The ALA Youth Media Awards were just announced about an hour ago. These honors are awarded by committees of librarians who read, evaluate, and discuss approximately a femto-jillion books in a year and decide which book in a given category is THE BEST of the year and which few are THE RUNNERS UP.
I generally don't comment on these awards on this blog because, like any other award, calling any given anything THE BEST in a year is ridiculous. YOU ARE THE BEST TOMATO. WORLD'S BEST JOKE 2014 IS WHAT EDDIE IZZARD SAID ON TWITTER NOVEMBER 13th. THE AWARD FOR BEST LEFT BOOB OF 2015 GOES TO KATY PERRY'S LEFT BOOB.
I also have found these awards to be kind of stuck in the mud. Historical fiction or relationship drama tends to get recognized while funny books are disregarded. Lotta "girl books" have gotten the Newbery, while the Caldecott has gone to a disproportionate number of men. Creators of color are under-represented, as they are in all of children's publishing, except in the awards that are specifically given to African American or Latino authors and illustrators, which often go to the same squad of (very talented and totally deserving) people every year.
Put it this way - when an illustrated prose novel (The Invention of Hugo Cabret) won the Caldecott Medal one year everyone went, "WHOA!!" And when a nonfiction book (Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village) won the Newbery people all gasped. This is what has passed for bold in previous years.
This year's awards are something else, though.
I'm a generalist. Professionally. Personally, I'm a bit of a specialist, but - hrmhm - that's just between us. No, I'm a generalist librarian - a librarian who serves both adult and juvenile customers. Most public library systems don't expect their professional staff to be proficient with teens, children, adults, and seniors, but the one I work for... does.
As you might imagine, librarians in other systems sometimes scoff at this arrangement. School librarians in particular are kind of amusingly horrified.
Generalists are expected to maintain at least a glancing knowledge of the adult best-seller list and genre fiction (I can name 3 Amish romance authors off the top of my head - we all can!) and stay abreast of trends in juvenile and young adult literature. It's admittedly kind of a lot. You read a lot of e-newsletters.
But the up side is that when I read an adult novel, I notice when that book includes teen or kid characters who are going through teen or kid things, and I file it in my head as possibly good for underage readers. Books like this are called Adult Books for Teens, and there's a whole blog over on SLJ devoted to them. There's also an award, the Alex Award. In an interesting boomerang effect, if you are an adult who likes books that are both well-written and fast-paced, you might mine these lists for suggested reading. I do.
By the same token, when I read children's literature, which I mostly do, sometimes I notice when the characters, the setting, or the obstacles they confront would resonate with the adult readers I serve. There's no blog for Children's Books Recommended for Adult Readers, but maybe there should be.
What the heck. Let's do this.
For some reason - it's not like I've got nothing else going on - I have been unusually aware of upcoming titles recently. I've spent a bunch of time on Edelweiss and Netgalley scanning publisher catalogs, and just yesterday attended the Book Buzz that the AAP put on at DC Public Library.
Reps from Scholastic, Penguin, Sourcebooks, Quirk, Tor, and many others gave a roomful of librarians a preview of what they've got coming down the pike.
Here are the books that I thought really stood out, plus books that weren't represented at the event that I know about and am looking forward to. These are in age order.
I don't know about these passion-project picture book biographies. Don't get me wrong - *I* love 'em. My colleagues love 'em. Awards committees love 'em. Parents sometimes love 'em.
But I have to heave a heavy sigh and admit that I have trouble getting a kid to take Andrea Davis Pinkney's marvelous, swingy Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa into his or her hands, or The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos, or the new picture book biography of Golda Meir, Goldie Takes a Stand!: Golda Meir's First Crusade.
Golda. Meir. WHO... reads that book? HOW... do they end up picking it up? Without adult intervention, that book NEVER gets read. I interviewed the brilliant Chris Raschka about his new picture book biography The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra: The Sound of Joy Is Enlightening this past spring. And I somehow never got up the courage to ask, "What the hell, Chris Raschka? What child will be interested in the life of Sun Ra?" I played Sun Ra's music for my kids in the car, and after about 20 minutes, they politely asked me to turn it off because it was making them crazy.
They've never wondered about these people. They've never even heard of them, in some cases. It is usually possible to tease out a reason for kids to learn about them - we need true stories of struggle against adversity, the power of will, or an example of a kid "just like you" who grew up to find his or her place / succeed on his or her own terms / change the world. But in ten years at the library, I bet have helped fewer than ten kids who were looking for a picture book biography.
I'm not saying they'll never get read. WITH the aforementioned adult intervention, they'll get read. They'll also show up in classrooms an get taken home for reports. Although since they aren't programmed to provide report answers (no bolded vocabulary words, no timeline, no maps), kids tend to reject them in favor of Time for Kids or Who Was when report time comes around.
Hello, I'm Johnny Cash stands a greater chance than most of getting plucked off the shelf by an auntie or a dad - there are plenty of grownups who just can't wait to share The Man in Black with their kids. Heck, my friends Aimee and Jim named their firstborn June.
And I'm so glad. I love this book. Greg Neri is clearly a devoted fan, inspired by the way struggle and talent shaped the life of this extraordinary musician. In a note at the back, Greg states that he shaped this biography around the stories Cash told about himself - in essence, telling Johnny's story the way Johnny would tell it.
