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Posts from August 2008

Children's Literacy Round-Up: August 18

Here is some recent children's literacy and reading news from various sources.

  • The Sun News (Macon, GA) has a nice article by J. Randolph Murray (the paper's editor) about sharing the thrill of reading. Murray describes in detail his history as a young bookworm, and explains "All of this is why I jumped to say "yes" when asked to participate in a "Celebrity Read" later this month at Parkwood Elementary School to kick off the Warner Robins school's Reading is Fundamental free paperback distribution program." My favorite part of the article is this: "She (my sister) also introduced me to the most enchanting place in our little hometown of Quitman, Georgia. I still remember the sense of awe I felt when I pushed my way through the heavy double doors to enter the Brooks County Public Library."
  • The Storm Blog (Seattle's WNBA team) has a post by Jayda Evans about how guards Sheryl Swoopes and Katie Gearlds will be reading to children at a local art museum. "The players will read Impressionism-inspired stories and take participants on a tour of their favorite paintings". Here is a quote from Sheryl Swoopes in the press release: "As a child I never really had an opportunity to interact with adults and culture in a stimulating environment. This program shows kids how important it is to read, to be inspired by art and to excel in new areas. As athletes we know that we can play a powerful role in showing how these experiences can be both enriching and exciting."
  • Care2 carried a recent press release about the partnering of the READING Pawz and Reading is Fundamental in Marion County, TN. The idea is "to inspire passion for reading and learning utilizing Therapy Animals who volunteer to offer children an opportunity to improve their reading in a setting which has proven not only effective but fun. READING Pawz and RIF plan on making reading fun through exciting motivational activities that culminate in *book distributions** opportunities for kids to choose and keep books at no cost to them or their families. READING Pawz RIF provides books to children through a network of local volunteers, who READING Pawz RIF programs and organize events."
  • According to another press release (on RTTNews), "Audible ... announced that it has formed a strategic alliance with Bonnier's Parenting Group to promote kids' literacy through digital audiobooks. The company said that this alliance involves a Parenting-branded download boutique at and wide-ranging promotional efforts led by the magazine and its web site,"
  • The Bellevue Reporter recently published an article by Lindsay Larin about "Story Slam, a free program designed to raise excitement about literacy among students. To encourage students to read and write more, (Bernie) Ornelas created the Story Slam contest, giving participants the opportunity to read a creative writing piece of their own original work in front of a live audience."
  • Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect posted today about a new PBS series, Martha Speaks, featuring Susan Meddaugh's character Martha. As quoted by Tricia: "The half-hour show, which premieres nationwide Sept. 1, aims to teach 4- to 7-year-olds words as advanced as "communicate," "diminish," "courageous," and "concoct."" This Boston Globe article has more details. Terry also wrote about this at What Happens Next: The Reading Tub Blog. See also Terry's new list of great books (and workbooks) for back to school, with recommendations for kids of all ages.
  • The New Zealand Herald has an education story by Nicola Shepheard about the country's deficiencies in children's literacy, and possible steps to improve. The article says: "We fall down in literacy. Out of 46 countries, our average-scoring 10-year-olds come in the middle at 24th, below the United States and the United Kingdom. But average scores hide the real problem: the gap between our best and worst readers and writers is among the widest in the world, and it's growing. Overall, girls do better than boys, again by one of the biggest margins internationally, and especially among low achievers."
  • According to an article in the Log Cabin Democrat, the Conway (AR) Bookcase Project Committee will be holding a "bookcase literacy banquet", to raise money to provide local children with high quality, personalized wooden bookcases, and thus encourage literacy and reading.
  • The Age (Australia) has an opinion piece by Christopher Bantick about the importance of making the reading experience pleasurable for kids, and the positive health benefits for readers. He specifically questions "the push for at least four Australian books to be studied in NSW classrooms by the end of year10" in the context of the idea that "children might like to read something they like". I found this a particularly well-balance article (with references to both Mem Fox and Enid Blyton).

And that's all the literacy and reading news for this week. Happy reading!

Sunday Afternoon Visits: August 17

I haven't blogged all that much this week, because I've been caught up in reading. I watched the movie Becoming Jane earlier in the week, and was then compelled to read something by Jane Austen (I chose Persuasion, which I somehow didn't have a copy of, and had to go out and buy). I also read Breaking Dawn, and it held my attention until I had finished it (review here). And I read the latest adult novel by Deborah Crombie (Where Memories Lie), one of my favorite authors. But I have been keeping up on blog reading, and I've saved up a ridiculous number of links. Here is some Kidlitosphere news of potential interest:

