Going back to High School

I spent part of my day in high school, talking to several large groups of kids about the Revolutionary War, shipwrecks, etc. But I didn't want to talk. Instead, inspired by all the YA books I've been reading recently for the Cybils Awards, I wanted stare at them and ask them questions. Like--"So, which of you are the Mean Girls?" I looked for nerds, but couldn't easily find them. Are they getting better at blending? Is this school just one big happy collective? Or am I so out of it that I can't recognize them anymore...


What I've been doing today--the British raid Prudence Island (January 12, 1776)

A few months ago, it seemed like a great idea to give a talk about Rhode Island in the Revolutionary War (from an archaeological perspective) to a local high school. Now that it's tomorrow, it seems like a rather less great idea.

However, I am going to show the students my favorite historical drawing of all time:
This is a sketch by the Rev. Ezra Stiles (President of Yale from 1778-1795) who was a phenomenal recorder of information.* It shows the British Marines (the little stick figures marching from the boats) invading Prudence Island, in Narragansett Bay, meeting resistance from the Sons of Liberty. The sidebar says: "Here one left killed" "Here one taken wounded" and "Houses burnt. 8." The only house on the island not burned belonged to Thomas Allin and his family. His wife and seven of their eleven children were blind, and the British commander took pity on them and spared their home. The family moved west after the war, and all that is left of the Blind Allin house is its collapsing cellar hole, surrounded by brambles.

That is just one of the many thrilling stories of Rhode Island in the Revolution that I hope will keep my audience interested. I am also going to bring a few cannon balls with me. Nothing breaks the ice like a cannon ball.

*from Abbass, D.K. 2006 Rhode Island in the Revolution: Big Happenings in the Smallest Colony. The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project, Newport.


The Boy with Two Belly Buttons, by Stephen Dubner

The Boy with Two Belly Buttons, by Stephen J. Dubner, illustrated by Christoph Niemann (2007, 32 pp, ages 4-8), is, surprise surprise, a picture book about a boy with two belly buttons. Solomon doesn't realize he has an extraordinary tummy until his baby sister arrives on the scene, and she only has one! And his parents, busy coping with the crying baby, aren't able to talk to him much about it. So off he goes on a quest for information-- to the hospital, the swimming pool, and the local college- and only ends up feeling stranger than ever. Then a chance encounter with a famous movie director, who is excited by Solomon's uniqueness, makes him feel that being different is not so bad after all (which ties in nicely with a lot of the YA books I've been reading recently). This is (surprise surprise) the Message of the book, but it's not delivered in too much of an in-your-face way, so any cynical adults reading the book should be able to cope. I was. This is a fine story, with fine illustrations, and my boys enjoyed it. But what they enjoyed most was when we all studied our own belly buttons after reading it...

And what I liked best about this book is that it falls into the valuable category of "books a seven year old who is not an especially skilled reader might enjoy reading out loud to his four year old brother." This, at the moment, is my favorite type of book.

(I got this book as a review copy from HarperCollins).


dismay, and a warning, and finally, an answer

The first paper I ever wrote in college was returned to me with the following comment: "There are so many typographical errors that it is difficult to assess the severity of your spelling disorder." It was entitled "The Influance (sic) of Saturn on Events in the Knight's Tale." Spell check helps some, of course, but not for everything, as readers of this blog on Jacket Flap will have found out.

For I have just realized, to my utter horror, that the first version of a post one posts stays on Jacket Flap even if one revises it and corrects the horrible infelicities of language and the utterly mortifying spelling/punctuation errors that are blindingly apparent to the meanest intelligence so why didn't one see them the first time. So my post on Red Glass, as it appears on my home blog, is a much, much nicer thing than the Jacket Flap version, and I am sad about it.

BUT, Tracy the Goddess of Jacket Flap came to my aid, and told me that if I just deleted the post, Jacket Flap would pick up the new version the next time it did its Sweep of Blogs. So all is well. Thank you Tracy!


Red Glass, by Laura Resau

Red Glass, by Laura Resau (2007, 288pp)

Sophie drives an hour south from her home to sit alone in the desert, where she thinks of her life as an amoeba -- a nobody, sickly and pale. 5 year old Pablo was in the desert alone too, found there by the boarder patrol after his parents died of thirst. "We will take him," says Sophie's aunt, herself an immigrant from Bosnia. Now, living with Sophie's family, he will barely speak. Waiting for Pablo to unclench himself, Sophie hopes that she too can somehow find an identity.

