Fuse #8

Friday, March 31, 2006

Metaphorical thighs

Obviously it's late in the day and I'm getting a little slap-happy but this is a question for all you fellow bloggers out there. Do you ever find yourself looking at other people's blogs, especially the ones you like, and you keep wishing that your blog appeared in their LINKS section? It's not as if you can send them a note saying, "Hey! I like you! Link to me!". Miss Manners would SO not approve. At the same time, you can't help but check back from time to time to see if maybe you've risen in their estimation since the LAST time you looked at them. This can become a dangerous occupation. So for all you bloggers out there who have already linked to this site, I would like to offer my hearty thanks. And for those of you out there who have not linked to me... well I guess I'm just gonna have to show a little more thigh. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Though Lord knows what a metaphorical thigh constitutes. Hm.


So the husband and I are watching The Electric Company the other day. Like you do. And it occurs to me that this is a DVD that every forward-thinking library in the country should own and give out. In fact, if I were ruling a library of my very own, I would make very very sure that they had a fine selection of early Sesame Street collections, the aforementioned Electric Company, and The School House Rock DVD. Children's public television programming hit its peak back in the mid-70s to the late 80s. Then Barney came along, proved yet again that mindless entertainment will still sell well, and now its almost impossible to find a modern equivalent of 3-2-1 Contact.

Sorry, I'm ranting. Where was I? Ah yes. So my husband and I are watching The Electric Company and we realize that on that particular show Morgan Freeman was hot. Really hot. We all remember him as Easy Reader, but it went beyond that. As my hubby put it, Freeman is "pure liquid sex" on that show. And yet, he's never kissed a woman or been a romantic lead in ANY film he's been in. Most peculiar.

Wolves In the Walls proclaimed a hit

Should you ever happen to find yourself in Tramway, Glasgow, be sure to take a gander at their production of The Wolves In the Walls. Having just garnered itself a mighty positive review from the Guardian Unlimited (and whatta great pic, eh?) I'm hoping it comes to Broadway. Of course, I'm still waiting for the stage production of His Dark Materials to grace our bonny shores and we all know that THAT's not happening any time soon.

Review of the Day: The True Story of Stellina

I think all the best picture books coming out this year involve birds in some way. There's this book, the odd but fun Learning To Fly by Sebastian Meschenmoser, I'm Not Cute by Nicholas Allen (both of which I'll review presently), and this book to boot. I smell a trend in the air.

Woman walks into a library. She comes up to me at the reference desk with this request: Do you have any picture books on finches? Not goldfinches or anything like that. Straight-out finchy finches. Searching the whole of the New York Library system I came up with two (count `em) two possible contenders. Needless to say, I promised her that I would ask other librarians around the country for other finch related titles before the week was over. I did so and among the answers I received came an e-mail from a woman suggesting Matteo Pericoli's newest picture book for children. Entitled, "The True Story of Stellina", the book promised to be a finch-centric true tale about a woman and the baby finch she adopted. The best part? It takes place here in Manhattan! Quick as a wink I recommended it to the woman, though I had to point out that it was a very very new book and might take some time before it was added to my library system. She was pleased and I was clued in to one of the cutest l'il ole books I ever did see. A real departure from his previous work, "Stellina" marks author/illustrator Matteo Pericoli's first foray into the world of picture book fiction. Touching, and true, it's remarkable for both its simplicity and its subtle illustration style. Sweet as all get out.

It happened one day in Manhattan on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 46th Street. Pericoli's future wife, Holly, was just standing on the corner when she heard a "CHEEP". And there, standing just beside a street sign, was a very tiny bird. "Could you also have heard `CHEEP' on the corner of 4th and Third, in the middle of the day, while cars were rushing by? ROOOOOAAAAARRRR!". Well Holly did. Holly sat and waited for the mama bird to come, but no one did. So Holly took the little finch home and named her Stellina which means "little star" in Italian. Normally baby finches are mighty picky about who feeds them, but Stellina allowed Holly to drip the juice of fresh grapes from her pinky finger into the waiting avian mouth. With each new step Stellina takes, she looks at Holly as if to say, "And now? What's going to happen now?". Soon the finch was flying, singing to Holly's piano playing, and would perch on the end of Matteo's pencil as he drew his work. And eight years later Stellina died. She might have done so on the corner of that busy street had Holly never found her. Instead she lived with people who loved her and lived a small but extraordinary little life.

If you're wracking your brain right now wondering why the name, "Matteo Pericoli" sounds so familiar then perhaps you are familiar with some of his previous projects. A couple years ago Pericoli came out with a book entitled, "Manhattan Unfurled". Following the Manhattan line of buildings along the sea, this artist painstakingly drew every last building in pencil, labeling each structure as he went along. The result was a complex pull-out book that would have people staring at it for hours. In my particular case, I was at my in-laws for Thanksgiving one year and after dinner someone brought out this book. We started passing it along between one another trying to identify places we recognized. In "Stellina" you can see Pericoli working on this book when the baby finch perches gracefully on the tip of his pencil. For the illustrations of this book, Pericoli has drawn in what appears to be pencil, and then painted the pictures over with a watercolor wash that's all peaches and blues in bright but soothing hues. It sounds odd to say, but these illustrations aren't too terribly dissimilar from Shel Silverstein's drawings. Just better honed and less zany.

The whole bird-in-a-great-big-city idea is as old as the art of American picture books itself. The most memorable of these, by far, would have to be Robert McCloskey's, "Make Way For Ducklings". And covering the kestral end of the spectrum is Rober J. Blake's, "Fledgling", but till now the world has been woefully bereft of the finch's point of view. "Stellina" hopes to change all of that. Bound to be one of the better remembered pet-adoption tales from the big city.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

He may not age, but he sure gets a lot of press

You would think the idea of a Peter Pan prequel would be old hat by now. Still, everyone's delighted at the notion of Geraldine McCaughrean's "official" book Peter Pan In Scarlet getting itself a nifty illustrator to boot. McCaughrean was commissioned by London's Great Ormond Street Hospital, which owns the copyright to Peter. Lord what fools these mortals be.

Charlotte's Webcast

Just found out the final casting decisions for this summer's Charlotte's Web. Check it out:

Dakota Fanning - Fern
Julia Roberts - Charlotte (voice)
Oprah Winfrey - Gussy (voice)
Steve Buscemi - Templeton (voice)
Kathy Bates - Bitsy (voice)
John Cleese - Samuel (voice)
Thomas Haden Church - Brooks (voice)
Robert Redford - Ike (voice)
Jennifer Garner - Susy (voice)

Let's review. I'm all about Thomas Haden Church getting more work. And Steve Buscemi as Templeton? (picture me closing together the tips of my fingers, bringing them to my mouth, and releasing them with a MWAHH sound). I'll try to wrap my brain around Robert Redford getting in there. Ditto John Cleese.

Now the screenplay is by Susannah Grant ("Party of Five" and Disney's "Pocahontas") and Karey Kirkpatrick ("Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy" and "Chicken Run"). I don't think I'm the only one here who's going to hope that there's a lot more of Kirkpatrick's hand in this work than Grant's. Kirkpatrick also adapted "James and the Giant Peach" and the recent "Curious George". So at least she has her literary credentials in order.

She's 90 and she looks faaaaabulous

Hey! Looks like Beverly Cleary is not only still alive, not only 90, but she is definitely active as ever. Most of you are familiar with her Drop Everything And Read campaign, but did you know that movie rights to Ramona have just been sold? Party on, Ms. C.

Review of the Day: Lilly's Big Day

Greenwillow's pulling out all the stops for this, the latest in the Lilly series. If I play my cards right, I may be able to act out this book at the next children's librarian meeting. Fingers crossed, kids!

When I lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota I had the unique privilege of getting to see the city's world-renowned children's theater perform a play based on three of Kevin Henkes' Lilly books. The show began with "Chester's Way", continued with "Julius, Baby of the World" and ended with "Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse" (which is rightly considered a classic to this day). I loved the show, but now I have a regret. If only if only "Lilly's Big Day" could have been a part of the proceedings. Reading it now it's clear that Henkes still has his finger planted firmly on the pulse of the Lillyverse. As Lilly's grandmother points out, her granddaughter is adorable, "in small doses". Our heroine is just as bold, brash, and single-minded as ever. And as with every one of her adventures, all turns out well in the end.

Big news, people. Big big news. Mr. Slinger, the nicest teacher a kid like Lilly ever had, is getting married. And you know what THAT means? A wedding. And do you know what a wedding means? It means that somebody is going to be the flower girl, and Lilly has a pretty good idea of who exactly that should be. In her spare time she gets ready practicing her walk and stance. She also drops subtle hints in front of Mr. Slinger. Hints like mentioning that a flower girl is what she has always wanted to be, "Even more than a surgeon or a diva or a hairdresser". During recess she picks handfuls of weeds and walks significantly in front of Mr. Slinger. She even draws beautiful pictures of herself in the role. You can understand then that when Mr. Slinger gently explains to her that his niece Ginger will be the flower girl, Lilly is distraught. Kindly, Mr. Slinger tells Lilly that she can be the flower girl's assistant. She is not wholly pleased with this arrangement but there isn't a whole lot she can do about it. When the big moment for Ginger to walk down the aisle arrives, however, the little girl freezes in fear. It's up to Lilly to pick Ginger up and carry her proudly down the aisle, holding her head high, smiling brightly, raising her eyebrows, and turning her head from side to side. Later at the reception Lilly shows Ginger how to do a proper walk and later gives the little girl a big hug, telling her, "Ginger, when I get married, you can be my flower girl".

