Wednesday, May 27

Carter FInally Gets It, part two

by Brent Crawford
Hyperion 2009

In a phrase: strangely compelling meets fiercely flawed.

Will Carter, freshman, has Attention Deficit Disorder (or so he says) and the pressing desire to no longer be a virgin. He's got his sights set on Amber Lee, the untouchable hottie, but it appears he's destined to hook up with the previously chubby Abby who's body spent the summer moving all her baby fat to her chest.

Because Carter has ADD he finds himself easily distracted. It doesn't prevent him from joining the football team. Or being one of the area's top swimmers. Or from trying out and landing the lead in the school musical, all because his particular ADD requires Carter to maintain focus.

Along the way Carter and his crew find themselves at parties where houses are routinely destroyed by drink kids, cars are driven wildly by drunk teenage occupants, and are physically menaced by older psychopathic teens among the general population at school.

Oh, did I mention Carter has ADD?

Let me get this off my chest right now. Carter saying he has ADD doesn't make it so. He has problems staying on track, occasionally has to write things down on his hand, makes a lot of unfiltered comments that lead to hurt feelings... but it reads more like average teenage boy to me, not ADD. Additionally, Carter and his friends refer to friends, enemies, and each other as retards and faggots just as often as Carter calls himself ADD. In my experience, kids will adopt an affectation or self-diagnose themselves as a way of communicating to others that, what might seem like unusual behavior is in fact them working out who they are. A kid who refers to himself as psychotic or demented isn't necessarily either of those things, and what we look for in determining whether these characters are truly what they say they are in fiction is through their behavior.

So as Carter claims his disorder his behavior does not support this. His school has culled some of the more violent kids and placed them in special classes where their violence can be modified, and you would suspect the school would have learning specialists as well for kids with disabilities, but Carter has regular classes and goes about his life with everyone treating him normally. That isn't a bad thing, except that very little of Carter's issues are specific to ADD. He has difficulty with behaving or saying appropriate things, but hormones and dietary issues could just as easily be the cause. At one point later in the book, Carter is instructing his best friend EJ on how to pick up girls, a lesson his older sister has given him out of a shred of kindness and perhaps a recognition that her kid brother is a little different. When he tells EJ to ask questions and act disinterested, his best friend takes this instruction literally and combines the two to ask insulting questions of a girl who runs away in tears. Isolated from the rest of the book, a reader would assume EJ was the kid with problems, not Carter.

Putting that aside, I nearly gave up on this book a half dozen times. What starts as a series of vignettes about freshman life eventually begins to coalesce around a hundred pages in. It's around this time that I realized that Carter Finally Gets It is a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl story trapped beneath all the excess baggage of a modern YA novel. The problem is, the story only works because of these excesses. If Carter and his nemesis Andre weren't both on the football team and the swim team, if Andre didn't steal Abby away from Carter, if Carter and Abby didn't wind up as leads opposite one another in the school play... man, that's a lot of 'ifs' piled up there.

Additionally, I'd hate to assume so calculated a move, but this and a few other books I've seen this season seem to rely on horny, raunchy boys to appeal to its audience. The argument that "this is how kids talk today" doesn't work here. Hanging around and listening to a bunch of teens talking at a pizza joint may be authentic, but it doesn't actually provide us any insight into their personalities. Aside from verite reportage, steeping a story in the language of teens without making each voice equally unique smacks of a certain level of pandering. Also, don't we have enough problems with boys objectifying and badmouthing girls based on looks? Do we really need books to be so "authentic" that they continue to perpetrate and reinforce chauvinistic behavior?

You would think after all this that I would hate Carter Finally Gets It, but I don't. There is a level of bumbling boy comedy here that I really enjoyed, that haplessness that is the providence of teen boys who just haven't yet figured out how clueless they are. Scenes of Carter riding everywhere on his bike because he's too young to drive slayed me for a variety of personal reasons, not the least of which was because of how close to home they hit. And the cruelty of girls who use the unwitting Carter as a foil for getting around watchful parents is a priceless bit of chicanery that Carter, unfortunately, deserves.

Like I said, I could have dumped this anywhere along the way in the first hundred pages – and that's an awful lot to ask of a reader to go along with – but following that I had a hard time stopping. As flawed as it is compelling, the book should neutralize itself but somehow manages to tip the scales toward readability.

Others have found this LMAO funny and don't seem to have the same problems I have with the book, so proceed accordingly.

Tuesday, May 26

Carter Finally Gets It, part one

by Brent Crawford
Hyperion 2009

It depends on what the meaning of the words 'it' is.

Tomorrow, part two: A more in-depth look.

