Wednesday, February 27

about those teenage boys...

While I sincerely doubt many of you, my fine readers, get all of your kidlit news from Yours Truly it may be possible that the following bit of news has escaped your attention in the kidlit blogosphere.

Guys Lit Wire, a new site launching in June, promises to provide you with everything you need to know in the world of literature for teenage boys. Colleen of Chasing Ray has been been spearheading the effort which she described on her blog yesterday thusly:

There will be book recommendations, author interviews, literary commentary, a rant or two (I'm sure) and lots of other good stuff. The goal is to cover a ton of different types of books from across the literary spectrum so we can become a good resource to actual teenagers as well as anyone seeking to find books for teen boys. (And if the girls want to visit we are happy to have them, but boys are our target audience.)

I am happy to announce -- nay, honored and privileged -- to be participating in this new blog and sincerely hope I can hold up my end when it comes to adding my voice to the community. I haven't got a clue what I'm going to debut with but that deadline's behind a few others I have for school right now so it can remain fuzzy. But I promise you, it will be brilliant. Both my post and the new blog!

Right now the group is shy a few contributors, and we could really use a few more guys. C'mon, out of 21 of us there are only 3 males reading and writing about books for teens? That can't be right, can it? Consider this a call to action. If you or someone you know wants in contact Colleen directly (colleen(at)chasingray(dot)com). And if you'd rather just support the effort please feel free to pass this news along to others.

For my part, if any of you have ideas or suggestions of some teen-boy-reading topic you'd like to see me mangle address, feel free to get in touch via comments. Let me know if you'd rather communicate off-blog as well and we'll make it happen.

I'll keep you posted as June 1st looms.

Friday, February 22

I Lie For a Living

Anthony Shugaar
(The International Spy Museum)
National Geographic 2006

I spotted this on the non-fiction shelf in my local library teen room and thought "Yeah, that's a book a teen boy would pick up." Being a few decades removed I can still tap into my inner teen boy. I picked it up without a seconds worth of hesitation.

But what a disappointment.

It's a smartly designed book, very contemporary graphics, layout and typeface, very much in step with what attracts a younger reader. It's also in keeping with the style of the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. which is very interactive and modern as single-subject museums go.

After a brief intro about the long history of international spying we jump into chapters where spies are grouped by like: those who did it for the money, master spies, double agents, femmes fatales, and so on. Each of the spies get a full page photo or illustration and one-to-three pages about their lives as spies. And there are a lot of spies in this book. Easily half I've never heard of, most are single-page treatments (generally the non-Americans get short shrift) and they read like much longer entries that have been edited to within an inch of their lives. Many of the bios assume a large amount of understood history -- for example the bio of Allen Dulles, first civilian head of the CIA, assumes knowledge of The Bay of Pigs invasion and why it failed.

While the format of short bios on the subject of spying makes attractive reading for boys, and there's a lot of background stuffed into the pages, the book overall serves as little more than a jumping off point for further investigation in other books. Books, it should be noted, which aren't listed in the back of the book; the bibliography, such as it is, suggests books for further reading from which some of the information was drawn but it is woefully inadequate for a book that handles its information so loosely.

I've been to The International Spy Museum and they do a nifty thing where you pick up a dossier for a spy when you enter, follow their progress along the way through the exhibits, and in the end learn their ultimate fate. It ties the exhibits together, gives you a narrative to hold onto, makes you pay closer attention than you might if you were merely drifting through the space. It's too bad they couldn't bring some of that innovation to this book.

Tuesday, February 19

A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever

written and illustrated by Marla Frazee
Harcourt 2008

James and his friend Eamon are going to Nature Camp for a week. It's a day camp near Eamon's grandparent's beach front house where the boys spend their week. If you want to see what they did at camp all you need to read are the endpapers which are snapshots of their time at camp. Their best week ever happened at Bill and Pam's (Eamon's grandparent's) house.

Bill's a nice old guy who has traveled the world, loves penguins, and wants to talk about Antarctica all the time. The boys couldn't care less. Pam's cooking is better than anything the boys get at home, but probably because all she serves them is banana waffles. The boys stay in the basement, sleep on an inflatable mattress that serves as a fort, a trampoline, and a couch for their video game playing. They wear the same shorts all week long.