  • The folks at First Book asked me to mention their What Book Got You Hooked campaign. They said "Now through September 15, visitors to First Book's Web site are invited to share the memory of the first book that made reading fun, then help get more kids hooked by voting for the state to receive 50,000 new books for low-income youth... A number of celebrities have joined the effort, including: BARRY MANILOW, DAVID DUCHOVNY, EMMA THOMPSON, EDWARD NORTON, JOHN LITHGOW, MARLEE MATLIN, REBECCA ROMIJN, SCARLETT JOHANSSON, STEPHEN COLBERT and many more. You can see their responses featured on the Web site." I just entered my choice, Little House in the Big Woods. It's not my favorite of all time, but it's the first book of the first series that I remember falling into, and being consumed by the need to know what happened to the characters.
  • Via Word-Up! The AdLit Newsletter, has a new booklist up: Nonfiction for Teens. I know from my readergirlz postergirl days that good teen nonfiction can be hard to find, and I recommend that you check out this list. See also Jill's excellent piece about reaching out to reluctant readers through nonfiction at The Well-Read Child.
  • I've seen several people posting lists this week of planned classroom read-alouds for the upcoming school year. See especially the lists at Literate Lives (from Karen) and The Reading Zone (from Sarah). There will be some lucky kids starting school in the fall, that's all I have to say about these lists. Also from Sarah, a planned Teacher Swap, by which people will exchange care packages. Click through for details.
  • I learned from Trevor Cairney at Literacy, families and learning that August 16-22 is Children's Book Week in Australia. Trevor offers families some suggestions for celebrating. He also reports on the 2008 Children's Book Council (Australia) Awards.
  • I'm a bit burned out on all of the various storms in the Kidlitosphere teapot that I've been running across lately (people criticizing blog reviewers, YA as a genre, people who read children's books, etc. - see Confessions of a Bibliovore for the latest craziness). But I have had a particular interest in a discussion thats been proliferating about moral compasses in children's literature. I read a post about this at Sarah Miller's blog, which in turn linked to and quoted from an article at Editorial Anonymous. The discussion was also taken up by Carlie at Librarilly Blonde. I agree with Editorial Anonymous (and, I think, Sarah and Carlie) on this: "So I have no problem with a book being essentially moral because the author just writes that way, and I have no problem with parents influencing their children's moral development. But I disagree that every children's book should present a united moral front." Personally, I feel strongly that the best books are the ones that steer clear of overt moral messages completely, and just tell a great story. But if books are going to have moral messages (let's call them themes, instead of overt messages), then by all means, they should be diverse, and offer kids the opportunity to learn to make their own distinctions.
  • Presenting Lenore has an informative interview with a publicist from Penguin addressing questions about the importance of blog reviews, how blog reviewers are chosen, and the publisher's response to requests for specific books. If you are new to book reviewing on your blog, this is a post to check out.   
  • Stephanie has a lovely post at Throwing Marshmallows about igniting "the fire of literacy" in her sons. She notes: "I think that one of the unspoken benefits of having "late" readers is that reading together is a very well engrained habit. (In fact, it was one thing that I had reassure Jason about...that we would always read together even once he could read on his own.)" and concludes "I am most definitely blessed to be able to share my love of books with both my boys. And blessed to have them share their enjoyment of books with me!" See also Stephanie's recent post about "that ADHD serving a purpose thing", Michael Phelps, and helping children to see what they can (rather than can't) do.
  • Laurel Snyder is running a fun contest at her blog. She's giving away signed copies of her new book. She says: "You’ll post  a little story to your blog, about a task/ job/situation/role for which you are thoroughly unsuitable (the FULL title of my book is “Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains OR the Search for a Suitable Princess”)." I already have an ARC of the book, so I'm not formally entering. But I would have to say that I would be thoroughly unsuitable for any job that required all-day interaction (face to face) with other people.
  • Janet shares a great story at PaperTigers about a young boy's first experience with read-aloud. She asks readers "What was the first book you read aloud to your child?" Despite not having children, I borrowed a friend's story, and shared it in the comments over there.
  • At Semicolon, Sherry Early shares ideas for a talk that she'll be giving at her church on "Reading and How to Build a Home Library". She says (among other things): "When we read we receive the wisdom of people, past and present, whom we would never have the opportunity to meet. And we and our children can examine things and ideas that we would never be able to or would not want to experience personally."
  • Via my friend Cory, I learned of a recent NY Times article by Julie Bosman about the Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing group's plans for more direct interaction (and more financially lucrative deals) with Hollywood. Hmmm... a bit scary, I'd say, though I suspect that there will be an upside.
  • Nominations for the Carnegie Corporation's "I Love My Librarian" Award for public librarians have just opened. Liz has the details at Tea Cozy. If you have a favorite librarian, this is your chance to put that person in line for some much-deserved praise, not to mention a cash award.
  • Just in, via Kelly at Big A little a, Amanda Craig has a science fiction round-up for children and teenagers in the Times Online. I really have got to read Unwind, by Neal Shusterman, soon. Craig says: "This is the kind of rare book that makes the hairs on your neck rise up. It is written with a sense of drama that should get it instantly snapped up for film, and it's satisfyingly unpredictable in that its characters change and realise things about each other in a credible way."
  • And last, but definitely not least, the latest Carnival of Children's Literature is now available at Chicken Spaghetti. This one snuck up on me, and I didn't manage to contribute, but Susan has lots of great links for you at this Beach Edition of the carnival.

And that's all for today. Happy Reading!!

