Fuse #8

Monday, April 30, 2007

Review of the Day: The Baptism

The Baptism by Sheila P. Moses. A Margaret K. McElderry Book (imprint of Simon & Schuster). $15.99.

I have a love/hate relationship with the books of Sheila Moses. No. Wait. Let me correct that. More of a love/severe dislike relationship. Which is to say that when she wrote, “The Legend of Buddy Bush,” I loved it. Anachronistic yellow telephone and all. But then she followed it up with “The Return of Buddy Bush,” and I didn’t like where she’d taken the novel. In both of those books a Ms. Pattie Mae is the protagonist, telling the tale of her Uncle Buddy’s trials (both literal and figurative). By the end of “Return”, though, I found I seriously didn’t like my narrator anymore. She did not appeal. But remembering how much I liked “Legend”, when I picked up the third in Moses’s series, I had high hopes. Hopes that were never disappointed. In “The Baptism” we have ourselves an entirely new narrator, a new set of circumstances, and a great little story that deserves a lot more serious attention than it has so far received.

“I figure I have six days to sin all I want to. Luke got six days too, if he will go along with the plan.” Twin Leon knows the drill. You turn twelve and suddenly you’re expected to give up all the fun stuff that goes along with being a kid. Part of that? Getting baptized and sinning no more. Well he knows the deal and he knows he doesn’t want any part of it. Sure, it’s his Ma’s intention to get him on the “morning bench” where he’ll be accepted and baptized, but that doesn’t fit in with Leon’s plans. Plus he has a lot to deal with these days. His older brother (who he’s dubbed “Joe Nasty”) is a sneak who doesn’t do any work. His stepfather (“Filthy Frank”) is a no good cheat and gambler. His twin brother Luke (“Twin Luke”) is some kind of Mr. Perfect. And his mom is constantly on his case about being good this week and not sinning. In the course of eight days, Leon will get into trouble, fight the elements, escape from work, get pulled away from fun, and witness the breaking apart and coming together of his remarkably strong family. Set in rural North Carolina during the 1940s, this novel explores big themes with a small intricate little novel.

If there’s one thing Sheila Moses does well it’s write characters with minds entirely of their own. The kids in her books are so headstrong and smart that it’s a wonder that even their author is able to wrangle them into place from scene to scene. In Twin Leon you have such a great kid. Anyone who can say right at the start that if baptizing means not sinning then they just won’t get baptized is going to be fun to watch. But when Leon catalogs his sins you can see that they aren’t all lighthearted Dennis-the-Menace-type romps. He lies, and steals extra cookies, and beats up kids cause they’re white, and calls his older brother Joe Nasty because he doesn’t bathe regularly. Moses slips in the serious with the silly so skillfully you might miss it if you blinked. At the same time, she asks big questions couched in the mind of a twelve-year-old boy.

Leon’s slow change over the course of a week from unapologetic sinner to baptismal hopeful happens over a brief span of time but never feels false or hurried. Really, it’s amazing that Moses is able to pack in as much as she does. There’s Leon’s story regarding the baptism, and his various pranks and problems. Then there’s the story of Buddy Bush on the side. There’s also the story of Leon’s mom and her husband Filthy Frank and how she has to stand up to her abusive new husband. And THEN there’s a story in there regarding the family and how they’re not too distantly related to a local white family because of their long dead patriarch’s philandering during slave times. All this and the story is fast-paced, punchy, and consistently engaging.

It’s a shorter book than its predecessors. Standing at a mere slip of 144 pages, it’s amazing that Moses is able to pack in as much thoughtful commentary as she has. It’s an exercise in watching an author get right to the heart of a concept without extra frills and furbelows. That isn’t to say that she doesn’t punch up the language in all the right parts. Twin Luke, the kiss-up, sometimes agrees with his mom, “like he was going to eat the shoes right off her feet.” The sun coming out behind the rain is what happens when “the devil is beating his wife.” Older brother Joe Nasty hearing about the crimes of his stepfather gets angry and, “All the man in Joe Nasty just rise up like the water down in the river right after a big rain.” And Twin Leon is prone to saying things that just sound good when you read them aloud. “She know that God know I don’t want to get baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and nobody else. I just want to go home and shoot marbles.”

Now Ms. Moses hasn’t entirely grasped the concept of the stand alone novel yet. As such, she’s placed this book in a kind of award jeopardy by including an ending that, not to give anything away, places undue importance on the books that preceded “The Baptism”. This book does hearken back to the other “Buddy Bush” books she’s written, but for the most part you really don’t need to have read them to enjoy this story. Unfortunately, the last moment in the book falls a bit flat. It doesn’t ruin the story or anything, but it’s a distracting coda in an otherwise forthright novel.

Altogether, this is a keeper. Some people might try to convince you that due to some of the serious themes that come up, this is a young adult novel. Personally, I do not agree. It’s got all the kid-appeal and excitement an eight to twelve-year-old would want, but is also packed full of thoughts and ideas that make it perfect for book discussion. A great addition and quite possibly Moses’s best work yet.

Notes on the Cover: All right. So normally I don’t like it when someone sepia-tones a cover image just for the sake of sepia. But Debra Sfetsios did a really stand-up job with this puppy. First of all, it isn’t really sepia. Not really. More golden than brown, the image has all the faux fading/wear and tear of a photograph, but with a kind of interior light. The church on the left and the people being baptized on the right frame an image of Leon. He himself is the source of the picture’s glow and just LOOK at this kid. You could not have picked a better Leon. He’s the right age, he’s handsome, and the expression his face is absolutely pitch-perfect. I’m going to nominate this book for a potential Best Cover of the Year Award, because it manages to balance the publishing industry’s current yen for photographic jackets with something faithful to the text that ALSO happens to be beautiful.

Also Reviewed By: Brooke of The Brookeshelf. It's a good micro-review and it offers an alternate take on the book's accessibility.

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We're Too Damn Nice?

Librarians, as a whole, have many charms. But apparently indulging in a serious form of discourse online isn't one of them.
... one thing I greatly admire about my librarian colleagues is how vastly open minded a group they are. They are widely accepting of new ideas, and welcome into the discussion anyone who is willing to share their thoughts. But perhaps we have become too welcoming, too complacent to remember that we share a responsibility to take our profession forward through intellectual discourse.
A wise piece. Author Steven Bell talks about our reluctance to seriously discuss both sides of a given issue online. He cites as an example Michael Gorman's 2005 criticism of bloggers and how no one had the wherewithal/guts to take the man's side. This, in turn, reminded me of the very beginnings of the LM_Net scrotum kerfuffle when the librarians on that particular listserv spoke against the Newbery Award winning book and very few were inclined to take a pro-Higher Power of Lucky viewpoint. Publisher's Weekly saw the dissent and the lack of defense and reported accordingly. Not a perfect analogy, but similar enough I think.

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I Love That the Edgar Statue Sports a Donald Duck Neckerchief

How many middle grade mysteries have you read this year?

I've read one. Uno. Less than two and more than zero. So my question to you is this: Mysteries sell really really well sometimes, yes? Chasing Vermeer, for example, made its money back and it wasn't even that great of a mystery. And sure, the first Enola Holmes book didn't get the attention it so surely deserved, but by and large I get a ton of kids coming into my branch asking for mysteries. And nine times out of ten I have to point them in the direction of the series books because middle grade mysteries are few and far between. Why is this? Are they hard to write? Are publishers just blind to this trend? What gives?

All this is to say that the Edgar Awards were announced last week. And for the young 'uns, two wins.

YA Winner:
Buried by Robin Merrow MacCready

Juvenile Winner:
Room One: a mystery or two by Andrew Clements

Well done all around then. That would be a fun committee to be on, don't you think? The juvenile Edgar Award committee. I'd like that. And for an encapsulation of the evening of the awards you may indulge yourself in either the Edgar bulletpoints or first-time children's novelist Eric Berlin's take right over here.

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Y'all Are Lucky I Love You

Recently we here at Donnell decided that despite our deepest hopes and dreams, floppy disks just aren't gonna make a comeback. So we got around to the nasty business of making certain that they had been thoroughly deleted from the system (they had). In the course of this job, I discovered an old friend. Below the Root, babies. Based on the book by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, it translated into an enormously satisfying video game. I played it for hours on my Commodore 64 and WON (unlike, say, Q-Bert) and lo and behold here it was at Donnell. I was thrilled. If any of you have an old Apple computer, invite me over sometime. We'll break out the joysticks and give it a whirl. It even has the map!

But if you wish to get that old-timey computer interface into your life a different way, I've found that there's a way to make your blog look like a Commodore 64 interface. Everybody say it with me! LOAD, "*", 8,1 and return! If I didn't love you all so very very much I might be seriously tempted to do this. Though, if I'm going to be honest, it would be cool for about 3 days. Then the blue would start to get to me. Thanks to BoingBoing for the link.