That is such an interesting take on research, and I think especially thoughtful for a children's book. Everything I've read about Johnny Cash seems to indicate that he wanted to inspire people to do good deeds and follow their conscience, and to that end he would probably have told children about the poverty and sorrow that shaped his actions in his early years, and how music kept him going and ultimately lifted him up.
The oil illustrations are in a straightforward pictorial style, full of air and open faces. That picture on the cover pretty much says it all - this is one case where the cover is just as strong as the interior art (I'm looking at you Grandfather Gandhi - why is your cover so blah when your inside is so dramatic?!).
In the end, regardless my misgivings about the audience for picture book biographies, as long as the publishing companies will put a few bucks into them, I am of course happy they're around. School libraries should keep buying 'em, teachers should use them to introduce music units and history units and to put a human face on math and the sciences.
And I'll keep shoving them at youngsters and parents at the public library. "Golda Meir! Very important lady!" "Sun Ra! Um... it's important to show that even serious weirdos have a place in our culture!" Who knows, that kid may grow up to be our next serious weirdo, brilliant mathematician, or straight-shooting Israeli prime minister.
It's 2014, the centennial of the onset one of the bloodiest, most devastating wars in history. A war which should have taught the world the dangers of nationalism, military escalation, and imperialism. Well, we all know how that went.
On the UP side, the WWI centennial gives us (educators, parents, librarians) an excellent opportunity for engaging the kind of reader who connects with nonfiction, especially history, and especially the kind of history that involves guns. I'm not using the word "boys," but you know what I'm talking about.
My particular boys have been reading up on WWI because our family is going to Belgium for a bridge dedication. Their great-great-uncle did a heroic deed and then promptly died, making my husband's brothers and sisters the closest thing he would ever have to descendants. You can read about it here if you are so inclined. We will be touring battlefields and cemeteries and museums, and we have all been boning up just in case the plaques are all in Flemish.
Here are a few recent books for your WWI collection:
I am going to have a teenager in my house. In - wow - 11 days, I will suddenly have a teenage boy in my house.
Relax, that's root beer. And that's MY jacket. He looks better in it than I do, the swine. His feet are bigger than mine. His tan is better than mine. God, I think his hair might be better than mine! Sigh.
His taste in reading material is pretty good, though. And he reads faster than I do, so lately I've been relying on him to vet titles for me the way I used to for him (Poison by Bridget Zinn and Mortal Danger by Ann Aguirre both get his seal of approval). So it felt very darn peculiar to recommend The Martian to him.
This is what's wrong with me. This is what's very very WROOONNG with me - and that was Bill Murray in Stripes in case you missed the reference ("We're ten and one!") (Not anymore, brother).
I have been neglecting the crap out of Pink Me for MONTHS because I've started reviewing for Booklist Online and those guys send me I swear 5 books a month. And not five 32-page picture books, although sometimes yeah I get picture books. No. I get five NOVELS. Five middle-grade books about burping and zombie pets. Five YA sci-fi barnburners. Shit involving fairies.
And some decent stuff, for sure.
Plus I've been neglecting Pink Me because I am churning through as much YA horror as I can stomach. Funny horror, ghostie horror, horror that turns out to not be terribly scary after all. Lotsa horror. I'm doing this because my colleague Paula and I are giving a talk, called "Something Wicked This Way Comes of Age" (Paula's title and is that good or what?!), at the YA Lit Symposium in Austin next fall.
I didn't need those boots. Nobody needs $600 boots.
It is the damnedest thing.
In recent years, YA trends have come on about as subtly as a brick tornado. Vampires. Zombie plagues. Fairy tales. Mermaids, oh god the mermaids. Last year it was cancer. And you'd think, if I took a mermaid trend in stride, I would not be surprised by the sudden appearance of dragons in contemporary YA fiction. I'd be like, "Aw come on guys - it's all dragons nowadays!" But there I was, five pages into Talker 25, going "What the...? It's dragons?"
I think it's because they're just so doofy. Right? Giant lizards with wings? What is that - half dinosaur, half... fairy? How are you going to fit that into a world? Literally - how are you going to fit that creature into a world filled with humans?
Then there's the stigma that goes along with being the dragon-obsessed girl. If you're not careful, your dragon novel will make you look like the kind of girl who goes as Daenarys Targaryen for Halloween. (OR TO HER WEDDING OH GOD MY EYES)
Hee hee hee. I got a little sidetracked.
There's a lot of horror running around loose on the streets these days. It's a trend. Brainless monsters, mad government scientists, possessed townsfolk and crafty killers lurk in the alleys and infest the woods by the side of the highways. Yep, it's a stimulating time to be a teen reader.
Until fairly recently, horror had been in kind of a slump. Horror had a big day back in, hm, the late 70's, early 80's. Throughout the 80's, the Halloween movies were in theaters and Stephen King was putting out two books a year.
By the 1990's though, we were out of the funhouse, laughing at the cheesy effects and accusing each other: "You were scared!" "No I wasn't, that was stupid!" By 1990, horror had become so familiar that it had devolved into camp (Tremors), or kid stuff (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), or mere eerieness (Edward Scissorhands). By the mid-90's, Danielle Steel and John Grisham had taken over Stephen King's dominance of the best seller lists. As recently as 2007, none of the major publishing houses had horror imprints.
But, like an oily slime seeping up from the depths of a dark bayou, horror is somehow once again everywhere, a foul slick coating the surface of popular culture. Simon & Schuster just started up a horror imprint. American Horror Story and The Walking Dead are killing it on TV. Danny Torrance is back. And I have more and more kids at the library daring me to scare them. Kids that have blazed through Goosebumps, sampled the Weenies, and are looking for something as scary as Horowitz Horror - but longer.
