Our list is done

So I've been proud to have been (with a sigh for the past tense) a member of the nominating committee for the Cybils in Sci Fi/Fantasy. There were so many great books that it was a pretty impossible task to pick just five for each of the two age groups. I hope our list pleases--we think there are great books on it! It has been a joy to work with my fellow panelists--thank you all, and thank you, Tasha, for being our organizer.

And it was a joy to read the books that were nominated (here is the list). My final total is 124 of the 161. Of the ones I didn't read, some were unobtainable, some were the second, or third, or fourth book in a series I hadn't read all of, and some I just plain didn't get to. Not every publisher, or writer of a self-published book, was able to send everyone a book, but to those who did--thank you so much! I have already written recommendations of books I wouldn't have necessarily have read otherwise, and I plan to write many more reviews, now that I don't have a Reading Deadline.

The very great pleasure I got from my reading these past few months has made me realize that this is the genre that I love the most. So in the coming months I've resolved to keep my focus on sci. fi/fantasy for MG and YA readers, finishing up reading and reviewing the many books I have on hand, and seeking out new ones. And high on my list of books to seek out is Blackbringer, by my fellow panelist Laini Taylor (hi Laini!)....

Our list will be up tomorrow at the Cybils site, I think. Let me know which one you think should win!

Giveaway reminder--The Stowaway

Today is the last day to leave a comment if you want to win a copy of The Stowaway, with a signed bookplate by the authors! Here's my interview with R.A. and Geno Salvatore, where you can enter to win!

This is a fun, action-packed book, that I'd happily give to any 12ish year old kid on my gift list who likes a good fantasy!


The final hours of my Cybils Reading

Our All-Panelist Chat is set for 7:30pm, EST. We have 161 science fiction/fantasy books from which we must pick ten finalists (5 younger, 5 older). Some of us are still frantically reading, or re-reading--there's one I read in June, for instance, that I want to look at again. And some of us (me) are, in a slightly over-the-top way, checking local bookstores in the (perhaps mercifully vane) hope that unavailable, and hence unread, books have materialized, taking the afternoon off work to read, obsessively checking email to see what the other panelists might be thinking (although they seem to be too busy reading, or possibly working, to be sharing their thoughts). Some of us (again, me) are also worried that our aged computers will not work properly during Group Chat...

And then there's the issue of actually making Final Decisions. So tricky. For other awards (naming no names), people aren't necessarily expecting to Like the book that wins. But we are supposed to be picking books that will be passed from hand to hand in a viral way. And what if nobody likes them?????



The last two days of Cybils reading are here, and I wish I could just sit quietly and enjoy the last few books I need to read. I am currently halfway through Lamplighter, the second of the Monster Blood Tattoo series, which means 300 pages to go...it is a good thing that it is an utterly engrossing book, because I am enjoying it so much that I am forgetting how rushed I feel.

It arrived from the publishers (thanks Penguin!) just before Christmas, and was really too big to take with me. There was a limit to how many books I could burden my children with...


Misc. musings, mainly related to my Cybils reading

One good thing about the children growing is that more of Mama's books can be put in their backpacks. We flew down to Virgina from Rhode Island, bringing eight books with us, for Mama's holiday reading (I still have about fifty books to read for the Cybils before Dec. 30th). My eight-year old is now able to carry three books, my five-year old two. More books arrived when my husband drove down a few days later. Now all I need is the time to read them in...fortunately, other family members are more enthusiastic about cookie making then I am.

And waiting for me here was a copy of Jenny Davidson's book, The Explosionist, which I had bought on ebay. It was described as a hardcover, so I planned to pass it along to my public library when I was finished with it. I was incredibly vexed to find that it was, in fact, an ARC. I am not a happy shopper.

On a different note, I realized that in my last post, on Give the Gift of Ghosts, I was guilty of an embarrassing omission--I left out The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, in which virtually every character is a ghost. In my defense, these ghosts are the most substantially real dead people I've ever encountered in a book (one forgets they aren't alive anymore)...but anyway, I've added it to my list.


Give the Gift of Ghosts

Free shipping for Christmas over at Amazon may have ended, but there is still lots of time to head down to the bookstore to buy more presents. Here are some suggestions for kids and teens who love spooky stories, taken from the books nominated for the 2008 Cybils Awards in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category. I've listed them from youngest to oldest (the last one, in fact, is a perfect gift for a ghost loving grown-up).

