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Posts from June 2006

Poetry Friday: The Railway Children

The mother in Edith Nesbit's The Railway Children is a writer, supporting the family with her writing when times are difficult. When she has more time, however, Mother writes special poems for the children. Here is one (from Chapter 14), written for family friend Jim about a dreadful new student at Jim's school:

"The New Boy

His name is Parr: he says that he
Is given bread and milk for tea.
He says his father killed a bear.
He says his mother cuts his hair.

He wears goloshes when it's wet.
I've heard his people call him "Pet"!
He has no proper sense of shame;
He told the chaps his Christian name.

He cannot wicket-keep at all,
He's frightened of a cricket ball.
He reads, indoors, for hours and hours.
He knows the names of beastly flowers.

He says his French just like Mossoo --
A beastly stuck-up thinkg to do --
He won't keep cave, shirks his turn
And says he came to school to learn!

He won't play football, says it hurt;
He wouldn't fight with Paley Terts;
He couldn't whistle if he tried,
And when we laughed at him he cried!

Now, Wigby Minor says that Parr
Is only like all new boys are.
I know when I first came to school
I wasn't such a jolly fool!"

Which just goes to show that life was pretty rough for English schoolboys 100 years ago. I reviewed The Railway Children here.

No links today, because I'm traveling, and set this up ahead of time. Try Kelly at Big A little a, or Liz at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy for poems and links. And have a great Fourth of July weekend!

Time Off, and Reading Material in the Meantime

I'm going to be traveling with very limited email access for the next week or so, and so will probably not be posting anything or responding to comments. I'm sure that I'll miss it, but I'll read as much as I can, and I'll be back with you after July 4th. Please check back with me then.

In the meantime, I recommend that you check out the newly published issue of the online children's literature journal The Edge of the Forest. There are lots of reviews and features in this issue, including a review that I wrote of the young adult novel How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. Be sure to also check out Kelly Herold's review of The Book Thief, Kelly's interview with blogging writer Susan Taylor Brown, and Pam Coughlan's feature article chock full of gift book suggestions for children up to age seven, along with many other articles. It's paradise for people interested in children's literature.

I also have a contribution to the July/August issue of Bookmarks Magazine. I submitted a recommended reading list of children's books that I thought adults would enjoy, with brief descriptions of the books. The article isn't available online, but you can probably find Bookmarks at your local bookstore. They also have lots of great articles and reviews. There's not usually a lot pertaining to children's books, but it's an excellent publication for book lovers.

So, read The Edge of the Forest. Pick up a copy of Bookmarks Magazine. Visit some of the many wonderful blogs listed in my sidebar (down and to the right). And I'll be back with you as soon as I can. Thanks!

Poetry Friday: A Rose by any Other Name

I recently listened to Behind the Curtain, by Peter Abrahams. There's a scene mid-way through the book in which Ingrid's mother quotes Shakespeare on "A rose by any other name". Ingrid isn't sure she buys it (would a rose really smell as sweet if it was called a skunk?). But I thought that it was worth tracking down Juliet's entire speech on the matter.

From Act II, Scene II, of Romeo and Juliet:

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself."

No links today, because I'm traveling, and set this up ahead of time. Try Kelly at Big A little a, or Liz at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy for poems and links. And have a great weekend!

Wild Magic: Tamora Pierce

I just finished listening to a full-cast audio version of Wild Magic, by Tamora Pierce. This is the first book in Pierce's Immortals quartet, which is a follow-on series to her Song of the Lioness quartet. I had previously listened to another Tamora Pierce book (Circle Of Magic #1 : Sandry's Book), and I really didn't see what all the fuss was about. But I liked Wild Magic much more than I expected to. It's the story of 13-year-old Daine, an orphan with an unusual gift for communicating with animals, living in a land where many people have magical abilities.

Daine actually seems to be part animal: creatures flock to her, defend her, and will do just about anything for her. Sometimes, in fact, she fears losing her human self, because she bonds so completely with animals. Despite her abilities, Daine is a vulnerable young girl. She's ashamed of her common upbringing and the fact that she doesn't have the usual "gift" of magic, and she mourns her lost family. Her animal friends keep her grounded, however, and she has a blunt, unique voice that gradually wins over human friends, too.

