10/30/14

Disability in recent Middle Grade and YA Speculative Fiction --a (short) list

In the last few months, I read six middle grade fantasy (loosely defined) books in which a major character has a disability.  This is noteworthy, because in the previous seven years I had read only 2 that I reviewed (though it's quite possible there were others that I have forgotten...), and it actually gave me enough books to make a decent, though still short, list of books in which a major protagonist has a disability in recent Middle Grade and Young Adult fantasy.  Please share other books that I have missed! (I'm pretty good on Middle Grade, but not so well read in YA).


Realistic disabilities in fantastical worlds:

For readers younger and older than 12ish:

El Deafo, by Cece Bell (2014)  A graphic novel for the younger reader, about a bunny-eared girl who becomes deaf at the age of four, and has to deal with that complication on top of the general complications of being a kid wanting good friends.   Spec. fic. by virtue of the bunny ears.

The Iron Trial, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare (2014).   The protagonist, attending a school of magic, has a leg that was broken and healed badly, leaving him with a debilitating limp.  This is not the point of the book, but it is convincingly shown as a part of his life that he has to deal with.

Handbook For Dragon Slayers, by Merrie Haskell (2013) Princess Tilda, born with a painful clubfoot, and her friends set off to become dragon slayers.  This was the first fantasy novel to win  the Schneider Family Book Award (Middle Grades) in 2014.

Two I haven't yet reviewed because of not  having gotten to them yet--Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, by Greg Leitich Smith (2014), in which a main character has a prosthetic leg, and The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier (2014), in which the little brother has a painfully twisted leg.

Also in this category go four that I haven't reviewed, in part (the amount of part varies) because I personally found their portrayals of disability unsatisfying:

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, by Jonathan Auxier (2012).   Peter is blind, but has magical eyes.

Fleabrain Loves Franny, by Joanne Rocklin (2014). A flea befriends a girl who's a victim of polio, and takes her on magical adventures (going so far as to fly around the world with her). 

Game World, by Christopher John Farley (2014)   One of the main characters uses a wheelchair.  It must be the most magical wheelchair ever, because he goes over a waterfall and then falls out of a tree in it, with no effects to either chair or self, and with only a little help he traverses jungle and visits sundry fantastical settings that don't present issues of wheelchair accessibility.

The Zoo at the Edge of the World, by Eric Kahn Gale (2014).  The main character in this 19th century historical fantasy set in a zoo in  stutters so severely he can barely communicate with words; he can, however, speak with animals.. 

For readers older than 12ish:

The Demon's Lexicon (2009), The Demon's Covenant (2010) and The Demon's Surrender (2011).  Alan, a central character, has a badly damaged leg.

Dragonswood, by Janet Lee Carey (2012)  Tess, the main character, is deaf in one ear as the result of her father's abuse.

The heroine of Bleeding Violet, by Dia Reeves (2010),  must deal with schizophrenia as the icing on the cake of a supernatural bloodbath.

Bone and Jewel Creatures, by Elizabeth Bear.  The feral child at the heart of the story had an amputated hand replaced by one of bone and jewels.

The Drowned Cities, by Paulo Bacigalupi (2012).   Mahlia, the daughter of a Chinese peacekeeper and a Drowned Cities woman, became a despised outcast when the Chinese withdrew and her father left. She escaped into the jungle but lost her hand to one bloodthirsty faction in the process.

There's also Dangerous, by Shannon Hale (2014), in which the main character was born with only one hand.


Fantastical disabilities in fantastical worlds (all of these are YA):

One thing about talking about "disability" in speculative fiction is that there exists a range of fantastical physical differences that don't fall under the rubric of things people in real life have to deal with.

For instance, having bits of your body be bits of dragon-- Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman (2012), which isn't so bad if it's just scales, but a dragon tail is a serious disability,  and Dragonskeep, by Janet Lee Carey (which I should review someday...) in which main character has a dragon talon in place of a finger.

Or having strange and awful and amazing mutations, as is the case of the characters in Above, by Leah Bobet (2012).

And then there are twists of disability/ability, like instead of a regular human arm, having a hand made of psychic energy as in Ghost Hand, by Ripley Patton (2012). 

{I wondered briefly if being undead, and having to cope with bits of your body falling off, etc., counted as a fantastical disability, but I decided to draw the line so as to exclude zombies, even though a good zombie book can be a powerful exploration of physical difference......}

10/29/14

Space Case, by Stuart Gibbs--a fun sci-fi murder mystery for the young reader

Space Case, by Stuart Gibbs (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Sept. 2014)

The Official Residents' Guide to Moon Base Alpha reassures the "lunernauts" who will make it their temporary home that everything will be just peachy keen and full of "pleasant surprises!"  It says nothing about murder.....

12-year old Dash (short for Dashiell) was unenthusiastic from the get-go about his parents and his little sister Violet leaving Hawaii for the moon.  And after a few months there, he knew for a fact that life in Moon Base Alpha sucked, for many, many reasons, not least of them being the packaged "chicken parmegiana" that drove him from sleeping space (cramped and uncomfortable) to the communal toilets (hideous torture devices) on night.  And it was there, in the small hours of the morning, that Dash was an unwilling eavesdropper on the excited conversation Dr. Holtz was having about a big announcement he was going to make the next morning.

Only next morning, Dr. Holtz was dead--a visit outside the base to the surface of the moon suffocated him.

Dash can't shake his feeling that Dr. Holtz was murdered.  But none of the grown-ups are taking him seriously...and the base commander becomes downright hostile.  But the next shipment of lunernauts brings a woman who shares Dash's suspicions, and who encourages him to keep investigating, and it also brings a plucky, smart girl sidekick who figures out what Dash is up to.

Slowly it becomes clear that Dr. Holtz was not university loved, as more and more of the secrets kept by the moon base residents are revealed (and they are a fine, varied cast of characters--not many of them, because there aren't many people up there, but enough to spread suspicion around nicely!).  But still there's doubt--Dr. Holtz wasn't necessarily sane.  Was his death really murder, and if so, whodunnit?

