Sunday, December 17

The Amazing Life of Birds

(The Twenty-Day Puberty Journal of Duane Homer Leech)
as discovered by Gary Paulsen
Wendy Lamb Books/Random House 2006

Male puberty in all it's onset glory. The zits. The changing voice. The embarrassment of having to force yourself to think of something because the rest of your body thinks you want sex that instant. The unexplainable attraction to girls. All of it, just as I remembered, and just as I don't remember it, all at once.

Were it not for the construct of the journal it is likely Duane wouldn't remember any of this as well. Filled with moment after moment of harsh human developmental reality, I believe most of us forget these details of the early onset either by choice or design. Living so close to the moment you're sure a major zit or repeated episodes of clumsiness last forever, year upon year, but as the journal points out in a nice but oblique way, what's twenty days in the grand scheme of things?

Unlike most boys going through a pubescent overhaul, few would have the opportunity to watch a hatchling bird on their windowsill go from newborn to adolescent during those same days. As Duane watches and records the baby bird's progress he is treated to an overview (of sorts) of his own life to that point. The early days of constant eating, the parental exasperation of child-rearing, weaning children away from their dependence and, eventually, tossing them from the nest to fly. For the most part Duane sees but does not observe. It isn't until he's taken a fell spills of his own that he understand what his best friend means when he tells Duane that you have to act like you're not surprised by any of it. Sure, you can't go around ignoring the possibility of embarrassing erection in public, but the stammering and other social missteps can easily be shrugged off as just another one of those things everyone goes through.

Paulsen's book is a breezy read, just perfect for a target audience that is, when you think about it, both small and limited. No boy going through puberty is going to want to read about Duane's exploits. No matter how extreme Duane's zits (or mistaken ringworm) are the book would scare the hell out of any kid in the throes of change. Boys that have already passed puberty aren't going to want to look back until they're long out of range, and younger boys might just be confused about just what exactly Duane is talking about when he mentions replacing the word ELBOW in his mind when thoughts of female anatomy suddenly spring forth.

So the book is squarely aimed at the boy within spitting distance of puberty... or, and this might be a little off, perhaps it's aimed at girls. While sex education will lay out the basics of what it means physically to go through puberty it does little to explain what is going on inside the mind. Perhaps this book then makes a better handbook for pubescent girls who are trying to understand things from the other side. Boys aren't likely to hunt down clues about girls -- when they get that interested they jump (or are forced by peer pressure) to the misinformation and misogyny provided by Maxim and FHM magazine -- but for any girl who's curious to know what the flip side of the menstrual equation looks like, this could be a good window into that world.

Not that there's any comparison, mind you.

Thursday, December 14

Sins of the Fathers

by Chris Lynch
HarperTeen 2006

Drew, Hector and Skitz are an inseparable trio who have known each other since they first started attending Catholic school. They're the kind of misfits who are drawn together: Hector the Good with anger management issues, Skitz the Human Dog lacking the ability to feel physical pain, and Drew the Glue that holds them together, their voice of reason, their collective conscious, and the story's narrator.

Entering their teens the boys are starting to skew off track. Hector's fits of rage and violence seem to grow proportionately with his rise as Alter Boy of the Year. Skitz seems to recognize that everyone considers him a lost cause so the increase in his irrational anti-social behavior goes practically unnoticed. At first blush Drew appears the most normal, but it's clear that the more he sees happening around him the more drawn he is toward repressing his own anger and disapproval. And all three of think nothing of sneaking out of their houses for a late-night meet up to down handfuls of St. Joseph's children's aspirin and RC cola, presumable for caffeine jolt.

The arrival of a street priest, a Jesuit nicknamed Father Mularky, jolts the boys out of their complacency as he appears to be unlike the interchangeable roster of priests they have seen over the years. He looks like a biker and is still hooked on 70's rock and roll -- on vinyl if you please -- and prefers things a little more worldly (like drinking beer) than the church might otherwise like. Monsignor Blarney runs the show with an iron fist so it's no surprise when tensions lead to a showdown between the two.

Everything comes to a head when Hector becomes ill and is hospitalized. Suffering from a stomach ulcer the boys think it's related to their aspirin and cola habits while the church spins it as the result of Hector's father ditching his family. The truth is more sinister as just below the surface of the narrative, hinted at but never said directly, Hector appears to be a victim of sexual abuse by one of the priests. Skitz has jumped from aspirin munching to glue sniffing and Drew is finally forced to take a stand against the priests, to pull his boys together and remain united and strong.

Lynch tells a story that seems familiar all the way through -- familiar characters, familiar scenes of weak families and weaker priests, familiar hang-outs and familiar conversations -- yet it all fits together in a way that still feels like you're reading about it for the first time. Actually, as I was reading I got the sense that Lynch was filling in the details left out of the news accounts, the sort of details investigative reporters would have included or reconstructed when writing up stories for Rolling Stone back when Rolling Stone was a relevant source of cultural reportage. There's no glorifying or demonizing of any character within the narrative beyond the thoughts and comments of those involved.

Except for the less-than-subtle title, of course.

The absence of fathers, or decent father-figure replacements, is the real indictment here and it's difficult to say whether or not Drew and his boys can actually break the cycle of disfunction that characterizes all their interactions. It would be nice to think that once the boys take their stand that they grow stronger, but the confrontation takes place literally on the last page and it's just as easy to imagine that they form one of those tight-knit units that defines their strength by the secrets that bond them.

One more chapter would have done it, one more chapter to let us know that the boys weren't just circling the wagons. Or would that have been providing the reader with too much hope?

Wednesday, December 13

...And the Children Are All Above Average

It's the closing line Garrison Keillor uses whenever he delivers one of his homilies about his beloved Lake Wobegon. It's that idea that people often think higher of themselves (and their loved ones by extension) than is statistically possible. It even rates a Wikipedia entry, Lake Wobegon effect, with a couple of reasonable examples in support.

My favorite version is the oft reported story where around 18% of Americans polled believe they're in the top 1% tax bracket and the next 18% believe they're in the top 10%. So nearly 40% of polled Americans believe they're in the top 10%, which explains why talk of tax cuts for the upper income brackets is so embraced. It also supports the Great American Delusion that people are better off then previous generations. I know for a fact that my father earned a higher salary than I ever have -- that's not even adjusting for inflation -- and he never went to college.

But my least favorite version of the Lake Wobegon effect, and the more relevant one here, is actually the one Keillor uses. As a former teacher, and as a bookseller, the number of people who claim their children are above average would topple any bell curve you'd care to draw up.

Lately, working as a bookseller again and with the holidays upon us, the number of people with children reading "well above average" is staggering. Additionally, these children are "precocious", "sophisticated", and have interests far above most of the "mundane subject matter" that comprises most of the books available to kids their age.


So here are some questions these adults have been unable to answer about their above-average, precocious, sophisticated and clearly superior children when pressed.
  • What's the last book the child read and enjoyed?
  • What's the last book the child requested be purchased for them?
  • How many books a week (or month) do they read, on average?
  • Do they prefer realistic fiction or fantasy?
  • What's the last book they didn't enjoy, and what didn't they like about it?
  • What sort of books are they reading in school?
In short, exactly how well do you really know this child? It's amazing how many parents just stare blankly at me with any single one of these questions. It's a rare parent/adult who looks me in the eye and says "You know, that's a really good question. That would probably be useful information to know." Actually, the one parent who did say that left the store, came back a few days later and we set about getting their kids books they'll actually read.

What occurred to me recently is that with all these parental units -- caregivers and grandparents and other adults buying for children -- pushing more sophisticated, above grade level reading onto their kids, are we not seeing a partial cause to the problem of children growing up too fast? I'm thinking back to how Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials books were originally shelved in with Sci-Fi and Fantasy in the larger bookstores, then migrated to the teen section, and now can be found as a boxed gift set with the middle grade readers. The argument for their shift in placement was the success of Harry Potter, and the interest in all things British and vaguely connected to sorcery, among the younger set.

