Monday, July 31, 2006
Psst! Look Up.
Notice anything different about me? No? Look again. It's subtle but definitely there.
It's a new banner for my blog, baby! Though it looks mighty similar to my last banner, it was constructed by my very good friend Don Citarella, resident computer genius and creator (with his bro) of Era404. Of his own volition, Mr. C constructed a series of little fuses at the top of my blog with #8 especially highlighted. I showed this to someone earlier today and they were confused. Those don't look like fuses. However, due to the crazy nature of where this blog got its name, that is EXACTLY the fuse I was referring to. Classy stuff. Next thing you know I'll br giving this entire blog an overhaul. You only live once.
Review of the Day: All of the Above
You know what author Shelley Pearsall’s got? Flexibility, baby. Loads of it. Let’s say, for example, that you write a rip-roaringly good bit of harrowing historical fiction (as she did with Crooked River). Now you’d like to follow that up with another book for kids. Do you follow the straight and narrow path of always writing with an eye on the past? Or do you get inspired by a group of students at the Alexander Hamilton School in Cleveland, Ohio? Pearsall opted for the latter, and the result is the surprisingly good, All of the Above. Now I avoided this book like crazy for a while. Why? The crummy cover. But open that same cover up and you find a story that never loses hope but that also never treads into the world of mindless optimism. There’s a gritty reality hiding at the core of this book. The surprise is that it’s a pleasure to discover it for yourself.
Seventh grade math teacher Mr. Collins is the first person to explain to you how, “the tetrahedron project began with one of my worst classes in twenty years of teaching”. In that class you have some pretty odd kids. There's James Harris III who basically comes across as future jail fodder more than anything else. There's also Sharice who does well in school but has trouble at home. Rhondell works hard but she’s so timid and stuck in her own little shell that it’s hard to get her to do anything besides cower. And then of course there’s local celebrity Marcel, who’s father owns the best known barbecue joint around. What do these kids all have in common? Well, they’re in the math club. Not just any math club, though. Mr. Collins has this crazy plan. You see, a California school once built a “Stage 6” tetrahedron and got into the Guinness Book of World Records. Collins thinks this group can do better. But when personal problems and a devastating bit of vandalism bring the project screeching to a halt, it’s up to the kids, not Collins, to come up with a new plan. Told in ever changing first person narrratives, Pearsall weaves together the story's fight and ultimate success.
What did I appreciate about this book? Well, the description makes it kind of sound like a “Stand and Deliver” type story with a healthy helping of “Dangerous Minds” to boot. In essence, the old plotline where a white teacher comes to town and gets the inner city kids to believe in themselves. Oop. Aack. We’re all pretty tired of that story, to say nothing of how insulting it can be. Appreciate “All of the Above”, then for turning that tired old chestnut of a parable into something fresh and new. Yes, the idea to create the world’s biggest tetrahedron is thought up by Mr. Collins, the resident white math teacher. But the guy hasn’t a clue what he’s doing. He’s pretty much willing to give up on the idea, the Math Club, and the project itself when the going gets a little rough. He’s not goading these kids into doing more with their lives. Not much, anyway. Their families are doing that. And when push comes to shove he and the kids are helped by the janitor, hairstylists, and the owner of a barbecue joint far more than just dinky little Collins on his own. I half wondered if Pearsall plucked his name from “Pride and Prejudice”, knowingly or on a subconscious level. Heaven knows it kind of fits him.
It’s obvious that Pearsall has spent a fair amount of time in high schools across the country too. When James Harris III says, “You ever notice how school clocks do that? How they don’t move like other clocks do; they jump ahead like bugs?”. Yup. I’ve noticed that. So has every school librarian, teacher, and child attending public school in the United States of America. It just takes a well-attuned author to pick up on it. Pearsall zeroes in on other little things as well. I liked that for every foodstuff Marcel mentions there’s an accompanying recipe that follows. This is true of even the less tasty treats, like “Willy Q’s Cannonball Cornbread”. The reader is informed at the end of the recipe to, “Cover and refrigerate leftovers. Trust me, there will be a lot”. I also enjoyed that the first person narratives were sometimes voiced by adults as well as children. Sometimes books of this nature limit their narrative voices, thereby narrowing the possibilities for the story itself. Pearsall doesn’t fall into that trap. If Rhondell’s Aunt Asia is the best person to talk at a given point then that’s who’s talking. Nuff said.
What the book did that others of its ilk sometimes fail to is come across as timeless. The Nikki Grimes novel, Bronx Masquerade, may have sported some top notch writing, but the slang alone dated it within a year of its publication. This is not the case with, “All of the Above”. For one thing, the slang is popular without being trendy. Pearsall doesn’t spot the text with the newest technology, partly because her characters couldn’t afford it, and partly because it would date the book considerably in a few years. I was also rather touched by how well Pearsall was able to distinguish between the voices of her characters. You wouldn't think Rhondell was talking when it was actually Sharice and vice versa. And I appreciate that there were happy endings in this book. Better still, they appear in a true and honest manner without so much as a whiff of Deus Ex Machina.
What didn’t I like about the book? Well, it’s hard to get around the fact that what the kids are trying to do is rather small. Then again, that’s kind of the point. This isn’t about getting everyone a free ride to Yale or anything. It’s about breaking a world record, which is a seriously kid-friendly concept. Still, it’s going to be difficult to sell this story to kids on that idea alone. “Hey, kids! Want to read about a class that glues tetrahedrons together?”. Booksellers and librarians are going to have to hand sell and booktalk this one on an individual level. And even then it’s not going to be a story for everyone. Add in the unattractive cover (note the school bus yellow shade) and you’ve a book that’s going to have to work to get people to pick it up. Once they do they’ll be fine. Just getting there is the difficulty.
To be honest, I don’t think this book is going to get the attention it deserves. But for those few lucky souls who get a chance to read it, “All of the Above” is a lively wonderful recount of a project that actually occurred at the Alexander Hamilton School in 2002. Pearsall lists every true fact that she has put in the book in her Author’s Note at the back and it offers the reader a sense of closure. This comes across as a fine title and one worth perusing. If you can, sneak it into the reading pile of a kid you know. You’ll find them pleasantly surprised.
On shelves September 6th.
Sunday, July 30, 2006
Okay, so here's the deal. I've all these incredibly smart computer pals who keep looking at my blog and saying things like, "Why don't you allow it to make you any money?". Which, I suppose, is a logical thing to ask. Other blogs don't seem to have any qualms about allowing tiny ads to nest in their vast white nooks and crannies. Why should I be any different? But I'm reluctant to make any changes to this blog without input by you, the viewers at home. Which brings me to...
Here is how it works. To the right, under my pretty pretty picture, lies a little poll that asks you what you prefer. How you the viewers vote in the next week, thusly shall I proceed. Smell that? That's the sweet smell of Democracy, my friends. *sniff* Ahhhhhhhh....
Off-Topic Posting of the Day
It's Sunday and Sunday's a good day for random smatterings of kookiness. The odds are good that quite a few of you have already seen this. Still, it holds up to repeated viewings.
Book Waitressing At Its Best
If any of you have ever harbored fantasies of what it would really be like to be a librarian for a day, allow this posting to scrub clean any idealism you may currently harbor. Never have I seen my profession more perfectly presented in so concise a format.
Review of the Day: Listen!
Nope. Don’t like dogs. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. I like ‘em fine. I just wouldn’t label myself a “dog person”. I’m not the kind of gal that goes all googley-eyed over the itty bitty puppy sitting across from me on the subway or who bursts into tears at the mere mention of Old Yeller’s name. As for dog books, I can take ‘em or leave ‘em. “Shiloh”? Fine, I guess. Not really my bag. “101 Dalmations”? Never read it. “Sounder”? Ditto. This is all to tell you that picking up “Listen!”, by Stephanie S. Tolan did not create any special pitter patters within my little heart. Dog on cover, thought I. How nice. I felt a bit wary since Tolan was the woman who wrote, “Surviving the Applewhites”, which I felt somewhat ‘meh’ about. So consider me mind-blowingly knocked back out of my seat surprised when about roughly three pages into this book I found myself thinking, “Hey! This is good! Quite exceptional!”. With so early a sense of acceptance, the fact that the book really and truly made me feel like a dog person is nothing short of miraculous. If you know a kid who loves dogs, a kid who loves cats, a kid who loves hot pink salamanders, or a kid who doesn’t like any kind of animal whatsoever, this is the book to hand them.
