February 28, 2012

Ooh, Clicky Goodies! (Not Waiting 'Til Wednesday)

Well, you know we love us some LaFevers at Wonderland, yes? She of the courage to keep writing after a really eviscerating review from Kirkus long, long ago. She of the generosity of spirit to share herself and her methods of not just surviving but thriving in a noisy world, together with Mary Hershey at Shrinking Violets Promotions. She of the wonder of Egyptology and Beastology, of the awesome that is both Theodosia Throckmorton and Nathaniel Fludd. She who now has written a novel which is getting quite an excited little buzz, and which has been compared in positively glowing terms to Kristin Cashore's Graceling.

Okay, wait. Back up. What novel compared to Graceling?

Robin's, of course. Imagine: Assasins. Nuns. France. ...and most of all, YA.

GRAVE MERCY, out in April, I've just bumped up on my TBR, as it is on NetGalley for just two days. I'm on it. It's BONUS DAY, which means that there's no really good reason to at least not give yourself the gift of an the first chapter of the book. Click through and enjoy.

Don't miss the fab book trailer, either.

Seven Fab Years - Now Onto Super 8

It took us a few days, to figure out an introduction. We both wrote one, or accidentally posted both the original and an edit of the first one, and never figured out - or decided - to delete them. It was 2005, and we were taking our first self-conscious steps onto the stage of YA book blogging after finishing our MFA's. Our first book reviews a few days later - David Levithan's classic Boy Meets Boy and Richard Peck's Between Two Rivers were followed up by a rather opinionated rant on animal-morphing CGI in children's movies on February 28, 2005.

What a long, strange trip it's been since then.

Blogs have a life cycle, and several times since then one or the other of us has said, "I think I'm done with this." But, having two - sometimes three - people around has helped to spread the wealth. We don't make any attempt to blog daily - that's too much, for people whose primary jobs now are full-time freelance writing. We have too many projects and deadlines - but as we head into year eight, we're still reading, still participating in the gigantic, dynamic soup of YA and children's literature, and watching it morph from something a little bound by convention and hovered over by gatekeepers into something altogether changeable and disputed, lively, colorful and marked by the disparate cultures and communities it now represents. From graphic novels to ebooks, to apps, there's a lot of change in the air - and a lot of questions on how the economy and the children's book industry will continue. Do books have a future? Will the great pots of story always be stirred by one group to and fed to another?

Change is... inevitable. Adventure is optional. Here's to the great adventure...

It's been good to be a part of the blogosphere. Thanks for being here, too.

February 27, 2012

Monday Review: WONDERSTRUCK by Brian Selznick

Wonderstruck, the second novel by the author of the incredible Invention of Hugo Cabret, was a finalist in this year's Cybils Awards for Elementary/Middle Grade Graphic Novels. As with Hugo, I had mixed feelings about whether this one belongs in graphic novels. It's truly a hybrid genre--large portions of the book took place entirely wordlessly, with only images telling the story. I'm just not sure there's anybody out there doing anything quite like it.

Reader Gut Reaction: This one is sure to grab readers who are visually oriented, as well as those with an irresistible urge to solve a mystery—We find out pretty quickly who Ben is, but who exactly is Rose? How is she connected to Ben? Admittedly, it's not the most sensational of mysteries, and it may be a little "quiet" for some readers, but the surprising parallels in Rose's and Ben's stories intertwine in ways that continue to foster that feeling of wonder in the reader. Their stories take place 50 years apart, but both find their way to New York, and both end up finding themselves in the process. It's an appealing story structure, and it kept me turning the pages, whether those pages were filled with words or with images. And, as with Hugo, I was again floored by how Selznick seamlessly blends fact and fiction in just the right way to intrigue the reader into finding out more about the factual elements—in this case, elements of natural history, of the history of New York and its museums, of deafness and deaf culture and its history.

Concerning Character: I loved the fact that Rose's story was told entirely in pictures—fitting for the story of someone with a non-hearing life—and Ben's in words, and then at the end both come together. The parallel stories told in two different modalities was a fantastic way of conveying the idea of a non-verbal narration from a deaf protagonist versus Ben's verbal experience of the world. It also helped create a sense of the two very different time periods constituting each story.

The full-page, bleed pencil drawings as always are absorbing and convey a lot of emotion and detail, fitting to Rose's story, which starts off with a sort of emotional desperation that is palpable as we understand her feelings of imprisonment in her own life and body. Ben, meanwhile, is dealing with his own storm of feelings, as he struggles to figure out who he is and what he should do in the wake of his mother's death.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Brian Selznick's first book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, as well as fans of stories that bring to life the magic of museums, like the fabulous and classic work From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler--which is mentioned in the author's notes and which I fully intend to re-read now.

Themes & Things: Above all, this is a story about discovery and, as the title notes, wonder. It's about going in search of something nameless in order to find yourself, and, in the process, being open to things like wonder and awe and coincidence and friendship, often in unexpected places. And, of course, it's about the joy of finding something you didn't even know you were looking for.

Review Copy Source: Publisher (Cybils review copy)

You can find Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick at an independent bookstore near you!

February 23, 2012

Toon Thursday: Game Shows, 2.0

Yeah, when I hit on something fun, I just can't leave it alone! Here you go:

Happy birthday, by the way, to David Foster Wallace this week--he would have been 50. Also, today would be the birthday of Edward Gorey, one of my all-time favorites. Tidbits via the L.A. Times column Jacket Copy, which also reports that you WILL, in fact, be able to buy Stephen Colbert's children's book, I am a Pole: And so can you!

Also, I was only able to think of two feminist poets whose names start with A, but I'm sure there must be more...

February 22, 2012

How Did I Miss...?

'Scape Zine.
How did I miss this?
A new venue for young adult fiction, poetry and reviews of speculative fiction, and it's on its third issue already. Directed toward young adults and those who enjoy young adult SFF/speculative fiction, 'Scape is produced by a team of brilliant young things led by editor-in-chief Peta Freestone, a 2011 graduate of the Clarion Writers' Workshop at UCSD. 'Scape is published four times a year.

Do you not love the logo? I love the logo.

'Scape is a fresh YA SFF 'zine, concentrating its focus on unusual settings: unique worlds, fresh takes on the future, geographic and cultural contexts that aren’t often featured in fantasy and scifi. They're actively seeking stories that make them think, make them ponder, make them wonder, and which are geared to thinking young adults - not children. Surprise, writers: is a paying market, and they only accept original content - nothing in the fan-fic/derivative works category. They're after fiction with a twist, tightly written, brilliantly plotted pieces that makes readers think and care and dream in colors they've never seen. If you're not sure your piece is YA-friendly, check out Speculation or Formula? in their first issue, and read a definition at Broad Universe's What Makes YA? Those should help clarify.

'Scape is actively seeking submissions in fiction, poetry, and speculative fiction related artwork -- and they're also actively seeking slush readers. All staff are volunteers, but this is one of those great things to put on a writing résumé, if you're of a mind to get involved seriously with the speculative fiction writing community.

Check it out.

February 21, 2012

Turning Pages: Azad, by Sanjiv Behera

It's not often that I have a chance to review books which are truly multicultural, but this book is one. It's a quiet gem of stories interlinked by the common theme of freedom. Freedom is truly the subject at hand, as all proceeds from the novel are to go toward freeing others...

Reader Gut Reaction...According to Wikipedia, Azād is a word of Indo-Iranian origins, which means "free" - the author more specifically defines the word as "liberation." Despite its Arabic roots, the word azād is used in Indo-Iranian languages like Kurdish, Dari, Urdu, Persian and Punjabi -- as well as Armenian. From South Asia to Arabic lands, freedom is certainly a necessary component of the human condition, and Azad, A Flight of Desi Fantasy is a short story collection which unshackles the mind from convention in fiction and pitches it head first into a parallel universe where enigmatic sages and gods and monsters lurk. Though this book is sold as YA, its appeal is cross-generational.