James and Eamon are boys, true boys, marginally overseen by adults, living the summer that boys dream of. Their week over, the boys look out over the ocean at night, feeling something they can't articulate. But they know what to do: they collect driftwood, small rocks and mussel shells and assemble a miniature Antarctica complete with penguins on the deck. They hug Pam and Bill and hope they can go to Nature Camp again soon.

Frazee knows boys. At the very least she knows these boys, and she knows that with boys everything is indirect. Bill asks them if they want to go see the penguin exhibit at the zoo, they boys say they'll think about it, and then they run away. They aren't trying to be rude, they're just boys doing what boys do, which is run away from conflict. I don't have a problem with this, because Frazee presents this with the same carefree attitude that boys bring with them. At the very end of their week when the boys don't know how to address their feelings of sorrow they do what boys do best: they build things, the express their feeling physically.

I'm on the fence between calling this a good picture book and a great picture book. It's heart is in the right place, the humor is dry and authentic, but I'm left feeling like their best week ever needed a little more of an anchor, maybe one or two more activities to solidify their week. Their days are taken up with Nature Camp -- which is never shown, and I'm fine with that -- but I wish they'd had more time at Pam and Bill's to build or create or invent some week-long project that could mirror the building of their summer friendship.

Will boys like it? Probably. Will they get it? Maybe. Does it matter? Nope.

Monday, February 18

What To Do About Alice?

How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy!
by Barbara Kerley
illustrated by Edwin Fotherignham
Scholastic 2008

Yes, a picture book biography about Teddy Roosevelt's tomboy daughter "running riot" in and out of the White House around the turn of the century.

“I can be president of the United States, or I can control Alice." And so it is that while Teddy is attempting to lead the nation his daughter is rough-housing with boys and giving herself an education from all the books at her disposal. Being the independent spirit she is doesn't keep her from being a goodwill ambassador for her father -- though she apparently had the same pressrelated issues that follow celebrities these days -- eventually "settling down" with a fine congressman and being wed in the White House.

Barbara Kerley's name would have been enough for me to pick this up, having enjoyed her middle grade novel Greetings From Planet Earth last year, but the real draw for me are the illustrations by Edwin Fotheringham. For a decade now I've been catching the man's spot and poster illustrations and have always been left wanting more. With his self-described blotty lines his style goes beyond a retro mid-century modern -- the man's work is a living time warp,
it's the real deal, you could take most of his work and drop it into magazines in the 1950s and not know they came from the future.

That said, only about half the illustrations in this book work. I don't know if it as editorial input or if his heart wasn't into some of the spreads, but there are pages that feel a little lifeless compared to the vibrancy of others. I feel bad even mentioning it because Fotheringham's weakest illustrations best a lot of other illustrators top work in picture books these days but given this is his picture book debut I really wanted his work to knock it out of the park. I really want the rest of the world to see what I see. Not that he's having any trouble getting work...

The story itself is a tidy biography of a colorful, spunky girl who happens to have been real. I like this trend of spunky girl characters, and having a real-life character is only better. Much of what Papa Teddy sees as running riot most children and parents today would just call "childhood." This familiarity of behavior makes it accessible to kids now who might find it amusing that what is normal was once considered bad. Alice may have been rambunctious, but it would have been wrong to stifle her, and thankfully Teddy was too broken up by the loss of the girl's mother, his first wife, to discipline the life out of her. A quiet lesson in there for parents, I should think.

I think this is a great book. Double duty for Women's History Month and President's Day

Sunday, February 17

Fancy Nancy: Bonjour Butterfly

also: Fancy Nancy and The Boy From Paris &
Fancy Nancy at the Museum
all by Jane O'Connor
illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser
HarperCollins 2008

What began as a cute picture book for the pink-and-sparkly girly-girl set is now officially a brand, a series, and an inferior product. This, the third Fancy Nancy book, was released the same day as two I-Can-Read titles that are trading on the Fancy Nancy name and familiarity to rake in more bucks from the market.

Let's deal with the picture book for a moment. Nancy and her best friend Bree are all about the butterflies. They're typically obsessed with them to the point that Bree is going to make her birthday a butterfly party. They plan a cake, make invitations, get their outfits ready...

Oh, no! Mom suddenly realized that it her parent's 50th anniversary on the same day! Fancy Nancy is going to have to go to her grandparent's party instead. And so she has to go and tell her friend Bree the bad news.

