Librarian Mom

Canine Sibling Rivalry

One of my colleagues recently became a grandmother! I asked her yesterday how the new family was doing, and she said that the parents and baby are fine, happy, healthy...but the family dog is perturbed. I said, "There should be a new-baby-in-the-house book for dogs!" and we both laughed for a minute and then simultaneously remembered that there actually is such a book: Madeleine L'Engle's The Other Dog, in which Touche the Poodle catalogs the ways in which the new "dog" that her people have brought home is utterly inferior to her own charming self. Touche is particularly scornful of the diaper-changing that she witnesses, noting sniffily that "White cloths or no, I would never do it in the house," but eventually admits that "in spite of myself...I am getting very fond of our other dog."

L'Engle's book isn't the only one where a dog has to adjust to a tiny, screamy, attention-monopolizing intruder. As it turns out, there is a whole mini-genre on the topic. In McDuff and the Baby, by Rosemary Wells and Susan Jeffers, the scrappy little Westie, who first appeared as a stray rescued by Fred and Lucy in McDuff Moves In, faces disruption in his cozy retro household. With the arrival of the baby, Fred and Lucy no longer read the comics to McDuff, or take him for walks, and he can't hear the radio over the baby's crying. He retaliates, in charmingly understated fashion, by glowering at the baby (which no one notices), and then by refusing his food, which does get Fred and Lucy's attention. When they make an effort to include McDuff, he and the baby begin to enjoy each other's company, and the book ends with the two exchanging convivial "woof"s. 

In Truelove, by Babbette Cole, the displaced hero is so demoralized by the change in the household that, after all his gifts and advances are ignored, and the love song he sings (or howls) for the baby gets him kicked out to the porch for being too loud, he runs away and joins a pack of homeless dogs and has to be rescued from the pound. The fact that this story is told mostly in the pictures, while the text is a series of cliched sayings about love ( like "Love gives you strength" and "Love makes your heart sing," ) makes it all the more poignant. 

Any of these would be a great present for a family with a new baby and a beloved dog...or a beloved older sibling, who might be able to relate!

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Inch By Inch, Row By Row: Some Books About Gardening

I am a city girl by nature and have come late to gardening, but this year I have finally gotten a patch of ground weeded, have obtained some good soil for it, and just two days ago, with my daughter's sporadic help, planted my first crop of peas and lettuce, two vegetables that I have been assured are EASY to grow. I sure hope so.

Before this spring, my gardening experience was primarily literary. The first garden-related thing I bought-- last year, even--was a packet of carrot seeds. I had a strong conviction that carrots were a guaranteed, rewarding thing to grow in a garden. I think I was strongly influenced by The Carrot Seed, Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson's classic tale of a little boy whose perseverence in tending to his single carrot-seed garden pays off with a gargantuan carrot that astonishes his heretofore-doubting family. But then a friend told me that carrots can be tough to grow in this climate, and since my primary goal this year is to start a garden that actually bears produce so as to encourage myself to continue, I thought I'd wait, at least until after the frost date.

So, peas and lettuce it was. We went out and planted them on Tuesday evening, and on Wednesday morning, despite knowing intellectually that the seeds will take a couple of weeks to sprout, I woke up wondering if they might have come up yet. And if not: why not? And when?? Just like Toad in "The Garden," (which can be found in the book Frog and Toad Together,) I wanted to run out to the garden and command them: "Now seeds, start growing!"

So many gardening books--like Paul Fleischman's Seedfolks, or that classic of all gardening novels, The Secret Garden--are about how working the earth and making things grow transform the gardener and even foster community. Gardening teaches, among other things, patience. Maybe, with time, my I'll become master gardeners, like the young girl who transforms her grumpy uncle's rooftop in Sarah Stewart and David Small's wonderful The Gardener, But for now, I'm just a beginner.

