Monthly Archives: February 2010

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda

Being a bit of an origami nerd, of course I couldn’t resist The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, just one of the treats in my box o’ Amulet books last week. Speaking of strange, it is strange that I have such a soft spot in my heart for Yoda. Strange because as a child, I was not allowed to watch Star Wars (Mom says this was due to the violence – this is an especially weird excuse given that when my sister and I were barely teenagers my mom decided we should all snuggle up one movie night and try watching Silence of the Lambs… but that’s a story for another day). Even now I have not yet watched all of the Stars Wars films. Still, Yoda charms me.

I think my fondness for Yoda comes in part from my darling nephew, who is nearly four and last Christmas got a set of Star Wars figures. We spent a good chunk of Boxing Day examining these figures, with me quizzing him, “And who’s this?” “And this?” “And this?” I was getting such a kick out of how serious he was, telling me their names over and over. And he didn’t seem to tire of it. He must have wondered if I was daft or something (“Didn’t I just tell you Auntie K? That’s Yoda,” he must have been thinking). I loved that he kept calling Luke, “Yooke.” Too. Cute.

But back to Origami Yoda, Tom Angleberger’s first book for Middle Grade readers. It’s about a nerdy kid named Dwight, who brings an origami finger puppet of Yoda to school and invites his classmates to ask Yoda for advice. Well, if you know anything about sixth graders, you can imagine that this is at the same time, a crazily geeky thing to do, and yet, completely irresistible to all concerned. It seems to many that Yoda’s advice actually works, but there are disbelievers. One of the kids, Tommy, decides that he needs to get to the bottom of this, and figure out if the puppet can be trusted before he takes Yoda’s advice about a certain cute girl. Each chapter in the book is a piece of evidence in his investigation into the case of origami Yoda, documenting instances where Yoda apparently saved the day. There are funny doodles throughout by Angleberger and Jason Rosenstock and instructions at the back for how to make your own origami Yoda. (Teachers around the country say thanks Tom. Thanks so much ;) . He is a cute little fella though, no denying it).

Star Wars-crazed kids will no doubt enjoy this story, but I think that if others give it a go as well, they will find there is a lot in there to relate to. That’s because it really is mostly about the dynamic between the students, and the way that in middle school, something apparently small can build and take on a life of its own beyond anything anybody ever intended or imagined. It’s very readable, and kid-focused. There isn’t really much of an adult presence in the narrative, and that’s true to the school world of most kids in grade six. Adults are very much in the background. The fact that many of the chapters work as their own mini-stories made for fast reading. I think Angleberger succeeds with the voice of this age group. The kids really sounded like sixth-graders. Of course it’s appealing that Dwight, who is as nerdy as they come, is not completely marginalized by his peers and actually finds a way to integrate by the end. Very “nerd power.” Is that realistic? Not so much. Does that ruin the story? No. I like the way it might suggest to readers that even the geekiest kid in the room has something to offer, maybe something creative or insightful or just plain fun.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is quirky and funny and it has a light saber on the cover.

Here’s Tom with instructions on making your own green guru:

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is published by Amulet, an imprint of Abrams.

A Brief History of Montmaray

From time to time you get lucky and happen to start reading a book that is exactly the type of story you need to read at that moment, a story that makes you go, “Yes! Perfect!” I am definitely a believer that there is a “best moment” to read many books. Haven’t you had that experience of trying to read a book that has been recommended to you and for some reason, you can’t get through it, so you leave it and pick it up months later and discover you love it? Michelle Cooper’s A Brief History of Montmaray came to me when I most needed something super satisfying, in this case, a quirky family story, with a dynamite setting and an old-fashioned feel that reminded me of some of my most-loved childhood books.

The book is written as a diary, and Sophie FitzOsborne is the diary writer. Sophie lives in a rundown castle on the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray, a speck in the Atlantic close to France and England. Montmaray does not have many residents. There is the royal family: Sophie, her younger sister Henry, her counsin Veronica, and her crazy Uncle John, the King, and then there are the few remaining locals who have lived on the island and served the FitzOsbornes for years. Oh, and Carlos. We cannot forget the family pooch, a Portuguese water dog.

It is 1936. Sophie has just turned 16, and she decides to use the journal she received for her birthday to document day-to-day life on the island. Veronica spends her days in scholarly pursuits, delving into the history of the island but also keeping herself informed on current political issues and their potential impact on the home she so fiercely loves. Henry is a wild tomboy, forever tearing around the island, getting into trouble and trying to avoid lessons. It seems for a while that life on Montmaray will continue as it always has, but then a boat arrives with two German officers, an event that sets about changes that the girls have resisted for a long time.

