Monthly Archives: December 2007



Tunnels, by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, has certainly garnered a lot of attention across the pond. Touted as “the next Harry Potter” (a phrase that sets off alarm bells for me), the writers purportedly pocketed a wack of cash for this book, and there is a movie in the works. Two strikes. Also, I must admit to looking askance at just about any book that is co-authored. Probably unfair, I know, but just tell me exactly how do you write a book with someone else? OK, maybe you can manage to write a book with a partner, but in my experience, they are never as remarkable as solo efforts.

So it was with more than a little trepidation that I started into this one, and sure enough, there’s good, and there’s bland to be found in these pages. I’ll start with the good:

1) The cover: It is awesome, in a dazzling, blockbuster-ish, sort of way. The shiny green orb at the mouth of the tunnel really does appear to glow (heck, it even seems to glow on the screen, doesn’t it?). This is most eye-catching. I also love the terrible spookiness of the man with his curvy knives and his puppy with the glowing eyes. Creeeeeepy! The cover will sell this book to many, many eager kiddies.

2) The Underground World: First, the basic premise… Will Burrows likes to dig. His dad is an eccentric archaeologist who has spent many hours with his son digging under London, looking for tunnels and caverns and odd artifacts. One day, daddy disappears and Will suspects he’s gone underground. So Will and his trusty sidekick Chester head down after Will’s father and what they find is a strange and oppressive society that is no friend to “Topsoilers” (people from the world above). What drew me along in this story was the vividness, and awful creepiness of the underground universe. Gordon and Williams describe the place – its smells, its dankness, its rough-hewn construction – in careful detail. I could really see it.

3) The Plot-Twists: It was a bit of a slow start, I must say. For the first 100 pages or so, I appreciated how suspense was building and tone was being established, but I think that it took too long for the story to snap into proper action. Once it did, things chugged along in a satisfying way, with some surprises along the way. There is one fantastic (and for me, completely unforeseen) twist, close to the end of the book. It’s a zinger.

And now, the bland:

1) Character: Will, the main character, lacked roundness. Big time. When I really think about it, I didn’t care much about his fate (meaning, I didn’t care much about him). I just wanted to find out what happened next. This is unfortunate, since there is a lot about the imagined world, and the suspense of this story that makes it memorable. Will just seemed like a not-very-interesting excuse for the action. Some of the secondary characters were better drawn, but in general, much could be improved in the area of characterization.

2) The Ending: I won’t give any spoilers here, but let’s just say that the end of the book (minus the Epilogue – which was a sharp little treat) left me indifferent. There is an obvious “To be continued…” feeling about it that is annoying and just seemed like a cop out.

So, overall a satisfying read, with some significant flaws. It is fun while you’re reading, but not wholly memorable. Tunnels is a solid adventure story, with a strong fear factor, so I can imagine many kids jumping into it happily. By the way, it reminded me hugely of City of Ember (though not with the same spark – he he – or payoff). Fans of that series will likely want to take a look at Tunnels.

Philip Ardagh quite liked it. Read his review in the Guardian.


Expanding Horizons: My first challenge


I was digging around a few of my underexplored blogs yesterday, when this turned up over at Book Nut. Melissa has planned a challenge that involves reading works by authors of typically less-well-represented ethnicities. Here are the rules:

“There are two ways to approach this challenge. Either read four books by authors in one of the six categories (you can read more than one category, but you must read four books; not two books in one category and two in another) OR read six books, one from each of the six categories. The categories are:

1. African/African-American.
2. Asian/Asian-American (This is not just East Asian — Chinese, Korean and Japanese — but also Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines, and the Central Asian -Stans.)
3. Hispanic/Latin American
4. Indian/Indian-American (Again, books by Indian authors; not books by white authors set in India.)
5. Middle Eastern (Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Turkey…)
6. Native Peoples (Can include Native American, Inuit, Polynesian –Maori, Samoan, etc — Siberian natives and Australian Aborigines.)”

