Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Small Persons With Wings

I'm a slow reader. Each year, dozens of books are released that I would love to read and I only get around to reading about two of them. What happens then is I spend the next year reading books from the previous year while more dozens of new books are released that I want to read as well. It's a vicious cycle and I always feel so behind. So this year I set a goal for myself, to read 10 books published in 2011. I can fill the rest of my time spent reading with whatever I want and this way, still feel current. The first book I could get my hands on this year was Ellen Booraem's SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS.

When she was young, Mellie Turpin's best friend was a fairy. A fairy named Fidius to be exact. After announcing this to her classmates at school she's made fun of and called Fairy Fat, a name that sticks throughout the years and turns her into a social outcast. Little does she know (and soon does she find out), that her family serves as protector of an ancient fairy artifact known as the Gemmaluna, a moonstone ring that stores all of the fairies most natural, true magic (Magic Vera). The fairy community wants to get back to their roots and become one with their ancient magic once again, but to do so they need the Gemmaluna. Mellie's family is ready to rid themselves of the responsibility, but someone in the fairy community wants the ring for themselves. And they'll stop at nothing to take it.

With multiple starred reviews, this book has already caught the eye of some folks making early 2012 Newbery Medal predictions. Without reading anything else the year has to offer yet, I can definitely see why. It's very strong in voice and language. Mellie is cynical and witty. She's an outcast because of her weight (something not often found in children's books) and her belief in fairies. She's a hard person to like because she's such a smart aleck and even when people reach out to her, she lashes out keeping them at bay. Because of the way she's been treated in the past she's hardened. But this is what makes her such an endearing character too. Despite the wise-cracks and the sarcastic tone, Mellie is a girl longing for attention. A girl seeking approval even from those closest to her. She's a scrappy fighter and makes for a great heroine, although I did wish she'd take herself, and the plot, a little more seriously.

The writing here is top notch as well. I loved the following description:

It's a Saturday in October, one of those fall days that makes you think summer is overrated. The sky is so blue you wouldn't believe it if you saw it in a painting. The air is warm and sweet, smelling like dead leaves and the good kind of mold, the kind that stays outdoors.

Broken down to its sentence level, writing like this will undoubtedly earn Booraem props. It's fresh and witty and found throughout the book.

Often times being pleasantly surprised by a book causes the material to stay with you longer and to appreciate it more. I've got to be honest, the rave reviews drew me to this book, but the subject matter (fairies) and the girlie, glittery cover brought out my skepticism. At the heart of this story is a coming-of-age tale about an overweight girl growing into her grandeur. But beneath even that are some truly terrifying ideas I was astonished to find. The description of the real Gigi Kramer is frightening and the idea that the fairies can alter the way humans see reality is a scary concept. The way Gigi Kramer messes with illusions may keep some younger readers up all night. Scary stuff, and a little unexpected.

Not everything in this book worked entirely for me though and one example would be the development of Booraem's plot. It's quick and suspenseful, sure. And the pacing is rather effortless. I found myself burning the midnight oil as soon as Gigi Kramer's true intentions were revealed. However, I also found myself flipping back to previous sections for clarification. The fairy world that Booraem has created is very intricate and complex. Often, it's too imposing.

From what I understand, the fairies initially possessed a very natural, organic magic known as Magic Vera. Over time some fairies became bored with this and came up with Magic Artifica, a more sinister kind of magic involving illusion. As the entire community of fairies moved further in the direction of Magic Artifica they captured their Magic Vera and contained it inside the Gemmaluna, so as to never lose it. A third magic, Magic Mala then came along, more sinister and dark even than Magic Artifica, and it requires the power of a Circulus. The Circulus is a group of fairies spinning around very quickly, supplying the entire fairy community with a source power to draw from. Like a generator. Some fairies are good enough to perform Magic Mala (the ability to manipulate and move inanimate objects) without the use of a Circulus and that idea becomes very frightening to many fairies. Thus, a campaign to return to the days of Magic Vera. But for that, they need the Gemmaluna, which has been given to the Turpin family to look after for all these years. It's all very clever, and something I wish I could be clever enough to think of myself, but it's also incredibly confusing. It took a lot of rereading to get all that down and I don't even know if I have it all right!

I enjoyed this book and I think among students bridging the space between elementary school and middle school, or junior high, this book will definitely find a home. It's snarky, it's hilarious, it's heartfelt, and it's exciting. Plus it's well-written and it stands on it's own without the promise of future installments!

Final Grade: B


Sadly, this morning, author Pete Hautman did not chose A TALE DARK AND GRIMM to advance in School Library Journal's second round of their Battle of the Kids' Books.

First off, let me start by admitting that I have not read TRASH, the book Mr. Hautman chose instead of A TALE DARK AND GRIMM. In fact, I hadn't even heard of it before the brackets were released. I have no doubt in my mind that it is worthy of advancing, and maybe even winning, this contest.

