How to Catch a Bogle, by Catherine Jinks

How to Catch a Bogle, by Catherine Jinks (HMH Books for Young Readers, Middle Grade, September 2013), is a truly satisfying historical fantasy.  It has scary bits, funny bits, and thoughtful bits.  It has a great central character, who's both believable and likable, and a nuanced supporting cast (including adults who are interesting people too!).   And it has a really good story.

As an impoverished (but plucky) Victorian orphan, Birdie knows what it's like to live on the edge of nightmarish destitution.   So she considers herself fortunate to be the apprentice of Alfred the Bogler.  Sure, she's the one who baits the bogle traps, siting in an unfinished circle of salt and singing to lure the bogle out of hiding.  And yes, the reason bogles need dispatching is because they eat children.   Alfred, though grumpy, is not abusive, and the money, though not enough for much in the way of creature comforts, keeps them going.  They are a good team.

In this alternate London, the educated rich consider bogles the childlike superstition of the lower orders.  But there are two who don't.  One is a well-off woman engaged in the academic study of supernatural creatures of the British Isles, keen to use Alfred and Birdie as a means of observing the creatures first hand (which leads to amusing situations in which she is desperately out of place), and, as the story progresses, keen to introduce science into bogle trapping and save Birdie from danger (though Birdie is hostile to this idea, as it would put her out of work...).

And then there is the second well-off person who believes in bogles...who doesn't care a whit how many children they eat.  He, too, is keenly interested in Afred's bogling skills, but his interest is much, much, more dangerous than any monster Birdie's ever faced.

If you are looking for books for young readers of fantasy of the alternate worlds/quests/heroic kids saving the day with magic who are  reluctant to try anything real world, or historical, offer them this one.  They'll get a nice introduction to Victorian London along with the brave kid, the magic, and the monsters. 

I enjoyed it lots myself, and highly recommend it to both kids and grown-ups.  Perhaps more to the kids, because it is written with them in mind.  There's a nice solid simplicity to the progression of the story which makes is very satisfying.  Though pleasing complexities of plot and character are introduced, they are done so without any teasing of the reader.   It's a complete story in its own right; the ending is an ending, though there's room for more fun with bogles.  

And now I am mentally comparing it to the other current book about kids facing supernatural beings--The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud.   That one reads slightly older.  The characters have more backstory, and there's lots isn't being told to the reader.   It's twistier, and more gruesome.   I'd give that one to a 12- or 13-year-old; How To Catch a Bogle I'd give to a 10- or 11-year-old.  

Here's another review, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile


This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi/fantasy from around the blogs (9/29/13)

Here's this week's gathering of what I found in my blog reading of interest to readers of Middle Grade sci fi/fantasy.  Please let me know if I missed your post!

Before anything else--nominations for the Cybils open on October 1!  All are welcome to show love for their favorite books in a variety of categories from picture book to YA, including Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction....I can't link to the nomination page yet, of course, but here's the EMG SF category description.  Books published from Oct. 16, 2012 to Oct.15, 2013 are eligible, and I've made a handy list of every eligible EMG SF book reviewed by Kirkus during that period (with the coming fortnight to be added) to refresh my own memory....

The Reviews

43 Old Cemetery Road: Dying to Meet You, by Kate Klise, at books4yourkids

The 9 Lives of Alexander Baddenfield, by John Bemelmans Marciano, at Becky's Book Reviews

Artemis Fowl and the Opal Deception, by Eoin Colfer, at So Many Books, So Little Time 

The Castle of Llyr, by Lloyd Alexander, at Tor

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, by Charles de Lint, at Hidden in Pages

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again, by Frank Cottrell Boyce, at alibrarymama 

Darkbeast Rebellion, by Morgan Keyes, at Not Acting My Age  and Charlotte's Library

Exile (Keeper of the Lost Cities, book 2), by Shannon Messenger, at The Write Stuff

Fortunatly, the Milk, by Neil Gaiman, at books4yourkids  and Waking Brain Cells

Ghost Town (Saranormal book 1) by Phoebe Rivers, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente, at Beth Fish Reads

The Good Little Devil and Other Tales, by Pierre Gripari, at the Children's Book Blog at The Independent

The King's Ransom, by Cheryl Carpinello, at magical middle-grade literature

The Last Guardian, by Eoin Colfer, at Fyrefly's Book Blog

The Last Present, by Wendy Mass, at Ms. Yingling Reads  and Charlotte's Library

The Lost Kingdom, by Matthew Kirby, at Charlotte's Library

My Rotten Life, by David Lubar, at Middle Grade Mafioso

Operaton:Golden Bum (Fangs-Vampire Spy), by Tommy Donbavand, at Readaraptor

The Princess of Cortova, by Diane Stanley, at Kid Lit Geek

The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu, at Waking Brain Cells, Nerdy Book Club, Book-A-Day Almanac, Fuse #8, and Ritchie's Picks

The Return of the Indian, by Lynne Reid Banksat Time Travel Times Two 

Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell, at The Book Monsters 

The Runaway King, by Jennifer Nielsen, at Bibliophile Support Group

The Sasquatch Escape, by Suzanne Selfors, at Reading Rumpus Book Reviews

Scare Scape, by Sam Fisher, at Library of Clean Books

The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud, at Pages Unbound

The Shadow Thieves, by Anne Ursu, at Bibliophilic Monologues

The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, by Nikki Loftin, at Michelle Mason

Sky Jumpers, by Peggy Eddleman, at My Precious and Ms. Yingling Reads

Stanley Finnigan and the Race Around the Universe, by Dan Cuoco, at Melody & Words

Substitute Creature, by Charles Gilman, at From the Shadows

A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz, at Tales of the Marvelous

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, by Kathi Appelt, at Sal's Fiction Addiction

The Time Fetch, by Amy Herrick, at Jean Little Library

The Whatnot, by Stephen Bachmann, at Random Musings of  Bibliophile

Wild Born (Spirit Animals Book 1), by Brandon Mull, at Bookalicious

An "abundance of children's books" at Things Mean a Lot, including Fortunatly, the Milk, The Abominables, and Mrs. Frisby and Rats of N.I.M.H.

And Maureen at By Singing Light re-reads the Dark is Rising series

Authors and Interviews

Peggy Edleman (Sky Jumpers) at The League of Extraordinary Writers and Literary Rambles (giveaway) 

Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson (Starbounders) at Literary Rambles (giveaway) and Nerdy Book Club

Anne Urus (The Real Boy) at Jean Booknerd (with review and giveaway)

Jennifer Nielsen (The False Prince) at Eating Y.A. Books

Ellen Booraem (Texting the Underworld) at Cynsations (giveaway)

Margaret Peterson Haddix, at The Secret DMS Files of Fairday Morrow

Other Good Stuff

"Defending The Giver," a guest post by Elsa Ouvrar-Prettol at Teen Librarian Toolbox 

 Ten feline fantasies, at Views From the Tesseract

I wrote a two part post about Middle Grade blogs as "fans, gatekeepers, partners of industry, and members of a gender-imbalanced community."  Part 1 is here, with link at the end to Part 2.

Kidlitcon cometh, and I goeth.

Rapunzel's Tower under construction, found at Once Upon a Blog


The King Must Die, by Mary Renault

Jenny at Reading the End is celebrating the books of Mary Renault this week, and I promised a review of my favorite of her books, The King Must Die (1958).

