Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Taylor Markam was ditched at a gas station at the age of eleven.  Hannah, the woman who found her was a volunteer at Jellicoe School and that's how Taylor found herself gearing up to lead the annual territory war with the military cadets and Townies during her senior year. She wasn't elected unanimously by her fellow students so she's determined to do her job well and keep her power until Hannah disappears without a word.  Hannah was the only adult Taylor relied on and she can't get over her sense of abandonment enough to concentrate of the games.  It doesn't help that the leader of the cadets, Jonah Griggs, is the very same boy who turned her in when they ran away together years ago.   The other students fear him because he's rumored to have killed his own father, but Taylor hates him for his betrayal.

As Hannah's disappearance continues, Taylor begins to suspect that the story she learned from Hannah of five kids who started the territory wars eighteen years ago, is actually true.  She knows she must find Hannah and she must know the whole truth about what happened to those five students and how they are connected to her.

It reminded me of a modern-day Australian Dead Poets' Society, where a group of school kids are having secret meetings and learning the harsh realities of life at a tragic young age.  The comparison doesn't quite do it justice though because Jellicoe Road is more complex and multi-layered (but Dead Poets Society definitely got the better title).

I'm not sure that I would have picked this book up based on the blurb alone, because it seems a little too I'm-trying-to-be edgy-and-shock-teenagers (and the boring cover wouldn't tempt me either), but I picked it up after it was announced as a Cybils Young Adult finalist along with The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks (possibly my favorite book of the year), and what higher recommendation could it get?

If someone told me that Melina Marchetta wrote this book for adults and then was directed by an agent or publisher to publish it in the young adult field, I wouldn't have been surprised because the only thing about it that makes it seem young adult it Taylor's age (although I must note that Marchetta always intended it for young adults).  I don't mean that as an insult.  This books is extremely complex and full of poetic moments, and I think it would succeed just as well with an adult audience.

Then there is the issue with language.  Many parents will object to this novel based on its frequent use of the F word.  Normally it would bother me so much that I wouldn't have finished the book, but this plot had me and I tried to keep in mind that the F word is not seen as the ultimate swear word in Australia as it is here.

OK, now some of that may have put you off the book, but I must admit that I picked this book up in bed, judging by it's cover that it would quickly put me to sleep and found myself frantic to finish at 5:30 a.m. when my husband's alarm went off.  It's intriguing and you will not be able to put it down.  And when you finish it, it will haunt you. 

Monday, January 26, 2009

ALA winners!

This morning the American Library Association announced the award winners for 2009.  You can see the whole list here (and I highly recommend checking it out because they are other really amazing awards), but for those dying to know who won the Caldecott, Newbery, and Printz, here they are:

Caldecott winner:

The House in the Night illustrated by Beth Krommes, written by Susan Marie Swanson

Caldecott Honor Books:

A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever written and illustrated by Marla Frazee 

How I Learned Geography written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz 

A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams illustrated by Melissa Sweet, written by Jen Bryant 

Newbery Winner:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Newbery Honor Books:

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by David Small

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle

Savvy by Ingrid Law 

After Tupac & D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson

Printz Winner:

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Printz Honor Books:

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II, The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

Nation by Terry Pratchett

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Many seem surprised by Jellicoe Road's win, but I read it after it was announced as a Cybils YA finalist and it's riveting (as long as lots of F-words don't disturb you and that's never seemed to bother the Printz committee).  The only book I might have wanted to win more was poor Frankie Landau Banks, but at least it got the honor.

As for the Newbery, this was the first year that I couldn't think of a book published this year that I was dying to see win.  I'm glad to see Savvy with an honor, and sadly I have to admit that I have yet to read The Graveyard Book so I better rush out and pick it up before it's impossible to find.

Last week I was flipping through my copy of BYU Magazine and saw an article featuring one of the Newbery judges, Michael Tunnell, a BYU Professor.  When asked what he was looking for in a Newbery winner, Tunnell said, "You've got to have a good strong plot on which to hang character development, on which to hang your beautiful language.  It's the tree on which you hang the other ornaments.  And I think we're not getting that as consistently and we used to."  He also said his favorites from 2008 include Masterpiece by Elise Broach, Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman, When the Sergeant Came Marching Home by Don Lemna, and The Willowbys by Lois Lowry.

