an  acquaintance in one's social circle to meet for sex, rather than dating and all it entails, is now an accepted norm for some teens.  This struck me as kind of bizarre and creepy at the time, not to mention prematurely jaded.  After all, loving emotional bonds are one of the chief pleasures of life.  And  learning how to form and maintain romantic connections is widely considered to be one of the important developmental tasks of adolescence and early adulthood.  Who wants to reach adulthood knowing nothing about romance?

Nothing Like You confirms my initial impression.  This kind of relationship is indeed bizarre and creepy.  Especially if you're in denial about being in emotional crisis, and your partner is a borderline sociopath.

The book opens with Holly, our protagonist, losing her virginity to Paul in the back seat of his stale, smelly car. She wonders " if this feels any different when you love the person or when you do it lying down on a bed.".  Paul already has a girlfriend, Saskia, who is lovely and popular, and Holly knows that what she is doing with Paul isn't going to change that.  But she is emotionally numb after losing her mother to cancer,  and Paul's physicality somehow makes her feel less frozen.

Paul begins sneaking into Holly's bedroom several nights a week, while making the boundaries of their relationship very clear.  He doesn't want to talk to, touch, or acknowledge Holly at school, or anywhere they might be seen together.  No one is to know about them, especially not Saskia.  It becomes more and more of a mystery to me why Holly stays with him,  really, because he just gets colder and nastier as the story goes on.  Meanwhile, Saskia and Holly wind up getting to know each other after being partnered for a school project, and Holly's best friend Nils, seeing how troubled Holly is, tries unsuccessfully to reach out to her.

Holly makes some pretty poor decisions in this book, and although you sense that they're really all about her grief at her mother's death, that grief is never directly addressed.  There's a dingy sense of worthlessness that seems to follow her around like a cloud, and when she is outed as Paul's sexual partner and comes into school to find the word "whore" written on her locker and no one speaking to her, it simply serves to bring her outer world into correspondence with her depressing inner world.

Strasnick has written a serious book about difficult situations and complicated feelings.  She's done a good job, although sometimes I did want to give Holly a good whack upside the head.  All that self-destructive behavior gets a bit frustrating, and her continued "I don't know why I did that" attitude doesn't help.  The ending is bittersweet but hints at the beginnings of some emotional resilience and a chance for a fresh beginning. 

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Advice on Dumb Boyfriends

Today, John Green is giving out advice on his vlog Sparks Fly Up.  Here's his response to the question:  "My boyfriend says I am too smart for him, but I really like him.  Should I try to act dumb?"

"I've said it before and I'll say it again.  The venn diagram of boys who don't like smart girls and boys you don't want to date is a circle!"

In about three years, this goes on Katrina's wall.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

"Words have always swirled around me like snowflakes--each one delicate and different, each one melting untouched in my hands.
Deep within me, words pile up in huge drifts. Mountains of phrases and sentences and connected ideas.  Clever expressions.  Jokes.  Love songs.
From the time I was really little...words were like sweet, liquid gifts, and I drank them like lemonade.  I could almost taste them.  They made my jumbled thoughts and feelings have substance...
Every word my parents spoke to me or about me I absorbed and kept and remembered. All of them....
I have never spoken one single word.  I am almost eleven years old.

Out of My Mind did a terrific job of taking me inside the mind of a bright young girl with cerebral palsy and very limited means of communication.  Melody cannot speak or control her most of her movements.  To converse, she needs to point at letters on her communication board with her thumbs, one slow letter at a time.  She cannot eat or drink by herself or use a toilet or bathtub independently. In school she is placed in a special needs class, where for years teachers treat her as though she were intellectually disabled.

While doing some research on Stephen Hawking,  Melody discovers the Medi-talker, a computer/communication device which could give her a voice.  The Medi-talker lets Melody demonstrate what her parents and caregivers had long suspected, that she is easily one of the brightest children in her school.  However, Melody's dream is to actually make friends with the other students and be part of the group of "normal" kids, and her new-found communication skills don't alleviate the other student's discomfort with her physical differences.  To most of her peers, Melody still seems downright strange and sometimes even repulsive. Being seen with her in public embarrasses them.  When Melody competes to be on her school's Whiz Kids team, the other kids are shocked when she gets in.   Being on a school team doesn't lead to the social acceptance that Melody had hoped for, and in a moment of crisis, Melody comes to understand that some people just aren't worth the struggle.

