Fuse #8

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Bookgroups - How To Run Them

My advice on starting a children's bookgroup of your own? Find some local homeschooling parents and coerce them into forming a bookgroup with their kids. It isn't hard. Homeschooling parents are ALL about using library resources as it is. And depending on what kinds of homeschoolers are in your area (in my case, lower upper middle class types) you can cater to their needs accordingly.

Or maybe you've found a way to get average public school kids involved. Whatever floats your boat, dude. The point is that the resource you should always use is the Multnomah County Library's booktalk guide webpage. It's constantly updated, has great ideas for future books your bookclub can read, and is honestly the only source on the web that I've been able to locate that's any good at all. Multnomah County Library System. What every library system aspires to be. No joke.

Spit Worthy

I may as well start getting the L.A. Times. They seem to have all the most interesting kiddie-lit articles. Gregory K. ofGotta Book brought this latest piece de resistance (emphasis on the "resistance") to my attention. In a bit of writing that Mr. K. refers correctly to as, "headscratchingly odd and wrong", one Mr. Tim Rutten takes a stab at the recent Opal Mehta scandal. His interpretation?

What this unfortunately driven young woman's rather sad little story suggests is that one of the major reasons other young people don't read books is that most of the stuff published for children and adolescents is abysmal, self-regarding trash.

Excuse me? Obviously Mr. Rutten has taken the time to systematically explore the wealth of published information found in the world of children and YA publishing. Then, and only after careful consideration, he reluctantly came to this devastating conclusion. Right? Right? I sought out a bio of the newsman to explore what must undoubtedly be his illustrious career in literature for young people. But goodness me and heavens to Betsy, what is this? The only tie he seems to have to that particular occupation are his two children. Two children, I suspect, that would rather read "The Chronicles of Droon" or "The Amazing Days of Abby Hayes" over Proust.

Ah, me. There is nothing I like more than a reporter ranting against something he has never researched or taken the time to understand. Please check out the link below to see if you agree with me.

Book Signing

Your average children's illustrator does not blog. Your average children's illustrator also does not draw humorous comic strips of how book signings REALLY are. But then your average book signer is not Don Tate II. Many thanks to Jen Robinson for the link. And did anyone else notice how hot Mr. Tate is?


Why Brian Selznick Is the Nicest Guy In the World

I am a blogger. At this moment in history, bloggers have a unique position in this country. There is no universally acknowledged set of standards for bloggers. Essentially, I could write false rumors, lies, and libel to my heart's content and no one could really do anything to me about it. Be that as it may, I don't want to write false rumors, lies, and libel. I want to give you the most accurate information as quickly as possible and get y'all to trust me. That way, when I hold my hostile takeover of the ALSC I'll have millions of children's literature lovers supporting my divine reign. Mwah-ha-ha-ha!

Now what was I saying again? Oh yes. Truthiness. I want some of it. Well, the fact of the matter is that I'm only human. I make mistakes. Not too long ago on Friday, April 7th I posted glorious information about a new book by Brian Selznick that would, in my opinion, "suh-weep the nation". Unquote. And while I had the gist of the story correct, my posting with riddled RIDDLED with inaccuracies. Mr. Selznick read that posting and informed a mutual friend that I was a little off here and there. So when I see him this past Thursday April 27th speaking at my branch does he take me to task? Does he even mention my pseudo-reporting in any way shape or form? No, sir! We have a lovely conversation, he is charm incarnate, and even poses for a lovely picture as shown up above.

You can imagine my guilt then when I listened once again to Mr. Selznick's speech and found that I'd misinterpreted some of his earlier speechifying about his upcoming book, back in early April. So I shall now offer some corrections to my earlier posting.

What I Said: As of this meeting Selznick had 5 hours, no joke, to come up with a title for this book. He thought he might call it, “The Curious Invention of Hugo Cabrais”, so keep an ear out for anything along these lines in a year or so.

What I Should Have Said: If you'll recall, this was a reference to Selznick's upcoming 500 some page book with 300 some illustrations in it. The illustrations continue the story in a cinematic way. I reported the title inaccurately, even managing to misspell it. The real title will be, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret". Mea culpa.

What I Said: So Charlip is now the model for an upcoming Selznick book on the fellow who long ago brought us “A Trip To the Moon”.

What I Should Have Said: I was way off-base on this one. I thought Selznick was working on two separate books. One was "Hugo Cabret" and one a bio of Georges Melies, the creator of the silent film, "A Trip To the Moon". In fact, this is the same book. Selznick has cleverly intertwined true events from Melies's life within the context of this original story. The result will be remarkable. I could recount what I know of the real story and the story Selznick is writing here, but I think it'll be better if you wait and see the finished product for yourself.

Oh, one more thing. In his slideshow, Mr. Selznick displayed a shot of a mock-up of the book's cover. It's gorgeous (and this I can be accurate about). The cover is a beautiful multi-colored almost Art Deco cover. Then on the spine you have a kind of Les Miserables black-and-white shot of Hugo's face peering out at you with the title in tiny type at the bottom. And since the book will be wonderfully thick, you'll get quite a good swath of face peering out at you from your children's bookshelves. Manifique.

Review of the Day: Lugalbanda

Tomorrow I will review a greatly beloved 2006 children's book that blogs everywhere have been praising with harmonized coos. At that time I shall destroy the text before your eyes and dance a tarantella on its remains. Today is Sunday, however. That means I should do something classy. So with that in mind I bring you the world's oldest written text. It don't get any classier than THAT!

The oldest written story in the world. Name it. I'm talking older than the Bible, older than the Koran, and older than the Torah. I hear someone mentioning, "The Epic of Gilgamesh". You're very close. Now just go a mere three hundred years older than that. Did you get it? If you said, "Lugalbanda", then you are correct! Discovered a mere 150 years ago on ancient Sumerian tablets, author Kathy Henderson has pieced together this book out of the poems "Lugalbanda" and "Lugalbanda In the Mountain Cave". The result? An incredibly readable and beautiful book that tells the story of a war in ancient Iraq. Timely, no? The mere fact that Henderson has been able to piece an infinitely interesting tale out of academic line-by-line translations (with some help as well from oral storyteller Fran Hazelton) and combine such a story with the breathtaking art of Jane Ray is reason enough to take a gander at this title. And as the book itself says, "So here, for the first time ever in our days of paper and print, is the story of Lugalbanda told for a new generation".

There once was a boy named Lugalbanda who lived with his seven brothers in the great city of Uruk. Uruk was ruled by King Enmerkar who had built it in honor of the goddess of love and war, Inana. One day, Enmerkar noticed that the faraway city of Aratta had far more impressive treasures and works of art than Uruk. Without further ado then, Enmerkar declared war on Aratta and set off to plunder its booty with his men. Amongst his men came the seven brothers and Lugalbanda. While en route to war, however, Lugalbanda became deathly ill and his brothers were forced to leave him with plenty of good food and drink in a warm cave, praying for his survival. After two days, Lugalbanda awoke and by appealing to the Sun God, the goddess Inana, and the Moon God, the boy was made strong enough to follow his brothers. The tale then recounts Lugalbanda's encounter with the great and terrible Anzu bird, how he got some pretty cool pre-biblical super powers, and the course Enmerkar's war eventually takes. In the end, Lugalbanda is king and his son becomes the great Gilgamesh of lore.

You might ask yourself how interesting a 5,000 year old story (that wasn't even translated until the 1970s) would be to kids today. In this way, Candlewick has been incredibly clever. The book is written with words of a rather large font and then filled to brimming with lush illustrations by Jane Ray. Themes of magic, war, and a boy befriending a great and terrible sky monster... well you might as well be describing the latest, "Chronicles of Droon" adventure. The difference is in the importance of the tale itself. Henderson's care in rendering this tale as accurately and interestingly as possible is to be commended. In the original text it isn't exactly clear if Lugalbanda is the son of King Enmerkar or is just referred to as a prince for another reason. There are lots of questions like that, all handled in an exceedingly deft manner. And as Henderson says of this tale in her "Notes On This Story" at the end of the book, "This was much too important to be left to the world of adults".

Don't go thinking that it was just Kathy Henderson who did all the research on this book, though. Artist Jane Ray studied up on her Sumerian artifacts with visits to the British Museum. This shows in the art. Done in watercolor, ink, and collage, the pictures in this book both reflect the art of the time period while also looking fresh and colorful enough to engage kids today. I was especially impressed with Ray's attention to close details. The baby Anzu bird that Lugalbanda feeds and decorates is spotted with a multitude of tiny flowers and you can make out every barb, calamus, and rachis on the bird's feathered body. It's nice to hold a book in your hands once in a while that can honestly be called beautiful.

