15 posts categorized "Overlooked Books" Feed

Wicked Cool Overlooked Books (III)

As initiated by Colleen Mondor, the first Monday of each month is dedicated to highlighting excellent but overlooked titles. I'm going to use this month's space to point you again to a book that I recently reviewed: Dodsworth in New York, by Tim Egan. Dodsworth in New York doesn't have any reviews yet on Amazon, and I haven't seen any other reviews out and about in the Kidlitosphere (if I missed yours, do let me know). But I think it's a book worth noting because it's particularly hard to write a profound yet entertaining book for very early readers. And Tim Egan does this successfully. As I said in my review:

"Dodsworth in New York is a manual for letting go and enjoying life, as well as a love letter to New York. But more importantly, it's a delightful early reader, sure to please kids and adults. I think that it takes a gifted writer to convert the short sentences and limited vocabulary of an early reader into something with tone and substance. Egan accomplishes this feat admirably. The personalities of Dodsworth and the duck both come through clearly. And the short sentences function as understatement, allowing the reader to fill in details of mood and subtext."

So, if you have a new reader in your house, this is a title worth looking for.

Colleen has posted about another Overlooked Book at Chasing Ray. I'll link to other posts as I come across them.

UPDATED to add:

Book: Dodsworth in New York
Author: Tim Egan
Pages: 48
Age Range: 5 to 8 (a very early chapter book)
Sequel to: The Pink Refrigerator (a picture book, reviewed here)
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Publication Date: September 24, 2007
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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

Recommendations from Under the Radar: Day 5

Today is the fifth and last day of the Recommendations from Under the Radar series. We hope that you have found it enjoyable. Participating blogs today include:

  • A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy: The Vietnam books by Ellen Emerson White
  • Big A, little a: The Deep by Helen Dunsmore
  • Bildungsroman: The May Bird Trilogy by Jodi Lynn Anderson
  • Finding Wonderland: The Avion My Uncle Flew by Cyrus Fisher
  • Not Your Mother's Bookclub: A look at some recently revised classics
  • Fuse Number 8: Stoneflight by George McHarque
  • lectitans: Gentle's Holler and Louisiana Song both by Kerry Madden
  • Chasing Ray: Kipling's Choice by Geert Spillebeen
  • Interactive Reader: A Plague of Sorcerers by Mary Frances Zambreno
  • The YA YA YAs: Resurrection Men by TK Welsh
  • 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast: Such a Pretty Face: Short Stories About Beauty edited by Ann Angel

Radar_2 You can find the full schedule here and a post from Colleen Mondor about the philosophy behind this whole undertaking here. Thanks for joining us for Recommendations from Under the Radar.

Recommendations from Under the Radar: Day 4

Day 4 of the Recommendations from Under the Radar series is now available at the following websites:

Radar_2 You can find the full schedule here and a post from Colleen Mondor about the philosophy behind this whole undertaking here.

Under the Radar: The Green Sky Trilogy

Books: The Green Sky Trilogy: Below the Root, And All Between, Until the Celebration
Author: Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Pages: 242, 224, 224 (2004 reissue editions)
Age Range: 10 and up

Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Green Sky trilogy depicts a world in which people live up in the branches of trees, beneath a green, leaf-filtered sky. Gravity is lighter in Green Sky than on Earth, and people are able to wear silken panels attached to wrists and ankles (called Shubas) that allow them to glide gently down between branches. The residents of Green Sky are descendants of flight from Earth, one that took place as the home planet ran into irrecoverable trouble. Green Sky residents are more evolved than citizens of Earth, shunning violence and anger, and focusing on peace and joy. They don't even have words for "kill" or "anger" -- the worst state to be in is one of "unjoyfulness", and even this is rare. The children have spiritual gifts (mind-reading, and the ability to move objects with their minds), although the Spirit gifts have been fading in recent years.

Here's an example of Ms. Snyder's poetic descriptions of Green Sky, from Below the Root:

"He stood on the narrow grundbranch, looking down hundreds of feet, through vast open spaces softly lit by filtering rays of greenish light, bordered and intersected by enormous branches, festooned with curtains of graceful Wissenvine. Shaking out the wing panels of his shuba, the long silken robe worn by all except the youngest infants, he launched himself downward into space."

Although Below the Root depicts a society that is on the surface idyllic, imperfections are evident from the early pages of the book. People are pressured to never show unhappiness or irritability. The society is very hierarchical, with the community leaders kept apart from the rabble (called Kindar), living in nicer homes, and idolized. Certain locations within the community are forbidden (such as the fields where fruit is harvested). People are warned never to so much as glance at the forest floor, in fear of a race of monsters that dwells "below the root".

The Root is the root of the sacred Wissenvine, a natural plant that was adapted through the Spirit gifts of early Green Sky residents. The root forms a steel-like network along the forest floor, trapping the monsters (called Pash-shan) below. The upper parts of the Wissenvine give rise to useful vines that harden when cut (allowing construction of furniture), beautiful flowers, and Berries that cause a dreamy, happy state when consumed. The Root, and the Vine, affect all life in Green Sky. However, there are unhappy rumors that the Root may be withering...