"I'm not trying to be mean--honest--but it just never occurred to me that Melody had thoughts in her head."

Draper is a talented writer and Melody's voice is very believable.  Although I'm not really fond of books that set out to "teach" kids about life, I do like books that can help them empathize with difference.  I think Draper has nailed that here.  Because the truth is, kids like Melody aren't that weird or scary once you get to know them--it's the initial step that's hard.  Draper lets us get to know Melody from a position of relative safety, but I'm betting that once readers get to know her, they won't forget.  And we'll be one step closer to having that inclusive world that  kids all deserve.   

Possessions, Book One: Unclean Getaway by Ray Fawkes

"So... what do you like to do for fun?"
"Gurgazon likes to vomit, cackle, and make things DIE!"

Ahhh, book serendipity.  Even though I spend untold hours obsessively reading book reviews, some things still manage to slip past my radar.  Like Unclean Getaway by graphic novel writer Ray Fawkes.  But one day last week it arrived in our branch, all new and shiny, and after one look I just knew I had to take it home to Ewan.  And when we sat down to read it, we laughed so hard that everyone else in the house wandered in to see what we were up to.  After it was done, Ewan asked plaintively, "Do we have to take Gurgazon back to the library?".  He's never said that about any book before, ever.  But he's right.  This one's a keeper.

Gurgazon the Unclean is a pit demon embodied as a little girl who looks a bit like a possessed muppet.  She has rows of razor-sharp teeth and an unfortunate propensity for green vomit, but when her mouth is shut, she's pretty cute.  As the story begins, she is captured and brought to live in the Llewellyn-Vane House for Captured Spirits and Ghostly Curiosities.  While the other supernatural inhabitants (including a headless lady ghost, a poltergeist, a haunted juke box and something called the "Ice Field Lights") appear pleasantly domesticated, Gurgazon the Unclean will not be bound.  She is unholdable!  TREMBLE before Gurgazon!  SHUDDER at Gurgazon's unholy power!  Gurgazon will have her REVENGE on the world!!!!

Or maybe not.

Unclean Getaway is the chronicle of Gurgazon's increasingly frustrated  attempts to escape.  But the plot is a minor note.  The real pleasure in Gurgazon's story is the perfectly-timed deadpan humour, from the wacky send-up of horror conventions to the way the characters all play off Gurgazon.  Ewan and I especially loved Polly, the impulsive, emotional poltergeist who communicates by scrawling on the wall.   She tantrums and sulks hilariously when Gurgazon rejects her offer of friendship. The Light is pretty funny as well, with his reasonableness and civility a great counterpoint to Gurgazon's raging fits.

Gurgazon: "Gurgazon will open a hell pit right here and DEVOUR you ALL!"
Light: "Listen.  We're having a pretty good time carving pumpkins over there.  Why not come and join us?"

Ray Fawkes gives an interesting interview about the world of Possessions here.

But remember..."Gurgazon is not entertainment!  Gurgazon is your DOOM!". 

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Foiled by Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro

"The story I have to tell you is not about Avery.  It's about me, and fencing, and what I learned while masked.  It's about defense and defenders.  It's about power, and I don't mean electricity.  It's about family.

Most grownups will tell you things are revealed when you take off a mask.  But they're wrong, as they often are.  Everything was revealed when I put my fencing mask on in Grand Central Station.  Everything. "
Jane Yolen, wildly prolific and revered author of fantasy, fairy tale, poetry, myth, and picture book (Owl Moon, anyone? Or that fabulous How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight series?) has just published her debut graphic novel.  As one might expect, it's a gem. 

