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Reading Round-up 2013: Week 7

(for those of you keeping track at home, these are the books I read between Feb. 1st and Feb. 7th – yes, I am very behind.)

cover image for Raven BoysRaven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Blue comes from a family of clairvoyants, all women, but she isn’t one herself.  Gansey is on a quest.  Mostly because he’s rich and therefore bored, but that doesn’t stop him from being obsessive about it. He’s also going to die before the year is over.  He doesn’t know this, but Blue does.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, Blue and Gansey (and Gansey’s gang of misfits) cross paths.  Hijinks ensue.

Intellectually, I have all kinds of issues and questions, mostly pertaining to my annoyance with Blue’s Smurfette status.  Did she have no friends her own age until she met the boys?  Does she ever manage to get some female friends? What did she do before the boys came along, besides hang out with her family? etc.

Emotionally though, I was totally and utterly sucked into this book.  The plot was likely full of holes and misuses of history and myth, but I honestly didn’t notice, I was too busy being distracted by the twists and surprises.  Also, the dialogue.  Blue (and Adam) skewering Gansey’s privilege, blindness, and self-absorption was an absolute delight. Centering Blue in a family of unique and talented adult women – and taking the time to show her relationships with them – was a huge plus.

Raven Boys was not a particularly deep book, but it was fun.

cover image for The Way We FallThe Way We Fall by Megan Crewe*

Kaelyn never really fit in at her school in Toronto, so when her family moves back to the island she grew up on, she’s relieved to say the least.  But just as things are getting to back to normal, a new and deadly sickness spreads through the island, disrupting life as it was and leaving death and devastation in it’s wake.

While Crewe’s slow moving crisis doesn’t sink to the levels of boredom found in Pfeiffer’s Life as We Knew It,** it’s not terribly gripping either. The plot is fairly decent and the idea (a new deadly disease, a race to find a cure, and an isolated community increasingly devolving into chaos) is interesting.  Unfortunately, the prose lacks any sort of punch or personality – especially considering the topic and that the story is narrated in first person.  And then there was the inexplicable conceit of having Kae address her diary/journal to an estranged crush/friend; that was annoying and confusing and odd.

cover image for What We Saw At NightWhat We Saw at Night by Jaquelyn Mitchard*

Murder! Misfits! Mystery! and parker! All at midnight! This should be an awesome book! I don’t understand how this is not an awesome book.  No, really, I don’t understand how it was possible to make this book as boring as it was.  Plus! bonus slut shaming directed towards a victim of child sexual abuse.



cover image for Hello, Animals!Hello, Animals! by Simriti Prasadam and Emily Bolam

Simplicity and a little something extra is the key to a great board book.  All too often the latter detracts from the former, but that’s not the case here.  Each page features a tiny splash of shimmer and color added to the black and white graphics.  Rather than merely being eye-catching, the addition is expertly done; the subdued jewel colors manage to accent rather than compete with the minimalist elegance of the illustrations.  The text is basic but lyrical, just as prose for babies should be.

cover image for You Are My CupcakeYou Are My Cupcake by Joyce Wan

Wan is definitely a talent to watch.  Her retro/kawaii style art works well for little ones; the bold lines makes the art easy to “read” and the cuteness is both appropriate and appealing.  The patterned sentences complement the artwork well and work in adjectives and nouns that aren’t often found in board books, but yet – being about food – are ones that babies might hear in other contexts.

*I’m so sad that these books were little and no fun, respectively – they both have main CoC and I was really hoping to find more good genre titles with CoC to add to my list of what to get for the library.

**Kae is often quite concerned with what is going on outside the island, as any normal person her age would be.  It is, in fact, a topic of conversation more than once.  This alone makes it ever so much better than Life As We Knew It.

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Reading Round-up 2013: week 5

cover image for The Treasure Map of BoysThe Treasure Map of Boys by E. Lockhart

It’s junior year and Ruby and her friends are living in the land of NoBoyfriend.  Nora and Megan have plans to rectify the situation, but Ruby is determined to follow her shrink’s advice and stay focused on herself for a while.  This means remaining friends only with Noel, staying the course at her internship, not giving her fellow Tate students anything to gossip about, and putting on the best bake sale ever by convincing boys to make treats as well.

Can she do it?*  Either way, there is sure to be stress, hilarity, tears, and laughter.

