Kicking Back with Children’s Classics

Classics2

It’s time for a long overdue hello.  While I’ve got a review post in the works, I just wanted to take a quick moment for the classics in children’s literature, especially as publications and bloggers begin to roll out their Best of 2014 lists.  This is primarily due to the fact that I treated myself to a documentary double feature last night, both on children’s book creators, which served as a good reminder that as exciting and varied as children’s literature is today, contemporary books owe much to their predecessors: titles that pushed boundaries, treated kids like intelligent beings, and still can hold their own today.

The first documentary I watched was The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond ExpectationsThis film provides a charming look at the friendship between Norton Juster (author) and Jules Feiffer (illustrator) and how their classic The Phantom Tollbooth came to be.  Almost as wonderful as Juster and Feiffer’s personal stories is the commentary by figures, such as Marcus Leonard (children’s literature historian), David Hyde Pierce, Adam Gopnik, and Eric Carl.  I admit that I never read The Phantom Tollbooth as a child.  I came to it later in life and was utterly delighted by the way it played with language, its shameless use of puns.  For those of you unfamiliar, The Phantom Tollbooth is an Alice in Wonderland-ish tale of a boy who travels to another world characterized by language (Dictionopolis) and math (Digitolopis), where he must rescue the princesses, Rhyme and Reason.  Juster did not shy away from using challenging vocabulary or playing with the meaning of words, and as a result had a difficult time finding a publisher for his book; it was deemed inappropriate for children.  However, once it found its way to bookstore shelves, children adored it for its sense of fun and its challenges, raising the bar for “acceptable” writing in the realm of children’s literature.   Most importantly, the documentary highlighted how these things continue to resonate with children today.  It showed multiple generations at book signings and children cracking up over a turn of phrase or the realization that the dog with a clock in its side was a literal watch dog.

For its 50th anniversary in 2011, an annotated edition of the book was released, chock full of extras and insights by Marcus Leonard.  While the documentary is not available to rent, it is well worth the $10 for any children’s book or Phantom Tollbooth fan.  Also of interest may be Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker piece, “Broken Kingdom,” which also looks at the book’s 50 year history.

Speaking of anniversaries, my favorite book of all time turned 50 this year.  I am talking, of course, of the inimitable Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.  A beautiful, hardcover edition was published this year in honor of the occasion, which brings back the original (and best) cover and includes essays from a wealth of authors, speaking of the important impact Harriet had on their lives.  For a more detailed look at the book’s history and essays, take a look at the Publisher’s Weekly article, “Harriet the Spy Celebrates 50 Years of Sleuthing.”  Nothing will ever compare to Harriet.

Next up on my documentary binge was Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story. This movie was utterly fascinating.  I knew nothing about Tomi Ungerer except that I had shelved some of his books when I worked at the children’s bookstore.  He was a man who went from revered to shunned in the course of an evening by daring to illustrate erotica and anti-war posters after making a name for himself as a children’s book author/illustrator. He defied his audience by daring to expand it.  If anyone was unafraid to push boundaries, it was Ungerer, and his praises are sung by Maurice Sendak, Jules Feiffer, and Marcus Leonard among others.  I loved hearing all the things this strange, passionate, somewhat tortured man had to say.  Not nearly as lighthearted as The Phantom Tollbooth documentary, it does have a happy ending, and I found myself entranced the entire film.  This one is on Netflix, so do yourself a favor and stick it in your queue if you can’t watch it immediately.

Ungerer collage

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Excited for Fall

I can’t believe I’m writing about fall already, but I also can’t wait for it to get here because there are so many great writers putting out books.  Here are the ones I am most excited for!

Adult Books

MitchellThe Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, Release: Sept. 2, 2014

My favorite author!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  I’m ignoring all reviews until I have this book in my hands.  It’s a big one and he can be dense, so it will probably be a couple of months before I’m ready to write a review of my own.  I can’t wait, though!

 

 

WolfWolf in White Van by John Darnielle, Release: Sept. 19, 2014

John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, one of my all-time favorite bands, has written his first ever novel.  Eee!  Here’s a nice little write-up by his editor.

“John Darnielle’s novel moves through the mind like a dark-windowed car through a sleepy neighborhood: quiet, mysterious, menacing, taking you places you will never, never get out of your head.” —Daniel Handler

YA Books

A.S. KingGlory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King, Release: Oct. 14, 2014

The incredible A.S. King’s latest has garnered a starred review from Kirkuswhich describes it as “An indictment of our times with a soupçon of magical realism,” and School Library Journal describes it as “Handmaid’s Tale-esque” and “beautifully strange.” I’ll read anything King writes and suggest you do, too.  Just a note: Reality Boy sees its paperback release Sept. 23, 2014.