The Hunger Games: Suzanne Collins

Book: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Pages: 384
Age Range: 13 and up

The Hunger GamesBackground: This book isn't out yet, but rarely have I seen so widely reviewed (and praised) an advance publication. The reviews listed below are just a subset of the many references to and reviews of this book that I've seen. I was fortunate to get a signed hardcover copy of this one from Scholastic at ALA. I am a big fan of Suzanne Collins's previous series, the Gregor the Overlander books (reviews here, here, and here), but I have to tell you that The Hunger Games is in a whole different class. I wasn't actually sure I wanted to read it, when I first heard the premise. Kids in competition to kill each other? Seriously? But oh my goodness, this is a phenomenal book. Even though there are already tons of reviews, I couldn't resist sharing my thoughts here.

Review: Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games is one of the best books that I've read, not just this year, but ever. Collins' writing simply blew me away. I would stop periodically and shake my head, wondering how on earth she was able to pull this book off. The story is set in a Dystopian future North America, in a nation called Panem. Panem consists of a high-tech, wealthy Capitol, surrounded by twelve outlying districts of various fortune. Sixteen-year-old Katniss lives in the poorest of the districts, District 12, where people mine coal, and struggle each day for survival. Katniss works as an illegal poacher to support her mother and her beloved younger sister, Prim. She has a partner in crime, Gale, a boy a bit older than she is, who is her best friend.

The districts are heavily regulated by the Capitol. At one time, years earlier, the citizens of Panem's districts rose up against the Capitol. They were soundly defeated. As a reminder of the penalties of treason, the Capitol imposed the annual Hunger Games. Explains Katniss:

"The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins." (Page 18)

In this book, the first of a trilogy, Katniss learns first-hand about the Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games is beautifully written, taut, but with description that brings the scenes to vivid life. It is highly suspenseful (I stayed up very late finishing it one night), yet filled with heart, too. There are themes of loyalty, friendship, sacrifice, and determination. Katniss is almost unimaginably strong, but the first-person narration lets the reader see her insecurities, loves, and mistakes, too. Several of the other characters are compelling, heartbreaking, and/or surprising. The Hunger Games explores what people are willing to do to survive, how people respond when they have limited options, and the limits to which people are willing to push their humanity. This moral exploration never feels the least bit message-y, because everything happens in the context of Katniss's own quest for survival.

The Hunger Games is not for the faint-hearted (or the very young reader). There are grim passages, recounting deprivation and deaths. But somehow, Katniss's narration keeps the bleakness at bay. She has a wry humor and a stubborn spirit, and you want to keep reading as much to hear what she has to say as to find out what will happen next. You want to keep reading to bear witness.

Panem is a futuristic nation filled with glitz and glamor, with some creative touches. Here's an example:

"My quarters are larger than our entire house back home. They are plush, like the train car, but also have so many automatic gadgets that I'm sure I won't have time to press all the buttons. The shower alone has a panel with more than a hundred options you can choose regulating water temperature, pressure, soaps, shampoos, scents, oils, and massaging sponges. When you step out on a mat, heaters come on that blow-dry your body. Instead of struggling with the knots in my wet hair, I merely place my hand on a box that sends a current through my scalp, untangling, parting, and drying my hair almost instantly. It floats down around my shoulders in a glossy curtain." (Chapter 6)

But Panem is also a nation in which people watch teenagers die as a form of entertainment, a nation where kindness is cause for suspicion, and cameras everywhere record any misdeed. In District 12, "the boldest form of dissent (people) can manage" is silence. The world that Suzanne Collins has created with The Hunger Games is not, in short, a world that I would want to live in. But it is is a world that I feel privileged to have had a chance to visit, and that I look forward to visiting again in the remaining books of this trilogy. This is a book that should be in serious contention for the Printz Award, and one that I think is destined to be a new classic. I simply can't recommend it highly enough, to teens and adults.

Publisher: Scholastic
Publication Date: Conflicting reports, but sometime between September 14 and October 1, 2008
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: YALSA, nineseveneight book reviews, Kids Lit, We Know Books at HPL, Reading Rants!, Librarilly Blonde, The Reading Zone, Oops... Wrong Cookie, Abby (the) Librarian, A Fuse #8 Production, The Compulsive Reader, Satia's Journal, YA Book Realm (and more)

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

Breaking Dawn: Stephenie Meyer

Book: Breaking Dawn
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Pages: 754
Age Range: 13 and up

Breaking DawnBackground: It took me a couple of weeks after the publication date to get to the conclusion of Stephenie Meyers' Breaking Dawn. First I was on vacation, and I don't like traveling with bulky hardcovers. And then I knew that the publisher would be sending me a copy, so I waited a few days for that. But it hadn't come, and I finally purchased a copy. It wasn't so much that I was dying to know how the series ended, but it was getting difficult not to read spoilers. And of course the day after I finished reading it, the publisher's copy showed up. But I'm sure that my library will be more than happy to have a donated copy.

In truth, I don't see much point in reviewing this title at all. Is my review going to be the thing that entices some particular reader to pick up the book, in the face of the media firestorm, and the 2400+ reviews already available on Amazon? It seems hardly likely. And I try very hard on my blog not to reveal details that will spoil anyone's reading of a book. But this is a book that calls out more for discussion than for review. So, I'm offering an informal, mini-review, as spoiler-free as I can make it, with a goal of helping anyone on the fence to answer the questions: "should I read it or shouldn't I, given the polarizing reviews out there?".

