Monday, July 30, 2012

Book Review: Liar & Spy, by Rebecca Stead

Stead, Rebecca. Liar & Spy. 192 p. 2012. Random House Children's Books. Hardcover $15.99. ISBN 9780385737432. 

I was so excited to get ahold of the ARC of the upcoming title from Newbery Medal winning author, Rebecca Stead. I absolutely loved her Newbery-winning title, When You Reach Me. I still get chills thinking about the way she wove all the plot elements together in that book! On the other hand, I really didn't connect with her debut novel, First Light. Having had such drastically different reactions to her books, I was curious to see how I would like Liar & Spy, a story about a kid trying to survive the awkwardness of middle school and navigate a strange but compelling friendship when he moves to a new apartment building.

My verdict? I loved it. This slim volume, clocking in at under 200 pages, is a quick read that's jam-packed with thought-provoking themes and memorable, multilayered characters. It has the feel of an indie movie-- quirky and brilliant, and will undoubtedly appeal to fans of The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. 

The main character, Georges, is someone the reader really roots for. He's matter-of-factly morose at times, in the most endearing way. The themes of bullying, friendship, and fitting in versus standing out provide much fodder for discussion and insight, making this title a good choice for a middle school book group. Stead also weaves in unexpectedly delightful motifs like spelling and silent letters, choosing one's own name, and painter Georges Seurat's pointilism as a metaphor for life-- whether you see the big picture or examine all of the little dots individually.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1884
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand-Jatte,
by Georges Seurat, 1884-86
As she did in When You Reach Me, Stead weaves a tight storyline with subtle clues and red herrings that keep the reader guessing and wondering-- and then brings it all together with a twist at the end. I love a good unreliable narrator, and this book has a great one. 

Brilliantly plotted, tightly written, and deeply satisfying. 

Look for Liar & Spy on bookstore shelves on August 7. ARC for review acquired at ALA Annual from Random House.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Audiobook Review: Call It Courage, by Armstrong Sperry

Weighing in with my second pick for the Newbery Medal Reading Challenge, and I have to admit: I am not exactly rocking this challenge. It's a struggle to pick up an old Newbery winner when there are shiny new releases and ARCs that beg to be read. I feel like a student again, poring through the list of titles, thinking, "That one sounds boring.... so does that one... no way... nope..."

But that's part of my motivation for participating in this challenge-- making myself read some of the titles I might not otherwise pick up. I am aiming to increase the depth of Newbery titles I can recommend to young readers at my library... and little by little, I will.

My latest selection for this reading challenge is the 1941 Newbery winner: Call It Courage, by Armstrong Sperry.

Sperry, Armstrong. Call It Courage. 1994. Recorded Books. Audiobook $25.75. ISBN 0788746480.

Why did I choose this one? I'm not a huge fan of survival stories, but it has two things going for it:

1. It's available on audiobook.

2. It's set in Polynesia. My husband and I honeymooned in Moorea and Bora Bora ten years ago, so I was eager to revisit that setting.

Newlyweds on Matira Beach in Bora Bora.
(Can we go back there, please?)
In Call It Courage, a young boy Mafatu survives a tragic incident in which he and his mother are caught by a hurricane. She doesn't survive, and he is left with a lifelong fear of the sea-- which is not an acceptable phobia for a Polynesian boy to have, considering so much of their daily life revolves around the water. Spurred by the constant taunts of his peers and determined to prove his bravery, Mafatu sets out in a canoe for places unknown and must survive against the elements with only his trusty dog and a friendly albatross for companionship.

If you like survival stories, you'll probably like this one: it's pretty solid. As a bonus, contemporary readers will relate to the bullying Mafatu endures, and his desire to prove himself.

I was curious, however, about how a 1940s novel would depict Polynesian culture. Would there be a lot of nonsense about primitive natives and whatnot? Mostly, the cultural elements come across well enough. The author describes Mafatu and his people respectfully. However, Sperry constantly refers to another (purportedly cannibalistic) tribe as "the black eaters of men." It's plausible that there were cannibalistic tribes in ancient Polynesia, but the emphasis on their skin color is problematic. Sperry hardly ever mentions this tribe's cannibalism without making
sure the reader knows they're black, which is awkward and, frankly, disturbing. 

But on the plus side, there's a dog in this story, and he doesn't die! I thought for sure he was a goner when he fell in the water near a hungry shark, and his eyes were described as "puzzled" and "so faithful and true" or something along those lines. I was like, "OH NO, HERE WE GO."  ...but the dog survived! Hooray!

The audiobook makes for a pleasant way to approach this book. The narrator, George Guidall, gives a solid performance. He doesn't display much of a range of character voices, but most of the book is narration, rather than dialogue, so his performance works here. (There's also a 2009 recording from Listening Library done by Lou Diamond Phillips that I'd be curious to hear.)