Mary Renault is the author of many superb books about ancient Greece, all of which my mother owned.  When I was twelve or so, and whining about not having anything to read, she handed me The King Must Die, a re-telling of the myth of Theseus.   My socks were knocked off, and over the next ten years, it was one of my top re-reads.  It's been fifteen or twenty years since I last re-read it (years in which my to-be-read pile grew to monstrous proportions, and my desperate need for books was finally assuaged).    So I was rather curious to see how it held up.

The story starts with Theseus growing up the son of the princess of the small Greek polity of Troizen.  The identity of his father is unknown, but rumor has it that he was Poseidon, god of the ocean, and of earthquakes...a story young Theseus believes.   But though Theseus does have a preternatural sense of foreboding before earthquakes, he shows no other signs of divine blood; no extraordinary height or physical prowess.   When he reaches manhood, he learns the true story of his birth--how his mother sacrificed her virginity alone on an island to appease the wrath of the Mother Goddess, and how the stranger who swam ashore was the king of Athens.

It's clear in this beginning section that Renault isn't going to pull any punches to sanitize her view of ancient Greece.  Sex is an accepted fact of life to young Theseus, and he enjoys it, and feels entitled to it (which makes him not entirely sympathetic to grown-up me, but it feels accurate...).   She does a magnificent job setting up a world in which the gods are really truly real, and present, in daily life--never once does Theseus anachronistically question their existence.   More troubling is her view of this era as one in which fair-haired, horse riding Hellenes swept down from their north, conquering the shorter, darker people of the coast, the Minyans, and bringing their sky gods to the fore of the pantheon of divinities....It's natural that Theseus accepts this as right and proper, but it is essentially racist imperialism, and therefore troubling.

So in any event Theseus sets out overland to meet his father, with lots of adventures on the way, most important of which is his defeat of the year king of the Goddess worshipping, Minyan people of Eleusis.   He is supposed to accede to his own death the following year...but instead he subverts the old ways, and co-opts the power of the queen for himself, and travels on to Athens already a king.

His father Aigeus eventually recognizes the young and powerful Theseus as his son and heir, but Athens has its own problems.  Crete rules the seas, and demands from Athens a tribute of young men and women, destined to be bull-dancers in the palace of Minos.   Theseus casts his lot into tribute, and sets off for Crete...

At this point the book becomes truly excellent, in my opinion.   Theseus molds the other 13 in the tribute into a team in which distinctions of Minyan and Hellene are meaningless, and they become bull dancers of extraordinary renown, not just because of their physical skills, but because of Theseus' shrewed political manipulations (shades of The Hunger Games, and Ender's Game).   I adore detailed fictional descriptions of characters mastering obscure crafts, and the bull dancing is no exception to this.  (In my re-reading, I would often skip the early parts and cut right to this section...).

But even more gripping than the specifics of training for the bull dancing is how Renault makes the story of Theseus, and Ariadne, the Cretan princess with whom he falls in love, and the defeat of the Minotaur things that are Real and Possible, without sacrificing the details of the myth.  Yes, the Minotaur here does not literally have a bull's head, but metaphorically he is still the monster of the myth....and the story becomes one of political, religious, and personal conflict in which the gods are very real, though the modern observer might not think so.

The King Must Die was the first time I encountered gay and lesbian characters in fiction--the bull dancers take lovers amongst themselves, and with wealthy patrons of both genders, and this is an accepted part of life.  Although strictly heterosexual Theseus is a bit dismissive of the "pretty boys," he recognizes the worth of the individuals behind the jewelry and makeup, and one of the lesbian bull dancers, an Amazon, is a superb leader in her own right.   It was also the first book I read in which there is lots of sex (though not explicitly described), which rather overshadowed considerations of the gender of the participants in my young mind....

I was much more consciously troubled this time around by the Minyan/Hellene distinctions, because in the last twenty years I have dealt at work on a regular basis with the European invasion of New England and its consequences, and so I am rather more aware of the racist cant of conquest than I used to be.   Though, during the course of the book, Theseus confronts the tension between the two groups directly and positively, he still ends it with a "Hellenes rule" attitude, which is believable, but truly yuck.  Likewise, I disliked Theseus' rather unappealing sense of entitlement with regard to sex a lot more this time around.   This is, of course, the Catch 22 of historical fiction--people in the past believed lots of offensive things, but to pretend otherwise weakens and falsifies the story....

But still I was utterly absorbed by the story.  The world-building is incredible, packed with sensory detail, and with a political and religious framework so solid that the metaphors and the exaggerations of the myths all become, for me, part of a very real past.  It is full of the numinous power of the gods, so inextricably part of the characters' world-view that the reader is sucked in to a reality at once believable and utterly foreign.   And so it continues to be one of my two touch-stone books of historical fiction in which myth and magic are made reality (the other being The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart).


Darkbeast Rebellion, by Morgan Keyes

When I reviewed Darkbeast, by Morgan Keyes, about a year ago, I said: "It's a very good book. The constant danger Keara's in keeps the tension humming, the relationships among the characters (and their darkbeasts) are very nicely done, and the world building, which includes a panoply of gods, is sufficiently detailed to interest, without going overboard in dotting every socio-political i."  And so when Darkbeast Rebellion (Margaret K. McElderry Books, September 24, 2013), arrived in the mail, I was eager to pluge right in.

In Keara's world, each child is bound to a Darkbeast, a creature who takes all their negative thoughts from them.   When a child turns twelve, the Darbeast must be killed. But Keara couldn't kill the raven, Caw, who has been her closest friend all her life...and so, in Book 1, she fled from the Inquisitors and found sanctuary with a group of travelling players.  There she found she was not alone--her friend, Goran, and his grandfather had both spared their Darkbeasts too.

But they are betrayed, and this book opens with the threesome venturing out into the winter, hoping to find the Darkers--the secret fellowship of those like them.   The Inquisitors are hunting them down, to kill their animal companions and torture them to find out the identity of other Darkbeast lovers.   Even in the face of fresh betrayal, Keara can't stop hoping that somewhere there is a place for her to live with Caw in saftey...

Darkbeast Rebellion is somewhat misleading named, as the book does not deal with a large scale revolt against the edicts of the Inquisitors; "Darkbeast Rebels," prehaps, would give a better idea of the smaller scope.  The story takes Keara and her friends through escapes, falls hopes, imprisonment and the threat of torture, to a safe haven where they, may, at last, be welcomed...or not.  Threats to the safety of the friends and their Darkbeasts dominate the story, keeping things tense (though mercifully Keara escapes true torture).
Keara can do little to control her destiny, except to try and trust strangers (who may or may not have her best interests at heart) and to try to mold herself into a person worthy of trust.  It's interesting to see how both the danger she's in, and her relationship with Caw, her Darkbeast, seems to have shaped her--he has been her best friend her whole life, and it's a bond that has kept her, I thought, from being able to reach out with empathy to other people and make friends easily.  In this installment of her story, she's forced to think about these things, because her life depends on it, and the seeds are planted for future character growth.
The world building faltered somewhat in this sequel, when Keara and her friends are taken to the central temple of Bestius, the god of the Darkbeasts.  There the dark creatures are breed, to be taken out into the world and bound to children throughout the land, which seems to me a logistical nightmare.  It's unclear how the communities of Darkers, living outside the law, will get Darkbeasts for their own children.   And although irrational superstition is easy to accept, as is the hatred felt by those who killed their own Darkbeasts toward those who didn't, I never found myself really accepting why it was such a big deal in the grand scheme of Inquisitor-run things....

