Thursday, November 30, 2006

There's Something Zenny Here But I'm Not Sure What It Is

The L.A. Times carried an article by Marianne Wiggins on judging the National Book Awards. Linda Sue Park did a piece on the same subject at her journal.

Here are two sentences from Wiggins article that jumped out at me:

"How many hardcover copies do you think Philip Roth or Cormac McCarthy sell? 100,000? Think again. A first novelist's average advance? Less than what a TV writer takes home in a month."

They jumped out at me because they support my belief that there is a great misconception about writing and income. I run into a lot of people who think there's big money to be made writing books. Seriously, I've known people who needed some extra money so they thought they'd just write a book and that would take care of everything. They don't realize that many highly regarded writers are not wealthy people. Many writers, probably some we've all heard of, scramble to make a living.

I have no problem with a first-time novelist getting an advance that's less than a TV writer takes home in a month, by the way. The fact that there are people who make more money than writers do shouldn't be a value judgment. It's just a fact. We get paid on the basis of what we can sell. That's the way it is, and I accept that.

I think people considering going into writing need to understand this. Many people in the arts have to support their art with some other kind of work. I don't see why we should expect to be different.

With writing, you really have to try to value what you're doing instead of valuing your compensation for doing it. Otherwise, you start worrying about what people like TV writers make per month.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

I Missed Cal.

I really liked Peeps by Scott Westerfeld. I liked the premise, I liked the book's universe, and I liked the main character, Cal. I even liked his girlfriend, though I remember thinking she said "dude" way too much.

So I was looking forward to the sequel because I figured more Cal. Was I being unreasonable?

I start reading The Last Days, which says right on the cover "A Sequel To Peeps," and I'm waiting for Cal. And I'm waiting, and I'm waiting. And I wait some more.

I'm not going to tell you how my wait turned out, because I don't like to give away a lot about other writers' books. But I will say I didn't get enough Cal.

The Last Days may be the rare sequel that readers might enjoy more if they haven't read the first book. Because they won't be missing Cal. Plus, in the first book all was revealed by the end. In The Last Days you have to go through all the revealing all over again.

I wonder if it wouldn't have been better to call The Last Days a companion to Peeps instead of a sequel. It deals with the same situation but comes at it from a different angle with different characters.

None of whom are Cal. Did I mention that?

I think there was some rock metaphor thing going on with The Last Days, too. Not that I don't like rock. I like to play it on the CD player in my car. I'm not particularly interested in creating it myself.

I could have done with a lot less rock and a lot more Cal.

By the way, I personally thought the ending of the book was kind of rushed. The author could have slowed down and, perhaps, given us more Cal.

Minerva was a good character, though. Kind of yummy. It would have been so interesting to see more of her with...Cal.

Well, that's not going to happen, so I'll just have to move on. One of the things I moved on to was this video review I found at Westerfeld's blog of one of his other books, Pretties. The review is a little long but hang in there because there's a laugh-out-loud moment toward the end.

Of course, it doesn't mention Cal.

Local Promo--In A Long Distance Sort Of Way

This is related to writing, not children's literature:

Connecticut author (local for me) Katharine Weber will be one of four presenters at a workshop called FINDING THE FLOW: Writing from the Inside Out at the Pocket Sanctuary at Kenyon Ranch in Tumacacori, Arizona (which is probably local for someone else). This will be happening on January 17th through 21st. You can get more information by scrolling down on this page.

I would love to be able to write in flow. It happens to me for, like, three or four minutes at a time. I've actually read books on the subject.

For a kidlit connection, of sorts, Katharine Weber wrote The Little Women, which I would describe as a contemporary twist on the original Little Women. As you can probably tell from yesterday's post, I really like twisted classics.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A Butt-kicking Alice

The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor was published in England back in 2004, so I've been hearing about it for a while. The basic idea behind the story is that Alice, of Alice in Wonderland fame, is not a British child at all but a refugee from Wonderland who finds herself trapped in Victorian England where she is adopted by the Liddell family. She is actually Alyss Heart, a princess (from the red suit), whose mother, the Queen of Hearts, is overthrown by her evil sister Redd. Alyss is saved by Hatter Madigan, her mother's head of security, but her tall albino tutor has to stay behind.

She meets Charles Dodgson, the only person in our world who appears to believe her story, and he tells her he'll write a book about her experiences. She thinks this will prove once and for all that she's not making this stuff up. But when the book is finished, she's horrified to find that Dodgson has turned Hatter Madigan into a mad hatter and her tutor into a hare. Her entire life has become nonsense.

She tries to acclimate herself to her new world, but at the moment she's about to be married, her subjects find her and take her back to Wonderland so she can join the battle against her facist aunt Redd.

The Looking Glass Wars appears to be somewhat polarizing with a lot of readers disliking it. I'm not finding much in the way of raves for it anywhere, either.

Inspite of some technical complaints, though, I thought it was an entertaining read. A number of critics objected because many of the characters aren't exactly deep. And some felt there was too much violence. (After listening to Sabriel by Garth Nix, my tolerance for violence in YA has skyrocketed.) My own wonky fingerpointing has to do with some flipping among characters as the story is being told and the use of italics for Alyss's thoughts. Her internal life wasn't worked into the narrative at all. (I know, I know. Some people are going to say she didn't have an internal life.) The italics would just pop up, stopping the flow while the reader works out in her mind that this is Alyss thinking and what these thoughts say about her.

But, really, this is an action book. It's plot driven. You have to accept it for what it is. If you don't consider the original Alice books holy scripture and thus untouchable, you can have a good time with The Looking Glass Wars. It's the first in a trilogy, and I don't know how I'll feel about going on with the story, particularly if it no longer messes with the Alice stories. But if Beddor does go off on his own in Wonderland, it might be interesting to see if he can maintain a book without the connection to Lewis Carroll's work.

Beddor has already written a four-part graphic novel series The Looking Glass Wars: Hatter M..

Monday, November 27, 2006

A Nice Touch

I sometimes have trouble keeping up with my reading and fall behind with journals and magazines. But I did catch this Teen Picks column in the new The Edge of the Forest. Over the years there has been some confusion over what teenagers really read. This bunch was big on classics and adult books.

And, oh, look! I get a mention in Pam Coughlin's Bring on the Funny III feature.

That certainly motivates me to keep up with my reading.

But Blogging Isn't About Criticism. And That's A Good Thing.

Chicken Spaghetti found an essay in The Guardian regarding what really sounds very much like a pissing match (I can't think of a more genteel term) between a critic and a writer/blogger. According to Rachel Cooke, the author of the essay, the argument is over "what effect is the internet having on criticism?"

She goes on to say a number of harsh things about litbloggers and basically questions their ability to critique books. If they were better, they'd get paid for it.

I think everyone involved is laboring under the misconception that litblogs are about critiquing books. They aren't.

How many literary blogs truly are just one review after another? Not many of the ones I visit every day. Litbloggers cover "news"--who's got a new book out, what someone else said about it, who is going to appear where, what they did at said appearance. They talk about industry events they've attended. They talk about author sightings.

That's not criticism, folks. That's a fansite.

Just a month or two ago the kidlitblog world got into a discussion on whether or not so-called negative reviews should be posted. Many reviewers said they wouldn't do them, in part because they didn't finish reading books they didn't like or didn't read books they didn't like. Thus they aren't doing traditional "criticism" at all, and they aren't pretending to do so. They are making their readers aware of books they liked.

Now, I'm sure some people will see the words "fan" and "fansite" and become horrified because they're going to start thinking "Star Trek" and perhaps comic book conventions and write-in campaigns to save cult TV shows. Well, yeah, exactly. Do you think because we read books we're superior to other fans? Don't kid yourself. My eyes were opened this summer when I attended a Twilight Zone convention and felt as if I'd just walked into every author event I've ever been part of.