What I hope for this year is that my family will feel some connection with the earth and with nature, and maybe get to eat some peas and lettuce that we grew ourselves. Or possibly even some carrots-- just regular-sized would be fine.

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Top! 100! Children's! Novels!

Where have I been? Among other things, I've been submerged in delicious suspense while following the Top 100 Children's Novels poll at Fuse #8, where Betsy Bird has been slowly, slooooly, revealing the winners from #100 to #1. Here's the complete list of the top 100 novels, with links to each post. If you have the time, I'd encourage you to click through to the individual posts for each book-- or, at least, just to your favorites. Betsy assembled a delicious assortment of quotes, background information, video links to movie versions, and even huge arrays of cover images (including foreign covers). Here's a sample: #45 through 41 on the list, a range which includes The Golden Compass, Ramona the Pest, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond. If you're wondering what could have possibly gotten more votes than books like these three, click over and read on!

Then, just as I was recovering from the list, I saw this game at MotherReader's site: Which of the top 100 children's novels have you read? I've bolded the ones I read, and, like MotherReader, asterisk'd the ones I voted for (not very many of my votes made the list, but I'm not surprised-- several of my choices were pretty obsure.)

  1. The Egypt Game — Snyder (1967)
  1. The Indian in the Cupboard — Banks (1980)
  1. Children of Green Knowe — Boston (1954)
  1. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane — DiCamillo (2006)
  1. The Witches — Dahl (1983)
  1. Pippi Longstocking — Lindgren (1950)
  1. Swallows and Amazons — Ransome (1930)
  1. Caddie Woodlawn — Brink (1935)
  1. Ella Enchanted — Levine (1997)
  1. Sideways Stories from Wayside School — Sachar (1978)
  1. Sarah, Plain and Tall — MacLachlan (1985)
  1. Ramona and Her Father — Cleary (1977)
  1. The High King — Alexander (1968) [though it was a very long time ago...]
  1. The View from Saturday — Konigsburg (1996)
  1. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets — Rowling (1999)
  1. On the Banks of Plum Creek — Wilder (1937)
  1. The Little White Horse — Goudge (1946)
  1. The Thief — Turner (1997)
  1. The Book of Three — Alexander (1964)
  1. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon — Lin (2009)
  1. The Graveyard Book — Gaiman (2008)
  1. All-of-a-Kind-Family — Taylor (1951)
  1. Johnny Tremain — Forbes (1943) [I think I read most of it but am shamelessly counting the whole thing]
  1. The City of Ember — DuPrau (2003)
  1. Out of the Dust — Hesse (1997)
  1. Love That Dog — Creech (2001)
  1. The Borrowers — Norton (1953)
  1. My Side of the Mountain — George (1959)
  1. My Father’s Dragon — Gannett (1948)
  1. The Bad Beginning — Snicket (1999)
  1. Betsy-Tacy — Lovelace (1940)
  1. The Mysterious Benedict Society — Stewart ( 2007)
  1. Walk Two Moons — Creech (1994)
  1. Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher — Coville (1991)
  1. Henry Huggins — Cleary (1950)
  1. Ballet Shoes — Stratfeild (1936)
  1. A Long Way from Chicago — Peck (1998) [How can I not have read this? But I haven't]
  1. Gone-Away Lake — Enright (1957) [And me a big Elizabeth Enright fan. Go figure.]
