Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

Oh no, it's the children's book with the word "scrotum" in it! There was a tremendous uproar over this book in the past summer when a listserv of school librarians had a discussion over the offending word, and some said they would and some said they wouldn't purchase the title for their schools. The national media picked it up, and for a little while, the world of the librarian was abuzz. As usual, everyone took it too seriously, and camps divided along the "someone must save the children" vs. the "you must never censor" line, and no one convinced anyone else of anything.

So what is the book about? Lucky lives in hard luck Hard Pan, California. Her mother died a few years before (oh, we mothers, we drop like flies in books, don't we?) and she lives with her father's first wife (second wife was the mom), a French woman who misses her life in France. Lucky, whose father is a non-presence in her life, is terrified that Brigitte is going to abandon her and run back to France where there are no snakes and no dust storms and no tasteless government cheese. Lucky decides to run away in order to force Brigitte's hand, and all becomes well after a scary sandstorm misadventure. Oh, and the s-word? Lucky hears it while eavesdropping on an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

Well, the controversy is all over now, and we can hopefully look at the book for what it is worth. And what is it worth? Well, it is a short little book, pretty nicely written, with an interesting girl protagonist, but I have to confess that the book underwhelmed me. I felt that the central conflict (is Brigitte preparing to leave Lucky and return to France?) rests on the very thin premise that Brigitte would hide 2 facts: 1) that she is taking online restaurant management classes in order to open a cafe in Hard Pan, and 2) that she is in the process of doing the paperwork to officially adopt Lucky. I find point 1 harder to believe than point 2, as I can't see an adult in a caregiving role never telling a 10-year old - "be quiet, I have to STUDY!"

So what about the book? It was no better - or worse - than other books I had read over the past year. It is probably better than the run of the mill, but is it a Newbery? I don't know. I preferred both Rules by Cynthia Lord and Penny From Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm, which were Honor Books. I work with a librarian who thinks Lucky was chosen precisely for the word "scrotum" on the first page, in hopes that the controversy might revive an award that is prestigious in library-land but means little to your average reader... I'm not sure that the Newbery is languishing, but I do think she has a point. So it all comes down to - "What hill do you want to die on?" If I were a school librarian today, and I thought my community would freak out at the deadly word on page 1, would I stock the book anyway? Would I fight for it? Well, sorry library idealists, but probably not. The book just doesn't have enough child appeal, in my opinion, to be worth it. On the other hand, if I thought my community would accept it, I'd probably buy it. Either way, I hate to say, I don't think the book would circulate much.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Reading a mile a minute for class

I can't possibly list all the books I've read for my Children's Literature class, so I'm going to hit the highlights of the past two weeks:

No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman - some funny pokes at award winning novels for children (love the part where Wallace points out that in any book with a medal and a dog on the cover, the dog is definitely going to die - yes, I know Shiloh doesn't die, but he's an exception), a middle school play, a character named Wallace Wallace who will not tell a lie... This book is LOL funny.

Sammy Keys and the Hotel Thief by Wendy Van Draanen - definitely a much more contemporary mystery series than the hoary old Nancy Drew books I grew up with. I'd give this book to the mystery readers who are looking for something a bit more "hip" to read.

Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn - some of the cultural surroundings in this book might feel a little dated to adults, but I don't think kids will notice it at all as they read this creepy ghost story. A very well-done thriller for the older elementary school reader.

On the Wings of Heroes by Richard Peck - I remember reading Richard Peck when I myself was a teen, and I had forgotten how compulsively readable he is. This is a slim little book that reads like a memoir of life as a child during WWII. The way the story skips forward in time from tale to tale really feels like how we remember childhood, as a series of the "highpoints" of memory. I liked this book immensely. My favorite line comes when Earl Bowman (dad) asks Davy (son): "When you're taller than I am, are you still going to stick this close to me?" and Davy answers, "Sure," I said. "Why not?" Beautiful.

Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery by John Feinstein - this is one of those books that I personally didn't think that much of for myself, but that I could see a 4-6 grade reader snarfing down whole. Whip-smart kids, nefarious adults, a super-cool, friendly teen/young adult for the 8th grade protagonists to help.... This book has it all for the young reader.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Out Standing In My Field by Patrick Jennings

This is a funny-sad baseball book for upper elementary school readers. Continuing in my quest to find good baseball themed books to pass on to my son, I picked this one off the shelf at work. The book tells the story of Tyrus Cobb Cutter, a boy whose father played one day in the majors and never got over it. The unique angle this book takes versus other baseball books is that our hero really stinks at the game. Ty's looking to tie the league record for highest number of errors in a season, and his batting average hovers somewhere below .100. Everyone knows Ty stinks but his dad just won't let Ty be the bench warmer he was born to be. Meanwhile sister Daisy has all the talent in the world, but steadfastly refuses to play for her father. Told wryly and memorably in the first person by the funny, baseball loving Ty, this book captures both the magic and the heartache of baseball, and the sheer awfulness that can come from being the son of a monster of a children's sports coach. I would probably not offer this book to under 11 or 10 year olds, as there is some reference to Ty's father having a drinking problem, but for boys who like baseball and who are sick of reading books about miracle kids, this could be a real winner.

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

A 13 year old boy reeling from the divorce of his parents manages to crash land the plane he is taking to visit his father in the far northern Canadian oil fields into a small lake in the wilderness after the pilot dies of a heart attack. The boy proceeds to survive in the wilderness for 55 days on his ingenuity and using the small belt hatchet his mother gave him before he climbed on the plane. A well-executed survival story long on action and self-reliance and self-actualization, this book would likely have enormous appeal for boys from about age 10 to 14. Younger readers with strong skills could also probably tackle the book, but references to the family breaking up over possible infidelity on the part of the mother may give some parents pause, but the book as a whole is definitely recommended strongly for school and public libraries. This was a Newbery Honor book in 1988.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Rules by Cynthia Lord

A book about a girl whose brother is autistic, this story about coping with life in a family that revolves around a child with special needs is funny and touching. Catherine lives her life making rules for David to help him cope with life. Some are practical, like "No toys in the fish tank" but others mean a little more, like "Some people think they know who you are, when really they don't." This story of one summer when Catherine does some growing up is deceptively simple, but emotionally complex. When Catherine tells her father that just because David needs him more, doesn't mean she doesn't need him at all, it's a real heartbreaker of a moment. As an aside, how can you not like a book that quotes so extensively from Frog and Toad?


Saturday, July 14, 2007

School Really Messes with Blogging

It's not that I haven't read any books, its just who has time to reflect or write about good books when you're cramming text books?

A partial list of the books I've read over the past couple of months:
Penina Levine is a Hard-Boiled Egg (Yay!)
Rex Zero and the End of the World (Boo)
Team Moon (Yay)
The Heart (Ehhh)
Outstanding In My Field (Yay)

I will try to review the YAY books in the next weeks, after my two undergraduate classes are over....

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick

This is a 2008 Caudill book, and was recommended highly to me by a person whose judgement in books I trust completely. It tells the story of an 8th grader who sees his whole life turned upside down when his 5 year old brother gets terribly ill. Steven is a caustic, intelligent boy who lives to play the drums, and not look like a dork in the eyes of the hottest girl in school, until this family crisis pushes him to grow.

This book sounds like a typically award-winning, depress you downer of a book, and in many places, it is certainly a tear-jerker, but it is also sometimes laugh out loud funny. The author has crafted a very interesting narrator in Steven. Steven is a wiseass, but he's the kind of wiseass that you can't help but like, because his view on the world is so very clear. Sonnenblick also manages to create a pathetic and sympathetic little brother who at the same time is sometimes bratty and annoying - and that is a feat for a five year old in a novel who is in danger of dying from leukemia. In the materials at the back of the book, we learn that Sonnenblick is a teacher, and his familiarity and frequent contact with children shows. The children in his book feel real - they have faults and strengths and depth. That said, I did have a hard time accepting Steven as an 8th grader. He seemed just a little too emotionally smart and self aware for an 8th grade boy. Then again my own children have not reached that age yet, and my only extensive contact with 8th grade boys pretty much happened about 27 years ago as an 8th grade girl, when I thought they were all stupid and irritating..... so maybe I am not giving them enough credit. That aside, this is a funny, touching, engaging book. I would not probably give it to anyone under 6th grade, but I think it would appeal to both boys and girls, and would probably make an excellent choice for a realistic fiction selection for children in middle school or junior high.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Millicent Min, Girl Genius/ Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time / So Totally Emily Ebers by Lisa Yee