A street vendor, a teen girl from the suburbs, a completely nonathletic ten-year-old boy, a nonconformist young Indian woman, a goodhearted - but unlucky - rickshaw driver, and a young Muslim man in NY are all subjects on their own stages - and then the forces of Other step in. Rich in imagery and enigma, Behera's debut YA collection of short fiction is ripe with magical realism, gods, and fate. You'll have no idea where you're going, but you'll be better off when you get there.

Concerning Character..."The Gondolier" - Ravi and Nwanko's escape from their hand-to-mouth existence in Venice includes a gondola, a sea god, and a tanker -- things no one would have believed.

Nachli Iyer danced her the world into existences - and almost right out again.

"Golden" - Sona Grewal dreams of baseball - but loathes baseball practice, until one day...

In Passage, Swati, her family's unmarried burden, is horrified when their family home burns down. It is brought home to her that ultimately, it is her fault, for being too stubborn, too difficult, and too different. Truly, only Buddah can help her...

"Vinayaka" - A satisfying tale of obstacles removed and kindnesses done, "Vinayaka" will be a favorite to those who love a happy ending. It, incidentally, is also the only story in the collection with a tiny cultural footnote - none of the rest of the stories need even the little bit of interpretation.

"The Djinn's Wings" - the final story in the collection. Zubin Khan's first job in New York isn't the joy it was supposed to be -- because at every opportunity, his boss chips away at his self image, insults him, and belittles. Revenge is easy -- but it's living with the consequences of your actions that's sometimes hard.

Recommended for Fans Of...: The Kissing, and other works by Merlinda Bobis, The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, The Shadow Speaker, by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, and the work of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

Cover Chatter: Rickshaw Books and Sanjiv Behera have chosen a beautiful and simple alpana (I think) mehndi pattern for the cover, which is a sacred painting and artistic motif used by Bengali and other South Asian peoples. All author proceeds from this novel will be donated to helping stop child trafficking in India. Enchanting storytelling and real-life freedom: win/win.

You can order AZAD: A Flight of Desi Fantasy from an online bookseller.

February 20, 2012

Monday Review: ZITA THE SPACEGIRL, VOL. 1 by Ben Hatke

Zita the Spacegirl, Vol. 1 was this year's Cybil Award winner in Elementary/Middle Grade Graphic Novels. Now that the winners have been announced, we judges are released from our vows of silence and can now discuss our opinions freely. Bwahahaha.

A quick note: please excuse any similarities in style or phrasing between this review and the official blurb. I helped write the official blurb, and both the blurb and this review reflect the notes I took while I was reading. (Is it really plagiarism if I'm plagiarizing myself? That's a Zen koan for writers if I ever heard one...)

Reader Gut Reaction: Everything about this, to me, screams kid appeal—one of the key must-haves of a great Cybils title. And it's GOT everything: adventure, aliens, robots; critters from the cute to the weird to the scary; friendship and humor aplenty. It felt a little like a Hitchhiker's Guide for kids—to me, the perfect combo of humor and sci-fi adventure. I thought the visual style was fantastic, too, and I read it in one sitting—which was testament not to length or simplicity but to its sheer ability to get me hooked. I'm really glad there's a sequel...

Concerning Character: Zita, the book's heroine, is smart and self-sufficient, and loyal to her friends whether they happen to be human, robot, or giant mouse (and, believe me, she encounters and enlists the help of ALL of those). Her bravery and sense of adventure are balanced out by the fact that she is thoughtful, non-judgmental, and wants to do the right thing. She's drawn in an appealingly loose and open style—well-drawn but not overly complicated. The side characters are varied and interesting, as noted, while from a visual perspective they're consistent with the overall style. In other words, everything fit neatly from a graphic storytelling standpoint.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Stories of adventuresome, plucky, creative, smart kids, like Frankie Pickle or Babymouse (although, technically, I guess she's not a kid...)--if you've got a reader who's "graduated" from those titles and is looking for something a bit more advanced, I think this would be a great choice.

Themes & Things: In my opinion, this was really well-written and has a lot of very thoughtful themes for a graphic novel aimed at the younger set—friendship, loyalty, giving people a chance to prove themselves and looking beyond the exterior to who they really are, creative problem-solving, not losing hope in the face of disaster. While some might see it as more of a genre piece, without a lot of character setup or "message," I see that as a strength, myself, something that helps highlight the book's themes rather than overshadowing them, if that makes sense.

Review Copy Source: Library

You can find Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke at an independent bookstore near you!

February 17, 2012

The Edge in Fiction, or: Why Safe Books Are Dead Books

Welcome to our humble stop on the blog tour for Ashley Hope Pérez's latest novel, The Knife and the Butterfly, out now from Carolrhoda Books. We posted an in-depth review on Monday and on Wednesday a follow-up chat on the overarching ideas Ashley is covering during her blog tour. Today we've got some thoughts from the author herself on what it means to write a book with an edge--and what it doesn't mean.

A brief bio to begin: Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of two young adult novels, WHAT CAN'T WAIT and THE KNIFE AND THE BUTTERFLY. She also is a passionate teacher and student working on her PhD in comparative literature. At the moment, she lives in Paris with her husband and son where they enjoy culture, croissants, and cramped living quarters.

With no further ado, here's Ashley:

The term “edgy” is flying around in talk about The Knife and the Butterfly and the voice in which it’s told. And trust me, I’m thrilled that I (cautious rule-follower to the max in all other areas) have pulled off writing in the voice of a 15-year-old boy who happens to be homeless, in trouble with the law, and caught up in a gang.

What’s the one thing that would make me happier? If I could give “edgy” the particular edge it has for me.

The thing is, the edge that interests me most has little to do with sex or gangs or profanity. These are, in my view, simply accidents of my characters’ world (think: inner-city, no safety nets). Sometimes when I’m talking about this aspect of The Knife and the Butterfly, I feel like a woman giving a tour of a house she’s renting: “I know, I know, I wish the wallpaper in here were nicer, but this is what I’ve got to work with.”

The world of The Knife and the Butterfly is, indeed, a world on loan. It’s borrowed from the news (the gang fight that opens the novel was inspired by an actual event in Houston). It’s borrowed from the alleys and taquerías and run-down parks that I scoped out while writing. It’s borrowed from interviews with Houston teens and MS-13 members that I read.

Now, this is where I could say, “the book has to be rough because the world it’s about is rough.” There’s plenty of truth to that, but it’s not the truth I want to take up right now. And my novel, like all fiction, is far from a facsimile of the actual world. The cussing is scaled WAY back from reality (for a teen like Azael), and most of the violence and sexual stuff in The Knife and the Butterfly is thematic, not explicit or graphic.

What if we think about the “edge” in a new way? What if it’s not so much about the themes and material in the book but rather about how that book and a real reader relate?
Here’s the edge that really matters in YA (and in all fiction): the way something a book can take the reader by surprise, almost violently. Not in a “I can’t believe the butler did it” way, but in a “nothing could have prepared me for how X would affect me” way.

In that previous sentence, X stands for the edge. It might be the beauty of language (or its deliberate plainness), a character, or even a turn in the plot. The important thing is that a truly edgy book doesn’t leave us intact; it makes us vulnerable to something—an emotion, a thought, a realization, a fear, a discovery, a way of seeing—and it forces us to reckon with it. Certainly this edge is different for different readers, even when they are reading the same book, but we all need it to evolve our reading lives.

I doubt that I need to remind anyone of the whole debate sparked by Meghan Cox Gurdon’s Wall Street Journal article, “Darkness Too Visible.” (If you have no idea what I’m talking about or want to know my take, look at this or this.) The only thing that I want to bring back from that piece was the longing—false nostalgia, even—for safety in books. As a parent, I understand this feeling. Really, I do. But I am more than just a parent. I am a reader, a writer, and a student of literature, and in those roles, I have come to believe that safe books are inert books, dead books.