Charlene, a.k.a. Charley hasn’t had it easy lately. A year or two ago her mother died when she left to photograph the Amazon jungle. Then, a couple months ago, Charley was involved in a horrible car accident that rendered one of her legs in need of major reconstruction and physical therapy. Charley would prefer to stay indoors all the time if she could, but her father goads her into taking a walk one day just to prove that she can. En route, she sees something that bowls her over. A dog. A wild dog that’s been living in the woods, but a dog just the same. Turns out he’s a stray that has obviously suffered some abuse in the past and doesn’t trust any humans. Still, the dog is sweet, Charley can see that, and suddenly she has a purpose in life. She’s going to tame him. She’s going to tame Coyote (his new name). And while the process of taming is never easy and often deeply frustrating, Charley proves to be up to the challenge of getting someone to love her and trust her with their safety.
Recently a whole slew of children’s literature magazines have been lamenting the fact that the publishing world has been turning its attention almost entirely towards “middle grade fiction”. You know. Harry Potter-type fantasies and books averaging out at 600 pages plus. With that in the foreground of my mind I’ve been making a special effort to seek out any and all books that might appeal to those kids that don’t get excited by the prospect of reading a phone book-sized tome. In such a light as this, “Listen!”, is the answer to my prayers. First of all, there’s the fact that kids will actually like it. Really really like it. Credit where credit’s due, Tolan is infinitely readable. In “Listen!”, we’ve also some pretty fabulous writing on hand as well. This is a book all about relationships. The one between Charley and Coyote, Charley and her mother’s memory, Charley and her father, Charley and her friend Amy... and so on. Every person in the book, every character it seems, has a heart and a head and an independent mind. This is a book free of cliches and overdone ideas. It’s fresh, and that’s something the kids reading it are going to appreciate.
Tolan isn't afraid to leave a couple loose ends blowing about once the story is over. There’s the fact that while Charley learns and grows from her experiences, her father never does. Charley works through her grief and pain through sheer will. Her father, on the other hand, is still hiding behind his 80 hour workweeks by the end of the tale. He may have a newfound respect for his daughter and maybe he’s more inclined to stay and home and build a doghouse or something with her, but he hasn’t gone through what she has and it shows. While Charley will be able to move on with her life, her father may never be able to do so. It’s sad, but it feels true. Feels real.
Of course, I liked Tolan’s wordplay as well. She’s as comfortable having Charley call her trainer Tony a “physical terrorist” as she is saying that in the kitchen her father, “can make the opening of a box of cereal sound like small arms fire”. Then spotted throughout the text, Tolan displays her skill at conjuring up the visual. “The plates of the pine tree’s bark, layer after thin layer, form a jagged ring of concentric circles”. Luscious.
Admittedly, there is the whole Charley’s-mental-connection-to-Coyote thing to grapple with. Normally this kind of spiritual mumbo jumbo would set my teeth on edge. Credit Tolan then for doing the impossible. She takes a very realistic story and manages to weave in a small element that allows her heroine to get brief glimpses of the world through Coyote’s eyes without dragging the book down into some kind of supernatural hodgepodge. Since she’s dealing with a kind of Zen attitude towards nature and humanity’s relation towards it, she’s treading on thin ice to begin with. There’s a memory Charley has of her mother telling a hive of wasps that they won’t be harmed and shouldn’t sting her that could have been cutesy or unbelievable. The fact that it flows as beautifully as it does with the rest of the text speaks to how well the book holds together.
Now I’m going to have to be honest with you here. There may be another reason why I liked this book, and it probably will have very little connection to whether or not kids will like it too. For them, it’s all going to be about the relationship between Coyote and Charley. For me, it was the book’s attitude towards photography. Susan Sontag herself could hardly have written better child-friendly passages about the power of the captured image. Charley’s mother was a nature photographer and in communing better with the forest and its denizens, Charley begins to unravel why her mother was as good an artist as she was. I love photography deeply and everything Charley discovers felt true to me. And though I can’t vouch for them, it may well feel true to its child readers as well.
So let’s sum up, shall we? What we have here is a dog book, yes. But a dog book that is also a book about healing yourself and connecting to something bigger than your own puny existence. Throw in some great writing, a bit of photography, and some humor on the side (always important) and you’ve got yourself one of the strongest titles of the year. Fresh, fine, and funny, “Listen!”, is one of those books kids will find themselves reading and rereading for years to come. It has “classic” status stamped all over it. Best of all, you don’t even have to like dogs. A definite plus.
Saturday, July 29, 2006
Oodles of Jam
Let it never be said that New York gets all the cool stuff. West Yorkshire isn't doing too badly for itself with this touring production of The Wolves In the Walls.
Score Thus Far - Paul Acampora: 1 / Wall Street Journal: 0
I'm pretty much the last person to do this, but kudos to Paul Acampora for getting the real dirt on that lowly scum of a Wall Street Journal intern. Yes, folks. An intern wrote the why-don't-our-children-read-quality-literature-anymore broken record of an article. Acampora does some first class journalism that you'd think the WSJ would cultivate. In this case, as it appears, not so much.
Posting With the Punctuation Mark
Smart Semicolon is allowing bloggers to post their favorite review of the week on their site. For sheer variety's sake they're certainly worth a look. And a post, should you so desire.
20% Great, 20% Beautiful, 60% Terrible
Review of the Day: Isaac Newton
If we have Poetry Fridays in the kiddie-lit blogosphere, can we make Non-Fiction Week-ends? I'm just asking since I keep accidentally posting my non-fiction reads on Saturdays. Just a thought, Mr. Fox.
I like science in the way that I like foreign cars. It’s not something I’d usually focus my brain on, but I’m willing to give it some thought should the need arise. As a child, however, my heroes were not scientists. Scientists, I would have told you, are dull as dishwater human beings who never had a poetic or romantic thought in their lives. They were, for me, the epitome of dull dry brilliance. Trust Kathleen Krull then to write about a fellow who manages to prove my personal stereotypes both right and wrong at the same time. You might be able to make a case for Isaac Newton having never had a romantic thought in his life. But dull? Honey, this guy was so wham-bang whizzing crazy that his mere existence itself makes for a fabulous bio. The “Giants of Science” series has a way of making anyone and everyone it touches look interesting. But with Mr. Newton, it sure doesn’t seem like they needed much help.
He was born on Christmas Day in 1642 in rural England. An unwanted child, Isaac was shuttled amongst various relatives and essentially ignored by his mother and stepfather. In fact, his stepfather was so against Isaac’s mere existence that the marriage contract was careful to state that the boy was not allowed even allowed in the man's home. The boy grew up solitary and unendingly curious. He worked for an apothecary at one point, attended Cambridge, and was incredibly religious. He was also, “secretive, vindictive, withdrawn, obsessive, and, oh, yes, brilliant”. With a bit of historical panache, Krull brings Newton’s life into powerful focus. Whether he was erasing all memory of his deceased enemies, staring at the sun in “experiments”, fearing any and all forms of publication, or just making the lives of those around him just a little bit difficult, Newton made up in smarts what he lacked in charm.
Aw, man. This title's good. Heck, even the science in this book makes sense. And what small passages don’t make sense are easily skipped by those readers who wish to learn more about the kind of guy who’d poke things into his eyes for experiments. Having recently finished Joan Dash’s Benjamin Franklin biography, “A Dangerous Engine”, which consisted of wading through deep tracts of scientific jargon, Isaac Newton’s calculus comes across like clarification incarnate.
What I liked most about this book, however, was how much I never knew about this familiar name. For example, Newton’s fear of publication was one of the more interesting aspects to his personality. He didn’t want to publish any of his ideas for fear of someone stealing them. On the other hand, he was absolutely incensed if anyone came up with an idea even a bit close to one of his own theories. In this way, Newton comes across as a spoiled selfish child. He has lots of pretty toys to play with, but he doesn’t want anyone to borrow any of them, even for a little while. He was not prepared for the “sharing-and-getting-feedback part of science”, as Krull puts it. In fact he was so protective that even when he wanted to prove he’d invented calculus first, he explained it in a letter in code. A code that only he had the key to. You can imagine how well THAT went down.
Krull is, by the way, the queen of the fabulous child-friendly bio. If you've not had a chance to read one of her “Lives of the … “ books, consider yourself truly wretched. What sets her apart from other biographers is that she always seems to have the child reader foremost in her mind. As such, these bios become truly interesting, even when their subject is not. Best of all, she’s not one of those biographers that wade about knee deep in speculation, rumor, and hearsay just to fill a few pages. Isaac Newton could have been gay, you say? Perhaps, but while Krull will mention the theory she’ll do so in a way that makes it clear that we have no hard evidence one way or another on the matter. How could we when it was such a dangerous thing to be, back in the 1600s? The book even brings up the occasional contemporary reference as well. When Isaac first comes to Cambridge, Krull compares what he must have felt to, “the thrill that entering Hogwarts School was to the young Harry Potter”. Clear as crystal, that feeling. And when Newton is at last in charge of the Royal Society? Krull describes his reign as “slimy”, and no word could possibly be better suited to his actions.