Below the Root begins when 13-year-old Raamo learns that he has been Chosen to become one of the Ol-Zhaan, the spiritual leaders of the community. Only two new Ol-Zhaan are chosen, out of all seven cities across Green Sky, and Raamo is quite surprised to be one of them. He's an indifferent student, with poor memorization skills, and a dreamy manner. His co-Chosen One, a girl named Genaa, seems a much more understandable choice. Soon, however, Raamo learns that he has been selected because of his greater-than-average Spirit skills. He discovers that, contrary to what most of the Kindar believe, the Ol-Zhaan have also been losing their Spirit skills. They've chosen Raamo in a desperate bid to help slow the withering of the Vine, and maintain the status quo.

Soon another young Ol-Zhaan, Neric, two years older than Raamo, seeks his help in uncovering a terrible secret. The secret is protected by a clandestine group of the most senior Ol-Zhaan. Discovering it puts Raamo and Neric, and all of Green Sky, in grave danger. Below the Root is a gripping, fast-paced tale, one that tackles serious issues, but uses the fantasy setting to keep things from being too disturbing.

In order not to give away the secret here, and spoil the series for readers, I'm going to refrain from any detailed discussion of the second and third books in the trilogy, though I will make some general comments. I thought that the second book dragged a bit. And All Between starts out by repeating some of the events of the second half of Below the Root, though from a different character's perspective, and it doesn't really get interesting until mid-way through. Until the Celebration is darker than the first two books, but ultimately redemptive.

The language in this series, filled with made-up terms, is engaging. In a precursor to the later work of J. K. Rowling, Ms. Snyder uses words derived from other languages, to lend an exotic flavor to her fantasy community. Pensing (connecting with other people's minds) is derived from the French verb penser, to think. A bread-like fruit is called pan (the French word for bread is pain). A monkey-like house-pet is called a sima (from simian), and what is apparently a rabbit is called a lapan (another French word). The series also features nids (living hammocks woven of the Vine), kiniporting (moving things with one's mind), and grunds (tree trunks), all words that sound appropriate to what they describe. Some of the names of characters are also entertaining. The pompous novice-master for the young Ol-Zhaan is called Regle (regal?). A young sycophant is called Salaat (salaam, abasement?).

The characters is the Green Sky trilogy are solidly drawn, and consistent between the books. One of my favorite passages from And All Between describes Raamo's father:

"Never one to waste an opportunity for spoken communication, Valdo had, at that moment, great reason to find words of appropriate quality and quantity, and he was more than equal to the occasion. As the words of her father rolled grandly on, Pomma's mind turned again to what might be happening in the nid-chamber".

One thing that I found Interesting on re-reading this series is that although the Green Sky trilogy is a middle grade series, it has several PG-13 elements. There are thinly veiled references to sex (called "love relationships"), contraception ("Youth Wafers" that people eat to "produce temporary sterility" while living in youth halls), drugs ("Wissen-Berries", a mild drug, and "pavo-berries", a hallucinogenic), and even drug trafficking.

There's a bit of a free love vibe going on in Green Sky (the books were published between 1975 and 1978). People live in co-ed youth halls between the ages of 15 and 25, and are encouraged to have multiple relationships, before finally settling down with a bond-partner. The Ol-Zhaan never settle down with bond-partners, though they do have "relationships" among themselves. The references to Berries, which teachers encourage students to eat, to make them more complacent and obedient, made me think of today's Ritalin and the like. The use of gentle fantasy names to describe these aspects of Green Sky life may keep younger kids from really noticing them - I certainly don't remember being aware of any of this when reading the books as a child. But adult readers will certainly stop and take notice.

Other themes are more directly addressed, particularly the question of whether or not violence is an inherent part of human nature, and whether or not it is acceptable to turn to violence if ones own life, or someone else's life, is threatened. There are also veiled questions about segregation, and whether or not separate but equal makes sense for different populations. I was surprised, actually, on re-reading this series for the first time in many years, by how substantive it is. I had remembered it more as a nice fantasy, where people glide around among the trees. And while that aspect is certainly part of the joy of the series, larger issues such as civil rights are also central to the story.

One important and annoying note about the reissue editions: the very last page of the third book was missing from my copy. Fortunately, I had an older edition, and I was able to read the last page there. Otherwise, I would have been very frustrated. It's possible that this has been fixed in other printings, but a word of warning is advised.

On re-reading the Green Sky trilogy for the first time in many years, I was struck how deep these books are, and by how they seem to foreshadow a number of later titles (The Giver and The City of Ember/The People of Sparks come most immediately to mind). Zilpha Keatley Snyder may have started out (quotation from her online autobiography) revisiting "a game that involved crossing a grove of oak trees by climbing from tree to tree, because something incredibly dangerous lived "below the root"", but she's given us much, much more in this series. 