If we feel 100% safe with what we’re reading, if we meticulously avoid the chance of encountering the edge, we’re very unlikely to be deeply affected by our reading. There has to be an element of risk and exposure in the reading relationship if anything very profound is going to occur. A great book is not a safe place for the reader.

Don’t misunderstand me. An edgy book needn’t be dark or peppered with profanity. But there must be something about the book that takes the reader to a place she could not have said, in advance, that she wanted to go.

That something is the edge I hope readers will find in my writing. The rest… it’s just wallpaper.

Thanks so much, Ashley, for stopping by and sharing your writerly thoughts! And, for readers of this post, you can visit Ashley's blog, follow her on twitter @ashleyhopeperez, or find her on facebook.

Watch for more insights into the writing of the novel throughout Ashley's The Knife and the Butterfly blog tour. See the full tour schedule here.

You can buy The Knife and the Butterfly from your favorite local bookseller or order it online.

February 16, 2012

Tune In Tomorrow...

...for a wonderfully thought-provoking guest post from Ashley Hope Pérez, author of What Can't Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly. If you've got an opinion on "edgy" YA and what the term means, or if you're even wondering what the heck it DOES mean in the first place, please stop by and check it out.

In the meantime, a quick tidbit of news that should be heartening to hardworking authors everywhere, via Cynthia Leitich Smith:

Together with The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), beloved author Jane Yolen has created a new grant to honor an oft-overlooked group: Midlist authors. These are authors who have consistently sold work but are not bestsellers.

According to Jane, "In these difficult book times, well-reviewed and honored authors often find themselves stalled in their writing lives and find they are having trouble selling new work. In our attention to up-and-coming authors, we, the reading public, often ignore these mid-list writers who struggle to remain true to their personal vision and craft. This grant is to say: SCBWI honors you, we recognize you, we are paying attention to your work."
Bravo to Jane and to SCBWI! To read more about it and check out a video clip, visit Cynsations. I am consistently amazed at what we can do, and what we DO do, for one another as children's/YA authors, and what a supportive field it is. Of course, by supporting one another, I believe we all benefit.

February 15, 2012

Ashley Hope Pérez: Big Ideas, Small Venues

Writer and Blogger Ashley Hope Pérez has been throwing her considerable intellect around a great deal these days. "Stuck" in Paris (Oh, hahaha) for a year as she works toward her PhD in Comparative Literature (with a wee man, age two, and a Big Man who is also working on his PhD. How. Do. They. Do. It?!), the writer struck on a brilliant way to promote the book which released while she was abroad, and still effortlessly keep up with everything else. (Cue author's, "Oh, hahaha.") She set out on a low-key blog tour with twenty-four stops (it's not really an oxymoron. No, seriously). Spread out from the end of January through the month of her book release, February, the posts are helping the author retain visibility, and allow readers familiarity with her name. They're also helping Pérez to convey a few big-ticket ideas along the way.

Being a funny person, some of the author's ideas are a bit on the funny side, some in the form of a teensy tiny rant. For instance, Pérez does not love the glossary thing, and we are with her on that. Despite the fact that her otherwise positive review at Kirkus said The Knife and the Butterfly could have used a glossary, Pérez disagrees. At Forever Young Adult she says, "...you really don’t need a glossary to read The Knife and the Butterfly. All you need is a big appetite for a story that will take you into dark places and show you a good dose of light, too."

We have to agree. Sometimes American publishing - and this is possibly because many are always half thinking of YA novels in some scholastic context - really is too eager to dumb things down. I remember the scornful lift of many a teen lip as they realized that the American version of Harry Potter had been wiped clean of the many British-isms which editors felt would be distracting. "Really?" Young readers shrieked. "Do they think we're stupid?!" Um, no. But, um, yes. Sorry. It seems that they do. They also think you have zero attention span, but that's a rant for another day.

One thing you will not find in The Knife and the Butterfly - an author who thinks readers are stupid. Read on.

So, yeah. It's a novel about an Hispanic boy from a gang in jail. Shoppers, turn on your blue Kmart stereotype light, and let it spin and flash!

Racism on aisle six! Racism on aisle six!

Feel better? Now, turn it off. Yeah, turn it off. Yes, really.

No, this isn't a case where, say, Pérez is Hispanic, so she can write these things. (She is not, but knows Hispanic culture very well, and has married into a Latino family.) That's like the dumb inference which means I can drop the n-word (or, hey, my Dad's half or maybe a quarter Greek; surely there's some Greek stereotype I'm now eligible to rock?), or that because of a slim piece of her ethnic background, A.F. can call people towel-heads. (If you've read The Latte Rebellion, you know you just Caught A Book Reference. Woot!) No. This is the author acknowledging a statistic, and busting the stereotype that merely taking statistics into account can engender, by bringing out the human side. During her visit to Actin' Up, Pérez said, "...I discovered that, even in the world of gangs and petty crimes, everyday realities cast a wider shadow than the stereotypes that pretend to contain them. Azael’s life is full of contrasts, love and loss, loyalty and recklessness."

WORD. People are breathing, flesh-and-blood entities creatures who cherish things, mourn things, hope for things, have vulnerabilities, and are real. A writer who messes around with stereotypes without thinking them through is asking for trouble. We like that Pérez not only thought of the seriousness of writing about gang members, she is honest and up-front enough about it to just be real, and get people's objections and uncertainties out of the way.

Another thing you find in The Knife and the Butterfly - an author who takes her subject seriously. Read on.

We are always about the art around here - whether that's because I like to mess around with images whilst thinking (my niece is the graphics design major; does this stop me from pretending that I am? Does she wish it would? Yes to both), or because A.F. is an actual bonafide Artist Type, but we love to hear how a book cover comes to be. Blogger Sarah Laurence actually asked, and Pérez graciously walked her through the previous drafts of the deliciously dark cover. And Oh, My Word, did she dodge a bullet with the Twilight feel/ Dark Angel kind of thing cover that came across at one point. On one hand, so evocative and kind of moody and gorgeous. On the other, so sending sixteen hundred varying and wrong messages about this particular book, and so, so DONE. Not every author gets a chance to be involved in the steps to produce a cover, so kudos to the editors who are confident enough to let the author in, and to the author who knows her mind enough to speak it. WIN on all sides.

While conveying Big Ideas, Pérez has managed to generate them for writers as well. My favorite post in terms of writerly things thus far is at Blogger Holly Schnindler's YA Outside the Lines. Pérez's ruminations on The Things That They Carried, by Tim O'Brien, and listing out the things Azael carries is both poignant and telling, and gives such an appalling look at the transience of this character on earth - he carries so little! And yet, he's such a presence, tagging all over the city, being mouthy and swaggering -- he seems so big. Contrasts. Complexities. Characters. (Writers - more on the subject on the author's blog.)

The best thing about a blog tour is that it allows an author to think deeply and really talk about their work, and allows readers to ask the niggling, secret, or silly questions they've got lurking within them about a work, about an author, or about their process. Ashley has been a guest blogger from whom the folks at Writers' Digest should take notes. There's more on deck for The Knife and the Butterfly blog tour, including a stop with us this Friday. Be sure and read A.F.'s review of The Knife and the Butterfly, which she struggled to keep spoiler-free, and we'll see you back here then.

February 14, 2012

We Gotcher Hearts Right Here


It's We Give Books.org's Book Giveaway Day, it's Day 14 of the Brown Bookshelf 28 Days Later African American authors and illustrators highlights, it's International Book Giving Day, wherein authors and publishers from around the world are giving books, and it's also the day that.... *drum roll, please* .... THE 2011 CYBILS AWARD WINNERS ARE ANNOUNCED!