These three books by Lisa Yee chronicle the same summer as seen by three children whose lives interconnect. Stanford Wong is a basketball star who just might lose his spot as the first 7th grader ever to make the A-team if he doesn't pass 6th grade English in summer school. Millicent Min is the child-prodigy who at 11 is poised to enter her senior year of high school, and who is forced to tutor "Stan-turd." Millie thinks Stanford is a hopeless stupid airhead, and Stanford hates Millie because as he thinks - it is kids like Millie who make everyone expect Chinese kids to be geniuses. Emily is a new kid in town who is having a hard time adjusting to life as a child of divorce who manages to become Millie's first best friend, and Stanford's first crush. All 3 children figure prominently in each book, but each book takes the same summer and looks at it from the perspective of each child. These books are funny and insightful, and it is almost brilliant the way they show how the same events can look so different from different perspectives. But the best thing is, they teach that lesson without being boring, or preachy, or depressing, and each book stands on its own as a self-contained novel. They cover serious issues - fear of failure, fear of not fitting in, fear of what others will think, the dissolution of your family - without being a giant drag. The kids think like kids and talk like kids, and worry about kid things, and sometimes they're really funny.

I think these 3 books are perfect for about 5th grade to 7th or 8th grade, boys or girls. Boys might resist reading "Millicent Min" or "Emily Ebers," but Stanford will certainly appeal to them. If I were a teacher trying to show point-of-view, I might teach these books, or if I didn't have time to require all 3, I'd pull out passages that describe the same event from each book to show how things can look different depending on how you see them. Fun books - worth your while - all around highly recommended.

Link: http://www.arthuralevinebooks.com/author.asp?authorid=33

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Henry is a librarian at the Newbery in Chicago and Clare is an aspiring artist. When these two attractive, perfectly cool and Wicker-Parky bohemian arty Chicagoans meet and fall in love, it is practically love at first sight. But is it? You see, Henry has a genetic disorder that makes him slip in and out of time, traveling willy-nilly with no self control backwards and forwards in time. And because they share a great love, his travels have frequently brought him to Clare throughout her life, so she has known him since she was 6 years old. This science fiction-ish premise sets up a novel that contemplates the nature of free-will, of cause and effect, and the power of love across time.

You would think that I'd be pretty pre-disposed to liking this novel. After all, it is set in Chicago (my home town) and I can picture pretty easily almost every setting in the book. One of the main characters is a librarian who graduated from the very same school that I am attending right now. It has a fantasy/science fiction feel to it, and I've always liked fantasy and sci fi. And I DO like the book, even though it indulges in one of my least favorite activities in a book - gratuitous references to outre popular culture so I can tell just how cool and with it the author is. This book club reading is my second time around reading the novel. But as much as I enjoy the book, it just feels like mostly surface to me. Maybe I'm missing the allegory, or I'm not sensitive to the deeper themes, but the book feels like a quality chick flick to me. It is entertaining, easy to digest, with appealing characters, but it for me it just missed being something. It's a frappuccino of a book - more sophisticated than a milk shake, and you don't have to feel ashamed carrying it around - but it still kind of feels a little like junk food....


Clementine by Sara Pennypacker

Clementine is an original girl - a third grader whose curious mind finds the world around her much more interesting than school - and she is having a pretty bad week. Her best friend's mother is very mad at her, her best friend seems to have a new best friend, she thinks maybe her parents are thinking about giving her away so they only have to raise the "easy one" (her little brother) and she's pretty much been in constant trouble at school. And even though she's the only one in school who seems to notice all the interesting things going on around, everyone is constantly telling her to pay attention. Sigh - it's hard to be 8.

This is a funny, delightful little book. As the parent of a first grader who has attention problems, I just loved this book for the way it shows just how original these children can be, and how delightfully different and interesting their worlds are. It helped remind me that I probably would profit from remembering the strengths of children like Clementine. What I liked most was the way it managed to make Clementine funny without her being bratty. A wonderful little book for the precocious 2nd grade reader or for those about 3rd grade and up, and would make a good read-aloud for just about any age over 6 or so.


