Wednesday, October 25, 2006

"You Should Never Take a Class That Requires You to Read Beowulf"

I've been noticing an increasingly relevant debate going on regarding what kids are assigned to read in schools -- whether required books are too difficult, to stale, or just misunderstood. Whaddya know -- there's been some pretty good thoughts posted on both sides of the argument. Here's a brief rundown:

Author Shannon Hale (Princess Academy) has frequently written and spoken about the lack of contemporary or genre literature that has been accepted as part of the high school canon.

Hale also quotes Laurie Halse Anderson (author of Speak) on this topic:

"Read this from a report of the National Institute
of Literacy: 'The ability to read and understand complicated information is
important to success in college and, increasingly, in the workplace. An analysis
of the NAEP long-term trend reading assessments reveals that only half of all
White 17 year olds, less than one-quarter of Latino 17 year olds, and less than
one-fifth of African American 17 year olds can read at this level.
By age 17,
only about 1 in 17 seventeen year olds can read and gain information from
specialized text, for example the science section in the local newspaper. This
1 in 12 White 17 year olds,1 in 50 Latino 17 year olds, and1 in 100
African American 17 year olds.'
I wish we had all of our 17 year olds to the
point where we could have them enjoy Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Thoreau, and, yes,
Hawthorne. But to get them to that point, THEY MUST LEARN HOW TO READ. Their
chances of developing into literate adults are greatly enhanced if we hand them
books that are interesting, engaging, and written in the vernacular. Most of the
Classics do not fit that definition.

(Sorry for the long quote; I couldn't quite find the link for this.)

Finally, Monica Edinger has posted a well-thought out, well written defense of required reading lists from an educator's perspective. Can I say how bedazzled I am by her?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

New Book Roundup

The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen by M. T. Anderson

As a rule, it’s a good sign when I enjoy a book so much that I can’t wait to finish. It’s an even better sign when I can’t wait to tell everyone I know about a book. M. T. Anderson scores on both counts. Is it possible for a book to be so funny and poignant at the same time?

Here’s the jist: Lily Gefelty’s two best friends happen to be characters from children’s serial novels: there’s Katie Mulligan, star of the Horror Hollow series (think Goosebumps) and Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut (think Danny Dunn). The three of them have decided that they need a break from solving mysteries and fending off the undead, so they head off to the Moose Tongue Lodge, where numerous other characters from popular series are staying (like the Manley Boys, the Cutesy Dell Twins, and Eddie Wax, star of the obscure “Newbery Honor” book, Stumpy Rides to Glory). Alas, soon after they arrive, they find that the famous Hooper Quints (think Bobbsey Twins) have been kidnapped, and a precious diamond necklace purloined. As Katie, Lily, and Jasper go about trying to solve the mystery, Anderson spends ample amounts of time parodying, satirizing, and down right pulling the underpants off of various clichés of children’s adventure novels. It’s precariously over-the-top at times; Anderson has nutty authorial asides, characters who are ludicrously stupid (the Manley Boys mistake a pepper grinder for a flashlight), and others who are downright bizarre (for example, a black-caped professor who studies bats, and spends time screaming every few seconds to mimic bats’ natural sonar capabilities). It’s a style that may come off as harried to some, but I enjoyed it immensely – Anderson’s ability to pull jokes out of left field and make them work reminds me of Douglas Adams. Here’s one of my favorite passages from the beginning of the book, and you’ll see why it’s so close to my heart:

Often, if you go down to a town library and under Keyword Search type “Jasper Dash,” you’ll come up with a list of his books – and beside each one, it says: “Withdrawn. Withdrawn. Withdrawn. Withdrawn.” This means that they are no longer in circulation. Some librarian has taken them off the shelf, wiping away a tear, and has opened the book to the back, where there’s a pouch for a card dating back to the time of the Second World War, and she’ll crumple up the card, and then she and her fellow librarians will take special knives and slice away at the book and will eat the pages in big mouthfuls until the book is all gone, the whole time weeping, because they hate this duty – it is the worst part of the job – for here was a boot that was once someone’s favorite, but which now is dead and empty. And the little cheerful face of Jasper Dash, heading off to fight a cattle-rustling ring in his biplane, will still be smiling pluckily as they take their Withdrawl Knives and scratch his book to pieces.