...which is my way of saying oh my life - and my reading - has been HELTER-SKELTER for the past couple of months. Here's why - allow me to solicit your interest in some excellent upcoming events and ongoing projects:
2). I'm a facilitator at Enoch Pratt Free Library's biannual teen reading fest Books for the Beast (join us!). It's an all-day event (free lunch!) October 19th with super speakers and small group discussions. This year, we will be joined by RAINA TELGEMEIER! SHARON FLAKE! and ROBIN WASSERMAN!!
I want to read The Waking Dark so badly, but I have so much required reading right now, it's silly. You however should read that book, and then come to Books for the Beast and tell Robin Wasserman what you thought of it! It's supposed to be scaaaary!
3). I'm moderating the Sassy Girls panel at the Baltimore Book Festival September 29 (and this one you better get to, if you are my friend at all). My sassy authors (I wonder if any of them are old enough to remember Sassy? Did you know that some marvelous hipster angel is scanning all of her old Sassys and putting them online? Damn, I still dress like that half the time) anyway my sassy authors are:
4). Just announced! I'm a first-round judge for the Picture Books category of the Cybils Awards! Bring it on picture books YEAAAAHHH! Nominations are open to the public, and the online form will be up October 1!
5). I'm covering the Américas Award, given this year to Sonia Manzano for The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, for School Library Journal's online newsletter. Sonia Manzano is also Maria from Sesame Street and that fact just fills me with love every time I remember it.
Also recognized this year by CLASP (the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs) are Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert by Gary D. Schmidt, the hyper-award-winning Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Drummer Boy of John John, and In Darkness, which has been on my to-read list ever since I saw that weird cover. Any novel that features Toussaint L'Ouverture as a guest character vaults right up my list. Blame Madison Smartt Bell.
All this extracurricular activity has led to periods of binge reading during the last few months: graphic novels, funny realistic YA fiction, heartbreaking YA fiction, and rock'em sock'em middle grade/YA speculative fiction. Plus picture books, I'm always reading the picture books, but those I manage to run down in gang posts on Pink Me fairly regularly.
So now I'm going to try to binge-review. GO:
Nobody gonna take my car
I'm gonna race it to the ground
Oooh it's a killing machine
It's got everything
Like a driving power big fat tyres
I love it I need it
I bleed it yeah it's a wild hurricane
Alright hold tight
I'm a highway star!
God I love Deep Purple. Am I the only one anymore? To me, Deep Purple is the seminal sound of teenhood. It's music you listen to in stale basement rec rooms - mindless and churning, full of movement but not getting anywhere. The long-haired, cigarette-smoking boys who hung in a greasy cluster outside the bus port door at my junior high school LIVED and DIED by Ritchie Blackmore. Sigh. Those boys smelled so bad.
Summer Reading season is just about drawing to a close at the ol' public library. For the past month we've been dredging up copies of Beloved and Animal Farm. We've scurried around looking for Trash, The Book Thief, and The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind for po-faced youngsters who absolutely can't stand the idea of summer homework. I often try to sweeten the visit (thanks teachers for making a visit to the library a chore!) by offering the kid an additional, just-for-fun book.
Summer is the time for kids to remember that reading is an entertaining activity. With my psychic powers, I will beam that into the brain of every English department head in the country. Right now. Ow. Ok, I'll rest up and do it next spring.
So... this young Joe comes in the library last night looking for A Tale of Two Cities. I look at the calendar. "When does school start?" I ask with a wince. "Monday," he grunts. I am sympathetic, but his mom gives me this "Mmm-hmm" look that I treasure. I love being old enough to be complicit with moms. Of course, he is to have it read by the time school starts, and of course, he has been reading The Maze Runner trilogy all summer instead.
This is the perfect moment to mention Proxy.
Stay with this one. The book, I meant, but now that I've started writing this review and it went jackknifing off the rails before it even left the station, I mean the review too.
MOVING TO MONTANA SOON
I read Wise Young Fool (due out today! from Little Brown) sitting in a chilly hotel room in Cusco, Peru, during the couple days it took me and my children to adjust to the radical changes in altitude and gut flora that accompany - well, going to Peru. Which sounds like a euphemism, and in fact is now a euphemism in our family. Poor Peru. In truth, we had a wonderful three weeks there, and we will remember so many wonderful things about that trip - but I'm pretty sure it's only the vomiting that will live on in our family's linguistic microculture.
I love a good linguistic microculture. Future Swearing, school-specific slang and in-jokes, whatever's going on in Riddley Walker. It can go too far, though, and here is where we swing back around to talking about teen literature and Sean Beaudoin.
WAIT. SPOILER. WISE YOUNG FOOL IS EXCELLENT. I just have a few things to say before we get to that part.
THE GOSPEL FROM OUTER SPACE
I have been reading Sean Beaudoin's books for a while, and I find them intriguing. Beaudoin is - I guess I'll have to use the term "prose stylist," - a person who finds a groove and writes in it, somebody who adds syncopation, frill, and rumble to his writing. And this is something of a rarity in young adult fiction. What's that? You want to know why? Ok sure fine, I'll tell you why: because a lot of people don't think that teens have the sophistication to read through and past anything but the most ordinary deviations from straight prose - text messages, teen vernacular, the occasional cartoon.