Through her gift with animals, Daine gets a job as an assistant horse mistress for the kingdom of Tortall. There she is trained in her type of "wild magic" by mage Numair, and uses her gift to help Tortall to defend itself from enemies. And enemies abound, as a rival kingdom begins a series of stealthy attacks, drawing on the power of strange immortal creatures. Daine slowly finds her place among the people of Tortall, but finds everything she now cares for threatened by these attacking immortal creatures.

The full-cast audio of this book is excellent. Daine's voice is perfect, usually pleasant and young, but becoming almost strained when her friends are threatened, or when she has to yell to get attention. When Daine communicates with her mind, there's an echoing quality to the audio, so that it's clear that the words aren't spoken aloud. The voices of the other characters are, for the most part, distinct and recognizable (though I had trouble distinguishing between a couple of the women). I especially liked the voice of Sarge, a relatively minor character, but one who's voice stood out. I don't usually think that full cast audios are necessary, but I did enjoy this one.

Overall, I thought that Wild Magic was an engaging story, featuring several strong characters, and detailed relationships between the characters. Tortall is a fully realized world, and I look forward to visiting again.

Book: Wild Magic (Immortals)
Author: Tamora Pierce
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Original Publication Date:
Pages: 384
Age Range: Young Adult

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Behind the Curtain: Peter Abrahams

Behind the Curtain : An Echo Falls Mystery by Peter Abrahams is the second book in the Echo Falls series, after last year's Down the Rabbit Hole. These are Abrahams's first children's/young adult books, after writing many adult mysteries. I really enjoyed Down the Rabbit Hole (reviewed here), because it was a classic sort of mystery, with clues and red herrings and all of that, with a smart, realistic 13-year-old girl as the protagonist.

Behind the Curtain picks up not long after the solution of the previous mystery, and continues many of the family-related threads left open in the first book. Ingrid finds herself investigating steroid use at the local high school, while worrying about her brother's health, the stability of her father's job, and the pressure on her grandfather to sell his farm. Ingrid's Dad is particularly cranky in this installment, as he reacts poorly to competition at work. But Grampy remains his quirky and lovable self.

Here's my problem with this book, however. I saw the solution to all of the open questions very very early into the book. It was just too easy. Now, I know that I'm not the target age range for this book, and that I've read a lot more mysteries than most 13-year-olds have. But I still have trouble believing that kids wouldn't see the end coming a long way off.

That's not to say that I didn't enjoy the book. It's well-written. Abrahams has an excellent sense for the way kids think and interact. I like the town that Ingrid lives in, and I like the way family dynamics play an important part in the story. I also like Ingrid (she's on the Cool Girls list), and after two books, I feel like I know her pretty well. She trusts her own instincts, and she doesn't let anyone push her around. I'll certainly look for the next book in the series. I just hope that Abrahams learns to trust his readers a bit more, and ratchets up the mystery a bit.

Book: Behind the Curtain : An Echo Falls Mystery
Author: Peter Abrahams
Publisher: HarperCollins
Original Publication Date: 2006
Pages: 352
Age Range: 10-14

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Quick Hits

A few things that I noticed while visiting the kidlitosphere (a term coined by Melissa Wiley) today:

  • If you've been wondering about children's author Chris Barton over at Bartography, wonder no more. He has a list of interesting tidbits here. I say "Hook 'em, Horns!" (it's a University of Texas thing).
  • Sadly, author/illustrator Brian Selznick has been de-throned from his position as the nicest guy in the world, per A Fuse #8 Production. The poor guy didn't do anything wrong, and actually takes it with quite good grace, but Matthew Holm won Miss Fuse over with an impressive array of Babymouse gifts. I have had a taste of Babymouse gifts myself, and I can see how they might sway a person.
  • Kelly Herold has her weekly blog book review round-up over at Big A little a. This one is a particularly impressive effort on Kelly's part, given the high volume of reviews inspired by MotherReader's 48-Hour Book Challenge. Kelly has the reviews well organized and linked, and you can find many, many great summer reading suggestions here. I'm pleased to report that Kelly named me "most prolific reviewer of the week". I don't think I could keep that up every week, but it sure was fun!   
  • The BLTeens Blog has a post that asks who do libraries serve? Michele takes exception to a man she talked with whose "take on library users is that they come to the library simply because they aren't financially successful enough to buy their own books or own their own computers." She offers several points in response.
  • Cynthia Leitich Smith at Cynsations has a thoughtful post about the question of product placements in young adult literature. She points out that "there's sometimes a literary impact from the brand names we elect to mention."

