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Posts from July 2008

Thursday Afternoon Visits: Pre-Vacation Edition

So last week I did this whole post about how I needed to scale the blog back a bit. Everyone was very supportive. And then, as Charlotte astutely pointed out, I proceeded to post MORE than usual. Partly that was because I already had some of the reviews stored up. And partly because there's just a lot of good energy and discussion going on in the Kidlitosphere this week, and I wanted to be part of it.

But after this post, I'll be taking a blog vacation until August 4th. I'm going to try reading books instead of blogs for a week or so, if I can keep myself out of my Google Reader. I hope to come back recharged and ready for fresh discussions. Meanwhile, here are some links to keep you occupied:

And that's it for today. I wish you all well over the next week or so, and I'll be back on the 4th.

Inkdeath: Cornielia Funke

Book: Inkdeath
Author: Cornelia Funke
Pages: 656
Age Range: 9-12

InkdeathI was excited to get an advance copy of Inkdeath at ALA last month. Inkdeath is the final book in Cornelia Funke's Inkworld trilogy, after Inkheart and Inkspell. I'm not going to give you a plot summary, since I don't want to spoil the book, but I am going to offer up some thoughts about Inkdeath. If you aren't familiar with the series, go and read Inkheart and Inkspell, and then come back here when you're finished. Don't even think about reading the books out of order.

I liked the first two books in the Inkworld series a lot (I didn't review them because I listened to them on audio, but I enjoyed them both immensely). This makes it very difficult to admit that I actually had a hard time getting through the third book. It seemed long, and not in that "falling into the book" way. It was like Funke didn't want to let go of the Inkworld herself, and so she introduced new wonders (giants, people living in nests up in trees), and a whole new castle, with a long journey through the woods to get there. Even though I like the Inkworld, I still thought that the book dragged a bit.

But the real problem that I had with Inkdeath was that, even though this is a children's book, the primary child character, Meggie, doesn't really do much. She mostly waits around for her father (who is off being brave and doing great things), in case her voice is needed to read something into being. Her most interesting situation in Inkdeath is her love triangle (she has two suitors), and even that is pretty passive. It's not that there aren't things happening in the book - there is a lot of drama and sadness and tragedy. But Meggie is mostly a spectator, or a motivation for others, rather than being an initiator. And I think that's a shame, this being a children's book with a spunky girl character and all.

I still enjoyed the book, and I'm glad that I had the chance to read it (and appreciative of the people at Scholastic for giving it to me). It's encouraging to read about so many characters (Mo, Meggie, Elinor, even Violante and Orpheus) who simply adore books. And the Inkworld is lovely and scary and intriguing, filled with things like little glass men, blue fairies, and the white women of death. Occasionally, the book makes you stop and ponder larger philosophical questions (What if someone is writing our story? If someone writes the skeleton of the story, do you still have free will?). It also tackles emotional issues like loss, and family, and love, as when Roxanne (Dustfinger's wife) wonders if "perhaps memories were sometimes worse than nothing."

Mo is a great lead character, brave and good-hearted, but vulnerable. I've heard it said that the author had Brendan Fraser in mind when she came up with Mo, and that is probably true (he plays Mo in the upcoming Inkheart movie). But in this book, he bears more of a resemblance to Jesus (there's a very direct parallel that I can't discuss without spoilers). In general, Funke doesn't shy away from making her characters complex, each with a mix of good and bad traits. Some, like Violante, can't even be classified for sure as good or bad, and one character completely surprised me at the end of the book. Even Orpheus, who does truly terrible things in this book, shares this memory, which made me almost feel sorry for him:

"Orpheus couldn't count the slaps he'd earned over his forbidden passion for reading. One every tenth page was probably about it, but the price had never seemed too high. What was a slap for 10 pages of escapism, ten pages far from everything that made him unhappy, ten pages of real life instead of the monotony that other people called the real world?" (Chapter 42)

I also quite enjoyed the quotes at the beginning of each chapter. They were always apt. The quotes included came from a mix of new and classic works, and it was neat to see books like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Chapter 5) and The Book Thief (Chapter 25) already quoted in this title. I especially liked this quote, from the start of Chapter 42:

"You cannot fully read a book without being alone. But through this very solitude you become intimately involved with people whom you might never have met otherwise, either because they have been dead for centuries or because they spoke languages you cannot understand. And nonetheless, they have become your closest friends, your wisest advisors, that wizards that hypnotize you, the lovers you have always dreamed of." (Antonio Munoz Molins, "The Power of the Pen").

I like Cornelia Funke's poetic writing, with passages like this:

"Morning came hesitantly, like ink mingling with milk, and Mo couldn't say how long he had been sitting there, waiting for Fenoglio's world to tell him what ought to be done next, when a familiar voice quietly spoke his name." (Chapter 20)

What really kept me reading Inkdeath, though, even when I felt that it was dragging a bit, was that after reading the first two books I wanted to know how the story ended. Do Mo and Meggie and Resa survive as a family? Do they stay in the Inkworld, or go back home to the "real world"? Does Dustfinger come back from his tragic turn at the end of Inkspell? What happens to Farid, the boy read from the Arabian Nights?