All in all, I'm not in love with this particular Newbery winner, but if I get a request for a Newbery from a young reader who likes action and adventure, I might recommend this one-- but then again, with all the "black eaters of men" stuff, maybe not. It would depend on whether or not the child's parent would be willing to discuss how the language used to describe other cultures or ethnic groups in the 1940s is not necessarily acceptable now. As long as it's used as a teachable moment, I think Call It Courage could work for a contemporary reader.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Event report: Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer

Right on the heels of the ALA Annual Conference at the end of June, my library hosted a visit with Jodi Picoult and her daughter, Samantha Van Leer to celebrate the release of their co-written young adult novel, Between the Lines. I had the honor of introducing them to an eager audience of hundreds.

I was so impressed and inspired by Jodi and Samantha! They were both so nice and down-to-earth. I loved hearing about how they collaborated on their writing: Samantha had the idea for Between the Lines one day while she was daydreaming in class. When she pitched it to her mom, Jodi thought they should write it together. Though they had a few differences of opinion (Samantha wanted the prince to be blond, but Jodi won out with black hair), they were remarkably in tune as they wrote.

Samantha noted that her biggest challenge during the writing process was staying focused, and that her mother helped her stay on track. Jodi stated that she really valued the chance to share the writing experience with her daughter, as writing can often be a solitary, isolating activity. She's excited to share the experience of going on the book tour together, too.

One of my favorite parts of their talk was Jodi's advice for aspiring writers in dealing with writer's block: Just write every day, even if it's garbage. "You can fix garbage. You can't fix a blank page."

Part of the fun of any author event is seeing their devoted fans. I was so charmed by these three girls who showed up in custom t-shirts proclaiming their love for Jodi Picoult! This poster is covered with quotes from Jodi's books-- the girl who made it said these quotes changed her life, and asked Jodi to sign it. How amazing is that?

Since this event was held on the release date of Between the Lines, I didn't have a chance to read it beforehand... but after hearing them talk about the book, I am especially looking forward to it.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Book Review: Perfect Escape, by Jennifer Brown

Brown, Jennifer. Perfect Escape. 352 p. 2012. Little, Brown. Hardcover $17.99. ISBN 9780316185578.

Having been riveted by Jennifer Brown's debut novel, Hate List, I thought it was high time to read another of her books, so I was excited to pick up the ARC of her upcoming title, Perfect Escape, while I was at ALA Annual.

The premise is compelling: Kendra is an overachieving, perfectionist who has lived in the shadow of her older brother's OCD all her life. When she gets caught cheating in her senior calculus class, she starts driving and doesn't look back-- with her brother an unwilling passenger. She believes she can get away from her troubles and "cure" his mental illness all in one shot.

Brown's writing is just as tight and engaging as I remember from Hate List, and while I enjoyed this book, I had a mixed reaction to it. The fact is, I'm the wrong audience. Teens will love the sense of escape with Kendra's impromptu road-trip, and they'll empathize with her "I made one mistake and now my life is ruined" thought process (I so remember that feeling!). On the other hand, I found Kendra to be frustratingly irresponsible and self-centered, which is by no means a criticism of Brown's writing-- on the contrary, she is a realistic and well-written character.

I'm reading as a mother. I kept thinking how selfish Kendra's actions were toward her family, and even more, I got completely hung up on a secondary plot point. Kendra and her brother come across a teen mom and her baby, and that section of the book had me SO WORRIED that the baby wasn't going to make it, I couldn't focus on the main storyline. I HAD TO KNOW WHAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN TO THAT BABY... to the point that it made me really uncomfortable. A teen reader would have an entirely different experience with that part of the book, so again, my comments are not a criticism. My issues are entirely my own!

All in all, I will definitely recommend this book to teens, especially those looking for a realistic, issue-driven book that keeps you hooked. Tension is sustained throughout the narrative as the reader wonders if Kendra and her brother will make it to their destination, or if they'll have to give up and turn around-- and what, exactly, was so terrible that it drove Kendra to run away in the first place.

Brown provides a thoughtful portrayal of OCD, and I feel I came away from the book with a better understanding of the disorder. Kendra's brother, Grayson, is a multi-dimensional character who struggles, but is not defined by his mental illness. Also, readers with siblings will appreciate the well-crafted, complex relationship depicted here-- sometimes tortured, sometimes affectionate, but always genuine.

Perfect Escape hits bookstore shelves on July 10th. ARC for review received from Little, Brown at ALA Annual.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

ALA Annual 2012 Recap

Well, hi!

Yes, it's been a while. But that's okay-- I was off having an amazing time at the ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim at the end of June. I'm still sort of buzzing with excitement over the intensity of it all. As the chair of YALSA's Conference Marketing and Local Arrangements Committee, I felt actively involved and engaged in the conference, and came away energized by the fantastic connections I made. I got to meet so many new people, and was especially pleased to meet librarians, authors, and publishers I had only interacted with on Twitter or listservs prior to the conference. It's refreshing to bring the virtual into the real!

I hardly know where to begin, or how to put the vibrancy of this conference into words. Here are just a few highlights of my ALA12 experience:

My committee work
After working with the other members of the Conference Marketing and Local Arrangements Committee all year to promote YALSA's activities at the conference, talk up the local area, and organize on-site assistance at conference sessions, it was so rewarding to finally see our planning come to fruition. I was practically overjoyed to see my committee members had printed out and were using the meticulously color-coded schedule spreadsheet detailing our commitments.