500500 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

Smith is fast-gaining a reputation as an amazing and original writer of YA, though he remains slightly under the radar of the reading public at large.  Author of titles such as The Marbury Lens, Winger, and Grasshopper JungleSmith is sure to create a story you’ve never read the likes of before.

 

 

In the meantime

MurakamiI’m finishing up the new Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of PilgrimageI’m enjoying it so far.  My mood of late has been a bit sullen, so this book has complemented it perfectly.  It’s a quiet and reflective story of a man searching for answers about an event in his past.  He travels and talks to people along the way, hearing their stories as he pursues his own.  It hasn’t taken a bizarre turn yet, but you never can tell where Murakami will take things.

 

CarsickAnd if you aren’t quite ready to embrace fall, one of the best books I read this summer was John Waters’ Carsick.  It’s fast, fun, funny, and occasionally crude; in short, a perfect summer read.  Part fiction, part personal essay, Carsick is the story of Waters’ endeavor to hitchhike across the country from his home in Baltimore to his apartment in San Francisco.  The book is divided into three sections that are essentially novellas: the first, his imagined best case scenario for this trip; the second, the worst case scenario; and the third, the trip as it actually happened.  You don’t have to be a die-hard Waters fan to enjoy this book, though fans of his films will pounce on the myriad references throughout.  He even provides readers with a soundtrack, because what road trip would be complete without a mix tape?  I followed up Carsick with the I Am Divine documentary on Netflix, which was great and a pairing I wholeheartedly recommend.

Super Reads

A number of people have asked me if I have any say in the books I get to review for Booklist and Shelf Awareness.  The answer is, yes!  I give my editors a general idea of the type of book/age group I like to read, and they send me books based on this.  My main thing is that I don’t do romance.  As a result, I’ll often get war or sports stories–not my favorites, but still preferable to feelings-laden narratives. But I’ll also get superhero stories!  I’m always happy to find on of these in the mix. They run the gamut of action, adventure, humor, suspense, noir, social or political commentary, and light romance, which I can handle as a side story.

As any trip to the movies can tell you, the summer is a prime time to get lost in a world of supers.  If you’re looking for something beyond the box office, here are a few of my superhero picks for kids & teens:

Super

Almost Super by Marion Jensen

In Brief: A fun and funny adventure for elementary to middle school readers in the spirit of The Incredibles

Review originally published by Booklist, Feb. 1, 2014

“In a family where your dad can fly and your great-aunt can breath fire, finding out that your superpower is worthless is, well, devastating. Such is the misfortune of Rafter and Benny Bailey. For longer than anyone can remember, Baileys 12 years old and older have been bestowed with a superpower on Leap Day (February 29) that is used to fight their nemeses, the Johnsons. But this year the Bailey powers, quite frankly, supersuck. Unsatisfied with being stuck on the sidelines, Rafter is determined to find out who is stealing the supers’ real powers. Together, he, Benny, and an unlikely friend turn up evidence that suggests there are new supervillains in town. Packed with action and humor, this is a superhero tale in the spirit of The Incredibles. Jensen’s wit and light tone give the story a playful quality while still managing to incorporate a healthy dose of suspense. Family dynamics and teamwork drive a plot that has, above all, a super amount of heart.”

IllusiveIllusive by Emily Lloyd-Jones

In Brief: X-men meets Ocean’s Eleven for older middle-grade readers & teens

Review originally published by Booklist, May 15, 2014 Starred Review!

“In the not-too-distant future, the world is struck by the deadly MK plague. When a vaccine is created, it is rapidly distributed before thorough testing has been done. That is why no one is prepared for “the immune”: the .003 percent of the population that develops unusual abilities, such as levitation and mentalism. Seventeen-year-old Ciere Giba happens to be an illusionist—she is able to trick the human eye, altering her appearance or the space around her. As with any of the immune, she has only a few options available: work for the government, go to prison, or become a criminal. She chooses the harried freedom of being a thief, but after a foolhardy burglary leaves her entangled with a powerful crime syndicate, Ciere takes a job that leads to a dangerous discovery, one that not only puts her crew at risk but also could threaten the world at large. Boasting a complex plot, heart-stopping bursts of action, and questions regarding human nature, Lloyd-Jones’ thought-provoking, multifaceted narrative neatly sidesteps categorization as just another superhero or dystopian novel—though fans of both will be drawn to the material and be pleasantly surprised. An impressive debut guaranteed to disappear from the shelves before your very eyes.”