Review: I know that a lot of people were disappointed by this Twilight series finale, and/or are up in arms over various aspects of Breaking Dawn. But personally, I enjoyed it. Although Breaking Dawn is quite long, I found it a fast read, one that kept me turning the pages. I thought that Stephenie Meyer handled the whole "will she or won't she become a vampire question" in a way that was true to the series as a whole, and true to Bella's character. Ditto the Edward vs. Jacob question. It seemed clear to me that Meyer had mapped out the whole series when she wrote the first book, and remained consistent to her vision of Bella's story. A couple of things were explained that needed to be explained (why Edward couldn't read Bella's mind, and why Jacob was so drawn to Bella, even though though he didn't imprint on her, for example). And the ending, if lacking a bit in dramatic conflict, felt to me for the most part like the right ending for the characters. If anything, I think that some of the disappointment that people have had with Breaking Dawn stems from a certain feeling of inevitability - it's hard to fulfill things that have been set up through four lengthy novels and simultaneously surprise the reader.

Addressing a little of the controversy about this book: yes, Meyer's vision for this series was doubtless influenced by her own religious views. But so what? They're her books. If you have a problem reading about teens who choose not to have sex before marriage, then don't read the books. If you have a problem with hyper-traditional gender roles, in which the girl is repeatedly saved by the boy (or boys, in this case, given Jacob), then don't read the books. As has been pointed out elsewhere (see Original Content, for example), these books are at heart romances, and as such, follow certain conventions. And let's face it: this is a series about a girl who falls in love with a vampire, who loves her back. It's escapism. If you find that human/vampire match-up creepy (you know what I'm going to say), then by all means don't read the books.

I certainly have things that I could quibble over (though I can't do so without spoilers) in Breaking Dawn, especially in relation to the conflict with the Volturi. But ultimately I'm satisfied with Breaking Dawn as the conclusion to the Twilight series. If you've read the first three books, then I recommend that you get out there and read Breaking Dawn. Do it soon, before someone spoils the book for you. And try to remember that it's just a book, not some sort of huge social commentary that strives to address all of the world's ills. Then settle in when you have some free time, and immerse yourself in Breaking Dawn.

Publisher: Little, Brown Young Readers
Publication Date: August 2, 2008
Source of Book: Bought it, and also received a review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Too numerous to mention

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

The Eyes of a King: Catherine Banner

Book: The Eyes of a King
Author: Catherine Banner
Pages: 448
Age Range: 12 and up

The Eyes of a KingBackground: I decided that I wanted to read this book after reading Jill's review at The Well-Read Child back in July. Jill said:

"I received a review copy from the publisher a couple of weeks ago and stayed up way too late last night finishing the book. And all I have to say is “WOW WOW WOW.” I don’t remember feeling this excited about a book and such anticipation for the next in the series since, well, Harry Potter."

Fortunately, Random House had already sent me a copy, and I was able to read The Eyes of a King this week. I have heard quite a bit about how remarkable this book is because the author was 14 when she started writing it (and is 19 now). Personally, I don't think that the author's age should be much of a factor when reviewing a book, unless the reviewer happens to be the author's parent or doting aunt or uncle. Catherine Banner has also been hailed as the next J. K. Rowling, and I'm afraid that I can't agree with that assessment (Jill doesn't either, though she's quite positive about Banner's writing). Still, I did enjoy the book on its own merits.

Review: Catherine Banner's The Eyes of a King is a young adult fantasy, told via stories within stories. The primary narrator, Leo North, is in the present reading a story that he wrote describing events that took place five years previously, when he was fifteen. Within that story, Leo includes another story, one related to him through dreams and a book in which writing appears magically. Leo's own story takes place in the country of Malonia, in a fictional universe parallel to our own. Malonia resembles an England of the past, before electronics or widespread indoor plumbing, a land of castles and kings, and grinding poverty for ordinary people. In Leo's world, some people (including Leo himself) have powers, but these powers are based more on willpower than on magic - one can will the ropes binding ones wrists to fall off, given sufficient moral fiber. Powers aside, Leo's Malonia is a grim place, the country under the grip of a power-hungry king, where boys are educated at military schools, and girls aren't educated at all. Leo lives with his grandmother and younger brother, Stirling, his parents having had to flee the country years earlier.

The story Leo is told takes place primarily in what is, to Leo, the fictional country of England. England is a mythic land, to which people from Malonia are sometimes exiled, or so the stories go. Several parallel narratives are at play in the internal story, and sorting them out is a bit tricky at first. But things do come together, and after a slightly slow start, the book is quite compelling. I stayed up late into the night to finish it.

There is a lot to like about The Eyes of a King. The story within story format is engrossing, and Banner handles the transitions deftly. The twist by which England is the fantasy realm and Malonia the "real world" is entertaining. Reading the book, I actually felt like England, with its lorries and horseless carriages and hospitals, was kind of exotic. I also enjoyed the atmosphere of the book, dark and brooding, yet with flashes of humor. I found Banner's portrayal of Leo's emotions authentic and moving.

