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I have been a fan of Flavia de Luce
, the eleven-year-old protagonist of a series of adult mysteries set in England in the 1950s, for a long time. I've also wondered why she hasn't received more attention from the YA world
. Her most recent adventure, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches
, isn't my favorite, but it is a great example of why Flavia, created by Alan Bradley
, is such an incredible combination of adult and even children's fiction elements.
Flavia has an incredibly unique, sharp voice, and she's extremely knowledgeable about a sophisticated subject, chemistry. While she jumps on her bike and has the kinds of adventures that are the stuff of children's books, that voice that adult readers love so much might not be acceptable to child readers. Adults like her because a child shouldn't sound like she does or do the things she does. Child readers might just find her unbelievable. Adults don't care about believing her. Adults like that this brilliant child knows nothing about sex. In this most recent book, she thought she could use her massive knowledge of science to bring someone back from the dead. It was a childish belief that adult readers would find touching. Child readers, on the other hand, might not get that this attempt on Flavia's part was more about character than plot.
I also suspect that Flavia isn't an entirely reliable narrator when it comes to her family. She perceives her sisters as hating her, but they have routinely come through for her over the course of the series. And in this volume it's clear that she hasn't understood her father's behavior toward her. I'm not aware of a lot of unreliable narrators in children's books or even YA.
In all these books a mom has been missing--a classic children's book situation. In The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches
, we get an actual dead parent. Children's literature is littered with those. What is really fascinating about Vaulted Arches
, though, is that here we get a child suddenly learning that her family has a special function and that she is chosen--not those others--to be part of it. This is a cliche of children's fantasy, and there is almost a whiff of fantasy about Flavia at that point.
So what have we got here? While these definitely aren't children's books, do they have enough children's elements to bring young readers into the world of adult reading?
Alex Waugh of The Children's War
has also been writing about Flavia
Scarlet is the second book in the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, which began with Cinder, a book I was very taken with. Cinder is a futuristic cyberpunk take on Cinderella. Scarlet kind of does the same thing with Red Riding Hood.
I say "kind of" because this is still Cinder's story, and for a long time Scarlet had her own story that was barely connected with Cinder's. Readers swing between the two storylines. Scarlet's is a very traditional woman attracted to a bad guy stranger and getting him to help her with a quest tale. Cinder's story is the traditional royalty in disguise, birthright stolen from her thing. But I'm already committed to Cinder because of Cinder, so I liked her part of the book better.
Oh, look! The next book in this series, Cress, has already been published. And, gasp, there are short story prequels for this series. So much to read.
I'm restarting the Environmental Book Club this Earth Day month with When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story by Linda Crotta Brennan. This is a lovely book with all kinds of illustrations--photographs, drawings, charts, and text boxes. I feel a little superficial talking first thing about how the book looks, but appearances make a book easier to read, particularly a nonfiction book. When Rivers Burned was also brought out by a smaller publisher, and its appearance is an example of how nice a product they can turn out.
Crotta Brennan does a good job here laying out her material as a narrative. She begins with the pre-Earth Day problems that led to the activism that led to the political action that led to Earth Day. It's not just an environmental book, it's a good beginner nonfiction book. I can see this book being recommended to upper elementary students so they can learn what nonfiction should be and how they should read it.
Only one quibble here--No footnotes or endnotes or bibliography. However, over the last ten years or so I've been seeing nonfiction without footnotes. So there may be something going on in nonfiction publishing that I'm just not aware of.
Transparency issue: I do know Linda Crotta Brennan in a say-hello-at-a-conference sort of way. I got this book through the library, not through Linda or her publisher.
I've had The Dark
by Daniel Handler
writing as Lemony Snicket,
with illustrations by Jon Klassen.
floating around the house for a little while because, quite honestly, I didn't quite get the first volume of A Series of Unfortunate Incidents
by L.Snicket. Life is short, time is limited. Should I spend any of it reading another Snicket book?
Why, yes, I should.
What I particularly liked about The Dark
was its coherence. It both seems to lead you astray, suggesting this is going to be a creepy piece of fluff or a clever joke, and then with that same material makes clear that all this time this was a very straight story. Anthropomorphizing the dark could mean turning it into a monster or it could mean turning it into a logical, calming follow.
Which way did Handler/Snicket go?The Dark
is a Cybils nominee
this year in the fiction picture book category.
I received It's a Book
by Lane Smith
for my birthday. I recall it getting a lot of attention when it was published in 2010, and I can remember something else, too, though I'm having some trouble putting my finger on it. Was there just a little bit of controversy over this thing? Maybe because of the text on the last page? Because some considered it too adult?
I think the whole book is kind of adult. It's all about a monkey trying to get through to a jackass that a book is a book, not an electronic device. The whole issue of children being too plugged in too early seems to be a very adult concern to me, not one that children are even aware of. You could make the argument that that is the point, to make children see this before they become too enamored of electronics. But if kids haven't yet become enamored of electronics will they understand terms like "text," "tweet," and "Wi-Fi?"