And, then, as the tension mounts-- will Dash and his plucky girl sidekick be victims themselves????

It is a really satisfying realistic sci-fi story, with excellent lunar base world-building, and a pretty good mystery too, and I can't think of a better book to offer young speculative fiction readers (10 and 11 year olds) looking to venture into those sub-genres. 

There are funny bits--chapters begin with excerpts from the promotional guide book, and I loved little sister Violet's obsession with her Squirrel Force show.  There were scary bits--the final showdown was full of sci-fi tension.    I am not qualified to be a critic of  mysteries, because of not reading them Critically, but this one pleased me (except I was left confused about the logistics of it). 

I am a little uncertain about the twist at the very end...it abruptly made a book that was pretty much 100% probable a lot less believable, but on the other hand, it opened the door to vast new realms of sci-fi possibility....

So yes, my 11 year old and I both read it avidly, and both enjoyed it lots.  We agreed that Dash was not the most interesting character we'd ever read (though a perfectly relatable, believable 12 year old boy), but the story carried him (and us) along so nicely that that didn't bother us.  That being said, we liked Kira, the sidekick, better, and would have liked her to get a bit more page time.

The cover might make it a bit of a hard sell- it doesn't look that fun (unless you look at it closely enough to see all the space-suited people are holding signs identifying them as suspects!).  But "kid figuring out a murder on the moon" is a pretty good hook....and once they start, they'll keep reading.

(I was happy to be able to count this as one for my list of multicultural spec fic-- for kid's in Dash's generation, it's uncommon to have friends who are pure white.   Dash's own mom is black, and his dad's white, and the rest of the bunch on the moon, with the exception of a Scandinavian family who are uber-rich, uber-obnoxious, and fish belly pale (Dash's words), are pretty much a mix.  And Dash's mom is a lunar geologist--so yay for a future in which black women scientist moms are perfectly normal.)

(side note re: Squirrel Force-- squirrels are showing up everywhere in my reading.  It is sinister.  For instance, in El Deafo, little rabbit girl Cece is given a book called "The Meanest Squirrel Ever."  There are at least two obvious squirrel books on the Elementary/Middle Grade Spec. Fic. list of Cybils books, and probably more in hiding....is this the "Flora and Ulysses" effect at work???? or simply that October was Squirrel Awarness Month, not to be confused with Squirrel Appreciation Day, which comes later, in January.  What ever the reason, I am aware...very, nervously, aware...)

10/27/14

Hades Speaks! by Vicky Alvear Shecter

Hades Speaks! by Vicky Alvear Shecter (Boyds Mills Press, Sept. 2014)  is the second installment of a series revealing the Secrets of the Ancient Gods (the first being Anubis Speaks!).    It is a non-fiction tour of the Greek underworld, with Hades himself serving as guide--one with more than a bit of attitude.

For Hades, with good reason, has a chip on his shoulder that's more a plank--Zeus is undeniably not the baby brother anyone would want, and being lord of the Underworld has considerably less pizzazz than throwing thunderbolts around from the top of Mount Olympus (and poor Hades' planet Pluto lost its planetary status; at least he can take some comfort from that fact that Jupiter is just a big ball of hot gas....)

So Hades, grumpy, defensive, and rather, um, dark describes the places and people of his realm (with a brief interjection from his wife, Persephone).  Stories of the various mythological visitors, and residents, of the Underworld are interspersed with the descriptions of its geographical features; I myself found the introductions to the dead Greek philosophers a nice touch (you don't hear much about them in other books about Greek mythology!)

Although Hades is something of a one-note grouchy pants, the use of contemporary allusions and idioms makes his voice one that should go down very easily indeed for the target audience--kids who prefer their mythology with a bit of modern edge to it, and who aren't necessarily die-hard Percy Jackson fans yet! 

disclaimer:  review copy received courtesy of the author


10/26/14

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (10/26/14)

Winter is coming; my little hands are quite chilly as I type.  But I have bravely carried on regardless, and here is this week's round-up (please let me know if I missed your post!)

The Reviews:

Alias Men (Double Vision 3), by F.T. Bradley, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Books of Elsewhere (series review), by Jacqueline West, at Michelle I. Mason

The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, at Fantasy Literature

Doll Bones, by Holly Black, at The Secret Files of Fairday Morrow

Dreamer, Wisher, Liar, by Charise Mericle Harper, at Semicolon

The Eye of Zoltar, by Jasper Fforde, at Charlotte's Library

The Forbidden Flats (Sky Jumpers Book 2), by Peggy Eddleman, at Becky's Book Reviews

Frostborn, by Lou Anders, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

The Glass Sentence, by S.E. Grove, at Parenthetical

Grave Images, by Jenny Goebel, at Semicolon

The Iron Trial, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, at On Starships and Dragonwings

The Lost Planet, by Rachel Searles, at Semicolon

Lug, Dawn of the Ice Age, by David Zetlser, at Tales From the Raven

Magic in the Mix, by Annie Barrows, at Becky's Book Reviews

The Magic Thief (series review) by Sarah Prineas at alibrarymama

The Map to Everywhere, by Carrie Ryan and JP David, at Hidden in Pages

Minion, by John David Anderson, at Book Nut

Monsterific Tales Books 5 and 6 (The Gloomy Ghost and The Bully Bug) by David Lubar at This Kid Reviews Books

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier, at Becky's Book Reviews

Oliver and the Seawigs, by Philip Reeve, at Semicolon

OMG...Am I a Witch? by Talia Aikens-Nunez, at Charlotte's Library

Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain, by Richard Roberts, at Nayu's Reading Corner

Rose and the Magician's Mask, by Holly Webb, at In Bed With Books

Scavanger: Zoid, by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, at The Book Zone (For Boys)

Smasher, by Scott Bly, at Always in the Middle

TodHunter Moon: Pathfinder by Angie Sage, at Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books

The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex, at alibrarymama

The Whispering Skull, by Jonathan Stroud, at By Singing Light

Wish You Weren't, by Sherrie Petersen, at Charlotte's Library

Geo Librarian looks at two by Dan Pobloki --The Ghost of Graylock and The Haunting of Gabriel Ashe

And another two at alibrarymama-  The Accidental Keyhand (Ninja Librarians 1) and The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw

Authors and Interviews

Sage Blackwood (Jinx) at Tatum Flynn's blog

Kell  Andrews (Deadwood) talks about diversity at Diversity in YA

David Zeltser (Lug, Dawn of the Ice Age) at Cynsations

Amie Borst (co-author along with Bethanie Borst of Little Dead Riding Hood) at From the Mixed-Up Files

Claudia White (Aesop's Secret and The Key to Kashdune) at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

Other Good Stuff

The Kirkus Prize for Young People's Literature has gone to Aviary Wonders Inc. (which is also the first picture book to be a contender in Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction for the Cybils)

A lovely long list of fairy tales old and new at The Horn Book.