(My husband, after reading this passage, said, “Wow. I had no idea that’s what you librarians did in the back office.”)

For all the funny jokes, though, there’s an emotional side to the novel that is almost lyrical – Anderson uses the different series characters not only as a set-up for jokes, but also to elucidate the way that we tend to label and pigeonhole one another. Amazingly, Anderson manages to pull off a few elegiac passages at the end, and they manage to fit in with the rest of the zaniness seamlessly. It’s been a long time since I’ve met a book that made me laugh quite so hard, that made me smile so wistfully, and makes me eager to head over to the library to talk it up to the kids there. M. T. Anderson: I salute you.

Whoo. Long review on that one. Can you tell that I’m excited? Let’s make the others right quick, eh?

Fairest by Gail Carson Levine

Fans of Ella Enchanted will be raring to pick up this book. Quite frankly, I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t want to pick it up – look at that cover! It got hit with the Pretty Stick. Anyhow, Fairest is set in the same world as EE, but in the next kingdom over – in Ayortha, whose inhabitants are intensely musical. Aza is our protagonist, and while her voice is miraculous, she’s as plain as day. Enter pretty but tone-deaf Queen Ivi, and suddenly Aza is “Singin’ in the Rain”-ing it for her. As the Queen’s lady-in-waiting (and vocal stand-in), she notices a magical mirror on Queen Ivi’s dressing table, and wonders if it could help make her pretty. But will the Queen be jealous of Aza if she becomes beautiful? And what would Aza’s new best friend Prince Ijori think? Yep, you guessed it -- it’s a retelling of “Snow White.” However, Levine’s world is so finely fleshed out -- you can just tell how much she enjoyed describing things like gnome caverns and magical libraries for us – that the story feels new again. It’s missing a lot of the humor that peppered EE so nicely, but this fits the story’s tone just fine (Snow White is a more melancholy tale than Cinderella, anyway). There’s a smattering of court intrigue and talk of politics, but the real focus is on Aza’s journey to accepting her body image – a message that can always be repeated in this day and age. There’s just one thing that bothered me – Queen Ivi is such a transparent clotheshorse bimbo that I can’t imagine why the King Oscaro -- who, we are told over and over again, is so wise and good-hearted – managed to fall in love and marry her. What in the world did they have in common?!? Sheesh. Men.

Hmm. That was long-ish, too. On to Round Three!

Adele & Simon by Barbara McClintock

McClintock is my favorite under-appreciated illustrator right now. Her ink-and-watercolor pictures abound in fine detail and wit, and manage to be frothy without being fluffy. In this sweet book, Adele is charged with escorting her little brother home through turn-of-the-century Paris. He manages to lose his possessions one by one as they traipse through the Louvre, pastry shops, the natural history museum, and a plethora of other picturesque places in the city. Each page spread shows a lovely scene of the journey, just bursting with detail – people, animals, and objets d’art are vividly portrayed against a ochre-colored backgrounds. In each picture, the reader is invited to find the object that Simon has most recently lost, in a “Where’s Waldo?” style. The journey ends at the children’s home – and the lost possessions make their way back, too, in a manner that is immensely satisfying. Fun for anyone who’s ever had to herd little brothers home – or who is harboring a secret desire for Paris.

Ah . . . the third one was juuuuust right. And now off to bed!

But What About "Fake Tan Orange"?

As a children's librarian and a parent of two, I spend a lot of time around sweet little colorful things. You know, crayons. Lots. And. Lots. Of. Crayons. Just when I thought that I couldn't stand digging red-and-blue wax out from under my fingernails one more time, this cartoon came along. Ah, salvation. Before you watch it, just make sure you're in a place that tolerates sound -- from both the computer, and from you, guffawing away.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Special Report: Fall Festival of Children's Books

Let me do a little explaining for those of you not from Pittsburgh: once a year for the past 45 years or so, various city institutions (universities, literacy groups, museums, etc.) pool their resources to have a little one-day children’s literature conference. They usually round up three fabulous authors or illustrators, bring ‘em in, and we all get to hear them talk whilst munching on free bagels. Due to such things as childbirth and vacations, I’ve missed the last couple of Fall Festivals, so I was very happy indeed that the stars aligned and I could attend this year. Especially since the conference featured Lynn Rae Perkins, who I am in intense awe of, Bryan Collier, who makes gorgeous pictures, and John Manders, who I didn’t know that much about before the conference, but whom I highly admire now. So: let’s cut to the chase. I know that nobody out there is probably all that interested in reading a minutely detailed play-by-play of the three lectures given by each speaker. Let’s just go with the Top Facts of Interest for each one, eh?

