Awash in a Sea of Books

 [written very, very late a few nights ago.]

I shouldn’t be up right now. I should have been asleep hours ago. But I couldn’t. I’m in the grip of a book.

Sometimes I was a kid I used to walk along the bookshelves in the children’s section, running my hand along the spines, waiting for a book to give off a…something. A tingle, a buzz, a call, a sense that this was the right book for me to read right then. And sometimes, I swear I felt it. Maybe it was just a good design, a color, a font, a word in the title that caught my attention. Or maybe it was something else, not so easily explained..

Sometimes it’s like that still; sometimes not. There are rhythms to reading, just as there are to anything else. I’d been floundering for weeks when I picked up The Pinhoe Egg, unable to find anything that really captured my interest, skimming along on New Yorkers and blog posts, and I forced my mind to focus on it despite frequent distractions, because it’s a Young Reader’s Choice Award title and I needed to read one, and because I love Diana Wynne Jones and her Chrestomanci novels, and how she makes magic and its practitioners seem everyday and ordinary and funny and this was a new one about Cat, the nine-lifed enchanter who’s both incredibly powerful and charmingly unassuming,. And after a while I was pulled in solidly, reading through meals and at breaks at work and sorry to leave that world when it was over.

Then White Sands, Red Menace came in on hold. I read the first book about these characters, The Green Glass Sea, last year, skeptical at first about whether it was going to be one of those books that grownups think are so beautifully written but that don’t have much to offer kids, but it’s not; beautifully written, yes, that, and also about an Important Historical Topic, but Ellen Klages doesn’t bog down in that; she keeps you caring about these two girls, Dewey and Suze, all the while the weight of the historical moment—the time just after explosion of the first atomic bomb in Hiroshima--hovers above and all around them. The first book leads up to that momen and the second reels in its impact, as do both girls, and Suze’s parents. But they’re still teenagers negotiating their way in the world, awkwardly and messily and sometimes comically, and I was glad to spend time with them again the way I’d be happy to see friends after summer vacation.

But before I’d even finished that book, The Hunger Games came in, and I swear when I plucked it off the reserve shelf I felt that feeling, that tingle. I’m not immune to buzz, and maybe that was it, because I’ve read enough rave reviews of this book already. But now I’m in the midst of it, right there with Katniss in the brutal and murderous Games that are part “Survivor,” part gladiators and lions, part…I don’t know what. It’s reminding me of dystopias and survival stories and coming-of-age tales from back to my own adolescence all the way up to last year: House of Stairs and Rite of Passage and Hatchet and the Uglies series, and the author Suzanne Collins’s own earlier book, Gregor the Overlander, and even dystopic adult stories like Oryx and Crake and The Lottery, and yet it’s entirely its own. I had to stop reading halfway through when my eyes started to droop, because I was afraid I’d get impatient and start skipping through to the end, and I don’t want to ruin it for myself.

So I have to stop writing soon, and get some sleep. Because I have to pace myself; all my holds are coming in at once. Starclimber, the third book in the alternate-world series about Matt the airship cabin boy, that started with Airborn, is sitting on my night table, and I know someone else will be waiting for it when I’m done. And I just got the e-mail notice that Paper Towns, John Green’s newest young adult novel, is waiting for me on the reserve shelf, and I don’t think he is capable of writing a book that doesn’t have at least the minimum daily requirement of Awesome.

I know this wave will end, eventually. It always does, now that I’m a grownup with a hundred competing distractions. But for now, I’m riding the current, in my element.

And maybe I’ll just read one more chapter of The Hunger Games before I go to sleep…

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As the whole world now knows, the First Family-elect is looking for a dog. This humanizing tidbit was the main—maybe the only—thing that stuck with my daughter when I let her stay up to watch Barack Obama’s acceptance speech last Tuesday. “Those girls are going to get a puppy!” she kept murmuring to herself as I cried, both of us in equal rapture.

And my kid doesn’t even like dogs. 

Actually, our whole family consists of cat people (and one cat), but I've seen my share of dog-crazed children in the library over the years, and along with several million other people, I have some suggestions for Malia, Sasha, and their parents. I’m in no position to weigh in the pet choice debate, and Malia in particular seems to have done a fair bit of research already, but if she came to my library and asked for a book about dogs, here’s what I’d recommend:


The Legacy of the Dog and The Legacy of the Puppy, by Hiromi Nakano

  • Photos and illustrations of dozens of different breeds. Hugely, hugely popular at my old library!