Foiled follows Aliera Carstairs, a young woman who has been fencing since childhood and draws great emotional strength and a sense of identity from the ancient sport.  A whiff of the mysterious follows her through school, as Avery, a strangely beautiful new boy whose looks contrast with his odd and sometimes cold behavior,  becomes her lab partner.  Crows seem to follow Aliera at a discreet distance. On weekends Aliera  fences and then visits her disabled cousin  Caroline to immerse herself in fantasy role-playing about an imagined kingdom.  "We play with more passion than it deserves.  Than either of us really understood."  One day Aliera's mother buys her a used foil at a garage sale, with a strange red jewel on the hilt.  And when Avery asks Aliera out on a date and she brings her mask and sword into Grand Central Station, she and Avery step into a fantasy world where Aliera is the Defender of the Seelie Court in the Kingdom of Helfdon, and Avery turns out to be a creature of darkness. 

Yolen is adept at hinting of fabulous worlds projecting into the ordinary, and showing  teens rising to otherworldly challenges. Hers is the ancient world of faerie, with courtly laws and and deceptive glamours.  Foiled maintains a tone of adventure rather than malevolence, however, making it perfect for a younger audience than, say, some of Gaiman's faerie-tinged graphic novels.

Cavallaro's art is very accessible and easy to read visually, but still quite dynamic and expressive.  I especially love how the real world is drawn in black and white, reflecting Aliera's colour blindness, and the world of faerie is in vivid, eye-popping colour.  It reminds me of the dichotomy between the gritty world of Kansas and the extraordinary world of Oz in The Wizard of Oz. And I like the tiny stars in Aliera's eyes on the book cover.  Nice detail. 

Foiled leaves lots of room for a sequel.  Aliera's story is clearly just beginning.  Here's hoping we see more of it soon.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Hearts at Stake by Alyxandra Harvey

I'm starting to think that the reason my adolescence was so bereft of yummy, adoring, mesmerizingly sexy guys is my lack of vampire blood.  Vamps clearly seem to be getting all the good action these days.

Hearts at Stake is a fine addition to the current craze for teen vampire romance.  It's funny, adventurous, seductive, and has two smart, enterprising best-friend heroines.  I loved the idiosyncratic chemistry and unquestioned loyalty between Solange, born to an ancient vampire family, and Lucy, her human bff.  According to an ancient prophecy, Solange is destined to be the next vampire queen.  Neither Solange nor the current queen is really enamoured of this idea (Solange's idea of a good time is throwing pots in her backyard ceramics studio, preferably wearing mucky jeans).  In fact, Lady Natasha, the current queen, is so offended by the possibility of being dethroned by Solange that she plots to snuff out the entire Drake family to make sure the prophecy will never come to pass.  Plot leads to counter-plot, and soon Solange is kidnapped and Lucy roars off to find her with Solange's rather distracting brother Nicolas. And while Nicolas and Lucy are busy hunting her down, Solange and her kidnapper Kieran are finding themselves falling for each other as well.

BTW, I like the fact that the girl on the cover is believably sixteen.  I'm getting sick of covers showing twenty-two year old girls posing as fourteen-year-olds (I'm looking at you, Clique!).

Bloomsbury Kids have given us not just one but two book trailers, one for Solange, and one for Lucy:

Every Soul a Star by Wendy Mass

"And as streams of light fan out behind the darkened sun like the wings of a butterfly, I realize that I never saw real beauty until now."

Let's see if I can sum up my reactions quickly.

1)  Pretty good plot.
2) Pretty good characters
3) Pretty good writing style.
4) AMAZING descriptions of the night sky, what you can see in a remote campground with a telescope at night, and why people chase eclipses.

I like books that can make me see the world a bit differently.  This is one of them.  Now waiting for my next starry night....

Monday, April 12, 2010

"The Name's Mouse. Missile Mouse. "

I really, really hope that Jake Parker's graphic novel Missile Mouse and the Star Crusher is the launch to a new series.  This  mouse has "winner" written all over him.  He's gutsy.  He's cool. He's smart.  He's a secret agent.  He's got a dangerous reputation, a spaceship, and enough nifty gadgets to rival James Bond. And he's in full, glorious technicolour.  Really, when you're sitting down to read a bedtime story to your friendly neighbourhood action/adventure/sci-fi/superhero  fan, you couldn't ask for better than this.

