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Books Books Books! A Children's Librarian and life-long book addict invites fellow readers to share their thoughts on books and library service to children. Dedicated to all those who would rather be reading.
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1. Over and Out - for now

This is going to be my last blog post for quite some time - perhaps even a year or more.  Partly it's that I want to use the time I spend writing posts on other pursuits (mainly more reading) and partly it's because I've been appointed to the 2013 Newbery Committee (I'm almost afraid to announce that, in case I jinx it.  But I've avoided reading any and all manuscripts - so all is good.  All is blissful, in fact.  Yay!!), so posting reviews of 2012 middle-grade books would need to be avoided anyway.

Blogging about children's and YA literature and library services has put me in touch with an amazing, nationwide community of librarians, authors, teachers, parents, and book lovers.  My Google Reader will remain in active use as I continue to follow their blogs.

Huge thanks to all who have read this blog over the past few years.

Feel free to follow my reviews at goodreads.com/evamitnick (though I won't be reviewing any Newbery contenders in 2012). 

I tweet occasionally (mostly library-related stuff) @evamitnick.

Here's wishing you a focused and happy 2012!

9 Comments on Over and Out - for now, last added: 11/29/2011
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2. Engaging tweens

Is it enough to give tweens slightly longer and more complicated storytimes or invite them to teen programs?  I ponder service to tweens on the ALSC Blog.

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3. Nuggets of Nourishment

The annual California Library Association conference was that happy mixture of inspiration, ideas and relaxation.  Unlike ALA, there is no staggering about in a foot-sore, exhausted daze; the exhibits are a manageable size and there are only 2 days of workshops and sessions, with another day of institutes tossed in.

Sometimes conference workshops and speakers synch exactly with what I am doing at work, and there are multiple "Eureka!" moments that transform my thinking on one or several topics (early literacy, outreach, etc).

This didn't happen for me last weekend, but almost every event or session I attended either planted a kernel of an idea or nourished a sprout that has already taken root.  Here are a few:

 "Dream Big! CLA's 2012 Summer Reading Workshop"
Our children's and teen summer reading committees have already begun planning our 2012 club, and this workshop was full of great ideas for kids', teen, and adult programs - check them out here.

My take-away nugget -

  • Buttonhole Sarah Vantrease (easy, 'cause she's at LAPL) to talk about ways we might incorporate an altruistic element into our program - if not in 2012, then in 2013 for sure.  Kids reading to earn a grooming for shelter animals?  Now that is magic!

"The Future: Frankenbooks, Social Collaboration and Learning on Steroids"
No one could ever say that Stephen Abrams tiptoed around a subject, and thank goodness.  His talk on how to keep libraries relevant was both positive and heartening (books are not going away, they're just in a different format; librarians are more necessary than ever in this booming informational world) and a wake-up call (don't live in the past! get out there and show the world what our values and strengths are and why they're more relevant than ever).

My take-away nuggets-
  • It's librarians, not books, that need to be the branding for libraries.  
  • Libraries are about community, learning, and discovery.
  • We're good at teaching patrons how to frame questions and at showing them how to get at those how and why questions that Google sucks at answering
  • It's about engagement with our patrons - this is our strength
"Single Service Point, Multiple Models: The Market Place Concept in a New Economy"
Several different library systems (Pasadena, San Jose, Orange County) presented their experiments in offering patrons new models in terms of face-to-face service.  In most cases, this means offering one all-purpose information desk that can handle both reference questions and circulation questions (while also offering patrons more and better self-check machines).  Staff are cross-trained and empowered to answer many types of questions (support staff can do catalog searches; librarians can answer questions about fines).

My take-away nuggets:
  • Patrons don't divide their questions into two types (circ and ref); they just want answers.  Why bounce them from one desk to another?
  • Love the idea of empowering staff to do more.  We all know that it's the pages/MCs who get asked all the questions while putting books away
  • Librarians and clerks should get out from that desk and be out with the patrons, mingling and helping.  ENGAGE!
  • When librarians help at the front (and only) desk, they are meeting patrons they never met before - 'cause most patrons don't go to a reference desk.  They find their stuff, then check it out - no librarians required.
  • Love San Jose's lazy-S narrow info desks allowing "hip-to-hip" service to patrons that allows staff to show patrons how to do computer searches
  • Also love the "marketplace," which guides all patrons past face-out displays of popular (home and garden/coo

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4. Juggling sharks

It's been mostly a juggling act at work lately, trying to keep all my projects and deadlines from crashing down around me.  Or maybe it's more like an endless swim across choppy seas - exhilarating, sure, but then there are those lurking sharks down below and an uncertain and constantly shifting shoreline somewhere up ahead.

So far, I've managed to keep my nostrils above water.  It sure has helped that this is now officially Book Season, filled with invigorating, soul-warming author events.

Last Saturday, the Children's Literature Council of Southern CA held its annual Fall Gala.  Hearkening back to the early days of its 50-year history, the Council decided to throw a glitzier event than the breakfasts that have predominated over the last decade.  Dress was "semi-formal," drinks were served, and (because the event was held in the afternoon), guests could segue into cocktails and dinner afterward at one of Pasadena's many fine restaurants.