Friday, May 22

DInosaur Versus Bedtime

by Bob Shea
Hyperion 2009

Roar! I am a dinosaur! ROAR! Nothing can stop me!

A pile of leaves, a playground slide, a bowl of spaghetti, all met with the little dinosaur's fearlessness and a mighty trio of roars as this simple picture book progresses toward the ultimate showdown against bedtime. Following each battle "Dinosaur wins!" sets up the reader for the turn when baby dinosaur meets his match.

Shea's use of playful, childlike illustrations, bold colors and collages, and expressive typeface give this simple story the extra edge it needs. It's a bedtime book that honors and recognizes that settling in for the night doesn't begin quiet, just as baby dinosaur's day begins with yelling and action and progresses toward the inevitable.

I am not a huge fan of the bedtime book as a rule. For the most part they are books designed to calm and prepare a child for bedtime, they serve as child modification devices for adults. There are books for children about grieving, books about potty training and books to explain "issues" like bullying and divorce. This need to find a book to explain or frame specific situations on behalf of adults creates an illusion that books have all the answers, that unpleasant business can be handled with a book, and trains young minds to view reading a book with skepticism. Like medicine, where is the joy of reading if it's presented as an aid to a symptom. Stories should be told for the joy of the story, not as a means to an end.

Shea's book takes the bedtime book and turns it on its head. Instead of quiet good-nights to items in the room or lullabies from animal mommies to their babes we have a rambunctious baby, a dinosaur baby, roaring right and left, fighting and defeating inanimate foes. The subversion in this is that young readers are easily lulled into thinking this books will end in a victorious dinosaur winning against bedtime. But after a bath and brushing of teeth the roars get quieter and even dinosaur can't win against sleep. And the lesson: even raucous dinosaurs need their sleep.

And so, for his second birthday, my nephew is getting Dinosaur Vs. Bedtime, as well as Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and The Nutshell Library.

Literacy wins!

Wednesday, May 20

Destroy All Cars

by Blake Nelson
Scholastic 2009

There's a lot about this book I really, really like, and a lot of stuff that bugs me.

James Hoff is a self-righteous, pessimistic seventeen year old who believes Americans consume too much. Cars, in particular, make him angry, but the entirety of consumer culture sends him ranting. Being a hormonal seventeen year old boy, vain outsider or not, he's still interested in girls. In particular there's his obsession with Sadie, his ex-girlfriend of the previous year, a do-gooder who is politically active where James is all talk. James' bile-filled tirades against Sadie ring false because they are, and when he's finally finished floundering around manages to rekindle their affair briefly before they both decide to move on with their new "adult" lives.

Throughout the book, James includes journal entries and essays for his English teacher that cover his views on the world as well as his personal life. When he isn't ranting about the destruction of the planet, he's talking about nature, about what it means to be a teen, about friends and family, about the superiority of Oslo, all from the same ill-informed place that most of his adolescent brooding comes from. A classic smart-mouthed dumb ass.

Stories like this told in first person – where the reader has to read a little between the lines to get what the main character is really saying – require a deft use of character voice. The tone and pitch have to be perfect, otherwise the spell is broken and the reader becomes frustrated or disillusioned or just plain bored. I don't really like this character of James up front, then just as I start to see what his game is and like him a little I begin to feel a little bored with him. It takes a little too long for the love stories to fall into place, and James' essays tend to belabor their point beyond their intended humor. It feels like if it could just be tightened up a wee bit it would be perfect. Maybe about forty pages too long. And a few more teeth in its bite.

Another thing that sort of ruins it for me is the environmental angle being played for humor without any conviction. The kids in the story who are attempting to make a difference or finding effective ways to protest "larger issues" are derided by James and shown to be less deserving success than our disingenuous cynical narrator. Teens probably know the types, and laugh, but what are they laughing at exactly? The shallow big mouth loner kid gets the girl (a few, actually), and he eventually has a last-chapter awakening that lends his previous posturing credence, which seems to suggest that the kids doing things in earnest somehow don't deserve the same thing.

Almost a little like a conservative writing a farce about liberals that liberals laugh at without realizing they're being skewered. Only it's teens and their causes and their sex lives being lampooned, and they're probably laughing at themselves without realizing it.

For those who care, there's sex involved. Talked about, engaged in, and I don't really have a problem with it... except here I do. I know James and his friends are seventeen, and that real seventeen year olds are engaged in sex, but the characters involved here all feel too young. And by young I mean immature. It's the opposite of the problem TV shows and movies have where they use 25 year olds to play teens; here these characters read, talk and behave like they're years younger then they are. The dialog is genuine, it reads authentically, but it reads like smart seventh graders and not average eleventh graders.

