Monday Links

  • The Interactive Reader has a thoughtful post up about some recent experiences in the library that have got her thinking about race.
  • A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy is thinking about all the recent YA fiction that features teens interacting with senior citizens.  I loved her perspectives on why the addition of adult characters who are not parents can provide a very different kind of guiding relationship.
  • LOVE this article from the Seattle Book Examiner about what parents can learn from President Obama’s recent readaloud.  He’s a great model for a lot of good storytelling behaviors.  (Hat tip to The Reading Zone)
  • Ok, this isn’t about YA or kidlit at all, but since a YA author is writing about it I have an excuse to post.  Justine Larbalestier shares a study about how having friends improves your life, and she includes a wonderful selection from the studies findings.  Really made me smile.  Go read!
  • Gail Gauthier revisits that age-old question: do kids books have to be about kids?
  • The always-funny folks at Unshelved have compiled a list of many of the requests and suggestions that librarians have for publishers.  And then they added cartoons and made it funny.  Go check out the results, Publisher Confidential.
  • In the post #amazonfail world, we’ve got even more reasons to consider linking to alternate sources for book purchasing.  Shelftalker has some compelling thoughts for authors about why they should be linking their local independent bookstore.
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King of the Screwups by K. L. Going

King of the ScrewupsWhen Liam is assigned an essay on his greatest talent, there is no question in his mind what he will write about.  There’s one thing in life that he can do better than anyone else: screw up.  Even when Liam TRIES to screw up, he screws that up.  He’s the King of the Screwups.  And so it’s no big shock to Liam when his ultra-successful type-A dad finally sends him away.  It is, however, a shock that he’s going to live in a trailer park with his cross-dressing, glam-rocking Aunt Pete.

When Liam gets to his new home, he does everything he can to reinvent himself in the image of his father.  He wants so badly to be studious, brilliant in school, and as unpopular as possible in the hopes of gaining his father’s love.   But things don’t go quite as  he planned it – his grades aren’t exactly improving, the head cheerleader is taking quite an interest in him, and in a hysterical scene he somehow manages to make the A.V. Club hip. 

This is a tough book in that it looks like a light screwball comedy, and a lot of it reads that way, but at the heart of the story is an abusive relationship between a parent and a child.  It is never physically abusive, but there is no question that Liam’s treatment by his father – and to some extent his mother as well –  is mentally and emotionally abusive.  Liam’s complete lack of faith in himself, and his willingness to dismiss his considerable talents, are a direct result of that treatment. 

Fortunately, taking Liam away from his parents puts him in the care of a new group of people who are willing to see the great things about Liam.  Aunt Pete and his band buddies have a tough line to walk – Liam is not open to hearing negative things about his dad or positive things about himself, and Pete does not have any experience with teenage boys.  But they are a strong, thoughtful, supportive group of guys.  And when they finally latch on to Liam’s love for fashion, they are able to help him find the good in himself. 

Liam is a likeable guy – sometimes almost in spite of himself.  And while it hurts to hear his skewed self-perceptions, he is a pleasure to get to know.  With Liam and her other characters, K.L. Going presents people who cheerfully defy their first-impression stereotypes.  Once again, Going has given us a winner.

K.L. Going on the web. (Go check out the fun contest that’s happening on her web page!)

King of the Screwups on the web.

The Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede

Thirteenth ChildEver since Eff was born, she’s been treated with fear, mistrust, and sometimes outright loathing -and all this from members of her own family.  Because Eff is a thirteenth child, she is considered unlucky at best, and many believe that she is destined for a life of badness with no way to escape.  According to the same gossiping aunts and uncles, Eff’s twin brother has a very different destiny.  Lan is the seventh son of a seventh son, bringing luck to those around him and making his magic tremendously powerful.

When the treatment of their two youngest children becomes extreme, Eff’s mom and dad decide to move the family out to Mill City for a new start.  Mill City is the biggest city on the frontier, and it is just miles away from the Great Barrier.  Once you pass the Great Barrier that separates the east and the west, the territory changes.  Pretty drastically.  We’re talking Mammoths and Steam Dragons and Sphinxes drastic.  The Barrier keeps this wild menagerie of menacing magical creatures out on the frontier.  But many people cross the frontier to create new settlements and try to tame the land, protected by their settlement magicians.  And while the settlers expect trouble from these large and threatening magical creatures, the thing that causes the most trouble is something they have all overlooked.