Publisher: Backinprint.com (reissue editions)
Publication Date: 1975-1978 (original titles), November 2005 (reissue editions)
Source of Book: Purchased all three from Amazon

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

Recommendations from Under the Radar: Day 3

Welcome to Day 3 of Recommendations from Under the Radar. Today's features include:

  • A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy: The President's Daughter series by Ellen Emerson White
  • Big A, little a: The Tide Knot by Helen Dunsmore
  • Jen Robinson's Book Page: The Zilpha Keatley Snyder Green Sky trilogy
  • Bildungsroman: Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn: A Discussion Part 1
  • Chasing Ray: Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn: A Discussion Part 2
  • lectitans: Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn: A Discussion Part 3
  • Finding Wonderland: The House on Hound Hill by Maggie Prince
  • Miss Erin: The Reb & Redcoats and Enemy Brothers, both by Constance Savery
  • Bookshelves of Doom: Harry Sue by Sue Stauffacher
  • Interactive Reader: Shake Down the Stars by Frances Donnelly
  • Chicken Spaghetti: Pooja Makhijani guest blogs with Romina's Rangoli by Malathi Michelle Iyengar
  • Writing & Ruminating: Dear Mr. Rosenwald by Carole Weatherford
  • Shaken & Stirred: Elizabeth Knox and the Dreamhunter Duet

Radar_2 You can find the full schedule here and a post from Colleen Mondor about the philosophy behind this whole undertaking here.

Under the Radar: Favorites from Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Book: The Velvet Room, The Changeling
Author: Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Pages: 226 (each)
Age Range: 9-12

On the surface of it, Zilpha Keatley Snyder is an odd choice for Books Below the Radar. Since she was first published in 1964 she's published 44 children's books, mostly for middle grade readers. She has received three Newbery Honors (for The Egypt Game, The Headless Cupid and The Witches of Worm), and various other awards. Her most recent book, the Treasures of Weatherby, was published in 2006. Her next book, The Bronze Pen, is scheduled for publication in March of 2008.

The reason that I chose to feature Zilpha Keatley Snyder for the Books Below the Radar series is that, although she's written several of my favorite books of all time, I don't think that her newer books have received as much attention as they deserve. Her last Newbery honor was received in 1972, for The Witches of Worm. Many of her books are long out of print, though you can often find them at used bookstores. But she's still out there, reading and writing, and apparently enjoying life.

In this series, I'm going to feature several of my favorite of Ms. Snyder's older titles, and then move on to review and compare her most recent. Today, I'll talk a bit about Ms. Snyder's background and work as a whole, and discuss my two all-time favorites from her titles. Tomorrow I'll discuss the Green Sky trilogy (Below the Root, And All Between, Until the Celebration), and the next day I'll review the newer title The Treasures of Weatherby.


Zilpha Keatley Snyder has a detailed autobiography on her website. The Fantastic Fiction site for Ms. Snyder contains a shorter biography, and a list of published titles. Zilpha Keatley Snyder was born in 1927, during the heart of the Depression, in Lemmore, California, the second of three daughters. Her parents were both storytellers, and she read at an early age, saying (in her autobiography):

"Books and reading must have had a beginning somewhere but it is beyond memory. I seemed to have been born reading. Actually my mother claimed I taught myself after eavesdropping on lessons she was giving my older sister. Then one day when she was sick and I was four years old, I offered to read to her. When I proceeded to do so, she thought I had memorized the book until she began to ask me individual words. Later when I became, briefly, a kind of neighborhood oddity--I had not yet been to school and I could read the newspaper and was sometimes called into neighbors' homes to demonstrate to skeptical guests--my mother claimed to have had nothing to do with it. Actually I think she used two methods which are almost certain to produce an early reader. First of all, she read to us--a lot. And then, when I tried to horn in on my sister's reading lessons, she told me I was too young--a challenge that no self-respecting four-year-old is going to take lying down."

She became a writer, in her own eyes, at the age of eight, when she first learned that there was actually a profession in which people were paid to make up stories. She was a proficient reader and writer as a child, but also a daydreamer, saying about her young self:

"Books! Books were the window from which I looked out of a rather meager and decidedly narrow room, onto a rich and wonderful universe. I loved the look and feel of them, even the smell. I'm still a book sniffer. That evocative mixture of paper and ink and glue and dust never fails to bring back the twinge of excitement that came with the opening of a new book. Libraries were treasure houses. I always entered them with a slight thrill of disbelief that all their endless riches were mine for the borrowing. And librarians I approached with reverent awe--guardians of the temple, keepers of the golden treasure."

It wasn't until after years of school, marriage, raising children, and teaching that she began writing for publication, producing mostly books for children. She says (again in her web autobiography):

"I began to write for children by accident, through the fortunate accident of nine years in the classroom. But I've continued to do so because over the years I've come to realize that it's where I'm happiest. It is, I think, a matter of personal development (or lack of it, as the case may be). There are several peculiarities that I share with children which, like having no front teeth, are perhaps more acceptable in the very young, but which, for better or worse, seem to be a part of my makeup."

