Monthly Archives: January 2009

Poetry Friday: A Dust of Snow


We’ve had a lot more than a dusting lately, but I love this little poem. A reminder that sometimes a small thing, at the right time, makes all the difference.

Dust of Snow – by Robert Frost

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

From Poetry Foundation.

(photo © Scott Roberts for openphoto.net CC:Attribution)

The Underneath

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Now I’ve met plenty of true villains in all my years of reading. Or, at least I thought I’d met real villains. That was before I discovered Gar Face, from Kathy Appelt’s Newbery Honor title, The Underneath. He’s bad, so, so bad. I hate him. I really do. He’s the kind of bad guy that forces you to redefine bad guy.

I described the events of this book to my husband in installments as I was reading over the past few days, and I think at first he thought I was making it up, all the sad, sad things that happen to the animal characters one after the other and then a little bit more all the way to the end. Today, I got home from school after having finished reading it on the streetcar. I sat down and told him how it all turned out, and as I got close to the end I pretty much lost it, kind of half choking at the worst part and then picking up my own sweet hound and scratching his curly head while I finished telling the story.

We started talking about who is meant to read The Underneath, because I have to wonder how many kids will read it. I’m not saying that there are no children out there to read The Underneath. Nor am I saying that I wouldn’t want a child to read it. It’s just that I wonder if perhaps some of the most extreme scenes of animal abuse really need to be depicted in order for the author to achieve her purpose and to sustain the intensity she has created so brilliantly here.

Now don’t accuse me of “not getting it” everybody. Believe me, I get it. Appelt is writing about evil (and loss and hope and love in the darkest, most horrible circumstances). The kind of evil that is so far beyond redemption. I know that the fact she didn’t shy away from the scenes of extreme cruelty to animals played a huge role in my total emotional investment in this story, and in her characters. I will never forget Ranger and Puck and Sabine. Ever. They’ll be in my head, roaming about together for a long, long time, and I’m glad to have met them. I’m just not convinced this is a book for kids. Kids could read it. Some kids will read it. The Underneath is one of the most powerful novels I’ve read in a long time, and it already feels like a classic. I’ll line up to read whatever Kathi Appelt comes up with next, that’s for sure. (I’m kind of hoping there won’t be kittens in it though).

I’ve indicated this title as Middle Grade, YA and Crossover. There will be kids and teens and adults who’ll love it. It’s just got to find the right readers. For goodness sake don’t go passing it to anybody (child or grown up) who lost it when they read Stone Fox or Charlotte’s Web and the like. Clearly those stories are for sissies.

For more about The Underneath, try out one of the many reviews in the kidlitosphere:

Sarah Miller
Fuse 8
The Reading Zone
Seven Imp
Educating Alice

Now, for a complete change of pace, I think this might do the trick:

puppy

:)

Bull Rider

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If you ever have the chance to go to a rodeo and watch bull-riding, it’s an experience you won’t soon forget. When I was a kid we visited the Calgary Stampede, and I remember seeing bull riders in action. It was wild. You can’t help but wonder what on earth could possibly possess someone to do such a crazy thing. There’s a reason to write a book right there, and that’s exactly what 2k9 author, Suzanne Morgan Williams has done. Bull Rider is her fiction debut, and it’s a fine story that lets you inside the head of one teen bull-rider, who is willing to risk it all to win big money and restore something of his injured brother’s lost dream.

Cam O’Mara is not the bull-rider in the O’Mara family. Not really. Skateboarding is Cam’s thing. His brother Ben was the town of Salt Lick’s bull-riding champion, but when Ben returns partially paralyzed from serving in Iraq, Cam somehow finds his way into the ring, even though he can’t decide if it’s terrifying or exhilarating. Cam discovers that hanging out at his brother’s old stomping ground, and trying on his brother’s talent, is one way for him to accept the traumatic events that his family is forced to deal with. When Cam has the chance to enter a $15 000 challenge to ride a super-nasty, 1600 pound bull named Ugly, his new-found bull-riding skills get put to the toughest of tests.

Speaking of talent, Williams writes completely convincing, real world characters. Reading Bull Rider is like walking into a family’s house right at the time they’re caught up in a tragic set of circumstances. Williams’ novel is about struggle, at home and in the countries where soldiers serve, and it is also about finding the things that make us happy and make us feel alive. I was impressed particularly by the way that she conveys the complexity of the relationship between Cam and Ben, how it was before Ben went away, and the ways in which it changes when he comes home injured and vulnerable.

Another real strength of the novel is that it will make readers consider the cost of war on families and on individuals, as in a split second, everything changes for Ben and for everyone who cares about him. There’s a lot  in this story: war experiences, family drama, some risky rodeo tricks, a little skateboarding and a whole lot of hope. I’ll be waiting for Williams’ sophomore effort.

Bull Rider is released February 24, 2009, by McElderry Books.