I've never known a Newbery judge to name some of their favorites from the year before the official announcement is made, have you?  In fact, I remember the year Betsy Bird served on the Newbery committee, she was asked to remove her reviews of eligible books from her blog so I thought it was kind of forbidden, but maybe I'm wrong.

So were you happy with the ALA award results?  What were you rooting for?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Twilight has been deemed the Vampire book for people who don't like Vampire books, and Stephenie Meyer said that The Host was a science fiction book for people who don't like science fiction books, but it wasn't.  No, the book I would hand that title to is The Hunger Games.  I wasn't going to review it here because what could I say that hadn't already been said, but I've recently run into a few child lit lovers who haven't picked up, and I couldn't let that happen, could I?

Here's the blurb from the publisher:
In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before-and survived.

After I described the book to a friend she said it sounded too gory and depressing for her, and I insisted that it wasn't.  She countered with, "How could a book not be gory and disturbing if the main character has to kill 23 other teenagers in order to survive to the end of the book?"  I know it sounds crazy, but Collins does just that.  This is partially due to the fact that Katniss doesn't have to kill all 23 other kids to win, they can attack each other and the reader doesn't necessarily have to know what happened, Katniss just has to try to be the last one left standing.  The reader gets to know Katniss and the goodness of her heart so well that no matter what she ends up doing, they will still love her in the end.

That said, yes, this is a book where kids kill each other, and I wonder how that effects its Newbery chances.  I probably wouldn't recommend this book to kids twelve and under (because the end has some especially upsetting scenes that would scare the heck out of most younger kids), but that still leaves it within the age range of the Newbery award; however, I wouldn't be surprised if it was pushed into the Printz category.  I just hope that it doesn't get lost between them.

I can think of several books set in futuristic societies where the government has gone awry and readers discover some atrocity committed against the youth (think The Giver, The Shadow Children Series, Uglies, Ender's Game etc.), but The Hunger Games still seems so original.  

Teachers everywhere will love it because it will probably interest boys and girls equally.  The main character is female and studies show that while many girls will pick up books with male main characters, most boys will not pick up books with female main characters; however, a male protagonist emerges within the story.  The story is about a gruesome battle, which will entertain guys but it has a little romance and even fashion mixed in that will be just enough to pull in readers who do not like war stories.

What I think you must know before picking up this book, is that the last line is, "End of Book One" which I promise will make you groan if you had no warning.  There are so many things I still wanted to know about so I'm eagerly awaiting book two.  The good news is, according to Publishers Weekly, Book Two, titled Catching Fire is due out September 8th so you won't have to wait too long.  The final book in the trilogy is tentatively scheduled for 2010.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sammy Keyes and the Cold Hard Cash by Wendelin Van Draanen

Hi, I'm Stephanie Ford, I'm an adult, and I'm addicted to Sammy Keyes mysteries.  There, I said it.  There are so many middle grade fiction series unraveling out there, but this is the one I'm most addicted too.  Sure, I'm always in a hurry to find out how things with Percy Jackson will wrap up, and I NEED to know what happens to Charlie Bone next, oh, and who isn't looking forward to checking on the Goose Girl's characters in Shannon Hale's upcoming Forest Born? But I must say I most look forward to the release of each Sammy Keyes book.

For those of you who may not be familiar (gasp!), Sammy Keyes is a junior high school age sleuth that could kick Nancy Drew's butt (although I enjoy Nancy too, of course).  Sammy's mom dumped her with her grandmother (grams) and whisked off to seek her stardom in Hollywood.  Meanwhile Sammy is forced to sneak out of her Grams' senior high rise, where kids are only allowed to visit, and she sleeps on the couch and hides in the closet when unexpected visitors stop by.  It doesn't sound like the life of luxury, yet Sammy never seems down about it.  Unlike Nancy, Sammy has been known to get her hands dirty as she struggles to keep her quick fists and tongue in cheque.

