Librarian Mom

Newbery Winners, Part 1

I went to bed Sunday night hoping, hoping, hoping that When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, would win the Newbery Medal, and lo and behold, Monday morning when I woke up and Googled, my wish was granted! It wasn't a terrific surprise; When You Reach Me has been the odds-on favorite to win the Newbery ever since it was published earlier this year. One feeling among many librarians I know is relief that the 2010 Newbery winner is a gorgeously written and plotted book that is also one they're fairly sure many kids will actually like.

This comes up a lot with the Newbery, more than with other children's book awards: the sense that since the medal is specifically given for literary merit, often the winners appeal more to adults who appreciate a fine turn of phrase than to kids who are more apt to want humor and action and characters they can relate to. I'm generalizing wildly--kids like as many different things in their books as adults do--but the point holds: every year or two, it seems, there’s an article by an adult complaining about deadly dull or depressing books that their kid is forced to read because they have that shiny gold medal on the cover, followed by ripples of fervent print and online agreement.

My take on this is that assigning kids to read a Newbery Medal winner because it's a Newbery Medal winner is a misuse of the award (although I admit that I did this, once, early in my school librarian career-- it wasn't a success and I never did it again). The award really is mandated to be for "distinguished" literary quality, not for intrinsic appeal to the average kid. Better to have kids read, and vote on, a couple of nominees from one of the many regional children's choice awards, like the Pacific Northwest's Young Reader's Choice Award, than to force a Newbery winner down their throats. Or have them read a bunch of current kids' novels and try to game the Newbery for themselves: which one will win? Why? Then when the award is announced, they'll have some idea of how hard it is to pick a "best" book, especially in collaboration with a bunch of other people with differing opinions.

One thing I like about the Newbery is that sometimes it gives staying power to a book that is truly a gem but that might be too odd, or too uncategorizable, to stay in print long just on the basis of demand from kids themselves. Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, the 2008 winner, is a great example of that. I'd be surprised if many kids were rushing to check this book out, at least not without an exceptionally juicy booktalk or recommendation from a trusted teacher or librarian: it's a collection of monologues about kids in the Middle Ages, which is just not the kind of topic that has kids battling each other to borrow a book. It's also, if you take the time to read it, wry, funny, tragic, haunting...an amazing piece of writing. Without the Newbery, Good Masters might have fallen into obscurity within a few years, and that would have been a terrible shame. That said, when a kid comes and asks me for "a good book" I don't automatically push Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! into their hands-- it's a rare kid who will fall for this book on first flipping through it. But the ones who will, will fall hard. I'm very grateful that the Newbery has helped assure that it will be there for them for a long time.

More on the Newbery in the next post; in the meantime, here’s the ALA’s official press release listing all the Youth Media Awards announced yesterday. Congratulations to all the winners, including Scholastic titles The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg, by Rodman Philbrick, which won a Newbery honor; Siebert teen award winner Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork, and Geisel honor book I Spy Fly Guy, by Tedd Arnold, as well as Scholastic authors Walter Dean Myers, who was awarded the first-ever Coretta Scott King – Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, and Jim Murphy, winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults.

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New Year's Confessions, Plus One More Thing

  • After discovering last week that one of my favorite series-book heroines, Allie Finkle, of the “Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls” series by Meg Cabot, has a website devoted to her and her books, I have spent way, way, way too much time playing the geode game. It is a lot harder than it looks, especially since so many of the geodes are slight variations on a few different colors (mostly pink, purple and green). If you get caught too, here’s my tip:  say the colors out loud as you click on each geode; it makes it easier to remember where they are.
  • Speaking of series books, I confess that I never read a Baby Sitter’s Club book until a few years ago, when the release of graphic-novel versions of the first few BSC books prompted me to pick up the chapter-book original of Kristy’s Great Idea for comparison. I have to admit (another confession) that it didn’t grab me as much as either the graphic novel or Ann Martin’s later, stand-alone books, like A Dog’s Life, but my librarian-self, and my kid, are both very excited at the news that the original books are being reissued. This series was incredibly popular the first time around, and I bet they it will be again when the first few books (and new prequel) are re-released this spring.
  • The Cybils finalists for 2010 are posted! That’s a celebration, not a confession; my embarrassed confession is that I’ve only read four of the 50+ nominated titles: Watch Me Throw the Ball, by Mo Willems; 11 Birthdays, by Wendy Maas; Operation Yes, by Sara Lewis Holmes; and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains. I liked all of them a lot, so that bodes well for the others, which I’m going to start hunting down so I can read them. I’m also quite sheepish because not only did I not volunteer for any Cybils panels this year, but didn’t even nominate any titles. But—New Year’s resolution!--I’m going to start noting down the copyright year for every book I read, so  it’ll be easier to nominate next year. Now, if I can just stop playing the geode game, I’ll have more time for all that reading.