Lockhart’s third Ruby book failed to charm me in quite the same way the previous two books did, but it’s still a breezy and entertaining read.  As always, Lockhart does a good job of presenting us with a Ruby that is immature but not obnoxious.**  Ruby is clearly struggling to make sense of the tensions between the feminism she believes in and the reality of both her hormones and the pressures of the culture she is a part of.  While Ruby’s views on sexism often lack sophistication, they are incredibly believable and Lockhart deftly steers clear of setting up any strawfeminists – or caricatures of chauvinism - to be knocked down.  Ruby’s problems are complex and real, as are the people around her.

cover image for IndaInda by Sherwood Smith

Indevan-Dal Algara-Vayir has always had a talent for strategy, in the same way that other people excel in music or math.  Growing up in a martial culture this serves him well and, along with his basic decency, makes him a natural leader and well-liked among the boys – and girls – that he trains with at home, the place he will one day defend for his older brother.  But when Inda and other second sons like him are ordered to capital to train at the King’s Military Academy, Inda discovers that while strategy comes easily to him, he still has much to learn about politics and intrigue.

I don’t know if it was the mood I was in or the story and writing itself, but I was so completely sucked in while reading this.  A decade ago, I likely would not have been, and would have been frustrated with the fact that we were following mostly the boys around, and not so much the girls. This didn’t bother me as much reading Inda, and I think it’s because I have had more luck recently finding women centered fantasy and science fiction.  After all, ten years ago, I had not read Tamora Pierce,** Elizabeth Bear, Kate Elliot, or P. C. Hodgell.  Now that I have, and now that I have better resources for finding similar books, each time I run into yet another boy-focused fantasy adventure, I’m more likely to be able to enjoy it for what it is than once again feel shut out.  Just as long as the story and world-building still acknowledge that women exist and are interesting and capable, which Smith does in spades, of course.

That said, I now totally want lots of stories about girls training to be fighters together.

cover image for Navigating EarlyNavigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

At age 13 Jack, born and raised in Kansas, is sent to a boarding school on the Maine coast by his recently widowed father, a WWII veteran.  Confused and bereft, Jack has difficulty fitting in and making friends.  Until he meets Early Auden, a fellow student with Asperger’s decades before the term came into use.  As outcasts often do, Early and Jack establish a rocky but deep friendship; a bond that leads to the two boys taking off for a trip in the woods in search of a bear, a lost brother, and the story of Pi.

Ten or twenty years ago I would have thought this was a wonderful, touching, and compassionate book.  But a decade or so ago I had not yet read a Mango-Shaped Space, Anything But Typical, Tangerine, or a handful of of other rare but powerful books that – gasp! – tell such stories from the perspective of the person who is not considered neurotypical (or otherwise deviates from the norm).  The current me wants to know why we must learn about Early though Jack’s eyes – rather than the other way around.  It’s not that there isn’t still a place for friendship stories told through the perspective of neurotypical boys like Jack – it’s more that the focus on Early as a cipher and his presentation as an almost otherwordly companion perpetuates the idea that Early is not fully human, even as the author clearly wishes to dispel such myths.  It is, in many ways, a beautifully written book.  It’s just so old school with respect to neurology and behavior (above and beyond what is needed to establish a sense of place) that I’m not able to recommend it without reservations.

(Also, omg that title: Navigating Early, really? Early Auden is a thing to be navigated? ?????)

cover image for The CallingThe Calling by Kelley Armstrong

The further adventures of Maya and her friends.  Suffers from the same problem as the middle book in her first ya series: too much running around, not enough actually happening.  Not painful to read, but mostly worth it only so that the final book will make sense.

yay! for the First Nations protagonist though.  (although, I cannot say for certain if Maya is realistic – or the traditions and beliefs

accurately portrayed)

cover image for Shards of HonorShards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Why yes, this is my first time reading Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga.  And yes, I realize that this makes me a freak and not a Real Science Fiction Fan.  Now that we have that out of the way…

Cordelia Naismith is a scientist and starship Captain whose Betan exploratory expedition has been ambushed by Barrayarian forces while on a planet-side mission. As she comes to discover later, the attack was actually part of a mutiny attempt against Captain Lord Vorkosigan, theBarrayarian who captures her and marches her an injured Betan crewman back to his own Barrayarian base camp.

There is some serious analysis begging to be done here, what with Cordelia and Aral falling in love while she’s technically being imprisoned by him, but a large part of what makes this story work – and (I imagine) the author so beloved – is that Bujold makes it clear that the romance is based on growing mutual admiration and respect and manages to have this all happen without Cordelia ever compromising her own sense of honor or duty. Once the mutiny is taken care of, Cordelia chooses going home and enlisting in her own people’s war effort over marrying Lord Vorkosigan.  The fact that Cordelia doesn’t magically lose all ties to her former self once she falls in love is what makes her human and big part of what makes Shards of Honor fun rather than a wall-banger.****  While the intrigue, cleverness, and unwillingness to deny the realities of politics and war are what elevate the novel from a merely comforting read to an interesting and entertaining one.

It’s one of those novels that you almost want to argue isn’t very deep at all – it doesn’t feel challenging or nihlistic or neat enough, and it’s certainly way too much fun - until you realize that calling it lighthearted denies the complexity that Bujold manages to weave into the plot and relationships.  It’s a wonderful book precisely because it is so messy and flawed and imperfect at times, just as real people are.