A Brief History of Montmaray has been compared by numerous reviewers to Dodie Smiths I Capture the Castle. Because I had that comparison in my mind from the start, I confess that is distracted me and at first prevented me from appreciating the ways in which this book is not like Dodie Smith’s. Yes, there were moments when I wondered how a publisher had the guts to publish a book so similar to a beloved classic. I got over it though. That’s because there are more than enough elements to this book that differentiate it from I Capture the Castle: the entirely unique setting, the emphasis on the politics of the period, the adventure plot towards the end. I think that fans of Smith’s book will love Montmaray too, for some of the same reasons that they treasure I Capture the Castle, but for other reasons too. Continue reading

Zoobreak

I read Gordon Korman’s Swindle a few months back, but for some reason, I didn’t get to the review. Now that I’ve finished the sequel, Zoobreak, I think this book deserves a little attention. ( I mean come on, there is a ferret on that dog’s head for goodness’ sake. It deserves a review for the cover alone).

In Swindle, Korman introduced us to a gang of kids, not all of them friends, but each one of them talented enough to play a role in stealing back a valuable baseball card from Swindle, a lowdown sports memorabilia collector. Their leader is Griffin Bing, a kid who is forever hatching plans and then dragging his friend Ben along for the ride. Griffin and his team have to get past a high-tech security system and a terrifying guard dog known as Luthor in order to get to their prize. They do. It’s a heist story, for middle graders. And it’s fun. In Zoobreak, the team is back, but this time with a mission that is even more personal. Savannah, animal whisperer extraordinaire, is beside herself because Cleo, her capuchin monkey, is gone. She knows Cleo has been monkey-napped. Soon after this discovery, on a class trip to a floating zoo, the kids find Cleo and a lot of other animals kept in miserable conditions. There is no choice. They must mastermind a zoobreak.

What we have here is classic Korman: super-tight plotting, funny characters and a premise guaranteed to grab kids’ attention. Korman isn’t formulaic, he just has this way of combining particular narrative and stylistic elements so that most of his books are very identifiable. I think it has something to do with the fact that there is zero filler in many Gordon Korman books. Every little bit is there to move the plot ahead, and characterization never slows things down for a second. I’m someone who tends to choose character-driven books over plot-driven ones most of the time, so initially, I wondered if characterization in Zoobreak was a weak point. It seems like Korman creates quirky and easily-understood kids straight off, but that they don’t really develop or “go anywhere” as the story advances. Then I considered the fact that in a book like Zoobreak, does it really matter if the characters don’t so much internal growth? Is that needed in a story like this? Not really. There are times when the inner growth of a character is essential to making a story work and crucial to giving it impact for the reader, and then there are times when the conflict is more or less external, and that’s where all the tension comes from. That’s Zoobreak. If aspiring children’s writers need a lesson is how to establish external conflict early on in their novels, and maintain it throughout the narrative, I say, take a look at Zoobreak. Three and a half pages in, the reader already knows what the big problem is going to be. By the end of chapter two, the conflict is well articulated and things just get trickier from there.

It’s hard to think of a kid who wouldn’t be crazy about this book. That’s another thing about Gordon Korman’s writing. It works for lots of different types of readers. I’ll be on the look out for the next in this series (I think three titles have been planned). I can’t wait to see what these kids steal next.

Zoobreak and Swindle are published by Scholastic Press.

Elf Envy: Review Roundup

Man has it been a long week. I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately, but now I’m looking forward to having the time to get to a lot of great books I’ve had on my list for a while.

So in the meantime, here are a few reviews that I enjoyed reading recently and made me want to read the books:

Over at Welcome to my Tweendom, Stacy thinks The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place has perfect pacing and a great voice.

Jen at Reading Rants loves Before I Fall in spite of herself. She wrote, “If Sarah Dessen and Jenny Downham collaborated, it might look a little like this rad reinvention of the mean-girl novel.” I have heard only raves about this book. Good thing I have an ARC (be jealous).

Vikki at Pipedreaming loves a new collection of poetry, Think Again, from KCP Poetry. She says, “This is the kind of book I would have loved to receive as a 13 year old, bookish and starry-eyed and ready to taste the world.”

Lorie Ann at readergirlz loves Raina Telgemeir’s Smile. She calls it “expressive and rich… fun, tender and real.” I’m in!

And finally, even though I’ve already read and adored Laini Taylor’s Silksinger, emilyread’s review haiku makes me want to read it and love it all over again.