Henkes is all about the visual gags in this book. When we first meet Ginger, the real flower girl, she stands happily frozen, never changing expression even when Lilly wonders if she's really SURE she wants to be a flower girl. Then, when Ginger freezes at the wrong moment, her deer-caught-in-the-headlights eyes are reminiscent of Kitten's in "Kitten's First Full Moon". Wide white circles with a single black dot in the center. Mr. Slinger's outfits do not disappoint either. For his own wedding he sports a green shirt with white polka dots, a rainbow tie, and flip-flops. I also loved that when Lilly's family is sitting down for dinner the table is set primarily with bread and an assortment of delicious cheeses. And when exactly did baby brother Julius get so doggone big? The kid's practically a toddler!

One might wonder why Mr. Slinger doesn't just make Lilly AND Ginger both flower girls. But if Mr. Slinger has any idea of the kind of person Lilly is, he might have had a very good reason for not putting too much of a spotlight on this particular pupil of his. The other kids in the class might get jealous and she does kind of have a bad habit of soaking up attention. As with any book in which the main character is filled up with spunk, some people are going to rant over Lilly's need for attention. They will call her "brat" or "spoiled" but these words miss the mark entirely. We've all known Lillys in our day. We know how desperate they are for acceptance and love and it's nice to read a book where the main character has a bit of spunk and moxie in her makeup.

I don't think it's wrong to say that plenty of women in the world will be heartbroken when they learn that Mr. Slinger is no longer on the market. As men in picture books go, he's got to be one of the best. On behalf of everyone then I bid a fond farewell to this, the sweetest of teachers. Good luck, Mr. Slinger. You broke many a heart when you got hitched. As for "Lilly's Big Day", it's a lovely new addition to a wonderful series. Bound to be enjoyed by many many people, especially those with insipient flower girls of their own.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Won't someone PLEASE think of the children?

I cannot tell you how often I'm sitting at my Reference Desk at work and a five-year-old will walk up to me and ask, "Do you have anything on Buck Owens, the host of Hee-Haw?". It's all I can do to look into that hopeful little face and break the terrible news to them. "Honey, no one has ever made a children's book about Mr. Owens". Then their little lower lips start to wobble and their parents look at me like I just told them that there's no Santa Claus. It's been tough. Thankfully, there's been an answer to my prayers. "Freight Train Running: A Biography of Buck Owens" has just come out and not a minute too soon. FINALLY someone has given a thought to the children!

Next week's issue: Martyrman!

Since I'm currently on the look-out for good graphic novels for the younger kiddies, I was especially amused by this recent article on creating comic books starring Saints. Okay, I'll bite. As you can see, they look pretty good. Nicely chiseled jaws and its not much of a stretch to put Joan of Arc in superhero tights. But don't most of these people die in the end? Sending messages to kids through a graphic medium ain't new. I was one of those lucky schoolchildren in the 1980s who found themselves on the receiving end of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign. I have very clear memories of being handed a comic book that outlined the dangers of snorting drugs. Now I've never encountered anyone in real life who dissolved the septum between their nostrils (leading to one big ole hole) but that doesn't mean I won't! In comparison to THOSE comic books, these look pretty tame. Just make sure everyone's septums are firmly in place.

A planet in a Windy City

Sometimes it seems to me that it would be unspeakably cool to live in Chicago. You have the new Millennium Park. You have multiple art museums, the Michigan Mile, and a lake that thinks it's an ocean. You would, admittedly, have to deal with constant articles and fans of Blue Balliett but it would still be worth it. Why? Because of kooky krazy places like the Planet Esme Bookroom. It's not a bookstore. It's not a public library. It's an entirely independent little entity created and run by author Esme Raji Codell. Codell brings in authors to speak, has fairy godmother fashion contests, workshops, the whole kerschmozzle. It gets better too. Go to her website, turn down the volume, and watch her video review of the month. I guess you don't actually have to turn down the volume, but I've found it to be a lot more fun that way. There's something about watching an authorial hipster pulling magic wands out of thin air that's inherantly amusing. I watched this video on mute with the teen librarians of NYPL's Teen Central and it was a hoot. Two thumbs way way up.

The CCBC reads books for your sins

Well the Cooperative Children's Book Center has weighed in with their assessment of children and teen books for 2006. They've identified trends, things we should watch out for, and books to bear in mind. They also have a rather nice section that tears celebrity written picture books into teeny tiny shreds. Well worth the checking out.

The virtual school library of your dreams

Seems as if BookMoot had a posting the other day in which she speculated as to the ideal items one would purchase for a school library. Always considering that the classics are already there, she's included a list of fairly new books. I take great issue with the inclusion of the lamentable Peter and the Starcatchers, but I appreciate BookMoot's idea. We've all come up with the perfect list we'd have if a giant hand dropped from the sky and gave us our very own personal school library. The mind boggles...

Future fantasy authors, step right this way

I've got some good news for all you budding fantasy writers out there. I just found a little on-line quiz that will save you countless hours of sweat and hard work if you happen to take it right now. The quiz, in essence, will determine whether or not your fantasy novel deserves to be written. You just answer the questions and if at any moment you happen to answer "Yes" to any one of them, stop writing immediately. My favorite? "Do you ever use the term 'mana' in your novel?" followed closely by "Do you not realize how much gold actually weighs?".

Review of the Day: City Beats

Publisher's Weekly occasionally has an issue entirely devoted to upcoming children's books. In it, all the new books are listed by their publisher with brief descriptions of what they consist of. Flipping through this issue my eye alighted on a book from something called "Dial Publishers" and their book City Beats. Since I'm on a committee that's trying to find the best children's books of the year and since this book looked nicely New York-centric, I got myself a review copy and was startled. I hadn't expected it to be good. But good it was and so if my review of this book seems a little too much, chalk that up to getting a little talked-about title that's shockingly, surprisingly beautiful.

It's not as if New York City has the copyright out on pigeons. Every major metropolitan city you enter is home to those animals some dub, "rats with wings". Still, when I heard about "City Beats: A Hip-Hoppy Pigeon Poem", I thought it would be a pretty safe bet that this was a book by New Yorkers for New Yorkers. Apparently living in Manhattan has fried my otherwise cute little brain. This book was written by Ohioans and was published in Nevada City, CA. So if you want to see this as a reflection of the birdies of the Big Apple, all power to you. Just bear in mind that pigeons have a long and colorful history and they're too big a species to be limited to any one town. In the case of "City Beats", the book does a remarkable thing. It brings to our attention the fact that pigeons are beautiful birds. Birds that are victims of their own success, no less. And in doing so we get glimpse of what the world must look like to them every day.

Open the book and the first thing you see the a sentence that asks, "Have you ever stopped to admire a pigeon?". Expecting (and 9 out of 10 times getting) a no, the book explains on a single page the history of the city pigeon and how these former Rock Doves adapted brilliantly to our human cityscapes. Then the real fun begins. A poem begins in the early hours of the day, wondering what pigeons might see during a typical day. Suddenly we're avoiding the gigantic feet of humans who are, "Brimming, bustling" as the birds snap up an abandoned doughnut. There are vehicles to pass, city construction to hear, delicious food scattered everywhere, a cool calming park to perch in. Rammell brings together everything from a candy-laden carnival-like atmosphere to cool jazzy evenings. Then we're back to the same window at the end of the day. Two pigeons doze off with the moon rising above them. "To feel the city's life / In its people, in its streets / But now the day is over / As we dream of city beats". I should note that with each page in the book, you read a poem referring to a scene on the opposite page. A scene that is glimpsed only through a small window. Then you turn the page, the window disappears, and while the poem is still visible you get to witness a full riot of color and pageantry all with the turn of a page.

The phrase, "A Hip-Hoppy Pigeon Poem" might be enough to scare off even the most committed of parents. Hip-Hoppy? The person picking up this book may dread opening it for fear that a pigeon in gold medallions starts beat-boxing at them. Allow me to allay your fears then. This book is all poetry and doesn't contain a single lame attempt to "speak to today's youth". The words describing each scene vary according to the images. When we witness construction, the words become onomatopoetic with lots of "Screech! Hiss! Pop! Pound!". Other times we're offered introspective looks at city life. "Candy rain, sirens wail / Booming low - blaring high /Rainbow dreams on wheels / Animals in the sky". As you can see from that last line, not every portion of this book scans perfectly. Still, they fit the book nicely enough.