The plot--let's just say it involves a weapon of mass destruction.  Galaxy-sized mass destruction, not just puny earth-size. The good guys and bad guys are racing to find it first.   There is a kidnapped scientist involved.  Missile Mouse is on the good team.  That's really all we need to know.

What really makes Missile Mouse a standout piece of graphic fiction is its superb artwork.  Parker's ability to express character and mood through face and body language is impressive.  The characters, aliens and backdrops are all well-delineated and easy to read visually, but they also convey so much dynamic movement, and do it so smoothly.  Although Missile Mouse is on one level a take-off on the spy genre and makes full use of its cliches, Parker never lets his heroes feel one-dimensional.  The story is fast-paced and exciting, and the overall effect is sophisticated, lively, and lots of fun.  

By the way, Missile Mouse and the Star Crusher is actually the second outing for MM.  A short Missile Mouse story was featured in the graphic fiction anthology for young people Flight:  Explorer, which I also highly recommend.

Here's the Missile Mouse book trailer:

Missile Mouse: The Star Crusher Book Trailer from jakeparker on Vimeo.

Friday, April 9, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different: The Unfinished Angel by Sharon Creech

After reading Dawn (see below), Sharon Creech's Unfinished Angel felt light as air.  Unfinished Angel is a small, simple, lovingly written story about an untrained angel who lives in a castle in Switzerland and speaks broken English,  and a girl from America who can see and talk to him.  When Zola, the young girl, discovers a group of mistreated orphans hiding nearby, she informs the angel that they are his responsibility:

"Angel!  You're supposed to know everything!"
I am?  This is a little shock to me.  No, it is a big shock.  Because I am not knowing many, many things.
Zola does not look too happy with me.  She says, "There are kids there, living there, in that dark and dirty and cold place.  A bunch of them.  Eight or ten.  Maybe more.  They're skinny and hungry and dirty.  It is extremely tragical."
"Why are they living there?"
"Angel!"  Zola holds her head in her hands as if I am giving her a very big headache.  "That's what I'm asking youYou're supposed to know these things.  You're supposed to fix these things."
Know and fix?  How does Zola know these things?  Why does she know them and I don't?  I am not feeling so good. 

Between them, Zola and the angel successfully rescue the orphans and make sure they are welcomed into the community.  Creech's world is warm and comforting, and a lot of humour comes from the angel's exasperation at the peculiar ways of humanity.  There's a bit of sadness and reality in this book, and a bit of magic too.  All in all, it's a lovely, uplifting treat.

Dawn by Kevin Brooks

"And tomorrow I'm going to start killing God." 

There's no question that Kevin Brooks is a powerful writer.  He's unafraid of taking chances, and he is relentless when writing about the darkness and squalor of the world his characters populate.  His stories are brooding and violent, and feature angry or bewildered misfits with the odds stacked against them.  Betrayals are par for the course,  and no one comes to save you from your problems just in the nick of time.   He's not for everyone, that's for sure.  But for those who like that  kind of unflinching stare into the heart of darkness, he's an excellent choice. 

Dawn Bundy, the heroine of Brooks' latest novel,  has big odds stacked against her.  Her mother is an unemployed alcoholic who spends her days watching television, and her father disappeared two years previously after raping her in an orgy of alcohol and religious frenzy (while singing hymns about the blood of the lamb).  Dawn has no friends  and struggles with repressed memories and deep feelings of abandonment.  Her closest companions are her two dogs, Jesus and Mary, named after the notoriously melancholy and violent band Jesus and Mary Chain, to which Dawn listens incessantly.  She also loves and feels protective of her barely-functional mother. She blames a local Christian sect for taking her father away from her, and fantasizes about killing God, although as she sadly admits early on, "there is no God.  He doesn't exist. Which is why it's going to be kind of difficult to kill him."

Into this bleak world  Brooks throws two schoolmates who enter Dawn's life with suspicious agendas and a dangerous mobster just out of jail who believes the family owes him money.  Dawn is in way over her head, and we expect to see her situation spiral disasterously out of control, which it does.  But not at all in the way that I thought it would.