Finally, not a confession, but very cool news:

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My Decade in Kidlit

In the summer of 1999, I started keeping a log of all the books I read except for picture books, and still keep it to this day. Which means I have a handy record of my decade in reading. This morning, I went through and picked out my own personal favorite middle-grade and teen books of the past ten years. Here's the list. I I tried in vain get it down to 100, but did manage to winnow it down from 143 to 103, with an asterisk for my (somewhat arbitrarily chosen) favorite from each year. But really, those favorites are pretty arbitrary: how can a person pick between Feed and The Wee Free Men? Between Persepolis and Inkheart and The City of Ember? It's futile, I tell you.

One note: These books are listed by the year I read them, not by when they were published. I left out books I read earlier and re-read between 2000 and 2009, but did include older books that I was reading for the first time.

2000

  • 1.       The Good Liar, by  Gregory Maguire
  • 2.       Soldier Mom, by Alice Mead
  • 3.       *Rules of the Road, by Joan Bauer (teen)

[it was the year my daughter was born; I read a lot of fluff and parenting books. Or maybe I was too frazzled to record everything I read?]

2001

  • 4.       Homeless Bird,  by Gloria Whelan
  • 5.       Nory Ryan’s Song, by Patricia Reilly Giff
  • 6.       Little Lit, edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly (graphica)
  • 7.       The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich
  • 8.       In My Hands, by Irene Gut Opdyke (NF, teen)
  • 9.       Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson (teen)
  • 10.   Welcome to the Ark, by Stephanie Tolan (teen)
  • 11.   *Seek, by Paul Fleischman (teen)
  • 12.   Monster, by Walter Dean Myers (teen)

2002

  • 13.   *The School Story, by Andrew Clements
  • 14.   Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio, by Peg Kehret (NF)
  • 15.   The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, by Ann Brashares (teen)
  • 16.   The Doll People, by Ann Martin and Laura Selznick
  • 17.   A Suitcase of Seaweed, by Janet Wong (poetry)
  • 18.   Here at the Scenic-Vu Motel, by Thelma Hatch Wyss (teen, sort of)
  • 19.   Hush, by Jacqueline Woodson

2003

  • 20.   Lord of the Nutcracker Men, by Iain Lawrence
  • 21.   Walk Across the Sea, by Susan Fletcher
  • 22.   Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia Wrede & Caroline Stevermer
  • 23.   Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi (teen/adult) (graphica)
  • 24.   Inkheart, by Cordelia Funke
  • 25.   *City of Ember, by Jeanne Duprau
  • 26.   Boy Meets Boy, by David Levithan (teen)
  • 27.   Hoot, by Carl Hiaasen

2004

  • 28.   Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card (teen, kinda)
  • 29.   The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo
  • 30.   The Canning Season, by Polly Horvath (teen)
  • 31.   Hana’s Suitcase, by Karen Levine (NF)
  • 32.   Saffy’s Angel, by Hilary McKay
  • 33.   Gingerbread, by Rachel Cohn (teen)
  • 34.   House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer (teen, I guess)
  • 35.   The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett
  • 36.  * Feed, by M.T. Anderson (teen)
  • 37.   The Wreckers, by Iain Lawrence
  • 38.   Belondweg Blossoming, by Rachel Hartman (graphica)

2005

  • 39.   Tangerine, by Edward Bloor
  • 40.   Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko
  • 41.   Ida B. …and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World, by  Katherine Hannigan
  • 42.   *Sea of Trolls, by Nancy Farmer
  • 43.   Permanent Rose, by Hilary McKay
  • 44.   Gregor the Overlander, by Suzanne Collins
  • 45.   East, by Edith Pattou
  • 46.   How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff (teen)
  • 47.   So B. It, by Sarah Weeks
  • 48.   Airborn, by  Kenneth Oppel
  • 49.   Millicent Min, Girl Genius, by Lisa Yee

