Monthly Archives: May 2010

Summer Blog Blast Tour: Charise Mericle Harper

It’s Day Two of the Summer Blog Blast Tour and I’m pleased to welcome Charise Mericle Harper, author of many fun and funny books, including the Just Grace and Fashion Kitty series, to Shelf Elf. Thanks for joining the tour Charise! Let’s get the questions going.

Both Fashion Kitty and Just Grace are girls with a lot of imagination. In their adventures / daily lives they discover that sometimes, solving problems just takes a little imagination. While your books are way too much fun (and far to clever) to be messagey, I think that this is an awesome, empowering message for young readers. What else do you hope kids might learn or take away from these two series?

First off I would always hope that the books are fun to read –a flashlight under the covers kind of experience. Not because you’re embarrassed to be caught with them, but hopefully because you can’t put them down and Mom said to turn the lights out. There, now that we have that covered (bad pun on purpose here), I guess the thing that I think these two series have in common is a confident main character with a strong sense of compassion. Sort of a, “Life’s not easy, but some creative problem solving and an optimistic attitude just might get us through” kind of vibe. And then wrapping the whole empathetic can-do sandwich together a sense that being different is not such a bad thing, and that maybe, just maybe it’s even desirable.

One of the aspects of the Just Grace books that most impresses me is the way that you’ve captured so perfectly the interests, perspectives, challenges and voice of that age group. I feel like you must spend time spying on eight-year olds or hanging out in classrooms so that you can get everything to be so convincing. What are your secrets? How do you create such believable kids?

Well I happen to have a child spy living right in my house at this very minute. My daughter is eight and she has definitely been a big inspiration for the character of Grace. I started the books when she was five, but since then watching and listening to her has given me quite a few new story ideas. I don’t take direct dictation, but having her around definitely helps me get back into that eight-year old mindset. She’s like the diary I never kept. Of course we are both different and our experiences are not the same, but having her in my world helps me jump into that time capsule to visit my past. Things like remembering the monkey bars – the swinging and that great happy feeling of getting to the end without falling, and even though your hands were stinging like crazy you’d just shake them off and turn around and do it all over again.

Fashion Kitty and Grace are blessed with unusual super powers (extreme fashion sense and amazing empathy power). What is your secret super power (but not secret for very much longer)?

Hmm. I don’t know if I have a superpower. Doesn’t a superpower have to be instantly available the second you need it? I don’t think I have that kind of instant action ability, but if I could maybe have an hour or two to get it together, then I think my power might be creative optimism. Not always available in the thick of things, but when the fog clears hopefully my costume’s on and I’m moving forward. One hand pointing the way and the other holding a nice hot cup of coffee (that’s my spinach.)

On your website, you mention that you like to have lots of silly things around you when you’re working. What are your Top 5 Silly Things?

Top five favorite silly things:

1) Little person my daughter made for me out of a stick of gum. So far I haven’t eaten her (the gum not my daughter).

Continue reading

Summer Blog Blast Tour: Malinda Lo

I couldn’t be happier to be part of the crew launching the 2010 Summer Blog Blast Tour today with Malinda Lo, author of the much-praised Cinderella-retelling, Ash. I loved this book. Read my review here, and then come on back. The New York Times called it “somber and lovely,” and Kirkus blessed it with a starred review, saying it is “exquisite and pristine.” It happens to be up for a 2010 Lambda Literary Award. Bottom line? If you haven’t read it yet, you are in for a moody and magical treat. Save it for just the right moment. You will be enchanted and you will become an instant Malinda Lo fan. So aren’t you lucky that she’s right here with us today? Welcome Malinda!

What first interested you about the prospect of retelling such a classic story? What surprised you about the process? What proved to be more challenging or satisfying about re-imagining Cinderella than you had initially anticipated?

The first first thing that interested me in retelling a fairy tale was most likely reading Robin McKinley’s Beauty when I was a kid. That retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” showed me how wonderful a fairy tale retold can be. I wanted to retell “Cinderella” because it has always been my favorite fairy tale, but I had never read a retold version of it that I really enjoyed.

When I started thinking about how I would retell “Cinderella,” I thought it would be relatively simple because, well, I knew what happened! But the most surprising thing about retelling it was the realization that actually, no, I did not know what happened. Figuring out what happened — the plot — turned out to be the most challenging part of writing Ash.

One of the real pleasures for readers of your book, is the mood you create throughout – a little magic, a little darkness, romance and loneliness all mixed together. So here’s a million dollar question: how did you do that? On your website, you share a playlist that you listened to during the writing process. What else did you do to help you get into the right writing space as you worked on Ash?

I wrote Ash on and off over a period of eight years, so I did a lot of different things — I was always chasing that mood! Looking back on it, I think I was experimenting a lot with techniques that would put me in the right writing space. One of the things that definitely did help was music. I own every single Loreena McKennitt album now because listening to her brand of Celtic music was so helpful in getting myself into that Ash place! I also learned that I write better when I can do it for long stretches, as opposed to an hour at a time. So I began to block out four to eight-hour chunks of time to work.