In Cold Hard Cash, Sammy runs into an elderly man on the fire escape and she's sneaking into Grams and causes him to have a heart attack.  He shocks wads of money into Sammy's hands and he last words are a plea to her to get rid of it.  For the first time in Sammy's life, her curiosity isn't peaked.  She doesn't want to know anything about the money, she wants to keep it, but she can't get rid of the bad feelings surrounding the money and ultimate can't resist solving the mystery.

Some of the Sammy Keyes books seem like they could be after school specials when you read the summaries about issues like drugs, the environment, homelessness etc., but the books never come off that way.  Sammy is funny, and although her mom isn't much of a mom and her dad is out of the picture, she's surrounded by a community of people that care about her.  She's anything but perfect, but I promise, you'll learn to love her.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

For those of you who don't know, the official title of my MA is a Master of Arts in Language, Literacy, and Culture with an emphasis in Children's literature; which basically comes down to the fact that along with all my classes on children's literature and Literacy, I took a lot of classes about culture and race in the classroom and multicultural literature.  I am by no means an expert, but I have been trained to examine the ways different cultures are portrayed in literature and to question what the portrayal teaches children. I really had trouble with this novel.  I wanted to love it, but I did not.  

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian follows the Freshman year of Arnold Spirit AKA Junior, a Spokane Indian living on a reservation in Wellpinit, WA.  After a teacher begs Arnold leave behind life on the reservation before he loses hope like everyone else there, Arnold transfers to an all-white high school 22 miles from his home on the reservation. His parents support his decision, but he's shunned by many on the reservation including his best friend, for his betrayal.

Arnold's wry sense of humor and entertaining cartoons keep the novel going and have caused a few critics to call this book Diary of a Wimpy Kid for the young adult set.

If I could get past all the language and all of Arnold's talk of spending hours in the bathroom pleasing himself (which is hard to do because Arnold likes to talk about it a lot, and I can't ignore because I've heard a lot of sites mention how this book is being used in classrooms and I'd like to know what teacher could get away with that in his/her classroom?  No teacher I know would attempt it.), anyway, if I could get past that, I still couldn't get past the way American Indians are portrayed in this book.  I mean, talk about feeding right into stereotypes, almost every American Indian adult in the novel is described as a drunk, some are nice, some are abusive, but they are all drunks.  Many a book has drawn criticism among American Indians for perpetuating that stereotype.

I hate the way Alexie seems to support the idea that for Arnold to be successful or happy, he has to leave his culture and the reservation behind and go to a white school or he will be doomed to live a life as a poor alcoholic.  It also bothers me that Arnold tries to duke it out with white kids at his new school because that's how he says all American Indians deal with their problems.  They are not SAVAGES incapable of talking things out, and many a white kid still would have fought back when a kid much smaller than him punches him in the face, but Alexie portrays them as civilized and unwilling to result to physical violence, completely shocked at Arnold's behavior.  

Now, I know the book is loosely based on Alexie's youth, but that doesn't make it right, does it?  I searched some reviews by American Indians to see what they thought, and I was surprised to find his book has received very little criticism.  In fact, it's recommended by Oyate, an organization that works to establish literature that teaches respect for Native peoples.  On Her blog American Indians in Children's literature, Debbie Reese did say that on first impression she, "wished the depiction of Native life wasn't so bleak. It feeds stereotypical notions of the tragic victim. For that reason, many will keep reading, because it feels familiar to them, and in that save-the-Indian way some adopt, it nourishes that impulse." But in later posts she applauds the book and says she often gifts it to others.

Now I'm not saying this book belongs on Oyate's list of books to avoid, it does in fact dispel the stereotype that all American Indians are rich from Casinos on reservations, but it was such a hopeless portrayal of American Indians that still perpetuated many other hurtful stereotypes.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

January - Books being turned into movies

At least once a year our book club reads current books being turned into movies.  Here are the picks for this month:

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl
Not enough reading for you?  Or maybe you're curious about other movies in the works? Here's a list with links for more info that club member Scott Knopf helped me put togther:

39 Clues got picked up by Dreamworks, Steven Spielberg is rumored to direct!  Should be out in 2011.
Chocky by John Wyndham (Spielberg acquired film rights in September)  Should be out in 2010.
Eloise in Paris by Kay Thompson
The Giver by Lois Lowry (A lot of you might have already read this one but it's a classic) (Should be out in 2011)
Magic Kingdom for Sale/SOLD by Terry Brooks
Ollie the Otter by Kelly Alan Williamson
Pattington Bear by Michael Bond
Punk Farm by Jarrett J Krosoczka
The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett 

Friday, January 09, 2009

South by Patrick McDonnell

It's not easy to tell a moving story without words, but that's exactly what Patrick McDonnell does in his wordless picture book South.

