Category Archives: Challenges



Donna Jo Napoli is a writer I’ve been meaning to read for some time. Since I’m participating in the Twisted Fairy Tale Challenge, and Napoli has written many such stories, it would have been a shame not to read one of her books for the challenge. I chose Bound. It was a tight race between this one and Hush, which has one of the most gorgeous covers I’ve seen of late. See:


So beautiful (sigh). But back to Bound. Here we have a Cinderella story, set in Ancient China. Xing Xing (pronounce “Shing Shing”) lives with her Stepmother and half-sister, Wei Ping, after the death of her beloved father. Xing Xing’s Stepmother is a thoroughly nasty, entirely self-absorbed woman (of course), and Xing Xing lives a life of servitude, with little hope for the future. She is bright, with a gift for poetry and calligraphy, and has a kind heart and quiet strength. Much of Xing Xing’s time is spent caring for Wei Ping, who suffers a great deal due to her foot bindings, kept on at her mother’s insistence, since according to custom, Wei Ping’s prospect for a good marriage depends on the shape and size of her feet. Xing Xing is spared this painful tradition since she is as good as a slave in her home. You won’t find a fairy godmother in this story, but you will encounter a magical carp and a pair of golden slippers. It is Xing Xing’s forbearance, loyalty and courage that leads her towards freedom and a promising future.

All three women in this story are trapped in some way. Xing Xing is held down by her cruel Stepmother. Wei Ping cannot walk because of her mutilated, bound feet. While Stepmother is by anyone’s definition, a twisted woman, the death of Xing Xing’s father means that the family’s circumstances are precarious. The Stepmother is a nut job, but she is just as captive to the norms and expectations of society as her daughters. She has to find Wei Ping a suitable husband. Xing Xing is bound to her family in ways that hurt and limit her, but at the same time, she finds strength and support in her devotion and connection to the spirit of her ancestors, particularly her mother. I like how readers are left to consider at the end of the story if Xing Xing is simply trading one form of servitude for another, in this case, a royal marriage. The themes of captivity, loyalty and ancestry are  inter-related in though-provoking ways in Napoli’s story.

Xing Xing is one of those entirely independent, clever and resilient heroines that readers will root for and remember. Her desire to take risks to create the future she wants makes her feel surprisingly modern, and makes her a character that teens can learn from. My first encounter with Napoli leaves me eager for another.


Wildwood Dancing

wildwood.jpg If, like me, you’ve had Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing buried deep in your To Be Read pile, listen up:

“Get it outta there and start reading!”

Inspired by Squeaky Books’ Twisted Fairy Tale Challenge, I just finished Wildwood Dancing and boy was it a delight from beginning to end. Marillier’s story is based on the fairy tale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses. If this story is unknown to you, best pick up some version to read before you start Marillier’s book, as I think the reading experience is richer if you know the original tale. In 2 sentences, a summary: 12 princesses are locked in their chamber every night, but they steal away to dance in a magical realm. No one can figure out their secret until a humble gardener finds a way to follow them, and wins the heart of the youngest princess and the blessing of the king. Marillier has taken this story and made it very much her own. She sets the novel in Romania, on an estate called Piscul Dracului, where 5 sisters live with their ailing father. Every full moon, the sisters pass through a portal in their bedroom to a Dancing Glade in the Other Kingdom, a fairy land that is mysterious, beautiful and slightly menacing. Their monthly adventures are more or less secret, and remain so, for a time. When their father’s illness forces him to leave Piscul Dracului for a milder climate, they are left to care for the estate under the watchful eye of their cousin, Cezar, who becomes an ever more domineering and power-hungry presence. 16-year old Jenica is the heroine of the story, as she soon becomes the one person upon whom the sisters’ future in the Other Kingdom and their own world, depends. Toss in Jena’s unusual froggy companion, Gogu, and the complicating fact that Tatiana, the eldest sister, has fallen in love with a mysterious and potentially dangerous young man from the Other Kingdom, and you’ve got plenty to keep the pages turning.

In the hands of a lesser author, there might be too much on the go in this novel. There are 2 settings, lots of characters to flesh out, and at least 3 interwoven story lines at play. Marillier succeeds quite well in all of these areas. I liked that the main characters were complex. Even Cezar, selfish and brutish as he is, is not wholly unsympathetic. Jenica is very much coming of age. She makes mistakes, doesn’t always think things through, and has to figure out that life is often about sacrifice. My only quibble: the younger sisters were more in the background, and could have been better developed, which would have made the sisterly relationship more powerful.

This is a book I wish all fans of Stephanie Meyer’s series – Twilight, New Moon & Eclipse – would pick up, because it has everything those books have (thwarted love affairs, dark magic, deep secrets) without all of that over-the-top, heavy-breathing ,”I cannot live without your icy lips pressed against mine” business. It’s beautifully crafted, with well-drawn characters so that you never feel stuck inside of a good vs. evil fairy tale struggle. I imagine that readers who enjoy Shannon Hale’s writing will find Wildwood Dancing entirely yummy. And, good news! Juliet Marillier has a second book coming in September, involving Paula, the brainiest of the Wildwood girls. Visit Juliet for a hint of what’s to come.