That's all for today! I have to go pack for yet another trip.

The Dangerous Book for Boys

The Washington Post runs a regular parenting column that sometimes includes book-related news. In this week's article, L. Carol Ritchie discusses, among other topics, a June 15th Guardian article by Tim Gill. The gist of the Guardian article is that the pendulum of over-protecting kids has swung too far, and that kids need to experience and overcome some amount of risk as they grow up, in order to develop survival skills. The article references a study by a safety organization (the Guardian article about the study is here) that came out in favor of more interesting (riskier) playgrounds. David Yearley, of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said, in a keynote speech, that "unless playgrounds provide 'exciting, stimulating' diversion for children, there is a danger that children will not use them, and will play instead on railway lines, by riverbanks or alongside roads."

The Post and Guardian articles also note that The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden is number one on Amazon UK (and climbing in the U.S., despite a long shipping time). This book is a handbook to fun activities like making pinhole cameras, understanding cricket, building go-carts, skimming stones, and using invisible ink. It seems a bit unfair to limit these activities to boys, but I think that the idea is to get kids out there doing fun things, instead of sitting indoors watching television and playing video games. It strikes me in reviewing the chapter titles of the book (on the Amazon UK product page) that it's almost a manual for kids to be more like the kids in old-style books, like the Melendy family, out having adventures.

Not having kids, it's tricky for me to comment on the trade-offs between raising independent kids and protecting them. But I will say that this looks like a neat book. It might make a good belated Father's Day gift. And I'll bet you could have a lot of fun with finding companion books where kids in the book engaged in some of the same activities!

The Book Thief: Markus Zusak

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young German girl living in a small town near Munich during World War II. There have been a variety of other children's and young adults books that tackle World War II. The Book Thief is unique because of the choice of narrator and because of the author's voice. The narrator of the book is Death, and he has quite a unique perspective. As for the author's voice, Markus Zusak is a genius in his use of language. By the time I was 80 pages in, I wanted to go back and start over again, so that I could experience the early parts of the book again.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

  • "Every childhood seems to have such a juvenile in its midst and mists" -- page 49
  • "You know, it actually makes me wonder if anyone ever lost an eye" from heil Hitlering -- page 111.
  • "The secret sat in her mouth. It made itself comfortable. It crossed its legs." -- page 246
  • "You're human. You should understand self-obsession." -- page 307
  • "The sound of crying children kicked and punched." -- page 380
  • "Her feet scolded the floor." -- page 428

These are just a selection out of countless clever phrases and ideas sprinkled on every page. The narrative structure of the story is complex, told with flashforwards and flashbacks, and inset with asides and quotations, and occasionally with excerpts from hand-made books. But the story itself is actually fairly simple. The Book Thief depicts World War II from the perspective of ordinary German citizens, and from the perspective of young Liesel, who is far from ordinary. And, we see World War II from Zusak's envisioned Death, who had a lot of work to do during those years. The Book Thief is also a window into the dangers that World War II held for non-Jews, and particularly what happened to those who spoke up too late.

Liesel is most definitely a cool girl of children's literature. She's brave, funny, loyal and caring. She steals books a) because she loves them with a passion that she can scarcely express and b) because it feels good to take something back, after all she has lost. She reads books aloud in a neighborhood bomb shelter. And above all, she survives, despite terrible losses. The other characters in the book are also well-drawn, with some of the most complex (like Liesel's foster mother) offering the greatest rewards. Max, a young Jewish man in hiding, is an especially sympathetic character, as are Liesel's Papa, and her best friend Rudy.

I am normally a devourer of books (I recently read and reviewed 10 books in 48 hours), but I read this one fairly slowly, because I enjoyed the writing so much. The characters felt so real that I wanted to spend more time with them. I also kept having to stop to jot down phrases that struck me as particularly brilliant. Towards the end I did read faster, as the tension of the story got to me. I'm certain that I'll have to go back and re-read soon, to examine more of the details.

So here's the bottom line. I know that it doesn't sound like a fun book, from the short description: World War II in Germany, narrated by Death, about a girl who steals books. And it's not an upbeat story, to be sure. But it's a moving story about a great character, with some of the most remarkable and distinctive writing you'll ever read. It has my highest recommendation.