Once she started writing for children, she never looked back, producing a tremendous volume and variety of titles. You can see a complete listing, organized by series and by date, here. In addition to the books that I'll be discussing this week, I also particularly enjoyed the Stanley family series (The Headless Cupid, The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case, Blair's Nightmare, and Janie's Private Eyes), and Libby on Wednesday.

The Velvet Room

The Velvet Room (1965) features 12-year-old Robin Williams (Robin Williams the actor was only fourteen in 1965). After losing their farm in the Depression, Robin and her family have spent the past three years traveling around California in their old Model-T, taking work where they can get it. Robin is the middle child, with two older and two younger siblings, and she is the dreamer. She's always getting in trouble for "wandering off". She loves to read, when she can get her hands on books:

"Just looking at the outside of the library made Robin lose herself for a minute, remembering the feel of libraries. There was that special smell made up of paper, ink, and dust; the busy hush; the endless luxury of thousands of unread books. Best of all was the eager itch of anticipation as you went out the door with your arms loaded down with books. Libraries had always seemed almost too good to be true. It didn't seem possible that anything as important as a book could be free to anyone -- that is, to anyone who had a permanent address."

As the story begins, the Williams' luck appears to be changing. Through being in the right place at the right time, Robin's Dad gets a job, at least for fruit-picking season, working for rancher Don McCurdy. The job comes with the first house that the family has lived in for three years, although the house is more of a two-room shack.

Things on the McCurdy ranch aren't easy. Robin is expected to work long hours in the apricot pitting shed, under the baleful eye of the foreman. She worries about the health of her father (whose earlier illness contributed to the loss of their own farm), and what a recurrence of his illness will mean for the family's future. When she starts school, she finds that the families of the farm and migrant laborers are treated as second class citizens.

Despite all of this, Robin never gives up hoping for something better. And she soon discovers that the McCurdy estate holds very special secrets. She finds first an enchanting old mansion:

"It was about the largest house that Robin had ever seen. It was built of pale gray stone, and at one end it had a high round tower. A long portico supported by stone arches ran all around the front and one side. It was a wonderful house, almost like a castle -- but after a moment Robin realized that something was terribly wrong. On the bottom floor there were no windows. Every place a window should have been there were only rough planks. The house looked wounded; like a beautiful face with bandages for eyes."

In addition to the house, Robin finds a small stone cottage in the woods, inhabited by a bent old woman with an array of unusual pets. Robin becomes friends with Bridget, the old woman, and through Bridget, Robin is introduced to the secret haven of her dreams -- the Velvet Room.

The Velvet Room is the old library of the abandoned mansion, Las Palmeras, complete with a window-lined tower surrounded by red velvet drapes. Although most of the house is empty, the Velvet Room remain intact, filled with books and other treasures. Here is Robin's first impression of the Velvet Room:

"From the first glimpse, from the first minute, it was more than a room —- more even than the most beautiful room Robin had ever seen. Her hands shook on the doorknob, and the shaking didn't come from fear or cold. Her trembling hands were only an echo of something deeper that had been strangely shaken by that first sight of the Velvet Room... It was as if she had been there before, or at least known it was there. As if she had always known that there would be a place exactly like this."

The Velvet Room represents a sanctuary to Robin, a place where she can escape from the worries of her life and dream in peace. She also discovers a secret diary in the Velvet Room, and uncovers a mystery. She doesn't spend all of her time in the Velvet Room, however. Robin also becomes friends with Gwen, the daughter of Mr. McCurdy. Gwen is nothing like Robin. She is the picture of self-confidence, and somewhat oblivious to the issues of those less fortunate. She's good-hearted, however, and despite the concerns of both of their families, the two girls become friends. As the story progresses, Robin faces major choices, about the Velvet Room, about her relationship with Gwen, and about her place within her own family.

This is what I concluded about the book in an earlier review, and which still holds:

"Although Robin's story is set during the Depression, her struggles to fit in and to remain loyal to her family while holding on to what is important to her, are timeless. The Velvet Room, and the old woman, Bridget, render the story magical, while Robin's other relationships and experiences feel (sometimes painfully) real. I can't recommend this book highly enough. I loved it the first time I read it (when I was probably 10 or 11) and I love it still."

The Changeling

The Changeling (1970) is told from the perspective of Martha Abbott. Martha, sometimes called Marty Mouse, is shy and plump, and takes frequent refuge in tears. She doesn't seem to fit in with her highly accomplished, conventional family, and she lingers around the fringes in elementary school. Martha's life changes dramatically when, at seven, she becomes best friends with Ivy Carson.

