Monthly Archives: September 2009

Poetry Friday: Who Has Seen the Wind

wind

There have been lovely windy, late-summer days all week long. I can almost see the warmth blowing away a little bit more each day. I’ve always loved this little poem by Christina Rossetti:

Who Has Seen the Wind

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

(Poem from Poetry Foundation. Perfect photo by: eggman)

Tweens + Twilight, or, Stop the Insanity

I  just finished reading Rebecca Stead’s wonderful article on tweens in Time Out New York (thanks to educating alice for the link). This was thought-provoking and sobering reading. It would be wonderful if all parents could read it and consider what they can do to protect their child’s childhood. Reading this article was good timing for me, since I’ve been thinking these past few days about this very subject, of kids behaving as “wannabe adolescents,” years before entering their teens. This year I teach 9-year-olds. There is a child in one of my classes who has read all of the books in the Twilight series and is in the process of rereading them (yes, all the way through book four with the wild sex / monster parasitic vampire fetus / abortion debate etc. etc…).

When I was 9, these were my favourite books:

roald-dahl-the-bfgsecretgrailway

I know I grew up in the country, but still. Call me crazy, but I think 9 is childhood. 9 is still firmly in kid-territory. 9 is not tween or pre-teen or even close-to-teen. 9 is not the time for sparkly vampires and their abs-of-steel and frosty kisses. Is it not possible to save something for later, even if the movie is coming out next month and the TV is telling you that all the cool kids are going? Must the answer always be yes, you can if you want to?

At this rate, pretty soon there will be kindergarteners who can say they’re in Team Edward or Team Jacob.

I think this is so, so sad. I think of my 8/9/10 year old self and I remember these years as a golden time, before I started thinking about how I measured up, how pretty I was or how popular, or whether boys thought I was worth anything. I loved the quote in Stead’s article from Susan Linn, ““Traditionally these years are a time of great intellectual and creative flowering.”

What are we doing? Is it too late?

Class of 2k9 Author Interview: Megan Crewe

meganghost

I‘m very happy to be hosting fellow Torontonian Megan Crewe today for an interview. Megan is the author of the YA paranormal novel Give Up the Ghost (check out my review). She’s also a Class of 2k9 member. Weclome Megan!

What inspires you?

Um, everything? :) Honestly, inspiration can come from anything—a conversation I overhear on the bus, a book I’m reading or a movie I just saw, an article in a newspaper or online, something I see out the window. But I find I’m most inspired by other stories, in all their forms.

Tell us about the moment you learned Give Up the Ghost would be published.

It wasn’t really one single moment—even the moment we got the first offer was drawn out because an editor told my agent he was going to offer a couple weeks before the offer actually came. And even once you have an offer you can’t assume anything until it’s negotiated and official! But that time period was filled with a lot of celebrating and many excited conversations with my husband and family and close friends, and waiting eagerly to be able to share the news more widely.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing your first novel?

The most challenging part of writing Give Up the Ghost was the voice. It was the first novel I’d written in first person. I knew that telling it in Cass’s voice was the right thing to do, but it was difficult finding a balance between staying true to her personality and the way she perceived herself, and still revealing the vulnerabilities that made her sympathetic (even if she liked to pretend they didn’t exist).

Describe your writing process. Are you an outliner, or do you discover your characters and your story as you go?

I’m definitely an outliner. I never write a book without a scene-by-scene outline on index cards. It’s my way of “testing out” the book to make sure it’s ready to be written—because if I get stuck or bored just writing the outline, then the story idea’s not ready yet. But while I’m writing I’m still discovering all sorts of things about the characters and events that I didn’t think of while I was outlining, and I often make changes to the outline as I go to reflect important things I’ve figured out.

What books have you read that made you want to write for young people?

It wasn’t specific books I read so much as the experience of being a teenager. Books were so important to me at that age (not that they aren’t now, but the intensity isn’t quite the same), as a way to visit other worlds, to understand different perspectives, to consider new ideas, to figure out who I was. I love writing for readers who get so much out of books.

What is your favourite scene in Give Up the Ghost?

