Monthly Archives: June 2008

Suite Scarlett

I know, I know… another teen book. I suppose I’m making up for all of the YA titles I didn’t read back when I was actually a teenager (too busy reading the Important Classic Good-for-Me Books). Cut me some slack people. I swear Shelf Elf is not becoming a YA review blog. Not yet anyway. This is Maureen Johnson, so how could I possibly resist?

If you have not yet had the pleasure of reading one of Maureen Johnson’s books, I’m envious. There’s just so much that’s happy-making about her style, her stories, and her characters. After I finished Suite Scarlett this morning, I spent a little time considering the magic that is MJ. For starters, she sure knows how to come up with a great premise. Who hasn’t dreamed of living in a hotel in one of the greatest cities in the world? Scarlett Martin’s family owns and runs the Hopewell, a boutique hotel with quite a history in the heart of New York City. And they don’t just own the place, they live there too. Sounds pretty dreamy, but in fact, there isn’t a lot of hope left at the Hopewell. The business is barely working, and Scarlett’s summer looks like it’s going to be all about doing her part to keep the family business afloat. Her aspiring actor brother, Spencer, is being pressured by the parents to accept a scholarship to culinary school, but all he really wants to do is find a way to be a part of a production of Hamlet that’s being staged in a parking garage. Scarlett’s older sister Lola is dating #98 on New York’s Top 100 Prep School Scenesters List, much to her family’s concern. Then, the half-crazy, highly theatrical, aging actress Mrs. Amberson checks in for the summer and everything starts to get really interesting at the Hopewell.

I’d have to worry about a teenager who didn’t think that this book was a completely fun read. But the best part is, Suite Scarlett isn’t just fluff. It’s fun with substance. While she’s making you laugh, and compelling you to turn those pages, Maureen Johnson also succeeds in capturing all of the complexity of sibling relationships and the strength a family can muster in a tough situation. You’ll have a hard time finding a brother/sister relationship more loving, comical and bursting with life than Spencer and Scarlett’s. I love those two kooky characters! Suite Scarlett is also about going after your greatest dreams, mending broken relationships, and discovering hidden talents. Just try walking away from this story without a big grin on your face. And – it’s the first in a series. Did I say, “YAY!”?

Read more of the same MJ-love about the YA-litosphere at:
bookshelves of doom
Reading Rants


The Red Necklace

I can’t believe that this book has been lying in my TBR pile since Christmas. For shame! When I saw that there was a new Sally Gardner novel sometime last November, I was desperate for it, since I adored I, Coriander. So it’s quite impressive/unacceptable that this one has been unread for so long. I really must stop buying so many books. The good ones are lying about all forlorn for far too long (virtual wrist-slapping). The Red Necklace is in many respects, the perfect summertime/anytime read – a splendid story, with a rich historical backdrop and a little magic mixed in for good measure. It’s a treat from start to finish.

It’s Paris, 1789, and the Revolution is brewing. Yann Margoza, a young gypsy, works with a pair of magicians/illusionists in one of the most popular magic shows on the Paris stage. At the same time, the Marquis de Villeduval lives a life of luxury and excess in his chateau outside the city, and he has just brought his unwanted daughter Sido out of her convent school to live with him for the first time in many years. Count Kalliovski, powerful but brutal, lends money to desperate aristocrats, but takes their secrets and much more in exchange. Events conspire to bring all of these characters together, resulting in a complex and suspenseful story.

This is a tale about fate and destiny, passion, facing past demons and risking everything for one’s beliefs. I can hardly think of a better way to pique young readers’ interest in this historical period. While the Revolution is present mostly behind the narrative, it certainly adds turbulence and drama to an already exciting plot. I enjoyed the magical element to the story too. The scenes at the beginning of the book in which the magicians work the automaton, “Pierrot,” reminded me in mood of the film The Illusionist. A similar creepy tension builds right from the start. This is a page-turner with depth. The awesome Amanda Craig named it her Book of the Year for 11-13s, with good reason I think. And, by the way, what do you think of this cover, compared to the one above?

Quite something. I bet this is the winner with teen readers.

The Night Tourist

It was quite brave of me to give The Night Tourist by Katherine Marsh a chance. Brave because it reminds me very much of two of my favourite books: Kiki Strike and The Lightning Thief. In fact, it’s almost like a cross between those two stories, with a little bit of its own thing going on too. It’s always dangerous to read a book that is closely linked in theme or concept to beloved books. How could it possibly measure up?