I love to read a good, professional, critical review as much as the next person. But out here in the carbon-based world, I don't know too many other people who do.
Literary criticism has existed for generations. It doesn't seem to be doing much to keep literature afloat right now. For years we've been reading about book sales suffering, reading in decline, the end of the written word. It's like the weather. Everyone talks about it, what?

The literary world needs a fan base. Litbloggers are providing it. Don't confuse it with critism.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

No, I Do Not Want This For Christmas

An action figure? Couldn't they have thought of something else to call it?

High School Is Hell

Really, it's just amazing the way bringing the supernatural/paranormal/freaky into a traditional YA story can liven things up.

Devilish by Maureen Johnson is the story of Jane Jarvis, "the angry, brainy type," who attends a Catholic school and who has a best friend who's kind of out of it and desperate to get some social action. Jane also hasn't gotten over the boyfriend who broke up with her six months earlier. This doesn't sound particularly ground-breaking, does it? However, Jane is being stalked not by the devil, who, if I understood the book correctly, doesn't actually exist, but by a demon who is part of the corporation that is Hell.

Suggesting that Hell follows a corporate model was a very nice touch.

The book takes a long time to set up its situation, with two new students added to the school mix, either one of whom could be a devilish element. However, Jane has a lot more common sense (which almost leads to her damnation, in fact) than many teen female protagonists in other worldy dilemmas. And she has a voice that, while not terribly unique, isn't whiny, either. Nor does she make jokes that fall flat, a common ailment with many YA narrators.

By the way, this is a book about demons and damnation, but the part of the story I didn't get came toward the end when Jane and her ex-boyfriend discuss why they broke up and who stopped talking to whom first. Romance is more of a mystery to me, I guess, than evil.

Johnson does two things well in this book. Providing information about characters is difficult and time-consuming, especially when a first-person narrator has to provide information about herself. It's hard to do that in a natural way. Johnson comes up with a neat little trick to crank out a lot of info about Jane and her best friend Allison in the first two pages of the story.

The other thing she does is provide a sense of place. This isn't something you hear critics and reviewers talk about much in YA books. It may be something writers and editors aren't too interested in and don't spend much time on. Johnson spends a lot of time on her setting, Providence, Rhode Island. By that I don't mean she loads the book with tedious description. But Jane talks about the places she's going, and what she says sounds real. I can't say I'm familiar with the city, having only driven by on the highway on my way to somewhere else, but I do know Faneuil Hall in Boston, another place Jane visits. Her setting is quite authentic at that point, so I'm assuming she has Providence right, too.

For a interview, visit Cupcakes Take the Cake to read Johnson's answers to questions about her demon's favorite source of nourishment.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Linda Sue Park On Her Experience With The National Book Award

Thanks to bookshelves of doom for the link to Linda Sue Park's journal entry regarding her experience as a judge for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Park and the other judges read 280 submissions. She says the first cut down to 50 books wasn't very difficult. One of the two major faults, in her opinion was "YA novels with weak story lines and protagonists whose whiny voices were indistinct from one another (LOTS of those)."

I didn't read the 280 books Park read, but generally speaking, I think she has a very valid point.

Peter Is Back

I am so glad Blogger is letting me upload images today so I can show everyone both the beautiful covers for Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean. The British cover is to the left, and the American to the right.

The story is just as wonderful as both its covers.

I've heard grumbling about this authorized sequel to Peter Pan, a book I suspect many people have heard of but few read these days. I, myself, haven't read the original since I was in second grade. Peter Pan in Scarlet seems to have all the ambiance of an early twentieth century British children's book, though, and McCaughrean does a wonderful job of logically bringing the Darling children back to Neverland as well as dealing with all the elements from the original book while not letting them bog down her new story.

In fact, this new book is so marvelous it has inspired me to plan a Peter Pan and J.M. Barrie binge for January after I'm through with the Cybils.

Here is just one of the juicie points I love about this book. A character in the book offers to serve Peter. "Your butler, perhaps! Your valet? Your serving man?" When asked what he should be called, he says, "My mother gave me the name Crichton, but like most things a mother gives, it is not worth the having." And he tells them to call him something else.

Well, Barrie wrote a play, The Admirable Crichton, about a butler named Crichton who works for a wealthy family. He and his employers are all shipwrecked on an island where he becomes their leader (a Peter Pan figure?) because he is the only person who knows anything of a practical nature that can keep them alive. The young women of the family are all over him. He is a force to be reckoned with.

And then they are rescued, and the hierarchy of wealth and privilege over knowledge and skill is restored.

This is the kind of detail I absolutely love. I love it even more because so few people (at least here in this country) will probably get it.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

And Now Paranormal Teens

When I first started reading Homefree by Nina Wright, I thought it was going to be a problem novel with some kind of fantasy element. I wasn't terribly enthusiastic. Then I got kind of excited because somehow I began to think it was going to be a philosophical story with weirdness. (Though I must admit, I rarely understand those kinds of things--though I want to.) Then I thought, hey, there are way too many coincidences in this thing. I know this girl Easter moves around a lot, but just how many paranormal classmates can one teen have? But that objection was pretty much explained by the end of the book. Then I thought, I never can follow astroprojection. Then I thought, gee, this would make a decent television series. The actress from Dead Like Me could play the main character.

Easter Hutton is your traditional teenage outcast, but the kind from a bad home not the kind who is middle class and has everything but thinks life sucks and wonders if anyone else has noticed. You'd think that suddenly realizing she's having uncontrolled out-of-body experiences could only make things worse. Oddly enough, she also finds out that she knows quite a number of people who also don't exactly fall into the classification known as normal.

Fortunately, there is a place for people like them.

While I was reading Homefree, I realized that there's a good reason why teenagers, and perhaps all of us, like stories about groups of oddly gifted individuals. Most people feel like outcasts at some point or another in their lives, or at the very least outsiders. What a comfort it would be if someone, say, like the guy in the wheelchair in X-Men or the people in Homefree came along, told us we were special, and provided a safe place for us with other people like ourselves.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


The incredible variety of material that turns up in fantasy is just amazing.

Yesterday I finished reading The Lurkers by Charles Butler, which has a bodysnatcher element that I definitely appreciated. There was even a cemetary scene with what appear to be zombies.

Soon after the beginning of our story, a rather unique group known as the lurkers is trying to take over the world or at least the town where Verity and her brother John live. John has inadvertantly given them an opening. Only Verity recognizes what is happening.

Verity, as her name suggests, is seriously into truth and that is the reason given for why she doesn't succumb to the "lurkers" the way everyone else has. I like that idea. We live in a culture where truth doesn't matter much anymore, nor does anyone much regret its loss. Two books I've read recently (Gilda Joyce and the Ladies of the Lake and The Shadow Thieves) have very nice main characters for whom lying has become an acceptable fact of life. So to create a character who recognizes truth seems to me an interesting idea. Almost unique.

I did feel, though, that we could have used more explanation for why truth mattered so much to her. Having been named Verity just didn't seem enough. And I also thought it would have been more realistic to have her seek help from her parents earlier and more rigorously. She accepted some really creepy stuff rather easily. More parental involvement would have been more frightening, too. To have had aid from Dad and then lost it because he, too, had gone over to the lurkers would have been quite chilling.

This is, however, a book for children rather than young adults and perhaps there's a limit to how chilling the author felt he should be.

This is a British book that doesn't appear to be available in the United States. I wonder what kind of impact the ending will have in Britain. I like to imagine thousands of kids hunting for the cafe at Tesco's where Verity...

Well, it would be exciting if that happened.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Short Stories And Kids

I've recently started dropping by a blog called Bookseller Chick. Yesterday she had a post in which she asked for short story recommendations for a sixth-grade girl.

I was interested in this request (and the responses) because when the Gauthier offspring were that age they rarely read short stories at school. They read novels, which is just fine and dandy. However, how often are sixth-grade kids asked to write a novel? Nowhere near as often as they're asked to write short stories. What did they have to model their writing on? Nothing.

I realize that nowadays kids are probably not asked to write fiction because of the NCLB requirements. They're probably busy scribbling essays. Do they get to read essays in class? Is there anything for them to use as a model?