There's an overt message in It's a Book
, I think, one that adult readers concerned about keeping reading a traditional book-centered activity will embrace. That's okay. I'm a big fan of picture books for adults. In fact, it could be a fun read-aloud for them with their little ones. I don't know how many young picturebook readers will get this on their own, though.
Okay, Picture Book Month is over. Now it is time for...zombies!
Not to worry. I'm not doing a month on them. I'm not even all that enthused about zombies. I've read a couple of good books, seen a few movies, and that's about all I need. Especially since many zombie books are also apocalyptic novels. And, as Garrison Keillor once said about pumpkin pie, the best apocalyptic novel you've ever read isn't that much better than the worst.
That's why I ignored Rot & Ruin
by Jonathan Maberry for a long time when it was on my library's new YA shelf. It wasn't until I saw a review for one of its follow-up books that I gave the first book in the Rot & Ruin
series a second thought and made a point of finding it.
What makes this book so intriguing is that while it is set in a vague American future, it has a western vibe. The characters in this book are fourteen years into zombie world and the little group we're interested in are living in a small town they've created to keep themselves safe from the zombie horde. One character goes so far as to compare the people living there to western townspeople protecting themselves from Native Americans. Horses figure in the story because society has fallen and power for machinery is limited.
Our protagonist's older brother fills the roll of the lone gunslinger with his own code, making him noirish, too. There's no law in these parts, so you've got outlaw types who are far worse than the zombies, just as you had outlaws in westerns. Our heroes head out of town to save their woman from said outlaws. There is even a scene that calls to mind the cavalry coming over the rise to save the day.
For those of us who grew up with parents who watched westerns on TV every night of the week, it's fun to pick up all the western, well, cliches. (I didn't enjoy doing this anywhere near as much while watching Defiance
.) It's been a long time since television was populated by cowboys, though. The western connection won't be an issue one way or the other for younger readers.Rot & Ruin
is an apocalyptic novel that works for me because the society in it isn't stagnant. So often in these books the world goes to pieces and stays that way for generations. No one shows any interest in technology or even changing the height of a hemline. Given the last 500 years or so of human existence, that seems unrealistic to me. Cultures evolve.
And there are suggestions that the culture portrayed in Rot & Ruin
is going to. It's only been 14 years since the world fell to zombies, and already the young people who are growing up there are thinking that they'd like something better. If the zombies come, it seems likely to me that before long people are going to get sick of them and start thinking of ways to make a better life. Trying to make a better life is what we do.
Out of the Easy
by Ruta Sepetys
has an eye-popping first line. "My mother's a prostitute." The narrator isn't just directing an insult toward a mom who sleeps around. The mother here is your traditional, lives-in-a-cathouse, works-for-a-madam prostitute. The setting--mid-twentieth century New Orleans--and the world--of prostitutes--is the big draw for this book.
Main character Josie Moraine is an older YA character. She's finished high school and is saving to get out of the Big Easy. Her voice and those of the other characters are a little contrived, though that is understandable. This is a historical novel and the author is trying to duplicate the language and usage of another era. That's extremely difficult to do and make sound natural. As with so many YA novels, Josie is torn between two lovers. It's pretty obvious to readers (at least this adult reader) that she can forget about one of them. Josie doesn't get it. Once again, this is probably understandable given the era she lived in.
There is a mystery here, but it seems to exist in order to showcase the historical world. Everything in this book seems to exist to support the historical world. Fortunately, it's a fantastic world.Out of the Easy
reminded me of Spirit and Dust
because both books involve a protagonist on the high end of YA living in a world YA readers won't be familiar with. Little sub-genre going here?
Out of the Easy was just named a finalist for the 2013 Cybil for Young Adult Fiction
I don't know why I passed on reading Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children
by Ransom Riggs
for so long, or what led me to finally read it a couple of weeks ago. The book was, I think, formulaic, but an example of a well done formula story. Definitely an enjoyable read.
The formula? Young Jacob believes there is a mystery surrounding his late grandfather and manages to get himself to Wales, where Grandad had spent some of his youth during World War II. Needless to say, Jacob works out what his grandfather was part of and, in that way so beloved in books for the young, learns that he is part of something he never expected, too.
There's a definite up side to reading the first in a serial so long after everyone else has. There's a chance the next book has already been published, and you can binge read. Sure enough, the second book in the Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children serial, Hollow City
, was published very recently and sitting on the new book shelf at my local library. This book was covered in the March/April issue of Bookmarks
, which just happened to arrive as I was finishing Hollow City
. Reviewers appeared to like Hollow City
more than Home
. I go the other way. Hollow City
is a journey story, which usually has a lot of natural narrative drive. But Hollow City
seems to be another formula story, the kind in which the protagonist is given something to want and then all kinds of obstacles are thrown in his way before he can get it. It's not a formula I particularly enjoy.