I am not a connoisseur of comics so I was completely oblivious to the fact that McDonnell is the creator of the comic strip Mutts.  I was familiar with his other books, but I found Hug Time a little too cute and sentimental for me, and while I enjoyed The Gift of Nothing it didn't stick with me.  Not so with South.

South begins with a little, yellow bird who wakes up from a nap to find the rest of his flock has gone south without him.  Mooch the Cat notices the bird's distress and extends his paw in an offer to help. Soon they are off on a journey to find the rest of the flock.

McDonnell's strength has always been his illustrations and here they carry the story without need of words.  I think words could have made this sweet story a bit too sappy, but instead it stands a quiet tale of friendship. 

Back to Life, Back to Reality

Now that my part in this year's Cybils are over and done with, it's back to our regularly featured program around here.  I'll be featuring several of the nominees for the fiction picture book category that I enjoyed and I will also get around to reviewing some of the 50 kajillion other books I have been meaning to review.  Like have you read the Hunger Game yet?  How about the first book in the 39 Clues series? Oh, and what about the finalists in the other Cybils categories?  Get my take on them very soon!

Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland retold by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Mary Blair

With a title like Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland, you might be expecting a watered down version of the Disney movie accompanied by illustrations ripped straight from the screen, but that's not what you will find when you pick it this book up.

Mary Blair was the concept designer behind the Disney movies Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan.  Her was was never intended to be passed along to an audience, it was a semi-rustic design to shape the movies she worked on.  Blair was visionary, and I'm so glad Disney decided to showcase her original works.  Last year, they published Blair's Cinderella artwork with a retelling by Cynthia Rylant.  Who do you hire to follow that one up?  Who could possible capture Lewis Caroll's clever sense of humor and world of wonder?  No one but Jon Scieszka, of course, and lucky Disney signed him up!

There was some debate over whether or not this fit into the fiction picture book category because it's so much longer than your average picture book, but I'm so glad we got to keep it in our category and even happier that the publisher didn't attempt to cut it down to the length of a regular picture book.  Since the artwork was designed for the Disney movie, the text closely follows the plot of the Disney movie and not Carroll's original works.  

It had me from the beginning when Scieszka started with, "Have you ever tried to listen to a long schoolbook on a warm, lazy day?  And have you ever wondered why anyone would make a book so boring? Then you are just like Alice."  Scieszka manages a retelling of Alice that most will find much more approachable than the original.

Now I just hope that 2009 will bring Walt Disney/Mary Blair's Peter Pan!  Who would you choose to author that retelling?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

All's Well That Ends Well

I know I've mentioned it a few times, but I absolutely love serving on a Cybils Committee and I know a few of you are curious about the whole process so here's my update.  After some reshuffling to get a few books into the categories where they properly belonged, we ended up with a total list of 186 books in the fiction picture book category (most of our additions came from books nominated for the non-fiction category that didn't actually belong in the non-fiction category).  Of those 186 books, I read 159 and my committee members all did about the same.  I would have loved to read all of them, but there were several independent or self-published titles that could not be located. Believe me, we made valiant efforts to find each and everyone that we could.  We searched our libraries and local bookshops, where I'm sure we became familiar faces. Sheila from Wands and Worlds did a fantastic job contacting publishers and self-published authors for review copies and maintaining the database so we could see what was coming and what others on the committee were able to read or found.  
My book shelf of Cybils review copies ended up looking like this (minus a few that might have been on my desk at the moment).  That's over a 100 titles there!  Thanks to the publishers who sent review copies because it made discussions a lot easier when we could pull a copy off the shelf and refresh our minds.  I also kept a large stack of all the library copies I could get my hands on so I had direct access to most of the books during discussion.