I'm not suggesting that kids need something to copy or a "model" to adhere to. I'm suggesting that it's a whole lot easier to write a short story or essay if you live within a sort of short story or essay culture, if you follow my meaning. In fact, it's a whole lot easier just to be interested in short stories or essays if you're reading a steady diet of them.

I cannot tell you how many years I had to read essays before I even considered writing them.

A Lone Voice Of Dissent--And It's Not Mine!

Emily Bazelon at Slate really, really doesn't like The Astonishing Life of Ocatavian Nothing, this year's National Book Award winner for young adult fiction. I haven't read the book yet, but I certainly understand what it's like to not get what everyone else sees in a particular book.

I've been there many, many times.

Bazelon brings up some points that are of general interest:

"Young-adult books are typically of more interest to preteen readers (or adults) than they are to teens." Years ago this was the conventional wisdom. I was definitely told by a publishing contact that teenagers didn't read YA fiction. However, that's not supposed to be the case any longer. At least, YA fiction is said to be doing very well these days as far as sales are concerned. Whether YAs are the ones buying and reading it, I can't say.

"I wonder, too,"Bazelon says, "if the YA handle doesn't give an author greater license to brand a book around a message." An interesting question. Certainly the idea that literature for the young needs to be improving goes back to the nineteenth century. Do twenty-first century writers feel they need to do it? Or are there twenty-first century writers who just want to do it?

Bazelon speaks of "...another feature of Anderson's writing—its difficulty. Pox Party is replete with too-good-for-the-SAT vocabulary words." I've noticed some really impressive vocabulary in many of the Cybils nominees I've been reading. One book used schadenfreude. Thank goodness the author defined it gracefully within the text, but still. Are middle graders and YAs grilled in vocabulary to such an extent that they're nearly able to speak another language? Different from mine, at least?

Bazelon concludes with "The adult raves aside, I wonder how many of them there are. [Teenagers who really want to read the book.] Pox Party bears all the worthy marks of a book that makes adults swoon and kids roll their eyes." This is probably true of many books published in kidlit.

Well, personally, I think some negative responses to a well-regarded book only enhances it. As much as I like M.T. Anderson's work, I wasn't looking forward to reading Pox Party because I'm turned off by lovefests. This article actually makes the book sound more enticing to me. So at some point, probably long after everyone else has gone on to something else, I'll be reading it.

Is This An Allegory, Too?

Imagine that you're reading about a culture that wants to impose its ideas on another. An occupying army is involved. People from each culture are suspicious of the other's spiritual believes. The status of women is dramatically different in the two cultures.

Are you reading a news article about the Iraq conflict or Voices by Ursula K. Le Guin?

The answer is obviously Voices because this is a litblog. This reader, though, wonders if the book isn't, at least in part, another allegory in which the characters and situations represent figures or events in narrative form. (I'm slicing and dicing Roger Sutton's definition of the "A-word.") The figures and events represented, of course, being the U.S. forces and Iraqis.

If so, the interesting aspect of this particular allegory is that the occupied culture seems to represent us while the occupying culture seems to represent them. Or maybe I'm just reading that into the book because I want to identify with the people with all the books.

If I'm right, and this is an allegory, what am I to make of seventeen-year-old Memer, an off-spring (through rape) of both cultures? What about the resolution of this story? Is Le Guin predicting a possible outcome for our present impasse?

And what about the big cat? What does that represent?

Ursula Le Guin brought me to science fiction the year after I got out of college. She wasn't the iconic figure she is now. In fact, I think I became interested in her books because I read an article about how novel she was, a woman writing science fiction. She had already won a couple of Hugo Awards and a Nebula, which I guess is what a woman had to do back then to be written up as a science fiction writer. She had also, interestingly enough, already written a Newbery Honor Book.

Le Guin has always written children's/Ya literature, even long before it was cool to do so.

Monday, November 20, 2006

I'm Afraid Of What Might Happen Tonight

We've had a slew of new nominations today for The Cybils. There's something like three and a half hours to go before the deadline. I don't know what time zone they're talking about.

I'll be at the library tomorrow ordering another half dozen books on Interlibrary Loan. I think they hate me there.

Three Hours Of Work On A Good Day

Meg Rosoff's piece at The Guardian about her work day reminded me of an article I read years ago before I started publishing regularly. The article was about how some New England writer spent his day. It involved reading the newspaper, going for a walk, and taking a nap. Every day.

I remember thinking, Dear God, do I really want to be a writer?

Thank you, Michele at A Scholar's Blog

Sunday, November 19, 2006

"A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space" (Huzzah!)

Well, people, while reporting on my recent fantasy and scifi reading I've talked about the Greek myth genre and royal fantasies and genre benders and cyberpunk and Cinderella getting religion and wizards (which must be a genre if Greek myth is) and allegory.

Today it's alternative history's turn.

Larklight by Philip Reeve at first sounds very much like a Victorian story of upperclass British children living in one of that nation's colonial possesions. Then, around the end of page three, Myrtle, the narrator's older sister says, "The gravity generator has gone wrong again! Find a servant, Art, and send them down to the boiler room to mend it."

It's not long before the two very British, very nineteenth century siblings are off on an adventure through space, one in which they and the British empire will be in great danger.

It seems that Sir Isaac Newton's discovery of gravity somehow leads to the exploration of space, and by 1851, when our story takes place, Britain has had colonies in space for well over a hundred years.

The world Reeve has created is well-conceived and extremely detailed. All the planets are "Class M," as they used to say in Star Trek, meaning they very conveniently sustain human life. This doesn't make the book far-fetched. It makes it fun. (There's a Star Trek reference toward the end of the book, too, made funnier by the fact that the characters have no knowledge of the show or television because it doesn't yet exist.)

Larklight plays on what we adults know of nineteenth century British imperial attitudes. Myrtle, in particular, embodies the attitudes of her time and class. After crashing on the moon, she approaches one of the mushroom-like creatures who live there and says, "Excuse me, my good fungus, we have been shipwrecked on your horrid planet. Please direct us to the residence of the British Governor." Being a good Victorian lady, she is prone to fainting and when she fails to faint at a couple of appropriate points, she worries, "Does this mean that I have not been properly brought up? I am quite sure it would have been the ladylike thing to do."

There are all kinds of twists on nineteenth century period detail that adults will enjoy immensely (or, at least those of us with some modest knowledge of the period will), though I'm not sure if kids will get them. Will that matter with an adventure story as well done as Larklight? I don't think so. In fact, I can easily imagine myself as a child reading about the Richard Burton of Larklight and then years later finding out that there really was such a person and remembering that I'd already heard of him. Sort of.

That kind of thing happened all the time when I was a kid. Actually, it still does.

A couple of interesting points: 1. Larklight is a book either sex can enjoy because Myrtle, while a bit of a pill, has her own adventures. Plus there are two swashbuckling female aliens. 2. Many adventure books focus on characters right around twelve- or thirteen-years-old, which makes the exploits of said characters just a little bit unbelievable. While Art, Larklight's narrator, is probably that age, Myrtle and the pirate who they hook up with are closer to fifteen. And, of course, fifteen-year-olds can do just about anything.

And a third interesting point: I find many of the websites made specifically for a book title beautiful but gimmicky and superficial. They're often slow to load and have little significant content. Larklight's has a very entertaining feature called A British Boy's Guide to the Planets by Art Mumby (Larklight's main character). You'll find it under Aethernet Explorer. There's also an excellent interview with the author at Gentlemen of Devonshire.

I May Need To Know This One Day

This is the kind of thing I read and think, Wow, you may want to know this if you ever write that historical novel you've been thinking about.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Great Character Makes The Allegory Go Down Easier

I had totally forgotten that Roger Sutton mentioned Gossamer by Lois Lowry in his recent post about allegory. Fortunately, A Fuse #8 Production reminded me just in time for my own musings on Lowry's newest book.