Destroy All Cars is a teen romance aimed at boys that deftly uses a pro-environment message as a delivery device. The heart on the cover should be the giveaway, but for boys that don't catch that they might find themselves enjoying the little slice of romantic confusion that Nelson has put together.

Wednesday, May 13

Tales from Outer Suburbia

written and illustrated
by Shaun Tan
Scholastic 2009

I've been wanting to write about this since before it came out. Life gets in the way, and books get shuffled further down piles, and suddenly a person finds themselves thinking "Wait, didn't I already review that?"

Following Tan previous books to these shores, The Arrival, I know there was a lot of anticipation over how Tan would follow-up his genre-bending stranger-in-a-strange land tale. Well the answer is that he did it by creating fifteen entirely new strange lands, or perhaps they're all an extension of the same strange land, but clearly this Outer Suburbia is proof that there are multiple world in his creative universe.

The problem with coming late to the review party is that it's difficult to find something to say that hasn't already been covered. Nonetheless, I'll give it a go and see what surfaces.

Tan's Outer Suburbia is a place where the unusual isn't. An over-sized water buffalo occupies and empty lot at the end of the street, silently dispensing advice with the point of his hoof. A pair of brothers set out to the edge of the map to see if, indeed, the world continued beyond what was on the page or if it dropped off into an abyss. In keeping up with the arms race the government places missiles in every citizen's backyard, for them to take care of, though over time they have become pizza ovens and tool sheds through disuse. It's a familiar world and alien at the same time, a place a little odd from the outside looking in. Then again, one culture's norms are another one's peculiarities, and so who are we to judge?

Sometimes this absurdity has its darker side. "The Undertow" appears to be another absurd story about the mysterious appearance of a dugong on a suburban lawn. As a rescue is underway the occupants of the house are too busy shouting at one another to notice the commotion outside at first. Only their son seems to know what the creature is, but no one can fathom how it got there. Once the dugong is rescued the neighborhood returns to normal. The parents in the house shouting and throwing things at one another fail to realize their sun has remained outside to lie on the lawn looking up at the starts, hoping his parents never realize he is outside yet waiting for their inevitable verbal abuse. Instead, the story ends with them coming out to silently carry their son back into the house.

I single out this story because, for me, this is the heart of this collection. Though I doubt this was Tan's intent, all these stories could be the fabrication of this one boy's imagination. His escape from his outer suburban nightmare is an inner retreat. True, many of these stories are too complicated to be part of the inner life of a boy who feels trapped in an abusive family situation, so then the story feels like an allegory of suburban angst, that displacement that allows people to accept the absurd as part of their daily lives. The stories we tell ourselves to remain calm and grounded, sometimes these are no less absurd than a foreign exchange student who looks to be extraterrestrial and is the size of a tea cup.

On a more practical level, Tan once again confuses me with his intended audience. This picture book has stories too long and too complex for most picture book readers, so I have to conclude that the book is intended for older readers who are not afraid to read a book with color illustrations on nearly every other page. In some ways this book is a throwback to another time, when the picture book was not limited to the beginning reader. I am thinking on my beloved copy of Dahl's The Magic Finger which was originally published in picture book format with illustrations but currently exists as a more conventional paperback intended for middle grade audiences. I always believed that the Dahl conversion was partly a concession to keep picture books "simple" and move the books with more story up as reading levels and abilities shrank. That is, the audience is being held back from more complex stories, and if Tan wasn't also the illustrator of this book I could totally see it sitting on the shelves with middle grade titles.

Unlike some illustrators whose picture books seem aimed at an adult audience, Tan's book is clearly meant to appeal to a younger reader. It is refreshing to see speculative fiction and fantasy done so well that it appears more literary, and Tan's visuals alternate between his unique pen and ink to a rich pastel and forced-perspective compositions that recount the work of artist Wayne Thibaud. It has the strange effect of quietly drawing attention to the quality and care of the presentation on all levels, and underscores just how weak and careless other picture books are in comparison.

Tales from Outer Suburbia reads like a modern The Twilight Zone for kids. That's a Rod Serling reference two days in a row, but what the heck. You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension - a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into...

Outer Suburbia

It's a gorgeous book, a haunting book, a playful book, the kind of book that invites repeat readings and delivers new insights as a reader gets older and becomes more experienced with the world.