I'm happy to report that I found the ending of Inkdeath rich and satisfying. It even leaves the door open a tiny crack, I think, for a future story (though a very different story, with different main characters). In the Inkworld series, Cornelia Funke has create a unique premise (people being read in and out of books), a fascinating setting (the Inkworld), and three-dimensional characters that the reader will care about. And so, I recommend that fans of the series definitely read the third book.

And even if you're not a fan of the series yet, if you enjoy fantasy or you love books, you should try out this series. It's a bit dark in places - I'd say equal to or slightly darker than the later Harry Potter books by this third book - so use your judgment in giving it to kids younger than 10 or so. I still wish that the author had given Meggie a more active role in the series conclusion, but I remain glad that the Inkworld series exists. And I'll be more than ready to see the movie when it comes out (currently scheduled for January of 09).

Publisher: The Chicken House (Scholastic)
Publication Date: October 7, 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Quotes and observations are from the advance copy, and may not reflect the final, printed book.

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

Little Brother: Cory Doctorow

Book: Little Brother
Author: Cory Doctorow
Pages: 384
Age Range: 13 and up

Little BrotherBackground: Cory Doctorow's Little Brother has been extensively reviewed in both the blogs and the mainstream press. The review that first made me interested enough to read the book was at Swarm of Beasts. I was actually intrigued enough by this book to a) purchase it (despite the many review books on my shelf); and b) take the hardcover with me on a trip. I'm not going to review it in detail, because I feel like everyone already knows about this book, but I did want to say a few things.

Book Discussion: Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, is set in a very near-term dystopia, one in which technological advances, combined with fears of terrorism, have combined to almost completely remove personal privacy. Teenager Marcus is a hacker, and a bit of a rebel. Together with three of his friends, he sneaks out of school for a couple of hours to track down a clue for an alternative reality game. While the four are out on the streets of San Francisco, a terrorist bombing occurs nearby. The teens are swept up by Homeland Security and taken to be questioned, and humiliated, at an undisclosed location. Three of the four, including Marcus, are released, but they are scarred, in hidden ways, by the experience. Marcus becomes a man on a mission - a mission to take on Homeland Security and gain justice for his lost friend. He becomes Little Brother, the antithesis of Big Brother, and he starts a movement among teens.

As Sheila Ruth pointed out at Wands and Worlds, this book "in a literary sense, it isn't very well written". There are lengthy passages with details about encryption, for example, which are likely to leave the average reader cold. I'm pretty tech-savvy, and some of it was still over my head. There's a tendency towards getting the adults involved when it's time to really solve problems. And (as Sheila again pointed out) the message is quite overt - something that I normally don't like in fiction. Doctorow clearly knows a lot about technology and electronic surveillance, and he has some serious concerns. He seems to have written this book not so much because he had a story that he wanted to tell, but because he had a message that he wanted to get across (about taking back our personal freedoms, and not letting fear drive us to give up privacy).

And yet ... for the most part, this book works. It is utterly terrifying. It made me seriously consider using some sort of software to make my browsing habits more anonymous. It made me wonder about all of the information that Google collects about its users every day. (And what I mostly do on the web is read about children's books - it's not like I have anything to hide.) It made me think. Little Brother is the kind of book that you want to give to other people, so that it can make them think, too. I read it in two sittings, because I had to know what happened to Marcus and his friends.

I still don't really think of Little Brother as conventional fiction - it's more like speculative non-fiction (what might happen if...), cloaked in a story. But I'm willing to give it a pass relative to my "message book" ban, because I think that this particular message, aimed at the particular young adult audience that it is, works in this format. My problem with most message books is that I think they turn kids off of reading. They insult kids by trying to tell them what to do, while pretending to tell them a story, and teach kids that fiction isn't fun. I think that Little Brother, though, is so technology and fact-based (as compared to just "you should do this because I think it's a good thing"-based) that kids won't feel tricked by it. They'll accept it for what it is - a way to talk about something that might happen, in an engaging enough fashion to get people to pay attention (it reminds me of Atlas Shrugged that way, actually, though Little Brother is a more immediately compelling story). And Marcus is an appealing narrator - he sounds like a teenager. He does make the book fun to read.

In summary, I recommend Little Brother for teens and adults. It's thought-provoking and suspenseful, and will make you think about the direction we're going in as a country. The San Francisco setting is detailed and authentic ("you can always spot the tourists, they're the ones who think CALIFORNIA = WARM and spend their San Francisco holidays freezing in shorts and T-shirts" and "only cops could double-park in the middle of Van Ness Street without getting towed by the schools of predatory tow operators that circled endlessly, ready to enforce San Francisco's incomprehensible parking regulations and collect a bounty for kidnapping your car). Even though this book was frightening, I'm glad that I read it.

Publisher: Tor Teen
Publication Date: April 2008
Source of Book: Bought it
Other Blog Reviews: Too many to list.
Author Interviews: Speculative Fiction

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

The Diamond of Darkhold: Jeanne DuPrau

Book: The Diamond of Darkhold
Author: Jeanne DuPrau
Pages: 304
Age Range: 9-12

The Diamond of DarkholdAhhhh. This is my sigh of utter satisfaction on finishing the fourth and final book in the City of Ember series, The Diamond of Darkhold. Jeanne DuPrau, thank you! Thank you for giving us another interesting story, and one that so pleasingly completes the series.