Up to this point the book has been pretty clunky in its exposition. It doesn't feel like a story so much as little two-page set pieces for Nancy and Bree to pose in. But when we get to the spread where Nancy is apologizing to Bree we get an interesting illustration. The text says Bree is devastated by the news but it's Nancy falling all over herself, doubled over in tears. Bree has a look that says "Yeah, like you really care. This is just like you, Nancy, you big self-centered fake!" Is this a mistake in the illustration or is Bree really just pissed that she's being dumped from the story half way.

That's right, now we have an entirely different book on our hands. Bree is history.

Nancy mopes her way through the house, stops talking to people, and generally shows off just how much a brat she really is. And her parents put up with it. They get to the grandparent's place and no sooner is she off the train but suddenly it's as if she'd never been upset. The party is great and afterward they go to a butterfly exhibit at the zoo and, wow! This wasn't such a bad trip after all!

Does Nancy call Bree on her birthday? Does she find something perfectly fancy and butterfly-like to bring back to her friend? No, Nancy finds a butterfly whose color matches the color of her proposed party outfit and thinks it's the grandest of them all.

Selfish brat.

The writing is bad, the story changes midway, and what's with all the dropping of French words and phrases anyway? Well, that, my friends, has everything to do with the Fancy Nancy Brand I-Can-Read Title Fancy Nancy and the Boy From Paris. See, in order to keep the gravy train rolling they need to milk everything fancy for all it's worth. A few French words here and there might let a girl believe she's got some fanciness to her, but now we've got a real live Parisian boy to help her build her fanciness quotient. But wait, he's just a boy, and maybe he isn't so fancy after all. I mean, he likes books about cowboys, and he isn't at all interested in all things fancy. Oh well, lesson leanred. Next!

Fancy Nancy at the Museum allows our Francofile snob to get a little kulchur and some more excuses to work in her French vocabulary. In a lot of ways these beginning readers read a bit more like outlines for possible picture books and don't stand up to the same quality (in my opinion) as many other books in this series. Again, it all feels a little too calculated to be genuine. I'm not necessarily going to fault the parties involved for wanting to make a buck, but when the only way to do it drags down what little good you had before then perhaps it's time to put on the brakes and take stock. Yes, there is a market for girly-girls, girls who like pink and purple and dressing up and sparkles. But character alone can't carry an empty plot, and there's more to fancy than borrowing some French and reinforcing snobbish stereotypes.

The first, and to a lesser extend the second, Fancy Nancy picture books gave us a girl whose fanciness was a fancy of imagination. She would dress up for a dinner out, and teach her family how to be fancy, and in the end her fanciness gave her a dose of humility. Or she would covet a fancy dog, and then take care of a fancy dog, only to learn that fanciness isn't always the best quality to look for. Nicely put lessons in both. What I'm seeing now is a girl forcing the world into her fancy box and when it doesn't fit, oh well. The lesson of Bonjour Butterfly is lost on me -- is it "dump your friends when something fancier comes along?" And as for the beginning reader books, is it really such a good idea to be dropping French words onto those readers who my be having a hard enough time with English?

I hope sales on these books tank. I hope Harper takes a long, hard look at what they are doing with Fancy Nancy and either back off or find a way to return to the quality and the original spirit of the first book.

I never thought I'd see the day I'd be using the words "quality" and "original" in the same sentence as the words Fancy Nancy.

Friday, February 15

Stormy Night

by Michele Lemieux
Kids Can Press 1999

I love the serendipity of libraries. Yes, there is a lot of order, a lot of things in their proper place, but what they provide is the opportunity to discover something you never knew you were looking for.

Like this book.

On a stormy night a girl goes to bed but is unable to sleep. "I can't sleep! Too many questions are buzzing through my head." Indeed, in short order our restless narrator is wondering where infinity ends and what you would find on the other side of a hole in the universe. Over the course of the 240 pages deep philosophical questions -- the kinds kids ask -- are mingled with the offbeat and occasionally silly, one to a page facing a black and while illustration. This is no light read, nor is it an intimidating romp through some of the deeper inquiries about life on earth.

It also provides no answers, just whimisical illustrations to match the question at hand. For example, "And hell -- does it exist?" is matched with a peek at the top of the stairs down into a basement where the shadows of familiar items take on the ominous appearance of demons. as the storm rages through the night the questions get darker, but as morning comes, with the light come the bigger, more open questions -- What of we could live forever, and know all of life's mysteries.