Back then, I was working full-time but had a flexible schedule because I was a self-employed freelance writer. I scheduled every Friday afternoon and evening as Ash writing time, and I did this for a couple of years. It did mean I sacrificed part of my social life, but it was worth it. And honestly, you can do plenty of socializing on Saturday night!

There could be some potential readers out there who as soon as they hear the words “lesbian retelling of Cinderella” think that Ash will live happily ever after in the LGBT section of libraries or bookstores, and that if they aren’t LGBT themselves, this book might not be something they’d be interested in reading. Why do you think this story has broad appeal for teen readers?

You know, I get this question a lot, and I understand why. I would ask it, too. I don’t think that many minority writers would want to be ghettoized by having their books placed only in a special interest section. At the same time, I recognize that having those special interest sections was once a mark of progress. In the not-so-distant past, LGBT books weren’t even carried in most mainstream bookstores, much less in LGBT sections. So while I’m glad that Ash hasn’t been relegated to that dusty corner of the bookstore, at the same time, I feel like it’s a privilege for it to be categorized in the LGBT section. Many of the other books in that section paved the way for my book to be published, and I’m thankful for them.

Of course, I do hope that Ash has broad appeal. I can’t say for certain whether it does or not — I’m no Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer! But I do think that Ash is a love story told in a fairly mainstream voice. Yes, Ash falls in love with another girl, but the gender of her love interest is almost incidental. The book isn’t about being gay or coming out; it’s about falling in love. Continue reading

A Most Improper Magick

Stephanie Burgis’s debut fantasy, A Most Improper Magick, The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson was excellent fun, exactly what I was hoping it would be. It was a frolic – a little bit Jane Austen, a little bit Libba Bray with some Highwayman action tossed in for good measure. This is a book that does not take itself too seriously. I like that in a book.

Kat Stephenson has discovered she has inherited her mother’s magical powers. This is exciting, but it is also difficult, because in 1803 in London, magic is very much frowned-upon. Kat is not sure how to handle her new-found talents, and she has a lot on her mind because her eldest sister is likely going to be forced to marry an ancient but wealthy gentleman and also, a mysterious group of witches known as the Order is trying to convince Kat to allow them to give her proper magical training. Her brother Charles has gambled away much of the family’s money and her other sister Angeline is casting some irresponsible love spells and generally making a mess of things. Kat feels it is up to her to solve as many of these problems as possible, and she’s not afraid to use a little magic to do it. Did I mention there is a highwayman lurking in the woods? What fun!

I knew I was going to like the smart and funny voice of the narrator after the first two sentences:

“I was twelve years of age when I chopped off my hair, dressed as a boy, and set off to save my family from impending ruin. I made it almost to the end of my front garden.”

Burgis keeps it all light and clever and certainly communicates the Austen-like balance of frustration and love between the sister characters and the other family members. Kat is feisty and memorable. The other two sisters are not as well-developed overall, but I’m hoping to see that fleshed out in the second and third books in the trilogy. Some might find that there isn’t enough tension as the book advances, since most of the focus is on the romantic outcomes for Kat’s sisters, and ultimately, it’s Kat we care about the most. In some ways, this book feels like it’s primary purpose is to set-up what is to come in the next two titles. The social situations are amusing though, so I didn’t mind too much that the pace felt a shade slow towards the middle. As in Austen, it’s the conversations that entertain more than anything. This is a quick and charming read, with a heroine you will want to spend more time with. If, like Stephanie Burgis, your favourite movie is Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility and you’ve been known to enjoy a little Doctor Who, I think you will get a real kick out of this book and be eager for the next installments.

(Note: Based on something the author wrote at her blog, I’m not sure that this is going to be the title of the book when it is released in the U.S. We’ll see).

A Most Improper Magick will be published by Atheneum.

We interrupt this program for a cookbook…

I know, I know, this is not a cookbook review blog, this is a kidslit review blog, but I am able to say that Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights has a slim connection to the world of children’s literature, given that Miss Dahl happens to be Sophie Dahl, grand-daughter to the legendary Mr. Roald Dahl. Those who know and love me know that I am a total sucker for a gorgeous cookbook and that I am always ready to expand my embarrassingly extensive collection, especially when the cookbook in question happens to be pink, and also happens to have a wonderfully narrative style.