I personally think those people are really, really wrong - I am not sure anyone but a teenager has the mental flexibility to read super-styley stuff like John Dies at the End, or Philip K. Dick. You know damn well Chuck Palahniuk and Tao Lin are totally just arrested teens, piling on the attitude. And there's a reason we make college students read Vonnegut and Nabokov. As we get older, we just don't have time for the divine detail.
Not really. Nobody sings. Well, they sing, but it's not... Oh just watch it.
I know what you're thinking. "Oh, sure, she's always complaining she has no time to read, but she'll spend most of Memorial Day weekend - when she should be barbecuing or binge-watching Arrested Development (Fun fact: I have never watched Arrested Development!) clipping video."
It's true. But I can't help it. I love making videos with my kids. And this one was inspired by the forthcoming Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, pictures by Matthew Myers.
Actually, I was just looking for an excuse to dress Ezra up in an Afro wig and a pink bed jacket. If you look closely, that's the same jacket Miss Volker wore in our production of Dead End in Norvelt. Jack Gantos was a good sport about our massacre of his Newbery Award-winning book, hope Mac & Jon don't get too mad at us for blowing their framing device.
You might think, if you know me from reading Pink Me, that I am a children's or teen librarian. I'm not - at my system we are all generalists. So while I love fixing kids up with great books, the fact is I also enjoy helping grownups. I spend most of my time drumming up copies of just the right David Baldacci, or helping readers find Amish romance novels and car repair manuals.
Which, um... Amish romance novels? Right. I'm going to need a finding aid for that.
I just finished reading The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy by Nikki Loftin. This is a damn fine book, a creep-up-on-you book. It has a devil-in-the-noonday-sun quality that many have compared to Roald Dahl. Me, I didn't see the Dahl in it so much - there's little to laugh at, for one thing - and I'd compare it more to creepy-banal British village horror. Love that stuff.
The main character in this book carries a heavy emotional burden, and the book, in addition to being a great, suspenseful fairy tale retelling, goes about hip-deep into the braided stream of villainy and its causes. There's a lot of Mayor Mills in Splendid Academy's Principal Trapp.
But look at that cover. Spunky blonde and tubby sidekick - looming, slightly comic haunted-house-looking building in the background? All that alliteration in the title? Does this cover make you expect emotional redemption as a theme?
It didn't for me anyway. I assumed, judging from the cover - and don't say don't do it, we all do it - that this was a book for fans of The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls. I would have handed it to any kid who goes for the new Gothic Humor genre that we're seeing so much of. And don't get me wrong, some of those kids will like it - but it is not Gothic Humor. It's not terribly funny, and it goes very dark. It's a bit reminiscent of Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat, actually.
Weirdly, this is only one of many books I have read recently (and I have read about a dozen books in the past four days) (don't ask) (influenza B) (I don't recommend it) with a cover that is more than a little bit misleading.
A family of hippie hipsters - or post-hipster hippies if you want to split hairs - move from their Hampden rowhouse to a field outside of Monkton and build a house, two toddlers in tow and a bun in the oven. Does mom wear glasses? Does dad wear plaid? Is their jeep a vintage Willys, are their shoes extra-chunky? Does a cat lurk on the periphery?
Do not hold any of these things against them.
I am a lucky woman. By almost any metric, that's me, Lady Lucky. I can walk under ladders.
One of the ways in which I am lucky is that there are about five authors out there whose work is just exactly what I want to read. I can go to those authors and always always be surprised and moved. Gibson. Liz Jensen. Nick Harkaway. Charlie Higson. Ian Fleming (but that's more of a sick obsession). And by "always always" I mean - no duds. No books that make me go "ehhh." Neal Stephenson for example. Love everything he's written either side of the Baroque Trilogy, but those three books made my eyes roll back into my head, and so he doesn't make this list.
What I'm getting at - obviously - is that Adam Rex does. I don't know what is similar in our backgrounds or genetics or whatever, but his imagination travels paths that seem enticing and familiar to me - as if they are paths that I glimpsed once from a passing car and wished I had the time to detour into. His humor makes me laugh out loud on trains and in bars.
Which is why I can't review his latest book, Unlucky Charms, the second in The Cold Cereal Saga. This author speaks so clearly to me that I can't tell how he sounds to other people. I can't be objective while I'm giggling out my nose. Luckily, I have a couple of clear-eyed readers in my house who can be relied upon to give you the what when I can't. Here's Milo:
Now, I admit I read the ARC of Unlucky Charms as soon as I snagged it at ALA Midwinter, and I admit I was going to pass it to Milo as soon as I got home, and I further admit than when this hardcover came in the mail - pretty much before I got home, thank you someone at Harper! - Milo grabbed at it as if he were a magnet and it was made of paperclips, but let me tell you, Milo is not a man who will allow preconceptions to influence his appreciation of a book.
So when he tells you it is funny and brave and awesome - you better believe it. Available Feb 5.
PS: Good lord I have written yet ANOTHER review of something involving Adam Rex in which I forgot to mention the art! How do I keep doing that? Adam Rex is supernaturally talented as an artist. His illustrations are the kind that kids pore over, looking for clues, soaking up the visual realization of scenes they have already mentally assembled from the author's words.
They exhibit charm, draftsmanship, and a particular genius for realistic expression, facilitated I believe by his habit of sculpting little heads and using them as models. I like to think he mounts those heads on tiny plaques and hangs them on the wall when he's finished - a miniature hall of horrors. Maybe he talks to them, they're like a Greek chorus when he's stuck on a drawing. "Make him fatter," grunts Frankenstein. "With bigger eyebrows!" yells Grandpa Ned. "What is that sweater about?" snipes Barnett.