Kudos, by the way, to the Sumerians who had the brains to come up with a goddess who was in charge of love AND war. That they could see the connection so directly makes me smile. The story told here about a war fought for the sake of plunder (though in an odd twist, the goddess won't let Enmerkar win until he promises only to take the art and artists and not destroy the town) is slightly odd. Especially when you consider that the hero is on the side of the aggressor. But the struggle for power in the Middle East is an ancient story and here we find the oldest telling of it yet. If you should wish to give this as a gift to a child, I suggest that you talk up the superpowers, battle scenes, and cool monsters as you hand it to them. Children aren't going to find the whole oldest-written-story thing all that cool. But a rainbow colored bird giant with, "the teeth of a shark"? Far better. A surprisingly great read and a wonderfully researched tale. A necessary purchase for all libraries everywhere.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Weekly Site Meter Weirdness

I love my Site Meter. There it sits at the bottom of my page giving me all sorts of sordid pieces of information I never even knew I wanted to know before it came along. Site Meter loves me too. But sometimes a person can learn a little too much from their SM. In the past I've discovered that because I wrote a review of a children's picture book that discussed quilting, a Colombian quilting blog linked to me. Unfortunately, it doesn't anymore (sniffle). Oh, why have you forsaken me Outros Retalhos?

This week my favorite link came from one Mr. Eric Berlin. Somehow or other I ended up on his Blogroll alongside a right-wing L.A. journalist and a Crossword Fiend. So odd. So very very odd.

Also, my posting about the whole Opal Mehta business attracted the attention of a Children's Writers' and Illustrators' Chat Board. If it looks like people come here, that's only because I was able to include my own pitiful two cents to the whole scandal. Maybe there is something to this whole commenting-on-YA-literature thing. Hmmmmm.

Review of the Day: The Trouble With Cauliflower

The mysterious KT requested book recommendations that included picky eaters the other day. This story didn't occur to me at the time, but would fit that request to a tee. For your consideration.

There are hundreds of thousands of wonderful picture books for children out in the world. Unfortunately, of these books only a handful read aloud well to small children. It doesn't matter how much you love a book or how vibrantly you articulate it for the little 'uns. The fact of the matter remains that only those authors with the keenest of ears will be able to pen a title that sounds just as fine to a class of 20 screaming Kindergartners as it does a single well-behaved six-year-old. Now I consider myself a readaloud-picture-book-seeking-machine. I sniff them out in all their variegated forms, trying to locate the best and brightest of the lot every year. My library also receives a great many brand new picture book titles. Some are mere days old while others haven't even hit bookstore shelves yet. Recently we received a shipment from Dial Books For Young Readers. I was delighted because I'd been anticipating a couple stories that I knew would be included. In the box, however, there were other books that I'd never even heard of. And one of these was, "The Trouble With Cauliflower". I viewed the galley with a skeptical eye. I flipped its pages. I sat down and devoured its text. And the conclusion I reached startled me. This, ladies and gentlemen, is one of those rare and wonderful readalouds I constantly search for without cease. A fine funny book and a rather charming read.

Mortimer the koala and Sadie the ostrich (or possibly emu) are friends. One night, Sadie invites Mortimer over for dinner to partake of a delicious stew she's been making. At first our koala hero refuses to dine, for he knows that there is cauliflower in the bowl and, "whenever I eat cauliflower, I have bad luck the next day". Sadie wisely pooh-poohs this idea, and before long Mortimer's polished off four helpings of the stuff. Unfortunately, he pays for it the next day. He stubs his toe, and spills orange juice, and fails a very important driver's test. That night he has Sadie over for dinner at his place and she brings a lovely vegetable surprise casserole. The next day after that, Mortimer has nothing but luck. It's only when Sadie confesses that the "surprise" in the casserole was cauliflower that Mortimer admits that she was right (in a roundabout manner). On the way home, Sadie suggests a nip of lemonade. "Oh, no, I can't... Every time I drink lemonade, it starts to rain".

There's something about Sutton's language in this book that lends itself to reading aloud. Partly it's the placement and emotional resonance of the pictures. Partly, it's how well Sutton puts her words together. This isn't something I'll be able to describe. Suffice it to say, Sutton has her writing chops firmly in place. Meanwhile, illustrator Jim Harris (best known at this point in time for the Cajun tale, "Petite Rouge") is all about the details. And I, a sucker for any illustrator who cares enough to render a rather believable animal-run DMV, approve of his work heartily. Harris is clever enough to spot his pics with little literary shout-outs as well. When Mortimer comes crashing through the DMV wall (having apparently first waylaid some poor soul's washing line) you can see a rather startled mole reading, "Wind In the Willows". I also loved the eye chart in the back with the permanently fuzzy letters on it. It's interesting to note that though the book is steeped in nostalgia, its steeped in several different kinds of nostalgia. There's the country-style homes of Sadie and Mortimer, melded together with a kind of soft 1950s pizza shop. There's a lot of wooden furniture and old-fashioned radios and animals wearing hats. Depending on your tolerance for this kind of thing, you may love the book or abhor it. I, for one, adored it.

To nitpick, I wasn't as pleased with the last line as I might have been. For me, the lemonade superstition should've been like the cauliflower. That is to say, something Mortimer could control. Had he said, "Every time I drink lemonade I feel grouchy" or "Every time I drink lemonade people are mean to me", that would've worked better in the context of the story. Better yet, Sadie could have said something like that! Make her the unwise one for a change. Ah well. It's a small problem in an otherwise very nice book.

Should you find yourself in need of picky eater books, books containing Australian animals, or books that read aloud well and contain objects that begin with the letter "C", "The Trouble With Cauliflower" has your number. Beautiful to look at and lovely to say, it's a class act through and through. A droll little discovery.

Friday, April 28, 2006

A Message From a Hot Man

The total count of Hot Men of Children's Literature who have heard from in some manner climbs to 2 this week. Note the following:

Dear Miss Fuse,

It has come to my attention that I am to be considered ‘hotter’ than some guy named Philip Nel.

What has Philip Nel ever done to you?

Let me say for the record that I, catagorically, am not hot. I am ‘luke-warm’ on a good day.

In the interest of proper catogorizing (you are a librarian, no?), I suggest a new sub-heading of “Ehh…” for me and other unfortunate ‘tepid men of children’s lit’ you may encounter in the future (in order of tepidity, obviously).

If you insist on your inaccurate labeling of my relative heat, I will be forced to direct you to my forthcoming “YOU CAN NEVER FIND A RICKSHAW WHEN IT MONSOONS”, a graphic memoir of a year-long trip around the world I made 15 years back. This eccentric volume features a distressingly ‘Everybody Wang-Chung Tonite’ period author photo.

Yours tepidly,

Mo Willems

PS: Brian S. and Kadir N., who admittedly possess heat, will join me in an exhibit this May at the Eric Carle Picture Book Museum. The hottest member of the show? Betsy Lewin.

I responded in kind. And no, we will not be establishing a Tepid Men of Children's Literature. Sorry, folks. In my reply I made a not-so-mild lunge for his new book and re-established his hotness on the old Blogroll to your right. Now go pre-order his book immediately.

At this rate I can someday work on the old Hot Men of Children's Literature calender. Oh, Rob Scotton......

Well, I Can't Fault the Title

Today on the Gail Gauthier blog there was a link to a recent Wired News article, You, To, Can Right Like a Blogger. This is a truly fascinating article. Written by a fellow who abhors, "unsavory writing practices, like blogging", Mr. Tony Long notes that, "Most blogging is sheer exhibitionism, either the self-absorbed ramblings of an individual blogger or the corporate site that exists for the sole purpose of making money".

Oh, sweet sweet money. Let's just be clear about one thing. I make no money. I am a New York City librarian. Money is obviously not why I got into the profession. Moreover, this blog (for all its charms) will never earn me so much as a wooden nickel. So by deint of elimination, we must assume that I'm into "exhibitionism". Which, if I am, is none of Mr. Long's business. Harumph.

Why Blondie and Peanuts Will Never Go Away

There's a young boy in my homeschooler bookgroup who loves Calvin and Hobbes more than life itself. If I ask kids to name their favorite books, his is the ultimate collection. If I ask for future book recommendations, it's the first thing he thinks of. Until I read this article in the Los Angeles Times, however, I had no idea how dire the plight of the funnies is. "Legacy strips" that are carried on long past the death of their creators now threaten the newbies. Apparently old people have too much sway in this area and kids my age and younger just don't seem to see the point of Marmaduke. Hell, give me a good old episode of Cat and Girl over Cathy anyday. That's what I say.

Children's DVDs Presented In a Snarky Fashion

Great loads of thanks to Kelly Herold over at Big A little a for bringing this new and interesting site to my attention. A Mr. Roger Holland is reviewing children's DVDs over at something called Pop Matters. He has a finely honed voice and a lovely way of expressing himself. For example, when discussing the unfortunate Boohbah phenomenon, he has this to say:

"Since Boohbah is essentially an exercise show for young children, it's perhaps unfortunate that the show's five leading aliens resemble the end of the evolutionary line for a race of rotund starfishes who mated once too often with unspecified but highly rubberized sex toys".