*spoilers: no, no, no, and yes respectively – did you ever think otherwise

** ymmv. I don’t find Ruby annoying, I find her incredibly sympathetic, but then we share a similar background and I willingly work with teens on a regular basis.  So.

***I may be off by about a year.  I began working at the bookstore in late 2002 and would have began reading Pierce within about two years of that point.

second cover image for Shards of Honor**** Unfortunately, the copy I borrowed from the library had this cover, and since I am a very visual thinker, I kept picturing everyone as the awkward cast of characters in that anatomically unlikely image. Which led to me having a hard time imagining anyone falling in love with the captain.  Other than that, however, it was an fun book.

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Reading Round-up 2013: Week 4 (part 2)

cover image for Curses! Foiled Again!Curses! Foiled Again! by Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro

Alas, this was not an improvement on the first book.  On top of the persistent problem of not utilizing the medium properly, the nicely done characterization in the last book has faltered in this second installment.  While Caroline plays a bigger role (yay!), it's mostly as damsel in distress (boo).  Avery was annoying rather than amusing, don't even get me started on Aleria's fencing instructor, and Baba Yaga was more of a McGuffin than someone real (this is what I get for reading this right after watching the Lost Girl  "Babi YiGA!" episode).

cover image for Sisters RedSisters Red by Jackson Pearce

Werewolves are real!  (Only, they're called Fenris.)  So is little red riding hood, only in this version she's a teenage were- sorry, Fenris hunter and has been ever since one of the monsters ate her grandmother in a battle that left Scarlett one-eyed and in charge her little sister Rosie - and the Fenris dead as a rug.

This might have been an interesting book.  Instead it was made up of a lot of repetitive conversation and inner dialogs, a twist I figured out a good 100 pages before it was revealed, and way too much slut-shaming.  (Don't get me wrong, Scarlet feels bad about the slut-shaming, she really does. And a part of her wishes she could be a fragile, beautiful butterfly, too - but what do those silly girls think they are doing? Being all pretty and young and female like that when there are werewolves about?) There were some cool parts to this book - especially Rosie's fiery escape - but they didn't manage to balance out the "meh" or the "ugh."

cover image for Dragon's BloodDragon's Blood by Jane Yolen

I have such fond memories of this book from childhood.   Vivid, vivid memories of stealing a dragon with Jakkin.  Of sneaking off to his hidden oasis and raising the young dragon up to become a wonderful and clever fighter.

Re-reading it as an adult, I just kept thinking what an idiot Jakkin was towards his friend and love interest Akki.  (Akki, my girl, you can do so much better. Even on that hell-hole of a planet you live on.)  Also, is he seriously raising this dragon up just so that it will be forced into fights that drunk men will then place bets on????  (I sooooo missed the dog-fighting parallels when I was a kid.)  I'm also now giving Yolen the side-eye for the strong implication that some people are just meant to be owned by other people; at age 10 I failed to understand the full implications of the story being so focused on individual initiative when the backdrop was one of widespread indenture.

I don't completely cringe at the thought of kids today reading this book, but I am very glad that there is much better to recommend nowadays.

(I am amused, however, at the reviews on goodreads that are all "drugs! prostitutes! in a novel for kids!" - especially since the whole point is that Jakkin is virtuous and spends his money on his dragon instead of any of those things.)

cover image for Briar's BookBriar's Book by Tamora Pierce

Briar's story takes us back to where his story began - symbolically, if not literally.  While visiting a friend who survives on the streets of Summersea, as Briar once did in a city much further away, he and Rosethorn stumble across an outbreak of a new, deadly, and as-yet-incurable disease.  As before, the four magical friends and their teachers must battle to save the kingdom and each other - at times waging war against not only the disease but also the short-sighted selfishness that the privilege of wealth and class often bring.

Solid. The final in the first quartet of stories about Sandry, Triss, Daja, and Briar is not the kind of book that one rushes to tell others that they must read, but neither is it a story with faults (small or large) that prod you to pick it apart and encourage you to forget what you enjoyed.  It's an easy, fast-paced read that can be rather predictable and simplified at times, but not so much so as to irritate the children it is meant to be read by.
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Invisible Hoverboards and Zombies on Mute

FuturedazeThere is a new young adult science fiction anthology coming out, which is always a cause for celebration.  Unfortunately, the Big Idea post over at Scalzi’s Whatever has me ranting at the editors.

