Monthly Archives: March 2009

What I Saw and How I Lied

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Judy Blundell’s 2008 National Book Award-winning title, What I Saw and How I Lied is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve read in a while. Creating a book that has mood so intense it feels tangible is quite an achievement, and I find this quality to be a rare thing. There are lots of books with memorable characters and smart plots, but not always such strong atmosphere. What I Saw and How I Lied drew me in and made me tune out the rest of the world. Always a good sign!

Evie’s stepfather Joe has returned from serving in WWII and he’s almost the same fun-loving, good-hearted man he used to be. Just before the end of the summer, out of nowhere Joe suggests a trip to Palm Beach and Evie and her drop-dead beautiful mother Bev are thrilled by the idea. When they arrive in Florida after a cross-country drive, however, they realize it’s the off-season, and Palm Beach is practically a ghost town. The hotel is a little worn around the edges, there are hardly any guests and Evie and Bev find it hard to mask their disappointment. Enter Peter Coleridge, a gorgeous ex-G.I. who just happens to know Evie’s step-father and just happens to be holidaying in Palm Beach too. From the start, Peter charms Evie and her mother, and his presence seems to put Joe on edge. It doesn’t take long for the tension to build and it becomes clear that everyone in the familiy is keeping secrets. Evie tries to take it all in and figure out what is happening behind the scenes, and the more she looks, the more she starts to realize that the adult world is built precariously on deception and mystery.

There’s something old-fashioned in feeling about this story – could be the fact that it takes place in the 40s, and there is slang peppered throughout that reminds readers of the time and place. All in all, it just feels classy. As much as I’ve heard people comment that the plot is what gets them, that it has a page-turning quality, I’d have to say that I found the novel quite character-driven. Evie is entirely believable and real as she is at that moment of being so tired of being seen as a little girl and just wanting to grow up already. I loved the way Blundell hinted to readers at what was coming always just a bit before Evie began to piece things together. Keeping readers more “in-the-know” than the main character can be an appealing narrative technique, and it worked wonderfully here. And the end – oh the twisty turny just right ending. You’ll love it.

Extra points for cover perfection. So noir. So glam. So mysterious. Read this to infuse a little drama into the daily grind.

Here’s an interview with Blundell by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket).

What I Saw and How I Lied is published by Scholastic.

Scaredy Squirrel at night (Earth Hour reading?)

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The original Scaredy title is one of my favourite picture books ever, so funny and original and clever as anything. When I worked at The Flying Dragon I would judge customers according to their response to Scaredy. Those who laughed were cool (and obviously smart too). Those who didn’t? Well, they were just dull, sad excuses for human beings.

Mélanie Watt is crazy talented, and her furry little buddy has become a darling in Can-kid’s lit. Scaredy Squirrel at night is book 4 in the series (after the first and then Scaredy makes a friend and Scaredy at the beach). As much as the follow-up titles continue to be lots of fun (and let me tell ya, the kids can’t get enough), I have to say that the first is absolutely the best. I think that there was something about encountering the jokes for the first time that made them especially delightful. The books that came after are still funny, but they are more like variations on a fantastic theme, and so don’t charm to quite the same level, in my opinion. I hope that Watt won’t take Scaredy in a direction that becomes purely formulaic, because he’s such a neurotic and lovable critter and I wouldn’t want to get tired of him.

Scaredy Squirrel at night brings us another adventure, this time as Scaredy does everything possible to avoid sleep because he’s pretty sure that nasty creatures would show up in his dreams. So instead he keeps busy counting stars, playing the cymbals and scrapbooking. (Love that detail!) As you might expect, something does not go according to plan and much confusion and Scaredy-hysteria ensues. Watt’s illustrations continue to be simple and bold and stylish. The best touch? On the cover, Scaredy’s toothy grin glows in the dark. That, as my students would say, is awesome.

So I’m thinking this is the perfect book to curl up with this evening during Earth Hour, given the theme and the glow-in-the-dark detailing. That’s what I’ll be doing, and some scrapbooking too.

Scaredy Squirrel at night is published by Kids Can Press.

Poetry Friday: Forgetfulness

I think this is an appropriate poem to post on the Friday after my birthday as I creep up a little bit more in age. It’s not so much that I feel like I’m starting to forget a lot of stuff, the way Billy Collins describes in this poem. I’m still WAY to youthful for that (ha ha). It’s more that the older I get, there just seems to be SO much more to remember. So many little things, annoyingly quasi-important “To Do” things that I have to keep in my head and just don’t want to stick there.

Love the animation.