The keynote speaker was Lois Lowry, whom I don't think I've ever heard speak. Her presentation, accompanied by dozens of photos from her childhood, was poignant and funny, rich and humorous, and just the right length (we wanted more but were left well satisfied).  I felt like the only person in the audience who hadn't known that The Giver and Number the Stars feature jacket photos that Ms. Lowry took herself in the 70s. 

What is particularly nurturing about the Fall Gala and similar local events is that it is essentially a gathering of good friends.  Even in the early days when I didn't know many folks, I felt surrounded by good, interesting, smart folks who love books as I do - and as I got to know them, this turned out to be true.  It's a great opportunity to greet old friends and make new ones.  Unfortunately, I was so busy doing this on Saturday that I missed out on meeting Lois Lowry herself, though I would have been too shy to do more than beam at her.  Next time, darn it...

Luckily, there were yet more bookish delights yesterday at the quarterly YA Librarians' Information Meeting.  Planning and convening these meetings is one of my responsibilities (same for the Children's Librarians' Information Meeting) - and while the other 3 YA meetings this year have been packed to the gills with updates, training, and presentations, it felt necessary to end this very challenging, crazy year with something more spiritually enriching.

So - I invited Jennifer Hunt, VP of Acquisition and Development and editor-at-large at Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers (and newly relocated to LA - yes!), and seven local YA authors (Cecil Castellucci, Holly Goldberg Sloan, Sherri Smith, Margie Stohl, Carol Tanzman, Janet Tashjian and Lisa Yee) to come speak to each other and our YA librarians about all things YA Lit - the controversies, the trends, the struggles, the passion.

Yee, Tashjian, Tanzman, Stohl, Smith, Sloan, and Castellucci

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5. Mayhap it's time to take a break from fantasy

I'm listening to The Game of Thrones by G.R.R. Martin on audiobook during my daily commute.  We're talking 28 CDs!  Good thing I'm on the road two hours a day.

The problem with audiobooks is they take so dang long to listen to; in the case of The Game of Thrones, there's no skimming quickly past the frequent clash-thunk-and-bloodspray of sword fights or the interminable speeches in pompous fantasy-talk.

Speaking of which -can we call a moratorium on the fantasy adjective "wroth"?  What's wrong with angry, mad, livid, or furious?  I'm tired of the phrase "But I'm almost a man grown!" (which every boy and teen in the book uses at least once). And "mislike" instead of "dislike" is just plain silly.

Actually, I'm loving the book - it's truly a luscious wallow in Epic Fantasy.  But perhaps it could do with the 90-second treatment?  See this example below (thanks to Fuse #8 for the link - I'm jealous, jealous, jealous of that film festival!):

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6. Creeeeeeepy school stats

The scariest thing that happened to me on Halloween was getting my daughter's "School Report Card" in the mail.  My daughter is a senior at Venice High School, from which my older daughter graduated in 2009 and my younger sister graduated in the 80s.  Venice High is one of 129 high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

So - what was so scary?

Right on the front page of this pamphlet was this statistic about Venice High:
Students Graduating in Four Years - 57% (393 out of 691 students).  And this is slightly better than the LAUSD average, which is - 54%! 

Cue the Psycho shower theme!

Here are some other spooky statistics from Venice High:

Students scoring at the proficient or advanced performance level in:
English Language Arts - 43% (LAUSD average - 37%)
Math - 24% (LAUSD average - 16%)

Seriously - 24%?  16%?????  And didn't I just read that most of the decent jobs in the 21st century are going to require math and science knowledge?  This doesn't bode well.

Students achieving a "C" or better in all A-G courses (these are 15 courses needed to be eligible for acceptance to a Cal State University or University of CA):
28% (LAUSD average - 25%)

Ironically, 42% of students say they "plan" to get a 4-year college degree.  This does jibe with the fact that 47% of students took the SAT and achieved a "minimum" score.  In fact, 61% of students who took the SAT got a minimum of 1400 - which ain't great but isn't rotten, either.  But only 38% of LAUSD students as a whole scored at least 1400.

And what really gets me is that it's been SO HARD to get LAUSD to see the Los Angeles Public Library as a truly valuable ally in helping students succeed.  We can't even get LAUSD administration to return emails, much less sit down and listen to how we can help.  It makes me want to hooowwwwllllll! 

But we'll keep trying.  'Cause that's the way we roll at the Library.

Can't scare us!

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7. 8:45 am to 9:45 am - reflection

In a perfect world, my job would include an hour or two reserved purely for thinking, reflecting, planning, and mulling things over.  Some of this thinking would be targeted at particular issues facing existing or upcoming programs - trouble-shooting, fine-tuning, problem-solving, and improving - but some of the reflecting would be unfocused and undirected.  How lovely it would be to feel free to wonder "what if..." and see where that question takes me. 

As is the case for so many people these days, the reality is that there isn't enough time in the day to spend on all the projects I'm responsible for, much less time to dream and ponder.  Surely this is a problem!  There is great pressure for libraries - and for my library system in particular, which is trying valiantly to pull itself out of a slump caused first by a decades-long, head-in-the-sand culture and now by terrible budget woes - to be innovative.  Yet can there be innovation and creativity if we're fighting hard just to keep our noses above water? 