  1. The Secret of the Old Clock — Keene (1959) [not sure; will leave it off]
  1. Stargirl — Spinelli (2000)
  1. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle — Avi (1990)
  1. Inkheart — Funke (2003)
  1. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase — Aiken (1962)
  1. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 — Cleary (1981)
  1. Number the Stars — Lowry (1989)
  1. The Great Gilly Hopkins — Paterson (1978)
  1. The BFG — Dahl (1982)
  1. Wind in the Willows — Grahame (1908)
  1. The Invention of Hugo Cabret — Selznick (2007)
  1. The Saturdays — Enright (1941)
  1. Island of the Blue Dolphins — O’Dell (1960) [Read the beginning but it was too sad for me]
  1. Frindle Clements (1996)
  1. The Penderwicks — Birdsall (2005)
  1. Bud, Not Buddy — Curtis (1999)
  1. Where the Red Fern Grows — Rawls (1961)
  1. The Golden Compass — Pullman (1995)
  1. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing — Blume (1972)
  1. Ramona the Pest — Cleary (1968)
  1. Little House on the Prairie — Wilder (1935)
  1. The Witch of Blackbird Pond — Speare (1958)
  1. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — Baum (1900)
  1. When You Reach Me — Stead (2009)
  1. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix — Rowling (2003)
  1. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry — Taylor (1976)
  1. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret — Blume (1970)
  1. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire — Rowling (2000)
  1. The Watsons Go to Birmingham — Curtis (1995)
  1. James and the Giant Peach — Dahl (1961)
  1. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH — O’Brian (1971)
  1. Half Magic — Eager (1954)
  1. Winnie-the-Pooh — Milne (1926)
  1. The Dark Is Rising — Cooper (1973)
  1. A Little Princess — Burnett (1905)**
  1. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland / Through the Looking-Glass — Carroll (1865/72)
  1. Hatchet — Paulsen (1989)
  1. Little Women — Alcott (1868/9)
  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Rowling (2007)
  1. Little House in the Big Woods — Wilder (1932)
  1. The Tale of Despereaux — DiCamillo (2003)
  1. The Lightening Thief — Riordan (2005)
  1. Tuck Everlasting — Babbitt (1975)
  1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — Dahl (1964)
  1. Matilda — Dahl (1988)
  1. Maniac Magee — Spinelli (1990)
  1. Harriet the Spy — Fitzhugh (1964)**
  1. Because of Winn-Dixie — DiCamillo (2000)
  1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — Rowling (1999)
  1. Bridge to Terabithia — Paterson (1977)
  1. The Hobbit — Tolkien (1938)
  1. The Westing Game — Raskin (1978)
  1. The Phantom Tollbooth — Juster (1961)
  1. Anne of Green Gables — Montgomery (1908)
  1. The Secret Garden — Burnett (1911)
  1. The Giver — Lowry (1993)
  1. Holes — Sachar (1998)
  1. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler — Koningsburg (1967)
  1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — Lewis (1950)
  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philsopher’s Stone — Rowling (1997)
  1. A Wrinkle in Time — L’Engle (1962)
  1. Charlotte’s Web — White (1952) looks like I've read 85 of the top 100. Not too shabby. But I'm embarrassed at the ones I haven't read-- The BFG! The Mysterious Benedict Society! The Wind in the Willows, for crying out loud!

