Monday, April 30, 2007

The most challenged book of 2006

It is a children's picture book about penguins. Yes, penguins. It is probably challenged so often because it is a true story. It's about two chinstrap penguins who live at the Central Park Zoo. Roy and Silo are two male penguins uninterested in the females, choosing instead to be together. They are clearly devoted to each other, and when the other penguin couples start building nests, Roy and Silo build one, too. But the other couples can do something that Roy and Silo can't: lay eggs. One day the zookeeper notices Roy and Silo sitting on an egg-shaped stone, trying to hatch it. Another penguin couple has an extra egg -- they can only ever take care of one -- and so the zookeeper gives it to Roy and Silo to raise. And they do a wonderful job! Little Tango is born, and Roy and Silo take excellent care of her. You can visit them today at the Central Park Zoo - and maybe even see them online via the penguin cam.

This book gave me goosebumps the first time I read it. It is such a wonderful story, and my children love it, too. It talks about such important things: loving and taking care of each other, finding a way to be happy despite being different or being unable to do things exactly the way those around us do, and the fact that people and families can all be different, and that is okay. These are things I enjoy talking about with my kids.

What is it that makes some people so very uneasy about this book? It is well written, touching, and beautifully illustrated. It has won many major awards, and its literary and artistic value are undeniable. It has been challenged by parents in school libraries, removed from some school systems, moved to the nonfiction section in others; but in most cases it has remained on the shelves, I'm happy to say.

Personally, I find it a bit amusing that this lovely story about penguins can stir things up and maybe, just maybe, engender some intelligent and thoughtful discussion. Or am I too optimistic? I hope not.

If you are interested in more information about the brouhaha, the wikipedia entry about the book has links to articles about the controversy.

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell; illustrated by Henry Cole (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2005)

Publisher recommends for ages 4 - 8.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Lessons in Life, Music, and the Perfect Blue Hawaiian

College freshman Robin Meloy decides to spend her summer vacation on Nantucket. She's landed a job at an Italian family restaurant, and she's going to be a sexy, sophisticated waitress and meet lots of handsome Ivy League men. She discovers, however, that as waitresses go she's pretty awful -- in fact, she writes, aside from dropped plates of lasagna and spilled red wine, there are "several incidents involving blood."

She misses being able to practice the piano, and a fellow waiter suggests she practice at a nearby bar and restaurant during the day. The owner agrees -- and as soon as he hears her practice, he offers her a job playing there at night. "For people?" she asks, horrified. When he offers her fifty bucks a night, though, she's in. Good-bye, waitressing!

Excited, she calls her father, who is also a musician (he was the drummer in Mister Rogers' band, among others), to tell him about her gig. "Robin, get a hold of yourself," her dad shouts into the phone. "You only only know twelve songs and eleven of them are Bach. What are you going to play?" He sends her some "fake books" - music books that have easy arrangements of popular songs; her mother throws in some cocktail gowns, and she's on her way to a career as a cocktail lounge pianist.

Thirty years later, she reflects on her journey in this memoir, recounting touching and laugh-out-loud hilarious anecdotes about events along the way. Life takes her to New York City hotels, a resort on Haiti, exclusive private islands, and German castles. The people she meets are described wonderfully, from the crazy lady on the New York street corner who shouts bizarre but strangely on-target comments to Robin when she passes, to the hotel restroom attendant who keeps a marvelous clothing boutique in the handicapped stall. It is a very fun read.

I first heard about this book in an interview with Goldsby on NPR, and it was on my book list for a long time. I'm glad I finally got around to it. (Go to Goldsby's website to hear some of her wonderful piano music. You can also buy her CDs on Amazon - I just ordered mine!)

Piano Girl by Robin Meloy Goldsby (Backbeat Books, 2005)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

I've got the challenged book blues...

This is one of the funniest but most disturbing articles I've read lately (and these are funny, disturbing times, people).

Talk about taking censorship to a whole new level! Evidently a man's two teenaged sons were so emotionally scarred by reading a book about lesbian sex they found in the library (while they were with their father, no less) that not only is he demanding that the book be removed from the library's shelves; he is also suing the city for $20,000 in damages. Puh-leez.

What cheered me up considerably after reading the article were all the readers' comments at the end.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Once Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude

Come on, how could you not pick up a book with that title? Cool Motorcycle Dudette, a wonderful children's librarian I work with, first pointed this book out to me, and it is just as fun as the title.