The most frustrating part of Hannah Strom-Martin and Erin Underwood’s pitch for their new anthology is the complete absence of any sort of informed analysis or even any mention of modern science fiction for teens, except to complain that there is so little of it one hardly even knows it’s there, and what is there is all the same.  (If one is to go
by their post, the only recently published science fiction books for teens are Suzanne Collins’ and a vague number of ignorable dystopias.)ForestofHandsandTeeth

I hardly expect people to go on about other people’s books when promoting their own.  But if one is going to try to place one’s own book within the larger context of the genre, and use that as the argument for why everyone should buy it, I expect you to demonstrate awareness of the basics.  That means for every Tiptree and King you mention, I’d damn well better hear about a Westerfeld or Ryan.  If one is going to start making sweeping claims of the genre in general, I expect you to know your shit. I expect something more than what amounts to saying that you walked into a single Barnes and Noble one day and decided you knew everything you needed to know from glancing at the shelves.  At minimum that post should have mentioned at least one of the young adult science fiction anthologies that have been published in the last decade,* even if only to point out how rare they are.

ugliesuk“For me, the biggest concern was the number of [submitted] stories that, while well-written, didn’t fit the contemporary definition of young adult fiction. By this point, I’d been promoting and working with YA authors long enough to start wondering if there was a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes “YA fiction” within parts of the science fiction community. That realization was a bit of a shock for me.”

The truly ironic bit in all this is that the most insightful and interesting part of the entire post – the paragraph quoted above – is referring to the same conceptual idea that Strom-Martin and Underwood have so completely failed to grasp themselves.**  They may understand what makes a work fit into the current definition of “young adult” and also what makes another work belong in the science fiction genre.  That doesn’t mean that they are recognizing the full range of modern young adult science fiction available for teens to choose from.  If they had, neither of them would dare claim that “despite the Susan Collins juggernaut, comments about SF or the classic tales from which The Hunger Games derives appeared limited to a few mentions of Battle Royale.”Feed

First of all, they would be aware that the concerns regarding the similarities between Battle Royale and The Hunger Games were centered almost exclusively within the adult science fiction fandom and media generated by and for adults.  I promise you that the teens who went to the midnight showing in my town a) did not give a shit and b) were doing just fine in comparing Collins’ work to not only other recent dystopias but the classics as well.

AMillionSunsSecondly, they would be ashamed to write something that so completely erases the work of so many talented authors.  M. T. Anderson, who makes clear references to the classic dystopias in his widely acclaimed novel Feed.  Beth Reevis, whose space opera is not only in conversation with Godwin’s The Cold Equations, but pretty much attempts to drag it into an alley and toss it in the dumpster where it belongs.  Even Laurie Halse Anderson has talked about the how Lia’s hallucinations in (the non-science fiction) Wintergirls were influenced by the Heinlein novels she read as a teen.  (An admission prompted, I might add, by a very direct and insightful question from a teen reader.)AprilMayJune

They would also recognize the fact that young adult subgeneres are much more fluid and open ended than adult genres tend to be.  Not only are there plenty of hard to classify stories like Robin Benway’s The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May, and June, but there is very little concern over their ambiguity.  Patterson can write about human experimentation and frame the results as both bird-like and angelic and teen readers don’t pause to blink.  Maureen Johnson can make zombies comedic in Children of the Revolution and it’s accepted that she’s just being her usual awesome self.

LiarThe trends in young adult science fiction are influenced by adult science fiction, but they also develop slightly tangential to it and often revolve around topics that concern teens in real life.  Questions about body image and identity are common, influencing not only dystopias like Westerfeld’s Uglies, but also near future bio-tech stories like Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox and Wasserman’s Cold Awakening trilogy, and most especially Larbelestier’s genre defying Liar. Both dystopias and apocalyptic tales are popular in no small part because of the adult roles they allow teens to take, from delivering a lifesaving vaccine in Crewe’s upcoming The Lives We Lost to the (admittedly absurdly) teen run society in Aguirre’s Enclave. While it’s useful and interesting to talk about how this all relates to science fiction marketed to adults, it’s rather missing the point to not also give the same weight to the daily lives of teen readers, not to mention the middle grade science fiction that influenced their tastes and understanding of what science fiction is.

I would love more young adult science fiction and more conversation about young adult science fiction.  The problem is that I get the impression from reading their pitch that Strom-Martin and Underwood’s issue isn’t even so much with the quantity or even the quality, but rather the flavor young adult science fiction that is currently popular.  In doing so they ultimately limit and stifle conversation rather than encourage it.  Likewise, in trying to make the case that more science fiction is desired and needed, they completely and arrogantly dismiss all of the wonderful work that is out there.TheLivesWeLost

I look forward to reading and talking about Futurdaze, I appreciate Strom-Martin and Underwood’s hard work (no, really, this is a kickstarter project? that’s awesome!), and I hope that they, their authors, and the anthology does well.  But posts like theirs are so very much not how one successfully generates more and better young adult science fiction and conversations about young adult science fiction. (Except, perhaps, by prompting rants like mine.)  Denying the existence and depth of what is actually, currently on the shelves is not
respectful, interesting, or useful in that regard.