Darn tootin'. I figure that since we already have a blog that recommends only the best Children's Music That Rocks, it only makes sense to have a sit that discusses the best DVDs too. An excellent find.

Willy Wonka Frankenstein

So I'm at a hip Brooklyn bar called The Gate yesterday with my friends and the subject turns to children's books turned into films. More specifically, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Even more specifically, how to salvage the two versions of the book produced over the years. On one hand you have the classic 1971 film and on the other you have the recent 2005 Burton creation. Now I can hear the catcalls and jeers emanating from your darling little throats already. But I think that with a little judicious editing and work, we can combine the two films and bring about the perfect Wonka flick. A big bow to Dan for helping me iron out these details.


  • Names - The only reason the 1971 film was called Willy Wonka was so that Quaker Oats could put out chocolate bars under that name and get a movie tie-in as a bonus. So we're taking the title from the 2005 film and the original book.
  • Songs - Frankly, Willy has Charlie beat. I'm a big fan of Danny Elfman and I give props to the fact that he used Dahl's original words. But come on. If you saw the film can you remember a single tune from that puppy at all well? Now sing me a little "Oompa-Loompa" action. Oh yeah. That's the stuff. I can give you some fabulous "I've Got a Golden Ticket" karaoke, as well as "Pure Imagination", if needs be.
  • ... But not ALL the songs... - Nobody need ever subject a child to yet another rendition of "Cheer Up, Charlie". Ditto "Candyman". Apologies to Sammy Davis Jr. and all, but seriously. It's served its use. We all know it's about drugs. Let's move on.
  • Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka - It just makes sense. Obviously Johnny Depp was trying to separate himself from Wilder's original Willy. And neither of them seem anything close to the fellow in the book (who, according to the discription, is supposed to bear some slight resemblance to a young goateed Joel Grey) but at least with Wilder you get this crazed innocence. He's insane, but you like him. Not so much the Michael Jacksonish Depp with his ridiculous backstory. Plus I find Wilder far hotter than Depp. That is because I am crazy.
  • Remove all backstory - Why on earth would we want to know why Willy makes chocolate? The last half hour of the 2005 film was atrocious obvious filler. In contrast, the filler in the 1971 version was peculiar news footage and bizarre noir scenes that showed just how important the golden tickets were. Remember the woman who's husband was kidnapped and the kidnappers demanded her box of Willy Wonka candy bars? No? Go see the film again then. It's one of the more peculiar details. So if we must have backstory, let's do it that way.
  • No little orange men with green hair - Obviously the '71 crew didn't want to offend anyone... except possibly midgets. I didn't go for the Oompa Loompas of the 2005 film completely, but at least they were fairly faithful to Dahl's book. No women (which was odd) but still okay. I mean, the ones in the book were pretty offensive to begin with, yet you can't tell the story without them. Just give them the original songs and all is well, yes?

So there you go. Add a pinch of this, a dash of that, and a smidgen of what-have-you and Voila! Instant correct version. Weirdo wacked out version, yes. But better.

I Am In Shock

Partly because I've been coerced into working the Donnell Reference Desk for an hour. I can hear the simultaneous sound of librarians around the country playing me a sad sad song on the world's smallest violins. Only under the most extraordinary of circumstances do I ever have to work at a library desk where I don't feel... um... adequate. I'm currently living in fear that someone is going to ask me how to buy a home or something. *shudder*

But that is not why I am in shock. I'm in shock because I just witnessed an event that I didn't even know existed. It's also the reason behind my current time at this desk. Apparently every year the Reference Librarians of NYPL put out a list of the best references books of the year. They then celebrate said books with the Best of Reference [your year here] and in doing so perform a bunch of reference-book-related skits. Reference librarians putting on skits. Apparently the quality varies from year to year. I've just sat through six white librarians pretending to be a gospel choir, a rather good take on The Price Is Right, and a completely off-putting method of introducing us to the Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity.

I will never complain about anything children's library-related ever again. Dear God, if I can just survive this Reference Desk for the next half an hour I'll gladly handle all the unpleasant children's room activities I'm handed, I swear. Get me outta here!!!

Happy 62nd Birthday Lois Duncan

I just got my hands on the Newbery and Caldecott Trivia. Can you tell? In the case of Ms. Duncan it says:
Lois Duncan once registered for a class in children's literature under her real name, Lois Arquette. The teacher, not realizing the identity of her student, assigned a Lois Duncan book for the class to analyze. Arquette received an "A".

Well one should hope so. Today you may celebrate Ms. Duncan's birth by walking down scary hallways, killing your teachers, and engaging in various sundry activities. I once handed a twelve-year-old, Down A Dark Hall because she wanted something creepy. She took one look at the cover and asked, "Is this for kids?". *sigh*

Review of the Day: Russell and the Lost Treasure

Sheep sheep sheep. Nothing like a good woolly picture book to start off your day. And if after reading this review you'd like nothing better than to see the true gory details behind turning wool into yarn, have a little fun and go to Purl Jam. Baa.

I wouldn't bring this up, but has it occurred to anyone else that the American picture book market is currently undergoing a virtual flood of high-quality British manuscripts? Consider the facts of the matter. Just last year we had Rob Scotton's nicely droll and shockingly well-publicized, "Russell the Sheep". This year there is yet another book (in addition to fellow British imports, "I'm Not Cute" by Jonathan Allen and "The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon" by Mini Grey) added to the Russell oevre: "Russell and the Lost Treasure". It's hard to resist. Kids like-a the treasure. I think that's where half of the fascination with pirates comes from. Plus you have an already established likable hero and a droll little story to boot. Like its predecessor, "Lost Treasure" isn't going to garner itself any hoity-toity awards this year, but that doesn't stop it from being a perfectly nice and perfectly readable little bundle of joy.

When we last left our hero... he was asleep. Now he is not. Russell is just casually perfecting a rather nice triple somersault when something catches his eye. A crow, clutching The Lost Treasure of Frogsbottom (torn virtually to shreds) passes by and gives Russell ideas. But rather than wrangle the map from the crow (who is never seen again) our sheepish hero and his frog partner Frankie are going to find the treasure themselves. Russell creates a high-tech well-detailed "Super-Duper Treasure Seeker" complete with all-terrain wheels, a flange, and even a well-positioned extending arm. At first it seems as if all is lost and the treasure will never be found, but at the foot of a giant tree the machine begins to beep. Lo and behold, far beneath the tree is a treasure chest of... a bunch of useless stuff. Old costumes, records, and (most importantly) an old camera are found. For fun, Russell and his family dress up in the old clothes and take lots and lots of pictures. In the end, Russell has collected all the photographs into album. And the title on the album cover? The True Frogsbottom Treasure.

Compared to its predecessor, "Russell and the Lost Treasure" has quite a bit of sophistication to it. I liked "Russell the Sheep" well enough, but Scotton has started doing things here that are particularly nice. The last image of the book, for example, takes place at night when everything is lit by candles and fireflies. This gives the sheep a round shiny quality and ends the book on a satisfying note. The pictures duplicate the kind of Wallace and Gromit feel of the first book, but they've a lot more going on.

I'm partly a sucker for any picture book that bothers to put clever little details into its pictures. If an illustrator cares enough about a book to sneak in humorous tidbits for probing eyes, that's enough to win my instant admiration. I'm easy that way. In this book, I was delighted by the schematics of Russell's treasure seeking machine. Behind the finished product is a large blueprint identifying all its different parts. A kid could stare at that picture for hours and probably miss some tiny factoid somewhere. Other details amused me as well. I don't remember if Russell's nightcap played a big part in his first adventure but in this book it sort of takes on a life of its own. No matter what our hero may be doing, his cap (which extends and contracts depending on the scene) is sure to be filling the page in a rather pleasing manner.

All in all, I found myself enjoying "Russell and the Lost Treasure" more than I did "Russell the Sheep". And I suspect that with its vaguely cartoonish illustrations, amusing plot, and likable characters it may certainly prove very popular with kids of every stripe. A keeper.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Why Am I Laughing?

Perhaps because I've just seen one of the upcoming titles from Little, Brown and Company. How has no one else hit on this until now?

Happy 108th Birthday Ludwig Bemelmans

Just kidding. He's dead. But he would have been 108 had he lived just a touch longer. In his honor let us all fall into rivers to be rescued by dogs and go to the nearest tigers in our local zoos. You know what to do to them.

From the "Well, Duh" Files

A rather large thank you to the Kids Lit blog for bringing this article to my attention. It seems that a Canadian study has found a link between libraries and student achievement. Get outta town! And here I just thought they were there for the sake of ambience.