Still, the animal compaion aspect of the story has huge kid appeal, and the dangers Keara and Caw face make for exciting reading.  A new characer is introduced, who ups the political ante of it all, and sets up the series for further adventures--perhaps even a true rebellion that topels the existing order of dictatorial rulers, both political and religious.

disclaimer:  review copy received from the publisher


Register now for KidLitCon 2013 in Austin this November!

Yay!  I'm going to Austin and I'm going to meet lots of new book people and see old friends and be happy that I'm a blogger!  I hope you can come to--KidLitCons are a wonderful thing.
Here's the official "registrations are open" post, lifted straight from Kidlitosphere Central:
"The seventh annual KidLitCon on November 9th in Austin, Texas is officially accepting registrations!
While we would love to be ahead of schedule with well, a schedule, we invite you to register now to help your organizers plan for attendance. Registering early will also give you a chance to suggest topics that YOU would like to see at KidLitCon 2013. Register before October 11th for $10 off the registration fee and a chance to win a prize package of books and goodies!
Once you register, you will receive a confirmation email with instructions for sending your check or money order. Hotel information will also be available, hopefully with a discount for our group.
We are still accepting proposals for workshops and panel discussions. Past KidLitCon sessions have included topics such as ethics of reviewing, diversity in children/teen literature, effective marketing, kidlit social media, and online community building. If you are interested in presenting at KidLitCon, please submit a proposal soon.
Look to this website for updates to the schedule, including our Friday evening event.
Lots more info to come. For now, start spreading the word! Be a fan on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! And best of all register to attend KidLitCon 2013."

The call for Program Presenters is also out:

"We’re looking for excellent programs to fill this year’s KidLitCon! What would you like to talk about with your children’s lit blogging colleagues? We’re especially interested in topics of diversity and gender, reviewing critically, evaluating illustrations, social media, trends, blog design, marketing, technology, and industry relationships. Panels, teams, and singular presenters are all encouraged, but only in person presentations will be accepted.
Proposals must be submitted through the official form.
You have until 11:59pm on Friday, October 4, 2013 to submit your proposal. You may submit more then one proposal, but preference will go to those that seem the most fully formed. Presenters do not receive free or reduced registration."

I am thinking about a session that discusses the topics above from a middle grade blogger perspective, but more a round-table of sharing-ness than strictly formal presentations....If you are a middle grade blogger and are going and might want to formulate something with me do please get in touch!!!


The Last Present, by Wendy Mass, for Timeslip Tuesday

It seems like it was just yesterday that I read 11 Birthdays, by Wendy Mass, for Timeslip Tuesday...but it was back in April of 2009 that I typed up my reaction to it, calling it "a beautifully realistic book, with the angsts of eleven-year old life front and center, but ... also a beautifully magical book, a what-if story of the nicest sort, that leaves the reader with lots to day-dream about."  And I went on to help short list it in Middle Grade Sci fi/fantasy in that year's Cybils Awards.  (It didn't win, but that was perhaps the strongest MG SFF Cybils shortlist ever).

The years passed, the eleven year olds of book one grew older, and new book came out every year--Finally, 13 Gifts, and now, this year, the final book of the series: The Last Present (Scholastic, Sept. 2013).  And it is a good ending, a satisfying one that ties up all the plot threads, and leaves the reader feeling that the kids will be just fine.  But in as much as it is this particular type of a final book, it really requires the reader to have read the first ones...and since they are fun, fast reads, there's absolutely no reason why you wouldn't want to!

So.  The Last Present tells how Amanda and Leo, best friends forever, have to travel back to the past nine birthday's of ten year old Grace to save her from a coma she's mysteriously fallen into.   Angelina, the mysterious old lady whose magical string pullings have made life so very interesting for Amanda and Leo in the past, wants them to make Grace's birthdays go the way Angelina had intended them to go, which would have brought Grace into the fold of Angelina's magical protection, hence no coma.  A straightforward mission of time travel and quick thinking--they only have to get three of the birthdays right, and they've gotten hold of the home videos of all of them so that they can see just what went wrong with each one.

Except that the things that went wrong weren't random chance.  Angelina's schemes were being actively opposed...and the young time travelers are caught up in a much less straightforward endeavor than they had anticipated.  With a full ensemble cast of all the other characters from all the other books, nicely bound together by friendships and developing romantic relationships, and with an even more direct confrontation with Angelina's magic, this is a book that's very satisfying for a fan of the series.

It's a very nice sort of time travel too, with each birthday party visit (Grace getting younger each year) it's own juicy little bite of adventure.  I liked how it was structured--each birthday party presented new challenges of infiltration (easy at first, but harder as Grace and her friends became younger), and each one they fixed resulted in a change in Grace's present state (like unlocking a level in a game), and every birthday party raised more questions and doubts about just what Angelina was up to. 

Fortunately Angelina's magic disguises Amanda and Leo, so they don't have to worry about being recognized (especially the time they arrive in the past in cow costumes), but they, of course, get to see the younger selves of people they know, which makes things interesting.  And they are good, thoughtful, time travelers, making sure they don't pay with money that hasn't been minted yet, and trying not to change things (except the things they have to change--the lost gift bags, the untied balloons, the squashed present, etc.--that got messed up the first time around).

It's perhaps a more external adventure than the other books, in that it's not the lives of the main protagonists that are changing, and there's never any real tension about things working out all right, and so it's not a book with great heft in its plot and its character development.   But if you are a middle grade reader wanting a pleasant page turner with magical intrigue and lots of small excitements (or a grown-up reader wanting the same, and why not), it's a good one.  And if you have read the earlier books, you will definitely want to read this one!

Also reviewed today at Ms. Yingling Reads


Middle Grade Bloggers as Fans, Gatekeepers, Partners of the Industry, & Members of a Gender-Imbalanced Community, Part 2

This post is a continuation of a discussion started yesterday, which you can find here.   In this second half, I talk about the gendered space of Middle Grade (MG) blogging (with data gathered from my weekly round-ups of MG sci fi/fantasy), and how it pertains to community and author-blogger relationships

Thought 3:   MG blogging feels safe and friendly.  A large part of this might be that we are united by common interests and concerns.  For many women, a larger part still may because it is primarily a female space, which isn't something to celebrate, but something to question.  A look at some data shows a troubling gender imbalance in the world of Middle Grade science fiction/fantasy blogging.
When I picked an all-female roster of panelists in Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction for the Cybils this year,  this was not because I rejected equally qualified male applicants.  It was because no male applicant (and there were few of them over all) put my category as his first choice.  There are many, many more women blogging about EMG SF than there are men.

The world of children's book blogging is dominated by women (presumably because of the female tilt of  librarianship and elementary school teaching).  The authors who engage most directly in a friendly fashion with me and my blog are also women, and I don't think I'm alone in this.  The  publishing reps who have reached out to me over the years have (I think) all been women.  Clearly the women are the ones with the most "community capital" (the phrase used by Renay, the author of the post linked to Part 1, in an earlier article about gender and blogging in the adult sci fi/fantasy world-- Communities: Beyond Traditional Horizons).

