Sunday, January 27, 2013
So who is this woman, you ask? Harper's children's editor, Ursula Nordstrom, published some of the biggest authors in children's publishing: Margaret Wise Brown, Ruth Krauss, Russell Hoban, Maurice Sendak, Laura Ingalls Wilder, E.B White, Shel Silverstein to name a few. She changed the face of children's literature or at least influenced it more than any other editor in the field. If you want a glimpse into the workings of the publishing system and rapport an editor has with an author then I highly recommend this book. The turn of phrase, self-deprecating humor, candor, and risk-taking that Ursula shows make reading her tale delicious (gawl dang it, even my adjectives make me wanna eat.) Plus, she can't spell very well. How can you not love a brilliant editor who can't spell?
What becomes apparent in the overall effect of the letters is Ursula's ability to nurture author's talents and make suggestions without presenting ultimatums. She respected her authors' innate ability to create a work of genius and she seemed to know when to back off and when to assert herself. "I think it can be even funnier in the beginning but that may be because I read it with 1000 interruptions the other morning." Not all correspondence is rosy and misunderstandings are revealed. Sometimes the lack of background knowledge made it confusing and I would go off researching an author to discover more about him or her. For instance, Ursula is very concerned about John Steptoe and I wanted more background because the information was incomplete. Some readers might find this annoying, but I didn't. Sometimes I just wanted the flavor of her correspondence. Other times, I didn't care. Take the tale of Meindert deJong. The background information is sketchy but from the footnotes I gather he left her as an agent for a rival publishing house after many years of working together (10 folders of correspondence according to Marcus). She doesn't dwell on it in her letters and I admired her ability to move on and not be bitter.
A joy I got from reading Ursula's epistles are the humor and perspective she gives toward work and living each day. Her character and wit emerge through her correspondence of letters from 1937-1982. I was having a rough week at work and read her book that night finding a quote that put the uncontrollable happenings in life in perspective for me: "But enough of this sorry theme, lest I lose my reason in attempting to reason about anything that is so thoroughly unreasonable." Humor of course is the best medicine to combat negativity and there is plenty in this novel. "Dreary note but it is a dreary day and I'm the only one in the city who doesn't simply adore Blessed Noel. I hate it. Tomi Ungerer gave me a present, of a huge gorilla dragging a nekkid Barbie doll along by the hair. She only has one red high-heeled shoe on. Real Christmassy. You can see it the next time you come to the Tot Dept. Love to you and George, Ursula Scrooge." At one point I had to stop rewriting all of her great quotes because it felt like I was recopying the entire book. My writer's journal has 29 pages of musings and Ursula sayings.
I found the controversy surrounding some of the groundbreaking children's books she published interesting and the anguish some felt over the materials. One was a psychologist who criticized Maurice Sendak's, Where the Wild Things Are, for withholding food from a child. Another had New York Public Library's Superintendent, Frances Sayers, criticizing John Donovan's children's book about a thirteen-year-old boy who has feelings for another boy that leave him confused. Of course, the letter to John from Ursula is pretty funny: "Right after I sent you my illiterate wail about Mrs. Sayer's idiotic letter about your book, I have received a copy of your reasoned, well-mannered, well-written reply to her. Well you are just too great for me. I wish I could be like you, but can't be. ...Wait until Mrs. Sayers sees Sendak's new book. His young hero appears STAKE NARKID from the front. Like, wow!" Ursula was commenting on the controversy she knew would come with the publication Maurice Sendak's newest book, In the Night Kitchen.
I did find that when I tried to plow through this book from cover-to-cover I got fatigued with the writing. Small digestible snippets of humor read here and there worked better for me. Of course, I've been so dang hungry I can't really think strait so snippets were about all I could handle after the holidays.Okay. Maybe I do need a straitjacket.