By the way, I've also found that children's picture book author/illustrator Jarrett Krosoczka shares my love of 80s arcade games. Examine the evidence. He found this place where post-it notes could create a Donkey Kong image and he's also the one responsible for that Q-Bert image I linked to. Bravo to you, sir.

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When Encouraging Exercise Gets Weird

The thought process in regards to this:

Initially horrified.

Gradually interested.

Eventually finds self wondering if they could add these to my gym.

Thanks to Eric Berlin for the link.

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From the Terrible Man-Lizard

So I am a big fan of Adam Rex. You might have noticed. And Adam Rex has a new book coming out soon that I have not yet read. Could be great. Could be awful. I've no idea. He has, however, created a list of 10 Reasons to Read It. If you can't see it clearly enough here, you can go to Mr. Rex's website and view it under the Smekday link or just click on the actual image below.

Why is it okay for me to promote something I've never read? Because he's a HMOCL and the ad is funny. That's the key, people. Make something funny and I'll give you all the free publicity you could ever desire.

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Video Sunday - Misc.

No theme this week. I'm feeling all kinds of lazy. So let us plumb the internet itself, sans rhyme or reason, and come up with tasty tidbits in and of themselves.

This one comes from Adrienne at What Adrienne Thinks About That. Her boss apparently sent it to her. Those of us in the profession can relate. And I was delighted to see that it also displays a death-by-closed-stacks portion that is reminiscent of a movie my husband made in college.

In the realm of "oh, THAT's how it's done!" I bring you an explanation for how graphic novel illustration works via computer. Like the Bone books? Of course you do. You are a beautiful, intelligent, highly motivated individual. As such, you will enjoy this view of coloring in Thorn from the books. I just think that it's cool that you get to draw on the actual screen.

Julie at Children's Illustration recently had a small tribute to Bill Baird and Company over at her site. First off, it's very interesting to watch pre-Muppet puppets. Plus the song is fairy trippy in and of itself. Betcha you won't see the iron lung coming, though.

How come no one names their daughters Cora anymore? I think Cora is going to have a second coming. GO CORA! Julie, I should note, also located this neat interview with Brian Selznick about his latest. You may have heard of it. It's something something Hugo something, I think.

Which led to me to the discovery of this Expanded Books website. And that, in turn, led me to the discovery of something the Buffy fans amongst us will find odd. Look! It's Tara! Writing books! The book itself isn't all that thrilling, but it's nice to see Amber Benson getting work of one kind or another.

We'll do a 180 after this and show the direct opposite of horror novels with an interview with Rosemary Wells. Anyone who has ever worked with Ms. Wells will tell you that the woman is... a pistol, let's say. Yes. That sounds about right. A pistol. Well, here she is doing the sweetness and light bit.

Pistol, I say.

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Fuse #8 Production and the Mystery of the Tiny Fuseman

I just had the nicest l'il ole birthday this year. 29 is a great age to be, it seems. And some wonderful blog readers out there were kind enough to send me gifts. I got a lovely CD from a fella in California, and two beautiful books from someone in Texas. All fairly anonymous and all very lovely.

So what I could not have expected today was the latest gift. Let's see if you can help me solve this mystery. A box arrives at my office. It bears an address for San Francisco, but no name is attached. Interesting, no? I do not know anyone in San Francisco except my married cousin with whom I do not communicate often. I do not know any authors or illustrators off the top of my head either. Head scratching takes place.

The box is addressed to "Betsy Bird (The Fuse)", which is amusing. The fact that they know my real name suggests that they pay attention and read me regularly. This is not a gift from a fly-by-night personage. So I open it up and inside is a lovely little wrapped gift, entirely enclosed in bubblewrap. I should note that on the outside of the box is a large "FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE" sticker.

The present is wrapped in orange string with a tiny note that reads:

And that might be interesting in and of itself, but just look at what you'll find when you flip it over.

Um. Someone in the world has a printer so tiny they can type on labels that used to be attached to articles of clothing? Woah.

Mysterious? It gets better. I open up the present and look what's waiting for me inside.

Do you realize what this is? I could only get my camera so close before it blurred the image or the flash reflected in the glass. This is a teeny tiny shadowbox. And inside is a teeny tiny Fuseman. His head is a fuse. One that EXACTLY matches the ones on my blog. His arms are little coils, his body a mechanical construction of some sort, and he's balancing perfectly on one small leg.

He is, in short, absolutely perfect. The banner above his head is, as far as I can make out, handwritten. It reads, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY, FUSE #8!"

No more perfect creation in all of heaven and earth exists. There is also, I shall point out, no note. The address on the box appears to be that of a post office in San Francisco. So basically, thank you notes are out of the question on this puppy. Therefore, if my mysterious someone is out there, I'd just like to thank you properly. You absolutely made my day. My co-workers stood around me as I unwrapped it and stared at the little Fuseman in pure unadulterated astonishment and wonder.

I love my tiny little man.

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Speare Me

His birthday was this past Monday, so maybe that accounts for why Shakespeare's all over the news these days. It was only a manner of time before he infiltrated the world of video games. From bookshelves of doom I heard all about Speare. It's Shakespeare in space, but not in a Forbidden Planet kind of way. The Toronto Star (who, if I'm gonna be snobby, totally messes up the name of their article) reports that, "The game also links with an interactive website of Romeo and Juliet, which features everything from the text of the play and scholarly debates about its meaning, to samples of movie adaptations and clips with real actors and Claymation characters. And designers have created a free resource guide and lesson plan for teachers." So there you go then.

Meanwhile the blogger Miss Erin has set up The Shakespeare Challenge. What have you read? Basically she encourages you to go through the list and mark off what you have and have not perused in the course of your lifetime. Then read through your gaps. Personally, I'm abysmal when it comes to the Histories. No Pericles for me, please.

There was also a rather interesting Shakespearean kerfuffle on the child_lit listserv this week, and Roger Sutton brought it to the attention of the blogging community. Really, though, the best summary of this Shakespeare debate came via Becky's Book Reviews. You don't need to go any further than her posting for an intense little summary.

Finally, via Bookninja is the Telegraph article, Is there a lost Shakespeare in your attic?. How very British. The piece explores the great lost play of Mr. Shaking a Spear. Says the piece the, "same fate nearly befell Troilus and Cressida." And wouldn't THAT have been a loss to the world.

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He Can Influence Me Any Day He Wants. Rowr.

Time Magazine is conducting its regular search for the 100 Most Influential People of the Year. The numbers keep shifting up and down. J.K. Rowling is #4. NO! Now she's #3. NO! Now she's #5. The one person who is almost always #1, however, is Stephen Colbert. I'm not sure how they're ranking this. He doesn't have the most votes but he's still top of the pops. Interesting. Now I'm not a political creature by nature, but if I urge you to ever vote on ANYTHING it's to vote on Rowling and Colbert. That's a ticket I'd be willing to back.

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Construction-struction What's Your Function (which doesn't rhyme)?

Justification time:

Uh.... let's see. Chris Ware did some work on one of the Little Lit books so ipso facto (and despite the fact that his subject matter is clearly adult) he can be considered kidlit news. Especially since this site makes a direct reference to the aforementioned Little Lit.

Cartoonist Chris Ware has a tendency to fill his books with cut-and-assemble paper toys that no one in their right mind would ever attempt to reconstruct. To do so, after all, would mean destroying portions of a very nice book. Tell that to one Niem Tran, however. Tran personally assembled everything Ware had to offer then placed them online for your viewing pleasure, and with Ware's blessing. The results are rather stunning.

Many thanks to Drawn for the link.

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At Last!

What do I like?
Book covers.

When do I like 'em?

What do I want?
A blog that discusses book jackets from the perspective of an Associate Art Director. Preferably one that's a former HMOCL, if at all possible.

What have I got?
Just the thing.

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Litty Awards

FYI, the Litty Award for Best Kidlit Litblogger was recently announced. Pats on the back to Jen Robinson's Book Page and, to the winner, the Christian Children's Book Review. Good hustle, ladies.

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I'm Not a Fan of the "Darndest Things" Phrase. However...

I'm a sucker for any blog that is able to replicate child dialogue in a funny and honest manner. Lots of blogs out there do it, but recently both Chicken Spaghetti AND Eric Berlin had some especially amusing tidbits. I don't usually do this, but you've gotta read what they wrote.

From Chicken Spaghetti:

Robert, smiling, to me: I have a girlfriend.

Jeffrey: You do?

Me: Is she in your class?

Robert: Yeah. But she doesn't like me.

