Monthly Archives: March 2009

House of Dance

dance

I read lots of books. Sometimes I feel like I read too many books. My TBR pile is teetering beside my bed and so I read and read and read and still I can’t keep up with everything that is newest and hottest and most-hyped. I worry that sometimes I don’t take as much out of a book because I’m ever-racing to read more and more since there is simply so much that is exciting and life will not be long enough to cram in all the stories I hope to read. When you read this much, it is all the more obvious when you find an author who is truly gifted, who rises above many others who might be able to tell a good story and create reasonably memorable characters but who just don’t have that magic something that shoots the story straight into your heart. Beth Kephart has it. She has that magic something. Her most recent book, House of Dance, made me slow right down and appreciate truly fine writing. You must read this book, especially if you’re interested in style as much as a satisfying or clever story.

Rosie lives with her mother, but she doesn’t see much of her. Her mom seems to be content to spend most of her time working at her low-paying job, in the company of her sleazy boss, existing mostly in the background of Rosie’s day-to-day life. When summer arrives, Rosie’s friends are busy with work and it isn’t long before Rosie becomes busy herself, looking in on her sick grandfather everyday, keeping him company and getting his house in order as his illness worsens. As she organizes and sifts through the piles of his belongings and keepsakes, Rosie discovers whispers of her grandfather’s past, his memories and one-time loves. She finds that music was a big part of his life with her grandmother, who was a dancer and a dreamer. This inspires Rosie to spend her savings on ballroom lessons, and this choice brings her closer to her grandfather than ever before. House of Dance is the story of one summer, the relationship between grandfather and granddaughter, and Rosie’s efforts to bring some of her grandfather’s memories and dreams back to life.

You only need to read a chapter of this book to appreciate Kephart’s talent. I’ve heard lots of writers’ styles described as “poetic,” and I think you could say that Kephart would belong in that crowd. What’s exceptional about her is that she writes in a poetic way, with such attention to putting just the right words in just the right place, and yet this never gets in the way of the story of character development. I never once felt that the language distanced me from the story, or slowed things down, rather the descriptive passages pulled me in deeper and made me feel the story as if I was a part of it. I never had the sense that the author was showing off, or trying to be as poetic as possible to seem deep and insightful. This is just the way Kephart writes, and it’s gorgeous. You’ll feel just as lucky to have read House of Dance as you might upon hearing a jazz tune sneak out an open window in summer. It’s just right. This novel is full of the scent and sound and heat of summer, and also of longing for the past and for more time in the present too. I can’t wait to read Beth Kephart’s next book, Nothing but Ghosts, due out in June 2009.

Beth’s first YA title, Undercover, is one of the recommended reads this month at readergirlz. It’s another beauty. And speaking of readergirlz, here’s a video featuring one of the readergirlz divas, Melissa Walker, sharing her thoughts on House of Dance. She loved it too:

Getting Psyched for Operation Teen Book Drop

Dear readergirlz, the time has come for a contest! Actually, five weeks of contests!

Here’s the deal: each week from now until Support Teen Literature Day on April 16th, we’ll be awarding a package of books to one winner. To enter, you just comment at the readergirlz blog (comments on older posts count – a point for each comment!) and get an extra ten points for taking up the week’s challenge. Get ten more any time by becoming one of our blog followers! That’s easy to do. Just head to the blog and check out the sidebar for the “Followers” section. Then click and you’re pretty much done!

Report your post at the readergirlz blog with the URL (and get eleven points!). We’ll keep track of the comments and urls and award the winners each week. Books! Prizes! And you’ll be supporting teen lit and hospitalized teens across the country.

This week’s challenge:

Post the Operation TBD trailer on your blog (trailer below). Spread the word about Operation TBD!

Remember, for your posts to count toward the contest, you must post at the readergirlz blog. Hope to see you there!

Masterpiece

master

Remember I was grousing a few posts back about feeling generally slumpy and wanting a book that would lift my sagging spirits just as well as a slice of Banana Coconut Cake? Well, I found the magic book and I read it and it was delightful. Masterpiece, by Elise Broach is darling. I don’t think I’ve ever called a book “darling” before, but I know that this is exactly the right word for this story. I cannot imagine a child who would not enjoy this one. It seems made for reading aloud (and for lifting spirits), to be enjoyed particularly by sleepy headed kids all tucked up in bed. The story is just complex enough to be satisfying, but is easy to follow, has a cute and imaginative premise and to sweeten the deal, we’ve got some charming ink illustrations by the talented Kelly Murphy.