The premise of the book is reminiscent of those horrific group projects they force you into at school, where you invariably get put with someone you can't stand who either disagrees with everything you suggest or won't do any work at all. (I always preferred the ones who didn't do any work at all, because at least I could make sure it all turned out okay.)

The protagonists here are a boy and a girl who are suffering through once such group assignment.
They have to make up a story together, but their artistic visions aren’t exactly what you'd call compatible. The girl begins the story with Barbie-like Princess Tenderheart and her eight beautiful ponies with names so sickeningly sweet as to make the boy want to gag. A giant steals her ponies each night, and the princess cries and cries. The boy can't take it anymore, and he continues with his part of the story. Enter his hero (you guessed it): a cool motorcycle dude. The girl is disgusted. "As if," she scoffs. "He's not even cute or anything." The story lurches on, each telling their own part (turns out the princess is not a wuss after all), each thwarting the other when they can, but taking the story in fun directions all the while. Very clever, and very funny.

The illustrations are superb. Three artists use contrasting styles to differentiate between the girl and boy as narrators (a fun, cartoon style), the girl's narrative (bright acrylics in pastel colors) , and the boy's narrative (darker, dramatic images in oil and acrylics).

I'm unclear why, but my library shelves this book with the chapter books, even though it is a picture book -- I guess it is a bit violent and possibly confusing to very young readers, with its story-within-a-story format and alternating viewpoints. The book claims it's for ages 6 -10, and I'd agree with that. Although, of course, I'd bump the end age up a few decades -- but that's just me!

Once Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude by Kevin O'Malley (author/illustrator), Carol Heyer (illustrator) and Scott Goto (illustrator). Walker Publishing Company, 2005

Monday, April 23, 2007

"I don't have time to read."

I don't get that. Admittedly, I read obsessively; even so, it befuddles me that so many people say to me (often after hearing I'm a librarian, or that I'm a writer), "I love books, but I just don't have time to read." They sigh wistfully, as though reading involved taking several days off from work and making complicated childcare arrangements. Really, it's just not that hard!

I guess it has to do with being committed. Reading, for me, is and always has been a way of life. I always have a book with me (two if I'm toward the end of one, just to avoid that terrible feeling of book panic), and when the opportunity presents itself, I read. I read in waiting rooms, on buses, in the kiss-and-ride line at my children's school, during meals (if I'm alone), you name it. These same people can, of course, tell me what happened last week during 24 and Lost, and American Idol (none of which, at the risk of scandalizing whoever reads this, I have ever actually seen). Not that I hate television or anything -- I just have better things to do. Like play with my kids, read to my kids, hang out with my husband, cook, write, knit, walk the dog...

Maybe people just don't find the right books for themselves. I give a book maybe 50 pages, and if we haven't clicked by then, I'm finished. There are too many great books out there for me to waste my time struggling through one I can't get into. When I'm in the middle of a good book, I can actually carry on conversations with other people (although I have no idea I'm doing this at the time) and tune out just about anything (and I often got in trouble for this as a child, having no recollection whatsoever that I'd promised to clean up my room or do the dishes). I've been reading and missed my bus stop, subway stop, and train station. If it's a good book, I'm in that world, and that's that. Maybe these wistful non-readers haven't had the chance to find the books that really grab them. They have struggled with too many dull books and have just given up. That's a depressing thought.

At any rate, I was thinking about these things today when I was having lunch (good food and a good book - my favorite!), and all around me were people eating alone, just staring off into space, clearly not enjoying themselves very much. That brought to mind people I see on the subway, just sitting there looking tired and bored. Why don't these people grab a book? Try something new? I want to carry books around and distribute them to people. I guess that's why I like Bookcrossing so much. I leave lots of books on public transportation, but usually I never find out what happens to them.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

How green are you?

Try this quiz to see. It often embarrasses me to be an American these days. Taking the quiz didn't make me feel much better (although I apparently take up fewer acres than the average American). Still, we could all do much better.

Go here to take the Earth Day Footprint Quiz.

Happy Earth Day?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

This book is a cruel joke

So I'm sitting in the kiss & ride line with my kindergartner, waiting for her older sister to come out of school, and we are reading a bunch of new books that I checked out of the library. She looks through the stack and chooses one called Tadpole's Promise. It looks cute - and she is delighted by the way the book opens vertically, instead of horizontally, like a wall calendar.