I can’t say too much about it because it’d be spoilery, but I’d have to say my favorite is the scene near the end when Cass finds Tim by the lake. It’s such an important moment for both of them.

Why do you think it’s so hard for Cass to “give up her ghosts”?

I think for Cass the ghosts (both literal and figurative) are her protection. As long as she believes her ghostly friends are all she needs, she doesn’t have to feel bad that her classmates shun her. As long as she focuses on what happened in the past, she doesn’t have to think about her problems in the present. The trouble is, of course, that she’s shutting herself off from a lot of good things, too. Continue reading

Sunny Holiday

sunnyThis was a random library find for me the other day. I haven’t read any of Coleen Murtagh Paratore’s other titles, but I know of her Wedding Planner’s Daughter series. It was the cover that grabbed me, and it’s no wonder! My well-honed Julia Denos radar is clearly at work. I love her art (she’s got oodles and oodles of talent, that one). The brightness of the colours, the fab pink shoes and the quirkily-named title character all said “sweetness” to me. I was right. There is some serious sweetness going on in this slim novel for younger readers, with enough struggle to be thought-provoking and to inspire conversation.

Sunny is as bright and positive as her name. Her mother likes to remind her that “the sun shined so bright and long the day (Sunny) was born, the stars got jealous and complained to God.” She tries to see the good in the world, in the people around her and in herself. It might not always come easily, but Sunny is willing to work at it. She loves holidays more than anything and she’s troubled by the fact that January and August are lacking in the holiday department, so she starts planning holidays with particular kid appeal to fill in the gaps. Sunny’s life isn’t perfect in every way. Riverview towers, her apartment building, might be full of many interesting and warm-spirited people, but the neighbourhood leaves a lot to be desired, what with the litter, the straggly trees, the chain-link fences and the polluted river. Sunny’s dad is in jail and she only gets to visit him the first Sunday of every month. Her mom works long hours as a hotel maid and then fills up her nights taking care of Sunny and taking college courses. Still, Sunny’s home is full of love and creativity and wisdom. The novel is a gentle portrait of a little girl who faces some hard situations with natural grace, humour and hope.

I read Sunny Holiday in one sitting. It was Sunny’s voice that drew me in, her poetic way of seeing the world. I loved the first chapter called “Dandelions.” Here’s one of the nicest bits:

“We don’t have a park or a yard, either, just one long, dirty-gray cement sidewalk. But that doesn’t stop a dandelion. A dandelion seed is smarty-pants-smart. That seed sails off on a wispy balloon, riding free on a summer breeze, search-search-searching for a home. It knows for sure it will find one. All it sees is sidewalk, sidewalk, sidewalk. Does it give up? No, it does not. That little seed keeps searching until it spots a crack. “Whoopee! Whoopee! Whoopee!” it shouts, and dives in for a happy landing. But then that seed realizes it’s all alone and sits there shaking, not sure just what to do next. Does it give up? No it does not. It sends down a skin-skinny raggedy root, far below, where no one can see, look-look-looking for dirt it can trust. that may take a very long time.”

Each little chapter is so short and yet there is a lot of emotion packed into every tiny package. I was reminded of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street (gosh I love that book!) There’s the same true kid’s perspective in this book and in places, the same heart-squeezing effect as Sunny struggles against the circumstances of her life. My only complaint is that in places, Sunny came off a little Pollyanna-ish. You almost couldn’t believe that she would be so persistently positive. This is a small thing however. Mostly, you’ll just wish you could manage to see the world the way she does, always looking for good things and working to make changes to improve the rest. This would be an excellent title for use in the classroom, to initiate conversations around inclusion, compassion and creativity. It handles the more challenging background issues carefully, with just the right amount of information for a younger reader. Perfect for Grade 4, I should think.

Sunny Holiday is published by Scholastic Press.