You may think that such studies are self-evident and, as such, obvious. But just so long as there are half-brains like Bruce Sterling out there with big old signs saying The End of Libraries Is Nigh, articles like this one are as important as ever.

Review of the Day: Donuthead

Lest you believe that I've grown lazy in my old age by doing yet another review that came out long ago (September 29, 2005 on Amazon to be exact), I will explain. It seems that Mother Reader, with her penchant for gauntlet throwing, has thrown down an entirely new kind of gauntlet. She noticed that this week the Child_Lit blogs have been doing a lot of sports-related titles. She has therefore challenged such pretty souls as myself and others to post reviews, poems, etc. of our favorite sportsy children's books. I do not like sports. I find them sweaty and loud and unless they are table tennis they do not interest me in the least. However, I happened to remember that the best children's book ever conceived of by a mortal brain, Donuthead happens to contain quite a lot of basebally stuff. On those grounds, I bring one of my favorite books to your attention. It deserves no less.

Is there any sight more thrilling to the human heart than when one witnesses the start of a writer who will someday be regarded as one of the greats? Sue Stauffacher, as of this review, hasn't that many children's books to her name. This in no way reflects badly on Sue. She's at the beginning of her authorial career and is already wowing audiences left and right with her witty/heartfelt tales. My mother, a bookstore employee in Southwest Michigan (much like the author), turned me onto one of Ms. Stauffacher's first tales by simply quoting the first lines in the book. "My name, if you must know, is Franklin Delano Donuthead. Try saying that in a room full of fifth graders if you think names will never hurt you". And we're off!

Yes, true enough our hero has the unfortunate moniker, Donuthead. It's a family name. Apparently when one of his ancestors emigrated to America, the otherwise respectable title Donotscked was changed to Donuthead. This might be seen as unfortunate, but if Franklin's ancestor was anything like his latest descendent then he probably deserved the change. You see, Franklin likes his life to be orderly to the point of madness. His number one goal in life is to not die. So far, he's done rather well. He makes sure that his mother buys only organic foods (berating her sharply if jellybeans somehow make an appearance on the grocery list). He engages in no sports and he regularly calls the chief statistician for the National Safety Department in Washington (a Ms. Gloria Nelots) for advice. Then, one day, Franklin's matter-of-fact existence runs smack dab into Sarah Kervick. Sarah's dirty (quote Donuthead, "I'd never seen a finer host for parasites... In less than thirty seconds, she would be sitting close enough for her fleas to change their address), gets in trouble all the time, and can't read. But Sarah, unlike Franklin, is privy to a host of fabulous hopes and dreams. And without meaning to, without WANTING to, Franklin finds that if the statistic that states that people who have friends live longer is true, he may soon be set for life.

Stauffacher walks a fine line throughout this book. It might be very easy to interpret the character of Donuthead as someone suffering from OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). The fact that the kid has to sing the happy birthday song three times when he washes his hands, and must start over again if he looses track of the song, is evidence enough. But this isn't a story about OCD. Franklin's supposed to be funny, so we must assume that his peculiar tendencies are self-inflicted and not the result of some kind of disorder. This is not, suffice it to say, "As Good As It Gets" for kids. And Donuthead is funny. He talks like a forty-year-old British accountant and treats his mother more like a child than like a parent. He's also funny to listen to. Some of the best parts of this book occur when Franklin calls up Gloria for advice that goes above and beyond National Safety. As a disembodied voice, Gloria represents an adult that Franklin can respect. She also offers him some of the sanest advice in the book, and knows exactly how to talk to a guy who's own mother can't quite figure him out.

The book's rather remarkable in that its hero is a child of a sperm donor. His mom is a single-parent, something that we still don't see much of in children's literature even today. Sometimes, it's a little difficult to understand what Stauffacher's trying to say about non-violence and not liking sports. Franklin finds himself thrown into conflicts and unpleasant sports because other people want him to. I think we're supposed to want him to too, but I had a little more respect for poor Donuthead than that. If the boy doesn't want to learn how to hit a baseball don't make him for crying out loud!

Probably one of the things I liked best about this book was the ending. Not only is the last line in the book the kind of thing that'll put shivers down your spine, but it suggests that a sequel would not be out of place. I would, personally, adore a "Donuthead 2". We'll see if Stauffacher's up for it. If you need a book that reads aloud really really well to large groups of children, this book has it all. A pitiable yet likable protagonist. Really funny dialogue and scenes. And an ending that gives you, if nothing else, hope. A real find and a severely underrated book.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

From Book To Film: The Best?

A tip of the hat to Scholar's Blog for bringing this puppy to my attention.
The Guardian, in conjunction with Borders and Waterstones, has revealed a list of the top 50 film-book adaptations. A panel of experts has drawn up the list, which will be voted on by the public; the bookshops will promote the books in shops.
Take a look at the list in question. Alice In Wonderland is listed, but the article offers no indication of which version. The Disney? The made-for-tv movie that had Miranda Richardson in it? That creepy Eastern European one? and then there's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And which version of The Jungle Book are we talking here? Thumbs up for The Railway Children but methinks we should put together a list of our own. This one seems a touch lacking.

Sloppy Stealing

I've not weighed in on the whole Kaavya Viswanathan story, mostly because it's YA and I don't care to comment on upsets in the YA sphere. Today, however, the story struck a little close to home. Now as we all know, Ms. Viswanathan allegedly stole large portions of her book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life from Megan F. McCafferty's 2001 novel Sloppy Firsts and the 2003 novel Second Helpings. Ms. Viswanathan apologized and today the publisher of Crown Publishers and Three Rivers Press rejected said apology.

So here's the kicker. Today Ms. Megan F. McCafferty, the gal Viswanathan stole from, is appearing at my library branch at 4:00. The fear of Teen Central at the moment is that there'll be more reporters there than kids. In any case, it should be a hopping author visit. I fully intend to stop by.

She's a classy dame that Megan McCafferty. Came in and knew exactly how to handle the situation. We had reporters from the Daily News and who knows what-all in here with their cameras and their note-pads. So what does she do? She makes certain that anyone who wants to ask a question just writes that question down on a piece of paper. Then she goes through the papers and answers the ones she wants to. The result? Her appearance was about her newest book and not the nasty business surrounding Viswanathan. I'm sure that after she spoke and was getting ready to leave the reporters hounded her on their own, but for the puposes of her appearance she knew precisely how to act and what to say. Class incarnate, that woman.

Weirdo Book Challenge of the Day

Obviously the good residents of Ottobine have too much time on their hands. Someone recently attempted to ban The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton. This is probably the best P.R. this book has received in years. If the raciest thing they have on the shelf is Dies Drear, then these people need some newer books!

Review of the Day: Weedflower

Not liking Edward Tulane is one thing. Not liking Edward Tulane AND The Wright 3 is another. But not liking Edward Tulane AND The Wright 3 AND Weedflower would probably seal my doom. Fortunately, I found myself nicely surprised by the last of the three.

Full-disclosure time. I did not like "Kira-Kira". I respected what author Cynthia Kadohata was trying to do and I understood where she was trying to take her book but I did not respect how she did it. So when a co-worker I trust handed me, "Weedflower" and said, "It's actually good", I eyed the title with a critical eye. It takes a very extraordinary book to lift me out of my own personal prejudices and win me BACK over to a writer. That said, it seems that Kadohata has written such a book. Insightful, intelligent, historically accurate, and chock full of well-timed and well-written little tidbits, I've not found myself wanting to keep reading and reading a children's book this good in quite some time. Undoubtedly one of this year's rare can't-miss titles.

Sumiko is just thrilled. She's just been invited to her very first birthday party with all the other children in her class. Though she lives in California on her aunt and uncle's flower farm, Sumiko doesn't know a lot of other Japanese-American children at her school. When she arrives at the party, however, the mother of the birthday girl turns her away from the house. Not long after this humiliating incident, Pearl Harbor is bombed. Now Sumiko and her family members are getting shipped off to an internment camp for the duration of the war. They eventually find themselves in one located on an Indian Reservation in Arizona. The Japanese-Americans don't want to be there and the Indians don't want them. Still, while fighting boredom and the apparent death of her dreams, Sumiko is able to meet one of the Mohave boys that make deliveries to the camp and strike up a tentative friendship. Dealing with issues as heavy as how to survive without your basic Civil Rights and balancing them with stories of growth, mischief, and frustration, Kadohata intricately weaves together multiple strands of narrative and story to serve up a tale that is wholly new and engaging.