What upsets me is that I don't feel like A TALE DARK AND GRIMM got a fair shake. Mr. Hautman said he chose TRASH because in the end, it "cut deeper." I'm sorry, but I don't buy it.

Hautman praised Gidwitz's ability to take classic Grimm tales and weave them together and put a fresh spin on them. He also praised Gidwitz for making A TALE DARK AND GRIMM very readable for children, thus admitting that A TALE DARK AND GRIMM will have wide child appeal. But not once, did he mention anything about the themes buried beneath the amputations, the blood, and the gore.

A TALE DARK AND GRIMM is about sibling love. About growing up in a world that is confusing and scary. It's about the love and affection children have for their parents, and how important it is for that need to be met and returned. A TALE DARK AND GRIMM is about the importance of family. It's a how-to book (or a how-not-to book, depending on how you look at it) for parents. Yet Hautman mentions none of this. Which leads me to believe he took it at face value.

A TALE DARK AND GRIMM is so good that it would be easy to cast it off as popular and leave it at that. But when read carefully, it isn't too difficult to see that it's actually so much more than that.

Here's hoping it makes a comeback as the winner of the Undead Poll!

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Candymakers

First things first, I'm a big Wendy Mass fan. So be warned, I may be a little biased.

One of my favorite books of all time is JEREMY FINK AND THE MEANING OF LIFE. After reading it, I discovered A MANGO SHAPED SPACE, HEAVEN LOOKS A LOT LIKE THE MALL, EVERY SOUL A STAR, and ELEVEN BIRTHDAYS. I think her novels do appeal more to the younger female gender (not me), but Jeremy Fink was so great that it is hard for me not to be impressed with the unique storytelling approach she takes in each of her books. She finds a way to change things up with each novel and explore some truly original ideas in an extremely kid-friendly way. In my opinion, she's one of the best, most popular, and consistent authors writing for children today.

Another reason I may be a little biased toward a Wendy Mass book . . .

I had the pleasure of meeting her when she visited our school district last spring. I'm on a small committee of teachers and librarians that help fund and plan and bring in a popular working authors for kids. The 5th grade classes in our district spend the week meeting with these authors and listening to their inspiring stories. Wendy was very down-to-earth and genuine and a big hit amongst our students. Plus, she thinks I rock!

At the time of her visit, THE CANDYMAKERS had not yet been released but she gave us a sneak peek of it. I had also been following it's creation on her blog. In similar Willy Wonka fashion, THE CANDYMAKERS tells the story of 4 kids each inventing a candy for a candymaking contest: Logan (the candymaker's son), Miles (allergic to everything), Daisy (daughter of a musician), and Philip (son of a rich businessman). The book is split into four sections, with each character getting a crack at narrating. Logan shares the story first, then we read Miles' version of the same happenings, then Daisy's, then Philip's. The book ends with with a fifth section of Logan tying up all loose ends.

Without being blown away, I was pleasantly surprised by THE CANDYMAKERS. Wendy Mass warns readers from the beginning to be on the lookout so it was obvious that not all the narrators were exactly who they seemed to be. However, some significant plot twists are thrown in that will surely thrill young readers.

If there's a theme present in many of Wendy Mass's novels, it's perspective. In A MANGO SHAPED SPACE she viewed the world through the eyes of a girl with synesthesia. In EVERY SOUL A STAR she viewed the world through three very different sets of preteen eyes. And in 11 BIRTHDAYS her two main characters, best friends, are in the midst of a terrible fight with neither considering the others' perspective.

The same is true with THE CANDYMAKERS. Logan is our guide through the first section of the story. He is innocent, sweet, and kindhearted. From this perspective it would seem that his only handicap in life is his lack of social experiences. He wants a best friend badly, but doesn't know how to go about it. A terrible accident in the past has led his parents to keep him sheltered and away from the world outside their candy factory's gates. By the time Miles takes the microphone however, the narrative is flipped upside down revealing the first of many surprises. It's not until we have stepped into each character's shoes that true perspective is achieved and Wendy Mass has a lot to say about judging a book by it's cover. I feel like she's captured their emotions and feelings perfectly, but their dialogue comes off a bit forced and unnatural.

I can't say this is Wendy Mass's best book, but it's easily her most ambitious. The text is easy to read and with short chapters in each of the five sections the book feels as if it goes by quickly. However with more than 450 pages, there's a lot of plot twists to digest and when the same story is told from four different points of view, there's a lot of information for young readers to juggle. Each section converges at the same cliffhanger and that leaves readers wanting more, but it couldn't keep my fifth grade class from became very antsy at multiple times throughout this book.

Wendy Mass is a popular author who knows who her readers are. She's one of my favorites even though this particular book wasn't.