The challenge will be running from January through April 2008, and I’m going to do it! In fact, I think that lots and lots of us should do it, and the more I scouted about yesterday to choose my books, the more excited I became. It will be my first challenge. I’ve decided to go for the 6 categories approach, so here is my list:

1. A Long Way Gone – Ishmael Bael
2. Kira Kira – Cynthia Kadohata
3. Caramelo – Sandra Cisneros or The Tequila Worm – Viola Canales
4. Keeping Corner – Kashmira Sheth
5. A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

I wanted my list to be comprised of at least 3 children’s/YA titles (Kira Kira, Keeping Corner, Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), and I wanted to have at least 1 title I had not heard of until I started hunting about (Keeping Corner). I also decided to be practical (for once), and select a few titles I already own. So there it is. Can’t wait to get started on January 1st.

Something else that I’ve been meaning to add to the blog for some time is a list of links to children’s lit blogs with multicultural focus. So over in the sidebar, you’ll see a new section: Multicultural Kidslit Blogs. They are beauties, each one. I look forward so much to the pleasures and inspiration I am sure to find in their posts in the New Year. Check it out – and tag along with this challenge too. I’m eager to discover new authors and new perspectives.

The Twelve Little Cakes

8331082.jpg When I was working at The Flying Dragon Bookshop I used to joke that if someone locked me in a room and told me that to win my release, I would have to sell The Twelve Little Cakes to the next 10 people who walked through the door, I would consider it a fair bargain. Boy did I sell a lot of this book, and for good reason. It’s one of few books that every so often, floats up to the surface of my memory, and makes me want to put down whatever I’ve got on the go, and reread it, cover to cover.

Dominika Dery’s memoir is as charming as they come. It traces her entire childhood, beginning in the years just after the Prague Spring, through the 1980s. Dery writes as if she were a child again, experiencing all of the things that she lived as she grew up. And it’s her voice that draws you in. You feel that you are being led through a strangely beautiful fairy tale by a wise and wonderfully impish little girl. Her parents were political dissidents, and needless to say, this set them at constant odds with their Communist neighbors. It’s this permanent state of discord that creates some of the most comic and poignant moments in the memoir. This is a rich tale, and surprisingly, an uplifting one. It reveals the incredible strength of family, and certainly made me think about what we need in order to be happy. This book is like the quirkiest and loveliest of foreign films, making you feel that you have lived for a short while in the shadows of a former time and place.

I know you’ve probably got lots of books to read just now, but think of The Twelve Little Cakes as a New Year’s treat to yourself. I am jealous of everyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading it yet.

Dominika Dery now lives in Australia, and I remember reading somewhere that she has been working on a sequel to this book. You can find an interview of her here.

Meet My New Friends

This year I was sure to give my most-wanted book list to Santa-man early (so he could pass it around to the necessary people).  I must say, he did not disappoint. I’d like to introduce you to my new friends:

51f2xhsxahl_ss500_.jpgA Thousand Splendid Suns – I enjoyed his first book. Some bookish friends of mine say the second one is even better. I’m eager to find out.

51zokq8oqhl_ss500_.jpgChocolate and Zucchini – After my trip to Paris last summer, anything that will bring the city back to me is bound to be something I’ll adore. I only found Clotilde’s blog, Chocolate & Zucchini, a few months back and I can’t decide if I should love her (great recipes, great writing), or hate her (she lives in Paris and I do not).

5139re3gxsl_ss500_.jpgTunnels – I didn’t know anything of this book. It wasn’t on my list. Santa decided to shake things up a bit after a little recommending by my friends over at The Flying Dragon. I’m reading it now… the scoop will follow soon.

518893ip4hl_ss500_.jpgThe Red Necklace – It’s by Sally Gardner, you know, the gal who wrote one of the best reads ever: I, Coriander. So I wanted it.

41sueggqsll_ss500_.jpg The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Everyone and their cat has read this (in fact, I’m pretty sure my cat has already read it), and so it’s with some trepidation that I approach reading it myself. So much build up.

I think I know what I’m doing today. I’m off to make a pot of tea.

Elf Envy: Random Round Up

Got some time? Here are a few ways to while away a half hour in the kidslitosphere today:

emilyreads presents her year end list.