Flower farmers don't get much play in kids' books. Ditto Japanese internment titles that discuss the Poston internment camp. On the bookflap we learn that Kadohata's father was held at Poston during WWII and that his experiences provided the impetus for this book. Most remarkable is how deftly Kadohata is able to give her characters three-dimensions while still filling in just enough story, facts, and background to provide for a well-rounded novel. Though it slows down a little at the beginning, "Weedflower" hits the ground running once Sumiko finds herself turned away from the birthday party. That small piece of foreshadowing is such a wonderful little way to begin the book with a feeling for things to come that you almost wonder if it happened to someone Kadohata or her father knew. Of course the really remarkable thing about "Weedflower" is that you feel the threat the Japanese-Americans were under without ever having to see violent or particularly nasty scenes. It's the mark of a good children's writer when the author is able to convey danger without relying on shock or cheap theatrics. A true class act.

Not that Kadohata doesn't occasionally slip back into bad habits. The bulk of my dislike of "Kira-Kira" was based on the author's tendency to pile on the despair. Things get bad, and then the author will write a sentence or a paragraph that just milks the misery for all it's worth. As far as I could ascertain, that only happens once in this book. At one point Kadohata says, "Some nights Sumiko felt too sad to be inside listening to everyone breathe. Tak-Tak's nose was often stuffed, and Sumiko hated to listen to him struggle for freath. She imagined his lungs brown with dust. And Auntie was so depressed about Bull and Ichiro leaving that she cried for hours at night. Sumiko thought there was nothing in the world sadder than listening to someone cry for hours. It was even worse than your own tears". But such sections are few and far between. For the most part, Kadohata knows how to show and not tell. She's at her best when she makes it clear how the "ultimate boredom" a person can succumb to can kill your will to do anything. Idle hands are the devil's playthings indeed.

Actually, I've a bit of a beef with the cover. Sure, a shot of a pretty Japanese-American girl looking through barbed wire while wearing a kimono is a nice idea. But when on earth does Sumiko wear a kimono in this book? I remember that she owned one and that she pushed it to the back of the closet back in her California home but mostly when she wants to dress up she wears an increasingly bedraggled mint green school dress. Yet apparently the publisher didn't think a kid wearing anything less than a piece of symbolism would do. I would have much preferred to have seen Sumiko in normal school clothes, but there's no denying that while it may not be accurate, the cover of this book is rather stunning. A cheap shot, but stunning.

There are quite a few children's books that discuss the internments of WWII. The one that I kept thinking back to while reading this book was, "Invisible Thread" by Yoshiko Uchida. Uchida's book is based on memory and is good for what it is. It just so happens that Kadohata's book may be significantly more powerful in part because she doesn't have to adhere to her own memories and in part because the situation her father was in works so well in a children's book. A book published the same year as, "Weedflower" that also follows a forced internment at the hands of the U.S. Government is Joseph Bruchac's good but long, "Geronimo". Both books have a great deal in common, but Bruchac weighs down his narrative with too little editing whereas Kadohata keeps, "Weedflower" hopping along at a fast clip. I wish I could swamp "Weedflower" for "Kira-Kira" and make IT the Newbery winner of 2004. Ah well. As it stands, I recommend it to any and all kids forced by their schools to write a book report on a recent book of historical fiction. This is one of the more charming titles out there, and definitely will be making quite a few Best Book lists for 2006. Lovely lovely lovely.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


I like every post I write to have some sort of connection to children's literature.
Then I saw the giant bunny.
You take one look and this post and refrain from saying, "Awwwww".
Can anyone think of a children's book that contains a large rabbit? I'm coming up with a blank.

Who Wants To Party?

Today Gail Gauthier happened to link to a recent New York Times article that declared the death of the book party.

"In the past few years, the book party as buzz-generator has been eclipsed by the elegant prepublication lunch, where publishers invite a few dozen editors and critics to a three-course meal at a swish restaurant to promote one or more titles they're pushing that season. Publishers may also organize small events nationwide to start the chattering classes chattering. "It's more helpful in getting attention city by city with influential people in the book world," said the literary agent Ira Silverberg. "You could take over Yankee Stadium for Salman Rushdie and I don't know if it's going to matter to an independent bookseller in Pasadena.""

The important part of this article? "...the elegant prepublication lunch, where publishers invite a few dozen editors and critics to a three-course meal at a swish restaurant to promote one or more titles they're pushing that season". Critics, eh? Join me then in letting publishers know that the rising critics in children's literature happen to be bloggers. I could rip off a couple blog names right off the top of my head (including myself) who wouldn't mind being wined and dined a little by the people who put out the books. *hint hint*

Meet a Hot Man of Children's Literature For Free

I am of course referring to none other than Brian Selznick himself. The Donnell Central Children's Room is proud to announce that this Thursday from 6-8 you could meet Mr. S live and in person. He is funny. He is cute. He has just written a novel that will change what you think you know about children's literature. But the greatest incentive? When asked by my boss, "Shall we peel the grapes" in preparation for this visit, he had the wherewithal to reply, "Please peel only the purple ones, as I like the green grapes as they are".

Charm incarnate.

Hot Men of Children's Literature - Part 11 in a series

My job would be so much easier if male children's authors just started posing naked on-line more often. They've no consideration at all. THAT's their problem. I couldn't decide which picture to use with my latest addition to The Hot Men of Children's Literature. So I've included all of them. In spite of his continual bitter comments against my precious children's room, I have forgiven this week's hot man because A) He was thrown out of my room long before my time and B) I'm running out of hot men. I will say, however, that one of the higher-ups in my library almost cancelled out the fellow because he looked (in her words) "scruffy". There. Now we're even. So this week I present to you (drumroll please)...

As shown here...

and here ...

and here ...

I forgive you, Chris. Now make bloody certain you don't bring it up at the ALA Conference in New Orleans or your lovely acceptance speech may be interrupted by the loud grinding of someone's teeth.

Mother Reader vacuumed a bee

Even the simplest of actions may tie-in to children's literature in some great way. As proof, I offer this posting.

The Books They'll Never Turn Into Films... And the Ones They Already Have

I've been looking through the various film projects currently in the works that involve kiddie lit and which may or may not yield some interesting films in the future. But such idle scanning sometimes means that I grow sad thinking of those wonderful titles that will never ever ever be turned into movies. Call me a cynical coot (coot, after all, is such a funny word) but there are some films that will never see the light of day to the detriment of all. I shall list them here in order of the indignation I feel.

  • The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm - by Nancy Farmer. Okay, everybody. I now need you to all raise your hands high high high above your heads when you can think of the answer to my question. Okay? Now who here can think of a single action movie for kids starring African-American child heroes? Anybody? Anybody? Yeah, that's what I thought. You can't. You can't and it's going to be a looooong time before Hollywood even considers the idea. But when it finally happens, I hope they at least have the good sense to consider this particularly fabulous book. It's futuristic, it has snappy writing, and I can see Morgan Freeman as The Arm.
  • Anything else Nancy Farmer ever wrote - Well, I mean it's just criminal that they haven't already. Anything will do (though I'm not entirely certain I'd have the guts to sit through The House of the Scorpion).
  • Archer's Goon - Miyazaki's film of Howl's Moving Castle proved that filming a Jones book can be done. How well Miyazaki did so is up for debate. Now I know you all have your favorite Jones books. You have your Chrestomanci fans, your Fire and Hemlock advocates, and your Dogsbody dog-lovers. But give me a big hulking goon who refuses to leave a kitchen table over all her other books combined. I love all her stuff, but Goon holds a special place in my heart.
  • A Wrinkle In Time - No no no. Do not inform me that they already made this into a film. I consider apocryphal any version of this tale in which Meg doesn't wear glasses. That and it was visual tripe.
  • A Wizard of Earthsea - Re: Already existing sucky versions, see A Wrinkle In Time up above. Oh... and what was the deal with making almost everyone white? So odd.
  • Fly By Night - They won't do it. They must do it. They won't do it. They must do it.
  • The Hounds of the Morrigan - So Irish and so very very good. You could totally do this book today. Just CGI the fox (hey, they did it in Narnia) and throw in two fabulous Irish actors and voila! Movie magic.
  • The Wizard of Oz - Bear with me on this one. I know you're all overly fond of the original, but I'm not talking musical here. I'm talking the original book. We have the technology to make a real tin man, and a real scarecrow, and a real cowardly lion. Take the aforementioned Narnia special effects and think what they could do to the Land of Oz! It boggles the mind. Plus you could get in all those crazy elements in the book that have never seen the silver screen before. Things like the Quadlings and the Dainty China Country.
  • Donuthead - Aw, why the heck not? It is, after all, one of the best books to come out in the last five years. And if they can film a good Holes...

And that's all I could come up with off the top of my head. So what is Hollywood actually making at the moment? Well, soon enough you'll be able to see these little wonders in your local cineplex. Whether you want to or not may be another matter entirely....