Final Grade: B-

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Battle of the Books Predictions

Well, round one of School Library Journal's Battle of the Kids' Books is complete and my bracket looks terrible.

In round one, I correctly picked 4 of the 8 battles. Not too shabby . . .

But in looking ahead, things are pretty Grimm for me, as A TALE DARK AND GRIMM is the only book I picked correctly from round one that I have advancing beyond the second round.

So . . . I'm still pulling for A TALE DARK AND GRIMM to win it all and I'm still predicting COUNTDOWN (which was knocked out today by Laura Amy Schlitz choosing THE CARDTURNER over it) to be named the winner of the Undead poll (by a hair over A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Thank You R.L. Stine!

R.L. Stine and I go way back. When I was in elementary school and even into middle school, I read his Fear Street series quite regularly. They were campy, at times immature, but always entertaining. Alas, I knew the meaning of the phrase guilty pleasure even as a twelve-year old.

Seeing R.L. Stine's name on the list of judges for School Library Journal's Battle of the Kids' Books brought back childhood memories. Because of this sentimental, childhood connection I feel we share, I just knew he wouldn't let me down when it came to keeping my top pick alive.

Sure enough, this morning he chose A TALE DARK AND GRIMM over THEY CALL THEMSELVES THE KKK! And why wouldn't the master of kidlit horror choose a novel as bloody as Adam Gidwitz's?

Thank you for saving my bracket Mr. Stine! You made the right call!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Departure Time

I'm a sucker for surprise endings. Not necessarily straight-forward mysteries (although I do love those too), but novels that sneak up and surprise you in the end. Novels where you assume one thing is going on and in the end, something entirely different is revealed. Stories like WALK TWO MOONS (although maybe that surprise can be seen a mile away) and WHEN YOU REACH ME (didn't see that one coming). So when I emailed famed book blogger Betsy Bird asking for recommendations and she steered me in the direction of DEPARTURE TIME, a translated novel from the Netherlands, I undoubtedly had high hopes.

DEPARTURE TIME is a novel telling two stories, alternating from chapter to chapter. In one story, a girl wakes up alone in an abandoned hotel in a desert, with no knowledge of how she has arrived. Her only company is a talking rat and a talking fox who serve as host and maintenance for the hotel. Familiar music is playing in the background and torn paper littering the landscape. Who is this girl? Who are these talking animals? Why do they recognize her? Where is the music coming from? Who is hiding out in the attic of the hotel?

The other story is about a girl who is angry with her father, a traveling musician, for missing her birthday again. She writes him a scathing letter, letting out all her frustration, and sends it to him not long before he dies in a horrific boat accident. Later she receives a rough draft story from him in the mail, a story he wanted to write together with her. A story about talking animals.

What do these two girls have in common? Are they one in the same?

This book reminded me of I AM THE CHEESE by Robert Cormier with equal parts WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead. It's an engaging, challenging read. As a reader, I spent 95% of this book utterly confused. Sometimes my confusion stemmed from the plot and not knowing how all the questions were going to be answered (if they even were). Sometimes my confusion stemmed from the fear that things could have gotten lost in translation from the Netherlands. I will say, that by the conclusion of the novel, most is revealed. However it is difficult to tell what is purposely metaphorical and what are just flat out loose ends. There are aspects of this book that I didn't truly understand (like the names in the book, Sky, Robin, Mouse) but would like to think are metaphors that could be cleared up with a second read. Then again, I'm not so sure. Maybe some readers will be able to dig deeper and find lots of meaning. Personally, I don't think I'm up for another go of it.

I guess my major feeling at this moment is disappointment. Lots of predictions flooded my brain early on. Is the girl dead? Is she in hell? Is she in a coma? Are the talking animals the talking animals in her father's story? (I mean, come on, it can't just be coincidence that her father's story included talking rats and a fox and in this alternate desert world, our girl Mouse is greeted by a talking rat and fox, can it?) The fact that one of these predictions was semi-correct, felt like a letdown. I was hoping to be blown away. I was hoping to be surprised. The ending is surprising, don't get me wrong, but the fact that the twist was something I had considered early on, meant that I wasn't taken by surprise as much as I would have liked. But, that's my fault, not Truus Matti's.

This book is definitely not for everyone. It would take a very special 5th, 6th, or 7th grade reader to carefully navigate this book in one reading. It would take an even more special reader to want to pick it up and do it all over again. I would love to read it, one story at a time. Read the odd chapters through first, taking in all of story A in the desert. Then read all the even chapters and take in story B. The problem with that is 3/4 of the way through the book, the stories begin to blend together, mid-chapter, ratcheting up the confusion!