Jeffrey: Who is it?

Robert: She doesn't even speak to me, but I still like her.

Jeffrey: Who?

Robert: Daniela. But don't tell her. Please don't tell her.

Jeffrey, looking sad: I don't have a girlfriend. I don't like girls that much.

Robert: You like cars!

Jeffrey, face lighting up: Yeah. I like cars!

From Eric Berlin:

Dialogue from the back seat as we drove home from my office:

(At a red light.)

Alex: That’s the biggest truck ever! Hi, truck!

(Light turns green.)

Alex: Bye, truck! Bye bye! See you next week!

Lea: You don’t talk to stuff. You only talk to people!

Alex: Bye! Bye, truck!

Lea: No! You don’t talk to stuff! You only talk to people! Not stuff!

(Silence. A small, perfectly calibrated silence.)

Alex: (loudly) Goodbye, trees!

The best part of this is, I really think Alex was making a joke, playing off his demanding little sister. He cracked up after saying “Goodbye, trees!” — that kind of kid’s laugh where you start to worry about how long the human body can go without breathing. I’m not saying he’s ready to start writing for Letterman, but if he really was making a joke, needless to say, that is totally awesome.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Poetry Friday - The Collected Works of Susan Ramsey

This one's going out to my sister, by request. She's probably the only person who can request specific poems, it occurs to me.

Backstage Duty at the Junior Civic

These desperate outlaws, these corrupt officials

are so young they take stairs two at a time

for fun. The Sheriff of Nottingham, a tall boy

with curly hair, not old enough to drive,

gives me a smile where I sit invisible, knitting.

He goes in to get his makeup done.

I know his mother's dying, her skin, her organs

slowly turning to stone. He told my daughter

she cries and he doesn't know what he should do.

The Makeup door's propped open by a box,

battered and strapped with duct tape. Someone wrote

"Crash Box" on the side in Magic Marker.

A kid is curious. The makeup man

picks it up and lofts it underhand.

Landing, it sounds like the Apocalypse.

It sounds like the wreck of a stagecoach carrying

a galloping cargo of anvils and chandeliers.

It's glorious. They nudge it back in place.

We're brought up to be brave, and brave is silent.

We strangle on silence, but what words could we use?

Here's noise commensurate with catastrophe.

I want one for myself, want one for Aaron,

for his mom, for everyone who knows

they're cast in the big fight scene at the end,

have read the script and know that they will lose.

So that, stripped of costumes, we can climb

those last steps panting, heave our box and howl.

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Me and My March Hare Turned Doormouse

With me you get your news approximately 24-hours behind schedule. That's the fast-paced hard-hitting stride we strive for here at Fuse #8. So I'm sure you all found your daemons yesterday on the His Dark Materials site, but how many of you ended up as bunnies? I did. His name was Thalius and I was going to have this whole thing about how I'd have to fight my instinct to eat him. I was even going to work in a comment about Lee Scoresby. But unfortunately the link disappeared.

Not a problem, right? I'd just retake the test. Thing is, when I did, I got this:

The child_lit listserv yesterday speculated that if you got your animal at a certain time of day you and your friends would all end up the same critter. I think it's true. I retook the test a little differently and got a mousey twice in a row.

Ah well. Mice are cute too.

Thanks to Read Roger for the link.

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Al Roker Declares War on Summer Reading

People tend to think that it is a very big deal when The Today Show speaks with the year's Newbery and Caldecott winners. For one brief and shining moment, children's books are front and center in the news (unless one is able to locate the word "scrotum" in a the text, of course). So it was with interest that I saw the title NBC's 'Today' Launches 'Al's Book Club For Kids'.
Each month during the summer, Al and a group of young book club members, ages 9-11, will meet in Rockefeller Plaza for their monthly book club meeting to talk about the selected book and ask questions of the author. "Al's Book Club For Kids" plans to meet four times, and kids everywhere are encouraged to visit "Today" on the Plaza when the club convenes and bring a copy of Al's monthly pick to be signed by the author. Stay tuned for date announcements.

"Al's Book Club For Kids" will have extensive online components at Todayshow.com and scholastic.com/summerreading. Parents and kids alike from across the country can be part of the club by e-mailing questions for the authors, who will answer a select few live on "Today." Todayshow.com will continue the discussions with the author online after each book club segment airs. In addition, at Scholastic.com/summerreading (launching May 15) kids can access fun book-themed activities, join a book community and create their own reading log. Parents, teachers and librarians can also find expert advice on reading and age-appropriate summer book lists for kids in English and Spanish, as well as downloadable materials that will help engage kids in reading.
Well played, Scholastic. You can bet that there's a publishing house or two out there kicking themselves over this loss. No word yet on the four books that'll be discussed. We'll have to wait until May 15th, it seems. As such, we'll reserve judgment for a little while.

My book predictions: Hugo Cabret, Harry Potter, Chasing Vermeer, and Gregor the Overlander. Even money, people. Lay down your bets.

I also wonder vaguely if The Today Show made overtures to New York Public Library at any point. It'd be nice to tie all this into library use as well.

Thanks to Galleycat for the link.

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It's Pronounced S'Poily

The Lemony Snicket books are coming out in paperback soon. This is a good thing. While I loved the original hardcover design, has any other librarian noticed that for all their eye-catching loveliness they last about as long as a well-used tissue? A Series of Unfortunate Events has few flaws inside their covers, but on the outside they all fray, tear, fade, and turn unbecomingly fuzzy after one or two reads.

So. Paperbacks. This is a good thing. They may actually last longer than their hardcover equivalents. But listen to what Fantagraphics Books discovered about all this:
Tales Designed to Thrizzle creator Michael Kupperman has landed a sweet gig, contributing a series of original strips titled "The Spoily Brats" to the new paperback editions of the best-selling A Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket. From the preview sample, it looks like just exactly the combination of Snicketry and Thrizzlishness that you would expect.
What's it gonna look like? Observe.

The second coming of the penny dreadful is nigh. Hide your children, then read the books for yourselves.

Thanks to Dan at Whither Laffs for the link.

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Emily Jenkins and an Honest-to-God Photo of Meghan McCarthy

Y'all missed a really good lecture with Emily Jenkins last night. Not you, Tim Bush. You've been extraordinary about attending these things. And Sergio Ruzzier and Tomek Bogacki, two of Ms. Jenkins' collaborators, BOTH showed up. I know a lot of authors who never even meet their artistic brethren and here Ms. Jenkins managed to conjure up two in a single night. That's half a sandwich shy of impossible. Her talk had all sorts of new information in it too. The difficulties that come with trying to photograph your cat. The fact that her illustrators have the eerie ability to place Ms. Jenkins' husband in their books WITHOUT having ever seen him. The title of her picture book coming out in March 2007 (which I begged on bended knee for a copy of, much to the dismay of my boss). Her newest title What Happens on Wednesdays, which looks good too. The only flaw with it is that every time I see the cover I think to myself, "What happens on Wednesdays STAYS on Wednesdays".

By the way, former Spring Lecturer Meghan McCarthy has just been interviewed at 7-Imp and they somehow or other managed to charm a kick-ass picture out of the lovely lass. It'd be a shame if you missed it.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Spring Lecture Series 2007, Part III: Please Don't Say You're Washing Your Hair

Whatcha doing tonight?
Cause, like, I was gonna have some friends over. Y'know. Nothing fancy. Just me and Emily Jenkins in my library with a lot of delicious tiny cheese cubes. And, so, if you're not, like, doing anything, I was thinking you might wanna drop on by. Say sixish or so. It's just casual, but I was thinking if you weren't doing anything, maybe you'd wanna drop in.

You wanna?

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Hindsight is 20/20

The Excelsior File recently located an article from 2005 that I happened to find particularly interesting. Called Has Childhood Gone AWOL? it's a remarkable little trip back in time to a scant 2 years ago. I didn't check the date at first and then all these references started to catch my eye. Aw. Remember when Britney Spears rather than Bratz was the greatest threat to our youth? Or how that book by Clive Barker was gonna be some kind of big deal? How quaint.

Anyone with half an interest in the genre could write something identical to this article today and, Chuck Dugan is AWOL aside, no one would question it. In the course of the discussion, this piece looks at picture books vs. YA novels in terms of price, marketability, and popularity. YA novels, you see, "are cheaper to produce than picture books, appeal to a larger audience, and are more profitable." I might quibble with the "larger audience" part of that statement, but otherwise we're in agreement.

The good news? As of two years ago author Don Gillmor wasn't going to give up on picture books quite yet.

"While announcing the death of the picture book is premature, its decline has certain consequences. It is unlikely that the genre will produce another Seuss, for one. The era of having your picture book become a cultural phenomena, read by children, discussed by adults, may be over. As reality is becoming grimmer, as innocence evaporates, those places where Sneetches stroll and Flummoxes shuffle will become more and more valuable."