The 39 Clues (slick and gimmicky but hard to resist)

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The 39 Clues: The Maze of Bones is exactly the kind of book that I would not have been allowed to buy as a kid (which may explain why I wanted to check it out as an adult). It would have been deemed empty of literary merit and if that alone wasn’t enough to keep the book from going home with me, the card-collecting element would have sealed the deal. Intrigued by the multi-author arrangement of the series, as well as the online aspect of the narrative, I picked up book #1 and read it lightning fast.

Scholastic has created quite the concept here, a 10-book series loaded with multi-media connections, authored by some of the brightest and best writers for kids out there. The line-up:

Book 1: Rick Riordan
Book 2: Gordon Korman
Book 3: Peter Lerangis
Book 4: Jude Watson (aka Judy Blundell)
Book 5: Patrick Carman
Book 6: Jude Watson
Book 7: Peter Lerangis
Book 8: Gordon Korman
Book 9: Linda Sue Park
Book 10: Margaret Peterson Haddix

Undoubtedly, a super-impressive bunch of storytellers. In the end, I think that’s what I’m most interested in. I want to see if these authors manage to apply their own winning twist or tone to the stories that they are responsible for telling while maintaining some kind of cohesiveness within the series of related books. I’m not sure if that will happen. Book #3: The Sword Thief, has just been released, so I’ve got some catching up to do.

Amy and Dan Cahill are orphans (of course), who discover after the death of their beloved Aunt Grace, that their family is one of the most powerful in human history. Many of the world’s most celebrated figures (Napoleon, Benjamin Franklin, Mozart, Picasso) were Cahills, belonging to different branches of the family: Lucian, Janus, Ekaterina, and Tomas. At the reading of their Aunt’s will, Amy and Dan learn that Grace has created a complex challenge for her relatives that may reveal the source of the Cahill family’s true power, and make those able to crack the challenge the most powerful Cahills ever known. 39 clues are hidden around the world to lead the searchers to the final secret of the Cahill family. Amy and Dan must choose to accept the challenge or walk away with a million dollars each. Their relatives are offered the same deal. Some accept, including the siblings, and this begins a whirlwind adventure as Amy and Dan race to get ahead in this mysterious quest.

Within each book is a set of 6 clue cards that kids can collect and trade. The cards are meant to help readers get a deeper sense of the mystery and potentially to understand the secret purpose of this challenge alongside Amy and Dan. Kids can go onto The 39 Clues site, create an account, and enter their cards on the site. This gives readers access to “missions” that will help them to enter the world of the story in a deeper way, and work on the central mystery with more insider information. It also reveals which of the 4 branches of the family you belong to. You can read classified information on your branch’s page, but only after you’ve registered as a user. And guess what? You can buy more cards! (Gasp!) And no two packages are alike! (Imagine) There’s going to be a movie directed by Stephen Spielberg (who just happens to be a Janus, BTW). And you can win prizes if you solve puzzles! Slick indeed. Continue reading

Guardian

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Julius Lester’s Guardian is a slim novel with tremendous impact. At under 120 pages, Lester’s book is a powerful story set in one of the darkest periods in America’s history, told with economy and an honesty as unflinching and intense as the cover’s image.

In Guardian we meet 14 year old Ansel Anderson, whose father owns and manages the General Store in Davis, a small town in the Deep South of the United States. It is 1946, and prejudice runs deep in the community, lurking beneath the surface of day-to-day interactions between black and white neighbors. Ansel feels stuck in Davis, and he wonders how he will ever take up the family business from his father when the time comes. In spite of his father’s misgivings, Ansel is friendly with a young black kid, Willie, who works for his family. The two boys like to sneak off to go fishing on the hottest summer afternoons. The story unfolds over 6 days, and proves how lives can be changed forever in the shortest time, especially when people live in a climate of hatred, fear and gross imbalance of power.

Lester establishes an immediate sense of tension and foreboding in his narrative. Part of this comes from the choice for point-of-view. The third-person present tense makes you feel like you are watching things unfold as the characters experience them, like a play. The weather is part of the drama here too. It’s hot, really hot and close and “heavy as a broken heart.” This gives you the feeling that something nasty and violent is coming, right from the start. And it is coming. Characters are developed in this short novel with as much realism and complexity, if not more, than you often find in much longer works. Once you start reading, it’s hard to put this story down, in part because you can sense what is coming.

Guardian is a novel about human ugliness and the power of each person to make choices, even in desperate times. It’s about how people come to terms with their actions and their inaction. This is not an uplifting book, but it is not without hope. It should inspire readers to learn more about this historical period, and Lester offers a starting place for further investigations in his author’s note at the end of his novel. This is a book that should be passed on after it’s read.

(This review is cross-posted at the always fab GuysLitWire).