Honestly? I could take or leave the words in this book. Rammell had a good idea, sure. No question. But the star of this show is Jeanette Canyon. The book says that she created the pictures with polymer clay, "a medium which complements her talents as both a painter and sculptor". Polymer clay. It sounds so very simple. Well... that is until you actually look at the pictures. I don't know how Rammell did it, but she's doing stuff with clay here that I've never seen anyone do before. I was willing to accept that clay might be used to fashion an intricate window frame. But the stained glass windows within it? Foggy city streets? The veins on a leaf of ivy? Heck, she's gone so far as to delineate each pigeon's iridescent feathers in clay, as well as the teeny tiny pieces of gravel that lie between a building's bricks. And the scary part? Everything I just mentioned appears on the cover of the book. Open it up and suddenly everything gets even more complex. I've seen some breathtaking pictures in my day, but Canyon takes the cake.

The book asks you in the end to, "gain a respect for the unsung pigeon, the dove that chooses to live with humans". We forget that pigeons are doves or that with their shiny purple/black feathers we might find them beautiful if they were a little less common (or friendly). Certainly it makes a strong case for loving this universally recognized boid. With the window scheme and clever cut-out construction, "City Beats" would pair beautifully with the wordless but artistically similar, "Home" by Jeannie Baker. If you are looking for a good rhyming selection with lots of excellent onomatopoetic words and art that'll knock your socks off (and keep on knocking), grab yourself this gem of a publication. And hopefully, like the pigeon it praises, it'll start appearing in every city too.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A shout out from SLJ

The School Library Journal blog, presided over by the charming Amy Bowllan, has given Fuse #8 a shout out of sorts. Ms. Bowllan has a series on her site where she discovers why children's literature blogs have names like "Chicken Spaghetti" or "A Fuse #8 Production". For those amongst you who've wondered why I named my blog after something that sounds as if it might blow-out in the event of a power surge, read my explanation on her site. All shall be clear...

Where my Margaret Mahy peoples at?

I don't usually pay too too much attention to the world of children's awards (always excepting the biggies which I follow like my life depending on it). But this is Margaret Mahy we're talking about. The queen of the kooky and the absolute weirdest wonder of the Western world. She's just garnered herself a lovely little Hans Christian Andersen Award thanks to the plucky kids at IBBY. Who says there's no justice in the world? Now go out and reread The Changeover as soon as you possibly can.

Hobbitfest '06

Ignoring the fact that the Times Online (UK edition) seems incapable of spelling Tolkien's name correctly, they've an interesting little article on "the day that we are all invited to join in a worldwide Hobbitfest". The piece is actually more about the people who love Tolkien and the people who LOATHE the man. Check it out whichever way your little heart inclines.

Hot Men of Children's Literature: Part seven in a series

It's Tuesday morning and you all know what THAT means! Time for yet another entry into our weekly Hot Men of Children's Literature roundup. Some people tell me I'm bound to run out of hot men eventually. I tell them there's always the dead ones. Hell, I'm not picky.

Now today we've a surprise winner, ladies and gentlemen. The votes were in and looked like Neil Gaiman was gonna finally secure a spot on our list when at the last minute and out of left field the award goes to....


This handsome young man is the author of last year's rather adorable Russell the Sheep. He has another Russell book due out this year, so we might as well raise a glass to his loveliness while we're at it. A worthy entry to a noble series.

Review of the Day: The Dreamkeeper

If I weren't so doggone lazy I'd figure out what the deal is with this book. Is it coming out soon? Not coming out again at all? As you can see, I'm rather perplexed.

This book is a bit of a puzzle to me. Back in 1998 a publisher called "Star Bright Books" (still in operation) published Robert Ingpen's stunning dreamscape of a picture book, "The Dreamkeeper". Usually a book only gets one life in this world. "The Dreamkeeper" seems to have two. I received a review copy of the book from Minedition, a colorful division of the Penguin Young Readers Group. It appears that "The Dreamkeeper" was to be republished by the eclectic publisher in March of 2006. I say this with some confusion, though, since nowhere on the minedition website is "The Dreamkeeper" even mentioned. Robert Ingpen is brought up more than once, but that shouldn't be surprising. He's an amazing fella. So with much scratching of the head, I turn to this book to review it. And if explaining to you whether or not this puppy will ever get published is hard, imagine how much harder it might be to describe a book that reads more like the flitting shadows of the subconscious rather than a straightforward picture book. I greatly enjoyed Ingpen's ode to our nocturnal meanderings. Just don't ask me how I'd classify it in my library.

The book acts as a letter between author Robert Ingpen and his granddaughter Alice Elisabeth. In it, he begins by explaining that there is a man who "collects dreams and keep them safe. He is called The Dreamkeeper". With a collection of charms and lures all sewn to his jacket and variety of baskets and cages hanging from his person, The Dreamkeeper is always ready to catch the bad dreams "when they try to escape to become real". Explanations are made as to how one goes about getting a dragon and the best way to trick a witch. The Dreamkeeper lives in a pigeonhouse with his sister and a goblin named Tally. Tally has a remote control that allows him to defend himself (and brother, trust me when I say that you've never seen a remote control like this one). Then we get to see the all-powerful Dreamtree and Ingpen lets loose with a stunning array of mythological, nightmarish, fabulous, and fantastical creatures and characters. Look fast and you might see Pinocchio running beside a wolf who paces in front of the White Rabbit from "Alice's Adventures In Wonderland". Turn another page and scholarly monkeys write in books, trolls strangle snakes, Long John Silver's on the loose, fairies dance just out of reach, and so many images hit your eye at once that you don't know where to look for a long long time. By the end, The Dreamkeeper walks by himself. "Safe traveling, good dreaming, and God bless, -Grandpa".

Perhaps the fact that there are so many scenes and characters in the Dreamtree from Lewis Carroll's books can be traced in part to the fact that this book has been written for a girl named Alice. Part of what I liked about this story was that in some ways, Ingpen IS the Dreamkeeper himself. You never see his character's face, which allows him to be anybody. And Ingpen certainly does capture the bad dreams, keep the good, and display both for his grandchildren in the form of his beautifully illustrated pages. Parents will love explaining to their kids who some of the characters are that run past the reader as they move from scene to scene. Those dreamy kids that love fairies or even books like Dr. Ernest Drake's, "Dragonology" will appreciate the almost scientific explainations of the uses of different cages and traps for bad dreams. And of course the illustrations cannot be beat. Stunning doesn't quite explain it. Awesome comes close. Jaw-droppingly mesmerizing to the point that one forgets to eat or bathe while reading... that's just about right.

Of course, there is one thing this book reminded me of right off the bat: "Sandman". How could it not? Basically, the Dreamkeeper is not too distantly removed from that graphic novel classic character The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman. In both cases there's a fellow who manages the dreamscape, has a house of his own somewhere, someone to tend his library, and various assistants. The similarities are rather striking. I'm not suggesting that Ingpen knew he was making a kid-friendly version of Gaiman's books, but had he included any references to "A Mid-Summer Night's Dream" I would be less forgiving. As it stands, this works as a good kid intro to the world of dreaming. Then, when they're teenagers, you can get them a copy of "Preludes and Nocturnes".

All in all, you won't find anything like "The Dreamkeeper" out there today. This is one of those rare little books that come across as particularly enjoyable to read. One can only hope that it will indeed be published again so that new hoards of children might look at its pages and find new dreams to add to their own. In a word, beautiful.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Why being a hip children's librarian makes life a worthwhile ride

Not too long ago newly established author Paul Acampora was kind enough to leave a comment during the great Edward Tulane debacle. Well somehow I never managed to connect the fact that this was the same fella who wrote one of the best reviewed books of 2006 thus far Defining Dulcie. Just slap my sides and call me stupid, why doncha? In any case, his editor (and the woman who brought together last year's rather fabulous Every Man For Himself) wrote me an e-mail today offering me a copy of Defining Dulcie to review. I'm pleased as punch. If life were just a series of editors offering me free books, I think I could die happy. Look forward to a review of the title as soon as I finish my pile of four other review books. These include The Fairies of Nutfolk Wood by Barb Bentler Ullman, Corydon and the Island of Monsters by Tobias Druitt, The Book of Story Beginnings by Kristin Kladstrup, and Sheep by Will Hobbs. I obviously haven't much of a life to speak of.

Oh. As a side note, Mr. Acampora wrote a story for Every Man For Himself entitled, "No More Birds Will Die Today". As someone who happens to have the last name of Bird, this is a comforting story to me.

Third children's book to appear on Lost

Jen Robinson was kind enough to point out that there was yet another children's book sighting on Lost recently. The character of Sawyer has already been seen reading Watership Down and A Wrinkle In Time. Pop quiz, kids. Can you think of the one element these books have in common? If so, you know one of the big plot points on the show. Recently he was seen reading Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret?. Does that mean he's about to get his period? Only time will tell.

Review of the Day: The Looking Glass Wars

*sigh* And it sounded like such a cool premise too. Ah well. Frank Beddor may be cute enough to get on the Hot Men of Children's Literature list, but unfortunately the so-so nature of the book disqualifies him. Pity.