When The Diamond of Darkhold begins, the citizens of Sparks (a post-apocalyptic settlement) are suffering through a rough winter. People are cold, and there isn't enough food for everyone, and as a result, many people are sick. The Pioneer Hotel, where most of the citizens of Ember (the underground city of the first book of the series) are still living, is ever more decrepit.

Determined to do something to help their families, Lina and Doon (the heroes from the first two books) decide to return to the City of Ember. They take with them a mysterious clue, received from a roamer (a wandering trader) named Maggs. In addition to looking for practical things, like food and antibiotics, they also seek to solve the mystery. They hope to find something major, left behind by Ember's builders, to help their people survive. However, they fall into some trouble along the way, and learn that without its citizens, the underground City of Ember is a very dark place.

Two things strike me in particular about this book. The first is the way that kids drive ALL of the action, and are responsible for saving themselves. Even when the adults get involved, they only do so under the direction of the kids. This is true to the other books in the Ember series, but I find it refreshing when compared to some of the other books that I've read recently. I think that kids will find this book fascinating (underground city, children on a quest, a mysterious jewel), but also empowering.

The second thing that is fascinating about this book, at least for me, and that was also present in The People of Sparks, is DuPrau's envisioning of a post-apocalyptic world. What aspects of our civilization have people held on to? What have they lost (electricity, indoor plumbing, elephants and giraffes)? The idea that our civilization is so fragile that we might one day have people who don't know how to spell or pronounce the names of our major cities ... it's terrifying, but it sure does make you think. And the distorted remnants of words from our world catch your attention when they sneak through (a new character uses the word "Wallah", for instance, which he says means "there it is").

Also interesting is the difference in experience between the people of Sparks, descendants of surface survivors of the apocalypse, and the people of Ember, who led a relatively sheltered life below-ground. Living in Sparks is quite an adjustment for the Emberites, who grew up with electric lights and indoor plumbing, but had little exposure to nature. Here are a couple of examples:

"They walked as quickly as they could, but it seemed unlikely they'd avoid getting wet. A few raindrops were already drifting down. Doon felt their light, cold touch on his face. Rain had become familiar to him by now. Since he and his people had arrived here in Sparks from the City of Ember, where sun and rain alike were unknown, four rainstorms had swept over the land. The first had terrified the people of Ember, who thought something dreadful had gone wrong with the sky." (Chapter 1)

"He remembered that someone had told him about a thing called lightning -- a bolt of electricity that came sometimes in storms. He had not known how to picture a "bolt of electricity." (Chapter 1)

Meanwhile, the people of Sparks have had little education, resulting in passages like this:

"Other than Nature, school seemed confusing or boring to Kenny. He'd learned to read a long time ago, but he didn't much like doing it. There wasn't anything very interesting to read. And he'd learned his numbers well enough, up to the part where you have one number on top of another one, with a line between them. He got a little lost after that." (Chapter 14)

This isn't the kind of book where you stop to flag dozens of pages, because there are so many gorgeous turns of phrase, or witty little passages. Instead it's a book that flows along effortlessly when you're reading it, because you care about the characters, and you keep wanting to know what happens next. The plot moves along quickly, with just the right balance of action and atmosphere. Doon and Lina are actually rather ordinary kids. Their primary strengths lie in taking action and looking out for each other. But they feel real. And I think that kids will be able to identify with them.

This book is the very definition of kid-friendly, even as it touches on important , big picture issues. The cover is absolutely fabulous, too. I am certain that fans of the Ember books are going to be very happy with this conclusion to the series. Highly, highly recommended. Get it as soon as you can. You won't be disappointed.

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: August 26, 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Bending Bookshelf
Author Interviews: Shrinking Violet Promotions

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

Reviews that Made Me Want the Book: July 22

Welcome to the latest edition of my Review that Made Me Want to Read the Book feature, in which I highlight the blog reviews that catch my eye. This week I have seven new titles on my list, though I'm on the fence about the last one (it looks quite disturbing).

GoneI read the following description of Michael Grant's Gone at Anokaberry, and it piqued my interest (of course): "In a small town on the coast of California, everyone over the age of fourteen suddenly disappears, setting up a battle between the remaining town residents and the students from a local private school, as well as those who have "The Power" and are able to perform supernatural feats and those who do not." There are several positive mini-reviews in the comments, too.

The Brothers TorresPatti at Oops ... Wrong Cookie reviewed The Brothers Torres by Coert Voorhees. She said: "Your male readers, Hispanic, African American, Caucasian, etc. - they are all going to be able to relate to this book. Voorhees has captured something essential about what it is like for males to grow up in America today... The cover will draw the boys in like flies and the story will keep them hooked." And although I don't fall into the target demographic, this struck me as a book that I'd like to be able to recommend.

The Mysterious Case of the Allbright AcademyThe Mysterious Case of the Allbright Academy, by Diane Stanley, was recommended to Karen at Literate Lives by one of her students. She said "For one thing, I love the mystery genre, and this definitely falls into that category. I also love books where kids band together to stop something bad from continuing to happen, or happening at all. Again, this book does that! Finally, I like endings that resolve themselves happily, but realistically." That all sounded good to me!