2006

  • 50.   The Misadventures of Maude March, by Audrey Coloumbis
  • 51.   *Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, by Gary Schmidt
  • 52.   The Mulberry Project, by Linda Sue Park
  • 53.   The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall
  • 54.   The Star of Kazan, by Eva Ibbotson
  • 55.   What I Call Life, by Jill Wolfson
  • 56.   Yellow Star, by Jennifer Roy

2007

  • 57.   Fly By Night, by Frances Hardinge
  • 58.   Year of the Dog, by Grace Lin
  • 59.   Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale
  • 60.   Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn/David Levithan (teen)
  • 61.   Counting on Grace, by Elizabeth Winthrop
  • 62.   Tyrell, by Coe Booth (teen)
  • 63.   An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green (teen)
  • 64.   *A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, by Laura Amy Schlitz
  • 65.   Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld
  • 66.   Octavian Nothing Volume 1, by M.T. Anderson (teen)
  • 67.   Clementine, by Sarah Pennypacker
  • 68.   American Born Chinese, by Gene Yuen Yang (teen) (graphica)
  • 69.   Hattie Big Sky, by Kirby Larson
  • 70.   Toys Go Out, by Emily Jenkins
  • 71.   Harry Sue, by Sue Stauffacher
  • 72.   Vive La Paris, by Esme Codell
  • 73.   Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman (teen/adult)

2008

  • 74.   The Green Glass Sea, by Ellen Klages
  • 75.   Miss Spitfire, by Sarah Miller
  • 76.   Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! By Amy Laura Schlitz
  • 77.   The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (teen)
  • 78.   The Arrival, by Shaun Tan (graphica)
  • 79.   The Dairy Queen, by  Catherine Gilbert Murdock (teen)
  • 80.   Someday This Pain will Be Useful to You, by Peter Cameron (teen)
  • 81.   Touching Snow, by M. Sindy Felin (teen)
  • 82.   A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban
  • 83.   Shooting the Moon, by Frances O’Roark Dowell
  • 84.   The Moffats, by Eleanor Estes
  • 85.   London Calling, by Edward Bloor (teen)
  • 86.   The Dragonfly Pool, by Eva Ibbotson
  • 87.   Fat Kit Rules the World, by K.L. Going (teen)
  • 88.   The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (teen)
  • 89.   *The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by  E. Lockhart (teen)
  • 90.   Ten Cents a Dance, by  Christine Fletcher (teen)

2009

  • 91.   Tender Morsels, by  Margo Lanagan (teen)
  • 92.   What I Saw and How I Lied, by  Judy Blundell (teen)
  • 93.   The Graveyard Book,  by Neil Gaiman
  • 94.   Sweethearts, by  Sara Zarr (teen)
  • 95.   Life as We Knew It, by  Susan Beth Pfeiffer (teen)
  • 96.   My Tiki Girl, by Jennifer McMahon (teen)
  • 97.   Marcello and the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork (teen)
  • 98.   Flora Segunda, by Ysabeau S. Wilce
  • 99.   Gullstruck Island [a/k/a The Lost Conspiracy] by Frances Hardinge
  • 100.                        Jellicoe Road, by  Melina Marchetta (teen)
  • 101.                        *When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead
  • 102.                        Liar, by  Justine Larbalestier (teen)

103.                        ..and Ash, by  Malinda Lo, if I finish it tonight!

May we all have the problem of too many good books to read in 2010 and the years and decades beyond. Happy New Year!

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Doll Magic

My daughter, an only child with two December holidays to celebrate, predictably cleaned up in the gift department this year, and is revelling in all the shiny new loot. One of her very favorite presents, though, is not new at all.