The story is about a tadpole and a caterpillar who fall in love. Cute, right? The caterpillar has colorful stripes, and the tadpole calls her his beautiful rainbow. The tadpole is shiny, black and round, and the caterpillar calls him her sniny black pearl. She asks the tadpole to promise never to change, and he foolishly promises not to, only to anger her as each of his legs appear, and his tail disappears. She goes off in a huff and turn into a chrysalis, and when she emerges, everything has changed. So she decides to forgive the tadpole, but she can't find him. She flies down to ask a frog (aka her beloved tadpole) on a lily pad if he's seen the tadpole, and GULP! He eats her. Then he sits there wondering what happened to his beautiful rainbow - and he'll never know.

Yes, to an adult reader, that is pretty funny. I went over to Amazon to see the reviews, and on the whole people loved it - all the adults, that is. It's a great book to give someone who's getting over a break-up, people write. I'm sure it is.

When I turned the page to the quite graphic illustration of the frog swallowing the butterfly, her wings sticking out of his closed mouth, I quickly closed the book as my daughter began to wail. Her face crumpled up, and she cried, "Mommy! I don't like this book! This is a terrible story!" I felt awful that I hadn't flipped through it before reading it to her, but it seemed so cute and innocuous. The book itself proclaims it is for readers 4 - 8. Honestly, I would love to send that author on a promotional tour of preschools where she could do readings and take the fallout.

Not that all books for children need to have happy endings. We read a lot of books together, and I don't screen them for happy endings or anything like that. But this one? What is the point of that? Don't date outside your social circle, race, culture? It seems pointlessly cruel, and unlike other books with unhappy endings or elements, there wasn't anything I could hold onto to try to explain it to her, to help her make sense of it in any meaningful way.

This happened on Thursday, three days ago, and she is still upset about it. I don't understand the need for a story like that. Not for such young children, at any rate. Hmph.

Tadpole's Promise by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Tony Ross (Atheneum, 2005)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Playing the Game

I've just finished Diana Wynne Jones's latest book, and of course it was wonderful. She has a way of writing the most outrageous stories that makes them seem perfectly reasonable and believable. I love that about her. She always manages to surprise me, and I just love sitting back and enjoying the ride, wherever it ends up taking me.

Our heroine is Hayley, an orphan who lives with her humorless grandmother and kind but distant grandfather. Her uneventful life is bound by countless rules and restrictions, and it isn't until she is banished to her relatives' house in Ireland that she realizes how very circumscribed and dull her life has been. Her many cousins introduce her to their favorite pastime during family holidays, something called, simply, "the game." Through the game, Hayley discovers a whole new reality, amazing and wonderful things she had only begun to suspect were out there. But the game is expressly forbidden to the children, and it has consequences that may put an end to all the wonderful things Hayley has only begun to explore.

In this book Jones uses Greek mythology in a wonderful way and, as usual, she doesn't pull any punches with literary allusions. This is exactly the kind of book that sent me scurrying, as a child, to find out more about mythology and astronomy (not to mention astrology). I would go read everything I could, find out about the background stories mentioned in the book -- and then I'd go back and read The Game all over again, just so I wouldn't miss out on any of the references and allusions.

Well, now I'm stuck waiting for Diana Wynne Jones to publish another book. I did read on her website that the magician Howl, from Howl's Moving Castle (also a wonderful film by Hayao Miyazaki), will appear in her next book. So I'll have that to look forward to. In the meantime, I might have to go back and re-read some of her old ones. Rebekka mentioned that Deep Secret is her favorite DWJ book, and I read that so long ago I can barely remember it. That will be next on my DWJ list!

The Game by Diana Wynne Jones (Firebird, 2007)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

"The big, old house story to end all big, old house stories"

So says Zilpha Keatley Snyder in the foreword of her latest book, The Treasures of Weatherby. She admits that, as is sometimes pointed out to her, big, old, mysterious houses are often the settings (and sometimes almost characters in and of themselves) of her stories. "Why? I can't really say, except that in my real unfictionalized life, I've always been fascinated by big, old houses. In fact, I've lived in a couple. However, I've recently decided that enough is enough. I would allow myself just one more big, old house. And that's it!"

The big, old house in Treasures is suitably impressive. Add to the mansion a lonely, sickly child with no mother, a father who is barely there (Harleigh reminded me a bit of Colin in The Secret Garden), a strange girl who appears and disppears mysteriously, a crusty martinet of an aunt in a wheelchair, a legend of lost treasure, and a host of quirky distant relatives, including one nasty, indimidating one who appears to be up to no good, and you're in for a treat.

