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June 2007

Posts from May 2007

Dystopian Challenge Blog

I wrote a few days ago about my planned participation in Lisa's Dystopian Book Challenge at Books. Lists. Life. Now I have an update. Lisa has started a collaborative blog for the dystopian challenge participants, and kindly invited me to join. I decided that since my obsession with dystopian literature is long-lived and unlikely to fade any time soon, I should participate. Therefore, I'll be contributing to and participating in discussion over there, and cross-posting/linking my dystopian novel reviews. This has the potential to become a dangerously time-consuming obsession, but I think it's going to be fun. You can visit the Dystopian Challenge blog here. Happy speculative science fiction future world reading!

First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover: Mitali Perkins

There's something fascinating about the children of famous people, isn't there? Especially the children of U.S. Presidents. I think that the crux of the fascination is that we all wonder what it would be like to have access to all of that glamour and attention, without having to actually be the responsible party. At least I do. So I jumped at the chance when Mitali Perkins offered ARCs of her upcoming young adult novel, First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover.

The first of a planned series, Extreme American Makeover tells the story of Sameera Righton, adopted daughter of the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. 16-year-old Sameera, called Sparrow by her family and friends, was adopted from Pakistan when she was three, and has lived the life of a diplomat's daughter ever since. Extreme American Makeover finds Sparrow leaving her school in Europe to join her parents on the campaign trail.

Before she knows what's happening, the campaign manager has had people give Sparrow a glamorous makeover, with new clothes and makeup, and even a new name, Sammy. The goal is portray this dark-skinned daughter from Pakistan as the All-American Girl. Sparrow goes along with this because the campaign manager convinces her that it's the right thing to do to help her dad. She even lets them start a fake blog in her name, full of product endorsements and fluff, despite the fact that she maintains her own much more substantive, but private, blog. Sparrow spends the rest of the summer and fall dancing in and out of the limelight, and gradually deciding what to do about the dichotomy between her public and private images.

Sparrow is a wonderful character. She's strong-willed and loyal to her friends (who include an older woman who is a librarian!), and refreshingly level-headed, even in the media spotlight. She makes mistakes, of course, but she tries to do the right thing. She writes well, and from the heart. She struggles a bit with her cultural identity, and the way that people who don't know her perceive her, but her loving family have given her stability and a sense of self-worth. I kind of wished that she was real by the end of the book, because I would have liked to meet her. At least I can visit her real-world blog, in which she discusses the 2008 presidential race, with emphasis on potential first kids.

Although Sameera is sixteen, and does have some interest in boys, this book reads relatively young, and I think that kids ages 12 and up, especially girls, will enjoy it. It also feels very modern, with lots of reference to blogs and cell phones and instant messages. The book does touch upon larger issues - Sparrow's mother is an activist, with particular concern for Internally Displaced People. And Sparrow's point of view provides an inside look into the campaign trail and its discomforts. Assuming a win by Mr. Righton, we can alI look forward to reading about Sameera's inside perspective on the White House soon.

Book: First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover
Author: Mitali Perkins. Mitali blogs at The Fire Escape. Also, don't miss Sparrow's Blog. Yes, it's a blog by a fictional character. But once you read the book, you'll understand why a real blog for Sameera/Sparrow makes so much sense. Sparrow will also be going on a blog tour in June. Check back for details.
Publisher: Dutton Children's Books
Original Publication Date: June 14, 2007
Pages: 192
Age Range: 12 and up
Source of Book: ARC from the author
Other Blog Reviews: None so far, but send me the link if you write one, and I'll add it.

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

The Dark Dreamweaver: Nick Ruth

I quite enjoyed the first book of the Remin Chronicles, The Dark Dreamweaver, by Nick Ruth. I received a copy of the book from Sheila Ruth, Nick's wife, and a Cybils cohort of mine, after it was recently released in paperback. The Dark Dreamweaver is a fantasy tale of a boy named David who must travel to another world on a quest. It's my favorite type of fantasy story, one that involves travel in some way between our ordinary world and a world containing magic, ideally with the two worlds having a continued link.