Oliver Jeffers Roundup

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Oliver Jeffers is one talented super-artist. I am crazy about his picture books. His style is so refined looking, modern and muted. And gosh darn it, the man knows how to write a sweet story. I defy you to read Lost and Found and not want to cuddle up to the first penguin who shows up on your doorstep. I’ve come across several Jeffers-inspired items in the kidlitosphere lately, so here are all of those treats together, in one handy roundup:

Guardian feature on Oliver Jeffers
Just One More Book’s podcast on The Way Back Home
Lots more Oliver Jeffers-related goodies at Just One More Book
StudioAKA’s gorgeous collection of stills from the short film version of Lost and Found. You’ll find the trailer there too.
Oliver Jeffers Illustration

There’s a hearty dose of sweetness for a freezing Sunday morning.

Heart of a Shepherd

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Even though I’ve been living in a big city for more than ten years now, I’m definitely a country girl at heart. That’s what growing up on a farm does to you. But that’s not the only reason why I’m a sucker for a great rural story. Most farm stories have the potential to offer all that a reader could want in a narrative: struggle, love, life, death, and of course, a few great animals along the way.

Rosanne Parry’s debut, Heart of a Shepherd, is as gorgeous as a wide open country vista, with mountains in the distance and clouds up above. You hardly know what to appreciate and soak up first, there’s so much beauty and depth to take in in this slim novel. I promise you’ll be daydreaming about these characters and the land they care about long after the story is over.

Brother is the youngest of five boys, and the four eldest have left the family ranch to go to school. When his father is shipped to Iraq with his reserve unit, Brother recognizes an opportunity to prove that he is just as good a rancher as his older siblings, in spite of the fact that he’s always seemed to be different from his brothers in his work around the farm. He’s the one who gets emotional when one of the animals gets injured or sick, whereas his brothers just get on with the job of working the ranch. Brother decides to try not to let his heart get in the way of doing all the work that must be done to keep the ranch going just as smoothly as when his father is around. So Brother and his Grandpa take on everything together, and face many challenges as the year passes.

Heart of a Shepherd touches on many themes, but I think more than anything, it’s a story about spirit: the human spirit, the spirit we can find in the land, and religious faith too. Brother and his Grandpa work desperately hard to keep the ranch operating, never giving up no matter how hard it gets. Brother loves his home, but he has no idea if being a rancher is what he wants to do with his life. This doesn’t stop him for working himself into the ground to keep things running while his father is gone. A lot of this integrity comes from the fact that the land is a part of who he is, and has shown him how life can be difficult and awe-inspiring. It’s powerful and compelling reading to follow this character as he finds his way towards what he’s meant to do with his life. It’s like icing on the cake that Rosanne Parry really knows how to write too. Her style is clear and poetic all at once, the way a hymn or a folk tale can seem simple but every word is just the right one, from beginning to end.

I want lots of people to read this book – kids, teenagers, grown ups. Everybody. It’s a beauty. It will fill you up with hope and warmth because it’s a story about good people, doing what’s right. More than anything, Brother wants to find the thing that makes his heart happy. Rosanne Parry’s novel will make your heart happy.

Heart of a Shepherd is published by Random House and will be released on January 27th, 2009.

A Prize fit for a President (or President’s daughter)

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This is very cool. In honour of the inauguration of Barack Obama today, readergirlz has joined up with Feiwel & Friends to give away 25 complete 4-book sets of Ellen Emerson White’s President’s Daughter series. If you haven’t read these books, this is a BIG treat. I have only read Ellen’s most recent title in the series: Long May She Reign. It was brilliant, so I can’t wait to read the first three books.

So visit the readergirlz blog and comment on the contest post by January 31st for your shot at some seriously fine White House-inspired reading.

Author Interview: MAC

Well gang, you came to the right place for some fun this morning. What better way to launch into the week than by reading a goodie-filled interview with a talented and mysterious author. I present my chat with MAC, author of the delightful Middle Grade mystery, Anna Smudge: Professional Shrink.  Read on for lots of pictures, secrets, and even a sneak peek of several chapters of the second book in The Professionals series. Yay Monday!

What inspires you?

I have two words for you. Marlon Brando. I mean, c’mon. Have you seen that Larry King interview where he’s barefoot, sings show tunes, and kisses Larry on the mouth!? Comedy gold.

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(Marlon and his feet were actually the inspiration for a character in the upcoming Quenton Cohen: Professional Chef named “Feets” Tenenbaum.)

The kids in your book each have a particular, unique talent. So, what’s your secret talent?

Without a doubt, my talent is sleeping. I can do it anywhere and at anytime. On the sofa, at the movies, sitting at my desk, having an outdoor lunch with a friend while donning really dark sunglasses. I’m excellent at it. And my motto is, when you find something you’re good at, you should do it as much as possible.

Where do you write?

Sometimes, if I write too much in one spot, my brain goes offline, and I end up staring at the blank computer screen with my mouth half-cocked open, and a spittle of drool leaking out. Kind of embarrassing. Especially when in public places. So, I try to mix it up a little. I write from the computer in my den. I also take my laptop out and write from various cafés in the Village.

Sometimes, I’ll go with a couple of writer friends, sometimes by myself. My favorite drink to order when it’s cold is a warm apple cider with a cinnamon stick. My favorite snack is hummus with warm pita.