A few other blog reviews for you:

Reader Rabbit
Bookwyrm Chrysalis
bookshelves of doom
Kids Lit
and from Miss Erin, but over at:
WORD: The blog of READ and WRITING magazine

Twisted Fairy Tale Challenge


OK. I know. I said there would be no more signing up for challenges. Well… I lied. Here’s why:

1) Enna Isilee over at Squeaky Books came up with a practically irresistible challenge premise: Twisted Fairy Tales. You read 4 (or more) Twisted Fairy Tales by May 5 /08. They can be books that are not strictly twisted Fairy Tales, but have Fairy Tale elements or themes (like Into the Wild).

2) I was already planning to read 2 fairy-tale-ish books in the next little while (A Curse Dark as Gold / Into the Wild) so I might as well get credit for them… right?

3) She made the prettiest banners that totally match my blog and I had to have one to call my very own.

Enough justification! I am a grown-up reader so I can do whatever I want (so there!). I’m having trouble choosing my 4 books though. 2 are for certain:

A Curse Dark as Gold – Elizabeth Bunce
Into the Wild – Sarah Beth Durst

So… what else:

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How ever will I choose from among all of these very girly delights? I’m not thinking that this challenge is going to help much with my “read more books by and about men” reading goal for 2008. Oh well.



Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira-kira is one of those books that I’ve felt guilty about for quite a while. It’s been on my “I really should read that” list for what feels like forever, so the Expanding Horizons Challenge finally inspired me to make it happen. I read Cracker for the Cybils MG Panel this year, and enjoyed it so much that I had high expectations for Kadohata’s first, Newbery-winning book.

Just about everyone and their dog has already read this book, so it feels goofy to summarize it here. However, for the uninitiated few, here it is in a couple of sentences. In the 1950s, the Takeshimas, a Japanese-American family, move from Iowa to Georgia where Mr. Takeshima begins working in a hatchery. The story follows the struggle of all of the family members as they work to grasp their meagre piece of the American dream. The novel is mostly about the profound relationship between Lynn, the elder sister, and Katie, the younger. From the start, Katie more or less worships Lynn, who is wise, kind and beautiful. When Lynn becomes seriously ill, the family’s future becomes all the more uncertain. 

This would be a difficult book for a kid to summarize. The narrative is not a series of clearly linked events. It follows childhood memories, in the way that an adult would remember them, drifting from one to the next in a loose, but chronological, chain. Katie narrates the story, and her childish voice seems true and direct. Almost immediately, it’s pretty clear to the reader that there is no happy ending coming your way. This makes the book compelling, in that “I know something sad is going to happen here” sort of way. I was drawn into the story.

There are kids out there who like to read tragic books (in part explaining the tremendous interest many children show in Holocaust literature). Kira-Kira is a book for this child, because man, is it sad. A lot of hard topics stare you right in the face in this novel: racism, unjust working conditions, poverty, terminal illness. At the same time, it teaches in a subtle way about responsibility, grace, hope and courage in everyday life, and in the choices we make as friends, family and community members.

I don’t think this is a book for every young reader or teen. It’s not easy to read. It’s not a book that most boys would give the time of day to. It isn’t exactly packed with page-turning action. It’s a book for thinkers. It’s a book for contemplating. I can imagine that it could be a strong book for a girls’ reading group, or a literature circle, as I think that the true depth of the story would best be appreciated in discussion. I do think that some children will not be able to tackle it, however, as it will prove too depressing or too slow-moving to keep them turning the pages. This isn’t a book likely to sell itself, but when it finds its way into the right hands, I imagine that its hidden beauties will shine through. 

Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood


I’d certainly heard a lot about this title in advance of picking it up. Fuse 8 sung its praises in a review in the fall, and at the end of her review, offered many excellent related links that anyone who has read the book will enjoy: SLJ author interview, video links, even a link to book-inspired recipes. The memoir is also an MG/YA Nonfiction Cybils Finalist this year.

In brief, Ibtisam Barakat is a Palestinian writer, and in Tasting the Sky, she recounts her childhood in her war-torn country. She writes about the Six-Day War and its aftermath, and describes so many unbelievable hardships that she and her family experienced during this time. Barakat’s writing has been described by many reviewers as poetic, spare and eloquent, and I must agree. This is an easy memoir to read for its accomplished prose, which is a blessing, as the subject is at times desperately sad. I could name many features of this text that were moving and powerful, however, I especially believed in the childlike perspective Barakat crafted here. I put down her story feeling as if I had seen what a child had seen in war. Barakat manages to write in the voice of her childhood self. This makes her story all the more compelling and quite heart-breaking.

You would be forgiven for imagining that this is not an easy read for a young person. This is true, but I found a great deal of hope in Tasting the Sky. In spite of living during terrible circumstances, this family does know contentment and love. Barakat grows up to become an advocate for social justice, and this fact demonstrates her profound belief and faith in humanity’s power to change injustice to understanding. This is not a story of despair.