Lynne Rae Perkins

  1. Is a local girl – she grew up just down the river from Pittsburgh
  2. Is just as elegantly beautiful and whimsical as her novels and paintings
  3. Spent time as a child coloring the mortar in her parents’ brick house with crayons to make it look prettier (and whoa, got in trouble for it)
  4. Is the only children’s book author I know who can make a reference to The Talking Heads AND Blade Runner in the same speech, and have it tie in seamlessly
  5. As a child, she attempted to teach her best friend how to play the piano using a cardboard replica of a keyboard. When her friend wasn’t satisfied with this, she realized that “if you want to bring someone close to beauty, you can’t forget the beauty part.”
  6. Talked about what parts of her books were inspired by real-life events: the trailer in Home Lovely is based on a real building; on a school visit Perkins met the grandson of the trailer owner, with pleasant results.

Bryan Collier

  1. Has deep reverence for the subjects of his books
  2. Traveled to Montgomery, Alabama to do research on Rosa Parks for Rosa; actually walked from the bus stop to Parks’ house to see how difficult it was for her to do such a thing
  3. The illustration of the boy in Uptown was modeled by Collier’s nephew. The nephew is now a college freshman and uses Uptown as a way of getting dates
  4. Rambled a bit too much during his speech; it went overtime by a good half hour, leaving poor John Manders with only ten minutes of speaking time. Blah!

John Manders

  1. Spent the bulk of his (alas, hurried) presentation describing the craft of painting and illustration
  2. Is incredibly friendly and a pretty dynamic speaker
  3. He passed around lots of thumbnail sketches, color samples, and storyboards for several of his books (very cool)
  4. Has a pet parrot that likes to sit on the lower rungs of his desk while he works
  5. Likes to use real-life locations as inspiration for his illustrations – the illustrations of the library in Clarence the Copy Cat are based on the architectural details of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where I work in the children’s department. Yes – that’s our cast-iron hanging globe lamp! Our built-in honey colored bookshelves! Our little red-and-yellow storytime chairs! Our copy machine with the big green button! Ours, ours, OURS, mwah ha ha ha!!! Because of this, some of the original art from Clarence hangs in our director’s office. Rah-rah, team.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

You Oughtta Be On Stickers

Hungry to know about the best books for kids? Tired of seeing lame books win the big awards? Then step right up to see the Cybil Awards! That's right -- a brand-spankin' new youth literature award that is headed up by the childlit blogging community. And guess who gets to be on one of the awards committees? Me! Woo-hoo! I get to be on the judging committee for Middle Grade Fiction. ("Cybil Awards" is taken from what happens if you say "
Children's and YA Bloggers' Literary Awards" fast. Really, really fast. And maybe drunk. I likes it.)

Hmm . . . when I see it in writing, "committee member of obscure cyber-award" doesn't sound so hot. But it feels hot. I'm very excited, even if it means that I'll actually have to get around to reading The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Who wants to read about a bunny named after a university? But I digress.

The real question, I suppose, is what kind of shiny gold-foil sticker we would create, if we had the money and/or general clout and public interest to do so. The problem is that I can't envision one that doesn't feature the giant embossed head of Cybil Shepherd. Errrgh! Stupid, lame Moonlighting -- ruining my imagination forever!

Anyhow, if any of you guys out there in L'Internet Land have any brilliant ideas for a Cybil Sticker (oooh, say that ten times fast), write it up in the comments. I'll take the idea I like the best and draw it, then post it here for all to see. Then everybody can rejoice in mocking my drawing skills forevermore.