A year passes--Pablo sleeps outside, next to the chickens, Sophie reads to him from The Little Prince. Then one day, a chicken lays its first egg, and Pablo, so proud and happy about it, is able to tell who he is. Now that he has a name and a place again, he must go back to his family in Mexico- for a visit, hopes Sophie, who does not want to lose him. So Sophie and her aunt set off to take Pablo over the boarder, sharing a van with teenaged Angel and his father, off on a quest of their own. They are on their way to Guatemala, which they had fled in fear for their lives about 10 years before. They are looking for the wife and mother they lost, and the jewels she buried.

Leaving Sophia, her aunt, and Pablo in Mexico, Angel and his father continue south. But disaster strikes them. Sophie must set out on her own, following Angel and his father into Guatemala. She must leave Sophie the sickly amoeba behind, and become, as she tells herself, Sophie la Fuerte, the strong and brave. She must find her beloved and bring him safely home. Which she does, and I won't say anything more about her journey and what Angel finds on his own quest because I don't want to spoil it, but it is nerve racking and rings absolutely true. I'm not going to say what happens to Pablo either, but this storyline is also treated in a tenderly realistic way.

I've been reading a lot of YA recently--lots of books set in and around high schools. Red Glass is a different sort of book--it is an Epic Journey, into wonderful, scary new places (very well described), where ghosts from the past and present dangers must be confronted (don't leave the path to see the beautiful flowers more closely, warns one character. There are land mines).

Personal Note:

Picking up this book again to refresh my memory before writing this, I found myself reading it all over again. And poo to anyone who says blog reviewers don't think deeply about the books they read. I seem to have been thinking so deeply about Red Glass that I dreamt last night that it had been made into a movie, and I grew quite agitated as they veered from the story as written.

Here are some specific things I liked lots:
--I am a great believer in learning through fiction reading. This is a great book for providing information and provoking thought about immigration, Mexico, and Guatemala.
--The fact that some people speak Spanish and English interchangeably is treated matter of factly, with enough actual Spanish thrown in to make the reader aware of it without being overwhelming.
--I liked Sophie's introspection, and I liked the budding romance between her and Angel, which was tender and suitable for all ages.
--I liked that Sophie had a stable, loving family life in which conflict with parents was not an issue.

Here's Laura Resau's website, which is well worth visiting!

This Week's Edition of Fun with Metaphors

The piece of red glass that gives this book its title was brought to American by Sophie's aunt, who held tightly to it while a prisoner of war in Bosnia. It is metaphor for many of the themes of the book -- it is the color of blood, with a sharp edge--a weapon, a treasure that gave a trapped mind strength, an echo of the buried jewels of Angel's lost mother. And I like to think that it's a metaphor for a window into the past, with the glass colored by memories of violence and loss. At the book's end, when peace has been made with the dead, there is a celebration of bright colors and new beginnings. Sophie wears a white sundress she bought on impulse in Pablo's home village, with metaphorical implications of its own...

Which leads to another thing I really like about this book--it pays re-reading. The second time through I found myself finding still more images and metaphors to ponder. And I liked the characters as people so much that it was a pleasure to spend more time with them.

Red Glass has been nominated for the YA Cybils award.

Blood Brothers

Blood Brothers, by S.A. Harazin, is one heck of a page-turner. The "brothers" are Joey, a guy with everything--money, family, friends, off to Duke in the fall, and Clay, who has so little he can't imagine a happy ending for himself. The closest he comes is planning a cross country bike trip with Joey. Joey is one thing that's keeping Clay's life together; the other is his job at the local hospital, where he has found adult support and approval. Then one day, in the summer after the two boys graduate from high school, Clay heads over to Joey's house, and his friend and his job and his one dream are thrown into jeopardy.

Joey, the golden boy who doesn't do bad things, is off his head. Violent. Hallucinating. And then, after Clay pushes him hard in self defense, he's on life support at the hospital where Clay works. What happened to Joey is a mystery Clay must solve.

Blood Brothers is told in the first person present, with flashbacks to the boys' shared past. It moves quickly back and forth, and there always seems to be something happening, which gives the book a snappy feeling. This may add to its appeal to teen readers (and, perhaps going out a limb here, boy teen readers in particular), and it certainly kept my attention focused. But it's a trade off--in a book like this, where the action moves at a rapid pace from scene to scene, past to present, the reader and the narrator have little time to reflect, appreciate, empathize.

The first person present is not the easiest voice in which to tell about secondary characters- some in this book didn't convince me at all (especially Clay's father). One memorable exception is the local sheriff--the description of the dusty pictures of long-gone foster children in his living room made him suddenly real to me. Much of this book is set in the hospital where Clay works, and here the first person present combined with Harazin's personal knowledge of nursing made for compelling reading.*

For more about this book and its author, here's a link to an interview with S.A. Harazin at the YA Authors Cafe.

ps: This book comes with the added benefit of an anti-drug message that is powerful without being didactic!