Saturday, March 24, 2007

Danger Boy: Ancient Fire by Mark London

It is 2019, the climate in the U.S. has gone just a little bit crazy (snow in New Orleans in June), Eli's father's time experiments have attracted the attention of the government, and to make things worse, Eli's mother has disappeared into a time bubble. Against this backdrop, Eli and his dad make a break for a disintegrating winery in California that dad has inherited, but there's no escaping dad's experiments. Before you know it, Eli has unwittingly become a lightning rod for time, and finds himself shifting back to ancient Alexandria just at the burning of the library, in the company of an intelligent descendant of the dinosaurs from an alternate earth. Does it sound like a lot is going on in this book? Well, a lot is!

It seems these days that most children's science fiction is bogged down in the time travel back to historic times genre that became so popular with the "Magic Treehouse" series. It seems like every sci-fi book released for chldren has this time travel theme. Frankly, I'm tired of it. That said, this is a solid read for children who like the genre. It is well-paced, fairly well written, and pretty well thought out. The only annoying part - no real resolution to the story so that we have to run out and read Dragon Sword: Danger Boy Episode 2 (The King Arthur time travel episode - hey, THAT hasn't been done before about 10 times!). I would recommend this book only to children who really like this type of book - otherwise I think it is kind of run-of-the-mill.

Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Danger-Boy-Ancient-Fire-Episode/dp/0763621528

Penny From Heaven by Jennifer Holm

This is hands down my favorite children's book I've read in the past 7 or 8 months. I liked the narrator - Barbara Ann "Penny" Falucci - very much. This is just a very well-written, appealing family story. There is gentle humor, a time period (the summer of 1953) just close enough to seem modern but just far enough to be interesting, and an attractive cast of eccentric family members. The children in the book lead a realistic life (no family of 4 kids with no mom and a gently absent father running wild here) and cope with normal problems. If I had to relate it to popular culture, I'd say its feel is something like "Moonstruck" in book form for kids.

Basically this is the story of one summer and fall in Penny's life. Penny's Italian-American father died when she was just a tiny baby. At age 12, Penny lives with her non-Italian mother and grandparents in the same New Jersey town as her father's Italian family. Penny hangs with her cousin Frankie, schemes to get slightly crazy Uncle Dominick and her mother to fall in love even though Mom has started dating the dorky milkman, chafes against her mother's rules (no trips to the swimming pool - you'll get polio!), roots for the Dodgers, and is generally very much loved by her large family. I'm tempted to say not much happens in this book - but quite a bit does - Penny turns 12, she gets grounded for the summer, she discovers a big family secret, there is a terrible accident. The thing is, there's no "big game" or "huge crisis" to this book. That is the only thing that makes me wonder if kids will like it as well as many of the adults I know who've read the book. That said, I think this book would be very good for the girl reader who likes books about family, books about regular life tinged with realistic though not horrible drama - ultimately hopeful books. I'd say this would be a good book for the "Little House" or "Anne of Green Gables" reader. I truly think this book just might be one of those books these types of readers remember well into adulthood with fondness and happy feelings. For ages about 9-12.

Link to the Amazon reviews: http://www.amazon.com/Penny-Heaven-Newbery-Honor-Book/dp/037583687X

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Thumb on a Diamond by Ken Roberts

A cute and funny story about a group of kids from a tiny town on the coast of British Columbia who put together a baseball team because the only way they'll get a chance to take a school board sponsored trip to see Vancouver is if they can play in a sports tournament. The only problem in this tiny town occupying a cove that is ringed in by mountains? There's no grass in the town, no space to swing a bat or play catch, and not one of the kids has ever played. Not to worry, the children hatch a plan to be the league champs (because no other town around has a team or space to play either) and take the trip to Vancouver.

Cute but not too cloying, this is a good book for kids if they want to see how kids just like them live in other places, and how the simplest things - like grass, or a movie theater, or an escalator - can be amazing. Yet the children in the book aren't rubes or bumpkins. A charming little read.


Monday, March 5, 2007

Heat by Mike Lupica

Here's the story of a 12 year old Cuban boy whose family fled Cuba to the USA so that this boy, blessed with "the arm" can play baseball in America, and hopefully make it to the Little League World Series and eventually "the show."