The one area in which there is gender equality is in the breakdown of the writers.   I have been compiling a list of all the EMG SF books compiled by Kirkus from October 16 to the present-- 84 of the authors were male, 81 were female, and 7 books had co-authors who were male and female.  Does this translate in an equal number of reviews in the female-dominated blogging world?  No, and this was an unpleasant surprise.

I looked at the past sixteen weeks of reviews of  MG  sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (I gather them in weekly round-ups).  286 books by men got reviewed.  381 books by women got reviewed, though I can't 100% swear that I counted exactly right (if anyone wants to do counting of their own, I have 196 weeks of round-ups--go for it).  Since I see each week as a personal challenge to find as many reviews as I can, I don't think I'm guilty of gender favoritism there...That being said, these 16 weeks may be slightly skewed by the "Holly Effect"-- Doll Bones, by Holly Black, and Rose, by Holly Webb, have been reviewed lots more than other books.  Still, it seems like a dramatic difference.

I then looked at the gender breakdown of bloggers hosting authors-- authors invited to share their words at personal blogger spaces.  I include interviews and guest posts in my weekly round-ups, so I counted the number of female vs male authors back through March 2013.   I'm not confident that this is great data--I might well have missed lots of posts from blog tours, because sometimes when I'm doing my round-ups I find blog tours overwhelming and just don't try to get all the links.  I didn't count posts at author group blogs, or industry blogs, and I didn't count guest posts that were basically publicity, like character introductions.    I found 53 instances of guest posts/interviews from male authors,  and 103 instances of female authors.

I think publicists are just as likely to arrange blog tours on behalf of male authors as they are for female ones, so that's not a likely reason for the disparity.  It might, instead, come from female authors feeling more comfortable personally asking the predominantly female bloggers, with whom they have established friendly relationships, for guest post/interview space.  This is how my own most recent MG interviews happened.   Or conversely,  (female) bloggers may feel more comfortable contacting the female writers. 

Out of curiosity, how many of those of you who are bloggers (male or female) have been approached directly by a man about a guest post or interview (excluding self-published books, for several reasons*)?  I went back through and checked my own blog--in the past seven years, I myself have hosted/interviewed three women and two men who asked me directly (although neither of the guys were authors of MG books), which is not all that meaningful.

My final question was whether the Cybils awards, given by bloggers (some of whom may be author bloggers), have gender skewing in the middle grade categories.   Because I'm pretty comfortable with the baseline of female/male authors in MG sci fi/fantasy being 50-50, but don't know about regular MG,  I just looked at the sci fi/fantasy short lists:  14 men shortlisted vs 24 women over the past six years.  This gender disparity wasn't conscious bias (which I know because I was there for most of them).   And I don't think there's conscious bias in the reviewing and guest-post data either.

Do these three bits of data (possibly faulty) reflect a more subtle phenomena of women writing books that appeal to women, and so getting reviewed and honored by women more?  Extending this line of thought, do "boy books" appeal less to the grown-up women who blog, and so get reviewed less?  Does this in turn contribute to men not feeling part of the MG blogging world, and therefore not wanting to start blogs of their own, or, if they are authors, not making the personal connections with the bloggers that would allow them to feel comfortable asking for guest post space and being reviewed more, etc.?   Or perhaps the guys who write MG sci fi/fantasy don't actually read it for their own pleasure, and so aren't interested in reading lots of reviews of it, and chiming in on the conversations? 

I dunno.   And I've never talked to a guy about it.  Because I have no close blogging friends who are guys, and I don't know any male authors well enough to ask.

But anyway, here is this gender imbalance, and it troubles me.  What to do?

Here are some things I will try to do: 
--make sure I am not falling into an unwitting gender imbalance on my blog (I'm not, currently, but in large part this is because most of the books I review are new, so the even divide of the genders in publishing keeps me on track).
--bravely (because I am shy), reach out to some male authors whose books I enjoyed and ask them if they would like to be interviewed on my blog. 
--make sure I'm visiting and commenting on the blogs written by guys, and not living in a little bubble of best blogging friends who are girls. 

Tentative final thoughts:  Middle Grade blogging is a comfortable place for women, with a blurry wall between authors and bloggers (quite a number of them are wearing both hats), and generally friendly relationships with publishers.  Though some blogs are more "fannish" and some are more directly tied to the industry of writing and publishing, many bloggers move freely between the two spheres.    One reason for the cordial atmosphere is a mutual respect based in part on a shared agenda--promoting good children's books and encouraging literacy.   Another reason may be that it is very much a female space--a safe place for women to speak their minds--which is nice for those inside it, but pretty questionable over-all. 

*I excluded self-published books because these authors are in much greater need of word-of-mouth publicity that traditionally published authors, and may contact hundreds of blogs seeking exposure.

The Lost Kingdom, by Matthew Kirby

The Lost Kingdom, by Matthew Kirby (Scholastic, September 2013, Middle Grade).

It is the mid-18th century in a (just slightly) alternate America.  The colonies are not yet united, and the French and Indian Wars are flaring up on the western frontier.  And Ben Franklin, and his colleagues at the American Philosophical Society, decide to launch an expedition to find the legendary kingdom established by the Welsh prince Madoc, and convince the Welsh to join in the fight against the French.  Fortunately the Society has a magnificent air-ship, a marvel of engineering, that will make the voyage last only a few weeks instead of months or years...and the scientists and philosophers aboard are eager not only to find out if the legend of Madoc is truth or fiction, but to collect data and make observations as they go.

And one of the scientists is a renowned botanist, John Bartram, bringing his son Billy plant-collecting with him for the first time (both are real historical people, which I found cool).  Billy is thrilled, and pleased as well to find out he's not the only young person on board--the daughter of the expedition's leader, Jane, successfully sneaked on too.   It's sure to be a grand adventure--after all, high in the air, what could possibly go wrong?

Answer:   Treachery.  Attacks by the savage megafauna of this alternate America.  Natural disasters and Sabotage.   Violent conflict with the French.   The prejudice of Billy's father toward Andrew, the half-Native translator of the expedition that threatens to destroy the relationship of father and son, and threatens Andrew's very life.   And then the arrival in the hidden kingdom they had searched for...where they do not find exactly what they were looking for.

Once airship sets off on its journey, these exciting bits follow one another like beads on a string, and the tension grows steadily.  But alongside these adventures, and often taking center stage, is the conflict between Billy and his father, as Billy sees his father exhibiting ugly racism toward Andrew.   Like Billy, the reader will (I assume) be disturbed by this; though it's historically accurate, it's no less repellent.

All though the excitements of the journey are enough to carry the audience along nicely,  the perfect reader for this one, I think, has to have some interest in the pass times of geeky adults.  The world of the ship is dominated by the eccentric members of the American Philosophical Society, who we met and observe (as they fixate on their particular interests) as the journey passes.

My one major issue with the book is that Jane, the token girl, never gets to be more than the token girl.  She has no character arc, and though I thought that the relationship (and it didn't have to be a romantic one) between Jane and Billy would be explored during the story, Jane remains off to the side, functioning only to drive the plot (in a dangerous direction) at one point.  And I wondered why she was there at all.