DiverseEnergies* Just off the top of my head, I got: Zombies vs. Unicorns*** and Geektastic.  If you include works published since Underwood and Strom-Martin began working on their own anthology, I can add After and Diverse Energies without having to strain a single brain cell.  A minimal amount of research brings up the Firebirds anthologies, which included science fiction stories as well as fantasy.

** Possibly this is a concept they do get.  But if they do realize this, they sure as fuck fail to demonstrate even the most basic understanding of it in their post.

***srsly ppl, ZOMBIES VS. UNICORNS. How do we get this sentence: “We were being invaded by werewolves, vampires, and witches, and there wasn’t a single space alien to blast them off the anthology shelves,”**** lots of attempts to place their anthology in the larger context of the genre, and absolutely no mention of the great debate of 2010!?!?!?!?**** I’ll admit I’m slightly obsessed with that book, but still.  This is not a random and obscure title.ZombiesvsUnicorns

****shelves? plural? in what alternate universe are there enough young adult anthologies, period, to constitute even enough for an endcap display, much less multiple shelves.? If one is going to use such extreme hyperbole, please refrain from doing so in order to deny the existence of the very thing you wish there was more of.

*****If they had done this, they would realize that part of what made Zombies vs. Unicorns so great is that it didn’t make teens choose between fantasy and science fiction.  Despite the the conceit of the anthology being a battle of the stories, the point of the mock war was that both are awesome.

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Reading Round-up 2013: Week 4 (part 1)

This was the week we read about bears during preschool story time. Which led to me reading lots of (new to me) picture books about bears. And so week four Reading Round-up has been divided up into two parts.

cover image for The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry BearThe Little Mouse, the Red, Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Wood

Little Mouse has found a nice, red, ripe, yummy strawberry.  But can Little Mouse keep the big, hungry bear from taking the strawberry for himself?

This book is definitely a (modern) classic, and it’s not just because it get kids giggling.  The authors have managed to create a story that is clear and simple enough for very young children to follow, while telling it in a way that encourages analysis.

The text turns the reader into a character in the story: a narrator speaking to the small mouse.  The mouse in turn answers not with words, but with actions shown in the illustrations. The basic story of a mouse scared of a bear is incredibly easy to figure out, but understanding all the small jokes requires that children see the cause and effect between the words and the illustrations.  Also, that they think critically about the fact that the bear is never seen.  This clever set up not only allows the story to work for a wide range of ages, it also provides children with much needed practice in comprehension and critical thinking.

And, of course, it’s funny and cute.

cover image for Otto the Book BearOtto the Book Bear by Katie Clemenson

At night, Otto the Book Bear steps out of his book and plays and talks with all the other book characters.  Until one day he goes off exploring and comes back only to discover that his book is gone!  In a plot reminiscent of the many stories about lost, forgotten, or outgrown toys, Otto sets off in search of a new home – and finds it in a library.

This was one of my favorites among all the bear books I read recently that were new (to me); mostly for personal reasons that should be quite obvious.  I haven’t yet read it aloud to the kids, but I expect it will work well, especially as the illustrations are cute, pleasant, and easy to see from a distance.

Bear Has a Story to Tell by Phillip Stead

cover image for Bear Has a Story to TellA circular story that will likely never become a classic (it doesn’t have quite enough personality) but is nevertheless a good, clever read with very pretty illustrations.

cover image for I Want My Hat BackI Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

My first introduction to this book was a former bookstore coworker complaining to me about how awful it is.  Oh, silly adults with no sense of humor. * shakes head *

(That said, the humor does work better with children in primary grades, rather than preschoolers or toddlers.)

This book is brilliant.  Even if you never ever ever read picture books, grab a copy to flip through next time you are in a bookstore with a children’s section.  (It’s a recent award winner, so most stores should carry it – even Mysterious Galaxy had a copy on display last time I was there.)  You will not regret it.  I’m not going to ruin the punchline for you, but I do want to point out that the awards are in recognition of not only the clever plot and sublime yet distinct illustrations but also because of the way that the structure of the story is leveraged into repetitive yet far from boring text that works for newer readers.  Also, Klassen’s use of space and color and repeating elements is just first class.

cover image for This is Not My HAtThis is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

Sequel, of a sort, to I Want My Hat Back.  Same humor and art style, similar set up – but different enough to make it interesting, equally brilliant, and also an award winner.

cover image for I Miss You Mouse cover image for Thank You Bearcover image for Good Luck Bearcover image for Make A Wish Bear

I Miss You Mouse by Greg Foley

Thank You Bear by Greg Foley

Make A Wish Bear by Greg Foley

Good Luck Bear by Greg Foley

These adorable books are perfect for toddlers and younger preschoolers.  All four stories follow the same pattern of following Bear around as he interacts with the other animals, each exchange echoing all the others in both sentence structure and futility – until Bear meets up with mouse, who provides a solution.  The art is nicely graphic and manages to be simplistic without looking flat.