My So-Called FamilyLittle Willow recently reviewed My So-Called Family by Courtney Sheinmel, due out in October. It's about a girl who was fathered by an anonymous donor. The girl uses an online match system to identify her half-siblings. Little Willow concludes: "My So-Called Family by Courtney Sheinmel gets my recommendation - and my appreciation. This is a great story about family values and valuing your family. This notable debut has earned a spot on my Best Books of 2008 list."

The Black CanaryThe Black Canary by Jane Louise Curry is the latest Timeslip Tuesday entry at Charlotte's Library. Here's the gist from Charlotte: "Woken the first night there by the sound of water running, James follows the sound down to the basement, where he discovers a shimmering lens of light--a portal back in time, to England in 1600. His journeys into the past become gradually longer, until after one trip he discovers, to his horror, that he has returned to the past of the present he left--his family hasn't gotten to London yet. So he passes through the portal again, hoping things will come out better, but this time, he can't find his way back. He is lost in Elizabethan England, where is he is pressed into the service of the Queen as one of her entertainers, the Children of the Chapel Royal." Sounds intriguing.

Silent in the GraveLeila from Bookshelves of Doom interested me in Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn when she said even though she gets a bit sick from reading in the car, she started and finished this book while on a trip. The book is a historical mystery with a main character who Leila compares to Amelia Peabody, and says has an enjoyable voice. And it sounded fun!

Living Dead GirlBecky from Becky's Book Reviews recently reviewed Elizabeth Scott's upcoming novel Living Dead Girl. I'm not sure if I really want to read this one - it looks very dark (about a 10-year-old girl who is kidnapped and kept prisoner, having unspeakable things done to her, for five years). But Becky said: "If I had just a handful of words to describe Living Dead Girl, they'd be: powerful, haunting, and unputdownable." Hmmm ... I'll have to think about this one.

Growing Bookworms Newsletter: July 22, 2008

Jpg_book007This afternoon I will be sending out the new issue of the Growing Bookworms weekly email newsletter. (If you would like to subscribe, you can find a sign-up form here.) The Growing Bookworms newsletter contains content from my blog focused on children's books and raising readers. There are currently more than 325 subscribers.

This week I have three book reviews (two middle grade and one young adult), a Kidlitosphere round-up with links to useful posts from the past week, and a round-up of recent children's literacy and reading news. I also have links to a couple of recent mentions of this blog, including a detailed interview that I did at Recent posts not included in the newsletter include:

  • An analysis of the role of my blog in my life (hobby, job, or something in between). There's a lot of great discussion in the comments of that post. It's also been linked to by some blogs from outside of the Kidlitosphere (here and here) as being a symptom of a larger problem people are having keeping up with reviews.
  • A link to a video that I'm in, from the ALA conference in late June.
  • A discussion about broadening the reach of the Kidlitosphere, so that we can help people who are looking for current book recommendations for their kids.

Thanks for reading, and for growing bookworms! Hope that you're all getting in plenty of summer reading time. I'll be taking some time off next week, and will not be sending another issue of the newsletter until August 5th. I do expect to publish some book reviews on the blog in the meantime, however. Happy reading!

Soapbox: Communicating the Wonder of Modern Children's Literature

Colleen Mondor has suggested that this week be dedicated by the litblogosphere to "posting loud and long about those things that have been driving them crazy in the publishing world." A number of people chimed in yesterday on various topics, and Colleen has a round-up of excerpts here. (Speaking of Colleen, did you see that she got Jules, Eisha, and me mentioned on GalleyCat?)

Just to get the ball rolling for the soapbox discussions, Colleen listed a variety of issues that have percolating. The one that is currently getting under my skin (also discussed briefly in yesterday's Sunday Visits post) concerns the lack of broader knowledge about modern-day children's and young adult literature and the blogs that focus on that literature. This post stems partly from a post that Carlie Webber (Librarilly Blonde) recently linked to on the parenting blog Babble, and partly from my recent experience attending the BlogHer conference in San Francisco.

The blog entry that Carlie cited is Where Oh Where is Superfudge by Rachel Shukert. And the gist of Shukert's post is that "Kids' books aren't what they used to be". She waxes nostalgic for several thirty-year-old books about "average kids with real-world problems" and suggests that "the Young Adult section has become ... downright aristocratic." She seems particularly bothered by the amount of press that Gossip Girl has received in the mainstream media, and the message sent by the Gossip Girl books and other similar titles. She laments the lionization of privilege, and says that "in the New Children's Literature it's the hapless middle-classes — the normal kids — who ruin the fun, through either graceless social-climbing or trenchantly decrying the excess and shallowness that make being wealthy so delicious, so desirable, so sympathetic." Her proposed solution is to "By all means, give them (kids) Gossip Girl, but rescue all those Carter-era stories of latchkey kids and public school and Native American girls abandoned on islands off the coast of California as well. For the littler ones, dust off Free To Be You and Me."

Seriously? The best solution she can come up with to counteract the messages in Gossip Girl is to go back to 30-year-old literature? I have nothing against offering up the occasional classic to today's kids (if they enjoy it), and I am certainly in favor of providing kids with a diversity of literature about people of all races and classes. But ... hello! There are hundreds of current books that fit the latter description in bookstores and libraries today.