Go ahead and think about it: what would best represent the children's book award of the 21st century?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Will jumping on top of it get you 100 points? Or, the Off-Topic Topic of the Day

Okay . . . this has nothing to do with children's literature, but this Mario themed wedding cake has to be the cutest, coolest thing I've seen in a long time (not counting my kids). The question is, if you were six, which part would you beg for? The pirhana plant? The gold coins? The turtle shells? So many questions . . .

Monday, October 16, 2006

Forgotten Bookshelf: The Loner by Ester Wier

He is so alone that he does not even have a name. Traveling from place to place with migrant crop pickers, ignored and neglected, he has ceased to care for others, and watches out only for himself. However, one day he finds a friend – a young girl among the crop pickers who is just his age – who shows an interest and affection for him that nobody has before. But just as the two become close, there is a horrible accident, and the boy is left to wander by himself. During his journey he meets someone else, who does not seem very loving, but bit by bit gives him the first chance he has at finding a home.

This was something like the book talk that my advisor in library school gave for The Loner to me and my classmates, and it had nearly everybody in tears. Wier’s story of the homeless, nameless boy’s journey is told in spare, solemn prose, but with an insight and introspection that makes it touchingly beautiful.

The homeless boy, after leaving the migrant workers, is found on the Montana prairie by a sheep rancher who is known only as Boss – a tall, gruff woman who keeps mainly to herself.

I think we all know what happens next: there are scads of homeless orphans in children’s literature who run into gruff adults, and they always manage to work their way into the affections of the gruff adults, and get adopted by the end of the book. (See A Single Shard or The Midwife’s Apprentice.)

The boy takes the name of David (a Biblical shepherd) and the rest of the book focuses on the careful relationship that blossoms between him and Boss as they herd sheep together over the winter. Because of this, The Loner is a bit of a slow-moving book, although there are a few scenes involving an abandoned mine, coyotes, and a bear to spice things up. However, the heartbreaking journey of David from drifter to loyal shepherd is one that shouldn’t be missed – it’s one of those simple, earthy books that makes you want to smell the earth, run through the snow, and relish the pleasures of hard work. The Loner was awarded a Newbery Honor back in its day, so it’s easy to find a copy, but like many of the runner-ups, it has fallen by the wayside. Go ahead and seek it out -- like a sunrise on the Montana plains, it’s worth the wait.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

New Book Roundup

Aggie and Ben: Three Stories by Lori Ries; illus. Frank W. Dormer

Fans of Cynthia Rylant’s beloved Henry and Mudge easy-reader books will jump for joy over these adventures of Aggie the pup and her owner, a sweet boy named Ben. Anyone who has owned a dog (or has wished for one) will resonate with these stories as they perfectly capture new-pet ownership: carefully choosing the best dog at the store (“A dog would sleep on my bed and be my best friend,” says the thoughtful Ben); gleefully rolling around the living room floor with a furry new friend (“I am just like Aggie,”); being grossed out by the dog’s fondness for the toilet (“I am done being a dog”), and the satisfaction of feeling a tail wagging next to you as you curl up for the night. Ries’ text is well-tailored in its simplicity; it keeps the plot interesting and funny with a minimum of detail. Dormer’s chunky stylized watercolor paintings perfectly evoke the graceful chubbiness of both Aggie and Ben; they manage to be cute without being cutesy. A lovely addition to any new reader’s bookshelf.

Museum Trip by Barbara Lehman

A young boy boards the school bus for a run-of-the-mill field trip to the city art museum that turns out to be anything but ordinary in this cryptic wordless picture book. Stopping to tie his shoe, the boy loses his way in the museum, and happens upon a secret door. Inside is a tiny room with a display case showing old etchings of mazes. Gazing upon them, the boy suddenly finds himself inside the mazes himself – leading to a quiet yet exciting adventure that will capture the imagination of anyone who likes puzzles, art, and a bit of mystery. Like in her Caldecott Honor-winning The Red Book, Lehman again relies on thick lines and bright jewel tones to describe the boy’s journey through sepia-toned mazes. An abundant use of white space is given to each page’s design to guide the reader’s eye through the story without distractions. Readers who have enjoyed the works of David Wiesner, Anthony Browne, and Chris Van Allsburg will find something exciting and intriguing here. This is a great book for a child who is always looking for something magical in the everyday – a place to let your mind travel a bit without straying too far from your own front yard.