Much of the book is concerned with the process of learning magic, and how that process is different for Eff and Lan.  Which is a treat for the reader, because the magical system is seriously cool.  There are three traditional systems of magic – Avrupean, Hijero-Cathayan, and Aphrikan – and each has its own methods and quirks.  Since Eff starts out young and is learning more about how to use magic, the reader gets to come along on that journey.

It is not only the magic system that is exceptionally crafted in Wrede’s book – all of her worldbuilding is top-notch.  I feel like I’ve been seeing more of these books that combine an alternate history of our world with some kind of fantasy element, and this is the best of the bunch so far.   Wrede’s combination of the wild west frontier and the wild animals of fantasy is inspired, and both the creatures and the magic fit perfectly into the world she creates. 

And while the world and the magic are a delight to read, it is Eff who drew me into this book.  Her relatives treated her with suspicion and malice for so long that she has internalized their distrust of her magic.  She is convinced that it is only a matter of time before she turns bad, and so she pulls away from friendships and from her own magical power.  The reader can see that Eff’s struggle with herself is creating more problems than it is solving, and Wrede is slowly bringing Eff along to that same realization. 

The Thirteenth Child builds a great foundation for a series.   The reader gets a sense of the trouble that could be ahead for Lan and Eff – much of it caused by their different upbringings and how superstition has developed their characters.  The seeds for some intense family conflict have been sown, and the backdrop for that potential conflict will certainly stand up to many more books.  I’ll be looking forward to the next in this series.

Patricia Wrede on the web.

The Thirteenth Child on the web.

Chameleon by Charles R. Smith Jr.

chameleonHey you!  Yeah, you sitting there reading this blog. Have you read Chameleon yet?  No?  Do me a favor – head down to your local indie bookstore or your branch library.  Yes, right now.  Come back when you’ve got a copy of this book.

Got it?  Good.

Shawn is a young man straddling the line between being a child and being a teen, between Compton and the suburbs, between middle school and high school.   And this summer he has a major decision to make.  He’ll be starting at high school in the fall, and his parents have given him the choice between the high school in Compton – where all his friends are, but where the Crips and the Pirus make trouble and the principal is rumored to use a paddle on students who act out – and a new high school near his mother’s suburban home in Carson – which is safer and probably has a lot more choices academically, but where he doesn’t know anybody.  It’s a complicated choice, and Shawn is a thoughtful kid who is going to consider it from all sides – he casts it as a choice between “freedom or friendship” (page 228). 

But while Shawn’s choice is what drives the character growth in the novel, the story is carried by his day-to-day life.  The reader gets to tag along with Shawn and his goofy 13-year-old buddies while they shoot hoops, talk about girls, and eat everything in sight.  And with every one of these small events in Shawn’s day, the reader can feel him considering the different parts of his life.   The choice looming over him lend a weight to every thing that happens, allowing this book to chronicle even the smallest parts of his life without ever feeling trivial.

This is a book that starts with a yo mama joke.  It is the first thing on page one.  And there could be no better way to set the stage for the rest of the novel.  Because this is not a novel about what happens – there are a few exciting moments, including a fight between the Crips and the Pirus, but those larger events are not the heart of this book.  A quick, flirtatious conversation with a girl working the register at a burger joint is given as much narrative importance as the gang trouble Shawn encounters.  And that’s what I loved best about this book.  While it doesn’t shy away from the big issues of modern urban life – alcoholism, gang violence, urban blight – it’s not about them, either.  These things don’t define Shawn, and they are not the center of his life or the novel.  It is a story about being a young man in L.A. – about both the silly conversations and the big ones that make up Shawn’s life, about his doubts and his dreams.  And while those problems are there, the positive forces in Shawn’s life are strong – from his caring parents to his buddies who watch out for him. 

Since conversation is at the center of this book, it’s a good thing that Smith has such a pitch-perfect sense of the easy rhythm of boys.  The relaxed, free-flowing conversation feels exactly like something I would hear from some of the funnier guys in my library – and capturing that patter without sounding forced or fake is not an easy task.  In the final third of the book, when Shawn is with his family more than his three buddies, I missed their easy chatter.  The in-game descriptions of Shawn’s basketball games are also masterful – Smith creates a lot of excitement and movement in his prose during the pick-up games, and boy readers especially will be caught up in the flow of the action.

While all of the chatter between Shawn and his boys is engaging, realistic, and funny, the best of the bunch are the ones about sex.  These are young men on the cusp – old enough to be very aware of sex, but with a lot of curiousity and anxiousness underneath all the bravado.  When the older brother of one of Shawn’s buddies comes home from the Navy for shore leave, it sets the boys off on a hilariously raunchy, but still innocently 13-year-old, line of teasing conversation. 