Just ask any children's librarian or independent bookseller for suggestions. They will offer you books like the Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker (illustrated chapter books aimed at early elementary school kids). Clementine lives in an apartment in Boston, where her father is the building super. She sees her parents worrying about paying the bills. When she wants to buy her mother a present, she has to work and save and borrow to come up with the money. The books aren't about the fact that her family is working class - they are about her, and that happens to be her background. It's just the kind of thing that Rachel Shukert seems to be looking for, and anyone in the Kidlitosphere could have told her about Clementine in a heartbeat. (See also Liz B's post on this subject at Tea Cozy, in which she asks readers to help compile a "List of YA/middle grade books, written in the past few years, that do not have Rich Kids as the main character".)

I don't mean to criticize Rachel Shukert. I think she's trying to do something good. She sees all of the books in the bookstore and on the NY Times bestseller lists that feature unattainable wealth, and she wants something more realistic for kids. The thing that frustrates me - that keeps me up at night -is that people like Shukert are steering their children towards older books (however lovely those books are) because they don't know about what's available today. While at the same time the children's book blogging community is filled with people writing in-depth, thoughtful reviews of current titles, and jumping up and down to help parents find these titles for their kids. There's a disconnect here that simply MUST be addressed.

This past Saturday I attended one day of the BlogHer Conference in San Francisco. It was a lot of fun - you get a great energy going when you have 1000 women in one place who are all passionate about blogging. I met a few nice people, with whom I will be be following up, and some of those people were interested in the idea that I blog about children's books. But I have to admit that overall I felt marginalized at BlogHer. There seemed to be forums for mommy bloggers (by far the biggest sub-group), craft bloggers, personal bloggers (people who share their thoughts and/or details about their lives), and tech bloggers. But I certainly didn't meet any other book review bloggers (children or adult), and I didn't find a whole lot in the sessions that spoke directly to the type of blogging that I do. (Anne-Marie Nichols was there, but by the time I learned of this, it was too late to try to meet her, and too big a conference to find her at random). It was a far, far cry from the Chicago KidLit conference, and even from ALA (although ALA is a much bigger conference). The place I was most comfortable, people-wise, was the PBS table in the exhibit hall.

I'm not blaming the BlogHer organizers for my ... disconnection with the larger conference. I think that they do a great job of organizing. I was probably not there long enough to really get comfortable (I was unable to stay for the evening social event), and I didn't try hard enough to meet people. I also think that if I want the Kidlitosphere to be part of the larger blogging discussion, then perhaps next year I need to get some people together for a panel (or someone does). Because here again, similar to the situation with the Babble post, we have a whole bunch of people who blog, many of whom are passionate about how they are raising their kids, and as far as I can tell, they have only the vaguest notion that children's book blogs exist. And that's a shame. Because we do have some amazing resources here in the Kidlitosphere.

I don't have the answers, in terms of making the Kidlitosphere more broadly known. I think that the general issue is that doing that is going to require time, and many of us are already spending all the time we can on our blogs. We're hardly looking to take time away from the blogs themselves, to reach out to other people, people who don't seem that interested anyway.

I feel like I have this magical room full of free stuff, wonderful stuff that gets automatically replenished every day. And people are walking by outside of my room, people who would love this stuff if they knew about it. But they don't happen to look inside, and I don't have time to stand by the window to ask them to come in.

What do you all think?

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

No Cream Puffs: Karen Day

Book: No Cream Puffs
Author: Karen Day
Pages: 224
Age Range: 9-12

No Cream PuffsNo Cream Puffs, by Karen Day, follows 12-year-old Madison through the summer of 1980, during which she tries out for the regional summer baseball league, and suffers a rift with her best friend. She ends up being the first girl in southern Michigan to play on a boys' baseball team. She draws a considerable amount of attention, both for being a girl playing a boy's game, and for being a talented player. No Cream Puffs is about Madison's summer baseball season, with lots of details about the game and about teamwork. But No Cream Puffs is also an exploration of Madison's relationships with her mother, her brother, her estranged best friend, the boys on the team (two of them in particular), and an over-the-hill rock star who has just moved into the neighborhood.

No Cream Puffs is a bit like a cross between Jenny Han's Shug and Mike Lupica's Heat, with a dash of Catherine Gilbert Murdock's Dairy Queen, set in the early 80's. I like how Day handles the 80's setting. That 80's feeling is there in the details, from the very first page (mood rings, feathered hair, and cotton candy lip gloss), but never overwhelms the story. It doesn't feel contrived (unlike another book that I read recently). Setting the book in 1980 was necessary to the plot (it wasn't just some nostalgic whim on the part of the author), because a girl playing baseball wouldn't have been as major an issue if the book was set in 2008. That Madison is the first girl in her area to play is central to the story.

I like Madison -- she's complex and talented, and wants to belong. She fights with her mother in a realistic way. She wonders about her long-lost father, building up fantasies about him and finding ways to blame herself for his absence. She's embarrassed by growing up (especially by how her developing breasts look in a baseball uniform designed for boys). She struggles with being a girl, who is interested in boys, but who just happens to be good at sports. Her friends seem to be making the transition to adolescence much more smoothly than she is (this is the part that really reminded me of Shug). Here are a couple of passages, to help you get to know Madison. The first is about her father, who Madison hasn't seen since she was five.