David finds himself dreaming regularly of a scary, dark-eyed creature. The dreams are so frightening, and so frequent, that he dreads going to sleep. He reads in the paper that there have been worldwide complaints about nightmares and restlessness. Eventually, he discovers that the cause of the nightmares lies in another world. David first learns of this other world after he and his parents collect a series of monarch butterfly eggs, in support of a family tradition of observing the entire life cycle of the butterflies. To his astonishment, during the caterpillar phase, on of the caterpillars starts to talk to him. The caterpillar is "a little wizard in big trouble." The wizard, Houdin, has been placed by an enemy under a reincarnation curse, stuck in an endless cycle of egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly. Houdin asks David for his help to break the curse by defeating the enemy, Thane, in the parallel world of Remin.

David, like any right-minded eleven year old, jumps at the chance to help, especially once Houdin assures him that time moves differently in Remin, and he won't be away long enough for his parents to worry. Once in Remin, he finds a magical world populated with unusual creatures, several of whom become his friends. He also gets some on-the-job training to become a wizard, something that he's always dreamed of. David and his new friends embark upon a quest across Remin, in search of Thane, as well as a valuable energy-generator that Thane has stolen. He discovers along the way that Thane's actions are influencing the dreams of people in his own world, creating the nightmares, because of a symbiotic relationship between the worlds involving dreams.

There's a lot to like about this inventive story. There are two sea-serpent spies/gossip collectors named Fred and Michelle who move around the worlds via water pipes, and bicker in entertaining fashion. There's a man named Sir Heads-a-lot, a visitor from yet another world, who carries around a bunch of tiny animal heads and uses them to transform into various animals. I also enjoyed the way that magic is treated in the book - it's real work, requiring focus and imagination, helped out by a sort of pixie dust called spectrum and some very cool magic wands. Finally, I liked the author's reverence for the monarch butterfly life cycles. There's some nice supporting material about monarch butterflies at the end of the book, and 5% of the proceeds from the book are donated to help reforest the monarch butterfly overwintering sites.

Overall, I found The Dark Dreamweaver to be a fast-paced, well-written tale, offering an unconventional take on magic. It reminded me a little bit of Anatopsis, by Chris Abouzeid, which also features a relatively scientific approach to magic. I think that The Dark Dreamweaver will be especially appealing to boys in the nine to twelve age range, particularly if they dream of performing magic or are fascinated by insects. Which is not to say that girls and adult won't enjoy it, too. There are strong female characters, and some lyrical descriptions to balance the fast-paced action. It's well worth checking out. The sequel, The Breezes of Inspire, is also available.

Book: The Remin Chronicles: Book 1, The Dark Dreamweaver
Author: Nick Ruth
Illustrator: Sue Concannon
Publisher: Imaginator Press (see also Sheila Ruth's blog Wands and Worlds)
Original Publication Date: 2004
Pages: 256 (paperback edition)
Age Range: 8-12
Source of Book: A review copy from the publisher
Other Blog/Web Reviews: The World in the Satin Bag and TeensReadToo

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

Sunday Afternoon Visits: May 6

This week I did not have any business trips, and I was home all week. You would think I would have blogged more, but I had a lot of other catching up to do. As I write this on Sunday afternoon, however, I'm feeling more caught up than I have been in months. And that's a very happy thing. I'm not one of those people who can have a big list of unfinished tasks, and feel relaxed about it. Anyway, here are a few things from the blogs that caught my eye this week:

And that is quite enough for one post. I wish you all happy reading!

The Phoenix Dance: Dia Calhoun

I read Dia Calhoun's 2005 novel The Phoenix Dance this week because it's the book of the month for readergirlz (celebrating gutsy girls in life and literature). I found it a fascinating story and character study. The Phoenix Dance is a retelling of a Brothers Grimm tale about twelve dancing princesses, and is also an exploration of bipolar disorder.

