Fuse #8

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Too Much Happens In This Town

When you live in New York you accept certain things. Cool stuff is always going on everywhere and you'll be lucky if you hear about 3% of it. And for that 3% you do know about? If you happen to attend it you'll be there with 1,000,000 other people because there are too many friggin' people in this city!

Which explains why I had not heard of this. There's this group called NY Artists Unlimited that has a vague enough name that it could really be anything from a movie theater chain to a union for NY artists. Instead, what it actually is (and I quote) is a group, "dedicated to
taking professional theatre to under-served audiences." Fair enough. I'll forgive them the British spelling of "theatre" this time. But why should you care? Well, remember when we were coming up with that list of the Worst 14 Films Made From Children's Books? It looks like those movies might have found their niche. On October 18th the International Cringe Festival is having the World's First Bad Films Festival. Sadly, no schedule is up as of yet. My hopes are very high, though.

Oh. And NY Artists Unlimited does lots of shows for kids based on children's books. There's your justification for my mentioning any of this.

El Recapo

Sweet and Vicious, should anyone ask, is a brilliant place to hold a gathering of the sort we saw on Thursday of this week for the first official Kidlit Drink Night. The weather cooperating nicely, we met outside on a back patio area. Megan McCarthy, who I didn't even know was coming, was out there as well as some Longstockings (who shall remain nameless so that I don't embarrass the ones who didn't attend... but if you ask me I'll tell).

People were lovely. We talked about covers (like the suspicious similarity between Shug and Skinny), and trends, and how to become a librarian, and future projects the authors were working on. Oh. And lots of stuff I was told not to write about because it wasn't cool. And if you had been there YOU could have heard it firsthand and wouldn't rely on me. Oh like you guys couldn't have flown here on a plane or something.

Okay, so here are the exclusive things that I learned in the course of the evening that I CAN mention:

John Green's Looking For Alaska done got its film rights bought. Not too exciting since many a book gets purchased by Hollywood at some point. And how many of them actually get made? Exactly. But see, here's the deal... the screenwriter? Josh Schwartz, creator of The O.C. According to Mr. Green, Mr. Schwartz is a helluva guy who's consulted him on script elements when most screenwriters would do their thing and leave it at that. Consider me cautiously optimistic.

By the way, you all know Louise Erdrich's amazing series that began with The Birchbark House and continued with The Game of Silence, yes? Well, were you aware that there was a third book in the works? A third book by the name of Twelve Moons Running? Oh yeah, baby. And according to a source that is not exactly unbiased in the matter, it's the best of the lot. I smell future Newbery potential...

Review of the Day: A Drowned Maiden's Hair

Some authors excel at first-sentence fabulousness. Laura Amy Schlitz is no exception. “On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was locked in the outhouse, singing, The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” So begins what could well be one of the smartest conceits for a book I’ve read in a very long time. To my mind, the best children’s books are the ones that set up mysterious, possibly otherworldly, potential and then slip into reality without losing any of their magic. “The Secret Garden”, by Frances Hodgson Burnett might be a good example of this. So too is, “A Drowned Maiden’s Hair”. Telling a tale that makes use of early 20th century beliefs and cons, the title grabs the reader by the throat on page one and doesn’t let go for the entirety of the reading. And the ending? The most satisfying I’ve read in years. You poor readers who haven’t perused it yet. You have my deep and abiding pity.

Someone has adopted Maud Flynn and no one is more amazed than the girl in question. I mean, the day was no different from any other to begin with. Maud was locked in the outhouse for being disruptive (again) and then this beautiful old woman appeared out of the blue and just adopted her! The woman’s name is Hyacinth Hawthorne and she and her two sisters have taken Maud into their home for a very specific purpose. It turns out that the Hawthorne sisters are con artists who pose as spiritualists for the rich and unhappy. Want to contact your dear departed wife before you rewed? Call on Hyacinth. At the moment the sisters are desperate for money and they see Maud as their ticket to freedom. An extremely rich woman, one Mrs. Lambert, has offered a huge sum of cash if anyone can successfully contact her dead child. Maud’s role? To play that child. She cannot exit the house. She cannot play with other children. She must be good at all times. But as much as Maud wants to please her caretakers, she unexpectedly finds herself befriending Mrs. Lambert, seeing the dead girl she’s to impersonate in her dreams, and discovering that her new family may not love her even one little bit. She’s just a kid, but she’s about to face some tough choices.

One prejudice against children’s book I've heard is that the black and white of take on what is good and what is bad is part of the literary package. Some people seem to believe that subtlety and writing for kids are two elements that do not mix. Nothing could be farther from the truth and Ms. Schlitz is a living example. There are many people in this book that do morally questionable things. The Hawthorne sisters are three very different people, but all three have compromised their morals (it wasn’t hard in Hyacinth’s case) to take advantage of people’s pain for cash. Those that actively participate (Hyacinth and Judith) and those that don’t (Victoria) are all doing something wrong, but what they do varies. As such, Schlitz is able to write characters that are evil for what they do do and for what they fail to do (i.e. remove Maud from this dangerous situation). Weak-willed people who have the power to stop something bad and don’t are just as blameworthy as those people who inflict that same harm. At the same time, you sympathize with poor Victoria and even, to some extent, Judith.

My vote for best villain in a children’s book this year? Hyacinth Hawthorne. A person can rarely say they’ve met a one-of-a-kind bad guy in a children’s book, but I think Ms. Hawthorne takes the cake. First of all, you rarely meet an elderly flirt. Here’s how she’s described in the book, “. . . her hair was white, and her skin was lined. At second glance, Maud’s disappointment was less acute. The stranger was erect and dainty, like an elderly fairy.” Hyacinth easily seduces Maud into loving her right from the start, but their relationship is completely one-sided. Even if Hyacinth seems to be playing dress-up with Maud it turns out later that she’s just priming her for her performance in the séances. And when Maud is trapped in a cupboard as the house around her burns . . . well, let’s just say that Hyacinth acts less than heroically in that particular situation. Schlitz even manages to have her villain say, “Who would have thought the child had so much blood in her?’, invoking Lady MacBeth without being any too blatant about it. To read that line and understand it is to feel the shivers ah-running down your spine.

All around the characters in this book are top notch. Maud Flynn is completely believable as a love-starved but plucky gal. She’s not against rebelling once in a while, and it’s her spirit that keeps her from ever watering down into some wishy-washy heroine. I would be amiss in not mentioning the character of Muffet as well. When Maud learns that there is little love to be gleaned from her guardians, Muffet the housekeeper becomes her closest friend. Muffet is deaf and, by many standards, unattractive. Her name is one of Hyacinth’s cruel little jokes, as the woman’s real name was Anna and she’s desperately afraid of spiders. Her story of learning to read and write is magnificent, and she becomes one of the book's truer heroes.

Now there are few things better than picking up a book and finding that the author you are reading has the ability to place you directly in the shoes of the character you sympathize the most with. When Hyacinth slaps Maud’s hand for saying “ghosts” instead of “spirits” the shock of the action is palpable. Maud forgives Hyacinth, of course, but the reader is put on edge from there on in. Ms. Schlitz is just as comfortable invoking descriptions of the world around her relatively innocent heroine. How do you describe a child seeing waves for the first time? “Farther out to sea, they weren’t waves at all, only mounds, like furrows in a field. Then, somehow, each mound rose to an edge, thin as the blade of a knife. The knife-edge tilted, the wave coiled, and there was a moment when it seemed as if it must break – and yet it did not. Then a lines of brightness, cooked and notched like paper catching fire, rippled across the top edge of the wave. The water crashed and erupted, droplets spurting straight up and leapfrogging off the surface of the foam.” Boo-yah! THAT is what I’m talking about people. THAT is writing worth handing to your children. Now go do so.

It seems to me that the spiritualism movement was always ripe for the plucking, children’s literature-wise. Yet I can’t think of a single title, fiction or non-fiction, that has mentioned it to the extent of “A Drowned Maiden’s Hair”. Credit Laura Amy Schlitz with cleverly seeing an opportunity like this and taking it. It's interesting enough to keep kids reading all of its 389 pages, and smart enough to teach ‘em a little something along the way. Best of all? It’s fun. It’s a fun read and though I won’t tell you the ending I will say that few children’s books elicit the same sigh of relief as this book does. A magnificent addition to collections everywhere.

Notes On the Cover: Oh, Candlewick, you classy little organization. No sepia-toned disembodied child ridiculousness for you, I see. Look at that beaut of a cover. Ghostly and with a girl who looks believably like Maud Flynn. Doing a bit o’ internet research I have come to the unavoidable conclusion that artist Tim O’Brien is a genius. The best part? You can tell he read the whole book too. There are elements to this cover that aren’t even revealed until near the end. I love everything about it. Great packaging for a great book.

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Eyes Have It

And since I've done so little for Poetry Friday for the last few weeks (mostly due to my noonish realization each week that, "It's Friday again?") I'm shamelessly stealing this from bookshelves of doom. It fits my Poetry Friday requirements to a tee:

A) It's creepy.
B) It's Shel Silverstein. Official Hot Dead Man of Children's Literature. *sniff sniff* Smell that? That's a new category for this site just ah-brewing and ah-percolating.

Fairies, Fiends, and Flatulence

When I was getting my library degree in St. Paul, Minnesota I happened to live not far from a great many wonderful children's bookstores. One of these was The Red Balloon, my personal favorite and best beloved. One day they decided to host none other than Eoin Colfer and the experience was akin to a staged performance. He basically told the story that would become The Legend of Spud Murphy to a room packed with kids from ages 4 to 19. Few adults have that kind of stage presence. He was basically chanelling his innate Irish storytelling skills into something particularly lucrative.

The point? He's doing it again. Only this time, y'all are going to have to pay.

