Monthly Archives: March 2008

Bound

bound.jpg

Donna Jo Napoli is a writer I’ve been meaning to read for some time. Since I’m participating in the Twisted Fairy Tale Challenge, and Napoli has written many such stories, it would have been a shame not to read one of her books for the challenge. I chose Bound. It was a tight race between this one and Hush, which has one of the most gorgeous covers I’ve seen of late. See:

hush.jpg

So beautiful (sigh). But back to Bound. Here we have a Cinderella story, set in Ancient China. Xing Xing (pronounce “Shing Shing”) lives with her Stepmother and half-sister, Wei Ping, after the death of her beloved father. Xing Xing’s Stepmother is a thoroughly nasty, entirely self-absorbed woman (of course), and Xing Xing lives a life of servitude, with little hope for the future. She is bright, with a gift for poetry and calligraphy, and has a kind heart and quiet strength. Much of Xing Xing’s time is spent caring for Wei Ping, who suffers a great deal due to her foot bindings, kept on at her mother’s insistence, since according to custom, Wei Ping’s prospect for a good marriage depends on the shape and size of her feet. Xing Xing is spared this painful tradition since she is as good as a slave in her home. You won’t find a fairy godmother in this story, but you will encounter a magical carp and a pair of golden slippers. It is Xing Xing’s forbearance, loyalty and courage that leads her towards freedom and a promising future.

All three women in this story are trapped in some way. Xing Xing is held down by her cruel Stepmother. Wei Ping cannot walk because of her mutilated, bound feet. While Stepmother is by anyone’s definition, a twisted woman, the death of Xing Xing’s father means that the family’s circumstances are precarious. The Stepmother is a nut job, but she is just as captive to the norms and expectations of society as her daughters. She has to find Wei Ping a suitable husband. Xing Xing is bound to her family in ways that hurt and limit her, but at the same time, she finds strength and support in her devotion and connection to the spirit of her ancestors, particularly her mother. I like how readers are left to consider at the end of the story if Xing Xing is simply trading one form of servitude for another, in this case, a royal marriage. The themes of captivity, loyalty and ancestry are  inter-related in though-provoking ways in Napoli’s story.

Xing Xing is one of those entirely independent, clever and resilient heroines that readers will root for and remember. Her desire to take risks to create the future she wants makes her feel surprisingly modern, and makes her a character that teens can learn from. My first encounter with Napoli leaves me eager for another.

What the World Needs Now

I just saw Enchanted last week. I loved how it poked fun at fairy tales without becoming a true spoof of the genre.

I have decided that what the world needs now, is a whole lot more chipmunk (and I’m not talking Alvin, Simon and Theodore here people). I mean this kind of chipmunk:

For those of you who haven’t seen the movie yet, think “Nasty hag. Poison Apple. Princess.” (Get it?)

So, where are all the great kids’ books with Chipmunky Heros? (Mélanie Watt, I think we need to talk).

devilish

411qyhmqy5l_ss500_.jpg

(It is awfully hard to write a decent review with a Siamese cat sitting on your mousepad and a terrier licking your pant leg ever so tenderly/persistently, but I will try my best…)

It’s a rare book that makes me want to rush out and read everything else that the author has ever written (including archived blog posts). Are you searching for a story that is fun, suspenseful, a little strange, and packed with dry humor? Well, you’ve got it all right here. Maureen Johnson’s devilish is so good. It’s just so good. Read this:

My sister, Joan, was picking all of the green and orange pieces out of her bowl of Froot Loops when I came downstairs. Spread out in front of her were some books and papers. Joan never actually did her homework. I’m not sure Joan actually knew that she was supposed to do it – I think she may have been under the impression that she was just supposed to watch over it for the night and make sure nothing happened to it. Every morning, she took it out and checked to make sure that every page was as blank, every problem was as undone, and every answer was just as unwritten as when she’d first taken it under her wing.

Funny, yes? devilish is loaded with funny bits. I like funny. I don’t think it would be possible to read this book and not feel perked up, renewed, and ready to face your bedside stack of Sad Teenager Novels.