First up is The Seer of Shadows, by Avi (Harper Collins, 208 pages). Travel back to 19th-century New York, when photography was young, and spirits were a hot topic, and see what happens when the two meet!

Here's what Avi himself says about this book, from an essay online at the Harper Collins site: "The Seer of Shadows tells the story of young Horace Carpetine, apprenticed to a professional photographer, one who is quite willing to set up a hoax—the taking of ghost photos. But when Horace takes up his camera, he really does capture a ghost in his photographic images. What’s more, the more images he takes, the more the ghost comes back—develops, so to speak—to life. And this ghost is intent upon a murderous revenge.

I added another element to the mix: race in 1870s New York City—complex, volatile, but ultimately moving. After all, I am writing about black-and-white photography.

In short, what I am offering in The Seer of Shadows is an old-fashioned ghost story, but one in which you’ll find new strangeness, new scary stuff, and yes, striking images."

It's a pretty creepy, fascinating read, although the prose style might be a tad off putting to some younger readers, because it has a bit of an "olden times" tone to it. Because it deals with the techniques of early photography, this might be a good one to give to the young camera buff who likes an exciting story.

Here's another ghost story marketed for younger readers, although it's a book that I think most anyone will like--The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. I can't believe I left it off the first version of the list, because all but two of the main characters are, in fact, ghosts. In my defense, they are the most alive dead people I've ever met in a book. These ghosts take on the responsibility for raising an orphaned baby boy in the cemetery that is their final resting place, protecting him from dangerous forces that mean him ill. The result is a moving, engrossing, and original story that tells how young Bod (short for Nobody) grows up in the graveyard, and how, in the end, he must face what waits outside...

Next up is The Summoning (Darkest Powers, Book 1), by Kelley Armstrong (Harper Collins, 400 pages). Don't be fooled by the cover, which makes this look a bit like a steamy vampire book. It's not. Fifteen-year old Chloe saw dead people as a child, but for many years her life has been free of ghosts. But when the terribly burned janitor (who happens to be dead) accosts her at high school one day, her natural hysteria lands her in a group home for kids with mental problems. Pleasant and homey though the home might appear, it harbours dark secrets about both the living and the dead, and soon Chloe realizes that ghosts are the least of her problems...

This has moments of spookiness (although the dead people never quite convinced me), but what most interested me was the relationships that develop among the teenagers, all of whom are "special" in unusual ways, and the gradual revelation of the true nature of the home where they have been confined. I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.

Bliss, by Lauren Myracle (Amulet Books, 464 pages, but lots of empty space)

When you've been home schooled at a commune all your life, high school can seem strange. But imagine if your new high school comes complete not only with the regular crowd of jocks, geeks, and Beautiful Girls, but a really nasty teenaged ghost as well, whose voice only you can hear. A ghost who wants out, who wants to taste blood again. The setting of the book, way back in the 1960s, adds interest to a truly toe-squirming story.

The Ghosts of Kerfol, by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick Books, 176 pages)

This is the scariest of all these four books. It is a series of five stories, moving forward in time from Edith Wharton's classic ghost story, "Kerfol," which tells of a young Frenchwoman accused of murdering her jealous husband. His body was found at the bottom of the stairs, savaged by dogs. But there were no dogs alive at the manor house of Kerfol that day...Gothic horror combined with great writing makes this one a page turner. I am not at all sure why this is marketed as a Young Adult book, because I think it is a better fit for grown ups. Although certainly many teenagers, in particular those who like their books dark and Gothic, will enjoy it as well. Not a book to read on a cold, dark night, especially if you are staying by yourself in an old French mansion.

As well as being a great ghost book, this is a Perfect Gift for the Edith Wharton fan on your list.


The books my boys are getting as presents

What books are you buying your children for Christmas? Here's what my two boys are getting.

For my 8-year-old, almost taking off into reading, history loving boy:

The Vikings (Lost Worlds), by J.M Clements. I haven't actually read it myself yet, but it sure is handsome.

Moomin, the Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip, Book Two. I myself find the comics strange, but he likes volume one very much.

Harry the Poisonous Centipede Goes to Sea, by Lynne Reid Banks. For him to read to himself.

For my five-year old, who likes birds and mythical creatures:

The United Tweets of America. Educational bird fun for the whole family.