School Library Journal had this to say about the event:
Eoin Colfer, live on stage? Yes, the bestselling author will open his one-man show, Fairies, Fiends and Flatulence , in the West End in October, and then he'll take the show on tour throughout the U.K. An earlier version of Fairies, Fiends sold out its run last spring; it is based on the stories he tells at his book events—stories of his childhood and his brothers—which have gotten such a great response that he decided to work them into a stage show. Having just finished a Scandinavian tour for his Artemis Fowl series, Colfer is currently in the U.S. for a two-week tour. Hyperion/Miramax printed 500,000 copies of The Lost Colony , fifth in the series, and number six is in the works.

Keep your ears open. If he happens to come to your town, go. It's worth it.

A Remarkable Showing

I would like to extend a big thank you to everyone who attending the kidlit gathering that went on last night. At the moment I'm a touch tired and won't be able to report on the proceedings until later. Suffice it to say, magnificent turnout all around. I think we may have gotten a good 35-some people, at least. Here are some stats until I'm able to post more:

Longstockings Present - 3
Blue Rose Girls Present - 1
Hot Men of Children's Literature Present - 1
Public Librarians - 1 (me)
Private School Children's Librarians - 1
People I Would Like To Think I Convinced To Become Librarians - 3

More later.

Ouch! The Radiance. I Can't Hardly See.

Ah, old filmstrips. Who doesn't like old filmstrips? The problem with watching today's link is that I keep expecting three little MST3K heads to pop up and mock the proceedings. I wonder, upon watching this, how many librarians were made to watch this while attending school for their MLIS. When I was in library school we watched Party Girl and Desk Set. You could do worse, as shown here.

Ten points if you can identify the book the children are reading.

And watching this, I think there's one thing we can all agree on. Librarians are incredibly unattractive people. Except that hospital librarian. Hubba hubba.

Thanks to Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast for the link.

Review of the Day: Prizefighter En Mi Casa

Little girl befriends large hulking male giant. It's the kind of image that sticks in your brain, isn't it? From the little girl in Frankenstein offering him a flower to King Kong and Fay Ray, the idea of a beauty taming a beast regardless of age sets off something in our reptilian brains. Maybe it's the contrast of the characterss or the juxtaposition of hulk and human, but people gravitate to this kind of story. And yet, for all of that, "Prizefighter En Mi Casa", stands out. This isn't just a tale of a girl and her BFG. This is a story where the child in question wants to learn strength from her gigantic friend. Though we've seen this kind of story told a million times before, we've never seen it done so convincingly. It's a book that teaches power to the powerless. Give it up for the meek.

Things were bad for Chula's family, but she never expected they'd become THIS bad. I mean, sure her dad's in a wheelchair and it was his drunk driving that gave Chula the epilepsy that's marked her at school as a freak. And sure her brother's running with a gang and her mother's growing colder and more distant by the day. But did they have to invite a monster into their home? His name is El Jefe, "The Boss" and he's not the Devil. He's the Boss of the Devil. A unbeatable prizefighter in Mexico, El Jefe has done Chula's father a favor and has come to southern Texas to take on a fight that could mean a lot of prize money. Once Chula gets past her initial fear of her enormous housemate, she finds she can confess to him the fears and thoughts she'd never dare speak out loud amongst her family members. Chula wants to be strong, but she doesn't know how to go about it. She seems trapped in a circle of poverty and suspects that by not taking her epilepsy pills she might grow stronger. But when she begins to learn more about El Jefe's past and the extent to which her brother is involved with the Dark Skins, Chula may have to redefine what is right, what is wrong, and what is human.

Sometimes when I'm reviewing book I'll do some brief coo about the language and then quote a particular sentence I might have found moving or unforgettable. The problem with "Prizefighter En Mi Casa" is that if I went about quoting all the lines I liked I'd have to write paragraph after paragraph of significant verses before getting to any silly details like "plot" or "characters". So I'll make you a compromise. Here are a mere four lines of writing from the book that struck me as examples of primo writing. Make of them what you will:

"El Jefe's shadow clawed the hall wall before his way big body."

"Sprinkles scattered like lost children hoping to find their mothers soon."

"Not to mention, nobody went down to the Playground after dark anymore unless they were dark enough in the heart not to be seen."

"He placed his thick scaly hand on my cheek and smiled like people do when they think they have to and their face don't wanna."

Did you see that? Did you see how Charlton-Trujillo can rip apart a situation with the light touch of a single sentence? What we are dealing with here is an author that puts her characters into terrible danger and great moral peril and then redeems them with a well-placed thought or description. Under a heavier hand this might leave a reader feeling tired or weighed down by a narrative they can't hope to understand. With this author, however, you read on and on in the hope that maybe at some point the characters will realize how self-destructive their behavior really is. And I can tell you this, my friend . . . Chula? Her insight keeps the book from ever bogging down in its own depression. After all, "Prizefighter En Mi Casa" is many things, but light-hearted romp it is not.

The book felt real too. It felt familiar. For kids growing up in areas that are not in states bordering Mexico, the racism in this book may strike them as overblown. They may think, "I know Hispanic kids in my school. It's not like that!", which would be nice if it were true. Writing about racism in a contemporary novel is way more difficult than setting your book in the past, by the way. It has to acknowledge that the world today is not a beautiful everybody-loves-everybody type of place. And the author deftly shows how this racial situation has warped Chula's family. The question of how to escape the life she was born into is always there. And the answer, for the record, is just as complicated as the question.

I liked that you began the story entirely from Chula's point of view about her older sibling. He's a jerky brother not too unlike a lot of jerky brothers out there. Then, as the reader gets more and more engrossed in the story, you discover the source of some of Richie's rage. His father used to be (and may still be) a drinker who'd sometimes embarrass his offspring. "I think it was funny most of the time really, and told Richie he was being too sensitive-like and he'd just make for the door or disappear in his room till we almost forget he'd even come home." When the book begins you're vaguely aware that a horrible thing occurred sometime in the past and it's created a hole in the family structure. Then, with a meticulousness Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller would been proud of, the true tale comes to light, tying together the past and the present.

There were some odd moments where Charlton-Trujillo would try to connect the story to contemporary figures like Justin Timberlake and the like. This probably wasn't necessary and it'll date an otherwise timeless book in ten years or less. Still, the title is a strong effort and a story worth reading. It's not a book that I, as a child, would have loved. I was far more into fancy fantasy than gritty realism when I was young. For some kids, however, Chula's story will suck them in and not loosen its grip until they crossed the 210th page. It's hard and it's fast and it's amazing. I wouldn't call it pleasant, but I would call it a necessary read. Powerful.

Notes On the Cover: Y’all know my dislike of unwarranted sepia. Sepia-slaughter, as it were. Well, there are exceptions to every rule and this is one of them. I am fond of this cover. I like the dirt road, the approximate age of the girl, and the fact that she and El Jefe seem to be walking towards a sun that is either rising or setting. My sole objection? El Jefe is described as enormous in this book. Larger than life and magnificently huge. The guy on this cover? He look like he’s five foot eleven and works as an organic farmer. Maybe this is supposed to be how Chula ends up seeing El Jefe, I dunno. Whatever the case, he’s not the fellow I envisioned. Still, it’s a gorgeous bit of work, so hats off to one Mr. Matt Mahurin.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Pic o' Mania

And in other news, they've just released some Harry Potter stills from the upcoming movie. Luna? Awesome. Dolores Umbridge? Awesome. My heart, however, will always be with Slightly Creepy Boy and Somewhat Doubtful Boy. Be honest. Wouldn't you totally watch a show that starred those two?

No Surprises Here

Not long ago some colleagues and I were discussing the new Poet Laureate award for an author of children's literature. We tried to think up the perfect person to accept such an honor. Some choices were too silly. Others too obvious. Still others just not quite right. And then we had it. The perfect person to win would HAVE to be Paul Fleischman, yes? I mean, he's a classy choice and a great poet too. We thought we'd solved the Poetry Foundation's woes.

Yeah, not so much. Looks like they went with Jack Prelutsky after all. *yawn* I guess there's always next year. I got nothing against the guy, of course. Just... really? Really really?

"Jabberwocks and Jub-Jub birds, frankly, don't sound that tough. Bandersnatches, however, seem pretty menacing."

Like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Alice (Dorothy's English equivalent) has inspired all kinds of spin-offs, wanderings of the imagination, and downright bad ideas. None of these, however, quite hold a candle to a little something on The Book of Ratings. I discovered this site through the ever interesting Brookeshelf, and it's just so odd an idea that I'm quite perfectly charmed. For unclear reasons, The Book of Ratings is just that. It has systematically gone through some of the characters in Alice In Wonderland and has given them "ratings". Everyone from Tweedledum to Pat the Guinea Pig (don't ask) finds themselves under the site's close scrutiny. Sadly the writers don't know the book that well, but you'll forgive them right quick.

A taste:
I have to say I find Alice inexplicably charming, but she's still kind of a pushover. She finds something labeled "Eat Me," and down it goes. Someone hands her a flamingo and tells her to start whacking hedgehogs, and she's all over that surrealistic Victorian action.
There is also some deconstruction of the Jabberwocky poem to be had alongside the kids from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Sesame Street characters. Regarding the sexuality of Ernie and Bert the writer is unconvinced since "for my money the real sexual tension was between Grover and Kermit." Oh. And of course, Pooh.

Thanks again to The Brookeshelf.

See Me. Hear Me?