This art, by the way, is not something I am worried I'm biased about. I know art, and I'll borrow a technical term from art criticism here and call it GOOD. It's GOOD ART.
Buy this book, buy all his previous books. Support him so that he can keep feeding my habit, and I swear you will thank me for it.
Crash your car miles from nowhere on Nevada's Route 375, aka Extraterrestrial Highway, after a series of strange events have led to airplane crashes and highway closures, and what do you expect? Recover from life-threatening injuries only to be handed a non-disclosure agreement and be escorted home by two agents in black suits... oh yeah, this can't be good.
What happened to debate partners Reese and David in the month following inexplicable bird attacks that shut down the nation's air traffic? How have they recuperated so quickly from their crash? And what's with the strange vertigo that Reese feels whenever she touches David, or her mom, or even total strangers? Then there's the free-spirited pink-haired girl to whom Reese is irresistibly attracted. Well, ok that part is completely understandable ;)
Malinda Lo sets up an intriguing situation for her appealing, believable characters, and does a particularly nice job communicating Reese's discomfort as the unusual things she experiences and observes after she attempts to resume her normal life in San Francisco grate against everything she knows. The book loses some steam in the last third, as other characters drop away and we are back to just Reese and David, but by then it is too late for the reader - how's it going to end?
Suspenseful, girl-powered, contemporary science fiction full of realistically diverse characters making realistic contemporary use of technology. Plus hot kissing! Hard to resist.
Adapted from a review originally published in VOYA.
Hey ho it is time for me to haul a giant tote bag of beautiful and enticing books for the kids on your gift list down to Maryland's NPR station (WYPR 88.1 FM) and let Maryland Morning's Tom Hall pick a few he'd like me to talk about! Unfortunately, that segment got lost in the scheduling shuffle this year, so I'll have to make do with a list on Pink Me. NOT a hardship - on the Internet, I have unlimited air time!
So here are the books I am sticking in my Santa sack:
I’d love to call these “holiday” gift ideas, but the fact is, Hannukah gift purchasing is all but DONE. I missed that Galilean fishing vessel. So unless you give gifts for Kwanzaa or Yule (God Jul to you Dances With Chickens!), at this point, it’s all about Christmas. So what is the fat man going to bring the kids you love?
Here are two books. Two books written for adults but featuring teenage protagonists. This happens quite a lot, and more so lately, and I suppose it is for the simple reason that teenagers lead more interesting lives than adults do. They get out more. Sometimes adult books featuring teen main characters are absolute must-reads for teens - but sometimes they are what they are: emphatically adult literature featuring young people in starring roles.
Secret agent Rip Haywire is half Mark Trail, half The Spirit, and half Bruce Campbell. His canine sidekick TNT is half Lassie, half Mr. Peabody, and half the dog from Family Guy. Ooh, this is fun! Rip's girlfriend/archenemy Cobra? Let's see... half Miss Scarlet, half Agent 99, and half Natasha Fatale. And if those character descriptions add up to 150%, well, that's just how far over-the-top Dan Thompson, creator of the globe-trotting rock-em-sock-em noir parody graphic novel Rip Haywire and the Curse of Tangaroa! plays it.
Come for the freaky pictures, stay for the entertaining text. Boy, if I could give aspiring nonfiction writers one piece of advice, it would be - try to make a book that I can recommend to kids using that sentence. Although I guess it doesn't work for like, presidential biographies. Freaky pictures of presidents are rarely appropriate for kids.
Anyway. Michael Hearst, the author of Unusual Creatures: A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth's Strangest Animals, seems to have figured that magic sentence out all by himself in this, his first nonfiction book for kids.
A new MAD Magazine anthology has been published, celebrating - errr, "celebrating" - 60 years of, as they call it, "humor, satire, stupidity and stupidity." Good old MAD. It's where we went for dumb grunting laughs before God invented Homer Simpson.
And although sometimes it's easy to forget the huge amount of satire in MAD, MAD is also kind of where we went for snarky, well-informed chuckles before God invented Jon Stewart.
AND it was our source of slightly baffled grins while we were still too young to be well-informed or snarky. In fact, MAD was making snide remarks long before "snark" was anything other than some kind of bandersnatch variant.
Here's something I would not have expected, certainly not on a night when I have a deadline looming on another project - I opened the mail after work and found a copy of this fat book, the first print product of Tavi Gevinson, aka The Style Rookie, and I opened it up and read the first couple of pages... and then I read the whole thing straight through for like five hours.
Tavi - don't you know who Tavi is? Tavi is this wonder-child. Only 16 years old now, she started blogging about style and fashion when she was like eleven and quickly became a fashion world darling. She wore her hair in a faded blue-gray bob, sometimes with a giant bow. She was, by all accounts, enthusiastic and questioning, eager to learn, a total fashion fan, but always with a point of view. I never read The Style Rookie, though. Really, I spend so much time keeping up with children's lit, all I have time for is Go Fug Yourself and sometimes Lainey.
I have been in a weird mood all day. I just finished reading a really cool and funny adult sci-fi novel (Year Zero by Rob Reid), plus I'm by myself in the house, my whole entire family being out of town, and I'm working the evening shift. So I feel a little unreal.