One Potato, Two Potato by Cynthia DeFelice; illus. Andrea U’Ren

A familiar folktale is given a delightful new makeover: The O’Grady’s are so poor that they subsist on just one potato per day (“they called it breakfast, lunch, and supper, and considered themselves lucky to have it”) and have so few material possessions that they have to share everything. One day a mysterious pot is unearthed in the garden, which proves to have the magical ability to double whatever is placed inside – put in one potato, pull out two – and all their troubles are over. What really shines here is DeFelice’s text, which is brightened with clever Irish overtones (“Saints have mercy!” is the couple’s favorite exclamation). When the couple discover the pot, they don’t become greedy – they simply replicate as much food, provisions, and money as they think they will need to live comfortably, and then bury the pot “for someone else to find.” Most marvelous are U’Ren’s gently comic illustrations. The O’Grady’s are possibly the skinniest, gangliest picture-book characters I’ve ever seen, with overalls and stockings that seem to be held up by sheer will alone. A palette of earth-tones gives the illustrations a warmth that matches the humorous text. A perfect story for children living in an increasingly materialistic age.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Revised and Updated by Diana Wynne Jones
Can I say how tickled I am that this book has undergone a second edition? Jones takes the premise that all fantasy novels are really travel brochures and for the "PanCeltic Touring Agency," which takes people from our world for trips around "Fantasyland." This book is the essential a-to-z guide for such tourists -- in other words, a perfect platform for Jones to have tounge-in-cheek fun with every kind of cliché of the fantasy genre. Here you will learn everything about Fantasyland horses ("they are a breed unique to Fantasyland . . . they can be used just like bicycles") to princesses ("they come in two main kinds: 1. Wimps. 2. Spirited and wilful. A spirited princess will be detectable by the scattering of freckles across the bridge of her somewhat tiptilted nose") and color-coding ("black hair is Evil, particularly when combined with a corpse-white complexion"). Really, this book should be required reading for anyone who has ever given thought to writing a fantasy novel, and should appeal to fans of Jones' other work as well as for fans of Terry Pratchett. It's just laugh-out-loud funny.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

And Why Not Elect Toad of Toad Hall as Transportation Commissioner?

Tired of the candidates for this year's fall elections? A Seattle man named Matthew Baldwin has gone all pro-active and made campaign posters for various children's book characters. So, so inspiring . . . it's almost dazzling, isn't it?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Pop-Ups A-Plenty

Whoo. Over at Roger Sutton's Blog earlier this week was a discussion regarding lousy survivor memoirs. As part of it, Sutton revealed that Barron's is publishing a pop-up book about the Irish Potato famine. Yoiks. After finding that out, I immediately surpressed my inner gag reflex and went on a mad hunt to find out more. Alas, there really isn't any more to be had (in other words: no pictures of the inside), but I did find this rather interesting digital exhibit featuring artsy pop-up and interactive books of all kinds. Not only did I find a book about the Irish potato famine (pictured at left), but one about the Washington, D.C. sniper shootings, one that features the characters from the Narnia Chronicles philosophizing about the meaning of life, and yet another that's shaped like a box of chocolates. Oh, and a very cute one about a circus that unfortunately was described by the artist thusly:

Warning: What you are about to see and hear may result in life-altering side affects such as awareness, thinking in a new light, wishing you were still oblivious, denial, emotional scarring, and most of all experiencing first hand appearance vs. reality...

Uh-huuuuuh . . .

And of course, if you like pop-ups but haven't visited this site, then you're just silly.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Forgotten Bookshelf: The Story Vine by Anne Pellowski

So: I'm sure some of you are wondering what the heck this picture is about. Okay, fine. So I'm lazy. There's no picture of The Story Vine on Amazon or Powell's, my digital camera's out of batteries and I couldn't take a picture of my own copy, and after doing a Google Image search for "Anne Pellowski," this is the best I could come up with. This. It's a close-up shot from a folk sculpture of a storyteller -- see how the teller's mouth is open, and how there are lots of little people on her shoulders listening? Yeaaaaah, now you get it. I think it's Native American, but don't quote me on that. But enough of this -- on with The Review!