When I was a kid, I collected dollhouse furniture for several years. The plan was for my mom and me to put together an elaborate Victorian dollhouse together from a kit that she'd bought. The dollhouse project, alas, was never completed, but the furniture kept accumulating. Some of it I bought, and some was given to me. So not only did I have a family of four dolls and a complete dollhouse living room, kitchen, bedrooms, and bathroom (with porcelain toilet and clawfoot tub), but a multitude of miniature food, dishes, doll toys, tiny books...even a cardboard dollhouse for the dolls to play with. My grandmother embroidered blankets and knitted little throw rugs for the dolls. My cousin went to China for two years and came back with wooden dollhouse-sized thermoses and tea mugs. Someone gave me a metal piggybank in the shape of a woodstove. None of it was incredibly valuable on its own, but all together it was an amazing wealth of dollhouse stuff.

A few months ago, my aunt e-mailed me and asked if I wanted her to ship me the box of dollhouse furnishings, which had been stored at her house for the past twenty-five years.. I was grateful that she'd kept my things all these years and excited to see them again, but wasn't sure how well the fragile materials would have stood their travels. And indeed, the first few pieces I took out of the box--including two of the four dolls, and the prized wooden bunk bed that I'd bought with my own money--were badly broken. But most of the furniture and other things, and the father and daughter dolls, had survived intact. With my spouse's encouragement, I wrapped all the non-broken items in tissue paper, packed them into two large gift bags, and gave them to my daughter on the seventh night of Hanukkah.

I wasn't sure how she'd react. Though she loves dolls, they hadn't been high on her wish list this year; instead, she'd been pretty clear that she wanted more Webkinz, an iPod, and a Nintendo DS, none of which we planned to give her. I was a little worried that she'd see the dollhouse things as second-best.

I couldn't have been more wrong. As she unwrapped the tiny things, one after another, her wonderment and excitement grew. Over and over, she pronounced them "totally awesome" and "better than a hundred million Webkinz." She exclaimed over the little napkins with minute metal napkin holders; the toolbox with tools; the miniture roll-top desk. She asked for her small wooden dollhouse to be brought back into her room from the garage; the furniture didn't nearly fit, so she cleared out some of her old books (she has a lot of books, not surprisingly) and converted two of her upper bookshelves into a doll bedroom and nursery.

Finally, we persuaded her to go to bed herself. She tucked the father and daughter dolls into their beds in the bookcase (the mother and son, she declared, were at the hospital recovering from a car accident; we have hopes of getting them fixed at a real doll hospital), and then showed me the ribbon she'd draped from the father's room on one shelf to the daughter's room, two shelves below. "So if they can move around when I'm asleep, like in The Doll People, they won't fall and get hurt going from one room to the other," she explained matter-of-factly. Then, for good measure, she put a pillow on the floor, in case the dolls fell or wanted to visit the kitchen and living room in the main dollhouse on the other side of her room.

All of which is by way of a lengthy introduction to this list of books about dolls, which figure so prominently in the holiday season: as gifts, as the premise of seasonal ballets, and as figures in creches and tree ornaments and miniature train sets and villages.

Perfect for any doll-loving girls you know, and boys too; one 4th-grade boy memorably declared to me several years ago that "The Doll People ROCKS!"
Godden's The Doll's House is often cited as the definitive dollhouse novel for kids, but this is the one I remember best: the tale of a girl far from home, who finds solace in making a home for two dolls.
The adventurous action figure who stars in this book is even a Christmas present.
The dark side of dolls. I admit I'm not planning on giving this to my daughter any time soon; it might make her afraid of her dollhouse. Excellent for older kids and the less squeamish, though.
 Another dark look at dollhouses, though the dolls here aren't as malevolent as Sleator's.
There are many gorgeous retellings of this popular seasonal ballet, including one wonderful Hanukkah adapation, The Golden Dreydl (by my cousin! Not that I'm biased or anything...)
Lifesize dolls on the run. Sounds creepy, I know, but you become quite fond of them.
A classic.
 Another classic.

Oooh, I just loved this one. A classic in the making, with a lovely old-fashioned feel.

For many people, this season of lights holds the promise of magic, and somehow these miniature reproductions of human beings embody that promise. It's easy to feel, like my daughter does, a tingle of possibility in the presence of dolls: they're not alive, we know they're not, and yet...what if they might be? That edge of uncertainty holds the key to the enchantment and the eeriness of dolls.

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No-Spoiler Zone: Two Great 2009 Books

Sometimes it’s tricky to know how much to reveal when I’m recommending or reviewing a book. There are books where I can tell you the whole plot and it won’t ruin it for you; and there are others where even mentioning the book’s genre will give too much away and diminish the reading experience for whoever reads what I wrote.