Tuesday, May 12

The Curse of the Campfire Weenies

and Other Warped and Creepy Tales
by David Lubar
Tom Doherty / 2007

Why have I waited two years to review this book? I think it was because it got lost in one of the many piles of books, later to be hidden during moving. But part of me wonders if I didn't deliberately and subconsciously hide this book away. Because I was embarrassed? Because I was offended? Insulted? None of these.

It's because I was inspired. This was one of a handful of books I've read in the past couple of years that opened up a trap door in my brain that leads directly to the unfiltered twelve year old me. Long packaged away safely as a memory, as a slave to selective revelation, this book seems to know where the the cage is weakest and can be exploited. A few stories in and suddenly I'm back in my sleeping bag at Camp Slauson, BSA, up late at night making up ridiculous stories of monsters and unexplainable phenomena.

Lubar's Weenie series are full of the kind of campfire tall tales and horror stories you might expect if Rod Serling and Bob Hope could be reincarnated as a single being. They are damned odd, amusing, and full of twists that only the mother of a pretzel or a yogi could enjoy.

No, I take that back. They're exactly the kind of story a middle grade boy enjoys, and with a half dozen titles in the series there are dozens of them to jump into.

Tales like the boys who dare each other to grab for mud from the bottom of the "bottomless" lake, only to have one of them discover that the farther down you dive the closer you get to the surface... of another world, full of alien tentacled creatures. Then there's the story of the robot with limited memory who is perpetually faced with cleaning "his" room, being turned off and on only for that purpose, trapped forever in doing what he "knows" needs to be done. Or the story of the maniacal wood chipper with a one track mind once it's had a taste of human blood.

Many of these stories are under five pages long, some are barely two pages. Lubar knows his reader isn't interested in anything but "the good parts" and it makes for quick, enjoyable reading. Lubar might not be a household name the way some authors are, but I bet his books are better circulated and well-worn compared to some.

Monday, May 11

The Great Piratical Rumbustification

& The Librarian and the Robbers
by Margaret Mahy
with pictures by Quentin Blake
Godine 1986
originally published in the UK 1978

Two books worth of story crammed into 63 magical pages, full of robbers tricked by librarians and retired pirates who know how to party and revive the joys of boyhood (while paying the bills). No impossibly articulate child protagonists with clearly defined goals or desires, no rhyme or reason, just a pair of stories cut from the same cloth as books by Willaim Stieg and Roald Dahl.

In the first story, it is spring and the retired, land-locked pirates are restless. They long for a Pirate Party but the sign in the sky informing them of a pending party is not there. The problem is that a pirate party must be stolen.

Next we see the Terrapin family, having moved up from their cramped flat to a spacious house. The three Terrapin boys have been promised that with a bigger house came opportunities for adventurous behavior, but father's overwhelming dread at purchasing a house beyond their means has soured things.

It is only natural that these two parties be united, and when the adult Terrapins call the Mother Goose Baby-sitting service it should be no surprise that they are assigned an ex-pirate as a sitter. Fears of qualifications quelled, the boys find their sitter deserving, and with this the boys are off. Sitter Orpheus Clinker sends up the announcement that he has found a suitable location, and a Pirate Party proceeds to take place at the Terrapin's.

Father Terrapin is at a big, important dinner but he senses something wrong, something taking place elsewhere that is more fun. There appears to be some great rumpus taking place in the part of town near his house, and how he wishes he was there. Leaving the important dinner as soon as he can possibly escape he returns home to find a Pirate Party well under way. Once over his initial indignation, Father Terrapin falls in and enjoys the Pirate Party, after which he is richly rewarded by the pirates and never has to worry about his financial situation ever again.

& & & & &

Our second story in this double-feature finds a band of woods-living robbers who have come upon the idea of stealing the town librarian for ransom. Her warning that she has recently spent time with children infected with measles goes unheeded and soon all the robbers but one, the Chief Robber, are sick. Allowed to return to the library for a reference book to heal the sick robbers the librarian returns with books to read. Having never been read to, or taught how to read, she begins with Peter Rabbit and proceeds to give them a classic education in children's literature.

Eventually everyone forget about the ransom and the librarian returns to work. One day the Chief Robber dashes into the library to escape being apprehended by police. With quick thinking the librarian shelves the Chief Robber and refuses to turn him over to the police without a library card. Of course, once the officer has left the librarian slyly checks the robber out for herself and prevents the officer from coming back and apprehending him for the indefinite future. Saved, the Chief Robber continues with his initial task: checking books out for the other robbers because now they have insatiable reading habit.

One day an earthquake brings down all the books in the library, burying the librarian. Chief Robber and his fellow robbers join the police and other citizens in saving the librarian. Chief Robber admits to liking the librarian and they marry on the condition that they all give up robbing. The Chief Robber even becomes the head children's librarian in perhaps the most rambunctious branch any library has ever seen.