And none of what I’ve mentioned even touches on how Newton used to work long and hard on alchemy, or served in Parliament and never said a word, or even how he only did so-so in school. With Ms. Krull to guide us, the reader sees both the good and the bad in this brilliant man. If nothing else, this book would be well-worth considering since it shows that you can be a genius and a jerk all at the same time. Brilliance does not preclude nastiness. As scientific bios go, this is a top notch addition to any and all libraries. Perhaps the finest children’s biography of Newton ever conceived. Top drawer! Top drawer.
Friday, July 28, 2006
The justification: Okay, let's see. I'm a children's librarian. Librarians must make oodles of flyers and hand-outs for their branches. As such, they need to use a lot of clip art (still with me?). And what better way to celebrate such a need then with this hilarious posting?
The compromise: Obviously you guys don't care whether or not I stay topic as fully as I myself care. So here's what I'll do. Every day I can post one item that has only a tangential connection to children's literature. I don't want to turn into one of those Gee, Ain't This Funny blogs that are spotted throughout the internet. I just want to occasionally share things that are especially funny. Bad clip art, for example. Like this one...
Well, That's One Way To Separate Yourself From Your Best Known Role
Tired of everyone thinking you're Harry Potter? Try riding a horse naked in front of large crowds of people. Daniel Radcliff is soon to star in Equus. Says Radcliff's spokesperson, "nudity was not the focus of the play". Nope. Wasn't the focus of Hair either, but that's what we all remember it for, don't we?
Many thanks to A Chair, A Fireplace, and A Tea Cozy for the news.
A Book You Should Probably Know
Review of the Day: Blackbeard, the Pirate King
Arrr. Tis Poetry Friday, me hearties. Let us gather round the old blog and put on bad pirate accents until this whim of mine passes. Arrr.
National Geographic publishers have turned their sights to the world of poetry, it seems. But not your namby-pamby flowers and sunshine type poems. No, sir. Poems with blood. Poems with gunfire. Poems with pirates! And what better way to celebrate all things piratical than with a little Blackbeard action, eh? With all things pirate hotter now than ever, the time is ripe for a book that can be part biography and part illustrated history. Throw in a couple pirate poems and the concept is a touch confusing, but no less amusing. Author J. Patrick Lewis culls together what little we know about Blackbeard's life and sets it ah-rhyming. Though a bit awkward and difficult to follow, I can think of no better work of poetry to hand to those boys forced to do poetry book reports against their will. Or, for that matter, pirate loving lasses.
The book is twelve poems, each of which documents a significant moment in Blackbeard's life. From his early days as Edward Teach to his eventual piratical apprenticeship under Benjamin Hornigold, Lewis weaves together fact and myth to bring us the a book that appreciates Blackbeard at his best. With lush color illustrations from such artists as Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, and some contemporary works as well, the book is a bright brassy alluring look at a most notorious and mysterious historical figure.
The poetry itself is rather good. It scans beautifully and even tries for different poetic forms here and there. I can't tell my stanza from my ode, but I know enough about the art to know that Lewis is comfortable in escaping the standard a,b,a,b rhyme schemes so favored by lesser children's poets. I, for one, would have enjoyed a couple more sea shanties, of course. I mean, when you think of rhyming pirates you have one of two images leap to mind. Either "The Pirates of Penzance" or sea shanties. And if you're an original author, definitely go with the shanties every time.
One of the essential problems with this book is how the information is presented to the reader. If you happen to know Blackbeard's biography by heart then you should have no trouble reading the poems and figuring out what they refer to. For each section Lewis presents a picture, a poem, and, in tiny type, an explanation of the aforementioned at the bottom of the page. Sometimes these explanations clear up the poetry. Sometimes they don't. For the full story you have to flip to the back of the book and read through the Blackbeard Time Line. In terms of history and interest, this information should really be at the front of the book. I suppose the publisher figured the poem "The Brethren of the Coast" with its image of one man sword fighting with another made for a better opener. Still, for clarity's sake, I'd prefer a little history before my poetry. Or at least facts first, artistic license second. Though, of course, sometimes even the explanations leave one out in the cold. When we learn that Blackbeard would hold contests of some sort where he would, "light several ... pots of sulfur, close the hatches, and challenge his men to see who could stay below deck the longest", we're not entirely certain why this would be hard. An adult can probably figure out that sulfur stinks terribly and to stay would be near to intolerable. Child readers, on the other hand, are going to have to read a lot into the Frank Earle Schoonover painting that accompanies this info (an image which is more than a little oblique). That said, the facts that are here are fascinating. Blackbeard may have been born in Philadelphia... or maybe Bristol, England... or perhaps London, Jamaica. He eventually was pardoned by the English king in Bath, North Carolina and even settled down with a wife. Then he was off pirating again. That time period would make an excellent bit of historical fiction speculation, don't you think? I also loved the idea that someone could be apprenticed to a pirate. Not to bring it up again, but how much more "Pirates of Penzance" can you get?
Good rhyming pirate books are few and far between. Should you have a kid who would like to pair this with a slightly goofier outing, might I suggest grabbing a copy of Lisa Wheeler's, "Seadogs" as well. The timing of the publication of this book couldn't be better. Pirates are hot hot hot stuff. So when the next Talk Like a Pirate Day rolls around (September 19th) I hope you remember to pluck this pirate-laden book of Blackbeard fun off of your shelves for a look-see. It's flawed but still a lot of fun. Arrrghh!
Thursday, July 27, 2006
Finally. An Excuse To Link To Go Fug Yourself.
Perhaps the most obvious sign that there's not much in the way of children's literature news around and about is when I start linking to the blog that just got itself a new book deal. But LOOK! They made a reference to Roald Dahl's The Twits! That counts for something, right? Right?
Eh, who gives a rip?
Is funny. Is all I care.
Hulk (re: Me) Smash!
You know who knows far more about children's reading habits, preferences, and what's "good" for them than trained children's literture specialists? The Wall Street Journal. No, really! According to them we're raising a nation of "cereal-box readers" because our kids aren't perusing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in their spare time. Should you wish to feel the delightful taste of bile rising to the back of your throat, check out this article on how the Children's Book Council and ALSC are single-handedly destroying our nation's youth. Special thanks to Jen Robinson who also posted Shannon Hale's response.
And many many thanks to bookshelves of doom for the links.
From Her Lips To Your Screen
Ease On Down the Road
From the ever informative J.L. Bell, news has reached our fair ears that there is to be a new production of The Wiz in San Diego with a couple stars attached. Says Broadway.com:
Principal casting as been announced for The Wiz, directed by Des McAnuff, at La Jolla Playhouse. The cast will feature Nikki M. James as Dorothy, Wayne Brady as the Scarecrow, Tituss Burgess as the Lion, Michael Benjamin Washington as the Tinman, David Alan Grier as The Wiz, E. Faye Butler as Evillene, Valarie Pettiford as Aunt Em and Glinda, Heather Lee as Addaperle and Orville Mendoza as Uncle Henry.Some of this I knew already but was holding out for confirmation. My l'il sis is, as I have mentioned before, attached to a Midwestern children's show called Come On Over. The show was going to get Mr. Brady as a special guest but he had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict with, you guessed it, The Wiz. Now they've other guests in the works but it's all very hush hush so I can say no more. You know how it is in the shady world of children's television programming. I could potentially wake up some morning to find the puppet head of a horse in my bed if I squeal. In any case, a big thank you to Oz and Ends for the news.
I Was Born In Dusseldorf and That Is Why They Call Me Rolf
The odds are good that out of the hundreds of people that read this blog, someone somewhere is going to find this offensive. I understand that and I sympathize. However, when my husband showed this to me I laughed till I cried. And I don't do that normally. This is the funniest thing I have ever seen in my life but I DO NOT recommend it become a children's book.
Review of the Day: Water Street
For a woman who lives in Connecticut, Patricia Reilly Giff certainly seems to be single-handedly creating more quality New York historical fiction than most of the actual residents. I’ve always had a kind of touch and go relationship with Giff. On the one hand, she’s a master of children’s literature. When you want to talk about authors who will be remembered for generations and have long elaborate books written about their works, few are as clear a shoo-in as Ms. Giff. On the other hand, I’ve a low depressing-children’s-book tolerance. I loved A House of Tailors, merrily traipsed through Pictures of Hollis Woods, and found myself knee-deep in rotten potatoes with Nory Ryan’s Song. About there, however, I found I could not pick up Maggie’s Door, no matter how good everyone said it was. Were it not for unforeseen circumstances I might never have found Water Street sitting merrily on my lap, waiting to be read. So read it I did, albeit with more than a little trepidation. Sporting what I consider to be the prettiest l’il ole cover ever given to a Patricia Reilly Giff book, “Water Street” has the power to win over even the thickest of critics (re: me). Engaging and true, this is a comforting return to familiar characters sans harrowing passages and the eating of limpets.