But just because a ten year old can read those books, should they?

I often find myself biting my tongue when, after exhaustively suggesting over a dozen titles and having them rejected as either "too young" or "too lightweight" or as "already read", sending people up the street to the larger bookstore that carries adult titles. Clearly, if these kids are so sophisticated and so easily bored of books aimed at their age level then they really ought to delve into the real classics and build themselves a more solid literary foundation.

There comes a point for every child when what is written for them feels too much like pandering. It isn't that the books for their age level are no longer relevant, but that desire to start exploring the adult world becomes too strong a pull to ignore. Where parents may feel reluctant to delve into more mature ideas and themes in the home (or allow it in the literature) kids will go looking elsewhere. Occasionally this is referred to as "the street", as in "where did you get that information, on the street?" and is, in fact, as integral a part of a child's education and development as their formal schooling. To be book smart is well and good and necessary, but there comes a time when it has to work in the real world. Short of hitting the streets and learning the hard way, adult books can offer up a window into the real world situations without cutting them off from their last reaming years of childhood.

The trickiest part of this balancing act is not foisting a book onto a child that either reminds them of school or in any way smacks of education. A fourteen year old boy whose interest in reading has waned isn't really going to enjoy The Three Muskateers as much as he would some vintage Vonnegut. I'm speaking from experience on this one. Not that I wouldn't eventually come around to the French classic (and others, Victor Hugo especially) but that what I needed at the time was a cockeyed world reflected through a satirist's prism to comfort me and let me know that it was alright, that adults didn't really have all the answers, and that we're all in this together.

Yes, and after I read Breakfast of Champions I dove headlong into Portnoy's Complaint and Catch 22. And I don't recall my parents ever describing me as above average, precocious or sophisticated -- though I did have to hide what I was reading once they took a look through Vonnegut. Should I have been reading my Edgar Allen Poe and Mark Twain for school instead of these fine examples of mid-twentieth century American literature? Absolutely. Would I have wanted to be a writer if I have given up reading at age fourteen and started doing poorly in school? No. (Actually, the reading didn't improve my grades, but I did start to view school with new eyes once it became my social observation laboratory.)

My hope is that adults stop describing their children in terms that make them feel good about themselves when shopping for books. To be honest, the booksellers neither care, and rarely does it help in recommending a book for a child. If you absolutely must give a book as a gift, then do the only thing a child wants from you in the first place, whether they admit it or not: ask them outright. Children don't like to receive bad gifts any more than adults do, and in buying them what they want you reduce the risk of viewing the gift through adult eyes, with all the associated faults and pitfalls. If you honestly do know what they want by all means purchase that book, but if you need recommendations from a bookseller who's never met your child and whom you don't know personally, better do your homework.

As far as gift cards are concerned, if you're going to give one for a bookstore it should be in an amount equal to several average-priced hardcover books. I'm not saying that to boost sales, the fact is that kids with a short spending leash don't enjoy the process of trying to match their interests with a set price. You give them lots of freedom and not only will they be less stressed about the purchase but they may also feel the latitude to expand their horizons beyond the books they know. Better still, take them to the bookstore for a shopping spree (with a set limit of books, not dollars) and teach them how to utilize the help of booksellers, show them how to enlist the advice of total strangers and learn how to communicate their ideas and desires effectively with others.

Now that might help make them truly above average.

Tuesday, December 12

Sounds of Rain

Poems of the Amazon
by David L. Harrison
photographs by Doug Duncan
Boyds Mills 2006

Do you like to laugh at bad poetry? Do you want to turn children off to poetry? Do you like to hurl books across the room in fury?

Do you like to read poetry that fails to evoke any sense of its inspiration? Do you enjoy conflicting similes and simplistic observations? Perhaps you enjoy free verse as cold and tasteless as noodles made of sawdust, yes?

Do you hate the Amazon? Would you like to read poems about the Amazon that makes it seem like a Florida backwater? Honestly?

And do you like poor photography, grainy pictures of chickens taken from a distance so great they almost look like specters or heat shadows? And do you like photos of people happily floating in a river against a poem about a nocturnal predator? How about a photo of a splotch on a tree branch, meant to represent some unnamed and generically described Amazon River Basin animal, would you like to see that?

Do you like to be confused and perplexed, wondering aloud if there was any editorial oversight involved in the making of the book at hand? Do you like to thumb through 24 glossy pages of a hardback book of poetry wondering what semi-conscious being would enjoy what could easily be held up as the nadir of good taste?

Do you have enemies or relatives whom you would like to put on the spot by making them gush and thank you for putting such wonderful thought and consideration into such a lovely gift (though we all know better)?

If so, the this is the book for you!

Monday, December 11

Exploding Gravy

Poems to Make You Laugh
by X. J. Kennedy
illustrated by Joy Allen
Little Brown 2002

How and why this hasn't crossed my threshold before, I don't know. In out house we have an avid poetry reader (age 8) who has read and reread all of Shel Silverstien's oeuvre, most if not all Jack Prelutsky's offerings, a good deal of James Stevenson's corn, a much-loved Karla Kuskin collection, a handful of Douglas Florian's imaginings and a variety of others. Her love of a particular Silverstien poem - The Rain in my Head -- is bolstered by her having memorized it back in kindergarden and to this day is still her favorite poem to recite.

It would seem that in all of her scouring of the poetry shelves we'd have seen this offering by X. J. Kennedy. It has the same feel a Silverstien collection with poems designed to entertain and illustrations to match. The poems are grouped (some more loosely than others) by subjects kids generally enjoy: far-out families, giants and dinosaurs, unlikely doings, and so on.

I stumbled onto this while shopping for the holidays, so I'm hoping my 8 year old poetess hasn't already read it, but even if she has poetry are the books she returns to over and over. It's one of those things kids do that somehow gets lost in the transition into adulthood. It's one of those mysteries I ponder, why it is that we drink in poetry as kids when we know nothing of poetic forms and structure, but feel as adults that we can't "understand" poetry because we feel a certain need to appreciate it on some higher level. Same problem with art museums I fear, but I digress.

In reading through the book I was sold once I reached a poem called "Italian Noodles":
Whenever I
Eat ravioli
I fork it fast
And chew it slowli
The poem's other rhymes follow suit: spaghetti/rhetti, ziti/priti, pasta/fasta (and the less impressive lasanga/on ya) and it's that love of goofy language that flies well in this house.

Thursday, December 7

Adele & Simon

by Barbara McClintock
FSG/Francis Foster Books 2006

Adele's mission is to pick up her younger brother Simon and bring him home in tact, that is, without having misplaced his clothing and other personal items along the way. Naturally, as they drift through central Paris there are many distractions, and Simon manages to lose something at every stop. A drawing here, a scarf there, mittens and cap, arriving home unburdened nearly by half of what Simon possess on the cover of the book. In the end the items are delivered to their door by the friendly Parisians they met along the way who seem familiar with Simon's forgetful ways.

The look and feel of the book is pure mid-20th century, the soft watercolor glow of a Paris long gone. The double-page spreads of each locale are rich with detail begging the observant reader to try and locate Simon's misplaced items. The endpapers even provide a map of the city with each of Adele and Simon's stops numbered so you can follow their meandering route from school to home.

The nostalgia of the setting gives the book an air of unforced innocence, a balancing act that McClintock carries off with deceptive ease. It's a hard book not to like. Which is to say, I really enjoyed this little adventure.

Wednesday, December 6

Opposites, More Opposites, and a Few Difference

poems and drawings by
Richard Wilbur
Harcourt 1973, 1991 & 2000

In fifth grade I discovered the Complete Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear and the world changed for me. It was the fattest book I had ever seen in the children's library at my school -- a squat little four-by-six hardcover with a bright yellow cover showing signs of grubby hands and corner drops. Despite being a book of poetry, mostly limericks, it was shelved among the humor books. I was probably looking for a book of jokes and the fattest book in the section looked promising.