And then, miraculously, Brooks leaves Dawn at the end in a state of inner grace.  Love, forgiveness and healing prove to be within her reach, and they transform her.  It's not a happy ending, exactly, but at least she has the inner resources to sustain herself as she faces her difficult situation.   And how incredible is that, that Brooks can make us feel that Dawn has somehow saved herself even as her world falls apart?  It's a testament to his ability to create literature that is soulful and unnerving at the same time.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Emergent Reader's Laughapalooza: I Am Going! by Mo Willems

Ewan's sense of humour is very theatrical these days.  And he is proudly learning to read all by himself.  These two attributes converge to make Mo Willem's Elephant and Piggie Beginning Reader series the go-to books in our house right now.  I've become such a fan of this series over the past few years that I'm really starting to wonder if perhaps Mo, although widely known and wildly loved for his many  picture books (among them Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and  Knuffle Bunny) may in fact be at his very best when writing for this audience.  Because let's face it, learning to read is hard and can feel like a big struggle for many kids.  But  Elephant and Piggie books are all so full of life and drama and just pure spot-on hilarity, they turn the drudgery of deciphering text into a laughapalooza (I just made that word up). 

Willem's latest Elephant and Piggie offering, I Am Going!  begins when Piggie, who is hanging out with her friend Elephant,  tells him that she is going.  Elephant panics.  (See the book cover.)  Piggie is his best friend!  She cannot go!  He won't let her!  As he becomes increasingly hysterical ("Go tomorrow!  Go next week!  Go next month!  GO NEXT YEAR!!!" he wails), and then sulky (fine, he decides, he'll go too!  Watch him go!  Look at him--he's going! Piggie's not the only one who can go!)  he forgets to ask the big question--where the heck is Piggie going, anyway?

Hmmm.  It turns out she's going to lunch. 


Now Ewan's swanning around the house shouting "I WON'T LET YOU GO!"  and "GO TOMORROW!  GO NEXT WEEK!..."et cetera, et cetera.  And then laughing like crazy.  I'm sure people who don't know Elephant and Piggie think he's being very strange.  But Ewan, Mo and I, we're in on the joke.  And we love  it.

Here's Mo, admitting that Elephant and Piggie are his favourite characters:

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet by Erin Dionne

This is the first book I've read by Erin Dionne, and it reminded me a lot of books by Lisa Yee, especially the Millicent Min series.  (That's a compliment, by the way.)  I definitely think this book would appeal to Yee fans, although it could be read by kids who are slightly older as well. 

Hamlet Kennedy's parents are a) Shakespeare fanatics and b) oblivious to the possibility that if you name your daughter "Hamlet" she will likely get a lot of grief from her fellow eighth graders.  That's around the level of angst Hamlet has to deal with--social anxiety triggered by things like her genius seven year old sister being placed in eighth grade with her, and being afraid that her best friend has a crush on her,  and not wanting to play the role of Puck in the "Shakespeare Celebration" at school because she's kind of saturated by the Bard at home.  When her parents come to her school in full Elizabethan costume, and get her classmates to march around the room to a tambourine and chanting in iambic pentameter, well, you can just imagine.  It's all frustrating and embarrassing, and to Hamlet it seems like a Very Big Deal.  But like Yee, Dionne puts in lots of positive counterpoints;  Hamlet and her sister Desdemona really do care about each other, her friends are goofy but nice, the crush thing turns out to be a misunderstanding, and her parents become more aware of their "embarrassment potential" by the end and adjust their behavior accordingly.  Although, personally, I never worry too much about embarrassing my daughter.  I figure that's my perogative as a Mom.

By the way, thanks to my daughter, I can tell that the sneakers Hamlet is wearing are Converse.  I know because we just shelled out for exactly the same pair for Katrina  (in lemon yellow rather than turquoise).   So really, her parents can't really be that out of it.  

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Value of Children's Books

"I'd argue that great children's books and a rich experience of visual storytelling prepare kids for every future, digital or otherwise."