Saturday, January 19, 2013
Maddy, the protagonist from book 1, Runemarks, is back and discovers that she has a sister, Maggie. The two have new runemarks that the gods want to use to build Asgard once again. As Maggie is used by one powerful god, Maddy is used by another. Neither blindly follow the gods and as they make friends they learn that trust can always be betrayed.
Maddy doesn't show up in the story until page 100 and like a dip I didn't figure out that Maggie was not Maddy until then. I have not read book one in a couple of years and had problems putting two and two together. Maggie's character is not as engaging as Maddy in book one and that was my biggest problem. I just couldn't buy Maggie and Adam as a couple. I kept thinking her strict upbringing would not have caused her to act as she did, although the author tries to show that it was loneliness that made her choose Adam. Perhaps if the Whisperer had revealed some flaw or some hint of a love in his past, then I think I would have enjoyed the character development more. The threesome was a bit flat and I never got sucked into their story like Maddy's tale in book 1.
Loki is the most interesting character for me and again I found him fascinating. The author does a great job making him a complex web of good decisions and bad decisions. I found his wife annoying at first but her unconditional love is used in an interesting twist at the end that I didn't see coming. The Loki/Maddy interest in each other is dropped completely in this book.
The prophecy was yabba dabba dumb. I'm not usually that harsh but it was a lazy Fred Flintstonish way to not foreshadow the plot and with the rock-a-bye baby nursery rhyme I found myself gritting my teeth and skimming it so I didn't have to read it. I realize mythology is full of oracles and prophecies, but I wish the author had handled it differently. The ending suggests a sequel but I'm not sure. It would be just another reworking of the same plot. Book 1 and book 2 are basically saving the world from destruction. Book 3 would be saving the world from Maggie's Bamm-Bamm. Or would it?
3 out of 5 Smileys
Monday, January 14, 2013
I couldn't put this book down. Kelly Barnhill writes with a lot of action and tension. Her plot points aren't always clear, but overall I find her stories quite different and entertaining. The narrator tells the story in first person omniscient and then there is a switch to 3rd person with other characters. The narrator is the court storyteller and he weaves the story with humor, self-deprecation, and foreshadowing. He disappears in the middle of the story but he's a coward and it takes him longer to find courage than Violet and Demetrius so it didn't bother me. Some might find it jarring when he jumps back into the mix after an absence.
Themes of friendship, loyalty, heroism, love, internal strength versus looks, kindness, importance of stories and more are sprinkled throughout this novel. There is plenty to discuss and the creation story is unique. The dragon steals the show with its wisdom and humor and I wanted him to whisper in the king's mind the wrongness of enslaving him. I understood that the Nybbas used mirrors to control people but I didn't quite understand why the queen got sick and how she knew the future. There was no mirror involved with her so it wasn't clear how the Nybbas was working his magic. I also wanted more of an explanation of the creatures that came out of the Mountain King's mirror and their history with the Nybbas. The story with the old gods and the Nybbas needed more hashing out, but it didn't keep me from reading the entire book in one sitting. A fun fantasy.
Reading Level 6.5
3 out of 5 Smileys
Saturday, January 12, 2013
Most of the people in Blackbird Tree have suffered in some way. Lizzie's mom died of a disease and her dad of grief, while Naomi's mom died in childbirth and her dad died of an infection caused from defending her from an attacking dog. It mangled Naomi's arm, but she doesn't dwell on it. The two girls don't want pity and when a teacher comes to town she can't believe all the tragic tales the students have in regards to family. Naomi says, "We thought we were normal. All any of us wanted was for somebody to care about us, and if we couldn’t have that, then at least somebody who wouldn’t be too mean and who would feed us from time to time.” When, the two girls meet the mysterious Finn boy, things become complicated as Naomi falls in love with him leading to jealous feelings toward Lizzie.
The terrific writing and the way Sharon Creech puts sentences together made me really enjoy this book. The characters are eccentric and a fantasty-like realism runs throughout the chapters that is quite unique. The play on words regarding names had me laughing such as Lizzie Scatterdinghead who is a scatterbrain and Dapper Dingle Dangle Doodle man, and the muddle-brained Mrs. Mudkin who never says, Naomi's, name correctly calling her "Neema" or "Raynee" to which Naomi replies it's "Nay-oh-me."