"I don't remember much about him. Mom said he was "indifferent" and didn't care one way or the other if we stayed or went. But I've always wanted to believe that if he'd gotten to know me, or if he knew me now, he'd like me. He'd want to stick around." (Page 22)

"I can feel Mom's eyes on me, but I won't look at her. What if this is her fault, not Dad's?
But then I see how she's looking at me, her eyes soft. And I feel this space widening between us, like what happens when you're in the lake and you don't hang on to each other's rafts." (Page 125)

This next quote is the bit that reminded me of DJ from Dairy Queen. Madison isn't obsessed with baseball - she more enjoys it because she's good at it.

"I'm not some crazy feminist. I'm playing because I was bored and David pushed me and because, well, because I don't really know why. Because it's something I do well, and that feels pretty great. But what will everyone think now? What will my friends think?" (Page 58)

I thought that the dynamics of Madison's relationship with her best friend Sara were realistic. Friends do grow apart at that age, over differences in the pace of growing up, and over misunderstandings. Things are starting to be complicated, the straightforwardness of childhood is gone, but you don't have the skills to handle things well, either.

I personally enjoyed the details of Madison's baseball games, though some might find those sections a bit detailed. A lot of the focus is on the dynamics of the team -- how the kids relate to and are loyal to one another -- and the ways that the parents interact with their sports-playing children. Those themes are, I think, universal, and probably more familiar to today's elementary school girls than they would have been to girls in 1980. I think that No Cream Puffs is a great book to give to kids who live in baseball-focused regions, like Boston or Chicago, and an excellent choice for kids in general. Despite the sports theme, this seems to me more a book for girls than for boys (the cover is pink, with flowers and lip gloss), though perhaps if you tell them that it's about baseball...

I liked No Cream Puffs a lot. It's a quick, relatively quiet read, but it's heartfelt and authentic, with flashes of humor. I think that women who were in later elementary or junior high school in 1980 will love it. The aging rock star character (named Huey) is a riot (and complex, too). But the real, perfect audience for No Cream Puffs is 10 and 11 year old girls who enjoy realistic fiction, and are struggling with the idea of growing up. Highly recommended.

Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Publication Date: May 13, 2008
Source of Book: A review copy from the author
Other Blog Reviews: Becky's Book Reviews
Author Interviews: Mitali's Fire Escape

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

Children's Literacy Round-Up: July 20

Welcome to my latest round-up of children's literacy and reading related news from around the wires. The news is a bit light this week, but I hope that readers will find something useful.

  • According to an announcement on the International Reading Association (IRA) blog, Reading Today Daily, the IRA "has planned an exciting event in Washington, DC, on September 8 to mark the observance of International Literacy Day. Through shared reading of two novels, the "Reading Across Continents" project will unite students in Washington with students in Nigeria and Ghana."
  • Also via Reading Today Daily, MSNBC reports on a study that found that "British children's brain development is being threatened by their failure to work with their hands in school and at home". ""Working with one's own hands in a real-world 3-D environment is imperative for full cognitive and intellectual development," said the Ruskin Mill Educational Trust report's author Dr. Aric Sigman."
  • Via author Fran Cannon Slayton's Children's Book News eNewsletter (I met Fran recently at ALA), I found links to a couple of different articles about book showers for babies. The first, by Marlene Parrish in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, describes how members of a book club collected children's books as a gift for one of them own, who was about to become a grandmother. The second, by Erin Crawford of the Des Moines Register, says that "A new shower trend, the book shower, aims to stock the new baby's bookcase". Now, you all KNOW that I love this idea.
  • In the Malaysia Star, Daphne Lee reviews two different guides that recommend books to teens. Daphne prefers The Ultimate Teen Book Guide (by Daniel Hahn, Leonie Flynn, and Susan Reuben) to The Rough Guide to Books (by Julia Eccleshare and Nicholas Tucker). She says "The Ultimate Teen Book Guide is, I feel, a better reference for teens. It’s more realistic, more accessible, friendlier and more creative... The editors of Ultimate seem less snobbish, less intent on recommending “worthy” titles and more interested in actually helping kids choose books that they will simply enjoy."
  • The North County Times (CA) has an article by Aaron Claverie about how the definition of literacy is evolving in modern libraries.
  • On (Philippines), Grace Shangkuan Koo has a Learning section feature about the role of parents in children's education. The author describes some of her interactions with parents, and the ways that "Parents whose children are in intermediate grades and high school often think their duties are over or it is too late to do anything and that whatever happens now to their children in school is the responsibility of school and teachers." There are some religious views expressed near the end of the article, which I didn't feel were necessary to the central point of the article, but I do agree with this conclusion: "A serious memo to parents: You are the most significant educators of your children. Make the most of it and be the best persons for the job!" (Of course teachers play a huge role, too, but the role of the parent starts earlier, extends for longer, and is, ideally, consistent from grade to grade.)
  • According to the Canadian Press, Canada is embarking on an ambitious Afghan education program. "The number of burned down or vacant schools in Kandahar province exceeds the total number of schools that are actually open, according to statistics compiled by the Afghan government. But in some parts of the province children are eagerly flocking to classrooms, parents are desperate to get their kids into school, and the waiting lists are growing. With this dichotomy in mind, Canada is embarking on an ambitious school-building project in the province - and being careful to build them in the right places." In a related story, the New York Times has an op-ed piece by Nancy Hatch Dupree about "the lack of basic reading materials needed to make education effective" in Afghanistan.
  • And finally, if you need more reading news, check out Terry's July 15th Reading Round-Up at What Happens Next, the Reading Tub blog.