(Oh, and, you know, it's Valentine's. Chalk candy hearts and dead saints and all. Woot.)

Just in the categories we covered - A.F. in graphics and me in SFF - I know there was a lot of ground to cover. Since the team at SFF read ebooks for the first time in 2011, we had a lot of self-pubbed and small press stuff which was a tremendous opportunity. Some of it was, non-spell checked, poorly plotted, unrealistically characterized first draft stuff, but most of it was really wonderful - congratulations on your finalist nomination, Susan Ee - we were truly impressed -- and Nora Olsen, you are awesome and were so, so close! Please, keep writing!

Well, our crew eventually fought our way to a shortlist. While others loved Anna Dressed in Blood with an undying - and rather crimson - passion, I really loved The Girl of Fire and Thorns -- but I'm frankly disappointed that Misfit and The Shattering weren't also overall winners. However, there can only be one, winner -- and there were SO MANY GOOD BOOKS from which to choose this year.

Holly Black, Susan Ee, Rae Carson, Jon Skovron, Karen Healey, and the others in our shortlists well deserved their nominations, and I'm grateful again for the chance to be involved, for the publishers and editors and authors who were good sports and subbed something for us, and for everyone who let me play. Thank you Overlord Anne, Sheila, Hallie, Steve, Maureen, Sommer, and Gwenda and Leila in abstentia (they were there in spirit) for letting me play. Woot!

Without further ado, the winners, as taken from the website - and if you are not Leila Roy, you must now restack your TBR list:

Book Apps
The Monster at the End of This Book
by Callaway Digital Arts, Inc
Nominated by: Sheila Ruth

No one will be able to resist lovable, furry old Grover in this giggle-inducing book app based on the 1971 classic Golden Book. Sesame Street and Callaway Digital Arts hit all the notes perfectly from the opening pages, as Grover draws the reader in with his charm and natural humor. From that point on, no matter what age you may be, you will laugh, smile and read along while Grover tries his best to keep you from turning yet another page. Emerging readers will follow the highlighted words as Grover speaks. Little fingers will tap the screen, discovering ways to untie the ropes and knock down Grover's brick wall, undoing each of his creative attempts to stop them. This app is perfect for preschoolers, but Grover’s silly voice and the engaging interactive features make it fun for all ages.

Fiction Picture Books
Me . . . Jane
by Patrick McDonnell
Little, Brown
Nominated by: Kerry Aradhya

Me...Jane is a touching glimpse into the life of a young Jane Goodall as a curious girl with a love of nature, and books, and a stuffed chimpanzee named Jubilee. A unique combination of dreamy watercolor vignettes and nature-inspired vintage engravings complement a simple and evocative text. Every element of the book's design, from its album-like cover and heavy yellowed pages to the inclusion of photographs and Goodall's own childhood drawings, helps create a picture book that feels like a relative's cherished scrapbook. Readers of all ages will take inspiration from a young girl who so fully follows her dreams.

Nonfiction Picture Books
I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat: History's Strangest Cures
by Carlyn Beccia
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
Nominated by: Mary McKenna Siddals

From the very first page, A Frog in My Throat offers readers a great deal of scientific and historical information with just enough ick factor to keep readers of all ages turning the pages. The question-and-answer format gives it an interactive feel, and the author includes amazing language choices that continually draw in the reader. The text and the illustrations are loaded with tidbits that will send kids to the library asking for more information on specific topics.

Elementary listeners, middle grade readers, and their parents will eat up this nonfiction picture book, filled with enlightening conversational text and perfectly suited pictures. Kids will likely choose I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat for the gross-out factor, but they'll put it down ever wiser about history, science, and sociology, too ... just don't tell them there's learning inside.

Easy Readers
I Broke My Trunk! (An Elephant and Piggie Book)
by Mo Willems
Nominated by: Becky

Piggie is surprised to see Gerald's trunk wrapped in a bandage. When she asks how it happened, Gerald starts a v-e-r-y detailed, humorous explanation. It is wonderful how much suspense can be packed into so few words, leaving readers eager to turn the page. Willems effectively blends illustration and early-reader vocabulary in a way that allows new readers not only to decode what's happening, but to add emotion to their reading aloud. With wonderful facial expressions and expressive body language, Gerald and Piggie invite the reader into their friendship circle. Elephant and Piggie is an entry-level Easy Reader that works very well for that very first-time, read-by-yourself story, and hits kids in one of their favorite spots: their funny bone!

Early Chapter Books
Have Fun, Anna Hibiscus!
by Atinuke
Kane/Miller Book Pub
Nominated by: Madigan McGillicuddy

Readers of all ages will fall in love with Anna Hibiscus. With beautiful writing and great illustrations, Anna invites us into her world as a young girl from Africa visiting family in Canada during the winter. Have Fun, Anna Hibiscus has a lot of heart and humor. The story not only makes the reader reflect on his or her world, but shows them constructive ways of handling different situations. This is not a "girl book," but a story that celebrates cultural differences and at the same time highlights how childhood cares and concerns are similar around the world. The illustrations - particularly how they are used - add to the story's effectiveness as an early chapter book, making Anna a true friend for developing readers.

Requiem: Poems of the Terezin Ghetto
by Paul B. Janeczko
Candlewick Press
Nominated by: Tricia Stohr-Hunt

"I am a watcher/sitting with those about to die." These are the words of Elisha Schorr/25565 as imagined by poet Paul Janeczko. In Requiem: Poems of the Terezin Ghetto, we all become watchers, viewing snapshots of the Holocaust, one after the other, each one deepening the grief and raising questions to which there are no answers.

We watch, but we also hear the story of Terezin, voice by voice, insistent and haunting, so that the effect by the end of the collection is almost choral. For each song of despair, there is a concordant and essential song of anger, tenderness or resignation; like a recurring melodic theme, the voice of one child appears and fades and appears again. We hear the violin of one victim playing "as only the heartbroken can play."

Cybils committee members agreed early in the deliberations that this slim volume of poems was a strong contender for the prize, with words like "stunning" and "haunting" coming up repeatedly in our conversation. Ultimately, the voices Janeczko created could not be forgotten.

Graphic Novels
Zita the Spacegirl
by Ben Hatke
First Second Books
Nominated by: Isaac Z

Zita the Spacegirl's appealing combination of humor and sci-fi adventure already has kids begging their librarians for the sequel. It's got everything: aliens, robots, critters from the cute to the weird to the scary, and a smart, self-sufficient heroine who's unfailingly loyal to her friends whether they happen to be human, robot or giant mouse. The visual storytelling is just as appealing—the drawing style is loose and open, and the fun character design and sound effects add liveliness and humor. There's enough action, novelty, and color to keep younger readers interested, and enough thoughtfulness to satisfy more sophisticated readers, making this a terrific choice for a wide range of ages.

Fantasy & Science Fiction
The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale
by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright; illustrations by Barry Moser
Peachtree Press
Nominated by: Monica Edinger

The Cheshire Cheese Cat slipped into our hearts like Skilley the alley cat sneaks into Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Much more than just a cute, talking animal fantasy (though it is that too), this book has a depth of theme and character and a richness of language that blew us away. Both animals and humans ring true to life and the unique alliance that develops between Skilley and Pip, an uncommonly well-educated mouse, matures and ripens like a tasty piece of cheese. The illustrations scattered through the text are warmly humorous and add dimension to the characters. Charles Dickens has an important supporting role and there are abundant literary allusions and though these may be lost on some younger readers, we believe they will remember and enjoy them again in later life. We feel that The Cheshire Cheese Cat has oodles of kid appeal and that readers will be as charmed as we were by this sweet and funny tale of an unlikely friendship overcoming the odds.