As I've gotten older, I've discovered some truths about myself, some of them rather dismaying.  The main thing I've learned over the past 5 years is that I'm simply not creative in that brilliant, lightbulb-flashing-on way that I so admire in others.  I don't get sudden fabulous ideas.  I'm not going to be the one who comes up with an amazing new service model that wows the crowds at a future ALA conference.  (Well, never say never - I could be a late-bloomer, right?)

Luckily, along with the sad self-revelations come positive ones as well.  For instance - it has become more and more clear to me that not only do I do my best work when collaborating with others, but I love it.  For an introvert who felt for years that I could be happy shelving books all day long if I could get a decent wage for it, this is Big News.  And happy news, too - because my colleagues are intelligent, hard-working, and (most importantly) brimming with amazing, creative ideas.  Aha!

So my tiny Youth Services staff met with a handful of fiercely dedicated YA Librarians on Thursday and with similarly enthusiastic Children's Librarians on Friday, and together we created the outlines - and even fleshed in some details - of what will be a terrific 2012 Summer Reading Program.  My job was to lay out all the things we needed to discuss and decide - and then guide the discussion, coax out details, keep folks on track and enthusiasm high...

...and then get to the unglamorous task of turning all the great ideas into a program we can implement.  Because that's another one of my strengths - being practical and hard-working. 

But to help transform LAPL into not just a well-functioning library system but also a dynamic and responsive one, I need to encourage the creative people around me to share their ideas with me and prod me into figuring out a way to make them happen. 

And even a busy workhorse like me needs some time just to dream and ponder. 

What if...?!

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8. Child characters, adult books

I've just read two books, one right after another, in which the main character is a young person, and yet both books are for adults.  Weirdly, both books are almost exactly the same size, being somewhat smaller and having fewer pages than most adult books.

In Matthew Kneale's When We Were Romans, a 9-year-old British boy named Lawrence writes of the tumultuous, confusing time when his mother drove his little sister and him to Rome quite suddenly.  Lawrence understands that they are fleeing the threat of his father, who has separated from his mother but who is apparently stalking the family.

What Lawrence doesn't understand, though the reader slowly does, is that Lawrence's mother is mentally ill.  At first she seems to be a fine and loving mother who is perhaps a bit paranoid or overly worried - but through the course of the novel, it's clear that she is seriously disturbed.  Lawrence is an extremely intelligent, sensitive, and appealing boy - but though he finds some things about his mother's statements and behavior illogical or strange, he has neither the perspective nor the desire to understand that there are some big problems here.  Instead, he has no choice but to embrace her delusions entirely.

Older teens would surely read between Lawrence's slightly misspelled but precocious lines and know that Lawrence's mother is spiraling out of control.  Teens are also just far enough from childhood themselves that they can empathize with Lawrence's point of view while also seeing the limits of his understanding.  As well, teens will enjoy the added layer of meaning created by Lawrence's delicious descriptions of various tyrants, gleaned from the Hideous Histories series he is reading.  Would a child actually write this way?  Well, no - and yet, there is a decidedly young flavor to the narration, with its breathless sentences, misspellings, and childish phrasing.

This book is about adults - their manias, their relationships, and the way children are dragged along in the wake of their dramas.  But teens, while not as autonomous as adults nor as likely to be parents, won't find the situations incomprehensible. In fact, I'm betting many older teens would enjoy this book quite a bit.  It would make a fine book to discussion in an English class. 

Quite different is Megan Abbott's The End of Everything.  Told from the point of view of 13-year-old Lizzie, it's about the apparent abduction of her friend Evie.  Abduction of teen girls is a common theme in YA fiction (think Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott and Stolen by Lucy Christopher, to name just a couple).  So why is this particular book meant for adults?

The story takes place in the 1980s, and though the 13-year-old narrator tells of events in the present tense, there is no feeling that this is a 13-year-old voice. Lizzie's choice of words, her sentence structure, and her preoccupations all give the feeling is of an adult looking back at a very intense and life-changing time. 

One of t

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9. Review of Tighter by Adele Griffin

Griffin, Adele.  Tighter.  Knopf, 2011.

"You'll have to give this book a try when I'm done with it," I told my 17-year-old when I was halfway through Tighter.  "It's creepy - kind of a modern version of Henry James' Turn of the Screw."  Which she hasn't read - but after hearing the plot, she agreed that Tighter might be worth a try.

It starts out most promisingly, with a troubled 17-year-old girl named Jamie getting what sounds like a cushy summer job babysitting a rich 11-year-old girl named Isa on a ritzy resort island in New England.  Naturally, there has to be a catch.  First there's the matter of the tragic death of last year's nanny, Jessie, and her boyfriend Peter.  Then there's the dour housekeeper Connie and Isa's disturbing older brother Milo.  Finally, there's the matter of that ghost that keeps popping up and doing mischief.  Add to all that Jamie's depression and pill-addiction, and it ends up being one heck of a summer.

Until about halfway through the novel, the tension keeps winding tighter and tighter.  However, with the introduction of some local teens with whom Jamie interacts, the plot loses some of its tantalizing claustrophobic menace and becomes more mundane.  The spookiness ratchets up a notch towards the end, when the reader finally realizes just how unreliable a narrator our Jamie is - but then fizzles out over the anticlimactic last chapter, which could easily have been left off to much better effect. 