I am often troubled by presentations of Native Americans in historical fiction, but I think Kirby did a pretty good job here of using the attitudes of the characters to convey a pretty accurate idea of how 18th century colonials would have perceived them.  So I have no substantive complaints on that score, though I think Kirby does tilt slightly toward portraying the frontier lands as unused wilderness with only a scattering of people who weren't properly taking advantage of it, which wasn't exactly the case (and which was something the Pilgrims, for instance, liked to believe).  In fairness, though, the horrific mega-predators in this alternate America might well have kept population densities lower than they were in reality...

In short, a solid adventure with a fresh and ultimately satisfying premise, and a really cool air ship that should delight the scientifically-minded reader, that would have appealed more to me personally if Jane had been more of a person and less a female place holder.

Here are other reviews at Random Musings of a Bibliophile and Views from the Tesseract

Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


Middle Grade Bloggers as Fans, Gatekeepers, Partners of the Industry, & Members of a Gender-Imbalanced Community, Part 1

I like to take personality tests, which shaped my reaction to Renay's thought-provoking post on communities and fans and industry and authors in the world of speculative fiction blogging at Strange Horizons, in which she draws a distinction between "fannish track blogs" and "industry track blogs," with checklists of characteristics for each.  I was eager to see which my blog would be.....and found her model didn't apply all that well.  My blog is written for my own enjoyment, and for people (kids to grown-ups) who like the same books I do (fannish), but it's also written with an eye to people buying books for kids (industry-ish).  
I was also struck, in reading Renay's post, by her thoughts on the relationships between industry (the authors and publishers) and blogger/fan/readers, and the problems that can arise when the lines between the two break down. This isn't something that has been an issue for me.
And so I started thinking about the ways the points Renay made do and do not apply to blogs like mine that focus on middle grade (MG) books (written for kids 9-12).  I write predominantly about science fiction and fantasy books, which skews my perceptions.  If your experience as a MG blogger is different, please feel free to disagree with me!  (As an INFP in my favorite personality test, I almost never have Final Logical Conclusions on topics that are this fuzzy, so I won't mind).
Thought 1:  Many (though not all) MG bloggers are gatekeepers--helping other grown-ups find good books for kids--and so have a critical distance with the books they review that keeps them from being purely and simply "fans." 
The majority of bloggers who review primarily MG books aren't the target audience for those books (though there are some young readers who have great blogs).  Likewise, the regular readers of their reviews aren't generally the target audience either.   Many MG bloggers are motivated by an interest in helping kids find good books, as opposed to finding good books for themselves.  Many do this as part of their jobs.   This sort of blogger, when thinking about a book, will have two trains of thought going--"what will kids think of this book" alongside "what do I think of this book"  (sometimes the trains collide).  Likewise, the blog readers won't necessarily be thinking "do I want to read this book?", but whether the kids they know might like it.  Which isn't to say that a middle grade book can't be a great read for a grown-up. 
But in any event, the gatekeeping effect seems to result in some measure of insulation between the blog reviewer and the author.  When I receive books from the publishers that don't appeal, I may well make the effort to read and review them not because I want to strengthen my connection with the industry, but because there may be young readers who will love them.  I want my blog to be useful to people that don't share my taste, and so I don't always say what I really think.  I may write "kids who find bathroom humor amusing may well enjoy this book" as opposed to "This book is horrible because all the snot made me feel sick."  The impersonal is a lot less likely to elicit an emotional response.
Following from that, there may be more emotional remove between MG Blogger and author than there is in the world of YA and Adult books.  Though I don't think any of us who read and review books for kids would do it if we didn't enjoy them lots, and love some passionately, I don't think deeply personal, intense fan feelings are all that common (with the obvious exception of one's feelings toward beloved childhood authors!).  I admire, and like, and have huge respect for many of the authors whose middle grade books I review, and I will make a point of reviewing their new books, and possibly bounce a bit when I get them in the mail, but I won't drive to Boston to meet them as authors unless they are Megan Whalen Turner (I did drive to New Hampshire once, which is further than Boston, but that was six authors in one go, and no city traffic).  That being said, there are several people who happen to be authors who I would love to meet in real life and hang out with just because it would be fun. 

The result of this, in terms of blogging, is that even when you write a not entirely positive review of a middle grade book, you (probably) won't be challenged by rabid fans or by the author.  (After over 1,500 reviews, I have been only been attacked by a rabid fan once, and only challenged by an annoyed author in the post comments once, as far as I can remember.  Which makes me think maybe I am being too impersonal...).
Thought 2:  MG Authors and  MG Bloggers and Publishers may be friends because of sharing an overlapping agenda, and because lots of them are cool people, and the line between fan and industry isn't hard and fast.
Many of us blog about MG books because we have some interest in promoting reading and literacy.  In my mind, authors and publishers are allies in the shared goal of getting books into the hands of readers who will love them, and, as a personal bonus, many of them are nice enough to write and publish books that I enjoy reading.
Authors of MG sci fi and fantasy tend to be readers of MG sci fi and fantasy, which fosters friendly feelings on both sides, as other grown-ups with whom you can talk about these books are thin on the ground in real life.  Authors might well be fans of blogs that talk about books they enjoy.   Basically a lot of the MG authors and bloggers are great people with lots in common and the lines get blurry and there it is.

Do I want authors coming to my blog space to tell me I was wrong about their book?  No, of course not.  Do I want authors saying on my blog that my interpretation is one that hadn't occurred to them (as opposed to being Wrong)--uh...maybe, if it was an author with whom I'd had pleasant interactions with before, and they couched their words in a non-attacking way.  Do I want authors visiting my blog and leaving comments on books that aren't theirs and being colleagues and friends?  Yes.
With regard to publishing-- I am happy to be useful to the Industry, because the Industry is useful to me as a (personal)  reader and a (public) gatekeeper.  I might help a book get more attention, and find it new readers (good for the Industry).  In turn, receiving review copies from publishers helps me be useful, interesting, and relevant (and quite often makes me personally happy, which encourages me to keep blogging), which in turn (ideally) attracts more readers, making a nice little feedback loop.    However, to be "useful" is good, but to be "used" is a heck of a lot less good, and it's a fuzzy boundary on both sides.  I think that when mutual respect and professionalism are there, the balance stays tipped to the former, and everyone is happier (I realize this is not a Deep Thought).

This is long enough for one post, so please visit Part 2 for:
Thought 3:   MG blogging feels safe and friendly to me.  A large part of this might be because the participants share common interests and concerns.  An even bigger reason (for me, probably for others) might be that it is primarily a female space.  This isn't something to celebrate, but something to question.  A look at some data shows a huge and troubling gender imbalance in the world of MG science fiction/fantasy blogging.

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science from around the blogs (9/22/13)

Here's what I found in my leisurely perusal of/obsessive combing through the internets that's of interest to us fans of speculative fiction for kids!  Please let me know if I missed your post.