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More Class Rants, er, Discussion!

After I posted my general response to the readings, I could not help also replying to a couple of classmates, including one person that was driving me crazy.

(for those of you that missed the previous locked post, this particular class discussion is regarding two very dated readings about television and children.  the previous post was me ranting about how television =/= video.)

Classmate says (with regards to tv - but in this larger discussion tv has been conflated with all video):

"There doesn't seem to be any benefit for the watcher besides escapism. When it comes to too much reading, you may end up flabby as well but the mind hasn't been dulled."

I responded with:

"That makes no sense to me.  Even just looking at the reading side of your argument.  For a medium to allow for stories to be meaningful, the final forms it takes must have an impact on those interacting with it. That impact has to vary - or where is the art? the meaning?

If the words and illustrations in a picture book have value, why do they suddenly lose it when the pictures move and the words are spoken? (Shall we renounce performances of Shakespeare now, and insist it must always be read?)  How in the world is my mind not dulled if all I read are badly written, self-published novels from netgalley?  How is my mind not elevated if I spend my time watching Brazelton's* television series?  (Which I did as an elementary age child, actually - and that's part of why I am here, oh irony of ironies.)

Discussions like this remind me a lot of the times when I've debated math scores and gender.  So much of the focus is on what is different that we lose sight of the fact that the gap is insignificant compared to the extent to which the scores overlap.  I'm certainly willing to listen to arguments that video is not as useful of a medium as I think it is, but this attitude that asserts by implication that the most awkward and badly illustrated picture book is vastly superior to Mo Willem's video version of Knuffle Bunny, merely by virtue of the latter being a video, that I whole-heartedly reject."

*Brazelton - a pediatrician (and neurologist?) - was not one of the authors whose work we were discussing, but he was mentioned in the reading I was ranting about earlier.
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Thank You, Sarah, for Giving Thanks

Laurie Halse Anderson is best known for her award-winning young adult and middle grade novels, particularly Speak, Wintergirls, Fever 1793, and Chains. She is also the author of a rather interesting non-fiction picture book (illustrated by Matt Faulkner) about Sarah Hale, a 19th century American woman who transformed Thanksgiving from a regional holiday into a national one.*

cover image for Thank You Sarah

This morning I received an email from the publisher of a book titled Sarah Gives Thanks, by Mike Allegra and David Gardner, celebrating its placement on the Amelia Bloomer List, an honor intended to indicate that the children’s or young adult book in question has “significant feminist content.”

cover image for Sarah Gives Thanks

Now, I haven’t had a chance to read this new picture book (the local bookstores sent their copies back after the holidays) so what I am about to say is informed solely by the covers as well as the fact that Hale, as I understand it, is hardly a well-known person to be writing about,** but...WOW.  If that cover is any indication of what is inside, I’m perplexed to say the least.  A bit annoyed and insulted too.

Anderson and Faulkner’s Thank You, Sarah frames Hale as a woman who engages in scholarly pursuits and commands respect.  The title casts Sarah as a hero and invites us to thank her for what she has done.  The patriotic symbols that surround her are everyday ones that Hale, as an American citizen (albeit a non-voting one) could claim as her own and her due.

The Amelia Bloomer honored title, according to its cover, focuses on Hale’s experience with the domestic pursuit of cooking and frames her actions as giving thanks and domestic niceties to others rather than committing heroic acts and earning accolades.  The patriotic building in the background is one that symbolizes power held, in Hale’s time, only by men.  It is possible that the intent was to create a type of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” vibe, but the combination of target audience, title, and pumpkin pie does quite the opposite.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Thank You Sarah was never honored by the Amelia Bloomer Project despite (as far as I can tell) being eligible for it.

Weird stuff happens, praise-worthy does not mean perfect, books aren’t always like their covers (although picture books certainly ought to be), it is (in very specific circumstances sometimes) possible to praise men for work that women have also done and not undermine feminist goals, it is very possible to praise women for traditionally feminine tasks and not undermine feminist goals, the apparently derivative nature of the second work may merely be a matter of coincidence and the subject matter, and I’m quite certain this was not at all a deliberate insult to Anderson by the Amelia Bloomer Project.

Still, I am totally giving the Amelia Bloomer Project the side-eye right now.  Also Allegra, Gardener, and Albert Whitman & Co.

*Hale was a rather fascinating person and not without flaws.  Raised by parents who believed in education for women as well as men, Hale went on to write and edit for major US publications.  She was critical of slavery but supported sending freed slaves to Liberia.  Also, she popularized a holiday that celebrates genocide. So.

**I'm hardly going to argue that Hale is worth only one picture book.  I just find a second book about her within the span of a decade an interesting choice considering both how well known the first author is and how many other wonderful women don't have any picture books about them at all.
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Reading Roundup 2013: Week 3

(livejournal is not letting me upload pics right now, so you get this post sans cover art. alas.)