There are some unanswered questions for readers to ponder - what is really going on at Skylark?  Are all the ghostly activities just in Jamie's head?  And what's up with Isa, anyway? 

Jamie's voice is compelling and will keep most teens reading breathlessly to the very end of the book - especially those who have never read Turn of the Screw.  As for my daughter, she snatched Turn of the Screw off our bookshelf after I described it; whether she'll read Tighter as well remains to be seen.

Recommended as a mildly spooky psychological thriller for ages 14 and up.

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10. The lure of jammies

Right now I could be downtown at the Central Library seeing Colson Whitehead speak, but though I quite liked The Intuitionist and enjoyed Sag Harbor up until I got bored with it - AND though I'd love to be the sort of person who partakes in the cultural life of the city - well, shameful truth be told, I'd rather be at home in my jammies reading Zone One than hearing the author talk about it.  I'm a hermit at heart.

Strangely, this doesn't hold true for children's and YA authors, which is why I'll be at the Children's Literature Council Fall Gala on Saturday, November 5th, hearing Lois Lowry speak and schmoozing with plenty of other authors as well as librarians and teachers and children's literature fans of all kinds. 

It doesn't hurt that it's a daytime event, so there isn't that longing for jammies that generally hits me about 8 pm...

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11. Review of The Apothecary by Maile Meloy

Meloy, Maile.  The Apothecary.  Putnam, 2011.

It's 1952 and 14-year-old Janie's parents have just been blacklisted, which means a move for the whole family from Los Angeles to London.  Janie experiences major culture shock - not only is post-war London gray, cold and drab, but also they have to put pennies in a meter just to heat their flat, there is still rationing, and the students at her new school are learning Latin.

Mostly, the students seem fairly snobby, but one boy, Benjamin, appeals to Janie.  Intense and defiant, he wants to be a spy, not an apothecary like his father - but his father, it turns out, is much more than a simple dispenser of drugs and medicaments.  Rather, he is one in a long line of apothecaries who have guarded the hard-won secrets of herbal and medicinal lore, all of which have been written down in an old tome called the Pharmacopoeia.

The Soviets, aided by the East Germans, want to get their hands on these secrets and will stop at nothing, including torture and murder, to get them.  Janie and Benjamin join forces with a small bunch of eccentric and brilliant scientists, plus a street-smart urchin named Pip, to preserve those secrets and save the world from the threat of nuclear war.

Clearly there are familiar elements here, with bits and pieces reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code, Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and Kane Chronicles series, Baccalario's Century Quartet series, and even N.D. Wilson's recent The Dragon's Tooth.  Ancient knowledge must be kept out of the hands of the bad guys, and only a couple of intrepid kids and a few trustworthy adults can save the world from Evil.

So yes, it's been done before.  But what makes this book stand out is the freshness and competence of the writing, which sparkles with both humor and warmth.    Meloy has a gift for introducing a scene in just a few perfect sentences, giving us an immediate sense of both place and emotional resonance.  Here is Janie describing her first day at school.
The school was in a stone building with arches and turrets that seemed very old to me but wasn't old at all, in English terms.  It was build in 1880, so it was practically brand-new... Two teachers walking down the hall wore black academic gowns, and they looked ominous and forbidding, like giant bats.  The students all wore dark blue uniforms with white shirts... I didn't have a unform yet, and wore my bright green Hepburn trousers and a yellow sweater, which looked normal in LA, but here looked clownishly out of place.  I might as well have carried a giant sign saying I DON'T BELONG.
 Making Janie an American who finds herself in England means we get to experience all the foreignness of a different country along with her, and in addition the readers can see how different 1952 was, when the Soviet threat felt very immediate and kids had to take part in bomb drills at school. 

This isn't supposed to be a fantasy; it's science, not magic, that creates all

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12. program overhaul

Ever realize you've sunk into a rut, program-wise, and need to freshen things up?  I've got a post on the ALSC Blog that mulls this over.

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13. Halloween cosplay

Halloween is only a week and a half away, looming in all its orangey-black glory.

Back when I was working with actual real children in the library every day, I wouldn't dream of showing up on Halloween without a costume.  Perish the thought!

But now I'm in an office all day and haven't put on a Halloween program in... oh, it must be at least 5 years.

On the other hand, my office is in Central Library, so I could wear a costume and stroll nonchalantly around the children's and teen departments.  In fact, there's no excuse not to!

First choice costume - the gown worn by the Statue of Civilization, which I pass every day at work. 

The two sphinxes that guard the top of the stairway are nifty, too, but that might be tough to pull off.  Maybe I should just replicate the gorgeous 20's gown pictured below.

 But my fave idea is still to rig up a Robe of Skulls, or in my case an old Fairy Costume of Skulls.  Dozens of 1" plastic skulls are on their way to me from the Skeleton Store
I'll just sew them on the hem of my fairy costume to create an off-kilter (as in pastel) version of My Hero:

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14. Kids read them, and that's about it

Children's literature - it's written for kids, and yet it's written by grown-ups, critiqued by grown-ups, studied by grown-ups, bought by grown-ups, sold by grown-ups and recommended to kids by grown-ups. 