Poetry Friday: Damselfly, Trout, Heron

heron

Today I start teaching habitats to my grade 4 class. I think I could spend all year teaching this. Two of my most vivid school science memories happened when I was around that age and we were studying habitats. We brought rubber boots and nets to school one day and went wading through a river at the back of school property capturing minnows and other tiny creatures and putting them in buckets to study them. So much fun – and what a learning experience. (You’d probably need about a zillion permission forms to do that now, and the kids would have to be wearing lifejackets and hazmat suits!) I also remember building a terrarium. If I close my eyes, I can picture everything that went into that pickle jar. Here’s a beautiful poem I found about the food chain.

Damselfly, Trout, Heron – by John Engels

The damselfly folds its wings
over its body when at rest. Captured,
it should not be killed
in cyanide, but allowed to die
slowly: then the colors,
especially the reds and blues,
will last. In the hand
it crushes easily into a rosy
slime. Its powers of flight
are weak. The trout

feeds on the living damselfly.
The trout leaps up from the water,
and if there is sun you see
the briefest shiver of gold,
and then the river again.
When the trout dies
it turns its white belly
to the mirror of the sky.
The heron fishes for the trout

in the gravelly shallows on the far
side of the stream…

Read the rest of this beautiful poem, packed with visual detail at Poetry Foundation. (Photo credit: kansasphoto’s flickrstream)

Author Interview: Class of 2k9 Joy Preble

dreamingdreamingdreamingdreaming

I’m pleased to welcome Class of 2k9 author Joy Preble to the blog for an interview today. Joy is on a whirlwind tour of the kidlitosphere, promoting her debut title, Dreaming Anastasia. Be sure to check out my review of her book, and comment on the review post for a chance to win a copy of Dreaming Anastasia. Welcome to Shelf Elf Joy!

If you had two sentences in which to sell Dreaming Anastasia to a teen reader, how would you describe your book?

Sixteen year old Anne bumps into handsome and mysterious Ethan and suddenly she’s got powers she doesn’t understand, a history altering mission she may not want, and a growing attraction to this blue-eyed stranger. Add in some determined bad guys, Baba Yaga the witch and Anastasia Romanov – not quite so dead, it seems – and much wackiness ensues.

Your novel is an amazingly complex story, with fairy tale/ fantasy/ historical/ contemporary elements all woven together. As I was reading, I wondered two things. First, how did you come up with such a creative, complicated genre-bending idea? Second what was your writing process? Did you do a lot of outlining to keep all the plot threads straight?

I really had to laugh at this question. Okay, I didn’t laugh. But the initial truth is that this is what comes of writing a debut novel. You don’t always know you’re doing something really spiffy like genre-bending. And then when you realize mid-way through that what you’ve done is attempt multiple genres with three alternating narrators in first person, you’re too far gone to go back! Even my agent at the time continued to re-define how she pitched the project. I think we were initially calling it urban fantasy until we decided that maybe it wasn’t really that, exactly. But it was definitely, in retrospect, kind of risky. Is this literary? Is it commercial? The good part was that I was such a novice that I didn’t know enough to be afraid! I just kept writing. The idea of Anne bumping into Ethan and getting super powers and being given the task of saving Anastasia came first. Which of course led to the alternate history aspects. The folkloric elements got woven in after that. Honestly, now I ask myself, what could I have been thinking? But that’s the beauty of the muse. Sometimes it just gives you a story and you have to brave enough to go for it. And yes, eventually, I did keep bullet point outlines and reams of notes, both handwritten and in the form of comments on Word documents. As you say, it was a lot to keep straight. I was also blessed with an amazing copy edit team at Sourcebooks who dug in fearlessly near the end to make sure that everything tracked. That part was also fun for me, because here is this group of people who’ve read your every word so obsessively that they can actually say, “You know, this contradicts something on page 15. You need to check it.”

What aspect of your novel are you most proud of?

That’s not a question anyone has asked me before, so thanks! I guess if I had to pick just one aspect, I’d say that I’m proud of creating more than one strong female character. I would say that’s a commonality in most of what I write – a consciousness that I want my female characters to meet the adversity of their situations with an inner-strength, even when they don’t know what the heck they’re doing. Anne may have no clue what to do with these powers she suddenly has, but she’s going to dig deep and try to figure it out. And I hope readers get that.

How much of a Russian history and culture buff were you prior to writing Dreaming Anastasia?