Oooooh, Anne Pellowski – the person I want to be when I grow up. (Erm, and maybe Virginia Hamilton, too.) This woman travels the globe for UNICEF, collecting folklore and teaching early literacy skills in economically-undeveloped countries. Or at least she used to. Pretty darn cool job, if you ask me.

Anyway, Pellowski has published several books of the many folktales she’s collected during all her world travels, and The Story Vine is one of the more stellar volumes. If you want to spend any time telling stories to children, you need this book.

Now, I must warn you – this isn’t like most traditional folklore anthologies. All of the stories contained in this book use some little “extra” to embellish it – whether it be a string-figure, a folk-doll, sand-drawings, or a simple fingerplay. Yeah, yeah, yeah – I know that there are lots of books out there that have stories like this (and which are kind of hokey), and I was skeptical of The Story Vine at first as well – but the amazing thing is that Pellowski manages to preserve an authentic sense of the culture from which she collected each story. She doesn’t just list each story with a title and a little “From Such-and-such Country” – she includes an brief essay explaining the history and significance of each particular type and style of story. You don’t just get a draw-and-tell story; you get anecdotes about Aboriginal Australians giving draw-and-tell stories all night long! You don’t just get a story that uses dolls; you get an essay about the origins of worry dolls and their significance to the indigenous peoples of Central America.

And did I mention that everything in the book is beautifully, concisely written and a pleasure to read? And that every section comes complete with its own bibliography for further exploration? Freakin’ awesome. Go. Go now. Go find this book at the library. What are you doing still drumming your fingers on your mouse? Go!

Monday, October 09, 2006

What We Really Need Is a Big Billboard That Says, "No Fat Lit"

There's been a bit of a pattern I've been noticing in the children's literature blogworld lately: everyone's complaining, or commending, or commenting in some way about the recent glut of mediocre fantasy novels that have been hitting us over our collective heads in 865-page servings lately.

  • Roger Sutton made a comment or two on his blog, which garnered many, many repsonses.
  • Fuse #8 rejoiced over the novel The Road to Paris because it was a nice middle-grade novel instead of a chubby fantasy.
  • And on Oz and Ends, there's a big ol' full-blown essay about the whole thingamajing.
Three references is enough to qualify this as "the buzz," eh? My Take On It: yeah, fat fantasy trilogies are annoying -- I've always been a fantasy fan, and to tell the truth, I feel like one of those travel guide writers who are always complaining about how the beautiful little town, villa, or restaurant that used to be such a good secret is now flooded with tourists and their tacky souvenir stands. Traveling to Middle Earth, or Narnia, or Damar used to be something that few people did -- and whenever I met a fellow fantasy-traveler, it would be fun to talk about our favorite places, people, and that ripping little kiosk in Minas Tirith that sells dragon meat on a stick.

Now it seems that everybody's reading fantasy, and while it's kind of gratifying to see this genre recieve the attention that I always thought was its due, it's also frustrating to see so many lousy knockoffs of the Real McCoys. But like those tacky tourist stands, it supports the local economy -- in this case, fantasy authors -- who I hope will in turn separate the wheat from chaff and create better and newer attractions for us tourists in the future.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

New Book Roundup

Yes, indeed – ‘tis that time of the week again. Admittedly, I only have three new books to talk about this week, mainly because I’ve been having fun with Molvanîa: a Land Untouched By Modern Dentistry. If you missed seeing this delightful travel guide parody last year, I highly recommend giving it a good flip-through. But I digress – On With the New Books!

Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller

Confession time: up until I had the chance to physically put my hands on this book and open it up, I thought it was a graphic novel. Can you blame me? The very-cool cover art just screams “graphic novel,” as does the book’s plot.

Drab Ananka Fishbein is friendless at her prep school when she becomes acquainted with her black-clad spy girl classmate, Kiki Strike. Kiki reminded me a little too much of Artemis Fowl – she’s parentless, lives in a house under video surveillance, and limitless wealth with which to do what she likes. However, Kiki uses her powers for good – or what she deems as good – instead of evil. When asked what she wants to be when she grows up, Kiki answers, “Dangerous.”

