Monday, October 31, 2011

A wee rant for Halloween: I see dead people.

Can I just say?

I'm really tired of seeing books covers with dead-looking girls on them. It's kind of misogynistic, honestly. I mean, are there any covers out there with dead guys on them? If so, please point some out to me, because none come to mind. But I can immediately think of several books with dead girls on the cover. They're everywhere. The message is: guys are strong and healthy and alive; girls are fragile and vulnerable and apparently dead.


By no means do I intend to criticize the books with these covers, or their authors. These are some great reads! I know authors don't typically have input on their book covers, and to be fair, most of these books actually do feature females who have died, so it's not like their covers are totally off the mark. But just-- isn't there anything else that could accurately represent plot elements from these books besides some poor girl's lifeless eyes staring out into space or limp, pale body flailing in an awkward position? It's, like, the opposite of empowering.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book Review: The Kingdom of Xia series, by Cindy Pon

Pon, Cindy. Silver Phoenix. 338 p. Greenwillow. 2009. Paperback $8.99. ISBN 9780061730245.
Pon, Cindy. Fury of the Phoenix. 362 p. Greenwillow. 2011. Hardcover $17.99. ISBN 9780061730252.

The Kingdom of Xia books comprise a captivating duology with a strong-willed heroine who possesses mysterious powers, adventure-filled quests, and a lush fantasy setting inspired by ancient China.

Now, I'd heard that these books would make me crave Chinese food, but that's an understatement. I was basically ready to PITCH A FIT if I didn't get dim sum after I finished reading.

soul food
Photo by Flickr member Robert S. Donovan

The protagonist, Ai Ling, loves her food, and I just wanted her to keep eating-- all the time! Every time a meal was described, I cheered a little. At one point, a character actually refused a meal, and I was like, “Noooo! What are you DOING? You have to EAT so I can READ about it!”

Seriously. The food descriptions are that tantalizing. Cindy Pon, you are brilliant.

It's not all about food, though. Exquisite worldbuilding provides a lush backdrop for inventive plotting. With a storyline that avoids being formulaic, I couldn't predict exactly where the plot would go, which allowed me to enjoy the journey as it unfolded through Pon's expert pacing. I love books where the characters travel from place to place, and savored each location so beautifully described in Silver Phoenix. Too, characters are well-developed and multi-faceted, each with their own goals and obstacles. Ai Ling is especially relatable, with believable flaws that she strives to overcome.

The sequel, Fury of the Phoenix, continues the story of Ai Ling and her swoon-worthy love interest, Chen Yong, while introducing a fascinating new setting and answering questions that were deliberately left dangling in the first volume. Told via dual narration, this book fills in the backstory of the first book's villain, Zhen Yong. Through reading his perspective, the reader gains surprising empathy for him. You're sort of pulling for the guy, even though you know things aren't going to end well for him. In that way, it's sort of like the Star Wars prequels-- but better! Because, you know, no Jar-Jar Binks.

And- this is important to note- there's still LOTS OF FOOD in Fury. I went into it thinking, “Okay, please please please make with the food...” and was rewarded by the second page. *fistpump*

With its elements of questing, adventure, and romance in a fantasy ancient Chinese setting, fans of Fushigi Yuugi and Avatar: The Last Airbender will love the Kingdom of Xia. I highly recommend these books, and look forward to whatever else Cindy Pon has in store for us in the future.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Event report: Brian Selznick

Last week, my library was honored to host a visit with Caldecott winning author and artist, Brian Selznick. I reviewed his latest novel, Wonderstruck, last month. Hearing him speak about the incredibly thoughtful and detailed process that went into the creation of that amazing book made me want to read it again! Some interesting facts:

  • The format of this particular book (two stories, one told in images and one told in words) came to him before the actual plot specifics.

  • His artistic process includes making not only storyboard-like sketches of each image that eventually goes into the finished book, but also (adorable!) little booklets of every image sequence with tiny thumbnail sketches, so he can get a feel for the flow of the drawings before he finalizes them.

  • The final drawings he creates are 3x5 inches each, and are enlarged for the book.
Brian Selznick is a fantastic speaker, and he captivated an audience of hundreds. In addition to talking about Wonderstruck, he shared some information about the upcoming screen adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. He reported that he is very pleased with "Hugo" the movie, so fans can go to the theaters with confidence. I can't wait to see it!