Jane Jarvis and her best friend Allison Concord are not the most popular girls at Saint Teresa’s Preparatory School for Girls. They’re quirky and they’re happy enough that way – or at least Jane is. When the devil shows up at Saint T’s, Allison is ready to give up everything – even her soul – in order to join the ranks of the cool. Jane must keep her head if she is going to outwit the “representative of the Satanic High Command, Hearth of the Cold and All-Consuming Fire, Destroyer of Worlds, Consumer of Souls, Taker of the Life Breath…” Does she do it? Read the book, my friends. Read the book. I think it’s refreshing to read a wholly enjoyable, romp of a story, no strings attached. I liked experiencing a story without feeling like the author is trying to show me The True Meaning of Life or teach me a Deep, Heartbreaking Lesson. This is not to imply that Johnson’s book is fluff. No, no, no. You’ll find only sharp, sophisticated writing between these covers, and a host of characters you’d follow into a sequel in a flash.

So treat your jaded, seen-it-all soul to a little devilish deliciousness. (It’s every bit as satisfying as that perfect pink cupcake, I promise).

And yes, Maureen Johnson has a website and a blog.

O Canada: Safe as Houses

safe.jpgEric Walters just writes and writes and writes. I don’t know how the guy does it. I think he has 4 books coming out this year? Since 1993, the man has published 39 books. Crazy. So it’s no surprise that he’s one of the most prolific and widely recognized Canadian writers for children and young people. Safe as Houses is his most recent novel.

Of late, some of Walters’ most celebrated works have addressed contemporary (some say controversial) issues: Shattered – a teenager gets to know a soldier who had been a peacekeeper during the Rwandan genocide, We All Fall Down – the main character experiences the events of September 11th in New York City, and Bifocal (with Deborah Ellis) – which deals with the arrest of a Muslim student suspected of terrorist affiliations. When he’s not tackling tough, current issues in his work, Walters sometimes heads to the past for inspiration. In Safe as Houses, he offers a look at one of the most dramatic weather events in Canadian history: Hurricane Hazel.

Lizzie Hardy babysits the McBride kids every day after school. 12-year old David McBride thinks he’s too grown up for a babysitter, and he lets Lizzie know it by dishing out as much attitude as he can, just to be difficult. His little sister Suzie is the main reason Lizzie keeps doing the job for a little extra cash. On October 15th, 1954, the kids walk through an intense rainstorm to the McBride home, close to the Humber River in Weston, Ontario. Only a few hours later, Lizzie starts to feel afraid. This is no ordinary storm. The children are alone and trapped in the house in the dark, with water rising faster than they realize. The story follows the events of that night, and the choices the children make as the flood waters threaten to sweep them away.

Safe as Houses is a quick read. You don’t have much time to get to know these characters. In fact, I don’t think it’s all that important that the characters be nuanced in this story. We need to care about them enough to hope that they make it, but we don’t need to feel that we understand them intimately. And we don’t. Lizzie is the responsible, quick-thinking good girl. Suzie is the sweetie-pie innocent. David is the trouble-maker hiding a heart of gold. Done. Walters builds sufficient tension, creating a claustrophobic feeling as the night settles over the house and the storm rages outside. Tension grows in spite of the fact that you know where the story is heading. The kids are resourceful and realistic and the story is quick and gripping. I imagine a lot of kids will find it hard to believe that these dramatic events happened right here around Toronto.

I liked Safe as Houses. It’s not nearly as good as my favourite Walters’ book, Run, on the life of Terry Fox. When I picked up Safe as Houses, I was told that it was very much “an Eric Walters type of story.” I think that Eric Walters knows how to open kids’ eyes to important events, of the past and the present, in a way that is totally engaging and accessible to a wide range of readers. For weather-loving young’uns, pair Walters’ book with Steve Pitt’s Rain Tonight, another fascinating look at Hurricane Hazel’s devastating effects on Southern Ontario.

Beauty Shop for Rent…fully equipped, inquire within

beautyshop.jpg

(This one’s gonna be quick people, because all reviews written on your birthday should be short and sweet. More time left for cake and laziness…)

Laura Bowers’s Beauty Shop for Rent… fully equipped, inquire within, is a down-home, easy-to-please kind of story. Abbey Garner was more or less raised by her great-grandmother, Granny Po, and all of Granny Po’s kooky, grey-haired girlfriends. Most of her young life outside of school has been spent in her Granny’s beauty parlor, listening to gossip, eating homemade treats, and earning some money doing odd jobs. When Granny Po decides to put the place up for rent, and a trendy young woman walks in ready to makeover the parlor and the small town clientele, Abbey braces for change. What comes next is part coming-of-age story, part Steel Magnolias and 100% heart-warming.