* * * * *

I can understand some of why this book was withdrawn from my town library and put on the 25 cent shelf in the sales alcove. It is hard to imagine any book today would be published where a babysitter requires rum as part of his services, and that he carries a bottle large enough in his coat pocket to cause him to list to one side when he walks. And I'm not sure what to make of an adult male, upon meeting three young boys, exclaiming how he likes the cut of their jibs. Indeed, this very slang expression is the sort of thing that caused me to snort out loud.

But we are talking about pirates here, and removing rum and salty pirate talk (within reason) is like drawing cows without udders or exchanging water for soda in stories because we don't want to scar or unduly influence young minds. This political correctness has its place at times, but not here.

And these are stories about adults primarily, adults behaving like children at times but adults nonetheless. It's as if we don't expect children to identify with anyone except protagonists their own age, but so often these child protagonists are forced to carry the weight of stories and messages beyond their years. The idea of fun seems no longer the province of adults or kids in children's books anymore. Do we think that kids won't understand or identify with a parent character longing for the carefree days before bills and important dinner? Do we feel that they'll reject a book because it includes a romance between an unlikely duo, one half of which is a librarian?

Also, I admire the amount of ground covered despite the brevity of the text. The Great Piratical Rumbustification is told in thirteen chapters, many of them fewer than three full pages. I know this is a hallmark of books aimed at readers who are still gaining fluency, but I'll take a dozen well-crafted books like this any day to a sprawling attempt to build the chapter book into something more substantial from fewer parts.

Readers who appreciate the absurd humor of The Twits or Flat Stanley or the books of Daniel Pinkwater will be rewarded.

Tuesday, May 5

the 5 minute anti-review

And Then Everything Unraveled
by Jennifer Sturman
Point / Scholastic 2009

This is going to be a totally unfair review. It is based entirely on the premise that, as a reader, I have the right to abandon a book that doesn't interest me and not feel guilty. It's also based on instinct, the same instinct that allows employers to know within ten seconds whether or not they will hire and individual for a job. It's about experience and preference and, fair or not, no less valid.

And I'm going to take as long to discuss this book as I did reading it.

Delia Truesdale can't believe it's only been a few weeks since the story she is about to recount took place. Her mother has "left for Antarctica with one of her environmental groups," leaving Delia with her semi secret surfing in the care of the housekeeper in her Silicon Valley home. Delia's friends, what few she has, are all tech geeks who are already wheeler-dealers and inventors. Dad is not in the picture, victim of freak accident. The car of the person who runs her mother's business affairs is in the driveway when she gets home. Bad news: Mom's ship has disappeared, no word on survivors. Mom must be... but no, Delia refuses to believe her mother is dead.

And we aren't even at page five.

I don't need anymore. The rule of a book that starts off like this is that any teen who refuses to believe their parent is dead is right. The rest of the book will concern the main character on a journey of discovery that will prove them right. Not having friends means she'll make some along the way (including a romantic interest) and will solve the mystery on her own. Naturally there will be obstacles along the way, including those close to her she is supposed to trust. Happy ending all around, and nothing will ever be the same again.

As proof, I jump from the first five pages to the last chapter, in this case the last three pages. Mystery is wrapping up. Kisses, and the promise of many more, from a boy named Quinn. Almost obligatory Shakespeare reference to Romeo and Juliet. Mother is safe in Chile. Trio of bad guys mentioned, indicating conspiracy, including aforementioned person who helped run her mother's company. And the story ends at the point where Delia can finally take a breath and recap it for the reader.

I don't care about this character before her mother disappears, I don't know the mother enough to care about her disappearance, and so I don't care enough to read everything between those opening pages and the last paragraph. I don't necessarily believe you need to go deep with character development before you can launch an adventure story, or a mystery, but you must engage the reader, you must give them something they can latch onto, something they can care about that will make them want to know what is going on in those 238 other pages in between. Unless, of course, you're writing formula for teens accustomed to artificial television drams with the attention span of a noodle.

Personally, I think teens deserve more respect from their reading material than that.

Did I get it right? In hunting down a cover image I landed on Scholastic's page for the book and missed only one element:

But Delia's still sent to New York to live with her two aunts - a downtown bohemian and an uptown ice queen.

And in case that's not bad enough, she also has to deal with a snooty new school and trying not to fall for the wrong guy.

Okay, I should have seen that: fish out of water, something to compare against a cardboard cutout of Silicon Valley. Other then that, I could have written the blurb for this book without having read it.

Sad, really. The book comes out in July.