The alternate story of the two women in Ireland and the different characters named Finn or Paddy is not clear until the end. I take that back - some parts are clear while others are not. Naomi's Finn is a very confusing character. He's the fantasy element. I have no clue if he is an elf, fairy, leprechaun, or druid. He crops up in three generations of women and tries to cause a rift between friends. He's the ghost of girlfriends past. The gold at the end doesn't make sense to me either. I thought maybe it was the leprechaun's pot of gold and the girls would get three wishes, but that is not the case. Naomi's Finn tells them to not steal the gold in the beginning of the story and at the end we find out that Finnbar died because he stole it. Paddy/Finn wants the trunk because it has gold coins in it. It would have helped me if Paddy actually mentioned the coins in his confrontation with Sybil. The whole Irish folklore needed to be fleshed out and worked into the plot more to make sense to this wee lassie.
At the start of the novel the characters have a southern accent except Nula who sounds Irish but later Irish accents crop up in other characters and I got a little confused on the setting. The ending was rushed as everything was wrapped up neatly for all the women and townspeople. I think the unbelievable way in which everything turned out so well for each character is supposed to tie in with the magic of Irish folklore and wishes coming true but there isn't a strong connection to any specific legend, so I'm not sure how to analyze it. Like Lizzie, I am left with lots of questions and no pot of answers, but inspite of my confusion, I really enjoyed this story and the characters.
Reading Level 4.1
4 out of 5 Smileys
Friday, January 11, 2013
Leonard Marcus covers seven Caldecott winners that span more than 60 years. Robert McCloskey spent 2 years studying ducks and even lived with 16 of them while writing "Make Way for Ducklings." Not only was he able to study them in great detail, he changed the original duck names to reflect the real bird's squawking. McCloskey wanted to use watercolor but the printing costs made it too expensive. The historical context of this book mirrored how the public felt about World War II. The book's theme of security and returning home safely was what people wanted for the troops fighting overseas. The symbol of ducks finding safety echoes the universal theme of safety for children that continues to resonate with each generation making this a popular book to this day.
Marcia Brown who won the Caldecott for "Cinderella" also had unique challenges with printing. She had to work with only four colors to capture the right tone and costumes for her story set in the 1700's. She went by Perrault's French version of Cinderella and not Grimm's. I didn't know that in Grimm's story the stepsisters cut off their toes to get them into the glass slipper. Argh.
Maurice Sendak created tiny books while coming up with the idea of "Where the Wild Things Are." This is a fascinating look at the creative process and Sendak explains how the pictures in the story grow as Max's emotions push out the words, then shrink when he is calm and back in his bedroom. William Steig didn't start making picture books until he was close to 60 years old and when he won the Caldecott for "Sylvester and the Magic Pebble," he was encouraged to make more.
Chris Van Allsburg, David Weisner, and Mordecai Gerstain give their reactions to winning the Caldecott medal as well. While I enjoyed this book, I wanted more details on their craft. This is more of personal taste. I'm more fascinating with the making of a book versus how the authors felt about winning the medal. Obviously they would be thrilled. Anyone interested in picture books will enjoy this quick read.
4 out of 5 Smileys
Reading Level 6.2
Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Miri travels with the girls from the academy to help Princess Britta with her wedding. She goes to school and learns different subjects while becoming embroiled in a plot to overthrow the king. The people are being taxed too much and starving. When Britta becomes the target of an assassin, Miri realizes that she caused part of the problem and must help right a wrong.