Considering that I was born before 1990, I consider myself pretty web-savvy. One little word freaks me out beyond all measure, however. PODCASTS. Booga booga. At first I couldn't even figure out what the heck they were. Then, as I discovered them on other websites, I eased into the idea oh-so-slowly. It's like internet radio? Cool. I can deal with that. But what if... and here I'm talking crazy talk but... what if I did my own podcasts? How cool would that be? You could hear me rant and rave in my very own voice and (shudder gasp) download me onto your iPod. I could conduct interviews with major players and sing loud songs for no apparent reason. Joy!

But I'm not that brave yet. Not by a long stretch of the imagination. Someone who is that brave, however, is the website Just One More Book. Self-described as "A podcast about the children's books we love and why we love them", Mark and Andrea (who aren't particularly inclined to give much in the way of information about themselves) talk about children's books thrice a week. Where do they live? Dunno. Why do they do it? Haven't a clue. And the only authors they've interviewed thus far are E. B. McHenry, Lee Edward Fodi, and Loris Lesynski.

Still, it's an intriguing site and an even better idea. They don't do any books that are particularly new, but they're worth watching.

Review of the Day: Kiki Strike

You know a book’s gonna be good when you’ve hit a caveat on just the publication page. “The advice given in this book, including first aid information, is meant as a literary device and an amusing sidebar. The author and publisher are not responsible for any accidents or injuries that may occur by following it. Refer instead to the American Red Cross.” I read this to my boss and he immediately set about clucking like a chicken re: Bloomsbury's cowardice at publishing this book unaccompanied by adult warnings. Apparently the publisher is expecting the literary equivalent of those kids who watch “Jackass”. Only in this case, instead of allowing large crabs to clamp onto their tongues, kids might start acting like hi-tech super spies of great skill and intelligence. And yet somehow I can’t see this as a particularly bad thing. If you've a child who reads this book and then wants to defeat villains in undiscovered buried cities, I can think of worse fates in this world. Fates like never having read "Kiki Strike" in the first place. That's an existence I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.

Ananka Fishbein is just your average kid attending a high-end private school in Manhattan. There is nothing outwardly extraordinary about Ananka. Nothing that would make you think she’d be capable of attracting the attention of someone like Kiki Strike. Kiki’s like no one Ananka’s ever seen before. She’s twelve-years-old, practically an albino, short, dangerous, sly, and she can disappear without a trace if she thinks she’s being followed. Before Ananka fully realizes it, she’s been recruited by Kiki to join the Irregulars, a group of four genius former Girl Scouts. Meet Betty Bent – master of disguise, DeeDee Morlock – chemicals and explosives, Luz Lopez - mechanics, and Oona Wong – forger and lockpick extraordinaire. Together these girls are going to explore a hidden city buried deep below the lowest depths of NYC. While they do so, however, they may find that Kiki Strike may not be all that she seems. They knew that she was mysterious. They never dreamed she might also be murderous.

Like every sane woman over the age of twelve or so, I have serious problems with the term “Girl Power”. However, the English language has yet to provide me with a way of describing a book in which girls kick quite as much butt as they do here. Girl-centric, maybe. Whatever the case, this is a great example of female empowerment (another term I hesitate to use) in all its myriad forms. First of all, one of the first statements of fact in this book is the sentence: “While boys must be constantly monitored and are always the first suspects when anything goes wrong, everyone expects girls to do what they’re told.” Also, “...low expectations can be a blessing in disguise.” How true. Of course, Miller is not above giving Ananka a makeover in the course of the novel. But with the exception of both that and some peculiar attention paid to handbags (am I the only woman in NYC who doesn’t understand their use?) this is by and large a progressive little book. And if the Girl Scouts of America have any marketing skills AT ALL, they should latch onto this book and promote it heavily. Sure it doesn’t show the organization in the strongest light in the world, but I’ve never read better Girl Scout advertising than that which I’ve seen here.

Really, when I heard that Kirsten Miller was a first time novelist and former advertising executive, I was wary. What won me over? The book’s details. Miller’s so free with them that a person could be forgiven for thinking this was the author’s ninth or tenth book rather than her first. Some of my favorites include the fact that Ananka Fishbein’s parents are in college for life thanks to a trust fund her grandfather left them that states that they only have access to his fortune for when they attend school. Other interesting details include a section that shows the villain’s bedroom, decked out with a painting that seems to be of Circe (though how that ties into the plot may remain to be seen in future books). Or howzabout the fact that the girls in this book belong to the Bank Street Irregulars? Clever, eh? Actually, Miller is a true NYC homegirl. She makes copious references to New York landmarks and places with a more than deft hand. Just off the top of my head I know that she mentions Con Edison, Gourmet Garage, and a great great section called “How To Experience the Real New York”, where she takes note of the 300-year-old elm that used to hang people in Washington Square Park.

And then there’s the fact that the writing itself is good. I mean, the plot is hopping but with enough down time to allow the reader to catch his or her own breath. Then sentences like, “Against my better judgment, I threw up on the principal’s shoes”, cannot be improved upon. Characters are somewhat stereotypical, but this is a spy thriller we’re dealing with here. Do you read “Casino Royale” and then complain that the villains are too two-dimensional or that Bond doesn’t cry about his mother more? No! This is a genre, consarn it. And Miller knows just how to fit her heroines into it. Some people have been calling this book a high-tech Nancy Drew. Don’t believe a word of it. This is a modernized youthified (not a word, I know) Modesty Blaise. Look it up, if you don’t believe me.

Problems with the book: Oh, don’t look at me like that. Even if you’re the biggest fan in the world of this story, there’s definitely a flaw here and there. For example, I have a personal beef with this book that I’d like to discuss with the author. If you readers could just step outside for a moment I’ll discuss it with her. Ahem. Hello. Now, we are both residents of New York City. I like to think we’ve been to the same haunts, perused the same bookstores, and even drunk at the same coffee shops. And hey, here’s a fun little fact. I used to be the children’s librarian of the Greenwich Village branch, the Jefferson Market Library. Fun, huh? Yeah. It’s funny, but for years now I’ve been searching desperately for a children’s book to make mention of this branch. I mean, it was built in the late 1800s and looks like a friggin’ castle. Who wouldn’t want to put it in a book? And I got really excited when one of your characters in “Kiki Strike” got put into the hospital at St. Vincent’s. Cause you know what St. Vincent’s is near? It’s near the Jefferson Market branch, sweetie. And then when Ananka decided to go inside a library I nearly cried with joy. But WHAT library did you have her enter? My ancient mysterious one with the gargoyles, stone owls, and carved lilies? No, you made up the fictional “Abingdon Branch” instead and had her go in that. Dude, you SO did not have to do that! Yes, I know that there is a connection between “Abingdon” and Greenwich Village. Abingdon Square and all that. Look, you may make this ridiculous misuse of power up to me when you write the sequel to this story. Be sure you put in lots and lots of Jefferson Market references. I want people rappelling off the tower, if needs be. Hrmph.

Okay. You guys can come back now. I’m ready to talk about some of the other mini flaws in the book. By and large, Miller knows how to pull off pretty much any sentence. Then, once in a rare while, you come across a statement like, “... there’s a peculiar form of ESP known as women’s intuition. Every female on earth is born with it.” Uh-oh, thinketh I. This seems more appropriate for chick-lit than intelligent girl spy-fare. Then we hear that Luz is a refugee of Cuba and that the government there took hold of all her possessions. But do you really want to weigh down a peppy book like this with politics that confuse the narrative far more than they clarify anything? Which isn’t to say the book isn’t worth reading. You just have to be prepared for the occasional slip up.

Now who’s this book for? New York Public Library’s teen librarians snatched “Kiki Strike” up the moment it hit the bookshelves and for a while I was willing to leave it at that. Then I started reading it on my own and I was struck by how kid-friendly the whole venture was. Quality spy books for kids are few and far between. I mean, we all love “Harriet the Spy”, but that’s more of a literary work of art than a step-by-step spy novella. When I was a kid one of my favorite book’s was something called “Murder Ink”. I think I read that book until it was nothing but coverless pulp since in it a reader could learn all the same spying tricks of the trade that Miller describes here. You see, after almost every other chapter in "Kiki Strike", Miller offers great little pieces of info that discuss everything from How To Take Advantage of Being a Girl to tips on stalking, disguise, lying, detecting lying, etc. So though some people might claim this was a teen book through and through, I disagree heartily. There are hoards of kids out there that would kill to read about a superspy. Add in the fact that this book has a particularly kid-friendly feel (a.k.a. no torture, bloodshed onscreen, or swearing), as well as heroes who are twelve and fourteen (they age) and you’ve got yourself children’s fare through and through.

Maybe it was the fact that Ananka was basically just a glorified librarian in this book. Maybe that was why I loved it. But just look at the testimonials for this book on Amazon.com by kids who really love it for its own merits and you’ll have to agree with me that “Kiki Strike” has a lot going for it above and beyond reasons. It runs fast and shows a female heroine of an entirely different stripe. This is a book about girls who use their heads rather than their boobs. You won’t see any Clinique ads in THIS girl book, no sir. A fabulous offering and a wonderful title.

Notes About the Cover: Good work, Bloomsbury. In spite of the rave reviews I saw of this book on other children’s literature blogs, I don’t know if I would have necessarily picked it up unless it had some kind of particularly compelling image to accompany the action. The cover’s great with a perfectly rendered Kiki Strike and a great color scheme (that’ll admittedly date in about 15 years) to match. I’ve a quibble with the fact that Ananka doesn’t have so much as a drop of babyfat on her, but I suppose that’s okay. The four other members of the Irregulars are on the back cover and by and large they look okay. Oona seems about right. Ditto Betty. I had assumed from the book that DeeDee was black, so the face's pale complexion caught me off-guard a tad. And Luz looks like a gorgeous beauty contestant. Not exactly my view of her, but I quibble. High marks all around for being pleasant to the eye AND having kid-friendly appeal.