Abbey is an interesting character. She plans to be a millionaire by 35, and is well on the way to reaching that goal. She likes control, which is probably why she feels a lot happier figuring out money issues than people problems. She has a good heart, and real vulnerability, since her relationship with both of her absent parents is a source of strain and worry. I thought this kid was well-realized and sympathetic. The Grannies were fiery, and a bit dirty-talking (who doesn’t go for a novel with potty-mouthed grannies, I ask you), and entirely endearing. You’re rooting for this wacky family, from page one right to the end. There may have been too many story lines competing for attention. I found some aspects of the plot a bit thinly developed (Abbey’s relationship with her father, her job at the horse farm). But I like a good gossipy, girl-power read every so often, and Bowers’s book fits that bill perfectly.

Best consumed while:

a) getting a pedicure

b) drinking black coffee and eating pie or

c) on a weekend retreat with the girls

Wildwood Dancing

wildwood.jpg If, like me, you’ve had Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing buried deep in your To Be Read pile, listen up:

“Get it outta there and start reading!”

Inspired by Squeaky Books’ Twisted Fairy Tale Challenge, I just finished Wildwood Dancing and boy was it a delight from beginning to end. Marillier’s story is based on the fairy tale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses. If this story is unknown to you, best pick up some version to read before you start Marillier’s book, as I think the reading experience is richer if you know the original tale. In 2 sentences, a summary: 12 princesses are locked in their chamber every night, but they steal away to dance in a magical realm. No one can figure out their secret until a humble gardener finds a way to follow them, and wins the heart of the youngest princess and the blessing of the king. Marillier has taken this story and made it very much her own. She sets the novel in Romania, on an estate called Piscul Dracului, where 5 sisters live with their ailing father. Every full moon, the sisters pass through a portal in their bedroom to a Dancing Glade in the Other Kingdom, a fairy land that is mysterious, beautiful and slightly menacing. Their monthly adventures are more or less secret, and remain so, for a time. When their father’s illness forces him to leave Piscul Dracului for a milder climate, they are left to care for the estate under the watchful eye of their cousin, Cezar, who becomes an ever more domineering and power-hungry presence. 16-year old Jenica is the heroine of the story, as she soon becomes the one person upon whom the sisters’ future in the Other Kingdom and their own world, depends. Toss in Jena’s unusual froggy companion, Gogu, and the complicating fact that Tatiana, the eldest sister, has fallen in love with a mysterious and potentially dangerous young man from the Other Kingdom, and you’ve got plenty to keep the pages turning.

In the hands of a lesser author, there might be too much on the go in this novel. There are 2 settings, lots of characters to flesh out, and at least 3 interwoven story lines at play. Marillier succeeds quite well in all of these areas. I liked that the main characters were complex. Even Cezar, selfish and brutish as he is, is not wholly unsympathetic. Jenica is very much coming of age. She makes mistakes, doesn’t always think things through, and has to figure out that life is often about sacrifice. My only quibble: the younger sisters were more in the background, and could have been better developed, which would have made the sisterly relationship more powerful.

This is a book I wish all fans of Stephanie Meyer’s series – Twilight, New Moon & Eclipse – would pick up, because it has everything those books have (thwarted love affairs, dark magic, deep secrets) without all of that over-the-top, heavy-breathing ,”I cannot live without your icy lips pressed against mine” business. It’s beautifully crafted, with well-drawn characters so that you never feel stuck inside of a good vs. evil fairy tale struggle. I imagine that readers who enjoy Shannon Hale’s writing will find Wildwood Dancing entirely yummy. And, good news! Juliet Marillier has a second book coming in September, involving Paula, the brainiest of the Wildwood girls. Visit Juliet Marillier.com for a hint of what’s to come.

A few other blog reviews for you:

Reader Rabbit
Bookwyrm Chrysalis
bookshelves of doom
AmoXcalli
Kids Lit
and from Miss Erin, but over at:
WORD: The blog of READ and WRITING magazine

A Jolt of Poetic Inspiration for Teachers

I am TOO TIRED to think this morning, so, “No poems for you!”

I would be remiss, however, if I did not tell you about Wild Rose Reader’s Amazing List of Poetry Links that is a gift to teachers far and wide. I limped into my poetry unit this week, so Elaine’s post could not have come at a more opportune moment.

Thanks for doing all of the work for me Elaine!

Off to my couch, my cat, and my pile of books.

Cheep Cheep!

So, I’ve got me a big, milestone type of b-day coming up. Friends? Family members? Stuck for gift ideas? Voila:

birdhouse.jpg Le birdhouse bookshelf! J’adore ca!