Monsterology, by Dr. E. Drake So they are each getting a beautiful big book.

And finally, Gingerbread Friends by Jan Brett. He loves Gingerbread Baby--partly because, like the boy in the book, he is named Mattie, and he looks so much like the book boy that he could have been Jan Brett's model.

My list of books seems a rather short to me, but they get so many books throughout the year--borrowed from our book sale sorting work at the library, books that I get here from publishers, books I buy when we walk up the hill to the bookstore as a treat (we also like our chocolate chip cookies). So I don't want to overwhelm them.

And I am getting them new journals, so they can write their own.

I would also list the seven books I've bought for my husband, but he reads this so I shan't. I don't, quite, trust him not to peak...

So, what are your kids getting?????


100 down, 61 to go

Today I read my 100th book of the 161 on the Science Fiction/Fantasy list. I took it with me while I did Christmas shopping on Bald Hill Road, Warwick, Rhode Island, because, as anyone who has ever shopped there knows, the traffic is something fierce. I picked the book I took on account of its short chapters--the lines at the red lights were long, but not so long as to allow for more than 4 minutes of good stopped time. Even so, I only got 28 pages read before I was where I wanted to be. And I'm not going to say which book it was, because I don't want anyone to think that just because I didn't save their book to read in the blessed hour I have to myself in the morning I didn't read it carefully. I will, however, say that tomorrow I am finally going to treat myself to Graceling, which I have been looking forward to for ages. And please let it be a morning when the boys sleep late...

And the nice man who is fixing the rotted front of our house has suggested that we might try to prime and paint all the new unrotten wood he has put up, if it gets warm enough, and there is still the sad business of the kitchen windows, which aren't back in (thank goodness for storm windows), and I have to do some more, rather important, Christmas shopping (a trip to the bookstore, which will be rather nice, and a trip to the toy store, to find out if the family of mice they have in stock can be undressed, because my youngest boy wants a mouse family but not with clothes), and so on...so my goal tomorrow is Graceling, and perhaps one other (and said youngest has just found me, and is meowing at me to come downstairs. Small sad kitten wants his Mama...).


The Final Blog Stop of The Stowaway--Fantasy for Younger Readers

Welcome to the final blog tour stop of R.A. Salvatore and Geno Salvatore, who are here to chat about their new book The Stowaway: Stone of Tymora, Volume I (Mirrorstone 2008, 287 pp), a fantasy adventure novel for middle-grade readers on up.

R.A. Salvatore is famous for his Forgotten Realms series and the DemonWars Saga, most notably his series of books about Drizzt Do'Urden. I feel a little chagrined to admit that I haven't read any of them. I played Dungeons and Dragons myself, back in the early 1980s, and by the time the Forgotten Realms books came out, I dismissed them as something I had outgrown. And I very well might not have picked The Stowaway to read, if left to myself. But fate intervened.

The Stowaway was nominated for the Cybils Awards in the Science Fiction/Fantasy Category. I am one of the panelists charged with picking shortlists of books, and so a copy duly arrived for my reading pleasure. I enjoyed it, much more than I thought I would.

The Stowaway was written deliberately to bring a younger audience into the Forgotten Realms. It is marketed as a Young Adult title more to make it visible to the older readers than because it has "young adultish" themes or content. The book should easily engage its target readers-- boys--and since girls are happy to read books about boys, many girls may well enjoy it too.

12 year old Maimum seems to pursued by violence. Orphaned early in life, he was raised by a wise woman in the woods, until she too is murdered. A mysterious stranger helps him flee, and gives him a magical stone, telling him it is his birth right. But others want the stone--a demon attacks, gravely wounding Maimum's protector. Running for his life, Maimun stows away on a pirate hunting ship, where he meets the dark elf Drizzt Do'Urden, and a host of other characters, some good, some not so nice...

Maimum tells his own story, and it is a fast-paced, action packed one. A lot happens, much of it exciting. On the down side, in my opinion, there's not a lot of emotional resonance, or character development, or the moments of beautiful writing that lift a story above the quotidian world. But I'm not a 12 year old boy.

One of the criteria that I bring to judging a book is whether I will keep it, or pass it on to the library. This book is not exactly perfect for me, but I did put it on the "keep" shelf, selfishly thinking that in a few years it will be just right for my oldest son (who's now 8).