However, Hollow City
has a good ending as serials go. By that I mean I was surprised by two things that happened at that point. It's one of the few serials that leaves me interested in reading the next volume.
I kind of wish I'd waited even longer to read these books, so I could binge read the third one, which isn't out yet, too.
Here's an interesting bit about these books: My library has them shelved with the adult books. No idea what that is about. The books are finding readers there, though.
Oh, look: The Book Wheel
just posted about Hollow City
I am a big fan of Maureen Johnson
's Suite Scarlet
, which I described as being a "combination of mainstream fiction and screwball comedy." I sought out her book, The Name of the Star
, for that reason and because it was a contemporary thriller. I can take or leave that genre, in general, but I'm interested in it when combined with YA.
I have to say that I found The Name of the Star
slow getting started. I'm not giving anything away by saying the story deals with a Jack the Ripper copycat murderer. He's carefully mentioned in each of the early chapters, but those chapters are used primarily to get main character, Rory, established in her English boarding school. I liked the premise behind the Scooby Gang that is hunting the killer, but this particular case seemed a little weak to me.
That being said, The Name of the Star
is the first in a series, The Shades of London
. I'm going to pick up a copy of The Madness Underneath
, Book 2. As I said, I liked the Scooby Gang, and I think it's possible that after The Name of the Star
set up the universe, succeeding books could end up being stronger.
Another interesting point: That slow start I mentioned above definitely makes The Name of the Star
YA. It's all about secondary school, getting along with other students, getting away from Mom and Dad, and does that boy like me? It doesn't read like an adult book whose adult protagonist has been replaced with a teenager
Early on in my time management study I became interested in discipline, how becoming disciplined can help us manage time. (It probably would help us manage just about everything else in our lives, but I only discuss time management at this blog.) What I didn't do when I was mulling over discipline was carefully define it. That is always a mistake in my experience. Discipline, as it turns out, involves training and maintaining behavior through control. That is a disturbing idea if you're applying it to others. Personally, I love it when applying it to myself. I love the whole idea of training. I'm shakier on the control part, as in self-control, but, hey, that's something I can train for, right?
Which brings us to The Willpower Instinct: How Self-control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More Of It by Kelly McGonigal. I mentioned McGonigal's name so frequently in the Situational Time Management Workshop I led earlier this month that I finally suggested we could use the name as the basis of a drinking game. The fact that I would even think of such a thing indicates that I need a whole lot more discipline and self-control.
McGonigal never actually writes about time management. She writes about goals of all kinds, especially those involving changing behavior, and using willpower to achieve them. Well, managing time is both goal and behavior. There are a number of things she has to say that can apply to managing time, particularly for writers.
A few examples:
- People who are distracted have poor impulse control and are less likely to be able to stay on long-term goals. Many writers work out of their homes and have trouble maintaining a strong barrier between their professional and personal lives. Personal life distractions undermine our ability to stay on task.
- Thinking in terms of being "good" or "bad" relating to a goal undermines willpower. For instance, having been "good" and accomplishing a great deal this morning can be used as justification for being "bad" and not working this afternoon.
- We tend to think of the future as a wonderful place where we will accomplish great things. Thus, believing we'll feel more like working tomorrow or will get a lot done tomorrow justifies taking today off.
- Willpower failures and successes are contagious. A strong argument for writers' groups and group writing projects like NaNoWriMo.
- Giving in to the What-the-Hell-Effect when experiencing setbacks. We actually lose valuable work time when that happens.
McGonigal even explains why meditating helps with self-control and attention, something I've been hearing about for years, though no one felt a need to explain why it would work. Meditating, it appears, develops the prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain that deals with impulse control. Good impulse control helps people stay on task with goals. Find meditation difficult because your mind keeps wandering and you have to keep bringing it back to the breath? That's actually good, according to McGonigal. The effort to do that develops the brain just as physical effort develops muscles.
This book has masses of material that can be applied to managing writing time, even though it's not about managing writing time at all. It's a marvelous aid for those of us who are interested in training for self-control.
No, this is not an early Halloween post. I just learned that the most recent Skulduggery Pleasant book, Last Stand of Dead Men
by Derek Landy
, went on sale a little over a week ago. By "went on sale," of course, I mean "went on sale in the UK," since it's not available in this country. However, I am your source for Skulduggeryness in the U.S. of A., at least in terms of talking about this series.
Because the new book just went on sale, this seems like a good time for me to write about the last book, book 7, Kingdom of the Wicked
, which I finished a few weeks ago. This is probably my favorite of the last few books in terms of coherent storyline. There may be a reason for this. According to the Kingdom of the Wicked
page at the Skulduggery Pleasant website, this series is broken into trilogies. Book 7 started a new trilogy. I'm definitely liking the political goings on with this one.