First off, Roger defined allegory (for which I thank him very much) as "the representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in narrative, dramatic, or pictorial form." He also suggested that Gossamer, as well as The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, are allegories and that they have "inspired strong reactions." He wonders "if there's something in the nature of allegory itself that prompts the strong response."

Personally, I don't find allegories very subtle. They tend to have lessons, as Roger also mentioned in his post, though his definition doesn't come out and say it. With allegories, I don't get to work out the lesson for myself the way I do in most fiction. Instead, I get hit over the head with it. It's almost as if the author is saying, "Okay, in case you don't get it, what I mean is..." So I think the reason many people have trouble with allegory is because allegory makes them feel as if they're not being treated with respect as readers. They're being treated as if they can't figure out meaning on their own.

Allegory in children's books also tends to be a little sappy. At best.

Now we come to Gossamer. (Once again, I couldn't upload the cover.)

You could say there were two storylines in Gossamer, a fantasy storyline and a very realistic storyline. The realistic storyline is very predictable, one we've seen many times before--an unhappy child comes together with a lonely, elderly person and both their lives improve. There's an instructional, social commentary aspect to their story because the boy (and his mother) are the victims of an abusive father and husband.

The fantasy storyline--about a child being who brings dreams to humans--is another thing entirely. It brings novelty to the book. This is where the allegory comes in. The little dream giver learns that we must all change, change is painful, etc. And, yes, it was a little unsubtle and syrupy.

Here's the thing, though: that child dream giver, Littlest One, is just a marvelous character. She is chatty and giggly and caring and not at all human. She is childlike while at the same time not like any child you know. She is a marvelous creation.

I suspect that kid readers are going to skip the instructive, realistic portion of this book and shoot right for the parts that deal with Littlest One.

I came up with another question while I was writing this post. Roger said that these allegorical books had "brought the knives out." He meant, of course, among adults who read children's literature. What about child readers? Are they bothered by allegory the way adults are? Or do they like having the point of stories underlined for them?

Friday, November 17, 2006

I Love This Guy

I skipped the section on The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing because I haven't read it yet, and I still found this Book Standard interview with M.T. Anderson just marvelous. He has wonderful things to say about series fiction, particularly the old time stuff and how his writing may "overtly explore" his believes.

Thank you, Bookslut, for the link. And to think I almost knocked off work early and didn't read you tonight.

A Possible Alternative To Girls-Gone-Bad Books?

In spite of its very kiddy cover (which Blogger refuses to upload for me), Gilda Joyce and the Ladies of the Lake by Jennifer Allison is a sophisticated, well written book for the middle school set who are also the audience for The Clique series.

Gilda Joyce is a high school freshman who calls herself a psychic investigator, though in this particular book (the second in a series) the psychic element is limited to some events that may or may not be the result of a haunting. (There's only one true haunt that I can recall in the whole book.) She's also into writing, and her writing is a hoot. In addition, she has a hip, flippant way about her. She's like a much more realistic Georgia Nicholson. She's smart without setting your teeth on edge. For instance, Gilda is interested in MacBeth, not because she's one of those annoying smart girls who reads Shakespeare, but because the play includes three witches.

The story (and there is one) is told through a number of devices: a traditional third person narrator, Gilda's typewritten detective notes, other pieces of her writing, and letters she writes to her father. Who is dead.

Yeah, you heard me. She writes to her dead dad. This is not a ghostly element, because he doesn't write back. Gilda is just sort of maintaining a relationship with her father. It's also a totally believable--and clever--way to get information out.

Now, I'm guessing some of you out there may be thinking, Gee, Gail, you're always complaining about books that use journal entries to tell their story. How come you don't have your knickers in a twist over using letters?

Mainly because these are letters to a dead dad, and I haven't seen dead dad letters a million times the way I've seen journal entries a million times. When everyone starts using dead dad letters in their books, I'll start complaining about that, too.

You also might be thinking, Gee, Gail, why would the kids who are interested in The Clique series be at all interested in this book?

Because, my friends, The Ladies of the Lake includes teen girls gone bad. It has rich girls who think they're all that and cut other girls out of their lives. And it has girls who want to be part of their group. Even Gilda feels the lure.

Remember, The Clique books are directed to a slightly younger audience than the other girls-gone-bad books, and the one book I read in the series was much tamer than the older girl books. The female characters weren't getting drunk on their backsides and performing sexual acts with boys they'd just met. I think your Clique readers may very well be interested in something that includes the teen posses they love to read about but in a mystery setting.

Gilda is a twenty-first century teen detective. She solves the case, but she doesn't make everything wonderful for everyone, including herself. There's no contrived happy ending here.

And as an added bonus, though this book is the second in a series, it stands alone. The author doesn't have to do a lot of catch up in the early chapters for those of us who didn't read the original book, and she doesn't leave us with a cliffhanger. (Though she does introduce a new character who I suspect we'll see again.)

So, altogether, I'd have to call this a satisfying mystery.

Madonna's New Book Tanking

This headline blames bad publicity around Madonna's adoption of a Malawian child for poor sales of her new book, The English Roses: Too Good To Be True. I think the bad publicity regarding the following passage said to come from the book might have had something to do with it:

"If you haven't heard of the English Roses by now then you are either: a) living under a rock, b) living on the moon, c) away with the fairies. If you fit the description of a, b, or c, then I am happy to clue you in to what the rest of the world already knows."

I'm not touching the baby fiasco, but I feel pretty comfortable saying that arrogance is unforgivable.

Wait. That was probably an arrogant thing to say.

Let's put it another way. Arrogance is a major turnoff, anyway, but particularly in a writer. Readers read to connect with writers. Not that many people want to bathe themselves in others' arrogance. An arrogant attitude doesn't make people want to run out and put down their cold, hard cash to buy your books. It doesn't even encourage curiousity, which is the big factor that celebrity authors have going for them.

Okay, the lines from Madonna's book may have been taken out of context. Maybe she meant something totally different and nonarrogant. But once they were lifted and quoted, some serious damage was done.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Fun Ride In A Hellish Sort Of Way

School Library Journal called Anne Ursu's The Shadow Thieves "a great addition to this newly popular Greek-myth genre."

There's a "Greek-myth genre?" When did that happen? Did somebody send a memo?

Can anybody start a genre?

I read the first page of The Shadow Thieves, and my heart sank. It's written in one of these third person voices in which the unnamed third-person narrator speaks to the reader. I hate that. By the third page a kitten had appeared. Just forty-eight hours before, I'd read a perfectly awful book with kittens.

I held The Shadow Thieves in my hands and thought, Damn. I have to read this whole stinking thing.

By page nine I had totally reversed myself and stayed that way for the rest of the book. The voice wasn't annoying. It had attitude. A great attitude. And the cat wasn't icky and annoying. She had attitude, too.

Plus she wasn't around all the time.

Once upon a time there was a girl named Charlotte who turned thirteen and developed a bit of attitude as thirteen-year-olds do. She also had a cousin named Zachary who was British and perfect. Except for the business of attracting a shadow thief from hell. Well, from Hades, actually. Charlotte and Zachary find themselves in the unenviable position of having to save not the world, not civilization, but eternity. The afterlife.

I have wondered in this space if writers read differently than other people do. As I was reading this book, I kept thinking about the choices Ursu made while writing it. That voice, for instance. She almost lost me in those first couple of pages. It took a while to hook me. And as she says, herself, plotwise "We Begin in the Middle." Then she went on to "The Beginning," "The End of the Beginning," and "The Beginning of the End." This moving around in her storyline works, I think, because the first two sections deal with different characters.

Her characters also are different. Charlotte and Zachary are different and not just because one is a girl and one is a boy and one is white and one is bi-racial and one is American and one is English. They are different human beings.

And then the folks in the Underworld--they are hysterical in a terrifying sort of way. Ursu must really know her Greek mythology. Believe me, it's hard to write humor about things you don't know.