Hero Hero Worship by Christopher E. Long

In Brief: YA Superhero noir, where the heroes aren’t as heroic as they seem

Review originally published by Booklist, Dec. 15, 2013

“For his entire life, 17-year-old Marvin Maywood has idolized the Core, the squad of superheroes that protects his city from crime. Because his own powers are “dirty,” he knows he can never join their ranks; however, after committing a daring rescue, Marvin finds himself chosen as a potential recruit. It doesn’t take long for him to see that the Core is not the upstanding, heroic outfit he had always believed it to be. Faced with truths that put his convictions to the test, Marvin must decide what it really means to be clean or dirty, and what it means to be a hero. Long’s experience writing for Marvel and DC Comics lends this superpowered novel added depth and believability. Loaded with action and moral ambiguity, this is a classic superhero story with noir sensibilities. Sex, alcohol, and corruption feature in the narrative but never gratuitously so. At its heart, this is the story of a teenager trying to navigate relationships and find his place in the world—only supersized.”

FloraFlora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

In Brief: A cynical young girl befriends a squirrel with superpowers.  A charming, illustrated story for young readers.

See my original review here!

 

 

Have a favorite superhero story of your own? Leave it in the comments!

 

Meet the Abominables. Charmed, I’m Sure!

Abominables

There is a warmth I feel when reading certain children’s books that I can only describe as a happy glow.  I felt it when reading Ottoline and the Yellow Cat and Flora & Ulysses; and I felt it again for Eva Ibbotson’s new book, The Abominables.  

High in the Himalayas, a family of yeti lives in a peaceful valley with a human girl named Lady Agatha, who has taught them manners, hygiene, and how to speak and read. They lived happily for years, but when tourists begin swarming the mountain, the girl–now an old woman–knows it is time for the yeti to move out of their valley.  What’s more, she has a plan.  Meanwhile at the Hotel Himalaya, business has never been better.  Giant footprints have been found in the snow and their yeti vacation package has them booked solid.  There, Con–the son of the hotel’s chef–longs to see a yeti, but he does not like the sort of people these creatures are bringing to the hotel.  These are not sightseers.  They have come with guns and greedy hearts.

That night he couldn’t get to sleep.  He was just too horribly angry.  He knew what would happen if one of those rich, bored, stupid people really did stumble across a yeti.  Nobody who cared deeply about those mysterious creatures could even afford to buy a cup of tea in the Hotel Himalaya, let alone go on the ridiculously expensive Yeti Safari.  So it was only a question of time.

“I wish they had never found those footprints,” Con said to himself.  And then he knew what he had to do.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, Con goes to help the yeti.  Upon finding their valley, Lady Agatha asks him to help the yeti get to Farley Towers, her former home in Hampshire, as she is too old to make the trip herself. He agrees and enlists the help of his sister and a kindly refrigerated lorry driver named Perry.  Together, the humans smuggle the five yeti and their pet yak, Hubert, out of the valley and begin their long, perilous journey to Britain.

The story of The Abominables is simple, but its magic lies in its details and heart.  For example, the yeti have backwards-pointing feet, so as to mislead anyone trying to track them.  They also have a charming, though occasionally annoying, habit of apologizing to their food before eating it (“Sorry, tree.”).  As for their faces, well:

Yetis have huge, round, intelligent eyes as big as saucers.  It you stop and look into a yeti’s eyes instead of just running away and screaming, you can’t be afraid.  Yetis also have snub noses and big ears, and the ears have a most useful flap on them, an ear lid, which they can close.  This saves them from getting earaches in the fierce Himalayan winds and is also useful when they don’t want to hear what people are saying….Best of all are their smiles. “Before I had seen a yeti smile,” Lady Agatha would later say, “I didn’t know what a smile was.”

This is a gently told tale, but it does contain some grim challenges and events that shake the yetis’ faith in the goodness of people–for a little while anyway.  It is a journey well worth taking, perfect for boys and girls in the 3rd and 4th grades.  It will make you chuckle, smile, gasp, and cheer.  The story is bolstered by sweet, folksy illustrations by Fiona Robinson.

collageThis last picture is of Hubert, probably my favorite character in the book.  He is a dim-witted baby yak, forever looking for his mother and usually in very much the wrong place: “Hubert had had a dreadful day.  First he’d gone up to someone who he was absolutely certain was his mother, but she hadn’t been, and had been rude about it…By this time Hubert was so muddled that he’d gone and buried his head in a hole, meaning to wait till things got clearer inside his head.”  Poor Hubert!