Check out the Kiki Strike website as well as a rather interesting blog.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Drink Up, Drinky

As Cheryl Klein has mentioned, I want you all to remember that tomorrow (Thursday) is the kidlit drink night at Sweet & Vicious near the intersection of Spring Street and the Bowery (6 to Spring St., B/D/F/V to Broadway-Lafayette, N/R to Prince). Imbibing starts at 6:00 and Cheryl says there's a back garden, weather permitting. Should you wish to figure out who is who (though I like the image of people accosting stylish Manhattanites saying things like, "Your thoughts on Walter the Farting Dog?") it's simple. Cheryl is tall and gorgeous with straight blond hair and cool dark rimmed glasses. I, in contrast, am not tall with hair that is currently attempting a Gene Wilder-ish leap off of my skull, and glasses. You can't miss us.

Oh, and this is for everyone. We don't check for a blog at the door or anything. You write books? Great. You edit books? Awesome. You think about them when the mood hits? You're in. See you there.


Apparently Banned Books Week is an incredibly popular fraud maliciously conjured up by the American Library Association. No really! All those mentions in your monthly copy of American Libraries of books banned? Horrible horrible lies. We apparently live in a world of sunshine and roses where nothing is ever banned and unicorns frolic in the streets. Tra la, tra la, tra la.

Thanks for the heads up Maud Newton.

Sendak On Sendak

NPR darling Maurice Sendak has recently been on Morning Edition to discuss childhood and his newest picture book release, Mommy? I reviewed this book earlier in the year when a copy mistakenly fell into my hot little hands. My review was positive (some might say overwhelmingly so) but the marketing people at Scholastic had kitten fits over my posting before the mysterious release date. I had to pull the review as a result. You may view it again, should you so desire, but it's hardly groundbreaking.

Review of the Day: Porch Lies - Tales of Slicksters, Tricksters, and Other Wily Characters

On an eight by ten sheet of paper, please explain the distinction between slicksters, tricksters and wily characters using examples of each kind to support your conjectures. You have (looks at the clock) five minutes. Go.

That, if you were a teacher of diabolical means and methods, would be one way of collecting a list of ne’er do wells for your own personal collection. To be frank, though, I wouldn’t recommend it. You’d have far more luck if you happened to find yourself in the presence of Patricia McKissack’s remarkable, “Porch Lies” and had the wherewithal to snatch it up right quick. Ms. McKissack has always been consistently good, consistently interesting, and blessed with an ear for African-American storytelling and vernacular. Rejoice then when I tell you that her latest venture is a pip. Wonderful to read, both to oneself and aloud to an audience, these are tales that demand to be heard. Hear them then and be content, cause you’ll seldom find the like again.

To hear Ms. McKissack tell it, the place to be when she was a child of Nashville, Tennessee was not in the playgrounds or movie theaters of the city but on the porch of 3706 Centennnial. There, Patricia would spend her happy days listening as her grandparents, their friends, and some acquaintances reminisced about some "true" characters they had known in their day. Culling together all the best slickster-trickster tales she knew, McKissack recounts these characters after having processed them from her grandfather’s “models” into 9 (or 10, depending on how you count) wholly new and original porch lies. Each story in this book is preceded by a small reminiscence of the person who was telling that tale and how they’d think to tell it in the first place. Then the real fun starts. We see poor Clovis Reed having his soul weighed against a feather and James Booker Black outwitting the devil for his own soul. We see Mingo Cass outwit a whole barbershop full of men and, in my personal favorite, sweet Dooley Hunter tell the greatest lie ever told. Every tale is recounted with a familiar feel but stands as its own original story on closer inspection. To read the book is to relax into the story and feel that you yourself are swinging on a porch swing, hearing the tales told on a breezy summer night.

The range of stories really make it worth a reader’s while as well. You’ve got your tall tales alongside your moral ones. You’ve lovable scalawags and the not-so-lovable prigs that find them a nuisance. The gullible exist here alongside the exceedingly clever (but lazy). Ms. McKissack's wordplay is just lovely as well. Who can resist a line like, “Cooley was a one-of-a-kind in a one-size-fits-all world”? Each story rolls trippingly off the tongue, demanding that a person read it aloud to someone. Could be to a family member or a classroom. It doesn’t matter who, really. Everyone can find something in this book to get a kick out of. And it’s all thanks, in part, to Ms. McKissack’s powerful grasp on the English language.

The problem with this book, if problem you can call it, is that it has a tendency to seep into a person’s daily life. For example, I recently attended a fantastic performance of August Wilson’s play, “Seven Guitars”. Not ten minutes into the show, I found myself looking at characters that could’ve leapt from the pages of McKissack’s book for all that they embodied the true spirit of tricksterism. Still, it's fun to read Ms. McKissack’s tales and see little elements that may have cropped up in your own experience. For example, when we hear about Robert Johnson who sold his soul for success at the Crossroads, I suddenly remembered the film “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”, and the man in it who suffered the same fate. Or there’s the moment when Clovis Reed’s bedroom turns into a courtroom and his soul stands on trial. Sound like any old movies you may have seen in the past? Ms. McKissack isn’t above giving the small shout-out to her own books as well. When she says, “Papa Jack’s porch lies were usually about little girls who outsmarted foxes or captured the wind”, you’d have to be fairly out of it (or simply uninformed) not to pick up on this obvious reference.

To be honest, had I thought about pairing this author's words alongside computer-animated figures the very notion of it would have straightened my hair. I could be forgiven for my ignorance in this manner, however, since artist Andre Carrilho is new to the world of children’s book illustration. His style is one-of-a-kind and I don’t know who the genius was who thought to pair him with Ms. McKissack, but the words “match made in heaven” have a tendency to pop up when the two are involved. Each story gets just one illustration, which is a true pity. Fortunately, the pics are so good that you instantly forgive the author his miserly tendencies. The range of depth and light is impressive, yes. But even better is the fact that parts of these illustrations appear to also be hand-drawn. And these elements seem to fit in seamlessly with the rest of the picture as a whole. There sits Mingo Cass getting his shoes shined and as you can see, his socks, the cloth on his foot, and the shoeshine boy’s shirt appear to be drawn the old-fashioned way. A couple pages in and Cake Norris is being glared at by an angel with thin-lined wings. There’s an arch and a lengthy curve to each picture that somehow manages to convey both movement and realism while remaining clearly drawn. I don't think Mr. Carrilho could work this well if he were to illustrate an entire picture book. Here, however, his skills have been used to their best advantage.

To be honest, there’s no good reason in the whole wide world why you shouldn’t already own a copy of this book. It’s one of those titles you hold up and feel like you should have bought years and years ago, even if it’s just been published. No excuses allowed. Purchase forthwith.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Exclusive Interview With HMOCL #6

Most Tuesdays I post the newest Hot Man of Children's Literature (or HMOCL) for the viewing pleasure of you, my reading public. Today we're shaking things up a bit. Returning to the fold is one Mr. John Green, former HMOCL, and author of Looking For Alaska. His newest release is An Abundance of Katherines and to better publicize his work Mr. Green is doing a blog-wide tour. Today he has chosen to stop by here to answer some questions of varying importance. Let's see how he does.

Fuse #8: Mr. Green, you have done something that seems wholly and utterly original. Currently you are going on a self-described blog book tour for the release of your new book, "An Abundance of Katherines," wherein you visit 19 blogs over the course of 19 days. This seems an intelligent way to use the blogosphere to your best advantage. How'd you get the idea? Were you the first to think of it to the best of your knowledge?

John Green: It's not quite wholly and utterly original, by which I mean that I stole the idea from Frank Portman, who went on a shorter blog tour when his novel, KING DORK, came out. But it's a fun opportunity to talk about the book with people who know a lot about YA literature. Sometimes, it gets frustrating talking to newspapers or magazines or whatever, because the reporters you're talking to don't have a very good background in YA literature. So this makes for more interesting conversations--for me at least.

Fuse #8: And what, in your opinion has been the most peculiar question you've received on this blog-tour thus far (and how did you respond)?

John Green: Someone asked me what I'd be on the TV show "Intervention" for, if I were on that show. I thought that was a pretty hilarious question. (I said Myspace.)

Fuse #8: Fair enough. Now you won the 2006 Michael L. Printz Award (the highest award a young adult novel can garner) for your book "Looking For Alaska" when you were a mere lad of 28. How did that affect your life in general? To be blunt, do you have groupies?

John Green: I don't think I have groupies, but I'm open to the idea. If there are any groupies looking for a new thing upon which to group, I am certainly available. Winning the Printz obviously means a lot for "Looking for Alaska," and it was a great thrill for me personally, because I think so highly of the award and its previous winners.

But I don't think it has affected me much personally. It certainly hasn't made me famous, even among my own family. For example, just this weekend I was at my brother's wedding, and several of my family members asked me if my new book , "Too Many Katherines," was also going to win "The Pritzker Award."

Fuse #8: Huh. Do you think the Printz is going to get better known over the years or dwell in relative obscurity for the rest of its natural born life?

John Green: It will definitely get better known, but it will take some time. The Printz has been around for just six years; its counterpart in children's books is like 100 million years old. That's part of the difference. Also, publishers need to start supporting the Printz a lot more, and acting like it's a big deal. If you pretend something is a big deal for long enough, it will become a big deal. (Example: MTV had to pretend that Ashlee Simpson mattered for several months before she actually started to matter.)

Fuse #8: "Looking For Alaska" was based, in large part, on your own experiences in a small high school boarding school. "An Abundance of Katherines", if The Today Show appearance is to be believed, is based on how you were dumped 59 times. You've noted on your blog that it was only 53. First things first . . . were you really dumped 53 times? Really really? I mean, define "dumped".