In spite of the great wit in this book, The Shadow Thieves is a dark tale because its basic premise is that the afterlife of Greek mythology is true. Remember those grim depictions of Hades when Odysseus had to trot on down there? Yeah, it was not a pretty sight, and in the world of The Shadow Thieves that's what's waiting for all of us when we pass on. Though an epilogue suggests things aren't as bad as they seem (and The Shadow Thieves is the first in a trilogy, so perhaps something else will be revealed in a later book), the portrayal of the afterlife is disturbing. The book's vocabulary is sophisticated, and though Ursu does a good job of prepping readers for the mythological references, I do wonder if they won't be enjoyed more by those who are already familiar with that material.

The book's publisher is marketing the book for grades three to seven. I think it's going to shoot over the heads of the kids on the low end of that range. But it should be a pleasure for older kids.

And, personally, I'm going to be seeking out Ursu's books for adults as well as the next book in this series.

Loco Promo

The following authors (and an illustrator) will be appearing at an event called Literary Lights – A Holiday Book Festival on Friday, December 8, from 6:00-8:30 p.m., at the Arts Center at 299 Greenwich Avenue in Greenwich, Connecticut:

Barry Blitt, who illustrated The 39 Apartments of Ludwig Van Beethoven, which came out in September

Nora Raleigh Baskin, a Connecticut author whose In the Company of Crazies was published in August

Peter Brown whose book Chowder was published in September

Promote locally! No, most of you will not make the trip to Greenwich from where you are to see these people, but now you've seen their names and book titles.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

These Are...Ah...Interesting I Guess Is A Nice Way To Put It

Since I found these covers for Scott Westerfeld's Uglies trilogy at ACHOCKABLOG, I'm assuming they're from the British editions.

So the Brits like this kind of thing?

Today was the first time I've gone to ACHOCKABLOG in months because it's so slow to load. I'm feeling all nostalgic for the days when I used to go there regularly.

Updating My Blogroll

Computer Guy added some new blogs to my blogroll this morning. These are not brand spanking new blogs by any means. They're blogs I've been watching, blogs from my personal list of favorites that I visit every day. After I watch a blog for a while, I decide whether or not I want to recommend it to others.

Originally I recommended blogs that did three things:

Dealt specifically with children's and/or YA literature.

Updated regularly.

Limited the majority of their posts to professional vs. personal material. (Yes, I have one link on my roll that gets very personal, but she refers to her site as a journal, not a blog, and one link of that nature is quite enough for me.)

Now I'm also interested in kidlit blogs that specialize in some way.

For instance, I've been watching Wands and Worlds, as well as another blog, which shall remain nameless, because they both dealt with fantasy and science fiction. The nameless blog hasn't been updated in ages, so Wands and Worlds made the cut. Sheila at Wands and Worlds tends to business. The fact that she is also the chairperson of my panel for the Cybils is totally irrelevant.

I don't know if Michele at A Scholar's Blog is a member of some of my listservs, or what, but I've been seeing her around the Internet for a long time. She also writes about fantasy and has the added bonus of being English. Why, you may ask, does that matter? Because America isn't the only country that publishes children's literature. We're not the center of the universe. Well, yes, we are, but we ought to be at least aware of what's going on in the rest of the world.

Oz and Ends is a relatively new blog focusing on both history and fantasy literature for children. A twofer! I haven't been watching him as long as the others, but J.L. Bell, the person behind Oz and Ends is all over the listservs, so I think he'll be around for a while. He gets kind of academic now and then. I like academic now and then, though the amount of stuff I've downloaded from Bell's links so I can read it later is going to take a substantial chunk out of my vacation in January.

Oh, dear. I just realize I've been assuming J.L. Bell is a man. I don't know why. Sorry if I'm wrong.

Note: I like that both A Scholar's Blog and Oz and Ends post about older books and don't just focus on this season's big thing. I think bringing attention to worthy titles that are no longer getting press elsewhere should be an important part of our mission.

Finally, I was surprised to see that bookshelves of doom wasn't already on my blogroll. I just assumed. Leila also makes a point of bringing up older books. For instance, she's personally responsible for making sure we don't forget the best of the Nancy Drew covers.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Some Meme Filler

I am not crazy about memes, but I have to finish another Cybil book before I can do any reviewing, and in the meantime I need some content that doesn't require a trememdous amount from me. The memory meme below is one that fits very well with kidlit, so I'm not feeling creepy about using it. I found it at Booklust, the blog of a young Canadian illustrator named Patricia Storms.

1. How old were you when you learned to read and who taught you?
I was in first grade, which means I was six. Presumably Mrs. Farnham taught me.

2.Did you own any books as a child? If so, what’s the first one that you remember owning? If not, do you recall any of the first titles that you borrowed from the library?
My sister and I received a pile of Little Golden Books for Christmas sometime before I turned 8. I remember borrowing Billy and Blaze, probably from a school library, when I was in first or second grade. (See The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen for a riff on a boy and his horse.) I also remember borrowing Alice in Wonderland from the bookmobile after we noved to another school. I believe I was in third grade because the bookmobile lady was surprised I hadn't read it yet. Clearly this was a humiliating experience, which is why I remember it.

3. What’s the first book that you bought with your own money?
Nancy Drew, of course. I also bought 48 Marvel comic books during my early teen years. If I hadn't read them to bits, they'd be worth something now. I know because we had a couple appraised when I passed them on to a young relative who now owns hundreds--if not more--of the things.

4. Were you a re-reader as a child? If so, which book did you re-read most often?
Hmmm. I don't think so. I think even then I felt there was so much to read. I did, however, re-read my mother's copy of Little Men so many times the final page fell out. Little Men has been hugely important in my life. I am Jo in Little Men.

5. What’s the first adult book that captured your interest and how old were you when you read it?
I read a lot of Sherlock Holmes books, which were written for adults no matter what people believe now. I also read a great deal of historical fiction when I was a teenager, and I'm sure I was reading adult historical novels at a pretty early age. I was particularly fond of generational books, things that took place over a century or more in one family. I know I was also reading historical romances--Victoria Holt, Daphne du Maurier. I was hugely fond of Mark Twain (though not Huckleberry Finn) and read his autobiography in eighth grade. I was quite young when I read To Kill A Mockingbird.

6. Are there children’s books that you passed by as a child that you have learned to love as an adult? Which ones?
I never read Anne of Green Gables when I was young, Understood Betsy, or The Little House books. I can't say I learned to love them as an adult. I respect them.

So I think that's a meme that stays on topic pretty well.

Monday, November 13, 2006

A Different YA Voice

Some kidlit people believe there is a YA voice and that it involves a first-person narrator. To me all this means is that a great many YA books seem to be narrated by the same few people. You've got your angst-ridden wiseass Holden Caulfield types for guys and your tough-cookie outsider types for girls. And variations on same.

Part of what is so marvelous about Pucker by Melanie Gideon is the voice of its seventeen-year-old narrator, Thomas Quicksilver. Or Thomas Gale. Or Pucker. His voice is both modestly wiseass and yet mature and sophisticated. He sounds like a teenager, but one who is self-aware instead of self-obsessed.

Thomas's maturity is probably due to the physical and psychic pain he has endured since he was disfigured in a fire when he was a child. That was back before he and his mother were exiled to Earth from Isaura, a "pocket of a world," a parallel reality. The exile thing was maturing, too.

Now his mother is dying, and he has to find his way back to Isaura in order to save her. He can't let the people there know he's back. Fortunately, he can hide himself among the handful of humans who pass into Isaura, humans with severe health problems who the Isaurans "change" in exchange for those humans becoming their permanent servants.

And so Thomas, who is known at his high school as Pucker because that is what the burn scars on his face do, gets the face he was meant to have. And it just happens to be beautiful. He will have to enjoy it as much as he can during the short time he'll be in Isaura hunting for what his mother needs, because when he returns to Earth he'll change back into a burn victim.

Now Thomas has women throwing themselves at him and men envying him. He recognizes what being beautiful is doing to him, he despises himself, but he continues anyway.