Nory Ryan immigrated from Ireland to America. This we know. Now, however, Nory’s grown up to be a healer in Brooklyn and her daughter, Bird, is following in her footsteps. Thirteen-year-old Bird wants to learn to heal just like her mother does, but there are other things pecking at her attention. There’s the slow building of the Brooklyn Bridge that some consider a bit of late 19th century folly. And there’s that new boy, Thomas, who just moved in above Bird’s apartment. Thomas is the only son of a drunken, if kindly, lout and he immediately gravitates to both Bird and her kin. As a result he’s unofficially adopted by the family and is pulled into their problems. Bird, while visiting a harrowing bit of bloody healing, suddenly is re-examining her calling. More frightening still, her older brother Hughie is getting into bar fights and shaming the family. As Bird and Thomas begin to rely more and more on one another they grow, face difficulties head on, and embody 1875 Brooklyn at its best.
Some books feel like a pair of comfortable shoes you can just slip on. In contrast to some of Giff’s more harrowing titles, “Water Street” just feels… good. Obviously there’s a bit of violence, anguish, and pain here and there. This is old-timey Brooklyn, after all. But somehow in the midst of all this “Water Street” is never anything but a joy to read. The plots and problems of the characters tie together nicely (perhaps too nicely for some). There’s an arc to the tale, and a wonderful solution to the mystery of Hughie’s actions. And as always, Giff spots her text with tasty descriptive snippets like, “…and then there was a quick memory of that man standing at their door once, his face like an apple that had browned and lost its juice, complaining that they hadn’t paid the bill on time”.
As with any book that continues a character or family’s tale, one has to figure out whether or not reading its predecessors is a necessary step in order to appreciate the current story. Consider Patricia Reilly Giff the queen of the stand-alone narrative. Though fans of the first two Nory Ryan books will get a little more out of “Water Street” than first time fans, reading the previous titles is definitely not a prerequisite. Would that other authors could say as much.
For all its comfort and delights, “Water Street”, is probably not Giff’s best work. It’s admirable but not exceptional. Nonetheless, I’ve little doubt that for a certain segment of the greater child population out there, “Water Street” will become a favorite for years to come. Beautifully written and containing an inner dignity, this is one of more enjoyable children’s books to hit the market in 2006.
On shelves September 12th.
Be sure to check out Patricia Reilly Giff's website too.
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Best. Title. Ever.
As written by a small child, you may locate the best title ever here. Not the blog's title. The one mentioned in the posting.
Jews For Rainbow Fish
Animals That Should Get Their Own Children's Books - Part 2
I'm sure you're all very blase about your echidna knowledge.
Blah blah blah, it's a monotreme, blah blah blah it belongs to the Zaglossus genus. But did you know it could blow bubbles? Huh?
Dude, that's a shot that doesn't even need illustration. Just plop that puppy on the cover of a book and watch copies fly off the shelves. Thanks, as always, to BB-Blog.
How a Children's Book Gets Made - Blog Edition
I don't suppose I ever really realized that the production of a book from start to finish can be traced entirely in blogs. Trust Aussie The Thinkings of a Lili to come up with a particularly clever posting that charts every step of the way blogwise.
Review of the Day: Blue
Ah, historical fiction. Though it was the bane of my youth, in my old age I’m finding the subject infinitely more interesting that I ever did as an actual kid. I was always the child who’d rather eyeball the latest Anne McCaffery rather than choke down an Elizabeth George Speare. Now I almost look forward to delights like “Blue”. Especially when they have covers as engaging as this one. Evoking more than a few “To Kill a Mockingbird” feelings through its cover art, Joyce Moyer Hostetter brings us a tale of racism, polio, and war. It’s also a story of love, sheer will, and small acts of heroism. And though I’d some problems with Hostetter’s methods, this is one of the best-researched thoroughly engaging tales of 1944-45 you’ll find this year.
Ann Fay Honeycutt's father's going to war. It’s 1944 and American troops are constantly shipping out. Before he leaves, Ann Fay’s daddy hands her a pair of overalls and informs his eldest daughter that she’s going to have to be the man of the house while he’s gone. Ann Fay feels up to the job, taking care of her siblings and tending the family’s garden in her dad’s absence. Unfortunately, there’s a polio epidemic in this part of North Carolina and before anyone knows it the dread disease grabs ahold of Ann Fay’s little brother Bobby. Now Ann Fay has to deal with a horribly depressed mother and twin little sisters all in the midst of remaining under a quarantine. When Ann Fay herself comes down with polio, however, she makes the acquaintance of a colored girl and begins to accept what has happened to her with a kind of grace.
Now I have a low down-home-folksy-goodness-mixed-with-hopeful-wisdom tolerance. It’s why I’ll never be able to join in with my children’s librarian brethren in loving books like, “Ida B” by Katherine Hannigan or anything by Joan Bauer. And for a minute there, “Blue”, had me seriously worried. There are occasional moments that gave me real pause. Imogene, the African-American girl Ann Fay befriends, has a section on “God’s bottle collection” that teeters on the edge of preciousness. And I never could quite get used to Hostetter’s choice of having Ann Fay’s narration written in a kind of southern dialogue. Sometimes she’ll be talking in the past tense but put a word in the present (ex: “... ever since his daddy’s heart give out a few years ago”). But by and large the book’s emotional impact is true and packs a wallop. I won’t give anything away plotwise, but there’s a moment on Ann Fay’s porch when she’s watching a fly land and take off that positively wrings the stuffing out of you. For a moment I wondered if this book would be classified by some kids as “depressing”. But for all the sad moments in the tale there are just as many cheery or upbeat ones. Of course, this isn’t a happy-go-lucky tale of how great it was to be alive in 1944. There were problems and “Blue” takes them all into account. As for North Carolina 1940s colloquialism, it’s hard to find phrases any more authentic than, “Your momma always said I spit you right out of my mouth”.
And boy, oh boy, you have NEVER seen polio better represented than it is here. I’ve always had a vague sense of what the disease did to you. I knew you could lose the use of your legs, just as FDR did. What I never considered was how painful that process could be. It’s just awful. And Hostetter’s well-researched encapsulation of the treatments for it are enough to make your blood run cold. Having recently read Gary Paulsen’s fictional biography, “The Legend of Bass Reeves”, which didn’t have any bibliographic information whatsoever, you can imagine my delight when I came to the end of “Blue” and found all kinds of fascinating facts. There’s an Author’s Note that separates the truth in this story from the fiction. There’s a list of books about polio, books about FDR, books about WWII, videos on the subjects, and novels for kids that’s so in-depth and pleasant, I’ve little doubt that teachers everywhere will be creating luscious lesson plans out of Hostetter’s hard work.
And Hostetter isn’t just talented at factual information. She knows how to write a good scene and pull together a host of thematic ideas. In many ways this book is about how unpleasant it is to have to make the cross from childhood into adulthood. Between her mother’s incapacitating depression, her brother’s illness, having to look after her sisters, her father overseas fighting a war, and the quarantine placed on her by her neighbors, Ann Fay has to be the resident adult. It sounds fun when your dad, leaving, hands you a pair of overalls and tells you to be the man of the house. It’s not so fun having to do adult chores and having adult worries when you’re only thirteen. This thought really coalesces when Ann Fay is facing a patch of particularly gruesome wisteria head on. Until now wisteria has always been her friend. She has a little hideaway in the midst of its roots she calls Wisteria Mansion. Now it’s threatening her victory garden and she has to fight it as hard as her father did. “Wisteria used to make me feel nothing but happy. But suddenly I saw why it put my daddy in such a blue mood. I hadn’t wanted to see it his way. I wanted to think of it only as the beautiful wall to my mansion. I wanted to hang on to sunny days with sweet purple petals raining down on me and Peggy Sue”. This, better than anything, is the tragedy of what happens to Ann Fay. She hits adulthood head-on and can't afford to look back.
To be blunt, I think Hostetter was doing just fine without bringing the issue of racism into the forefront of her story on page 121. When Imogene suddenly pops into the tale, her presence is fine, but it felt like the story was suddenly switching gears. Now the growing up too fast tale was turning into a tale of Southern racism... sorta. I mean, let’s examine the facts here. Ann Fay is a lower income resident of North Carolina in 1944 and she has absolutely no opinions on the African-Americans she’s seen all her life? Her parents have never expressed any opinions one way or another? It took a bit of stretching of my credulity to get around that particular thought. Not that Hostetter doesn’t cover her bases well. Ann Fay’s father isn’t exactly receptive to the idea of his daughter hanging out with a colored girl when they’re both well again. I’m not saying she doesn’t do a fine job with that particular storyline. It just seems extraneous. Like a sudden feeling of “Oh! I should be talking about racism too!”, kinda deal. It was a tale that didn’t fit in with Ann Fay’s previous struggles.