I don't recall being surprised that I had stumbled onto a book of poetry, and perhaps I wasn't, but I do recall a certain feeling of having walked into a new door and being bathed in a sort of ethereal delight. These little five-lined poems, one to a page accompanied by an absurd and naive little drawing, sang to me. I don't think I came across the word cadence until high school, but I recognized it instantly in fifth grade.

The limerick is a kid-sized song, the kind that can be repeated over and over (because that's what kids do, that's how they learn to master language) with each of Lear's limericks a story unto itself, a seed for fantasy. Ischia. Rheims. Dargle. El Hums. Did the place names in these limericks really exist or where they the fancy of the poet fitting the rhyme? Did it matter?

Naturally, a discovery this huge required me to strike out on my own, to attempt my hand at the limerick. Inspiration was everywhere: classmates, teachers and school administrators all became citizens of strange lands invented to fit the punchlines of my bold rhymes (and I did see them as punchlines, I was looking for a joke book as you may recall). Just as naturally, when I shared my efforts with friends and led them my source book, my Rosetta Stone, a fad swept like a wildfire in dry Southern California scrub. I'm sure I wasn't the first as I'm sure every teacher at El Marino Elementary had witnessed that particular fad annually. Their bold little fifth grade language explorers had stumbled into the same linguistic jungle and claimed it for their own.

Occasionally I stumble across a book, story or poem whose wordplay catches the same spirit as those fifth grade days. Richard Wilbur's collection of two previously published books (and a few addenda marked as differences) is such a book. Each of the pages contains a poem, numbered as if each described set of opposites was a rule, and a small illustrative naive drawing. The poems themselves adhere to AABBCC rhyme patterns and vary in length. Decidedly not limerick, they are also far more sophisticated in their wordplay but simple enough to be appreciated by a child (or childlike adult) who enjoys letting words dance around the tongue and mouth.
Because what's present doesn't last,
The opposite of it is past.
Or if you choose to look ahead,
Future's the opposite instead.
Or look around to see what's here,
And absent things will not appear.
There's one more opposite of present
That's really almost too unpleasant:
It is when someone takes away
Something with which you like to play.

I would like to think that had I discovered the first of these collected poems in the early 1970's that I might have been equally inspired but I suspect I wouldn't have been as successful. Where limericks invite invention opposites demand precision, which runs counter to a lifelong struggle I've had with my own impatience. Still, It is fun to read through page after page of extremely clever examinations of what is essentially the yin and yang of the English language.
What is the opposite of flying?
For birds, it would be just not trying.
Perhaps the opposite for us
Would be to take a train or bus.

Lately I've felt that there's too much rhyming text in children's books, bad and unimaginative rhyming text, I should add. Yes, children respond to rhyme for a variety of reasons, the most basic of which is that they have a rhythm, a song, a chime that rings deep in the brain. But aside from that does the rhyming do more than entertain? I don't mean in the pedagogic sense -- I'm sure there are studies showing that rhyming text yields better readers, develops cognitive skills, &c. -- but is a book in rhyme an easier sell, to a publisher, to a parent, to a child devouring books?

My general feeling is that too often I find rhymed text that does little but sit limp on the page, perhaps dulling the senses of children who will grow up thinking that all poetry is rhyme, all rhyme is stagnant, and life's too short for stagnant reading. Clever rhyming poetry hardly seems to rhyme at all, the sonic parity is merely the icing on the cake; there isn't any sense in icing Brussels sprouts, which to my mind are the opposite of cake and about as unpleasant as poetry with forced rhyme and no soul.

No, I don't expect every poet writing for children to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning former U.S. poet laureate, as Richard Wilbur is, but I would hope that they don't suck all the fun and joy out of reading through mediocrity.

Wednesday, November 29

D&D: Deadlines and Distractions

Reviews and holidays and play rehearsals for the girls and work and birthday shopping and holiday shopping and grocery shopping and writing and editing and play performances and haircuts and writing and editing and query research and tooth aches and neck pains and muscle tension and headaches and motrin and chocolate and pfeffernusse and bills and recipes and vacation planning and catching up on news and catching up on blogs and falling behind on reading and surfing the net and

Jack in the Box used to serve shrimp?

dirty dishes and library renewals and dinner with the in laws and no snow yet and old movies and foreign movies and action movies and snoring and warm days and online shopping and my name on toast and

(regular review and kidlit relevant posts to return soon. I hope.)

Thursday, November 23


I would love more than anything to spend this "down" day quietly contemplating everything I am thankful of and grateful for, but holidays like thanksgiving don't often allow for such luxuries.

So this short public notice of thanks goes first to my supportive and loving (and occasionally goofy, in a good way) immediate family without whom none of this would be possible, much less public.

On the larger front I had considered all the people and things that have become lifelong influences and mentors, considered sitting down and making the master list of all those things I am truly grateful for, but as I kept going back I realized it all comes down to those great ancestors who began recording things on the walls of their caves. I realize how strange that sounds but it's true. Without those early people hunkered down in their homes giving thanks for the success of the hunt on their walls how would we come to understand our own lives and our history? It is through their storytelling that we have come to understand the importance and tradition of life and living. Our lives, our success as humans on this planet, comes from our ability to think and express ourselves through language and storytelling.

And for that I am ultimately the most thankful. Beyond the comforts and love of family, naturally.

I have read that author Barry Lopez once said "Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive." I also heard it growing up explained as an old Yiddish proverb, but regardless of the origin that is my food for thought on our national day of feasting.


Tuesday, November 21


scenario by Arthur Yorinks
paper engineering by Matthew Reinhart
illustrated by Maurice Sendak
Michael di Capua Books 2006

This book makes me feel like shouting "but the Emperor is naked!"

There's this sense I'm getting that this is the pop-up book by Maurice Sendak that people have long been waiting for. Finally, the master and elder statesman of modern children's picture books has graced us with a masterpieces, where the art of paper engineering has finally caught up with the energy and spirit of the man's illustrations.

Or not.

It would have been both the most natural thing in the world and the greatest folly to have had Sendak make a pop-up of Max and his beasts from Where the Wild Things Are; Natural in that Sendak's pages tend to spring from the page in their wild rumpusing, and folly in that the effect of Max and his fantasy world would have been overshadowed by the various cuts of paper dancing before our eyes.

The "scenario" is that a little boy -- suspiciously looking like Mickey, escaped from the Night Kitchen -- wanders wordlessly through a castle searching among the collected monsters for his mommy. Frankenstein is here, as is the mummy and the whole host of classic monsters from the old Universal Studios movies. Mickey-boy is fearless as he scares and pranks the monsters. Finally the Bride of Frankenstein appears, beckoning her child into her loving, creepy arms.

Sendak gets it all right, but it still looks wrong. The flailing arms, the twisting heads... it's like news anchors giving you the days top stories as interpretive dance.

Over the past half-dozen years or so as Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart have been producing these modern marvels of dancing cardboard I have come to question just who, exactly, are these books intended for? A child young enough to enjoy the pop-up version of Alice in Wonderland may ooh and aah over the deck of cards exploding from the pages but will just as likely maul the book within a week of it's ownership. Older children who would marvel at the process required to create such animata would find the text dull and would tire of the book after a single viewing.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that all these recent children's books are not intended for children at all; they're intended to impress adults who believe these are things children (especially children they do not know well) would enjoy, intended for well-meaning grandparents looking for something "special" believing it will become a keepsake for the child, intended to make money with a clever concept and flashy presentation. Many a practical parent knows that a book with moving parts does not survive intact very long. I can't imagine the public libraries keep many of these stocked.