Fuse 8 has a new podcast up (and Betsy, believe me, there are more than 3 of us listening).

Over at Tony DiTerlizzi’s blog we sneak a glimpse at some of his earliest work, as well as a sweet piece of fan art.

And by the by, I really REALLY want to read Blackbringer and I’m really REALLY annoyed that I can’t seem to find it here in my supposedly fantastic city. So I am contenting myself (barely) by reading lots about Laini Taylor. Hip Writer Mama’s interview with Laini is a treat. I want that book.

And, on a completely non-kidslit related side note, I wish to thank Laini for her gorgeous blog, grow wings, as it was there that I just now discovered this yummy looking happy place: cupcake bakeshop. Sometimes, just looking at a cupcake is enough. Now if only I had her book…

Thanks to achuka for this giggle about toilet humour censorship. He he he.

And by way of bookshelves of doom, a Peanuts Quiz. My results:

Wishy-Washy: 28%, Mental: 68%, Physical: 62%

The only other character who can match Linus for Old Testament knowledge, Franklin is probably the most stable and together of all the gang. He goes to the same school as Peppermint Patty and Marcie and plays sports against Charlie Brown’s teams. Well done for being normal!

Link: The Peanuts Character Test written by timberlineridge

But just who is this Franklin guy anyway? The most unknown of all Peanuts characters? And what’s with Mental: 68%? How’s a girl supposed to feel about that? Old Testament knowledge… who knew? Harumph.

Cassie Was Here

cassiewashere.gif Caroline Hickey’s Cassie Was Here arrived all on its lonesome on my doorstep only last week – one of the final Cybils Middle Grade Nominations to come to live with me. In spite of feeling a tad bug-eyed and fatigued from non-stop Cybils reading, I picked it up like a trooper and got started.

What a lovely, refreshingly simple story this is. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I appreciate the fact that this book is not trying to be all action and angst and drama. It is quiet and true and worth reading in every way. Bree is eleven – a young eleven. After a recent move, she finds comfort and familiarity in her old friend, Joey – her imaginary friend. Needless to say, Mom and Dad are less than thrilled that Joey is back on the scene, and when their gentle encouragement that Bree make some “real friends” doesn’t do the trick, they eventually tell Bree that she isn’t allowed to play with Joey any more. Bree’s older brother Reid can’t wait to see the last of Joey either, as she was involved in an accident that left him with a broken arm, and a summer without basketball camp. Then Cassie, (a new neighbour who is everything Bree is not – mature, confident and pretty), arrives to spend the summer with her grandmother, and she immediately starts to shake things up in Bree’s family.

At its heart this is a story about not wanting change to happen, but being ready for change without really knowing it. It’s about learning that change isn’t about making yourself into someone you’re not. It means stumbling into new territory, making good choices and bad, and learning to let go of things that you care about in order to open yourself to new experiences and people. Caroline Hickey writes her characters very neatly and sensitively. Bree comes across as so innocent and young next to Cassie. I thought that Caroline also created a complex, and completely believable character in Cassie. I liked the way her true depth was revealed as the story moved along.

This is the ideal book for a thoughtful or quirky kid who may not feel quite ready to leap into the world of middle school drama, and who doesn’t want things to be different. It’s not action packed. It’s not loaded with tension. It is gentle, and it unfolds as naturally as ordinary life. It’s the kind of story that sneaks up on you, and when I finished it, I wanted to be able to pass it on to the right child. It’s a keeper.

Caroline Hickey has a website. Reviews from other bloggers can be found here:

Big A, little a

SMART LIST #9: Stories for the Season


Falling asleep under a book next to a lit-up Christmas tree has to be one of the best things about this time of year.