Snyder is one of those few favorite authors whose books I read as a child who is still writing and publishing books today. I think my first one was Black and Blue Magic, about a boy who somehow acquires a magical substance that, when rubbed into his back, enables him to sprout wings and fly. Of course after that one, I was hooked. I also loved The Egypt Game, The Headless Cupid (set in a wonderful, big old house), Libby on Wednesday, and The Velvet Room.

Come to think of it, I honestly wouldn't mind another big, old house story from Zilpha Keatley Snyder!

The Treasures of Weatherby by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2007)

Other blog reviews:
Jen Robinson's Book Page

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Slightly disappointing nightmares

This is the second book in the Golden & Grey series by Louise Arnold, a series that deals with an unpopular new boy at school (Tom Golden), who is "adopted" by Arthur Grey, a ghost who decides to be Tom's invisible friend. In the first book, a series of events renders Tom able to see ghosts while no other living people can.

There are some interesting ideas in these books -- especially the concept that ghosts are not the spirits of the dead, but are beings unto themselves who coexist with the living. And while many of the situations and characters are stereotypical, the addition of the ghosts' world, a whole other dimension with a culture and way of life all its own, gives an otherwise run-of-the-mill situation a clever and often humorous new angle.

I have to say that I enjoyed the first book (Golden & Grey: An Unremarkable Boy and a Rather Remarkable Ghost) more than the second. The sequel wasn't bad; it just wasn't very gripping. There were so many different characters that not much time was spent on developing them, and consequently I found it difficult to care about them.

At the end of the first book, I was a bit disappointed because Tom was rescued from his dire situation by other characters; I like a main character who is able to save himself. In the second book, not only does Tom fail to save the day at the climax of the book -- another, completely minor character does that -- but he also fails to figure out how to right things at the end of the book. He does manage to right things, but he discovers how to do this completely by accident. I find that very unsatisfying, especially in a children's book.

I will not be reading any more of this series, but I might recommend it to children who love insteresting stories with ghostly characters in them.

Golden & Grey: The Nightmares That Ghosts Have by Louise Arnold (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2006)

Monday, April 16, 2007

How much do you love your library?

Happy National Library Week!

If you are particularly passionate about libraries, you can enter Thomson Gale's "I love my library" video contest, with a $10,000 prize. $5,000 of the winnings will go to the maker of the video; the other $5,000 will go to the library of the winner's choice. The contest is to publicize Thomson Gale's launch of librareo, a new online community for people who love libraries (and who doesn't?).

I don't know if Virginial Gal has a video camera, but she is one of the most passionate supporters of libraries I know, and making an award-winning video would give her something more fun to think about than MBA classes. I bet she and Molly Malone could cook up something fun between the two of them (and it would give Molly something more fun to think about than that blasted thesis).

Click here for more information about the contest.

Have you hugged your library today?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A classic childhood favorite

Edward Eager was one of my favorite authors when I was a child, and I will be forever grateful to him for his frequent mentions of writer E. Nesbit, because that is how I discovered her books. A few months ago, I read Half Magic (I love all of Eager's books, but I think that one is my favorite) to my children (kindergarten and 2nd grade), and they really enjoyed it. This week I finished reading Seven-Day Magic to them, and it was a hit as well. In fact, after we finished it, they spent several minutes poring over the list of other books by Eager, deciding which one we should read next.

The story is about a group of friends who go to the library every weekend. On this Saturday in particular, they find a battered old book, and the librarian (who appears to know more about that book than she's letting on) informs them that it is a seven-day book, which must be returned the following week. It isn't long before the children discover that this special book is magic -- not only is it writing their story, but it can also grant wishes -- and the children take turns wishing for the most exciting adventures they can think of.

I always looked for that magical, battered red book whenever I went to the library -- I knew it had to be in a library somewhere, and why not mine? I never did find it, though. Could that have influenced my decision to become a librarian? Hmmm...

This is a good choice for a read-aloud, because the plot is episodic - each child gets a turn to make a wish, and the events of each wish make up what is almost a stand-alone short story. Readers of Half Magic will be treated to a glimpse of what happens at the end of that book (something that delighted me as a child). Another reason I loved the book so much was that the magical adventures extended into the children's real lives and made lasting changes. I always hated those books with ambiguous endings about whether it all really happened or not.