  • Ant Bully - I wasn't even aware that they'd adapted John Nickle's book into a film until I picked up my most recent Entertainment Weekly. Apparently Tom Hanks had a hand in the creation. Bears a slight resemblance to both Antz and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
  • Eragon - Sure, you knew they were filming it. You may even have known about Jeremy Irons, John Malcovich, and *sob* Djimon Hounsou. But did you know that Joss Stone would have a part? Yeah, neither did I. Never has a movie so deserved its "actress".
  • The Golden Compass - Here's the oh-so-useful imdb.com "Trivia" I found: " Writer Philip Pullman wants Nicole Kidman to play Mrs. Coulter and has indicated that he would like Jason Isaacs to portray Lord Asriel". I had heard the Kidman rumor. There is no way he's getting her, but it's a nice thought. Jason Isaacs would be a delicious Asriel. Yum yum yum, num num num.
  • The Spiderwick Chronicles - Why oh why are they doing the first three books as a film and not all five together? Bad, Hollywood! No new starlets for you!
  • My Friend Flicka - Or, as imdb describes it, merely Flicka. For a fun time, click on screenwriter Mark Rosenthal's name to see what other films he's done in the past. A bunch of winners right there!
  • Hoot - So far Walden Media has been firing on all cylinders with surprising accuracy. Hoot could go either way. I'll be watching it closely. There's a review for it already at BookMoot, so check it out.
  • Charlotte's Web - I hadn't noticed that Andre 3000 was doing a voice before. Anyone remember who Elwyn is?
  • Punk Farm- This was a picture book by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Someone actually came in and asked for this book five days ago. My library has exactly one copy. I suspect we had better get more. The Shrek guys are going to work on it.
  • Where the Wild Things Are - Directed by Spike Jonze and screenplay by Dave Eggers. Well I, for one, am intrigued.
  • How To Eat Fried Worms - I've already ordered in 10 extra paperback copies for the old circulating collection here. And guess who's in the film? That's right. It's Clint Howard time. Aww yeah.
  • Bridge To Terebithia - Remember the girl who played Violet Beauregard in the latest Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Looks like she's still getting work. And Zooey Deschanel is playing the teacher. So where's Will Ferrell? A thank you to The Disco Mermaids for the reminder.
  • The Wee Free Men - Earlier I posted that this would never be turned into a film. Oh, how wrong I was. A big thank you to the Book of the Day blog for pointing this puppy out to me. Sam Raimi is helming it and good things might well happen. I still say that David Hyde Pierce should be the lawyer toad's voice, though.
And that's all I could come up with. If any of you have any additions, I'll add 'em on as I go. These are just the titles that are currently in production. After all, just because a studio buys the rights to something, that doesn't mean they'll actually make a film out of it. Here's hoping my favorite movies get made someday.

Review of the Day: A Horn For Louis

Some people have been asking me to do a couple more reviews on titles for younger readers. So I was delighted when I came across this book. This year I'm on list committee that is forever in need of good 2006 books for early chapter readers. Imagine my heartbreak then when I discovered that "A Horn For Louis" was published in December 2005. What on earth was the publisher thinking?

Children’s books that take place in New Orleans have started popping up like daisies in a field. Not too long ago I discovered “Maggie’s Amerikay” by Barbara Timberlake Russell which discusses the mixing of Irish and former slaves in The Big Easy. And now I’ve found Eric A. Kimmel’s, “A Horn For Louis” ... which discusses the mixing of former slaves and Jews in The Big Easy. Now I consider myself to be a number one fan of Kimmel’s remarkable picture book, “Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock”, so I was intrigued by this particular title. Kimmel has attempted to write an early chapter book on the slightly fictionalized youth of Louis Armstrong. Early chapter books, by the way, are rarities. Finding a well-written story that has simple words but STILL seems interesting... well that’s a toughie. Few writers are up to the challenge. A big round of applause then to Mr. Kimmel who not only brings us some great factual information but a story with a full helping of heart, guts, and sass. A rare and wonderful find.

It’s 1907 and young Louis Armstrong is off to work. He may only be a kid, but with his job at the Karnofsky junkyard, he’s bringing in a much-needed dollar a day for his mom and kid sister. It doesn’t hurt that the Karnofskys are wonderful people. They feed Louis delicious food like kasha and black bread and treat him like a member of the family. On this particular day, it’s the first night of Hanukkah. Louis doesn’t know much about the holiday, but he knows how to do his job on the junk cart. With a little dinky tin horn that he keeps in his pocket, his job is to toot loudly and let people know when the cart is around. Louis yearns to someday be a brilliant musician like his idol Joe Oliver, the man the people call King. Unfortunately, a clash with some local boys ends with Louis destroying his little tin horn. What he’d love would be to own a beautiful new horn, but he just doesn’t have the money. Fortunately for him, it’s Hanukkah and the Karnofskys are not going to rest until Louis Armstrong gets a horn of his own.

In his Author’s Note, Kimmel mentions that he personally went to New Orleans to do some research on this book. It seems to me that he must have written the story just before the tragic events of Hurricane Katrina. The book deftly captures street names, neighborhoods, and little details that most young reader titles would eschew in favor of plot. That’s what sets “A Horn For Louis” aside from the pack. Add in the multiple facts about Jewish immigrants to American and a full glossary of Yiddish terms AS WELL as a really remarkable Bibliography, and you have one of the finest titles for early chapter readers to hit the market in quite some time. That’s not even mentioning the black and white illustrations by James Bernardin either. Bernardin gives us a Louis Armstrong that feels and looks realistic. This kid has a spark of life to him. The pictures in this book are plentiful and just as adept at portraying a New Orleans mausoleum as they are showing Louis buttoning and unbuttoning his shoes.

So let’s do some recap here. You’ve got an award-winning author with a gift of the gab and an illustrator with some artistic chops to match. You have tons of factual information, great source notes, and a glossary of terms for spice. Top it all off by noticing that this is an early chapter book (one of the most neglected literary forms in children’s literature) and you’ve got yourself a fabulous, nay necessary, addition to your library. There is no excuse for not purchasing this book. It’s as good as it gets and then some.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Technical Difficulties Galore

How sad. I have many many things I would like to post and Blogger isn't letting me. This is a test to see if I can get ANYTHING to appear on my blog. One moment...

Review of the Day: The One Left Behind

And back we come to new books. This one came out in March of this year. I enjoyed it, but you really have to understand Roberts' style to get into it, I think. Blogger is acting especially finicky this morning, so I hope this posts without a flub.

When I write a review of a children's book I have to be very careful that I don't let my preconceptions of that book's author color my reading of their newest work. When I read Polly Horvath, I can't assume that it's going to contain parentless children and when I read Kate DiCamillo I can't assume that it's going to feature an animal of some sort. And when I read Willo Davis Roberts I must try as hard as possible not to remember that she wrote one of my favorite books from my childhood, "The Girl With the Silver Eyes". Even if an author wrote a book you lauded, loved, and worshipped as a child, that is no reason to instantly assume you're going to love their next book. It helped that when a co-worker of mine handed me, "The One Left Behind", she told me that it wasn't very good. So I had two simultaneous and conflicting preconceptions battling one another. My love of Roberts' work and a co-worker's pan. As it happens, I enjoyed this last and posthumous book that ended up being Roberts' one hundredth title for children. It's got a bit of melodrama at its core and perhaps a little finagling to make the story work, but all in all this is a book that does the memory of Willo Davis Roberts proud. A kiddie thriller for the mini-Hitchcocks amongst us.

Mandy is a twin. Well... she was a twin. A year ago Angel, her sister, died of food poisoning and left Mandy devastated and alone. Since that time her family has pulled together and gone on with their lives. All except Mandy. With only the family dog to talk to and a bunch of older brothers who have their own problems, she's having a hard time adjusting to going through life solo. When her parents go on a vacation by themselves, it's understood that Mandy will be staying with one of her brothers during the week-end. Through a series of miscommunications, however, she instead ends up left all by herself in her home for the three days that everybody's gone. At first this isn't a problem. She feeds the family dog and tries to be brave in spite of the creepiness of the house. The first night she's there, however, she hears someone downstairs, watching tv and feeding her dog. As the mystery of her intruder grows, Mandy grows more and more self-assured, drawing on memories of her twin for strength. When the book takes a turn towards kidnapping, attempted murder, and chase sequences, it's up to Mandy to keep a cool head and find a way to take care of herself, no matter what.

Roberts fans are going to notice right off the bat the similarities here to the author's previous your-home-is-never-safe story, "Hostage". There are actually several Roberts stand-bys in this book. As an author, she was never afraid to have her characters mention faith or prayer, but without ever drawing attention to the fact or making the book an exercise in preachy didacticism. Also, you never think that the main character is truly safe. When danger comes, you feel it. You can sense the reality of the situation, and it isn't pleasant. You're never entirely safe in Roberts' hands, and that's precisely why kids find her books so doggone compelling.