And so it is a great pleasure to welcome R.A. (Bob) Salvatore and Geno Salvatore here today, for the final stop on The Stowaway blog tour. Many questions have already been asked and answered at the earlier blogs stops (see below). Here on this final stop I wanted to talk to the authors about how The Stowaway fits into the larger picture of current fantasy for younger readers.

Me to Bob: "Why did you decide to write for a younger audience? It's not as if your other books weren't read by teenagers, and even ten-year-olds, the intended audience for this book, but this is your first book specifically targeting kids. Did you have to keep reminding yourself, as an author, who you were telling the story to? Did it help that you were working with your own son, who, even though he is of course a grown up, is still your kid?"

Bob: Honestly, the idea came from Wizards of the Coast, and I expect, from the bookstores. For years now I’ve been hearing from various bookstores that they want to give the kids and young teens who have just finished Harry Potter one of my books, but they don’t know where to start. So we decided to make it easier on them by offering an obvious starting point. I absolutely agree that my Dark Elf books are read by many younger readers – I always have that in mind when I’m writing the books, so there are times when I draw the shade, so to speak, on certain encounters.

The easy part of this project was that no, I certainly did not have to keep reminding myself of the audience. Geno and I just told a story; we told it through the eyes of a 12-year-old to make that immediate connection with a younger reader, but make no mistake about it, the older readers who enjoy the Drizzt books are missing out if they don’t read this one.

As for working with Geno on this, I never really thought of him as my son on the project. He’s my co-author. I do believe that the fact that he’s only in his early 20’s didn’t hurt the process, as he remembers vividly the perspective of a bright and curious 12-year-old – certainly better than I (I’d have to think back to the days of Richard Nixon and Vietnam!).

Me: I am an avid reader of fantasy, and I have been so happy in the last couple of years with all the lovely new fantasy books shelved in the children's and young adult sections of the book stores. I hardly bother to see what's in the "real" science fiction section any more (which could be a sign of my own mental weakness). Whether we have Harry Potter to thank or not, I'm glad of it. From what you say above, this trend in fantasy publishing to actively reach out to young readers, played an important role in the birth of The Stowaway. And while the two of you were writing it, were you reading other books being written for the 10-year-old boy target audience? If so, are there any that stuck in your minds?

Bob: Here’s the thing, the reason I keep writing, the very best part of my job, is when I get letters that begin with, “I never read a book until…” or “I couldn’t get my son/daughter to read until I gave him/her one of your books.” That’s it for me. That’s my motivation. That’s when I feel like maybe I’m doing a little good in the world with this work.

I remember that feeling on the other end, after all, when I was a freshman in college and Tolkien whisked me away to a wonderful place and a wonderful adventure.

And sure, Harry Potter sticks in my mind. I’m completely jealous of J.K. Rowling, of course, but I also want to thank her from the bottom of my heart. Not only has her work taught millions of kids that it’s okay to use their imaginations, not only has her work widened the fantasy genre as a whole and brought a new audience to my work, but I truly believe that she has done as much for the literacy rate in this country as all the money we dump into public education. Just like I’m convinced that July 20,1969 (“one small step for Man, one giant leap for Mankind) did more for science and math scores on SATs than any classroom ever could.

Me: The Stowaway is only a teensy bit colored by Dungeons and Dragonish elements. There are character types and monsters and settings that are D. and D. ish, but this didn't feel at all to me like a book tied to gaming. How deliberate was this?

Geno: Setting is detail, in my mind, and not story. The story can function in other settings, or without setting at all. That this book is set in the Forgotten Realms determines certain things – geography, history, religion – are predetermined, but the story is enhanced by, not determined by, these aspects.

Me: Fantasy seems to be a great way to get boys to read (girls too, but somehow that is less desperate an issue). I'd call The Stowaway a Boy book. To illustrate what I mean by that, here's a few snippets the now somewhat famous quote from a 13-year-old from Publishers Weekly a few weeks ago:

"However much I mock the literature of yesteryear, it definitely had it right when it came to vampires. The vampire was always depicted as a menacing badass. That is the kind of book teenage boys want to read. Also good: books with videogame-style plots involving zombie attacks, alien attacks, robot attacks or any excuse to shoot something."

Obviously, you all weren't writing a vampire book. But a "boy" book to me is one that is heavy on action, with a lot of things, often violent, going on—The Stowaway. So is this sort of book what you had in mind?