Seven-Day Magic by Edward Eager (Harcourt, 1962)

Pet digression...

So we went out to the movies last night (Meet the Robinsons - cute and fun, but no Incredibles), and when we got back, we found our two delinquent marauding cats had ransacked the pantry.

This is nothing unusual (usually we have to keep a thick rubber band around the knobs of the pantry's double doors, but sometimes we forget to put it back on -- you'd think we'd have learned by now!). But what was unusual was that, along with the various cans and jars and bags that they'd knocked onto the floor, ripped open and scattered all over (does anyone else have a cat that can't get enough cheesy pirate's booty?) they'd also knocked down the flashlight that I keep in there -- and when we got back, we found the flashlight on the floor - turned ON - and pointed so the light was shining into the pantry! As if there weren't quite enough light for them to really get into everything, so they had to get the flashlight out, too. Heaven help us!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The funniest book I've read in ages

One reason I love books by Christopher Moore is that they are always surprising and funny, and often they are so surprisingly funny that they make me howl with laughter.

This is one of those books. It is a bit tough to recommend it to just anyone because it is decidedly odd, and I think it's the kind of book that either you get or you don't. And if you get it, you will laugh. Hard. Who else could write a book dealing with grief and terminal illness and have it be touching and hilarious?

I recommended it to a children's librarian I work with - she rarely reads anything that's not for kids, but I could tell that, with her sense of humor, she would love it. She was so skeptical. I could tell she didn't want to take it, but I pushed the book into her hands and begged her to give it just a chapter or two. She even tried not to like it, I think, but when she got to the hellhounds, it was all over, and she was hooked. Heh heh.

With each book of Christopher Moore's I read, I think, "This is his best one yet!" And this is his best one yet. I hate to give too much away, but the plotline involves a couple of bodyguard hellhounds (named Alvin and Mohammed), the morrigans (from Irish mythology), a little girl with a rather...interesting... ability, and the main character's discovery that Death has a bunch of assistants (akin to the department store Santas -- death's little helpers?), and he has just joined their ranks -- whether he wants to or not.

I also recommended A Dirty Job to a library patron, and several weeks later she came back to the reference desk and told me that her mother had recently died, and somehow an article of jewelry that her mother had always worn had gone missing. She and her brothers and sisters were at a complete loss as to where it could be. It had evidently vanished when she died. This patron kept thinking about the book and the soul objects and just grinning about it all, and she bought copies of the book for all her family members, and she said it really helped get them all through a really tough time.

To paraphrase Homer Simpson: Books -- is there anything they can't do?

A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore (William Morrow, 2006)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Pinhoe Egg

Now I'm sorry I read it so fast. But what can you do? Diana Wynne Jones is definitely up there on my list of top ten favorite authors. She is so fun and quirky and surprising, and the older I get, the more I have come to appreciate those qualities in a book.

Jones's latest has a complicated, gripping storyline and is touching, exciting, and hilarious (often simultaneously). Normally I'm a total stickler for reading series books in order, but I honestly think that it would be fine to start reading the Chrestomanci books with this one. Sure, there are recurring characters and references to past storylines, but the book definitely stands alone. The Chrestomanci books are more like a web of interlocking stories than a chronological series, anyway.

What is the book about, you might ask? Where to start? Well, Joe's summer plans are ruined by his grandmother, who makes him take a job as a boot boy so that he can spy on the goings on at Chrestomanci castle. Marianne, Joe's sister, has her summer plans ruined as well, and she ends up at everyone's beck and call when she's not running all over town chasing her grandmother's cat, Nutjob, an escape artist extraordinaire. A magical family feud is brewing in the town, but when Marianne tries to tell her family what is happening, no one believes her. Then Cat, who lives up in the castle, becomes friends with Marianne, and she gives him the mysterious egg they discover in her grandmother's attic. What hatches from that egg sparks the magical feud to drastic - and hilarious - proportions.

It is hard to write very much without giving too much away. I loved the book, and I'm now in the unenviable position of having to wait for another one to come out. Oh, well. On the bright side, I found a new one by Zilpha Keatley Snyder today!

The Pinhoe Egg by Diana Wynne Jones (Greenwillow Books, 2006)

"Read this. It makes people faint."