Ivy is fearless and imaginative. She walks likes she's dancing, has uncontrollable curly hair, and wears ragged clothes. She's an expert tree-climber, and knowledgeable about many fascinating subjects. Although Ivy lives with the disreputable Carson family, she believes that she's really a changeling, someone switched at birth by the fairies. And Martha believes her, because it's impossible to believe that Ivy could be anyone ordinary. Here is Martha's first impression of Ivy, entering school as a new student:

"When she skipped up to the teacher's desk, Martha noticed, for the first time, Ivy's way of walking--a kind of weightless skimming, like a waterbug on the surface of a pond."

Together, Ivy and Martha have wonderful adventures. They play games in a local grove called Bent Oaks. They learn to ride horses, and spend time at the local stables. They get into laugh-out-loud sorts of trouble (there's an incident involving the removal of spilled crude oil from some ducks, for instance, and another involving purple enamel paint...). But mostly, they use their imaginations, and act out stories. They believe that real magic may occur from time to time, though everything that happens to them could be explained away by those of a pragmatic bent.

Sadly for Martha, Ivy's family comes and goes over the years, leaving Martha without Ivy's company for years at a time. For the reader, this only lends more magic to the story -- Ivy is mysterious and elusive. For Martha, this coming and going starts to cause conflict as she gets older. When Ivy returns she upsets tentative strides that Martha has made towards making other friends. Ivy is not someone who is ever going to fit in. As the girls enter junior high school, Ivy plans never to grow up. I've never forgotten the chant that the girls derive, to help stave off adulthood:

"Know all the Questions, but not the Answers
Look for the Different, instead of the Same
Never Walk when there's room for Running
Don't do anything that can't be a Game."

I think that everyone could benefit from reciting that one every so often. I think that most kids wonder, at some point, if they might be a changeling, too. Left on the doorstep by magical parents, and holding a secret magic deep inside? The Changeling has universal appeal.

I once had a friend who was a bit like Ivy -- we played on a secret island made of sticks in a swamp near my house, read up about fairies, and took turns writing a joint story. That friend moved away after fifth grade -- perhaps that's part of why The Changeling has always stuck with me.

For me, this book held up completely, re-reading it for the first time in perhaps 20 years. It's a bit hard for me to say whether it would have the same magic for new readers -- it's always hard to know how nostalgia fits in to one's own impressions. But I think that it would hold up, and that the appeal of The Changeling is timeless.

Something that I had forgotten is that The Changeling includes a precursor to Ms. Snyder's Green Sky trilogy (which I will be discussing tomorrow). One of the games that the girls play involves The Tree People, who live high up among the trees on a beautiful world with low gravity, such that they can glide about. Ms. Snyder later developed this concept into a three-book series, but Green Sky first appears in print (as far as I know) as a gleam in Ivy Carson's eye.

Here is what Ms. Snyder said about this in her autobiography:

"Like so many of my books, the trilogy's deepest root goes back to my early childhood when I played a game that involved crossing a grove of oak trees by climbing from tree to tree, because something incredibly dangerous lived "below the root." Years later when I was writing The Changeling I recalled the game, and in the course of embellishing it for that story, became intrigued with the idea of returning to the world of Green- sky for a longer stay. The return trip took three years and produced three more books. Initially published in 1975, 1976, and 1978, the trilogy was later reincarnated as a computer game (published by Spinnaker Software of Cambridge, MA)."

There's also a mention in The Changeling of a wealthy Montoya family, who could be descendants of the 1930s Montoya family (Gwen's ancestors) mentioned in The Velvet Room. It's a nice, inside-joke sort of continuity. Other things that I love about the book (beside the above poem) include:

  • Martha's gradual evolution from seven-year-old Marty Mouse to someone with a logical place, and friends, in her high school society;
  • The wonderfully loyal friendship between the two girls, and the different things that they each bring to the relationship;
  • The magic of Bent Oaks, and the games that are played there;
  • Martha's realistic relationships with her family;
  • The depiction of cliques and fitting in, and what happens to people who are different, at Martha and Ivy's school; and, most of all,
  • Ivy.


You can see the impact of Ms. Snyder's childhood in both The Velvet Room (the struggles of a Depression-era family) and The Changeling (fanciful children's games, like those she played with her sisters). Certain themes and images echo throughout many of her books: friendship, feelings of isolation while being part of a larger family, the hidden magic that hides behind ordinary objects, the allure of tress, and the mystery of big old houses. I suspect that you could see the impact of these themes echoed in my own childhood writings, and in my dreams to this day. Zilpha Keatley Snyder's books have played a part in making me who I am, an adult who reads children's books, and has been know to go around murmuring softly under her breath:

"Know all the Questions, but not the Answers
Look for the Different, instead of the Same
Never Walk when there's room for Running
Don't do anything that can't be a Game."

The Changeling and The Velvet Room have both been reissued by BackInPrint.com, and are available from Amazon, with the original illustrations. I highly recommend that people who loved these books as children take advantage of this wonderful opportunity, and re-read the books. And I hope that The Velvet Room and The Changeling, as well as Ms. Snyder's other titles, will become beloved by a new generation of readers. 