The Reviews:

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig, by Chris Kurtz, at Between These Pages

The Black Cauldron, by Lloyd Alexander, at Tor

The Clockwork Three, by Matthew Kirby, at J.S. Webster Mind Voyages

Curse of the Broomstaff, by Tyler Whitesides, at Geo Librarian and LDS Women's Book Review

Doll Bones, by Holly Black, at Never Ending Story

The Dream Catcher, by Monica Hughes, at Views from the Tesseract

Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, at Stray Thoughts

Frogged, by Vivian Vende Velde, at Sharon the Librarian

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, at YA Asylum

Gustav Gloom and the Nightmare Vault, by Adam-Troy Castro, at Akossiwa Ketoglo

Hollow Earth, by John Barrowman and Carole E. Barrowman, at Book Nut

How I Became a Ghost, by Tim Tingle, at Charlotte's Library

The Invisible Tower, by Nils Johnson-Shelton, at Book Twirps

Invitation to the Game, by Monica Hughes, at Retro Reads

Island of Silence (The Unwanteds Book 3), by Lisa McMann, at Xander's Middle-Grade Book Reviews

Janitors (series reviews), by Tyler Whitesides, at Julie Coulter Bellon

Joshua Dread, and its sequel, The Nameless Hero, by Lee Bacon, at Random Acts of Reading

The King's Ransom (Young Knights of the Round Table), by Cheryl Carpinello  at Mother Daughter Book Reviews

Magic Marks the Spot, by Caroline Carlson, at Librarian of Snark

The Magic Thief series, by Sarah Prineas, at Bibliophilic Monologues

The Monster in the Mudball, by S.P. Gates, at Middle Grade Ninja and All the World's In Words

Mousemobile, by Prudence Breitrose, at Sharon the Librarian

No Passengers Beyond This Point, by Gennifer Choldenko, at Next Best Book

Other Worlds (Guys Read), edited by Jon Scieszka, at Tales of a (Formerly) Reluctant Reader and Maria's Melange

Persephone the Daring (Godess Girls), by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams, at  The Children's Book Review

Peter Pan in Scarlet, by Geraldine McCaughrean, at The Cheap Reader

The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu, at Bookalicious, Ms. Martin Teaches Media, and Ms. Yingling Reads

The Rock of Ivanore, by Laurisa White Reyes, at Sharon the Librarian

Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell, at Bookyurt

The Ruby Key, by Holly Lisle, at Pages Unbound

The School For Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani, at Feminist Fairy Tales

The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud, at Book Yurt and Random Musings of a Bibliophile

The Shadow on the Dial, by Anne Lindbergh, at Charlotte's Library

Sky Jumpers, by Peggy Eddleman,  at Akossiwa Ketoglo, Kid Lit Frenzy, Michelle Devon, and The Haunting of Orchid Forstythia

The Time Fetch, by Amy Herrick, at In Bed With Books

Wake Up Missing, by Kate Messner, at Wandering Librarians and The Write Path

The Watcher in the Shadows, by Chris Moriarty, at Good Books and Good Wine

Wild Born (Spirit Animals 1), by Brandon Mull, at Geo Librarian and Charlotte's Library

You Can't Have My Planet, But Take My Brother, Please! by James Mihaley, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Zoe and Zack and the Ghost Leopard, by Lars Guignard, at My Guilty Obsession (audiobook review)

More than Reviews

"Moral Ambiguity in Percy Jackson and the Olympians" at Tor

"The Economy as Villain in The Year of Shadows by Claire Legrand" at Teen Librarian Toolbox

Revisiting Catherynne M. Valente's Fairyland series, at Tales of the Marvelous

Authors and Art and Interviews

Oliver and the Seawigs, by Philip Reeve, illustrated by Sarah McIntyre--The Thurlestone art and story,  at Wondrous Reads

Kathi Appelt (True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp) at Through the Wardrobe

Holly Webb (Rose) at Hidden in Pages and Oh, For the Hook of a Book!

Shannon Hale, on writing a story for Other Worlds, the latest installment of Guys Read

Sharon Ledwith (The Last Timekeepers) at Carpinello's Writing Pages

H.B. Bolton (The Serpent's Ring) at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

Bobbi Miller (Big River's Daughter) at Smack Dab in the Middle

Other Good Stuff

Ten fantasy/sci fi books for kids set in New York, at Views from the Tesseract

Ten Titanic time travel tales, at Time Travel Times Two

Not MG SFF, but great fun none the less--blogging advice from L.M. Montgomery at Becky's Book Reviews

For those of you who hadn't noticed the number of space stories for kids is on the up-tick, the Guardian says this is so (but without giving many examples...)

"Disenchanting the Fairy Godmother" at The Book Wars

SCBWI creates an award for Kid Lit published non-traditionally

The call for program proposals for the 7th Annual KidLitCon (Austin, Texas, November 8-9) has gone out!  I am going to be there, and I hope you are too.  If you have never been to a KidLitCon, it is a wonderful thing to be in the company of so many like-minded folks.

I am thinking of putting a proposal together for a session on the challenges and opportunities of blogging about middle grade books, that would be heavy on audience participation (more brainstorming and sharing than two or three people doing all the talking).  If this sounds like a good idea, I would love collaborators--please let me know at charlotteslib at gmail dot com.


East of the Sun, West of the Moon, by Jackie Morris

East of the Sun, West of the Moon, by Jackie Morris (Francis Lincoln Children's Books, March 2013), is a beautiful retelling of the titular fairy tale, beautiful in part because of the lovely water colors that grace many pages, but also because of how very satisfactory the retelling is.   It is a really good book that deserves its Kirkus star.

In this version, the white bear comes to an American city to visit a family living in poverty and despair.  They had fled their homeland after the father, a journalist, was arrested and tortured by the government...but they have not yet found sanctuary as political refugees.   The great bear promises that all will be well with them...if the oldest daughter comes away with him...

So she does, and sticking very closely to the original, the girl and the bear live together in a beautiful palace (though with no windows), and every night in the darkness someone gets into bed with her.   Then comes visit home, the tinderbox from her mother, and the realization that the bear is under an enchantment, broken too soon, and bringing an end to what might have been a happy ever after of love.

And here comes the first little twist--the bear prince admits that it's actually just as much his fault for not having the will power to stay away.  Which made me pause, and think that it is really rather creepy that he is getting into bed with her in the first place in the dark all secret like, and she still just a kid, but regardless, now he has to go off to the troll palace east of the sun and west of the moon, to marry the troll princesses.

So the girl (we don't know her name at this point), sets off to find him, not knowing where to go, and in a beautifully described journey meets three wise old sisters, one by one, who send her to the winds, and at last she arrives at the gates of the North Wind, the only one who can take her where she needs to go, and the first person in the book to call her by name (Breneen).  But he wants to win her heart for himself...and she must decide whether to stay and rejoice in the wild beauty and power he can offer, or keep on after the bear prince.

The next bit I will make white, because it a spoiler, but without telling it I can't convey why I liked the ending so much.

Breneen goes on after the bear prince, and saves him from the trolls, but then---she decides not to marry him.  She was a girl when they lived together, she only knew him one day in human form, and she realizes, so wisely, that there is no particular reason why they should end up marrying each other.  Just because he needed her doesn't mean it's true love...

If you are thinking about Christmas presents already, as I am, this one would be a very satisfactory book to give to give to an older reader reader of fairy tales.  It is a very "presenty" sort of book, what with all its illustrations, some double spreads, some little decorations,  it's quirky, friendly, size (smaller and squarer than most books), and the generous margins giving the words lots of room to breath (and after I wrote this, I read on  Jackie Morris' website that this is exactly what she had in mind for its design!).    The illustrations are truly lovely, and you can see some them via that same link.