Geno: The book we had in mind was a Drizzt book aimed at a younger audience. This does not necessarily mean a “boy” book – there are plenty of female Drizzt readers, and hopefully plenty of girls will find and enjoy The Stowaway. But it does mean a book high on action.

Bob: Also, I think vampire books are more aimed at teenage girls now, by far. Fantasy is almost becoming gender neutral, which is a great thing. When I started writing, I’d guess that more than 90% of my readers were male. Now, it’s probably closer to 50-50. When I started playing Everquest in the late 90’s, you always knew that the female character you ran into was being played by a guy. Now, if you see a female in World of Warcraft, it’s probably a female player.

Me: That being said, I liked the strong girl character very much, and I trust we will see more of her in the next book (or books)?

Geno: Oh yes.

Bob: Absolutely!

Me: The Stowaway is the first book of the Stone of Tymora series; I see at the Random House website that this is a trilogy. How are the next books coming? Will you kept all three at the same age level, or does the series become progressively for older readers (perhaps ending with a nudge to the grown up sci fi section of the bookstore)?

Bob: We’re constantly evaluating that and trying to make the best decisions. There was indeed some confusion in the Drizzt readership – they couldn’t figure out where to find the book (and those giant bookstores can be kind of confusing, after all). There will certainly be debates about where or when to position the books. Is it better to launch one of these alongside a Legend of Drizzt novel, as we did this year, or would we be better off moving them apart, particularly in a tough economy?

It’s not my call. All I can say is that Book Two is written and going through the editing process now.

Me: I've already confessed that I haven't been keeping up on my adult science fiction/fantasy reading (although by the end of today I will have read 100 2008 books nominated for the Cybils). What about you two? What good science fiction/fantasy (for kids or grown ups) have you read recently?

Bob: I’m just starting ”The Hobbit” again – it’s been four years since I read it, so I have to go back. That’s about it. One of the problems with being a busy author is that I don’t have much time for reading, and the reading interferes with my own work.

Geno: That’s so true. I was reading a book a week until I started writing. I hardly remember that last book I read. I’ll recommend Terry Brooks’ “Running with the Demon,” though. I think it’s his best work.

Me: Thanks, Bob and Geno! And best of luck with your future projects.

For more interesting conversation about the Stowaway, visit these earlier blog stops:

Monday, Dec. 8 Becky's Book Reviews

Tuesday, Dec. 9 Bilge Munky

Wednesday, Dec. 10 SF Signal

Thursday, Dec. 11 SciFiDimensions

And if you want to read it yourself, leave a comment by December 31st, to be eligible to win one of two copies with signed bookplates...


Margery Gill Obituary in today's Guardian

I didn't know how familiar I was with the illustrations of Margery Gill until I read her obituary in today's Guardian. It includes a link to several of her drawings, including this illustration for Andrew Lang’s Fifty Favourite Fairy Tales:

But now that I have linked the name to the style, I realize she created many, many people who still live in my mind--The Little Princess, the children in Over Sea, Under Stone, the children in my edition of Noel Streatfeild's Apple Bough. I am overcome by nostalgia, and a strong desire to collect hardcover first editions, that (thankfully, given that my children still need to eat) will almost certainly not last. And, speaking of valuable collections, I also would like to know what the Dustman did with his....(click on the link).

The obituary is also well worth reading for its description of the development of children's book illustration in the second half of the 20th century.


Give the gift of a very different New York

Maybe you have a someone on your present buying list who just happens to be from New York City. Maybe they might like to look at their home in a whole new way...and here are three 2008 books, all excellent reads in their own ways, that do just that.

Masterpiece by Elise Broach, is a lovely book about a young beetle who shares a New York apartment with a lonely boy. On his birthday, the boy gets a pen and ink set, but has no interest in drawing...not so the beetle, whose new found artistic talent leads not only to friendship with the boy, but to an exiting adventure in the dangerous world of art theft! For the younger reader (say, 6th grade-ish), this would make a lovely present, an even better one paired with a pen and ink set, with possible add-ons including a book of Old Master etchings, a promise of a trip to the local gallery, an original pen and ink sketch by Da Vinci, etc. Or perhaps a book about beetles!