Publisher: Backinprint.com
Publication Date: Originally 1965 (Velvet Room) and 1970 (Changeling), reissued in 2004
Source of Book: Purchased from Amazon

This post is (c) 2007 by Jennifer Robinson. All rights reserved.

Recommendations from Under the Radar: Day 2

Welcome to Day 2 of Recommendations from Under the Radar. Today's entries include:

Radar_3Again, you can find the full schedule here and a post from Colleen Mondor about the philosophy behind this whole undertaking here.

Recommendations from Under the Radar: Day 1

Today is the first of five days of posts featuring books that SBBT team members feel deserve special attention. Welcome to Recommendations from Under the Radar! Today's posts include:

Radar_2 You can find the full schedule here and a post from Colleen Mondor about the philosophy behind this whole undertaking here.

Upcoming: Recommendations From Under the Radar

Radar Next week, the team that brought you the Summer Blog Blast Tour (SBBT) and the One Shot World Tour: Best Read with Vegemite will be featuring Recommendations From Under the Radar. As our host Colleen Mondor says, in her post of introduction to this new event:

We "will be posting about books we all individually feel have been overlooked. Some of them might have been award winners in the distant past, and some are even out of print, but all of them are books that each of us have enjoyed and want to tell more people about."

I'll be featuring several titles by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, one of my favorite childhood authors, whose work I still love today. I hope that you'll check back next week to see what everyone else comes up with for Books from Under the Radar.

Updated to add: The complete list of planned Radar Book posts is now available at Chasing Ray.

P.S. The image above is compliments of Little Willow.

One Shot World Tour: Australia: Now Live

The first One Shot World Tour: Best Read with Vegemite edition, is now live on some 16 blogs. Each blog features reviews, interviews, and/or discussion of books by authors from Australia and New Zealand. Colleen Mondor, our tireless organizer and champion, put together the following schedule below, which I have updated with direct links to posts where available (click on each blog name for today's posts, unless otherwise noted):

Also, don't miss Finding Wonderland's post about the Top Five Reasons for Vegemite.

We hope that you'll enjoy the first One Shot World Tour.

One Shot World Tour: Australia: John Marsden's Tomorrow Series

John Marsden's Tomorrow books are a seven-volume young adult series portraying an alternate reality in which Australia is conquered by an invading army. A group of teenagers, evading capture through a fluke, are left on their own to strike as best they can against their country's invaders, and survive the war. In this article, I'll briefly highlight each book, taking care to minimize spoilers. I'll follow with some general comments about the series as a whole.

Book 1: Tomorrow, When the War Began

Tomorrow, When the War Began is a compelling novel about teenagers who find themselves, overnight, in unimaginable circumstances. Ellie and her six friends return from a multi-day camping trip out in the Australian bush country to find that their town, and their families, have been taken over by an invading foreign army. Joined by one more friend, the eight teenagers focus first on their own survival, and then on striking back at the enemy invaders. They uncover unexpected depths of bravery and leadership within themselves, and the bonds between them grow stronger every day.

It's an appealing premise (at least for fans of dystopian literature such as myself). But what makes this book stand above the ordinary is that the periods of action are balanced by periods of introspection. The teenagers aren't cardboard characters setting off explosives (though there are explosions). But rather, each character has strengths and weaknesses, moments of bravery and moments of giving in to shock and fear. Their reactions are real, not candy-coated spy stuff. They feel remorse when the actions that they are forced into hurt other people, and they question their own motives. The narrator, Ellie, is particularly well drawn, and we see her evolve over the course of the story. Here are some examples:

"That was the first moment at which I started to realise what true courage was. Up until then, everything had been unreal, like a night-stalking game at a school camp. To come out of the darkness now would be to show courage of a type that I'd never had to show before, never even known about." (Chapter 7)

"Although we'd agreed, so logically, to split up if we were chased, I knew now I wasn't going to do that. At that moment only a bullet could have separated me from those two people. Suddenly they'd become my family." (Chapter 7)

The book also does an excellent job of painting life in rural Australia, with references to chooks (chickens) and Landies (land rovers) and the day-to-day details of cattle farming. The camping spot that the teens find is hidden away in a valley called Hell, nearly inaccessible, and their matter-of-fact efforts to organize themselves speak volumes about their rural upbringing. Marsden's writing is filled with tiny details to make it easy to imagine the scenes that he describes. Here's one of my favorites:

"The earth floor on which I stood was covered with twigs and clods of clay from the walls, and litter from possums and birds. The kettle was rusty, the bottom shelf hung askew, and the ceiling was festooned with cobwebs. But even the cobwebs looked old and dead, hanging like Miss Havisham's hair." (Chapter 14)

Book 2: The Dead of Night

The Dead of Night picks up shortly after Tomorrow, When the War Began leaves off, with our intrepid band of teens recuperating from recent adventures in their bush hideout, and then venturing out into enemy territory in a search for allies. They meet up with a group of adults who are taking steps against the enemy, but find that being responsible to adults again is not quite what they expected. They also see, again, the violence of the enemy, and raise the stakes of their own guerrilla actions. As in the first book, they find themselves changing in response to their situation.