Mmm. Mr. Gillmor doesn't think we've another Seuss in the works? Another cultural icon that reaches millions? Mr. Gillmor should glance on a bookshelf or two today. I've a reckoning as to who might end up a "classic" in the future. It just may not be the immediately obvious suspects.

Thanks to The Excelsior File for the link.

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Sesame Street Still Vital?

In January I attended a panel discussion on The Future of Children's Television. Fun stuff. I recall being particularly perturbed by the fact that a former Director of Children's Programming at PBS (who is currently the VP of Programming and Development for the Cartoon Network's preschool business), Alice Cahn, said that Barney was "the best thing to happen to children's television programming." Thinking about it still makes my eyeballs sweat.

Why did I go? I went, in part, because I wanted to know what went wrong with Sesame Street. I used to love that show, but somewhere along the line it lost its heart and soul.

Some people still cling to it, though. And perhaps it's still better than a lot of children's television programming out there today. Plus Strollerderby recently mentioned the following:
Sesame Street has a slew of pop-culture parodies lined up this season, including “American I,” “Meal No Meal,” “A’s Anatomy,” and “GNN: Letter in the News,” with Anderson Cooper (featuring grouch anchors Walter Cranky and Dan Rather-Not).
Anyone else a little worried about how exactly they're going to do "American I"? Nothing I'm coming up with sounds like something I'd place in front of a tot.

So a question for youse peoples. Who still watches this show and, if so, is it watchable?

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Anarchist Pooh

Spring is here and with it a discreet surge in visitors coming to see Winnie-the-Pooh at Donnell. Glancing at the guestbook today, I saw that the Brits are back in Bring-the-Bear-Home force. They'd been quiet for a while, and I just assumed that meant that they'd accepted that Pooh was now an official resident of New York (he likes bagels and everything). No go. Springtime just makes them all the more insistent. The Australians, who often write defenses of Pooh in the guestbook, recently put down, "They'll send Pooh back when you return the Elgin Marbles". Ow.

It is, admittedly, a little odd that America even has the bear. I guess that's what happens when publishers go about buying literary figures before Disney can. You know what else we have? Pooh bombs. Or rather ticking Pooh-shaped structures that are sometimes mistaken for bombs. These are dangerous times to live in.

Thanks to Strollerderby for the link.

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The Library of Congress Has a Blog

The bar has been raised. You LoC groupies better get on board, and fast! Says Director of Communications Matt Raymond about the blog's purpose:
It’s probably a bit early to come up with some sort of grand “mission statement” for this blog, but it will be in keeping with the spirit of the Library’s mission as a whole: “to make its resources available and useful to the Congress and the American people and to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations.”
In addition to all this it also happens to contain the Library of Congress equivalent of gossip. Which is to say, juicy selection begin with sentences like, "This morning I attended the spring business meeting of the James Madison Council, the Library’s private-sector advisory body, created in 1990 by Librarian of Congress James Billington." Needless to say, sexy shoes are not discussed.

Thanks to A Different Stripe for the link.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Review of the Day: Alice in Sunderland

Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot. Dark Horse Books. $29.95.

There have been, and always will be, books that intimidate your average everyday book reviewer. As someone who works primarily with children’s literature, this doesn’t happen to me all that often. After all, as much as I’d like to be overawed by the latest Junie B. Jones series title, it just ain’t gonna happen. But encompassing the whole of literature written with children in mind means sometimes having to deal with books that only just barely touch on my sphere of experience. When I first heard of Bryan Talbot’s graphic novel, “Alice in Sunderland,” I had no idea what it was. Not really. A glance at the cover gives the reader some hints to the contents, but for your average everyday American the word “Sunderland” means nothing. It’s a nonsense word. A play on “Wonderland” obviously, but beyond that we’re without reference. Standing at an impressive 328 pages, the book is obviously publisher Dark Horse Comics’ most ambitious project to date. Dense, intense, and without comparison, Talbot has constructed the ultimate love letter/tour guide to his home. The fact that it may have also inspired Lewis Carroll’s best-known work? Almost a sidenote.

Step right up! Step right in! Take off your hats and coats and make yourself at home. A man walks into a theater for a performance unlike any other. Onstage, the rabbit mask-wearing lead performer begins to tell the story. But it’s not the story of Alice in Wonderland or even Charles Dodgson, her creator. Rather it’s the tale of a place. A little strip of land on the North Eastern side of the island of Britain. A location that has inspired so many heroes, stories, tales, and legends you’d be amazed to hear them all. But Talbot isn’t going to concentrate on the biggest folktales of his region. Nothing so straightforward. Instead, the book leaps, glances, references, and side-steps around every possible connection Sunderland might have to the world of Alice. What's more, the very history of Britain itself is tied intricately into Sunderland’s tale. At the heart of it all, however, is the story of Lewis Carroll. For every seemingly inconsequential tangent, Talbot continually and continuously ties Alice Liddell, muse to the great author, and Carroll to the land they belonged to. Part historical treatise, part series of Rosicrucian-like connections, Talbot is unafraid to absolutely stuff his book with as much information as humanly possible. The result is a ridiculous and magnificent ode to a too little appreciated region.

It might sound a tedious affair. Constant backing and forthing between the present and the past. History coming alive is meant to be boring, right? So what are we to do when an artist like Talbot bends over backwards, not only to fit everything in, but to violently and continually change his style so as to both retain our attention and show off his prowess? Care to hear Henry V’s speech before Harfleur, Act III, Scene I, done in the style of Mad Magazine? A Jabberwocky poem via Tenniel (right down to the bisexual hero?). Bryan Talbot can tell the story of brave Jack Crawford like it was a boys adventure tale then turn around and present some pretty nasty Normans ala Jack Kirby. There’s even a bit of D.C. horror, odes to Herge, and a visitation from god-amongst-comic-artists Scott McCloud. Tenniel and Hogarth may get their due praise, but let us too admire what Talbot has seen fit to sneak in here and there artistically.

But I love the little things about this book too. The central plot concerns a single attendee, treated to this magnificent show in the Empire Theater. Of course the performer, the viewer, and even the man giving the walking tour are all various rather handsome versions of Talbot himself. Still, you grow very attached to the man watching. You're touched by his continual love and interest in George Fornby, local boy made good, ukulele phenomenon, and general nice guy. It’s history is what it is. Hearing that the current Queen of England is related by blood to Alice Liddell isn’t just good fun. Talbot can then turn Her Majesty into the Red Queen and at the same time show the moment Queen Elizabeth unveiled Sunderland’s ode to the Great Library of St. Peter’s in 1993. No detail is so small that Talbot can’t weave it into the text in some fashion.

I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Talbot discuss this book at a conference held by the Lewis Carroll Society of North America. And let me tell you, it takes guts to stand before that kind of assemblage so to present a book on their beloved. From that talk, however, I learned all kinds of secrets about "Sunderland". The amount of Photoshop that has gone into some of these pages looks daunting at the outset. It’s even more so when you hear how Talbot meticulously reconstructed some of his photographic scenes. The image of photographers taking pics of Alice at Columbia in her later years? Some of those fellows were lifted out of the original filmed production of “King Kong”. That image of the Bayeux Tapestry? It took some wrangling to get to display even the replicated version held in the Reading Museum of Berkshire.

Not that the book is flawless. Sorry folks, but while Talbot may be a genius he is by no means perfect. He tends to bog down on the topics that are of the greatest interest to him and him alone. A walking tour thorough the public art of modern day Sunderland is cool to begin with but can’t maintain the book's momentum after a while. Facts about Sunderland’s shipbuilding and geography come across as akin to Melville’s whaling portions of “Moby Dick”. You feel obligated to read through them, but you get no pleasure from doing so. It’s also funny to take into account what Talbot didn’t include alongside what he did. He fails to speak on whether or not the Cheshire Cat’s origins are also Sunderland-based (a notable absence, I feel). He doesn’t mention, when discussing the Bayeux Tapestry (England’s first graphic novel and compiled by “a single artist”) that the creator was widely considered to be a woman. Sometimes watching the unmentioned becomes as fascinating as the mentioned.

Ah well. It’s a remarkable affair just the same. For those readers willing to dedicate a couple days of their time to reading it through, “Alice in Sunderland” is one of the most rewarding reads. The convergence of graphic novel enthusiasts, Lewis Carroll advocates, and history majors is sweet indeed. An intimidating work in the best possible sense of the term.

OTHER REVIEWS: The most creative review I've seen in a long time comes via Gad, Sir! Comics! Really remarkable and worth a gander on your part.

