What I Was, by Meg Rosoff

This Christmas I asked my European dwelling sister to give me a copy of Meg Rosoff's latest book, What I Was (this is the British cover). I didn't want to wait for it to come out here in the states (although it is now available, so perhaps I should have been more judicious in my selection, but my other sister was already getting a copy of Forever Rose, by Hilary McKay which I actually was looking forward to even more). Rosoff's first book for teenagers, How I Live Now, had interested me but not compelled me, but I truly enjoyed Just In Case. So I began What I Was in a hopeful spirit.

The story is simple--Hilary, a 16 year old boy, begins life at his third boarding school, having been kicked out of two others. It is a depressing place with depressing people in it, including our narrator, who is not particurlaly cheeful about his situation (with reason). But he finds an escape while exploring the Suffolk coast where his school is situatuated--a cottage on an island, whose young resident, Finn, is resourceful, independent, and totally enigmatic. They strike up a friendship, based mainly on Hilary's fascination with Finn--an almost obsessive desire to be inside the self-relient mystery that is Finn's life. But it is impossible to keep secrets in a boarding school, and (this is Meg Rosoff after all) things fall apart tragically and spectacularly, atlhough they end up getting back together again, more or less.

Unlike her other books, however, things don't really start Happening till near the end. I got impatient with Hilary, and wasn't as interested in Finn as he was. The buildup in pace came a bit too late for me to care all that much. So all in all, a bit disappointing. But the fault could be mine- this was one of those books that made me wonder if I was Trying hard enough to be an engaged and critically appreciative reader. Because I think there is a lot to appreciate here, in Rosoff's use of language and setting. It just wasn't my cup of tea.

The American edition is published by Viking Adult, but I think it is comfortably a YA book -- teenaged narrator, nothing graphic in an Adultish way (although that dosen't apply to many YA books), and a plot concerned with self-knowledge, friendship, and growing up.

Class of 2008 Contest

Last year I enjoyed dropping in on the Class of 2007 -- first time authors of middle grade and YA books, banding together in promotional solidarity. It was a pleasure reading many of their fine books during my stint as a Cybils YA nominator (and it is also a pleasure to see gaps in my library's YA collection, where the review copies I donated are being checked out nicely).*

Now there is a Class of 2008, and they are currently hosting a Virtual Scavenger Hunt. With great prizes -- three of their own books!

*I have heard that in England authors get royalties every time their books are checked out from a public library. If true, it would be an incentive for authors to make lots of friends and have large families....on the other hand, if you don't know anyone with a library card, but keep checking your own book out, it defeats the purpose of having written it in the first place.


H.D. for Poetry Friday

I have been fond of imagist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1886-1961) ever since I ended up at the same college (Bryn Mawr) as she did, was very taken by her picture, and decided on reading some of her poems that our minds worked much the same way (in the way that one does, when one is young and at college. I am now pretty sure our minds don't, although I still like her poetry).

What I did not know, until today, wandering around on line hoping to be inspired for Poetry Friday, is that H.D. also wrote children's stories, before committing herself to poetry. Two of them are available on line, here. I think she made the right choice. Here's one of my favorite poems:

Sheltered Garden, from Sea Garden (1916)

I have had enough.
I gasp for breath.

Every way ends, every road,
every foot-path leads at last
to the hill-crest --
then you retrace your steps,
or find the same slope on the other side,

I have had enough --
border-pinks, clove-pinks, wax-lilies,
herbs, sweet-cress.

O for some sharp swish of a branch --
there is no scent of resin
in this place,
no taste of bark, of coarse weeds,
aromatic, astringent--
only border on border of scented pinks.

Have you seen fruit under cover
that wanted light --
pears wadded in cloth,
protected from the frost,
melons, almost ripe,
smothered in straw?

Why not let the pears cling
to the empty branch?
All your coaxing will only make
a bitter fruit --
let them cling, ripen of themselves,
test their own worth,
nipped, shrivelled by the frost,
to fall at last but fair
with a russet coat.

Or the melon --
let it bleach yellow
in the winter light,
even tart to the taste --
it is better to taste of frost --
the exquisite frost --
than of wadding and of dead grass.

For this beauty,
beauty without strength,
chokes out life.
I want wind to break,
scatter these pink-stalks,
snap off their spiced heads,
fling them about with dead leaves --
spread the paths with twigs,
limbs broken off,
trail great pine branches,
hurled from some far wood
right across the melon-patch,
break pear and quince --
leave half-trees, torn, twisted
but showing the fight was valiant.

O to blot out this garden
to forget, to find a new beauty
in some terrible
wind-tortured place.