I do have a couple of minor quibbles. I thought that certain aspects of the story were over-explained, as Leo and Stirling spend time talking amongst themselves, decoding the story-within-a-story. I also found the dialog a bit inconsistent in the use of contractions. For example, here is a discussion between Leo and his grandmother (she speaks first):

"Hurry. You will be late for school."
I stood up. "School?"
"Yes, it is already a quarter to eight, and you haven't got the water yet."
"Cannot you do it?"
"No, I can't carry it."
"Neither can I," I said stupidly, but I had to get it. (Page 201)

The "cannot you do it" followed by "I can't carry it" struck me as blatantly inconsistent. And it's not that the grandmother speaks more formally than Leo, or vice versa, or not that I can tell. This is a small thing, but incidents like this took me out of the story from time to time.

In other aspects, however, I quite liked Banner's writing. She seems to see the poetic within the ordinary. For example:

"It would be boring to live here," said Stirling. "It's so quiet and pressing."
"You know," I told him, "sometimes boring is good." But I knew what he meant. There was a thick atmosphere of stupefying wealth and conformity and safety that hung in the streets like damp, soaking even into your brain." (Page 104)


"The snow began to fall as I walked home. It was dark, though barely five o'clock, and cold. My breath billowed white in the darkness and everything was quiet. Even the jangle and thud of the soldiers' horses seemed deadened. The flakes were so cold that they almost burned where they touched my face, and they lodged on my clothes and stuck fast. I tried to brush them away and pulled my coat up tighter around my neck." (Page 2)

This latter passage, from the start of the book, made want to settle in and immerse myself in the book.

All in all, The Eyes of a King is an impressive debut - not perfect, but engrossing nonetheless. Although this is the first book in a trilogy, the story wraps up in a good place, and the book can definitely stand on its own. I think that teens and adults will enjoy the light touch by which the fantasy elements are portrayed, and that readers will look forward to the next two installments.

Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: May 2008
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: flamingnet, The Well-Read Child

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

Growing Bookworms Newsletter: August 12

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 nearly 350 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, a Children's Literacy Round-Up, and a summary of my grown-up reading while on vacation. Recent posts from my blog not included in the newsletter include:

Thanks for reading, and for growing bookworms! Hope that you're all having a great summer, and that I'll see some of you at the KidLit Conference.

City Librarian as Crime Fighter

This past weekend there was a truly horrific hit and run accident near where I live in San Jose. Two elderly women were killed while in a crosswalk, crossing a major street. The whole thing is tremendously sad for the friends and family members of the women, and my heart goes out to them.

But at least, thanks to a concerned citizen and the Santa Clara City Librarian, the suspect was arreseted today. On Saturday, a witness followed the car and got the license plate number. The number was released to the public. Today, the suspect was recognized and arrested at the library where I'm a Foundation Board Member (the Santa Clara City Library). As reported on ABC7 News:

"The city librarian heard about the accident, recognized the suspect and car description and called police.

"Very quiet, police basically approached the suspect, escorted him from the library building and took him away in a police car," says librarian Karen Saunders."

Karen Saunders is the city librarian who I just mentioned in my vacation reading wrap-up, with whom I share a love of mysteries. That's my librarian and book buddy, recognizing a suspect, verifying that his car was on the premises, and calling the police (another library employee was also involved, but wasn't interviewed). How cool is that? It's like something out of a book. I'm proud that the people at my library made a difference, and took action to help bring these families closure.

In addition to the ABC7 story, Karen was also interviewed on KTVU 2 News and NBC11 News (with thanks to Foundation Executive Director Maria Daane for the news, and to Foundation President David Stringer-Calvert for tracking down the links). Updated to add: this San Jose Mercury News article has a bit more detail about the story.

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

The Emerald Tablet: P. J. Hoover

Book: The Emerald Tablet
Author: P. J. Hoover (blog)
Pages: 288
Age Range: 10 and up

The Emerald TabletP.J. Hoover's The Emerald Tablet is the first book in a new middle grade science fiction series. The story begins with the enticing sentence:

"When Benjamin Holt saw his mom disappear into a pinprick of light, he shouldn't have been surprised; his life was already weird."

The reader rapidly learns that Benjamin and his best friend Andy communicate via telepathy, and that, despite living in the ordinary world, Benjamin and his younger brothers are all adept at telekinesis, too. Before he quite knows what's happening, Benjamin learns that he and Andy will both be attending summer school on the hidden continent of Lemuria (like Atlantis, only with more benevolent citizens). There they make friends, compete in subjects ranging from Science to Telegnosis, and, oh yes, learn that Benjamin has been prophesied to restore balance to the world.

There are, of course, echoes of the Harry Potter books in this description, but the feeling of The Emerald Tablet is much more futuristic science fiction than medieval castle fantasy. Rather than being wizards, Benjamin and Andy and their friends are Telegens, a sort of advanced race whose special skills are more a product of highly developed minds than "magic". The Emerald Tablet features lots of cool touches, like a girl whose hair changes color depending on her emotions, invisible walkways between buildings, and dehydrating chambers that dry you off after you've been out in the rain. There's also quite a bit of humor to middle school boy-girl interpersonal dynamics in the presence of mind-reading.