Must get cracking. How about you?


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Great First Lines: The Answers, Part 2

Here’s the second part of the answers to my Great First Lines Challenge.  I notice that no one even tried to guess any of these. I guess they are trickier than #s 1-5. Well, herewith, all is revealed: 6. There are two kinds of travel. The usual way is to take the fastest imaginable conveyance along the shortest road. The other way is not to care particularly where you are going or how long it will take you, or whether you will get there or not. --The Twenty-One Balloons, by William Pene DuBois
  • Do kids still read this book? I hope so. It looks like an old-fashioned kind of gentlemanly travelogue, not a rip-roaring plot-filled adventure. But, as its first line suggests, there are unparalleled delights to be savored in an indirect journey: in this case, the orderly society and Restaurant Government of the (real, but imaginarily populated) island of Krakatoa. And all those fabulous balloons, of course. I’m going to slip this into the hands of the next older kid who comes to the library looking for a copy of the “Up” DVD.
7. The bear had been their undoing, though at the time they had all laughed.—Lyddie, by Katherine Paterson
  • Most of Lyddie isn’t about the bear: it’s about Lyddie’s life as a mill girl in a Lowell textile factory, and her internal struggles over whether to join the nascent union. But this first line lets you in on the primal fear that drives Lyddie and makes her reluctant to risk her job: the wolf at her door isn’t metaphorical, but real—she knows about starvation, and the threat of the wild, and she means to survive.
8. I am riding the bicycle and I am on Route 31 in Monument, Massachusetts, on my way to Rutterburg, Vermont, and I’m pedaling furiously because this is an old-fashioned bike, no speeds, no fenders, only the warped tires and the brakes that don’t always work and the handlebars with cracked rubber grips to steer with. I Am the Cheese, by Robert Cormier [warning: link is very spoilerish]
  • Without giving away too much: nothing in this detail-stuffed first line, except the bicycle, is true. One of the first novels I ever read that messed with my head.
9. Later—much, much later—when we both knew what we had bought and what it had cost, she said that I should tell it. Father’s Arcane Daughter, by E.L. Konigsburg
  • Why, why, why is this book not better known? I put it on my Top Ten Novels list, even though I knew it would never make Fuse #8’s Top 100, because even though E.L. Konigsburg, multiple-Newbery-winning author, is anything but arcane, this book has somehow slipped through the cracks. It’s not even in print. But this first line is so exquisite in its gorgeousness and teaser-ish-ness that I had to include it even though I didn’t think anyone would recognize it. The rest of the book is just as good. Go, read!
10. I blame it all on The Hobbit. That, and my supportive home life.—Alice, I Think, by Susan Juby
  • Quick—what do you know about the narrator of this book, just from this first line? A) She’s familiar with The Hobbit, and so quite possibly sort of nerdy and eccentric. B) Something—“it all”, in fact—has gone wrong. C) Her home life is “supportive,” though supportive of what remains in question. D) She’s very funny, but she might not know it. E) All of the above. That’s a lot of freight for twelve little words, and it’s all borne out in the book that follows, as Alice attempts to remake herself into an ordinary high-school student (in rural British Columbia, yet) after ten years of homeschooling.
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Great First Lines: The Answers, Part I

Congratulations to Heidi, who guessed First Line #3 of my Great First Lines Challenge  a couple of weeks ago, and Liz, who guessed #3 and #5! Sorry for the delay in posting the answers—I wanted to give more people a chance to guess, if they were so inclined. 

Here are the answers to First Lines #1 through 5:

1. Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. --The Thirteen Clocks, by James Thurber.

  • Perfectly sets up the mood of the book, which is fairy-tale-esque (without being twee), gothic, and just a tiny bit arch. That word “aggressive” is the tip-off that we’re in the hands of a master.

2. Walking back to camp through the swamp, Sam wondered whether to tell his father what he had seen. --The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White .

  • This isn’t one of the showier first lines out there—nothing dramatic happens, just a kid walking back from a swamp. But in a move that’s typical of EB White’s understated brilliance, it sets up all kinds of questions in the reader’s mind, like: what on earth did Sam see in that swamp? And why wouldn’t he want to tell his father? It’s a testament to White’s skill at bringing us into Sam’s world that when the answer—a Trumpeter Swan’s nest—is revealed, it doesn’t feel anticlimactic at all.

3. When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home. --The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton.

  • Atmospheric, succinct, character-setting. It really is hard to believe Hinton was only sixteen when she wrote this..

4. Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable. --Dealing with Dragons, by Patricia Wrede.

  • Like The Thirteen Clocks, Dealing With Dragons draws on familiar fairy-tale fare: a kingdom, a princess, a dragon. But the slightly wonky opening (“the number five was fashionable”??) is a big hint that the usual fairy-tale plot is about to be set spinning crazily across the room.

5. Mrs. Jane Tabby could not explain why all four of her children had wings. --Catwings, by Ursula LeGuin

  • I can’t actually think of anything clever or illuminating to say about this first line. It seems to me to be utterly complete in itself, which is, I guess, enough of a testament.