Maybe you think you know Manhattan. But this book, by Scott Mebus, offers a New York that will knock your socks off, because it is filled with gods--hence the title, Gods of Manhattan! Small gods, like the God of the Good China, and big gods, like seventeenth-century Dutch governors, 19th-century socialites, and the spirits of the Native Americans, cruelly imprisoned as part of the plot of one particularly nasty divinity to take total control of the city...and standing against that evil god is a young boy, who can see things most kids can't. Like small warriors disguised as cockroaches. Great fun, and a very good one for the 12+ year old who likes action-packed fantasy.

Maybe you've wondered what New York City would be like if there were fewer people in it. Maybe, after you read this book--The Dead and the Gone, by Susan Beth Pfeffer, you will be glad for all the people whose shoulders you bump on your morning subway ride. Because (as the title, um, subtly hints at) most of the folks are not there anymore. Leaving one teenage boy struggling to look after his sisters and to stay alive in a post apocalyptic nightmare. This is a follow up to Life as We Knew It, but since it tells of different characters in a different place, it is a true stand alone. Not exactly festive reading (Young Adult rated, on account of death, disease, and destruction), but it should make your giftee appreciate having family, which is, after all, one of the points of the holiday season.

And here is a Free Wrapping Tip, Worthy of Martha Stewart, if I say so who shouldn't--you could use an old tourist map of the city, with an apple ornament tied festively to the ribbon! Or not.

All three of these books have been nominated for the Cybils in Science Fiction and Fantasy--please feel free to use the Amazon link thingy at right, to support these wonderful blog-given awards.


Give the Gift of Demon Lovers

This holiday season, why not give the gift of a demon lover? (or more accurately, wanna-be lover). It's been a great year for them! Here are four that I enjoyed. Please note: none of the people described as "fairies" in these books are in any way "pink" or "glittery." Or "nice." Any of these would make a great gift for a teenage girl who likes Twilight, but is perhaps ready to more on...Forget about vampires--bad-ass fairy books are much cooler.

Impossible, by Nancy Werlin (Here's are reviews from my co-Cybilians at The Puck In the Midden, and at The Compulsive Reader).

I loved this novelization of the lyrics of Scarborough Fair. Lucy must complete three impossible tasks (as given in the song), or go mad and end up enslaved to a vengeful fairy lover...

Lament, by Maggie Stiefvater (reviewed by me, and The Compulsive Reader)

The people who published this story of a teen-aged girl becoming entangled with the fairy realm called it the "soulless fairy assassin book." But the assassin has much more to offer than his ability to kill...

Ink Exchange, by Melissa Marr (reviewed at Em's Bookshelf, and at Becky's Book Reviews)

Another fairy entanglement, with complexity of plot and character that impressed me. This is the sequel, in a way, to Wicked Lovely, but it focuses on a different character and is, after a first bit of awkwardness, a stand alone read.

Need, by Carrie Jones (here are a few reviews--by Kate Messner, by The Story Siren, and me)

And finally, here's one that isn't even quite out yet, but you can still get it in time for Christmas. I especially recommend this one for gift giving because of the festive gold sparkle lip gloss. The setting--cold snowy woods of Maine--is also seasonally appropriate, and provides an interesting background to the scheming of a baaddd pixie...

Did I miss any 2008 demon lovers? Let me know!

All these books but Need have been nominated for the Cybils in the Science Fiction/Fantasy Category (Need has to wait till next year). I'll be offering more gift recommendations from our list of nominees in the next week or so...


mice thoughts, for poetry friday

We live in an old house with porous borders, and have an inadequate cat. So as the weather has gotten colder, the number of mice with whom we share our house has grown. We recently Took Steps, and bought a humane trap, which is working. Now our lives are even more full and rewarding, as we drive car-loads of mice around looking for places far away where we can dump them (late one night, the police followed my husband as he turned into an abandoned parking lot, and demanded to know what sinister errand had brought him there..."Oh, just disposing of mice, Officer!")

And so I have been thinking of this most famous of mouse poems, by Robert Burns (coupled awkwardly, thanks to stupid old blogger, with my own thoughts)

The Poetry Friday Round Up is at Mommy's Favorite Children's Books.


Ottoline and the Yellow Cat

Ottoline and the Yellow Cat, by Chris Riddell (Harper Collins, 2008, 171 pages but a lot of them are pictures).