It’s impossible to read this book and not be smitten, which is a wonderful thing, indeed.

 

“Half Bad” is All Good

Half Bad

I read Half Bad by Sally Green in a day.  I was off work, it was storming out, and once I started it there was nothing I’d rather be doing.  Following the recent trend of trilogies in YA, this it the first of a planned three, and one I’d recommend for the dystopian, action-oriented crowed.  You know, the tried and true and what’s-next-for-me fans of Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Divergent, etc.  This one, though–this one has witches, and I’m a sucker for witches.  Think the dark parts of Harry Potter meet Divergent and you’ll have some idea of what Sally Green has in store for you.

Set in the modern day, the world is populated by witches and fain (non-witches).  Not surprisingly, the witches are self-divided into White (“good”) and Black (“bad”) witches, with the white in charge and the black persecuted.  The novel opens with Nathan, a 16-year-old witch shackled in a cage, plotting escape from his captor.  I won’t tell you how that goes down, but the story soon shifts to recollections of Nathan’s childhood, where we begin learning his history and at least why he might be put in a cage: Nathan has the rare distinction of being half White and half Black.  While Nathan has never met his father, simply being related to an infamous Black witch has marked the boy as a potential threat.  In a regulatory move, the government issues a resolution that all witches in Britain must be officially coded White, Black, or Fain–half codes like Nathan will only be permitted as such until their 17th birthday, when they must choose an official designation, white or black.  Each year, Nathan goes in for an assessment and more resolutions are passed that limit his freedoms as a half code.  As government sanctions ostracize him, Nathan also faces bullying at school and by his older sister.  Life may be bleak and unfair, but it is not entirely without love.  Nathan’s grandmother and brother are his comfort and support, and a girl at school has caught his eye.  Still, there comes a point where the only option left to him is escape.

As Nathan navigates a hostile society, he is constantly confronted with questions of identity. Who is he and who were his parents?  Which half truly defines him?  Green layers complexities into a plot that is taut with suspense and where things are rarely just black and white.  Action, intrigue, murder, and betrayal are all set against a ticking clock; any witch who does not participate in the gift-giving ceremony of their 17th birthday will not receive a power, and they will likely suffer a premature death.  Nathan’s 17th birthday is fast approaching, making the success of his journey all the more critical.  The structure and traditions of witch society are well developed, makings Green’s magical world believable. There are hunters (like aurors in Harry Potter), healers, potion makers, and bureaucrats.  There are fears and flaws and an underground network of witches wishing to remain off the grid, as it were.  Told through first person narration, we learn about this world as Nathan does and, consequently, feel a great deal of sympathy for this boy who is searching for a place in it.  Entertaining, imaginative, and well written, Half Bad was a complete pleasure to read.  I hope I don’t have to wait too long for the next one!

 

 

 

 

Noggin by John Corey Whaley

Noggin3

“Listen–I was alive once and then I wasn’t.  Simple as that.  Now I’m alive again.  The in-between part is still a little fuzzy, but I can tell you that, at some point or another, my head got chopped off and shoved into a freezer in Denver, Colorado.”

Good golly!  What a start, huh?  If you’re worried that John Corey Whaley kills it in the intro but falls flat in the follow-through, think again. Noggin is the story of 16-year-old Travis Coates, who signs up for an experimental cryogenics program after being diagnosed with an untreatable form cancer.  The plan is to cut off his cancer-free head, freeze it, and reattach it to a healthy donor body as soon as science has advanced enough to perform this procedure–a projected 50-60 years in the future.  Amazingly, science zooms ahead and Travis blinks awake a mere 5 years after his “death,” head on a brand new set of shoulders–and, well, everything else, too.

All of this is laid out in the first few pages, ensuring that this is not a cancer story or a book about dying.  This is a book about getting a second chance at life and the weirdness of:

A) Coming back to life

B) Having a new body

C) Having everyone in your life suddenly age forward 5 years, making you the oldest “16-year-old” in the room–or youngest 21-year-old, depending on your perspective

Whaley could have easily put Travis in a coma for five years instead of going the “cranial hibernation & reanimation” route, but this introduces the interesting element of grief to the story and, subsequently, “un-grieving.”  The likelihood that the procedure would work was very low, so those closest to Travis still had to treat his passing as a death and move on. Post reanimation, Travis reconnects with his best friend, who is now in college and apparently not gay anymore, and is dealt the devastating blow of learning his girlfriend, Cate, is engaged.  Things at home aren’t exactly “normal” either, but how can they be after what everyone has gone through?