*I know that book reviewers shouldn't whine because the author didn't write the book the reviewer wanted to read, so this isn't a whine. But-- if S.A. Harazin were ever to decide to write more books about high school kids considering careers in the medical profession, or books set in hospitals, I'd read them in a shot! Where is the Sue Barton, Student Nurse, for today's teen readers? I mean this, and am now rifling through my head trying to thing of contemporary YA "career" stories and failing.


Link to a report on the Particles of Narrative conference, featuring Megan Whalen Turner

Last weekend, up at the University of Toronto, there was a conference called "Particles of Narrative: Language, Metaphor, and Children's Literature." I really really would have liked to go, mainly because Megan Whalen Turner was giving a talk. But it was impossible. So I was happy to find this account of the conference, with quotes from MWT, here, at Cheryl Rainfield's blog.

If there are fans of MWT out there who don't already know, there is a most active discussion forum about her books here, with lots of detailed discussion about very specific scenes and sentences, along with a touch of frivolous fan chatter.


Ricky Ricotta' s Mighty Robot, a series of books by Dav Pilkey

In my on-going efforts to help my 7 year old make it into the realm of The Reading Public, I have been bravely sitting next to him while he reads Captain Underpants. Blah. So I was thrilled, yes, thrilled, to discover Dav Pilkney's other series. The Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot books don't depend on potty humor! They don't make school look horrible! They don't celebrate jokes that are not nice at all! They are more readable!

And lo, my boy now reads them to himself, silently and with deep concentration.

For anyone out there, who, like me before this morning, didn't know that there are lots of Ricky Ricotta books (I only had heard of 4), here's the Ricky Ricotta webpage over at Scholastic.

Here's the list of titles:
Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot
Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot vs. the Mutant Mosquitos from Mercury
Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot vs. the Voodoo Vultures from Venus
Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot vs. the Mecha Monkeys from Mars
Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot vs. the Jurassic Jackrabbits from Jupiter
Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot vs. the Stupid Stinkbugs from Saturn
Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot vs. the Uranium Unicorns from Uranus
Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot Astro-Activity Book o' Fun
Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot vs. the Naughty Night Crawlers from Neptune (unreleased)
Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot vs. the Unpleasant Penguins from Pluto (unreleased)

By the way, the books started out with a "giant" robot. However, apparently readers pointed out that the robot wasn't really a "giant" --he was just a lot bigger than a mouse. So now the robot is "mighty" instead, and the titles of the first few books were changed.

(Incidentally, this series is also more instructive than Capt. Underpants books--obviously, we learn a bit about the various planets, but perhaps more unusually, the child reader will also develop a familiarity with the names of various cheeses that (s)he might not be familiar with. They are mostly the milder, more child friendly cheeses too. What's not to like about Munster, for instance. And from "Munster" it's an easy step to get out that map of Germany you just happen to have kicking around so as to do a bit of cheese related geography study :) or throw in a bit of Italian language instruction --"ricotta" means "re-cooked"... etc etc and isn't it so much easier to come up with things for other people to do than to do them oneself?)


Ethan, Suspended

Ethan, Suspended by Pamela Ehrenberg (2007, 336 pp, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers).

Ethan is Suspended. From school, from his friends, from his family, from his home town outside Philadelphia. Life as he knows it suddenly comes to an end when he's sent to his grandparents' house in an inner city neighborhood of Washington DC, where they are the only Jewish family left. He thinks it's just for the week of his school suspension, but then his mother just happens to mention while talking to him on the phone that he's there indefinitely.

Now he's the only white Jewish kid at a black/Hispanic junior high. The other kids laugh at him for expecting there to be soap in the soap dispenser, which is the least of his problems. He walks a fine line between getting beaten up, or worse, and making friends. His grandparents mean well, but they eat dinner ridiculously early. They make him take lunches packed in plastic grocery bags. There is no junk food. No computer. How can he stand it? His mother says she cares, but why can't she communicate with him? And his Dad, who just split up with his mom, isn't in touch at all. And there's the disturbing fact that he got suspended from his old school and lost his friends (for reasons discussed in the book). He finds a niche in the school jazz band, makes friends, and at last agrees to watch Jeopardy with his grandparents. When his mom finally says, "You're coming home. I've fixed your play station," he's not sure he wants to exchange the old sagging bed of his dead uncle for his firm mattress at "home."

Within this story line, the author discusses race and class, in the Washington DC of the 1960s as well as in the present. But the book is not overbearingly Message Laden. Ethan, in whose voice the story is told, is conscious of race but not obsessed with it, and the characters as seen through his eyes are people with stories he tries to understand because he cares about them. They are not placemats of varying skin tones and ethnicities. Ethan can afford not to think that race matters, because it doesn't, to him--segregation is over, it's a non-issue. But--"You don't need no laws to keep people out if people can't afford to go there," says Diego.