These books are violent, anyway, and the characters often find themselves in desperate straits. I can recall reading others in the series and wondering how they could possibly survive what was going on. Kingdom of the Wicked
has a very extended culminating battle scene. Seriously, it took me three sittings to get through it, and not because I found it disturbing. I started while on a stationary bike, read some more before bed, and finished the next morning. It was long.
I must also say that this book has one of the best surprise cliffhangers I can recall in any serial book.
Question: What happened to the journalist from book 6 who was going to blow the whistle on the world of magic? The author thought better of it?
Also, I so hope Landy isn't working on a romance between protagonist Stephanie/Valkyrie and Skulduggery. Please, please, please don't let it happen. Teenage girl pairing up with paranormal skeleton--such a cliche. I think it's been a few years since I've done a father book post. The Skulduggery and Valkyrie pairing could be a workable father/child relationship. After all, he lost his own child centuries ago. She is his chance to live that relationship.
By the way, the Skulduggery Pleasant website says that Last Stand of Dead Men
is the number one selling children's book in the UK right now. I haven't been able to verify that, but the series is supposed to be popular there, so I'll take their word for it.
Now, let's see...What was I talking about before I got distracted by a conference
? Oh, yes. Plotting
. This could be a good time to discuss The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master
by Martha Alderson
There is lots of good material in The Plot Whisperer
. There is also just lots of material in The Plot Whisperer
. Though I came away with some new knowledge I think will be very helpful, I also sometimes felt overwhelmed while I was reading.
For instance, Alderson talks about what she calls the Universal Story, a common structure she believes underlies all stories. She also talks about The Writer's Way, which is sort of motivational. I sometimes wondered if this material could have been two separate books. However, I read The Plot Whisperer
as an eBook (if memory serves me, I ordered it when it was being offered for free). The Universal Story and The Writer's Way sections of the book were laid out differently than the rest of the text and with an eBook readers don't get a good look at that. How the page is laid out helps comprehension, and I wasn't getting the benefit of that. Those people reading this in another format may not have the same response I did.
Putting that issue aside, there are many, many good takeaways with this book. Among them:
- The difference between plotters and organic writers. This book is very good on organic writers, though I may be biased because I self-identify as one.
- The three major plots for a story--dramatic action (what); character emotional development (who), and thematic significance (why). Many writers don't think about theme at all while they're writing and only identify their theme after they're done. I like the idea of recognizing your theme early on and working with it throughout the writing process.
- Back story, and when to use it, versus front story.
- Scenes show, summaries tell. In order to keep a story from appearing episodic (all scenes), you need some judicious use of summary.
- Cause and effect. In order to create the causal relationship necessary for a plot to be a plot and not a series of random events, Scene A should set up the cause of the effect that will occur in Scene B. There should be a linking effect.
Writing books are like cookbooks. Every reader of a writing book is going to appreciate different things, just as every reader of a cookbook is attracted to different recipes. So other readers are going to jump at other parts of The Plot Whisperer
. I am finally working on a new manuscript, one in which I've been concentrating a great deal on planning scenes. A lot of the points I just checked off above are having an impact on the writing of this new work.
Plotting is hugely important, Weekend Writers. You really should consider some study before trying to do it. Martha Alderson maintains a plot whisper blog,
and she has a plot series on YouTube, How Do I Plot a Novel, Memoir, or Screenplay
. She has another YouTube series in which she analyzes a piece of writing for plot and structure
. She also sponsors an International Plot Writing Month
in December. So she offers quite a bit of free material on plotting that new writers can take advantage of.
This is Tuesday, so I should be doing a time management post. However, I'm recovering from a minor illness during which I've been working in sprints. I'm still lolling about reading and sleeping and saving my sprinting time for a work in progress. However, Blogger is letting me access it from my desktop today, which it hasn't done for a couple of weeks. That means I can get to my image file and finally upload this picture book post I did several weeks ago and have been saving.
I did a little art picture book binge recently. One book would be classified as an "art book" by just about anyone. The other I'm classifying as an art book because, well, this is my blog. I can classify anything anyway I want here.
Modern Art for Kids. And Me.
I don't know how kids feel about Mousterpiece
by Jane Breskin Zalben
, but it sure helped me develop a better understanding of modern art. Do kids need to know about modern art? Do they need to know about art at all? Does anyone? Personally, I think art is a form of communication and being able to comprehend and enjoy it is as valuable as being able to comprehend and enjoy any other kind of communication. On top of that, like other types of communication it expresses something about the culture that produces it, so it has a place in the study of history.
Okay, enough pontificating. Mousterpiece
is about a mouse name Janson who lives in a museum and stumbles upon the modern art room. She is amazed and inspired and begins painting in the style of the paintings she sees there. This is a story about appreciation. There is no push to teach artists or styles or names of paintings. All we see are Janson's paintings done in the style of Warhol, Matisse, Picasso and many more. Anyone (probably adults like myself) who wants a very quick and easy lesson on the artists Janson is inspired by can turn to a four-page spread at the back of the book. It's one of the best Notes sections in a picture book that I've ever seen.