I bought this book a few weekends back when I was feeling a shade blue. Upon seeing the pinkness of the cover and the beautiful interior photos, I decided that the best remedy for this case of the grumps was reading a cookbook in the tub with a cocktail and a crunchy snack (this is my cure for many ailments, in fact). If you are the type to be seduced by the sort of cookery book (look at me, going all Brit on you) where the writer introduces every recipe with a little anecdote, then you will fall for this collection of recipes in a heartbeat. I love this book for many of the same reasons I enjoy Nigella’s books. Sophie Dahl tells a story through these recipes, she makes food that is simple and satisfying and unpretentious and her prose is a pleasure to read. She doesn’t claim to be an expert. She writes, “I am not an authority on anything much, but I do feel qualified to talk about eating. I’ve done a lot of it.” The book focuses on freshness, and is divided up according to season, with sections in each on Breakfast, Lunch and Supper. Oh, and there is a separate part at the end on Desserts. Just as there should be.

I decided this afternoon on the way home from work that Friday would be much easier to cope with if I made a batch of Sophie’s Swiss Muesli. I ended up having some for a pre-dinner snack. Most yummy. I am thinking that my busy upcoming weekend can be improved with a little Cardamom Rice Pudding. For a glimpse inside the book, head here. To see Miss Dahl making soup, click here.

It doesn’t seem fair that someone can be this pretty, this intelligent and come from the same creative stock as the man who imagined Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but the recipes here are so enticing and Sophie Dahl’s writing style is so winsome that I’m willing to forgive her for her beauty and her talent and her seemingly perfect and blessed life.

And don’t you wonder if it is a coincidence that she is seated on the steps of a gypsy caravan on the cover? Sigh. Memories of Danny the Champion of the World.

This one is destined to become floury and smudgy and to open up automatically to the page for Eton Mess with Rhubarb.

Gimmee – Other Bloggers’ Recent Raves

I have such a stack of books to read that it is wrong, wrong, to be coveting even more books. And yet, I cannot stop myself. It is a problem that I am perpetually wishing for more books. Here are a few links to reviews that really make me want to keep adding to the stack:

The Carrie Diaries – by Candice Bushnell

Why? Because we all want to know Carrie Bradshaw in high school.

Reading Rants says, “I was beaming so broadly when I closed the cover that everyone on the subway must have thought I was nuts.” Read the full review here.

The Summer of Moonlight Secrets – by Danette Haworth

Why? Because it is set in a run-down hotel famous for Blueberry Pancakes.

A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cosy says, “The Summer of Moonlight Secrets is about finding friends, becoming confident in yourself as a person, and figuring out the right thing to do. It is also funny! Allie Jo and Chase share some very corny jokes, and some only work well when read out loud. It took me a while to figure out just what was so funny about cinnamon aluminum linoleum.” Read the full review here.

The Quiet Book – by Deborah Underwood

Why? Because the illustrations are so soft-looking that I’d like to hug this book.

Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast says, “What Underwood has managed to do in this title, which is stuffed with charm and humor and good cheer, is really tap into the emotions of children. There’s some misbehaving, followed by remorse (”Thinking of a good reason you were drawing on the wall quiet”); some awkwardness and humiliation (”Others telling secrets quiet”); some ungainliness (”Jelly side down quiet,” as a distraught rabbit realizes he’s lost his only chance at his piece of toast); some hushed contemplation (”Don’t scare the robin quiet” and “Best friends don’t need to talk quiet”); and much more.” Read the review and see beautiful artwork here.

Audrey Wait! – by Robin Benway

Why? Because every single thing I’ve heard / read about this book has been positive. So what am I waiting for?

Persnickety Snark says, “This is the debut novel from Robin Benway and I think she really hit the pool with a huge bombs-away. I loved how much life, vitality and kick-ass attitude is embedded in this book. I felt like I was chatting with a girlfriend as it was honestly, a really sparky (for lack of a better word) read.” Read everything here.

The Pickle King – by Rebecca Promitzer

Why? Because there is an eyeball in that pickle jar. Cra-zy-ness.

Chasing Ray says, “I have high hopes for this as my summer “bologna sandwich & potato chips” book – the one you sink into while hanging out in the backyard during one of those long extended days where you have NOTHING to do.” Read her full review here.

Poetry Friday: Parents & their Children

Though I’m not a parent, my job lets me see parents and their children on a daily basis. A day doesn’t pass that I don’t consider the mysterious and complicated and sometimes troubled relationship between parent and child.

This week at the hot docs film festival, I saw a lovely documentary about a parent letting his daughter go off into the world away from him for the first time. It’s called The Kids Grow Up. It was funny and touching and it made me think about how fast time goes, particularly when it comes to childhood. Here’s the trailer:

You must see it if you get the chance. Now here’s a poem about the holding-close of parenting, from a mother to her child:

To a Child
- by Sophie Jewett

The leaves talked in the twilight, dear;
Hearken the tale they told:
How in some far-off place and year,
Before the world grew old,

I was a dreaming forest tree,
You were a wild, sweet bird
Who sheltered at the heart of me
Because the north wind stirred;

How, when the chiding gale was still,
When peace fell soft on fear,
You stayed one golden hour to fill
My dream with singing, dear…

Read the rest here.