As Travis tries to adjust, we see him spend a lot of time trying to get his old life back, rather than taking the 5-year leap forward.  This includes a few embarrassing attempts to win back Cate, which are funny and heartbreaking at the same time.  It takes the support of his old best friend, as well as his new one–the one who bestowed upon him the moniker “Noggin”–to draw Travis forward into his new life.  Though this new, unlikely life is filled with challenges, it also a second chance at living, so things aren’t all bad.  Travis has a smokin’ new body that came with the ability to skateboard and a lot of people who want to help him succeed.

A thread of humor runs throughout, as well as an awareness of the insanity of the entire situation, which lend a somewhat wry tone to the narration–Travis refers to himself as “Mary Shelley’s nightmare come true” and makes jokes about getting ahead–and keep the story from becoming too weighty. This was my first experience reading Whaley, though I knew his name from his 2012 Printz Award win for Where Things Come Back.  I loved his writing style.  It had heart and humor and originality of ideas and characters I truly enjoyed.  What more can you ask for, really?  In the New York Times review, A.J. Jacobs likens Noggin to “Greenlit”–novels by John Green, particularly due to his penchant for writing “first-person, funny-sad” YA.  Personally, I prefer Whaley to Green, but the comparison is apt, though I think there’s a little less of the “sad” in Noggin. This is a book for A.S. King and Ned Vizzini fans, as well, or anyone in the market for (mostly) realistic YA fiction.  I can’t wait to read more by this author.

Fallout by Todd Strasser

Fallout

In 1962, the Cold War was in full swing and tensions and fear were rampant throughout the country.  Would the Russians drop a bomb? Fire missiles?  What would happen if they did?  This is the question Strasser takes on in his alt-history novel, Fallout, where he imagines the fate of one family—the only family on the block with a fallout shelter—after a nuclear bomb is dropped.

When the sirens go off, 11-year-old Scott and his little brother are whisked into the shelter, deep below the floor of their playroom.  Seized by panic, neighbors who scoffed at Scott’s dad for building the shelter in the first place, now fight to gain entry, to gain sanctuary.  The shelter, however, is only stocked with supplies for 4, so Scott’s dad scrambles to lock out the pleading neighbors.  A few make it in, and in the frenzied chaos of this, Scott’s mother is knocked from the ladder and lies prone on the cement floor, unnaturally still.  10 people in total are trapped below ground.  And then the waiting begins: waiting for radiation levels to drop so they can emerge from their hole to face who-knows-what.  Total annihilation? A Communist regime? No food, family, or friends? Radioactive everything? Other survivors?

This is a survival tale rather than a war saga, and the story quickly becomes one of the psychological fallout caused by being trapped in a small space with limited resources.  Told from Scott’s point of view, the narrative alternates chapters between life before the bomb and afterwards in the shelter.  The pre-bomb chapters create a nice break in the tensions building below ground, in addition to laying out backstories and context for the characters.  The shelter chapters are marked by volatility, created primarily by the adults, who fight over who is in charge, how best to ration the supplies, and whether people should be “voted out” so that the group has a greater chance of survival.  Things turn ugly fast.  I was surprised by how fast, actually.  In theory, it takes about 2 weeks for radiation levels to drop to a safe level; but below ground, there’s no way to keep track of time.  Within a couple of days, morale is on the way out.  As is dignity—the toilet is an exposed bucket and toilet paper and water are in short supply.  The anxiety is palpable, no less so for the reader, herself; and it is this that makes Strasser’s decision to revisit events leading up to the bomb a most welcome escape.  He knows how to pace his story and maintain its atmosphere without letting it overwhelm the narrative.

Verdict? A strong 4 out of 5 stars, if I gave out stars.  Though I did not fall in love with this book, I thought it was an interesting and unique take on both survival and historical fiction that is sure to be a hit with fans of either. It made me want to revisit Ellen Klages’ The Green Glass Seawhich I whole-heartedly recommend to readers interested in American history, quirky female protagonists, or good storytelling.  These two novels would make a nice pairing, actually, as Green Glass Sea is the story of a girl living on Los Alamos in 1943, as nuclear weapons are being developed as part of the Manhattan Project, and Fallout picks up the baton twenty years later.  My final thought on Fallout is how I appreciated the way Strasser depicts the ambiguous threat of war on children, who don’t entirely understand what’s going on.  They know it’s bad and scary, but it also serves as a green light for rule-breaking because, “we could all be dead tomorrow.” Echos of this mentality resurface in their adult counterparts in the subterranean shelter, truly turning the disparate chapters of this novel into a cohesive whole.