EXTRA: Please also be so good as to check out the official Bryan Talbot Fanpage for further information. And on a related note, this animation of the Bayeux Tapestry is worth checking out as well (thanks to Diane Duane).

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Talent it Up, Suckers!

Look. I know there are illustrators out there who read this blog. I know this because I keep pronouncing some of you "hot" in as obvious a way as possible. And I know that all illustrators, irregardless of gender, make just gobs of money and have nothing better to do than lounge about on their private yachts, sipping lemon martinis and informing the handsome pool boys that they "missed a spot". This is all common knowledge. So since you have nothing better to do, why not use your artistic talents for good instead of evil? I am referring of course to the Cybils Award. Right now it looks something like this:

Simple. Utilitarian. Gets the job done and doesn't pussyfoot around. Problem is, it doesn't stick onto dust jackets all that well. A pity that. Y'know what would stick well? A redesigned award of a circular nature. Perhaps one that somehow managed to convey that it was handed out by bloggers. Hmmmm. But where oh where to find someone with the chops to design such an image?

Here's what I figure. You design something schnazzy (snazzy with a 'ch' in it) and apropos. You then send said image to Kelly Herold and she (in turn) makes cute little stickers out of it. THEN your art ends up on the cover of all sorts of books for years and years and years to come. Instant fame! Instant recognition. Instant tiny kisses to your feet.

Go for it, dudes. It's like getting a chance to redesign the Newbery only with a 21st century twist.

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What Hath Terabithia Wrought?

Your name: Gabor Csupo.
Your occupation: Director.
Your latest project: Bridge to Terabithia.
Your movie: Hit.
Your conclusion: I should do more of these children's films. Maybe I should adapt that book J.K. Rowling's always talking about. What's it called again? Oh, yeah. The Little White Horse. Kind of a lame name though. How about we call it The Moon Princess instead? Yeah. That's got some verve to it. We'll get Colin Firth to sign on. It'll be awesome. But I should really do more than one film at a time. I know! I'll get AnnaSophia Robb to star in another film. This one'll be based on that book due out in May, The White Giraffe. Can't see how anything could go wrong with THAT one.

The problem is that I've read The White Giraffe. I've read it, and I have some bad news. It isn't good. With pretensions to be something more, basically it boils down to a white-girl-goes-to-Africa-and-saves-the-day story. I'll review it soon, but to hear that Csupo has signed onto that particular project makes me sad. Ah well.

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48-Hour Book Challenge on the Horizon

If you weren't around last year you might have missed the fact that the MotherReader blog enjoys hosting a yearly 48-Hour Book Challenge. Here are the details as she states them.
So the chosen weekend is June 8–10, 2007.

Here are the basic guidelines to start. I am open to suggestions if you’ve got them, or ask me questions so I can establish a related rule. Here goes:

1. The weekend is June 8–10, 2007. Read and blog for any 48-hour period within the Friday-to-Monday-morning window. Start no sooner than 7:00 a.m. on Friday the eighth and end no later than 7:00 a.m. Monday. So, go from 7:00 p.m. Friday to 7:00 p.m. on Sunday... or maybe 7:00 a.m. Saturday to 7:00 a.m. Monday works better for you. But the 48 hours do need to be in a row.

2. The books should be about fifth-grade level and up. Adult books are fine, especially if any adult book bloggers want to play. If you are generally a picture book blogger, consider this a good time to get caught up on all those wonderful books you’ve been hearing about. No graphic novels. I’m not trying to discriminate, I’m just trying to make sure that the number of books and page counts mean the same thing to everyone.

3. It’s your call as to how much you want to put into it. If you want to skip sleep and showers to do this, go for it (but don’t stand next to me). If you want to be a bit more laid back, fine. But you have to put something into it or it’s not a challenge.

4. The length of the reviews are not an issue. You can write a sentence, paragraph, or a full-length review.

5. For promotion/solidarity purposes, let your readers know when you are starting the challenge with a specific entry on that day. When you write your final summary on Monday, let that be the last thing you write that day, so for one day, we’ll all be on the same page, so to speak.

6. Your final summary needs to clearly include the number of books read, the approximate hours you spent reading/reviewing, and any other comments you want to make on the experience. It needs to be posted no later than noon on Monday, June 11.

7. Sign up in today’s comments. You’re welcome to post the challenge on your site to catch the bloggers that come your way but don’t come mine. Point them to today’s post to sign up. On Friday, June 8, I’ll have a starting-line post where you can sign in to say you’re officially starting the challenge.

I’ll work on some prizes for most books read, most hours spent, and most pages read (if it isn’t the same winner as most books read). Last year I allowed an alternate, personal goal challenge, but this year the logistics of that might kill me. If you want to play along, but not really do the Challenge, that’s fine, but no prizes. I’ll have a 48 Hour Book Challenge Solidarity Post to list your personal weekend book challenges.
The truth of the matter is that I've grown so bloated and lazy in the last year that I don't think I'm capable of reading quickly anymore. I've been alternating between the newest Kiki Strike and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides for about a week now with scant progress being made to either. So I will probably not be participating myself. For those of you with kidlit blogs desiring fame, fortune, and fabulous prizes, however, this is a chance for publicity. Last year's winner was Midwestern Lonestar and the challenge went so well that School Library Journal even did a piece on it. Go to it, my pretties. I'll just sit here, eat my chocolates, and grow plump on the fat of the land.

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That Doggone Pigeon Man

This is what happens when author/illustrators get their own friggin' blogs. Oh sure, they're all cute and cuddly at first. Then they start to grow up and post information that, quite frankly, YOU should have thought of in the first place. Take as your example Mr. Mo Willems' posting, I'm Off. Don't let its title mislead you. He isn't off in the least. In fact, he's touting about information regarding the Ezra Jack Keats Contest here in NYC. Basically, kids create their own picture books and the winners get people like Mo Willems to present to them their awards.

At this moment the Donnell Central Children's Room has all the books, winners and otherwise, up for viewing until April 30th.

Why check it out? Partly because some of the books are scary-good. And partly because these are some of the titles of the others:
  • World Famous Hector - Could have gone with any name. Went with "Hector".
  • When Snowflakes Stop! - We would have also accepted "When Snowflakes Go Bad".
  • This Boy is Not Too Bad - I'm loving the correct usage of the word "too".
  • Steak Tree - Mmmm. Steak tree.
  • Never Apologize for Your Art - Which bears a Jackson Pollock lookalike on the cover. And my personal favorite . . .
  • Poor Ugly Devil - Exactly what it sounds like.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Review of the Day: Nothing but Trouble - The Story of Althea Gibson

Nothing but Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson by Sue Stauffacher, illustrated by Greg Couch. Knopf Books for Young Readers (a Random House imprint). $16.99.

I’m not ashamed to say it. Say the name “Althea Gibson” to me a month ago and you’d have met a blank stare. Say it to me now, however, and you may suffer the indignity of finding me thrusting Sue Stauffacher’s newest picture book, “Nothing but Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson,” into your arms while screaming into your ears its high points. This might be so bad either if the book only had a high-point here or there, but the fact of the matter is that “Althea Gibson” is ALL high points. It’s a rip-roaring, snorting, fast and frenzied, well-researched, reiterated, illustrated, formulated bit of picture book biography magnificence. With the author of the “Donuthead” books on the one hand and soon-to-be-recognized-for-his-magnificence artist Greg Couch filling in the necessary art, “Althea Gibson” has everything you could possibly want going for it. It’s fun. It’s funny. It’s smart and interesting, and has a flawed heroine you can’t help but want to know more about. If your young child is looking for a biography of a woman and you don’t know where to turn, I can’t think of a better book available to you. There’s something about Althea.

Ask anyone. Ask her mama her daddy her teacher or the cop down the street that busted her for petty theft. They’ll all tell you the same: That Althea Gibson is nothing but trouble. More comfortable tearing up the playground in the 1930s than sitting at a desk in school, Althea has a reputation for recklessness. None of that is enough to scare off play leader Buddy Walker, however. When he sees Althea play sports, he can only see raw talent and untapped potential. With his guidance and the help of the Sugar Hill’s ritzy tennis court “The Cosmopolitan”, Althea is given the chance to improve her style. Problem is, she has a hard time with being polite, following the rules, and not punching out her fellow players’ lights. It takes time and patience and self-control to make Althea the best she can possibly be, but by 1957 she becomes the first African-American to win at Wimbledon. And though she could hog all the credit for herself, Ms. Gibson gives full credit to that amazing Buddy Walker who had the smarts to become her mentor.