- H.D.

Poetry Friday is at Mentor Texts today!

P.S. The internet is truly amazing. I did not know that H.D. stared in a movie with Paul Robeson in 1930 (courtesy of Wikipedia)


Trout are Made of Trees

Try saying to your children, "Trout are made of trees." Assuming they know what trout are, they will think you are nuts, which perhaps you are, and they won't be shy about letting you know. But then, in a effort to restore your credibility, read them Trout are Made of Trees, by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Kate Endle (Charlesbridge, 2008, ages 4-7). "See?" you can say at the end. "I was right. You're made of trees too!"

This book tells of the journey from trees to trout, as two kids and their parents explore along a stream bed. The story sways between dreamy undemanding prose--"In fall, trees let go of leaves, which swirl and twirl and slip into streams" -- and crisper statements of fact -- "Bacteria feed on the leaves. Algae grow, softening surfaces." And the leaves are eaten by the shredding creatures, who are eaten who are eaten and so on, till we get to the trout. The result is a challenging book, vocabulary-wise, but the pictures help--in the bacteria section, for example, the kids are shown looking at rotting leaves with a magnifying glass--bacteria and algae must be small. And the impetus of the story carries the reader along, without calling out for much additional parental commentary.*

In short, this is lyrical science--not the non-fiction of straight explanation. The collage illustrations by Kate Engle also tend toward the lyrical as opposed to the science textbook. But collage when done well, as it is here, has a magical realism about it. In much the same way, a complicated story about nature is told in a way that a child can understand.

From my personal experience reading this at home: this isn't perhaps the easiest book to sell to the type of child that demands you read fact heavy books over and over again, but it's probably good for them to see science presented in different ways. And there are two fact heavy pages at the end that were much appreciated. My younger boy found the stream creatures enchanting; we spent a long time admiring the shredding creatures, and the little trout hatchlings.

Charlesbridge has organized a great competition in conjunction with this book. Find out more about Be a Stream Hero by going here and scrolling down till you see it.

Trout are Made of Trees is the first book by April Pulley Sayre that I've read, but Vulture View has been on my To Read list for ages (well, since it was short listed for the Cybils a few weeks ago). And now I'm curious to read Trout, Trout, Trout: a Fish Chant. Here's an interview with her over at A Year of Reading.

Illustrator Kate Endle has been guest blogging at Black eiffel--there are several posts, so keep moving forward in time to read them all, till you get to the contest (!) at the end. And how unselfish it is of me to let others know about it...

*I would like to say that it is nice that the author assumes we know what predators are. Of all the books about predators and prey I've read with my boys, this is the only one I can think of that doesn't stop and define it. But I could be wrong.

(Charlesbridge kindly sent me this review copy)


The January issue of The Edge of the Forest is up! I have a book review in it for the first time--a book I absolutely adore, Very Hairy Bear, by Alice Schertle, illustrated (and very nicely too) by Matt Phelan. My four year old has been quoting it and chuckling to himself ever since we first read it about 6 weeks ago...


Four Fur Feet for Poetry Friday

"Oh, he walked around the world on his four fur feet,
his four fur feet, his four fur feet.
And he walked around the world on his four fur feet,
and never made a sound-O."

So begins Four Fur Feet, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Remy Charlip (1990, Hopscotch Books). The walk around the world take a black pawed creature (the four fur feet are all we ever see) through cities, by rivers filled with boats and streams filled with fish, past a railroad yard, and through a countryside full of all kinds of animals. At last the black beast reaches a meadow, where he lies down to dry his paws (they'd gotten wet crossing the stream).

"And the sun shone down on his four fur feet,
his four fur feet, his four fur feet.
And the sun shone down on his four fur feet
and made them feel all warm-O."

As the creature moves around the world, the reader has to move the book around too, until at one point it's upside down. All part of the fun.

To my mind, the illustrations don't invite a great deal of interested looking--they are made of lots of ink lines, sometimes with individual shapes colored in, as on the cover, sometimes just drawn on a solid color background. But since the book itself is (literally) moving, it might be for the best that the pictures aren't such eye-candy that the young read-ee wants to keep the reader's arm from turning.

And it is the words, the swing and rhythm of them (that Margaret Wise Brown at her best has such a good ear for), which make this book great fun. Although it is "four fur feet" that really makes it--this verse dosen't have them, and suffers as a result:

"And as he slept, he dreamed a dream,
dreamed a dream, dreamed a dream.
And as he slept, he dreamed a dream
that all the world was round-O."