I imagine diehard fans of Sendak (including the New York Times) will keep sales of this book -- and other pop-ups -- flush through the holidays and the coming years. Ultimately these books are destined to become collectors items. Those wise enough to keep them in their protective plastic envelopes and wrapped in a trunk for twenty years are certain to have rare treasure long after those copies purchased for kids have found their way into the recycling.

And if Mr. Sendak should ever be enticed in the direction of interactive publications, I'd love to see a large box toy theatre a la Edward Gorey filled with goodies from all of his books. Jennie the Dog chasing Rosie through the Night Kitchen. It might sound sacrilegious but the kids would actually play with and enjoy it.

Monday, November 20

The Red Lemon

by Bob Staake
Golden Books 2006

Jolly old Farmer McPhee loves his lemons. There isn't a more perfect fruit in the whole world. Then one day one of his lemon trees pops out a red fruit and enraged Farmer McPhee tosses the offending lemon into the sea.

Years pass. Farmer McPhee and his farm have long since passed but the red lemon he tossed to sea has taken the world by storm. Those red lemons are sweeter and people travel far and wide to the land where the red lemon was allowed to flourish.

This 'Deluxe Golden Book' (this ain't no Shaggy Baggy Elephant, that's for sure) uses bold colors and cool graphic design to tell, essentially, a variant on the idea that things somehow different should be embraced rather than rejected for their uniqueness. Poor, sweet Farmer McPhee can't see beyond his own little world and in casting off the red lemon sets about the chain of events that make his beautiful yellow lemons obsolete.

So all you people out there poo-pooing computer graphics in children's books, this is aimed at you; ignore the sterile computer generated offerings from the graphic artists at your own peril. These books will come back to haunt you as the classics of the future.

Seriously though, I've seen people fall equally to either side of the 'love it' and 'hate it' camps over this book. I find Staake's art both too cold and too sophisticated for children the book is aimed at and the story negligible at best. Give me Green Eggs and Ham any day over red lemonade.


by David Lucas
Knopf 2005

Life is dull in little Nutmeg's house, so reads the jacket flap, and nothing ever happens. Naturally something has to happen, otherwise there's no book.

Sitting in the window looking out to sea in a ramshackle home poor Nutmeg seems to be the only one bothered by this great nothingness. Cardboard for breakfast, string for lunch, sawdust for dinner, clues that something is amiss here among the muted browns and grays of the landscape.

Careful observation of the junk inside and outside the funky home wordless explain that Nutmeg, her Uncle Nicodemus and Cousin Nesbit are marooned travelers. Long marooned at that when Nutmeg's desire to get out of the house to take a walk is seen as an outrageous exercise in futility.

While sitting on the breakwater Nutmeg lucks upon a Genie who will grant her three wishes. Without hesitation she requests something different to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Genie hands her a magic spoon, thus granting her wishes. The spoon produces a magical dinner spread, the kind that puts a thanksgiving feast to shame, and in colors that begin to shake up the somber hues. At night the spoon stirs up trouble, first by destroying the kitchen, then by turning the house and beach debris back into the magnificently odd sailing houseboat it once was. The boat (obviously under guidance by the spoon) sail them to another island where a magical -- and different -- lunch awaits them. Then they sail off to another meal and...

uh, that's where it ends.

Of all the picture books I've seen this year, Nutmeg clearly is the winner in the Most Unfinished category. Just as the story is starting to pick up speed it sails off into the horizon, the rest of the journey ahead, leaving us readers behind. And at 32 pages it felt a lot lighter to me, could have easily taken on another signature or two to let the rest of the story unfurl. I suppose it's a good thing that I didn't want it to end. Maybe I shoud do the same with

Judy Moody: Around the World in 8 1/2 Days

by Megen McDonald
illustrated by Peter Reynolds
Candlewick Press 2006

The cats were rumpusing this morning. At one point I heard a sound like cardboard being torn up. I followed the noise into the girl's room and discovered the baby cat (she's 2 years old, but smaller than our other cat, hence the name) trying to hide herself underneath a composition book. Picking the book up, it slipped out of my hand and opened to the following, written by my youngest who is in third grade (all punctuation and grammar is hers).

A Book Review on...
Judy Moody, around the world in 8 1/2 days

Judy Moody around the world in 8 1/2 days by Megan McDonald is a very fun book. It also is very interesting (or at least I think so) because it is realistic fiction (which means it could happen but the author still made it up.) It is about Judy Moody (I think that is obvious) and how she goes through a little trouble because she cannot do her project. Her problem is her friends are mad at her and refuse to do it with her (they are a group that is why she cannot do it by herself.) The reason the title says "Around the world" it project is on "the world." Oh one more thing She meets a new friend on the way.
It turns out this was a review she wrote to submit to her school newspaper, and was published. This newspaper was created by my eldest and her classmates, totally outside of the classroom and curriculum. The paper has lost some steam this year as the older kids find their attentions more focused on school work.

I'm not going to provide my own review of the book. This is the take of an 8 year old girl who likes the Judy Moody books and is as valid -- if not more so -- than anything I could add. She says it's fun from the start, explains what it's about (sort of) and doesn't give away the ending. Sure, I'd love to dig in a clear some things up, maybe make some more observations, talk about how it fits in with the others in the series, but to what end? I will say that she just learned about genres this year (why she mentioned realistic fiction) and that this has been her primary reading interest for a good while. Now she's starting to show interest in fantasy (Peter and the Starcatchers) and has announced that she hopes to be a writer when she grows up.

Some might say one writer in the family is enough, but I'd welcome the company.

Saturday, November 18

Follow the Lone Cry

What If Books #2
by Laurie B. Clifford
Regal Books 1983

I stumbled onto this a while back at a library sale and the curiosity factor was just too great. I remembered these coming into their own long after I was the target audience so I usually would glance through the ones my siblings brought home from the TAB or Scholastic Book Club sales. They seemed to go out of fashion as computer games and collectible card games like Magic: the Gathering took their place.

But this one was different, and the difference was apparent to me when I picked it up and gave it a quick glance. The "What If" series was apparently another take on the "Choose Your Own Adventure" type of books aimed at reluctant or low-interest readers, only this time it came from a Christian

In Follow the Lone Cry you are "Bubba", the middle-school son of globe- trotting parents whose adventures take them deep into National Geographic country, this time in the Yukon. As with similar books, there is a basic two- to three-page premise and then several forks in the road buy way of narrative choices that lead you flipping pages toward one of the books 26 possible endings.

After a childhood of being dragged around the world his parents have finally bought a house and stayed put for two years. Bubba feels he's old enough to stay behind while his parents go off on their next adventure but the conflict tugging at him concerns is younger sister who sees Bubba as her emotional anchor. Through the various storylines Bubba is equally torn between making
the right choices and in choosing friends over family.

It's clear from the language used that the author of this book either has no children and learned everything they know about pre-teen behavior from watching television, or they are truly out-of-touch with their own children and believe they are hipper than they really are. That the ideal lead-in to a summer hanging out with friends is described as "working our bods off all year so we can pork out" at the local pizzeria should have turned off all but the most sheltered of readers.