Kids read children's books - or they don't - but they don't do those other things, as a rule.

Grown-ups read children's books, too.  But we are adults, and our reading experience is going to be vastly different than a child's, no matter how much we tell ourselves that when we read, we most closely approach a child-like state as we immerse ourselves in the story.  And of course writers of children's books are grown-ups, and no matter how well they remember their own childhoods and what it felt like to be a child, they are no longer children.

For an intensely detailed, deep, and rather funny (in a nerdy, academic sort of way) exploration of the ways adult writers and readers bring themselves to children's literature, I highly recommend Perry Nodelman's The Hidden Adult: Defining Children's Literature.  I'm noodling my way through it now and though I'm only 1/4 of the way along, my mind is already sparking with the ideas he raises.

A book that explores this theme in an entirely different way is Laura Miller's The Magician's Book: a Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia, an extremely personal but also scholarly look at the author's favorite childhood series and how her perception, knowledge, and experience of the book has utterly changed now that she is an adult.  And though some things have been lost as a result, much has been gained.

Meanwhile, Liz of A Chair, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy is one of the latest to comment on the weirdness of zipping through a gripping YA novel, only to realize that - OMG, I'm older than the protagonist's parents!!! 

Now, as the parent of a 17-year-old and a 20-year-old, this is no shocker to me.  But I can't help but pay close attention to how the grown-ups in a children's or YA book talk, act, and think - way more than a kid or teen reader would, most likely. 

Even when I'm fully engrossed in a truly absorbing children's book and am right there with the child main character, I don't feel like a child myself.  I'm an engaged reader who happens to be an adult, with all the life experiences and (sometimes more importantly) book experiences that I've accumulated.  The fact that I've read thousands - and reviewed hundreds - of children's books means that I can never read "like a child" again.

Which is fine with me.  I'm as addicted an adult reader as I was a child reader; if anything, I'm getting more pleasure from reading than ever. 

Yet many of us adult readers care deeply about the experience that a child reader is having with a book.  We librarians, writers, publishers, teachers, and parents want kids to enjoy reading for many reasons.  And so at the heart of much of our endless reviewing, discussing, blogging, and critiquing is the question "will a child like this book?"  But not always.  Sometimes we're just having the discussion as adult readers who happen to truly enjoy this type of literature.

What is it that draws some grown-ups to children's literature?  That's a subject for another post - or an entire book or three.  As for me, it's in small part because I loved

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15. Apples, oranges, and a happy accident

Due to a tiny snafu, the National Book Award committee nominated 6 books for the Young People's Literature category instead of 5.

Hey, more to read and love, right?  And I would have been heartbroken if Chime (my review) hadn't made the list.  Ooh, and both Inside Out and Back Again (my review) and Okay for Now (my review) are so good! 

Haven't read the others - have you?

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16. Review of Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

Ursu, Anne.  Breadcrumbs.  Walden Pond Press, 2011.

5th-grader Hazel's life isn't perfect.  Her dad left fairly recently, meaning (among other things) that Hazel had to leave her mellow private school and start at a public school where the boys are mean and the girls don't seem to notice her.  And she feels different, mostly because she lives with one foot always in the world of fantasy - Narnia and Wonderland and a dozen other realms found only in books - but also because her white parents adopted her from India when she was a baby.  Not that she's the only kid of color in her school or even the only kid adopted from another country, but still, it's just another thing that sets her apart from others.

But there's one really good thing in her life and that's Jack.  Her neighbor has been her best friend since they were six years old, and now they go to the same school!  But things are already a bit awkward, and when Jack gets a piece of wickedly magic glass in his eye - well, first he starts acting uncharacteristically jerk-like, and then the Snow Queen comes and takes him away to her palace.  Hazel, naturally, goes off into the woods to rescue him.

Hans Christian Andersen's stories are studded throughout this fantasy, with themes not just from The Snow Queen but also The Little Match Girl, The Red Shoes, The Wild Swans, The Nightingale, and probably others as well.  Fantasy readers will also recognize mention of more recent books from When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead to the Narnia books to Pullman's His Dark Materials series.  And like Andersen's stories, the adventures that befall Hazel range from ominous to creepy to downright dangerous.  Hazel proves herself up to all the hazing, but she doesn't escape unscathed.  Not only does she receive a nasty facial wound (that does NOT magically heal), but she also learns some rather tough lessons about human nature.  The woods seem to bring out the worst in people, as Hazel discovers. 
"She saw signs of another village in the distance - she smelled smoke and saw the faint glow of something like civilization.  But there was nothing for her there.  She had to go get Jack now, and anyway, she was safer out here with the wolves."
 Hazel's habit of never paying much attention to boring stuff around her (her parents, her teachers) doesn't stand her in good stead in the magical woods, when she wishes she knew a few survival tips.  Towards the end, when she is very cold and with few resources left, she has shed her dreamy escapist tendencies in favor of a more practical, realistic viewpoint.  "This is what it is to live in the world.  You have to give yourself over to the cold, at least a little bit." 