This book has practical utility, in that the poem can be adapted to those situations where you are trying to get your four year old child to move. Here's an example from last night:

Oh he walked to his bed on his four fur feet,
his four fur feet, his four fur feet,
Oh he walked to his bed on his four fur feet,
and didn't get up till the morning! (ha ha)

Or you can walk up the stairs, to the car, to the door, etc. It is interesting and effective at the moment (two days after reading), but I'm not sure how long it will last. (Fast forward ten years: Oh he took out the trash on his four fur feet...)

On the right is the 1994 edition of the same story, illustrated by W.H. Marx. I much prefere the earlier one, with its very mysterious creature. Leaving the creature to the imagination of the reader makes it much more interesting. You can draw a set of four fur feet for everyone:

And then they can draw their own creature, like so:

More creaures (including mine) will be added later--I forgot to bring them with me to scan.

And finally, back to the poetry part of it all, there's a lesson plan up on the web here on how to use this book to explain alliteration to young kids.

The Poetry Friday Roundup is here at the Farm School today!



Sweethearts, by Sara Zarr (Little, Brown and Co. 2008)

Yesterday quite a few folks blogged about the books they couldn’t wait to read, and on several lists was Sara Zarr’s new book, Sweethearts. It wasn’t on mine, because an ARC had arrived at my work address that morning, and I had already started reading it. A bit at lunch, a bit more in the car on the way home, before finally settling down to do some more modeling good reading behavior for my children.

Jenna Vaughn is not real. Sure, she sits at her high school lunch table with nice looking people, including her nice looking boyfriend, and she looks pretty nice herself. But her friends don’t know that inside Jenna is Jennifer Harris. Jennifer, the fat neglected child of a too busy mother, mercilessly taunted by the other kids, a loser, an outcast. Not too lonely, though, because she had Cameron, another outcast, as her faithful comrade.

For a few years they had each other to love. Because of this, Cameron was (almost) surviving his sadistic father, and Jennifer was (almost) surviving the lack of any familial affection. Then Cameron disappeared on Jennifer’s ninth birthday, without saying goodbye. The other kids told Jennifer he’d died. Her mom didn’t deny it. So Jennifer struggled on, with half of herself gone*, till she changed schools, her name, and herself, becoming Jenna. The aching jaws from keeping Jenna’s happy smile on were a small price to pay.

But Cameron returns, and so does Jennifer.
"I ran a paper towel under the faucet and pressed it to my face, looking in the mirror to check the status of the redness of my eyes. Baby. Then a voice from underneath that, one I hadn’t heard before, talked back. You’re not a baby. Babies don’t tear away window screens with their bare hands to save themselves. I closed my eyes, wanting to hear more, trying to block out any image of Jenna Vaughn that obscured my view of Jennifer Harris. But apparently she’d finished talking."

The engrossing story of what happened to Cameron and Jennifer is unfolded slowly in flashbacks, tied in to Jenna’s own remembering of the two children who in her mind had died. Often when I read books about unhappy or abused children, the unhappiness is so much front and center that I find it hard to empathize with the main characters. But because the present time of this book is a time of facing the past and coming back together (Jennifer and Jenna, Cameron and Jenna, Jenna and her mother, Cameron and his siblings), this is not so dark a read as many others on similar themes (although in all honesty the level of abuse here is as nothing compared to some*).

This is a great read, with memorable characters, and a fascinating story. Sara Zarr writes about these two sad children with great compassion and respect--respect in that her characters aren’t given any easy answers. And more to the point, from a reader’s perspective, she doesn’t offer an easy answer to the question that everyone reading this book will still have at the end of it. I guess she is expecting us to be smart enough to figure something out for ourselves. Sigh. I’d rather know.

My only quibble lies with Jenna’s relationships with her high school friends, which felt a bit two-dimensional and not quite convincing. But when you have a main character who knows she isn’t real, I suppose it becomes tricky to create real friendships for her…

*Hence the cover showing a heart with a bite taken out of it
**Touching Snow, by M. Sindy Felin, for instance, or Bad Girls Club, by Judy Gregerson

In the interest of full disclosure: I got my copy of this book from the publisher, along with a small box of candy hearts (thanks), which I also enjoyed very much but which did not at all influence what I just said about the book.


Books I'm looking forward too....

First on my list is Forever Rose, by Hilary Mckay, the most recent book about the Casson family (Saffy's Angel, etc.). It came out in England last fall, but won't be out in the US till this summer. The copy I'm going to be reading is currently in New York, at my sister's house; every time I talk to her I encourage her to come visit, so as to bring it with her. I have also offered to pay for postage.