Well… if I had to say it in short, I didn’t find this one as satisfying as Kirsten Miller’s or Rick Riordan’s books, but I’d say it’s worth reading, and I imagine the kids will enjoy its mysterious, mythological elements. Also, the film rights have been snapped up by Universal and there’s a sequel in the works, so I think you’ll hear more about this one as time goes by.

The premise is great. Ninth-grade Classics prodigy Jack Perdu lives with his professor father on the Yale campus. One winter night, he experiences a serious accident after which his life changes forever (dum dum dum…). Soon after, his dad sends him to visit an unusual doctor in New York City. Jack hasn’t been back to the city since his mother died there a few years before. In Grand Central Station, Jack meets Euri, a girl who promises to show him the secret places hidden beneath the Terminal. Deep below the station Jack discovers a ghostly underworld and he and Euri begin to search for his mother in this strange parallel city.

There are several aspects of this book that pleased me. First off, the opening works very well. Marsh doesn’t mess about in the beginning. She really launches into the story in an exciting, to-the-point manner that I imagine will hook a lot of readers. By page 10, Jack’s had his accident and has already experienced his first strange, post-accident incident. I got caught up in this story very quickly. There are some great moments of humour too. For instance, when Jack asks Euri where Elysium is, she replies, “Somewhere in the Hamptons… that’s my guess, anyway.” Har har. There’s some nice wordplay peppered throughout as well.

On the other hand, I felt that Marsh didn’t sustain the momentum established in the early chapters, which is too bad, because the story got off to such a cracking start. In my opinion, Jack came off a bit flat in places, and when your story rests almost entirely on the shoulders of two characters, they had better be consistently interesting and well-drawn. Towards the latter part of the book, I wanted a bit more depth in the character development department. * Spoiler Alert * Euri is in the underworld because she committed suicide. I don’t object to the presence of suicide in a teen book in principle, but in The Night Tourist, Euri’s suicide is not given much attention. It’s mentioned and then more-or-less dropped for most of the story, which almost makes me wonder if it wasn’t inserted for shock value. Her history is never really explored or explained in satisfactory detail, which might have helped readers to consider why she made that choice. I don’t think you can just drop suicide (especially the suicide of a young person) into a story and never really “get into it.” It makes the character unbelievable, and it makes suicide seem less complex and serious, almost run-of-the-mill. This concerned me.

All in all, The Night Tourist is a good, quick read, with a strong sense of place. If you love New York City, you’ll likely enjoy all of the references to famous sites and monuments. I’m sure it will translate well to the screen. Check out this article on Katherine Marsh in USA Today.

Poetry Friday: A little Summer sun

It’s here. Finally here. The first day of summer vacation. It’s not sunny in the city today. It’s hot and sticky and grey. So in celebration of the arrival of freedom and long days of stretched out delight, here’s a little poem by Frank Asch (too little not to offer in its entirety).

Sunflakes – by Frank Asch

If sunlight fell like snowflakes,
gleaming yellow and so bright,
we could build a sunman,
we could have a sunball fight,
we could watch the sunflakes
drifting in the sky.
We could go sleighing
in the middle of July
through sundrifts and sunbanks,
we could ride a sunmobile,
and we could touch sunflakes—
I wonder how they’d feel.

Sweet, isn’t it? Just how I hope my summer will be.

From Poetry Foundation.
(photo © Michael Jastremski for CC:Attribution-ShareAlike)

Just keep reading, reading, reading…

I’ve been feeling grumbly since I haven’t been able to post many reviews lately because I haven’t been able to read much (teacher end of year report cards empty brain blah blah blah). Well today, I’m taking all afternoon to get caught up on a bunch of books I’ve got going at the moment. With any luck, I’ll have a few reviews ready in the next couple of days (gasp!).

Meanwhile, have you checked out Book Videos TV, the site offering little video glimpses into the back stories and inspiration behind many recent novels? Some of the videos are worth a look, but you do need to just pass over the Spirituality/Wellness/Self Help categories. I’d embed Tana French’s In the Woods video, but WordPress won’t let me. Go see it yourself.