Two of the most lauded titles of 2009, which also happen to be two of my favorite books from this year, fall into the latter category. Though the two are very different, they have this in common: while I was reading each book, I was fully inside its world. And as soon as I finished each of them, I wanted to go back to the beginning and immediately start reading again to see what I’d missed, and how the puzzle was put together.

Both titles could be categorized as interstitial—they don’t fit neatly into one literary genre. The first, When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, is utterly grounded in its time and place, which is New York City in the late 1970's, but doesn’t have that remote, “this is how we did things then” sense that so many historical novels do. Rather, to me, someone who is the exact same age as the protagonist, Miranda, (twelve years old in 1978), the book has the feel of a contemporary novel actually written at that time, like something I could have plucked off the spinner of paperback books in the reading corner of my 3rd grade open classroom and then spent the whole day with.

Though it reads like 1970’s contemporary realism, When You Reach Me has more to offer than wry first-person narration and latchkey kids and seedy delis and an un-gentrified Upper West Side and a mom studying for her appearance on The $20,000 Pyramid (though those would be plenty for me). There’s a speculative fiction element that’s central to the book. You know within the first pages that something weird is going on, but it takes most of the book for the puzzle to all come together. And when it does, it’s immensely satisfying and sad and moving.

Liar, by Justine Larbalestier, is also set in New York City—in the present, this time—and also has a female, first-person narrator, and a family with a small apartment and without a lot of money. And you could also say it’s interstitial. But that’s about it for common elements. Unlike When You Reach Me, whose ideal audience would be kids in about grades 4 through 7, Liar is very much a teen or young adult novel, with darkness at its center. The narrator, Micah, tells us  right away that she’s a compulsive liar. But, she promises, in these pages she will tell the truth. Of course, most readers won’t believe that promise. And they’d be smart not to.

I wrote about Liar earlier this year, when the original cover design occasioned a fair bit of controversy  in the book world. I hadn’t yet read the book then, and now that I have, it’s hard to imagine it being released with the original cover. Although the book isn’t about race, the fact that Micah is African-American (or rather, mixed-race, since her mom is white) is an important aspect of her character, and having a white girl’s photograph on the cover of the book definitely would have misled me into thinking that she was lying about that, too. In fact, some of what Micah tells us—including her race-- is true (within the world of the novel, which is of course a big lie itself, if you count fiction as a lie). It’s just that you’re never quite sure what to believe…

I read a lot about kids’ and teen books, but I was lucky enough to come to both When You Reach Me and Liar with almost no knowledge of their contents. I’d wish the same for any reader of these books, though the longer they’re around—and I expect that both will be in print, and read, for a good long while—the harder that will be. So if you’re looking for a last-minute holiday present for a kid or teen who loves reading (or an adult who loves kid or teen books), my recommendation would be to buy them one of these titles. Tell them you heard it was terrific.

And don’t tell them anything else.

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Holiday Books Old and New

Lots of people (including me) are still working on their holiday shopping, and books are of course a great present for kids (and everyone else)! Mother Reader's 105 Ways to Give a Book is becoming a holiday classic, with ideas for all ages, from preschoolers to adults. If you and your child like to bake together,  the Scholastic website has a sweet (literally) page of Book-Inspired Gift Kits, all of which happen to involve edible treats.

And then there are the books themselves. At our house, we've dusted off my daughter's old favorite Chanukah books, The Flying Latke and Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, and my new favorite, Lemony Snicket's The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming. I like Scholastic's lists of holiday picture books for preschoolers, titles for independent readers, and holiday stories for early elementary school kids, which include books about Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and New Year as well as Christmas.

One new holiday book that I just love is Winter Lights: A Season in Poems & Quilts, by Anna Grossnickle Hines. Despite the Christmas tree on the cover, this is actually a book about many different holiays of lights, from Christmas to Chanukah, St. Lucia Day, Chinese New Year, and other winter celebrations, as well as non-holiday winter phenomena like the Aurora Borealis. Each is represented with a short, lyrical poem. Here's the one about icicles: "Overnight/an icicle grew/catching the stars/above my window./Now/in the sunlight/ it sets/them/free". But it's the illustrations--dazzling and (I have to say it) luminous quilts-- that make this book shine. You can see several of the quilts from the book, and read about how Hines came to create them, on her website. Here's a direct link to her quilt depicting farolitos, and to the icicle quilt that accompanies the poem I quoted. I think they're just glorious.