Now, I am the acknowledged baseball book reader in the children's department in the library. I like baseball, I have a baseball-crazy nine-year old who likes baseball books, and I have a tendency to be one of the people who is willing to read the "boy" books. So I've read a lot of kids playing baseball and trying to pull out the big game books. Some of the best - like "The Boy Who Saved Baseball" or Dan Gutman's "Baseball Card Adventure" books - are very good indeed. Some of the others - like Mike Christopher's baseball books - are journeyman formula books that work for their audience. But let's just say the writers struggle hard to get past the whole team in the big game, something happens to jeopardize their chances, they somehow pull it out formula.

Lupica has a twist on the story in that his main character is a preternaturally gifted boy who is dogged by a real-life scandal that could kill his Little League dreams. The book makes several references to the 2001 Danny Almonte scandal. This was when a parent, coach, and others passed a Dominican boy off as 2 years younger than he was in order to play him in Little League. The real-life boy pitcher took his team to the Little League World Series, where he posted the first perfect game pitched in the series since 1957. His records were later stripped from the record books when investigation revealed he was older than his coach and parents insisted. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danny_Almonte. In Lupica's book, this scandal tars Miguel Arroyo while he and his brother work hard to hide another devastating secret.

Lupica is a sportswriter and knows his baseball, even his Little League baseball, and he pretty accurately skewers some of the more obnoxious types of kids AND coaches you find in Little League, but I wonder if he's had much contact with 12-year old boys lately, not to mention 12-year old immigrant boys who are living a supposedly hand-to-mouth existence in the Bronx. In my mind, the book has two big strikes against it - the worst is wooden and unrealistic dialogue and a main character who just doesn't feel very real. The second is repeated scenes where boys who can hardly afford the rent eat brand name foods like Coke and Oreos. Maybe it's nitpicky of me, but the details in this book bothered me immensely. So in the end I guess I'd say while the story is very good, the book itself falls short, and might not be the best pick unless you're giving it to a child who is a baseball nut.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Homework Machine

by Dan Gutman.

Told in short snippets from the point of view of several children, this book tells the story of one genius boy who invents a "homework machine" to do his work, and the group of four unlikely kids who come together using the machine. Dan Gutman is an always reliable writer. He brings in enough humor to appeal to kids, enough of a message to please parents, and always just a touch of seriousness to ground the books in some kind of reality. I don't like these books quite as well as I liked his "Baseball Card Adventure" books, but you really can't go wrong with this writer. He does good work.

Here's a link to Dan Gutman's home page:

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle

Oh, welcome back, Roddy. You went all abstract and arty on me with your Henry Smart books, and I was afraid I'd lost one of my favorite writers. But you've returned with one of my favorite characters. Paula Spencer has led such a grim life. Why does she make me so happy? She's been an abused wife, a drunken mother, and by all measures I guess she'd be a failure. But darn if she doesn't get up somehow and keep fighting. Roddy Doyle has done a gorgeous job of showing how we humans mess up our lives and mess up our kids, and say awful things to those we love and behave terribly toward others, yet somehow manage to muddle through. As both a mother who knows how guilty mothers feel, and the child of an alcoholic, I feel like this book is full of truths. Now I know Roddy Doyle isn't for everyone. His books are profane and full of swearing and shockingly bad behavior, and sometimes they aren't easy to read due to the fact that he never uses quotation marks or the wonderful phrases "he said" or "she said." But I don't care. If you want to really read A LIFE - this book and it's predecessor The Woman Who Walked Into Doors are well worth your time and effort. Bravo. Long live Roddy Doyle! Long live Paula Spencer!

Thursday, February 8, 2007

The trouble with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings

To clarify here, I mean the Harry Potter BOOKS and Lord of the Rings MOVIES. The trouble with these two very good franchises is that they have made others think that it is OK for books to be 350 pages or more, and all movies must hit at least 2 hours and 20 minutes.... Depsite their individual excellence, they have encouraged others to copy their length, and so we have to see movies that are 20 or 30 or even 40 minutes too long, and read books that would have been much better if only the story had been condensed. Every one now feels justified in going on too long, not realizing that it takes great talent to extend a book or movie to great lengths.