This is my first post over at the fabulous Guys Lit Wire. Hooray!

Last summer, after I read Mal Peet’s tremendous WWII novel, Tamar, I promised myself I would read everything he’s written. This was before I knew he’d done a book about soccer. It’s not soccer that’s the problem, exactly. There have been moments when I’ve enjoyed watching soccer. Honest. By the end of the last World Cup, I had just about figured out the whole offside thing. I just don’t do sports books. So when Keeper showed up at my library with bare-chested soccer boy on the cover, I wondered if there was any way this book could actually be about art or wizards or a mystery or something. Nope. It’s a soccer book. A promise is a promise, though, so I started reading. As it turns out, Keeper is a story for soccer fans and for nerdy, non-sporty types too. I guess that makes it a book for the whole world.

Keeper tells the story of El Gato, one of the most gifted soccer players in history, tracing his humble beginnings in a small logging community in South America all the way to the World Cup. Peet frames his novel as an exclusive interview of El Gato by sports reporter Paul Faustino. As a kid, El Gato wasn’t exactly the one getting picked first for soccer games in the town plaza. He was completely hopeless, nicknamed “The Stork” for his long skinny limbs and clumsy movements. By thirteen, he’d given up on the game, taking to wandering off on his own into the fringes of the jungle surrounding his town, in spite of the dangers and wildness within. One day, he breaks his own rule, stepping off the forest track for the first time, towards sunlight deep in the trees. What he finds that day is remarkable – magical – and it changes his life.

What does he find, you ask? If I tell you, you’d better not think this book is just plain weird. You’d better still read it because in this case, it’s the strangeness that makes Keeper really get inside your head. That day in the jungle, El Gato finds a clearing, covered in turf, with a goal set against the trees. He also finds his mentor, a ghostly soccer player he comes to call: the Keeper. The Keeper trains El Gato, and like the best teachers out there, helps him to find his talent and let it grow. In this way, El Gato heads towards his destiny.

One of the best parts of Keeper is its strangeness. I spent a lot of time wondering what I was supposed to make of the magical element of the story. Just who is this Keeper character supposed to be? Is he symbolic? Does he exist only in El Gato’s mind? Is El Gato crazy? What gives? This questioning really keeps you engaged in the story and builds tension. Not that the story isn’t already packed with action and compelling circumstances. There are some fantastic recaps of El Gato’s most dramatic games, sure to please any soccer fan. You’ll also learn a great deal about goalkeeping strategy. Don’t start snoring nerdy-types! You’ll be loving those soccer sequences too. That’s because Mal Peet can’t put a word wrong. This guy is to writing what his character is to goalkeeping. I’m convinced that you could open to any page in this book at random and find at least one beautiful sentence. As a side note, I like the fact that Keeper gives readers something to think about beyond soccer too. The background against which much of the story unfolds is the logging camp where El Gato’s father makes his living. You can’t read this and not consider the complex connections between deforestation, poverty and life in small communities in South America. It’s not a banging-you-over-the-head issue book, but these stronger themes are certainly important to the book’s power.

So as it turns out, Keeper has its share of magic and mystery and it certainly convinced me that world-class goalkeeping is a true art form. A sports book convert? Stay tuned. I’ll let you know after I’ve read Penalty, the companion novel to Keeper.

Crazy Crazy Book Piles

Things are getting out of hand in my study. Just how many book piles can a girl have and still be normal? I decided one of the goals for my blog for 2008 would be to solicit ARCs from publishers. Good news: it’s happening. Unanticipated not so good news: there’s nowhere for the books to go. I love getting all of these delightful packages of books I’m excited to read. When I’ve read them, I give them away, but I just can’t keep up. There are SO many books, ARCs and otherwise, that have been hanging out on my desk, or next to the bed, calling out to me in tiny bookish voices, “You-hoo… read me already.” In a few days it’ll be summer vacation, so I plan to read like a fiend. Here are a few of the books I’ll pick up first:

Chez Moi – by Agnes Desarthe

Madapple – by Christina Meldrum

People of the Book – by Geraldine Brooks

Suite Scarlett – by Maureen Johnson

A Certain Slant of Light – by Laura Whitcomb.

Bring on the summer!

(Picture above from Bookshelf Blog. Fun, yes?)