Masterpiece is the story of Marvin, a beetle who happens to be a gifted artist, and James, an eleven-year-old boy who feels decidedly ordinary. Marvin lives with James, under the Pompaday’s kitchen sink. They may share an apartment, but they have never met, until James receives a pen-and-ink set from his artist father for his birthday and the beetle is inspired to draw the boy a tiny picture. What Marvin produces is incredible – detailed and delicate and very small. James’s family thinks he is the creator of the masterpiece, and as a result, James gets taken to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take a closer look at the drawings of Albrecht Durer, and to show off his own work to museum experts. Of course, things get complicated as James struggles to hide the truth about the origin of the drawing, and he and Marvin get involved in an art heist scheme that if successful, may bring the friends face-to-face with Durer’s lost drawings.

An intro into the dramatic world of art heists and forgery, a friendship story, and a tidy little mystery, Masterpiece is as fine a piece of work as one of Marvin’s tiny creations. You’ll find gentle humour in Marvin’s relationship with his family and suspense in his escapades in the outside world with James. The friendship rings true, even though the characters can’t communicate conventionally. Broach presents the art history stuff in exactly the right depth for her audience, enough to spark curiosity and make kids feel smart. Think of this as Chasing Vermeer for beginners. Just right.

A few other reviews:

bookami
Em’s Bookshelf
Shelf Talker

Watersmeet

watersmeet

If I was a debut author, I’d be edge-of-my-seat nervous to see the final cover design for my first novel. I’d be terrified that it would turn out to be nothing like what I’d hoped for, completely bland or at the very worst, horribly ugly. I’m guessing that Ellen Jensen Abbott breathed a big sigh of relief, or perhaps even let out a giant whoop of happiness when she first laid eyes on the cover of Watersmeet. Isn’t it wonderfully dark and a shade spooky and don’t you just feel like the girl is staring right at you? Love it. This book is practically going to leap into teen’s hands, I think. Ellen is a member of the fab group of debut authors, The Class of 2k9, and Watersmeet is heading into stores in April. Here’s a sneak peek at what is sure to be a hit read among Fantasy-loving teens.

Abisina is an outcast in her village because of her unusual hair, eyes and skin, and because she has never known her father. She is not the only outcast in Vranille. In fact, her community turns against anyone who is different, calling them freaks, treating those who are different with cruelty. Abisina is spared some of this because her mother is the village healer and the residents depend upon her skills everyday. All of this changes, however, when a strangely powerful leader comes to Vranille and the villagers turn into a crazed mob, hunting down the outcasts and forcing Abisina to flee for her life into the wild northern landscape. So begins her journey to find her father and Watersmeet, the legendary place known to Abisina only through her mother’s stories. She imagines it will be the home she has always dreamed of, but nothing has prepared her for the secrets she will find there.

Ellen Jensen Abbott’s story is a satisfying, well-crafted fantasy yarn. You’ll recognize many mythic creatures throughout the adventure: dwarves, fauns, centuars, hags, trolls and fairies. At its simplest, this is a quest tale, and so if you’re at all familiar with the fantasy genre, you will settle quickly into this story and world that Ellen Jensen Abbott creates. I felt straight away that there was something old-fashioned about the tone and the characters – and I’m talking old-fashioned in a good way. About a chapter in, I was thinking, “Oh good, this is exactly what I was hoping for.” Perhaps it’s the way that Ellen has so convincingly drawn for the reader the societies she has imagined. Vranille is a miserable place, and you know it from the start. Watersmeet is full of magic and wonder. There is always enough attention to setting and environment to allow you to be right there with Abisina as she moves from one new experience to the next. In addition, Ellen makes clear the social and cultural differences among the various creatures and communities, from their different rituals to their unique types of music and stories and legends. This differentiation helped to make the whole reading experience that much richer, and made Watersmeet feel all the more exotic and real.