Well, there’s strength and weakness to “Blue”, but I’m just pointing out the small things that bugged me because the good things were so strong. Hostetter’s got a mess of talent at her disposal, and I certainly hope that alongside her previous book, “Best Friends Forever”, she continues to write up a storm. This is one of the finer titles of the year, no question. Well-researched, well-written, and certainly bound to be well-loved. Problematic in the best possible ways.
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
A Contemporary Little House Range War
If this is how the legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder is being treated, I hate to think of the potential fights over the Betsy-Tacy books.
Hey, Kids! Let's Watch Some Mitchum!
Here are two little lists of varying interest. They're pretty self-explanatory.
The 50 films You Should See By the Age of 14 As Chosen By the British Film Institute:
1. Spirited Away (2001) - Animated Japanese film about gods and sorcerers
2. The Wizard of Oz (1939) - Musical classic
3. Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959) - French 12-year-old turns into a hellraiser
4. The Night of the Hunter (1955) - Robert Mitchum as a serial killer in America's Deep South
5. Where is My Friend's House? (1987) - One of Iranian director Kiarostami's earlier works
6. Show Me Love (1998) - Coming-of-age tale of two Swedish girls
7. Toy Story (1995) - Buzz Lightyear and Woody brought to life by computer animation
8. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) - Steven Spielberg's sci-fi tearjerker
9. Bicycle Thieves (1948) - Italian film focusing on life after World War II
10. Kes (1969) - Gritty working class British drama
List of Top Ten Movies Every Child Should See Before Age Fourteen Survey ofCanadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) Listeners (2006):
1. My Neighbor Totoro
3. The Princess Bride
5. The Dark Crystal
6. Peter Pan
7. The Adventures of Robin Hood
8. To Kill a Mockingbird
9. Cinema Paradiso
10. The Miracle Worker
I'm not even gonna comment on this. Nope. Zippa da lips, that me.
Willow? Night of the Hunter? What is up with the other English speaking countries out there?
Pac-Man Fever. Driving Me Crazy.
Fear not, little children. As awful as some of the kiddie lit publishing choices are today, you can always fall back on this piece of essential knowledge. No matter how bad it gets, the 80s were worse.
Hot Men of Children's Literature: Part 22 In a Series
This week we're going for a fellow with facial hair. By and large, the Hot Men of this list are clean-faced fellows with some notable exceptions. Today's fella has a bit of a goatee going on. I present to you comic creator turned picture book author...
And he likes pets. So... there you go, I guess. The extra added benefit of Mr. McDonnell's inclusion is that my library's moniker is concealed within his last name. Here's his website in case you'd like more McDonnell goodness.
I cannot give enough praise to my darling little SiteMeter. Without it I might never have found A Year In Reading, which is a charming blog by two teachers who are attempting, in the course of their reading, to find the next Newbery. And because of them I discovered the Book-a-Minute site. The title's a touch misleading. It's more along the Book-a-15-Seconds deal, but we won't hold them to it. My favorite?
The Giving TreeC'est manifique!
By Shel Silverstein
Ultra-Condensed by Dan Donahue
I can't believe you cut that tree down, you jerk.
Review of the Day: The Legend of Bass Reeves
I was recently at the ALA Conference in New Orleans sitting in on a Random House presentation at an hour that, to me, was far too early. As a result, I was having difficulty keeping awake, and only the stack of goodies on my seat (free books and the like) were keeping my eyes occupied. Still, all the upcoming books from Random House sounded good. There were some favorite authors I’d been wanting to read and some new names I wanted to check out. But it really wasn’t until I heard someone explain what The Legend of Bass Reeves by Gary Paulsen was that I found myself awake and all my cylinders clicking. When I heard the story behind this book it was akin to an electric current in my bloodstream. Bass Reeves. Perhaps the only truly heroic man to bring law and order to the Old West. A man who never shot first, never was wounded in a gun battle, and was renowned for his steady trigger finger. Now here’s the kicker. Not only was this man real, but he was a former slave as well. I was hooked then and after reading this book I'm still as hooked as ever. I may have some quibbles with how Paulsen chose to present his information, but you cannot get around the fact that there's some juicy info and child-friendly tidbits filling up this fabulous children's title.
Now think of some heroes of the Old West. Kit Carson. Wild Bill Hickok. Billy the Kid. We know them from their movies and their legends. Trouble is, even the tiniest bit of scrutiny will reveal how lame these so-called heroes really were. Kit Carson was an egomaniac killer with a posse of other killers by his side. Hickock was an alcoholic loser who died drunk when he was shot while gambling. And Billy the Kid... heck, my own great-grandmother was scared to death of the sociopath when she was living in Oklahoma, back in the day. Nope, there’s just one guy who might be truly considered a “hero”, and you’ve never even heard of him. His name was Bass Reeves. Taking his life into his hands, Paulsen reconstructs the life Reeves could have led. We see the boy living with his mother and owner (a man he simply calls, “Mister”) in Texas, scraping out a life as best he can. When Bass’s dignity gets him into trouble he leaves home and lives in the wild for a couple of years. After joining up with a Creek tribe he eventually became a U.S. Marshall, and his legend was without comparison. Whether the book is riding fast on the trail of a murderous horse stealer, or showing Bass rescuing a child from rabid wolves, the book is anything but dull.
When authors want to bring to life African-American lives from the past, they often find themselves in a bit of a bind. What with poor record keeping, racism, and time itself, records of blacks from the past are spotty at best. Unless you’re dealing with someone recent or incredibly well-known, you’re not going to be able to find much information. If you’re an author, what recourse do you have? Well, you might want to try your hand at publishing a work of non-fiction. Maritcha by Tonya Bolden is an excellent example of an author bending over backwards to put an African-American girl from the 1800s in historical perspective. That’s one way to go about it. The other is to do what Gary Paulsen has tried here. Fictionalize the life of this person, all the while interweaving your story with the facts that we know. In this way the book is split between three sections that tell us facts about the real Bass Reeves and three sections that imagine what his life might have been like.
It was surprising to find that Paulsen choose to spend so little time concentrating on Reeves’s life as a lawman. Instead, the real focus of the book is of Bass as both boy slave and free young man. Paulsen says as much in his Author’s Note when he writes, “The part about his boyhood is the longest because to me it was the most important part of his life, the fire that forged him”. It was a good idea to do this, in retrospect. Kids may enjoy reading about a hero, but they’re going to identify with him more readily if they see him first as a boy. As always, Paulsen is adept at slipping with seemingly little effort into the rough and tumble world of the Old West. His writing falls gracefully onto each and every page. At one point Bass must run away from his owner and his mother bestows on him the advice, “don’t stop until you har a man call you Mister”. Trust Paulsen to make succinct an emotional powderkeg or two.
I would have enjoyed the book a little more thoroughly if not for a few unexpected inklings here and there. There is the presentation of the Native Americans to consider. In, "Bass Reeves", Paulsen has taken to showing the Comanches at the height of their violence. In this book they scalp, torture, and basically terrorize the white settlers. It was a peculiar sensation, reading a children’s book that featured this kind of Indian representation. There are lines that gave me pause too. When Bass sees a Comanche warrior close by the book says, “He felt like he was looking at some ... some wild being that had never been broken, never been tamed”. I get a mite bit testy when any human in any book is compared to an animal. Now let me clarify here that Paulsen is very very careful not to lump all Native Americans into one big old group. The Comanches are always referred to as Comanches. They aren’t called just “Indians” or are seen to represent all native peoples. Paulsen is careful to relate the history of the Native Americans under the hand of the U.S. Government, including an in-depth section on The Trail of Tears. He draws an elegant comparison with the Bataan Death March which fits nicely into the narrative. Still, I wish I could have been more comfortable with his Native American characters. When Bass rescues a little girl who was attacked and bitten by wolves the story says, “though he know she must be in considerable pain, she was absolutely silent in his arms”. A bit of the old stalwart Indian stereotype or just how this particular girl reacted to her situation? The stilted language of the Creek Tribe did the same thing to me. A stereotype of Native American speech or an accurate replication of how they would sound with an unfamiliar English language? At the very least, it’ll make you sit up and think.
But then there’s the book’s remarkable take on Reeves’s life. Paulsen plays up the man’s heroism beautifully. Consider the passage, “He’d ride alone into what many men called the center of hell and bring the men out – alive, if possible, or, if necessary, draped dead over a horse. He did this three thousand times”. And the guy started doing this when he was fifty-one. Fifty-one! By the time he’s seventy and tracking down his own personal Moriarty you’re absolutely with the novel 100% This is amazing, fabulous, exciting stuff. The stuff of legends, if legends had to be made out of any one man.