It’s always more interesting to read about a flawed hero. Perfect people do not a fascinating story make. Maybe that’s why the trend in children’s biographies lately has been to tell the tale of those men and women who weren’t made of solid gold from birth onwards. Between Kathleen Krull’s, “Isaac Newton”, Laura Amy Schlitz’s, “The Hero Schliemann,” and now Stauffacher’s, “Nothing but Trouble,” biographies for kids are getting better and better with every coming year. The nice thing about Althea is that for all her pouts and ill-manners, she's shown here to be someone who could conquer the world if she just applied a little self-control. As Buddy tells her at one point, “You’ve got to decide, Althea. Are you going to play your game, or are you going to let the game play you? When I go to the jazz club, I play like a tiger, but I wear a tuxedo.” Stauffacher draws much of her dialogue out of Althea’s biographies “I Always Wanted to Be Somebody” and “So Much to Life For.” Even without such lines, however, the author knows how to put a good story together. This plot is carefully crafted. From the timeline in the back (written on tennis balls, no less) to the great opening line, (“Althea Gibson was the tallest, wildest tomboy in the history of Harlem”) to the thin slices of her life, Stauffacher does a stand up job. As Althea’s biographer she prefers to concentrate on the role of Buddy Walker, even mentioning in her Author’s Note that “Though this is Althea’s story it is also Buddy Walker’s story.” The result is that this tale comes off as a tribute to mentors everywhere. To those people that see potential in certain kids and do what they can to bring such potential to light. And that is the nature of an entirely different kind of hero.

Flying just below the radar is illustrator Greg Couch. Ms. Stauffacher may have the wherewithal, wit, and smarts to think to bring Althea’s life to the page, but it is Mr. Couch’s illustrations that truly deserve attention here. Couch has taken a story that could have been accompanied by staid, simple drawings and instead imbued them with a kind of electricity. Althea doesn’t just leap off the page here. She crackles and snaps with an energy you don’t usually encounter on your average picture book bio. Couch has chosen to clothe Althea in a hyperactive rainbow that zigs and zags with the girl’s every movement and leap. Parents and teachers presenting this book to kids can ask them what they think this rainbow really means. And hopefully they’ll notice that when Buddy plays the saxophone (as he did in his own jazz band) the same rainbow colors come out of the instrument. Plus the fact that these rainbows are the sole spot of color against a sepia-tinged background of old photos and scenes from the 30s, 40s and 50s is a nice touch as well. And when, at last, you see Althea win her Wimbledon, she is surrounded at her acceptance speech by a rainbow that has aged and changed from pure primary colors to subtler hues. I also appreciate that there is nothing anachronistic going on in this book. Every picture feels like it has stepped out of history.

A co-worker of mine felt somewhat disappointed that the book ends as suddenly as it does. One minute Althea is learning the benefits of playing by the rules (while maintaining her fire) and the next she’s won Wimbledon and the story's over. I think this is less a flaw of this specific book than of the picture book biography format in general. You can’t linger on a year here or there, however much you might want to. And honestly, this is a book worth discovering. Stauffacher and Couch have found something to say about Althea that hasn’t yet been said in the realm of children’s literature and their passion in bringing Althea’s passion to life is worth taking note of. So stand back now. I’m going to say something and I’m going to say it loud. This book not only pairs well with “Wilma Unlimited” by Kathleen Krull, it may have supplanted it in my brain as my new favorite picture book sports biography. A must read pick.

On shelves August 14th.

First Lines: “Althea Gibson was the tallest, wildest tomboy in the history of Harlem.”

Extra: An artist in the professional sense, Mr. Couch has more than a few paintings to his name. So we’re just going to present, without comment, his Giving Trees. It appeared in the “experimental poetry” journal Sidereality.

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Hot Men of Children's Literature Part 37 in a Series

The polls are closed.
The votes are in.
The ballots counted.
The judges accused and then cleared of all charges pertaining to personal preferences.

I asked you who the hottest man of children's literature was and you responded (when given a nice neat list to choose from). I even conceded the point and allowed a YA feller in there once or twice. And when all was said and done, I was just as amazed as you were at the results. Maybe it was because I kept misspelling the candidates' names, or maybe the mother of the winner kept voting for him, but this week we turn our attention to the one....

... the only ...


His boyish charm won him a whopping 84 votes as of midnight, April 24th, just narrowly beating out David Ezra Stein, whose fans attempted a last minute coup. To be frank, this is the very first time Mr. Magoon has come to my attention. The same cannot be said for his books. I'm well-acquainted with his work on last year's Ugly Fish. Falling into the ever-widening category of Let's Eat the Hero books (alongside such worthy fellows as Wolves and Tadpole's Promise) Ugly Fish's art is all Magoon. As of yet, he's still a newbie. With only a few books to his name he's just now coming to the attention of publishing world at large.

What we like about Mr. Magoon are the props he pays to his fellows. When you look at his website, his About Me page is only half him. The second half is a magnificent listing of fellow artists he admires. And the usual Sendak, Herge, and Steig inclusions appear next to the lesser lauded Sweets, Lehman, and Childs.

Plus he dislikes circus peanuts. What more could you possibly want in a man? Mr. Magoon, welcome to the pantheon of kidlit hotties.

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I'll Refrain From Mentioning LadyHawke As Well

Does anyone find it ironic that the visual effects supervisor of the upcoming His Dark Materials movie, Michael Fink, began his career creating the very first Coca-Cola polar bears in the early 90s? Honestly, did someone look at this film and say to themselves, "We need someone who can do big white bears. Who do we know with a big CGI white bear connection? I've got it! FINK!"? I mean, I'm a fan of irony but come on, people.

This and other delightful tidbits of info are available through an article in the Sydney Morning Herald. In it you may learn who Pullman ideally would have cast as Lord Asriel, and the reason why this is being called (by its producer, mind you) "the first full-scale fantasy film that has stars in it." We'll all just sit back and think long and hard about that one. Please oh please don't make me bring up Legend, oh producer lady. Please don't.

In any case, if you haven't been paying much attention to either the books or the movie process, this is a piece worth reading.

Thanks to Cinematical for the link.

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Whatta Card

We were discussing books that all the world seems to revere with a kind of unholy adoration while you, the last sane soul in all the universe, stand baffled by the love. Well, that's not exactly how I feel about Ender's Game, but I certainly am a bit mystified by its fanbase. It's one of those cases where a book was released for the adult market, caught on with the young 'uns, and was then rereleased with a laughably inappropriate kid-friendly cover years later. Observe:

Hee hee. Wait till the kiddies get to the penis scenes.

Anyway, it looks as if the movie version is in a bit of a standstill these days. Dark Horizons reports that for Orson Scott Card, "the big-screen version of his novel Ender's Game has been put into turnaround at Warner Bros. Pictures." Ask Card, the sole-screenwriter, however, and he'll tell you everything is sunshine and roses. Shopping this puppy around to other studios? "A good thing". Alrighty then. But between this and writing defenses of Severus Snape, I don't know where the man gets the time to do any writing these days.

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Walking Tour of NYC Bookstores

Some of you live in NYC, some of you come here on business, and some of you might someday, possibly, take a vacation here so as to truly appreciate our one-of-a-kind smog in an up close and personal fashion. When you are not admiring our fog's infinitely photographable charms, however, you may wish to do something upstanding like visiting NYC's independent bookstores. In this, you are in luck. The Millions Blog has just posted a really wonderful walking tour of NYC independent bookstores. Go on. Gape at The Strand. Check out Oscar Wilde Books (which has not closed despite the rumors). Seethe with envy when you check out the impressive line-up at the Housing Works Bookstore. It's all there for your viewing pleasure.

Thanks to Shaken and Stirred for the link.

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The Name of This Blog Becomes More and More Appropos

This link was quite possibly the best birthday present I received yesterday.

My nickname is Betsy. My father once owned a car by the same name. I don't like to draw a connection here but the coincidence always struck me as significant. Now, however, I can see that at least he wasn't alone.

Thanks to Beth for the heads up.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

My Birthday Present to Myself

On this date in history the following people were born -
  • William Shakespeare
  • Shirley Temple Black
  • Vladimir Nabokov
  • President James Buchanan
  • Me
Yep. I'm hitting 29 and feeling fine. Fine as fish hair. Which is to say, this is my last year to celebrate not being 30. Or, another way of looking at it might be to say that this is the first year I'll be informing anyone who asks that I'm 29. Ho ho!

As per last year, I tend to celebrate this day on Fuse #8 with the reiteration of the book I'm pushing the most. Last year it was the delightful Fly By Night. Ah, Fly By Night. My favorite British children's book of 2006 (not to be confused with A Drowned Maiden's Hair which was my favorite American children's book of 2006). Now that we are well into 2007, I have decided to place my love firmly on a Yankee. This book is one that I've been pushing like mad since I first read it. So it is that I republish my favorite 2007 book review of the year (as of this moment)...