Narrative in Art
A piece of art often expresses a narrative, even when it is abstract rather than representational, which is probably its main attraction for me. Bluebird
by Bob Staake
is an example of a picture book that's narrative is expressed totally through art. All the illustrations are done in shades of blue and gray and while the work could be called representational, in that it represents what it is and we can recognize it, it's not all realistic. The human figures, for instance, are cartoonish but fit in with the overall settings in which they're placed.
While I'm not particularly fond of the narrative told in these pictures (I find it a little "important" and even somewhat predictable in the way important children's books can be), it is a really fine example of art communicating story. So much so, in fact, that in the early pages I found myself going, "What? What's going on here?" It wasn't until the disturbance came to the main character's world (the bluebird's? the child's?) that I became engaged. Because disturbance is the beginning of story.
By the way, Bluebird
is mentioned in one of those What Makes a Good Picture Book About
articles in the most recent issue of The Horn Book
. Giving you the whole title would be a bit of a spoiler for Bluebird
, but the article is on-line, so those of you who don't mind spoilage can follow the link and read it.
by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo
is the story of an overweight high school girl tormented by bullies. Yes, we've heard that before. What's interesting here is that Angie is also dealing with the probable loss of her sister in Iraq, which has pretty much wrecked her family. What is even more interesting is that an attractive, very cool, new girl in school seeks Angie out.
Angie is living in a world of suffering, and that world is disturbed by the arrival of someone. I liked that opening. How is Angie going to respond to that disturbance?
After that, more and more problems pile on. Angie's mother is hard, hard, hard. Her brother is acting out in hateful ways toward her. Her head tormentor at school seems almost pathological in her behavior. The new girl's interest brings more challenge (no spoilers), and she has problems to boot. As much as I liked what I saw as Angie's basic story, it seemed to be overwhelmed by so many problems for its character to deal with.
As I was reading this book, I was reminded of Alice Bliss
, an adult book that deals with a teenage girl's life while her father is serving in Iraq. With both books I kept thinking that we have a volunteer army now. No one has
to leave a family to go to Iraq. And while it is without a doubt a noble act to serve your country with military service of this type, what about the families that are left? In both Alice Bliss
and Fat Angie
we are not talking about career service people. These families know that their loved ones did not have to go
. They know that their loved ones chose
this action that causes such anxiety and risks such incredible pain for them. What does that do to the people at home paying a price for their father/sister's noble act? To me, that seems like a big enough situation to carry an entire story.
On the other hand, in books like this one that are filled with problems, readers get to sort of choose the one they want to follow. I do understand the attraction of the overcoming adversity storyline. In fact, Fat Angie
earned starred reviews from both Publisher's Weekly
and School Library Journal
has a great trailer
, memorable enough to lead me to pick up the book when I saw it at my local library. Last summer author Charlton-Trujillo did an At-Risk Tour
, driving across the country meeting with at-risk youth at community organizations as well as bookstores, bringing an author into venues where young people might not have an opportunity to meet them.
by Geoff Herbach
was the 2011 Cybil winner for YA fiction. It illustrates one of the reasons I like the Cybils. Stupid Fast
is not a a paranormal romance or fantasy or part of a dystopian or apocalyptic trilogy, all of which attract big sales. Nor is it a heart-warming overcoming-adversity-in-a-small-town-filled- with-eccentric-characters-story, which attract awards. It has the overcoming adversity thing but with an edge, maybe even a desperate edge. Books like Stupid Fast
don't fit into the standard marketing molds used right now.
Neither does the Cybils. It is made for books like Stupid Fast
. The book was well reviewed, but I would never have heard of it without its Cybils win. What's more, it has two sequels that I only heard about a couple of hours ago when I started preparing this post.
Felton Reinstein is limping through adolescence when he suddenly starts to grow. And that growth spurt makes him fast. It's a life-changing event because his speed makes him desirable to the coaches at school as well as to the student athletes who had never been part of his world before. Felton is evolving. He is in transition. He's in a liminal state
, as the anthropologists might say, he is most definitely in some state that is neither one thing or another, neither child nor man.
This makes Stupid Fast so
a YA book. I say that because it's not unusual for me to read a YA book that is perfectly decent as a story, entertaining, but what about it is YA? You definitely know why Stupid Fast
Now, while Felton is doing his transitional thing, he is living with a parent who is descending into mental illness and a brother who is in need of help in dealing with her. It's as if he's living two different, simultaneous lives, one in which he is becoming more and more desperate, and another in which he is becoming more and more competent and part of the world outside his home. Something similar happened in Alice Bliss
where Alice was dealing with her father's deployment while continuing to grow up, because that's what adolescents do. Adolescents have to grow and change. They can't help themselves. It's the nature of the beasts.