And that's all for this week! Happy reading!

Sunday Afternoon Visits: July 20

BrillanteI spent a lot of time thinking this week about the time that I spend on my blog, and ways to somehow regain a bit of balance in my life. One thing that's clear is that these Sunday visits posts, much as I enjoy them, are very time-consuming. It's not just the time to write the post -- it's the 1000+ posts a week that I have to skim through to find the few that I mention here (which does not mean that it's hard to decide -- the right posts actually jump off the page for me -- but I still have to find them). This afternoon I could have finished my review of No Cream Puffs and probably finished reading The Diamond of Darkhold, but instead I read and linked to blog posts. And yet, as with everything else, I love knowing what's going on in the Kidlitosphere, and being part of all of the great discussions that people are having. Still, I may need to scale my blogroll back a bit... Anyway, this week there is plenty to share with you. And I think that I'll take next weekend off.

  • This morning I was honored to learn that Andrea and Mark from Just One More Book! had awarded me a Brillante Weblog Premio - 2008 award. I'm in excellent company, too, with the other six recipients. Just One More Book! is one of my short-list blogs, because I find Andrea and Mark philosophically in tune with what I believe about children's books and reading. It's great to know that they feel the same way.
  • Librarian Mom Els Kushner takes on a particular result from a recent Scholastic survey (the 2008 Kids and Family Reading Report): "89% of kids say their favorite books are the ones they picked out themselves." She adds "now many of the people reading this already believe in the importance of free book choice for kids. And of course—as is also documented in the Scholastic report—parents can help their children find and choose good and enjoyable books. But it’s just been something that’s struck me over and over, how important it is for kids to find their own reading paths."
  • Carlie Webber (Librarilly Blonde) links to and discusses a disturbing post from the parenting blog Babble. The blog entry in question is Where Oh Where is Superfudge by Rachel Shukert. And the gist of Shukert's post is that "Kids' books aren't what they used to be". She recaps several thirty-year-old books about "average kids with real-world problems" and suggests that "the Young Adult section has become ... downright aristocratic." The author's confusion over the difference between middle grade and YA aside, the sad thing is that Shukert, who clearly wants kids to read diverse and relevant books, has NO IDEA that hundreds of such books exist, and are being published today (in some cases, as one commenter noted, by the same authors for whom Shukert waxes nostalgic - they are writing NEW books). Anyway, do check out both Carlie's post and the original article and the comments therein. See also Liz B's post on this subject at Tea Cozy, in which she asks readers to help compile a "List of YA/middle grade books, written in the past few years, that do not have Rich Kids as the main character". There's quite an impressive diversity of literature listed in the comments.
  • Speaking of class in young adult literature, TadMack takes on the subject at Finding Wonderland. She was inspired both by Carlie's post above and by some remarks at Read Roger, saying "I just feel strongly that name-dropping and normalizing affluence in YA literature creates the wrong idea about young adult literature as a genre and gets far more attention somehow than novels pertaining to lives more ordinary."
  • And speaking of rants on topics like class in YA literature, Colleen Mondor reminds us "starting Monday I declare the entire children/YA portion of the litblogosphere to enjoy a week of posting loud and long about those things that have been driving them crazy in the publishing world." She lists a few hot-button issues that have recently arisen. Lots of people -- too many to link -- have already written about a recent Margo Rabb article about the stigma that many people attach to writing YA. Personally, the issue that bugs me the most right now is this "children's books aren't what they used to be" post (described above). But I'll defer my thoughts to a separate post.
  • Via Cheryl Rainfield, Paddington Bear is going to be used in the British Airways children's travel program. Cheryl also takes on the question of whether or not blog reviews can influence people to buy books, and gives her own data points to say that they can. As for my own data point, I have a whole slew of people who commented on my review of Allegra Goodman's The Other Side of the Island to say that they want it, and intend to get their hands on it when it's available. And I recently purchased Found, Little Brother, and The Adoration of Jenna Fox, among others, as a direct result of blog reviews.
  • Congratulations to Open Book for the recent successes of their Book Buddies program (by which volunteers become reading buddies to young kids). Erin has the details at Read All About It! Coolest part? The program is apparently inspiring some of the volunteers to want to become teachers.
  • For those who are curious, Anastasia Suen has started a Kidlitosphere FAQ, in which she explains what the Kidlitosphere is, and links to some key resources.
  • Trevor Cairney reviews the "Your Baby Can Read" program at Literacy, Families and Learning. He gives the program a detailed assessment, and appears to have approached it with an open mind, but concludes that he wouldn't introduce it to his own children. He says "Instead of using this program I would encourage my children from birth by stimulating their language (singing to them, reading with them, asking questions etc) and learning (exploration, invention, creative play etc)."
  • Nancy Sondel recently sent me the announcement for the Pacific Coast Children's Writers workshop. She says that it will be a "small, quality, international seminar in north Santa Cruz county (CA) Aug 15-17, for writers of literary youth novels". If you are looking for a workshop like this, check out the website for details. 
  • Laurie Halse Anderson shares some "cold hard facts about the writing life." This post is must-read stuff for aspiring authors.
  • At Becky's Book Reviews, Becky makes a plea for "more authenticity and less stereotyping" in fiction (especially in the portrayals of both Christianity and body size). She talks eloquently about the ways that we find ourselves in literature, and the ways that we use literature to "see the world through new eyes".
  • Walter Minkel writes about a recent USA Today report on how having a video on in the background shortens the attention span of children when they're playing. Walter is concerned that this "means that children’s attention spans are broken up, and kids are engaging in less, and more fragmented, imaginative play. I’m concerned that as kids grow older and become more and more fixated on screens - in particular, the Net and video games - they use less and less of their imaginations and let their brains fall under the direction of Web designers and game designers."