When I first heard about the premise of this book my initial reaction was one of shock. A book in which people can learn the "truth" about Alice's Wonderland? What a great idea! And my goodness what an obvious one as well. You may not know it, but there are tons and tons of books out there, both for children and for adults, that talk about the "real" land of Oz. Everything from "Wicked" (both book and musical) to "The Wiz" to who knows what all. So why has nobody ever done the same thing with "Alice's Adventures In Wonderland"? There was a Disney Channel television show that vaguely touched on it, a nasty video game that reinterpreted it, countless pop songs and independent plays that work off of it, but never a children's book that gave us an alternate look into that world. Until now, that is. With glee I plucked Frank Beddor's book out of the hands of my colleagues and got down to reading it. Frank Beddor, a sometimes actor, sometimes stuntman, sometimes freestyle skier (this is all true), sometimes producer of "There's Something About Mary" has now decided to add "writer" to his resume. So how much should we expect from the fella who was John Cusack's skiing stunt double in "Better Off Dead"? As might be expected, not a heck of a whole lot. Beddor has a some interesting ideas, sure. I mean, the book's premise is a very strong one. And his writing is not, on the whole, bad. It just that Beddor hasn't a clue who his audience is or where he wants to go with this series. And it shows.

We're all familiar with the story of "Alice's Adventures In Wonderland". How the author Rev. Charles Dodgson (i.e. Lewis Carroll) was friends with Alice Lydell and conjured up a world of make-believe for her enjoyment. But what if it was the other way around? What if Alice had conjured up the world for Mr. Dodgson? And what if that world had not been an innocent place of joy and wordplay but rather a dangerous land from which she was an exiled queen? Princess Alyss Heart of Wonderland was having a perfectly lovely life when, at the age of seven, her parents were dethroned and her world turned upside down by Alyss's evil Queen Redd. Now Alyss and her bodyguard Hatter Madigan have been thrown into our world with no obvious return to their beloved Wonderland. In our world Alyss is made to believe that everything that happened before was just a dream. Yet in her absence rebellious groups are forming against Redd's new dictatorship and they just need one thing: Princess Alyss must come home and take her rightful place as queen.

Cute premise. But the book, for all that it invokes Wonderland, is actually far more interested in war, battles, and strategy than the more detailed aspects of the land. You get to see Wonderland in its purest state for a brief chapter or two before the book erupts and the chance to enjoy this familiar-but-not-familiar land is gone. In interviews Beddor has said that as a kid he saw Lewis Carroll's books as "a girl's book". Obviously he has attempted to rectify the situation. People who go into "The Looking Glass Wars" expecting Carroll's wit, whimsy, or ability to play with words are going to be sorely disappointed. Beddor isn't afraid to display his contempt for Carroll's original creation right from the start as well. In this book Charles Dodgson is a weak-willed wimp of a man who's more interested in creating light-hearted fantasy when cold bloody reality is what's needed. It's obvious that Beddor couldn't make a joke or a humorous scene if his life depended on it. The closest thing you get is a brief practical joke by Alyss at the beginning of the book on her (I kid you not) albino tutor. From there on it its all blood, guts, death, despair, and predictability.

Beddor also shows a shocking lack of inventiveness when it comes to names. He's perfectly good at creating creepy counterparts to Carroll's original characters, of course. Hatter Madigan is a security version of the Mad Hatter. Redd is the Red Queen. But where does everybody live in this book? Wondertropolis of course. I don't suppose it's much worse than Frank L. Baum naming one of his characters Ozma, but sheesh. Wondertropolis? Turning Alice into Alyss is a nice touch and all but the inclusion of animals called adorable things like "tuttle-birds" and "gwynooks" shows that what Beddor wants to pull off with this book is in direct opposition to the story he took it from. One wonders why he didn't just create a new book entirely from scratch rather than drag Carroll's creation into the mix and risk the wrath of the pro-Carroll multitudes. The fact that I picked up this book to begin with answers my question.

One of the other problems I had with the book involved little seven-year-old Alyss and her best-friend Dodge crushing on one another as kids. At one point the (and I will emphasize this once again) SEVEN-year-old child commands Dodge to dance with her. He does and we read this passage, "He put an arm around Alyss's waist and moved with her in gentle circles. He had never touched the princess before - not like this. She smelled of sweet earth and powder. It was a clean, delicate smell. Did all girls smell like this or only princesses?". I'm now going to remind you yet again that this is a TEN-year-old boy with a SEVEN-year-old girl. Ten-year-old boys, with very few exceptions, do not like girls. And if they do like girls, they certainly do not like seven-year-old girls. And if they do like seven-year-old girls (and here we're getting into tricky territory) then they certainly do not go all wobbly when they touch them. Can't help but get a little sickened by the above passage? Join the club. And apparently Alyss's crush as a seven-year-old lasts good and strong until she's twenty-years-old. Uh-huh.

NOT that the book isn't amusing at times. There's enough fighting in here to satiate even the most bloodthirsty of readers. Fans of Garth Nix or those kids who lament that J.R.R. Tolkien just wasn't gory enough may find a kindred spirit in Beddor. The thing is, he makes the very odd choice of allowing Alice to grow into a twenty-year-old hottie. This sort of makes any future installments in the proposed trilogy difficult. And if Beddor is trying to aim this at teen audiences then he's picked the wrong publisher. I did like that Beddor did his homework and included some factual information about the real Alice Liddell in between his own fantasy. In some ways his mixing of myth and this new reality is rather well done. I liked the use of the Pool of Tears and how Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee had becomes generals. But Beddor also spots his text with slang like, "Duh" and he obviously rips off the whole hero-sees-dead-parents-in-a-mirror idea from the first Harry Potter book. For every fun and original moment in this book there's forty problems on the next page. To top it all off, the minute that you hear that Alyss must go through the Looking Glass Maze to become a queen, you know exactly how the book is going to end. So much for the element of surprise.

Beddor has his finger in as many different pies as possible. He wants video games and graphic novels and roller coasters and who knows what-all to tie-in to his beloved new world. You can't blame the guy, but you also can't help but remember other darlings of the media who had similar dreams smashed in front of them (paging Clive Barker's, "Abarat"...). In Germany this book has been published for adults. In the UK it was published for 10-14 year-olds. Here it will be thrown at children. I can't possibly predict the kind of reception the book will get from kids. I suspect, however, that many will be bored or confused by it while others lap it up like it was cream. It's fine for what it is, but do not expect a great deal of creativity in its creation. It's just nothing to crow about.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Review of the Day: Brave Charlotte

And here we have yet another book that won the 2006 New York Times Best Illustrated Book Award. It's one of the more peculiar awards a book can win, and in this case it was obviously less than deserving.

The translated picture book is slowly getting more and more attention in America today. It used to be that you'd see a foreign translated title maybe once or twice in a year. Now, however, books from Germany and Italy and all kinds of places are getting more and more attention. Finland, however, has never had an American picture book hit. So when "Brave Charlotte" came out, it looked like the Fins had a sure thing going. A cute plot. Lovely little illustrations by a German illustrator. And it's all about an adorable sheep who just want to help others. What's not to like? Unfortunately the book just does not hang together very well. I'm not certain if it was the translation, the nature of the story, or the odd plot arc but for all it's charms, "Brave Charlotte" definitely comes off as less than satisfying. It's perfectly nice to look at and all. But I seriously question the New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year honor it received. Nice but definitely no wonder.

You have your normal everyday sheep, and then you have Charlotte. Right from the start she was different. When the other lambs stuck close to their mothers she would go bounding off in pursuit of adventure. When they would sleep at night she'd find a secret spot far away in the countryside where she could look at the moon. One day, the shepherd who tends the flock breaks his leg. The sheep don't know what to do and old Jack the border collie is too old to go get help. Who's it up to to save the day? Why none other than Charlotte, of course! Off she goes to get help. She fords streams, bounds over fields, hitchhikes on the highway, and finally finds a farmer who knows her and gets a doctor for the shepherd. Having proved herself, now all the sheep turn to Charlotte for guidance and protection. And Charlotte takes Jack the collie to her favorite spot.

I had some problems with the story, I have to admit. Some of these were definite translation mistakes. Translator Alyson Cole may know quite a lot about changing Finnish words into English, but she knows bupkiss about sheep. Jack the border collie is repeatedly referred to as a sheepdog. But sheepdogs are very different from collies. A sheepdog looks like a big while wooly sheep and protects the flock because it thinks it IS a sheep. Collies do the herding and the work moving about the sheep. There are other mistakes in the book as well, though. Part of the problem is the ending. The last image in the book is of Charlotte taking Jack off to see her secret spot. Jack is mentioned several times in the book by the other sheep as being old, but he never says a word himself. There isn't any contention or friendship shown between himself and Charlotte until that very last image. So why end the book with Charlotte sharing a secret when her newfound friendship with the dog is without any cause whatsoever? Then there's the problem with Charlotte's inclination towards dangerous situations. Stohner plays up Charlotte's adventurous nature, and that's all well and good at first. She climbs comically tall mountains. She climbs high trees for the fun of it. But then she starts doing dangerous things as well. She leaps, on purpose, into a "fast-running stream" for no apparent reason. Worse still, the sheep find her one day, "on the side of a dangerously busy road, staring at the oncoming traffic". She doesn't want to tell the other sheep what she's up to. Now, the other sheep are portrayed like overly timid busybodies. Then you have a youngster eyeing a busy road and their worries come off as interfering and persnickety. What a great lesson for the kids! Hey, children! Great news! If you want to cross that incredibly busy street or leap into some nearby rapids, feel free! Anyone who tells you to be careful or to watch yourself is probably just a wimp. Do what you feel instead! Sheesh. I don't usually care if a picture book has a lousy message, but I doubt very much that I'd be the only person to view this scene in the book with a slightly critical eye.