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Peeps, Cream Puffs, and Mollusks: Authors on the Web

If you've ever seen a children's author speak to an audience of kids, you know that kids always want to know what in a book is "true", especially if it's based on the author's life. When you make a connection with the stories someone tells or writes, it makes you want to hear their own stories as well. And it's not just kids who are fascinated by true personal stories. Last week I hosted a storytelling party for librarians. One of the attendees gave us a choice: he could tell a folktale, or the story of how he learned to ride a bicycle when he was seven. Everyone there wanted to hear the bicycle story (it was good, too!).

Way back when I was a student librarian working at the central branch of a big city library, I used to browse through the "Something About the Author" series in our reference area. I loved reading the real stories behind the stories of authors I'd come to know and love through their work.

These days, researching authors' lives is much easier. "Something About the Author" is still around, but hundreds (maybe thousands) of children's authors also maintain Web pages that list their published books and usually include autobiographical information too.  And then there are some that have that little something extra:

  • Sarah Ellis, author of books such as Odd Man Out and The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, has a great "Then and Now" chart on her site about things she liked (picnics, bicycles, getting the giggles) and didn't like (raisin pie, arguments, cold water) as a kid and as an adult, as well as some things she didn't like as a kid but likes now (opera, Jane Austen, bedtime) and vice versa. Highly entertaining!
  • While writing my last blog post, I came across Nancy Farmer's website. Wow! What a treasure trove of information and memoir. As I mentioned, most author websites include a biography page, but hers is truly extensive, painting such a vivid picture of her emotional and family life during childhood as well as the later experiences that informed her fiction. I was fascinated to read her Q & A section, in which she includes long bits of personal background, especially about her dystopian novel The House of the Scorpion, which she considers her most important book as well as, astonishingly, the most closely based on her childhood. She writes:

"Matt is based on my son Daniel and on my own childhood.  No, I wasn’t thrown into a room full of sawdust, but it felt like that sometimes.  I was an unexpected, and probably unwanted, child born when my parents were too old.  El Patrón has some resemblance to my mother."

  • The biography section of Shannon Hale's website features short, medium-length, and "ridiculously long" (her phrase!) versions of her life story, but the best parts have got to be her husband's and toddler son's versions of her bio. (Excerpt from the latter: "She is a dedicated writer, a loving mother, and a passable dance instructor. She also brews a mean oatmeal-and-applesauce gruel.") I've read Hale's books Princess Academy and The Goose Girl, and though I loved them, they didn't strike me as especially funny, so her wicked sense of humor as evidenced on this site is a welcome surprise.
  • Grace Lin's site includes a "fun facts" section where she explores some other career paths she might have taken if she hadn't become a children's illustrator and author of The Year of the Dog and many other wonderful books. As she writes, Grace "has come to the conclusion that she's very glad that she IS a children's book illustrator. After you read about her other career possibilities, you will be too!" My favorite is probably the one about why she is not a chef. Hint: you will be very glad you never had to eat those cream puffs.
  • Jon Scieska's Answers to Frequently Asked Questions page is just that: the answers. As befits the creator of such smart and tricky books as Math Curse, he leaves it up to you to figure out what the questions are. He also lists several "Not All That Frequently, But Really Asked Questions," like "Have you ever been to America?" "What is your favorite mollusk?" and "We had to write to our favorite author, but Roald Dahl is dead so I'm writing to you."

Hungry for more kid author info? Check out the Authors and Illustrators section of "The Stacks," Scholastic's site for kids.

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Thankful for Wonderful Sequels

Sometimes starting to read an unfamiliar book is like walking into a party full of people you don't know. You have to keep track of a confusing swirl of names and faces, try to suss out the vibe, wander around looking for a place to hang your coat. Not to mention the anxiety-- what if everyone there is boring, or irritating, or cliquish? What if you don't like the food? What if you can't find the bathroom? It can be overwhelming.