John Green: Well, Colin Singleton, who is the protagonist of "Katherines," has a very narrow definition of "dumped," just as I do: If you kiss someone, or hold their hand, and you want to kiss them and/or hold their hand again but they don't want to, then you've been dumped. So according to that definition, I have really been dumped 53 times, yes.

Fuse #8: So is "An Abundance of Katherines" based on anything else from your life? Friends, enemies, women who might try to get some royalties out of you since they're one of the 53 women who dumped you, etc?

John Green: I don't think any of my exgirlfriends can sue me (although a couple of them are now lawyers), because "Katherines" is really and truly not about them. I didn't even steal very much from them. Some of the characters were inspired by people I know, but the story itself is entirely imagined, for better or worse.

Fuse #8: You know, I'm fascinated by how young adult authors like yourself have been using the internet to reach young fans in increasingly creative ways. What kinds of internet stuff have you done that really got the attention of teens? For example, you chose a MySpace page rather than a Friendster one, right?

John Green: Well, I have a page on Friendster, but I only use it to stalk my exgirlfriends (that's how I know two of them are lawyers; God knows they don't talk to me). I set up a myspace profile about a year ago, because I noticed a lot of people on myspace were listing "Alaska" as one of their favorite books, and I wanted to thank them for doing that. Then it spiralled out of control. I really don't think of myspace as a publicity or marketing tool, although my publicist sure does. To me, it's mostly a way of making myself as a writer at least slightly accessible to the audience. When I was growing up, I thought of writers as these geniuses working in ivory towers or whatever. Myspace and the internet generally allows teens to see writers as real people, which in turn shows them that a life spent in and around literature can be a cool, productive life (albeit not, generally, a lucrative one).

Fuse #8: Speaking of which, what authors DID you read when you were just a little Green?

John Green: When I was in middle school, I read a lot of Gary Paulsen and other adventure novels. In high school, the contemporary fiction I read were coming-of-age novels published for adults, books like "The Virgin Suicides" by Jeffrey Eugenides and "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" by Michael Chabon. I was also a big Salinger fan. But we have to remember that when I was a kid, YA did not exist like it does now. In 1993, I doubt "Alaska" or "Katherines" would have been published as YA novels, let alone a book like "The Book Thief."

Fuse #8: Did you feel much pressure after you won the Printz for "Looking For Alaska" to write another YA novel that was just as good? You know... the old second novel curse?

John Green: Of course. I'd almost finished "Katherines" by the time the Printz Award was announced, so that didn't directly affect the book. But I think all second novelists feel pressure to do as well, and I'm keenly aware that second novels tend to get less attention than first novels. But I have to leave all that stuff up to readers and critics. To quote my mom: All you can do is your best.

Fuse #8: So that means there should be a book #3 in the works somewhere. Any hints of what it might be?

John Green: There is a book #3. I'm writing the first draft. It's about a girl. That's your only hint.

Fuse #8: Fine. Be that way. See if I care. *sniffle* Now I'm not going to ask you this question, but I'd like to know if anyone else ever has. Have you ever received the dreaded, "When are you going to write real books? You know... for adults?", query?

John Green: Oh, yeah. Every genre has a chip on its shoulder about how its literature isn't considered "real." I usually respond by saying that "Huck Finn" was published for kids, and that it is pretty real, what with being the great American novel and everything.*

I may write books for adults someday (never say never), but I think my focus will always be on writing novels for teens.

Fuse #8: On the flip side of that (and since this is a children's literature blog), when are you going to write real books? You know... for kids?

John Green: Maybe nonfiction about the Islamic world. But other than that, I can't see myself doing it, just because I suck at writing for little kids. I've tried it. I'm horrible.

Fuse #8: So the cover of "An Abundance of Katherines". Your thoughts?

John Green: I like it. The response so far has been very positive. I suppose it's possible that the math-y title treatment might scare some kids off (you don't have to like math to like the book, however), and some might argue that the cover is too "commercial," but I like commercial covers, and I think it's pretty cool and clever.

Fuse #8: In the book, the main character of Colin manages to date 19 girls all named Katherine. What made you choose that name in particular? I know that for our generation the name "Jenny" was particularly prevalent and that I know a guy who dated 6 of them in a row (not counting the dog of the same name he babysat). Why "Katherine" then?

John Green: Well, first because it really is possible to date 19 girls named Katherine. (Colin lives in Chicago, where there are approximately 250 girls named Katherine between the ages of 16 and 18.) And second, because I have never dated a Katherine and didn't want anyone to think I was writing about them. And third, because Katherine is a great name for anagramming.

Fuse #8: Your book also fun with anagrams. Have you heard from any anagrammatists about it? Are you one yourself? Whence the idea?

John Green: Are there anagrammists? Like, professional ones? If so, I would very much like that job. I'm not a great anagrammer myself (I've met people who anagram every bit as quickly and adeptly as Colin does in the book), but over the course of writing the book, my skills certainly improved.

As for the idea: I wanted Colin to have a number of very impressive talents that have absolutely no real-world application, and anagramming seemed like a good one (although it is useful to professional scrabble players). Also, in a book that's about language and how it relates to storytelling, I wanted him to have a hobby that sort of deconstructed language, that showed how language could be nonsense as well as sense.

Fuse #8: Okay then. Your favorite anagram . . . GO!

John Green: I'm inordinately fond of the fact that "Britney Spears" anagrams to "Presbyterians." Also, I like that "eleven plus two" anagrams to "twelve plus one."

Fuse #8: Well, Mr. Green, you were a delight of an interview. A hearty heaping of good fortune to you as you continue on your whirlwind blog tour.

Kidlit Bloggers On the March

All right. Let's remember for a moment that kidlit news and kidlit blogs are constantly popping up left and right for a variety of different reasons. They cover a mighty swath of topics but may remain forgotten unless discovered. So take your pick, my sweets. Would you like to read a blog . . .

On creating a children's book display?

On Jon Berkeley's book tour?

Or on a site run entirely by literarily minded cats?

The choice is entirely your own.

Review of the Day: Hero of the High Seas - John Paul Jones and the American Revolution

Picture me at age twelve. Now picture me at age twelve given a school assignment to read a biography of a Revolutionary War hero that is at least 100 pages long. Now picture me at age twelve staring in horror at the biography section of my local library. That fate, strange as it may seem, is repeated regularly all around the United States of America and it’s enough to give any sane soul nightmares for weeks on end. As a kid I was not a non-fiction fan. If it didn’t have anything to do with albinos (this is true) I wasn’t interested. So I hold Michael L. Cooper’s, “Hero of the High Seas”, in my hands and attempt to show it to my twelve-year-old self, who still resides somewhere in the left-hand corner of my brain.

Me 28: What do you think? It looks kind of neat.
Me 12: Is that a map on the cover?
Me 28: Oh calm down. Like you’ve never looked at a map before. Now open it up. See all the cool photos inside?
Me 12: Everything’s brown. Why is everything brown?
Me 28: That’s not brown. It’s called “sepia”. Come on. Read the first chapter. I know you’ll like it if you do.
Me 12: Uh... who’s Senator John McCain?
Me 28: No, no. Not the Foreword. Read the next part.
Me 12: Oooh. An Introduction. How thrilling.
Me 28: Put a lid on the sarcasm, young lady. Skip that too.
Me 12: Make up your mind.
Me 28: Just read Chapter One.
Me 12: (all huffy now) Fine. (long pause). It’s okay.

Which, as far as I can ascertain, is the highest praise my non-non-fiction self could have come to praising this book. It’s probably not a title for every kid you know, but as bios of Revolutionary War heroes go, a person could find much drier fare covering the same information. At least in this case you get floggings, accusations of murder, swordfights, mutiny, and all of that is just in the first seven pages. John Paul Jones was, according to Herman Melville, “intrepid, unprincipled, reckless, predatory, with boundless ambition, civilized in external but a savage at heart.” All the characteristics, as it happens, that make for the best biographies. And Mr. Cooper, all praise deserved, knows just how to best display his heroically flawed subject.

Let's cover the basics right off the bat. He was born John Paul in southwest Scotland in 1747. And as his father was just a gardener, John decided to better his lot in life by becoming a sailor right from the start. He rose quickly to prominence and was the captain of his own ship at the remarkably young age of 21. Then came an unfortunate incident in the Caribbean and Jones (as he now was known) came to America to start anew. With the dawn of the Revolutionary War, the man became notorious for his risky behavior and his sometimes foolhardy courage, both contributing significantly to the legend that now surrounds him. As such, author Michael Cooper meticulously separates fact from fiction while managing to retain the aura of heroism surrounding this notable American figure.

Michael Cooper leaps head first into the action surrounding Jones’s life, choosing to begin his story with a violent incident that caused Jones to flee to America sans ship. So right off the bat you may not know who John Paul Jones was, but hearing about his battle against mutinous sailors you know that he’s a guy worth learning more about. Of course Mr. Cooper doubles back after the first thrilling moments of the story, but his choice to begin the book in this manner shows that he knows his audience. Give the people what they want and extra points if you happen to be able to work in a few facts in there as well. This isn’t the only concession to his young audience Cooper makes either. The book’s a trim 128 pages and it isn’t one of those bios that languishes for long periods of time over the brand of powder Jones used on his wig or the interior mechanics of a schooner or gunner.

But really, it’s the way Cooper chooses to tie together his information that lifts this from a standard here-are-the-facts-about-this-man’s-life bio to something with a little more meat to it. For example, Jones was not particularly perturbed by tensions between America and England. Why not? Well, he was Scottish for one thing. And Jones had been born two years before the “Rising of 1745.” Basically, rebellions were no new thing to him. Cooper also keeps his speculations to a minimum. There’s nothing worse than reading a bio where an author will launch into long strings of dialogue justified with a mild this-might-have-occurred (I’m looking at YOU, Sid Fleischman). The closest Cooper ever gets to this is to bring up what Jones and John K. Read might have discussed amongst themselves in terms of politics and general philosophy. Fairly safe assumptions, to say the least. I was also amused by little details like Benjamin Franklin, who irritated people on a regular basis (according to Joan Dash’s, “A Dangerous Engine”, anyway), advising Jones on how to get along with others. Heck, the caricature of Jones as a pirate may be worth the price of admission alone.