And four beautifully creepy story collections at Great Kid Books

"The Percy Jackson Problem" discussed in The New Yorker

Attn. Diana Wynne Jones fans--next week is Witch Week, a DWJ celebration, at The Emerald City Book Review

School Library Journal and We Need Diverse Books are now collaborating; click through to find out how.

And you can join in supporting WNDB intivitavies via their Indigo campaign.

Publishers Weekly takes a look at sci fi/fantasy, and asks "How Multicultural Is Your Multiverse?"

The universe of Disney heroines is set to get more multicultural in 2016--Moana is a navigator from Oceania, who sets out on a fantastical voyage with a demigod (more here at CNN)

And finally, on Halloween Pottermore is going to release a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbrage.

And even more finally, for anyone having a hard sad week--therapy oysters.  Because you can never have too many therapy oysters.

10/25/14

El Deafo, by Cece Bell, or why assuming that an 11-year-old boy wants only "books for 11 year old boys" is kind of pointless

I have an 11-year-old son who is fan of fantasy--a Ranger's Apprentice, Percy Jackson, kind of reader.  Which is just fine--it means that a lot of the middle grade fantasy books I get end up in his room, a help viz shelf space.   So what is his favorite book so far this year? A graphic novel about a rabbit girl who is quite a bit younger than him, and deaf, that isn't fantasy at all except for the rabbit ears.

I had been reading El Deafo, by Cece Bell (Harry N. Abrams, Sept. 2014), for my own reading pleasure, which was considerable--it is a deeply absorbingly warm and relatable book for anyone who has felt different and wanted friends.   And the story of how little rabbit child Cece coped with being especially different after losing her hearing, and how she found her way in the world of school and friends is great and the narrative voice is just right as is the pacing etc etc.  In short, I liked it lots.

And there it was on the sofa (cunningly left there as child book bait), and my son saw it, and picked it up, assuming it's fantasy (flying rabbit girl on the cover) and read the back, criticizing apparent redundancy in the summary: "This funny....memoir about growing up hearing impaired is also an unforgettable book about growing up" and then commented on the weirdness of the rabbit children....but then he started to read.

There are few things that I love to see more than one of my children reading a book they love.  This particular child sits up straighter when he's loving a book, holding it gently but firmly with both hands--you can just see Active Engagement pouring out of him.   Emotions flicker across his face.  He no longer hears external sounds.  He is Reading.

So he finished in a single sitting.  "We are keeping this one," he said. "I love it."

"It is a library book," I said.

[deep dismay]

"But we can buy our own copy."

"Yes!"

So yeah, don't assume 11 year old boys won't read books about little rabbit girls; 6th grade boys worry about friendships too, and being different, and growing up. And 11-year-old boys can be full as all get out with empathy for kids who aren't like them--look at the success of Wonder.   And in these things they are just like rabbit girls, deaf or not.

10/23/14

OMG...Am I a Witch?! by Talia Aikens-Nunez

OMG...Am I a Witch?! by Talia Aikens-Nunez (Pinwheel Books, October 2013) is, a fine choice for the 8 or 9  year old girl who loves dogs (especially small white fluffy ones), thinks it would be fun to have a magical powers, and who isn't quite ready for bigger, more complex books.

April, justifiably annoyed by her older brother, Austin, searches the internet for a spell to turn him into a dog.  And much to her surprise, it works!  Now instead of a bothersome brother, she has a fluffy white dog, whose justifiably annoyed at her!  In the course of the breathless OMG hours of text messages, desperate plotting, secretive sleepovers, and google searches that follow, April and her friends Grace and Eve have to figure out how to turn Austin back...and keep April's parents from finding out.

It's one I think has a lot of appeal for its target audience...and not quite so much appeal for older readers, who might want more of the backstory to the magic (April's new gift is not given much page time, what with all the shenanigans of Austin's dogginess), and it's not desperately complex in terms of plot.    On the plus side, though, it has a nice emphasis on friends helping each other, offers a relatable look at sibling tensions, and the magic (though not fully developed) is entertaining.

Short answer- if they like the cover, they'll like the book!   

disclaimer: review copy received from the author

10/22/14

The Eye of Zoltar, by Jasper Fforde

The Eye of Zoltar, by Jasper Fforde (HMH Books for Young Readers, upper middle grade, Oct. 2014 in the US) is the third book about an alternate United Kingdom that's totally dis-united into a mishmash of principalities, and in which magic and mayhem and mythical creatures are very, very real.  The main character is a 16-year-old orphan named Jennifer, who is the glue holding together a somewhat creaky establishment of professional magic users.  In this installment, Jennifer finds herself burdened with a somewhat impossible task--she must find the mythical Eye of Zoltar (a stone of tremendous magical power) or else the last two dragons face death at the hands of an malignant and impossibly wealthy sorcerer.  

The trail to the Eye of Zoltar leads to the Cambrian mountains, and in this world the only tourists who venture there are those for whom the risk of death adds to the rustic charm ("jeopardy tourism" sustains the Cambrian economy).  Since Jennifer and her companions (her almost boyfriend, Perkins, the young dragon Colin, and a snooty princess who's been magically swapped into a serving maid's body to teach her a lesson) are more or less sensible people, they would rather not risk dying....but they don't have much choice.