This book has some great characters, thought-provoking situations, and a glimpse inside an "inner city school" that people like me, living in predominately white suburbs, comfortably reading books, should keep in mind. (ack! now I sound preachy, which the book avoided, but I do think it's true and also, now that I am being personal, I do not not not want my boys to ever have play stations. Nor do they have firm mattresses, but that is their fault because they will jump).

p.s. I read this book because it was nominated in the YA category for the Cybils, but it is not particularly YA-ish. There is one chaste kiss, and a bit of day-dreaming, but nothing to bring a blush to a young girl's/boy's cheek.

p.p.s Reading this book makes me wonder if Jimmy Carter's daughter, Amy, will ever write a memoir about her experiences at a D.C. public school back in the 1970s...I vaguely feel she had a horrible time, but I could be wrong.


Poetry Friday--The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo

I am cheating here a bit today, by not actually sharing a poem, but rather what the author (Rudyard Kipling) calls a "sing-song." It's been going through my head for days, so here are bits from the Just So Story of Old Man Kangaroo and Yellow Dog Dingo.

Kangaroo wants to be "popular and very truly run after," so at the bidding of the Big God Nqong,

"Off ran Dingo-
Yellow-Dog Dingo-
always hungry, grinning like a coal-scuttle,
ran after Kangaroo."

And Kangaroo runs.

"Still ran Dingo-
Yellow-Dog Dingo-
always hungry, grinning like a rat-trap,
never getting nearer, never getting farther,
ran after Kangaroo.

He had too!

Still ran Kangaroo, Old Man Kangaroo.
He ran through the ti-trees; he ran through the mulga;
he ran through the long grass, he ran through the short grass;
he ran through the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer;
he ran till his hind legs ached.

He had too!"

Kipling put many "real" poems into the Just So Stories (1902), but they are nowhere near as good as the poetry that the words of this story make. If you've never read it, do, but not to yourself--read it out loud to someone, or get a copy on tape and listen...My boys (7 and 4) loved these stories, and the words are rather more fun for the grown ups than (to quickly set up a straw man) the Magic Tree House Books as read by their author (said Annie. said Jack. said Annie).

The Poetry Friday Roundup is at Literary Safari today, so head on over for more Fun with Words!


It's still snowing

Thanks to all the people who stopped by here yesterday to see Rose Mary Berlin's snowflake--it was the most visitors ever in one day. And the fun goes on, with lots more snowflakes to visit through the links on the right, including my current favorite snowflake, at Greetings from Nowhere.


Lemonade Mouth

After almost dying with embarrassment alongside one of the characters in the first chapter of Lemonade Mouth, by Mark Peter Hughes (ya 2007, 352 pp), I almost thought I would not be able to read this book. I'm not going to go into details, but I just hope it doesn't happen to my dear boys. But I kept on reading, and basically kept on reading until I was done (despite my dear boys), partly because it was my Duty (see below), but more because it's an engaging, fast paced and ultimately (oh gosh so many words are overused) triumphant? empowering? comforting? story. The author set himself a challenge--take five kids on the periphery of high school, and not only make them into a convincing band (in the music sense), but keep them from becoming stereotypes of the various sub-species of nerdy outsider. He tells their story in first person snips, which is not always my favorite narrative style, but which worked here to keep my interest (but when, I wonder, will I read a ya book that is not in the first person???). Because there are 2 male and 3 female points of view, this book should appeal to both genders.

You can "meet the freaks" at the Lemonade Mouth website here, and yes, that is what their own creator calls them. We meet the five freaks at the beginning of their freshman year. They are kids of varying backgrounds and interests, brought together in detention where the music teacher tells them they are destined for musical greatness (well not exactly, but that's the idea). So they form a band called Lemonade Mouth, become friends, achieve a measure of fame and status, and are a heck of a lot happier at the end than they are at the beginning (which is why it's comforting). It's not the most original plot, but Hughes writes enough into each character to make them interesting people, and each has a distinctive voice. Hormones make their appearance (this is ya after all), but are nicely contained as part of the whole rather than the main point. Sub-plots also add interest--both in the lives of the kids, and when, as a group, they take on a battle against the corporate homogenization of American high schools, and bring back the lemonade machine that Big Soda had muscled out.

When my kids start high school, I'm going to tell them to look on the edges, where the most interesting and intelligent people, like the kids in this book, are likely to be found. And I'm going to encourage them to take action when there are issues they believe in. And if this book is still around (7 more years), I might well leave it around the house for them to find (anticipating that they will not be as amenable to my suggestions as they are now).

A minor note: I like that this book was set in Rhode Island, where I live. And Del's Lemonade is just as much a local fixture as the "Mel's" in the book. It is too sweet for my taste, but the lines are long at the stands in summer.