I was also interested in the number of times that Cooper would feel it necessary to clarify to the reader that in spite of his ambition and selfishness, John Paul Jones did feel a loyalty to the United States. As he was born a Scotsman, the responsible biographer (in this case, Mr. Cooper) must make it quite clear that this “hero” was not a mere mercenary in it for the pay and prestige. This job becomes all the more difficult when you take into account the fact that Mr. Jones really was in it for the pay and prestige. He just happened to like America as well. How do we know this? The clearest evidence to my eyes is a section in which Cooper recounts how Jones was forced during the war to captain a ship created for the sole purpose of capturing fellow ships for the monetary gain. Again and again Jones works to reach his military goals, only to be thwarted or delayed by his money hungry crew. A captain in it for the gold could have worked in tandem with such men and made his fortune as a true legalized pirate (as his foes would call him). Instead, Jones was in it for the war and not the moolah. It helps all the more that Mr. Cooper knows to make this distinction clear.

Ship books, for the record, are huge this year. From Janet Taylor Lisle’s, “Black Duck” to Graham Salisbury’s, “The House of Red Fish”, more fiction for children is working on the assumption that kids want to know the nitty gritty details of sailing and seafaring. This particular book actually kept reminding me of Susan Cooper’s, “Victory”. In the female Cooper’s book we see the Battle of Trafalgar through the eyes of a ship’s powder monkey. In “Hero of the High Seas” we view very similar battles, but from the standpoint of those making the decisions in a war rather than simply carrying those orders out. If I were to pair this bio with any work of fiction, I’d certainly place it alongside Ms. Cooper’s tale. They may speak of different wars and nationalities, but the time periods are mere decades apart and the battles themselves complement one another nicely.

If I’ve any objection to “Hero of the High Seas” maybe it lies in some of those aforementioned battle sequences. There’s a section in Chapter Three where Jones is sailing the Alfred alongside the Columbus, Cabot, Andrew Doria, and Providence so as to engage with the Glasgow. The child reader who goes through this section had better keep very clear the fact that Cooper mentioned much earlier that all five ships were American and that the Glasgow was British. I myself floundered about, trying to keep everything straight during the battle and yet I had to backtrack several times to keep clear the bevy of names. Perhaps some judicious pruning (or, better still, reminding) would make this section easier for dim-witting adults like me as well as clever ship-loving children.

So how do you convince kids to read this book? For all the beauty of its packaging, National Geographic Press has succeeded in giving Cooper's tale the adult book look. 47-year-olds will think the cover looks neat. Anyone under the age of 19, however, may give it a glance and then run for the high hills. Part of a children’s librarian’s lot in life is to do booktalks wherein that librarian convinces kids of a book’s readability. In the case of “Hero of the High Seas”, I suggest stressing the overwhelming odds that Jones faced. I mean, he was part of an infant nation facing England’s, “strongest navy in the world.” Or you could mention how they found his grave in the basement of a French laundry in 1905 with his body so intact that they could make out his deformed ear. Whatever it takes, it’s worth it. The book is a great read and a quick one to boot. Succinct and entirely pleasant. Worth including on your non-fiction shelf.

Notes On the Cover: As I mentioned before, this is an adult cover slapped on top of a children’s book. It’s classy, yes. But on a scale of one to ten with ten being the most kid-friendly and one being the least I’d give this cover a big old three. It’s pleasant to the eye, but it’ll take a special child to find this book enticing enough to give a glance.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Success In Two Arenas

Y'all remember my brief flirtation with a new banner on this site, yes? When my dear friend Don created a handy dandy combo of 8 little fuses my ignorance regarding all things HTML meant that my new banner created all kinds of difficulties. Fortunately for me Don happens to be a web genius. He's done website work for Herb Ritts , Nick Hornby, Jonathan Safran Foer (who, he insists, I'll get to meet someday) and now me. Which is to say, he fixed it so that my banner now will link back to this blog if you click on it AND it looks all spiffy. Give the man a big round of applause, people.

Now if you don't mind I must excuse myself as I'm about to have coffee with Roger Sutton. Yes, children, THE Roger Sutton. I swear the brief mention he made of me on his blog has given me better publicity than a year's worth of reviews.


Y'all know my love/hate relationship with design in children's book, yes? Well, The American Institute of Graphic Arts (or AIGA) has selected a group of 100 examples of outstanding book and book cover design produced in 2005. Amongst the kidlit inclusions are Mocking Birdies by Annette Simon and When You Were Small by Sara O'Leary. If youse New Yorkers wish to take a gander at the winners, stop by the AIGA National Design Center on 164 Fifth Avenue after tomorrow (the 26th). I can vouch for these winners. I may not like children's books that exist solely for the purpose of showcasing their design, but these two puppies display the best of both possible worlds.


Y'know what I hate about Monopoly? Looking at images that don't resemble me in the slightest. Now there is a solution to this ancient problem. Simply purchase for one's own self a copy of Photo-opoly and the problem is instantly rectified. Now when anyone lands on my nose they have to pay me money. HAHAHAHAHA!

And for those kids who wish to get even more unwanted attention at school, check out these nifty customized lunch boxes. They're pretty awesome. Still, I can already imagine the poor kid with the mother that bestows one with him as a naked baby photo on the side. *shudder*

Thanks to fototiller for the link.

Review of the Day: Bread and Roses, Too

Doggone it, Katherine Paterson, stop making me cry! Under normal circumstances the number of books that make me tear up is a slim number that could be counted on one hand. And most of those books, if I was going to be honest with you, were probably written by Katherine Paterson. Ms. Paterson is a bit of a wonder. Year after year, decade after decade, she churns out consistently well-written meaningful pieces of children’s fiction. The last book of Ms. Paterson’s that I read was her rather remarkable, “The Same Stuff As Stars”. Now, however, she’s decided to traipse back into the world of historical fiction, alongside all the other authors this year, and produce a bit of fascinating history that can show a situation clear distinctions between good and bad, and yet leave enough room for people with nebulous motives. If complex narratives is the name of the game, consider Paterson a player.

On the one hand there’s Jake. On the other hand there’s Rosa. Both children live in Lawrence, Massachusetts in less than stellar conditions. For Jake, life is especially rough. His father’s a drunkard who steals his son’s money all the time and beats him senseless. And though Jake can usually make a little money in the local mills, it’s rarely enough to keep him fed and warm. Rosa, in contrast, is relatively lucky. She lives with her mama, elder sister, and little baby brother in one of the city’s many tenements. But life at the mill has been getting worse and worse and when it looks as if the mill owners are going to cut the workers’ pay yet again, that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Now Rosa’s mother is joining in with the 1912 strike alongside workers from a variety of different backgrounds. And that might not be so bad except that Rosa is firmly convinced that her mama is putting their entire way of life in jeopardy. Her worst fears are confirmed too when her mother puts her on a train to Barre, Vermont to wait out the strike with a kind family there. On the train Jake meets up with Rosa and though they are only barely acquainted, he convinces her to say that he’s her brother so that he can get out of town fast. As it happens, Jake has a secret he’s trying to escape while Rosa has a life she’s trying to remember.

Though it’s clear from the get go that the mill owners are bad and the mill workers are good, Paterson works tirelessly to muddle the issue through Rosa’s eyes. As far the girl is concerned, joining in the strike is dangerous and common. And Jake’s no better a person with his constant schemes on how to get ahead and lie his way out of most situations. When he finds himself with the striking workers the book reads that, “This was the excitement of being a thief in the middle of hundreds of thieves, all set to steal away the world of Billy Wood”, who is the mill's owner. In fact, you could probably say that there are few main characters out there half as self-centered as Rosa and Jake. For a long time all they think about is themselves. It takes a long time for them to get on that train headed for Vermont (150 pages or so), though once they do they’re taken far enough away from what they’re used to to think about something other than me me me. Rosa’s schoolteacher Miss Finch is another complicated character. Unlike the mill schoolteacher in “Counting On Grace”, Miss Finch is completely on the side of the owners. She doesn’t want Rosa to be taken out of school, but she also encourages the children vehemently to keep their parents from striking. Rosa is, of course, completely on her teacher’s side, and it’s interesting to watch as Paterson pulls the child reader’s strings back and forth and back again. She never tells her audience what to think and she doesn’t have to. This book is an excellent example of “show, don’t tell”.

For those amongst us who don’t know their American history as they should, I think I might not be the only one who thought that the title, “Bread and Roses, Too”, meant that this story was a sequel. I know, I know. I’m a Neanderthal. I accept that. Really, it wasn’t until the story showed how Rosa participated in naming the Bread and Roses Strike personally that I knew where the title even came from. Ms. Paterson, who is always good with clarification, mentions in the book’s Historical Note at the end that no one really knows who came up with that phrase. She just took the liberty of assigning the job to Rosa, and it works like a dream.

Part of the privilege that comes with being a writer is that if you would like to set a book partly in your own hometown, you have that right. Ms. Paterson sets part of this book in Barre, Vermont where she herself lives. The people of Barre have long been known for the role they played in hosting the children of the Lawrence strikers. Ms. Paterson used all kinds of Barre historians to aid her in the writing of this book, and the result is a story that certainly gives the city its due. The writing for its own part is, of course, pitch perfect at all times. And while the book’s first sentence is nothing to crow about, its last one is amazing. You won’t understand much of what it means without having read the book, but I’ll write it here just so you can get a taste of what Paterson’s about. “How strange, how wonderful it semed to be running, not away from petty crime or deadly fear, but toward a new life where bread was never wanting and roses grew in stone.”