Together Ananka and Kiki discover and explore the “Shadow City,” a vast network of secret underground tunnels and rooms inhabited by criminals. Miller’s writing is fun, hip stuff – populated with renegade Girl Scouts, street gangs that force their victims to parade around in tutus, sly references to Alice in Wonderland, and interesting tidbits about the urban history of New York City. Chapters end with practical advice from Ananka about real-life spy work; preteen girls will just eat it up.

Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke and Other Stories by Barbara Gregorich

Idioms have been played up for humor in children’s literature (paging Amelia Bedelia) but never with such sprightliness as they have in this book. Waltur is a somewhat bumbling but lovable bear who goes about buying a pet, earning money for honey, and digging holes for fun while his long-suffering friend Matilda gives advice like “don’t buy a pig in a poke,” or “don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” Waltur follows her advice literally, which leads to hilarious dialogue reminiscent of old Abbot and Costello routines. For example, Matilda advises Waltur that he “can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Rankled by this, Waltur sets out to prove her wrong:

“Here’s the water,” said Waltur.

“So it is,” said the horse.

“I led you here,” said Waltur.

“Many thanks,” said the horse.

“Now you can drink the water,” said Waltur.

“Thank you, but no,” said the horse.

“Yes,” said Waltur. “Drink the water.”

“No,” said the horse. “I will not.”

“Why not?” asked Waltur.

“I don’t feel like it,” said the horse.

“Water is good for you,” said Waltur.

“So it is,” said the horse.

“Drink the water,” said Waltur.

“You drink it,” said the horse.

In other words, this little easy reader is enough to make a whole class of first graders dissolve into chuckles. Just don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Now and Ben: the Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin by Gene Barretta

Swimming flippers, the Gulf Stream, writing desks, fire departments and bifocals: what do they have in common? They were all discovered or invented by Benjamin Franklin. With this delightful little piece of nonfiction, Barretta describes almost all of Franklins’ inventions – famous and not-so-famous – and shows their influence (or not) on the modern age. Page spreads are split into two, showing Franklin’s innovations “now” and “then,” along with how the inventions work and were inspired. Some of Franklin’s inventions that didn’t survive time are also on display here, such as the glass armonica and a rocking chair that churns butter. Bright, golden-hued illustrations have a whimsical touch to them, similar to those found in David Small’s illustrations for So You Want to Be President? to which this book makes a perfect companion.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Forgotten Bookshelf: Piping Down the Valleys Wild, edited by Nancy Larrick

It’s a good sign when three of the first five poems in an anthology are by Karla Kuskin:

It’s full of the moon
The dogs dance out
Through brush and bush and bramle.
They howl and yowl
And growl and prowl
They amble, ramble, scramble.

Oooooo, after reviewing the kinda-melancholy City Poems earlier this week, I’m raring for something as gossamer-lovely as Piping Down the Valleys Wild. I’m usually kind of reluctant to paw through a somewhat-thick poetry anthology – especially one that doesn’t have very many illustrations – but this little number is g-o-o-d GOOD. I’ve been flipping around in it for hours and I have yet to find a poem that’s a dud. And while there’s quite a few familiar names here (Eliot, cummings, Milne, Margaret Wise Brown, Updike, Nash, Farjeon, Gwendolyn Brooks) almost everything is something that I haven’t stumbled on before. It’s arranged thematically and similar in tone to many other anthologies – most notably Prelutsky’s Random House Book of Poetry – but I must say that I am impressed on how the bulk of the poems here are definitely a cut above. Here’s another quote from a Kaye Starbird poem:

I went away last August
To summer camp in
And there I met a camper
Called Eat-it-All Elaine.

Although Elaine was quiet,
She liked to cause a stir
By acting out the nickname
Her camp-mates gave to her.

The day of our arrival
At Cabin Number Three
When girls kept coming over
To greet Elaine and me,

She took a piece of Kleenex
And calmly chewed it up,
Then strolled outside the cabin
And ate a buttercup.

Oooooo, lovely. The anthologist, Nancy Larrick, writes in the introduction that she personally road-tested all of these poems herself with kids of all ages, from nursery school on up. There’s poems in here for every age, but it isn’t condescending to the little ones or the big ones – this is simply a celebration of that most personal of art forms. Let me leave you with just one more, from Eleanor Farjeon:

Blow the Stars home, Wind, blow the Stars home
Ere Morning drowns them in golden foam.