Middle Grade Fiction
Nerd Camp
by Elissa Brent Weissman
Atheneum Books
Nominated by: Jennifer Donovan

Gabe is a nerd. He's not ashamed of this fact; quite the contrary, since he's been accepted into the Summer Center for Gifted Enrichment. It's the most exciting thing of his 10-year-old life. Then he meets his soon-to-be stepbrother, Zack. Zack is cool and most definitely not a nerd. In fact, Zack is disdainful of all things nerdy. Gabe really wants his new brother to like him, but he also really loves all things nerdy. In the end, Gabe sets out to find scientific proof, once and for all: are the adventures he has at the SCGE camp over the course of the summer too nerdy for words? Or are they cool in their own right?

With its quirky, nerdy humor; amazing camp activities; and believable characters, Nerd Camp is a delight to read. There are nerds of all stripes, from Gabe's bunkmates Wesley and Nikhil to a guy who goes by C2 (a living legend at the camp because he skipped two grades). Elissa Brent Weissman just gets the awkwardness of being 10. It's admirable that Gabe strongly identifies as a nerd, even though he is picked on, and finds comfort and belonging in a group of people as quirky and as unique as he is. (Memorizing pi to the 20th digit, or rocking the nations of the world song on karaoke night, anyone?) A celebration of all things smart, Nerd Camp is a book that's worth cheering for.

Young Adult
Nonfiction Books
Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart
by Candace Fleming
Schwartz and Wade Books
Nominated by: Monica Edinger

Amelia Lost offers both a biography and an expose of Amelia Earhart, the aviation pioneer whose exploits played a groundbreaking role in the achievement of equal rights by American women. Earhart actively crafted and cultivated a mythology around herself in order to create ongoing opportunities as a female aviator and to maintain her heroine status. Exciting chapters alternate between Amelia's high-profile life and the days and hours preceding her still-unsolved mysterious 1937 disappearance somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Author Candace Fleming carefully separates history from myth with her meticulous research. Packed with photos and informative sidebars, Amelia Lost shows readers in vivid detail the dangers of early aviation and an accurate portrayal of this very real American heroine.

Graphic Novels
Anya's Ghost
by Vera Brosgol
First Second Books
Nominated by: Robin

Ghost story—check. Snarky but fully rounded protagonist—check. Believable teen characters and behavior—check. Humor—yep. Anya's Ghost has the perfect blend of story elements and it deftly layers several classic teen literature topics in a relatively short space. The themes of fitting in at school and in life, avoiding toxic friends both earthly and unearthly, and learning to come to terms with who you are, are nicely underscored by the fact that Anya is an immigrant. At the same time, Anya's interactions with the ghost add suspense and the perfect amount of creepiness. The art style is simple, engaging and funny, and works well with a monochromatic format. A fast-paced read that doesn't skimp on story.

Fantasy & Science Fiction
Blood Red Road
by Moira Young
Margaret K. McElderry Books
Nominated by: Leila Roy

Blood Red Road is one of those books that can be infinitely compared to other stories -- one panelist wrote that it “read like the Harlequin Romance version of Mad Max” -- while still having its own unique voice and style. We’re not sure where an Australian writer living in England learned an Ozark accent. Although we sometimes struggled with it, we admired the way the innovative use of language allows the reader to get into the head of the prickly but ultimately sympathetic protagonist.

Saba’s beloved twin brother Lugh has been kidnapped, and Saba knows it’s up to her to rescue him. This is no easy task in their post-apocalyptic world, where food is scarce and those who can’t fight are easy pickings. Luckily, Saba’s a survivor, and she finds some allies in her quest: a handsome man named Jack, a group of fierce warrior women, and even her own little sister Emmi.

Saba is a wonderfully dynamic character, growing from a sometimes cruel girl with a single-minded purpose into a more mature young woman sensitive to the feelings of those close to her, particularly Emmi. The violent wasteland Saba inhabits is well-drawn and terrifying in the best way. The romance can feel cheesy, but it’s interwoven in a way that doesn’t overpower the story. While the plot is sometimes predictable, we loved that this book takes risks, doesn't talk down to its audience, and takes us on a familiar journey in a style that we don't often see. The combination of voice, character, and fast-paced action make this an appealing book that will keep readers turning the pages.

Young Adult Fiction
Stupid Fast
by Geoff Herbach
Sourcebooks Fire
Nominated by: Karen Yingling

"I am not stupid funny. I am stupid fast." Enter the frenzied world of Felton Reinstein. His vibrant, engaging voice draws readers into a teenaged mind knocked off kilter by a growth spurt of body and hair that lands him on the radar of the football jocks. Suddenly, Felton is racing past defenders, romance is blooming, his best friend has left the country, his prodigy little brother has stopped playing the piano and turned into a pirate, and his hippie mom is sinking into depression. An extraordinary mix of adolescent angst, football, family drama, first love and refreshing humor, Stupid Fast lets reader run fast with Felton as he navigates the complicated and raucous maze of going from high school joke to high school jock.

February 13, 2012

Monday Review: THE KNIFE AND THE BUTTERFLY by Ashley Hope Pérez

We really enjoyed Ashley Hope Pérez's debut novel What Can't Wait (reviewed here), so we're proud and excited to be a part of the blog tour for her latest novel, The Knife and the Butterfly. Tune in this Friday, February 17th, for Ashley's guest post about edgy fiction—what does it mean for fiction to have an edge? Join the discussion in just a few short days! In the meantime, we've got a review of her newest book, which plunges us straight into the intersecting stories of locked-up gang member Azael Arevalo and troubled teen-on-trial Lexi Allen.

Reader Gut Reaction: When we first meet Azael, he's just woken up in a cell—not for the first time, but something's different about this lockup. For one thing, he's got zero contact with the outside world, and for another, he can't remember anything that happened to him before he got locked up. He knows there was a fight with another gang, but after that...

The fact that Azael can't remember what got him locked up immediately creates a feeling of suspense and the need to keep reading to find out what really happened; and the more we find out, the stranger—and sadder—the story gets. Some have said that this is an "edgy" book, and it is, in the sense that it's a story about life in the world of gangs and taggers, fights and feuds, and, for Azael, the constant looming threats of arrest, foster care, and deportation. But it's also a sad story, and the author makes us feel for Azael and his tough situation, the hopeless feeling of inevitability that his life has, whether or not it's true. And the situation suffered by Lexi is no less difficult, as Azael begins to see--even though he's not sure what his jailers want him to learn from observing her. Sure, she's locked up, too, but what does that have to do with him? Solving the mystery of Lexi and the mystery of his own situation go hand in hand, of course, and the gradual revelation of clues and details kept me turning the pages.

Concerning Character: Both characters offer an equally wrenching story—and I'm using wrenching here rather than edgy because, for me, it covers the subjective emotions of the characters, where "edgy" seems like a more detached term that refers more to their environments, their situations, the quality of their lives. Because we DO get such an intimate glimpse into both Azael's and Lexi's emotions—Azael because he's got nothing else to do BUT think while he's locked in his cell, and Lexi through her journal entries—it becomes clear very quickly that there is so much depth in both teens, so much pain and sadness in their lives. They are far more than just kids who have been failed by the system or who have fallen into tough circumstances or have made bad decisions. They are kids who are lost and hurting.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Stories about young people trying their best to make do under desperate circumstances, like Coe Booth's Tyrell (reviewed here) or Lockdown and other books by Walter Dean Myers.

Themes & Things: Despite the difficult subject matter and the seemingly hopeless situations of both Azael and Lexi, this book conveys a strong message of hope and redemption. Even if we can't change what's already happened, we all have the power within ourselves to change, at the very least, how we think and act in the future, and how we think and feel about ourselves in the present. As Azael does what he can to take control of his situation, as Lexi does her best to work through what's happened, both find an inner core of strength, and this helps them grasp at a sense of meaning in what often feels like a chaotic and rocky existence. In the end, while the ending is not exactly happy, we are left with a sense of relief that our paths in life aren't necessarily fixed and unswerving, that we can shift things in a direction for the good and that it's never too late to do so.