Faeries of Dreamdark - Blackbringer by Laini Taylor, illustrated by Jim DiBartolo. G.P. Putnam's Sons (an imprint of Penguin Young Readers' Group). $17.99

If you read only one fantasy book this year, read this one.

Gotcher attention, eh? I think that if you knew me, you’d know that I don’t throw out statements like this willy-nilly. I’ve read enough books for children and teens to know that no matter how good a story seems while you are reading it, there’s bound to be another that steals your heart a day or two later. Good books are published every single day, and declaring one to be the be all and end all of any category is just plain wrong.

That said, if you read only one fantasy book this year, read this one.

I mean it. First time author Laini Taylor has written a doozy of a debut. It’s one of those books you read and then find you can’t put down. I repeatedly found myself on the New York City subway system in a state of frustration every time I arrived at my stop. Somehow, Taylor is able to write a fantasy novel so compelling that you can never put it down because you've found yourself at a particularly exciting moment. Separating itself from every other fantasy series out there (an accomplishment in and of itself) Taylor’s written a book with just enough humor, tension, excitement, hope, joy, and pure unadulterated despair to please even the most jaded of fantasy loving kiddies. And it’s about freakin’ fairies.

Funny story. Remember that old fairy tale about the guy who found a genie in a bottle and when he opened it he was granted three wishes? Well, it won’t surprise you too much then to hear that these days whenever a human finds a bottle their first instinct is to uncork the sucker. Problem is, genies aren't the denizens of these bottles. Demons are. And when the demons are let loose upon the world there’s only one gal with the guts to put them in their place. Magpie Windwitch just happens to be the granddaughter of the West Wing (it’s a long story), a fairy, and she's traveling with her seven crow companions. Her job is to track down and recapture these wayward devils by any means possible. She’s good at her job, but little of her training prepares her for the darkest creature let loose yet. Called the Blackbringer, this nasty piece of work is intent on destroying the world, and its chances happen to be pretty darn good. To defeat it Magpie will have to cross over to the world of the dead, befriend the flightless, scurry, kill, confront the creator of the universe (who is SUCH a pill these days), and discover her true past. If you didn’t know her, that might sound like a tall order. If you knew her, it would still sound like a tall order, but at least you’d know she’ll tackle it with everything she's got.

Hopes were not high when I first picked up this book. I’ll level with you here… author Laini Taylor was previously best known for a line of fairy ornaments called “Laini’s Ladies”. From that you might imagine the book to be a sweet little flower fairy tale with a lot of dew-sipping and moonlight dances. Thank God for Laini’s husband Jim DiBartolo, then. Basically, it’s going to be hard to sell any book with the word “faeries” in its title to the male fantasy-reading public. That’s where Jim comes in. His illustrations for the book are fairly spare, with less than ten dotting the book. Still, Mr. DiBartolo has nailed the tone of his wife’s text. The image of Magpie on the cover is perfect. She looks like she means business. All the characters in this book look that way, actually. There’s nothing soft, flower fairyish, or namby-pamby about these sprites. And one can only hope that exposure to the Artemis Fowl books will have given readers an inkling of the kick-butt nature of faeries in general.

Not that there isn’t a healthy dosing of humor to boot. The crow brothers that accompany Magpie at all times act like a feathered version of Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men, language and all. They smoke cigars and put on plays at the drop of a hat (which is particularly amusing when you consider the lack of opposable thumbs and all). Every character here (except maybe the villains) has a sense of humor, and it’s an honest one. Taylor doesn’t have to force the jokes. They come naturally and lighten an already quick and fancy book.

Okay, but what’s the most important thing in any fantasy novel? The quality of writing, duckies. First and foremost there’s the language in this book. Taylor’s managed to create a kind of new speech that is infinitely understandable, but at the same time distinguishes itself from the pseudo-Gaelic slang so many other authors indulge in. There’s a great deal of pleasure to be taken in phrases like, “hush yer spathering,” or, “it shivers me,” or, “un-skiving-likely.” . She’s also a keen ear for lush otherworldly descriptions too. Some are gorgeous and remarkable. Others are so horrific you’re half amazed no one’s thought of them before. “Its mottled brown skin had the texture of dried gut stretched over a skull, and so crude were its features it seemed to have been sculpted in the dark, and with one obvious omission: it had no mouth.” I won’t describe any more except to say how it goes about GETTING a mouth is grotesquely unique.

Of course, the inevitable comparison here is going to be with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The funny parts and mix of fantasy and horror placed alongside a heroine with supernatural powers who fights demons? Yeah. We’ve seen it before. The thing is though, this isn’t a Buffy rip-off. It’s powerful in its own right with its own distinctive mythology and unique world. Then again, it can definitely be boiled down to one girl saving the world. Why? Well, as the book explains at one point, “As with each devil she captured, she was the only one trying.” The nice thing about having Magpie as your heroine is that even when you’re worried for her, you’re not so worried that you don’t trust her. She may have the manners of a pit bull and the self-grooming talents of a mangy cat, but she’s tough and fun and will take on anything her size or larger if you let her.

You know what I liked about this book? No rhyming prophecies about the future. Can I tell you how rare it is to find a fantasy that doesn’t contain at least one, if not more, poorly rhymed prophecies about a “chosen one”? Okay, so fine. Magpie is kind of a chosen one. But she doesn’t have to solve any riddles about it and her destiny isn’t written in stone on an ancient parchment somewhere or anything. Besides, as the book puts it so perfectly, “She decided finally that it’s not so bad to find out you have a destiny when it’s something you were going to do anyway.” And by the way, when someone dies in this book it matters. It matters intensely. This isn’t one of those books where people die left and right and the stoic hero doesn’t feel the loss. Nuh-uh. If someone dies Magpie feels mourns it up. This is something not all authors think to do, and I for one appreciated it.

Oh. And there’s a warrior prince that knits. And a horrid little scavenger imp who enjoys putting his toes in his nose. And a host of other interesting, terrible, wonderful things all packed together in this book without ever feeling rushed or overused. For all its 400-some pages, “Blackbringer” moves at a remarkable clip, never getting bogged down or slow it doesn't sacrifice character or plot for the sake of action. Laini Taylor’s balancing act with this novel should be studied intensely by those wannabes that want to break into the world of fantasy writing for kids. It’s one-of-a-kind and worth a taste. I meant what I said and I said what I meant. If you read only one fantasy book this year, read this one.

Notes On the Cover: Fierce. As I mentioned in the review, the problem here is going to be selling this book to boys who think fairies fey. What G.P. Putnam's Sons should do is sell this to the Tamora Pierce market. Pierce fans are the perfect potential readers for this series. They like their fantasy smart and to the point. Female protagonists don't scare them off and they'll appreciate the humor. I think this cover should help. Plus I love how Jim counters Magpie's intense expression with flowers in her hair.

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Me v. HP. Whee!

I know that there are a fair amount of authors here in the U.S. who, like Sian Pattenden, are facing publication of their novels alongside the last Harry Potter book. My heart goes out to you, even as my peepers peruse Rowling's latest and last. What can you possibly do about it though? Fight the phenomenon? Perhaps not, but consider taking Ms. Pattenden's advice on the matter. In Me Vs. Harry Potter, the author considers everything from placards and period costumes to blackmail, murder, and blogging so as to make her new book known. Good luck with all that, Sian dear.

I am sure that some of you will also be more interested in the newest Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix movie trailer up and running on Ye Olde Interweb. The cynic in me says it cannot be as good as it looks. The fangirl in me, however, has just clocked the cynic in me and is currently holding a press conference in my frontal lobe so as to declare her approval of every little detail of this trailer. I, in the meantime, am going to take a nap and wait for my inner cynic to recover.

Thanks to The Longstockings for link number one and Cinematical for link number two.

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Things They Won't Teach You in Art School

Today Lesson: Quilt Pieces

You will strive and strive to receive some level of fame as a children's book illustrator on your own. You will create beautiful art, but you will go unappreciated for years. Then, one day, you hit the big time. And how do you know when "the big time" has arrived, children? It's when people start sending you quilt pieces for your significant style.

Says Mo Willems in a recent blog post, "One of the things they neglect to tell you at author/illustrator school is that once your books come out you will be inundated with mail containing little pieces of cloth which you are meant to doodle upon for the good of some worthy local literary organization. They are quilt patches; meant to be assembled, displayed, and then sold as a fundraiser."

He even has a picture of one up for viewing. I suggest you play Quilt Bingo with it. See if you can identify the teensy tiny blurry art of seven or eight artists horizontally, vertically, or kitty-cornerally. Here are my guesses of artists included. Mo Willems. David Shannon. Peter Sis. Mark Teague. Uh... is that Gabi Swiatkowska? That's definitely Alexandra Day there. Oh look! You can click on the pic and it gets bigger! Technology is a marvel. Okay, now I can see Brenda Clark, Marc Brown, perhaps Tomie dePaola, and what looks to maybe be a Steven Kellogg (wow).