This story has quite a bit of romance with Timon, a scholar in the court, who has a crush on Miri. He seeks her out along with a group of rebels interested in overthrowing the king. This part of the plot seemed rushed and the characters too googly-eyed over Miri, especially the lady. Later it becomes clear why but it rang false with me, but not with Miri. In hindsight, the author probably did this intentionally but it turned me off to the story. I needed more tension and suspicion from Miri or hints of duplicity from others. There wasn't enough intrigue that comes with political dissension. The resolution with Timon seemed rushed too. He was a major character and I expected more depth in his comments rather than less. Peder frustrated me too. He literally sits and whittles wood on the sidelines and is usually too tired to talk. He could have played a bigger part in the love triangle to create more tension.
Shannon Hale is a good writer and I have high expectations when I read her books. This just wasn't her best effort.
Reading Level 6.0
3 out of 5 Smileys
Monday, January 7, 2013
Salva Dut Ariik was at school in 1989 when soldiers came shooting their rifles. He fled into the bush just before a bomb annihilated the school he occupied minutes earlier. A group of people reluctantly let him travel with them, but after one night Salva woke to find the group, not wanting to be burdened by a young eleven-year-old, had left without telling him. Striking out on his own, he met his uncle by chance in another group. Mariel, a boy his age, was in the group as well, and the two became friends as they traveled to a refugee camp. After tragedies and violence, Salva found a new home in the United States.
Nya's story alternates with Salva's as she describes the daily hardship of finding water in 2008. She spends all day hauling water back and forth. The contaminated water caused dysentery in many and she could not go to school or her family would die of thirst. When Salva and her story connect it gave me a deeper appreciation for water and the opportunity to freely learn at school.
Written for grade 5 and up, the author doesn't make this tale too frightening or graphic but focuses on how Salva survives each day with courage. There are deaths and shooting, but only shots are heard by Salva or he sees blood on the ground. Only one episode describes a boy (not one Salva knew) who was shot in the neck during a frantic river crossing with soldiers shooting at refugees. The straightforward and simple writing helps to not overwhelm young readers emotions. This is a terrific tale of hope.
Reading Level 5.0
4 out of 5 Smileys
Sunday, January 6, 2013
Dan and Amy Cahill are being controlled by the Vespers, a group that has kidnapped seven of their relatives, and threatens to kill them if the two don't do what they ask-which is usually stealing some famous artifact or artwork. Their mission this time is to steal the Voynich manuscript, a 15th century writing in a language that no one can decipher, that is housed at Yale's library. Along with the help of friends Atticus and Jake, the four discover the Vespers are out to build a doomsday machine. In an interesting twist at the end, Dan makes a desperate move in an effort to turn the tables on the Vespers.
I admire how Park crafts her plot. It can't be easy writing this series because it must have prescribed plot points that happen and a writer has to work those elements in versus having the freedom of creative plot development. I would love to find out how much leeway she has when writing these novels and if the constraints are easier, harder, or make no difference.
At one point I noticed that Atticus was trying to get respect from the three older kids while Amy was struggling with the stress of finding clues and having feelings for Jake and her boyfriend, Evan, and I wondered about Dan's thoughts. Park gives him equal time but not until the last third of the novel in which he is forced to step into a leadership position. The wise-cracking Dan is growing up in the books and she does a terrific job at character development. The series violence continues with stabbings, deaths, and attacks on the kids. A historical buffet of the Voynich manuscript, Archimedes, and Brazil's culture are quite tasty. A quick, fun read.
Reading Level 4.8
4 out of 5 Smileys
Hazel's thyroid cancer from three years ago has spread to her lungs and is slowly killing her. She carries around an oxygen tank that she calls, Philip, and describes her support group with a mixture of humor, disgust, crudeness, and philosophy in this great teenagy run-on sentence: "So here's how it went in God's heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable like story - how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn't die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way toward a master's degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life. AND YOU TOO MIGHT BE SO LUCKY!" One of many clever references, the sword of Damocles is in a Greek tale about a powerful leader who is in constant fear; thus showing the constant fear Patrick and others at the group meeting face daily whether they are cancer-free or not. Hazel implies that cancer is like having a sword over your head that is being held in place by a horse's hair.