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan, illustrations by Todd Lockwood

I must admit that I have an extreme (and possibly unhealthy) fondness for romance novels that feature bluestockings.  Even more so for ones that pair the heroine up with an equally nerdy hero.  A Natural History of Dragons is not that kind of novel, it's something much more - and much more fabulous.

Isabella's story is about love and passion, but rather than being about romance, it's about a young woman's love of natural history and her passion to learn all that she can about dragons.  Yes, dragons.  DRAGONS. Did I mention the dragons yet?

Treating genres as toys to play with rather than rules to follow (the only proper way to deal with them, in my opinion), Brennan uses the format of a memoir to tell the story of a proper young lady who is far from content with merely finding the right man to marry.  Like many second world fantasy novels, Isabella's home bears a deliberate resemblance historical Europe.  Unlike the typical medieval fantasy, the time period, setting, and tone has more in common with the romance novels mentioned above, as well as the type of historical fiction that tends to get labeled as "for girls."

Yet Brennan doesn't romanticize this fantasy past; one of the wonders of the book is the way that Isabella, writing in retrospect, admits to the ways that privilege has warped her understanding of the world - and that she does so in a manner that explains her thoughts without excusing them.  As if all of that that wasn't intriguing enough, the plot of the novel revolves around scientific discovery and research, thus blending fantasy and science fiction in a way that is both unique and lovely.

It's enough to make a nerd swoon.

Foiled by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Mike Cavallaro

I found the characters (fencing champ Aliera, her cousin and rpg partner Caroline, and an odd pretty-boy named Avery) memorable and the illustrations to be very well done, especially the use of color to mark the transition to magic.  The plot felt more like a prologue than a book in its own right, but that's not unusual for graphic novels and it was an intriguing set up.  All good, yes?

Unfortunately, the combination of these elements did not create a story that was greater than the sum of it's parts - quite the opposite.  There was too much telling with words and not enough showing with pictures; it's not just the balance of text vs. illustration that was off, it's what the story focused on and how it communicated ideas overall.  It was quite obvious that Yolen, while a master storyteller, is not (yet?) nearly as adept at writing graphic novels.  Alas.
It was fun and well done enough that I'd be happy to see it in my collection at work - especially since one of the characters is disabled! - but the flaws were frustrating enough that I'm also not making sad faces that we don't have it.

The Crowded Shadows by Celine Kiernan

The Crowded Shadows finds Wynter on the run and in search of both her friends and the lost prince.  It lacks the delicate politics of the The Poison Throne and the angst includes a secret that resembles the dreaded Big Misunderstanding a bit too much.  It's also very much a middle book.  Things happen, but not much is resolved.

Despite these flaws, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and suspenseful book.  I was very tempted to send it with a note to J. K. Rowling saying "THIS is how you do hiding out in the woods for weeks on end.  Without making your readers want to kill your characters."  For a plot that involves a realistic amount of waiting around and repetitive travel, Kiernan manages to keep the pace brisk and the characters fresh.  She also deserves kudos for presenting Christopher's adopted family in a way that explains how they come across as barbarians to Wynter's people without excusing this perception.  Plus, the werewolves are just plain creepy.

The Rebel Prince by Celine Kiernan

The good news is that the plot of The Rebel Prince involves a return to the political intrigue that made The Poison Throne so awesome.  Kiernan also does a wonderful job of creating tension between Wynter and Christopher in a way that encourages us to empathize with both.

The bad news is that the book suffers from the problem of having a Big Reveal that has been building up for ages and doesn't quite live up to expectations.  Not because the mysterious machine we have been hearing about is not, in fact, dreadful.  But rather because of the inherent flaws in having two and half books worth of time for readers to let their imaginations run wild; the reality is always bound to be a disappointment after that - even a fictional reality.

The Rebel Prince is not the most satisfying ending to a trilogy (it also has an epilogue that wraps up everything a bit too neatly, considering) but it does have it's moments and is well worth the read.  As with The Crowded Shadows, this novel's biggest problem is that it suffers by comparison to The Poison Throne.  But! not as good as "excellent" and "amazing" is still pretty damn good.

Machines at Work by Byron Barton

Like all good books for toddlers, Machines at Work's strength lies in it's simplicity and use of repetition.  What makes it an excellent book for young children is the way that the simple elements are layered to create patterns that encourage discovery.  By showing a full day in the life of construction vehicles and the people who work them, and by rebuilding in the afternoon was what torn down in the morning, Barton uses familiar scenarios to both impart factual knowledge and create a recognizable structure to the story, despite the text consisting of little more than a handful of basic sentences.  It may look like a typical and generic book for little ones, but in reality it's a bit of a hidden treasure.  Highly recommended.