It’s certainly a coming-of-age story, as Abisina faces challenges on the way to discovering her family and her future path. She’s a tough cookie, and although hers is a world full of magic and violence and strange creatures, I don’t think that will prevent readers from connecting to the way she struggles to discover who she is, and what she is meant to do. I can see Watersmeet working beautifully in the classroom, because it offers complex exploration of many discussion-worthy themes: unity and conflict, prejudice and power, evil and forgiveness and family. Just in case you can’t figure out exactly how to take it into the classroom, have no fear! Ellen Jensen Abbott provides some of the best looking Teachers’ Guides I’ve ever seen. Honest. If you don’t find her suggestions inspiring, you’re in the wrong job. You don’t have to do a thing (other than buy the books and hand them to your students). Can you tell Ellen is an English teacher? Lucky kids.

From what I can see, Ii’s looking like there might be a sequel, which will make many readers happy indeed. Grab Watersmeet in April 2009. It is published by Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books. Tune in soon for an interview with Ellen!

I need a book that’s as happy-making as Coconut Banana Cake…

Gosh I’m feeling completely flat. Tired. Grouchy. Not-very-smart.

So I did what I often do when I’m in a funk. I baked cake. This cake:

cake2

I may have temporarily lost my creative mojo, but I can still bake with the best of ’em.

What I need now is a book that will prove to be as happy-making as Coconut Banana Cake. Wish I hadn’t already read The Spellman Files… twice. That book has the same happy-making powers as coconut cake, for sure.

(Right now reading Impulse for readergirlz… impressive but so not the right book for my current mood)

Suggestions?

the dead and the gone & Life As We Knew It

dandgpfeffer_lifedandg

There’s nothing like a book about a catastrophic world event to make the prospect of having to write 60 report cards seem like not such big a deal after all. Guess that might have been what inspired me to read the dead and the gone last weekend. The only break I really took from report card purgatory was to read Susan Beth Pfeffer’s vision of what would happen to the world if an asteriod hit the moon and knocked it out of orbit, causing tsunamis, widespread volcanic eruptions that block the suns rays, earthquakes, flu and cholera. Good times all ’round. In fact, I was so into the whole thing that this week I picked up the companion title, Life As We Knew It, and found myself just as compelled to keep turning the pages.

Life as We Knew It is structured as the diary of Miranda, a high school sophomore. Miranda details her family’s struggle to survive after a meteor smashes into the moon, moving it out of orbit and causing all sorts of horrible changes in the earth’s climate and environment. We are right there as she recounts the loss of electricity, heat, running water, diminishing food supplies and the many terrifying issues in the world at large: volcanic eruptions, floods and epidemics. In the dead and the gone, Pfeffer sticks with the same basic scenario, but shifts her lens to take in a new perspective, this time the experience of a family in New York City trying to cope with the aftermath of the same disaster. Seventeen-year-old Alex Morales is left as the primary caregiver for his two younger sisters when both his mother and father disappear after the catastrophe. The day-to-day account of their lives is similar to LAWKI, except not in first-person narration.

I can see why these books have met with critical acclaim and plenty of reader enthusiasm. Pfeffer conveys how terrifying the events are for her characters in a way that is honest and unflinching. You are brought right into it, up close to the darkness and the fear, but never to the point that you get lost in it and can’t take it anymore. That’s a tricky balance to have achieved with such an intense premise. More than anything, Miranda and Alex are incredibly  sympathetic characters, so believable in their complicated responses to the challenges they face. You watch them grow, and you ‘re right inside their heads. Another reason why these novels just grab you is that there is a continuously building claustrophobic sense as the characters are more and more cut off from the rest of the world and it becomes all about their thoughts and emotions wound so tight. “Unputdownable,” that’s for sure.

Susan Beth Pfeffer has a wonderfully detailed blog in which she offers a glimpse into her writing process, and lots of behind-the-scenes info about all of her books. These two titles are about hope and desperation, faith and resourcefulness, courage and forgiveness and ultimately, the power of family to lend meaning to life. There are many scenes I will not forget in these pages, images that will stay with me for a long time. I’ll be up for some more catastrophe when Susan Beth Pfeffer has finished the third book in the sequence, The World We Live In, which continues Miranda’s diary from the point it ended in the first book.