As more and more of our culture's visionaries predict The Demise of the Book, Pixie Stix Kids Pix explains the obvious;  what we stand to lose if reading great books falls out of cultural favour.  I loved this article--read it here. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Me, Myself and Ike by K.L. Denman

I think what makes Me, Myself and Ike special is how, despite treating a very dark, even tragic subject, adolescent schizophrenia, seriously and well,  it manages to read so easily.  I read this book effortlessly in under three hours, but I thought about it for the rest of the day.  This book is very accessible to younger teens and tweens, but isn't at all dumbed down. I believed it utterly. 

Me, Myself and Ike follows the mental deterioration of a good kid.  Christopher, or Kit, our first person narrator, has had a happy life, with a warm family, a talent for basketball, a few good friends and a girlfriend he cares about.  But when we meet him, these good relationships are mostly memories.  The only friend in Kit's life now is Ike, a nasty person who pops around when no one else is there and whom Kit often seems afraid of.  When Kit sees a documentary on Otzi the prehistoric Iceman,  Ike somehow convinces him that the only way he can make his life worthwhile is to become a modern day iceman, allowing himself to freeze in the mountains for the benefit of future generations of scientists.  Kit quickly becomes increasingly paranoid and delusional as he prepares himself for his death. We soon realize that Ike is a product of Kit's mental illness, and fortunately Kit's plan to become the Iceman of the Future is thwarted by his brother, who manages to find and save him at the last minute.  Kit ends up hospitalized and talking to a psychiatrist.  We don't know for sure that Kit's mind can become healthy again, but we are left hoping for the best.

Denman approaches the character of Kit with immense empathy and respect.  Kit isn't at all alien or scary, although there are times when we are afraid for him.  I love how Denman has humanized the face of such an isolating disease, and made us relate to Kit so fully even as we see that he is not well.  For many of us, schizophrenics are those dirty people on the street, asking for change, muttering to themselves and occasionally striking out violently.  Denham shows us a person who has schizophrenia, rather than a schizophrenic who used to be a person.  Me, Myself and Ike is a great read for thoughtful people, tweens on up.

Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Reading Jennifer Brown's striking debut novel Hate List made me understand something about the way I read teen fiction.  I read it like a parent.  Even while part of me is getting in to the teen protagonist's mind and experience, another part is keeping a close eye on the parent/child dynamic and how it affects the storyline, even when that's not the primary thrust of the plot. After all, when the adults, with all of their supposed maturity and life experience, can't cope with their teen's life, what's going to save that kid from sinking?  We parents are always being told that we will only be influential with and important to our children up to a certain age, and then their peers will take over as primary influences.  But what I'm inferring from the teen fiction that I've read lately is that parents are still  foundational in teen lives. Good news for the real-life me.  Sometimes scary for the reader me. 

I must admit that the parents in Hate List have a doozy of a parenting situation on their hands.  Part of what Jennifer Brown does so spectacularly in this book is to set up an almost impossible situation, one that leaves both teens and adults reeling. She then makes the teens instrumental in hauling themselves out of the wreckage and taking the first step forward, while the older generation is still flailing.   It's slow and painful, and not all the teens can do it.   But it's compelling to watch, and Brown makes both the success and failure of it feel convincing. 

Hate List is told from the point of view of Valerie Leftman, a high school senior returning to school after being wounded by a bullet in the leg.  The bullet was fired by her boyfriend Nick in the school cafeteria, during a rampage which left a number of students and one teacher dead or critically injured.  Valerie's boyfriend shot her, perhaps by accident, as she thrust herself between him and one of his intended victims. 

Valerie and Nick were a target for school bullies.  Nick chose his shooting victims from their "Hate List", a notebook Valerie kept recording the names of everyone who had been abusive or annoying to them.  Valerie and Nick often talked about wishing these people were dead, although Valerie had no idea that Nick was serious about putting those thoughts into action.  And despite what he has done, Valerie can't think of Nick, who killed himself that day as well,  as a villain.  She mourns him and misses him desperately.  How can she do that after he killed all those people and devastated so many families?  To what extent does she share responsibility for the carnage that occured?  Is she a victim, a villain or a hero?  You can bet that everyone in this book has an opinion on the subject--and it's not always what Valerie expects.