Why do I go on about this? Well, because of a book called Larklight. It's a book stuffed with good ideas and absorbing illustrations, but it is just too darn long to sustain itself. Written as an alternate history kind of science fiction type book, the novel is set in Victorian times, only in this version of history, Isaac Newton discovered space travel, and gravity machines, etc. Space isn't as we know it however, but more like Victorian Empire builders may have imagined it - filled with something called "aether" and capable of being traveled without special gear, stuffed with alien lifeforms and ready to be added to the empire. The book is written in a somewhat florid "ripping yarns" kind of way, and tells of the exploits of a brother and sister who must try to foil the attempts of a spider-like race to bring down the Empire. It is inventive, fun, and entertaining - mostly. But it is too darn long, and the language is just too florid and old-fashioned. It is written with the tongue firmly in the cheek - making fun of that kind of old-fashioned adventure novel - but I don't know that most kids (or any kids) would get the joke. For a better use of an alternate reality old-fashioned adventure, you'd be better off with Airborn and Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel.

Link for Larklight: http://www.larklight.com/

Link for Airborn & Skybreaker: http://www.airborn.ca/

Monday, January 22, 2007

Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce & Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

Two more pieces of juvenile literature I've read over the past week or so. I'm sure my reading won't be nearly so prolific once the real schoolwork begins in earnest, and once the second class kicks in on February 17, but in the meantime, yahoo, I'm a-readin'...

Framed by Boyce: One of my favorite authors is Nick Hornby. I've read everything he's written - even the essays which is saying something because I never read essays. Anyway, I'm starting this post with that fact because Boyce is as close as I've ever come to a children's writer that reads like Nick Hornby for kids. It's all there - the slightly exotic British slang, the hip irony, the pop culture references, the humor, the human touch. The basics of the story: Dylan lives in Wales, where his family lives at and operates the Snowdonia Oasis, which is a kind of convenience store, gas station, and auto repair shop. The town they live in is the rainiest in all of Wales, has no jobs, and is slowly dying. Dylan is literally the only boy in his school (leading to funny teacher comments like "Now girls - - and Dylan.."). Then one day a series of mysterious vans arrive and drive up the mountain to the abandoned slate mine. Soon enough it is discovered that due to flooding in London, the entire collection of the National Gallery has been moved to the old mine in Manod for the duration, just as it was during WW2, to avoid Nazi bombs (the storage of the paintings in a mine in Wales during WW2 actually happened). Unexpectedly, the artwork seen by the villagers awakens feelings and ideas they never knew they had. The financial troubles of the family also give rise to a couple of attempted crimes that push the plot along. This is a good book - it is funny, the story is touching, the child at the center is appealing. I love that this boy lives literally at the end of the dead end street in a dead end town with nothing to do all day and no one to do it with, but can't understand why people don't realize how really fantastic his hometown is. The problem is I think it is about 30-50 pages TOO LONG. Somehow, the story just ran out of steam for me, and even though I had enjoyed it, I found myself struggling to finish. I'm not sure if kids would stick with it...

Gregor the Overlander (and subsequent Gregor books) by Suzanne Collins - Boy, I'm late to the party on this one - she's already on book four of the series, and I think book five comes out in spring 2007.... I decided to pick this book up because so many people in the children's department told me they loved it. The premise of the book is that Gregor is an 11 year old boy (why are they ALWAYS 11?) living in New York City whose father has been missing for 2 years. As the eldest, he shares many of the burdens of caring for his family with his mother, who struggles to make ends meet. One day while doing laundry in his apartment building laundry room and watching his toddler sister "Boots," he sees her sucked down into a ventilation grate. Gregor follows, and before you can say "I don't think we're in Kansas" he finds himself deep below the earth, where a group of humans has coexisted with giant talking insects, rats, and bats for several hundred years. The humans have been at war with the rats for the entire time they've lived in the Underworld, with alliances shifting among the other creatures. Before you can say "series fiction rules" Gregor and Boots have been pulled into an adventure that seems to be tied into the prophecies written by the founder of the underworld colony of humans. This is a good series - well paced, pretty well written, and not too derivative of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, and with no time travel, which is something of a miracle in fantasy fiction for children these days. The later books in the series might be a bit intense for strong readers who are younger, but I think readers from about 5th grade up would be able to handle the themes of violence and redemption. My only quibble with the books really is that I hate the fact that the title character starts every conversation with the word "Hey." As in "Hey, so and so. Blah blah bla..." That beginning "Hey" really bugs me for some reason. That aside, this is solid fantasy that is a cut above much of what is out there right now.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