And then the first picture book I picked up at work today features a pocket-size walrus who emerges from an oversized walnut. Yeah. I should just start drinking right away, don't you think?
Do you know what a lich is? If someone taunts you with, "Answer the question, Claire," who are you being compared to? (Extra points: what's the question?) What will an oscillation overthruster allow you to do? And have you ever found yourself in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike?
A stray facetious comment worked its way into a discussion about the popularity of teen fiction among adult readers a while ago. "What about YA novels that are written just for adults?" I'm paraphrasing, I don't remember the exact wording. Just an offhand jokey comment, right?
But then I read Ready Player One. Ready Player One is a virtual reality adventure with a teen protagonist, a love interest, and a wing man. Our isolated, socially awkward hero must work his way through riddles and duels to win keys, open gates, and sort of save the world; and along the way he will develop leadership skills, learn to work with others, and listen to his instincts. Classic YA plotline.
But this book is not for teens.
I am violating my own rule here. My rule is I don't review books by people I know well enough to hug.
I know Mary Hahn well enough to hug, and to kiss on the cheek. Both of which things I did last time I saw her, the day after I finished reading this book. I think you would, too.
Mary's an old friend of my parents - I think her first husband and my dad went to college together? Maybe mom was a bridesmaid? She and my mother were pregnant with their first children at the same time, and compared notes. Some time after those girls (one of them me) were born, she and my parents more or less lost touch.
Mary started working as a school librarian, and in the mid-1970's started writing novels for children. Mysteries. Ghost stories. And though most of these stories stay well within the range of "comfortably spooky" - excellent choices for middle-grade readers who crave just enough chill to keep them turning pages, but not enough to keep them up at night - that's still thirty-some years' worth of haunted houses and restless spirits, guilt, revenge, and loss.
And now we know why.
I lead a pretty prosaic life. The biggest, hairiest, most mysterious creature in my life (no cracks about library customers, please, esteemed co-workers!) is our big orange cat, Babe. Named for Babe the Blue Ox, not Babe Didrickson Zaharias or Babe the Gallant Pig. But as mystifying as Babe's behavior sometimes is, he is depressingly accessible. He's no cryptid, in other words.
And sometimes you just need a little mystery. Ergo, Bigfoot...
So Ashley Spires put out this absolutely cute picture book a couple months ago, Larf, that is all about being alone - and that's ok - and reaching out to someone - which is also ok - but being nervous about it - understandable, and also ok - but then meeting someone nice anyway. Which is way ok.
Love Larf. Love Ashley Spires! Ashley Spires, in case you didn't realize, which I didn't, is the person responsible for that farting dreamer of a housecat, Binky (Binky the Space Cat). Every one of those books is a charmer, as is Larf. Larf is, contrary to what I think are most people's expectations about Sasquatches, rather a neat person. He folds his laundry and washes his dishes after he uses them. He wears a neat red scarf. He lives alone but he's not lonely. Not super lonely anyway.
The mountain range of books on our coffee table is a constantly shifting pile of bait for my boys. I bring books home from the library every day that I work - sometimes they place requests, but more often I just snag books that I think they'll like or that I am interested in looking at for this blog. The "leave it out casually and they will pick it up" strategy has been praised by many parents, and even endorsed by Judy Blume, and I can vouch for it as well.
Not so say there haven't been some hiccups, as when I found ten-year-old Milo reading Railsea by China Miéville, which I had pretty much brought home for myself. He is also a big David Macinnis Gill fan now, thanks to this practice.
Sometimes I complain that I have to read thirty books so that I can write some booklist, or fifty books because I'm on an award panel, or a hundred books for some committee... but from now on, I think I'll shut up.
Because I am pretty sure Snow Wildsmith and Scott Robins, who both write for SLJ's Good Comics for Kids blog, read 850 books in order to write this excellent compendium of, er, good comics for kids. Eight Hundred and FIFTY graphic novels, manga series, picture books, and beginning readers. Some with Smurfs in them.
I would have liked to have met Maurice Sendak. As impatient and uncompromising as he seems to have been, he took this stuff seriously in a way that I feel like I recognize - and he knew it was all folly at the same time.
I will wager that almost every person involved with picture books has learned something from Maurice. I know I have. In the Night Kitchen taught me to look at all the stuff inside the pictures; Where the Wild Things Are, with its expanding and contracting picture area, taught me to look at the page as a whole; and his illustrations for the Little Bear books showed me that animal characters need not be cartoonish or unrealistic to be endearing.
It is a fitting coincidence, therefore - a random tribute - that this past week was a particularly good one for illustration in picture books. Here are the ones I brought home to share and savor with my sons, not a line of 'ordinariness' in any of them:
You have got to hand it to Michael Grant - the guy has CHOPS.
I started reading his stuff with the first GONE novel. "Terrific premise," I thought. "Great staging of the classic civilization-reboot-in-the-hands-of-the-children plot." And then, "Jeez that's some STRONG horror. This guy pulls no punches."
Then I read The Call, the first entry in his middle-grade series, The Magnificent 12. I described that book as "Michael Grant popping the top off his can of funny." It's like entry-level Douglas Adams: I hand The Call and The Trap to any kid who answers 'yes' to the questions, "adventure?" and "funny?"
Now for BZRK. This is sci-fi set in the real world: non-dystopian secret-agent-type sci-fi, gritty, dark, and extra-violent. Teenagers are recruited to fight battles so surreptitious that they are invisible to the naked eye.