I think someone could argue that Stupid Fast
's ending is a little too much of a turn around. A deus ex machina type character shows up to make everything right, and things work out really well for Felton. But this adult reader also felt that Felton could have his good moment because things weren't going to stay that way for him. If I ever get around to reading the sequels, I suspect I'll find out that I'm right.
While reading Stupid Fast
I kept wondering about YA problem novels versus the adult equivalent. Stupid Fast
probably could be described as a problem novel. When adult novels deal with characters with problems, what are they? Are they ever referred to as problem novels or as something else?
Last week I wrote about one of the reasons I like the Cybils Award
. Here's another--While the judges are reading the nominees, there's a chance they'll blog about them. Since absolutely anyone can nominate a book, the selection of titles considered is much broader than for those awards for which publishers submit what they consider their best shots, their award level work. With the Cybils there's a chance that books that might not be getting much attention will get some, whether they win or not or even whether they make the short list or not. This is good for books, for writers, and particularly for readers.
That's why I nominated The Waffler
by Gail Donovan
. The book has been well reviewed, and I hope it becomes well known, too.
It's not unusual to see children's books about death, divorce, poverty, illness, and other Big Topics. Big though they may be, they are not universal
child topics because not every child experiences death as a child, experiences divorce, poverty, illness, natural disaster, etc. The number one universal child experience, in my humble opinion, is the pressure/need to conform. By that I don't mean conform to a child clique or a team or a group of bullies. I mean conform to adult society, adult social norms. The universal question we must all deal with as children is How the Hell much of myself am I going to have to give up in order to get along in this freaking world?
And that is what The Waffler
Monty isn't a model fourth grader. He was, after all, involved in a graffiti incident, and he's not in one of those combined advanced classes like his twin sister. The big issue that the adult world comes down on him about, though, is that he can't make a decision to save his life. What kind of pet to buy, what to name it, what to write about for a class assignment, where to sit at lunchtime. You name it, and he'll probably change his mind about it. This makes him unacceptable both to the loving, frustrated grown-ups at his two homes (he has two sets of parents) and the much harsher grown-ups at his school. No one accepts him the way he is and, interestingly, no one helps him with decision making skills. He's just told to start making them.
Figure it out, kid. Become like us.
Fortunately, this isn't a learn-the-error-of-your-ways-child story. Of course not. I wouldn't be writing about it, if it were. Monty wins his family over, for a while at least, with a decision not to make a decision. It's pretty clear that his teacher isn't as taken with this move but decides discretion is the better part of valor and waits to fight another day. The book both does and doesn't have a tidy ending, something I appreciated.
I also appreciated the fact that it's a book for the lower end of the middle grade spectrum. You see a lot of middle grade books with twelve-year-old characters. You want an older character in order to create someone who has a lot of acquired knowledge or be mature enough to save the world in a fantasy. You use twelve year olds when you're trying to make the unbelievable more believable. (I've done it, too.) Monty is a believable younger child in a believable situation. He's not wildly funny. He doesn't have an over-the-top voice. He's a regular child many child readers at the lower end of middle grade or the higher end of chapter books could know.
Time for a little FTC transparency chatter here: I received my copy of The Waffler
from the author, who I met at a NESCBWI conference maybe twelve or thirteen years ago.
I am not a fan of ghost stories, but Spirit and Dust
by Rosemary Clement-Moore
is more of a thriller than it is a ghost story. It's certainly not any particular ghost's story.
It could also teeter into that adult thriller retooled for YAs category
that I've been noticing recently. Daisy Goodnight (a great name) is a freshman in college and the two guys she's not quite torn between are twenty-somethings. Daisy's story is entertaining and engaging, but there's no compelling reason for these characters to be as young as they are. The story could easily be flipped for older, even much older, characters.
As I said, Daisy is a college freshman, which is a neat way of making her available to FBI agents who want her assistance. It is easier for a person that age to be off having adventures, than a younger one, even a younger one who is an orphan like Daisy. The FBI is interested in Daisy because she can communicate with the dead, helpful when investigating murders. The world of the book is one in which any number of people can do magic to one degree or another, and while it may not be common knowledge, even a criminal mastermind may use magical assistance. The Goodnight family is full of hedge witches and other magical sorts.
The book begins with a murder and involves the story of how Daisy gets drawn into a scheme to take advantage of the dead. I got lost a few times in the plot, but Daisy is definitely a charmer.
Another interesting point I must mention--No blurbs on the cover! The back cover simply says, "Daisy Goodnight can talk to the dead. And something has them terrified." And that's why I read a book about ghosts when I don't care for them.