It’s interesting to note that Paterson doesn’t go into the details of what working in a mill would entail in this book. We see the result of horrid working conditions rather than the cause. Technically she already showed the cause in her book “Lyddie”. And if you happen to be desperate to read about what it was like for mill children, definitely seek out Elizabeth Winthrop’s remarkable, “Counting On Grace”. If children reading this book can get past Rosa’s self-centeredness (she doesn’t ever seem to get behind the strike until it seems as if she's named it herself) and they don’t get bogged down in the story’s first half, they’ll be rewarded with a remarkable addition to the Paterson oeuvre. Reading “Bread and Roses, Too”, makes you feel, when you are done, as if you’ve become a better person for the reading. A lovely little novel.

Notes On the Cover: Gorgeous. I read an ARC of this book that had a significantly less attractive image on it than the one Clarion finally decided to go with. I mean look at that bread. You just wanna take a bite, don’t you? And you can’t tell from this photo but the image of the rose is embossed in such a way that it sticks out slightly. It does, admittedly, contain a disembodied female, but at least it isn’t sepia toned. Looking at it, I’m reminded of some of the other changes made from ARCs to final copies this year. When “The Sea of Glass” lost the image of a girl’s face on the cover, the publisher worried that it would be less kid-friendly as a result. The same thing, in a way, has happened here. On the original cover we see a skinny, somewhat unattractive, girl with her shawl drawn against a stiff cold wind. It’s perfectly fine but it looks as if drawn images are losing out to photographic ones this year. This new picture establishes right from the start that this is a piece of historical fiction, and there’s probably no better ad out there for bread. You just wanna take a bite... mmm mmmm.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Review of the Day: Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life

And now it is time to discuss a book that I consider to be the best American work of children’s fiction for the year 2006. I kid you not. My ear is often pressed to the buzz surrounding the notable books for children, and as of yet I have heard nary a peep regarding Wendy Mass’s amazing new story. Ms. Mass, if you recall, wowed the YA literary scene with her extraordinary “A Mango-Shaped Space” a couple of years ago. Now she’s given us an honestly funny book about a kid who just happens to be searching for the meaning of life. This, in and of itself, is not extraordinary. What managed to throw me for a loop though is that Ms. Mass is able to tell his tale without a drop of pretension or boredom AND the book’s laugh-out-loud funny. The rare combination of “meaning” and “humor” is a rare once in a lifetime event for any writer. After reading this book though, I suspect Ms. Mass may have many more such books nestled inside of her.

What would you do if a mysterious box arrived in your home from your long dead father? What if the box contained a beautiful smaller box of light-colored wood with a keyhole on each side? And what if the smaller box were engraved with the following: “THE MEANING OF LIFE. FOR JEREMY FINK TO OPEN ON HIS 13TH BIRTHDAY”? Well, if you were Jeremy Fink you’d probably want to find the keys to open that box and pronto. After all, Jeremy’s 13th birthday is mere weeks away. With his best friend (and sometimes thief) Lizzy at his side, the two decide to do whatever it takes to locate the keys that will open the box. Unfortunately, that plan seems to involve breaking and entering which, in turn, leads to them doing community service for an elderly (and incredibly rich) antiques dealer. Now Jeremy is breaking out of his all too comfortable routines to find out what the meaning of life is, even if he can’t find the keys he wants. What he may discover, however, is that as large and vast as the universe may be, there are people who will always help you along. Even if they seem like complete strangers.

Maybe it was the fact that Jeremy reminded me of my younger brother. Maybe it was the fact that Jeremy could say he named his couch Mongo when he was three. Or maybe it was that most people in this book have their own distinct collection. Jeremy collects mutant candy. Lizzy collects playing cards but ONLY the ones she can find on the street and she can never collect a duplicate or a torn card. Or maybe it was the fact that the book would tell you facts like when you look in the mirror you're seeing yourself as slightly younger, due to the speed of light. Whatever it was, this book won my instant love.

Of course, the danger with creating any book that searches for a philosophical end is that it ends up reading like “Sophie’s World”. And no offense to Jostein Gaarder, but how many kids do you know that want to learn about Descartes? So what Mass does is a little subtler than hand kids a primer in Philosophy 101. The meaning of life isn’t just a philosophical search. It’s a scientific one and a religious one and, most important of all, a personal one. Fair enough, but kids don’t like to seek out meaning of their own accord, right? Some do, but the vast amount of them would rather read something mysterious, fun, and funny, right? Well credit Mass with understanding this right from the start. Yes, this book is all about Jeremy’s personal journey. For example, when he writes in his notebook that there are two kinds of choices in the world, it’s done in such a way that children will get what he’s saying. But it’s also full of things like a kid who names his fish after other animals since his mom won’t let him have “real pets”. Plus there’s the quest aspect to it all. Your dead father has just sent you something in the mail and you must scour all of New York to locate the keys that will open his box. How cool is that?

Mass also covers her bases. As I was reading the book I was thoroughly enjoying it, but I was worried. I’m incredibly suspicious of any writer who relies on “fate” or “coincidence” to cover up for his or her poor writing (hence my dislike of “Chasing Vermeer”). And this book had a heckuva lot of coincidences in it at first. I was getting edgy as I reached the end... and then all became clear. Mass does nothing without justification. The result? The book is oddly believable without losing any of the magic of the story. Part of this book involves Jeremy and Lizzy being sent by the elderly antiques dealer to different people in the city who pawned personal items to the dealer’s grandfather when they were children. With each return the kids see who these people were when they were kids and what they turned into when they reached adulthood. They also are able to pursue their own quest and ask each person, be it an elderly woman, a rich minimalist, or a man of science, what they see as the meaning of life. Oh it sounds quaint, doesn’t it? But that’s just the thing, man. Wendy Mass pulls it off AND makes it interesting AND injects quite a lot of humor in to boot. I know I keep harping on the funnier aspects of the book, but a book with meaning that never cracks a smile isn’t going to involve kids half as much as one that does. That and the fact that I’ve always firmly believed that humor is much harder that pathos.

Then there are the basic parts of any book and how they fit together. You know, the characters and such. Now if I were to find a single hairline flaw in the novel, I guess I’d have to say that it takes a really long time for the reader to warm up to Lizzy. She comes across as rather self-centered at the start and it takes a while for the reader to realize that she’s desperate for more women in her life. Her mom abandoned both her and her dad when she was just a baby and since then Jeremy’s mom has taken Lizzy under her wing. It takes a little while to see Lizzy as someone other than a thief and a bully, but Mass eventually gives her enough depth so that you can understand Jeremy’s platonic affection. Plus I loved the little moments where Jeremy would apologize to Lizzy by mumbling that he was sorry and tapping the toe of her sneaker with his foot. Somehow a little thing like that strikes me as more "real" than most novels I’ve read.

And the writing? Mass whips off lines like, “It would bother some people if their best friend only half-listened to them, but I figure talking to Lizzy is one step better than talking to myself. At least this way people on the street don’t stare at me.” She places her book in a very distinct time period when the subway system switched from tokens to metro cards and Pluto was still a planet. And while I’m at it (this point doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of my review so I’m going to just plop it down right here) may I give credit to th fact that Mass really gets the helpfulness of New Yorkers down pat? When I moved to New York in 2004 I encountered more complete strangers who were willing to give me directions or help than anywhere else I’d lived in the continental U.S. In “Jeremy Fink” those people are perfectly replicated for this NYC based tale. It’s nice to see them finally get their due.

When I write reviews for School Library Journal I must always fill out a yes or a no to a question on their form that says, “If the story has a dominant theme, is it too obviously superimposed on the plot?” Now few books have any kind of dominant theme to begin with. And this book definitely has one, no question. But is it too obvious here? Does it eclipse the rest of the story? Not a jot, sayeth I! Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

So who’s the age group for this book? I mean, “A Mango Shaped Space” was supposedly YA lit and I (by and large) do not read books for teens. This book, in contrast, is written about a twelve-year-old boy who is about to turn thirteen. And then there’s also the fact that the boy in the book is searching for something that most teenagers themselves are looking for. Meaning. But at the same time the book is a kind of quest novel and there are so many fun details in it (like the hula hoop contest Jeremy and Lizzy are forced to enter or his all-consuming love of candy in its myriad forms) that younger children would get a kick out of it as well. So it seems odd to say this, but I’m going to recommend this book for children ages 9 to 19. How many titles can you think of off the top of your brain that you could say the same for?

Jeremy’s grandmother somewhat summarizes the book herself when she says that opening your eyes to different experiences is, “the only way you’ll learn what you’re capable of.” Then she reminds them that her jams are melting and that is that. After reading this book I’m sure every kid will yearn to embark on a journey of personal discovery as Jeremy and Lizzy do here. My respect for Wendy Mass contains multitudes. This is a strong title and a must-read book of 2006. Purchase forthwith, me lovelies.

Notes On the Cover: I like it. You know, any marketing that uses that standard white background with objects against it is treading shaky ground. But the good people at Little Brown were able to latch on to one of the most interesting aspects of the book. The search for keys. And keys, for that matter, are very cool. Admittedly, a snarky side of me would have been just as happy with a cover full of deformed M&Ms, but that wouldn’t really be a fair representation of what the book’s all about, now would it? In any case, the keys are neat, the publisher was smart enough to include one on the spine (too often spines get the raw end of the deal), and the idea of suspending them by different colored thread is fabulous. I love it! Unfortunately it's apparently a very difficult cover to display online. The one above is the best I could find. Sorry!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

It's All Over (soonish)

The staged production of Neil Gaiman's The Wolves In the Walls is now apparently slated to come to the U.S. in early 2008. I'm a patient woman. I can wait. Says Neil Gaiman of the tour, "I heard that it now is going to the US early in 2008. Slightly disappointed that the US tour so far just looks very East Coast and Chicago, and hoping it'll travel a bit more, at least to San Francisco."