I say older reader as gift recipient deliberately, as it's a retelling  that I think works best for people who have already been down the road of the original, and who will appreciate it anew, and perhaps even more, in its new form.  A marker right at the beginning--a brief mention of prostitutes and drug dealers as part of the description of the city--made me realize I wasn't reading an illustrated version of a fairy tale for young children, and the circumstances of Breneen's family, illegal immigrants who had to flee from torture, clarified that.   (You can read more about Morris' decision to take this path at this interview at Playing By the Book).   I hit to the prostitutes and drug dealers on page, didn't want to be in a gritty urban setting, felt confused, and put the book down for several days...but I picked it up again, and was very glad I did (the gritty part doesn't last long, and the fact that it was there to begin with adds heft to the story).

But as well as that, older readers, I think, are more likely to grin at the way the ending (more spoiler) subverts the stereotypeof the "happily ever after" as I said in the first spoiler; Breneen gets to grow up, and become her own person, and not stick around just because the prince once needed her. 

In short, though it's marketed for readers 11-14 year old, and while I think it's just fine for them, the romantic fairy tale loving adult is an equally suitable reader.   I myself picked it up to see if it belonged in my category of the Cybils (ages 9-12), and I think if it were nominated, it would be happier in YA. 

Final thought: I'm counting this an example of diversity in fantasy even though I can't tell you what country Breneen is from--it's never stated, the name is not easily placed (as far as I could see) and the illustrations are ambiguous.  I look at the cover, and can see a Middle Eastern girl, or an Asian girl, or a Central American girl (at the moment I'm seeing her as Asian)--but in any event, she's not from northern Europe!


Bunnys Declare War, an acrostic poem by my younger one

Purists will doubtless be bothered by the plural of bunny my son used, but regardless, he wanted his poetic effort to reach a wider audience (and it made me laugh).

Bunnys Declare War, by MGH, aged 10

Bounce, bounce, bounce
Up, down, up, down
No carrots!!!
You evil humans

Evil humans!
Cataclysm of
Evil Humans!

We declare


Wild Born, Spirit Animals Book 1, by Brandon Mull

Wild Born, Spirit Animals Book 1, by Brandon Mull (September 2013), is the first book of a new multi-authored series from Scholastic.   When this book arrived in the mail, it's kid-appeal was just bursting out of its cover image--brave, multicultural kids with cool spirit animal companions--and my ten-year-old pounced on it.

In a fantasy world modeled loosely on our own, with equivalents of Europe, Asia, the Americas and Africa, some children form mystical bonds with spirit animals, who become their companions for life.  These children become Greencloaks, traveling the world to help others safely bond with spirit animals.  But this year, four children summon spirit animals that no child before them ever has.  They are four of the twelve Great Beasts--mythical beings of legend--the Wolf, the Leopard, the Panda, and the Falcon, who died long ago in battle against two of their kind who had turned rogue.

Now Connor, a shepherd boy from the European equivalent, Abeke, from the African, Meilin, from the Chinese, and Rollan, from the colonial North American, must learn to trust their spirit animals so that they can tap into their powers.  The two defeated Great Beasts from long ago are rising again, and war is engulfing the world...

This is primarily an introductory book---we meet the kids and their spirit animals, we get a bit of back story on the past conflict, and we share the protagonists frustration as the Greencloaks withhold information (for no good reason that I can see).   Some tension comes from the fact that Abeke has been co-opted by a group that opposes the dominion of the Greencloaks, and the reader, like Abeke, is not sure what side is Right (clue--people with "nice" spirit animals are good, people with snakes and bats and crocodiles, not so much).

The story is propelled forward into a quest adventure when we learn, about halfway through, that each of the 12 Great Beasts has, or had, a talisman of power.  Both sides want the talismans, and so the three young protagonists who were co-opted by the Greencloaks set off with their spirit animals, and their Greencloak mentor, to find the Great Ram and procure his talisman.   The opposing side, along with Abeke, is (coincidentally) headed to the same place, and they meet and fight, and Abeke realizes that the folks she's with are the bad guys, abruptly the somewhat interesting ambiguity. 

So there is indeed, as I had suspected, much kid appeal here.  The gradual development of the bonds between the spirit animals and the kids they have chosen, and frustrations the kids experience as they try to make sense of what is going on makes for good reading.   The larger plot, with its ancient evil and magical talismans, will seem much more fresh and inventive to the younger reader than to an experienced veteran of fantasy.

There's a pleasing diversity to the main characters, which goes beyond window dressing--the cultural backgrounds of the protagonists have contributed to who they are.  My son, who I have trained to approach book covers critically, was happy to see that the African girl not only has the coolest, most actively being used, weapon, but also the most powerful and appealing spirit animal, and this pleased me too.  I was a bit disappointed that Brandon Mull fell into the trap of stereotype, though, when describing his alternate North America, as "untamed land controlled mostly be beasts and the Amayan tribes" (page 68), as not only is it wrong to describe pre-contact North America as "untamed" (a lot of New England, for instance, was pretty carefully managed and rather park-like), but lumping together "beasts" and "tribes" is distressing.  

Short answer: not one for adult readers, but 8-10  year olds embarking on their exploration of fantasy worlds and quests and companion animals will quite probably enjoy it.

The next book in the series (Hunted, coming January 2014) is written by Maggie Stiefvater...I prefere her writing to Brandon Mulls, so I will await it with interested optimism; my son will await it with unbridled eagerness. 

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


Waiting on Wednesday--Greenglass House, by Kate Milford

Kate Milford caught my interest with The Boneshaker, and utterly captivated me with The Broken Lands (my review), and very thoughtfully, has written a new book that sounds like it will appeal to me even more--Greenglass House, coming ages from now in August of 2014, which is a long way away, but still worth thinking about!

The publisher's description: 

"A rambling old inn, a strange map, an attic packed with treasures, squabbling guests, theft, friendship, and an unusual haunting mark this smart middle grade mystery in the tradition of the Mysterious Benedict Society books and Blue Balliet's Chasing Vermeer series.
It's wintertime at Greenglass House. The creaky smuggler's inn is always quiet during this season, and twelve-year-old Milo, the innkeepers' adopted son, plans to spend his holidays relaxing. But on the first icy night of vacation, out of nowhere, the guest bell rings. Then rings again. And again. Soon Milo's home is bursting with odd, secretive guests, each one bearing a strange story that is somehow connected to the rambling old house. As objects go missing and tempers flare, Milo and Meddy, the cook's daughter, must decipher clues and untangle the web of deepening mysteries to discover the truth about Greenglass House-and themselves."
I cannot wait to see what Kate Milford does with one of my favorite fictional things, the attic packed with treasures....

Waiting on Wednesday is a meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.


The Shadow on the Dial, by Anne Lindbergh, for Timeslip Tuesday

The Shadow on the Dial, by Anne Lindbergh (1987), is an example of time travel that teaches a modern kid how to be a Better Person.   Two not especially likeable siblings, 12-year-old Dawn and her little brother Marcus, are dumped on their great-uncle, who lives in a retirement community in Florida, while their parents go off on a vacation.  Their uncle doesn't really know what to do with them and the kids are bored.  Dawn fantasizes about all the wonderful things she'll accomplish in music and dance, but doesn't do any practicing  (this is clearly what needs to be changed about her), and their uncle expresses bitterness that he never learned to play the flute.