My favorite character is Benjamin and Andy's new friend Gary, who loves books. He says: "I like to read and re-read the actual books. I get more and more out of them each time I go through them." Benjamin doesn't really understand it, but I do. There are also two girls who are part of Benjamin's core group of friends (they form "an alliance" together): beautiful Iva and talented Heidi. All of the alliance kids are three-dimensional and likable, especially when they bicker.

The Emerald Tablet is a very appealing mix of adventure, speculative science fiction, and middle school camp drama. I enjoyed it as an adult, but I know that I would have adored it as an 11-year-old. In truth, ever since I finished it, The Emerald Tablet has been popping back into my head, as I wonder what's going to happen to Benjamin and his friends going forward. Highly recommended for later elementary and middle school readers, boys and girls, fans of traditional fantasy or not.

Publisher: Blooming Tree Press
Publication Date: October 21, 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the author. Quotes are from the ARC, and may not mirror the final, printed text
Other Blog Reviews: Teens Read Too, Presenting Lenore, The Longstockings , Trainspotting Reads
Author Interviews: Book Review Maniac, Trainspotting Reads

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

The Resistance: Gemma Malley

Book: The Resistance
Author: Gemma Malley
Pages: 336
Age Range: 13 and up

The ResistanceBackground: The Resistance is the sequel to Gemma Malley's dystopian young adult novel The Declaration (my review). I thought that The Declaration had a fascinating premise. It is set in a future world in which longevity drugs have made it possible for people to live, essentially, forever. To avoid overpopulation, however, the Government has implemented The Declaration. Before gaining access to the longevity drugs, each adult must sign a declaration stating that they will not have children. Any children who are born are designated Surpluses, taken away from their parents, and raised in Surplus Halls (grim orphanages, where the children are taught a mix of useful skills and utter self-abasement). In The Declaration, a teenager named Surplus Anna lives peacefully, if unhappily, in Grange Hall, until a boy named Peter arrives and suggests the unthinkable - that she might actually have a right to be alive.

I enjoyed The Declaration, but I felt that the ending, in which a previously undisclosed loophole plays a major part, was a bit of a let-down. Still, I was interested enough in the future world that Gemma Malley had created to want to read the upcoming sequel. And I was not disappointed - I think that The Resistance is stronger than the first book. The review that follows does contain spoilers for the first book (though not for The Resistance), so stop here if you are interested and have not yet read The Declaration.

Review: Gemma Malley's novel The Resistance begins a short time after the conclusion of The Declaration. In the year 2140, teens Anna and Peter, along with Anna's baby brother Ben, have been declared Legal, and are living as a family. Among the very few young people living free in their society (as free as anyone can be under the oppressive government regime), Anna and Peter are the subject of suspicion and disapproval from the aged people around them. They also bear the burden of being the secret hope for a new generation, from the shadowy resistance movement. They hope to have children of their own, and to choose the future over their own personal longevity.

As the story begins, Peter is preparing to take on a dangerous undercover mission - working in his grandfather's longevity drug factory, Pincent Pharma. As a spy, he reports to the charismatic Underground leader, Pip. As an employee, he reports to his manipulative, powerful grandfather, and to a once-talented scientist named Dr. Edwards. Anna, meanwhile, cares for Ben, and dabbles in a bit of resistance work herself. A third teen character, Peter's half-brother Jude, is also introduced, though it takes a while for him to reveal his true colors. Eventually, the teens learn that the activities at Pincent Pharma, and the ways that Surpluses are being treated, are more evil than they could ever have imagined.

The Resistance offers more background than The Declaration about how society could have chosen the renewal of the existing citizens, rather than the rejuvenation of introducing new life to the population. Things aren't black and white (in fact the whole book has a bit of a gray feel to it). Even Peter, subject to masterful manipulation, muses about the possibilities of endless life. This is a book that will make readers think.

The Resistance is highly suspenseful and action-packed, the kind of book that you'll stay up late to finish, because you have to know what happens. Peter is a strong protagonist, and several of the other characters, including Pip and Jude, are intriguing and multi-faceted. Anna is a bit more of an easily manipulated victim than one might prefer in a YA novel, but I think that she's true to her upbringing, as captured in this passage:

"Peter's heart, meanwhile, was pounding in his chest and every instinct made him want to throw himself at the woman, to make her understand what it felt like to be labelled Surplus, to be subjugated, beaten down, humiliated, until all you knew was the desire to serve, to pay your debt to society, to beg forgiveness over and over again simply for existing -- to feel like Anna had for most of her life." (Chapter 5)

I recommend The Resistance to fans of dystopian fiction, especially to those who enjoyed The Children of Men by P. D. James, and to anyone looking for a suspenseful, thought-provoking story. I do think that it's more of a high school book than a book for younger kids (Anna and Peter live together as man and wife, though this is more implied than described in detail, and there are some pretty grim things happening to the Surpluses). Recommended.