Writer’s block for me is not finding a good seat at one of my favorite cafés. That is why I always pack my remote controlled fart machine in with my pens, paper, and laptop. But I definitely have to change up the locations after draining all of the psychic energy from that particular spot.

macworking

Anna Smudge is the first in The Professionals series. Did you envision a series from the start? If yes, have you got them all plotted out in your head like an amazing authorial master-planner?

Yes, and yes. I always envisioned a series. And I have all six books in the series plotted out. The individual mysteries and how they connect to the bigger Mr. Who overplot was just too complex not to.

I am very meticulous about pre-writing, plotting, and planning. It is just easier to see if something is working earlier on in the process. A lot less time is wasted on sub plots that don’t connect back to anything or tie in. So, I can work faster overall.

Speaking of inspiration, which character came first for you, Anna, or Mr. Who, and where do you think your idea came from?

About six years ago I was working at a diner in downtown Manhattan, and I was miserable. So, I started scribbling on my order pad and Anna just kind of popped into life as this girl who wasn’t good at anything and was just a bit too ordinary. Even her name was the same when you spelled it backwards. But she was a great listener and always there for her friends. The rest of the story just came out of that. My friends tell me I probably needed a bit of therapy working at that diner. So, a book about a kid shrink was just wishful thinking.

Aside from Mr. Who (of course), who do you think are some of the most dastardly evil masterminds in children’s lit?

Lex Luthor (What do you mean comics aren’t literature!?)
Voldemort (two baldies/baddies in a row)
Artemis Fowl
Homer Zuckerman from Charlotte’s Web (the uncle who was going to kill Wilbur for Christmas dinner)
Mrs. Coulter (not Ann Coulter, but her estranged sister from the Golden Compass)

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A Bottle in the Gaza Sea

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With the recent intensification of conflict in the Middle East, I hope many teen readers find their way to A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, because it is a powerful, thought-provoking glimpse of life in that region. The novel begins when Tal, an Israeli girl, decides to throw a bottle with a letter she has written about herself into the Gaza Sea, hoping to make contact with someone who lives on the other side. She chooses to send the message after a bomb rips through a local cafe killing a young woman who was to be married the very next day. Tal cannot contain the emotions she feels when she hears about the tragedy, and so she writes about what’s inside her head as a way of coping. Naim, a 20 year-old Palestinian who first identifies himself to Tal as “Gazaman,” finds the bottle and contacts Tal. From there, the two young people begin corresponding through email, sharing their experiences and opposing perspectives. As time passes they become friends, and through this unusual relationship they understand the issues behind the conflict in even more personal and complex ways.

One of the reasons I love to read as much as I do is that sometimes I find stories that offer insight into a culture or a moment in time or an experience that I could never know first hand. A Bottle in the Gaza Sea does this brilliantly. It grabs onto you, and forces you to imagine what it would be like to live in a place where violence was a part of day-to-day life, where fear would be so close to the surface all the time. Tal and Naim grapple with this throughout the novel, feeling rage and desperation and profound sadness at the loss they feel around them, in the streets, on the news. I thought that Zenatti conveyed Naim’s intense anger so well at the outset of the story. His voice is sarcastic and bitter and mad, and as you begin to understand what he has seen and what he lives with, you can understand where his feelings come from. Tal wants so badly to believe that there is good in the world and that it is possible to find a way towards a future where everyone can live in safety and peace.

This book has a lot of say about the power of language. Writing offers both of these characters freedom. Their letters become a place to express what they would otherwise be forced to keep inside. Their stories and their opinions bridge the distance that war and death has opened between their communities and cultures. Late in the novel, Tal and Naim write about how their countries cannot seem to agree on a common language. They have different words for things: terrorists / freedom fighters, Israel / Palestine, security / peace. Tal says, “I think if we could agree on words we could agree on everything.” I love that line. It makes you think about the deep roots of conflict and the steps that could be taken to start something new.

Sure to spark discussion, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea has won the 2009 Sydney Taylor Book Award for its authentic portrayal of the Jewish experience.

More reviews:

Miss Erin
Teen Book Review
Abby the Librarian

Tales from Outer Suburbia

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(This review is cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire)

Some authors seem so crazy brilliant that I imagine I would turn into a blithering idiot if ever I had the chance to meet them. Shaun Tan is right up there on that list for me. Of course, it doesn’t help that not only is he an amazingly talented writer, but the man is one of the most gifted illustrators working right now too. Everything he has created feels important to me. Not a pretentious capital a “Artistic” kind of important. It’s more like reading Tan’s books lets you glimpse his thoughts on some of the deepest questions about what it means to be human. Reading a new Shaun Tan book is almost a spiritual experience.

Enter Tales from Outer Suburbia. You’ll find fifteen short stories, all illustrated with trademark Tan art, featuring strange happenings in the fringes of civilization (aka – suburbia). It’s really impossible to say what’s better in this slim volume – story or images. Both will captivate and charm you, and make you wonder about the extraordinary things out there in your own backyard, hiding in the places you think you know best.

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