Wild adventure follows wilder one as they journey through the deadly Cambrian Empire.  But their young guide (a plucky 12 year old girl with deadly skills and an impressive resume of tourist survival) calculates their odds as a 50% rate of death...and encumbers them with three thrill-seeking tourists to provide warm bodies for the statistics to chew on.    And monsters are faced, spells are cast, the princess shows that she is more than just a pretty very plain serving girl's face (she has a head for finance that's almost magical itself--goat futures, for instance, have never been so entertainingly brought to life in a fantasy novel), and then there's a crashing cliffhanger of an ending.

So basically this is one of those books that's a collection of fantasy bon mots for the mind, a smorgasbord for the imagination, with the Eye of Zoltar serving as the McGuffin that gets things going (aside--I just learned that without Alfred Hitchcock, we might have been stuck with the word "weenie" to describe this sort of plot device.  Thanks, Alfred!).   Many of the bits of imagination are lovely--I utterly adored the messenger snails, for instance.   And the transformation of the princess into a likable character was tremendously enjoyable.

But those looking for rich, moving, characterization and story might be disappointed--the characters aren't allowed to feel much of anything emotionally, even under difficult circumstances, and so the reader isn't given a chance to either.    Book 1, The Last Dragonslayer, is brilliant (and I really truly recommend it),  Book 2 was just fine,  and this one was fun its own, somewhat Bitty, way.   That being said, I have high hopes for book 4--the set up for that is eyebrow-raising to say the least.

So in general I liked it well enough, but it wasn't quite the book I was hoping it would be.  And there were two things that annoyed me more than somewhat.

Thing that annoyed me professionally:  Australopithecines did not make beautifully knapped flint knives with bone handles.   If you are going to turn a character into an Australopithecine, read up about the subject first.

Thing that annoyed me (much more) because it smacked of racist colonialist attitudes and left a bad taste in my mouth:  the description of some of the indigenous Hotax persons of Cambria as "like humans, only stockier and with broader, flatter heads" (page 223).   Can't we just leave descriptions like that back in the 20th century?????

Thoughts on age of reader:

This is a series that straddles the middle grade/YA line.  Kirkus has it as 12 and up, but School Library journal pegs it as ages 9-12, and it's a Junior Library Guild Selection for that age group.   I am in the middle grade camp, myself.  Yes, Jennifer is 16 and she has a boy friend, but Luv is not front and center (there's just one kiss) and we barely see any emotional involvement, and what we do see is somewhat superficial.   And the dangerous adventure fun with bonus deaths/disasters is at the middle grade level (touched on with a light hand, and not such as would cause emotional trauma in the young, unless the reader is the sort of young who resents characters being killed off with no emotional weight given to their passing).  I can easily imagine a reader who thinks they are getting a YA book not being best pleased.  On the other hand, an 11 or 12 year old fantasy reader would quite possibly love it for what it is, and enjoy the bonus zest of feeling like they are reading "up."

Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

10/21/14

Wish You Weren't, by Sherrie Petersen, for Timeslip Tuesday

Wish You Weren't, by Sherrie Petersen (Create Space, March 2014).  (nb:  I was surprised just now, putting in the publishing information, to see that this was a self-published book--it struck me as perfectly professional in packaging and edited, so have no worries on that account).

Marten is fed up with his parents' plan to move to Texas, with the way they ignore him in favor of his little brother Aldrin, and most of all, he's fed up with Aldrin himself.  So when a shooting star whizzes by overhead, just after Aldrin inadvertently breaks his collectible Han Solo action figure, Marten lashes back--and wishes his brother wasn't there.

Nothing happens at first.  But the next day, in a museum gift shop, Marten watches as Aldrin vanishes before his eyes.  His wish has come true.

And in the confusion of search for Aldrin, Marten and his friend Paul are visited by a mysterious stranger, Tor, the personification of a star in the constellation of Orion.  Time stops for all those around them.  Tor has come to review Marten's wish (one he's already regretting, and which he'll regret more before things are done), and perhaps, if things go well, Tor can help Marten reverse it. 

So Marten and Paul are sent back in time, first as spectators of Marten's early life.  But Tor's grasp on time are weakening, and Marten and Paul find themselves actually travelling back to the recent past.  There they must use the power of wishing to set things right--or Aldrin will be lost for ever, and the lives of all involved will be irreversibly changed....

Petersen ratchets up the tension very nicely indeed as Marten and Paul progress from passive spectators of the past to desperate adventurers very much present in the past searching for the thing that can restore the present (and Aldrin).   And though I was somewhat taken aback by the arrival of the star dude (as one so often is when star dudes appear), Tor added both a fantastical element to the story and structure and impetus to the plot.   The result was a crisp story, rooted in reality but pleasingly interspersed with the impossible.

As an added bonus, Marten's mom is a scientist who's just been accepted into the astronaut training program--yay for moms breaking from stereotypes! 

It's a good one, I think, to offer to the older elementary school/younger middle school kid (ie, 9-10 years old) who likes reality twisted by unexpected, magical consequences. 

The one thing that kept me from personally loving the story is that Aldrin really is an utterly annoying child.  I am a middle child myself, and so I can, in general, sympathize with both oppressed younger siblings and much put upon older siblings.  Here my sympathies are entirely with Marten; I think Petersen went a bit too far with the awfulness of Aldrin.  He is a brat, and his parents need to work on effective disciplinary techniques (such as I practice in my own parenting life cough cough*).

(As far as I know (based on pictures) Sherrie Peterson is an author of color....I didn't find any descriptors of Marten and his family that made me think they were POC, but because of the author's picture, that's how I imagined them.   In any event, I've decided to make a new label for "diverse authors"--and I'm sure (not) that I will find the time any day now to go back through my almost 3000 posts to add this label when appropriate.  And I'm sure that it will be easy (not) to figure out which authors should be included!)

*just for the heck of it, here is my primary disciplinary technique--the bestowal of imaginary walruses on my children when they are good, and mass walrus death/departure when they are bad.  They are both down several million departed walruses each...