The last book club book I've managed to advance read before classes started for the Spring semester! Ehrenreich is a writer who has written for many prestigious periodicals, and written several books. For this book, Ehrenreich crafted the persona of a divorced woman whose children have grown, and who is entering the workforce after a divorce. She shortened the number of years of college on her resume to 3, but did her best not to "impersonate" another person. She then tried to survive in three different areas of the country on a waitress/housecleaner/retail clerk's pay for a month. She allowed herself a car, and a little seed money in each case, but for the most part relied on her earnings to buy food and lodging. The "experiment" was conducted in the late nineties.

Wow, holy cow, this book depressed the hell out of me, not to mention scaring me half to death. Let's put some context around this. I am a parent of two boys aged 9 and 6. I recently made the decision to leave my relatively well-paid career in market research to pursue a master's in library science, with the goal of becoming a school librarian (or School Library Media Specialist to use the official language). I was starting to hate market research, and I really do believe this is the course for me, but it will take me 2 years to get the degree, and meanwhile I have become a "net funds user" in the household, rather than a "net funds earner." I work for almost nothing an hour in a public library, where the hours fit my family and school obligations, but let's just say I practically have to work a week just to get my hair done. Now, we're relatively comfortable - my spouse makes a good living (though not princely) and we have adequate life insurance and a good cushion in retirement plans if something happened - but this book made me realize that if things went badly, I could be in big trouble. OK, it would have to be several bad things at once, but not outside the realm of possibility. This book showed me just how possible it is to be trapped by circumstance into a really hopeless position, and just how ground down someone can get. It is depressing because who knows what could be done to fix the situation. It is an interesting study to see how a class that is only slightly less "ground down" (the assistant managers at Wal-Mart, the restaurant manager, etc.) are manipulated/used to be the force grinding on those below them. This is an eye-opening book, but not one you want to read if you're a social conservative! Might be a great book to give to a kid who won't go to college, or who thinks they can make good money if they drop out of high school!

Here's a link to Ehrenreich's website if you want to read more depressing stories about people not getting by on the wages paid to the working poor.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress

Another book club book! During the cultural revolution, two young men are sent to a rural village for re-education. There, they manage to get hold of some Chinese translations of several classics of French literature by Dumas, Balzac and others. They mesmerize villagers re-telling the tale, and one of them is the "Little Seamstress" of the title. The books, ironically I'm sure I'm to feel, bring some degree of freedom to everyone but the young men who first find them.

Phew.... I can only attribute the fuss over this book to people who read it in its original language, or maybe I just don't "get" Chinese literature. I didn't much like Waiting by Ha Jin either, and that was a widely acclaimed book. At least Waiting had characters who felt at least somewhat fleshed out. I felt the characters in this book were quite flat, with the "Little Seamstress" the least fleshed out of the bunch. The book was more like a series of vignettes than a story that hung together, and I didn't feel like any of the characters, even the narrator, rose above sketches of personality types. As for the Little Seamstress; people may see her as strong, but she felt more like a male fantasy icon to me - the intelligent, yet untutored and untamed peasant girl who is sexually pliant to her intellectually "superior" male, yet who will run away from her tutor as soon as she gets a veneer of polish, in search of greater accomplishment. I didn't hate this book, but I didn't particularly like it either.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Peace Like A River and Cold Sassy Tree

Ok, so these are two books I've read for my book club. I had read Cold Sassy before, several years ago. Set in 1906 Georgia, it's a quasi-coming of age story about a boy who lives in a comfortably middle class family living in small town Georgia. When his father decides to wed the milliner in his store a scant three weeks after the death of his first wife, scandal and gossip ensue. I didn't like Cold Sassy as well this time around, or at least as well as I remember liking it when I read it the first time. I found it rather disturbing really. Perhaps the first time I read it I hadn't read quite so many novels that dwelled on Southern "colorful characters." It's a genre I've grown a bit tired of in the past few years. I've told others in my book club that they have to suspend their modern sensibilities when they read, and try to read from the perspective of someone contemporary to the time being written about, and I've derided books that give too modern a sensibility to historical time periods or characters (ever noticed how the main characters in historical romances bathe?), but the cozy Jim Crow view of the south - with just a few sops to discomfort over the treatment of blacks and poor whites - made me feel vaguely sick. I'm not sure if that was the author's intent, or if she really was as nostalgic for those times as she seemed. I'll have to wait and see what others think on that question. All in all, however, for style and readability, you can't really do better than this book if you like the genre. I'd rather read it again than The Secret Life of Bees, for sure.