I have only one concern about this book: I want more people to buy and read it.  If we want our boys to keep reading as the make the transition to being teens – and especially our African-American boys who live in urban neighborhoods – this is exactly the kind of book we need.  More books like this one to be written and published.   And if books like this don’t sell, that’s not going to happen.   I’ve been really impressed by the sudden availability of lots of books that appeal to urban teen girls, and we are seeing more of those books because they are  being purchased in large numbers.  I want that to happen with books like Chameleon, too.  So I’m going to go out and buy a couple of copies to pass on to friends.  And I’m going to buy copies for the library and booktalk the heck out of this one.  Will you join me?

Chameleon on the web.

Charles R. Smith, Jr. on the web.

Seattle Blues by Michael Wenberg

seattle-bluesSeattle Blues

It is the summer of 1970, and thirteen-year-old Maya is being forced onto a Greyhound bus by her mother.  The destination of the bus is Seattle, and the grandmother she has never known.  Maya is being sent away for the whole summer, and on the ride up the coast she’s already plotting ways to escape – it’s really only a question of whether she will run away or just annoy her grandmother until she is sent home.  At first, Seattle and grandma live up to every one of her dim expectations.  It’s always rainy and she has to go to church on Sundays.  But every once in a while Maya’s grandmother does something completely unexpected, and there are some mysteries about the older woman – why doesn’t she speak to her only daughter, and what happened in 1938?

There is a lot inside this fairly short volume, and it jumps from anti-Vietnam protests to family drama to learning about autism to civil rights history.  And sometimes it does feel like a lot has been shoved in – some of these topics should either have been explored in greater depth or cut from the book, instead of having them brought up in passing.  A few of the books’ plot points shine through the mess of issues – the importance of family and family history, and a deep love of music.  It is not a surprise to learn that the author is the CEO of the Walla Walla Symphony.  He is clearly as passionate about music as Maya becomes.

Maya and her grandmother are well-drawn, engaging characters.  Maya swings realistically from tetchy teen to sweet, curious kid as she opens up to her Grandmother.  And Grandma Ruby shines especially bright, particularly when pieces of her past surface.  She is very capable of surprising both her recalcitrant granddaughter and the reader.  However, the book’s secondary characters are not particularly fleshed out.  Tommy, Maya’s autistic neighbor, is around just long enough to find Maya’s grandfather’s trombone and convince her to play – after he has served his purpose he all but disappears from the narrative.

This novel could be a good match for tweens looking for more recent historical fiction, especially readers who don’t mind a “quiet” book.  The author’s note, which guides readers to further information on several of the book’s major themes, will be especially useful for kids who choose this book for historical fiction projects.  The story also involves Maya coming to terms with her father being Missing in Action and assumed dead during the Vietnam War, a subject that is topical for many children from armed forces families.

As a side note for those like me who enjoy a great library description, I’ll end with one of my favorite passages from the novel.  Maya and her grandmother spend a few mornings a week at the Seattle Public Library, which Maya describes like so:

“Whatever the reason, the smell of well-aged books, combined with the faint, almost imperceptible hum that I had decided long ago must come from all those eyeballs flitting back and forth across all those pages, had come to remind me of a friendly beehive.” (page 114)

Seattle Blues on the web.

Michael Wenberg on the web.

Review copy provided by the author.

Easter Sunday Links

  • The Cooperative Children’s Book Center creates annual statistics on African American authors and illustrators of children’s books, and Black Threads in Kids Lit has shared this year’s findings.  The numbers are up across the board this year, which is great to see.  However, there’s only one year listed where the number of published books by an African American author or illustrator tops 100.  And considering the number of children’s books published each year, we still have a long way to go.
  • Author Kay Cassidy is hosting a really fun scavenger hunt for libraries to do with their young patrons.  There’s a wide variety of books that patrons can read, and by answering a few questions about the book they will be entered in a monthly prize drawing.  (Hat tip to YA Fresh)
  • Wands and Worlds wants your input!  Go comment about your favorite undiscovered gems from 2008.
  • At R. L. LaFevers’ blog, a great post about going beyond the basics to find your author voice and your character voice.
  • You’ve probably seen this elsewhere by now, but Mitali Perkins’ School Library Journal article on race in children’s books is a must-read.  She presents five great questions to ask about the books you’re reading (or writing).   Mitali also links this heartbreaking video, created by a teen, on African American girls and perceptions of race and beauty.
  • I’m going to do my first read-a-thon next week!  Who else is participating?
  • And finally, a big thanks to the awesome ladies of Oops… Wrong Cookie for giving this blog a Proximidade Award!