Barakat’s story is also about the power of writing to mend broken pasts. At the end of her memoir, she writes an ode of sorts to Alef, the first letter in the Arabic alphabet. I loved this stanza:

Alef knows
That a thread
Of a story
Stitches together
A wound

At the end of her book, Barakat offers a collection of resources for readers who wish to learn more about the issues related to her story. All of her suggestions interest me, but I took a look at one in particular, the website for the film: “Promises”. I’m going to try to seek out this documentary because it looks incredible. I imagine that it covers a lot of the same ground as Deborah Ellis’s controversial book, Three Wishes.

I didn’t read books like this when I was a kid, other than The Diary of Anne Frank, which affected me more powerfully than perhaps any other childhood book. I didn’t grow up in a family where politics or world issues were talked about around the dinner table. The opportunity for young people to glimpse the challenges that other children face, and the courage and fear that they feel in such circumstances, is one that kids deserve. Tasting the Sky is a book I would like many young people to read and to talk about together.

The Plain Janes


Just finished the first book for one of my 2 Reading Challenges this year. Cecil Castellucci’s The Plain Janes lets me cross off one title from my What’s in a Name? challenge list. So satisfying – the crossing off the list, and the book too, as it happens.

A few cool things about this read:

1) It is a finalist for a Cybils award in the Graphic Novel category.

2) It is a Minx book, the groovy imprint of DC Comics. (I feel super edgy just having the book lying next to me on my desk).

3) When I opened it up (fresh from my local library), a fortune fell out (To have peace is to increase fortune and longevity). I thought that was pretty fantastic, and it made me want to get a fortune in every book I read.

4) The book is cousin to Kiki Strike and Alice, I Think (2 of my favorites) – all about the perils of being an artsy (OK… nerdy) individual in high school, and the power of the right tribe to make those years bearable.

Jane and her parents are recent arrivals in suburbia. Jane is miserable, but her parents are relieved to escape the increased violence in Metro City, especially since Jane was hurt in one of the recent acts of violence. At first, Jane decides she’s not going to engage with anyone at Buzz Aldrin High. She just wants to be alone, because alone is easy and safe. Eventually, however, Jane finds a crew of other Janes, and through art, finds a way to connect with her new friends and the community she first disparaged.

Castellucci has produced a tight text, with conflicts that feel real and characters you believe in, and want to know more about. Jim Rugg’s graphics are clean and understated – a natural match for Castellucci’s story. And there’s quite a lot you could talk about in a YA book group with this title: what it means to be “cool”, art in everyday life, the importance of community and risk-taking.

True confessions: I was probably Brain Jane in High School (who’s kidding, I know I was Brain Jane because I took the Plain Jane Quiz to confirm). I wasn’t edgy or cool but if this book had been around in my torturous high school years, and some awesome librarian or bookseller had put it in my hands, I would have cheered and felt hopeful that maybe there was a place for me in the world beyond the cafeteria after all. I hope present-day brainiacs are lucky enough to meet all of the Janes.

What’s in a Name?: Reading Challenge #2


Apparently I’ve been sleeping under a rock and so was unaware of the crazily addictive presence of “Reading Challenges.” I had no idea what challenges were all about until a week ago, and now, I am beginning to recognize their strange power. (For anyone else out there who also happens to be living under a proverbial rock, a reading challenge is an online event organized by a mastermind, in which people commit to reading a certain number of books connected to a particular theme, in a given amount of time. Often there is a blog associated with the challenge where participants post reviews of the books they read, and find out about what everyone else has read too).

For starters, I am a list girl. I enjoy making lists. Lists please me. They often lend shape, control and purpose to my busy life. Lists are good. I also like goals. And so it would seem that Reading Challenges were created for me. I can also imagine that it would be easy to let Reading Challenges take over your reading life, sucking all spontaneity from your reading experiences. This sounds supremely unfortunate to me. I was checking out a few book blogs yesterday, and one blogger was bemoaning the fact that she couldn’t get a grip on all of the titles she needed to read for all of her challenges, and she longed for a day when she might just pick up a book she liked because she felt like it, not because it was a title she needed to cross off her list. Sad, so sad.

With this caveat in mind, I have been careful not to jump all over any and every groovy looking challenge I’ve found over the past couple of days. I have decided to take on one more challenge this year (in addition to the Expanding Horizons Challenge I settled on first). I couldn’t really resist this one, since it is so quirky and it came from a 10 year old’s brain. Cool, yes? The What’s in a Name? challenge, created by Annie, involves selecting 6 books to read in 2008 with particular words in their titles: a colour, a first name, a plant, a place, an animal, and a weather event.

I wanted all of the books for this challenge to be for kids, teens or crossover titles. Now I haven’t settled 100% on the following books, but I think most are here to stay:

1. The Red Necklace – Sally Gardner

2. Becca at Sea – Deirdre Baker or The Plain Janes – Cecil Castellucci

3. Sacred Leaf – Deborah Ellis

4. Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood – Ibtisam Barakat

5. The White Giraffe – Lauren St. John

6. Heat – Mike Lupica

I’m happy with all of these, but had to dig pretty deep for an animal title. Any other suggestions for a book with an animal in the title (or in any of the other categories for that matter)?

No more challenges. No more.

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.