How I Learned Geography

This story is one of the most moving picture books I’ve ever read. I’d heard lots about it before picking it up, and it met expectation in every respect. In How I Learned Geography, Shulevitz remembers the difficult period when his family fled Poland after the blitz and ended up in Turkestan. One evening, his father brings home a huge map instead of dinner. So begins Uri’s fascination with the exotic places on the map that he visits only through his imagination. The map changes who he is, offering him dreams and feeding his curiosity.

I love how this story challenges readers to redefine or rethink what it means to be wealthy and what we think it means to be poor. Yes, the Shulevitzes did not have much money to spend, certainly not on luxuries. However, their son was rich in imagination and passion, and what seemed to be a frivolous purchase turned out to be a life-altering, enriching gift.

Sometimes grown ups forget that geography really is a profound act of imagining for kids – and that’s what Shulevitz is getting at here. In spite of all of the connections available to children through the media today, when it comes right down to it, Fukuoka and Pennsylvania and Alberta are still just places on a map that need to be imagined in order to seem three-dimensional. No wonder kids love learning about other places.

I considered using this text to model writing a Found poem in my class. I soon realized that it wouldn’t work, though, because the text is already a poem disguised as a story – beautiful and spare and rich all at once. This book does belong in every classroom, for the sheer pleasure of it.

Other reviews:
Planet Esme Plan
I.N.K. Interesting Nonfiction for Kids

Poetry Friday: Tap Dancing on the Roof

  I can’t decide what pleases me more – touching poems, funny poems or clever poems. I’m crazy about Linda Sue Park’s collection of sijo (a traditional Korean verse form), because here I don’t have to decide. Tap Dancing on the Roof  provides readers with delightful poetic offerings of all three sorts – touching and funny and clever. Every elementary teacher needs this book.

A sijo is similar in nature to haiku, in that it has a specific syllabic structure (3 lines, each with 14-16 syllables). Linda Sue Park explains the form fully at the outset of her book. The nifty thing about sijo is that the third line of the poem offers up a twist, something funny or ironic or unexpected. This makes reading every one of Park’s poems a bit like savouring a gorgeous little petit four – they’re all neat, beautifully formed, delicious little packages of wisdom. I like that Park turns her attention to what’s funny and lovely about everyday occurrences: brushing your teeth, reading under the covers, watching birds at the feeder, long division. This book is ideal for teaching kids about the way poets look to small moments for inspiration.

And just when you imagine it couldn’t get better? The book is illustrated by the miraculous Istvan Banyai. I couldn’t think of a better visual match for Park’s whimsical poetry. A complete treat.

Rapunzel’s Revenge

How many Hales does it take to write a rollicking Graphic Novel? Well, in this case, three. Wife and husband team, Shannon and Dean Hale, have joined forces with another Hale, Nathan Hale (no relation), to produce a fantastical, fantastic new take on the story of Rapunzel. You’re going to love this. It’s adventurous, a tad romantic, and touched with magic too.

I don’t imagine many people would believe that a remake of Rapunzel could be very appealing to boy readers, however, I think Shannon and Dean have managed to create a snazzy new version of this classic tale that will keep boys and girls turning the pages. As in the original story, this Rapunzel was taken away from her mother as an infant and raised in a walled villa by a witch, here named Mother Gothel. Now when Rapunzel discovers the secret of her past, she makes her escape to search for her mother, who now slaves for Mother Gothel in the distant mines. Along the way, Rapunzel joins up with a rascal outlaw, Jack, and the two gallop about the wild west, fighting strange creatures and lowlife cowboy scoundrel types while Rapunzel plans her reunion with her mother and her revenge against Gothel.

Gosh this was fun. One of the best parts about this book for me is that it is such a departure from the original setting and time that I more or less completely forgot that it was built on an old, old tale. It feels super fresh, like an entirely new story. That can’t be easy to achieve when working with a story as well-known and loved as Rapunzel. But of course, we are in the hands of the master fairy-tale refurbisher here: Miss Shannon Hale. This is certainly a girl power narrative, but there is more than enough action to keep boys into it, with strong, bright, detailed art as a complement. Yum.

If you don’t love this one… I’ll grow super-long braids and ride off into the sunset.

Rapunzel’s Revenge will be released in August.

Read a few other reviews:

Reading Rants
The Reading Zone
A Year of Reading
Miss Erin