I have never read anything by Chuck Palahniuk. Yesterday I came across this link in Bookslut's blog. Evidently when Palahniuk gives readings of the story "Guts" from his book Haunted, at least one person always passes out.

How bad can it be, you might wonder? (As I did.) I have read a lot of graphic horror fiction, and some of it has disgusted me, some of it has utterly creeped me out, but nothing has ever brought me anywhere near fainting. I was definitely curious, so I checked the book out of the library today.

I just finished reading the story. And no, I came nowhere near fainting. Yes, it depicted some truly awful things, and it is definitely one of the more horrifically graphic things I've read. The sensory images he creates are striking and vivid. But passing out over this? I don't think so. I'm not sure why it didn't strike me the way it obviously has many other people, but I've thought of two possible reasons.

One is that I read the story with the expectation that it was going to be horrific, and so I wasn't all that surprised by what happened. Much of it actually struck me as pretty funny. I mean, not funny in a nonfictional sense, so that you'd laugh if it actually happened to someone. But funny in an over-the-top, how-fun-it-is-to-make-up-something-to-really-make-people-squirm kind of way.

Which brings me to the second reason. I think that we all have our buttons, the things that make our knees go weak. So I can definitely imagine that someone with deep-seated fears about the kinds of things in this story would be completely freaked out by it. Fainting still seems a stretch to me, but there you go.

There is also the fact that listening to a story being read out loud makes it impossible to skim over or rush through portions of the text that are disturbing. I experienced that when I listened to the audio version of Stephen King's The Green Mile - it was just awful to listen to parts of that. (But not fainting-ly so.)

It must be fun to read something out loud that you have written and have someone pass out every time! Talk about the power of the written word...

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Why don't more adults read children's books?

I know, I'm a bit strange. But it honestly does baffle me. Maybe there are more adults out there reading kids' books than I realize, but I doubt it. Don't get me wrong - I know there are a few out there, beyond children's book writers and children's librarians and school media specialists. At work in my library I occasionally help an adult locate a children's book, which they reluctantly (and sheepishly, always sheepishly) admit is actually for themselves. Usually they want to revisit an old favorite from when they were kids (a few weeks ago it was Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey, and since that is one that I also revisit every few years, just because I love it so much, helping the patron find that book and talking about it was one of the highlights of my day). And occasionally it is someone who is curious about a book like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, or the Japanese manga books.

But I have no idea why it doesn't happen more often. These books are great! Not all of them, of course -- just like the ones in the adult sections aren't all great, either. But I can honestly say that I am certain that, if I were to pick up a book at random from adult fiction and a book at random from children's or young adult fiction, I'd almost certainly enjoy the kids' book more.

Is it that people are embarrassed? That it doesn't occur to them to see if there's anything interesting in that section for them? Even the Harry Potter phenomenon doesn't seem to have transferred to other books outside that series. Why is that?

Right now I'm reading Diana Wynne Jones's latest book, The Pinhoe Egg. I have been reading her books since I was a child -- the first one I picked up was Dogsbody (published in 1975), and I've been hooked ever since. These days, there aren't many authors left from my childhood who are still writing books (Joan Aiken and Paula Danziger come to mind as ones who died not too long ago, sigh). And the book is -- so far -- wonderful, funny and gripping. Which is unsurprising, since so many of hers are. What a treat to read this book.

Aren't there other adults out there who grew up reading her books that would enjoy reading this? Doesn't anybody ever check in the children's section just to see if there's anything new by their old favorite authors?

I sometimes make my friends read children's books. I bully them into it, tee hee. And they always enjoy them (or maybe they're just humoring me). Some that come to mind are The Dead Connection by Charlie Price; Sorcery and Cecelia, or, the Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer; The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares; Holes by Louis Sachar; Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause; A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray; and A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. Those are just a few off the top of my head. There are so many amazing ones out there!

Stillwater, the gigantic panda - my hero!

This has got to be one of my favorite picture books ever. It's definitely not for young preschoolers - I think kids six and up would be most interested in it.

The illustrations are amazing, first of all. And the story-within-a-story format is presented brilliantly -- which is important, because this book may well be the first experience a child has with the concept. It is easy to tell which is the main narrative and which are the stories within it, not only because of the change in tone, but especially because the airy watercolors of the main narrative become dark, stark, stylized drawings for the stories.