In the Brothers Grimm story, twelve princesses sleep in a locked room every night. Every morning when their father unlocks the door he finds their shoes worn to shreds because the princesses have somehow been dancing all night. This made Dia Calhoun, who has bipolar disorder herself (as revealed in the afterword), think of the princesses as being in a manic state. She then created the character of Phoenix Dance, an ordinary girl struggling with the disorder while trying to help the princesses.

In the book, Phoenix's illness is called The Illness of the Two Kingdoms: the Kingdom of Brilliance (the manic phase) and the Kingdom of Darkness (the depressive phase). Even Phoenix's name reflects the nature of bipolar disorder - a Phoenix burns, dies, and then rises from the ashes to burn again. Though the name of the illness is fanciful in the book, the disorder is presented as a physical and mental illness, not a spell.

It's clear to the reader from very early in the story that something is amiss with Phoenix, a young girl apprenticed to the royal shoemaker. Phoenix's aunts refer to her moods as "glittery and flighty", and fear the point at which the glittery phase will wind down, leaving her in the "Nethersea" of depression. Sometimes she can't stop laughing. At other times she can't get herself out of bed. Eventually, Phoenix turns to medication to help. However, she rails against the side effects, and the way that the medicine dampens the high points. This aspect of the book felt particularly authentic to me - the struggle to have medicine help, but to maintain one's own true spirit. 

I liked the fantasy world of Windward, a community of islands. There are political struggles between royalists and democrats. There are people dancing in the streets, and princesses who rail against their destinies. There's magic, but it's not overwhelming. I thought that presenting Phoenix's struggles in this fantasy environment worked well. The scenes in which Phoenix talks to a healer about her condition might have been too blunt or too "educational" in a real-world environment. But the fantasy background softens this, and makes it easier to empathize with Phoenix.

I think that fans of fantasy, especially re-told fairy tales, will enjoy this book, and that fans of Ned Vizzini's It's Kind of a Funny Story (about a teen's time in a mental ward) will, too. I think that for teens suffering from any kind of mood disorder (bipolar, depression, etc.), this book could be transforming. Because Phoenix struggles with her disorder, but she's her own person, too. She has adventures, and rescues people. She's not a helpless victim of her circumstances by any means.

Tune into the readergirlz newsletter this month for a playlist of songs to listen to while reading the book, a series of discussion questions, a chat with the author, and other activities related to The Phoenix Dance.

Book: The Phoenix Dance
Author: Dia Calhoun (Dia is also a readergirlz diva)
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Original Publication Date: September 2005
Pages: 288
Age Range: 13 and up
Source of Book: Santa Clara City Library
Other Blog Reviews: Roots, Leaves, and Threads. See also Miss Erin's interview with Dia Calhoun. Little Willow has an interview forthcoming.

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

Dystopian Book Challenge

I learned from Becky this week about a dystopian challenge issued a few weeks back by Lisa at Books. Lists. Life. Lisa has challenged herself to do the following reading:

  1. "Any 5 (for me, you can read more or less) books that fall into the "Scary New World" category. Interpret this as you like, but be prepared to defend questionable choices.
  2. They do not have to be books you've never read, but they should be books you haven't read in a long time. For example, I read Brave New World in 10th grade (1989), but will likely choose it again for this.
  3. The challenge begins now and ends November 6th.(I thought Nov. 4, 2008 would be appropriate, but decided that a year and a half might be a little long for this.) You may join at any point in the challenge."

As regular readers to this site will know, I'm addicted to dystopian books, so I was unable to resist this challenge. It's a bit tough for me because I've read so many of the books in the genre. But here is what I came up with:

  • Among the Free by Margaret Peterson Haddix (the last book that I have to read in this series).
  • Z is for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien (mentioned by several people in the comments of my earlier post, and a sad omission on my part).
  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (a re-read). Interesting side note about this book: they filmed parts of it at Duke, where I went for undergrad, during my senior year.
  • Dies the Fire by S. M. Stirling (recommended by The Old Coot).
  • (Updated to add) Feed by M. T. Anderson (with thanks to Elaine Magliaro for the reminder)