I'll save the answers to first lines #6 through 10 for my next post in a day or two. If anyone wants to try to guess them, the original post is here.

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Great First Lines: A Challenge

A few days ago, coming across this article on great opening lines in (adult) novels, I was reminded of some of the great, legendary, opening lines in children’s books. Novels, in particular. Like:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.


“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

Each of these (the first lines of Little Women and Charlotte’s Web, respectively) is a marvel of, setting a tone, developing character, building suspense, and basically cracking open a  whole world for the reader, all in fewer characters than your average Twitter post.

It is HARD to write a great first line like these two. I’ve just been through my whole home collection of children’s and teen novels, looking for more examples, and was surprised by how many wonderful books have forgettable or lackluster first lines. Here are ten of the best I found (along with the occasional second or third line; that’s cheating a little, but in a few cases I couldn’t resist).

 Just for fun, I’m going to list them here without title or author and see if anyone recognizes them. All are from well-known authors and/or well-known books that were published at least ten years ago. Some are—I think—pretty easy if you know kids’ books, though at least one is out of print and un-Google-able, and I’ll be very surprised if anyone gets it:

1.  Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda.

2. Walking back to camp through the swamp, Sam wondered whether to tell his father what he had seen.

3. When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home. 

4. Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable.

5. Mrs. Jane Tabby could not explain why all four of her children had wings.

6. There are two kinds of travel. The usual way is to take the fastest imaginable conveyance along the shortest road. The other way is not to care particularly where you are going or how long it will take you, or whether you will get there or not.

7. The bear had been their undoing, though at the time they had all laughed.

8. I am riding the bicycle and I am on Route 31 in Monument, Massachusetts, on my way to Rutterburg, Vermont, and I’m pedaling furiously because this is an old-fashioned bike, no speeds, no fenders, only the warped tires and the brakes that don’t always work and the handlebars with cracked rubber grips to steer with.

9. Later—much, much later—when we both knew what we had bought and what it had cost, she said that I should tell it.

10. I blame it all on The Hobbit. That, and my supportive home life.

Post your guesses in the comments, and then see how many you got right when I post the answers in a future post!

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A Flurry of Books for February Celebrations

There is way too much going on this month! My kid is plugging away at valentines to give out in school tomorrow; the Asian Lunar New Year is on Sunday; and the Olympics are about to start, bringing on a frenzy of Olympic fever all around my town (Vancouver, BC). And we are almost halfway into Black History Month.

What to write about this week? How about all of it? Here’s one sample book to celebrate each occasion and whet your appetite for more:

In honor of the Olympics (not to mention the opening this weekend of the first Percy Jackson and the Olympians movie, The Lightning Thief), crack open an oldie but goodie: D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. I remember poring over this book as a child, and my own child—a big Percy Jackson fan—has recently discovered it and has been carrying it with her everywhere, crying out “It’s just like in The Lightning Thief!”

For more books about Greek Myths as well as folktales and fairy tales of many cultures, take a look at this booklist from Scholastic.

 Here’s what I wrote about one of my favorite Lunar New Year books two years ago:

Bringing In the New Year! By Grace Lin. Simple text and vibrant, cheerful illustrations show a family getting ready to celebrate the Lunar New Year: sweeping out the old year, making dumplings, getting a haircut, watching firecrackers, and finally, joining in a parade where a newly-awakened dragon heralds a lucky New Year.

And here’s a link to the rest of the post I wrote back then, recommending other Lunar New Year titles.

My sample title for Black History Month is so new that I haven’t even gotten my hands on it yet, but it’s not for lack of trying. (I’m first in line at my library when it comes in on order!) Mare’s War, a young adult novel by Tanita Davis, takes the reader on a road trip with two teenage sisters and their sports-car-driving, stiletto-wearing grandmother, who was in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. Mare’s War just won a Coretta Scott King Honor Award this year, and I’m excited to read it.