I read Lemonade Mouth because it was one of around 100 so far that have been nominated for the YA Cybils award. Nominations are still open in all categories.

Skating Penguin

Here is "Skating Penguin," by illustrator Rose Mary Berlin. This is her first snowflake for Robert's Snow--an auction of original snowflake art by children's book illustrators to raise money for cancer research.

Rose Mary Berlin has illustrated more than thirty charming books, including this one about two cute little horses--the eponymous Itty and Bitty. She has been braving the world of horse shows to reach her audience for this one--the kids who are so busy with their horses that they might not have time to go to the bookstore! Rose Mary Berlin is venturing into licensing, and will be an exhibitor at the Surface and Textile Design Show in NYC in May (I definitly think that RMB's penguins would make cute pajamas!), and she will have a line of cards coming out with Legacy Publishing, which should be available online soon at www.shoplegacy.com.

We who blog about children's books have been organdized, as Pooh would say--we are featuring many of this years snowflakes at our various blogs in the coming weeks (this is week 2). Check out the links in the sidebar this weeks presentations. And head on over to the Robert's Snow auction site, look at all the lovely snowflakes, and bid bid bid!

Thank you, Rose Mary Berlin and all the illustrators who have donated their time to creating lovely snowflakes! And thanks to Jules of Seven Impossible Things for her wonderful idea and the effort she put into bringing this Blog Tour of Snowflakes together!


My Monday Snowflake

On Monday I will be featuring the Robert's Snow snowflake of Rose Mary Berlin. It will go up at around 9:30 am, so if you are looking for it and it isn't up yet, please come back!

Diary of a Fly

Yesterday, for the first time, my older son read a book to his little brother. It was a good book too--Diary of a Fly, by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Harry Bliss (40 pages, 2007).

Diary of a Fly continues the story of Worm and Spider, each featured in his own book by Cronin and Bliss, but it is by no means a case of same old same old. For one thing, the humor in the illustrations is just as sharp and engaging as ever. This book definitely bears repeated re-looking. For another, Fly is a girl, and a strong girl at that. A plot element of her diary is her dream of being a Super Hero, a dream that Spider constantly dumps on. At the end, Worm points out that even worms and spiders and flies can be heroes, and us readers are taught a little lesson in respecting the creatures who might seem disgusting, but are vitally important to our world. Which leads to another reason Diary of a Fly is worth reading--it imparts lots of information about flies.

All this being said, I still like worms and spiders much more than flies.


Some Carl Sandburg from The Blackbirch Treasury of American Poetry

It is Game Day here at my library, and our most excellent children's librarian is playing Trouble with the children. I saved her from Candy Land by asking her to recommend a poetry book, not having thought of anything on my own for Poetry Friday. So I have just spent the last 15 minutes enjoying The Blackbirch Treasury of American Poetry (2001).

Here are the things that make this a good book:
-- it doesn't pretend to be a comprehensive anthology. The editors appear to have chosen their six favorite poets (Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)and have included enough poems for each to make each section long enough for a stand alone book.
-- it is an anthology for children, and so is illustrated, with muted pictures that complement, rather than compete with, the text.
--the editors had good taste, and I like the majority of the poems they chose.

I'm not that familiar with Carl Sandburg, and I especially enjoyed reading some of his poems that were new to me, such as this one:


See the trees lean to the wind's way of learning,
See the dirt of the hills shape to the water's
way of learning
See the lift of it all go the way the biggest
wind and the strongest water want it.

I like "the wind's way of learning," although I am not sure I like the sentiment of the last bit--too imperialist.

Here's another:

I Sang

I sang to you and the moon
But only the moon remembers,
I sang
O reckless free-hearted
free-throated rhythms,
Even the moon remembers them,
And is kind to me.

The Poetry Friday roundup is at Kelly's house today


Walking on Glass, by Alma Fullerton, continued + The Cybils

In my review of Walking on Glass, by Alma Fullerton, I wondered whether she herself considered what she wrote to be "blank verse." So I brazenly emailed her to ask. Here is her answer:

"Some people may call it poetry, others may not. I chose
my words carefully while writing it, but the story is written in the point
of view of a 16 year old. He wasn't a poet, he was a boy so above all I
tried to stay true to him and his voice."

It's a slippery slope, this business of trying to draw lines between poetry and prose. I shall continue to think of Walking on Glass as powerfully arranged prose, and shall report back to the ya nominating committee for the Cybils Awards (of which I am proud to be a member) that I don't think we have to give this one to Poetry.