How to Talk To Your Dog, by Jean Craighead George; illustrated by Sue Truesdell

  • Fun, easy-to-read suggestions on communicating with your own dog (though not necessarily with strange dogs)

Shelter Dogs: Amazing Stories of Adopted Strays, by Peg Kehret and Greg Farrar

  • Inspiring true stories.


Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo

  • A modern classic.

One Small Dog, by Johanna Hurwitz

  • A realistic story--and something of a cautionary tale--about one family's experience with a none-to-easy puppy.

A Dog’s Life: the Autobiography of a Stray, by Ann Martin

  • The life of a stray dog, with a happy ending but few punches pulled.

Picture Books/Readers 

Three Stories You Can Read to Your Dog, by Sara Swan Miller; illustrated by True Kelly

  • Is your dog bored? Maybe you can read your dog these stories, which are all about what real dogs are like. Bonus illustration points for the totally goofy expressions on the dog’s face.

Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School, by Mark Teague

  • Ike the Dog has got to be one of the great rascals—and unreliable narrators--of literary history.

Good Boy, Fergus!, by David Shannon

  • My kid particularly recommends.

There’s a longer list of books starring dogs here. Anyone else have any favorites you’d recommend to a kid about to bring a longed-for dog into the family?

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Focus on the Cybils, Part 2: Middle Grade Fiction

There’s nothing to warm a librarian’s heart like coming home from a late shift at work and finding your daughter curled up in bed with a book. And a hefty book, at that: Roald Dahl’s The BFG. For some time now, she’s been zooming through short, easy chapter book series along the lines of the Rainbow Magic and Magic Tree House, but this was a step beyond. My mom reported that she’d been deep into it the book all afternoon.

We’ve had an eventful and very exciting week, what with the election and my mom visiting, but I couldn’t bring myself to make her turn off the light right away. 

“It’s the best book,” she said sleepily when I finally pried it out of her hands.

Even as I write this, Cybils panelists are reading reading reading like my kid was last night, winnowing the nominees town to a short list of finalists. The Middle Grade Fiction panelists have their work cut out for them, with over a hundred novels for children to choose from. 

These are ten that I would love to curl up with myself, and that have already made someone say to themselves—and to the Cybils organizers—“this is the best book”.

A book about a kid whose baby teeth haven’t fallen out yet. How did I miss this all year? My kid is in third grade and her baby teeth have only just started to fall out and I didn’t know there were any books about this phenomenon in the whole wide world!

I keep hearing terrific things about this book and it sounds like it has just the right mix of magic and coming-of-age to appeal to lots of kids. As well as, well, me.

Ooh the Harriet the Spy fan in me is totally looking forward to this one.

My favorite kind of historical novel: a regular kid with a distinctive narrative voice trying to have normal growing-up experiences in the midst of a Big Event, in this case the Civil Rights Movement.

I’ve actually read this one and it is so gorgeous. It has that perfectly jewel-like satisfying well-put-together feeling that just makes me so happy. Also it has a military father who defies stereotypes by being warm and thoughtful.

I read this one too and liked it in some ways even more than the first Moxy Maxwell book. You learn more about her family, her father especially.

Who wouldn’t want to read about a 2nd grader who’s so scared of school that he needs a Personal Disaster Kit, but plays a superhero named Firecracker Man at home? Cool. Fun.

Like tales of Jewish immigration to Ellis Island, the books I’ve seen about the Cultural Revolution have seemed to mostly feature girl protagonists. Here’s one about a boy, and it looks pretty good.

What are the odds of not one but two kids’ novels in the same year whose titles refer to being hit by lightning? From a brief glimpse at their respective descriptions, it seems like these two deal with similar themes, too: friendship, fitting in, and having your world turn upside down. Different settings, though, and very different first-person voices.

There are lots, lots more that look truly excellent, but I had to cut off my picks at some point lest I overwhelm anyone reading this. Here, once again, is the link to the whole list of Middle Grade Fiction nominees.

Happy reading!

November 9, 2008

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