For a veritable feast of African-American authors and books, take a look at 28 Days Later: A Black History Month Celebration of Children’s Literature.

A great book to read for Valentine’s Day—even though you won’t see the word” valentine” or any red paper hearts or cupids on the gorgeous cover—is Love Letters, by Arnold Adoff, is a collection of love letters, each written as a poem. There are letters to mom, to dad, to two teachers (Mrs Nicely and Mrs. McNasty) to a “Playground Snow Boy” and to the “Tall Girl at the Front Table.” Illustrated in vibrant collages by Lisa Desimini. This is a book you could read aloud—in whole or in part—to a class, or share with a favorite someone at home—maybe accompanied by your own love letter.

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My 10 Favorite Children's Novels

All the votes are in for Fuse #8's100 Best Children's Novels poll.I sent in my top 10 picks at the last minute, just under the wire of the January 31 deadline, so didn't get a chance to post them online before the deadline. Here they are now, with some quickly-dashed-off notes on why I chose them.

1.    .A Long Way from Verona, by Jane Gardam. “JESSICA VYE YOU ARE A WRITER BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT.” Best. Telegram. Ever.

2.     The Saturdays, by Elizabeth Enright. Such a lovely happy idiosyncratic bickering family. And, New York City.

3.     Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. The dumbwaiter. Ole Golly. The boy with the purple socks. And, and, and… Someone on Facebook said this week that Harriet the Spy was her Catcher in the Rye. Mine, too.

4.    A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The perfect Victorian-era urban fairytale.

5.      A Room Made of Windows, by Eleanor Cameron. Probably no one else will list this one, but it was one of my favorites ever. So complex and subtle and full of unexpected relationships.

6.      Tangerine, by Edward Bloor The only sports story I’ve ever really loved (Well, except for the Dairy Queen books, but those are YA.) So jam packed full of STUFF. Like plot and character and suspense and the Revenge of Nature and other really meaty things to chew on. Issues-oriented without being didactic. A thriller without being too scary.  Plus: a sinkhole that threatens to suck down the middle school!

7.      The Sea of Trolls, by Nancy Farmer. It’s a historical epic! It’s a fantasy! It’s got everything, this one. I’ve got to read it again soon.

8.    The Long Secret, by Louise Fitzhugh. In some ways I feel even more affinity for this one than for Harriet, its more famous sister. Ah, Beth Ellen. “A shy person is an angry person.” Indeed.

9.      Father's Arcane Daughter, by E. L. Kongisburg. Another book I’ll be surprised if anyone else lists. I’m counting on enough people listing From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for it not to need my vote; the Heidi character, and Winston’s guilty love/hate relationship with her, all the ambiguity they both feel about their sister Caroline (or is she Caroline, really?), and that twist at the end make this one I couldn’t leave off my list.

10.  Zeely, by Virginia Hamilton. I'm a sucker for books about mysterious grownups who come into the heroine's life (cf: Father's Arcane Daughter.). This is one of the first ones I remember reading.

It's probably pretty obvious that I leaned heavily on childhood loves when compling this list. Even more than I did for the Top 100 Picture Books poll last year, I found it very hard to create a list that satisfactorily melded criteria for "best books"--books I'd objectively, professionally rate as the best literature overall-- and "favorite books"-- books that I, personally, love beyond reason, whatever their objectively assessed (if that's even possible) literary qualities. When in doubt, I went with the latter, never mind if they were completely idiosyncratic and unlikely to make the final list, and trusted that the combined votes of others would lift up books like A Wrinkle in Time and Holes that I think are truly excellent but don't have such a personal attachment to. And it's actually painful to think of the dozens of others--like All-of-a-Kind Family, Enchantress from the Stars, and My Father's Dragon--that I do love beyond reason but couldn't squeeze into a list of only ten books.

Several other bloggers have posted their lists and thoughts about this poll, too: click here for Amy's list at Media Macaroni; Doret's list and predictions at The Happy Nappy Bookseller; and Wendy's hints about her list at Six Boxes of Books.