And for a fabulous freakish ad for it, look here. Extra points for the moving yellowing eyeball.

More Banned Book Tasty Treats

Voting is fun. Especially when you don't have to stand in long dreary lines just so you can turn a tiny knob in a smelly booth.

So head on over to ALA to vote for your favorite banned book. And no cheating by trying to get your own favorite book banned and then voting. Fun as that might be.

Patron: Uh... yeah, I wanna ban Fly By Night cause I think it's too hard for 5-year-olds?

Librarian: Leave this place.

Thanks to Finding Wonderland for the link.

Shoo. Scram. Skedaddle.

Which is to say, it's time to high-tail it over to Oz and Ends yet again. J.L. Bell has written a magnificent critique of Artemis Fowl that not only gives the series a little more background on its initial release than some of us (= me) were aware, but manages to tie-in Eoin Colfer's books to a spot of Irish Nationalism. Read.

Dude, If I Could Make Titles Audio Files I Would So Put Some Circus Music In Here

The Seventh Carnival of Children's Literature is up and running without a hitch in sight.

SEE E. Lockhardt share her literary crushes . . .

GASP as Octavian Nothing seems "too hard" for teens and "too good" for adults . . .

MARVEL at the idea of an algebraic graphic novel . . .

Banned Books Write-Off

First off, Banned Books week is nigh, starting today September 23-30. You have all sorts of ways in which to celebrate. You could read a banned book. You could give a banned book to a child to read. You could ban a book . . . no . . . no . . . wait, no. Scratch that one.

Or, you could participate in the Banned Books Write-Off. Here's the skinny. When I first decided that I wanted to review children's books and improve my writing skills, I needed a way to do so. So I turned to Amazon. Now, nobody in their right mind ever brags that they're an Amazon reviewer. I'm sorry kids, they don't. It's just not cool. If I'm at a publisher party and someone asks me who I review for, I may mention School Library Journal or my ill-fated stint with MyShelf.com. Rarely will I mention Amazon (which doesn't mean I'm not still thrilled to have hit 89 yesterday). But what do I mention even less than my reviews for Amazon? My reviews for Epinions. Now I don't know how many of you are familiar with the Epinions system. Basically it's like this: Epinions is like Amazon except you're expected to write quality reviews... and you get paid for them. Aw yeah, baby. Not a whole lot, of course. You see, other reviewers vote on the quality of what you've written and you get maybe $0.75 per review sometimes. I get a $15 check once every 6 months, but since none of my reviewing activities have ever equalled moolah, this is a big deal for me.

What does this have to do with the Banned Books Write-Off? Well, a fellow Epinions reviewer suggested it. Basically, she's asking that for Banned Books Week as many people as possible should submit reviews on Epinions of banned books.
"Review one of the books on the ALA list (I suspect there are other lists). Identify it as a banned book, and if you know why, address that logic somewhere in your review. Do you agree with the reason? If you wish to comment on that, please do so, it's not necessary, we can decide the reason for ourselves. Read one that has been banned and review it honestly."
It's just that easy. Fun too, though I am sad to say that The New Joy of Gay Sex by Charles Silverstein is not yet in the Epinions database. I'll give you $0.75 of my own cold hard cash if you can come up with a review half as interesting as there could've been for THAT.

Review of the Day: Green Glass Sea

When I picked up “The Green Glass Sea” I was in an advanced state of historical fiction asphyxiation. Honestly, I have read more children’s books set during WWII that were published in the year 2006 than I even want to contemplate on an empty stomach. So I open this incredibly beautiful book up to its first page and what sits there, laughing in my face? The year 1943, cheery as all get out, just floating in the center of the paper. It took every bit of willpower I had not to just throw the book against a wall then and there. Instead, I read it. I read it on the subway. I read it on my couch. I read it in parks and on my lunch break and every place I could get away WITH reading it. I’ve always said that it takes a particularly good book to break a person out of their own personal prejudices. My prejudices were anti-anything set pre-1985. “The Green Glass Sea” however, managed to win me over with the key combination of great plot, enticing characters, and a wonderful balance of science and morality.

Dewey Kerrigan is not fond of change. She is not pleased when her beloved grandmother passes away and leaves her in the care of a neighbor. She is not pleased when she is moved along, like a package, towards her father in his undisclosed location. However, she is very very pleased indeed when she is at last reunited with her dad in Los Alamos, New Mexico. You see, Mr. Kerrigan is a scientist that has been working on a top secret and mysterious “gadget” that will help the U.S. win WWII. Also in Los Alamos is Suze, daughter of two brilliant parents, both of whom are working on the project. Suze wants nothing more than to fit in with the other girls in her school and if that means bullying and teasing Dewey, she’ll do it. But when Dewey’s dad leaves on a government mission, the two girls find themselves unexpected roommates. And it’ll take their burgeoning friendship to weather the new problems that are bound to come along.

As I may have mentioned before, I’m reading great heaping helpings of WWII children’s chapter books these days. One that I read recently, “Homefront” by Doris Gwaltney, covers a lot of the same time period as “The Green Glass Sea”. The take on dropping the bomb on Hiroshima in “Homefront” is sort of brushed off with the standard better-their-civilians-than-our-boys line. What’s so impressive about this book is that it manages to balance the horror of the event with the awe that comes from creating something so immensely powerful. Klages, and this is important, never tells her readers what to think. This is a book that allows kids to make up their own minds... sort of. I mean, Suze is pro-dropping the bomb. Dewey doesn’t seem to have much of an opinion one way or another. And Suze’s parents are strongly divided on the topic. We hear about scientists who worked on the project and who are proposing to petition so that the U.S. government never drops the bomb on innocent lives. Most interesting is the fact that Klages never felt a need to include a character fighting overseas in Japan while all this was going on. Some authors would sway child sympathies by including a beloved brother serving across the ocean. In a way, the book shows how scientists spend as much time as they can figuring out if they could do something rather than (to paraphrase Michael Crichton) if they should. And it’s very interesting to see how Suze’s mom goes from saying that that "the gadget" just HAS to work to almost questioning what she’s been a part of. As the scientists mention in the book, they love working with one another on this project. They just don’t like having Washington having a hand in it as well.

There is also more than an edge of authenticity to the novel. We hear that physicists in Los Alamos were called “fizzlers” while the chemists were “stinkers”. Klages is clever enough to dot her text with very real little details like these. It’s difficult to know whether or not people really were as broken up as the people of Los Alamos are when they hear of President Roosevelt’s death. Certainly a much bigger deal is made of it here than most children’s books out there. There’s also a wonderful sense that nothing here is anachronistic. People refer to the Japanese as “Japs” and Mrs. Gordon (Suze’s mom) smokes like mad. Every other scene you see her, she’s either lighting up or putting down a cigarette. I was also a little incredulous that Dewey wouldn’t have figured out what “the gadget” everyone’s parents were working on was. This is a very smart girl we’re dealing with here. If she knew but didn’t want to know, that should have been made clearer. And if she truly did not comprehend, how could she have missed all the clues?

The writing itself is great if occasionally in its own little world. It’s hard to know what to make of a sentence like, “The steaks came, with yellow corn on the cob, glistening with butter, and a baked potato with steam that smelled like edible laundry when she smooshed it open with her fingers.” Edible laundry? I’ve never heard that one before. What Klages really does well, though, is drive home the book’s emotional core. A horrible thing happens to Dewey and we watch as she moves about in shock. “She touches the barbed wire of the fence that surrounds the Tech offices, but that is too real, too close. She walks away, one foot in front of the other, trying to stay blank.” And later, “She finally begins to cry, a slow steady trickle, as if she is leaking.” Which, I might add, is wholly in keeping with her character.

Speaking of characters, how are they? Fab. Dewey is the first person you meet in the book and I was a little worried, at the beginning, that she might be too dry a kid to grow to love. I needn’t have feared. Though she's not immediately engaging, Dewey has a sly charm entirely of her own. Plus her intelligence and interest in science and mechanics makes her one of the very rare female heroines I’ve read of in a children’s book that loved science without being a wacky inventor. I also couldn’t help but love that when Dewey read, “Caddie Woodlawn” she was bored until Caddie tries to repair a clock. Suze, for her part, is utterly recognizable as the kid from school who wants to fit in so badly that she comes off as a little desperate. And her slow transformation from bully to friend is gradual enough that Klages is able to convince you of the shift.

Just a great book all around, I declare. Strong female characters that are interested in science. A nuanced view of a difficult time (to say nothing of the brilliantly chilling finish Klages tacks on at the end). Writing that smacks of talent and a plot that'll keep the reader guessing. One of the strongest books of the year, no question, and an enjoyable read to boot.

Notes On the Cover: Well, if any of you saw Roger Sutton’s recent post on this matter, you’ll understand that this cover has been through some very interesting editorial changes. Roger suggests that he may have preferred the first incarnation, but I am wholly with the good people of Viking with this one. Cover #1 was way too busy and the picture of the little girl, for reasons I do not fully understand, really does look like a Holocaust victim. So they deepened the colors and made the math symbols all shiny and transparent and (shop talk) clear spot lam. I don’t mind saying this was a particularly good decision and everyone should be commended heartily for making this perhaps the nicest cover of the season. Extra points for the word “Shazam” written in Greek letters (you’ll understand when you read the book) that appears not only on the cover’s spine in tiny type but the actual book itself.