By contrast, when you open the second or third or tenth book in a series, it's like spending the evening hanging out with good friends. You don't get lost finding the house, you're familiar with everyone's quirks, you get the jokes, and even if there are a few new friends-of-friends at the gathering, it's easy to remember who they are and feel at ease with them. No wonder kids like series books-- I like series books, too! Especially when the weather waxes cold and dark and miserable, it's so comforting to return to a world I've been to, and liked, before.

I'm not sure whether it's a trend or a coincidence, but just in the past month I've read a slew of really excellent follow-up volumes to some of my favorite kids' or  teen novels of recent years:

Al Capone Shines My Shoes, by Gennifer Choldenko. Just as he did in Al Capone Does My Shirts, Moose Flannagan once again finds himself mixed up in an intrigue involving Alcatraz Island's most notorious resident, all for the sake of his autistic sister, Natalie. This time, he's worried Natalie may get kicked out of the Esther P. Marinoff School, or worse, if he doesn't find a way to get yellow roses to Capone's girlfriend when she comes to the island to visit. And that's just the beginning. This sequel actually goes deeper in some ways than the first volume, especially in its exploration of some of the less sympathetic characters, like junior femme fatale Piper and the stick-in-the-mud warden Darby Trixle.

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins. When I finished The Hunger Games last year--way too late on a work night, because I could not tear myself away--I closed the book in a haze of pleasant exhaustion mingled with anxious anticipation of the sequel. Part of my anxiety was for Katniss, left cliff-hanging in a seemingly impossible situation, and part of it was for myself, the reader: would the next volume, as seemed likely, be all about choosing between two guys? I was desperate to find out what happened, but didn't know if I could handle that. Fortunately, Collins is more subtle than I gave her credit for, and this sequel is much more about survival and loyalty than it is about romance. The bad news is that now I am left waiting anxiously for the third volume. Please hurry, Suzanne Collins!

Islands of the Blessed, by Nancy Farmer. The Sea of Trolls is one of my very, very, very favorite books, so when a sequel, The Land of the Silver Apples, appeared last year, I was dubious; after all, how often do sequels live up to their predecessors? And it's true, I found the second and third volumes to be a bit more sprawling, and less astonishing, than The Sea of Trolls. At the same time, I've come to care so much for these characters, I'd follow them to the ends of the Earth-- which is pretty much where Farmer takes them in Islands of the Blessed. She even brings back that improbably good-humored berserker, Olaf One-Brow, for a final curtain call.

Front and Center, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. I don't want to get all gushy-- she'd hate that-- but D.J. Schwenk, heroine of Dairy Queen, its sequel The Off Season, and now concluding volume Front and Center, is so incredibly funny and unassuming and  (though she'd never admit it) wise and, well, darn it, NICE, that she and her whole story just charm my socks off. Even though I know nothing about farming and care nothing about sports, and farming and sports are D.J.'s whole life. For a character who claims to be so bad at expressing herself with words, she sure gets a lot across;  D.J. is never maudlin or sentimental, yet of all the titles I've written about here, and for all that it's probably the funniest one as well, this is the only book that had me crying at the end.

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Kid Reading Report: Age 9

My kid has been reading to herself a lot in the past couple of months; first she powered through the Percy Jackson series, gobbling the five books down as fast as we could reserve them from the library.  Now she’s renewing her acquaintance with the Ramona books, and dipping back into her old chapter-book favorites, the Rainbow Magic series (I admit I’m relieved she can read these on her own this time around). Her school is running a reading-incentive program where she gets stickers and chances at prizes for reading every day, so she’s been assiduous about making sure we sign her record sheet. She still likes picture books sometimes, too, especially if they’re funny; she borrowed Cordelia Funke’s Pirate Girl from her school library last week.

Then there are the night-time read-alouds, chosen by her kids’-book-besotted parents. Now that she’s nine, we’re breaking out the big guns. A few weeks ago, we read her A Wrinkle in Time. I don’t think she would have liked it so much last year—too weird, too complicated, too scary, especially the part where Charles Wallace is subsumed by IT—but we called the timing right and she was totally entranced, though Madeleine L’Engle’s habit of ending every chapter on a cliff-hanger made it very hard to find a point to stop reading each night.