My co-worker's primary objection to this book (we're both children's librarians) was that Roberts began the book with Mandy thinking just about her twin. Then, when the mystery kicks in, she felt that that particular element was dropped like a hot potato, never to be returned to again. With that in mind, I read the book with some trepidation. And frankly, I think I'll have to respectfully disagree with my colleague on this one. The mystery Mandy faces does indeed distract her from her own self-absorption, true. But Angel is never far from her thoughts. Even when she's in the midst of a troubling or dangerous situation she always finds the time to sit down and consider what her twin would or would not have done if she were there now. Had Roberts failed to address Angel at the end, that would have been a different matter altogether. Fortunately, the book ends with Mandy realizing that she will always be able to draw on her sister's memory for strength. "Nobody would ever be able to change that". So there you go. Each theme Roberts brings up is expertly handled and summed up beautifully by the end.

I sometimes get child patrons who'll come up to my Reference Desk and ask for book recommendations where the situations in the book aren't fantasy. Some kids just don't like magic. They want realistic situations and protagonists who act like real children. Willo Davis Roberts fits such requests to a tee and rarely lets anyone down. It's odd to say, but by her 100th published novel, she never lost her touch. Consider pairing this with a Vivian Alcock book like, "The Sylvia Game", for kicks.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

My Favorite Birthday Present

Today was my birthday and I received many lovely presents of a variety of shapes and sizes. They were all lovely and I enjoyed each one, but unbeknownst to me, the best present was waiting in my e-mail's in-box. There I found a message with the subject line, "From Jules Feiffer". Jules Feiffer. The Jules Feiffer. He was writing to say nice things about a review I wrote for his book, "A Room With a Zoo" on Amazon.com. If you are familiar with that book then you may find interesting his information on the true story behind the book's events. He said:

"Writing this book was about as much fun as I've ever had doing anything. And, to bring you up to date: both cats, Jesse and Timmy, who were in fact seventeen years and nineteen years respectively, died last year. Julie got her dog shortly after I finished the first draft. She's a one-eyed Chihuahua, mixed-breed, whom we adopted from Petco on upper Broadway, and she and Julie's new kitten, Daisy, play like mother and child".

So there you have it. Jules Feiffer, THE Jules Feiffer, sent me an e-mail and I'm so happy I could just burst into two. Turning 28 is GREAT! Why didn't anybody ever tell me?

Review of the Day: Fly By Night

Since today is my birthday I grant myself permission to reprint a Review of the Day that I've already published before. This is my favorite children's book of 2006, read thus far. It is without comparison. It sings. It delights. I will fight for its right to get onto every Best Books List of the 2006 if I have to pin commmittee members to the ground, each and every one. For those of you who saw this review before, I apologize but birthday rights are birthday rights.

As I write this review, it is February 2006. The year, such as it is, is about a sixth over. There is plenty of time for original stories to be published, new works of fiction to pop-up overnight, and fabulous samples of writing to catch the eye. On some level, I know this. I accept it. But then I look down on my review copy of "Fly By Night" and my eyes practically fill with tears. I am looking, you see, at my favorite book of 2006. I already know this. Oh sure, back in January I was sure that my favorite book of 2006 was going to be Karen Cushman's, "The Loud Silence of Francine Green". But while my love for "Francine" is just as clear and concise as ever, Frances Hardinge's whopper of a first novel has truly stolen my heart away. Not since Philip Pullman has a book created such a finely wrought and delicately planned out alternative world. But unlike Pullman (who has his charms BUT) Hardinge's book has a distinct advantage over its competitors. It's brilliant, yes. Well-plotted, well-paced, and well-characterized, yes. But it is also drop dead funny. We're talking about a book in which a girl named after a housefly with a pipe in her teeth goes prancing across the country with her homicidal goose in tow. I haven't a clue if children will actually like this book. Quite frankly, I do not care. I love it as deeply as I have ever loved any title and you can put THAT in your own pipe and smoke it.

Mosca Mye didn't quite intend to burn up her aunt and uncle's mill while escaping from the overly sodden town of Chough. This much we know. She did, however, have every intention of freeing a rapscallion caught in the stocks that very night. The man's name is Eponymous Clent and he's a con man of the most florid degree. Mosca grew up learning how to read from her bookworm father and now, orphaned and trapped in a life she does not like, she sees Clent and his beautiful way with words as a means of getting out of town. They won't be skipping out alone, of course. Clasped firmly under her arm is Mosca's faithful and deadly goose Saracen. On their travels the two run afoul of a ship's captain, rescue a lady from a highwayman, and then dig themselves deeper and deeper into the political intrigue and schemes of the town of Mandelion's rulers, guildsmen, and potential oppressors. Who could know that the very fate of a nation rests on a single eyebrowless girl's slim shoulders and the wingtips of a particularly snarky bird.

What my little description here doesn't do is give you an idea of where this book takes place. Hardinge has created what she calls a Fractured Realm. This world bears some similarities to England at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but with definite differences. In this land, Parliament has dispossessed all royalty and has been trying to figure out which potential ruler should have the crown for several decades now. In their stead, Guilds of skilled working men have grown strong and powerful. The top three, for the purposes of this book, are The Company of Locksmiths (who can enter any domicile with their keys), The Company of Stationers (who have every right to burn and ban the books they deem heresy), and The Company of Watermen (who guard and police the rivers). Got all that? Cause I haven't even gotten into the religious aspects. In this world every day and hour has a different saint or Beloved. People worship different ones. Mosca, in this case, was born under Palpitattle, better known as He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butter Churns. Hence her name. At one point during the height of the political problems a sect known as The Birdcatchers caused unparalleled destruction and chaos all in the name of destroying the religion of The Beloved. They were put down eventually but the country is still reeling from their ascent.

Does this sound like a children's book to you? No? Well bear with me then. There are children out there who read voraciously. For whom a little Tolkein and a little Pullman are nothing but a walk in the park. To these children, I offer up, "Fly By Night". It hasn't any literary equivalent, of course. There's the obvious ode to Dickens here and there (Clent is just a modified dandified Fagan with a pretty tongue) but an even stronger connection to Leon Garfield's old books. If you happen to know anyone who enjoyed "Smith" or "Black Jack" or "The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris", then this book is an obvious follow-up. If you have never read these books yourself, go and do so immediately and don't come back to me until you've safely devoured them. They are brilliant, but Hardinge is more intelligent and well-written by far. Partly this is due to her language. She writes descriptions that are lovely in their simplicity. Sentences like, "How strange it was to look down the barrel of a pistol! It was not exactly fear, more a soft shock, like being hit in the stomach with a snowball". And best of all you like the characters. You like the villains who become heroes and the heroes who become villains. You revel in never knowing whom to trust, just as Mosca never does. You do know one thing though. Whatever storm happens to blow, you can always trust Mosca and Saracen. There's a wonderful certainty in that.

I will end with a small passage from the book in which Clent starts using his tongue to its truest advantage. It is a description of a man. In it Clent says, "Mabwick Toke is the head of the Stationers' chapter in Mandelion. He can quote the whole of Pessimese's `Endeavors,' from Amblebirth to Aftermath, in the original Acrylic. He can speak twenty languages, half of them living, including two from the Aragash Heights, and one that can only be spoken with a coin under the tongue. When he travels, his carriage is lined with shelves so snug with books that the very breeze must squeeze for entry. He once uncovered a league of subversives by identifying a single silken thread in the paper weave of an opera ticket. If wits were pins, the man would be a veritable hedgehog". If you are a person hoping to write a children's book someday, I strongly urge you NOT to read "Fly By Night". Such passages like the one quoted above can only bring you to tears. This was written as Hardinge's FIRST novel for children. It's enough to make you weep and crow with joy all at once. Let us hope that many many more will be in the works soon.

La la la la...

Happy birthday to me
Happy birthday to me
Happy biiiiirthday toooo meeeee
Happy birthday too-oo-oo me!

I am 28 years of age today. 28 isn't really an age one celebrates with any special fear or joy, by the way. So far I have received a lovely edition of Wind In the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore and the first season of Fraggle Rock. All is right with the world.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Love You Forever Summed Up To a Tee

Great news, everybody. Those of you who know my feelings towards the infinitely lamentable Love You Forever and who concur, may enjoy Gregory K's newest Oddaptation. Mr. K is the man who brought the world the fibonacci poems that have been all the rage lately. I, personally, found this particular Oddaptation of his to be truly inspiring. Truly.

Apparently Everyone Knew About This Before I Did

First of all, this post makes a couple assumptions right off the bat. It assumes that you are already familiar with the Chronicles of Narnia rap done on Saturday Night Live entitled Lazy Sunday. If you didn't see the piece when it aired or shortly thereafter online you may be out of luck as NBC has pulled on-line distribution of the video. If you DID see it (and found its lines like, "You can call me Aaron Burr for the way I'm dropping Hamiltons", to be funny) then you will be equally amused by its follow up. Check out this version of the same rap by Nick and Amelia. There's also a video either here or herethat reshoots the scene, shot for shot. I can't get them to download, but only 'cause my computer thinks this newfangled "internet" is too much for its little iMac brains.