I mean, the illustrations are lovely, yes. Of course they are. Artist Henrike Wilson really does make Charlotte appear to be a very pleasant bundle of warm cuddly wool. She has a lovely little benign face that fits the story very nicely. But the fact is, I found the pictures in this bok to be far far nicer than the tale itself. So when it comes to nice sheep pictures, this book excels. When it comes to coherent sheep-centered plots, it's less than fabulous.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Lord of the Rings: The Musical!

The world of entertainment is just ah-buzzing with all kinds of kiddie lit info. Recently the Toronto Star lamented that the Lord of the Rings musical is critic proof. I hadn't heard a peep about this production until yesterday and I'm still in shock. Apparently it has a stage that turns ala Les Miserables but resembles a tree of sorts. A review from Forbes Magazine states that all three of the books have been combined into a 3 1/2 hour spectacle. The best part is that the producers insist that it's not a musical... and yet everyone bursts into song. No word on whether or not Gollum gets his own "I Want" song, but my fingers remain tightly crossed.

The name on everybody's lips is gonna be.... Beatrix

I know you all know about this already. Everyone seems to, but I'd feel like a bad bad children's literature blogger if I didn't mention it as well. As you no doubt know, a Beatrix Potter biopic is in the works. And who shall play the woman who gave us Peter Rabbit? None other than Rene Zellweger. A colleague mentioned to me that Rene's British accent is always top notch, so that's all right. But how are we to take Miss Potter, really? If you happen to get a chance to read The Wand In the Word: Conversations With Writers of Fantasy you'll discover that Diana Wynne Jones was terrorized by Ms. Potter when she was a child. And it's killing me but I have a very clear feeling that another children's writer was yelled at by Beatrix when they were a kid as well. I mentioned this to a colleague. I mean, it's a bit odd. He didn't know who the other author might have been but he pointed out that with England's small population and incredibly prolific number of authors, the odds of terrorizing a kid who will someday grow up to write are actually pretty good. Still, I doubt you'll be seeing THAT scene in the film.

Two takes on an (outdated? inspired?) business model

To offer books entirely in hardcover or to start them off in softcover. That is the question that NYT columnist Edward Wyatt brought up with his article about publishers starting to put out new authors in paperback rather than hardcover. Sounds great, right? I mean, it would be more affordable. Is there a downside? Well, the blogs have been kind enough to offer two beautifully conflicting opinions on the matter. bookshelves of doom is all for this new idea, except that she has a real problem with the fact that the books will be put out in "ragged-edge editions". In contrast my favorite blogging literary agent Miss Snark has an alternate response. When a reader posted his rant against hardcovers she had this to say:

"Yes, I push for hardcover editions cause it's good for library sales, and national reviews. Yes, I like trade paper originals to build genre writers. However, for literary fiction, I know my market is librarians who read LJ, Kirkus and PW and will buy a hardcover book, not a guy in Brooklyn thumbing through the inventory at Brownstone Books thinking 'do I want to buy this' no matter how nice he is".

True that. If I know librarians, and I think I do, they're going to buy the hardcover editions of the new books out there. Paperbacks aren't going to last on a library shelf for very long, and they certainly won't be remembered as well. The modern equivalents of the dime novel? You be the judge.

Review of the Day: Chato Goes Cruisin'

I have a fondness for Chato and Novio Boy that few picture books can touch. Their newest book? Faaaaaabulous!

Some picture book series get progressively less inspired as time goes on. Ian Falconer's, "Olivia" books do this. Ditto "Babar". It's just a common occurrence that people kind of come to expect. You would think that an author like Gary Soto would have used up all his creativity and ideas in the "Chato" series with "Chato's Kitchen" and "Chato and the Party Animals". In much the same way, Susan Guevara's illustrations should, logic dictates, become less entrancing and pleasant to the eye as she brings Chato's world to brilliant life. Yet here I am staring at "Chato Goes Cruisin'" and I can't for the life of me figure out how Soto and Guevara managed to come up with yet another remarkably fresh escapade in the lives of my favorite barrio boys, Chato and Novio Boy. I can't figure it out, but somehow it happened. We should be this lucky with every series.

There are distinct advantages that come with eating your cereal every morning. In Chato's case, the advantage is that he now has a chance to enter and win a free cruise for himself and a friend. He enters, wins, and before you know it he and his best friend Novio Boy are off for a vacation of pure relaxation. In theory. The truth of the matter is, when they get to the docks they find a cruise ship occupied entirely by dogs. Well behaved party dogs but dogs just the same. There are dog snacks, dog games, dog videos in the library, and a heckuva lot of howling at the moon. Soon enough, however, the dogs become ill and it's up to our intrepid duo to save the day. But when their rescue boat meets up with the REAL cat cruise, will they keep their promise to the canines or join a far more alluring ride?

Once again, Soto gives this book just the right mix of Spanish terms sprinkled alongside English ones. At the same time, Chato and Novio Boy use phrases that sound natural and completely appropriate for the situations they find themselves in. When Chato goes to the library to watch some movies and find only flicks with titles like, "Great Dog Rescues", Chato's reaction is a heartfelt, "Man, this is sorry". The plot makes sense, comes out all right, and the last image of the two slowly cruising in their beautiful car (with the license plate "Vato Gato") brings the whole thing home.

And Susan Guevera just gets more and more creative with every Chato book she illustrates. I liked "Chato's Kitchen" okay when it first came out, but her style at that time struck me as too loose and insubstantial. It began to tighten with "Chato and the Party Animals" and finally here with "Chato Goes Cruisin'" she's hit her peak. She's grown so comfortable with her art that she's willing to shake it up a bit for the sake of amusement. So you have the usual Chato kookiness, but also some very cool black and white comic strips on the bottom of some of the pages to give you a little insight into Chato and Novio Boy's heads. There are also countless amusing details all over this book just waiting for you to find them. When the dogs greet them at the dock, for example, the comic strip on the page shows a flag pointing to their dock with a dog head, and another flag with a cat head pointed in the opposite direction. When our heroes can't sleep for all the howling, they might have been cheered had they known that a cut-away of the boat shows a pack of very busy mice toiling relentlessly in the kitchen. Yum. Then there are the details that I think make it work the best. Novio Boy retains his title as the sexiest cat in children's literature (check out the shot of him lifting weights). And both he and Chato sport some mighty fine facial hair, making them the only felines I can think of to sport goatees and `staches in picture book fare.

Hard to object to anything in this book, really. If you enjoyed the first two installments in Chato's adventures then the best thing I can say about, "Chato Goes Cruisin'" is that it does its predecessors proud. Funny, filled with great slang in English and Spanish alike, and just a rousing adventure, it's the best of the "Chato" lot and a fine fine purchase.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Deconstructing Nancy

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my distinct pleasure to present to you the Lost Outlines of Nancy Drew. No no, there's no need to thank me. Just doing my job. I just need someone to confirm or deny the existence of "Togo the Wonder Dog". My Drew-skills ain't what they once was.

And to think I wanted to move there

What is the world coming to when even Canadian school boards start banning books willy nilly? You may all have heard how Deborah Ellis's book Three Wishes got a lot of heat when schoolchildren started reading it. Now she responds to CBC Arts about the recent ban. This is all thanks to a whole lot of heat from the Canadian Jewish Congress. Gosh, thanks guys.

The wolves break through the fourth wall

Just when I was getting used to the idea of Brundibar and Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus having their own musicals, who else should join in the club but none other than Neil Gaiman's The Wolves In the Walls. Looks like he's having a lot of fun with it. I would certainly not mind a ticket or two. Note my not-so-subtle hint to the Powers That Be.

.... and while I'm ripping off bookshelves of doom

Why not go whole hog and just start reprinting everything she's already said?
For example, I've very good news. It's always a thrill when your favorite authors start writing blogs of their own. How great is it then that Geoffrey Chaucer has decided to grace us with his very own? Favorite post thus far, "Gowere is Gettynge Realli Jealous Nowe".

The Blog Everyone's Talking About

Many thanks once again to the honorable bookshelves of doom for this little tidbit. Someday there may be a blog for every topic in the world. For now, however, it's wonderful to discover things like the fabulous BSC Headquarters. Those of you in the know will recognize what BSC stands for. Yes indeed, this is a woman who is reading every last Babysitter's Club book out there.

Today's Post:

Haiku for Little Pete

Jackie Rodowsky
He cannot help the messes
Walking disaster

March madness kiddie lit style

Look, I've been a huge proponent of children's literature ever since I got into the field lo these many three years now. I think it's great. I would probably have ventured to guess that many people agree with me too. But there's no evidence for how popular children's literature is until you witness for yourself the dreaded Donnell Central Children's RoomSpring Book Sale.

Here what just happened. I'm sitting at the Reference Desk minding my own business, the doors of the library open at 10, the elevator comes up to the second floor, and suddenly I see fifteen grown adults running hell for leather into the Story Hour Room where the books are being sold. Not meandering. Not looking about and taking a jolly stroll. Running as if the devil were behind them poking him with this sharp sharp stick. THAT kind of running.