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication Date: September 2, 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Quotes are from the ARC, and may differ from the final printed book
Other Blog Reviews: Kiss the Book, Becky's Book Reviews
See Also: Gemma Malley's Top 10 Dystopian Novels for Teenagers in the Guardian

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

Vacation Reading: Grown-Up Books

On my recent vacation, I read a number of books published for adults, instead of my usual children's and young adult-focused fare. It was actually a nice change. Here are the books that I read, with a few comments on each:

Fearless FourteenJanet Evanovich: Fearless Fourteen. St. Martin's Press. Completed July 25, 2008 (on MP3). This is the latest in the Stephanie Plum series, about an irrepressible and not particularly competent New Jersey bounty hunter, and the two loves of her life. I think that this series is hilarious, and I especially enjoy listening to the books on MP3. For me, narrator Lorelei King is Stephanie Plum. In this installment, Stephanie and her boyfriend Morelli find themselves saddled with a teenage hacker, a benign celebrity stalker, a spoiled celebrity, and an immature stoner, while battling rabid treasure-hunters.

The WoodsHarlan Coben: The Woods. Signet. Completed July 27, 2008. This is a standalone thriller by the author of the Myron Bolitar series. Paul Copeland's sister disappeared from summer camp 20 years earlier, the presumed victim of a serial killer. As the novel begins, another one of the presumed victims turns up, only recently deceased, calling into question the fate of Paul's sister. It's funny. Coben's thrillers are a bit formulaic - there are several on similar themes about crimes from the past haunting people in the present, and whether missing people are or are not deceased. And yet, I still find them compelling. His writing flows smoothly, and I find myself puzzling over the details when I'm not reading the book.

The Spellman FilesLisa Lutz: The Spellman Files. Completed August 1, 2008. This was on my mental "to read" list for a while, after seeing a review somewhere. Right before vacation, the City Librarian where I'm a Foundation Board Member offered me her copy (we share a taste for mysteries). It seemed like fate, and I took it with me on the trip. The Spellman Files is the first book in a new series about a quirky family of private investigators living in San Francisco. The book begins with a car chase that turns out to be the parents chasing the main character, 28-year-old Izzy Spellman. Things get even more entertaining from there - I thought that this book was a riot, though a bit more episodic than I normally look for in mysteries. There's also a highly resourceful teenage sister who participates in the family business, making this an excellent YA cross-over series. I will definitely be looking out for the next book in the series, The Curse of the Spellmans.

Index to MurderJo Dereske: Index to Murder. Avon. Completed August 4, 2008. This is the latest in the Miss Zukas series, about a librarian from a medium-sized town in Washington State who stumbles across various mysteries. What I love about this cozy series (see my review of an earlier title here) is the way that Miss Zukas' character is so clearly defined - she's a lovingly exaggerated version of a librarian, a woman who can't help alphabetizing her best friend Ruth's oil paints, and cycles through her set of plates so that they'll wear equally. In this installment, Ruth turns out to have ties to two suspicious deaths, and the two friends are forced to investigate. I saw a key point at the end coming, but that was a good thing, because it meant that I understood the character well.

A Field of DarknessCornelia Read: A Field of Darkness. Grand Central Publishing. Completed August 6, 2008. This is the first book in Read's Madeline Dare series (followed by The Crazy School). I've intended to read this one for a while - the reviews have been quite impressive - and I picked it up when I started running low on reading material. Madeline is a very junior, part-time reporter for a local newspaper in Syracuse. She's the poor relation from a wealthy Long Island family, exiled to Syracuse by her choice of husband. She becomes involved in a solving a 20-year-old murder mystery when evidence turns up linking her favorite cousin, a Gatsby-esque character, to the crimes. Personally, I thought that the book was very well-written, but I didn't like it all that much, if that makes any sense. One too many unpleasant supporting characters, one too many bitter references to slumming in Syracuse... I'm not sure. I'm still likely to give The Crazy School a try, though, because I think that the story sounds more appealing.

The Paper MoonAndrea Camilleri: The Paper Moon (Inspector Montalbano). Penguin. Completed August 7, 2008. This is the latest in the Inspector Salvo Montalbano series, set in a fictional Sicilian town. These books are quick read, but highly entertaining. Salvo is irritable and clever, and doesn't always follow the rules (not that he's corrupt, but he's not above protecting someone if he thinks it's in the interest of justice). He's also very focused on eating well, which is a nice change from many fictional detectives. In this installment, Montalbano investigates the shooting of a man who worked in the pharmaceutical industry, a man with a freakishly devoted sister and a rapacious mistress. I love these books, even though the oversized paperbacks are ridiculously overpriced relative to the density of the books.

The Black SheepGeorgette Heyer: The Black Sheep. Sourcebook. Completed August 8, 2008. This is a recent re-issue of a classic Georgette Heyer novel. I adore Heyer's regency romance novels (though I never cared for her mysteries or historical epics). They are escapist fiction at its best, reminiscent of (if not quite up to the level of) Jane Austen's novels. In this title, 28-year-old Abigail Wendover seeks to break off an alliance between her innocent heiress niece and a fortune hunter. Abbie seeks help from the fortune hunter's uncle, the former black sheep of his family, and, needless to say, falls in love. Heyer pretty much has two heroines (am I missing something here?). The slightly older, intelligent woman who wins over the man through her compatible wit and the young heroine, who reforms the more experienced man through her innocence. I prefer the former, and enjoyed this one.

And now that I'm home, I'll be getting back to my hundreds of children's and YA review titles.