I remember as a child how I pored over the illustrations of the Eloise books—there is so much to see in them, and they are so much more than the words but so part of the story. Ottoline and the Yellow Cat offers a similarly wonderful reading/looking experience, but with a very different type of heroine.

Ottoline is the young daughter of eccentric collectors, who travel the world looking for such wonders as four spouted teapots. She stays home with Mr. Munroe, her Norwegian bog troll friend and chaperone, and a host of service personnel who visit at regular intervals, and she passes the time working on her own collections, writing in her notebook of observations and clever plans, and splashing in puddles. The bear in the laundry room is interesting, but the mysterious lost lap dogs and jewel thefts in her neighbor hood offer more scope for an intelligent young girl and her troll companion, who set off into the strange city to crack the case….

That’s the bare bones of the plot; frankly, the mystery didn’t intrigue me all that much. But the book is so much more than its story, because there is more pictured than is told—lavishly detailed drawings (black and white, with bits of red) everywhere, some of which take up both pages, with maps, and three-dimensional cutaways, and an odd sock collection and, of course, lots of pictures of Ottoline and Mr. Munroe. And many of the pictures have little labels, some relevant to the plot, some apropos of nothing much, such as the one pointing out “a mouse called Robert that Mr. Munroe came across in the kitchen last Thursday.” It is absurd, it is smart, and it is also rather sweet.

The reading level is about the same as the Eloise books. It is perfect for the accomplished five-year-old girl (me as a child). And it works really, really well as an independent reading book for an eight-year-old boy with an iffy attention span (all the bits of writing in the drawings are perfect), who can read long words just fine, but who has not yet become comfortable reading longer, more chaptery, books to himself, and who needs reassurance that yes, he is a reader (this was proven at my house last week). Another book that works well this way is Mammoth Academy, by Neil Layton (also from the UK), reviewed here by Jen Robinson.

There are two more books about Ottoline coming—Ottoline Goes to School, and Ottoline at Sea. This makes me happy, because I like smart, spunky Ottoline very much, and I love Mr. Munroe, who is now my second favorite fictional troll (no one can top Moomintroll).

Ottoline and the Yellow Cat has been nominated for the Cybils Awards in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category.

A nice thing about looking to see who else has reviewed a book is finding new blogs that intrigue--here's a review at Children's Books: What, When, and How to Read Them. And here's another review from my co-panelist Amanda, at Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs.

Incidentally, Chris Riddell is one of the co-creators of the Edge Series, which I have never read, but which seem like a good thing to try on my 8 year old in the coming months...opinions, and other recommendations, welcome!


Relevance (which sounds like a book title but isn't)

One reason why I don’t read books for grown ups is that too many of them are Relevant, in that they are about the “grown up experience in early 21st century America,” which is presumably what I am experiencing. Of course, since I don’t read them, they may be about something else altogether. I am a weak-minded escapist, and one thing I look for in a book is irrelevance, often soothing, comfortable irrelevance (and if you are a re-reader, like me, you find that even books that are at first thought-provoking, like Ender’s Game, become soothing with repetition).

I’m thinking about relevance because at the author of the blog The LiteraBuss just called Sarah Plain and Tall “another outdated story that has no relevance to today's kids” and said about Little House on the Prairie “It's from a different time, and if you're reading it for historical perspective, there are much more meaningful ways to go about that.”

I’m happy to agree that both these books do not particularly deserve to be required reading, but I’m a little surprised that they should be dismissed so vehemently because of not being relevant and modern. To me, modern is not a selling point in and of itself, and the themes of family and home that characterize these books are kind of, um, central to the human experience. And I find, in my own irrelevant reading, that when books that take such central, powerful themes and display them in an alien setting, those themes can be seen more clearly, and thought about more thoughtfully than would otherwise be the case (a classic example being the books of Ursula Le Guin). Through irrelevance, relevance.

By way of interesting contrast, there’s a post at the Guardian book blog today that celebrates old books, entitled “Why girls’ books still build their dreams around home.” It points out the strong and unforgettable sense of home and family in many classic girls books—Little Women, the Chalet School books, Ballet Shoes, and the Little House books. And it suggests that these themes might actually still have relevance to kids today.

Such books appeal to me. But then, I’m already starting to daydream about going Home for Christmas, and singing carols around the piano with my family, and decorating the tree, and making cookies with my boys using the same cookie cutters I used as a girl…

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