Plus! The people working the machines are wonderfully diverse.
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Reading Round-up 2013: week 2

(yes, it is already week 3, I'm late with week 2)

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

cover image for Where the Mountain Meets the MoonThis was a gem of a story and completely deserves it's mention as a Newbery honor book.  Minli lives in poverty with her parents, growing up with little food and fewer possessions but plenty of tales of daring and great deeds.  Until one day she sets out on her own adventure in the hopes of bringing fortune and joy to her family and her village.  Along the way she makes new friends, performs many amazing tasks, and, of course, collects even more stories.

Part of what makes this novel so wonderful is the way that Lin uses Minli's experiences to emphasis how much she and her parents had to be thankful for in the first place, while still making it clear that the journey  was ultimately a good decision, not some foolish dream better left alone.  It's so common for western stories with a similar premise to either fail to interrogate our constant quest to consume more or to come across as discouraging children to want better for themselves; Where the Mountain Meets the Sea manages to maintain an elegant balance between these two extremes.

I don't know enough about Chinese culture or fairy tales to say whether Lin represents them accurately,* but to me at least her stories appear respectful and she manages to present a thoroughly non-Western fantasy at a level that elementary school children will enjoy and connect with.

Half Magic by Edward Eager

cover image for Half MagicA magic coin that only grants half of what you wish for should not be so easily thwarted by four juvenile siblings, even in a lighthearted fantasy.  It makes for an entertaining and interesting children's novel though.  I'm not sure what it says about me that I found what happened with Katharine's wish to be completely unfair** and that I was rather unsettled by the bit near the end with the mother thinking she was crazy.  Other than that it was a fun story with not too much fail, considering it's age.  I picked it up to give to my niece, but I suspect it will be more useful as a research book for me, so I might hold onto it for a bit longer.

The Time Between Us by Tamara Ireland Stone

cover image for The Time Between UsThe second half was entertaining, if flawed. I must admit that I got choked up a bit once or twice at the (oh, so much!) angst and moral conundrums of teen lovers torn apart by time and teleportation.  Unfortunately, I had to read through the first half of the book to get to the actual drama.  During which not much happened and there were plenty of opportunities for my mind to wander to such thoughts as "why is it always the boyfriends that have super powers?" and  "why is she putting the money in the safe for the night and then going to lock the store entrance?"  and of course "why did the editor not edit the first 150 pages right out of the book?" and so on.  While the second half was promising enough that I will consider trying more by this author - maybe, possibly  -  I can't recommend this particular book.

Crow Girl by Katt Cann

Crow+Girl+new+editionI made it through 14 pages of this and that was about 13 1/2 too many.   Lilly is dealing with bullying and weight issues; the author seems to think this means she should spend a lot of time cataloguing what her middle school protagonist eats.  I stopped reading at "Lilly wasn't aware of it, but walking in the woods and the change of diet were making her look a lot better."  Because this is what is important when someone is being bullied to the point that they miss half a semester, yes? That she is finally looking a certain way.

So sad, because that cover really deserved a much better book.  More importantly, I am never getting those 5 minutes back.

Peek-a-Moo by Marie Torres Cimarusti

cover image for Peek-a-moo!Has everything a picture book for toddlers is supposed to have: animals! making sounds! flaps! to fold down! repetition! bright and simple graphics! etc.  It is a good, solid book to own if you have (or work with) two or three year olds.  No more, no less.

inside pages of Peek-a-moo!

*fyi - I hope to write up a longer review later, and will do research on this before I do so.

**Why yes, I am a middle child.  Why do you ask?
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Reading Round-up 2013: week 1

Ten-Myracle-LaurenTen by Lauren Myracle

A bit of a disappointment, sadly.  I’ve enjoyed the other books by Myracle that I have read, but this one never clicked.  It felt very aimless and disjointed, which wasn’t helped by the conceit of: one chapter = one month.  Most of all, Winnie ever really seems to grow; there is a lot of judging people without context and not much of Winnie learning from her own mistakes.

I don’t expect kids' books to always be about the morals, but 8-12 is exactly the age at which they become capable of learning that other people have different points of view, and about how there isn’t always just one right answer. You’d think a book that’s really just all about family and friendships would cover this in some meaningful way. Instead there was a lot of Winnie being told she is unique.  The overall impression being that Winnie can be however she wants to be, and tolerating less cool or less fortunate people is good  for her, but somehow this does not translate into her actually learning to walk in other people’s shoes.

cover image for The Color of MagicThe Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

I suspect that I am not the right sort of person to appreciate Pratchett’s humor.  You may commence throwing rotten vegetables at me.

I didn’t hate it, but the naked women were too many (even knowing they were there as a parody of the kind of fantasy that features naked women) and the humor not quite enough to make me really like it.

I shall give Pratchett another chance...eventually.  Mostly because the luggage won me over.  But that was about all. (Also, because friends have told me to start with other books in the series.)