What I liked best about Hate List was watching Valerie lurch back into that school where it seems like everyone now hates her and blames her.  I liked the wary and unexpected collaboration she forms with Jessica, the girl she took the bullet for.  I liked how brave Valerie was, and how scared, all at the same time.  And I liked how head-on Hate List tackles a big question--is it possible to eradicate hate from our lives?

Here's the moody and kinda haunting book trailer:

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Creature ABC by Andrew Zuckerman

Librarian, blogger and book reviewer Adrienne Furness once titled a blog post "A is for Alphabet, B is for Boring..." and I knew exactly what she meant.  They're out there by the zillions and jillions and squillions, those alphabet books, and  either they're all the same ("x is for xylophone, z is for zipper") or they become so complicated trying to be different that young kids can't understand them--and older kids know their letters already, thank you very much, and can get mighty insulted when offered an ABC book.  It's hard to kick some life into this exhausted genre, and many ABC books end up seeming blatantly pedagogical.  Creature ABC is a magnificent exception to this glut of dull, copycat ABCs.  This book  is GENIUS!  Simple, crisp, focused, fascinatingly detailed.  Andrew Zuckerman approaches his ABCs with freshness and sophistication and pure artistry.   It's a book I'd look at even if I didn't have kids, and yet it's clear on every page that he's got his audience firmly in mind.  You could read this book to a two-year-old, no problem.  And they'd want to read it again. 

I could spend hours staring at Zuckerman's photo of an elephant's foot. I've truly never seen any image like it, anywhere.  It makes me feel like I'm seeing an elephant for the first time ever.  You can see the cracks and scratches in it's toenails, the remarkable contrasting of  mottled skin colours, the weird surface texture.  Parts of the skin look reptilian, with  dense bumpy scales.  Other clumps stick out like the papillae on a tongue.  Zuckerman lets you see each short, coarse hair sticking out of the leg and foot, each wrinkle and bump in the skin.  He even lets you see the effect of weight and gravity on this huge creature, with the clean white background emphasizing the foot's sturdy shape.  It's almost sculptural.  There is a definite sense of drama throughout this book, with many shots highlighting motion or expression.  Shape and texture are everywhere.  The cumulative effect is brilliantly arresting.

Zuckerman has kept the text to a minimum, with each letter presented in large black type (in both capital and lowercase) on one page and the name of the animal in the same large clear type on the next.  This layout allows him two photographs per letter, and it also allows the child the pleasure of guessing at the name of the animal in the picture before the page is turned and the word is finally presented. 

Coincidentally, this week I read an article in Horn Book Magazine by Leonard Marcus entitled "Click!  Photography as Picture Book Art".  Marcus opens with the provocative statement, "It's not by chance that the Caldecott Medal has never gone to a photographically illustrated book."  He posits that, despite some brilliant photography-based children's books by the likes of, say, Tana Hoban or Walter Wick, the children's book community still sees photography more as craft than art.  I'm wondering if Creature ABC will be the book to finally break through that glass ceiling.

Andrew Zuckerman's website is well worth a visit, and really expresses his artistic vision.  Enjoy. 

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Love is Hell by: Melissa Marr, Scott Westerfield, Justine Larbalestier, Gabrielle Zevin, and Laurie Faria Stolarz

Doesn't that cover just scream R*O*M*A*N*C*E?

This collection of short stories by some of the most uber-cool names in teen fiction today has a bit of a misleading title.  None of the stories actually take place in H-E-double-toothpicks, as my mother used to call it.  They all, however, have a strong supernatural component (with one exception, Westerfield's story "Stupid Perfect World", which is science fiction all the way).   Short story anthologies can be a bit dodgy, but this is a really solid collection with consistently smart and entertaining writing.

I came away with two special favourites.  The first was the aforementioned "Stupid Perfect World", which takes place in a high school class the distant future.  The class is called "Scarcity Class", and it is a sort of modified history class-what life was like before modern technology.