The book is about three children who befriend their neighbor, Stillwater, who just happens to be a very polite giant panda. The three siblings have their own issues and concerns, and in the course of the book the children are each told a story by Stillwater that connects to their particular situation in an important yet understated way. I don't know that it is necessary to point out the connections to the readers -- it is more fun to let them figure it out on their own. The stories are extremely relevant to our lives, and they teach useful lessons (but not in an annoying preachy way). The child (not to mention the adult) who takes these lessons to heart will have the upper hand in the face of adversity. Really!

Zen Shorts by John Muth (Scholastic, 2005)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What makes a book good?

There are three things that I like to think about:

1. How I feel about it as I'm reading it. Is it engrossing, interesting, compelling? When I'm not reading it, am I thinking about it? Does it intrude on my day, willing me to get back to it, to find out what is going on in the lives of these characters? Or is it gray, forgettable, average? If I'm not fairly compelled to keep reading after 50 pages, I put it down. Life is too short. There are too many wonderful books out there waiting to be picked up!

2. How I feel about it when I've finished reading it. Am I moved? Has my world view shifted or changed in some slight or profound way? Has my mind been stretched? Have I laughed, cried, maybe both? Am I sorry to say good-bye to the characters? Am I anxiously hoping for a sequel? Do I feel that nothing more needs to be said, the ending was so perfect and right? Or am I turning the last page, feeling the story is incomplete, wondering what the point was, or feeling irritated that I was served up the same old unsurprising thing?

3. How I feel about it after the passage of time. Has the book stayed with me, left a lasting impression? Has it shaded the way I view things? Has it altered the way I think in some way? Has it opened my eyes to new possibilities, books, authors subjects? Has it given me a lot to talk about with other people? Has it led me to new discoveries? Or has it dropped so completely from my radar that I'm hard pressed to say what it was even about? This last criterion is, I believe, the true test of the value of a book. Often a book will be enjoyable as I'm reading it, I'll feel satisfied once I've finished it, yet after a year (or less), I will barely remember it. Or something I don't seem to be enjoying very much at the time will stay in my mind and speak to me for years after I've read it. Funny how that works. The books that meet all three of these criteria are ones I turn to time and time again, and I love to re-read them.

Who knew skeletons could talk?

Anyone who's ever read Aaron Elkins' Gideon Oliver (aka "Skeleton Detective") mysteries, that's who! I just finished reading his most recent one, Unnatural Selection, and it did not disappoint.

I first started reading these years ago, based on the recommendation of a friend, and the series has become one of those that, when I see a new book is out, I almost hate to read it because then I'll be stuck waiting for the next one to be published. And opening up the book feels like unwrapping a nice fat chocolate bar -- there's that same wonderful feeling of anticipation.

For anyone who has not read this series, I would definitely recommend starting with the first one and reading them in order. That would be The Fellowship of Fear, published in 1982. As with many series, the books get better and better (for the most part) as they go along, so keep an open mind as you read the first few. (By the way, one great site for seeing the order of books in series is What's Next.)

This installment of the series is set in the Isles of Scilly, off the coast of Cornwall, where forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver has accompanied his wife to attend a consortium about conservation. In the course of events - surprise! - some old bones turn up, and it is immediately apparent to Gideon that the bones in question belonged to a murder victim. Soon it is evident that the murderer must be one of the interesting and colorful characters attending the consortium.

I enjoy these books because the characters are real and interesting, and I always learn something about the human skeleton and anthropology in general. I also like that the clues are there for the careful reader to figure out the mystery, and that when the mystery is revealed, the clues to the outcome make perfect sense. I also enjoy seeing the lives of the characters transform and progress as the series moves forward -- there isn't that Hardy Boys sense of everything starting over from scratch with each book, and there is the added treat of characters from past books showing up in later installments.

It was this series that hooked me on mysteries after a long hiatus, and I think it is because the character development is there; the people matter, not just the mystery. It is more than a puzzle to be solved -- the stories are, as good stories tend to be, about the human condition, and the fun mystery is just icing on the cake.

Oh, and my advice about the golf mysteries that Elkins writes with his wife, Charlotte: avoid them! I managed to wade through one and found it terribly disappointing. The art history ones, though, which he wrote on his own, are lots of fun.