My library had this shelved among the hardcover middle grade books. It's exactly the sort of book I enjoyed stumbling across as a young reader and I was secretly thrilled when my youngest took an interest in it after glancing at a couple of pages. This is the way to address the questioning nature of philosophy with children. Just be prepared to be confronted with a lot of follow-up questions.

Thursday, February 14

Cybils 08

The awards are up, a valentine for kidlit from the bloggers who love them. It's nice to see a number of books I actually read made it. You can read my take on the non-fiction picture book award winner, Lightship, as well as the middle grade fiction winner, A Crooked Kind of Perfect.

The Awards are over here.

You should see what this chucklehead has to say about the graphic novels. Sheesh!

Saturday, February 9

Rumble Fish

by S. E. Hinton
Delacorte 1975

Did I really reread this? Did I need to? Man, this thing didn't age well.

Rusty-James thinks he's the the world on a string. Kid brother to the infamous Motorcycle Boy, RJ walks around honestly believe he has his older brother's smarts, looks and charisma to run the gangs of their midwest town. But RJ isn't any of those things, and where his brother used the gangs as a creative foil for his twisted genius, and then moved to disband them, RJ thinks he's inherited some sort of crown that allows him to be cock of the walk.

Motorcycle Boy left to see the sea, to expand his horizons, but two weeks later he's back. He saves RJ from a knife fight (probably not the first time he's bailed out the kid) and spends his days reading and drifting off into a half-deaf semi-trance. There's a local cop who doesn't like Moto Boy and threats all around that one of these days he's going to bring him down because the young punks in town look up to him. It doesn't matter which side you're on, when you see the Buddha on the road, kill it.

The book is framed with RJ on a beach in California running into an old friend Stevie from back in the day. They've both escaped the confines of their small town lives -- Stevie went to school and was planning on becoming a teacher, RJ fresh from the reformatory has finally made it to the beach his older brother never saw. In talking to Stevie RJ is forced to remember and relive those last days five years earlier when his brother was gunned down while setting free the animals in the pet shop. It was a last, desperate act of a person who was so smart he "could have done anything, but nothing interested him" as his drunken father points out. The curse of the big fish in the little pond (or in this case, the Siamese fighting fish in a separated tank). At the end, once RJ has recalled it all he tries desperately to forget. But he cannot, and that's the burden he carries.

Okay, aside from the dated references and slang, two things really stand out: first, the movie Francis Ford Coppola made out of this book is both brilliant and such a brilliant adaptation of this story that it practically eclipses it in relevance; second, are there any kids out there who are going to care about RJ enough to want to finish this book?

Seriously, RJ is a tragic figure in that he hasn't got a clue but he gives the reader all the clues they need to know that he's an idiot. The Motorcycle Boy is only mythic in the way he's viewed by his little brother; aside from being a pacifist with a death wish it's hard to get the read on his genius everyone else sees in him. As a picture of gang life in Tulsa the thing reads like a throwback to West Side Story, only without any social commentary. It's difficult to understand why this book has premained popular -- unless it's because it's short, has entered the YA cannon, and reluctant boy readers will read anything that has fighting as it's focal point.

That said, the movie that Coppola made out of this film almost justifies the book's continued existence. I could talk about this film for days because what FFC did was locate the horrible truth that lay at the heart of the book, that is the secret heart of all stagnant life in America. The movie is about time, wasted time, stopped time, putting in time, doing time, passing time, all the problems an active soul encounters when there is nothing but time. Rusty James feels his time has come, the Motorcycle Boy has come to the end of his time, and everyone else is traped in time but is too blind to notice. Coppola makes all this time with time-lapse photography of clouds passing, clocks that speed up, a giant clock face on a truck with no hands on it... one could argue that it isn't subtle, but it's so artfully shot (in black and white, to match the Moto Boy's colorblindness) and poetically rendered that it plays like a running gag in a city that time seems to have forgotten.

I never thought much of the book until I saw the movie, saw what was possible with Hinton's blank canvas, and now I canot read the book with those images burned into my head.
Movies can certainly color a reader's impression of a book they haven't read, but it takes one hell of a movie to supplant all previous images if the book was read first. I'm not about to suggest that the book shouldn't be read, despite my misgivings after this recent read, but I wonder if it's passed its relevancy phase and is moving on into period piece curio.

I know there are plenty of good books turned into good movies, and good books turned into bad movies, but are there any other films out there that turn sub-par books into cinematic masterpieces?