"It wasn't a real course with grades and everything, so only the most pathetic meekers worked hard at it.  The rest of us just showed up and tried not to fall asleep.  Nobody wanted to fail, of course, because that meant repeating:  another long semester of watching all those olden-day people starving and being diseased.  At least regular History has battles;  Scarcity was just depressing."

For their term projects, everyone in the class has to pick an obsolete physical condition and live with it for two weeks.  Things like hunger, cancer, river blindness, the common cold.  Going for the unusual, our protagonist, Kieran, chooses sleep.  Real REM sleep, every single night for two whole weeks.

"When I got home, I asked Dad if I could synthesize a bed for my room.  He immediately put on his serious face and sat me down.
'Sixteen is too young to have a bed in your room, Kieran.  Remember when we talked about this, how a little bioframe tweak can make those feelings less...persistent?'
I groaned.  'This isn't about that, Dad...It's for a school project.'
He laughed too hard in a really embarassing way, actually slapping his thigh.  'Nice try, buddy.'"

So, how does sleeping four hours a night on a pile of coats in his bedroom lead Kieran to true love?  Read the book to find out!

My other favourite story was Melissa Marr's "Love Struck".  A modern selkie story where the selkie is male and his human companion, Alana, is a city-dwelling, college-bound teenager, it has an intriguing premise and an unusually unexpected and satisfying ending.  Like "Love Struck", for the most part, the stories in Love is Hell should warm reader's hearts.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Goth Girl Rising by Barry Lyga

"Handle you?  God, Kyra--no one can handle you!  I certainly can't.  I'm surprised anyone could!"

In The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, Barry Lyga first introduced us to the prickly Goth Girl, a heroine who managed to be both kick-ass and damaged at the same time--sort of like Xena, Warrior Princess would be if she had childhood traumas and a stormy family life.  (Actually, maybe she did--I never watched her show.)  Goth Girl Rising continues Kyra's story, beginning from her release from the psychiatric hospital that her father committed her to because she was suicidal.  I'm so glad Lyga wrote this sequel because, well, unresolved endings are sophisticated and all, but sometimes you just love the characters so much you don't want to let them go until you know they've got what it takes to get through life.  For me, Goth Girl is like that.  I want to know that she's going to be okay, because Lyga wrote her so well I'm half-convinced she's real. 

I'm fascinated by Goth Girl's anger.  She is a young woman truly full of rage--rage at her mother for dying, at her father for living, at Fanboy for going incommunicado while she was hospitalized, and at her friend Jecca for making out with her in private but never in public.  She loves her rage.  She feeds it and strokes it and credits it for keeping her strong in the face of her mother's death and the subsequent unravelling of her life and family.  Goth Girl is so gutsy and outspoken that she'll say just about anything to just about anyone, and when she's revved up on rage, it's like fights on the old Batman TV show. KAPOW!  BAM!  ZOWIE!  She's not one to repress, that's for sure. She's not one to forgive, either. It's a strange kind of thrill to see grown adults--particularly her teachers and principal-crumple up as she rolls all over them.  And to wonder, incredulously, just how far she will go to get the revenge she thinks Fanboy deserves.  Her father, I just felt sorry for.

Goth Girl Rising is so satisfying, of course, because Lyga finally takes her beyond that rage and into understanding.  He needs to, really, because the truth is that Kyra is still suicidal sometimes, that with all of her anger she's alienated and in deep pain.  Her anger is a double-edged sword, bolstering her sense of purpose and direction but blocking her ability to heal.   When Kyra drops her constant anger, in a funny way she seems more emotionally honest.  Not that the anger was dishonest--it was real enough--but it wasn't letting anything else through.  It's a sign of Lyga's excellence as a writer that we care so much about such an angry kid.  Lyga never treats Goth Girl with anything less than complete respect.   

Here's a link to a Goth Girl interview with Barry Lyga.  I like his answer to the question of how he manages, as a man, to write the character of a teen girl so convincingly.  Does he have an inner Goth Girl?  No, apparently, he just has a lot of women friends, "and when they talk to me, I listen to them." Right on, Barry!