Review Copy Source: NetGalley. This review refers to the Kindle electronic ARC.

Authorial Asides: We're honored that Ashley was able to write and send us her guest post when she could easily have been doing other awesome things from her current location in Paris, the lucky duck (see that picture there? Aren't you envious?). For those who want to keep up with her writings and happenings, she keeps her own blog at AshleyPerez.com. You can also follow her on twitter @ashleyhopeperez or find her on Facebook.

You can find The Knife and the Butterfly by Ashley Hope Pérez at an independent bookstore near you!

February 09, 2012

Toon Thursday: Ferrets' Revenge

Another brand-new toon for you guys this week--and with the return of ferrets as a topic of Twitter conversation, I thought they should make a return cameo in this week's toon, too. (You can find more toon ferrets here and here.) As always, click to view larger.

Happy Thursday!

February 07, 2012

A Few Random Notes Amid the Chaos

This week I'm just trying to put my head down and charge forward, step by lagging step, on my WIP, while attempting valiantly not to be distracted by FUN things like figuring out what I could put on a Bookprint at YouAreWhatYouRead.com (I only get to pick FIVE influential books in my life??) or indulging my organizational fetish over on Pinterest (which I've joined, but am forbidding myself from doing anything with until I finish this dang chapter).

But it is also a priority for me to let you know when I've found interesting writing- and book-related things online, and so I will take a moment to note a couple of things that have crossed my desk. First, remember early last month when I posted wondering whether there was such a thing as a Book Boxing Day or the like? Well, there IS! And I couldn't be happier. I found out via Zoe Toft of Playing by the Book that February 14th is International Book Giving Day (read about it here on Delightful Children's Books). If you could not possibly care less about yet another corporate candy-buying holiday (particularly one that advocates spending two months' salary or whatever on blood diamonds) then why not do something worthwhile instead, like giving books? Fantastic. Check Zoe's site for more book giving ideas and a lengthy list of charities--or do a quick search of ARCs Float On for teachers in your area who need books for their classrooms.

Lastly, a bit of sad news. Via Sheila at Wands and Worlds, I found out today that John Christopher, the pioneering YA sci-fi great who penned the Tripods books, has died. There's a very nice obituary and remembrance of his work over on Tor.com.

February 05, 2012

Turning Pages: Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

It's V-Day: Verity Day, the day Code Name Verity is available in the U.S. UK! (In the U.S., the book is available in May!)

For the past few days, we've focused on the history and many people's reactions to historical fiction as a genre, and we haven't spent much time on the blood-pounding excitement of espionage, spy thrillers, derring-do and unlikely escapes. But now, bombs are falling, enemy aircraft has been spotted, and I want to delve a bit more into the book in terms of theme and scope -- I'll be doing that carefully, as to avoid spoilers. In many ways, that feels like there's not much I can say -- in other ways, not talking about more than the outline of the plot still leaves plenty to discuss.


Reader Gut Reaction: I talked before about getting this book and then sort of sitting and looking at it. I'm skinhead/supremacist phobic, and Nazis are nightmare figures right up there with the Thing Under the Bed. Five pages into my reading, I had a horrible free-falling feeling that swooped and chittered in my gut as I read. The first narrator spoke at length about what she was doing, and why she was writing, and I realized, "Oh, my goodness, she's already been caught."

The She remains unnamed until halfway through the novel... but you figure out some things about her pretty quickly... First, she was the victim of a plane crash, and it was just her rotten luck that she got caught, in France. Second, that they seem to think she knows something - she's a wireless operator after all. And third, she's trying to put a good face on it, being funny and wry and all, but she's a squealer of the first water, a quisling, a tattler, a Benedict Arnold. And she's writing as fast as she can.

Concerning Character: Maddie and "Queenie" are the two girls whose voices we hear in the two halves of the novel. Structurally, the style and the voice are different in both halves, as they're very different young women who've met by happenstance. Maddie is a sturdy middle-class Manchester girl - with dark curls and Jewish roots - who is mad about engines and likes to get her hands dirty, taking apart motorbikes and the like. She is straightforward, blunt, and tends to worry quietly to herself. Fey, fair Queenie is both a Stewart and a Wallace, a proud, proud Scottish girl who has been educated in Swiss boarding schools and has just started at University when the war breaks out. She grew up in a castle - Castle Craig, is a dreamer, a risk-taker, a play actor. In the same shelter when an air raid sounded, these two shared an umbrella, smokes, and secret fears, cementing a tentative friendship. Maggie -- who fearlessly flies planes but who shudders into tears at the sounds of gunfire and bombs -- and Queenie -- who speaks flawless German, wields her beauty like a knife, and fearlessly sasses her superior officers, but secretly worries about having to kill someone, growing old, or being alone in the dark -- come together in a solid friendship which will see them through the darkest hours of the War.

There are other characters in the novel - family members, loyal mentors, Royal Air Force airmen and Air Transport Auxiliary airwomen - but the looming, faceless evil, with meticulously clean hands and pips on his shoulder, is the SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden, the Gestapo agent who interrogates Queenie. Though Maddie fears doing the wrong thing, letting everyone down, and court-martial, Queenie's great fears of cold and dark and bad manicures have all faded in the face of what she has truly learned to fear: who she has become -- "I'm a regular Judas," she confesses wryly in her notes to the Gestapo. She's telling secrets -- all of them that she knows -- and she's doing it for a blanket, for the dignity of clothing, and so that they will stop punching her, groping her, and burning her with cigarettes, carbolic, and electrical wires.

And, they are going to shoot her anyway.

Recommended for Fans Of...: Older teens, and adults. (The Gestapo means there's pain, not overt, but it is there.) Also recommended, oddly enough, for those who loved Anne of Green Gables and Little Women as well as What I Saw and How I Lied, by Judy Blundell; The Machine Gunners and Fathom Five, by Robert Westall, and The Last Mission, by Harry Mazer.

Themes & Things:
“A what kind of friend?” asked Marilla.
“A bosom friend–an intimate friend, you know–a really kindred spirit to whom I can confide my inmost soul.” ~ Anne of Green Gables

This is a novel about war, risks, airplanes, and espionage. Mostly, though, this is a novel about... friendship.

Despite being part of a greater organization -- the ATA, the RAF -- despite being British and part of the Allied force, in many ways, both Maddie and Queenie experience isolation. Maddie, who, as a girl is maybe a bit less feminine and a bit more masculine than she "should" be; Queenie, with her upper-class accent, long, fair hair, perfect manicure, and love of the German language and culture -- both girls are essentially squared pegs in the round holes of their culture and time, and when they are thrown together, these two unlikely opposites attract, and create "a sensational team."

With the comparison to Anne Shirley and Diana Barry we see the kind of intensely supportive friendship that Maddie and Queenie have -- the "bosom-friend" kind which figures largely into books like Pride & Prejudice -- those good sisterhood friendships which are close and tender, as well as unflinching and not allowing for self-deceit and nonsense. These aren't the types of female relationships, quite frankly, that are seen in mainstream young adult fiction novels much. Remember the Bechdel Test?

/bech·del test/ n.
1. It has to have at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

Legion are the YA novels who fail this test - legion are the novels with female protagonists and tons of friend groups, but few are the female friendships depicted which are not singularly obsessed with stalking relationships (Readers: Disagree with me. List your "Nu-uh, this is ALL about female friendship!" YA novel choices in the comments). I hate to use the word "refreshing" about anything but an iced lime-and-cinnamon drenched watermelon, but seriously, it is really, really nice to see a novel that:

1. Has at least two girls in it
2. Who are concerned with hopes, fears, and dreams,
3. And survival. Despite there being plenty of men around.