I mean, I couldn't help it. I just started laughing. What on earth is going on? Well, the yearly book sale is an event in and of itself. I, having gotten a peek into the bookroom early, grabbed a copy of Dear Genius before anyone else could. Ha HA!

The downside to learning that there are adults out there wholly obsessed with this sale? Bored children. Kids, particularly smaller kids, couldn't care less about old books for sale. So I'm basically babysitting two or three of the little buggers as their parents paw through countless crusty volumes of God knows what-all.

Anywho, if you happen to be living in New York and you want some amazing deals on out-of-print children's literature titles, come on down. It's going on today and tomorrow (Saturday) and it's a truly amazing event to witness. I just hope I don't have to break apart any knife fights. You know how parents get...

Review of the Day: Henry and Mudge and the Great Grandpas

I'm more of a Mr. Putter and Tabby woman myself, but when early reader series books start lugging home awards, that's when I sit up and take notice.

As a general rule, you do not expect the 26th book in a series for early readers to garner for itself that many awards. I mean, you just don't. In the world of adult, teen, and older children's fiction, any book series that reaches #26 is going to start showing some wear and tear at that point. As for awards, books for early readers don't get that many. They don't! It really wasn't until just last year that the American Library Association decided to FINALLY get about awarding books for kids who are just beginning to read on their own. Called, appropriately enough, the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award, there was one absolute hands down winner this year and three good-natured runners-up. The winner? None other than book number 26 in the Henry and Mudge series, "Henry and Mudge and the Great Grandpas". Color me amazed. I'd read some of the H&M tales back in the day. They were nice but never particularly amazing to me. I mean, Cynthia Rylant has produced more series books for young readers than any other writer living. What made "Great Grandpas" so fabulous? Reading it through now, I still think that "A Splendid Friend, Indeed", deserved the top honor but there's no denying that "Great Grandpas" has a kind of charm that's difficult to resist.

You may not know it, but Henry's Great-Grandpa Bill lives not too far from our heroes Henry (boy) and Mudge (dog). He lives in a beautiful house with a bunch of old men, much like himself, and every once in a while Henry's family visits them. They play games and bring the house of Grandpas butterscotch, and books, and crossword puzzles. As you can imagine, they are very popular. One day, as his parents and the Grandpas stay indoors, Henry and Mudge discover a beautiful pond behind the house. Immediately the two return to the house and invite everyone out for some fine swimming. This is done, in lieu of bathing suits, in what the Grandpas call their "skivvies". Mom, as you might imagine, quite sensibly opts this one out. Then everyone comes home to spaghetti and meatballs and some fine fine sitting in rocking chairs on the porch at night.

I once worked in a library that had a young boy who attended a school for autistic children. He didn't care for much on my shelves, but the one series that earned his love and always had him coming back for more was "Henry and Mudge". The kid couldn't get enough of the books. I don't know if it was the doggish aspects of the story, the simplicity of the art, or the comfortable feeling a person gets from reading one of their adventures, but this boy was Mudge-crazy. In this particular outing, Rylant offers some gentle repetition that works in tandem with the plot. The Grandpas, for all their charms, tire easily. Often Mudge acts as a kind of support or pillow for those Grandpas. And the old fellow resting on the faithful dog is never the same Grandpa twice. Nice that. Together Rylant and illustrator Sucie Stevenson have conjured up a retirement home that all of us would be lucky to end up in. Beautiful scenery. Woods. Rocking chairs. Croquet. Heck, I'm in my twenties and I'm half tempted to find this house and settle down for the rest of my golden years. Who wouldn't want to? It sounds delish.

The plot is sweet and offers enough new and familiar words to help child readers everywhere. Especial kudos also to Rylant for making it very clear that Henry is not allowed to swim all by himself without a grown-up present. Aside from the "Gus and Grandpa" series by Claudia Mills, I don't think anyone's going to find a better early reader book for grandparents and kids to read together with as much mutual satisfaction. The book bears more than a passing resemblance to Mem Fox's classic, "Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge", of course. In both books a young boy befriends an old folks home full of caring elderly adults. A comparison between the two isn't exactly fair, though. "Wilfrid" has layers and layers of depth and beauty to it, while "Great Grandpas" is just a wonderful romp with wonderful companions. All in all, this is just a great addition to an already strong series and one that more and more adults are coming to discover. Fun and fine and frolicsome.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Trend Spotter

I'm like a children's literature Dmitri Martin or something! That's a Daily Show reference, by the way.

So I pick up my latest issue of School Library Journal and I come to an article entitled Script Novels: Are they a flash in the literary pan or an emerging genre. I love emerging genres. So I read the article and find that a "script novel" is a book that, "incorcoprates techniques of playwriting, screenwriting, or some kind of performance art such as poetry or monologue". Apparently this is the hot new thing. I read Replay when it came out and enjoyed Day of Tears (insofar as a person can enjoy Day of Tears). Trends don't really make themselves apparent until you get frantic parents grabbing you by the lapels demanding the books in question, though. And I had one such parent just the other day. She was doing plays with her children and though she was vaguely interested in the periodical Plays what she really wanted was fiction. I managed to remember the aforementioned Replay, completely blanked on Day of Tears, and thought about recommending Return to Gill Park until I rememberd that author Amy Gordon was apparently NOT in on this new trend. So she has a book where kids are in a play, but you never get to read any of the script. Whatta waste.

So here tis. The newest trend on the market today. Scriptastic.

Review of the Day: The Book of Everything

I don't think I showed you this book yet. I reviewed it a little while ago, but it's so small and inconspicuous you'd hardly know it had even been published. For your consideration. That's the author on the right, by the way.

This year I am attempting to determines the best children's books of 2006. This is simultaneously lovely and heartbreaking. After all, who am I to say that one book is any better than another? Picking the best books means making a lot of tough decisions. Until now, however, I thought I was doing pretty well. Books could be perfectly separated into two categories: Good and Bad. The good books (like "The Loud Silence of Francine Green" and "The Palace of Laughter") do something different and will be enjoyed by child readers. Bad books (like "Emily Windsnap and the Monster From the Deep") are poorly written or uninteresting. Then I got to "The Book of Everything". I hold this book in my hand right now staring at its brilliant cover art, remembering its simple but deeply cutting wordplay, and I haven't a clue what to do with it. On the one hand, it's brilliant. An incredibly intelligent treatise on one boy's grasp of what he wants out of his life, his religion, and his abusive family situation. On the other hand I can't figure out if it's really a kid's book. Would children enjoy it? Wouldn't a teenager get so much more out of it? And if I approve of it, will I just be yet another children's librarian who bulldozes her own preferred books over the objections and cries of her child patrons? There is no doubt in my mind that Kuijer's book deserves all the accolades it receives. There is considerable doubt as to whether or not children will like it.

Thomas is not your average child. He's the kind of kid who sees tropical fish swimming in the canals of 1951 Amsterdam. Or frogs conglomerating on the streets outside his home. But Thomas is not happy. His father is an overbearing religious figure who aligns himself with the Old rather than the New Testament. He has no sense of humor and, worst of all, he hits Thomas's mother. When the boy befriends the neighborhood "witch", things start to look up. She lends him books. She knows what's going on in his family. And when he tells her that what he wants to be when he grows up is happy, she tells him, "And do you know how happiness begins? It begins with no longer being afraid". God may be dead to Thomas, his father reduced to a pitiful and pitiable old man, but happiness is something achievable when you've the support of women, friends, and children.

At the moment that Thomas is being spanked by his father with a wooden spoon and with every thwack comes to think that God is dead, well that sort of elevated the tale from average kiddie lit to something more. But is a book inappropriate for children simply because it twiddles with atheism and higher ideas? Of course not! I'm actually thinking aloud here. The book has plenty of scenes that kids will find interesting. Thomas's visions. The description of his witchy neighbor. The magical realism of the story and the defeat of a villain who turns out to simply be a coward. There's even a contemplation at the end of what cowardice can lead a person to. How it keeps a human being away from happiness. "The Book of Everything" is remarkable simply because it can be equally considered by both children and adults and offer in-depth thoughts and conjectures for people of every age. What books can you think of that do the same?

By the way, I officially declare 2006 to be the year of children's book set in the early 1950s. First I read Karen Cushman's fabulous, fun, and breathtaking, "The Loud Silence of Francine Green". Then I read Jennifer L. Holm's, "Penny From Heaven". Now I've read Guus Kuijer's, "The Book of Everything". In this book and "Francine Green" our child hero deals with religious questions and the oppressive political atmosphere pervasive after World War II. Of course, in "Francine Green" the hero was dealing with the politics of the time and giving some slight thought to religion. In "The Book of Everything", Kuijer's hero is dealing with his own religious understanding of the world and giving some slight thought to politics. Still, both books had frighteningly similar vapid older teenaged sisters, though "The Book of Everything"'s Margot shows an eventual and singular depth. And while I'm at it, what is it with Dutch children's books this year? First Scholastic decides Guus Kuijer is their wonder boy and then Holiday House comes out with Sjoerd Kuyper's, "The Swan's Child" (which is "The Little Prince" of the Netherlands). The Dutch are hot property at the moment, and their exceedingly intelligent children's books are just the proof in the pudding. And then there's the whole religious aspect to this book. Once Thomas starts having conversations with Jesus I had a distinct feeling of déjà vu. It finally hit me. Not too long ago another foreign import (this time from Great Britain) came to America called "Millions" by Frank Cottrell Boyce. In that book a young boy, about Thomas's age and personality, had constant conversations with saints. Thomas's own conversations with Jesus are quite similar in tone.