The Christian message is found mostly in the types of choices the reader gets to make, and reinforces the idea that presumably good choices lead to happiness and bad choices lead to death. I kid you not. Of the 26 endings here, 6 end in physical pain or family misfortune, 6 are unsatisfying non-endings that leave you feeling like you've wasted your time, and 12 lead to death for the Bubba including (with their corresponding "message"):

Death by over-eating 3 pizzas and downing a pitcher of soda (gluttony)
Death by cobra in the cargo hold of a plane (disobedience)
Death by gold mine cave-in (greed)
Death by black widow spider bite (deception to alleviate guilt)
Death by plaster body cast (deception)
Death by drowning (arrogance, selfishness)
Death by falling off Mt. Everest (desire, covetousness)
Death by lying in the road to get run over (more deception), and my favorite
Death by having ones heart pierced with a lightning bolt by the spirit of
dream-killers and bleeding to death in bed at night. (guilt)

Ignoring the obvious messages about what a good, moral Christian would choose in any situation, to say nothing of the bizarre endings, is a very subtle message about what kind of a family this is and what sort of redemption is available to Bubba. It's hard to gloss over the very Oedipal flashback where Bubba helps his mother deliver his younger sister in the jungles of the Philippines during a monsoon, but it's easy to miss the message that parents like Bubba's are doomed to misfortune 75% of the time in these adventures because they allow their son the make (or have raised him to make) bad choices. In fact, if they remained a proper family rooted in one place, raising obedient children, giving the youngest the emotional sustenance she requires so that she doesn't rely on her brother to fill the void, none of this would have happened.

It doesn't seem too miscalculated a jump to suggest that these books weren't entirely aimed at the loyal Christian child but as missionary propaganda, adventure tales meant to cull wayward sheep from their heathen (liberal?) flocks and lead them to salvation. Not unlike the way I dropped a quarter on this with fond memories of something very similar but entirely different. To be on the safe side I tracked down a few of the original "Choose Your Own Adventure" books and where there is peril for miscalculations there certainly isn't death or the faintest whiff of a sermon.

Maybe that's all too much to read into a sub-par middle-school book series from the 1980's that appears to have stalled out after four titles. Oh, and as for the title, the lone cry is another lonely outcast child, this one stuck in the Yukon with her treasure-mad mountain of an uncle. If you get far enough along to find out who and what the lone cry is you'll wish you'd stayed behind and died a painful death-by-root canal.

Wednesday, November 15

Knights of Hill Country

by Tim Tharp
Knopf 2006

Kennisaw, Oklahoma is the hill country here, a town with little left to offer but excitement that comes from Friday night high school football. As the Kennisaw Knights begin their fifth season undefeated they see the path ahead of them as destiny, the stuff of legends, the unbeaten kings of eastern Oklahoma.

For senior linebacker Hampton Green the brass ring is that his best friend Blaine gets picked up by one of the big colleges so that he can piggyback along. Friends for as far back as they go, Blaine and his family took Hampton under their wing and brought football to his world when his family fell apart and his mother drifted into an endless series of boyfriends and drinking. In return Hampton has given Blaine his unflinching loyalty, acted as his wingman on various extracurricular adventures and, for the most part, gone along for the ride with the understanding that without his best friend he'd be nothing.

But something is stirring deep inside Hampton. As his star continues to rise on the gridiron, as his ability to "freeze" moments and see plays with crystal clarity allows him to make key game-winning plays, his friend Blaine's status drops as aggression and emotions get the better of him. Blaine fails to recognize (or at least acknowledge) that Hampton's efforts are increasingly overshadowing those of others on the team and begins to grow restless as the crowd starts shouting Hampton's name at games.

Attempts to set Hamp up with the hottest girls in town fall -- because as a star he deserves the best, according to Blaine -- confuse him as he becomes enamored of the slightly geeky girls who works in the library. Game after game Hamp proves he's the one on his way out of town on a football scholarship while Blane becomes more desperate with each flub at each game. Hamp emerges from his cocoon and his best friend's blind loyalty with the humility and clarity of young man coming into his own. And in the end Blaine has known all along that football was all he ever had, the only hope available for escaping the dead end known as Kennisaw, and that he'd live the rest of his life as the one who destroyed any chance of the Knights' status as legends.

While I can't bring myself to watch "Friday Night Lights" on television I can't help wonder about the similarities. Substitute texas for Oklahoma and add a touch of one of those primetime soap operas like "The OC" and I think you've got the formula. It's unfortunate for this book because while not the least obvious of plots ever constructed it deserves not to be buried beneath the cultural weight of a television show.

Hampton starts out a bit dim, and his relationship with Blaine is a bit like Lenny and George in Of Mice and Men at first blush. While that might have made for an interesting update -- Of Knights and Men, you could say -- it's much better to have gone down the middle and shown us Hampton's evolution. Fortunately Hampton's "boy howdy" and "I done it" affectations drift further apart after the first couple of chapters, as does his ability to "freeze time", when the story begins to pick up steam. That Hampton remains genuinely humble as he crawls out from under Blaine's oppressive shadow is perhaps the most appealing aspect of his character. Hamp doesn't become smarter so much as he grows comfortable with the intelligence he's possessed all along, the intelligence his best friend (and teammates) have tried to beat out of him. Loyalty comes face-to-face with the independent thinking outsider and, yeah, loyalty always loses in the end.

On the downside Blaine isn't so much a tragic character as an obnoxious one, and that's unfortunate. His unredeemable nastiness is so surface that when he finally acknowledges that he's going to spend the rest of his life as the butt of Kennisaw jokes until he dies left me unmoved. Perhaps that was the point, but I would rather the author had taken the time to make Blaine more... do I want to say tragic? The lesson is there, why not make the guy more pathetic so there's no doubt in any reader's mind (and I'm thinking the boys who would read a football novel here) that Blaine isn't just an ass but something to be shunned in all settings.

There's also a creeping subplot involving racism that probably could have been better developed as well. It's Hamp's discovery of the town's racist past, and its link with the football team, that serves as the catalyst for his breakthrough. Hamp's thoughts are perfunctory at best and I felt the opportunity to capitalize on exploring the issue -- without becoming preachy or didactic, mind you -- would have been a welcome addition.

I approached the book with some trepidation because I was sure from the first page I would hate it. Well, maybe not hate but something close to that. As I read on I started to spot people poking out from the edges, the characters who closely resembled the people I went to school with back in the day. Even in Hampton I was reminded of this guy Gary who was one of the toughest linemen our school ever had who quit mid-season because he'd lost the taste of going out onto the field and hurting people. That was the story we got, that he quit after the third or forth game in a row where his actions sidelined his opponents with injuries. He may have become the greatest player in our school's history, perhaps even gone pro, but instead he dumped the team and in the spring took up track and field. I think in the back of my mind I had a secret hope that Hamp would do the same thing, but then it wouldn't be Tim Tharp's story it would be mine.

Perfect for a snow day post-season. Leave the TV off.


by David Wiesner
Clarion Books 2006

Another wordless journey into the imaginary landscapes of Wiesner's imagination. This particular trip takes us to the beach where a curious young boy discovers a camera washed up on the shore. The boy takes the curious old box (a Melville, not unlike an old Kodak Brownie, also not the only visual gag in the book) to have the photos developed where he discovers a secret world beneath the waves. The photos reveal mechanical fish along side the real thing, aquatic families nestled in fully furnished surroundings provided by old shipwrecks, small tropical islands that are living -- and mobile -- organisms themselves. And toward the end a photo of a girl holding up a photo that includes a photo of a boy holding a photo... in a seemingly endless progression that requires a microscope to see all the way back to before the turn of the century and the birth of photography.

Understanding his role in history's continuum the boy reloads the camera with film and takes a picture of himself holding the photo of the other beachcombing children before tossing the camera back out into the tide. There the camera is rediscovered by the undersea world where they all delight in capturing their unseen carnival of life until the time comes to send the camera back to the shore for another generation to discover.

Wiesner combines the interconnected book-within-a-book of Barbara Lehman's The Red Book with the world-within-a-world detail of Banyai's Zoom and Re-Zoom books. It's a snapshot, if you will, of the edge of innocence where the fantastic (an imagined undersea world by a bored kid on a beach) meets the harsh realities of the scientific (the boy has brought both a magnifying glass and a microscope to the beach). It speaks to that dream of being the one to discover a new, unseen world and holding that knowledge privately, a secret from a world.

The Little Red Hen

by Jerry Pinkney
Dial Books 2006

The story just as you remember it, for a new generation. Warm watercolor illustrations help tell the tale of the red hen who asks for help turning seeds into a loaf of bread without the assistance from the other barnyard animals more than ready to reap the bounty of her labors.