Hazel's time in the woods is so vivid and horrifying that it rather makes her trials with 5th-grade boys and impatient teachers feel light and not quite real by comparison.  There are some loose ends; for example, a couple of visits with a girl named Adelaide and her nifty uncle seem destined to be important plot points later in the story, but they never fulfill this promise.  And the final rescue of Jack from the Snow Queen is hurried and anti-climactic after all that came before.  Readers may be wondering why Hazel went to all that bother in the first place, as Jack's worth is never proven to us, glass shard or no glass shard.  We just have to take Hazel's rose-colored assertion that he is her heart's companion.

Of course, the point is that, no

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17. The Meaning of Life

StingRay meets Lumphy for the first time
Plastic's question "Why are we here?" that so plagues Lumphy the plush buffalo in Jenkins' Toys Come Home is actually two questions in one.

I assume, based on Plastic's bouncy toddler/preschooler persona (she's a plastic ball who asks lots of questions), that what Plastic was really asking was "What confluence of events brought us to exactly this place in this moment of time?"  This can be a dizzying question - but I bet if StingRay had mustered the patience and creativity to answer it in sufficient detail ("well, I'm here because I was given to the Girl for her birthday last year and you are here because you were a party favor for her birthday this year and..."), Plastic would have been satisfied.  Sure, there would have been more follow-up "but WHY"s than anyone could tolerate for long, but eventually Plastic would have found some other question to ask.

This isn't the question that so filled Lumphy with Dread.  Rather, Lumphy couldn't bear the corollary question, which is "And now what?"  In other words, now that we're here due to some dizzying and incomprehensible sequence of events, how do we proceed?  Is there any meaning to the fact that we're here?  If so, what is it?  How do we find it?

Plenty of young kids will understand Plastic's need to have the first question answered.  But few kids under the age of, say, 10 or 12 would even recognize the existence of Lumphy's dreaded questions, much less understand his terror of it.

Or so I assume, using my own childhood and that of my daughters as my main reference points.  My kids had plenty of questions when they were little, some of which produced anguish, but they tended to be along the lines of "Should I wear the blue t-shirt or the yellow t-shirt?" or "Why does cookie batter taste so good but make you throw up if you eat the whole bowl?"  There were no abstract or existential questions until they were into their double-digits.

The first time I remember being shaken by abstract ideas beyond my small and concrete world was while watching a sunset at the beach (I know - kinda trite) when I was about 11 or 12.  It suddenly struck me that the beauty I was witnessing was a Big Thing that couldn't be fully contained or expressed, and this realization expanded my soul in one enormous bang.

So I'd love to know what 8-year-old readers think of Lumphy's nights of dread and wondering.  Can they understand?  Do they get it?  Even if they don't, they will certainly feel that the answer Lumphy finally gets from his friends is an apt one - "We are here for each other."

All this thinking was caused by this hillside, which we passed while on a long hike up to the Nordhoff Lookout in the mountains just north of Ojai.  First I had my usual moment of regret about my huge ignorance of geology - all those cool striations, tilted like a dropped layer cake, and I have no idea what the layers are compos

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18. Review of Toys Come Home by Emily Jenkins

Jenkins, Emily.  Toys Come Home.  Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011.

This prequel to the magnificent Toys Go Out and Toy Dance Party depicts the arrival of StingRay (a stuffed stingray, naturally) to the Little Girl's house and her gradual assimilation into the household, where she lives with the other sentient toys and objects, from a pompous walrus named Bobby Dot to a wise old towel named TukTuk. 

StingRay, who is very smart and rather complicated, is a good soul at heart (she rescues Sheep from a terrible predicament, at great personal risk) but she does suffer from uncharitable and petty thoughts.  She prefers that the others think she knows everything (and will make stuff up so as not to destroy their illusions), and she can't help but think "better him than me" when the demise of Bobby Dot means that StingRay gets to sleep on the Girl's bed with her. 
"The joy, the guilt, the loss, and the relief: all these feelings toss around inside her in the night..."
 Oh StingRay - been there, honey!

But it's Lumphy the buffalo (such a sweet and brave guy) who truly suffers existential Angst, brought on by the newly arrived and irrepressible Plastic asking "Why are we here?...Why are we here in the Girl's room? In this town, on this planet?"  StingRay can't answer, of course and so sputters "I'll tell you later.  Right now I have some important stuff to do."

But poor Lumphy can't stop wondering about the question - it keeps him up at night, worrying.  He has Dread, which, he explains to Plastic, "...has to do with too much dark.  And not knowing why we're here.  And not sleeping." 

Jeepers!  Truly, can anything be better than a story with lovingly drawn characters (not just figuratively - Zelinsky's illustrations are pretty darn good), hair-raising adventure, pathos, humor, Big Philosophical Questions, AND a 3rd-grade reading level?  I think not. 

Highly recommended, as are the other two books in this trilogy, for all ages ('cause it makes a great read-aloud for younger kids as well).

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19. The spice of life

My younger daughter turns 17 tomorrow.

She's reading Ursula LeGuin's The Farthest Shore, Jose Saramago's Blindness, and Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full - all at the same time.

No matter where life takes her - she'll always have books.

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20. Can I be Lady Cool-Beans, please?