Book: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Publisher: Knopf
Original Publication Date: 2006
Pages: 552
Age Range: 14 and up

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

48 Hour Book Challenge, My Final Tally

I found this 48 hour book challenge utterly consuming. I didn't cook anything during the 48 hours, didn't put away the dishes in the dish drainer, didn't bring in the mail, didn't go for my usual walk. I could never keep this up all the time, but I learned that it's amazing how much reading and reviewing you can get done, if you make it your top priority.

This experience also reinforced to me how much I love writing book reviews. I had thought that I would do brief reviews, and maybe go back and beef them up later. But I found that I didn't feel like the book counted if I didn't review it with at least a reasonable degree of effort. One habit that helped me was creating the post, with links, when I started reading the book, and filling in notes as I went along. This made writing the reviews fairly quick, and I'm sure that I remembered to include things that I might have missed otherwise. 

But enough of that. Here are my numbers, out of about 46 hours:

  • Total books read and reviewed: 10 (I started #11, but was unable to finish it)
  • Total pages: 2692 (not counting the partial 11)
  • Time spent reading: 22 hours (122 pages/hour)
  • Time spent blogging/reviewing: 5 hours (not counting this summary)
  • Total time reading and reviewing: 27 hours

And here are the books that I reviewed, with links to each review. I read mostly middle grade novels, with a couple of young adult books thrown in towards the end. 8 of the 10 were books that I had not read before - two were old favorites.

  1. 12 Again by Sue Corbett
  2. The Four-Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright
  3. The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer
  4. Dawn Undercover by Anna Dale
  5. Ruby Holler by Sharon Creech
  6. The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen
  7. The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place by E. L. Konigsburg
  8. The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton
  9. Charlie Bone and the Hidden King by Jenny Nimmo
  10. Chasing the Jaguar by Michele Dominguez Green

Of the above 10, my favorite remains The Four-Story Mistake. The one that wowed me the most was The Devil's Arithmetic. I also really enjoyed Ruby Holler. But I was 10 for 10 in terms of enjoying the books. And I'll look for next books in the new series that I discovered (Chasing the Jaguar and The Case of the Missing Marquess).

I just noticed that all 10 books that I completed this weekend were by female authors. Purely coincidence. The two that I'm reading now are Thieves Like Us by Stephen Cole and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Hmmm, there's a sub-theme there, isn't there?

Thanks so much, MotherReader, for organizing this book challenge!! What a wonderful, book-filled weekend.

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Happy Father's Day

I'd like to wish my wonderful Dad a Happy Father's Day today. I don't really remember it, but I'm told that my Dad read to me a lot when I was very small. Clearly, that took. I do remember him reading us The Night before Christmas every year. I also remember Sunday afternoon visits with Dad to the Bali Hai, learning to calculate tax in my head at our hardware store, and, when I got a little older, lunches at the 99. My Dad is the most comforting person in the world to be around - he never judges or gets mad - he's just there for you if you need him. Every daughter should be so lucky! Thanks, Dad! Have a Happy Father's Day.

And Happy Father's Day to Mheir's Dad, John, who shows his love by perpetually offering me food (especially Armenian coffee and clementines). And Happy Father's Day to all of my friends and relatives who are fathers, or soon to be fathers. And finally, a special Happy Father's Day to Koko and Raffi, who have given Mheir and I the most wonderful four nieces in the world.

I also wanted to remind you all of a book that I reviewed last month, which I think is a wonderful homage to fathers. Put Susan Taylor Brown's Hugging the Rock (my review is here) on your list to buy when it comes out this fall. The father in this book is a rock of stability who ultimately shows his daughter that "sometimes dads are better moms than moms are." Considering the way that fathers often get short shrift in children's literature, this is a particularly nice book to read. The father in The Penderwicks is pretty great, too (review here). But of course none of the fathers in books can match up to the real ones in my life. Happy Father's Day, guys!

Chasing the Jaguar: Michele Dominguez Greene

My 10th and final book in the 48 Hour Book Challenge is Chasing the Jaguar by Michele Dominguez Greene. Chasing the Jaguar is the story of a 15-year-old Mexican-American girl, of Mayan descent, living in the barrio in Los Angles. Martika starts having strange dreams around the time of her quinceanera (a traditional 15th birthday celebration to celebrate a young girl becoming a woman).