As I said, it's an engaging read, and as Mouse moves from anger to acceptance over her father's death, the ride is thrilling enough without the mystery of the "alternate" desert universe unfolding. I think my hopes were just set a little too high for me to find any more enjoyment out of this than I did. Someone with more realistic expectations, may find it brilliant.

Final Grade: B-

Thursday, March 17, 2011


How dare you Barry Lyga, choose a nonfiction story about Barbie over Pam Munoz-Ryan's poetic powerhouse THE DREAMER in round one of SLJ's Battle of the Kids' Books!

To choose THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE BARBIE over THE DREAMER would've been acceptable had good reasons been given. But instead, Mr. Lyga cops out and steps into the shoes of the two main characters to make his decision. Of course strong, confident Barbie would never concede to a wimpy little daydreaming poet in Neftali.

Who cares what the characters think? What about the writing?


Thursday, March 3, 2011

March Madness!

I don't mean to brag, but I've always been slightly-better-than-average at filling out NCAA March Madness brackets. Battle of the Kids' Books, is totally new territory for me though. Each year book blogger Eric Carpenter puts together a bracket challenge for fans to follow along and make predictions. This year I'm taking my first go at it. But since I have no idea what some of the author judges will be taking into consideration, and no clue as to what kind of novels appeal to them as readers, there's nothing to do but sit back and have fun with it. So here are my predictions:

First Round:

I'm picking AS EASY AS FALLING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH over THE CARDTURNER. In authors Lynne Rae Perkins and Francisco X. Stork (author judge) I see similarities in teen appeal whereas Louis Sachar is widely known for writing one of the greatest juvenile fiction novels ever, in HOLES. Call it a hunch . . .

I'm also taking COUNTDOWN over A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS. I know Megan Whalen Turner has a pretty voracious following, but I think COUNTDOWN has gotten enough buzz amongst readers this year to advance at least one round in this competition. (It wouldn't surprise me if the loser of this round rises among the Undead!)

I think (hope) Barry Lyga will choose THE DREAMER over THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE BARBIE. Although this is the pick I'm most unsure of, even though as you will soon see, I have THE DREAMER going quite far.

KEEPER seems like the type of book Susan Patron would dig, more so than HEREVILLE.

ONE CRAZY SUMMER is way too decorated to be knocked out by THE ODYSSEY in the first round, and I don't think Karen Hesse will look to stir things up.

Adam Rex does not strike me as a history buff, I could be totally wrong, but I just see him as an avid fantasy reader, therefore I think THE RING OF SOLOMON will be his pick.

Call me naive, but if there was a sure thing in the first round, it would be my favorite A TALE DARK AND GRIMM. R.L. Stine is its judge for crying out loud! If there was a book that was made for the Goosebumps and Fear Street creator to read and enjoy, it would be this book. Although, who knows what Mr. Stine will do. Maybe that's precisely why he'd throw people off by choosing THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK . . . I don't see it though.

I flipped a coin to finish the first round and came up with Mitali Perkins choosing WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON.

Second Round:

Laura Amy Shlitz will pick AS EASY AS FALLING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH because she is a great writer and I don't think she'll be fooled by the structure and display of COUNTDOWN. However, I don't think we'll have heard the last of Deborah Wiles' novel . . .

I also think Naomi Shihab Nye (poet) will take a whole three seconds to choose THE DREAMER over KEEPER. Sure KEEPER is written with it's own lyrical, poetic prose, but THE DREAMER seems to be a poet's book. If it can just get past that first round, I see it going very far.

I see Patricia Reilly Giff choosing ONE CRAZY SUMMER over THE RING OF SOLOMON.

And I see Pete Hautman choosing A TALE DARK AND GRIMM over WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON.

The Final Four:

Grace Lin will have a tough time choosing between THE DREAMER and AS EASY AS FALLING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH. I see her liking the latter but loving the former. In the end, I see Grace Lin more as a juvenile fiction author and think THE DREAMER speaks to her type of readers more than AS EASY AS FALLING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH. That's why I think she'll pick it.

As for Karen Cushman choosing between A TALE DARK AND GRIMM and ONE CRAZY SUMMER . . . I think ONE CRAZY SUMMER is just too decorated to walk away a winner here. It's my gut feeling that something other than ONE CRAZY SUMMER will win this. So now, is as good a time as any to fall by the wayside. A TALE DARK AND GRIMM will prevail.

The Big Kahuna Round:

At this time, COUNTDOWN will be revealed as the winner of the Undead Poll (with A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS coming in a close second). Richard Peck will enjoy having COUNTDOWN added to his small reading list because he's a historical fiction kind of guy, but in the end, will not choose it as the winner. He will be mezmerized by the sing-song prose of THE DREAMER but being a master storyteller himself, will be too blown away by Adam Gidwitz's Grimm Brothers re-imaginings.

A TALE DARK AND GRIMM will be victorious!