In the end I'm going to have to say that just because a book is written with depth, intelligence, and pluck, that is no reason to punish it. After all, there's plenty of story and information here that kids will find interesting to read about. It's a slim little novel, really, and doesn't take long to get through. And the story and characters will prove interesting to young readers. The ideas in the story may sail over young heads and the nature of Thomas's internal dilemma may take many repeated readings, but it's a remarkable little story and well worth a look-see. After much consideration, I recommend "The Book of Everything" to any child with more than a drop of measured thought swirling about in their heads.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

You can insult my name, you can insult my people....


*pant pant pant pant pant*

A new project of New York City Indymedia, IndyKids, has been censored by two area library systems. After agreeing to distribute IndyKids to their local branches, both the New York Public Library and the Queens Public Library changed their minds and now refuse to distribute the paper. They say the reason for their decision is that IndyKids is not “balanced.”

Yet a look at the periodicals offered at the Donnell Children’s Library shows a striking bias. For example, “Biography Today-Profiles of People of Interest to Young Readers” September 2005 issue calls Pope John Paul II “the charismatic ‘people’s pope’ who helped topple Communism while championing Catholic values and a culture of peace.”

So here's the thing. Remember when I said I didn't feel comfortable discussing this subject because it has to do with my job and I happen to like my job? Well I'm still not discussing anything. But if you happen to look at that School Library Journal blog there are some good comments.

Ten Graces For New Librarians

Seems we could all do with a little more culture in our lives, yes no?
Now since Ms. GraceAnne DeCandido is one of those figures in the world of children's literature that EVERYBODY should know (and she has very cool frames for her glasses), I figured I'd offer unto you her commencement address to the School of Information Science and Policy, SUNY/Albany. This baby has made the rounds from Walla Walla to Kalamazoo (me hometown). If you are already a librarian or are thinking of joining this most noble of professions (we get graduate degrees and everything!) please do not hesitate to give this puppy a look-see. Required reading for all intelligent souls.

Hot Men of Children's Literature, Part 6 in a series

Got a real treat for you guys today. I've been talking up his book Looking For Alaska, as you all know, but I hadn't actually gotten around to the man behind the Printz Honor.


As you can see, he's young as all get out. He's also featured in this picture with his very nice fiancee, so I'm sorry ladies. This one's taken. All the same, a delight. And in a bit of breaking news, I just discovered from GraceAnne DeCandido (more on her later) that he was an absolute peach back at Booklist where he worked when he was young(er). By the way, sorry the photo's so off-hand. He has a more professional one out there, but this is the one I prefer.

Review of the Day: The Patchwork Quilt

Got an oldie but a goodie for you kids today. Since the Ezra Jack Keats judging will be taking place next week, I felt it appropriate to review the very first recipient of the award. That would be this book. I remember it as a Reading Rainbow title, personally, but I'm sure there are others with different associations.

The other day a teacher came into the library where I work and explained to me that she was doing a unit with her kids on quilting. She already had some non-fiction titles on the subject, but what she really wanted was picture books that talked about the craft. Immediately I thought of "Show Way" by Jacqueline Woodson, "Goha the Wise Fool", by Denys Johnson-Davies (a quilted picture book), "Oma's Quilt" by Paulette Bourgeois, "Tar Beach" by Faith Ringgold (another quilted picture book), and "Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt" by Deborah Hopkinson. But even before any of these book jumped to my mind, before I'd even stopped to consider a one of them, there was a book that I thought of first. "The Patchwork Quilt" by Valerie Flournoy is (I would dare say) the best-known quilting picture book of them all. A winner of the Coretta Scott King Award and the very first winner of the prestigious Ezra Jack Keats Books Award, this 1985 production and Reading Rainbow Book has remained a classic well past the time when most book lie on shelves forgotten.

Grandma has an idea. When she was a little girl her own mother made her a beautiful patchwork quilt. Now Tanya, her granddaughter, is showing some interest in Grandma's quilting. Therefore, she's going to make a quilt of her own. A "masterpiece" is what it's going to be. So when any family member has a special outfit made or has to get rid of a beloved set of pants, Grandma's always there, handy with the scissors. Slowly everyone in the family gets his or herself added to the quilt, until one day Grandma gets sick. There her quilt sits on the back of her old chair, gathering dust. Fortunately, Tanya knows she can take charge. Her mother agrees to do the sewing and Tanya cuts fabric. Even her brothers get in on the act. Soon enough Grandma is well again, the quilt is finished, and everyone is now a part of it.

Flournoy has written a book that has a great deal of dignity to it. The words are not necessarily easy ones, but they come off as natural when written on the page. Flournoy sets up emotional plot points, like Tanya's mother coming to accept why the quilt is really important. Grandma's recovery, I should point out, isn't presented as something miraculous or out of place. It works within the framework of the narrative. There's really only one moment in the plot that gave me pause. When Tanya starts working on the quilt herself, she feels that there's a piece that's definitely missing. She ponders and ponders this until finally she realizes what that piece might be. Grandma. Grandma is missing from the quilt. So while Grandma is asleep Tanya sneaks into her room, goes to the old patchwork quilt under which her grandmother sleeps, and then proceeds to cut it up without asking anyone for permission. I don't know about you, but if I woke up and found that my quilt had been lovingly vandalized in this way I might get a little bit tetchy. Tanya never gets in trouble for it since her motives were pure. Still, it's an odd little addition. I mean, couldn't she at least have asked permission?

Jerry Pinkey, artist extraordinaire, was the man responsible for the illustrations. I'm not a huge fan of his work, but he does a lovely job with this book. The quilt looks very real. My grandmother made me one back that was very similar to the one presented on the cover. I'll admit right here and now that since this book was written in 1985, it's swimming in nostalgia for me. I love the 80s hair and clothes that people wear in it. From Grandma's gigantic glasses to Mama's shirt/vest combinations and shoulder pads, children of the eightiese will find themselves swimming in memories. Remember polo shirts that had collars that were different colors from the fabric of the shirt themselves? Remember shirts that had ruffles for no particular reason at all? It's all here. But for kids, this won't serve as a distraction since they won't recognize the era. Plus, Pinkney cleverly included some dated elements, but not a lot. If I didn't point out to you that it was written over 20 years ago, you might never notice it yourself.

The children who grew up with this book are having kids of their own these days. I dare say that for some, "The Patchwork Quilt" will be the first title they purchase for their children and the children of their friends. Arresting and emotional without playing those same emotions for cheap, Florunoy's book is her best known work. If you should be particularly fond of it, be sure to check out its sequel, "Tanya's Reunion", written ten years later. A necessary read.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

It's getting hot in here...

Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that so many charming souls would read my little blog 'o bites as regularly as you clever poppins have. Ah, sweet fame. Why just today I discovered that the link I once made to a Washington Post article means that now that same article includes Fuse #8 under a section called Who's Blogging?. This is swell, of course, but it places me in a difficult position. I've never been anything but honest about my dear sweet employer NYPL. However, if I'm getting more attention then eventually the powers that be are going to notice. And if the powers that be notice, they may be less than pleased. And if the powers that be are less than pleased then I may be getting a little phone call about dear Fuse #8 and I have a fear of the phone.

Now today I discovered that a nasty mean-spirited publication is denigrating NYPL and I have facts at my disposal with which to pummel this mean-spirited publication into a finely ground powder. But since I GOT my inside information as an... um... insider, I can't go about spouting it to the wind, now can I?

So today I put a teensy caveat in my profile making it very very clear that my opinions are entirely my own. I am not an NYPL spokesperson (thank heavens) and I'm operating this little blog on my own time with my own ribald wit and wisdom. Still... I wish I could tell you about the aforementioned publication. Ooooooh it's a doozy!!!!

Review of the Day: Nicholas

Today I take you away to sunny France. Land of fries. I saw this book round about a year ago, but I hadn't actually gotten around to checking it out until now. It's a lovely little thing and just about one of the most pleasant stories I've had a chance to peruse in a while.

If you know Anthea Bell, you know her for one reason. She's the woman who translates almost all of Cornelia Funke's children's fiction. If you know the artist Sempe you also probably know him for one reason. He does those delightful little covers for the New Yorker that strike everyone as utterly sublime. And if you know Rene Goscinny then you are probably French. There is no other explanation for it. Even though Mssr. Goscinny created "Asterix", has won multiple awards for his cartoons, and became (according to his bio anyway) "an internationally successful children's author", he's not exactly common knowledge here in America. In fact, if you were to stop your average joe on the street and do a little free association with the words, "French children's books" you're going to get two kinds of answers. They're either going to say, "Little Prince" and start reminiscing about 9th grade French class, or they're going to say, "Tintin" and then rush to the nearest bookstore to read them. It's not Goscinny's fault. He was never properly introduced to American children before. Now all that has changed and it's thanks to, of all publishers, Phaidon. Yes, the company that usually prefers to publish glossy glorious art collections with titles like, "The Photography Book", has now dipped its toe into the murky waters of children's literature. With translations, however, they're fairly safe. "Nicholas", originally published in 1959, remains a uniquely droll little series of small boyhood adventures.