It's the fortunate teenager who will come across this beautifully produced art book and its subject, self-taught folk artist Nicholas Herrera. Not only does Herrera describe his process, inspirations, and technique, but he speaks frankly about his wild youth, bad behavior, and the consequences thereof.
In the new picture book Chloe and the Lion, a little girl blows a jarfull of change on the merry-go-round, gets dizzy, loses her way in the woods, and meets a hungry lion. Then she ends up standing on a street corner wearing a tube top in order to lure more unsuspecting children into the lion's clutches.
Wait. No. That's not what happens at all! That's me, the reviewer, hijacking the story. Which I am completely not supposed to do. Bad reviewer! Fired!
Hey and you know who else is not supposed to hijack the story of a picture book? The illustrator. Yup. The illustrator is not supposed to draw a purple dragon instead of a hungry lion (even if a dragon is way cooler), because if he does, the author is going to step in with a WAITAMINIT, VARLET - YOU DRAWS WHAT I TELLS YA TO DRAW, and then maybe the illustrator will retaliate by drawing the author in a variety of interesting and humiliating outfits, and then the illustrator will find himself FIRED. And eaten.
Like it? Me too!
Once, very briefly, I worked in publishing. I learned a lot in that short time, and I learned things that have come in handy in most of my subsequent jobs. (I have also briefly worked in museums, in software, in ice cream, and in men's pants, and the knowledge that I gained in each of those venues has had unexpected applications later in life. For example, I can still estimate a man's inseam at 25 paces.)
In my capacity as an Editorial Assistant, I had occasion to sit in on those production meetings that were really budget meetings, during which line items like color, paper, coatings, die-cuts, and binding options were discussed with a sometimes brutal disregard for the needs of the content. Those meetings would make a grown man weak in the knees.
Ah, spring! My neighborhood is foaming over with dogwood and azalea, sketched pink scribbles of redbud branches and nodding lilac. Driving the kids to school is like a trip through some wretched YA fairy forest. Except it's also roadkill season, so the smashed rats and opossums on the side of the road give it a little gory, edgy aspect. Again, much like a lot of recent YA. Sigh.
I am totally, happily mired in reading for the YALSA committee I'm on, Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults (go nominate your favorite! do it now! I'll wait!), and I can't in all conscience post reviews of books we're considering for the list - but I can take a break from teenage immigrants and rock stars from time to time in order to cleanse my palate with a new book.
Here are some I have waiting in the wings for me:
FIFTY ARTISTS FIFTY! It's like a Ziegfeld chorus line up in this fine large-format comic anthology, except hairier. And less able to walk and sing at the same time. Probably really bad at doing anything in unison.
Fifty of your favorite comics artists have taken on 50 old-fashioned nursery rhymes, resulting in an anthology that is funny, strange, sweet, and surprising. Some of the artists, like Nick Bruel (Bad Kitty) and Marc Rosenthal (Phooey!), are familiar names in children’s publishing; others, like the talented Mo Oh (Lily Renee, Escape Artist, which is not a good example of her sweet and funny style) and Jen Wang (Koko Be Good), are relative newcomers.
Art and history intertwine in the story of Claribel and Etta Cone, two sisters from Baltimore whose intellectual openness and love of art–not to mention tidy personal fortunes–brought them into contact with many pioneering minds of the early 20th century. More than mere art patrons, the sisters forged decades-long friendships with Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, Pablo Picasso, and especially Henri Matisse.
The collection of art that they amassed, which includes many masterpieces of Postimpressionism as well as works from Asia and Africa (now at the Baltimore Museum of Art), liberally illustrates the gracefully designed pages of this book. So too do the author’s colorful Matisse-inspired illustrations, most of which are based on archival photographs. The book is a pleasure not only to behold but to hold, too - prestige paper and meticulous attention to color honor the author, her subjects, and the art.
Painting by Susan Fillion based on a famous photo from 1903.
An art educator in Baltimore, Susan Fillion has obviously spent untold hours with the Cone Collection and with the voluminous correspondence and other papers of the sisters. She frequently describes a scene or situation from Claribel’s or Etta’s perspective, an effective and engaging device. In the hands of a writer less intimate with the sisters, this might feel false or presumptive, but Fillion keeps it simple and convincing. A beautiful and accessible gateway to a study of Postimpressionism, and a moving portrait of two extraordinary women.
Adapted from a review that originally appeared in School Library Journal.
Today's Nonfiction Monday Round-up is at Emu's Debuts.
The Ramayana is the ancient epic story of the exiled prince Rama and his beautiful wife, Sita. When Sita is kidnapped by a love-struck demon king, her husband’s efforts to rescue her result in a war that eventually involves not only demons and mortals, but also gods, monsters, and even animals. This story has been told and retold, painted, performed and translated in every medium imaginable.
Clem was born premature, when his pregnant mother was startled by a heartbroken Nazi pilot shooting her chimney to pieces at the end of World War II in rural Norfolk, England.
Using this birth as a pivot point, Mal Peet tells us the story of Clem's family from the time his grandmother was a girl to nearly the present day. We see the twentieth century work its changes on this family, as wars take men away and bring them back, social movements carry Clem's family out of their indentured hovel and into estate housing and allow Clem to attend an exclusive school, and romantic love finds a foothold.