I am also looking forward to Lavinia, by Ursula Le Guin (April 2008), House of Many Ways, by Diana Wynne Jones (June 2008), and Knight Errant, by Patricia McKillip (Sept. 2008) (which shows up on the list of forthcoming books here at locus online). I also am looking forward very much to Megan Whalen Turner's next book, but she hasn't finished it yet. I think that all my life I will be looking forward to her next book, so I hope she outlives me.

I will eagerly pounce on Love (and Other Uses for Duct Tape) by Carrie Jones (sequel to Cybils finalist Tips on having a Gay (ex)Boy Friend).

Finally, and most obscurely, I'm looking forward with great anticipation to Kate at Melling, by Margaret Biggs. This is a new book written by the author of a great English girls school series (Melling being the school). The series, originally all published before 1960, has been republished by Girls Gone by Publishers, and the author has written this brand new story!

Colleen at Chasing Ray is kindly rounding up other lists of anticipation!


Amoung the 50 Greatest British Writers...

I recently saw a list in the Times the 50 greatest post-war British writers. There were plenty of usual suspects, but three caught my eye--Philippa Pearce, Alan Garner, and Rosemary Sutcliff. The other children's book author's were Dahl, Lewis, Peake and Rawling, but that was less surprising.

Rosemary Sutcliff is the best writer of juvenile historical fiction that ever was, and I am very happy to see her on this list. Read The Mark of the Horselord. Eagle of the Ninth. Warrior Scarlet. You'll see what I mean. They are great stories, and I learned lots.

In this vein, I am looking forward to reading Good Masters, Sweet Ladies (which won the Newbery a few hours ago), although not the un-read first edition pre-sticker copy I just bought (which will be saved until it's time to pay for the kids to go to college). The illustrations remind me of Walter Hodges, who illustrated quite a few Rosemary Sutcilffs, and who is my favorite illustrator of things medieval. But of course since I did not open my new copy of G.M, S.L., not wanting to damage it, I can't be quite sure...


Learning to read

Over at Jen Robinson's Book Page, there's a great post up on helping kids learn to read--lots of ideas from parents (including moi), teachers, and writers. Another point has just occurred to me, and I think it's important enough that it deserves a post of its own.

So often it seems like reading level is used as a measure in intelligence--"Oh, you're reading War and Peace and you're only 8! How smart you must be!" If you aren't reading "big books" at that age, it might then seem as though you are stupid. My second grader isn't stupid (ask him to explain String Theory, and he'll do fine), but there are many, many kids who are reading books considerably harder than the Magic Treehouse books he's plodding through. So I've made a point of explaining to him that each person's brain develops at its own pace, and in some people, different parts develop faster--some kids talk before they walk, some walk before they talk. I tell him he has a very well-developed math brain, and a great kindness brain (except for whacking his little brother), and tell him that in a few more years, when his brain has developed a bit more, no one will be able to guess that his classmates had ever read harder books than he was reading. I often remind him of what he was reading in past years, so he can fully realize he's making progress. Three December 31sts in a row, he's read A Fly Went By, by Mike McClintock. The first time through, it took three painful days. Next year, 25 minutes, reading out loud. This year, about 20, read to himself. So he can really see he's getting there.

Otherwise, I think it would be so easy for him to just think "I'm a bad reader." A self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one.


On My Block: Stories and Paintings by 15 Artists

On my Block: Stories and Paintings by Fifteen Artists Edited by Dana Goldberg (2007, Children's Book Press).

This beautiful book was another I won through participating in the blogging about Robert's Snow, and the auctioning of snowflakes created by children's illustrators (the other book was Block Party Today!; perhaps if there had been more books about Blocks I would have won them too...). My copy came from Sara Kahn, one of the many (well, 15) artists featured in this book.

Children's Book Press asked 15 illustrators "to portray, in words and pictures, the places that are most special to them." The result is an eclectic, colorful mix of pictures and stories, that makes for very enjoyable browsing. The reader is taken on a journey around the world--from Mexico, to Cuba, to Iran (to name just three of the fifteen). It is a great showcase of variety (both artistic and cultural), but at the same time it's held together by common themes of nostalgia and love.

This book, for me at least, floats in the world between children's and adult books. My children (4 and 7) enjoyed looking at it, but it's perhaps more a dipping into book for that age than a read through. Adults might get more from it--this would be a great gift for fans of children's book illustration.

There's another review of this up here, at AmoXcalli.

I certainly enjoyed it-- thanks very much, Sara, and thanks for making your beautiful snowflake! To see her snowflake, and read a great interview with her, head over here to Kate Messner's blog.


Cybils YA finalists announced

They're up! Head over here to the Cybils website to see our masterful list of 7 brilliant YA titles...