I promise reviews of my own this week.

Mockingjay

Here it is, the cover of Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins’ final title in THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy:

Scholastic is revealing nothing. It is top top secret.

August 24th, 2010 feels very, very far away.

Heist Society

What is more fun than an smart and sassy heist story? That would be a smart and sassy heist story written by Ally Carter, author of the incredibly popular, incredibly clever Gallagher Girls series. I was excited enough when I heard that Carter was working on a new series, and then even more so when I read it was going to feature a girl from a family of professional thieves who masterminds the heist of some of the greatest works of art in the world.

I have already raved plenty about Ally Carter, writer extraordinaire (here and here). Her Gallagher series is one of those rare finds in YA series-land that manages to be fun, fun, fun and yet at the same time, not trashy beyond measure. Not trashy period, in fact. Rather, the series is really, really smart, tightly written and memorable. It is a series that I can recommend very happily to teen readers because I know they will love every second reading it, with the added bonus that I do not feel in the least guilty because I am not giving them something brain-numbing.

I am pleased to report that Heist Society is every bit as satisfying, readable and smart as The Gallagher Girls. In fact, there are aspects of this book that I like even more than GG, and that’s saying something. Here’s Ally Carter, introducing the book:

One of Carter’s real strengths is plotting. Man can she move things along at just the right pace, keeping things brisk without sacrificing detail or characterization along the way. There are a lot of characters in this book, and I think that Kat and Hale, the two most central figures, are particularly well-drawn and you get enough of a sense of the other players that you will hope to see more of them in future books. Kat is complex. She can’t find a way to easily pull back from the family business, nor does she completely want to because it is so much a part of her identity, and she just happens to be really good at it. At one point, the nasty mobster man characterizes her perfectly when he notices, “It is rare to find someone who is both so young and so wise, so fresh and so jaded.” There is great tension within this one character and I’m looking forward to seeing where that goes as the series continues. The fact that Kat is both proud of her skill as a thief and also conflicted about how much she craves the thrill of that life makes her interesting. At its heart, Heist Society is really a story about family and belonging, wrapped up in a thrilling art-stealing, globe-trotting package.

Heist Society is published by Disney Hyperion and (no surprise) it has been optioned by Warner Bros.

The 2009 Cybils Winners Announced!

Yippee because it’s the day that the 2009 Cybils Award are announced (and it’s Valentine’s Day, International Day of Extreme Spoiling for moi).

Naturally, as the Middle Grade fiction organizer, I’m particularly excited to share the winner in that category, but before I do, I’d like to send out a giant thank you to the first round panelists and the judges this year, for your reading and thinking and discussing. Without you, no Cybils. So I’m glad the world is full of such devoted kidslit bloggers.

Middle Grade Fiction Panelists

Sherry Early, Semicolon
Melissa Fox, Book Nut
Abby Johnson, Abby the Librarian
Kyle Kimmal, The Boy Reader
Becky Laney, Becky’s Book Reviews
Sarah Mulhern, The Reading Zone
Sandra Stiles, Musings of a Book Addict

Middle Grade Fiction Judges

Kimberly Baker, Wagging Tales
Stacy Dillon, Welcome to my Tweendom
Monica Edinger, Educating Alice
David Elzey, Excelsior File
(and me – thanks me!)

To all of you, I send a big, superhero cartoonish heart o’ thanks:

And the winner of the 2009 Cybils Award for Middle Grade fiction is…

Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson. Congratulations Laurie!

For a list of all of the winners, visit the announcement post at the Cybils blog. Well done writers! Well done readers!

(Adorable cheering child picture & superhero-ish heart courtesy of stock-xchng).

Poetry Friday: Bright Star

Last weekend I watched Jane Campion’s newly released film, Bright Star, about John Keats’ love affair with Fanny Brawne. It’s a good Valentine’s film, tragic of course, but if you can convince your fella to watch it I think you’ll be impressed by the onscreen chemistry and you may learn a little more about Keats. So, educational and sexy and doomed. That works. And it is very beautifully filmed, with lots of lingering shots and scenes of the fair and moody English countryside.

The title of the film is after Keats’ poem, Bright Star, and the movie suggests that he was inspired by his love for Fanny Brawne to write the sonnet. This has not been proven, but it’s a sentiment worthy of almost-Valentine’s Day.

Here’s that sonnet:

Bright Star – by John Keats

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

Take a look at the teaser for the film:

Ah romance. Happy Valentine’s Weekend!