When I was about thirteen, I read Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra, this great biography of the Romanovs and their assassination and the whole Rasputin thing. It was such a huge, tragic tale! My maternal grandmother was from Russia, so I suppose that factored into my interest as well. But once I’d dug into all that, I was hooked. In college, I read more actual Russian literature – Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekov. It was always so over the top dramatic. So much cold. So much suffering. So much vodka consumption! All those names and diminutives, like how Mikhail becomes Misha. I just ate it up. The fairy tale part came later, though, when I was writing Dreaming Anastasia. Collections of Russian fairy tales by Aleksandr Afanas’ev – it’s amazing stuff and very different from Grimm’s or Disney, obviously. Much less obviously moral. Much more eh, you didn’t expect that little sucker, did you?

Continue reading

Aw shucks!

BBAW_Celebrate_Booksbbaw-kidlit

It is a lovely surprise and an honour to be nominated this year for Best Kidlit Blog during Book Blogger Appreciation Week (BBAW). If you’re not familiar with the event, there are lots of treats in store from September 14-18 (next week!), all meant to recognize the work book bloggers do to share their passion for reading. The theme this year is “Celebrate Books.” Every day next week you’ll find daily blogging topics at the BBAW site, where you can drop off your links and explore everyone else’s posts.

One element of the celebration is the blog awards given in all sorts of categories: Best Literary Fiction Blog, Best General Review Blog, Best YA Blog, Best Special Interest Blog and a whole bunch more. First, I was so happy to have been nominated, and then double-happiness happened when I was informed that I made the shortlist. Holy wowness. I think the best part of all is that I have been nominated alongside 4 blogs that I think are among the best blogs on books period: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Fuse 8 at School Library Journal, Jen Robinson’s Book Page and Maw Books Blogs. I mean, these ladies are amazing, intelligent, thoughtful bloggers whose blogs make my reading life richer.

I have no idea who I would vote for (can’t I pick everyone?). Take some time to browse all of the shortlisted blogs and then go vote for somebody, right here. You have until midnight, September 12th (this Saturday) to vote. Then be sure to join in next week with your own posts, celebrating the best of book blogging everywhere.

Thank you to those who nominated me. Thank you to Amy, for all of her work in organizing this event. What a labour of love! I think she deserves a prize, yes?

Dreaming Anastasia Review & Giveaway

dreaming*Note: Winners of Dreaming Anastasia have been selected and contacted. Thanks for your comments!*

Over the past year I’ve started reading many more YA titles, and the more I read, the more I recognize that creativity in YA land is hard to find, particularly when it comes to novels with female main characters. There are so many stories about essentially the same kind of girl, facing the same sort of problem, with the same types of friends, family issues etc. etc. etc. Yawn. This summer especially I was getting more and more irked by the cookie-cutter nature of some of the teen titles I read. Enter Joy Preble.

Joy is a Class of 2k9 author whose debut YA novel, Dreaming Anastasia, will satisfy any reader’s craving for a story will serious creativity. As I got caught up in the world of Joy’s story, I kept stopping and thinking, “Wow, this is one of the more inventive plots I’ve read in a while.” So, here goes. I’ll try to capture it all in a short teaser.

Anastasia Romanov, the daughter of the last Tsar of Russia, survived the attack on her family, but she is trapped. Something saved her and for years she has been a prisoner. Her only escape comes through writing to her dead family and dreaming of the past. In present day Chicago, Anne Michaelson’s life is turning upside down. She’s been having terrifying dreams where she witnesses horrific events and sometimes feels as if she is someone else. Anne doesn’t share her nightmares with anyone until she meets Ethan, a mysterious stranger who offers Anne an outrageous and frightening explanation for what she’s been experiencing. Anne discovers she has powers that seem impossible.  She finds that she is linked to a place and a legendary family she never knew, and that it is her destiny to free the Russian princess.