Then, yesterday, we happened to be looking at a cute, accessible picture book one of her grandparents gave her about Leonardo Da Vinci, and I oh-so-casually mentioned that there was a really good kids’ book that was partly about another famous Italian artist, Michelangelo, and that it was also about two kids who run away and hide out in a huge museum in New York City and discover a mystery about a statue that they think Michelangelo might have carved. She begged to hear the first part of the book, and soon we were deep into From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  I’d tried to interest her in this book as a read-aloud last spring, before our visit to New York, and she’d scorned it. But this year it was just the right time.

I wondered whether the Metropolitan Museum has any kind of guide on their website to the art that Jamie and Claudia encounter during their fictional sojourn in the museum, and, lo and behold, they do. Sort of. They also devoted an issue of their kids' newsletter to the book (opens as a PDF file). Sounds like the 16th-century canopy bed that the kids sleep in isn’t there anymore, and neither are the pools where they bathe and gather coins. Today we read the part where Claudia and Jamie have breakfast at the Automat, and I had to explain about the Automat, which I remember visiting as a teenager, and how it was like a whole restaurant full of vending machines. And also how it’s not there anymore either.  

Oh, well; things change. But, fortunately, they don’t change so much that The Mixed-Up Files is less comprehensible or less enjoyable for my daughter than it was when I picked it up some 35 years ago.  Getting to share it with my kid is a treat that was worth waiting for.

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Remembering Esther Hautzig on Remembrance Day

In the United States it's called Veterans' Day; in Canada, it's Remembrance Day; England calls it Armistice Day, recalling the end of World War I. No matter the name, tomorrow is a day when many people think about war and its costs: for those who fight, those caught in the crossfire, and those waiting at home.

Children who live in a war zone, and those whose parents are fighting, have no choice: they know about war, whether anyone wants them to or not. More sheltered kids, who live without first-hand knowledge of war, often encounter the concept through books.

It was like that for me. Even though the United States was at war in Vietnam when I was born and throughout my early childhood, and even though World War II had dominated my parents' childhoods (so much so that my dad remembers thinking that the newspapers would have to close down when the war ended, because there wouldn't be any news), war was much more of a literary concept for me than as a real-life historical one.

And one of the first books I remember reading about war was The Endless Steppe, by Esther Hautzig.

The Endless Steppe, which is based on Hautzig’s own life, starts on a beautiful, sunny morning. The narrator wakes up as usual in her apartment, which is part of a compound where she’s surrounded by loving relatives and material privilege. But her life is about to change forever: the Communists have taken over the city of Vilna, where she lives, and she, her parents, and her grandmother are about to be arrested as capitalists and sent to Siberia.

The rest of the book is the story of the next five years, as Esther and her family adapt to privations, hunger, unbelievably harsh weather, crazy orders from the military which controls their lives, and, maybe worst of all, isolation from the rest of their loved ones and uncertainty about their future.

I read The Endless Steppe before I knew much about World War II, or even about my own family’s history (my grandmother was also from Vilna, but I didn’t make the connection at the time), and , later, lumped the book in my memory with the many Holocaust books that I was to read in the next several years. When I re-read it a few years ago, I realized that it is a Holocaust book mainly by omission, and that in fact the family’s years in exile in Siberia most probably saved their lives: when they return to Vilna at the end of the war, they discover that most of their extended family has been killed by the Nazis.

So many of the small details in this book have stayed with me:  how Esther has to go to the bathroom so badly while they’re lined up waiting for the train to exile; the sweater she’s wearing, which is to become something like a second skin for her during her years in exile;  the vegetables that her flower-loving grandmother plants in her Siberian garden, because food is more important than flowers; the special boots that Esther saves up to buy near the end of the book and insists on wearing for the family’s return to Vilna, only to discover that they are hoplelessly unfashionable outside of Siberia—in five years, she’s become a stranger, an outsider, in her old home.

Esther Hautzig died last week, after a long life of work with children and books: writing, editing, and volunteering for the New York Public Library. So on this Remembrance Day, I’ll be remembering not only the soldiers who fought, and who still fight, but the kids like Esther, whose worlds are turned upside down by war. The Endless Steppe opened my mind to that understanding—that for many kids war is not just a faraway word--and I’ll always be grateful to Esther Hautzig for writing it.

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