Readergirlz Honor National Mental Health Month

A new issue of the Readergirlz newsletter is now available. In honor of National Mental Health Month, the Readergirlz divas (Lorie Ann Grover, Dia Calhoun, Janet Lee Carey, and Justina Chen Headley) are focusing on The Phoenix Dance by their own Dia Calhoun. In the newsletter you can find information about the book, a "while you read" playlist, and information about mpower, musicians for mental health, and their spokesperson Lindsay Rush. There are also suggested actions that readers can take to fight the stigma of mental illness, recommended supporting reads, book party ideas, and book discussion questions. Clearly, the Divas have spent a lot of time putting this package together. And just as clearly, they have a genuine interest in lessening the stigma of mental illness and depression, and in providing teens with a safe forum for discussing these issues.

I'm reading The Phoenix Dance right now. It's a fantasy, set in a magical kingdom, in which the main character suffers from vast up and down mood swings. The fantasy elements of the story provide enough of a buffer to make the blunt discussions of Phoenix's mental problems accessible and non-threatening. While people who have experienced bipolar disorder will certainly recognize the symptoms, Phoenix is genuine enough that other readers should identify with her also.

(Full disclosure: I'm one of five Postergirlz for Readergirlz, and will be helping them by recommending future book titles, though I had no input into this issue.)

Children's Literacy Round-Up: May 1

There are lots of great children's literacy and reading-related news stories this week:

  • In Canada, the Gift of Reading program, through receiving and organizing gifts from the public, will be donating 25,293 books to underprivileged children. According to the press release, "The magic of this project is that it enables donors to have a direct impact on the daily life of a child in their region. Indeed, one's very own book can make all the difference when the social and economic environment is far from conducive to reading. The Foundation targets children aged 0-12 across Quebec in order to prevent difficulties with reading and writing that can lead to dropping out of school."
  • According to an article in the Battle Creek Enquirer (Michigan), "United Way of Greater Battle Creek is investing $383,000 in programs that build literacy, education and increased self-sufficiency for area residents in need.... "United Way and our Board of Directors are placing a strong emphasis on community issues concerning literacy, early learning and child growth and development," said Matt Lynn, director of community impact."
  • There's a nice feature article about the Lehigh Valley chapter of one of my favorite organizations, the Cops 'n Kids program, in the Allentown Morning Call. According to the article, "Since 2003 ... many local businesses and nearly every local high school has held a book drive. Cops 'n' Kids also is collecting books for communities in other countries. In the Bethlehem Police Department, officers volunteer and carry books from the program in their cars, Police Commissioner Randall Miller said."
  • I also enjoyed this article in the Manchester, CT Journal Inquirer about an East Windsor elementary school librarian, Marian Friedrich, who requests books for her school's kids through the Reading is Fundamental program. She then uses the books as part of a lesson for children, teaching them about math and geography, as they learn about the government grant that led to their receiving free books. The article includes several quotes from the kids about what books they enjoyed and why. Uplifting reading, for sure.
  • The Seattle Times has an article about a local children's author, and former librarian, Suzanne Williams, who "wants to inspire kids to love reading. "I want to motivate kids to read, but I also want them to chuckle at the allusions to classic children's literature sprinkled throughout my books, like an inside joke," she said."
  • In San Diego, the annual Children's Book Party was just held in Balboa Park. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, "The annual literacy event provides two free books to each child. Hundreds of children and their families filled the benches at the Organ Pavilion for the book party, which was provided by Roosevelt Brown and his nonprofit group, Reading Literacy Learning Inc." Transportation is provided for schools.
  • from Denver has an article about a Lakewood woman named Linda Behrens, who, after seeing the need for books at an overcrowded school in Tanzania, traveled back to deliver two suitcases packed full of donated books.
  • And finally, as has been extensively reported elsewhere, Al's Book Club for Kids on the TODAY Show has selected the first of four summer reading titles: The Invention of Hugo Cabaret. Here are some discussion questions posted by TODAY.

Happy reading to all!