Speaking of the Cybils, if you haven't gone over to the Cybils to nominate your favorite books published in 2007, you've still got until November 21 (you can only nominate one book in each category, so if you have multiple books you like, you could cunningly wait to the end, to see if some of them get nominated by other people). My group only has 90 or so ya books to read, so there's room for more (!?). The reading seems to be going well. We have a google spreadsheet of all the titles, and we add x-es under our names when we've read a book, and the x-es are building up nicely. Not that I am competitive or anything, but I have been reading hard so as to put more x-es under my name. I realize that this is not the point, but I like adding x-es.

Instead of writing reviews of all the great books I have read last week, I have to prepare for a presentation I'm giving tomorrow on using archaeology in the classroom. If anyone is interested in using archaeology in the classroom, let me know and I can send you stuff.


My Readership-- The Hobbit, by Enid Blyton

I derive much innocent pleasure from staring at my blog statistics (I don't have any comments to read, so I have to do something. Sigh). For instance, why have 44 people from Austria looked at my blog, but only 4 from Germany? It's not as though I've ever featured an Austrian book...

The reader that has impressed me most is one who found the blog through a google search for "Charlotte." No other keywords. When I saw this, I wondered if I had suddenly found more fame than Charlotte Bronte, Charlotte's Web, and the Charlotte North Carolina Public Library system. So I too googled Charlotte, but gave up after 15 pages of wrong Charlottes. Not my reader.

My favorite google search, however, is someone who found me by looking for "The Hobbit by Enid Blyton." Isn't that a charming idea: "Five Go Off on a Quest," perhaps:

Julian, Dick, Anne, George, and of course Timmy the Dog, were enjoying a lavish tea on the first day of the summer holidays (E. Blyton would put in paragraphs about the food here) when they were startled by a loud knocking at the door. Uncle Quentin burst out of his study in a rage, and swung open the front door. "I need quiet to work!" he said angrily to the old wizard, whose staff was raised to knock again...."Take the children! Take the wretched dog! Just let me have some peace!"


Robert's Snow Blogs

At right is this week's schedule of blogs featuring snowflakes to be auctioned off to raise money for cancer research--please visit, admire, and, when the time comes, bid. I have been doing the visiting and admiring part, and also have been enjoying looking at blogs I've never been to before. I know only a small corner of the kidlitosphere, and sometimes I feel that somewhere out there on-line there are hundreds of alternate kidlitospheres, in their own space time bubbles, that I, at least, will never know about.

I left several comments today too, which I feel very proud about doing, because usually I am too shy.

Walking on Glass

Walking on Glass, by Alma Fullerton, is a sad and moving book. It is a story told by a teenage boy, in short journal entries, in short sentences of carefully chosen words. It tells of a mother who has turned from her family in deep depression, and now is kept alive, if it is life, by machines at the hospital. Her son almost saved her from her suicide, and now must be the one who ends her life.

It is not easy reading.

I don't doubt for a second
that most people think
what I want to do
is wrong.
But I don't want to
my mother.
I want to set her

Within this spare prose the author contains several themes common to many ya books-- a friend who is taking a downward path in life, towards violence and alienation; a beautiful girl offering the hope of love; a father who is distant, trapped in his own pain. But mainly this book is about finding the freedom to remember beyond the pain of the present, into the past when love didn't give any clues that the pain would come.

I remember
her soft voice
floating through the air
like the smell of fresh roses,
as she sings me a lullaby
to take away
the monsters in the night.

We never learn the narrator's name, perhaps because if we had to be told, we would be less inside his story. At the end of his journal, after we have traveled with him to his mom's final death, we are left with hope that what his mom has given him of what is good in life will help him be able to go forward. The sneakers that were her last gift to him finally fit.

I wouldn't have picked this book up if it hadn't been nominated for a ya Cybils award. I have a vague prejudice against books that don't have lots of words on every page, preferring thick story I can escape into. But I was glad to follow this story slowly and carefully, as the layout of the pages demanded, taking the words that the narrator/author offered.

(Frivolous aside: I am extremely fond of metaphor, and found a great deal here to keep me happy. If there was ever an author who had a "How many metaphors can you find hidden in this book" contest, I would play).

Walking on Glass is called free verse on the jacket flap, which my mind instantly grabbed as another metaphor, but I'm not sure I agree with the categorization. Does placing the words in arrangements other than straight lines make something verse? Frog and Toad does this. I would like to know what Alma Fullerton thinks. I will ask her.


On reading various young adult books

Last Thursday, Lemonade Mouth made us late for school. Today it was The Nature of Jade. Before I became a member of the YA nominating committee for the Cybils awards, I would rise at dawn, tidy the house, pack lunches, and go out back and build a stone wall or two (Really. Not a whole wall a day, obviously, but bits). Now 6:30am finds me lounging around inside, eating the children's chocolate chip cookies and reading ya novels. Only 70 or so on the list so far, and more nominations coming in. In my defense, as well as it being my Duty to read these books, it is dark and cold outside at 6:30 these days, and if I go out there I might trip over the children's toys and hurt myself. Perhaps once we set the clocks back things will change.