Providing reader advisory services to movie and TV stars may sound like it's all glamor and glitz - private screenings at Matt Damon's place, long walks with Taylor Kitsch, tequila shots with Cameron Diaz - but in reality, it's hard work. It's a year-round, always-on-call job that requires constant monitoring of tons of information sources. You should see my office - a dozen laptops and giant flatscreens feeding me 24-hour updates from Cynopsis Kids, Early Word, Rama's Screen, and the Hollywood Reporter.
But that's what it takes. What would happen if, out of the blue, Hailee Steinfeld chased you down in a hallway at NBC panting, "I have to read a science fiction novel for English but I hate science fiction!" It wouldn't do to flail around until you lamely suggest she reads Virus on Orbis 1. Nooo. That kid, she needs more action. Not so much character development. Black Hole Sun is the book for her. She'd be perfect as the voice of the AI that is the main character's advisor, conscience and best friend. Or she could be the kick-ass love interest Vienne.
Tune in to my wave as I provide book advice to the attendees of the 84th Annual Academy Awards from my perch by the bar at the Governor's Ball...
We are well shut of the twentieth century, I think. That was the first thing that crossed my mind as I closed Between Shades of Gray at about 1:30 in the morning last night. Good god. This is historical fiction that grabs you by the throat.
Where are we? We are in Lithuania in June of 1941. Stalin has annexed the country and part of his strategy for integrating it seamlessly into the Soviet Union is to round up anyone who might object and send them to Siberia.
Who are we? Fifteen-year-old Lina, upper middle class, a gifted artist, with a ten-year-old brother and a beautiful mother. Papa, a university administrator, has already disappeared when soldiers pound on the door and throw Lina's family into a truck.
What is happening to 17-year-old Briony Larkin and the miserable fenside village of Swampsea? Briony is beautiful and intelligent, neglected by her father after the death of her beloved stepmother. Possessed of a supernatural gift that allows her to see and converse with the nature spirits that surround her village, before she died, her stepmother commanded Briony to avoid the swamp where these spirits live lest something terrible happen.
To make an already joyless life considerably worse, Briony is responsible for her difficult twin sister Rose, who, due to a blow to the head when the girls were seven, exhibits symptoms and behaviors similar to those associated with autism spectrum disorder.
Then a handsome boy comes to the village, and with him progress: the swamp is to be drained and Swampsea to become the terminus of a London rail line. As Swampsea struggles to - belately - join the twentieth century, Briony struggles with new roles that she both fears and desires. I'm always looking for neat coming-of-age metaphors, and the advent of the modern age is a good one. Will Briony allow herself to fall in love? Will she learn to control her power? Will she figure out the deceptions that have been perpetrated upon her, leaving her full of frustrated, self-abasing rage?
Louise at thirteen is friendless and flat-chested. Bad luck and worse decisions have torn apart the cozy canyon life she shared with her parents, B-movie director Charlie Bat and starlet-turned-homemaker Brandy-Lynn, and now she lives in a courtyard condo down below the smog line. Instead of her tiny, hippie elementary school, she's attending a big public junior high where everything seems like a competition. And then, after one too many drunken arguments with Brandy-Lynn, her dad leaves.
Pink Smog: Becoming Weetzie Bat is the prequel to Francesca Lia Block's popular Weetzie Bat stories - this is Weetzie before she becomes fully Weetzified: not yet blonde, only partially sparkly, showing barely a hint of the wistful siren to come. With some of the glitter swept away, the emphasis is on Louise's feelings and encounters, which have always been well-written, but can be overshadowed by the feathered, flowing, Mod Podge fabric of Weetzie's later life. Heartbroken, teased, neglected, and possibly hexed, Louise begins to learn about risks that are worth taking and people who are worth cherishing. She is a peaceful child who, when faced with cruelty and loss, develops into a young woman who is pliant but not wimpy, strong but not aggressive.
A fresh gem for Weetzie's fans, Pink Smog stands comfortably alone as well. It would serve as a Gateway to Francesca Lia Block (which is an arch a lot of us are happy to have passed through - Jezebel once called Weetzie Bat ""The Book for Girls Who Ended Up Taking a Gay Dude to Prom" - I myself took my best friend's much-older brother), and although marketed to grades 9 and up, this book could be wise comfort to a reader as young as 5th grade whose family has undergone sudden change.
A version of this review appeared in VOYA a few months ago.
I feel like Tony Shalhoub's character in Galaxy Quest: "Heh heh," he chuckles, mentally adding up the squad of enemy alien soldiers guarding the [whatever], the rock monster the crew had encountered on a recent visit to a desolate planet, and the ship's transporter mechanism. "I just had this really interesting idea."
I've just done a little idle internal arithmetic myself. I read a lot, right? Mostly kids' and YA books. It's ridiculous. And it's gotten to be I kind of feel like I'm cheating when I take time out for the essentials: Vanity Fair's Hollywood issue, September Vogue, and Go Fug Yourself. Your essentials may not be my essentials. There's room for all of us here.
But my consumption of gossipy fashiony stuff means that I do kind of keep an eye on the traffic at the intersection of these two interests of mine - namely, when YA (and sometimes kids') novels are made into movies. Like... Ooh there goes Oscar nominee Viola Davis again - she's going to be in the movie they're finally going to make of Ender's Game. Hm. I wonder just exactly where Viola Davis fits into Ender's Game. Ugh here's another mouth-breathing Hemsworth: which YA heartthrob part is he going to be panting all over this time? You know. Everybody does that.
And you can't help wondering, you know, if you somehow found yourself sharing a First Class row with say Brad Pitt (I could get bumped up, it could happen!), what would you end up talking about?