Review of the Day: Waiting For Gregory

The picture to accompany this is forthcoming. My home computer cannot copy images as well as I would like. I especially want you to sit up and take notice of this puppy as well. It's one of the lovelier titles I've seen this year.

I am relieved. Utterly, completely, fully, and wholly relieved. I am relieved because when it comes to illustrator Gabi Swiatkowska I never know what to expect. This is a mixed blessing. For example, when you pick up a book illustrated by Richard Scarry or Steven Kellogg you know what you expect. Their art always stays the same and their style never wavers one way or another. But pick up a book that carries the words, “paintings by Gabi Swiatkowska” on its cover and you might as well be picking up a beautifully wrapped present. Inside you may find everything you ever hoped or dreamed of, or you might be woefully disappointed in some way. Now I adored Swiatkowska’s remarkable work on, “My Name Is Yoon” and cooed over its incredibly inventive pictures. Then came “Summertime Waltz” and while I essentially liked the book, I wasn’t carried away by what Swiatkowska had chosen to do with it. So you can understand that when I saw “Waiting For Gregory” for the first time, I was wary. For all the book’s charms, the cover illustration is not going to immediately draw you in. Open the book up though and you’ll find yourself simultaneously entranced by both author Kimberly Willis Holt’s touching story and Gabi Swiatkowska’s wonderful interpretation of the author's events. This is not a book for everyone, but for those who like a little dreamy zaniness with their children’s literature, it’s going to fill a definite need.

Iris has just learned that her Aunt Athena is expecting a baby boy and she simply cannot wait. His name will be Gregory and Iris is impatient to meet and play with her little cousin immediately. Unfortunately, no one is being completely forthright with Iris about this arrival. When she asks when he’ll come her father says “Soon, Iris, but not too soon”. Her grandfather spins her some story about a stork flying in, while her grandmother goes for the old baby-growing-underneath-a-cabbage tale. In fact, every person Iris talks to gives her an entirely different view of when Gregory will come (and in what form) until she finally asks her mom. Mom lays it on the line. Babies take nine months but no one knows what the exact day and time will be when Gregory arrives. This is an answer that Iris can handle, so she waits and waits and waits for Gregory. Finally, in the fall, her uncle calls with the good news that Gregory’s here. The family rushes over and Iris realizes pretty quickly that it’ll be some time before her cousin is old enough to play. “And soon, but not too soon, though not too long at all, Gregory will be waiting for me”. The last page shows a little boy standing there, ready to play.

Now when I wrote this summary of “Waiting For Gregory” you probably had a certain view of how the book might look. Perhaps you saw the family as living on a rural farm or in a suburban home of some sort. I’m sure author Kimberly Willis Holt had her own mental picture of the events she penned. Which makes me wonder what Holt thought when she saw Swiatkowska’s elaborate, amazing illustrations. She probably didn’t think of setting the whole thing in a kind of 1700s/white-powdered wig/circus performer/who knows what-all era. What Swiatkowska has done here is create a setting that may never have existed but that you wish desperately could have. It’s a beautiful, stunning, overwhelming series of images. For example, when Iris asks her father when Gregory is coming and he gives that soon but not too soon but not too long answer, an elaborate graph appears over Iris’s head calculating the radius of where “not too long” intersects with “soon”, which in turn leads from “not too soon”. The entire book, actually, is doing several things simultaneously. You have the characters acting out their parts as per Holt’s words. Then you have visual diagrams and graphs that play out some of the crazy things they say. So when grandpa feeds Iris the unlikely stork tale, she in turn imagines a convoluted overweight stork brought in on an elaborate pulley system. When Iris in turn thinks of how she’d love to teach Gregory how to swim, we see the outlines of a small boy swimming with a well-detailed diving helmet of sorts underneath a buoyant weather balloon. And I don’t want to forget to mention how Swiatkowska uses the book’s gutters time and time again. Sometimes her pictures will span two pages, but often there will be two entirely separate pictures on two separate pages. When that happens, images fall into the gutters on purpose and never surface again on the facing page. It’s a unique take on the picture book format and one that works especially well with this book.

I don’t want to spend all my time talking about Swiatkowska’s art when a great deal of credit should be given to author Kimberly Willis Holt as well. You may be familiar with some of Holt’s work for older children and teens. After all, she won the National Book Award for, “When Zachary Beaver Came To Town”, and is also responsible for the well-received, “My Louisiana Sky”. It’s obvious that Holt carries with her a deft hand at capturing the voices of children of every age. In this book, Iris’s anticipation is keenly felt. You even come to believe that she would actually have grown and changed enough by the end to await Gregory’s further growth with a kind of child-like acceptance. No small feat in a book of only twenty-nine pages.

Actually, the book this reminded me of the most in some ways was the delightful, “Learning to Fly” by Sebastian Meschenmoser. Both books illustrate seemingly simple stories with beautifully penciled details, graphs, and oddities. They would not be poor companions together for one-on-one readalouds. Meschenmoser hails from Germany while Swiatowkska is one of the very few Polish illustrators to gain recognition in American publishing. And once again I’d like to reiterate how relieved I was with, “Waiting For Gregory”. Kids reading the book will enjoy Holt’s story and Iris’s anticipation. They will also love the beautiful entrancing paintings Swiatkowska has painted for the story. After all, who wouldn’t want to live in a world where rocking horses are the sizes of real horses and people get to wear pointy shoes? Countless picture books come out every year pertaining to new babies and their siblings. This one definitely separates itself from the pack.

Friday, April 21, 2006

O Holiest of Cows

The Children's Literature Book Club has a rather nice section that retells how Shannon Hale found out she had won a Newbery Honor this year. I was amused.

Horn Book Gossip

Actually, it probably doesn't count as gossip since it was posted widely on Roger Sutton's blog in the first place, but it appears that Horn Book Magazine was threatened with legal action from a publisher. The reason? Bad reviews. Of course now EVERYBODY wants to know who this publisher is. I can only assume that they're rather small and unclear of how the law works.

Homeschoolers Like Me. You Should Too.

A Fuse #8 Production has received a glowing recommendation of the highest sort from the all-too kind Farm School blog. Glowing! And as I run a homeschooler bookgroup here at Donnell, I cannot help but wonder if I'll be luring in any additional homeschool readers. Time will tell.

Is Anyone Else Seeing the Connection Here?

Are multiple movies about The Fall of Man a sign of the end of the world? I was cool with His Dark Materials getting made into three films. I even made my peace with American Pie screenwriter Chris Weitz doing the screenplay and NOT the original writer, Tom Stoppard. Now, however, Hollywood's smelling a whole new genre. So alongside Pullman's version of Paradise Lost comes ... Paradise Lost: The Movie! (the emphasis on "The Movie" is entirely my own). I kid you not on this. They are filming Milton's Sympathy For the Devil novel in full. I'm just sitting here with my jaw on my desk. Two simultaneous Falls coming soon to a theater near you. Here's hoping neither of them put the "Ick" in "Epic".

Censorship Watch: Big Surpises Here.... okay, not really

I dunno. Usually I leave the censorship watches to other blogs. They're better at it than I am. But when I run across a line like, "the Harry Potter series made her daughter turn to witchcraft, ultimately causing their Christian family to lose friends, finances and their reputation"... well that's hard to forget. My favorite moment is when a parent volunteer compares HP to giving kids books like Car Bombing 101. This is afascinating article in its own right. Now I think I'll do something wholesome like go play that ultra-gory Left Behind video game until this blows over.

Rant Time. Good Old Friday Rant Time.

Bad news, kids. I'm obsolete again. Yes, today it was science fiction writer Bruce Sterling who was the soul brave enough to hammer the last nail in the coffin. Says Sterling:

"My students ... and I went to teach because I wanted to learn from the young people, they're half my age, they wouldn't dream of going down to the library to research something, they Google it first, they Wikipedia it, failing that they look for someone who's got a work blog in their line of work, and then maybe they'll go down and crack a few canonical texts down at the library. These are the professionals of tomorrow and these are already their reflexive working habits. That's just how they learn about stuff because it's faster, it's cheaper, you get up to speed and the quality of the data is better. It's a no contest thing."

Aw, what a shame. And here I had this silly little idea that the internet was full of gook. Thanks to Sterling, however, I now know that "the quality of the data" one finds online "is better". Who knew? And here I thought that Google was sometimes misleading or unreliable. Or that when kids are taught how to use library databases and online searches they come up with better information than old anyone-can-post-anything-online Wikipedia and Google. Fortunately, Mr. Sterling has the situation well in hand and has let me know that I shouldn't really bother signing kids up with library cards at all. Those 50 kids reading in my children's room at this very minute? Apparently they are apparations. So much for that MLIS degree I've been paying for.