Seen around the Internet:

Those of you who have read N.D. Wilson's Dragon's Tooth will appreciate this chance to win a boxing monkey patch.  And everyone will appreciate that Wilson calls himself "Captain AWESOMESAUCE.  By order of the Queen."  I mean - right?!

The City of West Hollywood has an amazing new library, part of the County of Los Angeles Public Library system (not to be confused, though it often is, with my own municipal Los Angeles Public Library system).  It's open now, but the grand opening is October 1Jackie Collins will be there!

Speaking of October 1, that's when the Cybil nominations open.  You nominate your favorite kid and YA titles in the categories of your choice; expert kidlit bloggers read and discuss, then vote on the best ones.  The result?  Amazing lists of must-read titles.

Some LA children's and YA authors write about being banned this week at the LA Review of Books Blog.

Librarians are sometimes guys - here's proof.  Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the link.

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21. A fan of any age....

A writer friend and I were talking the other day about the problem of children's and YA author programs at libraries.  There are two problems, actually.
1.  Attendance can be sparse
2.  Even if there is a good turn-out, the audience often consists of... grown-ups!
    Even at bookstore book signings and author appearances, kids and teens can be mighty scarce.  Case in point - Susan Patron's recent book signing at Skylight Books.  There was a packed house of fans, but only a handful of kids.  There are plenty of kids who read and love the Lucky books - but they don't turn out for book signings.

    Picture book writers can get an audience by working with the librarian to promote the appearance as a storytime that just happens to feature the writer of one or more of the books.  My mom, author of "Hi, Pizza Man" knew she couldn't build a whole program around one short picture book, so she developed a whole pizza-themed storytime, complete with masks for kids to act out her book.  Parents brought their kids because it sounded like a fun program.

    But it is much harder for a middle-grade or teen book writer.  Even if he or she has flogged social media nearly unto death and sent notices of the appearance hither and yon, this will at most generate an audience of - grown-up fans.

    Now, to this librarian, an audience is an audience and I'm happy to see them, no matter how old they are.

    But my writer friend protested that writers like to meet their readers, and would like to think their readers want to meet them.  Which makes absolute sense.

    But the more I think about it, the more impossible it seems that we'll ever get older kids and teens to come in droves.  Sure, some authors have a huge and avid fan base and will certainly attract a big audience of kids or teens if they appear.  But it's unlikely that they'll even hear about an author appearance if it doesn't happen to occur right at their library, since kids and teens don't follow twitter or author blogs. And let's face it, older kids and teens have a lot of autonomy when it comes to how they spend their time - and mostly, they will not choose to attend an author program if it's the slightest bit of bother, even if they have read that author's books (which is unlikely).

    I can understand n.  While meeting authors thrills me to the point of speechlessness, I don't seek these occasions out.  Why?  For most of us readers, it's about the book, not the author.  In some cases, I don't even want to know what the author looks like, much less meet him or her.  It's simply beside the point.

    And that's fine, isn't it?  Sure, librarians will still strive to get kids and teens to attend children's and teen author programs, because it's cool for kids to see that a real person created that book that transported them so magically - and that maybe writing (or illustrating) a book is something they might do themselves one day.  And writers do like to meet their young readers face to face.

    I'd suggest that the best way for writers to meet kids is to make presentations at schools.  Make arrangements with the teachers beforehand so at least some of the kids will have read the book - and then the writer has a captive audience (and one that is probably fairly grateful to be listening to an author rather than doing fractions).

    But the best way for librarians and writers to collaborate is to work together to get those books into the hands of kids.  It's okay for writers to talk to a

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    22. Review of The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer

     Wolitzer, Meg.  The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman.  Dutton, 2011.

    Three pairs of kids are competing in the Youth Scrabble Tournament:

    April, paired with her best friend Lucy, is the lone Scrabble fanatic in a big family of jocks.  She wants to win the tournament, but she is also hoping against hope to see a boy she taught to play scrabble while staying at a motel three years ago.

    Nate, paired with his friend Maxie, is a NYC skateboarder who would like to attend school but must stay home and study Scrabble all day thanks to his crazed dad, who lost the YST as a kid and is determined that Nate redeem his shattered pride.

    And Duncan Dorfman is a kid with an inexplicable talent - he can "read" anything with the fingertips of his left hand.  You can see the applications to Scrabble (think about reaching into that bag full of tiles), if you don't mind cheating - and Carl, Duncan's amoral scrabble-mad classmate, doesn't mind cheating and very much wants to win the YST.  So he bullies Duncan into becoming his YST partner.

    The kids play Scrabble.  They win some and they lose some.  They talk endlessly about bingo-bango-bongos and 2-letter words and anagrams.  Duncan worries about the secrets he is keeping and the lies he has told in order to take part in YST - because as it turns out, he learns to love Scrabble, enough to want to avoid using his magic fingertips.

    There are some not very successful subplots - April's search for that motel boy; a very weird attempt at cheating by Nate's dad and his old YST partner; and the secret that Duncan's mom has been keeping all his life.  None of these is particularly interesting or convincing.

    The fantasy element - Duncan's fingertips - feels utterly beside the point.  It serves merely as the reason Carl ropes him into the YST, plus as a source of tension for Duncan as he agonizes about whether or not to cheat.  It could have been left out entirely, especially since we never discover why or how he has this gift.