(thanks Bookshelf Blog for the link)

You could put any/all of the following inside, for a fantastic, birdy-themed gift:

piupiu-paperclip-magnet_87ba104b.jpg For organizing my many paperclips.

(go here)

petra-boase-mugs_754955c9.jpg For tea time.

(go here)

loveoneworldzero-little-owl_1a28d8ff.jpg
For transporting books to/from birdy bookshelf.

(go here)

and finally:

bird.jpg
For helping me feel young at heart (even though I will soon be old, so old).

(You know where to go for that people…duh!)

Ivy + Bean

417bf4nrapl_ss500_.jpg

Do you know a little girl who has recently graduated to reading chapter books and needs a simple story with engaging, real-life characters? Is she a nice girl (Ivy) or a fiesty, devil-may-care girl (Bean)? Then I think she will be just right for Annie Barrows’ Ivy + Bean books.

Bean and Ivy could not be more different. Bean likes making plans, practical jokes and tearing around her street motorcycle-racer style. Ivy likes dresses, sparkly headbands and reading. Ivy is nice. Bean thinks nice “is another word for boring.” (I kind of agree with her). Both of their mothers think the girls should be friends, and both of the girls think that idea is disgusting. But as fate would have it, the girls are headed towards friendship and they discover that you can never really tell what someone is all about until you hang out for a while. This little book is the first in a series of 4 (with more to come, I believe). It’s a bit light in terms of plot, but I think it’s mostly about setting up the characters and their relationship, and Barrows does this neatly and consistently, creating two kids who seem entirely belivable.

The book has a certain elegance and spare quality that I like, which comes from the clean text and Sophie Blackall’s understated black-and-white illustrations. It’s refreshing to find a book for the younger girl reader that isn’t all sparkles and shinyness and glitter. (BTW, I got a bit of a giggle over a few reader reviews on Amazon. One person objected because of the Wiccan imagery and another wrote that Bean was a poor role model for girls because she believes nice = boring and often gets into trouble. In my opinion, if you think Ivy + Bean is objectionable, you need to get out more).   

The book reminds me a little of Clementine and Ruby Lu though it’s not as funny or sophisticated. I imagine a younger audience would find lots to enjoy here. Check out Sophie Blackall’s beautiful website and Annie Barrows’ website isn’t half bad either.

Airman

airman.jpg

Airman is a cracking good read. It’s a story set in a past that might have happened, when lots of brilliant brains were focused on making flight a reality. Our hero, Conor Broekhart, is born in the sky, in the basket of a crashing hot-air balloon at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair. So begins his fascination with flight. Conor’s remarkable childhood is spent on the Saltee Islands (off the coast of Ireland), where he gets into all kinds of scrapes and adventures with his best friend, Isabella, who just happens to be a princess, daughter to King Nicholas, kind ruler of the Saltees. It’s not long before a tragic turn of events sends this idyllic youth up in smoke, and lands Conor in jail on Little Saltee. It’s one nasty, nasty place, and Conor needs all of his wit and stamina to mastermind his escape, and to rescue his family and Isabella from the oh-so-evil wannabe King: Marshall Bonvilain.

This tale just rips along. There’s hardly a moment to catch your breath as the tension builds from page one. The dark misery of the jail on Little Saltee is most convincing, with enough violence and grit and corruption to draw in resistant readers, especially boys. The bad guys are really bad and the good guys are shining-armour worthy. There are several brilliant secondary characters: Conor’s cellmate- a blind composer named Linus Wynter, and Conor’s tutor – the multi-talented Victor Vigny. I wished we’d been able to spend more time with Isabella, since she seems like one cool princess, and she stays very much in the background throughout the story. A minor criticism indeed, given the pleasure the plot and the characters afford as a whole.

Everyone’s been saying that Colfer has shown his best stuff here, and while I’ve only got one Artemis Fowl book under my belt, I think Airman is a tighter story. I don’t imagine that there will be a sequel, which is just right in my opinion. This book is the real deal and it’s hard to imagine that a follow-up could be as strong as the original tale. Kids who like Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn are bound to love Airman, though Colfer’s book may appeal more to children who prefer history to fantasy. Sheer, swashbuckling reading fun.

Here’s what everyone else thinks: Fuse 8, Bookhound, And Another Book Read, The Guardian.

And Camille at BookMoot got to see Eoin Colfer live and in person and tells us why he’s hilarious and entirely fan-worthy.