There is real genre-bending (or genre-combining) going on in Dreaming Anastasia. It’s part historical fiction, with enough detail about the Romanovs to inspire readers’ curiosity and make fans of historical fiction feel at home. It’s also semi-fantastical, since Anne and Ethan and others have strong magical powers that they use for good and bad throughout the story. Preble works in the traditional Russian folk tale of Baba Yaga, the fearsome witch famous for eating up children with her iron teeth and for her strange hut that scrabbles around the forest on hen’s legs. Baba Yaga turns out to be one of the most unusual and captivating characters in the book, a witch with complex and unpredictable motivations. Finally, a lot of the story is entirely realistic, focusing on Anne’s day-to-day school and family life, standing in contrast to the fairy tale/fantasy/history elements interwoven throughout. I liked this combination very much because all of the different pieces really kept the pace of the narrative moving along rapidly. While I didn’t feel that any piece was significantly underdeveloped, as a historical fiction fan, I would have been happy to have more on Anastasia and her family’s past, but that’s really more of a personal preference than a flaw in the book. Continue reading

Paris Pan takes the Dare

parispanMiddle Grade mystery. Three words that immediately pique my interest. Add to those three words “smart and sassy protagonist” and I’m sold. A good middle grade mystery can shake me out of a funk better than just about any other type of book. I treated myself to Cynthea Liu’s recently released MG mystery, Paris Pan takes the Dare, and I vowed it would be one of my last reads of the summer, before things go all crazy in classroom-land.

Paris Pan is the new kid in town. She has a lot of experience with this role because her family moves every eight months or so, as soon as her father finishes building and then selling their latest house. Paris is keenly aware of the various consequences of this nomadic lifestyle: “One, in the middle of the night, I’ve almost gone to the bathroom in a closet twice. Two, my school transcript is longer than any Harry Potter book. And three, my lifelong friend roster has only one name on it – my dog’s.” While she half-jokes about it, there are real and difficult problems with her family’s unusual way of life. Her dad isn’t around much, since he’s always off supervising the next project, the family’s soon-to-be home. Her mom has to work long hours as a computer programmer to make ends meet, but finances are still a constant struggle. When Paris arrives in Sugar Lake Oklahoma, she discovers it isn’t so hard to find friends when there are only a couple of girls in her class in the first place. Too bad it doesn’t take long for Paris to realize her “friends” are not exactly ideal friend material. Secretly, she’d rather hang around with the class dork and the girl everyone calls Freak. Soon after moving, Paris learns that a girl died very close to her house when undergoing a seventh-grade rite of passage known as “the Dare.” This makes the strange noises and odd night-time sightings Paris has been experiencing all the more disturbing. When her friends decide they should all take the dare together, Paris has to try to make sense of the weirdness, sorting out friends from frenemies and ghosts from perfectly explicable occurrences before things get seriously out of control.

Cynthea Liu has a clean and highly readable writing style. You don’t feel like there are a lot of wasted words on the page but you’re still getting careful characterization (even with the secondary characters) and detail enough to make situations easy to imagine. I thought she captured the middle grade girl voice particularly well. Here’s the opening:

“Where should I start? The first time I felt my life hanging in the balance? Or the moment I believed the deceased had a way of talking to me? Or maybe I ought to begin with the second I walked into that school. Looking back, I should have been suspicious from day one, but now I know that when you want something badly enough, you’ll do anything to get it.

You’ll lie to your friends.

Steal from your family.

Eat a whole box of Creamsicles.

You might even go so far as taking the Dare.”

That’s pretty efficient writing, if you ask me. Talk about a lesson in how to open a novel. Less than 10 sentences in and you’ve already got a solid sense of this character’s personality and funny/sometimes-sarcastic voice, a little foreshadowing, and a teasing intro to the central conflict. Nice work Cynthea.

The plot is exciting, and quite spooky, what with the creepy run-down shed in the woods behind Paris’s house, the night-time laughter, and the freaky porcelain dolls lying around the property. It’s just right that there are unanswered questions about the girl’s death, and that this ambiguity is never really resolved even at the end. Aside from being a page-turning mystery, this is a book about why kids label each other and how even a good kid can find it difficult to risk her reputation by giving outsiders a chance. It’s about learning to make an effort to create relationships that are meaningful and rich, rather than just going with the status quo because it’s simpler or cooler or less painful. Continue reading