If a future ALA conference comes to your neck of the woods, I highly recommend serving on a Local Arrangements committee. It's a really enjoyable way to get involved.

The Newbery Caldecott Banquet 
I love the energy that fills the room when hundreds of people come together to celebrate children's literature. I was very honored to be a guest of School Library Journal at this year's banquet, and it was a magical evening. I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to meet some of my fellow SLJ reviewers, and put faces to names of the wonderful editors I've been working with via email since I started reviewing for SLJ. It was a truly memorable evening.

Plus, the event program was adorable! You take the band off, unfold it, and out pops a red paper ball (a la the Caldecott winning title, A Ball for Daisy)! My 3 year old would love it. Sadly, he won't see it until he's at least 18 because it's a treasured souvenir from a very lovely evening, and there is no way I'm handing it over to him to be destroyed. Sorry, kiddo! This is mama's toy.

The Little, Brown dance party
Little, Brown is one of my very favorite publishers-- and now I can add "throws a mean party" to the list of reasons I love them. I was thrilled to be there to celebrate Libba Bray's upcoming Fall title, The Diviners.

The music was amazing-- old-school '70s, '80s, and '90s songs that had the crowd cheering for every song and dancing like crazy. If you have the opportunity to be invited to a Little, Brown event... don't miss it!

The Odyssey Award Program and Reception 
The Odyssey Award is given annually to the producer of the best audiobook for youth, available in English in the US. I am a huge fan of audiobooks, but I didn't realize how awesome it would be to actually see the audiobook narrators read aloud at this program. I was blown away, for example, by the physicality Kirby Heyborne put into his characters while reading from Rotters, by Daniel Kraus. As his voice shifted from character to character, so did his posture, his movements-- truly fascinating. And after seeing Wendy Carter read aloud, I'm now enjoying the audiobook of Young Fredle, by Cynthia Voigt, on my daily commute.

YA Authors Coffee Klatch 

Last time I attended this event at ALA 2008, I wasn't involved in any way, but this time I was there to assist as a member of YALSA's Local Arrangements Committee. I helped check in the authors as they arrived and waited in the green room for the event to begin, and the enthusiasm was high. Just as the librarians and other book lovers who attended the event were looking forward to chatting with their favorite authors, the authors were genuinely eager and excited about the chance to connect with readers face-to-face. It was fun seeing the other side of the event!

The Printz Reception
Just as the Newbery Caldecott Banquet is a wonderful celebration of children's literature, the Printz Reception celebrates the best in young adult literature. The speeches were amazing-- especially Daniel Handler's accordion serenade.

John Corey Whaley (who won this year's Printz award for Where Things Come Back) gave the most heartwarming, delightful speech. He seems like a really sweet, genuine person. I was glad to meet him!

Angie, me, John Corey Whaley (holding his Printz award!) and Lalitha
(Photo borrowed from Lalitha's ALA recap)
Best Fiction for Young Adults
In this session, the BFYA committee sits at tables in the front of the room with laptops, taking notes as teen readers step up to a microphone and give quick reviews of books from the BFYA nominations list. The teens are selected months ahead of time, and their preparation really showed. They were articulate, honest, and insightful. One of the teens who spoke was Ishita of The Reading Fish, who I know from Twitter-- she rocked it! I really enjoyed hearing what these young readers did and didn't like about the nominated titles. I use the BFYA list extensively in making purchasing decisions for my library's teen fiction collection, so I found it really interesting and enlightening to witness this portion of the BFYA process. Sitting in on this session definitely made me want to serve on the committee someday. 

The Graphic Novel stage
This stage dedicated to comics and graphic novels was one of the new features of ALA Annual this year-- an awesome addition, if you ask me! I attended Gene Yang's talk on Asian Americans and Air Benders. Since we interviewed Gene via Skype earlier this year for the Authors are ROCKSTARS! podcast, it was great to meet him in person. I really enjoyed hearing him speak about the history of Asians in comics, and his involvement in the Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels. He announced that he's signed on to do three more volumes after "The Promise" storyline wraps up! (I may have squealed aloud.)

The Exhibit Hall
Although my schedule was pretty jam-packed, I did have some time to walk around the exhibit hall.

The publishers get creative with ARC displays - this is a tower of The Fire Chronicle ARCs,
the highly-anticipated sequel to The Emerald Atlas, by John Stephens.
My to-read list is definitely full from here till early 2013, thanks to the ARCs I was able to pick up. 

Treasures I can't wait to read and share with my library teens!
Another highlight of the Exhibit Hall was all of the author signings. I met Allen Say! I reviewed his beautifully illustrated memorir, Drawing From Memory, for School Library Journal last year, and it was a pleasure to purchase a signed copy and have the chance to tell him in person how much I enjoyed it.

I'm still reflecting on all the wonderful experiences I had at this year's conference. One side effect is that I want to join and get actively involved with more ALA divisions and organizations than I actually have time for! I'm hoping to continue volunteering for YALSA committees, and possibly attend YALSA's YA Lit Symposium in St. Louis this Fall. We'll see! 

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