It was such a pleasure to meet Brian and tell him in person how much I enjoy his work. I assisted with the Newbery-Caldecott banquet in 2008, when he gave his acceptance speech for the Caldecott medal. I told him I'm hoping to see him up there again next year for Wonderstruck!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Book Review: Gimme a Call, by Sarah Mlynowski

Mlynowski, Sarah. Gimme a Call. 320 p. 2010. Delacorte. Hardcover $17.99. ISBN 9780385735889.

Ever since I read the premise of this novel, I knew it would be just my cup of tea. Seventeen-year-old Devi is approaching her high school graduation and mulling over a wretched breakup with her longtime boyfriend when she drops her cell phone in a fountain. After she fishes it out, it only dials one number: her fourteen year-old, freshman year self. What to do? Give herself advice and change her future, of course!


I have this sort of conversation with myself all the time: if I could do it over again, I’d do so much better, I’d work harder, I’d be more focused, I’d be more involved… “it” being whatever I’m thinking back on at the moment: high school, college, sorority life, piano lessons-- anything. Of course I wouldn’t waste time watching cartoons or blowing off my homework to talk to friends. Right?

The truth is, I’m sure I’d do the same things I did the first time around. And honestly, I don't have any major regrets about my life. Still, I can relate to seventeen-year-old Devi’s urge to go all drill-sergeant on her fourteen-year-old self to improve her prospects. Who doesn’t wish they could do it over again?

Gimme a Call is a fun, quick read with engaging characters and hilarious twists and turns as Devi keeps trying to make things perfect. Mlynowski does an excellent job contrasting seventeen-year-old Devi's manic desperation for her younger self to make good choices with fourteen-year-old Devi's desire to simply explore and enjoy life. It may be a light read, but this book provides a really insightful look at the changes that take place between freshman and senior year, how priorities and personalities can shift as we grow.

I could read this book any time of the year and love it- because it’s just a very ME kind of book- but it would make an especially good beach read. Objectively speaking, the writing might have benefited from editorial tightening here and there, but personally, I enjoyed every bit of it.

There should really be a movie based on this book. It would be utterly adorable.

I would recommend Gimme a Call to readers who enjoy Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler's The Future of Us and vice versa.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Not-so-nice news

If you follow book news, you’ve probably heard about Lauren Myracle’s book, Shine, being nominated for a National Book Award last week, and then- oops, turns out the nomination was a mistake! But it’s all good, they’re keeping it in the running, so as to "not take anything away from anybody." And then- oh wait, no they’re not! Oh, and look, they've asked her to withdraw from the nominations!

I am appalled by the way the National Book Foundation handled this. Mistakes happen. But was it really necessary for them to pressure the author to withdraw in order to cover their mistake? Not cool.

Shine was the first book I reviewed for this blog
, and as I mentioned in my review, I had the pleasure of meeting Lauren Myracle at ALA Midwinter this past January. I only spoke to her for a couple of minutes, but even just after that brief meeting, hearing this news makes it feel a little more personal for me. Like, hey, this is a person I've actually met, and in addition to being an amazing writer, I can tell you that she is warm and funny and friendly-- and the fact that these National Book Foundation people just stomped all over her? Seriously not cool.

Libba Bray’s fierce, unflinching response to the whole mess is AMAZING. She totally has Lauren Myracle’s back, and I love it. I’d want Libba Bray in my corner any day of the week.

NPR’s Linda Holmes also assesses the situation in a more measured but appropriately pointed fashion.

As for Lauren Myracle herself, her response has been nothing short of elegant and graceful. At her suggestion, the National Book Foundation will be donating $5,000 to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which advocates human dignity, provides resources for gay youth, and speaks out against hate crimes. Well done, Lauren.

Too, Shine should garner a whole bunch of publicity out of this. So there are silver linings to every cloud. Buy Shine from an independent bookstore today- it's a great read.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Audiobook Review: One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street, by Joanne Rocklin

Rocklin, Joanne. One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street. 2011. Listening Library. Audiobook $38.00. ISBN 9780307879745

Once upon a time, Southern California was covered in orange groves. Nowadays, you’re lucky if you spot one here or there. That’s how it is on Orange Street: just one tree left standing from what used to be hundreds. Over the span of a day and a half, the reader gets to know the residents of Orange Street, past and present, and learn what this wonderful tree means to all of them.

Normally, the kind of story where seemingly unrelated threads come together in surprising ways is my favorite. I love that that spine-tingling moment where it all clicks. Unfortunately, I found this middle grade read to be a little lacking in the plot department.