What you need:
1) a quiet house, midafternoon
2) a cat
3) a beverage
4) a small plate of cookies
5) 3-4 books, stacked, within reaching distance

The number of times I manage to do this over Christmas is a pretty good measure of how perfect the holiday was. I think I’d better get started today. Here are some books I revisit each year – some old, some new, just right for this sort of delightful laziness:

Stories for the Season

An Elk Dropped In – Andreas Steinhofel

The Polar Express – Chris Van Allsburg

A Wish for Wings that Work – Berkeley Breathed

The Snowman – Raymond Briggs

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey – Susan Wojciechowski

A Child’s Christmas in Wales – Dylan Thomas

The Box of Delights – John Masefield

The Christmas Orange – Don Gilmour

The Best Christmas Ever – Chih-Yuan Chen

Bear Stays Up For Christmas – Karma Wilson

Merry Christmas, Merry Crow – Kathi Appelt

Snow – Uri Shulevitz

Little Tree – e e cummings

Three French Hens – Margie Palatini

Wenceslas – Geraldine Mccaughrean

Time for cookies and a nap.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales

Ok, so perhaps this is not strictly poetry, but it’s definitely lyric prose, and by one of the best poets ever:  

A Child’s Christmas in Wales – by Dylan Thomas 

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen…

For me, Christmas isn’t Christmas without reading this poem/story at least once. My dad read it to me when I was little, and I think it was his love of these words that made me love them too. There are so many different editions out there. I have an old, tiny one with woodcuts by Ellen Raskin that I treasure and that cost less than $2, but I must say that a few years ago I came upon the gorgeous edition with illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman and snapped it up too.

For one of the best treats of the season, go to Salon Audio to hear Dylan Thomas reading A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Gives me the shivers.

Happy Christmas.


Miss Erin has given me a prize:


I am blushing. And first, I must say that this honour is all the better because it comes from Miss Erin, who is a dedicated, creative and powerful blogger herself. Thanks Erin!

Now the masterminds behind this award from The Shameless Lions Writing Circle tell me that I need to pass the prize on, which I am more than happy to do. Here goes:

Big A little a – Kelly Herold’s blog was the first kids lit blog I ever found, and it was a bit like falling down the world’s best rabbit hole into a place I never even knew existed. Her thoughtful reviews, her tremendous efforts as the mind behind The Edge of the Forest, and her wonderful weekend review round-ups all got me wondering whether or not I could try out this blogging thing myself. She does everything well. Thank you to Kelly.

Jen Robsinson’s Book Page – Jen was the first person to leave a comment here at Shelf Elf, and therefore I love her. But of course there is much more to it than that. Jen has to have one of the most people-friendly, inviting blogs out there. She posts like there’s no tomorrow, she finds the coolest little tidbits that bring a smile to my face, and she is completely passionate about children’s literacy. I love her Sunday Afternoon Visits.

Fuse #8 – Ah… the Fuse. Where to begin? She cracks me up. She wears wigs. She talks to her Fuse-y mascot. She writes the LONGEST reviews ever that still manage to be completely brilliant and on the money. She is ever-so-witty and she knows all. Oh, and she does podcasts too. When I grow up into a big blogger, I dream of one day, being like her.

Interactive Reader – Jackie Parker is a fine writer. She’s sharp and insightful, and she doesn’t always review what everyone else is reviewing. I always find new things when I visit her blog, and she asks all the right questions in her author interviews.

A Wrung Sponge – Cloudscome’s blog is like a gorgeous crazy quilt, with all sorts of interesting pieces coming together to make an inspired pattern. She reads diverse texts. I admire her focus on multicultural books, and if ever I need to remember how the world is a beautiful and mysterious place, I head on over for a fresh haiku.

The powerful words of these bloggers – and so many others – make the kidslitosphere tick. If a blog leaves me inspired, curious, excited and a little bit happier to be human, then I know I’ve found something good.


The Snowman – Raymond Briggs


Did you know that this year is the 25th anniversary of Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman? Amazing. I feel like a right old grown up now. I am sad that I cannot find my childhood copy because it was one of my favourite seasonal specials from the time I was a wee one.  There’s a lot of Snowman paraphernalia about now, but in my view, the plain old original version is best. Raymond Briggs has been out and about of late, commenting on the huge sucess of his story. He seems like a funny fellow – honest and understated and quite willing to admit he has no idea what makes the book so successful.  I like him.

For a video interview of Mr. Briggs see: Briggs interview

If you feel like checking out the short movie version, it’s over here: The Snowman (So, so much better on a bigger screen I have to say).