The one illustration that stands out for me is of the Little Red Hen getting the miller to grind her wheat into flower. The familiar looking man in the overalls has not only helped the Little Red Hen but has provided her with a pot of jam to enjoy with the bread she is about bake. The details hold the reason for the miller's willing exchange; off to the side is a small watercolor set with a sketch of the hen on it's paper block. The miller bears a striking resemblance to the author and it isn't a stretch for the illustration to suggest that the hen willingly sat for the artist. A nice little touch, I thought, the hen bartering.

As always with this particular story I am left wondering why Little Red doesn't ask the Little Red Rooster for his assistance.

45? That's can't be right!

Probably coming in last on this one, I found the following meme over at Fuse #8. Explanations for that low number follow. Here's how the game is played.

Mark the selections you have read in bold. If you liked it, add a star (*) in front of the title, if you didn't, give it a minus (-). Then, put the total number of books you've read in the subject line.

*Charlotte's Web by E. B. White
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
*Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
*The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss
*Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Love You Forever by Robert N. Munsch
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
The Mitten by Jan Brett
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
*Where the Sidewalk Ends: the Poems and Drawing of Shel Silverstein by Shel Silverstein
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Stellaluna by Janell Cannon
Oh, The Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss
Strega Nona by Tomie De Paola
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see? by Bill Martin, Jr.
*Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
*How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
*The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by John Archambault
Little House on the Prarie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne
The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks
*Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
The BFG by Roald Dahl
*The Giver by Lois Lowry
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
*The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O'Brien
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
Corduroy by Don Freeman
-Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg
Math Curse by Jon Scieszka
Matilda by Roald Dahl
Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary
The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White
*Are You My Mother? by Philip D. Eastman
The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
*One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss
*The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
The Napping House by Audrey Wood
*Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig (Van Allsberg gets two titles and Steig gets only one?)
The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss
Basil of Baker Street, by Eve Titus
The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper
The Cay by Theodore Taylor
Curious George by Hans Augusto Rey
Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox
*Arthur series by Marc Tolon Brown (only the ones WHERE HE STILL HAS A NOSE!)
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes
Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton
The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown
Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar
Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish
*Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
*A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard Atwater
My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
Stuart Little by E. B. White
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
The Art Lesson by Tomie De Paola
Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina
Clifford, the Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell
Heidi by Johanna Spyri
*Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare
The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
-Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney
*The Paper Bag Princess by Robert N. Munsch

Trying to be honest here I did not include titles that I don't know for sure whether or not I read or completed. Witch of Blackbird Pond, for example, and Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry were books I was assigned in school and for the life of me I cannot recal their stories or that I even finished. Sad, but true, and I haven't felt compelled (yet) to try them again.

That said, there are others where I preserved my right as a reader to abandon a book that just didn't hold me (The Hobbit, Little Women). Of course, these decisions were made when I was much younger. I'm smarter (*ahem*) and wiser (?) and more patient now (ha!) and really should revisit some of these.

In further defense of my appaling reading habits, there are at least 20 titles that have long been on my 'really should read that' list. I fully expect one to find out that a more than a couple of these unread titles really were read and I just totally forgot about them, for whatever reason.

For anyone whose read this far, and cares, the number of titles corresponds to the age I will officially celebrate in exactly 20 days.

Monday, November 6

The Angel of Death

by Alane Ferguson
Sleuth/Viking 2006

Is it cheating to just say "CSI for teens"? By the way, this gets pretty graphic, so don't read this review and eat at the same time. Spoiler alert: I give away the most obvious ending this book provides.

We open with Cameryn being driven by the local sheriff's deputy to a site in the hills to check out a dead dog. She's going because her father, the town coroner, isn't available and the deputy needs a second opinion before tossing the dog into the woods and writing it off as road kill. It seems there's something odd about the dead dog -- it's brain looks fried and it's eyes have exploded out of its head. Aside from that, nothing seems amiss and the unofficial Assistant Coroner of Silverton, Colorado returns home.

Home, in this case, consists of her father and her grandmother Mawmaw, a woman straight out of turn-of-the-century Irish Boston with her lilting voice, compact body and refrigerator full of boxty. Cammie's mother, it turns out, disappeared long ago but has recently been making contact with her daughter and in keeping it a secret from her father and grandmother has found cause for much brooding. The opening chapters drag as supporting characters are trotted out and relationships are cobbled into place so that the story can resume unhindered with such details as character or emotional development.

Here we are, another corpse cooked inside out and it's eyes exploded. Forensic protege wunderkind Cammie spots all the vital information but can't figure out what caused the school English teacher to meet such an unseemly demise. Cammie steels herself against the icky thought of seeing a former teacher dead, naked and baked to try and solve the mystery.

Enter Kyle the Eagle Scout. He's the one who discovered the dead English teacher, and he's also taking quite a shine to Cammie. Is he in shock? Is he just an odd duck? Why is he suddenly interested in Cammie and how might he be connected to all of this strangeness? How is Cammie going to handle the attentions of a boy and her reappearing mother, gruesome forensic science and teen hormones while keeping a lid on it all?

Skip ahead to the end... hmm, let's see... ah, yes. Well, yes, the much-too-perfect Eagle Scout pulled the trigger on an obscure microwave gun (apparently some army surplus item) that can send waves through solid walls and fry humans and animals from the inside in mere minutes. Oh, look at that, Kyle has trapped Cammie in his hideaway, monologing like a villian in a comic book, leaving Cammie bound to a chair to either die or be rescued before he escapes. And there's good old mother, returning just in time to (indirectly) save her daughter before slipping back into netherworld from which she came. And now Cammie is safe and sound and a teenaged madman is on the loose and I smell a series.

Why does this book bother me so much? First, it strikes me as highly improbable that a teenage girl is going to have as much access to forensics as this girl gets. She doesn't just get access to crime scenes, she's there naming autopsy procedures and identifying remains just as professionally as any television coroner might. And what really had me rolling my eyes so often was that the story bogs itself down in details when it should be moving along more briskly. Not just forensic details, but dead-end details in conversation and narrative that make the forward movement of the plot jerk to abrupt stops along the way.

In a mystery I want red herrings, I want them early and I want them often. What I don't want is the first witness to be the first suspect who turns out to be my prime suspect who coincidentally turns out to be the one whodunnit. You make the character an Eagle Scout and I'm already calling a bookie in Vegas to lay odds he's the guy. Seriously, two chapters after I met this Kyle guy I saw no one else emerge as a likely suspect and was certain I could skip to the end.

But I didn't. Duty called, and I soldiered the book all the way through hoping against all hope that I was wrong and missed something major early on. Nope. A game of Clue is more challenging. And the subplot of the returning mother turned a bit too deus ex machina in the end for my taste.

Despite all this I see The Angel of Death being popular among teens new to mystery stories, whose knowledge of forensics is fed by popular television programs, who might consider themselves a bit of an outcast, a bit of a goth, and are into the gore.

Thursday, November 2

The Shivers in the Fridge

by Fran Manushkin
illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky
Dutton 2006

There's an odd family living in the refrigerator. Huddled together for warmth they tell warm stories at bedtime to stave off the chills, one day hoping their world will once again be warm. Occasionally a bright light appears, and the hand of a giant monster removes part of their refrigerator world. Then one day father is accidentally carried away when the monster reaches in and grabs him along with the foodstuffs. Then another member of the family disappears. One by one they are taken leaving only the youngest among them, a boy, who must screw up his courage and find out what happened when the monster removed his loved ones, hoping to be reunited.

Weird? Only until the "monsters" turn out to be the humans who have, one by one, discovered what happened to the family of magnets that disappeared from the front of the refrigerator. Reunited and warm on the outside the Shivers are once again a happy family.