It’s almost as good as chocolate, isn’t it? Lucky for us, this book was reissued recently, so it's pretty easy to pick up a copy -- so what are you waiting for?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

A So-Called "Potentially Awesome" Game

Skimming through the online edition of The Believer, I found this fabulous game called Overrated. It works like this:

Three-plus people make a bunch of cards with people, places, and things on them.

A card is read aloud.

Players silently contemplate the item’s true worth relative to its perceived worth.

Everybody does a kind of rock-paper-scissors motion.

And then simultaneously makes one of three gestures:
Hand in O-shape, held high: OVERRATED

Hand in — shape, held level: PERFECTLY RATED

Hand in inverted-U shape, held low: UNDERRATED

Then everybody discusses why people chose what they did. If you manage to get someone else to change their rating, you get a point.

So: all you people have to do is add
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane to the mix, and you're set for a fun, high-blood-pressure evening. Or possibly J.K. Rowling. Or The Newbery Medal. Or Barnes & Noble. Or . . . well, you get the picture.

Click here to download, sweeties!

Hot Characters of Children’s Literature

Okay, when I first stumbled on the fabulous fuse#8’s regular feature, “Hot Men of Children’s Literature,” this is what I thought it was going to be. Granted, I was still pretty thrilled to read about real, actual, Hot People, but I still felt that it would be fun to highlight the various imaginary men that thousands of girls and women have harbored crushes on over the years. I’ve just compiled my personal Top Ten; if there are any Hot Characters I’ve overlooked, please feel free to make a bid for their inclusion. Now: Let the Hormones Roll!

  1. Laurie from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

In my “Tearjerkers” booklist, one of my dear bleaders wrote that she can’t help but cry when Jo rejects Laurie’s proposal. Add to this the fact that Christian Bale portrayed him in the latest movie version of this story, and you can see why Laurie is the quintessential hottie of kids’ books.

  1. Ged from The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin

It’s difficult for non-fantasy-types to get into LeGuin’s novels, but it’s worth it to get to know the dark-skinned wizard hunk of a Ged. In this book, he rescues and is rescued by a beautiful young maiden who has been trapped by a bizarre death cult . . . sighhhh . . .

  1. The Beast from Beauty by Robin McKinley

Meg Cabot put it best in her Princess Diaries books: “Who wants a smoothie Prince, when you can have a big hairy Beast? That’s like choosing Cyclops over Wolverine, and who in their right mind would do that?” Although the Prince in McKinley’s book ain’t so bad, either. . .

  1. Taran from Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

I choose this book out of the series, because it features Our Cute Hero wandering the earth, searching for his true identity, which makes you just wanna tuck him under your arm and take care of him, huh?

  1. Prince Char from Ella Enchanted

Tall. Passionate. Firey temper. Fights ogres in spare time. Any questions?

  1. Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables

Ahhh . . . the proverbial “boy from the farm next door.” (And he’s a doctor!) The best part of the Anne books is that you actually get to watch Anne and Gilbert’s relationship all the way until they’re grandparents. That’s what I call following through.

  1. Peaceable Sherwood from The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Many of you have probably not read this book, but Peaceable is a dynamo of a Hot Character. He’s dashing, surprising, and kind of like a Robin Hood of the American Revolution. Plus, his family motto is “I always get what I want.” (Rowr!)

  1. Christopher Heron from The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Okay! Okay! I tried not to list more than one Hot Character from the same author, but how can I help it – Christopher is a perfect brooding wordsmith of an Elizabethan. And Kate gets to rescue him in the end, a la “Tam Lin.” Yowza.

  1. Theo Theodorakis from The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I guess Theo’s the proverbial “boy from next floor.” Little Turtle Wexler has a crush on him the whole book, and after they solve the Westing murder and grow up, they get married. Awwwww.

  1. Eugenides the Thief from The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

Okay, let’s do the Gen inventory: young, clever, smart, funny, and an excellent swordsman (though he hates to kill). And he keeps on loving Queen Irene even after she cuts off his hand. He’s just as hot in The King of Attolia, but it’s here when he’s at his crazy love-struck best. Yum.

Disagree or agree with what I wrote? Write away, right away!