However, their visit soon turns much more interesting than they'd expected.  Marcus has pilfered a coupon for One Heart's Desire, Deliverable on Demand, with the cryptic instruction--"just dial."  And it turns out that fooling with their uncle's sundial counts, and it turns out that it's the heart's desire of someone else being offered, so...they travel back in time to all the moments when things went wrong for their uncle viz flute playing, from kid to adult, and by the end of it they've changed the past enough so that he had a happy career in the Boston Symphony and ended up married.   And Dawn has learned that daydreams aren't enough to make a happy future for yourself, and so the reader goes off to practice their own musical instrument or whatever.

The time travel is actually rather nicely done, and is what makes the book readable, and even enjoyable.   The visits to the past, and one to the future, are fun--interesting characters and situations.  It's also interesting to see how the chain of events spins itself out.  It's not one thing alone that kept the uncle from learning how to play the flute, but a whole sequence of attitudes and events, from his father's attitude that no son of his would do such a sissy thing, to a beautiful girl who tells him he looks stupid when he plays, to an addition almost missed because of walking a girl home (and a few more).  And Dawn and Marcus are challenged each time to figure out a way to keep the impediment from having long term consequences, and rise to the occasions successfully and believably.

Huh.  School Library Journal thought somewhat differently--"The manipulation of so many events to accomplish such astonishing changes is not convincing."  It's one of those books where you have to just accept the premise that lots of changes will happen (because that's the point), and go with it.  I don't think the SLJ reviewer had read much time travel.  And indeed, back in the eighties there wasn't much to be read; out of the 200 or so time travel books for kids and teens I've reviewed here, there are maybe five from the eighties, 2 of which are 1980, and so don't count, and 2 of which are from outside the US.  I have a vague plan to someday try correlate the quantity of time travel books being written with social and political trends.  The Reagan years seem especially unconducive to time travel fiction--is there a connection????

Anyway.  The Shadow on the Dial isn't particularly dated, and if the modern young reader feels slightly warmer to the two spoiled brats dumped on their poor uncle by thoughtless parents than I do, and is able to get past the cover illustration, they might well enjoy the time travel part.


Presenting the 2013 Cybils Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Panelists!

It was my job this year to choose the 2013 Cybils Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Panelists...and after much blog reading and careful thought, I picked 7 newcomers and 5 Cybils returnes.   There were good people I just didn't have room for this year--to you I say, please feel free to try again next year!

Isn't this just a superb line-up of EMG SF readers?  I'm so excited.

First Round

Melissa Fox, Book Nut

Kristen Harvey, The Book Monsters

Allie Jones, In Bed With Books

Cecelia Larsen, The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia

Brandy Painter, Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Charlotte Taylor, Charlotte's Library

Stephanie Whalen, Views from the Tesseract

Second Round

Gina Ruiz, AmoXcalli

Sarah Potvin, Librarian of Snark

Sondra Eklund, Sonderbooks

Laura Phelps, Bibliothecary Prescriptions

Sarah Bean Thompson, GreenBeanTeenQueen

How I Became a Ghost, a Choctaw Trail of Tears Story by Tim Tingle

How I Became a Ghost, a Choctaw Trail of Tears Story by Tim Tingle (The RoadRunner Press, June 2013, 160 pages, Middle Grade and up) is a stunner of a book that deserves to be widely read, not just by kids but by grown-ups.   I'd heard of the Trail of Tears, and knew it was horrible, but now it has been made real to me.   And it was a really good story, with lots of magical, exciting, adventure.  

Isaac, the narrator of the story, is a ghost.  But when his story begins, he is an ordinary kid, growing up in a close-knit Choctaw community.

"I'm ten years old and I'm not a ghost yet.  My name is Isaac and I have a mother and a father and a big brother, Luke.  I have a dog, too.  His name is Jumper, and he is my best friend.  We go everywhere together.  We swim in the river together; we chase chickens together."

Only the date at the top of the chapter, 1830, tells the reader this is a long ago story.

Isaac's life is about to be destroyed.  The Choctaw are about to be driven out on the long forced march from their ancestral homeland in Mississippi to Oklahoma--on foot, in winter.  Many will die, and Isaac finds himself seeing visions foreshadowing who, and how.  And he knows that he will be among those who do not make it, and that he will become a ghost.

But though what happens is almost unbearably harsh, Tim Tingle accomplishes something remarkable with the way in which Isaac tells his story.   Without diminishing the import and impact of the suffering and death, he manages to make his characters more than just the sum of their horrible experiences, and their story more than just a litany of darkness.  Part of this comes from Isaac's voice--he's very much a lovable, somewhat naive kid; a typical ten-year-old boy (who happens to be a ghost), telling his story in a matter-of-fact way with touches of humor. Another escape from darkness comes from the resilience of the Choctaw people, who face the horrible hand they've been dealt with heroism, determination, and the strength of their community, one that includes the ancestors and the recent dead as well as with the living. And because death does not sever the bonds of family, the fact that Isaac becomes a ghost is desperately sad, but not as emotionally devastating as it might be. 

And the final thing that keeps the weight of the subject from crushing the reader is that Isaac's story is also a gripping adventure, one that finds him on a desperate mission to save a teenage girl from the soldiers forcing the march onward...with the help of an unexpected ally, a shape-shifting panther boy.   This adventure is one with tremendous appeal for younger readers (shape-shifting panther boy! desperate escape involving schemes and subterfuge!), making the pages turn fast and furiously.

And an even more final, small, thing--Isaac's dog Jumper is a joy.

This is historical fiction doing what the best historical fiction does--making part of the past come alive, jolting the reader into new knowledge of the past and its atrocities while keeping them engrossed in a great story.   And it's the best sort of historical fiction for kids--teaching without preaching, telling a story that's exciting and entertaining, while packing an emotional punch that leaves the reader stunned and changed.  It's the first of a trilogy, and I am looking forward to the next book lots.

Note on age of reader:  I'm going to go with 10 years old and up on this one, with the caveat that a grown-up should be nearby.   Bad things happen to people in this book--blankets deliberately infected with smallpox, for instance, are given to the people of Isaac's town, and people die.  So many ten-year-olds have a keen sense of Justice, and they will be outraged and angry, and might (thinking of my own child) want to throw the book violently down because they are so furious that people could do such things to other people.  But I think the fact that the horror isn't underlined with a heavy hand, and Isaac's friendly voice, and his friendly dog, and the growing excitement of the story (if the young reader gets to the shape-shifting panther boy, they'll be hooked for good), will balance that out.   There's a lot of gradual buildup to Isaac becoming a ghost, too, so it doesn't come as the sort of horrible shock, making it difficult to keep reading, that sometimes happens with deaths of characters one is fond of.  In any event, I will try it on my boy, and will watch with interest to see if he says I am a terrible mother for making him read something so sad, and gives up, or if it sings for him....

I have no reservations at all about recommending it to grown-ups.

Tim Tingle is himself an Oklahoma Choctaw and storyteller, who has been recording the stories of the Choctaw elders for the past decade, and whose great-great-grandfather walked the Trail of Tears. 

So.  There is the book, and it is an excellent book, and it defies easy categorization.  Is it realistic fiction, in that the elements of the book that might seem supernatural (shape shifting, ghosts, visions) are a real part of the world of its characters, or is it Speculative Fiction, in that things far beyond mundane "reality" are an integral part of the story (like the fact that it is being narrated by a ghost)?  I would like very much to nominate this book for the Cybils come October 1, but where?  I am thinking I will email Tim Tingle, and ask him where he thinks it would be most at home....

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