Hope that you're all having a great day!

PaperTigers Interview / Children's Writing Update

Last month Marjorie Coughlan from PaperTigers ("a website about books for young readers, with a special focus on the Pacific Rim and South Asia") interviewed me about my passion for getting young readers interested in books. The interview is now available. Marjorie asked me some great questions about what gets kids reading, reaching reluctant readers, the Cybils, and blogging in general. She also dug up some other supporting links, including my Just One More Book! interview. If you're interested in reading the results, click here. My thanks to Marjorie for putting in so much time with this interview. I love the PaperTigers site, and the work that they do to help young readers, and I am honored to be playing a small part there.

Jon Bard was also kind enough to feature my blog in this week's Children's Writing Update, an email newsletter companion to the Children's Book Insider. I've been hearing from lots of children's book authors over the past couple of days as a result. If you are here from Children's Writing Update, thanks so much for clicking through.

And finally, many thanks to everyone who commented on my recent post about when a hobby becomes something more. I'm just overwhelmed by the tremendous support that people from the Kidlitosphere show one another. This is such a wonderful place to be, and you've all reminded me of that this week, and a time when I'm struggling (yet again) to find the right balance for myself in blogging. It's so nice to know that I'm not alone, and that people understand, and even have constructive suggestions and offers of help.

Thanks again, to Marjorie and Jon, and to everyone who commented or emailed me in response to this week's post. I appreciate you all very much. It's been quite a week!

The Other Side of the Island: Allegra Goodman

Book: The Other Side of the Island
Author: Allegra Goodman
Pages: 272
Age Range: 12 and up

The Other Side of the IslandBackground: It is well-known to regular readers of this blog that I am unable to resist post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. This is perhaps also known to Razorbill, because they sent me an advance copy of The Other Side of the Island. I read it in one sitting, on a recent flight.

Review: The Other Side of the Island, by Allegra Goodman, is a post-apocalyptic novel set in a future world in which much of the Earth has been flooded. Earth Mother and her Corporation apparently swept in during the environmental crisis, and are now running things. A young girl named Honor has been living in the less developed lands to the North, but recently moved to the more restrictive Colonies with her parents. Life is peaceful and secure, and expectations for conformance are quite clear. Honor's parents, however, are not very good at conforming. As she grows older, Honor finds herself living in fear that her parents' actions will be noticed. And people who cause trouble on the Island have a nasty way of disappearing...

This book pulled me in from the first two paragraph:

"All this happened many years ago, before the streets were air-conditioned. Children played outside then, and in many places the sky was naturally blue. A girl moved to a town house in the Colonies on Island 365 in the Tranquil Sea.

The girl was ten years old, small for her age but strong. Her eyes were gray. Her hair was curly to begin with, and it curled even more in the humid island air. She had been born after the Flood in the eighth glorious year of Enclosure, and like everyone born that year, her name began with the letter H. Her name was rare, and in later cycles it was discontinued, but at that time it was still on the lists. She was called Honor."

This book has it all. Goodman's writing is eloquent. The island setting is fully realized. The social issues are thought-provoking and memorable. The plot is suspenseful, and has surprising twists. The characters are complex and flawed. Honor is far from perfect. When her parents have a second child, in a society where second children are unusual, she is horrified. When her parents seem to be putting the family at risk, she reacts by conforming, and is disloyal to less conventional a friend. But even when she's behaving in way that the reader might not like, it's clear that she's doing so with the best of intentions. You can't help but care about her. And of course, eventually, she comes into her own.

This book has elements of The Giver, and of that world in A Wrinkle in Time where everyone is alike. It also reminded me of A Little Princess (when Honor is pushed to the brink during a time of adversity - she reacts much like Sara Crewe did in a similar situation). The Other Side of the Island explores tradeoffs between safety and freedom, and illustrates how people can be controlled through the information that they are given in books, especially if you take away their non-conforming memories. All of the classic children's books have been purged and rewritten, a shadow of their original selves. A boy who discovers some of the original texts feels, rightly, like he's found treasure.

I'm really hoping that Goodman will write other books set in this same world. I can't recommend this book highly enough. It's geared at young adults, but I think that strong younger readers could also manage it, perhaps 10 and up. For fans of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, of all ages, this is a must-read title that you won't want to miss. Even if you aren't normally a fan of such books, I think that The Other Side of the Island is worth a look. The characterization is exceptionally strong, and I think that the setting and the action are compelling enough to draw in all sorts of readers. I'm actually quite tempted to read it again right now, just a few weeks after my first read. That should tell you how strongly I feel about this book.

Publisher: Penguin Razorbill
Publication Date: September 4, 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Ticket to Read

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