10/19/14

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction (10/19/14)

Another week, another round-up!  Please let me now if I missed your post.

The Reviews

The Boneshaker, by Kate Milford, at Dead Houseplants

The Boundless, by Kenneth Oppel, at Semicolon

The Double Disappearance of Walter Fozbek, by Steve Senn, at Views From the Tesseract

Dragon Spear, by Jessica Day George, at Lavender Likes, Loves, Finds & Dreams

The Eighth Day, by Dianne K. Salerni, at Semicolon

The Forbidden Flats, by Peggy Eddleman, at Jen Robinson's Book Review

The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm, at Sonderbooks

Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle, by George Hagen, at Semicolon

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at alibrarymama

I Lived on Buttefly Hill, by Marjorie Agosínat Charlotte's Library

The Iron Trial, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, at Miss Page-Turner's City of Books

The Junkyard Bot, by C. J. Richards, at Ms. Yingling Reads and BooksForKidsBlog

The League of Seven, by Alan Gratz, at Guys Lit Wire

Little Dead Riding Hood, by Amie and Bethanie Borst, at This Kid Reviews Books

The Magic Half, by Annie Barrows, at Becky's Book Reviews

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier, at Pages Unbound

Percy Jackson's Greek Gods, at Boys Rule Boys Read

The Shadow Throne, by Jennifer Nielsen, at Challenging the Bookworm

Space Case, by Stuart Gibbs, at Carstairs Considers

Tesla's Attic, by Neil Shusterman and Eric Elfman, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Thursdays with the Crown, by Jessica Day George, at On Starships and Dragonwings

Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, at Not Acting My Age

When Did You See Her Last? by Lemony Snickett, at The Novel Hermit

The Whispering Skull, by Jonathan Stroud, at Semicolon

The Worst Witch: To the Rescue, by Jill Murphy, at books4yourkids

Shortish looks at a pasel of MG series starters at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

And two at the NY Times--Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle, and Heap House


Authors and Interviews

M.A. Larson (Pennyroyal Academy) at The Book Cellar and The Hiding Spot

Kimberley Griffiths Little (Time of the Fireflys) at Cynsations

Jonathan Stroud (Lockwood and Co.) shares his writing space at The Social Potato


Other Good Stuff

Katherine Langrish re-reads The Silver Chair

We Need Diverse Books has launched the Walter Dean Myers Award for "published authors from diverse backgrounds who celebrate diversity in their writing."   Here's the Publishers Weekly annoucement

Where to find diverse books, at the We Need Diverse Books website

The Book Fair for Ballou Highschool is up and running again at Guys Lit Wire

And finally, Kidlitcon 2014 was a success, and the links to people's responses are being gathered here.  Please come to Baltimore next fall to continue the conversation!

10/18/14

I Lived On Butterfly Hill, by Marjorie Agosín--poetically written dictatorship and exile for the young reader

I Lived on Butterfly Hill, by Marjorie Agosín (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, middle grade, March 2014).

Eleven year-old Celeste Marconi lives on Butterfly Hill in Valaparaío, Chile, a place of color, community, and friends are anchored by the love of her family.  She is privileged, she is happy, and the new president of her country seems all set to work for social justice and address the poverty that Celeste's parents, who work in a hospital for the poor outside the city, are only just now showing her.

But change comes to Chile--the president is killed, and a cold and cruel dictatorial regime (modeled on that of Pinochet) takes over the country.  Celeste's parents must go into hiding before they join the rapidly growing ranks of the disappeared, and Celeste herself is sent to live with her aunt in Maine.  Plunged into a new language and new culture.  Her journey echoes that her grandmother made, when she, a Jewish girl, had to flee Nazi Germany--a story kids in the US who may not be up on fascists dictatorships of the later twentieth century will be familiar with, giving them a frame of reference in which to conceptualize Celeste's experiences.   As an exile in Maine, Celeste struggles to find her feet--and gradually she challenges the stereotypes her new classmates have about immigrants from Latin America, while thinking hard herself about what it is to be a refuge.  (And finding her first glimmerings of love--this small side story was beautifully poignant!).

In this story, the dictatorship last only two years, instead of seventeen, and Celeste can return home while still young.  Her home city is re-emerging from the darkness of the past two years, but many are still missing, including her parents.  And so the last third of the book tells the story of how she finds her father again, and finds a place where she too can work for social justice (by creating a library, building on the books that her grandmother gathered into the hidden room of their house during the years of the dictatorship).

I read this book because it was nominated in my own Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category of the Cybils.   Though it seems at first to be a realistic story, it's not, for two reasons.  First, it is an alternate history--for the story to work, the dictatorship in Chile could only last two years, instead of the seventeen of the actual Pinochet dictatorship.  Secondly, there is magic in this world, beyond the subtle dreams and understandings that defy rational thought, and this magic directly affects the plot.  Celeste's friend Cristóbal Williams has the ability to see past reality with the help of a sea-glass pendulum, which warns him of the darkness to come, and later helps find Celeste's father.    Cristóbal's pendulum adds a concrete element of the fantastic that nicely complements and reaffirms the more intangible magic that fills the ordinary lives of the characters. 

So this is an fine book to offer the introspective, strong young reader; an excellent "first experience with fictionalized dictatorships and being a refugee"  book, and an excellent "don't assume every refugee has the same story" book.  I enjoyed the reading of it very much.  The writing is lovely and absorbing, in a slowish, detail-packed way, and any introverted young girl who dreams of being a writer and making a difference in the world will love Celeste.  It is a meditative book, as opposed to an angry one, one in which the celebration of Celeste's home culture and place and poetry come through much more clearly than the horror of the dictatorship.  Celeste's suffering is pretty much confined to her personal loss of her parents, her beloved home, and, to a lesser extent, lost friends.  She is often sad, but never strongly enraged; she thinks about suffering and want, but is herself protected from these things.  