Rather, the emphasis here is on character development. Which isn't a bad thing! Character development is a good thing! BUT- but… there's a lot of time spent developing the various characters and their wants, hopes, and concerns, and I feel that their personalities and issues could have been more seamlessly integrated into the narrative, rather than forcing the plot into slow motion.

Too, I have some quibbles with the storytelling. The object that sets everything in motion a suspicious orange cone placed near the neighborhood’s beloved tree, but the cone seems to be forgotten for the bulk of the book. Moreover, the orange tree’s fate is wrapped up with the appearance of a mysterious stranger, but his motivations were never entirely clear to me even after his backstory was revealed.

That said, there's plenty to like about this book. Rocklin really captures the little rituals and worries and superstitions kids rely on. The gentle writing style and timeless setting are enjoyable, and the subtly diverse cast of characters is a plus.

The highlight of the book for me was Ms. Snoops, the oldest resident on Orange Street, written with great sensitivity as she recalls the most minute details about the past, but can't seem to remember what happened an hour earlier. Oh dear-- I just want to give her a reassuring pat on the hand.

Additionally, there are some genuinely stirring moments at the book's conclusion, and a comforting feeling of just-rightness with a satisfying epilogue. I love a good epilogue!

Orange Street has received several glowing reviews from journals and has been getting some Newbery buzz, so I’ll be curious to see if the committee recognizes it. I think this title may only appeal to the most patient young readers, and in fact, feels like the kind of book that will appeal more to adults than kids-- but since child appeal is not one of the criteria for the Newbery, who knows?

I listened to this book on CD, and I found myself ambivalent about Lisa Baney’s performance. I enjoyed her depiction of some of the adult characters-- Ms. Snoops and a cheerful set of grandparents in particular-- but her younger characters were unconvincing to me. So, the book itself and the audiobook experience were both a bit uneven for me. Still, I would recommend this title to an avid young reader looking for a realistic story, especially if they want something about friendship and community. I’m not sure it will appeal to everyone, but those who do connect with it will wholeheartedly enjoy it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Review: The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson

Johnson, Maureen. The Name of the Star. 372 p. 2011. Putnam. Hardcover $16.99. ISBN 9780399256608.

Okay, this is another one of those books that should have come equipped with a babysitter so I could drop everything else and read. After a somewhat leisurely beginning, it soon becomes completely engrossing and I could NOT put it down.

I mean, I did, though. My kids didn’t go hungry! But as soon as they were napping... my nose was right back in this book.

New Orleans native, Rory, is off to boarding school in London when her parents relocate to England on sabbatical. She thinks the hardest part will be fitting in with her classmates and keeping up with things like double maths. She didn’t expect to become a witness in the investigation of murders imitating the infamous Jack the Ripper crimes. And why is she seeing people that nobody else seems to notice?

Johnson brings her trademark humor even to this dark premise involving serial murders and the supernatural, playing with the contrast of England and the American South with hilarious effect. Too, I enjoyed the details of Rory’s British boarding school experience and the depiction of feeling like a fish out of water as an American abroad. These aspects of the story will appeal to fans of Stephanie Perkins' Anna and the French Kiss-- only instead of a sweet, cozy romance, you get an edge-of-your-seat paranormal murder mystery! The balance of humor and suspense, combined with tight plotting and strongly driven pacing makes for a thoroughly appealing mix.

Characters are well-developed; I feel like Rory is someone I’d hang out with. Secondary characters are fleshed out, with quirks all their own. Rory’s very earnest roommate, Jazza, is especially adorable. This might be my adult perspective speaking, but I might have liked to have seen more of Rory’s parents. Their absence was necessary for the story, but perhaps a little too convenient. I doubt teens will balk at the fact that Rory is able to easily evade parental influence, however.

Beyond the primary plot, there are some great themes to explore in this book. In particular, Johnson touches upon society’s fascination with the most gruesome things in the media, and how we’ve become desensitized to the horror of it all through sensationalism. The role of the media was instrumental in making the original Jack the Ripper case so famous, and Johnson deftly shows how very little has changed over the years in that regard.

This book is full of fascinating information about the darker elements of London’s history; Johnson must have done extensive research. After I turned the last page of the book, I was compelled to read more on the Jack the Ripper case, abandoned train stations, and the devastation caused to the city during World War II. I love it when an author gets me hooked on topics I hadn’t previously known much about! And I have to admit, it warms my little librarian heart to think that teen readers might be interested in learning more about the history in this book, too.