Here are the books I've read this past week, which I hope I will be commenting on in greater detail sometime in the near future:

Lemonade Mouth, by Mark Peter Hughes
Twisted, by Laurie Halse Anderson
Story of A Girl, Sara Zarr
Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, by Gabrielle Zevin
The Nature of Jade, by Deb Caletti
Red Glass, by Laura Resau

Here are my thoughts on the genre so far:

1. The first person present rules. Yet almost never do the protagonists say "we." Perhaps this a clever linguistic ploy to emphasise the alienation of said protagonists.

2. It is very rare to have two nice caring parents who are happily living in the same house together (I don't pretend to be discovering something new here). But really, I don't think the Betsy-Tacy books suffered from the happy marriage of Betsy's parents.

3. As evidenced by my allusion to B-T., I am generally a reader of lighter fare than is offered by many of the ya books of 2007. I believe there is Nothing Wrong with books where people are generally happy and healthy from the beginning to the end. I think that even when I was a teenager I believed this (although back then, in the 1980s, I can't recall ever reading YA books in the sense of the genre these days. Were there any?). I am wondering if there are going to be any books on the 2007 ya list that are cheerful.

4. I have boys, who, if all goes well, will someday be in high school. I am encouraged by the presence (generally as secondary characters, but sometimes main-ish) in many of these books of nice boys who are on the fringes of things but still end up relatively happy and have girlfriends. This is balanced, however, by the many horribly embarrassing/physically painful things that happen to the boys who are main characters, and sometimes secondary characters (see, for instance, Twisted).

5. So far, I've encountered two emotionally challenged fathers building model railroads in their basements. Coincidence or conspiracy?


I don't remember having any pink glittery princess type books when I was young. Maybe things would have turned out differently. Maybe I'd have a dishwasher.

Here's an article from last Friday's Guardian on the subject.


For Poetry Friday--The Wild Carrot Field, by Susan Pendleton

I have been sorting through 20 boxes of books donated to my library booksale by the Brown University library (left over from their booksale). About a third of the books are poetry--very obscure poetry, for the most part. As I picked up one slim volume (They Will Remain, by Susan Pendleton), this picture fell out:

It is Susan.

I then read her poems, hoping I would like them. I didn't, quite, like most of them, but this one struck a chord--it is the best poem about weeding I've ever read:

The Wild Carrot Field

Sun browned field,
Wild carrots dipping;
My task to pull them
While the minutes go slipping.
In beauty bending,
Nodding in grace
Shimmering, pestilent
Queen Anne's lace;

Two thousand, three thousand
Grime and stain.
Last year, this year,
Next year again.
Some folks pity,
Seeing me bend.
"She has taken a task
That will never end."

Yet there comes strangely,
Plodding like this,
Almost hopeless,
Some hint of bliss.
Red sun slanting,
Shadows so fair!
I pause to worship
With head bare.

Wiping the sweat
With torn sleeve.
(There is a heaven
I do believe.)
Colors deepen
With shadowing.
Beauty holds me

Little wind blowing
Sets the lace shaking.
Loveliness here
For a heart breaking,
Let me continue,
Six, seven-
If I stop too sudden
It might snap heaven.

Susan Pendleton was born in Connecticut in 1870. Her poems haven't been widely published--this anthology was compiled in 1966 and privately printed.

The Poetry Friday Round Up is at Two Writing Teachers this week


AA Milne Appreciation

For the first time as far as I can remember, which isn't necessarily that far what with one thing and another, my children laughed at a book I was reading to them so hard they choked and gasped and wheezed. Sure, there have been chuckles, giggles, and smirks in the past (the "pig bums" spread in David Wiesner's The Three Pigs, for instance), but this was the first time there was real laughing.

It was not my intention to amuse. I was taking my 7 year old to bed, and picked, almost at random, the copy of The House At Pooh Corner that had been my mother's when she was a child-- no disneyfication, not even color-added illustrations, and much, much rattier than the one shown. The story I chose was Chapter 3-- "In Which A Search is Organdized, and Piglet Nearly Meets the Heffelump Again." The buildup is amusing but longish; it's worth it in the end when Piglet becomes Utterly Flustered (and 7 year old becomes Completely Hysterical).

The next night it was my turn to take 4 year old to bed, so I tried the same story on him. Same result. We had to go across the hall and read it again to his brother and father, and the boys were still quoting it in the car this morning and chuckling over it.

It is possible that part of the humor came from my masterful reading. We had, earlier this month, been listening to Judi Dench read Pooh, which gave me a few tips. I had been putting off reading Pooh to the boys, because I wanted so badly for them to like him. Judi broke the ice for us, and now we are off and running.