This is what makes me think of this as a "first experience" book, one that allows kids who themselves are privileged and safe to start thinking about hard things.  Though I appreciate the point made by Celeste's journey that there is no single, stereotypical refugee story, I was never quite convinced that she grew from a naïve, sheltered girl to someone dramatically more aware--I would have appreciated more hard, disturbing underlining of social justice issues.   And the dreamlike quality of the whole experience is enhanced by the somewhat idealized picture of American kids in Maine appearing (in their rather brief page time) first as racist despisers and then being given set pieces to speak showing how they now love Celeste for who she is.

Here's the rather small thing that most actively bothered me-- Celeste's new mission to promote literacy at the end of the book comes from her place of privilege--her family includes Nana Delfina, a Mapuche woman from the south of Chile who is the beloved factorum of the household, who has spent her life caring for Celeste's family.  I was really bothered that Nana Delfina refers to herself exclusively in the third person (why can't she be an "I"?) and that toward the end of the book she tells Celeste, who has always known Delfina was embarrassed that she couldn't read, that she has always wanted to learn how to do so.  There she is, part of the household for decades and apparently best friends with Celeste's grandma, but with relationships of privilege and identity unquestioned all that time.

And we are told that Cristóbal's mother makes a living with a vegetable stand in the market...but the (presumably) unequal economic positions of his family and Celeste's are never brought up directly, and so it made their friendship feel sort of uncritically idealized.

So no, I didn't find it as powerful and moving social justice-wise as I might have wanted, but then, I am not a ten or eleven year old coming to these topics for the first time, and small steps are a fine way to get started.   Perhaps it is better not to overwhelm young readers, but rather to keep them reading, and learning, and thinking....

Here's another review at The Pirate Tree, by Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of Gringolandia--the book to offer readers two years of so after they read this one!

And also at The Pirate Tree is an interview with Marjorie Agosín , in which she talks about history, magic, and her personal story.


10/16/14

Here is my Kidlitcon 2014 talk -- Finding Your Voice, Finding Your Passion- Blogging With Conviction

Here, more or less, is the talk I just gave at Kidlitcon 2014: "Finding Your Voice, Finding Your Passion- Blogging With Conviction."  It was better in person, because I made faces (and snarky asides) and varied my tone of voice, and because there were good, insightful, provocative comments from audience members, so this is basically a pale, cold shadow of the live version.  Which also had more pictures.

This session exists because I wanted there to be an offering on the program for newer bloggers, folks still finding their feet or looking for ideas on how to make blogging more interesting for themselves and their readers, and I wanted something that talked about Reviewing Books, because that is what we do.   It also exists because Voice and Authenticity and Conviction are things I often ponder with regard to my own blogging...
There are two parts to it--the first about voice, the second about conviction--but the transition is so beautifully fluid you might miss it.  I have put "THIS IS THE INTERESTING PART" when I get to conviction, so that if you are in a hurry, you can scroll down and find it.

***************************************

The Talk:

Blogging is weird, especially when you are starting out.  Unless you are using your blog as a reading diary for purely personal reasons, you type in hope that there is an audience, with little hard evidence to support this.  And there is your blog, your own little voice chirping in the wilderness. The point of this session, in my mind, is how to make that chirping more interesting both to you and to your audience.  Because if it’s not interesting there’s no point in writing it or reading it.
And I think the two things that makes blogs interesting, attracting lots of readers, are
--a distinctive voice,  one that conveys conviction and personality
--passionate intensity about either specific books, or about a larger category of books that fall into whatever category it is that you care about (like some aspect of diversity).
Keep in mind throughout that there is absolutely no need to have a single voice for every post, because different books call out different responses.  After all, you don’t want to take every book to bed with you.  Just a few of the most special ones.



Let us assume that we (mostly) review books so that other readers can find them, and that we want the voice we use to keep readers reading to the ends of our posts, so that they can decide if they should seek the book out themselves.  But keep in mind that different people have different needs with regard to book seeking.

--Sometimes there are people who don’t have 300 plus books on their tbr shelves, and they are looking for books they want to read for their own pleasure.  And sometimes there are sick addicts who have more than 300 books but who want more anyway (cough).

--Sometimes the target audience of your blog post is a gatekeeper—a grown-up with purchasing power who is going to give the book to others, with the “others” ranging from one child to a whole library system.

--Sometimes your target audience is the whole wide world, because you have Something to Say that needs to be said.
The type of reader you have in mind for your review is going to have an effect on the voice you use--such as friendly, knowledgeable, or full of emotional intensity.
In my mind there are two ways to approach how you might express your opinion about a book. 
There's the sort that results in a dispassionate, critical, review 
"This book is a good pick for the fan of Rick Riordan’s books who also enjoys taming small mammals."
and the sort that is more a personal response:
“This is a book that I plan to shove into the face of all the children I meet because the combination of  Greek mythology and squirrel taming broke my heart in the best sort of way."

The first is more “professional” – this sort of voice, I find, comes most easily when I am reviewing a book for which I am not a good fit.   It allows you to calmly and collectedly point out the strengths of a book that maybe repulses you, or simply doesn’t appeal, on a personal level; it allows you to identify the sorts of readers who might like it, and to assess how well it succeeds in what it sets out to do.

The second more emotional review example doesn’t work at all as it stands (unless you already know and trust the blogger who wrote it).  But if whoever wrote something like that goes on to support the emotional response with references to the text, and reasons for their emotions, it can work just fine.  Some people go entirely with the former, and it works beautifully.  Most people mix it up.

"Squirrel taming was frequently part of the story, but it was not essential to either the plot or the characters’ development.  It felt emotionally manipulative, put in to advance the author's agenda, and it really pushed the book over the edge for me.  Or possibly pushed me over the edge."

Allow yourself to realize that different books, different moods, different amounts of time available to blog, and different subjects that call out different emotional/logical responses will all result in different voices in your writing.  This is just fine, perhaps even more than fine.