The story wraps up nicely, but a twist at the very end leaves the reader satisfied yet eager for a sequel. This is an enticing read for fans of the paranormal who may be a little burnt out on paranormal romances. This book is something else entirely, and is refreshingly different.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Book Review: Bunheads, by Sophie Flack

Flack, Sophie. Bunheads. 294 p. Poppy. 2011. Hardcover $17.99. ISBN 9780316126533.

Although I’ve taken ballet at various times in my life, I have to admit that I’ve never progressed past beginner's level. Alas, I’m completely hopeless at chaine turns! So, ballet and I aren’t meant for each other, but I love it. It’s so structured, so disciplined. There’s so much effort that goes into holding one’s body in the proper stance, yet professional ballet dancers make it look so fluid and natural. I have the deepest respect for the years of training and dedication that go into a ballet career, so I was excited to read Sophie Flack’s debut novel about a young dancer in the corps of a prestigious New York ballet company. Hannah has devoted her whole life to dance, but isn’t sure it’s what she wants anymore.

Having danced with New York City Ballet for nine years, Flack writes from an insider’s perspective, and her expertise shows. This book is full of intimate details about life in a dance company, both painful and beautiful. She depicts it all with authenticity: the uplifting feeling of performing on stage, the rivalries between dancers, body image issues, the physical toll dancing can take, the single-minded focus necessary to succeed, and the varying attitudes of the dancers toward their careers.

For me, the appeal of this book is more about glimpsing the inner world of life in a ballet company, rather than a strongly driven plot. I was never quite sure whether the author wanted the reader to root for Hannah to stay in the ballet company or leave it, and I was a little conflicted about the ending (which I won’t spoil, don’t worry!). Hannah has a tough choice to make, and perhaps the ending is meant to be a little bittersweet. Major life choices are never easy and there’s not always a solution that’s 100% perfect. Many readers will be satisfied by the conclusion; I just found myself thinking, “But, but…!”

One of the influencing factors in Hannah’s ultimate decision is her relationship with aspiring musician, Jacob, and I wasn’t a big fan of his character. I was frustrated that he couldn’t understand why Hannah couldn’t or wouldn’t hang out all the time and do things like normal people-- surely it's not so hard to fathom that ballet dancers have to devote themselves entirely to dance. Frankly, I felt like telling Jacob to shut his yap! That said, Jacob is a realistic and well-written character. It doesn’t bother me that I didn’t fall head-over-heels for Hannah’s love interest, because this book isn’t really about romance. It’s about a young woman’s examination of her goals and her struggle to achieve balance in her life, which, I think, makes for a stronger story.

Anyone who has ever been involved in the performing arts will relate to this book. I really liked it, and will look forward to future books from Sophie Flack.

Bunheads hits bookstore shelves tomorrow, October 10. ARC for review borrowed from my friend Lalitha at SoCal Library Connection.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Around the Web

I was excited to see that School Library Journal is now hosting a mock Printz blog, Someday My Printz Will Come. If you're reading this blog and have an interest in YA lit, you probably know that the Michael L. Printz Award recognizes excellence in teen literature, and this new blog looks like a fun and insightful place to discuss Printz predictions. It's also a nice complement to Heavy Medal, the very excellent mock Newbery blog also hosted by SLJ. And let's not leave out illustration-- Horn Book hosts Calling Caldecott. Some people get excited about the Oscars... I'm into book awards!

My friend Sandie and her sister, brilliant pop culture mavens, have gotten hooked on YA literature in the past few years, and are now sharing the fun with the rest of us over at Teen Lit Rocks! I love what they've done so far.

This is slightly old news at this point, but-- Kindle users rejoice! Library ebooks are now available for Kindle and Kindle apps. I mention this because I downloaded my first Kindle edition library ebook to my Kindle for iPhone and it was astonishingly easy. I’ve explained the library ebook checkout process to so many patrons who have stopped me in the middle with a frustrated look, saying “Well, that’s too hard,” or “I can’t do that.” The Kindle edition checkout process is so much easier, it’s almost like magic. People are going to love this.

Are you on Pinterest? Warning: Pinterest features entirely too many pictures of delicious cakes. Which is just evil when I don't have a cake in front of me. But! Lots of teen and children’s librarians are utilizing this visual-oriented social bookmarking site to exchange ideas about library programs and crafts. I've really only begun to explore the possibilities on this site, but you can take a look at my Teen Crafts board. Other Pinterest boards and accounts to check out include:

Teen Programming in Libraries (a collaborative board)
Flannel Friday - lots of great flannel board ideas
Kelly Jensen - teen/tween programming ideas, crafts for kids
Mary Kuehner - early literacy ideas

You get the idea... awesome stuff out there!
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