Who have I missed?

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The Over, Under, Around, and Through Rated

Recently Kelly Herold posted a piece on Big A little a entitled Am I Alone Here? The gist of the article is that there are certain books in this world that everyone seems to love.... except you. You are a freak. No one agrees with you that such n' so is overrated. So she asked for suggestions (she's not a huge fan of The Book Thief) of books that make people feel this way and got an interesting array of answers.

Some names that came up:

The His Dark Materials books
Octavian Nothing
The Bartimaeus trilogy
King Dork
The Attolia series

I liked most of these, but I can see where people are coming from on some. The one agreed the most with? Whoever didn't like Chasing Vermeer. As a great woman once said, "I like books where the kids find the clues. Not books where the clues find the kids." Testify! Ditto Peter and the Starcatchers. I've never much liked books where your hands get all slimy from the dripping contempt the authors have for the book they're referencing so heartily. Dave Barry obviously didn't like Peter Pan which is fine, but then why turn around and write something with the same characters? Ditto The Looking Glass Wars. Oh, how I disliked that title.

Free free to skip over to Big A little a to lodge your own complaints.

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Last Chance

I don't know if anyone could have predicted the sheer irresistible charm of Scott Magoon, but if you want to vote on the next HMOCL, today is the last day to do so. The end is near.

Razorbill is Obviously Hip to What Matters in Publishing

Hip to hot men, that is. Y'all know the blog Disco Mermaids, right? And the fact that newbie author Jay Asher is one of the three DMs in questions is an uncontested fact, yes no? So check out Jay's authorial bio on the Razorbill website. Imprints come and imprints go, but any imprint that acknowledges honors like that of the HMOCLs is far and away more up-to-date than their brethren. Brava.

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Teacher Humor

Better still, Upper West Side teacher humor.
Makes me a little hungry for tilapia, though.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Video Sunday - They Made That Into a Movie?

The problem with knowing that your favorite children and YA books have been turned into movies without your knowledge is that 90% of the time your ignorance was a good thing. Still, I like seeing how people mess up one way or another when they decide to put a popular title up on the silver screen.

First of all, was anyone aware that they'd turned Tom's Midnight Garden into a film? I can see now why no one's done it before. The poor guy playing Tom has to appear in his pajamas for most of the film. Also, Tom's a bit too old here, yes? Looks like he'd rather be kissing Hattie than scampering about with her.

From England to Venice. When I stumbled on the DVD of The Thief Lord in the Scholastic bookstore, I was shocked. Since then, I know of people who've seen this film. This trailer is a bit squished and gives away huge plot elements. It doesn't seem to work. Then again, I didn't really think that the magic parts gelled with the original book either.

And then there's Moomin. The Japanese made him into an animated series. Finland meets Japan and it looks like an ideal match. I was a little amazed. This isn't film per say, but it's pleasant enough to include.

And just to switch gears entirely, remember that recent adaptation of Blood and Chocolate? No? Here's why.

And finally, this is the worst. The worst of the worst of the worst. A perfect way to round out my selections. You say you don't remember the Five Children and It movie? This might be why. Oh. Sweet. Lord. Why, Eddie, why?

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Review of the Day: Letters from Rapunzel

Letters from Rapunzel by Sara Holmes. Harper Collins. $15.99.

Gail Carson Levine has a lot to answer for.

When Our Lady of “Ella Enchanted” proved that biggie awards could go to fairy tale-inspired fantasies, this knowledge launched an unprecedented variety of fairy tale freakouts. As we speak we are still in the midst of a kind of folktale maelstrom, so you’ll forgive me if my initial sideways glance at “Letters from Rapunzel,” appeared to produce just more of the same. The winner of the 2004 Ursula Nordstrom Fiction Contest (run by Harper Collins for those first-time never-before-published types), Ms. Sara Lewis Holmes won it fair and square and this here book is the result. Despite its cover and title, the book is not, in fact, one of the fairytale ilk. Using the Rapunzel motif, Holmes paints a picture of a family whose patriarch is suffering from chronic depression. Balancing out its painful subject matter with its heroine’s wit, whimsy, and disconnect from reality, “Letters from Rapunzel” manages a delicate balancing act that comes to a happy end for both character and reader.

She’s been sending letters to an unknown post office box ever since her father disappeared from her life. For Rapunzel (the name she chooses to give herself) life was fine until her dad went through a new bout of crippling depression and had to be taken away to recover. What does that mean for our heroine? It means trying to put up with teachers and principals who think that just because you aced some test they gave out, you’re a genius. A genius, mind you, who’d rather write letters to a stranger than end up in some lousy class for smart kids where Andrew, the boy she hates, is waiting to torment her. As for the letters, Rapunzel started writing them when she found a letter from her father written to an unknown address. Hoping against hope that maybe she’ll be able to contact someone who can help her dad shrug off his “evil spell”, Rapunzel does everything she can to contact her mysterious someone. Yet when she meets only silence and an increase in her own problems, it takes some detective work and self-possession to get to the bottom of what exactly happened to Rapunzel’s father.

To whip together both fairytale and realistic elements like this is a risk. It would be all too easy for the book of this sort to make a sideways stumble towards the land of twee. Cute references to the story of Rapunzel in the midst of a family drama? The danger that it could become too sweet is immense. I’m still not entirely certain that it was wise to equate Rapunzel’s father’s depression with the moniker “an evil spell”, but at least the author makes it clear that when it comes to equating reality with fantasy, our heroine isn’t the most reliable of narrators. The story is also an interesting take on the usually staid and solid “problem books”.

A librarian making a list of books dealing with mental illnesses might just slip this title under the “Depression” category without a second thought. I do think that it’s lighter and, I dare say, more interesting than a lot of books on this topic for kids out there. That is not a criticism. If every book written on depression rendered the reader (forgive me) depressed, a fair share of kids would be disinclined to delve in that area. Holmes has had the sense then to imbue her book with some fun. I initially resisted it, but I ended up liking the heroine. When handed a charming science assignment that requires her to find ten different ways to rescue the character of Rapunzel from her tower using simple machines, our heroine is inventive enough to say, “but hey, the assignment didn’t say we had to keep her alive, did it?” Hence method number one, “Use a giant lever to pry her out. Be prepared for the funeral.” Holmes doesn’t overdo the humor, letting it float the top of a page here and there without breaking up the action or appearing where it might be inappropriate. For example, the ritual that comes with birthdays, wherein the birthdayee feels older, is described as, “just a cake-and-icing-induced hallucination.”

The letter element is, of course, the hook. It’s a booktalking point. The idea of mysterious letters sent into the vast unknown is a bit old-fashioned in this high tech day and age. That might account for books like this and “The Mailbox” by Audrey Shafer that play on the mystery and allure of sending mail to unknown personages. The book also splits apart continually into little asides that serve to break up the text. I’m beginning to suspect that this is some kind of new trend in children’s book publishing since I’m seeing it in a lot of other books as well. Kirsten’s Miller’s “Kiki Strike” did it. “The Thing About Georgie” by Lisa Graff has lots of them. And in this particular book you’re likely to trip over one of Rapunzel's “Fairy-Tale Fortunes” or school assignment every three pages or so. Does it hurt the book in the end? Not necessarily. It’s just hard to get into a story or take it seriously when you’re constantly being jerked out of the central tale as frequently as is found here. It makes for more enjoyable reading, perhaps, but does it make for a worthwhile read?

You will be happy to hear that “Letters from Rapunzel”, doesn’t have any easy answers. No miracles or unlikely coincidences spring up. It is not, I should add, a book that Holmes should stop with. While well told, the book feels like a novel found in an author’s early career. And as it’s not the only Rapunzel-like story out this year, feel free to also check out “Into the Wild” by Sarah Beth Durst and “Into the Woods” by Lyn Gardner for your standard retellings of classic folktales (and their skewed results). This may even make a good crossover title for those kids who only like fantasy and need some kind of fantastical hook to lure them into the scary realm of realistic fiction. Fun and smart enough for your consideration.

Notes on the Cover: Looks to me as if Harper Collins wants to have its cake and eat it too. Deliberately playing up the Rapunzelish elements on the right, the left-hand side of the image is downright mod. A kind of suburban kitch. I’d have appreciated this more if the Rapunzel-like girl actually bore some resemblance to our heroine at large. As it is, plenty of kids will be suckered into thinking this to be a kind of fantasy novel. Sneaky, Harper. Very very sneaky.

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