If you are especially prescient, you might get a wispy hint of a romance that might someday bloom in the sweet by-and-by, but it's a hint, and isn't at all the novel's focus.

Cover Chatter: You've seen the British cover so far -- the girl's silhouette, the sepia tones highlighting the red of the rose she holds and the red circle around the name, Verity; the Lysander, billowing red-tinged smoke and falling, falling -- the crisply written tagline, "I have told the truth." But, what you might not have seen is the American cover.

The scratchy-looking ropes binding the girls' wrists together are symbolic - they're tied together by circumstance, by the war, by their friendship. Queenie is also tied - to chairs, and the ropes which loosely bind the girls here cut off her circulation. But what's more important than the ropes is that their hands are grasping on to each other... the white lettering on the black background is evocative and stark and for once, it's kind of hard to choose a favorite -- but for me, the plane and rose and the sepia tones give a feeling of the early forties to the British cover, and really works even that much better. CODE NAME VERITY is quite fortunate in covers, whichever one you happen to pick up. Lucky author!

Authorial Asides: Full disclosure - Elizabeth Wein is a friend, and though we've only gotten together once (by virtue of the fact that we are far too busy [READ: lazy] to travel the two hours between our homes), we actually chat now and again, and our paths cross in cyberspace, because the children's literature pool, with the help of the Web, is not as massive, wide, nor deep as it once was.

We at Wonderland have had the opportunity to talk with Elizabeth Wein once before during the Winter Blog Blast Tour in 2008 about her life in Perth and her writing process (please note: NOT A DEBUT NOVELIST).

As always, I am astounded when I find someone who writes primarily longhand, and transfers their work to a keyboard, chapter by chapter. Despite her tendency to downplay what she does workwise - interjecting the loads of laundry, trips to the children's school to bring lunches and glasses and homework, the pottering about in the yard, watching raptors - Elizabeth works darned hard, immersing herself in her characters, their societal mores, and their realities. I think of the tiny props she fashioned for herself - the knitted WAAF doll, the eensy matches, cigarettes and lipstick, the gorgeous lined wool coat (pictured on the left!) she made from a 1940's pattern, which caused many a naughty word and seam-ripping session; the maps, the flights, the reading and rereading of historical documents as well as diaries, letters, and other accounts of wartime Britain -- these all represent just a tremendous amount of research, time, creativity, patience -- and tears.

I asked about the tears -- this novel required a lot of heart, and with such an immense commitment of time and research with CODE NAME VERITY, the tears when it was done must have been both of regret and release. The author noted, "I even got tears on my last set of proofs!"

As this is a war story, there are dire moments, daring escapes, and staggering losses. You might have a sniff or two yourself while reading this, but for those who have asked, this novel is not too scary. It is heartfelt and true, and there are also plenty of things to smile about, and to keep you nail-bitingly on the edge of your seat!

A meticulously researched, note-perfect pair of voices; a feast of espionage, suspense, secrets, love and risk, CODE NAME VERITY is a triumph of friendship and courage and heart which will take your breath. It reminds me that though it is soldiers who fire the guns and generals who write out the peace accord, it's courage that ends wars.

You can find CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein out today at an independent bookstore near you!

You can also download Elizabeth's interview with Clare English on BBC's Book Cafe through the month of February - I doubt it'll be downloadable long after that, as BBC podcasts seem only available for forty-five days - sorry listen quickly! If you're in the UK, you can hear a replay on BBC Radio Scotland on Sunday, 12th Feb., 3 p.m.

The CODE NAME Blog Tour marches on. Tomorrow catch author Elizabeth Wein at Bookbabblers.

WAR STORIES: Further Musings on Historical Fiction

"[O]nly the dead have seen the end of war." - George Santayana

In one of those serendipitous synchronicities of the blogosphere, Marjorie Ingall was blogging the other day about the Holocaust books which scared and distressed her as a child, and linked to her Tablet piece about the "fear factor," and when and how one introduces this bit of history to young children.

I chuckled at some of the memories she collected, while shuddering at the same time. I am still haunted by a Dutch girl named Betsie.

"Girl" is a misnomer; she was a grown woman when she died at Ravensbrück, and she didn't die in any particularly harrowing manner, except from being kept in dehumanizing conditions, from not being fed, from being kept in the cold and wet, from being forced to do horrendous manual labor and shoved and beaten and threatened instead of being told what to do and where she was to go. Sometimes, though the mind is strong, the body just gives up.

But -- I was six when someone got the bright idea to read the book The Hiding Place in our church's book group. Then they showed the film... I was six. My parents wanted me to see the life of a righteous woman, I know, but they didn't count on my imagination. I kept my eyes closed a lot of the time after the soldiers came, and I cringed back in my chair, thinking, "But, the sisters took care of the Jews and were kind and didn't fight with anyone, and they prayed, and the Nazis still shaved their heads and slapped them, and Betsie still died???"

And the penny dropped into the rather empty piggy bank of my understanding: for every choice, there is a consequence. Or, sometimes, stuff just happens ...because.

Well. I tried to put the stopper back into that particular bank, but there was nothing doing. The Holocaust - or, The War, as it is still referred to here in the UK, as if there has never been any other - figured largely in dreams and nightmares. Indeed, WWII and its horrific aftermath held an entire world in thrall for more than a generation, and now its villains - and its heroes -- are in some ways being lost. We don't like reading war stories. Remember now - I'm just repeating what almost every single (female only - hm. I wonder if this comes into it?) person has said, when responding to CODE NAME VERITY over the past week or so: we don't like war stories. We don't "normally" read them. We prefer other types of fiction. There's blood, in war stories. There are bad teeth and squalid toilets - or none at all - in history. There are often great clothes, but sometimes they're bloody. History, while a fine thing to enjoy sometimes in an esoteric sense, is maybe a little uncomfortable when we put people we can relate to into its midst.

I am, at times, thankful for the peculiarities of memory, and grateful to draw a veil over Bad Things. At the same time, the adage, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," lurks in my hind brain. Perhaps it's simplistic to lay it out in this way, but it is fact: Americans, largely, have gotten on with their lives after WWII. After the Korean War. After the Vietnam War. After the Bay of Pigs Invasion. After Grenada. After the U.S. invasion of Panama. After the Gulf War. After the NATO Bosnia intervention. After the Afghanistan invasion. After the Iraq invasion. In point of fact, some young adults now can remember no other world than the one in which there has been war. It plays as a backdrop to "normal life;" like the television being on in a distant room. Never mind the machine gun fire. Turn up your iPod.

Perhaps World War II still haunts much of Britain because it leveled out the class divisions and displaced thousands and created change in a society which had been the same way for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. Americans, meanwhile, are more conversant with change, because we were "newly" cast upon our country's shores, in comparison. It was easier to forget hardship and displacement; easier to compartmentalize Pearl Harbor into a tiny corner of our minds and have a moment of silence for it, easier to concentrate on commerce, on getting ahead, on the shiny and the new. The tragic and horrific events of 2011 expanded our memories, though; we will never forget now what it feels like to be fired on in one's own country, and have thousands of civilian casualties.

One would think that this would help us remember to avoid war at all costs.

And yet.

I maintain that it is especially important not to forget WWII, and not just because historians call it "a just war," but largely because of the arrogance, excess, and dangerous rhetoric of the past has returned to the present full-bore. What happened back then, people agreed, should happen not ever again. Historical fiction which examines these places and times gives voice to the millions who did their job and got on with things, gives young readers - and us older readers, too - a hook into the past, to align ourselves with its huge and epic events, and to have a place to hold onto, so we can understand. Why do you read historical fiction? For those same reasons, or others?