This book raises questions not just about beauty about about quality of life. Just how much will you sacrifice to be able to...get out of your wheelchair? Be separated safely from your conjoined twin? Be able to go out in the sunlight?

On top of all that, there's at least one powerful surprise toward the end.

The book does suffer from a few little illogical plotting moves. Doesn't anyone on Earth notice that critically ill humans are disappearing? Their families don't look for them? And a few Isaurans end up coming to the United States. How do they manage without birth certificates and social security numbers? How do they get into schools?

But don't let those details discourage you. Pucker is a joy to read.

If Only This Were So

I think you may have to be an obsessive reader to get this. Or maybe obsessive nonreaders will think it's funny, too.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Little Too Harsh, Perhaps

I hate to take on Naomi Wolfe, because I do appreciate that she brings a feminist perspective to children's literature. However, I think she was a little too harsh in her New York Times' review of Fairest by Gail Carson Levine.

While I agree with her that the singing in the book doesn't work, I don't think it's at all inappropriate that Aza, the main character, "sees herself harshly, for most of the book" and "sees others who possess beauty in an equally obsessive way." Wolfe says, "this worldview is not terribly interesting."

It's interesting if you're a teenager, which is the group the book was written for. It's audience is probably going to be girls on the younger end of adolescence and appearance is important to them. Wolfe and I may not think that's right, but what we think isn't going to change anything. Adolescents are self-conscious about their appearance and to be told outright that you're unattractive, as Aza is, is going to be the source of pain and suffering. To make Aza just take it, to just ignore it because she's above all that would be nice and instructional for readers, but it wouldn't have a whole lot to do with the world that, sad to say, they have to live in.

Wolf also says, "If you look at the great unbeautiful heroines of literature, whatever they were contending with, they insisted on the right to love themselves."

I wish she had told us who these unbeautiful heroines might be, and if they were teenage characters.

Finally, Wolf tells us, "A heroine who obsesses about her own appearance — especially when she is experiencing such intriguing things as dragon-flake soap and skirmishes with ogres — interferes with the reader’s encounter with her magical world, just as it interferes with her understanding of her own situation."

This raises another question for me about fantasy, which, as you all know because I keep telling you, I've been reading these last two weeks. What's the point of fantasy? Is it just so that we can encounter a magical world? Or is the magical world used to do something else? To address a theme, for instance?

I think Carson Levine was trying to do something more in Fairest then just provide us with an opportunity to encounter a magical world. I think she was trying to make statements about how we perceive others and how we feel about ourselves. I think those statements go down a little easier because she made them through a character who responds to her situation as many teenage girls would.

Thanks to Big A little a for the link. I forgot all about The New York Times children's supplement this weekend and am glad you didn't.

Cyberpunk For Kids

My knowledge of cyberpunk is limited to a few books by William Gibson, only one of which I can say I enjoyed. But I do think The Softwire: Virus on Orbis 1 by PJ Haarsma is an example of this sub-genre of science fiction.

Basically, Virus on Orbis 1 involves a large group of human children, no older than thirteen, who were born on a spaceship after all their parents (and the other adults with them) died while traveling to begin a new life on Orbis 1. The kids are raised for years by a computer they call Mother. They know they are going to Orbis, they know they are going to live there.

When they arrive, however, they find that their parents had indentured themselves in order to make the trip. Since the parents are all dead, the kids will have to work off the debt working for various aliens who are remarkably into capitalist enterprises. In order to understand all the different lifeforms there, the children are implanted with a translator chip. (Remember the universal translator on Star Trek?) This device also makes it possible for them to upload infromation from computers and thus learn what they need to know to get along in this new society.

This interface between man and machine is the cyberpunk element.

One boy, however, doesn't need the implant. He's a softwire--a living being who can interface with computers without any kind of implant. He's the only softwire known to have existed among humans.

Virus on Orbis 1 seems like hardcore science fiction, and this definition claims that cyberpunk, itself, is hardcore because of its reliance on technology or biology. Virus on Orbis 1 is also pretty good. Usually I find stories set on spaceships or space stations or confined places like Orbis 1 claustrophobic, but that didn't bother me with this book. And this book doesn't focus so much on the scifi that it forgets it's a kids' book. You have themes of identity going on here--Who were my parents? What am I, and why am I the way I am?

I found the climax somewhat chaotic and confusing, myself. To be perfectly truthful, though, I have to say I usually have some trouble with cyberpunk novels around the climax. The technical aspects of the story always get away from me. I'm not prepared to hold this against Orbis.

In fact, at a time when fantasy is riding high in kidlit, this is a good example of real science fiction.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

I May Be Getting In Over My Head

You guys have noticed that I'm just a little bit obsessive, right? I can feel myself entering some kind o.c. episode as a result of all my reading for the Cybils.

Because I've been reading fantasy and science fiction, I read J.L. Bell's and M.T. Anderson's discussion of fabulism vs. fantasy at Oz and Ends and have just started printing out some of Bell's links to more material on the subject. (Including a fifteen page essay at Agni Online. What was I thinking? When will I ever have a chance to read that? In my next life?)

In the original post/discussion, M.T. Anderson describes the elements that he sees as distinguishing a new sort fabulism from fantasy, including the following:

"Less emphasis on the construction of coherent alternative worlds, and more on the mechanics of fable. The "unreal" elements are introduced with a specific view to their symbolic, symbolist, or psychological resonance, rather than any definite insistence upon their physical reality or the continuity of another world."

Okay, I'm going to admit right off that that's getting a little deep for me. However, I think it fits in with a question that just happens to be bouncing around in my mind today.

If the author decides not to worry too much about constructing a coherent world to emphasize "unreal" elements as symbols or because she's interested in some psychological aspect, does anything have to make sense? Don't things need to fit into their world, their context, to have some meaning? And what about authors who don't create a coherent world and emphasize "unreal" elements only because those elements are freaky or fun and not because the authors have an interest in symbol or psychology? Can a reader always tell one situation from the other?

I suspect that the response to all that is, "When you can take the stone from my hand, grasshopper..."

Actually, what I was thinking about before I read any of the stuff at Oz and Ends, was: If you make up some weird situations we don't see every day, give some characters funny names, and have them do improbable things, is that fantasy?

Perhaps I'll have answers for some of this in five or six months.

Friday, November 10, 2006

What I've Learned So Far

As part of my Cybils responsibilities I have read seven and a half books in the last twelve days. Though I have certainly read fantasy and science fiction before, and even written a bit of it, I've never read so much in such a short time. Here is my impression:

If you start reading a fantasy novel and you think, Damn, this is another teenage journal/Cinderella/nasty-teen-girl-posse story, there's a possibility that you will, at some point, be surprised. Something interesting could happen even in a flawed book.

If you start reading a mainstream novel and think, Damn, this is another teenage journal/Cinderella/nasty-teen-girl-posse story, you're probably right.

With a fantasy novel, you have hope.

How To Arrange Books?

How can anyone even raise the question of how to arrange books? It's so obvious. So-called literary fiction is filed chronologically within nationalities. (British, American, Canadian.) Science fiction and mystery by author with, of course, any really old stuff coming first. Nonfiction by topic. Biography goes back to chronological order, of course.

Chronological order is a wonderful concept. So linear.

Thanks to Chasing Ray for the link.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Doesn't Seem To Be A Problem

I keep worrying that the Septimus Heap books by Angie Sage will suffer because of their similarities to those other wizard books.You have a boy who is a powerful wizard but didn't know it for the first ten or eleven years of his life; a large, poor wizard family with one son who goes bad; a powerful evil wizard; a powerful good wizard; ghosts.

But all these overlaps don't seem to matter.

Maybe that's because the Septimus Heap books are well-written. The plot and world are more logical than other wizard books that come to mind. There are no parallel universes, for instance. (Just how does a wizard and human world co-exist, anyway? How can you possibly get from one to another? And if those wizards are so smart, why are they using parchment and quills when the lame humans have word processors?) There are no dramatic swings between cartoon portrayals of humans and deep important themes. There are no long stretches filled with clever details that don't necessarily move the story along.