Some people allow themselves to talk about other things on their blog, make their voice more a believable whole person.   Sharing personal things doesn’t make a stronger voice, but it can be fun to write!  And when you are finding the writing fun, that will show, and make it fun to read.   Personal doesn't have to mean information about your cat; it can also be book related things- going to author signings, a trip to a book store, organizing your shelves--that make you, the blogger, a living, breathing protagonist on a book journey (thanks to Kim of Dead Houseplants, who gave me the "book blogger as protagonist" phrase in a comment, and who has a great blogging voice).   And if you are real, that makes you appeal more to those who like real bloggers (as opposed to those who are just in the market for real book reviews).

Here is something I think weakens a blogger’s voice, especially if you are taking a personal approach and telling me how the book worked for you as an individual reader:  please don’t give me the canned blurb lifted from Amazon.   I’ve probably already read it, and it won’t tell me anything about you; it won’t help me make sense of your response to the book.  Writing your own synopses is the most profound way to get your distinct voice and personality across.  I want to know what YOU found important and interesting in the book, what things YOU picked up on, not what the publisher wants readers to think the book is about.  (That being said, lots of bloggers I like use the given synopses; they go on to talk lots about the book, though, which makes up for it).

So the basic point of finding your voice is that you can use lots of different voices and there is no One Right Voice and what you really need is to find the type or types of writing that make it worthwhile for you to do it, and worthwhile for your readers to read it.

(HERE IS A PART THAT IS PRETTY INTERESTING THOUGH STILL NOT THE MOST INTERESTING PART AND I HAVE ADDED A BIT TO IT)

Here are some things you can try at home, to play with your voice and to examine it more closely:

Just for the heck of it, break out of your regular review structure.  You could:

   --Have fun with wild exaggerated metaphors in your description of the book (and then cut them out of the final product.  I like metaphors more than the next person, but I only allow myself to use them every once in a while because it would get old fast.)

  --Write a review in which you break the plot summary up into acts as if it were a play (like my own review of The Forbidden Library) , and critically discuss/ share your reactions to each bit, instead of saving it all to the end.    Or write a review as a menu for a grand dinner.  Or write it with newspaper headlines, like this review of Nancy Drew #12 at Bookshelves of Doom.

--write it about it in a whiney voice throughout, or in an exaggeratedly cheerful voice throughout.  Read what you wrote the next day, and see if you still agree with what you said.

Or you could break away from the types of books you usually review.

Blogging about a beloved book from your childhood is a great way to rediscover how much fun it can be to share a book with an audience.  Post about old books often get lots of comments from others who loved it too, and voila!  New friends!

If you blog mostly fiction for kids, read and review a non-fiction book for adults, or vice versa.  It makes a nice change.

Think “who wouldn’t I give this book to, and why” instead of always searching for the perfect reader.  Or ask if you would give it to your kid self.  Would you want 10 year old you to read it?  Would it help that person be a better, stronger Charlotte, or not? 

Here is ten year old Charlotte, probably not growing as a person as a result of her reading.  Despite that, I now manage to coordinate my outfits with the upholstery in a much more pleasing way.

 

Search your blog for words or phrases that you sort of nervously think you might be overusing.   This might actually be comforting.   I was pleasantly surprised to find how infrequently I “love” books, and I haven’t said “in a nutshell” since last July.

[THIS NEXT BIT I JUST ADDED AND IT IS A GOOD POINT SO I AM DRAWING ATTENTION TO IT]

Check your blog for “we” and ask who the non-we readers might be.  Do you want to exclude them, or is it just thoughtlessness?  If you create an “us” on your blog, it draws lines.  Anytime you are part of a "we" you are assuming there are people who want to be that particular "we” and that there are people who aren’t part of it.

Search your blog for times you “liked” a book.   Did you mean it sincerely, or were your eyebrows slightly raised and your mouth slightly sneering?  Could a reader tell which you meant?   (I know I failed when I didn’t really like a book, and commenters chime in with “glad to see you liked this one so much!).  And check to make sure there’s a reason why you are using such a wishy-washy word as like.

[THIS IS WHERE IT GETS INTERESTING]

And speaking of wishy-washy, and I think that this maybe is the most important part of finding your voice—look back through your posts and examine the strength of your convictions

Here is a quote from one of my reviews that makes me cringe: “Basically, I did not feel the plot and the characterization were meeting my needs as a reader.”

Why couldn’t I just have said: “The plot and the characterization were not meeting my needs as a reader.” 

Or even just:  "I did not like this book." 

Actually, it doesn't make me cringe (I was setting myself up as a straw man).  I remember typing that, and I was having fun being disingenuous--I was playing on purpose with how to say I hated the book without saying that. But still.  YOUR READERS WILL NOT KNOW THAT YOU ARE DOING THIS!  They cannot see your expression of unholy glee.  They cannot see your snarky mouth twists.  And this is a problem for me, because sometimes people say "I am glad you liked this book" and I am all, uh, no, not so much.
Adding to my own issues with voice is my lamentable tendency not to want to come right out and express my opinions as if they are fact.  I habitually use weak language that privileges subjectivity --I felt, I thought, in my opinion.   But sometimes people just need to come right out there and say things they really truly know to be so.   And when talking about the things you believe, you don’t always have to include the personal pronoun.
Things I might well have said (not having the energy to look for actual examples from my reviews:
“I felt that it was unrealistic that a character in a wheelchair could be swept over a waterfall and suffer no consequences to either wheelchair or self.”
Or “I got the impression that the author does not look favorably on women in leadership roles.
Both are  weak for no good reason.  Both fall into the trap of wanting to be nice, and sometimes some of us have to give ourselves permission not to be nice. Both end up making the authorial voices small, and weaker.  The “I felt” can be edited out in the first, which is easily done.  If I really want to convince anyone that the second statement has validity, I need to argue it, with examples, instead of feebly feeling it.
“Strong” language isn’t always called for.  Not every bad thing merits a rant.  But I need to give myself permission to state as fact those things that are, to me, factual/obvious/unarguable.   And if there is something that really bothers you about a book, give yourself permission to own it.  If you are a naturally diffident person, like me, this will be hard. 

There was a book I read recently, The Queen of the Tearling, that made me furious: the protagonist was raised in an isolated forest home, knowing only the two people who raised her, and the very first night away from the forest home she meets a guy she thinks is handsome, so she doesn't eat much at dinner because --- she doesn't want to seem like a greedy pig because she knows she is overweight.