Nicholas attends an all boy's school somewhere in France. Where he lives is not especially important. What is important is that he and his friends often have ripping good times, much to the dismay of a variety of authority figures. As the book goes on, you come to know certain characters particularly well. There is the teacher's pet, Cuthbert, of whom we are told multiple times, "Cuthbert wears glasses so we can't pound him as much as we'd like to". There is Eddie, who would love to do the bulk of the hitting, and Alec who is always eating. Geoffrey has a father who is rich and who buys his son all kinds of expensive costumes and Rufus has a dad who's a policeman. Then there's Nicholas himself. He's just your average kid, sometimes running away from home, sometimes playing hooky, and sometimes driving his poor mom insane when he stays home sick from school. Collected as a little book of nineteen different stories and illustrated with aplomb by the irresistible Sempe, the book is both beautiful and incredibly funny. It's one of those titles that would make for wonderful reading aloud, whether to a class of rapscallions equal to Nicholas's crew, or one-on-one with a child before they go to sleep.

The nice thing about the book is the way in which it conveys ridiculous and downright insane occurrences with as understated a manner as possible. There are countless fights between thirty+ boys, usually ending with Nicholas saying something along the lines of, "and we were having a really fabulous time!". Sometimes, however, the jokes are so sublime you could miss them if you weren't paying close attention. When Nicholas wants to buy his mom some flowers for her birthday, "I took all the money out of my piggy bank and luckily there was a lot because quite by chance Mom had given me some the day before". Another great moment comes when Nicholas's parents promise that if he comes in the top ten in the math test he'll get a bike. He does, "because there were only eleven of us doing the test, all the rest of the class was away with colds, and the eleventh was Matthew who always comes last anyway, but it didn't matter for him because he's got a bike already". Goscinny has a penchant for run-on sentences, as you can see. Credit Anthea Bell's translation, then. She conveys both the subtle humor of the book as well as the author's long, rambling, but ultimately satistifying sentence construction. After you read the stories through, you even begin to pick out little patterns here and there. It seems to me that Rufus is excellent at getting all his friends in trouble, but he rarely gets caught himself. And Eddie may hit other kids a lot, but his home life doesn't sound too keen.

How much of this book owes its popularity to Sempe, I have to wonder. Certainly the illustrator's work gives "Nicholas" just the right kind of levity. If you've never had a chance to see a work by Sempe, this book will come as an unexpected treat. Using the thinnest of pen lines and the occasional inkwash, each picture is a misleadingly simple and loving work.

Written in 1960, one goes through the book in fear that "Nicholas" will contain moments unpleasant to our contemporary ears. "Tintin", after all, doesn't come off especially well these days. But except for the odd reference to Indians and kids getting slapped by their parents, "Nicholas" holds up pretty well. Some parents may be shocked at how often the kids in this book fight at just the slightest of provocations. It's worthwhile to note though that not a single kid ever seems to get injured in the process. There are plenty of punches and kicks, but you get the general impression that very few of these actually connect. Some people would moan that there are very few girls in this book. Be that as it may, the one girl who does show up (Louise) faces down Nicholas on his own turf and beats him time and again in playing with his airplane or soccer. Does he get mad at her? Not a bit of it! When Louise manages to kick a soccer ball through the garage window he doesn't get any supper that night, "but I didn't mind. Louise is great! We'll get married when we're grown up. She kicks a really fantastic goal!".

It's nice to find a new children's classic. Something that will really inspire great love over the years. And with Phaidon giving it packaging that's bound to last for years and years, "Nicholas" shall be appreciated for generations. A great book, a great combination of artistic talents, and a wonderful find.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Best-selling children's books of ALL TIME!

Good old Publisher's Weekly has been kind enough to produce a list of what it considers to be the best-selling books for the kiddies of ALL TIME!!! (the emphasis is my own). It's separated them into two different categories for your convenience. First you have the hardcover and then you've the paperbacks.

Now I want you all to take good long looks at these lists. Do you happen to notice any oddities in them? For me, the first indication that this wasn't your average Top 100 List when was I saw number 3 on the hardcovers. It's Toodle by a Gertrude Crampton. Now until this moment in time I had somehow managed to tuck Toodle far far back into the recesses of my memory. Now, however, it's come spilling out full force. Oh yes! Toodle! How could I have forgotten it! What really hits home after reading these lists is how frighteningly profitable the Little Golden Books turned out to be. That must mean there's some heir to the Little Golden Book fortune out there somewhere. I wonder how he introduces himself at parties...

No matter. The paperback section is just as full of surprises. Number 9 is Shane by Jack Schaefer. Shane?!? Everybody raise your hand if you were ever assigned Shane in elementary school. Anybody? Anyone? And was Mercer Mayer always this popular or have I just been blind?

All in all, the lists make for a fascinating look into what people are REALLY buying and not just what they say they are. And I guess they're all buying Shane. Go figure.

Do we even do polls of this sort in America?

Just found a post from the British Telegraph that say that one in three children do not get a bedtime story read to them at night in the UK. One shudders when wondering what kind of stats you might end up with in the good old U.S. of A., no? Not read your kid a book before bed? Why not? I can understand it if you have to work awful hours or two jobs and are never around when your kid goes to bed, but could such cases account for the whopping statistic of one in three? Scary stuff, my friends.

Ode to a fellow in my field

Snarky blogs got nuthin' on bookshelves of doom. This week our favorite blog away from blog looks at some particularly striking inanities. I quote to you a line that Ms. Roy plucked from a recent article regarding the Wilsona School District School Board.
Kunkel said the board wants books that "build character by looking at the bright side and are anti-witchcraft and anti-criminality."

Please check out Ms. Roy's reaction to such a statement.

When Raffi just doesn't do it for you anymore

Otherwise known as Shameless Co-Worker Promotion 2: Now It's Personal or something to that effect.

My co-worker, the talented Mr. Truitt, would like me to mention that if any of you guys happen to have a deep and abiding love for a particular children's cd or album you should let him know. Just go to Kids Music That Rocks, view his complete profile, and send him an e-mail of those cds that saved your sanity/life. He'll check 'em all out.

Pondering the potential scarring of children

There was recently a post on Child_Lit (can you tell that I'm catching up on my reading today?) that brought up a point that I, for one, have always wondered. A person on the site wondered if children's would be permanently scarred for life by authors like Edward Gorey. The debate, as far as I have read it, has remained civil but one person thought to drop this particular note:

When people mention this permanent scarring (as they frequently do, and not only in relation to Gorey), do they ever provide any evidence, I wonder? That there is an association between reading certain books and long-term mental damage is a frequently-heard empirical claim that ought, in theory, to be as susceptible to proof or disproof as the association - causal link, yet! - between smoking and lung cancer. Has anyone ever succeeded, or even tried, to prove it with any degree of rigour - or does it remain in the unscholarly realm of the gut reaction?

It seems to me that this question lies at the root of the censorship debate. If children aren't just disturbed by something they read but BRANDED FOR LIFE BY THE HORROR OF A WORK OF LITERATURE then where's the evidence? Have any of you memories of reading something disturbing as a child and, aside from the odd nightmare, think your lives could have been so much better if you had never dared to pick up that dreadful book? Honestly, I wonder.

Golden Compass casting call

If you happen to know a British girl or two who happens to want to be the next Harry Potter (fame-wise anyway), check out this posting I found from the Chil_Lit listserv:
BBC has posted details of a UK casting call for the role of Lyra Belacqua in director Anand Tucker's The Golden Compass at New Line Cinema. The film is based on the first book in the "His Dark Materials" trilogy and will be titled "Northern Lights" in the UK.

Auditions for the role will take place in Cambridge, Oxford, Kendal and Exeter during the first two weeks of April.

The film's casting directors are said to be looking for a girl aged between nine and 13 who need not have any previous acting experience.

Applicants are being asked to come accompanied by a parent or guardian, dressed warmly - without costumes or make-up - and be prepared for a lengthy wait.

Film-makers have said they are looking for a girl "who embodies Lyra's loyalty, bravery and mischievous nature".

The casting calls will have open queues from 1000-1200GMT and will end at 1700GMT.

The exact locations are Cambridge's Corn Exchange (4 April), Kendal's Castle Green Hotel (6 April), Oxford's Examination Schools (11 April), and Exeter's Great Hall at the University of Exeter (13 April).

The Golden Compass revolves around a Lyra Belacqua who travels to the far north to save her best friend. Along the way she encounters shape-shifting creatures, witches, and a variety of otherworldly characters in parallel universes.

So I guess they have a script. Those of us who remember that Tom Stoppard was fired off the project will remember that the new script-boy Chris Weitz is currently best known for the American Pie films.
I know.