Like most other participants, I'm very excited to see what the results will be. Elizabeth Bird, the sparking fuse behind Fuse #8 and this poll, mentioned in a comment that she has tomorrow off from work, so I'm hoping that we'll start to see the first few titles in the top 100 within the next few days.

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Holden's Children

In one of my favorite young adult novels ever, Celine, by Brock Cole, Celine Morienval just can’t seem to make herself rewrite her paper on The Catcher in the Rye. Here’s her brisk take on J.D. Salinger’s classic:

It’s about this boy who is terribly sensitive and is having trouble adjusting to the world. His name is Holden Caulfield and I don’t very much like him because I think he whines just a little too much, and sometimes when he says this very moving stuff I definitely have the feeling that he is congratulating himself on what a sweet, misunderstood kid he really is. (As I think of it, I realize that he would probably admit I’m right, and that he is just a rotten phony like everybody else. He would feel good about admitting this for a while, and then realize that that made him a sort of phony to the second power…honestly, he wears me out.)

The funny thing is that I’d forgotten all about that part of Celine when I sat down to write this post in memory of Salinger, who died this Wednesday. What I remembered—and what Celine doesn’t realize—is that even though she dislikes him, she is just like Holden Caulfield in so many ways: she’s a smart, sensitive, wry 16-year-old who is quietly appalled by the selfishness and hypocrisy of the adults around her, and who is basically alone in the world. Like Holden, who finds redemption only in childhood—in memories of his dead brother Allie, and in his very much alive little sister Phoebe--Celine comes to rely on the no-holds-barred truth-telling of her 8-year-old neighbor, Jake, who’s been dumped on her by his distracted divorcing parents. In fact, if you really want to know, the real reason Celine can’t write about Holden Caulfield is that Celine IS Holden Caulfield. Or at least a very, very close relative.

And she’s not alone. Every year or two, it seems, some new young adult novel is compared to The Catcher in the Rye, which, even though it was meant for an adult audience at its first publication, has come to be considered the first work of what’s now called young adult fiction. Salinger’s best-loved young characters, in Catcher and in his short stories, long to be special, to live exceptional lives, and then despise themselves for that very longing, for their egotism and attachment to the world, for their looming ordinariness. And while the period details might change, that kind of angst—and  fiction chronicling it—are now perennials in the landscape of adolescent literature.

Probably the book that’s been mentioned in connection with Salinger most often in recent years is The Perks of Being a Wallflower; the author, Stephen Chbosky, has called out The Catcher in the Rye as an influence, and his introverted, alienated, hero has a lot in common with Holden Caulfield. But for my money, James Sveck, the narrator of Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You, comes even closer: like Holden, James is lonely, cynical, and reeling from a grief he barely mentions and masks with caustic wit. Salinger’s hero wants to “build myself a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life;” James is convinced that if he can just buy a house in a small town in the Midwest, instead of going to college and learning a lot of useless stuff, he can escape the messy hypocrisy he sees all around him, and live happily. Would that it were that simple for either of them.

John Green, who has posted a stunningly smart analysis of Catcher in the Rye in a series of three videos, is a very, very, very Salinger-eque writer. His books are painful and funny and incisive, and his teenage characters throw themselves into the big questions, like: can we ever truly know another person? Is the pain of life worth it at all? And, what does it all mean? The tormented title character of Green’s first novel, Looking for Alaska, is probably the most like Holden Caulfield; but Colin Singleton, hero of An Abundance of Katherines, is my favorite.  Like the children of the Glass family, featured in Franny and Zooey and a number of Salinger’s short stories, Colin is a former child prodigy who finds himself panicking—and delving into a flurry of anagrams and far-fetched mathematical models--at the prospect of becoming an ordinary, non-prodigious adult.