We're only into book two, but so far the kids are staying young, which helps to keep the story focused on wizardry and evil instead of dating and whose taking whom to the wizard equivalent of the prom.

I listened to the first Heap book on CD. I read the second, and I have to say I appreciate the size of the book. While it has a hefty number of pages, the pages aren't large. The book fits in the reader's hands, and is easy to read in bed.

Uh-oh. Now I've Got To Start Reading This

I've been aware of Oz and Ends, a blog relating to fantasy literature for young readers, but because I've never been that in to fantasy, I remained only "aware" of it. But now I'm on the nominating panel for the scifi and fantasy section of the The Cybils, and I'm becoming interested. Today Jen Robinson linked to a post at Oz and Ends that was so juicy I made a hard copy so I can sit down and read it with a pen. And I saw another post there I need to read, too.

Now I've added this blog to my personal list of daily reads. I'm going to have to bump somebody else off. I just can't keep going on like this, especially right now when I have dozens of Cybils books to read.

They're piling up upstairs, by the way. Computer Guy doesn't think I can possibly read them all. He doesn't know how many more are coming.

Yes, Yes, Go Forth And Read This Book

A Fuse #8 Production reminded me that Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, one of the authors of Cheaper By The Dozen, has died, something that slipped through my consciousness when I heard it recently.

Yes, the book is wonderful. I read it when I was a teenager, and I read it again to my children.

Here is my feminist lecture: Though Frank Gilbreth is a towering figure in Cheaper By The Dozen, his wife, Lillian Moller Gilbreth, was a groundbreaker in the professional world, becoming one of the first women to work in the field of engineering.

Oh, and I've probably mentioned here before that my mother-in-law knew someone who married one of the Gilbreth children. Ruthie went to the wedding and met Lillian Gilbreth.

The Gilbreth parents were time-and-motion wonks, into workplace efficency. In the early part of the twentieth century, there was a lot of interest in their field. Cheaper By The Dozen is a sort of historical document, reflecting its era. At the end of it, Carey and Frank Gilbreth Jr. write:

"Someone once asked Dad: 'But what do you want to save time for? What are you going to do with it?'

"'For work, if you love that best,' said Dad. 'For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure.' He looked over the top of his pince-nez. 'For mumblelty-peg, if that's where your heart lies.'"

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Book Fair For People In Southern New England

This weekend is the Connecticut Children's Book Fair at The University of Connecticut in Storrs. Among the authors/illustrators attending: Michael Buckley (The Sisters Grimm) and Jane Yolen(everything).

I met an author Sunday night who plans to go to the book fair on Saturday and just camp out, leaving only for lunch. I won't be visiting this year even though Jane Yolen will be there. I'm pretty much over my Jane obsession of a couple of years ago. And if I weren't, going to see her would be just a little bit like stalking, don't you think?

So I will be home Saturday reading for The Cybils.

The Spirit of God Comes To Cinderella

Bella at Midnight by Diane Stanley is another spin on Cinderella, this one with a Christian twist. God is a fact of life for many of the characters, and Heaven is a comforting place for one of the stepsisters, who has lost her own father. We also have a pilgrimage and a little of the Joan of Arc story thrown in for good measure. And, yes, the spirit of God truly does come to this Cinderella.

I found this incredibly intriguing. What also intrigues me is that I don't see much reference to this book's Christian, perhaps medieval Catholic, imagery in other reviews. Am I reading too much into Bella at Midnight because of all my years teaching Sunday school? I think there is a parent population interested in spirituality and bringing religion into their children's daily lives who would like to take a look at this book, if they knew what was in it.

On the negative side (and I usually do have a negative side, don't I?), the interesting aspects of this book don't turn up until well after the mid-point. The story is also told in the first person by many of the characters, who all take a turn in different chapters. This, too, is intriguing. Unfortunately, most of the voices are very similar. The most distinctive belong to the two stepsisters.

Reading Bella at Midnight is a very up-and-down experience. But it's definitely an interesting addition to revisionist Cinderella tales.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

I Might Like This

I actually find the idea of these Nancy Drew graphic novels kind of interesting. And if that's Daddy Drew at the bottom of this page, he's kind of hot.

Connections from bookshelves of doom.

In Which Gail Eats Her Words

Just yesterday Roger Sutton got a conversation started about trilogies and whether or not books in trilogies should be able to stand alone. I got all snotty and said, "Am I being too harsh to suggest that a book that can't stand alone is a marketing tool?"

I truly do believe that all books should be able to stand alone. They are supposed to be a world that we enter and are part of. The world is supposed to be complete. A series is fine. But when books don't end, you're not talking a series anymore, you're talking a serial. That's not fine.

And then today I finished reading Gideon the Cutpurse by Linda Buckley-Archer. I wasn't aware it was the first book in a trilogy, so I never saw the end coming. Which is just as well because the end sort of isn't there. But that's okay.

This time. For this book.

Gideon the Cutpurse could be described as a genre bender. It's part sci-fi time travel, part English mystery (complete with a Scotland Yard detective), and part historical novel. It plays with conventions of each of those genres. In fact, you could sort of say that each part is just a conventional genre story. But then they get all mixed up together and the total is greater than the sum of its parts. (Or is the sum greater than the total of its parts?)

When I was a teenager, I loved historical fiction. My reading of historical fiction was no doubt what led me to minor in the subject in college. I don't read that much of it, anymore. About ten years ago I tried reading some historical fiction for kids and found it mind numbing. I don't recall being able to finish a single book.

The historical element in Gideon the Cutpurse is just incredible. Maybe you have to be into history to get it, but when the promotional people for the book say, "The past has never been so close," they're not just blowing smoke. A lot of stock characters appear, but relating to twenty-first century children seems to give them new life. Gideon is a proper historical novel hero, answering only to God and his conscience, as he himself says. The bad guys are right out of central casting for historical novels, but they have depth. You feel for them. And there is a wonderful parson who is totally unparsonlike, drinking and gambling and mouthing off. In other books he would be a buffoon. Here he is redeemed by his caring for the children who have been entrusted to him by his cousin. The man actually gives the shirt off his back to another character.

And there's a highwayman! And a decadent aristocrat!

My only objection as I was reading the book was that I kept wishing I could see more of Gideon. And now it looks as if I will.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Promoting Local Authors, Part II

I don't often post about book awards because lots of people write about them and you hardly need me to give you a list of Newbery Honor Books or National Book Award finalists. However, today I have an opportunity to promote authors in my state by writing about the Connecticut Book Awards.

The Connecticut Book Awards are sponsored by the Connecticut Center for the Book, which is connected with the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress. All fifty states have state Centers for the Book to "promote their own state's book culture and literary heritage." As of 2003, nineteen state centers sponsored book awards.

The local big city paper carries the list of finalists for Connecticut's book award and will do an article about the winners. Otherwise, I'm not aware of the awards getting much attention. But an award of this type is another opportunity to promote books and authors. And, since I feel it is my calling to promote those who may not be being promoted at bookstores or in the papers, here are the finalists in the categories of Children's Author and Children's Illustrator.

Children's Author :

Ross MacDonald for Bad Baby

Nora Raleigh Baskin for Basketball (Or Something Like It)

Judith St. George for The Journey of the One and Only Declaration of Independence

Elise Broach for Shakespeare's Secret

Philip Caputo for 10,000 Days of Thunder: A History of the Vietnam War

Children's Illustrator:

Nancy Elizabeth Wallace for Alphabet House

Benny Andrews for Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights

Lynn Munsinger for Seven Spunky Monkeys

Linda Bronson for Think Cool Thoughts

Sue Rama for Yum! Yuck! A Foldout Book of People Sounds

That was rather a lot of typing. But, as I said, I'm on a mission.

Okay, bloggers. Do you live in states with state book awards? Let's all think globally, promote locally!

NaNoWriMo Buzz

I didn't think there was as much excitment for National Novel Writing Month this year, and then I saw this over at Unshelved.