Starting out, it's hard to understand just where the story is headed -- something I hadn't experienced in a long while. It was obvious from the start who the monsters are but not so obvious what happened once the tiny family was discovered. It was only when I got to the end that I understood the brilliance in Zelinsky's flat drawings; it's easy to overlook just how flat the family is until you know what they are. Silly me, if I'd studied the cover of the book a little more critically I'd have made the connection much sooner and not just taken for granted. Perfectly natural to see how the Shivers landed in the fridge, but not as easy to understand why they don't know who the monsters are or how to get out of the fridge sooner.

Is it too deep to suggest this might be a parable of global warming? You know, family huddled together in their ignorance, hoping some god/monster/government will deliver them into the light and warmth of it's compassion and benevolence?

Okay, so they're just some misplaced refrigerator magnets in a very amusing, if unusual, picture book.

Wednesday, November 1

Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant

:and other poems by Jack Prelutsky
illustrations by Carin Berger
Greenwillow 2006

Prelutsky, our nation's first Children's Poet Laureate, presents a collection of poems about creatures whose names are composed of clever word blendings. The Panthermometer, for example, and Ball Point Penguins. Their names aren't merely word play but also provide evidence for their usefulness, as these animals clearly evolved to suit their needs. You can tell the temperature by the Panthermometer's tail, and the Ball Point Penguins write in flowing India ink with their beaks.

This picture book begs to be read aloud, with short poems and double-page spreads of paper collages that can best be described as clean. Clean is not necessarily bad, but in this case they border on the sterile. Still, they serve the poems well. It's easy to see why Prelutsky is adored by children -- he loves language the same way they do.

I am fond of clever rhymes, portmanteau words and word play in general (jealously so at times) and it seems a shame to me that most adults consider such levity a frivolity. As children we hunger to develop our vocabularies, to grow our understanding of how the language works so that we can better communicate our world. It's why children will ask to have the same story read over and over, why they will sing Christmas songs in the shower in July, why the poetry section in the children's room at the library is always in disarray (and Prelutsky's books often missing).

Then, at some point, either through design or misadventure, the joy of language is drilled out of us, beaten out of us, killed. Perhaps we simply became lazy. Perhaps it came with sentence diagramming, the notion that being able to string a sentence along a stick tree yields a better understanding of the language. Or worse, perhaps it was poetry itself that turned us against poetry, the classroom exercise meant to provide us a foundation for understanding the structure and beauty of what a poet does, killing the magic just as swiftly as telling a small child there is no tooth fairy, no Santa Claus, and we're having the Easter Bunny for dinner.

Some -- myself included -- have to fight back every step of the way to unlearn everything they knew, or thought they knew in order to regain that sense of seeing the world if not from the eyes of their younger selves at least through more innocent visions. Others remain lucky and never lose of forget this connection. Poetry is as real to them as the land to a farmer, as natural as breathing.

Behold, indeed, the Bold Umbrellaphant.

NaNoWriMo & Me

Add to those list of names I have earned in my life Mr. Biting-Off-More-Than-He-Can-Chew. After years of threatening to participate (mostly threatening myself) I jumped in at the last minute and decided, for whatever reason, this was the year to attempt the most awesome, the most asinine of goals.

I am participating in the National Novel Writing Month challenge. By December 1st I hope to have crossed the line with over 50,000 words dedicated to a single story. I have officially lost whatever common sense I have gathered these many years.

As the exercise values quantity over quality I elected not to pursue one of my young adult stories and instead grabbed an old seed I had been meaning to plant for a quirky character driven screenplay. The youngest characters are nearing 30 years old and two prominent characters are in their late 50's. Part of my reason for choosing this particular story has to do with the possibility of failure; if it falls apart or reads like crap I'd rather it was something I didn't hold so dear.

So far I managed to get down the first two chapters, over 3400 words, which is double what my daily average needs to be to make it. Yeah, I like to sprint strong and fade midway. Pacing was always difficult when I ran cross country as well. Also, it reads like crap. I'm having problems finding the narrative voice and the draft, in accordance with the idea of "just getting it down" on paper is coming out in what I call a vomit draft. I'm just spewing, I'll clean it all up later if I feel it warrants cleaning. It's an exercise, I'm exercising. I have to keep reminding myself.

I suppose it's no surprise that the NaNoWriMo website is timing out as all 70,000 of us are trying to get our first day's work up on the site. I'd just like to confirm that my word count and first chapter were posted, but it looks like I'll have to set my alarm for 3 AM and hope no one else is doing the same.

This will be the last I mention it here. I know many NaNoWriMo participants who keep blog diaries of their work-in-progress, many creating entirely new blogs for the purpose. Not me. Unless I drop out before the end I'll check back in a month with my progress.

In the meantime, back to more kidlit reviews.

Monday, October 30

Be Nice to Spiders

by Margaret Bloy Graham
HarperCollins 1967

A boy brings a box to the zoo and leaves it at the gate. A zoo keeper, finding the box, opens it to find a very quick spider, anxious to get out in the world. The zoo keeper thinks nothing more of the spider.

Meanwhile, in the zoo, the animals are plagued by swarms of flies. Suddenly the flies begin to disappear as the spider goes about making webs and feasting. The animals are happy. The zoo keeper is happy. Everyone is happy.

The mayor is set to come to the zoo. The zoo keeper orders his cleaning crew to go around and make the place ship-shape, including the removal of the spider webs throughout the zoo. "I thought spiders were good?" says one of the crew, but no matter, the place must look perfect for the mayor.

After the mayor's visit the zoo returns to it's old self, flies and all. The spider is returned and the boy who left the spider has come to visit. Everyone is happy to note that the spider's new nest now supports an egg sac, promising hundreds more spiders to help keep the zoo fly-free for years to come.

Stumbling onto this book the other day I had this sense of deja vu I couldn't quite place. It had the feel of the kind of book I read growing up and, indeed, the pub date indicates I would have been ripe for this book around the time it was released. But there was more. The illustrations were reminiscent of those Syd Hoff titles, but the predominant color was that shade of peach that characterized a lot of 1960's picture books. Where had I seen that author's name before...?

Harry the Dirty Dog. Margaret Graham was the illustrator and, much to my pleasant surprise, still very much alive as I had a chance to meet her this week. Naturally I discovered this book the day after I met her, and when I finally realized who she was I was a little dumbstruck. Not an unusual situation I find myself in; I've been prone to stammering whenever I feel a little uncomfortable in a social situation, it doesn't have to be anyone famous. Add to the fact that my puny little mind is thinking "Harry just celebrated it's 50th anniversary... I didn't think either of them was still alive!"

Either of them being Ms. Graham or her former husband Gene Zion who created Harry back in the mid 1950's. A little hunting around and I discover that Zion and Graham divorced in 1968, and Zion had died in 1975. Beyond that I can find little.

On the back flap of the dustj acket for Be Nice to Spiders is a black and white photo of Margaret Graham working at her table, possibly on a watercolor for the book at hand. The window in the background diffuses the scene into that soft winter look that sent my dreamy little California head into strange longing. From my flat Southern California vantage point what could be more exciting, more dynamic than a city of high-rise apartments filled with sophisticated artists and writers. These were the people who knew how to have holiday parades, who created the best picture books, who knew how to have urban adventures that involved underground public transit and massive bridges that connected boroughs and were filled with ethnic neighborhoods.

Having grown up (barely, it seems at times) and having relocated to New England I live a more practical world. Public transit is still magic to me, but my adventures are limited to commuting to work or shuttling kids toward their own adventures. In hindsight I have come to value the quiet neighborhoods I grew up in and couldn't imagine the disconnect of living in a high-rise. Parades have long lost their shimmer.