Block Party Today!

Block Party Today! By Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Stephanie Roth (2004, Random House).

Last fall, many of us were busy promoting Robert's Snow, and the wonderful snowflakes created by children's book illustrators that were auctioned off to raise money for cancer research. As well as donating their time for snowflake making, many of these great illustrators offered prizes to folks reading the snowflake posts. I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Block Party Today! from Stephanie Roth, and now I don't have to worry about reading 123 YA books for the Cybils (see below), I'm happy to have a chance to say Thanks! And what a neat book!

Block Party Today! is about (surprise) a block party, in a multicultural urban place pretty far removed from where my kids live (a New England mill village). They were most interested in the street scenes, the different people, and the whole concept of closing off a street for a party. Roth's illustrations are great-colorful and detailed, interesting without being overwhelming. This is more than just a description of the party, though--Lola is mad at her friends Yasmin and Sue, and plans to stay in her room all day. She can't help but come down to her front steps, and she and Yasmin and Sue forget their quarrel in the fun of fire hydrant play. And the block party ends happily, with friendship triumphant. Just what a block party is supposed to do!

Thanks, Stephanie,for the book, and for making your snowflake (a really charming one, featuring Two Christmas Mice, which you can see here at the blog Writing with a Broken Tusk).

My Cybils work is done

I was up until 2am yesterday, working with my co-committee members to pick our 7 nominations for the Young Adult Cybils Awards. We had 123 books to pick from... They'll be announced tomorrow over at the Cybils website.

Thanks very much to Jackie, of Interactive Reader, who was our fearless leader! And thanks to all the rest of the gang--it was great fun working with you.

And a very big thanks to all the publishers and authors who made copies of their books available to us--they were much appreciated! I've passed most of my copies on to my local library, which will now have the best YA collection in the state of RI.


Finch Goes Wild

Finch Goes Wild, by Janet Gingold (Perfect Paperback, 2007)

Harmon Finch’s life is getting ugly. He’s stopped trying for decent grades at his savage middle school— a place where turning homework in invites violent reprisals from bullies. His doctor tells him that he has to get his weight under control, or else. His mom is driving him mad with her constant fussing. On the plus side, he has a nice dad (and his mother does love him lots), a comfortable house, a good brain and musical talent, and most importantly, a chance to take time away from the chaos of school and find his way into a different kind of “wild.”

Home schooling doesn’t alienate Harmon from his friends, because he has none. But it does give him the opportunity to head out with his dog into the nearby park. He spends more and more of his time there, first as a volunteer for a home schooling assignment, and then because he has been drawn into the world of bird watching. I might be making it sound more facile than the book reads, but in essence Harmon “grows up” as a result of bird watching, and it enables him to start high school a new, more physically fit, more confident person.

Harmon is a very likable character—sincere and well-meaning. He happens to be African-American—a black person who has a supportive, well-off family and who ends the book by going to Cornell. His ethnicity is not an Issue, but does come up casually from time to time (for example, musing about why he is the only black birdwatcher at the Christmas Bird Count). It’s also good to read a book that talks matter of factly about teen weight issues, and about home schooling (which is described in interesting detail). This is a very clean read—not for Harmon the escapades of other fictional youth. Harmon’s story wasn’t one that thrilled me to the core, but I’m glad it ended happily.

Because Harmon is a loner, there is a paucity of supporting cast, and not much dynamic interaction. The only character who appears long enough to have a chance at characterization is his mother; unfortunately, she is pretty much defined solely by her nagging nervousness, and although Harmon is stuck with her almost the whole book, she never becomes a person. Also, the bird watching was at times too meticulously described--people that don't know birds might have trouble staying interested, and people that do know them might find themselves reading these parts of the book rather skimmingly.

But heck. A book about a bird-watching teenager made a nice change—it was good to go off into the wild with Harmon.

Finch Goes Wild was one of the 123 books nominated for the YA category of the Cybils.


Congratulations, Patrick

I am proud as all get out that my dear husband Patrick's entry in Lisa Yee's Second Annual Bodacious Book Contest was judged Honor Title #1.

Here's his entry:

Original title: Now We Are Six
New Title: Now We Are Ticks
Summary: Kafka's Metamorphosis for the younger reader
Judges’ comments: The two books are such polar opposites, and somehow this contestant found a connection. Besides, we both love Kafkaesque tales for children…Louis the Fish, Shoebag, and now, Now We are Ticks.

Of course, this means that his entry beat mine, with ensuing residual bitterness which I am bravely hiding.

Thanks very much Lisa and judges!

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