So with all this fascinating subject matter I was more than a little put out to find that this book hadn’t even the slightest hint of a Bibliography or listing of sources. What gives? Gary Paulsen didn’t pluck Reeves’s life from the breeze. He didn’t turn on his faucet and pour these facts into a cup. He didn’t conjure them in the dead of night under a tawny yellow moon. So why aren’t we allowed to learn more about Bass on our own? The answer, I guess, must be that Paulsen didn’t want to confuse the child readers into thinking that the fictionalized parts of this book were factual. Honestly, this is the only answer I can come up with. I left this book wanting to know more more more. It’s not a child’s biography, but kids wanting to know more about Mr. Reeves may wish to check out the well-reviewed, “Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life And Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves”, by Art T. Burton, for further insights.
It wasn’t quite the book I wanted it to be, but don’t let any of this make you think that “The Legend of Bass Reeves” isn’t still just the best rousing action laden, exciting, hero-inspiring Gary Paulsen work to trot down the line in the long long time. And as Old West children’s fiction goes, this is the book I’m going to pull out each and every time when a kid asks for historical Old West fiction for a book report. It’s got more spirit and energy than any other book of its kind. A well-written tribute to a too little known man. Reeves never had a movie made about him. Hopefully someone will read this book and take a little notice.
On shelves August 8th.
Monday, July 24, 2006
Smee = KITT?
But Will It Play In Peoria?
What makes a classic a classic? One Prof. John Paul Russo, chair of the University of Miami's Classics Department seems to have an answer. Unfortunately the Miami Herald article that discusses the issue had this to say as well:
What about children's literature? Any classics there? Yes, Russo said: Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh and works by Beatrix Potter. He's sure there will eventually be sci-fi and fantasy classics, but he doesn't think Harry Potter will ever make the grade.Considering that the books he prefers tend to fall into the Nothing-After-Pooh years, I'm hardly surprised that the fellow poo-poos Harry P. I also love that the very idea of "classic" children's literature would be up for debate.
The Adventures of Pete and ....
From the sheer number of Peter Pan posts on this blog you'd think I was some kinda fan. I'm not, for the record. The book has long since been placed on my Um, What Is That Book Trying To Say? shelf. But Pete's all over the news these days. Just in, an article from Australia's The Age on Geraldine McCaughrean's upcoming official Peter Pan sequel, Peter Pan in Scarlet. McCaughrean is to be commended for pointing out the original story's darkness. And let's face it. Whatever she writes is going to have to be better than the Barry/Ridley prequel monstrosities currently hitting our shelves. Ironic, no? I find the original story disturbing but hand me a prequel that doesn't adhere strictly to Barrie's vision and suddenly I'm overwhelmed with outrage. Fickle fickle me.
Thank you Kids Lit for the link.
First of all, I'd like to send a big beautiful raspberry to Blogger for being so freakin' annoying this morning, post-wise. PHHHHHHHHHHTTTTTTTTT!
Secondly, hello. Good morning. I've some good news for you here. Kelly Herold has brought to us on this fine and frisky Monday morn a delightful Carnival of Children's Literature. Lots of lovely links are available, including one to this site wherein this author speaks at length of the dangers of shaving one's eyebrows with a razor before a Newbery/Caldecott Banquet. Consider it a life lesson learned.
Review of the Day: Victory
Certain authors publish with an aura of definite mystique. Lloyd Alexander, for one, can still elicit a certain thrill when his books sit on a shelf. Ditto Philip Pullman. But of all these fellows, not a one of them can hold a candle to the majesty and plum good writing of Ms. Susan Cooper. Her "The Dark Is Rising" sequence is still the go to series when it comes to Celtic myth and Arthurian legend. It was with great shock that I discovered a couple years ago that not only had she written comic pieces (as with "The Boggart") and time travel ("King of Shadows") but that she was STILL WRITING. Somehow I'd assumed "The Dark Is Rising" books were written decades ago solely for my own enjoyment and that the author had long since passed on to another world. Hardly. It is fortunate indeed that "Victory" proves how wrong I was. Not quite a time travel book, but not quite realistic fiction either, this latest Cooper saga follows two children, inexplicably tied to one another. And while it's not the author's finest work, there's no denying the fine fabulous writing that has gone into it.
Molly's world has fallen totally and irreparably apart. A logical girl, she understands why she and her family have moved from London, England to Connecticut. She knows that her new stepfather and stepbrother are fine fellows and that her house and room are bigger and more beautiful than anything she's ever had before. She knows this. However, Molly is so homesick for England that she'll hold on to anything that might tie her to it as if it were a lifeline. When a book of the life of Lord Nelson falls into her possession, Molly starts finding herself connected to the life of a boy who lived hundreds of years before her own. Sam Robbins was, during the time of the Napoleonic wars, pressed into serving on Horatio Nelson's ship. Once he is on The Victory, Sam finds himself both horrified and awed by his experience as one of the crew's powder monkeys. Told in alternating chapters, the book charts Molly's journey back to her former home to visit The Victory today, and Sam's journey over the seas on the boat he would soon regard as his own.
Because the book is shifting continually between the present and the past, Cooper sometimes writes herself into an interesting predicament. On the one hand you have Molly, who's misery is palpable. Cleverly, Cooper allows the reader to feel the child's homesickness and sheer unhappiness just as if it were their own. We are utterly sympathetic. At the same time, though, Cooper has coupled this tale alongside Sam's story. There is a moment in the book where Sam has just been forced to wear an iron bar in his mouth for three days as punishment for something he mistakenly did. He cannot eat or drink or sleep and the bar cuts painfully into his skin, drawing blood. The chapter ends after the bolt is removed and suddenly we're back with Molly who's problems, let's face it, shrivel up and dry in the face of Sam's agony. As I read the book I wondered if Cooper was aware that the reader might not sympathize with Molly as keenly once they'd been introduced to Sam's torturous situation. I needn't have feared. I suspect that Cooper knew exactly what she was doing when she paired Sam's tale with that of Molly's because at that moment the reader starts to feel that the Molly dilemma can only be solved if she herself understands how small her problems really are. The climax comes when Molly does realize this in an almost violent but necessary fashion.
A co-worker of mine started reading the book, but stopped when she found it dull. I was fascinated by this reaction, especially since I've been wondering how kids would react to this story. Would they be bored? Thrilled? I think Molly's contemporary tale is definitely necessary. I suppose the first image of the funeral march for Lord Nelson might be a bit slow as beginnings go, but once Molly is thrown head over heels into the ocean as her step-brother and step-father sail, the tale definitely picks up. Of course, it's filled to brimming with ship terms. And there's quite a lot of discussion of how the ship is laid out. Interestingly enough I kept suddenly envisioning the layout of the ships found in "The Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. I suspect that if you wanted to make a reader reluctant to pick up this story, just explain to them that there are ship fights similar to those in the "Pirates" movies. I can't guarantee that that would work, but it's certainly worth a shot.
But you know, it's just all about the writing, isn't it? The little moments that separate the good books from the so-so ones. Cooper has a couple of those up her sleeve. One of the story's more touching details is the fact that Molly adores her new little baby step-brother, Donald. At one point the family is on the Tube in London and Donald is alarmed by the loud noises. Molly plays peek-a-boo with him to cheer him up. "All the surrounding grownups watch, with nostalgia soft in their faces, except one thin man in a tight dark suit, who retreats behind a newspaper with a disdainful sniff". I could never tell you why, but that's one of my favorite moments in the book. Cooper's writing never lightens the story's tough situations, by the way. Sam is pressed into service with the Navy against his will and the ship situation is gritty, gory, and thoroughly unpleasant. Just the same, you get a hint of why Sam felt that it should become his life's work, no matter what.
Boy, I sure hope that a huge swath of kids today are Anglophiles. Between "Endymion Spring" trying to convince them that Oxford is a hip youth hang-out and Ms. Cooper giving us a hearty heaping of Lord Nelson facts, the time has never been better to be enamored of all things English. With it's almost too tasteful cover and whopping great amounts of historical fiction ah-flowing through its gills, "Victory" is probably not going to be the first book the kids pick up when they walk into a library or bookstore. For those with a penchant for both history and realism, however, they may well find much to love here. Enjoyable indeed.
Sunday, July 23, 2006
Animals That Should Get Their Own Children's Books
We've a new feature here at A Fuse #8 Production. What with the relative derth of children's news (and by "derth" I mean "news I'm too lazy to seek out and find when Big A little a does such a fine job already") once in a while we'll turn to those rarely admired creatures of the living world that lack representation in kiddie lit. Earlier this week we admired and coiled in repulsion away from the amazing R.O.U.S. lookalike, the almiqui. Now I've found something even better. Reports on these animals call them the Killer Kangaroo and Duck of Doom. With a title like that, I can already envision the graphic novel...