When Hazel meets Augustus at the support group, a former basketball player who has lost a leg to osteosarcoma, he lends her his favorite sci-fi book, “The Price of Dawn,” a novelization of his favorite video game. She, in turn, lends him her best-loved book, “An Imperial Affliction” by Peter Van Houten, about a young girl with cancer. Van Houten ends his novel in the middle of a sentence and Hazel is obsessed with finding out what happens to the characters, writing to the author over ten years, begging him - to no avail - for answers. After reading “An Imperial Affliction,” Augustus decides to use his “wish” from “The Genie Foundation,” a charity that grants requests of very ill children, to send himself and Hazel to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten in a life-changing trip.
I thought the weaving of references to existentialism was not only intriguing but added depth, irony, and emotion to the story. In a nutshell, existentialism is a philosophy that claims a person defines himself or herself through conscious decisions in a hostile or indifferent environment versus a person being defined by arbitrary or preconceived stereotypes. Or more simply, it is a conscious decision to give value or meaning to life. In this story, cancer, and the good and bad reaction of people without cancer, is the hostile environment and those who have cancer must consciously define how they want to live and approach each day. Let's face it, most young readers are not going to know about existentialism and while Augustus' phrase "existentially fraught free throws" might go over the head of many, readers will get the gist that his existential moment happened one day when he was questioning the meaningfulness of playing basketball. It also happened to be the last day of his "dual leggedness."
One of Hazel's burning questions is the fate of the hamster, Sisyphus. In Greek myth, Sisyphus is condemned to the meaningless labor of repeatedly pushing a boulder up a mountain and watching it roll down. Like a hamster on a wheel that goes nowhere, or Sisyphus repeating the same task over and over, Hazel's effort to fight cancer is repetitive and meaningless. Sisyphus is also referred to by the famous existential writer, Albert Camus in his novel, The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus introduces absurdism, a branch of existentialism, that asserts people live in a meaningless, chaotic world. Cancer is absurd and there is no rhyme or reason as to who it strikes or why some survive and others don't.
The video game played by Hazel, Augustus, and Isaac emphasize abundant meaningless kills of virtual characters and how Augustus always sacrifices himself to save another in the game (versus killing and winning the game). Not only does this fit with existentialism and Augustus trying to shape meaning into his life, but is symbolic of cancer killing him and his sacrifice of his "wish" to save Hazel and help her give meaning to her cancer-riddled life by talking to Van Houten. Hazel also wants her parents to have meaning in their life which revolves around her cancer as well. The portrayal of the loving, supportive parents trying to deal with a daughter who is dying is poignant, but not overly melodramatic. Hazel is still scolded when she shows a bratty attitude or gets annoyed at a "hovering" mother.
This novel has so many references, themes, and metaphors I need to cut myself off - this review is starting to sound like an English paper - but bear with me on another theme. Hazel and Augustus go to Amsterdam and tour the Anne Frank house. The parallels of the injustice and randomness of death occurring to Anne Frank is similar to how cancer strikes. Anne Frank didn't deserve to live in an attic and die, nor does Hazel or any of the other support group member with cancer. It appears meaningless and harsh, but the characters decide to make each day count in spite of the chaos of this disease. They take risks by becoming friends, falling in love, or getting answers from an author who wrote a compelling book. In the process they grow and change and they are so likable we can't help but root for them all the way.
The writing is rich, characters strong, and the topic surrounding cancer emotionally-charged and full of tension. I did guess a major plot point in the first chapter, but that's mainly because the story follows the classic romance formula of girl meets boy; girl and boy fall in love; some obstacle gets in the way of their love; girl and boy get back together. Well-written romances do this so it isn't a bad thing. And even though it scooped a little of the surprise for me, there are other excellent plot twists, along with the oodles of references and metaphors that kept me engaged in the story. The swearing and sex scene (not graphic) make this a middle school book. Enjoy.
4 out of 5 Smileys