Peace Like A River I liked quite a lot. It's the story of a family that lives on the edge of economic and social viability in a Minnesota town, who find their lives torn apart when the oldest son commits a crime and goes on the run. For me this book wasn't great or high literature, but it reminded me of the sort of Norman McLean/Wallace Stegner genre that I like almost in spite of myself. In a funny way, it is much like Cold Sassy, with its almost rosy view of "simple-folk" living life in a small town. What I liked best about this book was its depiction of faith. It was nice to see a character who has a deep and abiding faith who isn't depicted as being hidebound, hypocritical, or even downright evil. I think we've fallen into a pattern in modern serious literature where religious faith has become shorthand for the hypocrite, or even active evil (see Nathan Price in The Poisonwood Bible for a prime example). It was good to see the father in this book portrayed as a deeply faithful man who tried to live his life through his faith, and who was a truly good man. What I didn't like about the book was the ending, which struck me as false. I can't believe Davy was stupid enough to think he could bring the girl to his family's home and not have his fellow fugitive follow. Overall, this is a worthwhile read, and the style and writing are really very beautiful.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Peter Pan in Scarlet

OK, so I admit that the original Peter Pan is one of my favorite books of all time, and I'll also admit that I just couldn't get into the Dave Barry "prequel" to Peter Pan (though I generally like Dave Barry). I also don't care too much for the Disney Peter Pan, which to my mind took the edge off that rather bad and dangerous boy, and made childhood entirely too sweet and light. My favorite thing about Barrie's Peter Pan is that the children are sometimes savage and self-centered along with being cute and brave. Barrie showed us children before living rounded the edges and taught them to hide the raging ego within. Anyway, this all made me approach Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean with trepidation, but I'm happy to report that I think the author did a good job of reporting from the childhood front. Her kids are a nice mix of appealing and sometimes shockingly selfish and thoughtless. So here's the low-down: The Darlings (except for Michael, who was "lost" in WWI) and the Lost Boys are all grown up now. Tootles is a judge and Slightly is a famous musician, and Wendy is a supremely sensible mother who attends committee meetings. They all start dreaming of Neverland, waking up in warpaint, or with pistols under their pillows. Through the magic of capturing the fairy born in a baby's first laugh and putting on the clothes of their own children, they manage to retreat into childhood and fly to Neverland, where they find the land in peril. Danger and adventure ensue.

Now I like to assess children's books by whether I think children will really like them or if adults think children *should* like them. I'm not a big fan of books that adults think children *should* like - either the moralizing ones (ugh - I hate the Berenstain Bears) or those that appeal to parents who love books like House of Sand and Fog (are you listening The Book Thief?) I'm not entirely sure about this one.... I know I liked it enormously for myself, and I think children will like it, even if they've never been exposed to the slightly twisted world of Barrie's Peter Pan. The chapters are just short enough, and generally end in a cliffhanger that will keep them reading. Those who haven't read the original might have a little trouble at first with the characters, as the Lost Boys (one of whom delightfully becomes a little lost girl as the only available clothes to send him back to childhood belong to his daughter) have a more prominent place in the action in this book, but I think they may still find it a good read, even if they don't know/remember each Lost Boy specifically. So all in all I would say this was quite a good book, and worth reading, and would appeal to children from about 3rd to 6th grade, or to anyone who loves that slightly twisted Barrie Peter Pan world.

Here's some info on the book: http://www.peterpaninscarlet.com/about.php

Why I'm Blogging

I've decided to start this blog to keep track of the books I've read and what I thought of them, and also to record the random thoughts I have that I never write down cause I'm just too lazy to do it. Now, since I work in a children's department at a public library, much of what I read is children's lit, but I will mix in the adult books I read as well. I've always resisted writing in a journal because for one, my hand gets tired, and for two, well, I've always suspected that I am deep down, a pretty boring person. So here goes, let's see if I can keep this thing going.