Una Produccion del Fusible #8
Sometimes my l'il ole Sitemeter just makes my day. Today I was casually flipping through the kind souls who'd already looked at my blog this morning (in spite of the fact that was taking my own sweet time posting my Review of the Day) and I saw that someone had stayed on my site for quite some time through a url that began http://translate.google.com/. Naturally, I was curious. What I found when I followed was this. In general, I approach internet things of this nature with the fascination of a child. Obviously if you had asked me, "Hey! Is there a site where you can translate a website from one language to another? Well is there? Punk?", I would have replied, "Yes, of course. Now stop calling me punk. I don't even know you!". I think I'm digressing.
The point is that I found this super cool. But then, I'm easily amused. Anything that makes my profile say that children's literature, "Es un negocio despiadado del cutthroat con las porciones de gnashes de los dientes", makes my day.
Review of the Day: A Dangerous Engine
There are certain historical figures with whom I wouldn’t mind being pals with. I always thought that Teddy Roosevelt would be a great buddy. Ditto (and don’t ask me why I think this) Abe Lincoln. But let’s go even farther back in time. Who’s the Founding Father you’d love to shoot the breeze with? The guy who could hold his end of a conversation but still have time to found a nation? Not Washington. He had his points but charm and wit were not amongst them. Maybe Sam Adams, though you’d have to figure out whether you liked him better drunk or sober. Nope, I’m thinking of one feller and one feller alone. Ben Franklin. Everyone loves Ben Franklin. And of course, aside from helping birth our little nation, Ben was a diplomat and scientist extraordinaire. I would daresay that aside from Rosa Parks, Harry Houdini, and Helen Keller, children’s biographies of Mr. Franklin are among the most prolific. Now we’ve a new take on Ben’s life in, A Dangerous Engine by Joan Dash. Definitely intended for those scientifically and politically minded children (in short, kids like Benjamin Franklin himself), the book is not really going to go over too well with large swaths of the child reader population. It’s an in-depth story that fills a definite gap in children’s libraries everywhere but it’s written for one in ten children, at least. For some kids this will be dull stuff. For others, it's a beautifully penned, insightful, meticulously researched and truly informative treatise on everything from “Where does electricity really come from?” to “Did John Adams really have it in for Ben?”.
Born, as we all know, in Boston in 1706, Ben Franklin was his family’s fifteenth child and last boy. He went into printing with his brother, then took off to find his fortune when he was in his late teens. In his life he wed, created a newspaper, performed experiments, became a diplomat for America, and died. Sounds simple, yes? But the life he led was a complex and remarkable thing. Dash explains Franklin’s early scientific discoveries, during the course of which she is able to basically explain how our ancestors began to play with and discover electricity. We see Franklin’s family members and how his relationship with others changed over the years. We see him in England for at least a decade and then in France where he was loved and adored. We see his flaws, his successes, his triumphs, and his shattered pride. In-depth, extensive, and engaging, Dash has given us one of the more amazing biographies of this great man and required reading for anyone truly interested in his life.
As I mentioned before, this is not a book for every child. I admit that my supremely unscientific mind would waver, swoop, and wander about when the discussions of electricity got too technical. Dash is simplifying everything as well as she possibly can, of course. In the book's excellent Bibliography she writes of discovering a rare book entitled, “Ben Franklin’s Experiments, A new Edition of Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity” by I. Bernard Cohen. Cohen’s book contains an introduction that was intended to, “make Franklin’s experiments, and eighteenth-century electricity in general, understandable to nontechnical people, a group I belong to”. I was a little surprised to hear this as I found myself repeatedly rereading the sections of this book pertaining to electricity. Obviously, older child readers of the scientific persuasion are going to have an easier time with this than myself. Still, I suspect that for a large swath of the young ‘un population, this book will bog down in the experiment sections, then pick up again when it returns to Ben’s life.
And what a life it was! Illegitimate children cropping up not only from Ben but from his own illegitimate children as well. His persnickety intentions towards controlling his family members. His multiple feuds, fights (though he was a passive fellow), and methods. There were lots of facts about Franklin I never knew and learned from this book. Seemingly at odds with his personality in some ways was the fact that he never patented any of his inventions. I also never knew he invented a brand new instrument called the armonica (try Googling it for fun). Most impressively, Dash is able to tie in Franklin’s continuing influence today. She at one point mentions a federal interagency group that came to the conclusion, “That Franklin, or conventional, lightning protection systems ... are highly effective in preventing lightning damage”.
For the most part, A Dangerous Engine is split into two parts. One looks at Franklin’s scientific life. The other, his diplomatic life. On the diplomatic side we see Franklin playing the French off their fears that America would join once more with England unless they received more aid. It is also necessary to note that the book, for the most part, doesn’t downplay Franklin’s many faults. On slavery the man was less than holy. Says the book, “Franklin took a cool and slightly scornful attitude toward the institution of slavery; the slaves themselves, he said, were lazy and unreliable”. And, of course, he owned two. Later he would join with the abolitionists, “not on humanitarian grounds but because it made white people lazy and proud”.
In terms of research, this book exceeds any and all expectations. The Bibliography, as I have mentioned, is superb. Better still are the Source Notes. Dash even takes time to mention that, “Readers will notice that some quotations retain the eighteenth-century spelling and punctuation, while others have been modernized. This is because I have followed the style used by my sources”. Does she cover her bases or what?
If I were to try and find a companion for A Dangerous Engine, the book I would pair this title with would have to be the recent and remarkable The Real Revolution: The Global Story of American Independence by Marc Aronson. Both titles are different takes on figures from the American Revolution, to say nothing of the Revolution itself. In Dash’s case, she is helped in no small part by the obscure book on Franklin’s experiments found while she was browsing the Physics Library at the University of Washington. Should you know of a scientifically minded youth with a penchant for history (and they do exist) hand over “A Dangerous Engine” forthwith. Charming and extensive.
Saturday, July 22, 2006
Ghashlycrumb Tinies Graveyard
Did you know that there were tours of the Edward Gorey house? Or that there was a graveyard for the Ghashlycrumb Tinies? Or that there's a particularly frightening sounding Edward Gorey blood drive coming up? You did know all this? You think I'm a doofus for not knowing already? Fine. Just for that I'd like an annotated list from everyone listing all the children's authors/illustrators (Gorey was more than that, I know) who have houses that conduct tours. Let's see... does Roald Dahl count?
A tip of the hat to Maud Newton for the informative link.
Review of the Day: Chickens To the Rescue
This has been an especially good year for chicken picture books. Between this, Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road, and Cat and Chicken poultry appears to be in fine full force.
If I were to label my favorite kind of picture book out there, I might feel myself strongly inclined towards something I call Barnyard Frivolity. These are the picture books that take place on an “ordinary” farm and involve all kinds of good-natured looniness. For example, one of my favorite books this year was the upbeat and mighty fun, Manny’s Cows: The Niagra Falls Tale by Suzy Becker. This book held a special place in my heart until my pretty little head was turned by the incredibly amusing chicken book I hold in my hands in at this time. I don’t know how effective you personally feel that a flock of chickens would be in an emergency, but when it comes to benign fowl-inspired lunacy, I think “Chickens To the Rescue” trumps them all. This is perhaps THE greatest poultry book dreamed by mankind.
On a two page spread sit the deceivingly simple words: “On Monday, Farmer Greenstalk dropped his watch down the well”. Poor, Farmer Greenstalk. There he stands, staring mournfully down into a great deep well, a look of sad resignation on his face. The average reader probably wouldn’t pay too much attention to the chicken standing on the far left page. Its wing planted firmly where its ear would be, the chicken obviously understands the man’s distress. Why do I say that? Because when we turn the page we are bombarded with thirty-one swimsuit-wearing, snorkel-sporting, deepsea-diving chickens under the words, “Chickens to the rescue!”. Turn the page and the wet but satisfied birds are walking off while Farmer Greenstalk holds in his hands a damp watch. “Those are some chickens!”. Indeed. That was just Monday, though. On Tuesday Mrs. Greenstalk was too tired to make dinner. “Chickens to the rescue!”. A scurring flock take over the kitchen, whipping up various concoctions. Yes, whether it’s helping son Jeffrey with his homework, stopping an errant duck from driving off with the farmer’s truck, or lugging lost sheep back into their pen (my favorite image of the lot), these chickens have each and every situation under control. On Sunday, however, daughter Emily spills her breakfast everywhere and there’s not a chicken to be seen. After a quick investigation the family sees that they’re taking a well-deserved rest in their coop after all the week’s excitement. The pigs on the other hand…
By and large, author/illustrator John Himmelman is an animal man. He’s done plenty of non-fiction titles on everything from ladybugs to frogs. As of this writing his top selling book (according to Amazon) was something called Discovering Moths: Nighttime Jewels In Your Own Backyard. What seems to set Himmelman apart from the vast non-fiction writing pack (and here I’m relying heavily on customer reviews) is his humor. By all accounts, Himmelman is a funny guy. A funny guy that has been given a chance to bring us a true labor of love. Now since Himmelman is such an animal advocate, I’m assuming that that is why his chickens look as realistic as they do. Yes, they’re wearing helmets, aprons, scuba equipment, etc. But they also look like chickens. Size-appropriate, remarkably helpful chickens. It’s obvious from the outset, by the way, that verbal humor is not Himmelman’s sole strength. He works enough visual gags and tiny amusing details into this book as to allow your average child-reader hours and hours of fun “I Spy” moments. I may have mentioned that my favorite image from this book is when the chickens rescue the sheep from a nearby woodland. Well let me tell you that there are few sights finer in this world than that of small determined chickens lugging enormous wooly sheep over their heads. Some of the birds even go so far as to lift the sheep into the air, causing one ewe to pretend to be a superhero, hooves held straight out in front. Also, in each rescue sequence there is always at least one chicken flying upside down. The variety of their postures and poses, even when removing a cow from a tree, is to be commended.