Inspired by these highly readable, thought-provoking/deeply freaky stories, I have created a poll. Help me to make the most sensible choice:

Jane in Bloom

2k9jane

Confession. I’ve never been especially drawn to children’s books that are heavy issue books. You know, a book about a young person struggling against all odds to face a life-threatening illness or some kind of trauma. Those books are important for kids and teens, certainly, but sometimes I get the impression that authors look around for some sort of crisis situation for their character, thinking it will immediately make their book more powerful and affecting. Sort of the way some actors seem to choose particular types of dramatic roles with an eye to getting an Oscar. I’ve read my fair share of stories featuring suffering young people and sometimes I have difficulty distinguishing among them. Such stories need to offer me something new, something different in the approach, in order for me to take notice. Like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, for instance. Now that sounds like a book that’s offering something new. I’d never dismiss an issue book without giving it a fair shot, of course. I’m just a wee bit skeptical from the get go, that’s all.

So it was with a little hesitation that I started reading Deborah Lytton’s debut Middle Grade novel, Jane in Bloom, because it centres around a family that is experiencing the devastating effects of anorexia as one of the daughters fights the disease. I’ve read many books about eating disorders, so I wondered what I’d find here that I hadn’t seen before. Lizzie is Jane’s older sister. She is the beautiful sister, the talented sister, the one with a golden future. Jane is a good kid, no trouble at all, and has always been comfortable in her sister’s shadow. But behind Lizzie’s perfect exterior is a secret that her family has been trying to keep for some time. Soon after Jane’s twelfth birthday, Lizzie’s eating disorder takes her life. This loss forces Jane to focus on herself and to think about who she wants to become. She discovers talents she never knew she possessed. As it turns out, Jane in Bloom is not really just another story of a girl battling an eating disorder. It’s actually Jane’s story. It’s about a girl experiencing complicated emotions after a great loss, discovering her gifts and looking at herself and her family in a different way.

I really enjoyed how Jane is a completely ordinary kid. At the beginning, she hasn’t really spent much time at all thinking about who she is, or what she likes, or what she’s good at. With a sister as dazzling as Lizzie, Jane is invisible to others and she’s not really visible to herself either. I think a lot of girls will connect to this experience. Lytton captures Jane’s transformation into a more self-assured, interesting and expressive individual in a way that doesn’t seem forced in the least. In these pages, Jane looks at herself for the first time and finds there’s a lot more there than she ever realized. Lytton draws Jane and Lizzie’s relationship carefully in just a few scenes at the beginning of the novel. As the story progresses we appreciate the layers of that sisterly bond – jealousy, anger, profound love and understanding. This is novel all about relationships, between Jane and Lizzie, Jane and her parents, and Jane and Ethel (the woman who comes to care for her when her parents are away). All of the relationships are drawn with care and an honesty that should really appeal to readers.

Deborah Lytton has written a book that offers younger readers a way into two very difficult subjects: eating disorders, and the loss of a sibling. Her novel is not intimidating. It is an honest and gentle look at one girl’s efforts to reconcile her mixed-up feelings after her sister’s death. But that’s not all that this book is about. It’s about self-discovery and change. There’s also a lot of hope here. Sadness for sure, but hope too. I think it would make a great choice for a girls’ book club, because it’s not just an issue book, it’s a story with a completely realistic, relatable girl at its centre. It’s as much about Jane’s growth and change as it is a story of loss. Jane in Bloom should inspire discussion, and with any luck, readers will be inspired to do a little self-exploration too.

Deborah Lytton’s Jane in Bloom is published by Dutton, March 2009.

readergirlz March Issue: The Adoration of Jenna Fox

adoration

I’ve been looking forward to March for months because the featured title at readergirlz for March is Mary E. Pearson’s stunning novel, The Adoration of Jenna Fox. I loved this book when I read it for the first time last year. So compelling. I cannot wait to see where the discussion heads this month at the forum, because Mary’s book touches on lots of potentially controversial topics like religious belief, medical ethics, personal freedom and identity.

Visit the issue at readergirlz for great discussion questions, background on Mary, suggested reads on the theme of Identity and cool book party ideas.

Visit the readergirlz forum to join in the talk all month long, and be sure to be at the live chat with Mary on Thursday, March 19th at 6 pm PST, 9 pm EST.

Check out the roundtable discussion of readergirlz divas, postergirlz and lots of book-loving pals. It’s an especially good conversation this month.

If you haven’t read The Adoration of Jenna Fox, you are in for a treat. Here’s the book trailer to tease you:

Creepy… deliciously creepy… Now go read!