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

Gods of Manhattan: Scott Mebus

Book: Gods of Manhattan
Author: Scott Mebus
Pages: 272
Age Range: 9-12

Gods of ManhattanIn Scott Mebus's Gods of Manhattan, Rory Hennessey considers himself pretty much an ordinary kid. He lives with his mother and younger sister, Bridget, way up on the northern tip of Manhattan and wonders about his absent father. Then one day, after an encounter with a birthday party magician named Hex, Rory starts to see strange things. Things like a cockroach sitting on a rat's back, holding reins, and an Indian warrior. Tracking down Hex, Rory learns that another city, called Mannahatta, lies alongside Manhattan, visible only to a select few like himself, called Lights. In Mannahatta, people who made an impression on human consciousness before they died, who did great things, have become spirits. Some of them, the ones leaving the strongest memories behind (for good or ill), have become gods. They can only die when people stop remembering them. Hex tells Rory of a quest to rescue a tribe of ancient Indian spirits, trapped by the leaders among the gods. The success of the quest depends upon Rory's help, because of his rare status as a Light. Rory has to figure out who is friend and who is foe in this strange parallel world, one that bears dangers for humans and gods alike.

Rory is a three-dimensional character, a loner who cares deeply for his sometimes pesky younger sister, and also a modern, New York City kid reacting to the presence of spirits in his city. Bridget is a strong character, too, sometimes afraid, usually bubbly and chatty, but ultimately brave and loyal. The cockroach is also engaging, as are the Indian warrior, Wampage, and a papier-mache boy named Toy. Some of the gods are quite creative, such as Babe Ruth, God of Heroes, Dorothy Parker, Goddess of Wit, and John Jacob Astor, God of Excess.

Gods of Manhattan does have quite a large number of characters, and I had a bit of trouble keeping track of who was who. Especially among the members of The Rattle Watch, a group of adolescent children of the gods (immortal, unlike the demi-gods in the Percy Jackson books). There is a handy Cast of Characters at the front of the book, and I found it necessary to refer back to that page often. But I think, as this is apparently the first book of a series, that this will get easier as the series progresses.

Gods of Manhattan is a fast-paced read, with action throughout that will keep young readers turning the pages. The author has clearly done quite a bit of research into the history of Manhattan, but that history never overwhelms the story - it feels organic to the plot. The writing is witty, with plenty of dialog, and just the right amount of subtle, throw-away humor. For example:

"... Rory is the real prize. The big bear at the fair."
"What are you talking about?" Rory retorted. "I'm nobody's bear."
"Of course you're not. I'm talking metaphorically. I do that from time to time; I'm trying to quit. Rory, you have a special gift. You can see what's there."
"Wow," Rory said sarcastically. "Where do I pick up my cape?" (Page  56-57)

"After all, in the Munsee world, there is no buying of anything, especially land. Only renting. In that sense, they really are the first New Yorkers." (Page 71-72)

Scott Mebus leaves several loose ends dangling at the end of the book (as well as an homage to a classic series about a hidden world), and I find myself curious to see where the story will go next. Recommended for middle grade fantasy fans, especially for those who like imagined worlds that are superimposed on the ordinary world. Also recommended for historical fiction buffs, including adults, who will enjoy the facts about Manhattan, and who will appreciate the various gods. A very fun read.

Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Publication Date: April 2008
Source of Book: Bought it at Hicklebee's, on their recommendation
Other Blog Reviews: Fuse #8, SherMeree's Musings, Kiss the Book, Cool Kids Read, Becky's Book Reviews, Once Upon A Bookshelf, Reader Views, Anokaberry, Bookami, SF Site. Updated to add: see also Colleen Mondor's review, which brings up an important shortcoming to this book, one that I missed in my own discussion above.

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

KidLit Conference News

KidlitlogoYesterday I mentioned the upcoming Portland KidLit Conference. Today there is a bit of additional conference news to bring to your attention. First off, Laini Taylor designed the gorgeous logo to your left (click to enlarge). Isn't it beautiful? Doesn't it make you want to make reservations to Portland right now?

I_heartSecond, Laini has put together a KidLit 08 Cafe Press shop where you can buy tons of cool KidLit conference paraphernalia (mugs, t-shirts, etc.). There is a very cool messenger bag that says "I (heart) Children's Books", which I was completely unable to resist (even though I can't really say that I need a new bag). Plus I ordered a couple of coffee mugs. I use my 2007 conference mugs all the time, and it seemed only fair to give 2008 equal billing.

Third, Jone Rush MacCulloch (aka Ms. Mac) has posted a preliminary list of conference topics. Interested in presenting? Now's your chance. Interested in learning about social networking to promote your blog from Gregory K, or what makes a great blog from MotherReader? It's not too late to register. Check out the conference website for details.

And if you can't attend, but want to show your support for the conference, consider buying some of the cool stuff at the Cafe Press site. All proceeds will go towards funding the conference (thus, may I hazard a guess, making it more likely that there will be a third conference next year). And, as Laini pointed out, you can proudly declare that you read kidlit.

Aren't Jone and Laini a great team? I am really looking forward to the conference, and I hope to see all of you there.