(Poem at poetry.org)

Silver Phoenix

If you are in need of a fantasy novel with some serious girl power, then I can’t think of a better choice than Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix. Pon’s debut could be described as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets great YA fantasy, like Kristin Cashore’s Graceling perhaps. However you characterize it, I’m sure you’ll be entirely wrapped up in Pon’s delicious blend of adventure, rich Chinese mythology and romance. This is a story to chase away mid-winter blahs.

It’s the tale of 17-year-old Ai Ling, who escapes the looming fate of an arranged marriage by running away on a quest to find her beloved father. She journeys towards the Palace of Fragrant Dreams, where she believes her father may be held against his will. Along the way, she meets Chen Yong, a young man with a quest of his own. She also discovers that she has a mysterious power. She is able to enter the minds of others, and sometimes, she can control their actions. Chen Yong and Ai Ling become traveling companions, and they face demons and gods bent on their destruction, along the way.

Cindy Pon has a real talent for dynamic action sequences. Yes, admittedly I have watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon oh, about 9 times, but I think that even without those images in my mind, I would have been impressed by Pon’s ability to conjure some awesome martial arts moments. There is a particularly memorable scene in which Chen Yong and his brother spar with one another. You can imagine every move in your head. Loved that. Li Rong (the brother) is particularly well-drawn. He’s funny and charming and a bit of a rogue. I admired that Pon managed to communicate a real richness in this world without getting bogged down in exposition. The details are revealed organically, which makes for smooth reading. And did I mention the food? Well, you better have a great take-out place that delivers dumplings and noodle soup when you start reading Silver Phoenix, because you will be wanting some as soon as Ai Ling gets hungry. Food pops in all throughout the narrative. Automatic bonus points from Shelf Elf.

I will be very eager to read the next book in this series (a trilogy? I can only hope).

Silver Phoenix is published by Greenwillow Books.

Author Interview: Loretta Ellsworth

I’m happy to welcome Loretta Ellsworth to the Shelf today, for a stop on her blog tour promoting her latest novel, In a Heartbeat.

It is a story told in alternating voices, about the connection between two girls through organ donation. Eagan, a sixteen-year-old skater, dies after a head injury on the ice. Her heart goes to Amelia, a fourteen-year-old with a critical heart condition. Ellsworth explores the possibility of cellular memory as Amelia begins to feel different after the transplant, her attitude and interests shifting in ways she can’t fully explain. In a Heartbeat is about grief and regret, guilt and second chances. Here’s the book trailer:

What first inspired this novel?
My nephew died in a motorcycle accident, sort of a freak accident when his front tire hit a hole and the bike flipped. He had designated himself as an organ donor on his license. For a long time I couldn’t write. When I did, I found myself drawn to a story of organ donation.

What are some of the challenges in writing a narrative in 2-voices? How was your approach to writing this type of novel different than your approach to writing a story with a single protagonist?
Some of the challenges of writing a narrative in two voices are: keeping each voice distinct, not only in dialogue, but in thought and word choice throughout the novel. Also, their stories had to flow together, but each girl had to have her own obstacles, goals, story arc, etc. I tried writing each story separately and putting them together, but it didn’t flow that way. So I had to go back and write alternate chapters. This was my first attempt at multiple narratives (and maybe my last), but I’m glad I tried it and I learned a great deal from writing this book.

I can imagine that you might hope that the young adults who read your novel will be inspired to consider becoming organ donors themselves. What is your opinion on organ donation and when/how do you think this topic should be introduced to kids and teens?
This topic should be introduced before teens apply for a driver’s license and they should discuss their decision with their parents. My nephew didn’t discuss his choice with his parents and it was a shock to find out that he was an organ donor, but they honored his wishes. I do hope it inspires young adults to consider becoming organ donors as there is such a great need and in our case, we found it comforting to know that something positive came out of our tragedy.

In a Heartbeat is a real story of self-discovery for both Amelia and Eagan. What epiphanies about life do you think they realize throughout the novel?
Both girls come to realize how precious life is and what a gift it is – Amelia knew this before because of her illness, but she didn’t really know how to live because she’d missed out on so much of life. Eagan took it all for granted because she had such a full life.

Tell us a bit about the research you while working on this novel. What did you learn that most surprised you?
I spoke to organ recipients and transplant coordinators and nurses, and I read a great deal about organ transplants. I was surprised to learn that some recipients do claim to experience changes in their personalities and have memories that weren’t there before and some have instinctively known the first name of their donor without being told. Others have had dreams where they’ve seen their donor. I don’t think we can discount those people or their experiences; this is something that requires more research. Continue reading