But the bulk of the credit, in all seriousness, goes to AA Milne, whose writing I adore. I especially like the Capital Letters. My grandfather read us the Pooh stories over and over again, and every time I re-read them, I find turns of phrase that have become naturalized in my own speech.

I have one book of Milne's biographicalish essays (Year in, Year out), and I'd like more. I also enjoy his fantasy story, Once on a Time, which is a good read for a nine/ten year old, or a non-cynical older person.

But Pooh, is of course, the best, and I have carefully shielded my children from the Disney version so that they would not be prejudiced against the Real Thing (they aren't going to watch The Seeker either).

So anyway--go find the House At Pooh Corner, read your child Chapter 3, and see how much they laugh. It would be good, but not entirely necessary, to have read the first Heffalump story, Chapter 5 in the first book, Winnie-the-Pooh. Here's my favorite bit from that story:

And all the time Winnie-the-Pooh had been trying to get
the honey-jar off his head. The more he shook it, the more
tightly it stuck. "Bother!" he said, inside the jar, and "Oh,
help!" and, mostly, "Ow!" And he tried bumping it against
things, but as he couldn't see what he was bumping it against,
it didn't help him; and he tried to climb out of the Trap, but
as he could see nothing but jar, and not much of that, he
couldn't find his way. So at last he lifted up his head, jar
and all, and made a loud, roaring noise of Sadness and Despair
. . . and it was at that moment that Piglet looked down.

"Help, help!" cried Piglet, "a Heffalump, a Horrible
Heffalump!" and he scampered off as hard as he could, still
crying out, "Help, help, a Herrible Hoffalump! Hoff, Hoff, a
Hellible Horralump! Holl, Holl, a Hoffable Hellerump!" And he
didn't stop crying and scampering until he got to Christopher
Robin's house.


I wish I could go...

On November 4th, all of these authors-- Jeanne Cavelos, Kristen Britain, Jana Paniccia, Julie Czerneda, Patricia McKillip, Sarah Monette, Delia Sherman, Elizabeth Bear, David Lunde -- will be at at the Flights of Fantasy Bookstore, in Loudonville, NY.

I would love to meet Patricia McKillip. I was just re-reading her Riddlemaster trilogy in my head while sawing wood yesterday (nothing like mindless manual labour for revisiting favorite books). I continue to hope that the release of the two books in her Cygnet series means a third is coming...


Tips on Having a Gay (ex)Boyfriend

Tips on Having a Gay(ex)Boyfriend, by Carrie Jones (2007, 278 pages).

It comes as no surprise to the reader that a few pages into Tips on Having a Gay (Ex)Boyfriend, Belle's boyfriend Dylan isn't anymore. Common enough subject matter for a young adult book. But it is a surprise to Belle that he is gay--that the loving and intimate relationship* they had, and her picture of herself, must now be questioned, doubted, and reimagined.

The book describes the week that happens next. The author has a lot to work with--the loyalty of friends, the trickiness of memory, the cruelty that can lurk inside ordinary people, the fear of being different, the fear of seeing someone you love hurt (physically), the fear of being hurt yourself, etc. Carrie Jones manages to keep all these balls in the air and not let them get in the way of what, to me, felt like the main story -- Belle falling in love again, with Tom, one of the hottest guys I've ever met in a fictional high school. It is not that Jones diminishes the importance of the big issues dealt with in the book, but that she is able to let Belle, and to a lesser extent Dylan and other characters, be people, not Issues on Legs.

This book is written in the first person present, not generally my favorite. In part this is because I often can't remember the name of the main character after I finish the book. And the present tense often grates on my introverted ears, because it assumes that the reader is right there along with the characters ("we drive along the highway"), and unless I am deeply engrossed in a book, I'm not driving anywhere with these people. (aside--do other introverts distrust the forced intimacy of 1st person present?)

Not a problem in this case. Jones is so very good at using input from all five senses that Belle becomes a person for whom I can suspend my disbelief. I think it also helps that the book only takes a week (their time). So there is time for the writer to create for Belle the details and nuances and flickerings of different feelings that real people experience, without having to say, "A month later, there I was, dramatically changed."

Belle isn't, in fact, dramatically changed. She's a bit sadder, a bit wiser, but still a sweet idealist. I hope that she and Tom have a lovely relationship in the coming year, and that they get into the same colleges. And I hope that Dylan and his boyfriend have a nice year together too--I can't imagine them having a longer future together than that...but I can imagine other futures, with other boys, for Dylan.

Which just goes to show how real these people seemed to me, for crying out loud.

*viz the sexual content--not quite as explicit as in Judy Blume's Forever, but strong stuff. My eyebrows rose.

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