But these books from my childhood -- from the era if not specifically from my personal reading experiences -- they strike an odd nerve in me. They contain an innocence within them that seemed to cocoon my generation in a world of childhood. They didn't shield us so much as they presented the world as a real place within our own imaginations. A boy could leave his spider in a box for the zoo to find and the effect on the zoo would be dramatic. I look at picture books today and they seem to be trying so hard to connect with kids. Writers and illustrators need to take into account various cultural influences, they need to entertain on a level that competes with video games and cable television... or so they may think. Because the classics are still out there, still being bought, and kids are still responding to them.

Maurice Sendak once said, in his book Caldecot & Co. "Books don't go out of fashion with children. They just go out of fashion with adults and publishers".

Sunday, October 29

Old Man, Young Man, and the Sea

The Old Man and the Sea
Ernest Hemingway
Scribner's 1952

The Black Pearl
Scott O'Dell
Dell 1967

In 7th grade I was asked to pick a title from among a list of Great American Literary Authors and write a report. I picked The Old Man and the Sea because it was the shortest.

These things matter when you're 13 years old and dubious about the merits of what adults call "good" and "classic" and "literature." The shorter the book the less time it will take to read it, which means the longer you can put it off; which means a shorter period of time to skim before the report; which means the less you have to write because, after all, it's the shortest book you could possibly read. "Sorry, my five page report came in at 3 and a half pages because it was a short book. Didn't you say it had been printed -- in its entirety -- in a single issue of Life magazine?"

What also mattered was that the book had been adapted into a movie starring Spencer Tracy, who my 7th grade English teacher truly adored, and I was hoping I could parlay that affection into some kind misty-eyed grade inflation. And when I announced my chosen title Ms. Beyers-Ott beamed and announced that she had planned to show that movie later in the term, and wouldn't it be interesting to see how my vision of the book compared to the film.

In the parlance of the time: Busted. Royal.

I tried -- and I mean I really tried -- to slog through those scant 140 pages, trying to find a reason to care about the old man and the sea, and the fish and the struggle, and the sharks and the old man's bloody hands. I remember propping my head up in the library as I struggled to maintain consciousness, even going so far as to risk what little cache of cool I had as a rebel by wearing my glasses in public to keep the words from blurring together. In the end I managed to retain the bare essence of the story but gain no insight, no thematic understanding, nothing but the most threadbare of summaries. When the time came for the movie in class I put my head down on my desk, jacket over my head in embarrassment as I realized my complete failure as a young reader.

I say all of this in preface to The Black Pearl as I have come to believe that there may be something lost in the teaching of classic literature, and much gained in letting young readers discover for themselves what is or should be a "classic" or even "literature." To be clear, I do believe in the need for a solid foundation in a shared literary tradition -- and one more inclusive than previously prescribed but nowhere near as rigid as the many Cultural Literacies out there -- but that the definition of that foundation should come from a collective space.

In the 4th grade my teacher, Mrs. White, took time every afternoon to read to us from the cannon of what has since become classic young literature -- Harriet the Spy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -- but at the time were merely good books for young audiences. One of those was Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins and it worked in well alongside our studies of California Mission history. What a strange world California once was, with sea hunting Native Americans and not a trace of Hollywood on the horizon! Though one could argue that in the time between 4th and 7th grade my sophistication should have been prepared for the Hemingways and Saroyans, the Hartes and Londons and Twains on the shelves I would have been better served with the substitution of The Black Pearl for that Crusty Old Man and his Ridiculous Sea.

Ramon Salazar is a boy on the cusp of manhood, the son of a wealthy Baja pearl fisherman whose fleet regularly brings in the biggest and the best. Impatient Ramon dreams of the days he can join the boats and dive for pearls, and ultimately win the approval of his father. In the meantime he learns the details of the business: the weighing and appraising of the pearls. Before he gets the chance he suffers personal and family insults from Sevillano, the fleet's braggart, and vows one day to get even by catching the Mother of all Pearls.

But first he must deal with El Manta Diablo, the largest Manta in the Vermillion Sea.

The themes of manhood and of proving oneself are played out against the local mythology of a two ton killer manta who guards the sea beds containing the largest black pearls around. Ramon must defy and outwit his father to obtain the Pearl of Heaven -- a 62 caret flawless black pearl -- despite the wise old Indian who warns him that the Manta Diablo will not rest until his pearl is returned. Ramon must also later steal the Pearl of Heaven away from the church (where it was deposited to bless the town's fleets) and return it to the sea but not before being forced into a confrontation with the Sevillano the Braggart who cannot stand his most precious lies being bested by a boy.

Every chapter in this slim book delivers a twist, a sort of reverse cliffhanger where you feel everything is resolved by the end of the chapter only to skitter sideways like a crab at the beginning of the next chapter. Near the end when O'Dell has to tie everything together it all starts to feel formula-fed, but really there's no other way to end the tale. Questions are left unanswered -- What will Ramon do now that the family business is destroyed? Will he admit to having stolen the Pearl of Heaven from the church? Will he even bother to tell the tale of what he's seen and done to his family? -- bit these are exactly the kind of questions young readers like to ask and answer for themselves. Perfect for five page book reports.

Meanwhile, over in Cuba, an unlucky old man goes out on his boat, farther than he's ever gone before, and catches the largest marlin in his life. He struggles to catch the fish, suffering all along, then lashes the fish to the boat and struggles to bring it to shore while sharks eat away at his prize the whole way. He returns to his hut and collapses, his unlucky streak ended, the last great haul of his 80+ years a skeletal testament to his skill and undying spirit. The end.

Okay, I've simplified unfairly. I was merely trying to recall my own interpretation from 7th grade. Honestly, what does a 13 year old boy know of an old man's struggles, of an old man's fall from grace with his community? What does a boy know of regaining a shimmer of former glory he has yet to taste? More, what does a young boy in an English class understand of the symbolism of an old novelist in a sea of hostile critics suffering to land one last chance at relevance? Only later -- beyond college even -- did I come to understand the disappointments of adults and the idea of a noble battle against hostile criticism. As a teen I would have been better served to work through the issues of becoming and developing my personal sense of self through books like The Black Pearl rather than wrestle with the demons of a classic novelist who shot himself rather than continue to live a life in futility. What kind of a message did they think they were sending us back then?!

Am I advocating the removal of classic literature from the classroom? Not anymore than I am suggesting that we replace these books with the untested Harry Potter series. There's something to be said for the idea of introducing young minds to what is considered relevant to society and culture, and explaining that relevance. A high school sophomore ought to know who Steinbeck is, the general story behind The Grapes of Wrath and how it connects with the dust bowl and American farm migration in the 1930's... but a student is much better off deeply exploring Of Mice and Men for its literary merits.

[As an aside, about five years ago I picked up The Grapes of Wrath for the first time since high school and marveled at it. No way could I have understood or appreciated what that book had to offer until I'd had a bit of hardscrabble living of my own to measure it against. What an amazing piece of reportage. Where is our contemporary Steinbeck?]

My personal initiation into the adult world of literature happened when I discovered a collection of Vonnegut short stories hidden in the garage. My dad had hidden this and some other books he felt were just a bit too mature for me and my younger siblings to read. My teachers -- bless them -- raised an eye at my reading Vonnegut during free time but said nothing more. They certainly didn't call out the morality police to have me frog-marched out of school, or hauled my parents (and library) publicly across the keel, and for that they deserve praise. That initial act of forbidding sent me running to the adult section of the public library more than any introduction to classic literature in a classroom. Given how teens tend to run contrary to adult desires perhaps the best course is to give them more relevant (to them) literature and suggest they avoid certain classics.

Then again, if Ms. Beyers-Ott had given me The Black Pearl to write a paper about, instead of letting me hang myself on Hemingway, perhaps I'd have performed just as poorly. Perhaps instead of championing Scott O'Dell's coming-of-age tale set in La Paz I'd bemoan having not been introduced to Hemingway's Old Man at a young age.

There's just no pleasing some kids.