There’s more. Much more. Salinger himself, who’s so strongly associated with a certain style of realistic fiction about wealthy, white, mostly male New Yorkers, could never have predicted the range of his influence. There’s a little bit of Holden in the dissolute, tormented hero of the futuristic Feed, by M.T. Anderson, and in Coe Booth’s Tyrell, who’s desperate to protect his little brother from the meanness of the world in general and their Bronx homeless shelter in particular. Cyd Charisse, who gets kicked out of her boarding school and heads for New York City in Gingerbread, by Rachel Cohn, is a Salinger relative for sure, as is Cameron Smith, the cynical Mad-Cow-Disease-stricken hero of Libba Bray’s 2010 Printz-winning Going Bovine.

I don’t know if the authors of most of the books listed here would claim Salinger as an influence, or if they even like his stories. All I know is that, as a 30-year Salinger fan, what I love about these books, and about much young adult literature, is what speaks to me in the best of his writing: the way it takes on, along with the scorn so many young people feel for the compromises that almost invariably accompany adulthood, a wholehearted yearning of for a kind of purity of soul, and a struggle to figure it all out and live a life that has meaning.  Whether in 1940’s New York or 21st-century Texas or a future dystopia on the moon, those struggles, and the poignancy and appeal of the characters who embody them, don’t go away.

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Newbery Winners, Part 2: the Great Kid-Friendliness Debate

A few days ago I wrote a little about the perennial debate over the “kid appeal” of many Newbery Medal winners. Now, I’m of the opinion that the Newbery isn’t meant to be given for the title that will appeal most to the average kid, any more than the purpose of the Nobel Prize for Literature is to highlight the next escapist beach read for adults. The Newbery is awarded for outstanding writing and contribution to literature, and the question of popular literature and its overlap with “great literature,” for kids and adults alike, is a big one, way bigger than any controversy over the Newbery Medal.

If you look over the overall list of medalists since 1922, though, it's true that historical fiction with a tragic overtone does seem to dominate the last few decades. Kira-Kira, A Single Shard, and Out of the Dust, for example,  are three recent winners; they’re all beautiful books, but very very sad, and maybe not the most appealing to the majority of kids. I have personally met kids who read and enjoyed all these books—I remember one 5th grade girl asking if there were “any more books like Kira-Kira”-- but it's true that if you ask most kids what kind of books they like, "sad historical ones" is probably not going to be first on their list.

So, herewith, a list of my ten favorite kid-friendly Newbery Medal winners, old and new. These books have plot, and humor, and child protagonists who you’d want to spend some time with. Of course, your mileage may vary, but if your kid is under orders to read a Newbery winner, chances are that one of these will enable him or her to get though the experience unscathed and without a general visceral hostility about "medal books."

  • A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle (1963) What is there to say? A classic of classics, beloved by kids, parents, teachers, librarians, and—for all I know—otherworldly time-travelling entities, too.
  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg (1968) I wrote a few months ago about reading this with my kid. It really holds up.
  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'Brien (1972) SO much better than the movie.
  • The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin (1979) A mystery wrapped inside an enigma and sprinkled with bizarre clues.
  • Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry (1990) Okay, this is about the Holocaust (sort of) but mainly it’s about ESCAPING, which is always exciting.
  • Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli (1991) Mysterious and brilliant runaway kid, fastest runner in the world, inspires racial harmony in a little town. What’s not to like?
  • Holes, by Louis Sachar (1999) The poster book for kid-friendly Newbery winners.  It is magic, I tell you.
  • Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis (2000) Curtis has a sly way of making what could be a tragic situation (mistreated orphan kid runs away from home, during the Depression) into a genuinely funny book.
  • The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (2009) Only Neil Gaiman could write a story about ghosts and graveyards  as a heartwarming coming-of-age tale.
  • When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead (2010) And so we come full circle, with a book that pays homage to A Wrinkle in Time, while gorgeously holding its own.

Do you have a favorite Newbery winner? And is it a book that kids tend to like, too?

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