When the wealthy daughter of her mother's employer is kidnapped, Martika sees images of the kidnapping, and of Jennifer held captive in an abandoned building. Martika learns from her mother that she is descended from a long line of curanderas (healers, or medicine women, with psychic powers). As she starts to learn about her gift, she had to balance this learning with helping to find Jennifer, restoring a precious Mayan artifact, keeping up with family responsibilities, staying on top of her schoolwork, and spending time with her best friend.

I was impressed by the thoroughness with which the Latin immigrant family lifestyle is portrayed. Martika's mother watches Spanish-language television, Martika grabs a quesadilla for lunch and eats tortillas for breakfast, and the book is sprinkled with Spanish phrases and Mexican traditions. Michele Dominguez Greene is clearly of Latin immigrant descent herself. She also knows Los Angles well. The book has an authenticity in both of these areas.

The text starts out with a bit too much brand-name dropping for my taste, and Martika is perhaps a little bit too good to be true. However, her struggle with her overprotective papi to assert her independence feels real. And the details of the Mayan history, and curandera powers, are fascinating. I also liked seeing a strong, smart heroine from a working class immigrant family. Overall, I think that it's a promising start to a new series, and I look forward to seeing what Martika will do next.

Michele Dominguez Greene (on IMBD) is an Emmy-nominated actress who starred in L.A. Law for five years. She is also a singer/songwriter of Latin and folk music. Although this is her first book, she has written two award-winning short screenplays and has contributed feature articles to several magazines. She is a native of Los Angeles and is of Mexican/Nicaraguan and Irish background. Greene says that the Latin family in which she grew up is very different from what is usually portrayed in popular culture and the media. "I hope Martika and her friends will be positive role models for young girls and inspire them to dream bit," Greene explains. "When girls feel the future offers them many possibilities, they are more likely to avoid pifalls like teen pregnancy."

Book: Chasing the Jaguar
Author: Michele Dominguez Greene
Publisher: HarperCollins
Original Publication Date: 2006
Pages: 220
Age Range: 12 and up
Time Spent: 2 hours
Source of Book: I received a review copy of this book from Tara Koppel at Raab Associates.

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Charlie Bone and the Hidden King: Jenny Nimmo

My next book for MotherReader's 48 Hour Book Challenge (my ninth so far, and last one for today) is Charlie Bone And The Hidden King, by Jenny Nimmo. This is the fifth book in Nimmo's Children of the Red King series. This series is about a bunch of children who are all descended, over hundreds of years, from the Red King, a powerful magician. The Red King had 10 children, five who followed in his own footsteps, and five who turned to evil. The children who are descended from him each have unique endowments. Charlie, for example, can travel into photographs, and hear what was being said around the time that they were taken. One of his friends can influence the weather, while another can talk to animals. The children all attend a grim school, where the balance of good and evil is precariously balanced.

In this fifth book of the series, an evil sorcerer is released from captivity, and threatens Charlie and his family. Charlie learns more about what happened to the Red King, and about his own family. As in the other books, Charlie and his friends have to battle the kids from the evil side, using their endowments and their loyalty to one another. I thought that this was better than the fourth book of the series. I was eager to see how things would turn out, and found the ending highly satisfying (though a few details could have used more explanation).

I like this series. The storylines are complex. The characters are reasonably complex, and have interesting abilities. The fast-moving plots are sure to appeal to reluctant readers. The Children of the Red King series is an excellent suggestion for kids interested in the Harry Potter books, but perhaps not quite ready for the length and darkness of the later books in the series. Or for kids who like the Gregor the Overlander books, and are ready for something a bit more advanced. All of the Charlie Bone books are published with double-spaced text, which is something that Jenny Nimmo apparently requested from the publisher to make it easier for kids to read the books. I definitely recommend these books for kids who love fantasy, and for reluctant readers and kids who have dyslexia or other reading difficulties. And for adults like me, the Charlie Bone books are just fun!

Book: Charlie Bone And The Hidden King
Author: Jenny Nimmo
Publisher: Orchard Books
Original Publication Date: 2006
Pages: 441
Age Range: 9 to 12
Time Spent: 2 hours 45 minutes

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.