I leave you with some powerful bits of thought from things I've read recently on the topic:

"History gives us a pair of powerful eyeglasses with which to examine our own times. It is hard to look directly at our present reality because we are both too myopic and too faint-hearted." Katherine Paterson, from her keynote address to the annual meeting of the Vermont Historical Society, "Why Historical Fiction?" September 18, 2004.

“That may be the best that any work of historical fiction has to offer—not just to its author, but, more importantly, to its readers—a chance to grapple with the mysteries and complexities of the past, in hopes of seeing the present a little clearer.” - "The Facts of Historical Fiction," by Ron Rash, Publishers Weekly.

"This gift of the practice seems to come of its inherently solitary nature. A writer has no credential except as it is self-awarded. Despite our university graduate programs in writing there is nothing that licenses a writer to write, no equivalent of a medical degree, or a law degree or a Ph.D. in molecular biology or divinity. Writers are on their own. They are specialists in nothing. They are liberated. They can use the discoveries of science, the poetics of theology. They can ventriloquize as anthropologists, report as journalists; they can confess, philosophize, they can leer as pornographers, or become as wide-eyed as children. They are free to use legends, myths, dreams, hallucinations, and the mutterings of poor mad people in the street. All of it counts, every vocabulary, every kind of data is grist for the mill. Nothing is excluded, certainly not history." - Cory Doctorow, "Notes on the History of Fiction", August, 2006, The Atlantic.

As you can see, CODE NAME VERITY's blog tour is moving onward! Today Elizabeth is at I Want To Read That, talking about her life as a pilot. (You will never find me talking about Liz's piloting skills on this blog. Though I'm quite fond of the woman, I am NOT GETTING INTO AN AIRPLANE THAT SMALL WITH HER OR ANYONE.) Tiger Moths and Westland Lysanders, Avro Ansons and Spitfires were the planes flown in the novel, and Elizabeth can, of course, fly them all. And probably parachute out of them, too. ::shudder::

Stay tuned for more tomorrow!

February 04, 2012

I Don't Do History: The Case For Historical Fiction

Cross-posted at Fiction, Instead of Lies, and kind of a continuation of the response/discussion to the comments on this blog post.

Imagine two best friends, united against a common enemy. It is the pitch of midnight, and they are making a desperate flight across country, to deliver a package necessary to the scrappy resistance fighters desperately battling a corrupt government for their freedom. There's been a car accident, so they're the emergency fill-ins. Neither of them are supposed to be where they are. And then there's another, bigger accident. In a foreign country, neither with any business being there, the girls have to split up and vanish -- and those who are caught disappear into the night and fog -- for good.

It is the pitch of midnight. And the enemies of truth and right are playing for keeps.
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Wouldn't you be on the edge of your seat reading this book? I know I was...at times feeling quite hopeless and desolate upwellings of terror and the word, "Nooooooo!" pulled from deep within. I could imagine myself there -- and making a horrible mess out of all of it. If you read it, you'd imagine yourself there, too.

It's exciting. There's espionage, airplanes, parachutes, firefights, and girls hunched in dark places under umbrellas, waiting for safety in breathless silence. There's fear -- bleak terror -- great laughs, and the best friends you could ask for.

So, why'd we want to go and ruin it all by calling it historical fiction???

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For a long time, one of the biggest concern of the Gatekeepers in our world o' books was where to put historical fiction in the canon for young people. Was it "edutainment?" Was it fictionalizing history or historicizing fiction, sliding in a character's fears and hopes and their thoughts where students perhaps ought to be better employed with learning dates and facts? Was it, and could it ever be, authentic?

These big questions were hashed out in historical journals and literary papers and I think it's safe to say that though some historians remained uncomfortable, the majority of teachers, especially in the middle grades and junior high, where I served most of my time, felt that historical fiction was an important lamp to illuminate some darker corners. Especially with the rise of multiculturalism, some pieces of history that "we" - as in mainstream, dominant culture America - had not realized were part of "our" story needed to be dug out, rediscovered, and explored. Historical fiction was a great tool to bridge the gap with the unknown pasts of a commingled people with the commonality of the human story. Through the insertion of tiny, literal accuracies, historical fiction maintains a sturdy cover story of "true enough," and more quickly engages young minds with the history before them. For most students, blending stories into a study of history helps to recreate the past as a dynamic place.

For MOST students.

For other students -- and for many of the rest of us -- it's an automatic "No." Seriously. Go back and read the comments of the people who have talked about CODE NAME VERITY. "I don't usually read war books..." "I'm not usually a fan of wartime historical fiction..." "I don't normally do historical fiction..." Is it the war? Or is it just the past?

Author and teacher Ashley Hope Pérez responded to a post a few days ago, "I have a kind of knee-jerk recoil from the term "historical fiction," probably because I know how it would make my kiddos eyes glaze before they even tasted the prose." Jen over at Reading Rants agrees: "In my experience, most teens won’t even look at hist. fic. unless they have to read it for a school assignment. You know, stuff like My Brother Sam is SO Dead, or Johnny TREmain (as in TREmendously booorrrriiinnggg!)."

It's baffling, really -- no one characterizes, say, The Great Gatsby as historical fiction -- or, a better example, The Key to Rebecca, not really. They're listed as what they are, first - a novel of manners. An espionage thriller. Nothing to do with their setting and time period and everything to do with their plot content. In part, the sticky label of "historical fiction" is a marketing key for parents and librarians to identify the book: Here is something semi-educational to slap into the unsuspecting hands of innocent youth. Go to it!

That, mainly, explains why it doesn't work.

Oh, come on: how many of us pick up a book of fiction for the its educational aspects? Not me! When I pick up a book, I want a good story, period. Unfortunate, but the label attached to this genre can sometimes shoot even a very good book in the foot. The only thing we can really do about that is to book talk, book talk, book talk. Word of mouth will win the day! Talk up the other aspects of the story - the plot, the characterizations, the types of planes, the outfits, the guns. You can order the story bits by their importance: CODE NAME VERITY is a.) a thriller, b.) a story of the kind of friendships that start in a bomb shelter c.) a fast-paced, dangerous tale full of espionage, spies, and double agents d.) a cracking good read, which just happens to be, e.) set about sixty-some years ago.

I think we can just leave off that last one.

As an author, I can say that one of the hardest things about writing historical fiction is the tightrope walk the author has to do -- between historical accuracy and humanity. It's important not to infodump dates and names, but it's also crucial not to veer the characters - and the details of their daily lives - into obvious anachronisms by using more modern tools, language, and attitudes about social tolerance which make the historical accuracy a lie. Further, I know that writing about a war is tough because historical accuracy is a must - the dates have to match up, including when historical people die, and when troops moved in fact, they must move in fiction, too. But people's characters -- their loves and needs and fears and even their grocery lists -- are much the same, no matter what era they're in. Sure, they might swear a bit less or a bit more, wear their hair down, their pant-legs shorter; they might speak another language, but the human animal remains a constant - an important thing to know.

As a (former, now) teacher, I know that this is the saving grace of historical fiction, or any fiction, really -- the people. The characters make the story, and you just have to close your eyes to the fact that since it's history, you think you already know how it's going to end, jump in to knowing the characters, and let go --

-- you may find yourself on the edge of your seat, in the pitch of midnight, with two best friends, delivering a necessary package, having an accident, and disappearing into the night and fog...

Call it "historical fiction" or "historical suspense" or anything you'd like, the word is out: CODE NAME VERITY is a sensational novel. Don't forget to check out the other stops along the way for the blog tour.

* Chachic's buzzing about Verity; stop by and read her great review, as well as some discussion on starting an All Spoilers, All the Time discussion group so that people don't have to keep the spy secrets to themselves.

* The Scottish Bookstrust is a fab organization interesting young people in books. Visit them at BookTrust.org.uk for more from Elizabeth Wein about friendship in CODE NAME VERITY. And stay tuned for Monday's review of the novel, and links to Elizabeth's interview on the BBC's Book Cafe!