Etiquette & Espionage
, the first in Gail Carriger
's entertaining steampunk and paranormal series for young adults
, is difficult for me to assess because I'm not coming to it fresh and new, the way most young readers will. I've also read the author's amusingly sexy steampunk and paranormal series for adults
. Quite honestly, I read the adult series for the funny sex. The YA series, at least its first book, doesn't have that. And that's perfectly fine. It has plenty of other things. But an adult reader who is familiar with that aspect of some of Carriger's other work is left wondering, you know, what happened to it?
This new series takes place before the original series and some of The Parasol Protectorate'
s secondary characters appear in the new book as teenagers or children. That's a fun aspect of the book for an adult reader such as myself, though YA readers won't get it. If they move on to the adult books at some point, finding these characters as their much older selves should be entertaining. Or disappointing, if they don't like how they turned out.
The book involves a young girl leaving home to attend what she and her family believe is a finishing school. (A disturbance to her world!) What she's gotten into, though, is a training program for spies and assassins, one that involves learning how to get some dirty jobs done while maintaining proper social behavior. The premise is clever, as is the world in which vampires and werewolves are recognized parts of the social structure.
What's more, this truly is a YA book, not just a thriller that a writer for adults has retooled for young people by replacing an adult protagonist with a teenager. The young people in this book are dealing with separating themselves from their families and determining what kinds of lives they're going to live. That's YA all over.
Oh, look. Etiquette & Espionage
is a Cybils nominee
. Book Two in this series, Curtsies & Conspiracies,
comes out in eight days.
When I was in sixth or seventh grade, I was a big fan of The Highwayman
by Alfred Noyes. No idea how I stumbled upon that in one of my one-room schools
. I was on Team Bess. I remember next to nothing about the highwayman, except, of course, that he came "riding--riding...up to the old inn door." "Bess, the landlord’s daughter, Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair" was so clearly the hero of this thing.
Many years later, I would read a critique that suggested that The Highwayman
wasn't high art. I was stunned, stunned
I tell you.
You can understand, therefore, what drew me to The Highway Rat
by Julia Donaldson
with illustrations by Axel Scheffler
. Get it? Highwayman?
? The book is about a...well, highway rat...who rides a horse and steals food. The story is told in verse with some of the same style as The Highwayman
. "I am the Rat of the Highway, The Highway--the Highway..."
There's no Bess, though. There's no romance for junior high readers to get excited about. Yes, that's probably because this is a picture book for much younger children.
If you want to overthink this, and I do, The Highway Rat
is quite a deep book. Highwaymen were thieves and murderers, not romantic heroes. The rodent highway rat is probably more true to life in that sense than the human highwayman of the poem.
I'm sure that Journey
by Aaron Becker
is probably viewed as being about creativity because it involves a young girl using a red marker to create the devices she needs--a door, a boat, etc.--to function in a world she has found. What I like about it is that, like Bluebird
by Bob Staake
, it's really all about narrative even though the story is told without words, just images. I think that narratives are almost stronger in these silent picture books.
Becker says at his beautiful website
, "My debut children’s book, Journey
, follows the adventures of a young girl who escapes the boredom of home to find a magical realm – in which she can control her destiny with her imagination." The question of whether or not we can control our worlds has become a favorite theme of mine in my own writing. I love seeing it in a picture book.
Aaron Becker was one of the authors and illustrators at the Connecticut Children's Book Fair
today. I'll be posting about my journey there tomorrow.
My library is running a little project in which the staff is asking the public's opinion about culling some picture books from the collection. We get to vote on specific titles, one of them being George Shrinks
by William Joyce
. I am a Joyce fan, so I expected to vote to keep it just on principle. Come on. Joyce.
It turns out, though, that George Shrinks
is better than I remember, mainly because I remembered nothing about it. It's a Kafkaesque tale about a child who wakes up, not a bug, but tiny. And he manages just fine on his own, thank you very much.
Though why is he on his own? Merely an adult question, or is it significant here?
In addition to being a good book, George Shrinks
inspired a PBS series
that's still running. I'm a big believer in connecting series like that to their print versions. It seems like a golden opportunity to encourage a littlie with reading.
So you can guess how I'm voting.
For the first time, I read a Louise Rennison
book that I felt was pretty much like the one I read before. I suspect her Georgia Nicholson
books are a lot alike, but I happened to read them far enough apart that I didn't care. With A Midsummer Tights Dream
, I felt that it really was pretty much Withering Tights
Of course, that's not going to be a bad thing for many young readers.
I still think these Tallulah Casey books have a little more depth than the Georgia Nicholson books. There's the parody of artistic types, for one thing. It's the same parody from the first book, but, still, good stuff. Plus there is the casual acceptance that young people read classics and make jokes with literary references. (Yeah. Maybe in England.) And, by the end of the book, I was feeling a little compassion for poor Lulahloo's experiences with good boys and bad. There is a sort of mystery of life that she's trying to solve, pretty much by herself.