Promoting Local Authors, Part I

Within WriterWorld there's lots of talk about how difficult it is to connect books with readers, in large part because general interest newspapers and magazines have cut back on their book coverage while the number of books published each year sky rockets. And it's true.

Some organizations have stepped into the void to try to get more attention for authors and their books. One of them is the Connecticut Educational Media Association, which held a Connecticut Author Reception yesterday as part of its pre-conference events. Over thirty Connecticut children's and YA authors attended and met with school librarians. It was a very classy event.

Among the authors attending (besides myself, of course) were:

Victoria Kann, who is the co-author (with her sister) of Pinkalicious, a very attractive and very pink picture book. Pinkalicious is Victoria's first book, and it was just published in June, so this was her first time at what you might call a "herd" author event. I was a little worried about her because these kinds of affairs have the potential to be disappointing. But she was sitting right next to me and seemed to be getting plenty of attention from the crowd. Of course, now she may think that all author gatherings include waiting staff coming by with scallops on sticks and a chocolate fountain in the middle of the room, so there's still potential for her to be disappointed.

Sitting on the other side of me was Nancy Elizabeth Wallace, an author and illustrator who has a number of picture books out. She is excellent company, by the way. I'll sit next to her at an author event any time.

I also saw Patricia Hubbell, who I keep running into at these kinds of things. She also writes picture books. And I had Suzy Kline autograph some Horrible Harry books for me to give to young relatives.

Finally, in the parking lot, I met Spring Hermann who writes primarily nonfiction.

CEMA took the initiative to bring these people to the attention of people who might be interested in their work. As a kidlit blogger, I am doing the same.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Who Is The Fairest?

Why are creators of children’s and YA literature so obsessed with princesses and royalty and princesses? Have we learned nothing from the life of the late lamented Princess of Wales? Or the two most recent generations of royalty in Monaco? It seems that as more and more of the reality of royal life becomes common knowledge, we’re cranking out more and more royal fantasies for our kids.

Forgive me. I am an aging feminist. I also suspect that around 288 years ago one of my ancestors was running through the streets of Paris screaming, “Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!” and “Power to the people!”

Anyway, last Friday I read the very readable Fairest by Gail Carson Levine. Levine gained fame with her first book Ella Enchanted, which was a play on Cinderella. In places Fairest is reworking Sleeping Beauty. Or perhaps I should say, Sleeping Nonbeauty.

Aza is an unattractive foundling who was abandoned in an inn and brought up by the innkeeper and his wife, who love her, as do their other children. All teenagers think they are unattractive, but evidently Aza is right. She is large and unpleasant looking enough that people either stare or look away. But in a culture that admires singing—it’s this kingdom’s highest art form and people break into song just as part of conversation—Aza has an unusually beautiful voice.

When an aristocratic lady’s traveling companion takes ill at the family inn and can’t accompany her to the king’s wedding, Aza is drafted into service. This gets her into the castle where she becomes the queen’s lady-in-waiting, meets the prince, gets involved in intrigue…you know where I’m going with this.

Though I found the singing contrived, I understand that Levine was using it to try to create a unique world. And the romance? As an older reader, I found the king and queen’s romance more interesting than the prince and Aza’s. Man, Levine could do an adult novel about those two.

Fairest is a message book, but the message doesn’t overburden the story. And the message goes beyond, “Hey, girls, beauty is only skin deep.” It raises the question of what people will do to be beautiful. And I think it also raises the question of whether or not love alters how we see people.

As princess books go, Fairest is better than fair.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

When Cheese Grow Legs

Guess what? I forgot to discuss one article in the September/October Horn Book. In Special Effects Deirdre F. Baker says, "Strange creatures, objects of power, unusual customs and foods, lengthy descriptions of landscapes, warty faces, and the spectacular show of magical weapons--physical description dominates current fantasy. In the movies "special effects" is often code for works eschewing depth and development of character, as well as intellectual content and originality--and these features have become rare and special indeed in fantasy literature for children and young adults."

I think this is a good lead-in to a review of Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow not because Monsters eschews depth or is lacking in intellectual content. The book is meant to be fun, after all. But I do think the special effects outweigh the story.

Said story is, in fact, somewhat clichéd. You have an evil character plotting revenge because his family fell on hard times when he was young and a couple of other characters whose lives were wrecked back in their own younger days by said evil character. And then you’ve got wacky inventions, too. Everything comes together rather improbably at the end.

However, Here Be Monsters! is filled with Pythonesque creatures and characters. Cheese, for instance, is not a dairy product. It is a lifeform that bleats and has legs and is hunted a la foxes. (Though the cheese hunts are supposed to have been outlawed like fox hunting.) The cheese hunters ride atop fake burlesque horses operated by two other humans. The humans operating the horses take turns riding and the cheese hunters rotate down to take their turns as part of the fake horse.

Other strange creatures live under the ground, many of them being humanoid but shy. Trolls dress in boxes. Another group tie cabbages to their heads. Why?you may ask.

I don't know. Maybe because this is an English book?

Alan Snow is described as an "English artist, working with books, animation, film and computers." His fey little characters and his artwork are definitely his strong suits. The book has over 500 detailed black and white illustrations. Nearly every two-page spread has at least a small picture of some kind. The chapters are short. The vocabulary is sophisticated.

Kids may appreciate the special effects and not recognize that the story isn't anything special. Here Be Monsters! could be a decent book for a youngish child whose reading skills are strong but who isn’t ready to go on to those problem novels or nasty girl stories the older kids are reading.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Maybe I Shouldn't Try To Do Poetry Friday Posts

I rarely do Poetry Friday posts (I think this is my second one) because while I respect poetry, I don't always understand it. However, a couple of weeks ago I was in my local library, turned around, and there on a wall was a display of poetry books in honor of our new children's poet laureate. I was stunned because while children's programming is a big portion of our library's activities, over the years I can't say I've noticed a really outstanding interest there in the goings on in the kidlit world. However, we have a young children's/YA librarian now (even with both titles it's not a full-time job in my town), and she's definitely doing her job.

I picked up a copy of Mummy Took Cooking Lessons by John Ciardi. His name jumped out at me because I heard it a bit when I was in college.

Ciardi is supposed to have begun writing poetry for children to encourage his own children with their reading. I admire that. But some of the poetry in this collection drift off into nonsense that really does seem nonsensical to me. I'm not fond of nonsense poems, which are often directed at kids, and that may be part of the reason I never became much of a poetry reader. When I was in grade school I preferred narrative poems. Anyone else remember reading about Bess the landlord's daughter blowing a hole in her chest to warn the Highwayman that the law was waiting for him at her house? I've since read that that particular poem isn't very highly regarded. I have to say, though, my sixth grade self didn't have any trouble understanding what was going on in it.

The following is a poem from Mummy Took Cooking Lessons that I was able to understand. Unfortunately, it strikes me as being somewhat judgmental and instructive.

"And Now Kiddies--Captain Cuff!

Captain Cuff of the TV Rangers
Is hard on his friends and harder on strangers.
If he knows your sister and thinks she's sweet,
And you walk wrong on a one-way street
He'll shoot you once, and in the toe.
But if you're someone he doesn't know
And doesn't want to (he seldome does)
And he finds you asleep in the back of the bus
He'll empty his six-gun on your head
To wake youup to see if you're dead.

Better not answer. You might be right
And he's never wrong. And he likes to fight.
He's a law man, awe man, quick-on-the-draw man,
Do-as-I-say and a give-me-no-jaw man.
He's Captain Cuff and he's rough and tough.
At five o'clock he does his stuff,
Because you like him. And since you do,
I have a question--what's wrong with you?"

Ciardi died in 1986, and this collection was published in 1990. Though this poem is dated because it refers to a western program, the sentiments expressed sound very up-to-the-minute. There have always been adults who are unhappy with what children watch on TV. It looks to me as if there always will be. And Now Kiddies--Captain Cuff could be an ode to them.