I don’t want to tell you how to live your life, but I would like to give you a bit of advice on purchasing this book. If you could somehow manage to buy both, Chickens To the Rescue and the incredibly funny, Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road (featuring such artists as Mo Willems, Marla Frazee, Jerry Pinkney, and others), you would instantly be the coolest gift purchaser in the world. I am not kidding. Together, these fowl-related works of literature make up some of the funniest, enjoyable, and inventive books of this or any other year. Chickens To the Rescue is now my favorite fowl book of all time. A must-read for anyone with a sense of humor.
Friday, July 21, 2006
A red hot Disney debate flowered full-blown at the ccbc-net listserv recently. As part of the dicussion an old Horn Book article from 1965 was dusted off and examined for sufficient vitriol. Here are some of the more choice selections from the article:
"The acerbity of Mary Poppins, unpredictable, full of wonder and mystery, becomes with Mr. Disney's treatment, one great marshmallow-covered cream puff. He made a young tough of Peter Pan and transformed Pinocchio into a slapstick sadistic revel."or
"Look at that wretched sprite with the wand and the over-sized buttocksThe ccbc-net debate got kinda crazy after that. Here's what one commentator stated:
which announces every Disney program on TV. She is a vulgar little thing,
who has been too long at the sugar bowls."
The vulgarity, vapidity, and just plain stupidity of popular culture can largely be attributed to him.Uh-huh. Sure. This is just half a step away from saying something along the lines of "Disney killed my parents". I'm not entirely defending the guy (I keep flashing back to a wonderful Saturday Night Live skit about all the horrible things he actually did) but let's just stop the silliness, people. It gives me a headache.
And just for kicks, here's more scholarly fun in Bambi and the Hunting Ethos.
It Looks Like Rabid Moss
Straight To Video Fears o' Mine
When the children's news day is slow and I can't find anything halfway decent to report, I turn in my time of need to J.L. Bell who always has something interesting to say, and usually on a daily basis. Today Bell talks of the recent Variety magazine article on the filming of Philip Pullman's Golden Compass. Bell has some good point about anti-authority figures in movies and which ones we're allowed to see/root for. The most frightening part of the post, however? The possibility that The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass could go straight to video. Hey, man. It happened to The Thief Lord.
Review of the Day: The Poet Slave of Cuba
Good Poetry Friday to you all. Not so much with the cheery is today's title. It's good but.... oogy.
The verse novel is a tricky fickle thing. Though no one to the best of my knowledge has ever put down the rules that govern the creation of a verse novel, there are always a couple unwritten understandings. No verse novel should tell its tale through poetry when it would make more sense to tell it through prose. Also, just breaking up a bunch of sentences into lines doesn’t mean you’re writing poetry or anything. The ideal verse novel is one where it makes sense to write a story through poetry AND just happens to have an ear for beautiful language. Such is the case with Margaraita’s, “The Poet Slave of Cuba”. In the book it says that, “The life of Juan Francisco Manzano haunted her for years before she finally realized that to do justice to the Poet Slave’s story, she needed to write it in verse”. The result is an achingly beautiful and horrific story that deserves to be read by teens everywhere.
Born a slave in Cuba in 1797, Juan Francisco Manzano grew up the toast of his owner Dona Beatriz. His ability to memorize speeches, plays, and words of all sorts made him a kind of sought over pet to the Spanish aristocracy. Though she promised to grant him his freedom when she died and she allowed both his parents to buy their freedom, Juan Francisco remained a slave after Dona Beatriz’s death and was handed over to the dangerously psychotic Marquesa de Prado Ameno. The Marquesa resents Juan from the moment he is put into her possession and every attempt he makes at reading or writing is put down with shocking violence. A biography told in poems, this book shows the worst of slavery's cruelties and the sheer will it takes to not only survive under such conditions but escape.
The text in the book alternates between different points of view on almost every page. In a sense, the villains have just as much of a say as the heroes. Juan, for his part, sometimes will have three pages in a row of thoughts, each with its own separate poem. Alongside this format are illustrations by Sean Qualls. Qualls has a style that usually doesn’t do much for me. In this case, however, he’s the perfect complement to Engle’s tale. The white aristocracy with their blank eyes and sharp pointed teeth are positively horrific. These images magnify the storyline. Here, for example, are two ladders that lead suggestively against a wall. Now a shiny coin. Now a butterfly. They are rough unfinished drawings that show far better Juan's situation than any polished colored print could ever convey.
At first I was a little perturbed that for all the book’s poetry and loveliness, I couldn’t find any actual poetry by the real Juan Francisco Manzano. Then I reached the end of the title and in the back found that author Margarita Engle not only offers us a biography of the true Juan Francisco, but reprints his bibliographic details as well.
Now, there is a debate surrounding this book. It is not a debate that questions whether the story is told well or whether or not Engle gets her point across to the reader. It’s more a question of audience. Though published by Henry Holt, Inc’s young reader division, and not a specific teen imprint, there is little doubt in my mind that this is not exactly kiddie fare. It’s repeatedly violent, often to extremes. There is more bloodshed, torture, screams, and pain in this book than you’ll find in most children’s literature. To put it plainly, this is the “Beloved”, of kiddie lit. Which, when you think about it, doesn’t make it very kid-friendly at all. Teens, on the other hand, will find much to appreciate here. Juan Francisco spends much of this book as a teen, after all. His thoughts and actions are not those of a young boy, but rather a man trapped in an untenable situation. As such, I'd steer this book clear of the shorter set and aim towards kids with some maturity.
You read about the main character’s pain, and to some extent a kind of apathy has to take place or the story’s too difficult to bear. As a reader, you actually find yourself wondering how a person could live under such grueling conditions without a hope of a reprieve and still want to live. And there is a moment in the book when someone says that good always triumphs over evil. That it is amazing that the devil even tries. Words like these and phrases of this sort have been turning about in my brain ever since I put, “The Poet Slave of Cuba” down. Engle’s text has a kind of staying power that wordsmiths everywhere should envy. Envy and admire.
I guess I should point out that while, “The Poet Slave of Cuba” is well-written, smart, and beautiful, it is not a pleasant book to read. Teens who pick up this book should be informed right off the bat as to what the book consists of. Just the same, it’s definitely one of the more honest treatises on slavery I’ve ever had the chance to read. Engle does a magnificent job with her subject. She does the man’s memory proud.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
Upcoming Book Festivals
I could type them out myself, but why bother when Miss Snark has saved me the trouble? Here are all the book festivals coming up for the Fall.
Love and Broomsticks
Oh, the Murality
I live in a mural-less landscape heretofore known as New York Public Libraries. I assume that of the 80ish some branches of NYPL there may be at least ONE mural in a children's room somewhere in the city, but I've no idea where. Feeling more than a hint of mural-withdrawl, I turn now to Duncan Weller. An illustrator of picture books in his own right, Mr. Weller produced the mural for the Guildford Public Library. Not only is it beautiful, but Mr. Weller incorporated all sorts of elements, some to the good and some to the bad. For example:
This is Duncan's attempt to incorporate the fire alarm. The fire alarm was later covered with a plastic case operable by adults only. Fire trucks and firemen came roaring to the library on three seperate occassions due to children being attracted to the firebird. Patrons and staff of the library had evacuated the library. Duncan apologizes to anyone who had to stand in the rain.Scroll down to see this in its entirety. I once worked in a library (that will remain unnamed) that was going to go through a renovation. It had huge blank walls and everyone thought it would be wonderful to have a mural done in the children's room. The idea was nixed because, and this is what I was told, "it might offend someone at some point". Oh, how I envy you Guildford Public Library. How I envy you.
Parents Who Wish To Keep Their Children In Tiny Triangles, Rejoice!
I doubt any child would look quite so gleeful when there were FRIGGIN' LASERS trapping him in this manner. Is this how super-villains keep an eye on their children? Many many thanks to BB-Blog for this early morning shot of weirdness.