Here's something I found to be a hoot. I've been reading How to Be a Woman
by Caitlin Moran
, and while reading A Midsummer Tights Dream
, I thought, Why, with all her talk of corkers and snogging (though while not necessarily using those words) Caitlin Moran sounds for all the world like a Louise Rennison protagonist. Louise Rennison may have created Caitlin Moran.
In his Author's Acknowledgments
at the end of Dodger
, Terry Pratchett
calls the book historical fantasy
, not historical fiction
, because he's tweaked some historical material. He moved some people who actually existed in the nineteenth century to a different point in the nineteenth century, for instance, and put the offices of a real newspaper on Fleet Street because he couldn't determine where it actually was located. I suspect there are many historical novelists who've done far worse without flinching and got nowhere near as good a result as Pratchett gets here.Dodger
is an amazing combination of character and setting. The plot, maybe, is a little simple. To me, the most fantastical element in the book is the way the wonderful Dodger makes his way up the ladder in life. However, that may be a play on the work of Charles Dickens, whose books I have very little knowledge of. Dickens appears as a character in Dodger
, and I'm making an assumption that Dodger was inspired by Dickens' own Artful Dodger. Though that's a stretch for me because I haven't read the book in which he appears. Dodger's success in life, as a result of his own resourcefulness, innate talent, and goodness, may also be something that occurs in nineteenth century English fiction. Just guessing.
You often read about world building in science fiction and fantasy. But every book has an imaginary world, even if it's set in 2013 America. Historical novels, in particular, have worlds that require intense work. Dodger
's is incredible. You have place, you have sociology, you have language, you have clothing, you have attitude. You have everything you require for a world.
I rarely think to comment on covers. But I've noticed that Tanita Davis
and Sarah Stevenson
do at Finding Wonderland
, and I do have some thoughts about Dodger
's. While the American cover (see above) makes for a beautiful book object, I think it's misleading. The character looks very young. He's around seventeen in the book, and while he seems inexperienced in terms of not knowing the ways of the moneyed classes, he is, in his own way, a man of the world. That's why he's able to do the things he does.
The British cover may be less attractive, but I think it gives a better feeling of the character.
World Book Night is a week from tomorrow, and a couple of days ago I finished reading The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, the book I'll be giving. I chose this book on the recommendation of a family member. As it turns out, the protagonist, Victoria, is a young woman in her late teens who has just left the foster care system. We follow two story lines in alternating chapters, one about Victoria's childhood involvement with Elizabeth, the foster mother who teaches her the language of flowers, and the second about her experience as she tries (or I should say, is almost forced) to make a life for herself. The young character makes this a book of particular interest to me, because I like to ponder the differences between a children's/YA book with a child/YA character and an adult book with a child/YA character.
Flowers is a good book in which Diffenbaugh, a first-time novelist, shows a lot of control. For instance, in places she teeters on the edge of what I like to call the Magical Mommy, treating motherhood as some kind of mystical experience that has the potential to cure all. But she juuuust pulls back. Victoria is also only able to maintain herself because she happens to run into people who take to her and offer significant help. Coincidence is never good in fiction, but I was able to accept it here because the people who help her are outsiders. (And maybe because my experience of the world suggests that many young people like Victoria only succeed at all because someone helped them help.)
Diffenbaugh also does a good job showing why Victoria is filled with anger and does ugly things. In lots of books with characters like that the behavior is just there without enough development to make what they're doing make sense. Readers are expected to accept it and move on with the story.
What readers of this blog might find particularly interesting about this book is that while it's an adult book, I thought it seemed very much like a YA problem novel--a teenager, usually a girl, has a specific problem that, after much struggle, she overcomes. If you removed the Victorian language of flowers from The Language of Flowers, I think it would have seemed even more like a bare bones YA problem novel.
I think this is a novel that could end up on library book lists for teenagers, just as I thought Alice Bliss would.
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I've had a very up-and-down relationship with the Artemis Fowl books
. I was enthusiastic about the first book
. Though I loved Holly Short in book two, I thought there were issues with point of view
. Third book...disappointing
. Evidently I didn't even want to write anything here about the fourth book
. With the fifth book, I was happy again
. Happier, anyway. It appears that I missed book six and wasn't crazy about book seven.
Was there a book in which Artemis went into space?
Oh, well, the series/serial is done now, and the wrap up, The Last Guardian
, is quite good. We do have the choppy story line in which we swing back and forth between worlds/characters, which has appeared in earlier books. The side trip regarding Foaly's wife seemed totally unnecessary, for instance. It did give us a chance to be with Foaly, though, and who doesn't like Foaly? I also liked Artie's little brothers. Does anyone else see potential for an early reader series about criminal genius preschoolers?
The Artemis Fowl books are fantasy thrillers with humor, and with this concluding volume we are provided with a big thrilling threat for Artie to overcome. I think the actual ending of the book gives readers a chance to have their cake and eat it, too, which I'm not complaining about.