Book 2 does address one question that I had while reading Book 1. In the first book, Ellie is using a recovery lull to write about the group's adventures to date, at the request of the others. She knows that the other are going to read what she's written, but she's very open about the interpersonal dynamics of the group, including her own conflict about being interested in two of the boys. She acknowledges, while writing up the events of Book 2, that her write-up to date has caused some tension in the group, noting "Oh, the power of the written word." Despite this conflict, Ellie is unflinching in her depiction of ongoing emotions. I found this description of fear especially authentic:

"I was breathing hard, as though I'd run a crossie (cross-country race), and I was sweating all over. The sweat felt so cold on my skin, like it was turning to ice. My throat had a lump so big I felt I'd swallowed a chicken bone. Basically, I felt sick. I was very scared. I'd almost forgotten the emotion that had brought us here: my love for Corrie and Kevin." (Chapter 2)

I thought that the following description of how the teens had been transformed by the invasion of the country summed up much of the feel of the series:

"We were just ordinary teenagers, so ordinary we were boring. Overnight they'd pulled the roof off our lives. And after they'd pulled off the roof they'd come in and torn down the curtains, ripped up the furniture, burnt the house and thrown us into the night, where we'd been forced to run and hide and live like wild animals. We had no foundations, and we had no secure walls around our life any more. We were living in a strange long nightmare, where we had to make our own rules, invent new values, stumble around blindly, hoping we weren't making too many mistakes. We clung to what we knew and what we thought was right, but all the time those things were being stripped from us. I didn't know if we'd be left with nothing, or if we'd be left with a new set of rules and attitudes and behaviours, so that we weren't able to recognize ourselves any more. We could end up as new, distorted, deformed creatures, with only a few physical resemblances to the people we once were." (Chapter 10)

Book 3: A Killing Frost

In A Killing Frost, Ellie and her friends take even more extreme actions against the invading enemy, attacking the harbor that the enemy is using for transport. Even as she becomes ever more ruthless, Ellie continues to question the changes in herself, and wonder where her limits lie. The friends remain close, and the reader gets to know them increasingly well. My favorite lines from this installment reveal Ellie's love of books:

"We looked in the house for books, but only found two, apart from technical manuals. I thought it was amazing, a house with just two books. (Chapter 21)

I believe that Book 3 was originally the end of the series, and there is some resolution at the end of the book. However, fortunately for us, Marsden decided to continue, adding four other titles to the series.

Book 4: Darkness Be My Friend

I had intended to stop with Book 3, because I have so many other neglected books. But I gave Darkness Be My Friend a quick look, and was soon too drawn in to stop. In Book 4, Ellie and her friends (the ones still alive) agree, reluctantly and with trepidation, to return to their town of Wirrawee to help guide some soldiers from New Zealand. The soldiers plan to sabotage the enemy's new airfield. Things don't go quite as expected. The soldiers disappear, leaving the teens once again on their own. They sneak into Wirrawee themselves, and attempt to do some damage, and in the process pick up some news about their captured friends and family members.

In Book 4, Ellie is a bit more bitter than in the earlier books, reflecting the ever-increasing trauma of the war, and her grief over her lost friends. She says early in the book:

"We'd escaped from a nightmare, or we thought we had. The truth is, there's no escape from some nightmares. This one followed us across the Tasman. They'd air-lifted us out of our own country after it was invaded. We'd arrived in New Zealand burnt and injured and shocked, with broken bones, and scars inside and out. We'd lost contact with our families, we'd seen friends die, and we'd caused other people to die by our own deliberate actions.

"We were just typical survivors of war, I guess."

Ellie and the others are also braver in Book 4. This is where they really stop thinking that other people are going to save them, and truly take responsibility for themselves.

Book 5: Burning for Revenge

Burning for Revenge finds Ellie and her friends let down by the New Zealanders, and preparing to take dramatic action against the invaders. They have successes, but also come face to face the depth of the damage that the war has done to their country. They encounter a group of feral children, scraping by in an abandoned suburb, and worry about how these children will ever become functioning adults. Ellie also faces a betrayal by one of the others in her group, which is damaging in a different way.

Book 6: The Night is for Hunting

The Night is for Hunting is a bit of a break from the relentless activities of the previous books. Oh, there are still chases and battles, but in between there's a bit of a lull, spent in the safety of Hell. The wild children from the previous book (referred to as "the ferals") play a major part in this installment, and despite their ferocity, they ultimately help to re-humanize Ellie and her friends. Like some of the other books, this book includes big picture thoughts by Ellie, such as this passage:

"When it's all said and done, the only things that matter in life are so damn simple. Family, friends, being safe and well. I think before the war a lot of people got sucked in by all the crap on TV. They thought having the right shoes or the right jeans or the right car really mattered. Boy were we ever dumb.

"Maybe people thought they could hide behind that stuff. Maybe they thought that if they wore Levis, ate Maccas and drank Pepsi no-one would look any further. No-one would see the real person.

