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.