The books of the Gideon Oliver series in order so far:
  1. Fellowship of Fear
  2. The Dark Place
  3. Murder in the Queen's Armies
  4. Old Bones
  5. Curses
  6. Icy Clutches
  7. Make No Bones
  8. Dead Men's Hearts
  9. Twenty Blue Devils
  10. Skeleton Dance
  11. Good Blood
  12. Where There's a Will
  13. Unnatural Selection
  14. Little Tiny Teeth

Unnatural Selection by Aaron Elkins (Berkley Prime Crime, 2006)

Monday, April 9, 2007

Scrotum? How shocking. Not.

Okay. One word, one single word in a children's book is offensive to a few people, and suddenly the entire book is reduced to that single word and the controversy surrounding it.

It makes me angry.

See the New York Times article from February 18, 2007 for a comprehensive account of the matter.

Nobody cared about the word until the book received the Newbery Medal. Then it's big news. It is hard for me to understand why this is such an issue. Is it harmful for children to learn the proper word for a body part? If they know the word already, they can feel smart and smug when they read about Lucky's puzzlement. If they don't know the word, they can understand why this little bit of mystery is intriguing to the protagonist and either find the definition themselves or learn about it along with Lucky.

Calling it a "Howard Stern-type shock treatment," as one librarian in that article describes the word choice, is just silly to me. And thoughtless. How can you call yourself a librarian and then spend so much time moralizing on a single word out of context? How can you be a teacher and children's librarian and not remember what it was like, as a child, to overhear those tantalizing snatches of conversation and wonder what they really meant? The story that Lucky overhears is not just thrown in to get a rise out of prudish adults; it is an integral part of the novel. Without that story, the narrative would not carry the punch that it does; the motivation for Lucky's behavior would not be nearly as believable.

Did these people bother to continue reading past the horrifically shocking word "scrotum"? It's hard to believe they did.

The "librarian" quoted above also said, in the Times article, “I don’t want to start an issue about censorship,” she said. “But you won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature.”

MEN'S genitalia? We are talking about a DOG in this book. A DOG! Did she even read it? And guess what? It is quality literature. Not that, evidently, she would recognize "quality literature" if it came up and bit her on the...scrotum. Tee hee.

Many of the comments of these horrified people showed that what really bothered them was the possibility that they might be called upon to explain the word to children. Not so much that it might be, in some obscure way, harmful to children, but that the word made them feel uncomfortable. “I don’t think our teachers, or myself, want to do that vocabulary lesson,” said one critic. Don't they realize that by making such a big deal out of a harmless little word, it just draws children's attention to it? Being matter of fact about it, calling a spade a spade, so to speak, and moving on, seems a bit more productive.

It's a body part. It has a name. Children should know names for parts of the anatomy. Get over it.

As one of the librarians I work with pointed out, the scene in which Lucky finally asks her guardian about the definitin of scrotum is just wonderful. Does Brigitte gasp in horror and ask Lucky where on earth she heard such a word? Of course not! She takes it in stride and gives her a clear, simple answer, just as she would if Lucky had asked her what asparagus was. Isn't that what is supposed to happen? Aren't children supposed to feel comfortable coming to us with their questions and concerns? And aren't we adults supposed to answer them in a straightforward, loving way?

Read the book. It's wonderful. Definitely what I'd call quality literature.

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006)

Publisher recommends for ages 9 - 12.

Ghostly fun!

I read this book to my kids (kindergarten & second grade) during our spring break week, and it was a big hit. The story is about a boy who is terrified to go down to the basement of his apartment building. His mother makes him go down to get something, telling him not to be silly. When he gets there, to his horror, there actually is a ghost in the basement. He is terrified, and is subsequently teased by his annoying big sister, but when he turns to his grandmother for help, she gives him some surprising advice: to go talk to her friend Hetty Hyssop, an elderly woman who just happens to be an accomplished ghosthunter.

Tom takes her advice on how to rid himself of the smelly, slimy ghost in the basement, only to find himself feeling sorry for the ghost when he has it at his mercy -- it has been evicted from its home by a much scarier, more powerful ghost. Against his better judgment, Tom returns to Hetty Hyssop to ask for help to get the basement ghost back to its rightful home. What ensues is a funny, exciting adventure that kept us up reading until way too late at night.

This is the first book in a series written by Cornelia Funke, author of Dragon Rider, Inkheart, and The Thief Lord. The Thief Lord, by the way, was turned into a fairly enjoyable film - see the entry at IMDB for more information.

And for more information about Cornelia Funke, go to

Ghosthunters and the Incredibly Revolting Ghost by Cornelia Funke (Chickenhouse, 2006)