How could she think this, when all she's known is the two old folks at Forest Home????  Why is she defaulting to an early 21st-century screwed-up body image? She probably is perfectly healthy because she has spent childhood skipping around forest home on a low fat diet.  She’s spent the day on horseback with no snacks—can’t she be allowed to be hungry?  She has never seen herself in a full length mirror and compared herself to other girls.  As far as the reader knows, she has never been told her body is unattractive. How CAN SHE THINK THIS?  Also, how does she know what handsome is, but that's another issue.

So what did I do?  I angrily returned the book to the library.   I did not give myself permission to say anything about the book, because I do not like to review books that I haven't finished, and because there were lots of other things in it that bothered me and I just didn't have the time and energy at that point in my life to deal with it.  It is a fact that sometimes with a full time job and people in your life who need your energy and the impending visit of your mother and concomitant worry about not having a bathroom door to offer her that you do not have time to write strong and impassioned posts.   I do not blame myself, exactly, but I am annoyed at myself.

But at any rate, the first exercise here is to go back through your posts and see if you weakened your voice by being too diffident!   And then the second  --next time a book makes you mad, write about it.  You don't have to write a full review, and you don't have to press send right away, but write it anyway.  And if you still believe what you wrote the next day, press send.

You don't have to have strong opinions every time you write something.  But if you are like me, you might have to remind yourself that you are entitled to them just as much as anyone else is.  

[THIS IS THE STRONG CONCLUSION PART--you have to imagine me saying it with intensity, making eye contact with as many members of the audience as I can]

This is especially important because so many of us are women—it is scary in this internet world to be a woman who has an opinion that is at all controversial, but we shouldn’t default to diffidence out of laziness or apprehension if we want our voices to have conviction.



So then at Kidlitcon I talked about the different passions (book related ones) of different bloggers with lots of examples...but that really worked better in Powerpoint, so I will stop now.

The End.

10/15/14

In which Sarah Beth Durst (most recently Chasing Power) answers my most pressing question

I've been reading Sarah Beth Durst's books since January, 2008--that was when the Cybils shortlists for 2007 were announced, and her fantasy book for middle grade readers, Into the Wild, was on it.  Since then I have kept reading her with pleasure, following her journey into YA (with books like Vessel) and books for grown ups (Lost).  Her newest book, Chasing Power, has just been released.

It's my pleasure to welcome Sarah to my blog today, answering the following question that I posed her:

What it is like to write books that are so different from each other?  Is it something you have control over, or is it just what happens?  And do you think you'll ever write any more Middle Grade books?

My books do have one thing in common: something impossible.  All of my books are fantasy.  Always fantasy.  That's just how my brain works -- as a kid, I was constantly checking the back of my closet for a gateway to Narnia and keeping a close eye on my stuffed animals in case they moved.  (You can never be too careful, I reasoned.  After a babysitter cheerfully described the plot of Stephen King's IT to a very young me, I banished all clown stuffies to the garage.)

 Beyond my childhood issues... fantasy is also what I love to read, and I think you should always write what you love (if only because it takes so long to write a novel that to NOT write what you love would be miserable).

 But within the fantasy genre, I hop around a lot.  My latest YA novel, CHASING POWER, is an Indiana Jones style adventure about a girl with telekinesis.  Very fun to write.  My most recent novel, THE LOST, is magical realism about a woman trapped in a town full of only lost people and lost things.  My other novels include psychological thriller (CONJURED ), epic desert fantasy (VESSEL), snarky comedy (DRINK, SLAY, LOVE), contemporary getting-into-college fantasy (ENCHANTED IVY), modern Arctic fairy-tale retelling (ICE), and fractured fairy tales (INTO THE WILD and OUT OF THE WILD).

 So how did this happen?  How did my books end up so different?  Is it something I have control over?  Well, sort of.  I am the one who decides what idea has captured my heart and mind at the moment I sit down to start a new project, but what kind of novel it turns into... that's dictated entirely by the story itself.

 I know, I know, that sounds a little touchy-feely, the muse-speaking-through-me or whatever, but really, there's a technical explanation.  The best way I know to write a story that feels real is to stay true to the character.  See the world through their eyes.  Write the scenes filtered through their thoughts and emotions.  If you do that... then the rest follows.

 For example, if I write about a sixteen-year-old girl who loves her mother and best friend, fears her abusive father, distrusts just about everyone else, has the ability to move objects with her mind, has a somewhat loose grasp on the concept of personal property, and uses her snarky sense of humor as a defense mechanism... then I'm going to get something like CHASING POWER, a YA novel that feels like a fun fantasy adventure, with some family drama.

 On the other hand, if I write about a sixteen-year-old girl who has embraced her destiny to sacrifice herself so that her goddess can inhabit her body and save her clan from dying in the unforgiving desert... then I'm going to create a more serious, sweeping epic fantasy like VESSEL.

 The key is to always stay true to your character.  That's what makes the novels different.  Everything else -- writing process, amount of chocolate consumed on an average revision, etc. -- is pretty much the same.  Some novels are more complicated than others in terms of untangling the plot threads.  Some require extra delving into emotional depths.  Some need an additional pass to cut the stray snark (because I love writing snark and it doesn't always fit).  Others need extra attention to worldbuilding or pacing or whatever.  But the basics feel the same: sinking into a character and trying to make something awesome happen on every page.

As to the last question...  Will I write more middle-grade books?  That one is easy to answer.  YES!!!

 I am currently working on a middle-grade novel called THE GIRL WHO COULD NOT DREAM. It's about a girl whose family owns a secret store where they buy, bottle, and sell dreams, but who can't have any of her own, and the adventure that she and her pet monster go on when someone starts kidnapping dreamers.   It's coming out from Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) in fall 2015, and I'm really, really excited about it!

Thanks so much for having me here!
 
To which I say--Thank you so much for stopping by, Sarah!  I'll look forward to The Girl Who Could Not Dream!

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