    I did like all the Scrabble talk.  And the narrative style is easy-going with just a bit of quirk to keep things interesting (except when it goes overboard as in the Funswamp episode).  All in all, a perfectly pleasant but underwhelming book (won't call it a fantasy, because it hardly is) for grades 4 to 6.

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    23. Visions of sugarplums

    To find out how some of my LAPL colleagues and I spent the summer, check out our School Library Journal reviews of December Holiday Books.

    And bring on the eggnog, heavy on the rum!

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    24. Review of Junonia by Kevin Henkes

    Henkes, Kevin.  Junonia.  Greenwillow, 2011.

    The world of an only child is filled with grown-ups, or at least that's the case for Alice during an annual vacation in Florida.  Generally there are other kids as well, but not this year, the year she is turning 10 years old.  This year, the only other kid is the problematic Mallory, the 6-year-old daughter of Alice's Aunt Kate's new boyfriend.

    So Alice spends her vacation, and her birthday, having attention lavished on her by the adults around her - but also having to be mature herself when relating to the troubled Mallory, who misses her far-away mom.  It's not always easy for Alice, who finds herself full of resentment and hurt when ancient Mr. Barden remarks that Mallory is the prettiest girl he ever saw.  But conquering her irritation and doing the right thing turns out to have its own rewards.

    This is a quiet book on the surface, but full of the heaving emotions that can boil in sensitive people of any age, often unexpectedly or even inexplicably.  It feels a bit claustrophobic and intense at times; you just want Alice to be able to run along the seashore joyfully without being jostled about by currents of annoyance or sadness or disappointment or anger.  And she does, actually, but never for long - for small things do seem mighty fraught in Alice's life.  Perhaps it comes of being the only child of older parents and of having an aunt with no kids of her own, plus plenty of other adults in her life who spend a fair amount of their time thinking and caring about her.

    The writing is beautiful and Alice's emotions are genuine and age-appropriate - but this feels like a grown-up book nonetheless.  Perhaps it was sentences like this one that took me out of Alice's head and made me feel like an adult observer - "She was loose jointed, and although she felt awkward much of the time, she often appeared graceful."  No kid would think about about herself or any other kid.

    Thoughtful, introspective children may well feel that they've found a soul-mate in Alice, but even these kids may crave a tiny bit more action.

    For ages 8 to 11.

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    25. Alone but not lost

    Back in the Before Time when I was in college, a certain very young and intense man read this passage from Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel to me; it's from the point of view of the main character Eugene as a baby in his crib:
    ...he knew he would always be the sad one: caged in that little round of skull, imprisoned in that beating and most secret heart, his life must always walk down lonely passages.  Lost.  He understood that men were forever strangers to one another, that no one ever comes really to know any one, that imprisoned in the dark womb of our mother, we come to life without having seen her face, that we are given to her arms a stranger, and that, caught in that insoluble prison of being, we escape it never, no matter what arms may clasp us, what mouth may kiss us, what heart may warm us.  Never, never, never, never, never.
    This young man felt that this and other similar passages in Wolfe's books were very profound and moving indeed, and they touched him deeply.*

    And while I in turn was moved by this young man's passion for literature (Reader, I married him), these particular sentiments left me cold.  My feeling was that this eternal separation from others, this inability to ever completely know another being, was essential to sanity and happiness.

    26 years later, I still feel that way.  My own skull isn't my prison; it's my refuge.  Interaction with people, whether it's superficial or deep, can be exhausting and fraught - being alone in my head is a saving grace, not a tragedy.

    Of course, sometimes it's not so fun being trapped with oneself, unable to escape one's thoughts and very existence.  In that case there are only 3 possible remedies for me:
    • Mindfulness meditation (if I could ever make myself practice it regularly enough to get competent at it)
    • Running (in a miraculous alchemy, stressful thoughts transform into invigorating adrenaline)
    • Reading
    Reading.  It doesn't solve any problems, nor does it treat the underlying causes of stress.  And yet the relief it offers is pure, reliable, and immediate.  The mind stills,  thoughts cease to circle and flap like maddened crows.  More than just distraction, books offer a focus for one's attention that is utterly engrossing.

    And going back to Wolfe and his despair, running as a constant theme through all his books, at the human failure to every truly know or communicate with others (in another passage, this one from Of Time and the River, a character wonders "What is wrong with people?...Why do we never get to know one another? ...Why is it that we get born and live and die here in this world without ever finding out what any one else is like?") - well, I submit that reading books is a fine way to get to know one another (especially for us natural-born hermits). 

    An author is setting down carefully crafted words that communicate thoughts and ideas and visions and stories that can resonate deeply with readers.  Books communicate truths both mundane and profound; I've never thought so much about what it means to be human as when reading books.  I may not be getting to know those writers personally, but we are sharing ideas and concepts that go deeper than that. 

    And even a "frivolous" story well-told can spark associations and ideas for days, weeks, and years after the book has returned to the library and almost forgotten.

    Some of us are like Thomas Wolfe, always stri

    1 Comments on Alone but not lost, last added: 10/6/2011
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