As we read the books, there was a space in the database for each judge to leave a comment and mark whether or not they wanted the book on their shortlist of books they considered top contenders.  We all ended up with about 18 titles on our shortlists and it was clear that we were not all in agreement because the compiled list of all our shortlists was anything but short.  The week before our final discussion, Mother Reader asked everyone to narrow down their shortlist to 12 books.  Her judging criteria that directed the discussion covered five things: Story, Illustration, Kid-Appeal, Parent-Appeal, That Something Special that makes it Unforgettable.

The final discussion took place in a group forum over IM.  I think each committee does this differently, as my first time serving the discussion took place via voting over email for a few weeks.  Before discussion even started, we could see from the database that there were two books that everyone shortlisted so there automatically became finalists.  Oh, I wish that I could tell you what those two titles are, but we don't want to influence the judges trying to select the winner for our category!  You may think it wouldn't matter, but I think it would.  When I served on the middle grade fiction committee, we had an easy time agreeing on the first four finalists but really struggled to come up with a fifth title so we were all surprised when the fifth title was the book that won!

Once we were all in agreement on the first to books, we started down the shortlists starting with those most of us had listed and working our way down to those the least had shortlisted.  We went through one title at a time and everyone had a chance to make their case for why a book should or should not make the list.  We'd go through the criteria and argue that one book was excellent, but in all honesty would not appeal to a kid which was why the Cybils started; another had huge kid appeal, but wasn't what we'd called a literary achievement and we were trying to pick books that had both, etc.  We also tried to include some diversity in culture, style, and reading level.  As you might guess, there was a lot of disagreement, but it was great to get five very different perspectives. 

A few short hours later, we were all relatively happy with the list.  Were we all in agreement on every single book that made the list?  No way, I'd be worried if we were. In the end, each of us had some favorites that we fought for that did not make the list (ahem, Patrick the Somnambulist, Little Hoot, and Dinosaur vs Bedtime, I promise, I did try!) and each of us did not absolutely love a book or two that made the final list (and again I can't tell you mine, but I wish that I could), but there were no books on that list that anyone strongly objected to and each judge had several books that they loved make it on the final list.  I'm glad to say that as discussion ended, each judge seemed happy and approving of the final list. I hope that the rest of you pick them up and enjoy them too!

Now I just have to sit on my hands and wait with the rest of you to the winner to be announced on Valentine's Day

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Cybils Finalists Announced!!!!!!!!

I have a few more details for you on the judging side of things, but the Cybils finalists were announced today so I can finally reveal the finalists my panel chose for the fiction picture book category!

Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek : A Tall Thin Tale by Deborah Hopkinson illustrated by John Hendrix
Big Bad Bunny by Franny Billingsley illustrated by Brian KarasChester's Back by Melanie WattHow to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob GrahamKatie Loves The Kittens by John HimmelmanThe Sea Serpent and Me by Dashka Slater illustrated by Catia ChienA Visitor For Bear by Bonny Becker illustrated by Kady MacDonald DentonWabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein illustrated by Ed Young
Congratulations to all of the finalists!  I want to share more with you, but I need to make sure there's not anything I'm not supposed to say so check back for updates.  In the mean time, hurry over to the Cybils site for the lists of all the other finalists.  I trust my fellow bloggers so much that these lists of finalists always go straight to the top of my must read lists.  I also love seeing how many I have already read and feeling smug that I have such great taste choosing books from the library ;)  It's so fun to read along and root for favorites before they are announced on Valentine's Day.  Happy reading!

For the Love of Oliver Jeffers

Now you know that I love anything by Oliver Jeffers, but I wasn't sure what to make of the news that his picture book Lost and Found was being made into a short animated film.  I mean, how could you make that a film without losing a bit of its Jeffers essence?  Well, after seeing the preview I think maybe it's been done!  My son asked to watch it five times in a row.  I wish I could have been in London of Christmas Eve to see the whole 25 minutes on TV.  I guess the rest of us will just have to wait.

You can see the preview here and more images from the film here.