"War's stripped all that from us... It seems like suffering's the only time we can see what's essential. If peace ever comes back I'm making a vow: I'll design myself special glasses. They'll block out whether people are fat or thin or beautiful or weird-looking, whether they have pimples or birthmarks or different coloured skin. They'll do everything suffering's done for us, but without the pain. I'm going to wear those glasses for the rest of my life."

Perhaps that sounds a bit over-the-top out of context. But trust me, after reading about everything that Ellie and her friends go through, passages like the above bring tears to the reader's eye.

Book 7: The Other Side of Dawn

The Other Side of Dawn concludes the Tomorrow series (though there is another, shorter series that follows called The Ellie Chronicles). This installment brings a new level of tension, and the constant risk of capture, as the teens help with the push towards the end of the war. Ellie suffers tremendously in this book, both physically and emotionally, though we know that she'll survive (she's the narrator - she has to survive to have written down the story). The atrocities of the invading army are more detailed in this book, but Marsden makes sure to lighten things with the occasional humorous or tender moment.

For example, there's this throwaway line: "We waited silently. Would have been silly to wait any other way." (Chapter 5), a classic understatement as the teens stay out of the way of soldiers on patrol.

I read the last third of the book completely oblivious to my surroundings, emotionally engaged in Ellie's struggles, and needing to know the conclusion to the series. I'll say no more about it, in my wish not to spoil things for you, but that the ending is satisfying.

General Thoughts on the Tomorrow Series:

Most of the editions that I read included a handy guide to Aussie terminology at the front of the book, which I found very helpful. By the end of the seven books, I was fairly well up on my Australian lingo, and I may start using phrases like fair dinkum (the truth, the real thing), dag (an annoying person), and stuffed (exhausted).

The series also includes various homages to the Australian countryside, like this one, from Book 2:

"To a lot of people, I suppose it wouldn't have been beautiful. It had been a dry summer, and although the river flats were a soft green, the paddocks beyond Risdon had burnt off into the ochre sameness that seemed part of my life, part of me. The lush green of our springs and early summers never lasted long. I was more used to that dry monotonous yellow; so used to it that at some stage it had soaked into me, till I wasn't sure if there were boundaries between me and the landscape anymore. I remember Mr. Kassar at school saying that he'd come home after living a year in England and his heart ached with love when he saw the sunburnt plains again. I knew what he meant; boy did I know what he meant." (Chapter 7)

Or this one, from Book 4:

"You can never stay angry for too long in the bush though. At least, that's what I think. It's not that it's soothing or restful, because it's not. What it does for me is get inside my body, inside my blood, and take me over. I don't know that I can describe it any better than that. It takes me over and I become part of it and it becomes part of me and I'm not very important, or at least no more important than a tree or a rock or a spider abseiling down a long long thread of cobwebs." (Chapter 4)

Or this one, from Book 6:

"...but I still couldn't resist the power of the place. At one stage we were riding through a eucalypt forest, trees quite widely spaced, no undergrowth. It was so easy, so relaxing. Tall white trunks, fawn bark peeling off them, little brown birds darting from on e to the next. There were no bright colours to hurt the eye. Quiet, fresh, self-contained. It wasn't paradise -- far from it -- but it would do me." (Chapter 10)

Aside from the fully realized setting, what makes this series stand out is the combination of fast-paced action and teenage introspection. The characters grow and evolve throughout the series. They commit acts of violence, and are changed irrevocably by their actions. They feel real. They argue with one another, and make mistakes. They experience a full range of emotions, from fear and exhaustion to love. Marsden doesn't shrink from portraying real human needs, physical and emotional. There's a scene in which the kids have to hide, silently, all day, with the enemy very nearby. When they are finally released from their hiding place, the first thing that they do is go to the bathroom. I liked the honesty of that.

The Tomorrow books are also a commentary on the horrors of war, and what war does to both soldiers and civilians. Because of the way we receive this message, through Ellie's eyes, Ellie who feels completely real to us, it doesn't feel in any way like a "message book." It feels like something that happened to a friend. We're horrified by everything that she's had to go through, and determined that it should never happen again. At least, that's how I felt.

I highly recommend this series for teen (14 and up) and adult readers. It's a series of exciting adventures, but it's also much more.

Further Reading:

John Marsden's website
The John Marsden Prize for Young Australian Writers
While I Live (the first book in The Ellie Chronicles)

One Shot World Tour: Best Read with Vegemite

On Wednesday, August 15th, I'll be participating in the first One Shot World Tour, brought to you by the SBBT team. Some 15 blogs will each be featuring authors from Australia (and a bit of New Zealand). Other countries will be featured in coming months. The One Shot World Tour will include book reviews at some sites, and interviews at others.

Colleen Mondor, our tireless organizer and champion, put together the following schedule for the One Shot World Tour: Best Read with Vegemite edition:

We hope that you'll enjoy the first One Shot World Tour.